Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

The Russian Civil War: 1918-1920

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, toppling the crumbling Provisional Government and replacing it with their own interim administration. They shared power with the left-wing breakaway faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs), the party of the farmers, and thus claimed to represent both the industrial proletariat as well as the peasantry. Yet their place in government was not secure. Socialist moderates, including the Mensheviks and right-wing SRs, refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime, even though the Second Congress of the Soviets had sanctioned it. Moreover, the time for the long-promised Russian Constituent Assembly had come, and although the Bolsheviks dominated the soviets throughout Russia, they did not expect to win a majority in a national poll. The elections went ahead just three weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power, with over 40 million votes cast under equal suffrage with secret ballots, the first of its kind in Russian history (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 145). As predicted, the SRs achieved a majority, with the Bolsheviks coming in second with a quarter of the votes. In the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda, Lenin reacted by claiming that a soviet republic transcended a bourgeois assembly as a “higher form of democracy,” and in light of the ongoing class struggle unfolding from the revolutions, the candidates chosen to stand in the election did not truly represent the will of the people (1917a). The Constituent Assembly met for one day in January 1918, electing Chernov, the former SR minister of agriculture under Kerensky, as its president. The following day, the Bolsheviks dispersed the new legislature by force. In truth, indignation about the fate of the assembly limited itself to its moderate members. When moderate socialists later attempted to use the incident as a rallying cry in their civil war against the Bolsheviks, they found that most peasants knew nothing about it.

For anyone who paid attention to the pronouncements of the Bolsheviks, the rejection of electoral politics came as no great shock. Most considered themselves revolutionaries, not politicians, and their mission was to construct a socialist society, not compromise and accept half-measures with those who did not have the stomach to demolish the status quo. Like Robespierre and the Jacobins, they recognized that virtue without force behind it is powerless; they therefore needed to use force to pursue their aims and overcome the class enemies. They founded the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle with Counterrevolution and Sabotage, commonly shortened to Cheka, under the direction of the Polish Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinsky. In his memoirs, the revolutionary Victor Serge (2012) criticized the creation of the Cheka, explaining that reactionary threats made the Bolsheviks “lose their heads” and that even Dzerzhinky considered the group “half-rotten” due to “psychological perversion.” Many of its members had been humiliated and tortured by the Imperial government, and thus were prone to paranoia and violence (p. 94). Initially a set of small squads tasked with internal security, the Cheka combated the looting and rioting that had understandably broken out during the revolution. Intended as an extension of popular power, its relative independence from other institutions contributed to its subsequent growth in power and autonomy, leading to the unchecked activities that would make the Cheka so feared during the civil war.

Before discussing the civil war, however, we should explore how the Bolsheviks ended Russian involvement in the world war started in part by the tsar. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks issued the Decree on Peace, calling for immediate peace without annexations or reparations (Lenin 1917b). This of course did not appeal to Russia’s enemies, but politically it showed the Bolsheviks were serious about seeking the peace, unlike their predecessors. Following a preliminary armistice, Lenin later proposed a separate peace with Germany and the Central Powers, but met with stiff opposition from most of his party. Most still assumed that revolutions would erupt throughout Europe, having witnessed Bolshevik success, and that Russia could conclude peace with fellow socialist governments. When this did not transpire, some militant Bolsheviks like Bukharin called for a “partisan war” not involving opposing formal armies but instead with guerilla fighters waging a battle of attrition against the enemy governments (Hosking 1985, pp. 60-61). Lenin, however, claimed that the revolution needed temporary “breathing space.” Trotsky, heading the peace negotiations as commissar for foreign relations, remained true to his theory of permanent revolution, opposed Lenin and broke off the bargaining. As the Germans advanced on Petrograd, however, most Bolsheviks shifted to Lenin’s position, and in early 1918, negotiations resumed. The resulting Treaty of Brest-Livotsk saw Russia cede the Baltic territories and the entire Ukraine to German occupation. This proved too much for the Left SRs, who quit the Bolshevik government in protest. This left the Bolsheviks alone against their foes.

The Czechoslovak Legion was a small unit within the Imperial Russian Army composed of Czech and Slovak volunteers who hoped that their valor and sacrifice in World War I would earn their homeland its independence from the Austrian Empire. When they ended Russian participation in the war, the Bolsheviks permitted the Legion to join their compatriots fighting in France, as the Legion wanted to continue the war. Unfortunately, sending the Legion through Russo-German lines was not an option, so the Legion had to travel along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia’s main Pacific port, where it would sail across the ocean to Western Europe via the United States. In May 1918, in a town just east of the Urals, an incident involving Legion soldiers and Austrian-Hungarian POWs led to the Legion taking control of a Russian city and firing on Bolshevik forces. Whether Britain and France pressured the Legion to take up arms against the Bolsheviks is unclear, as is whether the Bolsheviks faced similar pressure from the Central Powers to disarm the Legion. What is apparent is that once the Legion started the conflict, the Allies capitalized on the opportunity to re-open an Eastern Front with Germany and at the same time bring down the Bolsheviks in Russia (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 46-49). At any rate, the Legion used control of the telegraph system to obtain effective control over the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the main form of transportation in Siberia. After turning over most of their western territory to the Germans, the Bolsheviks now saw their enemies also controlled most of Russia east of the Ural Mountains.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Russia along the Don River, a hodgepodge of liberal democrats, disillusioned SRs and Imperial military officers rallied together, loosely united by their hostility toward the Bolsheviks. The “Whites” to the Bolshevik “Reds,” they formed a Volunteer Army under the leadership of General Mikhail Alekseyev, formerly the tsar’s chief of staff, as well as Lazr Kornilov, Anton Denikin, Sergey Markov, and other former high-ranking officers of the Imperial Army. Their experience made them a formidable fighting force, but their disparate ideologies and identities translated to a slow mobilization, and they initially only numbered several thousand strong. Bolshevik militias sent to crush them drove them south toward Kuban, and the Whites made an “ice march” over the frozen steppe. They attempted to take the city of Krasnodar, the capital of a new soviet republic in the north Caucasus, but failed, with Kornilov killed by artillery (ibid., pp. 20-21). Nevertheless, southwest Russia remained under the control of the Whites, leaving the Bolsheviks concentrated in the central region of European Russia. However, since this region was the most populous and the most industrialized, they retained important advantages in terms of recruitment and resources to supply their troops.

The Bolsheviks’ main fighting force, the Red Army, originally operated according to the model set by the Red Guards militia, with no ranks and officers chosen by elected committees. While suitable perhaps for guerilla war, this structure could not withstand the German offensives that had occurred between the Brest-Livotsk treaty negotiations (Hosking 1985, pp. 66-67). In early 1918, the Bolsheviks appointed Trotsky as the new head of the Red Army, qualified as he was from his time covering wars as a journalist and his experience as chair of the Petrograd Soviet’s military committee. Controversially, he reinstated several traditional military practices, such as conscription, the death penalty for desertion and the appointment of officers, including those from the former Imperial Army. He used political commissars to ensure these officers remained loyal to the revolution and to keep the regular soldiers passionate about their cause (Kort 2006, pp. 128-129). As one might assume, some of these tsarist officers defected to the Whites in the course of the civil war, but the majority remained faithful. Many historians highlight the practice of holding officers’ families hostage, but the Bolsheviks typically did not have to resort to violence. Most officers acted according to pragmatism, realizing that whatever their feelings about socialism, the Bolsheviks controlled the state, and the state supplied them with food, shelter and other needs (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 60-61). When the Reds gained the upper hand as the war progressed, what began as a dispassionate allegiance of convenience normalized with the absence of any real alternative. Trotsky of course faced no small amount of criticism from some of his fellow Bolsheviks for his changes, but he cited the centralism at the center of Leninist doctrine as justification, and mostly concerned himself with directly intervening on the front lines when needed. Traveling in an armored train, he would give speeches to demoralized or deserting troops, inspiring the Red Army to keep up the fight.

Fight they did, as events snowballed throughout 1918. Emboldened by the Czechoslovak rebellion, some Socialist Revolutionary politicians set up rival governments in western Siberia, in the cities of Samara and Omsk. They called for the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly, but in many other ways, their policies were just as radical as the Bolsheviks. For most of 1917, they had cooperated with the Bolsheviks in government, and their political beliefs revolved around land redistribution and other programs popular with the peasants. This association drove a wedge between the SRs and the tsarist troops upon which they depended to conduct the civil war. By the fall, these tsarist officers and Cossacks led a coup that installed Admiral Alexander Kolchak as their “supreme ruler” with Allied support (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 151). The ousted SRs fled Russia, effectively ending their relevance in the revolution. The Whites had no time for socialists of any stripe, and in many cases, actively attempted to undo the land reforms implemented by socialist politicians and the peasantry. They also earned the enmity of various nationalists with their promises of restoring an absolute empire with political power and cultural control once more centered around Russia. Their close ties to the Allies provided them with valuable equipment and supplies, but it also gave credence to Bolshevik charges that the Whites were the puppets of imperial powers (Kort 2006, pp. 125-126). The Whites’ scattered dispersion along the Russian periphery and their relative scarcity compared to the Reds hindered them the most, but their total distaste for politics and neglect for the popular mood, even when they came the closest to possibly winning the war, certainly did not do them any favors.

