Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2017

Did the Kaiser fund the Bolsheviks?

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

The short answer: no, he did not

Last Sunday the NY Times Book Review had something on Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train that I doubt could add anything to Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”, especially since the last paragraph contained this well-worn verdict: “It was Lenin who instituted severe censorship, established one-party rule and resorted to terror against his political enemies.”

But what really caught my eye was something else. Merridale’s book supposedly provided evidence that:

Lenin, moreover, had accepted the kaiser’s money — “German gold” — to help finance Bolshevik propaganda and amplify his strident appeals against the provisional government and anyone, Bolshevik or otherwise, who thought of cooperating with it.

That was in the back of my mind when I spotted her book being reviewed by Sophie Pinkham in the latest Nation Magazine, along with two other books about the Russian Revolution (neither of which was written by China Mieville—no surprise there). It too referred to German gold but from another author under review, Sean McMeekin, who wrote “The Russian Revolution: A New History”. He is utterly dismissive of the Bolsheviks and says that without German gold, they’d be a footnote in history:

Dismissing him as “out-of-touch,” McMeekin argues that Lenin would have had “little impact on the political scene had he not been furnished with German funds to propagandize the Russian army.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he adds, “played no role worth mentioning in the fall of the tsar.”

Now, nobody can deny that the Germans helped Lenin enter Russia obviously intending to weaken the Czarist war drive—thank god. But what about the German gold? Was there any merit to that? I could not see myself bothering to take Merridale or McMeekin’s books out of the Columbia Library, let alone wasting good money on them but I was curious to see what the evidence was. It would seem that everything you needed to know about this could be retrieved from Google books entry on Lenin on the Train:

There can be no doubt that Germany was pouring money into Russia. In just one instance, on 3 April 1917, the German foreign ministry approved a grant of five million marks for propaganda purposes, much of which probably passed to Parvus (who always refused to sign receipts). While Lenin’s cheap seat on the sealed train had been a gamble on the part of a small group in Germany’s civilian government, other departments and agencies had budgets of their own. The military might have been counting on its submarines to throttle and defeat the enemy, but it still ran a lavish propaganda campaign on the eastern front throughout 1917. As the British War Cabinet noted in April, “German agitators and German money would seem to be having much to do with the unrest in Russia.” The idea of a ‘vast spying organisation’ was fanciful, but with large piles of foreign notes in circulation, many of them forged, it was a challenge to work out who was bankrolling whom.

Exactly how that cash flowed east remains a matter for speculation. It is entirely reasonable to suppose that some of Parvus’ German millions reached Lenin’s fighting fund. It is possible that the big man used his research group in Denmark to channel money to the Bolsheviks, a course he could have sorted out with Radek at their secret meeting in April. Some researchers have named the likely handler as a confidential agent called Vladislav Shatsenstein. The other route for moving cash may have been through Stockholm. The most convenient intermediary would have been the firm that Fiirstenberg managed for Parvus and his German friend Georg Sklarz, which ploughed some of its profits back into trading but may have used the rest for political operations in Russia. The file is open, although many of the documents have disappeared. What is beyond doubt is that Lenin accepted 2,000 rubles from Fiirstenberg in April 1917 when he was planning his journey to Russia, and he took 800 more for Zinoviev. He did not balk at that variety of German gold. For those who still refuse to credit that the greatest socialist on earth could ever lie about a wad of German notes, the alternative is to concede that he subsidized himself with profits from the war’s black-market trade in lead Pencils and condoms (with teat end).

Note carefully the words that Merridale uses to make her case: “probably passed”, “German money would seem”, “remains a matter for speculation”, “the likely handler”, “would have been the firm”, “may have used the rest”.

In other words, everything is conjecture except for this: Lenin supposedly accepted 2,800 rubles from a man who worked for Parvus. To give you an idea of how much money that was in 1917, a NY Times article from September 27, 1917 reported that laborers unloading wood from barges in Petrograd were making 43 rubles a day so that the “German gold” amounted to one week’s pay for ten manual laborers. And that supposedly was the factor that allowed the Bolsheviks to take over? You got to be fucking kidding me.

The story of German gold is a very old one. In fact Leon Trotsky devoted the entire chapter 27 to it in The History of the Russian Revolution, most of it focused on the aforementioned Parvus who was born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand to a Jewish family in Belarus in 1867. He also happened to be the Marxist who conceived of permanent revolution before Trotsky and became his tutor.

