Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


What Became of the Revolution

Al Richardson (ed.)
What Became of the Revolution: Selected Writings of Boris Souvarine
Socialist Platform, London, 2002, pp. 150, £5.00

THIS smallish collection of Souvarine’s writings provides a rather useful glimpse into the early years of French Communism and Trotskyism. It also throws more light onto the political evolution of Souvarine, the senior French Communist cadre of Ukrainian origins, a man of evidently great ability, whose evolution away from Communism into, in the words of Trotsky, a ‘gangrenous sceptic’ and later ‘democratic’ Cold Warrior was yet another of the many great personal tragedies occasioned by the rise of Stalinism.

The collection begins with a couple of small pieces (and some later commentary), based on an exchange Souvarine had with Lenin on questions of war, ‘defence of the fatherland’ and other related questions when he was a young, 20-year-old supporter of the Kautskyist ‘centre’ in Social Democracy during the First World War. This fills in some of the background surrounding Lenin’s Open Letter to Boris Souvarine of 1915, part of his continuing political struggle against the centrist and concilationist tendencies within the left wing of social democracy during the period immediately before the Russian Revolution and the foundation of the Third International. The regard Lenin held for Souvarine’s ability and potential at that time is evidenced by the friendly, pedagogical tone in which he addressed Souvarine’s criticisms.

Indeed, even Souvarine’s much later anti-Communist writings are a measure of his abilities, as particularly the transcripts of a series of six radio talks he gave in 1957, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, testify. These, which make up the second section of the book, are in content harsh and ahistorical indictments of the early Bolshevik regime, an index of Souvarine’s political regression and degeneration. It also has to be said that in their form of argumentation, their systematic treatment of the subject and their linking of arguments in a systematised train of causality, they bear a great deal of resemblance in form to some sort of Marxist polemic.

Even in his anti-Bolshevik degeneration, as a mitigating factor, Souvarine does not appear to evidence the anti-democratic, rampant fear and contempt for the working class that many anti-Bolshevik writers ooze in every pore of their writings. Rather, Souvarine engages in a critique of the Bolsheviks on the grounds of their alleged lack of democratic legitimacy and support, using as the centrepiece of his argument a disputation of the really representative character of the soviets as 1917 went on, and their allegedly increasingly irregular character and lack of clear demarcation as to whom they represented, etc.; the point of this being simply a lead-up to his main point of the characterisation of the October Revolution as merely a coup, carried out by the Bolsheviks with the support of allegedly merely a radicalised section of the working masses, and not the broad masses themselves.

Souvarine cites Lenin as stating that under the Provisional Government, Russia was now ‘the freest country … in the world’, and then proceeds to attempt to analyse how the Bolsheviks allegedly exploited this freedom in order to destroy it. He does not, however, manage to address the one glaring question that arises from this contention: why, if this freedom was inherent in the ‘democratic’ bourgeois regime he is polemically defending, the masses were not prepared to lift a finger to defend this freedom against the ‘unrepresentative’ Bolsheviks and the soviets which they had hegemonised by the time of October. In reality, the freedom to which Souvarine was appealing against the revolution was not a product of the bourgeois regime, but rather of the revolution itself and of the power of the masses to defend their freedom against the bourgeoisie, a situation that could only continue as long as the masses continued to possess the power to do this, a power which no bourgeoisie can tolerate for more than an historical moment. Thus the logical outcome of this freedom, which eventually was a product of the existence of dual power through the Soviets, was its consolidation through the removal of the bourgeoisie from state power, which of course happened when the Military Revolutionary Committee seized power as the military arm of the Bolshevik-dominated soviets at the end of October 1917.

Souvarine’s anti-Bolshevik argumentation ranges the whole gamut, from the suppression of the Constituent Assembly, to the withering of the soviets, the undeniable contradictions between the Bolsheviks’ pre-revolutionary promises on war and peace, the problem of non-Russian nationalities, etc. The eloquence of his argumentation on these questions, again, is considerable; what however is missing is the real class context. Souvarine by this time was a firm supporter of Anglo-Gallic-American ‘democratic’ imperialism, and he reads back into history his own illusions in the inherently democratic nature of these powers, the core of the Entente, in order to make an argument that the Bolsheviks had, for instance, promised to offer to the world a democratic peace, and even to wage a revolutionary war if their offers were spurned, and were then forced into the ‘shameful’ Brest-Litovsk treaty.

