As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it is fitting to ask whether we have learned what it tells us about its ideological root. Do we now appreciate that the Marxist ideology destroys legal order, political opposition and human rights? Do we have some idea of the death toll that has in every case followed the triumph of the ‘vanguard party’? Do we have an inkling of the human cost of collectivisation, or of what the gulag meant in terms of the humiliation and destruction of its victims?
Of course the answer in each case is no. Our school curriculum dwells incessantly on the Holocaust. Several states have made denial of it into a crime, and museums and monuments to the victims of Nazism and fascism exist all across the continent. But communism’s millions of victims are remembered hardly at all. One standard history of modern times, widely used in our schools, praises the Russian Revolution as aiming at ‘the complete destruction of the Russian and European bourgeoisie’, necessary for ‘the victory of socialism’. This history (Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes) does not mention the abolition of the law courts, or the establishment of the Cheka (the secret police), or the vicious expropriations that destroyed the Russian economy, or the mass starvation inflicted on the Ukrainian peasants. It is inadmissible for a historian to write in any but disgusted terms of the Nazi destruction of the Jews; but the equally cruel ‘destruction of the bourgeoisie’ can be described in terms of unqualified approval.
The term ‘bourgeoisie’ is a technicality of the Marxist theory. But it has a real human reference, and that reference is you and me. We who own property, deal in markets, collect salaries, have spouses and children, and live by the ordinary day-to-day morality of neighbourliness, are the people whom Lenin set out to destroy. We are the targets of resentment, and Marxism is the theory of that resentment.
One thing we should surely learn from the Russian revolution is that resentment is always on the lookout for the theories that will justify it. And the lesson that bore in on me in vivid and unforgettable ways during my own journeys behind the Iron Curtain, is that resentment, when it finally takes power, spells the death of politics. The real purpose of politics is not to express resentment but to contain and conciliate it. When, in the wake of the Grenfell fire, leading political figures began calling for a ‘day of rage’, and for the requisitioning of bourgeois property, I heard again the voice of that old resentment. And I asked myself how could it be that the lesson has not been learned?
The problem is not a lack of literature. Invocations of communist terror abound, and include masterpieces that all educated people should know, such as Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. However, resentment easily overrides the evidence. Just as anti-Semitism has survived constant reminders of the Holocaust, so does the Marxist vision survive the accumulated testimony to its murderous legacy. Resentful people cherish their hatred more than they respect the rights of those who arouse it.
For this reason it is surely time to establish museums devoted to the Marxist legacy. We have a model, indeed, in the House of Terror, established in Budapest in 2002 under the directorship of Maria Schmidt. This commemorates the victims of both fascism and communism, and has been controversial for that very reason. Even in Hungary, leftist intellectuals tell us that the two evils cannot be compared, and that to commemorate their victims in a single museum is to deny their most important difference: that the aims of communism were good, those of fascism bad. It is precisely in order to counter that kind of apology that Maria Schmidt has turned the same light on both ideologies. The aim of both, she insists, was the same. What difference does it make that one focused its resentment on the Jews, the other on the bourgeoisie, when the primary aim was in both cases the mass murder of their victims? Or do we say, with Eric Hobsbawm, that in the one case, but not in the other, the end justified the means?
As the Momentum movement seduces more and more people towards historical oblivion and utopian exultancy, the need for a programme of public education about these matters is ever more urgent. But I fear that it may be too late.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.