Programme: the test of 1917

According to standard Trotskyite history - which is espoused as a dogmatic certainty by all principal organisations supporting the Socialist Alliance apart from ourselves - the Bolsheviks were completely hobbled by their programme for the democratic (majority) dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry and an uninterrupted (permanent) revolution. The collapse of tsarism in February (March) 1917 and the formation of the provisional government - dominated by Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks - threw them into utter confusion.

For the recently installed Kamenev-Stalin internal leadership, the provisional government - resting as it did on an SR-Menshevik majority in the soviets - embodied a real gain for the revolution. True, Alexander Kerensky and his socialist ministers were bent on continuing Russia's expansionist involvement in the imperialist slaughter of World War I. No peace! True, they refused to implement radical land reform. No land! True they resisted all inroads into the power of capital necessary to prevent the impending economic collapse. No bread!

So, reasoned the Kamenev-Stalin leadership, the correct tactic for the Bolsheviks was to support the provisional government ... but as a party of 'extreme opposition'. Shades of the old Menshevik formula.

On occasion Pravda proved not so extreme. Lurching towards outright defencism, it urged upon the provisional government a course of immediate negotiation and a democratic peace. In the meantime Pravda admonished fraternisation and indiscipline in the army: "We must not allow any disorganisation of the armed forces of the revolution" (quoted in L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p214).

Only after Lenin managed at last to gain entry into Russia from his Swiss exile - on board the famous sealed train - were the Bolsheviks rearmed. His 'April theses' caused a howl of protest, not least from the 'old Bolshevik' leadership running things in Petrograd. Lenin had undergone a conversion to Trotskyism. Or so the story goes.

Swept along by the flood-tide of revolution, Lenin felt compelled to jettison the 'old Bolshevik' democratic dictatorship ballast. Tony Cliff calls it a "complete break" (T Cliff Lenin Vol 2, London 1976, p124). Other 'Trotskyite' authors too write of a tabula rasa.

Switching from the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, Lenin instead called for an immediate fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism. "Until then," confirms Chris Bambery, SWP secretary, "the Bolsheviks had accepted one part of Plekhanov's argument - that a Russian revolution could not break the bounds of capitalism." Logically, had Lenin not changed his mind, it would have meant, "subordinating the interests and organisation of the working class" to the "bourgeois provisional government" (Socialist Review January 2001).

Anyway, the conciliationist wing suffered quick defeat in a series of sharp set-piece battles: the joint meeting of Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates to the all-Russia conference of workers' and peasants' soviets, April 4; the Petrograd city RSDLP (B), April 14-22; the All-Russia RSDLP (B), April 24-29. Within a month Lenin had successfully rearmed Bolshevism with Trotskyism. In October (November), red guards storm the Winter Palace and topple the provisional government. Working class rule (dictatorship) begins. The October Revolution therefore marked the triumph of Trotskyism. Lenin might have been right on the party, but Trotsky was indisputably right on programme.

1. Separating fact from faction

We shall note in passing here the stubborn fact - as comprehensively presented in my previous article (February 8) - that pre-1917 there is no essential programmatic difference between Lenin and Trotsky. Only high fidelity Stalinites and the most wooden-headed of the 'Trotskyite' epigones refuse to admit the truth. Trotsky rightly maintained, against Stalin's lie machine, that the "basic strategic line was one and the same" (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p173). Nevertheless, in order to rescue the programme of Lenin and Trotsky from the economistic clutches of modern-day 'Trotskyism', we must scotch another myth. The myth that Lenin carried through a "complete break" with his old formula.

Admittedly the germ of this idea originated with Trotsky himself. His motives were perfectly understandable. Stalin's Gatling gun was firing a barrage of quotes culled from Lenin Trotsky's anti-Leninist past. In self-defence Trotsky overcompensated polemically. He suggested that there was a line of continuity between Lenin's 'democratic dictatorship' formula and the vacillation of the 'old Bolsheviks' in March-April 1917. This proved to be a self-inflicted wound, albeit a minor one. Unfortunately it has been left untreated for many decades. We see the frightful anti-Leninist results in the economistic contagion which nowadays still passes itself off as 'Trotskyism'.

