Misunderstanding the Russian Revolution at 100

In his article “Intellectuals and Thugs: the Russian Revolution,” George Friedman marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 by analyzing the inherent problems with its founding ideas and how those ideas led to the practical political difficulties of the Soviet Union..

He correctly states what we all know—that Karl Marx inspired the Communist Revolution—but he then goes on to blame the Enlightenment for the rise of Marx by making the astonishing claim that “Marx took the Enlightenment’s impulse to its logical conclusion.”

Don’t believe it for a minute. In fact, Marx was the most consequential of the post-Enlightenment thinkers who rejected the Enlightenment..

We all know Marx rejected private property and free markets. Knowing that, it makes sense then to ask, “What role did property and free markets play in the Enlightenment?”

The Enlightenment began in England with the writings of John Locke, the scientific discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, and the gains for political liberty brought about by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke was the thinker who set the philosophical direction for the Enlightenment, so much so that it makes sense to call the Enlightenment the Age of Locke.

Locke put property front and center in his thinking. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke argues: “the preservation of Property being the end [the purpose] of Government, and that for which Men enter into Society…” Following Marx, the Bolsheviks in 1917 set out on the absurd and self-defeating project of founding government and society on the abolition of property. Locke would have predicted their spectacular failure.

The most important Enlightenment thinker on property and free markets was Adam Smith. Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, at about the peak of the Enlightenment era. It was the most famous work to come out of the Enlightenment, and it made the intellectual case for free markets.

At about the same time, the American Founders were inventing America, the quintessential Enlightenment nation. The Founders put the common people in charge by embracing free markets in their internal economy and a free market of ideas in politics. As for property, they declared we have an unalienable right to acquire, possess, and protect it. Here is John Adams in the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts: “All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Voltaire, who is credited with bringing the Enlightenment to France from England, admired Locke (“never, perhaps, has a wiser, more methodical mind existed than Mr. Locke”) and the peaceful pursuit of prosperity he saw in England (“which [is] the more useful to a nation, a well-powdered nobleman who knows at exactly what time the king gets up and goes to bed…or a businessman who enriches his country…and contributes to the well-being of the world”).

Given all this, how can Friedman have gone so wrong? Friedman’s error is to examine the Enlightenment through the lens of the failures of the French Revolution. By means of their Revolution, the French merely traded one form of despotism for another. France’s Jacobins adopted a policy of political terror, just as the Bolsheviks would later do when founding the Soviet state.

But the important point of difference is that the French revolutionaries were not following the example of Britain’s Glorious Revolution or the American Revolution or even, necessarily, the political thought of Voltaire. Indeed, Jean-Paul Marat, Louis de Saint-Just, and Maximilien Robespierre made it clear that they were disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

The counter-Enlightenment, perhaps unsurprisingly, was launched during the Enlightenment era, and Rousseau set it in motion. In his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau writes, “deliver us from the Enlightenment…and restore us to ignorance, innocence and poverty!” The French Enlightenment exalted reason; and according to Rousseau, reason was the cause of mankind’s condition of moral degradation. Moreover, since Rousseau rejected private property, the line between Rousseau and Marx is a direct one. But that line marks the line of advance not of the Enlightenment but, instead, of the counter-Enlightenment.

Marx published Das Kapital in 1867. By then the rejection of the Enlightenment, especially among the Germans, was very far advanced indeed. It had already produced the German thinker G.W.F. Hegel, and Hegel was the inspiration for Marx’s concept of dialectical materialism. Rousseau, Hegel, and the other thinkers who rejected the Enlightenment prepared the way for Marx.

Consequently, it is fair to make the claim that the Russian revolutionaries followed the unfortunate example of the French revolutionaries and to make the claim that Rousseau was a precursor of Marx—but Friedman’s claim that “Marx took the Enlightenment’s impulse to its logical conclusion” is certainly not true.

