From New International, Vol. I No. 3, September–October 1934, pp. 95–96.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
A HISTORY OF BOLSHEVISM. From Marx to the First Five Years’ Plan
by Arthur Rosenberg
translated from the German by Ian F.D. Morrow
viii+240 pp. London and New York. Oxford University Press. $3.75.
It is with great astonishment that one reflects on the fact that Bolshevism as an organized movement, thirty years old in Russia and fifteen internationally, has up to now not had its real history written. Not since the early days of Christianity, has a movement rallied more millions of people in more countries beneath its banner; yet nothing has appeared in French, German or English that even pretends to give an account of its ideas and its evolution. A little brochure by one Komor does exist, it is true, but it is nothing more than ludicrous official apologetics; not even the slightly more substantial pamphlet by Kabakchiev makes any serious claims for itself; the few chapters at the end of Lenz’ book on the Second International are final proof that by the very nature of his calling it is politically impossible for a Stalinist to do the job.
The single merit of Arthur Rosenberg is that his is the first attempt to write a critical history of Bolshevism that deserves even fleeting attention. In the light of what is said above, this is a dubious distinction. But it is all that can be said in favor of the work now offered to the English-reading public. 
Lenin and Bolshevism stem from Marx. Rosenberg’s acknowledgement of this derivation is accomplished, however, by an exposition of Marxism which is positively stupefying. Marx, Engels and Lenin were not proletarian but bourgeois revolutionists, the most radical, logical and consistent, the most unique bourgeois revolutionists, but bourgeois nonetheless. The first stage of the evolution of socialist thought and action, “the Marx-Engels and Bolshevik type of revolution” prevalent in the Germany of the former’s days and the Russia of the latter’s, “was the organization of the workers for the purpose of completing the bourgeois democratic revolution. At this stage in the development of Marxism the working class acted under the direction of a small group of professional revolutionaries, sprung from the radical bourgeois intelligentsia”. The bourgeoisie, however, could not accomplish its own revolution; that was the political mission of the proletariat. Since the Germany of 1848 had put a ‘‘naive and inexperienced working class” and Russia a “stupid and uneducated peasantry”, the revolution could be carried out only by an autocratically disciplined party in which the intellectual leaders exercized supreme and unquestioned power. Until the masses themselves became conscious of their mission, a dictatorship of the leaders had to obtain in the party which, should it prove recalcitrant, would have to be destroyed and a more docile one substituted for it.
Thence the distinction between the party of Marx and Lenin, and the reformist parties of the Second International (the “second stage”) where “the working class had so far developed as to have a voice in their own organizations and to seek to improve their condition as a class within the bourgeois capitalist society” (this is not Rosenberg’s only reference to bourgeois capitalism!). Thence also, the root cause of the abolition of democracy in the Soviet Union, the establishment of a party dictatorship “instead of” a proletarian dictatorship, and a despotic dictatorship of a leading caste in the party itself.
Finally, in the third stage, “the working class consciously determines its own fate. It is now no longer contented with the improvement of its conditions within bourgeois society but seeks to attain to power through revolution. This revolution, however, is no longer a radical-democratic revolution as in the first stage; it is now a socialist revolution which transforms the private property of the bourgeoisie into social property. In such a revolution the workers would not merely be the executive organs of a party leadership but would act on their own independent initiative”. This stage, according to the ingenious author, is represented by the groups led in Russia by Trotsky, in Poland and Germany by Rosa Luxemburg, in Holland by Gorter ... All this constitutes the theory which only confirms Rosenberg’s departure from revolutionary Marxism.
The obscure Polish revolutionist, Vatslav Makhaiski (Volski) developed the idea over thirty years ago that Marxism was not the theory of the socialist proletariat, but of the declassed petty bourgeois intelligentsia plus the ex-worker who had acquired an education and risen above his class. These appropriated a considerable portion of social value, concealed by Marx in Capital. Their position rendered desperate by the pressure of capitalist concentration, they sought to establish their own rule with the aid of the real proletariat whom they repaid for this service by a consolatory socialist mythology. Until every worker, said Makhaiski, became fully educated, that is, until increasing assaults upon the state by elemental strike action broke down the educational monopoly in the hands of its rulers (finance capitalists or “declassed intellectuals”), there would be no emancipation, and every government could be nothing but a dictatorship over the proletariat. At once fascinating and fantastic in its middle class utopianism, its kinship with Rosenberg’s views is patent.
