To access the written part of this narrative,
go to the American history series' own website at 

The 'Peace' of 1919:  An overview
Wilsonian idealism and the 14 Points
Armistice on the Western Front
The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic
Managing Allied grudges and greed
The new face of Europe and its former empires
But America retreats into isolationism
The Women's suffrage campaign
The Socialist-Communist contribution to Democratic Idealism (or Secular-Humanism)

The disappointing peace.  But Wilson's peace does not work out as planned.  Wilson attempts to negotiate a fair end to the slaughter with his Armistice – but fails to connect American power with American diplomacy – and the English and French take the opportunity to pounce upon the exhausted Germans to wreak an expensive revenge.  Probably no English or French politician who failed to bring home to his people some major exaction of retribution against the Germans would have had a political future.

Wilson’s proposed ‘League of Nations.’  Wilson hopes to undo the unfairness of such ‘peace’ terms with the creation of a new ‘League of Nations,’ an international deliberative body which he hopes will provide the forum for more rational reshaping of the post-war world – when tempers have had a chance to cool down and diplomats are more able to think clearly and fairly. 

However the extensive commitment required of membership in the League alarms American Senators when Wilson’s League of Nations idea is put before them as a treaty requiring Senatorial ratification.  But Wilson will hear of none of their complaints – unwilling to hear of any opposition to what he, ever the Idealist, considers to be a plan whose perfection must not be compromised.  The net result of Wilsonian ‘purity’ is that the Senate fails to ratify – and America does not join the League (the only major nation not to do so).  Without American power linked to League action, the League is condemned to effectiveness only on very minor matters that do not demand a strong international hand. 

The German sense of betrayal.  Furthermore, the ‘betrayal’ of Wilson’s promise of an equitable peace, to which the Germans thought they were agreeing when they laid down their arms, will become the source of German ideological opportunity for those (Hitler and his Nazis) who seek to exploit this sense of betrayal to overthrow German ‘democracy’ and institute a Neuordnung (New Order) in Germany.  In short, the ‘peace’ of 1919 merely sets the scene for a return engagement 20 years later in the form of World War II.

Chaos among the ‘losers.’  Russia is plunged into a long and bloody civil war (1918-1923) between Lenin’s Communist ‘Reds’ and the coalition of Kerensky’s and the Tsarist’s ‘Whites.’  More soldiers and civilians die from this civil war than had died during the Great War.  The decrepit Ottoman Empire is taken over by ‘Young Turks’ who want to modernize the Turkish nation – and purify it by ridding it of the many non-Turkish minorities living within its borders.  Germany forces the Emperor Wilhelm to abdicate and comes under a Weimar Republic which is challenged on all sides by Germans who have no love or understanding of republican democracy – especially one associated with the stigma of national defeat.  The Austro-Hungarian empire is broken up into a number of mini-states, each of whose political viability as new ‘democracies is questionable.  Poland is restored out of territorial loss of Russia, Germany and Austria –  with no tradition of democracy to guide it into the new era of democracy ... and existing as a vulnerable target should its neighbors recover strength enough to grab back their lost territory (which they do in 1939 – starting another World War in Europe)


President Woodrow Wilson

In January of 1918 Wilson went before Congress to outline what he expected to be the specific terms of the peace that America was fighting to secure.  The terms were presented as Fourteen Points, including the end to secret treaties (which Wilson supposed were the primary cause of the war in the first place), the guarantee of full freedom of all navigation on the high seas (a major source of American annoyance with both the Germans and the English), the adjustment of territories such as would restore Russia, revive Poland and return to France territory lost to Germany in 1871, the opportunity for independence of nations part of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Ottoman Empires, ... and most importantly (in Wilson’s eyes), the creation of a general association of nations to guarantee the political independence and territorial integrity to all states, large or small.  This last point was the intellectual foundation for what would become the first truly international diplomatic organization:  the League of Nations.

