Boris Souvarine: Black October – Ten Years of the Russian Revolution (1927)
“Leninism is the Opium of the International”
Boris Souvarine (1895-1984) was a co-founder of the French Communist Party and activist in the Communist International. He broke from the party in 1924 and became a critical supporter and part of the anti-Stalinist opposition within the international communist movement, observing and analysing the degeneration of the Bolsheviks from a revolutionary force to the political organisation of a new ruling stratum in Soviet Russia. When discussing if and how to address the centenary of the Russian October Revolution in datacide, we came across the text Black October by Souvarine. This text appeared in 1927 in the journal Bulletin Communiste, one of the mouthpieces of the communist opposition in France. This insightful text has, as far as we can see, never been translated into English before. With hindsight it can be judged as too optimistic despite its harsh criticisms of the regime, but the catastrophic developments that turned the Bolshevik takeover into a full fledged counter-revolution had not completely unravelled in 1927. Of course we are aware of the other critiques of Bolshevism coming from both left communist and anarchist circles, some of which are easily available in English. Others are still relatively obscure, especially the critiques from the French, Italian and German dissident Marxist milieus. We are documenting a crucial assessment of a particularly lucid writer for the first time in English here. Illustrations by a.a.a
The tenth anniversary of the October Revolution was a paradoxical celebration with many contradictions that obscured the general meaning of the evolution of the first proletarian state.
The degenerate state of the revolution stands in stark contrast to the persistent external appearance put forth by a regime undergoing internal transformation. The emblems of the Revolution remain, but the Soviet Constitution has become a seditious document, similar to France’s Constitution of 1793 under the decline of Jacobinism. Official revolutionary phraseology scarcely conceals what is actually a tentative politics. In practice, Bolschevism contradicts its definitions, its origin, and its raison d’etre, all the while confirming the letter of its doctrine, as the Church has preserved its gospels of poverty and sweetness while adapting to wealth and absolving wars.
How has Russian Communism gone from its revolutionary theory to a conservative practice? Does this conservatism have the character of a policy tending to safeguard the conquests of the Revolution, or a reactionary meaning imposed by the irresistible pressure of economic necessity? And, more importantly, what does the Soviet reality look like after ten years of revolution, obscured by the deformations of systematic detractors as well as interested apologists, turned into the stuff of legends for mystics and followers?
The time when the conscientious observer could complain of a lack of information about the affairs of Russia is over. It may even be said that the difficulty today for most people is to orientate themselves within the enormous amount of documentation. This justifies a comment by P. Pascal that it is difficult to deal with Russian problems having not known enough for a long time, and then subsequently having the burden of knowing too much.
This documentation is that of the Soviet institutions, which should not be confused with the literature of propaganda (the comparison would moreover establish astonishing contradictions). But you have to know how to break it down and analyse it. The leading organs of the Soviet State may make mistakes, but they have no interest in misleading themselves. The data of some organs correct or illuminate those of others. The politician who believes he can trick the numbers is sooner or later contradicted. And, however imperfect the statistics may be, they always end up being revealing, for the repetition of an error does not make comparisons impossible.
But economic and social phenomena are not of the same order as, for example, chemical combinations, and the numbers which contribute to defining them do not have the value of equations. Human actions are not reducible to laws like physical processes. This is the reason for the slow progress of social sciences. Marx’s historical determinism has nothing in common with the caricatural materialism that is currently being honored in the communist parties, where it is believed that a communist mixture can be attained by cleverly combining percentages of proletarians and kulaks with an astute dose of petty bourgeoisie…
The dry documentary materials are thus of no help to those who ignore the history of Russia and believe that some basic knowledge of polical economy, philosophy and ethics alone consititute the cultural makeup of true revolutionaries. The proof for this can be found in the amount of errors resulting from exact but contradictory statistical data. If one wishes to make a truly significant assessment of the past decade and to decipher the meaning of the Russian development (this is the essential aim), then it’s indispensable to resort to the Marxist method. However, this has to be a Marxism in all its richness, its flexibility, its nuances, and not this basic, simplistic, mechanical pseudo-marxism of which the Bolsheviks have made official use over the last decade.
