Supplement: Back to Nevsky!
Lars T Lih uses an eyewitness account to dispose of some old myths and to show how, if they were to rewin their majority, the Bolsheviks had to adjust to the shock of finding themselves in a minority
In 1925, Vladimir Nevsky published History of the RKP(B), one of the first extensive and academically respectable histories of the Bolshevik Party.1
Nevsky was not just a researcher, but a long-time Bolshevik activist, who had played a prominent role in 1917 as a leader of the Military Organisation - the party’s outreach to the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison. His book appeared just as various processes of politicisation of party history were picking up speed. As a result, some of his interpretations and conclusions are startlingly unfamiliar. One such case is his final chapter on the 1917 revolution. Nevsky himself seems unaware that he was writing anything controversial - yet his chapter issues one fundamental challenge after another to today’s reigning consensus about the Bolsheviks in 1917.
The present essay is for the most part a straightforward presentation of Nevsky’s 1917 chapter. Before proceeding, let us delve a little further into his credentials. He was “an extraordinary historian, a professional revolutionary, mathematician and chemist, and a romantic by nature”, in the words of MV Zelenov, a prominent Russian specialist on Soviet historiography.2
Nevsky was born in 1876, and he was therefore not too much younger than Lenin (born 1870). Already in the 1890s he had become a Social Democratic activist and he joined the Bolshevik team from its very beginnings. He was an editor of the then underground newspaper Pravda in 1912-13 and became a candidate member of the central committee in 1913.3 In 1917, as one of the leaders of the Military Organisation, he was reportedly the ‘idol of the soldiers’. In 1920-21, he flirted with the Workers’ Opposition, but left it quickly and seems never to have joined forces again with party opposition groups.
Nevsky’s formal education was in the natural sciences and so he was self-taught as a historian. Nevertheless, his dedication to professionalism in the writing of history was profound. According to Zelenov, he was the only Bolshevik historian to do real archival work. He was also energetically dedicated to publishing a wide range of documents from across the political spectrum. This professionalism got him into much more political trouble than any record of open opposition activity.4
In the early 1920s, Nevsky made the extremely important archival discovery of Lenin’s early work, ‘What the “friends of the people” are’ (see my Lenin rediscovered for a detailed discussion of this5). His two areas of special expertise were the origins of the Social Democratic underground in the 1890s and the role of the soviets in the 1905 revolution; in each case, he stressed the role of independent worker activity.6 The revolution in 1917 was not a particular area of his academic expertise. As he admitted in the preface to the second edition of his book, his discussion of the February revolution was added at the last minute, and not meant to be exhaustive. His chapter on 1917 is therefore best seen not as a specialised study, but rather as a memoir account by a participant who happened to be a professional historian.
Of course, all histories of 1917 (and certainly all Bolshevik histories) are highly politicised. But, starting in the mid-1920s, several topics of party history in 1917 in particular became subject to severe distorting pressures that did permanent damage to our understanding. Among these pressures:
- Trotsky’s 1924 bid to discredit the Bolshevik leadership in 1917 and the furious response by his former comrades;
- Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s move into anti-Stalin opposition in 1925;
- the Lenin cult.
These are just to name a few. Although Nevsky’s book appeared in 1925, his text does not reveal any imprint of these incipient pressures.
While the preface to the second edition in 1926 responds to various criticisms, no-one seems to have found anything controversial in Nevsky’s account of 1917. His account also chimes in with a variety of other pre-1925 retrospective looks at 1917 - and indeed he directly incorporates valuable material from other eye-witness participants. Certainly, his discussion does not demonise Trotsky nor glorify Stalin.7 Later on, in 1936, one of the charges against Nevsky (as Stalinist historian Emelyan Yaroslavsky wrote in Istorik-marksist) was that he and his pupils “made a special effort to slur over or to silence comrade Stalin’s outstanding role as the brilliant [genial’nyi] continuer of Lenin’s cause”.
My focus in presenting Nevsky’s chapter is to bring out the central points, where his account challenges prevailing orthodoxies. Since clearing up confusion over the April theses provides an excellent entrée into our discussion of Bolshevism in 1917 overall, we will start in media res with Nevsky’s account of the theses and their reception. For the same reason, I have translated a substantial excerpt from Nevsky’s account of the theses as an appendix* to this essay. I then proceed in proper chronological order, starting with Bolshevism immediately after the February revolution and then moving on to the party conferences in April and August, and finally discussing the never-ending krizis vlasti (‘crisis of power’) that formed the crucial backdrop to Bolshevik success.
In most accounts today of the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s April theses serve as the very icon of the party’s ‘rearming’, because they allegedly caused severe conflict and deep reorientation among the Bolsheviks. But, as we shall see, the actual content of the theses and the ensuing discussion they sparked off among Bolsheviks fatally undermine this ‘rearming’ narrative.
The first assertion by Nevsky that leaps to our attention is an out-and-out denial that the April theses represented a dramatic rupture with earlier Bolshevism. On the contrary, they represented the “natural development” of Lenin’s long-held position, as expressed in the 1905 slogan, the “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”. According to Nevsky, this slogan from 1905 already contained “all the implications, all the measures that inevitably had to be accepted [in 1917], once the party was convinced of the necessity and inevitability of a proletarian-peasant dictatorship”.8 As we shall see, Nevsky considers that the heart of Lenin’s earlier slogan was the imperative of capturing the loyalty of the revolutionary peasantry.
Of course, Nevsky does not deny that many party members reacted with suspicion when they first encountered Lenin’s theses. What caused these suspicions? Let us first take note of the parts of the theses that Nevsky does not include in his discussion of Bolshevik misgivings, for the simple reason that these parts were not controversial among Bolsheviks. These non-controversial items include the core issues of the time: the war (opposition to the imperialist war, hostility to ‘revolutionary defencism’) and the attitude toward the government (hostility to the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, plus a drive to establish an exclusive worker-peasant vlast - power). I have elsewhere documented what Nevsky takes for granted, although controversial today: Bolshevik leaders such as Kamenev and Stalin had no problem with these core positions, since they had strongly advocated them prior to Lenin’s arrival.
What, then, did cause worries in some Bolshevik circles about the theses? According to Nevsky, they misunderstood some of Lenin’s positions. And, when you think about it, misunderstandings of this type must have been inevitable, unless we make the rather implausible assumption that everybody instantly understood perfectly Lenin’s argument and all its implications. As a central example of such misunderstandings, Nevsky points to a famous remark made by Lev Kamenev (see the appendix for a full discussion). Kamenev’s remark was not the fruit of long thought: they appeared the day after Lenin’s theses were first published in Pravda! Nevsky describes these hasty misgivings:
[Lenin’s theses] horrified some, aroused joy and sympathy in others, caused an outburst of fury in the camp of the bourgeoisie and extraordinary enthusiasm in the ranks of the proletariat.
