Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

VI – The Dispute Over Brest-Litovsk

Written: 1925–1928, Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe.
First Published: L’An 1 de la révolution russe, 1930.
This Version: New International, Vol. XIV No. 8, October 1948, pp. 252–255.
Translation: Dan Eastman.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This installment of Serge’s work consists of sections from Chapter 5, “Brest-Litovsk.” In view of the fact that there are many sources available giving the details and story of the negotiations, we are including here only those sections discussing the “Brest-Litovsk question as it was reflected in the internal discussions and disputes in the Bolshevik Party.

In the following, passages printed in italics and enclosed in brackets are editorial continuity inserted to connect up Serge’s discussion of intra-Bolshevik affairs with the course of action.

On December 2 after the revolution, revolutionary Russia signed an armistice with imperial Germany and the peace negotiations opened on December 9 in the fortress of Brest-Litovsk behind the German lines. Trotsky became the chief negotiator for the Soviets and brilliantly utilized the parleys to expose the Kaiser’s imperialists and make inflammatory speeches directed to the ears of the European proletariat. – Ed.

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By January 10, the negotiations had reached a deadlock. The Germans were furious with the Bolsheviks’ agitation, and the Bolsheviks were faced with the alternative of continuing a hopeless war or subscribing to a disastrous, outrageous and demoralizing peace.

There was no principle involved for the Bolsheviks, who were strangers to any pacifist illusions. Ever since 1916 Lenin had foreseen, in case of a socialist victory in one or more countries, an offensive war against the remaining capitalist countries.

In April 1917 he wrote: if the Soviets were in power:

“... we would support a revolutionary war against the capitalists of no matter what country, for that would really be a war against the interests of all capital, and not a war in the interests of the capitalists of any one country.”

But now it was not a question of principle that confronted the Bolsheviks. The army was breaking up of its own accord as the soldiers returned home. The masses did not want to fight any more. The October insurrection was carried out in the name of peace. The transportation system was crippled, production was completely disorganized, the food supply in a sad state. Famine threatened more than ever.

A report from the Tenth Army said:

“The infantry and artillery left their positions on January 15 and retired to the rear. A part of the artillery was abandoned. There is no longer any fortified zone.”

Someone from the Second Army wrote:

“The trenches are filled with snow. The fortifications are being used for fuel. The roads are lost under the snow; there is nothing left but a path leading to the shelters, the kitchens, and the German shops; a sector of more than six miles is now occupied by the staff and the Regiment Committee alone.”

“More than two thousand cannon were abandoned at the front,” said M.N. Pokrovsky. For the Russians the war was over.

But the German conditions for peace were none the less unacceptable. Besides, it was hard to tell the exact state of affairs. Information as to the actual extent of the spontaneous demobilization was lacking, and the revolutionary enthusiasm of some of the Communists carried them away.

On January 21, on the eve of the Third All-Russian Congress of the Soviets, an important meeting of Bolshevik Party leaders was held in Petrograd. Three differing points of view were presented. Lenin was for signing the peace; Trotsky considered a revolutionary war impossible, but wanted the Bolsheviks to break off the negotiations so that it might become evident that German violence was responsible for the peace; a third group was for revolutionary war on the Germans.

Lenin in the Minority

There were sixty-five Bolsheviks present. Lenin was in the minority on the vote after he had explained his thesis. The proponents of a revolutionary war received thirty-two votes. Trotsky’s intermediary tendency sixteen, and Lenin fifteen.

The Central Committee of the party met the next day. Lenin explained the impossibility of fighting, the lack of horses, the necessity for sacrificing the artillery in case of a retreat, the ease with which the Germans would be able to capture Reval and Petrograd.

“The peace they have proposed is infamous,” he said. “But if we refuse to sign we shall be swept away, and another government will make the peace.”

