A Tale of Four Countries
Published: 7 November 2008 (GMT+10)
Joseph Stalin (1878–1953)
As a South African reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography Young Stalin,1 I was struck with an alarming sense of déjà vu. The prevailing personal and broad social dynamics at play in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution seem to so parallel those of our country.
Underlying every area of social intercourse—among and between the revolutionaries themselves, the various revolutionary ideologies, business interests and even the executive of the state—was conspiracy and mistrust, in a bitter struggle for supremacy.
Betrayal, rumours and accusations, such as of being a ‘counter-revolutionary’, were used to undermine and even destroy the lives of friend and foe alike, including those on the same side of the ideological spectrum. History showed that these charges were often groundless, while those actually guilty of such things often got away with it.
Photo by Patty Ghillebert, Stock.xchng
The social phenomena then prevailing were like many we experience today in South Africa. Corruption reigned among those in high office as well as those opposing them. There were well orchestrated bank robberies and even cash in transit heists2 (in Stalin’s day, horse-drawn cash carriages). These were ostensibly to fund the revolution, but were often a means of personal enrichment under the guise of ‘the struggle’. Sexual profligacy was rampant amongst the ruling elite as well as the revolutionary leaders, and there was a general promiscuity and amorality amongst the population at large.
Stalin also made extensive use of gangsters in achieving political ends and was said to prefer them to ideologues. All this was set in the context of obscene, flashy wealth of a minority and tremendous poverty and hardship of the majority. What a perfect setting for revolution—ushering in leaders who, once in power, showed themselves to have the same corrupt natures as those they replaced. And who, under totalitarian rule, were freed to indulge in lasciviousness and use cruelty and brutality to a degree that the former regime, corrupt as it was, would not have dreamt of.
Stalin, Lenin and other influential individuals openly espoused the use of whatever barbarism and deceit it took to have their way in achieving their utopia. When an acquaintance ironically suggested to Lenin that an early Marxist instrument of government be named ‘the Commissariat of Social Annihilation’, Lenin responded, ‘Well said! That’s exactly how it’s going to be.’3 The book recounts how he said to other acquaintances, ‘We’re engaged in annihilation’, ‘Break, beat up everything, beat and destroy! Everything that’s being broken is rubbish and has no right to life! What survives is good’. He and Stalin were also lovers of the lie in achieving their goals. Stalin once told Molotov in a climax of doublespeak, ‘Truth is protected by a battalion of lies’.4 He believed that a ‘lie always has a stronger effect than the truth. The main thing is to achieve one’s objective.’ His ruthless pragmatism, or praktiki as he called it, eventually played itself out in the destruction of tens of millions of lives in the Great Terror. Stalin believed that his Marxist class struggle was ‘not only a theory of socialism: it’s an entire worldview, a philosophical system’ which would be marked by ‘many storms, many torrents of blood’.5
What was the underlying philosophical authority of this movement? While it is simplistic to draw straight cause-and-effect lines, it is impossible to deny the influence of the most novel and potent philosophy of the day. Along with Hitler, Stalin had a powerful authority for his actions, a logical if not strictly necessary application of evolution known as social Darwinism.
Marx’s infatuation with Darwinism is well known, but there is a telling incident from Stalin’s youth worth recounting. As a teenage trainee in a school for priests, Stalin read Darwin, probably Origin of Species, and was enraptured by it. A 13-year-old boy was able to openly draw the logical conclusions that Darwin would not have got away with openly voicing in Victorian England. Stalin said to a fellow pupil, ‘God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed he’d have made the world more just.’ When challenged by a friend for his remarks, he replied, ‘I’ll lend you a book and you’ll see’ and presented him with a copy of Darwin.6
With God out of the way, pragmatism reigned. But what happens when we try to get rid of God based on the problem of evil in the world? Suddenly, there is no objective philosophical basis for the concept of evil or good. Stalin is known to have believed that killing vast numbers of people in his political pursuits was of no more consequence than mowing grass. Which of course makes cold-blooded sense if, like grass and every other living thing, we are just a collection of molecules in motion, with no ultimate meaning or purpose—we just happened to evolve in an unguided process over billions of years.
