False memory syndrome
Far from being disproved by 1917, the standing programme of Bolshevism found vindication, argues Jack Conrad
Lev Kamenev: took over Pravda and argued for critical support for provisional government
How to evaluate the ‘old Bolshevik’ programme before October 1917? Till recently a dull consensus has reigned. Though he was politically defeated in the 1920s, it has been Leon Trotsky’s version of events which has been widely, almost unthinkingly, accepted.
Beginning with his The lessons of October (1924), Trotsky, argued that the standing programme of ‘old Bolshevism’, because it did not envisage immediate socialist tasks, proved entirely inadequate, given the challenges of 1917.
Under the duumvirate of Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, which lasted only a matter of a few weeks, there was an unhealthy desire to achieve an unprincipled reunification with the Mensheviks. This version of events goes on to say that Kamenev and Stalin rejected demands to overthrow the provisional government. Instead they merely sought to pressurise it. A perspective, which, we are told, logically flowed from the deeply flawed theory of stages - a “scholastic parody of Marxism” that can be traced back to the Emancipation of Labour Group in the 1880s.1
This theory insisted that Russia would have to undergo two distinct revolutions. First stage - a bourgeois democratic revolution, which would sweep away tsarism and all its remnants. Second stage - after a considerable delay, the socialist revolution would come onto the agenda. Supposedly, “it is clear … from all Lenin’s writings up to 1917” that he expected a substantial interval to elapse between “the coming bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution”.2 In other words, Lenin himself advocated a “scholastic parody of Marxism”. In actual fact, as I shall show, the theory of stages was held not by the Bolsheviks, but the Mensheviks.
Trotsky was, surely, the (inconsistent) originator of this version of history. Eg, only “after the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd”, in early April 1917, was the “problem of the conquest of power” put before the party.3 Indeed, Trotsky even claims that Lenin “came out furiously against the old slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’.”4 Though he never admitted it in any publication, speech, letter or telegram, Lenin adopted the theory of permanent revolution first elaborated by Trotsky in 1906.
Over the years, Trotsky’s 1920s polemics - mainly against Zinoviev and Kamenev, but against Stalin too - have been elevated into an article of almost religious faith guarded over by leftwing popes as various as Gerry Healy, Ernest Mandel, Tony Cliff and Alan Woods. Given the horrors of the 1930s, maximising the moral distance between the left and Stalin is perfectly understandable. But this should not have gone hand in hand with maximising gullibility, when it came to his most famous contemporary opponent. What Trotsky wrote in the mid-1920s was far removed from dispassionate history. As with Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, factional needs were always to the fore. However, even cold war warriors have willingly echoed Trotsky. Not with the intention of glorifying him, but with the intention of deriding, discrediting and diminishing Stalin (albeit for entirely different reasons, compared with the left).
Take Leonard Schapiro: he refers to the Bolsheviks’ all-Russian conference held in March 1917 (the first since the fall of tsarism). Schapiro quotes, very sparingly, the agreed resolution on the Bolshevik’s attitude towards the provisional government (the reporter was Stalin). That resolution called for “vigilant control” over the provisional government and supported the Petrograd soviet as the “beginning of revolutionary power”. Schapiro then proceeds, in the manner of Trotsky, to claim that Stalin’s approach was “based on the assumption, which no-one questioned, that a long period of bourgeois middle class democratic government had now begun, and that the dictatorship of the proletariat only related to the distant future”.5 In other words, Schapiro, like Trotsky, accuses the Bolsheviks of de facto Menshevism.
Having been toppled from the summits of power in the mid-1920s, Trotsky began what has been called a ‘literary war’ against Zinoviev, Kamenev (and Stalin) over the history of the Russian Revolution. Note, Trotsky rather foolishly dismissed Stalin as little more than a grey blur. Stalin was, in Trotsky’s eyes, a nonentity who was far less dangerous to the prospects of the revolution than, firstly, Zinoviev and Kamenev and, then, Bukharin. Of course, in 1926 there was a Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev rapprochement. Together they formed the United Opposition. However, even in the late 1920s, Trotsky’s slogan was: “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? Never.”6
In the autumn of 1924 the state publishing house issued a two-part volume of Trotsky’s speeches and writings covering 1917 (part of his never completed Collected works7). The lessons of October constituted a barbed introductory chapter. Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin responded in kind with their own books and pamphlets. Though they lacked Trotsky’s natural talent as a writer, when it came to the regrettable Lenin cult, he - that is, Trotsky - was objectively at a very distinct disadvantage.
