This year is the centenary of Russia’s revolutions, the one that overthrew Tsarism and the one that put the Bolsheviks in power. Next year will be the bicentenary of Marx’s birth. It’s a time when not thinking about the left’s history is impossible.
These anniversaries arrive when there are positive rumblings on the left and very dangerous dins on the right. That makes it urgent that those who call ourselves “left”—an expansive term that, for me, signifies an amalgam of democratic, liberal, and egalitarian values—recollect that people who deployed language we still use have, at too many times, caused unmitigated disaster.
The Bolshevik takeover in Russia is a prime example. A number of myths derived from Bolshevism still lurk within parts of the left: “there really was no alternative to Leninism”; “if only Lenin had lived longer”; “if only Trotsky had won out”; “if only Bukharin . . . ” And, most important: “it is acceptable to suffocate democracy for the sake of socioeconomic equality.”
I want to generate a little discomfort on the left but also some on the right by retrieving an airbrushed left. Airbrushing is usually associated with Stalinism and its attempts to eliminate its foes, both physically and from photos. My concern will be critics of Leninism together with Bolshevism’s mindset and its consequences for the left. One historian, Orlando Figes, notes that “tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and at least an equal number by the repressions of the tsarist regime, before 1917 . . . ” Hundreds of thousands died in the “Red Terror,” he continues, with similar numbers perishing in the “White Terror” (factoring in anti-Jewish pogroms). In fact, the Bolshevik record between October 1917 and Lenin’s death in early 1924 would have satisfied any right-wing regime: virtually all left-wing parties and movements were crushed. That was before Stalin. Though later in the century, there were calls for “no enemies to the left,” Bolsheviks had not always seen things that way. Real alliances were a problem for them since alliances entail compromises.
No regime identifying with Bolshevism has led, at any time or place, to anything that can be called “liberation.” The contemporary left can gain a useful perspective by revisiting some of the major arguments once made by leftists on behalf of left-wing principles against Leninism. Some on the left and many on the right will find it disconcerting to recall that the first anti-Bolshevik was a Marxist, Julius Martov. Although he was finally defeated by Bolshevism, and while, much as he tried, he could not save Marxism, his politics represented a plausible, intelligent, and humane left alternative to Leninism in Russia—on almost every issue.
In a famous sentence about a failed mid-nineteenth-century French upheaval in which protagonists engaged in sorry imitations of eighteenth-century French revolutionaries, Marx wrote that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Consider this essay a return to Bolshevism’s repressed—historical endnotes for the future left. It is said that talking frankly about nightmares can help us grasp their causes in order to banish them.
In January 1917, Lenin, then long an exile, gave a talk in Zurich about Russia’s failed revolution of 1905. He did not doubt that the Tsarist autocracy would still be overthrown, but he told listeners that “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” A month later, the Tsar was deposed and replaced by a Provisional Government of aristocrats, liberals, and moderate socialists. Bolsheviks took no part in it; eight months later, they seized the state—or what was left of it. Mounting chaos had undone the Provisional Government, which was inept and constantly made ruinous choices, especially concerning Russia’s stumbling role in the First World War. The Bolsheviks took control in the name of Marxism in a power vacuum, and the last head of the Provisional Government, the ineffectual populist socialist Alexander Kerensky, fled.
Russia had few characteristics of advanced capitalism and an industrialized economy, which Marx believed necessary to create an exploited class of urban wage-earners that would overthrow a bourgeoisie. Peasants made up 80 percent of the Russian empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Its old regime fostered the small part of Russia’s economy that could be called bourgeois, fearing (rightly) that “underdevelopment” made it militarily weak. There is nothing surprising about the fact that the party that came in first in the sole genuine election permitted under Bolshevik rule—for a Constituent Assembly—addressed the problems of rural Russia before anything else. Socialist Revolutionaries, or “SRs,” were populists and wanted to fashion a future on the basis of peasant communalism.
