April Theses: Lenin’s fundamental role in the Russian Revolution

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It is 90 years since the start of the Russian revolution. More particularly, this month sees the 90th anniversary of the ‘April Theses’, announced by Lenin on his return from exile, and calling for the overthrow of Kerensky’s ‘Provisional Government’ as a first step towards the international proletarian revolution. In highlighting Lenin’s crucial role in the revolution, we are not subscribing to the ‘great man’ theory of history, but showing that the revolutionary positions he was able to defend with such clarity at that moment were an expression of something much deeper – the awakening of an entire social class to the concrete possibility of emancipating itself from capitalism and imperialist war. The following article was originally published in World Revolution 203, April 1997. It can be read in conjunction with a more developed study of the April Theses now republished on our website, ‘The April Theses: signpost to the proletarian revolution ’.

On 4 April 1917 Lenin returned from his exile in Switzerland, arrived in Petrograd and addressed himself directly to the workers and soldiers who crowded the station in these terms: “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 Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!...” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution). 80 years later the bourgeoisie, its historians and media lackeys, are constantly busy main­taining the worst lies and historic distor­tions on the world proletarian revolution begun in Russia.

The ruling class’ hatred and contempt for the titanic movement of the exploited masses aims to ridicule it and to ‘show’ the futility of the communist project of the working class, its fundamental inability to bring about a new social order for the planet. The collapse of the eastern bloc has revived its class hatred. It has unleashed a gigantic campaign since then to hammer home the obvious defeat of commu­nism, identified with Stalinism, and with that the defeat of marxism, the obsolescence of the class struggle and even the idea of revolution which can only lead to terror and the Gulag. The target of this foul propaganda is the political organisation, the incarnation of the vast insurrectionary movement of 1917, the Bolshevik Party, which constantly draws all the vindictiveness of the defenders of the bourgeoisie. For all these apologists for the capitalist order, including the anarchists, whatever their apparent disagreements, it is a question of showing that Lenin and the Bol­sheviks were a band of power-hungry fanatics who did everything they could to usurp the democratic acquisitions of the February 1917 revolution (see ‘February 1917’ WR 202) and plunge Russia and the world into one of the most disastrous experiences in history.

Faced with all these unbelievable calumnies against Bolshevism, it falls to revolutionaries to re-establish the truth and reaffirm the essential point concerning the Bolshevik Party: it was not a product of Russian barbarism or backwardness, nor of deformed anarcho-ter­rorism, nor of the absolute concern for power by its leaders. Bolshevism was, in the first place, a product of the world proletariat, linked to a marxist tradition, the vanguard of the international movement to end all exploi­tation and oppression. To this end the state­ment of positions Lenin brought out on his return to Russia, known as the April Theses, gives us an excellent point of departure to refute all the various untruths on the Bolshe­vik Party, its nature, its role and its links with the proletarian masses.

The conditions of struggle on Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917

In the previous article (WR 202) we recalled that the working class in Russia had well and truly opened the way to the world communist revolution with the events of February 1917, overturning Tsarism, organising in soviets and showing a growing radicalisation. The insurrection resulted in a situation of dual power. The official power was the bourgeois ‘Provisional Government’, initially lead by the liberals but which later gained a more ‘socialist’ hue under the direction of Kerensky. On the other hand effective power already lay, as was well understood, in the hands of the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Without soviet authorisation the government had little hope of imposing its directives on the workers and soldiers. But the working class had not yet acquired the necessary political maturity to take all the power. In spite of their more and more radical actions and attitudes, the majority of the working class and behind them the peasant masses, were held back by illusions in the nature of the bourgeoisie, and by the idea that only a bourgeois democratic revolution was on the agenda in Russia. The predominance of these ideas among the masses was reflected in the domination of the soviets by Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who did everything they could to make the soviets impotent in the face of the newly installed bourgeois regime. These parties, which had gone over, or were in the process of going over, to the bourgeoisie, tried by all means to subordinate the growing revolution­ary movement to the aims of the Provisional Government, especially in relation to the im­perialist war. In this situation, so full of dangers and promises, the Bolsheviks, who had directed the internationalist opposition to the war, were themselves in almost complete confusion at that moment, politically disorien­tated. So, “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 the representatives of a proletarian party preparing an independent struggle for power, but like the left wing of a democracy” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, chapter XV , p.271, 1967 Sphere edi­tion). Worse still, when Stalin and Kamenev took the direction of the party in March, they moved it even further to the right. Pravda, the official organ of the party, openly adopted a defencist position on the war: “Our slogan is not the meaningless ‘down with war’... every man remains at his fighting post.” (Trotsky, p.275). The flagrant abandonment of Lenin’s position on the transformation of the imperi­alist war into a civil war caused resistance and even anger in the party and among the work­ers of Petrograd, the heart of the proletariat. But these most radical elements were not capable of offering a clear programmatic alternative to this turn to the right. The party was then drawn towards compromise and treason, under the influence of the fog of democratic euphoria which appeared after the February revolt.