He made it clear that even for the Germans he sought only a fair or equitable peace – though he would negotiate such a peace with only a German delegation representing the majority members of the Reichstag (the German National Assembly) ... and not the “military party and the men whose creed is imperial domination.”  This was a clear indication that America would not deal with the Kaiser but instead with only a German group representing the broader interests of the people of Germany.

This was all very noble ... but would leave the Germans at the negotiating table with hostile adversaries, having to operate from a position of incredible political weakness.  Consequently Germany would be walked over by France and Britain – despite Wilson’s protests – and leave Germany ultimately itching for a rematch to readjust the unfair outcome of the ‘peace talks.’  Hitler would play big on this German understanding of what happened under Wilson’s Armistice.

His 14 Points


German troubles

Meanwhile the Germans were having tremendous difficulties keeping up their end of the war.  In December of 1917 they had signed the Armistice agreement with Lenin’s Communist government in Russia (in which the Germans were granted huge territorial gains in Eastern Europe) in order to rush the vast number of German troops massed in the East back to the Western Front in order to break through the lines and grab Paris –  thus ending French resistance ... and ultimately the war itself – before the Americans could arrive in number in Europe in the spring of 1918.  But the French lines held ... and the Germans merely exhausted themselves even further in the process.  Meanwhile back in Germany itself, the population was finding itself on the brink of starvation ... and movements to pull Germany out of the war (largely Communist in inspiration) were starting to form in opposition to the Kaiser’s determination to fight the war to the finish.


Ultimately Wilson’s offer of a fair and just peace was heard in Germany ... which began to waver in its loyalty to the Kaiser.  Then when in early October of 1918 the Allied armies broke through Germany’s heavily defended line of defense, the Hindenburg Line, the Germans realized that the war was finally truly over for them. 

Thus Germans opened negotiations directly with Wilson on the basis of the terms of his Fourteen Points ... and with the decision to force the Kaiser to abdicate his throne and go into exile in the neutral Netherlands.   However ... the American allies, England and France, had no intentions whatsoever of honoring Wilson’s war aims, as they sought unconditional surrender of Germany and nothing less.  They had gone along with Wilson’s Fourteen Points only because they needed American aid ... and because they recognized the propaganda value these had in undermining the last of the Kaiser’s political authority in Germany.

Unaware of what was actually going on politically within the camp of its British, French and American adversaries, the Germans complied with Wilson’s demands and declared the creation of a German republic and announced their willingness to accept an Armistice based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  Thus at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year (November 11th 1918) the guns finally fell silent in Europe for the first time in over four years.  The war was over.

The trains which brought the two sides together at Compi?gne for Armistice negotiations - November 1918
Marshall, p. 354-355.

Officers in the forest of Compi?gne after reaching an agreement for the armistice that ended World War I.
This railcar was given to Ferdinand Foch for military use by the manufacturer,
Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Foch is second from the right.
Wikipedia - "World War I"

President Wilson reading the Armistice terms to Congress. November 11, 1918.
photo by Sgt Vincent J. Palumbo.
National Archives

Armistice celebrations in the trenches

Jubilant Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry) - on return from Europe
after serious combat against the Germans (they were the first to reach the Rhine River)
(3/4s of the 200,000 "Colored" troops served as menials during the war)
National Archives

US soldiers excited to be leaving training camp at Camp Dix, New Jersey - late 1918
(122,500 soldiers were killed or missing, 237,135 wounded during the war)
National Archives

Medal of Honor and Croix de Guerre winner Alvin York and his mother back in Tennessee
(in the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive he charged a German machine-gun nest by himself,
killed 25 Germans and captured 132 others in two separate forays)

Armistice celebrations in Paris

Londoners celebrating the Armistice

Londoners celebrating the Armistice


Removing the body of a soldier killed by the influenza virus

Whereas the war had caused approximately 16 million deaths, a flu which struck broad sections of the world (including America) in 1918 within mere months killed three times as many people.  The flu hit in the spring of 1918 - but involved few deaths.  But when the disease reappeared in the fall of 1918 - it was devastating.  Age, health, city or country-living made no difference in its attacks.  Half a million Americans died from this flu.  And those it did not kill, it produced permanent effects - for approximately a quarter of the US population.  In a few short months it lowered life expectancy in the US by 12 years.

