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Leninist Alternative


This section of our course is devoted to the emergence of the Leninist Nation-state.

Here’s something we can all agree upon:  The communist regimes of the past century frequently  pursued policies that led to  the deaths of millions of people. This is a fact.  Still, we have to ask why these regimes lasted as long as they did.  After all, for much of the twentieth century there were as many  Leninist Nation-states in the world as Liberal Democratic states.  The answer to this question is that Leninism represented the preeminent challenge to Liberal Democracy in the modern age.

My personal confession: Covering this historical period isn’t just a matter of appreciating a now deceased historical tradition.  As I shall argue in this section, the legacy of Leninism helps us to understand the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un today. Even more important, this period provides essential clues to understanding why people might support populist and dictatorial ideologies today–and why others might break away from these ideologies.  In other words, the past is present—and future.

I have written extensively on this issue.  If you like, feel free to read my new book, Vanguard of the Revolution.  NOTE: my book is emphatically not a required reading in this class.

15. LECTURE: Monday, September 25

Reflections on Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and its significance for the history of world communism.

Today’s Question: Why did so many smart people become Marxists? My argument is that Marxism shared many of the same foundations as Liberalism, even though it represented a radical critique of Liberal thought.  It is essential to understand Marxism because it paved the way for a fundamentally different path to the Modern Nation-state.

In the contemporary world, it is equally important to ask why any intelligent person would support extremism.  The problem just won’t go away.

Assignment:  Read the Manifesto carefully–at least three times.  Look beyond the details for Marx’s overarching argument.  How does this famous essay represent a critique of capitalism?  Why would it have been so appealing to many 19th and 20th century thinkers?  Why might it even be appealing to people caught up in populist politics today, especially to the enthusiasts of Bernie Sanders and, yes, even Donald Trump (but not to the non-populist enthusiasts of Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan).  Pay close attention to what Marx says about the revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,  The Communist Manifesto, sections, 1, 2, and 4.

Friedrich Engels, “On the Condition of the Working Class in England”  PRINT AND READ

M. Faraday, July 7, 1855, “The Filth of the Thames”  PRINT AND READ

John McCain, “Salute to a Communist”  PRINT AND READ


16. LECTURE:  Wednesday, September 27

Reflections on the causes of the Bolshevik revolution and its roots in the unintended consequences of tsars’ imperial ambitions.

Today’s Assumption:  Marx never expected that his revolution would take place in the East.  In fact, he predicted it would not.  So, how did the event happen?  One must consider the setting of the Bolshevik revolution in order to understand why this context was better suited than the industrial world to mass upheaval.

In considering the Bolshevik revolution, I also mean to address the issue of historical and political change.  Since people use and overuse the word “revolution” all the time, I want you to think about how we should distinguish between “revolutionary” events and events that are only highly significant.  In my view, with which some observers would disagree, there haven’t been many revolutions.  Indeed, I am not totally convinced that the American Revolution was a “revolution.”  Please feel free to disagree with me.

You are at an historic moment!  This year marks the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. A stunning event, the implications of which are still with us today:

“Russian Revolution of 1917,” New World Encyclopedia READ

“The Russian Revolution,” DocumentaryTube.com (1:33.54)  WATCH  (Watch as much of this film as you can.  It’s fascinating and full of terrific footage)

17. DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, September 29

Discussion:  The Communist Manifesto was once banned across the United States (along with other classic works, such as Catcher in the Rye, The Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses).  Now you can read it and try to figure out what all the fuss was about.  In some ways, Marx’s thinking was consonant with Liberal values.  But at the same time, he came to radically different conclusions about how Liberalism’s leading principles could be realized.  How can both of these claims be true?  Keep in mind that Marxism did not come from nowhere, at least not initially.  It had the same historical roots as Liberalism.

Assignment: If you had been alive in 1848, what is the single-most important point in the Communist Manifesto that would have made you decide to become a communist—and why?  One paragraph.


18. LECTURE:  Monday, October 2

Reflections on Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s transformation of elementary Marxism into a new political identity: Leninism (originally known as Bolshevism).

Today’s Assumption: Leninism had more to do with defining Marxism than the other way around.   Lenin was a mediocre philosopher but a great revolutionary.   He knew instinctively how to apply a western recipe for radical change to a backward country.  For this reason, one could argue that “Marx was archaeopteryx  and Lenin was a bird.”  See HERE

Assignment:  The best way to understand the full implications of Leninism is to see how it was implemented at the height of the Soviet revolution under Josef Stalin.  To this end, I am asking you to read the Man himself.

Selections from Josef Stalin,  Foundations of Leninism.  PRINT AND READ Section 4 (“Dictatorship of the Proletariat”) and Section 8  (“The Party”)

Watch Pete Seeger sing the  The Internationale.  I sang it to my tour guides when I was in Pyongyang, North Korea and it drove them crazy.  How could they prevent me from paying tribute to one of their ideological forebears!  Yet the entire time I was in North Korea, I only saw one picture of Marx and Lenin.

More versions of the International:

The classic Soviet version WATCH

Also, from the movie ‘Reds’ starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton:   WATCH

Also, Chinese pop version WATCH

Also, Bill Murray’s puppet sings: WATCH

Also, Rage Against the Machine: WATCH

Also, listen to “Occupy Wall Street” protesters sing the Internationale WATCH  (I’m not sure how so many knew the song)

19. LECTURE:  Wednesday, October 4

Reflections on the transmogrification of Leninist utopia into Stalinist terror.

