Arthur Ransome

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Arthur Ransome. An Open Letter to America. 1918. Path 2
What Is the Republic of Soviets?



The actual formulation of the Soviet constitution was a matter of practice in a developing democratic revolutionary power. There have been a number of small formal changes, of readjustments of interdependent parts in the machine, but I do not think either opponents or supporters of the Soviet government can quarrel seriously with the following statement:
   Every workman, every peasant, in Russia has the right to vote in the election of deputies to his local Soviet, which is made up of a number of deputies corresponding to the number of electors. The local Soviets choose their delegates to an All-Russian Assembly of Soviets. This Ail-Russian Assembly elects its Central Executive Committee on a basis of approximately one in five of the delegates to the Assembly. This central executive committee controls, appoints and dismisses the People's Commissaries who are the actual government. All decrees of state importance are passed by the Central Executive Committee before being issued as laws by the Council of People's Commissaries.
   At each successive All-Russian Assembly of Soviets the executive committee automatically resigns, and the Assembly as a whole expresses its approval or disapproval of what has been done by its representatives and by the Council of Commissaries during the period since the previous All-Russian Assembly, and, electing a new Executive Committee, which in political character accurately cor resounds to the party coloring of the Assembly, insures that the controlling organ shall accurately reflect the feeling of the electorate.
   No limit is set to local re-election. Deputies are withdrawn and others substituted for them whenever this seems necessary to the local electorate. Thus the country is freed from the danger of finding itself governed by the ghosts of its dead opinions, and, on the other hand, those ghosts find themselves expeditiously laid in their graves as soon as, becoming ghosts, they cease to have the right to rule.
   Just as the Soviet constitution insures that the actual lawgivers shall be in the closest touch with the people, just as it insures that in deed instead of in amiable theory, the people shall be their own lawgivers, so also it provides for intercommunication in a contrary direction. The remotest atom on the periphery is not without its influence on the centre. So also the centre through the Soviets affects the atoms on the periphery. The institution of Soviets means that every minutest act of the Council of People's Commissaries is judged and interpreted in accordance with its own local conditions by each local Soviet. No other form of government could give this huge diverse entity of Russia, with its varying climates and races, with its plains, its teppes, its wild mountains, the free local autonomy of interpretation which it needs. The shepherd of the Caucasus, the Cossack from the Urals, and the fishermen from the Yenisei cat sit together in the All-Russian Assembly, and know that the laws whose principles they approve are not steel bands too loose for one and throttling another, but are instruments which each Soviet can fashion out in its own way for the special needs of its own community.
   This constitution is one particularly apt for Russia. It is also particularly apt for a country in a time of revolution. It affords a real dictatorship to the class that is in revolt, and such dictatorship is necessary, since no one could expect from members of the class that is being ousted from its place of domination whole-hearted assistance in its own undoing. These democrats in other countries and in Russia who do not understand what is happening under their eyes exclaim at the unfairness of excluding the bourgeoisie from power. They forget, or have never realized, that the object of the social revolution is to put an end to the existence of a bourgeois, or exploiting class, not merely to make it powerless. If exploitation is destroyed then there can be no class of exploiters, and the present exclusion of the bourgeoisie from the government is merely a means of hastening and rendering less painful the transition of the bourgeois from his parasitic position to the more honorable position of equality with his fellow workers. Once the conditions of parasitism, privilege and exploitation have been destroyed, the old divisions of the class struggle will automatically have disappeared.
   By the nature of things it has so happened that practically all the foreign observers of events in Russia have belonged to the privileged classes in their respective countries, and have been accustomed to associate with the privileged classes in Russia. They have consequently found it difficult to escape from their class in judging the story happening before their eyes. Those working men sent from the Allied countries, less with the idea of studying the revolution, but of telling it to do what the-Allies wanted, have also been men specially chosen, and deprived by their very mandates of the clear eyes and open mind they should have had. Socialists especially, who had long dreamed of revolution, found it particularly difficult to recognize in this cloudy, tremendous struggle the thing which their dreams had softened for them into something more docile, less self-willed. Nothing has been more remarkable or less surprising than the fact that of all the observers sent here from abroad those men have seen the thing clearest who by their upbringing and standards of life have been furthest from the revolutionary movement.
