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Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih, translators and compilers, Head to Head in Halle: Zinoviev and Martov.

Ben Lewis and Lars T. Lih, translators and compilers, Head to Head in Halle: Zinoviev and Martov, November Publications, London, 2011, 9781447809111, 228pp, [pounds sterling]14.00

The Halle Congress of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in October 1920 was a significant landmark in the history of European socialism. The eventual decision of the majority of its delegates to seek affiliation to the Communist International (CI) and join with the Spartakusbund to form the United Communist Party of Germany (KPD) had several consequences. Firstly, it created by far the most powerful and significant communist party outside of Soviet Russia. Secondly, the split hastened the demise--in Germany and elsewhere--of independent non-Bolshevik currents of radical socialism. Within two years of the congress, the rump of the USPD had reunited with the SPD. The main line of fracture in the workers' movement would henceforth be between communists and non-communist 'reformist' socialists. Thirdly, it helped ensure that attitudes to Moscow, rather than domestic political questions, became the touchstone issue defining and perpetuating the division of the socialist movement. Fourthly, the bitterness surrounding the split made co-operation between social democrats and communists in Germany very difficult--which later proved very advantageous to the Nazis in their rise to power.

Ben Lewis and Lars Lih have now made the speeches of the two Russian guests--Grigory Zinoviev for the Bolsheviks and CI, and Julius Martov for the Mensheviks--available in English for the first time. Their volume, which also includes Zinoviev's account of his trip to Germany (published by the CPGB in 1921), and very helpful separate introductory essays on the congress, addressing Zinoviev and Martov respectively, as well as a biographical glossary, is a most useful source which will be welcomed by all historians of communism and the German workers' movement. The authors also have a political aim: a sort of 'rehabilitation' of Zinoviev, whose reputation has not fared well in orthodox communist, Trotskyist, or mainstream historiography. There is plenty of material here on which to form an opinion of Zinoviev, and even readers who do not warm to him cannot fail to see that he was clearly a first-class Bolshevik.

By concentrating on the two Russians, the book risks giving the impression that this was first and foremost a debate between Zinoviev and Martov, at which the USPD delegates were mere spectators. In fact, both speakers were less concerned with each other and more concerned with addressing the congress delegates, but, apart from the heckling recorded with the speeches, we get little sense of how the Germans reacted and responded to the arguments presented. In his introductory essay, Lewis argues that 'for his speech alone ... Zinoviev was a clear winner' (p32). Even discounting Lewis' enthusiasm for Zinoviev and Leninism, this is a fair assessment: Zinoviev's speech was lucid, lively, coherent and--most importantly--it served its purpose. The aim of the CI with regard to the USPD was clear and simple--to split it, bring those members willing to accept all the conditions for affiliation to the CI into a united KPD, and let the rest go wherever they wanted. Zinoviev's arguments flowed logically from the perspectives of the CI at that time: that reformism was dead, that the necessary conditions for the world proletarian revolution were at hand, and that suitable leaderships needed to be created as a matter of urgency to secure its success. The USPD left already shared these perspectives. As for the USPD right, Zinoviev was probably not far wrong when he claimed that they had 'arrive[d] at the conclusion that the world revolution is now impossible', demanded that they 'say so clearly and honestly', and commented 'unfortunately it is a requirement of your tactics to stay silent on this' (p128).

Martov's speech, in contrast, lacked Zinoviev's simple, if not simplistic, clarity. Martov, too, argued that socialist reformism was 'dead, discredited and destroyed by the world war and its consequences' (p167), and called for a new revolutionary international. But, he charged, Bolshevism was unscrupulously taking advantage of the masses' 'almost religious fervour for immediate victory' and their 'feelings of despair and their elemental indignation ... in order to arrive at social revolution at top speed' (p. 168). Martov's version of revolutionary Marxism sought to 'throw the cold water of criticism on blind faith in social miracles' (p169). He was certainly on strong ground when he criticised the arbitrariness, violence and corruption of Bolshevik rule in Russia. But his political aim of preserving an already hopelessly divided USPD was quixotic, and his theoretical new international of the future could not possibly have had the concrete attractive power for the USPD left of the actually-existing, new, Communist International.

Zinoviev's case was predicated on the assertion that all Europe was on the verge of socialist revolution on a soviet pattern. His speech strongly reflected the general Bolshevik tendency to see everything through a Russian prism: figures on the USPD right like Rudolf Hilferding or Arthur Crispien were 'Mensheviks'. Even Ramsay Macdonald and Arthur Henderson in Britain were 'Mensheviks', destined to share the same fate as their Russian archetype (p128). With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that this was all fantasy, conditioned by Zinoviev's wishful thinking and lack of real concrete knowledge of the situation in Western Europe. But it is no less easy to see the appeal of Zinoviev's revolutionary template to the USPD left.

It is interesting to compare the style of Zinoviev's speech to the congress with the style of his article about his mission, 'Twelve Days in Germany', which Lewis and Lih have helpfully included in the volume. The delicacy of the situation at the congress obliged Zinoviev in his speech to show a little restraint in his remarks about his opponents on the USPD right and even about Martov. The tone of 'Twelve Days' is very different. Here we see Zinoviev in full rhetorical flight, vividly illustrating the mindset of post-revolutionary Bolshevism. The complex politics of German socialism is reduced to a series of binaries. There are only heroes (the communists) and villains (everybody else). The leaders of the USPD right are cowardly, treacherous and, above all, insincere--Zinoviev recognises no honest or principled opponents. Thus the noted Marxist economist Rudolf Hilferding was 'smug', 'arrogant', 'senile doctrinaire', and, 'owing to his connections with bankers and smart businessmen' he was 'evasive' (p69). The metalworkers' leader Robert Dissmann was a man motivated purely by ambition, who, 'if [he] has not yet shot hundreds of workers, it is only because he has not yet had the opportunity to do so' (p76). The veteran socialist Georg Ledebour was 'a tool of the darkest, vilest and most bloodthirsty elements' (p76). And so on. Given Zinoviev's own record in Petrograd in the Red Terror, a Freudian psychologist might see this as a textbook example of projection. As for poor Martov--one of the very few leaders of 1917 who could honestly claim to have no blood at all on his hands--the fact that the German authorities were prepared to offer him asylum meant, in Zinoviev's presentation, that Martov was 'walking arm in arm' with 'those who protected the murderer of Karl Liebknecht' (p99).

Lewis and Lih's book bears a dedication 'to the United Opposition and the victims of the Stalinist counterrevolution'. In the light of that, it is a sad irony that all the rhetorical devices that Andrey Vyshinsky employed to destroy Zinoviev in 1936--calumny, amalgams, guilt by association and so forth--were ones that, as this volume shows, Zinoviev also used with neither hesitation nor scruple.

Francis King

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Author:King, Francis
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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