The April Theses of 1917: signpost to the proletarian revolution

In the series Russia 1917

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Nothing enrages an exploiting class more than an uprising of the exploited. The revolts of the slaves under the Roman Empire, of the peasants under feudalism, were always repressed with the most disgusting cruelty. The rebellion of the working class against capitalism, however, is an even greater affront to the ruling class of thus system, since it clearly and rationally holds aloft the banner of a new, communist, society, a society that actually corresponds to historical possibility and necessity. For the capitalist class, therefore, it is not enough merely to repress the revolutionary attempts of the working class, to drown them in blood - although the capitalist counter-revolution is certainly the bloodiest in history. It is also necessary to ridicule the idea that the working class is the bearer of a new social order, to show the utter futility of the communist project. For this, an arsenal of lies and distortions is required alongside the arsenal of material weapons. Hence, the necessity, for capital, of maintaining for most of the twentieth century, the greatest lie in history: the lie that Stalinism equals communism.

The collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989, and of the USSR two years later, while depriving the bourgeoisie of a living "example" of this lie, in fact greatly reinforced its effects, making it possible to unleash a gigantic campaign about the definite failure of communism, of marxism, and even the obsolescence of the very idea of the class struggle. The profoundly damaging effects of this campaign on the consciousness of the world proletariat have been examined many times in the columns of this Review, and we will not elaborate on this point any further here. What is important to emphasise is that, even though the impact of these campaigns has diminished over the past few years - especially because the bourgeoisie's promises about the new world order of peace and prosperity that was supposed to follow the demise of Stalinism have proved to be no more than hot air - they are so fundamental to the bourgeoisie's apparatus of ideological control that it will not neglect any opportunity to give them new life and influence. We have now entered the year of the 80th anniversary of the Russian revolution, and there is no doubt that we are going to see many new twists to this theme. But one thing that is certain: the bourgeoisie's hatred and contempt for the proletarian revolution that began in Russia in 1917, its efforts to deform and denature its memory, will be focused above all on the political organisation that embodied the spirit of that vast insurrectionary movement: the Bolshevik party. This should not surprise us: from the days of the Communist League and the First International, the bourgeoisie has always been willing to "forgive" the majority of the poor workers duped by the plots and schemes of the revolutionary minorities. But the latter are invariably seen as the very incarnation of evil. And for capital, none have been so evil as the Bolsheviks, who after all managed to "mislead" the simple workers longer and further than any other revolutionary party in history.

This is not the place to look at all the latest books, articles and documentaries which are currently being devoted to the Russian revolution. Suffice it to say that the most publicised - for example Pipes The Unknown Lenin: from the Soviet Archives, and the work of the former KGB archivist Volkogonov, who claims access to hitherto inaccessible files dating back to 1917 - have had a very precise theme: to show that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were a gang of power hungry fanatics who did all they needed to do to usurp the democratic gains of the February revolution, and plunge Russia and the world into one of the most disastrously failed experiments in history. Naturally, these gentlemen have proved with minute attention to detail how the Stalinist terror was merely the continuation and fulfilment of the Leninist terror. The subtitle of the German edition of Volkogonov's work on Lenin, Utopia and Terror, sums up the bourgeoisie's approach very well: the revolution degenerated into terror precisely because it tried to impose a utopian ideal, communism, which is really antithetical to human nature.

An important element in this anti-Bolshevik inquisition is the idea that Bolshevism, for all its talk of marxism and world revolution, was above all an expression of Russian backwardness. This motif is not new: it was one of the favourite tunes of the "renegade Kautsky" in the aftermath of the October insurrection. But it has subsequently acquired considerable academic respectability. One of the best researched studies of the leaders of the Russian revolution - Bertram Wolfe's Three Who Made a Revolution, written during the 1950s - develops this idea with particular regard to Lenin. In this view, Lenin's view of the proletarian political organisation as a "narrow" body made up of convinced revolutionaries owes more to the conspiratorial and secretive conceptions of the Narodniks and of Bakunin than to Marx. Such historians often contrast this with the more "sophisticated", "European” and "democratic" conceptions of the Mensheviks. And of course, since the form of the revolutionary organisation is closely connected to the form of the revolution itself, the democratic Menshevik organisation could have given us a democratic Russia, while the dictatorial Bolshevik form gave us a dictatorial Russia.

