The Bolsheviks, the Civil War, and "Red Fascism"

The opening of the state archives in the wake of the disintegration of the Stalinist regime has provided us with access to materials vital to an understanding of the complex process that led to the triumph of the counter-revolution in Russia. While The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression published by Harvard University Press, consists largely of tendentious anti-Bolshevik diatribes, one long piece, by Nicholas Werth is both animated by a real concern to unearth the elements of counter-revolution, and by a familiarity with a mass of hitherto unpublished, but crucial, official documents.

The point of departure for my own analysis is to be found in a framework provided by Victor Serge: “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.’ Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs – a mass of other germs – and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it.” Nor should we revolutionaries of today forget the heritage of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution. But part of that heritage is the brutal crushing of the promise of October. And while a complex of factors condemned the revolution to defeat, the germs that led to Stalinism, germs that were already present in Bolshevism at its moment of triumph, played a decisive role. It is those germs, and that role, that I want to examine here.

Nicholas Werth’s “A State against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union” compels revolutionaries to reflect on the trajectory that led from the October revolution to the triumph of what the German Marxist and revolutionary, Otto Rühle termed “red fascism” (in contrast to the brown fascism of the Nazis). The focus of revolutionaries on the violence of the Bolshevik party-state against the working class at Kronstadt, the treaties of alliance with imperialist states, e.g. Rapallo, or the opening up of the Russian economy to private capital and foreign investment (the NEP), have all centered attention on the early 1920’s as the definitive moment for the triumph of counter-revolution. Werth, however, focuses on the period of civil war (1918-1919). And while he makes no claims about the class nature of the Bolshevik party-state, the documentation he provides (most of it from organs of the party-state and from Bolshevik authorities) is both beyond reproach, albeit one-sided in its focus, and so compelling, that it cannot fail to raise the most far-reaching questions in the minds of those committed to the overthrow of capitalism and its state forms. I want to focus on several issues raised by a reading of Werth’s text: the role of the French revolution as a model for the Bolsheviks, the role of the praktiki (practitioners) within the Bolshevik party, Lenin’s own role as the leading figure in the party, and finally the tendency to what I term the “racialization” of one’s enemies, revolutionaries such as the anarchists, the left SR’s, the Menshevik internationalists (however one might disagree with them programmatically), the working class in the industrial centers of Russia, and the masses of poor peasants, large numbers of whom it became the task of the party-state to exterminate.

It is clear that the French revolution, and in particular the Jacobins (Danton, Robespierre) served as a model for the Bolsheviks in 1917. Yet the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and in the hands of the Jacobins was dominated by a capitalist version of the statolatry that in a crucial sense made it the heir, the continuator, the perfector and not the gravedigger of the ancien régime. Indeed, socialists were always of two minds about the heritage of the French revolution insofar as it constituted a model for the working class in capitalist society. In France, for example, while the (different) traditions represented by Jaurès and Jules Guesde wrapped themselves in the mantle of the Jacobins, the revolutionary syndicalists (Sorel, Monatte) unequivocally rejected such a model for the working class, seeing the Jacobins and the Terror as, in Sorel’s words “worthy of the purest tradition of the ancien régime and of the Inquisition ….” (Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, CUP, 1999, p.98) For Sorel, the issue was not violence, but rather the nature of the violence, its class provenance, and its link to the state and its juridical regime. Thus Sorel could say: “… that syndicalist violence, perpetrated in the course of strikes by proletarians who desire the overthrow of the State, must not be confused with the acts of savagery which the superstition of the State suggested to the revolutionaries of [17]93 when they had power in their hands and were able to oppress the conquered – following the principles which they had received from the Church and from the monarchy. We have the right to hope that a socialist revolution carried out by pure syndicalists would not be defiled by the abominations which sullied the bourgeois revolutions.” (ibid., p.108) The documentation provided by Werth leaves little doubt as to which heritage the Bolsheviks laid claim to during the civil war in their organization of the repressive apparatus and the establishment of a state form.

