1917–2017 centenary - February to April

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Lenin speaking on Red Square May 1919

In 2017 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace, and progress in history. Throughout the year, FRFI will be publishing articles which analyse the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution.

In FRFI 255 we published an article examining the February Revolution. Below, we continue the series with edited versions of two articles by Patrick Newman first published in FRFI in 1987, which analyse the different standpoints of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky in relation to the character of the revolution.

Full versions of these articles can be found on our website www.revolutionarycommunist.org

Dual power

The Provisional Government

Formally, power lay with the Provisional Government. On 26 February, as the tempo of the revolution seemed to slacken, the Tsar ordered the dissolution of the only existing national representative body, the Duma (Parliament). The next day the deputies were preparing to disperse when it became clear that the insurrection was gaining strength. The deputies from the bourgeois parties and the right Mensheviks hurriedly formed a Provisional Committee.

On 2 March the Committee sent an envoy (Guchkov) to attempt to persuade the Tsar to abdicate in favour of his nephew, Grand Duke Mikhail. When Guchkov read the act of abdication to a crowd of workers and soldiers, they did not reward him with the expected gratitude. He was immediately arrested by the workers and threatened with execution. The Duke himself, when told that the government could only guarantee him his crown and not his head, prudently preferred to preserve the latter.

The Tsarist dynasty had ended with a whimper, because of its own cowardice. With the utmost reluctance, the Committee then formed the Provisional Government, which took office on 3 March. The most important posts were in the hands of conservative bourgeois parties. Filling a minor post was the only ‘socialist’, Kerensky.

The first measures of the Provisional Government seemed very radical: complete amnesty for all political offences; freedom of speech, press, assembly, strikes and trade union association; and abolition of all caste, religious and national limitations. The police were to be replaced by an elected people’s militia. Local administrative bodies were to be chosen by direct equal and general ballot. It also declared its intention to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly.

In fact, the Provisional Government was simply yielding before established facts – political prisoners had already been released by popular action, and the police force driven into hiding. It did not call for the soldiers who had made the revolution to have the right to elect their officers; and suffrage was for males only.

It avoided the issues affecting the popular masses who had made the revolution: an improvement in the position of the working class; land for the peasantry; and an end to the war.

The Soviets

During the 1905 Revolution the people had formed Soviets as an alternative government. The idea was quickly revived. The Soviet organised the food supplies for Petrograd, controlled the army and communications and withheld financial resources from the old regime.

Above all, the Soviet had the support of the Army. On 1 March it issued Order No 1. Committees were to be elected by all units of the armed forces. Every unit was to obey the Soviet. Off-duty soldiers were to have the same political and civil rights as other citizens; and officers were forbidden to strike soldiers, or to use the humiliating form of address, ‘Ty’.

The Soviet leadership

At first neither the composition of the Soviet nor its leadership truly reflected the revolutionary mood of the people. The soldiers had (proportionally) six times as many delegates as the factory workers; and members of the intelligentsia who had done little fighting managed to insinuate themselves into the Soviet.

On 27 February, the leadership of the Soviet, the Executive Committee, was formed by right-wing Mensheviks. As deputies in the Tsarist Duma they had access to suitable meeting rooms in the Duma building (the Tauride Palace); others released from prison earlier that day headed straight for the Tauride. Bolsheviks released at the same time went to the Vyborg District to join in the fighting.

Why didn’t the mass of workers and soldiers seize power directly through the Soviets? There were two related reasons: the bourgeoisie was class conscious and well organised; the workers and peasants were not, as yet.

The crafty bourgeois

The ruling classes knew how to appear to be revolutionary with a capital R. ‘People who had no more to do with the revolution than last year’s snows ...’ noticed the journalist Sukhanov ‘... now overflowed with love of liberty ...’.

The intoxicating mood of the first weeks of the revolution meant that the people gladly welcomed everyone who said they were in favour of the revolution. At the political meetings which went on night and day, audiences were not so much interested in what was said as in the revolutionary enthusiasm of the speakers.

Why the revolution succeeded so easily

This was the price of the ease with which the revolution succeeded. Only in the capital city, Petrograd, was there an active revolutionary movement. Elsewhere, the old administration gave way without a struggle. In the second city, Moscow, street dem-onstrations took place only after the victory in Petrograd. There was virtually no movement at all in the countryside.

The revolution succeeded so quickly and, as it seemed, so radically, ‘... as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings have merged, and in a strikingly “harmonious” manner.’ (Lenin. ‘Letters from Afar: First Letter’ CW 23 p303).