It’s not the aim of establishing a balance sheet here, nor of attempting to outline future prospects. Our role is only to put the reader on the right path, to help him to work effectively himself, to remind of and address the problems that need to be solved, avoiding the superficial signs of erudition (figures and references) which would complicate the task.
The Soviet Republic has inherited classes from the old regime. What have they become?
One was destroyed by the revolution: it was the aristocracy, the least important in the order of production. The others have all survived. Civil war, dictatorship and economic policy all affected them. But their essential proportions have hardly changed.
The proletariat, decimated by the war and partly integrated into the new state, has been restored to the old numbers. The peasantry, despite its losses in war and famine, retains its numerical superiority. Its internal differentiation can be defined, without the pedanticism of the agrarian scientists, as an enrichment of the most favored and sometimes the impoverishment, sometimes the stagnation of the poorest. The city’s petty bourgeoisie, hard hit in regards to its traders and intellectuals, has healed its wounds in craftsmanship and high technical personnel and finds an important compensation in the bureaucracy. Without looking at the figures in detail, one can see a situation in which the whole has not undergone significant modification. But in which ways do these class relationships tend to change? The answer can be seen in the relations of production.
In absolute numbers, looking at only those enterprises in Soviet territory, regardless of the quality of the products (as defects have been officially found to render an enormous part of the production unusable) and ignoring the increase in population, the level of pre-war production appears to have been reached. But for those who know how to interpret the figures, this is not the case.
It appears that the respective proportions of industry and agriculture have hardly changed, but the advance of the latter appears certain. Agrarian commodity production is growing faster than the production of industrial goods. The numerical relationship between peasants and proletarians does not evolve in favor of the latter. Essential classes retain their scope. Only certain categories of the petty bourgeoisie have been transformed: the appearance and growth of nepmans, new traders adapted to the regime; a monstrous development of the bureaucracy; and finally a sort of new upper class, of which we shall have much to speak: the leading circles of the Communist Party and the Soviet State.
These class relations, determined by the economic regime, obviously correspond to a stage of capitalist development in Russia. Agrarian production, which is the basis of the Russian economy, is of a private character, that is to say, capitalist or tendetially capitalist, and collective farming is of minor importance. Industrial production, for the most part owned by the State, provides added value for the parasitic bureaucracy. Without giving birth to an industrial bourgeoisie, it does not in any way constitute a mode of production “of a consistent socialist type”, as not only the Party asserts, but also the opposition.
Private capital, which controls a small part of light industry, plays an increasing role in the industrial production by the state in the frame of a mixed society. Foreign capital occupies a very small position, but the very progress of the Soviet economy will end up expanding its role. Craftsmanship is not precisely a socialist mode of production. Wholesale trade is chiefly held by the state, but by means of such an expensive apparatus that the profit is absorbed by the administrative costs. Retail trade, on the other hand, is mostly owned by individuals. Co-operatives exist only with the help of the State (grants and credits) and by trade with private traders.
In its competition with capitalism, the Soviet state enjoys political omnipotence, but this alone cannot guarantee an economic advantage. All the characteristics of the current situation prove it. Industrial production costs remain exorbitant; the average wholesale price is two and a half times higher than on the foreign market, and retail prices are even higher. Attempts to reduce prices with circulars and hollow declarations naturally had to be aborted. The production of the means of production remains miserable. Commodity shortage remains acute. Foreign trade does not reach half the pre-war level. The budget, lower than that of the old regime, contains more indirect taxes than in any capitalist country. The average standard of living will not reach that of pre-war until 1931, according to the optimistic forecasts of the Planning Commission. Unemployment is one and a half million people registered, but in reality more than double, and its tendency to grow continuously cannot be denied.
