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)
Wildfires ravage the vineyards. A hurricane lays waste to an island colony. A great port is submerged by flood water. Meanwhile, in the capital the most powerful citizen of the republic behaves ever more erratically. He picks quarrels with athletes. He threatens to tear up treaties. He relies excessively on family members. He throws tantrums at his staff.
In the Senate and the courts, the old constitutional forms continue to be observed, to be sure. But the plebeians sense that the elites are losing their grip. How could it be otherwise? Every week brings a new revelation about the hypocrisy of those elites. They preach civic virtue; they stand accused of sexual depravity.
And, even as the actresses belatedly bring their charges against the debauched impresario, hard-bitten legions continue their wars in distant deserts and mountain ranges. Increasingly, the soldiers wonder what they are seeking to achieve in these far-flung places. They hear with disgust of the shabby treatment meted out to returning veterans back home. But they console themselves that at least there are generals — men like them, seasoned by battle — in the corridors of power.
Five days a week, on average, I reassure myself that everything that has happened in the United States in the past 10 years is well within the range of normal American history. Two days a week, however, I fear I am living through the republic’s final years.
The cast of characters was especially Roman last week. Think of Harvey Weinstein, the predator whose behaviour was for years an “open secret” among precisely the Hollywood types who were so shrill last year in their condemnation of Donald Trump for his boasts about “grabbing” women by the genitals.
“Women should never be talked about in that way,” declared the actor Ben Affleck a year ago, after the release of Trump’s “locker room” exchange with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005. However, Affleck became “angry and saddened” about his mentor Weinstein’s record of assaulting and harassing women only after it was splashed all over The New Yorker. This was too much for Rose McGowan, apparently one of Weinstein’s many victims, who told Affleck to “f*** off” — whereupon other actresses claimed Affleck himself had groped them.
In my experience few things enrage ordinary Americans more than the hypocrisy of the liberal elites. No doubt Trump too could attribute his sexism to the fact that, in Weinstein’s words, “he came of age in the 1960s and 1970s when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different”. But at least Trump does not pretend to be a feminist. Weinstein raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In January he joined the anti-Trump Women’s March in Park City, Utah. In May he sat next to Clinton at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, America’s biggest provider of birth control products and procedures, including abortion.
“In Rome,” writes the brilliant Tom Holland in his book Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, “censoriousness was the mirror image of a drooling appetite for lurid fantasy.” Yes, that does sound familiar.
No historian of my generation has done more to rekindle interest in ancient Rome than Holland, whose books have given me more pleasure than anything else I have read this year. In his telling, the republic dies too imperceptibly to be mourned. Superficially its decline was the result of recurrent civil war. But the underlying causes were the self-indulgence and social isolation of the Roman elite, the alienation of the plebeian masses, the political ascendancy of the generals and the opportunities all these trends created for demagogues. Reading Holland’s description of the libidinous orgies and extravagant cuisine of Baiae, the fabled Roman resort on the Gulf of Naples, it is impossible not to be reminded of present-day La La Land.
The founding fathers knew very well that the independent nation they proclaimed in 1776 might ultimately find itself in the Roman predicament. In particular, they feared the advent of a populist demagogue. As Alexander Hamilton warned in the first of The Federalist Papers, a “dangerous ambition . . . often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people . . . Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”
It was a theme Hamilton returned to in 1795. “It is only to consult the history of nations,” he wrote, “to perceive that every country, at all times, is cursed by the existence of men who, actuated by an irregular ambition, scruple nothing which they imagine will contribute to their own advancement and importance . . . in republics, fawning or turbulent demagogues, worshipping still the idol — power wherever placed . . . and trafficking in the weaknesses, vices, frailties or prejudices” of the people.
And Hamilton was, of all the founders, the one willing to give the office of the president the most power.
Last month, at a conference organised by the former secretary of state George Shultz, the historian David Kennedy presented a magisterial paper on the history of the presidency that left me more pessimistic than I have felt in a long time. As Kennedy pointed out, the presidency has over time become a lot more powerful and “plebiscitary” than was intended by the framers of the 1787 constitution, with its ingenious system of checks and balances.
Congress was meant to be the dominant branch of government. But from 1832 candidates were chosen by the nominating conventions of parties. From the 1880s progressives pressed for reform of what Woodrow Wilson disparagingly called “congressional government”. The 1900s saw the first presidential programmes — the Square Deal, the New Deal, the Fair Deal — sold to the public through newspapers and later radio and television. The 1960s brought presidential primaries and caucuses. With the advent of the internet the system took a further step down the road to direct plebiscitary presidential rule. The result was President Trump, king of the Twitter trolls.
Imperceptibly, the foundations of the republic have corroded. In Rome no one quite noticed that Octavian — or Augustus as he was renamed in 27BC — was becoming an emperor, for the outward forms of republican governance endured. Yet the symptoms of corrosion were all around, not least in the decadence of the Roman elite.
I have never been persuaded by those who fear an American fascism in the style of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. None of the protagonists in today’s American drama would look well in a brown shirt, jackboots and tight breeches. But togas? I can’t imagine a garment better suited to Weinstein and the president-emperor he both reviles and resembles.
Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power is published by Allen Lane
I adore London’s West End. Whenever I am there, I do all the things I cannot do in California. I go to my favourite club and read newspapers made out of real paper. I guzzle grouse and Welsh rarebit for lunch, washing it all down with ancient, brown-coloured claret. And I go to see plays about royalty. The last time it was Mike Bartlett’s Shakespeare pastiche Charles III. This time I opted for Helen Edmundson’s play about the last Stuart monarch.
