Sacha Ismail’s response to my article on Menshevism confirms my belief that even in the very best Trotskyist organizations, members remain ill-informed about the very foundations of their politics.
That’s a harsh thing to say, but there are several passages of Sacha’s polemic that reveal a rather slight grasp of historical facts. For example, Sacha claims that the Bolsheviks were right to base their hopes on a world revolution breaking out which would rescue them from their isolation. “There were revolutions across Europe in 1917–23,” he tells us, “but they failed precisely because the workers who made them were led by ‘socialists’ who lacked the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary politics, i.e., who were Mensheviks!”
The dates are, of course, significant. The only revolution I imagine Sacha could be thinking of in 1923 would be the abortive insurrection carried out by the German Communist Party — an insurrection planned in Moscow by Zinoviev and other Comintern leaders. The workers who made that insurrection (it’s really tough to call it a revolution) were not led by Mensheviks or even the German equivalent of Mensheviks. And the same is true for probably all of the failed revolutions of that period. Those poorly-planned, poorly-executed attempts at instant revolutions — modelled on the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd in 1917 — were all disasters. Even Rosa Luxemburg was a strong opponent of the Spartacist uprising, even if the Communist Party which she founded led it. To somehow blame the Mensheviks for them is ludicrous.
But it’s not the lack of historical knowledge which Sacha displays which disturbs me. It’s the fundamental argument which he makes early on. He distinguishes between “authoritarian measures... carried out by a workers’ revolution fighting almost literally the entire world for its survival” with the “totalitarian violence” of the Stalinist regime.
The Bolshevik government was not fighting “almost literally the entire world” in 1917 when the first persecutions of socialists, anarchists and trade unionists began. Nor was this the case when the Cheka and Gulag were established. No historian that I am aware of dates the foreign intervention in Russia or the outbreak of civil war until mid-1918. The unpleasant fact is that Lenin and Trotsky used authoritarian measures long before the revolution was besieged. The dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in 1918, for example, took place at a time when no one on the left — indeed, hardly anyone at all — had taken up arms against the Soviet regime. You can call it a pre-emptive strike, but to consider Bolshevik authoritarianism in the time of Lenin and Trotsky to be some kind of reaction is to completely misunderstand the history of the revolution.
Furthermore, with the end of the civil war in 1921, and the end of the foreign intervention with it, with Trotsky and Lenin still firmly in control, the Mensheviks were banned, the Soviets were reduced to hollow shells, and what was left of internal democracy in the Bolshevik Party came to end. All this after the end of the life-and-death struggle that took place during the years of civil war and foreign intervention.
One could go on, but what’s the point? I think that the clearest evidence that the AWL needs urgently to educate its comrades in the history of the Russian revolution can be found in this remarkable comment: “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.”
Unexpected consequences? Not only did the Mensheviks, Plekhanov, Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and even Trotsky predict it, but anyone familiar with Marx was well aware that you cannot leap over historical stages, and that the consequences will be tragic if you try. (Plekhanov predicted that if a bourgeois revolution failed to take place in Russia, the result would be the restoration of an “Oriental despotic” regime. Stalin’s Russia would not have surprised him in the least.)
Even worse than this, Sacha is saying that well, okay, there were pretty awful consequences to the Bolshevik seizure of power — but it’s the fault of the Mensheviks!
One final observation. At one point, Sacha summarises by saying, “In short, we were revolutionaries and they weren’t.”
One often hears this kind of language on the far left — you know, “you killed Rosa Luxemburg”. That kind of nonsense has to stop. You were not there and neither was I. The reason why it’s important to say this is because if you had been there, you would not make all the historical errors you do. (Trotsky, for example, never blamed the Mensheviks for the rise of the Stalinist regime. He knew better.)
Because you were not there, because you (and I) were born long after these events took place, we owe it to ourselves to study revolutionary history and know our facts. When you do so you will learn, as I did, that the Mensheviks were one of the most interesting and important currents in socialist history. You will learn to respect them.