Brest-Litovsk: yesterday and today
The decisive nature of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
In an article that appeared in the February 25, 1918 issue of Pravda, entitled, “A Painful but Necessary Lesson”, Lenin wrote: “The week from February 18 to 24, 1918, has been one that will be remembered as a great turning-point in the history of the Russian—and the international—revolution” (Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 27, 1972, pp. 62-66). It was during the course of that week that the situation tipped in his favor, when he obtained the support of the majority on the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party thanks to the threat posed by the German advance. The policy of peace at any price that he advocated prevailed a few days later at Brest-Litovsk at the expense of the extension of the revolution.
Lenin was right to insist upon the decisive character of the course chosen at that time for the subsequent development of the Russian and international revolutionary process. In all the historical and political literature on the period in question, the events that led up to Brest-Litovsk and the treaty itself are usually analyzed as merely one phase of the process among others: very few of the authors whose studies merit interest (see the Bibliography at the end of this book) emphasize its particular importance. If some of them understand the radical implications of the debates that convulsed the Bolshevik Party in connection with this issue (Victor Serge, for example, devotes approximately fifty pages of Volume I of his book, Year One of the Russian Revolution, to this topic), it is only in order to adopt Lenin’s position and to judge it as the only “realistic” option under the circumstances. However, even someone like E. H. Carr was capable of drawing attention to the fact that there was a fundamental contradiction in the foreign policy of the Soviet power after Brest-Litovsk: he perceived that the defense of the Russian State was an obstacle that stood in the way of support for the international revolution (he referred to it as “The Dual Policy” in Volume III of his book, The Bolshevik Revolution!).
Our position, which we have so often clearly proclaimed since the beginning of this book, is that Brest-Litovsk meant that the defense of the Russian State was not just an obstacle, but a dead end: with the signing of the peace treaty, any chances of extending the revolution were buried and the subsequent foreign policy of the Bolsheviks was not a “dual” policy but entirely oriented towards the defense of the interests of the national state, its reconstruction and its expansion. All the “revolutionary” phraseology of the party consisted in throwing up a smokescreen before the eyes of the radical communist groups of the other countries in order to compensate for the negative impact of its compromises with capitalism. Thus, there was merely a formal difference between Chicherin, the Commissar of Foreign Affairs, and Zinoviev, the first president of the Third International, since the latter organization, from the very day of its founding, was only conceived as a way to capture the communist movement that was breaking with social democracy and the Second International in order to enlist it in the service of an embryonic State Capitalism. When its dominant influence over the nascent world movement was almost totally assured, Bolshevik tactics and compromises were transformed into “revolutionary” politics and officially theorized: the Bolsheviks only preserved the old phraseology for “special occasions” (anniversaries, parades, etc.)!
An indispensable theoretical reflection on the meaning of Brest-Litovsk
Among the many attempts to engage in theoretical reflection on the most important causes of the counterrevolution, attempts that would continue until the late 1960s, few and far between are those that focus on the impact of the fundamentally erroneous foreign policy of the Bolsheviks—and this was the case even during the time of Lenin—on the development of the world revolutionary process, with as much clarity as the text that was published in L’Internationale in 1937 (See Part IV of Appendix). Most of the texts written by the ultra-left current prior to the Second Imperialist War were somewhat weak with regard to this analysis. For some, such as the Bordiguist current, the Leninist period was still practically taboo and its presence in the Third International is not only not discussed today but is justified right up until 1926. Even today, some engage in a more or less critical “gilding of the pill” of this Bordiguist theory, and in order to explain the necessity of signing the peace treaty, as well as that of making other compromises, as with the peasantry, they invented the aberrant concept of a transitional state separate from the dictatorship of the proletariat. For others, such as the councilist current, the Russian revolution is understood as purely and simply a bourgeois revolution because of its separation from the rest of the proletarian movement that emerged, with its strengths but also its weaknesses, from the world crisis of the system that began in 1914, and from the break with the old movement of the past that made its home in the camp of capital. Nothing was taken into consideration except the impact of Russia’s economic backwardness. Thus, the core argument of this current, which leads to the complete denial of the proletarian character of the Russian revolution, does not allow its exponents to understand the causes of the persistence, and later, the definitive predominance of, capitalist tendencies in Bolshevik policy and their domination over the Russian, and then the international, proletariat. To the contrary, it imputes the causes of the bourgeois course almost exclusively to the Machiavellian maneuvers of the Bolsheviks who thus are transformed, by this fact alone, into veritable demiurges who control objective reality at their whim. In any event, since there was no proletarian revolution in Russia, for the councilists the counterrevolution does not exist either and the only lesson to be learned is that all parties are totally bourgeois (it is amusing to note, on the other hand, that for this thesis the existence of the Russian Soviets is never perceived as a contradiction of the claim of the bourgeois character of the revolution!).
