[Partly edited--November 19, 2012 and November 18, 2013]


Woodrow Wilson promised the American people that  WW I would "make the world safe for democracy."  It didn't.  Instead, World War I led directly to the creation of some of the most tyrannical regimes the world has ever seen.  One of the disturbing things about the 20th century is that it was not a century that saw the universal spread of freedom and democracy.  Instead, over and over again, democratic governments and proto-democratic governments gave way to what we call totalitarianism.

Now there are lots of "flavors" of totalitarianism: Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism among others.  There are differences among these different types of totalitarianism, but they all have in common certain things.  Most important, a totalitarian system allows no check on the authority of government.

Now there had been autocratic governments in earlier history, e.g., absolute monarchy in France under Louis XIV and Prussia under Frederick William.  But in a totalitarian system, the government goes much farther than a ruler like Louis XIV would ever have imagined. Partly, the totalitarian governments go farther because they can: only in the 20th century did technological advances make possible the degree of control of all aspects of life that totalitarian governments implemented. Also, it's not until the 20th century that governments start putting into practice the *total* transformation of society dreamed of by men like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx in the 19th century.

[The Convention phase of the French Revolution did give a hint as to what was to come, but this was a short-lived experiment]

So what leads to totalitarianism?  Over and over and over again in the 20th century, people had the idea that all of our problems could be solved by the government. Got economic problems?  Let the government fix them.  Got social problems?  Let the government fix them. Not happy?  Let the government make you happy.

Now if you want the government to solve all your problems, how strong should government be?  The stronger the better, right?  Well, that's what totalitarianism is about: strengthen the power of government, and let the government create a heaven on earth.

But there is a problem here.  Lord Acton said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  And he was right: the more powerful government gets, the more corrupt it becomes, and when there is no check at all on government authority, government invariably does horrible things.

Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have said, "That government is best which governs least." That's probably not a genuine Jefferson line, but the sentiment is certainly Jeffersonian.  Our own country was founded on the principle of *limited* government.   Now one would think that seeing how well limited government worked for America and how disastrous totalitarianism has been over and over again, people would get the idea. But the totalitarian temptation just doesn't go away, and in the 21st century it's as strong as ever.

The rise of Communism in Russia is an excellent example of the disturbing nature of totalitarianism.  It's disturbing especially because Russia seemed to be moving in such a different direction.

In the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, the Russian economy was growing by leaps and bounds.  Russia was industrializing at a very rapid pace. 
In addition, Russian culture flourished with outstanding writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and outstanding musicians as well.  Also, Russia began to take some slight steps in the direction of democracy.  The Tsars began working with what the Russians call the "Duma," a body like British parliament.

[Until he was assassinated in 1911, Petyr Stolypin encouraged the Tsar in some vital agricultural reforms, reforms that may well have prevented the revolutions that followed.  There's no room to talk about Stolypin in the Civ class, but those of you who are history majors ought to learn something about what he tried to do.]

Unfortunately for them and their country, they Tsars didn't work closely enough with Duma, particularly during WWI.  The war was so difficult (and so important!), that Nicholas II felt he had to guide the war effort directly.  He moved closer to the German front, leaving the day-to-day government in the hands of wife Alexandra. Alexandra-- because of her worries about her hemophiliac son--fell under the influence of the disreputable charlatan Grigory Rasputin.  This contributed to the increasing unpopularity of Alexandra and, by association, Nicholas himself.  The Duma in particular criticized the conduct of the royal family, so much so that, in early 1917, he gave orders to disband the Duma.  The Duma refused to disband and riots broke out in the streets of Petrograd (St. Petersburg).  Nicholas abdicated  in favor of  his brother Michael (who *wanted* to work with an elected assembly). One day as Tsar was enough for Michael, and he too abdicated, surrendering his power to a provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky.

This should have been the beginning of democracy in Russian.  The provisional government immediately lifted censorship, got rid of harsh punishments, and issued guarantees fundamental rights.  Unfortunately, the provisional government didn't get the chance to show what it could do.

The Germans, trying everything possible to cripple the Russian war effort, shipped back to Russia a revolutionary leader named Lenin--and apparently financed his Bolsheviks. Lenin and his party wanted to see Russia move, not in the direction of Democracy, but in the direction of Marxist Communism. The Bolsheviks did everything possible to destabilize the country, committing acts of terrorism and sabotage. They undermined the war effort, telling Russian troops to lay down arms--no point in fighting a "bourgeoise" war.  Most insidious, they keep calling on the provisional government to HOLD ELECTIONS--not because the believed in elections, but to undermine faith in a government supposedly not adhering to its own principles.

Well, elections were held, and the Bolsheviks lost. That didn't matter to them:  the seized power in Moscow and St. Petersburg and from their bases in these cities gained control of the whole country.  They put an end to the war, surrendering  unconditionally to the Germans [see the details in the WW I lecture], and concentrated on cementing their control of Russia.

Seizing power is one thing, holding on to it something else, and there was, initially, much opposition to Bolshevik control.  The result: a bloody civil war in which the Whites (non-Communists)  fought the Reds (Communists).  The Whites probably should have won. They had America, Britain, France on their side. But the Western democracies were tired of fighting and struggling with their own problems. The various constituencies that made up the "White" forces often had very different interests and couldn't stay united.  And Lenin had the fervent support from peasants (who thought they were going to get land of their own) and factory workers, who believed the promise of worker's paradise.