Souvarine argues, from the standpoint of a French Social Democrat, that this treaty only became a dead-letter when the Entente powers defeated Germany – empirically true, of course, but rather a non-argument, as the treaty was of course imposed on the Bolsheviks with the support of German Social Democrats who had exactly the same servile attitude to their own ruling class’ ‘democratic’ pretensions. Of course, in a later period this ‘tragic’ disagreement between Social Democrats about which imperialist gang had been the most ‘democratic’ was swept under the carpet in the interests of the Cold War. For all the eloquence of his anti-Bolshevik polemic, Souvarine, like other former Marxists, such as James Burnham, who have attempted to use some of the rational analytical tools of Marxism against Marxism itself, is forced by the very nature of his political thrust to ignore crucial facts and distort the real meaning and context of historical events in order to make reality fit his own regressive political programme.

Other material in the book, however, gives a very different picture of Souvarine. He was the author of a useful pamphlet, The Third International, published by the British Socialist Party in 1920, which gives a propagandistic and historical treatment of the origins of – and necessity for – the Comintern. One assumes the publication of this work must have been part of the preparation for the unification of the various forces that stood with the Comintern in Britain into a unified Communist Party later the same year. As indeed his series of articles on building a Communist Party in France throws considerable light on his rôle as certainly the most forceful, politically far-sighted and evidently able of the leaders of the early French Communist Party – he was effectively the political centrepiece of its left wing, which fought internally and at the time against the petit-bourgeois, centrist nature of the many of the PCF’s initial cadre. Indeed, the capacity, demonstrated in these contemporaneous writings, of Souvarine for intransigent struggle despite temporary political isolation is so remarkable that it really underlines the tragic waste of his later career, when he was robbed of his revolutionary commitment and outlook as a result of the burgeoning monstrosities of Stalinism. In this, of course, Souvarine was one of many; unfortunately, he was one of the most able.

The selection of his writings on Stalinism that makes up part four of the collection also makes quite interesting reading. His 1978 essay Stalin: Why and How? purports to offer an analysis of how Leninism led to Stalinism through Lenin’s utilisation of Stalin’s organisational talents to suppress dissent within the party in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Souvarine’s explanation of this contains at least elements of truth in terms of the imperceptible shift of the Bolsheviks away from the democratic aspirations which animated the party before it took power. It undoubtedly adds to the corpus of material on the origins of the power of Stalin in the party apparatus that he later was able to use with such effect against his factional opponents. Its subtle conclusion, of Stalin as Lenin’s ‘illegitimate son’, however, illustrates the programmatic distance Souvarine himself had travelled. While it makes a reference to Lenin being the ‘practical creator’ of ‘a verbal pseudo-Marxism, simplistic and caricatural’, allegedly the starting point of Stalinist ideology, it offers not even the hint of a positive attempt to put things right in terms of unfalsifying Marxism. Since Souvarine had by then convinced himself that the Entente was the fount of progressive development in those days, this is hardly surprising.

A fairly nondescript piece on the NEP and the later ‘New Course’, and its implications for the PCF, shows Souvarine in his days as an early supporter of the original Russian Left Opposition, to the extent of echoing the Opposition’s defence of the Bolsheviks’ 1921 ban on factions. This contrasts somewhat with a later (1930) essay on the Five Year Plan. Showing Souvarine in political motion, the essay is scathing about the economic adventurism and atrocious consequences of what was in fact the decisive event in transforming the USSR from a recognisable, if badly damaged and decomposed, product of a proletarian revolution into something qualitatively different and historically unprecedented. Be that as it may, Souvarine also directs his fire at the Left Opposition’s position of giving critical support to Stalin’s alleged ‘left turn’, which of course laid the basis for many capitulations of oppositionists to Stalin, and certainly was a reflection of an understandable, but comprehensive, misunderstanding of the situation. As a renegade, Souvarine’s insights are not without value in casting light on these events.

The collection rounds off with a short biographical sketch of the Bolshevik party’s veteran archivist, David Riazanov, and a piece on the work of the Marx-Engels Institute that Riazanov founded in Moscow. Again from the early 1930s, before Souvarine’s rightward motion had fully unfolded, it gives another glimpse of the intimate connections of Souvarine with the most historically grounded, most cultured elements of the revolutionary Comintern.

All in all, this little collection has much to recommend it in illuminating the career of this contradictory and historically quite important figure, and in once more making useful material on the origins of French Communism available to an English-speaking readership.

Ian Donovan

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011