It is not only the official spokesmen of the bourgeoisie who peddle such ideas. They are also sold, in a slightly different wrapping, by anarchists of every stripe, who specialise in the "we told you so" approach to the Russian revolution. We knew all along that Bolshevism was nasty and would end in tears - all that talk about the party, the transitional state and the dictatorship of the proletariat, where else could it lead? But anarchism has a habit of perpetually renewing itself and can be a lot more subtle than that. A good example of this is the kind of stuff being put about by a parasitic breed of anarchism that calls itself (among other things) the London Psychogeographical Society. The LPA have heartily endorsed the ICC's argument that Bakuninism, for all its talk of liberty and equality, its criticisms of marxist "authoritarianism", was in fact based on a profoundly hierarchical and even esoteric vision closely allied to freemasonry. For the LPA, however, this is only the hors d'oeuvres: the main dish is that the Bolshevik conception of organisation is the true continuator of Bakuninism and thus of freemasonry. The circle is complete: the "communists" of the LPA regurgitate the leftovers of cold war professors.

The challenge posed by all these slanders against Bolshevism is considerable, and could not be answered in the context of a single article. For example, to make a critical appraisal of the "Leninist" conception of organisation, to refute the prejudice that the latter was no more than a new version of Narodnikism or Bakuninism, would require a series of articles in itself. Our aim in this article is rather more precise. It is to examine a particular episode in the events of the Russian revolution - the April Theses announced by Lenin on his return to Russia in 1917. Not simply because 80 years ago to the month is a timely moment to do so, but above all because this short, sharp document provides us with an excellent starting point for refuting all the lies about the Bolshevik party, and for reaffirming the most essential thing about it: that this party was not a product of Russian barbarism, of a distorted anarcho-terrorism, or of the unmitigated lust for power of its leaders. Bolshevism was a product first and foremost of the world proletariat. Inseparably bound to the entire marxist tradition, it was not the seed of a new form of exploitation and oppression, but the vanguard of a movement to do away with all exploitation and oppression.

From February to April

Towards the end of February 1917, the workers of Petrograd launched massive strikes against the intolerable living conditions inflicted by the imperialist war. The slogans of the movement rapidly became political, with workers calling for an end to the war and the overthrow of the autocracy. In days the strike had spread to other towns and cities, and as the workers took up arms and fraternised with the soldiers, the mass strike assumed the character of an uprising.

Repeating the experience of 1905, the workers centralised the struggle through soviets of workers' deputies, elected by factory assemblies and revocable at any moment. In contrast to 1905, the soldiers and peasants began to follow this example on a broad scale.

The ruling class, recognising that the days of the autocracy were numbered, rid themselves of the Czar, and called upon the parties of liberalism and the "left", in particular those once-proletarian elements who had recently passed into the bourgeois camp by supporting the war, to form a Provisional Government with the avowed aim of steering Russia towards a system of parliamentary democracy. In reality, a situation of dual power had arisen, since the workers and soldiers only really trusted the soviets, and the bourgeois Provisional Government was not yet in a strong enough position to ignore them, and still less to disband them. But this profound class divide was partially obscured by the fog of democratic euphoria which descended on the country after the February revolt. With the Czar out of the way and people enjoying unheard-of liberty, everyone seemed to be in favour of the "Revolution" - including Russia's democratic allies who hoped that it would enable Russia to participate more effectively in the war effort. Thus the Provisional Government presented itself as the guardian of the revolution; the soviets were politically dominated by the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were doing all they could to reduce them to mere ciphers of the newly installed bourgeois regime. In short, the whole impetus of the mass strike and the uprising - which in truth was a manifestation of a more universal revolutionary movement brewing in all the main capitalist countries as a result of the war - was being diverted towards capitalist ends.

