Brest-Litovsk: The facts and their meaning
A. The historical context of the treaty
The Second Soviet Congress and the peace treaty
On the very next day after the insurrection of October 25, the very first item on the agenda of the Second Russian Congress of Soviets—minus the Mensheviks and the Right Social Revolutionaries—was to vote for a resolution in favor of peace. This resolution called upon all countries to begin negotiations to bring about a “just and democratic” peace.
The Russian proletariat—as the first victorious detachment of the world working class—was immediately “obliged” (according to the Bolsheviks), due to its isolation, to scale back the civil war in order to “control the peasants”, who comprised the majority of the Russian population, and in order to “wait for the revolution to take place in other countries”!
Even though the text of the peace resolution defined its “just and democratic” peace as “… an immediate peace without annexations (i.e., without the seizure of foreign lands, without the forcible incorporation of foreign nations) and without indemnities”, and even though it included some different conditions, it nonetheless did not differ substantially from the capitalist program advocated by Wilson, the President of the United States, two months later (January 1918): see the 14 Points for peace enumerated in the president’s message to Congress. According to Point 6: “The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire.”(!) It fell far short of the proclamations of Zimmerwald and Kienthal concerning the necessity—against all pacifist illusions—of “transforming the imperialist war into a civil war”. In practice, the resolution tended to instill the idea that it would be possible for peace talks to take place between a revolutionary power and the imperialist states, and then to proceed to the establishment of diplomatic relations and economic accords. It never occurred to the framers of this resolution that the proletarian process could be affected, i.e., that it would be subject to degeneration! The extension of the revolution and revolutionary war were still “principles”, but the situation of that time supposedly caused them to be … inapplicable. Lenin would later justify this separation of “theory” from practice “in wartime conditions” … in opposition to revolutionary “phrase making”: “By revolutionary phrase making we mean the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances at a given turn of events, in the given state of affairs obtaining at the time. The slogans are superb, alluring, intoxicating, but there are no grounds for them; such is the nature of the revolutionary phrase” (“The Revolutionary Phrase”, article published on February 21, 1918; Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 27, 1972, pp. 19-29). In brief, for most Bolsheviks, it was a matter of “adapting to circumstances” and, if necessary, of shelving the revolutionary principles that the imperialist carnage had just revealed to the proletarians of the entire world. For Lenin, once in power, to “swim against the current” no longer had any meaning; the pressure of the immediate situation (“realism”, as Stalin would call it) must overrule the historical imperatives of the proletariat, even at the risk of denying those imperatives.
The armistice, then the peace talks, then the treaty, then diplomatic relations, then economic accords would follow each other in rapid succession. All the more so as the peace resolution, abandoning its own “peace conditions” on the pretext of facilitating dialogue, left the door open to all kinds of opportunism: “the government declared that it would by no means consider its peace terms as an ultimatum; it consents to give consideration to any other terms that may be proposed, limiting itself to insisting on opening discussions as soon as possible with any belligerent nation…”, and the clause that demanded the abolition of all secret diplomacy and all secret treaties did not change anything in the slightest. To the contrary, it proved that this resolution did not intend to criticize “diplomacy” but only its “secret” character: in some fashion, it sought to preserve “capitalist practices” but … without their abuses! With the passage of time, this scrupulousness would rapidly disappear, since the economic accords of Rapallo between Germany and Russia were kept secret by the Bolsheviks, and that was in 1922!
It must be stressed at this point that while the social democratic tasks of the Bolsheviks which had been fully enunciated even before the insurrection of October soon became active factors in the degeneration of the proletarian process, the “capitulation” of the Soviet government to foreign imperialism and the domestic demands of the peasantry was above all the result of an unprecedented circumstance: that of the isolation of the first proletarian power. Thus, Lenin’s arguments were based on “awaiting” the outbreak of revolution in Germany and defined a “tactical” position that, in that era, would be debated within the Party until April 1918 (the date of the formation of the fraction of the left communists with the publication of the first issue of their journal, The Communist). This is true even though Lenin’s tactics were in part based on profoundly mistaken economic and political ideas (as expressed by the word, “awaiting”) which could only lead to State Capitalism and even if the critiques of the left opposition were at that time the only consistent revolutionary positions after Zimmerwald and Kienthal. To the contrary, today, after fifty years of counterrevolution, practice has perfectly outlined the class frontiers: the peace “tactic” pursued to the detriment of the extension of the revolution can only cause the degeneration of the proletarian process.
The crisis of the imperialist states
At the end of 1917, the imperialist states that had been most deeply involved in the war began to exhaust all their resources. The war was continued at the price of hunger (particularly in the Central Empires, where civilian consumption had declined by 50%, although the allies were not spared, either: thus, in France, cultivated acreage declined by 35%) and lead for the soldiers who refused to fight or who disobeyed orders to advance (hundreds of summary executions took place in Italy and France in order to quell the revolt by means of fear. General Pétain especially distinguished himself in this regard). In this connection, after slaughters like Verdun, the reserves of manpower qualified to serve as cannon fodder precipitously declined in every belligerent country. The end of the war could not be delayed for much longer. It was then that the ray of light from the proletarian revolution in Russia broke through and made Capital tremble, especially Anglo-German-French capital, given the colossal investments these countries possessed in that part of the world. “On the eve of the revolution, the Petrograd banks could marshal a capital of some 8,500 million roubles. The share of this belonging to foreign sources was as follows: French banks, 55%; English banks, 10%; German banks, 35%.... the war only intensified Russia’s dependence on the allied imperialisms, from whom a further 7,500 million roubles (over 20,000 million francs at the current rate) were borrowed in the course of the hostilities” (Serge, op. cit., pp. 143-144). Then, the Bolshevik peace offer, sanctioned, as we have seen, by the Second Congress of Soviets, would radically alter, either to the benefit or the disadvantage of the two military coalitions, all their military and strategic plans:
The “Allies” sought to use every means at their disposal to ensure that operations on the Russian front should continue in order to hold the western front until the American forces, which had just entered the war in 1917, should be ready for battle. It was for this purpose that, just before the February revolution, their representatives in Russia (for example, the British ambassador, Buchanan) attempted to foment a palace coup by the big bourgeoisie and the military high command against the Czar, Nicholas II, who constituted an obstacle to the continuation of the war. Likewise, it was as a result of their urgent appeals that Kerensky launched an offensive in July 1918 that led to humiliating defeats and a mass revolt that was drowned in blood.
The central empires, although they feared proletarian propaganda and did everything they could to win territory, nonetheless viewed the armistice favorably since the latter would allow them, prior to full American deployment, to transfer several armies from the Russian front to the western front in order to concentrate their forces for a crushing blow against the Anglo-French positions. In this sense, “they closed their eyes” and even “favored” the return of the Russian internationalist exiles whom they knew to be supporters of peace. Thus, the famous episode of the “sealed train car”1 in which Lenin crossed the German lines to return to Russia, would add fuel to the fire of the “allied” theory of the “Bolshevik German agents”!
The need for revolutionary war
Contrary to the peace proposal, the class problem for the Russian revolution was to spread itself as quickly as possible and not to wait. To spread in order to support the proletarian uprisings throughout Europe, a policy that was favored in this respect by the deepening of the crisis on the economic and political levels whose first consequences had been—together with the mutinies at the front—the great strike waves (especially in metallurgy) of 1917 in France, England and Germany. To spread without playing the game of either of the imperialist coalitions. It is therefore obvious that—even on the strictly military plane—the armistice of December 17, then the peace talks, and then the signing of the peace treaty in March 1918 between Germany and the Russian Soviets, played the game of the central empires, as is demonstrated by the account provided above. This is true despite the fraternization that took place between Russian and German soldiers, which had no exemplary effect—and could not possibly had any such effect—on the other fronts because the identification of the “Bolsheviks as German agents” had already been propagated to some extent because of the return of the Reich battalions to the Western Front, the resumption of German offensive operations there and, therefore, new suffering for the soldiers of western Europe. Trotsky showed that he was aware of the mistake that had dragged the Bolsheviks to making peace with Germany when he wrote: “And now the Bolsheviki break up the “democratic” Constituent Assembly in order to make a servile peace with the Hohenzollerns at a time when Belgium and the north of France are occupied by German troops. It was a matter of course that the Entente bourgeoisie would succeed in sowing much discord in the rank and file of workmen. And that would consequently facilitate the military intervention of the Entente against us” (L. Trotsky, Lenin, Blue Ribbon Books, New York, 1925. An English translation is also available online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1925/lenin/index.htm).
