Mitchell Cohen in Dissent:
This year is the centenary of Russia’s revolutions, the one that overthrew Tsarism and the one that put the Bolsheviks in power. Next year will be the bicentenary of Marx’s birth. It’s a time when not thinking about the left’s history is impossible. These anniversaries arrive when there are positive rumblings on the left and very dangerous dins on the right. That makes it urgent that those who call ourselves “left”—an expansive term that, for me, signifies an amalgam of democratic, liberal, and egalitarian values—recollect that people who deployed language we still use have, at too many times, caused unmitigated disaster.
The Bolshevik takeover in Russia is a prime example. A number of myths derived from Bolshevism still lurk within parts of the left: “there really was no alternative to Leninism”; “if only Lenin had lived longer”; “if only Trotsky had won out”; “if only Bukharin . . . ” And, most important: “it is acceptable to suffocate democracy for the sake of socioeconomic equality.” I want to generate a little discomfort on the left but also some on the right by retrieving an airbrushed left. Airbrushing is usually associated with Stalinism and its attempts to eliminate its foes, both physically and from photos. My concern will be critics of Leninism together with Bolshevism’s mindset and its consequences for the left. One historian, Orlando Figes, notes that “tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and at least an equal number by the repressions of the tsarist regime, before 1917 . . . ” Hundreds of thousands died in the “Red Terror,” he continues, with similar numbers perishing in the “White Terror” (factoring in anti-Jewish pogroms). In fact, the Bolshevik record between October 1917 and Lenin’s death in early 1924 would have satisfied any right-wing regime: virtually all left-wing parties and movements were crushed. That was before Stalin. Though later in the century, there were calls for “no enemies to the left,” Bolsheviks had not always seen things that way. Real alliances were a problem for them since alliances entail compromises.
No regime identifying with Bolshevism has led, at any time or place, to anything that can be called “liberation.”