   I do not propose to recapitulate the programme of the Soviet government, nor to spend minutes, when I have so few, in discussing in detail their efforts towards an equitable land settlement, or their extraordinarily interesting work in building up, under the stress of famine and of war, an economic industrial organization which shall facilitate the eventful socialization of Russia. That is material for many letters, and here I have not time for one. I therefore take the two events which have been most misused in blackening the Soviet government to those who should have been its friends. These were the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the negotiations which ended; temporarily at least, in a separate peace between Russia and the Central Empires. I take these two events, and try to show what happened in each case and why the reproaches flung at the Soviets on account of them were due either to misunderstanding or to malice.
The Constituent Assembly.
   I suppose in America, as in England, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was one of the events that best served the people who were anxious to persuade public opinion that the Soviet government was a government of usurpation holding its own by force, and not representing the will of the people. I think that, without any special pleading, it will be possible to bring together facts which put an entirely different light on that event. The mere fact that the parties opposed to the Bolsheviks had spent eight months in murdering the Constituent Assembly, putting it off day by day in hopes that the country would change, and that the revolution would come crawling home asking for a quiet life, leaving the gentlemen to do the work of the government, should be set against the short speech of the sailor who told the assembly it had talked enough, that its guards were tired, and that really it was time to go to bed. It should be remembered that the Constituent Assembly was for neither party an end in itself. For each party it represented a political instrument, not a political aim. It was a tool, not a task. It was thrown away when further use of it would have damaged the purpose for which it was invented. Look back, for a moment, on its history. The very idea of a constituent assembly was first put forward by the Soviet, by the very body, which, in the end, opposed its realization. The Soviet, in those exhilarating days of March, 1917, declared that without such an assembly the future of Russia could not be decided. The effect of this declaration was to make impossible Miliukov's plan of choking the revolution at birth. Miliukov, in the first days of the revolution, tried by means of quick jugglery with abdications, a regency and a belated constitution, to profit by the elemental uprising of the masses to secure an exchange of authority out of the hands of the Tsar's bureaucracy into-the hands of the bourgeoisie. For him, the revolution was to be a tram car which would stop conveniently at the point where the Cadet party wished to alight. The idea of the Constituent Assembly was like a good big label on that tram car showing that it had a further destination. It became clear at once that the car would not stop at the point that Miliukov had chosen. The next hope of the bourgeoisie was to keep it moving to prevent it stopping anywhere else until the passengers should be so tired of moving that they would be glad to stop anywhere and would be amenable and peaceable on alighting. The bourgeois parties deliberately postponed the meeting of the Constituent Assembly, since it was clear that, were it to meet at once, its members would be practically identical with those of the Soviet, so that the voice of the bourgeoisie would be unheard in the roar of the waking masses. The aim of the bourgeoisie was (i) to postpone the elections until the electors had wearied of the Soviets, and (2) to postpone such reforms as most concerned the destruction of their own privileges (such as the land reforms) until they could summon a Constituent Assembly whose character would be agreeable to themselves. While the bourgeoisie held this attitude it was natural that the Soviets, and, most of all the left party in the Soviets should use the Constituent Assembly as a means of showing up the duplicity of their bourgeois opponents. Gradually circumstances changed. The bourgeoisie lost hope, and transferred their allegiance to the moderate majority of the Soviets, since they began to realize that the marked increase of Bolshevism heralded something from their point of view even worse than the Constituent Assembly as it would have been in April or May. The extremely flexible representation of the Soviets showed that the masses were coming nearer and nearer to the position of the Bolsheviks, or rather to a readiness to support the Bolshevik leaders in view of the manifest failure of the coalition government to get peace or indeed anything else that the masses desired. The Constituent Assembly became now the last hope of the original moderate members of the Soviet executive, who felt the ground of real support in the active political masses slipping from beneath their feet. At this point came the October revolution, when the coalition, already a ghost, and a discredited ghost, was laid in its grave. Immense Bolshevik majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, and then in the All-Russian Assembly of Soviets, proved that the mass of active political opinion in the country fully approved of the step that had been taken.   
