Book Review: ‘From Lenin to Stalin’
The Twilight of Bolshevism
‘From Lenin to Stalin’, by Victor Serge. (Pioneer Publishers, New York)
The above volume, of one hundred pages or so, presents in brief the views given in greater detail in the author’s larger work, “The Fate of the Revolution,” $2.00.
In a note about Serge, we are told that his parents were émigrés in Tsarist days, one member of the family having been hanged after the assassination of Alexander II. Serge appears to have moved in anarchistic circles until 1917 in France and Spain, but joined the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1919.
“He became a member of the Russian Communist Party and a colleague of Zinoviev on the E.C. of the Communist International during the Civil War. He then became a gunner in a special battalion, a member of the military defence staff, and a commissar of the archives in the secret police under Krassin in 1919 . . . He spent considerable time in Germany (during the preparation of the 1923 uprising) and in Austria. Since then he has been a member of the Opposition. Expelled from the party and imprisoned in 1928 . . . deported to Orenburg in 1933, he was banished from the U.S.S.R. . . . in 1936.”
The author’s theme is the change, real or supposed, which has come over the Soviet Government since Lenin’s time. He might have entitled it, “From Heroism to Cowardice.” The careful reader who has studied the progress of events will fail to be convinced by such an over-simple presentation of the case. For example, compare the recent slaughter of Russian military leader with an incident in the Civil War, quoted by Serge on page 30:—
“The first Red troops retreat on every occasion. Kazan, the key to the Volga, is lost. Trotsky, Ivan Smirnov, and a group of militants arrive by special train in the midst of this débâcle . . . The morale of the troops recovered. Trotsky signed this order:—
‘The soldiers of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army are not a cowardly rabble. They want to fight for the liberty and happiness of the working people. If they retreat or fight badly it is the fault of the commanders and commissars.
‘I serve notice that if a unit gives ground, the political commissar will first be shot. Then the commander . . . For this I assume responsibility before the Red Army.’
“Many Revolutionists disapproved this speech and action, but Lenin approved it heartily.”
This typically anarchist view of the responsibilities and powers of individuals appears to have infected Bolshevism at an early date. The full fruits of the superstition are only now being reaped. When Serge deals with the confessions of people like Kamenev and Zinoviev the same semi-mystical streak appears. On page 81 he says: “Such confessions are made out of utter devotion and there is also an element of calculation about them. Smilga, an Oppositionist ‘capitulator,’ who has been in prison since 1933, once said: ‘We must retreat, surrender for the present, and when the masses awaken, we shall put ourselves at their head.'”
Serge adopts a similar attitude to the defeat of Stalin’s policy on the international field. Whether it be China or Germany, Serge evidently fails to realise the fantastic character of the proposition that a different “leadership” would have led to substantially different results. Like Trotskyists generally, he appears to imagine that the workers and peasants of the entire world are only waiting for genuine revolutionary messiahs to effect their deliverance. The tame slogan of “Socialism in one country” only expresses the belated recognition by the ruling clique of the Russian Communist Party of their limited influence outside Russia.
Lenin was by no means exempt from the pressure of external forces, as Serge’s own pages bear witness. For instance, on page 29, we read: “Lenin and his co-workers did not contemplate the total nationalisation of heavy industry, but rather an effective workers’ control and the growing participation of the Socialist state in mixed trusts in which the capitalists would retain some place.”
Dealing with the civil war, on page 32, however, he says: “To an ever-increasing extent the economy must be directed with a view to war and stringent measures of nationalisation are extended to the whole of production. Factory-owners ask to be nationalised, as they cannot live otherwise.”
Finally, when the civil war over: “The Poles are driven from Kiev. Lenin at once conceives the project of an offensive against Warsaw to make Poland a Soviet State . . . The workers and peasants of Poland fail to rise, and this, once again, proves that the revolution cannot be brought into a foreign country at the point of a gun.”
The peasant risings in Russia itself (Serge instances the region of Tambov, where the peasant force reached 80,000 men), coupled with what he describes as the “useless massacre” of the Kronstadt sailors (rebelling against a Central Government, which had suppressed democracy), forced Lenin to put forward a new economic policy. “War communism” went by the board. Requisitions of grain were abandoned, peasants and others were allowed to trade, and all the feature of small-scale capitalism reasserted themselves. Even the ties between the State and its industrial trusts were slackened, and these began to participate in buying and selling in the ordinary market.
If we are to regard Lenin’s régime as one of heroism, we are also compelled to recognise the magnitude of the illusions from the results of which many of his followers have had to suffer.
Serge’s account of the war on the Opposition makes dismal reading: “The purge of the population of Leningrad (by imprisonment and deportation) includes between 80,000 and 100,000 victims. And that is in 1935, a year of economic recovery.” (Page 77.)
Lenin changed the name of his party from “Social-Democrat” to “Communist.” In Spain, Stalin’s followers become “Socialists” in order to hound down expelled members of the Communist International. More treacherous than the Fascists, Serge shows that they denounce the P.O.U.M. militia as “the agents of Franco-Hitler-Mussolini,” in a word of those who bid fair to reverse Lenin’s famous slogan and turn a civil war into an imperial one.