Some 85 percent of the Assembly was comprised of self-identified socialists. But Lenin’s government shut it down in January 1918 after just a single meeting. Dissenting demonstrators were “mowed down unarmed,” protested the novelist Maxim Gorky. He asked, “Do the ‘People’s Commissars’ not realize . . . that they will end up strangling Russian democracy . . . ?” The answer was: yes. An 85 percent socialist majority did not make a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Officially, the Bolsheviks were building a regime based on “soviets,” popular councils that arose with the end of the autocracy and functioned as democratic counter-powers to the Provisional Government. (Similar councils had emerged in 1905.) Yet, the Bolsheviks rendered the soviets impotent not long after they dissolved the Constituent Assembly. The real powers would be the Bolshevik party, the political police, and soon, a standing army.
At its congress in March 1918, Lenin called for a rechristening of his party. It would henceforth be the “Communist Party.” “Social democrat,” the name he renounced, was a term long adopted for themselves by Marxists in Russia and throughout Europe. It had become an epithet hurled by Lenin at anyone who had not embraced “revolutionary defeatism” in the First World War. Lenin wanted soldiers to turn their guns on their officers. Others on the Russian left supported “defensism,” that is, continuing to fight Germany while shunning the spoils of war. Martov also opposed the war—on “internationalist” grounds—but thought Lenin’s stance would not promote an end to the bloodshed and would hinder reconstitution of a broad postwar left. The Bolsheviks in power did pull out of the war. It could be argued, however, that any sensible left-wing government would eventually have had to do something likewise.
Lenin’s other pressing reason for rejecting “social democracy,” he explained to his fellow Bolsheviks, was that the term was “scientifically incorrect.” Democracy was emphatically not the goal as it was simply one form of “state.” All states were means by which classes oppressed other classes. Here, he was following Marx and Engels, if mechanically. The “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the first phase after the revolution, would be democratic since it would be a state for the vast majority. After socializing the means of production, there would, in Lenin’s view, be a classless society, which meant no state and consequently no democracy. (He had elaborated on this the previous summer in his unfinished book, State and Revolution.)
The problem is less that this argument is “anti-democratic” than that it shows how a theory goes awry when it is comprised of deductions from unquestioned definitions. Bolshevism’s foundational text, Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (1902) insisted that Marxism was distinguished from other social theories by its “scientific” nature. The repository of Marxist science had to be a vanguard party with “revolutionary consciousness.” Workers could not attain this on their own since they were unlikely to read Capital every evening after long hours of labor. “Spontaneously,” they would only attain “trade union consciousness” and demand better working conditions and pay, not revolution.
Marx also spoke of his project as scientific but with an intellectual acuity and discrimination not found in Lenin. Although Lenin credited his concept of a party to Karl Kautsky, the German social democratic theoretician, he was also indebted—even more so, perhaps—to Russian positivist traditions that emerged in the 1860s. The “nihilist” critic Dmitry Pisarev then asserted that “objectivity” in natural science ought to be the model for social and historical analyses. Lenin would cite and praise him. Pisarev’s contemporary, N.G. Chernyshevsky, wrote a novel informed by similar notions entitled What Is to Be Done? (1863). Lenin acclaimed it for making him over “completely” by depicting “new people” preparing for the future. The radical critic Pyotr Tkachëv, sometimes called a Jacobin, advocated the seizure of the Russian state by a vanguard party with an “infallible ideology” of absolute equality. A “revolutionary dictatorship” would lead the way to social transformation.
Pisarev, Chernyshevsky, and Tkachev wrote not long after serfdom was abolished in 1861. “Emancipation” came, however, with regulations, land distribution, and taxes onerous to former serfs, now peasants. But these authors found populist counterparts, known to history as Narodniks (after narod, Russian for “the people”), too “subjective” in envisaging peasant communalism as the vehicle for the future. They were proved right when, in 1874, young populists in rural garb made a “Pilgrimage to the People” hoping to rouse revolt. Its thorough failure—some were turned over to the police by incredulous peasants—would lead a number of them to terrorism. For intellectuals, however, populism had a certain moral advantage over Marxism, which had also begun to attract interest. Marxism proposed that there were unavoidable stages of development—only capitalist industrialization could bring the abundance required for a classless society—which meant that Russian peasants now had to suffer mass proletarianization. “All this ‘maiming of women and children’ we still have before us,” the populist theorist Nikolai Mikhailovski wrote caustically, “and from the standpoint of Marx’s historical theory, we should not protest . . . the steep but necessary steps to the temple of happiness.”
