Max Shachtman


Four Portraits of Stalinism

Reviewing the Books of Duranty, Shub, Wolfe and Deutscher

(January 1953)

From New International, Vol. XVI No. 1, January–February 1950, pp. 15–31.
Transcribed by Martin Fahlgren.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(Continued from last issue)

We can turn now to two studies that merit serious consideration. In each case, the author was formed intellectually in the revolutionary Marxist movement and acquired his political experience in it. Both of them have since quit it, moving away from it in opposite directions. Even so, they pay it an involuntary tribute. That little which they retain out of what they learned in it suffices to elevate their works to a plane that is simply beyond the reach of such denizens of the political lower depths as the other two writers with whom we have just dealt. But it does not suffice for the problems they set themselves to resolve: the elucidation of the social forces that made possible ‘the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution, those that brought about its defeat and produced the victory of Stalinism.

These are not easy problems – which is the first thing to acknowledge. They will not yield an easy answer – which is the first thing to rule out. It does not follow from the admitted complexity and even uniqueness of the problem that it is unsolvable. The exceptional difficulties can be surmounted with the aid of scientific method. Among other things, this requires that the social forces referred to be properly connected with one another, for there is a close, even inseparable, connection between them. But – without paradox – it is impossible to ascertain and establish their real connection unless they are first separated and distinguished from each other by ignoring, or at least reducing to proper proportions, the superficial and secondary similarities and picking out the essential characteristics of each, bearing in mind that even these “essential characteristics” are not (cannot be) fixed and absolute but are themselves conditioned by the concrete circumstances of their evolution. Then and then only can the different social forces be connected meaningfully in such a way as to make clear the degree to which their relationship is harmonious or antagonistic.

The ability to proceed in this manner, along with the art of generalizing from relevant facts recorded with scrupulous honesty, is the minimum, but far from negligible, qualification of a social scientist and political writer. To demand such high standards of those who practise in the field of society and politics is not one whit less warranted than to demand corresponding standards of the medical men who practise in the field of diagnosis or surgery.

The demand is likewise warranted in the case of the two books under review. Whether, like Wolfe, the author calls his work “a biographical history” or, like Deutscher, “a political biography,” they have this in common: a political analysis which pursues a political aim. No one can object if their work is judged accordingly.

Bertram D. Wolfe

The reader of Wolfe’s book is at a certain disadvantage. The volume, Three Who Made a Revolution, is only the first of a contemplated trilogy. It brings the “historical biography” to the outbreak of the First World War and ends abruptly with the quotation of Seven Theses on the War, which Lenin presented to a small group of Bolsheviks early in September 1914. The period of the war, the year 1917, the unfolding of the Bolshevik revolution and then the rise of Stalinism are left for the two volumes to come. The author’s views on the basic problems of the Russian Revolution and counter-revolution are therefore not set down as systematic conclusions from the main events themselves. They are only indicated or suggested in the parenthetical projections, so to say, which are made in comments on the period, in which these events germinated.

Through no fault of the author, who cannot be reproached for not dealing in one book with all the questions that three books are needed to cover, the reader is left with judgments not elaborated to the extent to which, presumably, they will be when the final volume of the series is at hand.

But the parenthetical comments are as adequate for our needs as they must have been for the author’s. The indications and suggestions may not be rounded and complete, but the basic points of his views are plain enough.

Wolfe sets forth his aim early in the book. Writing of the effects of the first revolution of 1917 in loosening all the bonds of the people, except the bond of war, he adds: “Why freedom did not come to flower and fruit in that swift growth is one of the tragic problems with which we shall have to deal.” If that were the only problem to be dealt with (actually, it is the only real problem Wolfe deals with), it would justify not only one or three but a dozen volumes and the work of a lifetime. It is not too much to say that this is the problem of our time. Not one serious political question but is related to it or dependent upon its solution – its solution not in the realm of theory, or not alone there, but in the realm of action.

Scholarly Work

Only a gross incomprehension of the social problem can challenge or deny the validity of this statement. As tor ourselves, we take it for granted. Socialism, human freedom, cannot advance except at the expense of Stalinism; it can triumph only by destroying it utterly. Anything that contributes to clarifying the socialist understanding of Stalinism, to helping in the socialist struggle against it, is a welcome addition to our arsenal.

If, to take an extreme example, it would really be proved now, looking back upon all the properly arranged facts with a fresh but objective eye, that this totalitarian monstrosity has its natural origins in Bolshevism or even Marxism in general, it would be insane fanaticism to cling to the ideas of Lenin or Marx. The socialist movement does not exist to serve their ideas; they are worth defending only if they serve the socialist movement, but certainly not if they serve only to usher us into a new slavery.

Man is not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath is made for man. But before we can even think of deserting the tradition and theoretical structure of socialism to build a new one from cellar to attic, we would have to see that proved, and thoroughly! Up to now, nobody has proved it. Nobody, we think, will. This notwithstanding, we unhesitatingly and unreservedly agree that, in view of the present outcome of a revolution that was carried out in the name of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, the whole history of the Russian revolutionary movement (and not it alone) bears examination and reexamination with a critical mind that eschews all hero-worship, all blind subservience to tradition, all dogmas and ... all superficiality.

In the re-examination undertaken by Wolfe, the reader is immediately impressed – especially after a trip through the effluvia of Duranty and Shub – by its serious scholarship. It is not exhaustive and is not meant to be, but there is not, to our knowledge, a single other work in the world that gives such an extensive and detailed survey of the pre-1914 Russian revolutionary movement, its ideas, its problems, its leaders and its conflicts. The immensity of the research into original sources is matched by the carefulness with which the important material is presented. Errors of fact are very few in number and, on the whole, of minor importance. The solidity with which the facts are mustered enables the author to breach all sorts of myths and falsifications. The products of the Stalinist lie-and-myth factory take especially heavy blows, for most of which the author acknowledges his debt not only to Souvarine but especially to Trotsky’s autobiography and his unfinished biographies of Lenin and Stalin. In passing, almost, other legends receive the treatment they deserve. (For example, Alexinsky’s invention about Lenin’s love affair with “Elizabeth K.,” which Shub swallowed so avidly is dismissed in a contemptuous footnote.)

