The West fails to understand China because it didn’t understand Lenin
When comparing Lenin and Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov observed that “Lenin was more severe.” It was a compliment. Molotov had held very senior positions under both (and was the only senior official to survive both), and Stalin had planned to force Molotov out (which Khrushchev eventually did). Molotov’s wife once confessed to Stalin’s daughter, “Your father was a genius. There’s no revolutionary spirit around nowadays, just opportunism everywhere.”
Westerners repeatedly failed to understand this “revolutionary spirit,” the kernel of Leninism from which modern communism grew.
Leninism & the Self-Referential State
Leninism doesn’t operate under the law or above the law. Leninism isn’t the law. Rather, it operates outside of the law, with no relationship to the law. Likewise, such a state has no relationship to morality or religion or common sense or economics or ideology. It is a thing unto itself, like a primal force. It may conform to reason only if it wishes; it is not otherwise bound to reasonableness. Such an invention was wholly untethered from the usual foundations of government.
State legitimacy has some foundation; in the modern West, such legitimacy is found in the consent of the governed. The American Founders believed that democracy was a non-violent state of perpetual revolution. Other states may be founded on overwhelming force, specifically the capability to repel invaders and keep a population (and their property) secure, or they may be founded on affirmation from the priests or other founding myths.
In contrast to history and the West, the legitimacy of Leninism was founded on power and its expression through terror. It was concerned with the well-being of its people or its economy or the terms in an international agreement only as far as such concerns served the State.
Leninism was quite a new post-Enlightenment invention that elevated the State above all else, including truth and evidence. It had no inherent interest in its own people or its own economy other than that which promoted the State. Uniquely, Lenin killed more of his own people than anyone else, and Leninism is responsible for more Russian deaths than either the Russian Civil War (fyi >10M dead) or World War I (Russian lost more than any other country) or World War II. Historically, maniacal tyrants usually killed other people; Lenin killed his own. One could argue that Lenin hated Russians (and Ukrainians and everyone else) but truer is that Leninism viewed everything — and everyone — as in service to the State. A Russian’s only relevance was what he or she could do for the State. A Russian’s life and property and interests and dreams existed only to serve the State; there was nothing else.
Perhaps more innovative than Leninism’s neutralization of the status of the people who lived under it was its neutralization of the status of the people who implemented it. Lenin terrorized his countrymen; but he also terrorized other Leninists. Indeed, working within the Party was perhaps more dangerous than without; the secret police — the Cheka and the NKVD — were constantly arresting, torturing and disappearing Party officials and, of course, their families; in the USSR, being a relative of a traitor was a crime.
None of this is paranoia; the State did not fear itself. It was a thing unto itself. And the policy of terror wasn’t a “policy” as the West understands “policies” — debatable and changeable and subject to reality; rather, terror was the State. A State defined by such practices was the natural result of a new kind of epicurean tribalism. Epicurean in that nothing existed beyond the human — no God or eternal morality, thus no rights or values. And tribal in that the State was not part of anything; it was its own tribe, only loyal to itself. Everything that did not benefit the tribe was an enemy — whether the other was America or a grandmother in Kiev. As far back as 1906, Lenin had defined this new state as “nothing other than power that is totally unlimited by any laws, totally unrestrained by absolutely any rules, and based directly on force.” Never before had such practices defined a State.
And for Lenin, anything or one who did not contribute to this new force called the State was an enemy; there could be no questioning or doubt. “The only choice is: either the bourgeois or the socialist ideology. There is no middle course,” Lenin said. “To belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn away from it in the slightest degree, means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.” All truth and morality was subject to this terrifying binarism.
And the solution for questions or doubts — appeals to reason or truth — was force, as the true expression of this new State was violence. As peasants (“kulaks”) rebelled against Leninism, Lenin issued this order
The kulak uprising must be crushed without pity. . . . 1) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take all their grain away from them. 4) Identify hostages . . . . Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry . . . .
P. S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s recommendation for the expression of the State included “real, nationwide terror, which invigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory.” Of course, once the French Revolution ceased terror, it ceased being revolutionary. Leninism — the “revolutionary spirit” — does not cease terror.
In order to maintain a revolutionary spirit, Lenin regularly requested “the cleansing of Russia’s soil of all harmful insects, of scoundrels, fleas, bedbugs — the rich, and so on.”
Lenin identified empathy as the primary enemy of Leninism, and so schoolchildren were taught that kindness and mercy were merely weaknesses and filthy vices. Conscience was replaced with consciousness, in which the mind and will of the person melds completely with the State. Conscience and mercy were the vulnerabilities that might led one to fail to denounce one’s family and friends or execute one’s neighbor, if the State so orders. “We reject any morality based on extra-human and extra-class concepts,” Lenin declared. “Morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle.” There was no morality other than the will of the State.
