WeeklyWorker

07.01.2021
Even before Lenin returned from his Swiss exile, the Bolsheviks under Kamenev and Stalin were committed to all power for their soviet constituency

Consistent Bolshevik message

Did Lenin’s April theses lead to a complete change of policy? Lars T Lih continues his series, arguing that the opposite is the case

Throughout 1917, the Bolsheviks delivered a consistent message to the soviet constituency: that is, the workers and soldiers who elected soviets in the capital cities of Petrograd and Moscow, as well as many other urban centres. The heart of this message can be stated concisely: an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets is the only way to effectively defend the revolution and carry out its goals.

Formulated in positive terms, the key implication of this message was: ‘All power to the soviets!’ Stated in negative terms, the key implication was rejection of agreementism (soglashatelstvo) - the derisive label coined by the Bolsheviks to describe any claim that revolutionary goals could be achieved by means of some sort of political ‘agreement’ with educated Russian society.

In the first instalment of this three-part series, I documented the Bolshevik message by looking at the pronouncements of party leader Lev Kamenev in March/April 1917.1 This abundant evidence from Kamenev puts paid to the highly influential ‘rearming’ narrative that insisted that the Bolshevik message in 1917 came directly out of Lenin’s brain and was then imposed on the party after Lenin’s return to Russia in April. Even before Lenin returned, Kamenev eloquently made the case for a vlast (sovereign authority) based on the soviets to replace the ‘bourgeois’ Provisional Government. He objected to certain parts of Lenin’s April theses only because he was convinced that they would cause problems for the drive to install soviet power as soon as possible.

In this instalment, I look at how Lenin himself defined the message that he thought the Bolsheviks should be sending to the mass soviet constituency. Accompanying my article are three newly translated articles that address this very topic. Previously we showed Kamenev saying things that he could not possibly have said if the standard picture of Bolshevism in 1917 was correct. In this essay, we will show Lenin failing to say things he most certainly should have been saying if it was correct.

Gateway to wisdom

Immediately upon Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd on April 3, he was called upon to give reports on his thesis three or four times - first to strictly Bolshevik audiences and then to audiences that included other parties. One person who heard all of these presentations was Wladimir Woytinsky, who has left us an invaluable account of his impressions.

Of course, like all participants in these meetings, Woytinsky was highly partisan and his remarks require critical analysis. At the time Lenin arrived, Woytinsky still self-identified as a Bolshevik, but he was also an ardent agreementist - and he quickly realised that ‘agreementist Bolshevik’ was an political oxymoron: an unsustainable position. Nevertheless, his remarks tell us a great deal, partly because he wrote them down in the early 20s, before the issue of the April theses became thoroughly politicised. His memoirs were not published until 1990: that is, long after the standard interpretation had been set in stone. Here I focus on one striking observation that in my view brings out a highly important, yet entirely overlooked, aspect of Lenin’s theses.

What struck Woytinsky was the strange combination in Lenin’s report of standard Bolshevik boilerplate with unexpectedly novel arguments: “On the lips of the orator [Lenin], tired and hackneyed formulae were mingled together in a strange fashion with words, slogans, thoughts that were so novel, so unusual, that they demanded sustained attention to follow the train of thought.”2 Woytinsky goes on to say that Lenin gave most attention to the negative slogans: “The larger part of his report was devoted to providing justification for two slogans: Not the slightest concession to ‘revolutionary defencism! No support for the Provisional Government!’

As my first instalment showed, precisely these slogans were central to the message that Kamenev, Stalin and Pravda had already been assiduously propagating prior to Lenin’s arrival. Woytinsky’s impression of the audience reaction to Lenin’s report - though necessarily highly subjective - confirms this division into “very familiar” and “strikingly novel”. On the one hand, Lenin’s discussion of the more abstract issues that were involved in revising the party programme led to “psychological resistance” from his listeners. On the other hand, the Bolshevik audience was highly supportive of the general tenor of the theses, much to the disgust of the agreementist, Woytinsky.

