Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


The Seeds of Evil

Robin Blick
The Seeds of Evil: Lenin and the Origins of Bolshevik Elitism
Ferrington, London 1993, pp. 97, £5.00

‘I SAW the road leading me into the political position of the querulous outcast, of the Koestler-Crankshaw-Muggeridge variety, railing at the movement that had let me down, at the God that had failed me. This seemed a ghastly fate, however lucrative it might have been.’ (Kim Philby)

Robin Blick’s book will probably not be new to many readers of this journal. Nor will its basic thesis – that Lenin and his political doctrines are one of the roots of the awesome brutality of the twentieth century. Blick goes further in this regard than do right wing historians like Norman Stone or Richard Pipes. He contends that Leninism is the mainspring of almost all that is evil in this epoch, and that the anchor for this spring, so to speak, is to be found in the proceedings of the 1903 Congress, which is generally regarded merely as the founding of Bolshevism.

‘If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, then the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’ (Pascal, discovered in a Dictionary of Quotations – see below)

This is the first book on Bolshevism that I have read that does not mention the First World War. Nor is there any discussion of the brutalising repression suffered by any political opposition to Tsarism. Many may feel that these omissions alone render the book useless.

That aside, I have, for this review, largely eschewed political comment. After a discussion with me, Robin Blick appealed to the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History to ask that someone else review his book. He felt that, having made my hostility to his book only too plain, my attitude was ‘as much motivated by past political apathy as by scholarly considerations’. Thank you. Alas, the board’s criteria for political correctness were lower than Dr Blick’s, and they insisted I go ahead. But I will try to stick to questions of fact to allay his anxieties. I understand that he will reply in due course.

The book has the lax standards which are the norm in the left milieu. There are, for example, 83 quotations from Lenin in the book; only 18 comprise a complete sentence. Many have bits missing in the middle. Several are taken from more than one place – even from different books – but are presented as one sentence. I have checked almost every quote: about 60 seriously misrepresent what Lenin is saying. Quoting Leonard Schapiro as a source, Blick refers to Axelrod’s criticisms of What is to be Done?, despite Schapiro’s reporting that Axelrod scarcely made any. He quotes a speech by Zinoviev made in 1918 – 15 years later – to illustrate Krupskaya’s role at the 1903 Congress of the RSDLP. Zinoviev was nowhere near the congress, and the speech was in any case a potboiler from a man with no historical training, and even less scruple.

In chapter three, a dozen-odd lines chosen from three pages of Lenin are condensed to look like one quote, and are followed by the comment that ‘neither Marx nor Engels are cited so much as once in the sections devoted to working class spontaneity’. That’s true, but Lenin’s original text does carry a page-long quotation from Kautsky summarising Marx and Engels on ... spontaneity! I could go on.

Blick’s attempt to show that the ideological roots of Fascism were provided by Lenin is so crude that when I think of people who are impressed by it, I blush. Leaving aside the logical fallacy (A has this feature, so has B, therefore ...) the section is so obviously a string of quotes harvested from a trip through the dictionary that the resultant muddle is no surprise. At one point, to show that the concept of elitism has a long history, Blick quotes from ‘Ecclesiasticus’, ‘in the Old Testament’. Sadly, it is Ecclesiastes – which mentions neither Leninism nor its precursors – which is in the Old Testament. Ecclesiasticus, like much in this book, is apocryphal. Using a dictionary of quotations means that a bloody-minded reviewer needs no scholarship of his own to show you up. Not recommended.

In other words, as a contribution to political theory the book is run-of-the-mill hackwork which will impress only the gullible or the already convinced. However, it does make some assertions of fact which appear to have substance or novelty, and require evaluation. I have investigated two of these claims in a little detail, and what I found might interest the general reader. One I have called The Bauman Affair, the other The Strange Case of Krupskaya and the Libraries. The reply is inevitably as much directed at his sources – Israel Getzler and Bertram Wolfe – as it is to Blick.

