The October Revolution’s Other Party

spiridonovaLeft SR leader Maria Spiridonova (center, wearing glasses). Photo courtesy of Getty Images and Russia Beyond the Headlines

October’s Number Two Party: Who Helped the Bolsheviks Prevail?
Yaroslav Leontiev
Vedomosti
December 8, 2017

The First All-Russian Congress of the Party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Internationalists) took place a hundred years ago in St. Michael’s Castle in Petrograd. The Left SRs were the second largest force in the October Revolution, providing the Bolsheviks with support in rural areas and amongst rank-and-file soldiers. Sixty-eight SR organizations gathered in the building where writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, physiologist Ivan Sechenov, and engineer Pavel Yablochkov had once studied. [From 1823, St. Michael’s Castle housed the Russian Army’s Main Engineering School. Now a branch of the Russian Museum, the castle is thus still alternately referred to as Engineers’ Castle—TRR.]

“Our party’s first congress was, in effect, not a congress, but a hasty review, as it were, of representatives of a certain mindset,” Prosh Proshyan, a Left SR leader and congress attendee, recalled later.

“If I had not been in Petersburg in 1917, the October Revolution would have happened—if Lenin had been present and in charge. But if neither Lenin or I had been in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution. […] If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I would hardly have managed. […] The revolution’s outcome would have been in doubt,” said Trotsky.

Yet if Maria Spiridonova, Boris Kamkov, and other Left SR leaders had not been in Petrograd at the time, it is by no means a fact the revolution’s victory would have been secured at the All-Russian Congresses of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies. And victory itself for the Bolsheviks would have been a dubious proposition without allies, if we have in mind the Russia beyond the two capitals and the major industrial cities.

After winning the majority of mandates at the Extraordinary All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies in November 1917 (Spiridonova was elected its chair), the Left SRs were heavily involved in the events leading up to the revolution. When the Military Revolutionary Committee was established in Petrograd on October 12, 1917, Pavel Lazimir, an army paramedic and Left SR, was elected its chair. The field headquarters of the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Bolshevik Nikolai Podvoisky, would be established later, right before the armed assault on October 25.

In many cities, Left SRs were heavily involved in coups and the armed seizure of power. This forced the SR Central Committee (which had not yet split into factions) to dissolve the Petrograd, Helsingfors (Helsinki), and Voronezh party organizations. In certain cases, Left SRs themselves headed revolutionary committees, in particular, in Kharkov and Pskov. The chair of the Astrakhan People’s Power Committee, which had taken over the region, was Ensign Alexander Perfiliev, a Left SR. In Smolensk, the Bolshevik-dominated revolutionary committee, which included two Left SRs and one anarchist, joined with the provincial congress of peasant deputies and elected Dr. Yevgeny Razumov, who had attended the founding congress of the Left SRs, head of the local Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars). The chief of staff of the revolutionary military units who took power in Tashkent was Pavel Domogatsky, a Left SR and private in the First Siberian Reserve Rifle Regiment. In Kazan, Left SRs organized and headed the revolutionary committee, which competed with the Bolshevik revolutionary HQ in the battle for the hearts and minds of the masses. During General Kornilov’s attempted putsch in September 1917, the Central Staff of the Red Guards in Moscow consisted of seven Bolsheviks, six Left SRs, six Left Mensheviks, and three independents. Ensign Yuri Sablin, a Left SR member of the Moscow Revolutionary Committtee HQ, commanded a special detachment that advanced from the Strastnoi Monastery to the Nikitsky Gates and captured the mayor’s building on Tverskoi Boulevard. Another famous Russian Civil War commander, Vasily Kikvidze, a Left SR and volunteer in a Hussar regiment, was deputy chair of the Military Revolutionary Committee on the Southwestern Front during the First World War.

The_Soviet_Union_1970_CPA_3921_stamp_(Vasily_Kikvidze)

1970 Soviet four-kopeck postage stamp memorializing Left SR Vasily Kikvidze as a “hero of the Civil War.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The Left SRs had a huge influence on the sailors of the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

“The only Mensheviks and SRs in our midst were left-wing and internationalist,” midshipman and Bolshevik Fyodor Raskolnikov described the circumstances.