Faced with the onslaught against 'Trotskyism' launched by the post-Lenin triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, it was not surprising that Trotsky found himself on the back foot. As an original thinker and an aggressive polemicist of the first rank, he had a long curriculum vitae of countless big and small disputes with Lenin - whom Stalin in particular had all but deified by inventing the cult of 'Leninism'. Trotsky's opponents carried no such baggage. By and large their contributions to Marxism did not go beyond competent echoes of Lenin. Eg, Stalin's Marxism and the national question, Zinoviev's Social roots of opportunism, etc.

Trotsky was desperate to counter-attack. However, in terms of skeletons the triumvirate's past proved a rather empty zone. He had few scandals, apart from the less than honourable role the trio played in the events that led up to October 1917. Putting a brave face on it, he pleaded that study of the disagreements "is not only of extraordinary theoretical importance, but of the utmost practical importance" (L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p211). An exaggeration, perhaps. Yet 1917 posed the question of power point blank and none of the triumvirate performed well.

As a conciliator, Stalin almost instantly melted before Lenin's authority and quietly reverted to an entirely secondary position within the Bolshevik Party. Like the body of the 'old Bolshevik' cadre - they had been steeled in 1905 and well educated by Lenin - his opposition lasted no more than a couple of weeks. Kamenev, on the other hand, doggedly though ineffectively, urged the Bolsheviks to form an "influential" opposition in the Constituent Assembly and carry on slowly accreting support in the soviets. The "bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed" and will not be for some considerable period of time, he obstinately warned. Kamenev advocated a "combined type of state institution" - what might be called a "dual power republic". Naturally this class conciliationism was couched in the language of Bolshevik orthodoxy. Kamenev concealed his political irresolution underneath the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry slogan.

Kamenev retreated politically into a hopelessly rigid and scholastic conceptualisation. His defence was not life. Rather it was an a priori vision of what a 'normal' bourgeois regime ought to be like - ie, the polarisation of society into two camps: labour and capital. At the Bolshevik's April conference he argued in the name of reaching this bourgeois democratic paradigm and against the proletariat in Russia foolhardily taking the lead in the world socialist revolution.

Like a Menshevik, his categories were fixed and his logic altogether circular; as a cross-class bloc, the soviets of workers and peasants was apparently proof in and of themselves that bourgeois democratic tasks were 'uncompleted'.

Here is a snippet of what Kamenev said in April 1917: "Had the bourgeois democratic revolution been completed, this bloc would no longer exist ... and the proletariat would be waging a revolutionary struggle against the bloc ... And, nevertheless, we recognise these soviets as centres for the organisation of forces ... Consequently, the bourgeois revolution is not completed, it has not yet outlived itself; and I believe that all of us ought to recognise that with the complete accomplishment of this revolution, the power would actually have passed into the hands of the proletariat" (quoted in L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p218).

Kamenev found few allies. But he did find Zinoviev - Lenin's second in command. Like Lenin, he returned to Russia from Switzerland in the sealed train. Much to their undying shame together Kamenev and Zinoviev 'scabbed' on the Party's call for 'All power to the soviets' and a second revolution.

Due to what they sincerely perceived to be an unfavourable balance of forces - Cossack regiments, the officer corps, artillery emplacements, etc, stationed around the capital - they feared that the working class in Russia would suffer the same fate as the 1871 Paris Commune. Just two weeks before it happened Kamenev and Zinoviev condemned the Military Revolutionary Committee's plans for an insurrection.

Their letter was gleefully published in Novaya Zhizn (the paper of the Menshevik Internationalists). Seizure of power by one party, the Bolsheviks, could only but result in splits in the camp of democracy and bloodshed, they concluded. Unwilling to take responsibility for the actual revolution of October 25, they resigned from the central committee in protest.

