Reviewed by Bill Jefferies
Evgeny Preobrazhensky was a Bolshevik organiser before 1917 and a leader of the Left Communists during the civil war period. During the 1920s he was the foremost economist of the Left Opposition, before he was expelled, rehabilitated, expelled again, arrested and eventually murdered by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s. This collection of his writings, which forms the first part of his collected works, consists of three parts. The first covers the period from 1886 up to the revolution of 1917, the second covers the revolution and civil war of 1917-1920, and the third provides a selection of his published works. Translated by Richard B. Day, it was collected by Mikhail Gorinov from the Soviet archive. It is a labour of love on the part of its editors, and seeks to restore Preobrazhensky’s reputation as a Marxist economist and theorist of the highest order.
The division of the book traces the various stages of Preobrazhensky’s early political career. The appropriate part of Preobrazhensky’s 1925 autobiographical essay sets the scene to parts one and two. The son of a clergyman, he was part of the Russian lower middle class intelligentsia that embraced Marxism as the best expression of their desire for a modern advanced Western society. They believed that the coming bourgeois revolution would rid Russia of the Tsarist autocracy and usher in a period of capitalist democracy. Many of those intellectuals made their peace with capitalism, but not Preobrazhensky. He was a revolutionary committed to international working class revolution. Preobrazhensky absorbed the method of Second International Marxism in its Russian, most militant and materialist form, through the influence of Plekhanov and Lenin.
Preobrazhensky’s writings in the period up to the revolution repeat this Bolshevik orthodoxy, but never go beyond its limits. Mainly composed of short propaganda pieces, and including reviews of poetry and analyses of economics and politics, these writings hint at Preobrazhensky’s intellectual range, but no more. He is unafraid to criticise such eminences as Kautsky and Plekhanov, but he never goes beyond the prescribed limits. He is a true party man, in favour of the international working class revolution, but like most Old Bolsheviks he was opposed to Lenin’s Theses of April 1917 (276) on the grounds that the Russian revolution was bourgeois. There was no dual power in May 1917; rather, the Provisional Government represented the bourgeois revolution. In August he pondered that the revolution may have ended and that it could go no further (279). He thought that the party should fight for peace, and that it should also fight for socialism only in the event of a revolution in the West(291). It is not clear if he actually opposed the October insurrection; but if he did, he could not escape its transformative effect.
After the seizure of power he comes to life, and so too does the collection. The hints of something more than the ordinary are transformed into a consistent alternative to the path advocated by Lenin and Trotsky. Preobrazhensky anticipated the otherwise unforeseen and ultimately fatal effects of many of the key early decisions of the Bolshevik dictatorship. The areas of debate included the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the attitude towards revolutionary war, the abolition of the limits on wages for specialists, the creation of a new class of administrators and careerists inside the ruling stratum, the attitude towards military experts in the Red Army, and economic policy in the Urals.
The collapse of the Russian army on the Eastern front explains much about the success of the revolution in October 1917. The peasantry, who formed the mass of Russian soldiers, wanted peace. As the revolution swept the countryside they were desperate to return home in order to guarantee their share of the land. The revolution hastened the disintegration and subsequent collapse of the Russian army.
It had not been rebuilt by December 1917. The Bolsheviks had hoped for a revolution in the West to assist the seizure of power, but it had yet to arrive. How to end the war with Germany on the Eastern Front? The German High Command had pressures of their own; successes in the West meant that there was an urgent need to relocate their forces from the East to defeat the French and British. The Germans were aware that the Russian army was in a process of collapse and that they could conquer swathes of Poland, the Ukraine and Russia, opening a threat to Moscow and St Petersburg, but the near collapse of the German home front demanded a speedy resolution to the war.
The negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, on the border of modern day Poland and Belarus, began on 15 December 1917. They posed key questions of revolutionary strategy and principles. The Soviet negotiations were led by Trotsky, but although Trotsky’s own position of neither war nor peace was widely supported within the Bolshevik Party, it was just one of three. On the right stood Lenin and a small minority of the Central Committee, who wanted to sign the Brest-Litovsk treaty under almost any conditions. Lenin reasoned that with the army in a state of collapse and the international revolution yet to arrive, the priority was to retain state power at almost any costs. Russian soviet power would provide a base from which to spread the revolution at some point in the future. He was opposed by the ‘Left’, or more accurately by the supporters of revolutionary war. Preobrazhensky explained in an article entitled ‘War or Peace?’(318-331), published in four parts in March 1918, that Lenin’s maintenance of Soviet authority was to be bought at a very high price: the ‘existence of Courland and Estonia, with the self-determination of Lithuania and Poland, with reparations, with Ukrainian grain and with a temporary refusal to fight against German imperialism’(322). The peace treaty may have been popular in Russia, the base of Lenin’s support, but what about those areas handed over to German occupation? Worse, the ‘conclusion of an annexationist peace with the German imperialists would inflict the most severe blow to the international workers movement, because it would mean the beginning of an end to the War according to the imperialist method, with annexations and indemnities in the East’(320). It would open the possibility of a general imperialist ‘peace’, not a revolutionary one. It ignored the balance of military and class forces on the Eastern front. The German High Command could ignore its provisions if they wished. At the same time, the treaty prohibited preparations for a revolutionary war: this was an inevitability given the objective conditions, but it blurred the difference between the revolutionary policy and the opportunist one, as the difference between words and deeds was no longer obvious. It meant the dissolution of the Soviet armed forces and a halt to revolutionary propaganda. These were intolerable provisions that would be broken from day one, providing Germany with the excuse to violate the treaty whenever it wanted.
