Americans have concluded that our prosperity, the flexibility of our political system, and the forward march of civilization ensure that a Bolshevik-style revolution could never happen here. But are we really so safe?
When the Russian Revolution toppled the czar and put the Bolsheviks into power, the civilized countries of Western Europe had good reason to tell themselves it could never happen to them. Russia was a barbaric country with a lopsided social structure, masses of peasants and no middle class to speak of. Their political system was a relic of the past, a time when street revolutions still happened. The rest of Europe was more modern, with constitutions and parliaments and labor unions. Any political conflict could work itself out through those proper channels.
Then came the German revolution of 1918-19, and civilized Europe had to recalibrate its sense of what was possible. Street unrest led to the forced abdication of the kaiser, the proclamation of a republic, a soviet government in Munich, and a near-miss of one in Berlin, only prevented by a timely blow to Rosa Luxemburg’s head. The uprising did not fulfill all its proponents’ hopes, in terms of ushering in a new socialist dawn, but it decisively refuted the idea that modern conditions had made revolution obsolete.
The Sixties left Americans feeling equally sure that a revolution could never happen here. An entire generation went into open rebellion, urban unrest exploded, tanks rolled through the streets of Los Angeles and Detroit, periodic bombings made many worry that the counterculture’s Lenin might be out there waiting for his moment—and yet we survived the nightmare unscathed. Americans concluded that our prosperity, or the flexibility of our political system, or maybe just the forward march of civilization, had transformed street rebellion from a genuine threat into a safe pastime for earnest young idealists.
But are we really so safe? In June, the great Russian literature professor Gary Saul Morson told The Wall Street Journal that America was starting to feel eerily familiar. “It’s astonishingly like late 19th-, early 20th-century Russia, when basically the entire educated class felt you simply had to be against the regime or some sort of revolutionary,” he said. Even the moderate Kadet Party could not bring itself to condemn terrorism against the czar, any more than a modern Democrat could condemn Black Lives Matter: “A famous line from one of the liberal leaders put it this way: ‘Condemn terrorism? That would be the moral death of the party.’”
Today, the Resistance is already signaling that they won’t accept a Trump victory in November any more than they accepted one in 2016. After the last election, they attempted a soft coup by means of the Russiagate scandal and impeachment. What kind of coup will come next? By looking at the Russian precedent, we can evaluate the risk that this country might enact our own distinctively American version of 1917—and how close we have come to it already.
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Tocqueville famously said that the most dangerous moment for a regime is not when conditions are worst but just when things start to get better. Actually, the most dangerous moment for a regime is when people are allowed out of their houses after long months of being confined indoors.
The weather made the Russian Revolution as much as any other factor. The winter of 1916-17 was one of the coldest on record, forcing St. Petersburg into semi-lockdown. Spring finally broke on March 7, which happened to be International Women’s Day. People swarmed the streets to enjoy temperatures near 50 degrees and, incidentally, boosted the socialist protest’s numbers. The tsar’s abdication came exactly one week later.
That was the first revolution, when the Romanov dynasty was replaced by the short-lived Provisional Government. The second revolution, which installed the Bolsheviks, was enabled by another problem familiar to modern readers: street crime.The new regime rushed to establish its progressive bona fides by passing the full wish list of liberal demands: amnesty for political prisoners, abolition of flogging, unlimited freedom of the press and assembly. They were less energetic about reestablishing basic law and order. Previously safe neighborhoods of St. Petersburg became lawless, and by July mob lynchings of petty criminals had become an almost daily occurrence. Citizens organized to protect themselves after the Provisional Government proved it wouldn’t or couldn’t. After that, the Cheka’s policy of shooting criminals on sight came almost as a relief.
An ordinary Petersburger might feel himself very far from the front lines of the war most of the time, even in 1917, but he could not feel far from its effects. Interruptions in the coal supply had caused more than 500 factories to shut down by 1917 and thrown more than 100,000 employees out of work in the capital city alone. Layoffs mounted every month as the summer and autumn wore on, leaving a lot of men on the streets with nothing to do.
These were some of the incidental factors, the kindling that captured the sparks. To launch a real revolution, however, more than kindling is needed. The fire must have fuel. In that sense, the deeper cause of the revolution was not the men with nothing to do but the men who had important things to do but failed to do them: the liberal elite.Russia could have been saved by means of reform short of revolution, but the people who should have tried to accomplish that balancing act lacked any investment in the existing order. Instead they gave their moral support to violent terrorists. It was this moral error that brought Lenin to power—and it is the error that Professor Morson finds so familiar today.
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During the Cold War, the joke used to be that the Soviet Union had just as much free speech as America, since it, too, guaranteed its citizens the right to stand in the middle of the town square and shout, “Down with Ronald Reagan!” The joke, of course, is that the real test of a regime’s level of freedom is usually whether you are allowed to criticize your country’s leader. However, in certain pathological conditions, the test becomes: can you praise him?
You could not praise the tsar in turn-of-the-century Russia, not if you were part of the literate elite. The question for them was not whether they wanted the regime to fall but what degree of extreme measures they would condone to bring that fall about. The left side of the political spectrum stretched off into infinity; the right side stopped somewhere around the center left. The robust tradition of intellectual conservatism that had existed in Russia since the time of Catherine the Great had been slowly eroded until it no longer existed.
