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


The Seeds of Evil

Richard Pipes
Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime 1919–1924
Harvill, London, 1994, pp. 587, £25

IN AN earlier review of this book, Robert Conquest states: ‘Pipes writes from a distinctive point of view, and explicitly rejects the call, heard from some academics, to be “non-judgmental”. He is quite right ... non-judgmental and supposedly “objective” historical writing merely conceals the unconscious prejudices of its proponents’ milieu. The right criterion (as Gibbon and Trevelyan saw) is whether a historian treats the evidence in good faith, and with Pipes the answer is clear: he does.’ (The New York Review, 14 July 1994)

Yes, Pipes’ explicit rejection of a ‘non-judgmental’ approach is a strength. Every historian judges history; Pipes judges and condemns the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks. Israel Getzler points out that Pipes’ companion volume, The Russian Revolution 1899–1919, makes a contribution to debate precisely because he so provocatively champions his point of view (Slavonic and East European Review, January 1992, p. 111). That also applies to this book. But it is impossible to agree with Conquest that Pipes treats the evidence in good faith. So great is his passion against the Bolsheviks and the radical intelligentsia in general that it leads him to interpret things one-sidedly, ignore facts, or simply get them wrong.

The scope of Pipes’ book is impressive. He presents history not as a chronological procession, but as interwoven processes. He thoroughly discusses each one, including some ignored or neglected by other histories.

Pipes’ account of the Civil War deals extensively with the White leaders, their military and political programmes, and their relations with the Western powers. He is concerned to show that ‘there never was anything resembling an “imperialist intervention” in the sense of a concerted, purposeful drive of the Western powers to crush the Communist regime’ (p. 63) – and that this was mainly the fault of Lloyd George, who sought a diplomatic rapprochement with the Bolsheviks. Thus he relates in detail the dispute between Lloyd George and Churchill, who could ‘grasp the meaning of both Communism and National Socialism sooner and better than other European statesmen’ (p. 69), and who pressed unsuccessfully for more energetic intervention.

By comparison, Pipes’ treatment of the Bolshevik leaders’ rôle in the war is almost frivolous. For example, he despatches the majority of historians, who considered Trotsky a good military strategist, with the colourful but unconvincing opinion of Dmitri Volkogonov that Trotsky was a ‘dilettante’ in military affairs (p. 56). An instance which might have shown otherwise – the dispute between Trotsky and Sergei Kamenev in July 1919 – is pictured as a personal-political squabble (p. 99), and its well-documented military substance is ignored.

Pipes’ chapter on the national question, ‘The Red Empire’ (pp. 141–65), summarises and updates his earlier book The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917–1923. Naturally the Bolshevik nationalities policy is dismissed as ‘a tactical ploy’ (p. 146). Confronted with the awkward example of Finland, where a bourgeois nationalist government demanded national independence immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, Pipes craftily skips round the fact that Lenin immediately granted that independence (see for example, E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 1, pp. 287–9). Bracketing Finland with the Baltic states, Pipes writes that ‘Berlin encouraged them to proclaim sovereignty’ (p. 151), as though Lenin didn’t. That said, the chapter contains useful detail, especially on Bolshevik policy towards the Caucasian and central Asian nationalities.

Similar comments could be made about Pipes’ survey of the cultural policies of the Bolshevik government. His chapter on the repression of the churches is also thorough, and here his criticism of other historians for ignoring the subject sounds justified. He describes the differences within the Communist Party – mainly between Lunacharsky and Yaroslavsky – about how the issue should be approached, the stages of the assault on the Russian Orthodox Church, the seizure of its property, and the propaganda against it.

Pipes has painstakingly researched events about which I previously had only the haziest notion. But I found myself wanting to cross-check his every assertion – all the more, because when he discusses events with which I am slightly less unfamiliar, his anti-Communist passion takes him along a path somewhere between one-sidedness and deception.

Let us take one of Pipes’ main themes; the Bolsheviks’ repression of their enemies. He writes: ‘“Merciless” violence, violence that strove for the destruction of every actual and potential opponent, was for Lenin not only the most effective, but the only way of dealing with problems.’ (p. 500) Pipes is so determined to arrive at this conclusion that he ignores all sorts of facts that point elsewhere.

