Rearming the April theses
With the help of some new insights, Rex Dunn argues that Lars T Lih’s continuity theory does not stand up, despite the new evidence he has uncovered
I disagree with Lars T Lih’s new narrative of the October revolution, in his series of articles entitled ‘All power to the soviets’.1 Challenged to do some ‘serious thinking’, as opposed to relying on the old rearming narrative - viz Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (which comrade Jack Conrad might describe as “myth-making”) - I realised that I had to go through Lih’s evidence-based series with a fine-tooth comb. But this is not enough; Even Lih comes armed with a theory: that there is a continuity between old Bolshevism and Lenin’s April theses. Therefore I decided to look at Lih’s work through the theoretical prism of Lenin’s theses themselves (including his explanatory ‘Letters to the party’, which followed.)2
Apropos Trotsky’s History, I discovered that there are two versions. The first one was written in 1918 and covers the period of the revolution up to Brest-Litovsk. It is shorter and more objective: ie, less factional towards his opponents within the party. Instead he directs his criticism outwards - towards the opposition parties - whereas in his second History, written at the end of the 1920s, he does the opposite.
Why? By that time the party had been virtually destroyed by the impact of the imperialist-led counterrevolution; concretely, the terrible cost of the civil war, which led to a counterrevolution from within. Democratic centralism had given way to top-down rule by a handful of individuals. Initially this led to much factional infighting, which ended with the ban on factions in 1921. As long as the October revolution remained isolated, it was inevitable that the centralised party would become increasingly bureaucratic as well.
In 1926-27, by means of the ‘triumvirate’ of himself, Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin was able to impose his own personal rule, based on the cult of personality. The principle of top-down rule was institutionalised, whilst the supremo went on to use the repressive apparatus of the state as his power base. In ideological terms, this marked a return to the very tendencies which Lenin had attacked in his theses: namely opportunism and social-chauvinism. But now these tendencies acquired a new form. In a period of defeat for the world revolution, it was easy to sell the idea of building ‘socialism in one country’ to the war-weary and downtrodden Russian masses. Without the benefit of hindsight, they were oblivious to the fact that, in reality, this was impossible. Millions had to be brutally sacrificed along the way, whilst the socialist dream disappeared from view.
Against this poisonous background the outcast, Leon Trotsky, writes his second History of the Russian Revolution. Understandably, given the machinations of the triumvirate in ousting him, he exaggerates the crisis which arose out of the April theses. According to Trotsky, prior to Lenin’s return, in one of his ‘Letters from afar’ (March 17), Lenin attacks Kamenev and Stalin, because they appeared to be giving critical support to the Provisional government; yet the latter was “deceiving the workers, giving out the imperialist war as a war of defence”. He quotes Lenin as saying: “Our party would disgrace itself forever, kill itself politically, if it took part in such a deceit ... I would choose an immediate split … rather than surrender to social patriotism.”3 But when Lenin tries to rearm the party via his theses, Kamenev writes in Pravda (April 8) that they are “unacceptable”. Hence we have what Trotsky calls the “April crisis”. On the other hand, it is equally true that the leadership agreed to discuss their differences openly in the run-up to the party conference. Ten years later this would not have been possible.
As for Lenin’s April theses, when I reread them I thought I understood them - until I read his explanatory letters. Only then did I understand where Lenin is coming from. The key to this is to recognise his mastery of the Marxist method: As Marxists, we have to begin with a concrete analysis of every question; in this case, the unfolding revolution in Russia, which constitutes a “new living reality”. Exile or no, he realised that there had been a enormous shift in the masses during two and a half years of war, whereas old Bolshevism failed to see this. In addition, Lenin’s new insight was enhanced by his reading of the latest literature on imperialism. As a result, he wrote his pamphlet, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism (1916): the ‘Parasitism and decay of capitalism’ (chapter 8) is propped up by two components - one objective, the other subjective:
1. Imperialism is extracting ‘superprofits’ from overseas investments, which leads to rivalry and world war.
2. At the same time, we have the Second International, whose leaders base themselves on the ‘labour aristocracy’; the latter, in turn, are the chief “prop of the bourgeoisie, the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement”.
