An excerpt from Revolutionary Monsters: Five Men Who Turned Liberation into Tyranny (Regnery History, 320 pages, $29.99).

Dissecting the Monsters of Modern Revolutions

Many young people today are infatuated with revolution, but for those who fled communist dictatorships, revolution is a serious matter. People who have experienced the chaos and terror that comes with political upheaval often ask such things as: “Why aren’t young people better informed?”; “What’s happening in our schools that students are learning this?”; or “Why aren’t our youth being taught about the nature of these oppressive regimes?” 

My book, Revolutionary Monsters, provides a warning to those beguiled by the siren call of revolution. The lessons of the tragic revolutions in the 20th century are all too apparent in the failures of the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Iran. A myriad of books can be found on each of these failures. Exceptionally diligent scholars have detailed them. Memoirs by those who suffered under these regimes offer heartbreaking, terrifying accounts of human suffering and the deaths of millions. 

The account of these failed revolutions is a grim one. The book asks an apparently simple question: What motivated leaders such as Lenin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, and Khomeini— revolutionaries who transformed their societies—to create such monstrous, brutal, and oppressive regimes? Each of these men in his own way called for creating the “New Man.” They were convinced that a new age in history—one of equality and social perfection—was about to begin with the overthrow of the existing government. 

Revolutionary Monsters recounts the tragedy of dictatorship in our age of alleged “enlightenment.” The book is short, and written for those who know little about the human tragedy of history. The assumption behind Revolutionary Monsters is that facts can replace vacuous rhetoric about “liberation,” “equality,” and “freedom.” These words should impart a deeper meaning to those cautious ones who realize the imperfections of the world and human nature, even while understanding that progress, albeit often uneven, should be sought. To speak of “imperfections of the world and human nature,” however, hardly captures the tragedy of revolution (and war) in the 20th century. Revolutionary Monsters presents the dialectic of revolution as liberation transformed into oppression, freedom into tyranny, and idealism into tragedy. Individual men and women, not nameless social forces, drive history. With little knowledge of history, the young are easily persuaded by the romance of revolution and the acceptance of destruction as a path to human perfection. 

The modern revolutionary mind is enraptured by millennialist visions of a perfected society. Those who succumb the most to revolutionary logic take on a terrorist mentality. These revolutionary monsters assume the roles of prophets acting in a corrupt world that cannot be reformed or bettered gradually; heaven on earth arrives only through destruction of the existing world order. The modern revolutionary believes with fanatical conviction that the old order needs to be destroyed. Violence is necessary to fulfill the prophecy. Terror is an instrument for achieving and maintaining power. This apocalyptic vision, in which the new world order springs out of the old, relegates individuals to treatment as abstract entities that either stand on the side of revolution or on the side of reaction. 

In the 20th century, millions of people have died at the hands of revolutionary monsters who came into power calling for the liberation of people from their oppressors. Mass murder within these revolutionary regimes was not a coincidence. Terror is instrumental to the modern revolutionary—mass murder follows without apology. Terror is employed to maintain power within the regime and is used against the revolutionary’s internal and external enemies. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, executed tens of thousands of alleged enemies of the state and today maintains order through a regime of mass arrests, torture, and imprisonment. Support of international terrorism against the American infidels or Zionist Israel has followed without qualm. 

Today, the word revolution connotes upheaval, but its origins begin in modern usage as an astronomical term, employed by the Polish scientist Copernicus, who in the early 16th century used the word in its Latin sense to describe a recurring, cyclical movement of planets. The word meant planets’ revolving back to a preestablished point. In this sense, revolution meant restoration. When the word began as a political term, it too meant restoration. The Glorious Revolution of 1689, which brought William and Mary to the throne in England, was seen as a “restoration” of ancient liberties. The American Revolution, less than a century later, demanded the restoration of liberties and the universal rights of Englishmen. It was the French Revolution that introduced to the modern world a revolutionary vision in which the old order is destroyed to create a new world—a new millennium for humankind. The modern concept of revolution denoting the destruction of the old order through violence and terror found articulation in the French Revolution. 