On this material basis there arises a system of political institutions profoundly different from that which is claimed within of the Communist program. Local Soviets are elected by a show of hands on lists drawn up by local Party officials in an atmosphere of police intimidation and under administrative and economic pressure, leaving no room for revolutionary expression not in line with official circulars. They have the rights of municipal councils, but not the right to a political opinion. The Central Soviet Assemblies are chambers of uncritical approval orchestrated either by the central organs of the Party or submitted to the central organs or to other bodies appointed by them. Trade unions are subject to the parallel organization of the Party at all levels and help to maintain order in the factories, levy contributions and distribute relief, participate in the setting of production standards, tariffs, and the organization of work. Hence they have the right to approve decisions taken elsewhere. Dominating these networks of subordinate cadres, the Party presents itself as a political bureau formed by co-optation; a Central Committee chosen by the former; a control board appointed by the Board; rarely-held conferences or congresses controlled by management; regional and local committees appointed under the orders of the center. In practice, it is the Secretariat which hitherto has the means of composing this innumerable staff. Aside from the leaders, it is this web that constitutes the bureaucratic apparatus, one which Lenin could say was not superior to that of tsarism.
Without pretending to give a complete picture of the situation, without discussing the great social flaws of the regime (the ravages of vodka, the vagrant children by the hundreds of thousands, the mediocrity of public education, the paralysis of intellectual life), without speaking of the ties connecting the Soviet Union to the capitalist world, the Soviet reality shows a tendency towards restauration of the old classes rather than their abolishment. Only the feudal classes are being eliminated or repressed. The exploitation of man by man is continuing. Finally, instead of a substitution of the administration of things for the government of individuals, there is a strengthening of the dictatorship.
This general trend of the revolutionary process is of course dependent on objective conditions. The communist intentions of the leaders of today and of yesterday are not what is in question, rather their political intelligence, their farsightedness, their capacity to act. For in a given situation the role of men is not negligible; it depends on the way in which it is played.
The bourgeoisie, beaten in the political struggle, slowly takes its revenge in the economic realm. If it were to win, its economic victory would be followed by a political restoration in the near future. We are not there yet. But as the bourgeoisie gains ground economically, it manages to exercise some indirect political influence, albeit dampened by the obstacles of dictatorship. It is precisely with regards to the question of the means of averting danger that the Bolsheviks were divided. This lead to internal fighting and the Communists of other countries systematically took sides with the strongest faction. Hence, our crisis.
Here we do not account for words and have never sought to appear more “left” than the comrades placed in the responsible positions of the revolutionary power. An attitude in tune with the best interests of the Revolution must remain opposed to servility to the powerful of the day, as well as to irresponsible demagogery driven by opportunism. We were on the side of the Bolsheviks in times of distress and famine, during retreat and reverses. We did not reproach them for retreating, thinking we could do better in their place; we have helped them to keep up, without letting ourselves go to a “leftism” of outdoing them with dangerous verbiage. And still today, according to our past conduct, we will support the Soviet government if the pressure of incoercible economic or social needs compels it to concessions and setbacks. The Bolsheviks are not bound to realise the impossible. Sacrifices are conceivable to better preserve the durable conquests of the Revolution. It is a revolutionary conservatism, responding to the isolation of the first state with socialist tendencies, which no serious communist can repudiate. The N.E.P. [New Economic Policy] is a policy of compromise. We have not approved it in theory just to condemn it in practice. And no one, not Lenin or anyone else, could foresee the modalities of its realization.
But precisely for all these reasons, it was our duty to give our opinion on the policy to be followed in order to minimize concessions to capitalism and to preserve and consolidate the positions of the proletariat. We feel it necessary to appeal to the massive resources of the masses, through democratic means, to overcome the historical difficulty and to organize an unprecedented socialist republic, albeit not communist, but at least socialist by its program and tendency. This is what we had in common with the Russian opposition of 1923. Subsequently, the opposition has undergone a complex evolution: internal crises and external events; alliances which it thought to be necessary to forge, and then the bloc in which it has integrated itself; the way in which it was treated by the authorities; tactical considerations; the personalities of its principal men. Finally, many causes, in addition to the general reasons for the degeneration of Bolshevism, contributed to this evolution of an essential current of the Revolution, which remained fundamentally sound in spite of its faults and whose merits will appear more clearly with the passing of history.