Where were the Bolsheviks in this situation, so full of danger and promise? They were in almost complete disarray:

"For Bolshevism the first months of the revolution had been a period of bewilderment and vacillation. In the "manifesto" of the Bolshevik Central Committee, drawn up just after the victory of the insurrection, we read that "the workers of the shops and factories, and likewise the mutinied troops, must immediately elect their representatives to the Provisional Revolutionary Government" (...) They behaved not like representatives of a proletarian party preparing an independent struggle for power, but like the left wing of a democracy, which, having announced its principles, intended for an indefinite time to play the part of loyal opposition" (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol 1, chapter 15 ).

When Stalin and Kamenev took the helm of the party in March, they moved it even further to the right. Stalin developed a theory about the complementary roles of the Provisional Government and the Soviets. Worse, the party's official organ, Pravda, openly adopted a "defencist" position on the war: "Our slogan is not the meaningless "down with war". Our slogan is pressure upon the Provisional Government with the aim of compelling it (...) to make an attempt to induce all the warring countries to open immediate negotiations (...) and until then every man remains at his fighting post" (quoted in Trotsky, p 275).

Trotsky recounts how many elements in the party felt deep disquiet and even anger over this opportunist drift in the party, but were not armed programmatically to answer the leadership's position, since it appeared to be based on a perspective that had been developed by Lenin himself and which had been the official view of the party for over a decade: the perspective, that is, of the "democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants". The essence of this theory had been that although economically speaking the nature of the revolution developing in Russia was bourgeois, the Russian bourgeoisie itself was too weak to carry out its own revolution, and so the capitalist modernisation of Russia would have to be assumed by the proletariat and poorer sections of the peasantry. This position stood half way between that of the Mensheviks - who claimed to be "orthodox" marxists and thus argued that the task of the proletariat was to give critical support to the bourgeoisie against absolutism until such time as Russia was ripe for socialism - and that of Trotsky, whose theory of "permanent revolution", developed after the events of 1905, had insisted that the working class would be propelled to power in the coming revolution, and would be forced to push beyond the bourgeois stage of the revolution to the socialist stage, but could only do this if the Russian revolution coincided with, or sparked off, a socialist revolution in the industrialised countries.

In truth, Lenin's theory had at best been a product if an ambiguous period, in which it was increasingly obvious that the Russian bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary force, but in which it was not yet clear that the period of international socialist revolution had arrived. Nevertheless, the superiority of Trotsky's thesis was precisely based on the fact that it departed from an international, rather than a purely Russian framework; and Lenin himself, despite his many acute disagreements with Trotsky at that time, had on several occasions after the 1905 events veered towards the notion of permanent revolution.

In practise, the idea of the "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants" proved to be without substance; the "orthodox Leninists" who went on repeating the formula in 1917 used it as a cover for sliding towards Menshevism pure and simple. Kamenev argued forcefully that since the bourgeois democratic phase of the revolution was not yet completed, it was necessary to give critical support to the Provisional Government: this hardly conformed to Lenin's original conception, which insisted that the bourgeoisie would inevitably compromise with the autocracy. There were even serious moves towards the reunification of the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.

Thus, the Bolshevik party, disarmed programmatically, was being drawn towards compromise and betrayal. The future of the revolution hung in the balance when Lenin returned from exile.

In his History of the Russian Revolution (Vol. 1, Ch. 15), Trotsky gives us a graphic description of Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, April 3, 1917. The Petrograd Soviet, still dominated by the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, organised a huge welcoming party and festooned Lenin with flowers. In the name of the Soviet, Chkeidze greeted Lenin with these words:

"Comrade Lenin (...) we welcome you Russia (...) but we consider that the chief task of the revolutionary democracy at present is to defend our revolution against every kind of attack both from within and from without (...) We hope that you will join us in striving towards this goal".

