Tom butler-bowdon
Russian revolutionary posters 0


In the last few weeks we have seen the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, in which Russia began the process of forming itself into the first socialist state. In February 1917 the Tsar and his family were toppled from power, replaced by a provisional government dominated by wealthy capitalists, only to be overthrown by the Lenin's Bolsheviks, who in 1922 formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Despite the massive turbulence of these years, some of the early revolutionary posters survive. They are currently part of an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Revolutionary posters began as a form of street art, spontaneously made by people desperate to overthrow the autocracy. In time, Soviet poster-making became an instrument of Stalinist propaganda.

Some today look back to the Revolution with misty eyes, noting that it began with good intent but was soon corrupted by madmen like Stalin. If only the revolutionaries had stayed true to Marx's original vision of a moral society run by the people instead of a Tsar.

In fact, a good outcome was never likely. As Friedrich Hayek and others pointed out long before the Soviet empire finally crumbled in 1990, socialism by necessity involves central planning of the economy, which limits personal freedom. To enforce 'rule by the people', businesses are transferred to the state, goods confiscated, and total submission to the party is required, in mind, body, and spirit.


None spared. Stalin death warrant

In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recounts a local party gathering in which the audience kept applauding for 40 minutes after a speech, not because it was good but because they feared the consequences of not being seen to be the greatest enthusiasts for the party. They had good reason to. One man was so exhausted from standing that he eventually sat down. It was taken as a sign of disloyalty, and orders were drawn up that night for his arrest and execution.

To your right is a list of people being held by the NKVD, the progenitor of the KGB. It is Stalin's blue handwriting scrawled over the document, reading “Execute everyone.”

Among many similar papers he signed is a 1940 warrant, prepared by his chief of the secret police, Beria, for the massacre of 20,000 mostly Polish prisoners at Katyn. You can read the full, chilling transcript of the document here.


The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn’s monument to the millions tortured and murdered in Soviet Russia between the Bolshevik Revolution and the 1950s. He began writing it in 1958, three years after finishing an eight-year sentence in the Gulag, which is an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye ispravitelno-trudovyh Lagerey, or ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps’. After spending ten years on the manuscript it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union on mimeograph, and then published in France in 1973 and the US and UK in 1974.

The book was a bestseller, helped by the fact that Solzhenitsyn had been expelled from the Soviet Union and was now living in the United States. To Americans he was living proof of the brutality and Orwellian nature of the Soviet regime, which resulted in the early deaths of between 25 and 65 million people.

Isaiah Berlin commented that “Until Gulag, Communists and their allies had persuaded their followers that denunciations of the Soviet regime were largely bourgeois propaganda.” Its existence made it impossible for the USSR to claim moral superiority over capitalism and democracy. Doris Lessing said that “Its importance can hardly be exaggerated. It helped bring down an empire”.

As Solzhenitsyn shows, the number of people imprisoned and killed under the Tsar was a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers dying at the hands of Stalin's army of secret police and interrogators, and this is not to mention the millions who died of starvation as the result of being forced from their farms in the Soviet industrialization drive.


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You can learn more on The Gulag Archipelago in 50 Politics Classics, along with a chapter on Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto was written for the meeting in London of the Communist League, the first Marxist political party, but its stirring and even poetic language saw it become a vital document in the spread of socialist ideas, and indeed one of the most important political texts in history.

If the Communist Manifesto was the starting point of communism, its end point might be North Korea. Its leader Kim Jong Un, who delights in his regime's own terrifying torture gulags, is not a corruption of Marx, rather the inevitable endpoint of Marxist political economy.


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Capitalism, as Winston Churchill freely admitted, was far from a perfect system, but it is a lot more 'anti-fragile' than other systems because it is not planned from the centre but arises organically out of the decisions of millions of people.

In a recent piece by Marian Tupy for the excellent HumanProgress.Org site, "100 Years of Communism: Death and Deprivation", Tupy notes that "Between November 1917, when the communists came to power in Russia, and the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s, communists were responsible for deaths of at least 154 people every hour."