Unfortunately, the gratification that should he felt about such a work is vitiated by the method which the author employs in his analysis. It results in a completely erroneous and misleading appraisal of the Russian revolution and leaves the reader no more enlightened about the “tragic problem” – the rise of Stalinism – than he is after reading Shub’s book. It is a harsh thing to say about a work which is so distinguished from the tawdriness and vulgarity of Shub’s, but to say less would be to say too little.

Misleading Method

Wolfe describes the positions taken before the revolution by the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and by Trotsky. [1] But, he adds:

What actually happened would not fully justify any one of the three positions. History, a sly and capricious wench, would show that she had yet other tricks up her sleeve. The unity of all oppositional forces would indeed suffice to overthrow the Tsar and set up a democratic republic (the formula of the Mensheviks plus Lenin). But Lenin, who in 1905 had been in favor of entering a “provisional revolutionary government,” would refuse to enter; and the Mensheviks, who had regarded such a coalition with the bourgeois parties as impermissible “ministerialism” or opportunism, would take a leading part in the Provisional Government. Further, revolutionary will and a power-centered party organization would suffice to overthrow the republic and set up a minority dictatorship (the formula of Trotsky). But it would not suffice to bring into being a world revolution and a socialist society (the further expressed calculation of Trotsky and Parvus. and the unformulated hope of Lenin). In short, History – with that capital H which these men who knew her every intention were prone to use – would decide neither for Axelrod-Martov, nor for Trotsky-Parvus, nor for Lenin-Trotsky, but for yet another variant, undreamed of by any, the chief embodiment of which would be that third one of our protagonists, Joseph Stalin, whom we are shortly to introduce into our story.

This will serve to introduce us to Wolfe’s style: the polite mockery, the faint air of condescension, the misplaced irony, the elderly skepticism toward the Russian Revolution and its leaders which is so fashionable nowadays. Not unrelated to it, but more important, is Wolfe’s method. We are struck in the above quotation, first of all, by the obvious anachronism. If, as Wolfe goes into such special detail to show, Trotsky, if not Parvus, was such a vehement adversary of Bolshevism, from as far back as 1903, precisely because of the “power-centered” character of its party organization, it could hardly have been an element in his formula for setting up “a minority dictatorship” or in his calculation of what would suffice for a world revolution and a socialist society.

In the second place, neither Lenin nor Trotsky nor anyone else in the Marxist movement could even have thought in the terms ascribed to them by Wolfe, terms which are, in a sense, ridiculously meaningless. Revolutionary will, Lenin and Trotsky always had. But it never occurred nor could it occur to them that that would suffice to set up a dictatorship of any kind, let along bring about a world revolution and a socialist society. It would not suffice even if it were coupled with a “power-centered party organization,” for Lenin, at least, had such an organization early in life. If it is argued that Wolfe does not mean just any “power-centered party organization” but only one which has, in addition to revolutionary will, a certain amount of strength, then his case is even worse off. For it should be obvious that to achieve this strength (which would certainly have to be more-than-trifling for so by-no-means-trifling task as a socialist revolution in Russia and throughout the world), the party organization would first have to win the support of large social forces. And it should be no less obvious that such support could be won only in times when social developments reached a revolutionary tension that would impel these forces to give their support to the avowedly “power-centered” party. That the quintessential and decisive importance of these social forces for the revolution (bourgeois or socialist) was always obvious and central to the thinking of Lenin and Trotsky is so clear from the numerous quotations which Wolfe himself adduces from their works that his reference to their views as to what would “suffice” is incomprehensible. Rather, it is comprehensible only in terms of Wolfe’s own tendency to ignore the power and significance of broad social forces, whose interests and conflicts make up history – with or without a capital H, slyness or caprice. His attention is centered almost exclusively upon disembodied ideas and programs, including those that were “unformulated.”

Hub of His Argument

In any case, we know now that the sly and capricious wench, in playing tricks with the Russian Revolution, decided in the end for the variant of Stalinism which was not even dreamed of by any of the early revolutionists in spite of their absurd belief that they knew her every intention. Let us allow that the reference is an acceptable literary liberty and that it does not mean to say that Stalinism is a product of historical caprice. The problem still stands of “why freedom did not come to flower and fruit,” and literarious flourishes do not suffice for the answer. Wolfe has an answer. His first volume already indicates it clearly. The final variant was undreamed of, in one sense. But in another sense it was dreamed of and predicted, even brilliantly predicted. How? In the warnings that each of the three outstanding leaders of Russian Marxism gave against the course of the others.

Wolfe starts with Lenin and Trotsky, early in the century. Lenin insisted upon the need of a highly-centralized party of professional revolutionists. It would introduce socialist consciousness into the working class which, if left on the level of spontaneous struggle, would be unable to rise above a mere trade-union consciousness. Against Lenin’s “organizational principles,” Trotsky wrote the warning that “The organization of the party will take the place of the party itself; the Central Committee will take the place of the organization; and finally. the dictator will take the place of the Central Committee.”

