Matgamna and Hornung on Lenin and the Russian Revolution

October 16, 2017 at 7:59 pm (AWL, class, From the archives, history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia)

Above: the young Lenin’s police mugshot when arrested in 1895.

By Sean Matgamna and Andrew Hornung (adapted from a series of articles first published in Workers’ Fight in 1974).

Read online (below), or download pdf

Who was Lenin? He led the workers of the Tsarist Russian Empire to make the most profound revolution in history in 1917. He was the leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, without which the workers would have been defeated.

Of Karl Marx’s fate at the hands of his alleged followers in the early socialist movement, Lenin wrote that it was often the fate of revolutionaries that after their deaths their names were made into legends to console the oppressed, while their ideas — their real politics, what they had stood for in life — were thrown out and replaced by something else. Something very like that happened to Lenin himself. It happened to him almost immediately after his death. The bureaucracy which ruled the USSR mummified his poor physical remnants, built a great ‘Lenin Mausoleum’ and created an obscene national shrine around the mummy.

Lenin had stood for maximum working class democracy. The rulers who made him — and Marx — into a holy icon of their pidgin-Marxist state religion, proceeded in the decades after his death to build an anti-socialist totalitarian state on the groaning backs of the people of the USSR. Lenin had liberated the many oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire: Stalin put them back under the control of Great Russian chauvinist jailers and oppressors. Lenin had stood for the international socialist revolution. Stalin tried to build ‘socialism’ in backward Russia, substituting “socialism in one country” for Lenin’s programme of international socialism. Lenin had defended the right of independent trade unions to exist in the USSR: everywhere Stalinists ruled and rule, such organisations of the working class are systematically and brutally rooted out.

At every important point the Stalinists, who lyingly call themselves Leninists, radically cut away what Lenin had really stood for and adopted anti-working-class policies — the very opposite of those which Lenin spent his life fighting for. Now that Stalinism has fallen in the USSR and Eastern Europe, we have the inverse process. Lenin, who spent his last crippled years fighting incipient Stalinism, is scapegoated for the discredited despotic system which rose up on the defeat of Lenin’s last struggle, continued after Lenin’s death by Trotsky and others.

This pamphlet is offered to the reader as an introduction to what Lenin — the man who led the greatest working class revolution so far — really did in his life, what he said and what he fought for and against.

The contents were published as a pamphlet in 1987, based on articles in the weekly Socialist Organiser in 1982 (nos. 108-113). They have been slightly edited for this reprinting. The 1982 text was adapted from a series of articles in the paper Workers’ Fight in 1974.

The beginning of Bolshevism

Born in the provincial town of Simbirsk, into the family of a schools administrator, Lenin was no stranger to revolutionary ideas other than Marxism. His brother Alexander had been hanged in 1887 for planning the assassination of the Tsar. Alexander had been a member of the populist, agrarian socialist Narodnik organisation. But if the execution of his brother sharpened Lenin’s sense of injustice, it was not the views or the methods of the Narodniks that influenced him, but those of Marx, Engels and Plekhanov. By the time he was 19 Lenin had already read Marx’s Capital and begun to ground himself seriously in its scientific method.

The first things Lenin wrote were directed at countering Narodnaya Volya’s faith in the peasantry with Marxism’s scientific theory of the central historic role of the working class. Whereas the Narodniks saw the peasantry — ‘the People’ — as a single mass, Lenin used detailed studies to show the differentiation within these masses, how out of ‘the People’ was crystallising the proletariat, the modern working class. He also criticised the tactics of the Narodniks, who sent out heroic and isolated revolutionaries with guns and bombs to act in the name of ‘the People’ and assassinate the hated representatives of Tsarist tyranny.

What he had to say in the course of fighting these terrorist tactics is particularly instructive for us today. “We have never rejected terrorism on principle, nor can we do so… The point is however, terror is advocated (by the Narodniks) not as one of the operations the army in the field must carry out in close connection and in complete harmony with the whole system of fighting, but as an individual attack, completely separated from any army whatsoever. In view of the absence of a central revolutionary organisation, terror cannot be anything but that”.

