‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’ VI Lenin (speech to Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets)
On 25 October 1917, (pre-revolution calendar) Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, organised a successful coup d’etat and seized power in St Petersburg, then known as Petrograd.
Despite 90 years of Soviet propaganda, the events of ‘Red October’ were never a spontaneous uprising and a revolution by the people. It was an armed insurrection by a minority to overthrow a provisional government. Also, it was not – again despite Soviet claims – universally popular: fighting went on in Moscow and Petrograd for two weeks as the Bolsheviks tried to crush and silence their enemies, to be followed by a prolonged and brutal civil war.
Lenin himself was astounded by his revolution’s success, saying, ‘It takes your breath away.’ However, having seized power, he showed himself as authoritarian as any Czar. When the Second Congress of Soviets assembled on (modern calendar) 7 November 1917 it voted to ratify the revolutionary transfer of state power and, after a walk-out by the opposition – who claimed the coup was illegal – made Lenin ruler of Russia. Lenin’s Marxist Bolsheviks were now the government of a nation that was 3000 miles wide and had 11 time zones. Lenin’s famous call to arms was to unleash misery and death for millions: ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’
Russia’s new ruler made crystal clear his aims and means of achieving them: ‘The goal of socialism is Communism,’ and ‘Personal liberty is precious – so precious that it must be rationed.’ In addition, just to show that he meant business, ‘Hang without fail, so the people can see them, no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.’ The rich and middle class got the message and promptly fled abroad clutching their valuables, leaving their property to be seized by the State.
It rapidly became clear that Lenin was no harmless old revolutionary theorist, obsessed with permanent opposition to the bourgeoisie – he turned out to be a ruthless, rabble-rousing, power-hungry class warrior, determined to crush the rich for ever, using ‘The Party’ and his Red Guards to provide muscle when required.
Like all professional revolutionaries however, his priority was money – other people’s money. One of his first decrees was to close down all the banks and steal their money in the name of the State, leaving millions penniless.
Revolutionary socialists had always understood the importance of money to fuel their socialist dream. Josef Dzhugashvili, a,k.a ‘Stalin’ – which translates as ‘Man of Steel’ – or perhaps ‘steal?’ – was just one of many revolutionary bank robbers. He was the main planner of an infamous stagecoach hold-up in Tiflis in 1907. The Bolsheviks attacked a security coach, killing 40 guards and civilians. The thieves got away with over a million roubles, describing their atrocity as a legitimate ‘redistribution of capital for the Revolution.’
Another revolutionary socialist would-be Robin Hood, Mao Zedong, recruited ‘bands of brigands and bandits’ to support his revolutionary cause by theft. In 1927, he organised his own great train robbery in Hupei and stole a huge shipment of banknotes. Interestingly, Mao later organised another wave of ‘revolutionary bank robberies’ when he was actually Chinese dictator. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he unleashed his Red Guard thugs to hold up dozens of banks to ‘shake up society’ in 1966. Ironically, in 1969 Mao suddenly remembered that he was also responsible for China’s law and order, and ordered his Red Guards to stop.
Revolutionary socialists sometimes make fat-cat capitalists seem almost benevolent. Peru’s Maoist movement, the Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) were not just brutal terrorist murderers responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Peruvians and $20 billion in damage. They were also accomplished thieves. Bank robberies – or ‘revolutionary expropriations’ – soon became a favourite means of raising funds for their planned revolution in Peru. In 1981, Shining Path carried out over 50 bank robberies in Lima alone, and the wave of bank robberies continued throughout the mid-1980s, along with international heists in Brazil and Mexico.
The lesson is that the Socialist State of Lenin’s dreams had as much need of hard cash as any capitalist one. But Lenin’s ‘socialist revolution’ did not confine itself to just stealing other people’s hard-earned savings.
The Russian Civil War demonstrated that not everyone, in what was to become the USSR, favoured Lenin and the Bolsheviks being in power. In the face of mounting anger and opposition from the now less-than-revolutionary masses, Russia’s new dictator ordered a crack-down on all opposition and protest. In December 1918, he ordered the creation of the Cheka, or the ‘All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage,’ the original bloodthirsty Soviet secret police organisation. The Chekists were led by a Polish aristocrat-turned-communist, the psychopathic Felix Dzerzhinsky, who ruthlessly murdered all Communism’s opponents. Lenin, and later Stalin’s, new secret police made the Czar’s rule seem compassionate by comparison.
The Cheka’s task was to hunt out ‘enemies of the state’. This led to what became known as the ‘Red Terror’. Suddenly anyone could be arrested. The Cheka became sole judge, jury and invariably executioner. Following a failed assassination on Lenin in September 1918, Russians came to dread the Cheka’s midnight knock on the door. Fellow Bolshevik Leon Trotsky even compared Lenin’s crackdown to Robespierre’s French Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror’ – in 1940, he got an ice pick through the brain for his pains. In all, an estimated 20 million Russians would eventually die at the hands of their Party masters in Communism’s ‘Revolutionary Paradise.’
Fat on stolen money, and with dissenting voices silenced, Lenin now turned to actually governing his new Russia. A Decree on Land policy confirmed the actions of the peasants, who had quietly redistributed private land among themselves during the chaos. The Bolsheviks now reinvented themselves as representing an alliance of workers and peasants. The Hammer and Sickle became the symbol of the new Soviet Union. Other decrees ensured there could be no turning back from Lenin’s new Socialist order:
- All private property was nationalised by the government
- All Russian banks were nationalised
- Parliament was abolished in favour of The Party
- Private bank accounts were expropriated
- The properties of the Church (including bank accounts) were expropriated
- All foreign debts were repudiated
- Control of the factories was given to the workers’ committees called ‘Soviets’
- Wages were fixed at higher rates than during the war; and a shorter, eight-hour working day was introduced
In our time, we have seen something similar in Venezuela. In 2005, Hugo Chávez announced Venezuela’s ‘great socialist leap forward’. Since then, the oil-rich country has followed the strict ‘socialist path’ and – just like the USSR – ruined its economy and impoverished its people. Despite a wealth of natural resources, Venezuela has turned into an economic and humanitarian disaster zone, thanks to an attempt by the government to run a ‘revolutionary socialist economy’ for Chavez’s deeply corrupt Party.
Meanwhile, the disappearance of Venezuelan credit and normal banking has aggravated runaway inflation and a recession, causing hundreds of thousands to flee the country amid chronic shortages, rising malnutrition and increased incidence of preventable disease.
Lenin’s decrees, plus his and Stalin’s desire for state control of everything (including the economy), eventually ruined the USSR, just as it is ruining Venezuela today. The lesson is that Marxist theory may work well in theory and dreams of stirring up ‘socialist revolutions’, but history has shown us that it cannot run a modern state properly. Lenin’s ‘October Revolution’ turned out to be a disastrous experiment with people’s lives and property that just didn’t work. It soon became obvious to all that in Lenin’s new ‘Socialist Order’ some quickly became more equal than others – just like before the Revolution.
The ‘October Revolution’ may have been one of the twentieth century’s defining events; it was also one of the most bloody and tragic.
It stands as a model for how not to reform society.