Lenin considered this to be ‘The First Stage of the First Revolution’. The next stage would see class interests assert themselves more and more strongly, with a corresponding increase in tension between the Provisional Government and the Soviets. The strength of popular feeling was so great that in this struggle the openly bourgeois parties were of little significance – the political battles were fought out between three parties which all considered themselves to be ‘socialist’: the Socialist Revolutionaries; the Mensheviks; and the Bolsheviks. How did each of these parties propose to resolve the situation of dual power?

The Socialist Revolutionaries

For the first five months of the revolution, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were apparently by far the strongest party. They had more delegates (400 out of 2,500) to the Petrograd Soviet than the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks put together. In Petrograd, they drew their support from two main sources – the soldiers, who were mainly peasants, and the petty bourgeoisie; in Moscow, they also had a strong attraction for the peasant-workers who formed a much larger proportion (27%) of the workforce than in Petrograd.

The petty bourgeoisie – professional people, white-collar workers, and small traders – joined the SRs in large numbers. The upper middle classes did so because their traditional party, the Kadets, was too obviously conservative; the lower, a powerless social class, because the SRs’ vague radicalism seemed to promise an improvement in their position without a struggle.

The SRs were ‘Socialist’ in name only, as they considered the socialisation of industry premature under Russian conditions; and their claim to be ‘Revolutionaries’ was equally misleading. They did not desire the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, only a substantial series of concessions by the bourgeoisie to the peasantry and workers.

Outside the towns, the SRs had widespread support among the peasantry and the rural intelligentsia, based on their agrarian programme demanding that land was to belong ‘to all the people’, a central feature of the SR programme since its first party congress (1906).

The Mensheviks

At its first effective congress, July–August 1903, the Russian socialist movement split into two groups. The majority, the Bolsheviks (literally ‘Majorityites’) wanted a centralised, disciplined organisation of committed revolutionaries; the minority, the Mensheviks, (‘Minorityites’) thought that a loose organisation would suffice.

This expressed different political conceptions of the Russian revolution. The Mensheviks considered that in a backward, mainly agricultural country such as Russia, the conditions were not ripe for a struggle for socialism. The working class was to support the liberal bourgeoisie in a struggle against Tsarism, to ensure the victory of capitalism which alone could create the material preconditions for socialism. Thus the working class party did not need to be organised for a direct struggle for power, only to support the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks feared and distrusted the peasantry as a ‘dark force’ of ignorance and reaction.

In 1917, the Mensheviks’ position was very similar to that of the SRs: the Soviets should pressurise the Provisional Government into making concessions to the working class and peasantry, but their ultimate objective was a democratic capitalist republic.

In the towns they were supported by the backward workers and the labour aristocracy which, compared to Europe, was an insignificant social group. The Mensheviks’ power base was Georgia, an area in which small traders and middle peasants predominated.

The Bolsheviks

Since 1903, the Bolsheviks had consistently argued for a revolutionary alliance between the working class and the peasantry, recognising that the bourgeoisie would not carry through the struggle against Tsarism. Because of its opposition to the war, the Bolshevik Party had suffered severe repression. Nonetheless, in 1917 it had substantial support among the factory workers in Petrograd. Yet it was a tiny minority in the Soviets, lagging well behind the Mensheviks. Although its programme expressed the interests of the peasantry, it had as yet little direct influence outside the towns.

At the outbreak of the revolution it had no centralised leadership inside Russia. During the revolutionary days Bolshevik workers, especially in Petrograd’s Vyborg District, played a leading role, but acting as collectively-minded class-conscious workers rather than being directed by a party centre.

With the fall of the dynasty, Lenin, in exile in Switzerland wrote five ‘Letters from Afar’ (7–26 March), explaining the tasks of the party. Essentially, the Provisional Government should not be trusted, as it would not bring peace, bread, freedom and land. At first, the Bolshevik Party in Russia adopted the same position. Its paper, Pravda (‘Truth’) reappeared on 5 March under the editorship of Molotov, denouncing the Provisional Government as ‘a government of capitalists and landowners’. Vyborg District party resolutions called for the recognition of the Soviet as a provisional revolutionary government.

However, from 13 March, when Stalin and Kamenev took over the editorship of Pravda, and under the influence of the middle-class elements of the Party leadership, the party veered sharply right, towards the Mensheviks. The Provisional Government was now to be supported ‘insofar as’ it took measures favourable to the working class and peasantry.

The struggle to decide the vital issues of the revolution – peace, land and freedom – was only just beginning, yet the only previously consistent revolutionary party seemed to be joining the ranks of the opportunists. How did the Bolshevik Party re-arm itself? How did the masses react to the growing struggle for power between the Provisional Government and the Soviets?


Lenin re-arms the Bolshevik vanguard

Throughout March, the pressure of the mass movement forced the leadership of the Soviets and the Provisional Government to declare their positions on the real issues which affected the workers, soldiers and peasants – the continuation of the war and the ownership of the land. The contradictions between the revolutionary expectations of the masses and the actions of the Soviet leadership and the Provisional Government began to emerge.