The data comes from The Black Book of Communism (1997) a painstaking analysis of genocides, executions, and artificial famines that occurred under communist regimes around the world over an 80-year period. Harvard's Prof. Mark Kramer, who edited the English version of the book, cites recent research putting the death toll at 80 million.

The human cost is much greater when we consider the economic effects of communism and socialism. Venezuela, with its hyperinflation, massive debts, collapsing health indicators and violence, is only the latest example. Each new generation throws up leaders saying that "this time it will be different". We should know by now that it never is.

You can read more about Marx (and Hayek) in 50 Economics Classics, which The Teacher magazine described this week as "An incisive, concise, and distilled look at the world of economics that spans 200 years...not only a wonderful introduction, but a useful reminder of the subject for seasoned learners."


Isaiah Berlin

My English teacher in high school often warned us against being swayed by utopian political ideals. Whereas communism/socialism was based on an overly rosy view of humanity, and so doomed to fail, he would say, capitalism would always get the upper hand because it was just the opposite: a system which allowed for people to pursue their selfish interests. The outcome, however unequal, was better than the destruction of personal freedom that Marxist forms of government inevitably bring.

In Two Kinds of Liberty (1958), which I write about in 50 Politics Classics, Isaiah Berlin asked: What kind of freedom do we seek: to allow people to be as they are, or to give them the chance to live up to our vision of humanity and society?

Berlin framed the second way of thinking as:

"Humanity is the raw material upon which I impose my creative will; even though men suffer and die in the process, they are lifted by it to a height to which they could never have risen without my coercive - but creative - violation of their lives. This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct. I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves, and I cannot ask their permission or consent, because they are in no condition to know what is best for them.”

Leon Trotsky believed that people are a raw material for reprocessing or reformatting. He told a group of students:

“Once he has done with the anarchic forces of his own society, man will set to work on himself… For the first time mankind will regard itself as raw material, or at best as a physical and psychic semi-finished product.”

Such a process could only be achieved, of course, with coercion. Whoever resisted was 'anti-social' and 'anti-the people', and so had to be sent away for re-education.

It is easily forgotten that many members of the intelligentsia in America and Europe held to the view that communism was more "just" than capitalism, even in Stalin's time and into the 1960s and 1970s - even when the economic and moral failings of the system were clear.



Discovered a new word this week: heterotopia. Coined by the philosopher Michel Foucault, it means a created place whose rules or outlook run counter to the rules of society as a whole. For example, monasteries, libraries, brothels, colonies, ships, holiday islands, space stations. Whereas utopias envision a perfect place (with all the coercion that perfection eventually requires) heterotopias are simply places which are ours, whatever their faults.

This recent article on Foucault looks at his transition from ideas on madness and sexuality to politics and the "technologies of the self" that underlie Western civilization. Foucault went from believing that individuals could not really escape the power structures within which they lived, to a more optimistic view of humans as "practising" beings, that is, always seeking to train or improve themselves, whether in a physical, intellectual, or spiritual way. The creation of heterotopias was an expression of such projects. These worlds-within-worlds could sometimes go badly wrong (the list of cults and failed colonies is long), but the damage a heterotopia can do is limited to itself. A utopia is usually a grander thing, seeking to change all to its point of view, not just the people directly involved. It's therefore a lot more dangerous. As someone who willingly and happily observes the library's rule of silence, give me a heterotopia any day.


We are best off when we don't seek to create utopias, but simply places where there is freedom, economic and political. Over time, freedom combined with human ingenuity brings progress.

It is easy to be swayed by events in the news, but the fact is that world poverty has halved in the last 20 years, and all the indicators for physical health, longevity, and wealth point upwards, most importantly for the world's poorest.

For my recent birthday, I loved an Oxford University production of "Candide", Voltaire's satire on the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz that humans "live in the best of all possible worlds". After a succession of disasters befall the main character he is forced to change his mind.

Voltaire's making of a straw man out of Leibniz is amusing, but the data shows that we are doing much, much better than we think in a material sense. After the twentieth century's bloodbaths, hopefully we have also learned some moral lessons too.

Kind regards,

Tom Butler-Bowdon

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