It is easy to hurl the accusation that those who advocated the war position favored the “Allies” and therefore to say that this, in itself, is enough to prove that they pursued the policy of the Russian bourgeoisie. The Left Social Revolutionaries did indeed perform precisely according to this scenario when they demanded a nationalist war against Germany; after the signing of the peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk, they organized an attack against Count Mirbach, the German Ambassador, and led an uprising against the Bolsheviks, who liquidated them (July 1918) just as they had disarmed and massacred (long before Kronstadt) the anarchists (May 1918).
These events and their consequences (the assassination attempt carried out by Fanny Kaplan, a member of a terrorist group of the Right Social Revolutionaries, against Lenin in August 1918) resulted in the deviation of the Russian proletarian process onto false paths: the rule of the Cheka (political police) over public life to the point of establishing a regime of Terror of the Bolshevik Party that had nothing to do with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Marxist sense of the term.
This is why it is necessary to clearly demarcate the concept of revolutionary war in such a way as to completely capture its meaning. The left communists never considered fighting a war “with Allied support” (accepting their help or following their orders with regard to battle plans) but instead, to the contrary, expected to deal with the Allies the same way they would deal with the central imperial powers or with any other imperialist states. This concept stands out all the more starkly when one considers that Lenin and Trotsky never addressed the issue of revolutionary war except in the framework of reliance on one of the imperialist factions. During the peace negotiations, Trotsky broached such matters with the American Raymond Robins and the French representative Jacques Sadoul; he formally requested American support while Noulens (the French Ambassador), solicited by Sadoul, telephoned Trotsky: “In your resistance to Germany you may count on military and financial support from France” (quoted by Victor Serge, op. cit., p. 162). As for Lenin, when the negotiations were suspended in February 1918, he issued his famous message to the Bolshevik Central Committee, which said: “Please include my vote in favour of accepting potatoes and arms from the bandits of Anglo-French imperialism.” Another argument employed by Lenin and Trotsky was their declaration that there was no army to defend the “proletarian state”: the degeneration of the Russian proletarian process was to produce a real “state army” with the formation of the “Red” army, commanded by Trotsky and composed of peasants and petty bourgeois, in which the proletariat was diluted and subject to new noncommissioned officers or to “converted” Czarist generals!
To the contrary, the revolutionary war to defend the proletarian process and “its dictatorship” (rather than the Russian state or Russian territories!) and to spread the revolution, would have required:
• that the dictatorship be based on armed detachments of the class conscious proletariat of Petrograd and Moscow, that is, on militiamen and not on noncommissioned officers!
• an immediate struggle against all imperialist states, both the “allies” and the “central powers”, despite the predominance of the peasantry; under the mantle of an apparent “neutrality”, the peasants had for the most part revealed that they were hostile towards the Soviets; proof of this may be gathered from all the “liberated” nations (Ukraine, etc.) where they formed the basis of the counterrevolutionary organizations and military forces just as they did in the zone of Soviet power, where they were refusing to consent to the requisitions and were massacring the workers sent to look for food and explain revolutionary policy! This struggle was obviously necessary since, on the one hand, the Germans used the opportunity of the negotiations to continue their offensive to seize as much territory as possible and, on the other hand, because the “allies” began to plot against the Soviets from the very moment when it became apparent that the separate peace with Germany would be a long one.
• military, political and economic resistance in every possible way until the outbreak of insurrectional class struggles in one or several European countries and until, eventually, the conjunction with the armed detachments of a victorious German proletariat, thus actively breaking with the class collaborationism of the social democracy.
To prevent the continuation of the imperialist war, there was only one solution: its transformation into a civil war on a world scale and the destruction of the capitalist state as a first priority for putting and end to the relations of capitalist production and to establish a real socialist period of transition. The condition of economic and political crisis, the mutinies, and the strikes of January 1918 in Germany, all prefigured the great uprisings of November 1918 in that same country. Perhaps the situation would have matured more rapidly if the workers of Western Europe, instead of hearing the “inflammatory speeches” of Trotsky in the little city of Brest, had seen proletarian internationalism in action? Lenin claimed that revolutionary war would have led to nothing but a massacre and submitted the example of the Paris Commune, and said that such a massacre would have had the effect of frightening the other proletariats and completely demobilizing them. History is not made of “ifs” or “maybes”, but it must be stressed that, if, on the one hand, the workers of Europe had continued to support the imperialist massacre for almost another year, on the other hand the ideological mystification that was the result of the preservation of power at any price and the establishment of State Capitalism, that is, the theme of the “fatherland of socialism”, had led to anti-proletarian carnage whose principle consequence was the prevention, for more than fifty years, of any attempts to achieve the international unity of the most radical workers struggles.
The last argument used to justify the idea of a truce, regarding the lack of military preparation, does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny when one takes into account, on the one hand, the revolutionary enthusiasm that erased the power of Kerensky in Petrograd and Moscow, the stavka (the general staff headquarters) in Mohilev, and the Cossacks of the Don and the Kuban trained by Kaledin and Kornilov, and when one envisions, on the other hand, the technical material which the proletariat would have had at its disposal if the guerrillas had immediately replaced the “regular” army which, for its part, was essentially preoccupied with getting out of the way of the German advance in anticipation of the outcome of the talks at Brest-Litovsk. In the absence of any perspective of a “revolutionary war”, this attitude of defeatism in the framework of an army that had been mobilized for three years “for the imperialist war” (which had not been destroyed or replaced in October by proletarian militias under the direct control of the Soviet power! It would simply get a “facelift” from Trotsky under the mystifying title of “Red” army when it became a matter of making the defense of the interests of the Russian state “pass for” a contribution to the extension of the revolution) frequently proceeded, despite the collaboration with Germany which was favored by one part of the peasantry, from a class reflection among the worker-soldiers, since they acquired no more benefits serving under Lenin than under Kerensky as cannon fodder for the defense of an embryonic State Capitalist territory, economy or state. If, to the contrary, the process of October had been prolonged by the dispatch of militias for the sole purpose of defending the “revolutionary zone of Soviet power”, it is certain that defeatism would not have consisted in “running away” but in “reinforcing” the armed detachments of the proletariat to contribute to, by way of mobilization against all imperialist powers, the spread of the revolution.
