Last week marked the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. On the night of November 7, 1917, the Winter Palace in Petrograd was occupied by the Bolsheviks. Seventy-two years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened. In the intervening period, according to the estimates in The Black Book of Communism, the grand total of victims of communism was between 85m and 100m.
Mao Tse-tung alone accounted for tens of millions: 2m between 1949 and 1951, another 3m in the course of the 1950s, a staggering 45m in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward”, yet more in the Cultural Revolution.
The lowest credible estimate for the total number of Soviet citizens who lost their lives as a direct result of Stalin’s policies is 20m.
All communist regimes everywhere, without exception, were merciless in their treatment of “class enemies”, from the North Korea of the Kims to the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh, from the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the Angola of Agostinho Neto. Pol Pot was the worst of them all, but the differences were of degree, not of quality.
Communist regimes were aggressive, too, invading country after country during the Cold War. Moreover, we now know just how extensive and ruthless the KGB’s system of international espionage and subversion was.
Could more have been done to halt the communist pandemic after it broke out in Russia in 1917? And, if so, have we learnt anything from the mistakes of those who failed to stamp it out when they might have?
The Bolsheviks could certainly have been stopped. After all, the only reason Lenin was able to get from Zurich to Petrograd in 1917 was that the imperial German government paid for his ticket — and more. An estimated $12m was channelled from the Kaiser’s coffers to Lenin and his associates. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to about $250m (£190m) today.
The provisional government thus had every right to arrest Lenin and his band of associates on arrival. They were German agents. And Alexander Kerensky, the Socialist Revolutionary who took control of the provisional government in July 1917, had even better grounds to round up the Bolsheviks: by then, they had attempted a coup and failed.
The problem was that people underestimated Lenin & Co. They seemed an unruly bunch of intellectuals: writers of pamphlets, makers of speeches. No contemporary western observer thought for a moment that their crackpot coup would last. Naive American bankers failed to appreciate that the Bolsheviks meant exactly what they said about defaulting on the entire Tsarist debt. No one foresaw that hereditary nobleman Ulyanov (to give Lenin his original name) was equally capable of ordering mass murder.
Foreign intervention, incompetent liberals, clueless bankers: that makes three reasons the Bolsheviks weren’t stopped. Let me not forget the fellow travellers. John Reed, with his risible glamorising of the revolution, would have many, many heirs. George Bernard Shaw’s callous commentary on the show trials of the 1930s perfectly encapsulated this intellectual deformation.
Not many went as far as the Cambridge spies, who shamefully betrayed their own country to Stalin. But how many intellectuals between 1917 and 1989 turned a blind eye to communism’s crimes? Because Hitler’s crimes were in some way worse. Because the industrialisation of Russia could be achieved in no other way. Because one had to crack an egg to make an omelette — and all the other cant.
Another, less obvious, reason that the communist virus continued to spread for so long was that good men underestimated the Soviet threat and were assailed by doubts about how much should be done to resist it.
From the outbreak of the Korean War to the final confrontation in the early 1980s, even those who considered themselves anti-communist frequently lacked the stomach for the fight. Time and again during the Cold War, eminent Americans — especially the products of Ivy League colleges — succumbed to relativism. Perhaps this contest between the superpowers was really the fault of the United States? Perhaps the US should simply withdraw its forces from the contested grey zones — from southeast Asia, from Central and South America, from sub-Saharan Africa?
And yet behold what happened when the US did that. It is now more or less orthodoxy that the Vietnam War was a great disaster. I am of the unfashionable view that the real disaster was to abandon the people of South Vietnam to their cruel and entirely predictable fate at the hands of the communist North.
Have we learnt anything from this history? Not nearly enough, I would say. It is not just the millennials in Che Guevara T-shirts I worry about. It is not just John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who as recently as 2011 said he “still sees the relevance of Trotsky” and who owned a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book until 2015, when he tossed it at George Osborne in the House of Commons. It is not just the revival of “Antifa” by young Americans presumably unaware of the co-operation between the German communists — the original Antifa — and the Nazis that helped seal the fate of the Weimar Republic. It is not just the rising power of a China still ruled by communists. It is not just the North Korean nuclear missiles.