Then followed the elections to the Constituent Assembly (organized and canvassed before the October revolution) in which there was a majority against the Bolsheviks. The explanation of this is perfectly simple. It lies in the fact that a revolution is a very uncomfortable thing for everybody who takes part in it, and that great numbers of people, during the preceding eight months had come to look forward to the Constituent Assembly much as children look forward to the word FINISH at the end of a difficult lesson-book. The Constituent Assembly meant for these people an end to political debate, an end even to political life, an end anyhow to revolution. In every country it is only a small minority that really concerns itself with politics. Outside that minority is a big unconscious voting material, which does not concern itself with active politics, and asks nothing from its government except to be let alone. This indifferent mass which took very little part in the living politics of the Soviets was ready to vote for the Constituent Assembly in a sort of dim belief that those elections mean a return to quiet life, and should therefore be encouraged. It voted much as rich, men give alms to a charity. It voted in much the spirit of the rich man who is willing to give alms to a deserving charity for which he would be most unwilling to do any real work. It knew vaguely that the bourgeoisie were fairly bad, and it had also heard that the Bolsheviks were terrible people, It therefore put its votes on the side of those people against whom it had heard nothing in particular. And the result was that the live part of the nation was faced almost at the moment of coming into their own with a legacy in the form of an assembly the majority in which was made up of the very men whom they had just overthrown. The question was a plain one. Should the conscious workers of the country submit to the dead weight of the unconscious, even if that dead weight were artfully fashioned by their enemies into the form of the very tool with which they had been successfully working? The question was put at a moment of extreme difficulty, when acceptance of the Constituent Assembly would have relieved the Bolsheviks (at the New Year)-of tremendous responsibility. It would have been an easy way out, for cowards. But the Bolsheviks were not afraid of responsibility, were not looking for easy ways out, were confident that the whole of the active, conscious population was behind them, and swept the Assembly aside. Not anywhere in Russia did the indifferent mass stir in protest. The Assembly died like the Tsardom, and the coalition before it. Not any one of the three showed in the manner of its dying that it retained any right to live.
Peace Negotiations
   The day after the October revolution Lenin proposed and the Assembly carried the declaration on peace with its promise to do away with the secret diplomacy that had kept Russia in the war beyond her strength, and allowed small groups to gamble in the lives of nations. On that day, October 26th (old style), the whole world was told that the new Russian government was ready to conclude peace itself, and invited all the fighting countries to put an end to the war " without annexation [that is without the seizure of other people's land and without the forced incorporation of other nationalities] and without indemnity." The declaration was sent out by radio on November 7th, o. s. Some governments prevented its publication, others sought to disguise its true character and to give it the appearance of an offer of separate peace. The Allies replied to it with a threat conveyed to the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Dukhonin, that further steps towards separate peace would have serious consequences. It should, of course, be remembered that the Allies were in a position of peculiar difficulty. Practically all the Russians who were able to give direct information to members of Allied governments belonged to the classes that had persistently fed themselves and others with lies as to the character of the Bolsheviks. They believed that the Soviets could hold authority only for a few days and they persuaded the Allied governments to share that belief. The next step of the Soviets was an agreement, made across the front itself, stopping all military operations between the Black Sea and the Baltic. This was followed by yet another invitation to the Allies to join Russia in peace negotiations. Meanwhile the German government with one eye on the military party and the other on the feeling of German Labor, which at that time was unrestful and excited by the Russian revolution, was hesitating over its answer. I shall not here attempt any detailed history of what followed. My only point is that the Soviet government cannot be accused of having sought and obtained a separate peace. The first aim of the Bolsheviks was, as it always will be, a Universal Social Revolution. They hoped to illustrate to the workers of the world the possibility of honorable peace, and nothing would have pleased them better than to find that such a peace was rejected by all governments alike, so that the workers convinced of its possibility should rise and overthrow them. That was their general aim. They, least of all governments in the world, were interested in a German victory. Their proposal was for a general peace, for the peace which Russia, in agony, had been waiting for a year.   
What followed ? Step by step, they published every detail of their negotiations over the armistice, every word of the German replies. Then came the first German answer as to the conditions of peace, in which Germany and her allies expressed themselves ready to make the Russian formula the basis of negotiation. The Bolsheviks believe that if the Allies had even at that late hour joined them, so that in withdrawing from that position the Germans would have been facing a continuance of the war as a whole instead of merely a failure to obtain peace with the weakest of the Allies, peace on the Russian formula would have been attainable. The Allies left them, unrecognized, ignored, to continue their struggle single-handed. The Germans now took a bolder line and the hand outstretched in spurious friendship became a grasping claw. The first Russian delegation came home to confer with the Soviet government as to what was to be done in this new situation when the peace they had promised their exhausted army, their tortured working classes, seemed to be fading like a mirage. Trotski at the head of a reinforced delegation went to Brest with one of the most daring plans with which any David has sought to destroy his Goliath.   