The Red Terror began in the period just before that covered by this book, and Pipes dwells on it in detail in The Russian Revolution – but always from the point of view that it sprang simply from a genocidal mania. It is indisputable that Lenin, in particular, advocated the use of physical terror against enemies of the Bolshevik power; it is also well-documented (by Melgunov for example) that the repression by the Cheka was not just ruthless, but often indiscriminate and inhuman. But Pipes ignores the fact that the Bolsheviks began with a more lenient policy, and that the terror took the form it did only after armed risings against the revolutionary regime and its increased isolation internationally. For example, Marcel Liebman writes that in the first months after the October Revolution, ‘official repression... assumed comparatively benign forms’ (Leninism Under Lenin, p. 313); the death penalty was abolished, and no executions took place for three months. Liebman describes the moderation of the Bolsheviks as ‘surprising’, given the massacre of Red prisoners by the Whites in Moscow in 1917, which is not mentioned in either of Pipes’ books. Carr asserts that ‘the revolutionary tradition of opposition to the death sentence weakened and collapsed only after the outbreak of the Civil War and open insurrection against the Soviet regime’ (The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 1, p. 153). Pipes refers to the death penalty being abolished at the front – only in order to mention that Lenin was opposed to abolition – but simply misses out the fact that, at first, it was abolished in the rest of the country too (The Russian Revolution, pp. 789–91).

Scorning the idea that Red Terror was a response to White terror, Pipes claims that ‘odious as it was, the terror of the White armies was never systematic, as was the case with the Red terror’ (The Russian Revolution, p. 792). But the dissident revolutionary Victor Serge, himself a critic of many aspects of the Red Terror, estimates that the White terror in Finland after the defeated uprising of April 1918 killed between 10,000 and 20,000 revolutionaries; he quotes non-Socialist newspaper reports and gives an official Finnish government figure of 70,000 interned, concluding: ‘Up to this moment the Russian Revolution had virtually everywhere displayed great leniency towards its enemies. It had not used terror. We have noted a few bloody episodes in the Civil War in the south, but these were exceptional.’ (Serge, Year One of The Russian Revolution, pp. 187–9) Evan Mawdsley (The Russian Civil War, pp. 26–9) gives a figure of 30,000 casualties between both sides in Finland. Pipes simply omits any mention of the Finnish White terror, which, like the Bolshevik attitude to the death penalty, does not fit in with his preconceptions, commenting dryly that ‘by the end of the month [April 1918], when the German-Finnish force captured Vyborg, Finland was rid of the Bolsheviks’ (p. 93).

One gets no sense from Pipes’ account of the international isolation felt in 1918–19 by the Bolsheviks and their urban supporters – of the accumulation of armed enemies on one hand and economic catastrophe on the other. Serge reports a ‘dreadful famine’ in the towns in the summer of 1918; ‘among the populace, hatred simmered and brooded’ (at which point the Bolsheviks issued a decree against anti-Jewish pogroms, a point to which we shall return); then Lev Kamenev returned from Europe to tell workers’ meetings, ‘comrades, we are alone’ (Serge, pp. 285–7). It was all this that turned the Bolsheviks towards War Communism in their economic and social policy, and on the military-political front towards ruthless forms of terror.

We cannot reasonably expect Pipes to agree with the interpretations of Serge, Liebman or Carr. But his own arguments would be more credible if he did not simply miss out the facts that do not fit neatly into them.

In stark contrast with Pipes’ repeated assertions that Bolshevik violence was always an act of will, conceived independently of external circumstances, is his view of the Whites’ behaviour during the Civil War. He displays a particularly tolerant understanding of their encouragement of anti-Jewish pogroms. He accepts that Denikin’s Volunteer Army were the principal perpetrators, but feels a bizarre need to defend Denikin as ‘not a typical anti-Semite’. Denikin’s anti-Semitism and his toleration of White officers who encouraged pogroms are detailed by Peter Kenez (in J. Klier and S. Lambroza (eds.), Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern History, pp. 293–313). Denikin prefaced a statement to a Jewish delegation that he would issue an order against pogroms with the words: ‘I do not like you Jews.’ Pipes excuses Denikin’s toleration of blatant calls to massacre Jews by his immediate subordinates on the grounds that he was a ‘weak, inexperienced man’ who had a ‘fear of appearing pro-Jewish’, and ‘a sense of futility of fighting against prevailing passions’ (p. 110). Here, Pipes gives us a creature whose actions are determined by anything but his own will – a caricature to contrast with his Bolshevik caricatures.