In the beginning of 1919, Kolchak joined forces with Yevgeny Miller, a tsarist officer who had declared himself Governor-General of Northern Russia, based in the northwest city of Arkhangelsk. This offensive stalled, and by the end of the summer, an overextended Kolchak retreated to Siberia and Miller, abandoned by British troops sent to assist him, faced the Red Army alone. In the Baltic region, General Nikolai Yudenich, also with British aid, came close to taking Petrograd in the fall, but in the end could not overcome the city’s defenders. At the same time, Anton Denikin led the Volunteer Army up from the Caucasus, conquering much of southern Russia and the Ukraine, and came within two hundred miles of Moscow. He spread out his forces too much, however, and moved too fast, losing control over his advance. These factors helped contribute to his defeat by a largely improvised Bolshevik counterattack (Mawdsley 1987, pp. 202-207). As 1920 dawned, the Whites were defeated and in disarray. The Czechoslovak Legion, having missed the end of World War I, turned Admiral Kolchak over to the Bolsheviks and purchased passage out of Russia with what remained of Kulchak’s treasury. The Reds executed Kulchak, ending the White threat from Siberia. Yudenich’s subordinates arrested him after he was caught trying to embezzle military funds before escaping. His British benefactors arranged his release. Meanwhile, Denikin fled to Europe, living out the rest of his life as an émigré, a common fate for many other White survivors.

Despite the White downfall, war persisted into the next year. In the spring of 1920, Polish nationalists under Marshal Josef Pilsudski attacked the western Ukraine and seized Kiev in May. The invasion had both offensive and defensive aims: to expand “Greater Poland” along its eastern border and to prevent preemptively a reassertion of the Russian yoke over the Poles by creating a sort of “buffer zone.” The Red Army, under the ex-tsarist commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky, led a counterattack, securing victory after victory. Soon what had started as a reaction to Polish aggression transformed into a Bolshevik plan to bring the Poles socialism by force. This entailed beating the defeated Polish forces west in the hopes that the coming of the Red Army would spark a socialist revolution in Poland, causing the long-awaited domino effect of other such revolutions through Western Europe. However, this turned out to be a serious miscalculation. Much as the Whites had been driven too far too fast by their dreams of taking important Russian cities, the Red Army push to Warsaw stalled along the Vistula River and the Bolsheviks had to seek an unfavorable peace with Pilsudski in 1921 (ibid., pp. 257-260). In the meantime, Denikin’s successor, Pyotr Wrangel, briefly set up a White proto-government in the Crimea. Upon reaching peace with Poland, the Red Army crushed Wrangel’s forces, sending him and his followers scrambling across the Black Sea. The civil war was finally over.

Both the Reds and Whites engaged in political violence between 1918 and 1920. Unlike with the Bolsheviks, however, the Whites resorted to brutality out of instinct rather than from ideology. Kolchak himself wrote that many Whites had “no conscience, no sense of honor or duty, only a cynical spirit of competition and money-grabbing” (Hosking 1985, p. 66). With the exception of Wrangel, none of the White leaders showed any interest in administration, and even if they had, most did not hide their hatred for Russian intellectuals, the majority being socialists, thus ensuring the character of the White forces was all military and no ministers. The Whites fed themselves by looting, which itself was not remarkable given the country’s depletion from years of world war and then civil war. In the Ukraine, however, the Whites added a layer of anti-Semitism to their raiding, carrying out pogroms against the Jews there. White propaganda fueled this hatred, depicting Bolsheviks and Jews as synonymous, with special emphasis given to Trotsky’s Jewish heritage (Figes 1996, pp. 676-677). This echoed in many ways themes later witnessed in Nazi propaganda, when Hitler justified the persecution of the Jews as a response to Bolshevism and the “threat” of socialism. According to documents released from the Russian archives, over 150,000 Jews died due to the White pogroms, with the wounded bringing the number closer to 300,000 (ibid., p. 679).

Figes describes the cruelty:

In the town of Fastov the Cossacks hung their victims from the ceiling, releasing them just before they choked to death: if their relatives, who watched this in terror, could not pay up the money they had demanded, the Cossacks repeated the operation. The Cossacks cut off limbs and noses with their sabers and ripped out babies from their mothers’ wombs. They set light to Jewish houses and forced those who tried to escape to turn back into the fire. In some places, such as Chernobyl, the Jews were herded into the synagogue, which was then burned down with them inside. In others, such as Cherkass, they gang-raped hundreds of pre-teen girls. (p. 678)

Two arguments frequently arise to justify or at least excuse the “White Terror.” The first is that the generals did not directly order it, while the second argues that the historical moment required callousness. To the first point, research shows that under Denikin the death penalty was in effect not just for Bolshevik party members, but also for anyone who had participated in workers’ councils or collaborated in the 1917 revolution (Bortnevski 1993, p. 363). This could be interpreted to mean even regular Russians “guilty” of voting for delegates to represent them, or as we have seen from White propaganda, Jews with no actual connection to politics whatsoever. Additionally, even if the White officers had not commanded the Jewish pogroms, they also did not do much to prevent them from occurring, which they could have done easily, given the highly regimented and even authoritarian nature of the various White regimes. Documentation exists of White generals ordering pogroms, but none where those generals stepped in to stop the raping and murder. As to the second rationalization, individuals of all nationalities from all time periods have used “war is hell” to justify all assortments of war crimes, and if we reject this excuse in the present when it is employed to hand-wave the shooting of civilians or the desecration of corpses, why should we accept it in regards to White abuses?

The “Red Terror,” too, was neither mere indulgence nor a collective hardening of the heart to the civil war. In reality, it was an eruption from below by the those downtrodden and dispossessed by feudalism and early capitalism, a social leveling that drew upon the traditions of peasant communes and a enduring mistrust of the propertied classes. Those that argue that terror is a necessary ingredient of Bolshevism suggest that socialism created the mass terror from whole cloth, but it did not. The “Red Terror” had its origins in the social order that fell apart in 1917. In just the 20th century alone, the Russian state had starved the masses, driven them to exhaustion in the factories, and sent them east and west to die in wars that had to do more with imperial pride than national security. It did so while also denying them political inclusion on the basis they were too ignorant, too wild and too primal to make the “right” decisions. What is remarkable about the “Red Terror” is not that it happened, but that it was so long in coming, when one considers both the relative size and strength of the masses to their masters, as well as the great lengths the Russian state went to impose its will over the working classes. Granted, the Bolsheviks provided the people with the institutions of the “Terror” – the secret police, the people’s courts, the seizure of private property – but the terror itself came from tensions of inequality and repression as old Russia itself. Whereas the anti-Semites among the Whites tormented and slaughtered the Jews for imagined roles in fictional conspiracies, the punishments, however savage, meted out to the Russian upper class had its roots in genuine mistreatment and subjugation. Men and women, quite free of any communist coercion, named their daughters “Terrora” to celebrate what they viewed as an overdue reckoning (Figes 1996, pp. 522-525).

This is not to say that the Bolsheviks played no part in fomenting political violence; on the contrary, it had been a central component of their political program for many years. As Trotsky (1920) put it, the “Terror” was a “direct continuation” of the armed uprising of late 1917, the revolution removed from theoretical tracts and applied to the real world. Their isolation and extreme position on the political spectrum also left the Bolsheviks with an onus to prove themselves true to their words, not just to bolster their integrity, but also to discredit and destroy their rivals on the left as well as the right. They had been clear about their intentions from the beginning. Lenin, upon hearing in late 1917 that Kamenev had endorsed abolishing the death penalty, asked: “How can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself?” (Figes 1996, p. 630). With the slogan, “Loot the looters!” he heartened the impoverished to take the property of the upper classes by force. Data from the Russian archives also supports the theory that the execution of the deposed tsar and the imperial family came from a direct order from Lenin rather than, as has been speculated, a spontaneous decision by local party members (ibid., pp. 635-639). Just as an “innocent tyrant” is an oxymoron, Lenin and most Bolsheviks believed that a class war without political violence was a contradiction in terms. For a new society to emerge, the old one had to die.

Of course, not all of the Bolshevik bloodletting came from politics; some of it was indeed about survival. In July 19, Left SR rebels showed their dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Brest-Livotsk by assassinating the German ambassador in a bid to restart the conflict. When the Cheka demanded the assassins turn themselves in, the Left SRs briefly took control of Moscow before being defeated, the ringleaders imprisoned. In the autumn of that year, a Socialist Revolutionary named Fania Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin outside a Moscow factory, seriously wounding him. On the same day, another anti-Bolshevik socialist killed the head of the Chekists in Petrograd (Mawdsley 1987, p. 80). These attacks came from the Bolsheviks’ erstwhile allies; one can only imagine what would have befallen them had the Whites been successful in capturing Petrograd or Moscow. Regardless, most of the political prisoners placed in monasteries-turned-concentration camps were not enemy combatants, but merely class enemies. Inmates in Cheka jails could be anyone, from politicians to professors, from priests to dissident peasants, even children. In some cases, they were Bolsheviks themselves, denounced in trivial quarrels by friends and strangers (Figes 1996, pp. 642-643). The “Terror” was not a systematic process operating with military precision for a military objective; it was, as is to be expected given its social origins and the anarchy of the civil war, often disordered and indiscriminate, driven by dogmatic goals as by the concerns of war.