The political rearmament of the Party

It fell to Lenin, then, after his return from abroad, to politically rearm the party and to put forward the decisive importance of the revolutionary direction through the April Theses: “Lenin’s theses produced the effect of an exploding bomb” (Trotsky, p. 295). The old party programme had become null and void, situated far behind the spontaneous action of the masses. The slogan to which the “Old Bolsheviks” were attached, the “demo­cratic dictatorship of workers and peasants” was henceforth an obsolete formula as Lenin put forward: “The revolutionary democratic revolution of the proletariat and the peasants has already been achieved...” (Lenin, Letters on tactics). However, “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.” (Point 2 of the April Theses). Lenin was one of the first to grasp the revolutionary significance of the soviet as an organ of proletarian political power. Once again Lenin gave a lesson on the marxist method, in showing that marxism was the complete opposite of a dead dogma but a living scientific theory which must be con­stantly verified in the laboratory of social movements.

Similarly, faced with the Menshevik posi­tion according to which backward Russia was not yet ripe for socialism, Lenin argued as a true internationalist that the immediate task was not to introduce socialism in Russia (Thesis 8). If Russia, in itself, was not ready for socialism, the imperialist war had demon­strated that world capitalism as a whole was truly over-ripe. For Lenin, as for all the authentic internationalists then, the interna­tional revolution was not just a pious wish but a concrete perspective developed from the international proletarian revolt against the war - the strikes in Britain and Germany, the political demonstrations, the mutinies and fraternisations in the armed forces of several countries, and certainly the growing revolu­tionary flood in Russia itself, which revealed it. This is where the appeal for the creation of a new International at the end of the Theses came from. This perspective was going to be completely confirmed after the October insur­rection by the extension of the revolutionary wave to Italy, Hungary, Austria and above all Germany.

This new definition of the proletariat’s tasks also brought another conception of the role and function of the party. There also the “Old Bolsheviks” like Kamenev were at first re­volted by Lenin’s vision, his idea of the soviets taking power on the one hand and on the other his insistence on the class autonomy of the proletariat against the bourgeois government and the imperialist war, even if that would mean remaining for awhile in the minority and not as Kamenev would like: “remaining with the masses of the revolutionary proletariat”. Kamenev used the conception of “a mass party” to oppose Lenin’s conception of a party of determined revolutionaries, with a clear programme, united, centralised, minoritarian, capable of resisting the siren calls of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie and illusions existing in the working class. This conception of the party has nothing to do with the Blanquist terrorist sect, that Lenin was accused of putting forward, nor even with the anarchist concep­tion submitting to the spontaneity of the masses. On the contrary there was the recognition that in a period of massive revolutionary turbu­lence, of the development of consciousness in the class, the party can no longer organise nor plan to mobilise the masses in the way of the conspiratorial associations of the 19th century. But that made the role of the party more essential than ever. Lenin came back to the vision that Rosa Luxemburg developed in her authoritative analysis of the mass strike in the period of decadence: “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.” (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Un­ions). All Lenin’s energy was going to be orientated towards the necessity of convincing the party of the new tasks which fell to it, in relation to the working class, the central axis of which is the development of class conscious­ness. Thesis 4 posed this clearly: “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… we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.” So this approach, this will to defend clear and precise class principles, going against the current and being in a minority, has nothing to do with purism or sectarianism. On the contrary they were based on a comprehension of the real movement which was unfolding in the class at each moment, on the capacity to give a voice and direction to the most radical elements within the proletariat. The insurrection was impossible as long as the Bolshevik’s revolutionary positions, positions maturing through­out the revolutionary process in Russia, had not consciously won over the soviets. We are a very long way from the bourgeois obscenities on the supposed putschist attitude of the Bolsheviks! As Lenin still affirmed: “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).

Lenin’s mastery of the marxist method, seeing beyond the surface and appearances of events, allowed him in company with the best elements of the party, to discern the real dynamic of the movement which was un­folding before their eyes and to meet the profound desires of the masses and give them the theoretical resources to defend their positions and clarify their actions. They were also enabled to orientate them­selves against the bourgeoisie by seeing and frustrating the traps which the latter tried to set for the proletariat, as during the July days in 1917. That’s why, contrary to the Mensheviks of this time and their numerous anarchist, social democratic and councilist successors, who caricature to excess certain real errors by Lenin[1] in order to reject the proletarian character of the October 1917 revolution, we reaffirm the fundamental role played by Lenin in the rectification of the Bolshevik Party, without which the prole­tariat would not have been able to take power in October 1917. Lenin’s life-long struggle to build the revolutionary organisation is a his­toric acquisition of the workers’ movement. It has left revolutionaries today an indispensa­ble basis to build the class party, allowing them to understand what their role must be in the class as a whole. The victorious insurrec­tion of October 1917 validates Lenin’s view. The isolation of the revolution after the defeat of the revolutionary attempts in other coun­tries of Europe stopped the international dy­namic of the revolution which would have been the sole guarantee of a local victory in Russia. The soviet state encouraged the ad­vent of Stalinism, the veritable executioner of the revolution and of the Bolsheviks.

What remains essential is that during the rising tide of the revolution in Russia, the Lenin of the April Theses was never an isolated prophet, nor was he holding himself above the vulgar masses, but he was the clearest voice of the most revolutionary tendency within the proletariat, a voice which showed the way which lead to the victory of October 1917. “In Russia the prob­lem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future every­where belongs to ‘Bolshevism’.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution). SB, March 2007.

[1] Among these great play is made by the councilists on the theory of ‘consciousness brought from outside’ developed in ‘What is to be done?’. Well, afterwards, Lenin recognised this error and amply proved in practice that he had acquired a correct vision of the process of the development of consciousness in the work­ing class.