By Lars T. Lih
The April theses represented Bolshevik continuity rather than a break, argues Lars T. Lih. This is an edited version of a speech given to a London Communist Forum, published in November 2012.
As a provisional title for this talk I put forward something like ‘Bringing back Bolshevism to the Bolshevik revolution’, and I am going to try to explain what I mean by that. I must say that preparing this talk has been very good for me, in that it has helped me put my thoughts in order – and express them in a positive way rather than in the form of a polemic. My ideas on the subject can be traced back to an insight I had long ago. On the one hand, there is the Bolshevik scenario of a workers’ revolution supported by the peasants, and an alliance in which the peasants support the workers against the counterrevolution; on the other hand, the reality of a civil war in which the Bolsheviks put together a Red Army mostly made up of peasants. It looks like they put the scenario into practice – they won because they did what they said they would from the beginning.
That was my insight, which I stand by today, and I have since expanded upon it in more extensive terms. But I find it surprising that this idea of continuity between old Bolshevism and the October revolution has been largely neglected by both the academics and the activists – indeed it is regarded as somewhat scandalous in some camps.
What are the obstacles that prevent people seeing something that seems obvious? I can think of five, but perhaps people can think of others too. The first, especially among academics, is that they are not particularly aware of the old Bolshevik scenario of revolution and worker-peasant power. For them Lenin means party organisation, authoritarianism, intellectuals running things and so forth. They think they have understood the essence of Lenin by their wrong reading of What Is To Be Done? and so there is very little written about him post-1905. And, of course, this scenario of a vast workers’ revolution supported by the peasantry is not going to appeal or make sense to someone who thinks that Lenin had a low opinion of the capacities of the workers, and an even lower opinion of the peasants.
The second obstacle can be seen amongst left writers, who are actually familiar with this scenario of worker-peasant revolution – you can find a good account of it in some books. But they nevertheless choose to emphasise discontinuity in 1917. It is important to them and their narrative that there is discontinuity between old Bolshevism and October, and there are many reasons for this.
I will name two. One is a hostility to Lenin’s main lieutenants: that is, Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin. They all turn out to be villains later on in the left or in Trotskyist narratives, and they are not going to be given a break. The other, substantial, reason that needs to be considered is that they are hung up, I think, on the juxtaposition between democratic revolution and socialist revolution. In my view there is certainly a shift, but the discontinuity has been overstated.
Some of the other obstacles are really based on no more than myths. For example, one widespread idea is that a break occurred in 1914, when Lenin supposedly read Hegel, discovered Kautsky was a bounder and rethought everything. I do not think this happened. In fact the opposite is the case, as Lenin really reaffirmed his beliefs. In Lenin’s view, it was Kautsky, not himself, who had changed tack.
Thirdly, there is the episode I call ‘April in Petrograd’, where we have one of the most famous historical narratives. It goes like this: Lenin arrives, and the Bolshevik leaders are baffled by his new vision. But he faces them down, there is a debate for about a month or so, and then everyone gets on board the new line.*
Now this story constitutes a genuine objection to the idea of continuity, as there is a lot of material out there that seems to confirm the narrative, but I have been one of the first to genuinely research this – there has not been an independent study in western literature that I know of, and everyone is dependent on this or that quote from secondary sources. What is interesting about it is that activists and academics alike are reliant for their information on Soviet historians, who otherwise they would not think of trusting.
Fourthly, there is a connection with a Lenin cult, which we are all part of, as it is a little hard to escape, where everything Lenin does is always right. So if there is any disagreement between him and the others, then obviously the others are wrong. However, even from a methodological point of view, we have to leave open the possibility that, say, Kamenev was right and Lenin was wrong on this or that question.
I want to stress here that, though this story is strongly supported by the Trotskyist tradition, everybody likes it for their own particular reasons: the academics, the Stalinists, the anti-Stalinists, the post-Soviets – everyone has a reason for liking this story. It all goes back to a Nikolai Sukhanov, a memoirist who was on the left, but an anti-Bolshevik. I think it was Sukhanov and his extremely vivid account that really got the story going.
Finally, there is the Bolshevik-peasant conflict during the civil war, something that is very much stressed by academic historians. But it seems people on the left also look at that in order to conclude that the worker-peasant alliance did not work out.
So, those are the obstacles that are out there – common assumptions, genuine problems – and I have been attempting to take these on one by one: examine them and get them out of the way. But that takes polemics – pointing out that a certain quote does not fit the narrative and so on, and I am going to skip that as much as I can, so as to present the narrative in positive terms, as if no-one was disputing what I was saying. You can dispute it after I am finished!