Take first the affair of N.E. Bauman and the 1903 Congress. Blick’s account is a creative précis of a section of Getzler’s 1967 biography of Martov. The following lengthy quote is, I hope, a fair representation of Blick’s argument:

‘The issue that first divided the board between “hards” and “softs” ... was Lenin’s adamant refusal ... to call to account a fellow-Iskraist for his vile abuse of a female party comrade. The woman, who was married to another party member, had had an affair with N.E. Bauman while they were both in exile in Siberia. After making her pregnant, Bauman deserted her, and then drove her to suicide by a campaign of insults and mockery which included, incredibly for someone supposedly committed to the cause of women’s emancipation, circulating amongst the exile community pornographic cartoons and verses. Before taking her life she wrote a letter to the party denouncing what she called its “prevailing indifference” to the “personal morality” of its members, and expressing the hope that her tragic fate would “draw the attention of comrades to the question of the private morals of public figures”.

‘Well she might! For when this letter was eventually presented by her husband, in the spring of 1903, to the Iskra board for action, Lenin, supported by the no less Jacobin Plekhanov, threatened to resign if the matter was not immediately dropped. Lenin had already earmarked the up-and-coming Iskra agent for a key rôle at the congress, and when compelled to make a choice, placed a higher value on the impeccably “hard” Bauman’s services than on the need to uphold the party’s ethical standards. Lenin contemptuously brushed aside the whole business, chiding the protesters for their confusion of “the personal and the political” in “an incident of a purely personal character” [quotes taken from a letter to Alexandra Kalmykova referred to by Getzler – DB] ...

‘And so, having faced down their over-sensitive opponents over what they regarded as nothing more than a storm in a tea-cup, Lenin and Plekhanov moved onto next business. Yet for Potresov, it was to prove the parting of the ways. As far as he was concerned, Bolshevism and Menshevism were born, not at the congress, in the row over rules, but in the course of a struggle for the honour and dignity of a cruelly wronged comrade: “Six months before the party congress of 1903, relations between Lenin on the one hand and Martov, Vera Zasulich and myself on the other, which were already tense, went completely to pieces. The incident which drew our attention to Lenin’s amorality and brought matters to a head was his utterly cynical resistance to the investigation of a charge levelled by the damaged party against one of his outstanding agents.”’

There, it seems, you have it. But let’s look closer at the evidence.

1. N.E. Bauman was earmarked by Lenin. Unclear. There are two extant letters from Lenin to Bauman (May and June 1901), both very short, both purely organisational, and both taking him to task for a lack of useful activity. This cannot justify Getzler’s description of Bauman as ‘an outstanding Iskra agent and one of Lenin’s best trusted men’.

2. Potresov broke totally with Lenin over the affair six months before the 1903 Congress. Contemporary evidence does not seem to bear him out, whatever he wrote in his biographical essay on Lenin published in exile in 1927. His political differences are not in dispute, although Leonard Schapiro reports that he enthusiastically endorsed What is to be Done?. During the three weeks of the 1903 Congress, he sat with Lenin on the programme commission and on the commission responsible for the minutes. He formally moved the resolution on the liberals, made two very short speeches and walked out with Martov over the editorial board controversy. Of his alleged break with Lenin on the Bauman issue, there is not a squeak. Even when Bauman spoke or made a ‘personal statement’, Potresov said nothing. Lenin was still writing reasonably courteous letters to him after the congress was over in which he grudgingly apologises for his temper (see below), but there is no reference to the Bauman affair.

During the congress, Bauman was challenged on his alleged conduct – by Axelrod. Although Blick castigates Krupskaya for covering up the affair, her account of the incident is fuller than his. It has to be accepted that she is dismissive, but if Potresov felt so strongly, he had a funny way of showing it.

3. Lenin brushed the Bauman affair aside in a letter to Alexandra Kalmykova. Dubious. Blick uncritically endorses Getzler’s claim that the letter is a confirmation of Potresov’s account of the incident. In the letter, Lenin answers criticism of his behaviour at the congress by saying that it is a mistake to condemn his politics on account of his personal failings. He adds: ‘You know what the sensitivity and “personal” (instead of political) attitude of Martov, Old Believer [Potresov] and Zasulich led to when, for example, they all but “condemned” a man politically for an incident of a purely personal character. At that time, without a moment’s hesitation, you sided with the “flayers and monsters”.’

And that’s all. The reference may be to the Bauman affair. I don’t know. And neither does Blick.

