April in Petrograd
Is Lars T Lih a disinterested scholar without a political agenda? Jim Creegan argues against the creation of yet another mythical Lenin
Lars T Lih in a recent letter to the Weekly Worker1challenges certain of my factual assertions2 about the political situation in Russia upon Lenin’s return in April 1917 - “April in Petrograd”, Lih has dubbed it - as well as my larger argument that his April theses represented a break with ‘old Bolshevism’.
I stand corrected on one point. Mass desertions from the Russian front did not take place immediately after the February revolution, as I stated in a careless telescoping of events. Revisiting this issue, I get the impression that there was, in addition to a steady trickle of deserters, a widespread expectation on the part of the military rank and file that the government would move toward peace, and a reluctance to undertake offensive operations. The officer corps was loudly complaining about ‘disorganisation’ in the rear, due in no small part to the fact that many soldiers, already infected with the bacillus of soviet democracy, now insisted on discussing their orders instead of obeying automatically. Mass desertions, however, did not begin until the Provisional Government (hereafter the PG) attempted to resume offensive operations at the urging of the Allies in June.
Lih also states that Lenin did not call for an insurrection against the PG in April, either as a tactical or strategic objective. What I actually wrote - and what is true - is that Lenin posed the overthrow of the PG and the transfer of power to the soviets as a strategic objective. He added that the overthrow could not take place immediately because a majority in the soviet still supported the socialist compromisers, who comprised its executive and in turn supported the PG. In Lenin’s perspective, the Mensheviks and right Socialist Revolutionaries had to be discredited through agitation and a further unfolding of the revolution before the soviets could assume state power.
Misunderstanding or left turn?
In his most recent article,3 Lih seeks to bolster his argument, made more extensively in other articles and talks, that Kamenev and Stalin, the two most prominent Bolsheviks to return to Russia before Lenin, shared his basic view that the PG had to go, and that Trotsky’s claim that they initially assumed a conciliatory attitude, and were reoriented by Lenin, is a myth.
Being unable to read Russian, I do not have access to all the documents that Lih does. But if his strongest textual evidence is the Pravda editorial he cites, written by Kamenev in March, predicting an eventual clash between the masses and the PG, I submit he has not yet made his case.
Even amid the general confusion with which the leaderless Bolshevik ranks responded to the February revolution before more senior figures returned from exile, right and left tendencies were discernible, if not always clearly defined. Kamenev and Stalin, who took over the editorship of Pravda in mid-March, were perceived as siding with the right, to the rejoicing of the PG and the executive committee of the Soviet. A protest against their editorial policies from the militant working class Vyborg party district was printed in Pravda.
Right-left differences revolved around what the Bolshevik attitude should be toward the war and the PG. The right gravitated toward a ‘revolutionary defencist’ position, which, while denouncing any annexationist designs and calling on the government to sue for peace, urged soldiers and sailors to remain steadfast at their posts and answer the enemy “bullet for bullet, shell for shell” (Kamenev’s words) in defence of Russia’s newly won “revolutionary democracy”. The left, on the other hand, regarded the war as no less imperialistic under the PG than it had been under the tsar, and advocated unconditional opposition to the war effort as a whole. The right urged support of the PG insofar as it moved to consolidate and broaden revolutionary gains, and opposition insofar as it acted as an obstacle. For its part, the left saw the PG as a bourgeois, completely counterrevolutionary government, to be overthrown by the workers and peasants, and not worthy of even the most qualified support.
Lenin returned to Russia in early April as the most powerful and consistent champion of the Bolshevik left, and succeeded, in the face of much initial hostility, in clarifying the left position and winning the party over to his viewpoint in a month’s time.
Lars Lih argues that Kamenev’s prediction that the masses and the PG would eventually clash means that he had no real difference with Lenin on this score; that his disavowal of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism during a trial in a tsarist court in 1914, his declaration in Pravda that the April theses were “unacceptable”, and his opposition to Lenin in party conferences at the time were all the result of a misunderstanding. There is, however, another interpretation of Kamenev’s prediction of a clash more in keeping with his conciliatory character, attested to by all who knew him: that he felt compelled to modify his position of conditional support for the PG in response to vociferous objections from the party rank and file: ie, that he obeyed his congenital instinct to cleave to the middle of the road. Kamenev’s subsequent denunciation, in the Menshevik press on the eve of October, of Lenin’s plans for an insurrection, in addition to his efforts to form an all-socialist coalition government, including the Mensheviks, even after the Bolshevik seizure of power, suggests that his disputes with Lenin in April may have involved something more than a misperception. Kamenev was in this period the most right-leaning of all the Bolshevik leaders.
