Bolshevism: Past and Present

Some Historical Debunking

Die Geschichte des Bolschevismus (Rohwolt Verlag, Berlin, 1932). The History of Bolshevism, by Arthur Rosenberg, should appear any day in English. The author, who was up to Hitler’s rise to power, a professor of history at the University of Berlin, and from 1920 to 1927 a member of the Communist Party of Germany, a member of the central committee of that Party, and a member of the executive committee of the Communist International, states that he does not wish to present the viewpoint of any party or group, or retail scandal to Russian inner court politics, but that he aims to set forth an objective account and study of the beginnings, past tendencies and present direction of Bolshevism as a social phenomenon. The book is a striking confirmation of the stand taken by the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the Russian upheaval and the historic role of the Bolsheviki. As such, the translated “History” will sow consternation, and possibly also understanding among the various uncritical utopian – radical elements that, from 1918 to date, have been flirting with acts and slogans that they did not try too hard to analyse.

The book begins with a study of the historic elements of Marxist thought. The writer points out that in the course of the second half of the 19th century the organised working-class movement of Europe passed through two stages, each possessing a distinct theoretic programme.

The declared aim of the first was the completion, by the proletariat, of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, with Socialism as the ultimate goal. Here the workers found themselves under the leadership of small groups of professional revolutionists who hailed from the ranks of the radical bourgeois intellectuals. This stage is typified by Marx and Engels of 1848, and, because of the similarity of local social circumstances, by the Russian Bolshevism in the 20th century.

In the second stage, the Western European workers had so far developed that they directed themselves in their own organisations. In spite of the theoretic growth of Marx and the implication of his later writings, the revolutionary aim was set aside, and the workers’ political organisations adopted as their programme the betterment of their lot within the framework of the capitalist society they lived in. This forms the period of the Second International.

When the development of the labour movement is traced in an historically logical progression, declares the author, one reaches a third stage and a new political attitude. This attitude marks the completion of the Marxian programme for the future. Here the working class is fully aware of its fitness to lead itself, and, no longer satisfied with the promise of having its condition bettered within the framework of capitalist society, wants to attain power. This is no longer to be a radical-democratic revolution, as in the first stage, but a Socialist revolution, which is to change capitalist property to the common property of society. In this revolution, the workers will not be the led instrument of a party directorate, but will act unaided, in accordance with their class understanding.

The conditions requisite for the third stage are: first, an extraordinary advance in the development of capitalism; second, the approximate destruction of the middle layers found between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, so that all tactics of alliance on the part of the proletariat, on a national democratic basis, become superfluous; lastly, the overwhelming majority of the exploited must find themselves in conscious opposition to the small minority of the capitalist exploiters. That is, the third stage calls for the revolutionary education of the proletariat, who, by their own strength, through their own will and self-discipline, are to win power and build a new world.

The European working class of the World War generation had not yet reached the height of the third stage. The theoretic protagonists of this political attitude, as Rosa Luxembourg in Germany, Gorter in Holland, and scattered small groups in other parts of Europe, has a limited following. At the same time, the theorists of the second stage were leading all the existing large Labour Parties. Among them were two distinct groups. The revisionists, led by Bernstein, recognised that the only practical object of the “Labour” Parties of the Second International was reform inside of capitalist society. They called for open programmatic revision. Opposed to them were the “radicals” as Kautsky, Bebel, etc., then in charge of the International, who, though content with a practically reformist programme, objected to having open political compromise “written down in the books.”

All three tendencies, including the two sub-divisions of the second, found adaptations in Russia. Echoing either the “revisionism” or “radicalism” of the German Social Democracy, the Menshevists proposed the abolition of Czardom and the institution of Western liberal political institutions that would allow the free capitalist development of Russia. The majority group, the Bolsheviki, had a programme that was, excepting for special organisational details, a very modest and somewhat distorted copy of the measures proposed by Marx and Engels in the second chapter of the Manifesto of 1848. This programme was to be applied through what Lenin called the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” which was to have a democratic coalition-government guise, but was to be guided by a hand-picked party directorate. This supervised partnership of the workers and peasants was going to deal with the growing Russian capitalism organised in a national syndicate of industrialists (the Corporate State!) and wait for the Socialist revolution that would in time take place in the industrially advanced Western Europe.

