Supplement: The Bolsheviks & socialist revolution
Did Lenin’s April theses amount to ‘rearming the party’? Paul Le Blanc argues that the contributions of Lars T Lih and Eric Blanc do not tell the whole story
Lenin: peace, land, bread ... and socialism
A valuable contribution to scholarship on Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 has - through iconoclastic overstatement - been transformed into an odd and misleading conceptualisation by two scholars whom I greatly respect and consider to be friends.
Lars T Lih, whose massive contribution Lenin rediscovered has rightly enhanced his reputation among Lenin scholars, several years ago initiated the line of thought under consideration here, and he has gone on to develop and argue hard for it. He has been joined recently by an important younger scholar, Eric Blanc, whose most recent contribution - ‘Did the Bolsheviks advocate socialist revolution in 1917?’1 - will be the focal point of the present contribution.2
The controversy they have been initiating will surely go on for some time, with others weighing in. The discipline of history is sometimes moved forward through such confrontations, and a survey of all that would be worthwhile. But it is beyond the scope of the present essay, which is a simple contribution to the process of critical clarification. In what follows, I will let Eric Blanc define the issue at hand, noting a significant difference between his line of argument and that of Lars Lih, and indicate what I think are the positive contributions of these two scholars in this contested terrain. At that point I will turn my attention to what strike me as serious flaws in the article under review.
The dispute may strike many as arcane or ‘Talmudic’ - irrelevant to the burning issues of our time - and early in his article Blanc argues earnestly against the activist inclination to shrug it all off: “Getting the history right is important not only for the sake of accuracy, but because it helps us better understand the real nature of the Bolshevik Party, the example of which continues to inspire and inform Marxist politics today.” While this may be true, however, the focus of the present contribution is simply on “getting the history right,” and also getting the historical methodology right. The activist concern for “what must we do” is one that I take seriously, but it falls beyond the narrow purview of what is offered here.
According to Blanc,
one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, much of our understanding of 1917 and the Bolshevik Party remains clouded by accumulated myths and received ideas. Not least of these is the claim that VI Lenin radically overhauled Bolshevik politics in April 1917 by convincing the party to fight for a socialist, instead of bourgeois-democratic, revolution.
He goes on to assure us that “this historiographical consensus is factually inaccurate and has distorted our understanding of Bolshevism in 1917”.
Did the Bolsheviks advocate socialist revolution in 1917? No, Blanc seems to be arguing, citing the comments of an unidentified “Bolshevik leader” addressing the Moscow Soviet in the summer of 1917 (after Lenin’s so-called re-arming of the party):
When we speak of transferring power to the soviets, this does not mean that the power passes to the proletariat, since the soviets are composed of workers, soldiers and peasants; it does not mean that we are now experiencing a socialist revolution, for the present revolution is bourgeois-democratic.
In other words, the Bolshevik position had not changed since Lenin articulated it in the 1905 polemic Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution. The contrary opinion - perhaps argued most strongly and clearly by Trotsky, starting with his 1924 polemic Lessons of October - originated in a distorted account, the perhaps understandable product of inner-party rivalries that cropped up in the 1920s. Through subsequent accounts by Trotsky in years leading up to his death, and in the writings of his followers, the myth has been perpetuated, finding its way, as well, even into the work of more mainstream historians.
But if one sets aside the distorting lens of 1920s polemics in the Russian Communist Party and instead engages with the documents of what was actually said and done in the sweep of history leading up to the 1917 revolution (the primary sources), the myth evaporates and we are left with the reality that - despite inevitable confusions amidst the revolutionary ferment, with pulls and tugs and sometimes partial misunderstandings among personalities - the Bolsheviks were well-guided by the perspectives they had embraced since 1905. There was no need for Lenin to ‘rearm’ the party, and it simply did not happen. Or so my friends assert.
There is much of value in what has been presented by Lars Lih and in what has been elaborated by Eric Blanc in the course of their advocacy of this new interpretation.
Valuable elements struck me powerfully, as I read and responded to Lih’s essay from 2011, ‘The ironic triumph of old Bolshevism: the debates of April 1917 in context’.3 I offered my response in a presentation made in Australia, later included in my collection Unfinished Leninism. I observed that Lih here “takes up the cudgels on behalf of Lev Kamenev, the target of Lenin’s critique of a presumably ossified ‘old Bolshevism’ in 1917”. In a subsequent account of the dispute, as Lih put it, “Kamenev seems to think he won the debate with Lenin in April 1917”, and Lars suggests that Kamenev was right. In my own 2013 presentation, while dissenting from this conclusion, I emphasised what struck me as the valuable contributions emerging from Lars’s account, and a restatement of that judgment is worth reproducing here.4
First of all, Lenin did not feel bound by some rigid notion of ‘democratic centralism’ to refrain from expressing his own views if they happened to be in contradiction to those of the formal leadership of the revolutionary party to which he belonged. For Lenin, revolutionary principles always trump organisational harmony, and this was an element essential to his conception of democratic centralism and revolutionary organisation. Related to this, an open debate between comrades in the pages of the party newspaper was by no means alien to the Leninism of the early Bolsheviks.