Such thinking led populists to prioritize the “social question.” Political liberalization of the autocracy would just bring a bourgeoisie to power followed by capitalist misery. Marxists, by contrast, put “politics first.” The coming revolution had to be bourgeois and liberal. In 1885, Georgi Plekhanov, often called the “father of Russian Marxism,” warned: were revolutionaries to take power in Russia’s pre-capitalist conditions to pursue a classless society, the result would be “a political abortion . . . a revival of Tsarist despotism on a communist basis.” The Russian Social Democratic Labor party advocated on its founding in 1898 an “immediate” goal of political liberalization (a constitution, a parliament, universal suffrage, a free press) and an “ultimate” one of socialization.
Lenin, early in his revolutionary career, argued against sharp distinctions between Marxism and populism since both addressed laboring classes. This may have originated in ideas of his older brother, Alexander, who was executed in 1887 for participation in a populist conspiracy to assassinate the Tsar. Alexander’s few publications unevenly combined populist and Marxist notions, suggesting that perhaps stages of development could be “telescoped.” Writing in the 1890s, Lenin asserted that Marxists ought to see the “democratic kernel” in Russian populism and scorn Hegelian “faith in the necessity of each country having to pass through the phases of capitalism and other nonsense.” Still he considered populism flawed because it was “Janus-like”—one face to the future and the other to past, obsolete social forms.
The stress on science among many radical intellectuals also derived from their hostility to the regime’s religious self-justifications: if a higher authority blessed Tsarism, scientific rationality had to challenge it. Yet science could also become a cult in which “objectivity” produced eternal laws all while it came from eternal laws. This cast of mind is hardly amenable to pluralism or democratic politics. Once you have “made progress in science,” Lenin wrote, there is no point to “new views.” He repeatedly invoked Marxism as a “science” while circumventing the implications of Marx’s actual theories, asserting a will to revolution that trumped all else. Russia, after all, lacked the large proletariat that in Marx’s view would overthrow capitalism. Lenin’s temperament was also a factor. “When you speak to him,” recalled Vladimir Medem, a leader of the Jewish Labor Bund, “he looks at you . . . as if to say, ‘There’s not a word of truth in what you are saying! Oh well, go on; me you won’t deceive.’”
Tactical maneuvers, at which Lenin excelled, made his faction of Social Democrats the Bolsheviks, or “men of the majority,” at a party congress-in-exile in 1903. He pushed successfully for resolutions he knew would lead some of his adversaries to walk out. Martov, once his close comrade, then had to challenge him as leader of the Mensheviks, or “men of the minority.” Even though Lenin’s manufactured majority was only temporary, the arguments of 1903 were fateful ones. Lenin advocated that Social Democrats become a centralized, “vanguard party” of professional revolutionaries. Based on the “spontaneity-science” distinction of What Is to Be Done?, this was the core of Leninism, combined with “democratic centralism”—a pyramidal structure of cells and higher committees that inevitably became centralized and not democratic.
Martov and other social democratic critics already saw then where this would lead. Leon Trotsky was initially against Lenin and predicted that after the party substituted itself for workers, a central committee would substitute for the party, and finally a dictator for the central committee. Later Trotsky, who embraced Bolshevism in 1917, would be victimized by what his younger self got right. Yet he too bound himself to an inflexible, positivist notion of science. Pisarev contended that scientifically informed “new men” would “arrange their lives” so that their “personal interests would in no way contradict the real interests of society.” Trotsky insisted that “To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party . . . ”
Trotsky made that statement in the late 1930s, not long before a Stalinist agent assassinated him. The exiled Bolshevik was responding to John Dewey, who had led a commission of intellectuals that exonerated him of Stalin’s trumped-up allegations. But Dewey also made his differences with Trotsky clear. For this American philosopher, scientific endeavor hinged on experiment and experience which, in turn, required accepting that one may be mistaken. Trotsky declared “class struggle” to be the “law of all laws” from which all politics had to be deduced. Experience, Dewey countered, showed human life to be more complicated. Science depended on pluralism, disagreements, and consequently democracy and liberalism, however “bourgeois” Trotsky found those words.
