Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Piero Melograni, Lenin and the Myth of World Revolution: Ideology and Reasons of State 1917-1920, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1990, 02.95
Melograni’s book, like the proverbial curate’s egg, is good in parts. The author has read widely, and generally speaking shows a mastery of his source material This, however, varies greatly in quality; excellent on many occasions, it is of most slender worth in others. The text, first published in Italy during 1985, clearly shows signs of its original purpose, a polemic directed against the PCI. The theme starkly stated on the dust cover is startlingly simple: “Lenin did not want world revolution, but rather ... conceived the idea of ‘Socialism in only one country’ from the moment he took power”. Further, “the Third International ... in fact was not founded to export revolution, but simply to defend one state” (p.xii). The text, we are told, “evoked lively criticism in the Italian press”. The Italian Communists, however, made no comment, and “chose to remain silent”. Where caution bade the million strong PCI to avoid the fray, this reviewer will now plunge headlong.
In support of his argument Melograni draws on sources hitherto little known in Italy, sources of which left wing historiography in this country fails to take proper note even today. Some of this material is touched upon in my Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1921. Much of the rest is examined in my forthcoming volume on the Communist International, which has yet to see the light of day. These sources bear on the earliest days of the Comintern, the dark and shrouded history of the relations between Germany and the Bolsheviks both before and after the Communist seizure of power, and the secret diplomatic exchanges between the Soviet government and the former Entente powers in the years between 1918 and 1920. In my own view Melograni handles this material reasonably well. On occasion he seems to stretch the argument further than the documentation will warrant, for example, on Lloyd George’s wish “to revise the Versailles Treaty” (p.113), “the talks were proceeding in a cordial atmosphere” (p.117); or to use highly partisan evidence as though it were impartial, for example, Field Marshal Henry Wilson (not “General Wilson”) (p.117); or to be wrong on a point of fact, “Lloyd George did not expel the leader of the Soviet delegation” (p.119), on which cf Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement ..., p.254 n138, p.415; or to use a fairly worthless source to establish an important point, the FIAT evidence (p.105), the testimony of “former Trade Commissar Bronski” (pp.120-21), the tale “I was told” retailed by the “American journalist Frazier Hunt” (pp.49-50); or even to give an impression quite the reverse of the truth, for example the quotation to the effect that already in 1920 Soviet Russia had achieved “a formal peace with all the Western states”, whereas the first states to accord diplomatic recognition to the USSR were Italy and Britain, and this only in 1924, whilst so powerful a nation as the United States did not accord recognition until 1933. Nevertheless, many polemicists before have done the same, as will many more who will come after. The discerning reader will need to be wary. If he does that he will not go far wrong.
There remains the vexed question of Bolshevik-German relations, the most accessible introduction to which is Z.A.B. Zeman and W.B. Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution: The Life of Israel Helphand (Parvus), 1867-1924, London, 1965. ‘Parvus’, it will be remembered, was Trotsky’s close mentor and associate, and with him the original author of the theory of the Permanent Revolution. Did the Kaiser’s Germany subsidise would-be secessionists and revolutionaries inside and outside the Tsar's Russia during the First World War? Was the outcome of the revolutionary struggles between March and October 1917 materially affected by the buckets of Allied and German gold sloshing around in Petrograd at that time? Did close relations between Bolshevik leaders (especially Lenin) and the German ruling elite continue between March and October 1918 and even beyond? My own view, as one who has deeply pondered the material involved over a long period of time, is that the answers to each of these questions is ‘Yes’. Readers of Revolutionary History will need to make up their own minds, and check out Melograni’s references for themselves.
Melograni sets out his thesis in a highly compact form – 20 chapters, some only four to five pages long, which traverse the whole period from the Treaty of Brest Litovsk (March 1918) to the Russian advance on Warsaw (July-August 1920), in a total of little more than 120 pages. This polished performance makes for accessibility to the general reader, although it leaves the specialist seeking more documentation than the text itself supplies. What then of Melograni’s thesis? Did Lenin and the Bolsheviks genuinely seek ‘world revolution’ between 1917 and 1920? Or was their aim merely the short to medium term survival of Bolshevik hegemony over the Soviet state, for which aim all talk of ‘world revolution’ was but a smoke screen and nothing more?