Therefore Kautsky, Plekhanov and co “take the side of the bourgeoisie, the ‘Versailles’ against the ‘Communards’.”4 As a result, Lenin begins to understand the real significance of the betrayal of the international revolution in 1914.
Despite his meticulous academic research into the party archives, Lih fails to appreciate these insights; therefore he does not understand Lenin’s April theses either. Like the old Bolsheviks, he seeks to exonerate, he relies on an a priori theory of continuity: ie, between old Bolshevism and the theses. But it is my job to show that the opposite is the case - by going back to the ‘horse’s mouth’.
Lih glosses over these, so it is up to me to reproduce them, followed by an analysis of what they mean:
1. “Not the slightest concession to ‘revolutionary defencism’.” The latter can only be justified once power has passed into the hands of the proletariat and the “poorest sections of the peasants”, who have become their allies. More important than exposing the government before the masses is the need to patiently explain this connection to them, “to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war …”
2. The country is “passing from the first stage of the revolution” - which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie - to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.
3. “No support for the Provisional government; the utter falsity of its promises should be made clear ... Exposure in place of impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ [eg] that this government is a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government” (!)
4. The Bolsheviks are in a minority in the soviets, “as against a bloc of all the petty bourgeois, opportunist elements [Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, etc], who have yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie and spread its influence among the proletariat”. The way to reverse this situation is as follows: “The masses must be made to see that the soviets … are the only possible form of revolutionary government”; hence the need to patiently explain this to them, etc.
5. “Not a parliamentary republic [eg, via the Constituent Assembly] - to return to [such a body] from the soviets … would be a retrograde step - but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country.”
At this point Lenin introduces the idea of the need for a “commune state” in Russia: abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy. The salaries of all [elected officials, who are replaceable at any time] not to exceed [the average wage].
6. The agrarian programme to be “shifted to the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies. Confiscation of all landed estates. Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed by the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers and Peasants Deputies.”
7. “Nationalisation of all the banks in the country into a single bank” under the control of the soviets.
8. “It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce socialism’, but only to bring social production and distribution” under the control of the soviets, as a first step.
9. Party tasks: (a) “Immediate convocation of a party congress; (b) alteration of the party programme, mainly (i) on the question of imperialism, and the imperialist war; (ii) on our attitude towards the state and our demand for a ‘commune state’; (iii) amendment of the out-of-date minimum programme; (iv) change the party’s name [to the Communist Party].”
10. A new International” to replace the moribund Second International.
“I am opposed to the speedy convocation of the Constituent Assembly.”5
Contrary to Lih’s theory of continuity, Lenin’s April theses are based on his theory of imperialism (cited above), which marks a new phase in the revolutionary struggle, combined with his revival of Marx’s theory of the “commune state”. In other words, he picks up on Marx’s point that the commune was an expression of “unconscious tendencies”, which must now be made conscious, both within the party and the proletariat.
Why? Because the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia had ceased to be “the stimulus for a socialist revolution in Europe”, which would then drag Russia in behind it. In his theses Lenin adopts a “new position”: the “prospect of an immediate transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat”, albeit allied to the poor peasants.
Lenin next argues that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is already completed through the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, which is manifested in the soviets. But more work has to be done before the soviets can exercise vsya vlast sovetam (all power to the soviets) in reality. The party must fight to turn the soviets into the basis of a commune state. Concretely the Bolshevik activists have to split “the anti-defencists, internationalist, ‘communist’ elements” among the proletariat (and their poor peasant allies) from “the petty bourgeois elements”: ie, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, etc, who, in practice “are in favour of ‘supporting’ the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois government”.6
A commune state in Russia will lay the foundation for a socialist revolution. But, given the betrayal by German social democracy and the Second International in 1914, “our” revolution now becomes the stimulus for the socialist revolution in the west, not the other way round.