This was the period when the new Russian working class, recently driven into the factories from the countryside, revolted against their conditions and against Tsarist tyranny, with wave upon wave of mass, illegal strikes. Even the savage Tsarist repression failed to quell the movement of the workers, which was spontaneous and lacking in any stable organisation. Trade unions were of course illegal. There were also groups of “intellectuals” who had imported the ideas of Marxism into Russia from Western Europe. These turned eagerly to the task of aiding the proletarian movement and to the task of fusing a revolutionary Marxist consciousness with the actual movement of the working class. In turning towards these tasks, Lenin emerged in the 1890s as one of the foremost of the younger generation of Russian Marxists.

In 1895 Lenin travelled abroad to contact the émigré Emancipation of Labour Group and learn about developments in the West European labour movement. The Emancipation of Labour Group comprised the oldest generation of Russian Marxists, like Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich and Deutsch, and was the powerhouse of Russian Marxist analysis and propaganda.

With them, he arranged for the publication of a miscellany, Rabotnik (Worker). Returning to Russia, he arranged for its illegal distribution, and in the autumn of 1895 set up in St Petersburg the League for the Emancipation of the Working Class and arranged for the publication of a new illegal paper, Rabochye Dyelo. But just as the proofs of the paper were finally being checked, Lenin and most of the other members of the League were arrested.

After a period in jail Lenin was sent into exile in Eastern Siberia. Here he was joined by his comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya. They were married in 1896. Neither jail nor exile meant silence or inactivity. This was a period of intense political study, the monument to which is the massive work The Development of Capitalism in Russia. But he was cut off from the working class, and unable to carry out the urgent task of building a working class revolutionary organisation. From the time of his release in 1900 he concentrated his entire energy on this.

His first idea was to break with the isolated ‘circle work’, in which scattered groups of Marxist propagandists existed more or less independently of each other throughout Russia. In order to do this, a paper, an all-Russian paper, needed to be founded, which would act as an organiser and centraliser for the whole Social Democratic movement (Marxism was called Social Democracy until 1914). This centralism was to prefigure the unification and ideological independence of the working class. Again he travelled abroad, realising that the paper would have to be produced outside Russia owing to the close police supervision there of every move. At the end of 1900 this work bore its first fruit with the appearance of Iskra (The Spark), and then in January of the following year a journal, ‘Zarya’ (Dawn), was produced. Now he set about that work that was to lead to a breakthrough in Marxist thinking, and in its practical effects was to become one of his most important and most characteristic contributions to Marxism as a revolutionary force: the organisation of the Russian workers’ revolutionary drive into a fighting party.

Although an attempt to found a party had been made in 1898 while he was in exile, it had collapsed almost immediately when nearly all the delegates to the founding conference were arrested soon after it. The period from 1894 to the first Congress of the Party in 1898 had been, in Lenin’s own words, one in which Social Democracy appeared “as a social movement, as a rising of the masses of the people, and as a political party”. Even the Zubatov “unions” — so-called because they were “unions” organised by the police chief Zubatov — led strikes, even general strikes, in large cities, so great was the spontaneous will to struggle of the working class.

But if Social Democracy appeared now as “a political party”, it was a political party in the sense of a broad range of people having common characteristics and acting more or less together. Lenin understood that what was wanted was something that broke out of the scattered, restricted work of the Marxist educational and leaflet-distributing circles and became a factor on the national political scene, enabling the working class in turn to unite organisationally and ideologically. This party had to combine the features of an organisationally secure unity capable of escaping the secret police and of a politically trained and unified group capable of directing struggles surely and single-mindedly.

The period of the rise of working-class struggle in the ’90s was, however, also the period of the rise of the theory of ‘economism’, the view that economic, trade-union struggles of workers were in themselves an adequate basis for the political struggle of the working class, leaving the sphere of the political struggle to the domination of the bourgeoisie. All Marxists then agreed that the first revolution in Russia would be a bourgeois revolution. The “economist” approach meant surrendering the working class in politics to the leadership of that bourgeoisie, while the socialists concentrated on trade unionism and general propaganda.

The inevitable separation between “economic struggle” and “political struggle” that this entailed made economism the at first unwitting, and later conscious, ally of the revisionism that had just reared its head in Germany. The revisionists wanted to transform Social Democracy from a movement to overthrow capitalism into one aiming merely to achieve reforms.