The policy of negotiations
Instead of opting for revolutionary war, the Soviet government, under the influence of the Bolshevik majority that supported Lenin, became mired in treaties with Germany. Thus, on November 18 the proletarian delegation (Joffe, Kamenev, Mstislavski, Sokolnikov and Bitzenko) left for the fortress of Brest-Litovsk: less than one month after the overthrow of Kerensky! It was met by high dignitaries: Prince Leopold of Bavaria and General Hoffman presided over the representatives of the Central Empires. “Naively”, Kamenev read the preliminary messages directed at the proletariat of all countries. Standing on terrain with which they were totally familiar after years of “compromises” in order to confer “legitimacy” upon the various imperialist pillage operations (the role of diplomacy), the Austro-Germans waited impassively for the Bolsheviks to finish their “noble internationalist” speeches. Faced with a complete absence of concrete proposals on the part of the Bolsheviks regarding the content of the treaty, the Austro-German delegation put its cards on the table by calling for the Bolshevik’s immediate proposals regarding the specific terms of an armistice. Apart from the fact that the appeals of the Bolsheviks were, and could not possible have been anything but, castles in the air (one does not call upon the proletariat to destroy world capital while sitting at the same table with one of world capital’s factions … nor does one invite the other capitalist factions to join it at the same table, that is, in anticipation that Brest-Litovsk would be a Versailles one year in advance!), the Bolshevik delegates were not prepared on such short notice for stating any specific armistice terms and had to improvise a series of terms based on empirical exigencies: in particular, a six-month armistice, fraternization of the soldiers and a commitment on the part of the Austro-Germans not to transport their troops to the western front. In response to these proposals, the representatives of the Central Empires offered an armistice of fourteen days: the negotiations were then deadlocked and the talks were suspended. Finally, the armistice was signed on December 2, 1917, and was to be in effect for a period of 28 days; at the end of that period, the parties could negotiate terms for its extension. Its terms were ideal as far as the Germans were concerned, since one part of the fraternization took the form of “organized contacts”, that is, meetings of groups of soldiers under the control of the military hierarchy and, in addition and most importantly, its commitment not to transfer troops to the western front was thrown into the wastebasket immediately after the armistice was signed. Having been apprised of the weakness of the Soviet regime as a result of the ad-hoc improvisations of its representatives, the Germans began a massive transfer of their battalions towards the west (which, from the military perspective, would allow them to resume the offensive against the Anglo-French, for the purpose of spearheading the breakout that would put an end to the “trench warfare” that had lasted since 1915: the carnage would be unleashed on an even larger scale!)2 and made preparations to continue their advance into Russia thanks to their material superiority, the support of national minorities like the Ukrainians under Petliura, the disintegration of the Russian army and the absence of any proletarian militias organized by the Soviets for revolutionary war. One week later, the peace talks began. This was December 9; the very same day witnessed the implementation of the Decree that created the “Russian Cheka to fight against sabotage and counterrevolution” (Decree of December 7, published by Izvestia on December 10, 1917)! The Bolshevik delegation of the Soviets was still led by Joffe and Kamenev, while that of the Central Empires now included the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister (Count Czernin) and his German counterpart (Baron von Kuhlmann). The presence of these individuals at the peace talks proved that the imperialists of the Central Powers were putting all the weight of their diplomacy into play in order to completely achieve their military and political objectives in the context of the separate peace with Russia by preserving all the territories that had been acquired by force at Russia’s expense. Why? Because they were facing collapse and thus defeat at the hands of the Allies. For Austria, particularly drained and exhausted, had threatened to sign a separate peace on its own, even with the Allies. In Germany, there had been mutinies in the navy during the summer of 1917. Besides, as we pointed out above, hunger was devastating the populations on the home fronts of both countries. This alone allows us to ascertain, while the imperialist powers were walking a tightrope and were playing a very dangerous game that could backfire against them, the degree to which the pusillanimity of the Bolshevik majority, by clinging to the path of negotiations, tied around the neck of the proletarian process the rope of its future gallows. The condition calling for recognition of “the right of national self-determination” also provided the Central Powers with the main pivot of its first peace terms. Article 2 of the Central Powers’ proposed peace terms reads as follows: “The Russian Government having recognized, in conformity with its principles, the right of all peoples who form part of the Russian state, without exception to self-determination, including the right of total secession, takes account of the decisions expressing the will of the peoples of Poland, Lithuania, Courland, part of Estonia and Finland, which have resolved to secede from the Russian state and constitute themselves as completely independent states.” Caught in the meshes of the net of the advocacy of this principle (self-determination) as a “proletarian” principle, the Bolshevik delegates restricted themselves to requesting that the Germans and Austrians evacuate these countries so that this self-determination could be “freely” expressed; they were gambling, above all, on the participation of the other imperialist governments in the talks in order to rein in the Austro-German appetites. Faced with the open hostility of the Allies, the Executive Committee of the Soviets broadcast an appeal to the workers of the Allied nations: “Your governments have still done nothing to make peace; they have not even published the aims for which they are making war. Demand their immediate participation in the Brest-Litovsk talks”. Let us compare, once again, the content of this appeal with the most advanced thesis that emerged from Zimmerwald: “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”! Instead of continuing to rely on the class struggle, the Bolsheviks made other proposals with the intention of applying pressure on the other capitalist camp by all possible means: proposals to subject the negotiations to an “international control commission” or transferring the peace talks to Stockholm. This reflected the principle of a policy of exploiting the divisions between the capitalists and the abandonment of the principled position of an equal and unwavering hatred for the capitalist world as a whole. This would lead the Bolsheviks to the Treaty of Rapallo. Lenin justified this policy in his “Theses on the Question of the Immediate Conclusion of a Separate and Annexationist Peace”: “In concluding a separate peace we free ourselves as much as is possible at the present moment from both hostile imperialist groups, we take advantage of their mutual enmity and warfare which hamper concerted action on their part against us, and for a certain period have our hands free to advance and to consolidate the socialist revolution”. After the first session was suspended, however, one might have thought that the Bolsheviks would break with this false policy and instead base their efforts on the increasing domestic difficulties of the Central Empires for the purpose of conducting revolutionary war.
The presence of Trotsky
Such a conclusion is completely unwarranted. To the contrary, the addition of Trotsky (Peoples Commissar for Foreign Affairs) to the Soviet delegation at the next session of the negotiations (December 27), merely confirmed the suspicions of the imperialists regarding how important the signing of the Treaty was to the Bolsheviks and revealed the fragility of their power. Immediately, the debates were most embittered with regard to the question of the territories each party was to evacuate. Neither side was willing to compromise. This jousting was interrupted momentarily by the repeated dialectical acrobatics with which Trotsky taunted his interlocutors; in response, the Germans caused some units of their military to engage in grenade practice every morning a few hundred yards from the residence of the Russian delegates! It was the reign of the Spectacle: planning to direct their appeals to the “peoples” over the heads of the imperialist plenipotentiaries, the Bolsheviks demanded the publication of the stenographic record of the talks; the diplomats of the Central Powers tried to redact it; in fact, only specialists would have been interested in dissecting the speeches and arguments of either side. But after the “circus” came to an end, it was necessary to cut to the chase: the Germans declared on January 5, 1918 that the Russians had to announce that they accept or that they reject the German terms. The negotiations were once again suspended.
