No enemies to the left

‘Only when a genuine, complete un-freedom arrived – absolute and deadly – only then did we understand how free we had really been in Imperial Russia.’ (Ivan Ilyin)

Before 1917, Russian liberals believed that they were not free, and that they lived in an oppressive state which needed sweeping away. To this end, they adopted the slogan ‘No enemies to the left!’ While not engaging in political violence themselves, they refused ever to condemn it, except when carried out by the state or the political right. Regular readers will remember that I recently wrote a piece in which I mentioned the refusal of the leading liberal party of late Imperial Russia (the Kadets) to cooperate with the Tsarist government, a refusal which arguably led to their own destruction. I got a bit of pushback on this from a very eminent scholar, who with some justification noted that the Kadets were in a difficult position and that the primary reason for the disaster which eventually struck Russia was the reactionary stubbornness of the Tsarist authorities. That’s fair enough – there was blame enough all around. But as I continue reading about the era, I’m struck by the liberals’ attitude to revolutionary violence and so, having read an academic article today which touches on the subject, it is to that topic that I now turn.

The article in question, by Israeli scholar Shmuel Galai, calls the liberals’ refusal to condemn revolutionary violence ‘neither a very logical nor a defensible position.’ As Galai notes, the Kadets argued that ‘while they themselves did not subscribe to violence as a means of struggle, it was not the business of a political party to pass moral judgement on the actions of other parties or movements. They also argued that the savage policies of the government were responsible for the revolutionary violence.’ This was, of course, nonsensical – passing moral judgements on other political parties and movements is very much politicians’ business. Furthermore, the idea that you can criticize the government, but not revolutionary mobs, is simply preposterous. So what led to this absurd, and ultimately self-destructive, proposition (which the Kadets in any case didn’t respect, since they were more than happy to morally condemn the violence of right wing groups)?

Roughly speaking, one can divide the reasons into two categories: tactical/political and ideological. Let’s look at each in turn.

The liberals’ primary aim was to coerce the state into making sweeping political concessions. Peaceful measures having failed to get the government to compromise, the political violence of the revolutionaries was seen as useful, even necessary. As one leading liberal philosopher and political activist, Pyotr Struve, wrote: ‘when it comes to national liberation, both the revolutionary struggle and peaceful and moderate opposition cannot do without one another’. The Kadets’ leader Pavel Miliukov was equally clear, declaring that ‘Until political freedom comes [all the opposition] will make common front against the common enemy [i.e. the state]’. ‘We must act,’ he said, ‘each as he can and according to his own political convictions. Do as you like, but act! All means are now legitimate against the terrible threat latent in the very fact of the continued existence of the present government.’

‘We are for revolution as long as it serves the aims of political liberation and social reform, but we are against those who support permanent revolution,’ Miliukov said. In other words, the liberals hoped to use to revolutionary violence to force concessions from the state, at which point they imagined that they could jettison the revolutionaries as having served their purpose. This was, of course, extraordinarily naïve. The revolutionaries had absolutely no intention of being so jettisoned. And while the liberals felt that they needed the radicals, the reverse was far from being true.

Still, the liberals felt that to condemn revolutionary terror would not only weaken the struggle against the state but also undermine their own electoral prospects. Simply put, liberals and revolutionaries were competing for the same constituency. As historian William Rosenberg notes, the Kadets had to maintain their own internal cohesion and ‘maintain their electoral following and cater to popular militance.’ According to Rosenberg, therefore, ‘politics superseded ideology’ in determining the Kadets’ position.

This does not mean, however, that ideology played no role. Russian liberals were, by European standards, rather left-wing. Leftist revolutionaries might have been seen as mistaken in their choice of tactics, but they were regarded as wanting more or less the same things at the end of the day. In other words, their methods might have been wrong, but their hearts were in the right place. By contrast, the heart of the government was viewed as entirely rotten. For Russian liberals, therefore, the revolutionaries were not the enemy. The state was.