Before 1917 he had been a dogged, albeit annoyingly brilliant, opponent of Lenin’s. Having belligerently sided with the Mensheviks in 1903, Trotsky broke with them in 1904, but remained on friendly terms. Indeed he dismissed the Bolshevik-Menshevik split as a superficial phenomenon. In that semi-Menshevik spirit he became an inveterate unity-monger. In 1912 Trotsky brought together a motley crew of Bundists, Menshevik liquidators and Bolshevik boycottists - the August bloc - in a direct attempt to sabotage the Sixth (Prague) Conference of the RSDLP. A move which Lenin angrily denounced as an attempt to “destroy the party”.8 Needless to say, it was the “uncultured”, “barbaric”, “sectarian”, “Asiatic” Bolsheviks whom Trotsky considered the biggest obstacle to the unprincipled unity he was desperately seeking.9
By contrast, of course, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin were loyal lieutenants. That said, in the crucial year of 1917, firstly Kamenev and Stalin, in April, had to be cracked into line by Lenin (though I believe there was a genuine Lenin-Kamenev convergence too). Then, in October, there can be no doubt that Zinoviev and Kamenev (and others) recoiled - took fright - at Lenin’s increasingly agitated demand that the Bolsheviks had to go for ‘all power to the soviets’ (as it turned out, a Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary Party coalition government). Much to their later shame, just two weeks before it happened, Kamenev and Zinoviev publicly issued a letter condemning the well known Bolshevik plans for an insurrection. It was gleefully published in Novaya Zhizn (paper of the Menshevik Internationalists, headed by Julius Martov). Seizure of power by one party, the Bolsheviks, could only but split the worker-peasant camp and lead to needless bloodshed - so reasoned the frightened pair. Unwilling to take responsibility for the revolution of October 25, Zinoviev and Kamenev resigned from the Bolshevik central committee.
However, the problem with Trotsky’s account is that to all intents and purposes it threw out the whole of pre-1917 Bolshevism in the attempt to rouse the post-Lenin membership of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) against Lenin’s most trusted lieutenants. Even at the level of a ‘literary war’ Trotsky was, surely, bound to lose.
More to the point. Current leftwingers who dogmatically repeat Trotsky’s version of history blind themselves - mostly unintentionally, but always stupidly - to the significance of Bolshevism: its lasting commitment to a minimum-maximum programme, its strategic vision of a worker-peasant alliance, its stress on the demand for a democratic republic, its militant opposition to all forms of economism, its profound internationalism, its robust, open internal and external polemics, its unproblematic acceptance of factions, its deep social roots, its mass membership and its galaxy of trained and trusted local, regional and national leaders.
It amounts to false-memory syndrome. Instead of aiming for a programmatically guided, mass revolutionary party, most of the contemporary left is quite content with life as a confessional sect. The belief is that one fine day their 1917 will come … the sect will rise from utter insignificance to lead the masses in storming the heavens. A perspective that sees the left discount the patient strategy of Marxism for an unacknowledged version of Bakuninism, which combines economistic spontaneity with promoting the most extreme forms of opportunism: eg, Respect and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
Let us briefly sketch out the situation in early 1917.
As everyone knows, tsarism ignominiously collapsed with the February revolution (this article will stick to the Julian calendar because the key moments of 1917 are generally known by their old monthly dates). Political strikes by engineering workers, mass demonstrations on International Women’s Day, army mutinies, the seizing of police arsenals, the arming of the people … and high-command panic forced the abdication of Nicholas II.10
Prominent members of the fake-democratic fourth duma - there was a constitutionally inbuilt landlord-capitalist majority - then agreed a rotten deal with Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders. A provisional government was to be put together and placed in the safe hands of prince Georgy Lvov - a Cadet and a potential prime minister under Nicholas II. Other top ministers included Pavel Milyukov, another Cadet, and Alexander Guchkov of the Octobrists. Needless to say, the Octobrists were loyal monarchists and the traditional party of the big capitalists and landlords. As for the Cadets, they too represented capitalist interests, but advocated a constitutional monarchy along the lines of a Britain or a Sweden. And behind these parties, behind the provisional government, there stood the directing might of Anglo-French imperialism. The provisional government felt compelled to declare for press freedom, a republic and a just peace, but - and this was politically decisive - it remained firmly committed to the war with Germany-Austria. The human slaughter would therefore continue.
However, the provisional government could present a left face. Alexander Kerensky of the SRs agreed to become minister of justice, then minister of war (in July he was made prime minister). Other ‘socialists’ soon joined him around the cabinet table: eg, Victor Chernov, also an SR, and Irakli Tsereteli of the Mensheviks. This shift to the left happened both in response to mass pressure and in order to deceive the masses, who were moving to the left. The war with Germany-Austria was therefore dressed up as a defence of the gains of the February revolution - not the continuation of tsarist foreign policy in a new, democratic, republican, guise. In the first few months following February 1917 defencism was a widespread popular sentiment.
But the provisional government was not the sole centre of power. In fact, almost from the start, there was dual power. Years of education by the leftwing press ensured that the lessons of the 1905 revolution were well remembered. Workers and members of the armed forces therefore needed little prompting, when it came to establishing their own soviets (councils) in factories, on board ships, in barracks and in every city and urban district. Peasants followed and elected their own soviets. Moreover, in many ways the soviets - in particular the Petrograd soviet - were where real authority lay. Eg, solders would only obey orders if countersigned by the Petrograd military committee. Adding to the complexity of the situation, however, the SR and Menshevik majority in the Petrograd soviet were determined to strengthen the power of the provisional government. So there was a dual power that drained authority in the direction of the provisional government.
