“Soviet Communism: a modern millenarian revolution” – John GRAY

Bolshevism as a social phenomenon is to be reckoned as a religion, not as an ordinary political movement.

Bertrand Russell

In the last pages of his pamphlet ‘Literature and Revolution’, published in 1923, Leon Trotsky gives a glimpse of the transformation in human life he believed was within reach. He writes not about changes in society but an alteration in human nature. The change he anticipates will be in the biology of the human species. In the future, he writes,

Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training … It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts – literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest level. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

In Trotsky’s view history is the process in which humanity gains control of itself and the world. Just as there are no limits to the growth of human knowledge so there is no limit to human advance in ethics and politics. If there are flaws in human nature science can correct them. This is the true meaning of perfectibility in radical Enlightenment thought: not so much a condition of static perfection as a vision of unbounded human possibility. Trotsky’s vision in which science is used to perfect humanity expresses a recurrent modern fantasy. The belief that science can free humankind from its natural limitations, perhaps even make it immortal, thrives today in cults such as cryogenics, transhumanism and Extropianism that acknowledge their debts to the Enlightenment.

From the start the Bolsheviks aimed to create a new type of human being. Unlike the Nazis they did not see this new humanity in racial terms, but like the Nazis they were ready to employ science and pseudo-science in an attempt to achieve their goal. Human nature was to be altered so that ‘socialist man’ could come into being. Such a project was impossible with the scientific knowledge that was available at the time, but the Bolsheviks were ready to use any method, no matter how inhuman, and adopt any theory however dubious that promised to deliver the transformation of which they dreamt. From the early twenties onwards the Soviet regime harassed genuine scientists. Later, as in Nazi Germany, science was perverted for the purposes of terror. By the late thirties human subjects – German and Japanese prisoners of war, soldiers and diplomats, Poles, Koreans and Chinese, political prisoners and ‘nationalists’ of all kinds (including Jews) – were being used in medical experiments in the Lubyanka prison in the centre of Moscow. Despite attempts to resist the process, science became an integral part of the totalitarian state.

The role of Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976) is well known. Lysenko propagated a version of the Lamarckian theory of evolution, which differed from the Darwinian theory that was accepted by most scientists at the time in claiming that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Lamarck’s theory seemed to open up the possibility that human nature could be progressively improved. Inasmuch as it appeared to extend human power over the natural world, Lamarckism chimed with Marxism, and with Stalin’s support Lysenko was made head of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He was also given free rein in farming, where he claimed to be able to breed new high-yielding strains of wheat. Lysenko’s experiments in agriculture were disastrous, adding to the collapse in food production that accompanied collectivization. His hare-brained ideas retarded the development of biology in the USSR until well into the 1960s and had an even longer influence in Maoist China.

Less well known is the work of Ilya Ivanov, who in the mid-twenties was charged by Stalin with the task of crossbreeding apes with humans. Stalin was not interested in filling the world with replicas of Aristotle and Goethe. He wanted a new breed of soldier – ‘a new invincible human being’, highly resistant to pain, that needed little food or sleep. Ivanov was a horse-breeder who made his reputation in Tsarist times by pioneering the artificial insemination of racehorses, but acting on Stalin’s instructions he turned his attention to primate research. He travelled to West Africa to conduct trials impregnating chimpanzees and set up a research institute in Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace, where humans were impregnated with ape sperm. A number of experiments were attempted, but unsurprisingly all of them failed. Ivanov was arrested, sentenced to a term of imprisonment that was commuted and then exiled to Kazakhstan, where he died in 1931. An obituary appeared by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who achieved worldwide fame via a series of experiments applying methods of behavioural conditioning to dogs, praising Ivanov’s life and work.

Stalin’s requirements for the new human being were coarsely practical. Yet they embody a project of developing a superior type of human being that recurs time and again in Enlightenment thinkers. It is sometimes questioned whether there ever was such a thing as ‘the Enlightenment project’. Certainly the Enlightenment was a heterogeneous and often contradictory movement. A wide range of beliefs can be found amongst Enlightenment thinkers – atheist and Deist, liberal and anti-liberal, communist and pro-market, egalitarian and racist. Much of the Enlightenment’s history consists of rabid disputes among rival doctrinaires. Yet it cannot be denied that a radical version of Enlightenment thinking came to power with the Bolsheviks, which aimed to alter human life irrevocably.

In Russia there have always been many who looked to Europe to redeem the country from backwardness. When the great Counter-Enlightenment thinker Joseph de Maistre went to live in Russia he declared that he wanted to live among people who had not been ‘scribbled on by philosophers’. To his disappointment he found in St Petersburg an elite that spoke French, revered Voltaire and looked to the philosophes for inspiration. Throughout the nineteenth century Russian thinkers continued to look to Europe. Bakunin the anarchist, Plekhanov the orthodox Marxist, Turgenev the Anglophile liberal –all were convinced that Russia’s future lay in merging into the universal civilization they saw emerging in Europe. So were the Bolsheviks who created the Soviet state. When they talked of turning Russia into a modern state, Lenin and Trotsky spoke in a European voice.

