Karl Radek

Felix Dzerzhinski


Source: Karl Radek, Portraits and Pamphlets, with an introduction by A.J. Cummings and notes by Alec Brown, New York: R.M. McBride, 1935.
Names have been changed, where necessary, to the usual form used in English.
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.

The Social-Democratic Party of Poland grew out of the great strikes that swept the industrial areas of Poland during the nineties, and the experience obtained after the collapse of the semi-terroristic semi-conspirative first Socialist Party of Poland, which was known as the ‘Proletariat’ Party. It was born in battle with the social-patriotic current of 1893, was early subjected to mass arrests and completely destroyed. The ease with which the tsarist police succeeded in crushing it is largely to be explained by the fact that the Party numbered among its members very few members of the intelligentsia, which in its turn is explained by the nationalism of most of the intelligentsia and the markedly non-nationalist orientation of the young Socialist Party, which at the very outset put forward the slogan of the joint struggle and identity of aims of the Polish and Russian proletariat. The arrests of Ratkinski, Veselovski and other Social-Democratic workers, and the lack of influx of new members from the intelligentsia broke up the network of contacts and disorganized the distribution of propaganda and the movement of active members. The various workers’ groups were still too uncertain of their position to restore the organization. A group of founders of the Party, and its principal ideologists, Julian Marchlewski, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Jogiches-Tyszka and Adolf Warski, who escaped through being abroad, were all theoreticians without direct connection with the country. But at last connection was re-established by Felix Dzerzhinski, twenty-three-year-old revolutionist, who escaped from exile after the debacle of 1895–1896. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that as a result of his efforts the Marxian internationalist Social-Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania was formed and lived for ten years. One might say that this party was the predecessor of the Communist Party of Poland as a mass party, and was the child of Felix Dzerzhinski’s indefatigable efforts and endless labour. ‘Joseph’ – it was by this name that ‘he was known among the masses of Polish workers – came to be the most beloved of all the Polish leaders.

Tall, well built, with ardent eyes, quick, passionate speech, thus I first met him in the autumn of 1903, when he came to Cracow for a time to hide from tsarist detectives and at the same time to improve the apparatus for circulating Polish Social-Democratic literature, the publication of which had been resumed largely due to his initiative. He won the love and esteem not only of the older workers, but also of the youth then coming into the movement. In their eyes he was surrounded by a halo by reason of his terms in prison and exile and his reputation as Party organizer. His opinion was valued not only by Rosa but even by veteran Tyszka who had great organizational experience and who combined sound Marxian scholarship with wonderful political sensitivity. On all practical questions of the movement Joseph’s opinion was almost decisive. How did he obtain this authority? In fact, what was the personal origin of this energetic revolutionist, so strict towards himself and towards everybody else too, this man able to inspire and lead them all?

He was born in Lithuania, in the Ossmiansk district, in the family of a small Polish landowner. It was in that district that Joseph Pilsudski was born, several years earlier. Lithuania was at that time cowed by memories of ‘hangman’ Muraviov – of the punishments meted out by tsarism for the year 1863. The homes of the gentry were alive with thought of those whom the tsarist satrap had executed, or had exiled into penal servitude for participation in the uprising. The youth of the intelligentsia cherished thoughts of the struggle against tsarism for independence of the country. The leaders of the Polish Socialist Party, organized in the last decade of the nineteenth century, for the most part came from the younger generation of these Polish landowner families. One of the few who rejected the road of nationalism and went over without hesitation to the camp of the international labour movement, was Dzerzhinski. His action is probably to be explained by the fact that being of a comparatively poor family he had seen the Lithuanian peasant masses at closer quarters and was also familiar with the life of the craftsmen of the small towns, and found he was nearer them than to the nobility and its ideals.