And thus it was that as 1919 came into view it was with much hope that the Western world greeted the first year since the end of the war ... and the devastating Spanish flu.  Certainly much, much better days lay ahead.

Seattle policemen masked against the Spanish flu - December 1918
National Archives

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918
National Archives

Letter carrier in New York wearing mask for protection against influenza. New York City, October 16, 1918
National Archives

Nurse wearing a mask as protection against influenza. September 13, 1918
National Archives

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918
National Archives

Influenza precaution sign at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia  October 19, 1918
National Health #NH 41731-A

Treating an influenza patient at Naval Hospital - New Orleans
National Health #NH 60309

Crowded sleeping area at Naval Training Station, San Francisco
National Health #NH 41871

A boxing match on the USS Siboney - with many spectators wearing protective masks
National Health #NH 103264


"To the victor belong the spoils" 

But tragically, reality would soon deliver a huge, disappointing blow to the hopes for  a new and better world... and especially to the expectations of a triumphant Wilson – when all the warring parties sat down together to work out the specific terms of the peace that had looked so promising as 1918 came to a close.

Being the Idealistic Humanist that he was, Wilson failed to connect American power with American diplomacy and thus the English and French took the opportunity to pounce upon the exhausted Germans to wreak an expensive revenge – despite Wilson's protests.  Probably no English or French politician who failed to bring home to his people some major exaction of retribution against the Germans would have had a political future.  But Wilson had power to use to move things more in the direction he wanted to see them go.  But caught up in his utopian world, he failed to see the diplomatic opportunities he actually possessed in order to direct negotiations along the lines he had desired.
Wilson was deeply troubled at the ‘bullying’ behavior at the peace table of his democratic allies England and France – quite in violation of his much-cherished notion that democracies will automatically behave only in the most enlightened way.  His fellow democracies instead were determined to force crushing peace terms on Germany and to confiscate the Arab lands of the Ottoman Turks – very much in violation of the equitable peace terms which Wilson had announced to lure everyone to the peace table in the first place. 

Then Wilson found himself shocked as he discovered that the English and French were not interested at all in assisting him in spreading his idea of the “rights of national self-determination of people everywhere.”  They were not about to do that because that would have meant having to give up their own multi-ethnic or multi-national empires.
Also, to Wilson’s great distress, things were not doing well in Russia – because not blissful democratic peace but instead a violent civil war had accompanied Russia’s move to ‘democracy.’  And this civil war had Russia’s democrats lined up on the same side with the old Russian autocrats (the Whites) in a ferocious battle against a Marxist-Leninist Communist insurrection (the Reds).  

Wilson’s proposed League of Nations

On the other hand, Wilson was able to get his allies at least to accept his fourteenth and final point of his Fourteen Points:  the idea of a world assembly (the League of Nations) where he hoped cooler heads could eventually come together once the fever of war had subsided ... and then right the wrongs of the abominable peace treaties foisted by the ‘democracies’ on their defeated enemies.  

But his plan was greatly foiled by his own United States Senate’s refusal to go along with his grand international project ... and more importantly, by his own personal intransigence.   The extensive commitment required of membership in the League alarmed American Senators when Wilson’s League of Nations idea was put before them as a treaty requiring Senatorial ratification.  Senators demanded some compromises that permitted Congress to still control American foreign policy, in particular the Constitutional rule that Congress must be the one, not an international organization, to take America to war.  The Senate (whose approval was necessary for all treaties to be fully ratified) was willing to cooperate with this new international government ... but with a few key reservations.

Wilson’s advisors begged Wilson to accept some compromise with Congress concerning these quite reasonable demands.  But Wilson was a purist for whom compromise was an ugly and inadmissible concept.  He would have the treaty bringing America into membership in his new international organization only under his terms ... and no other.  Thus the venture came to nothing in the United States when the Senate failed by only a few votes to ratify the treaty – even while most of the rest of the world went ahead with Wilson’s project and joined the League of Nations.  Irony of ironies, America was the only nation of note not to join.