It is necessary, however, to emphasise that in the ranks of our party there were people who at first misunderstood these theses and saw them, despite categorical explanations, as a call for the immediate implementation of socialism …
In what way were the disagreements that arose in our party in connection with the publication of Lenin’s theses expressed? They were best expressed by comrade Kamenev and came down to the fact that, according to Kamenev, Lenin considered the bourgeois-democratic revolution finished, while in reality it was far from over, and therefore one could not speak of the growing-over of this revolution into a socialist one. Lenin dwelt on these disagreements in detail in his Letters on tactics, to which we refer our readers.
As it happens, Kamenev’s hasty reading of the theses constitutes without a doubt the most influential comment ever made about them. And yet, as Nevsky correctly points out, Lenin explicitly rejected this reading. Here is his comment, to which Nevsky referred:
Comrade Kamenev criticises me, saying that my scheme “depends” on “the immediate transformation of this bourgeois-democratic revolution into a socialist revolution”.
This is incorrect. I not only do not “depend” on the “immediate transformation” of our revolution into a socialist one, but I actually warn against it, since in number eight of my theses I state: “It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism …”
Is it not clear that anyone who depends on the immediate transformation of our revolution into a socialist revolution [as Kamenev describes me] would not protest [as I did] against the immediate task of introducing socialism?
In account after account of 1917, you will read that Lenin’s theses called for ‘bourgeois revolution’ to be replaced by ‘socialist revolution’. These terms are very often festooned with quote marks.9 And yet neither these words nor any equivalent appear in Lenin’s text! They appear, however, in Kamenev’s text. In response, Lenin loudly proclaimed (to paraphrase J Alfred Prufrock) that ‘This is not what I meant. This is not what I meant at all’. Nevertheless, Kamenev’s hasty reading is accepted as gospel. Go figure.
Lenin did put forth some new ideas in the April theses, and a full discussion (which I have provided elsewhere) would list these. Here I will simply say that, once Lenin explained what he meant, these new ideas were not particularly controversial and certainly far from scandalous. But the April theses did contain an urgent message and warning to Lenin’s fellow Bolsheviks. This warning arose from what Lenin called the ‘original’ or ‘peculiar’ nature (svoeobrazie) of the post-February situation. As Lenin himself stated more than once, he became aware of this svoeobrazie only after he arrived in Petrograd in early April.
I call the tactic suggested by Lenin’s warning the ‘Bolshevik adjustment’. When Lenin first arrived in early April, he expected the Bolsheviks to be the accepted leaders of the Petrograd proletariat. He found to his shock that instead they were only a small minority in the Petrograd Soviet: in other words, the despised defencists enjoyed a solid majority. After coming to terms with this depressing reality, Lenin arrived at two conclusions.
- First, a warning to fellow Bolsheviks: do not even think about installing a ‘provisional revolutionary government’ under present circumstances.
- Second, a tactic: put all forces into winning over a majority in the soviets.
Despite his disappointment, Lenin had very little doubt that the Bolsheviks would achieve - or, in Bolshevik eyes, recapture - majority status in the not-too-distant future. He was confident (and I believe he had good reason to be confident) that the political ‘agreement’ between the socialist defencists and the Provisional Government was unworkable and doomed to failure and rejection.
Nevsky carefully sets out the reasoning behind the Bolshevik adjustment (see the appendix for full discussion). First, the unexpected features of the post-February situation:
The class origin of this double vlast lies in the fact that the Russian Revolution - while it destroyed the monarchy and transferred the vlast to the bourgeoisie, and it came very close at the same time to implementing the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry - the Petrograd Soviet voluntarily [my emphasis] transferred the vlast to the bourgeoisie and its Provisional Government.10
Next, the tactical implication:
Hence the original nature [svoeobrazie] of the tactic arising from such a unique feature of the Russian Revolution: winning over the proletarian masses who had been persuaded by revolutionary defencism and by this very fact were now giving support to the imperialist bourgeoisie holding the vlast. These masses had to be won over by patient and tireless propaganda and by criticism of the tactic advocated by the petty-bourgeois parties - Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries - that the masses were now following.
Lenin’s insistence on slowing down the revolution to allow for ‘patient explanation’ is not some casual ‘oh, by the way’ comment: it lies at the heart of the April theses. Nevsky understood this, which is why the relevant second and fourth theses are the only ones he sets forth in any detail in his discussion (see the appendix for Nevsky’s paraphrase of these two theses). Therefore, when Lenin talks in the theses about moving from the first to the second ‘stage’ of the revolution, he is certainly not talking about a transition from ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’ to ‘socialist revolution’. Rather, the first stage - the svoeobrazie that Lenin confronted on his return - is characterised by what Lenin felt was the ill-informed support of the soviet constituency for the ‘agreementising’ tactic.11 Accordingly, the second stage comes about when the soviet constituency had shed this illusion, and therefore was ready to exclude the elite classes from any sort of political influence.
Several years later, when Lenin had occasion to recall the April theses, it was precisely this aspect - ‘slow down’ rather than ‘speed up’ - that he presented as the heart of the matter: “… on April 7, I published my theses, in which I called for caution and patience.” He goes on to tell his 1921 audience that in April 1917, a “left tendency demanded the immediate overthrow of the government”, but that he, Lenin,
proceeded from the assumption that the masses had to be won over. [The government] cannot be overthrown just now for it holds the vlast due to support from the worker soviets; to date, the government enjoys the confidence of the workers. We are not Blanquists: we do not want to rule with a minority of the working class against the majority.12
What do we learn from Nevsky’s account of the April theses?
- First, continuity with pre-war Bolshevism: the theses set forth the implications of earlier Bolshevik slogans for the new post-February situation.
- Second, Bolshevik consensus on the core issues of the war and the nature of the vlast.
- Third, the role of misunderstanding: the main objection to the theses from fellow Bolsheviks was based on a misreading of the theses - a misreading that Lenin himself instantly tried to correct.
- Fourth, a warning: the heart of Lenin’s message to his fellow Bolsheviks is his anathema against taking power while still in a minority, followed by his urgent advocacy of ‘patient explanation’ in order to attain the requisite majority.
Having examined Lenin’s theses from early April 1917, we will now tell the story in a more chronological fashion. Nevsky has one big point to make when describing the period prior to Lenin’s return: the inescapable demarcation line between two ‘tendencies’ - two overall definitions of the situation - in Russian life and consequently among Russian socialists:
Everywhere [in wartime Russia] two basic and foundational tendencies of Russian life stood out - a revolutionary one that spread the slogan among the masses of civil war instead of imperialist war versus the opposing tendency: one that splintered into thousands of nuances, but which united all classes and social groups (except the proletariat), from the big bourgeoisie down to and including the [Menshevik] liquidators, around this slogan: ‘War to a victorious conclusion’ …
The period defined by the February revolution now commenced, and the two tendencies of Russian Social Democracy definitively diverged: the one that threw itself into the embrace of the bourgeoisie; and the other that chose the high road to socialism.
