Amid the numbing and relentless onslaught of news — much of it baffling or disturbing, and some of it occasionally even encouraging — a pair of momentous anniversaries passed us by during the last week. It isn’t quite true that they went unnoticed, but in this atmosphere of permanent national crisis we couldn’t do much more than wave at them as they flew past.
One year ago on Nov. 8, of course, was the Election Day That Shook the World, with the flukish or fateful outcome that literally nobody expected. I won’t bother trying to dig up the news stories, but people in Donald Trump’s campaign told reporters that afternoon it would take a miracle for their candidate to win the election. Medieval theologians no doubt had a word for that kind of miracle, one in negative form, wrought by diabolical rather than divine forces. What happened on that day last November, and why it happened, are still subjects of such intense dispute that I’m tempted to say we don’t understand the outcome of the 2016 election any better than we did when we woke up the next morning in disbelief. (For some, in shock; for others, rapture.)
Ninety-nine years before the morning of Trump’s victory, on Nov. 9, 1917, came the culminating moment of the Russian Revolution, when the socialist militant faction known as the Bolsheviks captured the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and seized state power in the name of the working class, a social group that barely existed in that country at that time. They didn’t use the term “communist” until much later; that referred only to a hypothetical future society with no social classes and no state. To make matters more confusing, their history-shaping insurrection is known as the October Revolution because of the calendrical misalignment between Russia and the West; by our reckoning it occurred in November.
There’s no way I can remotely do justice to either of those perplexing events — let alone the tenuous, tangential historical relationship between them, which has elements of echo and elements of parody — in a column cranked out in a few quiet hours on Friday evening, after a week that has included Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, the thickening cloud of the Russia investigation and the coast-to-coast Democratic sweep in what would ordinarily have been a nearly meaningless off-year election. Here’s my verdict on the Russian Revolution: Really complicated! It changed the world, all right, but not in the ways anyone expected, and its ultimate lessons about human nature and power relations were not edifying. You’re welcome!
There are a couple of obvious initial points to make. Both of these insurgent movements were understood by their most enthusiastic supporters (and some of their opponents) as an uprising of oppressed people against their overlords — and in both cases the insurgency wasn’t led or orchestrated by the oppressed people themselves, but by others who claimed to act in their name and to represent their interests. Both appeared, at least momentarily, to present an existential threat to the dominant world order, which was often called “bourgeois democracy” in 1917 but has no universally agreed-upon name today, all such terms having fallen into confusion and disrepute. (“Liberal democracy” doesn’t quite work when some of the biggest players in the global economy are neither.) Both sought to draw a knife through the world and reveal or create a fundamental division: Which side are you on?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting any moral or historical equivalence, and I don’t think Trump’s election will have anything like the reverberating after-effects of the Russian Revolution. However you feel about their end product, Lenin and Trotsky’s revolution was unquestionably fueled by profound passion and conviction, as well as by a high-minded 19th-century utopian idealism that from our jaundiced perspective looks like the height of hubris. The Trumpian moment was, at most, a pallid shadow-play simulation of revolution, conducted largely from the nation’s sofas through the pseudo-public space of social media. One reason so many of us feel so disoriented by Trump’s ascendancy, I think, is that it has revealed a profound cynicism and nihilism at the heart of American society, which we are forced to admit has been growing there for a long time.
If I took a year off and locked myself up in a really good library, I might come back with something more worthwhile to say on these topics and how they are connected. (Then again, I might not.) But what occurred to me this week is that almost everything I’ve struggled with over the past year, and everything I’ve written about, has in a sense been about trying to understand the relationship between those two events.
I don’t mean just those two events, the Russian and Trumpian revolutions, although they are important markers on the landscape. History brought us here somehow, and history is always a web of interconnected currents and vibrations, even if we will never fully discern its threads and tendrils. It’s never adequate, and always misleading, to consider historical events in isolation or to assume they can be explained with linear chains of causality. To say that Vladimir Putin corrupted our democracy or that white working-class Americans embraced an authoritarian leader may both be true statements, and are not necessarily in contradiction. But those are not “uncaused causes,” to use social-science jargon; they didn’t come from nowhere. To some extent the world as reshaped by the Russian Revolution brought us to the world that could be reshaped by Donald Trump.
We can say a few more things, I think, about this bizarre twin anniversary and about these disparate events connected by a thread of history that may not be pure accident. Maybe it starts with altered perception, or altered epistemology. Donald Trump’s election and presidency is the central motivating factor behind the atmosphere of national chaos I mentioned earlier: the unrelenting firehose of headline news, the deeply entrenched divisions that go beyond party or ideology to basic questions of fact. Of course Trump didn’t cause those things, but his symbolic power is immense; his presence or existence has galvanized them and magnified them many times over. It’s not just that Trump divides the public into those who love him and those who hate him; Barack Obama and George W. Bush did that too. But he doesn’t even pretend to be a unifying leader with a sacred responsibility to the whole nation and all its people. That’s a radical and disorienting break with the past.