What of the Bolsheviks? Historically they were the advanced part of the working class (as proven by 1905, the mass support for Pravda, trade union elections and the last, 1912, elections to the tsarist duma, where its candidates won the entire workers’ curia). So the Bolsheviks really were the majority wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. However, brutal tsarist oppression unleashed with the onset of World War I saw the Bolsheviks hit with particular savagery. All their duma deputies were arrested (the Mensheviks were left untouched). Members of their central committee based in Russia were put on trial - Siberian exile followed. Rank-and-file members were arrested by the score, were drafted into the army, kept their distance out of fear, or had to operate in the suffocating conditions of illegality. All this was punishment for Bolshevik opposition to the imperialist war in the duma and Lenin’s ringing demand to turn imperialist war into civil war. By contrast social pacifists and social chauvinists were in comparative terms tolerated. Indeed the activities of Georgy Plekhanov and his right Menshevik group were “secretly subsidised” by the tsarist authorities.11
So, in February 1917, the Bolsheviks were very weak. Membership was considerably reduced - down to some 40,000 or 45,00012 - committees were cash-strapped and many barely functioned. In terms of leadership they had to make do with the politically limited abilities of Alexander Shliapnikov and Vyacheslav Molotov. And, whereas even the small centrist faction, the RSDLP (Internationalist) - or the Mezhraiontsy, as they were commonly called - had, already, in January, obtained a printing press13 (possibly due to German finance channelled through the ‘merchant of revolution’, Alexander Parvus), the Bolsheviks only began publishing Pravda, in Petrograd, and Sotsial Democrat, in Moscow, after the February revolution. Unsurprisingly, Bolshevik delegates to the Petrograd soviet therefore constituted a minority, at least to begin with.
Meanwhile, the Mensheviks and SRs did their best to bolster the provisional government, all the while trying to give it a leftish image to please the masses. Not that this meant demanding the immediate abolition of landlordism and the distribution the land to those who farmed it. Nor did it mean pulling Russia out of the imperialist war. Like the Cadets, the Mensheviks and SRs united around the slogan, ‘Defend the revolution’. In other words, defend the continued rule of the landlords and capitalists and defend the continued alliance with Britain and France. Tsarism in a republican guise.
Yet, bizarrely, according to Tony Cliff, the Socialist Workers Party’s founder-leader, the “existence of dual power” and the eminently predictable behaviour by the Mensheviks and SRs exposed the “bankruptcy” of the ‘old Bolshevik’ programme.14 Hence Lenin, we are seriously told, was forced to carry out “a complete break” with what he had written up to 1917.15 And, of course, what Cliff says here is still what passes for truth on much of the left.
Let us take the argument forward by going back. From the outset - yes, from the foundation of the Emancipation of Labour Group in 1883 - Russian Marxists (eg, Georgy Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Pavel Axelrod) were agreed, contra the anarchists and narodniks, that the country was not yet ripe for socialism - if by that one means leaving behind commodity production and ushering in the communist principle of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. The autocratic state, the lack of capitalist development, the domination of the economy by a woefully backward peasant agriculture - all explain why the coming Russian Revolution was envisaged by all Marxists as having two stages. Trotsky was no exception - there could be no “jumping-over of the democratic stage of the revolution or any of its specific steps”.16
It was the narodniks, and following them the SRs, who raised the slogan of an immediate socialist revolution. A politically illiterate position that deserved Lenin’s unremitting mockery. In 1905 Lenin characteristically writes: “Only the most ignorant people can ignore the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place.”17 Note that the SRs, formed in 1902, advocated a programme that included the “expropriation of capitalist property and the reorganisation of production and the entire social system on socialist foundations” (in truth a utopian peasant socialism).18 Yet, though attracting a considerable popular base, above all in rural areas, the SRs placed their hopes not, as might be expected nowadays, on waging a protracted guerrilla struggle, but on individual terrorism and the assassination of tsarist officials.
What about the Menshevik (minority) wing of the RSDLP? As I have said, it was committed to a theory of stages, which inevitably resulted in tailism politically. According to the Mensheviks, the overthrow of tsarism had to be crowned by the class rule of the bourgeoisie and a western-style parliamentary government. Nevertheless, in step with the subsequent growth of capitalism, the working class grows too. Eventually this class eclipses and finally replaces the peasantry in population terms. Only then does socialism become a feasible proposition.
If the forthcoming revolution against tsarism was bourgeois, then, agreed the Mensheviks in a conference resolution of April-May 1905, the working class and its party “must not aim at seizing or sharing power in the provisional government, but must remain the party of the extreme revolutionary opposition”.19 So, for mainstream Menshevik thinking, the immediate role of the working class was to edge, push or lift the bourgeois parties into their predetermined position as leaders of the anti-tsarist revolution.
Participating in a revolutionary government was therefore explicitly ruled out (obviously subject to violation after the February 1917 revolution). Why non-participation? Firstly, if the working class succumbed to the temptation of power, it would cause the bourgeoisie to “recoil from the revolution and diminish its sweep”.20 Secondly, without an already established European socialism, the working class party in Russia would be unable to meet the economic demands of its social base. Failure to deliver far-going changes would eventually produce demoralisation, confusion and disorganisation.