Lenin's reply was not addressed to the leaders of the welcoming committee, but to the hundreds of workers and soldiers who had thronged the station:

"Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers. I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army.. The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters (...) The Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!" (op cit, p 280-281).

Thus did the spoilsport Lenin pour cold water on the democratic carnival from the very moment of his arrival. That night Lenin elaborated his position in a two hour speech which further dismayed all the good democrats and sentimental socialists who wanted the revolution to go no further than it had done in February, who had applauded the workers' mass strikes when they had chased away the Czar and allowed the Provisional Government to assume power, but dreaded any further class polarisation. The next day, at a joint meeting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin expounded what became known as his April Theses, which are short enough to reproduce in full here:

1) In our attitude towards the war, which under the new government of Lvov and Co. unquestionably remains on Russia's part a predatory imperial war owing to the capitalist nature of that government, not the slightest concession to "revolutionary defencism" is permissible.

The class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war, which would really justify revolutionary defencism, only on condition: a) that the power pass to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat; b) that all annexations be renounced in deed and in word; c) that a complete break be effected in actual fact with all capitalist interests.

In view of the undoubted honesty of those broad sections of the mass believers in revolutionary defencism who accept the war only as a necessity, and not as a means of conquest, in view of the fact that they are being deceived by the bourgeoisie, it is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them, to explain the inseparable connection existing between capital and the imperialist war, and to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace, a peace not imposed by violence.

The most widespread campaign for this view must be organised in the army at the front.

2) The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution - which, owing to the insufficient class consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie - to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.

This transition is characterised, on the one hand, by a maximum of legally recognised rights (Russia is now the freest of all belligerent countries in the world); on the other, by the absence of violence towards the masses, and, finally, by their unreasoning trust in the government of capitalists, those worst enemies of peace and socialism.

This peculiar situation demands of us an ability to adapt ourselves to the special conditions of Party work among unprecedented large masses of proletarians who have just awakened to political life.

3) No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding "demand" that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.

4) Recognition of the fact that in most of the Soviets of Workers' Deputies our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority, as against a bloc of all the petty bourgeois opportunist elements, from the Popular Socialists and the Socialist Revolutionaries down to the Organising Committee (Chkeidze, Tsereteli, Steklov, etc.), who have yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie and spread that influence among the proletariat.

The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers' Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.

As long as we are in a minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers' Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.

5) Not a parliamentary republic - to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers' Deputies would be a retrograde step - but a republic of Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.

Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.

The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker.

6) The weight of emphasis in the agrarian programme to be shifted to the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' Deputies.

Confiscation of all landed estates.

Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' and Peasants' Deputies. The organisation of separate Soviets of Deputies of Poor Peasants. The setting up of a model farm on each of the large estates (ranging in size from 100 to 300 dessiatines, according to local and other conditions, and to the decisions of the local bodies) under the control of the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' Deputies and for the public account.

7) The immediate amalgamation of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers' Deputies

8) It is not our immediate task to "introduce" socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers' Deputies.

9) Party tasks:

a) Immediate convocation of a Party congress;

b) alteration of the Party programme, mainly

(1) On the question of imperialism and the imperialist war

(2) On our attitude towards the state and our demand for a "commune state";

(3) Amendment of our out-of-date minimum programme

c) Change of the Party's name

(10) A new International

We must take the initiative in creating a revolutionary International, an International against the social chauvinists and against the "Center"."

