Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


From the Other Shore

André Liebich
From the Other Shore: Russian Social Democracy After 1921
Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1997, pp. 476, £29.95

THIS book is a real labour of love. There can be very few people who would spend a great deal of time and effort chronicling the fate of the exiled remnants of a defeated and persecuted party, but that is what Professor Liebich has done with this most valuable account of the Mensheviks after their enforced exile in 1921.

Readers will probably be familiar with the approach elaborated by the Mensheviks’ leader Yuli Martov, which condemned post-1917 Bolshevism as an authoritarian utopian Socialist leadership coming to power in a backward country in which Socialism was impossible to construct, whilst refusing to side with right-wing attempts to overthrow the Soviet regime; and with the subsequent development of the post-Martov Menshevik leaders, with Rafael Abramovich becoming a Cold War anti-Communist, and Fedor Dan becoming a virtual apologist for Stalinism. However, readers may well be unaware of many of the other factors that Liebich outlines, such as the fact that the Mensheviks’ internal regime was fairly authoritarian and at times intolerant, and that their recruitment regulations did not permit people from outwith the Soviet Union or their own offspring to join, which effectively doomed the party to extinction.

One important issue which Liebich brings to the fore is the way in which the Mensheviks revised post festum their history and analyses in order to present the development of their party as distinct and divorced from the dread influence of Bolshevism from the start, a mirror image of official Soviet historiography. Hence, the fuzzy differentiation between the two halves of Russian Social Democracy, the policy concurrences and personnel interchanges, prior to 1917 were subsequently reinterpreted as an irreconcilable and unbridgeable gulf from 1903. Similarly, the Mensheviks’ hesitant and inconclusive analyses of the great changes in the Soviet Union in 1927–30 were forgotten as the Stalinist socio-economic formation was subsequently seen – either positively or negatively – as the inevitable product of Bolshevism.

The Mensheviks maintained a sustained appraisal of Soviet affairs, and Liebich outlines their critique of the New Economic Policy, their following of the leadership struggle in the Soviet Communist Party, their critique of Stalin’s collectivisation and industrialisation schemes, and their accounts of the Menshevik Trial of 1931, the Moscow Trials, the 1936 constitution, and so on. He describes the Mensheviks’ relations with other Socialist parties, comparing their lack of success with the insular and indifferent British Labour Party leaders with the support they received in France and Germany. He also shows how the Mensheviks participated in the theoretical debates in the Socialist movement, and how the split between Dan and Abramovich was influenced and exacerbated by the rise of pro-Soviet tendencies, especially around Otto Bauer, and the emergence of theories of totalitarianism in the 1930s. Liebich also investigates the fate of the Mensheviks in exile in the USA. Dan’s minority wing, which split away in 1941, worked for pro-Soviet publications, whilst Abramovich’s majority aligned themselves with the predominant anti-Communist forces within the US labour movement, and subsequently concentrated upon academic work on the Soviet Union; not, it is worth noting, that this prevented them from being investigated as potential subversives by the FBI into the 1950s.

Noting that some Mensheviks considered that by 1930 their position on the Soviet Union was quite close to Trotsky’s, Liebich touches briefly upon the possibility of some sort of radical anti-Stalinist unity emerging in the 1930s. Nonetheless, this unity could not be forged. It was not so much that Trotsky, as Liebich correctly notes, refused to cooperate with them (although his programmatic call by the late 1930s for the legalisation in the Soviet Union of all parties accepting the soviet system implied the retrospective rehabilitation of all but the most right-wing Mensheviks, and the possibility of some sort of cooperation with them, at least with those who still adhered to Martov’s line), but the fact that many Mensheviks changed as the 1930s drew by. Liebich shows how the evolution of Dan and Abramovich drew them away from Martov’s line (although, rather confusingly, he also says that Dan kept to it, compare pages 84 and 198). Yet surely the great changes in the Soviet Union, with the creation in the 1930s of a huge working class through the building of a massive industrial base and the collectivisation of the peasantry, meant that the objective preconditions for a move towards Socialism now existed in the Soviet Union, and that Martov’s line could then have been updated to coincide with the programmes of various dissident Communists, Trotsky included, rather than rejected.

More perhaps could have been said about the relationship between the general trends within Social Democracy and the Mensheviks’ political evolution. The latter was most clearly exemplified by the repudiation of Martov’s line by both wings of the party. Dan’s pro-Soviet faction paralleled the left-wing Social Democrats who were willing to overlook or even justify the unpleasant nature of Stalin’s regime in their admiration of Soviet economic growth and in their quest to build a broad front against Hitlerite Germany, and whom after 1945 sailed too close to Stalinism in their desire to find a counterweight to capitalism and its apologists in the labour movement. Abramovich’s anti-Communist faction paralleled the mainstream Social Democrats who concluded that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism would only end in tears, and that the sole way forward was through modifying capitalism, refining bourgeois society, rather than abolishing it.

Abramovich and his comrades were not sui generis in this respect. Many left-wingers fell into despair in the 1930s and especially after 1945, giving up on any transformative concept of Socialism, substituting for it at the most piecemeal reformism, and jumping with almost indecent haste into the clutches of the Campaign for Cultural Freedom and Cold War hysteria. Cold War Social Democracy did not need the Mensheviks to kick it off, it had long been hostile to the Soviet Union to the extent that it would line up with its own capitalist class against it, rather than take an independent class approach. As for the influence of the Mensheviks upon Western and especially US Sovietology in the postwar period, although their empirical and interpretative analyses were and remain eminently valuable, their political approach tended merely to add grist to the Cold War mill, and we had to await for a new generation of scholars to arise in the late 1960s before a more objective approach to the Soviet experience emerged.

In conclusion, one can only repeat what Isaac Deutscher said about ‘the long melancholy story’ of the Mensheviks in exile:

‘Thus Menshevism has ended its long career, driven into two ideological impasses: in one we saw the conscience-stricken Dan humbling himself before Stalinism; in the other we heard Abramovich praying for the world’s salvation by the Pentagon. What an epilogue this is to the story of Martov’s party; and how Martov’s ghost must be weeping over it.’ (Ironies of History, p. 225)

Minor points apart, this is an excellent book, and anyone interested in the history of the Socialist movement, the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union should make the effort to read it.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011