Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

VIII – Left Communism and Inner-Party Conflict

Written: 1925-1928, Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe
First Published: L’An 1 de la révolution russe, 1930
This Version: New International, Vol.XV No.1, January 1949, pp.23-26.
Transcription: Tex Crawford.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Third Soviet Congress was held in Petrograd from the 23rd to the 31st of January. Its composition may be judged from the All-Russian Executive that it elected, which was composed of 160 Communists, 125 S-Rs, 7 Right S-Rs, 7 Maximalist S-Rs, 3 anarchist-communists, 2 Mensheviks, and 2 Menshevik Internationalists.

Trotsky and Kamenev reported on the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. The most important discussions centered around the organization of soviet power. We shall only remark Lenin’s speeches, which were the most important, in any case.

He began by praising the activities of the Council of Peoples) Commissars, pointing out that the Soviets had now lasted five days longer than the Paris Commune (which lasted two months and ten days). He emphasized the importance of the collaboration between the proletariat and the poorer peasants, which was reflected in the bloc between the Bolsheviks and the Left S-Rs. He stated once more that they had no idea of imposing socialism on the peasants by force.

He reaffirmed the necessity for violence against the bourgeoisie:

“Never in history has any question relating to the class struggle been solved other than by violence. We are partisans of violence as long as it emanates from the exploited toiling masses and is directed against the exploiters ...”

To those who demanded that he make an end of the civil war, he replied:“What about the example of the ruling classes and their pitiless repressions? We had only to confiscate the wealth of the former ruling classes to bring them to their knees.”

“The people no longer fear the man with the gun,” he said, reporting a chance phrase overheard from an old woman in a station. It makes little difference, after that, that we are labeled “dictators” and “usurpers”. He announced the formation of the Red Army, the armed nation.

He denounced two evils: the sabotage of the intellectuals, and the selfish instincts of the backward masses. “The professors, the technicians, and the engineers use their knowledge to exploit labor: ‘We want our talents to serve the bourgeoisie,’ they say, ‘or we won’t work.’” But the worst social elements left us by the old order are those who are animated by one desire: to take for themselves, and disappear. They have all the faults of the past; they must be chased out of the factories.

Let us remark this allusion to the rank individualism of backward elements so powerful among the petty bourgeoisie, where it is developed and encouraged by the capitalists. Lenin constantly returned to denounce and to combat this immense danger. Against the robbers, the adventurers, the profiteers of the revolution, he called on the initiative of the masses. To the peasants he said: “Dispose of the land according to your own wishes; no doubt you will make mistakes but that is the way to learn.” He remarked approvingly to the congress: “In places the proletariat has entered the owners’ associations to ensure the direction of whole branches of industry.”

“Russia Has Begun; Germany, France and England Will Finish ...”

He concluded with some general observations on the place of the Russian revolution in the world movement.

“Marx and Engels used to say, ‘France will begin and Germany will finish the revolution.’ They said France would begin the revolution because during decades of struggle she had acquired the devotion and initiative that put her in the vanguard of the socialist movement. We say that the revolution begins more easily in a country where there is no large class of exploiters who are able to corrupt the upper sections of the working class with the loot of colonial exploitation ... Russia has begun; Germany, France, and England will finish the revolution: socialism will triumph.”

Lenin made several very clear allusions to the suppression of the state:

“In our epoch of radical demolition of bourgeois society, anarchist ideas take living forms. But we still need a firm revolutionary working-class power, the power of a revolutionary state, to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The newer anarchist tendencies are lining up beside the Soviets.”

Speaking to the agitators who were being sent out to the country several days later, he said – and this is another idea that he constantly emphasized:

“Every worker, every peasant, every citizen, must understand that he has to rely entirely on himself, and that he can expect nothing but what he obtains for himself.”

Could the Soviet Republic continue under the heavy burden of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk? That was the great problem.