The exact number of people killed in the “Red Terror” remains unknown. The Cheka officially claimed it executed 6,300 people across 20 provinces during the civil war (Mawdsley 1987, p. 83). Figes (1996) puts the figure at “several hundred thousand” if one includes those who died in the prisons along with those killed in anti-Bolshevik revolts (p. 649). Precise figures are impossible because for most of the “Terror” no one held the Cheka to account. In early 1919, it was brought under the Commissariat of Justice, but in reality, it remained answerable only to those on the Bolshevik central committee, where Lenin actively protected it. Some high-ranking Bolsheviks like Bukharin and Kamenev frequently criticized the Cheka for its unrestrained behavior, and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky was perhaps the most prolific and outspoken opponent of the “Terror.” To these censures and reproaches, Lenin remained adamant that the mistakes of the Cheka, whatever they might be, were worth it to preserve the welfare of the workers’ state. “What injustice,” Lenin wrote sarcastically. “A few days, or even weeks, in jail for intellectuals in order to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of workers and peasants!” (ibid., pp. 678-679).

Understanding the “Red Terror” is easy; judging it is hard. Knowing even a little about what the poor and vulnerable endured through most of Russian history makes even the excesses against the elite plausible. Yet is it acceptable? To the modern liberal mind, it is generally not. The notion of believing in any political doctrine fully, even one based in scientific rigor as Marxism claims to be, is alien to the average 21st century mind. That one might use such a doctrine to justify killing political opponents or class enemies is even more inconceivable. From youth we learn to treat politics as being about concessions and rough calculations, so that “the perfect is not the enemy of the good.” For the Bolsheviks and their followers, they demanded nothing less than perfection, the establishment of the world’s first truly socialist society, with the prior edifice ripped away to its very foundation. They were so committed to the enterprise they not only took power by force, but also endeavored to use that power even when fenced in by their enemies with prospects of their survival dubious. They remained true to their intentions when other actors would likely have bent or even broken for the sake of saving their own skin. Mawdsley (1987) argues that the short-term stability brought by the “Terror” did not outweigh the long-term costs later used against the Bolsheviks, stating that the “Terror” played a large part in Western antagonism toward the Soviet Union. This is doubtful, given what we know about the opposition of the West to any anti-capitalist government, peaceful or otherwise, around the world. Moreover, this sort of pragmatic calculus adopts the modern perspective the Bolsheviks did not share. For them their long-term concern was not propriety or foreign relationships, but instead following through on the revolutionary activity that had seen them in and out of prisons and exile for most of their adult lives. They had endured beatings, torture and years away from loved ones in the name of an ideal, one they could only realize by tearing apart the very system that had persecuted them for so long and perpetuated injustice everywhere. Recent history proves that being kind and trusting to those who profit from plunder and state-sanctioned rule-breaking does not bode well; protecting the corrupt elites is arguably just as cruel to the masses as permitting the masses to exact bloody revenge on those same elites. Granted, in a truly faultless system, the elites would not repress the working classes, or vice versa. An important thing to note is that decision-makers behind the “Terror” believed such a world was possible and claimed to be working towards it, while the decision-makers of today say such a world is fantasy and that exploitation and alienation is the unpleasant but natural state of man under capitalism. There is no perfect world, liberals say, just one better than all the others. The Bolsheviks, for all their sins, believed otherwise.

Works Cited

1. Bortnevski, Viktor. 1993. “White Administration and White Terror (The Denikin Period).” Russian Review, 52(3), pp. 354-366.
2. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
3. Hosking, Geoffrey. 1985. The First Social Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
4. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
5. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917a. Theses On The Constituent Assembly. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/dec/11a.htm
6. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. Report on Peace. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/25-26/26b.htm
7. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
8. Mawdsley, Evan. 1987. The Russian Civil War. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.
9. Serge, Victor (2012). Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Trans. Peter Sedgwick with George Paizis. New York, NY: New York Review Books.
10. Trotsky, Leon (1920). Terrorism and Communism. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/

1917: The Bolshevik Revolution

In the early 20th century, numerous tensions existed in Imperial Russia, and in 1917, these tensions converged into revolution. The country boasted a vast empire, its borders stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean, and consequently, it struggled to exert dominion over a fragmented populace consisting of more than 100 ethnicities and 20 nationalities (Wade 2001, p. 4). From 1881 to 1894, Tsar Alexander III and his conservative adviser, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, implemented policies of “Russification” meant to stamp out Western institutions and spread unity through the forced assimilation of non-Russians. The government subjected Russian Jews to especially harsh decrees, such as the “Temporary Rules” of 1882, that required Jews to live only within towns and large villages and restricted them to certain occupations. The authorities overlooked occasional pogroms designed to kill Jews and loot their property (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 34-35). This oppression and state violence meant to preserve the status quo and instill harmony instead bred hatred toward the Imperial regime, its leaders and their bigoted policies.

Alexander III died in 1894 and his son, Nicholas II, came to power. Not only did Nicholas continue his father’s cultural imperialism, but he also worked actively to maintain absolute monarchy, now a rare breed in the Western world. While some227px-Nicholas_II,_1914 historians have depicted him as a weak-willed and superstitious ditherer more interested in his family than ruling, Nicholas actually demonstrated a remarkable resolve to retain power during his reign. His grandfather, Alexander II, had been a reformer, and his 1881 assassination left his descendants believing that parliaments and constitutions would be corrupting forces. Despite this passion for keeping power and maintaining the autocracy, Nicholas did not believe in a direct, hands-on approach. He relied on ill-informed backward-looking advisers and sycophants to steer an enormous Byzantine bureaucracy. He spent most of his time yachting, hunting or inspecting troops, fully entrusting his courtiers and ministers to run the state for him (Figes 1996, pp. 19-24). The person closest to him, his wife Alexandra, also pushed her husband to “show more power and decision” and to “be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Emperor Paul – crush them all before you” (Russland 1970, p. 145, 454). Russians rightly doubted that Nicholas would ever be more inclined to restructuring his empire along more liberal lines than his father had been. Revolution from above would not come.

Russia lagged behind its neighbors in other ways besides form of government. The Crimean War of the 1850s had exposed the consequences of Russia’s dismal infrastructure and its lack of railroads. In 1862, the Russian government began borrowing heavily from foreign investors, but this debt soon turned the empire into a dubious investment prospect. Therefore, in the 1880s, the Russian state decided it would build the railways itself, while simultaneously balancing its budget to get its fiscal house in order and lure foreign capital. Revenue had to come from somewhere, and being a primarily agricultural economy, Russia squeezed the peasants – and squeezed them hard, with high taxes and export quotas that bled the peasantry of their consumer goods as well as grain. Robbed of its grain reserves, the Russian countryside experienced severe famine in 1891. The public started calling the huge grain shipments “starvation exports” (Kort 2006, pp. 48-49). Such facts did not bother the government, which covered up the shortages and declined relief offers. While the peasants struggled to survive, industrialization brought profits to the vaults of the state treasury.

In 1892, the tsar appointed Sergei Witte as Finance Minister, who immediately Poezd-transsibincreased railway construction, including the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the longest in the world. He subsidized domestic industries, enacted tariffs to bolster Russian goods, and tied the currency to the gold standard, stabilizing the ruble. The effects of these measures led to even greater industrial advances. The country’s industrial growth rate topped 5% between 1885 and 1914, reaching around 8% in the 1890s, the highest of any of the other major powers (Wade 2001, pp. 4-5). In the cities, the new capitalist class ruthlessly exploited the growing proletariat, with trade unions forbidden and any strikes brutally repressed (Kort 2006, pp. 51-52). Simultaneously, a new educated middle class emerged, an intelligentsia including populist revolutionaries as well as liberal democrats. The industrialization the Russian state had so eagerly strived for produced the very classes from which anti-monarchist political movements would spring forth to bring down centuries of Romanov imperialism.

Revolutionary socialism was a dominant current among these movements, although predominantly much more peasant-centered than elsewhere in Europe. Since the 19th century, many Russians radicals had adhered to narodnichestvo, an agrarian populism influenced by the works of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and the socialist Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Nardoniks argued that the peasantry, as the largest part of the population, provided the route to revolution and that Russia could make the jump from an agricultural economy to a collectivist state without first transitioning to capitalism (Pipes 1964, p. 441-442). This particular socialist strain strongly influenced the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs), founded in 1901, that became the largest political party with its strongholds in the rural areas. Yet industrialization and urbanization meant political power had shifted increasingly to the inchoate proletariat centered in the cities (Kort 2006, pp. 55-56). Russia had slowly but surely industrialized, and this was no more evident than in the large industrial centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the capital. Additionally, the fact that the peasants had endured endless injustices and mistreatment, including the 1891 famine, without rising up discredited the notion that they could be a revolutionary class. Industrial workers, however, with their tendency to strike and organize despite state repression, showed greater potential in this regard.

The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the SDs) was the primary proletarian party. Soon after their founding, in 1903 the SDs divided into two factions, the332px-Lenin_book_1902 Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for “majority,” as they were narrowly the most numerous in the party) and the Mensheviks (the “minority”). The intellectual leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Lenin, who had been influenced by the populists (his 1902 work What Is to Be Done? borrowed its title from an 1863 populist novel) but dismissed their ideas once it became clear Russia had entered a capitalist stage. He documented this phenomenon in The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899), wherein he also noted that the peasantry had split into their own classes, with rich peasants (the kulaks) exploiting their poorer brethren. Lenin asserted that revolution had to come from the industrial proletariat, but that the workers required a centralized vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to bring them class consciousness. The SDs were at war with the state, and as such, democratic approaches would be indecisive and dangerous, open to infiltration by wreckers and self-promoters. The Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, rejected this and placed their trust in an all-encompassing workers’ movement that would campaign through the inevitable shift to bourgeois power to create a broad coalition for the workers. Many SDs wavered between the two groups and their positions, with some members – including a young Leon Trotsky – hoping for settlement between the blocs.

