Lenin was above all a master of the political bait-and-switch. "Peace, Land, and Bread" what he promised, but he only kept his promises when he found it convenient. The same would apply to his clever attack on "imperialism" and his proclamation of the "right of self-determination." These slogans won him temporary support when he needed it most; once total power was in his grip, no one would dare call accuse him of breaking his word. Thus in practice, "imperialism" meant non-Leninist imperialism and "self-determination" meant the right of all Soviet peoples to express their absolute agreement with Lenin in their native tongue.
While Lenin delivered brave speeches against imperialism, he was directing and encouraging Communist revolutions throughout Europe. All of these attempts to repeat Lenin's success story failed, but they reveal that the Bolsheviks' boasts of a Soviet Europe were not fantasy. It would take another world war before Communist imperialism would win major victories, but serious plans for worldwide revolution directed from Moscow were in existence by 1918.
The Communist revolution in Hungary had both the best chance for success and the closest direction from Moscow. The would-be dictator of the Hungarian Revolution was one Bela Kun, a POW released from the Czar's prison camp in Tomsk. Like many POWs in Russian camps, Kun was eager to hear the Bolsheviks' message and take it back to his homeland.
Old Europe is rushing toward revolution at breakneck speed. In a
twelve-month period we shall already have begun to forget that there was
ever a struggle for Communism in Europe, for in a year the whole of Europe
will be Communist.
Kun thus tried to immediately implement a copy of War Communism; but he lacked Lenin's talent for writing bad checks to buy time. As Borkenau observes:
In Russia Kun had seen three things which were of primary importance for a Hungarian revolutionary: the agrarian revolution; Lenin's fierce fight against the "reformists"; and the peace negotiations with the Germans at Brest-Livotsk. From these three experiences Kun seems to have drawn the surprising principles that one must not give the land to the peasants; that one must make war at any price; and that, at the decisive moment, a revolutionary must form an alliance with the reformists. (World Communism)
While Kun terrorized Hungary, war threatened his new regime. Kun refused to compromise on the new Hungarian-Romanian border. The Romanians nearly captured Budapest, but were forced to retreat. Next the Czech army advanced upon Budapest; again, Kun's forces defeated them and took most of Slovakia. Kun next tried to spread the revolution to neighboring Austria. A Budapest lawyer, Ernst Bettelheim, had the approval and funding of the Comintern to set up an Austrian Communist Party. Bettelheim and his followers planned to seize control of the nerve centers of the government, while Kun sent the Red Hungarian army to the Austrian border (only two hours' march from Vienna), ready to invade to support their compatriots. The night before the planned rising, on June 14, 1919, however, the Austrian police arrested all of Austrian Communist leadership except for Bettelheim; a march of 4000 Communists to free them broke under police fire.
The Austrian revolution had been decapitated, so Kun returned his focus to his internal problems in Hungary. Like Lenin, Kun found that the peasants were unwilling give food to the cities for free. So Budapest was soon threatened with famine. The Hungarian equivalent of the Cheka tried using executions and hostages to squeeze food out of the peasants; this policy worked no better for Kun than it did for Lenin. Soon Kun faced revolts in both city and country. His Red Army was falling apart. A renewed offensive by the Romanians took Budapest, and in spite of Kun's pleas for aid, Lenin had no troops to spare. Kun did successfully negotiate safe passage for himself and most of his high command, but Communism would not return to Hungary until 1945.
Communist risings in Germany did not go nearly as far as Kun's in Hungary. But it is important to keep in mind that in chaotic post-war conditions, tiny and seemingly impotent movements like Lenin's on occasion won out. Communist revolutions easily crushed in their infancy could nevertheless spark reasonable fear in millions of people for decades to come. With the end of World War I, Communist-inspired power seizures were seen all over Germany. Most significant of these were the Spartacist Berlin rising, and the establishment of a Soviet republic in Bavaria.
The Spartacist rising was far less dependent upon Lenin's orders than the Bela Kun's takeover of Hungary. But the Bolsheviks were involved from the start. Lenin "dispatched a team of his most able revolutionaries to infiltrate Germany: Karl Radek, one of the most powerful men in the Comintern; Nikolai Bukharin, second-in-command of the Comintern; Christian Rakovsky, a Bulgarian who was a signatory at the founding of the Comintern; and a mysterious man called Ignatov, who probably was Alexander Shpigelglas, an official of the Cheka's Foreign Department who had a record of assassinations during the Terror.." (Anthony Brown and Charles MacDonald, On a Field of Red) Lenin's agents attended the first congress of the Communist Party of Germany, held in Berlin in December of 1918. There they urged the German far left to seize power from the moderate socialist Ebert government, explaining Lenin's view that a Communist Germany in close alliance with a Communist Russia would be invulnerable. But in Berlin, the Communists had independent leadership that the Russian guests had to win over or bypass: the long-time Marxist radicals Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was they who would actually lead the impending uprising.
