Max Shachtman


Balabanoff’s Memoirs

(November 1938)

Source: The New International, Vol. IV No. 11, November 1938, pp. 348–350.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

My Life as a Rebel
ix+319 pp. Illus. New York, Harper & Brothers. $3.75

The memoirs of Angelica Balabanoff make up a sad book. Not because, like so many of her contemporaries in the radical movement, she has lost interest in the struggle or her socialist convictions, for she ends her recollections with a staunch re-affirmation of her ideals.

“My belief in the necessity for the social changes advocated by that [international labor] movement and for the realization of its ideals has never been more complete than it is now when victory seems so remote ... The experience of over forty years has only intensified my socialist convictions, and if I had my life to live over again, I would dedicate it to the same objective.”

It is a sad book because it reveals that for all the passionately revolutionary spirit that animated her in four decades of activity in the working class movement, she did not succeed in mastering the simple lesson that Lenin tried to teach her friend Serrati at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920:

Comrade Serrati said: we have not yet invented a sincerometre – this is a new French word which means an instrument for measuring sincerity – such an instrument has not yet been invented. We do not even need such an instrument, but we already do have an instrument for judging tendencies. It is a mistake on comrade Serrati’s part – I should like to speak about this later – that he did not apply this long familiar instrument.

It is such a failure – or inability? – to replace subjective judgments, based on trifling personal incidents, by political judgments, that brought her own political life of the last two decades particularly to such a tragically futile conclusion. The same failure results in a deep discoloration of the pages of her memoirs.

Rebellious daughter of a wealthy and reactionary Russian family, she left her native Ukraine for Western Europe to take up studies which soon led her into active participation in the socialist movement. Moved by a genuine compassion for the exploited and oppressed, and a powerful spirit of indignation at all iniquity, she became, after joining the pre-war Italian Socialist Party, one of its most stirring and popular agitators. Her teachers, friends and associates were the Old Guard of Italian socialism – Antonio Labriola, Turati, Treves, Modigliani, Lazzari, and later, Serrati and Mussolini. Of the last-named, then a neurotic bitter young exile in Switzerland, she became the patron, nursing him politically into leading positions in the party, until he became a member of the Central Committee and editor of the official organ, Avanti! Her pictures of the later Duce, of his timorousness and braggadocio, his characterlessness and inspired mediocrity, are savage and telling.

Master of several languages – she was a talented translator at international assemblies – and associate of the internationalist left wing which, with Mussolini as its spokesman, effected the expulsion from the party of the patriots in the period of the Tripolitan war of 1912, she became, when the World War broke out, a central figure in the movement to reconstruct the collapsed Second International. The Zimmerwald and Kienthal anti-war conferences of the internationalist socialists – she was secretary of the Zimmerwald International Socialist Commission from its inception –were to a large extent due to her persevering work. She joined the Bolsheviks on the eve of the revolution and in 1919 was chosen by them as first secretary of the Communist International. She broke with the Comintern, and sided with the Serrati wing of the Italian Socialist Party, when the latter refused to adopt the famous 21 points and to break with the reformists of the Turati-Treves-Modigliani group. For the last 15 or more years, she has been the leader of that tiny fraction of Italian socialism which embraces all that is left of the once mighty “Maximalist” group, which its real leader, Serrati, abandoned before his death to rejoin the Communist International.

Her break with Lenin and the Bolsheviks – her estimate of them forms, next to her evaluation of Mussolini, the bitterest part of her volume of portraits and judgments – was inevitable; and the reason why remains, to her, uncomprehended down to the present day. There lies the nub of the tragedy of her political life and of her book. The torrential sweep of the Russian revolution sucked her into the Bolshevik party, but only for a brief period of time. Looking back upon it in 1938, and sitting in lofty judgment on the Bolsheviks, she explains the collapse of the Third International by the moral leprosy of Zinoviev – symbol of all that to her was inherently vicious in Bolshevism; the degeneration reflected in the recent trials “was developed under Zinoviev himself” and the frame-ups and confessions “were implicit in the development of the Bolshevik method, the Leninist strategy, since the Revolution ... the Bolshevik leaders were capable of anything to achieve their own political and factional ends ...”

Both the analysis and verdict have already served as the pathetic theme for reviews of the book in the petty bourgeois press, in which the dastardly immorality of the Bolsheviks is sanctimoniously and invidiously contrasted with what Professor Douglas calls the “fundamental sincerity” of Balabanoff, “one who believes that the means as well as the ends of economic action are important”.

