Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, published in 1990, is an incredibly detailed but highly readable account of one of the most significant events in modern history.
Pipes makes it clear that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was not in any sense a revolution. The February 1917 revolution which led to the abdication of the tsar could to some limited extent be described as a revolution although it was driven almost entirely by the intelligentsia and enjoyed limited public support in the cities and even more limited support in the countryside. The Bolshevik Revolution enjoyed miniscule support in the cities and absolutely zero support in the countryside. It was a coup d’état, not a revolution.
What the Bolshevik seizure of power does demonstrate is the ability of a tiny but ruthless and well-organised clique to take advantage of circumstances to take control of a country even when that clique is generally despised and detested. What matters is that the said clique should be focused on its objective and have no moral scruples whatsoever, and that it is led by someone of unwavering determination.
Socialism of course has always been an ideology that appeals to intellectuals rather than actual workers or actual poor people. Never was this more true than in Russia. The peasants wanted land reform but other than that they took no interest in politics and were overwhelming loyal to the Tsar.
The Bolsheviks did not start out as starry-eyed idealists who later became corrupted by power. They were vicious murderous thugs right from the beginning and they never had the slightest interest in anything but power. There were starry-eyed idealists among the other leftist groups but there were none among the Bolsheviks. The events of October 1917 demonstrated that starry-eyed idealists have little chance of success when they come up against disciplined cynical manipulators who understand the mechanisms of power.
Lenin was not a mass murderer on the scale of Stalin but it was not for the want of trying. Lenin put in place the mechanisms of terror which Stalin put to very effective use. Had Lenin lived a few years longer he would certainly have been responsible for at least as many murders as Stalin.
Lenin invented totalitarianism. He was a man without any normal human emotions. He was also a committed theorist. If facts contradicted his theories he just assumed the facts were wrong. Much of the misery inflicted on the world by leftist totalitarians seems to come down to this basic weakness – an unwillingness to admit that theories which sounded attractive simply didn’t work in the real world. Lenin had zero understanding of human nature. He cared about humanity en masse in a vague sort of abstract way but he despised people as individuals, to a degree that was clearly pathological.
Perhaps the most depressing thing is that the leftist enemies of the Bolsheviks had opportunities to destroy them but failed to do so because they also were entirely divorced from reality. The Socialist-Revolutionaries actually mounted a successful revolution against the Bolsheviks but failed to take power when it was there for the taking.
Pipes’ book is heavy on detail but always remains clear and readable. A fascinating glimpse into the workings of evil. Highly recommended.