Lih argues in addition that Lenin, no less than Kamenev, relied on a further development of the revolutionary process for a final break with the PG. He forgets to add, however, that the processes each relied upon were very different. Kamenev anticipated a further movement of the government to the right under mass pressure as an eventuality which could possibly mean a rupture between the government and the soviets, and presumably necessitate the complete withdrawal of support. For Lenin, on the other hand, non-support for the PG was not contingent on any future actions on its part; the PG was completely rotten, as things stood. The only process he thought necessary for its overthrow by the soviets was a campaign of “patient explanation” to persuade the soviet majority and the masses to this view - a task which he was confident would be aided by further objective developments. Kamenev’s ‘process’ was more or less automatic; Lenin’s largely reliant on Bolshevik initiative: ie, agency.
Closely related to the attitude toward the PG was the question of ‘old Bolshevism’ - the party’s understanding of the future dynamics of the Russian Revolution, elaborated by Lenin during and after 1905. Kamenev and other right-leaning Bolsheviks invoked old Bolshevism in defence of their less than categorical opposition to the PG, arguing that the bourgeois phase of the revolution had not yet been completed. Lenin, on the other hand, said that his old formula of the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” had been rendered obsolete by the emergence of the soviets as an organ of dual power in 1917.
The party debates on this question are somewhat confusing because they conflate what are actually two distinct questions: (1) was old Bolshevism compatible with the overthrow of the PG by the soviets, as advocated by Lenin?; and (2) was it compatible with the state that Lenin saw as emerging from the overthrow?
Long before 1917, Lenin had held that the Russian bourgeoisie was too fearful of the masses to carry the bourgeois-democratic revolution through to the end. This task fell to the workers and peasants. Hence the need for their democratic dictatorship. Thus if, in 1917, the PG represented the bourgeoisie, and the soviets embodied the power of the workers and peasants, the replacement of the former by the latter was perfectly conceivable within the old Bolshevik framework.
The state power that Lenin envisaged as a result was quite a different matter. The pre-1917 Bolshevik leader had viewed the democratic dictatorship as a short-lived episode. After enacting a series of radical democratic reforms - universal suffrage, the eight-hour day, the breaking up of big landed estates - it would ultimately yield power to a constituent assembly dominated by the bourgeoisie with the support of a peasant majority. It makes no difference whether we employ Lenin’s terminology, or Lih’s preferred Russian phrase, “revolution to the end”. The point is that the end was thought to be in sight. The resulting bourgeois republic would preside over a period of capitalist development, made longer or shorter depending upon the progress of the international revolution. Only during such a bourgeois phase could the Russian proletariat expand its numbers and prepare to take power in its own name.
Both Lenin and every faction and shade of the Bolshevik Party realised that Lenin’s call in April for the establishment of a commune state (on the model of the Paris Commune) - without a standing army, a bureaucracy or a police force hostile to the workers; a state that would nationalise the land, introduce strict control over the banks and the industrial cartels, get out of the war and grant self-determination to all nations within the Russian empire - made impossible the ceding of the reins to the bourgeoisie, as in the earlier scenario, because the measures Lenin advocated entailed the destruction of everything Russian capitalists held dear, and hence a total negation of their already weak class power. The Bolsheviks understood that what Lenin was now calling for was nothing less than a proletarian dictatorship. In this respect, old Bolshevism was completely upended. As the trade union leader and rightwing Bolshevik, Mikhail Tomsky, argued against Lenin in April, “The democratic dictatorship is our foundation stone. We ought to organise the power of the proletariat and peasants, and we ought to distinguish this from the commune, since that means the power of the proletariat alone.”4
It is true that Lenin, never a stickler for scholastic consistency, at this time spoke alternately of a workers’ government and a government of workers and poor peasants. And peasant support was clearly indispensable. But he was also clear that winning the peasants to his programme was the task of the proletariat and its party, and that only the working class, vastly inferior in numbers though it was, would form a solid basis of support for the socialist measures he deemed necessary, as well as for thoroughly internationalist foreign policies. The workers would lead, the poorer peasants would follow. This was the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Kamenev also objected to the April theses on the grounds that the tasks of the democratic revolution - eg, land redistribution - were not yet complete. But Kamenev here assumed a false correspondence between tasks and regime. Although it was true that many of the desiderata of the bourgeois revolution had yet to be accomplished, Lenin was arguing that, under then existing historical circumstances, they could only be attained under a dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the poorer peasants. It also went without saying that the resulting state and society, in its chaos and economic backwardness, would bear little resemblance to what Marx and Engels called socialism. Socialism and the proletarian dictatorship are not the same thing. But by taking initial steps in a socialist direction, the dictatorship would demolish any strict temporal divide between the two. There was now to be no turning back from a trajectory leading ultimately to socialism, regardless of the time it took or obstacles encountered on the way. Eliminated from the whole equation was the discrete phase of capitalist development envisaged in the ‘democratic dictatorship’ formula.