No, what concerns me today is the entirely familiar response we see to a different but, to my mind, equally dangerous threat. Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam since the Iranian Revolution unleashed its Shi’ite variant and since 9/11 revealed the even more aggressive character of Sunni Islamism. I fear we have done no better than our grandfathers did.
Foreign intervention — the millions of dollars that have found their way from the Gulf to radical mosques and Islamic centres in the West.
Incompetent liberals — the proponents of multiculturalism who brand any opponent of jihad an “Islamophobe”. Clueless bankers — the sort who fall over themselves to offer “sharia-compliant” loans and bonds. Fellow travellers — the leftists who line up with the Muslim Brotherhood to castigate Israel at every opportunity. And the faint-hearted — those who were so quick to pull out of Iraq in 2009 that they allowed the rump of al-Qaeda to morph into Isis.
A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire, despite their stated intention to plot world revolution and overthrow both democracy and capitalism. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our existence.
It would be hard to devise a better illustration of George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)
Cast your mind back a year, to the first week of November 2016. Be honest: who did you think would win the presidency of the United States? Readers of this column may recall my prediction. “Trump leads by substantial margins among male voters, white voters, over-64 voters and degree-less voters,” I wrote. “In short, his support looks a lot like the support for Brexit. If, as happened in the UK, those groups turn out more than the pollsters expect and other groups turn out less, the polls will be wrong. He can win.”
I was in a tiny minority among commentators. On the widely read Daily Kos website, for example, Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stood at 92%. According to The Upshot in The New York Times, the number was 85%. Betfair said 83%. Best of all was the Princeton Election Consortium, which wrote two days before the election: “Whether [Clinton’s] presidential win probability is 91% or 99%, it is basically settled.”
Why were the professionals so wrong about last year’s election? After twelve months of thinking about this, my conclusion is that it was because they had not read Jürgen Habermas’s seminal book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). Habermas was writing mainly about the 18th and 19th century, but his insight was a universally applicable one. Often, historical changes in attitudes, behaviour and politics are rooted in changes to the structure of the public sphere itself.
Mentioning a German philosopher in a British Sunday newspaper violates a number of important rules of journalistic conduct. Bear with me. In most western countries the public sphere used to consist of a few national newspapers, a not much larger number of radio stations and a very few television networks. In the past 10 years that has ceased to be the case.
The key change is the advent of giant online social networks and the smartphones that allow us to be on them practically all the time. Two-thirds of adult Americans — and more than 2bn people in the world as a whole — are now regular users of Facebook, a company that did not exist 14 years ago. Around 45% of Americans get their news from Facebook’s news feed.
The effects are radically different from those of, say, the advent of radio or television for three reasons. First, the content on Facebook is mostly generated by its users. Between March 2015 and November 2016, to give just one example, 128m people in the US created nearly 9bn Facebook posts, shares, likes and comments about the election.
Second, this content is sorted and ranked not by human editors but by algorithms. Every time you open Facebook’s app, an algorithm sorts through all the posts and serves you a customised selection based on its estimate of the probability that you’ll like, comment on or share them. This is the origin of what Eli Pariser of the website Upworthy has called the “filter bubble”. You see in your news feed only what the algo thinks you’ll like. (Maybe that’s why you’re reading this column.)
Third, Facebook makes money from its users’ data by selling ads that can be targeted with staggering precision. With Google, it now enjoys a duopoly on digital advertising, which explains the vast sums of money these companies now make. (Last week Facebook announced revenue of $10.3bn, or £7.9bn, in the third quarter.) This also explains why it was possible for Russian intelligence to meddle so effectively in last year’s election.
Perhaps you didn’t see the advertisements posted on Facebook by Russian entities such as the blandly named Internet Research Agency. You weren’t the kind of user they were targeting. But if you were a white, non-college-educated American in a swing state, you probably did see quite a few of them. My favourite is the picture of Satan and Christ arm-wrestling, with the caption:
Satan: If I win Clinton wins!
