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Spartacist English edition No. 63

Winter 2012-2013

Fake-Trotskyist Poseurs Promote Anti-Bolshevik Tract

Bourgeois Liberalism vs. the October Revolution

Alexander Rabinowitch,
The Bolsheviks in Power:
The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd

(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007)

This article is dedicated to comrade Tweet Carter, a veteran cadre whose keen sense of the need to expose political counterfeits played a role in its production. Comrade Carter died on 20 November 2012, as this issue was being prepared for publication.

On 25 October 1917 (7 November, new style), the Military Revolutionary Committee led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky staged an armed insurrection that swept away the remnants of the capitalist Provisional Government in Petrograd and handed state power to the proletariat of Russia. As Lenin rose to the podium at the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the following evening, he proclaimed to tumultuous applause: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”

With a few brief decrees, the Congress put an end to eight months of obstruction by the petty-bourgeois Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR), which were both part of the Provisional Government headed by “socialist” prime minister Alexander Kerensky. A peace appeal urged the peoples and governments of the world to join in ending the carnage of World War I; a second decree ordered the immediate confiscation of the vast properties of the Russian Orthodox church, the landlords and the autocracy on behalf of the impoverished peasants who constituted the overwhelming mass of Russia’s population. The new workers and peasants government recognized the right of national self-determination of the many peoples enslaved within the former tsarist empire and looked to the workers of Germany, France and other imperialist countries to follow its example and overthrow their own capitalist ruling classes.

Literally from the first instant, the Soviet power was confronted by one attempt after another to suffocate it through sabotage, blackmail, murder and military force. The Mensheviks and SRs declared war—in the name of democracy—on the workers and peasants republic, storming out of the Second Congress to make common cause with their reactionary bourgeois allies. Though virtually bloodless in Petrograd, the seizure of power in Moscow took a week of fighting and hundreds of lives, a taste of the bloody civil war to come. The German imperialists granted Russia a fragile, extortionate peace at the cost of huge swaths of Soviet territory and resources. The Allied imperialists, notably Britain and France, conspired with and bankrolled all manner of monarchist, anti-Semitic terrorists and provocateurs before invading with their own armies. And at every stage, the Bolshevik leadership around Lenin was faced with profound conflicts within its Central Committee or with its temporary allies, the Left SRs, who had only just split from the pro-imperialist SRs.

A number of books have chronicled that first, momentous year of Soviet power, prominent among them a sympathetic 1930 account by Victor Serge (a member of the Trotskyist Left Opposition who subsequently returned to his anarchist roots), Year One of the Russian Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972). More recently, American historian Alexander Rabinowitch, professor emeritus at Indiana University, has produced a new history drawing on his decades of research in Soviet and Russian archives, including those opened up only after the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd is the third in a series on the October Revolution. Rabinowitch’s earlier works, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (1968) and The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (1976), offer a vivid account of how the Bolsheviks won workers and soldiers in Petrograd away from the Mensheviks and SRs, who had used their majority in the Soviets in the months after the February Revolution swept away the tsarist monarchy to help keep in power Russia’s imperialist bourgeoisie and to frustrate the masses’ desire for bread, land and peace.

The Bolsheviks in Power is divided into four parts. The first deals with the debates over an all-party “socialist” coalition government and the convocation of the bourgeois-democratic Constituent Assembly. A second centers on the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, while another describes the ensuing rupture with the peasant-based Left SRs, culminating in their provocative assassination of the German ambassador, Count Mirbach. The concluding section addresses the Red Terror carried out by the Bolshevik regime in the context of civil war and pro-imperialist conspiracies by the counterrevolutionary Whites.

As in his earlier books, Rabinowitch provides a great amount of detail in describing the staggering challenges faced by the proletarian class dictatorship in its first year. We see how the imperialist war, the civil war and the deepening economic collapse combined to sap the strength of the proletariat of Petrograd, seat of the revolution, and the consciousness of the red Kronstadt naval garrison, which had played a crucial role in the revolution. Rabinowitch offers some useful insights into the tensions faced by the Bolsheviks in simultaneously carrying out party work and administering the government at a time when the most reliable and class-conscious workers were deployed to fill the gaps on every front of the revolution, from the emerging Red Army to the struggles against famine and counterrevolutionary terror. Perhaps most valuable is Rabinowitch’s illumination of the collaboration between Lenin’s internal opponents and currents outside the party.

However, The Bolsheviks in Power is infused with the prevailing bourgeois academic prejudice that what Russia needed was not the Bolshevik-led dictatorship of the proletariat but liberal democracy. In introducing The History of the Russian Revolution (1930-32), Trotsky clearly distinguished between the role of advocate and that of historian: while the author has no reason to conceal his political views, “the reader does have the right to demand that a historical work should not be the defense of a political position, but an internally well-founded portrayal of the actual process of revolution.” Trotsky’s History lived up to this promise, as even the fiercest scholarly critic will grant. Not so The Bolsheviks in Power: though Rabinowitch often presents sufficient evidence for the diligent reader to refute the author’s interpretation of events, he portrays the course of the first year of Soviet power through the distorting lens of his own political bias.

An Anti-Bolshevik Tract

Rabinowitch was inspired by the social or “revisionist” school associated with British historian E.P. Thompson, which was influenced by the social ferment of the 1960s. Rabinowitch and his fellow revisionists departed from dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warriors such as Leonard Schapiro and Richard Pipes (see “Leonard Schapiro: Lawyer for Counterrevolution,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 43-44, Summer 1989, and “Richard Pipes: Exorcising the Russian Revolution,” Workers Vanguard No. 647, 7 June 1996). Schapiro and his acolytes put historical accuracy to one side in order to paint the October Revolution as a coup d’état organized by a gang of power-mad fanatics intent on creating a one-party totalitarian regime. Harvard professor Pipes was a CIA adviser who advocated a nuclear first strike against the USSR in the 1970s and braintrusted Reagan’s anti-Soviet “evil empire” agenda in the 1980s. Following the “rollback of Communism” in the Soviet Union and East Europe, Pipes increasingly aimed his fire at the bourgeois-democratic legacy of the Great French Revolution of 1789.

Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky and E.H. Carr’s monumental 14-volume history of the first decade of Soviet Russia, both begun in the early 1950s at the height of the Cold War, are outstanding contemporary exceptions to such anti-Communist mythology. Also valuable are the documentary collections co-edited by H.H. Fisher, such as Soviet Russia and the West, 1920-27 (1957) and an earlier volume, The Bolsheviks and the World War.

Rabinowitch’s first two books effectively rebutted the Schapiro/Pipes school of falsification, carefully documenting the Bolsheviks’ ties to the workers and soldiers in Petrograd, who found their aspirations expressed in the Bolshevik program. This in turn won the Bolsheviks support among the vast peasant masses: the soldiers were largely peasants in uniform and the workers were themselves only a generation or two removed from the countryside. Yet Rabinowitch falsely insisted that the Bolsheviks’ mass appeal and willingness to collaborate with anarcho-syndicalists and other revolutionary-minded elements were “in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model” of strict organizational centralism and discipline (The Bolsheviks Come to Power [New York: Norton, 1976]). Rabinowitch argued that the only road forward for Russia was a “broadly representative, exclusively socialist government” including the Mensheviks and SRs. For all its inherent interest, The Bolsheviks Come to Power concludes by censuring the Bolsheviks for exactly that: coming to power.

This theme takes center stage in Rabinowitch’s most recent book. In his preface, he poses the question: “For if the success of the Bolshevik party in 1917 was at least partly attributable to its open, relatively democratic, and decentralized character and operational style, as seemed clear, how was one to explain the fact that it was so quickly transformed into one of the most highly centralized, authoritarian, political organizations in modern history?” In setting out to explain this “fact,” Rabinowitch ends up rolling out the same worn, anti-Communist clichés as the strident Cold War types.