In a 1925 history of the Bolshevik Party written by veteran Bolshevik Vladimir Nevsky (a yet-to-be translated source cited by Lars in a different context), it is explained that democratic centralism represented “complete democracy,” and that “the organisation of the Bolsheviks lived fully the life of a genuine proletarian democratic organisation”, with “free discussion, a lively exchange of opinions” taking place in “the absence of any bureaucratic attitude to getting things done - in a word, the active participation of emphatically all members in the affairs of the organisation”.5
At the same time, as Lars correctly argued, the “old Bolshevism” that Kamenev defended had been a collectively developed orientation - the common position of Lenin and the Bolshevik comrades with whom he now disagreed. Both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of Russian socialism had seen Russia’s revolution as ‘bourgeois-democratic’ - preliminary to the future transition to socialism. But in 1917, no less than before, the politics of all Bolsheviks was grounded in a militantly class-struggle orientation distinct from the worker-capitalist alliance position of the Mensheviks, projecting an uncompromising worker-peasant alliance.
While disagreeing with what struck me as a distorted minimisation of the debate between Lenin and Kamenev (and other ‘old Bolsheviks’) upon Lenin’s return to Russia, I went on to conclude that this common ground between ‘old Bolshevism’ and Lenin’s April theses, rooted in the collectively developed politics over a period of years, is what made it relatively easy for Lenin to win the debate so quickly in 1917. To understand this collective process - not the blinding revolutionary authority of the Unquestioned Leader - as essential to the Bolshevik triumph provides a better explanation of what actually happened. It was especially important, I argued, to take such Bolsheviks as Kamenev and Zinoviev more seriously than many latter-day scholars and activists have been inclined to do. Understanding that we are dealing with a vibrant revolutionary collectivity can help us (as Eric puts it) “better understand the real nature of the Bolshevik Party”, and this in a way that provides insights into the kind of organisation activists of today should be creating.
Blanc’s subsequent contribution builds on this strength in Lih’s argument, in the process adding valuable insights. This is related to this passage that one finds early in his article:
Unlike most examinations of this topic, the focus here will not be on Lenin’s writings. These were undoubtedly important, and as such their content will be outlined, but it is hardly the case that Lenin’s approach (which itself was in flux, both strategically and tactically) can be equated with that of the Bolshevik leadership or ranks in 1917. A distinct political portrait arises when we broaden our source base to include other Bolshevik leaders, local and regional party bodies, public speeches and mass leaflets. Similarly, expanding our analytical attention from Petrograd to include the Russian empire’s periphery and provinces provides a better sense of what we might call ‘ballpark Bolshevism’: ie, the core political stances generally shared by all levels of Bolshevik cadres and projected by them to working people across the empire.
Not only does this emphasise the revolutionary collectivity of the Bolshevik phenomenon, but it corresponds to the messy realities of a politics that is composed not simply of ideas, but of diverse personalities (with different temperaments and various levels of experience and understanding) that are combined in the complexity and fluidity of organisations, movements and struggles. Something that Lenin thinks, says and writes will be understood (or misunderstood) and implemented (or not implemented) in a variety of ways by his many different comrades across the expanse of the Russian empire; often these will be blended with what a diverse lot of others think, say, write and do. It makes no sense to focus simply on Lenin’s writings - a fact that the most serious students of the Russian Revolution have amply demonstrated over the course of many years.
While Lih and Blanc share substantial common ground in their valuable stress on the revolutionary collectivity that was Bolshevism, and also in their misleading contention that the notion of ‘Lenin rearming the party’ was a myth, it should also be recognised that the two do not fully occupy the same interpretive terrain. This is suggested by the way Blanc concludes his recent essay. Those who have read Lars’s work and benefited from discussions with him are clear that he has no personal connection with the Trotskyist tradition and has a critical approach to much of Trotsky’s analytical orientation. Eric’s entire life, on the other hand, has been entwined with that tradition, and in his concluding paragraph he writes:
Since socialism could not be built within the confines of Russia alone, the sole path to positively resolving the inherent contradictions facing the new Soviet government was through the spread of workers’ rule abroad. And, regarding the imminence and necessity of world revolution, the perspectives of all Bolsheviks in 1917 fully converged. The axiom that the Russian Revolution would be defeated if it remained isolated was borne out, though this defeat took the unforeseen form of Stalinist degeneration. In short: Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was confirmed by the experience of the Russian Revolution, but the same cannot be said of his polemical account of how Lenin ‘rearmed’ the Bolsheviks.
The line of thought predominant here is incredibly important. But of particular importance for the present controversy is the opening assertion that “socialism could not be built within the confines of Russia alone”. The word ‘socialism’ is among the most misused, misunderstood and abused terms in human history - certainly by its outright enemies, but also by its presumed partisans, and no less by those who seek to understand the world with the most exemplary objectivity.
For many of its enemies, the word ‘socialism’ is defined as state ownership and control of the economy, while strictly overseeing the labour and life-activity of society’s inhabitants, and caring for their basic needs, while controlling what they may or may not do.
For Joseph Stalin and his adherents, it came to mean more or less the same thing, but with a profoundly benevolent gloss, as what they were creating in the Soviet Union, and the promise that at some point - as capitalism disappeared from one country after another - the state would wither away, with a prosperous and self-governing society as the replacement.
For many other would-be partisans, socialism is consistent simply with the proliferation of welfare-state reforms and expanding social services providing very positive systems of health, education, housing, transportation and more for each and every person, although not overturning the control of the economy by capitalist enterprise - which actually creates the framework within which this ‘socialism’ is able (or not able) to work.
