Comrade in Arms V2.0

The morning newspaper arrived at the usual time on a bright Tuesday morning on Jul 6, 1937. I had subscribed to Izvestia since I was in exile for almost 20 years in London. It was getting harder and harder to understand what was going on in Russia since I left. I opened the first page while I settled in with a cup of tea at the kitchen table. A small article at the bottom of p.2 caught my eye. I squinted as I struggled to make out the first line:

Mikhail Popovich, former minister of internal affairs, was executed yesterday after being sentenced to death for treason and subversive writing.

I sighed as tears dribbled down the sides of my face. Why did it have to end this way? I could have seen it coming 34 years earlier when I came to London for the first time. Young and naive, but filled with revolutionary fervor, hope, and optimism. Mikhail was older, but seemed to preserve that feeling of youthful optimism. Maybe by that time he was in too deep to change his word view. I thought back to the first to day when it first seemed to go all wrong.

II

London was bustling with activity on the dreary, gray morning when I arrived after the ferry to Dover and the train to Victoria station. The 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903 was scheduled for Brussels, but we left in mass three days earlier when rumors surfaced that the Belgium police were about to make arrests after pressure from the Russian embassy. I was lost in the maze of narrow, winding streets, and the fog rolling in made it hard to make out the street signs affixed to the sides of the buildings. Finally I found Cardigan St. at the corner of a roundabout, and caught sight of a ramshackle club in the middle of a desolate road. The number on the door matched the address I had scribbled on a scrap of paper that I held in my hand. This was confirmed by the sign in the window that simply said, “2nd Congress August 17–23.”

In the makeshift auditorium, I ran into Mikhail Popovich, an experienced revolutionary who had been my mentor for the last 2 years after I joined the party at 21. He was a man in his 40’s with gray streaked hair and narrow, darting eyes that seemed to be looking everywhere at once. A skill that was learned from always looking out for the police I presumed. “Ivan,” he exclaimed, as he extended his hand. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to make it. I’d heard reports that some members were arrested or deported to Russia.” “I heard the reports,” I said, “but I got out in time.” It was only then that I noticed the young man, about my age, standing next to him. He looked older than his years, his faced scarred by pock marks and a mustache that can only be described as intimating. He was introduced as Ioseb Dzhugashvili, but the world would soon know him as Joseph Stalin. After feeling the grip of his handshake, I understood why he would soon take the name that means “man of steel.” When I was alone with Mikhail, I asked what qualities Lenin saw in him. Mikhail said that Ioseb was very devoted to Lenin and willing to do anything to hasten the revolution, including robbery and kidnapping. I wondered about the morality of that. “Don’t you see,” said Mikhail, “the end justifies the means.” “Some here would have us raise money by charging dues, can you imagine? Do you think the Czar raises money this way? He is plotting every day using the most ruthless means possible. He is jailing and torturing us, and exploiting the workers and peasants. We have to be even more ruthless than him to have any chance at succeeding in revolution.”

The next day Lenin stood at the podium, his eyes squinting, and pounded his fist into an imaginary desk. “The Central Committee will never be able to exercise real control over all who do the work but do not belong to organizations. It is our task to place actual control in the hands of the Central Committee. It is our task to safeguard the firmness, consistency, and purity of our Party. We must strive to raise the title and the significance of a Party member higher, higher and still higher,” he thundered, his voice rising with each “higher.” After a brief pause he continued, “Comrade Trotsky completely misinterpreted the main idea of my book, What Is to Be Done?, when he spoke about the Party not being a conspiratorial organization. He forgot that the Party must be only the vanguard, the leader of the vast masses of the working class, the whole, or nearly the whole, of which works under the control and direction of the Party organizations.”

There was a long lull after he finished speaking as an uneasy hush fell over the crowd. “If there are no objections, the chairman will call the roll on the adoption of the party program now,” said a voice from the side of the stage. “I would like to call a point of order” said a man from the audience on the side where the members the Jewish Labor Bund congregated. “Denied!” came the reply. “Certainly the chair must allow a response to the presentation,” I said. “Very well then, make your statement,” the chairman replied with an air of resignation. I continued, “Our party must be an open one, run by the many, not the few. If a worker participates in a demonstration or in a strike, and is arrested by the czarist police, let him say proudly that he is a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor party.” The crowd seemed to murmur in agreement as Lenin scowled from the podium. The man who called for the point of order leapt to his feet and demanded that the motion be tabled until every member had an opportunity to speak. The request was denied, and the Bundists walked out of the auditorium in protest leaving Lenin’s faction with a narrow majority on the proposal. He immediately declared his faction “Bolshevik” or majority and the split was born. The opposition became the “Menshevik” or minority.