If the anti-tsarist revolution proved successful, the workers’ party should, argued the Mensheviks, exit the centre stage, so as to allow the bourgeoisie to assume power. Obeying the ‘laws of history’, the workers’ party then patiently waits in the wings until capitalism had carried out its preordained historic mission of developing the means of production. Hence, for the Mensheviks there had to be two, necessarily distinct, revolutions, the one separated from the other by a definite historical period.
While not including socialist measures in their minimum programme, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were resolutely opposed to handing power to the bourgeoisie, as the Mensheviks proposed. The bourgeoisie in Russia was both cowardly and treacherous. Despite occasional leftish flourishes, their parties sought a compromise with tsarism, not a people’s revolution. Eg, the Cadet Party, the flag-bearer of the liberal bourgeoisie, committed itself to a constitutional monarchy. Russia therefore had no Cromwell, no Washington, no Robespierre. The only force capable of scoring a decisive victory over tsarism and pushing through the most radical changes objective circumstances permitted was the proletariat, in alliance with the peasant masses.
Naturally, because Russia was overwhelmingly a peasant country, the Bolsheviks paid particular attention to their agrarian programme. In fact, peasant interests set the limit on how far the revolution could go. Landlord power could certainly be destroyed and the land nationalised and given, according to their wishes, to the peasants. This ‘black redistribution’ was, of course, not a socialist measure for Lenin. It would though serve to uproot Russia’s semi-feudal social relationship and allow capitalism in the countryside to develop along an “American path”.
As an aside, Trotsky’s programme was not limited by the interests of the peasants. While a hegemonic working class could take the peasantry along with it in the overthrow of tsarism, an irreversible split between these two popular classes was bound to occur. The peasants were, for Trotsky, “absolutely incapable of taking an independent political role”.7 They would gravitate either towards the rule of the proletariat or the rule of the bourgeoisie. And, because working class political domination is incompatible with “its economic enslavement”, Trotsky reasoned, the workers’ party would be “obliged to take the path of socialist policy” … even if that risked a bloody “civil war” with the peasantry.21 Thankfully by the summer of 1917 Trotsky had undergone a Leninist conversion. If one reads him when he was the leader of the Left Opposition, it is obvious, despite accusations to the contrary, that he was painfully aware of the vital importance of keeping the peasantry onside. Eg, in the early 1930s he roundly condemned Stalin’s drive to forcibly collectivise agriculture.
The fact of the matter is that the Bolsheviks were determined that the anti-tsarist revolution would see the fulfilment of the party’s entire minimum programme - a democratic republic, the election of judges, free universal education, abolition of the police and standing army, a popular militia, separation of church and state, extensive democratic rights, decisive economic reforms, such as workers’ commissions to inspect factories, an eight-hour day, etc. Such a package could only be delivered by establishing a provisional revolutionary government which embodied the interests of the great mass of the population. Lenin used a famous algebraic formulation to capture the essence of the majoritarian regime envisaged by the Bolsheviks: the democratic (majority) dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry. Such a hybrid regime could not abolish classes and bring full liberation for the working class. That was impossible. Economically Russia would have to progress capitalistically - albeit under the armed rule of the working class and peasants. That meant the continuation of wage-labour, albeit with workers taking over abandoned factories, the nationalisation of the central bank, etc.22
How long was the provisional revolutionary government going to last? There are those who reckon that prior to 1917 Lenin envisaged it being nothing more than a brief moment. After the provisional revolutionary government had carried out its radical package of measures there would be elections to a constituent assembly that would then see the bourgeoisie come to power with the support of peasant votes.23 Frankly, a thoroughly one-sided version of the Bolshevik programme. Yes, Lenin admitted the possibility that the first national elections might see the return of the workers’ party to being a party of extreme opposition. It is also true, however, that Lenin extensively wrote about the revolution being uninterrupted.
Given that the provisional revolutionary government was going to be committed to the full minimum programme of the RSDLP, it was quite possibly conceived as being relatively long-lived. Why? Far from the provisional revolutionary government being imagined as a mere prelude to the bourgeoisie assuming power, the party of the working class had every interest in spreading the flame of revolution to Europe.
Lenin seems to have seriously contemplated war for the “purpose” of “taking” the revolution into Europe. One of his key slogans was for a “revolutionary army”.24Depending on their success in furthering the world socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks looked towards a purely working class government in Russia and embarking on specifically socialist tasks. The fact that the tasks of the provisional government included uprooting every last vestige of tsarism, enacting sweeping land reform, putting in place full democratic rights, defeating bourgeois counterrevolution - and maybe even fighting a revolutionary war in Europe - explains why I have suggested that the provisional government might have been expected to last not a few brief months, but years.
However, my main argument is that the Bolsheviks were not committed to handing political power to the bourgeoisie, as were the Mensheviks. Of course, for the Bolsheviks, the international dimension was crucial. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry in Russia could not survive long in isolation. It would - it had to - “rouse Europe” and the socialist proletariat of Europe to carry through the “socialist revolution”.25 The United Socialist States of Europe would then, in turn, help Russia move in the direction of socialism (which requires definite material conditions in terms of the development of the productive forces). And a revolution uniting Europe and half of Asia had a realistic chance of rapidly spreading to every corner of the globe.
