The Essence of Lenin
By David Henderson
Lenin did more than anyone else to shape the last hundred years. He invented a form of government we have come to call totalitarian, which rejected in principle the idea of any private sphere outside of state control. To establish this power, he invented the one-party state, a term that would previously have seemed self-contradictory since a party was, by definition, a part. An admirer of the French Jacobins, Lenin believed that state power had to be based on sheer terror, and so he also created the terrorist state.
Stephen Pinker has recently argued that the world has been getting less bloodthirsty. The Mongols, after all, destroyed entire cities. But the Mongols murdered other people; what is new, and uniquely horrible about the Soviets and their successors, is that they directed their fury at their own people. The Russian empire lost more people in World War I than any other country, but still more died under Lenin. His war against the peasants, for instance, took more lives than combat between Reds and Whites.
Numbers do not tell the whole story. Under the Third Reich, an ethnic German loyal to the regime did not have to fear arrest, but Lenin pioneered and Stalin greatly expanded a policy in which arrests were entirely arbitrary: that is true terror. By the time of the Great Terror of 1936–38, millions of entirely innocent people were arrested, often by quota. Literally no one was safe. The Party itself was an especially dangerous place to be, and the nkvd was constantly arresting its own members—a practice that was also true of its predecessor, the Cheka, which Lenin founded almost immediately after the Bolshevik coup.
This is from an eye-opening (to me, at least) article by Gary Saul Morson titled “Leninthink.” It’s in The New Criterion, October 2019. The whole thing is worth reading.
I had known that Lenin was one of the most evil people in history. Morson convinced me that he was more evil than I had thought. Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.
There are two aspects to Lenin’s evil: his absolute willingness to murder innocent people whom he knew to be innocent and his willingness to take a position despite the fact that it contradicted another position he took. The first is obviously more evil than the second. But the second is pretty bad in itself.
Are there any lessons for “normal people” to take out of this, besides the obvious “don’t murder innocent people?” I think there’s one main one that can affect you in your everyday life. If you find yourself agreeing with something because someone on “your side” said it, even though last week you found yourself disagreeing with it because someone on the “other side” said it, that’s a problem. One could even say that there’s a little Lenin inside you. Not a murderer, obviously, but nevertheless someone who doesn’t put a high value on truth.
I remember giving a talk to a local women’s Republican group and getting a lot of positive vibes from my messages about tax cuts and deregulation. I then said that one of the most important principles to follow in politics, if what you really care about is policy, is to not let your judgment be swayed by whether there is a D or an R after the name of a politician promoting a policy. I didn’t get a lot of positive vibes after that statement.
By the way, I was pretty critical of chapter one in Morson’s and c0-author Morton Schapiro’s book Cents and Sensibility.