Trotsky insisted that the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia could be solved radically only if the struggle were led by the proletariat, supported by the peasant masses, but that the revolution would encounter the hostility not only of the Czarist bureaucracy and the landlords but also of the “liberal bourgeoisie.” In the struggle it would therefore pass over into a socialist revolution in the very course of solving the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. Against this theory of the permanent revolution. Lenin put forward the idea of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”

Just as Trotsky was concerned with democracy in the party, Lenin was concerned with democracy in the country as a whole. “The proletariat constitutes a minority. It can only command a mighty overwhelming majority if it unites with the mass of the semi-proletarians, the semi-property owners ... Such a composition will naturally reflect itself in the composition of the revolutionary government,” Wolfe quotes Lenin as writing. And also: “Only the most ignorant people can ignore the bourgeois character of the present democratic revolution. Only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the masses of the workers are informed of the aims of socialism and of the methods of achieving it. And we are all convinced that the emancipation of the workers can only be brought about by the workers themselves; a socialist revolution is out of the question unless the masses become class-conscious, organized, trained and educated by open class struggle against the entire bourgeoisie [2] ... Whoever wants to approach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at absurd and reactionary conclusions both economic and political.” These two warnings, concludes Wolfe, have an organic connection with each other and contain the explanation for what actually happened years later, that is, the triumph of Stalinism. It is worth quoting in detail:

Thus, in 1904 and 1905, did the two future collaborators solemnly admonish each other of the dangers of minority dictatorship in the Party and the State. Who can doubt in the light of subsequent events that each of them at that moment had a brilliant prophetic vision of the dangers in the other’s approach? But when they joined forces in 1917, each withdrew his warning against the other. Trotsky accepted Lenin’s party machine; Lenin accepted Trotsky’s “absurd, semi-anarchist view that the conquest of power for a socialist revolution can be achieved immediately,” and Trotsky’s conception of a minority “proletariat dictatorship,” or more accurately, a single-party dictatorship. This fusion was the most natural in the world, for there is an indubitable structural and psychological connection between minority dictatorship in the Party and minority dictatorship in the State. Both are based upon the same assumption: namely, that a self-selected elite or vanguard, properly armed with expert knowledge (Marxism), and properly credentialed by a lifetime of experience and devotion, can dispense with the toilsome and hazardous democratic process, and still avoid the “absurd and reactionary conclusions,” the dangers of “personal dictatorship,” the pitfalls of totalitarianism, and the corrupting potentials of absolute power.

One more segment is needed to complete the hub of Wolfe’s analysis, from which radiate all the important spokes of his argumentation, to which he tries to fit in as much of his documentation as possible. This segment relates, again, to the Russian peasantry. The Populists (Narodniks) and their successors, the Social-Revolutionists, represented an “indigenous peasant socialism.” Lenin, it is true, “was almost alone [among the Marxists] in his sensitivity to the peasant question, and constantly engaged in thinking about it.” But Marxism, in Russia, at least, was apparently doomed to anti-democratism because

... most important of all – according to Lenin and his co-religionists – the mind of the Russian peasant was not “naively socialist” at all, but “naively bourgeois,” or rather, “petty bourgeois,” the mind of a small proprietor on-the-make. It was this distrust of, and unconscious antagonism toward, the peasant majority of the Russian nation which would, in the end, sterilize all Marxist protestations in favor of democracy. For, how can you have democracy where there is no trust in the majority of those who make up the nation?

This disastrous distrust of the peasantry led, or contributed to, the ruin of the revolution. Yet, Wolfe discovers, this too was predicted. At the Stockholm Congress in 1906 of the united Russian Social-Democracy, the Menshevik program of municipalization of the land was countered by Lenin’s proposal for nationalization of the land. Plekhanov took issue sharply with Lenin. He pointed out that in the history of France and England,

... the wide sweep of the revolution was followed by restoration ... True, not the restoration of the remnants of feudalism. But in our country we have something that resembles these remnants, to wit, the fact that the land and the tiller of the soil are tied to the state, our own peculiar form of “land nationalization!” And, by demanding the nationalization of the land, you are making. the return to this type of nationalization easier, for you are leaving intact this legacy of our old, semi-Asiatic order ...

[Wolfe comments [A]:]

Thus was lifted for a moment the curtain that obscured the future. It was a prevision as brilliant as that of Lenin when he warned Trotsky of the consequences of an undemocratic revolution and minority party government, and that of Trotsky when he warned Lenin of the dangers inherent in his hierarchical, centralized, undemocratic party structure. They were like three blind men who grasped three different parts of an elephant. Marxists contend that their method of sociological analysis enables them to predict the future. if these three Marxists’ prophecies could but have been added together, and acted on together, they would indeed have constituted a brilliant example of foresight and forewarning.

It is all very plausible, even ingenious – this explanation of Stalinism. Elements of it have enjoyed their days of popularity among all schools of anti-Bolshevism. Wolfe is superior to most of them in that he has given his explanation a more rounded and systematic character. But although he enjoys all the advantages of time over the three blind men whom he chides for their lack of coordinated foresight, he makes lamentable use of the hindsight which is within the power of anyone living almost half a century after the blind ones uttered their speculations about the future. For Wolfe’s explanation is plausible only at first sight, and even then only if the glance cast over it is speedy. It is specious and flimsy from beginning to end, and shows that scrupulous scholarship does not always go hand in hand with analytical perspicacity. Indeed. it is positively astonishing that in order to explain why Stalinism and not freedom came out of the Russian Revolution, he has selected and combined the very predictions that were not confirmed by events, and did not even have very much to do with the events that actually took place in Russia from 1917 to the present day! Now that we know Wolfe’s opinions, let us see what value they have.

Lenin’s View and Trotsky’s

We will start with Lenin’s “warning” against Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution.

The February (March) 1917 revolution took everybody by surprise, Trotsky less – far less – than anyone else, but him too. If the 1905 revolution is called a rehearsal for 1917, that is true only in the most general sense of the word. In 1905, the Soviets were few in number, isolated pretty much from the peasantry, without serious effect upon the army and navy. Above all, they were pitted not against a bourgeois-democratic regime but against the Czarist autocracy. In 1917, the situation was radically different.

