Debate and discussion: Bolshevik, not menshevik!

Submitted by Anon on 20 February, 2005 - 3:52

Although Eric Lee’s discussion article on Menshevism (printed on page 8 of Solidarity 3/66 but due to a human/machine error not attributed to him), raised some important points of which revolutionary socialists should take note, its basic line was factually wrong and politically disorienting.

First, Eric blames the Bolsheviks for the rise of Stalinism, citing repression carried out by the Soviet government soon after October 1917. What he fails to examine is the difference between authoritarian measures — many of which were indisputably excessive, wrong-headed and even in some cases criminally stupid — carried out by a workers’ revolution fighting almost literally the entire world for its survival, and totalitarian violence against the working class wielded by a bureaucracy freed from any relationship to the labour movement. Now, let me repeat this for the sake of clarity: I do not defend everything the Bolsheviks did in their struggle for survival. The banning of pro-soviet opposition parties such as the Menshevik Internationalists of Martov, for instance, was clearly a very serious mistake indeed.

Still less would I defend the Soviet Union of the early 1920s as an ideal blueprint for a workers’ state, as, it is true, the Bolshevik leaders came to do. The problem with Eric’s analysis is that, in locating the origins of Stalinism in the Bolsheviks’ desperate struggle to save the revolution, he passes over and blurs changes in the 1920s which in fact represented a qualitative break. To take one example from his article, it is simply not true that “the Gulag was launched under Lenin and Trotsky”. There is a mountain of historical analysis to suggest that the “labour camps” that existed in the early years of the revolution were tiny in number, did not represent a significant element of the economy, and provided their inmates with political freedoms which most prisoners do not enjoy in Britain today — all in stark contrast to Stalin’s gulags. Similarly, democracy in the Bolshevik party did not “come to an end” with the banning of factions in 1921, but with the political purges which heralded the rise of Stalin.

Again, this is not to argue that these measures were necessarily justified — simply that they qualitatively different from what came later. The Bolsheviks’ mistakes could have been corrected, whereas from the late 1920s, a new ruling class was in the saddle and a new revolution was necessary.

Second, although I am not an expert on this issue, it seems to me that Eric does Trotsky a disservice by comparing him to the Mensheviks of the 1930s. Although it is true that Mensheviks developed a critical analysis of the USSR, the party as a whole tended towards softness on Stalin on the grounds that sharp attacks on what they regarded as a genuine workers’ revolution could only lead to its overthrow by a right-wing regime. They favoured a “softly, softly” approach to eventually facilitate the replacement of the USSR by a bourgeois democracy, in contrast to Trotsky’s increasingly clear calls for a new workers’ revolution.

At the same time, more importantly, they were part of the reformist Second International which had overseen the defeat of the post-war revolutionary upsurge and they continued this tradition in the 1930s by supporting the Popular Fronts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the Mensheviks split after 1940, a minority became pro-Stalinists while the majority became Cold Warriors advocating US military intervention against the USSR. (Dallin, whom Eric cites as being close to Trotsky, was aligned with this majority.)

While the formal political analysis of some Mensheviks may have been similar to Trotskyism, therefore, their political stance was totally different. Whether pro- or anti-USSR, their basic approach was to look for “progressive” phenomena — bourgeois, Stalinist or whatever — to tag onto, in contrast to the Trotskyists’ insistence on working-class independence and struggle as the bottom line of socialist politics. In short, we were revolutionaries and they weren’t.

Third, I think Eric fundamentally misunderstands what the debate between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in October 1917 was about. The Bolsheviks did not argue, never argued and could not with their politics have argued that the creation of a socialist society was possible in backwards Russia. What they did argue was the Russian working class could, in alliance with the peasantry and other oppressed and exploited groups, take power as the advance guard of a revolution sweeping across Europe — a revolution which would ultimately make Russia a relatively unimportant backwater of an expanding socialist world. Was this perspective really mistaken? There were revolutions across Europe in 1917–23, but they failed precisely because the workers who made them were led by “socialists” who lacked the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary politics, ie, who were Mensheviks!

What the Mensheviks were disputing was not whether socialism could be built in Russia — everyone agreed that this was impossible — but whether the workers’ movement should take power in Russia as the prelude to international revolution. The isolation of the revolution in a backward country did lead to unexpected consequences in the form of Stalinism, but this was due to the dominance of Menshevik politics outside Russia, not Bolshevik politics inside it. Eric’s attempt to compare the Bolsheviks to Stalinist parties seizing power in China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc, is thus not only unworthy of him, but more than a little bit silly.

Last, what does all this imply for the debate about Iraq?

Of course, the AWL agrees that a socialist revolution is not immediately on the cards; of course we want the most democratic bourgeois regime possible to provide breathing space for the working-class movement to grow and develop. But does this mean that Iraqi socialists should support the occupation and the Iraqi bourgeoisie as a “progressive” lesser evil to the fascistic “resistance”? No, clearly not. The life chances of any sort of democracy in Iraq depend on the extent to which the working class becomes an independent factor in events. Genuine supporters of democracy in Iraq are Bolsheviks, not Mensheviks.

Sacha Ismail

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