D.B. Riazonov

by Boris Souvarine

(Translated from La Critique sociale, no.2, July 1931, pp.49-50.)

D. B. Riazonov, "the most renowned and the most important of the Marxist scholars of our time", as said by the official organ of the Communist International (Inprecorr, no.26, 19th March 1930), "the most eminent marxologist of our time" (Izvestia, 10th March, 1930), "a world scientific personality" who had given "over forty years of active life to the cause of the working class" (Pravda, 10th March, 1930), was arrested and imprisoned in Moscow last February, deported to a camp in Suzdal, and then to Saratov for an unspecified term, without trial, and without any opportunity of proving his innocence, or of defending himself, by a simple governmental police measure.

Riazonov began his political life at the age of seventeen by organising a socialist circle in Odessa. One of the very first, it was connected with Plekhanov's League for the Emancipation of Labour, the seedbed of Russian Social Democracy, and undertook to publish the principal works of Marxism in the Russian language. Arrested in 1891, he suffered five years of prison and forced labour, and then a long deportation.

He went abroad in 1900 and collaborated with the Iskra and Zarya of Plekhanov, Lenin and Martov and with the German social democratic press, creating the Borba group that kept itself apart from the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, devoting itself mainly to marxist publishing. The revolution of 1905 brought him back to Russia, where he took an active part in the struggle against czarism and in the newborn trade union movement: he is noteworthy for being one of the founders of the railwaymen's clerical union. Arrested and sentenced to deportation once again in 1907, he succeeded in getting abroad.

There he carried on an intense activity as a writer, historian, lecturer and teacher in the "party schools" (notably Lenin's at Longjumeau), and as a militant of every sort. His works on Marx and Engels' ideas as regards Russia mark an epoch in the study of the question. He published Anglo-Russian Relations in the View of Karl Marx, then Karl Marx and the Russians in the 1840s, began a history of the First International, and was entrusted by the German Social Democracy with editing part of the "literary legacy" of Marx and Engels by publishing two volumes with Dietz (a publication that was interrupted by the war). In the meantime he contributed to Lenin's papers and magazines.

The first volume of his history of the International, where he set right the deformations and falsifications of the Anarchist historians with a wealth of documentation produced by by an immense labour, was composed in 1914, but the war prevented it from coming out. Riazonov took part in the Zimmerwald Conference during the war, came back to Russia after the March revolution, joined the Bolshevik Party at the time of its defeat (the July Days), and took part in the October revolution by working mainly on the military side of things.

Successively Peoples' Commissar for Communications in Odessa, Odessa's representative in the Constituent Assembly and a member of the Executive of the Railwaymen's Union, he created the Archive Centre in 1918, became a professor at Sverdlov University, took part in founding the Socialist Academy (later renamed Communist), and in 1921 "organised a scientific institute that was the pride of our revolutionary science", as Pravda said on 10th March 1930, the Marx-Engels Institute.[1]

This Institute, Pravda went on, "under Riazonov's direct scientific and administrative leadership, accomplished impressive work" (on this subject. c.f. the later article by L.B.). Riazonov, said Pravda, whose jargon we excuse ourselves for quoting, is "in the front rank of those who are struggling for the triumph of the revolutionary theory of the proletariat", as much by "his considerable scientific and investigative activity in the sphere of marxology" (we are risking this neologism as the only possible translation of the Russian term) as by his activity "in the world trade union movement" (really in the Russian trade unions).

Riazonov has published several collections of marxist articles and studies since the revolution: The International Proletariat and the War, George Plekhanov and the League 'For the Emancipation of Labour', Sketches in the History of Marxism, The Tasks of the Trade Unions Before and During the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and Marx and Engels (conferences). But his principal written work is scattered among numerous prefaces, introductions, footnotes in the works edited by him, studies, summaries, and critical, historical or documentary notes in the magazines that he founded and edited: The Marx-Engels Archives, and The Annals of Marxism.

Endowed with an exceptional memory and a capacity for work, and easily mastering the four main European languages, he acquired an encyclopedic erudition that was highly regarded outside the confines of his own party. He alone could at the same time arrange and bring to fruition the Complete Works of Marx and Engels, Plekhanov, Kautsky and Lafargue, decipher the mass of unedited materials left behind by Marx and Engels, uncover the bulk of their correspondance, repair the alterations and fill up the gaps in all previous publications, and edit the Marxist Library, then the Library of Materialism (Gassendi, Hobbes, La Mettrie, Helvetius, d'Holbach, Diderot, J. Toland, Priestley and Feuerbach) and Hegel's philosophical works,[2] etc., whilst directing the Institute, filling up libraries, and organising exhibitions.

