Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is “What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit”.
In 1917, Lenin’s Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd. Actually, “stormed” is the wrong word. Despite later portrayals by Soviet iconographers, the beginning of the revolution was banal and tawdry. The Provisional Government, led by a social-democratic lawyer called Alexander Kerensky, was in no position to put up a fight. Kerensky himself had fled the city in a car borrowed from the American legation, leaving a few ministers behind at the deposed Tsar’s former residence.
Bolshevik militiamen entered the Winter Palace through an unlocked back door and wandered around the cavernous interior until they found the remnants of the Provisional Government in a kitchen. Being illiterate, they forced Kerensky’s ministers at gunpoint to write out their own arrest warrants. A secretary described what happened next:
‘The Palace was pillaged and devastated from top to bottom by the Bolshevik armed mob, as though by a horde of barbarians. All State papers were destroyed. Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets. Several hundred carefully packed boxes of rare plate and china, which Kerensky had exerted himself to preserve, were broken open and the contents smashed or carried off. Desks, pictures, ornaments – everything was destroyed. I will refrain from describing the hideous scenes which took place in the wine-cellars.’
The revolution, in other words, began as it was to continue: with looting. It wasn’t long, though, before the looting turned to bloodshed – bloodshed on an unimaginable, oceanic scale.
Nothing had prepared humanity for so much slaughter. Perhaps ten million indigenous Americans were killed by European pathogens after Columbus. A similar number of people died in the Atlantic slave trade. The Nazis killed 17 million. The Communists killed 100 million – some shot after show trials, some tortured to death, some starved to enforce collectivisation.
How are we to explain murder on such a scale? Let’s ask Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the anti-Communists who was lucky enough to die in exile:
‘Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evil-doers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evil-doing its long-sought justification and gives the evil-doer the necessary steadfastness and determination.’
To mark this year’s centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) is holding a conference on 7th-9th April, bringing together some of Europe’s foremost historians, politicians and Cold War veterans. We’ll be meeting in Tirana and, if you’d like to see what Marxism did to Albania, you can join us by registering at www.thelibertysummit.org.
Is it truly necessary, a full generation after 1989, to go through these arguments again? After all, the Berlin Wall has now been down for longer than it was up. Are we conservatives conjuring a phantom foe from the past, a sort of reverse Goldstein?
There are two answers. First, as the poet says, the evil that men do lives after them. The Communists took over or banned every voluntary association, emptying the civil space that used to exist between state and citizen. When the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party seized power in 1948, for example, Janos Kádar, as Minister of Home Affairs, abolished over 5,000 independent associations: churches, charities, chess clubs, Boy Scout troops, village bands.
After such vandalism, it was hard to rebuild. A whole generation had been brought up to disbelieve, distrust and dissemble. An ideology that simultaneously atomised and subjugated had drained its subject territories of social capital. Sir Roger Scruton aptly describes this as “the great sin that lay at the heart of the Communist system – the sin of isolating individuals from their fellows, and then turning the spotlight of interrogation on them so as to watch them squirm”.
Yet – and this brings us to the second answer – people keep falling for Marx. A third of American millennials, according to YouGov, think that George W Bush murdered more people than Stalin did. A fifth would cheerfully vote for a Communist candidate. How often we see some moral idiot wearing a Che Guevara tee-shirt. We should react as we would to someone wearing an Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden tee-shirt; but, in general, we don’t.
Is it that young people are gullible? Do they insist on seeing the defining ethic of Communism as fairness rather than force? Do they cling to the idea that there is some idealised form of Marxism, one without secret police or shortages, just waiting to be tried?
Or is it the opposite? Is it precisely the pitilessness, the purity, the inhumanity, that attracts them? In every age and nation, some people – often young men – are drawn to ideologies that promise a completely new way of life, ideologies that make no concession to human frailties, nor to past practice. In this regard, at any rate, the appeal of Communism is not so different from the appeal of Daesh.
Perhaps a form of nihilism is innate in a portion of humanity. To some people, every tradition is a superstition, every authority figure an oppressor, every transaction a swindle. We may not be able to shake these people from their prejudices; but we can at least confront them with where those prejudices lead, namely to gulags.
There are always ideologues who say they’d be happy to break a few eggs in order to make an omelette. These ideologues need to be refuted with the observable data of the last hundred years. Setting aside the vast fact that human beings are not eggs, there has not been a single case of an omelette actually emerging. Communism leaves us with empty eggshells and empty bellies. Every time. This story shall the good man teach his son.