The struggle to rearm the Party: Demonstrating the marxist method

Zalezhski, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee at the time, summed up the reaction to Lenin's theses both inside the party and throughout the movement: "Lenin's theses produced the effect of an exploding bomb" (Trotsky, p 295). The initial reaction was disbelief and a rain of anathemas on Lenin's head: Lenin had been too long in exile, had lost touch with Russian reality. His perspectives on the nature of the revolution had fallen into "Trotskyism". As for his idea about the soviets taking power, he had reverted to Blanquism, adventurism, anarchism. A former member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, at that time outside the party, Goldernberg, put it thus: "For many years the place of Bakunin has remained vacant in the Russian revolution, now it is occupied by Lenin” (Trotsky, p 294). For Kamenev, Lenin's approach would prevent the Bolsheviks from acting as a party of the masses, reducing its role to that of a "group of communist propagandists".

This was not the first time that "old Bolsheviks" had clung on to outworn formulae in the name of Leninism. In 1905, the initial Bolshevik reaction to the appearance of the soviets had been based on a mechanical interpretation of Lenin's criticisms of spontaneism in What is To be Done; the leadership had thus called on the Petrograd Soviet either to subordinate itself to the party or dissolve. Lenin himself roundly rejected this attitude, being one of the first to grasp the revolutionary significance of the soviet as an organ of proletarian political power, and insisted that the question wasn't "soviet or party" but both the soviets and the party, since their roles were complementary. Now, once again, Lenin had to give these "Leninists" a lesson in the marxist method, to demonstrate that marxism is the very opposite of a dead dogma; it is a living scientific theory which must constantly be verified in the laboratory of social movements. The April Theses were the epitome of marxism's capacity to discard, adapt, modify or enrich previous positions in the light of the experience of the class struggle: "For the present, it is essential to grasp the incontestable truth that a marxist must take cognisance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, which, like all theories, at best only outlines the main and the general, only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity. "Theory, my friend is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life"" (Lenin, Letters on Tactics, April 8-13, 1917 - the quotation is from Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust). And in the same letter Lenin berates "those "old Bolsheviks who more than once already have played a regrettable role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality".

For Lenin, the "democratic dictatorship" had already been realised in the soviets of workers' and peasants' deputies and as such it had already become an antiquated formula. The essential task for the Bolsheviks was now to push forward the proletarian dynamic within this broader social movement, which was oriented towards the formation of a Commune-state in Russia as the first outpost of the world socialist revolution. One might take issue with Lenin's effort to save the honour of the old formula, but the essential element in his approach is that he was able to see the future of the movement, and thus the need to break the mould of outworn theories.

The marxist method is not only dialectical and dynamic; it is also global, ie it places every particular question within an international and historical framework. And this is what above all enabled Lenin to grasp the real direction of events. From 1914 onwards, the Bolsheviks, with Lenin to the fore, had defended the most consistent internationalist position against the imperialist war, seeing it as the proof of the decay of world capitalism and thus of the opening of the epoch of world proletarian revolution. This was the foundation-stone of the slogan "turn the imperialist war into a civil war", which Lenin had defended against all varieties of chauvinism and pacifism. Holding fast to this analysis, Lenin was not for a moment taken in by the idea that the accession to power of the Provisional Government changed the imperialist character of the war, and he spared no barbs on the Bolsheviks who had fallen into this error: "Pravda demands of the government that it renounces annexations. To demand from the government of capitalists that it renounces anexations is nonsense, flagrant mockery" (cited by Trotsky, p 290).

The intransigent reaffirmation of the internationalist position on the war was in the first place a necessity if the opportunist slide in the party was to be halted. But it was also the starting point for theoretically liquidating the formula of democratic dictatorship and all the Menshevik apologies for supporting the bourgeoisie. To the argument that backward Russia was not yet ripe for socialism, Lenin argued as a true internationalist, acknowledging in Thesis 8 that "it is not our immediate task to "introduce" socialism". Russia, in itself, was not ripe for socialism but the imperialist war had demonstrated that world capitalism as a whole was indeed overripe. Hence Lenin's greeting to the workers at the Finland station: the Russian workers, by taking power, would be acting as the advance guard of the international proletarian army. Hence also the call for a new International at the end of the theses. And for Lenin, as for all the authentic internationalists of the day, the world revolution was not a pious hope but a concrete perspective growing out of the international proletarian revolt against the war - strikes in Britain and Germany, political demonstrations, mutinies and fraternisation in the armed forces of several countries, and of course the mounting revolutionary tide in Russia itself. This perspective, embryonic at that moment, was to be fully confirmed after the October insurrection by the extension of the revolutionary wave to Italy, Hungary, Austria and above all Germany.

