Bryan Caplan  

The Banality of Leninism

Stanley Fish: "Might Makes Rig... Some Notes from Haidt...
Historians often act like Lenin's tyranny was a bolt from the blue: Who would have expected a bunch of socialists to be so bloodthirsty?  Admirers of Lenin, in contrast, often paint him as a great innovator - at least as a strategist.  A dictatorship of the proletariat run by a vanguard party of bourgeois intellectuals?  Only Lenin could have conceived it.  When you read 19th-century Russian literature, however, "Leninist" memes clearly predate the birth of Lenin.  Contrary to many historians, Lenin's atrocities were foreseeable.  And contrary to Lenin's admirers, his strategy of atrocity was pure cliche.

Consider this scene from Crime and Punishment, first published in four years before Lenin's birth in 1870.  Detective Porfiry Petrovich discovers that Dostoyevsky's protagonist-murderer Raskolnikov published an article on the philosophy of crime:
"In his article all men are divided into 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary.' Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?"...
Raskolnikov has a long-winded but lucid reply:
..."That wasn't quite my contention," he began simply and modestly. "Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so." (It almost gave him pleasure to admit this.) "The only difference is that I don't contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an 'extraordinary' man has the right...that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own
conscience to overstep...certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity)... I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow from that that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market...
What does this have to do with revolutionary politics?  Everything.  Raskolnikov continues:
I maintain in my article that all...well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed -- often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defense of ancient law -- were of use to their cause. It's remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals--more or less, of course.
The argument is typically Leninist:

1. Hasty, dogmatic acceptance of utilitarianism.

2. Eager, poetic embrace of the implication that mass murder is conceivably morally justified; indeed, morally required.

3. Praising the "extraordinary men" who answer the call of sanguinary duty.

More tellingly, if you read the entire chapter, you'll notice two typically Leninist omissions:

1. Even a token effort to show that any specific policy change would in fact have extremely good consequences.

2. Even a token effort to argue that well-targeted "terrible carnage" would greatly improve the probability of these policy changes being adopted.

The key difference between a normal utilitarian and a Leninist: When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work!  He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities.  The Leninist, in contrast, reasons backwards from the atrocities that emotionally inspire him to the utilitarian argument that morally justifies his atrocities. 

If this seems woefully uncharitable, compare the amount of time a proto-Leninist like Raskolnikov spends lovingly reviewing the mere conceivability of morally justified bloodbaths to the amount of time he spends (a) empirically evaluating the effects of policies or (b) searching for less brutal ways to implement whatever policies he wants.  These ratios are typical for the entire Russian radical tradition; it's what they imagined to be "profound."  When men like this gained power in Russia, they did precisely what you'd expect: treat mass murder like a panacea.  This is the banality of Leninism.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
david writes:

I think the Jacobins beat Dostoyevsky to it, as far as modern political tradition goes. The left does not have a monopoly on it, regrettably (ask Joseph de Maistre).

Quite plausibly, if we had records of ancient Greek oration, we'd probably have see there too.

Yancey Ward writes:
When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work! He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities.

Do such "normal" utilitarians actually exist? I have never observed one who diligently looks for the absolute best way to achieve a policy goal. Or is the point that some work to minimize, to some extent, their horrific atrocities?

Gian writes:

"Starting from perfect freedom, I conclude in perfect despotism"

The Demons, also called The Possessed.

ThomasL writes:
What if He doesn't exist? What if Rakitin's right—that it's an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn't exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That's the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a sniveling idiot can maintain that. I can't understand it.

If there is no God, "everything is lawful."

Dostoevsky is not the only one to see that. Nietzsche saw it, and so proclaimed God to be dead so that all would be lawful.

Sartre saw it too and despaired because he truly believed there was no God in a way I am not sure Nietzsche ever did. But that left us no where. "There is no human nature because there is no God to conceive it."

Mark Brady writes:


Belief in God and a higher law has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. Likewise belief in millennial projects without reference to God. Ultimately, human beings must assume responsibility for their own actions - with or without reference to God - if we are to make progress.