The larger impact on the international status quo

The German sense of betrayal.  Likewise, the ‘betrayal’ of Wilson’s promise of an equitable peace, to which the Germans thought they were agreeing when they laid down their arms, would become the source of German ideological opportunity for those (Hitler and his Nazis) who sought to exploit this sense of betrayal to overthrow German ‘democracy’ and institute a Neuordnung (New Order) in Germany.  In short, the ‘peace’ of 1919 merely set the scene for a return engagement 20 years later in the form of World War II.

Czechoslovakia.  In the ‘peace’ treaties the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires had large slices of land taken away from them, to be awarded to the newly reconstituted Poland and the newly invented Czechoslovakia.  The latter, Czechoslovakia, was founded on an uncomfortable union between the Westward oriented Czechs or Bohemians and the Eastward oriented Slovaks – and contained a huge number of Germans along the Czech borders with Germany (Sudetenland).

Poland was restored (after having disappeared for a century) out of territorial loss of Russia, Germany and Austria –  with no tradition of democracy to guide it into the new era of 'Polish democracy.'   This reconstituted Poland also contained vast numbers of ethnic Germans – which would make for a very uncomfortable situation facing the new Polish Government ... leaving Poland as a vulnerable target should its neighbors recover strength enough to grab back their lost territory (which they would do in 1939 – starting another World War in Europe).

Austria-Hungary was split into two separate nations, losing a lot of territory in the process ... and like Germany acquiring ‘democratic’ governments in order to make them members in good standing of the new democratic world.

Yugoslavia.  The Serbs, who had been allies of the Big Four, were awarded the central or commanding position in the newly constituted ‘nation’ of Yugoslavia (South Slavia) – also an uncomfortable union among Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Albanians and Macedonians.
Romania.  A large section of Hungary was awarded to another ally, Romania, a recently independent nation split off in 1877 from the Ottoman Turkish Empire; this too would make for a very uncomfortable Romanian union between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians.

Bulgaria, an Ottoman province until it achieved full independence in 1908, had been an ally of Germany and Austria and thus suffered accordingly with the loss of territory along the strategically vital coast of the Aegean Sea awarded to its newly formed or reformed ‘democratic’ neighbors.

The Turks.  The ‘autocracy’ to suffer undoubtedly the largest territorial and thus political loss was the Turkish Ottoman Empire. This empire had its vast (but quite loose) Middle East Muslim holdings carved up into a number of newly independent ‘nations’ – leaving the ethnic Turks themselves only a small remnant of an independent state in the center of Asia Minor.

The English and French took for themselves big slices of the Ottoman Empire, awarding themselves control over the newly formed Arab states under the ‘Mandate system.’   The idea of the Mandate system was that these Arab states were not ready for self rule – and thus though ‘independent’ were to be carefully supervised by the holders of these mandates:  Britain and France.  Thus it was that Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine were put under the dominion of the British and Syria and Lebanon were placed under the French.

The Arabs.  These new states had some ancient historical claim to political existence, though hardly as true nations: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Mesopotamia (after 1921 termed ‘Iraq’).  Although mostly Arab in culture, these former provinces of the Ottoman Empire were made up of a mix of various contending Muslim sub-communities and even a mix of ancient Christian communities.  They had lived side by side in some degree of peace under the enforcement of the Ottoman Turks.  But with the Turkish authority removed these new states were forced to try to find a spirit of national unity on their own – a virtually impossible task.  Western imposed ‘democracy’ instead offered these many sub-communities the opportunity to revive ancient and bitter ethnic rivalries – which only strong-handed monarchies (backed by British or French power) seemed able to bring forcefully to some semblance of ‘national’ peace.  Indeed as democracies, these new states were pure fictions.