The absence of the Allies had deprived him of the possibility of exhibiting to the working classes of the world the inability of their present governments to conclude a peace in which should be neither conqueror nor conquered. He now attempted to bring about a revolution in Germany or to obtain such a peace for Russia by making the German government itself illustrate in their negotiations with him their utter disregard for the expressed wishes of the German people. He did actually succeed in causing huge strikes both in Austria and in Germany, and it is impossible for anyone to say that he would not have finally succeeded in hitting the Goliath of Force opposed to him fairly between the eyes with this shining pebble of an idea, which was the only weapon at his command, if, at the last moment his aim had not been deflected, and the target shifted, by the treachery of the handful of men who in the Ukraine were resisting by every means in their power the natural development of the Soviets. These men, preferring to sell their country to Germany than to lose the reins of government themselves, opened separate negotiations, thereby breaking the unity of the ideal front which Trotski opposed to the Germans. The Germans saw that with part of that front they could come immediately to terms. Instantly their tone in the negotiations changed. They persuaded their own people that the Russians were themselves to blame for not getting the peace they required, and that a just peace was possible only with the Ukraine. Meanwhile the soldiers and workers of the Ukraine were gradually obtaining complete power over their own country, so that when Germany actually concluded peace with the Ukraine, the so-called government whose signatures were attached to that treacherous agreement was actually in asylum in German headquarters and unable to return to its own supposed capital except under the protection of German bayonets. The Soviet triumphed in the Ukraine, and declared its solidarity with Russia. The Germans, like the Allies, preferred to recognize the better dressed persons who were ready to conclude peace with them in the name of a country which had definitely disowned them. From that moment the Brest peace negotiations were doomed to failure. Trotski made a last desperate appeal to the workers of Germany. He said, " We will not sign your robber's peace, but we demobilize our army and declare that Russia is no longer at war. Will the German people allow you to advance on a defenseless revolution ? "   
The Germans did advance, not at first in regular regiments, but in small groups of volunteers who had no scruples in the matter. Many German soldiers, to their eternal honor, refused to advance, and were shot. The demobilization of the Russian army meant little, because it had long ceased to be anything but a danger to the peaceful population in its rear. The Soviet had only the very smallest real force, and that, as yet, unorganized, with enthusiasm but without confidence, utterly unpracticed in warfare, consisting chiefly of workmen, who, as was natural, were the first to understand what it was they had to defend. It soon became clear that serious resistance was impossible. The Soviet government was faced with a choice: to collapse in a quite unequal struggle; or to sign a shameful peace. Many thought that the cause of revolution would be best served by their deaths, and were ready to die. Lenin doubted the efficacy of such a rhetorical gesture, and believed that the secession of Russia from the war would insure the continuation of the war by the imperialistic groups until such time as other countries reached the same-exhaustion as had been reached by Russia, when in his opinion, revolution would be inevitable. He held that, for the future of the World Revolution, the best that could be done would be the preservation even in seriously limited territory of the Soviet government, as a nucleus of revolution, as an illustration of the possibility of revolution, until that moment when the workers of Russia should be joined by the workers of the world. His opinion carried the majority, first of the Executive Committee, then of the fourth Ail-Russian Assembly. The Germans replied to the Russian offer to sign peace with a statement which was an ironic parody of the Russian declaration at Brest: the Russians had said, "We will not sign peace, but the war is ended." The Germans said, " We agree to peace, but the war shall continue."   
And, indeed, while the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the Germans using in the south the pretext of the Ukrainian Rada, and in the north that of the bourgeois Finnish government, advanced through the Ukraine to the outlet of the Don, and in the north to the very gates of Petrograd. The matter stands so, as I write these lines. By the time you read them much will have happened that it is impossible now to foresee.