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Political v. Social Revolutions

The French Revolution came in the age of democratic revolutions that followed the American Revolution. Revolutionaries found, however, that the American model was not easily replicated. Those French officers who had fought in the American Revolution had been warned, “You will carry our sentiments with you, but if you try to plant them in a country that has been corrupt for centuries, you will encounter obstacles more formidable than ours. Our liberty has been won with blood; yours will have to be shed in torrents before liberty can take root in the old world.” 

The French Revolution began when King Louis XVI of France convened the Estates General in May 1789 for the first time since 1614. The Estates General represented the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. In June, the Estates General transformed itself into a National Assembly, which undertook to abolish slavery, placed the Catholic Church under state control, and extended the right to vote. The French Revolution began as a claim to restore the ancient powers of the Estate, but under the threat of counterrevolution, social unrest, and war with Austria, Britain, and Prussia, a Reign of Terror began in 1793 with the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre and his Jacobin faction. Under Robespierre, a wave of violence was unleashed to root out alleged counterrevolutionaries. 

Robespierre personified the modern revolutionary mind. Upon his rise to power, a new calendar was declared, churches were ordered closed, and Christianity was replaced by the deist Cult of the Supreme Being. At least 16,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror by revolutionary tribunals in which procedural guarantees for the accused were removed. Robespierre personally ordered 900 arrests. The Terror ended when opponents, fearing for their own lives, arrested and publicly executed Robespierre and 90 other Jacobins. The Revolution had devoured its own children. 

The French Revolution set the contours for modern revolutions by seeking to eradicate social classes in the name of equality. This demand for social equality contrasted with the American revolutionaries, who sought political, not social, equality. 

The American revolutionaries believed that social equality was impossible given human nature. The American Revolution was a political revolution to ensure liberty and rights through constitutional representative government. The founding fathers distrusted direct democracy and the passions of the demos (“the people”), easily aroused by demagogues. The new Constitution may be said to have benefitted white males but it also set forth ideals of liberty for what followed: the continued expansion of suffrage, the abolition of black slavery (after a bloody Civil War), and the importance of the rule of law in which all, rich and poor, are to be judged equally.

Without doubt, the American Revolution unleashed a spirit of egalitarianism across the new nation, as political and social elites were challenged. Republican simplicity was demanded in speech, dress, and manner. In Boston, gentlemen and ladies were mocked by the lower orders for signs of elitism such as wearing powdered wigs and silk stockings. In upstate New York, land rentiers seized property, and in Western Pennsylvania backwoods farmers rebelled when the federal government imposed a whiskey tax. Yet, these manifestations of social equality were limited. 

The founders, while committed to republican values, distrusted the passions of the people. Above all else, they feared power, the domination of some over others. They understood that majorities could become tyrannies. They believed, however, that power is a natural aspect of government. Power within government could only be made legitimate through a compact of mutual consent. If left unconstrained, government power, they believed, would degenerate into tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule. The new federal government was to serve as a referee adjudicating various sectional, economic, and social interests of the nation. The coercive powers of government were to remain relatively weak, although necessary to national trade, territorial expansion, immigration, relations with Native Americans, and diplomatic relations with other countries. 

This fear of power as a threat to liberty and a sense of human limitations—so aptly expressed by Alexander Hamilton, who declared, “Man, after all, is but Man”—precluded social revolution. All Americans understood that social inequality existed within their own society and were repulsed by deep social inequality in Europe. Yet, as William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, observed, America was “the best poor man’s country.” Later critics accused the founders of the American republic for not addressing social questions concerning black slavery or the treatment of Native Americans and women. The American founders sought political order on the assumption that political stability, the rule of law, and a representative, constitutional order allowed for the opportunity for social advancement, at least for the citizens of the new republic. It is worth noting that successful revolutions in the late 20th century, seen in the Polish and Baltic state revolutions, were political revolutions, not social revolutions. 

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The Elusive “Will of the People”

The French Revolution embodied the modern revolutionary concept and practice that social justice could be implemented through the expression of the “general will” of the masses—articulated through enlightened revolutionary leadership. French revolutionaries spoke of the will of the people—expressed through people’s communes and “societies” such as the Jacobin clubs. Later, the Bolsheviks spoke of the power of the Soviets. Modern revolutionary states have proclaimed themselves “People’s Republics,” no matter how dictatorial the regime. The “general will” became an abstract concept that implied unanimity of opinion and excluded difference. A divided will—the will of the people as it actually exists—was logically inconceivable. 