Compare old Bolshevism’s view of vsya vlast sovetam - as the basis for completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia, which must then await the victory of the socialist revolution in the west. But this does not take sufficient account of reality after three years of imperialist war. The birth of the German Communist Party is over a year away. Meanwhile a new international has to be created to help this into being, etc.
Now that I have my prism, I am sufficiently armed to examine Lars T Lih’s work in detail.
‘Biography of a slogan’
In his first article, ‘All power to the soviets: biography of a slogan’ (Weekly Worker April 20), Lih starts with his discussion of the hegemony strategy, which is conveniently vague. “‘All power to the soviets!’ is based firmly on the application of old Bolshevism to the prevailing circumstances in Russia after the February revolution.” To back this up, he quotes from Zinoviev’s reply to the theses in Pravda (NB: in the same issue - April 8 - that Kamenev publishes his rejection of them). This is intended to show that there were no real differences between Lenin and the other leading comrades: “There can only be a single vlast [which] should be the Soviets of Worker and Soldier deputies.” But what were the soviets to do with this vlast once they had undisputed power? Hand it back to the Constituent Assembly, since no-one opposed its convocation (whereas Lenin says that this should be delayed as long as possible)? Lih backs up Zinoviev’s position with a quote from party historian Vladimir Nevsky’s book (published in 1926): “Lenin’s position [in the April theses] was the natural development of the doctrine that he had worked out long ago in the previous periods of the history of our party.” Not so, as I shall point out in due course.
I agree with Lih that the April theses do not call for “an immediate implementation of socialism”; and, moving on to the question of making demands on the Provisional government, Lih is correct when he says that Lenin was opposed to making demands which “in his eyes … only spread illusions about the possibility of reform” (thesis 3). But for Lih it is an ‘either-or’ question (“What! … do you mean we should forego exposure campaigns that make demands such as ‘publish the secret treaties’?”) Rather Lenin means that it is no use making such demands unless the party activists take this message to the masses by means of “a systematic and patient explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses” (thesis 4). Therefore Kamenev is right when he says, “The policy of making demands that I am making is an agitational device for the development of the masses ... of showing the masses that if they really want to create a revolutionary policy on the international level, then the vlast must be transferred into the hands of the soviet.” Correct, as long as Kamenev takes Lenin’s point seriously: the masses must be patiently educated about the character of the Provisional government.
As for the reception of the theses, Lih refers to a “category” of Bolsheviks who labelled them as “Lenin’s enthusiasms”: ie, those parts which are outside the “core consensus”, but not antithetical to it. “Under this category falls bank syndicalisation, renaming the party and the soviets as a higher form of democracy (in contrast to the soviets as a vehicle for the worker/peasant vlast). These proposals were not shocking or controversial as such, but nevertheless people wondered how relevant … they were to the task of crafting a dynamic party message in the ongoing revolution.”
Once again Lih misses the point. Firstly, apropos the “nationalisation of the banks into a single national bank [under the control of] the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies” (thesis 7), here Lenin is referring to Marx, après his initial “glorification” of the Commune. (NB: He later says: “The financial measures of the Commune [were] remarkable for their sagacity and moderation,” etc.)7 Compare Marx’s first draft of his pamphlet on The civil war in France (1871), wherein he raises the ‘unconscious tendencies’ of the Communards to the level of theory (eg, “The people had only to organise [their] militia on a national scale, to do away with the standing army”, etc.)8
On this basis, Lenin understands that Marx’s theoretical conceptions about the Commune must now be put into practice by the Bolsheviks. But for that to happen they have to be grasped by everyone, including party activists; otherwise there can be no revolution. In short, Marx’s theorising about the lessons of the Commune becomes the basis for his theory of the post-capitalist state: ie, a new political form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will permit the transition to a classless society. This is why Lenin raises the demand for a “commune state” in his theses (thesis 9).
Finally, in support of his theory of continuity, Lih ends his first article by moving forward to May 7 1917, when the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’, makes its first public appearance - on the front page of Pravda in the “draft of a mandate for use in electing delegates to the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies”. Linked to the usual vlast demand, “The mandate calls for state control of production and distribution …” The only question is who will have the vlast, who will have the final say about actual policies? Thus the flipside of ‘All power to the soviets’ is condemnation of any agreement with the capitalists: “… leaving the capitalist gentlemen with the vlast prolongs the war and worsens the situation within the country”. So far, so good.