These two tendencies already existed in international Social Democracy before the war, when they were known as ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’, as against ‘opportunism’.13 According to Nevsky, the war only deepened this split, thus making any effort to unite across the demarcation line utterly futile. In Russia, the local Bolshevik party organisations had always been the leaders of the ‘revolutionary’ tendency and as such they had essentially attained a leadership position among politically active workers. The campaign of the Petrograd Bolsheviks against the so-called Worker Group, which collaborated with the war effort, ended in Bolshevik victory (which helps account for the shock and surprise in the aftermath of the February revolution). The pre-February clash with the Worker Group foreshadowed the fight against Menshevik and SR ‘agreementising’ after February.
When the Bolsheviks emerged from the underground after the overthrow of the tsar, they found themselves in a much broader political environment than the relatively small world of ‘advanced workers’. They now faced the challenge of winning over politically naive workers and even more naive peasant soldiers. Their work was certainly cut out for them:
As can be seen from the make-up of its executive committee, the soviet was defencist, so that the Bolsheviks found themselves drowning in the mass of defencist delegates. And for this reason, from the very first steps of its existence, the soviet was the arena of a struggle between two currents: the defencist line versus the revolutionary Bolshevik line.
Nevsky’s account of the early days of the revolution is especially valuable, because he relies on the testimony of mid-level Bolshevik activists, such as himself - all of them writing prior to the politicisation of this episode in the mid-20s: Aleksandr Shliapnikov, VN Zalezhsky, Rosa Zemliachka. Nevsky also calls upon another informative witness from February/March: the bourgeois and ‘agreementising’ press of the period. Let us hear what these witnesses have to say.
Shliapnikov, writing in 1923, flatly states that during the first days of the revolution the Bolsheviks envisioned a “provisional revolutionary government” based on a coalition of the parties represented in the soviet; they were not (Shliapnikov stresses) “maximalists”: that is, they did not insist on an immediate socialist revolution. The demarcation line between the Bolsheviks and the other parties lay elsewhere. Even if Russia was undergoing a ‘bourgeois’ revolution, this certainly did not mean that the workers could trust the liberals to carry out the necessary democratic transformation of Russia:
We [Bolsheviks] refused to understand the bourgeois character of our revolution in the vulgarised and simplified way desired by others.
The Mensheviks and the majority of the Socialist Revolutionaries hoped to carry out the revolutionary demands of the workers and peasants via the hands of the bourgeoisie, but we considered any such hopes harmful. The extent to which the revolutionary break-up of feudal relations took place in practice was not a matter of indifference to the development of the proletarian movement.
The right wing of the socialist parties hoped at that time to achieve the maximum scope (within the limits of ‘bourgeois’ relations) for this revolutionary break-up by “constant and unswerving pressure on the bourgeoisie and pushing it to the left”. We considered this tactic to be erroneous. Using examples even from our own country’s meagre historical experience, we pointed out and tried to demonstrate how deceptive were the hopes for obtaining real achievements by “pushing” the bourgeoisie.
Note that Shliapnikov backs up his argument not by abstract Marxist doctrine, but by pointing to the concrete course of Russian politics during the past decade.
Nevsky goes on to expand Shliapnikov’s reasoning in order to drive home the fact that the demarcation line was defined by agreementising versus hegemony:
We have seen the parties represented in the first soviet of 1917: the soviet included - in addition to non-party workers and peasant-soldiers - Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, Trudoviki, Bundists, internationalists, Mezhraiontsy and Latvian Social Democrats.
Therefore, when we advocated [in early March] that the [proposed] Provisional Revolutionary Government be composed of representatives of those parties that were then present in the soviet, our party organisation stood for a coalition of revolutionary Social Democracy with the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie …
Since we were aware that the implementation of socialism was not the immediate task of the moment, we were not distinguished from the other parties on this issue either.
What really distinguished the Bolsheviks from other socialist parties came down to the agreementising tactic of the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries: that is, their readiness to cede the role of hegemon of the revolution to the bourgeoisie. This readiness was shown by the way the defencists agreed to give their sanction to a Provisional Government that corresponded to the desires of the Octobrists and Kadets [elite political parties].
As we have seen, the Bolsheviks were shocked to realise that after the overthrow of the tsar the despised ‘agreementisers’ could rely on solid majority support. This situation presented a challenge to Bolshevik sloganeering: how could you call for the soviets to replace the Provisional Government if the soviets themselves still supported it? One effort to square this circle was a resolution issued by the Petrograd party committee in the first days of the revolution in March:
The Petersburg committee of the RSDWP, taking into account the resolution on the Provisional Government adopted by the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies, declares that it does not work against the vlast of the Provisional Government insofar as its actions are in the interests of the proletariat and the broad democratic masses of the narod, [but] announces its intention to conduct ruthless war against any attempts of the Provisional Government to restore a monarchical form of government in any form.
This resolution is sometimes quoted to claim that the Bolsheviks themselves were ‘agreementisers’, who offered ‘critical support’ to the government. But Nevsky usefully gives us the rationale behind this resolution, as set forth in 1923 by VN Zalezhsky, a member of the Petersburg committee (PK). Zalezhsky sets out the committee’s priorities (my emphasis):
(a) for the time being, do not call for immediate street action against the Provisional Government, [since it is] supported by the soviet;
(b) as a first priority, focus attention on winning over the worker and soldier masses;
(c) immediately organise and strengthen the worker militia [= Red Guard];
(d) work for immediate economic improvements in the position of the worker masses;
(e) broadcast the slogan of forming peasant committees that will move immediately to confiscate the land.
The Provisional Government certainly did not welcome ‘support’ such as this, whether ‘critical’ or otherwise. And, if the Bolsheviks in March actually were playing nice (as we so often read), the ‘bourgeois’ press failed to get the memo. Nevsky cites the voice of the hostile press:
The bourgeoisie well understood the true significance of [this tactic of the Petrograd Bolsheviks]: from the very first days of the revolution, slander against the Bolsheviks and against the PK in particular appeared on the pages of the bourgeois press, at rallies, in military units and in factories. The Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries aided the bourgeoisie … But the PK did not fold its hands in despondency: it threw all its forces into the thick of the masses - into the factories, workshops and barracks.
As we have seen, Lenin later de facto endorsed the political calculation that gave rise to the PK’s admittedly clumsy formulation: we Bolsheviks should not try to overthrow the government right now, but instead we must turn our attention to creating the necessary and sufficient condition for an overthrow later. This necessary condition was, of course, majority support from the soviet constituency. Admittedly, Lenin brought more clarity (not reorientation!) to the packaging of the anti-agreementising message (although, please note, the Bolsheviks did not hit upon the canonical slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, until a month after Lenin’s return. And even that slogan came with a condition: ‘All power to the soviets [when we’re good and ready]!’).