Germany is moving toward revolution, he concluded, but the socialist republic already exists in Russia and needs a breathing spell. Trotsky urged a costly international demonstration: we are already losing socialist Poland; we are also losing Esthonia. But

“the salvation of the socialist republic is worth three billion [the indemnity demanded by Germany] ... If we believe the German revolution will burst out the moment the negotiations are broken off, we must sacrifice ourselves, for the German revolution is more important than ours. But the German revolution has not yet begun. We must hold on until the general socialist revolution, and we can do that only by making peace.”

Zinoviev, Stalin and Sokolnikov supported Lenin; Lomov and Krestinsky voted for war; the formula of Trotsky, Bukharin and Uritsky – to draw out the negotiations – won a majority. The same solution in a more precise form – “Neither war nor peace” – was adopted several days later on January 14 by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik and S-R Parties in a common meeting.

The majority recognized the impossibility of carrying on a revolutionary war but thought that a German offensive, if at all possible, would provoke a revolutionary explosion on both sides of the front. The Third All-Russian Congress of the Soviets delegated all powers to the Council of People’s Commissars.

Lenin was in the minority, and not only in the Central Committee. The influential committees of the Moscow District, of Petrograd, of the Urals, the Ukraine, etc., voted against his position.

So strong were the democratic traditions of this highly disciplined party that its leader inclined before the majority, but without giving up the struggle for his point of view. Once more, this time in his own party, Lenin swam against the stream.

As was his custom at critical moments, Lenin clarified his views in the condensed, explicit and concise form of a thesis. His theses were never long and not too frequent. His thesis on peace in twenty-one articles of five to fifteen lines each is a model.

[He argued that the revolution could gain the time needed to consolidate itself only by temporarily yielding to Germany’s robber demands, that there was no possibility of successfully waging a revolutionary war, that it would be suicidal to make grand gestures that could not be backed up.] Lenin’s thesis was correctly called the thesis of the breathing spell.

“Too Risky”

A strong left tendency was already crystallizing in the party around the extreme leftists of the Moscow District: Yaroslavsky, Soltz, Muralov, Sapronov, Ossinsky, Stukov, etc. Since the end of December, the Moscow District Committee had demanded the rupture of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations; in fact had demanded the rupture of all diplomatic relations with “all capitalist countries.”

The District Committee even considered economic treaties between socialist and capitalist states impermissible. In their opinion it was better to “die for the cause of socialism than bow before Kaiser Wilhelm.” Only a people’s uprising could bring about a democratic peace, they said. The basis of this thesis was sheer abstract revolutionary romanticism.

Trotsky’s thesis was much different. Trotsky had no illusions as to the possibility of continuing the war. But he thought that Germany, in the throes of a profound crisis, whose exhausted armies were already influenced by the Russian Revolution, would be unable to take the offensive. He thought it necessary to try out the German army and the German working class. To which Lenin replied:

“It is possible, but risky, too risky.”

The Allied press treated the Bolsheviks as paid agents of the kaiser, and the difficult negotiations at Brest-Litovsk as a prearranged comedy played for the sake of appearances.

“Here are the Bolsheviks dissolving the ‘democratic’ Constituent Assembly in order to conclude a humiliating slave treaty with the kaiser, while Northern France and Belgium are still occupied by German armies. It is obvious that the Allied governments would find it easy in such a situation to fool the masses and perhaps even find support for armed intervention against us,” said Trotsky.

For several years the masses had been exposed to the poison of chauvinism; as yet the internationalists formed only small and scattered groups in the workers’ movement. If the Bolsheviks did nothing to reassure the doubts caused by a separate peace between Russia and Germany, would not the masses of, the Allied countries permit armed intervention against the Soviets? On the contrary, if the Bolsheviks signed the disastrous treaty only at the point of German guns, all these doubts would be removed.

To which Lenin obstinately replied:

“Too risky. At present nothing is more precious than our revolution. We must protect it at all costs.”