William Penn, one of the founding fathers of the greatest (not perfect) democracies this world has ever experienced, said, ‘Men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.’ Russia and those countries swept by its influence went on to demonstrate this statement with all the attendant misery to which history bears wretched witness.
George Whitfield (left) and John Wesley (right). The preaching of these men, based on a conviction that the Bible was absolute truth, led to a revolutionary transformation of British and western culture, whose benevolent fruits we still enjoy today.
Is this the path that South Africa is on? Certainly many of those in leadership positions in South African politics have these same godless beliefs and lifestyles, many having been educated in communist Russia and Marxist-influenced institutions in the West. The problem is that the very institutions that should provide stability and resistance to these invidious influences are themselves increasingly founded upon the same atheistic philosophies. Education, politics, law and even many churches are increasingly ideologically married to a philosophy that corrodes the very foundation upon which these institutions rest. What can stand against this encroachment?
Historians tell us that many of the same social circumstances evident in early 20th century Russia prevailed in both Great Britain and France in the 18th century. Why did France end up with bloody revolution, anarchy, the Reign of Terror and eventually the tyranny of Napoleon, while in contrast, just 30 miles across the Channel, their perennial enemies underwent a quite different revolution? This ‘revolution’ involved strengthening of democratic institutions; the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain and its empire, and eventually the whole world; hospital and orphanage reform; and the abolition of child labour. In short, a general, profound improvement in the lot of the common man, and a true commitment to the rights of man as made in the image of God, developed in Britain. Even animals came to be treated in a more humane manner.
These same historians conclude that it was the Christian revival under men such as Wesley and Whitfield that made the difference between the murderous revolution in France and the benevolent transformation in Britain. Not that Christianity was perfect or all-pervasive in Britain, nor ever has been anywhere in the world; but the influence of the Bible and the ‘Christian consensus’7 was substantial enough to lead to a supernatural, ‘gentle’ overthrow of the status quo, while France experienced a humanist, brutal, anarchic upheaval. France eventually reverted to a jealous mimicry of her rival in form though not totally in substance.
In the long term, there are no alternatives to being ‘governed by God, … or ruled by tyrants’. There is a movement around the Western world today which our government and media blindly follow—the intellectual (at this stage it is not violent) marginalization of Christianity and Christians. This was a marked characteristic of the French and Russian Revolutions. Stalin’s henchman Trotsky called for ‘an end once and for all to the Papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life,’ in the Communist campaign of terror in order to impose Marxism on the Russian people.
From a purely natural and open-eyed view of the South African situation today, there is much cause for pessimism. Nevertheless, I have much hope. This hope is not in the manipulative, self serving conspiracies of politicians (whether in power or aspiring), but in the influence of God’s Holy Spirit in the personal lives of many South Africans as they go about their personal, political and professional lives.
It is not that other faiths or even atheists are incapable of moral and noble convictions and actions—regrettably, they are sometimes more so than some Christians—but they lack the philosophical basis upon which to defend or justify why such things are more worthwhile than the converse. And this inconsistency eventually overtakes a whole society.
Unless a holy and transcendent God has truly spoken, we are all awash in a sea of opinion, ‘ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ (2 Timothy 3:7)
May God grant that more and more people in my beloved country are brought to understand that the Bible is ‘truly true’,8 including especially in that crucial, foundational area of the origin of all things, the prime target of the surging humanist revolution of our times.
- Montefiore, S.S., Young Stalin, Orion Books Ltd. London, 2008. Return to text.
- The prologue to the book details a daring heist organized and participated in by Stalin. Robberies of armored cash vans, orchestrated with military precision, are prominent in South Africa. Return to text.
- Montefiore, ref. 1, p. 369. Return to text.
- Montefiore, ref. 1, p. 349 Return to text.
- Montefiore, ref. 1, p. 66 Return to text.
- Montefiore, ref. 1, p. 47 Return to text.
- A term coined I believe by Francis Schaeffer. Return to text.
- Another Schaeffer term. Return to text.