Irving Howe: Bundist Vladimir Medem on Bolshevik dictatorship

More serious were the warnings of Vladimir Medem, the Bundist leader recently come to the United States, who argued at the [Jewish Socialist] Federation’s 1921 convention that “the dictatorship of the proletariat” must necessarily degenerate into a dictatorship of the ruling party over the proletariat. Only through democracy, Medem insisted, could socialism be fulfilled.*

* In a long-forgotten article published in a 1918 issue of the Warsaw Bundist paper, Lebns-Fragen, Medem wrote: “The guns of the conscripted Bolshevik soldiers are directed not only at the bourgeoisie. They are turned against the socialist working class. The day is not far when revolutionary tribunals of the more ‘kosher’ Bolsheviks will be set up to shoot the more ‘suspect’ of their own comrades… And if today Lenin years to shoot Abramovitch [a Menshevik leader], may he not wish to shoot Trotsky tomorrow?

“A socialist government that turns to the methods of terror signs its own death warrant.”

###

The debate over Bolshevism brought the Forward to a major crisis. It was not possible to keep these differences locked into the inner circles: polemical articles spilled across the pages of the paper. Opposition to [Forward founder and Bolshevik supporter Abraham] Cahan was led by Vladimir Medem, a leader of the Bund who had recently arrived from Poland and was acknowledged in all segments of the Jewish world as a figure of moral and intellectual authority. Medem launched a principled attack on the enthusiasm so many Jewish socialists were displaying for the Bolshevik dictatorship, and he was especially sharp in the polemical assaults he directed at Cahan. Neither before or since has Cahan been treated so roughly, even unceremoniously, in his own pages. Though other anti-Bolsheviks were briefly kept out of the Forward pages, Medem carried too much prestige to be treated that way. A dying man, he wrote scathingly about the Bolsheviks, attacking Lenin as a kalter gazlen (a cold-blooded thug). The worst apologists for the Bolshevik dictatorship, he wrote, are not those who deny it violating socialist or democratic ethics, but those who say, “Yes, they are doing it and it’s right.” Arguing against Cahan’s quasi-Leninist notion of a “transitional dictatorship,” Medem stated what would become the classical socialist critique of Bolshevism:

This is the same revolutionary conceit which looks upon a cluster of “conscious ones” as the heroes who represent…the wise, the adept, the leaders. … The mass is nothing but inert material to be molded. If it balks at going along peacefully, then it must be dragged along forcibly. If the truth has no effect on it, then lies must be employed.

If a reversion to the Spanish Inquisition is necessary for the realization of socialism, then we can do without such a socialism.

# # #

Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pages 328–29, 541

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