Trotsky appealed to the situation inside the party. An immediate peace might lead to a split; the departure of valuable leftists would automatically reinforce the right wing. Lenin replied:

“These whims will pass. A split is not absolutely inevitable. And if it does occur, the splitters will soon return to the party. But if the Germans wipe us out, we shall not return at all ...”

“We said that if there were only one chance in four,” Trotsky later wrote, “that the Germans would not or could not take the offensive, we should nevertheless seize the chance.”

The Germans Attack

Events in Germany gave reason to this position. In the middle of January, great strikes broke out in Berlin. On the 18th, Pravda appeared with headlines:

“It has happened! German imperialism’s head is on the executioner’s block. The fist of the proletarian revolution has been raised.”

“Revolution in Germany! A Soviet in Berlin!”

The strike wave embraced Vienna, Berlin, Kiel, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Cassel, Leipzig, Halle, etc. Short-lived soviets appeared in Vienna and Berlin. The munition factories were closed.

[With Trotsky’s position adopted, the Brest-Litovsk negotiations reopened. There was a strong faction among the German tops to make peace with Russia in order to safeguard their own crumbling war structure, but the kaiser made the decision for presenting the Bolsheviks with an ultimatum. Up against the wall, Trotsky made a final speech in which he announced that his delegation would refuse to sign the proposed treaty but would also refuse to recognize a state of war; the policy was to sit tight and depend upon a German attack to unleash the volcanic forces of the German revolution. But the German revolution was not yet ready, although germinating.]

The German offensive encountered no resistance. The German troops advanced along the railways without striking a blow. From February 18 to February 24, they occupied Reval, Rezhitsa, Dvinsk and Minsk; they invaded the Ukraine.

Those were terrible days. When the offensive was announced, the Council of people’s Commissars wired the Germans its consent to the peace treaty. For a time they thought the Germans were not going to reply. Finally the latter answered evasively: “Send your proposals in writing.”

The Bolsheviks thought the Germans were making war not on Russia but on the Soviets; that they had an agreement with the Allies for the re-establishment of law and order in Russia; that they were going to occupy a large part of the country, including Petrograd. The remaining Russian troops retired in disorder before the Germans without even taking the trouble to obey the instructions of the Council of People’s Commissars to destroy all their artillery and munitions.

If the Germans refused to sign the peace treaty, there was nothing left for the Soviet but to organize guerrilla warfare on the occupied territory. On February 21, the socialist fatherland was proclaimed in a “State of Danger.”

Strip for Action

Orders were given to mobilize the entire strength and resources of the country for revolutionary defense; to defend every position as long as possible; to destroy the railways before the advance of the enemy; to destroy food and munitions stocks, everything of value, rather than abandon them; to mobilize the city masses to dig trenches under the supervision of military experts: “All able-bodied adults, male and female, of the bourgeois classes must join this work; all who resist will be shot”; to suspend the publication of all papers hostile to revolutionary defense and favorable to the German bourgeois invasion or to the counter-revolution, the editors and staffs of these newspapers to join in the work of defense; “to shoot on sight all agents of the enemy, speculators, thieves, good-for-nothings, and counter-revolutionary agitators.” The embryo of the Red terror was contained in this document, as during the French revolution the terror was born of foreign invasion and danger to the state.

But the peasants did not want to fight. Lenin had founded his whole breathing- spell thesis on this presumption, and it was now proved to be a fact. The Germans advanced without resistance and took possession of an immense booty. They advanced two or three hundred kilometers in one week.

The Red Guard resisted here and there, but it was a desperate resistance, doomed to failure. The passivity of the peasant soldiers contrasted with the enthusiasm of the workers, who volunteered for the defense by whole factories, together with their wives and their older children. They poured into Smolny Institute in search of arms.

As for the rabid socialist patriots of yesterday, many of them awaited the Germans as liberators.

