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New International, March-April 1950


David Shub

Fact or Fiction on Lenin’s Role

A Letter From David Shub Defending His Biography of Lenin


From New International, Vol.16 No.2, March-April 1950, pp.86-91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To the Editors of

My attention has been called to Mr. Max Shachtman’s article on my book Lenin, A Biography in your December 1949 issue. I am sufficiently familiar with the tradition of Bolshevik polemics not to be surprised by the abusive and defamatory character of Mr. Shachtman’s review. I reply in your columns only because I believe I am entitled to keep the record clear on the facts upon which Mr. Shachtman rests his case. (I am quite prepared to believe, unless the contrary is proved, that many of Mr. Shachtman’s errors are the product of inadequate grounding in the source materials rather than of deliberate malice.)

1. Mr. Shachtman questions the authenticity of my Lenin quotation on the role of a dictator in the Soviet state. Says Mr. Shachtman, after quoting from the English edition of Lenin’s Selected Works, Vol.2, p.334: “Nothing else that even faintly resembles Shub’s quotation can be found in this article.” Had Mr. Shachtman turned to the first Russian edition of Lenin’s Collected Works (Vol.17, pp.133, 89), published in Moscow in 1923, and the second Russian edition (Vol.25, p.144, Moscow, 1928), he would have found the passages cited in my book.

My paragraph summarizing Lenin’s utterances on the role of the dictators in a Soviet state are taken from the following sources:

  1. “Classes are led by parties, and parties are led by individuals who are called leaders ...” Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder (April 1920), to be found in first Russian edition of Lenin’s Collected Works of 1923, edited by Kamenev. Vol.17, p.133.
  2. “The will of a class is sometimes fulfilled by a.dictator ... Soviet socialist democracy is not in the least incompatible with individual rule and dictatorship ...” – from the speech Economic Development before the Ninth Communist Party Congress delivered March 31, 1920, to be found in the first Russian edition of Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol.17, p.89.
  3. “What is necessary is individual rule, the recognition of the dictatorial powers of one man ... All phrases about equal rights are nonsense.” – from a speech before the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade’ Unions on April 7, 1920, to be found in the second Russian edition of Lenin’s Collected Works, 1928, edited by Bukharin, Molotov and Stepanov-Skvortsov, Vol.25, p.144.

There is an error in the book attributing these statements to Lenin in 1918; all of them were made by him in 1920. This of course is irrelevant. The last phrase (about equal rights) was omitted in the first Russian edition of the Collected Works, which was taken by the editor, Kamenev, from the Pravda rather than from a stenographic account of the meeting. It does appear, however, in the second Russian edition of the Collected Works.

What I attempted to do on page 68 of my book was to give a quick preview of Lenin’s views when in power, as contrasted with what he was writing in the 1904 period. This is obvious by reading the paragraph in its context. In extenso quotations of this and similar character are to be found elsewhere in the book, and in the appendix (Essentials of Leninism).

2. Mr. Shachtman finds it impossible to believe that when Martov, the veteran Russian Socialist leader – addressing the German Independent Socialist Party Congress in Halle in 1920 – spoke of the wholesale terror which Gregory Zinoviev had conducted in Petrograd, there were outcries in the hall of “Hangman” and “Bandit” directed at Zinoviev. Because these words do not appear in the published minutes, he claims they are a forgery. Mr. Shachtman goes on to charge that I invented the speech by Rudolf Hilferding, leader of the German Independent Socialists, which is quoted in the book. “It does not exist!” Mr. Shachtman proclaims in italics. Had Mr. Shachtman pursued his research beyond the minutes to the Berlin Freiheit, official organ of the Independent Socialist Party (editor-in-chief, Rudolf Hilferding), he would have found the epithets “hangman” and “bandit” hurled at Zinoviev, as well as the Hilferding speech – including Hilferding’s words, quoted in my book, which remain a classic Socialist indictment of Bolshevism.

