Debate and discussion: Again on Menshevism

Submitted by Anon on 22 March, 2005 - 12:56

I’m not in the least bit concerned about Eric Lee being “harsh”, but I am concerned by what seems like a conscious attempt to misstate the historical facts and misrepresent my arguments (“Respect the Mensheviks”, Solidarity 3/68).

Eric argues, in effect, that there were no revolutionary upsurges in Europe between 1917 and 1923, only “poorly-planned, poorly-executed attempts at instant revolutions” — or, indeed, coups, just like the “Bolshevik coup in Petrograd in 1917”. These debacles were, he says, the responsibility of the revolutionary left, from the German Spartacist League in 1919 to the Communist International leadership four years later.

Now, was the Russian revolution really a coup? No! Certainly not according to Eric’s hero Martov, the left Menshevik leader who described October 1917 in terms which read almost like a plea to his latterday disciple: “Understand, please, that what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat — almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.”

Similarly, by airbrushing out the enormous, world-transforming wave of working-class struggle that convulsed Europe in the years following World War 1, Eric also deletes the betrayal of the Social Democratic parties which led the majority of those revolutions.

To take one example: does Eric deny that there was a revolution in Germany in 1918–19? Or that it created workers’ and soldiers’ councils which for a brief time became the dominant force in German society? Or that this revolutionary movement was demobilised and betrayed by the Social Democratic politicians who controlled its upper echelons?

Even the later events of 1923, when there were criticisms of the German Communist Party and Comintern to be made, it was never because they plotted to make “instant revolutions”; they were attempting to build on the wave of strikes and working-class protests occasioned by Germany’s dire economic crisis.

The — yes — failed and — yes — in some cases, misled insurrections of this period were, indeed, made by adherents of the Bolshevik-led International. But they failed precisely because the mass revolutionary movements on which they wanted to base themselves were led by equivalents of the Mensheviks. It is simply bizarre that Eric is attempting to deny this.

Eric says the Bolsheviks imposed some limitations on soviet democracy before the outbreak of the Civil War proper. True. However, even before the outbreak of full-scale fighting in mid-1918, it is hardly the case that the revolution was left to develop in peace; both the Tsarist military hierarchy and, of course, the Central Powers began organising attacks on the Soviet regime from its very inception.

The Bolsheviks were very concerned to avoid the same fate that befell the Paris Commune of 1871, where 30,000 were massacred in an orgy of violence by the French ruling class; at the time Marx and Engels criticised the revolutionaries for being insufficiently ruthless. The Bolsheviks expected to be attacked and massacred and possibly any day. And they were right to feel that way. It was a feeling hardly likely to have been ameliorated by the Finnish civil war (raging by February and over by May 1918), in which at least 10,000 workers and socialists were killed, more than half of them after the White victory.

Does Eric think none of this is of any consequence?

And what about the Brest-Litovsk treaty of March 1918, which stripped the Soviet Republic of the great majority of its natural resources and industrial centres in the west? Or the fact that the revolution had taken power in a country wrecked by four years of war, that was still fighting, and that was by 1921 so devastated that parts of its had reverted not only to a primitive barter economy but to cannibalism!

I would not defend every authoritarian measure the Bolsheviks took, or ignore the anti-democratic evolution of their politics, but I maintain that we need to understand these things in their proper context and differentiate them from what came later. In Eric’s black-and white-world, none of this complexity exists. He prefers sensational accusations — the Bolsheviks started the Gulag, he says (never mind that they didn’t, as I explained in my first response!) — and the blurring of important political issues, for instance on the Constituent Assembly. In 1918, no revolutionary would have defended the right of the Constituent Assembly to legally and peacefully declare the counter-revolution victorious. Even Rosa Luxemburg, who criticised the Bolsheviks severely on this issue, advocated the election of a new assembly after the right and left of the peasant Socialist Revolutionary Party had clearly separated. And she changed her mind; she later counterposed workers’ councils and parliament during the debates of the German revolution.

When I wrote that “the isolation of the revolution in a backward country did lead to unexpected consequences in the form of Stalinism”, I clearly did not mean that the rise of a brutal counter-revolution against attempts at workers’ revolution in Russia was unexpected. I meant the form of this counter-revolution, maintaining the language and symbols of the revolution it overthrew, was surprising. I assume that Eric would not deny this.

What Eric fails to see was that the Bolsheviks were not trying to “leap over historical stages”, but to provide an impulse that would facilitate other revolutions in the more developed West. Eric cannot admit this because, as far as I can tell, he thinks any advocacy of revolution is premature — in Russia in 1917, in Germany in 1923, in early 21st-century Iraq and, presumably, in Britain and the US too. How he can think this is the politics of Marx is beyond me.

Last word to Rosa Luxemburg writing to Karl Kautsky’s wife Luise from prison in 1917): “Are you happy about the Russians? Of course, they will not be able to maintain themselves in this witches’ sabbath, not because some statistics show economic development in Russia to be too backward, as your clever husband has figured out, but because social democracy in the highly developed West consists of miserable and wretched cowards who will look quietly on and let the Russians bleed to death.”

Sacha Ismail

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.