Woytinsky’s eyewitness account brings out what I believe is the gateway to wisdom about the April theses: the division between the basic message that was completely non-controversial among Bolsheviks, as against Lenin’s new personal enthusiasms. This second part, as Woytinsky well brings out, was so novel that misunderstandings and confusion were inevitable. And in fact, right from the get-go, Lenin had to expend a good deal of energy clearing up misunderstandings. A little later we will look at his attempt to clear up the most crucial misunderstanding of all.

Our focus in the present essay, however, is on the part of the theses that the Bolsheviks understood with no trouble at all - the part of which they automatically approved. Why? Because this was the part that set forth the core message and represented a Bolshevik consensus (not counting a few oxymoronic Bolsheviks, such as the agreementist, Woytinsky, who promptly became a prominent Menshevik spokesman). When Lenin rejected support for the imperialist war and revolutionary defencism, when he called for the Provisional Government to be replaced by soviet power, no Bolshevik protested. No-one said: ‘Hey, Lenin, you can’t call the war imperialist! That’s so pre-February!’ No-one said: ‘Lay off the Provisional Government! Miliukov (minister of foreign affairs) and Guchkov (minister of war) may have been rabid imperialists back in the day, but, now that the tsar has gone, they will assuredly carry out a radical peace programme if we say pretty please.’ No-one said: ‘Soviet power? What a bizarre idea!’ No-one said: ‘Don’t be so mean to revolutionary defencists such as Tsereteli’ (Kamenev explicitly noted his opposition to revolutionary defencism as a motive for his misgivings about the theses).

The April theses are famous for being controversial and for causing a scandalised reaction. And indeed they did - among agreementist non-Bolsheviks, who were already hostile to Kamenev’s anti-agreementist line and were hoping against hope that Lenin would return and squash it. But here is the paradox: if we want to understand Bolshevism in 1917, the crucial part of the April theses is the non-controversial part, the part that expressed in vivid slogans the already existing core Bolshevik message. And, as we shall see, this is the part that Lenin himself placed emphatically in the foreground when he set out to state the Bolshevik message in the most straightforward terms possible.

We have just observed how the path can be divided into two parts: the part that caused controversy and misunderstanding among Bolsheviks for a short period; and the part that caused no controversy at all because it set forth the standard Bolshevik message. But there is a third part of the April theses that has been highly influential, at least among historians. Like the little man upon the stair, this is the part that wasn’t there.

Consider the following statement, in which a prominent historian of Bolshevism describes Lenin’s April theses:

In a summation of his views published in the party’s main newspaper, Pravda, on April 7 - the celebrated ‘April theses’ - he [Lenin] defined the situation in Russia as the transition between the first, “bourgeois democratic” stage of the revolution and the second, “socialist” stage.3

Notice the quote marks around “bourgeois democratic” and “socialist”. These tell us that these words represent Lenin’s actual description of stages of the revolution. Yet a glance at the actual text of the April theses will quickly show that neither the words nor the concepts appear.

Whence this strange illusion? To answer this question, we must go back to 1917 and understand the role that the formula ‘socialist revolution in Russia’ played in the ongoing polemics between agreementists and anti-agreementists, as they battled each other for the loyalty of the soviet constituency. There are many ways in which one might describe events in Russia in 1917 as a ‘socialist revolution’. Here are three ways that were widespread at the time and certainly not controversial among Bolsheviks, plus one that was universally held to be inapplicable.

  1. The revolution was socialist because the majority of the Russian population accepted without question the goal of a socialist society. All parties in the soviet camp were socialist, and there was no challenge to this ideological dominance whatsoever.
  2. All wartime governments were adopting unprecedented measures of state economic regulation, and such measures were widely seen as steps toward a socialist economy, even if now used for perverted militaristic ends.
  3. The imminent outbreak of a socialist, proletarian revolution in western Europe was an article of faith for Bolsheviks and many other Russian socialists besides. This expectation was intensified by the world war and its accompanying social unrest. Since long before the war, the Bolsheviks and others had insisted on a scenario in which a thorough-going democratic revolution in Russia would spark a socialist revolution in western Europe, which in turn would alter the course of events in Russia in a socialist direction. This scenario is an essential part of what the Bolsheviks thought they were doing in 1917 and gave them the necessary confidence to carry out their project of an exclusive soviet vlast.
  4. The idea that Russia itself could embark on successful socialist transformation, even before the beneficent influence of a European revolution began to be felt, was rejected by all socialists of whatever political persuasion. All Marxists observers accepted as an axiom that the peasant majority of Russia - although a mighty force for democratic revolution - was an insuperable obstacle to a socialist transformation of the Russian economy and society. This axiom, it will be remembered, was an essential part of Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’, as set forth in his original writings of 1905-07.

