On Easter Sunday exactly a century ago, a train pulled out of Zurich's central station, beginning one of the most famous railroad journeys of all time. On board were Vladimir Lenin, his wife and 30 of their closest friends. Eight days later, after two boat trips and a second train ride, the little band of revolutionaries reached Russia. The rest, of course, is history.
Shipping Lenin home in a sealed train to foment a revolution and thereby take Russia out of the First World War was the idea of Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister at the time. Germany launched several similar plots in that stage of the war, including inciting a Republican rising in Ireland, Islamist jihadism in the Middle East and — the one for which Zimmermann is best remembered — a Mexican invasion of Texas. All except the Russian gambit failed; but though Lenin succeeded in doing what Zimmermann wanted, he succeeded in several other, very different ways, too.
While Lenin's ambitions were chiefly sociological and ideological — to create a socialist paradise — Zimmermann's were more geostrategic, and through most of the 20th century it seemed that Zimmermann had gotten more of what he wanted than Lenin had. On Easter 1918, one year after Lenin's trip, his most obvious accomplishment was getting Russia out of the war and freeing up a million German troops for a last great offensive on the Western Front, exactly as Zimmermann had intended. By Easter 1927, however, a decade after the train left Zurich, Lenin's most important consequence seemed to be the creation of a crusading communist state spreading revolution across Europe. By Easter 1967, half a century after Lenin, his main legacy appeared to be a nuclear-armed superpower capable of ending civilization if the doctrine of mutual assured destruction broke down.
Seen from Easter 2017, however, the geopolitical effects that were so important in the 20th century seem to have faded. Pundits regularly suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin's grand strategy differs little from that of the czars before him. But that doesn't mean Zimmermann and Lenin have been consigned, as Trotsky said of Lenin's socialist rivals, to the scrapheap of history. Rather, the importance of Easter 1917 now looks to have more in common with Lenin's sociological and ideological aims than with Zimmermann's geostrategic ambitions.
Imposing Equality, by Any Means Necessary
In 1962, just as the geostrategic consequences of Lenin's trip were reaching a terrifying peak in the Cuban missile crisis, the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published a classic book called The Age of Revolution. In it he argued that the modern world had been born between 1789 and 1848 in linked economic and political revolutions. On one hand, the British Industrial Revolution gave humanity access to undreamed-of amounts of energy trapped in fossil fuels; on the other, political revolutionaries argued over what kind of society should replace the monarchies and aristocracies that had ruled almost every state on Earth for 5,000 years.
In an earlier column, Jason Lopata and I drew attention to the account that anthropologist Ernest Gellner offered in his 1983 book, Nations and Nationalism, of what he called "Agraria" — a simplified model of how premodern states worked. In these agrarian states, Gellner suggested, "the ruling class forms a small minority of the population, rigidly separate from the great majority of direct agricultural producers, or peasants.
"Below the horizontally stratified minority at the top," Gellner went on, "there is another world, that of the laterally insulated petty communities of the lay members of society" — that is, peasant villages. Gellner called these villages "laterally insulated" because peasants did not get out much: Throughout most of history, few farmers went more than a day's walk from their birthplaces. In Agraria, peasants in each district tended to have their own dialects, rituals and traditions — living, says Gellner, "inward-turned lives, tied to the locality by economic need if not by political prescription."
In Gellner's diagram, broken vertical lines symbolize the fragmentation of the peasant world, while a solid line marks the chasm dividing the masses and elite. States of this kind persisted for five millennia because, at the end of the day, both masses and elites needed each other. Peasants could get on with farming only if managerial elites established a monopoly on violence and used it to back up courts of law and other institutions that made peace, trade and markets possible. Meanwhile, managerial elites could survive only if peasants paid taxes to support them (often in considerable luxury). Agraria was basically a protection racket.
The Industrial Revolution swept Agraria away. To take advantage of the flood of energy released by coal and later oil, societies needed much more sophisticated divisions of labor. "Perpetually growing productivity," Gellner noted, "requires that this division be not merely complex, but also perpetually, and often rapidly, changing." This meant that rather than staying on the farm and doing as their forefathers had done, people had to be able to learn new skills and move where labor was needed. "The immediate consequence of this new kind of mobility is a certain kind of egalitarianism," said Gellner. "Modern society is not mobile because it is egalitarian; it is egalitarian because it is mobile."
Consequently, a diagram of industrial society would not be full of lines, like the diagram of Agraria. It would be an empty rectangle, within which people move freely — because, as Gellner put it, "A society which is destined to a permanent game of musical chairs cannot erect deep barriers of rank, of caste or estate, between the various sets of chairs which it possesses."
Agraria had worked by drawing lines, not just between the elite and the masses but also between men and women, free and enslaved, believers and heretics, pure and defiled, and countless other categories. Each group was assigned its place in a complex hierarchy of mutual obligations and privileges, guaranteed by the divine will (as explained by a priesthood) and state violence. Fossil-fuel society, by contrast, needed to erase lines, creating a homogeneous community of interchangeable citizens, each equally free to move to whatever place they would be most useful.