For some objective-minded scholars, there is a tendency to call ‘socialist’ whatever its would-be partisans claim it to be. Many say that what existed in the Soviet Union was socialism (and some conclude from this that socialism did not work). Others say that there are different forms of socialism - the authoritarian or state socialism associated with the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the more moderate and democratic form of socialism associated, for example, with certain western European countries, on the other. (Some conclude from this, given the decline of welfare state and social service programmes in recent times, that socialism does not work.)
Not pretending to be a political activist, Lars Lih has not felt a need to be clear about where he stands in relation to any of this. But Eric Blanc - explicit in his Marxist convictions - obviously rejects all of the above. In his emphasis that “socialism could not be built within the confines of Russia alone” he underscores the Marxist conviction that socialism (which most fundamentally means rule by the people over the economy) not only requires democratic functioning, but also - since our economy is global - an international rather than a national framework in order to be functional. More than this, there is little room for doubt that he accepts Marx’s contention, expressed as early as 1845 in The German ideology, that modern communism (or socialism - the terms being more or less synonymous for Marx and Engels) requires the level of development generated by the industrial revolution - a “world of wealth and culture, both of which presuppose a great increase in [economic] productive power and a high degree of its development”. As Marx explained,
This development of productive forces (which already implied the actual empirical existence of men on a world-historical rather than local scale) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because, without it, want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old muck would necessarily be reproduced …6
Given such an understanding of what socialism means - which was accepted by knowledgeable Russian Marxists of all tendencies - it was quite obviously not a practical possibility for the Russia of 1917. And yet here is how Lenin explained the October revolution “to the people of Russia” and the world immediately after the seizure of power:
The workers’ and peasants’ revolution has definitely triumphed in Petrograd … The revolution has triumphed in Moscow too … Daily and hourly reports are coming in from the front and from the villages announcing the support of the overwhelming majority of the soldiers in the trenches and the peasants in the provinces for the new government and its decrees on peace and the immediate transfer of the land to the peasants. The victory of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution is assured because the majority of the people have already sided with it …
Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No-one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers …
Comrades, workers, soldiers, peasants and all working people! Take all power into the hands of your soviets. Be watchful and guard like the apple of your eye your land, grain, factories, equipment, products, transport - all that from now onwards will be entirely your property, public property. Gradually, with the consent and approval of the majority of the peasants, in keeping with their practical experience and that of the workers, we shall go forward firmly and unswervingly to the victory of socialism - a victory that will be sealed by the advanced workers of the most civilised countries, bring the peoples lasting peace and liberate them from all oppression and exploitation.7
This is not, it should be emphasised, simply a statement of Lenin’s personal views. It is a formal statement from the leader of the new revolutionary government “to the people of Russia”. At this point, in the midst of the revolutionary triumph of 1917, this leader is expressing the perspective of the country’s ruling party, the Bolsheviks. Its meaning is aptly explained by Eric Blanc (although sometimes he appears to suspend his own explanation):
October can be justifiably described as a socialist revolution in so far as it established a proletarian-led state power that asserted workers’ control over the economy and that actively promoted the international overthrow of capitalism.
Lenin, Trotsky and other prominent Bolsheviks were explicit in their insistence that the immediate establishment of a socialist economy was not possible in the newly established Soviet Republic. A workers’ and peasants’ alliance would bring about soviet power, in which working class political power would, in ongoing partnership with the peasantry, predominate; this would open up a transitional period in which democratic and socialist policies would push against the capitalist framework of what would necessarily be a form of mixed economy; the socialist resolution to this contradictory reality would become possible only with the anticipated expansion of socialist revolution throughout the world, especially in the industrially advanced nations.8
In this sense, indeed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks very definitely viewed what they were doing as making a socialist revolution in 1917. And the key piece of documentary evidence indicating just that, reproduced above, is supported by what participants themselves later recalled. For reasons that are not clear to me, Eric seems reluctant to take such reminiscences seriously, a matter to which we will turn shortly.
1917 versus 1905
The 1917 statement “to the people of Russia” represents a significant shift away from what was the primary thrust of the Bolshevik orientation back in 1905. If that is, in fact, the case, then one could expect such a shift could have been brought about only after serious debate between Lenin and some of his comrades. There certainly was such a debate, as we shall see, and Blanc stakes out a somewhat different terrain than Lih in this regard, emphasising that “in my view his [Lih’s] stress on the continuity of Bolshevism in 1917 has led him to minimise the importance of this debate”.
Given this important difference between Lars and Eric, some of what is argued here can be viewed as providing support for that aspect of Blanc’s position. Nor is he necessarily denying (as Lih appears to do) that Lenin did, in fact, change his position between 1905 and 1917. And yet he is also strongly inclined to the view that Trotsky and most historians have been blinded to the reality of Bolshevik continuity, and that Lih is quite right to insist that any ‘rearming the party’ narrative is quite wrong. So let us follow his argument.
Of course, Lenin typically gravitated toward open-ended formulations involving possible “uninterrupted revolution” in Russia (between democratic and socialist stages) that could be generated by international revolutionary developments. More than this, as Lenin’s comrade and companion, Nadezhda Krupskaya, has explained, his thinking (again typically) continued to evolve under the impact of such momentous new developments as World War I - in 1915-17 generating formulations in which revolutionary-democratic struggles would flow into socialist revolution.9
Yet in arguing for the theoretical consistency between “the old Bolshevism” and the Lenin of 1917, Blanc writes:
Rejecting the claim that he was aiming to ‘skip’ the bourgeois-democratic stage, Lenin in April stressed that he was not calling for a ‘workers’ government’ but rather a soviet regime of workers, agricultural labourers, soldiers and peasants. Though Lenin personally saw soviet power as the concretisation of a ‘commune state’, a ‘step towards socialism’ and ‘the highest form of democracy’, for the majority of workers and Bolsheviks throughout 1917 the demand for ‘All power to the soviets’ meant establishing a government without the bourgeoisie. This was certainly a very radical perspective; but it was a very radical perspective that had been advocated by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary Marxists in Russia since 1905.>
This is not entirely accurate, and the mistake gets to the heart of the matter.
