Before Stalinism (part 1)

Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism. Polity Press, 1990.

Sam Farber, justly respected for his critical Marxist writings on Cuba, sums up his attitude in this book by quoting Victor Serge, an anarchist who rallied to the Bolsheviks after October 1917, became an activist in the Left Opposition, and then parted ways with Trotsky over his, Serge’s, rejection of Trotsky’s criticisms of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War.
“It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs… To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse.. is this very sensible?”
Farber amplifies and, I think, subtly skews and transmutes this assessment. His case, in brief, is that Lenin had a consistently and increasingly “flawed” understanding of the importance of democratic checks and balances, and that a better outcome in Russia could have been secured by some amalgam of the propositions of the various “left” and “right” Bolshevik oppositions, and by a will of those diverse oppositions to form a common bloc rather than (as they did do) arguing with each other as sharply as they did with Lenin.
In his chapter 1, mainly discussing developments in late 1917 and in 1918, Farber sums up by saying that an oppositional movement under an old regime can and should (in conditions of ferment) seek to create majority support by bold revolutionary tactics, rather than wait for majority support before it attempts any revolutionary tactics. But, he says, the rights and wrongs change when the revolutionaries are “holding the monopoly of the means of violence in a whole society”.
As a comment on Bolshevik considerations in 1917 and 1918, this is startlingly wide of the mark.
In the weeks after 25 October 1917, the Bolshevik (and then Bolshevik/ Left SR) government had essentially no means to implement its policies other than power and cogency of its political agitation.
It inherited no functioning state machine. On 12 February 1918 the Soviet government officially decreed the total demobilisation of the army, which was anyway in collapse.
Most government officials at first refused to cooperate. The new People’s Commissars had to scrabble just to find an office, a table, some chairs, some ready cash, to begin even nominal operation.
The Red Army was officially inaugurated on 20 February, but at first it could be built into an actual army only by persuasion and agitation.
The Bolshevik party was a functioning, coherent organisation. But, contrary to myth, it had no highly centralised party machine. The central “machine” consisted essentially of Sverdlov, carrying the “files” in his pockets and in his head, and at most half a dozen assistants. Their ability to impose strict organisational discipline on party members and units was slight even in St Petersburg and Moscow, let alone in outside areas with which even basic communication was difficult.
The Bolshevik party was a powerful revolutionary factor because of the force of its ideas and its revolutionary will, not because of any special strength of its organisational machine. Far from the Bolshevik party imposing a centralised structure of its own on the new state, the Bolshevik party acquired a strong centralised machine only as a by-product of its effects to construct a new state centralised enough to fight a civil war. Dangerously, and ultimately tragically, the centralisation of the Bolshevik party was “nested” inside the centralism of the state machine, rather than standing beside it. But there was no way round that.
Arguably, the whole tragedy of the civil war could have been diminished if the Bolshevik party in October 1917 had been more stereotypically “Bolshevik” – ruthless, organisationally tight, capable of having its own centralised machine apart from and alongside any state centralism. In fact, many of the best-known Bolshevik leaders resigned from their positions soon after the revolution in protest at the Bolshevik majority’s refusal to accept the Mensheviks’ and SRs’ conditions for a coalition government (namely, the Bolsheviks to have only a minority in the government, and that minority to exclude Lenin and Trotsky). Lunacharsky, the Bolsheviks’ best-known mass orator in 1917 after Trotsky, resigned because he had heard (inaccurate) reports that the Bolsheviks in Moscow, fighting to take power there, had damaged St Basil’s Cathedral.
Those episodes of wavering cannot but have encouraged all those who hoped to overthrow the new Soviet power by force.
The first attempt at armed overthrow of the Soviet government was set in motion on 31 October, by General Krasnov, leading a body of cossacks. It was defeated by two Bolsheviks smuggling themselves into the cossack barracks at 3am and arguing with the soldiers for five hours until they finally persuaded them to stay neutral and wait and see.
The next day, Bolsheviks were able to arrest Krasnov. They released him as soon as he gave his word of honour not to attempt counter-revolution again. The freed Krasnov immediately headed for the south in order to mobilise a counter-revolutionary army there!
It would be as foolish to mock the Bolsheviks’ “softness” in late 1917 as it would be to recoil in horror from their “hardness” in 1921. In neither era could the Bolsheviks jump over the head of history. Tsarist Russia simply did not give them the possibility of organising a party that could be “ideally” efficient, centralised, and ruthless.
In 1918 maybe the biggest factor in the civil war was the Czech Legion, a body of some 35,000 to 40,000 troops from the former Austro-Hungarian Imperial army who had been taken prisoner by the Tsar’s army. It regained freedom of operation in the ferment of revolution, and decided to throw its lot in with the Whites.