German colonial lands in Africa and Asia. Germany suffered the loss of its African colonies (England and France held on to theirs for another forty years), these too being turned over to the English, the French and their Belgian and South African allies – also as mandates.  German colonies in the Pacific were awarded to England, Australia, New Zealand – and even Japan - as mandates.

Italy, for its pitiful contribution to the winning of the Great War for democracy, was awarded German-speaking Austrian lands on the southern side of the Alps (South Tyrol). 

Russia was plunged into a long and bloody civil war (1918-1923) between Lenin’s Communist ‘Reds’ and the coalition of Kerensky’s and the Tsarist’s ‘Whites.’  Ultimately, more soldiers and civilians died from this civil war than had died during their participation in the Great War.  Germany forced the Emperor Wilhelm to abdicate and came under a Weimar Republic which was challenged on all sides by Germans who had no love or understanding of republican democracy – especially one associated with the stigma of national defeat.

Moral-spiritual disillusionment among the ‘victors’

In general, the ‘victorious’ democracies – America, Britain, France and Italy – were badly stung by the death and destruction that had ultimately produced no real progress in world civilization.  Consequently the democracies suffered a deep drop in moral nerve after the war.  The aggressive instinct that marked the West’s presence in the larger world before the war was largely lost, replaced among a number of the West’s political leaders by a tired, timid spirit – a spirit which hoped that future conflicts could be avoided by a new attitude of mutual ‘appeasement.’

Despite the Armistice or cease-fire, the Allies are in a deeply angry mood about all the destruction
that the German invasion has brought to northern France and in Belgium

Ypres, Belgium, after the Battle of the Lys
Wikipedia - "Battle of the Lys"

Ypres, Belgium, at War's end - 1919
Wikipedia - "Ypres"

Passchendael - before and after the War
 Imperial War Museum

The Town Square, Arras, France. February, 1919.
National Archives
Wikipedia - "Battle of Arras (1917)"
(click picture for larger resolution)

As he heads to Europe, Wilson has no idea of the difficulties he will be facing to get a 'fair'
post-war agreement between the Allies and the Central Powers at the Paris peace negotiations

Woodrow Wilson leaving for the Peace Conference in France

Wilson being hailed upon his arrival in England
National Archives NA-111-SC-62979

The Paris crowds waiting for President Wilson
National Archives

Paris - Wilson and Poincaré

The Paris Big Four:  David Lloyd George, Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson
National Archives NA-111-SC-158966

Orlando, Lloyd-George, Clemenceau and Wilson

The German delegation at Versailles - 1919
National Archives NA-111-SC-61141

Wilson and the American Delegation at Versailles - 1919

The signing of the peace treaty at the Palace of Versailles
National Archives

The Signing of the Treaty of Versailles - June 28, 1919

Spectators craning to see the German signing of the Versailles Treaty - June 28, 1919


Europe after World War One - 1923
Stavrianos (1979), p. 127

Fisher, p. 518

German colonial territory in Africa and the Pacific
and Turkish imperial holdings in the Middle East
lost after World War One

Fisher, p. 518


American disillusionment

The country itself came quickly to the conclusion that it had been deceived in its taking up arms to fight for the cause of democracy.  The results of the peace were not at all what Wilson had promised that the sacrifices of the war would produce.  Americans quickly became cynical about Wilson’s great crusade – and determined never again to be smooth-talked into getting involved in a European war.

A very hopeful Wilson and US troops aboard USS George Washington
returning to the States - 1919
National Archives NA-111-SC-61183

"Overseas men welcomed home. Parade in honor of returned fighters
passing the Public Library, N.Y. City" - 1919 - photo by Paul Thompson.
National Archives

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee)
Library of Congress LC-USZ62-96172

He organized the opposition to Wilson's cherished League of Nations.  Because Wilson would not compromise with Lodge on some of the principles of the Treaty establishing the League, it failed narrowly (53-38) to gain the two-thirds Senate vote necessary for ratification.