Between us and the Bolsheviks there is not only a wide theoretical difference, but an impassable moral gulf. We realize that they are people with quite a different morality and ethics.

I must confess that I am partly responsible for Mr. Shachtman’s error with regard to Zinoviev. In Note 22 of Chapter 18 of my book, I refer to the minutes of the Halle Congress where the words “hangman” and “bandit” were omitted. But this oversight is corrected by Note 13 of Chapter 19, which refers to the more complete account published in the Freiheit at the time.

What occurred at Halle was that after the decision of the pro-Moscow wing to unite with the Communists and to join the Third International, the Hilferding forces walked out and reassembled in another auditorium, retaining their identity as the Independent Socialist Party. It was here that Hilferding delivered his fine speech, published in the Freiheit, which Mr. Shachtman kindly credits me with inventing.

The Martov and Hilferding addresses were carried not only in the Freiheit but in other Socialist publications in Europe (including the Volia Rossii of November 1, 1920, published in Prague under the editorship of Victor Chernov, chairman of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly which Lenin dissolved in January 1918).

3. Mr. Shachtman cannot believe former Bolshevik Alexander Naglovsky’s testimony as to the ruthless measures taken against lax Communist officials by War Commissar Trotsky when Petrograd was threatened by White General Yudenich. I see no particular reason to doubt Naglovsky’s word. His reputation for veracity was high among suqh socialists as Boris Nicolaevsky and George Denicke, who knew him personally. He withdrew from the Bolshevik movement between the two revolutions – as did Leonid Krassin and others – but later rejoined it. At’the time of Yudenich’s attack, he was transport commissar of the Northern Commune, which included Petrograd.

If Mr. Shachtman were to turn to pp.467-469 of Trotsky’s My Life, he would find that Trotsky makes a special point of emphasizing the blanket powers of life and death delegated to him by Lenin during the civil war. I quote from Trotsky:

In circumstances as serious as those of civil war, with its necessity of making hasty and irrevocable decisions, some of which might have been mistaken, Lenin gave his signature in advance to any decision that I might consider necessary in the future. And these were decisions that carried life or death with them.

There is no suggestion in my book that Trotsky’s summary measures to restore Bolshevik discipline in Petrograd were prompted by his “lusting for blood,” as Mr. Shachtman would have the reader believe.

Here Mr. Shachtman seems to underrate the late War Commissar’s role as the main organizer of Bolshevik victory in the civil war, by refusing to credit him with the iron tenacity of purpose which so many Soviet documents from 1917 through the Kron-stadt uprising amply illustrate. Since I was writing a biography of Lenin, not of Trotsky, I saw no need to belabor the point.

4. My chapter on Kronstadt causes Mr. Shachtman particular discomfort, apparently because of Trotsky’s leading part in the suppression of the uprising. One would assume from reading Mr. Shachtman’s article that my account of what happened in Kronstadt between March 1 and March 17, 1921 is derived solely from Roman Goul’s book on Tukhachevsky. (Mr. Shachtman’s major indictment against Roman Goul – who is now editor of the excellent Russian periodical, Narodnaya Pravda – is that during World War I he was an officer in the Russian army and – horror of horrors! – that in 1918 he served in the army which fought the Bolsheviks and the Germans in southern Russia. I, for one, do not believe that that is sufficient evidence to discredit a man’s writings and label him a liar and “nonentity” as Mr. Shachtman does.)

But the evidence on Kronstadt does not rest on Goul’s testimony, as Mr. Shachtman implies. The chapter is based on many other sources, including the newspaper of the revolting sailors, the Izvestia of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee of the Sailors, Red Army Men, and Workers of the City of Kronstadt (which incidentally referred to Trotsky as “the bloody Field Marshal”). These documents, namely the testimony of the sailors themselves, were published in photostat form in a book entitled The Truth About Kronstadt, which appeared in Prague in 1921 (see Note 4, Chapter 20, of my book).

