N. N. Sukhanov and the Poverty of (Marxist) Philosophy

The memoirs of N. N. Sukhanov are probably the best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, or, more accurately, revolutions.  The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 (old style) was preceded by the revolution that actually overthrew the czarist regime in February of that year.  Sukhanov not only lived through and described it all, but, as a member of the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he played a significant role in the unfolding events.  He had a knack for turning up at key moments, such as the arrival of Lenin after his ride through Germany on the famous “sealed train,” the debut of Trotsky as a speaker before the Soviet, and in the Smolny headquarters of the Bolsheviks on the very day they launched their revolution.  He was well known to Lenin and Trotsky, on friendly terms with such other Bolshevik luminaries as Kamenev and Lunacharsky, and occasionally slept at the home of Kerensky.  More importantly as far as the subject of this post is concerned, he was a convinced left wing socialist of the type Eric Hoffer described in “The True Believer,” a religious zealot of the greatest secular religion the world has ever known.

In describing his own actions and thoughts during all these dramatic events, Sukhanov gives us an excellent close-up of the type.  Like most convinced Marxists, he suffered from the delusion that the religious dogmas he devoted so much of his time to studying and pondering were really a “science.”  By virtue of the “truth” this “science” revealed to him, he had become cocksure that he was superior to those who didn’t share his faith, possessed of an all-encompassing knowledge that was hidden from them.  The unbelievers became, in his eyes, at best, ignorant “philistines” and, at worst, willing minions of that great outgroup of the Marxists, the bourgeoisie.  A revealing instance of this attitude is his description of the conversation of two female co-workers in the czarist Ministry of Agriculture, where he held a job in spite of his illegal status (he had been banished from the city for revolutionary activities) in the days immediately preceding the February revolution:

I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section.  Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse.  “D’you know,” suddenly declared one of these young ladies, “if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”

…in those days, sitting over my irrigations systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis (a periodical edited by Maxim Gorky, ed.) manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed. These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn’t know what a revolution was.

As far as Sukhanov was concerned, the Russia of his day was inhabited mainly by such philistines, people who, by virtue of their ignorance of the true faith, were merely an inert mass, incapable of playing an active role in the revolutionary upheavals to come.  Among them were the great “grey masses” of the soldiery, suspect because of their peasant origins, and relegated to the “petty bourgeoisie,” that great Marxist catchall for “others” who didn’t happen to actually possess any of the “social means of production.”

The great exception was, of course, the proletariat.  As a true believer in the Marxist religion, Sukhanov ascribed all kinds of wonderful and fantastic qualities to the demigods of that religion, the workers.  They appeared to him as the beloved to her lover, paragons of every good quality.  For example, in describing the scene at a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets on the eave of the October Revolution he wrote,

It was not until 11 o’clock that bells began to ring for the meeting.  The hall was already full, still with the same grey mob from the heart of the country.  An enormous difference leaped to the eye:  the Petersburg Soviet, that is, its Workers’ Section in particular, which consisted of average Petersburg proletarians in comparison with the masses of the Second Congress looked like the Roman Senate that the ancient Carthaginians took for an assembly of gods.