In the famous book What Is To Be Done, Lenin outlined a “first draft”, so to speak, of the theory of the organisation and role of the party. Published in 1902, the book developed ideas already set out in Where To Begin (1901) and Letter To A Comrade In St Petersburg. The book showed how a central revolutionary organisation based on a scientific programme could both link together the fragmented struggles of the working class and also link the struggles of that class on a whole series of fronts and around a great variety of objectives. It would do this by forging out of these disparate struggles an organisational and ideological unity which would be a crystal of the true character of the proletariat. The struggle to protect the purity of the proletarian character of the revolutionary movement was concentrated within the revolutionary party. But it had a clear relationship to the movement outside. “The stronger our Party organisations, consisting of real Social Democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the Party, the broader, the more varied, the richer and the more fertile will be the influence of the Party on the elements of the working-class masses surrounding it and guided by it”.

In backward, semi-Asiatic Russia, however, where the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, and the petty bourgeoisie of both the town and the countryside, as well as the working class, were oppressed classes, there was a great danger that the working-class movement would fall under the domination of these far more numerous classes. The struggle against false ideas developing in and around the workers’ movement had to be coupled with an equally determined struggle against external class influences.

With the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 came a sharpening of differences within the RSDLP. Ranged against Lenin were all those who understood a “party” to be nothing more than an assembly of people who were on the same side. Such a conception was entirely inadequate to the founding of a “party” whose practice and programme was based on an underlying scientific theory, whose members had to be steeled, dedicated, and politically trained. Lenin had to fight against many of his one-time collaborators to establish his ideas. He won, but his victory was short-lived: though his Bolshevik (majority) faction triumphed over the Mensheviks (minority) at the Congress, the defection of Plekhanov soon afterwards to Menshevism put Lenin in the minority on the Editorial Board of Iskra, which was the decisive party committee outside Russia. He resigned from the Editorial Board.

Thus began a long and bitter struggle in which he fought not only his close collaborators of the previous period such as Martov and Potresov, but also his teacher Plekhanov. He began to build up a faction that was finally to emerge in 1912 as the Bolshevik Party. The split in 1903 is referred to in vulgar Stalinist legend as already exhibiting in fully developed form all the distinguishing traits of both Bolshevism and Menshevism, traits which led the two factions to line up on different sides of the class barricades in the revolution of 1917.

In reality it was no more than their prefigurement. A whole series of experiences, struggles, reunifications, new splits and the interchange of personnel was necessary before the final crystallisation of the two tendencies.

Many of the active workers in Russia rallied to Lenin against the “anarchic” behaviour of the émigré Menshevik intellectuals who had overturned the conference decisions. The debates of this period were anticipations of the burning problems of the revolution. “The approach of the great storm was felt everywhere. All classes were in a state of ferment and preparation”.

The flow and ebb of revolution

After living in Munich and London, Lenin was in Geneva when the revolutionary storm actually broke in Russia. On 22 January 1905 thousands of workers, dressed in their Sunday best and carrying religious icons, marched to the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg to present a petition to ask for “amnesty, civil liberties, higher wages, the gradual granting of land to the peasantry and the convocation of a Constituent Assembly”. Led by the priest Gapon, these “unfortunate reviled slaves”, as they called themselves, proceeded peacefully towards the man they saw as their protector, the Tsar. Suddenly the Cossacks were unleashed against them. Over 1,000 were slaughtered and over 2,000 injured.

Strikes immediately spread throughout Russia, drawing in the soldiers, the sailors, and the peasantry. Throughout 1905 mass revolutionary struggles engulfed Russia. Although the liberal bourgeoisie seems to have gained control of the movement, strikes broke out once again towards the end of 1905, and it was this massive upheaval that created the first Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

The soviets were councils set up by the workers to draw the threats of the different struggles together and unify them, to link the factory organisations, to combine the employed and the unemployed, and in short to be the “parliament” of the working class — not, however, one resting on a sham democracy with elections every five years, but on a real democracy knowing the right of workers to recall the deputies to the Soviet and at will elect new ones. Quickly the Soviet in St Petersburg became (with Leon Trotsky as its chairman) the focus of the strength and power of the working class, and an alternative authority to the Tsarist state. It was to the Soviet that the working class looked for leadership and organisation. Into it were channelled the energy and aspirations of the class.

