Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 7, 2017

Lars Lih versus Nikolai Sukhanov: who is more credible on “old Bolshevism”?

Filed under: Lenin,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Nikolai Sukhanov

It is difficult to tell whether Lars Lih had any ulterior motives in trying to establish Kamenev and Stalin as superior theoretically to Trotsky on the dynamics of the October 1917 revolution since he has so little to say beyond the boundaries of a relatively narrow chronological framework. He puts 1917 under a microscope in order to establish that “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was never rejected by Lenin no matter what he said in the April Theses and that Kamenev/Stalin’s differences with Lenin were minor in comparison to those that existed between Lenin and Trotsky.

Does Lih have any interest in writing about how “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was applied to the Chinese revolution? If Stalin had such a keen understanding of Marxism and the superiority of this strategic goal to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, how did China end up so disastrously for Chinese workers in 1927 following Stalin’s instructions a decade after his superiority was demonstrated? Inquiring minds are dying to know.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to go into such questions. Instead I will stay within the same narrow framework as him but hope to shed light on the role of Kamenev in “old Bolshevism” by referring to someone totally outside of the Trotskyist orthodoxy that Lih considers so unreliable. I have already referred to Alexander Rabinowitch, a historian with no links to Trotskyism, who wrote in “Prelude to Revolution”:

But all this changed in the middle of March with the return from Siberia of Kamenev, Stalin, and M. K. Muranov and their subsequent seizure of control of Pravda. Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

Well, who knows? Maybe Rabinowitch was briefly a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and took classes with George Novack. I don’t remember running into him at Oberlin. That certainly would rule him out as a reliable source. Did he fabricate the Stalin quote about the slogan “Down with the War” being useless? If he did, I must denounce him as a rascal.

Now you certainly can’t ever suspect Nikolai Sukhanov of being a Trotskyist. Between 1919 and 1921 Sukhanov wrote a seven-volume memoir of the Russian Revolution that obviously would have not been a transmission belt of Trotskyist ideology, especially since he was a leading member of the Mensheviks. Based on what I have seen in the 686 page abridged version of this tome published by Princeton University Press in 1984, I wish that someone would translate the entire work into English one of these days since it is an important scholarly resource and a very lively read. What follows are excerpts from “The Russian Revolution of 1917” with my introduction to each one that have a bearing on the dubious effort to elevate Kamenev and “old Bolshevik” orthodoxy. (Stalin is mostly ignored in Sukhanov’s book.)


[page 191. Molotov, who later became famous for his cocktail, speaks to a Congress of Soviet meeting in favor of power passing from the Provisional Government to the “hands of the democracy”, which probably meant the Soviets. Sukhanov points out that he was speaking only for himself.]

Throughout the course of the revolution, down to October the problem of the relations between the official Government and the Soviets kept obtruding itself. This problem, however, was always conceived of and treated as a political problem, which the question at issue was political relations. But in this case the question was concerned with the organizational and technical interrelationships (and extremely complicated ones at that.)

It is natural that in the midst of a still fiercely raging struggle for the new order, not all those present at the meeting [on March 1] grasp and clarify all this. And the debate was diffuse, incoherent and confused. A whole series of speakers started talking precisely about political relations, about ‘support’ for the provisional Government, ‘reciprocity’, ‘insofar as … ‘ a negative attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and so on. Consequently talk took us back to the Ex. Comm. session of March 1st, in which conditions and a programme for the future Cabinet were elaborated.

I remember especially well a speech by the Bolshevik Molotov. This official party representative only now collected his thoughts and for the first time began talking about the necessity of all political power to pass into the hands of the democracy. He didn’t suggest anything concrete, but he advanced precisely this principle—instead of ‘control’ over the bourgeois Government and ‘pressure’ on it.

But it turned out that not only was Molotov speaking as an irresponsible critic, who could find fault because he was doing nothing and not suggesting anything concrete; it seemed, besides, the opinion he expressed was not at all that of his party or at least of those of its leaders who were available. On the following day we learned from the papers that on March 3rd the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks had declared that ‘it would not oppose the authority of the Provisional Government insofar as its activities corresponded to the interests of the proletariat and the broad democratic masses of the people’, and announced ‘its decision to carry on the most implacable struggle against any attempts of the Provisional government to restore the monarchist regime in any form whatsoever’.