The revolution took place spontaneously, and embraced all the toiling masses – workers, peasants and millions of both in uniform. The bourgeoisie, its “democratic” wing included, did not lead the revolution. but unlike the 1905 days, when it kept its lips closed and its hands in its pockets, it sacrificed the Czar in order to preserve the rule of the classes on which Czarism rested, much as the German bourgeoisie was to do with the Kaiser a couple of years later. Once the Czar was done for, the bourgeoisie sought to take over the leadership of the revolution, not in order to carry it through – but to harness, domesticate and emasculate it. It did not for a moment cut off its alliance with and reliance upon the Czarist bureaucracy, the Czarist military machine, the Czarist landlord class. Was that inevitable? No, not in the American colonies or in France at the crossing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But we are dealing with semi-feudal Russia of 1917, to which the old patterns of bourgeois revolutions did not apply.

From the start of the revolution, the Russian bourgeoisie faced a new phenomenon for the first time in history, one that had been only very dimly foreshadowed in 1789 and 1848: an advanced, modern, compact proletariat, totally organized in new and very remarkable formations, the Soviets; closely combined with a vast peasantry organized in the same kind of formations; both combined in turn with millions of Soviet-organized soldiers and sailors no longer automatically obedient to command; and this entire huge mass in a triumphant revolutionary mood, confident about its irresistible strength, convinced of the justice of its demands and impatiently exigent about their speedy fulfillment. Their demands, summed up, were: peace, land, bread, and a representative democratic government that would guarantee them.

Every single one of these demands, invested with a power and stormy passion that is generated only in revolutionary times, ran counter to the interests and desires of the bourgeoisie. Add together all the programs and predictions written about the coming Russian Revolution before 1917 and multiply them many times, and they are as nothing by the side of this decisive fact. To whom else could the “democratic” bourgeoisie, itself so tiny and weak in Russia, turn for aid and comfort against this turbulent mass than to the reactionary forces in Russian society? If it is brilliant predictions we are interested in, the most important one for a historical biographer to note and underline is the one that was shared by Lenin and Trotsky: the Russian bourgeoisie is not a revolutionary class and the revolution will have to be carried out without it and against it.

What Really Happened?

When the revolution actually took place, writes Wolfe, “Lenin accepted Trotsky’s ‘absurd semi-anarchist view that the conquest of power for a socialist revolution can be achieved immediately,’ and Trotsky’s conception of a minority ‘proletarian dictatorship,’ or more accurately, a single-party dictatorship.” But elsewhere in his book Wolfe writes almost eulogistically about “Lenin the democrat.” He adds, “For, up to his seizure of power in 1917, Lenin always remained by conviction a democrat, however much his temperament and will and the organizational structure of his party may have conflicted with his democratic convictions.”

What impelled this life-long democrat to abandon his convictions overnight and to swallow whole the “dictatorial” conception he had fought for a dozen years? His temperament and will, the will to seize power no matter what? But that temperament and will he had in 1905 as well as in 1917. The organizational structure of his party? But the party and its “structure” – the big bulk of the articulate leaders of the party machine – opposed his new “Trotskyist conception” in 1917, and Lenin had to fight his way through in his own party for the policy he put forward after arriving in Russia. Yet there is an explanation, even though Wolfe leaves us without one, or at best, with the superficial kind so popular among “psychobiographers.”

In 1917, all the theories about the Russian Revolution was put to the most decisive test. By the side of the provisional government stood the Soviets, directly representing the revolutionary people. Their authentically representative character was acknowledged almost universally; the Mensheviks and SRs referred to them as the “revolutionary democracy” – no less! The demands of this revolutionary democracy cannot possibly be called into question. But it was precisely these demands that were continuously sabotaged by the provisional government, which was tantamount to sabotaging the tasks which the democratic revolution was called upon to perform. And the Mensheviks and SRs? They were part and parcel of the provisional government. They shared responsibility for a regime which succeeded only in arousing the hostility of the workers, soldiers and peasants.

For years, Lenin argued that the revolution would establish a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” nut no polemical attack could compel him to be consistently specific about the relationships between these two classes in the democratic dictatorship or about the relationships between the political parties that would represent them in it. When the revolution finally occurred, the formula proved to be disorienting and worthless. The revolution took on an unexpected form – not of a revolutionary provisional government in conflict with Czarism, but of a revolutionary democracy (the Soviets) in growing conflict with the provisional government run by the bourgeoisie.

Lenin was no dogmatist. To the dismay of his own comrades, he discarded his old formula. The most he would say for the “democratic dictatorship” in 1917 was that it was “realized in the dual power” – that is, in conditions of the antagonistic co-existence of the provisional government and the Soviets – and even then only “in certain forms and up to a certain point.” But precisely because a duality of state power is in its very nature precarious, creating a state of tension, uncertainty and instability which society cannot long endure, the living social forces, the classes, all of which are at white heat in the revolution, are forced to intervene quickly and decisively in order to turn the scales in one direction or the other. In the person of Kornilov, the bourgeoisie sought to crush the Soviets. The lash of the counter-revolution whipped forward the revolution. With a final surge, the workers and peasants overturned the discredited provisional government and established the power of the Soviets.

In actual life, Lenin’s old formula could not achieve the purpose of guaranteeing the democratic revolution which he had assigned to it. He saw that the dual power in which the formula was partly realized meant in reality the subordination and thwarting of the aims of the revolution: the provisional government was able to maintain its anti-democratic regime only by virtue of the authority with which it was clothed by the collaborationist representatives of the revolutionary democracy – or by crushing the Soviets. The democratic revolution could be guaranteed only by the Soviets taking over all power. The Bolsheviks led in this taking of power, not because revolutionary will and a power-centered party organization sufficed for that purpose, but because, in addition, they won the freely-given support and leadership of the Soviets. In championing the struggle for all power to the Soviets, Lenin was indeed abandoning an obsolete formula, but not by a hair’s-breadth did he violate his democratic convictions.