In regard to the German question, I find the charge of German support for the Bolsheviks both before and after 1917 amply proven. Without German support the October coup would never successfully have taken place, nor without it could Bolshevik rule have continued thereafter. Both then and subsequently (up to and including the 1939 Stalin-Hitler Pact) Soviet foreign policy continually sought an alliance with the pro-Eastern, anti-Versailles wing of the German bourgeoisie, and from Trotsky onwards contracted its own mutual arrangements for mutual aid with the German military, until Hitler cut them off after 1933. Since German Social Democrats leant to the ‘West’ rather than to the ‘East’ they became the bête noir of the Russian state, Comintern and KPD, as in the end ‘Social Fascism’ itself bore out. (This ground is traversed in Chapters 1, 4, 11 and 12 in particular.)
Bolshevism’s struggle for an accommodation with defeated Germany did not at all prevent it working also for an accommodation with the victorious Entente as well. At the time of the near victorious advance on Warsaw in mid-summer 1920, the secret diplomatic manoeuvrings of Kamenev and Krassin with Lloyd George in London, as Melograni argues, were conducted in terms and tactics quite at odds with the slogans advanced by the Comintern and its parties both in Britain and elsewhere at the same time. The Comintern’s “turn to the East”, its Baku Congress of the Peoples of the Orient, and Roy’s subsequent revolutionary expedition to the very frontiers of Afghanistan, were indeed intended in part as a “diversion in Asia”, to ease pressure on the revolution more near at home. The Bolsheviks did indeed negotiate to trade these ventures off against diplomatic recognition, and to some extent, in the end, actually did so (Chapters 9, 14-19). On the other hand the Hungarian Revolution did seek to promote revolution in Austria (where a coup was in fact attempted), in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and Melograni’s endeavour to suggest that this was done against Lenin’s will is quite unconvincing (Chapter 10).
On balance then, I find the case for Melograni’s thesis unproven. What is quite clear from his evidence, and it may be that no one has ever made it quite so clear before, is that the Bolsheviks were continually running ‘revolutionary’ and ‘reformist’ policies at the same time. If the Russian advance reached Warsaw and the outcome was a new European settlement, well and good. If the Polish puppet government, constituted at Lublin out of Comintern cadres, took over the state, and another puppet government constituted out of German cadres held over from the Second World Congress of the Comintern, invited the Red Army to ‘protect’ the German Revolution in Berlin, so much the better. In the same fashion Bolshevik delegates negotiating with the British did promise to call off revolutionary propaganda abroad. So, in Asia, to some extent they did. More often the Russian state pleaded helplessness, explaining that the Communist Party and the Comintern were agencies outside its own control. A large measure of cynical manipulation and deliberate lying were thus integral parts of Bolshevik behaviour from the very beginning. The Comintern sprang from the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda at the Soviet Foreign Office, this at a time when Soviet foreign policy was ‘genuinely’ revolutionary, albeit that it was bound hand and foot to the Soviet Political Bureau from the very beginning. When Soviet home and foreign policy changed, Comintern policy, often after lengthy procedural and frictional delays, changed in line. Looked at in the light of history, it seems strange, 70 years later, that matters could ever have been seen in any other light. The Comintern, with it the Communist parties, signified the attempt to apply an aberrant Russian solution to what was primarily a European and Asian problem. As we can now see from the turmoil and wreckage of once Communist-ruled Central and Eastern Europe, that was an enterprise doomed from the start.
Melograni’s book does, however, raise contemporary issues which go far beyond the scope of its own brief pages. In particular it now behoves us to look more closely at the very issue of world revolution itself.
The Comintern at its foundation in March 1919 held that the “collapse of the Second International”, the havoc wrought by the First World War, and above all the October Revolution, signalled the irreparable decay of capitalism and the arrival of an era of world revolution. This ‘final crisis’ was so deep that capitalism was no longer able to maintain, still less to increase, the means of production. The political superstructure was now a barrier to any further increase of the productive forces. Only a revolution could release mankind from the crisis, and allow it to find a new way forward. World revolution was inevitable, not because people wanted it, but because without world revolution man could find no way forward. The ‘objective factors’ for revolution were complete. All that was lacking was the subjective factor, the necessary revolutionary ‘leadership’. The worldwide struggle for revolution required a unitary world leadership which was to be provided by the highly centralised national sections of the Comintern, each closely supervised and led by the yet more highly centralised ‘General Staff of the World Revolution’, the Executive Committee of the Communist International – ECCI – in Moscow. These were the propositions upon which the world Communist movement was founded. They were taken over intact as the fundamental basis of the Trotskyist movement, and remain its founding principles up to the present day.
