Debate and discussion: The Mensheviks were right

Submitted by Anon on 9 February, 2005 - 6:42

Having now completed reading the third in Sean Matgamna’s series on Iraq (Solidarity 3-63, 64 and 65), I want to return to a point he makes several times in the first of the series.

In attempting to distinguish the views of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty from those of Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ), Sean makes use on several occasions of the word “Menshevik”.

He accuses Alan Johnson of “adopting the ‘stages’ approach of Menshevism and Stalinism” regarding Iraq. He adds: “Think of those poor, benighted political ‘idiots’, the Bolsheviks, who in 1917 would not listen to the Mensheviks and SRs, or their own Bolshevik right wing, arguing that they needed to rally politically to the Provisional Government in order to prevent the victory of reaction.”

Earlier in the article, he summarises Menshevik strategy as “the working class should avoid doing anything that would frighten the bourgeoisie”.

Though the logic of all this might not be clear to everyone, the obvious message is that to be a Bolshevik is a good thing and to be a Menshevik is a bad thing. This is such a fundamental tenet of Trotskyism that I would imagine it is rarely, if ever questioned.

And yet I wonder if the time hasn’t come to take a closer look at the Menshevik bogey-man, to see if he is really all that terrible.

But first, a word about the Bolsheviks. Sean would be the first to admit that the Bolsheviks made their fair share of mistakes. Those mistakes do seem to be rather big ones, looking backwards after some eight decades. Within a few years of coming to power, the Bolsheviks had managed to establish the most brutal regime the world had ever known — a regime responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people.

Of course Trotskyists love to blame all that on Stalin. When Lenin was alive, when Trotsky headed the Red Army, none of that happened.

Not exactly true, comrades. It was Lenin who established the Cheka (later known as the GPU, NKVD and KGB) within weeks of the Bolshevik revolution, months before the outbreak of the civil war. He was the one who ordered the closing of Menshevik and other socialist newspapers even before the end of 1917. It was under Lenin and Trotsky that all the other socialist parties were outlawed (including those who supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, such as the Mensheviks under Martov). Under their rule, democracy within the Bolshevik party came to an end with the banning of factions. Under Lenin and Trotsky, the Gulag was launched. And it was under their rule that the only corner of the Russian empire under democratic socialist rule, the little Menshevik republic of Georgia, was invaded and conquered in 1921.

Of course under Stalin all this became far worse, thousands of times worse. And what was the reaction of the Bolshevik old guard? They overwhelmingly capitulated to Stalin. All the “giants” who stood side-by-side with Lenin and Trotsky, such as Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, every one of them eventually surrendered to Stalin — and every one of them was eventually shot. Trotsky did not share their fate because of his exile. He was allowed out of Russia, and it was in his exile in Turkey, France, Norway and Mexico that he began to develop the critique of Stalinism that made him famous.

Interestingly enough, Trotsky’s own views on Menshevism underwent a change once he escaped from the suffocating atmosphere of the Leninist party in Russia. Though he initially supported the infamous Menshevik Party trial in the early 1930s — seen by many as a dress rehearsal for the later Stalinist show trials — he later repudiated his own view, admitting that the Mensheviks accused of sabotage were probably innocent victims of the emerging Stalinist terror. Even he began to understand that not every bad thing said about the Mensheviks was necessarily true.

Furthermore, as his views in the 1930s grew closer and closer to those of the Mensheviks, there were even some contacts — which unfortunately did not bear any fruit. The great Menshevik historian Boris Nicolaevsky befriended Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov. Some Mensheviks drifted into the Trotskyist camp. Others were increasingly blunt about the similarities in their emerging analysis of the Stalinist regime.

Sometimes the parallels are striking. For example, most Trotskyists know about the split in the Fourth International in 1940 and the development by Max Shachtman of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism to explain the rise of a new exploiting ruling class in the USSR. But few will be familiar with a parallel development in the Menshevik camp at precisely the same moment.

Rudolf Hilferding, described by some as “the most outstanding Marxist theorist alive” in 1940, wrote an essay called “State Capitalism or Totalitarian State Economy” arguing that Stalinist Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist, but was a new form of society. This view — nearly identical to Shachtman’s — appeared in the Menshevik publication Sotsialisticheskii vestnik.

Had Trotsky and the Mensheviks in exile been somewhat more open to one another, the history of the non-Stalinist left might have been radically different.

