Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Byltingin í Rússlandi eftir Stefán Pjetursson - Part 3 continued - Brest-Litovsk

This is latest installment (part four of the third chapter) of my translation of Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia by Stefán Pjetursson. This little book was published in 1921 by young Icelandic socialists who identified with the 1917 Russian Revolution and wanted to defend and explain it to the wider left and trade unionists in Iceland. I am posting it in mini-chapters because it is so long.

The earlier chapters are available below ending with the second part of chapter three where the author explains bolshevism's relationship to Marxism particularly as it was summarised in the Communist Manifesto.

My introduction to Byltingin í Rússlandi

The Sources, Preface and Introduction contain more about their reasons for writing.

Part One: Reaction and Progress

Part Two: The Revolution

Part Three: Bolshevism, a portrait of Lenin

Part Three: Bolshevism and Marxism

Reminder: Byltingin í Rússlandi uses the New Style Russian calendar - the Gregorian calendar - introduced in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1918 which added thirteen days to the Old Style Julian calendar. However the author still refers to the revolutions in March and November (Old Style) not February and October and in the spirit of translating what the author wrote I have kept his dates in my translation.


It worked well that it was Trotsky’s job to defend the Bolsheviks’ honour against other countries after the November revolution. One of the most important immediate matters before them was the peace treaty with the Central powers. Trotsky was there on behalf of Russia and everyone who attended the negotiations agreed that he displayed the greatest political talent. Admittedly, he could not prevent the Bolshevik leadership from having to sign bitter peace terms, but he did something else which caused the German leadership far more damage. Trotsky is a brilliantly eloquent man and he used the opportunity to strengthen Bolshevism in the German army. “While I was at the peace conference in Brest-Litovsk”, Trotsky once said, “I never forgot for a moment that I was with those who reviled the revolution and so I directed what I said to the international proletariat.”

And the negotiators from the Central Powers agreed that he had spread revolutionary ideas so effectively among their armies in the east that they were then too unreliable to send to the front in France.

It was, as we would expect, one of the Bolshevik leadership's first tasks to try to get a ceasefire between Russia and the Central Powers. This was managed some months after the November Revolution and negotiations began soon after in Brest-Litovsk. Immediately, Bolshevik delegates argued that the basic conditions for peace should be; no demands for annexation of land, no demands for the payment of war reparations—except inasmuch as small countries such as Serbia and Belgium should be paid compensation from international funds for the damage they had sustained. And last but not least, that subjugated nations had the absolute right to decide by voting, what state they wanted to belong to or whether they wanted to be completely independent and that such voting must be completely free. 
The Central Powers’ representatives, Czernin and Kühlmann said that they would be willing to agree to the Bolshevik leadership’s main terms as the basis for peace, provided the Allies agreed.

At this point Trotsky sent a message to the Allied leadership, which has since become famous. He explained the basic conditions the delegates at Brest-Litovsk had agreed to construct international peace. The Central Powers had at least agreed to drop claims to land they had conquered in the war.

"It is no longer possible to say that the war continues to liberate Belgium, Northern France and Serbia,” because Germany has expressed a willingness to release these countries so the general peace can be agreed. Now the Allies have to disclose their peace terms. If they demand that the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine, Galicia, Bosnia, Bohemia and the southern Slavic provinces of Austria get to decide their own future, then they must give the same rights to the inhabitants of Ireland, India, Indochina, Madagascar and many other countries, just as the Russian revolutionaries have granted that right to Finland, Ukraine and so forth. “Because it is obvious that to demand these rights for peoples within the borders of enemy states but not provide them to peoples within the limits of your own states, is the most despicable violent policy imaginable.” Trotsky finished the broadcast by demanding an answer within ten days, otherwise Russia would make peace with the Central powers.

As might be expected from the Allied leadership, these reasonable demands were in vain, so the Bolsheviks had to negotiate with the Central Powers alone. Then the German and Austrian representatives took this as an opportunity to refuse to negotiate on the previously discussed basis. 

Military service ends

There was now a heated debate in Brest-Litovsk between Trotsky on the one hand and Czernin and Kühlmann on the other. The main disagreement was that the Central Powers refused to call the army home from the provinces they had annexed before peace was established. It was clear to Trotsky that this meant that neither Poland, Lithuania nor Courland [now part of Latvia] would be free to decide their own futures and they would be nothing but German vassals. After the parties argued over this through all of January 1918, Trotsky made an extraordinary bold move. On 10 February, he announced that he considered the war between Russia and the Central Powers over without any peace agreements being signed and ordered that the release of Russian soldiers from military service should begin.

The Germans responded to this remarkable event by resuming the war against Russia and as expected the Russian army was not able to resist. There was simply no choice for the Bolshevik government here; it had to accept the Central Powers' peace terms. The committee was sent back to Brest-Litovsk where it had to sign even tougher peace terms than the Central Powers had previously wanted. This was 3 March 2018.
It was hard on the Russian revolutionaries to have to accept terms set by the advocates of the German and Austrian rich. Just before they signed the treaties they issued a speech protesting the terms of the peace. "We publicly declare, they said, "before German and Russian workers, before the international proletariat that we are forced to sign these terms by those who are stronger at this moment. That's why we sign this coercive peace and not because we agree to it at all.”

Trotsky himself took this very personally and left the leadership of foreign affairs.