Our reflections on Brest-Litovsk have no pretensions of being either a historical exegesis or an exercise in style; their purpose is to take their place in the framework of a profound labor of theoretical and practical import with regard to the problems of the period of transition to communism, problems which shall arise tomorrow and which we must prepare for today: destruction of the state, extension of the revolution, the use of violence, abolition of wage labor and the commodity economy…. In the name of a “rejection of politics” as simplistic and as dangerous as that of the anarchists after the First International, some of these problems are considered to be of no importance and one succumbs to all kinds of lucubrations about integral communism. The economism of the text of the Dutch Left entitled “The Principles of Communist Production and Distribution” illustrates the kind of dead end such a leap into the future can lead to without first having thoroughly examined the conditions of the transition to that future. Even so, the merit of this attempt to address the economic problems of the period of transition, one of the first since Marx’s marginal notes on the Gotha Program, the positive side of this text, is still essentially the explanation of why nationalization and state ownership have nothing to do with socialization. The theoretical framework built upon the structure of social average labor time as the foundation of communist production and distribution and its practical proposals (e.g., labor coupons) do not represent, on the other hand, a solution that breaks with the law of value. Even if it is true that conditions are much more mature than they were in Marx’s time, they are still not such as to allow us to rise to the challenge in a practical way of the social and economic organization of the lower stage of communism (the period of transition), and this is even more true of the higher stage of communism; they help us, above all, to get a better idea of the limitations of the possibilities for the destruction of the capitalist system which, despite its decadence and its crisis, will not collapse on its own only to make way for communism, leaving it, in the end, the Third World War as another way of continuing its political economy and perpetuating exploitation! Do we have to remind our readers that Marx, besides his work on the economy (the unfinished Capital) had proposed as an essential goal a study of “the struggle for the abolition of the state and of bourgeois society”? (See M. Rubel, Marx, Critic of Marxism, Payot, p. 398).
The myth of “German-Bolshevik” collusion
The bourgeois explanation of history rests, in the final accounting, on the Machiavellian will of individuals and groups or the manipulation of the latter with the aid of money, or even other expedients. This is the way that an author like David Shub approaches history, a former Bolshevik who participated in the revolution of 1905 and who, condemned to deportation to Siberia, managed to escape and came to live in the United States. In his book, Lenin: A Biography, he writes, for example: “Lenin’s larger ideological motivations for concluding the Brest-Litovsk Treaty have been clear since 1918. The power of German arms was perhaps conclusive in any case. Yet it has only been in the last decade that historians have been able to understand the powerful non-military influences which Germany was able to exert on Lenin in 1917-18. The understanding is a result of the capture after World War II of numerous secret documents of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which became available to scholars in the mid-1950s [Shub provides, in a footnote, a list of the documents in question] These documents essentially corroborate the Provisional Government’s charges that the Bolshevik Party received money from the Central Powers for the purpose of demoralizing the Russian Army, overthrowing the Provisional Government and preparing for a separate peace. These dealings, which began in the autumn of 1914 with a subsidy of some $5,700 to Lenin’s newspaper Sozialdemokrat by the Austrian-sponsored ‘Union for the Liberation of the Ukraine’, reached their height with the activities of Parvus and his Copenhagen Institute, Ganetsky and various German diplomats during the stormy months between the fall of the autocracy and Lenin’s coup. German subsidies continued, however, after Lenin had seized power. On 28 November 1917, German Under-State Secretary Busche wired the Minister in Berne: ‘According to information received here, the government in Petrograd is having to fight against great financial difficulties. It is therefore very desirable that they be sent money.’ A few days later, State Secretary von Kühlmann telegraphed his liaison officer at General Headquarters: ‘It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a stead flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party. The Bolsheviks have now come to power; how long they will retain power cannot yet be foreseen. They need peace in order to strengthen their own position; on the other hand, it is entirely in our interest that we should exploit the period while they are in power, which may be a short one, in order to attain firstly an armistice and then, if possible, peace.’ Even after the conclusion of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, Imperial German diplomacy continued to assist the Lenin régime….” After having provided more evidence of German subsidies, this author concludes by saying: “… it is inconceivable that Lenin was unaware of the timely and substantial assistance provided his movement by the Kaiser’s Government. Not that the German subsidies altered his views; to the contrary, precisely because of his views he was their ideal recipient” (David Shub, Lenin: A Biography, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1970, pp. 341-343). In view of these kinds of arrangements, it is just as easy to fall back upon the legend of the “sealed train car” (see the footnote above which discusses this particular point) as it is to draw the same conclusions about German manipulation. This is how Renata Bounazel explains the matter in her book, Rapallo, Birth of a Myth (Ibid., pp. 118-119): “From the encounter between Pan-Germanist Prussia and Moscow Pan-Slavism—by means of Hegel and Marx—the worst result that could happen would be their alliance: a monstrously powerful alliance. For German technology, combined with the Russian masses—who, on the old continent, could hope to resist them? Michelet’s prophecy seemed to come true in 1917 when Lenin and his comrades traveled across Germany to Russia, with the tacit consent of the German Government and its General Staff, which put the famous ‘sealed train car’ at their disposal. This episode of the Russian revolution, which in the final accounting was of secondary importance, would have the result of making Lenin appear to be an ally of the central powers, even an agent in the pay of the German government, whose mission was to overthrow the Czarist power for the benefit of imperial Germany, and this idea would have a lasting effect on the image that was formed of the Bolsheviks in the West.” And she would point out a few lines later how all of this would culminate in Brest-Litovsk: “The peace of Brest-Litovsk, despite its extremely humiliating character for the Soviet power and the very harsh conditions it imposed on the latter, symbolized for the French the ‘treason’ of the new Russia at one of the most crucial moments of the war and far from being sensitive to the subtleties of Soviet diplomacy and, in particular, that of Trotsky, who, by way of the formula, ‘neither peace nor war’ sought to prove that the Bolsheviks were not accomplices of imperial Germany, saw it instead as the overwhelming demonstration of a conspiracy between the Soviet and the German leaders. Thus, the myth of the ‘Germano-Bolshevik’ collusion was born in France, which so profoundly influenced French policy after the war”.
The rupture of 1914 and the ideological weight of the past
It is certainly true that Lenin made abundant use of inter-imperialist contradictions and did so first of all as a militant with respect to his own needs and those of the Bolshevik party (crossing Germany in the “sealed train car”, receipt of various sums of money….). Afterwards, he raised these practices to the status of “revolutionary” tactics, which he applied in the name of the proletariat at the time of the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. But the roots of his utilization of these contradictions lay in neither Machiavellianism nor in his manipulation by one or another imperialist power! This is a point that must be clarified in connection with the bourgeois notion of history.
If Lenin underestimated the weight of the pressure of the capitalist system and its role in the gradual resumption of a revolutionary process via the detour of compromises, this was due to the fact that his goals and the program of the Bolshevik Party (even after the “April Theses”) were marked by the persistence of old positions and their coexistence alongside the new ones imposed by the crisis and the revolutionary movement. There would never be an abandonment of the social democratic separation between the minimum and the maximum programs. Once in power, the Bolsheviks gave a higher priority to the pressures imposed by the system than they did to the pressures imposed by the masses, increasingly imposing the old positions as opposed to the new ones (in the image of German social democracy, the minimum program was emphasized at the expense of the maximum program, which itself served no other purpose than ideological disguise, as in the case of Kautsky!). Thus, they became the active factors working for a restructuring of the system under the form that corresponds to its decadent stage: State Capitalism.