Given that socialist revolution in Russia in this sense was seen as an absurdity, the agreementists had every motive to tie the idea as tightly as possible to the project of an exclusive vlast. You call for soviet power? But that means you want a fully-fledged socialist revolution right now, here, in backward Russia - that’s crazy talk! This logic, such as it was, was set out succinctly by Georgy Plekhanov - a central figure in the early history of Russian Marxism, but by 1917 a fierce but marginalised socialist defencist. For him, the April theses were inacceptable because:

The socialist revolution presupposes a long work of enlightenment and organisation in the depths of the working class. Today, among us, this is forgotten by people who call the Russian toiling masses to the seizure of the political vlast, since this can only make sense, given the presence of the objective conditions needed for social revolution. These conditions do not yet exist.4

Plekhanov’s formulation is worth noting because, as we shall shortly see, Lenin explicitly responded to it.

This argument - to wit, since the Bolsheviks want a full soviet vlast, they must also be calling for immediate soviet transformation in Russia - was already flung at the Bolsheviks before Lenin’s arrival. This fact struck me only recently, as I delved into the clash between agreementists and anti-agreementists at the All-Russian Soviet Conference in late March/early April: that is, before Lenin’s return to Russia. Given reigning stereotypes today, I find it rather funny that Kamenev, the anti-agreementist spokesman in these debates, was already accused by his opponents of advocating permanent revolution.

We can therefore state with confidence that, no matter what Lenin actually wrote, agreementist socialists would have accused him of advocating immediate socialist transformation. As it happened, some aspects of Lenin’s rhetoric did invite misunderstandings of this nature. For example, he talked about a first and second ‘stage’ of the revolution. The two stages could easily be read as ‘bourgeois’ vs ‘socialist’ revolution (see the historian’s description quoted above). But what Lenin meant by ‘second stage of the revolution’ was the assumption of full soviet power - nothing more, nothing less. In a resolution passed by the party conference in April and drafted by Lenin, the ‘second stage’ is defined precisely: “the second stage of the revolution that will transfer the entire state vlast into the hands of the soviets and other organs that directly express the will of the majority of the narod [organs of local self-government, the Constituent Assembly, and so forth]”.5

As I say, even if Lenin had been perfectly clear, he would have been accused of advocating immediate socialist transformation. In fact, this reading of the April theses was set in stone before Lenin’s theses even appeared in print. Lenin first presented them to a mixed Bolshevik/Menshevik audience on April 4. On the following day, Plekhanov’s newspaper Edinstvo compared his theses to the ravings of a madman. On April 6, the Menshevik party newspaper weighed in and claimed that Lenin was calling for a kurs na sotsialisticheskuiu revoliutsiiu (setting the course toward socialist revolution). Ironically, this Menshevik formulation was later enshrined in Stalin’s Short course (1938) and became a mandatory formula for all Soviet historians long after his death.

Misreading

Only on April 7 - after these hostile interpretations had set the stage - did Lenin’s theses appear in print, already accompanied by attempts to combat various misunderstandings. Finally, on April 8, Pravda printed a short article by Kamenev explaining his misgivings about the theses. According to Kamenev, Lenin felt that the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” was finished and therefore that an immediate transformation of this revolution into a “socialist” one was on the agenda.

We have just explained why Kamenev was so upset by this (mis)reading of Lenin’s theses. In the debates between agreementists and anti-agreementists, the opponents of soviet power were the ones who insisted that soviet power only made sense if the Russian Revolution were socialist. Kamenev, a fervent advocate of soviet power, was naturally upset by what he thought was Lenin’s argument, since it seemed to concede this point to the agreementists (for further details, see the first instalment in this series). But, as a quick look at the text of the theses will show, Lenin does not say anything like this. Thus, when Stalin’s Short course and most later historians describe the April theses as calling for the transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist one, they are basing themselves on Kamenev, not Lenin.