Just like Schapiro and many others, Rabinowitch (albeit more tacitly) tries to read back the Stalinist blood purges and “show trials” of the late 1930s to the Bolshevik regime of Lenin and Trotsky. The corollary of this is to declare Stalinism the natural offspring of Leninism, willfully burying the enormity of the political counterrevolution that brought a conservative, nationally narrow bureaucratic caste to power in 1923-24. From then on, the people who ruled the Soviet Union, the way it was ruled and the purposes for which it was ruled—first articulated in Stalin’s proclamation of the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country” in late 1924—all changed, though it took more than a decade for Stalin to consolidate his brutal, anti-revolutionary regime, including through the physical extermination of virtually all of Lenin’s close comrades and collaborators.

Who Is David North?

Fittingly, the back cover of The Bolsheviks in Power features a blurb by historian John L.H. Keep lauding Rabinowitch because “he explains why the Bolshevik government became more dictatorial, and even terroristic, as it struggled to control an increasingly impoverished and disaffected populace.” Joining Keep in rapturous acclamation of the book is David North’s “International Committee of the Fourth International” and its World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). A review by Frederick Choate and David North hailed the book as “an essential reference point for the study of the political and social aftermath of the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government and the establishment of the Bolshevik regime” (“Bolsheviks in Power—Professor Alexander Rabinowitch’s Important Study of the First Year of Soviet Power,” 9 November 2007, To be sure, The Bolsheviks in Power is not without merit. But, essentially, it is an anti-Bolshevik tract.

David North and his antecedents are past masters at turning black into white. North served his apprenticeship as an American toady and gauleiter for Gerry Healy’s corrupt and thuggish British-based International Committee. Healy and his kept ideologues could simultaneously spout orthodox Trotskyist rhetoric while serving the interests of the most disparate anti-working-class forces, from Chinese Stalinist Mao Zedong to oil-rich bourgeois Arab dictators to anti-Soviet Cold Warriors and the venal right-wing British labor bureaucracy. For a number of years, beginning as far back as 1976, the Healyites were on the take from an array of Arab regimes. After Healy’s lieutenants deposed him in 1985, North denounced every one of his former leaders as renegades and grabbed Healy’s crown as “leader” of “world Trotskyism.” In recent years, North has adopted the persona of an Oxford don, pretentiously promoting himself as a (if not the) leading authority on Trotsky’s historical legacy.

Not only have the Northites feted Rabinowitch at various gatherings, but the Northite Mehring Verlag publishing house in Germany has produced and marketed a translation of The Bolsheviks in Power. To better peddle their revisionist wares, these shameless opportunists deemed it necessary to create a hair’s breadth of distance between themselves and the anti-Bolshevik professor. Thus North and Choate write: “There is a notable absence of a theoretically-guided conception of events,” an absence that “leads on occasion to one-sided appraisals of the events that are being examined.”

This is a whitewash! Far from being occasionally one-sided, at every decisive juncture Rabinowitch gives a resounding “no” to the question of whether the Bolsheviks should have seized and retained state power. From beginning to end, his book goes after Lenin and Trotsky while coddling everyone from “moderate” Bolsheviks such as Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, who opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power, to the Left Communists of Nikolai Bukharin who joined with the Left SRs in opposing the peace treaty with Germany, to the frankly counterrevolutionary Mensheviks and SRs (dubbed “moderate socialists”) who marched alongside their monarchist allies under the “democratic” banner of the bourgeois Constituent Assembly. With the exception of the Constituent Assembly ballot in November 1917, which the SRs won handily, Rabinowitch labels—without a shred of real evidence—virtually every vote held under Bolshevik rule as “dubious,” “rigged” or “manipulated.” Rabinowitch most certainly does have a unifying conception, whether “theoretically” or otherwise guided, and it is liberal democracy.

The Chimera of an “All-Party” Government

From the moment the Bolsheviks take the power, Rabinowitch is looking for the forces that will give it back to the bourgeoisie. The Menshevik/SR walkout from the Second Soviet Congress occasioned weeks of hysterical handwringing for “unity” and an “all-party Soviet government” by the waverers who remained behind. These ranged from the sizable wing of “moderate” Bolsheviks to Julius Martov’s Menshevik-Internationalists and the Left SRs. Rabinowitch clearly sympathizes with the petty-bourgeois democrats, hailing as “remarkably prophetic” those who opposed a Bolshevik government and asserting (as fact) that Lenin’s purpose in staging an armed insurrection was “to eliminate any possibility that the congress would form a socialist coalition in which the moderate socialists would have a significant voice.” (These and all unattributed quotations that follow come from The Bolsheviks in Power.)

This argument is specious at best. What sort of coalition could there be between those who stood for proletarian power and world socialist revolution and those who, during the insurrection and for the previous eight months, had fronted for the tsarist and bonapartist generals and the Kadets, the party of the big bourgeoisie, in pursuing the imperialist war? While enthusing over the “collaborative spirit” promoted by the likes of Martov on the first night of the Congress, Rabinowitch himself concedes that this “evaporated” as soon as “most of the Mensheviks and SRs in the hall went off to help coordinate resistance to Bolshevik-led military operations.” The voice of the “moderate socialists” was heard in the cannonades directed at the Red Guards and workers quarters, as military cadets within Petrograd and military forces outside the city under ousted Provisional Government head Alexander Kerensky tried to crush the new regime.

Kamenev was, along with Stalin (who soon receded into the background), one of the “March Bolsheviks” who had steered the party toward support for the Provisional Government and unity with the Mensheviks in the weeks before Lenin’s return from exile in April 1917. They reared their heads again when Lenin fled to Finland to escape the intense repression that followed the abortive July Days rising by impatient elements in the Petrograd factories and barracks. Kamenev’s “moderates” now pushed the party onto the track of bourgeois parliamentarism, participating in the Pre-Parliament and the Democratic State Conference, bodies contrived to ward off the proletarian revolution. In October, Kamenev and Zinoviev acted as open strikebreakers in publicly opposing—in the Menshevik press, no less—the impending insurrection. (All dates up to 31 January 1918, when the Soviet government adopted the modern calendar, accord with the old Julian calendar, which ran 13 days behind.)

When the Vikzhel, the Menshevik/SR-dominated executive committee of the powerful rail union, threatened to seize the railways if the Bolsheviks did not agree to unity negotiations, Kamenev & Co. leapt at the opportunity. The Vikzhel talks resulted in a proposal for a multi-party government in which the Bolsheviks would be an impotent minority and Lenin and Trotsky excluded altogether! Kamenev and other Bolsheviks involved in the negotiations supported this proposal; David Ryazanov, another rightist, went so far as to agree to a non-Soviet “democratic” government (i.e., a recycled Provisional Government). Such conciliation served to harden the Mensheviks and SRs in their belief that the Soviet regime was on the verge of collapse.

Had the Vikzhel proposal gone forward it would have meant the suicide of the revolution, but it was shot down by Lenin the very next day, on November 1. It was at this meeting of the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee that Lenin famously declared, in a presentation subsequently suppressed by the Stalinists, that “Trotsky long ago said that unification is impossible. Trotsky understood this, and from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik” (Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification [1931]). Lenin warned Zinoviev, Kamenev et al. to observe party discipline and stop dealing with enemies of the revolution or face expulsion. In response they abandoned their government posts and defiantly resigned (“pressured out,” per Rabinowitch) from the Central Committee, vowing to continue the fight for an all-party government and the Constituent Assembly. Some years later, Trotsky commented:

“Thus, those who had opposed the armed insurrection and the seizure of power as an adventure were demanding, after the victorious conclusion of the insurrection, that the power be restored to those parties against whom the proletariat had to struggle in order to conquer power.... In other words, it was a question of clearing a path for bourgeois parliamentarism through the portals of the soviets.”

