C.L.R. James 1964

Revolutionary Creativity

Source: Reviews, International Socialism, (1st series) No.18, Autumn 1964, p.32.
Transcribed: by Einde O’Callaghan.

The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia
J.L.H. Keep
Oxford, 45s.

Plekhanov, The Father of Russian Marxism
S.H. Baron
Routledge, 55s.

It is the responsibility of a Marxist journal to keep a sharp eye on books that claim to deal with Marxism or any historical event in which Marxism is involved. Keep’s book on Social Democracy in Russia is a bad book. Listen to him on Plekhanov: ‘Plekhanov was caught in a conflict between his head and his heart’ (p.23). This is not a passing weakness, but a habit. ‘(Lenin) certainly seems to have harboured a strong half-conscious urge to exercise power’ (p.34). From the half-conscious, Keep moves on to the total: ‘the grudging toleration he had extended to his former colleagues in the struggle against Populism now gave way to a feeling of bitter hatred’ (p.70).

Lenin, as seen by Keep, constantly improves his acquisition of the political black arts: ‘In those early days the Bolshevik leader still lacked the experience in the arts of dissimulation he was eventually to acquire’ (p.78); ‘As always he was concerned to cloak his views with a mantle of orthodox respectability’ (p.39). In these pursuits Lenin sometimes wavered: ‘In fact Lenin was caught, not for the first or last time, in a conflict between his head and his heart, between reason and emotion’ (p 83). But Keep does not waver: ‘At the back of his mind was the assumption that all these arguments could ultimately be settled by the force of his own personality’ (p 93). Keep cheerfully flicks in the face of the whole recorded history of Lenin and Bolshevism: ‘For his concept of organisation left no room for minority groups’ (p.106). At no time is the reader relieved of this persistent reduction of politics to the amateur psychologist’s foot-rule. ‘Lenin’s arguments gave expression to only one side of his nature, and one can detect in them an undertone of reluctance and dutiful conformity to precepts with which he was emotionally out of sympathy’ (p. 197).

It is not only the luckless Lenin, but the whole of Russian history that Keep submits to his Sunday School psychology and his theory of happenings that turn out to be fortunate or unfortunate. Thus he sees Bloody Sunday, one of the decisive events in Russian history, as just a mistake: ‘At this juncture the authorities in St Petersburg perpetrated what can be considered as an act of indescribable folly’ (pp.153-4). That was one of the unfortunate happenings. Now for one of the lucky ones: ‘Fortunately for the Social Democrats, in many centres there now existed a mechanism admirably suited to their purpose: the soviet of workers’ deputies’ (p.288).

You see, the Soviet just happened to turn up. In reality the Soviet and the General Strike of 1905 were new social creations, hitherto unknown in European history. Where did they come from? Keep himself has the key in his hand:

‘Unable to apply their talents to practical affairs, many of them turned with redoubled fervour to the world of ideas. As scholars, writers, or artists they helped to give nineteenth-century Russian culture its international reputation. The obstacles placed in their way by the censorship were a good rather than a hindrance to self-expression’ (p.11).

This was the response of Russian intellectuals to the ideas which burst over Europe in the French Revolution. But the Soviet and the General Strike were the response of the Russian working class to the introduction into Russia not only of the Social-Democratic ideas developed in the West but of large-scale factory production and technology. This revolutionary creativeness was found in all of Russia that was opposed to the Establishment. It not only pushed Tsarism to explore the last resources of terror. It also terrified the liberal bourgeoisie. Not for Keep. That too was just a mistake:

‘What does seem curious is that the Party leaders and activists should have so conspicuously failed to modify their hostility towards the “bourgeoisie” in the light of practical experience. Ideological prejudice led them to regard all organisations and individuals not under their control as potentially hostile. It was a sectarian view which had no justification in the Russia of 1905.’

Plekhanov’s biographer has the virtue of seeing quite clearly that it was the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to take the lead in the struggle for bourgeois democracy that created an insoluble crisis for the Russian revolutionaries.

‘The prophet of the proletariat was left with a terrible dilemma. The bourgeoisie declined to battle militantly for political freedom’ (p.267).

‘He had reason to fear that proletarian class-consciousness, to the development of which he had dedicated his life, was over-reaching the desired mark, or rather was assuming distorted forms, thus paralysing the bourgeoisie and creating the frightening possibility that the proletariat might attempt a premature seizure of power’.

Inexorably committed to giving good and bad marks, Keep misunderstands not only individuals but the whole course of the revolution. This is a pity because as far as we know no one else has approached him in the concentration and care with which he examines and codifies all the material within range.

If Baron makes some silly judgments at the end he at any rate is aware of the proportions of the dilemma which Plekhanov and all the Russian revolutionaries faced. He gives a reasonable and quite interesting account of the personal development of Plekhanov both as a Russian revolutionary and international Marxist. And while we always see Plekhanov the individual it is always against the background of the historical events which shape him and to which he reacts. It may help to give one statement by Lenin, written in 1906. It is characteristic of him and explains much that still remains inexplicable. It is 1918 and Lenin is writing about the proletarian revolution. He quotes himself in 1906:

‘What was the main difference between the period of “revolutionary whirlwind” and the present “Cadet” period, from the point of view of the various methods of the people’s historical creativeness. The first and principal difference was the fact that in the period of “whirlwind” several special methods of this creativeness were employed which are alien to other periods of political life. The most essential of these methods were: 1) “Seizure” of political liberty by the people – the exercise of this liberty without any rights and laws and without any restriction (freedom of assembly, even in universities, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom to convene congresses, etc); 2) the creation of new organs of revolutionary government – Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Railway Workers’ and Peasants Deputies, new village and town authorities, etc, etc. These organs were created exclusively by the revolutionary strata of the population, without laws or norms, in an entirely revolutionary manner, as the product of the inborn creativeness of the people, as an expression of the initiative of the people, which had freed itself or was freeing itself from the old police shackles. These were precisely organs of power, notwithstanding their embryonic, spontaneous, informal and diffusive character as regards composition and method of functioning ... You are a working-man? You wish to fight to liberate Russia from a handful of police thugs? Then you are our comrade. Choose your delegate at once, immediately. Choose as you think best. We shall willingly and gladly accept him as a full member of our Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, of our Peasants’ Committee, of our Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies, etc, etc. It is a power that is open to all, that does everything in sight of the masses, that is accessible to the masses, that springs directly from the masses; it is the direct organ of the masses and of their will. Such was the new power, or rather its embryo, for the victory of the old power very soon trampled upon the tender shoots of this new plan.’ (A Contribution to the History of the Question of Dictatorship, Selected Works, Vol.VII. pp.250-3)

His battle for an organised vanguard, his merciless destruction of those whom he considered political enemies, were all motivated and governed by his absolute confidence in this mass upheaval and the necessity (in backward Russia) of having a leadership able to guide and direct this powerful upheaval, which he saw as almost a great natural eruption. It is quite possible that as history develops, and we with it, we may find in places that he went seriously wrong. Though devoutly aiming at this consummation, neither of these books pushes us one inch in that direction.