Isolationist Senators William Borah (R-Idaho) and Hiram Johnson (R-California)
Library of Congress LC-F81-11547

President Wilson ends his term in the White House a very sick, very disillusioned man -
and his vision of a new world led by democratic virtures fades away

Edith Wilson (nee Edith Bolling and widow of Norman Galt)
Library of Congress LC-USZ62-70151

She held the office of President together during the last year and a half of Wilson's presidential term; he was too sick to function - a situation known to only a very few people in the nation at the time.

President Woodrow Wilson, seated at desk with his wife, 
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, standing at his side.

He was paralyzed on his left side, so Edith holds a document steady while he signs - June 1920..
Library of Congress
Wikipedia - "Edith Bolling Galt Wilson"

A very sick Woodrow Wilson makes a public appearance on his 65th birthday - 1921
Library of Congress LC-F8-17266


The battle for women's suffrage

Women’s suffrage (the right to vote) had been advanced in the late 1800s as an idea to bring the woman’s motherly sense of morality to the vices of male politics – an inspired way of reforming or cleaning up the often sordid business of American boss politics.  Eventually the rationale for women’s suffrage was simply reshaped as a matter of basic rights, regardless of the moral impact it might or might not have on American politics.  This idea was finally put forward by Congress as a proposed constitutional amendment in May of 1919 and sent to the states for ratification.

"Suffragette banner. One of the banners the women who picketed the White House carried"
By an unknown photographer, Washington, DC, 1918
National Archives

A suffragette protest in front of the White House, 1918
Library of Congress

 Florence F. Noyes as "Liberty" in suffrage pageant - 1919
Library of Congress

Men looking in the window of the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters - 1919
Library of Congress

The Congressional Resolution beginning the process of adopting
the 19th Amendment on women's right to vote - May 19, 1919
Library of Congress

Intellectual ‘Progressivism’

It would be most unfair to blame Wilson entirely for the rise of the kind of ‘Democratic Idealism’ that pushed aside the voices of a wiser and more circumspect political Realism ... a realism that had carefully guided European (and American) diplomacy through most of the previous century.   In the first decades of the twentieth century there were other intellectual forces sweeping through the intellectual and cultural centers of Western (and American) society that would challenge that hard-nosed Realism.  A growing number of social and political philosophers since the latter part of the 1800s had become convinced  that, through some kind of Darwinian process, Western civilization (and, via the West, also world civilization as well) was moving into some kind of bright future in which utopian existence seemed to loom into view.  Society just needed some adjustments here and there – led of course by these social and political philosophers – in order to bring this process to completion.  For Wilson, of course, that process of adjustment had meant the spread of ‘Democratic’ government to all peoples around the world.  But other thinkers had other ideas ... although most of them tracked along similar paths.  Historical progress and democracy – however conceived specifically  (and the variation was indeed huge) were the bywords, the slogans, the shiboleths, of those who supposed that they possessed special intellectual insights into where the world was headed.
    V.I. Lenin and the 'Vanguard of the Proletariat'

One of these early 20th century thinkers was the Russian intellectual, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known more popularly as ‘Lenin.’  Lenin was a Marxist, a devout follower of the 19th century social philosopher Karl Marx.  A key point of Marxism (or ‘Communism’) was that Man – not God – possessed the powers necessary to march history forward to a glorious future.   And indeed certain men felt that they understood quite clearly the process by which they were going to accomplish that goal.

At the time (the beginning of the 20th century) expectations had been among the followers of  Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’ that Communist revolution was soon to break out in a European society existing in under advanced state of capitalism, probably England or Germany.  After all, Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’ would not work except under the historical circumstances  he had so carefully described. Every stage of historical development had to be completed before history would be ready to move on to the next step or phase in its development.

Yet oddly enough Marxism was very popular among a number of intellectuals in Russia ... where industrial capitalism had barely got itself underway as it emerged from under the Russian feudalism that still largely dominated the Russian social scene.  By Marxist logic, Russia was hardly ‘ripe for revolution.’