Unfortunately, Friedman is not alone in his confusion on this point. This confusion is amazingly widespread. It is so widespread that the chances are good that whenever you read something which references the Enlightenment, you are being misled. This is something I learned during my own experience of setting out to understand America. Because America is the quintessential Enlightenment nation, to understand the American idea is to understand the American Enlightenment—and once you become enlightened, if you’ll pardon the expression, about America, you will be astonished by what you read and hear concerning the Enlightenment.


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22 responses to “Misunderstanding the Russian Revolution at 100

  • I do wish the good people at Claremont and Hillsdale would stop treating Locke, the Federalist Papers and Hamilton and Madison’s Constitution as the closed canon of Anglo-American democracy.

    Locke was a Whig whose treatises on government represented only the views of the Presbyterian-Grandee faction that was ejected from Parliament by the Independent-Leveller faction in 1649 (Pride’s Purge). However, the lineage of American democratic republicanism has more to do with the Petition of Right of 1628, the Putney Debates of 1647, the execution Charles I, and the Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island plantations that functioned as free states between 1630-89. The New England colonies were were, in fact, Independent Leveller republics and American democracy evolved quite separate from English constitutional monarchism and whiggism until the 1760s.

    The Federalist Whigs had their chance to show what they could do between 1790-99. They were thrown out of government in 1800 by Jefferson (and Madison who had changed sides) and stayed out of power until the McKinley Administration.

    The Whig obsession with property has its origins in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which began in 1536. The monastic property, which amounted to at least 1/3 of the wealth of England, was the source of the wealth of the Presbyterian Grandee faction that evolved into the Whig faction in 1688 and the security of their title to their monastic property was the chief reason that the Grandees were alarmed by any drift by the Stuart Church of England towards the Church of Rome.

    On the other hand, the Independent Leveller faction that settled New England was always more concerned with civil and religious rights than property rights. This was clear as early as October 1647 as the famous exchange between Col. Rainborowe (John Winthrop’s brother-in-law) and Gen. Ireton (Cromwell’s son-in-law) at Putney clearly demonstrates.

      • The Presbyterian Grandees and the Independent Levellers obviously had a lot in common between 1628-49. It was only after the revolution had been won in 1648 that their differences became important.

    • Dear ek ErilaR,
      Thank you for you thoughtful comment and also for your evident study of the American founding.
      The focus of this piece was of course quite a simple one: “What role did property and free markets play in the Enlightenment?” which did not touch many of the important issues you raise.
      Since you have studied & thought hard about the founding, you may find my book, Common Sense Nation worth your while.
      In any case, wishing you the best in your ongoing exploration of the fascinating subject of the American founding…

      • Inspired by Michael Anton’s Flight 93 Election, AG sought to break from National Review conservatism. But they are just as much a fly in amber as their NR friends.

    • Yes! And don’t forget that Jefferson thought the French Revolution was fine and dandy.

  • Mr. Curry describes Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ as making ‘the intellectual case for free markets’ and then moves on. The problem is that the ‘free’ in ‘free markets’ was a marketplace as free as possible from rent-seeking behavior, not free for property (or capital) to function however it pleased. As for whether the United States of America is (or was) an ‘Enlightenment nation’, this is not so clear. Certainly, the Enlightenment opened up possibilities for thinking about problems or issues in new ways, in particular they provided a new way to think and talk past religious sectarianism without which it is unlikely the Revolution would have taken root. Intellectuals generally think that ideas matter more than how ideas are deployed into public discourse and public decision-making, but this largely a conceit best ignored in order to understand what really happens. The fact of the matter, if ‘Property’ with a ‘P’ had been core idea around which the Founders promoted their revolution, there likely would not have been one. There just weren’t enough property owners to get the Revolution off the ground politically.