4. Bauman drove the woman comrade to suicide. Improbable at best. Bauman is an elusive character. Born in 1873, he began his revolutionary activity in the early 1890s. He trained as a veterinary surgeon. Getzler has him exiled to Viatsk in Orlov in 1899, where he allegedly had his notorious affair. He escaped abroad later that year (‘deserts her’). It was while abroad (roughly during 1900) that he was alleged to have humiliated the woman. Getzler explains that it was ‘Vorovsky [not Bauman] who remained in Orlov, circulated suggestive cartoons which commented on her [alleged!] promiscuity and lampooned her pregnancy’. He does, however, coyly add in a footnote that, ‘An entry in Lydia Dan’s papers suggests [?] that Bauman was the author of the cartoons, and also of some of the lampooning stanzas.’ Blick’s unqualified claim that Bauman circulated cartoons is false, and is at best a sloppy reading of the text.

By early 1901 at the latest, Bauman was back in Moscow, if not permanently, then on regular visits, and was sent Lenin’s two anxious letters. In June 1902 he was re-arrested and imprisoned in Kiev following a conference organised by the Bund, but escaped in August on his way to exile. I found a reference describing this as a daring escape by around a dozen people, but I regret to say I have lost it. He did not return to Russia until after the 1903 congress. (Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party has Bauman arrested not in June 1902, but in February 1901 as a leader of the Kiev organisation. On the following page, correctly, he is down as the Moscow delegate to the 1903 Congress. Such vagueness might suggest he was not as prominent as some like to think – or simply that Zinoviev was careless.)

According to Getzler, Bauman’s victim wrote a farewell letter dated 28 January 1902 – well over two years after Bauman’s 1899 escape from exile. We must assume that this was the date of her suicide. It took the husband a further year (until the spring of 1903, according to Potresov) to demand justice. In Getzler’s analysis of the 30-page (!) suicide ‘note’ there is no reference to Bauman. We do not know that she held him to blame for anything. The other ‘evidence’ consists of three unpublished letters between Martov and Potresov, and interviews with Lydia Dan and Nikolaevsky – 60 years after the event. None of these people were involved in the affair.

Apparently, Martov was equivocal about publicising the affair or using it in his battles with Lenin. Getzler ascribes this to a sense of decency given Bauman’s early death – which doesn’t explain Martov’s critical two years of silence after the congress when Bauman was still alive. Could it be that Martov, when all was said and done, felt that there was no case to answer – that a tragedy was a tragedy, but that Bauman was innocent? Alternatively, was it Martov, not Lenin, who covered the business up? Lenin evidently did not take it seriously, but Getzler claims that Martov took it so seriously that relations with Lenin went ‘completely to pieces’. Nonetheless, Martov ‘urged Potresov to persuade M [the husband] to wait and present his case to the future Central Committee ... before having recourse to publication, which could only do us harm, as any scandal would, as well as turn the whole party against M’. He never referred to the affair again. If Blick were to obtain copies of the original letters (they are in the Hoover Institute) and translate them, the whole business could perhaps be cleared up.

Neither the woman nor her husband are named: who are they? Why did she wait so long to lay the blame for her distress at Bauman’s door – if indeed she did? By the time she hanged herself, Bauman had been separated from her by thousands of miles for over two years. What happened in this interval? There is no record of the pregnancy. Is it certain that Bauman was the father? What, if there was a child, happened to it? Why did the husband take so long to seek an investigation? If Getzler’s case is shot through with holes, Blick’s rewrite would upset a West Midlands Police creative writing class.

Bauman returned to Moscow after the congress, and was arrested for the third time in June 1904. Released from prison under an amnesty in October 1905, he was immediately assassinated by the Black Hundreds while at a students’ meeting. Boris Pasternak’s biographer Peter Levy muddles the details, but quotes an eye-witness account written by journalist Maurice Baring of Bauman’s funeral, which attracted around 300,000 mourners. The funeral was the subject of a large section of Pasternak’s epic poem 1905. Lenin’s short obituary regrets that ‘We are unable as yet to give a detailed biography of our fallen comrade’ (a key lieutenant?), but mentions an oration by Bauman’s wife, the only reference to her I have found. It is ironic that a poet and his poet/priest biographer should elegantly record Bauman’s brief moment of posthumous glory, while former leftists exploit his comparative obscurity for factional points, and deny him the most rudimentary of hearings.