What Life Proved

The Bolshevik government which was set up was confirmed by the two Congresses of the Soviets, representing the workers, soldiers and peasants. These Congresses adopted the decrees by which the basic problems of the democratic revolution were formally resolved or by which the seal of approval was placed upon the actions of the masses (the peasants in particular) who were carrying out the revolution of their own accord. Again it was Trotsky’s analysis that was confirmed.

The most thoroughgoing measures to carry out the democratic revolution were taken only when the proletarian party took over the state power with the active support of the peasantry. It is noteworthy that the Bolshevik regime did not immediately propose any specifically socialist measures, and even though Lenin “accepted Trotsky’s conception” of a proletarian dictatorship, the regime did not contemplate such measures. In fact, Lenin wrote specifically against them throughout 1917. But the revolution itself is a fast teacher that has little tenderness for formulas. The Mensheviks almost ruined the revolution by their dogmatic insistence that the bourgeoisie must be at the head of it and not be “alienated” by too imperious demands of the people.

And long before the tragedy of Stalinism, it should be remembered that there was the tragedy of Menshevism, whose loyalty to its doctrine brought it into collaboration with a reactionary bourgeois regime and into opposition against what it had itself called the revolutionary democracy. If the Bolsheviks finally proceeded to take socialist measures (confiscation and nationalization of the means of production and exchange), it was because they found these anti-capitalist actions indispensable to the defense of the conquests of the revolution. Lenin accepted Trotsky’s conception only in the sense that he accepted the logic of the class struggle, accepted it just as the bourgeoisie and landowners accepted it.

The latter launched an armed struggle against the Soviet power not because it had already carried out a socialist revolution, but precisely because it was carrying out the democratic revolution – to be sure, with all the social implications that Trotsky had so penetratingly foreseen.

The Peasant Aims

The armed struggle aimed at depriving the peasantry of the land which the Soviet revolution had conquered for them, to destroy the Soviet power that guaranteed this conquest. The same armed struggle picked up the banner of the Constituent Assembly, not because it had or could become the watchword of democracy in Russia but precisely because it could be nothing but a cover for destroying the democratic conquests. Even the Mensheviks, or some of them, came to understand this important fact, at least in words. A year after the revolution they would formally acknowledge that even with new elections the Constituent would be converted into a weapon of the counter-revolution and not of the revolution; wherefore they formally abandoned the Constituent as an immediate fighting slogan because it threatened the achievements of the revolution.

To defend land to the peasants and peace to the land, both of which were directly imperilled by the bourgeoisie and their monarchist and imperialist allies, the Bolsheviks were forced to take measures against them which, in their very nature, were socialist. Lenin’s earlier “warning” was not confirmed! His old argument that the democratic revolution in Russia would not weaken but strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie, proved to be wrong. His fear that if the revolution went over to a socialist attack on capital, that would interfere with the democratic revolution, proved groundless, and Trotsky was right in foreseeing that only such an attack could protect the democratic revolution and those it was intended to benefit first and foremost – the peasantry. Had the old Leninist theory that the revolution could (or should) stay within the framework of capitalism and go no further, been imposed – as the Mensheviks tried to impose it – the revolution would not even have gone as far as bourgeois democracy.

But were not the Bolsheviks thereby obliged to establish a “minority ‘proletarian dictatorship,’ or more accurately, a single-party dictatorship,” as Wolfe writes? Yes and no, depending on what the question really aims to ask. Wolfe seems to be as aware, today, of the equivocal and unrealistic character of Lenin’s old formula of a “democratic dictatorship” as Trotsky was from 1905 onward. He writes that Lenin’s forecast “changes from page to page and from article to article, becomes a restless spark leaping up and back between the fixed points of his dogmas and his will. It is no longer a formula but a series of rival hypotheses, competing perhapses.” The hypotheses simply did not materialize in the revolution itself.

Expediency or Principle

To carry through the democratic revolution to the end, the Bolsheviks could not find a single political party with which to share government power. The Mensheviks, like the “big” peasant party, the SRs, were with Kerensky, and the peasants had to take the land without them and against them. That is why the November Congress of the Peasant Soviets, even though convened by the right wing, endorsed the Bolshevik regime and turned down the proposal for a coalition government with the SRs. There were, it is true, the left-wing SRs. After the Peasant Congress, the Bolsheviks unhesitatingly established a coalition government with them. Jointly, they dispersed the Constituent Assembly. But shortly thereafter the unstable nature of even the left SR party revealed itself.

The Bolsheviks decided in favor of signing the onerous peace treaty with the Germans. The left SRs insisted on “revolutionary war” in face of a peasantry that could not be mobilized for so hazardous an enterprise. With colossal irresponsibility, the SRs plunged into the adventure of trying to overturn the Bolsheviks by armed force. They failed, and it was not long before they vanished as a serious political movement. The peasantry was incapable (not on the books, perhaps, but in the life of the revolution) of producing a political party of its own at once independent of the proletariat and of the bourgeoisie, let alone a party capable of carrying through the revolution. In proving this again, the Russian Revolution confirmed the analysis which Marxism made of the peasantry in modern society, and which Trotsky in particular applied with incomparable penetration to the position, role and prospects of the peasantry in Russia.

Wolfe is familiar with Trotsky’s analysis. He also gives, more or less, the views of the Marxists and the Narodniks on the Russian peasant. His own attitude is interesting. He asks: Were the Narodniks right in regarding the peasant as a primitive socialist, or were the Marxist right in regarding him as a petty bourgeois or would-be property-owner? Wolfe himself does not answer his questions! He does not take the sociological analyses made by the Narodniks, or the Marxists in general or Trotsky in particular, and subject them to an analysis of his own, so that one or the other may be confirmed or a substitute for both of them presented. In face of the immense importance of the peasantry in the Russian Revolution and in all the disputes which preceded it, this omission is almost unbelievable, unless it is borne in mind that the concrete analysis and juxtaposition of social forces, class forces, does not seem to exist anywhere within the range of Wolfe’s interests. When he writes rather disdainfully about the Russian intellectuals that they had “a common belief in the sovereign efficacy of ideas as shapers of life,” he is not far from describing his own belief, to which must be added his belief that intentions and desires are even more important than ideas.

