Commentary Magazine


The Soviet Revolution, 1917-1939, by Raphael R. Abramovich

A Social Democratic Witness

The Soviet Revolution, 1917—1939.
by Raphael R. Abramovich.
With an Introduction by Sidney Hook. International Universities Press. 473 pp. $7.50.

Raphael Abramovich is the last great representative of the forgotten alternative to the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution: the true Marxists, democratic Socialists, of the Menshevik party. In 1917 Abramovich was a noteworthy figure in his own right, a leader of the Bund—the organization of Social Democratic Jewish Marxists in Russia who, opposing both religion and Zionism, worked within the socialist movement for autonomous nationality for the Jews.

Abramovich, born in Dvinsk (Latvia) in 1880, joined the Bund when he was twenty and still a student. Three years later, the Bund affiliated with the Russian Social Democratic party (1903) and during the ensuing factional struggles, it stood with the Menshevik (i.e., democratic) wing against Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In 1917, however, the Mensheviks together with the Bund underwent their own split: their right wings backed the Provisional Government, while their left wings, the “Internationalists,” went part way with the Bolsheviks in calling for an end to World War I. Abramovich was the leader of the Internationalist faction of the Bund; as such, he played an important oppositionist role in the Second Congress of Soviets, which debated and ratified the Bolshevik seizure of power.

In 1918, as the Bolshevik dictatorship clamped down, Abramovich was arrested and sentenced to death. But there were Bolshevik leaders in those days who would and could move for clemency, and Abramovich was reprieved and allowed to go to Germany in 1920. There he founded the Russian-language Socialist Courier and took a prominent part in international Socialist affairs. In 1931 he was elected chairman of the World Socialist Congress in Vienna. Hitler’s progress finally forced him to flee, with the Socialist Courier, to France in 1933 and then to the United States in 1940. In New York, where he now resides, he is still co-editor of the bi-weekly Courier, which remains the outstanding Russian-language journal of its kind.

Abramovich offers The Soviet Revolution as a summing-up of his many years of study and analysis of Soviet affairs. He writes that he had hoped to prepare a second volume on the events from 1939 on, but the present volume nevertheless covers fully the formative period of Leninism and Stalinism, with emphasis on the decisive events of the years of revolution and civil war from 1917 to 1921. Top level politics, foreign policy, and the Communist use of theory come in for pointed treatment. Economic developments are dealt with more sketchily, and the reader will find little on social policies, education, religion, or the like. The nationality problem has been deliberately avoided.

Abramovich’s primary concern is to set forth the character of the Communist leaders, their aims and tactics, their impact on Russia, and their relation (or lack of it) to the Socialist tradition. Lenin, he maintains, was less than half a Marxist, and more a Jacobin Utopian in the tradition of Bakunin: He writes:

Lenin and Trotsky were quite incapable of Marxist reasoning when success had turned their heads. Intoxicated with their unexpectedly quick victory, they were confident—against all the teachings of Marxism and history—that their iron will and the dawning world revolution would make the impossible come true. They did not ask themselves what it would cost Russia’s workers and peasants in blood and suffering. . . .

Abramovich is agreed with most non-Communist historians that World War I was a tragic interruption in Russia’s evolution toward democracy. He stands with a smaller group, but on firm ground, in arguing that it was the failure of Kerensky and the other moderates of the Provisional Government to get Russia out of the war in 1917 that alienated the masses and gave the Bolsheviks their chance to strike for power. This is in fact the position taken by the Menshevik-Internationalists at the time, a position recently defended with convincing passion in the memoir of the late W. S. Woytinsky, Stormy Passage (1961). Recalling the Austrian effort to stop the war in 1917, Abramovich contends that the British and French, in their obsession to continue the war and keep Russia in it, actually betrayed the Russian moderates.

Internally the ground was being cut out from under the Provisional Government by right-wing military leaders, above all by the Chief of Staff, General Kornilov, with his clumsy attempt to overthrow Kerensky by force. Failing in this direct action, the right apparently reasoned that they could let the Bolsheviks—the extreme left—overthrow Kerensky and thus pave the way for a subsequent rightist coup. As Kerensky himself realized too late, his rightist military advisers betrayed him with their pose of complacency until the Bolsheviks were almost ready to move. This was the first in the series of collaborative relations between the Communists and the far right on which Abramovich dwells—including notably the Soviet collaboration with the German military in the 1920’s, the German Communists’ support of the Nazi attack on the Weimar Republic, and Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939. We might add the collaboration of Communists and right-wing dictators like Batista in Latin America.