The Russian workers had improvised the form of democratic self organisation which the working class needs as it begins to rouse itself and challenge the ruling class’s power in society. Soviets reappeared in the 1917 Revolution. After World War I soviets sprang into existence in East Europe and Germany. In 1956 the great working-class uprising in Budapest against Stalinism could find no better form of self organisation in a struggle for power than the workers’ council. At Gdansk in 1980 the workers created a powerful soviet-style “parliament”. This universality proves that the soviet, invented in 1905, was not merely a Russian or an ephemeral form of proletarian organisation, but the necessary form for overcoming the atomisation of the proletariat and simultaneously the best organisational network for democratic working-class rule in society.

In St Petersburg the Bolsheviks did not at first know how to evaluate this new form of organisation. But Lenin, though he could not then know their full historical significance, quickly grasped the soviets’ importance in the struggle of the working class, and could not wait to get to St Petersburg himself to see and direct events from close at hand. Moving first to Finland, he arrived towards the end of the year in St Petersburg.

Once again, Lenin’s unshakeable sense of the concrete led him to translate what he saw into an answer to the question, “what is to be done?” And once again the answer was in terms of party organisation. Here was an opportunity “to develop our activities in the most extensive and audacious manner”. But first the party had to develop many legal aspects of work while maintaining an underground apparatus. It had also to open its doors, hitherto rigorously guarded against easy entry, to the recruitment of thousands of workers and ensure that workers took leading positions on all the committees. This was no reversal of the view that consciousness and system were the fundamentals of the revolutionary party — on the contrary, it was precisely because in the previous three years the Bolsheviks had achieved this that they could now recruit without any danger of dilution. “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic”, declared Lenin in the first article he wrote on returning, adding, “and more than ten years’ work by Social Democracy has done much to transform this spontaneity into consciousness”.

Here and elsewhere, he introduced essential qualifications and modifications into the ideas of What Is To Be Done?, developing those ideas in the light of the experience of the working-class struggle. The party, Lenin realised, must not be like a priest reciting sacred and unchanging texts. It must always be the organised richness of the experience of the working class, given sense and direction through the science of Marxism.

By 1906, especially after the defeat of the Moscow insurrection in December 1905, the storm was dying down. Soon Tsarism was victorious and most of the revolutionary leaders were once again forced into exile, Lenin himself going to live in Paris. Everywhere there was “demoralisation, split, discord, renegacy”, with “mysticism serving as a cloak for counter-revolution”. It was now, in this period of black reaction, with the revolutionaries increasingly isolated, that the lessons of the 1905 Revolution were drawn and the political tendencies in the working-class movement were hammered into their final shape. And now too the Bolshevik Party, which was to lead the proletariat to victory within a decade of the decisive defeat of 1907, was forged.

Lenin summed up what happened after Tsarism had defeated the 1905 revolution: “Victorious Tsarism is compelled speedily to destroy the remnants of the pre-bourgeois, patriarchal mode of life in Russia. Russia’s development along bourgeois lines marches forward with remarkable rapidity… Revolutionary parties must complete their education. They have learned how to attack. Now they must learn… how to retreat properly”.

But for the revolutionaries, to learn to retreat, to face the situation of massive depression in the aftermath of defeat, to adopt tactics appropriate to this new situation, to go down again into the underground after the open work possible during the revolution — this was indeed difficult. Reorientation and re-education of the revolutionaries proved a bitter task to accomplish, specially against the background of defeat and demoralisation.

The whole period was for Lenin taken up with a battle on two fronts, against both ultra-right and ultra-left tendencies. In the heat of the revolution the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had reunited. After the defeat new divisions emerged. A section of the Mensheviks became open reformists, and a section of the Bolsheviks reduced themselves to ultra-left posturing, which threatened, no less than the reformist Mensheviks, to make the revolutionary tasks impossible.

