This article is part of a series documenting travels around the world. Read the previous entry here.
This year, this month actually, is the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The Russian government is trying to capitalize on the fact by marketing tours of the country to the old communist guard who still revere the likes of Lenin and Stalin. Zachary and I had included Russia on our Around the World in 80 Days itinerary for an altogether different reason: As the mother of all socialist states, Russia was an essential stop. Of course, advocates of socialism always want to point to Scandinavia and dismiss Russia and China and Cuba and a dozen other socialist states as countries that imperfectly applied a perfect system. But such logic won’t do.
Russian socialists did more than imagine the godless world John Lennon sang about—they built it. For more than seventy-five years, the world’s atheistic elites had their way with foreign and domestic policy, the military and secret police, the economy, and the lives of millions of people. The result? Seven decades of unremitting turmoil, bloodshed, famine, theft, backwardness, incompetence, and promises of a coming utopia.
A socialist state is no utopia. Strictly speaking, socialism is a phase on the way to a utopia called communism, and that, as every sensible person knows, is about as utopian as, well, a day in any communist country you care to name.
“Communists,” John F. Kennedy observed, “have never come to power in any country that was not disrupted by war, internal repression, or both.”
More than that, war and internal represion are the chief means of maintaining power. Well, that and a Kalashnikov aimed squarely at the unfortunate citizens of the country in question. Vladimir Lenin, a godless maniac, said, “Under socialism, all will govern, and we will soon become accustomed to no one governing.”
All must have a much more exclusive meaning in Russian than in English because Lenin limited governance to himself. When Lenin died, Joseph Stalin, following his predecessor’s example, also limited power to himself. Khrushchev, defining all more liberally, decided to spread the joy and included a few of his drinking comrades, and so it continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lenin was, however, right about one thing—it did seem as if no one was in charge. Indeed, to observe government in a socialist country is to witness the Peter Principle at work on a national scale.
But the failure of socialism is not only a wholly unjustified confidence in human government. Socialism begins with a premise that is antithetical to Christianity: there is no God. Fyodor Dostoevsky observed this connection between atheism and socialism long ago: “Socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the Tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth, but to set up Heaven on earth.”
In other words, socialism is much more than an economic or political question. It is a spiritual question if only because it denies the very existence of the spiritual. A former socialist revolutionary, Dostoevsky knew his subject well. Upon his conversion to Christianity, he did more than renounce his atheism; he renounced socialism, because it was, in his view, atheism masquerading as political philosophy. In his great novels Demons (also known as The Possessed) and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky predicted that if Russia’s communists (think, socialists) ever gained control of the levers of power, it would lead to the expulsion of Christianity from public life, and with it, the annihilation of morality, the rise of totalitarianism, and the proliferation of state-sponsored genocide. He would prove prophetic.
I am, of course, well aware of the fact that there are many who confuse socialism with Christianity. Such people usually have only a cursory understanding of what one or the other really is. Typically, this is predicated on the erroneous notion that Christianity’s chief purpose is in meeting physical needs. This is not so. Christianity’s main object is the regeneration and development of the soul. That Christianity and socialism are often confused, however, has not escaped the attention of socialists who have frequently sought to capitalize on the misunderstanding. As for “Christian Socialism,” it is only a name. One may be a Christian or he may be a socialist; but he can no more be a Christian and a socialist than he can be both a Yankees and a Red Sox fan. At least, he cannot be simultaneously faithful to each party.
Indeed, far from being compatible with Christianity, socialist regimes have historically sought the expulsion of Christianity from public life. Christianity, by its very nature, is subversive insofar as it teaches that there is a God whose laws supersede those of man—any man. As I pointed out in my article on China, this goes far to explain the antipathy of communist and fascist regimes to Christianity. They well understand that Christians do not recognize the power of the state as absolute. Moreover, where temporal law and eternal law are in conflict, the Christian may, in good conscience, violate the former while clinging to the latter.
It is much to the better of us all that many have done so. History is full of examples of courageous Christian men and women who, at the risk of their own lives, sought the destruction of evil laws and regimes. By contrast, socialism exalts the state in the place of God. This stands in opposition to a traditional American view of government, where, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than a century ago, “as soon as a man has acquired some education and pecuniary resources . . . all that he asks of the state is not to be disturbed in his toil.” And while American government has at no time been Christian, it has historically respected the role Christianity has played in public life. Socialism, however, by making the state both the means and the end, violates the very First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It then proceeds to violate the other nine with wild abandon.
