Book Review: Scott B. Smith’s Captives Of Revolution, The Socialist Revolutionaries And The Bolshevik Dictatorship, 1918-1923

10 Jul

Smith’s book chronicles how the Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries (PSR, or as they were more commonly known, the SRs) reacted to the Bolshevik dictatorship, and eventually succumbed to it. Given that the SRs were eliminated, and that they are only dimly remembered now as foil in triumphalist Bolshevik lore, why would anyone want to read a postmortem on an also-ran political party, let alone write one?

Captives is about revolutionary discourse; its relevance to theory and policy, its application as propaganda, and the central role it plays not only in determining which party will prevail, but in the outcome of the revolution itself. The SRs were by far the largest socialist faction in Russia. If Las Vegas offered odds on such things, the PSR would have been heavy favorites to be the party in power after the fall of the provisional government. Indeed, in elections to the body which was to succeed Kerensky’s regime, the Constituent Assembly, the SRs fared best, outpacing the Bolsheviks by a wide margin. So how was it that they ended up not only outmaneuvered but answering for their “crimes” in a Bolshevik courtroom? Smith suggests it is because they lost the war of words.

One might balk at such an interpretation, after all, the implications for revolutionary praxis are chilling, but Smith makes a strong case. The PSR lost enough of its following to the Bolsheviks that when events conspired against them they were unable to rally enough support to hold on, and eventually fell into the hands of their enemies. Captives of Revolution describes, from a sympathetic but critical point of view, precisely how this occurred.

The SRs were the latest incarnation in a succession of Russian revolutionary organizations, the most immediate and famous being the People’s Will. Like it, the PSR campaigned on behalf of the peasantry. Also like the Will, the SRs pursued a policy of targeted assassination, which would come to play a role in their demise. Despite its predominantly agrarian composition, the PSR, like all revolutionary organizations of the period, were influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx. The fusion of the old, nativist socialism which dominated the earlier revolutionary movements with Marx’s deterministic materialism resulted in a program unique to the SRs. They advocated socialism in the countryside, and a limited capitalism in the cities to allow for the development of productive capacity. These days one is unlikely to encounter any revolutionary who would support such a project, and it is this theoretical impurity which most Leninists (I presume) would cite as the reason for the defeat of the PSR, yet it was the most popular socialist  party of a people in revolt, and the collapse of such a large revolutionary formation should not pass without investigation. Moreover, the SRs represented the revolutionary peasantry, whose role in in the social revolution has been the subject of much debate. Smith’s book is important if for no other reason than it examines just how a socialist party of the proletariat and a socialist party of the peasantry interacted in an actual revolutionary setting.

There was an agreement in place among the revolutionary factions that the first step in the creation of a workers and peasants’ government was the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. In fact, with Lenin’s typically obstinate support, it was a plank in the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party platform from its inception. Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, they did quite poorly in elections to the CA. Consequently, with the provisional government teetering, they planned to seize power, and did. The sequence of events is described enthusiastically by John Reed in his Ten Days That Shook the World. They need not concern us here other than to note that initially Lenin claimed that the Bolsheviks were acting preemptively fearing the seizure of power by counterrevolutionary forces, and that they were preparing to hold power only until the CA could convene. However, once Kerensky’s forces had been defeated, Lenin announced that he would not relinquish power. The Bolsheviks entered into a coalition government as the majority partner with a splinter group from the PSR, the Left SRs, and immediately began dissolving soviets in which they were not a majority.

Reaction from the other parties came fast and angry, and the first worker/peasant rebellion against Bolshevik rule ensued. The Bolsheviks were in a precarious position, and knew that they must eliminate the CA if they were to stay in power. On the day when it was supposed to meet, they positioned gunmen in the streets and opened fire on  workers who marched in support of the Assembly, killing a handful and wounding scores. The Bolsheviks won the day, and the CA was shut down after several hours with the assistance of some anarchists.

The SRs and Mensheviks were outraged, and had to consider what their next move was. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks, now in control of the state and much of the media, developed a modus operandi which they would never abandon: They accused the other revolutionary socialist factions of colluding with White forces for a restoration of capitalism. It is here Smith asserts that the Bolsheviks won the war of words, and thus enough support to outlast their rivals on the Left. Lenin cunningly insisted that their propaganda should present the Bolsheviks as the one and only true revolutionary party, and that the other revolutionary anti-capitalist groups should be depicted as not merely ideologically errant (or “renegades” as Lenin so often called them), but witting counterrevolutionary opportunists. As Smith put it: “The Bolshevik leaders [believed} that monopolizing revolutionary discourse and delegitimizing radical alternatives to dictatorship held the ideological key to holding power.” Lenin’s Manichean strategy did help the Bolsheviks remain in control, but it would have adverse effects on the course of the revolution, and an even more unfavorable effect on the Bolshevik Party, as we shall see.

