Martov’s Mysticism

Albert Goldman

THE PUBLICATION in English of a number of essays by the late Menshevik leader Martov under the title of The State and the Socialist Revolution is intended by its publishers, the semi-syndicalist, semi-anarchist, semi-socialist International Review group, to furnish theoretical arguments for all those who behold in Stalinism a necessary and inevitable product of Leninism. The social-democrats anxious to justify the treacherous rôle of their Menshevik brothers during the Russian Revolution, the intellectuals disheartened and disillusioned by the ugliness of Stalinism and yearning for democracy, peace and righteousness, the pseudo-scientific Marxists eager to defend their passivity by quotations from Marx, will all utilize Martov’s arguments against Bolshevism to assail the movement which accepts the essentials of the Bolshevism of Lenin and rejects Stalinism as the very antithesis of that Bolshevism.

It was not a bad move to choose Martov as the theoretical champion of the various groups and tendencies hostile to Bolshevism. His long history in the revolutionary movement, his knowledge of the works of Marx and Engels, his internationalist position during the World War enable him to play a comparatively effective rôle as an opponent of Bolshevism on moral and intellectual grounds. And besides, he can be transformed into something of a prophet. For did he not, even during the life of Lenin, condemn the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union and is that not sufficient proof that he foresaw the development of Leninism into Stalinism?

No serious Marxist can have the slightest objection to any attempt to re-evaluate Bolshevism in the light of the experience of the last decade and a half. If Bolshevism has been tried and found wanting it is necessary to recognize that fact and proclaim it throughout the world. The interests of the working masses transcend all considerations of prestige and he would indeed be disloyal to those interests who would cling to an ideology which in practise has brought nothing but harm to the working-class movement. But it is equally bad to throw a system of ideas overboard merely because of unexpected and disappointing results. With the intellectuals who have reached the conclusion that Stalinism is the natural outgrowth of Leninism it is a case not of a reasoned analysis but of an emotional reaction to an admittedly terrible situation. If they are looking for a solid theoretical basis to justify their emotional reaction they will have to find something more substantial than the arguments offered by Martov.

"Soviet Mysticism"
Beginning his pamphlet with an attack on what he calls "soviet mysticism" Martov falls into a mysticism just as bad, if not worse, than that which he attributes to the Bolsheviks. According to Martov the Bolsheviks invested the soviets with a magic power. They conceived of them as perfect instruments for the realization of the victory of the proletariat, applicable at all times and under all conditions. It is undoubtedly true that in the days of Lenin when the revolutionary Marxists were compelled to defend the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of soviets as against the dictatorship of the capitalists through parliamentary forms of government, the stress was laid on the superiority of soviets as against a parliamentary régime, with the inevitable result of some exaggerations due to over-emphasis. Not having had any experience with Stalinism the proponents of soviets, in the early days of the revolution, did not discuss the problem of their possible or probable degeneration and the causes for such degeneration. By and large they conceived of them as democratic instruments affording the proletariat a far greater opportunity for initiative and self-expression than that offered by a parliamentary régime and therefore far more suitable to the needs of proletarian democracy.

If nothing else, the constant attempts by Lenin and other prominent Bolsheviks to rid the soviets of bureaucratic distortions prove that Martov has created a straw man in attributing to any responsible Bolshevik thinker the idea that soviets contain something in their very nature which guarantees the victory of the proletariat.

If any one is guilty of mysticism it is Martov who evidently is of the opinion that, once having taken over state power, the soviets are destined to function as the instrument for the dictatorship of a minority. No matter what the conditions may be when the soviets assume power, no matter what takes place afterwards, it is inevitable that they should serve as a means used by a minority to dictate to the majority. Martov’s criticism of the functioning of the soviets in the days of Lenin may or may not be justified but it remains an intricate puzzle why any one should consider that the manner in which the Russian soviets functioned is something inherent to soviets as such regardless of time, place and conditions. It is difficult to see how Martov in criticizing the practises of the Russian soviets should have failed to discuss the problem whether the soviets functioned as they did because of specific Russian conditions or because soviets by their very nature are incapable of functioning in a democratic manner.