The accusation of middle class democratism against Marx and later against Lenin is not a new one, nor has it ever had any basis other man ignorance or malice. The unevenness of social development, known to every important social thinker in history, even if specifically formulated as a law only in Lenin’s time, is of course an essential component of the Marxian world conception. The classless socialist society cannot, therefore, be established merely by the wish of the proletariat or its vanguard, regardless of time or place; it is the logical outcome of the interplay of inexorable social forces evolving at a different rate of speed in every country and age. Fundamentally this determines the conception of the permanent revolution which comes to a close with the perfection of a harmonious world socialist economy; a new epoch begins for human development with social laws of its own. The “revolution in permanence” was the battle-cry of the Communists in Marx’s time, as it is today. The German nation, the terrain on which capitalist productive forces could be liberated from the irksome bonds of reactionary feudalism, did not exist. Next in order of social progress, it could be brought into existence by the Bismarckian method, from above, by a combination between the landed nobility (the Junkers) and a timid bourgeoisie, or by the revolutionary method, from below, by an upsurge of the masses which would establish them as a powerful independent factor prepared to carry the bourgeois revolution beyond its “natural” boundaries to “the dictatorship of the proletariat and the inauguration of socialism.
Rosenberg points out insinuatingly that the Neue Rheinische Zeitung of Marx and Engels proclaimed itself an “organ of democracy”. But the term did not then have the connotation of present-day middle class liberalism, as a slight acquaintance with Marxism would reveal. The Communists of that time generally called themselves “red democrats”. Among the German signatories to the Demokratische Gesellschaft für Vereinigung aller Länder, when it was founded in November 1847, were not only vice-president Karl Marx, Hess and Weerth, but Stephan Born, to whom Rosenberg points as a true representative of the “independent” and “strictly proletarian” movement. In the very first issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx so caustically settled accounts with the bourgeois democrats of the Frankfort National Assembly – which did nothing but talk about “the establishment of German unity” – that the paper lost half of its respectable shareholders. It lost the other half when Marx impassionedly eulogized the proletarian heroes of the Paris insurrection of June 1848 in which all the bourgeois classes and parties united to crush the rebels.
“From the very beginning,” wrote Marx in the last issue of the paper before its suppression, “we have considered it superfluous to conceal our views. In a polemic with the local Prosecutor we exclaimed: ‘The real opposition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung first begins with the tri-color republic.’ ... We summed up the old year 1848 with the words: ‘The history of the Prussian bourgeoisie, as well as of the German bourgeoisie as a whole, from March to December, proves that a purely bourgeois revolution and the founding of bourgeois sovereignty under the form of the constitutional monarchy, is impossible in Germany, that only the feudal-absolutist counter-revolution is possible, or else the social-republican revolution.”
At the very start of his revolutionary activity, Lenin, whom Rosenberg calls “a true bourgeois revolutionist of the 1848 type”, expressed the views which, were incorporated into the Minsk party program, and which, consequently, were the common views of the later Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Trotskyists:
“The social democrats [he wrote in 1897], as is known, set themselves the task, in their practical activity, of directing the class struggle of the proletariat and of organizing this struggle in its two manifestations, in the socialist (struggle against the capitalist class with the goal of destroying class society and organizing the socialist society), and the democratic (struggle against absolutism with the goal of conquering political freedom in Russia and of democratizing the political and social order of Russia). We say ‘as is known’, for since its first appearance as a separate social-revolutionary tendency, the Russian social democrats have most emphatically pointed to this task, they have constantly underscored the dual manifestation and the dual content of the proletarian class struggle and emphasized the inseparable connection between their socialist and their democratic tasks.”
It is only on the (not unimportant!) question of how to effect these tasks that the Russian socialists split. Rosenberg divides the groups as follows: Lenin was resolved only upon a radical completion of the bourgeois revolution; the Mensheviks were not interested in the democratic revolution, but in pursuing a proletarian reformist policy; Trotsky was interested only in the “self-determination of the workers” by a purely socialist revolution and, like Rosa Luxemburg, was grandly unconcerned with the national or agrarian questions. Were it not for the seriousness of the subject matter, Rosenberg’s serpentine convolutions in arriving at this analysis would be positively entrancing.
In actuality, the divisions stood as follows: the Mensheviks aimed at a bourgeois revolution in collaboration with (i.e., by subordinating themselves to) the bourgeoisie, as was proved to the hilt by their conduct after the February revolution. The Bolsheviks aimed at a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which would solve the problems of the agrarian revolution, give freedom to oppressed nationalities, and with the aid of the European socialist revolution which it would herald, “grow over” into a socialist revolution. Trotsky who, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, shared Lenin’s view of the importance of the peasantry and the subject nationalities for the coming revolution whose democratic character he never disputed, argued that while the democratic revolution stood next on the order of the day in Russia, its problems could only be solved fundamentally by the seizure of power by the proletariat (no other class being able to play a leading or independent or equivalent role), which, counting on the indispensable state aid of the European proletariat, would have to proceed to socialist measures because of an inability to confine itself ascetically to the formal bounds of the bourgeois revolution.