For not having been able to co-operate with the forces with whom they had accomplished the October revolution and the building of the new regime, the Party deprived itself of indispensable aid and condemned itself to the use of repression as the only way to impose its policy (even against its own supporters). It soon extended a form of dictatorship that was ever more dictated by the economic necessities and reached far beyond the needs of the defense of the country.
It made more concessions to the peasants than to the workers, was more lenient towards the bourgeoisie than towards its proletarian elite, and consented to abandonments which would have been possible to avoid or at least postpone. Time wasted, ground lost, wealth lost, strength lost; and yet, so vast were the conquests of the civil war that everything is far from lost, there is still much to be saved.
In order to see clearly in the confusion resulting from several years of internal struggles in which no one has had the monopoly of error, within the confusion of multiple economic, political and tactical contradictions, one must avoid adopting purely and simply the singular assemblages of ideas improvised during the crisis by the main groups, for the sake of polemical reasons and the demands of the current situation.
In previous articles, we have indicated a series of disagreements between the Russian opposition and ourselves. Our differences with the majority are better known. But we always delay the march of events for strict material reasons, and in addition to our shortcomings, the comments of the adversary add to a certain confusion. A recapitulation of our criticisms of the corrupted Bolshevism is necessary. They risk not satisfying anyone in our movement which is in a process of full demoralization, where even comrades who believe themselves to be “opponents” seriously reduce everything to simplistic criteria of right and left, to a “Leninism” in fashion parallel to the “Trotskyism” invented by others to classify any contradicter, to “skills” whose record is an unprecedented disaster in our history. But we believe that in the present period, according to the opinion of Marx after the defeat of June 1848, the proletariat is obliged “to recover by intellectual victories”; he would not take the road of feeding on cliches and formulas.
During these last ten years, the Bolshevik Party has profoundly changed, both in its composition and in its ideology. The majority of its members have joined since 1924, after the military victory of the revolution, after Lenin’s disappearance, after the beginning of the great current crisis and the first failure of the opposition. The bulk of this “Lenin Enrolment” consists essentially of backward, uncritical followers who are docile and ignorant, with only the most vague communist ideas. They joined after the battle for reasons of … social security, which by itself is very legitimate. Without much awareness, and fearfully looking into the future, this mass would vote anything. The “old guard”, a literary theme, aspires to get rest and avoid conflict. With such a party, the leadership can do what it wants, and one understands that it has cultivated the fetishism of this instrument, nurtured and theorized the “Party” mentality (the Russian language has a number of derivatives of the word “Party”, parti-ism, non-party, party-party, party, etc., acurately expressing the misrepresentation that contrasts the Party with the class). But the fact that the opposition has given in to this deviation, that it did not know how to set apart the reality of the Party from its theoretical definition, helps in understanding many things.
The Party forms a new privileged class, but includes several classes at the second level: a proletariat of humble militants who feel obliged by an obscure daily heroism to perform the hard work of tasks; an intellectual or seemingly intellectual aristocracy occupying the higher-level functions; persons from intermediate strata, who are occupied in the various levels of the public or economic administration. This patriciate enjoys a modest but safe material life. Almost protected against unemployment, it benefits from various advantages amidst the mediocrity of existence; but its essential privilege is the monopoly on political activity. The Party is no longer a fraction of the proletariat: it is above it. Its interests are no longer identical to those of the class. There is the Party, and there is the rest.
This is easily explained by the Party’s method of recruitment, its internal and external regime. The opposition, however, did not understand the transformation, which also remained foreign to the masses. Furthermore, the opposition has given in to the fetishism of the Party. Long unable to reconnect to its communist origins, it also had its aristocrats in the embassies and the higher economic or administrative organs, its proletariat in the factories, its internal regime with leaders who were the guardians of all science, and its followers. It has satisfied itself with words, nourished by illusions of a social alchemy dressed in Marxist terminology which we denounce here. This only lead to failed demonstrations – useless heroism or dishonorable capitulations – to a waste of its reputation, a squandering of its best forces.
