“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls,” said Carl Jung. Jean-Francois Lyotard said, “Being prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking.” Woody Allen said, “Nothing works and nobody cares.” All three men might have been speaking about the Russian Revolution, which took place in 1917, and which Richard Pipes exposes in his massive and monumental book, The Russian Revolution.
Pipes points out that what took place in 1917 was not a revolution. It was a political coup d’etat. The Russian Bolsheviks forcibly overthrew the remnants of the Tsarist Regime. Once in power, the Bolsheviks appointed themselves the official spokesmen for the proletariat, who, in reality, had no say in anything. The proletariat just wanted to get rid of the disease of Tsarism. And they did. But what they got in its place was no different than what they’d had before.
As Roger Daltrey sang: “Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss.”
The story goes like this. Before the Revolution – in Tsarist Russia – there was no middle class. There were only two classes – lord and peasant. There were no Russian towns. Not really. Moscow consisted of a fortified castle called the Kremlin, round which grew up a mammoth farmer’s market. This farmer’s market existed only because the Royal Court and its Royal Administrators, who were thoroughly Westernized in their thinking, allowed it to exist. They allowed it to exist to support them. The Royal Court didn’t understand the peasants and the peasants didn’t understand the Court. Each put up with the other out of sheer necessity.
Then came World War I and the abdication of the Tsar, which left a power vacuum. A provisional government tried to fill the vacuum, but failed miserably. A number of different groups tried to plunge into the vacuum by brute force. By means of being more violent than the other factions, the Bolsheviks came out on top. It was at that point, according to Pipes, that simply surviving became the driving dynamic of the peasants. Obtaining food, shelter and clothing became the common goal. Nothing else mattered. This left Lenin and his minions free to do as they pleased. It was under these circumstances that Lenin erected his one-party dictatorship.
Pipes’ criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is unstinting. As Pipes writes, “The Bolshevik Party was Lenin’s creation: as its founder, he conceived it in his own image and, overcoming all opposition from within and without, kept it on the course he had charted. Communist Russia, therefore, has been from the beginning to an unusual extent a reflection of the mind and psyche of one man: his biography and its history are uniquely fuse.” Pipes portrays Lenin as Dr. Frankenstein and Bolshevism as his monster. Both were savage and amoral entities.
It should be pointed out that many scholars disagree with the interpretation Pipes sets forth in his book. And since it would be presumptuous for the reviewer – because of his ignorance of the subject – to comment on who is right and who is wrong, he will not even try. However, he will say this: the colossal failure and decimation of human life under Lenin and Stalin does not recommend Bolshevism in any way, shape or form. It should also be noted that Bolshevism is not communism. For as Pipes makes clear in the book, Bolshevism was a radical branch of the Socialist Democrats in the same way that Al-Qaeda is a radical branch of Islam. In other words, shooting all the dogs because one has fleas doesn’t make sense.
The Russian Revolution is an easy read. Pipes writes in a lucid style that flows from one topic to another in an uncontrived way. It is obvious he is a walking-talking encyclopedia of Russian history. Yet he doesn’t start sinking under the weight of his knowledge and – Thank you, Jesus! – he doesn’t believe in human sacrifice. In other words, the reader doesn’t need to fear being offered up on the altar of pedantry. Pipes keeps it simple: he reveals and explains the transformation in the cultural, economic and political life of the unique Behemoth known as Russia. One revelation which leaps to the forefront is this: it is ideas that band people and nations together. And ideas have consequences, some good and some bad. In either case, the power of ideas should never be underestimated. Nor should the power of books that examine these binding ideas.
The Russian Revolution is a brilliant book that should not be underrated.