By this time, Lenin realised that some clean-up work was necessary and so he wrote an article entitled ‘A basic question’, published in Pravda on April 21: that is, during the Bolshevik party conference. Officially Lenin aimed his polemics at Plekhanov, but his real target was undoubtedly fellow Bolsheviks, who were wondering what Lenin really meant. He could not have been more clear, more explicit and more emphatic in his rejection of any logical connection between the idea of direct socialist transformation in Russia and the Bolshevik project of an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets. (The text of this article, along with Plekhanov’s original article and my commentary, can be found in my online series ‘All power to the soviets!’6)

First, Lenin reaffirmed the Marxist axiom about the peasants as an obstacle to socialist transformation:

What classes do the Russian toiling masses consist of? Everybody knows that they consist of workers and peasants. Which of these classes is in the majority? The peasants. Who are these peasants, as far as their class position is concerned? Small or very small proprietors. The question arises: if the small proprietors constitute the majority of the population and if the objective conditions for socialism are lacking, then how can the majority of the population declare in favour of socialism? Who can say anything or who says anything about establishing socialism against the will of the majority?

Second, while sarcastically quoting Plekhanov’s argument, as given above, Lenin pointed out that a soviet vlast was based squarely on the imperative of democracy:

In whose hands should ‘the political vlast’ be, even from the point of view of a vulgar bourgeois democrat from Rech [the official newspaper of the liberal Kadet party]? In the hands of the majority of the population. Do the ‘Russian toiling masses’, so ineptly discussed by our muddled social-chauvinist [Plekhanov], constitute the majority of the population in Russia? Undoubtedly they do - the overwhelming majority! How then, without betraying democracy - even democracy as understood by a Miliukov [Kadet party leader] - can one be opposed to the ‘seizure of the political vlast’ by the ‘Russian toiling masses?

Third, Lenin reaffirmed the international scenario outlined above:

Further steps towards socialism in Russia will become fully possible, and - given the aid to the workers here that will come from the more advanced and experienced workers of western Europe, who have broken with the western European Plekhanovs - Russia’s genuine transition to socialism would be inevitable, and the success of such a transition would be assured.

Fourth - and most crucially - Lenin affirmed that any ‘steps toward socialism’ in the form of state economic regulation would be taken only with full understanding and support from the Russian peasants. While not socialist measures in and of themselves, such policies of state regulation would undoubtedly “benefit the majority of the narod”. Lenin’s promise had vast consequences for the future, but this is a topic for a later time. We note in passing that this commitment to move toward socialism only with peasant support is a decisive difference between Trotsky’s original scenario of ‘permanent revolution’ and Lenin’s own understanding of ‘steps toward socialism’ in 1917.

In my series, ‘All power to the soviets!’, I presented an article by Trotsky from August 1917, in which he makes the same argument as Lenin: exclusive soviet power is in no way tied to immediate socialist transformation in Russia; nor is it in any way barred by labelling the ongoing revolution as ‘bourgeois-democratic’. A ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’ certainly does not imply that the bourgeoisie should be running the show (thus reaffirming a core axiom of pre-war Bolshevism). The imperative of a soviet vlast in Russia follows from democratic premises rather than socialist premises. Trotsky scornfully summed up the Menshevik/SR position: “To hell with democracy! Long live Plekhanovite sociology!”7

We can sum up the situation with another crucial comment by an eye-witness participant in events, the pioneering historian of Bolshevism, Vladimir Nevsky. Like Woytinsky’s account quoted above, Nevsky’s insight has not yet made it into any secondary account. The reader will benefit from giving it close attention:

We must stress that even in the ranks of our party were people who at first understood these theses incorrectly, taking them as a call to an immediate implementation of socialism, despite categorical explanations [to the contrary].

