Isaac Deutscher 1965

The Mensheviks: The Débâcle of 1917

Source: Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (London, 1966). This article was originally published in The Listener, 4 February 1965. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Mensheviks never recovered from the shipwreck they suffered in 1917. It was not only the Bolshevik insurrection that defeated them – their own moral débâcle overwhelmed them as well. This had begun soon after the February Revolution, while they seemed to be riding on the crest of the wave. Like other parties, they were at first thrown into disarray by the unexpected collapse of Tsardom. Most of their leaders were exiled or in prison. Their rank and file had been scattered by wartime mobilisations. Their political thinking was confused. Their organisations were disrupted. But whereas other parties, notably the Bolsheviks, presently overcame the confusion, the Mensheviks did not: with every month that passed their disarray grew deeper and deeper.

Not a single one of the great pioneers and historic figures of Menshevism played any role in the events of 1917. Plekhanov had exhausted himself in the great labour through which he had educated two generations of Marxists and prepared the revolution. He and his closest associates, Axelrod, Zasulich and Deutsch, who, even as lonely mouthpieces of socialism, had held out with him for nearly forty years, were cruelly by-passed by the events. Nearly all of them now stood far to the right of the main body of the Mensheviks.

Martov and Potresov, the younger leaders and real initiators of Menshevism in 1903, were also in utter discord with their own party: Potresov was with Plekhanov far to the right of it, while Martov was far to the left. Dan, Tsereteli, Skobelev, Abramovich and Lieber, these were now the official chiefs and spokesmen of Menshevism. They were far less known than Plekhanov and Martov; and they were far smaller in stature.

That the founders and inspirers of Menshevism had no common language with their party in 1917, and that second-raters replaced them at its head, was ominous enough. Worse still was the fact that Menshevism had become a loose agglomeration of disparate groups and individuals, lacking the cohesion and structure of a political party. No bonds of solidarity and no ties of discipline united the Mensheviks of the right and centre with those of the left and extreme left, and of all the intermediate splinter groups. Every one of the many political crises of that year deepened and accentuated the discord between the ‘social-patriots’ and the internationalists in their midst. And while the National Executive consisted of moderates, the Petrograd organisation and its committee were in a most radical mood. To quote Sukhanov, the well-known chronicler of the revolution:

The Menshevik internationalists had in their hands the entire party organisation of the capital. The Petersburg Committee consisted of Martov’s followers. The branches in the working-class districts... had long been demanding a formal break with official Menshevism. This affair dragged on; the demand was obstructed by the efforts of old and influential Mensheviks. But now Tsereteli and company, those Mensheviks of the right wing, had become unendurable... A mass exodus from the organisation had begun. The example was set by Larin, a well-known Menshevik economist. In the first part of September, the strongest of our working-class organisations split... the ferment spread to other districts and the provinces.

What a contrast all this formed with the state of affairs in Bolshevism! Among the Bolsheviks, too, there were various shades of radicalism and moderation, of right and left. A few moderates had indeed left the ranks soon after the February Revolution. But ever since all the shades and groupings had been parts of a single whole, cohering into the disciplined party of which Lenin was the accepted leader. If the story of Menshevism in 1917 is one of ceaseless splitting and disintegration, the story of Bolshevism is, on the contrary, one of continuous integration and unification. All inner Bolshevik quarrels and rivalries and all émigré squabbles of pre-revolutionary years were as if overcome and forgotten. The Otsovisty and Vperiodovtsy, the God-seekers, the boycotters and ultra-radicals, who had been at loggerheads with the Leninists for nearly a decade, were all returning to the fold; among them men like Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, Manuilsky. On the other hand, Trotsky and a large galaxy of brilliant revolutionaries, former Mensheviks most of them, Yoffe, Uritsky, Volodarsky, Ryazanov, Karakhan, Yureniev and others, were also entering the Bolshevik party, not to speak of Alexandra Kollontai who had gone over to the Leninists even earlier.

In a way this contrast between Menshevik disintegration and Bolshevik integration offered a retrospective comment on the great debate that had given rise to the schism fourteen years earlier. That schism had originally turned on the formula defining the structure of the party. Lenin had advocated a clear-cut, strictly defined, massively-built organisation, consisting only of active and militant members. Martov had envisaged a much ‘broader’ party, accommodating well-wishers and fellow-travellers as well as full-time activists. In later years, after 1907, the controversy shifted to the question whether the party should abandon clandestinity and emerge into the open. The Bolsheviks insisted once again on the need for a tight, centralised organisation working both underground and in the open, whereas most Mensheviks, ‘the Liquidators’, as Lenin labelled them, preferred to give up clandestine work and to give up the irksome disciplinarian rigidities of a centralised party. These theoretical differences were now, in 1917, reflected, and indeed exaggerated in the realities of the two parties, one closely knit, dynamic and expansive, the other loose, lax and falling asunder.