“The theme of socialism is conspicuous by its absence. Also absent are any of Lenin’s personal enthusiasms: soviets as a higher form of democracy … Otherwise the policies advocated by the mandate came from the same social democratic ‘minimum programme’ and the common democratic platform of the socialist parties: a just peace, land to the peasants, eight-hour day, a universal militia. The campaign against the secret treaties is not forgotten … To sum up, the mandate is a concrete application of the long-standing Bolshevik consensus: a vlast based on workers and peasants committed to carrying the revolution to the end by enacting a broad, ‘democratic’ transformation of Russian society.
But he fails to mention that by May 7 Lenin had won a majority for his theses at the all-party conference, which was held at the end of April. This called for a “republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies …” (thesis 5), as well as his new strategy: “our demand for a commune state” (thesis 9).
The reality is that before this there was a gulf between the Lenin of the April theses and the supporters of old Bolshevism, which erupts into a crisis, capable of splitting the party. This is because:
1. Lenin’s theses were attacked publicly by Kamenev and Zinoviev in Pravda.
2. The Petrograd and Moscow parties voted to reject them.
3. In an attempt to save the party from a split, it was agreed that Lenin should provide further clarification via his ‘Letters to the party’ (which Lih ignores).
The first of these is called ‘Assessment of the present situation’. Here Lenin criticises those who “take after those ‘old Bolsheviks’ who more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our party” by “reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality”.9 Another section is devoted to a specific attack against Kamenev, because he does not see the danger of an alliance with the Mensheviks in the soviets; yet they are petty bourgeois elements, who have turned towards “chauvinism (= defencism)”.10 The second letter is called ‘The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution’, which I shall refer to later.
To return to the situation of May 7, following the debate around Lenin’s Letters, which leads to their acceptance by the all-Russia conference, presumably the party is now united behind the theses. It is therefore ready to pursue the tasks which are laid out in them:
1. Power must be passed to the communist elements among the proletariat (and their poor peasant allies) in the soviets.
2. There has to a complete break with capitalist interests.
3. Only then can the annexations be renounced “in deed”.
Yet this unity among the leadership was only skin-deep. On the one hand, as Trotsky points out, for the next few months, Stalin kept a low profile, whereas Kamenev voted against the insurrection, come October 1917.
‘The logic of Bolshevik “hegemony”’
In the interests of his continuity theory, which somehow encompasses Lenin’s theses, Lih tells us in ‘The logic of Bolshevik “hegemony”’ (Weekly Worker May 4) that this includes Kautsky as well: the hegemony strategy is derived from an article written by Kautsky in 1906. Despite the fact that this is Weberian or schematic in method, prior to 1914 Kautsky was recognised as the leading theoretician of the Second International.
Lih reminds us that this strategy was supported by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But he fails to point out that this was before the betrayal of German social democracy in 1914, which Kautsky effectively goes along with. Therefore, post-1914 his “merciless rejection of Menshevism” (Trotsky’s words) were not worth the paper they were written on. 1914 changed everything - certainly for Lenin and Trotsky! In this regard, Lih’s methodology is ahistorical - compare Marxism.
Lih informs us that Kautsky’s pamphlet (which came about as a tactical disagreement with Plekhanov) was “seized on by the left wing of the Russian party as a crushing vindication of their own strategy”. At least he gets to the nub of the question, when he says that
Kautsky’s overall argument can be presented as … a major premise about class allies in general, a minor premise about the specific situation in Russia and a logical conclusion about how to describe the current Russian Revolution … it is not possible for social democracy to achieve victory without the help of another class.
