Revolutionary Silhouettes

"This great man, with his great intellect, has not, due to the inherent limitations of his psychological type, realized one tenth of his potential for constructive influence on politics."



I first heard of Martov as one of the three inseparable persons of the trinity – Lenin, Martov, Potresov. These were the three Russian social democrats who breathed new life into the émigré social-democratic general staff which had created The Spark.

When I arrived in Paris on the way to Geneva where I was to join the Bolsheviks’ central editorial staff, I met there O.N. Chernosvitova, who was related to me by marriage and who knew Martov well. She spoke enthusiastically of him as a man fascinating in the breadth of his interests.

‘I am sure,’ she said to me, ‘that you and Martov will become very close friends. He’s not like the other social democrats, who are all so blinkered and fanatical. Martov’s mind is wide-ranging and flexible and nothing is beneath his interest.’ This description certainly disposed me very well towards Martov, although a political gulf divided us at the time.

My first actual meeting with Martov could hardly have been less propitious. The Mensheviks had tried to stir up some nasty little scandal during one of my lectures by shouting, causing a disturbance and trying to break up the meeting. There occurred a sharp clash between Martov and my wife. First Lyadov and then I intervened and some sharp words passed between us.

Despite the unpleasantness of our initial encounter, relations between us were never really hostile. During my stay in Switzerland we seldom met and in general Bolsheviks and Mensheviks lived completely separate lives. We only met, one might say, on the field of battle, i.e. at meetings and discussions, but news of each other naturally passed to and fro. I came to regard Martov as a rather charming type of bohemian with something of the eternal student about his appearance, by predilection a haunter of cafes, indifferent to comfort, perpetually arguing and a bit of an eccentric.

Revolutionary Bio Final Lenin 2This impression, of Martov’s outward characteristics at least, was confirmed when I later came to know him very much better. I shall now attempt to describe Martov in greater detail as a writer and speaker during his Swiss period.

Outwardly Martov was a boring lecturer. He had a weak voice, a peculiar toneless and abrupt way of ending every sentence as though he were biting it off. His puny frame, combined with his pince-nez drooping slightly on his large nose, seemed so typical of the theorizing intellectual that there was no question of him being the kind of popular tribune who could kindle an audience. Sometimes, when Martov appeared on the platform when he was tired, his voice dropped until it was barely intelligible and his speech became an affair of deadly boredom. Furthermore Martov could hardly ever speak briefly: as an orator he needed, as it were, to spread his elbows on the desk. This made his speeches at times grey and monotonous despite the fact that they never lacked content.

If one could only follow the thread of Martov’s thought during his dreary lectures, there was always something valuable to be gained from them. But he also had his moments of brilliance. Most of all he warmed up in the cut and thrust of polemical argument and for this reason Martov was at his most effective when speaking impromptu, during the dialogue with his opponents after a lecture and in his summing-up. I know many masters of the spoken word who are at their most dangerous when summing up. Plekhanov could be caustic and brilliant, but he nevertheless disdained to exploit all the advantages of the final summing-up, to which there is no reply. He was even skilled enough to recapitulate, crush and destroy any objections put forward by Vladimir Ilyich as though they were so many trifling irrelevancies, yet I know of no one who can beat Martov at this game. If Martov has the last word, you can never feel sure of yourself, however convinced you may be of the rightness of your cause, however well armed you may be.

Martov always comes to life during a summing-up; he overflows with irony, his subtle mind flashes with real brilliance, he can dissect everything that his opponent has said and exploit absolutely every loophole and the least deviation. He is a supremely gifted analyst and if there be the tiniest chink in your armour you may be sure that it will be precisely there that Martov’s unerring blade will pierce you. As he does so he will grow livelier and livelier and make the audience laugh or move them to murmurs of protest.

Martov behaves similarly whenever he speaks on some subject which particularly excites him, which frequently happened during the tragic days of our revolution. Some of his speeches in the Petrograd Soviet during its Menshevist period, at separate meetings of the Mensheviks and at plenary meetings of the Soviet delegates, speeches chiefly right-wing in tendency, were truly superb, not only in content but in the fervour of his indignation and his honourable, sincere expression of revolutionary feeling. I remember how Martov, after a speech in support of Grimm [1] against Tseretelli, made even Trotsky exclaim: ‘Long live the honest revolutionary Martov!’