On the scale of the organised, established armies deployed in the World War, it was a tiny splinter. But in the conditions of 1917 and 1918 where there was no consolidated state machine at all – where no-one, least of all the Bolsheviks, had a “monopoly of violence” – that tiny splinter could loom as the most formidable military force in the country.
The Red Army was built, and the civil war was won, only by repeated episodes of daring comparable to that of the Bolsheviks who won over Krasnov’s cossacks. As the Red Army acquired some military clout and structure, the Bolsheviks did indeed use it ruthlessly. But throughout, and right through to the peasant revolts in 1921, agitation, by voice, leaflets, and pamphlets, was primary.
They could only have won the civil war by that agitation being successful. All the advantages of pre-established force were on the side of the Whites, who had most of the old Tsarist generals and top officers, and who had the backing of substantial foreign forces (from no fewer than 14 countries) including the Czech Legion.
Farber presents war communism as a folly of Bolshevik over-confidence. It is true that many follies were committed under war communism; that there was much misguided making virtue out of necessity during it (though it should be born in mind that many of those inventing those “virtues” will have seen them as flowering – soon – with the extension of the revolution to the West, rather than being self-sufficient); that Trotsky’s call for a proto-NEP in early 1920 was surely not too early, possibly would have been better made even earlier, and arguably would more advisedly have been adopted instead of “war communism” right from the start in 1918.
Nevertheless, Farber’s picture is radically skewed.
War communism and the Red Terror were inaugurated following the Left SRs’ assassination of the German ambassador (designed to provoke renewed war with Germany) and abortive insurrection of July 1918; the assassination by SRs of the Bolsheviks Volodarsky (June 1918) and Uritsky (August 1918), and their attempt to assassinate Lenin on 30 August 1918. As Trotsky put it: “It was in those tragic days that something snapped in the heart of the Revolution”. The Bolsheviks were not “over-confident”, except in their hopes of revolution in the West. They were trying to maintain the workers’ revolutionary bridgehead against huge odds.
Significantly for those who think that the inauguration of the Cheka was already dictatorship in embryo, the assassination of the German ambassador was carried out by Left SRs who were also leading figures in the Cheka. Despite withdrawing from the government in March 1918, in protest against the Brest-Litovsk peace, the Left SRs still had a very large role in the Cheka.
War communism and the Red Terror were emergency measures by a government which had just seen even those who had previously been its closest allies attempt an armed uprising against it, and try to tip the country into a new disastrous war with Germany.
Yes, there were examples of Terror before August 1918. Many of these were “from below”. For example, Jean-Jacques Marie reports a massacre of five thousand officers by rank and file soldiers in two incidents in January 1918, which was neither decreed nor agitated for by the Bolsheviks.
Russian peasant life before the Revolution was extremely violent. Not only were the landlords violent: under the village elders’ own justice, for example, “horse thieves could be castrated, beaten, branded with hot irons, or hacked to death with sickles” (Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p.96).
Part of the mission of the revolution, of course, was to end that culture of violence. As Trotsky put it: “Where the aristocratic culture introduced into world parlance such barbarisms as czar, pogrom, knout, October has internationalised such words as Bolshevik, soviet, and piatiletka. This alone justifies the proletarian revolution, if you imagine that it needs justification”.
But first the revolution had to happen, and consolidate itself if only for a short while. It had to do that with people as they were.
The Red Terror was partly designed to control and restrain the terror “from below” (there was something of the same with the Terror in the French Revolution, which also started “from below”), and was partly motivated by the fact that, where persuasion could not work – and it couldn’t always – and where you needed to terrify the enemy – and in war you do – mild measures could not work with a population accustomed over generations to such high levels of violence.
Right up until 1917, the Bolsheviks’ practical political programme had essentially been one of radical formal democracy. They did not believe that anything more was possible in Russia than maximum radicalism in clearing away the old Tsarist lumber and instituting a democratic republic.
Far from the Bolsheviks’ motives being a drive to institute “state socialism” without regard for democracy, or (as right-wing writers have it) simply to seek power for its own sake, they had conducted their long and hard struggle on the perspective that the maximum possible was that they might play a brief minority role in a provisional revolutionary government instituting radical democracy.
Formal and procedural democracy was no incidental for them. It was the centre of their agitation for decades.
They were also trained in its importance by the model of German Social Democracy, a great number of whose biggest political campaigns were about formal and procedural democracy in still semi-absolutist Germany.