For the people, there is “law,” which is the will of the State. The State, however, is bound to no such law. Any law that prohibited any action of the State was, for Lenin, “bourgeois,” and thus is Leninism’s contempt for the Western concepts of ‘law’ and ‘crime’ and ‘trial’. And while many believed that Statecraft-by-terror would cease once the country stabilized, Lenin assured them that such a transformation was impossible. Leninism was terror. “It is the biggest mistake,” he said, “to think that we will put an end to the terror. We shall return to the terror, and to economic terror,” he wrote. Once the Bolsheviks had secured power and the country was stabilizing, Lenin required that the legal code reflect Statecraft-by-terror. “The law should not abolish terror,” he demanded. “It should be substantiated and legalized in principle, without evasion or embellishment.” Keep in mind that he was insisting on terrorizing his own people, on formalizing the arbitrary nature of State power, on codifying State immunity from reason or truth.
The 1936 Soviet Constitution guaranteed more rights than any other state in the world. Similarly, Lenin was an egregious liar. Neither are relevant for Leninism, as the State is above any constitution or truth. Anything that weakens the State is the enemy, and the State is above all. Leninists always default to whatever is most useful to the State and considers such State-truths to be neither lies nor hypocrisies. The West often missed this point, assuming that the U.S.S.R. modified facts and truths only later to discover, to their horror, that the U.S.S.R. often did not “distort facts” but rather invented them. Everything from gulag populations to economic numbers to military treaties may be presented as fact but was more often wholesale invention. Leninism views any tethers to facts that don’t support the State as naive and bourgeois.
That a Leninist State rules by terror is to miss the point; Leninist States rule without limitation. Georgy Pyatakov, a Bolshevik revolutionary leader and a politician during the Russian Revolution, explained, “According to Lenin, the Communist Party is based on the principle of coercion which doesn’t recognize any limitations or inhibitions. And the central idea of this principle of boundless coercion is not coercion itself but the absence of any limitation whatsoever — moral, political, and even physical, as far as that goes. Such a Party is capable of achieving miracles and doing things which no other collective of men could achieve.”
And yet even when Westerners view Leninism as an “ideology,” they miss the simple brutality of this new invention. Ideology is a thing unto itself, and ideology might come in conflict with the State. One might question the State’s adherence to ideology, and one’s adherence to ideology may cause doubt in the State. Thus, ideology is an enemy. This is the result of hyper-tribalism. Polish Marxist historian Leszek Kołakowski observed that “The citizen belongs to the state and must have no other loyalty, not even to the state ideology,” as ideology may be a restraint on State power.
Thus there is no restraint on the State. And the State operates within a binary vacuum of terror: whatever the State wants is moral, whatever others want is immoral and must be destroyed. This hedonism of power is the only driving idea behind Leninism.
When Molotov’s wife confessed to Stalin’s daughter that “Your father was a genius. There’s no revolutionary spirit around nowadays, just opportunism everywhere,” she ended with “China’s our only hope. Only they have kept alive the revolutionary spirit.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was borne from Leninism and its primary challenge is how to raise this brutal post-Enlightenment child in a world of inter-dependent economies and instant online videos. And so, when one observes that the CCP has a higher kill-count than any other regime — higher than the Nazis or the Soviets — it is but a sign than the CCP are good Leninists. When one further observes that most of those corpses are Chinese, it is but a sign that the CCP are great Leninists. When the CCP demonizes the Japanese for war crimes in Manchuria yet neglects to mention that the CCP murdered more Chinese than the Japanese did, it is but a sign that the CCP understands that the State exists outside of truth and morality.
And so, when negotiating with the CCP — military or economic or rights agreements — remember the CCP’s Leninist birth. If one wonders whether the CCP ever intended to adhere to the Sino-British Joint Declaration or the WTO agreement or any other Western formality, the answer is always: only and as long as it serves the CCP. The agreements themselves — like truth or morality — are foreign to the CCP’s Leninist roots.
CCP terror has largely gone unchecked; rather, what gives pause to the CCP is not any a riot at a factory or a protest from the West but rather the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The question — and the tension — within the CCP now is to determine whether the Soviet Union’s fatal error was losing its “revolutionary spirit” under Khrushchev or waiting until Gorbachev to liberalize.
Vladimir Lenin. What Is to Be Done? 1902.
Dmitri Volkogonov. Lenin: A New Biography. Free Press, 1994. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev. HarperCollins Publishers 1998.
Leszek Kołakowski. Main Currents of Marxism: Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution. Oxford University Press 1976. Revised 2005.
Gary Saul Morson. “Leninthink.” New Criterion 2019.
 Hence the creation of the “one-party State.” As a “party” is, by definition, a part of a whole, there can be no “one-party State.” And so, “one-party State” is a contradiction and thus the State’s renunciation of reason.
 Executed in 1937 for not being sufficiently Leninist, even after offering to execute his wife.
About Nathan Allen
Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.