Lenin’s programme found vindication

Jack Conrad argues that, far from being disproved by 1917, the established strategy of the Bolsheviks was continued and enriched

It is good that Jim Creegan has challenged what he calls the “myth-debunking” of Lars T Lih by presenting his own views on Bolshevism, its programme and the test of 1917.1 Comrade Creegan, of course, defends the standard account told and retold by the followers of Leon Trotsky over many decades. An excuse for me - another non-expert, but also, like comrade Creegan, a committed revolutionary - to once again give my take on what is a well-gnawed but still important dispute.

Though the classic telling is Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1930), there are many variations on the theme: eg, Isaac Deutscher, Tony Cliff, Alan Woods, etc. However, basically the thesis boils down to the same message - before 1917 the Bolsheviks had a deeply flawed programme. Indeed the entire school is determined to paint Lenin as an advocate of the ‘theory of stages’ - nowadays a cardinal sin for any self-respecting Trotskyite. First stage: the anti-tsarist revolution; to be followed by elections to a constituent assembly, bourgeois rule and an extended period of capitalist development. Second stage: the socialist revolution. In actual fact, this theory of artificial stages was advocated by the Mensheviks.

Their approach stemmed from a crude, evolutionist schema and 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 feasible.

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”.2 So, for mainstream Menshevik thinking, the immediate role of the working class was to critically push, or lift, the bourgeois parties into their predetermined position as leaders of the anti-tsarist revolution. Participating in a revolutionary government therefore had to be avoided. Why? 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”.3 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.

Anyway, given that the anti-tsarist revolution proved successful, the workers’ party should, argued the Mensheviks, exit 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.

Of course, tsarism ignominiously collapsed in February 1917, there was dual power … however, the soviets were dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Together these two parties did their best to support a hastily put together provisional government that was determined to thwart popular demands for land, bread and peace.

Supposedly this eminently predictable behaviour by the Mensheviks and Right SRs exposed the “bankruptcy” of the ‘old Bolshevik’ formula.4 Hence Lenin, we are seriously told, was forced to fundamentally rethink. To all intents and purposes, or so the story goes, he embraced Trotsky’s version of permanent revolution, a strategic plan first outlined in Results and prospects (1906).

After firing off the articles now known as the April theses Lenin finally managed to return to Russia. He travelled, along with his second-in-command, Grigory Zinoviev, and a whole bevy of other political exiles, in the famous sealed train provided by imperial Germany. Having finally arrived at the Finland station, Lenin began his on-the-spot campaign to reorientate the Bolsheviks. Supposedly, in terms of their immediate goal, he wanted a shift to “a proletarian dictatorship” (Jim Creegan). In other words, rule by a minority. There was some old Bolshevik opposition, most notably from a right-moving Lev Kamenev, but three weeks later, in the decisive vote at the 7th Conference of the party, Lenin won a clear majority. Trotsky finally joins the Bolsheviks in July 1917 ... and, though many years later he loses out in his fight against Stalin, it is he, Trotsky, who writes the most influential history of these events.

Democratic revolution

Let us take the argument forward by going back to the theoretical foundations of the Bolshevik programme. From the outset, in the 1880s, all Marxists in Russia (eg, Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Pavel Axelrod) were agreed, contra the anarchists and narodiks, 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 Lenin and the Bolsheviks described the almost universally expected anti-tsarist revolution not as socialist, but democratic or bourgeois.

“Only the most ignorant people can ignore the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place,” writes the Lenin of 1905.5 Note that, taking off from where the narodniks had left off, not least in terms of ignorance, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, 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.”6 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.

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 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.8

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 late 1920s 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. That 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 dictatorship (ie, in Marxist terms, rule) of the proletariat and peasantry. Eg, in the language of late 1917 a coalition government of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries.

