Paul Atreides is a fictional character in the Dune universe created by Frank Herbert. The son of Duke Leto Atreides and the Lady Jessica, Paul is the heir of House Atreides, an aristocratic family that rules the planet Caladan. He is the “Hero” of the first book of the Dune saga that covers the rise, fall, vengeance, decline again, and rise of the Atreides family. It is perhaps the most respected work of high science fiction and is a powerful character study on the dangers and pitfalls of a public placing all their faith and trust in a single individual. A savior or a “great man” figure.
This is not a new concept and it is as troubling a concept today as it was in feudal times. But, unlike most dominating great men, the promising champion of equality who becomes consumed by power and turns into a tyrant, Paul is different. There is a silver lining in his narrative, but it's not enough to erase all the destruction his actions caused. But, it is enough to warrant exploration and even empathy. You see, Paul realized that he had become the problem, that his supporters had become the new great terror in the galaxy, and he tried to stop them. Realizing he couldn’t, that it had become a freak force of nature, he stripped himself of power and disappeared into the desert.
Of course, I’m summing up this whole two-book journey quickly, condensing a vast assortment of ideas, events, and persons. However, the main thesis is still the same. Paul was a false god-like figure, he sold the public on a concept, that they were hungry for, and he unleashed violence to destroy his opposition. When he tried to stop it, it no longer mattered. The public no longer needed the man, the cult of personality had already transformed him into a concept, a vision that outstripped even his own brilliant qualities. He had become irrelevant.
Now what the hell does this have to do with Lenin? Well, actually quite a great deal. For as it turns out Lenin followed the same journey as Paul. The same sudden rise to glory, his family suffered the same fall from grace as Paul’s, leading him on the same quest for revenge, and the same kind of tragic fall. Now what's even more strange about all this is that the same two families that murdered members of both Paul and Lenin’s family were actually from the same family.
The House Harkonnen, the violent and disgusting family that murdered Paul’s father are able to trace their lineage all the way back to imperial Russia. They were members of the Royal family, the same that murdered Lenin’s older brother in a plot to assassinate the Czar. In both cases, the actions of this one family radicalized a family member of one of its victims, literally creating their greatest foe. Both Lenin and Paul were minor members of the nobility, in prosperous families that were ascending up the ranks of society. Both were suddenly stripped of this legacy, denied its protection, and forced to seek revenge in the shadows.
The similarities don’t end there. Both went from minor political leaders of under-group operatives to essentially supreme emperors of vast dominions with alarming quickness. Neither man gained power legally or electorally. And both made a deal with the devil when it came to the means of achieving that power.
Now one of my favorite scenes in both Dune movies is when Paul freaks out on the spice, he is able to see all the future events and possibilities, the dangerous outcomes of his achieving power. Up until that moment, he was a hero. But, seeing the outcome, the billions killed and enslaved, he still decides to do it. To reach for the main chance. That is the moment when he becomes the actual villain of the story. From that moment on, the Harkonnen really don’t have a chance. Now what's wild is Lenin had the same moment. The night before the Soviet party was going to take power and storm the Winter Palace in the October Revolution, he had a lengthy chat with Trotsky. They talked about how strange it was, Russia was there for the taking, a quarter of the world, and it was being defended by just a few hundred troops in the Winter Palace. Lenin suddenly felt conflicted, he was venturing beyond theory and into practice. For a second, just a second, he hesitated. He must have calculated what could happen.
But then he went for it and he opened Pandora’s box.
Now while I sympathize and appreciate some aspects of Marxism and am ideologically somewhere between a socialist and a Menshevik, it's hard to ignore the negative aspects of the early soviet state. Lenin proved to be an excellent administrator, perhaps one of the 20th century’s best. But, he was also the precursor to the age of win-at-all-cost politics we live in today. Both Lenin and Paul entered office with noble ideals, and while neither man could be considered in the same category as Stalin or Hitler, we can't escape the fact that their states killed and starved sizeable portions of their citizens. Neither man did it with any bloody lust, it was a mathematical calculation.
Finally, the last similarity is the cult of Lenin that lasted over the entirety of the soviet age. Lenin was tired of being used as an Icon. He began to experiment with new economic solutions and free market-based commerce. He wasn’t pleased with the hypocrisy of his inner circle like Stalin and began to slowly work against him. Then he suffered a stroke. Unlike Paul, Lenin didn’t run into the desert to live like a hermit. Lenin fought like hell to recover, briefly did and then worked himself into another major stroke. From then on he was essentially a prisoner of the soviet state, living in isolation in his country estate, all his communication being monitored.
Before he lost the power of speech with another major stroke, he dictated his political last testament, in which he attacked Stalin. It was quietly suppressed. He had exposed his country to the wind and then was stricken down by its whirlwind.
Both men were ultimately silenced and stripped of their identity. Neither are heroes and neither are outright victims. But, both are cautionary tales about the allure and danger of cult politics.
I don’t know if is there another current political figure that this could also represent?