Few liberals had any doubts that Russia’s troubles were the government’s fault. Revolutionary violence was a symptom not a cause. Eliminate the cause (the government) and the symptom (the violence) would vanish also. What had to be condemned, therefore, was not the violence of the mob, but the violence of the state. Thus in a debate in the Russian parliament (the State Duma), Kadet deputy Vasily Maklakov argued that terror from above was more dangerous than terror from below, while another Kadet, Sergei Bulgakov, pronounced ‘that he abhorred violence from whichever side it came, but on the issue of terror, the government was mainly to blame. The moment it stopped wielding terror from above, the revolutionaries would cease their terror campaign from below.’

With hindsight, one shudders at the foolishness of Bulgakov’s words (to be fair to Bulgakov, like Struve, he later repented). In 1917, the liberals got their wish. The hated autocracy was overthrown. The ‘terror from above’ ceased. Civil liberties were granted. The prisons were emptied. The gendarmerie and other repressive organs of the state were abolished. And did the ‘terror campaign from below’ come to an end? No, not a bit – once the constraints were relaxed, the revolutionaries proved to have a will of their own, and rather than giving up and going home pressed forever onward. At that point, many liberals suddenly changed direction and swung to the right, looking for a strong man, such as General Kornilov, who could save them. But it was too late. Law and order, once hated and undermined, proved impossible to restore when its value became obvious, and the liberals and all they cherished were swept away, as Trotsky said, into the ‘dustbin of history’.

27 thoughts on “No enemies to the left”

  1. This is a neat piece of history that I am glad has absolutely no relevance to current events. I am now going to go get drunk and cry for entirely unrelated reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ..but it does, reflecting libertarian anarchy…”We are for revolution as long as it serves the aims of political liberation and social reform, but we are against those who support permanent revolution,’ Miliukov said. In other words, the liberals hoped to use to revolutionary violence to force concessions from the state, at which point they imagined that they could jettison the revolutionaries as having served their purpose. This was, of course, extraordinarily naïve. The revolutionaries had absolutely no intention of being so jettisoned. And while the liberals felt that they needed the radicals, the reverse was far from being true.”

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      1. But would the liberals have gotten rid of the autocrats without the revolutionary left? No. Were the liberals better off without the autocracy? Only they could say, but a vast majority of Russians were better off (OK that’s *my* opinion). So do we care more about the liberals or about the much larger oppressed proletariat?

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      2. Citoyens, il est à craindre que la révolution, comme Saturne, ne dévore successivement tous ses enfants et n’engendre enfin le despotisme avec les calamités qui l’accompagnent.

        We have witnessed the development of that strange system of liberty, in which we are told: ‘you are free; but think with us, or we will denounce you to the vengeance of the people; you are free, but bow down your head to the idol we worship, or we will denounce you to the vengeance of the people; you are free, but join us in persecuting the men whose probity and intelligence we dread, or we will denounce you to the vengeance of the people.’ Citizens, we have reason to fear that the revolution, like Saturn, will devour successively all its children, and only engender despotism and the calamities which accompany it.” These prophetic words produced some effect in the assembly; but the
        measures proposed by Vergniaud led to nothing.

        Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud, guillotined 31.10.1793

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      3. “But would the liberals have gotten rid of the autocrats without the revolutionary left? No.”

        Oh, sweet irony! For it was not the “revolutionary left” that forced the Czar’s hand in abdication. His own generals, ministers, members of the family and top tier members of the political elite did. Who were, ah, on the opposite side of the left.

        “So do we care more about the liberals or about the much larger oppressed proletariat?”

        See the epigraph of this blogpost. Surely, our dear Host sides with his own strata. That’s understandable.

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      4. See the epigraph of this blogpost. Surely, our dear Host sides with his own strata. That’s understandable.

        His own strata?

        I deeply disliked the idea of some of my early seventies co-student cadres in Germany post WWII who apparently went out into factories and politicize “the workers”. … They would go on finish their studies and then? Do the best for those workers?

        you are a fan of populist Trump and his base to get rid of the swamp? … Good vs Bad “strata”? …

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  2. “ We are for revolution as long as it serves the aims of political liberation and social reform, but we are against those who support permanent revolution,’ Miliukov said. In other words, the liberals hoped to use to revolutionary violence to force concessions from the state, at which point they imagined that they could jettison the revolutionaries as having served their purpose. This was, of course, extraordinarily naïve. The revolutionaries had absolutely no intention of being so jettisoned. And while the liberals felt that they needed the radicals, the reverse was far from being true.”