— Trotsky, “The Lessons of October” (1924)

In “From a Publicist’s Diary,” a series of articles written in September 1917, Lenin had ridiculed the claim by left-Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov that the soviets could exert influence over the bourgeois government and had hailed Trotsky’s call for a boycott of the Pre-Parliament and Democratic State Conference. Where the gates of the revolution were not bolted shut to parliamentarist illusions, the workers suffered catastrophes. Only a few months after October, the Finnish revolution was drowned in blood by Baron Mannerheim and his German allies because the irresolute and heterogeneous Finnish Social Democracy tried to hew to the path of parliamentary democracy in the midst of a civil war. Otto Kuusinen, a leading left Social Democrat who became a Communist, recalled: “Wishing not to risk our democratic conquests, and hoping to manoeuvre round this turning-point of history by our parliamentary skill, we decided to evade the revolution.... We did not believe in the revolution; we reposed no hope in it; we had no wish for it” (quoted in Serge, Year One). It was Lenin and Trotsky’s hard line against conciliation and coalition that enabled the Russian Revolution to succeed.

The argument that the Bolsheviks, too, should have ceded power on the basis of formal democratic considerations has been a recurrent hobby horse of social democrats. When this argument was raised in Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League in the U.S. in the early 1950s, James Robertson, later a cofounder of the Spartacist tendency, categorically rejected it. A surrender of power would have been “a betrayal of the first magnitude,” wrote Robertson (“Should the Bolsheviks Have Surrendered State Power?” Forum, May 1954). As he insisted, “There was no other party capable of governing Russia through the soviets, let alone guiding the Third International along revolutionary lines.” Robertson noted that if the Bolsheviks had ceded power it would have meant not only the defeat of the workers state, but the destruction of the Bolsheviks as a revolutionary organization.

With the defeat of the Kamenev/Zinoviev opposition, the Left SRs resigned themselves to joining the Bolsheviks in government, which they did in mid November, having already merged the leading body of the Left SR-dominated Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies with the Central Executive Committee of the workers and soldiers soviets. They joined with the Bolsheviks because, “however alien their crude behavior is to us,” as Left SR leader Maria Spiridonova put it, “the masses…follow them” (quoted in The Bolsheviks in Power).

The Constituent Assembly

Having failed to nip the revolution in the bud through force of arms or “negotiated” blackmail, the counterrevolution rallied around preparations for the Constituent Assembly. In their months in government, the Mensheviks and SRs had done all within their power to postpone its convocation. Now they raised a clamor for the Constituent Assembly, seeing it as a vehicle for “democratic” counterrevolution. In this they were right. For the Bolsheviks, the events of 1917-18 clarified in struggle the relationship between the proletarian dictatorship (the soviets) and bourgeois democracy (the Constituent Assembly). It was through this experience that Lenin and Trotsky came to oppose the Constituent Assembly, as it could only be counterposed to Soviet power. Like the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” which Lenin disowned in his April Theses, the call for a Constituent Assembly was a vestige of the old Bolshevik minimum program for a democratic republic.

Despite serious misgivings, Lenin agreed to honor the pre-October commitment to speedy convocation of the Constituent Assembly. The elections, held in November on the basis of obsolete party lists prepared before the Left SRs had split from the Right SRs and before the impact of the revolution had penetrated into the countryside, gave the SRs a 58 percent overall majority. In Petrograd, where the masses knew very well the stands of the various parties, the “moderate socialists” were squeezed out. The Bolsheviks won 45 percent of the vote, centered on the barracks and working-class districts, while the Kadets came in second with 26 percent, garnered from the bourgeois elite and its middle-class underlings. Society was polarized: for or against the revolution.

After predictably refusing to recognize the Soviet power at its opening session on January 5, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved—with nary a hint of opposition from the masses. Trotsky recalled Lenin’s comment after the fact:

“Of course, we took great risks in not adjourning the convocation of the Assembly; of course, we acted very, very imprudently. But in the end it turned out all to the good. By dispersing the Constituent Assembly, the Soviet regime, in the name of proletarian dictatorship, openly and finally put an end to formal democracy. This lesson will not be forgotten.”

—quoted in Trotsky, Lenin: Notes for a Biographer (New York: Capricorn Books, 1971, first published in English as Lenin [New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1925])

Rabinowitch makes his sympathies on this question rather obvious, lamenting that January 5 marked the “end of efforts to establish a Western-style, multiparty democratic system in Russia for most of the twentieth century.” Even so, he is compelled to acknowledge that support for the Constituent Assembly was largely limited to the privileged classes. The election results, he comments, “were a strong endorsement of revolutionary Bolshevik policies and Soviet power by lower classes in the Petrograd region.” In contrast, a November 28 demonstration called by the Union for the Defense of the Constituent Assembly (UDCA)—a bloc of Kadets, SRs, Mensheviks and liberal Popular Socialists—consisted of “mostly well-dressed citizens” and featured “fiery speeches calling for an immediate end to Soviet rule.”

The Kadet-controlled UDCA was intent on using the opening of the Constituent Assembly to provoke a counterrevolutionary rising, a fact Rabinowitch bends over backward to deny. He chastises Trotsky for talking of a Kadet uprising. He brands as “provocative acts” the classification of the Kadet party as “enemies of the people” and the arrest of a number of its leaders. He remonstrates that the SR Central Committee formally rejected a plot hatched by its Military Commission “to kidnap or assassinate top Bolsheviks.” Yet an attempt was in fact made on Lenin’s life on January 1, Rabinowitch admits, “by a small idealistic group of young army officers from the front who had come to Petrograd to help protect the Constituent Assembly.” And Rabinowitch lamely concedes that “at least some of the instigators” of a UDCA-sponsored “peaceful” demonstration on January 5 “hoped it might develop into an armed insurrection on behalf of the slogan ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’.”

The notion promoted by the Mensheviks and SRs that a stable democratic regime could be consolidated on the basis of the Constituent Assembly was a chimera. These parties were basically spent forces—hollowed out by their months of overt treachery on behalf of the bourgeoisie—and were now little more than adjuncts of the Kadets, militarists and Allied imperialists. The real import of the Constituent Assembly was its value as a “democratic” fig leaf for reaction. A May 1918 SR conference resolved “to overthrow the Bolshevik dictatorship and to establish a government based on universal suffrage and willing to accept allied assistance in the war against Germany” (quoted in E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1 [London: Macmillan Press, 1950]).

This was a blueprint for the so-called Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Komuch). In June 1918, this SR-dominated body set up a government in central Russia based on the bayonets of the Czech Legion, which was loyal to bourgeois-nationalist Thomas Masaryk and his overlords in Paris and London. Focusing as he does on Petrograd, Rabinowitch makes only a passing reference to Komuch. But Victor Serge says plainly of these counterrevolutionaries: “Each town became, as it was captured, the scene of a protracted massacre of Communists and suspects” (Serge, Year One). Nonetheless, when Komuch was deemed ineffective at fighting the Reds it was overthrown by General Kolchak’s Whites, who then proceeded to execute a number of SR “democrats.”

One virtue of The Bolsheviks in Power is that it amply confirms, contrary to the author’s views and intentions, that at every step of the way the Constituent Assembly served those who sought to prevent, subvert, reject and ultimately overthrow Soviet power. In other words, it was a rallying cry for counterrevolution.

Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty

No sooner had the Soviet regime dissolved the Constituent Assembly than it was faced with an even more profound crisis. The Bolshevik-led Second Congress of Soviets had pledged to work for an immediate end to the world war. How to bring that about was the subject of contentious debate that brought the Bolshevik Party to the precipice of a split and led to the end of the coalition with the Left SRs. It was only thanks to Lenin’s firmness and political authority that the party and state survived intact.

