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Sverdlov: 'The best type of Bolshevik'

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Simon Hardy looks at the life of Yakov Sverdlov, a key Bolshevik leader during the Russian revolution

One of the most important members of the Bolshevik leadership during Lenin's lifetime was Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov. Yet many of today's young revolutionaries may not even have heard of him. One reason for this is that he was neither a theoretician nor even a major propagandist. In fact, his main achievement was as an organiser, something that made him a key figure during the Bolsheviks’ long underground period and subsequently elevated him to the front rank of Russian revolutionary leaders during 1917. In October of that year, Sverdlov played a central role with Trotsky and Lenin in the seizure of power, particularly in organising the defence of the young worker’s state when it came under attack from the forces of the White counterrevolution and foreign imperialist intervention. That he was regarded as the best organiser by far, in a party that valued organisation highly, speaks volumes.

When Sverdlov died in March 1919 Lenin summed up his qualities thus:

"Sverdlov stood before us as the most perfect type of professional revolutionary, a man who had entirely given up his family and all the comforts and habits of the old bourgeois society, a man who devoted himself heart and soul to the revolution, and who for many years, even decades, passing from prison to exile and from exile to prison, cultivated those characteristics which steeled revolutionaries for many, many years."

Sverdlov was born in Nizhni-Novgorod on June 3 1885, into a lower middle class Jewish family. His father was a skilled engraver and had a small workshop of his own. Despite being able to afford to send their son to the city's gymnasium (grammar school), Sverdlov did not go on to university. Instead he took a job in a pharmacy and did part-time work copying out lines for actors. His days as a young teenager were spent working hard to supplement the family budget.

He would spend much of his spare time at a bookshop run by an old member of the Narodniks (Populists). There, he came across classics of Russian populism and socialism, like Alexander Herzen and more recent works such as Maxim Gorky's popular novels of poverty and oppression in Tsarist Russia. As Gorky was born and lived in the city, his works were enormously popular amongst the literate workers and lower middle classes there.

Sverdlov was only 16 when he became active in revolutionary politics. In 1901 he helped found the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party's Nizhni-Novgorod committee.

As well as distributing publications smuggled in from the centres abroad; Geneva, Munich and London, Sverdlov and his young comrades produced their own illegal leaflets. Distribution required skill and daring. They would mingle with a large crowd and slip leaflets into people's coat pockets and bags! Eventually he was given the task of organising workers’ study circles, each with no more than six or seven people at a time. These were normally held in people’s houses, drinking tea whilst reading the latest paper smuggled from abroad or editing a leaflet or pamphlet that had been produced. The work was painfully slow and dangerous but it was essential in these early days.

Sverdlov used his father’s engraving tools to create party seals to ensure the secrecy of communications. It was also claimed that Sverdlov's flat was used to store arms and other supplies for the revolutionaries in his area. The struggle against the Tsarist autocracy was hard work, and the chances of arrest were high whenever socialists took part in public work.

Despite the danger, he participated in two demonstrations in his home town. One, which occurred after the death of a student called Ryurikov, was a mass funeral march that quickly became an anti-Tsarist demonstration. This led to his first arrest and 14 days in jail. He also attended the demonstration which bid farewell to Maxim Gorky, exiled from the city for 'immoral behaviour' (i.e. political agitation against Tsarism).

It is around this time that Sverdlov came across the writings of Lenin, through circulated copes of Iskra and the pamphlet ‘What is To Be Done?’. He agreed that what was needed was a national, unified, revolutionary party - pulling together all the local committees under a common programme with a shared illegal party organ and leadership body both within Russia and abroad.

When a split occurred unexpectedly at the second congress of the RSDLP in London in 1903, Sverdlov was one of the first to rally to the side of Lenin and the Majorityites (Bolsheviks). He moved first to Kaznan, organising the Bolshevik committee there, and later to the Urals where he played a major role in the regional soviets (worker’s councils) that sprang up in the revolutionary year 1905.

Sverdlov was arrested in 1906 and spent much of the subsequent decade in prison or in exile in Siberia, escaping and being recaptured several times. Whenever he was caught and sent to Siberia, he would pursue any escape route to make his way back to the working class districts to organise the revolutionary wing of the Russian working class. One escape attempt ended in failure when his boat capsized and he fell into the icy water. After a few days on the run he was found by fishermen and taken back to exile by the police.

Lunacharsky once said that the revolution threw up countless organisers and leaders, but even amongst them Sverdlov was exemplary, often remaining on duty day and night, ready to respond to an emergency or carry out a decisions. The difficulty in those days was how to connect the leaders of the Bolshevik faction, who lived abroad in countries like Switzerland, with the 'undergrounders' in Russia. Sverdlov was crucial to this work, Lunacharsky described him as the transmitting wire which linked the revolutionary ideas of Lenin with the party cells and hence with the masses.

