Vivid reports of the struggle of two parties vying for supremacy in postczarist Russia.
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Menshevik Reports on the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War
By Vladimir N. Brovkin
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1991 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Iu. O. Martov to P. B. Axelrod
19 November 1917, Petersburg
Dear Pavel Borisovich!
At last it seems I have the opportunity to write you a letter and to send it; from the moment of Lenin's coup the border has been shut even more hermetically, and there is no possibility, it seems, of maintaining contact. More than ever before I feel your absence and the difficulty of maintaining contact with you at a time when both the revolution and our Social Democracy are going through the moment of their sharpest and most dangerous crisis. The worst one could have expected has happened — the seizure of power by Lenin and Trotsky at a time when even those who are less insane than they are could have made irretrievable mistakes on the assumption of power. But what is even more terrible is that the moment has arrived when conscience does not allow us Marxists to do what seems imperative: side with the proletariat even when it is mistaken. After painful vacillation and hesitation I decided that in this situation it is better to wash my hands of everything and step aside for awhile rather than to remain in the role of opposition in the camp where Lenin and Trotsky are determining the fate of the revolution.
The coup was predetermined, as is now clear, by the entire preceding development. In September, the Kornilov conspiracy [General L. G. Kornilov ordered the troops under his command to march on Petrograd in August 1917. As is generally acknowledged, this revolutionized the Petrograd garrison and workers and thus contributed to the Bolshevik cause. See J. D. White, "The Kornilov Affair: A Study in Counterrevolution," Soviet Studies 20 (1968).] revealed first the terrible resentment of the propertied world against the revolution; second, the internal decomposition of the coalition government, where Savinkovs [Boris Savinkov — before 1917, a terrorist and a member of PSR — in the summer of 1917, commissar of the provisional government; in September 1917, expelled from the Socialist Revolutionary party for his role in the Kornilov affair] were Kornilov's accomplices; and third, the still intense revolutionary enthusiasm of the workers and soldiers' masses and their readiness to rally again to the side of the soviets and their leaders when necessary to safeguard the revolution. At the same time, the Kornilov conspiracy, with all its far-reaching branches, as well as the soldiers' revolution at the front, which overthrew counterrevolutionary generals and officers, apparently disorganized the army so definitively that the task of concluding peace immediately, even without honor, was put point-blank to the Democratic Conference. [This conference took place in Petrograd from 27 September to 6 October 1917. Convened to resolve a government crisis, it consisted of representatives of various political parties and public organizations.] Both our and the SR [Socialist Revolutionary] Defensists seemed to be aware of this. The majority in the Menshevik faction turned out to be for rejecting the coalition [with the Kadets] and for creating a general democratic government. [Most likely Martov means a government of all Socialist political parties.] Bogdanov [B. O. Bogdanov, a Defensist Menshevik, during 1914-1917, was a worker representative in the labor group of the Central War Industries Committee. After the February Revolution of 1917, Bogdanov became one of Tsereteli's key associates and a prominent leader in the Petrograd soviet and the Central Executive Committee.], Isuv [I. A. Isuv, a leader of the Moscow Mensheviks and a member of the Moscow soviet; in 1917 he was a Revolutionary Defensist after the December 1917 Menshevik party congress supported Martov's policy; in 1918 he became a leader of the Menshevik opposition faction in the Moscow soviet.], Khinchuk [L. M. Khinchuk became, after the February Revolution, a key Menshevik leader in Moscow and was the chairman of the Moscow soviet until September 1917. He was also a member of the Menshevik Central Committee; politically, he was a Revolutionary Defensist. At the end of the civil war he defected to the Bolsheviks and died in Stalin's camps.], Cherevanin [N. Cherevanin (F. A. Lipkin) was a member of the Social Democrat's Central Committee and was known as an economic expert in the Menshevik party. In 1917, he served on the economic council of the Petrograd soviet. Although initially a Defensist, by the fall of 1917, Cherevanin was moving closer to Martov's political position.], and many other Defensists favored that course. Fedor Il'ich [Fedor Il'ich Dan (Gurvich), a key leader of the Menshevik party and, in 1917, chairman of the Central Executive Committee, was the leader of the party center that supported Tsereteli's policy on war and coalition with the Kadets until September 1917. In the political jargon of 1917, Dan's and Tsereteli's policy was called Revolutionary Defensism and their supporters, a majority in the Menshevik party — Revolutionary Defensists.] was also for it at first and only later, clearly yielding to the pressure of Tsereteli [I. G. Tsereteli — a member of the Central Executive Committee and a minister in Kerensky's government — played a much bigger role in 1917 than his official positions would suggest, shaping the outline of the provisional government's policy in addition to his leadership of the Central Executive Committee. A Revolutionary Defensist, Tsereteli supported the June offensive. He embodied the link between the soviets and the provisional government and defended to the end his firm belief that the Socialists had to rule in a coalition with the Liberals (Kadets) to