This perhaps over-long analysis of what is a footnote to history – if ever there was one – is of interest to me because it illustrates how myths arise, and how accounts go if unchecked from novel to controversial to scurrilous on the way to becoming canon. If Getzler has used imagination, fair research and sloppy reading to concoct a story, then Blick, from half a page in Getzler’s book, has turned our historical footnote into an ideological cudgel. Where did he learn to do that?

So the attempt to tar Lenin with Bauman’s brush has collapsed. What of Krupskaya and the libraries? Let Blick give his argument:

‘Over the next few years, under Krupskaya’s supervision, there were removed from public libraries (and then often destroyed) all works deemed to be “obsolescent”, “counter-revolutionary” and “harmful”. Books falling under this rubric were listed in a Bolshevik index entitled A guide to the Removal of Anti-Artistic and Counter-Revolutionary Literature from Libraries serving the Mass Reader. They included, amongst the works of hundreds of other writers, books by Plato, Kant, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Buskin, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, Pushkin, Gogol, Verne, Cervantes, Kipling, Gorky (a close friend of Lenin’s) and ... Shakespeare, who, long before Lord Acton, had discovered a thing or two about the corrupting effects of absolute power. In all, lists of removed works ran to some 2,000 pages (pages, not items). One is left wondering – did Krupskaya pursue her crusade for “literary correctness” to the extent of removing from her husband’s private library the many offending volumes she would undoubtedly have found there? Or was the Bolshevik “purging of the books” confined, as seems to have been the intention, to libraries frequented only by the “mass reader”?’

Blick goes on to show that Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler all practised censorship, that Lenin’s was the oldest regime and therefore ... but I’m sure you’ve forestalled me by now. His source is an old paper by Bertram Wolfe, Krupskaya Purges the People’s Libraries from Survey, Summer 1969. Once again, it seems that Lenin, or at least his wife, is caught bang to rights.

Wolfe bases his claim on three circulars sent by Krupskaya in 1920, 1923 and 1924, together with a Pravda piece in April 1924. The first is alluded to only in the second, and Wolfe confesses to being unable to obtain it. (I am no historian, but it seems odd that one can demand a reassessment of Krupskaya on the basis of a document which, if it ever existed, has probably never been seen by anyone living.) Given that the bibliography of Krupskaya’s writings from 1917 onwards has over 2,000 entries and that her educational writings alone cover some 7,000 turgid pages, this is not much to go on. Wolfe quotes the second piece:

‘Already in 1920 the Political-Education section of the People’s Commissariat of Education sent instructions to the various local bodies on the re-examination of their catalogues in order to purge the public libraries of obsolescent literature.

‘However, up to now [spring 1923], with rare exceptions, the Political Education Committees have completely neglected the task of re-examining and eliminating books from the libraries, and in some provinces it required the intervention of the GPU to get the task of removing books started.’

Robert McNeal’s generally fair biography of Krupskaya tells of her lifelong interest in educational matters, her fondness for American pedagogical methods, and of her battle for a Tolstoyian educational model in the teeth of opposition from the Cheka/GPU. She wrote in Pravda in 1919 ridiculing an attempt by the Cheka to ban the publication of the poetry of one V.A. Zhukovsky on the grounds that it included the words ‘God Save the Tsar’. McNeal naively retails Wolfe’s account of the library purge without comment save to say that it is a striking example of Krupskaya’s ‘de-liberalisation’ and refers to the 1920 document, but also seems to have overlooked that no-one knows what it says.

Wolfe begins his article by quoting the exiled Gorky and referring to a storm of protest abroad between the 1923 circular and the April 1924 Pravda piece. What storm? What newspapers reported this scandalous purge of the libraries? Wolfe’s case would have been strengthened by alluding to or quoting from articles in, for example, the London or New York Times or by naming a single prominent Western intellectual who spoke out against the purge. Such a storm must have left some echo, surely. (Perhaps it’s unfair to recall that, far from their speaking out against a real purge, Bertram Wolfe’s and Maxim Gorky’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Moscow Trials is a matter of public record.)

The truth is rather more prosaic. There was no Krupskaya-inspired purge, and there was nothing to report. There was an attempt to clear non-specialist libraries of scientific literature that was more than 50 years out of date. There were moves to empty the shelves of unread commentaries and turgid religious tracts, and to get rid of the racist crap that adorned Russian as well as British libraries in the 1920s. Krupskaya’s document of 1923 complains that since 1920 nothing had been done to modernise the libraries. Given the Civil War, the delay is perhaps understandable.

