Why Grand Conspiracies Fail

Drug-running cartels routinely conspire to bring their illegal products to market. Corporate executives conspire, usually legally, to enrich themselves at the expense of their investors. Prosecutors sometimes conspire to keep exculpatory evidence from the defense in criminal cases. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries conspire to keep the price of oil artificially high. Those conspiracies often succeed, though they often fail. But those are run-of-the-mill conspiracies. Grand Conspiracies, by their very nature, are bound to fail.

A grand conspiracy is a conspiracy in which a small cabal of individuals attempts to gain and keep power in secret. Secret societies of any kind are candidates to harbor grand conspiracies. The Masons, the Illuminati, Catholic orders, the Bolshevik Party, that kind of organization can never succeed as grand conspiracies.

The Communist Conspiracy

Those of you who raised your eyebrows at the mention of the Bolshevik Party—congratulations, you may now praise the name Lord Barack while chewing on your organic, locally-grown arugula. Because the Bolshevik Party gained power and held it for over seventy years. But they didn’t gain power or govern as grand conspiracies. To illustrate, we will examine how the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party gained power.

Vladimir Illich Lenin was a political innovator. He was the first to create the modern totalitarian party, and, after attaining power, he proceeded to create the first modern totalitarian state. He built the misnamed ‘Bolshevik’ (majority) Party into a secretive, paranoid organization lead by a small cadre. Its primary objective, almost its only objective was gaining power over the Russian Empire.

Except it didn’t work that way at all. The secretive Bolshevik Party machinations were no secret to the Okrana, the Tsarist secret service. The Okrana knew the ‘real’ Bolshevik leadership, its assets, its important sympathizers, virtually everything! The Bolshevik conspiracy was an open conspiracy, despite its best efforts to remain in the shadows. The Bolsheviks won because its opponents faltered, and they had the ruthlessness to take advantage. Grand conspiracy it was not.

The Chinese Communist Party benefited from its secrecy far more than the Bolshevik Party did. This was due in part to relocating to a remote part of China, and terrifying its cadres into obedience. When the final showdown between the Chinese communists and the Nationalists came, Mao could count in the loyalty of his army, while Chiang could not.

This does not mean that a grand conspiracy succeeded—because Chiang strongly suspected several generals of disloyalty, and refused to sack them. That’s dictatorship one-oh-one—you purge disloyal generals and their followers. You don’t have to kill them; house arrest, forced retirement, exile would usually work. But Chiang thought too much of his limited charisma, thinking he could make almost anyone loyal to him. Even then, Mao had to rely on massive Soviet aid and American stupidity in the persons of Harry Truman and General Marshall to gain power in 1949.

Why Grand Conspiracies Fail

We should not fear grand conspiracies. The organization required to pull a massive, long-term conspiracy is impossible. Human beings are complex; our loyalties shift, some of us can’t deal with failure or disappointment, and somebody talks. Somebody always talks. In addition, even with very similar people, power struggles make it almost impossible to keep a secret. Lenin thought he was the man for the top job, but so did Trostky, and so did Stalin. As long as human beings are human, grand conspiracies will fail.

* Note: This is the first of three blog notes reflecting on the nature of complexity in society.

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