This article originally appeared on the blog of Heretic, the magazine of We Are Libertarians.
(Note: this blog post is merely a slightly-refined response from a conversation I had with Heretic and We Are Libertarians contributor Hodey Johns about this subject.)
Unfortunately, I believe that at the time of the Russian Revolution, there were (and still are) very few ideologies that didn’t see violence as an acceptable means to an end. That includes most of the 18/1900s socialist revolutionaries. I think there were a lot of those socialists who viewed violence as an acceptable means of revolution (unlike thinkers such as Tolstoy and Orwell) but who did not see intentional, ongoing systemic violence to maintain said revolution as a good thing (unlike statists such as Lenin, Stalin, et al.). This group of people didn’t realize that once violence is embraced, it can’t just be shut off once your goals are met – when used as a means, it almost inevitably becomes an end itself.
Imagine this hypothetical scenario: the libertarian bottom unity movement gains tremendous strength over the next few years and and a variety of circumstances (war, massive economic collapse, etc.) make a violent overthrow of the state by a bottom unity coalition possible. Let’s say this coalition is victorious and libertarian revolutionaries now control the country. Unfortunately, the members of this coalition most prone to violence and the most willing to use it are the brutalists, the neo-confederates, the nationalists, and their ilk in the libertarian movement. They take advantage of the fighting and chaos and fear and hijack the revolution from the rest of the bottom-unity coalition: instead of a libertarian paradise, America ends up being a brutalist fascist hellscape.
Would it be fair to blame all libertarians who took part in that revolution? Or to condemn the entire ideology of bottom unity libertarianism that fueled the revolution? Of course, everyone who partook in this hypothetical future revolution would bear some responsibility for what happened – unintended consequences must still be dealt with. And of course, the concept of bottom-unity would need to be looked-over and refined. But by and large, I think the answer to both questions is something along the lines of “well yes, but mostly no”.
This is how I view the Russian revolution. A bunch of good meaning people were duped into believing they could use violence for good and in the end they were taken advantage of by brutalist bad actors. Thus, it is both unfair and inaccurate to condemn all the socialists or their varied forms of socialist ideology for the despicable violence and authoritarianism that came from the USSR.