“We cannot save the world by playing by the rules,” thunders Greta Thunberg, voicing the sentiment of practically every violent radical, terrorist, and concentration-camp builder throughout modern history. Here is a 21st-century question: Is the 20-year-old environmental campaigner old enough to know better?
There was a time, not that long ago, when this would have been understood as a nonsensical question, the answer to which is: Of course. V.I. Lenin spent much of his 20th year translating The Communist Manifesto from German into Russian. This was an act of devotion, not an act of necessary scholarship, the work already having been translated by Mikhail Bakunin some years earlier. No copy of Lenin’s translation exists—it would have been of interest to compare it to other versions. Lenin, of course, was very much of Thunberg’s mind—no time for the rules, no time for niceties when you are saving humanity. The problem is, the thing radicals are always saving humanity from is humanity—hence the inhumanity typical of radical movements. When the other young idealists moved to abolish capital punishment in the utopia they were building, Lenin quashed the reform. “How can you make a revolution without executions?” he asked. He charged those pressing for a more humane approach with “impermissible weakness.” He summed up his strategy: “terror.” His version of “We cannot save the world by playing by the rules” was his call for “unrestricted power based on force, not law.”
By the age of 20, Joseph Stalin already was immersed in radical activism. He read widely in contemporary socialist literature and was discoursed by the moderation of many would-be reformers. The socialist writer who most spoke to him wrote under the name “Tulin.” This was, of course, none other than Lenin. Stalin’s hatred for rules-abiding moderates was enduring: Social democrats were, in his diagnosis, “objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Osama bin Laden was only a few years away from his first real jihad at that age and already working with radical groups. Pol Pot was making contacts with future political allies in Paris. Hitler, the slacker, was a semi-vagrant bohemian in Vienna at 20, but his great antagonist, Winston Churchill, was preparing to be commissioned in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars when he was Thunberg’s age.
Greta Thunberg is, by most accounts, poorly educated. (She did finally finish high school this year after 251 weeks “on strike” from schooling.) Perhaps she is not familiar with the history of the ideas she espouses.