Isaac Deutscher 1965

The Mensheviks: Exile and Debasement

Source: Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (London, 1966). This article was originally published in The Listener, 1 April 1965. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The well-known Menshevik leader, Rafail Abramovich, recollects how crestfallen his comrades were during the October Revolution. ‘We knew’, he says, ‘that the game was lost, that the Bolshevik rising had caught the government unawares, and that it was too late to try to organise serious resistance.’

Yet for a few moments the Mensheviks seemed to rally. Defeated, they tried to overcome their inner divisions and to draw together; for the first time in years they formed something like a united party. Martov again became their leader. His radical stance, unacceptable to them when they were in office, suited them quite well in opposition. Like everyone else, the Mensheviks were convinced that the Bolshevik government would soon, very soon, collapse; and that it would be remembered in history only as a strange, perhaps a tragic, episode, as the Russian Revolution’s brief utopian aberration. They had no doubt that it was they, the Mensheviks, who were riding the wave of the future.

This self-confidence could not last. As the months and the years were passing, and the Bolshevik regime was consolidating itself and transforming Russian society, the Mensheviks were shaken in their sense of values and of realities. Very early, Martov, who was magnificent at heart-searching and self-interrogation, began to wonder: was the October Revolution really nothing more than a reckless adventure, a doomed premature essay in socialism? And even if it was only such a utopian aberration, should the Mensheviks assist the bourgeois liberals, the right-wing populists and the White generals to bring that aberration to a speedy and bloody end? Or should they rather join hands with the Bolsheviks? Martov called for the restitution of political freedom and for the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly which the Bolsheviks had dispersed. But already in May 1918 he proclaimed his party’s solidarity with the Bolsheviks in their struggle against counter-revolution. And throughout the civil war he and his closest associates, whatever their mental reservations, were indeed on the Bolshevik side of the front, even though this estranged them from those right-wing Mensheviks who were on the other side.

However they acted, the Mensheviks were in one way or another at loggerheads with themselves. If, as Martov still claimed, the October Revolution was a hopeless venture, if what Lenin and Trotsky were building was some sort of a socialist castle in the air, was it worth defending such a castle? Martov felt that he had to recognise the genuineness of the socialist aspirations and the historic legitimacy of the Soviet regime. In his so-called April Theses of 1920 he argued that although Russia was too backward to achieve socialism, the world at large, and the West in particular, were not; and so Russia was justified in producing her prelude to international socialist revolution. This was precisely what Lenin and Trotsky had argued.

However, Martov’s belated acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the October Revolution and even the services he rendered the Soviets during the civil war could not bridge the gulf between his party and the Bolsheviks. In the aftermath of the civil war the Mensheviks were eager to exploit any difficulty with which Lenin’s government was confronted, as it struggled desperately with economic ruin and chaos. The Bolsheviks, frightened by famines, popular discontent and widespread peasant risings, abandoned the idea of Soviet democracy, clung with a fresh and grim determination to their monopoly of power and turned it into the single-party system. They took to persecuting the Mensheviks with a panicky brutality, which was, however, tempered by cautionary historical reminiscences, scruples and forebodings. Lenin did not wish to guillotine Russia’s Girondins. There was no great purge of the Mensheviks, no execution of their leaders. Martov, Dan, Abramovich, Nikolayevsky and other lesser lights were allowed, or rather encouraged, to leave Russia and establish their political centre abroad.

And now comes the long, melancholy story of Menshevism in exile. For a few years the émigrés managed to keep up contacts with friends in Russia; but they were unable to initiate any significant political action. The émigrés came to act as expert advisers on Soviet policy and communism to some of the European social-democratic parties. But their position was awkward and their influence slight. To their European comrades they still looked like Marxist doctrinaires and dogmatists: they were in fact still preaching the imminent advent of socialist revolution in Europe and called for proletarian dictatorship. On the other hand, even moderate Western social-democrats, such as the English Fabians, suspected them of plotting against the Soviet government or, at least, of engaging in a clandestine anti-Bolshevik agitation.

Thus, suspected as almost crypto-communists by some and as underhand counter-revolutionaries by others, the émigré Mensheviks could do little or nothing in practical politics. They concentrated all their energies on the Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik, the Socialist Courier. This periodical, which Martov had founded in Berlin early in 1921, served as the forum for Menshevik ideas for forty-three years. No other émigré periodical survived for so long. Political earthquakes drove the editors from country to country, but the Vestnik, always carefully edited, appeared with incredible regularity. This was the Mensheviks’ labour of love. As the editorial team was not fortified by influx of fresh blood, the paper was in the end written mostly by octogenarians. Its limitations were painfully obvious: it lacked vision, imagination, capacity to inspire. As a critic of Moscow’s rulers, the Vestnik could not be compared with Trotsky’s Biulleten Oppozitsii.