The Bolshevik ultra-lefts were known as the “otzvoists” (recallists), and led by Bogdanov, Alexinski and Lunarcharski. The Social Democrats had successfully boycotted the democratic Tsarist Duma (parliament) during the revolution, when mass struggle provided its own alternative. Now, in retreat, it became necessary to change tactics, to learn to utilise even a reactionary undemocratic Tsarist parliament for socialist propaganda.

Lenin, in alliance at first with the Menshevik section of the party, advocated such use of the Duma. Eventually he overcame the at first almost unanimous Bolshevik resistance; the continued revolutionary depression made the need for change increasingly obvious.

Except to the hard-core “otzvoists”. Their ultra-leftism, threatening to reduce the revolutionary party to self-isolation and unrealism, was linked with a retreat into mysticism. They tried to develop socialism as a sort of religion. Eventually they were expelled from the Bolshevik faction.

The Menshevik reformists, the “Liquidators”, unlike the otzvoists who were their mirror opposites, wanted to confine themselves entirely to open work within Tsarist legality, liquidating the underground party. Legal trade unions were now possible, and on this basis they increasingly argued, in effect, for the creation of a working-class party of reforms.

Lenin wanted to make the fullest use of all possibilities for legal work, such as in the Duma and the unions, but never to limit either the activity or the propaganda of the workers’ party to what Tsarism permitted. That would have been to surrender the ideological, political and organisational independence of the working class.

Once again, an apparently technical question of organisation represented really crucial issues, as the eventual evolution of the liquidators into full-blown reformists demonstrates.

“The proletariat is revolutionary only insofar as it is conscious of and gives effect to (the) idea of the hegemony of the proletariat. To preach to the workers that what they need is ‘not hegemony but a class party’ (the slogan of Livitski, a liquidationist) means to betray the cause of the proletariat to the liberals; it means preaching that Social Democratic labour policy should be replaced by liberal labour policy”. (By a “class party”, the liquidationists meant a party sociologically working class and narrowly confined to bread-and-butter working class issues within existing society).

The struggle on both fronts culminated for Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Prague conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at the beginning of 1912. Together with a group of “Pro-Party Mensheviks”, the Bolsheviks decisively cut off the Liquidators. Thereafter the RSDLP was essentially the old Bolshevik faction.

Now, after years of depression and isolation, the Russian labour movement began to revive, particularly after the shooting of striking workers on the Lena Goldfields. In 1912 Lenin moved from Paris to Cracow (in Russian-ruled Poland), to be as near as possible to the struggle in Russia. The Bolsheviks began to reap the rewards of their combination of legal and illegal work. In 1912 they began to publish Pravda as a legal daily paper.

International socialism — war and the national question

Much of Lenin’s theoretical work at this time was focused on the national and colonial question. One of Lenin’s major contributions to Marxism was his clarification of this. Russia had rightly been called the ‘prison house of nations’, with non-Russian nationalities outnumbering Russians in the Tsar’s empire. What policy should Russian Marxists adopt towards Russia’s subject nations?

They took a ‘consistently democratic’ stand, advocating self-determination for nations and for fragments of peoples who felt nationally oppressed. The preservation of existing state boundaries was no concern of the working class.

Lenin insisted that the road to international working class unity lay through the fullest rights of nations to a separate existence at will. National oppression poisoned the relations of workers in both the oppressed and oppressor nations. It was imperative that the revolutionary party of the oppressor nation accept and fight for the national rights of the oppressed nations. Conversely, the revolutionary parties of the workers of the oppressed nations and peoples would oppose the chauvinism and narrow national exclusiveness of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie of their nations, fighting in this way for international working class unity.

In contrast to this, the Marxists of that other prison house of nations, the Austrian Empire, redefined the right to self-determination of nations as the right to mere cultural freedom within the borders of the existing state, which were regarded as sacrosanct. Lenin pointed out that this policy of “cultural national autonomy” merely perpetuated nationalism, and in no way helped international working class unity.

Lenin wrote a number of pamphlets and articles to combat the Austrians on the right and also an ultra-left tendency personified by Rosa Luxemburg, who maintained that, for example, recognition of Poland’s right to self-determination was a futile and retrograde step because Poland and Russia had been economically integrated.