But how was the “general will” to be determined? The answer proved, in reality, to be whatever the revolutionary elite decided to call the “general will.” Dissenters opposed to the “will of the people” became enemies of the state. The very concept of the “general will,” as well as the practice of revolutionary terror, presupposes hostility to individual opinion or individual rights. Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Mugabe claimed to speak on behalf of the interests of the people as a whole. Khomeini and the Iranian revolutionary clergy avoided the problem of consent by denying popular sovereignty altogether. Only God was sovereign, and the Supreme Leader of Iran spoke for Allah. The resulting secular and religious revolutionary regimes found an ingenuous way to place the will of the people in a single voice: the dictator. 

The French Revolution set another model for social revolution in the modern era: liberation for those who suffered social inequality. Compassion, not reason, drove the call for revolution. The consequence was the glorification of the masses, the poor and the oppressed. Modern social revolutionaries speak as liberators for the oppressed and the downtrodden. Vengeance against the oppressors is called for in the revolution. As a result, revolution becomes an act of vengeance. As one French revolutionary declared, “Vengeance is the only source of liberty.” Because misery knew no bounds in the old regime, vengeance in the revolution need not be restrained. A delirious rage characterizes the modern revolution as the anger of the mob is unleashed. Revolutionary terror is justified in the pursuit of liberation. The delusion of achieving complete social equality embraces the shedding of blood. 

Revolutions, by their nature, are upheavals, but there are many examples of revolutions occurring with minimal bloodshed. As historian Richard Pipes observes, there were no mass killings in the Glorious Revolution in England in 1689 or the American Revolution of 1776—and indeed, the overthrow of the Russian czar in February 1917 occurred without terrible bloodshed. What followed in the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent modern revolutions was the shedding of blood on a massive scale, however. 

A revolutionary mentality that willingly accepts the execution, torture, starvation, and imprisonment of tens of thousands of people is unfathomable to most average people. Evil is difficult to understand. Richard Pipes observes that it takes a certain kind of personality to “massacre vanquished enemies . . . and prisoners of war, the kind of personality that would boast, as did a triumphant Lenin in 1920, ‘We did not hesitate to shoot thousands of people, and we shall not hesitate to do that [again], and we shall save the country.’” 

Lenin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, and Khomeini were zealots in their secular (or, in Khomeini’s case, religious) faiths. They shared a faith that society could be remade with a will to power that benefits them personally. In this way, they conflated ideology and personal power so that the two became inseparable. The destiny of history weighed on their shoulders; they believed that without them all would be lost. The magnitude of this arrogance is measured in their crimes against humanity. These revolutionaries created a reality within their own minds and a demand for power set in terms of their own morality. The world was divided in their eyes between the enlightened and the unenlightened, true believers and infidels, revolutionaries and reactionaries, the state and the enemies of the state. Theirs was a world of light and darkness, black and white, salvation and damnation.

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Revolution Betrayed by Revolutionary Monsters 

These revolutionaries proclaimed themselves as instruments of history. Their obsession with the “necessity of history” and the fulfilment of prophecy casts over their minds a magical, poisonous spell that no antidote exists to remedy. As they brought the blade of history to murder thousands, they remained confident of their self-anointed roles as the saviors of mankind. The hubris of proclaiming oneself a savior astounds the average person, but it defines the revolutionary mind. The grandiosity of their dreams of liberation and the grim reality of the nightmares that followed in pursuit of their delusions provide a lesson for us in the tragedy of history. These revolutionaries rallied the masses in the name of freedom, only to become worse than the rulers they replaced. Revolutionary regimes became washed in the blood of the very people they had called to freedom. 