The domestic situation of the Central Empires was deteriorating. Economic difficulties triggered a social explosion: an enormous strike movement affected Austria and Germany, Soviets were formed in the major urban centers (Berlin, Vienna) and factories producing war materiel were paralyzed. These events, which took place in mid-January, marked a considerable turning point with respect to the perspective of breaking the isolation of the Russian Soviets and extending the revolution if the path of revolutionary war had been followed instead of the policy of a separate peace. For an idea of the gravity of the difficulties encountered within the Central Empires, we need only refer to the Memoires of Count Czernin (Foreign Minister of Austria) who recounted a conversation he had during the war with Baron Von Kuhlmann: “Kuhlmann: The Russians have no choice: they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Czernin: Just like us”. With regard to the seriousness of the domestic situation, the Austrians threatened to leave the Germans to their own devices: “We are almost at the point of catastrophe in the food supply”, Czernin declared. “If supplies are not sent, we shall have riots on our hands next week”. However, far from taking advantage of the situation that the Pravda of January 18 had highlighted in these terms: “It has happened! The head of German imperialism is on the chopping block! The mailed fist of the proletarian revolution is raised! Revolution in Germany! A soviet in Berlin!”, the Bolsheviks actually returned to the negotiating table at Brest on the same day! For the press of the Entente it was therefore a simple matter to portray to Bolsheviks as agents in the pay of Germany and to say that the negotiations, because of their constant suspensions and delays, were nothing but a comedy designed to keep up appearances; Trotsky himself expressed it this way in his book, Lenin  (Chapter 3): “And now the Bolsheviki break up the “democratic” Constituent Assembly in order to make a servile peace with the Hohenzollerns at a time when Belgium and the north of France are occupied by German troops. It was a matter of course that the Entente bourgeoisie would succeed in sowing much discord in the rank and file of workmen. And that would consequently facilitate the military intervention of the Entente against us”. For it was entirely clear that the French, English and Italian workers, who had endured, after more than two years of trench warfare, a new German offensive made possible by the transfer of troops from the Russian to the western front, were more likely to believe the imperialist propaganda about German-Soviet collusion than they were to heed the words of Karl Liebknecht and the revolutionaries praising the example of the October Revolution and proclaiming that “the enemy is at home”. Rosa Luxemburg, in the “Spartacus Letter” entitled, “Historic Responsibility” (January 1918) perfectly captured these first counterrevolutionary implications of the peace talks: “The first result of the cease-fire will only be that German troops will be transferred from the east to the west. In reality this is already taking place. Trotsky and company have been able to give themselves and the Soviets the satisfaction of having sought to obtain as one of the terms of the armistice the commitment not to transfer troops, so as not to stab the Western powers in the back. With regard to this declaration, the German military can laugh behind the Soviets’ backs, knowing quite well what it means. Because hundreds of thousands of German troops, without waiting for the armistice to be signed, have been transported from Russia to Italy and Flanders. The last bloody offensives of the Germans around Cambrai and, in the south, the new ‘shattering successes’ in Italy, are already the effects of the Bolshevik revolution of November in Petrograd.”
“Still enraged by the scenes of fraternization with the Russian revolutionary soldiers, by the group photographs, by the songs and the shouts of ‘long live the International’, the German ‘comrades’ are now sent, fully equipped, into the line of fire in heroic mass assaults to deal the most crushing blows against the French, English and Italian proletarians. Thanks to massive reinforcements of German cannon fodder, the massacre will engulf the entire western and southern front with a redoubled force. There can be no denying that this will compel France, England and the United States to ever more desperate efforts. Thus, the very first effects of the Russian armistice and its immediate consequence, the separate peace in the East, will not be to hasten the day of a general peace treaty, but 1): the prolongation of the massacre of the peoples and the monstrous aggravation of its bloody character, demanding from both sides sacrifices compared to which those seen before undoubtedly pale in comparison; 2) an enormous consolidation of Germany’s military position and, thus, its annexationist plans, and its most audacious appetites”.
With the resumption of negotiations, the Bolsheviks drained the cup to the dregs, forced to listen to counterrevolutionary declarations of a “people that was just now exercising its right of national self-determination”: for the envoys of the “Ukrainian Republic” (Rada) now joined the negotiations, to the great satisfaction of the Central Powers, and these envoys did not miss a chance to make the most anti-communist speeches. The speeches made by Radek, as the delegate of the Polish social democrats, denouncing the regime installed in Poland under German occupation, were under the circumstances small consolation when compared with the disastrous consequences of the supposedly progressive slogan of the “right of national self-determination”.
Exasperated by the domestic difficulties that continued to afflict both Austria-Hungary and Germany, and under pressure from Ludendorff, who was persuaded that the Bolsheviks must be quickly defeated on the military terrain, in order to thus bring about the establishment of a new government in Russia, Wilhelm II and his General Staff decided, through Kuhlmann, to present its peace terms in the form of an ultimatum. Faced with this demand, after another speech, Trotsky broke off the talks without accepting the ultimatum, not in order to prepare for revolutionary war, but to make it understood in the most utopian way possible that Russia was ready to unilaterally … make peace! He declared: “we are demobilising our army. We refuse to sign a peace based on annexations. We declare that the state of war between the Central Empires and Russia is at an end”, after having said that Russia would devote itself from then on to socialist construction: “Awaiting the hour, which we believe to be close, when the toiling classes of all countries take power, as the working people of Russia have taken it…. Our peasant-soldier is returning to his labours to till in peace, from this spring onwards, the land which the Russian Revolution has taken from the hands of the landlords and given to the toilers. Our worker-soldier must return to his factory, there to produce, not engines of destruction but tools of creation, and to build, side by side with the peasant, the new socialist economy”.
These ingenuous assertions about “the construction of socialism in one country” as the only response to their ultimatum, led the German imperialists to unleash a brutal assault on Russia eight days after the suspension of the negotiations (early February 1918), rendering the armistice clause null and void that required the aggressor to notify the other party a week in advance when the resumption of military hostilities was planned.
A treaty against the spread of the revolution
The Bolsheviks, having bet everything on the success of their policy in favor of peace negotiations, were faced with a German advance that was immensely successful at first: the German troops traveled on the trains and met no resistance. Ukraine was invaded; the Germans advanced between two and three hundred kilometers within one week; the city of Pskov, 257 kilometers from Petrograd, was taken. But faced with the difficulties of the terrain (the immensity of Russia), it was beyond the capabilities of the German forces at that time to totally destroy the Soviet power, all the more so as workers resistance was gradually emerging and showing its effectiveness! On February 21, the “socialist fatherland” was declared to be “in danger”. While the peasants welcomed the German imperialists as liberators, the workers mobilized without any hesitation: “The passivity of the peasant soldiery contrasted with the enthusiasm of the workers, who by entire factories, along with their wives and older children (just as good for the fighting, they thought) poured along to Smolny to be armed” (See Victor Serge, op. cit., p. 164). The war of “worker guerrillas” worked wonders: destruction of railways, formation of companies behind enemy lines to harass the Germans, etc. It is easy to imagine the military effectiveness (not to speak of its political impact) that a revolutionary war that had been prepared as soon as the Germans issued their threats would have had rather than illusions nourished with the armistice and talks. And when one takes into account the fact that at the same time as the German were advancing in the North, in the South the red guards (under the command of Antonov-Ovseenko) were winning victories over the Whites and that the Soviet units in Romania had defeated the armies of that country that was allied with the Central Empire (and that they successfully defended, in particular, the city of Odessa), this can only add further support to the policy that should have been followed!
Lenin and Trotsky did consider resuming the war but on the condition that they received the support … of the armies of the Entente. In a way, this would have constituted a continuation, after the failure of the policy of a separate peace, of the military alliance concluded by the Czar prior to October with the imperialist powers, France and England, which had just been reinforced by the United States. At first glance, these powers appeared to be fierce enemies of the soviets due to the military results of the armistice and the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, the cancellation of the Czarist regime’s debts and the confiscation of their capital investments by the State Bank (Decree of the Peoples Commissars of January 26, 1918), and their obsession with the possibility of an international proletarian revolution; actually, however, they entertained the idea of providing support to the Bolsheviks in consideration of the Entente’s strategic interests and the imperatives of the imperialist war in order to defeat the Central Powers, at the risk of having to wage war against the Bolsheviks immediately after the defeat of the Central Powers (the Japanese had a plan to invade Siberia but this plan met with the opposition of the United States, which had a very jaundiced view of such a Japanese conquest of part of the far east). Thus, by way of J. Sadoul (a French journalist and author of Notes on the Bolshevik Revolution, published by Maspéro), ambassador Noulens promised French aid. And this also explains why Trotsky requested American support, and why Lenin sent the message (quoted above) to the Bolshevik Central Committee requesting that it vote in favor of accepting aid from the “bandits of Anglo-French imperialism”! Framing his argument in the form of a parable and giving it a dialectical appearance, he tried to justify this policy of seeking aid from the imperialists in an article entitled, “The Itch”, which appeared in the February 22, 1918 issue of Pravda: “Does not the appraisal whether I act well or badly in acquiring weapons from a robber depend on the end and object of these weapons? On their use for a war that is base and dishonourable or for one that is just and honourable? Ugh! The itch is a nasty disease. And hard is the occupation of a man who has to give a steam bath to those infected with it ....” (Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 27, 1972, pp. 43-47). This article’s postscript is quite revealing of Lenin’s identification of the process of the bourgeois revolution with that of the proletarian revolution, contrary to the position of the left communists whom he called scabrous: “The North Americans in their war of liberation against England at the end of the eighteenth century got help from Spain and France, who were her competitors and just as much colonial robbers as England. It is said that there were ‘Left Bolsheviks’ to be found who contemplated writing a ‘learned work’ on the ‘dirty deal’ of these Americans ....”