“No matter if it’s right or wrong, it is my party,” said Trotsky at the Congress of 1924, paraphrasing the formula of the English patriots, “Right or wrong, my country,” and he added: the party cannot be mistaken. Yes, on an abstract theoretical level. But what if the historical conditions, the social environment, and the political culture make the Party a sort of distinct class? If it is no longer the Party according to its own definition, if it becomes an end in itself instead of remaining a means? Shliapnikov regarded the entry into the Party of this “Lenin Enrolment” as a victory. This increased the percentage of workers and automatically increased the massive majorities, guaranteeing unanimity of one hundred per cent against the spokesmen of the proletariat. Abstract conceptions of the worker, the Party, the class, society, the mechanical conception of the relations between production relations and ideology are betraying an intellectual decline, an alteration of Marxism.
The Bolshevik neo-Marxism, vulgar and grotesk among the leaders, is rigid and learned in the opposition, reflecting the situation described above. It in turn determines the confusions whose direct material origin would be sought in vain … How Lenin was right to denounce the dialectical incapacity of this Bukharin who happens to be, not by pure chance, the official supplier of ideas of the Party. Now, the absence of a dialectic means Marxism without a soul. And how many oppositionists resemble the disciples of Bukharin by their mechanical thought, the method of analysis and interpretation of social phenomena? Again, the enemy brothers are good brothers, and it would be too simple to agree with one side and disagree with the other. The Party as a whole suffers from the same confusion. Only strong personalities escape to a certain extent (thankfully there are more and more of them), but they cannot be Russian Communists of their time. A Trotsky, with his phenomenal intelligence and superhuman power, a Radek with exceptional gifts of understanding, assimilation, and guidance, remain men of their own movement, and their very qualities magnify their errors. There would be much more to say on this topic to an uninformed audience.
The ersatz of Marxism we are talking about is an outrageous simplification of true Marxism, created primarily by the neglect of dialectics, a vulgar materialism based on the ignorance of any element of non-economic analysis. Complicated by a radicalism that is allegedly leftist, it’s leading the party – which itself is leading Soviet Russia and the Communist International – to the worst defeats. In the past, there have been Marxists inclined to simplify the master’s conception and to present it as irrelevant; Lafargue indulged in these fantasies, but it was an intellectual exercise without danger, without pretension to create a following, nor especially to impose itself by force. The aberrations of Bolshevism lead to the executions of Reval, the massacres of Sofia, the butchery of Shanghai and Canton. In Russia, they lead to the treatment of the population as a raw material, to exasperate sometimes the peasants, other times the workers, to provoke either an insurrection in Georgia or a strike at Ivanovo-Vosnessensk, and then to appease them by concessions unlike previous rigors – an incoherent gymnastics with not the least bit of profit for communism.
Nor is it a coincidence that the crisis of the Party coincided with the appearance of a new term corresponding to the new official ideology: Leninism (8). Lenin contented himself with being a Marxist, but Marxism implied a keen critical faculty, a constant renewal of thought in contact with changing reality, a permanent absorption of news. Lenin’s heirs needed a dogma. They have made Marxism into a set of formulas, quotations, ready-made notions, and imposed it by means of their state apparatus. They are substituting the revolutionary spirit with a mystique of circumstances, maintaining it by using the tried and tested methods of religion, deifying Lenin and glorifying his disappeared companions. They suppress heresies and punish the unbelievers, thus immunising the followers of the new faith against new insights, lowering the cultural level of the Party and enslaving rather than emancipating the masses. Obviously there is a need for a religion for the people. “Religion is the opium of the people“ wrote Marx in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Leninism is the opium of the International.
The opposition committed the unpardonable offense of giving in to this Leninism. It respected the mummification of Lenin’s body and the mummification of his work. It recited verses cut out of the Complete Works. It accepted the dogma of Lenin’s infallibility. It helped to set up the religious machinery under which it was crushed. Robespierre had had the courage to protest against the pantheonization of Marat, at the risk of being called “jealous”. In Russia, no one dared resist the embalming of the “old man” who, after Engels, claimed allegiance to the French materialistic philosophers of the 18th century.
