As 2017 winds down I want to recommend The Russian Revolution: A New History by Sean McMeekin, very likely the only Bard College professor who is not impressed with Socialism.
I had always thought of Bolshevism as a kind of logical next step in the political development of Russia. Professor McMeekin presents the success of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin as almost an accident. The Tsar followed bad advice and entered World War I. The Germans, with whom Russia was at war at the time, financed the Bolsheviks with as much as $1 billion in today’s money. The provisional government that took over after the February Revolution got distracted by a fight with a popular general (the Kornilov affair) and failed to do the obvious thing of arresting all of the German-financed traitors. McMeekin’s point of view does not seem to be the consensus among historians, but it is an interesting perspective.
The history is also relevant for our time due to the debate that we’re having about whether we can make the average American better off by having the government grab money from rich Americans. The Soviets were the masters at this, according to McMeekin. They looted out the world’s largest gold reserves. Then they took all of the property from wealthy private citizens, some of whom were among the richest people in the world. Then they took all of the accumulated wealth of the churches in Russia, which yielded literally tons of silver. Then they took a lot of wealth from the rest of the world by defaulting on the country’s debt. Russia had been one of the world’s most successful economies in the years leading up to the revolution so there was a huge pile of loot to draw down. Nonetheless, the loot didn’t go that far and people ended up starving. What the Russian/Soviet experiment teaches McMeekin is that a growing economy is more important than grabbing accumulated wealth from rich bastards.
McMeekin closes out the book by noting that modern politicians who promise the same stuff that Lenin promised and use the same tactics are likely to rise to power in roughly the same way.