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Books in Review

A Lesson from History

(October 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 9, October 1942, pp. 287–288.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The Epic of the Black Sea Revolt
by André Marty
Workers Library, New York, 1941. 47 pages, 10 cents

Early this July, after a siege of nearly a month, the fortress and naval base of Sevastopol fell before the onslaught of the Nazi war machine.

Twenty-three years ago, at the beginning of 1919, French, Greek, Polish, Serbian and White Guard troops were in control of the Crimea. Sevastopol was occupied by the interventionist troops. The French fleet was in command of the port. Yet in a few months, despite the too frequent superiority in arms of the interventionist forces, workers’ power held sway over not only Sevastopol but the whole of Russia as well.

The contrast between the unrelieved defeats of the Russian army today and the Red Army’s smashing successes in 1919 which amazed the world is to be explained not by superior Soviet armament in 1919 (it was generally quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to that of the interventionists) or by superior military thinking (there was that) but especially by the revolutionary propaganda disseminated among the ranks of the interventionist troops.

The chief propaganda whip which Hitler today cracks over the heads of “his” troops is the fear of another Versailles treaty. Yet the threat of another Versailles Treaty is all that the counter-revolutionary Stalin regime, working hand-in-glove with Allied imperialism, can proffer to the rank and file of the German army. Consequently ... the German soldier, weary though he may be of the war and of the totalitarian regime, keeps on slogging forward ...

Andre Marty, today a broken-down GPU pensioner, but in 1919 a proletarian revolutionist and a leader of the Black Sea revolt in the French fleet, has written a small pamphlet which shows with what devastating completeness revolutionary propaganda worked upon the soldiers and sailors of the interventionist armies besieging the young workers’ state.

The pamphlet, The Epic of the Black Sea Revolt, has several defects. It is scattered; it does not have, in the Aristotelian sense, a beginning, a middle, or an end. The pamphlet is obviously a quick job, culled from an earlier work written during the “third period,” and forced into service to help spread the “defeatism without revolution” ideology sown with liberal hand in France during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact. With all its defects, however, the pamphlet shows the power of Bolshevik policy and indicates what a sharp turn history would take today were such a policy to be applied on the Russian front.

The Black Sea revolt, which ended French intervention in Russia, extended from February to August 1919. Besides the sailors on the ships in the Black Sea, the mutinies involved sailors on French ships at Bizerte in North Africa, Vladivostok, Itea in Greece, and at the great French naval base at Toulon, among other cities. The revolt also involved French troops in the southern Ukraine, the Crimea, and French cities like Toulouse, where they demonstrated jointly with sailors.

How the Mutiny Broke Out

The two chief causes of the revolt were the continuation of the war after the armistice of November 11, 1918, and the poor conditions endured by the soldiers and sailors. The intervention of Bolshevik agitators introduced the necessary subjective consciousness which assured the success of the revolt. The attitude of the French soldiers and sailors, and the approach made to them by the Bolsheviks, is revealed in the following passage:

In January the first shots were exchanged with the Red Army and the partisans.

“Our officers have lied to us, they have deceived us!” the French soldiers and sailors could be heard saying everywhere. “We are starting the war here all over again!”

Immediately a leaflet, or a worker propagandist, or a soldier propagandist would appear: “Yes, you are starting the war all over again! The French capitalists are not satisfied with the riches they have stolen with the blood of the soldiers and the misery of the workers and peasants! Look at the mines in the Donetz basin; they are no longer the property of your exploiters – the French capitalists; they belong to the Russian workers. And you have to suffer and die while your family is waiting for you in misery, in order to seize these mines for the 200 ruling families!”

Simple ideas, which everyone could understand. The arrival of reinforcements of men and material further confirmed these statements. The soldiers and sailors now wanted to know against whom they were fighting. Who was the enemy, and where was he? Who were the Bolsheviks? What did they want?

They found prompt and clear answers to these questions in the Bolshevik leaflets.

How effective such agitation was the following description shows:

The agitation was most serious in Toulon [France’s big navy yard on the Mediterranean]. Despite the state of the siege, the sailors held meetings on the glacis of the ramparts, after having driven out the commander of the naval fortress, Vice-Admiral Lacaze. On June 11, demonstrations, of sailors and soldiers took place in the city. The crew of the battleship Provence, the flagship of the first admiral, refused to sail for the Black Sea. The demands were: “Release of all the mutineers of the Black Sea, cessation of the war of intervention in Russia, immediate demobilization.” A committee of sailors took upon itself the functions of a revolutionary committee and invited delegates of the soldiers and the Navy Yard workers to join it. The mounted military police and the cavalry succeeded in preventing an attack upon the naval prison, but only after a real battle with the sailors.

The following scene describes conditions on shipboard:

In the meantime Vice-Admiral Amet, commander-in-chief of the Black Sea fleet, arrived on board the France, accompanied by the commander, his executive officer and first lieutenant.

The mutineers came out to meet him. The sailors and the admiral stood facing each other. The admiral began his speech with an attempt at intimidation.

“There are 200 bad Frenchmen among the crew!” he said.

But he was immediately interrupted with shouts of “Death to the tyrant! Catch him! Death!” The admiral then changed his theme. First he announced that Sevastopol would soon be evacuated. Then he started to describe what Bolshevism meant. When he said that the Bolsheviks were bandits, one of the mutineers interrupted him: “You’re Bandit No. 1 yourself! For having the itch you let me rot in a dark cell! It was you who condemned sailors to five and ten years’ hard labor on the slightest pretext!”

Every phrase of the Admiral was interrupted with shouts and hisses: “He lies! He is trying to sing us a lullabye! What nerve! It’s all lies!”

The admiral, realizing his mistake, changed his tone: “My children, I entreat you to maintain order.”

But he was interrupted again: “This is no time for preaching!” and then: “Death to the tyrant! Bandit! Murderer! Back to Toulon! To Toulonl”

The admiral then asked: “What do you want?”

Notta came forward and courteously laid before him the demands of the crew:

  1. No coaling either on the 20th or on the 21st.
  2. Cessation of intervention in Russia and immediate return to France.
  3. Shore liberty.
  4. No harsh discipline.
  5. Better food.
  6. More frequent mail service.
  7. Demobilization of the old classes, etc.

“The war in Russia is against the Constitution,” he said. “Clemenceau has violated the Constitution.”

Admiral Amet answered by referring to the iron discipline in the Red Army. Notta then asked him how many soldiers had been executed in the French army, particularly after the mutinies of April, 1917. Another sailor interposed: “I spent four months in a cell on board, with only one hour of fresh air a day.” Another sailor shouted: “Beat it, you tyrant!” The demonstrators then turned their backs on the admiral and marched to the forecastle deck singing the Internationale and shouting: “To Toulonl To Toulon!”

The admiral, furious, turned around to leave, threatening Notta: “Tomorrow you’ll repent this!”

The singing was continued on the forecastle deck. Together with the crew of the Jean-Bart they sang the Internationale, the Song of the Beans, and the Song of Odessa.

It is easy to see why in a few weeks direct French intervention against the USSR was brought to an end: the “demoralization” among the soldiers and sailors was complete. The French land and sea forces were withdrawn to the mother country.

There is a lesson for the Stalinists in the history of the Black Sea revolt – were they interested in learning revolutionary lessons. Fortunately, there are those who are interested.

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