This was much more extreme than the usual rebelliousness that characterizes an intelligentsia in any era. Under previous czars, a man of letters like Dostoevsky could still carry on a lively correspondence with a reactionary bureaucrat like Konstantin Pobedonostsev, even asking his input on The Brothers Karamazov. Writers and poets might bristle at interference from the censorship bureau, but they did not want to abolish it, much less abolish the monarchy. Had not the autocracy allowed Russia to liberate the serfs without a civil war, as in democratic America? Better to work within the system, even if your goals were progressive.
That all changed around the time of Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896. Suddenly the terrorists had the moral high ground, and it seemed as if nothing they could do would forfeit it, even cold-blooded murder of women and children. “It was common talk in the best families, in the homes of generals et al., that the Empress should be killed and gotten out of the way,” one St. Petersburg professor wrote to an American friend. Wealthy merchants and industrialists like Savva Morozov and Mikhail Gotz—men you might expect to be grateful to the existing order for making their prosperity possible—gave fringe groups like the Bolsheviks the money to publish their newspapers and support their leaders in exile. Every time Nicholas lost a minister to assassination, his security bureau would show him private letters between prominent people applauding the assassins.
Even the tsar’s own family was not immune. Russia’s brief experiment with jury trials (introduced in 1864) had revealed that Russian juries were abnormally reluctant to convict. Even a defendant who confessed to the crime could frequently get an acquittal if his lawyer gave a convincing speech about good intentions and a difficult upbringing—something about the Orthodox approach to sin and redemption, in contrast to Western legalism. But it was still a shock when Grand Duke Andrei, the tsar’s cousin, was overheard to comment at the end of Grigory Gershuni’s terrorism trial, “I realize that they are not villains and believe sincerely in their actions.” This was a cell that had assassinated the minister of the interior.
When even members of the royal family shrug off terrorism, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong. It indicates that the instincts of self-preservation that keep a regime alive are no longer operating. When members of an elite agree entirely with revolutionaries’ aims and object only to their tactics, all it takes is a crisis to show just how flimsy those procedural objections are. At that point, the only question is when the crisis will arrive.
In 1904, Kadet Party co-founder Pavel Miliukov visited 61-year-old Prince Peter Kropotkin in London. Kropotkin was the father of Russian anarchism, so Miliukov was astonished to see the old man fly into a rage when he heard of the Japanese attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. “How could the enemy of Russian politics and state-sponsored war in general be such a flag-waver?” Miliukov wondered. He was then 45. By the time he was in his 60s himself, he would be equally astonished to learn how deep the hate ran in the younger generation. The loyalty to the constitutional order that seemed so basic to him, they found contemptible. This progression, from Kropotkin to Miliukov to the Bolsheviks, shows how these changes build up generation by generation until no loyalty to the existing order remains, and the regime’s position becomes fatal.
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This summer, in the first week of June, about 6,000 law enforcement officers and National Guard troops were deployed to Washington, D.C., to keep order during protests there, and another 1,700 troops from Fort Bragg were held in waiting just outside the district. When President Trump appeared in Lafayette Park that Monday, police had to clear the square using pepper balls and smoke canisters because protesters were throwing projectiles and the president’s safety could not be assured. At several points during the week, the only thing preventing the White House from being overrun was a line of armed men from the Secret Service and the Park Police, 51 of whom were injured and 11 hospitalized by the rioters.
This would not necessarily have been reason for alarm—there are protests in Lafayette Park literally every day—except that it came the same week that former defense secretary Jim Mattis published a long interview in The Atlantic denouncing the president and saying, ominously, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.” The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff also made a statement that week condemning the president’s Lafayette Park appearance and expressing his support for the protesters’ goals.
These murmurings from prominent generals raised the question: what if the president gave an order to clear Lafayette Park and military officers didn’t follow it? What if they decided the order was, as Mattis said, a threat to the Constitution? Mayor Muriel Bowser evicted some National Guard troops from D.C. hotels on June 5 because she did not approve of their mission, and there was nothing the National Guard could do except try to find another hotel. Less than a week after the Mattis interview, The Atlantic ran a piece by Franklin Foer suggesting that the color revolution model might be a good one to follow if more American officials could be persuaded to treat President Trump the way Ukrainians treated their corrupt President Yanukovych in the days before he hopped a plane to Moscow. The house magazine of the Resistance, which had done so much to drive the Russiagate soft coup, was apparently preparing the ground for something harder.
In August, word was leaked that a group of government officials and political operatives calling itself the Transition Integrity Project had gathered a few weeks earlier to game out possible election scenarios. In one, John Podesta, playing candidate Joe Biden, refused to concede after winning the popular vote but losing narrowly in the Electoral College, citing alleged voter suppression. Congress split, blue states threatened to secede, and the hypothetical outcome was determined by the military. Evidently, serious people on the Democratic side are thinking in very broad terms about what the coming months will bring. Republicans should, too, because scenarios like the ones Podesta and Foer are imagining may be unprecedented in the United States, but they are certainly not unprecedented in modern history.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (October 2020).
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The featured image is a montage of photos made during the Russian Civil War (1917-23). It was uploaded by CapLiber and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.