It is salutary to be reminded that the Bolsheviks came to power with little more unity and resolution than their opponents. They won by default, with the majority of the workers standing passively by. Many in the Bolsheviks’ own ranks rebelled at the prospect of a party dictatorship. Following the coup, right Bolsheviks joined with left Socialist Revolutionaries and left Mensheviks like Abramovich in an attempt to negotiate a multi-party coalition government. The effort collapsed in the face of the combined opposition of the right Socialists on the one hand, and Lenin and Trotsky on the other. Asserts Abramovich:

The real leaders of the Bolshevik Party were not concerned with shortening or preventing the civil war; on the contrary, they saw in the civil war the best opportunity to consolidate their power and of winning in the end. . . .

Abramovich describes how the Bolsheviks went on to curb every form of opposition and every channel of free expression of the working class itself. He draws on the Menshevik press of the time to show that the Bolsheviks erected not a dictatorship of the proletariat but a dictatorship over the proletariat, and systematically smashed the efforts of the Mensheviks to maintain a democratic working class opposition movement in 1918.

For a key to the interpretation of the further course of Soviet history, Abramovich turns to the celebrated passage in Engels’s Peasant War in Germany where Engels warns:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents. . . . He is compelled to represent not his party or his class but the class for whom the conditions are ripe for domination. In the interest of the movement itself he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class and to feed his own class with phrases and promises. . . .

From this standpoint the Russian Revolution appears to have given birth to a new form of class rule, suitable to a country with a weak working class, where the new ruling class is, in the words of Abramovich,

The Communist Party, i.e., a heterogeneous grouping, sociologically speaking, of members of the intelligentsia, petty bourgeoisie and peasantry with a very small admixture of the more educated workers . . . united not by any common social characteristics but solely by their ideology . . . an ideocratic dictatorship . . . a caste of Communist priests . . . not unlike the priesthood of ancient Egypt.

With this proposition Abramovich explains the whole history of Soviet Russia’s descent into the staggering crimes of Stalinism (which are no mere statistics in this book, but illustrated in freshly horrifying detail). Communism became, to him, a pure totalitarianism akin to fascism, where “the yardsticks of success are technological progress, the power of the state, and the nation’s military strength,” and where “the masses must be ruled by force because they are unwilling to sacrifice themselves.” “This philosophy,” Abramovich adds, “flagrantly contradicts the philosophy of humanitarian socialism which inspired the entire socialist movement from Thomas More through Karl Marx.”

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For the general reader, The Soviet Revolution serves as an admirable introduction to the understanding of the Communist movement. It is no less valuable to the specially interested student, in its exposition of the often neglected Social Democratic view of Soviet history, and its presentation of sidelights of important detail hitherto unknown or unavailable in English—details on the Soviet censorship of libraries, for instance, or the Menshevik Trial of 1931 when the Communists perfected the technique of false charges and conviction-by-confession.

There are only a few errors or points of dubious contention in the book which need to be pointed out. The Military Revolutionary Committee through which the Bolsheviks seized power did not yet exist when they decided on the coup on October 10, 1917 (old style); it was not fully activated until October 20. The reader should look elsewhere for a more complete picture of government moves and Bolshevik counter-moves in the revolution itself. Stalin did not dominate the Organization Bureau in 1919—he was not a member until 1920—and it was the Trotskyist Nikolai Krestinsky who was the strong man in the Communist party organization from 1919 to 1921. It is hard to make such a clear-cut case as Abramovich does (largely basing himself on the testimony of the ex-GPU agent Walter Krivitsky) that Stalin worked steadily for an alliance with Hitler; and the argument is marred by a misdating of Hitler’s “Blood Purge” (which was in 1934, not 1935). There were, surely, far greater reasons, personal and political, for the Great Purge of 1936—38 than the mere elimination of potential opposition to a pro-German shift in foreign policy—although it is well to bear in mind that Stalin proved fully capable of such a cynical switch.

These points are minor. Granting its limitations of scope and approach, The Soviet Revolution is a profound and exciting analysis of the Soviet phenomenon, illuminated by a point of view which serves better than most to lay bare the true nature of the Soviet system and its claims. Raphael Abramovich’s valedictory will stand as a fitting climax to a life of struggle in the cause of humanity.

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