Skipping the capitalist phase ... in order to move directly to Communism

Lenin, however, found himself not bothered by the inconsistencies between Marx’s scientific socialism and the kinds of conditions that Russians like himself were working under in order to bring to Russia their own proletarian revolution, one leading to a workers’ democracy.  Lenin was a strong advocate of the idea that Russia could skip the capitalist phase of history and move directly from feudalism to full communism.

This of course caused a number of Marxist purists in Russia to oppose Lenin, who was a fast-rising voice within the Russian Communist cause.  This in turn lead to a split in 1904 in the Russian Social Democratic Party (the official name of the Communists), with Lenin taking complete leadership of one of the two groups, the Bolsheviks (meaning ‘majority’ even though they were at first the smaller of the two contending Communist groups).

Revolutionary change led by the 'vanguard' of the industrial Proletariat

Lenin explained in his popular writings that proletarian democracy was of course the goal of everything he believed in.  But he was certain that Russia did not need to wait to go through the whole, long capitalist phase of history but instead could move here and now, even in semi-feudal Russia, directly to a workers’ (and peasants') democracy. 

Clearly Marx had supposed that a glorious workers’ democracy would come about naturally through a spontaneous uprising of the oppressed industrial working class (the ‘proletariat’) when their growing numbers, as opposed to the declining numbers of the capitalist (or ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle’) class, finally weighted the impulse of history in the workers’ favor.  To Marx this would require a natural rise and then self-inflicted decline of the capitalist bourgeois class before history would be ready for the move of the industrial working class to seize history. 

Lenin disagreed.  According to Lenin’s thinking, in his native Russia, where industry was only poorly developed and a Russian capitalist class therefore was still rather insignificant politically, a socialist/communist revolution could be undertaken to bring forth a fully modern, industrial Russia – an industrial ‘democracy’ controlled by the industrial workers themselves – without having to go through a necessary capitalist phase of history. 

How was this sidestepping of Marxist logic possible?  Lenin agreed that such a marvelous industrial democracy could be brought directly into existence, here and now, even in semi-feudal Russia, if it were directed by an intellectual elite well studied in Marxist ‘scientific socialism.’  Such an elite would be aware of history’s ultimate intention (full communism) and with this idea leading them forward would be able to bring society to such a utopia directly through scientific (Marxist) management, without having to struggle through a capitalist phase of industrial history.  These Marxist specialists or social scientists were best positioned to do the thinking for the masses of humanity because they were fully studied in Marxist logic, in the Marxist dialectic, in the main tenants of ‘scientific socialism.’  This small elite group, the ‘vanguard’ of the proletariat could guide and control the people’s revolution – get it going and ultimately secured on firm grounds.

Thus it was that Russia, under the right kind of leadership could skip all that and move directly from feudalism to full socialism, and even the pure state of communism.

The termination of 'property rights'

The key to this historical jump was the matter of land or property rights.  According to Marx, it was, is and always will be, the ownership of land and commercial-industrial infrastructure (a society's property) which determined the shape, structure and operation of each historical phase of human society.  For instance in the case of feudalism – which Russia still was largely identified with – land was mostly owned by the Emperor, plus a small number of aristocratic families as well as officials of the Russian Orthodox Church.  On the feudal estates owned by this small ruling class millions of peasants worked – receiving whatever benefits this ruling class extended to them (usually very minimal). 

Under capitalism, which by the 1800s seemed to be in the process of overthrowing or replacing these feudal landowners everywhere (except maybe in Russia), key property rights (land, buildings, roads, etc.) were now coming into the possession of the rising moneyed ‘middle class’:  the capitalists.  Under Capitalism, society's property could be bought and sold by those possessing moneyed wealth. 

As Marx was outlining his understanding of social history during the mid-1800s, this system too seemed clearly to benefit only a small percentage of the population.  Under industrial capitalism
(at least in Europe ... though hardly was this the case in America), the vast majority of the members of European society still ‘owned’ no land and very little other property, but merely worked as rightless (or ‘proletarian) miners and factory workers ... to the great financial benefit of this rising class of propertied capitalists. 

according to Marx, the beauty of communism (destined historically soon to replace capitalism) was that in final phase of historywhen capitalism would be overthrown by the huge class of property-less industrial workersno one would hold title to the land and its industrial infrastructure.  With the rise to power of the unpropertied working class, all property or 'means of production' would be considered to be ‘communal’ property – belonging to the society as a whole and to no one in particular (thus ‘Communism’). 