Add to that the contemporary dispute over China in the mid 1920s. Stalin and Bukharin advocated a bloc of four classes - workers, peasants, the intelligentsia and the national bourgeoisie. This class collaboration, the political subordination of the Communist Party of China to the Kuomintang, was excused under the orthodox democratic dictatorship rubric. Opportunism, let us admit, is seldom honest.

Trotsky hit back and sought to justify his own past. As we illustrated last week, in the late 1920s he single-mindedly, exhaustively and methodically detailed the fundamental solidarity between himself and the Bolsheviks prior to 1917. In the mid-1920s, however, he left a misjudged hostage to fortune.

He directly - and incorrectly - criticised Lenin's formula, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, in some key works. He even claims Lenin's authority for this. In his The lessons of October Trotsky maintains that in 1917 Lenin "came out furiously against the old slogan of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'" (L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p209).

Untrue. Lenin attacked not that formula, but those who misused it, those who refused to concretise it, those who urged conciliation with the provisional government supposedly because "the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed".

This "formula" - the "bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed", not the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry formula - "is," says Lenin, "obsolete". "It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it," he thunders (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p50).

However, Trotsky's main criticism of the democratic dictatorship formula in the mid-1920s is its open-endedness. As demonstrated by Lenin's quickly fought and necessary correction carried out under the banner of his 'April theses', the ambiguity of the formula allowed rightist interpretation. As proof, Trotsky cited Kamenev and Zinoviev and Stalin and Bukharin. He urged Comintern, the Communist International, to bury all mention of the democratic dictatorship. Instead he recommended raising his unambiguous call for a workers' state supported by the peasantry.

I have already discussed the advantages of Lenin's open-endedness. Even in early 1917 he could admit the possibility of a peasant regime. And for my part I am unconvinced about the unambiguous nature of Trotsky's formula.

Trotsky's formula - like any other - is capable of opportunist misuse, or even being press-ganged into service by counterrevolution. Stalin, for example, passed off his vile monocracy as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (Constitution of the USSR article 2, Moscow 1969, p11). And, in turn, so did Mao with China, Enver Hoxha with Albania and Kim Il Sung with North Korea ... and for that matter, so did Trotsky's epigones. Albeit with the 'deformed' sobriquet, all such anti-working class regimes were designated with the 'workers' state' title by apologists such as Ernest Mandel, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe.

By adhering to either the 'theory' of bureaucratic collectivism or the 'theory' of state capitalism one obviously avoids that particular snare. Nevertheless there are others. One can become a first camp apologist. Take Sean Matgamna, a Marxist from the 'third camp', whom I otherwise hold in some esteem. He actually described the 1945 Labour government of Attlee as a workers' government. Surely for us class-policy content must be primary in categorising any political phenomenon. Not quack constitutions or phoney propaganda claims.

But we must not run away with ourselves. In order to scotch the myth of Lenin making a "complete" break with the democratic dictatorship formula and turning to Trotsky's programme we must go back once more to 1917.

2. Bolshevism and dual power

Tsarism collapsed in the midst of a huge popular outburst. A provisional government took over, headed first by prince Lvov and, following his hurried departure from the scene in July, by the Trudovik Alexander Kerensky.

The provisional government acted fully in the spirit and in the interests, not of the proletariat and peasantry, but the bourgeoisie. Ipso facto, Lenin reasoned, the proletariat and peasantry had "placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie". Though the Kerensky administration consisted in the bulk of men who had at various times been hunted by the tsarist secret police - Skobeliev, Tserelli, Chernov, Avksentiev, Savinkov, Nikitin, etc - readers of this paper will not find Lenin's designation at all strange.

The capitalist bourgeoisie rarely governs directly. Unlike the Greek slaveocracy, the feudal aristocracy and the Stalinite bureaucracy its speciality is not government, but the business of making money in the market place. It is an unremitting war of one against all and all against one.

