‘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’.