The first stage to this story, then, is the original Bolshevik scenario back in 1905-07, and I am going to give you an idea of what I think the heart of this scenario was. But first let me say something about my sources. I think I am just about the only one who has not only examined Lenin, but the writings of other Bolsheviks; and the two Bolsheviks whose writings are most easily available, having been republished for various reasons, are Stalin and Kamenev. Both were in Petrograd in the weeks before Lenin arrived, so they are a very good source for our purposes. I also should point out, however, that when Stalin and Kamenev (and other Bolshevik writers) rehash the Bolshevik scenario for propaganda purposes, they simplify it, which is good in one sense. For my purpose it is historically more important what the ‘second-tier’ Bolsheviks were saying than what Lenin himself was saying, as he may have been on his own on certain things. What these lower-level people were saying was what Bolshevism actually was on the ground.
Essentially, the Bolshevik scenario for what the next revolution was going to look like was a bigger and better version of the 1905 revolution. The narod – the people, the workers and the peasants (because it includes the peasants it cannot be assumed to be a socialist term), led by the socialist proletariat and its party, Russian Social Democracy, would establish a provisional revolutionary government, thwart the various liberal attempts to put brakes on the revolution, and carry out a vast democratic transformation of Russia. I am trying to avoid some of the catchphrases we use on the left – ‘democratic dictatorship’ and so on, and just look at what is really happening objectively. The essence of it is a worker-peasant vlast’ – ‘power’ or ‘sovereignty’ – that is going to carry through the revolution to the end. It will carry out the so-called minimum programme – which is in fact the maximum that can be achieved under capitalism, and is extremely vast and ambitious.
I said provisional revolutionary government, because at the end of this process there is to be a constituent assembly. With the winning of the constituent assembly at the end of this revolutionary transformation, the Bolsheviks – that is, the party of the socialist proletariat – no longer feels it can be in power and it retires for the time being. So its rule is provisional, and that represents a real difference in comparison to 1917.
Secondly, this scenario did envision a period of bourgeois class rule after this revolution, but it is very important not to add what is often said when this point is being made. There is nothing in the Bolshevik scenario about a long period, nothing about a stable period of bourgeois rule. Actually, the Bolsheviks did not expect this period to be very peaceful. In fact they thought it would be very unpeaceful, and not be very long – everyone thought the world was in a period of war and revolution, after all. They expected this period to be short, with socialist revolutions breaking out in western Europe. They hoped the successful democratic revolution in Russia would spark this off, and it would rebound back into Russia and change the situation. That was common currency, not just Trotsky.
Why were limits set? Why did the Bolsheviks say they could not go all the way to socialism? I think the essential reason for that is what I call the ‘axiom of the class ally’: you can only go as far as the interests of your class ally will allow. And who is the class ally in this case? It is the peasants, of course, and peasants, which account for the majority of the country, are in this scenario deemed not to be ready for socialism.
I should say here that Trotsky, in his own scenario of 1905-06, certainly did not deny this axiom of the class ally – the empirical fact (as they thought it was) that the peasants would not go to socialism. However, he thought that for various reasons the workers’ government could keep moving ahead to socialism, even though the peasants were not on board, even though the majority of the country was against them, and so the two class forces would end up in a civil war at some point. But the Bolsheviks and everyone else said, ‘Well, if the peasants are against us, then we’ve got to wait until we can win over the majority.’ That is the old scenario that leads up to 1917.
To make the story plausible here, we have to look at what the old Bolsheviks were doing in Petrograd before Lenin showed up. This is a much misunderstood, understudied episode, and we are all paying too much attention to very partisan historians, including both Soviet historians and others, who are focusing on little snippets and ignoring the big picture. I think from the get-go the Bolsheviks in Petrograd assumed that the embryo of a new vlast’ would carry the revolution through to the end. They assumed that there were the soviets on one side, the provisional government, representing the bourgeois, reformist, liberal elite, on the other, and the soviets would eventually take over.
But if we look at the old-Bolshevik scenario, then what would we predict? That they would thwart any attempt by liberal bourgeois forces to put brakes on the revolution, and would put in a worker-peasant power to carry the revolution through. That is what we would predict, and that is what happened.
Now, let me try and clear up some misunderstandings. First, in April 1917 the Bolshevik leaders said that the immediate overthrow of the provisional government was not possible – we don’t have enough force, we don’t have a basis in the soviets – and so to go out and call for its overthrow now is silly and adventurist. No doubt they were correct, and Lenin did not disagree with them when he showed up.