Finally, it was a new ultimatum from the Germans which considerably ratcheted up the stringency of their peace terms and which gave Lenin the majority in the Central Committee that he needed to ratify capitulation to the German ultimatum, but not before he threatened to immediately resign from the Government and from the Central Committee if his proposal was not approved. Trotsky abstained from the vote, but also abandoned the idea of waging a revolutionary war. At the beginning of March, the Bolshevik delegation (Sokolnikov, Petrovski, Chicherin, Karajan, Joffe….) left for Brest-Litovsk: the Peace Treaty was signed on March 3. Although they refused to engage in any further discussions, as expressed by Sokolnikov, who declared that “We refuse to engage in any discussion, as it is useless”, the Bolsheviks merely had to accept the final result of all their evasiveness and ambiguities and, above all, of the errors imposed on them by Lenin’s policy that was supported by the majority!
The final results of the treaty may be summarized as follows:
Enormous losses of territories that had been under the influence of the revolutionary process since October: the Baltic part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Finland…;
The resumption of commercial and diplomatic relations between Russia and Germany and other capitalist countries;
And, above all, the erosion of the political credit of the Russian revolution in the eyes of the world proletariat due to what Rosa Luxemburg called “the grotesque coupling of Hindenburg-Lenin”!
As for the economic consequences of the Treaty, Victor Serge quotes the figures supplied by Radek, who delivered the keynote address at the First Russian Congress of Economic Councils (May 26-June 4): the Soviet power lost 40% of its industrial proletariat since the Austro-Germans occupied the Donets Basin, 90% of its sugar industry, 65-70% of its metal industry, 55% of its wheat (and therefore most of its exportable wheat crop). Russian dependence on the world market, which had already been significant, only became greater.
B. The different positions within the Bolshevik Party
Subsequent to the vote by the Second Congress of Soviets in favor of peace, various tendencies came into conflict within the Bolshevik Party—and more particularly within the Central Committee of the Party—over the question of the correctness of this orientation. Contrary to what he had written in April 1917 (“The class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war, which would really justify revolutionary defensism, only on condition: (a) that the power pass to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat; (b) that all annexations be renounced in deed and not in word; (c) that a complete break be effected in actual fact with all capitalist interests”), Lenin strenuously defended the peace policy by alternately emphasizing at one time or another the exhaustion of the country, then the defeatism of the peasants, then the lack of a real army, then the need for consolidating the economic foundations of the regime, and finally, the absence of a revolutionary movement in Europe. He said: “The peace that has been offered us is disgraceful, but if we turn it down we shall be swept out of power and peace will be made by another government.” The supporters of the left opposition, for their part, had been calling for the cessation of the peace talks and the termination of all diplomatic and economic relations with the capitalist States since December 1917. They began, then, to forthrightly stress the dangers of opportunism and corruption that the peace policy posed for the Soviet power. Their spokespersons insisted that revolutionary war was the only way: thus Osinski said, “I am for revolutionary war … just as Lenin was in April of 1917!” Trotsky, for his part, although he thought that revolutionary war was impossible for the same reasons advanced by Lenin, wanted to make it appear that the capitulation was not freely consented to by the Soviets but imposed on them by force by the Germans. This was why he wanted the negotiations to drag on forever, and, as a delegate at Brest-Litovsk, he did everything he could to achieve this goal. In addition, he justified his tactic with reference to the possibility that such a delay might allow time for the European insurrection to break out before the signing of the peace treaty. This position, called “neither war nor peace”, seemed to be an intermediate position, but in fact it was situated on the same basic terrain of reasoning as Lenin’s position (furthermore, it was Trotsky’s vote that would finally give Lenin the majority on the Central Committee). The goal was the same: peace imposed on all, only the means were different. For Trotsky, the capitulation must be carried out “elegantly”, as far as this is possible “with a knife at your throat”, while for Lenin it was not necessary to use subterfuge to achieve the same results. Underestimating the resources of the Central Empires and their vital and crucial economic need to “freeze” the eastern front, Trotsky’s tactic proved to be inconsistent. His tactic dangerously exposed the Soviet power (Lenin accused him of having wasted time and for having been the cause of the German advance) even while rejecting the prospect of revolutionary war and, therefore, refusing to carry out intensive preparations for that war.
These three positions clashed most visibly in early January 1918, on the eve of the Third Congress of Soviets, on the occasion of a meeting of high-level party members in Petrograd. Lenin was then in the minority (15 votes), Trotsky had 16 votes and the left opposition had 32 votes. In the other proletarian institutions (soviets, factory committees….), in all the regions of Russia and even in February (see the proclamation of the Central Committee on this question), it was the same, that is, the left had the majority! This clearly displays the class instinct that inspired the Soviets and the Party despite the Decree of the Second Congress and the position taken by Lenin, whose influence in the Russian movement made it hard to oppose his views. The left opposition and its position in favor of revolutionary war were most popular, furthermore, in Petrograd, Moscow and the Urals, that is, in the great industrial centers: which indicated the unambiguous divide that separated the reactions of the proletariat from those of the masses of peasants.
We shall now subject these three positions to a more detailed examination.
For the reasons we mentioned above, Lenin sought to provide the revolution with a breathing space, a truce, some time. Besides, however, his tactical considerations (military, for example), which were debatable, he thought in terms of a proletarian power that was politically isolated, at the threshold of the first stage of socialist production, while awaiting the outbreak of the world revolution; thus, at the very roots of his position lay social democratic features that gravely encumbered all the justifications he was capable of offering (these features would be fully revealed by the ongoing experience of the real movement).
So, first of all, he appealed to the Russian proletariat to approve of the peace in order to “organize” the country, that is, to a certain extent he advocated a simple national reconstruction to develop capitalism, which had until then been enmeshed in the nets of feudalism or of the Asiatic mode of production. In order to accomplish this, he claimed that State Capitalism represented, at the economic level, “a step forward” towards socialism and that, far from fearing it or fighting against it, it had to be rigorously pursued by imitating … Germany! The basis for his argument came from the erroneous analysis of imperialism that he had for the most part derived from the book, Finance Capital, by the Independent Social Democrat R. Hilferding and which Lenin further embellished in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. This analysis made the concentration of capital and the formation of monopolies “the threshold of socialism”: on the economic plane, there is thus no radical rupture between capitalism and communism; there is simply a more advanced development of the productive forces on the basis of the same fundamental relations of production, wage labor and the commodity; the only “change” is the establishment of “workers control” (in plain words, the implementation of a kind of “self-exploitation” of the working class!) and the gradual replacement of monopolies by the state. All of this appears quite clearly after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in Lenin’s texts, “The Immediate Tasks of Soviet Government” (April 1918) and “‘Left Wing’ Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality” (May 1918), as well as in his declarations at the meeting of the Central Executive Committee of Russia (April 29, 1918; see Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972 Volume 27, pp. 279-313): “If the petty bourgeois were subordinated to other class elements, subordinated to state capitalism, the class-conscious worker would be bound to greet that with open arms, for state capitalism under Kerensky’s democracy would have been a step towards socialism, and under the Soviet government it would be three-quarters of socialism, because anyone who is the organiser of state capitalist enterprises can be made one’s helper. The Left Communists, however, adopt a different attitude, one of disdain, and when we had our first meeting with the Left Communists on April 4, which incidentally proved that this question from remote history, which had been long discussed, was already a thing of the past, I said that it was necessary, if we properly understood our tasks, to learn socialism from the organisers of the trusts.”