The term, “a commune state”, is a reference to the Paris Commune of 1871. In 1917 Lenin saw this as an appropriate suggestion of what was called for in Russia. Consider the way he discusses the matter in The state and revolution: “The Commune is the first attempt by a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine; and it is the political form ‘at last discovered’ by which the smashed state machine can and must be replaced.” He adds that “the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, in different circumstances and under different conditions, continue the work of the Commune and confirm Marx’s brilliant historical analysis”.10
Worth noting is his projection of this perspective backward to encompass the 1905 revolution. In ‘Letters from afar’, Lenin makes precisely the same points:
The proletariat … if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.11
This represents an explicit break with Lenin’s own earlier perspectives. In his 1905 polemic Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution, Lenin explicitly asserted that the Paris Commune “was a government such as ours should not be”. He criticized it as “a government that was unable to, and could not, at that time, distinguish between the elements of a democratic revolution and a socialist revolution, a government that confused the tasks of fighting for a republic with those of fighting for socialism”. He explained:
Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution. What does that mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms that have become a necessity for Russia do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.12
With most Marxists of 1905, from the most moderate Menshevik to the most militant Bolshevik, Lenin had believed that Russia must go through further capitalist economic development (which was being hindered by the quasi-feudal residue associated with tsarist autocracy) before the material basis for socialism would exist. He insisted that “the idea of seeking salvation for the working class in anything save the further development of capitalism is reactionary”. The overthrow of tsarism and the creation of a bourgeois republic, Lenin (along with most Marxists in 1905) believed, would constitute “a democratic prerequisite of the struggle for socialism”.13
In notes of March-April 1905, Lenin projected two possible courses for the Russian Revolution: either it could “go on to the complete overthrow of the tsarist government and the establishment of a republic”; or it could “limit itself to a curtailment of tsarist power, to a monarchist constitution”. There were only two reasonable options: “are we to have a revolution of the 1789 type or of the 1848 type?” Almost parenthetically, he added: “Some might add here ‘or of the 1871 [Paris Commune] type’?” He went on to scoff: “This question must be considered as a probable objection raised against us by many non-social democrats.”14
Both the French Revolution of 1789 and revolutionary events in Europe of 1848 were perceived by Marxists as models of bourgeois-democratic revolution - the first ending in a decisive victory over the remnants of feudalism; the second ending in a compromise with such remnants. Neither had a trajectory that went beyond capitalism (unlike the Paris Commune of 1871). Lenin expressed the hope that the Russian Revolution would be of the 1789 type. This clearly confines the perspective to a bourgeois-democratic framework, as was the case with most of Lenin’s formulations.
To the extent that Eric believes Lenin’s own position changed between 1905 and 1917, all of this can be seen as vindicating his position. And it is certainly the case that not all Bolsheviks were keeping pace with Lenin’s conceptualisations and formulations - which makes the useful notion of ‘ballpark Bolshevism’ particularly apt.
And yet at times Blanc seems to tilt in a different direction. Early in his article, he asserts that “contrary to what is usually assumed, neither Lenin nor the Bolshevik current in 1917 equated soviet power as such with workers’ power”. He quotes Lenin as noting: “in these Soviets, as it happens, it is the peasants, the soldiers - ie, petty bourgeoisie - who preponderate”. Blanc suggests that “the defining class characteristic of the soviets was not that they were a workers’ organisation, but that they were an explicitly and consciously non-bourgeois body”.
This could be understood as implying that Lenin, no less than other Bolsheviks, viewed the revolution they were making as bourgeois-democratic rather than proletarian-socialist. It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this conceptualisation of the soviets as being inconsistent with a shift away from the classical Bolshevik orientation of 1905. It is, in fact, perfectly consistent with a convergence toward Trotsky’s permanent revolution perspective of the same period. This becomes evident if we examine what Trotsky was actually saying in his 1906 analyses:
So far as its direct and indirect tasks are concerned, the Russian Revolution is a ‘bourgeois’ revolution because it sets out to liberate bourgeois society from the chains and fetters of absolutism and feudal ownership. But the principal driving force of the Russian Revolution is the proletariat, and that is why, so far as its method is concerned, it is a proletarian revolution.
This working class hegemony in the struggle had a logic, Trotsky insisted, which “leads directly … to the dictatorship of the proletariat and puts socialist tasks on the order of the day”.15
By ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, of course, Marxists have not meant authoritarian rule by an elitist dictatorship, but rather political rule by the working class (often conceived as involving greater actual democracy than one finds in any form of political rule by the capitalist class). Nor did it exclude other (non-proletarian) layers of society. “The dictatorship of the proletariat in no way signifies the dictatorship of the revolutionary organisation over the proletariat,” Trotsky insisted, and he went on to quote Marx’s description of the Paris Commune as “the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government”. He argued that in Russia “the dictatorship of the proletariat will undoubtedly represent all the progressive, valid interests of the peasantry - and not only the peasantry, but also the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia”.16
The broad social alliance which brought the revolution to victory would, Trotsky believed, probably be reflected in the composition of the new revolutionary government. Instead of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ he was quite willing to utilise other labels: “workers’ democracy” or “dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry” or “coalition government of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie”. But he insisted that the reality must involve the “dominating and leading participation” of the working class, “the rule of the proletariat”.17
By 1917, Lenin’s conceptualisations and formulations were converging with those of Trotsky (which would soon draw the author of the theory of permanent revolution into the ranks of the Bolsheviks). Of course, Lenin came to this independently of Trotsky, but a radical shift in his thinking can certainly be traced in the documents available to us.