Inevitably, there would, within Russia, be a differentiation between the proletarianised rural masses and the emerging class of capitalist farmers. But not necessarily a specifically socialist revolution: ie, the violent overthrow of the state. Put another way, for the Bolsheviks there would not necessarily be a democratic or bourgeois stage and then a socialist stage at the level of regime. Democratic and socialist tasks are categorically distinct, premised as they are on different material, social and political conditions. But certain features can evolve and assume dominance. The revolution could, given favourable internal and external conditions, proceed uninterruptedly from democratic to socialist tasks through the proletariat fighting not only from below, but from above: ie, from a salient of state power. The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry thereby peacefully grows over into the dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat. As the size, organisation and consciousness of the urban and rural working class grew, so would the strength of the workers’ party. The necessity of a coalition government would at some point disappear. The tasks of the maximum programme then decisively come onto the agenda.
Lenin defended and elaborated his programme for the democratic revolution as being the shortest - in fact, the only viable - route to socialism in Two tactics of social democracy (1905).26 A seminal pamphlet that armed the Bolsheviks with the political weapons needed, first to lead the “whole people” for a republic, and then lead “all the toilers and exploited” for socialism.27 By any objective assessment Lenin and the Bolsheviks therefore had their own version of permanent revolution.
Too often comrades who should know better associate permanent revolution exclusively with Trotsky. Of course, the phrase long predates him, going back to the “literature of the French Revolution”.28 From there it spread far and wide, becoming a common “programmatic slogan” of European radicals, socialists and communists, including Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.29 And, as Hal Draper helpfully explains, for Marx, the word ‘permanent’ in ‘permanent revolution’ describes a situation where there is “more than one stage or phase” in the revolutionary process. He usefully adds that the expression “retains its specifically French and Latin meaning”. It does not mean perpetual or never-ending. It is employed by Marx to convey the idea of “continuity, uninterrupted”.30 Bearing this in mind, consider Lenin’s “uninterrupted revolution”. A typical example from 1905. Lenin declares: “We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop halfway.”31 He wants to take the anti-tsarist revolution to the socialist stage through a process that does not halt at some artificial boundary. No, the Bolsheviks will push the revolution forward both from below and above (ie, employing state power).
Not without interest in this respect, when it came to Russia, Kautsky too can be cited as an advocate of permanent revolution. He was, remember, a close ally of the Bolsheviks in the years before World War I. Almost an honorary Bolshevik. Here is Trotsky’s own - albeit rather self-serving - description of Kautsky’s approach “when he was a Marxist”:
At that time (true, not without the beneficial influence of Rosa Luxemburg) Kautsky fully understood and acknowledged that the Russian Revolution could not terminate in a bourgeois-democratic republic, but must inevitably lead to the proletarian dictatorship, because of the level attained by the class struggle in the country itself and because of the entire international situation of capitalism. Kautsky then frankly wrote about a workers’ government with a social democratic majority. He did not even think of making the real course of the class struggle depend on the changing and superficial combinations of political democracy.
At that time, Kautsky understood that the revolution would begin for the first time to rouse the many millions of peasants and urban petty bourgeoisie and that, not all at once, but gradually, layer by layer, so that, when the struggle between the proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie reached its climax, the broad peasant masses would still be at a very primitive level of political development and would give their votes to intermediary political parties, reflecting only the backwardness and the prejudices of the peasant class.
Kautsky understood then that the proletariat, led by the logic of the revolution toward the conquest of power, could not arbitrarily postpone this act indefinitely, because by this self-abnegation it would merely clear the field for counterrevolution. Kautsky understood then that, once having seized revolutionary power, the proletariat would not make the fate of the revolution depend upon the passing moods of the least conscious, not yet awakened masses at any given moment, but that, on the contrary, it would turn the political power concentrated in its hands into a mighty apparatus for the enlightenment and organisation of these same backward and ignorant peasant masses. Kautsky understood that to call the Russian Revolution a bourgeois revolution and thereby to limit its tasks would mean not to understand anything of what was going on in the world.
Together with the Russian and Polish revolutionary Marxists, he rightly acknowledged that, should the Russian proletariat conquer power before the European proletariat, it would have to use its situation as the ruling class not for the rapid surrender of its positions to the bourgeoisie, but for rendering powerful assistance to the proletarian revolution in Europe and throughout the world.32
I do not deny in the least that Bolshevik ideas, perspectives and expectations underwent change from 1905 to 1917. Far from it. It seems clear to me that with the outbreak of World War I Lenin and other Bolsheviks, maybe inspired by none other than Kautsky,33 began to anticipate steps towards socialism in the immediate aftermath of the anti-tsarist revolution (Lenin’s writings on this subject were later culled by the Stalin and Bukharin duumvirate in order to pharisaically justify their theory of socialism in one country). No, all I insist on is programmatic continuity. Eg, Like a river that, added to by tributaries, broadens, and continues to flow towards the sea. There was no abandonment, no break.
