By: Caroline Sha
It was March 15, 1917 in Pskov when Tsar Nicholas II wrote down his final words as ruler of Russia: “[I] think it best to abdicate the throne of the Russian State and to lay down the Supreme Power”. This decisive sentence would seal the fate of the Romanov imperial dynasty and open up the floodgates for the Bolshevik Revolution, altering the course of history for all eternity.
The Bolsheviks were a Russian party that embraced the political-economic theory of communism created by Karl Marx, a German philosopher. Marx’s basic ideas were that the working class, known as the proletariat, were trampled by the upper class, the bourgeoisie, and that the commoners should rise up and overthrow their exploiters, creating a classless society in the process. Headed by the radical Vladimir Lenin, a lawyer who was radicalized after his brother Alexander was executed, the Bolsheviks attracted the growing amount of starved and angry commoners who were furious about the incompetence of the royal family. Even though their country was suffering, the Romanovs did nothing about the mass food shortages that swept the country and repeatedly dissolved the Duma, the legislative body created after a revolution in 1905. Moreover, they insisted on staying in the draining world war, weakening the country even furthur. These factors inevitably led to an explosion of anger and quickly led to the downfall of the last Russian dynasty.
After the abdication of Nicholas II, a series of violent protests and a centralization of power within the government allowed Lenin and his associates to take control of the country away from the more moderate Mensheviks and a new Russia emerged from the flames of the old monarchy. Known as the Soviet Union, this superpower would continue to violently disrupt global power dynamics under the leadership of Joseph Stalin and others, warping the trajectory of power in the 20th century.
But does the legacy of Lenin and his Bolsheviks remain today? In Russia, the spark of the radical Red Revolution barely remains. Despite Putin doing all he can to convince Russians that he wants to restore the Motherland to its former USSR glory, the last thing he actually needs is a return to the days where the people overthrew tyrants. As Putin gains more and more power, he becomes more and more like the old imperial family. With estimated net worths as high as $200 billion and accusations of patronage and political repression common-place, there is almost nothing differentiating Putin from Nicholas II. This last tsar, as the Guardian calls him, is not Russia’s next Lenin, but a new type of autocrat who must balance the task of stopping rebellion while keeping the support of the Russian population.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then, that the celebration of the centennial of the Russian Revolution passed without much comment in the country where it had the most impact. There were a few speeches and some exhibitions in museums, but it was nothing like the mass celebrations that took place fifty years ago. The best example of this indifference can be found in a speech Putin gave a month before the anniversary, where he stated that “When we look at the lessons from a century ago, we see how ambiguous the results were, and how there were both negative and positive consequences of those events”. This lukewarm statement summarizes how most of the country feels about their Soviet past. Except for a few remaining communists, no one seems particularly eager to celebrate an era where famine and executions ran rampant. After all, communism in Russia is dead, and its politics have been thrown. There is simply no reason for most Russians, who have never experienced the full effects of communism, to want to return back to the age of nukes and constant threats of war.
In addition, Lenin’s dream of spreading his extreme leftist ideas to other countries are quickly fading. China, the biggest alleged communist power today, has in truth a free-market economy. There is barely any Bolshevik-style control of industry, which is instead driven by competition, the peg of Adam Smith capitalism theory. Huge corporations like Apple have taken root in China and exploited her large population, making mass profits over the dead bodies of its workers, while Chinese companies fight with each other to become the next big thing.
The same is true with North Vietnam. After splitting with the South, the North welcomed a thoroughly communist regime. However, as time went on, the red country soon realized that in order to survive, it had to adopt a capitalist economy. State corporations became private, and the government became subject to the wants of foreign investors. Moreover, the very corruption in the bourgeoisie that the Bolsheviks hated pervades Vietnamese society. Officials place themselves in the head of companies, giving them the very economic control Lenin and his comrades despised.
Even the arguably most communist country, North Korea, is seeking to distance itself from Lenin’s ideals. Over the decades, North Korea has demoted itself from communist to socialist and now prefers to identify itself as juche, or independent. Contrary to Bolshevik beliefs, juche calls for a unification of one pure race, the Korean Race, and emphasizes military prowess rather than the equality among its people. Even the Kim family itself has given up any pretensions of trying to help the lower classes. They portray themselves as god-like monarchs who are capable of accomplishing, and have done, the fantastic and imply that they are divinely ordained for their role, essentially calling themselves kings. In addition, Kim Jong Un, the newest heir of the Kim dynasty, is the one directing most of the government’s money towards nuclear weapons, casually dismissing the fact that what his largely-starving country needs is food, not weapons of mass destruction. North Korea policies revolve around the whims of one man and not the needs of the people, which is the opposite of what Lenin wanted.
But despite the cooling of communist temperaments in these last years, Marx and Lenin should not be pushed to the dustbin in which all failed political leaders go. Their influence, though indirectly, continues to have a subtle effect on politics today. Citizens all around the world have shown that they have become less tolerant of the inequality they face. Liberal politicians have done relatively well in elections across Europe and in the United States, where Bernie Sanders, the far-left 2016 Democratic presidential candidate garnered an large amount of support from young people for his criticism of the top 1%, a sentiment that is all but reminiscent of Marx’s attacks on the bourgeoisie.
Furthermore, countries such the Netherlands embrace a welfare state in which public spending is high and the government takes care of many aspects of life. A basic health care program exists for all their citizens and guarantees them quality medical access. Finland, along with this, has gone even further and is currently testing out a universal basic income program that gives people $660 every month to do as they please. That idea of state-sponsored support is not unsimilar to what Marx proposed in that he wanted the government to watch over all aspects of life and provide everyone a basic quality of living. Though what these European countries have is much more mild socialism than communism, according to Lenin himself, “the goal of socialism is communism”. And who knows? It is conceivable that if Finland’s basic income program proves to be a success, more leftist programs in other places could take off, causing other countries to assume socialist policies. Many think that this state between capitalism and communism is ideal as it combines the altruism of Marx’s philosophy with the freedom of democracy.
So maybe Lenin’s legacy is not dying and there is a chance that the world will become the utopia that Karl Marx envisioned in the nineteenth century. But just like the sea, the politics of man is unpredictable and only time shall tell how the world looks in the next century and the one after that and the next...and the next...