There were other, deeper reasons for the Menshevik débâcle. The Mensheviks struggled against the Bolsheviks with a guilty conscience. They were tortured by remorse and qualms. The following scene will illustrate this. It is related by Irakli Tsereteli in his posthumously published Memoirs of the February Revolution. The author, famous as socialist spokesman in the second Duma and a hard-labour convict, was in 1917 leader of official Menshevism and mainstay of the liberal – socialist coalition. He writes:

One evening we, the socialist ministers, reported at a meeting of socialist leaders of the Petersburg Soviet about the government’s decision to arrest Lenin and the other chieftains of the July rising.

Tsereteli refers here to the turbulent July demonstrations in Petrograd, which the government suppressed, charging Lenin and his party with an attempt at an armed rising and high treason. It was then that Lenin was branded as a spy in the pay of the German army. Tsereteli goes on to say:

All those present were disconcerted. Mikhail Issakovich Lieber, the most impulsive of all, exclaimed in anguish: ‘History will look upon us as upon criminals!’ As he said this he suffered a nervous fit. Yet he was one of the most determined adversaries of the Bolsheviks; he had denounced them as traitors... and when he recovered from the fit... he took a most active part in the liquidation of their rising. If such was his first reaction to our decision to strike at the Bolsheviks, it is easy to imagine the mood among other comrades.

Tsereteli is out to prove that the February regime was defeated only because it was unable to form a ‘strong government’. Other anti-Bolsheviks and leaders of the February regime, Kerensky, Chernov and Abramovich, have offered other explanations, and concluded that if only they had had the courage to do what Lenin did, that is to take Russia out of the war and sign a separate peace, the October Revolution would never have occurred. Each of these answers contains an element of the truth; but none comes to grips with the issue. Why then did the Mensheviks and their associates fail to create the ‘strong’ government? And why did they not have the courage to take Russia out of the war?

Here past and tradition must also be considered. It is customary to think of the Mensheviks as Russia’s social-democrats. This description, though correct in itself, is inadequate. Past and tradition set the Mensheviks apart from other social-democrats. Until shortly before the revolution they and the Bolsheviks had nominally still belonged to the same party. They were still trying to recreate the unity of that party in the spring of 1917, while Lenin was on his way to Russia. Despite their abhorrence of clandestinity they had been, till Tsardom’s last day, a clandestine party. They had lived with the Bolsheviks in places of deportation and had shared prison cells with them. Like the Bolsheviks, they were committed to Marxist orthodoxy, and treated this commitment more seriously than did almost any European social-democrats. They had never been revisionists or reformists. They had never believed in that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism that Edouard Bernstein and the English Fabians had preached. They had been proud of Plekhanov’s repudiations of Millerandism and possibilisme. They had rejected, that is, the idea that a socialist party might be justified in entering a bourgeois coalition government. They had always been convinced that in such a government socialists could only prop up the bourgeois order. And now, in the middle of this great revolution, this was precisely what they, the Menshevik ministers, were doing in Prince Lvov’s and Kerensky’s governments: they were renouncing their own past and their own proud convictions.

Yet, in a way, they were still the slaves of an orthodoxy. They still believed in the apostolic truth that the task of the Russian Revolution was to sweep away the rubble of feudalism, to establish a bourgeois-democratic regime, and on its basis to modernise Russia. ‘Russia is not ripe for socialist revolution!’ – this was their cry; and until recently this had been the Bolsheviks’ axiom as well. When suddenly, in April 1917, Lenin called for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of proletarian dictatorship in Russia, the Mensheviks felt that they had every reason to resist his course of action in the name of Marxist principle. This was, of course, sheer rationalisation; it concealed the Mensheviks’ attachment to bourgeois democracy, or rather their yearning for it. All the same, their conviction that the Bolsheviks were in conflict with reason, Marxism and socialism was sincere and passionate.

Yet they were unable to act wholeheartedly on that conviction. As educated, theoretically-minded socialists, they had learned their lessons from the political history of Western Europe and were steeped in the traditions of the great French Revolution, of 1848 and of the Commune of Paris. In this respect there was no difference between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks – both had an intense historical awareness, such as was rare among their Western European comrades. A little incident, related again by Sukhanov, speaks for itself. Sukhanov describes how in the Petrograd Soviet, Mikhail Lieber, the same who was so afraid that ‘history would look upon the Mensheviks as criminals’, inveighed against Lenin’s party and called for severe reprisals. Suddenly there was an interruption from the floor. Martov jumped to his feet and shouted at the speaker: ‘Versalets!’ The term, with its pejorative undertone, meant ‘man of Versailles’. The interjection, which would hardly have been intelligible to a Western European audience, referred to Thiers, Gallifet and their associates, who in 1871 had withdrawn to Versailles and from there fought against the Commune of Paris, suppressing it in blood. In the Petrograd of 1917 there was no need to explain to a Soviet audience the meaning of Martov’s exclamation. All socialist parties and groups felt deeply that they were involved in a drama of which the Commune of Paris had been one of the early acts. Newspaper articles were studded with terms such as ‘our Cavaignacs’, ‘our Louis Blancs’, and other allusions to 1848. The dead of all European revolutions and counter-revolutions had risen from their graves and now stood behind the backs of the living.