Russia also had its share of non-revolutionary parties. The Constitutional Democratic Party (the KDs or “Kadets”) represented the sort of mainstream liberalism common throughout the rest of Europe, centered on political rights and parliamentarianism. Founded in 1905 and led by Pavel Milyukov, the Kadets drew support from the bourgeoisie and shared with the aristocracy an aversion to any sort of revolution from below that would threaten their favorable position in the existing social order (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 71). The Russian autocrats, however, viewed any restriction on the authority of the tsar as a threat, and as such, ruled out any sort of alliance with the middle class against the workers and peasants. Unlike in England, where the landed gentry had aligned with the embryonic capitalist class to bring gradual enfranchisement and political participation to propertied men, in Russia no one in power even considered such a strategy. It was unthinkable power would rest anywhere but with the tsar.

Russian_Star_1904-1905The government’s foreign policy blunders competed to match its inability to resolve its internal political dissent. Eager to enhance its prestige abroad, Russia attempted to flex its muscle in Asia, demanding from Japan access to Port Arthur in northeast China while also refusing to recognize Japanese dominion over Korea. In the ensuing 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, Russia suffered a series of unexpected and humiliating defeats, with Nicholas prolonging Russian involvement purely for pride (Ascher 1994, pp. 157-158). When news of Port Arthur’s fall reached the Russian capital in January 1905, a seeming testament to the hollowness of national power, factory workers peacefully marched on the Winter Palace to demand the bettering of working conditions. Fearing a general insurrection, the authorities ordered the marchers to disperse. When the marchers refused, soldiers opened fire, killing hundreds of unarmed protestors.

This incident, “Bloody Sunday,” led to a short-lived general insurrection that lasted for most of the year. Many imagined, quite justifiably, that this would be the realization of the expected revolution. In St. Petersburg, a committee set up to organize and direct strikes evolved into the first soviet, a workers’ council with an executive committee of 22 members. Mensheviks and their allies controlled the committee, Leon Trotsky among them, although Trotsky himself said he had a “behind the scenes” role (Trotsky 1907). Nicholas, desperate for a stopgap measure, pacified the liberals with the October Manifesto, which pledged the creation of a legislature (the Duma), the legalization of political parties, and greater political freedoms. Nicholas remained the final authority of government policy, and his concessions to the middle class proved little more than cover for him to put down the working class uprisings. By the end of the year, the government had crushed several peasant revolts and arrested the leaders of the St. Petersburg Soviet (Fitzpatrick 1994, pp. 32-33). The tsar had survived by slowly inching towards reform, but in the years that followed, he and his allies would take several steps back toward despotism, undoing what scant changes he had countenanced.

The tsar appointed an uncompromising monarchist, Pyotr Stolypin, as hisStolypin_1902 head of government. Stolypin sought to pass a series of agrarian reforms meant to replace communes with individual farms, in a move reminiscent of the enclosure acts in England. This plan proved too ambitious and contentious given the immediate peril facing the autocratic regime, and it did not help matters that Stolypin alienated his few friends in the Duma with his belief that the legislature should be secondary to the tsar and himself (Ascher 2001, pp. 143-144). In 1907, using emergency powers, Nicholas dissolved the Duma and changed the electoral laws so that the more conservative parts of the electorate, landowners and the middle class, were overrepresented at the expense of the working class. This led to a more agreeable Duma, but Stolypin himself remained unpopular, as illustrated by his assassination in an opera house in 1911. Between 1912 and 1914, there were numerous peasant revolts and industrial strikes, and even the middle class, not appeased with merely the loosening of the leash, resumed its clamor for more far-reaching and long-lasting political development in its interest.

In the summer of 1914, Nicholas again compounded his domestic crises by embroiling Russia once more in war. He showed he had learned little from his war with Japan by coming to the adamant defense of Serbia, following the June assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, during a state visit to Sarajevo. Serbian military intelligence officials had collaborated in the political killing, meant as a warning to Vienna to stay out of Balkan affairs (Dedijer 1996, pp. 388-389). Eager to reaffirm that Russia was indeed a “great power” and demonstrate Slavic solidarity, Nicholas came to Serbia’s aid after an Austrian ultimatum, despite some initial indecision. As a result, Germany went to war with Russia along with Austria, and France and Britain entered the fray on the side of Russia. Thus the European alliance system produced World War I. Within Russia, the bourgeoisie mostly supported the war, with the Kadets leading the patriotic charge. In the eyes of their leader, Milyukov, if there was one failing with the Russian leadership, it was the fact that the tsar’s wife was German and therefore likely working secretly for the Kaiser (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 111). So intense was the war fever that the government renamed St. Petersburg to Petrograd in 1914 to avoid any Germanic associations with “-burg.”

The poor Russians who provided the manpower and supplies despised the war. They were expected to fight, work and die for a state that totally denied them political participation and starved them for the sake of economic progress. As they fought and toiled, their casualties mounted. By the end of 1916, around 5,700,000 Russians had died, been wounded or captured (Wade 2001, p. 9). Following a series of disastrous losses, Nicholas himself adopted the role of commander-in-chief in September 1915. In reality, he remained a figurehead, while his subordinates made the strategic decisions (King and Wilson 2003). Nevertheless, in the minds of most Russians, responsibility for the war – and Russia’s poor performance – rested on the tsar’s shoulders.

Down_with_the_eagleIn March (February Old Style) 1917, a strike held by workers at Russia’s largest factory in Petrograd had blossomed into a general walkout. Nicholas, away at his military headquarters in Mogilev, left the matter to his ministers, who planned to use force: 3,500 police, Cossacks with knouts, and 150,000 soldiers from the local garrison (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 113). On March 8, the strikers joined with crowds celebrating International Women’s Day, bringing the capital to a halt. The troops sent to disperse the protestors received orders to fire on the unarmed demonstrators, just as during “Blood Sunday.” They refused and joined the protestors. On March 11, Nicholas dissolved the Duma, but most of the legislators defied the order and remained in their offices. Liberal members established what would become the self-styled Provisional Government, while the left-wing radicals founded the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Moderate socialists such as the Mensheviks led this Soviet at first, just as they had the inaugural St. Petersburg prototype in 1905. The Bolsheviks now found themselves languishing in opposition (ibid., p.123-124). Nicholas, isolated and pressured to abdicate by his advisors, gave up his throne to his brother, Michael, who declined the crown. Over 300 years of Romanov rule had ended.

There soon came to be a competition between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, a phenomenon Trotsky later dubbed “dual power” or “dual impotence” (Trotsky 1917). The people showed little passion for the Kadets who dominated the Provisional Government, and its initial leadership of Prince Georgy Lvov, a wealthy aristocrat, and Kadet leader Milyukov, a pro-war fanatic, did little to endear itself to the poor, anti-war masses. Only in Alexander Kerensky, a right-wing Socialist Revolutionary who started with the Soviet but obtained permission to join the Government, appeared aligned with the average Russian. Thanks to its pro-war stance, the Government obtained recognition from most of Russia’s allies, but in terms of the economy and local garrisons, the Petrograd Soviet, comprised of thousands of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates, exercised real power. Across Russia, this split authority replicated itself, with the liberal bourgeoisie forming city governments while the working class and soldiers created their own councils (Wade 2001, p. 12). From this arrangement arose a broad coalition between liberals and centrist left-wingers, with the radicals on either side of the spectrum marginalized. In the early days of 1917, there existed a sentiment that this coalition would meet the aspirations of the people, with the promised elections of a constituent assembly as the next step to come.

In Switzerland with other socialist expatriates, Lenin learned of the revolution and made plans to return to Russia. He secured the assistance of the German government, which was assisting anti-war Russians in the hopes of bringing Russia out of the war. UntilLenin Lenin’s arrival, the Bolsheviks had, as the opposition faction in the Petrograd Soviet, supplied tacit support to the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, under editors including Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, had published articles to such effect. Days after his return, Lenin issued his “April Theses,” where he dismissed bourgeois parliamentarianism and supported a republic of soviets alongside the nationalization of land and banks as well as the foundation of a revolutionary international to usher workers’ revolutions abroad (Lenin 1917a). The Petrograd Soviet did not adopt Lenin’s platform, and one of the leading Russian Marxists, Georgi Plekhanov, called it “nonsense.” Over the next month, however, Lenin managed to bring most of his faction on board with his manifesto, and received help in this from Trotsky, who had returned from exile in May and now found himself sympathetic to Bolshevik militancy and socialist internationalism. Outside of the Government and on the Soviet sidelines, the Bolsheviks nevertheless had several critical qualities their rivals lacked: able leadership, discipline and commitment.

Spring gave way to summer, and the Provisional Government continued Russian involvement in the war. More moderates from the Soviet joined the Government, including the leader of the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, Viktor Chernov, now minister of agriculture. Kerensky, shuffled from the interior ministry to war minister, personally visited the front and oversaw a 12-day offensive in July that soon faltered. Demoralized, 700,000 soldiers deserted through the fall (Kort 2006, p. 103). Back in Russia, troops headed to the front mutinied in Petrograd, leading to the “July Days” 19170704_Riot_on_Nevsky_prosp_Petrograd_2of rebellion against the liberal ministers. The Bolsheviks only supported the revolt with great reluctance, as Lenin felt – correctly – that the Bolsheviks had insufficient national influence to take power and hold it (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 129). The Provisional Government endured, and Lenin had to flee the country briefly for fear of arrest. Kerensky replaced Prince Lvov as the head of the government shortly afterward, but despite the addition of more SRs and Mensheviks to his cabinet, his commitment to the war and Kadets alienated the people. Had the moderate Soviet leaders moved to totally supplant the Provisional Government at his point, they likely would have succeeded, leaving the odds of a Bolshevik takeover quite dim. Yet, even during the July Days, when mobs clamored for the Soviet to act, pleading for them to take power, the Soviet moderates actively declined. According to one anecdote, a mob formed outside the Soviet headquarters, demanding a Soviet takeover, and Chernov spoke to them and sought to persuade them otherwise. A member of the mob shook his fist in front of Chernov’s face and yelled, “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it is offered to you!” (Kort 2006, p. 104). As support for the moderates faded and their participation in the Government opened them up to accusations of inaction, the ranks of the Bolsheviks swelled, although they lost much of their leadership due to their involvement in the July Days. The Government arrested Trotsky while Lenin remained in hiding in Finland.