What Kautsky is saying here is that both the German and Russian revolutions share a common strategy vis-à-vis the question of a class alliance, despite the enormous difference between the size and economic power of the proletariat in Germany, compared to its Russian counterpart. Therefore it is crucial that the former asserts its independence in the struggle for socialism, in particular, by breaking with parliamentarism and creating its own organs of dual power: viz workers’ councils; not by forming alliances with other progressive petty bourgeois parties in the Reichstag. (Therefore the question of whether social democracy is the dominant or “junior partner in a governmental coalition” is irrelevant.)
It was only later that Lenin woke up to Kautsky’s adherence to reformism: in other words, all along social democracy had been acting as a block to the socialist revolution in Germany; yet Germany was an advanced capitalist nation, and its working class was the largest and best organised of any in the world! Whereas in a backward country like Russia, on the one hand, the proletariat had acquired revolutionary consciousness, but, on the other, it was tiny minority of the population; therefore it was necessary to form an alliance with another oppressed class under its leadership. Compare Lenin’s pre-1917 position: “A bourgeois revolution, brought about by the proletariat and the peasantry despite the instability of the bourgeoisie.”
But, come 1917, he realised that this had to be an alliance with the poor peasantry or agricultural labourers - the majority of peasants, who were being exploited by a minority: ie, other peasant landlords (thesis 5). Thus Kautsky’s strategy for the German and Russian revolutions amounts to what would later be called popular frontism: ie, a recipe for the defeat of the socialist revolution.
Kautsky also points out that “the revolution in Russia cannot be called a socialist one either”, on the grounds that the bourgeois revolution in Russia had hardly started. Whilst this is true, it should be noted that, according to Marx, the socialist revolution can only succeed, even in the most advanced capitalist countries, if it occurs on an international scale. This requires that the subjective factor is adequate to the task, both ideologically and organisationally (cf the Second International under Kautsky’s leadership). On the other hand, Kautsky acknowledges that the “present revolution in Russia is already pointing toward the introduction of a socialist mode of production”, even though “No social democrat (including Trotsky) … would have disagreed that Russia’s peasant majority blocked socialist transformation in Russia taken by itself.” But “Writing a decade later, immediately after the February revolution, Kautsky opens up the possibility that the peasant will follow the proletariat.” (However he fails to distinguish between the quasi-proletarian ‘peasant labourers’ and their petty bourgeois counterparts: cf Lenin in his April theses.)
At the same time, in a staggering display of political myopia, Kautsky omits to mention the enormous setback to the world revolution of social democracy’s betrayal in 1914. With hindsight, this would prove to be insurmountable. (Surely, if the German proletariat had been led by a revolutionary party which was committed to the independent struggle of the working class - ie, which had followed a revolutionary strategy, as demonstrated by the Russian proletariat in 1905 - it would have been in a position to seize power in 1914 instead of capitulating to social chauvinism and its imperialist masters. Then it would not have been necessary for the Bolsheviks to take a “gamble” with history in October 1917, in the hope that their revolution would stimulate the revolution in Germany.) Kautsky has the temerity to say: “We … do not know what influence it [the Russian proletariat] will exert on western Europe and how it will stimulate the proletarian movement there.”
Post-1917, in historical terms, the Russian Revolution - and the desperate struggle to defend it against the bourgeois counterrevolution - led to a negative dialectic. Once again, Kautsky plays a significant role: despite the suffering of the German army at the front and starvation at home (as a result of the British naval blockade), given the ideological hold which social democracy had over the working class, it was still able to split the masses from the revolutionary vanguard, come the German revolution of 1919-21. This was aided and abetted by Kautsky’s pamphlets on democracy (which does not eschew the parliamentary road) and the red terror in Russia. Meanwhile the Russian Revolution became more isolated and its “iron dictatorship” became more entrenched.
I will end this section with a few comments about Lih’s description of Stalin’s position in March 1917, courtesy of Kautsky (Stalin had just become co-editor of Pravda, along with Kamenev). Lih writes that at this time Stalin “offered passive or even active support to a Provisional government dominated by liberals”. We are further told that “this unrevolutionary behaviour was the direct consequence of the inadequacies of old Bolshevism and its inability to respond to the post-February situation”. Hence Stalin is contradicting the “hegemony scenario”, which everyone accepted.