With such an approach to the problem, it is not surprising that he finds no need to base his examination upon social forces or at least to relate it inseparably to them. He simply points out that, given their views on the peasantry (the validity of which remains untreated), the Marxists looked upon the peasants with “distrust and suspicion,” which opened the way for ... Stalinism.

History’s Lessons

This “distrust and suspicion” did not, however, prevent the Bolsheviks from becoming the most vigorous leaders of the peasants in the struggle for land. It did prevent them from entertaining illusions about the peasantry. “Peasant” demagogues have played upon the prejudices of the rural masses of all countries in order to turn them against the socialist movement since the earliest days of the Communist Manifesto. This game has never been anything but reactionary. And all the sympathy, real or assumed, which is extended to the peasantry does not change the social fact, underscored again and again in all modern history (latest example: China), that the peasantry is capable of tremendous Contributions to social progress but also of no less important contributions to social reaction. The first, only if it allies itself and follows the leadership of a progressive urban class; the second, when it follows the leadership of a reactionary urban class. Nowhere has the peasantry, by itself, acting independently, been able to take the leadership of a nation, organize the life of society and keep the reins of government in its own hands. For that, it is socially incapable, as has been proved over and over not only in the modern West but in the backward, overwhelmingly agrarian countries of Asia as well. It simply suffers from a social position which Marxism, at any rate, did not create, but an understanding of which is indispensable to the eventual elimination of all classes.

Without concealing their views on this score, the Bolsheviks therefore appealed to the peasants for an alliance with the revolutionary working class in the Soviet regime, and the appeal was answered enthusiastically. But it was not an alliance between equal classes and it could not be. Every worker, for example„ had the right to five times as many votes as the peasant. From the standpoint of formal democracy, this is surely indefensible. But from the standpoint of the real struggle for the defense and preservation of the revolution, it was entirely justifiable. (We say: justifiable, but not necessarily justified, an important distinction we will deal with later.) To believe that the democratic revolution could have been carried out and its achievements maintained against the hordes of world reaction, or that the Russian nation could even have been held together as an economic and political unit, if the peasantry had been at the helm and charted the course, is to reveal a fixation which, however democratic it may seem, makes for an extraordinary immunity to tre influence of social reality. The leadership of the proletariat could be replaced only by the domination of the bourgeoisie and the landlords, and that meant death to the aspirations of the peasantry. It was an exceptionally backward peasant who failed to see this in 1917. That the leadership of the proletariat in the alliance involved a “minority dictatorship,” is incontestable. Equally incontestable, however, is the fact that the peasantry, voluntarily and democratically, chose this leadership and the party which most clearly expressed it. [3]

But how did this “minority dictatorship” lead to Stalinism? If “single-party dictatorship” means nothing more than the fact that the government administration is entirely in the hands of one party, that is far from reprehensible in itself and does not make the government a dictatorship in the invidious sense Wolfe gives it. The Truman administration is one example of single-party rule; the present British Labor government is another. The principles of democracy are not violated in either case. If Wolfe uses the term to mean that the Party in office allows no other party to exist legally, that is another matter. It is true that after a few years in power, the Bolsheviks deprived all other political parties of legal rights and existence. But that in itself enlightens us very little. What we need to know is what prompted the Bolsheviks to act as they did, and what action they should have taken instead. On this score, the critics of the Bolshevik revolution seldom go beyond angry but incoherent mutterings. The Bolshevik regime was established by a revolution, the most profound and convulsive in history. Yet it is hard to recall one revolutionary government in all history that was ‘more democratically established, that received a more direct endorsement by such authentically representative popular bodies as the Soviets. Hardly set up, the new regime was assaulted by reactionary armies, by calls for insurrection, mass disobedience and sabotage against it. A revolutionary government, like any other, for that matter, has both the right and duty to defend itself, just as every individual has the right and duty to choose his side in an armed conflict and to take the consequence of his choice. This defense includes the right, exercized for centuries to the dismay only of philistines, to deprive the armed opponents of political liberty. The bourgeois parties took up arms against the Soviets and combined openly with foreign foes of the regime who subsidized them with arms and funds. So did most of the Mensheviks and the right-wing S.R.s. The left-wing S.R.s and even some of the anarchists also challenged the Soviet regime with arms in hand. Would the North have allowed a Confederate Army sergeant to open a recruiting office in New York in 1862? What should the Bolsheviks have done? They placed these parties outside of Soviet legality. Should they have wagged a reproachful finger at them instead? There were undoubtedly many excesses and injustices and even outrages committed against oppositional parties, as is the case in all revolutions. But on the whole, the Bolsheviks had no choice, unless capitulation is considered a choice. If, at the end of the most savage and exhausting civil war in modern times, the Bolsheviks emerged not only in power but as the only legal party, it is positively grotesque to trace the responsibility for this condition to the Bolsheviks or their “conception.” It makes sense, on the contrary, to say that the bitter opposition which the Mensheviks and S.R.s offered to the Soviet power – the handiwork of the revolutionary democracy – created a situation in which the Bolsheviks were left to head a “single-party dictatorship.”

Our viewpoint is the very opposite of Wolfe’s, and it is ours that is borne out by the real course of the events in Russia – and the rest of Europe. To Wolfe, the eventual tragedy of the Russian revolution was caused by the very fact that the Bolsheviks led the working class to the socialist seizure of power. To us, the tragedy was caused by the fact that such violent and exhausting attempts were made in Russia to undermine and torpedo the socialist power and that the attempts to seize power in the more advanced European countries failed.