Nick Rowe writes:

I read somewhere (can't remember where, as usual) that deaths from (nihilist?) terrorism in Russia in the early 1900's (pre Lenin) were very high. Does that sound right?

Chris writes:

This is one place where Straussians are right to point the finger at Machiavelli.

Gepap writes:

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ThomasL writes:


You need to take one step further back in the chain and figure out how there can be an atrocity without there first existing an unchanging standard against which an act could be judged atrocious.

If you think existentialists like Dostoevsky are trying to use God as an excuse to evade human responsibility you've missed his point. If there were one phrase to sum up existentialism "No excuses" would be it.

You are responsible for yourself, the self that you choose to be. If you follow Sartre's reasoning, you are so responsible for yourself that you literally create your own essence--you invent your own nature. But once you are finished inventing yourself, who are you responsible to for what you have made?

I quoted Nietzsche and Sartre because they are not only existentialists like Dostoevsky, but they are two of the most brilliant atheists in history.

All three of them concluded the same thing: that without God everything is lawful. Sartre was not impressed with the inconsistency of atheistic humanists, "My entire philosophy is an attempt to draw all the consequences of a consistent atheistic position."

"[The humanist] wants to get rid of God with the least possible expense. Something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, and we are discarding it, but in order for values to be taken seriously, there must be some a priori goods. It must be good a priori to speak the truth, not beat your wife, to have children, etc. The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it very distressing that God doesn’t exist, because all possibility of finding meaning in some heaven of ideas disappears along with God. There can be no a priori good because there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it."
Circling back to the original post, Dostoevsky's point is far more fundamental than politics. He is making an argument about the very nature of man's existence.
William Bruce writes:

In light of Bryan's post, David Henderson's post on Stanley Fish, and david's comment in this section, let me remind readers of the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

In my book RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY I list the record of assassinations by the Social Revolutionary Party in pre-revolutionary Russia. These were carried out after a sort of "due process" by SRP officials. The totals don't seem very high by more recent standards. Suffice it to say they were totally ineffective in bringing about change in Russia.

1903 – 3;
1904 – 2;
1905 – 54;
1906 – 82;
1907 – 71;
1908 – 3;
1909 – 2;
1910 – 1;
1911 – 1 (Peter Stolypin).

Mark Brady writes:


Thank you for taking the trouble to write your thoughtful reply, even though I'm still not persuaded.

ThomasL writes:

@Mark Brady

Thank you too. I appreciate your views.

B.B. writes:

Wonderful essay.

Please send a copy to that extraordinary man, Stanley Fish.

Or to Bill Maher, who believes that God does not exist and everything is permitted.

yet another david writes:
The key difference between a normal utilitarian and a Leninist: When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work!

Fantastic, Bryan, simply fantastic.

J Parry writes:

Try Robert Service's biography of Lenin for confirmation of much of this analysis of the man's mentality. Lenin's soft-spot for the Russian terrorist tradition is well documented there. Service notes in his conclusions that in many ways Lenin was an oddball with characteristics of a spoilt child (he was endlessly indulged by Krupskaya and his sisters). There is a fair amount of evidence that he was suffering the last stages of syphylis from c 1920 which may partly account for his extraordinarily violent temper on occasions.

Roger Sweeny writes:

This is hardly limited to politics. It would take many more hands and feet than I possess to count the number of times I've heard, "Sure he hurt the people around him but that is a small price to pay for the gift of his art."

Greg R. Lawson writes:

Perhaps, Raskolnikov is a proto-Leninist. But I think he is Nietzschean. Nietzsche is far more profound than Lenin or Marx. He is the prophet of nihilism and the prophet of greatness. Could not Raskolnikov say this,

"I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star."

Christopher writes:

@Yancey Ward

Wouldn't a true utilitarian be a military general conducting war. Obviously, they'd prefer to limit atrocities and bloodshed but are by nature of their job forced to achieve particular and often unpleasant objectives.

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