With the left-wing revolutionaries divided, reactionary forces plotted to reassert themselves. They rallied to General Lavr Kornilov, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the military thanks to patronage from business leaders and disillusioned liberals concerned with the growingly socialist nature of the government. Described asKornilov_Lawr_1917 having “the heart of a lion, the brains of a sheep,” Kornilov fancied himself the Russian Napoleon, destined to save his country from the terror of neo-Jacobins (Figes 1996, 442-443). In August, Kornilov deployed troops around Moscow and Petrograd and prepared to crush the largest soviets. Kerensky for a time hedged his bets, hoping that he could salvage his authority by letting Kornilov obliterate the more radical elements of the Soviet left, and then reassert himself with the backing of the moderates. Yet when he became fearful that Kornilov might go on to lead a coup and create a military dictatorship, Kerensky sacked the general. Furious, Kornilov marched on Petrograd regardless, thinking Kerensky had bowed to Soviet pressure. Panicked, the Soviet released the detained Bolsheviks and armed and deployed a workers’ militia, the Red Guards. Delegates influenced telegraph and railway workers to delay, derail and otherwise confuse Kornilov’s troops. Bolshevik orators managed to convince the enlisted soldiers to turn on their officers (Wade 2001, p. 18). The coup failed with Kornilov arrested and the public again up in arms.

The Kornilov Affair brought counterrevolution to the forefront of Russian mind and did much to delegitimize further the moderate Government, which now seemed completely ineffectual and out-of-touch. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, had shown the resolve and the capability to protect the revolution, all while sticking to their platform of bread, land and peace. In Petrograd and many other city soviets, the Bolsheviks went from the minority to the majority through fair elections. The SRs under Chernov fell into discord, with Right SRs continuing to support democracy and cooperation with the Government, and Left SRs sympathetic to a violent overthrow and a social revolution. Many peasants, frustrated and impatient, began to seize the property of landowners and formed their own committees. The Government had little choice but to recognize these committees, being powerless to quell them. In the cities, rampant inflation and plummeting wages pushed workers into accordance with the position of the Bolsheviks (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 131-132). Much of their own volition, the Russian working class came to see the Bolsheviks as their only credible benefactors in the revolution.

pravdaYet most of the Bolsheviks themselves balked at taking power when they believed it would fall into their lap. Still on the lam, Lenin observed that the Bolsheviks now possessed the widespread support they had lacked during the July Days. He wrote to the soviets in Petrograd and Moscow, urging them to assume power, before Kerensky could surrender Petrograd to the Germans in a peace treaty (Lenin 1917b). The central committees disregarded these letters. Trotsky, one of the chief Bolsheviks in Petrograd with Lenin away, counseled caution and patience. Nikolai Bukharin, a staunch Bolshevik, later wrote that most of the Bolshevik central committee was “aghast” at Lenin’s calls for violence (Kort 2006, p. 106). Most of his comrades wanted to wait until the upcoming Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, a conclave of all the soviets throughout the country, which they expected would have a Bolshevik majority. There, they could vote all political power to the Soviets in theory before taking it in practice, supplying them an added amount of legitimacy. To Lenin, this obsession with legitimacy smacked of bourgeois affectation; his concern, as ever, was the revolution.

In October, Lenin traveled back to Russia in disguise, intent on pushing his position in person. Due to his stature within the party, he succeeded in passing a resolution 19-to-2 in favor of an armed uprising. Lev Kamenev and one of Lenin’s colleagues from his Swiss exile, Grigory Zinoviev, authored the pair of dissenting votes, and Kamenev went so far as to resign his spot on the Bolshevik Central Committee and leaked to the press an announcement (and a denouncement) of Lenin’s position (Figes 1996, pp. 476-477). Outraged at this betrayal, Lenin used the Bolshevik press to condemn Kamenev and Zinoviev, calling them traitors and strikebreakers, referring to them as “Mr. Kamenev” and “Mr. Zinoviev” rather than as comrades. While Figes and other historians would claim these acts by Lenin stemmed from an inherent tendency to play the dictator, a more likely explanation is psychology rather than pathology. For Lenin, the Bolsheviks could not carry out a revolution if they were concerned with niceties and appearances; he pressured his followers to remember his platform of dedication and single-mindedness. Only by being energetic and dynamic could the Bolsheviks avoid the same pitfalls of passivity that had claimed their Menshevik and SR counterparts.

Despite the leak of the proposed Bolshevik coup, the Provisional Government did not respond right away, a testament to its deterioration in capacity. It was not until November 5 (October 23 Old Style) that Kerensky declared a state of emergency and issued warrants for the arrest of major Bolsheviks, including Trotsky. He sent soldiers to important sections of Petrograd and shut down several Bolshevik newspapers. When Trotsky learned of this, he issued purely defensive measures in his capacity as chairperson of the Military Revolutionary Committee (Wade 2001, p. 19). Momentum and morale so favored the Soviet forces, however, that most of Petrograd fell easily into Bolshevik hands. What was intended as a mere finger-poke in the chest of the Government toppled the entire establishment. It is reasonable to assume many on the Soviet side presumed the hour had come for the decisive battle between revolution and counterrevolution, a repeat of the Kornilov Affair, and thus embellished on their orders. Seeing the iron was hot, the Bolsheviks moved on the evening of November 7 (October 25 Old Style), with the cruiser Aurora firing empty shells at the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government. The Red Guards occupied the building and arrested the ministers inside, placing them under house arrest. Kerensky escaped, fleeing in an automobile provided by the U.S. embassy before traveling to England (MacKenzie and Curran 1997, p. 134-137). In a matter of weeks, the Bolsheviks gained control in the rest of Russia. The Second Congress of Soviets occurred as planned, with 390 of the 650 delegates being Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks and other moderates walked out in protest at the demise of the Provisional Government whose cabinet they had participated in, leaving the Bolsheviks and Left SRs to form their own council of commissars, with Lenin at its head. The Bolshevik revolution was complete.

Soviet and some Western historians would portray the ultimate outcome of the 1917Soviet_Union,_Lenin_(55) revolution as a meticulously planned and carefully executed operation by the Bolsheviks from the beginning. Others, such as Robert V. Daniels, described the revolution as “a wild gamble, with little chance that the Bolsheviks’ ill-prepared followers could prevail against the military force that the government seemed to have, and even less chance that they could keep power even if they managed to seize it temporarily” (1967, p. 215). The truth is that the Bolsheviks would not have had the opportunity to come to power had it not been for the tremendous failures of their rivals, but they would not have so fully exploited those opportunities had it not been for their political and organizational skill. The Bolsheviks understood that the workers wanted industrial democracy, that the peasants wanted land and that the soldiers, above all, wanted peace. The liberals, by contrast, spoiled their credibility by continuing to partake in the sham parliamentary sessions post-1905, especially after the government disenfranchised the working class. This, along with their zealous support for Russia remaining in World War I, ensured the masses saw them as agents of the bourgeoisie and nothing more. The Mensheviks, Right SRs and other moderates fared slightly better in this regard, the masses electing them to lead the soviets in the early months. Yet their internal squabbles and almost comically stubborn denial of power independent of the Provisional Government set up the Bolsheviks to show their worth when the masses needed it: during the July Days, in squelching the Kornilov Affair and in response to Kerensky’s final gambit.

It cannot be said that the Bolsheviks’ rivals never had a chance at power; at all turns, they either refused it or squandered it. The true tests for the Bolsheviks came from within. Had Lenin relented in the galvanizing of his comrades or been absent from the revolution entirely, might things have transpired differently? As distasteful as virtually all of the Bolsheviks save Lenin found armed rebellion, it should be noted this was an objection to method, not objective; the Bolsheviks had been defined by their vow to put the revolution above all considerations. If there had been a reluctance to embrace Lenin’s incitements, it was not to due an ideological aversion to violence, but instead the belief that taking power through ballots would be more respectable than taking it by bullets. Given that Kerensky’s Provisional Government no longer posed a threat by its end, it was a matter of taste whether to vote it out of existence or to take it out back and shoot it. Only Kamenev and Zinoviev indicated a passionate preference for a democratic approach and power-sharing and only Kamenev tried to force the issue. Had the formal taking of power waited until after the Second Congress of Soviets, would it have made any meaningful difference? That is doubtful. The Bolshevik majority at the Congress was overwhelming, and it would have required the entire faction to abandon its crucial characteristic of being revolutionaries, not democrats. Lenin gifted the Bolsheviks with their defining “eye on the prize” mentality, and his constant pressure to not deviate from treating the revolution as the Bolsheviks’ main priority helped in propelling them past the finish line, but it was not the only fuel in the engine. Given the political climate that existed by the end of 1917, it is hard to imagine how this chapter does not end with the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs as the only groups in power.