prevent civil war. He was the architect of several governmental coalitions in 1917, including the last one in September, which Martov criticized in this letter. See W. H. Roobol, Tsereteli, A Democrat in the Russian Revolution: A Political Biography (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1976).], Liber [Mark Liber (M. I. Goldman) — a member of the Central Committee of both the Jewish Bund and the Mensheviks in 1917, a leader of the Central Executive Committee, a Revolutionary Defensist, and an outspoken supporter of Tsereteli's policy — remained throughout his life a staunch opponent of bolshevism and died in Stalin's prisons in the late 1930s], and Skobelev [M. I. Skobelev was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets and minister of labor in the provisional government, May-September 1917.] was inclined to repeat the experiment of a coalition [with the Kadets] again. But what was most characteristic was that all the Caucasians who had arrived from the provinces, headed by Zhordaniia [Noi Zhordaniia — the leader of the Georgian Mensheviks and in 1917 a member of the Menshevik Central Committee — initially supported Tsereteli's policy. By the fall of 1917, as Martov relates, Zhordaniia became critical of the continued coalition with the Kadets. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, Zhordaniia became the head of government of independent Georgia until 21 February 1921, when the Red Army invaded Georgia and occupied the country.] and Ramishvilli [I. I. Ramishvilli was a leader of the Georgian Mensheviks and in 1917 a member of the EC of the Petrograd soviet.], demanded that the coalition be broken. They sharply criticized Tsereteli's entire policy. The situation was such that I spoke at the [Democratic] Conference as the official spokesman for the delegation of the soviets and for the majority of the Menshevik faction. [Several factions in the Menshevik party usually presented their own diverse political views not only at party gatherings but also in multiparty assemblies, like the Democratic Conference.] A considerable minority in the SR party favored breaking the coalition as well. Nevertheless, the coalition was restored with the same Tereshchenko [M. I. Tereshchenko was minister of finance (March-May 1917) and minister of foreign affairs (May-October 1917) in the provisional government.] as the head. To compensate for this, [they created] the preparliament and gave it a consultative role. [Created at the Democratic Conference, the preparliament's name emphasized that it was a temporary legislative institution preceding the Constituent Assembly, which was to be elected just three weeks later.] It is my firm conviction that, had our influential leaders displayed at least some steadfastness, the Right SRs, the SRs, and even Kerensky himself would have agreed to try a purely democratic cabinet with a simple program: to start peace negotiations immediately, to convene the C[onstituent] A[ssembly] immediately, and to fulfill the promise to transfer [the authority over] land to the Land Committees. [The Land Committees were created by the provisional government on 21 April 1917 for "preparation of the agrarian reform." For a discussion of the structure and activity of Land Committees, see Marc Ferro, The Russian Revolution of February 1917 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972), pp. 282-86.] This became our program in the preparliament. Soon afterward some Defensists, including Fedor Il'ich [Dan], went along, more or less, with us. (Tsereteli and Chkheidze [N. S. Chkheidze — member of the Menshevik Central Committee; before 1917, the head of the SD fraction in the Fourth State Duma; after the February 1917 Revolution, the first chairman of the Petrograd soviet; a Revolutionary Defensist; and a supporter of Tsereteli — favored coalition with the Kadets and lost his chairmanship of the Petrograd soviet to the Bolsheviks in early September 1917.] left for Caucasia.) The breakdown of the army and imminent economic bankruptcy have finally begun to convince even the most stubborn ones.
In September the minister [of defense], Verkhovskii, declared in the Defense Commission that the situation was so bad that it was necessary to conclude peace immediately, even if it were a separate and shameful peace. The navy minister, Verderevskii, supported him. The economics ministers (Konovalov, Gvozdev, Prokopovich) [A. I. Konovalov: minister of trade and industry; K. A. Gvozdev: minister of labor; S. N. Prokopovich: minister of food supplies in the last cabinet of the provisional government] and the [minister of] transportation, Liverovskii, leaned toward the same. This time Tereshchenko managed to overthrow Verkhovskii thanks to a new fit of weakness on the part of Dan, Skobelev, Gots [A. R. Gots — a leader of the PSR, a member of the PSR Central Committee, and a member of the EC of the Petrograd soviet — favored continued coalition with the Kadets.], Avksent'ev [N. D. Avksent'ev, a political leader of the PSR right wing and a close associate of Alexander Kerensky, in October 1917 was the chairman of the preparliament.], and others, but the breach had already been made. Even Kuskova [E. D. Kuskova, an influential publicist and politician, was famous in Socialist circles for her brochure Credo, which was understood as the Russian version of Marxist revisionism.], some Trudoviki [Trudoviki before February 1917 was a faction closely associated with the PSR in the Fourth State Duma with Kerensky as their leader. After February 1917, Trudoviki merged with the PSR and became its most moderate wing.], and the Right SRs decided to take an energetic step. (To be sure, Potresov [A. N. Potresov — a founder of the RSDWP, a member of the Menshevik Central Committee, and, in 1917, an outspoken Defensist — supported the war policy of the provisional government.] and Ortodoks remained faithful to the program jusqu' au bout [to the end].)
