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The volatile Molotov

(December 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 93, December 1986, p. 16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE LAST of the old Bolsheviks is dead. Viacheslav Molotov, born in 1890, joined the party as a 16-year-old student at Kazan University. He was deported for two years, but continued to be a party militant, and worked on the daily Pravda in 1912. During the war he helped Shlyapnikov reorganise the party in Petrograd.

Molotov’s finest hour came in 1917. When the Tsar was overthrown and a Provisional Government set up, many Bolsheviks wanted to give it ‘critical support’. Molotov, now editing Pravda, denounced the Provisional Government as counter-revolutionary, and called for all power to go to the Soviets, thus preparing the way for the line Lenin would take on his return from exile.

But being right once does not guarantee one will be right again. When the revolution was in the ascendant Molotov would opt for workers’ power, but when the revolutionary tide ebbed he failed to stand firm.

As the bureaucracy closed its grip on Russian society, Molotov rose in the party machine. Elected to the Central Committee in 1921, he got a higher vote than Trotsky or Bukharin. In 1922 he became assistant to Stalin, the general secretary of the party, and in 1926 he joined the Politburo. He had particular responsibility for reorganising the party during the twenties. After Lenin’s death he was one of the first to publicly attack Trotsky, in a Pravda article of December 1924.

By now Molotov seemed to have lost the vision of socialism that had inspired him during the illegal struggle. In 1924 he wrote: “Our path to socialism lies through the increased productivity of labour on the basis of electrification.” Whereas Lenin had defined socialism as “Soviets plus electrification”, Molotov dropped workers’ democracy in favour of productivity – a definition easily acceptable to a Wilson or a Kinnock.

Unlike Lenin and Trotsky, Molotov had no knowledge of the labour movement outside Russia, and he seems to have lacked any imagination. Isaac Deutscher describes his character as follows:

“His narrowness and slow-mindedness were already bywords in Bolshevik circles; he appeared to be devoid of any political talent and incapable of any initiative. He usually spoke at party conferences as rapporteur on a second- or third-rate point; and his speech was always as dull as dishwater.”

It is therefore hardly surprising that he was an active supporter of the purges of the 1930s, being one of the main advocates of a firm hand against all opposition.

Even more disastrously, he turned his hand to international matters. Replacing Bukharin as President of the Communist International, he was a leading advocate of the Third Period line, which saw social democrats as no different from fascists – a line which greatly eased Hitler’s rise to power. In 1929 he actually argued that the main attack should be on the left wing of Socialist Parties, since they were the most subtle deceivers of the workers.

In 1939 Molotov became Foreign Minister. His predecessor was Litvinov, a Jew; since Stalin was now planning a deal with the Nazis, he had to be replaced. Molotov played a key role in negotiating the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, becoming the only Russian leader to actually shake hands with Hitler. Having done the dirty work, Molotov had to pick up the pieces. In June 1941 he broadcast the news that Russia’s erstwhile Nazi allies were launching an invasion; Stalin was keeping his head down.

After the war he continued to serve as Foreign Minister, being praised by US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, for his diplomatic skill. At the Geneva Conference of 1954, which ended the first Vietnam war, he put pressure on the Vietnamese leaders to agree to the partitioning of the country – a compromise which paved the way for the second Vietnam war of the 1960s.

Molotov had been a loyal agent of Stalin for 30 years, but the old butcher showed no gratitude. On the contary, in his last years he grew increasingly suspicious of his closest collaborators. As Isaac Deutscher points out, they had consented to the murder of their associates. If they didn’t mind this, then they must be scoundrels and wholly unreliable. If they did mind, then they were probably plotting against Stalin.

In the autumn of 1952 Stalin violently denounced Molotov in a Central Committee meeting. Molotov’s wife was arrested and deported. It was only Stalin’s death in 1953 that saved Molotov from going down a road he had helped to send so many others along.

Molotov might have seemed, on the grounds of seniority, to be Stalin’s natural successor, but he soon lost out to Krushchev. Molotov had been too deeply complicit in Stalinism to carry through the process of de-Stalinisation. Krushchev too had blood on his hands, but he had not been so senior in the apparatus, and he had more room for manoeuvre. Molotov was sacked as Foreign Minister in 1956, and though he and Kaganovich came near to overthrowing Krushchev in June 1957, they failed.

The loyal hack had now become an oppositionist, arguing against Krushchev’s decentralisation of economic management. Krushchev could not publicly purge Molotov – that would have meant washing his own dirty linen in public. But Molotov was slowly squeezed out and finally expelled from the party in 1962, as a member of the so-called anti-party group.

Molotov did not suffer the brutalities he had inflicted on others, but his final years were a long humiliation. He was sent as ambassador to Outer Mongolia, but then Krushchev realised this was too close to China. Fearing Molotov might plot with Mao, he recalled him. It was then proposed to make him ambassador to Holland, but the Dutch government refused to accept a man who, they said, obviously lacked the confidence of his own leaders.

In his earlier years, Molotov had seen towns, factories and mountains called after him – in old age he saw them renamed again. In 1984, on his 94th birthday, he was readmitted to the party. But now he was a pathetic, forgotten hack, a man with nothing left but memories – memories of fascists embraced and comrades sent to their death.

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