Works Cited

1. Ascher, Abraham. 1994. The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
2. Ascher, Abraham. 2001. P.A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
3. Daniels, Robert V. 1967. Red October: The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
4. Dedijer, Vladimir. 1966. The Road to Sarajevo. New York: Simon and Schuster.
5. Figes, Orlando. 1996. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
6. Fitzpatrick, Sheila. 1994. The Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
7. King, Greg and Penny Wilson. 2003. The Fate of the Romanovs. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
8. Kort, Michael. 2006. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Sixth Edition. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
9. Lenin, Vladimir. 1899. The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1899/devel/
10. Lenin, Vladimir. 1902. What Is to Be Done? Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/index.htm
11. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917a. The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/tasks/
12. Lenin, Vladimir. 1917b. The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/14.htm
13. MacKenzie, David and Michael W. Curran. 1997. Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
14. Pipes, Richard. 1964. “Narodnichestvo: A Semantic Inquiry.” Slavic Review, 6(6), pp. 441-458.
15. Russland, Zar. 1970. The Nicky-Sunny Letters: Correspondence of the Tsar and the Tsaritsa, 1914-1917. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.
16. Trotsky, Leon. 1907. 1905. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/
17. Trotsky, Leon. 1917. The Struggle for State Power. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1917/power/index.htm
18. Wade, Rex. 2001. The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

The Bolshevik Revolution: Introduction

The purpose of this study is to spread awareness and education about one of the critical turning points in world history. The Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union represent a major milestone to left-wing movements everywhere, as the262px-Soviet_Roundel Soviet Union was not only the first true socialist state but also the first attempt at forging a new socialist society. Compared to other revolutions, which merely saw one ruling class replaced with another, the Bolshevik Revolution offered a chance at total social upheaval, a clean break with the hierarchical and exploitative systems of feudalism and capitalism. In addition to revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks were pioneers exploring new territory, constructing a world to that point only imagined by academics, politicians, trade union activists and working class agitators. Marx and Engels provided thorough and scientific critiques of capitalism and called upon the workers of the world to unite, but they had not supplied any systematic blueprint as to how to create a worker’s paradise. Like many revolutionaries before them, the Bolsheviks experienced success and failure, triumphs and mistakes. They engaged in careful planning as well as foolish impulses. They relished good luck and suffered ill fortune. They also understood they were making history, but remembered Marx’s statement that, while men make history, they do not make it as they please.

Most of the Western history concerning the Bolshevik Revolution and the early Soviet Union demonstrates a strong anti-communist bias as well as an obsession with the “great men” of the era. Despite popular conceptions about academics all being left-wing radicals, most Western historians have towed the conventional position on Stalin-Lenin-Kalinin-1919the Bolsheviks: they were, at best, naïve idealists undone by “inherently” selfish and power-hungry human nature, or, at worst, brutal tyrants hiding their thirst for autocracy behind their populist appeals. Additionally, scholars have focused most of their attention on Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin (each having their own “-ism”), as if these individuals exercised complete monolithic top-down control among their peers or even in the sprawling, complex Soviet state. While this approach is patently ridiculous at the early stages of the revolution, when inter- and intra-party conflicts were rampant and often in flux, it also ignores the fact that even at the height of his power Stalin never enjoyed the sort of absolute power commonly assigned to him. He may have been an autocrat at the center of a cult of personality, but placing him on a pedestal, even in a hall of infamy, neglects the acts and accompanying responsibility of other prominent personalities in his era. Stalin may have eventually become the most important person in the USSR, but he was never the only important one.

My aim is not to be completely comprehensive, as scholars have written entire books on some of the topics I will cover here, such as the Russian Civil War, Trotsky’s fall and exile, the purges of the 1930s, and so on. My intention is to draw on academic sources about each of these subjects to form a concise but still informative overview of events, their causes and their outcomes, and in so doing, do away with commonly held myths and stimulate further research on the part of the reader. As such, this is a labor of love rather than a true academic enterprise, although it will meet basic academic standards of citing sources and only asserting definitively what sources can prove.

Finally, a disclaimer: I am a Marxist and a socialist. I am not a Leninist, Trotskyite, Stalinist or a “Soviet Union apologist.” I am not seeking to create a work of Soviet propaganda. The Soviet Union and the individuals involved in establishing it and later administering it were flawed, as I am and this work will no doubt be. History is not about making men into heroes or events into drama. It is about drawing lessons from the past to understand the present. Please keep in mind I have written this work in that spirit.

Important Terms

MarxismKarl Marx never articulated a clear and complete ideology; the majority of his work was dedicated to analyzing the political economy of capitalism and the role of productive forces in history. Unlike the idealist followers of Hegel, Marx offered a materialist understanding of the world, where actual existing conditions give rise to the state and society. Under capitalism, there is an underlying tension between the productive class, the workers (the proletariat), and those who own the means of production and strive for profit, the capitalists (the bourgeoisie). Marx argued that as the workers realized the exploitative nature of capitalism, there would be a social revolution. Socialism would replace capitalism with a transitional stage marked by proletarian control of the state and cooperative ownership of the means of production. Eventually, socialism would lead to communism, a stateless and classless system. In Volume III of Capital, Marx states the revolution occurs when productive forces can no longer continue to develop. His longtime friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, however, suggested revolution was possible once the character of production reached the point where “the abolition of class distinctions” could occur. It is important to stress that most of the work of Marx and Engels was a diagnosis, not a prescription for the cure.

Bolsheviks – The Bolsheviks were the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). They were distinguished from the minority faction, or Mensheviks under Julius Martov by their belief in a dynamic revolutionary party wholly devoted to actively overthrowing the state, rather than pursuing gradual reform with the aid of sympathizers (such as trade unions) who were not fully committed to the overall objective of socialist revolution. The RSDLP split occurred in the summer of 1903 at the party’s second congress when one of its members, Vladimir Lenin, argued that the party program should reflect the thesis of his 1902 work What Is To Be Done?, which called for a revolutionary vanguard party to induce Marxist class consciousness in the working class rather than wait for it to form naturally. The Bolsheviks triumphed thanks to a narrow majority, and hence earned their name (“bolshevik” roughly means “member of the majority”) as did the Mensheviks (“member of the minority”).

Leninism – Leninism refers simply to Marxism supplemented with the theoretical works of Vladimir Lenin, specifically his writings on the development of a revolutionary party to seize power for the workers and construct a socialist society. Lenin advocated a revolutionary vanguard because trade unions tended to be concerned just with improving economic conditions and the spontaneous activity of the working class was insufficient for revolutionary struggle. Lenin also addressed imperialism, something Marx did not write about, stating that the search for profits drove industrialized countries to export capital and divide the world between competing empires, leading to enormous and destructive conflicts (such as World War I). In the metropolitan countries, the bourgeoisie is able to placate the working class, but in those underdeveloped countries lagging behind the advanced nations (such as Imperial Russia), the nascent bourgeoisie is weak but the proletariat class-conscious enough for revolution.

Trotskyism – Leon Trotsky built on the works of Marx and Lenin by adding the concept of permanent revolution, which argued that the imperialist nature of late capitalism would lead to socialism beyond national boundaries. Communism would be a global stateless society. Like Lenin, he advocated revolutionary parties seizing power and establishing dictatorships of the proletariat, although how centralized such parties should be depends on whether you are reading pre-1917 Trotsky, when he opposed Lenin’s centralism, or his writings of 1917-1923, his period of greatest agreement with Lenin. In general, many regard Trotskyism as diverging from Marxist-Leninism by being more internationalist and pluralist, although specifics are difficult to nail down as Trotsky’s followers are famous for their tendency to split and recriminate one another.

Stalinism – Stalin himself never used the term “Stalinism” and it is typically used in a pejorative sense, to refer to the arbitrary use of authority or an extreme centralization of power. There are those, however, who do use it to note the dogmatic points where Stalin broke with his predecessors. Stalin dismissed the prescriptions of Lenin and Trotsky that the Soviet Union could only thrive with the spread of socialism around the world. Stalin promoted the establishment of “socialism in one country” and criticized foreign adventures. This had strong nationalist overtones, something Lenin had rejected as “Great Russian chauvinism.” Stalin also argued for the strengthening of the state, as evidenced by his policies of forced collectivization of agriculture and the rapid heavy industrialization of the USSR in the 1920s. Defenders of Stalin argue that Stalinism did not abandon the principles of socialism as he continued the public ownership of economic activity, while his critics (such as Trotsky) claim the subordination of society to the state represented “state capitalism” or “bureaucratic collectivism.”

Democratic Centralism – Adopted by the entire Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1905, democratic centralism referred to a system of party organization where members could democratically determine policy but, once that policy was settled, the party membership would move uniformly to see it carried out. Lenin described democratic centralism as “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” The Bolsheviks permitted factions within their organization up until the Tenth Congress of 1921, when the party leadership banned factions due to the need for unity during the civil war. In the years that followed, debate within the party effectively ceased to exist.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat – In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx described the “period of revolutionary transformation” from capitalist to communist society, during which “the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” In the Civil War in France, Marx notes the significance of the Paris Commune in its efforts to eliminate state power and empower the working class with the actual job of governing. In his State and Revolution, Lenin built on this and described the dictatorship of the proletariat as more than just the replacement of one class with another, with the actual task of governing left to bureaucrats. Under socialism the proletariat actually taking up the duties performed by the state. The distinction between dictatorship of the proletariat and dictatorship of the party acting for the proletariat is ambiguous. In practice, the latter became reality as the Bolsheviks centralized power during the Civil War to combat their opponents. In the end, the USSR did not achieve a transition to working class government, as political power remained firmly with the party.