In exile Menshevism went on wrestling with the question that had beset Martov as early as 1918: what does Bolshevism represent? Was it – and is it – a malicious interruption of the legitimate trend of Russian history, a wasteful interval, a terrible hiatus? Or is it the legitimate product and the culmination of Russian history? With the years and decades the question was becoming anachronistic. The mere duration and the Protean vitality of the regime founded in 1917 seemed to have resolved it. Yet the controversy went on. The Mensheviks either had to try to keep abreast of all the immense events and upheavals, that is, to read the historical time aright; or else, if they were to persist in denying any positive value to Russia’s historic movement, in denying even the very fact of that movement, then they would be smashing, as it were, all the clocks of history.

When Martov died in 1923, Dan and Abramovich, the joint editors of the Vestnik, were committed to keep up the ‘Martovist line’. Martov had sought to come to terms with the October Revolution without surrendering to Bolshevism. Dan and Abramovich lacked Martov’s dialectical ability and the issues were getting more and more complex and difficult. Yet throughout the 1920s, and even the 1930s, the Mensheviks still kept within bounds the conflict between their acceptance and their rejection of the revolution.

In the end, however, the Martovist tradition broke down, dissolving into its constituent parts; and each of Martov’s two successors embraced a different aspect of it. Abramovich came to repudiate all that the Bolshevik revolution stood for, while Dan proclaimed his acceptance of it. It was no matter of chance that this, the last schism in the old Menshevik Guard, occurred in the United States at the close of the last war; Russia’s victorious emergence from the war, the defeat of Nazism and fascism in Europe, and the growing Russo-American conflict called for a new view of the past and a new prospect for the future.

Both Dan and Abramovich have left behind their books. The Soviet Revolution is little more than a rehash of Abramovich’s articles published in the Vestnik over the years. Dan’s work, published in Russian eighteen years ago, and only now in English, has more historical depth and is better written; yet it is also ill-proportioned, fragmentary, opinionated. Notorious in 1917 for his anti-Leninism, Dan speaks of the historically creative character of Leninism and of its ineffaceable and, on the whole, beneficial influence upon Russia’s and mankind’s destinies.

This is in effect an extraordinary Menshevik self-critique. He goes back to the roots of the Russian revolutionary tradition, delves into the origins of Bolshevism, re-examines Russia’s social structure and the alignments of her social classes, and finds in these the causes of Bolshevik success and Menshevik failure. He tells his comrades, or ex-comrades, that it was their party, not Lenin’s, that has misunderstood Russia’s needs, the logic of the revolution, and the trend of events in the world. We Mensheviks, he says in effect, believed that Russia must go through two different revolutions: an imminent bourgeois one, which must proceed under bourgeois leadership; and another, a socialist one, which would be accomplished only in a more or less remote future by the working class.

Leninism had grasped from the outset that a poor and backward nation like the Russian could not advance and modernise itself otherwise than by revolution, and that the bourgeoisie was more likely to obstruct revolution than to promote it. It was the historic error of Menshevism that it relied on the Russian middle class to do what the French middle class had done in 1789. Writing some years before the victory of the Chinese Revolution, Dan was very emphatic about the relevance of Leninism to the peoples of Asia and Africa.

Dan then goes on to say that Menshevism, having taken up a wrong attitude in a decisive historic situation, came into conflict with its own socialist principles, and so condemned itself to an ideological degeneration, which even Martov was unable to arrest. What he says about this runs parallel with Trotsky’s familiar argument about the degeneration of Bolshevism. If the debasement of Bolshevism consisted, according to Trotsky, in the party’s abandonment of the proletarian democracy and internationalism, then the degeneration of Menshevism, of which Dan speaks, consisted in its virtual renunciation of Marxism and socialism and its conversion to bourgeois democracy and liberalism. Such, says Dan, has been the paradoxical evolution of the two great currents of Russian socialism, that neither the Mensheviks nor the Bolsheviks of 1903 or 1905 would have recognised themselves in the images of themselves of the 1930s and the 1940s.