Discussion of the debates within the Bolshevik party, with respect the question of defensism after the February revolution, the seizure of power in October, the role of the soviets, or the peasant question, for example, focus on theoretical issues and controversies, albeit controversies that have a direct link to praxis. Werth, however provides us with the elements to begin to elaborate a Marxist political sociology of Bolshevism that acknowledges the powerful role played by the pratiki, for whom questions of theory, and the praxis that flowed from it had no interest whatsoever. Instead, the pratiki were concerned with one thing, and one thing only: power! Marxism was of no interest to these elements, who provided the leadership and cadre of the Cheka, and who would recruit elements drawn from the lumpen proletariat to carry out the gruesome work of repression and murder, more often than not directed at revolutionaries, industrial workers or peasant villages. In the course of the civil war, these “practitioners” assumed a power within the Bolshevik party-state that made them virtually unassailable and responsible to no one. Here, not in the reign of Stalin, is the veritable basis for the Gulag and mass murder. And both the consequences of this abominable power that arose within the party-state in the immediate aftermath of the seizure of power in October 1917, and its profound socio-political bases, require a thorough investigation by revolutionaries – an investigation not burdened with the claim that such “excesses” began after the death of Lenin, or as a result of Stalin’s rise to power.

Indeed, one of the most striking facts that emerges from Werth’s account is the extent to which Lenin was directly implicated in the veritable orgy of violence unleashed against revolutionaries, workers, and peasants in the course of the civil war. The Lenin who emerges from the pages of Werth’s text, the Lenin whose own statements are copiously documented, is very different from the Lenin in Switzerland during the war, upholding the best traditions of proletarian internationalism, the Lenin of the “April Theses,” charting a course towards revolution, or the Lenin engaged in his “last struggle,” against the power of bureaucracy, as portrayed by Moishe Lewin. Those other Lenins cannot be ignored or forgotten, but neither can the Lenin who emerges from the pages of Werth’s text , the Lenin who candidly admitted that the “People’s Commissariat for Justice” would be more aptly labeled the “Peoples Commissariat for Social Extermination” (Werth, p.62, my emphasis), the Lenin who sanctioned the taking of hostages and the bombing of peasant villages in order to break strikes and compel deliveries of food (from starving peasants) to the state and its functionaries. It is inconceivable that a civil war against revolutionaries, workers, and poor peasants, alongside the other civil war against White armies, could have been waged by Dzerzhinsky, Ordzhonikidze, and the pratiki, with their power base in the Cheka, without the virtually unqualified support and initiative of Lenin.

Finally, we come to way in which the Bolsheviks saw and constructed their enemies, especially revolutionaries, striking workers, and peasants reduced to starvation. Terms like vermin or lice are indicative of the sub-human status imposed on them. The objective was not the defeat or surrender of these elements, but their extermination or liquidation. The crimes for which these elements were to be murdered was not so much their actions, as their very biological existence. That is why I see a racialization or biologization as an incipient element of the actions of the Bolshevik party-state in the course of the civil wars. The starving peasant transformed into a kulak, the striking workers transformed into lice, the anarchist or left SR designated as vermin, are we not in the ante-chamber of mass murder and genocide; can we fail to see the embryo of what Rühle would designate as red fascism already growing within the womb of the October revolution? We are certainly not there yet, but the seed has sprouted, and any attempt to explain the triumph of the counter-revolution must acknowledge that Werth has traced its origins to actions of the Bolsheviks at the very moment of their triumph.

That the October revolution and the Bolshevik party-state provide no model for a revolution that has as its objective the abolition of the capitalist law of value and the creation of a human Gemeinwesen is something that revolutionaries have long known. Werth, however, forces us to confront the uncomfortable fact that the path to red fascism, which most certainly was not a straight line, nonetheless has its inception a decade before Stalin consolidated his hold on power; before Kronstadt, before the NEP, before Rapallo. If we are to comprehend the process that led to Kolyma, then we have to begin where Werth begins, with the October revolution.


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