We have already noted (and Blanc fully agrees) that there was a debate in the wake of this, and it would be helpful to see if Lenin’s comrades were inclined to explain it all in the same way that Eric does.
A disappearing trick
In magicians’ performances, court rooms and sometimes even in academic settings, inconvenient evidence can somehow be made to disappear. In the present context, if we can simply eliminate all recollections of the actual participants regarding what happened way back when, all we have to go on are the raw documents that the scholar offers, and then the explanations (often involving a new interpretation) provided by the scholar to help us understand the meaning of the documents.
Of course, Trotsky’s account is central to the article’s purpose, so that is a centre of our attention. But what if there are dozens of reliable witnesses - not just Trotskyists, but others as well - to corroborate at least major aspects of Trotsky’s account? There are, in fact, many non-Trotskyists (various Bolsheviks and Mensheviks who presumably were in a position to know what happened) who provided reminiscences. But all are conjured away with three sentences and two end notes. We are informed:
Much of the documentary basis for the ‘rearming’ narrative comes from Menshevik declarations in April concerning Lenin’s arrival. But one has to take these with a large grain of salt, since the Mensheviks consistently exaggerated their rivals’ extremism and were always looking to paint the Bolsheviks as puppets in the hands of Lenin. The other major source for the standard account comes from questionable 1920s Bolshevik memoir literature written well after it had become both politically expedient for all wings of the party to emphasise the ‘genius’ of Lenin’s leadership and to claim that the Bolsheviks had from April onwards advocated socialist revolution.
When we turn to the first end note, we find this: “For typical Menshevik claims about Lenin’s purported ‘anarchism’, see Rabinowitch 1968, p40.”
The reference is to Alexander Rabinowitch’s path-breaking account, Prelude to revolution. Several distinctive things can be found if someone actually looks on the page cited. One is that Rabinowitch’s account goes in a direction that is the opposite of that mapped out by Blanc and Lih. “Now, when the predominant spirit in both the Bolshevik and Menshevik camps was one of moderation and reconciliation,” he writes, “Lenin was baldly presenting these ideas [in the April theses] as a guide for immediate revolutionary action.” He then records “a few of the indignant Menshevik reactions” at that moment - which include charges of “anarchism” and worse. But that is all. There is no impugning of later Menshevik accounts by Sukhanov, Dan, Abramovitch, etc.18
In fairness, Blanc himself is not asserting otherwise - he refers to “Menshevik declarations in April” - yet this seems to deflect attention away from more serious Menshevik accounts of what was happening - accounts which (as we will see) happen to give credence to what Blanc calls “the rearming narrative”.
When we turn to the second end note, we find this:
On the dubious analytical and factual accuracy of some of these memoir accounts, see Longley 1978, pp252, 337-38. On the evolution of early Bolshevik historiography concerning 1917, see White 1985 and the introduction in Corney 2016.
The reference to White will be dealt with separately. References to Longley and Corney are, respectively, to DA Longley’s PhD dissertation, Factional strife and policy-making in the Bolshevik Party, 1912-April 1917, and Frederick C Corney (ed) Trotsky’s challenge: the ‘literary discussion’ of 1924 and the fight for the Bolshevik revolution. On the three pages cited in Longley, we find critical reference to accounts in the late 1920s, in which Trotsky’s role in 1917 is minimised and denigrated, an unspecified question regarding how objective Shlyapnikov might be (which is certainly worth asking about any memoirist or historian), and another question about how Lenin might have been able to see certain issues of Pravda that presumably annoyed him. Evaluation of the Corney source is difficult, since no page numbers are given for a volume of more than 800 pages (within which Corney’s valuable introductory essay consists of 85 pages). A cursory examination does not indicate that Corney is offering more, in regard to critical judgments, than the sort of thing offered by Longley. One should also note that Blanc’s own end note is critical only of “some” of the Bolshevik memoirs - with no indication of which ones or why.19
The reference to James D White’s essay, ‘Soviet historical interpretations of the Russian Revolution 1918-24’, deserves more substantial comment, because it comes closest to saying what Blanc seems to imply his sources should say. Here indeed is an across-the-board assault in the reliability of “1920s Bolshevik memoir literature” - indeed, on all historical literature coming out of the Soviet Republic in the early 1920s (even since 1918).