    • Dear hamburgertoday2017,
      You are certainly correct that property was not the core idea of the Founders–and that is as you say an important point.
      The Founders’ core idea was “unalienable rights.”
      Have you perhaps noticed that we no longer use that term in our political life? It is only brought out for ritual observances, usually around the 4th of July. Interesting, would you say?
      My book, Common Sense Nation, tells the fascinating story of where the Founders got that idea and, especially, what they did with it.
      Best wishes…

      • Mr. Curry: Ah, yes, the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence with it masterful invocation of ‘unalienable rights’ (and the subsequent list of examples of their violation). You are probably aware that one of the early drafts cites ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Property’ but this was removed for political reasons.

        To the extent that the Enlightenment is a movement of abstraction it certainly contributed to (one could even argue it made possible) this notion of ‘universal’ and ahistorical ‘unalienable rights’.

        I am glad that our national manifesto appeals to such abstractions, because they are, in an important sense, infinitely renewable and quite malleable. The problem with abstraction, though, is always the same: At some point it has to deliver in the world of action.

        To some extent, I do not think we fully understand what occurred at the Founding. The Constitution invokes the values of the Declaration, but then proceeds to (quite pragmatically) establish an instrument of national political will that is based upon mutually assured frustration (check and balances).

        I am not a scholar or author like yourself, so I make no pretense that my views are either in contradiction or super-secession of your own. I am leery of the Enlightenment because the same energies that feed ‘unalienable rights’ also feeds the totalitarian urge to erase the local and particular. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not. I would say at this point, the local and particular has become endangered to the point that society itself may be coming unmoored.


      • Dear hamburgertoday2017,
        Re “leery of the Enlightenment.” Me too. Leery, that is, of the French Enlightenment.
        But the American Enlightenment–that’s another story. The best part about writing my book was the opportunity it gave me to hang out with the Founders. What great company! And what a great story! Leery of them, not so much.

      • The Federalist hagiographers are always very vague about the dates and events leading up to the Revolution. They are much happier with the “miracle in Philadelphia” narrative that allows them to ignore everything that happened before 1789.

        The object of Locke’s Two Treatises was to rebut Sir Robert Filimer’s defense of absolute monarchy that was published during the reign of Charles II. Thomas Hobbes, a source that also hold a curious attraction for Federalists, was a monarchist and Charles II’s tutor in Paris after 1647. The rest of the authorities the Federalists love to rely upon, Adam Smith, Blackstone, the French political philosophers, Thomas Paine (the Wigs don’t like Paine much), Burke and the rest were near contemporaries of the American Revolution and cannot be credibly said to have inspired it.

        There is also the curious circumstance that it was the British Whigs who controlled the British government in 1760 that precipitated the American Revolution.

        At the root of this debate is the question of who or what shall be sovereign. Monarchists place sovereignty in the king (“the king and church”), Whigs place it in the the institutions of government (“the king in parliament’) and republicans place it with those being governed (“the people”). These divisions in Anglo-American politics have been fixed since December 1648, the month Charles I stood trial for treason. Charles I defended himself, the Presbyterian faction, the proto-Whigs, chose not to participate and the republican Independents, who controlled the New Model Army and Parliament, found Charles I guilty and executed him.

        The colonies were settled chiefly by non-separatist Presbyterians and Independents. The usual pattern was that the political Presbyterians were to be found along the coast and in the cities and were wealthier than the political independents, who formed the vast majority of the settlers. The tension between these two factions was obvious from the beginning.

        New England demands special attention. They were the most republican of all the colonies, they had demanded and won popular sovereignty by 1636 and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 and the Connecticut Fundamental Orders of 1639 formed the template for local and territorial government that they brought with them as they settled up-state New York, the Ohio Valley and beyond. All this was in progress from 1690 to 1776.