History is written by the victors, and the history of Brest-Litovsk is no exception. Lenin won by appealing to the war-weary masses over the heads of the revolutionaries. Trotsky’s position of neither one thing nor the other collapsed with the German advance. He ended up in Lenin’s camp. Presented with a fait accompli, the Bolshevik Party rallied behind their leaders and the supporters of revolutionary war were isolated and defeated. They were to be dismissed as romantics prepared to gamble soviet power in the vain hope of international revolution. But was their position really so stupid? The treaty was signed in March 1918, but was effectively over by September, when the outbreak of the German revolution ended the First World War. Could the Germans really have destroyed the revolution in five months? Even if they had briefly captured St Petersburg and Moscow, they could never have held them. Any offensive in the East would have speeded the disintegration of the German forces, and a civil war was indeed inevitable and needed to be prepared for. The Bolsheviks paid a high price for the treaty. By raising the maintenance of state power above the international revolution they established a dangerous precedent that was to destroy them.
Before the revolution Preobrazhensky was a Bolshevik organiser in the Urals, in central Asia, and after it he led the soviet government there. His writings describe the problems faced by the revolution in that region, and highlight many of the issues facing soviet power in general. His economic skills feature strongly, and demonstrate in particular his very clear understanding of the problem of transition from capitalism to socialism: the transitional state required a transitional economic policy (408). He opposed the use of Tsarist officers in the army beyond a certain minimum(368). He opposed the payment of bonus payments to engineering and military specialists, on the grounds that the capitalist economy had collapsed and these specialists had nowhere to sell their labour party except to the state, but more importantly these payments created an economically distinct caste in the state apparatus and army (403). The Red Army was part of the mechanism of the Soviet state and the proletariat needed to create its own military apparatus to replace that of the autocracy (412). The use of Tsarist officers enabled the exploitation of their skills, but only at a price. First, the direct betrayals of perfidious officers who wanted the restoration of Tsarism; second, as importantly, it was the path of least resistance, and the use of these officers meant the inadvertent re-creation of a replica of the Tsarist army, in terms of its traditions, organisation and hierarchy. The higher salaries paid to military specialists undermined morale and created an economically privileged caste (422). This was mirrored in the Soviet state and Bolshevik Party, where the payment of bonuses fostered the emergence of a privileged Soviet bureaucracy as a ‘stratum economically better off’(408). This caste received definite material benefits that reflected its distinct power, in terms of higher payments, more comfortable apartments, better food and conditions, improved access to transport and other necessities (422).This formed a conservative bureaucratic caste like in the labour bureaucracy of Germany and England (423). This undermined democracy, as the apparatus postponed and manipulated elections to maintain their position. These self-seeking party careerists and criminal elements needed to be purged, and the economic privileges that underpinned their power needed to be removed (423).Preobrazhensky’s clarity on the material basis of the eventual degeneration of the revolution was directly counter to the opinion and policy of Trotsky and Lenin at the time. Trotsky, the Red Army chief, advocated and prioritised the use of military and engineering specialists, and differential payments to motivate them, as essential to the reconstruction of the army and economy. Trotsky considered their use so critical in the civil war that he strongly opposed the ‘military opposition’ who emphasised the creation of a soviet trained officer corps, while Lenin considered that a state capitalist stage was necessary to develop the economy within a type of managed market economy. These issues formed the background to a dispute around the national and agrarian questions in central Asia that was put into sharp focus by the loss of Perm, the regional capital in December 1918, the struggle against Denikin in Orel during 1919, and the uprising of the Muslim population around Bashkir. It is very hard to judge the rights and wrongs of the episode at this distance, but it appears that Trotsky held Preobrazhensky responsible for exacerbating national tensions by not adequately respecting the right of self-determination of the Bashkir Republic. In three messages published in February/March 1920 (506, 507) Trotsky demanded Preobrazhensky’s removal. Stalin supported the military opposition as a means of undermining Trotsky in the Red Army. This possibly explains why Stalin felt that he could use Preobrazhensky at the centre, so Preobrazensky was moved to Moscow as the Secretary of the Central Committee (CC)(508).