Despite their ideological break with the old workers movement in 1914, the Bolsheviks and Lenin—like, however, the rest of the currents that met at Zimmerwald and Kienthal—were far from having grasped all the theoretical and practical implications of this break, particularly with regard to the process of the transition to communism. Although they understood that a new period had opened up, they had not totally disencumbered themselves of the subjective attitudes characteristic of the old movement. It is therefore in the insufficiency of the process of political reflection on the significance of the rupture of 1914 where the reasons for Lenin’s vacillations must be sought, the reasons for his continued attachment to and preservation of social democratic positions and, later, for his domination over the Bolshevik party with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
This sheds light on Lenin’s trajectory, which led him from the slogans, “revolutionary defeatism” and “transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war” (1915-1916) to “a democratic peace” (April 1917) and finally to those of “unconditional peace” and “defense of the fatherland” (November 1917-February 1918). In the following passage all the justifications for a pseudo-“new policy” that emerged as a result of the insufficiencies of the break of 1914 are concentrated: “We are and have been defencists since October 25, 1917, we champion the defence of the fatherland ever since that day. That is because we have shown by deeds that we have broken away from imperialism. We have denounced and published the filthy, bloodstained treaties of the imperialist plotters. We have overthrown our own bourgeoisie. We have given freedom to the peoples we formerly oppressed. We have given land to the people and introduced workers’ control. We are in favour of defending the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. And because we are in favour of defending the fatherland we demand a serious attitude towards the country’s defence potential and preparedness for war. We declare a ruthless war against revolutionary phrases about revolutionary war. There must be a lengthy, serious preparation for it, beginning with economic progress, the restoration of the railways (for without them modern warfare is an empty phrase) and with the establishment of the strictest revolutionary discipline and self-discipline everywhere” (Lenin, “A Painful but Necessary Lesson”, op. cit.).
The list of old political positions reintroduced into the new movement was therefore very significant: substitutionism of the party in place of the proletariat, right of national self-determination, land to the peasants, nationalization and workers control…. With regard to the question of State Capitalism being considered as a “step forward” and the “ante-room of socialism”, Anton Pannekoek had already shown, in 1916 in Vorbote—the German-language newspaper of the left Zimmerwaldians, which included the Dutch Tribunists—that so-called socialist nationalization was in fact nothing but a means of rehabilitating capitalism for the purpose of intensifying the exploitation of the proletariat: “The wartime experience gained during state control over industry and commerce has developed, in a large part of the bourgeoisie, the idea of state ‘socialism’. The advantages of a centralized system of production over private ownership are well known today…. This state socialism can only aggravate the proletarian condition and strengthen oppression. In spite of this, one can foresee that a large sector of Social Democracy will not oppose it, and will even support it. Its old ideology will, in effect, link Social Democracy with the new system of state exploitation….” (Anton Pannekoek, “Wenn der Krieg zu Ende Geht”, published in Vorbote, April 2, 1916, pp. 22-27; English translation in Serge Bricianer, ed., Pannekoek and the Workers Councils, Telos Press, St. Louis, 1978, p. 143).
The German-Dutch left and the Polish left demonstrated much more awareness than the Bolsheviks with regard to the erroneous positions that must not be repeated but criticized and discarded in order to meet the political challenge of the new period that opened up in 1914:
“‘The collapse of the International caused by the world war is not simply a surrender of international sentiment before the power of intensified nationalism…. The present catastrophe indicates more than the proletariat’s inability to prevent the outbreak of war: it means that the methods of the era of the Second International failed to increase the intellectual and material power of the proletariat to the point where it could break the power of the ruling classes. Therefore, the world war must be a turning point in the history of the working class movement….’ In other words they must strive for a new spiritual orientation. The proletariat, acting under unprecedented conditions, cannot rely on old ideas or old norms; hence the absolute need for an organizational break with ‘those who would make social-democracy a tool of imperialism.’ This is what Pannekoek wrote in his opening editorial for the first issue of Vorbote” (Bricianer, op. cit., p. 139).
These left currents were to remain, however, supporters, albeit critical supporters, of the Bolsheviks and the Russian regime until 1920. For the Polish left, this was facilitated thanks to attacks leveled against L. Jogisches and the split orchestrated by Radek: eventually it even renounced all its advanced positions, particularly with regard to the national question, and ended up merging with Bolshevism. For the German-Dutch left, its position was based on its analysis which theorized a separation between the objective conditions in Russia and those in western Europe and which in turn led it to accept the coexistence of two different but equally valid tactics for the road to communism (See H. Gorter’s Response to Lenin). It was only with the formation of the KAPD that the most important advance in understanding was achieved thanks to the transcendence of both social democracy and bolshevism.