The theories of Luxembourg and Gorter – representing the third stage of Marxist thought – found a response in Russia in the voice of the precocious Trotsky, who opposed the Bolshevik plan of a dictatorship by a small circle of leaders over the workers which was made necessary by Lenin’s programme of a coalition of the Russian proletariat with the peasantry. He held that soon after coming to power the idyll of the democratic dictatorship over Russian capitalism would be marred by trouble with the syndicated capitalists on the one hand, and by the struggle between the two partners in the dictatorship, on the other. Trotsky conceded that in a backward agrarian country such as Russia the Socialist workers could not get a majority against the peasants. The salvation of a proletarian move in Russia therefore lay in a revolution in Western Europe. “The Socialist workers’ revolution can only survive, if it spreads; it dies, if limited to our country.”

The judgement of history on Trotsky, comments the author, will be made doubly difficult, inasmuch as in 1917 he formally took sides with the Bolsheviks who, in the fervour of the unhinged world situation, and roused by their own national victory, adopted, and for a time called their own, the Luxembourg and Gorter lingo of the “permanent and spreading World Revolution.” In 1927 came the unavoidable reaction and break. The national needs of Russia brought the Bolsheviks back to their original programme. Trotsky’s claim that he represents true Bolshevism (and genuine Leninism) in opposition to the present leadership of the Russian state, can, therefore, bear no authority for objective historic analysis.

The existence of the Bolshevik group within the Second International was made possible by the Russians’ belief in the similarity of their own programme and organisation to the German Social Democracy. Indeed before 1914, Lenin recognised the inner circle of the German party as a sort of party directorate. He was a supporter of the “radical” section of the Social Democracy. The personal hate with which Lenin pursued Kautsky after 1914 cannot be explained, indicates the author, merely by their difference of opinion in regards to the degree and manner of opposing the war. “Thus hates only he who had loved too much.” So did Lenin revenge himself for having followed and honoured Kautsky for 20 years.

And the so-called “Fall of the Second International,” so warmly dramatised by Lenin, the author sees as no fall at all, but as the logical victory of the “revisionists” over the muddled “radicals” inside the Social Democracy. Contradicting Lenin, he indicates that the degree of militant opposition to the war shown by the various “Socialist” parties had little connection with the “revisionism” or “radicalism” of their programmes. Bernstein was a more militant war objector than Kautsky. The reformist “Socialist Party of Italy” did, it is true, show out-and-out opposition to having Italy enter the war on the side of the Triple Alliance in 1914; but on anti-revolutionary grounds—sympathy with the Entente. The “Labour” parties formed small minorities and could not have taken effective steps against the war, as was shown by the Bolsheviks’ own helplessness in the Russia of 1914.

On the 22nd of January, 1917, in Switzerland, Lenin stated at a public meeting that “We of the older generation will possibly not live to see the battles of the coming revolution.” His programme still provided for a workers’ revolution in Western Europe—this relegated in the manner of Kautsky to the dim future—but it spoke of an early Russian uprising, which was to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution under the supervision of a workers’ and peasants’ coalition government.

Later, the same year, when he was already in Russia. he cast aside the old Bolshevik plan of a peasants’ and workers’ dictatorship—that is, a “populist” and “Socialist” coalition government—and spoke of seizing power in Russia to aid an imminent Western European proletarian revolution. Here he met opposition in his own Bolshevik group.

