Lenin returns to Russia from exile in Switzerland in April 1917
One hundred years ago began the most dramatic event in modern history, the Russian Revolution. As the mists of time disperse, we can see more and more clearly that the establishment of a Marxist government was a bloody catastrophe.
I don’t propose to review the chronology of the Revolution, for this is well known. Instead, I would like to survey this tragedy from an anthropological and philosophical perspective to discover why Communist leaders felt justified in killing an estimated 100 million people in countries as different as the Soviet Union, China, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Cuba.
The European origins of the drama
Few people realize that Marxism was injected into Russia like a toxic bacillus in 1917– in the person of Vladimir Illych Lenin. Lenin had been cooling his heels in Switzerland during World War I. At the time he believed that a Marxist revolution was more likely in England or Germany. But, astonishingly, the German government financed his return home in a sealed train to accelerate the disintegration of Czarist Russia. And so poor, underdeveloped, agricultural Russia, quite expectedly, became the world’s first experiment with Marxist theory and praxis.
Both Lenin’s Marxism and Hitler’s Nazism were attempts to create a new kind of humanity. In both cases violence was absolutely necessary to achieve this. The ideology of Russian Marxism was based on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s revolutionary praxis; the ideology of German Nazism was Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The philosophical underpinnings of Marxism
Both Marxism and Nazism sprang from the philosophies of German Idealism of the 19th Century. The story is long, winding and complicated, but it begins with the subjective rationalism initiated by Descartes in the 17th Century. He subjected all reality to methodical doubt. This started a downhill slide towards scepticism and subjectivism in major philosophers like Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Feuerbach, the last stop of the rationalist train before Marx and Engels.
Over the course of two centuries, philosophy took a Copernican turn (to use a phrase borrowed from Kant). Instead of thought revolving around reality; reality revolved around thought. Philosophy yielded the primacy of reality to man, displacing God. No longer was there any place for Christianity in Western thought, at least in the path which eventually led to Marxism. The normativity of the real world was discarded and God was expelled as an intruder. From then on, man was governed by subjective interpretations of reality and a thorough-going materialism.
The consequences of this dramatic shift away from reality and towards subjectivism had apocalyptic consequences on a personal, social and government level, especially in the West. This began happening even before the Russian Revolution, which is only one of its bitter fruits.
The primacy of the Self has become a dogma in the prosperous West. But apart from denying God and the law of God, it also leads to the negation of Being and the truth of things. One small consequence is today’s widespread scepticism about truth, as something purely relative and dependent upon circumstances. This leads, as we are beginning to see, to a new tyranny, the “dictatorship of relativism”, which ruthlessly pushes aside a traditional understanding of ethics, the rights of conscience, human rights, marriage, sex, and so on.
Those of us who have had the privilege of living during the last two generations have witnessed the transformation of attitudes and behaviour in the West. Moral standards are being torn down and replaced with a false understanding of freedom. To mention only a couple of consequences: culture and the family are being radically reshaped.
The choice between the Self and God and the Self and reality is the strongest of man’s temptations. It is an age-old story. As he contemplates his nobility as a being gifted with reason and free will, he tends to fall in love with himself – just as Lucifer did in the moment which caused his sudden fall into the darkness of Hell. It is as if we moderns are being faced with a second Original Sin, in which we choose to create our own good and evil. We have been abandoned to our own devices, with our only hopes the one we forge ourselves, drinking the sour pleasures of muddy puddles in our all-too-short lives. As Wolfgang Goethe, the greatest German poet, wrote in “Prometheus”, one of his early poems, “Ich dich ehren? Wofür? I honour thee, and why?”. The Titan insults Zeus, his creator, and acts as the only judge of his actions.
The phenomenology of Marxism
The drunkenness of licence (not liberty) is a sad feature of recent Western thought. Its direct antecedents are Marxist Communism, even if it appears in a different guise because the social and cultural climate has changed. It is impossible to narrate the whole story of its development. But both Leninist Marxism and modern subjectivism lead to empty lives and to colossal disasters, on both personal and institutional levels. As Dostoyevsky said, “if God does not exist, everything is permitted” – scabrous sexual experimentation, abortion, bestiality, suicide, drug abuse, torture… And perhaps worse than all of these is the renunciation of the use of reason, which always seems to lose when it battles with sentiment – leading straight to disasters of all kinds.
In contrast, in the vast field of science and technology, the primacy of the Self is obviously absurd, because here the Natural Law imposes itself, on pain of the total failure of any attempt to make scientific progress, which is always based on the truth of things. Some thinkers argue that science is man’s redemption because it allows him to escape from the primacy of the Self.
The inevitable triumph of reason and common sense
A somewhat academic consideration of the Dead Sea of Marxism should not, however, make us forget the tangible reality of the triumph of reason, good and truth in the daily lives of most men. Evil is always noisy and attention-seeking. But everyday people, even governments, chug along doing the right thing, almost instinctively. Violence, theft and perjury are punished. Neighbours help their neighbours. Parents love their children.
Evil has a long, long history. In past centuries its worst manifestations have been tyranny, political and religious antagonisms, and the desire to subjugate other peoples.
But the Copernican turn initiated by Descartes, which quickly evolved into the rationalist idealism of the absolute primacy of the self, imbued Western politics with a dogma which was both naïve and evil – that the state or a political party has a right to impose Marxism by force.
Communism is dead. But a kind of zombie Communism still exists, promoting a sickly, critical attitude towards everything that was once regarded as true, noble and holy. It survives as a kind of black cloud of hostility toward God and truth which hovers over contemporary culture. And it is very difficult to dispel it because it does not operate logically, but through feelings and prejudice. It is utterly unselfcritical. Old-fashioned Marxism, evil as it was, at least laid its cards on the table and was open to criticism.
The end of Marxism
What subjective rationalism ignores is the fact that man is a spiritual being who aspires to a kind of happiness which material things alone cannot give. This is inscribed on his very nature, just as his conviction that God exists and that there is a law of God. This explains why Marxism has always failed, even at its very birth in Russia, because it always has had to be imposed by brute force.
And the situation is no different today. Most people spurn radical materialism, so it has to to be imposed upon them by powerful elites. Even in rich countries, then, the population is in danger of being brainwashed by music, literature, fashion and fashionable ways of thinking.
Those of us who are forced to endure this attempt to obliterate the spiritual dimension of man are the silent majority. But we are looking for leaders who will free us from this servitude to materialism and assert our rights on a political level. Where are we going to find them?
Peter Kopa is a Czech political analyst. He lives in Prague.