Sneering at Mensheviks

In The New York Times, Paul Berman reviews a biography of the late journalist and sometime fellow traveler I.F. Stone, and a collection of Stone’s articles. Stone has become something of an icon to American leftists, and Berman recognizes his contributions and his occasional willingness to defy the party line. But he makes an important point:

The organized left was pretty big in New York and elsewhere in the United States in those years [the 1930s and 40s], but the largest and most powerful institutions of the left, far from being Communist, were some of the Jewish social democratic trade unions and the Yiddish-language Forward and a few other journals, nestled on what might be described as the more conservative or social democratic wing of the socialist movement; and the people who ran those social democratic organizations were, from the very start, more consistently hostile to fascism than America’s Communists ever managed to be, even if the Communists were noisier. But those same social democrats who stood up against fascism also managed to be remarkably well informed and undeluded about the realities of Soviet life. This was chiefly because American social democrats paid respectful attention to their own oppressed comrades from Russia, the Mensheviks, some of whom fled into American exile with hair-raising reports about Bolshevism and its deeds. If only Stone had likewise listened to those Menshevik stories, he might have learned a thing or two. For that matter, he could have listened to the Russian anarchists in exile, the followers of Kropotkin, who, having fled the Soviet Union, struck up an alliance with the American social democrats and were likewise eloquent about Communist repression. But he didn’t listen, or rather, he listened only for what he wanted to hear. And why was that?

Very likely it was because, in his own, unorganized, pro-Communist wing of the left, the fashion was to demonize and dismiss the Mensheviks as ghastly reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries, embittered to the point of insanity by their political failure in Russia. An example of this sort of demonizing crops up in an article of Stone’s from as late as 1951, reprinted in “The Best of I. F. Stone,” in which he allows himself to sneer a bit at someone described as “a bitterly anti-Communist writer, who himself advocates American aid to counterrevolutionary movements within the Soviet Union.” And yet this person, who sounds frightfully right wing, practically czarist, in Stone’s description, was in fact a scion of the Mensheviks in America, Boris Shub, who advocated American aid to the struggling and forlorn democrats of the Soviet Union — aid to the very kinds of people, the champions of human rights and labor unions, who eventually did overthrow Communism. It depresses me to see this sort of sneering in Stone’s journalism — it reminds me of the ways in which liberal exiles from countries like Iraq and Iran, the Mensheviks of our own time, are sneered at today as tools of imperialism and people without principles.