From New International, Vol.12 No.1, January 1946, pp.19-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Russian Revolution collectivized the property of one-sixth of the earth’s surface; it also transformed a horde of columnists and speechmakers into overnight “experts” on the Russian question. The famous “Russian enigma” became a trade, like writing mysteries. A “name,” with a reputation resting sturdily on two or three reportorial pot-boilers, could lecture-tour the country, plow through the Russian enigma in city after city and rake in a small fortune. The book stores are loaded with “exposés,” “inside stories,” “I was there,” “The Russians are like this, the Russians are like that” reports. As book publishers’ commodities, these items serve their purpose well. As information and truth about Russia, they are little more than selected facts on which the authors hang their particular prejudices.
The nimble acoyltes of the Stalinist Church return with accounts of the modern nurseries for children and glowing, rhapsodic descriptions of red-cheeked, ample-breasted young maidens; the Rickenbackers, the would-be wardens over the American working class, evince unrestrained enthusiasm for the prison-like system of labor control of the Russian workers; the salesmen of free enterprise (e.g., W.L. White) deplore the dirt and disorganization in the Leningrad factories and conclude with the objectivity of a prosecuting attorney that it is all due to the fact that the Russian people destroyed the capitalist system in 1917. For the simple minded, life is simple: with an axe to grind it is even simpler than that.
One Who Survived , by Alexander Barmine, is of an entirely different stamp. Not that Barmine escapes the modern fallacy that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution has refuted the “basic assumption” of socialism – that would be too much out of vogue and out of character, nor that he offers any sound analysis of this degeneration. In this respect Barmine differs from Eastman, who wrote the introduction, only in his lack of snarl and lesser sophistication. What distinguishes Barmine’s book is that it contains the memoirs of a “typical Communist functionary,” one who fought in the Civil War, studied in the Red Army College, served in Persia, France and Greece on diplomatic and trade missions and worked intermittently in Moscow as a functionary of the government regime.
He was an active member of the Bolshevik Party, participated in the fight against the Trotskyist opposition, and retrospectively explains that he “was one of those who invariably backed up the findings of the Central Committee,” “a naive supporter of the official Party Line.” The special value of these memoirs – aside from their being a fascinating story of one man’s eventful life – lies in that Barmine’s experiences and party activity were substantially representative of a whole layer of the party. The story of how he, despite his boundless admiration for Trotsky and his expectation that Trotsky would be the inevitable successor of Lenin, finally voted to expel Trotsky from the party under the barrage of Stalin’s campaign of slander is in capsule form the story of how Stalin confused and captured a large section of the party. Also, the full horror and ruthlessness of the purges emerge from Barmine’s account. A whole section of the party which could not atone for the sin of having fought for the Revolution under Lenin and Trotsky by even the most slavish and abject loyalty to the Stalin regime was thoroughly exterminated. Soldiers and officers of the Red Army college, from Tukachevsky down, prominent members of the party apparatus, were wiped out. In the course of the narrative, you no sooner become acquainted with some leaders, some outstanding party personage, than a footnote tells you that he was a victim of the purges. The cumulative effect of these footnote obituaries is one of such a relentless, merciless snuffing out of human life that no statistic can possibly convey. There was a literal erasure of a generation. After reading the book, the temptation is to change the title to THE One Who Survived, and even he by a hair’s breadth.
The thread of Barmine’s experiences leads one into the internal party life and behind the closed doors of the Russian officialdom. That is its special fascination. Well-known, cold, sharp facts of history are rounded out and receive the warmth and fullness of a human dimension. It becomes possible, for example, to appreciate the truly monumental achievement of Trotsky in organizing the Red Army as it is recounted by Barmine, who was trained in one of his colleges. “In the midst of the civil war, Trotsky found time to establish more than sixty of these Red military schools all over Russia – five times as many as had existed under the Czar.” Barmine tells the story of one of Trotsky’s visits to the front, the speech he delivered to the soldiers, its inspiring effect. He describes life in the war colleges, the courses given, the epic achievement of transmitting raw illiterate peasants into disciplined, political soldiers who knew the mysteries of geometry as well as the political theories of revolution.
Those people who are so busily engaged these days in explaining that Lenin’s methods of party organization planted the seeds of Stalinism would do well – if they do not mind disturbing their ‘theory’ – to read some of Barmine’s accounts of party democracy in the first years of the revolution and during the civil war. “Intra-party democracy was, during those years 1925 and 1926, still alive though approaching its end. Discussion among Communists went on without censorship. Questions were freely raised and ‘Bolshevik self-criticism’ still meant something besides a purge of the lower ranks by those on top.” That in 1926. But even during the critical year of the civil war, 1919, the following took place:
I was sent to Simferopol with a Red Army mission to contact the staff of Dybenko, who was in command there. One of our mission, Maxim Stern, was a member of the Central Committee of the Menshevik Party of the Ukraine. Although Simferopol was then under siege, and the White armies of Denikin, holding the eastern Crimea, were only fifty miles away, Stern requested the use of the Simferopol city theater for the purpose of a political meeting. The theater was turned over to him gratis, and he held a mass meeting composed of citizens and Red Army soldiers, to whom he expounded with eloquence the Menshevik point of view and his basic opposition to the principle of the one-party dictatorship. In the manner of a town hall meeting, and with the same good feeling, I myself and two other Bolsheviks replied to him. The discussion was hot, but never passed beyond the bounds of courtesy. Although he had all the time he wanted and said everything he had to say without mincing words, the audience voted by a large majority for our resolution.