White’s essay begins ominously with a quote from early Bolshevik activist-historian MS Olminsky: “Work for the history of the revolution is work for the revolution itself.” Of course, such a quote could be understood, less ominously, as the honest belief of a revolutionary enthusiast - but White quite definitely tilts away from such innocence: “The Soviet regime began to interpret the Russian Revolution in the light of current political considerations immediately after its coming to power.” Proof of such subterfuge can be found in one of the earliest accounts, Trotsky’s short popularisation of 1918, The history of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, on which White comments darkly: “Trotsky is emphatic that the Bolshevik Party acquired state power not because it was effective in organising an armed insurrection, but because it enjoyed wide popular support.” The fact that John Reed’s 1919 classic Ten days that shook the world has the same view is no accident - at the time Reed was working (under Trotsky, no less) in the Department of International Revolutionary Propaganda, an arm of the new Soviet Republic’s commissariat of foreign affairs: “Political considerations during the first four years of Soviet power ensured that in the history of the 1917 revolution most attention was focused on the acquisition of power by the Bolsheviks in October” and all Bolshevik memoirs and accounts in the historical journal Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya were made to conform with “the Leninist interpretation”. White concludes that “in the practice of manipulating the historical record there was a high degree of continuity between the Stalin era and the first years of Soviet rule”.20
The highly problematical nature of this essay is evident if we modestly focus only on the revelation that presumably discredits John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world. From White’s own reference notes, it would not be clear to the unsuspecting reader that Reed’s involvement with the Soviet Republic’s Department of International Revolutionary Propaganda was openly reported by his two sympathetic English-language biographers of 1936 and 1975, neither of whom felt this would necessarily discredit Reed’s account. That the author of Ten days that shook the world was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolshevik revolution is clear from the book itself - Reed notoriously wore his political heart on his sleeve.21
Of interest is the judgment of Bertram D Wolfe, who knew Reed and many of the Russian Bolsheviks before becoming a bitterly disillusioned ex-Leninist and anti-communist. At the height of the cold war (while in the employ of the US state department), he edited and introduced to American readers a new edition of Reed’s account, with multiple corrective footnotes and a very critical introduction. Wolfe describes Reed as “a good reporter, always in the thick of things; his sense of vivid detail often makes one page refute another”, adding that Reed “was vulnerable to gossip, rumour and conjecture that accorded with his preconceptions, but what he actually saw with his own eyes he did his best to record faithfully”. Wolfe concludes that “as a record of significant detail, as a repository of facts for the historian, his book is crammed with precious material” and that “whether because of or despite the dream which possessed him, as literature Reed’s book is the finest piece of eyewitness reporting the revolution has produced”.22
White’s seeming dismissal of Ten days that shook the world conveys none of this, nor do his shrugs and insinuations tell us much about the actual nature or value of the variety of early Soviet historical interpretations of the Russian Revolution. It demonstrates little about the analytical and factual accuracy of memoir accounts of the 1920s.
Readers should be aware that I am not intending a broadside dismissal or denigration of all that is offered in the works of Rabinowitch, Longley, Corney or even White. Each is a source well worth examining, each contains something of value, and I happen to think very highly of at least three of them. Nor is it my opinion that Eric Blanc intends to bamboozle us with a dishonest conjuring trick - he is among the most earnest people I have had the pleasure to know, and his intentions strike me as entirely honourable.
At the same time, when we compare the content of Blanc’s end notes to the actual sources - from various Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike - we are forced to conclude that a dismissal of what the actual participants have to tell us is not justified. Not all of the Menshevik accounts are equally exaggerated, and some of them do not conform to the generalisation by which they seem to be characterised. Not all of the Bolshevik accounts are equally questionable, and - here too - some of them do not fully conform to what seems to be a dismissive generalisation.
Upon examination, some of the accounts by Mensheviks and Bolsheviks seem plausible, given what we know of the facts, and some of them more or less appear to corroborate each other. So let us have a look.
What participants tell us
The Russian-born US journalist, Isaac Don Levine - who had a treasure-trove of documents in his possession and important contacts among Russian revolutionaries, particularly in the moderate wing of the movement - was able to report in a 1917 account that, upon returning to Russia, Lenin had “alienated the large following he had as one of the leaders of the Russian Social Democracy”, summing up:
To Lenin, a capitalist was worse than a king. An industrial magnate or leading banker to him was more perilous than a tsar or a kaiser. The working classes, he said, had nothing to lose, whether their rulers were German, French or British. The imperative thing for them to do was to prepare for a social revolution.