The republic lost 40 per cent of its proletariat when the Germans occupied the Donetz oil basin, 90 per cent of its fuel industry, 90 per cent of its sugar industry, 65 to 70 per cent of its metal industry, 55 per cent of its wheat, the major part of its exportable crop. All Russia’s external commerce for centuries had depended on the export of grain. Now she found herself cut off from the outside world, facing a future of perpetual poverty. “The Brest-Litovsk peace,” it was oftimes said, “is the slow death of the revolution.” (Lozovsky)

The idea of a revolutionary war was born of this conviction. The debates at the first All-Russian Congress of the People’s Economic Councils, from May 26 to June 4, reflected the ideas of the majority of the party.

The reporter on the economic consequences of the treaty, Karl Radek, emphasized that the revolution would henceforth find itself closely dependent upon foreign powers and the world market. He urged a policy of loans and concessions which today appears pretty utopian. Only new enterprises, constructed outside the principal industrial regions of the Urals, Donetz, Kuznetsk, and Baku were to be subject to concessions. The state was to divide the profits with the capitalist concessionaires and have the right of repurchase after a certain time. There was no other choice; they were forced to accept this hypothetical solution.

It was also decided to develop the Ural industries and Turkestan cotton production. Old Kalinin declared: “It is in the Urals, in the North, and in Siberia that we shall lay the basis of our future power.” These were desperate solutions, proposed by revolutionists resolved not to despair. Was such a mutilated Russia, constantly threatened by all-powerful imperialism and prey to growing internal conflicts between town and country, possible? The greatest optimist only thought so out of necessity.

The Party Splits: Economic Chaos Grows

The party divided. The Left Communists, drawing nearer the Left S-Rs, began to consider the peace a greater evil than the worst war. Lenin and the majority of the party heard the European imperialist structure cracking and awaited the collapse of Germany.

The growing conflict between town and country found expression in the inflation: and famine. The ruble fell at a dizzy rate, Taxes no longer being collected – and for good reason – the government was reduced to poverty. Industrial production had fallen terribly; whence a rise in the price of manufactured goods. The peasant received paper rubles in exchange for his wheat, rubles with which he could buy increasingly few manufactured goods with greater and greater difficulty. He had recourse to barter; food for goods. A mob of small speculators intervened between him and the city. There had been famine in the cities before the revolution; now it grew.

Amid this ruin, individualistic instincts had free play; in short, it was as easy to get along alone as it was impossible to get bread for everybody. Nothing less than the magnificent discipline, solidarity, and spirit of the proletariat could combat these conditions with even relative success. Here are some accurate figures on the inflation of 1917-1918: the issues of the State Bank on January 1, 1917 amounted to a little more than nine billion paper rubles. During 1917, fourteen billion seven hundred and twenty-one million more were issued, and twelve billion in the first five months of 1918.

To understand the discussions in the Bolshevik Party, the condition of the country must be kept well in mind.

Moscow Committee in Opposition: “Communists of Misfortune”

On February 24, the Moscow Regional Committee passed a motion of defiance against the Central Committee of the party and refused to submit to “measures concerning the application of the peace treaty.” This motion was followed by an explanatory statement which said:

“The Moscow Regional Bureau considers a split in the party in the near future probable, and aims to rally all true revolutionists, all Communist elements, against the partisans of a separate peace and against the moderate elements of the Communist movement. It would be in conformity with the interests of the international revolution, we believe, to consent to the sacrifice of Soviet power, which is becoming purely formal. As ever, we see our task to be the extension of the idea of socialist revolution into every country, and in Russia to be the energetic application of the dictatorship and the pitiless repression of the bourgeois counter-revolution.”

“Strange” Lenin replied, “and foolish.”

