Bryan Caplan  

What If Lenin's Stroke Came Five Years Sooner?

Rogoff vs. Kling... May Day Remembrance 2010...
In November, 1917, Lenin overthrew the first democratically elected government in Russian history.  In May, 1922, Lenin suffered the first of three strokes, finally dying in January, 1924.  What would have happened if Lenin had a fatal stroke in mid-1917?

It's a pretty picture.  In 1917, even Lenin's fellow Bolsheviks weren't ready for socialist revolution.  As Richard Pipes explains in The Russian Revolution:
[B]arely four weeks after tsarism had been overthrown, Lenin was publicly sentencing its successor to death.  This proposition ran so contrary to the sentiments of the majority of his followers, it seemed so irresponsible and "adventurist," that the remainder of the night... was spent in tempestuous debate.
When Lenin defended immediate socialist revolution in writing (the "April Theses"):
Pravda's editorial board refused to print [it] on the pretext of a mechanical breakdown in its printing press.  A meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee on April 6 passed a negative resolution on them...

The Petrograd Committee met on April 8 to discuss Lenin's paper.  Its verdict was also overwhelmingly negative, two voting in favor, thirteen against, with one abstention.  The reaction in the provincial cities was similar...
Only through great effort did Lenin win his followers over to his position.  If he had been dead, then, it is quite likely that the Bolsheviks would have cooperated with the "bourgeois- democratic" government.  The ripple effects would have been amazing:

  • If Kerensky's government made a separate peace with Germany, as Lenin did, the Germans would still have been defeated on schedule by American intervention in 1918.  Otherwise the Germans would have been defeated sooner.  Even if the Germans conquered the entirety of European Russia, the Versailles treaty would almost certainly have returned the democratically elected government of Russia to power.
  • Needless to say, without Lenin's coup there probably wouldn't have been a Russian Civil War or the horrific War Communism famine.
  • Without Lenin's coup, the Bolsheviks would never have ruled Russia.  The Bolsheviks couldn't have won power democratically; they weren't even able to win the first election after their coup.  Under peaceful conditions, their radicalism would have alienated almost any electorate.  Given Russia's large culturally conservative peasant majority, the Bolsheviks wouldn't have stood a chance. 
  • Without the Bolsheviks' example, attempted socialist coups in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere probably wouldn't have happened either.  Few Europeans would have yearned for dictators to protect them from the Red Peril - or scapegoated the whole Jewish people for the misdeeds of a handful of prominent Bolsheviks of Jewish descent.
  • Without the fear of Bolshevism, it's quite likely that Mussolini wouldn't have taken over Italy - and extremely likely that Hitler wouldn't have taken over Germany.  Indeed, if the Germans hadn't gotten a foretaste of Bolshevism after World War I, Hitler might never have entered politics.
  • Under moderate economic policies, there's every reason to think that Russian economic growth would have resumed its very promising pre-war course.  As Gregory and Stuart's 1990 text explains, "Russian industrial growth was more rapid than its European neighbors after 1880" (and before World War I).  Per capita net national product rose at an annual rate of 1.7% between 1883 and 1913 - despite defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the subsequent failed 1905 revolution.
  • All the horrors caused by Lenin's imitators around the world would have been far less likely.  A Mao might have arisen in China without Soviet inspiration, but it's not likely.
Bottom line: If Lenin had died, Russia would have emerged from the horrors of World War I smelling like a rose.  There would have been no Soviet Union and no Stalinism, just steady progress.  Russia would have been more authoritarian and statist than most countries in Europe, but it would have been a normal country. 

Even better, without the Red Scare and associated anti-Semitism, Germany would probably have remained a normal country, too.  No Nazi Germany, no Soviet Union, no World War II.  Even Japan might have behaved peaceably if it faced a civilized, prosperous Russia eager to trade food and resources for manufactures.  Without war with Japan, China, too, could have gotten on the path to prosperity fifty years earlier.  Imagine.

Of course, something else could have gone wrong.  Counter-factual history is never certain.  But if a stroke killed Lenin in 1917, there's good reason to think that the world could have skipped decades of bloodshed, poverty, terror, and totalitarian dogma.  Alas.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Matt writes:

Everyone's time machine assassination choice is Hitler. I'm changing mine to Lenin.