Nevsky also surveys Bolshevik organisations throughout the country. We will restrict ourselves here to the other capital city, Moscow. At the party conference in April, long-time Bolshevik activist Rosa Zemliachka gave a report on the activities of the Moscow party organisation during the previous month. Please note that she was addressing an audience of well-informed party activists about events fresh in everybody’s mind. Zemliachka first pointed to the need for Bolsheviks to adjust their agitation methods to the new situation:
In the early days of the revolution, the Moscow organisation went through a period of the same confusion that could be seen in other places. It was not at all adapted to the broad political work that was now possible to carry out. The old methods and skills turned out to be completely unsuitable for the new conditions.
But, as Zemliachka goes on to say, this reorientation in campaign methods did not signal a reorientation on basic political issues. She told the April conference that “in [our] resolution on the attitude towards the Provisional Government, the point of view of revolutionary Social Democracy is strictly followed: no trust and no support for a clearly counterrevolutionary government”. Nevsky confirms Zemliachka’s point:
In the case of the Bolshevik party organisation in Moscow, its tactics were orthodox-revolutionary in the same way [as Petrograd], as shown by its stand on all the most important issues of the moment: the question of the war, the Provisional Government, the eight-hour working day, and so on.
Nevsky’s account of the opening weeks of the revolution is based heavily on the testimonial of mid-level praktiki like himself. We draw from these witnesses the following important moral: whether the revolution was defined as ‘bourgeois-democratic’ or whether it was defined as ‘socialist’, the goal of an exclusive worker-peasant vlast based on the soviets remained the same from the very beginning of the revolution.
This goal united the Bolsheviks and distinguished them from all other parties (not, of course, from all other political groupings).
Like other Russian parties, the newly above-ground Bolshevik Party plunged into a round of conferences to re-establish both personal and organisational ties, as well as to decide on ‘tactics’ (the term used by Nevsky to indicate basic policy choices). At the end of March there was a national Bolshevik gathering (soveshchanie) in concert with an All-Russia soviet conference; in early April there were preparatory conferences in Petrograd and in the Moscow region; in mid-April there was an all-Russia party conference. Nevsky sums up:
The overall basic line of the party was set out already in these [preparatory] conferences of the strongest and most important Bolshevik organisations, [so that] the opinion of the entire party was set out clearly and precisely in the resolutions adopted on April 24-29 [at the all-Russia party conference] …
According to Nevsky, the party gave “clear and precise” answers to the issues of the day. Was this clarity and precision muddied somewhat by passionate disagreements among the delegates? Let us take a look at Nevsky’s survey of the debates and the general atmosphere of the all-Russia conference in mid-April (hereafter simply ‘April conference’). Keep in mind that Nevsky himself was a delegate at both the preparatory conference in Petrograd and the full April conference (NB: I have read the records of these conferences with care and fully endorse Nevsky’s portrait).
On the central issues that faced the country - the issues that defined what Bolshevism stood for during 1917 - there was no sign of disagreement. The core Bolshevik consensus was in place on the following issues [quoted words are from Nevsky]:
- The war: a rejection of “revolutionary defencism”, because the war was “imperialist and annexationist”.
- The nature of the vlast: the Provisional Government was “imperialist-bourgeois and counterrevolutionary”.
- The demarcation line at home and abroad: meaningful party unity was possible only if restricted to one side of the demarcation line - coupled with vociferous rejection of the “agreementising, anti-proletariat, opportunist politics” on the other side of the line.
- The land: peasants should take the land by “revolutionary methods” without waiting for the Constituent Assembly, since “the outcome of the Russian Revolution depended on whom the revolutionary peasantry would choose to follow”.
There was also no controversy over a more ideological question with less immediate and direct impact on day-to-day political agitation: namely, the role of socialism as such. Nevsky well sums up the ‘on the one hand, yet on the other hand’ approach to this question common to Bolsheviks (including Lenin):
The [conference] resolution on the current situation - proceeding on the basis that the preconditions for a socialist revolution continued to mature in the capitalist countries of Europe and that the transfer of the vlast into the hands of the [Russian] proletariat would further strengthen the favourable conditions for such a revolution - set forth the position that “the proletariat of Russia, acting in one of the most backward countries in Europe, alongside the mass of the small-peasant population, cannot set itself the goal of immediate implementation of a socialist transformation”.
But, even while asserting this position, the conference decisively dissociated itself from those socialists who drew the conclusion that measures of a transitional character to socialism already in the present epoch were impossible.
According to a very influential assertion by Trotsky, “the whole of the April party conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of the vlast in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (somebody or other) complete the democratic revolution?”14 With all due respect to the eloquent party leader, he is flat-out wrong and the mid-level praktik, Vladimir Nevsky, is correct. The issue of socialist revolution vs bourgeois-democratic revolution did not even arise at the conference. Everyone assumed that the party aimed at the conquest of the vlast, no matter what label was affixed to the revolution.
According to Nevsky, only one issue led to a serious clash at the conference: the national question, including the status of the right of national self-determination. On this issue alone was there an alternate resolution defended in a counter-report, and on this issue alone was there a seriously split vote.
(I cannot forbear to point out some ironies. According to song and story, the April conference was dominated by passionate disagreements that were sparked off by the allegedly scandalous April theses. Yet the national question is not even mentioned in the theses. And, when Lenin intervened to support Stalin’s resolution, he spoke against the position that a “democratic” goal such as national self-determination was irrelevant “in the era of proletarian revolution”.)
Nevsky gives the following overall description of the April conference. Although today Nevsky’s words will strike most specialists as wildly off-base, his position was hardly controversial when he wrote it just a few years after the event:
Unanimity reigned at the conference as a whole, and the different shades of opinion that emerged on the most important questions of the current moment did not present such discordant positions that they could not be put into a general formulation acceptable to the whole party …
The April conference touched upon all the most important issues of the moment and in many respects determined the tactics of our party for a long time to come, so that in essence this conference could rightfully play the role of a full party congress.
An official full congress was in fact convened in early August, but the standing of this Sixth Congress was damaged by the semi-underground status of the party after the July Days. The top leaders - Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev - were under arrest or in hiding. (Nevsky does not mention the party leader who was given the job of guiding the proceedings: Joseph Stalin. Nevsky’s somewhat defensive account of the Sixth Congress might in fact be interpreted as throwing shade on Stalin.)