The question of course is not whether the mere existence of soviets absolutely guarantees the victory of the proletariat. The destruction of the Russian soviets by the Stalinist regime is sufficient proof that such is not the case. Assume for a moment that the soviets, immediately after the October Revolution, could and would have functioned in the most democratic manner imaginable, it still remains true that the continued existence of soviet democracy and of the soviets themselves would be determined, in the last instance, by social and economic factors and not by the mere existence of democracy, or by the degree of education possessed by the proletariat or by the good will and intentions of the party leading the soviets.

As pointed out by Trotsky in his Revolution Betrayed, the political safeguards described by Marx, Engels and Lenin as essential to a workers’ state are not sufficient to prevent its degeneration. Economic and social conditions are far more powerful factors in determining the development of a soviet regime than any political measures taken to guard against a bureaucratic degeneration. Against adverse economic conditions the best intentions in the world and the greatest number of political safeguards are helpless. Under favorable conditions democracy within the soviets is absolutely essential to assure the building of a socialist society. But it cannot prevail over unfavorable conditions.

Martov’s treatment of the whole subject necessitates a discussion of the relative merits of soviets and parliament for the exercize of working-class rule. We can readily accept his definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat as "the power used by the proletariat to crush all resistance which the exploiting class might oppose to the realization of the socialist and revolutionary transformation", but that still leaves the question open as to the state form through which that dictatorship can be exercized most effectively.

Theoretically there is nothing to prevent the exercize of the dictatorship of the proletariat through a parliamentary régime. Just as theoretically it is possible to conceive of the working class gaining power by getting a majority in a bourgeois parliament. Parliament could be reformed to a point where those characteristics which Marx noted as belonging to the Paris Commune and which Lenin considered essential for soviets would also be part of the parliamentary system. Establish a unicameral system, place the executive branch of the government under the complete control of the legislature, give the right of election and recall at all times, establish the principle that the remuneration of the representatives should be no higher than the average age of a worker and you have a parliament through which the dictatorship of the proletariat can easily express itself. We can go further and say that the feature which most sharply distinguishes soviets from parliament and which affords the greatest opportunity for the industrial workers to dominate the state, that is, the establishment of the factory as the basic electoral unit, can also be made part of the parliamentary system. But then there could be no further argument, for the parliamentary system would be transformed into a soviet system. We would leave the realm of historical reality and enter into the domain of pure abstraction.

History offers no proof whatever that parliaments can be reformed so as to assume all of the characteristics of what we deem to be essential to soviets. On the contrary, the indisputable fact is that even in the most liberal period of capitalist domination the parliamentary system did not offer a great deal of democracy. It was only when the Paris Commune and the soviets came into being that we saw a recognition, in principle at least, of the necessity of completely democratizing the state.

The most decisive factor, however, in raising soviets or workers’ councils to the dignity of a state apparatus is the fact that in the period of revolutionary crisis they constitute the organizations that unite the masses in the struggle for power. In the course of the final struggle against the capitalist ruling class, organizations are created which include and are capable of mobilizing the vast majority of the exploited masses. It is then no longer a theoretical question of the relative merits of soviets and parliament. The latter represents the capitalist ruling class and the former expresses the desire of the proletariat to achieve power. Even prior to the actual seizure of power the soviets assume to function in certain respects as a state and what is more natural than that the successful outcome of the struggle should invest them completely with state powers. The parliamentary régime representing the interests of the capitalist class having been defeated, the organizations of the working masses take place.