On 24 October, a resolution was adopted in the preparliament by the entire left side (except Trudoviki and some Plekhanovites, with several Defensists abstaining), to begin negotiations on a general peace immediately. Doing this, they reckoned, would prevent a sharp conflict with the [Second] Congress of Soviets, which was to open on 25 October and discuss the question of transferring all power to the soviets. But it was too late. On the night of the twenty-fourth, Lenin's military revolutionary committee had a number of strategic positions occupied by its sailors and soldiers, and in the morning Petrograd learned of the accomplished seizure of power. The technical side of the undertaking was carried out masterfully, whereas the fighting ability of Kerensky's government turned out to be equal to zero, even though just a day earlier he had announced in the preparliament that "all measures had been taken," that "any attempt [at an uprising] would be crushed at once," and so on.
All this happened because, after the Democratic Conference, which had restored the coalition with its program of vague promises, a catastrophic flight of the masses to Lenin began. The soviets began to go over to the Bolsheviks one after another without any new elections: the middle-income peasants [seredniak, Because most soldiers were former peasants, Martov uses this term in regard to soldiers as well.] and workers were defecting to the Bolsheviks. All factions, except the Bolsheviks, became a pitiful minority in Piter [Russian for Peter, a widely used name for Saint Petersburg] soviet in the course of a few weeks. Chkheidze and the entire presidium of the soviet were overthrown. The same occurred in Moscow with Khinchuk and in almost all the big cities. [For a detailed discussion of the nature of the workers' vote in Moscow, see Diane Koenker, Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 215-27.] Simultaneously, this epidemic seized the army. Not being able to overthrow existing army committees, which comprised almost the entire army intelligentsia and not yet daring to establish an undisguised autocracy of soldiers, the regiments, divisions, and army corps, bypassing the [army] committees, began to send delegations, evermore numerous and clamorous, to Peter[sburg] with the demand that peace be concluded immediately. More and more often this was followed by a demand to transfer power to the soviets.
Nevertheless, it probably would not have come to a straightforward insurrection because the urban masses were passive and did not go beyond passing resolutions. Apparently, the experience of 3-5 July had left its mark. [In history 3-5 July 1917 is known as the July days, when demonstrations against the provisional government were organized by the Bolsheviks and when the government suppressed what it believed was the Bolshevik attempt to seize power. For a detailed treatment of the July days, see Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990), pp. 385-439.] The army continued to endure as long as there was food and as long as it was not cold. Had the Socialist majority proceeded at a quicker pace toward the formation of a "government of immediate peace" (which could only have been coalition-free), perhaps Lenin might have lost hope for a successful insurrection. Intense struggle against Lenin and Trotsky was going on within the Bolshevik ranks. Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Riazanov were trying to postpone the denouement. [In September and early October 1917, Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power and leaked to the press that the Bolsheviks were preparing an insurrection. In the 1920s, this was labeled the October treason and used against them.] Apparently Lenin understood the urgency and cut this knot with a sword.
The way the seizure [of power] was carried out and the very fact that it was done on the eve of the [Second] Congress [of Soviets], where the Bolsheviks had a slight majority, was so disgusting that one could not deplore our and SR Defensists' decision to walk out of the congress immediately and to abandon Smolny [a building in Petrograd where the Second Congress of Soviets took place, which until March 1918 was the seat of the Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary government; the name Smolny quickly became identified with the Bolsheviks, hence Bolshevik regime equals Smolny regime] forever. We [a faction of Menshevik Internationalists led by Martov] nevertheless contended with this mood and insisted that there should be no walkout without giving Lenin a fight. What we proposed was to present an ultimatum at the very beginning demanding cessation of hostilities (the siege of the Winter Palace where the ministers had barricaded themselves was going on at this time) and starting negotiations on a peaceful resolution of the crisis in order to create a democratic government with a program acceptable to all. Our admonitions did not work. Partly due to indignation, partly to an illusion that Lenin would not hold out for even three days in Peter[sburg], the Mensheviks, SRs, and People's Socialists [a left Liberal party, which, in the political context of 1917, can be placed between the Kadets and the Socialist Revolutionaries] decided to walk out [of the congress] at the very beginning. We [about 40 people] remained and presented our ultimatum. It was supported by the left SRs and by the Novaia Zhizn' group [so called after its newspaper, Novaia Zhizn', edited by Maxim Gorky and N. N. Sukhanov; politically a Social Democratic organization close, if not identical, to Martov's Internationalists]. The congress disregarded it, and we walked out a couple of hours after the Defensists. The Novaia Zhizn' group remained for several days and then also walked out in protest against political terror.
Excerpted from Dear Comrades by Vladimir N. Brovkin. Copyright © 1991 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Meet the Author
Vladimir N. Brovkin is an associate professor of history at Harvard University. He emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1975 and received his M.A. from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. from Princeton University.
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