There was no factory proletariat in Lithuania. There were Polish and Jewish craftsmen, and it was among them that sixteen-year-old Dzerzhinski began his work. The necessity of working among Polish and Jewish apprentices in a country where the majority of the peasantry was Lithuanian may explain the international trend of Dzerzhinski’s feeling and thought. He studied socialism through Polish and Russian works, and for the sake of his work among the Jewish workers he studied Yiddish. Later it was a great joke to us that at the head-quarters of Polish Social-Democracy, which contained quite a number of Jews, only Dzerzhinski, former gentleman of Poland, and Catholic, could read Yiddish. The frequent imprisonments of Dzerzhinski gave him time to study most of the available literature on socialism and he joined the Polish movement with a thoroughly worked-out conception of life. The literature of Polish Social-Democracy, including its organ Sprazca Robotnicza (Labour Affairs), published in Paris in 1894–1895, reached him only later when on the basis of his own experience and thinking, he had already, in the main, come to the same conclusions as our theorists had. The basis for his views had been given by Russian Marxist literature. You might say that he was an expression of the identity of the Polish and Russian labour movements.

His value to the movement was not only in the firmness of his views, but also in the unshakable revolutionary decisiveness he brought into the movement. The Polish nobility of the borders, which had grown up in struggles with the Tartars, and later with the Lithuanian and Ukrainian peasantry, had been distinguished from time immemorial by great energy. It was the most resolute type of Polish society. Dzerzhinski had absorbed ideas foreign to this medium, but defended them with the same energy with which the Polish border landed class had defended their class interests. Dzerzhinski did not recognize difficulties or defeats any more than the Skszetuskis, the Wolodyjewskis and other heroes of the Polish frontier landowners famed in Polish historical novels had done. Dangers existed only to be overcome, defeats only to discover one’s errors and learn by them, and reforge one’s sword for further battles. Most of the landed class who came over to the side of the revolutionary classes were of the ‘penitent nobleman’ type. But Dzerzhinski’s mastery of revolutionary thought enabled him fully to identify himself with the working class, and to feel himself an inseparable part of it. He was not a man who idealized the working class from a distance. In the course of his long illegal activities he had lived with workers, eaten with them from a common platter, shared their beds, known them intimately with all the failings resulting from their history, but also with all that is great in them, pregnant with socialism. In all moments of danger he was confident he could find workers who would not give him away, that with them and by their assistance he would be able once again to build up the shattered organization, that they would muster a military detachment prepared afresh to go into struggle, fearing neither hunger nor cold, nor afraid to leave wife and children, nor afraid of long years of solitude in the Akatui prison or the faraway swamps of Siberia. In the course of this life among the Working class the raw iron of his proletarian idea was tempered to supple steel, and this is the quality that Felix Dzerzhinski brought into the Polish Social-Democratic movement. In the illegal work preceding 1905 this young revolutionist became a leader. When the October Manifesto released him from his imprisonment in the tenth division of the Warsaw-fortress where he had been incarcerated in July 1905, following a mass Party conference called by him in the Dobia Woods near Warsaw, nobody had the slightest doubt that he, Dzerzhinski, was the leader of Social-Democracy. During the few months of mass movement up to his arrest in July he was a flame inspiring the whole party. Who can forget the days when Marcin Kasprzak was being tried by court martial? Kasprzak was a worker, one of the founders of the Party, on trial for armed resistance to arrest, in the spring of 1904, in a secret printing-works. The city was filled with troops, there were mass arrests. On a new press Dzerzhinski and Ganecki ran off proclamations calling for a general strike. Dzerzhinski personally went through the lines of gendarmes meant to isolate the working-class districts, and carried copies of the proclamations round his waist. Tall, strapping, head high, he passed through the ranks of soldiers and gendarmes who were searching every passer-by. He looked bravely into the eyes of a gendarme, who could not make up his mind to stop him. He remained in the memory of the Warsaw workers for long years, as a legend of a resolute revolutionist. When he was caught in Dobia Woods he made the comrades give him all the papers which it was impossible to destroy in order to take all the responsibility upon himself. In Dobia all those arrested were kept under the convoy of the Cossacks, but Dzerzhinski immediately started propaganda among them. Had there not been a change of guard he would have succeeded in organizing an escape.

