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"Don Quixotes of the Revolution"?
The Left SRs as a Mass Political Movement
Sally A. Boniece
Dept. of History
Frostburg State University
101 Braddock Rd.
Frostburg, MD 21532-1099 USA
Partiia levykh sotsialistov-revoliutsionerov: Dokumenty i materialy [The Left Socialist Revolutionary Party: Documents and Materials]. 3 vols. Compiled by Iaroslav Viktorovich Leont'ev. Vol. 1: Iiul ' 1917 g.-mai 1918 g. [July 1917-May 1918]. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2000. 864 pp. ISBN ISBN 5-86004-140-3. Part of the series Politicheskie partii Rossii: Konets XIX-pervaia tret' XX veka. Dokumental 'noe nasledie [Political Parties in Russia: The End of the 19th and First Third of the 20th Century. The Documentary Inheritance], under the general editorship of Valentin Valentinovich Shelokhaev.
"Up to now, the entire great historical epic of the Russian social revolution has mistakenly been identified only with Bolshevism," Isaak Zakharovich Shteinberg, Left Socialist Revolutionary (SR) commissar of justice in the short-lived Bolshevik-Left SR coalition government, once lamented. As supporters of Soviet power and representatives of a national constituency of peasants, workers, soldiers, and sailors, the Left SRs brought a certain legitimacy to the October Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party. Their insistence on peasant parity in the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) and the immediate socialization of the land built peasant backing for the new regime; they attempted to rein in the Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter revolution and Sabotage (Cheka) through both their influence as members and their control of the Commissariat of Justice. Yet Shtein berg's observation is nearly as true today as it was when he originally made it—in 1921. It is with this quite appropriate quotation that compiler Iaroslav Viktorovich Leont'ev introduces the ROSSPEN collection of Left SR documents from July 1917 to May 1918 (5).
Soviet historians echoed the Bolsheviks' scorn for their former coalition partners in characterizing the Left SRs, when they mentioned them at all, as petty-bourgeois "vacillators" and kulak-lovers who had the effrontery not only to resign from the coalition government in March 1918 over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk but also to stage a revolt (miatezh) against the Bolsheviks [End Page 185] in July; 1 no matter that the Left SRs themselves claimed they were leading an uprising (vosstanie) against the Bolshevik peace with imperial Germany rather than a revolt against Bolshevik power. The Cold War notwithstanding, Western historians were (and, for the most part, still are) hardly more sympathetic toward the Left SRs than their Soviet colleagues, seeming to swallow without question the surely biased Right Menshevik P. Surmin's dismissal of the Left SRs as "the Don Quixotes of the revolution." 2
To Oliver H. Radkey, the pioneer of SR party history, the Left SRs were "youthful extremists" and "immature zealots," "semi-anarchistic" and "utopian" in outlook but "wavering" and "ineffective" in political behavior. It must be noted, however, that Radkey wrote even more harshly of the focal figure of his studies, the SR leader Viktor Mikhailovich Chernov. 3 Leonard [End Page 186] Schapiro, while applauding the Left SRs' principled stand against Bolshevik excesses, viewed the party leadership as "inconsistent, romantic, unrealistic, and politically naïve to the point of childishness"; 4 John L. H. Keep, another member of this "sincere but naïve" school of thinking, gave the Left SRs credit for good intentions but discounted them as pawns of Vladimir Il'ich Lenin. 5 Although George Leggett took pains to analyze thoroughly the Left SRs' participation in the Cheka, his contempt for the party was conveyed in sentences such as "the irresolute LSRs vacillated for six whole weeks until ... they finally surrendered to Lenin's embrace." In Leggett's final assessment, "the LSRs must bear a heavy responsibility before history for having assisted the Bolshevik seizure and retention of power." 6
Fortunately for the Left SRs, the scrupulous German scholar Lutz Häfner has countered such judgmentalism with a more balanced interpretation...