After spirited internal debate, the SRs decided not to confront the Bolsheviks militarily as they feared that that would open the door to counterrevolution or Bonapartism. They determined to press for the revival of the CA as they thought that that will end the civil war and save the revolution. However as time passed and the brutal, repressive nature of  Bolshevik rule became manifest, the mood within the PSR grew militant. Smith describes a series of incidents in which the Bolsheviks acted in lethally despotic fashion. On one occasion when the PSR and others were calling for new elections to the soviets they were threatened by one of Lenin’s security apparatchiks, V. Volodarskii, who told the SRs that they would get “ballots then bullets.” Editor of the PSR newspaper, Abram Gots, responded in an editorial that if the Bolsheviks wanted a shooting war, then that is what they would get. Volodarskii was soon thereafter assassinated by Grigorii Semenov, leader of a SR terror cell. He would come to play a pivotal role in the trial.

The SRs began to fear that the Bolsheviks would be the death of the revolution. The extremity of Lenin’s literal conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”–a workers’ state unbound by convention or law, centrally directed from above and unchecked from below, a government with an unfettered hand–and his utter ruthlessness led many SRs to call for more aggressive approach. An opportunity to challenge the regime soon presented itself.

When the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were announced, a wave of revulsion swept across revolutionary Russia. Not only did this obscene peace (as Alexander Rabinowich called it) violate important revolutionary principles, it exposed Lenin as a hypocrite in the eyes of many. The Treaty was full of give-aways to German capital (including annexations of large tracts of land which the Bolshevik leader had specifically stated he would not cede). Revolutionary workers rioted in many places around the country and disgust with the Bolsheviks was high. Once again rumors that Lenin was a German agent began to circulate. Germany’s bourgeoisie was teetering, and its working class, with soldiers and sailors at their side, were in rebellion. Not a few Russian revolutionaries were calling for a resumption of the war so as to deal the final blow to the German ruling class. Yet Brest-Litovsk was a great shot in the arm for German capital, not only did they gain much needed resources which hitherto the Allied blockade denied them, but, inconceivably, Lenin also agreed to the payment of large sums as reparations for Germany’s wartime losses and expenditures. Brest-Litovsk represents a grand transfer of wealth from the Russian revolution to German reaction, from Red to White forces. Revolutionary Russia was aghast. Whose side were the Bolsheviks on?

The SRs began planning for an armed insurrection against the Bolsheviks. It was at this moment that they, according to Smith, made a fatal blunder: They adopted a nationalist approach to propaganda. They argued that Lenin was a German puppet (an argument considerably more credible then than now) and that the revolutionary workers and peasants should unite and wage war against the German-Bolshevik axis, first defeating Lenin and company, and then taking the war to Germany to jump-start the revolution there. Save the fatherland from German aggressors and their proxies in the Kremlin, that was the tact which they now took. Their new slogan was “The defense of the country,” which they identified with the defense of the revolution.

No one within the history of the organized Left is more controversial than Lenin. Some say he hit upon the proper formula for revolution, and acted appropriately and admirably once in power. Others insist that Lenin and his followers took precisely the wrong path, and the Russian Revolution surrendered to a form of counterrevolution of its own concoction. Smith is hardly sympathetic to Bolshevism, but the book isn’t a critique of Lenin, the point here is that both sides are now accusing the other of being in cahoots with counterrevolutionary forces, however the PSR rhetoric has  acquired a nationalist component of which its Bolshevik counterpart is free.

The PSR had moved from a conciliatory, we-can-work-together approach to one of open denunciation. It wasn’t long before the shooting war began. The Bolsheviks had to act to safeguard the revolution, or so their logic went.

Fate would intervene in the form of the revolt of the Czech Legion. When Russia withdrew from the war the Czechs were stranded. They resolved to move east through Russia to the Pacific and circumnavigate the globe and appear on the Western front to renew the fight. After Brest-Litovsk, and with the help of Western agents, they seized control of the railroads in central and eastern Russia. Their war with the Bolsheviks had begun.

The Bolsheviks then only controlled a small part of what had been the tsarist empire. In Samara, an area captured by the Czechs, the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Komuch in Russian) convened with SRs playing a leading role in its formation. Komuch then cobbled together an army and defeated the Bolsheviks in a series of battles. The SRs hoped once Bolshevik power had been broken, the Constituent Assembly would become the ruling body over all of Russia.

