From New International, Vol.VIII No.6 (Whole No.64), July 1942, pp.171-174.
Transcribed by Damon M.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The shocking and apparently authentic news report of the death of N. Riazanov (known in the early years of the Russian socialist movement by his first pseudonym of “Bukvoyed”) is reported in the June issue of Unser Tsait, the periodical of the foreign bureau of the Polish Bund in New York.
Riazanov’s death occurred two years ago! It has become known abroad only now, reported by an old Soviet functionary traveling outside Russia, that the old soldier and scholar of Russian socialism died at the age of 70 in the northern wastes around Archangel, whence he had been banished some time earlier by Stalin.
He was born in Odessa in 1870, named David Borisovich Goldendach. At the age of 17, while still a student at the Odessa Gymnasium, he entered the revolutionary movement and helped organize the first workers’ social-democratic circles. In Odessa, and later on in Kishinev, he became known as one of the ablest organizers and teachers of the movement. Hundreds who were to become the pioneers of socialism in Russia, both among workers and intellectuals, received their first solid training in Marxism from Riazanov.
In 1891, at the age of 21, he was arrested for his revolutionary activities and sentenced by the Czar’s henchmen to four years’ imprisonment. Most of that time he spent in the notorious “Kresty” prison in St. Petersburg. Like most of the comrades of his time who were incarcerated by the Czarist police, he spent his prison years fruitfully; he even liked to tell later that his years in “Kresty” were the happiest, or in any case the most peaceful, period of his life. Working on a systematic study plan, he absorbed a wide and profound scientific knowledge in prison – this was possible for many revolutionists under the tyranny of the Romanovs even if it isn’t under the tyranny of their contemporary imitators in the Kremlin.
For five years after 1909 he lived abroad. In the early struggle in the Russian social democracy, he was not firmly in the camp of the revolutionary Iskra people – Lenin, Martov, Plekhanov – but occupied a “conciliatory” position between them and the so-called “Economists.” He even founded a group – Borba, the Struggle – which aimed to bring these two irreconcilable tendencies together on the basis of a criticism of both. In vain.
The storms of 1905 brought him back to Russia, where he resumed his activity first in his native Odessa and then in St. Petersburg. The man who became renowned as the most eminent scholar of modern Marxism made a name for himself in the period of the Revolution of 1905 as an organizer and founder of the trade union movement of Russia. In this period, too, he was the conciliator rather than the firm party man, seeking to bring Menshevism and Bolshevism together and, because of the intransigence of the latter, leaning toward the former.
Abroad again, in Germany, with the setting in of the reaction, a new period began in his life. As early as 1901, he contrived to gain access to the archives of the German social democracy, the repository of the literary remains, correspondence, etc., of Marx and Engels, among others of their time.
His scholarly scrupulousness, his indefatigability, his almost savantism – so rare even then, to say nothing of our own time – earned him a commission and a subsidy from the German party authorities to go through the rich and dusty archives of Marx and Engels in order to make available to the socialist public the unpublished works of the two great teachers. He plunged into his work with a will, a thoroughness, an enthusiasm, which did not flag for a moment throughout the rest of a life which he thenceforward devoted exclusively, save for a few “interruptions,” to the same task.
For the American movement in particular, so much deprived of vital works of Marx and Engels, the fruits of the work done by Riazanov are still to be tasted and appreciated. But the old pre-war bound volumes of Kautsky’s Neue Zeit in Berlin and Adler’s Kampf in Vienna are filled with Riazanov’s discoveries of old and forgotten articles and manuscripts and letters, often brightened with the light of the scholar’s commentaries and glossaries.
He literally bristled with esteem for Marx and Engels, and one might almost say that the defender Marx had in Engels after the former’s death, they both had in Riazanov. Yellow with age, but undimmed in vigor, are the pages of polemics in the pre-war Marxian journals of Central Europe in which the bristling Riazanov fought out his defense of Marx from the gentle reproaches of comrades like Franz Mehring, scholars in their own right, who found that the old blows delivered against Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin had not been justified. Yet Riazanov was not a mere Marxologist, an iconographer, a blind worshipper, and he proved that on more than one occasion.
As the war drew near, he saw his dream of a definitive edition of the works of Marx and Engels vanishing. He was not to resume work on it for years to come. Still in emigration, he adopted a position on war which closely approximated Trotsky’s. Lenin was not sparing in his criticisms of “Bukvoyed’s” inconsistencies, and the war writings of the great Bolshevik leader refer more than once, and not too complimentarily, to Riazanov. A reconciliation was to come, sooner than both expected, no doubt.