When discussing men like Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, one cannot help remarking on their greater strength as orators than as writers, although all three of these leaders of the Russian revolution are greater masters of the pen. With Martov the reverse is true. As a speaker he is only successful in bursts, in fits and starts when he is on form and even then the superficial effectiveness of his performance is inclined to overshadow his expertise in the speech’s construction and the profundity of his thought. All this, however, comes to the fore in Martov’s articles. As a writer Martov’s style is extraordinarily noble. He does not care to lard his written language with little witticisms or embellish it with all kinds of images and figures of speech. On the page Martov’s writing lacks immediate brilliance because it has no pattern. At the same time, however, it does not have that special crude simplicity, that distinctive vulgarization of form without vulgarization of thought which is the strength of that genuinely popular leader, Lenin. Martov seems to write in language that is slightly monotonous yet sensitive and movingly sincere, which clothes the thought as though with the graceful folds of a Greek chiton and which allows his thought to stand out in all the elegant proportions of its logical structure. Essentially, however, Martov is not a thinker; he is fundamentally incapable of generating any original ideas. To speak of Martov as a thinker – one cannot begin to compare him with Marx, but compared with, say, Kautsky – is simply impossible. In the sphere of revolutionary tactics the cyclopean armoury of someone like Lenin is crushingly superior to Martov’s subtle constructs. No, it is not a question of his ability to coin effective slogans or of the breadth of his grasp of revolutionary technique, but rather of his extraordinary gift of precise analysis, his ability to work with a magnifying glass and to mint the coinage of his thought. Martov’s intellect is an instrument for polishing and refining. His tactical or political ideas always have a finished look, honed down until his chosen theme stands out with total clarity.

As a politician Martov starts with certain fundamental handicaps. He has neither the temperament, the boldness nor the breadth of vision needed for a political leader. He loses himself in matters of detail and is naturally inclined to that circumspection and caution which develops into timidity and dilutes the revolutionary urge. Of those who suffer from this, some end up as bourgeois philistines, others as mere armchair revolutionaries. Martov undoubtedly has some of the characteristics of an armchair politician. I will go further and say that Martov puts his incomparable political gifts and his persuasive journalistic ability largely at the senice of other people’s ideas. Martov is an excellent ideological costumier: with great taste he cuts and sews a beautifully fitting ideological garment to clothe the slogans which the more determined Mensheviks have worked out behind his back. Even indecision needs a certain decisiveness. In the case of the typical dyed-in-the-wool Mensheviks, their political vacillation does not stem from a lack of strength of character – personally they may be extremely tough and authoritative – it stems from the class interests of middle-of-the-road factions. Such midway groups are indecisive by their very nature. They are doomed to be thrust by history into the middle ground between irreconcilable classes, hence the total lack of anything remotely heroic about their posture. But these men are sometimes capable of implementing their compromise decisions with great firmness and, since in a revolutionary situation they represent the last hope of the extremely cunning and still influential grouping of the privileged classes, they become at times, like Noske [2], men who will lend an iron hand to the service of the quasi-enemies of their class in overcoming their brothers of the left, whilst their own leftism dissolves into mere revolutionary phrases serving to screen their real activities – which at times extend to repression.

Martov is incapable of such a role, but his inherently miniaturist style, his whole cast of mind which tends to treat facts in isolation and is incapable of tolerating those harsh, sharp lines which revolutionary passion slashes across nice geometrical concepts – all this combines to make him highly unsuited to working in the vast hurly-burly of real-life revolution.

These peculiarities of character drive him irresistibly – although he occasionally kicks against it – into the camp of the opportunists and there Martov’s talent as a costumier is pressed into service to prepare gorgeous raiment for the muddled effusions of the ‘liberdanites’ [3] of all kinds.

How many times has Martov, drawn by his genuinely democratic feelings, reached the point of almost concluding an alliance with left social democracy but each time has been repelled by what he calls our uncouthness; each time he has been put off by that sweeping enthusiasm, in which some people find the utmost pleasure and satisfaction, which others regard as diabolical yet fundamentally inherent to the elemental force of revolution, but which is foreign to Martov’s temperament.