Consequently, the Left SRs headed the Kronstadt Soviet. The main bulwark of revolutionary forces in Petrograd, the Kronstadt Soviet commanded the detachment sent to storm the Winter Palace and to the Pulkovo Heights against Krasnov’s troops. The commander of the Petrograd Military District at the time was the future rebel commander of the Eastern Front, Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Muravyov, and the city’s air defense was headed by NCO Konstantin Prokopovich. Both Muravyov and Prokopovich had joined the Left SRs.

Although the Left SRs did not immediately join the government (the first Left SR to be authorized by the peasant congress, on November 19, to join the government was Andrei Kolegayev, appointed People’s Commissar for Agriculture), they did share responsibility for the seizure of power with the Bolsheviks: there was one Bolshevik and one Left SR in each of the thirteen departments of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. At a plenary session of theCentral Executive Committee on November 6, seven Left SR leaders, including Spiridonova, Kamkov, and Mark Natanson, were elected to its presidium, and Grigory Smolyanksy, former chair of the Left SR committee in Kronstadt, was appointed one of the Central Executive Committee’s two secretaries. On December 12, another five prominent Left SRs were added to the Central Executive Committee’s presidium.

1920px-Совет_народных_комиссаров_(Ленин,_Штейнберг,_Комков,_Бонч-Бруевич,_Трутовский...),_1918A meeting of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars), circa December 1917–January 1918, featuring (from left to right) Isaac Steinberg, Ivan Skvortsov-Stepanov, Boris Kamkov, Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich, Vladimir Trutovsky, Alexander Shlyapnikov, Prosh Proshyan, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Alexandra Kollontai, Pavel Dybenko, E.K. Kosharova, Nikolai Podvoisky, Nikolai Gorbunov, V.I. Nevsky, Alexander Shotman, and Georgy Chicherin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The second non-Bolshevik member of the government, appointed by the Sovnarkom on November 25, was engineer Lev Kronik, who was made a member of staff at the People’s Commissariat for Posts and Telegraphs. During December 1917, the Sovnarkom and VTsIK appointed seven more Left SRs People’s Commissars. Prosh Proshyan, only son of the classic Armenian writer Pertch Proshyan, was named People’s Commissar for Posts and Telegraphs. Isaac Steinberg was named People’s Commissar of Justice. Vladimir Trutovsky was appointed People’s Commissar for Local Self-Government, and Vladimir Karelin, People’s Commissar for the Republic’s Property. Two more Left SRs were made people’s commissars without portfolios, working on the staffs of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs and the People’s Commissariat of Military and Naval Affairs, respectively. They had the right to vote at sessions of the Sovnarkom.

Later, in January and February 1918, the Left SRs increased their presence in the central government and local governments. They joined nearly all the regional governments (Moscow Region, the Ural Region, the Siberian Soviet Government, etc.). Alexander Malitsky, who headed the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Railway Union, was appointed to the staff of the People’s Commissariat of Railways. Other Left SRs joined the staff of the People’s Commissariat for Food and held key posts in the Red Army, having literally put their hand to the decree founding the Red Army. Left SR Vyacheslav Alexandrovich (Dmitriyevsky) was Felix Dzerzshinsky’s right-hand man in the Cheka, and would be one of the first Left SRs shot by his ex-colleagues in July 1918. The influential Left SR Anastasia Bitsenko was, practically speaking, the first female Soviet diplomat: she was an official member of the Soviet peace delegation at the negotiations in Brest. Meanwhile, Spiridonova was essentially Yakov Sverdlov’s deputy on the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets. She chaired its peasant section, which had its own staff and published the newspaper Voice of the Working Peasantry (Golos trudovogo krestyanstva). It was in the Voice and the party’s central newspaper, Banner of Labor (Znamya truda) that the whole of Russia read the revolutionary poetry of Alexander Blok and Sergei Yesenin, who supported the Left SRs.

But the Bolshevik-Left SR coalition proved fragile: it did not last long. In January 1918, when, at the behest of the Left SRs, the All-Russian Congresses of Workers’ and Soldier’s Deputies, and Peasants’ Deputies merged, and the Left SR “Basic Law on the Socialization of Land” was adopted, nothing foreshadowed the imminent break between the allies. Rejection of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky and anti-peasant Bolshevik decrees would move the Left SRs to engage in peaceful and, later, armed struggle against the Bolsheviks. On July 6, 1918, after Left SR uprisings in Moscow and the cities of the Volga region, a full-fledged war broke out between the erstwhile allies. But this is another story.