This deification of the proletariat was a reflection of the socialist true believer’s inability to see the rest of humanity as other than Marxist classes.  All motives, all political goals, all human aspirations, must necessarily be forced into the Procrustean bed of some class interest.  Thus, workers who opposed the Bolsheviks were transmogrified into “petty bourgeoisie,” and noblemen from wealthy families like Lenin were magically transformed into the vanguard of the working masses.  So it was that Hitler’s Nazi regime and fascism in general were simply hand-waved away as “the final stage of capitalism.”  Understanding human nature and the non-economic motivations it might inspire was never Communism’s strong suit.  In fact, the ideology required denial of the very existence of human nature.  Creatures with hard-wired behavioral predispositions could not be quickly “re-educated” to become the New Soviet Men and Women ideally suited for the worker’s paradise that was being prepared for them.  In the end, of course, human nature had the last word.  As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Sukhanov suffered from another delusion common to the socialist faithful – the notion that mass organizations were spontaneous emanations of the masses themselves, called forth by historical developments.  This particular fantasy was probably the most devastating of all the delusions engendered by Marxist ideology.  It paralyzed any resistance to the Bolshevik coup d’etat from intelligent people who should have known better.  On the contrary, many of them fought resistance by others, reasoning that, even if they didn’t agree with the Bolsheviks themselves, the party was an authentic manifestation of the popular will, instead of a tiny minority that happened to be highly effective at manipulating the popular will.  Thus, to become the vanguard of the “expression of the popular will,” it was only necessary for the Bolsheviks, far superior to any potential opponent in the field in their grasp of mass psychology, to ply a highly volatile population with propaganda slogans that pandered to the mood of the moment, regardless of whether they knew them to be false themselves or not.  They did so with a virtuosity that has seldom been equalled, their task facilitated by Kerensky’s ineffectual provisional government.  As Sukhanov put it, “Agitation and the influence of ideas were an incomparably more reliable prop of Smolny (e.g., the Bolsheviks) than military operations.”  In the end, far from being the source of a revolutionary upheaval that they had been during the February revolution, the masses became mere willing tools for the tiny minority who actually did make the revolution.  Meanwhile, the more “advanced” socialists of other parties stood idly by, convinced that the Bolshevik coup was “theoretically” wrong, but represented the will of the masses, nevertheless.

So it was that Sukhanov, even though he opposed what the Bolsheviks were doing, not only failed to act against them himself, but denounced those who did try to act as “counter-revolutionaries.”  His mind muddled by the dogmas of a new religion he took for “science,” he was incapable of perceiving the Bolsheviks as anything but the true representatives of the “democracy!”  He suffered from this delusion to the point that he seriously believed his party could have formed a “united front” with this “democracy,” and even considered his failure to do so his “greatest crime.”  After the Mensheviks and other left socialists, led by the left Menshevik Julius Martov, had decided to walk out of the Second Congress of Soviets which the Bolsheviks controlled and used as the legal facade for their coup, thus abandoning the “democracy,” he wrote,

So the thing was done.  We had left, not knowing where or why, after breaking with the Soviet, getting ourselves mixed up with counter-revolutionary elements, discrediting and debasing ourselves in the eyes of the masses, and ruining the entire future of our organization and our principles.  And that was the least of it:  in leaving we completely untied the Bolsheviks’ hands, making them masters of the entire situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.

A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success. For the Bolsheviks as such, for Lenin and Trotsky, it was more odious than the possible Committees of Public Safety or another Kornilov march on Petersburg.  The exit of the “pure in heart” freed the Bolsheviks from this danger.  By quitting the Congress and leaving the Bolsheviks with only the Left SR (Socialist Revolutionary) youngsters and the feeble little Novaya Zhizn (paper edited by Gorky, ed.) group, we gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution.  By our own irrational decision we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole “line.”

I personally committed not a few blunders and errors in the revolution.  But I consider my greatest and most indelible crime the fact that I failed to break with the Martov group immediately after our fraction voted to leave, and didn’t stay on at the Congress.  To this day I have not ceased regretting this October 25th crime of mine.

All this, of course, was a complete chimera.  Once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, they had not the least intention of sharing it with anyone.  The idea that walking out on the Bolshevik “democracy” had “freed their hands” was the purest fantasy.

The socialist religion was the great hope of the 19th century, and the great disaster of the 20th. In the end it demonstrated once again, as the spiritual religions that preceded it had done many times before, that belief in things that are false can lead to very unpleasant results including, as we have seen only too frequently of late, self-destruction in the hope of an illusory paradise to come. So it was with Sukhanov and the other Bolshevik fellow travelers as well. Sukhanov was lucky. He was merely arrested and disappeared into the Gulag, where he apparently survived longer than most. In general, Stalin was in the habit of shooting these “intellectuals” who had done so much to facilitate his rise to power.

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