Biography of Bolshevik Leader Lev Kamenev

Dear Readers:

In the year 2017 the Russian press is celebrating and re-living the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, one of the most momentous events in 20th-century history.  In revolutionary terms, we are up to the July Days.

Recall that Bolshevik Party leader Lenin had returned to Russia from exile in April 1917 with his “April Theses”.  Lenin had a bold plan for resolving the  crisis into which Russia had plunged, following the abdication of the Tsar and the dissolution of the Russian Empire.  By April there were two competing governments in the country:  The Parliamentary Duma on the one hand; vs the Soviets, or local  councils, of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants.  Lenin’s political slogan, one of the most concise and most effective political slogans ever, consisted of:
(1)  Pass governmental powers to the Soviets (i.e., disband the Duma); (2) Peace to the Nations (i.e., pull out of the war);  (3) Land to the Peasants (i.e., expropriate from the big landowers); (4) Factories to the Workers (i.e., nationalize industry).

One of the Lenin’s comrades in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party was a man named Lev Kamenev.  I was very interested to see Ria do this biographical piece (written by Petr Romanov), about this little known but quite interesting socialist politician.  What follows is my straight translation of the piece without additional commentary on my part.

Lev Kamenev, Main Debater of the Russian Social-Democratic Working Party (Bolshevik Faction)

Lev Borisovich Kamenev was an Old Bolshevik.  He was an instructor of the first Party School in Longjumeau near Paris where the Russian Social-Democratic Working Party (RSDWP) trained cadres out of the working class.  Kamenev managed [the newspaper]  “Pravda”, was several times subjected to arrests, and served out a term of exile in the Turukhansky District.  Kamenev was one of the Old Guard who was not afraid to have his own opinions.  And even to debate against Lenin.  For those who didn’t “get it” (or didn’t want to get it) that the situation really changed when Stalin assumed the leadership, an uneasy fate awaited them.  Kamenev was one of those people.

Kamenev edited the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda.

After the October events Lev Kamenev occupied several prominent positions;  yet his main legacy was in fact what he accomplished between between February and October of 1917.  During this time (ironically), out of all the authoritative ideologues of the Party, Kamenev was the most consistent opponent of Lenin.

After Ilyich had returned from emigration with his “April Theses”,  Kamenev did not quit the Party, like some others did; but rather he stayed and used all his persuasive powers to attempt to convince his comrades of the folly of instant proletarian revolution.  Once he commented ironically that Lenin, out of impatience, wanted to leap into socialism on an airplane.  Lev Borisovich argued against an uprising.  “Given the correct tactics,” he would say, “we could receive a third, and possibly even more, seats in the Constitutional Assembly.”  At which point, the inevitable sharpening of the situation would cause the SR’s [Socialist Revolutionary Party] and Mensheviks to seek an alliance with the Proletarian Party.  As a result of this, [Kamenev prognosed], “our opponents will be forced to concede to us at every step.  Together with the Left SR’s, the non-party peasants and others, [we will create] a ruling bloc which, in the main, will carry out our platform.”

Kamenev and Lenin: Good friends, in spite of everything

Lev Borisovich was a highly literate Marxist, but as a human being his character was soft.  He did not crave power.  His opponent, Lenin, did not find him irritating; on the contrary, Lenin found him useful.  Lenin used Kamenev like a honing instrument, to sharpen his own debating skills.  Only one time did Lenin get seriously mad at him:  That was on the eve of the October Revolution when, in Maxim Gorky’s “New Life” [magazine], Kamenev, along with [fellow Bolshevik Party leader] Grigory Zinoviev, laid out his arguments against the uprising.  Lenin regarded this as an act of betrayal and demanded Kamenev’s expulsion from the Party.  However, Lenin was voted down on this (such were the times), and soon enough he cooled off.  Technically it wasn’t a betrayal anyhow, since it was stated in the article that the Party had not yet made a decision whether or not to have the uprising, it was still in the discussions phase.

Russian troops in World War I

“Two tactics are under discussion,” Kamenev wrote.  “The tactic of conspiracy; vs the tactic of believing in the Russian Revolution.”  By “conspiracy” of course, Kamenev meant Lenin.  He saw Lenin as a conspirator, and himself as a “believer”.