It has become a commonplace that Russia’s misfortune was that the Enlightenment never triumphed in the country. In this view the Soviet regime was a Slavic version of ‘oriental despotism’, and the unprecedented repression it practised was a development of traditional Muscovite tyranny. In Europe Russia has long been seen as a semi-Asiatic country – a perception reinforced by the Marquis de Custine’s famous journal recording his travels in Russia in 1839 in which he argued that Russians were predisposed to servility. Theories of oriental despotism have long been current among Marxists seeking to explain why Marx’s ideas had the disastrous results they did in Russia and China. The idea of oriental despotism goes back to Marx himself, who postulated the existence of an ‘Asiatic mode of production’. Later Marxian scholars such as Karl Wittfogel applied it to Russia and China, arguing that totalitarianism in these countries was a product of Asiatic traditions.

As Nekrich and Heller summarize this conventional wisdom:

Western historians draw a direct line from Ivan Vasilievich (Ivan the Terrible) to Joseph Vissarionovich (Stalin) or from Malyuta Skuratov, head of Ivan the Terrible’s bodyguard and secret police force, to Yuri Andropov … thus demonstrating that from the time of the Scythians Russia was inexorably heading for the October Revolution and Soviet power. It was inherent in the national character of the Russian people. Nowhere else, these scholars think, would such a thing be possible.

It is true that Russia never belonged fully in the West. Eastern Orthodoxy defined itself in opposition to western Christianity, and there was nothing in Russia akin to the Reformation or the Renaissance. From the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1543 the idea developed that Moscow was destined to be a ‘third Rome’ that would lead the Christian world from the east. In the nineteenth century an influential group of Slavophil thinkers argued on similar lines and suggested that Russia’s difference from the West was a virtue. Rejecting western individualism they maintained that Russian folk traditions embodied a superior form of life. This anti-western strand of thought developed into a belief in Russia’s unique role in world history that may have helped sustain the communist regime. The Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev believed that Russian communism ‘is more traditional than is commonly thought and is a transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea’. Certainly there were messianic strands in Bolshevism. Anatoli Lunacharsky, a Bolshevik who was expelled from the party by Lenin for ideological deviancy but who later became Soviet Minister of Education, noted these points of affinity in a book on Socialism and Religion in 1907 and commented on the way in which Christian ideas about the Day of Judgement and Christ’s millennial reign had been reproduced in socialism. It is also true that the Revolution inspired apocalyptic hopes in Russia. In 1918 the Symbolist poet Alexander Blok published ‘The Twelve’, in which a band of twelve Red Guards march through the streets of Petrograd led by the figure of Christ under a red flag. Secular and religious forms of messianism are not mutually exclusive – they joined forces in the American Utopian Right, for example. For a time it may have seemed to a few that the new Soviet regime embodied a Russian messianic tradition. But reactionary Russian messianism was not an expansionist creed. For the most part it saw Russia as a redoubt of virtue in a fallen world. It was not this anti-western messianism that came to power in Russia with the October Revolution.

The Bolsheviks wanted to surpass the West by achieving its most radical ideals. They did not aim to emulate actually existing western societies (as late Tsarism did with some success). Lenin wanted to ransplant the core institutions of western capitalism, such as work discipline and the factory system, into Russia. He was an ardent missionary for two of the most advanced capitalist techniques – ‘Taylorism’, the American technique of ‘scientific management’, and ‘Fordism’, American assembly-line mass production. As the Bolshevik leader described his programme, ‘The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.’16 In a similar way Trotsky demanded the ‘militarization of labour’ – a work system in which the discipline of the capitalist factory was carried to a higher level. But Bolshevik goals went far beyond installing the work discipline and techniques of mass production of western capitalism. Central among them was realizing the Enlightenment utopia that the Jacobins and the Paris Commune failed to achieve. Russia’s misfortune was not in failing to absorb the Enlightenment but in being exposed to the Enlightenment in one of its most virulent forms.

Contrary to the views of most western historians, there are few strands of continuity linking Tsarism with Bolshevism. Lenin came to power as a result of a conjunction of accidents. If Russia had withdrawn from the First World War, the Germans had not given Lenin their support, Kerensky’s Menshevik provisional government had been more competent or the military coup attempted against the Mensheviks by General Kornilov in September 1917 had not failed, the Bolshevik Revolution would not have occurred. Terror of the kind practised by Lenin cannot be explained by Russian traditions, or by the conditions that prevailed at the time the Bolshevik regime came to power. Civil war and foreign military intervention created an environment in which the survival of the new regime was threatened from the start; but the brunt of the terror it unleashed was directed against popular rebellion. The aim was not only to remain in power. It was to alter and reshape Russia irreversibly. Starting with the Jacobins in late eighteenth-century France and continuing in the Paris Commune, terror has been used in this way wherever a revolutionary dictatorship has been bent on achieving utopian goals. The Bolsheviks aimed to make an Enlightenment project that had failed in France succeed in Russia. In believing that Russia had to be made over on a European model they were not unusual. Where they were distinctive was in their belief that this required terror, and here they were avowed disciples of the Jacobins. Whatever other purposes it may have served – such as the defence of Bolshevik power against foreign intervention and popular rebellion – Lenin’s use of terror flowed from his commitment to this revolutionary project.

Lenin presented his vision of the society he aimed to achieve in his book State and Revolution. He wrote this utopian tract in August-September 1917 while in hiding in Finland from the Russian Provisional Government, and he originally meant it to appear under a pseudonym. History moved faster than he expected and copies appeared under his own name in 1918, with a second edition appearing a year later. Lenin attached some importance to the book, instructing that if he were killed it must still be published at all costs. It remains the best guide to his picture of the future.


GRAY, John, “Soviet Communism: a modern millenarian revolution”, Black Mass: how religion led the world into crisis. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2008.

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