And since (according to Marx) governments exist only to protect the exclusive rights of the property-owning classes, under Communism there would be no need for the government or State.  It would simply wither away to nothingness. 

And thus also with propertied rights done away with, the cause for human greed would disappear.  Everyone would live simply in the bliss of shared or mutual cooperation.  Each person would give to society according to his or her means or ability to contribute socially ... and receive back from society according to his or her specific needs.

In short, Lenin proposed the idea that if Russia were to move directly to an unpropertied society, Russia would not have to go through a capitalist phase in history, but could move quickly to the state of Communism.

The 'Socialist phase' of the transition to Communism

But this move of Russian society from feudalism to communism would nonetheless require a transitional time (the 'socialist' phase) ... necessary to reform the people’s antiquated cultural thinking.  The ‘vanguard’ would have to continue to control the revolution until such time as the masses were culturally retrained sufficiently to be ready to assume full responsibility for democratic self-rule.  Then, and only then, would we see a ‘withering away’ of an unneeded State.  Then, and only then, would the people be ready to step into a totally free, totally State-less, truly ‘Communistic,’ stage of social development.

Once again, here was an Idealist positive that the intellectuals with the right Ideas were the ones best entrusted with the responsibility of bringing society to a wonderful utopian future that only they could truly understand and know how to manage.  Needless to say, such Idealism found wide acceptance in one form or another in the intellectual circles of Western (and even American society).

Elitist intellectuals versus middle-class commoners

However members of the West's property-owning middle class
and certainly that included the vast number of middle class Americansloved their private property and not only had no interest in the idea of intellectuals taking command of society in order to bring their world to some kind of utopian property-less democracy but were positively horrified at the idea.  But such Marxist-Leninist ideas were rampant in Western intellectual circles – especially with Lenin’s successful overthrow of the Russian very brief middle class democracy (that Wilson had so strongly supported) and the placing of a Communist working-class ‘democracy’ in power in its place in Russia. 

Indeed Lenin and Trotsky intended the Russian ‘revolution’ to be merely the first phase of a larger, world-wide revolution designed to sweep away bourgeois, middle class culture and society and replace it everywhere with a Communist working-class society – directed by the ‘vanguard’ of the proletarian revolution, the Communist Party elite.  And it looked for a while if they might succeed in spreading their revolution to the defeated powers of the ‘Great War’ (World War One), Germany and Austria-Hungary, when Communist uprising occurred in the capitals Berlin and Budapest.

Thus while Marxist-Leninist thoughts delighted a good number of Western intellectuals, who found it easy to identify with such high Ideals (and such marvelous political opportunity for themselves as society’s ‘managers’), it set off a ‘Red Scare’ among the comfortable middle classes of Western societies everywhere. 

And thus also a serious social-cultural breach between intellectuals and commoners began to grow within Western society.  A battle between ‘high-brow’ intellectuals and ‘low-brow’ commoners was beginning to form.  The battle would become intense and bitter – and rather persistent through the rest of the 20th century (and even still today).

1Actually in 1921, with the new Russian or Soviet economy in shambles (due in great part to the horrible civil war tearing Russia apart ), Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy (NEP) allowing small-scale farming and light industry to operate on a moneyed or ‘capitalist’ basis ... which indeed soon brought considerable stability back to the Russian economy.  But this was viewed by the Bolsheviks as merely a temporary arrangement ... to be replaced by a fully socialist or ‘communist’ economy as soon as possible.  And indeed, in 1928 the new Soviet leader Stalin ended the NEP and moved the entire Russian economy under total control by the Soviet government ... in order to direct Russia towards the goal of full Communism.

Miles H. Hodges