This question eventually fused with the problem of the world-wide struggle against imperialism. Lenin demonstrated that it was precisely in the period of the highest stages of capitalism that there would be a whole wave of wars of national liberation against imperialism. He argued that revolutionaries everywhere, and especially those in the imperialist countries, must support the oppressed nations and stand for their right to break out of the empires which oppressed them and set up their own states.

Admitting that political independence would be limited by the imperialist world economic relations now dominant, Lenin argued that the answer to the economic domination of imperialism was workers’ revolution on a world scale, but consistent democracy on the national question was an irreplaceable part of the programme of socialism. His writings of that time are full of denunciations of those who did not understand that the right of nations to self-determination would still be a vital issue even after the socialist revolution.

In future decades, when the Stalinist USSR, with about half its population non-Russians, became the largest prison-house of nations on earth, and the lack of national self-determination became a dominating feature of life in countries like Poland, the national question became once again one of the most explosive issues in Russia and Eastern Europe. Lenin’s policy on the national question became an essential part of the answer to Stalinism there.

The national question took on new sharpness as World War One loomed. Lenin had participated in the congresses of the international socialist movement, though he had concentrated heavily on Russian affairs. Now, in 1914, when the World War broke out, the whole international socialist movement splintered into nationalist sections. Instead of the international brotherhood of the working class against war to which the International had repeatedly pledged itself, the outbreak of war produced fratricidal slaughter.

The same artillery fire that lit up the corpse-littered battlefields now highlighted the real situation within the international labour movement, which had become rotten with careerism and reformism. Social Democrats became “social chauvinists” overnight, supporting their national governments in the war. Jules Guesde, a leader of the French socialists, even became Minister of War.

Russia was one of the few countries where the majority of socialists did not spring to “defend the fatherland”, though even here a social chauvinist wing emerged, headed by Plekhanov.

For Lenin the most crushing and unexpected blow was the fate of German Social Democracy, which also supported the imperialist war. This party, representing over four million voters, went over massively to chauvinism. What shocked Lenin was the fact that Karl Kautsky, the revered “Pope of Marxism”, and the man whom Lenin had regarded as his teacher for the previous two decades, refused to echo the words of the revolutionary left, led by Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht: “The enemy is at home! Turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. Instead, he began to rationalise for the renegades.

Kautsky’s betrayal, masked by chatter about disarmament conferences, drew from Lenin a number of brilliant articles which exposed the social chauvinists, including those who had been pillars of “Marxist orthodoxy” during the debates with the “revisionists” like Bernstein.

Now Lenin turned to a complete examination of the whole of the preceding period of the Marxist labour movement. He set about digging down to the very roots of the rottenness that had corrupted both the theory and practice of the parties of the Second International.

He bitterly rejected and combated the shallow programme of the Kautskys that after the war they should “reconstruct the Second International”.

He exposed how the daily life of the Second International parties had led them gradually to accommodate and intermesh with the bourgeois state, much as the liquidators had tended to in Russia. He reworked his way through the whole literature of Marxism, relating it to the whole experience of the class struggle.

He uncovered and, in a series of famous pamphlets like The State and Revolution (1917), proved that the “orthodox” Marxists like Kautsky had for years falsified, vulgarised and bowdlerised the real teachings of Marxism on the state, the class struggle and the proletarian revolution. Implacably Lenin struggled to understand, expose and eliminate from the labour movement the baseness, loathsomeness and vileness of social-chauvinism and ‘Kautskyism’.

This was the only way to cleanse the labour movement and rebuild a working class international on firmer foundations. Gradually, small groups of revolutionaries began to make contact and prepare the revival. A conference of revolutionary socialists was held in Zimmerwald in Switzerland in 1915, and another in Kienthal in 1916.

While the ravages of war seemed to stifle all political life, its very barbarism and the conditions it imposed on the working masses both at the front and at home provided the leaven for revolution. As Engels, predicting the world war as long before as 1887, had said: “Eight to ten million soldiers will mutually massacre one another and in so doing devour the whole of Europe … Only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.”