His strength lay in his unequalled knowledge of the party itself and the evaluation of its members. He maintained close connections with as many committees as possible throughout Russia and, importantly, he never left Russia to join the warring circles of the émigrés in Western Europe.

A gradual revival in the revolutionary movement took place from 1910 onwards. But in April 1912 the shooting of 270 striking workers in the Lena goldfields led to a huge wave of protest strikes. The Tsar had to lift the repression to a considerable degree. By November 1912 Sverdlov found his way to St Petersburg, becoming a key organiser and working on the new Bolshevik legal daily ‘Pravda’ and working to support the Bolsheviks’ deputies in the Duma, the toothless Russian parliament.

Pravda's editorial board, under Stalin and Molotov, had been dodging the task of polemicising against the Liquidators - those who wanted to dissolve the underground party structures and build a broad Labour Party like the British one. It was Lenin himself who proposed that Sverdlov effectively take charge of Pravda in 1913 and also had him co-opted onto the Bolshevik central committee.

However, the Tsarist secret police, the ‘Okhrana’, had an agent in the Bolshevik fraction of the Duma, Roman Malinovsky. So it didn’t take long for both Sverdlov and Stalin to be arrested and deported to Siberia. Sverdlov found he could not endure sharing a cabin with Stalin for long and requested to move, remarking in a letter to another exile that "the moral atmosphere is not particularly favourable" and talked of "petty encounters [which] have a pretty strong effect on my nerves."

Sverdlov remained in exile until the outbreak of the February revolution in 1917.

Trotsky met Sverdlov for the first time in that year. Other long-time Bolsheviks and underground workers regarded Trotsky as a newcomer, a flashy intellectual. Sverdlov, as always, was above personal or petty resentment - in contrast with the other underground organizer, Stalin. Sverdlov clearly appreciated Trotsky's skills and in Lenin's absence, made sure that the newly recruited Trotsky knew his way around the Bolshevik party.

After the mass near-insurrection of the July Day demonstrations, the Bolshevik party was thrown into disarray. The party, under Lenin's firm leadership, resisted mass pressure (including from within the party) to overthrow the provisional government, knowing that the rest of Russia would not follow the workers of Petrograd and the sailors of Kronstadt. As soon as the situation calmed down, the provisional government launched a vicious counter-offensive to crush the Bolsheviks. Their offices were seized and ransacked and Pravda closed down. Reactionary gangs and the police beat up Bolshevik workers outside factories. An arrest warrant was issued for Kamenev, Zinoviev and Lenin, causing the latter two to go into hiding. Trotsky soon found himself in prison too.

Luckily the arrest warrants did not include Sverdlov's name, leaving him free to reorganise the devastated party. Lunacharsky wrote in 1923 that whilst Sverdlov had "formed part of the Bolshevik general staff, guiding events along with Lenin, Zinoviev and Stalin, during the July Days he was pushed into the limelight". He was, Lunacharsky said, "the effective leader of the party". Trotsky later declared of Lunacharsky's judgement: "This was true. In the midst of the cruel devastation that fell upon the party, that little dark man in eye glasses behaved as if nothing untoward had happened."

Around four weeks after the smashing of Pravda's presses, a Bolshevik daily paper had resumed publication and the party committees were reorganised and began to carry out their agitational work again. Sverdlov telegraphed other party units across the country thus: "the mood in Petrograd is hale and hearty. We are keeping our heads. The organisation is not destroyed". Indeed he was able to report to the congress of the party, held in semi-legal conditions towards the end of August, that they now had 240,000 members.

During the preparations for the October insurrection, Sverdlov's organising genius came into its own within the Military Revolutionary Committee, whose inspiring figure was Trotsky. The MRC planned and carried out the revolution, with Lenin's presence in the final hours.

Immediately after the revolution, Trotsky nominated Sverdlov as chairman of the All-Union Soviet Executive Committee, effectively head of the government in Russia. He in turn proposed Trotsky for the post of Commissar of Foreign Affairs. He said that Trotsky was the right man 'to confront' Europe.

In the difficult early days, Sverdlov spearheaded the Bolsheviks’ work in creating soviets by establishing an entirely new form of government from the ground up. Whole departments needed to be created and allocated personnel and resources. Sverdlov always knew who was the right person for the job - he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the revolutionaries and worker militants in Petrograd and elsewhere. He would think quietly for a while and then produce carefully worked out plans for who would be good at what job in which department. He could always back up his proposals with concrete examples of how a comrade had shown an aptitude for it in the past or was knowledgeable in a certain field.