Secondly, it is not correct that this caution represented a long-distance perspective; that the Bolsheviks had the idea of a soviet vlast’, but they did not have Lenin’s urgency. No, I do not think this is a real contrast. The Bolsheviks were fairly confident that the provisional government would not be able to handle the problems that were arising from the revolution, the war, the economy and the carrying out of land reforms, and that it would rapidly wear out its welcome and would be tossed out. So the replacement of the provisional government was an active, near-future perspective.
Thirdly, I think from the beginning the Bolsheviks were fairly anti-soglashenie. Soglashenie is sometimes translated as ‘compromise’, and was used to describe the strategy of the ‘moderate socialists’, the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. Their gut reaction was not to use the soviets as the embryo of a new vlast’, but to make some sort of compromise or class-collaboration, because the country needed some sort of agreement between reformist forces, both liberal and socialist. They could make a good case for this, and I do not think we should dismiss them, but I believe the Bolshevik leaders were always against it.
Finally, I would like to draw attention to a very common and important misunderstanding. One of the debates focused on the question, ‘Is the democratic revolution over yet?’ The Bolshevik leaders claimed, sometimes in opposition to Lenin, that the democratic revolution was not over. The misunderstanding arises when this is equated with saying that we are not yet at the stage of socialist revolution and therefore we must tolerate, not throw out, the provisional government. Trotsky was one of the first to make this supposedly logical implication in 1924. But, no: if you actually understand the overall scenario as I have outlined it, to say that the democratic revolution has not been carried out to the end means therefore we have to overthrow the provisional government as soon as possible, so that we – the only ones capable of carrying out the democratic revolution to the end – are in power.
I cannot resist saying that I have just been looking at Tony Cliff’s book, Lenin, and noticed that he quoted a certain Bagdatev, a “left extremist secretary of the Bolshevik committee of the Putilov works”. Bagdatev says that the democratic revolution is not over, and also that the provisional government should be overthrown as quickly as possible, and Tony Cliff’s first reaction is: “What muddled thinking!”1 So, yes, it is muddled thinking, but not on the part of Bagdatev. Anyway, I do not want to pick on Tony Cliff, because it is a very common misunderstanding.
Again, I would love to get down into who said what and when, but I think we need to look at the big picture instead. First of all, we should consider the situation when Lenin arrives in Russia. Here was Lenin, back from exile after 10 years and very likely to be out of touch on this or that question. There would have been issues he was not aware of, even though he would have quickly picked things up, while those who greeted him probably would have known the intricacies of the situation in much more detail. So I think we should assume that what resulted was largely a mutually respectful interaction.
We should bear in mind the possibility that these people had something significant to say to Lenin. I shall give a straightforward example of this. Stalin, who was a fairly high-up Bolshevik at this time – one of the top ten leaders at least – is recorded as saying in a meeting with Lenin and others that the April theses were too schematic and that they overlooked the question of small nations. Often, that is used as evidence that Stalin did not know what was going on, but the fact is that the April theses did not mention the national question. Why is that? Because Lenin forgot to include it. He wrote the document on a train and he simply forgot to put in anything on the national question. And I am sure that when Stalin brought it up Lenin would have said he was right and that he should write up a report about it, which is what happened. And that provoked a genuine debate, more so than on some other questions, at the party conference in April, where Lenin sided with Stalin.
There are three categories of things going on in the disputes between Lenin and the so-called old Bolsheviks. One is that there were genuine misunderstandings – between Lenin and Kamenev, for example. In the debates in April, both of them say they have cleared up some misunderstandings – hardly surprising when people had not met for so long. Otherwise it is very difficult to explain why Kamenev, who was one of those saying Lenin was wrong, was in the core of five or six people at the top of the party.
Secondly, there are issues on which Lenin was wrong, and we tend to forget some of these for obvious reasons, when we look at the overall situation. Lenin wanted to focus on agricultural wage workers, and he thought the party should be sceptical about the regular peasants and focus most of its attention on these wage workers when it came to soviets in the villages. He thought the Bolsheviks should push for communal farming and these people should run it. Everyone else thought this was crazy, and there was something wrong with Lenin for suggesting it. And in this case the local people were right: this was not a viable policy in the short and medium run, and it eventually disappeared.