Lev Kamenev ideologically parted ways with Lenin many times.  Usually agreeing with Lenin on tactical issues, but disagreeing with him on strategy.  Ideologically speaking, Kamenev inhabited a neutral region somewhere between Bolshevism and Menshevism.  During World War I he came out against Lenin’s “defeatist” position, considering the slogan “Down with the War!” to be senseless.  Or, more precisely, as Lev Borisovich explained in his usual polite manner, “devoid of content”.

Returning from exile while continuing to edit “Pravda”, Kamenev called for supporting the Provisional Government “so long as it continues to fight against the relics of the Old Regime”, at the same time applying pressure on the government via the Petrograd Soviet.  That was in March, before Lenin’s return, and the Russian Bureau of the Bolshevik Party agreed with Kamenev’s position.

A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet in 1917

During that time, by the way, Lev Borisovich himself was a member of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet; in fact he was voted to this position by an overwhelming majority of votes.  The reason is simple.  Kamenev, even when debating with his opponents, was always polite and maintained normal human relations with them; which was a rarity among the Bolsheviks.  Lenin was relentness when cursing out the class enemies; and the other Bolsheviks took their (behavioral) cues from him.

Speaking of which, Stalin, who was also working in “Pravda” during that time, after returning from his exile, completely supported Kamenev in this debate.  It was these two men (Kamenev and Stalin) who, while publishing Lenin’s first “Epistle From Afar”, edited out Lenin’s harsh criticisms of the Provisional Government.  And the subsequent Epistles they decided not to publish at all.  Stalin changed his views only after Lenin showed up in person, in Russia.  Kamenev did not change his views, though.

A meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee, to discuss possible uprising

After the July crisis, when the Bolsheviks were subjected to repressions and Lenin had to escape to his hut (in Finland), Kamenev declared that he was ready to stand before a judge and voluntarily submit himself to the authorities.  There was also some discussion whether Lenin should give himself up.  However, Stalin, on commenting on this variant, remarked that the Junkers could not be trusted to deliver Ilyich safely to the jail.  Stalin was probably right.  If the Moderate Kamenev could be jailed (not for long, to be sure) in the “Kresty” prison, then the Radical Lenin most likely would not have been delivered to jail in one piece.

In September, Kamenev’s views once again did not coincide with Lenin’s.  At this time the so-called “Democratic Assembly” was meeting and working to create a “single-threaded Democratic government” to replace the coalition Provisional Government.  Kamenev, representing the Bolshevik faction, came out as being too “soft”, according to Lenin.  Ilyich believed that instead of just criticizing the government, it was time to prepare for the uprising.  However, a session of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik faction, under Kamenev’s leadership, condemned as “completely unacceptable” any speeches (agitation against the government), ordering the members of the Central Committee to take measures ensuing calm and tranquility in all the barracks and factories.

Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace.

And thus did Lenin and Kamenev, both members of the leadership of the very same political party, approach October with completely opposite positions.  Lenin was enthusiastically preparing an uprising, while Kamenev was attempting, unsuccessfully, to prevent it.

None the less, after the storm of the Winter Palace, taking a deep breath, Lev Borisovich not only remained in the Party, but even, for the course of a week and half, became the Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee; in other words, he was formally the Head of State.  History has preserved Kamenev’s utterance:  “We did a stupid thing, we seized the government — and now we must form a cabinet.”  And … once again diverged in views with Lenin, demanding that a coalition government be formed  with the Mensheviks and SR’s.  And when the Leader (=Lenin) did not agree with that variant, Kamenev resigned [from his government post, not the Party].

Later, Kamenev was to occupy not a few positions:  Chairman of the Moscow Soviet (1918-1926); and from 1922 onward, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Peoples Commissars, Council of Labor and Defense, and after Lenin’s death, as Chairman of the Council of Labor and Defense.  Not counting his full list of Party duties as well.