When the Bolsheviks recovered and began reclaiming land, the SRs were unable to save Samara and Komuch, Smith suggests, because of the failure of their propaganda. The PSR made great efforts in Samara to counteract Bolshevik propaganda and were largely unsuccessful. Here Smith is at his best analytically. The pages dedicated to this topic contain a brilliant discussion of the purpose, effect, and consequences of political discourse on history, and history upon political discourse. If one hopes to rally the masses to the cause, one needs to explain just what it is they are fighting for. The people of Samara were not substantially better off under Komuch and the PSR than they had been under the Bolsheviks. And given that these people had lived under Bolshevik rule, the charge that the latter were a “German” government and a threat to Russian independence was at odds with that experience. When it came time to defend Samara, the SRs could not marshal sufficient forces to hold it and were forced to flee east ahead of the rapidly encroaching front.

At this point it was clear to all that there is no hope of re-establishing the Constituent Assembly while the Bolsheviks still held power. The PSR plotted anew to overthrow them, but once again events imposed themselves. What happened in the far east as anti-Bolshevik forces gathered there is complex, and Smith walks readers through them in what seemed at times too much detail. The particulars need not be recounted here, but the PSR’s “defense of the country” mantra was confronted with an even greater challenge: the rise of the White leader Admiral Alexander Kolchak. Despite his initial pretenses to the contrary, Kolchak was no revolutionary. In fact, he was an unreconstructed monarchist, and one backed by the most reactionary elements in Siberia and abroad. The PSR had been willing to make alliances with other revolutionary tendencies in order to overthrow the Bolsheviks, but now the old concerns about civil war leading to counterrevolution resurfaced. By this point the SRs had soberly concluded that the Bolsheviks were the grave-diggers of the Russian Revolution. At the same time, Kolchak was a counterrevolutionary. Some SRs argued for a reconciliation with the Bolsheviks, and a faction initiated negotiations, but this was unacceptable to many of those who had slugged it out on the battlefield during the Komuch period. Both sides had committed atrocities, and the enmity which such things engender is not easily forgotten or overcome. Other SRs, including their leader Viktor Chernov, insisted that the PSR should become a “third force,” a true revolutionary force, neither Bolshevik nor White, one which represented proletarian democracy as opposed to centralist dictatorship.

Unfortunately for the SRs, the course Lenin had charted for the Bolshevik propaganda, that is of defining themselves as the true revolutionary party and libeling the rest, proves to be a wise one, at least in a Machiavellian sense. Up until this point the civil war had been largely a domestic affair, different socialist tendencies fighting amongst themselves. Now the Bolshevik dictatorship is confronted with a challenger whose counterrevolutionary nature and purpose is unconcealed. History is moving swiftly here, gathering up all in front of it in its inertia. Faced with a choice between a workers’ dictatorship and a capitalist one, many anti-Bolshevik Leftists abandoned their grievances and swarmed to the Red barricades in defense of the revolution. Lenin’s position had always been that the revolution was and could only be a clash between an authoritarian workers’ regime and an equally authoritarian bourgeois regime, at this moment it must have seemed to many that he was correct.

Kolchak is defeated, and the Bolsheviks welcomed many converts. Among them were defectors from the PSR who would go on to betray their former party and publicly renounce their anti-Bolshevism in exchange for reduced sentences and/or privileged positions within the Bolshevik bureaucracy. Some PSR leaders were captured and the Bolsheviks announced that they would be brought up on charges.

Thus did the first Moscow show trial commence, with Lenin stage-managing from the wings. He appointed Lev Kamenev, Feliks Dzerzhinskii, and Josef Stalin to the commission which supervised the process. When this group didn’t proceed fast enough to suit him, he created a new troika this time with Trotsky at the helm. The hope was to 1) validate the dictatorship and 2) sever the ties between rank-and-file SRs and the accused leadership. The Bolsheviks were gaining new recruits and they hoped that if they discredited the leadership of the PSR, their loyalists within that party would defect in numbers large enough to eliminate the party altogether. As Trotsky put it: “The most important political tasks of our agitation are to secure definitively for [the Communist Party] these former SR activists and, in general, those former SRs who have already entered the party or are gravitating toward it, to sow doubt and hesitation in SR circles, and thereby to isolate the SR leaders.”

