'April theses': myth and reality

Many on the left see Lenin as undergoing a conversion to Trotskyism in 1917. Lars T Lih takes on this myth and reveals a Lenin, who while converging with Trotsky in certain respects, still has a different strategy. There is also the possible influence Kautsky exerted on Lenin

Let me begin with the potential discovery I’ve made about the role of an article by Karl Kautsky[1] in informing Lenin’s thought in April 1917, which I think is quite unexpected and significant. I have since become more interested in the main problems of that time. So although I will explain the role of that article, I think my main points could be made even if the article did not exist, or if Lenin got the ideas in it from another source. The key thing here is what he introduced in the ‘April theses’ and what his rationale for it was.

I think we are going to spend more time than I expected back in 1905 and 1906 on the differences with Trotsky and permanent revolution because, obviously, that is one very strong, well supported and plausible story about what happened. I think that the differences between Lenin and Trotsky back then have not been properly elucidated.

I will also discuss the role of ‘old Bolshevism’, a term Lenin coined in the spring of 1917 and which I like as an object of study - what is the difference between old Bolshevism and what came later? I am not going to examine the actual text of the April theses too closely, though. It is the story I am interested in - what were the changes in Lenin’s thought, why did he make them and what was the result?

First I must set up the basic aim of social democracy at this time - and I think this includes both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. It is to carry the democratic revolution ‘to the end’. That phrase is a rather interesting one; what it means is not just any old bourgeois revolution, but the absolute destruction of monarchical absolutism (I am quoting an old Bolshevik here) and the setting up of a radical democratic republic.

Now here is a little footnote - as I am famous for being interested in these translation issues. That term ‘to the end’ is never properly translated in Lenin’s Collected Works; for some reason a conscious decision was made not to give it any one particular translation - every time it comes up, they produce a different paraphrase. So, for example, we find ‘full victory to the revolution’, ‘consummation of the revolution’, etc. This is a rather unfortunate decision. Firstly the importance of the phrase is completely lost because you do not see it, and you do not see how common it is; and secondly I think the phrase has a stronger sense.

So let’s unpack this phrase, ‘to the end’.  First of all, it means that the democratic revolution that is coming up in Russia could have a range of outcomes, and what we want to do is to ensure the best outcome. When we say ‘bourgeois revolution’ it could mean a wide range of things, from a mere monarchical constitution to a radical democratic republic - our job as social democrats is to fight for the most radical one. In the back of their minds was the German revolution of the mid-century. They had a very strong sense that it had only got so far, it had only set up a very limited bourgeois republic in Germany, and this had set back the worker and peasant movement. They had muffed their chance and we mustn’t muff our chance when it comes, because we may have to live with it for a while.

So that is the first element of old Bolshevism - trying to get the best possible bourgeois republic on offer. This was very ambitious. Sometimes when we talk about this we get the idea that having a democratic revolution is not very ambitious, and we should be ambitious and go for a socialist revolution; but in the context of tsarist Russia it was very ambitious.

Second point. What force is going to stop the revolution from going ‘to the end’? It’s the bourgeoisie. This is not a particular innovation in Marxist theory - to say that the bourgeoisie does not want a full democratic revolution. As a matter of fact, almost instantly after the Communist Manifesto was written, Marx and Engels realised that the bourgeoisie is not interested in carrying it all the way, due mainly to a fear of the working class going too far.

So while tsarism is, as it were, preventing the revolution from starting, it is the bourgeoisie that will prevent it from going ‘to the end’. This implies at least a two stage process within the democratic revolution. The first stage topples the tsar; then there is an attempt by the bourgeoisie to say ‘that’s enough, we got what we need, we can stop now’. The social democrats have to move past that.

The third point, then, is: how will the proletariat move past the bourgeoisie? It will do this by enlisting the peasantry as a whole (both rich and poor peasants), because the peasantry has an interest in the democratic revolution. The bourgeoisie will try to convince the peasants they have got what they wanted and that they should stop; so there is a fight between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for hegemony over the peasantry.

The fourth point of old Bolshevism is that, if we are lucky enough to reach the final stages, we are going to need an armed uprising that will have to set up a provisional revolutionary government; that is what is meant by the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”[2]. The point here is that there is division in the social democrats as to whether it was permitted, or proper, or expedient to participate in such a government - since it would not be a socialist government.

So, those are the four points: range of outcomes; two stages (one against the bourgeoisie); enlisting the peasants by fighting for influence over them; and setting up a provisional revolutionary government.