    Wow, precisely the calculation the leaders of the Zentrum party, the sectarian party of the Catholic Church, pressed into president Hindenburg in 1933 when they proposed he make The Mustache Chancellor. They wanted to use the obvious energy of his movement, against the political parties to their left, even though one of them, the Social Democrats, had been their coalition partner for years, and had allowed the Zentrun to have the Chancellorship despite outnumbering the Zentrum in the Reichstag by 143 seats to 68. A more accommodating coalition partner than the Social Democrats is hard to imagine.

    Then on 23 March 1933, the Zentrum, along with every other element of German national political life, except the Social Democrats (the KPD having been banned), decided it was a good idea to give Chancellor Mustache the power to legislate by decree.

    So we see from this example that centrists will back the most vile, violent radical Right rather than continue compromising with the most accommodating, democratic Left.

    US politics see much the same thing. For decades “centrists” have urged the Democrats (what passes for the ‘Left’ in US politics) to compromise with Republicans, no matter how radical. In their time, Ronald Reagan & George W Bush pushed policies as radical & belligerent as Trump’s, with the objective of pushing US policies ever further Right, while “Centrists” continued to push the “Left” to compromise with that Right.

    What is it about “Centrists”? 🙄

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  3. 😉

    The Economists and the present-day terrorists have one common root, namely, subservience to spontaneity… At first sight, our assertion may appear paradoxical, so great is the difference between those who stress the “drab everyday struggle” and those who call for the most self-sacrificing struggle of individuals. But this is no paradox. The Economists and the terrorists merely bow to different poles of spontaneity; the Economists bow to the spontaneity of “the labour movement pure and simple”, while the terrorists bow to the spontaneity of the passionate indignation of intellectuals, who lack the ability or opportunity to connect the revolutionary struggle and the working-class movement into an integral whole. It is difficult indeed for those who have lost their belief, or who have never believed, that this is possible, to find some outlet for their indignation and revolutionary energy other than terror. Thus, both forms of subservience to spontaneity we have mentioned are nothing but the beginning of the implementation of the notorious Credo programme: Let the workers wage their “economic struggle against the employers and the government”…, and let the intellectuals conduct the political struggle by their own efforts—with the aid of terror, of course!

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and, in this case, good intentions cannot save one from being spontaneously drawn “along the line of least resistance”, along the line of the purely bourgeois Credo programme. Surely it is no accident either that many Russian liberals — avowed liberals and liberals that wear the mask of Marxism — whole-heartedly sympathise with terror and try to foster the terrorist moods that have surged up in the present time.
    – V.I. Lenin, “What is to be done?”, chapter “WHAT IS THERE IN COMMON BETWEEN ECONOMISM AND TERRORISM?”.

    Woe, woe betide to the once upon a time “Free” West, where now the best and the brightest of its intellectuals have to resort to the language of the Aesop fables, in order to dare commenting on the current events! Even then, though, these best and brightest are often not so careful, and allow (perchance – deliberately) the mask of the subterfuge to slip if just by a bit:

    “What had to be condemned, therefore, was not the violence of the mob, but the violence of the state.”

    A bomb thrown into the Minister of the Interior Affairs Vyacheslav “Short Victorious War” von Plehve could not possibly be called (no matter how you wish to twist the meaning, Professor) “the violence of the mob”. It was not a “mob” who blew him to the smithereens – the cell of the Combat Organization of the eSeRs did. The bomb that was responsible was a result of eSeR Maximilian Schveitser’s talent as a bomb-maker – again, nothing “mobby” here. Likewise, a wave of the so-called “individual terror” that descended upon the Russian Empire the following years was not an example of the “violence of the mob”. Most “mob-like” were peasant uprisings, which resulted in the “black repartition” of the noble lands and torched estates. Notably, members of the Russian liberal intelligentsia were mostly leery to condemn the government’s efforts to suppress these “riots” (or “uprisings”, if you prefer) using overwhelming military force. Peculiar, innit?