Stalin in 1926: Tightening the noose…

Kamenev’s fall began in 1926.  The classic scheme was used against him:  First a campaign of denigration, then he was removed from his posts, he was sent abroad as an ambassador, he was implicated in one conspiracy, then in another.  The noose around his neck was tightened, then loosened, then tightened again…

Kamenev was expelled from the Party (several times):  In 1927 he was expelled, then reinstated in 1928, then expelled again in 1932, resinstated in 1933, expelled for the final time in 1934, and then prison…

Readers: Make note of the fate of each of these 23 men and 2 women of Lenin’s Central Committee — how many died of natural causes?

Although the name of Kamenev figures in the various political combinations of that epoch  — initially he and Zinoviev, along with Stalin, formed a Triumvirate that was directed against Trotsky; and later he and Zinoviev combined against Stalin –, the fact is that Lev Borisovich never played a key role [in these combinations].  Which is understandable, giving his non-militant personality.

Kamenev and Zinoviev at a monument to Karl Marx

There are people who possess the courage to have their own point of view, but don’t have the will to fight for it, firmly and to the bitter end, if needed.  At the (Party) Congress of 1925 Kamenev declared:  “Comrade Stalin is unable to fulfill the role of Uniter of the Bolshevik camp.  We are against the theory of one-man rule, we are against the notion of creating a Leader.”  But to seriously do battle with Stalin? [Kamenev didn’t have it in him.]

If Zinoviev, head of the Leningrad Soviet, was constantly flexing his muscles for the political fight, and was collecting people loyal to himself; then Kamenev, head of the Moscow Soviet, could not even imagine engaging in such a struggle.  The two men perished together, they were shot in 1936, as part of the “Case of the Trotsky-Zinoviev Center”.

They say that Kamenev held himself up well, as they were being led to the execution, he even tried to bolster a depressed [and fretful] Zinoviev:  “Stop it, Grigory, let us die like men.”  Kamenev, the intellectual Bolshevik did not want to fight, he did not know how to fight, but he knew how to die bravely.

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4 Responses to Biography of Bolshevik Leader Lev Kamenev

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    Looks like it falls to me (again!) to drop several “anvils”, about shy and conscientious intelligent ™ Kamenev. 🙂

    A) Leiba Borukhovich Kamenev (nee – Rosenfeld) came from the family of ethnic Jewish father (who converted to Orthodox Christianity) and Russian Mother. He was born in Moscow. His fater was successful (read – rich) railroad engineer. And in late XIX c. Russian empire these specialists were equivalent in glamour, popularity (and income) to programmers and sisadmins of modern Russia in the not so distant past.

    B) Kamenev was brother in law of Trotsky. It might seem trivial… but it’s not. Familial ties, and “blood is thicker than water” principle had been paramount in the politics since ancient times (go and check the familial ties of the key participants of 49 BC Ceasarian gambit and the subsequent Civil War) to this day (no matter what country – see who is who in the Government and where their spouses are working).

    C) Important context note about “September’s Crisis” and this whole situation with the “Democratic Assembly”. Before it’s beginning on 12 September Bolsheviks won an important political victory – they managed for the first time to enter the Presidium of Executive Committee of the Petrograd Council, kicking out the Mensheviks (Chkheidze was replaced by Trotsky). And it was Trotsky who dissed Kamenev’s lily-livered “let’s all us Lefties come together in the new Provisional Government” position, instead arguing for the transfer of the power to the Soviets. Lenin (who was still in Finland) was surprisingly less radical – he was willing to see new Provisional Government formed from Mensheviks and eSeRs, provided the Bolsheviks would be allowed to keep the Soviets for themselves AND be officially recognized as the “loyal opposition” (read: drop the treason charges).

    What happened next – i.e. the “Legitimate Left’s” unwillingness to betray its alliance with the bourgeoisie plus the sabotage of Lenin’s preparations to the uprising by the remaining Bolsheviks – is well known. Only in 10 October Lenin returns and kicks the party back on track. Only Zinoviev and Kamenev resisted his argumentation longer than anyone. But, to be honest, by the laws of the Revolutionary underground, they ought to be shot then, not 20 years later.