Dewey’s criticism of Trotsky bore an affinity to the profound flaws that Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg had identified in Bolshevism. She and Lenin had radically different views of “spontaneity.” For Luxemburg, self-mastery learned by workers struggling against oppression was more important than a party’s “correct” consciousness. Lenin, she charged in 1918, veered into dangerous territory when he maintained that as a bourgeois state oppressed workers, a proletarian state would oppress the bourgeoisie. A bourgeois state, she pointed out, meant rule of a minority for its own benefit and with no need to educate the majority to take power into its own hands. She compared the Bolsheviks to Jacobins in the French revolution during the 1790s. Their minority rule had made state terror indispensable. But real freedom was not bourgeois or proletarian:
Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only of the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.
She accused Lenin and Trotsky of imagining socialism by decree. By contrast, Luxemburg’s revolution had to be a “school of public life.” Against Lenin’s party, with its “dictatorial force of the factory overseer,” she insisted that “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only bureaucracy remains as the active element.” For both the Marxist Luxemburg and the liberal-democratic Dewey, true freedom was inseparable from experimentation.
Lenin had an immediate reply: Luxemburg chased fantasies. In fact, a Tsarist official, Sergei Zubatov, had organized unions under police watch and thereby controlled by the authorities, just at the time Lenin was writing What Is to Be Done? (Not complete control: when some waged strikes, Zubatov was dismissed.) Police unions like these exemplified why Lenin thought it imperative to “combat spontaneity.” What Lenin wouldn’t—or couldn’t—admit was that a party with “objective” consciousness would lead to a police state. Martov, notes his biographer, Israel Getzler, thought a social democratic party had to see itself as incomplete until it was an organization of mass democracy. If professional revolutionaries were a necessity under Tsarism, they were emphatically not the point of social democracy. “The wider the title of party member is spread,” said Martov, “the better. We could but rejoice if every striker or demonstrator, when called to account [before a police court] . . . could declare himself a party member. . . . ” Lenin would charge (with some distortion) that “Comrade Martov’s fundamental idea—self-enrolment in the party” in order to build it “from the bottom up” was “false ‘democracy.’”
By 1912, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had split from each other entirely. Lenin opposed reconciliation so fervently, notes historian Orlando Figes, that when, after the Tsar’s fall, he planned to travel from Zurich to Petersburg masquerading as a deaf and dumb Swede, his wife urged against it. She fretted that he would expose himself by denouncing Mensheviks in his sleep. Sectarianism bears a curious relation to consciousness.
Russian Marxists expended extraordinary energy analyzing both whether and how to foment revolution in their country, with its weak bourgeoisie and peasant majority. In the abortive 1905 revolution, the Socialist Revolutionaries advocated bypassing capitalism while Lenin, whose role in the events was minimal, spoke of a vanguard party making bourgeois revolution through a “democratic dictatorship of proletarians and peasants.” A dozen years later, after the Tsar’s fall, he argued that Russia could head directly into socialism, which inevitably meant that the peasantry had to suffer proletarianization and become urban wage-earners.
It was Trotsky who came up with a theoretical innovation that proposed that Russia could advance to socialism without going through an extended period of capitalism. In his 1906 pamphlet “Results and Prospects,” he argued that “uneven development” of the global economy made “backwardness” the key to worldwide revolutionary change. Capital’s pursuit of markets “telescoped” features of different developmental stages in “backward” lands, creating conflicts of feudal classes against the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Upheavals triggered by this combination would then spread internationally. The move without “interruption” toward socialism was possible since proletarians in industrialized countries would take power and harness advanced economic capacities now in their hands to aid their comrades everywhere.