While the Allies turned a deaf ear to the Soviets’ peace declaration, the Central Powers led by Germany agreed to an armistice. Germany insisted that discussion of peace terms take place in the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk, site of German army headquarters. The Central Powers had their own reasons for a rapid end to the war with Russia, as documented by John Wheeler-Bennett in his thorough 1938 account, Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971). War-weariness was widespread: in January 1918 a short-lived revolutionary upsurge erupted in Germany, while Vienna was swept by huge strikes against food shortages and for an immediate peace. Germany was intent on redeploying its armies from the Eastern Front for what it hoped would be a final offensive against the Anglo-French Entente before their new American allies arrived in strength; Austria, bled white and on the verge of famine, was desperate for peace at any price.

The Bolsheviks had initially hoped that the proletarian revolution in Russia would in short order inspire workers in other European countries to overthrow their rulers and lead to the conclusion of a universal, democratic peace. This was not to be. Yet a sizable section of the party leadership, led by Bukharin, argued that a separate peace with Germany was treason to the cause of world revolution. Rejecting any compromise with the imperialists on principle, they asserted that the only road open to the Soviet state was to wage revolutionary war against Germany, even if it meant the death of the revolution in Russia. The logic of this was that an isolated, relatively weak workers state could never use temporary conflicts among the imperialist powers to its own advantage and thus could only be a short-lived affair.

Rabinowitch, without too much commentary of his own, describes how Lenin, based on intensive research and interviews, came to the conclusion early on that the Russian army was rapidly disintegrating and in no condition to fight. He argued for an immediate acceptance of Germany’s terms, however onerous. In so doing, he represented a minority on the Central Committee, opposed not only by the Left Communists but also by Trotsky, who advocated a middle position of “no war, no peace” (refusing to prosecute the war, refusing to sign the treaty). Trotsky’s position won out, resulting in a rapid advance of German forces that swallowed up hundreds more miles of Soviet territory. Trotsky then backed off, and Lenin finally convinced the Bolshevik Party and Soviet government to accept even more onerous terms so that the revolution could live to fight another day. It was necessary to hold out until the German revolution had matured, Lenin argued, for without it “we are doomed” (Political Report of the Central Committee, 7 March 1918, Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.[B]).

Breaking discipline, Bukharin joined with Martov and the Left SRs (as well as, of course, the Mensheviks and SRs) in publicly denouncing the Brest treaty. Lenin put it bluntly, “Not to conclude peace at the present moment means declaring an armed uprising or a revolutionary war against German imperialism. This is either phrase-making or a provocation by the Russian bourgeoisie, which is thirsting for the arrival of the Germans” (“Note on the Necessity of Signing the Peace Treaty,” 24 February 1918). That the Left Communists and Left SRs found themselves in a bloc with the most right-wing opportunists in opposing the Brest treaty, notwithstanding different impulses, underlines that this opposition fundamentally ran parallel with the demands of the Allied imperialists that Russia continue the war with Germany.

The Fourth Congress of Soviets in March ratified the treaty by an overwhelming majority. Replying to a string of opponents of the peace, a peasant delegate simply but powerfully backed Lenin’s position:

“Comrades, we fought four years; we’re exhausted. We have no army. We have no supplies. The Germans have an army. It is only a few miles away from Moscow and Petrograd. It is ready to advance. We are helpless.”

— quoted in Wheeler-Bennett, Brest-Litovsk

In fact, only days before the Congress, the Bolshevik leadership had moved the seat of government to Moscow to escape the tightening German/Finnish noose around Petrograd. This provides Rabinowitch with an opportunity for cynical chicken-baiting, sniggering that “the chief heroes of ‘October’ slunk off to Moscow in apparent panic.” Rabinowitch abhors all that was strong and determined about the revolution, while exalting all that was weak and disorganized. But Lenin and Trotsky were revolutionists, not liberal romantics. They understood that proletarian leaders could not easily be replaced.

This was a lesson for which the German proletariat paid in the blood of its most authoritative revolutionary leaders. As the “moderate socialist” German government moved to stamp out the Spartakist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919, Spartakist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht did not go into hiding. They were butchered at the behest of the Social Democrats by members of the Freikorps, which had already been blooded in the battle against Bolshevism in the Baltics.

The Rising of the Left SRs

Rabinowitch acknowledges that “the promise of immediate peace” had been “one of the most engaging aspects” of the Bolshevik program in 1917. Indeed, the promise of land and peace was key in bringing the enormous weight of the peasantry—including those in uniform who made up the bulk of the military garrisons—to bear behind the revolutionary proletariat. Yet Rabinowitch then goes on to alibi the fanatically anti-Bolshevik reaction to the ratification of the treaty. The Left SRs (joined by four Left Communists) pulled out of the Sovnarkom, the Soviet government. The Left SRs, reports Rabinowitch, “also stepped up their guerrilla warfare against the Germans in the Baltic region and Ukraine” and “initiated steps to implement a program of terrorism against high-level German officials.”

In effect, such acts amounted to a declaration of war against the existing Soviet government. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks allowed the Left SRs to retain considerable influence in various local Soviet administrations as well as in the Soviet agency for combating sabotage and counterrevolution, the Cheka, known as the “sword of the revolution” and led by the Polish Bolshevik Feliks Dzerzhinsky. On July 6, shortly after the opening of the Fifth Congress of Soviets, two Left SR members of the Cheka strode into the German legation in Moscow, claiming Dzerzhinsky’s authority, and assassinated the German ambassador. This signaled an armed uprising against the Soviet power.

Not so, concludes the sage professor, “having sifted through the available published and unpublished evidence.” The assassination of Count Mirbach was not part of an anti-Soviet rising but merely “an ill-conceived act.” It was a decision “taken hastily” because the Left SRs’ hope that they could overturn the Brest treaty and “reshape Sovnarkom policies was shattered” at the Fifth Congress. Finally, Rabinowitch throws down his trump card in defense of his clients: an anti-Soviet uprising was “completely incomprehensible” to the Left SRs given that “the heart of the Left SR credo included the hegemony of democratic, revolutionary soviets.”

Rabinowitch himself provides evidence enough of a Left SR conspiracy against the Soviet government. Far from being a hasty decision, the Left SRs had been plotting for at least three months, behind the back of the government and against the overwhelming will of the Congress of Soviets, to provoke a renewed German attack on the Soviet state. The moment of Mirbach’s assassination found “virtually the entire Left SR Central Committee assembled in the military headquarters” of the Cheka, where Left SR Dmitri Popov still had command of “formidable military forces.” Dzerzhinsky was taken hostage. The Kremlin was fired on with cannon.

That night, leading Left SR Prosh Proshian led a detachment of sailors to occupy the Central Telegraph Office—a fact glossed over by Rabinowitch and detailed only in a footnote! Declaring that “we killed Mirbach, the Sovnarkom is under arrest,” Proshian ordered all telegrams signed by Lenin, Trotsky or Sverdlov suppressed as dangerous to “the presently governing party, in particular the Left SRs” (quoted in The Bolsheviks in Power). The following morning, a Left SR military unit entrenched in the Pages School in Petrograd defied Bolshevik efforts to negotiate its surrender, launching a full-fledged street battle in which the Left SRs killed ten Red Army soldiers (a fact Rabinowitch omits).

Rabinowitch would like to blame Lenin for it all, accusing the Bolsheviks of provoking the Left SRs and “fabricating” a Bolshevik majority at the Fifth Soviet Congress. (The charge of “fabrication,” admits the author, is based on “circumstantial evidence” and a “nagging question” over how the Bolsheviks retained a wide base of support.) The fact is that the Left SRs voluntarily placed themselves outside Soviet legality; three months later, they attempted a second rising, in the Second Baltic Fleet Detachment. Having committed political suicide, they rapidly disintegrated into a number of splinters; the best elements—including one of Mirbach’s assassins, Yakov Blumkin—went over to the Bolsheviks. For the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, the attempted uprising by their former allies had a salutary effect, as Trotsky observed in a 1925 tribute to Bolshevik organizer Yakov Sverdlov:

“Despite the fact that there never was, of course, even talk of intermixing the organizations, the bloc with the Left SRs did unquestionably tend to make the conduct of our party nuclei somewhat nebulous.... The laxness, the lack of vigilance and of cohesion among party members only recently implanted in the still fresh state apparatus is characterized quite strikingly by the single fact that the basic core of the uprising was constituted by the Left SR organization among the Cheka troops.

