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Liberalizing Lenin?

In response to:

Communist Myths from the April 17, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

The battle around the historiography of the Russian Revolution is fought across opposing ideological trenches. The Russians bombard us with scenes of an heroic vanguard led by the omniscient and selfless Lenin. The Anglo-American axis returns fire with images of a malevolent cabal dominated by the ruthless and opportunistic Lenin. One cannot be surprised that any attempt to break out of this intellectually complacent stalemate draws an immediate strafe from one of the leading excavators of the Anglo-American trench, Leonard Schapiro. But Schapiro’s position appears far from impregnable [NYR, April 17].

First the facts belie Schapiro’s attempts to portray the October Revolution as a putsch. The Bolsheviks collected 52 percent of the vote in elections to the Second Congress of Soviets in October 1917—elections in which twenty million participated. Even in the November Constituent Assembly elections, the Bolsheviks carried 47 percent of the vote in Moscow and Petrograd, over 40 percent of the vote in other industrial regions, and over 60 percent among frontline military detachments. In short, voters in regions closest to revolutionary centers approved the actions of the Bolsheviks in overthrowing a badly discredited Provisional Government. The evidence incontrovertibly shows that the Bolsheviks rode a crest of popular support into October and well beyond it. Uyezd soviet elections show Bolshevik strength actually increasing following the revolution peaking at 66 percent in March 1918 before precipitously tumbling to 45 percent by August. A politically promising worker-peasant alliance swept the Bolsheviks into power. The breakdown of this alliance was less the product of Lenin’s machinations than events beyond the control of the Bolsheviks such as the forced grain requisitions necessitated by the German annexations and the onset of civil war. As a result, the Bolsheviks lost the invaluable political capital acquired through land redistribution. Henceforth the peasantry supported the Bolshevik regime only on sufferance as the lesser evil to a White Restoration.

Even more suspect is Schapiro’s contention that Lenin was bent from the outset on establishing a one party dictatorship. He curiously overlooks Lenin’s September 1917 On Compromises article proposing a Bolshevik entry into a coalition government with the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. Keep in mind that Lenin’s offer came after the Kornilov coup attempt and the subsequent political resurgence of the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s proposal was made from a position of strength and, not incidentally, fully consistent with the policy the Bolsheviks had pursued since April. Faced with an inevitable Bolshevik majority in the soviets, the SR-Menshevik bloc spurned this offer, and maneuvered to avert their own political eclipse by resurrecting the long delayed Constituent Assembly. Kerensky also displayed few democratic scruples in his unsuccessful October 1917 attempt to dispatch the radicalized Petrograd garrison to the front as a prelude to crushing the Bolshevik-controlled soviet. As is to be expected in a revolutionary situation, intrigue abounded on all sides. Lenin was not dealing with the Hamlet-like characters portrayed by Schapiro, but opponents as “Leninist” as himself.

The Whiggish dogmatism characteristic of the Anglo-American axis causes Schapiro to overlook the even more pertinent fact that the Left SRs entered the Bolshevik government in December 1917, assuming seven ministerial posts in what Lenin termed “an honest coalition.” The Left SRs eventually bolted this alliance on their own initiative, refusing to take responsibility for the onerous conditions of the Brest peace. No party from the Bolsheviks to the British Liberals enter a coalition to lose influence but Schapiro’s assertion that Lenin sought a Bolshevik political monopoly smacks of the historical determinism generally attributed to Soviet historians. Administrative centralization required by the civil war and indifferent SR-Menshevik support for the war effort played a far greater role in ushering in a one party dictatorship than Lenin’s psychological aberrations.

Schapiro agrees with his Soviet counterpart that Lenin’s Faction Ban was meant to be a permanent governing principle of the Soviet state. But in his speech to the Tenth Party Congress, Lenin repeatedly stressed that these measures were temporary expedients for dealing with the emergency situation prevailing after the civil war. Historical circumstances much more than Lenin’s political preferences forced the Bolsheviks to rely on a paternalistic party dictatorship to foster the reconsolidation of a declasse proletariat and restore the shattered worker-peasant alliance. Lenin’s fatal error was to believe that the proletarianization of the bureaucracy through the recruitment of lower class cadre into the administrative machine would lead to the dissemination of socialist norms rather than the bureaucratization of the proletarians and the emergence of a new ruling group. Schapiro’s reference to the Cheka slights the attempts of Lenin to curb the powers of the police in 1922. Even as late as 1928, only 30,000 non-political prisoners were in the Gulags of the NEP era, so any comparison with those of the Stalin era—two million by 1934—makes for good polemics but invidious history.

