Lev Kamenev and Vladimir Lenin: misunderstandings, but essential unity

A curious case

Were the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Kamenev supporters of the Provisional Government and hostile to soviet power? Lars T Lih puts the story straight

Lev Kamenev was the de facto leader of the Bolshevik Party for a few weeks in March and early April 1917, before Lenin’s return to Russia. Even after, he remained in the top leadership core of four or five persons. Yet he has gone down in history as someone whose outlook differed from Lenin’s in profound ways - as someone who was practically indistinguishable from a ‘moderate’ Menshevik; someone who supported the ‘bourgeois’ Provisional Government, denied that the war was imperialist, was hostile to the idea of soviet power, supported ‘revolutionary defencism’ and in general acted in non-revolutionary ways. Anyone who reads this article and the accompanying documentation will realise that this portrait is the complete opposite of the truth. A curious case, indeed!

This article is the first entry in a three-part series under the general title of ‘The Bolsheviks in 1917: champions of the unwritten constitution’. The second entry will be devoted to the way Lenin defined the message that the Bolsheviks wanted to send to the workers, soldiers and peasants of Russia in 1917. Since Lenin and Kamenev are so often seen as polar opposites, these two entries will not only document the content of the message, but reveal an underlying core consensus. The third entry will look at the Bolshevik message from yet another angle: namely, from the point of view of the ‘moderate’ or ‘agreementist’ socialists who opposed it. Front and centre here will be Irakli Tsereteli, the main proponent of ‘revolutionary defencism’.

As accompanying documentation for the present article, I have prepared a long list of extracts from Kamenev’s pronouncements in March and April 1917 under the title ‘Kamenev one-liners’. Later I will explain the nature of this document and why I gave it this rather odd name. Suffice to say here that it provides a more complete view of what Kamenev was saying and doing during this period than anything now available. As a general introduction to the projected series, I will set out the Bolshevik message in terms that are valid for the whole revolutionary year, from February to October.

Bolshevik message

This message and the accompanying tactical guidelines are a core Bolshevik consensus, uniting Kamenev and Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. The heart of the message can be stated in one sentence: an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets is the only way to effectively defend the revolution and carry out its goals.

Let us start unpacking this sentence by defining vlast. Vlast can be defined as the sovereign authority in a society, the institution with the right to make ultimate decisions and to see those decisions enforced. It is variously translated as ‘regime’, ‘power’, ‘authority’, ‘government’ and more. The Bolsheviks called for a vlast that could carry out revolutionary goals vigorously and with all the power of the state. The essential feature of this revolutionary vlast was its class basis: workers and peasants. The institutional embodiment of this vlast - the soviet system that was asserting itself across Russia - was less essential, but still an overwhelmingly likely outcome under the concrete circumstances of Russia in 1917.

Now let us move on to ‘defend the revolution and carry out its goals’. The Bolsheviks were not original in their understanding of these words and did not want to be. The first revolutionary goal: ending the war as rapidly as possible, but with a ‘democratic’ peace (no annexations, no indemnities, national self-determination). Second: land to the peasants, along with liquidation of the pomeshchiki (gentry landowners) as a class. Third: an effective state response to the accelerating economic crisis in a way that prioritised the interests of the narod - ‘the people’, a category that comprised workers, peasants and the urban ‘petty bourgeoisie’. Finally, defence of the revolution essentially meant preventing the dispersal of the soviets and the wide range of democratic organisations - ‘the committees’, as exasperated elite Russia referred to them - recently set up in the army, the factories and the villages.

These aims can be summed up in the traditional triad: peace, land, bread. But no-one needed the Bolsheviks to tell them that peace, land and bread were basic goals. All the socialist parties in the soviet system - and even many reformers in the parties of elite Russia - accepted these goals just as I have defined them. What distinguished the Bolsheviks was rather their stance on a basic choice that confronted the soviet constituency - the workers and soldiers who elected representatives to sit on the soviets - about how to achieve these commonly accepted aims.