Lenin's "anarchism"

The defenders of marxist "orthodoxy" accused Lenin of Blanquism and Bakuninism on the question of the seizure of power and on the nature of the post-revolutionary state. Blanquism because he was supposedly in favour of a coup d'Etat by a minority - either by the Bolsheviks acting alone, or even by the industrial working class as whole, acting without regard to the peasant majority. Bakuninism because the theses' rejection of a parliamentary republic was a concession to the anti-political prejudices of the anarchists and syndicalists.

In his Letters on Tactics, Lenin defended his theses from the first accusation as follows: "In my theses, I absolutely ensured myself against skipping over the peasant movement, which has not outlived itself, or the petty-bourgeois movement in general, against any playing at "seizure of power" by a workers' government, against any kind of Blanquist adventurism; for I pointedly referred to the experience of the Paris Commune. And this experience, as we know, and as Marx proved at length in 1871 and Engels in 1891, absolutely excludes Blanquism, absolutely ensures the direct, immediate and unquestionable rule of the majority and the activity of the masses only to the extent that the majority itself acts consciously.

In the theses, I very definitely reduced the question to one of a struggle for influence within the Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Deputies. To leave no shadow of doubt on this score, I twice emphasised in the theses the need for patient and persistent "explanatory" work "adapted to the practical needs of the masses"."

As for reverting to an anarchist position on the state, Lenin pointed out in April, as he was to do in greater depth in his State and Revolution, that the "orthodox" marxists, with figures like Kautsky and Plekhanov at their head, had buried the real teachings of Marx and Engels on the state under a dung-heap of parliamentarism. The experience of the Commune had shown that the task of the proletariat in the revolution was not to take over the old state but to demolish it from top to bottom; that the new instrument of proletarian rule, the Commune-state, would be based not on the principle of parliamentary representation, which in the end was only a facade hiding the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, but on direct delegation and revocability from below, on the armed and self-organised masses. By throwing up the soviets, the experience of 1905, and of the newly emerging revolution of 1917, not only confirmed this perspective, but took it a stage further. Whereas the Commune had been a "popular" body in which all the oppressed classes of society were equally represented, the soviets were a higher form, because they made it possible for the proletariat to organise autonomously within the movement of the masses in general. The soviets, taken as a whole, would thus constitute a new state: one qualitatively different from the old bourgeois state but a state all the same - and here Lenin carefully distinguishes himself from the anarchists:

"Anarchism denies the need for a state and state power in the period of transition from the rule of the bourgeoisie to the rule of the proletariat, whereas I, with a precision that precludes any possibility of misinterpretation, advocate the need for a state in this period, although in accordance with Marx, and the lessons of the Paris Commune, I advocate not the usual parliamentary bourgeois state, but a state without a standing army, without police opposed to the people, without any officialdom placed above the people.

“When Mr Plekhanov, in his newspaper Yedinstvo, shouts with all his might that this is anarchism, he is merely giving further proof of his break with marxism" (Lenin, Letters on Tactics)

The role of the party in the revolution

The charge that Lenin was planning a Blanquist coup is inseparable from the idea that he was seeking power for his party alone. This was to become a central theme of all subsequent bourgeois propaganda about the October revolution: that it was no more than a coup d'Etat carried out by the Bolsheviks. We cannot deal here with all the varieties and nuances of this thesis here. Trotsky provides one of the best answers in his History of the Russian Revolution, when he shows that it was not the party, but the soviets which took the power in October (see also our articles on the Russian revolution in IRs 71 and 72). But one of the guiding threads of this notion is the argument that Lenin's view of the party as a tightly-knit and highly centralised organisation led inexorably to this minority putsch in 1917 and, by extension, to the Red Terror and finally to Stalinism.

