A couple of months ago, I saw an old (1940s) film, entitled It’s a Wonderful Life. Since it’s apparently very famous and critically lauded, I’m guessing that most readers will be aware of it. However, for those whose education has a similar lacuna as mine, I’ll just briefly outline the story. The main character - George Bailey - is a man who begins life full of promise: he is going to travel, to experience all the world has to offer, and to leave far behind his beginnings in a small town in New York State. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t work out like that, and he gets sucked deeper and deeper into local drudgery, working for (and eventually taking over from his father) his family’s buildings and loan society (mortgage business, to the rest of us). He sees others moving onwards and upwards in their lives, and reaches his low point one Christmas Eve, when he sits on a bridge contemplating suicide and wishing he had never been born. Just before he throws himself into the flooding river, an angel joins him, and after some back-and-forth about life, takes him on a trip though how the world wold have been, had he never been born. So we see all the underlying things he had done in his life, and how they had a positive effect on the world in which he lived; I don’t need to go into detail here, but all the little bits of his life added together demonstrate that - despite his own longing for something better - he has been a positive force for good, and the world is a better place than it would have been had he indeed never been born. It’s a feelgood film, whose underlying message is just what the title suggests.
The 21st January this year was the 100th anniversary of the death of Lenin. What’s that got to do with the paragraph above? Well, it occurred to me that in contrast to the benefits of his life that the angel shows George Bailey, maybe there are cases where we could say that had X not been born, the world would have been a better place. Lenin seems a good starting point. His mother possibly loved him, but it’s difficult to see how anyone else would have done. On the plus side, I suppose, he was clearly a good organiser and a motivator; however, since the organisation was the Bolshevik party and the motivation the urge to kill those who got in the way of his rise to power, it’s difficult to be too enthusiastic about that. His record is not good; the Bolshevik coup - the revolution was what happened in February/March in the Gregorian calendar - and what the Bolsheviks achieved in October/November was simply that - a coup, successful at the point of a gun. That then ushered in the Red Terror, which killed a large number of people (historians cannot agree on the total) most of whose only crime was to be perceived as opponents of the Bolshevik take-over. He was responsible, along with Trotsky and Dzerzhinsky, for the establishment of the Cheka, later OGPU and ultimately KGB, which was the main organ of terror. How many millions of deaths was he responsible for, all in the name of a discredited political ideology and system which burdened the people of Eastern Europe for three quarters of a century?
Lenin is not alone, of course, in the pantheon of twentieth century political monsters. Take a bow Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, as a starting crew. What do they all have in common? Well, they are all totalitarians, who follow the dictum that the state is greater than the individual - but of course, that is only partially applicable; for the little coterie of insiders, the ruling clique, the rules don’t apply - behave as you will, in the secure knowledge that opponents can easily be banished or killed. They also adhere to the dangerous tenet that the end justifies the means.
The twentieth century was one of, if not the, most blood-soaked in recorded history. But maybe some older characters also pass the test of being better not born; what of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, for example? The problem with looking back hundreds of years is that the level of information we have is limited, and therefore it is far more difficult to judge. So really, we are left looking at the twentieth century - and maybe the twenty-first. It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrates the positives of George Bailey’s life; try as I might, I can see no positives that came out of the life of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin - just terror, death and dictatorship. Is another Vladimir following a similar course?
On a very different note, we should mark the death of someone who very definitely had a positive effect on the world. Sadly, earlier this week, Barry John - probably the greatest of that incomparable group of late 60s/early 70s Welsh rugby players - died. He was a unique talent, and although he only played 25 times for Wales and 5 for the Lions, his brilliance is etched on the memories of those of us privileged to have seen him play. The insouciance of his tactical discussion with Gareth Edwards - "you chuck it, Gar, and I'll catch it" - and his more recent comment that in his day they ran into space whereas now they run into each other bring back memories of a subtler game than we see in today's rugby.