The Bolsheviks insisted that only an exclusive worker-peasant vlast could carry out the goals of the revolution. ‘Exclusive’ is the meaning of ‘all’ in ‘All power to the soviets!’ The soviet constituency faced an unavoidable choice in its pursuit of its aims: achieving revolutionary goals by means of a political agreement with elite reformers, or rejecting any such agreement. ‘Agreement’ (soglashenie) was the word both sides used to describe the content of basic choice - this unavoidable fork in the revolutionary road ahead. The Bolsheviks coined the term ‘agreementism’ (soglashatelstvo) to show their heavy disapproval of the tactics advocated by the ‘moderate’ socialists. The Bolsheviks were not the only anti-agreementists, however, since similarly-minded factions were a significant presence among the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. They were, however, the only anti-agreementist party.

We now can reformulate the Bolshevik message: the revolutionary narod cannot achieve its goals by means of a meaningful political agreement with elite society, or even its liberal reformist wing. Why not? Because of a profound clash of class interests between narod and elite society. Since the Provisional Government that was set up during the February days was the representative of elite society, it was therefore counterrevolutionary in its essence - so asserted the Bolsheviks. Consider (the argument continued): the war is imperialist, Russia’s ‘Allies’ are imperialist, the war aims inherited from the secret treaties negotiated by the tsarist government and still in force are imperialist. Yet the agreementist socialists want to arrive at a democratic peace and revision of war aims with the cooperation of the Provisional Government and, behind them, the Allies. This effort is doomed to defeat. Yet these so-called ‘revolutionary defencists’ ask the soviets to support the war effort with the bogus claim that the Provisional Government is sincerely working to revise war aims in a democratic direction.

Similar critiques were aimed at agreementist tactics for all the other revolutionary aims. Do you really expect gentry landowners to give land to the peasants? Do you really expect Russian capitalists to push the state to regulate the economy in a way that favours the narod? Class interests are the motor of the revolution, and therefore - asserted the Bolsheviks - a clash between the Provisional Government and the revolutionary narod is absolutely inevitable. This point was reiterated again and again by Kamenev and Stalin in March, and later by Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and an army of Bolshevik agitators afterwards.

Right now (March-April), the soviet constituency - naive and new to politics - does not yet grasp these essential truths. We Bolsheviks will show them otherwise; but our efforts would be in vain if events did not teach the same lesson more convincingly still: agreementism - and the agreementists - must be rejected.

From this outline of the driving forces and prospects of the Russian Revolution is derived a set of tactical guidelines. The actual replacement of the Provisional Government by a worker-peasant vlast will take place when - and only when - a solid majority of the soviet constituency is disillusioned with agreementism. This imperative has positive implications for what the Bolsheviks must do and negative implications for what they must avoid. At this point, I will narrow the focus to the last two weeks in March 1917, after Kamenev and Stalin had returned from internal exile and before Lenin returned from foreign exile. What were the concrete measures adopted by the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd to put their tactical guidelines into practice?

On the positive side, the Bolshevik leaders called for and began to carry out agitation campaigns based on concrete policy proposals that (a) would reveal the Bolsheviks to have real-world answers to the urgent concerns of the soviet constituency and (b) would be unacceptable to the agreementists and to the Provisional Government. Such campaigns were traditional tools of what I have elsewhere termed the campaignism of the pre-war international social democratic movement.

The central slogan/proposals adopted by the Bolshevik leaders in March consisted of two demands on the Provisional Government: publish the secret treaties! Announce an immediate call to begin peace negotiations on democratic principles with any or all belligerents! In late March, these two demands were put forth in the factories and other local rallies. When the Bolsheviks proposed that the All-Russian Soviet Conference in late March make these demands on the Provisional Government, they were soundly rebuffed by the agreementist leaders of the soviet majority. Irakli Tsereteli, the chief spokesman of the agreementist socialists, immediately sensed what turned out to be the case: these measures would alienate Russia’s allies (indeed, they were meant to) and lead eventually to a separate peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary.

These demands and the campaigns built around them continued throughout the year. Here is a remarkable fact: the Second Congress of Soviets in October installed a government based exclusively on the soviets and issued two notable decrees. One decree issued a call for immediate general peace negotiations and announced the publication of the secret treaties. The other decree ended gentry land ownership and transferred land to the peasants - a measure which, of course, the Bolsheviks had always called for. In other words, what the Bolsheviks demanded at the March All-Russian Soviet Conference, prior to Lenin’s return - namely, an anti-agreementist and exclusively soviet government, a call for general peace negotiations, publication of the secret treaties, immediate land to the peasants - predicted exactly what the Second Congress of Soviets in October actually did.