“The salutary change occurred literally within two or three days. During the days of the insurrection engineered by one ruling party against another, when all personal relations were suddenly put in question, and when the functionaries in the departments began wavering, then the best and the most devoted Communist elements within all sorts of institutions quickly drew close to one another, breaking all ties with the Left SRs and combating them.... One may say that it was precisely in those days that the party in its majority became for the first time really conscious of its role as a ruling organization, as the leader of the proletarian state, as the party of the proletarian dictatorship not only in its political but also in its organizational aspects.”

— Trotsky, “Yakov Sverdlov,” Portraits, Political and Personal (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977)

Left SRs: A Peasant Party

However sincerely the Left SR leaders may have believed in socialism and soviet power as they understood it, their outlook was fundamentally alien to that of the revolutionary proletariat. Typically, as they joined in the clamor for an all-party government in the days after the insurrection, the Left SRs unsuccessfully proposed that half the Soviet Central Executive Committee consist of peasant delegates and up to another third of representatives of the bourgeois municipal dumas (see John L.H. Keep, ed., The Debate on Soviet Power: Minutes of the All-Russian Executive Committee of Soviets, Second Convocation, October 1917-January 1918 [London: Oxford University Press, 1979]). As populists, the Left SRs saw no fundamental distinction between the peasantry and the proletariat. This was “the party of the middle peasantry,” observes Victor Serge: “Hence we can immediately understand its vacillations, its anarchistic tendencies, its aversion towards the centralized State and the regular army, its penchant for guerrilla warfare, its democratic mentality which was so often opposed to the dictatorial spirit of the Bolsheviks” (Year One). The Left SRs’ alliance with the Bolsheviks was inherently unstable.

The plight of the Soviet republic allowed no room for romantics and illusion-mongers. In the months before the October Revolution, in articles such as “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It” (September 1917), Lenin had pointed to the strangulation of industrial production and the threat of famine to argue for the immediate proletarian seizure of power. Capitalist sabotage and counterrevolutionary intrigues only escalated after October. The situation was qualitatively exacerbated by the robbers’ peace, as Germany gained control of up to 70 percent of Russia’s metal industry, 45 percent of its fuel production and 55 percent of its grain production. With Petrograd and Moscow on the brink of mass starvation, much of the population fled to the countryside. In their tens of thousands, the most class-conscious workers had either been pulled into Soviet administration or sent off to the various fronts of the Civil War. Those who remained behind were largely desperate and demoralized.

Faced with this situation, the Left SRs argued, Rabinowitch writes approvingly, that “the main social base of revolutionary government would have to be Russia’s still enormous, healthy, and politically able class of laboring peasants: middle and poor peasants working their own modest plots.” This was an argument for liquidating the class dictatorship of the proletariat in favor of an atomized mass of smallholders, a short step to anarchy and capitalist restoration. The Left SRs opposed the Bolsheviks’ “food supply dictatorship” to deal with rampant hoarding of grain by the better-off peasants, and banned their members from participating in the food procurement detachments that were critical in supplying the cities and the Red Army. They opposed the Bolsheviks’ efforts to carry the class war into the countryside through the formation of Committees of the Village Poor (kombedy), complaining, in Rabinowitch’s words, that “a whole new category of small landholders” would now be “defined as class enemies.”

The Shchastny Affair

Even as the Left SRs were plotting their anti-Soviet rising, more sinister forces sought to capitalize on the extreme difficulties facing the Soviet republic to foment counterrevolution. Rabinowitch devotes a number of pages in his book to an impassioned defense of Soviet Navy Captain Aleksei Shchastny, who took command of the Baltic Fleet in March 1918. Widely dubbed “Admiral,” Shchastny won his laurels in organizing the “Ice March,” in which more than 200 ships threatened by German and Finnish forces broke through ice-covered waters to relative safety in Kronstadt.

At this point Trotsky supplants Lenin as the principal villain in Rabinowitch’s account. He charges that the head of the Red Army set Shchastny up for arrest and “single-handedly organized an investigation, sham trial, and death sentence on the spurious charge of attempting to overthrow the Petrograd Commune,” the regional Soviet administration. Shchastny was executed on June 21. Trotsky’s alleged frame-up job, we are told, was finally reversed with the counterrevolutionary captain’s “rehabilitation” in 1995…by the counterrevolutionary regime of Boris Yeltsin! A few years later, Rabinowitch’s “The Shchastny File: Trotsky and the Case of the Hero of the Baltic Fleet” (Russian Review, October 1999) was translated into Russian in an expanded version to facilitate a new barrage of anti-Trotsky slanders by apologists for the new capitalist Russia.

This was no lynching, as Rabinowitch would have it, but a necessary court-martial at a moment when the fate of the Soviet state hung in the balance. As Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, explained:

“The trial was designed to implant in the mind of the nascent army the idea, taken for granted in any established army, that certain actions must be regarded and punished as treason; and it was meant to intimidate the officers who were in sympathy with the White Guards. In civil war any penalty milder than death rarely has a deterrent effect. The fear of prison does not deter the would-be traitor, because he hopes in any case for the victory of the other side which will free him, honour him, and reward him; or he may hope at least for an amnesty after the end of the civil war.”

— Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (London: Oxford University Press, 1954)

In his haste to convict Trotsky of “possibly the first Soviet ‘Show Trial’”—referring to the hallmark of Stalin’s bloody purges of the late 1930s—Rabinowitch chooses to withhold the testimony of Shchastny’s co-conspirator, Lieutenant Fedotov, who revealed in his 1944 memoirs what Shchastny had confided to him:

“The Bolsheviki are German agents, they are going to try to hand the fleet to the Germans so that they can use it against the allies. Something is going to happen, however, which will stop them.... The Baltic Fleet made the bolshevik revolution possible, the Baltic Fleet will bring bolshevik power to an end.”

— quoted in Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Revolution and the Baltic Fleet (London: Macmillan Press, 1978)

Even without Fedotov’s statement, Rabinowitch’s account provides plenty of factual evidence to demonstrate that the charges against Shchastny were hardly spurious. The Brest peace had brought with it a resurgence of the Big Lie that the Bolsheviks were German agents, which had been used by Kerensky and the bourgeoisie to hound and terrorize Bolshevik workers and soldiers in the summer of 1917, some months before the Bolshevik seizure of power. Now, under strict orders to avoid any action that would provoke a renewed German invasion, Shchastny instead encouraged the notion that the Bolshevik government was in a secret alliance with imperialist Germany to sell out Mother Russia. Not coincidentally, as Rabinowitch admits in “The Shchastny File,” Shchastny was a “Russian patriot” who was “reportedly active in a moderate socialist organization of naval officers” (Russian Review, October 1999). In the thick of this “moderate socialist” conspiracy in the Soviet navy was the monarchist British agent Captain Francis Cromie, who promised to resettle his accomplices in Britain. Cromie was soon killed in a shootout with Cheka troops as they broke up a clandestine meeting of imperialist and Russian counterrevolutionary agents.

Shchastny and other spetsy (former tsarist officers and officials who had agreed to serve as specialists under the Reds) called for a war mobilization in defense of the “fatherland…not soviet power.” He led his sailors in rejecting the authority of the new Baltic Fleet commissar, Ivan Flerovsky, appointed by Trotsky. At the Third Congress of Baltic Fleet delegates, Shchastny threw down the gauntlet to the Bolsheviks, thundering “that the moment had come for the central government to stand up and fight the Germans.” In May, the minelayers under Shchastny’s command called for replacing the Petrograd Commune with a dictatorship of the Baltic Fleet and rallied to the defense of two “staunchly anti-Bolshevik” officers who had promoted this call. When Shchastny was arrested, he was carrying forged letters allegedly proving secret collaboration between the Bolsheviks and the German government. (Only in a footnote does Rabinowitch acknowledge that these were, in fact, forgeries.)