Thirdly, we get to the more constructive part. What was actually new in what Lenin brought for consideration? There were two new perspectives, which were adopted by the Bolsheviks. First, ‘steps toward socialism’. This was a metaphor Lenin used a lot, but it is not in the one-and-a-half-page canonical April theses, unfortunately. However, ‘steps toward socialism’ were at the heart of everything else he said during that month, and through the year really. He would say, ‘We want steps toward socialism’. In other words, we don’t want to introduce socialism, and anyone that said they did was wrong. I am still not quite sure what he meant by ‘introduce socialism’, and why it was so wrong, but he said it many, many times.
But we have to understand this metaphor as the key to understanding Lenin’s Bolshevism. What they thought was that they would set up a government based on worker-peasant power, and they would be on the path to socialism. They would be taking steps along that path – sometimes they might be forced into a detour, but what was essential is that they would be on the path. What that means is that class power was ‘digital’: it is either-or; but the question of socialist transformation is ‘analogue’: it is more or less. So we have gradual, more or less, measures of socialist transformation, while on the issue of class power it is all or nothing: either there is proletarian power or bourgeois power, according to the Bolsheviks’ way of viewing things.
So in 1917, to go back to ‘steps toward socialism’, Lenin had a fairly specific rationale for this. The place to see this is in an important pamphlet he wrote in September called The Threatening Catastrophe And How to Deal With It, which for some reason is not given enough attention.
The argument is this: there are policies that are needed to respond to the crisis, which have been drawn up not by the Bolsheviks, who are not economic experts, but rather experts in class politics, but by, for example, people in Germany, or by the old tsarist regime, or by the moderate socialists in Russia. Everyone knows what needs to be done, but it is not being done because the bourgeoisie is in power. Lenin stresses again and again that only – and he means it – only the question of class power is preventing this from happening. Therefore, even though these policies are not socialist, in order to get them done we will need to have worker-peasant vlast’. And, if worker-peasant power brings in policies such as regulation of the banks and so on, then they will be steps toward socialism because they are carried out by a popular democratic narodnaya vlast’ (people’s power).
It is an interesting argument and to a certain extent you can sum it up like this: ‘There are things that those now in power should be doing which they are not, but when we do them they will be steps toward socialism’. So it is not a question of a socialist revolution – Lenin is not saying he is going to do anything different or claiming that specifically socialist policies that no-one else wants are the way out of the crisis. The policies that everyone wants are the way out – but only a worker-peasant government will actually put the policies into effect.
The second thing which was new in Lenin’s mind was to see soviet power not just as a vehicle for class power. That is to say, in the old Bolshevik scenario, there is worker-peasant power and soviets are seen as the best way of achieving it, but they are not the essential thing: they are just the form that class power will take. What Lenin added to this was to say – and we know this from all the reading he was doing of Marx and Engels, and on the Paris Commune – that the soviets were a higher form of democracy than the old parliamentary system, an argument that we are all familiar with.
The point is that there are two different kinds of reasons for wanting soviet power: one is that the soviet form itself – direct election, instant recall – is a good way for the proletarian dictatorship to work; and the other is just another name or alias for worker-peasant power. These are interesting and important ideas, but we are mistaken if we say that they are in any way necessary for the Bolsheviks to do what they did in 1917.
What was the actual message being broadcast to the workers by Bolshevik Party? It is easy to pick up The State and Revolution, but what was a local Bolshevik agitator actually saying when he got down to talking to workers?
I have looked at what Lenin was saying, as well as the arguments in pamphlets written by others. I am basing what I am saying here on such documents. The message was something like this: ‘The country is going to go to hell in a hand basket unless you get rid of these guys. The reason they can’t get us out of the mess is because they’re bourgeois, they’re the elite, they’re the landowners. So get rid of them and put in a worker-peasant vlast’ that is going to take the measures everyone knows is necessary.’
That was the message – protect the revolution, respond to the national crisis, carry out the basic programme of the revolution. If you want all of those things, then get rid of the current regime and introduce soviet power, which represents workers and peasants. One leaflet put it well, saying something like, ‘You can’t expect a government of bankers to carry out bank nationalisation. You can’t expect a government of landowners to carry out land reform. You can’t expect a government of generals to carry out peace negotiations.’ Good points – and that was the central message.
This could be summed up as Vsya vlast’ sovyetam (‘All power to the soviets’), but I actually found more often – and I think this is the more underlying message – Vsya vlast’ narodu (‘All power to the people’), and this slogan actually meant something back then. But something I found to be surprising was that in the months leading up to the revolution, socialism was downplayed. ‘Socialist revolution’ was hardly mentioned, which is quite astounding really. There was an article, for example, by Lenin entitled ‘Paths to the revolution’, published in late September or October, and it does not mention socialism or socialist revolution, although it does include all sorts of things like bank reform and peace negotiations. But after October the rhetoric shifted very drastically, and ‘steps toward socialism’ was very prominent.