Did the situation after the February revolution in 1917 make this scenario obsolete? No, not in the least; it seems to me the old Bolsheviks predicted it. What happened in 1917? Well the tsar was deposed, so the bourgeoisie set up a government, saying ‘okay, now we’ve got a government, stop’. The workers wanted to press forward to get the full radical democratic transformation of Russia, which was not going to happen with the bourgeois government. They had to fight for influence over the peasants to carry it through - and they did so. The strategy dictated by old Bolshevism then was to fight for influence over the peasantry in order to set up a class government that would kick out the bourgeoisie and push through the radical democratic transformation of Russia. Furthermore, old Bolshevism made a prediction that - if you gave them the land and liquidated the landowner class - the peasantry would support the workers against any counterrevolution. More or less, this is what happened, and the civil war, in that sense, was a great confirmation of old Bolshevism.

Mike Macnair has argued there was a conflict of interest between the workers and peasants at this time, as shown by the grain pressure, grain requisitioning. I agree that was a contradiction, but I think it was a contradiction within a genuine common interest. That common interest was to maintain an army that could keep the landowners from returning, and to get the devastated economy back into shape. It was not any sort of long lasting peasant-worker relationship; it was, rather, a temporary one. I could go into this more but I will just make the point that this was a fundamental common interest between the peasantry and the proletariat, and that is why they won the civil war.

Basically 1917 was a triumph of old Bolshevism; maybe ‘old Bolshevism plus’, but still old Bolshevism.

So what about this disagreement between Lenin and Kamenev? There is a difficulty here. Jack Conrad has made the claim that what Kamenev was spouting in 1917 was not old Bolshevism, but a Menshevik retreat from it. Well, the difficulty in this view is that the person who explicitly condemned what Kamenev was saying as old Bolshevism was Lenin himself. He says, a lot of times, throughout the spring of 1917, ‘to hell with old Bolshevism’ - I paraphrase.

So what does Kamenev say, exactly, that leads to Lenin’s ire here? He says: “Comrades, Lenin’s general scheme proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is completed.”

Now what does Kamenev mean? Well, I’m pretty sure he means what we’ve just been saying: the radical democratic revolution which is on the agenda has not been carried through, and it won’t be carried through unless we apply the old Bolshevik recipe of getting together the workers and the peasantry as a whole.

So if that is the case, if Lenin says it is old Bolshevism, and it looks like old Bolshevism, it probably is old Bolshevism. But then we have the question - which I am going to leave here as a problem: why did Lenin condemn it, and who was right? We will set this aside and come to an answer to that puzzle later. To some extent, that is the puzzle of the ‘April theses’, that little exchange.

To understand what is happening I am now going to return to 1905-06. Why did Lenin, and everybody else, think it was impossible or inadvisable for a worker government, or any other government, to move towards socialism at the time? I have two points that I want to make before I answer that question, because I think these are two things that people misunderstand about Lenin’s position, which is summed up by the phrase ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’.

The first is that Lenin was talking about a temporary provisional revolutionary government; he was not talking about anything long term. The phrase is ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. The ‘revolutionary’ part is there to say that this is for the revolution. There are two  articles that he wrote in spring 1905, ‘The revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ and ‘Social democracy and the provisional revolutionary government’[3]; these are two straightforward articles where he argues against Martynov. He introduces this formula of the ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship’ as a direct response.

Martinov says they should be a party of opposition; Lenin replies: “From Marx’s correct idea that we must prepare, not a government party, but an opposition party of the future, Martynov draws the conclusion that we must form a tailist opposition to the present revolution.”

There is a lot of other evidence but I think this is probably the clearest. Lenin is preparing an opposition party of the future. If you look at Trotsky’s polemics against Bolshevism in 1905-06, that is the point he makes - ‘are you guys seriously talking about setting up a revolutionary government and then just walking away? It won’t happen.’

The second point is that it is a little simplistic to say that Lenin rejected the bourgeois democrats. He saw the peasants as petty bourgeois, but petty bourgeois who were radical democratic revolutionaries. So, on the one hand he  says they are not socialist but on the other hand he is very admiring of their revolutionary prowess and his whole rhetoric depends on this. I have a quotation from him here:

“The peasantry cannot carry out an agrarian revolution without abolishing the old regime, the standing army and the bureaucracy, because all these are the most reliable mainstays of the landed property of the landowners bound to this system by thousands of ties.”