One might reasonably wonder how a country where the Orthodox Church held such a prominent position in the culture could become the bastion of all things godless. In his book A People’s Tragedy, Cambridge historian Orlando Figes makes a profound observation regarding the communist takeover in Russia. He states that the triumph of Marxism (think, socialism) in 1917 Russia can in no small measure be attributed to the fact that there were no viable competing ideologies. Marxism had, in effect, been set loose in an ideological vacuum. The cultural bloodletters of the time had successfully drained Russia of what little defensive mechanisms it had in the first place. Thus, when Bolshevism (think, socialism) was injected into the body politic, the disease spread with little resistance. This reflects poorly on the Orthodox Church at the time. Having become wedded to the autocratic czarist regime, the Church’s role was largely one of ceremony and preserving the status quo. Count Sergei Witte, once prime minister and modernizer of Russia, wrote on the eve of the Revolution:
If one takes a long-view of the future, then, in my opinion, the greatest danger facing Russia comes from the sad state of the Orthodox Church and the decline in genuine religious spirit … Without a truly living church to give [spiritual ideals] expression, religion becomes philosophy and is unable to influence life. Without religion, the masses turn into beasts, worse than four-legged beasts because humans possess intelligence. Our church has turned into a dead, bureaucratic institution, and its services are conducted not to celebrate the God in heaven, but the earthly gods. Orthodoxy has become a kind of paganism. Herein lies our greatest danger. We have gradually become less Christian.
Meanwhile, the activities of other Christian denominations were severely restricted by the state to the point that they were a cultural nonfactor, and that, as history would prove, was tragic.
If Russians thought life under the czars was tough—and it unquestionably was—the communists would introduce them to horrors so vast in scale that it beggars the imagination. Figures vary wildly, but by conservative estimates no fewer than 60 million people would lose their lives between 1917 and 1991 under Soviet (think, socialist) rule. Where did the utopian dream go wrong?
However attractive it may be to say so, it is inaccurate to suggest that all of those who worked and, in some cases, gave their lives to bring about socialist regimes in Russia and a dozen other countries were all murderous brigands. At least, most did not start that way, whatever their end. On the contrary, many sincerely believed that the system was the answer to mankind’s problems of peace, bread, and land. In her book The Russian Revolution, historian Sheila Fitzpatrick characterizes the socialist revolutionary spirit very well:
All revolutions have liberté, égalité, fraternité, and other noble slogans inscribed on their banners. All revolutionaries are enthusiasts, zealots; all are utopians, with dreams of creating a new world in which the injustice, corruption, and apathy of the old world are banished forever. They are intolerant of disagreement; incapable of compromise; mesmerized by big, distant goals; violent, suspicious, destructive…. They have the intoxicating illusion of personifying the will of the people, which means they assume the people is monolithic. They are Manicheans, dividing the world into two camps: light and darkness, the revolution and its enemies. They despise all traditions, received wisdom, icons, and superstition. They believe society can be tabula rasa on which the revolution will write. It is the nature of revolutions to end in disillusionment and disappointment…. All revolutions destroy things whose loss is soon regretted.
It is the nature of socialist revolutions to end in “disillusionment and disappointment” because, as we have already noted, they begin with the wrong premise—there is no God. Hence, socialism’s whole trajectory hits wide of the intended mark. And how could it do otherwise? In the biblical worldview, the state is a temporal institution meant to serve man, an eternal being. In the socialist model, this is reversed: man, a temporal being, serves the eternal state.
Listening to modern advocates of socialism is to venture into the idiotic. It is as if the secular atrocities of the twentieth century never happened. Indeed, it is as if the eighteenth century never happened. In his farewell address in September 1796, George Washington offered a warning to his fellow citizens:
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Washington was not simply playing to the masses by tossing them this morsel of religious rhetoric. He was, I suspect, referring to a dangerous European experiment, the French Revolution, which sought the destruction of the Church and institutionalized atheism. The experiment was a failure. What followed included regicide, civil war, and the Reign of Terror. Deciding that belief in something beyond oneself might, after all, be a good idea, those clever social engineers of the Committee of Public Safety (a misnomer if ever there was one) responded with a half measure, creating the ridiculous “Cult of the Supreme Being” in 1794. It, too, was a failure. Washington was well aware of these events and recognized the pitiless nature of a godless society.
The French Revolution was, however, only history’s first attempt at an entirely secular state. Perhaps subsequent generations would recognize the failure and move on. They did nothing of the sort. Instead, the French Revolution would become to socialists what Woodstock is to ’60s burnouts. To the rest of us, both may be described in one word:
As I noted in my first article on Russia, this country has abandoned socialism and is in the process of transitioning to a capitalist economy. But the attitudes, the mechanisms, and the historic propensity to choose totalitarianism over freedom, these things are all quite intact. Worse, Russia is trending away from freedom.
Star Rating: 2/10
Larry Alex Taunton is a cultural commentator, Fox News contributor, and the author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens and The Grace Effect. You can follow him at larryalextaunton.com or on Twitter @larrytaunton.
Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.