However, as we pointed out in these pages a few years ago, since the non-Bolshevik parties were outlawed because of the rigors and exigencies of the civil war, that is evidence enough that no universal principle of revolution was involved. It is here that the Bolsheviks, before the advent of Stalinism, made a crucial mistake. Necessity was turned into virtue, imposed expediency into principle. Where they had begun with the view that it was perfectly in order – as it was – for one party to be in the government and the others in critical opposition with all legal rights that would enable them to replace the government party democratically, they shifted to the indefensible view that there was indeed room for all sorts of parties in Soviet Russia – as Tomsky, we believe, put it – but with only one in power and all the others in prison. Looking backward now, it seems clear to us that the Bolsheviks would have strengthened their position in the country, facilitated the restoration of Soviet democracy, which was almost completely crippled during the civil war, and enormously facilitated their work among the socialist workers of Europe, if they had declared, at the end of the civil war, when the regime had consolidated its position, that all other political parties would thenceforth enjoy all the rights and privileges of political activity provided only that they renounced counterrevolutionary activity and abided by the elementary norms of Soviet legality. It should even be added that the failure of the Trotskyist opposition to champion this policy weakened its own fight for party democracy and workers’ democracy more generally. What was permissible and necessary under conditions of fierce and open civil war, became pernicious after the civil war came to an end. And there is no doubt in our mind that it contributed greatly to the withering away of the Soviets as the democratic organs of popular rule and to the subsequent rise of the Stalinist reaction.

The Main Cause

But to see in this anything more than a contributing cause to this rise, is to lose your sense of proportion. The main cause must be sought in the conflict of big social forces and their respective strength. By their own strength, the Russian proletariat, leading the peasantry, was able to make the revolution and crush the forces of imperialist and “democratic” counterrevolution. More than that was not asked or expected of it by anybody. Left in isolation to its own restricted resources, the proletariat had to decay, and with it the revolution itself decayed. The exact nature of the degeneration, the forms it would finally take, were unclearly foreseen – understandably so – by the Bolshevik leaders. But they were right, alas, a hundred times over, in foreseeing that the revolution would certainly degenerate if it remained isolated in Russia, left in the lurch by the rest of Europe. Again, it is not the fact that the workers took socialist power that produced Stalinism, but the fact that the other European workers did not take power. Is this a singularly “Trotskyist” explanation of Stalinism, is it perhaps a theory devised to whitewash the regime of Lenin-Trotsky? All that Trotsky did was to invest this explanation with irresistible sweep and unshakeable roots. But it was not his alone. In his history of the Russian Social-Democracy, the Menshevik leader, Theodor Dan, commenting on the resolution adopted under Martov’s leadership by the Menshevik party conference in Russia in December, 1918 (that is, under the elevating influence of the German revolution), writes these interesting words:

It [the Menshevik conference and its political resolution] nevertheless did put forth the conception that the revolutionary development in Europe also shows the Russian revolution a road out of the blind alley: the Russian revolution and the immense economic resources of Eastern Europe served as rear coverage for the European revolution; “on the other hand, however [Dan is quoting now from the resolutions], with the raising of the productive forces of Europe which would be achieved by a socialist reorganization, the Russian revolution would find a point of support for its own natural resources and the reconstruction of its economy, without having to pay for it by its economic enslavement and the impoverishment of the masses of the people.

There is much to be said against the Mensheviks and even against their 1918 resolution. But there is more wisdom and understanding in the words we have just quoted than in ninety-nine per cent of what is written nowadays to explain the phenomenon of Stalinism, especially by latecomers to the ranks of anti-Bolsheviks!

Wolfe takes note of the fact that

Even in 1917, he [Lenin] countenanced a “temporary” minority dictatorship in Russia only because he was convinced that the Russian example in the midst of the war would end the war on all fronts by worldwide revolution, thereby solving the problems of Russia’s backwardness by a solution on a world scale.

But the note is brief, made in passing, not significantly related to the further development of the Russian revolution. It is as though the words were written down in half-sleep, without forethought or afterthought. Yet they give us the real key to what happened. For if the European revolution did not solve the problems of the Russian revolution, and the Russian working class could not solve them with its own forces, the problem remained to be solved by another social force. By the bourgeoisie? Impossible! The urban bourgeoisie of Russia, the authentic capitalist class, had been driven out of the country or wiped out at home by the revolution and the civil war. Theoretically, such a bourgeoisie might have solved the problem – if only it had existed; but its disappearance was not an accident. The petty-bourgeoisie of the countryside, the peasantry? With all due respect to it, it could not solve its own economic problem, let alone the problem of the nation. And since the problem could not be solved on a capitalist basis or on a socialist basis (the socialist solution required international cooperation and still does), it had to be solved on another basis altogether.

Social Forces Decided

What is instructive and really illuminating is to trace the way in which Stalinism actually rose. The Russian problem, so correctly described in the Menshevik revolution, boiled down to the problem of accumulation. Here we come to a paradox, not literary but profoundly social: the workers’ power in Russia, even in the already attenuated form of a dictatorship of the Bolshevik party, stood as an obstacle in the path of accumulation precisely because, on one hand, genuine socialist accumulation was impossible under conditions of an isolated and backward country, and, on the other hand, workers’ power was incompatible with any other kind of accumulation. This power, then, had to be shattered. Running through the whole history of Stalinism, which is likewise the history of a tremendous economic accumulation (not progressive, but reactionary), is an increasingly successful drive to shatter the power of the Soviets, then the Soviets themselves; to shatter the power of the Bolshevik party, then the party itself; to shatter the power of the workers, then the workers themselves, so that the reconstruction of the economy had to be paid for by “economic enslavement, impoverishment” and political serfdom.