Once more Martov has fallen into the swamp of ‘liberdanism’ and his subtle mind is again to be seen flickering above that swamp like a will-o’-the-wisp.

During the first revolution Martov was true to his nature and fully displayed all the characteristics which I have just tried to describe. I cannot say that during that first clash between the mass of the people and the government he played a leading part as a real political leader: as always he was an excellent analytical journalist, a wrangler, an intra-Party tactician.

The next spell of emigration struck Martov a very hard blow; never, perhaps, had his tendency to vacillate been so marked nor probably so agonizing. The right wing of Menshevism soon began to go rotten, deviating into so-called ‘liquidationism’. Martov had no wish to be drawn into this petty-bourgeois disintegration of the revolutionary spirit. But the ‘liquidators’ had a hold on Dan and Dan on Martov and as usual the heavy ‘tail’ of Menshevism dragged Martov to the bottom. There was a moment when he would literally have made a pact with Lenin, urged to do so by Trotsky and Innokenty [4], who were dreaming of forming a powerful centre to counter the extreme left and the extreme right.

This line, as we know, was also strongly supported by Plekhanov, but the idyll did not last long, rightism gained the upper hand with Martov and the same discord between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks broke out again.

Martov was then living in Paris. I was told that he had even begun to go slightly to seed, always a lurking danger for émigrés. Politics was degenerating into an affair of petty squabbles and a passion for bohemian cafe life was beginning to threaten him with a diminution of his intellectual powers. However, when the war came Martov not only pulled himself together but from the start took up an extremely resolute position.

There is no doubt that the internationalist wing of the Second International is indebted to Martov for some of its achievements. Martov strongly supported the internationalists by speeches, by articles, by his influence and his connections and drew nearly all the émigré Mensheviks (with the exception of the Plekhanovites, who had been regarded until then as leftists but who at the outbreak of war immediately rallied to the imperialist cause of the Entente) into supporting the Zimmerwald and Kienthal line, although it is true that at Zimmerwald Martov took up a centrist position and diverged firmly from Lenin and Zinoviev.

Martov was himself again; but it was now that his fatal irresolution emerged once more. Fully aware of the disastrous implications of socialist ‘defencism’, Martov still hoped to win over the Defencists and could not bring himself to break his organizational links with them. Politically this was the undoing of Martov. It destroyed his moral standing, because Martov might have had a brilliant role to play as the genuine leader and inspirer of a right-wing group within the Communist Party if at that time he had only shown enough resolution to cast his weight on the leftward side of the watershed.

At the beginning of the revolution, after Trotsky’s arrival in Russia in May–June, Lenin dreamed of an alliance with Martov, realizing how valuable he could be, but Martov’s predominantly right-inclined wavering had already, as far back as his days in Paris, settled his fate in advance – namely to be acknowledged by neither one side nor the other and to be forever out in the cold as an outspoken, honest but powerless one-man opposition!

This tendency rendered Martov politically colourless and as a result he will go down in history as a much dimmer figure than should be the case with a man of his political gifts.

I came much closer to Martov in Switzerland from 1915 to 1916. We were near neighbours, Martov was a frequent guest of my friends the Christys and he and I would often chat not only about politics, over which we invariably quarrelled, but also about literature and cultural matters in general. I admired Martov’s taste and the considerable breadth of his interests, although I must admit that, at any rate then, Martov’s outlook was a good deal more one-sided than I had expected. He showed no great enthusiasm for art, no great depth of interest in philosophy. He read everything, could talk about everything and talk interestingly, intelligently and at times originally, but somehow he did it all mechanically, his heart was not in it: whenever a newspaper arrived he would break off any conversation and immediately immerse himself in the paper. Even if somebody read aloud something amusing or interesting which aroused Martov’s liking or enthusiasm, he would remain screened behind his newspaper as though obsessed by it. Martov only showed real enthusiasm when the talk turned to politics and especially to the narrow field of internal Party politics.

