Lenin’s April Theses and the Russian Revolution

Issue: 154

Kevin Corr

I shall never forget that thunder-like speech, which startled and amazed not only me, a heretic who had accidently dropped in, but all the true believers. I am certain that no one had expected anything of the sort. It seemed as though all the elements had risen from their abodes, and the spirit of universal destruction, knowing neither barriers nor doubts, neither human difficulties nor human ­calculations, was hovering above the heads of the bewitched disciples.

Nikolai Sukhanov, 1984.1

On the night of 3 April 1917 Lenin arrived from exile at the Finland Station in Petrograd.2 His arrival occurred in the wake of the February Revolution some six weeks earlier when the working class had mobilised and overthrown Tsar Nicholas but which in the meantime had seen the power vacuum being filled by the setting up of a provisional government. The government was dominated by the right wing Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) party. At the same time the soviets, last glimpsed in 1905, were also starting to reappear.3 It was at this point that Lenin first gave an outline of what were to be called the April Theses.4 Broadly, the theses can be summarised as follows: Only the overthrow of the provisional government and the fight for soviet power could secure a state of affairs that would bring bread to the workers, land to the peasants and peace to end the imperialist war. Once achieved, soviet power would be used to abolish the existing police, army and bureaucracy, nationalise the banks and land and cement workers’ power at the point of production.

The role of the soviets and the matter of the provisional government were to be the two key features of the April Theses. The demand for power to the soviets crystallised the issue of state power and was to be the bedrock upon which all other demands depended. Certainly until Lenin’s arrival no Bolshevik leaders called for “all power to the soviets”, and in doing so he discarded his own previously held “old Bolshevik” ideas on the state. These can be traced back to at least 12 years earlier.

During the 1905 Revolution the Bolshevik leaders in Russia, Alexander Bogdanov and Pyotr Krasikov, were somewhat sceptical about how to respond to the appearance of the St Petersburg soviet. If anything they viewed the soviet with a degree of condescension seeing its spontaneity as a sign that it was politically threadbare and ultimately doomed to come under the influence of bourgeois parties. To avoid this outcome they argued that the soviet should accept the programme and leadership of the Bolsheviks and dissolve itself into the party.

The exiled Lenin voiced criticisms of this approach. But he acknowledged that his criticisms would come as a surprise to the St Petersburg Bolsheviks;5 he appeared to be going back on what he had himself written in his seminal 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? where he had warned against kow-towing to spontaneity.6 With the actual living unfolding of the 1905 Revolution Lenin put much greater emphasis on the soviet as the embryo of a provisional government. It was assumed that the soviet would take political responsibility for setting up such a government. It would centralise and coordinate the workers’ movement as a whole in a revolutionary setting and act as a contributory channel towards the future insurrection that would undoubtedly be required in the struggle to overthrow Tsarism. No social democrat (as revolutionary Marxists then called themselves) at that time, Lenin included, endowed the soviet in 1905 with a separate independent historical capability. Rather they viewed it as a transient phenomenon, rising and falling as a consequence of the changing balance of forces within the course of the wider struggle against Tsarism. At one point Lenin made reference to the contrast between the events of 1905 and “the now outdated conditions in What is To Be Done?7

Whatever the differences in 1905 between Lenin and the St Petersburg Bolshevik leadership over the precise nature of the soviets, all agreed that the main goal was the establishment of a revolutionary provisional government which would act as the main force to dethrone the Tsar and usher in a society more akin to those in Western Europe and North America.

The original Bolshevik stance on the issue of the provisional government had been thrashed out at their London conference in 1905. Here delegates agreed to participate in any prospective provisional government. At that time the expectation of victory over the autocracy was approaching its zenith and the Bolsheviks sought to imprint a proletarian stamp on the ongoing bourgeois democratic revolution. In leading a popular uprising from below they would receive enormous political prestige and would then be able to use the strength and influence of their social base to push the revolution to the left as far as possible within the confines of capitalist property relations. By operating within the provisional government Bolsheviks would effectively be able to play a leadership role from above in addition to that which they were playing from below. Unfortunately, as always, reality bites. This perspective was never put to the test—no provisional government ever came into being during the 1905 Revolution. The brief 50-day St Petersburg soviet was forcibly dispersed by the Tsar in November 1905 although the legacy of its achievements was not to be completely buried. In 1905 the re-emergence of soviets in the context of dual power (soviets vs provisional government) 12 years later could not have been foreseen.

