We let Lenin rise, millions died. Now it’s Islamism

 The West failed to stop communism and is repeating the awful blunder

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)

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