A band of political radicals seized the reins of power in post-tsarist Russia a century ago this week, installing Vladimir Lenin as their first leader and setting in play some of the forces that made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history. It’s hard, in fact, to imagine just how different today’s world would be had Lenin and his comrades failed in their coup and had the Soviet Union never been established. ...

 Despite its inherent flaws as a political system, communism spread globally — with the help of Soviet agents in some places, through insurrections by emboldened Marxist true believers in others. Mongolia was first (aided by Russian troops) in 1921 but was followed over time by China, Vietnam, North Korea, Angola, Congo and Cuba, among others.

Throughout, communism enabled brutal totalitarians — Stalin’s reign of terror killed millions through forced collectivization of agriculture and ethnic cleansing programs, as well as the execution of perceived rivals, political heretics and resisters. The Cold War became a struggle by the Soviet Union to spread communism and by the West — led by the United States — to spread democratic capitalism around the world, each seeking dominance or at least hoping to block the advance of the other.

The rise of international communism also, perversely, influenced domestic policy here in the U.S. When the Great Depression eroded faith in capitalism, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned to quasi-socialistic policies such as Social Security, public jobs programs (the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps) and the Rural Electrification program that extended power to remote areas through local cooperatives using federal loans to hire the unemployed. If communism hadn’t been rivaling capitalism for political support, those New Deal programs might not have gained political traction.

How else do the Bolsheviks echo today? Through the communist regimes that remain (in various forms), from Cuba to Vietnam to China. And in Americans’ almost Pavlovian distrust of government-led communal action, left over from the Cold War. Never mind that such things as pooled-risk insurance, the national park system, interstate freeways and all manner of other government services we rely on are born of the recognition that shared risk and shared wealth can in many instances provide broad benefits for all without threatening individual liberty. But the Bolsheviks also echo through the anguished screams of the executed, the whimperings of the starving, the remembered betrayals of neighbors and relatives for the sake of the party. And they echo in the reminder that democracy lives and dies on the faith and willingness of the people to embrace and sustain it. As Hitler’s political rise in a democratic Germany taught us, even democracy is not safe from totalitarianism. So maybe the rise of the Bolsheviks echoes loudest in its warning of how precarious democracy can be.

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