In fact, Lenin’s position [in the April theses] was the natural development of the doctrine that he had worked out long ago in the previous periods of the history of our party, since one of the basic propositions of Bolshevism … was the one put forward already during the first Russian revolution [in 1905]: the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. This same idea also implied all the conclusions and all the measures inevitably arrived at, as soon as the party was convinced of the necessity and the inevitability of a proletarian-peasant dictatorship.8

But (readers may ask) if Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders all rejected in 1917 any connection between socialist revolution in Russia and the project of a soviet vlast, why is this connection such an undisputed mainstay of historical interpretation today? The main reason is that first Trotsky (in Lessons of October in 1924) and later Stalin (in the Short course of 1938) decided - for polemical reasons having nothing to do with serious historical investigation - to adopt Kamenev’s formulation and affirm that Lenin made a heroic theoretical breakthrough: namely, calling for the transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist one.

We cannot go into this fascinating story in more detail here, but I cannot refrain from extracting an ironic moral. Many people today are stubbornly committed to the standard ‘rearming narrative’, whereby the April theses ‘rearmed the party’ by introducing something very much resembling Trotsky’s earlier scenario of permanent revolution. Among these people are many who affirm their strong loyalty to Bolshevism and to the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. These same people (I have discovered) also manifest an abiding hostility to Lev Kamenev in particular. And yet their reading of the April theses originates in a polemical misreading by the Mensheviks, by Plekhanov and by Kamenev himself in April 1917. Indeed, an interpretation of the April theses that was directly and unambiguously rebutted by both Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 is defended by this school of thought as gospel.

As a result, the hostile Plekhanov/Menshevik/Kamenev misreading of the April theses remains dominant on the left, as well as among academic historians.

Bolshevik message

Let us now turn our attention to three short articles from 1917 that aim to set out the Bolshevik message to the soviet constituency concisely, but comprehensively. Two were written directly by Lenin, and the remaining one was undoubtedly published with his full authorisation. The full text of these articles, newly translated, is available here as an appendix (‘Lenin on the Bolshevik message’).

Why should we be so interested in the Bolshevik message? The central reason is that this message represents our most potent clue to the meaning of the October revolution to those who carried it out. The people who made the October revolution were the workers, soldiers and other members of the narod who elected soviets all across the country. In October this soviet constituency elected a national congress that gave a working majority to the anti-agreementists. What was the political meaning of this act of confidence? The answer, first and foremost, must be found in the message broadcast by the Bolsheviks throughout the year, explaining why the anti-agreementist Bolsheviks deserved support and why the original agreementist majority should be voted out.

Let me briefly introduce these three articles that authoritatively set out the Bolshevik message. In April the Bolsheviks held their first national party conference after the fall of tsarism, and the conference passed an extensive series of resolutions that defined them as a party in the post-February context. These resolutions were published as a booklet to be an authoritative guide to the Bolshevik message, and no doubt it also served as a textbook for party spokespersons nationally. Later I will say a few words about the resolutions themselves, but of direct interest for our theme is the introduction that Lenin penned for this booklet. Here he stated proudly that “our party comes out before the narod, and, through the resolutions of its conference”, gives it the following message - and then he proceeds to distil what he saw as the essence of their content.

In early May, the Bolsheviks emblazoned the front page of Pravda with a sample ‘Mandate’ as part of the effort to increase Bolshevik representation in the soviets via re-election. The Mandate first came to my attention because, to my knowledge, it is the first authorised party document to contain the famous slogan in its canonical three-word form: Vsia vlast sovetam! (‘All power to the soviets!’). As such, I published it with commentary in my ‘All power’ series.

But the famous slogan is not our focus of interest here. As the previous instalment in the present series demonstrated, Kamenev and other Bolshevik leaders had been making the same point long before Lenin arrived on the scene, although using other language. More important for us, the Mandate tells us how the Bolsheviks officially defined the significance of electing a Bolshevik delegate and, therefore, the political meaning of the eventual Bolshevisation of the soviets. While Lenin most likely did not personally draft the Mandate - it is not included in his Collected works - its publication in such a prominent way to serve such a vital purpose must have been directly authorised by the party leader.

