Was George Washington a French agent?

As part of a series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the New York Times recently published an article recycling the old claim that the Russian revolutionary Lenin was operating as an agent of Germany's monarchical regime. But could the same claim be made against other revolutions and other revolutionaries?

Paul Le Blanc, author of numerous books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and the forthcoming October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, examines the case against Lenin and the Bolsheviks--and reaffirms the socialist view of how history is made.

Was George Washington a French agent?

"WAS LENIN a German Agent?" is the provocative title of a June 19 New York Times opinion-piece by historian Sean McMeekin. This was the charge leveled by enemies of Lenin's revolutionary socialist program in 1917, as he and his Bolshevik comrades sought to mobilize workers, peasants and soldiers against the Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky.

McMeekin, author of the newly published and hostile The Russian Revolution: A New History, suggests Lenin may have been guilty as charged. He adds: "If it is ever proved that Lenin was acting on behalf of the German Imperial Government in 1917, the implications for our understanding of the October Revolution, and the Soviet Communist regime born of it, which lasted until 1991, would be profound. This would amount to the greatest influence operation of all time..."

Evaluating McMeekin's charge requires an examination of the historical context, enhanced by a comparative analysis that goes much further than he is inclined to go.

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The Russian Revolution and German Money

The oppressive absolute monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II had been overthrown by a popular insurgency in February 1917. Organized in their own democratic councils (soviets), workers, peasants and soldiers had rallied to the demands of "peace, bread, land, liberty."

The insurgency had sought to end Russia's involvement in the horrific slaughter of the First World War, and to end food rationing imposed on workers in the cities brought on by dire wartime conditions. It sought the redistribution of land from wealthy elites to Russia's impoverished peasant majority. And it sought to establish genuine rule by the people.

Working hard to prevent the revolution from going "too far" were a cluster of "mainstream" politicians--liberals, conservatives, moderate socialists--who appointed themselves as the Provisional Government.

They were able, for several months, to persuade the leaders of the soviets to accept their authority. Yet they continued to support Russia's participation in the war against Germany, and they were reluctant to violate the "property rights" of Russia's wealthy landowners.

Upon his April return from Swiss exile, Lenin pointed out that what the masses of insurgent laborers had desired when they overthrew the Tsar would most definitely not be delivered by the old-time politicians. Peace, bread, and land would only come if the insurgent workers and peasants completed the revolutionary process by taking power into their own hands. "Down with the Provisional Government!" thundered Lenin and his comrades. "All Power to the Soviets!"

Lenin's enemies responded by accusing him of being a German agent--someone doing the work of the government of Imperial Germany, whom the Germans had smuggled into Russia and funded precisely for the purpose of pulling Russia out of the First World War.

The crucial "logistical support" for Lenin--providing railway transportation through German territory--was news to no one. Germany was openly funneling antiwar socialists of all factions into Russia. Lenin's Menshevik opponent Julius Martov had been the first to seek such assistance, and, after some hesitation, followed Lenin's bold example (as documented by Martov's biographer Israel Getzler).

Regarding German money to help Lenin spread the Bolsheviks' antiwar and revolutionary message, McMeekin tells us, "The evidence assembled by Kerensky's justice department, much of which has only recently been rediscovered in the Russian archives, was damning."

McMeekin allows for some nuance in his argument, commenting "fair enough" in response to fact that "Lenin could and did justify his actions as tactical maneuvers serving the higher cause of Communism, not the sordid war aims of the German Imperial Government."

But he adds, "No matter Lenin's real intentions, it is undeniable that he received German logistical and financial support in 1917. His actions, from antiwar agitation in the Russian armies to his request for an unconditional cease-fire, served the interests of Russia's wartime enemy in Berlin."

McMeekin concludes that "it is hard to imagine this defense holding up at trial, if the jury were composed of ordinary Russians while the war was still going on."

He doesn't comment, however, on the fact that masses of "ordinary Russians" had overthrown the Tsar in part to stop the hated war, and that masses of "ordinary Russians" would soon respond with enthusiasm--despite widely publicized "revelations" about the alleged German funds--to Lenin's call for "all power to the Soviets." This is a matter to which we will need to return shortly.

