Thursday, November 9, 2017
In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum tells the simultaneously captivating and tragic story of the degradation of Eastern Europe as it was absorbed into the Soviet empire after World War II. In little more than a decade, the vibrant and rich cultures of many Eastern European nations were stripped to the bone so that they could be reincarnated as totalitarian systems beholden to a communist ideology.
In a 2014 post here at Mirror of Justice about Applebaum’s award-winning book, I highlighted the antipathy of Soviet
occupiers to the Catholic Church in Poland and Hungary, precisely because “[r]eligious leaders were a source of alternative moral and spiritual authority.” Following the Leninist path taken earlier by the 1917 Bolsheviks, the Soviet occupiers of Eastern Europe were bent on “crushing” civil society, banishing tradition, suppressing diversity of thought, and burning down all institutions. Only then could they sow the new communist seed into the freshly scorched earth.
Earlier this week in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum drew upon her considerable historical wisdom to warn us about the resurgence of Bolshevism with its nihilistic attitude of destruction in today’s western society and in the United States. In a column titled 100 Years Later, Bolshevism is Back. And We Should Be Worried, Applebaum reminds us that the ascendance of Bolshevism in Russia in 1917 came suddenly and with little warning. The economic and cultural devastation that Lenin and the Bolsheviks brought to Russia came not through a popular movement but rather by the calculated extremism of a chaos-worshipping minority. The popular and moderate regime that initially succeeded the Czar was suddenly swept away by the intransigent Bolshevik leaders, who brooked no compromise, reveled in smashing everything before them, and boldly seized power for a fanatical minority.
The signature characteristic of Bolshevism was then (and remains today) not its socialist ideology as much as its uncompromising hatred of anything and everything that stands in the way of absolute power. The Bolshevik game-plan is a cynical play for power by fomenting chaos and disrupting civil society. Thus, as Applebaum explains, the neo-Bolsheviks of today can be identified not so much by liberal/left or conservative/right ideology but by their origins on “the extremist fringes of political life” and their desire “to overthrow existing institutions.”
To be sure, heirs to Bolshevism can be found on the far left of American political life, especially on campuses where the Marxist fringe, as described by Applebaum, “policies the speech of its members, fights to prevent students from hearing opposing viewpoints, and teaches a dark, negative version of American history, one calculated to create doubts about democracy and to cast shadows on all political debate.” But while we should be troubled by this development and worry about its foothold on the edges of the Democratic Party, it has not yet tasted power.
By contrast, the Bolshevism of the American right has grasped political power. The key strategy of these modern Bolsheviks of the right is what Applebaum calls their adoption of “Lenin’s refusal to compromise, his anti-democratic elevation of some social groups over others and his hateful attacks on his ‘illegitimate’ opponents.” As Applebaum notes, Stephen Bannon has
been rather candid by expressly comparing himself to Lenin, saying he has the same goal of “bring[ing] everything crashing down.” Consider the deliberate chaos promoted by the Trump White House team, the pattern of falsehoods in perpetuating political myths, and the constant attempts to delegitimize political opponents while provoking outrage by a small base of true believers. As a particular worry to people of faith and conscience, these neo-Bolsheviks are “often not real Christians, but rather cynics who use ‘Christianity’ as a tribal identifies, a way of distinguishing themselves from their enemies.”
The Russian Bolshevik revolution in 1917 shocked all observers with its sudden fury and unexpected success, while lacking anything approaching majority support in Russia. If we are not careful, so too the Trump insurgency might still succeed in its authoritarian agenda despite waning support from a tiny minority of the population. As Applebaum warns, we must not be complacent:
At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society. By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out.