And what was the first big social force which the rising bureaucracy enlisted in its drive to smash the workers’ power? The peasantry, particularly its upper strata! The first important period of the rise of Stalinism runs from 1923 to 1929. It is precisely the period of the mobilization of the peasantry against “Trotskyism,” against the “permanent revolution,” against the proletarian, internationalist, revolutionary and democratic wing of the Bolshevik party. If Trotsky’s “conception” of the permanent revolution led to the victory of Stalinism, nobody noticed or noted it down at the time, least of all the Stalinists. They were too busily engaged in the reactionary campaign against the theory of the permanent revolution and its proponents. How will Wolfe explain, in future volumes, that it was under the sign of the theory of the permanent revolution, to which he ascribes such a doleful outcome, that the Russian people made the socialist revolution and rose to the highest heights of democracy; and that it was under the banner of struggle against the theory that the Stalinist reaction made its first public and sinister appearance in the country? It will be interesting to see if the explanation rises at least a little above the level of ingenious juxtaposition of ancient and irrelevant polemical quotations. Or, if there are to be quotations, let them be concretely related to the social reality, which is above all else the reality of social conflict. The reality was this: In the fight “for the permanent revolution,” the peasantry played a progressive role in Russia. they followed the leadership of the revolutionists of the city, the proletariat, and thereby took a long step in their own economic and political advancement. But in the fight “against the permanent revolution,” the peasants played a reactionary rôle; they followed the leadership of the counter-revolutionists of the city, the Stalinist bureaucracy; they helped it to crush the proletariat by first crushing the revolutionary vanguard; and they had to pay for it with their own subsequent enslavement on the land. The disfranchisement and yoking of the peasantry was not a product of the “Trotskyist” struggle for socialist power, but of the Stalinist struggle against Trotskyism. Thus, in the very defeat of the “permanent revolutionists” was the validity of Trotsky’s analysis of the nature and role of the peasantry confirmed again, confirmed tragically but confirmed.

Lenin’s “warning” in 1905, to which Wolfe attaches such exciting meaning, proved to be irrelevant to the real march of events from 1917 onwards. As an explanation of the rise of Stalinism, it is a patent absurdity.

(To be concluded)

Footnote by MIA

A. In a footnote to the next article in the series, Shachtman points out that due to a typographical error this quote by Wolfe had been put in the wrong place in the printed version of this article.


1. For a work which seems so conscientious in the checking and cross-checking of historical data. Wolfe’s book is surprisingly remiss in coupling the names of Trotsky and Parvus as it does throughout, and making them jointly responsible for ‘he theory of the permanent revolution. That Parvus exerted a great influence in the shaping of Trotsky’s unique theory, is a fact. But the theory remained unique to Trotsky and was at one time Parvus’ own theory only superficially or tangentially. This is shown clearly enough by Trotsky himself. in greatest detail In the booklet, The Permanent Revolution. Is it possible that Wolfe did not familiarize himself with a work of such key importance? Or is it possible that after reading the work he still permitted himself to bracket Trotsky and Parvus? In either case, the result is a bad blurring over of the precise position taken by Trotsky.

2. This does not look very much like a belief that “revolutionary will and a power-centered revolutionary party organization would suffice” for a world revolution, or even a socialist revolution in Russia. If, as Wolfe writes, this was Lenin’s hope, it was indeed ... unformulated.

3. This Wolfe cannot deny. He admits that “the land-hungry peasants, above all the peasant-in-uniform, the peasant-under-arms, would assure victory in his [Lenin’s] side.” He scoffs, however, at the idea that the Bolsheviks set up a dictatorship of the proletariat, referring with his misplaced irony to the fact that the leadership of all the Russian unions was not won by the Bolsheviks till after the revolution. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ had to be set up in 1917 against the will of the majority of the organized proletariat.” This looks bad, especially if it conjures up in the reader’s mind the spectacle of the dictatorship of the proletariat being set up in the United States against the will of the majority of the proletariat organized in the CIO, the AFL and the other unions, a good 16,000,000 of them. However, it only looks bad, especially as Wolfe puts it. The trade unions played a comparatively negligible role in both of the 1917 revolutions and in the period between them. The reasons for that require more space than is here available. But the fact remains. At the beginning of 1917, some weeks before the Czar was overturned, the combined membership of all the unions in Russia was estimated at only 1,385 members! After the February uprising, a big increase took place, but the trade-union membership as late as June, 1917, was just less than 1,500,000 members. Even by January, 1918, the membership figure for the trade unions barely passed the 2,500,000 mark. In 1917, the Mensheviks dominated many of the unions, perhaps most of them. But compared with the unions, the Soviets – the workers’ Soviets – were ten times more representative, ten times more democratic, a hundred times more active, important and decisive politically, for they embraced virtually the entire working class and occupied a position which the trade unions could not hope to achieve under the conditions. In the workers’ Soviets, the Bolsheviks had gained the decisive majority before October. To contest this, is impossible. To omit reference to it is, however, quite possible, for how otherwise could a writer be ironical in the wrong place?

A Letter From David Shub

The Editors,
The New International,
Long Island City, N.Y.


In the December issue of your periodical, you published a defamatory and libelous personal attack on me by Mr. Max Shachtman presented in the guise of a review of my Lenin book. Enclosed herein is my reply. I should like to be advised promptly regarding its publication date in your magazine. Should you for any reason feel disinclined to publish my answer to this defamation of character in full, I would appreciate being notified at once, so that I may make whatever arrangements the situation requires.


Sincerely yours,
David SHUB

* * *

Mr. Shub’s reply to my review of his book arrived too late to be included in the current issue of The New International. In the coming issue, however, it will be printed – and in full – since, far from feeling disinclined to publish it, we decidedly relish the opportunity to give our readers another authentic and even more extensive sample of Mr. Shub’s writings on Lenin so that they may again judge whose character has been defamed and under what guise that has been done. With it, also in the next issue, we will print our comment on what Mr. Shub now has to say. If the comment does not satisfy Mr. Shub’s requirements, it is comforting to feel that they will satisfy requirements of a higher and more important kind.



Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 2 November 2014