Today’s Assumption: Stalin’s regime of terror was intrinsically, if not inevitably, rooted in the goals and institutions of Leninism.  Leninism also degenerated into horrific violence in other countries, especially China. But as I will suggest in a coming lecture, it had different roots due to the fact that not all communists followed the same path to power.


“Purges and Hysteria in the Soviet Union”: READ  (all six pages)

Ode to Stalin:  READ


20. DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, October 6

Paragraph assignment:  “Was Marx an archaeopteryx  and Lenin his bird?”

Discussion:  You have been assigned to start a revolution–a real one!–at Notre Dame.  Based upon your reading of the chapters from Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism, please exuberantly and passionately discuss the following two questions:  1) what would Lenin (and Stalin) advise you to do to foment this revolution? and 2) what kinds of problems would arise once you have this revolution going?

To put the question more generally: Are all true revolutions inevitably destined to spiral into violence?

21. LECTURE:  Monday, October 9

Reflections on the Leninist challenge to Liberal Democracy.

Today’s Assumption: Leninism was initially a credible challenge to Liberal Democracy.  Its lasting appeal was reinforced by a variety of factors.  In the 1980s, I had the rather unusual experience of living in East Germany. I’ll attempt to give you a sense for these factors by sharing some of my experiences in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Assignment:  In the 1980s, all of the experts, including yours truly, were skeptical about the idea that people living under communism could rise up spontaneously against their leaders.  Yet in the late 1970s, dissidents like the physicist Adrei Sakharov and the playwright Vaclav Havel, were already thing in about why such events might occur.

Havel’s essay is not only about life in Czechoslovakia.  It is about what it means to “live within the truth” in any social, including the US.  This is a big theme in Fahrenheit 451.  The dispute over the meaning of “truth” and its implications for our behavior is also central to the crisis of American democracy today.

Václav Havel, “Power of the Powerless,” in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990, sections I-VI.

The “Power of the Powerless” is challenging reading. I am honored that you will take up this challenge.

For background, see my comments on Charter 77  as well as a short article on Havel’s life 


22. IN-CLASS FILM:  Wednesday, October 11

Film II: “A Journey to Russia ”

This film chronicles the experiences of an American debate team as its members travel around the Soviet Union in 1983, two years before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.

Do not be late for class.  We will start promptly at 9:30.

Reflect:  Why would Stalin still be popular in Russia?  VIEW

Stalin returns:  HERE


23.  DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, October 13     Your TAs are setting up different dates for this discussion section.  Please make sure you know when and where you should go.

Discussion:  Discuss the first half of “Power of the Powerless.”  Why is the green grocer so important to Havel’s argument?  Would you have acted differently than the green grocer if you had lived in a Leninist state?  What kinds of events would be required to the green grocer to rebellion (or perhaps you, too)?

Paragraph Assignment:  To what extent, if at all, do we “live within a lie” in the United States”?


MID-TERM BREAK:  October 14-22


24. Monday, October 23

Reflections on the sudden and total collapse of the Leninist nation-state.

Today’s Assumption:  No one predicted this development (in the serious sense of  the word “prediction”).  Moreover, Leninism was not destined to collapse when it did.

Assignment:  Reflect upon Gorbachev and the fall of the Leninist nation-State

Read about Gorbachev and the concept of Leninist reform READ

Finish Reading Václav Havel, “Power of the Powerless,” in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990, remaining sections.

Realistically speaking, could Leninist have been reformed in the way Gorbachev hoped?   How compatible were his two primary reform concepts (below) with the Leninist political identity we have reviewed up to now?

On Perestroika  READ
On Glasnost READ

Implications:  What lessons can we learn from the communist experience about dictatorial collapse? Is it enough to present people with FACTS about a dictatorship’s failure?


25.  LECTURE:  Wednesday, October 25 

Reflections on the fuzzy transition to post-communism in the 1990s and then the advance of populist hysteria in the 2010s.

Today’s Assumption: The big surprise was not only that Leninism fell between 1989 and 1991. In many cases, it began the gradual progression to something resembling Liberal Democracy. Yet the question today is quite different:  Will viable democracy survive in any meaningful sense?

Signs of life after dictatorship!  Gorbachev sings LISTEN

Vladimir Putin plays piano and sings WATCH


What is new, what has changed after the revolutions of 1989-1991?

Lilia Shevtsova, “Forward to the Past” PRINT AND READ

Vladimir Tismaneanu, “The Legacies of 1989:  The Moving Ruins” Journal of Democracy, January 2014 See JSTOR at Hesburgh Library e-Journals  PRINT AND READ

Julia Ioffe, “Why many young Russians see a hero in Putin” PRINT AND READ

Once you have read these articles, reflect upon alternative models for this transition:   mass extinction or archaeopteryx.  What would the adoption of one or the other of these images tell you about political change?


26.  DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, October 27

Discussion:  Finish your discussion of Havel by asking what makes the green grocer revolt.  Is Havel’s analysis persuasive?  Or when we are dealing with oppressive dictatorships, is it just wishful thinking to expect that the weak will rise up against the strong?

Paragraph Assignment:  Identify one example of “living within a lie” in the United States today and specify what would be required to overcome it.


Your Second Reflective Essay Question is HERE. You have until Friday, November 3 to respond (more than a week!).



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