Making demands

The reader may have picked up on the word ‘demand’. Let us dwell on this a little, since it led to some confusion later on - first between Lenin and Kamenev in April, and then among historians up to the present day. People hear that Kamenev and Stalin asked the soviets to demand that the Provisional Government open general peace negotiations, call for revolutions in allied countries in order to bring about a democratic peace, publish the secret treaties, and so on and so forth. Then these people reason: if the Bolsheviks demand that the Provisional Government do this or that, it must be because they hoped and expected that the Provisional Government might actually do these things. And that means they were little more than reformers that gave the liberal government ‘critical’ or ‘conditional’ support. And it also means, doesn’t it, that they thought soviet power was unnecessary, since the liberals at the helm of the Provisional Government could be counted to carry out revolutionary policies?

The idea that Bolshevik leaders thought these things needs only to be stated clearly and explicitly to reveal its complete absurdity. In the first place, any such belief would have been stupid and uninformed. Who stood at the helm of the Provisional Government’s foreign policy? The foreign minister, Pavel Miliukov, and the war minister, Aleksandr Guchkov. Both of these men had long political careers and their truly imperialist views on foreign policy were known to any informed observer. Second, Kamenev was just about the last person in Russia to be naive in this particular way about Miliukov and Guchkov: there exists a long paper trail of Kamenev’s pre-war exposés of liberal foreign policy and of the imperialist ambitions of Miliukov and Guchkov in particular. Thirdly, as we shall see, at the same time they were making these ‘demands’, Kamenev and Stalin were telling anyone who would listen that the Provisional Government was counterrevolutionary in its essence and would inevitably move against the revolution in the near future.

So why did they make these ‘demands’? Kamenev explained this very clearly a couple of weeks later in April in his critique of Lenin, who condemned ‘demands’ as an agitation technique. Kamenev’s explanation is worthy of our close attention:

You know, comrades, that at the present moment, not one meeting goes by without a resolution being passed that demands the publication of the secret treaties. Should we, as a political party, take on ourselves to demand the publication of the secret treaties - announce that this is our political demand? People will say to me: excuse me, you’re demanding something impossible. But the demands I make are not founded on the expectation that Miliukov will respond to me and publish the treaties.

The policy of making demands that I am advocating is an agitational device for the development of the masses: a method of exposure of the fact that Guchkov and Miliukov cannot do this, that they do not want the publication of the secret treaties, that they are against the policy of peace. It is a device for showing the masses that, if they really want to create a revolutionary policy on an international level, then the vlast must be transferred into the hands of the Soviet.

The negative implication of the need to attain majority support was the imperative of avoiding premature and disorganising attempts to overthrow the Provisional Government before the Bolsheviks had a solid majority in the soviet constituency for their anti-agreementist message. For this reason, the Bolshevik leaders in March were very careful to point out that they were not calling for an uprising now, this very minute. There was no real disagreement with Lenin on this point. Kamenev and Stalin said in March: we don’t want to replace the government now, but a little later, when we have majority support. Lenin said in April: we don’t want to replace the government now, but a little later, when we have majority support. Too many historians look at these positions and conclude that there is a great gulf between Kamenev and Lenin: one did not want to replace the government and the other did!

We will end this section by repeating the one-sentence summary of the Bolshevik core consensus that we have just now tried to unpack: an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets is the only way to effectively defend the revolution and carry out its goals.

Dealing with anomalies

For most readers, I would guess, the following discussion will be completely unsurprising. Kamenev thought the war was imperialist? Well, yeah, he was a Bolshevik, wasn’t he? But for a certain type of reader - the knowledgeable, the specialists, those who are familiar with the secondary literature about 1917, either because they read it or they write it - much of what I show here will be flabbergasting. Why is this? Because they have a certain interpretive framework and because they think this framework rests on indisputable facts - and this framework excludes even the possibility that Kamenev said what he in fact did say.

I have sometimes referred disparagingly to these supposed facts that prop up the standard interpretation as ‘recycled one-liners’ - and indeed, this is a fairly precise description. There are a certain number - not a very high number - of Kamenev quotes that travel from secondary account to secondary account. All specialists know them. And, because of that, they are completely sceptical of my findings about Bolshevik consensus.