The left communists, represented by Osinski (see the excerpt from his text, “On the Construction of Socialism”, included in the appendix of this book), effectively criticized Lenin’s analysis of State Capitalism and its implications, the introduction of the Taylor System (e.g., piecework) and support for the “captains of industry” (the organizers of trusts) as well as, more generally, all the “specialists” (technicians, etc.).
With regard to the economic question, Lenin did not conceal his adherence to social democracy: “Recall what former socialists wrote about the future socialist revolution; it is doubtful whether it would be possible to pass to socialism without learning from the organisers of trusts, for they have been concerned with this type of production on a large scale” (ibid.). It must be pointed out that the social democratic economic vision which had been realized as a capitalist program in Germany (Bismarck), besides having been influenced by Lassalle, was based on positions held by Marx himself; mistaken positions which he had no time to correct after the Commune (his “Critique of the Gotha Program” is insufficient in this respect) and which his disciples, and first of all, Engels, had embraced by ridiculously labeling them with the name of “Marxism”! Everything that Marx had yet planned to write about Capital, and particularly on the world market (see the initial plan for his economic studies in M. Rubel, Marx, Critique du Marxisme, Payot, Paris, 1974), and the immense labor that he had planned to devote to an analysis of the state, never saw the light of day. Only Rosa Luxemburg would carry out a labor of theoretical extension which, on the basis of Marx’s method, would constitute not just a condemnation of the social democratic theories (both revisionist and “orthodox”) but also a critique and a supersession of the “old ideas” of Marx, particularly with regard to the economic roots of the crisis of capitalism, on the basis of her analysis of imperialism (see The Accumulation of Capital) and the national question.
As a result, Lenin had no fear at all of entering into economic and trade agreements with capitalist states: in his view, the Soviet power was protected by the (so-called proletarian) state monopoly over foreign trade. Nor did he have any more fear of diplomatic relations with capitalist states. To the contrary, he was in favor of anything that could contribute to “the march towards socialism”. In response to the accusations of betrayal of proletarian internationalism that were hurled at him by the leftists, he offered an example: “The workers who in the course of a strike accept conditions for a return to work which are disadvantageous to them and advantageous to the capitalists do not betray Socialism. Only those betray it who trade the assets of a worker’s party for the benefit of the capitalists, and it is only transactions like that which are in principle inadmissible” (see the summary of the “21 Theses on the Peace Treaty” in Victor Serge, op. cit., p. 155). His comparison of a struggle in the course of a strike and the struggle for socialism is utterly spurious since it proceeds from a view of the strike considered from the strictly economic perspective (it must be recalled that Lenin, in his What Is To Be Done? of 1902, said that the proletariat can only spontaneously develop a “trade unionist” consciousness and that “socialist” consciousness was introduced into its midst from the outside by revolutionaries!) and betrays a view of socialism that is conceived as a gradual process that is established within the confines of the capitalist system. For a proletarian movement in the imperialist era, no “deals” or compromises are possible since its goal is not to achieve a more or less advantageous arrangement within the system, whether by means of the strike or any other method, but to advance in the sense of the destruction of capitalism and therefore to develop communist consciousness. Today, the consequences of such compromises are not simply the preservation or the exacerbation of working conditions and wages, they also entail the consolidation of the dictatorship of capital against the communist movement, which could take the form, beyond repression, of a generalized massacre of the proletariat.
Besides his economic analysis, which would prove to be his fundamental argument and which in our time must be identified as such without any hesitation, Lenin set forth a certain number of other “tactical” arguments in order to buttress his theory of the truce. These arguments were based on the following obvious facts: after three years of imperialist war, much of the population was exhausted; after having been allocated some property (the division of the agricultural estates had figured in the program of the Bolshevik Party and had been advocated by The April Theses!), the peasants had no interest at all in proceeding any further and might oppose proletarian goals; finally, the traditional army, a legacy of the Czar and Kerensky, could not be used for the purposes of workers resistance to German imperialism and waging a revolutionary war against all the imperialist States. But what revolutionary ever denied these simple “facts” or failed to acknowledge unfavorable elements that could hinder the process of proletarian emancipation? Lenin never really rose to the level of a radical analysis of this process: thus he did not understand that the proletariat in arms (the coordination of the workers militias under the direct control of the Soviets) implied a complete break with the very concept of the army and of “democracy”. He said: “It would be an outright adventure, given the complete democratization of the army, to try to make war against the will of the majority of the soldiers.”(!) As for the attitude of the other layers of the population with regard to the proletarian revolution, that of the peasants, for example, it cannot be resolved by a capitulation of the working class so as to facilitate the incorporation of the peasantry into the working class (the seizure and distribution of the landed estates by the peasants was a petty bourgeois slogan, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her text, The Russian Revolution) as a result of their incapacity for, and their opposition to, historical change. This historical change is completely bound to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in social relations, which is the only way to separate these “middle” classes from the influence of capitalism.
The most serious argument is still in fact the absence of any connection between a revolutionary war conducted by the Soviet power and subversive activity on the part of the proletarian movement in Western Europe. In the absence of the latter, the revolutionary war cannot consist of exporting communism “at gunpoint”, which, on the other hand, is just what the “Red” army tried to do in Poland (1920) under Lenin’s direction, who would at that time adopt a position completely at odds with the one he advocated at the time of Brest-Litovsk. If, however, the proletarian movement in Europe in January 1918 did not yet assume a totally revolutionary character, it was not completely absent, either: thus, as we pointed out above, major strikes broke out during that month with the formation of soviets in Germany and Austria! The abandonment of negotiations with, and armed resistance by the Soviet power against, German imperialism might have been capable of nourishing the initial impulse of a necessary linkage with the process of class struggle on a European scale. The operations of the war in the West would have been disrupted: the revolutionary war would have been imposed in all countries instead of the imperialist war. The sequence of events would highlight the profound tendencies that foreshadowed the proletarian explosion in Europe after November 1918 in Germany.
Because of the weakness or the falsehood of his arguments, Lenin’s theses would therefore be supported by a minority of the members of all proletarian organizations (Soviets, factory committees, Party…) and would remain minority positions for practically two months. Only demoralization before the German advance, peasant passivity, the illusions of propaganda that flourished during the peace talks, Trotsky’s support by means of his abstention, would finally make it possible for Lenin to obtain a majority and to impose his will on the policy of the Soviets and the Party. The confusion between “state army” and “coordination of proletarian militias”, between “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” and “dictatorship of the proletariat”, between “State Capitalism” and “socialism”, had given rise to the policy that, following the militarization of labor in Kronstadt, would become the active factor of the counterrevolution.
Although he, too, conceived of the necessity of a truce and the impossibility of waging revolutionary war without alliances, and thus by virtue of these positions alone he stood on the same terrain as Lenin, Trotsky, who was at that time the Peoples Commissar for Foreign Affairs, sought to obtain this truce by other means. In his view, by not signing the treaty immediately and instead dragging out the talks to expose the threats and pressure tactics of German imperialism, would have the effect of proving to the European proletariat that the Soviet power did not capitulate of its own will but as a result of being forced to do so. He was especially interested in quelling the rumors regarding collaboration between Russia and Germany and responding to the imperialist propaganda of the Entente which sought to present Brest-Litovsk as a prearranged farce: it was for this reason that his conduct with regard to the question of peace was opposed to Lenin’s approach, who wanted to sign the treaty as soon as possible. Trotsky based his argument on the expectation that important movements of the working class would arise during the peace talks, which is why any prolongation of the talks was welcome. Finally, he feared that if the treaty were to be signed immediately, it would inevitably entail a split by the left and, as a result, a reinforcement of the “right wing” and opportunist elements in the Party. This fear was further reinforced by the resignation of the leading left communists from all their organizational posts.