As organizer immediately after October 1905, he swept the country like a flame, everywhere strengthening the connections with the centre, everywhere inspiring a militant spirit, everywhere creating the deepest confidence that the Party would lead the working masses of Poland together with the workers of the whole of Russia to storm the strongholds of tsarism. At the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party the Social-Democrats of Poland and Lithuania did not join the ranks of the general Russian organization because of a split over the national question. Then after the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, for more than a year the Party hesitated as to which faction it should join. The leading ideologists of the Party, closely connected with the Western-European movement, inclined to the organizational ideas of the Mensheviks, which seemed to them to move in accord with the experience of the international labour movement than the organizational ideas of Lenin. By the end of 1903 Dzerzhinski was very close to Bolshevism. By the end of 1904, after the Zemstvo campaign, Dzerzhinski was eagerly aiming at the earliest possible union with the Bolsheviks. In 1906, throughout the negotiations with the Russian Social-Democrats he played a decisive part in the delegations appointed by our main head-quarters. Even at that time Lenin had appraised him as his closest adherent among the Polish Social-Democrats.

The years of reaction came. Once again Dzerzhinski escaped from exile and worked feverishly in Warsaw rebuilding the organization. New questions arose of struggle against liquidators and against Otzovism (the ‘Left’ group in the Bolshevik Party who wanted to denounce all open parliamentary work and concentrate purely on ‘underground’ or secret work). Dzerzhinski could not be moved from his Leninist position which demanded struggle on both fronts, both legally in the Duma, and illegally in secret organization ‘underground.’ While at work on rebuilding the underground organization he also worked zealously for the establishment of a legal Social-Democratic Press. In 1912 a split took place in the Social-Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania which started from disagreement on a series of organizational matters between some of the district organizations and the theoretical centre abroad. This split, which was full of hard political and personal struggle, and caused great suffering to all the participants, was real hell to Dzerzhinski, because while he was occupied with supporting the main nucleus of leaders of Polish Social-Democracy he was obliged for a time to desist from pushing for unity with the Bolshevik centre, from which nothing separated him politically.

What Dzerzhinski went through when, not long before the 1914–1917 war he found himself again behind the stone walls of the fortress of Warsaw and then later in Orel serving penal servitude, he used to find it difficult to tell. The crash of the Second International, the break-up of the Party after its great successes in the Pravda period, the murk that fell over the whole labour movement, the echoes of war that reached him through the prison bars, failed to break him even for a moment. February 1917 found him again in the militant ranks of the Bolshevik organization working untiringly, full of faith, thirsting for the main struggle. October found him a member of the Revolutionary War Committee in Petrograd, organizing workers for the working-class dictatorship.

After the great factory towns of Poland, from Lodz, Warsaw and the coal basin of Dobrowa, after exile and penal servitude, he came to the Putilov and Obukhov workers, and as their leader he entered the government of the Union of Soviet Republics.

During the days of struggle for Petrograd and Moscow, Dzerzhinski organized a ‘Commission for combatting Counter-Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage.’ A sword of revolutionary rigour forged and tempered in fifteen years of battle, was now raised by Dzerzhinski in defence of the proletarian revolution. This sword was wielded with crushing force against the class enemy whenever they raised their heads. Untiringly he kept watch, day and night, a faithful guardian of the revolution, day and night looking for the enemy, dogging him, taking him by surprise. Dzerzhinski formed an organization of revolutionary vigilance with the same verve as he once organized the workers’ organizations.

Our enemies have developed legends about the all-seeing eyes of the Cheka, about its all-hearing ears, about the omnipresent Dzerzhinski. They have pictured the Cheka as a sort (of vast army, spread over the whole country, holding in firm grasp, and even reaching out its tentacles right into their own camp. They have not understood wherein Dzerzhinski’s strength consisted.

In the first place, Dzerzhinski’s strength was of the same nature as the strength of the Bolshevik Party itself-it consisted in having the full confidence of the working masses and poorest peasants, in their confidence that Dzerzhinski was their own flaming sword, their own watchful eye. Every worker, every poor peasant, considered it his duty to help the Cheka in its great struggle to defend the revolution. The Cheka did not consist only of the brave Chekists. The Cheka was a multimillioned working-class body watching, reporting every movement of the enemy. Who does not remember that during the struggle against Yudenitch, there was unearthed a conspiracy between the Chief of Staff of the Petrograd Defence and Yudenitch. This Chief of Staff was actually negotiating with Yudenitch and acting under his orders! The go-between used by this betrayer was an old man, a naturalized Frenchman. This old man’s daughter lost a packet of papers in the street. A Red Army private picked the packet up, opened it and noticed some sketches. He saw that they were military sketches, suspected that there was something wrong and arrested the woman who had dropped the papers. That brought the main nucleus of Yudenitch’s espionage into the hands of the Cheka. Dzerzhinski told me that at the investigation the Frenchman said: ‘If not for an accident you would not have caught me!’ I asked Dzerzhinski how he had answered him. Dzerzhinski said he told him that if it had not been for the vigilance of an ordinary Red Armyranker the accident of losing the papers would not have done him any harm, that this vigilance of the Red Army man was not accident at all, that this watchfulness of ordinary Red Army men was the very strength of the Cheka. The leading Chekists were selected by Dzerzhinski from among old worker members of the Party, men or women who were indubitably devoted to the tasks of the proletarian revolution.