Yet, as they betrayed the revolution, these monsters created cults of personality to ensure that their grip on power was maintained. And surprisingly many are still willing to see in the tyrant only benevolence, wisdom, and compassion. The tyrant emerges as a kind of folk hero, as myths are created through propaganda, subtle and crude. No number of arrests or executions, no degree of political repression, no extent of economic deprivation persuades the masses that their revolution has been betrayed. Of course, it’s best in an oppressive regime not to even think such thoughts or voice criticism of the revolutionary regime and its supreme leader. Admission that the revolution has been betrayed or that a better world does not await is understandable; less excusable are those outside the country who apologize for or deny mass executions, massive starvation, and continued oppression within the revolutionary regimes. Lenin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, and Khomeini found ready apologists and deniers of their crimes in the Western media, foreign governments, and international bodies—until reality could no longer be denied. 

Revolutionary Monsters captures the psyche of modern social revolutionaries willing to unleash devastation, suffering, and death in pursuit of constructing the New Man, the New Society, and a New World unchained from the past. What do these 20th century revolutionary minds share in common other than a belief in the necessity of revolution? When do these revolutionary minds turn from liberation to tyranny? Are tyrants produced in the revolutionary process, or were these monsters simply awaiting a revolution so they could emerge? 

Revolutionary Monsters presents a collective biography of five modern-day revolutionaries who came into power calling for the liberation of the people only to end up killing millions in the name of revolution: Lenin (Russia), Mao (China), Castro (Cuba), Mugabe (Zimbabwe), and Khomeini (Iran). The book explores basic questions about the kind of person who joins a movement to liberate “the people,” only to become a tyrant worse than the regime replaced by the revolution—the kind of personality that allows a revolution to be personified and projected into a cult to be worshiped. To do so, the book dissects the shared common mentality of modern-day social revolutionaries that allowed them to envision themselves as prophets of a new age. These leaders shared messianic views that a new world could be created either through socialism, pan-Africanism, or religion. Ironically, all were students of history yet sought to throw off the restraints of history. 

These revolutionaries shared a deep faith in the perfectibility of men. In their claim of historical necessity, they denied the lessons of history— mankind’s fallen nature. Their hubris lay in their claim that without them in power, the New Society and the creation of the Perfect Man would not be achieved. Their claim reveals a kind of pathological narcissism, a pattern of fantasized and behavioral grandiosity, an intense need for admiration, and a demonstrable lack of empathy for those they made suffer in order to achieve that “Perfect Man.” They were narcissists attracted to messianic beliefs that allowed for tyranny, dictatorship, and cultism. They shared a ruthless bloodlust in their pursuit of power. They accepted the necessity of violence and terrorism. Altruistic ideals and the necessity of revolution provided them a rationale for violence. 

Others might have been included—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Kim Il-sung, François Duvalier, Ho Chi Minh, or Hugo Chávez—in this book. Lenin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, and Khomeini were chosen as subjects because they best represent the monstrous manifestation of the revolutionary mind across continents. Revolutionary Monsters offers not an encyclopedic account of tyranny in our age but a selective didactic warning: perfection in a finite world is impossible. To seek perfection is to find only tragedy. 

Power Lust

The lust for power presents a consistent theme in history. The revolutionary mind sees power, and ultimately absolute power, as necessary for the creation of the perfect world. An arrogance develops (or is revealed) in the revolutionary leader who posits that he embodies the revolution. Without him the revolutionary regime will fail. The leader becomes the personification of the revolution itself. As a result, a cult of personality emerges early in the revolutionary process. The cult of personality promotes the leader’s humble origins as a “man of the people” and the embodiment of the aspirations of the people. The leader cares not for his own wants, lives a simple, even austere, life, and lives only to serve his people. Power is held only as if by divine right of the revolutionary. This divine right of the revolutionary ruler is derived from the logic of history. 

Not every self-proclaimed messiah becomes a dictator. But given the right social and political conditions, a narcissist adhering to a messianic ideology can bring untold suffering to humanity. This is an immutable lesson of history. These monsters wore the masks of liberators, hiding the malevolence of hubris that comes when men attempt to create heaven on earth. Their regimes lead us to recall words found in the Book of Revelation: “And he cried out in a mighty voice: ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a lair for demons and a haunt for every unclean spirit, every unclean bird, and every detestable beast.’”

About Donald T. Critchlow

Donald T. Critchlow is Katzin Family Professor of History and leads the Program in Political History and Leadership at Arizona State University. He is author of numerous books, including Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Photo: Scott Wallace/Getty Images

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