Indeed the trial was part of a larger post-civil war shift in propaganda strategy. Smith: “Lenin expressed the hope that the SR trial would be the first in a series of of model trials aimed at opponents of the Bolshevik dictatorship.” In a letter to People’s Commissar of Justice, Dimitrii Kurskii (Smith’s transliterations are unlike any I have seen before), Lenin  impressed upon his appointee that these show trials would be of “enormous educational significance.” He told the Commissar that with the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) the Soviet judiciary would now be assuming an important propaganda function. Smith: “Although Lenin had by no means abjured the use of terror or abandoned his concept of dictatorship as rule unbound by law, he now informed Kurskii that…the NEP had shifted the main burden of Soviet coercive policy from the Cheka to the…judiciary. Like the Red Terror, in 1918, show trials of the SRs and Mensheviks would define the political landscape in terms of class polarities and map the ineluctable slide from socialist opposition to counterrevolutionary conspiracy.” This precedent set by Lenin would be closely followed for future show trials overseen by his successors.

Lenin, again distressed with the lack of progress before the trial, sent a letter to Trotsky asking about the hold-up. Trotsky replied that there wasn’t much evidence to support the charges.

The trial was a sham; Bolshevik judges, Bolshevik prosecutors, and none other than Nikolai Bukharin, from the CP’s  inner circle, heading up the defense. There were two teams of defendants: lower level SR officials comprised the larger group (B). They had already “confessed” and many would testify against the smaller group (A) ,which consisted mostly of high-ranking PSR Central Committee leaders. The main evidence against the leadership was gleaned from the reports of Grigorii Semenov and Lidiia Konopleva. They were leaders of an SR terror cell under the nominal direction of the Petrograd regional committee who had switched sides when their unit was uncovered by Bolshevik intelligence. The great irony here is that the Bolsheviks, according to Smith, had stumbled upon the very cell which had organized the attempt on Lenin. I suspect Smith was right in that Semenov was the mastermind of the plot, but he may not be correct in thinking that the Bolsheviks were unaware of it. This may have been the leverage which got Semenov and Konopleva to flip.

The defendants had very little in the way of rights at trial–they could not cross examine witnesses against them etc.-but they were able to make statements. One of the more poignant moments came when Abram Gots addressed the court. He stated that the PSR’s objection to Bolshevism lay in its undemocratic nature. He complained that the Bolshevik conception of socialism was too autocratic and that socialism is in its essence democratic and participatory. Apparently Gots was persuasive as the Bolshevik prosecutor arose and said that the revolution had already decided upon the dictatorship and that Gots had to move onto another topic.

The Russian people never got to hear from the A defendants as their statements were censored in the Bolshevik press, only the dubious testimony of the B defendants found its way into print.

In one of the sadder moments of the trial, on the anniversary of the revolution the Bolsheviks brought the defendants out in chains before a Bolshevik-organized parade to be jeered.

The defendants were found guilty. Their sentences were reduced as the Bolsheviks feared that to execute them would appear heavy-handed and may undermine the propaganda value of the trial. For all intents and purposes, the PSR no longer existed.

Smith’s book gives us much to ponder.

Were the defendants guilty of treason?  After all, they did engage the Bolshevik government militarily with the stated purpose of overthrowing it and re-establishing the CA. The thorny question hinges on whether one recognizes the Bolsheviks as the legitimate authority in Russia, and this raises the question as to what constitutes legitimacy. The Bolsheviks seized power in an underhand manner (there are a million accounts, but Reed’s is concise and endorsed by Lenin himself) and retained it by means of lethal repression of precisely those classes in whose name they putatively acted. Certainly the Bolsheviks were in no position to condemn the use of force by parties against whom they themselves had employed force. Moreover, when the workers and peasants had an opportunity to vote, they made it clear that they did not favor the Bolsheviks.

Did they betray socialism? Certainly not. They were no more guilty of counterrevolution and treason than their accusers. The PSR pursued an agenda in parallel with their understanding of what was needed to effect socialism, just as the Bolsheviks did. The PSR’s mistake lay in their initial response to the Bolshevik usurpation of power. Their reticence to engage militarily was clearly the wrong tack as it afforded the Bolsheviks the opportunity to consolidate their forces. When the inevitable conflict did occur the balance of power had shifted to the Bolsheviks and they prevailed. In any case, whatever one attributes Bolshevik success to, the PSR, leadership and rank-and-file, never broke faith with the toiling masses, never stopped working for the worldwide revolution. They were the Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries, and remained so right up until the moment they disappeared under a barrage of false accusations and undeserved scorn.