The Soviet Government and the Allies
    From the moment of the October revolution on, the best illustration of the fact that the Soviet government is the natural government of the Russian people, and has deep roots in the whole of the conscious responsible part of the working classes and the peasantry, has been the attitude of the defeated minorities who oppose it. Whereas the Bolsheviks worked steadily in the Soviets when the majority was against them, and made their final move for power only when assured that they had an overwhelming majority in the Soviets behind them, their opponents see their best hope of regaining power not in the Soviets, not even in Russia itself, but in some extraordinary intervention from without. By asking for foreign help against the Soviet government they prove that such help should not be given, and that they do not deserve it. The Soviet has stood for six months and more, absolutely unshaken h^ any movement against it inside Russia. In the Ukraine the anti-Soviet minority asked for intervention and received it. German bayonets, German organization, destroyed the Soviets of the Ukraine, and then destroyed the mock government that had invited their help. We, the Allies, supported that anti-Soviet minority, and, in to far as our help was efficacious, contributed our share in obtaining for Germany a victorious progress from one end of the Black Sea coast to the other. In helping the Ukrainian minority we helped the Germans to secure Ukrainian bread and coal and iron that would otherwise have gone to help Russia to recuperate. In Finland we repeated the mistake. We gave at least moral help to the White Finns, simply because they were opposed to the Red Finns, who were supported by the Soviets. Now, too late, we realize that the White Finns were the pawns of Germany, and that in the defeat of the Red Finns we witnessed the defeat of the only party in Finland which was bound, by its socialistic nature, to be an enemy of imperialistic GerDo not let us make the same mistake in Russia. If the Allies lend help to any minority that cannot overturn the Soviets without their help, they will be imposing on free Russia a government which will be in perpetual need of external help, and will, for simple reasons of geography, be bound to take that help from Germany. Remember that for the German autocracy, conscious of the socialistic mass beneath it, the mere existence of the Soviet government of Russia is a serious danger. Remember that any non-Soviet government in Russia would be welcomed by Germany and, reciprocally, could not but regard Germany as its protector. Remember that the revolutionary movement in Eastern Europe, no less than the American and British navies, is an integral part of the Allied blockade of the Central Empires.  
  And, apart from the immediate business of the war, remember that Germany is seeking by every means, open and secret, to obtain such command over Russia's resources as will in the long run allow her to dictate her will to Russia's people. Remember that the Soviet government, fully aware of this, would be glad of your help, of your cooperation, would be glad even to give you control over some part of her resources, if only to prevent that ominous ultimate dominion within Russia of a single foreign power.
   Remember all these things, if indeed you need, as I think you do not need, such selfish motives to prompt you to the support of men who, if they fail, will fail only from having hoped too much. Every true man is in some sort, until his youth dies and his eyes harden, the potential builder of a New Jerusalem. At some time or other, every one of us has dreamed of laying his brick in such a work. And even if this thing that is being builded here with tears and blood is not the golden city that we ourselves have dreamed, it is still a thing to the sympathetic understanding of which each one of us is bound by whatever he owes to his own youth. And if each one of us, then, all the more each nation by what it owes to those first daring days of its existence, when all the world looked askance upon its presumptuous birth, America was young once, and there were men in America who would have brought in foreign aid to reestablish their dominion over a revolted nation. Are those the men to whom America now looks back with gratitude and pride?
   Well, writing at a speed to break my pen, and with the knowledge that in a few hours the man leaves Moscow who is to carry this letter with him to America, I have failed to say much that I would have said. I write now with my messenger waiting for my manuscript and somehow or other, incoherent, incomplete as it is, must bring it to an end. I will end with a quotation from your own Emerson: " What is the scholar, what is the man for, but for hospitality to every new thought of his time? Have you leisure, power, property, friends? you shall be the asylum and patron of every new thought, every unproven opinion, every untried project, which proceeds out of good will and honest seeking. All the newspapers, all the tongues of today will of course at first defame what is noble; but you who hold not of today, not of the Times, but of the Everlasting, are to stand for it; and the highest compliment man ever receives from heaven is the sending to him its disguised and discredited angels." No one contends that the Bolsheviks are angels. I ask only that men shall look through the fog of libel that surrounds them and see that the ideal for which they are struggling; in the only way in which they can struggle, is among those lights which every man of young and honest heart sees before him somewhere on the road, and not among those other lights from which he resolutely turns away. These men who have made the Soviet government in Russia, if they must fail, will fail with clean shields and clean hearts, having striven for an ideal which will live beyond them. Even if they fail, they will none the less have written a page of history more daring than any other which I can remember in the story of the human race. They are writing it amid showers of mud from all the meaner spirits in their country, in yours and in my own. But, when the thing-is over, and their enemies have triumphed, the mud will vanish like black magic at noon, and that page will be as white as the snows of Russia, and the writing on it as bright as the gold domes that I used to see glittering in the sun when I looked from my windows in Petrograd.    And when in after years men read that page they will judge your country and mine, your race and mine, by the help or hindrance they gave to the writing of it.  

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