Far from helping the German revolution, his good sense objected, the sacrifice of the Soviets would kill it. Were not the English workers terrified by the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871? The example of France in 1793 and of Prussia, trampled underfoot by Napoleon’s armies – did they not show the strength of a tenacious will? “Why cannot such things be repeated in our own history? Why must we fall into despair and pass motions which are more dishonorable – it is the truth! – than the most dishonorable peace – motions about Soviet power becoming purely formal?” No foreign invasion can ever render “purely formal” a popular political institution (and soviet power is not merely a popular political institution; it is an institution far superior to all others known to history.)

“The foreign invasion, on the contrary, will only increase the sympathies of the people for soviet power ... if only the latter will refrain from falling into adventurism all the time. Russia is on the road to a new national war, a war for the defence and the maintenance of soviet power. It is possible that this epoch, like that of the Napoleonic wars, will become an epoch of wars of liberation (I say wars and not a war) forced on Soviet Russia by the invaders. It is possible. And that is why despair, dishonorable despair, is more dishonorable than a super-oppressive peace imposed on us for lack of an army. The consequences of dozens of super-oppressive peace treaties would not lead to our defeat, if we knew how to consider war and insurrection seriously. The invaders will not kill us, unless we kill ourselves with despair and phrasemongering.”

The Left Communists – “Communists of misfortune,” Lenin called them – at first published a daily paper (from the 5th to the 19th of March). This was the Communist, journal of the Petersburg Committee, under the editorship of Bukharin, Radek and Uritsky. Transferred to Moscow, the journal became a weekly, from April 20 until June. Obolensky (Osinsky) and V.M. Smirnov joined the editorial board in this period.

Among the collaborators of this leftwing newspaper we note: Bubnov, Bronsky, Antonov (Lukhin), Lomov (Oppokov), M. Pokrovsky, E. Preobrazhensky, I. Piatakov, Soltz, Unschlicht, Kollontai, V. Kuibishev, E. Yaroslavsky, Sapronov and Safarov. These names give some idea of the strength and quality of the leftwing movement.

Unity Wins Out at Party Congress

The two tendencies came to grips at the Seventh Party Congress, held in Petrograd, March 6 to 8, a few days before the capital was transferred to Moscow on March 10 under the threat of German occupation. The congress discussed nothing but the peace treaty.

Trotsky, although a partisan of war, rallied to Lenin, on the ground that it was impossible to fight a revolutionary war with the party divided. The threat, of a split, which was universally feared, hung over the congress until the very end. But unity won out. The opposition received representation on the Central Committee, as well as on a committee to revise the program.

Among Lenin’s speeches at this congress, we quote those of the greatest historical and theoretical interest:

Lenin first remarked that the first months of the Soviet regime had been a triumphal march. After which the inevitable difficulties of the socialist revolution had intervened. For:

“One of the essential differences between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution is that the former, born out of the feudal order, builds up its new economic organs little by little in the heart of the old regime, if only by the development of commerce, which gradually modifies the whole appearance of feudal society. The bourgeois revolution has only one task: to sweep away, to destroy, all the foundations of the old order. In accomplishing this task, a bourgeois revolution fulfils its mission, as it ends by creating the regime of commodity production and assuring the growth of capitalism. It is quite otherwise with the socialist revolution. The more backward the country where the zigzags of history begin the socialist revolution, the more difficult is the transition from the old capitalist relations to the new socialist relations. Here we have more than the task of destruction; we have the infinitely more difficult task of organization.

“The Socialist Soviet Republic was so easily born because the masses formed soviets in February 1917 before any party had time to issue the slogan.”

Thus the difference between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions is that the former benefits from capitalist forms of organization which are already extant, while the latter has to create its own forms on the spot. “Assault methods” are not applicable to economic and administrative work.

“Our Salvation lies in the European Revolution ...”

The socialist revolution “will be infinitely more difficult to start in Europe than in Russia; infinitely easier to begin in Russia, it will be difficult to carry on; in Europe, on the contrary, it will be easy to continue, once it is started.” Confronted with the imperialist beast, “our salvation, I repeat, lies in the European revolution ... and if you say that the hydra of revolution is hidden in every strike, and that he is not a socialist who does not understand that, you are right. Yes, the socialist revolution is hidden in every strike; but if you say that every strike is a step toward the socialist revolution, you are simply mouthing the emptiest of stupidities.”