I recount this incident because there is a tendency now among critics of Stalin’s murderously repressive regime to imagine that something similar dates back to Lenin and the first years of the Revolution.
Examples of discussion in the Red Army college on the trade union question and other issues are cited by Barmine. He correctly describes and evaluates Kronstadt – that fortress in the theories of super-democrats – as the focal point of counter-revolution. It is a tribute to his honesty that Barmine has not suffered the convenient lapses of his “Introducer” Eastman and other members of the Circle of Historical Amnesiacs.
Hitler once uttered the pregnant observation that “democracy was a luxury of wealthy nations.” Stripped of their wealth, Germany and Italy dispensed with their ‘luxurious,’ parliamentary democracy, and resorted to naked force. Totalitarianism became a condition of life for capitalsm. Where a broken-down productive system could not feed the mouths of its working class to keep it quiet, it accomplished the same end by use of the gag. Whether scarcity and poverty are due to the muscular dystrophy of production that comes from private ownership of the means of production or to the native backwardness and belated development of the country itself, they give birth to the gendarme, the Gestapo in the one case, the NKVD in the other. This truth is the keystone of any analysis of Russia. The backward, industrially weak Russia, left to fall back on its own meagre resources by the failure of the German revolution, was forced to resort with increasing intensity and frequency to totalitarian rule from above. The indispensable condition for a socialist development – an advanced, developed technology – was absent. The internal stresses and strains caused by the lack of the minimal needs of life were prevented from rending the whole country asunder by the repressive vise of totalitarianism. The impoverished country could not ‘afford’ democracy. The objective consequence of ‘socialism in one country’ was Totalitarianism in Russia.
The beginnings of the encroachments on democracy after the revolution, necessitated by its defense against counterrevolution, its intensification in the fight against the opposition and their expulsion from the party in 1927, the elimination of the right wing, and its final culmination with the purges in 1934-37, are the measure of decline of the workers’ state. But if poverty, backwardness and isolation were causes of the determination of workers’ democracy, this very decline of democracy in turn made it more difficult to emerge from the state of backwardness and poverty. Russian development was ensnared in a vicious circle. The lack of democracy, as Trotsky pointed out as far back as 1923, was an obstacle in the path of economic development. Democracy was not a mere whim or Utopian ideal to be turned on or olf depending on the personality on top; it was a rigorous economic necessity. A workers’ state without democracy was an economic impossibility as well as a contradiction in theory.
Barmine, in recounting his experiences in various administrative duties and trade bureaus, provides examples that illustrate this inexorable truth. Fantastic schedules were often decreed from above. Protests from below, constructive criticism from engineers, economists or workers were denounced as “opportunism of the Right.” The critic was publicly vilified. He either recanted or was condemned.
Initiative on the part of subordinate bureaucrats is stifled. Everyone seeks to avoid responsibility. Everyone looks to the top for a covering order. And since thousands of relatively unimportant as well as all-important problems must pass through Stalin’s hands for final decision, the top is always jammed. Weeks are spent in waiting; commissars wait in Stalin’s office; presidents of companies wait in the offices of the commissars and so on down the line.
Barmine cites many instances of the extravagant waste and costliness of the ‘ entrenched bureaucratic system. False face-saving inventories, bureaucratic pig-headedness and blindness, the purging of all criticism, the cupidity of the top bureaucrats that took precedence over planning for the country, in a word, all the diseases that stem from the germ of totalitarian rule in Russia prevented the economic growth that was inherent in a collectivized economy. Where critics, Barmine included, conclude from Russia’s relatively stunted growth that a collectivized economy cannot match a capitalist economy for productivity, they overlook the fact that they are taking the pulse of an economy whose socialist heart has been cut out.
Although rich in personal detail and information on the interior workings of the Party, the army, the purge and the windings of red tape, the book is ludicrously weak in political analysis. Barmine was the “naive follower of the party line.” If he understood little of what was going on during the fight against the op position – during which he supported the majority throughout – he has learned little of the nature of the fight since. Time and perspective have added only to his naiveté. For example, he reduces to its absurd the theory popular with people who are fond of the tales of St. George and the Dragon. One bold stroke of the sword and the monster is destroyed. The trouble with Trotsky was that he did not make the bold stroke. He rarely deigned to descend from the Olympian heights of pure principle and dip his fingers into practical politics to fight Stalin. He was “Quixotic,” idealistic, etc. And alas! He could have won easily. Was he not Lenin’s inevitable successor? Was not the refrain “long live Lenin and Trotsky” on everybody’s lips for years? Then why did he fail? In Barmine’s opinion, Trotsky was asleep.