Parvus was something of a hustler, with some of Donald Trump’s genes apparently. He produced Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths but walked off with the play’s proceeds amounting to 130,000 German gold marks, a lot more than what the Bolsheviks ever got.

His next shady deal was becoming an arms trader in Istanbul, which helped him become wealthy during the Balkans War. While he was in Turkey, he met with and became friends with the German ambassador. Parvus developed the idea that if Germany funded the Bolsheviks, it could help to usher in the socialist revolution. Obviously seeing himself as a middle-man in the operation, he hoped to do well by doing good—at least that must be what he told himself. Wikipedia doubts that these plans ever materialized:

Some accuse Parvus of having funded Lenin while in Switzerland. Historians, however, are skeptical. A biography of Parvus by the authors Scharlau and Zeman have concluded that there was no cooperation between the two. It declared that “Lenin refused the German offer of aid.” Parvus’s bank account shows that he only paid out a total of 25,600 francs in the period between his arrival in Switzerland in May 1915 and the February Revolution of 1917. Parvus did little in Switzerland, historians conclude. Austrian intelligence through Parvus gave money to Russian emigre newspapers in Paris. But when the sources of this funding became clear in the beginning of 1915 and more widely understood—Lenin and the emigres in Paris rejected such support. Harold Shukman has concluded, “Funds were plainly not flowing into Lenin’s hands.”

The paragraph above links to a JSTOR article titled “The Myth of German Money during the First World War” by the late U. of Wisconsin history professor Alfred Erich Senn for the January 1976 Soviet Studies. He would seem to be up to snuff as a scholar with 8 books and 168 JSTOR articles under his belt.

The article dismantles all the “German gold” claims, especially the idea that Lenin had any use for Parvus:

Parvus is probably the best known, and his relationship with Lenin  seems clear. Scharlau and Zeman have produced an interesting  biography, and have concluded that there was indeed no cooperation  between the two. It is clear, they declared, that ‘Lenin refused the German offer of aid’. Myths, however, die hard, and other writers,  while admitting that the evidence shows no agreement between Parvus  and Lenin, nevertheless go on to draw contrary conclusions.

(Drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com if you’d like to read a copy.)

But better yet, you can read Trotsky on this for free, plus he was directly involved in all this:

However, when people seek long, especially if they are armed with power, they find something in the end. A certain Z. Burstein, a merchant by official calling, opened the eyes of the Provisional Government to a “German espionage organization in Stockholm, headed by Parvus,” – a well-known German social democrat of Russian origin. According to the testimony of Burstein, Lenin was in contact with this organization through the Polish revolutionists, Ganetsky and Kozlovsky. Kerensky wrote later: “Some extraordinarily serious data – unfortunately not of a legal, but merely of a secret police character – were to receive absolutely unquestionable confirmation with the arrival in Russia of Ganetsky, who had been arrested on the border, and were to be converted into authentic juridical material against the Bolshevik staff.” Kerensky knew in advance into what this material would be converted!

The testimony of the merchant, Burstein, concerned the trade operations of Ganetsky and Kozlovsky between Petrograd and Stockholm. This wartime commerce, which evidently had recourse at times to a code correspondence, had no relation to politics. The Bolshevik party had no relation to this commerce. Lenin and Trotsky had publicly denounced Parvus, who combined good commerce with bad politics, and in printed words had appealed to the Russian revolutionists to break off all relations with him. But who was there in the whirlpool of events who had time to look into all this? An espionage organization in Stockholm – that sounded plain enough. And so the light unsuccessfully ignited by the hand of ensign Ermolenko, flared up from another direction. To be sure, here too they ran into a difficulty. The head of the Intelligence Service of the general staff, Prince Turkestanov, to the query of an investigator into the especially important affair of Alexandrov, had answered, “Z. Burstein is a person not deserving the slightest confidence. Burstein is an unscrupulous type of business man, who will not stop at any kind of undertaking.” But could Burstein’s bad reputation stand in the way of an attempt to besmirch the reputation of Lenin? No, Kerensky did not hesitate to recognize the testimony of Burstein as “extraordinarily serious.” Henceforth the investigation was off on the Stockholm scent. The exposures of a spy who had been in the service of two general staffs, and an unscrupulous business man, “not deserving the slightest confidence,” lay at the foundation of that utterly fantastic accusation against a revolutionary party which a nation of 160 million were about to raise to the supreme power.

Ironically or maybe not so ironically, the myth of German gold is being floated now a hundred years after the Russian Revolution and for the exact same reason: to discredit movements for revolutionary change.