“It is quite true that without the German revolution we shall perish. Perhaps we shall not perish at Moscow or Petrograd, but at Vladivostok ... In any case, we shall perish without the German revolution. But that does not at all diminish our duty to confront the most critical situations without phrasemongering. The German revolution will not come as rapidly as we expected. History has shown that. We must consider it a fact.”

We demobilized because the army was a diseased limb of a social organism; the sooner it was dissolved the sooner the organism would recover. “We must learn how to fight in retreat.”

The party split? We shall recover from our crisis, said Lenin, with our historical experience and the aid of the world revolution. He polemized against the fantasies of the Communist, which were refuted by facts themselves, and against the absurd attempt to transpose the insurrectional methods of October onto an international plane. The truce is a fact, he said. He told the desolating story of the eleven days of revolutionary war; they had believed Petrograd lost; such a desert stretched before the Germans that cities like Yamburg were “retaken” by telegraph operators who wired their stupefaction at not finding the Germans. “That is the terribly bitter truth, the outrageous, saddening, and humiliating truth, but worth a hundred times more than your Communist.”

What to do now? We must have order, The workers must drill, if only for one hour a day. That is more difficult than writing the most beautiful stories. “Our peace is another Tilsit”; let us profit by it to prepare for war. “History teaches us that peace is a preparation for war, and war the means of obtaining a slightly more advantageous peace.” The whole speech was on this note of realism and tenacity.

“We shall retreat as far as need be,” Lenin said. “Perhaps we shall give up Moscow. We shall meet that test. And when the day comes we shall recommence the struggle.” After polemizing with Bukharin who reproached the Central Committee with its “demoralizing tactic,” and Trotsky who urged a war with the Ukraine, he concluded, “I am willing to yield ground in order to gain time.”

The Thesis of Heroic Sacrifice: Arguments of the Left Communists

The arguments of the Left Communists became the subject of a conscientious analysis, the accuracy of which Bukharin acknowledged in a preface in 1925. Then, as before the signing of the treaty, the arguments of the Left Communists were based upon deep feelings: indignation, sorrow, anger, and above all tragic doubt of the destiny of the revolution, all the more tragic in that it was matched by an almost blinding enthusiasm for the revolution, a willingness to make even the supreme sacrifice.

These feelings were translated into rather surprising statements: “If the Russian Revolution itself does not flinch, no one else can master or break it.” “As long as the revolution itself does not capitulate, it need fear no partial defeat, no matter how serious. The great soviet republic can lose Petrograd, Kiev and Moscow; it cannot perish.”

Such statements are rather striking. But what to do in reality? We want a “mobilization of spirits” said Bukharin: “When the masses have seen the German offensive at work ... a real holy war will begin.” There is no army? Then engage in guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare was the white hope of romantic revolutionists all during the revolution. As for the strength of the guerrilla bands, that would be found in the strength of their socialist convictions, as well as in “the social nature of the new army which is mobilized.”

A very accurate idea was here confused with a very false ideal. A new army based upon class interests could and must be formed, and would be filled with revolutionary enthusiasm; but it was none the less puerile to talk of opposing German military technique with socialist convictions.

These theories were justified by a doctrinaire statement and by a distortion of reality. The doctrinaire statement was: No compromise! The revolution must not maneuver, must not fight a retreating battle, must not consent to compromises. There was only one tactic to follow, the tactic of the greatest intransigence. Better die than live at the price of a compromise.

Leftism a Reaction Against Opportunist Dangers

In the final analysis, this was the basic promise of all Left Communism, and In it must be seen a healthy reaction against opportunism. We have seen how the leftists opposed all relations with capitalist powers.