Class ally axiom

What Lenin is saying, then, is that we can have a radical democratic republic via a peasant agrarian revolution. That gives you both a sense of the radical nature of what he wants in this bourgeois democratic revolution and also the role of the peasants. They may not be socialist but they are revolutionary and will transform Russia so that it will be more democratic and more advanced than any European country.

This leads us to the question of why they didn’t think they could go further. So I have another quote from one of Lenin’s 1905 articles: “Martinov is overlooking the difference between the democratic and the socialist revolution … [and] the existence of that immense petty bourgeois population which is capable of supporting the democratic revolution but that is, at present, incapable of supporting the socialist revolution.”

In theoretical terms, I have called this the ‘the axiom of the class ally’. In the article that both Lenin and Trotsky went into ecstasy about, called ‘Driving forces and prospects of the Russian revolution in 1906’, Kautsky said it in very explicit terms:

“It will not be possible in Russia, at present, for social democracy to achieve victory through the proletariat alone without the help of another class” - that is to say, the peasantry. “As a victorious party the proletariat will not be able to implement any more of its programme than the interests of the class that supports the proletariat allow.”

He is saying that you cannot do more than your necessary class allies are ready for. So where does that leave socialism? It is off the agenda. There are other reasons, like the lack of productive forces, etc, but the main reason is that the peasants are not ready. Lenin says: “Only a revolutionary dictatorship supported by the vast majority of people can be at all durable.”

If you believe that you need vast majority support, that the peasants are not going to support socialism and that you are establishing a radical democracy, then it follows almost automatically that you cannot have a socialist programme and a socialist government. So when we ask what kind of government there would be under this peasant democracy, the old taboo against being in government came back into operation. You would discredit yourself if you were in government in those circumstances because you would have a socialist programme and you would not be able to carry it out. You would find yourself putting down strikes, protecting property owners, etc. That is what Lenin and everybody else thought.

Now we go on to Trotsky and the theory of permanent revolution. So, what is the theory of permanent revolution?  There are at least two ways to think of that term. One is the whole theory that Trotsky came up with. The other one is to look at what made Trotsky separate from everybody else. Most of Trotsky’s theory was shared with other people, especially the international revolution part. That was shared with everybody and was possibly the least original part of his theory.

The part on which Trotsky was by himself - and very often you hear about the Trotsky-Parvus theory, but Parvus denounced this, and Lenin and Parvus were closer on this original question - was his idea that the provisional revolutionary government would be long-lasting, would be a regular government. That is the step he took that the others were unwilling to take. That is why he criticised the Bolsheviks; he considered that they were utopian to think that the provisional revolutionary government would stay provisional.

The question then arises, how did he deal with the ‘axiom of the class ally’, and get around what seemed to everyone else an impassable barrier?  He could have done it by saying that the peasants will support socialism, but that is exactly what he didn’t say. The Socialist Revolutionaries (who, by the way, in July 1905 had argued for a “permanent revolution” going into socialism - before Trotsky had ever used the term), coming from the populist tradition, thought that the peasants were ready for socialism’. But Trotsky did not go that route. As a matter of fact, while Trotsky and Lenin may have disagreed about the democratic revolution (and even there I think it was only a matter of emphasis), they certainly did not disagree about whether the peasants were ready for socialism.

My feeling is that Trotsky kept to the letter but violated the spirit of the axiom of the class ally. He thought that in the first part of the democratic revolution the peasants would support you and in the second part, when you go on to socialism, they would not support you. Therefore, unless you have an international revolution, there will be (and this is his own phrase) ‘a civil war with the peasantry’. He agrees that you can’t have socialist government without majority support. But, in a rather peculiar way, he says you can’t have socialism because there will be a civil war with the peasantry. He says we will be discredited if we do not make the provisional government long-lasting.

But to me a civil war with the peasantry seems fairly discrediting, and the idea that a socialist government should end in civil war with the peasantry was blasphemy among Russian social democrats.

I want to read one of Lenin’s reactions. It is well known that Lenin did not have a specific polemic against Trotsky’s theories and when he did say something it was usually because someone else had quoted Trotsky. I think this quotation shows what the real issue is. Martov, in 1909, quotes Trotsky: “Even if they, the peasantry, [support working class government] with no more political understanding than they usually support a bourgeois regime” - so he is saying that the peasants are not very advanced in their understanding but that this will work towards our benefit because they will support us in just the same way that they support a bourgeois regime.