In February, 1917, the Czarist regime came to an end. With others, Riazanov returned to Russia and began again his work in the trade unions. Unlike 1905, this time he joined with the Bolsheviks and became a member of their party. A qualified agitator, he took part in the preparation of the October Revolution and became a commissar of the new Bolshevik government. But in the Bolshevik party, as well as outside of it, he leaned toward the right. In the early critical weeks he inclined strongly toward the group of Zinoviev and Kamenev. Along with them and other conservatives, he opposed Lenin and Trotsky with the slogan of an “all-inclusive socialist government,” that is, a capitulation to the Mensheviks and the social-revolutionists. Along with a group of right-wingers, he even resigned from the Bolshevik government.
It was probably this series of errors, revealing a certain ineptitude in moments of political crisis, which prompted his virtual retirement from active party life, his decision to resume the work into which he had plunged in Berlin before the war. With Lenin’s ardent support, he founded the Communist Academy in Moscow and then the famous Marx-Engels Institute. With all the resources he needed placed at his disposal by the state, the Institute became one of the most impressive and unique establishments in the world. Begging, borrowing, acquiring by purchase or contribution, he and the staff he directed so ably soon brought from the four corners of the world almost everything ever written by Marx and Engels, everything published by them in any language, every-thing written about them, everything written by those to whom they referred in their writings, along with all possible periodicals of the labor and revolutionary movements of their time. The Institute was a gold mine for students of Marxism, and of the revolutionary movement in particular.
He sternly, and no doubt sorrowfully, refrained from participating in the factional struggle that broke out in the Russian Communist Party in 1924 between Trotsky and his comrades, on the one side, and the growing bureaucracy, on the other. Because he did not understand who stood on the side of Marxism and its revolutionary, internationalist tradition? That is inconceivable; it is even known that this was not the case. Like so many others – the Hungarian, Eugen Varga, was an example – he knew only too well how preposterous was all this nonsense about “socialism in one country.” But he held his counsel and his tongue. Perhaps he feared the consequences to his beloved Institute if he took the position which his conscience and all his socialist training would dictate, for surely he could not have had any illusions about the revenge the bureaucracy would immediately take against him and his heart’s child if he spoke up. He arrived at a compromise with himself, from all we know, and apparently with the bureaucracy. He did not speak up for the Opposition; but he did not speak up for the reaction, either.
In his particular case, it was perhaps better so. Not that he was spared to the end. But in the few years that intervened between the opening of the fight and his final “liquidation,” he accomplished such a work as almost excuses anything else he might have done or failed to do. He wrote his excellent book on Marx and Engels and his equally splendid introduction to the Communist Manifesto. But more: he published in Russian and German the first two (there may have been more than two in Russian; I am not sure) volumes of the Marx-Engels Archive, now unfortunately out of print in any language. And still more: he finally brought out the first volumes of the work that was so long in preparing, the definitive edition of the works of Marx and Engels, again in Russian and German.
What impressive scholarship they revealed! What meticulous scrupulousness! Every detail, even the most trivial, so painstakingly checked, even to the point of the pedantic! Such delightful typographical care! And most important of all: the texts of Marx and Engels presented in their original form, not only German where they wrote in German, French or English where they wrote French or English, but all the words they wrote as they wrote them! How utterly unlike, therefore, the old pre-war editions of Marx published by the German social democracy, where Marx’s more peppery phrases were either omitted or diluted for philistine consumption, his more blunt and savage and human language Bowdlerized, his more pointed revolutionism rounded off. In Riazanov’s edition, the works of Marx and Engels were literally restored. What a pleasure and an education it is to the serious student who is now able, for the first time, to enjoy the full juiciness of, for example, the four big unexpurgated volumes of the correspondence between our two masters!
In 1931 it came to an end. The Stalinist bureaucracy is not to be appeased by silence. It demands adulation, assurances not only of docility but also of servility. That they evidently could not get from Riazanov. He was silent; and worse, he let Marx and Engels speak eloquently from out of the past against the murder of Marxism committed daily by the new rulers of Russia. But topping all his crimes was his noticeable failure to emulate that multitude of his contemporaries who blackened patient paper with solemnly written tracts arguing that of all scientists Stalin was the greatest, of all writers Stalin was the greatest, of all philosophers Stalin was the greatest, of all Marxists Stalin was the greatest. Such words were obviously too coarse to pass Riazanov’s lips, and surely he could not get himself to insult so monstrously the memory and tradition of Marxism to which he was dedicated.