Menshevik leader Raphael Abramovitch recalled, similarly, that Lenin argued “world revolution would help Russia overcome her general backwardness … turn her into a socialist country”, but that “this concept shocked the Russian Marxists in April 1917” and “isolated him even within his own party circle”.23
Angelica Balabanoff had heard Lenin make similar points just before he left his Swiss exile for Russia: “Unless the Russian Revolution develops into a second and successful Paris Commune,” she remembers him saying, “reaction and war will suffocate it.” She confessed that “I had been trained, like most Marxists, to expect the social revolution to be inaugurated in one of the highly industrialised countries, and at the time Lenin’s analysis of the Russian events seemed to me almost utopian.” After her own return to Russia, she concluded that, had those activists who embraced Lenin’s analysis failed to convince “the peasants, workers and soldiers of the need for a more far-reaching, socialist revolution in Russia, tsarism or some similar form of autocracy would have been restored”.24
Initially, however, as Levine and Abramovitch note, many had a very different reaction - it all seemed demagogic and out of touch with reality. To an old Bolshevik transitioning to Menshevism, Vladimir Voytinsky, what Lenin had to say was a “diatribe that would become the Sermon on the Mount of a new church”, in which “Lenin mingled Marxian terminology and old clichés with strange new slogans”.25
Menshevik leader Theodore Dan reminisced that
with the astonishing revolutionary flair peculiar to him, Lenin … removed the slogan of the ‘democratic republic’ completely and made his chief agitational slogan ‘workers’ control’ - among the workers; confiscation of all the big estates - among the peasants; and an immediate peace - among the soldiers.26
Why should we wait for a peace concluded by governments? Make peace with your German brothers, regiment by regiment, company by company, through fraternisation! Why should we wait for a Constituent Assembly? Seize power at once through the soviets and write your own laws. The agrarian question? Let the landless peasants and farmhands take land wherever they find it.27
Another Menshevik, NN Sukhanov, offers a similar summary, adding that Lenin’s speech “was a bolt from the blue not only for me”, and that “it caused the more literate of his faithful disciples extreme perplexity”, resulting in “his complete isolation not only among Social Democrats in general, but also among his own disciples”. Alexandra Kollontai, a Menshevik-turned-Bolshevik, recalled: “I was in substantial agreement with Lenin and stood closer to him than many of his older followers and friends”, adding that in the meetings recalled by Voytinsky, Sukhanov and Dan, “I was the only one of his party comrades who took the floor to support his theses.”28
Veteran Bolshevik Fyodor Raskolnikov describes the same meetings “The most responsible party workers were represented here, but even for them what Ilyich said constituted a veritable revelation,” he notes. “It laid down a ‘Rubicon’ between the tactics of yesterday and those of today.” Lenin’s position “produced a complete revolution in the thinking of the party’s leaders. And underlay all the subsequent work of the Bolsheviks.” Raskolnikov concludes: “It was not without cause that our party’s tactics did not follow a straight line, but after Lenin’s return took a sharp turn to the left.”29
“Lenin expounded his views as to what had to be done in a number of theses,” his close comrade, Krupskaya, reminisced regarding the April controversy:
The comrades were somewhat taken aback for the moment. Some of them thought that Ilyich was presenting the case in much too blunt a manner, and that it was too early yet to speak of a socialist revolution.
Lenin’s April theses were published in Pravda, followed by an article by editor Lev Kamenev, “in which he dissociated himself from these theses”. These were, according to Kamenev, “the expression of Lenin’s private views, which neither Pravda nor the bureau of the central committee shared”. Krupskaya notes: “A struggle started within the Bolshevik organisation. It did not last long.” She adds that “a number of important events took place which showed that Lenin had been right”, that Lenin’s point of view won the backing of a decisive majority in the Bolshevik organisation, first in Petrograd, then in the Bolshevik central committee, and finally at an all-Russia conference held near the end of April.30
Eduard Dune, a working class militant in Bolshevism’s ranks, described how he and his comrades went on to debate the Mensheviks in the factories once the new line was consolidated. The mass working class upsurge of February - overthrowing the tsar, creating revolutionary-democratic soviets, whose authority rivalled that of the Provisional government, empowering workers in their workplaces - had made factory-wide debates the new normal. The Bolsheviks’ opponents - older, experienced workers, quoting Bebel and Lassalle and Marx from memory - argued: “A socialist revolution could occur only when the country was mature economically and culturally, and then the transition from bourgeois-democratic revolution to socialism would be as natural as our revolution had been in February.” Bolshevik partisans, absorbing such texts as Lenin’s ‘Letters from afar’, argued differently and more effectively: “Did we need a government composed of representatives of the bourgeoisie and former tsarist officials or should we transfer power into the hands of the representatives of the revolution, the representatives of the working class, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies?”
They drove the argument home: “The Bolsheviks said that the transfer of power to the soviets meant creating what we already had at the factory - a dictatorship of the proletariat.” They elaborated:
We must preserve and strengthen the power we had won during the revolution, not give any of it away to the bourgeoisie. We must not liquidate the soviets as organs of power, but transfer power to them instead, so that there would no longer be dual power, but a single revolutionary government.31
The situation varied in different places. Serving as a navy sub-lieutenant in the Finnish borderland, Bolshevik militant AF Ilyin-Genevsky reported sharply contradictory moods within the crowds, and a lack of unity among the Bolsheviks themselves: “In the committee there were two points of view on the political situation: one more moderate, approaching the point of view of Kamenev at that time; and the other more revolutionary, based on the famous thesis published by Lenin immediately on his arrival from abroad.” Two prominent and articulate comrades in their ranks adhered to one and the other of the two positions, and the Bolshevik committee was preparing for a mass meeting that would be discussing the political situation. “In order to deal with all sides of this important point on the agenda, it was decided to have both points of view advocated, and let these two speakers deal with the question.” The discussion was full and animated, and at its conclusion
the meeting adopted a compromise resolution, in which the Provisional government was recognised to the extent that its actions did not clash with the actions of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. On the other hand, the resolution exposed the bourgeois character of the Provisional government, and demanded that all power should be handed over to the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets.”32
Nonetheless, as events of the summer and early autumn unfolded, they were seen by many (as Krupskaya had put it) as having “showed that Lenin had been right”. The Menshevik, Abramovitch, noted:
the balance of forces within the all-important soviets had shifted radically. One soviet after another was slipping out of the control of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks and into the hands of the Bolsheviks and their allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries.