Democracy and Soviets
In accepting the thesis that economic and social factors are primary in determining the manner in which the Russian soviets functioned in the early period of the revolution and the course of their development after Lenin’s death, we do not ignore the necessity for and the influence of democratic procedure and of the conduct of the party in the leadership of the soviets. It cannot be too frequently repeated, and the fate of the Soviet Union under Stalin makes it obligatory upon us to do so, that socialism cannot be achieved without the completest soviet democracy. But he leaves the firm ground of Marxism who would make a fetish of democracy, something more than a means to achieve socialism. We can and must enunciate general rules of democratic procedure, but not to recognize that there may possibly arise situations (necessarily, they must be extraordinary) in it would be justifiable to deprive a minority group of its rights is to forget that there is such a thing as a class struggle.

Martov’s labored argument on behalf of universal suffrage assumes that under soviets there would necessarily be a restriction of suffrage. The suffrage would of course be broadened, granting the right to vote to a great number of people who not permitted to vote under capitalism. And under normal conditions there should be no necessity for depriving bourgeois groups of the right to vote. The proletariat does not make its revolution with the intention of depriving any one of any right except the right to exploit labor. Universal suffrage must be recognized as essential to soviet democracy and only the most compelling reasons would justify a temporary violation that rule.

Together with universal suffrage there must exist under a soviet régime the right of groups to organize and adhere to their own parties in opposition to the dominant party; freedom of press and of assembly; the protection of the individual against arbitrary acts of government officials; a fair and impartial trial for everyone accused of a violation of any law. In other words all the democratic rights which a bourgeois democratic republic boasts about but limits in actual practise should prevail in a soviet republic. And not only for workers but also for members of the former ruling class. A proletarian government under normal conditions has nothing to fear from any bourgeois group.

Unfortunately the proletarian revolution first occurred in economically and culturally backward Russia. That backwardness together with the fierce civil war that followed the revolution left their mark upon the character of the soviet régime. Opponents of proletarian revolutions in more advanced countries confuse themselves and try to confuse others by transferring specific characteristics of the Russian Revolution and the Russian soviets to all future revolutions and soviet régimes. There are many innovations introduced by the Russian Revolution which will be adopted by the working classes of more advanced countries but there are just as many features which the American workers, for instance, would never think of copying.

It would have been perfectly legitimate for Martov, and now for any one else, to argue that certain tactics followed by the Bolsheviks were wrong. That it was wrong, for instance, to give the factory workers five times the electoral power granted to the peasants, that it was wrong to arrest enemies or alleged enemies of the revolution without first obtaining a warrant etc., etc. One would be compelled to examine the particular feature under dispute with reference to the situation existing at that time. As it is, Martov and his present followers want everybody to believe that all of the tactics followed by the Bolsheviks were and are considered matters of principle applicable to all revolutions and under all conditions.

As revolutionary Marxists we shall defend the democratic rights of all groups under soviet rule but we must reject the idea that democratic rights are so sacred that they can never be violated even as against enemies of the revolution. The interests of the revolution transcend all other considerations and in normal times those interests can be furthered by the utmost democracy for all groups, including the enemies of the proletariat. To deprive any group of its democratic rights involves the possibility of dangerous consequences, just as injecting a powerful drug into a sick body is involved with danger. But in the world of reality one has to take some chances of making even dangerous mistakes. Only members of the Civil Liberties Union can fight for democracy for all peoples at all times.

It can be admitted that here and there there may have been and probably were needless restrictions on the democratic rights of groups and individuals but for that not only were the civil war and famine conditions to blame but also the attitude of the parties who were opposed to the Bolsheviks and now howl about the "Bolshevik dictatorship". It is quite certain that had all the parties that were represented in the soviets submitted to the soviets, after the Bolsheviks obtained a majority, there would have been a great deal more of democracy than there actually was. The decision of the Right factions and of the Martov group to leave the soviets and the subsequent defense of the counterrevolution by some of the Right Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists created a situation where it was impossible for the soviets to function in as democratic a manner as was desirable.