He was placed on the bureau of the Bolshevik central committee, a four-person body which met regularly, if not daily, to lead the work. This body was composed of Sverdlov, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

New problems would present themselves daily to the fledgling government. Sverdlov was always on the look out for pioneers who could take responsibility for carrying out tasks which might never have been done before. In Trotsky's reminiscence about Sverdlov he explains that hours would be spent coming at a problem from a political point of view, but when practical conclusions had to be reached and acted on, more often than not people would fall silent. At times like this people would turn to ‘Yakov’ and ask him what he thought about the problem.

By this time, Sverdlov had two roles: the chair of the All-Union Soviet Executive Committee and head of the party secretariat, which organised the functioning of the party committees. So he had to combine his knowledge of the party and its political work with the smooth functioning of the parliamentary affairs of state. Whilst his work in this period was no doubt essential to the functioning of the fledgling Soviet state, it also created a precedent, later exploited by the Stalinists to justify the fusion of party and state as a principle, and to make the party secretary the head of government.

When the Constituent Assembly was finally called in 1918, the right wing, which opposed the October revolution, saw it as their opportunity to undermine the power of the soviet government. The demand for a constituent assembly had been a Bolshevik slogan for years, elections had even been held to it in November 1917. These elections returned a Bolshevik vote of around 25 per cent, based heavily in the industrial centres and amongst the soldiers on the front. Most peasants still saw the Socialist Revolutionaries as 'their' party and voted accordingly. The SR's vote was larger than the Bolsheviks’, but their fraction was split in two, with the Left SRs ending up in a coalition government with the Bolsheviks and the right SRs moving into opposition against the worker’s government.

The realisation of the Constituent Assembly was an important pre-revolutionary demand; as such a body represents the highest form of democracy under capitalist society. But the Russian revolution had made it obsolete - Lenin wrote in December: "While demanding the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, revolutionary Social-Democracy has, ever since the beginning of the revolution of 1917, repeatedly emphasised that a republic of Soviets is a higher form of democracy than the usual bourgeois republic with a Constituent Assembly."

But the Bolsheviks did not want to be seen to be heavy handed and undemocratic. The task fell to Sverdlov not only to lead the Bolshevik fraction into the Constituent Assembly, but also to chair the meeting until the tricky business of electing a new chair had taken place. Eyewitnesses said that he was a firm but impartial chair, in fact in the underground party he had been nicknamed La Ferme Gueule (the 'shut mouth") for his business-like manner and dislike of idle chatter. When Victor Chernov, the leader of right wing Socialist Revolutionary party, was elected, Sverdlov vacated the chair and sat on the benches with his comrades. In a rest break the Bolshevik fraction met and agreed to leave the Assembly.

Their reasons were simple - it was at best a talking shop since it commanded no real forces. The measures for which it had been summoned: to make peace; to stop the sabotage of food distribution by the capitalists; to nationalise the land and to recognise and encourage the seizure of the landlords land by the peasants were already being implemented by the Soviet government. And the Congress of Soviets had already passed the constitution of a new form of republic, superior to a parliamentary or a presidential system - one which rested on the local soviets and the red guards. After it met for a day the guards locked the doors and it did not meet again. At the time no one really mourned its passing, but later on it became a rallying cry in the civil war that was to rage across Russia in the next few years.

In July 1918, when the Left Social Revolutionaries organised an uprising against the Soviet government, the Bolsheviks and the communists were faced with a problem. Their party had grown massively since the revolution. On the eve of the October revolution Sverdlov reported the party now had some 400,000 members. The Bolsheviks were the largest part of the Soviet Congress by far with around 40 per cent of the delegates - a sign of their recognised leadership of the working class. But this had led to a certain looseness in the party organisations, criteria of membership was not so strict and this led to political problems in organising the vanguard party amongst diffuse layers of the class, especially when the Left SRs was also a ruling party.

This caused confusion and paralysis in several key governmental institutions, as loyalty to parts of the state was called into question. It was Sverdlov who waged an energetic campaign to unite the communists in the government, the workplaces and the army into clearly defined and well-organised nuclei that could politically and physically combat the Left SRs and their influence. This was the second time that he helped to rebuild the Bolshevik aspect of the party that Lenin had struggled with since 1902.

Many Bolsheviks and Socialists who worked with Sverdlov said that it was his cool-headedness that stood out; whether on the road to victory or recovering from a defeat he was never agitated. Sverdlov simply understood that the job had to be done and set about doing it. Through the darkest moments of the revolutionary struggle, from the July days of 1917, when Lenin and Zinoviev were in hiding and Trotsky was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress, to the humiliating and divisive peace of Brest-Litovsk, facing a resurgent White Guard, the military setbacks and initial defeats of the civil war, and the attempt on Lenin's life - it was essential to have steadfast and solid cadre to keep the revolution alive.

