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From Luther to Lenin

It’s been a month of anniversaries. Amongst other, we marked five centuries of Lutheran Reformation, and the Great October Revolution happened a hundred years ago, on the 7th November (depending which calendar one follows). At face value, Luther and Lenin had a different story to tell. Yet history links them far more intimately. More so, both anniversaries have a lot to tell us about our current state of affairs, be it in Malta or beyond its Mediterranean shores.

I am not expecting many to agree with me. Somehow, these days in our land of milk and honey (not to mention tarmac and concrete), we are more adept to a kind of pseudo revolutionary fervour which takes umbrage on the people for failing to be roused and impressed by interminable cycles of hypocrisy.

But let’s not deviate. What is interesting about Luther is that before the Jacobins stormed the Bastille, it was this modest Augustinian monk who started it all. Before Voltaire, whose name did the rounds recently in Malta (though hardly anyone heeded his adage), Martin Luther is in effect the father of the bourgeois revolution.

Luther was no ordinary monk, and no ordinary theologian. Before him there were many, including John Wycliffe, who paid with their life for bringing the Gospel and the power of the vernacular to the masses. But Luther did more than that. He was the symbolic and effective spark that started it all, and without which (I would argue) there would have been no Adam Smith, let alone a Karl Marx, and less so a Vladimir Illich Lenin.

Yes, the connections are there for those who have the time to spare and read a couple of books, understand history, and stop from obsessing with their likes on Facebook, which would only aggravate their messiah complex.

Luther was not just the man who defied the Pope. In fact, we are told that he was hoping the Pope would listen to him, and like many loyal religious, he had a sense of obedience to the Church, which he loved more than the Roman hierarchy.

Luther loved the Church because he understood it to be God’s people. His revolution was radical in that he cut out the middleman, and gave us a vision of men and women’s direct relationship with the Divine that would change everything — though in places like Malta, that never really had an effect on us, except indirectly through the wrong channels, some of which are coming to us now, distorted and for the wrong reasons, five centuries later.

And what about Vladimir Illich Ulyanov? Like Luther, he may still be the devil incarnate for most Maltese and others who chose to forget that in effect, the world that he fought against was as dismal and as violent as that which his successor, Joseph Stalin, left behind. But then again, we all say the same about historical figures whose followers failed to understand what they stood for.

Those who want to read the tragedy of Lenin’s last years now have all the information they need. Lenin used controversial methods and was violent in his approach. I am never sure whether Kerensky’s politics would have better suited Russia. But then again, the Bolsheviks had no time for a man who was so weak that he contemplated bringing back the Tzars.

Still, Lenin was ultimately duped and deposed by his own comrades, led by Stalin, the party’s chief henchman who would decimate the revolutionary cadre which led the Russian people to overthrow the despotic Romanovs. Starting with Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and then even Bukharin whom he manipulated in order to gain power, Stalin turned the Revolution into the monster that devours its offspring with the show trials which basically obliterated the Leninists from the face of the earth.

Lenin’s Revolution was not exactly a picnic and never delivered utopia. However, I would disagree with those who would simply dismiss these events as useless tragedies or failures.

What Stalin did was even worse than the reign of terror that followed the Jacobin revolution, and to that effect, today we witness a situation where the Great October Revolution seems to be less great than ever before and unlike the French who still celebrate Bastille Day with fervour, the Russian authorities are reluctant to do much about the storming of the Winter Palace.

So indeed, Lenin’s Revolution was not exactly a picnic and never delivered utopia. However, I would disagree with those who would simply dismiss these events as useless tragedies or failures. Even when I detest violence and I wish history had no bloodshed tarnishing it, I see a necessary link of enlightened thinking and increased forms of liberation in a revolutionary lineage that starts with England’s Protestant Glorious Revolution of 1688, and moves onto the revolutions in America in 1765, France in 1789, and indeed Russia in 1917. These are historical milestones that explain to us what and who we are. More so where we cannot simply ignore why people decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and fight against tyranny.

Yet as I say all this, and knowing that Luther’s own revolution did not come without any bloodshed—given the backlash of the counter reformation and what followed suit—I do think that we have to reflect deeply on what, in the 21st century, these events mean to us.

Closer to home, in Malta, it might be worth thinking of how Lenin and Luther’s revolutions might still teach us one thing or two. For sure, they did not succeed in changing their respecting worlds by shouting most. More so they never followed an impulse and never sought to please. They were no messiahs and never pretended to be. And last but not least, they did have an armchair, they were studious, and they were not exactly impressed by immediate reactions to what was going around them.

These days, we speak a lot about “reflective practitioners”. In my field, this buzzword has become commonplace to the extent of nausea. However, if we are to speak of two minds that would not settle for what immediately comes up in front of them, Luther and Lenin are the ones for you. Hate them as much as you like, but what they offered humanity was far from knee-jerk reactions or personal and misguided ambitions to take the role of some new messiah.

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