Misunderstanding the Russian Revolution at 100

By | 2017-10-23T05:43:55+00:00 October 22nd, 2017|
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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.


About the Author:

Robert Curry
Robert Curry serves on the board of directors of the Claremont Institute and is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea (Encounter Books). He also serves on the board of distinguished advisors for the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.