But Lih comes to Stalin’s defence, arguing that he had not abandoned this scenario at all, because he says that the hegemony of the proletariat is a “living fact”; he even talks about an alliance between the proletariat and the ‘poorest peasantry’, as part of a “worker-peasant vlast”.
Finally, is it permissible for social democrats to participate in a “revolutionary worker-peasant government”? Of course Stalin does not say that (then)! But the point here is that, when Stalin refers to the “government”, he is not thinking in terms of ‘All power to the soviets’ in the real sense of the term; because, as Lenin pointed out in his Letters, at that time, the old Bolsheviks were not trying to split “the anti-defencist, internationalist ‘communist’ elements from the small proprietor, petty bourgeois elements”, who were “in favour of supporting the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois government” (see Lenin’s ‘Assessment’ above).
‘Thirteen to two?’
In order to support his continuity theory, Lih has to demolish the old ‘rearming’ narrative once and for all. Once again, his argument is unconvincing, despite a plethora of evidence. Firstly, in ‘Thirteen to two?’ (Weekly Worker July 27) he rejects the idea that the theses exploded “like a bomb among the Bolshevik activists”. Rather, initially “The … committee voted unanimous approval of the theses as a whole; the recorded 13-2 vote [against] was on a motion by Zalezhsky”, who “proposed that the theses be accepted without any reservations or criticisms”. So the vote came about as a result of a discussion, following the intervention by another comrade, called Bagdatev, who expressed four “misgivings”.
The first of these asks whether Lenin wants to ban the use of “demands” in agitation campaigns. I have already answered this question by referring to the theses, which call for the party to patiently explain to the masses, especially their representatives in the soviets. In his letter on ‘Tasks …’, under a section called ‘The peculiar nature of the tactics which follow’, Lenin further amplifies this:
… our work must be one of criticism, of explaining the mistakes of the petty bourgeois Socialist Revolutionary and Social Democratic parties, of preparing and welding the elements of a consciously proletarian, communist party, and of curing the proletariat of the ‘general’ petty bourgeois intoxication ...
The “prevailing orgy of revolutionary phrase-mongering” in Pravda will not do.11
Bagdatev’s second “misgiving” asks whether Lenin believes that the “bourgeois-democratic revolution is over” and therefore “we no longer need peasants allies”. Once again, this shows the gulf in understanding that existed between Lenin and this worker-activist comrade. Since comrades like him are key to the success of the party’s strategy, it also points up the real nature of the crisis within the party, which Lih seeks to deny.
1. The theses argue that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is already completed, via the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants, manifested in the soviets; but now the soviets have to be transformed into higher form of democracy, the basis of a commune type of state, etc.
2. To this end, Lenin insists on the struggle for “a republic of agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country” (my emphasis); not just the an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. Otherwise the “worker-peasant vlast” is based on an insoluble contradiction: ie, it is meaningless.
Bagdatev’s third “misgiving” asks whether Lenin really wants to give up the slogan, ‘Convene the Constituent Assembly!’ Bagdatev concedes that, as
Com Lenin says, … to go from the soviets back to parliamentarism would be to go backwards … that the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies can replace local self-government [and even replace] the Constituent Assembly … [But] the best method is to force the Provisional government to leave, to demand the promptest possible calling of the CA, after it has turned into a demand for a majority. In Lenin’s theses, there is nothing about the CA.
In answer to the first point, this amounts to a strategy of reformism: ie, giving back power to the bourgeois state in the name of (bourgeois) democracy, as opposed to proletarian democracy (dictatorship of the proletariat). Secondly, as I have already pointed out, Lenin does not oppose calling the CA. But, when he says he is not in a hurry to do so, he is anticipating the outcome, which is that it will produce a majority for the petty bourgeois parties; on the other hand, hitherto the old Bolsheviks had not been pursuing a strategy to split the communist elements from the rest in the soviets, who are in favour of handing power back to the bourgeoisie. If the Bolsheviks did not win control of the soviets, on this basis, it would be a disaster for the revolution.