The explanation lies, however, elsewhere. Balabanoff’s book is astoundingly devoid of political characterizations; it is filled with pictures of good men and bad men, honest men and crooks, blunderers and seers; and after the narration of all her experiences in various groups and movements, Balabanoff terminates her book without informing the reader of what are her specific political program and her political associations. Yet, while she does not apply political criteria to herself, it does not follow that such criteria are not applicable to her.

In international socialist politics, Balabanoff never was a communist but rather a representative of that wing of Menshevism led by Julius Martov. Its chief characteristic was a strong literary radicalism, which sometimes went so far as to bring it into peripheral touch with Lenin’s thoroughgoing Marxism, but which rarely went so far as application in political life. The leaders of radical centrism could characterize the right wing with no lesser accuracy than did the Bolsheviks, but unlike the latter, who took seriously the proletarian revolution and the politics and methods leading to it, they could not bring themselves to a radical suspension of collaboration with the right wing. That is why even the most radical of Mensheviks, Martov, could “agree 95 percent” with the Bolsheviks, yet tax them with being “professional splitters”, and devote 95 percent of his blows at Lenin and 5 percent at the right wing with which he scarcely agreed at all.

This is the reason – Balabanoff is not Martov, to be sure, but she suffers from the same political malady – why she could not remain in the Comintern, and not the intrigues, real or alleged, of Zinoviev. It is also the reason why her memoirs, even where they deal with personalities – and they deal with little else – are, with all respect to Professor Douglas’ talk about “fundamental sincerity”, hopelessly one-sided, splotched and distorted beyond balance and proportion. All the Bolsheviks are limned with splashes of black, shading off into blotches of mud; the social democrats, as a rule, are painted in nostalgic pastels.

Knowing his notorious weaknesses, one cannot be the advocate of Zinoviev; yet, throughout the early period of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern, he was the man, next to Lenin and Trotsky, who restored revolutionary Marxism to its rightful place in the world labor movement and who helped train up a whole generation – not excluding Balabanoff, for a time! – in its principles and traditions. Yet he emerges from her memoirs only as “the most despicable individual I have ever met”.

On the other hand, however, Filippo Turati, leader of the Italian right wing, whose socialism Benedetto Croce aptly characterized as that of a “democrat á la Lombard”, and who, by his politics, was more responsible than any other man in the movement for the paralysis of the Italian working class which made possible Mussolini’s triumph, is very gently defended by Balabanoff.

His approach was often misinterpreted in other countries because it was so typically Italian [!]. Many Italian intellectuals like to appear sceptical of theoretical axioms even if they are not ... Thus it was that Turati came to be considered [!] a theoretical sceptic and even [!!] an opportunist.”

The author’s approach, at any rate, cannot be misinterpreted ...

Her description of events suffers also, and to such an extent, from her biased “approach”, that stories calculated to be of telling significance about Bolshevik depravity end by having a significance only for evaluating her memoirs. In telling of the slowness of the Moscow courier in bringing her reports to Stockholm, where she was Bolshevik propagandist in 1917, she quotes a letter from Lenin:

Dear Comrade: The work you are doing is of the utmost importance and I implore you to go on with it. We look to you for our most effective support. Do not consider the cost. Spend millions, tens of millions, if necessary. There is plenty of money at our disposal. I understand from your letters that some of the couriers do not deliver our papers on time. Please send me their names. These saboteurs shall be shot.

One gentleman-reviewer has already expressed his outraged horrification at this bloodthirsty despot who so lightly shot couriers merely for delaying with their dispatches. But surely Balabanoff is quoting from memory, and when it is borne in mind that she quoted quite a different letter eleven years ago, the conclusion is reached that – how shall we say it? – a political slant can play distressing tricks with one’s memory. For in the German edition of her memoirs, Erinnerungen und Erlebnisse (Berlin 1927), the same incident is more innocently reported with the following letter from Lenin, also in quotation marks:

Bravo, bravo! Your work, dear comrade, deserves the highest recognition. Please do not spare any means. That the material is furnished you in such an insufficient manner, is inexcusable. Please give me the name of the courier who is guilty of such gross, inexcusable negligence.

If letters are quoted from memory, it is still customary to omit quotation marks; and if they are quoted from a text at hand, not even the elapse of a decade permits a writer to quote it so differently on a second occasion as to include sentences about “tens of millions” (no trifle that!) and the summary execution of negligent but innocent couriers (also no trifle!). Otherwise, the author runs the risk not only of shocking the sensibilities of bourgeois reviewers, but also of arousing the feeling that her political objectives have, nolens volens, superceded her political objectivity, to say nothing of objectivity of the ordinary kind; and this is a failing which, we learn from the author, is the specific characteristic of the immoral Bolsheviks.