Lenin vs Trotsky
All in all, to any objective observer Trotsky’s differences with Lenin are clear. Lenin wanted a majoritarian regime. Trotsky wanted a minority regime that would lead the majority. Different, but not that different. True, in Results and prospects and in Lenin’s so-called replies there was a fierce polemic between the two men. However, factional interests often produced more heat than light. Eg, Trotsky dismissed out of hand any suggestion of a “special form of the proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution”. He was, at the time, intent on rubbishing both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and equating the two. On the other hand, Lenin attacked Trotsky for “underestimating” the importance of the peasantry by raising the slogan, ‘Not a tsar’s government, but a workers’ government’.
Not least, on the basis of this slogan, Trotsky is no doubt right when he says that Lenin had “never read my basic work”. That slogan was proclaimed not by Trotsky, but his friend and collaborator, Alexander Parvus (yes, the very same man who went on to become an agent of German imperialism in World War I and who arranged the ‘sealed train’ which took Lenin and co from their Swiss exile to Petrograd in April 1917). “Never did Lenin anywhere analyse or quote,” says Trotsky, “even in passing, Results and prospects.”34 Moreover, he goes on to cite the “solidarity” that existed between himself and the Bolsheviks during and immediately after the 1905 revolution. And for those idiots who demonise the term ‘stage’ and belittle Lenin because of it, Trotsky boasts that he “formulated the tasks of the successive stages of the revolution in exactly the same manner as Lenin”.35 This should provide food for thought for those who permit themselves the luxury of thought. The same can be said for Trotsky’s proud affirmation about how “Lenin’s formula” closely “approximated” to his own “formula of permanent revolution”.36 Despite that, we are told time and again that Trotsky’s theory was far superior to Lenin’s. Perhaps another example of dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
Arguably, though, the idea of Lenin carrying through a “complete break” with the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was hatched by Trotsky himself … after Lenin’s death in 1924. No doubt he was desperate to counter the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’ launched by the triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev. By pretending, in effect, that Lenin had become a Trotskyite in April 1917, Trotsky could enhance his own standing and at the same time target the negative role played by his three rivals. We have already mentioned Kamenev and Stalin in March 1917, and Zinoviev and Kamenev in October 1917. Then there was the dispute over China in the mid- to late 1920s. Stalin and Bukharin advocated a bloc of four classes - workers, peasants, the intelligentsia and the national bourgeoisie. This class collaboration - the political subordination of the Communist Party of China to the Kuomintang - was, of course, excused under the orthodox ‘democratic dictatorship’ rubric. Opportunism is seldom honest.
However, Trotsky directly - and, at least in my view, incorrectly - dismissed Lenin’s formula, the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. He even claims Lenin’s authority for this. As already quoted, in his The lessons of October Trotsky maintained that in 1917 Lenin “came out furiously against the old slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’”.37 In fact, Lenin attacked not so much the ‘revolutionary dictatorship’ formula, but rather those who misused it - those who might be seen as showing a willingness to compromise with Menshevik and SR ‘revolutionary defencists’.
March to April
As already argued, the provisional government acted in the interests not of the proletariat and peasantry, but of the capitalists and landlords (and behind them Anglo-French imperialism). Ipso facto Lenin concluded that the proletariat and peasantry (in the form of the soviets) had “placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie”. And, though Alexander Kerensky’s ministry, formed in July 1917, contained many who had been hunted by the tsarist secret police - Matvey Skobelev, Irakli Tsereteli, Victor Chernov, Nikolai Avksentiev, Boris Savinkov, Alexei Nikitin, etc - no Marxist will find Lenin’s designation at all strange. Programme, policy and practice determines class content. Not only did the provisional government continue Russia’s involvement in World War I: it cynically prevaricated over peasant demands for land redistribution and fearfully delayed convening the constituent assembly.
What was Lenin’s approach during this “first stage of the revolution”? Did he junk his old call for the replacement of tsarism by a workers’ and peasants’ republic? Yes, of course he did ... in the same way as Trotsky junked his ‘Not a tsar’s government, but a government of the people’, and the followers of Parvus junked his ‘Not a tsar’s government, but a workers’ government’. Nor were the Mensheviks, the SRs or anyone else on the left unaware that one of their key demands had been realised. The Romanovs had fallen. Tsarism was no more. Russia had become a republic.
Common sense, let alone Marxism, requires recognition of such a development. If Trotsky had not made a “complete break” from his ‘Not a tsar’s government’ slogan, his close friends would have been well advised to seek out suitable psychological treatment for the poor fellow. Ditto Lenin’s friends, or anyone else’s for that matter.
Obviously the demand to overthrow the tsar was totally obsolete. Future progress lay in combating the “honest” popular illusions in revolutionary defencism, exposing the true nature of the provisional government and raising sights. The Bolsheviks were a minority in the soviets. Their task was to become the majority by agitating for ending the war, seizing landlord estates, introducing workers’ control, replacing the police with Red Guard units, demanding elections to the constituent assembly, etc.
This would prepare the “second stage of the revolution” and with it the transfer of all power into “the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”. The “only possible form of revolutionary government” was a “republic of soviets of workers’, agricultural labourers’ and peasants’ deputies” writes Lenin.20 Surely, a concrete application of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ slogan.
Lenin made no claims that the party’s “immediate task” was to “introduce” socialism. Only that the banks should be nationalised and production and distribution had to be put under workers’ control to prevent an economic catastrophe.