In 1917 Lenin wrote State and Revolution to argue that there was another dimension to democracy besides the formal and procedural one; that a workers’ government would be not just a radical democratic republic, but a democracy of a different sort because materially more accessible to the workers and peasants than the best bourgeois republic. There is absolutely no reason to suppose he forgot his life-long struggle for formal and procedural democracy while doing so.
After 25 October, the Bolsheviks busied themselves with a very rapid flurry of decrees. They also drafted and adopted a Soviet constitution at high speed (by July 1918 – contrast the 12 years it took the American Revolution to move to a constitution, and the four years it took the French Revolution to move to the constitution of 1793).
They knew those decrees, at first, had virtually no force other than their power as instruments of political agitation.
But that is why they issued them. The priority was to agitate, to mobilise people to build up a new machinery of government. They were also agitating for an audience abroad – in the Western countries whose revolutionisation they considered vital to any hope of survival for the Russian revolution – and for the future.
They knew that the Paris Commune had inspired workers more for the tendency and intentions of its decrees than for its practical ability to push them through in detail. They knew that the French constitution of 1793 had been suspended immediately after its formal adoption, and in fact never implemented before it was replaced by the more conservative constitution of 1795, yet had become, for many years afterwards, the chief manifesto of radical revolutionaries.
They wanted to put down markers for the future.
And those were markers for democracy, for workers’ democracy. As E H Carr notes, the early Bolshevik government very rarely described itself as socialist. It described itself as a “soviet” power, as “workers’ and peasants’ power”, or justified its decrees in terms of “democracy”.
The Bolsheviks knew that Marx had criticised the Paris Commune for its lack of revolutionary ruthlessness, and that the Jacobin Republic of 1793-4 had only been able to maintain itself, even briefly, by the Terror. So they knew already – though they could not yet have envisaged the full horrors of the civil war – that after putting down their markers they would prove unable to live up to some of them.
But, precisely because they valued the formal and programmatic, they laid down those markers.
The Bolsheviks were unclear on whether they would accept being voted out, and failed to express regret about the limitations on democracy?
But “being voted out” in Russia in 1917-21 was not a matter like being voted out in regular parliamentary elections. The Bolsheviks believed, and on the evidence of Hungary, for example, there is little reason to doubt, that their ousting would not lead to some moderate regime but to a Russian version of fascism, with a huge slaughter not only of Bolsheviks but also of class-conscious workers in general and of Jews. It would also lead to a crushing of the prospects of revolution in the West.
So their determination was to hold on as long as they could, which they were sure would not be very long. You can, I suppose, argue that if they had let the counter-revolution happen earlier and more “easily” than it happened with Stalin, then the ensuing fascism would have been milder than Stalin’s regime. But how could they calculate on that basis, in advance?
The remarkable thing about the stories of the Bolsheviks manipulating or delaying soviet votes in 1918 is how high the standards were which they had set themselves, and which they felt they had to infringe on.
For governments in all-consuming war, war which threatens the very existence of the polity, to allow elections at all is rather rare. The British government in World War 2 counts historically as a rare example of relative wartime democracy because it allowed debates in Parliament and a fair degree of press freedom. Yet it pretty much suppressed popular votes – there were no general elections between 1935 and 1945, and in wartime the big parties agreed to renounce all contests in by-elections. Newspapers and politicians (including MPs) favouring the enemy, even implicitly, were banned or jailed (as, for example, the Daily Worker was banned in January 1941).
The Union side in the US civil war also ranks as a rare example of wartime democracy, in that Abraham Lincoln contested a presidential election, which at first it looked as if he would lose, in 1864, three years into the war. Yet Lincoln regularly jailed Copperheads without charge or trial; and the Union was never at any risk of being overrun by the South.
The Bolsheviks, fighting a war in much more desperate circumstances, face critical scrutiny because sometimes they postponed elections, not for ten years, not for three years, not even for the eight months for which the unelected Provisional Government postponed Constituent Assembly elections – but for a few weeks or months, and because they used ambiguities in election procedure to their advantage. Yes, critical scrutiny is a good thing. But it should be remembered that the standards with which we are conducting that scrutiny are standards set by the Bolsheviks themselves, and they are standards higher than any others in history.

Click here for part 2 of this post.


One Response to “Before Stalinism (part 1)”

  1. Before Stalinism (part 2) « Read by reds Says:

    […] by reds Sharing our ideas on what we read Before Stalinism (part 1) […]

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