Trotsky summed it up in his military memoirs: "In times of success this organiser consolidated victory, and in times of defeat he prepared for a comeback."

Trotsky also attributed the lion's share of the merit of their success in creating the Red Army to Sverdlov. After the old Russian army had crumbled and the soldiers had gone back to their farms and their families, the Bolsheviks needed to raise a new Red Army to defend the revolution from the Whites and the imperialists. They planned to create a volunteer army first, of the most dedicated and class-conscious workers and youth as its core. It was Sverdlov who went immediately to the factories and workers areas and visited the communist party members that he knew would form the backbone of the new Red Army. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the party members allowed the foundations of the new army to be laid down rapidly but surely, despite the fact that the population was immensely war weary and had supported the Bolshevik revolution precisely because of its promise of peace.

On these visits to the factories, Sverdlov explained the immense new task that faced the workers, to create an army that could outmatch the professional high command, office corps and cadres of the Tsarist military, not one dedicated to imperialist expansion or the property of the rich, but fighting to defend the first workers state in history. He rallied the most self-sacrificing and honest revolutionary workers to that struggle, precisely because they saw in him a man who had given his life to that cause as well. Above all Sverdlov commanded respect because of what he did, how he did it, and the commitment with which he fought.

Sverdlov's death on 16 March 1919 was a terrible blow. It is a record of just how poor the health service was in Russia at this time that it is not clear whether he died from influenza or typhus, both of which were killing thousands of people across the country. The fact that leading Bolsheviks became ill and succumbed to these diseases and infections as well shows that the Bolsheviks rarely accepted privileges, as a bourgeois political leader. All this was to change with Stalin of course.

After giving a speech to workers outside in the cold he caught a fever and never properly recovered. He fell ill as so many workers and youth did after the First World War as rationing and the deprivations of the war took its toll on their bodies and minds. Trotsky vividly describes the shock of Sverdlov's death:

"We were gathered at a session of the Political Bureau when Sverdlov, who was burning up with fever at home, took a turn for the worse. E.D. Stassova, the then Secretary of the Central Committee, came in during the session. She had come from Sverdlov"s apartment. Her face was unrecognisable. 'Jacob Mikhailovich feels poorly, very poorly' she said. A glance at her sufficed to understand that there was no hope. We cut the session short. Vladimir Ilyich went to Sverdlov"s apartment, and I left for the Commissariat to prepare to depart immediately to the front. In about 15 minutes a phone call came from Lenin, who said in that special muted voice which meant great strain: "He is gone." "He is gone." "He is gone." For a while each of us held the receiver in our hands and each could feel the silence at the other end. Then we hung up. There was nothing more to say.
Yakov Mikhailovich was gone. Sverdlov was no longer among us."

Lunarcharsky, in his book Revolutionary Silhouettes, believed that Sverdlov almost literally worked himself to death, that his long hours and tireless devotion to the arduous task of building the world’s first worker’s state, combined with ill health and a poor diet led to his death at the age of 33. "For this reason, although unlike some revolutionaries he did not die on the field of battle, we are right to see him as a man who gave his life to the cause he served."

It is of course impossible to accurately predict what would have happened had Sverdlov not died so young. Whilst he was the central organiser of the party and its general secretary before that title was created for Stalin, everyone paid tribute to his objectivity, his loyalty to all, his lack of any hint of personal ambition, rudeness, or spitefulness. In all the internal struggles from April 1917, when Lenin fought for the perspective of socialist revolution, the introduction into the party of the Mezhrayontsy (the grouping around Trotsky), the struggle with Zinoviev and Kamenev over the insurrection, the bitter divisions over the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, Sverdlov helped hold the party together. He chaired the meetings of the central committee and politburo with scrupulous fairness thus preserving a comradely solidarity despite the political sharpness of the arguments.

For these reasons he would have been a certain ally of Lenin and Trotsky in resisting Stalin's rise to power. Certainly his loss from the central apparatus of the party and the failure of his immediate replacements to fill his shoes eventually allowed Stalin to assume role of general secretary, a position which he ruthlessly distorted into a personal power base for himself and a whole social stratum of bureaucrats.

All communists and fighters in the worker’s movement should appreciate the crucial role that Sverdlov played, and that people like Sverdlov will play in the future. When Lenin wrote in Left Wing Communism: An infantile disorder about the "iron discipline" that was needed to create the revolution - he was surely talking of people like Sverdlov, who Trotsky said achieved what he did "through stubborn work and intense will-power."

He concluded - "Yakov Mikhailovich was truly beyond compare: confident, courageous, firm, resourceful - the best type of Bolshevik."