Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Totalitarian Century

“Children were starving, and their parents still had to give milk and eggs to the state."

- Lev Mischenko

This week is the 70th anniversary of the key event of the October Revolution, the Communist takeover of the Russian provisional government. (It is called the October Revolution because the Russians did not yet then use the Gregorian calendar.) It was a watershed moment for not just Russians and their neighbors, who suffered horribly from its consequences, but for large stretches of humanity victimized by the totalitarianism it ushered in.

Paul Johnson, in his book Modern Times, recounts the shocking sequence of events that led to nearly a century’s worth of unprecedented barbarism (the dates are in the old Russian Julian calendar):

- Russia begins in chaos, due to disasters on the front with Germany and a failed military revolt.
- Lenin returns to Russia in April, 1917.
- On October 24-25, Lenin forms a government, and Trotsky’s forces seize strategic locations all over St. Petersburg. Members of the provisional Kerensky government are chased out or imprisoned, many of them (unbeknownst to them) not long for this world.
- The press is immediately shut down, save for the Party’s own organs.
- In November, house searches are authorized, banks are seized, industries are taken over after sham elections of “Soviets.”
- On Dec. 7 the Cheka secret police are set up, including their own court system to administer people’s justice. They recruit thousands of willing cutthroats. Soon they are executing 1000 people a month for political crimes. (The czars in their last years only executed a couple of dozen a year.)
- Parliament meets on Jan. 5, 1918 and is forcibly adjourned by the Bolsheviks; its elderly speaker is physically removed from the stage by one of them. The next day it is padlocked.

Lenin went on to invent almost the entire apparatus of totalitarianism – the use of terror to intimidate the opposition, of the secret police to enforce the terror, the defining of entire classes of people as enemies of the state because of their unfortunate location in the Bolsheviks' ideological map of the world, the turning of people into nothing more than raw material to be used for the Party’s purposes. Stalin’s primary contribution was the addition of the show trial, and Hitler basically added little to the Lenin model he much admired, except to make it about religion and race instead of class.

The consequences are measured in uncountably high stacks of corpses. From the Soviet Union, the totalitarian model spread to Hitler’s Germany, to Mao’s China, to Castro’s Cuba, to Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia. Everywhere the basic model was the same – the lust for power combined with the brutal seizure of it and then the turning of the monopoly of violence on the enemies of the state. Man has always known brutality by government, has always known mass slaughter. But before Lenin he never knew the conscription of ideas into this kind of mass terror – the defining characteristic of the totalitarian regime, which justifies its atrocities not by resort to ethnic solidarity or theological or monarchical dispute, but in the name of a monstrously absolutist idea about justice and the natural course of history.

There is a natural arc to totalitarianism. First comes the thuggish seizure of power, then the use of barbarism tinged with ideological justification to wipe out any potential opposition real or imagined, then (round about 1955 in the Soviet Union, perhaps the early 1970s in China) unchallenged rule over an intimidated, terrorized population. It remains to be seen whether the models of political fear but economic space pioneered by the Chinese and exported to Vietnam and increasingly North Korea offer a way out; it certainly is not possible to have mass democide in a market economy, although less extreme elements of the totalitarian model may be consistent with it. Either way, it was Lenin’s model and Lenin’s century, and he is thus in a sense the worst criminal in human history. His body count was not the highest (although it was much higher than most know), but his innovations made the totalitarian century possible. President Putin of Russia, and evidently some citizens there, believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the century. But the people who saw it at its worst know better.


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