Nevertheless I must admit that in personal relations Martov had considerable charm. There is something intellectually very attractive about him; he has great spontaneity and sincerity which make him a most rewarding companion, and people who are politically neutral always develop a great liking and respect for him. His political allies react, if not with the same fervent adoration that Lenin inspires, then with sincere affection and with their own particular sort of admiration.

I say once more, weighing all that I remember of the man: with deep sadness I am forced to admit that this great man, with his great intellect, has not, due to the inherent limitations of his psychological type, realized one tenth of his potential for constructive influence on politics.

The future? It is idle to attempt to guess. If the communist system wins and consolidates itself, Martov may perhaps have a part to play as a loyal right-wing opposition and may at the same time emerge as one of the creative minds of a new world – which I, for one, sincerely hope will be the case; if, however, there are still to be gaps and lags before the ultimate victory of communism is achieved, Martov will either perish because he is too honest to remain silent in a period of reaction, or he will lose himself hopelessly in the by-ways of revolution, as he is lost at present. [And as he was to lose himself right up to his death, of which I learned today during the final correction of my proofs. I am glad to observe that the main lines of my character-sketch correspond exactly with Radek’s excellent obituary of Martov [5] in Izvestya.]


In terms of concrete political achievement Martov was a failure, despite his great services to Russian Social Democracy in its formative years of the 1890s; yet such was the attraction of his personality that even in the brutally pragmatic world of Russian revolutionary politics, where doctrine and factional allegiances were paramount and a contempt for private feelings was regarded as a cardinal virtue, Lenin never lost his affection for Martov. They had been comrades at the very start of the movement, had been arrested and exiled at the same time, had emigrated and worked in close collaboration on Iskra. Their subsequent differences were great. Martov not only led the despised Mensheviks but kept trying to recreate a unified Party which would embrace all shades of opinion, a concept anathema to Lenin; Martov, too, was typical of the bookish, theorizing intelligentsia, a breed Lenin hated although he belonged to it himself; finally Martov could never quite dismiss his scruples (only too well founded) about the ultimate political consequences of giving absolute power to a single, ruthless, rigidly authoritarian Party of the Leninist type. In 1920 Martov went to Berlin with a Menshevik delegation and never came back. As Lenin lay mortally ill in 1923 one of his last articulate remarks (soon afterwards his third stroke deprived him of the power of speech) was to say sadly to his wife: ‘They say Martov is dying too.’

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1. GRIMM: David Davidovich Grimm (1864–?). Academic lawyer and politician. Leading member of Kadet party. Emigrated after 1917.

2. NOSKE: Gustav Noske. German socialist politician, leading member of the SPD. On 23 December 1918, revolutionary troops and armed workers of the extreme left-wing Spartacist League had captured Chancellor Ebert; Hindenburg persuaded loyal troops to free Ebert, which caused street fighting to break out in Berlin between Spartacists and the right-wing Freikorps. On 11 January 1919, Gustav Noske led heavily armed detachments into Berlin and retook the capital in the name of the moderate, right-wing socialist government.

3. LIBERDANITES: A term of Bolshevik abuse, compounded of the names of Liber (real name Mark Goldman) and Dan. Liber was one of the leaders of the Bund and Dan shared the leadership of the Mensheviks with Martov.

4. INNOKENTY: I.F. Dubrovinsky, alias ‘Innokenty’. Early Bolshevik. Member of the Bolshevik Central Committee from 1908. Supported Lenin when the Party threatened to divide on the issue of reunification with the Mensheviks.

5. RADEK’S EXCELLENT OBITUARY: Karl Bernhardovich Sobelsohn, alias Radek (1885–1939). Born in Lvov, Austrian Poland, of middle-class Jewish parents. Member of the Polish, German and Russian Social Democratic Parties. Brilliant political journalist. Travelled with Lenin from Switzerland to Russia in the ‘sealed train’, April 1917. Arrested in Germany, 1918, for revolutionary activity. Returned to Moscow in 1922 as secretary of the Comintern. Joined Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin. Expelled from the Party in 1927 and banished to the Urals. Reinstated after writing a panegyric on Stalin. For several years leading Party commentator on foreign affairs in the Soviet Press. Tried during the ‘purge’ in 1937. Probably died in a concentration camp.

Source: Marxist Internet Archive.