The Allied governments took the terms of peace between Russia and the Central Powers very badly but could do little about it. They were still threatened on the battlefields in France and had to keep all their troops there. But immediately after the November revolution in Russia, the capitalists there gathered their side and began uprisings in many places. They started the cruelest civil war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Russia and kept it going unceasingly for three years. 

Civil War

In Siberia and east Russia, a large army assembled under the leadership of a naval commander named Koltschak. His headquarters were in Omsk, in western Siberia and set up a regime there which he considered to be the only legitimate power in Russia. Another extremely powerful army formed in southern Russia. Its leaders for the first months were Kornilov and the Cossack leader Kaledin, but later they got another officer named Denikin who became particularly difficult for the Bolsheviks. Finally, in the Baltic countries there was a third rebel officer, Judenitsch [Yudenich].

When the Allies heard that civil war was burning in Russia, they saw a chance to turn the tables. They did all they could to arm the rebel army with weapons, supplies, funds and “good advice”. And to add even more to the Bolshevik government's troubles, they imposed a blockade on Russia’s ports, blaming the uprising in the Caucasus and beyond on the country’s borders. Finally, a British army landed on the Murmansk coast from the Arctic Ocean and was ordered inland. This was not enough for the Allies but they were given yet another opportunity to heap coals on the head of the Bolshevik government when Germany collapsed and the new states on the western border of Russia - Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Finland sought protection from the victors. It wasn’t long before they came under the Allies' protection until they got caught up in the war with the Bolshevik government.

All these enemies who had encircled Russia were now set on overthrowing the proletarian government and it probably wasn’t said that its prospects looked good when capitalism’s troops invaded in the summer of 1918. It is worth mentioning here that this was the summer that the former emperor Nicholas and his family were killed by the local government in Yekaterinburg. They feared that he would fall into the hands of the rebels close to the city and later be used to unite the opposition against the proletarian government. Such was the fate of the last emperor of the Romanov clan.

The Red Army

In 1919, the rebel armies advanced from all directions and it appeared likely that this tremendous organization, backed by the strongest capitalist powers in the world would quickly bring down the Bolshevik government. Yet its power grew with the danger.

Trotsky seized the challenge to come up with an army to defend the revolution and it went well. The "Red Army" which he mostly created and is mainly made up of workers, defeated one rebel commander after another. First Judenitsch [Yudenich] and Denikin then Koltschak and after that the other warring parties weren't able to deal with the Bolshevik government. It took the opportunity and made peace with each of the Baltic countries and by the summer of 1920 Poland was their only enemy in that direction. The British army in northern Russia had hardly covered themselves in glory and was taken home some time later. But in Southern Russia, it was Wrangel, a general of great reputation that collected the remnants of Denikin’s army at the behest of the Allies, particularly France and made the only serious attempt yet to overthrow the proletarian government.

Here however, the tables turned because when it came to it, Wrangel's troops could not withstand the Red Army. After a month of fighting in the autumn of 1920 they were completely scattered, ending the Russian Civil War. Some time before this war with the Poles had mostly stalled. The Allies were preparing incitement of people in eastern Europe to go to war against the Bolsheviks. Now they themselves lifted the embargo and prepared to trade with Russia and urged the Poles to seek peace with the Bolshevik government. In March 1921, the peace treaties between the Poles and Russia were concluded and it could finally be said that the Bolsheviks were free from attacks by foreign enemies. 

It is almost incomprehensible to people here what the Russian proletarian government has done to defend the cause of the revolution from this astonishing association of domestic and foreign capitalists. The new policy must have given Russia a great deal of power. It is obvious to everyone and that power can only be explained by the sense that the Red Army and the Russian people have that they are defending something worth the effort. Only enthusiasm for the cause of revolution has been able to give the Red Army its recent superiority over the “white army” that capitalism sent from all directions to annihilate the Russian government - the guardian of world revolution.

Yes, the Russian Bolsheviks view themselves as the guardian of the world revolution. "What is happening in eastern Europe," said Zinoviev, president of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, "is just the beginning. That's where the world revolution begins."

And from Russia it will spread, they say. Even if capitalism exerts all its power it won’t be able to suppress the communist movement. It was precisely in those years, when the workers' republic of Russia was surrounded on all sides by a hostile band of capitalists, that the Communist parties around the world grew rapidly. But one of the main conditions for the working class to be able to take power is that the revolution must be carried out in at least all developed countries.

This is what Marx said and this is what the communists in our day have fully understood. In Moscow on 4 March 1919 they formed the “Third International", so that communists around the world would have common leadership in the struggle against capitalism.

The "Third International'' has set itself the goal of overthrowing capitalism around the world with international revolution and build on the ruins an international republic of workers’ councils. The president of the executive committee of the organisation is Zinoviev, one of the most energetic men among Russian Bolsheviks.

He burns with zeal for international revolution. He has declared holy war against capitalist oppression and he calls down righteous punishment over the heads of the slow-moving social democrats and their union the “Second International", which completely failed the cause of the people in the world war - just when it mattered most.

In one speech from, "Third International", Zinoviev says: Proletarians! Look back! Behind you are the bodies of your brothers fallen in the bloodiest and most criminal war ever. And then look into the future!

Grigory Zinoviev speaking in 1918

“What can you expect from the bourgeois dictators, as long as they hold power? What else but new wars, new taxes, famine, and boundless slavery? Proletarians must defend themselves from this at all costs. The Third International calls on the proletariat in all countries to make the final decision and cut away their weapons and power.”