    D) Kamenev was allowed to rehabilitate himself by being sent to “rule out” (rus. “разруливать”) the conflict with the All-Russian Railroad Workers Trade Union (VIKZHEL’), who were on strike right after the October Revolution. The “moderate Left” was stronK within them, so Lenin dispatched “handshakables” Kamenev and Ryazanov to deal with them. He taught the “envoys” their talking points: okay to form a SINGLE democratic government (no two power centers, like it was with the Soviets vs Provisional Government), but on the terms of the programs already voted and approved on the Congress of Soviets (voted fair and square with quorum and all, we must add). This is non-negotiable, because it would mean a betrayal of the workers and soldiers.

    ESeRs and Mensheviks, OTOH, were all like: A) the program needs to be reviewed. B) You chose wrong candidates for the government – not only just Bolsheviks, but the most radical extremist ones! Lenin and Trotsky? Non handshakable. You, Lev Kamenev, is handshakable. You’re moderate, so join us – we have cocaine cookies. You understand that you can not manage the country. Here is proof for you – no railways! Naturally, Lev Borukhovich though: “Oh, yeah! I’m a moderate! I’m handshakable! I nearly prevented the uprising in the first place! They promised cocaine!”. So, of course, he didn’t form a conspiracy against Lenin outright. No – he just devised and came to an “understanding” with Mensheviks, about the alternative government without Lenin, but with eSeRs like Chernov as the PM and Avksentyev as the Foreign Minister, and with only 5 (five) Bolsheviks holding other chairs (all of them were Kamenev allies – like Lunacharsky).

    Context – this public betrayal and backstabbing (i.e. all relevant party papers published the results of the talks) happens the same time, when the acting Bolshevik and Soviet power deals with the Junker revolt in Moscow and Krasnov’s first offensive. Why, not conspicuous at all! Lenin played dirty – and won. Again. He said – “Okay, fine! But in this case I and Lev Davidovich gonna quit the Executive committee… and go to the low tier organizations” – i.e. to the Soviets of the Soldier and Sailor Deputies. As comrade Mao wrote years later – “The Power Grows from the Barrel of the Gun”. Such Soviets had a veritable forest of such Power. Meanwhile the low-tier of the railroad workers became propagandized and subverted to the Bolshevik views by early November. Kamenev, Mensheviks and eSeRs shat a pile of bricks and decided to “re-negotiate”.

    E) Kamenev was (unsurprisingly) against violent measures against the enemies of the Revolution. Fun fact – the very first state matter discussed by the Bolsheviks was not the “Decree about Peace” – it’s been a voting on the abolition of the capital punishment, initiated by Kamenev and his supporters. Lenin overruled them, saying that the proletariat can not empty its arsenal in the fight against counterrevolution. Thus, the “Decree about Peace” was the first adopted legislation. Nevertheless, while in charge of Moscow during the Civil War, Kamenev tried to maximally mitigate the Red Terror. At the same time – he was totally “understanding” of Sverdlov’s policy of the violent “de-Cossackization” (rus. “расказачивание”) due to understandable ethnic factor.

    F) Kamenev was well known “moderate” and even “handshakable” (for a Bolshevik) person – and this was a view of not only his comrades, but of their opponents as well. And that was a problem. E.g., the conspiracy of the prince Shakhovskoy and kadet (member of the “Constitutional Democrats” party) planned to assassinate Lenin in the very beginning of 1918 (right before the beginning of the sessions of the Constitutional Assembly), and placed their bet on Kamenev to be more “negotiable” (rus. “договорноспособной”) figure in the camp of the Bolsheviks due to his open support of the parliamentarism and other attributes of the bourgeoisie democracy.

    1 January 1918 there was indeed an assassination attempt on Lenin – his car had been shot at, but Ilyich was saved by the Swiss social-democrat Platten (remember him from the “sealed car”?), who took a bullet instead, but survived. This, btw, shows, that, yes, Bolsheviks had all reasons to set up CheKa and later launch the Red Terror, because their opponents began their White Terror long before them.

    Did Kamenev knew about their plans about him? Most likely – no, but… You know – the suspicions remained. He had important allies within the Party who (in theory) could have vouched for him – Lunacharsky, Ryazanov, to name a few. But also there remained a suspicion that it was not an “accident”, that he “leaked” the Bolsheviks plans of uprising. By that time the Provisional Government literally had no loyal troops, but still.