Soviets – Derived from the Russian word for “council,” the Soviets associated to the Soviet Union were workers’ councils formed during the revolutionary era that organized protests, directed strikes and supplied the proletariat with weapons and leadership. They consisted of deputies chosen by the masses. The first Soviet took form in St. Petersburg in 1905, led in part by Trotsky, until the Imperial government disbanded it. A good number of them arose in 1917, the largest being the Petrograd Soviet, with 4,000 members and control over the garrison. Lenin considered the soviets to be the conveyors of state power, acting as an “armed force” wielded by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and nobility, who the proletariat would exclude from participation.

Important Bolsheviks

Vladimir Lenin – Born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, Lenin came from a well-off family. His father died while he was young and, soon after, the Imperial government executed his older brother Alexander for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the tsar. 640px-Lenin_CLHe attended Kazan University in 1887 but the school expelled him soon after for his radicalism. In 1893, he moved to St. Petersburg and became a leading member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The government arrested him 1895 and subsequently exiled him to Siberia. In 1900, he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and helped to found Iskra (The Spark), a national newspaper intended to be a platform for likeminded revolutionaries. He emerged at the forefront of the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP in 1903, urging direct insurrection on behalf of the working class by dedicated revolutionaries. During the 1905 revolution, he advocated for economic reforms, such as land nationalization. The outbreak of World War I prompted him to develop his theory of imperialism and the concentration of production into trusts and cartels. In 1917, he has just published State and Revolution, a rather libertarian work calling for the popular seizure of state power and the economic monopolies.

Leon Trotsky – Born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein on November 7, 1879, Trotsky came from a family of affluent farmers. He grew up in Odessa, a relatively cosmopolitan (by Russian standards) port city. The state arrested him in 1898 for revolutionary activity, and he took the name “Trotsky” from one of his jailers. He joined the RSDLP later thatTrotsky_Portrait same year. He began writing regularly for Lenin’s national newspaper, which prompted Lenin to try and recruit Trotsky to the Bolshevik faction. Trotsky followed his own path, however, often attempting to unify the RSDLP and reconcile the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This often put him at odds with Lenin, who wanted to expel the Mensheviks for the sake of creating his vanguard party. In 1905, during the short-lived revolution, he helped manage the St. Petersburg Soviet, the first workers’ council of its kind, before the state arrested and exiled him. During his exile, he developed his theory of permanent revolution and engaged in anti-war activism during World War I. Living in New York when the revolution breaks out in Russia in 1917, he returns in May, now sympathetic to the Bolshevik calls for an armed uprising.

Joseph Stalin – Born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili in modern day Georgia, Stalin was one of the few Bolsheviks to come from an actual working class family. His father was an alcoholic cobbler who abandoned his wife and children after assaulting the town Stalin_lg_zlx1police chief. Young Stalin attended a theological seminary in Tbilisi that expelled him in 1899 due to his taste for proscribed books (including the work of Victor Hugo) and his inability to pay his tuition. He became a follower of Lenin after reading his writings and joined the RSDLP, siding with the Bolshevik faction as early as 1904. After 1902, he became a professional revolutionary, stuck in a cycle of arrest, imprisonment, exile, and escape. In 1913 the Imperial government exiled him to a remote part of Siberia, where he lived until the start of the 1917 revolution. He returns in March and takes over as one of the editors of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, initially endorsing cooperation with the liberal Provisional Government. Only when Lenin’s position in April prevails does he come to support violent revolution.

Grigory Zinoviev – Born Ovsei-Gershon Aronovich Radomyslovsky Apfelbaum on September 11, 1883, Zinoviev – like Trotsky – came from a well-to-do family of Jewish farmers. Home-schooled, he initially sought to become a teacher but soon joined the RSDLP as a professional revolutionary. As such, he supported Lenin and theGrigory_Zinoviev Bolsheviks when they sought to turn the RSDLP into a party wholly dedicated to insurgency. In 1908, the Imperial government had him arrested for organizing metalworkers in St. Petersburg, but the state released him due to his poor health. He ended up joining Lenin in Geneva, working closely with him, co-authoring several articles concerning World War I and attacking the use of nationalism to suppress worker solidarity. He returns to Russia with Lenin in 1917, but unlike Lenin, he prefers cooperation, reform and reconciliation to Lenin’s tactic of seizing power.

Lev Kamenev – Born Lev Borisovich Rozenfeld, Kamenev attended Moscow Universlev-kamenev_1-tity, having received a good education thanks to his father, a railway worker. In 1901, he joined the RSDLP and, like so many of his contemporaries, lived either detained by the authorities or in exile. He married Leon Trotsky’s sister, Olga, around the same time. In 1905, he went to St. Petersburg to join the revolution but was arrested and forced to join Lenin in exile, only to return to Russia in 1914 where the state again incarcerated him. This time the government exiled him to Siberia, where he stayed until the revolution of 1917. Back in St. Petersburg, he joins Stalin as one of the editors of Pravda, and like Stalin, prefers supporting the Provisional Government to open revolt. He becomes one of the most vocal advocates within the Bolsheviks for taking a democratic approach, preferring power-sharing with other socialist parties.

Nikolai Bukharin – Born on October 9, 1888, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the son of schoolteachers, became involved in politics while at Moscow University. In 1906, he joined the RSDLP and sided with the Bolshevik faction. The government arrested him for instigating revolution and in 1911 shipped him to a remote section of Arkhangelsk. He escaped to Germany, met Lenin and began writing Marxist works. His theorizing on theBucharin development of capitalism and its influence on imperialism and colonialism heavily influenced Lenin’s own work on the subject, although Bukharin focused more on the economic elements of the issue than its political ramifications. Like Trotsky, his made theoretical contributions to Marxism and engaged with other prominent European Marxists of the day, such as Rosa Luxemburg. For a time he edited a newspaper in New York City with Leon Trotsky, and followed Trotsky back to Russia following the first 1917 revolution. He becomes active in Moscow politics, where the Bolsheviks enjoyed a majority position, unlike in Petrograd/St. Petersburg. A hardliner among the Bolsheviks, he believes very strongly in spreading revolution outside of Russia, but his advocacy of “market socialism” will make him synonymous with the Bolshevik right-wing.

Alexei Rykov – Born on February 25, 1881, Rykov hailed from peasant stock. His father died in 1889, forcing Rykov’s older sister to adopt him. At 18, he joined the 220px-AlexejrykovRSDLP and in 1903 sided with the Bolsheviks In 1910, he started his own moderate faction, which like Trotsky, sought to take a middle path between the hardline Bolsheviks and the “broad tent” Mensheviks. His exile to Siberia, however, scuttled these efforts, and he did not return to the major Russian cities until 1917. He dedicates himself to urging reconciliation and coalition between the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and other non-RSDLP socialists. Like Kamenev and Zinoviev, he pushes hard for building a coalition of socialist parties and, later with Bukharin, supports small-scale capitalists enterprises as long as the government controls the major industries.

Other notable Old Bolsheviks: Alexander Bogdanov, Mikhail Frunze, Adolph Joffe, Viktor Nogin, Sergey Kirov, Mikhail Kalinin, Anastas Mikoyan, Mikhail Tomsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Maxim Litvinov, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Jānis Bērziņš

Part One, covering the 1917 revolutions, coming soon…

Terror, Terror Everywhere: Games in the Time of Al-Qaeda

Yesterday marked the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and while the event invited criticism of Russia’s draconian mass surveillance and poor human rights record, there was also plenty of pot-stirring over the possibility of the games being marred by a terrorist attack. Some credence was given to that fear when an individual attempted to hijack a plane and divert to Sochi, but whether this was part of a coordinated terrorist operation is not yet known. In doing some reading for my international relations class, however, the academic literature seems to suggest that an attack at the Games is fairly unlikely, regardless of its location or the militancy of the groups involved. From the perspective of the terrorists, they are better off attacking a less prominent target than one which will unquestionably be heavily monitored and controlled.

Yes, believe it or not, terrorists are rational. I will be the first to acknowledge the limits of rationality to explain everything; no doubt that many people, perhaps especially terrorists, are motivated by things not grounded in cold logic, like political ideals and religious zeal. That does not mean, however, that in picking their goals and developing their plans that they are blind to reality. Their target is generally what is directly offending them, and if they hope to obtain and retain public support, they are better off keeping their targets near and immediate.

Robert Pape’s work on the logic of suicide bombings is particularly illustrative of this. In his research, he found that what drove political violence was not religious or ethnic differences but the immediate presence of foreign forces occupying another nation’s land. Terrorists tended to pick targets that had operational rather than normative value. Accordingly, it makes more sense that, if terrorist groups in the North Caucasus want to lash out at Russia, they would likely do so whether Chechnya or Dagestan rather than expending their resources on a relatively far-off location, regardless of how embarrassing it might be for the Russian government.

Does this sound counter-intuitive? In the years since 9/11, how many attacks did al-Qaeda make on big events in the U.S., like the Super Bowl or New Year’s Eve gatherings in Time Square? To our knowledge, zero. Yes, the Boston Marathon was bombed, but that was not so much an attack orchestrated by a terrorist network than two brothers acting independent of a larger movement. By and large, al-Qaeda has kept its operations focused on U.S. forces overseas, in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. You might point to the attacks of 9/11 as another exception, but as Pape points out, those two were premised on widespread resentment in the Arabian Peninsula to the forces we had stationed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere.