Let us recall that the Red Guard under Antonov-Ovseyenko was carrying on a brilliant campaign in the South and had captured Rostov and defeated Kaledin, while the Red troops on the Rumanian front beat off the Rumanian attack on Odessa. The terror was not yet in force, for the masses did not favor terror to support a war they disapproved.

Lenin’s Realism Carries

The capture of Pskov, 257 kilometers from Petrograd, brought consternation to the capital.

The arrival of a new Soviet delegation at Brest-Litovsk on March 1 did not improve the situation. The Germans refused to end their offensive until the very signatures were set to the treaty, which they delayed until March 4 ...

When the recommencement of hostilities was announced, Lenin proposed to the Central Committee the immediate signature of the peace treaty. His motion was again defeated but by only one vote. Bukharin, Trotsky, Joffe, Krestinsky, Uritsky, and Lomov voted against him; Sverdlov, Sokolnikov, Smilga, and Stalin with him.

The Central Committee met twice the day after the German offensive began. Two speakers were allowed each side on questions where there were clearly defined differences. The speakers were limited to five minutes. There was no time for long orations.

At the first meeting, Lenin was again defeated by seven votes to six on a motion calling for the immediate resumption of negotiations, after his view had been defended by Zinoviev and attacked by Bukharin and Trotsky. At the second meeting, Trotsky informed them of the capture of Dvinsk and the entry of the Germans into the Ukraine.

“We have started a revolutionary war in spite of ourselves,” Lenin said. “We don’t play with war! This game has led us to such an impasse that the revolution will inevitably collapse if you continue your middle-of-the-road attitude any longer. Joffe wrote us from Brest-Litovsk that there was not even the beginning of a revolution in Germany.

“While the Germans seize our stations and our rolling stock, while our revolution is collapsing, we sit here fiddling ... History will say that you gave up the revolution. We could have signed the peace and been free, but now we have nothing; we can’t even blow up the railways, ...

“The peasants don’t want war and they won’t fight. Permanent peasant warfare is utopian. Revolutionary war must be more than a phrase. If we are not prepared to fight, let us sign the peace.

“The revolution will not be lost because we give up Finland, Lithuania, and Esthonia to the Germans.”

Terribly confirmed by events, Lenin’s powerful realism carried the last vote by seven to six. Trotsky’s vote made the difference. The division was as follows: For Lenin’s motion for an immediate peace: Lenin, Smilga, Sverdlov, Sokolnikov, Stalin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev. Against Lenin’s motion: Uritsky, Lomov, Joffe, Bukharin, Krestinsky, Dzherzhinsky. One abstention, Helena Stassova.

Neither Lenin nor the Central Committee thought of accusing Trotsky of inconsistency; on the contrary, he and Lenin were charged with drawing up the radiogram to the Germans. The demonstration he wanted to make before the Western proletariat had been made; the experiment he wanted to try had been tried.

The Party Splits

The situation became worse from hour to hour. The Germans were slow to reply, but pursued their invasion with energy, collecting an enormous booty.

And the party split! The leftist partisans of revolutionary war of the Moscow District resigned their posts on February 20, “reserving the right to agitate for their point of view both inside and outside the party.” Among those who resigned were Lomov, Uritsky, Bubnov and Piatakov.

It was the first step toward an open split. The part press did not report these facts. After two days those who had resigned and the remainder of the left bloc changed their attitude, but declared that they would appeal to the party congress.

On February 22 Trotsky informed the Central Committee of a proposal from the Allies: France and Britain were disposed to support Russian resistance to Germany.

He thought the proposal acceptable provided the independence of Soviet foreign policy was assured. Bukharin demanded that the Central Committee reject the offer. Lenin was not present but sent a hurried letter, a few scribbled words on a scrap of paper:

“Please record my vote for accepting the arms and support of the Anglo-French imperialist bandits. – Lenin.”

The Central Committee voted six to five for acceptance.

On February 23 the Central Committee discussed Von Kuhlmann’s answer. It announced new and much harsher terms: Russia was asked to sign away the Baltic countries, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine, and Finland!