This was dexterous theorizing: the universal class would attain socialist consciousness in advance of high capitalism, while the “socio-historical process” still depended on the development of productive forces. Trotsky’s assessment dovetailed significantly with Lenin’s 1916 theory of imperialism as “the highest” and “final stage of capitalism.” Lenin traced the origins of the First World War to the clash of European states serving imperialist pursuits. These theories would together provide “Marxist” justification for the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Martov, by contrast, believed consistently that it was impossible to plunge from semi-feudal realities into socialism. Like Lenin and Trotsky, he called Marxism “scientific,” but that told him that there were stages of development and so his politics parted strikingly from theirs. He concluded that the alternative to plunging was democratization. How, he asked on the eve of the 1905 upheaval, could Russian Marxists coordinate “immediate” efforts for democracy with “tasks” pointing to a socialist future? His solution: Marxists should not try to grab state power but work to strengthen the soviets and to enhance local self-government, both as means to democracy. “Municipalization” could counter-balance whatever “bourgeois” regime arose. Instead of nationalizing land ownership, for which most Marxists called, Martov wanted it also municipalized. His positions in 1917 followed from this kind of thinking.
Lenin, Trotsky, and Martov all returned to Russia from political exile in the spring of 1917. The first two became allies in the ensuing commotion. The Mensheviks had attained considerable popularity—together with the SRs, they dominated the soviets—only to lose it as they were consumed by internal discord about the war and their relationship to the Provisional Government. Martov, an opponent both of the war and of joining the government, wanted to strengthen the soviets and press for further democratization of Russia. But he led a minority among the Mensheviks and was unable to master the party or the political situation.
So, the Mensheviks fragmented while mass mobilization and turmoil surrounded them. They had some 200,000 members in the summer of 1917 but garnered a meager 3 percent of the votes for the Constituent Assembly later that fall. After Lenin disbanded the Assembly, however, Martov continued to defend the Assembly’s legitimacy in the belief that a democratic republic, not a leap into socialism, ought to be atop Russia’s agenda. While he was usually, almost inevitably, on target intellectually, he proved no match for Lenin’s organizational agility and willfulness.
In October 1917, Martov opposed the Bolshevik capture of power and proposed an alternative at the Second Congress of Soviets: a broad-based government including all socialist parties. Voted down, he started to walk out. Trotsky, who was chairing the meeting, called out what became famous words: “Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history.” Another voice shouted that Bolsheviks had hoped Martov would be with them. Martov replied: “One day you’ll understand the crime in which you are taking part.” A little over a month later, the Cheka, the state political police, was established. Lenin wanted it headed by a “proletarian Jacobin.” Trotsky had, years earlier, urged against pretending that Jacobinism was a “supra-social ‘revolutionary’ category” and warned about the emergence of a new Robespierre; he even referred explicitly to “Maximillian Lenin.” But in December 1917, he enthused about the “remarkable invention of the French revolution which makes men shorter by a head.”
Martov, as Getzler observed, intractably opposed state terror and kept trying to rescue the revolution. It was futile, yet he did expose, with remarkable lucidity, what was happening and and its implications. In January 1918, he spoke at a Trade Union Congress against the Bolshevik proposition that independent unions were no longer necessary in the “proletarian” state. Socialism, Martov argued, could not come about without a mass urban proletariat in advanced industry; this did not yet exist, and Russia’s small working class was comprised largely of former villagers who had come to cities for work but were still tied to the rural world. They lacked managerial and industrial skills while those who had them, white-collar workers, opposed socialism. Non-proletarian laborers (peasants) did not favor socialism. Consequently, workers, both as they were and might be, needed independent unions to defend themselves.
Contrast Martov’s line of reasoning with that of Trotsky two years later at another Trade Union Congress. Mensheviks had denounced use of forced labor by the “proletarian” state. Trotsky’s retort: Mensheviks were “captives of bourgeois ideology.” Without forced labor, “the whole socialist economy is doomed . . . there is no other way of attaining socialism except through the command allocation of the entire labor force by the economic center. . . . ”
The real issue was a broken economy, not because of the civil war (by 1920, the Red Army was clearly winning), but because the Bolsheviks were trying to create a socialist economy in conditions in which they could not possibly succeed. Despite their “science,” they swerved from one program to another. In 1921, the Bolsheviks had to abandon “war Communism” and adopt a “New Economic Policy,” that is, economic liberalization. This was accompanied by fierce political repression.