Pipes acknowledges that the Reds ‘did not tolerate’ pogroms in the territory they controlled (p. 101), but undertakes the futile task of proving that ‘Moscow was conspicuously silent’ (p. 111) on the issue. Historians agree that the Reds did not stress the issue of pogroms in their anti-White propaganda. But Lenin issued a statement against pogroms in April 1919, as Pipes admits; he could have added that this statement was one of nine recorded on gramophone records in order to get a wider audience outside the cities (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 29, pp. 252–3). It is disingenuous of Pipes to state that ‘Lenin no more condemned the Ukrainian pogroms than did Denikin’ (p. 111): in July 1920, the issue of pogroms was raised on the most public of Communist platforms – that of the Second Congress of the Communist International – by Mereshin, who spoke in the name of the Jewish members of the Russian Communist Party (Minutes of the Second Congress, Volume 2, pp. 161–5); in October 1920, Kalinin, the President of the Soviet republic, made a speech condemning Red Army pogroms at a military parade in Kiev (Nora Levin, The Jews In The Soviet Union Since 1917, Volume 1, p. 43).

More important, during a war when words were cheap, is the fact, recorded by Jewish historians, that although Red soldiers sometimes took part in pogroms, the Red Army command was unequivocally hostile to pogroms. Jews were safer in Red areas, so much so that some anti-Communist Jews volunteered to fight for the Reds. The Red Army had ‘a determined campaign of penalties and propaganda’ against anti-Semitism in their ranks (Hans Rogger in Pogroms, p. 351), and it disarmed regiments who took party in pogroms (Levin, p43). Pipes ignores all this, concentrating instead on criticising the Bolshevik leaders of Jewish origin for not making public statements about pogroms (pp. 102–4).

Pipes insists that the causes of ‘hostility towards Jews’ in the Volunteer ranks were ‘the Red Terror, which it became customary to blame on Jews’, the German withdrawal from Russia which ‘required a new scapegoat for the country’s misfortunes’, and the murder of the imperial family (pp. 104–5). This amazing conception of cause and effect, which traces back the root of all evil in the twentieth century to Bolshevism, reaches the height of absurdity in Pipes’ chapter comparing Communism to Fascism. There he reasons that the Bolsheviks catapulted Russian right wing extremists into believing in a worldwide Jewish-Communist conspiracy; ‘the rationale for the Nazi extermination of Jews came from Russian right wing circles ... the Jewish Holocaust thus turned out to be one of the many unanticipated and unintended consequences of the Russian Revolution’ (p. 258). It is tempting to dismiss such a statement as comical, but it would be better to remind ourselves that the ‘fall of Communism’ in 1989–91, far from ending the debate about the Russian Revolution, is reawakening it, with conservatives like Pipes extending and deepening the scope of the Bolsheviks’ historical guilt.

Pipes is not the first to argue that the Bolsheviks were bloodthirsty power-mongers. But as far as I know, his contention that they caused the 1921–22 famine and kept it secret as long as they could is a new one. In a footnote, Pipes criticises Carr – I think justifiably – for devoting only one paragraph to the famine. But his own account, while more thorough, lacks any objectivity. ‘Normally [under Tsarism]’, writes Pipes, ‘crop failures spelled hunger rather than starvation, although intermittently famine did stalk the land. It took three years of remorseless, methodical ruination of agriculture by the Bolsheviks to acquaint Russia with a famine in which people died in the millions.’ (p. 410)

Again, all evil is attributed to the Bolsheviks; no other factors are considered. The effect of the First World War, that great human calamity which forms the backdrop to the whole revolutionary period, is not discussed; neither is the effect of the Civil War, which raged across the Ukraine and southern Russia, the areas worst affected when the famine came. Indeed Pipes, boldly ignoring even the possibility of a connection between the war and the famine, and deftly stepping over the Irish famine of the 1840s, asserts: ‘The 1921 famine in Russia was the greatest human disaster in European history until then, other than those caused by war, since the Black Death’ (p. 419, my emphasis – SP). By contrast, Roger Pethybridge writes that the short-term causes of the famine were the collapse of the agricultural machinery industry from 1915, the effects of requisitioning by Red, White and Green armies, and to a lesser extent the activities of the Bolshevik poor peasants’ committees (One Step Backwards, Two Steps Forward, p. 94).