One vexed question was the role of the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, under the new, repressive conditions, and perhaps Nevsky is a little evasive here. He first notes the new official definition of the situation: the peaceful period of the revolution is over and therefore “the revolution had now entered a new and more stormy stage of development. Now the toiling workers15 could achieve the transfer of the vlast only under the leadership of revolutionary Social Democracy [ie, the Bolsheviks and other anti-agreement groups].” But he quickly affirms that the essential tactic implied by the Bolshevik adjustment still held:
This, of course, did not mean that the Bolsheviks were shouting: ‘Down with the soviets - they have disintegrated for good’. Rather, it meant this: an even more intense struggle within the soviets for influence in order to win them over.
In his account of Bolshevik party conferences, Nevsky duly notes disagreement over issues such as the national question and the implications of the post-July repression. Nevertheless, as a participant and a historian, Nevsky’s bottom line is the “clear and precise” stand taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the core issues. The Bolsheviks were able to position themselves firmly on one side of the fundamental demarcation line; they exuded a confident commitment to the tactic of winning majority status from the soviet constituency.
Nevsky’s record of events peters out after the July days and the party congress in early August, and his chapter has little to add to debates about the run-up to October. So it is time to take a step back and present Nevsky’s overall view of revolutionary dynamics in 1917. Nevsky’s interpretation zeroes in on several key factors in constant interaction, creating what we might rather portentously call the dialectic of revolution in 1917.
Let us start with the Bolshevik crusade against ‘agreementising’ (soglashatelstvo). Every time Nevsky outlines the profound clash defined by the demarcation line, he always includes agreementising as a central epithet for the bad side of this line. Although this theme was already prominent in Bolshevik polemics prior to the revolution, it really came into its own after February. In the weeks following the overthrow of the tsar, the “path of agreement” (Tsereteli’s phrase) enjoyed strong majority support from the soviet constituency.
The agreement in question was as follows: the Provisional Government will sincerely carry out basic revolutionary goals, and in return the soviet will provide the government with the legitimacy it needed to survive. An unstressed, but explicit, corollary: if the government betrayed its unwillingness or incapacity to work for revolutionary goals, the soviet system had the right and even the duty to replace it with a revolutionary vlast (authoritative government) that rescinded the agreement by excluding ‘bourgeois’ influence.
As we have seen, on the morrow of the February revolution, the Bolsheviks had to adjust their practice to the inescapable fact of majority support for the ‘path of agreement’. Their adjustment included: a drive to win over majority support for a rejection of ‘agreementising’; a commitment to establish a ‘soviet vlast’ only after this majority support was secured; an almost serene confidence that the agreement would not and could not work. Not only would ‘the path of agreement’ fail to achieve the promised revolutionary goals, but it guaranteed continual governmental crises: ie, krizis vlasti: a central term in the discourse of 1917, ranging in meaning from cabinet shuffles to the overall failure to create a viable replacement after the utter collapse of the ‘historical vlast’ of tsarism.
As the Bolsheviks saw things, the agreement guaranteed governmental crises (because of the clashing interests of the parties to the agreement), these crises further weakened the agreement, and the manifest failure of ‘agreementising’ helped win over the requisite majority support for soviet power. Acquiring the needed anti-agreementising support from the workers themselves was relatively easy: according to Nevsky, this had happened in the capital city of Petrograd already in May/June. More challenging was winning over the peasants (and other ‘intermediate classes’): in particular, the peasant-soldier garrison in Petrograd. This was the task assigned to the Military Organisation, a party-established group that Nevsky himself helped to found. Nevsky portrays the Military Organisation as the embodiment of the ur-Bolshevik tactic of ‘hegemony’: the peasant was the swing class, whose support or hostility would make or break the revolution.
Agreementising, adjustment, krizis vlasti, hegemony: according to Nevsky, these are the dynamic factors, whose accelerating interaction led to October. Most of Nevsky’s analysis of these factors has been already been presented to the reader. We will complete our summary of this extraordinary chapter by looking at a couple of points not yet elaborated.
Let us skip over the political infighting connected to the series of political crises that punctuated the short, unhappy life of the Provisional Government and concentrate on the way these crises themselves helped make the case against ‘agreementising’. Nevsky boiled down the meaning of the April crisis to the fact that “even though the masses were inclined toward defencism, they instinctively protested, realising that the essence of the policy of the Provisional Government was simply continuation of the imperialist war”. Lenin’s reaction (as quoted by Nevsky) was to insist on the “patient explanation” demanded by the Bolshevik adjustment:
The lesson is clear, worker comrades! Time is running out. This first crisis will be followed by others. Give all your strength to the enlightenment of the backward - to mass, comradely, direct (and not only at rallies) contact with every regiment, with every stratum of toilers who have not yet seen the light… Rally round your soviets and, within them, aim at rallying a majority around you by comradely persuasiveness and by re-electing individual members!
Nevsky asserts that this Lenin text from April 23 “undisputedly expressed the opinion of the whole party”. A Bolshevik demonstration planned for June 10 (called off at the behest of the soviet) was described by Tsereteli as a conspiracy “for overthrowing the government and seizing power”. Nevsky comments: “Of course, this description was false - the time had not yet arrived - but it was clear to all that the time was approaching.”
The next big krizis vlasti was the July Days, when a huge demonstration seemed so threatening that the Bolsheviks were semi-outlawed. Nevsky drew what was for the Bolsheviks the moral of the story:
The masses reacted to the new krizis vlasti with an even more grandiose street manifestation than in April. A straightforward demonstration of soldiers and workers on July 3 in Petersburg and in some other places had turned into real military clashes between the masses led by Bolsheviks versus troops still loyal to the government.
Without the slightest doubt, it was possible even then for the Bolsheviks to take the vlast into their own hands, but they did not pose the question that way. As was evident from the resolutions of the April conference, they envisioned the transfer of the vlast to the soviets - not as a matter of the vlast being seized by a handful of individuals ready for desperate self-sacrifice, but rather as the result of a firm decision by the overwhelming majority of the toilers to take the vlast.
But this awareness did not yet exist in July 1917.
In vain did the Bolsheviks demonstrate that their calculations did not yet [sic] include the overthrow of the government: the rancour of their class enemies had no end. All available forces were thrown against the masses who had gone out on the street.
By this time, despite the ensuing repression, Nevsky affirmed that the path of agreement was already living on borrowed time. A solid majority of the workers had been won over and the peasants were not far behind. Since Nevsky (along with NI Podvoisky) was one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Military Organisation, he presents events through the prism of party work among peasant soldiers. He naturally stresses that setting up the Military Organization in March was a crucial step: “It was clear that the outcome of the revolution depended on whom the many millions of the peasant masses would follow. The work of the Petersburg Committee in this area was a model for all of Russia behind the front as well as at the front.”
This work started “from the very first days of the revolution”, although, owing to practical difficulties, it was officially inaugurated a couple of weeks later, on March 22. (This activity by the Petrograd party should be kept in mind by those who attribute a soft-core ‘revolutionary defencism’ to the Bolsheviks in March.)
