BY Niall Ferguson/*
On the Centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution Remarks at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation dinner Washington, DC, November 9, 2017 /
On this night, November 9, 28 years ago, the Berlin Wall was opened. On the night of November 7, 100 years ago, the Winter Palace in Petrograd was occupied by the Bolsheviks.
In the intervening period of 72 years, according to the estimates in the Black Book of Communism, the “grand total of victims of Communism was between 85 and 100 million.”
Mao Zedong alone, as Frank Dikötter has shown, accounted for tens of millions: 2 million between 1949 and 1951, another 3 million in the course of the 1950s, a staggering 45 million in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward,” yet more in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution.
According to the lowest estimate, the total number of Soviet citizens who lost their lives as a direct result of Stalin’s policies was more than 20 million, a quarter of them in the years after World War II.
All Communist regimes everywhere, without exception, were merciless in their treatment of “class enemies,” from the North Korea of the Kims to the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh, from the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the Angola of Agostinho Neto. Pol Pot was the worst of them all, but the differences were of degree, not of quality.
Communist regimes were aggressive, too, overtly invading country after country during the Cold War. Moreover, we now know, thanks to the work of historians such as Chris Andrew, just how extensive and ruthless the KGB’s system of international espionage and subversion was.
I am an historian and tonight I want not only to mourn the tens of millions of victims of Communism but also to salute all those historians, as well as journalists, who during the so-called “short twentieth century” and thereafter bore witness to the crimes that were committed in the names of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the rest. I think, for example, of Robert Conquest, who seemed a lone voice when I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1980s, but who has a worthy heir today in my friend Anne Applebaum. I think also of organizations such as Memorial, which we are honoring tonight, on whose work in preserving records and testimony we historians we depend. The short twentieth century was a phrase coined by a different kind of historian: Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Communist who—even after Khrushchev’s secret speech had begun the never complete process of official revelation—could never bring himself to accept that whatever had propelled him to join the Party as a young man, it had been a horrible mistake. How I wish that short century of his had been even shorter.
Could it have been? Could more have been done to halt the Communist pandemic after it broke out in Russia in 1917? And, if so, have we learned anything from the mistakes of those who failed to stamp it out when they might have? Those are the questions I want to ask tonight.
They are not questions we historians pose nearly often enough. That awful apologist for Soviet power, E.H. Carr, wrote in his wretched but all too widely read tract What Is History? that to ponder the “might-have-been”s of 1917 was pointless. Those who did so, he argued, were just losers indulging in wishful thinking. I have always rejected that deterministic reasoning. It smacks too much of those inexorable historical forces the Marxists were always on about.
No, the Bolsheviks could have been stopped. After all, the only reason Lenin was able to get from Zurich to Petrograd in 1917 was that the imperial German government paid for his ticket—and more. According to Sean McMeekin’s excellent new book on the Revolution, around 50 million gold marks ($12 million) were channeled from the Kaiser to Lenin and his associates. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to around $800 million today.
The provisional government had every right to arrest Lenin and his nineteen associates on arrival. They were German agents, after all. And Alexander Kerensky, the Socialist Revolutionary minister of justice who took control of the provisional government on July 7, had even better grounds to round the Bolsheviks up: they had attempted a coup and failed.
The problem was that people underestimated Lenin, Trotsky and company. They seemed an unruly bunch of intellectuals: writers of pamphlets, makers of speeches. No contemporary Western observer thought for a moment that their crackpot coup would last. As my student Hassan Malik has shown, American bankers completely failed to appreciate that the Bolsheviks meant exactly what they said about defaulting on the entire Tsarist debt. No one foresaw that hereditary nobleman Ulyanov, to give Lenin his original name, was equally capable of ordering mass murder.
On August 10, 1918, as the Bolsheviks waged the first of many campaign of grain confiscation against the peasantry, Lenin sent a telegram to Bolshevik leaders in Penza that I have always thought speaks in the authentic voice of Communism: The kulak uprising in [your] five districts must be crushed without pity … An example must be made. 1) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see ) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take all their grain. 4) Identify hostages … Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks … P.S. Find tougher people.
Between 1918 and 1920, as many as 300,000 political executions were carried out by the Bolsheviks. By 1920 there were already more than a hundred icy “concentration camps” for the “rehabilitation” of “unreliable elements.”
So, please: no more of all those fairy tales—which we still sometimes hear today— of an idealistic revolution that only wicked Stalin betrayed. Communism was always a bloodthirsty monster. Its leaders invariably combined those strange qualities that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had in common: a talent for warped, paradoxical reasoning—“democratic centralism,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—and a hideous relish of violence.