If the Bolsheviks under great stress at times violated soviet democracy, the social-democrats would have nothing to do with working-class democracy. They clung to democracy only when it meant their right to control the soviets. and with it the right of the capitalists and landlords to control the nation. In their desire to assure the victory of the working class the Bolsheviks may have made mistakes, but in their attitude of hostility or passivity to the revolution the social-democrats of all varieties were guilty of crimes against the working masses.

Marxism, Blanquism and Passivity
According to Martov all the errors of the Bolsheviks can he traced to their failure to understand the necessity of waiting for the proletariat to be completely educated to the realization that socialism is desirable and necessary. The Bolsheviks, if we believe Martov, represent the tradition of Blanquism which stood for the idea of an active minority gaining power during a period of revolutionary ferment when the uneducated majority is willing to follow the extreme faction. Having achieved power this minority would change the capitalist psychology of the majority by education. The Bolsheviks, in other words, are metaphysical materialists in contrast to Martov and others who were anxious to postpone the revolution to some future date and are therefore justified in classifying themselves as dialectic materialists.

No revolutionary Marxist will quarrel with the general propositions enunciated by Martov to the effect that the social consciousness of the proletariat is determined by its social life; that the conditions of capitalist society compel the proletariat to enter on the road of struggle against those conditions and in the course of the struggle both the environment and the consciousness of the proletariat emancipates itself mentally and culturally.

But Martov’s formulation, correct in a general way, cannot solve a single serious problem, let alone the problem of problems, the question of the social revolution. While he does not forget to mention that the conscious will of the revolutionary vanguard has something to do with the process of educating the proletariat, his whole attitude can be correctly described as a passive one, hoping for a well-mannered revolution to occur in the far-distant future. It has been explained over and over again that Marxism differs from Blanquism not because the latter believes in the decisive action of a minority but in that it considers the necessity of having the action of the minority depend upon prevailing social factors, including amongst them the degree of education and the state of mind of the working class and the lower middle class.

What heights of education must the proletariat reach? What is the degree of understanding that it must have of the socialist outlook? Martov would have agreed that the possibility for examining the masses to test their knowledge of socialism is excluded. He would have agreed even that all that the masses can be expected to comprehend, under the adverse conditions of capitalism, is that the present system is unbearable and that it is necessary to take over the factories and produce for the welfare of the people. The world of reality does not permit the working class to acquire knowledge gradually. Under conditions of capitalist decay the proletariat is confronted with the choice: take power or suffer the consequences of fascism and decades of ruthless oppression. The pedantic approach of Martov has nothing in common with revolutionary Marxism and can only serve the reformists with an excuse for their betrayals.

Martov’s emphasis on the abstract proposition that there must be an educated proletariat leads him to underestimate completely the effective rôle of the vanguard. Granting the overwhelming importance of objective conditions, it is senseless to think that the workers can achieve victory without a leadership formulating correct tactics and strategy. The masses do not come together on their own initiative and decide when and how to take power. They who loudly proclaim that the workers require no leadership are in reality against any leadership but their own.

The existence of an active minority is part of the general environment, and its activities have a bearing both on the change of the environment and the transformation of the mental attitudes of the masses. Were we to agree with Martov we would have to conclude that the educational activities of the minority leading a class that is in power are without any effect. But what an unreasonable conclusion that would be. If the capitalist minority can and does mould the thinking of the masses through control of all educational and propaganda facilities why can not the party placed in power by the workers utilize the means at its disposal to teach the workers the ideas and practises of socialism?

The intellectuals who are in mortal fear of a disciplined party will do us a great favor if they will figure out how the proletariat can emancipate itself without any leadership. We must unfortunately admit that dangers of bureaucratic development exist in every party, but the fact still remains that to reject the necessity for a party means to reject the proletarian revolution and to invite fascism.

Measured by every standard and even taking into consideration the actual results of Stalinist degeneration, the action of Lenin and his party are more than justified before history. The present Martovs can sit back and bemoan the fate of mankind; the revolutionists will build the Fourth International and follow in the footsteps of Lenin.

First published in the New International, December 1938.