So the bureaucracy rid itself of him. In the 1931 frame-up against the Mensheviks, Riazanov’s name was dragged in. It was all very obscure; all about “dealings” with Kautsky or Martov or God knows who else – which boiled down to anyone who knew anything about Riazanov, to negotiations he carried on with Kautsky or persons like him all over the world for the acquisition of this or that precious manuscript so that it too might be made available to the socialist world and, probably, to the fact that in his Institute he offered refuge to now non-political Menshevik scholars who would collaborate with a man with Riazanov’s pure reputation but with nobody else. At bottom, Riazanov had to go because he did not lick the boots and sing paeans to the upstarts and ignoramuses who seized the power from the Russian proletariat.
The Institute was turned over to the type Stalin preferred, men like Adoratsky and worse. What else could happen than did happen? They killed the Institute and with it the greatest work undertaken by it, the Marx-Engels edition. A desultory, sloppy volume or two was produced after Riazanov, and then nothing – to this day. It was renamed “Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute,” but it might as well have been called “Factory for Proving the Genius of Our Boss.”
Riazanov disappeared. From time to time after 1931 rumors would reach us that he is “in the provinces,” in disgrace, allowed to go to a library and do a bit of reading and writing but of course not to have anything published. But there can be little doubt, especially from what is so well known about Russia, that his Czarist jailors in “Kresty” prison were liberals in comparison with the assassins of the revolution who kept him under lock and key at the age of 61. What they really did to him; how he died – these things we may never know. But we know this much already: responsible for the death of this noble soldier of the revolution, this luminous scholar who was everything that Stalin is not, is the despot who personifies the Russian regime today.
In the middle of April of this year, the press in Europe announced that “Henricus Sneevliet, founder and chairman of an illegal political party in Holland, and seven collaborators have been sentenced to death and executed at The Hague on a charge of sabotage.”
The report definitely and tragically confirmed what had been rumored for some time since the Nazi occupation of Holland – that Henk Sneevliet and his comrades had remained at their posts of battle even after the German steamroller flattened out Holland, that he was intent upon continuing the work of organizing the working class to which his whole conscious life had been devoted.
Sneevliet was one of the few remaining personal links between the revolutionary present and the revolutionary past. If ever there was a miasmatic reformist atmosphere in which to grow up in the workers’ movement, it was the atmosphere created by the opportunists who led and developed the Dutch social democracy. No wonder – whole strata of the Dutch working class were corrupted and bribed by their lords, who ruled an empire in the Far East of such lush richness that at this very moment they are willing to lay down every life at their disposal – their own excepted – for its reconquest. Sneevliet was, therefore, either very fortunate, or forged of different metal, or both, for he eschewed reformism long before the First World War and became, from the beginning of his activity in the Dutch labor movement, a comrade-in-arms of that valiant and militant band of revolutionists who rallied around the left-wing organ, Tribune – Anton Pannekoek, David Wijnkoop, Henriette Roland-Holst and others. Comrade of theirs, he was also a comrade and friend of the best Marxists in Europe of the time, of the imperishable Rosa Luxemburg in the first place.
His radicalism was not of the contemplative type. Raised in a land that was rotten with imperialistic prejudice, especially toward the darker-skinned “inferiors” of the Indies from whom it extorted fabulous riches, he was nevertheless of that rare and durable revolutionary temper which led him to work , at Undermining the rule of his masters precisely at the most vulnerable and most forbidden spot – the Dutch East Indies themselves. How many men, even revolutionary men, of the world-ruling white race do we know who have gone deliberately to the dark villages and plantations of the colonial peoples for the purpose of mobilizing them against their “superiors”? Of the very, very few, Sneevliet was one, and one of the very best.
The white revolutionist – not, a true Dutch Jonkheer, but at the very least still a “Mijnheer” – proceeded to the Dutch East Indies, to the burning islands of Sumatra and Java to organize the first important revolutionary socialist movement among the native slaves of his own country’s overlords. The work, perilous, dramatic, painfully difficult, politically invaluable, spiritually satisfying (how I wish Sneevliet had committed to paper some of the stories of his work in the Indies which he once told me throughout a night and into the dawn, stories that rivalled anything in the literature of romance), exercised a powerful attraction upon him and he continued it for years after the Dutch colonial administration banished him from the Indies and forbade his ever returning to them. The Jonkheers were outraged at this blatant treachery by “one of their own” who stimulated and organized and taught the early class-conscious movement of the East Indian natives against the foreign invader and exploiter.