The most numerous party of the moment, the peasant-populist “Socialist Revolutionaries,” wanted to control the government of the country as a “loyal opposition,” having adopted the Menshevik position of 1905. In accordance with their programme, the spontaneous Soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers were to be the organs of democratic control that to be exercised over the new government till the convening of the constitutional assembly, which was then to take over the job of supervising the reconstruction of Russia.

In Switzerland, in 1917, Lenin, who had doubted the historic use of the Soviet in 1905, made the sudden discovery that the popular Russian council was the typical State form of the coming “Socialist revolution.” He declared that the Soviet was Marx’s State form, in which the armed people are the police and army, and in which functionaries are controlled directly by the people—resembling in this respect the medieval city states and the direct democracy of the early American settlements. (The author points out that the current Soviet system, as developed from 1918 on, popularly bears the name of the Russian institution of 1905 and 1917, but is entirely distinct from it.)

Lenin’s slogan of “All power to the Soviets!” was tantamount at first to the establishment of a revolutionary-democratic coalition, as the Bolsheviks were still in the minority in the Soviets. It meant giving power to the masses, as the Soviets of 1917 were more or less the spontaneous organs of representation built by the masses themselves. Privately, however, Lenin had not given up the idea of a dictatorship by a centralised party. His theses called for a break with the Allied Governments, the non-support by the Soviets (the actual holder of State power), of the provisional government, the confiscation of the large estates, the regulation and taxation of large industry, but not the “institution of Socialism.” The masses wanted land, peace and bread. He was ready to assume power.

The opposition of the majority of the old Bolsheviks to the “rearmed” Lenin was embodied in Kamenev’s analysis of the situation: a Socialist workers’ party gaining power can only have as its programme a Socialist revolution; this, in a predominately agricultural country, was to be considered adventurous in the light of orthodox Bolsheviks’ teachings. Trotsky’s estimate of the situation paralleled Kamenev’s, but he thought he saw the possibility of a Socialist revolution in Western Europe. He thought he saw in Lenin’s changed outlook adherence to his own “internationalist” ideas, and, in this comedy of wishes and mistakes, Lenin found in Trotsky, who had now joined the Bolshevik organisation, support against his own comrades.

The author’s appraisal is that the “rearmed” Bolsheviks did not make the October revolution, but that they saved the popular revolution of 1917 by leading the completion of the victory of the masses. (According to Trotsky’s testimony, it was the Military Committee of the Soviets, and not the Central Executive of the Bolshevik group, that engineered the actual gesture of the insurrection.) If Lenin and Trotsky had run aground in October, no democratic development would have come but the anarchy and chaos of popular fury, which might have ended in pogroms and white terror. At 5 minutes to 12, so to speak, they proclaimed the uprising, giving the impression of a sudden occurrence taking place at their command. By heeding the will of the masses, neo-Bolshevism won the authority to lead Russia further.

The five “revolutionary-democratic” proposals—the economic programme of victorious Bolshevism—were the nationalisation of the banks, the nationalisation or government regulation of the biggest capitalist monopolies (sugar, oil, coal and metal), the obligatory syndicalisation of industrial concerns, the obligatory membership of the population in consumers’ co-operative societies, and the dissolution of merchant combines. This programme took a stand against the abolition of private property, and promised easier credits for the smaller capitalists. All in all, it was a programme aiming at the completion of a capitalist revolution in the 20th century. But already, as Kamenev had feared and Trotsky had promised, more advanced elements urged more. The total disorganisation of the productive process in the country made an attempt at economic enterprise by the State imperative. The unbalanced political situation following the War held out the false hope of a revolution in the West. The Bolsheviks were, against their own plans, obliged to reach forward to State ownership, and they adopted Trotsky’s consequence, that the Russian Revolution could only be saved by a proletarian revolution in Western Europe. It was, to use Lenin’s paraphrase, only the prologue for the near World Revolution. From 1918 to 1920, all the Bolshevik leaders were, for the “spreading,” or say “permanent,” revolution, and the Communist International was a busy and hard-working organisation.