Consequently as a collectivity the capitalist class usually prefers to leave the business of government to others. In 19th century Britain the landed aristocracy fulfilled the function. From at least the 1960s onwards government has almost exclusively fallen to professional middle class politicians. Tory or Labour, the trend is unmistakable. Tony Blair and William Hague are alike in more than their political programmes.

Anyway, after February 1917 and the fall of tsarism Russia was the freest of the belligerent countries. Alongside, and in parallel to, the bourgeois provisional government there stood the soviets, or councils, of workers, soldiers and peasants. There was dual power.

What was Lenin's programme during this "first stage of the revolution"? Did he jettison his old theory? Did he make a "complete break"?

Yes, he did ... in the same way as Trotsky jettisoned his 'Not a tsar's government, but a government of the people', or consistent followers of Parvus jettisoned his 'Not a tsar's government, but a workers' government'. Nor were the Mensheviks, the SRs, Kamenev or anyone else unaware that one algebraic element of the left's common demand for a republic had been fulfilled.

Common sense, let alone Marxism, requires recognition of such a fundamental socio-political development. Memorising or the mere repetition of formulas learnt by rote owes everything to religion, nothing to Marxism - which is, as Marx and Engels themselves said, "not a dogma, but a guide to action". If Trotsky had not made a "complete break" with his 'Not a tsar's government' slogan his close friends would have been well advised to seek out suitable psychological treatment for the poor man. The same could be said for those who lay hold of Connolly's historically specific programme for Ireland and try to shoehorn it into another country: eg, Scotland.

Obviously the crux of the disputes in 1917 lay not in supposed dogmatic attachments to past formulations. It was about 'where next?'

The answer to this question bore a direct relationship to one's living - and therefore, when necessary, adjusted - programme. Should power be consolidated in the hands of the provisional government and, when it suited, a post-Constituent Assembly government of the same bourgeois stripe? On that side stood the Mensheviks, the Right SRs ... and Kamenev. Or was power to pass elsewhere - to peasant democracy, to the peasant majority aligned to the proletariat, or to the proletariat alone?

On return from exile in April 1917 Lenin issued the urgent call for the Bolshevik Party to amend "our out-of-date minimum programme" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p24). The demand to overthrow the tsar and for a republic was now manifestly obsolete.

The key to the future lay in combating 'honest' popular illusions in the provisional government and raising sights. The Bolsheviks were still a small minority in the soviets. Their task was to become the majority.

To that end Lenin advocated agitation around a series of transitional demands - which incidentally are in broad terms to be found in the Bolshevik programme dating back to 1905 - the confiscation of the landlords' estates and the nationalisation and redistribution of land, the abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy, and the amalgamation of the banks into a single bank under workers' control.

Such agitation would prepare the conditions for the "second stage of the revolution" and the transfer of all power into "the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants". The "only possible form of revolutionary government" was a "republic of Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p23). Lenin made no claims that the Party's "immediate task" was to "introduce" socialism. Only that production and distribution had to be put under workers' control to prevent the impending meltdown of the economy.

Do these 'stageist' programmatic formulations and the perspective of a workers' and peasants' republic indicate an abandonment or a development of Lenin's theory in light of new and unexpected circumstances? I make no excuse for turning to Lenin himself for an answer.

In the article 'The dual power' he writes as follows: "The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power. This fact must be grasped first and foremost: unless it is understood, we cannot advance. We must know how to supplement and amend old 'formulas', for example, those of Bolshevism, for while they have been found to be correct on the whole, their concrete realisation has turned out to be different. Nobody previously thought, or could have thought, of a dual power" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p38). Many other such articles could be quoted.

We can also once again bring Trotsky to our side. After referring to Lenin's stinging criticism of Kamenev's conciliationism and the formula, "the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed", he asks whether or not this attack by Lenin on an "outdated" formula meant that he was "simply 'renouncing' the formula" (L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p275).