Since the mass of workers were already quickly disillusioned by the ‘path of agreement’, the underlying fact behind the events taking place from the April crisis to the July days was “the struggle for the army, for the peasantry”. The Military Organisation and similar party groups elsewhere created a living link with the villages, so that a suspicious attitude toward ‘agreementising’ was spreading in the villages by the end of June:
If the peasants still believed in the defencists, nevertheless, the stories they heard from family and friends awakened their thinking and compelled them to wonder whether all the speeches they were hearing from the village elite - who were followers of the [liberal] Kadets and the Socialist Revolutionaries - were perhaps only a fraud.
As Nevsky reminds us, the Bolsheviks were denounced as ‘traitors’ (izmenniki), who were directly responsible for the disintegration of the army and for military defeat. Naturally, Nevsky and his comrades felt called upon to combat this label. A continuing theme throughout his chapter is to exculpate the Bolsheviks from the charge of accelerating the collapse of the army. On the contrary (so Nevsky assures us), the Bolsheviks helped the army retain some basic elements of discipline:
The merit of the Bolsheviks was this: even in this elemental destructive process, they were able to bring in elements of organisation that later helped to build a new and battle-worthy army on the ruins of the old tsarist army. The elemental process of collapse proceeded more swiftly in the army than anywhere else: the Bolsheviks, to the extent of their forces, brought in organisation. Undoubtedly, the indignation of the aggrieved mass of soldiers that expressed itself in the murder of officers rapidly calmed down only as a result of Bolshevik influence.
Similarly, the cause for the failure of the June military offensive was not Bolshevik agitation, but “the lack of ammunition, of food supply, of uniforms, of trust in the officers, and, most of all, the soldier mass’s growing awareness of the needlessness and criminality of the senseless slaughter”. All in all, the Bolshevik presence at the front was the good fortune of the revolution: “… if they had not been there, the civil war that Kerensky began by shooting soldiers unwilling to attack would have claimed vastly more victims”.
Nevsky’s arguments on this point are a good illustration of what can be called ‘anti-agreement defencism’. Despite the efforts of opponents in 1917 (and many later historians and activists) to label the Bolsheviks in 1917 as ‘defeatist’, the Bolsheviks argued that the agreement tactic endangered not only revolutionary goals, but also such basic state functions as defence of the country.
I have portrayed events from Nevsky’s point of view, and only rarely have I interjected an editorial comment. But now I will conclude by briefly outlining my own perspective, although framed in ways that arose from putting together this presentation of Nevsky - without, of course, making any claim that Nevsky himself would endorse my version in any way.
We often speak of the radicalisation of the masses in 1917. But in essence there was no radicalisation at all. The workers, soldiers and peasants started off at the beginning of the revolution with some traditional and yet very radical goals: to create a democratic republic more far-reaching than anything seen in Europe; to liquidate the gentry-landowners as a class; to democratise the army (in essence, to make it impossible to fight a war without clear aims accepted by the people); and a rapid conclusion of the war. To minimise this radical reshaping of the country as merely ‘democratic reforms’ is bizarre. These goals did not change over the months in 1917 - rather they were supplemented by even more basic and widely shared goals (preventing total economic collapse and establishing a tverdaia vlast: that is, a tough-minded, governmental authority).
What did change in the outlook of the soviet constituency? Answer: the best means for achieving revolutionary goals. At the beginning of the revolution, the soviet constituency was passionately assured by people with irreproachable credentials as fighters for the popular cause that revolutionary goals could be achieved by ‘the path of agreement’ - in other words, the Provisional Government and the elite forces behind it accepted the necessity of sincerely working in this direction. And despite talk of ‘petty bourgeois’ backwardness, we should realise that, given the information available, support for the agreement tactic was rational. (Here I am following out a line of thought suggested by Viktor Miller - a historian of Menshevism in the late Soviet period.) The soviet constituency was promised a relatively quick and painless path that would “carry out the revolution to the end”.
From the very beginning, the Bolsheviks accepted the existing goals of the soviet constituency, but they also insisted that the agreement tactic simply would not work. They predicted that the agreement between the Soviet and the Provisional Government would lead to disaster - and disaster arrived promptly on cue. The Kornilov adventure dotted the ‘i’ and crossed the ‘t’: the elite classes were utterly insincere about achieving revolutionary goals. The standard story about Bolshevik cluelessness in March 1917 and subsequent rearming in April completely obscures this underlying process. The Bolsheviks did not advocate new and more radical goals. Rather, they gained credibility, because they never wavered in their anti-agreement message from the beginning of the revolution in February till the end. As Kamenev put it at the All-Russia Conference of Soviets at the end of March (and so prior to Lenin’s return),
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 …
This needs to be said in any resolution in which we state our attitude to the Provisional Government: yes, we breathe an atmosphere of counterrevolution.16
Even those who despise the Bolsheviks should realise that, just as it was rational to support ‘the path of agreement’ in March, it was rational to reject ‘agreementising’ in October. Of course, this proposition is not the same as saying the workers and soldiers who gave the Second Congress an anti-agreement majority chose the best possible course of action: we can argue about this question. But, given the alternatives presented to them by all reputable spokesmen - both pro-agreement and anti-agreement - the events taking place before their eyes made the case for rejecting the agreement much more persuasively than the Bolsheviks as such did.
And there were only two realistic alternatives to the ‘path of agreement’: a (temporary?) military dictatorship or a vlast based exclusively on the soviets. In October, only one party supported the second alternative.
Central to Nevsky’s account is what I call the Bolshevik adjustment - or, to use Lenin’s term, Bolshevik recognition of the svoeobrazie (the unexpected and original nature of the post-February situation). When Lenin arrived in Petrograd, he was surprised and shocked to realise that the Bolsheviks were not the leaders of the Petrograd proletariat, but, instead, only a small minority in the soviet.
His response was to rebuke any Bolshevik who was too impatient, too hasty, too insistent on establishing a revolutionary government right now. No (said Lenin), we must first roll up our sleeves and strive to win over a majority in the soviets by “patient explanation” (in real life, by noisy agitation campaigns). Until then, any attempt at taking power immediately was strictly illegitimate. This argument on Lenin’s part was not some side note, some ‘by the way’ qualification: it was the centre of gravity of Lenin’s April theses and other writings from 1917. Nevsky’s history takes this thrust for granted and makes it the driving force of his own account.