Do these formulations and the perspective of a workers’ and peasants’ republic indicate an abandonment or a development of Lenin’s theory in light of new and unexpected circumstances? I make no excuse for turning to Lenin himself for an answer.
In the article, ‘The dual power’, he says the following:
The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power. This fact must be grasped first and foremost: unless it is understood, we cannot advance. We must know how to supplement and amend old ‘formulas’ - for example, those of Bolshevism - for, while they have been found to be correct on the whole, their concrete realisation has turned out to be different. Nobody previously thought, or could have thought, of a dual power.38
Yes, Lenin got into a brief but very heated dispute with the ‘old Bolsheviks’: ie, the party’s Russian-based leadership and cadre. There are all manner of reports of Lenin angrily berating Kamenev and other top leaders on his arrival back in Petrograd. He was certainly unhappy with what he had read in Pravda.
Subsequent debate show that essentially there were five closely related bones of contention: (1) what attitude to take towards the provisional government; (2) revolutionary defencism; (3) unity with the Mensheviks; (4) the peasants; (5) socialism.
Lenin feared that under the direction of Kamenev and Stalin Pravda had gone soft on the provisional government. He intransigently demanded that the Bolsheviks should give no support whatever. Politically the provisional government was pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist and pro-war. Kamenev might well have veered in the direction of giving the provisional government critical support in his first Pravda editorial (March 14) - both the words “critical” and “support” appear. However, Lars T Lih interprets Kamenev’s editorial as saying that the Bolsheviks should be working to expose the provisional government and readying the masses for an “inevitable clash”.39 So the emphasis was on ‘critical’ rather than ‘support’. And the ‘support’ was on its way to diminishing to the point of nearly vanishing. A judgement surely confirmed by the March All-Russian Conference of the RSDLP, where Kamenev is reported as saying this:
In Steklov’s resolution [Yuri Steklov’s resolution had been chosen by conference as the alternative to the one being supported by Kamenev - JC] the point dealing with support is absolutely inacceptable. It is impermissible to have any expression of support, even to hint at it. We cannot support the government because it is an imperialist government, because, despite its own declaration, it remains in an alliance with the Anglo-French bourgeoisie.
In the Communist manifesto there is a statement to the effect that we give support to the liberal bourgeoisie, but only in the event of its being attacked. But from Steklov’s report it is obvious that it is not they who are being attacked, but rather it is they themselves who are attacking the soviet of workers’ deputies.
In yesterday’s amendments to the resolution we stated that support at the present time is impossible. In view of the dual power, the will of the revolutionary people is embodied not in the provisional government, but in the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies [as we have seen a proposition that needs qualifying]; and also that the latter must be strengthened and that they must come to a clash with the provisional government. Our task is to point out that the only organ worthy of our support is the soviet of workers’ deputies. The task of the Congress [of the soviets] is to proclaim to all Russia that the sole expresser of the will of the revolutionary people is the soviet of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, and that we must strengthen and support them and not the provisional government.40
What of Stalin? Opening the debate at the March conference, he began by speaking on behalf of the central committee, but then, in closing, expressed himself as being more inclined towards the resolution of the Krasnoyarsk Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Cossacks’ Deputies: “Support the provisional government in its activities only in so far as it follows a course of satisfying the demands of the working class and the revolutionary peasantry in the revolution that is taking place.”
So, on this question, there is more a difference of emphasis rather than substance between Lenin and Kamenev-Stalin. Lenin was far clearer, far more direct, far more aggressive and far more to the point.
It should, however, be pointed out that there was a very small rightwing Bolshevik faction which left the March conference over the question of defencism. True, Kamenev had written of soldiers staying at their posts, but, once again at the March conference (during the joint session with the Mensheviks), he says this:
To pose here the question of defencism and anti-defencism is to repeat the discussion which we have already had. We have come to the conclusion that it is impermissible to vote for the [social-pacifistic] resolution of the executive committee [of the SR-Menshevik-dominated Petrograd soviet]. It is not a socialist resolution. The executive committee assumes in it the viewpoint of Henderson and Thomas [the Labour Party’s war ministers in Britain]. It is impossible to vote for a resolution which says nothing about peace, about the abrogation of the secret treaties left over from tsarism. Another resolution must be counterposed to it. Our task is to fuse the socialist-internationalists around the resolution.
Here we come to the unity of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Firstly, it should be appreciated that in the provinces the majority of party committees were joint committees. A situation that lasted beyond the October revolution in the remoter places. No less to the point, what Kamenev had his sights on was not unity with right Mensheviks such as Irakli Tsereteli (as alleged by Trotsky). No, the aim was to unite with left Mensheviks on the basis of the Zimmerwald-Kienthal conferences. In short a Bolshevik-Menshevik Internationalist unification. However, not surprisingly, Lenin would have none of it. He had already organised a distinct Zimmerwald left (with a view to establishing a Third International). The Menshevik Internationalists wanted peace, but also unity with the social chauvinist right. Therefore, what Lenin rejected was not winning the Menshevik Internationalists, but moving the Bolsheviks in their direction. Here was an issue of real substance.