Dan’s extraordinary self-criticism becomes an historical apology for Bolshevism. In the end he excuses even Stalinism, with its violence and ideological prevarication. Of course, when Dan was writing some of these pages, the wartime tide of pro-Stalinism ran high in Allied countries, especially in the United States. But he was a man of too strong convictions, too serious political an experience, and too high an integrity to be treated as a trimmer. The fact that Russia was emerging triumphantly from Armageddon, with the Third Reich prostrate at her feet, impressed him very deeply – was this not the supreme test and vindication of Bolshevism? He refused to consider the price of the Soviet victory, to ponder any alternatives to Stalin’s policies, and to look critically at ‘degenerate’ Bolshevism. A dying man, he was escaping from debased Menshevism to depraved Bolshevism. And as he did so, he echoed Alexander Herzen’s belief that ‘whereas Western Europe was approaching socialism through freedom, Russia could advance towards freedom only by way of socialism’.

Abramovich’s book is a most vehement rejection precisely of that belief. Russia, he says, has advanced nowhere since 1917. Nor has China made any progress since 1949. There is no merit in any communist revolution, even from the point of view of an underdeveloped country. ‘This savagery’, says Abramovich, ‘will never contribute to the cultural development or well-being of mankind... this totalitarian rule is not so much anti-capitalist as it is anti-human.’ But how and why has this huge black emptiness come over Russia? Abramovich tries no historical explanation. If Dan sometimes carries objectivism to a grotesque extreme, Abramovich’s subjectivism is all too often absurd. He does not investigate; he castigates. He does not analyse the social character of Russia’s regime; he indicts and condemns it. He declares the old Marxist criteria to be irrelevant: the issue is no longer between capitalism and socialism. ‘Russia’, he says, ‘has succumbed to the new totalitarian version of the ancient oriental despotism.’ Not surprisingly, he harks back to the pre-1917 era. ‘The old Russia’, he claims, ‘was already well advanced on the path of evolution towards a modern democratic state.’ In his eagerness to belittle all the revolutionary factors that had been at work in Russia, Abramovich plays down the record even of his own party: he grossly exaggerates all the shifts to the right that had ever occurred in Menshevism. He draws a portrait of Menshevism which is as if designed to make it impossible for any American Congressional Committee to charge the Mensheviks with any past association with the Bolsheviks; and he does not seem to notice that what he has drawn is a malicious caricature of his own party. At the same time he presents the revolution as the combined product of accidental circumstances, clever Bolshevik unscrupulousness, and Lenin’s craving for power. Unfortunately, his demonological conception of Bolshevism has not failed to exercise its influence on American sovietology.

He concludes his book with a peroration against the ‘illusion of peaceful coexistence’: ‘Much as the peoples and governments of Britain, France and the United States sincerely strive for peaceful coexistence with world communism, the communist movement continues on its aggressive path.’ Russia herself ‘is contending in bellicosity with more recent adherents to communism’, with China in the first instance. To his last breath Abramovich sounded this ‘warning’ in almost every one of his Vestnik articles. Before the appearance of the sputniks he expressed again and again the fervent hope that the United States would use its ‘nuclear supremacy’ to tame or destroy the Bolshevik evil once for all; and he did not hide his despair when he thought that America’s rulers were failing to rise to their ‘historic task’.

Thus Menshevism has ended its long career, driven into two ideological impasses: in one we saw the conscience-stricken Dan humbling himself before Stalinism; in the other we heard Abramovich praying for the world’s salvation by the Pentagon. What an epilogue this is to the story of Martov’s party; and how Martov’s ghost must be weeping over it.

The following letter in response from Boris Sapir appeared in The Listener, 10 June 1965.

The Mensheviks

As a former member and secretary of the central body of the Menshevik party and its representative in the International of the Socialist Youth I hope to be given an opportunity to comment on the talks by Isaac Deutscher in The Listener of 4 February and 1 April, which have only now been brought to my attention.

Books by Abramovich or Dan, referred to by Mr Deutscher, which were written after the Menshevik party ceased to be a political force in Russia, cannot explain the whole phenomenon of Menshevism. This phenomenon should be viewed also in the framework of the activities of the European socialist movement, since the Mensheviks considered themselves representatives of the latter on the Russian soil. In spite of the allegiance of the Mensheviks to orthodox Marxism their ideological evolution proceeded along about the same lines as that, for example, of the German or of the Austrian social-democrats. Thus, although it is true that the Mensheviks did not accept the ‘revisionism’, it is also true that in 1925 their central organ The Socialist Courier, on the occasion of the seventy-fifth birthday of Eduard Bernstein, published an article the end of which read: ‘Russian social-democrats share the ardent love and respect of the international labour movement for the old Bernstein and repeat proudly – he belongs to us.’

It is not correct that ‘not a single one of the great pioneers and historic figures of Menshevism played any role in the events of 1917’. All three social-democrats who headed the February 1917 Revolution – Dan, Liber, Tsereteli – were nationally and internationally known Mensheviks of long standing. Dan had been one of the Menshevik leaders since the inception of the Menshevik party.

