The Case for the Bolsheviki

By John Reed

[The Independent, July 13, 1918]

An undated despatch from Moscow published in the New York Times of May 23 reports a speech made by Lenine before the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets, evidently about the 10th of May. Among other things Lenine said:

"We are now the 'abarontsi,' (abarontsi—defenders, once the appellation of the war-to-a-finish party) "and since November 7 we have won the right to defend our fatherland. We shall defend, not a 'Great Power,' for there is nothing of Russia left but Great Russia; not national interests, because for us the interests of the world's socialism stand higher than national interests."

In spite of unintelligent assertion to the contrary, the Soviet leaders and the Russian masses accepted the German peace terms at Brest purely as a matter of necessity. In ratifying the treaty the All-Russian Soviets referred to it as "this shameful peace forced upon us by German imperialists." And ever since peace was concluded the Russians have regarded it as an opportunity for strengthening the internal regime, and organizing for a resumption of the struggle; not that of the Allies against the Central Powers, but of "the world's socialism," championed by Soviet Russia, against the world's predatory capitalism, whose arch-exrponent is Imperial Germany. Nobody realizes the danger of Imperial Germany better than the Soviet leaders, Instead of being the wild-haired ignoramuses they are popularly portrayed, Lenine, Trotzky, Tchicherin and other Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries are very thoro students of international relations, the tariff, colonial policy, and so forth. All of them realize very clearly that the progress of socialism under a world-wide Prussian hegemony would be infinitely retarded.

The Bolsheviks did not wait until this minute to make war against Germany. "When the first revolution broke out in March, 1917, and the Russian armies in the West remained immobile for four months, the revolutionists immediately set about fraternizing with their German and Austrian neighbors. Of the effects of this first fraternization I have had hundreds of proofs. The German high command was not prepared for it; whole regiments, whole divisions were permeated with propaganda. It has never been so well done since that time.

Upon this spontaneous soldiers' peace broke suddenly the Galician offensive of July, urged by Kerensky. Nothing could have been more welcome to the German Staff; the officers were able to say to their troops, "You see, we were right. You believed what the Russians told you, and then, when they got you off your guard, they turned around and stabbed you in the back!" I have seen a despairing letter written by the German revolutionist, Rosa Luxemburg to a Russian Socialist, in which she said, "'So you have broken the peace! … When our troops were so disorganized that their own officers could not force them to advance; when the revolutionary spirit was spreading thruout Germany…. You Russians fell upon the German troops, and now they won't believe you any more.…"

The reason for the failure of the Galician offensive was the refusal of the majority of the Russian troops to support the policy of foreign conquest, as they considered it, embarked upon by Kerensky and his army.

All thru the autumn the Bolshevik papers and the Bolshevik speakers, with all their bitter criticism of the Allies, their ceaseless reiteration that neither of the belligerent groups was fighting for democratic peace-terms emphasized in their own way the sins of the German Imperial Government.

"The German Kaiser," said Rabotchi Poot, the Bolshevik organ, "covered with the blood of his millions of victims, is only waiting for an opportunity to push his armies against Petrograd." But it argued at the same time that the Russian bourgeoisie was his ally, and that the Allied bourgeoisie was not unsympathetic. . . .

The November revolution was the signal, coincidentally with the offering of peace terms to all the belligerents for a mighty campaign of propaganda launched against the German Government. Order was given by Krilenko, the Bolshevik commander-in-chief of the armies, for all troops to begin fraternizing at once; and this was obeyed with such zest that the German General Hoffmann protested almost daily during all the time of the Brest negotiations.

At the same time there was organized, as a department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda of which Boris Reinstein, an American, was Commissar, and in which I had the privilege of working.

Tho concerned with spreading revolutionary propaganda in all countries, the immediate task of the bureau was the corrupting of the German people. In connection with the Press Bureau we published daily papers in German (Die Fackel, afterward Volkerfriede), in Hungarian (Nemzetskoi Szozialista), in Rumanian (Inainte), in Bohemian and in Serbo-Croatian. These were printed in editions of 500,000 and shipped to the front to be smuggled into the enemy trenches. Besides this there were hundreds of proclamations, "To Our German Brothers!" translations of the Soviet decrees, of pamphlets by Lenine, etc.