At the end of September, Lenin wrote yet another article for Pravda (operating under another name for legal reasons) that aimed at sending the core Bolshevik message “to those down below, to the masses, to the office employees, to the workers, to the peasants, not only to our supporters, but particularly to those who follow the Socialist Revolutionaries, to the non-party elements, to the ill-informed”. This article - entitled ‘Tasks of revolution’ - is perhaps the final manifestation of Lenin’s hope that the hitherto agreementist socialists might themselves declare an exclusive soviet vlast. After rejecting this indeed forlorn hope, Lenin began to call for an uprising. But, as the article makes clear, even an uprising made political sense only on the assumption that a majority of the soviet constituency had by then decisively rejected agreementism.

These articles are extremely straightforward and hardly need commentary. They all say essentially the same thing. Central is a core demand that can either be expressed affirmatively (an exclusive vlast based on the soviets) or negatively (the rejection of agreementism). Worthy of note: in the Lenin-drafted articles, the rejection of agreementism precedes and clears the way for the positive goal of an exclusive soviet vlast: “The capitalist cannot travel the same road as the worker.” “Agreementism with the capitalists is disastrous.”

Lenin then justifies this core demand and explains why the basic goals of the soviet constituency cannot be achieved unless agreementism is rejected. Do you want a democratic peace? This will not happen unless the government repudiates the secret treaties to which the gentry landowners and the capitalists swear fealty. Do you peasants want land? Take it immediately, despite the obstruction of the gentry landowners. Do you want an effective response to spiralling economic breakdown? It will not happen if the capitalists have any say in state economic regulation.

In ‘The tasks of the revolution’, Lenin goes out of his way to stress that the Bolsheviks do not reject the goals of the agreementist socialists, but only their deeply mistaken method. He points to land reform measures that were demanded by the peasants themselves, publicised by the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary Party and published in Izvestiia - at that time the organ of the agreementist leadership. He quotes the Menshevik Party newspaper that insisted on more energetic economic regulation.

Lenin is therefore able to insist that the Bolshevik programme protects the interests of the narod - the Russian common people, as opposed to elite society - rather than a narrow class policy aimed at the workers. He reaffirms the Bolshevik commitment: the upcoming soviet vlast will do nothing without the firm support of the peasants. In this way, the Bolshevik message of 1917 is tied firmly to what the pre-war Bolsheviks called ‘hegemony’: that is, political leadership by the proletarian party in order to carry out the revolutionary interests of the democratic peasantry.

The contours of this message do not change in any significant way between April and September. What does change is Lenin’s perception of the extent of support given to the message by the soviet constituency. In April, Lenin states that the learning process still lies ahead: “It is absolutely impossible to find a way out of the blind alley, given the policy of trust in the government of the capitalists or support for it.” By the end of September, he proudly claims that events have shown the correctness of the message, so that even the mass base of the agreementist parties perceives its essential truth.

Finally, we should observe what is not in these articles: any mention of ‘socialist revolution’. In fact, the very word ‘socialist’ is avoided. The closest we get is a reference to heroic ‘socialists’ in western Europe, such as Karl Liebknecht. Even when Lenin is unambiguously talking about socialist revolution - in western Europe, of course, not in Russia - he uses circumlocution: “a mighty European revolution that will throw off the yoke of capital”.

The same striking absence of ‘socialist’ in the Bolshevik message can be further documented in the much more extensive and detailed set of resolutions from the Bolshevik Party conference in April. The core message can be found in five of these resolutions: on the war, on the Provisional Government, on the land question, on coalition government, and on the soviets. These resolutions represent simply a more detailed justification of the Bolshevik message, as outlined in the Lenin articles discussed here. The words ‘socialism’ and ‘socialist revolution’ are entirely absent from these key resolutions. We should note also that two of the most fundamental issues of 1917 - the land question and the nationality question - are explicitly labelled as aspects of the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”.

In a resolution drafted by Lenin and devoted to a very broad definition of the situation in Europe and Russia, we do find the mention of socialist revolution in western Europe: “The objective conditions for socialist revolution were undoubtedly already at hand before the war, and have matured further and continue to mature as a consequence of the war.” In the case of Russia, however, the resolution insists that “the proletariat of Russia, acting in one of the most backward countries in Europe, surrounded by the masses of the petty bourgeois population, cannot adopt the goal of the immediate implementation of socialist transformation”. The same resolution also insists that any “steps toward socialism” - that is, more extensive state economic regulation of the kind already set in place by various wartime governments - will be made with the conscious support of the peasantry. In other words, this resolution essentially repeats the arguments of Lenin’s ‘A basic question’ quoted earlier.