Sean scoffs at those who warned the Bolsheviks against a premature seizure of power in October 1917 — those who warned that it might result in the triumph of reaction. But I wonder if they weren’t right to issue such warnings.

After all, within two decades, Russia was once again an empire, ruled by a dictator, with a secret police infinitely more powerful than the one created by Ivan the Terrible. The breathing space that socialists had in the last years of Romanov rule seemed like paradise compared to the nightmare of Stalinist Russia. Maybe the premature seizure of power by a Marxist party in one of the world’s most backward wasn’t such a great idea after all.

Indeed, the whole historical experience of the last century should show us that when Marxists seize power in backward countries, such as China, Albania, Angola, Vietnam, Cuba, etc., the result is exactly what Marx predicted: the creation of new class society.

Sean scoffs at the “theory of stages” but it was Marx and Engels who first proposed the idea that socialism would result from the contradictions of advanced capitalism — and not from the blueprints of utopians. The Bolsheviks ignored all this, tried to leap over not one but several historical stages, and the result was the greatest tragedy of modern times.

As for the Mensheviks, they have gotten a rather bad rap, haven’t they? Maybe a few words about their history are in order.

The Mensheviks originated in the Iskra group of Marxists led by Lenin and Martov, which succeeded in taking over the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at its 1903 congress, but split over several organisational questions. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks remained, formally, members of the same party, sharing the same program and often cooperating, more or less until the 1917 revolution. Several attempts at party unity were made, usually with the backing of the International, but to little avail. Trotsky was far closer to the Mensheviks, sharing their concerns about a possible concentration of power in the Leninist faction.

In 1917 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks drew even closer with the outbreak of revolution. Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd put an end to all that as he saw the chance for the Bolsheviks to seize and hold state power.

In October 1917, the Mensheviks divided over the question of their attitude toward the Bolshevik revolution, but eventually the faction headed by Martov prevailed. Martov supported the Bolsheviks in the civil war, and his party played a role in the unions and the soviets until the early 1920s when they were finally crushed. His faction’s support for the revolution became known as the “Martov Line”.

For many decades thereafter, the Menshevik party in exile played the role that Trotskyists later grew so fond of: being left-wing critics of the Stalinist regime. Reading over the writings of the outstanding Menshevik thinkers such as Dan, Martov, Nicolaevsky, Abramovich, Dallin and others, one would be hard-pressed to find what the big difference was between the Trotskyist critique and the Menshevik one. Dallin himself wrote as early as 1929, “Trotsky’s analysis is very close to our own.”

Maybe the Bolsheviks really were wrong to seize power, to outlaw all other socialist parties, to crush the independent unions and found the Cheka and Gulag — all under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. Maybe the Mensheviks were right in calling for a coalition government of all the socialist parties, including the Social Revolutionaries, for independent trade unions, and for true soviet democracy.

Maybe if Trotsky had lived a little longer, he would indeed have completed the reconciliation with his former Menshevik comrades, realising that maybe they were not so wrong after all.

And what does all this have to do with Iraq?

If the Menshevik view is that audacious attempts to leap over several stages of history are counter-productive and will have tragic results, that view has some relevance in Iraq.

Surely Sean does not believe that Iraq is ripe for a soviet revolution? I have no doubt that what he and all genuine socialists want for Iraq is the same: the most democratic regime possible, allowing breathing space for socialists and trade unionists after decades of Saddamist rule.

A “Menshevik” view of Iraq would focus on expanding that breathing space, helping Iraqi workers to build those institutions — unions, political parties — which are essential to their survival. Is this a Stalinist “theory of stages”? Of course not — this is the ABC of Marxism.

To conclude on a personal note. I grew up as a socialist activist in the United States. There, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the word “socialist” was absolutely taboo, used only by the right, as a way to scare off liberals. The outstanding American socialist thinker, Michael Harrington, often made the case that it was in the interests of everyone, and liberals in particular, that the word “socialist” be restored to its proper use. It should not be used a smear word by the right, but instead worn as a badge of honour by the left.

I feel the same way about the word “Menshevik”. Enough of using the word Menshevik to scare off one’s political opponents. Even Trotsky came to realise that the Mensheviks were not a bunch of imperialist stooges, sabotaging Soviet industry, as the Stalinist prosecutors claimed in 1930. That he never fully came to realise how close his own views were to those of the Mensheviks is one more tragedy of that time.

To be called a Menshevik is not a smear, comrades. I wear that badge with honour.

Eric Lee

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.