We no longer know in which speech, or in which article, or in which opaque thesis –
which has already fallen into oblivion – Zinoviev cursed the editor of the Bulletin for having published a disrespectful article about Lenin’s mausoleum. “He spat on the mausoleum,” he said. As usual, Zinoviev was mistaken. If the mausoleum were within our reach, we would not use spit, but a match, thus accomplishing this double duty: to incinerate a corpse and to raise from the Red Square the symbolic flame of the revolution.
In the complex of Leninism there is a particular poison, that of immoralism, which the supporters take for the end of the end of political skill. It seems that everything is permissible “in the interest of the cause”, but as this remains to be defined, everyone can license themselves by forging an advantageous definition. One justifies a certain lie using a quote from Lenin and the first liar believes himself to be a Leninist while lying. The opposition is not exempt from this; it descended to the level of its opponents under the pretext of fighting on equal terms. And revolutionary ethics? No doubt bourgeois prejudice. Another of our disagreements is that we do not want to be those so-called “realists” for whom the end justifies the means and who were called “consciously unscrupulous” in French anarchist circles a quarter of a century before. Above all, we detest lies with no ifs or buts. “If a lie may serve a moment, it is necessarily harmful in the long run, and truth, on the contrary, necessarily serves in the long run, although it may happen that it is injurious at the moment,” said Diderot in this Rameau’s Nephew, which Engels regarded as “the masterpiece of dialectics.”
The Bolsheviks often use an untranslatable term, that would literally mean, in French: sansprincipisme, absence of principles. The two parties throw this accusation at each other. The most curious thing is that they are both right. But this implies that they are also both wrong. These “consciously unprincipled ones” believe that they can reduce everything to power relations, but their learned combinations of forces become amalgams of weakness. The formation of the disparate bloc of the opposition is still in everyone’s memories. Experience will articulate it. But in any case, we insist that any tactics must be put to the service of principles and that these principles cannot be subordinate to tactics.
The opposition is more resistant to the same degeneration than the majority, thanks to its initial critical attitude, its persecution, the superiority of its men, and the development of class antagonisms in Russia. In the final analysis, the opposition will be the first to recover its power, and will renew its ideas from the roots of Marxism. Its recent evolution, the result of internal discussions and the necessities of the struggle, is indicated by its “platform”, a document of cardinal interest marking an immense progress on all its previous programs. The Communists of other countries can only help by doing their own work at home and offering their friendly criticism. Without being able, once again, to make a proper study of its errors or the analysis of its theses, we shall at least point out the opposition’s weak points, revealing its share of responsibilities in its own defeat. The opposition had the unforgettable merit of descending into the arena in 1923 for the democratization of the Party, a necessary step towards Soviet democracy. The solid memberships it gained came from there. But it has not been sufficiently differentiated from the majority in this respect. For a long time it spoke only of “Party democracy” by virtue of the distinction already made between the Party and the proletariat, thus making its claim indifferent to the masses. Until its last “platform”, it did not extend its interest to the trade unions or to the soviets. It gave the impression of wanting only to replace the masters of power and to have thought of democracy only in order to achieve this aim, an impression which was negatively confirmed by the support of a “democrat” such as Zinoviev. It still shares the aberration which, in a just denunciation of bourgeois democracy, implies blindly any democracy, forgetting our leading role as champions of authentic democracy, which socialists and communists always call social democracy.
If bourgeois practice, itself a product of historical contradictions, has given a special meaning to the words freedom and democracy, it is not for us to renounce the content that they imply in socialist thought in spite of the origin of the terms, which cannot be redefined at will. The opposition has not been able to interpret the democratic aspirations of the proletariat. They were being democratic in too restrictive of a sense. However understandable its error is, at the end of an inevitable dictatorial period, and with the desire to repress the vulgar democracy of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, the mistake is no less burdensome and costly. We agree with Rosa Luxemburg that the communist dictatorship “consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its abolition.” Lenin saw in the Soviet order a means of maximizing true democracy; he said it in terms that would make Stalin cry out and accuse of counter-revolution anyone who would publish them now under another signature.