What the experience of all earlier revolutions told the Mensheviks was that nothing can be more degrading and pernicious for any party of revolution than to struggle against an enemy on the left. Had not Cromwell and the Puritans become corrupted by the suppression of the Levellers? Had not the Jacobins declined after they had guillotined the radicals and egalitarians among their own comrades? ‘No, we have, and we can have, no enemy on the left’ Martov and his friends concluded; and even the Mensheviks of the right felt strangely uneasy. Something of that uneasiness is still there in Tsereteli’s sprawling Memoirs, although he wrote them in the course of three or four decades in exile, and broke them off abruptly in the middle of his story with a lament over the missing ‘strong arm’ that might have and should have, but has not, forestalled the October Revolution.

It is not, of course, that there was never any hint of the ‘strong arm’ in 1917. Tsereteli himself was Minister of Interior in the government that ordered the arrest of Lenin and Zinoviev, and imprisoned Trotsky, Kamenev, Lunacharsky and many others. The ‘socialist ministers’ presided impassively over the pogrom of the Bolsheviks after the July days. But the strong arm could not remain raised against the enemy on the left for any length of time: presently a mortal danger – the Kornilov mutiny – arose from the right, which Kerensky and the socialist ministers could repel only with Bolshevik help. Once again, the Mensheviks realised that they could not afford fighting against their enemy on the left. Nor could they afford making peace with him. This was their double undoing.

One can say of the Mensheviks what Carlyle once said of the Girondins: ‘Their weapons... [were] Political Philosophy, Respectability and Eloquence...’ Of the Bolsheviks we may say that their weapons ‘were those of mere Nature; Audacity and Impetuosity which may become Ferocity, as of men complete in their determination, in their conviction; nay, of men... who... must either prevail or perish.’ Contrary to a popular misconception, it was not the Bolsheviks in 1917 but the Mensheviks who were the ‘men of the Formula’, the doctrinaires, who in the name of an abstract principle or constitutional dogma turned a deaf ear on life’s realities: on the peasantry’s cry for land and peace, and on the nation’s war-weariness. They exhorted the nation to go on bleeding itself white; and implored the peasants to have patience with the lords of the manors. ‘So they perorate and speculate; and call on Friends of Law, when the question is not Law or No-Law, but Life or No-Life. Pedants of the Revolution...’ They were indeed, like the Girondins, ‘men of parts, of philosophic culture, decent behaviour; not condemnable... but most unfortunate. They wanted a Republic of Virtues, wherein themselves should be head; and they could only get a Republic of the Strengths, wherein others than they were head.’ And so they fell – yes, ‘they fell, but not without a sigh from most Historians’.

The following letter in response from Gleb Kerensky appeared in The Listener, 11 February 1965.

The Mensheviks

Had Mr Isaac Deutscher (The Listener, 4 February) given his talk on Radio Moscow one could have applauded it. If you have to operate on the assumption that the establishment of Lenin’s Red Terror and subsequently of Stalinism is the only worthwhile aim for a social democrat, then it is fair enough to compare the Mensheviks unfavourably with Lenin as revolutionary leaders, while giving them credit for being decent men.

However, this is Britain and 1965. Lenin’s victory over people who had all those foolish scruples has ended – as one might have expected – in a thirty-five-year-long bloodbath, with freedom, democracy and all semblance of humanity abandoned, and that whole ‘galaxy of brilliant revolutionaries’ who had joined him happily liquidated by bullet in the base of the skull, poison, ice-pick or concentration camp.

Is there, then, any room today to be patronising about those who, in spite of their Marxist blinkers, realised that Lenin’s heady ‘realism’ was not a realistic approach to justice, peace and freedom?

I hold no brief for the Mensheviks, whose Hamlet-like hesitations, together with those of the ‘SR’ Party, were probably responsible more than any single cause for my father’s fall, and to add insult to injury have become associated in popular legend with the name of Kerensky, as though he was their source and not their victim.

However, to judge Hamlet, do not let us bring to the microphone a man who thinks that all the young Prince lacked was his splendid uncle’s common-sense methods of gaining the throne.

Those who have watched recent instalments of The Great War on television might spare a thought to what would have happened to the French and British armies in the black summer of 1917 if the despised Kerensky with his unbusiness-like Mensheviks, SRs and Kadets had not launched their July offensive and drawn off to the Eastern Front more German divisions than had ever faced the Tsar.

These men broke their necks in a common struggle with England, or, to be more precise, were stabbed in the back by Mr Deutscher’s darlings Lenin and Trotsky, their pockets bulging with German gold.

It is poor thanks and poor judgement to ask Mr Deutscher to write the epitaph studded with such gems as the assertion that Kerensky, Chernov and Abramovich have all concluded that what prevented them from suing for separate peace was lack of courage! Really, this is a blind man’s description of a sunset.

Gleb Kerensky (Southport)