Lih to the contrary notwithstanding, old Bolshevism not only failed fully to arm the party for the challenge of the February revolution: its retention of a theory of stages, however superior to the Menshevik version, proved an obstacle, creating confusion even in the minds of the most radical of Bolsheviks and making them unable to answer convincingly the arguments of the party’s right. It took the boldness of Lenin to cut the Gordian knot by declaring: “The person who now speaks of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ is behind the times; consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques…”5 Lih concedes that I “[point] out some of the changes required by the old Bolshevik outlook …” Among these “changes” was the discarding of their entire previous prognosis for the course of the revolution.
How did Lenin reconcile his call for a proletarian dictatorship with what he previously saw as the ultimate barrier to such an objective: the existence of an overwhelming Russian peasant majority, which Marxists regarded as fundamentally a small property-owning class, hostile to socialism? Lih emphasises Lenin’s (incorrect) belief in a strategy of mobilising poor peasants against rich ones as opening up the possibility of a collectivist solution to the agrarian question. This was indeed an important part of Lenin’s thinking at the time. But this is only half the story (or perhaps less than half). Lenin also regarded the Russian Revolution as the first wave of a vast international upheaval resulting from World War I, which he was confident (also wrongly, as it turned out) would end in the conquest of working class power in other European countries.
One may infer from Lih’s reference in one of his talks to the “deus ex machina of the international revolution” that he does not take this expectation very seriously. Lenin did. He hoped that aid from more advanced European revolutionary regimes would allow Russia to acquire the bases of mechanised agriculture, which, supplied to model collective farms, could induce peasants to join voluntarily. This was, of course, no more than a wish in April of 1917. Lenin knew that the course he was proposing was fraught with enormous difficulty. But there was no choice in his eyes. Bolshevism’s leading thinker perceived that history, perhaps getting ahead of itself, had posed a problem that could only be resolved in one of two ways: a massacre of workers and peasants or a proletarian conquest of power. He further thought that capitalism would present a similar dilemma to the workers of Europe and beyond. He believed that the revolution that began in Russia could end in Warsaw, London or Berlin. In Lenin’s words, “You can’t say who will begin and who will finish”.
I contend that the events of April in Petrograd are accurately retold by Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. I also think that the theory of permanent revolution, first elaborated formally in Trotsky’s 1906 book, Results and prospects,is as prescient a medium- term historical prognosis as any ever made. To repeat what I wrote in my March 5 letter, Trotsky asserted that the coming Russian Revolution could not end in the temporary, self-limiting worker-peasant dictatorship that Lenin anticipated. It would rather flow uninterruptedly into a proletarian dictatorship supported by the peasantry, which would be forced to take a series of irreversible socialist measures.
Lih, while allowing that Lenin moved some distance toward Trotsky’s position in 1917, argues that Trotsky was also forced to modify his positions in that year. But Lih bases this claim on a caricature of Trotsky’s views that echoes attempts by the triumvirs (Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin) and, later, the duumvirs (Bukharin and Stalin) in the 1920s to paint him as the “enemy of the peasant”.