“Had Trotsky made the slightest sign that he was ready to fight, the majority of the Party would have followed him ... When Trotsky decided that the time had come to fight, it was too late. Whereas a little while before (this is 1927-G.S.) a simple speech (!!) delivered by him at a Moscow Party conference would have turned the tide, Trotsky now found that Stalin was in effective control of the party.”
If only Trotsky had made a ‘simple speech’ only a ‘little while before’ all would have been different. Thus Trotsky missed the boat (how easy a theory to formulate!) by neglecting to deliver a simple speech and history was changed! The defeat of the German revolution and its depressing effect on the morale of the Russian workers, the paralyzing fatigue of the Russian masses, the demagogic attractiveness of ‘socialism in one country’ to the millions who had been through the wracking years of world war, civil war and war communism, the hold Stalin had on the major bureaus of the party already in 1923, the widespread unemployment and its consequent dilution of the ardor of oppositionists who would lose their jobs, the “Lenin Levy” of 1924 which weighted the path with workers who joined the party of power and not the party of revolution, the barrage of lies and slander on the peasant question that was heaped on Trotsky, and finally the fight that Trotsky DID put up, the extent of the support he DID get; all of these crucial factors are either neglected or slightly touched on in Barmine’s “analysis.” The clumsy politician – lofty idealist Trotsky in one corner versus crafty politician – base cynic in the other – is too simple a theory. If history is more complicated, so much the worse for it thinks Barmine.
This example of political understanding is of a piece with other political comments that crop up to mar an illuminating personal document. But it is unfair to take these political lapses seriously and challenge them for Barmine is no politician nor pretends to be. The “naive follower of the party line,” the unswerving supporter of the Central Committee, the man who admittedly was taken in by every ruse, falsification and obfuscation of the majority and, finally, voted to expel Trotsky, with “a heavy heart” to be sure, and finally the current devotee of free enterprise can not be expected to have achieved political wisdom overnight.
Today Barmine believes in capitalism. The functionary who escaped from the GPU in 1937 and found asylum in the capitalist world seeks to refute the “basic assumptions” of socialism. “Abolishing private property in the means of production does not abolish exploitation of man by man.” He decries the “all pervading hypocrisy of the ‘workers’ state’ theory.” His own credo? “A real betterment of life conditions for the masses can be best achieved under a democratic system, with private enterprise and competition, held within reasonable bounds, by a progressive social administration, but neither owned as in Russia, nor strangled as in Germany, by the state.” Barmine has transferred not only his body but his soul as well from Russia to America.
The defeat of the Russian Revolution has not only not refuted the “assumptions of socialism,” it has confirmed them with terrible force. The leaders of the Revolution, its theorists, themselves predicted its defeat unless it were aided by the European Revolution. ALL of their efforts up to 1923 were to advance the German Revolution, even to the temporary disadvantage of the Russian position. The Brest-Litovsk negotiations are one example among manv. Is a confirmation of a prediction a refutation? Only in the minds of those who have rejected socialism first and cast about anywhere for plausible-looking reasons. To ignore the essence of socialism, workers’ democracy, and then to accuse it of being undemocratic, reveals no more than that the wish to reject socialism is the father to its misunderstanding and distortion. The monstrous, historical growth of bureaucratism in Russia, insistently underscores one of the ‘basic assumptions’ of socialism, workers’ democracy.
And is not this a strange passion, this passion for democracy and justice that tears people out of the arms of the shabbily dressed prostitute of the East into the fur-lined, rouged-up prostitute of the West? “Abolishing private property in the means of production does not abolish the exploitation of man by man.” Tragically true! But neither does the maintenance of private property abolish the exploitation of man by man. To embrace the capitalist system today when it has not quite finished with the most destructive war in history in which its victims outnumber even the enslaved and murdered millions of Stalin’s Russia, the capitalism which leads remorselessly to fascism, to further wars and to the intensified brutalization of man, the capitalism which has drawn the picture of its very soul in the landscape of Europe today ... to embrace that in the name of justice and humanity is a very high price indeed to pay for disillusionment with Stalin’s Russia.
The overwhelming fact is that Socialism or Barbarism are no longer the vague alternatives of an epoch seen in long perspective, but the immediate, burning choice of the moment. The war, capitalism’s most fitting monument, has given content and detail to the concept of Barbarism. It is as real as Europe today. It is less relevant now that Socialism is the only way towards the just society than that it is the very condition of life itself. The flare thrown up by the atomic explosion should have made that apparent to the qualifiers, the myopic seers, the ‘people accustomed to sitting between two stools.’ But where blindness can lead one to mistake the wrinkled hag of capitalism for a vestal beauty, even an atomic explosion can not restore normal vision.
1. One Who Survived, by Alexander Barmine, O.P. Putnam’s Sons. $3.75.
Last updated on 28.9.2005