Jesus: Not if I can help it!
Press ‘Like’ to help Jesus win!
After much humming and hawing, Facebook has now admitted that Russia used false identities to post about 3,000 ads in this vein and that (including on its other platforms such as Instagram) as many as 146m users may have seen them. That is more people than voted (139m).
These ads had real-world consequences. In May 2016, for instance, two Russian-linked Facebook groups organised opposing protests in Houston. A group called Heart of Texas announced a rally in front of the city’s Islamic Da’wah Centre at noon on May 21 to Stop Islamification of Texas. Another Russian-created group, United Muslims of America, advertised a Save Islamic Knowledge rally for the same place and time. People turned up for both sides, and confrontation duly followed.
The wrong conclusion is that the Russians decided last year’s election. For, in the ocean of Facebook content, the Russian ads were mere drops. The significance of the Russian interference is that it has finally focused the political elite’s minds on the transformation of the public sphere.
It wasn’t just the Russians. As BuzzFeed has shown, in the final three months of the presidential campaign, the top fake election news stories on Facebook generated more user engagement (shares, reactions and comments) than the top true stories from outlets such as The New York Times. Some of the fake news was coming from abroad (Macedonia as well as Russia), but much of it was homegrown. Two years ago the alt-right website Breitbart had a small Facebook page with just 100,000 likes. By July 2016 Breitbart was generating more Facebook interactions than The New York Times.
Facebook sent staff to work with both the Trump and Clinton campaigns to maximise the effectiveness of their advertising. No prizes for guessing which campaign took more advantage of this. “I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump,” Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has said, “if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
“These social platforms were all invented by very liberal people on the West and East Coasts,” mused Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital media director. “And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don’t think they thought that would ever happen.” That, surely, is the most compelling epitaph for the Clinton campaign — which, in a rich irony, nearly all Facebook and Google employees supported.
To get it right last November, all you really needed to know was that Trump dominated Clinton on both Facebook and Twitter. The fact she outspent him, overall, by about two to one was irrelevant. The Clinton campaign wasted millions of dollars on the old public sphere, and wholly failed to grasp what the populist right was doing in the new one.
Last week’s Economist cover warns solemnly of “Social media’s threat to democracy”. A more accurate headline would have been “Social media’s threat to elite liberalism”. Which reminds me: what was The Economist’s cover 12 months ago? Ah, yes. Hillary Clinton — “America’s best hope”. As they say in, er, Texas: nyet.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)
‘I am a square,” Richard Nixon told a journalist towards the end of his life, drawing a square in the air with his forefinger. “My values are traditional: God, country, family. I am absolutely opposed to the destruction of those values that came about during the Vietnam era. Free love, drugs, tearing down your country, denying God, selfishness and indulgence — everything I despise took root when I was president and there was so little I could do to stop it…I represented everything they were trying to overthrow.”
In the affections of the baby-boomer generation that runs America today — from the Oval Office to the casting couches of Hollywood — Nixon does indeed occupy a uniquely low place. Never in the history of American democracy have so many people loved to hate one man so much.
True, most baby-boomers long ago reached some kind of accommodation with God, country and family. But to this day, they still hate Nixon. They look back on his resignation as one of their generation’s greatest achievements. Although he was by no means the least popular of modern presidents while in office, he is certainly bottom of the league today.
It is, of course, easy to see why Nixon is hated. His presidency ended more ignominiously than any other, with resignation forced upon him following the exposure of his efforts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. Nor was this an isolated lapse. Dicky was always tricky: witness his denials during the Alger Hiss case that he had spent time at key witness Whittaker Chambers’s farm, or the 1952 funding scandal that nearly cost him his place on the Republican presidential ticket.
Nixon’s youthful anti-communism, too, always irritated liberals. As a congressman, he came to national attention with his implacable pursuit of Hiss, the State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union. As Dwight D Eisenhower’s vice-president in the 1950s, he continued to play the Cold Warrior, famously confronting Nikita Khrushchev in a televised debate about the merits of Soviet and American kitchens. Above all, there was Nixon’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save South Vietnam from communism, unhappy memories of which are currently being stirred by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary series.
