A Renowned Marxologist

Remembering Riazanov

Sankar Ray

On 10 March 1930, Pravda, official daily of the All Union Communist Party of Soviet Union (rechristened as the Communist Party of Soviet Union in 1952 on the eve of the 19th Congress) described David Borisovich Riazanov (original surname Goldendach) as "a world scientific personality" who had given "over forty years of active life to the cause of the working class". On his 60th birthday, on 19 March, Inprecorr, mouthpiece of the Communist International branded him as "the most eminent Marxologist of our time". But little did anyone imagine that a discreet plan was ahead to arrest and imprison him. The plot was hatched by Stalin, general secretary of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) [RKP(B)]. He was deported first to a camp in Suzdal, and then to Saratov without trial, and without any opportunity of proving his innocence, or of defending himself, by Cheka. Riazanov is regarded as the greatest Marx scholar of the 20th century and the founder director of Marx-Engels Institute, set up in 1921 as per a decision of the central committee of RKP(b). under the initiative of Vladimir Illych Lenin. One of his contemporaries wrote about him : "The impression he left was one of immense, almost volcanic energy-his powerful build added to this impression-and tireless in collecting every scrap about, or pertaining to, Marx and Engels. His speeches at Party congresses, marked by great wit, often carried him in sheer enthusiasm beyond the bounds of logic. He did not hesitate to cross swords with anyone, not even with Lenin. He was treated for this reason with rather an amused respect, as a kind of caged lion, but one whose bark or growl usually had a grain of two of truth worth listening to."

Indeed, Riazanov dedicated himself completely to the collection and publication of the collected writings of Marx and Engels, launching the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), projected to be completed in 36 volumes. In 1926 the Marx-Engels Institute, [later, rechristened as the Institute of Marxism-Leninism) began the publication of a multi-volume collection called the Marx-Engels Archive, collecting scholarship on the biography and writings of the Marx and Engels founders of Scientific Socialism. He also edited the works of Diderot, Feuerbach, and Hegel among others. He was a member of the Commission for the Study of the October Revolution and of the Russian Communist Party, commonly known as Istpart in 1929, he was elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

But Riazanov's dream of 36-volume MEGA was cut short by the totalitarian dictator Stalin a k a Koba. Nonetheless, incredible as it may seem, within less than five years until his arrest, as Dirk Struik wrote in 1973 on Riazanov's astounding feat and the Institute "By 1930, [the Institute] possessed hundreds of original documents, 55,000 pages of photostats, 32,000 pamphlets, and a library of 450,000 books and bound periodicals. Apart from the administrative offices, the archive, and the library, it had working rooms, a museum, and a publishing department." According to historian Colum Leckey, Riazanov's chief achievement is in the realm of Marxology–'acquiring, preparing, and publishing for the first time previously unknown writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Included among these were the works The German Ideology, sections of 'The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844', 'The Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right' and 'Dialectics of Nature' (.Colum Leckey: 'David Riazanov and Russian Marxism', Russian History/Historie Russe, September, 1995). He noted, 'Riazanov has attracted little serious attention in either Russia or the West, a fact which may seem surprising considering his prominence among Russian intellectuals.' Among his best admirers was Lenin himself.

Actually, he was much more well-known abroad among Marxist theoreticians than Lenin and Trotsky before the Bolshevik insurrection (1917).

Pity is that Riazanov's 150th birth anniversary went away unnoticed. Born on 10 March 1870 in Odessa, Ukraine, to a Jewish father and Russian mother, he joined Narodnik revolutionaries when he was 15.

Riazanov began his political life at the age of seventeen when he had set up a socialist circle in Odessa. One of the first such endeavours, it was connected to the League for the Emancipation of Labour, the seedbed of Russian Social Democracy, founded by Georgi Plekhanov, founder of the social-democratic movement in Russia and was one of the first Russians to have identified himself as a Marxist.

He was first arrested by Tsarist police when he was 19 and he was jailed in 1889, the year he went abroad for the first time to meet with Russian émigré Marxists . Upon his return in 1891, he was arrested again at the border. After 15 months awaiting trial, he was sentenced to four years solitary confinement and hard labour. He travelled abroad in 1889 and 1891 and came in touch with met various Russian Marxists who were building their revolutionary organisations there. On his return he was arrested again in October 1891 at the Austrian-Russian border by the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police who forced Riazanov to spend 15 months in prison without trial, before sentencing for four years of katorga (exile and hard labour). Thereafter, he was subject to three years of administrative exile under police supervision in the city of Kishinev, Bessarabia (today part of Moldova).

In 1900, he went into exile and went to Berlin next year. There with his co-thinkers established a small Marxist group called "Borba" (Struggle), to unite the émigré Russian Marxists. But things didn't roll on smoothly. Riazanov's group was excluded from the second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London and Brussels in the summer of 1903. Small wonder, when the party was split internally into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks Riazanov and his co-thinkers pointedly declined to join either faction.