The other point that Pipes ignores is that the New Economic Policy was born precisely of the realisation by the Bolsheviks that economic breakdown, and with it famine, would result if they continued with the policy of War Communism. Trotsky claims in his autobiography that as early as February 1920 he made a proposal to the Central Committee to abandon War Communism, supported by a report that ‘the food resources are threatened with exhaustion, a contingency that an amount of improvement in the methods of requisition can prevent’ (My Life, p. 464). This was rejected because Lenin and others believed that a retreat from War Communism would most probably lead to the defeat of the revolution; the NEP was only adopted a year later, when Lenin – but still not many rank and file Communists – accepted that there was no alternative.

All this is ignored by Pipes. While he attributes the NEP to the failure of War Communism – ruling out the idea that external factors and the longer-term breakdown of the economy since 1913 also played a part – he does not try either to survey the progress of War Communism itself, or to discuss the economic factors that led to its introduction. A chapter on War Communism in Pipes’ The Russian Revolution dismisses without discussion the idea that it was, to an extent, forced on the Bolsheviks by an economic catastrophe not of their making (see for example, Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 46–8). Against all the evidence, Pipes asserts that: ‘With this programme [of War Communism], the Left Communists in April 1918 overruled Lenin.’ (The Russian Revolution, p. 679)

Returning to the famine, Pipes states that the Kremlin ‘watched the spread of the famine as if struck with paralysis’; it ‘did nothing because it could not acknowledge a national calamity that it could not attribute to “kulaks”, “White Guardists” or “imperialists”’ (p. 415). ‘On occasion Lenin did try’, he adds in a footnote. If it were true of any government that it affected ‘paralysis’ as its subjects faced famine, it would be a fairly important measure of its bankruptcy. But Lenin’s speeches on the most public platforms in early 1921, in the period when he was coming round to the idea of the NEP, suggest the opposite. At a plenary meeting of the Moscow Soviet in February 1921 Lenin spoke of ‘our hardships due to the food shortage’ at greater length; he blamed not White Guards or kulaks, but: ‘The fact is that we had miscalculated... At the time of the severest hardships, we overestimated our resources’, and so on for several pages (Collected Works, Volume 32, pp. 150–7). Two weeks later, at the tenth party congress Lenin acknowledged: ‘We should have obviously limited the increase in the [urban workers’] ration, so as to create a certain reserve fund for a rainy day, which was due to come in the spring and which has now arrived. That we failed to do ... it is a typical mistake ... [We were] confronted ... with a whole number of difficulties and problems, and we had neither the experience, the training, nor the requisite material to overcome them.’ (Collected Works, Volume 32, p. 174) That may display undue optimism; it is not ‘paralysis’.

Pipes writes: ‘The press was forbidden to make any allusion to the crop failure, and even in early July continued to report that all was well in the countryside.’ But the anti-Communist H.R.H. Fisher, in his history of the American Relief Administration, states that: ‘Pravda, on 26 June, admitted that famine raged among a population “of about 25 million”’ (The Famine In Soviet Russia, p. 51). This is only the earliest of many references to press coverage of the famine by Fisher and Pethybridge; the latter writes that the Soviet press played down reports of the Ukrainian famine, and emphasised events on the Volga, leading to accusations of anti-Ukrainian prejudice (Pethybridge, p. 108–9).

Pipes’ chapter entitled ‘Communism For Export’ deals both with the work of the Comintern and with Bolshevik efforts to win sympathisers and supporters in the West. It is most interesting on the relations between Russia and Germany, consisting of secret treaties on military construction. But his material on the Comintern is disappointing; he is always at his least convincing when dealing with the internal life of the Communist movement, because he regards most debate between Communists as window-dressing for the fanatical pursuit of power.

