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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.