Kurbla writes:

October revolution was the result of dissatisfaction of soldiers and workers in large cities. They were in search for a leader. If Lenin died before - someone else would take over. If Bolshevik party took moderate direction, some other party would be more aggressive. The law of supply and demand ...

Kerensky was the key. He had the chance to make difference. Once Lenin was on power, yes, lot of things depended on him and Politburo. But it was too late by then. Only way Kerensky could prevent the revolution was to somehow quit the war. However, SR's would eventually develop some kind of democratic socialism.

In the rest of Europe, situation wouldn't be much different than it was. The socialist movement would be very strong - maybe less revolutionary, but not much. In next decade, strong Fascist and Nazi movement would arise in whole Europe - except Russia. The fascists wouldn't see much difference between SR's, anarchists or Leninists.

Susan writes:

There is a lot I could say, but I'm going to make only two comments. I'm setting aside the major problem of engaging in historical counterfactuals, which as a historian I find problematic and uninteresting.

First of all, the idea that Europeans would not have engaged in antisemitic horrors in the 20th century in the absence of a Bolshevik coup in Russia is nonsense. The entire history of the late nineteenth century in Europe, if anything, points to a revival in antisemitic attitudes. If pogroms are motivated by the fear of Jewish Bolsheviks, then why were there pogroms in Russia throughout the 19th century? Why was Dreyfus condemned? There is a multitude of evidence that antisemitism was alive and well and even growing throughout 19th century Europe, and the evidence does not fit tidily into the narrative you present about hated Jewish Bolsheviks.

The second point I will make is more important. There is a commonality among many European political philosophers and sociologists of the late 19th century; many important thinkers, who were supportive generally of the cause of democracy and self-determination, had come to be disillusioned with republicanism. Republicanism, they found, inevitably led to bureaucratic state-building and entrapment of citizens in a deadly web of powerlessness. Weber referred to this as the 'iron cage' which no one could escape. Many thinkers were speculating about how this problem with republicanism might be resolved. The remedy that many advised was for a great, enlightened, efficient leader who would sweep away the parts of the state that were so harmful, while preserving some aspects of republics and nation-states that they admired. To imagine that concepts like 'the F├╝hrer' were not actively being circulated in influential European political and intellectual circles in the late 19th and early 20th century is nonsense.

Of course, anything can happen with counterfactuals. But given the general tenor of European thought post-1848, I find it hard to believe that no one would have attempted a Hitler- or Mussolini-like project in the 20th century, or that genocide would have been forestalled. Indeed, I think that these occurrences were all-too-natural outcroppings of enlightened liberal thought and unsatisfactory republican bureaucracy.

RL writes:

Of course the world would have been better off had Lenin's stroke come earlier. The same could be said of Wilson, as well...perhaps even more so.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It's an interesting counterfactual, but I agree with your third commenter - you probably take it a little too far.

Hitler was guaranteed at Versailles, in 1919. That was the failure of Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando. Lenin was irrelevant to that.

Here's another, perhaps more plausible counter-factual. With the Russian Revolution of 1917, Marxists across Europe drew their attention to the Soviet Union. If there had been no Russian Revolution, perhaps the German communists would have pushed harder for a revolution in Germany - where Marx had expected it. Perhaps Germany would have become the center of world communism, rather than the center of fascism. That's the only way that I think the death of Lenin could have prevented the rise of Hitler - but it doesn't sound a whole lot better to me!

Troy Camplin writes:

The hyperinflation in Germany is also one of the things that led directly to Hitler taking power. But anti-liberal thought like communism, fascism, socialism, and welfare statism were all on the rise and probably would have been realized later rather than sooner. And if later, then, perhaps, more devastatingly.

Historical counterfactuals are helpful in thinking through practical ideas. We are all proposing different solutions to social, economics, and political problems -- and they can be tested out in thought experiments based on historical happenings.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

I agree with Geoffrey Blainey, Australia's premier historian: a sense of counterfactual possibilities is an aid to historical analysis. Without a sense of possible alternatives, how can you see the importance of causal factors?

Those who argue "Hitler anyway" are missing some big factors.
(1) Without Lenin's model of totalist politics, it is very unlikely that Mussolini or Hitler would have had a model of politics to adapt to their nationalist (Mussolini) and racist (Hitler) projects.
(2) Without the fear of Leninism, Mussolini and Hitler would have had far less to work off.
(3) Without Leninism, the socialist movement in Western Europe would very likely not have split into revolutionary and evolutionary wings.