    The assassination of Plehve, btw, was wildly celebrated in… certain… circles, even beyond the borders of the Russian Empire. E.g. – a couple (1, 2) of examples of the “stellar” journalistic performance by the “paper of record” with unblemished reputation, that goes by the name “The New York Times” (probably, you’ve heard about it). The second example is particularly, ah, “exemplar”, for it makes the NYT (a paper of record” with unblemished reputation) de-facto a mouthpiece of the terrorist organization, publishing said organization’s official apologia of its terrorism in its entirety, which, btw, contains this priceless paragraph (emphasize mine):

    “And now we address this appeal to the citizens of the civilized world and we say to them: To you falls the responsibility of propagating in the free countries the true notion of the meaning of the duel which is being fought between autocracy and modern Russia. This duel will end only with the disappearance of one of the adversaries and that will be Czarism, vanquished by the revolution, by the Russian nation, free at last.”

    And propagate they did, although they, journos in the NYT (a paper of record” with unblemished reputation) were not Russian liberals themselves. Strangely enough, their much more enlightened descendants one century since never published such apologia or provided with a “platform” other terrorist organization, like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or ISIS. Baffling, utterly baffling!

    But back to the Russian liberals and shy and conscientious intelligentsia of the twillight years of the Russian Empire. They did much, much more, than simply stay silent and refuse to condemn the terrorism. Nikalai Platonovich Korabchevsky was a liberal lawyer, who, first, saved the first leader of the Combat Organization of eSeR’s Gershuni (he organized the assassination of the Minister of Interior Sipyagin among other things) from the gibbet, and then did the same for the terrorist Sazonov, who “fragged” Plehve. Both Gershuni and Sazonov will get prison sentences and then… escape. Speaking of escapes, the memoirs of the terrorists a choke-full of examples when members of liberal intelligentsia provided them with safe houses, money, papers and alibis either during preparations to the terrorists attacks, or during the attempts to shake off the pursuit of the authorities. After Pleve’s murder in 1904, the money flew into eSeRs (and, ergo, into its terrorist wing) coffers from “sympathizing” people – many of them, of liberal persuasion. Russian liberal press was generous with ink and paper, when the time came to celebrate its schadenfreude after yet another statesman of the Empire would be assassinated.

    Silent? Them? They were not silent. Liberals were not “uncommitted”. They, as a strata were actively collaborating, aiding and abetting, totally committed to the revolutionary struggle. Ultimately, they’ve picked their side, all the rest was pure demagoguery and arse-covering. In the end, both them and eSeR’s got a shot at running Russia after their bourgeois Revolution won. They’ve fucked up trying to run things.

    Here – a bit of innocent commentary on the events long past that bear NO, ABSOLUTELY NONE relation to the realities you, Professor, find yourself livening in the Freest World [nod-nod].

    P.S.
    “Because the Socialist-Revolutionaries, by including terrorism in their programme and advocating it in its present-day form as a means of political struggle, are thereby doing the most serious harm to the movement, destroying the indissoluble ties between socialist work and the mass of the revolutionary class. No verbal assurances and vows can disprove the unquestionable fact that present-day terrorism, as practised and advocated by the Socialist-Revolutionaries, is not connected in any way with work among the masses, for the masses, or together with the masses; that the organisation of terroristic acts by the Party distracts our very scanty organisational forces from their difficult and by no means completed task of organising a revolutionary workers’ party; that in practice the terrorism of the Socialist-Revolutionaries is nothing else than single combat, a method that has been wholly condemned by the experience of history. Even foreign socialists are beginning to become embarrassed by the noisy advocacy of terrorism advanced today by our Socialist-Revolutionaries. Among the masses of the Russian workers this advocacy simply sows harmful illusions, such as the idea that terrorism “compels people to think politically, even against their will” (Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, No. 7, p. 4), or that “more effectively than months of verbal propaganda it is capable of changing the views… of thousands of people with regard to the revolutionaries and the meaning [!!] of their activity”, or that it is capable of “infusing new strength into the waverers, those discouraged and shocked by the sad outcome of many demonstrations” (ibid.), and so on. These harmful illusions can only bring about early disappointment and weaken the work of preparing the masses for the onslaught upon the autocracy.”
    – V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, “On terrorism”.

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    1. Very good points made, Lyt, about the use of terrorist tactics not by the “mob”, but by small groups of petty-bourgeois intellectuals, namely the Social-Revolutionaries.
      To this day you see anarchists defending the SR’s and saying they were the good guys of the Russian Revolution. Despite their blatant incompetence and use of violence and terror.