Like the majority, the opposition has lost sight of the fact that terror is justifiable and effective as a defense but not as a system of government. It is not enough to claim that terror is used in the historical sense as a means to the ascension of the proletariat. If circumstances do not render it legitimate, the institution of an exceptional process by a permanent method weakens the regime which it is supposed to reinforce, even when considering only the political order. Economically, it is insane to want to solve problems of production and exchange with terror, to resolve budgetary difficulties through police measures. Economic phenomena require the intervention of economic means, the use of force being fruitful, as an adjuvant, only in certain specified cases and in the obvious interest of the laboring majority. The stabilized revolution needs legality. The prolongation of an improvised dictatorial power under certain conditions degenerates into arbitrariness beyond the historical phase which made it indispensable. Just as the State, an instrument of the ruling classes, gradually acquires distinct interests, the dictatorship of the Soviet patriciate ends up finding in itself a raison d’etre opposed to the progress of proletarian institutions.
The opposition and the majority have rivalled demagogically by their common tactic of “leftism” in the wrong sense of the word. When objective necessity imposes retreat, compromise, or concessions, there is no use in becoming fools with great revolutionary phrases. It is necessary to define precisely the positions taken, to enlighten the consciousness of the proletariat, and not to create or nourish illusions which are the source of discouragement and disintegration. Nothing is more to the left than a correct analysis of the situation and an appropriate policy, verifiable results, and beyond which, even “on the left”, there are only dangerous illusions, sterile chatter or deadly perils. It is in this sense that Camille Desmoulins was right to say, at certain times, that beyond Marat there was only foolishness.
The pseudo-leftism of both sides is translated into monumental errors in their common politics,
sometimes of their respective policies with external differences that are, however, of identical essence. The concept of the Unity Front is a crude maneuver opposed to the “honest unity front” that Radek was accused of, with operations “from above” and “from below” – but what is between the top and the bottom? The results of this concept after six years of poor malicious trickery are below zero. This concerns the struggle of the international communist minority against the working class of the two worlds on the pretext of combating its errors and its “leaders” as if the role of an avant-garde – as they see themselves – was to turn against the main army. It concerns them clinging on to the idea of a Red Trade Union International which is completely dependent on the Russian Communist Party, a permanent obstacle to trade union unity, and the artificial maintenance of revolutionary trade union organizations perpetuating the split in several countries. It concerns the misleading distinction between the Soviet State and the Communist International, which allows disreputable reciprocal disavowals and justifes unjustifiable contradictions between policies which should be one by definition, without, however, coinciding in all their manifestations. It concerns the excesses of a mania of shouting about war at any opportunity and without serious motivation, to succeed only in creating panic in Russia and in discrediting the Soviet power in the eyes of the most conscious workers everywhere.
In all this, the opposition and the majority have shared responsibilities. The best service to them is to denounce them without complacency.
When we question the “opposition”, we must form a general understanding of it, through its vicissitudes, its differences, and internal compromises, keeping in view its practice rather than the written manifestations of certain leaders. Since its origins, the opposition has changed significantly and continues to evolve. It has experienced blocks and ruptures. It has received contradictory ideas from its theorists. It would be important to analyze its trends, the contributions of various groups, the role of men, but this would require special study. Similarly, the majority is unified only in appearance; serious disputes keep it busy and cause splits. It has also been an error of the opposition to have, several times through its tactics, gathered dissociable elements against itself, as it is another error to have gathered incompatible elements in it. A long-range policy tending to clarify the ideas of the Party and not to reconquer the power at short notice would have been more fruitful.
Within the opposition, the various currents were melting together. Lenin was able to break these apart by borrowing their sound ideas in the first five years of the Revolution, just as Robespierre had been able to check the progress of an overenthusiastic wing without leaving a monopoly of popular demands to them. But while revolutionary impatience asserts itself openly and precipitates itself to premature combats, restorative tendencies, silent and patient, are slowly doing their work. It remains to be seen whether the peaceful course of the internal struggles of the Russian Revolution will have left enough Communist forces to resist the future attack of the combined backwards orientated forces. It is still very much dependent on the opposition to play a major role in the great conflict that comes. Can it really unite on the basis of principles and not in a so-called “bloc” achieved through bargaining? It is not by seeking small immediate successes that it will make real progress; it must work for the future and, to that end, become more clearly aware of the situation, the prospects, and the forces involved, and know how to sacrifice contests whose numerical reinforcement will never compensate for their intrinsic irresponsibility. If a lesson emerges from the practice of Lenin during fifteen years of preparation for the revolution, it is that it is better to be right alone or to small numbers than to seek a compromise between truth and error to gain forces that will fall into disarray at the very first test.