What does Trotsky think? He is convinced - 'Trotskyites', take note - that Lenin did not renounce the formula. Nor is Trotsky trying "in the slightest to impose such a renunciation on him". Nor does he consider that Bolshevism needed to "change its nature through the medium of 'Trotskyism'" (L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p274).

Nor incidentally does Trotsky believe that the errors of Kamenev and co stemmed from their "consistent" application of Lenin's formula. He says they applied Lenin's formula in a non-Leninist way. Lenin's democratic dictatorship formula "was totally dynamic, action-orientated and consequently concretely determined".

However, the main characteristic of what Lenin later called the 'October opportunists' was not a non-Leninist rendition of the Leninist democratic dictatorship formula: rather a muddled and disorderly retreat from formal Leninism into a Menshevik bunker.

That is why Kamenev harked on about the 'uncompleted' bourgeois revolution and assumed that it was an innate law - at this stage in history - that the bourgeoisie should govern. Such a wobble owed something to personality. Following Lenin's death the history of Kamenev and Zinoviev was one of tragic vacillation between Leninist rebellion and abject surrender before the Stalin machine.

Of course pre-1917 Lenin never aimed to place the bourgeoisie into power. True, Bolshevism envisaged the fettered development of capitalism. That way the working class continues to expand. But tsarism was to be replaced not by a state dominated by bourgeois politicians - neither of the liberal nor the Black Hundred type. It was to be a revolutionary state, based on the workers and peasants. Furthermore the very survival of this hybrid would depend on spreading the flame into advanced Europe. Naturally Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought to ensure that the workers occupied the leading position from the start. However, struggle would decide.

3. Complex revolution

Yet programmatically, although in their programmatic imagination the overthrow of tsarism provides the means to carry on the revolution uninterruptedly - from the tasks of democracy under capitalism to the tasks of socialism and the transition to global communism - the corporeal reality brought about by February was far more complex than what had been envisaged. It both completed the immediate programme of the Bolsheviks and did not.

Hence, when in Pravda Kamenev complained that Lenin's "general scheme" appears unacceptable, because it proceeds from the assumption that the "bourgeois democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution", he received in reply a crushing double-barrelled rebuttal.

Kamenev's criticism was wrong on two accounts. Firstly, though state power had been transferred, that did not fully meet the immediate programmatic aims of the Bolsheviks. Yes, things were very complex. The old Romanov order had been politically overthrown. To that extent, argued Lenin, the programme had been fulfilled. But the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants' in the form of the soviets had voluntarily ceded power to the bourgeoisie. Life for the moment was in that sense closer to the programme of the Mensheviks. To bring it in line with that of the Bolsheviks required carrying through the agrarian revolution - the landlords still held their estates - and splitting the peasants from the bourgeoisie. "That," asserted Lenin, "has not even started" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p44).

Repetition of the slogan 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' in general had therefore become a mere abstraction. Events had "clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p45). The soviets were the formula made real.

The Bolsheviks, or those whom Lenin was now calling the communists, had to deal with the actual situation, where instead of coming to power this 'revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' existed side by side with, and subordinate to, a weak government of the bourgeoisie. Lenin energetically fought for the Party to gain influence in the soviets. Once the Bolsheviks were a majority, the programme could genuinely be completed.

The dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry had therefore become interwoven with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The Russian Revolution had gone further than the classical bourgeois revolutions of England 1645 or France 1789, but in Lenin's words "has not yet reached a 'pure' dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p61).

There can be dual power but no dual power state (whether it is a monarchy, a theocracy or a democratic republic). As an aside, here we find a class collaborationist formulation typical of centrism. Indeed what Kamenev proposed in 1917 approximated to the ideas propounded by Hilferding, leader of the Independent Social Democrats during the German revolution of 1918-19. Both in Russia and Germany centrism drew up schemes for a political system which combined soviets with a provisional government or a bourgeois-dominated Constituent Assembly. Kamenev neatly summed up the position arithmetically: the "Constituent Assembly plus soviets".