In an apparent show of even-handedness, McMeekin acknowledges that what happened was nothing new: "For centuries, great powers had played at this game. During the Napoleonic wars, France aided Irish rebels to undermine Britain, and Polish nationalists against Russia. Britain, in turn, backed Spanish guerrillas fighting French occupation forces."

But McMeekin argues that evidence in the Russian archives indicates such an unprecedented financial infusion into Bolshevik coffers as to constitute "the greatest influence operation of all time."

The assertion that the archival discovery is "recent" is somewhat misleading--it was presented almost a quarter of a century ago by archivist and historian General Dmitri Volkogonov, in his uncompromisingly hostile Lenin: A New Biography.

A careerist who had vociferously praised the Bolshevik Revolution as long as his employers were leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Volkogonov just as vociferously denounced it once these were replaced by anti-Communists around the notoriously corrupt Boris Yeltsin. (Like Yeltsin himself, and like Volkogonov, the old Communists and the new anti-Communists were often the very same people).

This does not, by itself, necessarily mean that all "damning" materials in the archives are forgeries. What Volkogonov "found" had, in fact, been proclaimed in 1921 by Eduard Bernstein, the well-known German reformist-socialist.

"Lenin and his comrades received vast sums of money from the Kaiser's government for their destructive agitation," according to Bernstein, who had seen German documents revealing "an almost unbelievable amount, certainly more than 50 million gold marks." This enabled the Bolsheviks, according to Volkogonov, to publish 41 newspapers throughout Russia with a daily circulation of 320,000.

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The American Revolution and French Money

It is worth taking some time to consider the truth in McMeekin's assertion that there are innumerable examples of revolutionaries accepting money from foreign governments (provided by these governments for the purpose of advancing their own narrow interests in one or another global power struggle).

As we do so, however, it will be necessary to debunk his assertion that German government aid to Russia's revolutionaries was on a scale that made it "the greatest influence operation of all time." There is another example that far exceeds that on which McMeekin focuses.

The victory of the American Revolution was sealed by the revolutionaries' ability to force the surrender of two British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Yet consider this summary of the information provided by Stacy Schiff in her award-winning A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America:

The majority of the guns fired on the British at Saratoga were French. Four years later, when the British set down their muskets at Yorktown, they surrendered to forces that were nearly equal parts French and American, all of them fed and clothed and paid by France, and protected by [French Admiral] de Grasse's fleet. Without French funds the Revolution would have collapsed; by a conservative estimate, America's independence cost France more than 1.3 billion livres, the equivalent of $13 billion today. France was crucial to American independence...

Regardless of the "real intentions" of Benjamin Franklin who negotiated much of this, George Washington who willingly embraced it and all the others who went along, it can be argued that the American Revolution was largely the work of a small group of traitorous British subjects who were, in fact, French agents.

Accepting billions of dollars in French money, weapons and materiel, not to mention active (and decisive) logistical support from the French military, the so-called "patriots" in Britain's North American colonies seem to have had few qualms about advancing French interests in a global power struggle against the legitimate government of Great Britain.

Such people could and did justify their actions as tactical maneuvers serving the higher cause of liberty, not the sordid political aims of the French monarchy. Yet it is hard to imagine this defense holding up at trial, if the jury were composed of ordinary British subjects (in contrast to "patriotic" fanatics).

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How History Is Made

In more ways than one, this line of argument does an injustice to the revolutionaries whose risks and sacrifices were essential to the success of the American and Russian revolutions. And it obscures the reality that the revolution could not have triumphed if the revolutionaries' message had not resonated with, inspired and been capable of mobilizing masses of "ordinary" people.

Any practical-minded and dedicated revolutionary worth his or her salt will try to secure whatever funds are necessary to help advance the revolutionary cause. Making use of funds secured from whatever source has rarely, in such cases, added up to subordinating one's self and one's struggles to the funder.