So why did they downplay socialism before? I am sure it was a conscious decision, made to try and convince people to carry out the revolution. Because they were close to the people, if they thought socialist revolution would appeal to them, then they would have called for it. They must have known that it would not appeal.
Who actually carried out the revolution? Well, the workers of Petrograd. The Bolshevik message that was being relayed to them is the best clue as to what they thought they were doing. They thought they were putting in worker-peasant power to defend the revolution, and to respond to a national crisis that was spiralling out of control. Why do we not think of things in the same way?
To summarise, then, after October the Bolsheviks set up popular, worker-peasant power, and they adopted the phrase, ‘gradual but firm and undeviating steps toward socialism’. The first time I came across that was in Bukharin, but from more recent research I think that Lenin was the first to use that exact phrase. The new regime had the will for socialism, but did not promise any particular, concrete step toward it, because that depended on circumstances. Throughout the civil war especially there were only infrequent opportunities for actual socialist measures.
Secondly, it was considered essential to keep the peasants on board, because socialism had to have their support. This was part of the regime’s outlook from the beginning, and this is why I think it is a bit misleading to say that the Bolsheviks adopted Trotsky’s perspective, because he did not have this perspective back in 1905-06. But Lenin thought there were going to be rapid steps to a communal form of agriculture very quickly – right away even – because of the crisis. That was one of his pet ideas.
In my short biography, Lenin, I set out his progressive disillusionment with both communes and state farms. They were pretty pathetic during the civil war, and Lenin was perfectly aware of this and he got more and more exasperated. Not with the peasants – he did not think it was their fault – but with the people sent to run them. One thing he emphasized was that there was to be absolutely no use of force whatsoever. At the height of the civil war he says any use of force to make peasants adopt any form of collective farming would be a most un-Bolshevik thing.
So, when it looked like the peasants were not going towards communal forms of agriculture, what was the answer? The Bolsheviks decided they would have to wait and try to convince the peasants through other means. Rather different from Stalin in 1931, who may have started by having a great campaign for collectivisation to convince everybody, but as soon as the peasants stopped being convinced he just kept on going. During the civil war, there were peasant uprisings in response to harsh policies that extracted resources such as grain from the villages. Under Lenin there was misunderstanding and violence. However, this was in Bolshevik eyes – and I think correctly so – seen as an inevitable cost of carrying out policies which were in the peasants’ direct interest. Namely, defending the revolution against counterrevolutionary landowners, keeping the economy going and getting in a new governmental system that would work.
Finally, the civil war was won, because ultimately, after swinging back and forth, the peasants supported the reds more than the whites. And you have to remember that the Red Army was a peasant army. If in 1910 someone had said that this urban radical party was going to create a great peasant army staffed by tsarist officers that would win a civil war, it would have sounded like the craziest thing ever. It is amazing that this actually happened and we need to bear that in mind. And the Bolsheviks learned this lesson. The traditional historiography really gets things wrong when it claims that the Bolsheviks ruthlessly imposed their policies on the peasants, where in reality it was seen as very important to keep them on board – with the peasants you could win, without them, you were doomed.
In fact, the original Bolshevik scenario of a proletarian revolution with peasant support – or, to put another way, a worker-peasant revolution in which the workers are giving political leadership to the peasants – does account for both the actual occurrence of the October revolution and its successful defense against counterrevolution.
Lars T. Lih is the author of numerous books and articles on Lenin and the Russian Revolution, including Lenin Rediscovered and Lenin (biography, Critical Lives series, Reaktion Books).
* In this article, Lars T. Lih surprisingly makes no reference to the substantive account of April 1917 that is contained in Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1930). (A similar but briefer description is contained in Trotsky’s The Lessons of October (1924)). Trotsky does not argue that Lenin arrived in Russia with a new perspective and outlook for the course of the Russian Revolution, as Lih obliquely suggests. Rather, he argued that contemporary Bolshevik leaders had set aside an application of the prevailing party program and strategy (obviously, to include its expansion and enrichment by the unique features issuing from the February Revolution). Trotsky begins Chapter 15 of the book (‘The Bolsheviks and Lenin’) with, “For Bolshevism, the first months of the revolution had been a period of bewilderment and vacillation.”
Lih’s misrepresentation in this present article of Lenin ‘rearming the party’ (the title of Chapter 16 of Trotsky’s work) in April 1917 does not detract from an otherwise informative and stimulating article. But it is a curious distraction.–RA