Wherever living realities do not harmonize with the tortured constructions of Rosenberg, he either bends or cuts them down to fit, or cavalierly dismisses them. Not accidentally, Trotsky found himself side by side with Lenin throughout the early years of the Bolshevik revolution. To Rosenberg, this means that “the task of the historian in judging Trotsky will be rendered more difficult by the fact”, that’s all. “Some years later occurred the inevitable break between Trotsky and the party leaders” – he remembers. (Yes, with Stalin, not with Lenin.) But then, some years later occurred also the break between Lenin and the party leaders. This fact is sedulously ignored by Rosenberg; it is an inconvenient flaw in his argument that Stalin is the legitimate heir and continuator of Leninism!
Again: Trotsky argued that the Russian revolution could triumph only on the world arena.
“Nevertheless, there was no theoretical reason why such a Russian democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants should not be able to maintain itself in a bourgeois world in the event of the defeat of the world revolution. Thus Leninism was ready with its line of retreat in face of a defeat of the world revolution, whereas it was absent in Trotskyism.”
As if the stew was not messed up enough, Rosenberg must needs add some Stalinist juice to it. In 1915, Lenin argued that not even the democratic revolution in Russia could hold out without the European socialist revolution; what he said after the 1917 revolution about Russia’s possibilities of isolated development is too commonly known to the veriest peruser of his writings.
Rosenberg, who finds that the social patriotic defense of the fatherland in 1914 “was defensible from a Marxian standpoint inasmuch as neither Marx nor Engels had denied the idea of nationality” (!), just as easily concludes that Stalin’s defense of “socialism in one country” is defensible from the Leninist standpoint.
Is it necessary to add that Rosenberg denies the proletarian character of the Soviet Union? He concludes that state capitalism exists in Russia today, that there is no dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of the party over the proletariat. The formula is a familiar one. Although it sours with age, every backslider from revolutionary Marxism offers it as good wine. State capitalism has as its foundations bourgeois property relations. Rosenberg completely ignores this fundamental Marxian criterion for the sake of some glib journalistic superficialities. Our ultra-revolutionary turncoat, for whom Marx and Lenin were backwoods democrats, proves to be a veneered Kautskyan. If only the Left Social Revolutionists had not been outlawed by the Bolsheviks! “The competition between the two parties would have kept democracy alive within the Soviets.” Rosenberg’s animadversions on “party dictatorship versus” proletarian dictatorship, should prove disturbingly enlightening to those who have recently raised the subject for discussion. Not for nothing did the Berlin socialist Vorwärts write on October 10, 1932:
“Arthur Rosenberg has provided the European labor movement with the scientific premises on the basis of which the discussions with Soviet Russia can, in the future, be undertaken in an objective manner.”
With the majority of the Independent Social Democrats, Rosenberg joined the German Communist party in 1920. He was always at the extreme Left wing, and with the collapse of the Brandler leadership in 1923, Zinoviev and Stalin gave his group the accolade which put it into power for a brief year. At the thirteenth convention of the Russian party, “der radikale Arthur”, as he was known, distinguished himself in the valiant struggle against “Trotskyism”, in the capacity of German delegate. Thereby, as he now anonymously confesses, he paid the Russian leaders for the patronage conferred upon his group in Germany. When the ultra-Leftist Maslow-Fischer leadership was turned out in disgrace, and joined the Trotsky-Zinoviev opposition, Stalin exerted special efforts to win back Rosenberg, who was no less than a member of the executive committee of the Comintern. Stalin’s conquest was heralded triumphantly throughout the International, but it was short-lived. Rosenberg divested himself of what he now calls the “mythology” of Soviet Russia ... and of Marxism. He quit the party in 1927 and devoted himself thenceforward to literary work. From a physical point of view, so to say, there are not many so well situated to essay a history of Bolshevism as is Rosenberg. The result reveals how woefully inadequate are his intellectual and political qualifications.
1. Offered, by the way, in a most annoying translation. Mr. Morrow is obviously unacquainted with the literature of the proletarian movement – first qualification for the translator of such a book. Arnold Ruge persistently becomes Rugge; critical philosophy becomes philosophical criticism; Marxism, Communism; leading spirits, intellectuals; socialism as an economy based purely on needs becomes an economy based on barter in the barest necessities of life; the national question, nationalism; bourgeois becomes middle class, so that for page after page you get middle class revolution, middle class dictatorship, middle class parliamentarism, middle class parties! Elsewhere, the translation is so ... liberal that quotations in this review are revised after the original.
Last updated on 25 February 2016