Anti-Semitism is much trickier. Anti-Semitism in Russia was violent, murderous and virulent. If the Whites had won the Civil War, I have little down that a mini-Holocaust was a distinct possibility. The question is whether Russia could have avoided a Civil War. This was certainly much more likely without a Bolshevik coup.

Without the Russian Revolution, Marxism would not have had the taint of being foreign in Western Europe or the U.S. It might have been pushed through elsewhere.

Kevin writes:

Russia's culture and especially its geography (that itself dictates its culture) cause it to find equilibrium in some totalitarian state or other. The Russian totalitarian state will have all the same imperatives as the Soviet Union did, and it will behave comparably. Personalities don't matter much.

elambend writes:

Russia would have been better off, but the events that began in 1914 set the die for the next 60 plus. Except for Stalin. Lenin's death would likely have prevented Stalin.

To address one particular point, I agree with Susan and Lorenzo on the antisemitism. The eastern front of WWI was a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing on all sides, but Jews in particular were targeted, like I said above, the die was set.

David C writes:

If Lenin had died 5 years later, Stalin might never have come to power. I think he died at exactly the wrong moment.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I actually think if the Allies had helped the Whites crush the reds in 1918 it would of been a lot more effective prevention than Lenin dying. It would of sent a message and been a lot more fatal because communism would now have to worry about UK/U.S./France sending troops in to crush communist uprisings. In addition, it could of led to a lot of the Russian Communist leaders being purged. That would have had serious effects on the organization in Russia. Plus it would of set a precedent to make it easier for another intervention.

I know this is the Domino Theory which had mixed results, but from a pure military standpoint preemptively destroying a growing rabid dogs (aggressive militarily backed nation) is significantly cheaper and preferable strategy than to fight a war with them having a consolidated power base. Occupation is the nasty part that tends to undermine the good military strategy of a growing danger (even though sometimes it is necessary but should be avoided).

If Lenin had died I do not think it would of had quite the effect you are stating Bryan. However, I due not dissmiss Russia could of had a drastically different future (a more socialist government in all likelyhood) and therefore communism would have had a lot harder time succeeding, although I think it would have still been successful in obtaining power sometimes.

Dov writes:

Bryan, I think you've overreached substantially in this post.

The biggest potential gain of Lenin dying earlier would have been no Soviet Union and no Cold War. But the rest of your post--including the possibility of no Hitler, no Mussolini, etc--oversimplifies Early 20th century European history and the circumstances allowing for Hitler's rise.

Instead of reciting his argument here, I _highly_ recommend at least the first 4-5 chapters of Dark Continent, by Mark Mazower. As it happens, I have just finished it. He convincingly shows that Europe was not at all ripe for Democracy in the early 20th century, and the factors leading to Hitler's ascension to power were far more complicated than simply fear of Bolshevism. These include, but are not at all limited to, the Versailles settlement--which you acknowledge is still a distinct possibility even with Kerensky.

I also quibble with the "no Mao" point. Russia and China broke very early after Mao's rise and the Chinese form of Communism was always seen as at odds with the Soviets. In fact, smaller countries gained a measure of wiggle room by playing the two Communist powers off each other. I don't see much that would indicate that Mao's rise was unlikely. Lenin's death would not have been the death knell of Communist ideas -- it would have simply meant the failure of Communism in Russia.

And even that point is perhaps too much to predict. The most startling thing about the Russian Civil War is how weak both the Reds and the Whites were. To say that nothing would have happened with no Lenin is to give the man too much credit. Even with his leadership the Reds were impossibly weak. It is just that the Whites were weaker.

So it's a nice post. And it's lovely to think of a world without the sometimes-horrific 20th century. But the post is somewhat sloppy and draws hasty conclusions.

David Johnston writes:

I'm very dubious about the idea that the Kerensky government could have established a stable democracy in the first place any more than the French or Chinese revolutionaries could, and the most likely group to produce a new dictatorship after a chaotic collapse in Russia was the bolsheviks. So I'm skeptical about the proposition that Lenin's life or death matters all that much.

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