[pp. 289-292. Lenin’s April Theses were “lunatic ideas” according to the “old Bolsheviks”. Sukhanov’s words reek of hostility to the working class but attest to the clash with party leaders like Kamenev who would fall into the position of “outlaws” and “internal traitors.”]

About a week after his arrival the famous First Theses of Lenin were printed in Pravda, in the form of an article. They contained a résumé of the new doctrine expounded in his speeches; they lacked the same thing as his speeches: an economic programme and a Marxist analysis of the objective conditions of our revolution. The Theses were published in Lenin’s name alone: not one Bolshevik organization, or group, or even individual had joined him. And the editors of Pravda for their part thought it necessary to emphasize Lenin’s isolation and their independence of him. ‘As for Lenin’s general schema,’ wrote Pravda, ‘it seems us unacceptable, in so far as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is finished and counts the immediate conversion of that revolution into a Socialist revolution.’

It appeared that the Marxist foundations of the Bolshevik Party were firm, that the Bolshevik party mass had taken up arms to defend against Lenin the elementary foundations of scientific Socialism, Bolshevism itself, and the old traditional Lenin.

Alas! Many people, including myself, were vainly deluded: Lenin compelled his Bolsheviks to accept his ‘lunatic ideas’ in their entirety. How and why did this happen? I have no intention of investigating this interesting question au fond, nevertheless I don’t think it superfluous here to note a few undoubted factors in the capitulation of the old Social-Democratic Bolshevism to Lenin’s reckless anarcho-seditious system.

That is how matters stood in the Bolshevik general staff. As for the mass of party officers, they were far from distinguished. Amongst the Bolshevik officers there were many first-rate technicians in party and professional work, and not a few ‘romantics’, but extremely few political thinkers and conscious Socialists.

In consequence every form of radicalism and external Leftism had an invincible attraction for the Bolshevik mass, while the natural ‘line’ of work consisted of demagogy. This was very often all the political wisdom of the Bolshevik committee-men boiled down to.

Thus the ‘party public’ of course quite lacked the strength or internal resources to oppose anything whatever to Lenin’s onslaught.

Lenin’s radicalism, his heedless ‘Leftism’, and primitive demagogy, unrestrained either by science or common sense, later secured his success among the broadest proletarian-muzhik masses who had had no other teaching than that of the Tsarist whip. But the same characteristics of this Leninist propaganda also seduced the more backward, less literate elements of the party itself. Very soon after Lenin’s arrival they were faced by an alternative: either keep the old principles of Social-Democracy and Marxist science, but without Lenin, without the masses, and without the party; or stay with Lenin and the party and conquer the masses together in an easy way, having thrown overboard the obscure, unfamiliar Marxist principles. It’s understandable that the mass of party Bolsheviks, though after some vacillation, decided on the latter.

But the attitude of this mass could not help but have a decisive influence on the fully-conscious Bolshevik elements too, on the Bolshevik generals, for after Lenin’s conquest of the officers of the party, people like Kamenev, for instance, were completely isolated; they had fallen into the position of outlaws and internal traitors. And the implacable Thunderer soon subjected them, together with other infidels, to such abuse that not all of them could endure it. It goes without saying that the generals, even those who had read Marx and Engels, were incapable of sustaining such an ordeal. And Lenin won victory after another.


[pp. 225-227. For obvious reasons, Lars Lih devotes very few words to the question of Kamenev’s views on Russia continuing the war. As indicated by the Rabinowitch citation above, this was the source of the real tension with the “old Bolsheviks” and not over whether the democratic dictatorship had been consummated or not. Kamenev is basically recruiting this Menshevik leader to write for Pravda and not to worry about whether his views on the war clashed with Lenin’s. Unless Lih comes to terms with these issues, his historiography will have a huge hole stuck in its middle.]

As a political figure Kamenev was undoubtedly an exceptional, though not an independent, force. Lacking either sharp corners, great intellectual striking power, or original language, he was not fitted to be a leader; by himself he had nowhere to lead the masses. Left alone he would not fail to be assimilated by someone. It was always necessary to take him in tow, and if he sometimes balked it was never very violently. But as one member of a leading group Kamenev, with his political schooling and supreme oratorical gifts, was extremely distinguished and amongst the Bolsheviks he was in many respects irreplaceable.