Yaroslav Leontiev is a professor in the Faculty of State Management of Moscow State University. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Ilya Budraitskis: The Perpetual “Trotskyist” Conspiracy

Who Is Behind the Trotskyist Conspiracy?
Ilya Budraitskis
November 21, 2014
OpenLeft.ru

Speaking at a meeting of his All-Russia People’s Front a couple days ago, Vladimir Putin said, “Trotsky had this [saying]: the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing. We need an ultimate aim.” Eduard Bernstein’s proposition, misquoted and attributed for some reason to Leon Trotsky, is probably the Russian president’s most common rhetorical standby. He has repeated it for many years to audiences of journalists and functionaries while discussing social policy, construction delays at Olympics sites or the dissatisfaction of the so-called creative class. “Democracy is not anarchism and not Trotskyism,” Putin warned almost two years ago.

Putin’s anti-Trotskyist invectives do not depend on the context nor are they influenced by his audience, and much less are they veiled threats to the small political groups in Russia today who claim to be heirs of the Fourth International. Putin’s Trotskyism is of a different kind. Its causes are found not in the present but in the past, buried deep in the political unconscious of the last generation of the Soviet nomenklatura.

The strange myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy, which emerged decades ago, in another age and a different country, has experienced a rebirth throughout Putin’s rule. Sensing, apparently, the president’s personal weakness for “Trotskyism,” obliging media and corrupted experts have turned this Trotskyism into an integral part of the grand propaganda style. Until he died, the indefatigable “Trotskyist” Boris Berezovsky spun his nasty web from London. Until he turned into a conservative patriot, the incendiary “Trotskyist” Eduard Limonov seduced young people with extremism. Camouflaged “Trotskyists” from the Bush and, later, the Obama administrations have continued to sow war and color revolutions. Unmasking “Trotskyists” has become such an important ritual that for good luck, as it were, the famous Dmitry Kiselyov decided to launch a new media resource by invoking it. So what is the history of this conspiracy? And what do Trotskyists have to do with it?

Conspiracy theories are always conservative by nature. They do not offer an alternative assessment of events but, constantly tardy, chase behind them, inscribing them after the fact into their own pessimistic reading of history. Thus, in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797), the Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, a pioneer of modern conspiracy theory, situated the French Revolution, which had already taken place, in the catastrophic finale of a grand conspiracy of the Knights Templar against the Church and the Capetian dynasty. Masonic conspiracy theories became truly powerful in the late nineteenth century, when the peak of the Masons’ power had already passed. Finally, the idea of a Jewish conspiracy acquired its final shape in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated by the tsarist secret police at the turn of the twentieth century, when the power of Jewish finance capital had already been undermined by the rising power of industrial capital. Conspiracy theories have always drawn energy from this distorted link with reality, because the fewer conspirators one could observe in the real world, the more boldly one could endow them with incredible magical powers in the imaginary world.

In keeping with the reactive, belated nature of conspiracy theories, the myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy emerged in the Soviet Union when the Left Opposition, Trotsky’s actual supporters, had long ago been destroyed. Unlike, however, the conspiracies of the past, generated by secret agents and mad men of letters, the foundations of the Trotskyist conspiracy were tidily laid by NKVD investigators. The distorting mirror logic of the Great Terror dictated that, although the “Trotskyists” skillfully concealed themselves, and any person could prove to be one, the conspiracy must necessarily be exposed. An unwritten law of Stalinist socialism was that the truth will out, and this, of course, deprived the conspiracy theory of its telltale aura of mystery.

After Stalin’s death, when the Purges were a thing of the past, and Soviet society had begun to become inhibited and conservative, the conspiracy myth took on more familiar features. The stagnation period, with its general apathy, distrust, and societal depression, was an ideal breeding ground for the conspiracy theory. No one had seen any live Trotskyists long ago, and it was seemingly silly to denounce them, but everyone was well informed about the dangers of Trotskyism.

10486371_10205372588653614_1077162896_nDuring meaningless classes on “Party history,” millions of Soviet university students learned about the enemies of socialism, the Trotskyists, who had been vanquished long ago in a showdown. Millions of copies of anti-Trotskyist books were published; by the 1970s, this literature had become a distinct genre with its own canon. Its distinguishing feature was a free-form Trotskyism completely emancipated from any connection with actual, historical Trotskyism.