There are only two problems. First, as far as I am aware, there exists to date no detailed account of Kamenev’s arguments and pronouncements during this period (and very little for other periods). I do not think there is a single document by Kamenev from March/April available in English (besides the ones I have already put online). To remedy this, I am preparing a document with a much more complete set of translations. The second problem is that within these documents lurk a great many one-liners that, far from supporting standard interpretations, pose insuperable problems for them.

A personal note: for the last decade or so, I have advanced a new interpretation of the course of Bolshevik events in this short period - one that points to a core Bolshevik consensus, which can be precisely defined. And the most common reaction I get from my specialist colleagues is: Lars, that can’t be right. What about this [recycled one-liner] or that [recycled one-liner]? And this is a perfectly justified and legitimate challenge! I should be able to explain away seeming anomalies: that is, data that seem on their face to cause problems for my particular interpretation. And, one by one, I have investigated these challenges: for a catalogue of my research results, see most conveniently the online series ‘All power to the soviets!’ that John Riddell made available on his blog.1

But, annoyingly, my diligence in this respect means I am always on the defensive! I am always looking like I’m trying to explain away inconvenient facts - which I am, because I should! So now I am going on the offensive and putting forth inconvenient facts for others to explain away. My document, ‘Kamenev one-liners’ (which follows this article) presents a whole heap of anomalies - many, many more than were ever presented to me. They show Kamenev again and again saying and doing the things he could not have said or done if the standard interpretation was valid.

I have paid my dues by taking seriously all the anomalies flung at me. It is time for those who cling to the old interpretation to pay some dues of their own by seriously considering in good faith how this material can possibly fit with the standard interpretations that portray Kamenev as a demi-semi-Menshevik.

‘One-liners’ is a somewhat figurative description - many items in my document stretch out to several sentences. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that they provide a complete and fully nuanced picture of Bolshevik activity during March and April: I have extracted the items that in and of themselves cause most damage to opposing interpretations. Nevertheless, these ‘one-liners’ present a fully accurate picture of what Kamenev was saying and thinking in this crucial period.

My Kamenev one-liners are taken from newspaper editorials, speeches and resolutions that we can reliably say come directly from Kamenev or with his full endorsement. My document can be divided into two parts: before Lenin arrived in Russia and after.

In the following section, I will document the Bolshevik message using material from the one-liners. In the final section, I will look at what Kamenev found troubling about the April theses. Our interest here is not whether Kamenev correctly understood what Lenin was saying, but rather: what does his critique show about his own views of what was happening in Russia and how the Bolsheviks should respond? As we will see, Kamenev was an eloquent and passionate exponent of the Bolshevik message and a firm supporter of the drive for full soviet power.

March 1917 Bolshevik message

The basic logic of the Bolshevik message is set out clearly enough in Kamenev’s first Pravda editorial that appeared right after his return to Petrograd. First and foremost is the inevitable clash between the ‘democratic’ narod and the ‘bourgeois’ Provisional Government:

We must realise that the paths of the democracy and of the Provisional Government will diverge - that, when the bourgeoisie comes to its senses, it will inevitably attempt to halt the revolutionary movement and not permit it to develop to the point of satisfying the essential needs of the proletariat and the peasantry.

Why is this inevitable? Because of the ‘social nature of the strata’ behind the Provisional Government. Since class forces are the underlying motor of the revolution, we can be sure that if the Provisional Government is not openly counterrevolutionary as yet, “it is only because they don’t have the strength for it”.

Therefore, of course, the Provisional Government deserves nothing more than a vote of no confidence from the soviets. Or, as Kamenev puts it more strongly, “absolute lack of confidence [nedoverie] in any liberal promises”. From this it follows that socialist agreementism is doomed: “The active forces of the great revolution are working for us; they are exposing the inadequacy and the limitations of any attempt to solve the tasks of the revolution by means of compromise.”

Bottom line: “This full satisfaction of the demands [of the proletariat, peasantry and army] is possible only when full and complete vlast [vsia polnota vlasti] is in their own hands.” The immediate goal, then, is a worker-peasant vlast that rejects agreementist compromise, eliminates the counterrevolutionary liberals and carries out the goals of the revolution. Or, in the snappier form adopted a couple of months later: ‘All power to the soviets!’