In one of the talks by Lih on the Weekly Worker website, he characterises Trotsky’s position in this way: the revolution will not be supported by the peasants, but let’s have it anyway. In his letter of March 26, Lih reproduces an unreferenced quotation from Trotsky (which I am sure is authentic)6 predicting war with the peasantry if the revolution is not supported internationally, and suggests that Trotsky favoured going ahead with it, “unfazed” by such a horrendous outcome and urging the workers to hold on until they were “forced out”. Lih also seems to think that the socialist steps Trotsky believed a revolutionary government would be compelled to take included “forcing socialist measures” on the peasantry.
All of the above represents either a profound misunderstanding or a wilful misrepresentation of the thinking of the October revolution’s presager and second-in-command. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution did not conceive of the Russian Revolution as the result of an act of will, which one could decide either to have or not to have. Results and prospects was an attempt to analyse the class dynamics of a revolution that the author considered inevitable, and to foresee some of the dilemmas it was bound to face, dictated by its deepest driving forces. The necessity to take socialist measures despite peasant preponderance, and the conflict within the revolution that may have entailed, were contingencies thrust upon the working class by history, not the result of decisions of leaders, who could only guide the historical process, not determine its contents. Like Lenin, Trotsky believed that the worker would stand before the peasant as his emancipator and attract his support during the revolution’s initial phases, but that the regime would later experience a conflict with the peasantry, which only the international revolution could abate. No-one in 1917 - not Lenin, not Trotsky, nor any other Bolshevik - believed the revolution could survive without the aid of the international working class. But instead of serving up a somewhat obscure quotation about what Trotsky feared might be the more dire consequences - by which he was never “unfazed” - of the revolution’s isolation, Lih may have cited a less sensational passage:
The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages and in this manner to destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants … From the very first moment after its taking power the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonisms between the village poor and the village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie. While the homogeneity of the peasantry creates difficulties and narrows the basis for a proletarian policy, the insufficient degree of class differentiation will create obstacles to the introduction among the peasantry of developed class struggle, upon which the urban proletariat could rely …7
Not only does the Trotsky of 1906 predict the early attempts of the soviet power to stimulate class struggle in the countryside, but also points to the factors that will make this attempt extremely difficult.
Finally, Trotsky no more than Lenin ever advocated trying to collectivise agriculture by force. Such an attempt was not among the socialist measures he predicted a workers’ government would have to adopt, which involved the inroads on private property necessary to combat employer lockouts and unemployment. Even after the revolution had for the time being failed to spread, the platform of the Left Opposition, which Trotsky led, advocated a series of fiscal policies and other economic incentives to persuade the peasants to join collective farms voluntarily. The forcible ‘solution’ to the city-country stand-off that developed was launched in 1928 by the man who only a few years earlier denounced Trotsky as the muzhik’s arch-foe - Joseph Stalin. Lih, in short, claims that Trotsky had to modify his prognosis in 1917 by retreating from a reckless indifference to consequences which there is no evidence he was ever guilty of.
Lars Lih asks why I am so fervidly anti-old Bolshevik, and answers that it is because I seek to make my “hero”, Leon Trotsky, look good at the expense of other members of Lenin’s party. But let me ask another question: why does Lih go to such lengths to deny credit where credit is clearly due to the theorist who predicted the course of the Russian Revolution more accurately than anyone else?
Lih presents himself as a disinterested scholar without a political agenda. His recontextualising of the Lenin of What is to be done? is impressive. But his myth-debunking efforts (some of which are aimed at real myths that need to be debunked) display a certain tendency. Most of them end up by blurring right-left distinctions - whether between Lenin and Kautsky or between Lenin and Bolshevik ‘moderates’. Could there be more to Lih’s rethinking of Lenin, and disparaging of Trotsky, than an excess of myth-demolishing zeal?
Despite its debasement at the hands of epigones, the name of Leon Trotsky remains vaguely synonymous with revolutionary Marxism - as opposed to Stalinism and social democracy - in the contemporary political vocabulary. But this connotation is not always positive. The western left of recent decades has largely abandoned any hope of revolution and become the left flank of liberal reformism.