Nothing can rival the insights you get from really good theatre. Having seen Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Monday, followed by the political theatre of prime minister’s questions two days later, I now understand everything.
Brexit is just the latest iteration of our ancient love-hate relationship with the European continent. That relationship is, as usual, being made more complicated by the ancient love-hate relationship between England and Scotland. Theresa May is just the latest female ruler to be made miserable by it all. And Westminster politics is nearly all a matter of succession planning.
The reign of Queen Anne may be terra incognita for most Britons today. Indeed, if there is a school in the country that teaches it, I would be amazed. Yet the period (1702-14) sheds a surprising amount of light on our own time.
And what an era it was! The age of Defoe, Pope and Swift, to say nothing of Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard — arguably the most magnificent of all England’s aristocratic residences. It seems wrong that Queen Anne should be best remembered for mere furniture.
Despite her royal birth, Anne’s was a hard life. Born in 1665, she was plagued by ill health throughout her 49 years. She endured 17 pregnancies, which nearly all ended in either miscarriage or stillbirth. Of her five live-born children, four died before the age of two. Her only son to survive infancy, Prince William, died at the age of 11.
In addition to whatever ailments made her pregnancies so problematic, Anne suffered from gout and obesity. She can scarcely be blamed for seeking solace in intense friendships, of which the most famous were with Sarah Churchill, later the Duchess of Marlborough, wife of the greatest general of the age, and Abigail Hill, a woman of the bedchamber with whom the Queen was accused (almost certainly falsely) of having a lesbian affair.
Anne acceded to the throne only because her sister, Mary, failed to produce an heir. As the only children of James II and his first wife to make it to adulthood, the two girls might have come unstuck when their father went over to Roman Catholicism and, as a consequence, lost his crown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. However, Mary and Anne had been raised as Anglicans and were married to reliable Protestants: William of Orange, who ruled jointly with Mary after James’s fall, and the self-effacing Prince George of Denmark. When her father was toppled, Anne unhesitatingly backed the Protestant invader.
Anne’s reign was dominated by a war with the French, just as what remains of Mrs May’s reign in Downing Street will be. If you do not yet realise that Brexit is a war with the French, you clearly have not met either the French president, Emmanuel Macron, or the divorce lawyer for the EU, Michel Barnier, who between them have as much Gallic hauteur as Louis XIV at his zenith.
Like the causes of the War of Spanish Succession, the causes of our own War of English Secession will be difficult for future historians to explain. In both cases many contemporaries were also unsure what it was all for. “None of [my sons] had known what they were fighting for — not properly,” says a grieving mother in the play. “Except to beat the French, of course.” As Brexit becomes ever more complicated, I suspect many people will start to feel equally bewildered. Even today, how many people can accurately explain the difference between “hard” and “soft” Brexit?
My prediction is that when the government finally reaches an agreement on Brexit, its terms will be as baffling to the man in the street as the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht were in 1713.
It was in Queen Anne’s reign that the Scottish question was supposedly settled with the 1707 Act of Union, which united the two nations’ parliaments and created the hugely successful joint venture called “Great Britain”. Yet the question was only half settled. In 1708, in 1715 and again in 1745, Anne’s Catholic relatives would seek to take back the throne with the help of the Scottish Highlanders. In our own time, the Act of Union has been overturned (with the re-establishment of a Scottish parliament in 1999) and, although the threat of full independence has receded since the 2014 referendum, the Scottish Nationalists remain as painful a thistle in Mrs May’s side as the Jacobites were in Anne’s.
Modern party politics was also born in Queen Anne’s time, with the bitter battles between Tories and Whigs. In the play, I especially admired James Garnon’s performance as the Speaker of the Commons, Robert Harley, who successfully insinuated himself into the Queen’s good graces. I loved his catchphrase: “Yes. No. Perhaps.”
Then, as now, satirists made cruel fun of the nation’s leaders, regardless of their sex. Theresa May’s transformation into the “Maybot” is bad, but the treatment of Queen Anne by Whig hacks such as Arthur Maynwaring was worse.
Finally, the vexed question of the succession never ceased to loom over Queen Anne’s reign. And just the same is true of Mrs May’s reign today. The Act of Settlement at least made it clear that, if both Mary and Anne died without issue, the crown of England and Ireland (but not Scotland) would go to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her Protestant descendants. That was why Anne was succeeded by Sophia’s son, George I of Hanover. Yet plots to restore the Stuarts persisted for more than 30 years.
The succession question today is murkier still. Mrs May seemed broken by her election humiliation in June. Yet no obvious heir is apparent. Once too often, Tory MPs have heard Boris Johnson utter the words: “Yes. No. Perhaps.” The party faithful want a reshuffle so that younger talent can audition for the part of premier.
In her bitter memoir, the Duchess of Marlborough savaged Queen Anne: “She certainly . . . meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation . . . [She was] ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child . . . Being very ignorant, very fearful, with very little judgment, it is easy to be seen she might mean well, being surrounded with so many artful people, who at last compassed their designs to her dishonour.”
Mark Twain gets the credit for saying that history does not repeat itself, though it sometimes rhymes. (Actually, what he wrote was that “the kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends”.) But sometimes it does repeat itself — and with exquisite precision.