The most overwhelming force driving apart the Provisional Government and the soviet system is the imperialist war. An unsigned Pravda editorial on March 26 that I believe was drafted by Kamenev explains why the imperialist war makes support for the Provisional Government impossible:

Some will say to us: why don’t you call outright for support of the Provisional Government, just as the bourgeois and radical press is doing, as the party of Socialist Revolutionaries is doing, and Plekhanov and all social-patriots are doing? … Those who talk of ‘support’ forget or do not wish to say that this government by its origins and by its interests remains a government of imperialist war.

The whole opening section of Kamenev’s speech to the conference was a rabble-rousing denunciation of the war. In a climactic passage, Kamenev spoke of the immense damage done by the imperialist war, not only to the Russian narod, but also the narody - the popular masses - in all countries:

In this grave moment, do not allow illusions to possess us: only one thing is demanded of you, the same that we should demand of ourselves - the truth. Too many high-sounding words have covered up the robber policies that triumphed and led to war … We must say that this is not a narodnyi war, that this war was not dreamed up by the narody, that the imperialist classes of all countries have doomed us to this war.

In his speech to the conference, Kamenev urged the soviets to demand that the Provisional Government move toward peace: “We must say: revolutionary Russia demands that the Provisional Government formulate the will of revolutionary Russia toward peace, and [revolutionary Russia] expects that only an uprising of the oppressed narody of other countries will support the Russian Revolution.” Can we deduce from this that Kamenev seriously believed that the Provisional Government might actually call for “an uprising of the oppressed narody of other countries”? Please. In the very same speech, Kamenev insisted on the counterrevolutionary nature of the Provisional Government:

The Provisional Government comes out of the milieu of militaristic bourgeois circles. It has been able to fulfil a few of the tasks set out by us [the Soviet] and by our masses in their revolutionary creativity, despite its class nature, only under the pressure of the revolutionary masses. This same government is the banner that covers up the organisation of counterrevolution. We must say that this counterrevolution that is being organised is already attacking the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies.

He also insisted - in a key statement - that the soviets were well on their way to becoming a fully-fledged revolutionary vlast:

Our attitude toward the Provisional Government at the present moment can be expressed this way: we foresee inevitable clashes - not between individuals, not between official bodies, not between groups, but between the classes of our Russian Revolution. We therefore should direct all our forces toward supporting not the Provisional Government, but the embryo of a revolutionary vlast, as embodied by the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies, which sits here in our person.

The metaphor of an ‘embryo’ vlast was one way the Bolshevik leaders avoided a direct call for revolutionary replacement of the Provisional Government right now, while making clear their firm intention to install a vlast based on the soviets a bit later. As Kamenev told the All-Russian Soviet Conference in late March, “right now we do not want to overthrow this Provisional Government, we do not want to take the initiative of any revolutionary struggle against this government at the given moment, this very minute”. Nevertheless, it is clear that that the soviet system “will grow into the vlast”. I rather doubt that Kamenev’s agreementist opponents or any elite observers were particularly reassured by Kamenev’s statement that “we do not want to overthrow this Provisional Government right now, this very minute”.

Why did the Bolsheviks not call for an overthrow of the government “right now, this very minute”? On the one hand, the Bolsheviks themselves - not to mention the still chaotic soviet system - were not ready to effectively take and hold power:

Have we developed to the point that we can create the dictatorship of the proletariat? No. What is important is not taking the vlast: what is important is keeping it. This moment will come, but it will be advantageous for us to put it off, since right now our forces are still inadequate.

On the other hand, the Bolsheviks were far from enjoying majority support from the soviet constituency and therefore they needed to find imaginative ways to acquire this support. As Kamenev said in camera to fellow Bolsheviks on March 18,

We are the representatives of the revolutionary element in Petrograd, but, in the meantime, it seems that the wide masses do not understand us. Evidently, since we are essentially correct, we are formulating our resolutions and decisions in a way that the masses do not understand.

The best way to acquire majority support was to set in motion massive agitation campaigns that would put forth concrete proposals to current problems - proposals that only a worker-peasant vlast would realistically be inclined to carry out. The goal was to enable the soviet constituency to “see clearly the actual aims of the governments”:

And when millions of soldiers and workers on all fronts see clearly the actual aims of the governments that dragged them into the bloody shambles, it will mean not only an end to the war, but also a decisive step against the system of violence and exploitation that causes all the wars.