The distortion of fact, which was certainly unconscious, consisted in denying the truce with German imperialism, or better still contesting its possibility. The perspective of peace, said Bukharin, was “illusory, non-existent.” Peace, wrote Kollontai, had become an “impossibility.” “This is not a peace,” wrote Radek after the peace was signed, “this is a new war.”

Strong feelings distorted reality for these impassioned revolutionists. The struggle continued, but the truce, weak and mediocre as it might be, was a fact. “How’s this?” asked Lenin, with his customary good sense. “You deny the truce when we have already had five days in which to peacefully evacuate Petrograd?”

The conclusion of the Left Communist thesis sums up in a clear theoretical passage their exaltation; and the curious melange of optimism – in regard to history – and pessimism – in regard to present reality – which characterized their tendency.

“We do not pretend that the inflexible application, internally as well as externally, of a highly dangerous proletarian policy may not result in momentary collapse, but we believe that it is better for us, in the interests of the international proletarian movement, to go down beaten by external forces but to go down true proletarians, than to live on by adapting ourselves to circumstances.”

In Russia they were accustomed to see a petty-bourgeois deviation in such language. No doubt most deviations from proletarian ideology, no matter how varied they may be, are the work of intellectuals, and reflect to a greater or lesser degree the state of mind of the middle classes; standing between the proletariat and the capitalists. No doubt feelings of insulted honor, of outraged patriotism, of heroic sacrifice – better death than shame – are more compatible with the middle-class mind (with the intellectual mind especially) than with the realistic, utilitarian, dialectic, and deeply revolutionary proletarian mind.

But in my opinion, this leftist tendency also represented something else: a reaction against the opportunist danger. Lenin did not belong either to the left or to the right wing. He was inflexibly, but practically, revolutionary – and without phrasemongering. Until Lenin’s time in the history of the international working class, every attempt to “manoeuver” in the name of the revolution promptly fell into opportunism. There was another important consideration. Never before had there been a victorious working-class revolution. Some of the best revolutionists must have been inclined to continue the policy of sacrifice which had proved so fruitful in the history of heroic proletarian defeats. It was another tribute to Lenin that he was able to break with this tradition.

Theory and Action at the Seventh Bolshevik Party Congress

Even in those difficult times the Seventh Congress considered questions of theory. Lenin finally succeeded in having the name of the party changed from the “Social Democratic Workers Party” to the “Communist (Bolshevik) Party,” a change he had urged since the beginning of 1917. He took the occasion to emphasize once more the infinite superiority of the soviet system, modeled on Paris Commune, over all earlier forms of democracy, and to recall to the Congress that socialism aimed at the suppression of all governmental restraint and the application of the rule: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Attacking the theory, held by all socialist adversaries of the revolution at the time that “you can’t socialize poverty,” he quoted several prophetic lines written by Frederick Engels in 1887. Engels foresaw the world conflagration, foresaw the fall of governments, foresaw tremendous devastations, and amid this disaster “the victory of the working class or the creation of conditions favorable for this victory.” Lenin reaffirmed the indestructibility of culture, but said that it might nevertheless be difficult to start a renascence.

Bukharin, Sokolnikov, and Vladimir Smirnov proposed to suppress the theoretical section of the party program, which they thought outmoded, referring to commodity production. They thought it enough to define imperialism and the epoch of socialist revolutions in the program. This proposal was wrong in several respects. Even during the imperialist epoch, commodity production and the simplest forms of capitalism continue to develop in backward countries. But in his reply Lenin took up the question on a higher plane. We must quote an entire page:

“The production of commodities gave birth to capitalism which has now arrived at the imperialist stage. This universal historical perspective, which is the basis of socialism, must not be forgotten. No matter what may be the outward form of the struggle, no matter what zigzags we may encounter (and there will be many, for experience has shown us what vast detours the revolution took in Russia, while in Europe the course will be even more complex and dizzying, the rate of development even more frantic, the turns even sharper) – we must keep the old theoretical part of our program so as not to become lost among these detours, among these historical twists, in order to keep a general perspective, a leading line, which can relate the whole of capitalist development to the whole course toward socialism, which we naturally represent as a straight course – in order thus to be able to see the beginning, the growth, and the end – but which, far from being straight in reality, will on the contrary be infinitely crooked.