Almost all the deserters passed thru our office. Often they came with demands for literature, or even speakers, to take back and smuggle into the German lines. Once we received a delegation of German soldiers from the island of Oesel, who wanted propaganda material for their comrades. To listen to all these men one would think that the German eastern line, in spite of the terrible discipline in which it was kept, was slowly disintegrating. One of Trotzky's reasons for so desperately prolonging the Brest negotiations was to give this process time to work.

As it was, the German strikes, when they came, took the form of Soviets of Workers' Deputies; and what is not generally known, the German advance into Russia after Brest was not performed by the regular troops on the Russian front, but by a volunteer army made up of men chosen carefully from the western front. From all I have learned, I am of the opinion that the German troops on the Russian front were too untrustworthy to order in.

Another branch of our work, in connection with the Bureau of War Prisoners, was the organizing of the German and Austrian captives in Russia. We held several conventions of delegates from war prisoners' organizations all over the country, in which the Bolshevik ferment had long been working. "With our help these organizations, many thousands strong, published their own papers in their own languages, and sent speakers and organizers on the road. The great mass of the common soldier prisoners were thoroly receptive to Bolshevik doctrines; the Prussians, however, of whom there were less than thirty thousand out of the million and a half, were harder to convert. But we were so successful that the most determined opposition which greeted the German invasion after Brest was that of war-prisoners fighting under the red flag of the Soviets. In the new Red Army of Russia the war prisoners form an important part. Arthur Ransome, in a dispatch to the New York Times, describes their appearance in the parade which was reviewed by Count von Mirbach, the German envoy—"a company…marching by with red banners printed with revolutionary inscriptions in German.…"

On the Swedish ship which carried me from Finland to Stockholm were two officers of the German Army Intelligence Service. They were frankly worried, "Oh, of course, we shall have peace," said one, "and the Baltic provinces will be ours. But we are in a serious dilemma; how can we resume commercial relations with this new Russian Government? How can we allow foodstuffs and raw materials to come into Germany, and still keep out Bolshevism?"

Of course the only way that the Soviet Government can combat the diplomatic bullying, the commercial and financial undermining, and the mailed fist of Germany is by armed force. This armed force has been building in Russia since November—the new Red Army.

The old Russian army was almost completely destroyed, first by the deliberate disorganization engineered by the Court of Nicholas II, and second by the bitter struggle between the officers, assisted by the Russian propertied classes, and the revolutionary soldiers. The November revolutionary government allowed them formally to disband—action which the majority of the soldiers had already taken in fact. The new volunteer Socialist army, whose numbers had increased during the German invasion to several hundreds of thousands, was recruited from the ranks of the young city workers, full of fire and enthusiasm, who received their stern baptism of blood during the November uprising, against the Ukrainian Racla, Kaledine and his Cossacks, and Kerensky. These now form a small, compact, well-equipt and well-drilled army, fired with revolutionary consciousness. And the soldiers of the old army, having been absorbed again into their villages, and having received each his piece of land in the general division, are coming back to the ranks, as Lenine says, "with the knowledge that they have something to fight for."

Meanwhile, how is Russia, not yet quite ready, acting to prevent the German economic conquest? News from Russia is fragmentary, but from what I saw beginning at the time I left, I think I can tell. Strikes, sabotage, delay, diplomacy-—all the subtle means by which an unwilling people hinders the activities of hated conquerors. The German Government, which counted so essentially upon the supplies to be wrenched out of helpless Russia, has been explaining to its people that such things are not to be managed in a day.…

Russia is still theoretically a sovereign state. If we want to see how impeded German conquest is working, let us take the Ukraine, infinitely less consciously revolutionary, and under German domination as well. The measure of Germany's success in dealing with the Ukraine is measured by the number of German troops needed to accomplish her will there. And according to the United States State Department, there are seventy-two German and Austrian divisions —more than eight hundred thousand men, in the Ukraine today. Every railroad must be picketed; every peasant cart must have its patrol. Such is the Russian answer to the German mailed fist, until her own fist is mailed.

Meanwhile, the Russian propaganda is working steadily, and is not to be checked by bayonets. All the world admits now that Austria is at the breaking-point because of it. In Germany the movement which culminated in the great striken has again subsided, but the causes which produced that movement still remain. And will grow.…

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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