Everything about the Roy Moore story, from the emergence of a right-wing zealot and vicious homophobe as a plausible candidate for national office to the allegations of sexual assault that may (or may not) short-circuit his political career, is endemic to the Trump era and virtually unthinkable in any other. Trump, of course, technically opposed Moore in the Alabama Republican primary; Steve Bannon — a video-game simulation of Niccolò Machiavelli who has come to believe he’s the real thing — knew better.
Trump has had other unintended consequences too. For millions of women in America and around the world, no matter how they felt about Hillary Clinton, the overtly misogynistic character of Trump’s candidacy and presidency was radicalizing. Seeing a man elected president who has repeatedly bragged about his predatory sexual behavior (while issuing half-hearted, wink-wink denials) and who played directly to ingrained sexist impulses launched a chain reaction of sorts. One of its immediate consequences was the Women’s March, but a more consequential one has been women finding their voices after years of feeling intimidated into silence, and the resulting outpouring of accusations against powerful and prominent men in many areas of public life. It seems a cruel irony that this awakening cannot directly touch the Trump presidency, but if we know anything about historical payback it tends to arrive late and in unexpected fashion.
It’s fair to say that the Russian Revolution had a similarly disorienting effect on the world of the early 20th century, although the context and circumstances were immeasurably different. Ironies and unintended consequences abound. The Bolshevik example inspired generations of activists, revolutionaries and artists around the world, even as the Soviet state itself descended into brutal and stupefied one-party rule. It’s still heretical to say this, but the Soviet Union’s foreign policy during the Cold War was vastly more progressive and less duplicitous than that of the United States. If the strategic goal of all that development aid and anti-imperialist hell-raising was approximately the same as Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal today — to destabilize Western “democracy” and reveal it as a cynical fraud — it was at least partly successful.
If Steve Bannon has actually called himself a Leninist, it was strictly for the lulz, since Bannon doesn’t understand anything important about the history or ideology of Lenin’s movement -- neither why it succeeded nor why it failed. Lenin believed it was worth pushing the profoundly underprepared Russian proletariat into the vanguard of history, because the inevitable result would be the rapid worldwide victory of socialism.
That was a delusion of spectacular dimensions that led to untold amounts of human suffering, but at least it was built on a highly developed theory of history that many people believed at the time. Bannon has conjured up a similar but far stupider fantasy, built on nothing more than mental masturbation: His intra-Republican putsch would lead to a 50-year Reich of “jacked-up” shipyards and trillion-dollar infrastructure plans, in which right-wing “economic nationalism” holds uninterrupted hegemony over American politics. In the real world, he couldn't convince his own party to pass a single piece of major legislation, and has gone back to running a website with screaming ALL-CAPS headlines
As Leon Trotsky reflected in his later years, the Bolsheviks had underestimated the revolutionary ingenuity of capitalism, which Karl Marx had written about so fulsomely. In practice, the Russian revolutionaries accomplished nearly the opposite of their intended goal: The specter of communism terrified liberal democracy into reforming itself over the next several decades, as suffragists, labor unions, civil-rights activists and other progressive movements won a series of major victories. To put it bluntly, the Russian Revolution was dreadful for the people who had to live in the societies it created, but largely a good thing for those of us in the West.
We all felt great, for a minute there, when the Berlin Wall came down and Leonard Bernstein conducted “Ode to Joy” and “freedom” came to the Eastern bloc nations. And then, in short order, we were informed that “the era of big government” was over, except of course for the parts of the government we couldn’t see. Financial markets no longer required regulation, because the cycle of boom-and-bust was over. Economic inequality surged toward all-time highs and the redistributive welfare states of the Western world were dismantled piece by piece, in the name of a specious new morality of efficiency and austerity. Donald Trump’s “big, beautiful wall,” which even his supporters halfway understood would never be built, might be a subconscious displacement mechanism: Remember when we had a wall? Life was better then.
So the lesson for Steve Bannon, and the rest of us, is that nothing is likely to turn out the way anyone intends, or anyone expects. Those who believe they can shape history are sometimes correct; those who believe they can control it never are. If the Russian Revolution remains a puzzling quandary in the 100-year rearview mirror, it looks a lot different now than it did at the time, or than it did 50 years ago. It changed history, but we’re still trying to figure out how — because we’re living inside the history that was changed (and is changing), and have no other possible vantage point.
Donald Trump’s improbable and disastrous presidency will look different in hindsight too, and will change us. It's highly unlikely that Trumpism will conquer the world any more than Soviet-style communism did. It would be nice to believe that democracy can reform itself in the face of this assault and make a comeback. (I am not personally optimistic.) One safe prediction is that other things will happen, that no one in 2017 could possibly have foreseen. Will there be clear and conclusive explanations for all this, shared by all reasonable people in a harmonious future society? Not in a hundred years.