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 peasant masses. That meant the continuation of wage-labour, albeit with workers taking over abandoned factories, the nationalisation of the central bank, etc.9

How long was the provisional revolutionary government going to last? Comrade Creegan reckons that prior to 1917 Lenin envisaged it being nothing more than a “short-lived episode”.10 After “a series of radical measures” there would, he says, be elections that would see the bourgeoisie come to power with the support of peasant votes.11 A thoroughly one-sided version of the Bolshevik programme. Given that the provisional revolutionary government was going to be committed to the full minimum programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, we can actually imagine it lasting for a period of perhaps 10, 15 or 20 years. Comrade Creegan can call that a “short-lived episode” - it certainly is if we consider history in the longue durée. But the real question is what was to follow the provisional revolutionary government. 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.

There was a crucial international dimension. 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”.12 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, yes, there would, within Russia, be a differentiation between the proletarianised rural masses and the emerging class of capitalist farmers. But not necessarily, as argued by comrade Creegan, 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 particular features can evolve. 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 thereby peacefullygrowsover 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 come onto the agenda.

So, given all this, why does comrade Creegan present Lenin’s theory as little more than a slightly better version of the Menshevik schema? As evidenced in the pages of this paper, he is a thoughtful and talented writer. Maybe this is yet another case of the tradition of Trotsky’s epigones still weighing “like a nightmare” on the brains of the living.13 After all, in general, the orthodox Trotskyist sects combine a mind-numbing bureaucratic centralism with a Bakuninite reliance on general strikism. The mass-membership Bolshevik Party with its minimum-maximum programme, numerous open debates, hard hitting polemical press, duma representatives and stress on the democratic republic is, to say the least, an inconvenient truth when attempting to justify what is programmatic regression.

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).14 A seminal pamphlet that armed the Bolsheviks with the political weapons they needed, first to lead the “whole people” for a republic, and then lead “all the toilers and exploited” for socialism.15 By any objective assessment Lenin and the Bolsheviks therefore had their own version of permanent revolution.

Lenin vs Trotsky

Comrade Creegan insists on a categorical distinction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism. My own take on this question, based on reading Marx, Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Preobrazhensky, etc, is that socialism is better used as the name for the period of transition from capitalism to communism. A transition to the transition can begin, I believe, with a state form of the type ushered in by the October revolution of 1917. Anyhow, leaving that terminological dispute aside, for the life of me I cannot see any fundamental difference between the soviet republic of workers, peasants and soldiers and the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. One is surely the concrete realisation of what had previously only been anticipated.

All in all, to any objective observer Trotsky’s differences with Lenin were 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 and equating both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. 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. “Never did Lenin anywhere analyse or quote,” says Trotsky, “even in passing, Results and prospects”.16 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 who demonise the term ‘stage’ and belittle Lenin because of it, Trotsky’s boasts that he “formulated the tasks of the successive stages of the revolution in exactly the same manner as Lenin”.17 This should provide food for thought for those who permit themselves the luxury of thinking. The same can be said for Trotsky’s proud affirmation about how “Lenin’s formula” closely “approximated” to his own “formula of permanent revolution”.18 Despite that, comrade Creegan claims that Trotsky’s theory was far superior to Lenin’s democratic dictatorship. Perhaps that is, once again, evidence of the dead weight of past generations.

Arguably, 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. After all, just two weeks before it happened, Kamenev and Zinoviev publicly condemned Bolshevik plans for an insurrection. Their conciliationist letter was gleefully published in Novaya Zhizn (the paper of the Menshevik Internationalists). Seizure of power by one party, the Bolsheviks, could only but split the worker-peasant camp and lead to needless bloodshed. Unwilling to take responsibility for the earth-shattering revolution of October 25, they resigned from the Bolshevik central committee.

Add to this 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.

Trotsky damned the anti-Bolshevik deviations of his factional opponents and detailed the fundamental solidarity between himself and Lenin prior to 1917. Nonetheless, 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. 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’”.19 In fact, Lenin attacked not so much the ‘revolutionary dictatorship’ formula, but rather those who misused it, those tempted to strike a rotten compromise deal with the Menshevik and SR ‘revolutionary defencists’.

