Book Review from the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Zinoviev & Martov: Head to Head in Halle. With introductory essays by Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih. (November Publications. 2011.)
In October 1920 the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had broken away from the pro-war SPD in 1917 and which numbered amongst its members such pre-WWI Social Democrat tenors as Kautsky, Bernstein and Hilferding, met in Halle to decide whether or not to affiliate to the Russian Bolsheviks’“Comintern”or “Third International”.
The German authorities allowed the head of the Comintern, Gregory Zinoviev, to enter Germany while the Bolshevik authorities allowed the leading Menshevik Julius Martov to leave Russia, both to take part. Zinoviev spoke for over four hours in what Ben Lewis claims was “one of the most significant speeches of the 20th century workers’ movement.”
Lenin had justified the Bolsheviks seizing power in backward Russia on the grounds that this was only the first event in the world socialist revolution. He also justified the Bolsheviks using all means to stay in power –including suppressing opponents, invading Poland and stirring up a holy war against the West amongst Muslims, all of which Zinoviev defended in his speech –until they were rescued by the revolution spreading to Europe and in particular Germany.
In 1920 the leading Bolsheviks were still in this mode. There is no doubting their sincerity, only their judgement. Zinoviev’s main argument was that as the world revolution was under way you were either for or against the government of the one place where it had already triumphed. How divorced from reality he was can be gauged from his claim that in England “the beginning of the proletarian revolution can be clearly seen”. He added, “I am convinced that in two or three years, it will be said that this was the beginning of a new era. The proletarian revolution has a great chance in England.”
In his contribution Martov argued that the workers in Europe were certainly discontented but that this was not an expression of socialist consciousness but of elemental despair. He accused the Bolsheviks of exploiting this to come to power instead of trying to turn it into the socialist understanding required before socialism could be established, a view which he claimed the USPD was committed to. Hence the title of his talk “May the USPD be preserved”.
Referring to Russia, he said that the Bolshevik party had “conquered state power in a country with a proletariat that was numerically insignificant, a country with an insignificant productivity of labour, with a complete lack of the basic economic and cultural preconditions for the organisation of socialist production - and these objective conditions presented the Bolsheviks with an insurmountable obstacle for the realisation of their ideals.”He went on to point out that “the development of the revolution in the West …is not going as quickly as the Bolshevik party had reckoned when it obtained state power through a fortunate confluence of circumstances and then used this power in an attempt to turn Russia into a socialist country by a radically accelerated path.”
The extent to which the Bolshevik leaders really did believe at this time that they were turning “Russia into a socialist country”can be gauged from a passage in an article included in this book that Zinoviev later wrote on his “Twelve Days in Germany”:
“We are approaching a time when we shall do away with all money. We are paying wages in kind, we are introducing free tramways, we have free schools, a free dinner, perhaps for the time being unsatisfactory free housing, light, etc.”
Zinoviev won the debate and a majority of the USPD voted to affiliate to the Comintern and become the Communist Party of Germany (the minority eventually rejoined the SPD). But within a year Martov was proved right about the Bolsheviks’ prospects in Russia. In 1921 they were forced to abandon trying to establish a moneyless society and to introduce the New Economic Policy, described by Lenin as “state capitalism”or the development of capitalism under the control of the “proletarian state”(as he called the Bolshevik regime). Four years later when he broke with Stalin, Zinoviev went further and described Russia’s nationalised industries as “state capitalism”(see Weekly Worker, 8 January, 1926) and was criticised by both Stalin and Trotsky for admitting this.
Lih says that Martov could be seen as a sort of “premature Trotskyist” in that he applied the same arguments to why the Russian Revolution would degenerate (economic backwardness and isolation) “to events and processes that the Trotskyist tradition treats in a more admiring way”- in fact from day one of Bolshevik rule.
Martov, wisely, did not return to Russia and died in exile in Germany in 1923. Zinoviev ended up being shot in 1936 as a “counter-revolutionary”, a victim of the same sort of terror and logic he had defended in Halle in 1920.