We already suffer from a number of mythical Lenins. There is the infallible founder-leader Lenin of Soviet-Stalinist manufacture and the ruthless, power-mad Lenin of bourgeois demonology. Could it be that Lars T Lih - consciously or unconsciously - is attempting to fashion yet a third Lenin, softer in profile, shorn of revolutionary edges and dissociated from Trotsky, in order to make him less objectionable to the left-reformist political sensibilities of today?
1. Letters, March 26.
2. Letters, March 5.
3. ‘The Bolsheviks were fully armed’ Weekly Worker February 26.
4. Quoted in P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party New York 1993, p261.
5. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1980, p45 (emphases in original).
6. Editor’s note: The reference was in fact provided by Lars T Lih, but was too lengthy to be included in a letter. It was: R Day and D Gaido (eds) Witnesses to permanent revolution: the documentary record Leiden 2009, p576. Lars Lih had added: “For further discussion of Trotsky’s 1905-06 scenario and the ‘axiom of the class ally’, see LT Lih, ‘Democratic revolution in permanenz’ Science and Society 76: 4 (October 2012), pp433-62.”
7. L Trotsky Results and prospects New York 1974, pp76-77.
Lars T Lih replies
Jim Creegan provides a solid base for future discussion. On the one hand, adherence to the ‘old Bolshevik’ outlook did not stand in the way of replacing the “bourgeois” Provisional Government regime with “soviet power” (sovetskaia vlast). I am glad to see this point acknowledged. On the other hand, the new soviet regime pursued various goals not foreseen a decade earlier. We can all agree on these points.
Creegan says, rather hopefully, that if my “strongest textual evidence is [Kamenev’s] editorial,” then I have not made my case. As it happens, the Kamenev editorial is only one small piece of evidence. I regret that my more heavily documented academic essays are harder to access, but, alas, at present that is the way of this wicked world. I will be happy to supply relevant articles to anyone who contacts me directly. Creegan spends much of his present article trying to explain away the evidence I provided. He might as well get used to this exercise, because I can assure him that more and more such evidence will be put into circulation. Let us take a look at his evasive procedures.
Kamenev: Creegan suggests that the translated Pravda article represents a position that the pliable Kamenev only adapted under pressure from below, because his earlier pro-government stand was unpopular. This explanation does not work, because the editorial was Kamenev’s first publication and appeared in Pravda the day after he arrived in Petrograd. But there is a larger point here. Creegan thinks he has a good handle on Kamenev’s real outlook and his “congenital instincts” and thus is able to dismiss this editorial. He also seriously suggests that Kamenev believed that Bolsheviks could rely on automatic processes without bothering to take any initiative. I can state with assurance that Creegan knows next to nothing about Kamenev’s outlook, because there is no serious research in English on Kamenev’s Bolshevism. In fact, the existing scholarship about the Bolsheviks in spring 1917 consists very largely of recycled one-liners and piquant anecdotes.
Lenin: Creegan is incorrect to suggest that Lenin did not use the phrase, ‘to the end’. As it happens, he used it often, as did other Russian Social Democrats. His use of the phrase is obscured by existing translations that for some reason employ various paraphrases. More importantly, Lenin did not argue in 1917 that only workers would support “steps toward socialism” (as Creegan suggests), but just the opposite. The steps toward socialism envisaged by Lenin were policies adopted by a large majority of the population; in fact, they were already advocated by moderate socialists.
Trotsky: Creegan thinks he can make my Trotsky evidence disappear by labelling it “obscure” or “sensational”. I do not understand this: if Trotsky wrote it, then he wrote it and presumably meant it. I should mention that this revealing document was recently made available in English by two great admirers of Trotsky, Richard Day and Daniel Gaido. But the status of this particular evidence is hardly the point. Theheart of Trotsky’s 1905-07 scenario is the assertion that, without international revolution, the proletarian regime will go down in flames. And why will this happen? Principally because the proletariat will be compelled by its class nature (Creegan usefully stresses Trotsky’s inevitabilist rhetoric) to introduce collectivist measures in the countryside and thus alienate its main class ally. Here is the relevant link to the same chapter from which Creegan takes his very partial citation: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp06.htm.
I did not accuse Trotsky, the revolutionary statesman, of “reckless indifference to consequences”; in fact, I complimented him for not acting in the manner predicted by his own earlier scenario, as Creegan himself documents.