scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The cautionary tale of the Bolshevik revolution

Posters depicting Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin at a rally marking the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in downtown Moscow on Nov. 7. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The following is an abridged version of a speech Niall Ferguson delivered at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, in Washington, D.C., last Thursday.

Earlier this marked the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Between 1917 and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the grand total of victims of Communism was between 85 million and 100 million.

Could more have been done to halt the Communist pandemic after it broke out in Russia in 1917? Yes. After all, the only reason Lenin was able to get from Zurich to Petrograd in 1917 was that the imperial German government paid for his ticket — and more. An estimated $12 million was channeled from the Kaiser’s coffers to Lenin and his associates.


The provisional government thus had every right to arrest Lenin and his 19 associates on arrival. They were German agents. And Alexander Kerensky, who took control of the provisional government in July 1917, had even better grounds to round the Bolsheviks up: By then, they had attempted a coup and failed.

The problem was that people underestimated Lenin & Co. They seemed an unruly bunch of intellectuals. No contemporary Western observer thought for a moment that their crackpot coup would last. Naive American bankers completely failed to appreciate that the Bolsheviks meant exactly what they said about defaulting on the entire czarist debt. No one foresaw that hereditary nobleman Ulyanov (to give Lenin his original name) was equally capable of ordering mass murder.

Foreign intervention, incompetent liberals, clueless bankers: That makes three reasons the Bolsheviks weren’t stopped. Let me not forget the fellow travellers. John Reed, with his risible glamorizing of the revolution, would have many, many heirs.

Not many went quite as far as the Cambridge spies, who shamefully betrayed their own country to Stalin. But how many intellectuals between 1917 and 1991 turned a blind eye to the crimes of Communism? Too many to count.


Another, less obvious reason that the Communist virus continued to spread for so long was that even good men underestimated the Soviet threat and were assailed by doubts about how much should be done to resist it.

From the outbreak of the Korean War to the final confrontation in the early 1980s, even those who considered themselves anti-Communist frequently lacked the stomach for the fight. Time and again during the Cold War, eminent Americans — especially the products of Ivy League colleges — succumbed to relativism. Perhaps this contest between the superpowers was really the fault of the United States. Perhaps the United States should simply withdraw its forces from the contested gray zones — from Southeast Asia, from Central and South America, from sub-Saharan Africa.

And yet behold what happened when the United States did that. It is now more or less orthodoxy that the Vietnam War was an unmitigated disaster. Ken Burns’s PBS documentary is the latest version of a familiar narrative. I am of the unfashionable view that the real disaster was to abandon the people of South Vietnam to their cruel and entirely predictable fate at the hands of the Communist North.

Have we learned anything from this history? Not nearly enough. It is not just the millennials in Che Guevara T-shirts I worry about. It is not just the revival of antifa by young Americans presumably unaware of the murky history of the German Communists — the original antifa. It’s not just the rising power of a China still ruled by Communists — to say nothing of the sycophantic treatment I see their leader receiving (most recently from the American president himself). It is not just the North Korean nuclear missiles, a stark reminder that Communism is as ready as ever to kill people by the million.


No, what concerns me today is the entirely familiar response we see to a different but equally dangerous threat. Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam since the Iranian Revolution unleashed its Shia variant and since 9/11 revealed the even more aggressive character of Sunni Islamism. I fear we have done no better than our grandfathers did when the virus spreading around the world was Bolshevism. It is, indeed, the same old story.

Foreign intervention — the millions of dollars that have found their way from the Gulf to radical mosques and Islamic centres in the West. Incompetent liberals — the proponents of multiculturalism who brand any opponent of jihad an “Islamophobe.” Clueless bankers — the sort who fall over themselves to offer “sharia-compliant” loans and bonds. Fellow travelers — the leftists who line up with the Muslim Brotherhood to castigate the state of Israel at every opportunity. And the faint-hearted — those who were so quick to pull out of Iraq in 2009 that they allowed the rump of al Qaeda to morph into ISIS.


A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our very existence.

It would be hard to devise a better illustration of George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”