Toward the end of the war, or right afterward (I do not remember exactly at the moment), Sneevliet found himself in China, where he established contact with the revolutionary nationalist movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie, with the Sun Yat-Sen who was to become the idol of the Kuomintang, and with Chen Tu-hsiu, leader of China’s intellectual renaissance who was to become a founder and then the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. He was with the first Bolshevik emissaries to China and helped establish relations between that country and the young Soviet republic; lie was with the first congress of Chinese Bolsheviks to launch the Communist Party.
We find him in Moscow in 1920, a delegate to the Second World Congress of the Communist International from the Communist Party of the East Indies, appearing under the pseudonym he then bore, “Ch. Maring.” Together with Lenin, M.N. Roy and others, he functioned in the famous commission which drew up the fundamental theses of the International on the colonial and national questions; he was the commission’s secretary and there is no doubt that much that is contained in those theses was based on the rich experiences he had accumulated in his work in the East, perhaps the only one in the entire commission who had such experiences, for even Roy at that time was little more than a communistically-varnished Indian nationalist without much experience beyond the German-subsidized propaganda for Indian independence he had carried on during the war from a Mexican retreat.
The policy of concentrating upon work in the reformist trade unions encountered stiff resistance in Holland from Sneevliet and his friends. They had under their leadership the NAS (National Labor Secretariat), a left-wing, semi-syndicalist trade union movement which existed, on a small scale, alongside the big unions controlled by the Stalinists. It is not hard to imagine the overbearing, bureaucratic tactics employed by Zinoviev, Lozovsky & Co. to “convince” the Dutch comrades of the proper tactics to employ. Others might have been more successful, above all in other circumstances. But the real circumstances were the noticeable beginnings of the degeneration of the International. Sneevliet rebelled against it. He broke with the Comintern and became an increasingly aggressive critic of Stalinism.
With his comrades, he formed the small but entirely proletarian and militant Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland. As the struggle in the Communist International between Stalinism and Trotskyism came to a head, Sneevliet and his comrades moved closer to the latter. In 1932-33, and especially after the miserable collapse of Stalinism before Hitler, a union was consummated between Sneevliet and the RSP and the International Left Opposition. Together they proclaimed the need of organizing and launching the Fourth International. In this declaration the signature of Sneevliet and his party was of considerable importance and weight.
Sneevliet had just come out of prison in Holland. After the famous “mutiny” of the militant sailors on the Dutch cruiser De Zeven Provincen in the Far East, Sneevliet, the fire of the memories of his work in that world blazing again, came boldly and intransigently to the defense of the mutineers. Justice, as represented by the ministers of Her Most Gracious Democratic Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina, flung him into prison. A veritable storm of protest broke loose among the workers, not only among Sneevliet’s tough longshoremen and building craftsmen, but even among social-democratic workmen. Even though the RSP was a very small organization, its candidate-in-prison, Henk Sneevliet, was elected to the Dutch Parliament by 48,000 votes!
Sneevliet remained in the Trotskyist movement for only a few years. I cannot say that he was flexible and easy to argue with. On the contrary, he was somewhat prickly, stubborn and even a little imperious, that is, he had qualities which are such great virtues ... when hitched to a good cause and a wise course. They were not always so hitched with him. In addition to a whole series of minor internal conflicts in the International, and in his own party, Sneevliet came into sharper struggle with the rest of the movement over the question of policy in Spain, particularly the opportunistic policy of the POUM. The conflict led to a rupture which was never healed. Sneevliet drifted gradually away from the Trotskyist movement and toward the orbit of the British ILP [Independent Labour Party – DM] He was associated with it at the end.
Could he have fled Holland when the Nazis came in? There is no certain answer, but in all probability, with his connections among workers, he could have. But he didn’t. Should he have fled? There was a Nazi price on his head, he was a marked man, he could not hope to hide out forever In any case, again, he did not flee. I do not pretend to know what there was in him that prompted him to stay – his proud contempt of those labor leaders who had been doing nothing in Europe for the past several years but fleeing from land to land, their funds carefully sent on ahead of them; his long, fierce hatred of fascism and an indomitable determination to keep fighting it out with the Nazis to the bitterest end; or the inability of the old soldier to quit even that post which the enemy has surrounded. Again, he stayed.
I am proud to remember my meetings with Sneevliet and his comrades at headquarters in Amsterdam’s Paramaribo-straat. They were a generation older than mine; sturdy and well-set like Sneevliet, or lean and long-boned like P., you saw in them a group of scarred, stiff-spined and unbreakable warriors. The dreadful picture of these obdurate revolutionary Hollanders before the Nazi firing squad is relieved only by our certainty that these sons of the proletariat stood there with such undramatic defiance that not even their executioners could fail to feel: This army we shall never conquer.
Last updated on 25.6.2008