Campaigns aiming at a full, exclusive worker-peasant vlast were necessarily directed not only against the government, but against the ‘revolutionary defencism’ of agreementist socialists, who argued that a democratic peace and a revision of war aims could be achieved with the cooperation of the Provisional Government. When the Bolshevik Central Committee in Petrograd passed the following resolution on March 22, ‘revolutionary defencism’ had barely begun to cohere, yet the Bolsheviks leaders were swift to condemn it. The resolution opposed not only “the imperialist current that is zealously cultivated and inflamed by the liberal bourgeoisie”, but also “the nationalist current in the revolution, as represented by the petty bourgeois groups that have attached themselves to the revolution”. Any hesitation in opposing this socialist “nationalist current” would be a betrayal of basic principles.

As the ‘one-liner’ document shows, Kamenev hit all these talking points again and again throughout March, Reading through this material is instructive, precisely because it is so repetitious and insistent. Kamenev set forth the core Bolshevik message loud and he set it forth proud. Tying it all together was a view of

the Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies in the cities and the Soviets of Peasant and Batrak Deputies in the villages, as embryos of a revolutionary vlast that will be prepared at a given moment in the further development of the revolution to institute a full and complete vlast in alliance with revolutionary democracy, so that the demands of the insurgent people may be fully realised.

Worker-peasant vlast

In April 1917, Kamenev wrote Pravda articles and made speeches at party conferences that criticised what appeared to him to be troublesome aspects of Lenin’s April theses. These articles and speeches are famous in their way: see how the Bolsheviks failed to grasp the wisdom of Lenin’s bold new vision! Yet, if any historian has analysed Kamenev’s actual argument - if any secondary account does more than quote in passing two or three notorious phrases - I have not seen it. In my ‘one-liner’ document, I have provided sufficient extracts from Kamenev’s pronouncements for us to see what was on his mind. And what was on his mind was the fastest and most effective way to achieve full soviet power.

Kamenev may or may not have understood Lenin’s outlook correctly - for us, this is not the interesting question. In my view, mutual misunderstandings account for the lion’s share of this dispute. Before getting into Kamenev’s concerns then, a couple of remarks on his understanding the April theses will be helpful. First, please note what did not bother Kamenev about the April theses. He leaves without criticism Lenin’s calls for no support for the imperialist war, no support for revolutionary defencism, no support for the Provisional Government, and full support for a worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets to be established only with majority support from the soviet constituency. Why should he have opposed this core part of the Bolshevik message? He had been hitting away at the same points himself since his return to Petrograd in mid-March.

What, then, did bother Kamenev? Answer: Lenin’s alleged call for “the immediate transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist one”. But, if we turn to the actual April theses, we are hard put to find any such call - Kamenev is reading something into Lenin’s theses that is not there. I think I can explain why Kamenev imposed this interpretation - but, some other time! I will point out here that, when Lenin realised the damage caused by this misinterpretation, he wrote an article entitled ‘A basic question’, in which he energetically disassociated himself from it. The text of this article with commentary can be found in my ‘All power to the soviets!’ series.

Why was Kamenev so insistent that the bourgeois-democratic revolution was not yet complete? Because he was a pedant obsessed with the proper Marxist label for the ongoing revolution? No - as my excerpts plainly show, his overriding concern was about the viability of the worker-peasant alliance. According to the rules of Marxist discourse then applying (they changed later), a worker-peasant vlast could only be the product of a democratic revolution, not a socialist one. And why was Kamenev so concerned with the peasant-worker alliance? Because both his long-term Bolshevik convictions and his perceptions of what was going on around him told him that soviet power was a viable proposition only through the worker-peasant bloc.

Thus we can easily perceive how off-base and even bizarre is the common interpretation of Kamenev’s argument: the bourgeois-democratic revolution is unfinished - and therefore we should allow the Provisional Government to go on its way undisturbed and allow elite society to run things. No, no, no - Kamenev’s argument is exactly the opposite. The bourgeois-democratic revolution is unfinished, yes - but therefore we need to replace the liberal Provisional Government as soon as possible with a worker-peasant vlast that will be up to the job of finishing up the democratic transformation of Russia. And if the bourgeois-democratic revolution is in fact finished - meaning that the worker-peasant bloc is no longer viable - then the chances of any kind of truly revolutionary vlast in Russia in 1917 are very dim!