Again, this is a story that goes back to the original split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks and this isn't the place to go over this key episode in any detail. Suffice it to say that ever since that time, Lenin's conception of the revolutionary organisation has been described as Jacobin, elitist, militaristic, even terroristic. Marxist authorities as respected as Luxemburg and Trotsky have been cited in support of this view. For our part, we don't deny that Lenin's views on the organisation question, both in that period and in subsequent ones, contain much that is erroneous (for example his adoption in 1902 of Kautsky's thesis about class consciousness coming from the outside, although he later repudiated this; certain of his conceptions about the internal regime of the party, about the relationship between the party and the state, etc). But unlike the Mensheviks of that time, and their numerous anarchist, social democrat, and councilist successors, we don't take these errors as our starting point, any more than we begin an analysis of the Paris Commune or the Russian revolution by insisting on the mistakes - even the fatal ones - that they made. The real starting point is that Lenin's lifelong struggle to construct a revolutionary organisation is a historic acquisition of the workers' movement, and has left revolutionaries today with an indispensable basis for understanding both how a revolutionary organisation should function internally, and what its role within the class as a whole must be.

With regard to the latter point, and against many superficial analyses, the "narrow" Bolshevik conception of organisation, which Lenin counter-posed to the "broader" Menshevik conception, was not simply the reflection of the conditions imposed by Czarist repression. Just as the mass strikes and revolutionary uprisings of 1905 were not the last echoes of the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, but showed the near future of the international class struggle in the dawning epoch of capitalist decadence, so the Bolshevik conception of a party of committed revolutionaries, crystal clear in its programme and functioning on a centralised basis, was an anticipation of the role and structure required for the party by the conditions of capitalist decadence, of the epoch of proletarian revolution. It may be the case, as many anti-Bolsheviks have claimed, that the Mensheviks were looking to the west for their model of organisation, but they were also looking backwards, back to the old social democratic model of a mass party which embodies the class, organises the class, and represents the class, particularly through the electoral process. And against all the claims that it was the Bolsheviks who were stuck in archaic Russian conditions, harking back to the model of the conspiratorial society, they in reality were the ones who were looking forward, forward to a period of massive revolutionary turbulence which could not be organised, planned or encapsulated by the party but which nevertheless made the party's role more vital than ever. "If we now leave the pedantic scheme of demonstrative mass strikes artificially brought about by order of the parties and trade unions, and turn to the living picture of a peoples" movement arising with elemental energy (...) .it becomes obvious that the task of social democracy does not consist in the technical preparation and direction of mass strikes, but first and foremost in the political leadership of the whole movement"

Thus wrote Rosa Luxemburg in her masterly analysis of the mass strike and the new conditions of the international class struggle (The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions). And thus did Luxemburg, who had been one of Lenin's fiercest critics at the time of the 1903 split, converge with the most fundamental elements in the Bolshevik conception of the revolutionary party.

These elements are set out with the utmost clarity in the April Theses, which as we have already seen reject any notion of "imposing" the revolution from above: "As long as we are in a minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers' Deputies so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience". This work of "patient, systematic and persistent explanation" was precisely what was meant by giving political leadership in a revolutionary period. There could be no question of passing to the phase of insurrection until the revolutionary positions of the Bolsheviks had won over the soviets - and indeed, before that could happen, the revolutionary positions of Lenin had to win over the Bolshevik party, and this required a hard and uncompromising struggle from the moment Lenin arrived in Russia.