Merridale is not a serious scholar. She writes for a popular audience that likely would find her smears of Lenin comforting. Maybe she might send Vladimir Putin an autographed copy in light of his statement that Lenin “planted an atomic bomb under the structure called Russia, and it then exploded.”

As far as Nation Magazine reviewer Sophie Pinkham is concerned, she would seem to be far more open to the idea that the Russian Revolution was a good thing, especially since the magazine had a long-time affinity for the USSR even if it was at times tainted by Stalinism. Why would she be so credulous as to take McMeekin’s business about German gold at its word without doing a bit of fact-checking?

As it happens, Pinkham writes for n+1, a fine Marxist journal I agree with 90 percent of the time. She is also the author of Black Square, a book about “adventures in post-Soviet Ukraine” that appears to be rather shallow if you take the NY Times review at its word: “A glibness, too, can crop up. Pinkham dispenses with the natural-gas wars that have dominated Russo-Ukrainian relations in the post-Soviet era in a half-paragraph — and, within it, glosses the Holodomor, the murder of untold millions of Ukrainians during the collectivization of the 1930s.” A half-paragraph? What the fuck?

I imagine that Pinkham, like Merridale, writes to make a living. Black Square is not interested in Ukrainian history but her story as a feminist who worked for George Soros and then went to Ukraine on an adventure. God bless her. I don’t mind her making a living writing travel books or even concluding her article with the claim that October 1917 represented the “dangerous magnetism of power and violence.” What I would urge her to do in the future is to take fifteen minutes to make sure that she wasn’t spreading Kerensky’s lies 100 years after the fact.

Finally, on the question of the Germans putting Lenin on a sealed train for the obvious intention of helping to end Russian participation in WWI. Edmund Wilson wrote that this did not sit well with his comrades:

In the train that left the morning of April 8 there were thirty Russian exiles, including not a single Menshevik. They were accompanied by the Swiss socialist Platten, who made himself responsible for the trip, and the Polish socialist Radek. Some of the best of the comrades had been horrified by the indiscretion of Lenin in resorting to the aid of the Germans and making the trip through an enemy country. They came to the station and besieged the travelers, begging them not to go. Lenin got into the train without replying a word.

Was there a question of principle involved in using the German state in this fashion? Was it much different than accepting German gold? These are the sorts of questions revolutionaries are forced to confront in today’s geopolitical divide. For example, in 2011 Syrians who wanted to defend their friends and neighbors from being killed by Baathist snipers had to choose between the “principled” tactic of only using weapons seized from Baathist armories or from accepting them from “the bad guys” as Donald Trump might have put it. Does using an automatic rifle sent by Saudi Arabia ipso facto make you a tool of American imperialism and its proxies? This is an easy question to answer from people like Mike Whitney or Andre Vltchek, who have as much of an understanding of Marxist politics as I do of particle physics. But what about people like John Rees and Tariq Ali, who were educated in Trotskyist politics that even with its flaws represented classical Marxism?

I always come back to Trotsky’s “Learn to Think”, which is a lucid guide to handling what Mao might have called multiple contradictions:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.


  1. It is the obsessive need for the bourgeois commentariat to defame all aspects of the Russian revolution that points to its continued relevance. Bolshevism is still the fear that haunts the bourgeois imaginary.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — June 18, 2017 @ 12:48 am

  2. disturbing article about modern nazis in Ukraine in Washington Post a couple of days ago https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/06/15/ukraines-ultra-right-militias-are-challenging-the-government-to-a-showdown/?tid=ss_fb-bottom&utm_term=.eddb18983ec3

    Comment by Stanley Heller — June 18, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

  3. When Richard Pipes got access to Lenin’s papers, including a whopping 50% of his total writings that were never, ever published anywhere before, he discovered that Lenin had taken plenty of money from Germany. Not that he was their “agent”, he was doing his own thing and they thought it in their interest to pay him. But Lenin took money from Germany over a long period of time. See Pipes’ book, The Unknown Lenin.

    Comment by Charlie Trew — June 19, 2017 @ 12:23 am

  4. Pipes refers to Lenin correspondence that states that “Berliners” would help fund propaganda in Central and Western Europe, not even in Russia. So from that correspondence, Pipes concludes that Lenin was referring to the Kaiser. What fucked up bullshit but just what you’d expect from a hysterical anti-Communist like Pipes.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 19, 2017 @ 1:46 am

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: