Hal Draper: An Eye-Witness Account of the Russian Revolution

Author: 

Hal Draper

The Russian revolution was the most important event of the 20th century.

It was the most important event in the entire history of the working class. The working class took and held power in territory that covered one sixth of the globe.

That working class power was overthrown in the early-mid 1920s by the Stalinist counter-revolution, which though continuing to call itself "communist" and "working class" put in a brutal and savage state bureaucracy as a new ruling class over the working people.

That Stalinist "dictatorship of the bureaucracy" — brutal, exploiting class power pretending to be socialism — fell in 1991.

The triumphant bourgeoisie took over not only the territory of the USSR and its empire of satellite states in Eastern Europe, but also part of its spiritual and intellectual empire, the central Great Lie of the bureaucratic Stalinist ruling class — the claim that the Stalinist system was a legitimate and necessary continuation of the Russian working class revolution of 1917.

Socialism? That was Stalinism. And therefore socialism is dead and buried in the same historical boneyard as European Stalinism.

No it isn’t!

Uncovering and telling the truth about the great working class revolution of 1917, is one of the irreplaceable jobs which socialists must do now. Not only to do justice to the great women and men who made that revolution and to those of its leaders, in the first place, Lenin and Trotsky, who died defending it against the Stalinist counter-revolution. But also, because it is a major part of rebuilding a viable working class socialist movement in the 21st century.

Those who forget the glories of the working class’ past, or lazily let them be buried under mountains of ruling class misrepresentation, diminish both themselves and the prospects we can hold out to the working class about its future.

The following discussion by the American Marxist scholar Hal Draper is of a book written by a non-Bolshevik member of the government that took power in October 1917, I N Steinberg. Steinberg was a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, of the faction known as the Left S-Rs, who were in coalition with the Bolsheviks for a few months after October 1917, from soon after the establishment of the Soviet Government.

Steinberg’s book, "In the Workshop of the Revolution", was published in 1954 long after he left Russia. Despite the Left S-Rs’ split from the Bolshevik-led Soviet Government, Steinberg tells the truth about the Bolshevik seizure of power and about the early months of Soviet Government.

Even when he subscribes to anti-Bolshevik propaganda about the period after the S-R-Bolshevik coalition broke up, he does it in such a way that the truth, as Hal Draper demonstrates in the following article, is still visible.

Paddy Dollard

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In the "Workshop of the Revolution", Steinberg presents the 1917 upheaval not as a conspiracy but as a real people’s revolution. And he is very inconsiderate of the myths about the "democratic" Kerensky regime which the bad Bolsheviks overthrew, as well as the Menshevik and Right Socialist Revolutionary allies of Kerensky.

Actually Steinberg’s language about the "moderate socialist parties" (Menshevik and Right SRs) is very mild, but the outline of the picture he pains is damning enough. That picture is of an elemental revolutionary upsurge of the masses from blow, determined to throw off all oppression and equally determined to end the war, which the rights and moderates tried to oppose, and which the Bolsheviks (and left SRs) supported. This was the simple difference between the historic reality and the anti-Bolshevik myth of a "conspiracy".

Of the right wing socialists, Steinberg writes that they believed "that the necessary conditions were not yet in evidence to realise the programme of the people. They conceived it impossible to end the war without the co-operation of the Allied powers. They thought it utopian to transfer political power to the working classes since, in their view the capitalist order in Russia was inevitable. Their interpretation of the revolution as only a democratic bourgeois succession to Tsarism, demanded, of course, a corresponding strategy — the strategy of class compromise and political compliance. This strategy put the moderate two parties (Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries) halfway between the bourgeois and the working-class programmes, gave their activities an air of vacillation and, in fact, fortified the position of the bourgeois camp."

Now to be sure, the anti-Bolsheviks argue strenuously that anything beyond a bourgeois revolution was indeed impossible, but what Steinberg point up sharply is that this line meant that the right-wingers had to set themselves against and get ready to suppress the revolutionary dynamism of the people. It is because the anti-Bolsheviks have to get around this inconvenient fact that the myth of a "conspiracy" was born.

By the time of the new Kerensky government of 10 July, Steinberg relates, "Kerensky had lost hold of the ties of confidence which once had bound him to the people." Discreditment rebounded not only against Kerensky but also against the Menshevik and Right SR ministers who joined his cabinet.

"The main speaker for an exponent of this rootless coalition", writes Steinberg "was the Social-Democrat (Menshevik) Tseretelli. As minister of the interior, he dispatched a circular to the whole country designed to redouble the power of the government commissars against the active local soviets. He ordered these commissars to block the ‘illegal distribution of landed properties,’ the ‘appropriation, ploughing and sowing of other people’s lands.’ He thus sustained the policy of his predecessor, Prince Lvov. Every circular of this kind was like a match thrown into the powder keg of the revolution."

Being highly concerned with the democratic forms of the revolution, Steinberg especially emphasises the transformation of the Kerensky regime into a "quasi-dictatorship" — with the consent and support of the very democratic Mensheviks and S-Rs who were later to issue howling blasts of anguish at every step the Soviet government took even to defend itself against armed insurrection.
Steinberg’s general sketch of the whole development, of course, contributes nothing new to historical knowledge, its main interest lying the character of the narrator. There are vignette touches here and there.

o In August, as the State Conference organised by Kerensky we see the scene where Bublikov, a leading industrial capitalist, steps up to shake Tseretelli’s hand before the assemblage, an impressive piece of symbolism while at the same moment a general strike of workers in Moscow was going on.

o While we all know that Kerensky and a few die-hard slanderers still preserve the chestnut about the Bolsheviks being "German agents" we can read in Steinberg that the Kerensky government itself was thus accused. In the manifest of the Kornilov revolt, he reaction declared "The Provisional Government standing as it does under the pressure of the Bolsheviks in the soviets, workers in full agreement with the German General Staff…"

With regard to the seizure of power itself, Steinberg is typically ambivalent "the Left Social-Revolutionaries" he relates "did not think it advisable to precipitate such a rebellion. In tier opinion it would be sufficient for the [Soviet] Congress to maintain the positions of the people and lead the revolution to the Constituent Assembly. But they felt that, if the masses were to revel, they would not stand against them."

No initiative toward revolution — and no opposition to it: you just go along with the surge of the people. The left S-Rs could never have been leaders of the revolution, the role that had to be played by the Bolsheviks and on the other hand thy could never have been enemies of the revolution. They combined the fuzziest of ideologies with real revolutionary sentiments and combination which doomed them to be simple fellow travellers of the revolution.

They had no political compass of their own, but as sincere revolutionists they cold feel which way the revolutionary aspirations of the people where blowing. When the wind stopped blowing in one clear direction, they were lost.

Steinberg does not link up his above-quoted reference to the Left S-R’s coolish opinion on the seizure of power with what he describes later as the great result of the "inadvisable" rebellion. Left S-Rs like Steinberg never could orient themselves in the criss cross of events and policies but they could respond like sensitive barometers to revolutionary élan.

"The October Revolution brought tremendous expectations, there was now a profound sense of relief. It is true that there was also great bitterness about the past, great anxiety for the future; but the deepest sensation which October aroused in the people was joy. In city, village and army, people rejoiced in the fullness of the their liberation, in the limitless freedom that now summoned their creative efforts. It was as if the walls of Jericho had crumbled before their eyes. A new life called to them with a thousand voices: from now on ‘everything is possible to man". Everything is possible’ did not mean license and wilful destruction, but full freedom to satisfy the constructive urges and the noblest ideals of man.

"All aspects of existence social economic, political, spiritual, moral, familial were opened to purposeful fashioning by human hands. Ideas for social betterment and progress that had been gathering for generations in Russia and elsewhere seemed to wait on the threshold of the revolution ready to put forth and permeate the life of the Russian people. The issues were not only social and economic reforms and thoroughgoing political changes; with equal zeal the awakened people turned to the fields of justice and education, to art and literature. Everywhere the driving passion was to create something new, to effect a total difference with ‘the old world’ and its civilisation. It was one of those uncommon moments of self perception and self assertion. The storm passed nobody by: neither those who hailed it as a blessing nor those who spurned it as a curse."

It was this climate of a world reborn which in the first place doomed the Constituent Assembly as a vestigial remnant of the "old world". When the Constituent Assembly was swept away in the tide, it scarcely created even a ripple. It had ceased to have any significance.

What played a greater role at the time was a different question: coalition cabinet or one-party cabinet. And here, in Steinberg’s account, we come to another reason why determined anti-Bolsheviks will not like this book. The reason is this: even when Steinberg is doing his best to be as "anti-Bolshevik" as they come, he just can’t seem to squeeze out any facts to give colour to his strictures. The trouble it would seem, is that he had old-fashioned prejudices against simply inventing suitable "facts" to fit anti-Bolshevik specifications.

Steinberg and the Left S-Rs were enthusiastically in favour of constituting the first Soviet government as a coalition of all the socialist parties, including the Mensheviks and Right S-Rs. But the latter made it impossible, for a simple and straightforward reason: they were against the revolution and would enter its government only to behead it. Steinberg uses some language blaming "extremists" on both sides (Bolsheviks as well as the rightists, presumably) but every fact in his account speaks one way only:
"Protesting violently, the Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries quit the Second Soviet Congress when it proclaimed the Soviet Republic. Thus, the moderates caused the final split in the camp of the working classes and facilitated the establishment eventually of a purely Bolshevik government.

So the Left S-Rs set out to be the honest brokers who would bring the right-wing socialists back into the coalition. After all, these right-wing socialists had lived more or less happily in a coalition government dominated by imperialists and capitalists; why should they be so intransigent about entering a coalition with revolutionary socialists? It disconcerted the honest brokers no end.

On the day the first cabinet was established, the Bolsheviks formally invited the Left S-Rs to name three representatives. At this point the Let S-Rs refused, on the ground that they wanted an all-around coalition. Sot he Bolsheviks had to set up the cabinet themselves.

Negotiations for the inclusion of the rightists continued, but uselessly; for the condition which the Mensheviks and Right S-Rs set for their participation was breathtaking: nothing more than that Lenin and Trotsky (by name) should be kicked out of the government! Fantastic as it seemed, they were not even clever enough to try to undermine the revolution by stealth: they openly demanded just as if they had not been defeated and discredited, that the revolution behead itself in order to obtain, as a reward their own worth personages, now a little shopworn form being kicked around by Kerensky but still willing to "save" the revolution for capitalism and war.

"It was amazing" writes Steinberg. "During the February period, the Mensheviks and the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries had countenanced all possible coalitions with bourgeois parties, even when they were opening reactionary. But the same leaders now rejected indignantly the idea of a socialist coalition, that is, co-operation with the Bolshevik Party, which at that time was still weak and stills ought support in other related elements. Lenin’s face for them seemed to eclipse all of the revolution. And again they unwittingly helped prepare the ground for his future dictatorship."

So Steinberg complains that "Lenin’s secret political purpose" was a "dictatorship" all the while, but whereas Steinberg was clever enough to mind-read Lenin’s secret thoughts, no one else in the country had to be half so clever in order to see that it was in fact the right wing socialists who were torpedoing any unity.

The Left S-Rs finally joined the coalition themselves, and their course afterwards is another story.

Steinberg’s account of the Constituent Assembly adds nothing new to the question. What he choose to emphasise, however, is that it was the right wing socialists (again) who excluded any possible compromise.

When the Constituent Assembly met, Chernov (Right S-R leader) was elected president and

"Of all possible attitudes toward the Soviets, Chernov (and the Right Socialist Revolutionary Party that stood behind him) chose the most dangerous, if not the most foolish tactic: he simply ignored the Soviets as if they did not exist at all. His major speech, which naturally encompassed all cardinal issues of the revolution, was delivered with the incredible pretence that the Constituent Assembly had convened in a social vacuum. He announced that negotiations for peace would be started with the Allied powers, that the socialisation of land would be carried through; that the federative rights of all nationalities would be proclaimed. Not with a single word did he mention that all these vital tasks were already being realised in the country and followed with intense interest in the whole world.

"What did all this mean? By implication it was a challenge to the Soviets and the masses that stood by them. For the Constituent Assembly, the only chance of survival lay in some compromise with the revolutionary forces that had already struck roots. It would have been easy to find some legal, constitutional and political form for such understand. But this one way of averting civil war within the camp of the working people was ignored by the majority [of the assembly]. Did it then hope that the Soviets would simply capitulate?"

Like all the others in the mainstream of the revolution the Left SRs now looked on the Constituent Assembly as an obsolete reminder of pre-October Russia.

In chapter 13 of Steinberg’s book we find him in jail! What has happened? For a whole chapter our honest author goes through description of some local prison colour, ponderings about the French Revolution, tales about prisoners etc… and not a word about why he and a whole group of Left S-R’s have been imprisoned. He barely manages to mention casually even that the Left S-Rs had left the government: why? Not a word.

At one point, he pictures himself as wondering "What this the final break-up of the once common front?" The reader naturally must suppose that this break up has taken place because of the Bolsheviks’ action in jailing their ex-partners.

It is well-nigh incredible but Steinberg drags the reader through three more whole chapters before he even discusses his own version of what had happened to the coalition.
The reason for this peculiar structure is no mystery or personal idiosyncrasy.

Steinberg is deliberately engaged in recreating the impression — without deliberately lying at all — that he and his Left S-R party broke with the Bolsheviks over questions of democracy and terrorism, that is, over questions which today are "respectable" ones for anti-Bolsheviks.

And of course, the indisputable historic fact is that his party broke with the Bolsheviks over an entirely different issue… because of their intransigent and violent opposition to the Brest-Litovsk peace with Germany and for no other reason.

The Tsarist arm had disintegrated, the whole land in revolution was in turmoil, the German army was threatening on the borders, whole regiments were deserting the lines, the front could not be held; better yield to the German’ robber demands for a peace than have the revolution crushed: a revolutionary war against the German invasion could not be sustained; there was no choice… So Lenin argued, not only against the Steinbergian phrasemongers but also against a strong minority of the Bolsheviks themselves, a minority which publicly campaigned for its position outside of the party and against its majority.

The Left S-Rs advocated war, not peace; but this position was defeated at the Congress of Soviets which met to ratify the Brest Treaty. Thereupon, right there, Steinberg announced for the left S-Rs that they were withdrawing from the government — "to the consternation of all present" he adds.

One searches the six meagre pages which he devotes to the whole issue… for Steinberg’s statement of reasons in favour of his position of continuing the war rather than accepting the forced peace. This is what one finds.

Continuing the war by partisan warfare "might encourage the German people to resistance against their own masters. But ‘peace’ would automatically strengthen the German imperialist forces both at home and abroad."

Now, as a matter of record it was the Brest peace which did play an important part in stimulating revolutionary discontent in Germany; but the 1917 general strike wave in Germany and Austria proved that the revolution there was not yet ripe; and it was not at all necessary for the Left S-Rs to agitate Lenin about the quintessential need for the German revolution to come to the aid of the Soviets; and… But all this is really beside the point.

Steinberg and the Left S-Rs did not adopt their position out of overweaning anxiety for the German revolution. It is transparent rationalisation. If not, the Left S-R position would have been merely tactical opposition to the Brest treaty, as indeed was the case with the dissident Bolsheviks. On the contrary, as Steinberg makes clear, for the Left S-Rs the surrender of Russian territory to the German robbers was a principle "capitulation" of the revolution.

Steinberg quotes himself from an 1918 article: If we sign, "no trace will remain of the meaning and content of the [Soviet] republic." At the end of this chapter we also find that the Brest treaty "broke the moral backbone of the coalition."

Why? Why were the Left S-Rs so frenetically and principledly outraged by this peace signed at the point of Germany’s guns? Was it perhaps, the infusion of sheer national-chauvinism in their fuzzy ideology which prevented them from accepting the loss of Russian territory, even in order to save the revolution? Yes.

Well, then… had the Bolsheviks thrown the [Steinberg] in jail just because he and his Left S-Rs had left the government? Of course, no…

The Left S-R party decided to make up for their defeat in the Soviet Changer by embroiling Russia in war with Germany by their own organised provocation.

On 6 July, two Left S-R agents assassinated the German ambassador, count von Mirbach. Steinberg does not boggle over the question of the party Central Committee’s responsibility for this move. The party’s leaders, Spiridonova, proudly claimed full responsibility for the act, in the traditions of S-R individual terrorism. The last thing the party wanted was to have the assassination treated as merely involving two individual murderers. It was the party that had ordered Mirbach’s assassination in order to provoke Germany into renewing its assault on Russia.

Steinberg writes that "In actuality the Left S-Rs *at that time* had had no intentions of staging a revolt." [Italics added]. That is at that time they were "merely" trying to get a war started against the country so as to bring about the "revolutionary war" which the majority of the country had rejected (Democrats they are you see.)

Perhaps some readers will not believe that a man can be so naïve as to tell this story on himself and still continue to write as if his party was engaged in nothing out of the ordinary from the point of view of its democratic rights. But the fact is that Steinberg actually writes the following fantastic and almost unbelievable words:

"but Lenin and Trotsky could not forgive another party for acting independently and thus challenging their dictatorship."

He actually writes this after himself recounting his party’s war plot! *The Left S-Rs were just "acting independently" of the government, is that a crime? Doesn’t a party have the democratic right to assassinate an ambassador in order to get a war started against its own country! You call this a revolt? And so what if our "revolutionary war" program has been voted down by the Soviet Congress? So what if I, Steinberg, nowhere in my own book even claim that a majority of the country was really for it? Is it not another proof of Lenin’s "dictatorship" that he could not "forgive" this little innocent plan to start a war? Are we not great democrats and he a dictator?

Like a character straight out of Wonderland, Steinberg continues to write about the Left S-Rs’ "deep shock" when the Bolshevik government reacted sharply.

But this was July 1918. it was not until seven months later that Steinberg found himself wondering about things in prison. What had happened in this interval?

Specifically we have already seen that Steinberg had written that "the left S-Rs at that time [July 1918] had had no intentions of staging a revolt" How did their intentions develop?

This brings us to the question of the Left S-Rs going over to the programme of armed struggle against the Soviet government.

This party, which had broken with the Bolsheviks over the issue of war rather than peace, which proclaimed that it regarded this issue as involving the whole content of the revolution, which was so frantically anxious to blow up the Brest peace that it reverted to its terrorist-assassination methods in order to embroil the country in a war on the vote of its own narrow Central committee as against the vote of the Soviet Congress — was it true or wasn’t it true that this party then moved to a programme of armed insurrection against the government.

Steinberg not only states but documents the party position.

Steinberg first summarise the thinking of the party on attitude to the government.
"Almost unwittingly, a policy of ‘war on two fronts’ evolved," he writes — one war against the White interventionists and simultaneous war against the Soviet government. "They might have said We shall fight the bourgeois counter-revolution as if the Bolshevik state id not exist, and we shall fight bolshevism as if social reaction did not stand poised to stab us in the back."

But — Steinberg continues in summary of his comrades’ thinking — could such a two-front war succeed? Perhaps we should table our quarrel with Bolshevik policy in order to defend the revolution’s future?

"Should the Left S-Rs then inform the regime of their decision, so that they might be released and take part in the battle? The conclusion seemed logical, but—
"it did not satisfy the moral conscience of the prisoners."

(Note that Steinberg implicitly demonstrates that he has no doubt that the Left S-Rs would have been freed from jail if they had been willing to adopt this position, against armed insurrection.)

How did the party divide on the question? It was debated among the Left S-R prisoners and "argued in the secret correspondence with the illegal Central Committee of the Left S-Rs outside."

One faction (the "moderates") declared "We… reject for the time being any armed struggle against the Bolshevik government because it might play into the hands of forces hostile to the revolution." (Italics added.) The other faction ("intransigents") argued for the two-front war: "you cannot destroy one without the other." They were for armed struggle now and against calling for a "fight against the Denikins under Bolshevik leadership."

Who won? All Steinberg reports is that the "moderates" were "restrained" and their will "paralysed" by their fear that they might be regarded by the others as selling out to the Bolsheviks. Is it fair to conclude then that the "intransigents" dominated the party councils? At this point Steinberg simply ignores the obvious question. And of course it should be remembered the "moderates" where those who did not favour immediate organisation of armed struggle.

In any case, Steinberg next presents the text of a document hitherto unknown to me, which is decisive by itself.

It proves to the hilt without any possibility of doubt whatsoever that the Bolshevik government asked only, as the condition for releasing the Left S-Rs that they state publicly that they were against "armed action" to overthrow the government. This the S-Rs refused to do. Hence there is no possibility of dispute over why they were in prison.
All this emerges from the text of the document itself. Steinberg does not point it up one way or the other. One can even wonder whether he realised the meaning of the document which he quotes!

In August 1919 the Left S-R Central Committee with the agreement of "all party circles" decided on negotiations with the Bolsheviks for an agreement which would legalise their party and free their prisoners. Kamenev, Beloborodoff and Stassova represented the Bolsheviks, the Left S-R delegation of three included Steinberg. There are six pages of direct quotations from the discussion as selected by Steinberg himself.

The Left S-Rs proposed to "transfer the centre of our political operations to the provinces occupied by the Whites." In exchange for this they demanded: legality in these provinces after liberation and immediate release of all jailed party members.

Immediately what Kamenev wanted to know was: "Will you give up your tactics of armed struggle against us!"

Of course, the Bolsheviks also kept pointing out that it was impossible and absurd to have a situation where a party was illegal in (say) Moscow because of its programme of armed insurrection while it was legal in a recently liberated province, insecurely held, with the same programme.

The Bolsheviks kept hammering away at the main point.

In his very first speech Kamenev said "Can we ever come to an agreement with you, as clear and decisive as our split has been? Back in October (1917) we had differences of opinion too, yet we were able to work together." And in this framework he posed the decisive question of "armed action".

Turning and twisting the Left S-Rs refused to say yes or no. One of them evaded by merely saying that "You have no proofs whatsoever of our participation in any plots." But the Bolsheviks were not asking for proof one way or the other. They were merely asking for a public statement of party policy against armed action.

The second S-R evaded with the following phrase: "And anyway we have been refraining from armed action against you for some time" — apparently not even realising what he was admitting with this formulation.

Steinberg didn’t even refer to Kamenev’s insistent question (according to the text of the first conference as given in his book).

The send and last negotiation conference took place in September. Here the Bolsheviks were even more insistent in narrowing the issue down to insurrection.

It is not enough for you S-Rs the Bolsheviks explained quite patiently to say that you reject armed insurrection because at the present time you don’t actually have the means for it. That only convinces us that as soon as you can gather your forces, locally or nationally, you will act as before. What we are asking for is a statement of party policy against it…

Steinberg replied: "Our party has not, so far, officially proclaimed any armed struggle against the Bolsheviks. You will not be able to find a single such decision in our party conferences. That is why we do not need a paragraph about it."

Of course the party had not yet proclaimed any armed struggle. That was in question at no point. As to a statement of party policy not a word could be elicited from the Left S-R delegation other than what we have quoted above.

And that settles that.