I have mentioned foreign intervention, incompetent liberals, and clueless bankers. Let me not forget the fellow travelers, who were also there in 1917. John Reed, with his risible glamorizing of the revolution, would have many, many heirs. George Bernard Shaw’s commentary on the show trials of the 1930s perfectly encapsulated this intellectual deformation. Even as the revolution devoured its own children, the fellow travelers cheered the executioners on.
Not many went quite as far as the Cambridge spies, who shamefully betrayed their own country to Stalin. But throughout that long, long, short twentieth century, how many intellectuals turned a blind eye to the crimes of Communism? Or rationalized the mass graves and the gulag away? Because Hitler’s crimes—which came later than Stalin’s, of course—were in some way worse. Because the industrialization of Russia could be achieved in no other way. Because one had to crack an egg to make an omelet—and all the other cant.
In the summer of 1947, George Kennan published his anonymous essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In it, he asked a question: Who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane? … [T]he possibility remains … that Soviet power … bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.
Kennan was forty-three when he wrote those words. Yet he was eighty-seven when the Soviet Union was finally dissolved in December 1991.
Perhaps another reason that the Communist virus continued to spread for so long— for the better part of twenty-five years after the policy of containment became the basis for U.S. strategy in the Cold War—was this: that even good men underestimated the Soviet threat and were assailed by doubts about how much should be done to resist it.
From the outbreak of the Korean War to the final confrontation in the early 1980s, even those, like Kennan, who considered themselves anti-Communist, frequently lacked the stomach for the fight. Time and again, they succumbed to relativism. Perhaps this contest between the superpowers was really the fault of the United States. Perhaps the United States should simply withdraw its forces from the contested grey zones—from South East Asia, from Central and South America, from sub-Saharan Africa.
And yet behold what happened when the U.S. did that. It is now more or less orthodoxy that the Vietnam War was an unmitigated disaster—if you are tempted to doubt it, you may be forced to watch Ken Burns’s new and widely acclaimed documentary series on the subject. I am of the unfashionable view that the real disaster was to abandon the people of South Vietnam to their cruel and entirely predictable fate at the hands of the Communist North.
Have we learned anything from the history I have just summarized? Not nearly enough, I would say. It is not just the Che Guevara T-shirts I worry about. It is not just the bust of Lenin that is said to sit on the desk of the leader of the British Labour Party. It is not just the revival of “Anti-Fa” by young people presumably unaware of the cooperation between the German Communists—the original AntiFa—and the Nazis that helped seal the fate of the Weimar Republic. It not just the rising power of a China still ruled by Communists—to say nothing of the sycophantic treatment I see their leader receiving in the West. It is not just the North Korean missiles, a stark reminder that Communism is as ready as ever to kill people by the million.
No, what concerns me today is the entirely familiar response we see to a different but, to my mind, equally dangerous threat. Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam since the Iranian Revolution unleashed its Shia variant and since 9/11 revealed the even more aggressive character of Sunni Islamism. I fear we have done no better than our grandfathers did when the virus spreading around the world was Bolshevism. It is, indeed, the same old story.
Foreign intervention—the millions that have found their way from the Gulf to radical mosques and Islamic centers in the West. Incompetent liberals—the proponents of multiculturalism who brand any opponent of jihad an “Islamophobe.” Clueless bankers—the sort who fall over themselves to offer “sharia-compliant” loans and bonds. Fellow travelers—the leftists who line up with the Muslim Brotherhood to castigate the state of Israel at every opportunity. And the faint-hearted—those who were so quick to pull out of Iraq in 2009 that they allowed the rump of Al Qaeda to morph into ISIS.
A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire, despite their stated intention to plot world revolution and overthrow both democracy and capitalism. I believe that we are, incredible as it may seem, capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our very existence.
There are many good reasons to commemorate the tens of millions of people who lost their lives because of Communism. Out of compassion, we should recall their sufferings. Out of intellectual consistency, we should not treat their deaths as less worthy of pity than the deaths of those murdered by Hitler and the other fascist dictators.
But the best reason, in my view, to support the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is to learn from our past mistakes—so that we never again allow a renegade gang of fanatics to acquire the capacity to destroy Western civilization and the individual freedom which is its most cherished value.
For we are not gathered here only as anti-Communists. As our next speaker, Natan Sharansky has illustrated with deeds and words, opposition to Communism is merely a logical corollary of our faith in liberty: liberty of conscience, of speech, of association, of movement, of property ownership. Our forefathers were for these things before Lenin and his gang were against them. And those ideals of freedom will live on, long after the evil of Communism has finally been consigned where it belongs: to the history books.
- Botohet me lejen e autorit. Z. Niall Ferguson eshte studiues dhe historian prane Institutit Hoover te Universitetit Stanford ne Kaliforni si dhe Qendres se Studimeve Europiane te Universitetit Harvard ne Boston.