Preobrazhensky’s diary was seized by the NKVD at the time of his arrest in the late 1920s.Its record of the CCs work provides a very interesting insight into the political and organisational challenges faced by the Bolshevik leadership in the final phase of the civil war the invasion and retreat from Poland from April to October 1920, which reprised the debates at the time of Brest-Litovsk, but the protagonists’ roles were reversed: now Lenin was the chief enthusiast for revolutionary war, against the reservations of Trotsky and Preobrazhensky.
Preobrazensky reports on 4 May that there was a ‘general conviction that the Poles will be defeated and things will, in all probability end with the declaration of Soviet power in Warsaw’ (517). Nonetheless, not all was well. The British, through Curzon, offered mediation by the Entente and League of Nations. Trotsky observed that the Poles were not surrendering but retreating in good order. Radek explained that he, Markhlevsky and other Polish communists did not believe that Poland was ready for sovietisation. Trotsky considered it expedient to accept mediation. Rykhov thought that attempts to sovietise by military force would compromise the soviets in the eyes of the European proletariat, but Lenin’s theses proposing an advance were unanimously accepted, albeit with a split over the acceptance of mediation (517-521). After the defeat of the Soviet advance there was a bitter debate over the causes for the military failure. Trotsky insisted that he had opposed the original advance (524).
The final major political issue raised in this collection is Preobrazhensky’s attempt to address directly the material inequality and demoralising effects of the degeneration of the soviets and party from inside the CC (546-559). He demanded a statistical investigation into the extent of this with the ‘aim of establishing more uniform living conditions for them’(553). Interestingly an unsigned note addressed to Lenin is appended to Preobrazhensky’s proposal. It diametrically opposes Preobrazhensky and insists on the need to ‘improve somewhat the living conditions of a small and active revolutionary cadre’(554). Preobrazhensky justified his proposal in two articles on the ‘The Average Communist’ which explained how the changed material circumstances of the civil war period had led to the bureaucratisation of the party, through a changed relationship to the mass of the population, higher material living standards and an influx of self-seeking careerists(559).The failure of Preobrazhensky’s efforts barely hinted at the problems to come. The fatal results of this process were to destroy the revolution over the next two decades.
The collection concludes with a translation of Preobrahzensky’s published works. It thus includes a pamphlet from 1918,titled Peasant-Russia and Socialism (Towards a Review of Our Agrarian Programme)(569), and a review of Bolshevik agrarian policy that considers how to move beyond the limits of the Socialist Revolutionary programme adopted in 1917and towards socialism, or towards the conscious planning of production. His Anarchism and Communism of 1918 (592) is also included: a text in which he points out the weaknesses of the anarchist view of the state and the failings of anarchist economics, contending that the latter fail to show how the divergent interests of social groups can be subordinated to a conscious socialist plan. Then follows Preobrazhensky’s contributions to the 1919 ABC of Communism, which were co-authored with N.Bukharin, and which are well known and have been widely available for years, and finally his 1920 book Paper Money in the Epoch of the Proletarian Dictatorship (732), which examines the debauchery of the state currency caused by the printing of money undertaken by the Bolshevik rulers, its social effects and its limits. It demonstrates Preobrahzensky’s excellent understanding of Marxist political economy and his ability to apply it to the problems of the transitional economy.
Preobrazhensky was a Bolshevik outsider and raised very important criticisms of key policy decisions of the Bolshevik leadership. He inherited the prejudices of the Old Bolsheviks in opposing the socialist revolution of October 1917, but once the seizure of power took place, his internationalism – a central recognition of the dependence of the Russian revolution on the revolution in the West – never wavered. Dismissed as a ‘Left’ by Lenin and Trotsky, he challenged the basis for the Brest-Litovsk treaty and raised important questions about the use of military specialists and its damaging effect on the Red Army. He also anticipated both Lenin and Trotsky in identifying the material root of the degeneration of the party and soviets, although his attempts to address this problem and to limit it were stymied by them. His ability to apply Marxist political economy to analyse the problems of the transition placed him in an almost unique position; perhaps only Bukharin had a similar understanding. The Preobrazhensky Papers aim to restore the reputation of Preobrazhensky as a Marxist of considerable interest and importance. They succeed triumphantly. There is every reason to believe that the next volumes will be equally enlightening.
8 September 2014