I would also commend to Mr. Shachtman’s attention the memoirs of Alexander Berkman, the noted American radical who was in Russia at the time. Berkman wrote:

March 17 – Kronstadt has fallen today. Thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in the streets. Summary execution of prisoners and hostages continues.

Or does Mr. Shachtman seriously dispute Trotsky’s role in the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt? Does he prefer the version given by the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), Moscow, 1945, p. 250:

Against the Kronstadt mutineers the party sent its finest sons – delegates to the Tenth Congress, headed by Comrade Voroshilov.

5. At this late date, Mr. Shachtman still cannot reconcile himself to the simple fact that the German General Staff was instrumental in Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917 (“Our government, in sending Lenin to Russia took upon itself a tremendous responsibility,” wrote General Ludendorff in his memoirs. “From a military point of view, his journey was justified, for it was imperative that Russia should fall.”)

Still less can he face the fact that Lenin had no compunctions about accepting German financial help to pay for the Bolshevik propaganda drive among soldiers, workers and peasants that preceded the overthrow of the provisional government. In my book, I pointed out that in his History of Ihr Russian Revolution, Trotsky dodged this subject by ridiculing the “minor intelligence service agents and rumors published in the reactionary press in 1917,” without answering the documented charges.

Mr. Shachtman does much the same. He writes:

A little closer, the most the “evidence” [in my book – D.S.] indicates is that Lenin in Petrograd received “2000 (rubles? marks? crowns?) from a Bolshevik in Stockholm. Koslovsky, who had business dealings with another Bolshevik there, Ganetsky, who in turn was connected commercially with Parvus, the former Russo-German revolutionist who had turned German imperial propagandist in the First World War.”

If the reader turns to pp.211-216 of my book, he will discover a great deal more. He will learn of financial transactions between Berlin, Stockholm and Petrograd revealed through the interception of 29 telegrams exchanged between the Bolshevik intermediaries who handled the transfer of funds for the party. Instead of the nebulous “2000” at which Mr. Shachtman tilts, we find that 800,000 rubles were withdrawn from the Siberian Bank in Petrograd within two months by a confessed Bolshevik go-between. We find an admission by the same individual (who handled funds which reached the Siberian Bank from the Disconto Gesellschaft in Berlin via the Nea Bank of Stockholm) that she had instructions “to give Koslovsky, then a Bolshevik member of the Soviet Executive Committee, any sum of money he demanded; some of these payments amounted to 100,000 rubles.”

We find Mr. Shachtman ignoring the evidence on German-Bolshevik financial dealings in 1917 supplied by Thomas Masaryk, as well as the correspondence between Jacques Sadoul, then French military attaché in Petrograd and later a Communist, and French Socialist Minister Albert Thomas, which provided further corroboration on the transfer of German money to the Bolshevik Party treasury. We find Mr. Shachtman ignoring the revealing admission made by Ganetsky in the Soviet press on April 15, 1937 (see p.213 of my book).

Mr. Shachtman’s crowning dialectic feat is his “refutation” of the testimony of Eduard Bernstein published in the Berlin Vorwaerts on January 14, 1921, by referring to a Social-Democratic pamphlet issued two years earlier whose contents were, of course, known to Bernstein.

“When the German Communists,” writes Mr. Shachtman, “challenged Bernstein for proof, for his evidence, for his witnesses, he blustered a feeble reply but did not produce anything – neither then nor any other time.”

How feeble was Bernstein’s reply? Six days after his first article – on January 20, 1921, he wrote:

My reply can be very short ... As author of the article I am responsible for its assertions and am therefore entirely ready to support them before a court. The Rote Fahne (German Communist organ) need not set in motion its alarm-and-cudgel guards against me. Let it bring charges against me, or let it get a legal representative of Lenin’s to do this, and it may rest assured that I will do my best to dispose of all the difficulties that might stand in the way of a thorough-going investigation of this affair.

