April: Lenin re-arms Bolshevik Vanguard: Russia 1917 Part 3

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This article was first published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 68 in May 1987. We republish it now, in 2017, in a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace and progress in history.

The pressure of the mass movement was forcing 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. In the first month of the revolution 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, in imperialist politics, to accept something in principle means to reject it in effect. 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 who had been party to the secret treaties 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, with no joke intended, 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 French ambassador reported the mood in aristocratic circles: ‘. . . there was one anxiety greater than all others, a haunting fear in every mind . . . the partition of the land. "We shall not get out of it this time! What will become of us without our rent rolls?”'

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 'get out of it'. 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 2 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 continued 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. Consequently 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.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. 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 pp 21-26).

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 the renunciation of 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 professional confusionists in 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' traditional 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', a slogan 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 not that this slogan was theoretically incorrect, but that it 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 personal opinion; and at a meeting of the Petrograd party committee they were rejected by 13 votes to 2, with 1 abstention.

Yet as soon as Lenin's argument was heard by wider sections of the party membership, in closer touch with the workers and soldiers, 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 6, with 9 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. Eyewitnesses report at length the numerous instances of hostility to Lenin's arguments on the part of 'revolutionary ' intellectuals, while his speeches to the revolutionary masses were warmly welcomed.

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, 2 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 rearmed. 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?