Schapiro’s Macbeth-like Lenin is only the flip side of the Soviet promethean caricature. Given the complex antecedents and aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Western scholars must admit that there exists and begin exploring Das Lenin Problem with the seriousness it deserves. Focusing on Lenin’s power lust explains everything and nothing. We can thus ignore Lenin’s often profound analysis of the Tsarist social system and its relation to Bolshevik political strategy, his conception of direct council democracy and its relation to parliamentary democracy, and his analysis of imperialism…

Patrick Flaherty

Woburn, Massachusetts

Leonard Schapiro replies:

Except that I write in English, in England, I am not aware of being a member of the “Anglo-American axis,” let alone an “excavator of the Anglo-American trench”—whatever Mr. Flaherty may mean by these terms. I do not know what “axis” or “trench” Mr. Flaherty adorns, but since—if his letter is anything to go by—its methods are based on distortion, cavalier treatment of facts and plain invention, it is not one for which I feel any strong admiration.

Mr. Flaherty distorts what I wrote by implying that I have suggested that the Bolsheviks enjoyed no popular support in 1917 and for some months after. I should have thought that I had made it plain enough to anyone who can read that the evidence suggested that the considerable support which the Bolsheviks enjoyed was based on the false belief that they intended to inaugurate a “coalition” government of all the socialist parties represented in the Soviets, and not just a Bolshevik monopoly of power.

Mr. Flaherty also distorts me by implying that I have anywhere equated the scale of Lenin’s repressive policy with that of Stalin’s. Again, I think I made it as plain as could be that Stalin only took over from Lenin the instruments and methods of rule which Lenin inaugurated. (Incidentally, Lenin as Macbeth—vacillating, guilt-ridden and wife-dominated—is an intriguing thought to have attributed to me! Perhaps Mr. Flaherty’s acquaintance with Shakespeare is as tenuous as his knowledge of the October revolution?)

As for cavalier treatment of facts, to call in aid the article “On Compromises” as evidence of Lenin’s sincere intention to form a coalition is, to put it mildly, naïve. A postscript to the article dismissed the “offer” as “belated,” and no one, not even the pro-Bolshevik chronicler of the revolution, Sukhanov, took the “offer” seriously. I am, incidentally, surprised that Mr. Flaherty has not adduced the two other familiar examples of Lenin’s liberal intentions—the article on the press of September 28, 1917, setting out proposed Bolshevik policy: fair allocation of resources to all parties; or Lenin’s statement to the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets that the Bolsheviks would accept the verdict of the Constituent Assembly even if it should return a Socialist Revolutionary majority—a promise repeated in a speech a few weeks later. All these ploys were a part of Lenin’s campaign of deception—though it is true to say that few were deceived at the time. His real views appear from a private remark in the Central Committee on November 14, 1917, when the question of coalition with the Socialists was under consideration. “The discussions,” said Lenin, according to the official record, “should have been treated merely as diplomatic cover for military action” to give time to send troops to Moscow. The short-lived coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries was forced on the Bolsheviks by pressure from the railway union, and was never treated as a real coallition by the Bolsheviks, in the sense of taking any notice of the Left Socialist Revolutionary views on policy.

And now invention. There is not one word in the ten speeches and interventions which Lenin made at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 to suggest that the ban on free speech was to be temporary. That may have been his view, as I believe Trotsky says somewhere. If so, Lenin was knocked out of action in the following year and precluded from doing anything about restoring freedom of discussion—if that was ever his intention.

I hope Mr. Flaherty will not take it amiss if a veteran “excavator of the Anglo-American trench” offers him some advice: in future pay more scrupulous regard to the facts, and less attention to the promptings of emotion.

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