If the bourgeois-democratic revolution is finished, then this bloc could not exist, no definite tasks would stand before it, and the proletariat would conduct a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeois-democratic bloc. Working together at such a moment would be completely impossible.

The insistence on the worker-peasant bloc is the heart of Kamenev’s critique. Here is a paraphrase of his full argument in April:

Our most urgent aim is - or should be - to replace the Provisional Government in the near future with an exclusive worker-peasant vlast, based on the soviets, that alone will be capable of defending the revolution and carrying out its goals. To achieve this aim, we need, first and foremost, a strong alliance between workers and peasants. We need to respect the non-socialist goals of our allies. We need aggressive agitation campaigns that make vivid demands on the Provisional Government in order to expose its counterrevolutionary nature. We cannot be passive, waiting for objective circumstances to do our job. We need to make concrete policy proposals for solving pressing problems, or the soviet constituency will listen to other voices. But some aspects of comrade Lenin’s theses seem to imply that this standard Bolshevik view of things must now be ditched - thus dooming our fundamental goal in this revolution, the one that is now going on in Russia: establishment of an exclusive worker-peasant vlast.

Thus Kamenev. Let us briefly focus on a few of his key points. As Kamenev remarked, the official name of the soviets themselves - ‘Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies’ - “shows that they represent a bloc composed of petty bourgeois and proletarian forces, before which stand unfinished bourgeois-democratic tasks”. The central item in the list of unfinished “democratic” tasks is land to the peasants:

the revolution is not yet completed, because the whole mass of gentry [pomeshchik] land still finds itself in the hands of the gentry. We should acknowledge that gentry land owning - formally and factually a classic holdover of feudalism - is not yet liquidated.

Kamenev explicitly notes that the revolution in Russia is not the classic type of bourgeois revolution, in which the bourgeoisie itself runs the show. On the contrary, this is a 20th century-style ‘bourgeois revolution’, in which the proletariat, not the bourgeoisie, has hegemony. And the central challenge of preserving proletariat hegemony is “working with the bloc, supporting it, constructing our tactics with the aim of making sure we do not tear apart the bloc”. This imperative continued to be the mantra of Bolshevism, receiving eloquent expression, for example, in Lenin’s final articles in 1923.

Kamenev reiterates the points made in March about the inevitable clash between the Provisional Government and the soviets, while explaining that

the Provisional Government will inevitably clash not only with the proletariat as a class with a socialist outlook, but also - in view of the fact that the government is bourgeois and imperialist - it will also clash with the entire petty-bourgeois bloc.

The war is a central reason for the inevitable clash of the government with the whole range of democratic organisations: “Either the revolution will cut short the war or the war will attack the conquests of the revolution.”

Kamenev’s critique in April is usually dismissed as the losing side of the battle within the party, as a roadmap that was not followed. On the contrary, his analysis in his April remarks of the driving forces and prospects of the Russian Revolution is shrewd and insightful. The worker-peasant bloc was indeed central to Bolshevik tactics - and Lenin very soon went out of his way to show that he never doubted it. Any ‘steps toward socialism’ in the form of advanced state regulation of the economy would only take place if the peasants signed on (see Lenin’s ‘A basic question’ mentioned earlier).

Kamenev’s misunderstanding of Lenin’s April theses is in its way a fortunate thing - even though it led to major misunderstandings of Kamenev himself. Nevertheless, his reading of the April theses goaded him to insist on axiomatic points that might otherwise have gone unarticulated. His whole critique was based on the aim of installing in the near future an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviet that would replace the Provisional Government. This project could only come to fruition if there existed a viable worker-peasant alliance based solidly on overlapping class interests.

We should give the last word to Kamenev - in a pithy remark that more than most evokes the revolutionary atmosphere of the time: “In one of these crises, and perhaps in the very near future, the question of the vlast will be posed in the sharpest possible form.” Be ready!

  1. johnriddell.com/2017/10/12/the-bolsheviks-in-1917-index-to-a-debate.↩︎