We now come to the question of peasant limits and the possibilities of socialism. Kamenev feared that Lenin, because of his exile in Switzerland, had failed to fully grasp the actual state of play in Russia. Hence in Pravda Kamenev responded to the April thesis thus:
As for comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears unacceptable, inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.41
Clearly, Kamenev was not seeking to strengthen the provisional government. No, he was demanding recognition of the necessity of winning the peasants and thus prepare the conditions for a second revolution. The peasants could not be “skipped”. The idea of playing at the seizure of power by the workers’ party without the support of the peasantry was not Marxism, he said, but Blanquism. Power had to be exercised by the majority. And Lenin, in some of his latest writings, seemed to be implying that the peasantry had gone over to social chauvinism and defence of the fatherland (not ‘honest’ revolutionary defencism). Therefore, perhaps, he had concluded that the peasantry had become a hopeless cause.
While Kamenev feared that Lenin was demanding an immediate transition to a socialist revolution, Lenin pointed out that he had explicitly warned against such a perspective: “It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism ...”42 Obviously there were misconceptions on both sides … but - and this is surely what counts - unity was quickly recemented. In the case of the peasantry, Kamenev was clearly right and Lenin wrong. Subsequently, Lenin talks of the differences between himself and Kamenev being “not very great”. He also joins with Kamenev in opposing the leftist slogan of ‘Down with the provisional government’, as raised by the Petrograd committee of the RSDLP. The situation was not yet ready for the overthrow of the provisional government in April-May 1917. Hence, together with Kamenev, Lenin insisted that the “correct slogan” was “Long live the soviet of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies”.43
Things were, though, exceedingly complex. Firstly, while state power had been transferred, that did not by any means meet the immediate programmatic aims of the Bolsheviks. The Romanovs had been overthrown. To that extent, argued Lenin, the programme had been fulfilled. But the ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’ in the form of the soviets had voluntarily ceded power to the bourgeoisie. Instead of coming to power, the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry existed side by side with, and had subordinated itself to, a weak government of the bourgeoisie (ie, the provisional government). Only once the Bolsheviks won a majority could they finish with dual power and complete the revolution.
The dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry had therefore become interwoven with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The Russian Revolution had gone further than the classical bourgeois revolutions of England 1645 or France 1789, but, in Lenin’s words, it “has not yet reached a ‘pure’ dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.44 There can be dual power, but no dual-power state (whether it be a monarchy, a theocracy or a democratic republic). One or the other had to die l
1. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) New York 1980, p205.
2. T Cliff Lenin Vol 2, London 1975, p124.
3. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) New York 1980, p211.
4. Ibid p209.
5. L Schapiro The Communist Party of the Soviet Union London 1964, p162.
6. Quoted in SF Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik revolution Oxford 1980, p269.
7. Between 1924 and 1927, 12 volumes of Trotsky’s Collected works were published in Moscow and/or Leningrad by the State Publishing House. His writings, speeches, etc concerning the events of 1917 constituted volume 3 (see https://archive.org/details/Trotsky_CollectedWorks).
8. VI Lenin CW Vol 17 Moscow 1977, p23.
10. For the role of the army high command see R Service The last of the tsars chapter 4, London 2017.
11. SH Baron Plekhanov in Russian history and Soviet historiography London 1995, p148.
12. Membership figures from History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Moscow 1939, p183.
13. See the Weekly Worker series translated and introduced by John Riddell and Barbara Allen, beginning with the Petrograd Mezhrayonka leaflet of January 1917.
14. T Cliff Lenin Vol 2, London 1975, p127.
15. Ibid p124.
16. VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p32.
17. Ibid pp28-29.
19. Quoted in VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p245.
20. Ibid p128.
21. See LT Lih, ‘Democratic revolution in permanenz’ Science and Society October 2012.
22. See VI Lenin CW Vol 8, Moscow 1977, p208.
23. See J Creegan, ‘April in Petrograd’ Weekly Worker April 16 2015.
24. VI Lenin CW Vol 9 Moscow 1977, p128.
25. Ibid p82.
26. See ibid pp15-130.
27. Ibid p114.
28. “Kautsky describes the policy of the sans-culottes in 1793-94 as one of ‘Revolution in Permanenz’” - quoted in RB Day and D Gaido (eds) Witnesses to permanent revolution Leiden 2009, p537.
19. H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 2, New York 1978, p204.
30. Ibid p201. Marx’s most famous use of ‘permanent revolution’ can be found in his 1850 ‘Address of the Central Authority of the Communist League’, K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 10, New York 1978, pp277-87.
31. VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p237.
32. L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, pp33-34.
33. See ‘Kautsky, Lenin and the “April theses”’ Weekly Worker January 14 2010.
34. L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p166.
35. Ibid p168.
36. Ibid p198.
37. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) New York 1980, p209.
38. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p38.
39. LT Lih, ‘Bolshevism was fully armed’ Weekly Worker February 26 2015.
40. Trotsky included the surviving minutes of the March conference in his The Stalin school of falsification London 1974, pp181-237. Provisional government thugs ransacked the Bolshevik HQ in July 1917. Though fragmentary, they make fascinating reading.
41. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p50.
42. Ibid p52.
43. Ibid p244-45.
44. Ibid p61