The Banality of Leninism
By Bryan Caplan
Historians often act like Lenin’s tyranny was a bolt from the blue: Who would have expected a bunch of socialists to be so bloodthirsty? Admirers of Lenin, in contrast, often paint him as a great innovator – at least as a strategist. A dictatorship of the proletariat run by a vanguard party of bourgeois intellectuals? Only Lenin could have conceived it. When you read 19th-century Russian literature, however, “Leninist” memes clearly predate the birth of Lenin. Contrary to many historians, Lenin’s atrocities were foreseeable. And contrary to Lenin’s admirers, his strategy of atrocity was pure cliche.
Consider this scene from Crime and Punishment, first published in four years before Lenin’s birth in 1870. Detective Porfiry Petrovich discovers that Dostoyevsky’s protagonist-murderer Raskolnikov published an article on the philosophy of crime:
“In his article all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?”…
Raskolnikov has a long-winded but lucid reply:
…”That wasn’t quite my contention,” he began simply and modestly. “Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so.” (It almost gave him pleasure to admit this.) “The only difference is that I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right…that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own
conscience to overstep…certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity)… I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound…to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow from that that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market…
What does this have to do with revolutionary politics? Everything. Raskolnikov continues:
I maintain in my article that all…well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed — often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defense of ancient law — were of use to their cause. It’s remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals–more or less, of course.
The argument is typically Leninist:
1. Hasty, dogmatic acceptance of utilitarianism.
2. Eager, poetic embrace of the implication that mass murder is conceivably morally justified; indeed, morally required.
3. Praising the “extraordinary men” who answer the call of sanguinary duty.
More tellingly, if you read the entire chapter, you’ll notice two typically Leninist omissions:
1. Even a token effort to show that any specific policy change would in fact have extremely good consequences.
2. Even a token effort to argue that well-targeted “terrible carnage” would greatly improve the probability of these policy changes being adopted.
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.
If this seems woefully uncharitable, compare the amount of time a proto-Leninist like Raskolnikov spends lovingly reviewing the mere conceivability of morally justified bloodbaths to the amount of time he spends (a) empirically evaluating the effects of policies or (b) searching for less brutal ways to implement whatever policies he wants. These ratios are typical for the entire Russian radical tradition; it’s what they imagined to be “profound.” When men like this gained power in Russia, they did precisely what you’d expect: treat mass murder like a panacea. This is the banality of Leninism.