Such miserable centrism, we must stress, has to be distinguished from the consistent Bolshevik agitation for the convening of an elected Constituent Assembly. Kerensky feared the results. The tide of Bolshevism and its allies on the left of the SR party inexorably rose. Might they not secure a majority? Elections were constantly delayed. Nor should it be forgotten that when the Bolsheviks promised to ensure Constituent Assembly elections through winning all power to the soviets, they did not entertain any notion of sharing power with the bourgeoisie. The Constituent Assembly they agitated for and expected to realise would legitimise soviet power. That was the only sort of 'combined state' Lenin entertained.

When in 1918 the returns saw a Right SR majority they disdainfully dismissed the result. Eg, SR candidates had been chosen before the breakaway of the bigger Left SR faction, with whom the Bolsheviks had since concluded a coalition agreement in the soviets. As an organ of counterrevolution the Constituent Assembly had to be put down. In conditions of revolution and civil war to argue otherwise is to adopt the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie.

For Lenin the combining of soviets with the Constituent Assembly was a technical, organisational matter. There could be no class alliance between exploiters and exploited. You cannot reconcile the irreconcilable. To orientate towards such an outcome, Lenin argued, was to renounce soviet power in practice while secretly fearing to say so. "There is no middle course," he wrote in deliberately blunt terms (VI Lenin CW Vol 26, Moscow 1977, p200).

In the event of dual power one of the dictatorships (states) has to die. Either the revolution is completed under the hegemony of the proletariat or popular power would be killed by counterrevolution. It was, and is, one or the other.

What about the second barrel of Lenin's reply? Kamenev feared that Lenin and the majority had succumbed to voluntarism, were being seduced by dangerous Blanquist temptations and wanted to launch Russia on an impossible leap straight to socialism. Lenin swore that there was no such intention.

"I might have incurred this danger [ie, a socialist leap]," explained Lenin, "if I said: 'No tsar, but a workers' government.' But I did not say that; I said something else" - ie, that power must pass to the workers' and peasants' soviets (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p48). The peasant movement could not be "skipped". The idea of playing at the seizure of power by a workers' government would indeed not be Marxism, but Blanquism. Power had to be exercised by the majority.

Far from making "a complete break" with his old formulation of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', Lenin quoted his 1905 Two tactics pamphlet to back up his concrete application of it in 1917. Like everything else such a slogan had a "past and a future". Its past is "autocracy, serfdom, monarchy and privilege ... Its future is the struggle against private property, the struggle of the wage-worker against the employer, the struggle for socialism" (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p52).

Kamenev and the 'October opportunists' could only see the past. That is why they sought unity with the Mensheviks. But in 1917 the future had begun, above all around the attitude towards 'defencism' and preventing the economic collapse caused by the imperialist war. Russia and its people could only be saved by the soviets of workers and peasants. That was not socialism. But it would bring socialism nearer.

Considering everything written above, I think one can conclude with ringing certainty that Lenin did not jettison his 'democratic dictatorship' formula. He modified and concretised it in light of new historical circumstances. He did not carry through a "complete break", as claimed by Tony Cliff and virtually the whole range of present-day 'Trotskyites'.

We must ask then, why are the would-be inheritors of Trotsky's mantel so determined to traduce Lenin and paint him a Menshevik before 1917? As we shall explain in our next article, the solution to that problem is to be found in the thoroughly economistic approach to contemporary politics emanating from the 'Trotskyite' stable - the SWP, SPEW, ISG, etc - whereby democratic questions are viewed at best as secondary, if not irrelevant.

They find little or no justification in the real Trotsky. But the myth of Lenin's 'conversion' and a bowdlerised Trotsky serves them admirably.

Jack Conrad