In this new biography, John A Farrell (born in 1953, Nixon’s first year as vice-president) re-retells the tale in terms that few of his fellow boomers will find objectionable. We read here of Nixon’s culpability in helping the South Vietnamese “steal…a moment of genuine hope” for peace in Vietnam in 1968 — according to Farrell, the “most reprehensible” of all Nixon’s acts. We read, too, that an option existed the following year, Nixon’s first as president, for “an immediate withdrawal of US forces under terms that would lead to the unification of Vietnam under a communist government”. Instead, Farrell writes: “More than 20,000 US soldiers…died on Nixon’s watch.”
Never mind that these counterfactuals can easily be shown to be unrealistic and the statistic misleading. The conspiracy theory that Nixon scuttled a chance for peace in 1968 has two logical defects. First, the South Vietnamese knew very well, without any help from Nixon, that President Lyndon B Johnson was cynically timing a Vietnam “October surprise” to help Hubert Humphrey defeat Nixon. They had every incentive to drag their feet and hope for a Republican victory. Second, the North Vietnamese had no serious intention of making peace in 1968 or 1969. Despite the failure of their Tet Offensive, they had not given up on achieving outright military victory even as they went to Paris to negotiate in bad faith.
As for the death toll, the reality is that nearly two-thirds of all US fatalities in Vietnam happened under Democratic administrations. And of the 21,000 who died between 1969 and 1974, more than half lost their lives in 1969. By 1974, the toll was down to one. The Nixon administration ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. It was not Nixon, but the Democrat-dominated Congress that doomed South Vietnam by cutting off the aid on which its defence depended.
Farrell’s misrepresentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy is unfortunate, as it detracts from his readable if superficial book’s recognition that, on a host of issues, Nixon was in truth the most liberal Republican president of the modern era. Admittedly, this was partly a matter of congressional arithmetic. As Farrell notes, Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 to take office with both houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition party. Yet Nixon was drawn to the kind of big government solutions to social problems that the Democrats had favoured since Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. “The problem with the right-wingers,” he told HR Haldeman, his chief of staff, was that “they have a totally hard-hearted attitude where human problems and any compassion is concerned.” As Alan Greenspan, the future Federal Reserve chairman, rightly noted: “The size of government under Nixon grew immensely. His reasoning was always, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, they [the Democrats] will do more.’”
As assistant to the president for domestic policy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the Family Assistance Plan, a welfare reform that guaranteed a basic annual income, day care, and training for the jobless. This was just one of many Nixon-era initiatives that modern-day conservatives blame for the subsequent hypertrophic growth of the “administrative state”.
Farrell dwells on Nixon’s “Southern strategy”, which was designed to woo disgruntled white voters away from the Democrats by implicitly criticising the previous administration’s civil-rights legislation. Race was without question the decisive factor in the 1968 election, but more because so many erstwhile Democrats defected to the segregationist George Wallace. Once in office, Nixon pushed harder than his predecessor for the desegregation of Southern schools. He increased by a factor of 35 the funds available for enforcing civil rights.
Abroad, too, Nixon confounded efforts to typecast him. Not only was he intent on ending the Vietnam War; it was Nixon who went to China and met Mao Tse-tung, Nixon who signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the interim Strategic Arms Limitation agreement with the Soviets in May 1972.
Many commentators today draw casual parallels between Donald Trump and Nixon. The only things the two men really have in common, thus far, is their irresistible impulse to wage war on the media and the media’s insatiable desire to do them in. Contrary to liberal folk memory, Nixon was a centrist who secured a second term by a landslide not through skulduggery but because his foreign and domestic policies were hugely popular. That he was a square was a large part of his appeal at a time of national and international upheaval. That he was a crooked square should not distract us, as it has distracted Farrell, from the undoubted achievements of his presidency.
Doubleday £30 pp737
Niall Ferguson is the author of Kissinger: 1923-68: The Idealist