Lih continues by stating that during the CC debate, Iurenev, leader of the Left Menshevik faction (which Trotsky first joined when he returned to Russia in May 1917, and which later merged with the Bolshevik Party), argues that Lenin “should be talking about the soviet of worker and soldier deputies”, not “the agricultural wage worker”, at this point in time, because splitting them away from the officer caste is crucial. He may have been right to place the emphasis on the soldiers, but why counterpose this to the agricultural labourers, who are the majority of the army anyway?
Lih should have deferred to Lenin’s letters at this point. In his ‘Assessment of the present situation’, he is much closer to the present reality - and what is required - than anyone else:
… the question as to what are the soviets, whether they are a higher type than a parliamentary republic, more convenient for the struggle, for combatting … the grain shortage, etc - from this real, urgent, vital issue, attention is diverted to the empty, would-be scientific, but actually hollow … dead question of ‘building an immediate transformation’. An idle question falsely presented. I ‘build’ only on this, exclusively on this - that the workers, soldiers and peasants will deal better than the officials … and the police, with the difficult, practical problems of producing more grain, distributing it better and keeping the soldiers better supplied, etc.12
Bagdatev’s fourth “misgiving” asks whether Lenin is right to call for the party to change its name to the Communist Party. Lih is correct to point out that this is not just a semantic question: it is a political one. It starts with thesis 9, ‘Party tasks: ... alteration of the party programme’, to deal properly with the question of imperialism and imperialist war: “On our attitude towards the state and our demand for a ‘commune state’. Amendment of our out-of-date minimum programme; change the party’s name; a new International.” Lenin wants to distinguish the Bolshevik Party from social democratic reformism, as practised by the Second International: “We must take the initiative in creating a revolutionary international, an International against the social chauvinists and against the ‘centre’” (thesis 10): ie, Kautsky in Germany; MacDonald in Britain, etc. Bagdatev says that “Lenin is wrong there.” We should not do this for fear of cutting off those workers who support the centre! “Now is not the time to divide the masses just because they don’t fully understand. The [whole] point on party tasks is superfluous [!] (my emphasis). This equals opportunism.
Only Zalezhsky stood behind Lenin: “… on changing the name, this is not a very important issue, but I don’t agree with Bagdatev’s rationale: namely fear of cutting off the centre.” The main thing is that Lenin wants to “divide us from those chauvinists in general, those who now name themselves social democrats”.
Yet Lih concludes this article by reaffirming his position: the April theses do not represent “a radical break with earlier Bolshevism”, compared with the “rearming” argument. Rather we find the opposite is the case: ie, “a great stress on Bolshevik positions in the past”. How big a political, strategic and tactical divide does Lih want before he considers that this might constitute a crisis in the party?
‘Lenin glosses the April theses’
Lih starts this article (Weekly Worker August 3) by devoting nearly a page to another renegade: ie, Plekhanov, “the father of Russian Marxism”. We will not dwell on his canards, such as his absurd claim that Lenin blamed Russian imperialism for the war and “portrays Germany as an innocent victim”. Rather let us go straight to Plekhanov’s “killer blow” against Lenin. Here he echoes Marx in schematic mode:
If capitalism has not yet attained in any given country its highest point, [at which] it becomes an obstacle for the further development of the productive forces - then it is absurd to summon the workers, both urban and rural, and the poorest part of the peasants to overthrow it.
Thus “Lenin’s call for a seizure of political power by the toiling masses is not justifiable, but rather ‘an insane and extremely harmful attempt to sow anarchistic confusion and division within the Russian land’”. Lih answers Plekhanov by saying that Lenin had two choices: first, he could have rejected the former’s “assertion about the absence of the objective conditions for socialism in Russia in 1917”; and, secondly, he could have denied that
socialism had to wait until objective conditions are present [in Russia]. In both … cases, Lenin would indeed be rearming the party with a vengeance. At the cost of rejecting the basic tenets of so-called ‘Second International Marxism’ in general and old Bolshevism in particular, he would then be able to proclaim the socialist character of the revolution.