Although Nevsky does not stress the point, we need to recognise that Bolshevik leaders such as Kamenev and Stalin had set forth the logic of the Bolshevik adjustment prior to Lenin’s return. In these informal remarks to fellow Bolsheviks on March 18, Kamenev prefigures Lenin:
It is surprising that the Bolsheviks are not occupying a dominant position in the Petrograd Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies - and why do they allow into the soviet the liquidators, who do not express the outlook of the Petrograd workers? 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 Bolshevik adjustment must be understood within the context of the demarcation line so heavily stressed by Nevsky. The demarcation line made itself known on many levels. Within the international Social Democratic movement, it was known as ‘revolutionary Social Democracy’ versus ‘opportunism’; within Russian Social Democracy, it was known as ‘Bolshevik hegemony’ versus ‘Menshevik fear of proletarian isolation’. After the outbreak of war in 1914, it became known as ‘internationalism’ versus ‘defencism’. After February, the demarcation line was expressed as ‘anti-agreement’ versus ‘pro-agreement’.
To the Bolshevik way of thinking, the demarcation line was essentially the same in all these cases. The Bolsheviks had always strongly self-identified as the Russian representative of revolutionary Social Democracy. Their experiences on the eve of the war and during the war convinced them, rightly or wrongly, that a majority of the ‘advanced workers’ in Petrograd were firmly on the correct side of the demarcation line - whence their shock and dismay to find themselves in a small minority.
Recognising the existence of the demarcation line leads us on to the specific content of the Bolshevik message and tactic: the hegemony scenario of proletarian leadership of the revolutionary peasantry. As a key leader in the party’s Military Organisation and its political work among the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison and elsewhere, Nevsky treats the soldiers stationed in Petrograd as a stand-in for the peasant populace of Russia as a whole, and so he presents his own political work in the capital as a reflection of the political dynamics of 1917 throughout the country. For Nevsky, the key question of the revolution was: whom would the peasants support - the proletariat or the elite reformers and their ‘agreementising’ hangers-on? His answer was that the proletariat - armed (not rearmed!) with the Bolshevik message - successfully won over peasant support and thus were in a position to achieve the central goal of the revolution: the establishment of a worker-peasant vlast.
In this way, Nevsky presents Bolshevik victory in 1917 as a vindication of the Bolshevik hegemony scenario. His argument to this effect depends on replacing the “land-hungry village peasants” of the original scenario with the “war-weary peasant soldiers” of the Petrograd garrison - a not inconsequential shift! In Bolshevik eyes, however, the course of the ensuing civil war did indeed vindicate the hegemony scenario in its original form.
Once we are fully aware of the centrality of the demarcation line, we can begin to understand Nevsky’s insistence - so surprising to most of us - on continuity and consensus in the Bolshevik outlook. The standard account of Bolshevism in 1917 stresses rupture, discontinuity, conflict and a far-from-complete rearming of the party - all to such an extent that ‘Bolshevism’ ceases to have concrete meaning. In contrast, Nevsky heavily stresses continuity between pre-war Bolshevism and Bolshevism after February. He also brings out the essential continuity in the core Bolshevik message before and after Lenin’s arrival in early April.
The existence of a consensus among Bolshevik leaders and activists is confirmed in negative terms by the instant and unrelenting hostility of everyone else toward the Bolsheviks and other ‘internationalists’. Nevsky is thus blissfully unaware of any ‘sharp turn to the right’ after the arrival of Kamenev and Stalin in mid-March. The Bolshevik consensus could also be observed among veteran Bolshevik activists across the country, although in many places this consensus struggled to express itself in strict organisational separation.
Consensus also characterised the stand on the core issues facing the revolution, since Bolshevik activists were all firmly on one side of the demarcation line. On one side of this line, support for the war; on the other side, opposition. On one side, support for the Provisional Government and hostility toward a vlast based exclusively on the soviets; on the other side, hostility toward the Provisional Government and support for a vlast based exclusively on the soviets. On the one side, a wager on ‘the path of agreement’ (soglashenie) between the Soviet and the Provisional Government; on the other side, a sustained polemic against ‘agreementising’ (soglashatelstvo) as an unworkable dead end. These are the core issues, but a similar contrast holds good on a multitude of ancillary topics.
The standard ‘rearming’ narrative essentially denies the existence of any demarcation line prior to Lenin’s arrival, since (so we are told) Bolshevik leaders in March were barely distinguishable from ‘revolutionary defencists’, insofar as they had any coherent line at all. The standard narrative, deriving ultimately from Trotsky’s 1924 account, recognises a demarcation line only after Lenin’s arrival in early April. According to this version of events, not only was Lenin the first Bolshevik to insist on opposition to the war and on hostility to the Provisional Government, but he also imposed a new demarcation line around the issue of socialist revolution versus bourgeois revolution. And, we are further told, this insistence on socialist revolution in Russia was a necessary logical basis for the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’ Nevsky’s account challenges this entire interpretation in a radical way.
The Bolsheviks were not the ones who coined terms such as krizis vlasti or dvoevlastie (‘double vlast’). These ubiquitous and unavoidable realities were the focus of everyone’s attention throughout 1917. Nevertheless, the Bolshevik critique of ‘agreementising’, although rooted in the Bolshevik past, provided a plausible explanation of the never-ending krizis vlasti, as well as a plausible solution: the krizis was the inevitable result of the clashing group interests of the soviet constituency, as opposed to the ‘bourgeois’ elite, and the solution was therefore to establish a vlast that was ‘homogeneous’ in class terms. (In September and October, ‘homogeneous’ became a popular word for making this point.)
The pre-revolutionary ‘Plan A’ of the Bolsheviks, then, was to establish a “provisional revolutionary government” based on the workers and peasants, and led by Russian “revolutionary Social Democracy” (that is, themselves). The painful post-February adjustment forced them to adopt ‘Plan B’: first win over majority support for their side of the demarcation line and then establish a revolutionary government. Plan B was thus always meant to be temporary. Later in this series, we will examine what happened when the Bolsheviks decided that the time had come to return to Plan A.
Nevsky himself does not describe events after the Bolsheviks decided that the adjustment had accomplished its assigned task of garnering majority support against agreementising, but his insightful participant account nevertheless gives us essential background for understanding the October revolution. Back to Nevsky!