Only one whose notion about party structure is patterned after monolithic Bolshevism can assert that the Mensheviks in 1917 did not present a united body of opinion and will. In all democratically-built parties there always are many groups and caucuses and the Mensheviks before and during 1917 did not make any exception in that respect.

The bulk of the Mensheviks were realistic enough to perceive behind Lenin’s party large segments of working classes who – misled by the specious arguments of the Bolsheviks – believed in the immediate realisation of socialism in Russia. Therefore the watchword of the majority of the Mensheviks was the necessity for a peaceful solution to problems created by the October 1917 coup d'état. But all Mensheviks considered this event an enormous tragedy. I refer to a letter by Martov of the end of 1917 (Martov i ego blizkie (New York, 1959), pages 48-51) who wrote to a friend in Switzerland that, after all that had happened, he felt almost guilty vis-à-vis any cultivated bourgeois. Thus, not because they blindly followed formulae inherited from Plekhanov and Axelrod, did the Mensheviks fiercely oppose the Bolshevik’s coup d'état, but because they shared Martov’s attitude as expressed in the above letter.

When Lenin came to the conclusion that his policy of ‘war communism’ was a failure and proclaimed the NEP, the Mensheviks urged him to re-establish democracy, at least, for the toiling masses. Mr Deutscher refers to this as an exploiting of difficulties with which the Bolsheviks were then confronted. He seems still not to have grasped that this demand of the Mensheviks was actually an attempt to prevent a development which led to Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Mr Deutscher also renders banal the outbreaks of terror against the Mensheviks. He should have recorded that under Lenin and Trotsky the notorious deportations by the political police were restored and concentration camps were established. He seems also not to know that in mid-1941 many Mensheviks – including family members of Martov (two brothers and two nephews) – were assassinated by Stalin.

Finally I submit that the judgement passed by Mr Deutscher in the historical case – Menshevism versus Bolshevism – is a miscarriage of justice, since his tribunal admits evidence presented by the Bolsheviks only. The Mensheviks were defeated, this is obvious, but it does not prove that their basic tenets, which were identical with those of democratic socialism in all countries, were wrong. The main defect of Mr Deutscher’s articles is his partisan attitude. In spite of many disillusions, he seems still to be under the impression of the exploits of Lenin and Trotsky. His frame of reference is theirs. Of course, Mr Deutscher is too independent and too subtle simply to repeat banal Bolshevik prose. This, however, does not change the biased character of his argument, and, therefore, the heading of his talks should have been ‘Mensheviks as the Bolsheviks view them’.

Boris Sapir (New York)

The following letter in response from Isaac Deutscher appeared in The Listener, 17 June 1965.

The Mensheviks

I am surprised that Mr Boris Sapir, who speaks (in The Listener of 10 June) as former secretary of the leading body of the Menshevik party, should make the case for his party with such half-hearted and flimsy arguments.

He writes that ‘the judgement passed by Mr Deutscher in the historical case – Menshevism versus Bolshevism – is a miscarriage of justice, since his tribunal admits evidence presented by the Bolsheviks only’. As your readers may remember, I based my talks on the Mensheviks, published in The Listener of 4 February and 1 April, on four volumes of memoirs and history written by such outstanding Menshevik leaders as Tsereteli, Dan and Abramovich (and on a biography of Plekhanov produced by an American pro-Menshevik scholar). I might say that my ‘tribunal’ in this case excluded any evidence presented by the Bolsheviks.

Mr Sapir himself states: ‘Books by Abramovich or Dan, referred to by Mr Deutscher... cannot explain the whole phenomenon of Menshevism.’ This amounts to saying that the Menshevik evidence on which I have based my judgement is inadequate. Maybe; but it is Menshevik evidence. And Abramovich and Dan were, in the course of thirty to forty years, the recognised leaders of Menshevism in exile. Why does Mr Sapir feel so embarrassed by their testimonies about their own party?

He maintains that: ‘In spite of the allegiance of the Mensheviks to orthodox Marxism, their ideological evolution proceeded along about the same lines as that, for example, of the German or of the Austrian social-democrats.’ This, broadly, is also my view; I have depicted precisely this Menshevik dilemma: the contradiction between a theoretical allegiance to orthodox Marxism and a reformist practice. However, I have not put the Mensheviks on the same level as the German social-democrats. The latter began their rule of Weimar Germany by condoning the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht; and they ended it by electing Hindenburg as President and surrendering without struggle to Hitler. The record of the Mensheviks was surely better than that? How ironical that I should have to point this out to Mr Sapir!

Isaac Deutscher (London)