As a result, if traditional expectations about how people should worship, whom they could marry, and what jobs they might do interfered with the growth of the markets needed to supply the labor fueling an industrialized economy, and to buy the goods and services that it could produce in such abundance, then those traditions had to go. "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify," Marx and Engels rightly observed in 1848. "All that is solid melts into air."
The great challenge of the past two centuries has been how to erase the lines within Agraria. The shift was always going to be traumatic; but in Western Europe and its overseas settler colonies, it was never as violent as Marx and Engels had expected. This was partly because traditional agrarian elites mostly mounted fighting retreats across the 19th century. Rather than making last-ditch stands, they compromised with their critics and even became critics themselves, thereby hanging onto much of their wealth and power as the world changed around them. In the face of such slippery tactics, the critics increasingly turned toward buying cooperation by pursuing liberal, nonviolent transformation.
Yet this hadn't always been the case. In Britain, the kind of new elite that Charles Dickens' novels criticized so savagely initially herded paupers into workhouses and deported felons to Australia to create a more open society, while Euro-Americans first drove Native Americans beyond their borders and then confined them on reservations. But as the 19th century wore on, that changed. As early as the 1830s, British governments legislated on workplace conditions, and in the 1860s the United States deployed massive state violence — not to expel or eliminate African-Americans but to turn them (in principle, at least) into full citizens. By the 1870s, most liberal regimes had legalized trade unions and introduced free compulsory primary education. Some governments even offered savings plans for retirement, public health programs and unemployment insurance. The very word "liberal" changed its meaning, from someone who believed in having the smallest possible state consistent with protecting the individual pursuit of wealth, to someone who believed in governments big enough to intervene to guarantee equal liberties for everyone.
The physical energy released by fossil fuels and the social energy released by the new liberal deal between governments and citizens made Western societies vastly richer and stronger than any others in the world. And unsurprisingly, some non-Westerners began pursuing industrial revolutions of their own. Like the Western liberals, they recognized the need to sweep away Agraria's ancient internal barriers. But outside the West, their opponents were often much more deeply entrenched, and much more willing to shed blood to defend the old ways. Predictably, perhaps, non-Western reformers proved equally willing to try violent, illiberal paths toward a world of homogeneous, interchangeable comrades.
Lenin's legacy for the 21st century was in being the first person to show how an illiberal path to modernity could work.
A Permanent or Temporary Triumph?
In the late 19th century, industrializing autocrats generally did well in their uppermost aim of holding onto power. Between 1911 and 1925, however, all of them — Qing China, Romanov Russia, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, Hohenzollern Germany, Ottoman Turkey and Qajar Persia — collapsed under the strain of mobilizing to fight modern wars against more liberal powers. As the historian Robert Gerwarth shows in his recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, the violence this process let loose was often even worse than that of World War I, and almost all of these ex-Agrarias ended up on extremely illiberal paths toward modernization.
Where liberals used state power to erase boundaries by making everyone equally free to exercise the rights of citizens, illiberals used state power to erase the people themselves if they did not seem to fit into the in-group, defined in terms of class by communists and race by fascists. The path away from Agraria that Lenin forged was deeply paradoxical, subjecting citizens to harsh discipline in the name of equality, deploying armies of slave laborers in the name of economic progress, and swinging back toward treating rulers as semi-divine superhumans in the name of the people. The original cult of personality was Lenin's own, implying at his funeral in 1924 that concentrating all power in the hands of one man was actually the same thing as giving all power to the people, because the Communist Party's leaders were so wise that they singlehandedly embodied the general will. Between 1917 and 1939, these wise leaders killed more than 10 million of their comrades who did not fit.
There were several points in the 20th century, especially during the 1930s and 1970s, when Lenin's illiberal path toward industrial society seemed to be moving faster than the liberal one. 1945 and 1989, however, seemed to falsify such claims, the latter so decisively that political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously announced that the world had reached "the end of history" because liberal democracy had outperformed all its conceivable rivals. Freedom House even provided statistical support for this claim, calculating that while in 1972 just 29 percent of the world's societies were free and 46 percent unfree, by 1998 the proportions had been reversed, with 46 percent free and 26 percent unfree.
In the nearly 10 years since the financial crisis of 2008, however, the forward march of liberalism has been checked. Since the 1980s, China's post-Maoist version of illiberal development has consistently provided faster economic growth than the liberal versions. Admittedly, it began from a much lower starting point than the West and, despite being able to pluck a lot of low-hanging fruit, has generated environmental disaster, massive corruption and violent protests. But some observers nonetheless conclude that illiberal policies might be the best option for growth in the 21st century.
Voters in Turkey, Hungary and Russia certainly seem to think so, returning to power the self-proclaimed "illiberal democrats" Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin, all while 2016 brought nationalist and populist backlashes against liberal globalization to the Western core. Comparing Donald Trump, Theresa May or Marine Le Pen to Hitler — as some shrill journalists do — reveals a profound lack of perspective, but the fact remains that in the 2010s, more people seem attracted to illiberal paths than at any time in the past 40 years. Lenin's legacy continues to mutate; today it is the example he set as the founding father of the first modern but illiberal society that most commands our attention. And a century after Lenin's train left Zurich's central station, the long-term triumph of liberalism is once again in question.