      I can’t believe that ideological anarchists are still around and still peddling their disproved philosophy. Have people been following the Anarchist “Experiment” in Seattle?
      Finally, after all these years and decades, ideological anarchists have been given a golden opportunity to prove that they can run a society (however small), keep everyone fed and clothed, and without resorting to violence and terror.

      Spoiler alert: It took them all of 3 days before a warlord arose – LOL!

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    1. …I mean, I don’t see anything in the current landscape there that could be categorized as ‘left’. The ‘protest’ movement is overtly in-your-face ethnocentric. That’s not left, can’t be by any stretch of imagination.

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      1. “ That’s not left, can’t be by any stretch of imagination.”

        Totally agree. 30 years ago, the Dems capitulated to the Reps on economics, and since then the only sharp distinction between the parties is “culture war” issues.

        That’s one of the things the constant “Centrist” pressure on the Dems to compromise with the Reps accomplished.

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      2. I think that what I’m talking about could apply to liberals’ relationship with any extreme. RKKA mentioned the Zentrum party. For it, the equally fatal principle was ‘No enemies to the right’ – likewise for the liberals of Maidan. Perhaps sometimes the strategy works, but other times it rebounds to bite you hard on the backside.

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      3. Ah, okay. On the descriptive side it works. But on the normative side, you think it’s a mistake, right? But maybe not. At least not always. Flexibility often pays off in politics.

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      4. Normatively (I hate words like that), I’m pretty much against political violence per se. Whether it ‘works’ in a given instance is kind of neither here nor there as I’m not an act utilitarian. That said, if you want to argue in terms of consequences, then I’d merely say that anyone considering such a strategy is playing a dangerous game.

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      5. It is a risky startegy. On the other hand, inflexibility, too much of ideological purity, it leads to fragmentation and disintegration. Which is, perhaps, what’s happened to the western left.

        So, yes, something in the middle…

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      6. “I’m pretty much against political violence, per se.”
        Professor, I think every healthy-minded person is against violence, including political violence. Only psychopaths and sadists enjoy violence for its own sake.

        But you have said before that if you went back in time, you would have supported Kolchak and his army. And weren’t they doing political violence? They were not pacifists.
        Or do you make a distinction, as Lyttenburgh does, between state violence (state having a monopoly on violence) vs non-sanctioned group violence. In this case, seeing Kolchak as a “sanctioned” bearer of violence, even though the Tsar was no longer around for him to claim to defend; vs the Red Army as “unsanctioned”.

        Which then also begs the question posed by the poet Griboedov: “Who will be the judge?”
        And, let’s face it, doesn’t it all just boil down, in the end, to which side a person supports in a conflict?
        If they support Team A, then they will ignore or excuse violence committed by Team A (even excesses), and condemn everything done by Team B.

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  4. “ RKKA mentioned the Zentrum party. For it, the equally fatal principle was ‘No enemies to the right’ -“

    And for US centrists, the same fatal calculation explains how they fostered both the radicalization of the Republicans & the emasculation of the Democrats.

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  5. “I think that what I’m talking about could apply to liberals’ relationship with any extreme.”

    Are you saying here and in the article that the liberals weren’t extreme or were adverse to using violence of their own? I usually like the balance in your articles but in this one you seem strongly on the side of the Russian liberals and seem to be implying that they got screwed or screwed themselves by the extremist and violent Bolsheviks and things would have been better had the liberals came out on top.

    For most of my life I have watched people and governments that call themselves liberal democrats or social democrats bomb half the world and use various forms of power to rob countries of their resources and enslave their populations. Those of us who live in the countries that benefit from this and who benefit from it ourselves don’t notice this through a combination of media control and willful ignorance. I don’t call our system or our politicians moderate or centrist, they are all extremists willing to kill and exploit whoever to earn money. I am not convinced had the revolution produced a government more similar to our Western forms of government that Russia or the world itself would be in a better state than it was after the Bolshevik victory.

    The Liberals like any losing side in a conflict obviously made some mistakes but I would dispute your characterization of them as the moderate non-violent wing of the struggle.

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