One aspect of Trotsky’s gamble was also based on the following calculation: beyond the threats and the pressure from the Germans, he also thought, based on the concrete analysis of the situation of the Central Empires, that the German military offensive against the Soviets was not entirely guaranteed of success (e.g.: the economic and social difficulties of the two empires; the temptation felt by Austria-Hungary, which was particularly exhausted by three years of war, to end the war; the dissensions within the German leadership between Kaiser Wilhelm II and his General Staff—Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann). Trotsky even went farther in his calculation by saying: “If there were only twenty-five chances in a hundred that the Hohenzollern would not decide to fight us, or was in no position to do so, we must make the attempt, even with a certain risk, to sign the treaty.” (L. Trotsky, op. cit.). Lenin, however, could easily reply as follows: “… it is too bold. For the moment our revolution is more important than everything else; we must make it sure, cost what it may”, since Trotsky’s position was contradictory to its very foundations because of his admission of the impossibility of revolutionary war. Trotsky was in a way playing with fire; although he mocked German imperialism with his verbal intransigence, all he accomplished in the end was to demonstrate the real weakness of a Soviet power that refused to dedicate all its forces to the extension of the revolution.
The general staff prevailed upon the emperor: the German offensive took place and its advance was overwhelming. Then, after his first vote for Lenin’s proposal but before he resigned from his position as Peoples Commissar of Foreign Affairs prior to the signing of the Treaty (March 3, 1918), Trotsky suddenly reconsidered the war option but on only on the condition of support from the Entente powers (France and England). Under the same pretenses as his original peace position, the political independence of the Soviet power was tossed in the wastebasket since Trotsky thought that in order to fight against one imperialist coalition, there was no reason to hesitate to enter into an alliance with the other imperialist powers. Lenin was in complete agreement with him on this issue and the Central Committee also voted in favor of his proposal by a vote of 6 to 5. But another German ultimatum and the further unimpeded progress of Ludendorff’s troops provoked a return to the position of an immediate peace.
In a world held hostage by imperialist barbarism, the “neither war nor peace” tactic, which was based on the same fundamental logic as the peace position due to its abandonment of the idea of preparing for a real revolutionary war, could only lead Trotsky to irremediably “align himself” behind Lenin. Definitively rejecting any “bad conscience” or “Don Quijotesque” indignation with regard to the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, Trotsky therefore agreed to assume all the implications of the capitulation of the Soviet power to German imperialism, and first of all, that of putting the brakes on the world proletarian process!
Henceforth, as the Peoples Commissar for War, and then later as the Peoples Commissar for Transport, he would be, successively or simultaneously, the organizer of a so-called “red” state army, the theoretician of the substitution of the Party for the Soviets, the theoretician of the terror, the theoretician of the militarization of labor (see his book, Terrorism and Communism), and the executioner of the proletariat (the repression of Kronstadt). A fine resume for any Jacobin! After his political defeat at the hands of Stalin in the struggle for the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, he continued to defend his theory of the “USSR” while in exile and thus made his followers in the Fourth International, with the same pretenses as the Kremlin bureaucracy, into the gravediggers of the international perspectives of the proletariat.
The following passage from Terrorism and Communism illustrates the perfect agreement between Trotsky and Lenin with regard to the economic vision of socialism. This explains the relative ease with which Trotsky accepted all the consequences of the peace position and why he so passionately defended the latter.
“Consequently, wages, in the form both of money and of goods, must be brought into the closest possible touch with the productivity of individual labor. Under capitalism, the system of piece-work and of grading, the application of the Taylor system, etc., have as their object to increase the exploitation of the workers by the squeezing-out of surplus value. Under Socialist production, piece-work, bonuses, etc., have as their problem to increase the volume of social product, and consequently to raise the general well-being. Those workers who do more for the general interest than others receive the right to a greater quantity of the social product than the lazy, the careless, and the disorganizers.” (L. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, Chapter 8: “Problems of the Organization of Labor”; online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/index.htm).
The position of the left
After January 1918, the criticisms of the left with respect to the perspectives on the signing of a peace treaty with the Central Empires began to plunge the Bolshevik Party into turmoil. While the armistice and the peace talks at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk had been accepted by most militants, this was only because they thought these measures were necessary to gain time solely for military purposes. Furthermore, since December 1917, when the negotiations began, measures had been taken within the Party to incite the Soviet power to make rapid preparations for waging revolutionary war. Nonetheless, it must also be stressed that even then there were strong reservations about sitting at the same table with the representatives of capital and holding discussions with them. When it became clear that Lenin thought, beyond the question of strictly military tactics (the measures that had been approved with regard to preparations for revolutionary war had not been implemented or had been gradually scaled back!), that the Soviet power had to accept the peace dictated by Germany, a veritable storm of protest arose. For the left, it was not a question of obtaining a breathing space at the price of a series of economic and political compromises that the signing of the peace treaty would inaugurate. The leftists issued a series of declarations to the Central Committee of the RSDLP through the institutions in the Party in which they constituted the majority; the one that follows is a typical example:
“Petrograd, January 15, 1918. The Executive Commission, in full agreement with the Petersburg Committee resolutions on the policy towards a peace, makes this statement. The political line now pursued by the CC and directed, judging by the resolution from the Bolshevik group in the Congress, at the conclusion of a so-called ‘shameful peace’, which means at this moment the abdication of our positions in full view of the coming international revolution and the sure death of our Party as the vanguard of the revolution. Since it considers that such a CC policy is in contradiction to the decisions and resolutions of the April Conference and the Sixth Party Congress, the Executive Commission makes a very strong protest on behalf of the Petersburg organisation both against the fundamental direction, already determined in its general features, and against the policy of silence and reserve now being practised in our foreign policy affairs, even in relation to the responsible bodies of the largest Party organizations.
“We have very good grounds for asserting that to sign a ‘shameful peace’ would be in clear contradiction to the opinion of the majority of the Party. This was graphically shown by the January 8 meeting where a huge majority expressed itself against comrade Lenin’s point of view and also by the fact that the most influential organisations in our Party—the Petersburg and Moscow regions—stated that they were definitely against an annexationist peace with Germany. If the peace policy is continued in the present spirit, reflected especially characteristically in the Congress resolution, it threatens to split our Party.
“With all this in mind, the Executive Commission demands, in the name of the Petersburg organisation, that a special Party conference be convened immediately, in a week, for with conditions as they are, it alone can resolve the question of our peace policy.
“Meanwhile, the Executive Commission declares that we are referring the question of the war and the peace to the highest instances of our Petersburg organisation and also to the district Party organs for consideration.”
Signed: Executive Commission of the Petersburg Committee,
S. Kosior, G. Boky, Ia. Fenigstein, A. Pluzhnikov, S. Ravich
(The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Minutes of the Central of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks), August 1917-February 1918. Translated by Ann Bone, London: Pluto Press, 1974, pp. 190-191)
Besides the denunciations of Lenin’s maneuvers to implement his policy in opposition to the will of the majority of the party, and in addition to the demand for the convocation of an extraordinary conference, this text proves that for the leftists the rejection of the peace treaty was a question of principle. They refused to situate the treaty, as Lenin did, on the same plane as the armistice and the peace talks staged to gain time, that is, on the tactical plane! Furthermore, in opposition to Trotsky’s position, they held that the breathing space won by negotiations must not be utilized for the purpose of making speeches and waiting passively for the international revolution while thinking that the Central Empires would be satisfied with the first peace terms the Bolsheviks offered. Upon assuming the position of Commissar for Foreign Affairs, before he departed for Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky said: “My mandate is simple: publish the secret treaties and then shut up shop”. The leftists only conceived of the breathing space as an opportunity to prepare for revolutionary war and the pursuit of a foreign policy devoted to forwarding the world revolutionary process.