Lenin’s reaction is: “the proletariat cannot count on the ignorance and prejudices of the peasantry as the powers that be, under a bourgeois regime, count and depend on them. Nor can it assume that in a time of revolution the peasantry will remain in their usual state of political ignorance and passivity.”

I think that sums up a real difference, not with Trotsky in general, but between Trotsky’s 1905-06 theory and Lenin. Trotsky tries to finesse his way around the idea of peasant support whereas Lenin says that unless we can reliably count on conscious majority peasant support then we cannot proceed.

Just a footnote before we go to 1917. One of the arguments here is who influenced Lenin in 1917, Trotsky or Kautsky? In some sense, however, this may be a false dichotomy. In Trotsky’s translation of Kautsky’s 1906 article, he begins by getting annoyed at those criticising Kautsky: “… a completely unintelligent joke, on the other hand, is the attempt, dictated by spiritual laziness, to deny the competence of Kautsky on questions of the Russian revolution”.

He compliments Kautsky specifically on the dialectic. He does not use the word dialectical materialism, but he implies it very well. Finally he says: “Here is Kautsky’s article. If the reader will take the time to consider my article ‘Results and prospects’, he will see that I have no reason whatever to reject even a single one of the positions formulated in the article I have translated by Kautsky because the development of our thinking in these two articles is identical.”

So according to Trotsky, his theory in ‘Results and prospects’ is identical to Kautsky’s. I think he is doing a bit of wishful thinking here, however, as I do not think Kautsky would have ever supported his idea of turning the provisional revolutionary government into a socialist government without majority support.

October 1915 theses

Lenin came up with a set of theses in October 1915 which are never mentioned in discussions on this question. They are a combination of old Bolshevism and the politics of the Zimmerwald left. (The left-Zimmerwald group got started in 1915, but I use the term for his positions from the start of the war, because  - though it is a matter of controversy - I do not think his position changed.) The left-Zimmerwald positions are concerned with the international scenario. These ‘October theses’ essentially state that the socialist revolution in Western Europe can be triggered by the democratic revolution in Russia.

The phrase he uses is: “the task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe.” (‘Consummation’ is yet another translation of the same Russian word for ‘to the end’.)[4]

So what strategy is implied by the October theses? We find several key ideas in the text:

Most of Lenin’s subsequent position is there. But what is missing? One thing certainly not present is the idea that Russia can take steps towards socialism before the socialist revolution in Europe. More generally, he has not wrapped his mind around the fact that a revolutionary government in Russia is going to have to solve the day to day problems of a government. He is thinking in terms of an international revolutionary scenario; he is not thinking about a government that’s going to have to get up in the morning and make policy.

Kautsky’s X

When the revolution breaks out in February 1917, Lenin’s first reaction is to say, repeatedly, “Ha! The situation is exactly as we predicted in October 1915. We had it exactly right!” He returns to the October theses, and quotes from them at length in his Letters from afar.[5] The uncompleted fifth letter is the first time we see something really new. He starts by summarising what he wrote in the first four letters. Then, for the first time, we see something like a call for steps towards socialism: “these steps are dictated, with absolute inevitability, by the conditions created by the war, which in many respects will become still more acute in the post-war period. In their entirety and in their development these steps will mark the transition to socialism, which cannot be achieved in Russia directly, at one stroke, without transitional measures, but is quite achievable and urgently necessary as a result of such transitional measures.” Also for the first time he says that the proletariat should make an alliance with the poorer section of the peasantry, as opposed to the peasantry as a whole.

In April 1917, Karl Kautsky assessed the prospects of the Russian Revolution in his monthly journal Die Neue Zeit. Lenin read the article just prior to leaving Switzerland for Russia. Lenin begins to criticise Kautsky’s article, accusing him of being the leader of the “‘centre’, ‘marsh’ trend … that oscillates between the social-chauvinists and the revolutionary internationalists” - which seems to be a softer criticism of Kautsky than others, implying that he is still capable of internationalist positions. Unfortunately the fifth letter trails off at this point. Perhaps Lenin has not yet decided what to make of Kautsky’s article.

So what is it about the argument that I believe might have triggered this? I am not saying he simply read what Kautsky said and then thought he would say it too. I am simply asking what set him off thinking in this direction? If there is circumstantial evidence then we should look at the article. There are a number of things in it I particularly want to talk about.