Martov left Russia in 1920, as the regime was arresting most of his Menshevik comrades. He died in Germany in 1923. In his final years, he wrote a series of essays compiled as The State and Socialist Revolution. Lenin, he wrote, claimed that Russia’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” followed measures taken—with Marx’s praise—by the Paris Commune of 1871. Martov then went down the list. Unlike the Commune, Russia had no popular elections nor regular recall of officials. There was an expansive political police and no popular control of courts. Production remained hierarchical. Local communities were deprived of self-government.
In a brilliant insight, Martov pointed out that the Bolsheviks repudiated the “democratic parliamentarism” of bourgeois society, but not “instruments of state power”—the bureaucracy, the police, and a standing army—to which parliamentarism was “a counterweight” in bourgeois society. Moreover, the state and the party were, step by step, merging. The Leninist party claimed to represent the consciousness of a non-existent, homogenous majority and this was an illusion that could only be maintained through state terror.
Where does this leave Marx? To say he was culpable for either Leninism or Stalinism fails to take seriously Bolshevism’s distinctiveness and its departure from his ideas (and from those of most social democrats of Lenin’s era). But if the right, simplistically and often demagogically, can still make Marx the original sinner, leftists ought not to have made him an infallible oracle. In that same essay in which Marx spoke of the “nightmare,” The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), he chastised “die Sozial-Democratie.” Marx had a very specific target in mind: a political coalition that amalgamated a workers’ movement and “petty-bourgeois” republicans, requiring the former to yield some of its radical social thrust and the latter to become more “social.” This alliance faltered, losing to conservatives and to a rising autocrat. Marx criticized it in canny ways but without fully appreciating the implications. To contest fiercely the exploitation of workers is one thing; to envisage the proletariat as the universalizing agent of history another. Marx’s scorn for “social democracy” rested on a belief in the world-historical mission of that sole social class. What, however, if the proletariat was not to universalize all interests? What if classes and societies were to become more differentiated? What if other factors in addition to classes, real and imagined, shape history?
Certainly, all those “what ifs” no longer need posing, and even if the social democracy Marx chastised failed, it still pointed to the only plausible, if often unsatisfying, alternative for democratic egalitarianism: social and political coalitions forged by unavoidable compromises. That is how majorities are created that can be drawn leftward. Not by substituting an imaginary new universalizing agent—say, the Third or post-colonial worlds, as has been the wont of some on the left—for the one that did not do the job as the theory defined it. These are two different kinds of movements: a left that substitutes protagonists wherever things don’t seem to go its precise way and a left that fashions ever broader alliances to tug a society towards democratic egalitarianism.
Coalition-making was not Lenin’s scientific way, not with social-democratic comrades in 1903 nor with other left-wing parties in October 1917. Bolshevism’s practical and theoretical answer to challenges from the left or, simply, from reality, was finally, “so what?” Revolutionary will dissolves them. Martov understood that it does not, and his dissent pushed him so far as to recognize in 1921 that “The state of the world is at present so exceptional that it does not at all fit our usual schemes of Marxist analysis.” After all, men and women do make their own history but not in circumstances they choose. Martov’s pained statement remains so today, apart from the assertion of exceptionality.
Mitchell Cohen is an editor emeritus of Dissent. His books include The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart (Princeton University Press, 2017), The Wager of Lucien Goldmann (Princeton University Press, 1994), and Zion and State (Columbia University Press, 1992). He is professor of Political Science at Bernard Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Author’s note: My sources for this article include Martov’s The State and Socialist Revolution; Israel Getzler, Martov; Abe Ascher, The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Brovkin, The Mensheviks after October. Vera Broido, Lenin and the Mensheviks. I have found especially helpful books by Andrzej Walicki, particularly A History of Russian Thought, and The Controversy over Capital and Vladimir Vucinich, Social Thought in Tsarist Russia: The Quest for a General Science of Society, 1861-1917.