In 1917, a radical group known as the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd. As revolutions go, it was a pedestrian affair. The Provisional Government that had taken over from the Tsar was in no position to put up a fight. Its leader, a democratic socialist called Alexander Kerensky, fled Petrograd in a Renault borrowed from the American embassy.
Even the storming of the Winter Palace, later portrayed in Soviet iconography as an epic battle, was bathetic. As the British military attaché, General Knox, recalled:
The garrison of the Winter Palace had dwindled owing to desertions, for there were no provisions and it had been practically starved for two days. No one had any stomach for fighting; and some of the ensigns even borrowed great coats of soldier pattern from the women to enable them to escape unobserved.
The Red Guards entered through a back door that had been left open and roamed, lost, in the vast interior until they stumbled upon the remnants of Kerensky’s cabinet. Being illiterate, the revolutionaries ordered the hapless ministers to write out their own arrest warrants. It was, all in all, a tawdry, if bloodless, affair.
The blood came later – gushing in such cataracts that we can barely take in what happened. Communism killed a hundred million people: some shot into pits, some arrested at night and tortured to death, some starved to enforce collectivization. As Daniel Johnson notes in this issue, the United States and Russia had similar populations in 1917. Today, following a century of asymmetric migration, abortion and death, there are twice as many Americans as there are Russians.
The horrors abated after 1989; but the pain lingered. Roger Scruton describes the way in which Marxist regimes systematically demolished all civil institutions, from the Boy Scouts to the village band, making it hard for post-Communist governments to rebuild. The ones that have moved on successfully, as Marian Tupy shows, are those which made a quick and brutal transition.
Yet, incredibly, the radical chic lingers. It is still fashionable to wear a Che Guevara tee-shirt – something which, morally, ought to be in the same category as wearing an Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden tee-shirt. A third of American millennials, Marion Smith soberingly tells us, think that George W Bush killed more people than Stalin did. Marxism may be utterly discredited in the lands where it was practiced, says Alexandr Vondra; but it remains intellectually fashionable in the West.
What is its appeal? Janet Daley, who was exposed to the Trotskyist bacillus as a student, and developed a lifelong immunity, considers those who became infected – infected to the extent that they inhabited an alternative reality in order to cling to their beliefs.
Which brings us to the true paradox of Communism. Karl Marx saw himself as a scientist rather than an ideologue. His followers treated his turgid writings, not as a series of opinions, but as a catalogue of empirical truths. Yet every prediction he made – every single one – turned out to be false.
Free markets, Marx wrote, would destroy the middle class, concentrating wealth in the hands of a tiny number of oligarchs. In fact, free markets have enlarged the middle class everywhere they have been allowed to exist.
The revolution, he wrote, would occur when the proletariat became sufficiently self-aware, something he expected to happen first in Britain and then in Germany. In fact, as the working classes in those countries became more educated, they shored up the established order.
Capitalism, he believed, was doomed: it would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. In fact, when he wrote those words in 1848, markets were already working their magic. During the malign old cadger’s lifetime, the real income of the average British family increased by 300 per cent.
Yet his disciples, like members of some doomsday cult, continue to fit the facts to their opinions. If anything, they became even more dogmatic after the fall of the Berlin Wall. How apt, a hundred years on, that Marx should have become the thing he most loathed: the prophet of a false religion.