After Trotsky’s decision to break off negotiations, which opened the doors to the German offensive, the real test of strength among the three views on the peace, despite the incessant pressure exerted by various committees for the convocation of an extraordinary party congress prior to the holding of the next regular scheduled party congress, took place within the Central Committee. The Central Committee meetings of February 22, 23 and 24 would be decisive with regard to the signing of the peace treaty.
On February 22, Trotsky—with the support of Lenin’s famous telegram absenting himself from the meeting—proposed, in order to stem the German advance, to engage in a “revolutionary” war in alliance with the French and English imperialists. The leftists opposed this proposal. Bukharin, who was especially vehement in his opposition, wrote the following statement: “I hereby declare that I resign from the Central Committee as well as from my position as editor of Pravda”, and then said: “We are turning the party into a dung heap”! Immediately after this meeting, the group of leftists (with Bukharin) published the declaration that was quoted at the beginning of this book.
On February 23, Lenin advocated the signing of the peace treaty and submitting to the terms of the Germans. Taking advantage of the absence of Trotsky, who resigned his position the day before, and of the abstention of Krestinski, Joffe and Dzherzhinsky (who were against the peace treaty but who did not want to precipitate a split in the party) Lenin won the majority. The leftists then resigned from their Party and government positions (Trotsky would also resign his position as Commissar of Foreign Affairs). Uritsky spoke on their behalf: “On behalf of CC members Bukharin, Lomov and Bubnov, candidate member of the CC Iakovleva, Piatakov and Smirnov attending the session and myself, I state that, not wishing to bear responsibility for the decision adopted, which we consider deeply mistaken and fatal to the Russian and the international revolution, particularly as this decision was passed by a minority of the CC—because it is clear from the reasoning of the four who abstained that they share our position—we declare that we are resigning from all responsible Party and Soviet posts and retaining complete freedom to campaign both within the Party and outside it for what we consider to be the only correct positions.” (Ibid., p. 224).
On February 24, the Regional Committee of Moscow—a left stronghold—voted in favor of a motion of censure of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and refused to submit to the measures entailed by the peace treaty. The Moscow leftists, who had always shown themselves to be the most radical long before October 1917, did not belie their reputation. They clearly formulated the entire dialectic of their “rejection of the peace”. The interests of the international revolution must have priority over those of the Russian revolution and, if necessary, the latter must be sacrificed to the success, over the long or short term, of the world process: “The Moscow Regional Committee, considering that a split within the party is probable in the near future, resolves to rally all serious revolutionaries and all Communist elements in struggle against the supporters of a separate peace and the moderate elements of the Communist movement. It would be in accordance with the interests of the world revolution, we believe, to accept the sacrifice of Soviet power, which is becoming purely formal. As in the past, we see our essential task to be the world-wide extension of the ideas of the Socialist revolution and, in Russia, the vigorous exercise of the dictatorship and the pitiless repression of the bourgeois counter-revolution” (Serge, op. cit., p. 199).
After the actual signing of the Peace Treaty (March 3) the leftists would continue to defend their position at the Seventh Party Congress. Alexandra Kollontai declared: “And if our soviet republic must perish, others will raise the banner”! In addition, as demonstrated by the Moscow text, which broke for the first time with the fear of a split nourished by Lenin’s permanent blackmail, they organized as a fraction that had its own journal, separate from Pravda, The Communist. To get an idea of the qualitative importance of this fraction, one may refer to the list of left communists in the appendix of this book.
Although they had illusions, like Lenin, concerning the value of nationalization, the leftists nevertheless were perfectly aware of the fact that an isolated proletarian power cannot survive in the absence of radical economic measures (the destruction of the capitalist relations of production) on an international scale or at least in various countries with significant weight on the market. In their view, the extension of this political power by means of the destruction of the state and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat beyond Russia’s borders was therefore of the utmost importance. If this were to prove to be impossible, then it would be better for the isolated power to go down fighting rather than survive at any cost, since in the latter case it would run the risk of changing its nature, that is, undergoing a rapid transformation into a counter-revolutionary instrument and a means of integration into capitalism, both domestically and with regard to foreign policy. Thus, in issue No. 1 of The Communist, the leftists explained the implications of support for the survival of the soviet power at any cost: “‘In such case, all efforts will be directed to the strengthening and development of productive power…. In foreign policy aggressive tactics of exposure of the imperialist powers will be replaced by a policy of diplomatic maneuver by the Russian state amidst the imperialist powers. The Soviet republic will not only conclude trade agreements with them, but will also develop organic economic and political bonds with them, use their military and political support’, and take loans from them. In the result, ‘in conjunction with the policy of managing undertakings on the principle of the extensive participation of capitalists, and of bureaucratic centralization, there will quite naturally arise a policy towards the workers designed to restore discipline among them under the guise of so-called self-discipline, and the introduction of labour conscription…. The form of government must then develop in the direction of bureaucratic centralization, the rule of all manner of commissars, the loss of their independence by the local soviets and rejection in practice of government from below’.” (see Leonard Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy: Political Opposition in the Soviet State. First Phase, 1917-1922, op. cit., p. 136). With Rapallo and all that followed, it can be seen just how premonitory this 1918 text was for the development of the USSR!
Understanding that, unlike the process of a bourgeois revolution, for the course of a proletarian revolution the factor of class consciousness was much more important than holding on to power at any cost, the Russian leftists—like Rosa Luxemburg—perceived the disastrous ideological influence that foreshadowed the transformation of the soviet power into a counterrevolutionary institution. Continuing the article quoted above in issue No. 1 of The Communist, it was Radek who, not yet having become the person dedicated to State Capitalism whose abject exploits we mentioned previously, wrote: “If the Russian Revolution were overthrown by violence on the part of the bourgeois counter-revolution it would rise again like a phoenix; if however it lost its socialist character and thereby disappointed the working masses, the blow would have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and the international revolution” (Brinton, op. cit., pp. 38-39).
- 1This episode is in fact nothing but a legend, as has been satisfactorily demonstrated by Souvarine in the journal, The Social Contract.
- 2In a very informative book about the importance of the consequences of the imperialist war of 1914-1918 and of the role of the military forces in the process of the German revolution, Benoist-Méchin begins by emphasizing the importance of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which allowed the resumption of the offensive and the intensification of combat on the western front. He quotes Marshall Foch (The Second Battle of the Marne, p. 108): “On March 21, 1918, at 4 in the morning, the sound of thunder suddenly erupted in France, on the front extending from Arras to Noyon. It was the German artillery that was engaged on a front 80 kilometers long. For five hours it battered our positions, annihilated our defenses and defenders and, extending its deadly barrage over a dozen kilometers behind the front lines, poisoned the land with its asphyxiating projectiles. At 9 in the morning, 50 enemy divisions, a half a million men, protected by a thick haze, launched an attack on the devastated allied trenches. The German soldiers were animated by a furious enthusiasm and absolute confidence. The British armies had to face the most formidable assault of the entire war”; and Foch goes on to say: “The complete collapse of the eastern front as a result of the Russian revolution allowed the German General Staff to concentrate all its resources on the western front. The German army therefore enjoys a slight numerical superiority. This advantage must be capitalized on without delay, in order to shatter the allied front before the arrival of American troops. Ludendorff, abandoning the ‘tactic of attrition’, has adopted the ‘tactic of annihilation’. One offensive was launched after another; five in all. March 21, April 9, May 27, June 9, one after another the grey waves were unleashed upon France. But all of them, after an advance of greater or lesser extent, were finally stymied, thanks to the heroism and tenacity of our soldiers”. Benoist-Méchin’s book is entitled, History of the German Army (See Vol. I, From the Imperial Army to the Reichswehr, 1918-19, Albin Michel, pp. 25-26).