    F) There were conspiracies against Stalin, headed by other heads of factions within party. Quelle surprise!. And while there is no doubt, about Trotsky and trotskysts, people often forget about Zinoviev + Kamenev and their minions, preparing inter-party coup. Thus, the French historian and Trotsky’s big fan (plus his biographer) Pierre Broué with a certain pride pointed out and provided evidence, that there were conspiratorial cells in the Party consisting of Zinovivites (plus Kamenev’s few minions) and the so-called “group of Sten-Lominadze”. So – let’s not paint them as “innocent lambs” and “unnecessary victims of the Regime”.

    Kamenev serves as an object lesson for all politicians. You can’t rest on your laurels as a politicians and remain “opinionated” and “free-thinking”, without growing long and sharp fangs. Otherwise – you gonna be eaten. That’s the rules of the game.

    My position about the inter-party purges of the 1930s remains the same. In this regard I always quote from Strugatsky’s brother’s “Monday begins on Saturday”:

    The Standartenführer was a good taxidermist, too, but Kristobal Joseyevich Junta proved to be faster.


    • yalensis says:

      Dear Lyttenburgh: Thank you for excellent addendum, and fact-filled as usual.
      In his piece, Petr Romanov did not mention anybody’s ethnicity, but I assumed those finer biographical points would come out in the comment section, even if I had to post comments myself. (Since I was just doing a straight translation this time around.)

      Anyhow, I knew that Kamenev was of Jewish stock, but I didn’t know that he was Trotsky’s brother-in-law. They may not have been particularly close, however, Kamenev was an Old Bolshevik, whereas Trotsky was an outsider right up until the Revolution, when he and his small faction finally, after all those years, merged with Lenin’s faction.

      Also, Kamenev and Zinoviev initially formed a triumvirate WITH Stalin AGAINST Trotsky. Not the act of a loving brother-in-law, I would think.
      You make a lot of good points about Kamenev’s soft and Menshevik nature. Petr Romanov notes that too, but sees it as a positive thing. I would agree with you that it was not a positive characteristic at the time, given the circs.

      Where you and I diverge, and we will just have to agree to disagree in a friendly manner, is on the issue of inter-Party democracy. I think Lenin’s way was best, when he formulated the concept of Democratic-Centralism. Namely, the Party displays a United Front to other parties and the outside world; but within the Party there must be an atmosphere conducive to healthy discussion, and even factionalism at times, when principled differences arise. The dependency on a single man as the single Decider, is obviously a flaw, since that one man can sometimes be wrong, but people might be afraid to tell him so. As happens in many business organizations as well, when people are afraid to make suggestions to the boss.

      Ironically, Stalin’s cracking down on any factions and any opposition to his leadership started in earnest, as Romanov points out, in 1926, after the Civil War was won; and before fascism had become a major threat. In other words, Stalin didn’t really have a good excuse to tighten up the Party, get rid of the last vestiges of democratic-centralism, and start repressing his opponents. Things were relatively peaceful for a couple of years. That might have been a good time to start loosening things up. If Stalin was worried that the likes of Zinoviev-Kamenev-Trotsky, etc. were conspiring to have him removed as Party Secretary — which they were — then he needed to fight them on ideological turf and make his own positions clear.
      Because the fights and debates were not just about power, they were about important policy differences, like China, domestic economic issues, etc.
      Now, you can’t tell me that Stalin was ALWAYS right about everything, and that anybody who had a different opinion was just a traitor!
      That’s what Grover Furr says, and I believe that Grover is not right.


      • Lyttenburgh says:

        “Namely, the Party displays a United Front to other parties and the outside world; but within the Party there must be an atmosphere conducive to healthy discussion, and even factionalism at times, when principled differences arise. “

        Which was precisely not the case with Kamenev and his shenanigans.

        “Ironically, Stalin’s cracking down on any factions and any opposition to his leadership started in earnest, as Romanov points out, in 1926, after the Civil War was won; and before fascism had become a major threat. In other words, Stalin didn’t really have a good excuse to tighten up the Party, get rid of the last vestiges of democratic-centralism, and start repressing his opponents. “

        One can counter with – “sure, he had, in the form of Trotsky, his faction and the existential decision about the future of the Party and the Country”. I.e. – would they kowtow the notion of the World Revolution and its export, or, for a time being, focus on building a socialism in one country? Because Trotsky’s approach wasted precious resources abroad with no positive results, while making entire country a target in the imperialists crosshairs (well – even more so).