The second source of Dzerzhinski’s strength, as well as of the Cheka, was the determinedness of their actions, which was born of their iron conviction in the moral rightness of the proletarian revolution. In the summer of 1918 Dzerzhinski gave an interview to the representatives of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois newspapers which were still in existence. They asked if he was not prepared to admit that the Cheka might sometimes make mistakes and commit acts of injustice in individual cases. Dzerzhinski answered; ‘The Cheka is not a court. The Cheka is the defence of the revolution, as the Red Army is. And just as in the civil war the Red Army cannot stop to ask whether or not it may harm individuals, but is obliged to act with the one thought of securing the victory of the revolution over the bourgeoisie, the Cheka is obliged to defend the revolution and conquer the enemy, even if its sword by chance does sometimes fall upon the heads of the innocent.’ For Dzerzhinski the safety of the revolution was the supreme law, and so he could find in his heart that unshakable rigour without which a victorious struggle against counter-revolution would have been quite impossible.

Enemies have tried to make him out to be bloodthirsty. His name has become a bogey to the bourgeoisie of the world. But those who know Dzerzhinski know that his mercilessness did not come easy to him. Dzerzhinski was a man straining from the roots of himself towards socialism, to a harmonious social order which was to make possible the full development of all human forces. Dzerzhinski, this man of merciless warfare, was wrapt in dreams-dreams of a social order which would not only cease to produce inequality, but also cease to produce crime. He was full of the profoundest love of people, love of their thoughts, while behind prison bars, in 1908, in his diary, he recorded his extremely deep-seated aversion to force. Even gendarmes and agents-provocateurs he understood as the product of social conditions. It was only the deep conviction he had that any soft-heartedness would only bring distress and suffering to the millions of the masses allowed him to use his revolutionary sword without wavering.

He did not like to speak of what went on within him during sleepless nights, but from time to time words escaped which showed he did not find things easy. When in 1920 during the struggle against White Poland we were preparing to leave for the front, hoping for victory, hoping to help the Polish workers to quickly establish their power, to free themselves from the bourgeoisie, Dzerzhinski said: ‘When we win I shall take on the job of Commissar for Education!’ Comrades present at this conversation laughed. Dzerzhinski seemed to shrink up. But his words laid bare what was clear to everybody who knew him. Destruction, force, were for him only a means to an end. His whole nature yearned for construction of the new life.

Because of the strength of this desire at the end of the civil war he joined the ranks of the builders of socialism. Not only the international bourgeoisie but even many of our own comrades were surprised when they heard of Dzerzhinski’s appointment to the post of Director of Transport. But this appointment corresponded not only to Dzerzhinski’s dreams, it corresponded to his whole nature. Without letting out of his hands the leadership of the G.P.U., because danger still threatened the republic internally, and external counterrevolutionary activity still persisted, Dzerzhinski threw himself eagerly into the economic task.

For his work in the new administrative post Dzerzhinski had neither professional nor social-economic preparation.