On 14 March the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet issued a ‘Manifesto, To the Peoples of the World’. It declared that ‘... the Russian democracy ... will oppose the acquisitive policy of its own ruling classes by all means ...’ and summoned ‘... the peoples of Europe to common decisive actions in favour of peace ...’, appealing to Austrian and German workers ‘... to refuse to serve as a weapon for conquest and violence in the hands of kings, landlords and bankers’.

However, no specific measures at all were taken to oppose the imperialist war. The Provisional Government refused to publish the Tsar’s secret treaties of 1915 and 1916 which had fallen into its hands. According to these amicable agreements between the ‘democratic’ powers, Britain and France consented to the annexation by Russia of Constantinople and access to the Straits of Bosphorus and Hellespont. In return, Britain was to obtain Iraq, France to get Syria, and Palestine would be shared out between them. The reactionary officials of the Tsarist Foreign Office remained at their desks; the inspirer of the Tsar’s foreign policy, Miliukov, actually became Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government; and on 1 April, the Chief of Staff in the Tsarist army, Alekseev, assumed the same position in the army of ‘revolutionary democracy’.

Radical promises

There was an equal abundance of lavish promises and lack of action on the issue which most deeply affected the Tsarist ruling classes – their landed estates. The ruling class would literally promise the earth to keep the Russian army in the war. At a meeting of the Helsinki Soviet, specially convened to declare that all land must be handed over to the peasants, a ‘revolutionary’ officer declaimed: ‘The land must belong to the peasants! And as soon as we have defeated the accursed Germans ... we shall at once start to solve the land problem in the proper way.’

Meanwhile, the Provisional Government would do its best to help the landlords. It opposed ‘unauthorised seizures’ of the land, while organising a multitude of commissions to gather ‘preliminary material’ for a report on the land question to be examined at the Constituent Assembly. The hard-headed peasants wanted something much more tangible – the land – but this would not become a critical issue until the sowing season began.

A crisis of leadership

The war was the vital issue. Only the Bolsheviks had a consistent record of opposition to the war – in 1914 their Duma representatives had been exited for denouncing the war, while two right-Menshevik deputies continued to sit in the Duma; and they had opposed all attempts to draw in the working classes to collaborate in war production, such as the War Industries Committees, which the right-Mensheviks and right SRs had supported.

After the February revolution, the right-Mensheviks gave a radical coloration to their support for the war, under the name of ‘revolutionary defencism’. An attempt should be made to gain the support of the international working class to force all governments to accept a peace without annexations and indemnities, but meanwhile Russia should carry on the war in order to defend the conquests of the democratic revolution against German imperialism. The Provisional Government should be supported to the extent that it adopted this ‘revolutionary defencist’ position.

In line with their previous position, the Bolsheviks should have strongly opposed ‘revolutionary defencism’ and continued to argue that this was still an imperialist war. Yet under the leadership of Kamenev and Stalin, the party veered sharply rightwards, toward the Mensheviks.

The official Bolshevik response to the Soviet Manifesto was given by Stalin in a Pravda editorial of 17 March. While formally recognising that the war was imperialist, he welcomed the Soviet appeal, and argued that workers, soldiers and peasants must demand that the Provisional Government ‘... shall come out openly and publicly in an effort to induce all the belligerent powers to start peace negotiations immediately, on the basis of recognition of the right of nations to self-determination.’

Accepting the Menshevik formula of pressure on the Provisional Government meant that there was no political reason for the two organisations to remain separate. At the end of March, at an all-Russian conference of the Bolsheviks, Stalin proposed a motion for entering into negotiations with the Mensheviks to unify the parties on a programme of moderate opposition to the war. The motion was passed, 14 votes to 13, and Stalin appointed head of the negotiating committee.

Re-arming the Party

This was potentially a disastrous situation. Two of the necessary conditions for a revolution – disarray among the ruling classes, a vigorous mass movement by the oppressed – were clearly present, yet the third – a revolutionary party to lead the oppressed to victory – was now lacking. Without the direction of such a party, the energies of the masses would be dissipated, the vital moment would pass, and the ruling classes would regain control and smash the movement.

From his exile in Switzerland, Lenin watched with increasing frustration as the Bolsheviks abandoned the position he had indicated in his first response to the February revolution – ‘no trust in and no support of the new (Provisional) Government’. He was unable to reach Russia until 3 April, and immediately began to set the Bolsheviks back on the revolutionary course.

He put forward his arguments in one of the most crucial documents of the revolution, ‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution’ known as the ‘April Theses’ (CW vol 22 pp21–26).