Where stands this notion of world revolution more than 70 years later? It is clear that the world revolution has not yet arrived. Trotsky provided his own explanation. The Communist parties had become Stalinist, abandoned world revolution for the doctrine of ‘Socialism in one country’, had thus become “counter revolutionary”. A new revolutionary leadership, a new, revolutionary Transitional Programme was required. Trotsky himself drafted the programme. The Fourth International was founded on his initiative during 1938. A further half a century and more has now elapsed. After 53 years the Fourth International is no more the ‘leadership’ of the world proletariat than it was at the beginning. Nor are any of the myriad Trotskyist ‘parties’, groups or sects markedly better placed.
Now the failures of this or that revolutionary sect or leadership cadre can very well be explained away by ‘subjective’ failings. But the failure of all such groups, over a whole historical era, can in no way be dealt with in this same fashion. Such an extended failure, over so prolonged a period of time, must surely be due to objective factors, not to subjective factors at all. It would seem, on the basis of the evidence, that we have critically to examine the notion of world revolution.
If world revolution was imminent in 1919, why has it not come about almost three quarters of a century later? The question cannot properly be evaded. A revolutionary epoch, after all, is one in which revolutions are on the order of the day. If we find ourselves in an epoch in which the great (Socialist) revolutions do not take place, in what sense may we legitimately term this a revolutionary era? One might, I suppose, once have argued in desperation that there were after all great revolutions, but in a degenerated form. At a time when the Soviet Union is clearly coming apart at the seams, at a time in which we have seen one by one, over the past 12 months, first Poland, then Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria break free of Communist rule, a total of some 110 million people, this would scarcely seem feasible any more.
What then went wrong? We have, I feel, to return to the original Marxian revolutionary syllogism to find the answer. People make revolutions not because they want to, but because they have to. They have to in the grand historical schema because the existing mode of production has become a fetter on the growth of the productive forces. The original expectation of the Comintern, the hidden premise upon which all else was founded, was the notion that twentieth century capitalism could no longer develop the productive forces. Even the quickest glance at the economic statistics covering the last 70 years will show that manifestly this is not the case. In point of fact the growth of productive forces in the twentieth century has been far greater than in the nineteenth century.
World output of inanimate energy, measured in million megawatt hour equivalent stood at 1,078 in 1860, rose to 6,089 in 1900, more than doubled again to 15,882 in 1940, and more than trebled to 53,206 in 1970. World output of steel, one million tons in 1870, stood at 29 million tons in 1900, and rose to 380 million tons by 1960. Industrial output per capita in Western Europe and the United States grew between 1900 and 1960, as shown in the following table:
Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
If we turn to the United Kingdom we find that Gross Domestic Product at constant factor cost increased between 1855 and 1965 (taking 1913 as 100) as follows:
Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
If we look instead to consumer expenditure in the United Kingdom we discover that this stood (at constant 1984 prices) at £58,543 million in 1900, and had increased to £194,673 by 1984. Food expenditure increased from £15,495 million to £28,448 million over the same period, expenditure on clothing from £3,415 million to £13,158 million, expenditure on consumer durables from £1,639 million to £19,241 million.
Clearly then, if revolutions are inevitable only when existing society can no longer develop the productive forces, and if existing capitalist society plainly does this, and does it very well, then surely all the expectations of ‘inevitable’ revolution, upon which ‘Trotskyism’ no less than ‘Communism’ have rested, simply fly straight out of the window.
Nor is that all. The notion that the ‘Socialist’ Stalinoid plan system, the command economy, is innately superior to that of advanced industrial capitalism can no longer be maintained either. The present economic crisis which threatens the very existence of the Soviet Union has clearly been brought about as a direct result of the failings of the ‘planned economy’ itself. The same holds true of every one of the other ‘planned economies’ in Central and Eastern Europe. Stalinist command economy, in the Soviet Union after 60 years (and despite all the appalling ‘sacrifices’), and Stalinist ‘planned economy’ in Eastern Europe after 40 years, have proved equally a failure. Most recent estimates put productivity in East Germany (the most advanced economy in the former Bloc) at one half or less than that of the Federal Republic.
Clearly there exists a problem as to where we go from here.
1. My figures are taken from Carlo M. Cipolla, The Economic History of World Population, pp.59, 75, 76; A.H. Halsey (Ed.), British Social Trends Since 1900, pp.146, 149; C.H. Feinstein, National Expenditure and Output in the United Kingdom 1855-1965, pp.T14, T19.
Updated by ETOL: 22.7.2003