So biased is Rabinowitch toward his “hero” that he does not even bother to cite Trotsky’s case against Shchastny. In concluding his detailed testimony before the court-martial on 20 June 1918, Trotsky said:

“Shchastny persistently and steadily deepened the gulf between the fleet and the Soviet power. Sowing panic, he steadily promoted his candidature for the role of saviour....

“When Messrs. Admirals and Generals start, during a revolution, to play their own personal political game, they must always be prepared to take responsibility for this game, if it should miscarry. Admiral Shchastny’s game has miscarried.”

— “The First Betrayal,” The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky: How the Revolution Armed, Vol. 1 (London: New Park Publications, 1979)

Counterrevolutionary Agitation in Petrograd

The conspiracy in the Baltic Fleet proceeded in tandem with similar developments in Petrograd itself. The Extraordinary Assembly of Delegates from Petrograd Factories and Plants (EAD) emerged in the spring of 1918, when the Soviet government was particularly vulnerable because of severe food shortages in the city. Rabinowitch portrays the EAD as some kind of spontaneous, elemental movement, but by his own facts reveals that this was yet another plot by the same old counterrevolutionary “moderate socialists,” hatched after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. Its few strongholds were in plants where the Mensheviks and SRs retained some influence, chiefly those that had been engaged in war production, such as the Obukhov factory. Another was the San Gali factory, which “had been an island of relative calm between management and labor in the revolutionary period” and became combative only against the Bolshevik regime. Serge gives a measure of the backward, anti-Semitic mood curried by the EAD with the following quote from an SR speaker at the Putilov works: “Let’s throw the Yids into the Neva, get a strike committee going and stop work” (Year One).

Under the banner of renewing the revolution by reconvening the Constituent Assembly, the EAD aimed at the overthrow of Soviet rule. It decided to organize a provocative separate march for May Day, which at least a section of the EAD leadership hoped would result in bloody clashes with government forces; the march was called off at the last minute because of lack of support from workers. On June 20, leading Petrograd Bolshevik V. Volodarsky was assassinated near the Obukhov plant. Over the next two days, the Baltic Fleet minelayers joined with Obukhov workers in staging an unsuccessful insurrection against the Bolsheviks.

The EAD died a quiet death in late July, after failing to garner significant support for a July 2 general strike. Rabinowitch decries the “dubious ‘mandate’” of the newly elected Petrograd Soviet in seeking to head off the general strike, and condemns its “brutal suppression” of the strike—which consisted largely of sealing hostile printing plants, warning that agitators would be subject to arrest and putting armed patrols on the streets. The murder of a Bolshevik leader by SR terrorists does not, however, merit being described as brutal. Rather, Rabinowitch complains that Volodarsky had “muzzled” the inflammatory SR press until shortly before the Petrograd Soviet elections. The young Bolshevik Ilyin-Zhenevsky articulated the bitter reaction of class-conscious workers to Volodarsky’s murder:

“We had allowed our political opponents every opportunity to combat us during the elections to the Petrograd Soviet. We had let all their newspapers be published. We had listened calmly to all their demagogic and slanderous speeches at workers’ meetings. We had been so anxious not to encroach on their ‘civil rights.’ And now we had been given a fitting reply.”

— A.F. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, The Bolsheviks in Power: Reminiscences of the Year 1918 (London: New Park, 1984)

Red Terror vs. White Reaction

As summer turned to fall, Soviet Russia was drowning from one end to the other in a sea of Allied military intervention, internal counterrevolutionary plots, famine and cholera. On August 30, SR assassins struck down the head of the Petrograd Cheka (PCheka), M.S. Uritsky, a veteran revolutionary and senior leader who had joined the Bolsheviks alongside Trotsky as part of the Mezhraiontsy, the Inter-District Committee, in 1917. That same night, assassins also nearly succeeded in killing Lenin outside a factory meeting in Moscow. Victor Serge remarks: “The feeling was that the moment of reckoning had now come in which the revolution had no alternative but to destroy or be destroyed” (Year One). To combat the raging White Terror, Red Terror was proclaimed.

Having documented the multitude of conspiracies and failed revolts carried out in direct collaboration with high-ranking British and French agents, Rabinowitch nonetheless sees no evidence of “one grand domestic and international conspiracy against Soviet power” in speaking of Uritsky’s murder. Instead he denounces the Bolsheviks for seizing on the murder of Uritsky and the near-murder of Lenin to launch an “orgy of politically motivated seizure of hostages and shootings by the PCheka” and to encourage “lynch justice” with “inflammatory” editorials.

The result of this “orgy of shootings” was some 500 killed by the Cheka in Petrograd and a far smaller number in Moscow in the week after Uritsky’s murder, with similar or smaller numbers in other cities. The Petrograd Krasnaya Gazeta then declared: “Let our enemies leave us in peace to build a new life. If they do so, we shall ignore their simmering hatred and stop hunting them out” (quoted in Serge, Year One). Rabinowitch passes over in silence the very real orgies of mass murder by the Whites. Serge documents that in Finland the victorious Whites gunned down 200 women with explosive bullets in one place and machine-gunned 600 Red Guards in cold blood in another, killing tens of thousands of unarmed workers and their families in all—after the battle. In her biography of Larissa Reissner, who at the age of 23 became the first woman commissar in the Red Army, Cathy Porter describes the massacres and pogroms that accompanied the Czech Legion and the SR/Komuch government wherever they held sway even briefly: in Samara, “Bolsheviks were massacred on the streets, and there was an epidemic of lynchings”; in Kazan, “the streets were littered with naked, mutilated corpses, with their eyes gouged out and their Party cards pinned to their chests”; and so on (Porter, Larisa Reisner [London: Virago Press, 1988]).

Rabinowitch does not mention what is probably the most important military event of 1918: the battle of Svyazhsk, outside Kazan (see “Larissa Reissner on Trotsky’s Red Army,” page 56). Here, with Trotsky’s famous train as the nerve center, the Red Army stood down a much larger force of Whites and started to establish itself as a real force. On Trotsky’s orders, 27 soldiers, including several Communists, who had yielded to panic and fled from the enemy were tried and shot. As Reissner relates in a memoir written around 1922:

“The whole army was agog with talk about communists having turned cowards; and that laws were not written for them; that they could desert with impunity, while an ordinary rank and filer was shot down like a dog.

“If not for the exceptional courage of Trotsky, the army commander and other members of the Revolutionary Military Council, the prestige of the communists working in the army would have been impaired and lost for a long time to come.”

— Reissner, “Svyazhsk,” Fourth International, June 1943

Such severe measures were essential in forging the disciplined and coherent revolutionary army that went on to defeat the Whites and their imperialist allies. Though the Civil War raged on through 1920, Svyazhsk was a turning point.

German Revolution of 1918-19

Within months of this battle, as Petrograd celebrated the first anniversary of the October Revolution, came the stirring news that workers, soldiers and sailors councils had sprung up all across Germany and the Kaiser had been overthrown. Recalling the spirit of patriotism that had permeated the opposition to the Brest treaty, Lenin wrote:

“The bitterness, resentment, and violent indignation provoked by this peace were easy to understand and it goes without saying that we Marxists could expect only the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat to appreciate the truth that we were making and were obliged to make great national sacrifices for the sake of the supreme interests of the world proletarian revolution....

But it turned out as we had said.