His scholastic life began in 1903, when he introduced the concept of permanent revolution to the political literature of Russian Marxism. He published three stud materials in Geneva under the title Materials on the Program of the Workers' Party. Opposing Plekhanov, Riazanov drove a theme home that the rise of capitalism in Russia represented a fundamental departure from the pattern seen elsewhere in Europe. He argued that there would be forces of the Russian Marxist movement which would lead the revolution against Tsarist autocracy and thenceforth immediately towards socialism.

Riazanov returned to Russia shortly after the start of the 1905 Russian Revolution, and started working in the trade union movement in the capital city of St. Petersburg. Following the defeat of revolution Riazanov was arrested once again and sentenced to deportation in 1907.

After this Riazanov emigrated to the West in 1907 to engage himself to historical scholarship, studying the history of the International Workingmen's Association in the archives of the German Social-Democratic Party and in the British Museum in London. There he read extensively from the files of the New York Tribune and other newspapers, collecting material written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels for the periodical press. That was the significant turning point of Riazanov as a theoretician..

He was also a participant in the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference of the Second International. He opposed both the social-patriotic support of World War I advanced by many Western European socialists as well as the revolutionary defeatism advanced by the Bolsheviks.

Riazanov returned to Russia following the February Revolution in 1917 and subsequently got involved in trade union movement. He was instrumental in formation of the Russian Railway Union. Although opposed to the Bolshevik insurrection Riazanov and his group joined the RKP(B) headed by Lenin in August 1917. He played a main role in building the Socialist Academy of Social Sciences, an institute later known as the Communist Academy. He was a member of Russian delegation at the second congress of Comintern.

Riazanov carried on an intense activity as a writer, historian, lecturer and teacher in the "party schools" (notably Lenin's at Longjumeau). His works on Marx and Engels' ideas and their impact on Russian social awakening were significant . He penned his perception about the Anglo-Russian Relations, as viewed by Marx and Engels .He was entrusted by the German Social Democracy with the task of editing part of the "literary legacy" of Marx and Engels by publishing two volumes with Dietz (a publication that was interrupted by the war).

Marcello Musto succinctly put it that Riazanov 'underlined the rapid theoretical advances that Marx made in the period when he was working on this manuscript; in his view, the great value of publishing it was that, far from being a mere bibliographical curiosity, it marked an important stage in Marx's trajectory and afforded new insight into his intellectual development' (Critique August 2015).

But his last years were pathetic and tragic thanks to 'mostrousity' (coined by Adam Hochschild, an authority on Victor Serge) of Stain era . In December 1930, I. I. Rubin, a research assistant at the M-E Institute since 1926, was arrested by the Soviet secret police and charged with participation in a plot to establish an underground organisation called the "Union Bureau of Mensheviks." As a lawyer, Rubin initially managed to avoid succumbing to false charges made by the interrogator, but he was nonetheless kept in custody and transferred to Suzdal.

In Suzdal, Rubin was subjected to a cramped punishment cell barely bigger than a man and to the torture of solitary confinement. With his health deteriorating, Rubin broke down and gave false written testimony against Riazanov to interrogators and claimed that he had kept an envelope containing secret documents of the mythical "Union Bureau of Mensheviks" in his office at the Institute before secretly passing them to Riazanov. Following a show trial conducted by prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko, Rubin was found guilty of participation in the plot and sentenced to a five-year imprisonment. But his coerced testimony used to concoct a case against Riazanov who was sacked from the Institute in February 1931. Thereafter he was expelled from the party and arrested by the secret police, ostensibly "for helping Menshevik counter-revolutionary activity." Then he was subjected to administrative deportation to the city of Saratov. In Saratov, Riazanov worked for the next six years in a university library. In 1937 he was arrested as a purported member of a "right-opportunist Trotskyist organisation." On 21 January 1938 a perfunctory trial under the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court condemned Riazanov to death and executed on the same day.

However, Riazanov was posthumously rehabilitated in 1958 and fully rehabilitated in political terms in 1989 following glasnost campaign of Mikhail Gorbachev.

With the advent of a new era of radiant expectations for Marx-followers and Marxists -more for Marx-scholars around the international project, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe or complete works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (MEGA)–'the historical-critical edition of works of Marx and Engels', Riazanov's relevance has increased immensely, the mysterious apathy of official Marxist parties notwithstanding. But hypocritical are numerous so-called pundits who wrote on Marx's 200th birth centenary without a mention about MEGA. This is true about 95% of those who published in Indian dailies, weeklies and periodicals. For those blissful ignorants, Riazanov is somewhat non-existent in knowledge. Scholars and readers who are abreast of MEGA remain grateful to this great scholar after whose blood were Stalin and his cronies. He was the first victims during the high-voltage era of Stalinism and the cruelties thereof. Riazanov combined in him very rarely a revolutionary commitment, very profound knowledge of Marx and his theoretical contributions and the history of the socialist movement, and broad cultural interests- something achieved by none among his contemporaries.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020