And, of course, this presents us with a question: What would have the Russian Revolution been if the PSR had triumphed and a more bottom-up, democratic conception of socialism taken root. The abolition of the CA was, in my view, one of the few things the Bolshevik dictatorship got right. The Soviet government was the dictatorship of a political party, a Leninist party. What if the Russian Revolution were led by a non-Leninist, or even non- or semi-Marxist party of revolutionary peasants? Or power had been shared across the full spectrum of socialist tendencies on a broad platform like the CA or the soviets (such as the latter existed before the Bolshevik putsch)? For those who believe that the best or only method to implement socialism is by the rule of a vanguard constituted in the political party, is one-party rule required? Is it better for the revolution that a party eliminate the others so that it can rule unopposed? Or is such consolidation of power and narrowing of critical input inimical to revolution? The authoritarian model is what prevailed in Russia, but at what cost to its objectives? The Bolsheviks survived but did the revolution? By making his party synonymous with socialism, did Lenin send the revolution down a path which could only and did lead to the confounding of the two? The survival of the party became the survival of the revolution, and inconsistencies went unseen or denied. Did not the interests of the Communist Party and the Russian and European Revolution diverge at Brest-Litovsk? The treaty meant that the Bolsheviks would not have to fight a war which almost certainly would have driven them from power even if Russia emerged victorious. It even pissed its Left SR partners off so much that they left the coalition in disgust leaving the Bolsheviks alone in command. However, the treaty dealt a terrible blow to the global revolution by strengthening the German ruling class and enhancing its ability to wage war abroad and counterrevolution at home. Lenin’s shameless capitulation at Brest-Litovsk can only be seen as beneficial if one equates socialism with the party, rather than with the interests of the class it purports to represent.

By the reckoning of virtually the entire Left, Bolshevism failed to produce socialism in Russia. Was this due to unfavorable circumstances, as most Leninists assert, or do political parties contain, as Bakunin insisted, the germ of a new ruling class and thus constitute the vanguard of the counterrevolution? It certainly did in the case of the Russian Revolution. Even if you believe, as I do, that Leninism and Bolshevism are a disaster, that authoritarian socialism is no socialism at all, or, that, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, “socialism cannot be created by ukase from above,” would a CA of SRs, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and other socialist orientations have fared any better? Or would it merely have produced a new ruling class of insignificantly different structure and composition?

Did the PSR lose the civil war because they lost the war of words? Before reading Captives I would have scoffed at such a suggestion. If Smith’s meditation on the language of revolution does nothing else it drives home the importance of political discourse. As Michael Parenti has said, “Words are important because words control ideas and ideas control people.” However, I do not believe the defeat of the SRs can be attributed to bad propaganda. The Bolsheviks seized the initiative when they seized power, They controlled the state and the media; they held the megaphone so it was their voice which was heard. It is this, I suppose, which gave them the critical edge. They were in a position to correct their mistakes, or at least defend them, the PSR had to suffer theirs.

One of Smith’s more interesting points is that the conflict with the SRs determined Bolshevik discourse, and that this discourse affected Bolshevik polity and culture. Equating one’s own faction, as Lenin did, with the revolution, and branding all other competing Left factions as counterrevolutionary, leads inexorably to show trials with their false charges, coerced confessions, ritualized apologies, and–depending on the needs of the party–rehabilitations, of the type which characterized Bolshevik rule from its inception. A party with absolute power and claiming to govern on behalf of a class can never admit it lied to that class. Moreover, as Smith describes ably, the method for dealing with external threats eventually became the the standard procedure for handling dissent within the party. And with each show trial the charges became more absurd, the conspiracies larger, and the threats more menacing. (One can only imagine what Bukharin thought when it was his turn in the dock. He must have reflected upon his role in the SR trial with anguish.)

The parts of Captives which deal with the conflict among the parties, cross-class collaboration, and the Bolshevik dictatorship read like an anarchist hymnal. All the venalities of statism flourished in the Russian Revolution, and, in my view, brought it to ruin.

And a century on we are still living with the effects of Lenin’s binary propaganda strategy. By establishing their narrative–that the civil war was not one of conflicting perceptions of socialism but rather of a life or death struggle between the revolution and counterrevolution–as the official account, the Bolsheviks have made reconciliation and united action between the left and right factions within the workers’ movement well near impossible, as our current fractured status attests.

Smith’s book is unlike any other I know. It bogs down here and there, but it is a superb exposition on revolutionary discourse. I am not sure that readers will emerge from Captives with answers, but it may expand their list of questions, and disabuse them of not a few misconceptions. One can’t ask more from a book.  Captives of Revolution is a splendid contribution to the literature on the language of radical politics, and a must for students of revolution.

One last thought: Hats off to our comrades in the PSR. Before there were Zapatistas or Maoists there were the SRs. Their politics and methods are not mine, but they carried the banner of socialism, our banner, and pursued a course which they believed best for the liberation of working people around the world. And that’s enough for me. They do not deserve the abuse heaped upon them in Leninist remonstrances.

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