The feeling is deepened by other, and just as typical, discrepancies between the author’s memoirs of 1938 and those of 1927.

According to the present edition, the Stockholm conference of the Zimmerwalders adopted a manifesto calling for a general strike in support of the Russian Revolution, an appeal which was not to be made public until endorsed by the constituent parties of the Allied countries. Radek, however, typical Bolshevik, began to insist that Balabanoff publish the appeal forthwith; “our mutual and unanimous understanding, our pledges and promises, and my own enormous responsibility meant nothing to Radek, and throughout the month of October he bombarded me with protests and demands”. Meanwhile, Luise Zietz, representative of the German Independents, came to Stockholm to “prevent the premature publication of the manifesto in view of the precarious position of her party”.

Torn between the threatened extermination of left wing socialism in Germany and the demands of those who spoke in the name of the Russian Revolution, I was utterly miserable, but I felt that there was only one course to pursue – to keep my pledge and obey the unanimous mandate of the Zimmerwald Commission. Shortly after I had given Radek my final decision the manifesto was published in the Finnish paper controlled by the Bolsheviks ...

Fortunately for Radek and the Bolsheviks, their moral turpitude does not stand out so heinously if we go by ... the 1927 version of what happened. According to it, Radek did indeed insist upon the publication of the appeal in view of the terribly urgent situation in Russia and did threaten to publish it on his own responsibility. Zietz did indeed appeal, in a telegram to Balabanoff and then at a meeting of the Zimmerwald Commission, against its publication. But, we read in 1927,

“however weighty were the reasons which Luise Zietz adduced, it was impossible for us to accept them, for political reasons on the one side and formal ones on the other. Disappointed and perhaps also enraged against me personally, comrade Zietz left Stockholm ... At the same time I received a letter that comrade Ledebour [leader of the Independents] was not in agreement with the mission that Luise Zietz had undertaken in Stockholm in the name of the Independent Party.”

Immediately thereafter, however, came the report that the Soviets had taken power. Balabanoff decided to make the appeal public telegraphically.

“All the obstacles that had stood in the way of the publication of the Zimmerwald manifesto only a few hours ago, had now fallen away with the great historical deed ... That my collaborators in the International Socialist Commission would share my standpoint, of that I had no doubt; hardly had morning come than I telephoned them and obtained their complete consent.”

And because the only member of the enlarged Commission who opposed immediate publication was Rakovsky – not Balabanoff! –

“I must say that my personal relations to Rakovsky from that time on were no longer as friendly and spontaneous as before.”

Not less difficult to reconcile are the two distinctly different versions of the story that Trotsky complained about the difficulties put in the way of his return to Russia from the United States in 1917. In the English edition, we learn that on his arrival in Russia, Trotsky was particularly bitter because the Bolsheviks had tried to prevent or delay his return out of factional considerations, which would be just like the Bolsheviks, wouldn’t it? “His interpretation seemed to me rather implausible then, but after my own later experiences with the Bolsheviks, I was not so sure of this.” In the 1927 version, however, Trotsky was, it is true, just as bitter; but his feelings were directed then at Robert Grimm, the Swiss social democrat, to whom Trotsky had turned with the request to have the Swiss government agree to let him pass through on his way home; and because it failed to grant Trotsky permission, “Trotsky hinted that good will was lacking on the part of Grimm or others”. In 1928, Grimm receives the pardon of silence.

Numerous similar examples could be cited from the two conflicting sets of memoirs, and all of them pose the question of why an intervening decade of recollections sharpens so severely all judgments of Bolsheviks and moderates so charitably all judgments of social democrats, whose perfectly putrid role during and after the war – the period of the author’s greatest activity – must surely have left a deep impression upon her. The answer is the one given by the late Henri Guilbeaux, who know her throughout the Zimmerwald period in Switzerland:

Even though she flattered herself at being above the battle of the revolutionary Russian factions, she had a very clear point of view. Belonging to none of the factions, on the pretext of working for the restoration of unity, she was a Menshevik with all her soul.

It is, alas, this political reality that shapes and colors – more simply, misshapes and discolors – her memoirs, a tendency which is only strengthened by her literary collaboration with a duet of Mensheviks of California cultivation. But whatever its effects on the historical value of the book in relation to the points raised above – and the effects are disastrous – its value as an example of the “dialectical interdependence” of politics, morals, and the powers and tricks of memory, is not to be denied.


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 September 2015