His education had been like that of many of our older outstanding Party members. Prison had been the university in which he, like the others, read Marxian literature. He had no special leaning towards studying economics. How then was it that he, a man of really innate modesty, a man to whose nature boasting was quite alien, came to take up this extremely difficult technical task of economic reconstruction? When the Central Committee placed him at the head of the People’s Commissariat for Transport, many thought that it was done because he was an udarnik, a ‘shock brigader,’ that with his unflagging energy he would overcome the immediate difficulties that stood in the way of the army of railway workers. But soon it became evident that Dzerzhinski understood his task in a very different way, that he was studying not only the organization of the railways but all the economic problems tied up with the development of transport, that he was concerned with the question of coal and iron, without a solution of which it was impossible to lift transport to its proper height. For Dzerzhinski his work on transport was merely an organic part of the whole work on the economic front. He was, in fact, profoundly interested in and profoundly stirred by the problems of the construction of socialism. He went into these problems fully, regarding them as vital tasks for every communist. It was not a speciality to him, it was the task of tasks. Dzerzhinski was profoundly convinced of our ability not merely to strengthen the country’s economy but to build socialism in spite of the slowness of the international revolution. He had to study day and night in order to get a clear picture for himself of the country’s economic organism as it was before the war, merely in order to be clear about the changes which had taken place during the war and revolution-all that in order to be able to choose the most important link to deal with at the moment. And he studied and worked with zeal and tension such as only a man of his faith and energy could have had, for it was a task which provided an outlet for all Dzerzhinski’s fundamental yearnings as a revolutionist.

Not long ago at a small comradely meeting of a group of administrators I had an opportunity to speak with Dzerzhinski about our current economic problems. Others discussed, others proved this, that, or the other-but only Dzerzhinski burned, burned with enthusiasm, with faith and iron conviction. One of the comrades there who had known Dzerzhinski as I had for over twenty years, said to me on the way home, ‘In all his life he has not wasted one grain of his socialist convictions or his socialist faith.

Working furiously, kindling with his faith all around him, Dzerzhinski understood very well that his work would be successful, that the work of the Party would be crowned with victory, if in addition to all else, it was never forgotten that for victory we need a full utilization of the bourgeois science that we are heirs to. And Dzerzhinski, who knew how to suppress without quarter any attempt at sabotage on the part of the middle-class specialists, also found it possible to fight for better working conditions for those same middle-class specialists, to protect them against mere prejudice and even against the natural distrust of the working masses. The best among these men learned to esteem and to love Dzerzhinski and followed his great work with interest. At the same time Dzerzhinski understood that the most perfect science would not help us to build communism if it did not draw in the working masses, if the working masses were not aflame striving to build socialism, if they were not drawn into working out all problems of our construction.

In the last official document he signed – a circular of the Supreme Economic Council and the All-Union Council of Trade Unions about the necessity of strengthening the Work of industrial conferences – Dzerzhinski wrote: ‘Administrators must understand that not one measure, not one item of policy, however vital, can be put into practice, and give the necessary results, if it is done over the heads of the working masses, if it is not understood by them.’ These words of Dzerzhinski constitute his testament, the testament of a builder of socialism, who having bound up his life with that of the working masses, having lived in their ranks and headed them, having driven away the enemy, took up pick and shovel, so to speak, in one hand, while he kept a ready sword in the other.

Dzerzhinski is no more. For the millions of the masses his name is that of a fearless fighter, a symbol of their firm will to victory. They see in him the champion of workers and poor peasants. His name will go down in the history of socialism as the name of one of the best fighters of the proletariat. If we say that the masses will always think of Lenin as the brain of the revolution, we can say that Dzerzhinski will be remembered as its heart. There was a combination of qualities in him such as history is not likely soon to repeat. This communist deeply devoted to the working masses, who saw in them and their struggles the assurance of final victory, this communist who succeeded in conquering bourgeois individualism in himself, was also a great personality; and the whole Party down to its very latest recruit knows that just such a fighter as Dzerzhinski, with that wonderful alloy of will and faith, we shall never have again. At Dzerzhinski’s grave, bowing their heads with those of the workers of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics for whom he toiled the last ten years, there will stand not only the workers of Poland in whose ranks he fought all the days of his youth, and for whom his very name is a clarion call, but also the enslaved and imprisoned workers of all countries, as for them a name like Dzerzhinski’s shines with a bright ray of hope.

But the world bourgeoisie will rejoice at Dzerzhinski’s death. The founder and the head of the Cheka is dead. This news will flash round the world and inspire our enemies with hope. But they will be very mistaken. Just as Lenin’s death no stirred the working masses to close their ranks more firmly than ever, Dzerzhinski’s death will remind vast numbers of them of the great October days, of the heroic years of struggle against foreign capitalist intervention, and strengthen their determination to summon all their energy for the accomplishment of the task to which Dzerzhinski devoted the flame of his last years – the task of socialist construction.

Last updated on 26 July 2016