When the Russian Revolution toppled the czar and put the Bolsheviks into power, the civilized countries of western Europe had good reason to tell themselves it could never happen to them. Russia was a barbaric country with a lopsided social structure, masses of peasants and no middle class to speak of. Their political system was a relic of the past, a time when street revolutions still happened. The rest of Europe was more modern, with constitutions and parliaments and labor unions. Any political conflict could work itself out through those proper channels.
Then came the German revolution of 1918-19, and civilized Europe had to recalibrate its sense of what was possible. Street unrest led to the forced abdication of the kaiser, the proclamation of a republic, a soviet government in Munich, and a near-miss of one in Berlin, only prevented by a timely blow to Rosa Luxemburg’s head. The uprising did not fulfill all its proponents’ hopes, in terms of ushering in a new socialist dawn, but it decisively refuted the idea that modern conditions had made revolution obsolete.
The Sixties left Americans feeling equally sure that a revolution could never happen here. An entire generation went into open rebellion, urban unrest exploded, tanks rolled through the streets of Los Angeles and Detroit, periodic bombings made many worry that the counterculture’s Lenin might be out there waiting for his moment—and yet we survived the nightmare unscathed. Americans concluded that our prosperity, or the flexibility of our political system, or maybe just the forward march of civilization, had transformed street rebellion from a genuine threat into a safe pastime for earnest young idealists.
But are we really so safe? In June, the great Russian literature professor Gary Saul Morson told The Wall Street Journal that America was starting to feel eerily familiar. “It’s astonishingly like late 19th-, early 20th-century Russia, when basically the entire educated class felt you simply had to be against the regime or some sort of revolutionary,” he said. Even the moderate Kadet Party could not bring itself to condemn terrorism against the czar, any more than a modern Democrat could condemn Black Lives Matter: “A famous line from one of the liberal leaders put it this way: ‘Condemn terrorism? That would be the moral death of the party.’”
Today, the Resistance is already signalling that they won’t accept a Trump victory in November any more than they accepted one in 2016. After the last election, they attempted a soft coup by means of the Russiagate scandal and impeachment. What kind of coup will come next? By looking at the Russian precedent, we can evaluate the risk that this country might enact our own distinctively American version of 1917—and how close we have come to it already.