It has become popular as of late to assume that religious fundamentalists, specifically Islamic fundamentalists, are simply hard-wired to blow themselves up. That is why people who react with alarm and suspicion when they see men and women in “Muslim dress” on their airplanes, and why such individuals can be kicked off flights for other reason than their overt religiosity. But as Pape explains, what is remarkable is how the most Islamic fundamentalist states in the world fail to produce any terrorists at all:

“If Islamic fundamentalism were the pivotal factor, then we should see some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world, like Iran, which has 70 million people—three times the population of Iraq and three times the population of Saudi Arabia—with some of the most active groups in suicide terrorism against the United States.

However, there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Iran, and we have no evidence that there are any suicide terrorists in Iraq from Iran.

Sudan is a country of 21 million people. Its government is extremely Islamic fundamentalist. The ideology of Sudan was so congenial to Osama bin Laden that he spent three years in Sudan in the 1990s. Yet there has never been an al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from Sudan.

I have the first complete set of data on every al-Qaeda suicide terrorist from 1995 to early 2004, and they are not from some of the largest Islamic fundamentalist countries in the world. Two thirds are from the countries where the United States has stationed heavy combat troops since 1990.”

In our popular discourse, “religious” and especially “religious Muslim” has become shorthand for “crazy.” Yet, in our irrational fear that a crazed terrorist lurks behind every counter and within every major event, perhaps it is us who have become bedeviled by paranoia.

The Truly Dangerous: Iran vs. the West

Earlier this week, a classmate and I discussed the recent posturing by both the United States and Iran, which has caused many observers to pontificate on the possibility of a war between the two countries. I argued that such a conflict was unlikely, as it was difficult to perceive how it would benefit anyone. My classmate, however, claimed that, if pushed far enough, the Iranian government could very well start a war, even if defeat was certain. The kernel of his assertion was that Iran’s leaders – specifically the hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard officers – would be open to going out “guns blazing” if pressure, internal and external, became so great that their continued rule became unviable. In other words, while Iranian elites may act rationally under normal conditions, the ideology of political Islam means that irrational, self-destructive behavior is a distinct and dangerous possibility under the right circumstances.

My sole objection to this line of thinking is that it ascribes hazard only to the Iranians and their “exotic” and “inscrutable” culture and beliefs. Just because it is hard to fathom why so many Iranians, past to present, support the authoritarian theocracy that dominates their lives and curbs their freedoms, this does not mean that Iranians, even the vehement ultra-conservatives, possess alien mentalities beyond Western ken. It is just that their values are different from ours, their historical experiences vastly dissimilar. Various world powers have besieged Iran since the end of the 17th century, and while it no longer contends with Ottoman encroachment or European colonialism, Iran continues to view its relation to the world with a siege mentality. Today, the country is rightfully wary of an unchallenged, militaristic and arrogant superpower that has invaded and occupied two Middle Eastern countries and seeks to promote its imperial grand strategy of permanent world hegemony. Closer to home, Iranians still remember the 1981 Israeli airstrike that took out a nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq, solely on the Israeli suspicion that it would be used for nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was planning to pursue a nuclear arsenal or attack Israel in 1981, what is relevant is that Israel launched an attack based on mere mistrust rather than hard proof.

Military action based on suspicion and hunches has become the new normal. The 1981 Israeli airstrike on Osirak and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq both serve as sterling examples of preventive strikes – not pre-emptive ones, arising from an imminent threat, but ones designed to weaken an enemy, real or imagined, for the sake of regional or international interests. As the historian and activist Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor previously embodied preventive strikes in the American mindset, reinforcing the natural distaste for treacherous acts of unwarranted aggression. Now, preventive strikes receive praise rather than denunciation. During the 1980s, the U.S. actively supported the Contras in their insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, not because the country had become a “second Cuba,” but because it might eventually. The U.S., the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, felt compelled to intervene at the prospect of the Soviet Union, well on the decline, having not just one but two friends in all of the Americas. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, the U.S. could no longer claim its unprovoked intrusions were acts of self-defense, no matter how absurd claims like Nicaragua had been. Briefly, the U.S. and her allies promoted “humanitarian interventions” in conflict-ridden states, even though these police actions did little in the long-term to settle long-standing ethnic and religious cleavages and were geared more toward positive publicity for the continuance of NATO than truly ending genocide and civil wars. The U.S. struggled to convince either the world or its own population that it could be a global police officer, so much so that by 2000 George W. Bush actually ran as a non-interventionist skeptical of regime change. The September 11, 2001 attacks, however, provided an opportunity for the U.S. to initiate military operations as “defensive” measures. The “War on Terror” proved an even greater godsend than the Cold War, as “terror” – unlike the Soviet Union – would never fade away or surrender. Ironically, the various wars, bombing campaigns and drone attacks carried out under the “War on Terror” banner have produced far-reaching resentment against U.S. jingoism and bravado, gifting anti-Western terrorists with greater recruitment tools than they could have envisioned.

In contrast to the U.S., Israel can point to Arab invasions and acts of terrorism committed against it throughout its existence, in addition to the anti-Semitism that has plagued the Jewish people for time out of mind. Traditionally, foreign states have acknowledged Israeli appeals to its right to defend itself and provided it with exceptional leeway. Yet, in the last decade at least, that leeway has reached its breaking point. Israeli hawks have become so excessive in their fight for “national security” that they have blockaded Gaza and induced its people to tremendous suffering, and apparently fail to see how decisions – such as the 2010 lethal raid on a ship that tried to break the blockade and bring humanitarian supplies to the Gazans – might invite disgrace and condemnation. It has gotten to the point where some U.S. politicians, usually thoroughly faithful in their support for Israeli policies, have begun to question the Israeli inclination to shoot first and ask questions later. There has not been much disquiet in regards to Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, which is ironic, as the U.S. was notably silent about Israel’s own nuclear program dating to the late 1940s and has not, as in the case with Iran, demanded inspections and promises of peaceful purposes from the Israeli government. This is despite the fact that Israel has been ruthless in suppressing any knowledge of its nuclear weapons. When Israeli nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel’s stockpile to the British press in 1986, he was soon thereafter drugged by Israeli agents, sentenced in a secret trial and imprisoned for 18 years, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. One would think that Tel Aviv would have softened in such brutal treatment of a prisoner of conscience, but since his release in 2004, he has been re-jailed several times, usually for talking with foreign journalists and trying to leave the country that persecutes him.

The above facts alone may be enough to understand not only why Iran has been less than submissive to Western demands, but why so many regular Iranian citizens support the actions of the government. During the Arab Spring, Western observers were usually shocked when they saw counter-demonstrations by supporters of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Assad. That so-called “rogue states” would rush into the arms of the West were they freed from their despotic rulers remains a popular trope in the U.S., most dangerously within the minds of neo-conservative thinkers. For example, the media pays little attention to the fact that Iranian reformers, including Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, generally oppose Iran giving up its desires for nuclear technology. The popular desire in Iran to refuse dictates issued from abroad are perhaps only equaled by U.S. and Israeli rejection of abiding by international law and U.N. resolutions.

“Still,” my classmate might say, “at least Mousavi would not threaten to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and possibly cause World War III.” Wouldn’t he? What choice would he have? Rationality, it must be remembered, is defined as the proper exercise of reason and realizing what one’s reality is. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran employed the Basij, a volunteer militia comprised of young boys and old men, in human wave attacks, sending them in rows, unarmed, against Iraqi positions. Irrational on the face of it, such a tactic makes perfect sense when one side in a conflict suffers from a technological inferiority but a surplus in population. The Soviet Union used the tactic to great effect against Nazi Germany, after all. Similarly, suicide bombings – including those performed by members of Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran – are generally viewed as irrational, considering they inevitably result in casualties to your side as well as the enemy’s. Yet, when weighed against the alternative, there is no feasible way in which Hezbollah or any terrorist group can, at least on a consistent basis, fight a conventional war, guerilla or otherwise, against a highly advanced and sophisticated opponent. We should be careful to draw a distinction between suicidal tactics and a suicidal strategy.

On the face of it, threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and discussing how easy it would be to do so seems self-destructive. Yet Iran knows as well as anyone else that the U.S. Fifth Fleet would respond almost immediately to restore the flow of oil from the Gulf. It also knows that its own economy would suffer from a lack of petroleum exports. It admittedly would be a lose/lose situation, but it is also the only viable situation Iran can present in which the West loses at all. Otherwise, it has no reply to the West using sanctions and other economic warfare to get Iran to do what it wants. While the West reconsiders whether it wants to pay the cost of an oil crisis to prevent Iran’s uranium enrichment, Iran in the meantime improves relations with major players outside the West, such as Russia, China and Latin American countries, to work to keep its economy functioning in the wake of closed Western markets. It may not be orthodox foreign policy, but when the choice is between audacious brinksmanship and surrendering sovereignty and losing domestic support, can we really believe Mousavi would choose the latter course?

I will not argue that the Iranian leadership will always act in a sane fashion. A person can no more predict human behavior than count the stars in the sky. Certainly, there are ample precedents where regimes, faced with almost certain downfall, have opted to take as many others with them as they collapse. I will argue, however, that there is nothing about Tehran’s words or deeds that gives credence to fears that the saber-rattling has been anything but the usual posturing. In my opinion, the greatest menace to the continued existence of humanity appears not on distant horizons but within our own country. It is the United States, with its bellicose approach to world affairs and its dismissive attitude to international laws and conventions, that has most exercised the will and the means to scorn peace and make unjust war in recent history. If we want to oppose countries engaged in “irrational, self-destructive behavior,” then the battle begins at home.