Democratic and nationalist mystifications against the world proletarian revolution
In his article, “The Junius Pamphlet” (July 1916), Lenin accused Rosa Luxemburg of conceiving of a “defense of the fatherland” in the event that social democracy should adopt the program of Marx, Engels and Lasalle of 1848: “the slogan of a united, Great German republic”!
“Another fallacious argument advanced by Junius is in connection with the question of defence of the fatherland. This is a cardinal political question during an imperialist war. Junius has strengthened us in our conviction that our Party has indicated the only correct approach to this question: the proletariat is opposed to defence of the fatherland in this imperialist war because of its predatory, slave-owning, reactionary character, because it is possible and necessary to oppose to it (and to strive to convert it into) civil war for socialism. Junius, however, while brilliantly exposing the imperialist character of the present war as distinct from a national war, falls into the very strange error of trying to drag a national programme into the present non-national war. It sounds almost incredible, but it is true” (Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow, Vol. 22, pp. 305-319).
Rosa Luxemburg proved to be capable of overcoming this “very strange error” when she defined the only possible alternative to imperialism in her programmatic speech on behalf of the Spartacus League: the international proletarian revolution! Lenin’s subsequent course would follow the opposite direction since he was the one who would pursue a national policy. By signing the peace of Brest-Litovsk, he would implement a national program at the expense of the extension of the revolution. What differentiates this national program from that of 1848 is simply its “socialist” label that replaced that of “republican”. For the capitalist state, overthrown and re-christened as “proletarian”, with the Bolsheviks at its helm, and with economic measures designed to reinforce State Capitalism, not only had nothing to do with socialism, but was furthermore the biggest obstacle standing in the way of socialism. Evidently, Lenin thought otherwise, and this is why he allowed for, “… under certain special conditions—a war to defend the socialist state against bourgeois states is possible” (ibid. The emphasis is ours). This must be considered in connection with his erroneous views with regard to the national question: after 1914 he thought it was still possible, despite his understanding of the imperialist framework as decisive, to transform the imperialist war into national wars, and that some of the latter could be attributed with a progressive character as anti-imperialist struggles:
“A national war can be transformed into an imperialist war, and vice versa. For example, the wars of the Great French Revolution started as national wars and were such. They were revolutionary wars because they were waged in defence of the Great Revolution against a coalition of counter-revolutionary monarchies. But after Napoleon had created the French Empire by subjugating a number of large, virile, long established national states of Europe, the French national wars became imperialist wars, which in their turn engendered wars for national liberation against Napoleon’s imperialism” (ibid.).
Because he did not discern the fundamental difference between the process of a bourgeois revolution and that of a proletarian revolution, Lenin conceived of the possibility for a civil war to start and then to pause provisionally at the national level. Even with his theory of the “permanent revolution”, Trotsky was equally mistaken: a democratic course of development cannot grow until it is transformed into a socialist course of development even if it passes from the national to the international level, since this would mean that in the imperialist era, as in the 19th century, democracy would still play a progressive role for the proletariat.
The great lesson of Brest-Litovsk is the proof that the proletarian revolution arises and develops entirely on the international plane, and thus autonomously with respect to all democratic and nationalist mystifications that are produced by Capital in decline. For a dictatorship of the proletariat established in any geographical region of the earth, the indispensable condition for the preservation of its revolutionary character is the extension of the revolution.
Faced with the current world crisis of the capitalist system, the proletariat which has just begun to emerge from the counterrevolution of the last 50 years must learn this lesson and many others if it wants to free itself, and by this means alone must pull humanity towards communism rather than drown with it in unbridled barbarism.
As Rosa Luxemburg said in her “Junius Pamphlet”:
“The modern proletariat emerges differently from its historical experience. Its problems are as gigantic as its mistakes. No pre-established schema, no ritual that holds good at all times, shows it the path that it must travel. Historical experience is its only teacher; its Via Dolorosa to self-liberation is covered not only with immeasurable suffering, but with countless mistakes. The goal of its journey, its final liberation, depends on the proletariat on whether it understands that it must learn from its own mistakes. Self-criticism, cruel, unsparing criticism that goes to the very root of things is life and light of the proletarian movement. The catastrophe of the socialist proletariat in the present World War is an unexampled misfortune for humanity. But socialism is lost only if the international proletariat is unable to measure the depths of the catastrophe and refuses to learn from it” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, Part One, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, Dick Howard, ed., Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, pp. 324-325).