My answer to Lih is that he ignores Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism. Once again, this states that, in the epoch of capitalist decline and imperialist rivalry, parliamentarism and social chauvinism, mediated by social democracy, which has now become the means to prop up capitalism, in both the objective and subjective sense. At the same time, imperialist war places the revolution on the agenda - in the first instance, this led to the infamous betrayal of 1914. Therefore, as far as Russia is concerned, history has taken “an abrupt turn”, which must be addressed by the Bolshevik Party; otherwise:
(a) A weak Russian bourgeoisie might bypass the Provisional government by forming an alliance with rightwing officers in the army, in order to set up a military dictatorship on behalf of the old regime; which would be more repressive than tsarism (cf the Kornilov threat in August 1917).
(b) The front would collapse, which would allow the Austro-German army to annex Russia’s bread basket, etc. (NB: in the an absence of a revolution in Germany in 1918, this led to Brest-Litovsk, whereby large sections of the Ukraine were annexed by the central powers, at least temporarily.)
(c) The workers and peasants might try to seize power without the leadership of a revolutionary party (the Bolsheviks), which would be disastrous.
(d) There could be a combination of all three. Thus in his Lessons of October, Trotsky writes: “… we can lay down as almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from the preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power”, because “A tactical turn implies a greater or lesser break in these habits and methods”. Herein lies the direct and most immediate root of internal party friction and crises, wrote Lenin in July 1917:
… when history makes an abrupt turn, even the most advanced parties are unable for a longer or shorter period of time to adapt themselves to new conditions. They keep repeating the slogans of yesterday - slogans which were correct yesterday, but which have lost all their meaning today, becoming devoid of meaning ‘suddenly’, with the self-same ‘suddenness’ that history makes its abrupt turn.13
Ditto the downturn in the world revolution by 1921, leading on to Lenin’s final illness. But this time the results could not have been more different.
Like Kamenev and co, Lih misunderstands Lenin’s theses: viz his insistence that Marxism requires a concrete analysis of every situation. The unfolding revolution in Russia was an expression of a “new living reality”. But, whilst “history makes an abrupt turn”, the party is left lagging behind. Therefore it was no good “reiterating old formulas”, such as the “hegemony” scenario.
That is why Lenin writes his April theses: to rearm the party. The leadership had to understand his analysis of the situation - and the theorising behind this - so that the party could make a ‘sharp change in political line’ and tactics; otherwise the revolution would be lost.
Lih’s “continuity” theory is based on a methodology that is antithetical to Marxism (cf Lenin and Trotsky). Therefore all the new evidence he has gathered from the archives is wasted. Wittingly or not, his series on ‘All power to the Soviets’ not only misses the wood for the trees: it amounts to an academic historian’s apologia for reformism. Given social democracy’s primary responsibility for the slaughter of millions of workers and peasants in World War I, and not forgetting the defeat of the German revolution (and all that this entails), there is a lesson to be learnt here.
Unfortunately we do not get this from Lars T Lih.
1. LT Lih, ‘All power to the soviets’ - a series published by the Weekly Worker.
2. Given that I have focused on Lenin’s theses, I have left out Lih’s third article, which is devoted to Lenin’s ‘Letter from afar’.
3. L Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution London 1967, p278.
4. VI Lenin Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism Peking 1969, pp 9,10.
5. VI Lenin April theses Moscow 1970, pp5-9.
6. VI Lenin, ‘Letters on tactics: assessment of the present situation’ April theses Moscow 1970, p14.
7. K Marx, ‘The civil war in France’, in T Carver (ed) Marx, later political writings Cambridge 1996, p192.
8. K Marx, ‘The civil war in France’, first draft, in E Kamenka (ed) Portable Karl Marx London 1983, p528.
9. VI Lenin, ‘Letters on tactics: assessment of the present situation’ April theses Moscow 1970, p13.
10. Ibid pp18-19.
11. VI Lenin, ‘Letters on tactics: tasks of the proletariat in our revolution’ April theses Moscow 1970, p30.
12. Ibid p22.
13. L Trotsky, ‘The lessons of October The essential Trotsky London 1963, pp118-19.