What are Kautsky’s arguments? Firstly on the peasants: in 1905, he argued that the peasants had been thrown from their peaceful existence and transformed into fighters for their democratic transformation, for their own class interests. This is one of the reasons that he and Lenin were on the same wavelength. Now, over 10 years later, he says that the vast reforms and changes under Stolypin have changed the peasants and promoted the “immense cleavage” of the rural population between the propertied and the propertyless; ie, the peasantry has been splitting all this time and the process of polarisation within the peasantry has been accelerated.

Then he says: “we cannot foresee how these changes have penetrated and influenced the thinking of the Russian peasantry”, but the Russian peasantry is the “X, the unknown quantity in the Russian revolution”.[6] He says that with all the other classes in Russia, we can almost predict what they are going to be by looking at the classes in western Europe: the workers are socialist, the bourgeoisie are counterrevolutionary, and thus we can judge from this how they are going to behave. But he says that this is not the case for the Russian peasant. Why? Because “his material circumstances and historical traditions are quite unique, and at the same time have been in the process of colossal change for three decades”.[7]

Lenin is on the verge of returning to Russia, so he has to come up with some kind of policy, and I am of the opinion that Lenin looks at this article and says to himself: ‘correct!’. Kautsky also says, for example, that we do not know how far the Russian peasant will go in supporting the workers in a battle with the bourgeoisie: in western Europe they would probably support the bourgeoisie as they would be happy with their land, but we cannot say the same in Russia.

My hypothesis is that such things sparked Lenin off to come to more radical conclusions about saying that we can now support the peasants.

If you look at the ‘April theses’, they are a little cagier than we remember them, a little harder to pin down and to know what is going on. For example, where he is often quoted as saying that he does not want a transition to socialism, what he is actually emphasising is that he does not want an immediate transition to socialism. This indicates to me that he desired a mediate, gradual transition to socialism - not introducing everything all at once. I think the reason for this is that he has moved towards what Trotsky was arguing for in 1905-06 - that the provisional revolutionary government will be long term, it will last and it will carry out that policy. So in that fundamental sense he does move to Trotsky’s position - there is no doubt about it.

However, his reasoning is not only different, I think it is opposed. Lenin has convinced himself that the peasants will support socialist measures, and that there are other reasons why socialism is possible, so he is sticking with the old Marxist idea that you need majority support and you need a material background. He is not rethinking Marxism in any way, and in essence he is working with a different strategy to Trotsky’s.

Back in 1905 Lenin said that we cannot have majority support for socialist measures and therefore we cannot have a socialist dictatorship, whereas Trotsky argued that they should have a socialist dictatorship anyway, without majority support. In 1917 Lenin said that they could now have majority support for socialist dictatorship. That is the main point I wanted to make.

Now for one little point as a sort of epilogue. What about the ideas that made him go beyond his old position and see that socialism was on the agenda and so forth? Well I think that he started retreating from them almost immediately. Against Kamenev he said that the petty bourgeoisie are defencist and that they will stay so, thus making old Bolshevism redundant because the petty bourgeoisie will not break with the bourgeoisie; the rich, propertied peasants will not break with the bourgeoisie either, so we cannot rely on them. Why? I think he wanted to jump the gun by moving towards socialist revolution with poor peasant support - but he was wrong.

By the end of the summer the peasants were rebelling against the provisional government as a whole and that is why the October revolution took place. Lenin himself said this in many others places - ie, that October 1917 was the democratic social revolution. It seems to me that what Lenin is admitting in making these formulations is that Kamenev was right and that the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not been completed in April 1917. That Lenin was wrong and Kamenev was right is a rather shocking conclusion, perhaps!

Lenin said that, “in order to respond to the crisis we need socialist measures”. But the crisis made socialism absolutely impossible. However, Lenin was absolutely right that a class-based revolutionary government was the only way to set up a coherent regime. A coalition regime could not solve the problems. You had to have a regime that was class-based, radical, democratic and which had socialism on its banner. So Lenin did move to accept that position, and he had some ‘necessary illusions’ as to why that was the case. So he did correct the party. But I think that the party then went on to correct Lenin’s correction. They went on not to stress some of Lenin’s ideas so much, but to focus on that one message: worker-peasant power is the only way to solve Russia’s problems and to save the revolution.

This is an edited version of the opening given by Lars T Lih at the Communist University in August 2010


  1. ‘Prospects for the Russian Revolution’, Weekly Worker January 14.
  2. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/tactics/index.htm
  3. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/sdprg/index.htm; marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/apr/12b.htm
  4. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/oct/13.htm
  5. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/index.htm
  6. www.cpgb.org.uk/worker2/index.php?action=viewarticle&article_id=1002036
  7. Ibid.