“German imperialism, which had seemed to be the only enemy, collapsed. The German revolution, which had appeared to be a ‘dream-farce’ (to use Plekhanov’s expression), became a fact. Anglo-French imperialism, which the fantasy of the petty-bourgeois democrats had pictured as a friend of democracy and a protector of the oppressed, turned out to be a savage beast which imposed on the German Republic and the people of Austria terms worse than those of Brest, a savage beast which used armies of ‘free’ republicans—French and American—as gendarmes, butchers and throttlers of the independence and freedom of small and weak nations.”

— “The Valuable Admissions of Pitirim Sorokin” (20 November 1918)

The German Revolution was to fail, notwithstanding quite favorable objective circumstances. In place of a party of the Bolshevik type, steeled through years of struggle and a definitive split with the Menshevik opportunists in 1912, there was only a handful of small revolutionary-minded groupings, principally the Spartakusbund of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, which remained part of Karl Kautsky’s centrist Independent Socialists (USPD) until the founding of the Communist Party in late December 1918. The chauvinist Social Democrats under Noske, Scheidemann and Ebert gained control of the workers, soldiers and sailors councils, neutered them and, in league with the USPD, subordinated these potential organs of revolution to a new bourgeois government, crowned with a democratic National Assembly, the German analogue of the Constituent Assembly. Luxemburg and Liebknecht (soon followed by Luxemburg’s Polish comrade, Leo Jogiches) were murdered and the revolution was drowned in blood. Thus was the perspective of Mensheviks such as Theodore Dan in Petrograd in 1917 played out in Berlin in 1918-19. Trotsky observed:

“If Menshevism in general was nourished upon the flesh, blood, tradition, and spirit of the German social democracy of the period of decline, Dan actually seemed to be a member of the German party administration—an Ebert on a smaller scale. Ebert, the German Dan, successfully carried out in Germany a year later that policy which Dan, the Russian Ebert, had failed to carry out in Russia. The cause of the difference however was not in the men, but in the conditions.”

— Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution

For Rabinowitch, the defeat of the German Revolution provides a coda for his morality tale on “Bolshevik extremism.” Waltzing over piles of corpses of revolutionary German workers, he concludes:

“For a short while, a kind of dual power existed in Germany, with workers’ and soldiers’ soviets operating alongside a new provisional government. But the vast majority of these soviets were controlled by the moderates. Committed to a Western-type parliamentary democracy, they consolidated their power and restored relative calm.... Aversion to Bolshevik extremism was a significant factor in shaping the moderate outcome of the 1918 German revolution.”

This “moderate outcome,” the Weimar Republic, was a crisis-ridden episode that culminated in Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Political Pirates

This brings us back to the purveyors and press agents of The Bolsheviks in Power, David North’s World Socialist Web Site. How can an organization that claims to be Trotskyist peddle a work that is hostile to Lenin and Trotsky and their defense of the fledgling Soviet workers state? In fact, such anti-Soviet politics are completely in keeping with the history of the International Committee (IC) under North and his predecessor, Gerry Healy. When they want to, the Northites are capable of spouting orthodox Trotskyism. But, to borrow Lenin’s term, they are “political bandits,” i.e., political pirates able to show any flag to attack any target. When it suited its own episodic, and often grotesque, opportunist interests, the IC made ready use of the capitalist courts against its opponents in the workers movement, acted as the bought-and-paid-for press agents of various oil-rich Near East regimes and more generally crawled before alien class forces. In 1966, the Healyites instituted legal proceedings against avowed Trotskyist Ernest Tate in London when he tried to publicize a vicious attack on him by Healy’s thugs; in 1981, using Healyite luminary Vanessa Redgrave as a front, they likewise sued British socialist Sean Matgamna after he pointed to the IC’s relations with Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi (see “Healyism Implodes,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86). The one political constant throughout was an abiding hostility to the defense of the gains of the Russian Revolution.

When the imperialists revved up their drive to destroy the Soviet workers state in the late 1970s-80s, the Healy/Northites championed the forces of counterrevolution. They hailed the victory of Khomeini’s viciously anti-Communist “Islamic Revolution” in Iran; cheered the CIA-backed mujahedin cutthroats against the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan; promoted the imperialist-sponsored clerical-nationalists of Solidarność in Poland; and embraced the defense of “national rights” alongside the fascist-infested Sajudis movement in Lithuania and like-minded Baltic “captive nations” reactionaries. Such anti-Communism was a card Healy’s IC, with North as head of its American operation, played in full.

On the eve of the 1984-85 miners strike, the biggest class battle seen in Britain in decades, Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) acted as the fingermen for the British ruling class and its labor lieutenants in the Trades Union Congress (TUC) bureaucracy against the militant miners union. In 1983, the WRP’s newspaper pilloried miners union leader Arthur Scargill for his correct indictment of Solidarność as “anti-socialist.” This “exposé” was timed to coincide with the annual TUC conference—in order to create a huge furor in the union-hating bourgeois press and among the Cold War British TUC and Labour Party tops, who used it to isolate the miners and set them up for betrayal.

Only a few years earlier, the Healyite press (including North’s newspaper, the Bulletin) endorsed the 1978 murder of 21 members of the Iraqi Communist Party—which historically commanded the allegiance of key sectors of the proletariat in that country—by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime (see “Healyites: Kill a Commie for Qaddafi,” Workers Vanguard No. 230, 27 April 1979). For this and other services to a variety of Arab sheiks, colonels and dictators, Healy’s organization—by the IC’s own account—was rewarded with over £1 million from the rulers of Iraq, Libya, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, among others (see, for example, “Northite Blood Money,” Workers Vanguard No. 523, 29 March 1991). Now, North tries to pass these crimes off as all the work of “founder-leader” Gerry Healy. Far from it.

Not one of the leaders of the IC objected to the vicious betrayals carried out to get the money that came pouring in from Near Eastern bourgeois regimes. On the contrary, Healy was deposed by his former loyal lieutenants, North among them, only after the money stopped coming in. When Healy’s organization imploded in 1985, North anointed himself as the new king of the remnants of this garbage heap. North used the occasion of the demise of the USSR—to which end the IC made its own contribution—to write off the trade unions everywhere as tools of the bourgeoisie (“The End of the USSR,” Bulletin, 10 January 1992). Any and all struggles for national self-determination (a demand the Northites had so avidly championed when it served the cause of anti-Sovietism) were soon also renounced by North as hopelessly reactionary.

The same David North who now accuses anti-Communist Robert Service’s Trotsky: A Biography of character assassination cut his teeth in character assassination. North climbed to the top of the American Healyite organization over the political corpse of his predecessor, Tim Wohlforth, in the 1970s through his co-authorship of “Security and the Fourth International,” a psychotic smear job impugning the revolutionary integrity of some of Trotsky’s closest collaborators in the late 1930s, including baseless allegations that leaders of the then-Trotskyist U.S. Socialist Workers Party were simultaneously agents of the FBI and the Stalinist secret police. To this day, North’s World Socialist Web Site proudly promotes “Security and the Fourth International.”

Some years ago, North unfurled his latest flag: as a glib pseudo-academic defender of Leon Trotsky against anti-Communist historians such as Service, Geoffrey Swain and Ian Thatcher. How does North square this with his adulation for Rabinowitch’s anti-Bolshevik tract? Through the timeworn method famously enunciated by Joseph Stalin: that paper (or cyberspace) will take anything that is written on it. In their 2007 review of The Bolsheviks in Power, North and Choate simply airbrush out many of the most overt anti-Leninist blemishes. Rabinowitch, notwithstanding his liberal-democratic prejudices, is an able and serious historian. The Northites are simply political shysters. Only such types could, after reading the book, laud Rabinowitch for striving for “consistent objectivity” and for rejecting the “‘pro-democracy,’ rejectionist trend which viewed the Soviet Union as a human experiment run amok.”