He was at the same time working conscientiously as a member of the Executive Committee of the Soviets on that body's budgetary commission. He was the first communist elected to the Academy of Sciences. He unceasingly participated in the life of the party and trade unions as a conscious marxist, a democratic communist, in other words, opposed to any dictatorship over the proletariat. When the All-Russian Trades Union Congress of 1921 had at his instigation adopted a resolution that did not conform to the so-called conceptions of 'Bolshevism', according to which the trade unions are a passive instrument of the party, whereas Riazonov's resolution allowed them to consider the Central Committee's trade union policy, it took measures to restore order: Tomsky, the Congress chairman, was sent to Turkestan, and Riazonov was forbidden access by the party to his trade union, such as taking the floor during any meeting, or to run a course on it at the university.[3]

He then devoted himself entirely to historical work and marxist culture, outside of the factions and groupings, maintaining his critical spirit and his faculties of judgement intact, preserving the Institute from passing fads, and maintaining the best traditions of scientific, qualified, honest and conscientious work there, a happy contrast with the proceedings of institutions entrusted to servile functionaries.

When the Socialist Academy, with his approval, took the name of Communist in 1924, Riazonov said: "I am not a Bolshevik, I am not a Menshevik, I am not a Leninist. I am only a marxist, and, as a marxist, I am a communist" (Newsletter of the Communist Academy, no.8, Moscow, 1924). This speech, already subversive at the time, is today regarded as a crime of lèse-dictatorship in Soviet Russia.[4]

On the occasion of Riazonov's sixtieth birthday last year the Soviet press showered praises and flowers on this old man, "who works not as a man sixty years old, but like three young men of twenty". The Executive Committee of the Soviets conferred upon him the ridiculous order of the Red Banner of Labour. All the official organisations, the Executive of the Communist International, the Central Committee of the the Party, the Lenin Institute, the Communist Academy, the Academy of Sciences, the state publishers, etc., offered him their warm and hypocritical congratulations. They can be read in the Pravda and Izvestia of the 10th March, and in an extensive collection: Na boiévom postou (Moscow, 1930), followed by eulogistic letters from Kalinin,[5] Rykov and Clara Zetkin, lyrical articles by Deborin, Lunacharsky, Steklov, Lozovsky and Milyutin,[6] and speeches by Pokrovsky,[7] Bukharin and others.

One year later, and Riazonov was arrested, imprisoned and deported without any form of trial, the work of the Institute was suspended, and almost all of his collaborators were recalled. An omnipotent and autocratic power had condemned him without trial, and without even allowing him to be heard. The last refuge of social science and marxist culture in Russia had ceased to exist.

With this barbarous exploit, the dictatorship of the secretariat has perhaps delivered a mortal blow at a great and disinterested servant of the proletariat and of communism. It has surely lost a precious source of knowledge, and destroyed a study centre unique in the world. But it may at least at the same time have dispelled the last mirage capable of creating illusions abroad, and by revealing its real nature, proved the absolute incompatibility between post-Leninist Bolshevism and marxism.

Boris Souvarine


[1] Shortly before his arrest he invited our own Reg Groves to work with him in Moscow on the English editions of the works of Marx and Engels; fortunately, Groves did not take up the offer (translator's note).

[2] Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) was an atomist philosopher; Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an empirical thinker, the author of Leviathan; Julien Offroy de la Mettrie (1709-1751) was a materialist thinker who believed that psychological states depended directly on physical conditions; Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771) believed that all ideas were the impression of external objects; Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach (1721-1789) was a materialist philosopher, the author of the Système de la Nature; John Toland (1670-1722) was a materialist thinker, a disciple of Locke, who thought that there was a direct correspondence between thought and object; Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) was an English chemist and philosopher; Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was a Hegelian thinker who influenced Marx; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was the foremost exponent of dialectical philosophy (translator's note).

[3] C.f. In Defence of the Russian Revolution, London, 1995, pp.237-42 (translator's note).

[4] A pun: lèse-majesté means treasonous speech against the crown (translator's note).

[5]Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (1875-1946) succeeded Sverdlov as President of the Executive of the Soviets, and hence head of state of the U.S.S.R. (translator's note).

[6] Abram Moiseyevich Joffe, called Deborin (1881-1963) was the U.S.S.R.'s foremost Hegelian philosopher in the 1920s: Stalin denounced him as a "Menshevik idealist"; Yuri Mikhailovich Steklov (1873-1941) was an Old Bolshevik, and editor of Izvestia; Vladimir Pavlovich Milyutin (1884-1938) joined the R.S.D.L.P. in 1903 and became a Bolshevik. He was regarded as an expert on the peasant question. He died in prison during the purges (translator's note).

[7] Mikhail Pokrovsky (1868-1932) joined the R.S.D.L.P. in 1905, and sided with the Bolsheviks. He was a historian of Russia, and held various posts in the state apparatus (translator's note).

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