Lenin argued that the war ‘unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war’, and that it was essential to expose the ‘utter falsity of all its promises’, particularly those relating to annexations. He ridiculed the idea that it would be possible for the Provisional Government, a government of capitalists, to cease to be an imperialist government and give up the idea of annexations.

The revolution was passing from its first to its second stage, ‘which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest ... peasants.’ The Soviets were ‘... the only possible form of revolutionary government ...’ compared to which a parliamentary republic would be a retrograde step. The immediate task was not ‘to introduce’ socialism, but ‘to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers Deputies’.

But as a revolutionary realist, Lenin realised that the broad masses of soldiers, who had just become involved in political life for the first time, sincerely supported ‘revolutionary defencism’. When a capitalist minister said he was against annexations, he was deceiving the people in order to gain time to continue the war and defeat the revolution; when a soldier used precisely the same words, he expressed a real desire for peace, but did not clearly understand how it could be achieved.

Under these circumstances, it was necessary for the Bolsheviks, who were in a small minority in the Soviet, to explain their position patiently and systematically so that as a result of their own experience the soldiers would eventually see through the deceptions of the Provisional Government.

Were Lenin’s ‘Theses’ just a pragmatic adaptation to events, as generations of bourgeois critics have alleged? or, as Trotsky claimed, a realisation that the Bolsheviks’ position was incorrect, a belated recognition of the theory of ‘permanent revolution’?

Since 1905 the Bolsheviks had fought for the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’, to mobilise the masses for the overthrow of Tsarism and the aristocracy. Tsarism would not be overthrown by the bourgeoisie, with the workers acting as a left-wing opposition, as the Mensheviks claimed; and this immediate task demanded an alliance of the working class and peasantry, and not, as Trotsky argued, a ‘revolutionary workers government’, which would, in Lenin’s words, mean ‘skipping over the peasant movement, which has not outlived itself’.

The main resistance to Lenin had come from the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who considered that the Bolshevik 1905 slogan was still appropriate, since the agrarian revolution, an essential element of the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not been completed. Lenin argued that this slogan had been overtaken by reality. The ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ had, to a certain extent, been accomplished by the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. To repeat the old slogan would be to lag behind the movement, to call for a ‘revolutionary workers’ government’ would be to leap ahead of it, when the immediate task was to make a split within the dictatorship between the proletarian and the conservative petty bourgeois elements (represented by the right SRs and right-Mensheviks).

Lenin’s struggle

The Theses were published in Pravda on 7 April. The next day an editorial note by Kamenev emphasised that they represented only Lenin’s opinion; and at a meeting of the Petrograd party committee they were rejected by 13 votes to two, with one abstention.

Yet as soon as Lenin’s argument was heard by wider sections of the party membership, he began to gain ground. At the Petrograd City Conference (14-22 April) Kamenev’s motion that the Soviets should simply exert ‘the most watchful control’ over the Provisional Government was defeated by 20 votes to six, with nine abstentions. At the first All-Russian Conference after Lenin’s arrival (24-29 April) Lenin’s resolutions on the war were carried overwhelmingly by the 150 delegates.

Why did Lenin succeed so rapidly in reorienting the Bolsheviks? There are two essential reasons, which do not depend on Lenin’s undoubted tenacity of purpose and forceful character.

Firstly, his position expressed in general theoretical terms the specific practical actions of the revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors, but set them in a broader perspective and gave them the arguments with which to fight the opportunists. Before his arrival, the Bolshevik Committee in the Vyborg District, the centre of revolutionary working class activity, and the Kronstadt Sailors, had adopted a hostile attitude to the Provisional Government.

Secondly, reality increasingly showed that Lenin was right about the Provisional Government: it soon began to cast off its ‘pacifist’ skin and reveal the true meaning of its phrases about ‘no annexations, no indemnities’. On 18 April, in the middle of the Petrograd City Conference, it became known that Miliukov had sent all the representatives of the Provisional Government abroad a Note making a clear declaration that the Provisional Government’s phrases about peace should not be interpreted as meaning that ‘... the revolution ... entailed a weakening of the role of Russia in the common struggle of the Allies.’ The polite diplomatic phrases barely concealed the intention – to continue a predatory, imperialist war. When the Note became known, two days later, 30,000 armed soldiers and sailors, followed by Vyborg workers, came out onto the streets to give their own undiplomatic Note to the Foreign Minister – ‘Down with Miliukov!’

The Bolsheviks were now re-armed. A party of 79,000 members (15,000 in Petrograd), they now had a clear programme for the struggle ahead. Yet although their programme could now potentially attract the soldiers and peasants, the party was still mainly based in the cities and larger towns. Even there, they were still in a minority within the Soviets – what was their programme for winning over the factory workers? How could the Bolsheviks reach out to the broadest masses within Russia? Would the Bolsheviks be able to spread the fires of revolution outside Russia?

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