But already reality was asserting itself. The author traces in two incomparable chapters the rise, under the influence of the national economic needs of Russia, of a third period in Bolshevism, that of so-called “Socialism in Russia alone,” the national Russian Bolshevism of our day, which he finds much closer to the limited Russian programme of 1917 than to the international realignment of 1918.

The Bolsheviki, he concludes, are the executors of the testament of Peter the Great. To them has fallen the historic task of solving the backwardness of Russia. They are accomplishing this through the institution and development of State capitalism. Since 1917 Russia has been advancing, while the Communist International has been withered away. Bolshevism, which was progressive for Russia of the Czars, was found reactionary for industrial West Europe, where the capitalist revolution had long ago been completed and peasants were not the majority of the population.

The heroism of the Russian workers in the years of 1917-1920 has roused abroad the impression that Bolshevism was a form of the proletarian world revolution. A great number of European workers wanted to attain power in union with the Bolsheviki. Rosa Luxemburg and the Dutchman Gorter recognised the bourgeois character and what they described as the Jacobinery of Bolshevism, and they promptly disowned it. Many European workers and “intellectuals,” however—the majority of whom the author classifies as “utopian radicals” as opposed to the grouping of Marxists—fancied that the Russian Revolution was a Socialist act, and wanted to follow the Bolshevist leadership, which, having “rearmed” itself with an internationalist programme, had retrieved the name “Communist” and formed the Third International. But events showed the impossibility of such leadership by an agrarian State. So that, little by little, the Russian State and its foreign working-class supporters separated. The theory of “Socialism in one country” is merely the reflection of this separation. The isolated, national Russian Bolshevism is not even in the position to lead the national movements of the Asiatic peoples, as was shown in the case of China in 1927-27, let alone a revolution in the West.

The shadow of the great Russian Revolution still drags along a section of the international working class. Bolshevism, however, no longer wields an active influence among the workers of the world. The historic task of the Bolsheviki, says the author, was an immortal task, but the international capitalists are no longer afraid of Bolshevism. They have reason for fearing an international working-class movement. With that, however, affirms the author, Bolshevism is not identical.

Interesting is the discussion of the Soviet as an historic institution. The Russian popular council, an organ of expression for the spontaneous will of the masses, is foreign to Bolshevik theory, states the author. Having personally opposed the Soviet, in 1917 Lenin used the slogan “All power to the Soviets!”—when the popular, democratic Soviets were the real holders of power—in order to win the directorate and later to install his own State apparatus, i.e., the rule of a small disciplined minority of professional political workers over the great mass. The Bolsheviks came to employ the Soviets as the decorative symbol of their rule. And, such is the irony of history, that the term “Soviet,” which in 1905 and 1917 stood for crude but the most radical democracy imaginable, has become known, through Bolshevist symbolism, as the name for the very opposite of democracy.

A somewhat similar alteration, he points out, transpired in the case of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The Marxian phrase, as found in the “Criticism of the Gotha Programme” and “Civil War in France,” denotes the dictatorship of the proletarian majority over the minority of capitalists, and is identical with majority rule. The Bolshevik State-form is the dictatorship of a party or a party apparatus over the proletariat and the rest of the population. Prophetically, Rosa Luxembourg wrote from her prison in 1918:—

    “With the suppression of political life in the entire country must also the gradual destruction of the Soviets. Without universal franchise, the liberty of the Press and assembly and the unhampered struggle of opinion, the life of every public institution withers away, and bureaucracy alone remains as the active element. This law is never contradicted. Little by little will your public life be lulled to sleep. A dozen party leaders, full of inexhaustive energy and boundless idealism, will direct and govern. From time to time, a picked section of the workers will be invited to the meetings. There they will applaud the leaders’ speeches and say ‘Yes’ to prepared resolutions. In other words, you will have the rule of a clique—not the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, i.e., a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, a dictatorship in the manner of the Jacobins.”


Workers’ Socialist Party (U.S.A.)

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