In Russia at the outbreak of war what had been a growing movement of the working class was suddenly stifled. The Bolshevik deputies in the Duma were arrested for opposing the war. But within a short period, the collapse, the slaughter, the famine of the war revived the movement of opposition of the working class.

On 22 February 1917 a wage dispute at the giant Putilov works in Petrograd sparked off a lock-out which within the week had generated a mass movement of striking workers, supported by mutinying troops and sailors. The slogans demanding higher wages were soon replaced by ones demanding “Bread”, “Down with the autocracy”, and “Down with the war”.

The leadership of the movement was quickly taken over by the leaders of the Left in the old Duma, Kerensky, Chkheidze and Skobolev. The Soviet that been so important in the revolution of 1905 was reborn.

And, as a symbolic portent of the coming situation of dual power, it met in the Tauride Palace (the parliamentary buildings) on the 27th, the day the Tsar dissolved the Duma.

A Provisional Government was soon called into office with Prince Lvov as Prime Minister. But on the same day the Soviet issued its Order No. 1 urging the setting up of more Soviets, particularly in the army and navy, and instructing workers, soldiers and sailors not to obey any orders unless countersigned by the Soviet.

Lenin arrived in Russia, in Petrograd itself, in April. He was greeted by Chkheidze, then the chairman of the Soviet, who warned Lenin about the dangers of disunity now that the democratic revolution could be fulfilled. But Lenin ignored these pompous, yet anxious words.

He turned to the people gathered around and announced: “Dear comrades, soldiers and workers. The piratical imperialist war is beginning to become a civil war throughout Europe … The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened up a new epoch. Long live the world-wide socialist revolution.”

The Bolshevik leaders there at the Finland Station to meet him were shocked at what Lenin had said. Some of them must have thought he had gone mad or — as indeed he had — gone over to Trotsky’s view that the Russian revolution must take the course of combining the democratic and socialist revolutions under the leadership of the working class.

Lenin, who had the marvellous capacity to combine concrete analysis and realism in every situation with rigid adherence to principle, had seen the possibilities of full proletarian victory. Really, he merely developed previously worked-out ideas on the motive forces of the Russian Revolution to their logical conclusion.

The October Revolution

Both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had believed that the revolution possible in Russia was a bourgeois revolution like that of France in 1789. They differed in that the Mensheviks deduced mechanically that the revolution would be led by the big bourgeoisie.

Concrete as ever in analysis, Lenin insisted that the bourgeoisie would not, and did not wish to, carry out the bourgeois transformation of Russia in a revolutionary way — as opposed to the ‘Prussian road’ of a slow transformation front above in alliance with the landowners. One reason was their intense fear of the working class, especially after the experience of 1905. Therefore the bourgeois revolution would have to be made by the peasantry in alliance with the working class.

Trotsky agreed with the Bolsheviks, but argued that such a worker peasant alliance, led by the working class, could not stop at completing the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, but would go on to carry through working class socialist measures. It was inconceivable that the working class could take power and yet not look to its own class interests and concerns.

To the argument that Russia was not ripe for socialism, was too backward, etc., Trotsky replied that the revolution would not finish even with workers’ victory in Russia: that would be the starting point in a linked chain of proletarian revolutions which would lead to the workers’ conquest of power in the advanced capitalist countries. This was the theory of Permanent Revolution.

Slowly, step by step, Lenin had arrived at the same position as Trotsky. And he had done more than Trotsky. He had built a party that, once he had rearmed it to understand the new possibilities, would be able to ensure that the perspective of workers’ power in Russia was more than a mere possibility.

The Bolshevik leaders who resisted Lenin were relapsing into a neo-Menshevism because of inertia and uncritical repetition of yesterday’s formulae without reference to today’s realities. “The truth is concrete”, insisted Lenin. Marxism was a method for analysis of the world, not dogmas and sacred texts.

Once again the party had to be shaken up. In a short time Lenin shook it up rallying the working-class rank and file against the ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders.

Click here for part two.


  1. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Lenin, Trotsky etc forced the ruling classes into massive compromise to improve the conditions of the people. Overthrowing the ruling classes normally means a replacement ruling class!

  2. Ben said,

    Under capitalism man exploits man. Under socialism it’s the other way round.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: