Bolshevism Viewed As a New Religion
The Fanatical Sectarianism and Apocalyptic Tendency of the Russian Revolutionaries Have Suggested a Comparison with Early Christianity
[Current Opinion, March 1918]
Much that has, puzzled and bewildered Americans in connection with the upheaval of the Bolsheviki in Petrograd is attributed by a Russian commentator (quoted in the New York Times) to a certain religious quality in the movement. The association, of the idea of religion with Bolshevism may seem incongruous in view of the pronounced secularism of Lenin, Trotzky and their followers, and in view of the economic nature of their demands. Yet the theory finds support in the correspondence of Harold Williams in the Times and in an article that Charles Edward Russell, member of the American Commission to Russia, has written for Hearst's. There are signs of millennial hope and of intense social idealism in some of the Bolshevik manifestoes. The same spirit finds expression in Trotzky's book, "The Bolsheviki and World Peace" (Boni and Liveright), now published in English for the first time. "Wild, impossible, anti-social as Bolshevism is," comments Frederic Harrison in the Fortnightly Review, "remember that it is the delirious orgy of a passion which is very real, very wide, very deep—which has many forms, and in some form has an inevitable future." The same writer continues:
"The Revolution of 1789 broke out into the Terror, sans-culottic saturnalia; it was but the bloody froth on the wave of a revolution which swept round the world and made a new heaven and a new earth. So underneath Bolshevism there lies a vast social evolution. Italy, France, Portugal, Ireland, Britain throb with vague spasms of revolutionary change. It has brought disaster in Lombardy and Venice; France, too, passes from one crisis to another; Sinn Fein spouts rank treason; even British Socialists still hold out hands to their Scandinavian, German, Russian brothers!
"When 150 millions of men have flung off a mighty autocracy, have sunk into a new social, industrial, moral chaos, have put in motion a civic earthquake on a scale such as never before was seen amongst men, this sends a thrill through the masses which the world has never yet known."
Fanatical sectarianism and marked apocalyptic tendency are two points of resemblance noted by Mr. William's in a comparison of Bolshevism, as a mass movement, with early Christianity. He says:
"It is certainly true that Bolshevism as a mass movement has an almost religious quality. I remembered a little railway man who assured me in almost Biblical phrase that Bolshevism made glad the soul, tho he was doubtful of the ultimate results, and none who knows the history of Russian dissent can have failed to notice that many of the emotional tendencies of the extreme sects seem to have combined with great force in this new movement.
"Given the idea of Bolshevism, as good tidings to the poor, as a short cut to an earthly paradise, its infectious character and the power that lies in its childish irrationalism become intelligible. Even that extraordinary jargon with which the Bolshevist writers and speakers disfigure the Russian language, seems to have on the masses the effect of a strange ritual language in the church service."
The Bolshevik, as Charles Edward Russell sees him is first and foremost a dreamer. He thinks that the whole world is wrong but can easily be made right. All it needs is a little application of the Grand Rejuvenating Elixir, and he knows the formula for the mixture and is ready to apply it."
The most peculiar thing about the Bolshevik, Mr. Russell continues, is that he believes the world, or the greater part of it, already converted to his dreams and needing only a signal to arise and make them a reality for all mankind. The argument proceeds:
"You might imagine from this the Bolshevik to be an ignorant man. That would be a grievous error. He is often amazingly well-informed—about everything except the world's attitude toward the hobby-horse that so gallantly and persistently he rides. I have passed many pleasant hours with typical Bolsheviks. Invariably I have found them abounding in courtesy and well equipped with culture and information, but once mounted upon the facile hobby-horse, flashing far away like the elfin rider that to tell the truth they considerably resembled.
"For what is the new structure of society that at one o'clock the enlightened proletariat is to erect upon the ruins of the old, fallen to pieces at noon? Why, so nearly as I could gather, a temple of universal joy built upon these foundations:
"1. All men and women should work.
"2. All men and women that work should be organized into unions
"3. Each union should have its central governing council.
"4 These central councils should constitute all the government there is in this world. No congresses, 110 presidents, no parliaments, no prime ministers, no cabinets, no legislatures, no governors, nothing but the councils of the trade-unions, and they to settle everything.
"5. All businesses to be owned by the men and women that work in them and no other ownership allowed.
"A simple little thing like that to be slipped over in an hour or so and then, see happiness descend upon the earth."
The Bolshevik dream, as Mr. Russell interprets it, is typically Russian, and it has a kind of altruistic basis that is not half so amusing as it is fine and high. The Bolshevik does not want things for himself so much as for others. He is fired with a grand, dreamy, golden, hazy conception of the workers of all the world about to sweep into power and plenty, peace and joy, and he would be perfectly willing to die any minute to help along that transformation." Mr. Russell concludes:
"It is plain as day that you could never have this peculiar flowering if you did not have exactly the right soil for it; you could never have Bolsheviks as a great power in Russia if the Russian nature wasn't especially adapted for this manifestation. This is a world full of contradictions and anomalies, but the philosopher will not find any of them better food for meditation than the fact that the nation that has produced the most appalling cruelties has also produced men of the most extraordinary kindness, unselfishness, and broad, altruistic inspiration."
The impression that Trotzky's book, "The Bolsheviki and World Peace," leaves on the reader is one of impassioned earnestness and intensity. It is keyed to the motive of Revolution, international and world-wide. Economic activities, in Trotzky's view, have outgrown national boundaries. "The real objective significance of the war is the breakdown of the present national economic centers and the substitution of a world economy in its stead.
But the way the governments propose to solve this problem of imperialism, is not through the intelligent, organized cooperation of all of humanity's producers, but through the exploitation of the world's economic system by the capitalist class of the victorious country; which country is by this war to be transformed from a great power into the world power."
To Trotzky the Russian Revolution is but one of many revolutions which together will produce what he yearns for and prophesies. The World Revolution is what has his undivided allegiance. If he attacks the German Socialists, it is because they have betrayed the Revolution. If he turns his gaze to the Balkans, to Austria-Hungary, it is that he may see the evidences of an uprising of the people. The constructive aim of the working class is thus defined by Trotzky: "The proletariat can have no interest in defending the outlived and antiquated national 'fatherland' which has become the main obstacle to economic development. The task of the proletariat is to create a far more powerful fatherland, with far greater power of resistance—the republican United States of Europe, as the foundation of the United States of the world."
Trotzky tells us that his entire book, from the first to the last page, was written "with the idea of the New International constantly in mind, the New International which must rise up out of the present world cataclysm, the International of the last conflict and final victory." He continues:
"We revolutionary Socialists did not want the War. But we do not fear it. We do not give up in despair over the fact that the War broke up the International. History had already disposed of the International.
"The revolutionary epoch will create new forms of organization out of the inexhaustible resources of proletarian Socialism, new forms that will be equal to the greatness of the new tasks. To this work we will apply ourselves at once, amid the mad roaring of the machine-guns, the crashing of cathedrals, and the patriotic howling of the capitalist jackals. We will keep our clear minds amid this hellish death music, our undimmed vision. We feel ourselves to be the only creative force of the future. Already there are many of us, more than it may seem. To-morrow there will be more of us than to-day. And the day after to-morrow, millions will rise up under our banner, millions who even now, sixty-seven years after the Communist Manifesto, have nothing to lose but their chains."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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By J. Fred MacDonald