Most historians have given Rosa Luxemburg inordinately favorable treatment, contrasting her love of democracy with Lenin's brutal dictatorship. Canonization is always easier for martyrs who die early in the crusade. But is Luxemburg's reputation deserved? Luxemburg attacked Lenin's authoritarianism in the early 1900's, but so did Trotsky - the future ideologist of the Red Terror. Moreover, when we look at Luxemburg's broader attack on Leninism, it becomes clear that her own dictatorial inclinations were quite pronounced. Luxemburg attacked Lenin for his deviations from orthodox Marxism on the questions of land and national self-determination. It was heresy to let the peasants keep private property in land, or to allow national minorities to secede. If Luxemburg was unwilling to make even these concessions, the blood required by her revolution could have made Lenin's pale in comparison.
In the realm of theory, then, Luxemberg frequently made Lenin seem a sober moderate. What about her practice? Most sources indicate that Luxemburg did not favor a Communist coup d'etat because she foresaw that it would fail. But once Liebknecht and her other compatriots seized the railroad stations, newspapers, and government buildings, Luxemburg took charge. Liebknecht announced that the current government of Germany had been dismissed and replaced by a provisional government composed of his Revolutionary Committee. But while Liebknecht issued these brave words, it was Luxemburg who jumped into the fray and began issuing concrete orders:
Rosa Luxemburg, she who had advised against revolution, was the only leader to act with vigor and enthusiasm. "Act!" she cried. "Disarm the counter-revolution, arm the masses, occupy all important positions. Act quickly! The revolution demands it!" (Anthony Brown and Charles MacDonald, On a Field of Red)
This "revolution" - in reality, a Lenin-style coup d'etat - petered out fairly quickly, although about 1200 people died during a week of street fighting. Luxemburg and Liebknecht went into hiding with a third comrade, Wilhelm Pieck. It was not long before the army tracked them down. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were killed shortly thereafter - and almost immediately became the beloved martyrs of the German Communists. But Wilhelm Pieck managed to elude escape - rising to world prominence in 1949 when he became dictator of East Germany. Yet ironically, the world remembers Luxemburg as a truly democratic socialist, rather than the godmother of one of the world's ugliest Communist despotisms.
A second Communist-inspired coup in Bavaria had far greater success. It began with the seizure of power by one Kurt Eisner. As usual, force was necessary: "a movement of war-tired and anti-Prussian peasant soldiers brought the local leader of the U.S.P., Kurt Eisner, into power" in November of 1918 (Franz Borkenau, World Communism). Elections held in January showed that Eisner's radical Independent had minimal popular support. Pressure was on Eisner to resign, and it appears that he would have were he not assassinated in late February. This soon brought the lunatic fringe into public view: the Independent poet Ernst Toller, who proclaimed a "dictatorship of love"; Gustav Landauer, an "anarchist" eager for a high political position in Soviet Munich; even a hastily-appointed foreign minister who declared war on the Papacy.
Toller, Landauer, and the others were not acting on orders from Moscow. The man with that distinction was one Eugene Toller, who received orders from the Comintern to seize power in Bavaria. Levine's Communists stayed aloof from Toller's antics until it appeared that troops loyal to the central government would put an end to Soviet Munich. Then Levine sent offers of help to Toller, condition upon obedience. Within three days of Toller's proclamation of a Soviet republic, Levine's Communists were firmly in power, started issuing frightening decrees, took hostages, and telegraphed Lenin: "We have the pleasure of informing you that the bogus Soviet Republic has collapsed and a real proletariat rule has been established in its place." But Levine's rule was only a little longer than Toller's. After a couple of weeks, loyalist troops were ready to take Munich back. Levine's military commander had 20 hostages shot, but this did not save his regime. On May 3, 1919, the Munich Soviet was crushed, and a month later, Levine was executed.
Loyalist troops created much sympathy for the Communists by killing about one thousand people upon taking Munich. Thus many came to remember Munich for its martyrs rather than for its experimentation with Leninist despotism.
Thus Leninist revolution failed in Hungary, Austria, and Germany. It also failed in parts of the former Russian Empire itself: in Finland and the Baltic countries, separatists defeated Communists and set up independent non-Communist governments. Communism seemed confined to a single country. But escaping world notice was the establishment of the world's second Communist dictatorship in the independent country of Mongolia.
Unlike the haphazard power seizures in Europe, the imposition of Soviet power upon Mongolia was carefully planned. First, a small number of Mongols were trained in Communist theory and practice in Moscow and Irkutsk. These Communist Mongols set up the First Congress of the Mongolian People's Party in Kyakhta, just north of the Mongolian border, and proclaimed a Provisional Revolution Government. Then the Mongolian Communists formed a minuscule Mongolian army. In March of 1921 this tiny force marched into Mongolia; following close behind was the Red Army, which guaranteed victory to what would have otherwise been the movement of a few hundred malcontents. The Red Army was now in Mongolia, and used standard techniques to seize total power under the guise of national self-determination. The Mongolian People's Republic would be the first Soviet satellite state. It would not be the last.