Unshakable as ever, Lenin declared that he was through with “revolutionary phrasemongering.” He threatened to withdraw from the government and from the Central Committee if it continued. “Now we shall prepare for a revolutionary war,” he said.

Trotsky considered that the division of opinion in the party made a revolutionary war impossible and spoke for the peace but abstained from the vote.

Lenin’s policy carried by seven votes to four, with four abstentions. Lenin, Stassova, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Sokolnikov, Smilga and Stalin voted for; Bukharin, Bubnov, Uritsky and Lomov against; Trotsky, Dzherzhinsky, Joffe and Krestinsky abstained ...

Democracy and Discipline: A Model

All the responsibilities of the revolution rested on the party, or rather on the leading circles of the party in Petrograd and Moscow. How did it respond in this crisis?

Although it was a disciplined party without a tinge of abstract democratic fetishism, during these grave hours especially every rule of internal democracy was observed. The recognized leader of the party was put in the minority. Lenin’s great personal authority did not prevent the members of the Central Committee from opposing him and vigorously fighting for their own point of view.

The most important questions were settled by vote and often by slight majorities (for example, 7 to 6), yet the minority submitted without giving up its ideas. While in the minority, Lenin patiently waited for events to bear him out and continued to agitate for his policy without once breaking discipline.

Impassioned as the discussions might be, they were always objective. Neither gossip, intrigue, nor personality played any important role. The leaders defended their ideas without a thought of attacking or discrediting their adversaries. They were purely concerned with proving them wrong. Not being taunted, the opposition showed only the minimum of nervousness compatible with events, and rapidly recovered from its excesses.

When he had won a majority Lenin did not gloat. He had too much else to do. He was at once tolerant and firm with the opposition – tolerant toward their persons but immovable toward their ideas.

Unlike liberal bourgeois parliamentarians, Lenin did not make distinctions between men and ideas. But, on the other hand, he did distinguish between methods to be used in fighting enemies of the party and methods to be used in internal party struggles, among comrades. In 1917 his policy was based on a similar distinction between struggles against enemies of the working class and struggles inside the working class.

His idea of the working-class party leader was clear: a leader whose authority was based on recognized superiority, a resolute and disciplined man, stubborn and unafraid to be in the minority and swim against the stream; the duty of the working-class leader was not to follow the masses but to clarify and lead them, for he was the highest expression of their intelligence.

Compare this idea of the proletarian leader with the idea current in the old, petty-bourgeois, opportunist parties, in which the leaders chase after the masses in search of popularity – anti-militarists or pacifists when the masses are pacific, patriotic when the masses cheer “the war to end war,” and “revolutionary” when they return in a murderous mood.

In this hour of danger the party was truly the “Iron Guard” that Bukharin later called it: miracles of initiative from the lowest to the top ranks, disciplined even to its greatest leader, admiring and respecting the leaders it had formed during years of struggle, but knowing how to contradict them and put them in the minority.

The party was equipped with a real collective leadership (always Lenin’s care), had a healthy tradition, and knew how to avoid excesses both of democracy and authority. Tactical differences were minimized by collective methods, common Marxist education, and democratic centralist organization. The center directed and was obeyed; but the center itself was the work of the party, and through the party the masses.

If Lenin had been a little more authoritarian during the days of Brest-Litovsk, or if the party itself had been a little less solid, disciplined, loyal, and unified, or if the leadership had been a little less flexible, intelligent, firm, and well-educated, the party would have split and at least temporarily [1] lost the aid of valuable leftist elements. A little more, a little less – all living equilibriums repose on those quantities; so does the equilibrium which is the health of the working-class party.

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1. But can it be known? Once he has left or been expelled from the party, the best proletarian element is more likely to be lost than to return. It requires an exceptional theoretical ability and a not-at-all common strength of character to continue to serve the party outside of the party. – V.S.

Last updated on: 2 August 2018