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New International, January–February 1951


Stan Grey

Books in Review

Pastepot History


From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 1, January–February 1951, pp. 59–61.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Verdict of Three Decades
edited by Julien Steinberg
Duell, Sloan & Pearce. 634 pp. $5.

Verdict of Three Decades has been hailed as a useful book by the reviewer of The New York Times, and it is indeed the ideal Straphanger’s Manual on the Russian Revolution. Let it be conceded at the outset that a searching critic might find several negative comments to make about the work and its editor, Julien Steinberg. But even the most violently disposed critic, if there be such, must admire the determination and integrity of the young editor. In these days, when it is the easiest and most tempting task, business-wise and otherwise, to derive Stalin from Lenin and then to attack them both, it demands special endowments of character to be indifferent to appearances and come out with yet another such book. Bringing to bear his scholarly acquaintance with the files of the New Leader, Steinberg has pasted together with introductions and comments writings from Rosa Luxemburg to Sidney Hook, inclusive, all designed to prove that the horrors of totalitarian Russia come from Lenin.

Having allocated credit where it is due, it remains to point out that as a work of scientific history, Steinberg’s book has a genuine teratological interest. But as a book for the “man in the street,” its “usefulness” is inversely proportional to its historical accuracy. It is a safe guess that it will do no damage to the “cold war.” An instance of scientific history: Between pages 5 and 14, a subway rider can get a “Quick” picture of the overthrow of the Czar to the Bolshevik seizure of power in the time it takes to ride two local stops on a fast train. For as is well known, the revolution was by no means as complex as some might think. First there was the bad Czar. Then there was Kerensky whose government was the authentic and sole representative of the peasants and workers, as proved by a quotation from Kerensky, and then along came Lenin who wasn’t even in Russia when the Czar was overthrown (he “crashed” the revolution, so to speak) and snatched the government away from Kerensky and the people.

There is an almost lyrical exposition of the wonders of the Kerensky regime. “The Czar had fallen! Freedom in Russia was no longer merely a slogan ... The specter of Russian absolutism was no more. Free Russia had joined the free nations of the world.” This continues with suitable quotations from Kerensky but in all the vast length and breadth of the nine pages on the Russian Revolution, there is not a mention, not a syllable, not even a disguised suggestion that the World War was then taking place, that the Russian people were fed up with the war and that Kerensky kept the country in the war with the “other free nations of the world”; not a hint in this exhaustive nine pages that the peasants wanted land and Kerensky didn’t give it to them; that is, not a murmur on the two basic tasks of the first revolution: land and peace. It is not even that this matter is treated inadequately; it is merely ignored. Of course an editor has his problems, some things have to be included and some have to be left out. If he must include long quotations by Kerensky demonstrating the nobility of Kerensky, and if he must absolutely have a few distilled quotations from Lenin demonstrating his villainy, why then such trifles as peace and land simply must be left out. In any case better not to confuse the subway rider and make him miss his station.

The theme of Steinberg’s introductions and comments is that Stalinism flows from Leninism. Says Steinberg: “It is essential that this early period (after the seizure of power) be understood if the reader is to recognize the basic continuity – we do not say identity – between Lenin’s Russia and Stalin’s Russia.” As is readily apparent, Steinberg has nothing if not the scholar’s caution and scruple. He warns against the universal error that Stalin is Lenin (or vice versa) and that 1936 is really 1919. Having thus established his credentials for objectivity by annihilating the error of identification, he proceeds to prove by continued statement that they are not identical, one is only worse than the other.

In these days, when taking a whack at Leninism has become a career, the literary danger for the professionals is the trap of plain tedium. While Steinberg has of course availed himself of the trade service which provides as many quotations as are necessary for the job, it should be added that the urge for originality asserted itself in the form of a delightfully ingenious twist entirely his own.

Lenin, Steinberg says, had a “double political standard.” He writes: “if one were to attempt to unearth in Lenin’s writing and pronouncements objective criteria for judging the rightness and wrongness of specific kinds of action the task would soon be found to be impossible.” Here indeed is a body blow against the old double-dyed villain. Lenin, the scoundrel, never worked out a rule of thumb for distinguishing right from wrong, good from evil. It is indeed intriguing to imagine Steinberg reading Shub’s quotations from Lenin, the handy selected-works of Lenin and noting his despair at the lack of such a standard. Kerensky, of course, had one all worked out. Steinberg reminds one of nothing so much as the young man in Major Barbara whose only talent was his ability to tell right from wrong.

Steinberg’s research among obscure volumes led him across Orwell’s book 1984 in which the happy phrase “double-think” is applied to the totalitarian mentality. Steinberg, not loath to apply his wide reading to the matter at hand, rings in the phrase “double-think” and says “But Stalin is the chief user, not the inventor.” Here is an archetype of Lenin’s double-think principle: If war is waged by the exploiting class with the object of strengthening its class rule, such a war is a criminal war, and “defensism” in such a war is a base betrayal of socialism. If war is waged by the proletariat after it has conquered the bourgeoisie in its own country, and is waged with the object of strengthening and extending socialism, such a war is legitimate and “holy.”

After this it is necessary to pause. This natural gem sparkles from all sides and should be left untouched for a decent period. Having recovered our sight, we note that Steinberg has been hasty in this novel contribution to anti-Leniniana. Presumably, Steinberg believes with pride and a fierce sense of integrity that he himself is a grade-A “single-think” man, to coin a phrase. But does not Steinberg believe that in a war between the U.S. and Russia, it would be “holy” to fight on the side of the U.S. and criminal to defend Russia? To paraphrase the “inventor” Lenin, does not Steinberg believe that if war is waged by the Stalinist ruling class with the object of strengthening its class rule, such a war is a criminal war and “defensism” in such a war is a base betrayal of democracy? If war is waged by the Western Democracy, after it has or while it is suppressing the Stalinists in their own countries, and is waged with the object of strengthening and extending democracy, is not such a war legitimate and “holy”?

Verdict of Three Decades, compiled possibly in three weeks of casual browsing, contains more than the notes of Steinberg. The first section has selections from Luxemburg on the Russian Revolution (to quote Luxemburg against the revolution has become the reflex of the backsliders from socialism, a reflex so conditioned as to overlook her support to the Revolution and her own activities). The editor scrupulously collects the major articles against the revolution, with no evidence presented for the other side. Included, also, are the well-known portraits of Trotsky by Eastman, Lenin’s Testament, Souvarine on Stalin and What I Believe by Stalin. The second section has selections which describe the slave labor camps, the famine, the trials covering the “Second Decade.” The third section contains the excellent essay by Peter Meyer on the New Class Society in Russia which appeared in Politics magazine, selections from Koestler, Dallin, Hook, Hilferding and others.

Finally, a comment on scholarship. In introducing the essay by Martov, The Ideology of Sovietism, Steinberg says, “This selection is composed of excerpts from an article that originally appeared in the publication Mysl in Karkov, early in 1919.” This would suggest that he had gone to the sources himself, a tidy bit of research. However, in very tiny print behind the title page, among a long list of acknowledgments to publishers, authors and magazines, he cites as the source of his selection the pamphlet The State and the Socialist Revolution, translated and put out by “Integer.” It is of course not as erudite but more proper to give the actual source in its proper place.

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