Eager to portray the ‘authoritarian’ Lenin bringing recalcitrant foreign Communists to heel, Pipes misrepresents the dispute at the Comintern’s Third Congress as one between Lenin and ‘some foreign Communists’ who ‘wanted to launch an immediate and direct assault on their governments’ (p. 185). In fact this dispute split the Russian Communists down the middle: Lenin was opposed by Bukharin, Zinoviev and Béla Kun. At one point it seemed that he would be outvoted by the ‘lefts’. The wide-ranging debate on the floor of the congress is passed over by Pipes, who merely asserts that ‘foreign delegates who questioned this [united front] approach were rebuked by the Russians, and on occasion prevented from speaking’ (p. 185).

Pipes also misrepresents the dispute over whether or not to launch an uprising in Germany in March 1921, and the lessons of its failure, as an argument between the German Communists and ‘the Soviet government’ (p194). There is no evidence that the Soviet government as such discussed the matter in advance; it was Radek, Zinoviev and Béla Kun who urged the rising; they were opposed not only by the German Communists Paul Levi and Klara Zetkin, but, in the aftermath, by both Lenin and Trotsky – a fact Pipes does not mention. It is also untrue that ‘Levi and Zetkin were forced out of both the party and the Comintern’; Levi was expelled, but Zetkin stayed on in the Communist Party until the end of her life.

Pipes again plays havoc with historical facts when he writes about the Comintern’s influence on western trade unions. Many real instances of both success and disastrous failure could have been used; instead he quotes (p. 196) the distorted assertion by Franz Borkenau that: ‘During the next 15 years [1920–1935] the Communists in the West were unable to conquer one single union.’ In Germany and France, Communist influence in trade unions grew throughout the 1920s – although unevenly and with many crass mistakes – to the extent that Communist parties controlled powerful minorities in many unions, and created unions of their own. In Britain, the Communists gained control of no national union organisations, but were highly influential. While arguing that western Communists won over nothing more than ‘splinter groups’ from Socialism (p. 195), Pipes absurdly describes the British mining industry where they were strong as ‘marginal’!

I have mentioned the conclusion Pipes draws from each event – that the Bolsheviks were mainly, or entirely, responsible for the tragedy and suffering. In a chapter on Communism, Fascism and National Socialism, he suggests that Bolshevism was the forerunner and not the opposite of the other two; ‘in their determination to raze the existing world in which they felt themselves outcasts, at all costs and by all means, lay their kinship’ (p. 281). Pipes relies partly on a comparison of the Soviet regime under Stalin and that of Hitler, and it is undeniable that the two had much in common: the totalitarian form of state organisation, and the subordination of all social institutions to the state, etc. But when it comes to the genesis of these regimes – which directly concerns the period with which this book deals – Pipes is on much shakier ground. He tells us that the state institutions used by Stalin were set up by Lenin. So what? The state institutions used by Hitler were set up by Bismarck.

The Bolshevik regime under Lenin attempted to introduce a new social system in a very economically backward country, with the economically advanced countries playing a hostile and even a destructive rôle. The Bolsheviks threatened the old ruling classes with extinction. Those classes quite rightly felt threatened by the revolution, and many of them sponsored attempts to overthrow it by military means, which came close to succeeding, and certainly worsened the country’s economic catastrophe. None of these essential characteristics of the Bolshevik regime can be seen in that of Nazi Germany. Pipes perhaps thinks these factors are irrelevant; he should at least say why.

The only difference between Stalin and Lenin, says Pipes (p. 507), is that Stalin was happy to kill fellow Communists, whereas Lenin was not. What he does not say is that, without having done so, and thus effectively destroyed the generation that led the revolution, Stalin could never have carried through many of his other acts of barbarism. With Hitler, mass murder was implicit in his programme from the very start.

Finally, let us comment on Pipes’ last chapter, Reflections on the Russian Revolution, where he states: ‘Communism failed because it proceeded from the erroneous doctrine of the Enlightenment, perhaps the most pernicious idea in the history of thought, that man is merely a material compound, devoid of either soul or innate ideas, and as such a passive product of an infinitely malleable social environment.’ (p. 511) Thus the Bolsheviks’ crime was not only to try to overthrow capitalism – something about which any ‘judgmental’ right winger could be expected to complain – but to believe that human history can be changed by conscious action at all. That is the ‘most pernicious idea’ of the Enlightenment to which Pipes objects (the supposed Enlightenment belief that man was ‘devoid of soul’ is just another Pipes creation).

If belief in the ability to change society is pernicious, long live perniciousness.

Simon Pirani

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011