        As for having a “inter-party democracy”, it’s very good principle – on the paper. But I’ve already provided such examples of “pluralism of opinions” expressed by Kamenev&Co. As we can see, there is absolutely no guarantee that “inter-party democracy” is even maintainable, and not just a temporarily status-quo, which, btw, requires precisely a forceful personality of a true leader, capable of peacefully unite all factions – in this case, Lenin.

        “If Stalin was worried that the likes of Zinoviev-Kamenev-Trotsky, etc. were conspiring to have him removed as Party Secretary — which they were — then he needed to fight them on ideological turf and make his own positions clear.”

        Which he also did – and won. But losing politically only radicalized them. Seeing that they are in minority, there won’t be a “proper” inter-party democracy, because in any vote they would fail to garner the majority. So only other, non-democratic ways of inter-party struggle (conspiracy, namely) remained viable to them.

        What I’m trying to say – it was not Stalin, who ruined the precious inter-party democracy. All participants came to the conclusion, that it now runs against their agenda. It takes two to tango, and all that jazz.

        “Now, you can’t tell me that Stalin was ALWAYS right about everything, and that anybody who had a different opinion was just a traitor!”

        Not everyone, yeah.


        • yalensis says:

          “Which was precisely not the case with Kamenev and his shenanigans.”

          True, Kamenev was almost a poster-child for disloyalty and breach of democratic-centralism when he “leaked” about the 1917 uprising, as Romanov discusses. Also note that Stalin was on the Pravda editorial board along with Kamenev and Zinoviev when that horrific and disloyal leak took place. In fairness, the latter two were probably not involved in the leak, since Lenin reserved his ire just for Kamenev.
          Also, that was back in 1917, on the eve of events. If Kamenev could avoid expulsion back then (and note that Lenin only wanted to expel him from the Party, not have him shot, then why was Kamenev considered so much worse in the peaceful times of 1926? After he had weathered the main storm, so to speak?

          “Which he also did – and won…”
          This is a fair point. Stalin had the majority within the Party delegates and won all the faction fights. His positions on China, the Cominterm, etc., prevailed.
          At that point the options of the other factions, according to Leninist principles of democratic-centralism, were to become a “loyal opposition” within the Party framework, which does not necessarily mean dissolving their factions. On the contrary. Nor is it necessarily a “conspiracy” to agitate for the “removal”, i.e., voting down, of the Party’s General Secretary. The position of General Secretary of the Politburo is not, and should not be, a lifetime appointment. Opps hoped that during the next Party Congress they could get the delegates to vote for their candidate, and then Stalin would have had to return as a regular Party member and not necessarily in the Politburo. Nothing seems to indicate that the Opps were planning to have Stalin shot, just voted out of office.

          Lenin had laid out the rules during all his years of faction-building within the overall international Socialist movement.
          If there is a principled difference that cannot be resolved (the first foreign policy issue of such being the situation in China, in which the Stalinist and the Trotskyist factions had mutually exclusive positions), then the Opposition maintains a faction and is allowed to agitate its position within the Party, but not publish it outside of the Party. This is even if the Opps lose the vote, they are still allowed to continue to agitate their position within the Party, in the hopes of winning the next vote.
          The problem is that the Stalin faction started to expel people, and then the expelled people were no longer Opps within the Party. Once you’re expelled, then you either go home, or you build your own party. And they couldn’t build their own party, because that was banned.

          In conclusion, I think Lenin proved that democratic-centralism can work for a socialist type party. As the world descends into chaos and more socialist parties are needed, I think it would be harder to recruit the youth based on the premise that “It can’t work unless you have a Stalin in charge.” What if there is no charismatic leader like Lenin or Stalin? Then what do you do? There has to be a way to build a socialist party based on ideas alone, even if your human raw material is just a bunch of mediocrities.

          This is the paradox of socialist politics…


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