In fact, the Trotskyism of Soviet propaganda was structurelessness incarnate, a misunderstanding. It was “lifeless schema, sophistry and metaphysics, unprincipled eclecticism, […] crude subjectivism, exaggerated individualism and voluntarism.” Unlike the classic monsters of conspiracy theory, the Masons and the Elders of Zion, the Trotskyists did not run the world. They were failed conspirators: they were always exposed, unless, through their own haste and impulsiveness, they managed to expose themselves. In keeping with Stalinist socialist realism, their inept evil deeds caused seizures of Homeric laughter among the people and the Party. And yet, recovering from each shameful defeat, they kept on trying. The Trotskyists had no clear plan for establishing global domination, but without a clear purpose, they were dangerous in their passionate desire to instill chaos in places where harmony, predictability, and order reigned.

In their work, these Trotskyists were guided by the crazed “theory of permanent revolution” (which had nothing in common, substantially, with Trotsky’s theory except the name). Its essence is that the revolution should not have any geographical or time constraints. It has no aims, no end, and no meaning. It raises questions where all questions have long been solved. It instills doubt where all doubts have been resolved long ago. A normal person would never be able to understand anything about this theory except one thing: it was invented to ruin his life.

Mikhail Basmanov, author of the cult book In the Train of Reaction: Trotskyism from the 1930s to the 1970s, quoted above, noted, “Unlike many other political movements that had the opportunity to confirm their ideological and political doctrines through the practice of state-building, Trotskyism has not put forward a positive program of action in any country in all the years of its existence.” It is so destructive, that “with its cosmopolitanism, carried to the point of absurdity, which excludes the possibility of developing national programs, Trotskyism undermines the stances even of its own ‘parties’ in certain countries. […] Trotskyism is entangled in the nets of its own theories.”

It is important that the idea of the Trotskyist conspiracy against practical reason, reality, and stability was never popular in late-Soviet society: it did not grow, like the “blood libel,” from the dark superstitions of the mob. It remained a nightmare for only one segment, the ruling bureaucracy, which transmitted the myth of the senseless and merciless “permanent revolution” to future generations in Party training courses and KGB schools.

The Soviet theory of the Trotskyist conspiracy reflected the subconscious fear of ungovernability on the part of the governing class.  Devoid of any personalities, the legend of Trotskyism was something like the “black swan” of “actually existing socialism.”

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This, by the way, is its fundamental difference from the version of the Trotskyist conspiracy popular among some American conservatives. In America, it is merely one of many varieties of the “minority conspiracy,” a small group of people who have, allegedly, seized power and are implementing their anti-Christian, globalist ideas from the top down. The fact that the anti-Trotskyist conspiracy theory of the so-called paleoconservatives has become popular in recent years among Kremlin experts and political scientists only goes to show that the old Soviet “Trotskyist conspiracy” has suffered a deficit in terms of its reproduction.

When he confuses Bernstein and Bronstein, Vladimir Putin, however, is not unfaithful to the Soviet anti-Trotskyist legend. Yes, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” The chaos generated by the movement is inevitable, as inevitable as time itself. It moves inexorably toward “permanent revolution,” which cannot be completed and with which one cannot negotiate.

In a recent interview, former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky, while skillfully avoiding the issue of “Trotskyism,” nevertheless had this to say about Putin:

“He has frightened himself. Where should he go next? What next? This is a terrible problem in politics, the problem of the second step. He stepped beyond what he was ready for and got lost: where to go now?  […] The gap between [the annexation of] Crimea and subsequent actions is quite noticeable. It is obvious that everything afterwards was an improvisation or reaction to other people’s actions. People who are afraid of the future forbid themselves from thinking about which path to choose. When you have not set achievable goals, you begin to oscillate between two poles: either you do nothing or you get sucked into a colossal conflict.”

The worst thing is that the specter of Trotskyism, as has happened with many other specters in history, is quite capable of materializing. The post-Soviet system has entered a period of crisis, in which the ruling elite has fewer and fewer chances to manage processes “manually.” For the Trotskyist nightmare of the elites to become a reality, there is no need for live Trotskyists. The need for them arises only when hitherto silent and long-suffering forces come to their senses and raise the question of their own aims. But that is a different story.

Ilya Budraitskis is a historian, researcher, and writer.