Much of the impetus for Lenin’s April Theses was provided by the combination of the historical memory of the 1905 Revolution plus the new understanding that can be seen in his Blue Notebook written in January-February 1917. In these notes, sometimes referred to as Marxism on the State, Lenin shows that prior to the February Revolution he was not waiting for a second version of the soviets to arise before correctly evaluating their significance.8 It was with these ideas already fermenting in his mind that Lenin stepped off the train at the Finland Station to deliver the April Theses.

The traditional view of the Marxist “activist” left, especially those in the Trotskyist tradition, has been that the Theses marked a sharp break with prevailing Bolshevik orthodoxy—what was to become known as “old Bolshevism”—and amounted to a political rearming of the Bolshevik Party that would make the October Revolution possible. The general historical narrative has been one where the Bolsheviks were at first somewhat shocked and taken aback by what they regarded as Lenin’s starry-eyed proposals and put it down to him being out of touch with the prevailing reality on the ground. Nevertheless, over the next two months or so, he was able to overcome their initial opposition and pull the bulk of the party membership behind his new vision. Basically, no April Theses, no October. Indeed, most mainstream historians, studying memoir literature or contemporary records, have concurred, viewing the April Theses and the April debates in Bolshevik Party circles that followed them, for good or ill, as Lenin’s triumph.

However, the renowned Canadian Marxist scholar Lars Lih has argued the opposite view. Lih insists that it was Lenin’s opponents within the Bolshevik Party—the “old Bolsheviks”—who ultimately triumphed. Lih sets out his case in his 2011 piece “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism”9 in which he argues that the Bolsheviks eventually took power in October by ignoring, or at most paying lip-service to, the April Theses while in practice just carrying on with their traditional agitation and political activities. Moreover Lih contends that Lenin himself actually back-pedalled from his original April position. He identifies, quite rightly, that the central issue in the April debates was the political status of “old Bolshevism”; the set of ideas at the core of a political organisation that had survived years of struggle dating back to the start of the century. Lih writes: “According to Lenin, old Bolshevism was outmoded whereas other Bolsheviks such as Lev Kamenev and Mikhail Kalinin defended its relevance. The central tenet of pre-war old Bolshevism was ‘democratic revolution to the end’.” Lih’s contention is that: “Far from being rendered irrelevant by the overthrow of the Tsar; old Bolshevism mandated a political course aimed at the overthrow of the ‘bourgeois’ provisional government” with the intention of carrying out a thoroughgoing democratic revolution.10 As will be shown, the use of the term “democratic” in this historical context camouflages more than it reveals. According to Lih, Lenin’s intervention was at best unnecessary and at worst misguided. For all practical purposes it did not have much impact on the subsequent developments that led to October. Indeed the April Theses were not, as has been generally understood, a radical departure from pre-1917 Bolshevik policy but simply a further expression of it. Lih states: “The actual Bolshevik message of 1917 (as documented by pamphlets issued by the Moscow Bolsheviks) was closer in most respects to the outlook of Lenin’s opponents”.11

It is important to engage with Lih’s arguments, not least because he is the historian whose landmark contribution, Lenin Rediscovered: “What is To Be Done?” in Context, so comprehensively took apart the Cold War textbook interpretation of Lenin’s famous 1902 polemic. Lih confirmed what Leon Trotsky had already attested, namely that What Is To Be Done? was not, as the Stalinists and the Cold War right postulated, the founding document of a uniquely Leninist party but was instead a restatement of Russian Social Democratic orthodoxy, a position that was widely accepted as commonplace in the Second International before the First World War.12 However, as documented elsewhere, Lih has subsequently extended his specific study of What Is To Be Done? to contend that no epistemological break ever occurred between Karl Kautsky’s Second International worldview and that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.13 Lih paints a picture of unchanging political progression in Bolshevik history right up to and including the October Revolution. It is in this context that he dismisses the April Theses as a mere transient dispute largely based on mutual misunderstandings. His continuity narrative insists that the Bolsheviks were already amply equipped both theoretically and strategically to take full advantage of the opportunities that opened up to them after the February Revolution.