“How Many More Transition Steps on the Road to Socialism”

“We must keep the old theoretical section of the program so as not to lose ourselves in these detours, in which case history – if not our enemies – would throw us aside, for in Russia we are still in the first transitional phase from capitalism to socialism.

“History has not granted us the peace that we counted on in theory, the peace that we wanted, the peace that would have allowed us to pass rapidly through the various transition stages. Civil war has almost immediately become an obstacle, and now is joined by other wars. Marxists never forget that violence, which inevitably accompanies the collapse of capitalism, is the midwife of the socialist society. There will be a whole epoch of world history, an epoch of the most varied kinds of war: imperialist wars, internal civil wars, mixtures of the two, national wars, and wars of national liberation from the imperialist oppressors.

“We have made only the first moves toward suppressing capitalism – and beginning the transition to socialism. How many more transition stages are there on the road to socialism? We do not know, we cannot know. That depends upon the moment when the European socialist revolution really begins, and upon the speed with which it overcomes its enemies and takes the road of socialist development. We cannot predict; but the program of a Marxist party should proceed from established facts with absolute precision. That is its real strength.”

The same leaders urged the abandonment of the minimum program. Lenin had fought this proposal before the October revolution; he no longer saw any reason to oppose it. But he added, “It would be utopian to think we may not be thrown even further back.”

He returned to the social-democratic distortion of the Marxist theory of the state, and once more defined the soviet republic:

“It is a new type of state, without a bureaucracy, without police, without a standing army, a state which substitutes for bourgeois democracy a new type of democracy, forces the toiling masses into the vanguard, gives them legislative, executive, and military power, thus creating an apparatus which is destined to re-educate these same masses. We are only beginning our work in Russia, and for the moment we are beginning badly.”

“Perhaps we are doing our work badly, but we are pushing the masses in the right direction.

“And may the European workers say, ‘What the Russians are doing badly, we shall do better.’”

I shall make only a brief resumé of the tentative program submitted to the Seventh Congress by Lenin. Ten theses defined soviet power. They rank with the best of his thought:

  1. Union of all poor and exploited masses.
  2. Union of the intelligent, active minority for the re-education of the masses.
  3. Abolition of parliamentary government, which separates the executive and legislative powers.
  4. Closer bonds between the masses and the state than under the older forms of democracy.
  5. Arming of the workers and. Peasants.
  6. More democracy and less formality, greater ease in electing and recalling representatives.
  7. Close connection between state power and production.
  8. Possibility of eliminating all bureaucracy.
  9. Transition from the formal democracy of rich and poor to the real democracy of the workers.
  10. Participation of all members of the soviets in the planning and administration of the state.

The program then presented a certain number of political measures aiming at the “withering away of the state” and economic measures such as the “socialization of production under the administration of workers’ organizations, trade unions, factory committees, etc.”; the obligatory affiliation of the whole people to consumers’ cooperatives; the registration of all commercial operations – money being not yet suppressed – by the consumers’ and producers’ cooperatives; the universal obligation to work, “cautiously applied to farmers, who already live by their own work”; the enforcement of work and consumption accounts from all persons enjoying an income of more than 500 rubles a month, or employing. workers or servants; the concentration of all financial operations in the state bank; the control and administration of all production and consumption by workers’ organizations at first, later by the entire population; the organization of competition between producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives to raise the productivity of labor and reduce its hours, etc.; systematic measures to organize collective kitchens by groups of families; the suppression of indirect taxes, to be replaced by a graduated income tax and a percentage of the income from state monopolies.


Last updated on: 7.2.2009