April theses

The provisional government that came to power in March 1917 acted in the interests not of the proletariat and peasantry, but of the bourgeoisie. 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 contained many who had hunted by the tsarist secret police - Skobeliev, Tseretelli, Chernov, Avksentiev, Savinkov, Nikitin, etc - no Marxist will find Lenin’s designation at all strange. Programme, policy and current practice determines class content.

The provisional government continued Russia’s involvement in the imperialist slaughter of World War I, prevaricated over peasant demands for land redistribution and fearfully delayed convening a constituent assembly. In short, the proletariat and peasantry, crucially through their soviets, had “placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie”. Nevertheless, there was dual power.

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 the provisional government and raising sights. The Bolsheviks were a minority in the soviets. Their task was to become the majority by agitating for the seizure of landlord estates, the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, 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”.20

Lenin made no claims that the party’s “immediate task” was to “introduce” socialism. Only that 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 writes 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.21

Yes, Lenin got into a dispute with the ‘old Bolsheviks’. Many of those leaders who had first-hand knowledge of the situation in Russia thought that Lenin had failed to fully grasp the actual state of play because of his exile in Switzerland. Kamenev put it like this in Pravda:

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.

Kamenev was not urging support for the provisional government. No, he was urging the need to win the support of the peasantry and thus prepare the conditions for revolution. The peasant movement 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 writings, seemed to be implying that the peasantry had gone over to social chauvinism and defence of the fatherland. Therefore, perhaps he had concluded that the peasantry had become a hopeless cause.

While Lenin insisted that he had no intention of immediately demanding socialism, he swore that he was saying no such thing.22 Obviously there were misconceptions on both sides … but 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 party. A slogan which comrade Creegan seems sympathetic to. 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”.23

Things were certainly exceedingly complex. Firstly, though state power had been transferred, that did not fully meet the immediate programmatic aims of the Bolsheviks. The old Romanov order 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.

Events had “clothed” the old slogan. The soviets were real. The Bolsheviks, or those whom Lenin was now calling the communists, had to deal with the concrete situation, where, instead of coming to power, this ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ existed side by side with, and subordinate 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 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 “has not yet reached a ‘pure’ dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.24 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. Either the revolution was going to be completed under the hegemony of the proletariat or popular power would be killed off by counterrevolution.

Lenin’s grand strategy must be borne in mind when assessing subsequent events. Trying to locate some original Bolshevik sin that explains first the eclipse of soviet democracy under war communism and then the 1928 counterrevolution within the revolution is surely both foolish and misplaced. Not only did Britain, France, Japan, America and other capitalist powers aid, abet and actively intervene in the 1918-22 civil war (Winston Churchill wanted to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle”). After Trotsky’s Red Army had decisively beaten the Whites, Russia was subject to blockade, subversion and constant threats of renewed invasion. Crucially, however, the revolutions in Germany and Austria-Hungary were stopped short due to ‘official’ social democratic timidity, short-sightedness and an eagerness to be bribed. In return for substantial concessions the Russian Revolution was left impoverished, ravaged and isolated.


1. See LT Lih, ‘The Bolsheviks were fully armed’ Weekly Worker February 26 2015; Letters, March 5, March 25; and J Creegan, ‘April in Petrograd’ Weekly Worker April 16 2015.

2. Quoted in T Cliff Lenin Vol 1, London 1975, p197.

3. Quoted in ibid.

4. Ibid p128.

5. VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, pp28-29.

6. https://community.dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/srprog.html.

7. Quoted in T Cliff Lenin Vol 1, London 1975, p202.

8. See LT Lih, ‘Democratic revolution in permanenz’ Science and Society October 2012.

9. See VI Lenin CW Vol 8, Moscow 1977, p208.

10. J Creegan, ‘April in Petrograd’ Weekly Worker April 16 2015.

11. Ibid.

12. VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p82.

13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 11, London 1979, p103.

14. See VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, pp15-130.

15. VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, pp114.

16. L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p166.

17. Ibid p168.

18. Ibid p198.

19. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) New York 1980,p209.

20. Ibid p23.

21. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p38.

22. Ibid p48.

23. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p244-45.

24. Ibid p61.