"We are not charlatans. We must base ourselves only on the consciousness of the masses" (Lenin's second speech on his arrival in Petrograd, cited in Trotsky, p 293). In the initial phase of the revolution, the working class was surrendering power to the bourgeoisie, a fact which should not surprise any marxist "for we have always known and repeatedly pointed out that the bourgeoisie maintains itself in power not only by force but also by virtue of the lack of class consciousness and organisation, the routinism and downtrodden state of the masses" (Letters on Tactics). Thus the foremost task of the Bolsheviks was to push forward the class consciousness and organisation of the working masses.

This role did not satisfy the "old Bolsheviks", who had more "practical" plans. They wanted to take part in the existing "bourgeois revolution" and they wanted the Bolshevik party to have massive influence in the movement as it then was. In Kamenev's words, they were horrified at the thought of the party standing on the sidelines with its "pure" positions, reduced to the role of a "group of communist propagandists".

Lenin had no difficulty exposing this trick - had not the chauvinists thrown the same arguments at the internationalists at the start of the war, that they were staying in touch with the consciousness of the masses, while the Bolsheviks and Spartacists were no more than marginal sects? It must have been particularly galling to hear the same arguments from a Bolshevik comrade. But this did not blunt the sharpness of Lenin's reply:

"Comrade Kamenev counter poses to a "party of the masses" a "group of propagandists". But the "masses" have now succumbed to the craze of "revolutionary" defencism. Is it not more becoming for internationalists at this moment to show that they can resist "mass" intoxication rather than "wish to remain" with the masses, i.e. to succumb to the general epidemic? Have we not seen how in all the belligerent countries of Europe the chauvinists tried to justify themselves on the grounds that they wished to "remain with the masses"? Must we not be able to remain for a time in a minority against the "mass" intoxication? Is it not the work of the propagandists at the present moment that forms the key point for disentangling the proletarian line from the defencist and petty bourgeois "mass" intoxication? It was this fusion of the masses, proletarian and non-proletarian, regardless of class difference, that formed one of the conditions for the defencist epidemic. To speak contemptuously of a "group of propagandists" advocating a proletarian line does not seem to be very becoming" (Letters on Tactics).

This approach, this willingness to go against the tide and be in a minority defending clear and definite class principles, had nothing to do with purism or sectarianism. On the contrary it was based on an understanding of the real movement going on in the class there and then, on a capacity to give voice and direction to the most radical elements within the proletariat.

Trotsky shows how, both in winning the party round to his positions, and then in fighting for the "proletarian line" within the class as a whole, Lenin looked for support from these elements: "against the old Bolsheviks Lenin found support in another layer of the party, already tempered, but more fresh and more closely united with the masses. In the February revolution, as we know, the worker-Bolsheviks played the decisive role. They thought it self-evident that the class which had won the victory should seize the power. These same workers protested stormily against the course of Kamenev and Stalin, and the Vyborg district even threatened the "leaders" with expulsion from the party. The same thing was to be observed in the provinces. Almost everywhere there were left Bolsheviks accused of maximalism, even anarchism. These worker-Bolsheviks only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position. But they were ready to respond to the first clear call. It was on this stratum of workers, decisively risen to their feet during the upward years of 1912-14, that Lenin was now banking" (op cit, Chapter XVI, p 306).

This too was an expression of Lenin's grasp of the marxist method, which by looking beyond surface appearances is able to discern the real dynamic of a social movement. A contrario, in the early twenties, when Lenin himself reverted to the argument about "remaining with the masses" in order to justify the United Front and organisational fusion with centrist parties, it was a sign that the party was losing its grip on the marxist method and sliding into opportunism. But this in turn was a result of the isolation of the revolution and the Bolsheviks' fusion with the Soviet state. In the high tide of the revolution in Russia, the Lenin of the April Theses was neither an isolated prophet nor a demiurge standing above the vulgar masses, but the clearest voice of the most revolutionary trend within the proletariat; a voice which was, with unerring accuracy, indicating the path that led to the October insurrection.

Amos, Spring 1997.