Still fighting old battles

Issue: 120

Andy Zebrowski

Jerzy Borzecki, The SovietPolish Peace of 1921 and the Creation of Interwar Europe (Yale University, 2008), £35

After 1917 it was not just the best known Bolsheviks who saw the October Revolution as the beginning of the international revolution—millions of ordinary people did as well. It was understood that for the rule of the workers’ councils (Soviets) to survive in Russia the revolution had to spread. This was not just wishful thinking. The global impact of events in Russia was so colossal that it was felt way beyond Europe, from China to Argentina, from the United States to Indonesia. In 1919 the Bolsheviks organised the Third or Communist International which soon became a forum for strategy creation for the revolutionary parties springing up around the world.

Unfortunately, none of this makes its way into Jerzy Borzecki’s book. The author is a patriotic Polish historian who has created a different context for himself. We are informed that the book is “a case study of the mode of negotiations between an emerging totalitarian state and a fledgling democracy”. The negotiations referred to resulted in the Treaty of Riga of March 1921, following a war between revolutionary Russia and a newly independent Poland in the previous year. The war ended in the Bolsheviks’ defeat at the Battle of Warsaw.

The offensive on Warsaw is often cited as demonstrating the “Soviet imperialism” of Lenin’s “emerging totalitarian state”. In fact it was predicated on workers rising up in the city. As Trotsky put it, “We tried to make a revolutionary offensive sortie into Europe with our march on Warsaw, but it did not come off. Why? Because the revolution had not matured. Not because such a sortie was wrong in principle, no, but because the revolution in Poland had not matured. In Italy the revolution had miscarried, and in Germany and Poland the preparatory period had not been completed.” Counting on an uprising in Warsaw turned out to be a bad miscalculation but that it was a mistake was not a foregone conclusion.

An independent Poland was possible only because revolution had overthrown the three empires (German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian) that had ruled the partitioned country. At the end of 1918 the occupying German troops in Warsaw set up soldiers’ councils and workers in the city did the same. Soviets were also created in various other Polish towns. In fact these organs of revolutionary democracy were set up before Poland became Poland so really Borzecki should talk about a “fledgling workers’ democracy” in the country. In the mining areas of Silesia workers even organised Red Guard militias. The soldiers’ councils were quickly terminated as German soldiers were sent back to Germany while the workers’ councils were suppressed by the Polish government as late as summer 1919.

In Warsaw the Communist delegates to the Soviet were a substantial minority. In April 1919 Lenin declared that the “self-determination of the proletariat is proceeding among the Poles. Here are the latest figures on the composition of the Warsaw Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Polish traitor-socialists [ie traitors to the working class] 333, Communists 297.”

In 1920, as the Red Army approached Warsaw, an embryonic provisional government was set up in eastern Poland and 65 revolutionary committees were organised. Soon after the 1920 war the Communist party made significant gains. Legally obliged to fight its first election in 1922 under another name (the Union of the Proletariat of Town and Country), it won two seats in parliament—obtaining its best results in Silesia and Warsaw, only two years after the war!

Borzecki’s grasp of theory is weak. He says that the Riga Treaty forced Lenin “to embark on building socialism in one country”. While this statement may be good news for followers of Stalin, as history it is laughable. Trotsky’s analysis in December 1921 is more sensible and accurate: “The result of our military retreat from Warsaw—after sounding out our enemies and our friends—was a political retreat, not only by Soviet Russia but also by the entire revolutionary movement. What was the Treaty of Riga, for which we are now paying? It was part of our retreat. We are pulling back, cautiously and firmly, not yielding to the enemy any more positions than we have to.” Trotsky added that the Communists were “now faced with a period of preparation—here, in Germany and in Poland”. No sign of “socialism in one country” there.

In fact Trotsky (and most other Bolsheviks) felt international revolution was still on the cards in the not so distant future: “In Germany the preparatory period means waging a successful struggle to win the masses. In Poland it means the growth of the Communist Party: at the elections for the hospital-fund clubs the Communist Party won more votes than the Polish Socialist Party—that is a symptom of extraordinary importance.”

Borzecki does not understand the revolutionary times he is dealing with. He mentions the Bolsheviks’ intention to “sovietise” Poland without once explaining the revolutionary democratic nature of soviets. The reader is therefore left with the idea of “sovietising” in the Cold War sense of the term.

The war with Poland came towards the end of the horrendous civil war in Russia that followed the 1917 Revolution. The Bolsheviks saw the Communist International as the best way to spread revolution but they still had to operate as a state in a system of nation states and empires. Whatever concessions had to be made on the diplomatic front (including the Riga Treaty) the Bolsheviks’ objective was spreading genuine revolution from below.

But the Polish side pursued more traditional goals. After independence Poland’s future dictator Jozef Pi_sudski was engaged in six border wars, aggressively trying to win out in the scramble for territory between the newly created nation states. The Bolshevik aims were of a different order entirely, which Borzecki does not understand. Nonetheless, once or twice he demonstrates this despite his intentions.

In July 1920 the Bolsheviks were planning to sign an armistice with Poland in the event that an offensive by counter_revolutionary General Wrangel made this necessary. But the terms demanded showed how different revolutionary Russia was from any other state. As Borzecki relates, “Within a month, the Polish army was to be reduced to 50,000 rank and file, and 10,000 officer and administrative cadres. Also within a month, all surplus arms and ammunition were to be turned over to the soviets, who would then use them to arm organised Polish “urban and industrial workers”. Poland was to cease the manufacturing of arms and ammunition.

Here a state is demanding the arming of part of an enemy state’s population—not on ethnic but on class lines. That is revolutionary diplomacy.

In Poland 15 August is marked as the date of the Bolshevik defeat. The televison news remembers “the miracle on the Vistula”. It quotes the title of British diplomat Lord d’Abernon’s book, which refers to the battle of Warsaw as The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World. But this claim is exaggerated. True, the battle forced a retreat for the international revolution. A revolutionary Poland would have helped spread the rule of workers’ councils further west. But even without a revolutionary Poland the German revolution could have succeeded in 1923, if an uprising had been called by Communist Party leaders in November. This failure was much more crucial to the isolation of Soviet Russia and prepared the ground for Stalin’s rule. The battle of Warsaw is stressed by mainstream historians because they are more comfortable dealing with battles than with workers’ uprisings.

As for the non-revolutionary nature of Polish workers, as Borzecki would have it, it is worth noting that the day before the uprising was supposed to take place in Germany—7 November 1923—the workers of Kraków had disarmed and fraternised with the soldiers in the city and taken over. Only for one day it is true, but still.