. The full title: Istoriia RKP (B): Kratkii ocherk (the subtitle, meaning ‘Short sketch’, is misleading, as the book is over 450 pages). The second edition from 1926 is available online. I have used the republication of the second edition (Moscow 2009) that contains much useful supplementary material.↩︎
. MV Zelenov, ‘Vladimir Ivanovich Nevsky (1876-1937)’: (opentextnn.ru/old/history/historiografy/historians/ros/index.html@id=2103). My biographical remarks are based mainly on Zelenov’s detailed account.↩︎
. See L Holmes Revising the revolution: the unmaking of Russia’s official history of 1917 Bloomington IN 2021, p21.↩︎
. For a characteristic episode from the early 1920s, see Revising the revolution (note 3), pp20-27.↩︎
. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context Chicago 2008.↩︎
. The conception of ‘democratic centralism’ set forth in Nevsky’s history fits this emphasis on independent activity at the base. See my discussion at johnriddell.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/fortunes-of-a-formula-from-democratic-centralism-to-democratic-centralism.↩︎
. In a popular pamphlet issued in 1924, Nevsky refers to Trotsky as the “creator and designer” of the Red Army (Sem let pobed i porazhenii p37); no other party member except Lenin is mentioned.↩︎
. Unless otherwise stated, all Nevsky quotes are from the 2009 edition of History of the RKP (B).↩︎
. Orlando Figes tells us: “Lenin had turned the party programme on its head. Instead of accepting the need for a ‘bourgeois stage’ of the revolution, he was calling for a ‘proletarian revolution’ in one step” (www.orlandofiges.info/section5_TheFebruaryRevolution1917/LeninandTheAprilTheses.php). Note the quote marks, as if he were giving us Lenin’s actual words. In fact it is Figes who turns Lenin “on his head”.↩︎
. Vlast is variously translated as ‘power’, ‘authority’, ‘government’, ‘regime’ … ‘Double vlast’ (or dvoevlastie) is usually translated as ‘dual power’.↩︎
. ‘Agreementising’ (soglashatelstvo) was the sarcastic Bolshevik label for the agreement tactic.↩︎
. Source: Riddell, Third Comintern Congress, pp1170‑71; VI Lenin PSS, Vol 44, pp57-59; ECW Vol 42, pp324‑28.↩︎
. For a sense of the long-term clash of these two wings of social democracy, see Mike Taber’s invaluable recent edition of crucial debates at congresses of the Second International: Reform, revolution and opportunism: debates in the Second International, 1900-1910 Chicago 2023).↩︎
. L Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924). NB: At the time of the April conference, Trotsky had not yet returned to Russia and so, unlike Nevsky, he is not an eyewitness of Bolshevik debates during this period. The quoted assertion from 1924 also directly contradicts what he himself said on the issue in 1917 - see my essay at johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/the-character-of-the-russian-revolution-trotsky-1917-vs-trotsky-1924.↩︎
. ‘Toiling workers’ is a technical term in Bolshevik discourse, meaning all working people - the narod - and therefore not just the proletariat.↩︎
. I am confident that even well-informed readers will be unfamiliar with this unambiguous assertion by Kamenev. This lacuna is not their fault, but rather the fault of those who have undertaken to inform them.↩︎
Appendix: Nevsky on the April Theses
In Vladimir Nevsky’s direct paraphrase of Lenin’s theses below, he gives special weight to the second and fourth theses, since these two set out the logic of the Bolshevik adjustment. I have therefore directly translated his presentation of only those two theses. What follows is Nevsky’s discussion of the immediate Bolshevik response to the theses, which is translated in its entirety.
These passages all come from the chapter on the events of 1917 in Nevsky’s History of the RKP(B) (originally published in 1925), which I have translated.
Appendix: 'Patient and tireless'
Lenin’s second thesis was formulated in this way:
… the original nature [svoeobrazie] of the present moment in Russia consists of the transition from the first stage of the revolution (the one that gave the vlast [power] to the bourgeoisie due to the insufficient awareness and organisation of the proletariat) to its second stage (the one that must place the vlast into the hands of the proletariat and the poorest strata of the peasantry).
This transition is characterised, on the one hand, by a maximum of legality (Russia right now is the freest of all the warring countries in the world); and, on the other hand, by the lack of coercion applied to the masses, and finally, by their trusting and unaware attitude toward the government of the capitalists - the worst enemies of peace and socialism.
This original nature demands from us the ability to adapt to these special conditions of party work among the unbelievably wide proletarian masses, who are just now awakening to political life …
In the fourth thesis, recognising the fact that the Bolsheviks in the soviets were in the minority and that the masses followed the defencists, Lenin went on to say:
We must explain to the masses that the Soviet of Worker Deputies is the only possible form of a revolutionary government and that therefore our task, as long as this [potential] government succumbs to the influence of the bourgeoisie, can only be patient, systematic, persistent explanation of mistakes and tactics - an explanation conducted in a manner that is especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.
As long as we are in the minority, we carry on the work of criticism and clarification of mistakes, while at the same time preaching the need for the transfer of the whole vlast of the state to the Soviets of Worker Deputies, so that the masses shake off their mistakes by experience.
Such is the essence of these famous theses, which horrified some, aroused joy and sympathy in others, caused an outburst of fury in the camp of the bourgeoisie and extraordinary enthusiasm in the ranks of the proletariat.
It is necessary, however, to emphasise that in the ranks of our party there were people who at first misunderstood these theses and saw them, despite categorical explanations, as a call for the immediate implementation of socialism.
In point of fact, Lenin’s position was a natural development of the doctrine that was worked out by him long ago, in the earlier periods of the history of our party. One of the basic tenets of Bolshevism, based on the experience of the first Russian Revolution, was the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Contained in this idea were all the implications, all the measures that inevitably had to be accepted [in 1917], once the party was convinced of the necessity and inevitability of a proletarian-peasant dictatorship.
In what way were the disagreements that arose in our party in connection with the publication of Lenin’s theses expressed? They were best expressed by comrade Kamenev and came down to the fact that, according to Kamenev, Lenin considered the bourgeois-democratic revolution finished, while in reality it was far from over, and therefore one could not speak of the growing-over of this revolution into a socialist one. Lenin dwelt on these disagreements in detail in his Letters on tactics, to which we refer our readers. [In this pamphlet, Lenin explicitly rejects Kamenev’s claim that he, Lenin, advocated immediate socialist revolution in Russia.]
According to Lenin, the unique feature of the moment that our country was experiencing at that moment consisted of the double vlast. This double vlast manifested itself in the existence of two governments: one was bourgeois, possessing the entire apparatus of the vlast, and the other was the Soviet, the majority of the narod [people]: that is, workers and peasants.
The class origin of this double vlast lies in the fact that the Russian Revolution, having destroyed the monarchy and transferred the vlast to the bourgeoisie, at the same time came very close to the implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry - but then the Petrograd Soviet voluntarily transferred the vlast to the bourgeoisie and its Provisional Government.
Hence the original nature [svoeobrazie] of the tactic arising from such a unique feature of the Russian Revolution: winning over the proletarian masses who had been persuaded by revolutionary defencism and by this very fact were now giving support to the imperialist bourgeoisie holding the vlast. These masses had to be won over by patient and tireless propaganda and by criticism of the tactic of the petty bourgeois parties - Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries - that the masses were now following.
The slogan, ‘Down with the war’, is in itself correct, but the war cannot be ended [simply] by the decision of one side, nor by ‘sticking a bayonet in the ground’, nor by an agreement [soglashenie] of the socialists of all countries. The only way to end the war is the transfer of the state vlast to the proletariat.