The Communist press preferred not to accept Bernstein’s challenge. That the evidence was not aired in open court was certainly not Eduard Bernstein’s fault.

As for Alexinsky, he was never a member of the Central Committee, nor do I ever suggest that he was. Shachtman erects a straw-man by making it appear that Alexinsky is the “member of the Bolshevik Central Committee” referred to by Pereverzev, the Socialist Minister of Justice. Pereverzev did not name his informant, and I do not pretend to know whom he had in mind. Moreover, this point is completely irrelevant, since it was only the original tip-off that was supplied by the unnamed “member of the Bolshevik Central Committee.”

I answer further only because of Alexinsky’s connection with the story of Elizabeth K. (see note 11, page 403 of my book) to which Shachtman also takes violent exception. Gregory Alexinsky split with Lenin in about 1909 to form an independent Left-Bolshevik group that included Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, and Menzhinsky. Following the outbreak of World War I, Alexinsky collaborated with Plekhanov on Socialist publications which supported the war, and conducted an active campaign not only against Lenin, but against Trotsky and against the internationalist Mensheviks who followed the defeatist line. He did charge fairly early that Lenin’s propaganda, as well as that of Rakovsky in Rumania, was financed by the Germans. For this he was pounced on by the Bolsheviks and “internationalists” and labeled a “slanderer” (the term “psychopathic personality” was unknown at the time). The most virulent assaults on Alexinsky emanated from Trotsky and and it is probably these that Shachtman picked up. Despite these attacks, Alexinsky continued to work with Plekhanov until the latter’s death in 1918. As a matter of fact, Irakli Tseretelli, the Menshevik spokesman in the Soviet and himself an “internationalist,” has told me that Plekhanov refused to join the Executive of the Soviet as long as Alexinsky was excluded. In the elections to the Constituent Assembly, Alexinsky ran on the Plekhanov ticket. Following his departure from Russia, Alexinsky advocated a united front of all anti-Bolshevik forces, from Right Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries to Monarchists. I have read most of what Alexinsky has written since his departure from Russia. I found nothing indicating that he is either “an extreme reactionary” or an “outright anti-Semite” as Shachtman suggests. As recently as 1947, Alexinsky’s La Russie Revolutionnaire was published by the Librarie Armand Colin in Paris.

6. It remains for Professor Kinsey to determine why Mr. Shachtman blushes at the account of Lenin’s relationship with Elizabeth K. I find nothing in it derogatory to Lenin. On the contrary, it belongs among those pages which Shachtman generously admits, present the human side of the man. Moreover, in Note 11 on p.403 of my book, I go to considerable length to indicate the source of the evidence on the relationship, and the credence given by me to the various details. On this subject, Paul Berline, an early Russian Marxist, contemporary of Lenin, and author of the first Russian biography of Karl Marx (re-published in the Soviet Union while Lenin was alive), wrote not long ago:

In David Shub’s excellent biography of Lenin, where all the facts are carefully checked on the basis not only of a detailed study of the entire literature on Lenin, but also on conversations about him with people who knew him intimately, the author devotes attention to the memoirs of Elizabeth K., and he has taken from them several episodes which characterize Lenin.

There is not the slightest doubt [writes Berline] that the story is based on original letters of Lenin and on the authentic memoirs of Elizabeth. This may be seen from the many details that only a person who knew Lenin intimately could have known.

By way of conclusion I should like to say that I understand why the Lenin book wounded Mr. Shachtman so deeply that he had to find release in the defamation of its author. I do not for a moment question the ardor of Mr. Shachtman’s Bolshevism and his profound emotional ties with two of its main architects – Lenin and Trotsky. But the record which my book tries to spell out was not written by me, but by these very men and their successors. And only by facing that record squarely and fearlessly can Mr. Shachtman hope to emerge from his present psychological No Man’s Land.


Max Shachtman’s Reply

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