This striking pattern of avoidance is hardly a coincidence. Much evidence from 1917 convinces me that a conscious decision was made early on by the top Bolshevik leadership to not employ the term ‘socialism’. I am not the first to notice this absence. Nikolai Sukhanov - an anti-agreementist Menshevik, who remains to this day the most widely read memoirist of the revolution - wrote in his account:

Was there any socialism in the [Bolshevik] platform? No. I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on socialism as the object and task of a soviet government; nor did the masses, in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about socialism.

I assume the motivation behind this determined avoidance was the one mentioned at the beginning of my remarks: the fact that ‘socialist revolution in Russia’ had been weaponised by agreementist socialists to discredit Bolshevik anti-agreementism. In any event, the embargo on using the word ‘socialism’ was abruptly lifted as soon as the Bolsheviks took power in October. Still, we certainly must regard the Bolshevik message as formulated prior to October as our most important key for unlocking what the October revolution meant for the people who made it.

There are many things we could say about the realism or lack of it in the Bolshevik message. In my personal view, Lenin’s ‘Tasks of the revolution’ reveals some of the highly over-optimistic assumptions built into the message. The attentive reader of this article would hardly be surprised by the dire fate of political freedom under Bolshevik rule. Nevertheless, on one key and all-decisive point, the Bolshevik message was realistic and insightful: the unworkability of agreementism.

But the aim of the present remarks is not to assess the Bolshevik message, but simply to ascertain its content. Once we clear away the Menshevik/Trotskyist/Stalinist/academic misreading of the message - once we see clearly what is not there - we are able to see what is there. Not ‘setting a course for socialist revolution’, but ‘an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets as the only way to effectively defend the revolution and carry out its goals’. And then we can also see the continuity and consensus in the Bolshevik message.

Any reader of this essay who has taken the time to peruse with diligence the list of Kamenev one-liners from March and April provided in my first instalment, alongside the Lenin articles attached to this entry, will see that the Bolshevik Party could (and did!) claim to stand for a consistent message from the very start of the revolution. The whole party easily assimilated this message and successfully propagated it through the year - not because Lenin came up with a radical new vision that was imbibed by the party in a couple of weeks, but because the familiar logic of pre-war Bolshevism was directly applicable to post-February Russia.

I will conclude my remarks with a comment I wrote a decade ago and still firmly maintain: In 1917, Lenin became a strong leader of a unified party. But the party did not have unity because Lenin was a strong leader - Lenin was a strong leader because he led a unified party.


  1. ‘A curious case’ Weekly Worker December 17.↩︎

  2. V Voitinsky (W Woytinsky) 1917: God pobed i porazhenii New York 1990.↩︎

  3. A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks come to power New York 1976, pxxxiv. My aim is not to fault Rabinowitch in particular, but simply to document a very widespread misreading.↩︎

  4. G Plekhanov, ‘To the students’ Edinstvo April 17 1917.↩︎

  5. VI Lenin Polnoe sobranie sochinenii Charleston 2011, chapter31, p430.↩︎

  6. The series is available at (1) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/all-power-to-the-soviets-part-1-biography-of-a-slogan; (2) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/the-proletariat-and-its-ally-the-logic-of-bolshevik-hegemony; (3) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/06/24/letter-from-afar-corrections-from-up-close-censorship-or-retrofit; (4) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/thirteen-to-two-petrograd-bolsheviks-debate-the-april-theses; (5) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/a-basic-question-lenin-glosses-the-april-theses; (6) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/the-character-of-the-russian-revolution-trotsky-1917-vs-trotsky-1924; (7) johnriddell.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/we-demand-the-publication-of-the-secret-treaties-biography-of-a-sister-slogan.↩︎

  7. See johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/the-character-of-the-russian-revolution-trotsky-1917-vs-trotsky-1924.↩︎

  8. V Nevsky Istoriia RKP(b): kratkii ocherk (1926).↩︎