Attempts by boorish Bolshevik officials to carry the work beyond keeping in libraries books that people might want to read were met with Krupskaya’s heavy-handed scorn (she was no writer of prose). A list of titles proposed for removal was attached to the 1923 circular signed by her. As soon as she saw the list, as Wolfe acknowledges, she cancelled it. All Wolfe’s (and Blick’s) huff and puff about Shakespeare being banned is so much nonsense.

The irony is that it seems that the only serious purge that Krupskaya was hard put to stop was of left wing books. Given that librarians in the Soviet Union do not to this day enjoy the reputation as revolutionaries of, for example, the Petrograd sailors, could there not be a different explanation? Goaded by Krupskaya’s drive to modernise the library system, antagonised by efforts to dump dust-encrusted nonsense (the criticism that Krupskaya went over the top on religious claptrap might have some merit), and being victims of war-induced anxiety that the libraries might be a centre of White Guard agitation, the librarians shout, ‘I’ll give you a clear out, Madam’, and – Wallop! Bang! – books sympathetic to Socialism are pulped.

By 1924, with the incipient political counter-revolution well under way, it is true that the last circular to which Wolfe refers has slightly sinister undertones. But the guidelines are more efficiently drawn up, and full names of authors, titles, etc., are given: ‘The section on religion in libraries that are not large [emphasis added – DB] should contain only anti-religious and anti-ecclesiastical literature. It is permissible to leave [in such small libraries – BW] only basic books of doctrine: the Gospels, the Bible, the Koran ...’

But Wolfe, who is rather more honest than Blick, has a problem. Even as late as 1926, he can find no evidence that the alleged purge was carried out. This, alas, leads him to conclude that it was organised secretly, against which solipsism there is no defence. Which brings us to that story about the 2000-page list of books destined to be purged. Wolfe refers to Krupskaya’s third (1924) circular, which was also signed by one Madame Smushkova. Urging that the instructions of the previous two years be carried out, Smushkova later wrote in 1926 to complain that:

‘Practice in these removals has shown that the localities have gone about this without sufficient seriousness. The Central Bureau of Political Education has reviewed up to 2,000 pages of lists in which shocking errors have been found. If books had been immediately reduced to pulp according to these lists, our libraries would have been deprived of no small quantity of the most valuable publications.’

In other words the 2,000 pages of lists were submitted by libraries to the central authority, not the other way round, and it was the central authority who intervened to preserve, amongst others, the works of Shakespeare (who had discovered a thing or two about the corrupting effects of mendacity). Indeed, Wolfe describes what he himself calls a ‘campaign’ in Pravda and Izvestia against over-zealous purgers.

Of course, discovering that the Wolfe/Blick scenario is mischievous nonsense does beg deeper questions, but this is not the place to attempt an answer. It is true that there were many, both of Bolsheviks and of their bitter opponents, who were willing to attack the libraries under the guise of modernising them. But an examination of Wolfe’s evidence rather than his argument gives no grounds whatever for claiming that Krupskaya organised any sinister purge. Her attempts to reorganise Russia’s decrepit libraries seem, on the contrary, rather to have stumbled. But I shall leave the final word on that to Russian-speaking scholars.

To sum up, when all is said and done and in the scheme of things, who was N.E. Bauman? He is safely dead – does it matter what is written about this obscure figure? The Soviet libraries were undoubtedly purged – though not until many years later than Blick/Wolfe claim. Are Krupskaya’s efforts important? In my defence, I didn’t bring the subject up. But I would say that Revolutionary History has an obligation to historical truth. More nonsense has been written about Lenin than any other figure of our century. If we feel that our own contributors are adding to the heap, we ought to say so. It is a commonplace that a reappraisal of Lenin is timely, especially for those of us who uncritically endorsed a Stalinised caricature of his ‘doctrine’ for many years. But let it be honest and informed. Blick’s book is neither.

Let me end by forestalling possible criticism. There are other mysteries to which Blick refers, such as Lenin’s alleged alliance with the Freikorps, or the incitement to massacre Polish priests and peasants in 1920. Any reader is welcome to investigate them. As for me, I’ll wager that, on past form at least, Blick’s allegations are worthless. Keep us posted.

May I thank those busy friends of our journal who helped me with research material.

David Bruce

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011