Personally he was gentle and good-hearted. All this taken together added up to his role in the Bolshevik Party. He always stood on its Right, conciliationist, passive wing. And sometimes he would balk, defending evolutionary methods or a moderate political course. At the beginning of the revolution he jibbed against Lenin, jibbed at the October Revolution jibbed at the general havoc and terror after the revolt, jibbed on supply questions in the second year of the Bolshevik regime. But—he always surrendered on all points. Not having much faith in himself, he recently (in the autumn of 1918) said to me, in order to justify himself in his own eyes: ‘As for myself I am more and more convinced that Lenin never makes a mistake. In the last analysis he is always right. How often has it seemed that he was slipping up—either in his prognosis or in his political line! But in the last analysis his prognosis and his line were always justified.’

Here is what Kamenev wanted to talk to me about then:

‘About the article in Pravda: our people have told you must first declare yourself a Bolshevik. That’s all nonsense no attention to it; please write the article. Here is the point. D’you read Pravda? You know, it has a completely unseemly and unsuitable tone. It has a terrible reputation. When I got here I was in despair. What could be done? I even thought of shutting down this Pravda altogether and getting out a new central organ under a different name. But that’s impossible. In our party too much is bound up with the name Pravda. It must stay. It’ll be necessary to shift the paper into a new course. So now I’m to attract contributors or get hold of a few articles by writers with some reputation. Go ahead and write…’

All this was curious. I began asking Kamenev what was being done in general and in which direction a ‘line’ was being defined in his party circles. What was Lenin thinking and writing? We strolled about the Catherine Hall for a long with Kamenev trying at some length to persuade me that his party was taking up or ready to take up a most ‘reasonable’ (from my point of view) position. This position, as he put it, wall close to that taken by the Soviet Zimmerwald centre [ie., Kautskyism], if not identical with it. Lenin? Lenin thought that up to now the revolution was being accomplished quite properly and that a bourgeois Government was now historically indispensable.

`Does that mean you are not going to overthrow the bourgeois Government yet and don’t insist on an immediate democratic regime?’ I tried to get this out of Kamenev, who was showing me what I thought important perspectives.

‘We here don’t insist on that, nor does Lenin over there. He writes that our immediate task now is—to organize and mobilize our forces.’

‘But what do you think about current foreign policy? What about an immediate peace?’

‘You know that for us the question cannot be put that way. Bolshevism has always maintained that the World War can ended by a world proletarian revolution. And as long as not taken place, as long as Russia continues the war, we are against any disorganization and for maintaining the front.’


[p. 257. This repeats the points made above, namely that Kamenev veered toward the Menshevik position on continuing the war.]

The sections of the [Congress of Soviet] Conference began to work on the morning of the 30th. 1 was forced into the agrarian section, which was full of nothing but soldiers. I left without entering into the useless wrangling.

Kamenev showed me a Bolshevik resolution on the war, which was of course doomed to defeat. It appeared to me that the Zimmerwaldites ought to vote for this resolution, and to do it to make clear the relative voting strength of the two sides. But there was a suspicious point in the resolution, to the effect that the imperialist war could be ended only with transfer of political power to the working class. Did this mean that the struggle for peace was not necessary at that moment? Or did it mean that it was necessary, but that therefore political power had to be taken into one’s own hands at once? Kamenev assured me that it meant neither the one nor the other. But he responded extremely evasively to the suggestion that this point be altered, and tried to eliminate the misunderstanding by remarks alone. Meanwhile everyone who had read this resolution maintained that the Bolsheviks were demanding political power for the working class.

Where did the truth lie? Kamenev, in giving a ‘benevolent’ interpretation of the resolution, was doubtless trying dutifully to retain in it the official Bolshevik idea: that the conclusion of the imperialist war was only possible by way of a Socialist revolution. But I also had no doubt that Kamenev didn’t sympathize with this official Bolshevik idea considered it unrealistic, and was trying to follow a line of struggle for peace in the concrete circumstances of the moment. All the actions of the then leader of the Bolshevik party had just this kind of `possibilist’, sometimes too moderate, character. His position was ambiguous, and not easy. He had his own views, and was working on Russian revolutionary soil. But—he was casting a ‘sideways’ look abroad, where they had their own views, which were not quite the same as his.

1 Comment »

  1. Lih is at it again: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/russian-revolution-power-soviets-bolsheviks-lenin-provisional-government

    Thank you for the selections from Sukhanov!

    Comment by David Stevens — May 12, 2017 @ 11:34 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: