The Banality of Leninism vs. the Wisdom of Acton
I finally finished Crime and Punishment, and was rewarded with two more great Leninist diatribes that predate the dictator‘s birth. The first is a confrontation between murderous intellectual Raskolnikov and his sister:
“Aren’t you half expiating your crime by facing the suffering?” she cried, holding him close and kissing him.
“Crime? What crime?” he cried in sudden fury. “That I killed a vile noxious insect, an old pawnbroker woman, of use to no one!…Killing her was atonement for forty sins. She was sucking the life out of poor people. Was that a crime? I am not thinking of it and I am not thinking of expiating it, and why are you all rubbing it in on all sides? ‘A crime! a crime!’ Only now I see clearly the imbecility of my cowardice, now that I have decided to face this superfluous disgrace…”
“Brother, brother, what are you saying? Why, you have shed blood?” cried Dounia in despair.
“Which all men shed,” he put in almost frantically, “which flows and has always flowed in streams, which is spilt like champagne, and for which men are crowned in the Capitol and are called afterwards benefactors of mankind. Look into it more carefully and understand it! I too wanted to do good to men and would have done hundreds, thousands of good deeds to make up for that one piece of stupidity, not stupidity even, simply clumsiness, for the idea was by no means so stupid as it seems now that it has failed…(Everything seems stupid when it fails.) By that stupidity I only wanted to put myself into an independent position, to take the first step, to obtain means, and then everything would have been smoothed over by benefits immeasurable in comparison…
The second is Raskolnikov’s final inner monologue after he confesses. Even in Siberian prison, the same banality:
“In what way,” he asked himself, “was my theory stupider than others that have swarmed and clashed from the beginning of the world? One has only to look at the thing quite independently, broadly, and uninfluenced by commonplace ideas, and my idea will by no means seem so…strange. Oh, skeptics and halfpenny philosophers, why do you halt half-way!”
“Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law…and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”
How was Raskolnikov’s theory “stupider than others that have swarmed and clashed from the beginning of the world?” To repeat myself:
The key difference between a normal utilitarian and a Leninist: When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work! He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities. The Leninist, in contrast, reasons backwards from the atrocities that emotionally inspire him to the utilitarian argument that morally justifies his atrocities.
Notice the utter vagueness of the “hundreds, thousands of good deeds” Raskolnikov uses to justify murder. Then compare it to Raskolnikov’s fawning ode to the bloodshed of “great men”:
“Which all men shed,” he put in almost frantically, “which flows and has always flowed in streams, which is spilt like champagne, and for which men are crowned in the Capitol and are called afterwards benefactors of mankind.”
The irony is that Raskolnikov is one step away from a great truth: Most of history’s “great men” were criminals who murdered anyone who denied that they were “benefactors of mankind.” If only Russia had an Acton to reply:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…