The opposition, despite its hiterto inability to emerge from collective errors, has obvious merits which make it the most conscious faction of Russian communism. These merits deserve the solidarity of the most conscious factions of international communism: the critical attitude, democratic demands, internationalism, orientation towards industrial civilization, production as a whole, the priority of proletarian influence. The opposition does, however, make the capital mistake of submitting to a utopia of a completion of revolution, whereas all the facts of the problem confirm, by accentuating the reasons for the N.E.P., that the economic development of Russia requires capital and not eloquence, and that the stabilization of capitalism and the defeat of the communist parties invite the Soviet Union to rely essentially on itself.
The majority, suffering from most of the errors of the opposition in addition to its own, dominates the opposition by an undeniable superiority. It reflects a general aspiration towards political rest, peaceful work, and avoidance of risks and adventures. For a time, its efforts for social equilibrium corresponded to an imperious need for collective psychology. Competing in verbal left radicalism with the opposition, it has been incapable of elaborating a consistent international policy in tune with its internal politics, which are contradictory. For tactical reasons it has not yet formulated its true program, awaiting the demise of the opposition, which naively played its game. The formulation of its real tendencies will certainly cause new forces to join the opposition, which has not been able to promote the event or wait for its hour. Today’s losers can be called up to reinforce the next fight between the victors against the most reactionary danger. The unstable equilibrium maintained by Stalin will not be long-lasting. Its break-up will lead to singular coalitions.
The course of history proves the intuitive speech of Saint-Just: “Those who make half a revolution only dig their own graves”. The Russian social revolution, which was politically victorious, could not defeat the bourgeoisie in the economic sphere because of Russia’s industrial backwardness and isolation. No one is justified in making “left-wing” claims that Russia didn’t go far enough in its attempt at socialisation. They even went beyond the Communist program of 1917, which provided for workers’ control and the nationalization of certain monopolies, but not the general expropriation of the expropriators.
What the Soviet Revolution can do in the wake of a new, deep crisis of capitalism is to make the best use of the multiple contradictions of classes and nations to survive as a surrounded republic with social institutions favouring the proletariat whilst expecting the next higher stage. What the Communist International can do to help is to contribute to a healthy collaboration and intelligently realise a policy of alliance of the great divergent proletarian currents, preparing the active affirmation of a latent solidarity. The leftist phrases are not efficacious.
Black October has imposed disappointing findings and instigated bitter reflections. But the other October shines in our memory and keeps our hopes alive. The proletariat, which has performed so many marvels, will perform others. The lessons of the revolutions of the past are not all lost. Though renewing certain errors of the Hebertists, the Enragés and the Babouvists, the opposition has not followed their rash example, and if the majority offers certain traits of resemblance to the Thermidorians, it has been able to confine itself to the use of what a deportee of Fructidor called “the dry guillotine”. These are not negligible things, especially considering that the decisive fights still go on, and we repeat that the last word has not been spoken.
During the great French Revolution, when so many prestigious actors occupied the scene, there were two marginalised men with unknown names: a modest Jacobin from his Picardy village and an anonymous insurgent against the Convent of Lyon. The great events of the time passed without giving them any indication of their genius. But at the dawn of the nineteenth century, their mature thought revealed them as precursors of modern socialism and opened the way to social science. They were Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier.
Under the Great Russian Revolution, it seems that the generation of leaders has repressed the growth of the rising generation. For ten years, the same men kept the foreground and repressed the wishes of the next generation. But they wear out. Their fratricidal war shows that they have already given the Revolution the best of themselves. They avoided the scaffold but did not escape the degeneration. Their time is up. In the depths of an immense human reserve, a youth is formed and becomes aware of their role. Let us watch them with hope.
(Bulletin communiste, October-November 1927)