It takes a lot of whitewash to pull off a job like this. The Northite review offers not a hint of Rabinowitch’s attitude—nor of their own, for that matter—toward the Constituent Assembly and its dissolution. (Rather, we are told, he “sharply contradicts most conventional anti-Bolshevik accounts.”) Nor is there a word of Rabinowitch’s sympathy for the opponents of the Brest treaty, or of his liberal moralizing over the Red Terror. And the few criticisms North and Choate do make of Rabinowitch are in a collegial, above-the-fray tone. (The Northites’ introductory blurb in the German edition does not even include most of these.)

Regarding an all-party coalition government they write: “One senses that the historian’s sympathies are with the moderates, but it is difficult to see, based on the material presented by Professor Rabinowitch, how their efforts to effect a political compromise with the Mensheviks could have succeeded without annulling the overturn of the Provisional Government.” It is indeed difficult. One senses that the Northites are a tad queasy about what they term Lenin and Trotsky’s “increasingly intransigent” line, blaming it on “the intractable role of the Bolsheviks’ opponents.” In short, the problem is that the Mensheviks and SRs did not bargain in good faith!

North and Choate take Rabinowitch to task for his virulent denunciation of Lenin’s 22 May 1918 letter, published under the title “On the Famine.” Lenin characterized the Left SRs as spineless and urged the workers of “Piter” (Petrograd) to take a vanguard role in the food procurement detachments. Rabinowitch fumes that the letter—“baiting workers to join in a holy procession to the countryside”—is “brash,” “alarmist” and “reckless.” After offering the consoling thought that “Lenin was frank and honest in his policies,” North and Choate throw the question to arbitration: “Let the reader decide if Lenin is ‘baiting workers’ or if his letter is ‘alarmist and reckless’.” They immediately assure the reader that this is no big deal in any case, as Lenin himself later acknowledged that “terrible errors had been made.” Yes, he did, but Rabinowitch condemns the whole of the Bolsheviks’ policy toward the peasantry and the Left SRs as a terrible error!

The one section in Rabinowitch’s book over which North and Choate express serious dismay is the Shchastny case: “to accuse Trotsky of participating in ‘possibly the first Soviet “show trial”’ is simply not worthy of a historian of Rabinowitch’s caliber.... We hope that Rabinowitch will reconsider.” This is simply sound business advice. It does no good if Rabinowitch is seen as merely a “conventional” anti-Bolshevik, and it taints North’s efforts to carve out a career as the defender of Leon Trotsky in academic circles. The reviewers ask: “Shouldn’t the author be somewhat more circumspect in his condemnation of Trotsky?” More circumspect, yes—like North is with Rabinowitch. And more understanding—it wasn’t Trotsky’s fault if he was a brutal thug: “The harshness [Rabinowitch] perceives in Trotsky’s behavior (especially vis-à-vis Shchastny) overlooks the brutalization that had overtaken not only Russian society, but Western European as well during the First World War.”

North: In Defense of Social-Democratic Anti-Communism

Such liberal pablum is very much the theme of North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky (Oak Park, Michigan: Mehring Books, 2010). The “Trotsky” North defends against anti-communist historians would be welcome at any liberal/social-democratic soiree: a great writer, a brilliant wit and raconteur and, moreover, a caring husband, father and son—not to mention a diehard opponent and ultimate victim of Stalinist totalitarianism. Barely a hint here of the Trotsky who ruthlessly forged the Red Army that vanquished a host of imperialist and indigenous counterrevolutionary armies, who tore shreds polemically from vacillators, conciliators and enemies of the revolution, who went to his death upholding the unconditional military defense of the first workers state. North leaves no doubt about whom he is appealing to: “Harvard University Press has brought shame upon itself” by publishing Service’s Trotsky: A Biography. Harvard, a brain trust for U.S. imperialism and its depredations, brought low by publishing a hatchet job on Trotsky!

Not surprisingly, the question of unconditional military defense of the USSR appears not once in North’s book. Having worked for years to destroy the Soviet Union, North’s only lament is that its destruction did not put an end to anti-Trotsky slanders. North cannot, of course, explicitly disown the October Revolution. Rather he demeans Lenin, the founder and embodiment of Bolshevism.

To take but one example, North venomously contrasts the cosmopolitan Trotsky to the Great Russian Lenin: “All of Lenin is contained in the Russian Revolution. But for Trotsky, it was an episode in his life—a very great episode to be sure, but only an episode in the greater drama of world socialist revolution” (op. cit.). Who would know from this that Lenin, uniquely among revolutionary social democrats, fought from the start of World War I for the formation of a new, Third International and a complete and definitive break with the social-chauvinists of the Second International—a conclusion Trotsky resisted well into the war. Without this struggle there would have been no October.

The insinuations North throws out to paint the principal Bolshevik leader as a Russian parochialist are nothing short of slanderous. In a December 1914 article, “On the National Pride of the Great Russians,” Lenin contrasts the revolutionary traditions of the Russian masses to the atrocities and infamies of the tsarist autocracy in order to argue against “defense of the fatherland” and for the national rights of the peoples oppressed by Russia. North quotes an isolated paragraph from this article and comments: “It would be unjust to read this article as a political concession by Lenin to Great Russian chauvinism.” “Unjust” indeed! North continues:

“What Lenin had probably [!] intended to be a tribute to the revolutionary traditions of the Great Russian working class might well [!!] have been interpreted by the more backward sections of party workers as an elevation of the revolutionary capacities of Great Russians. Trotsky was justifiably critical of Lenin’s formulation.”


In effect, North implies that Trotsky condemned Lenin’s alleged pandering to Great Russian chauvinism. North is here retailing a Stalinist lie refuted by Trotsky more than 80 years ago. In his attack on “socialism in one country” in The Third International After Lenin (1928), Trotsky quoted a passage from a 1915 article in which he polemicized against the social-chauvinists who “approach the prospects of a social revolution within national boundaries.” North reproduces this passage (with convenient omissions and ellipses) to make his case against Lenin, simply burying the fact that Trotsky followed his quote with the statement: “Proceeding from a false interpretation of the polemics of 1915, Stalin has many times endeavoured to show that under ‘national narrowness’ I was here alluding to Lenin. No greater absurdity could be imagined.” Much the same could be said of David North’s “defense” of Leon Trotsky.

David North & Co. rubbish Lenin, iconize Trotsky and pray at the altar of social democracy. North’s pretensions to academic accuracy are no less shallow than his pretensions to Trotskyism. Alexander Rabinowitch, on the other hand, can lay claim to some degree of consistency. In a 1978 review of left social democrat Irving Howe’s biography, Leon Trotsky, Rabinowitch stated bluntly:

“Isolated and overtaxed, the dictatorship of the party [under Lenin] degenerated into Stalinist totalitarianism....

“Yet his sustained critique of Stalin notwithstanding, right up to the time of his assassination in Mexico in 1940 Trotsky did not question the validity of his prerevolutionary assumptions regarding the prospects for socialism in Russia.”

Nation, 23 September 1978

That much is at least true. Trotsky never questioned the validity of his theory of permanent revolution nor the world-historic significance of the October Revolution. To the bitter end, he fought to defend the gains of that revolution, to restore to it the internationalist and liberating program of Bolshevism against the nationalist and anti-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy. Anti-Communist calumnies can do nothing to dim the beacon that Bolshevism will once again hold out to the exploited and oppressed of the world. 


English Spartacist No. 63

ESp 63

Winter 2012-2013


Fake-Trotskyist Poseurs Promote Anti-Bolshevik Tract

Bourgeois Liberalism vs. the October Revolution

A Review of The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd, by Alexander Rabinowitch


Marxism and Bourgeois Parliamentarism

Why We Reject the “Constituent Assembly” Demand


Letter by Fyodor Dingelstedt


Recycling the Second International

The Neo-Kautskyites


Larissa Reissner on Trotsky’s Red Army

The Battle of Svyazhsk, a Revolutionary Legend

(Women and Revolution pages)


Fred Zierenberg, 1949–2012