Just as Franklin and Washington did not belong to King Louis XVI of France, so Lenin and his comrades did not belong to the German Kaiser. A failure to grasp this will prevent us from understanding who and what these people were, and what they actually accomplished. And it will prevent us from understanding how history is made.

Restricting ourselves to Lenin for the moment, it makes little sense to believe that simply because he was able to return to Russia to make speeches and help organize struggles, the speeches would make sense to significant numbers of people and cause them to participate in the actual struggles in question. Just because it is possible to publish 320,000 copies of a revolutionary newspaper each day will not mean that 320,000 people or more will want to read that newspaper or be guided by it.

The fact that growing numbers of "ordinary" Russians among the working class and the peasantry were responding positively to the Bolshevik message counts for much more--and explains much more about what was happening in history--than can be gleaned from the funding source of the newspaper.

Well before there was any possibility of funds coming to revolutionaries from the regime of Imperial Germany, Lenin's Bolsheviks were growing into a substantial force capable of leading a revolutionary upsurge. The experiences of growing numbers of people--in the wake of Bloody Sunday in 1905, and in the wake of the Lena Goldfields Massacre of 1912--swelled Bolshevik membership and influence.

The same is true of the development of the American Revolution. French money was hardly unimportant. But it would have amounted to little without the writings of Tom Paine or the Declaration of Independence, without the popular mobilizations for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," without the oppression and life experiences that moved expanding layers of the population throughout the 1770s to struggle for revolutionary victory.

Our understanding of such "history from the bottom up," not conspiracies by foreign agents, is what is decisive if we hope to understand revolutions--and, when necessary, to make them.

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Global Aftermath: Revolution and Counterrevolution

As is well known, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the democratic-revolutionary insurgency which the French monarchy had supported so decisively (for its own narrow purposes) became a global contagion spreading outward.

Most dramatically in France itself, where King Louis XVI was toppled by an even more radical revolution, oppressive conditions that were both age-old and intensifying caused masses of peasants and the urban poor to conclude that people of all lands are entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, insurgent tidal waves also spread outward--first and foremost, engulfing and washing away the monarchist regime of Imperial Germany, whose bidding Lenin has been accused of doing. It was a development that the Bolshevik leader had foreseen and foretold, even as his train was making its way through Germany from Switzerland to Russia.

Lenin's hopes that German comrades like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht would help lead the German Revolution forward to an uncompromising working-class insurgency, joining revolutionary Russia in the struggle for a socialist world, were soon dashed.

The moderate socialist leaders in that country--kindred spirits of Alexander Kerensky and colleagues of Eduard Bernstein--helped to thwart and murder these and other revolutionaries in 1919.

Almost immediately after the Russian workers' state established itself in 1917, there were dramatic examples--which for some reason Professor McMeekin chooses not to consider--of massive funding and logistical support and even some military intervention, arguably amounting to what was really the "greatest influence operation of all time."

This was in support of the counterrevolutionary armies of Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel, Yudenich and others that unleashed a brutalizing civil war aimed at revolutionaries of all varieties--all who favored rule by the people, not to mention workers, peasants and Jews in general.

As part of the same "influence operation," foreign agents and funders and advisers filtered through Eastern and Central Europe to help organize a fascist-like backlash, to cut off and murderously repress further working-class revolutionary upsurges.

The "democratic" victors of the First World War, particularly the governments of Britain, France and the United States, oversaw what historian Arno Mayer has described as the "uneven and uncoordinated drift toward conservatism, reaction, counterrevolution and proto-fascism"--creating the anti-revolutionary buffer (the cordon sanitaire as French leader Clemenceau termed it). Vicious right-wing dictatorships were established in Finland, Hungary, Poland and Romania--"welcome allies in the anti-Bolshevik freedom fight."

As Mayer documents in his classic Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, it was largely out of this witch's brew that forces around Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would congeal--initially hailed by most of the world leaders who sought to obliterate the insurgent spirit of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Those who wish to truly understand the world--and particularly those who wish to change it for the better--will need to go beyond the confines within which Sean McMeekin constructs his own stilted understanding of revolutionaries and "foreign agents."