Mikhail who had sided with the Bolsheviks indicated his disappointment with my vote the next day. We need to be unified on this issue he said. I’m all for unification, but if we cede all power to a small number of leaders, how will the masses get power away from them? Comrade Trotsky agrees with me on this issue, I said. Yes, he does agreed Mikhail, which is why he will never reach a leadership position despite his obvious intellect and organizational skills. Are we fighting for a dictatorship of the proletariat or a dictatorship over the proletariat?, I replied. The Bolshevik wing now seems to want to create a new oligarchy after defeating the old.

III

The winter of 1904–5 seemed to come early, a harsh wind whipped in from the east, in early November that made the steppes a frozen wasteland. By January, bloody Sunday had ravaged St. Petersburg as internal discontent finally exploded into violence. By this time, I felt I needed to leave Russia and connect with German revolutionary organizations with a stop at Vienna along the way. During the time since the 1903 conference I had been reading the works of Dr. Freud who had started a revolution in psychology. I was particularly interested in group psychology and the relationship of the follower to the leader, and was excited to learn that Dr. Freud was scheduled to give a public lecture on this topic in Vienna. Freud seemed to argue that the only way to control the group is through extremes because the group only listens to extremes of anything. In addition, he proposed that the group desires to be ruled which allows the leader to have a hypnotic grip on the masses. Is this something that can be overcome?

The streets of Vienna were narrower and winded more than I was used to, and the lights of the cafes that lined the streets seem to beckon as I struggled to find my way to the public hall at the end of a dead end street. The old staircase seemed to creak as I walked a flight up to the 2nd floor where I found a room with a long oblong desk with people sitting in wooden chairs along the sides and a solitary figure at the front. I could tell the bearded man in front was Dr. Freud who matched the pictures I had seen, but had a voice that I did not expect. Speaking half in German and half in English in a raspy, high pitched voice that did not carry well to the back of the room, he had already started talking about the development of psychoanalysis and how it relates to group psychology. “Members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident and independent. We know that love puts a check upon narcissism, and it would be possible to show how, by operating in this way, it became a factor of civilization,” he exclaimed. “The leader of the group is still the dreaded primal father; the group still wishes to be governed by unrestricted force; it has an extreme passion for authority; it has a thirst for obedience.”

When the presentation was over, Freud looked around the room and asked if there were questions. After a long pause, I got up and thanked him for an interesting presentation. After attempting to continue in halting German, I switched to English, though my heavy Russian accent undoubtedly made it hard for him to understand. He cocked his ear and nodded, and then asked, “Did you come here from Russia just to hear me speak?” as some in the audience laughed, and I nodded back in agreement. “I have heard the situation is getting out of control in St. Petersburg.” “Yes, it is,” I agreed. “In fact my question relates to that. Can your theory explain such historical events and how they relate to group dynamics? We are trying to organize a mass movement which will bring revolutionary change to Russia, without repressing individual expression or mandating slavish adherence to a single leader.” With that, Freud strode towards me until he was a few feet in front of me and stared into my eyes. “Oh, are you one of those revolutionary leaders? I can see that in your eyes. Every Marxist who thinks he can tear down bourgeois society and create a new socialist man has that look in his eye. We cannot create a new man by changing the economic structure, rather it is biology and the instinctual demands it creates which drives men to create society including the economy. Marx got that totally twisted around. If you persist in this kind of social engineering it will only result in more violence and chaos.” “Maybe so,” I said. “However my question was more about leadership. Is it inevitable that a charismatic individual will seize control of such a movement and manipulate the masses to serve his own wishes?” “That is indeed often the case,” he said. “Remember Napoleon came after the French revolution. I gather you already have your Russian Napoleon.”

IV

Petrograd is the fall of 1917 looked to be ripe for revolution. The Czar had already abdicated and Kerensky’s hold of the provisional government looked shaky as well. I thought back to the phrase “Russian Napoleon” and I saw the irony that the man who said it in derision already had purged his organization of dissidents. It was only a few years earlier that Freud’s disciples, Jung and Adler, had broken with him over his autocratic leadership of the psychoanalytic society and founded their own schools. What hope was there if even the master couldn’t avoid the consequences of his own theory? Mikhail had moved up in the hierarchy and was on the board of Iskra, the party newspaper. I had less and less contact with him, but he did give me an advance warning of the planned coup on October 25. I wasn’t sure what the consequences would be for the Mensheviks. Would we be allowed to participate as part of a coalition government, or would we banned and our leaders jailed? The answer came soon enough. The constituent assembly elected in November, was shut down after meeting for one day in January, and the Menshevik party was banned. Then came the hardship imposed by war communism and the deprivations of war. My village in the central caucuses was devastated by the Cossacks who swept in from the east along with the white Russian army that was met by the red army on the banks of the Terek River. I escaped to London and heard about the aftermath of the war and subsequent Soviet regime. After Bertram Russell met Lenin in 1920 he said, “I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousand fold my own doubts, not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.” I was to learn that Mikhail paid the ultimate price for holding a creed too firmly.

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