        At the time of the Revolution, New England was the wealthiest and most populous region and New England troops accounted for at least 3/5 of the Continental Army. The Whig historians never mention the fact that the American Revolution began in the Fall of 1774 when the towns and counties west of Boston began closing courthouses and ejecting Crown officials. While Samuel Adams and John Hancock might have controlled the North End and South End mobs in Boston, the county councils west of Boston controlled the provincial militia and there is little evidence of coordinated activity between the Boston patriots and the rural militia. Here it is interesting to note that in 1634, the settlers in Massachusetts insisted that the towns, not the governor and his assistants, must ultimately control the militia. In New England, that state of affairs continued through the Revolution and up to the Civil War. Nor were the New England militias an inconsequential force. They had been used extensively by the British as auxiliaries from 1740-67 and they were particularly good at field works and marksmanship as they demonstrated at Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston.

        The divisions we now see in the GOP are nothing new, they reflect the fundamental differences between Anglo-American Whigs and republicans that have persisted since 1649.

      • Firstly, thank you for your thoughtful and extensive response. Secondly, where would I go to find out more about the information you have presented here? Lastly, it appears that that ‘sovereignty’ — who has it, how much of it do they have, how is it achieved and maintained — is really at the core of the struggle/issue. Would you agree or do you see it otherwise?

      • A good survey of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s is Michael Braddick’s “God’s Fury, England’s Fire.” But keep in mind that Braddick is British and tends to dismiss the Independent populist and republican element because, in England, the it was the Whigs who ultimately prevailed in 1688.

        I like Christopher Hill. Hill is an British marxist historian whose narrative rings much truer in the US than in Britain simply because the Presbyterian faction won in England while the Independents ultimately won in the US. But Hill presumes his readers have been catechized in English-British history so an American student will often have difficulty.

        As for the New England militias and American history between 1700-75 Fred Anderson is very good, particularly “The Crucible of War” and “A People’s Army.” Nathanial Philbrick, Nick Bunker and John R. Galvin have also provided excellent works focused on the events in the Massachusetts countryside leading up to Lexington and Concord.

        I came to this line of thinking by way of my readings on Calvinism and the Thirty-Years War. Here, Philip Benedict’s “Christ Churches Purely Reformed” and John Witte’s “The Reformation of Rights” are particularly good introductions.

        John Winthrop’s Journal, the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the first three volumes of John Gorham Palfrey’s “History of New England,” all are accessible on line and are good sources of information.

        There are many others but keep in mind that this is revisionist history and the Whig narrative has dominated the study and teaching of American history for so long that any deviation from the approved narrative is dismissed as heresy.

        It does seem to be true that the squabble between the English Calvinist Independents and Presbyterians over the proper scope of church governance in the 1630s became the squabble between Whigs and republicans up to the present day. The bottom line here is that the Independents have always been intrinsically more heterodox religiously and politically than the Presbyterians.

        Finally, here’s a link to The Massachusetts Body of Liberties. They had been circulating in draft form since 1636 and Hooker brought them to Connecticut when that colony was founded. I like the Mass. Liberties better because they are written in plainer language and can easily be placed in context using the records of the Bay Colony.


    • “Intellectuals generally think that ideas matter more than how ideas are deployed into public discourse and public decision-making, but this largely a conceit best ignored in order to understand what really happens.”

      Absolutely. Ideas are used by power as a type of myth-making. I am more and more convinced that sketching the genesis and development of various ideas is a variant of the genetic fallacy and a complete waste of time. Can Locke or Rousseau be held responsible for the Revolution of 1917? They had been dead for over 100 years. What Lenin and Stalin did with their educations is their business.

  • You are making very fine distinctions that do not hold up in light of the chaos of history. Anything to preserve the myth of America’s founding . . .

  • When the Bolsheviks assembled their first Politburo in Moscow after taking full control, 44 of it’s 61 members were Jewish, including the chairman. Any account of the Russian Revolution that fails to take this into account as anything other than a coincidence, has effectively missed the point of the event.

  • Excellent piece. I would add that at least in Germany, this led to Romanticism and consequently, the Fuehrer principle.

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