In November, 1917, Lenin overthrew the first democratically elected government in Russian history.  In May, 1922, Lenin suffered the first of three strokes, finally dying in January, 1924.  What would have happened if Lenin had a fatal stroke in mid-1917?

It’s a pretty picture.  In 1917, even Lenin’s fellow Bolsheviks weren’t ready for socialist revolution.  As Richard Pipes explains in The Russian Revolution:

[B]arely four weeks after tsarism had been overthrown, Lenin was publicly sentencing its successor to death.  This proposition ran so contrary to the sentiments of the majority of his followers, it seemed so irresponsible and “adventurist,” that the remainder of the night… was spent in tempestuous debate.

When Lenin defended immediate socialist revolution in writing (the “April Theses“):

Pravda‘s editorial board refused to print [it] on the pretext of a mechanical breakdown in its printing press.  A meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee on April 6 passed a negative resolution on them…

The Petrograd Committee met on April 8 to discuss Lenin’s paper.  Its verdict was also overwhelmingly negative, two voting in favor, thirteen against, with one abstention.  The reaction in the provincial cities was similar…

Only through great effort did Lenin win his followers over to his position.  If he had been dead, then, it is quite likely that the Bolsheviks would have cooperated with the “bourgeois- democratic” government.  The ripple effects would have been amazing:

  • If Kerensky’s government made a separate peace with Germany, as Lenin did, the Germans would still have been defeated on schedule by American intervention in 1918.  Otherwise the Germans would have been defeated sooner.  Even if the Germans conquered the entirety of European Russia, the Versailles treaty would almost certainly have returned the democratically elected government of Russia to power.
  • Needless to say, without Lenin’s coup there probably wouldn’t have been a Russian Civil War or the horrific War Communism famine.
  • Without Lenin’s coup, the Bolsheviks would never have ruled Russia.  The Bolsheviks couldn’t have won power democratically; they weren’t even able to win the first election after their coup.  Under peaceful conditions, their radicalism would have alienated almost any electorate.  Given Russia’s large culturally conservative peasant majority, the Bolsheviks wouldn’t have stood a chance. 
  • Without the Bolsheviks’ example, attempted socialist coups in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere probably wouldn’t have happened either.  Few Europeans would have yearned for dictators to protect them from the Red Peril – or scapegoated the whole Jewish people for the misdeeds of a handful of prominent Bolsheviks of Jewish descent.
  • Without the fear of Bolshevism, it’s quite likely that Mussolini wouldn’t have taken over Italy – and extremely likely that Hitler wouldn’t have taken over Germany.  Indeed, if the Germans hadn’t gotten a foretaste of Bolshevism after World War I, Hitler might never have entered politics.
  • Under moderate economic policies, there’s every reason to think that Russian economic growth would have resumed its very promising pre-war course.  As Gregory and Stuart’s 1990 text explains, “Russian industrial growth was more rapid than its European neighbors after 1880” (and before World War I).  Per capita net national product rose at an annual rate of 1.7% between 1883 and 1913 – despite defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the subsequent failed 1905 revolution.
  • All the horrors caused by Lenin’s imitators around the world would have been far less likely.  A Mao might have arisen in China without Soviet inspiration, but it’s not likely.

Bottom line: If Lenin had died, Russia would have emerged from the horrors of World War I smelling like a rose.  There would have been no Soviet Union and no Stalinism, just steady progress.  Russia would have been more authoritarian and statist than most countries in Europe, but it would have been a normal country. 

Even better, without the Red Scare and associated anti-Semitism, Germany would probably have remained a normal country, too.  No Nazi Germany, no Soviet Union, no World War II.  Even Japan might have behaved peaceably if it faced a civilized, prosperous Russia eager to trade food and resources for manufactures.  Without war with Japan, China, too, could have gotten on the path to prosperity fifty years earlier.  Imagine.

Of course, something else could have gone wrong.  Counter-factual history is never certain.  But if a stroke killed Lenin in 1917, there’s good reason to think that the world could have skipped decades of bloodshed, poverty, terror, and totalitarian dogma.  Alas.