Once in control, Lenin began immediately to give them their paradise, instituting as much as possible the ideas of Marx.  Instead of increasing individual liberty, as a democratic leader  would have done, he did everything he could to increases the power of the state.  To do so, he worked to control or destroy those institutions that might challenge government authority.

1.  He worked to limit the power and influence of the Church.  Teaching anyone under 16 about Christ became a capital offense. Priests were imprisoned and executed--as was anyone standing up for faith.  Church buildings were seized by the state for its own purposes. The Kremlin buildings in Moscow--built as churches--became the symbol of Communist dominance.  Some churches were allowed to remain open, but only under the control of  priests and officials appointed and approved by the Communist authorities.

2.  He adopted policies to destroy the traditional family. Divorce was made easy.  So called "free love" was encouraged. The Communists preferred children born outside the traditional family unit.  Children were encouraged to inform on their parents if they said anything critical of the government, a further measure to weaken parental influence and authority.  Why did they do this?  Well, in traditional families, kids tend to absorb their parents values. Breaking up the family unit makes it possible to train children with an entirely different set of values. 

3.  And to implement those new values--well, what better than the schools?  The Bolsheviks made the schools, not forums for the free exchange of ideas, but institutions to indoctrinate students in Marxist ideology. No more history in the schools.  They were replaced by Marxist sociology.  [Totalitarians prefer people to be ignorant of history.]

4.  The Bolsheviks also took over the arts, theater, and literature for state purposes. Artists and writers who supported Communist values got massive subsidies.  Those who don't couldn't show/publish their work at all.

5. Lenin began also to transform the economy on Marxist models.  He confiscated much private property for government use.  The state took over the ownership of factories.  Collective farms took the place of privately owned farmland.

6.  To ensure his continued to control, Lenin created the Cheka to seek out and destroy potential opponents.  No way he was going to allow his enemies to destabilize his government using the techniques he had used to destabilize Kerensky's provisional government!  The Cheka (later renamed the OGPU and still later the NKVD), was a huge secret police force.  Because no one knew who might be a Cheka member, people became frightened of saying anything anywhere critical of Lenin and his Bosheviks.  Anyone denounced by a Cheka agent found themselves in front of a secret tribunal where they could be sentenced to imprisonment or death without any chance to adequately defend themselves.  The Cheka used frightful tortures to get its victims to denounce others.  The took people outside in freezing weather, stripped them naked, poured boiling water over them, and then let them freeze.  Things were particularly bad during the Red/White civil war as Russia went through the period of the "Red Terror," but the Cheka and its successor organizations kept Russians in fear throughout the period of Communist rule.  Over 300 "Gulags" were established in Siberia and elsewhere: huge concentration camps where victims of the regime were held.

7.  Lenin also took steps to spread the ideas of Marx elsewhere, creating Comintern.  This organization at first aimed at making sure the all socialist parties everywhere in the world would move in the direction of Marxist socialism rather than any other kind [note the long section in the Communist Manifesto where Marx defends his kind of socialism against all others].  Later, Comintern would try to influence even "bourgeoise" parties, trying (with some success) to get them to steer their countries in a Marxist direction.

But did they have to do this?  Wouldn't people world-wide embrace Marxism once they saw the worker's paradise Marxism produced?

Well, it wasn't producing a paradise at all.   The Russian economy collapsed.  Industrial output fell 80 per cent.  Agricultural output fell 60 per cent.  And even Lenin realized changes had to be made.  He adopted a New Economic Policy (the NEP), a policy that allowed a measure of free enterprise.  This quickly led to economic recovery: by 1928, the Russian economy was back to its pre-WWI levels.  But there was one problem: this wasn't communism.  75 per cent of the economy was in private hands.  Agricultural success was largely do to a group the Soviets called Kulaks, tight-fisted independent farmers.

It's unclear what Lenin would have done long term.  He died in 1924, and, after a period of uncertainty, a new dictator came to power: Joseph Stalin.  Stalin (Soviet dictator from 1928 until 1953) had at his disposal all the means of totalitarian control devised by Lenin (see above).  In addition, he was determined to transform the Russian economy, to turn Russia into a formidable industrial power.  To do so, he adopted a series of Five Year Plans, plans to transform Russia.

To carry out these plans, he needed money, and so Stalin reintroduced the collectivization of agriculture.  He did this partly because Marx had said farms should be collectivized, but also because it made it easy for him to seize the grain the farms produced.  He then sold the grain on foreign markets to get the money he needed for his industrialization projects.

Resistance to collectivization was brutally put down.  Note the horrible things described in the "Harvest of Despair" video.  [When there is time, we watch this video in class.  Otherwise, you can find it on YouTube.]  Millions in the Ukraine and elsewhere died in the man-made famine brought about by forced collectivization (1932-1933).  Millions more died as Stalin purged both the Communist party and the Soviet Union as a whole of any potential opponents.  Historians estimate that as many as 20 million people died under Stalin, making him an even greater mass murderer than Adolf Hitler. 

And yet, despite all this, Stalin was literally worshipped by many of his people.  See, for instance this Hymn to Stalin. There are all sorts of things disturbing about the story of Stalin, but one of the most disturbing is the fact that such a man could have such an extensive, devoted following.  And, unfortunately, the Stalin story isn't unique.  Over and over again in the 20th century, personality cults developed around equally ruthless individuals (Mussolini, Hitler, Joseph Mobutu, Saddam Hussein--the list goes on and on).  Many, many people seem to have a need for a secular savior--a need so deep that they not only excuse the excesses of such a man, but applaud enthusiastically as he destroys his enemies.