Particularly “among the workers in Petrograd, the atmosphere was becoming increasingly tense as the second congress of Soviets approached. Bolshevik slogans were winning support in most large factories”. While “the country as a whole … was not nearly so uniform,” he observed,
nevertheless, the trend in October was unmistakable … The Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were aware that the rising tide of political and social discontent was carrying the Bolshevik party toward victory.33
In combing through these accounts from people who lived through the period culminating in the October revolution, we can find - just as Wolfe noted regarding John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world - contradictions, as well as “gossip, rumour and conjecture that accorded with preconceptions”, and also slips in memory, slips of the tongue, and other slips away from some of the actual facts. Yet, taken together, one could say (as Wolfe says about Reed’s work) that they provide “a record of significant detail, a repository of facts for the historian, … precious material”, forming a pattern of impressions that help give us a sense of what happened in history.
It is hardly the case that after-the-fact reminiscences somehow trump primary documentary sources emerging from the immediate events. But reminiscences such as these - which come from a variety of sources not flowing from the same fountainhead, and which seem to form a particularly coherent and compelling pattern - should themselves be seen as constituting a unique primary source, and they must be taken seriously, as latter-day historians craft their interpretations of what actually happened. They must be harmonised more carefully with the other primary sources than either Blanc or Lih have done.
The bottom line
The richness that Blanc and Lih have brought to our understanding of the Russian Revolution cannot be denied or minimised - even within contributions that have been the focus of the present critique. The vast, complex, multi-faceted process that culminated in the revolution of October 1917 was fraught with multiple contradictions, and many of these are fruitfully revealed in the challenges posed, and the research offered, by these iconoclastic scholars.
At the same time, as we sift through the evidence available to us, it does seem that the Bolsheviks believed they were - in a significant way - initiating a socialist revolution in 1917. While rooted in longstanding Bolshevik perspectives of worker-peasant alliance, this was not simply the “old Bolshevism” of 1905. The new element in the Bolshevik orientation was decisively pushed forward by Lenin in April 1917, and it had won mass support by October. To label this “rearming the party” is by no means far-fetched.
This article was first published at https://johnriddell.wordpress.com.
2. An early articulation can be found in LT Lih, ‘The ironic triumph of old Bolshevism: the debates of April 1917 in context’ Russian History 38, 2011.
4. P Le Blanc Unfinished Leninism: the rise and return of a revolutionary doctrine Chicago 2014, pp189-93.
5. LT Lih, ‘Democratic centralism: fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013.
6. LD Easton and KH Guddat (eds) Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society New York 1967, p427. Some would translate this final phrase as ‘The same old shit starts all over again’.
7. Reproduced in J Reed Ten days that shook the world New York 1926, pp363-64.
8. This is elaborated and documented in various works, most recently P Le Blanc October song: Bolshevik triumph, communist tragedy, 1917-1924 Chicago 2017, pp131-79.
9. NK Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin New York 1979, pp327-33.
10. VI Lenin, ‘The state and revolution’ CW Vol 25, Moscow 1974, p437.
11. VI Lenin, ‘Letters from afar’ CW Vol 23 Moscow 1974, pp325-26.
12. VI Lenin, ‘Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution’ CW Vol 9, Moscow 1972, pp80-81, 48.
13. Ibid pp49, 83.
14. VI Lenin, ‘A revolution of the 1789 or the 1848 type?’ CW Vol 8, Moscow 1974, p257.
15. L Trotsky 1905 Chicago 2016, p42; L Trotsky The permanent revolution and results and prospects New York 1978, p132.
16. L Trotsky, ‘Thirty-five years after: 1871-1906’ in Leon Trotsky on the Paris Commune New York 1970, p24.
17. L Trotsky The permanent revolution and results and prospects New York 1978, pp69-72.
18. A Rabinowitch Prelude to revolution: the Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 uprising Bloomington 1968, p40.
19. DA Longley Factional strife and policy-making in the Bolshevik Party, 1912-April 1917(with special reference to the Baltic fleet organisations 1903-17) PhD dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1978, pp251-52, 337-38.
20. JD White, ‘Early Soviet historical interpretations of the Russian Revolution 1918-24’ Soviet Studies 37, 3, 1985, pp330, 332, 333, 335, 342, 346, 350.
21. G Hicks John Reed: the making of a revolutionary New York 1936, pp290-91; RA Rosenstone Romantic revolutionary: a biography of John Reed New York 1975, p307.
22. BD Wolfe, ‘Introduction’ in J Reed Ten days that shook the world New York 1960, ppxxxii-xxxiii, xxxv, xxxvi.
23. ID Levine The Russian Revolution New York 1917, pp275-76; RR Abramovitch The Soviet revolution 1917-1939 New York 1962, pp30-31.
24. A Balabanoff My life as a rebel Bloomington 1973, pp143-44.
25. VS Voytinsky Stormy passage: a personal history through two Russian revolutions to democracy and freedom, 1905-1960 New York 1961, pp265-66.
26. T Dan The origins of Bolshevism New York 1970, p406.
27. VS Voytinsky Stormy passage: a personal history through two Russian revolutions to democracy and freedom, 1905-1960 New York 1961, p266.
28. NN Sukhanov The Russian Revolution 1917: a personal record Princeton 1984, pp281, 282, 283, 288; A Kollontai The autobiography of a sexually emancipated communist woman New York 1975, pp27, 31.
29. FF Raskolnikov Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 London 1982, pp76-77.
30. NK Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin New York 1979, pp348-51.
31. EM Dune Notes of a Red Guard (Chicago 1993, pp48-50.
32. AF Ilyin-Genevsky From the February revolution to the October revolution 1917 New York 1931, pp43-45.
33. RR Abramovitch The Soviet revolution 1917-1939 New York 1962, pp75-77.