Lih sees the objective of overthrowing of the provisional government as already “the dominant mandate of old Bolshevism”14 in 1917 and therefore not an issue that Lenin particularly needed to give such prominence to in the April Theses. However, Kamenev and Stalin, the two major Bolshevik leaders still in Russia prior to Lenin’s arrival (in point of fact Lih refers to them as “the two pillars of old Bolshevism”), had made no meaningful move whatsoever to put this supposed old Bolshevik policy into practice by the end of March 1917. The matter that took up most of their attention was how to relate to the provisional government, not how to destroy it. Lih seems simply not to acknowledge this historical fact. John Marot strongly criticises Lih here for in effect lumping together the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and suggesting that they are interchangeable. He writes: “Lih falsely projects the Bolsheviks’ 1917 question onto the 1905 Revolution and in the years running up to 1917, where it makes no sense, because no provisional government ever emerged in that period”.15

In 1905 there was no situation of dual power between the soviets and provisional government; the only alternative form of government to the fledgling soviets was the Tsarist autocracy. As already noted, it is true that the Bolsheviks at this time came to believe that the soviet had the potential to become the provisional government but they anticipated that the circumstances in which this would occur would be by a revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism led either by the liberals (as forecast by the Mensheviks) or by workers (as projected by the Bolsheviks). In either case what old Bolshevism advocated, should any provisional government arise, was to join it and decisively use their bedrock of support among the revolutionary working class to prevent any attempt by the liberals to halt, slow down or side-track the carrying out of the bourgeois revolution “to the end”. It is precisely because old Bolshevism expected that in a revolutionary upheaval they, as a faction within the RSDLP,16 would be participating in and even running a provisional government that Lih’s statement about old Bolshevism in 1917 having a mandate to overthrow the provisional government lacks credibility. Indeed, Barbara Allen has very recently translated several leaflets endorsed by the Bolshevik Petrograd committee in the weeks before the final collapse of Tsarism, all of which include the slogan “Long Live the Provisional Revolutionary Government!” A separate proclamation put out by the Petrograd Bolsheviks alone in February 1917 carried the headline: “For a Provisional Revolutionary Government of Workers and Poor Peasants”.17

Ignoring the key differences between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions undermines Lih’s argument concerning the rationale of old Bolshevism as it operated in the early months of 1917. In 1905 Tsarism remained in control to the very end; in 1917 its overthrow was the opening act of the revolution. In 1905 the soviets appeared as the last act of the revolution; in 1917 they appeared as the first act and never left. In 1905 the monarchy was the only locus of power; in 1917 the monarchy had been swept out of the picture. Dual power embodied in the soviet and the provisional government arose.

Before 1917 all Russian Social Democrats including the Bolsheviks had hypothesised a provisional government born of popular struggle, but the actual government that emerged in February 1917 had emanated from a Tammany Hall-style backroom deal by a cabal of bourgeois politicians in the Duma (the Tsarist parliament). They opportunistically stepped into the power vacuum following the working class uprising and disintegration of the army in St Petersburg on 27 February, the day that saw the destruction of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. Because of the stark reality of a provisional government now led by the janus-faced imperialist-minded Kadets, it was Lenin’s and increasingly the Bolsheviks’ view that the provisional government of 1917 was ultimately going to be hostile to advancing the well-being of the Russian workers and peasants. To deal with the unalloyed facts of this situation, Lenin discarded the old Bolshevik recipe of joining the provisional government, putting the liberals in their place from the inside and then carrying out the bourgeois democratic revolution “to the end”. However, neither did he advocate simply being an opposition pressure group pushing the provisional government to the left to achieve this long-standing goal. This was the de facto position of Kamenev and Stalin.

The fight for soviet power

Lenin proposed a complete rupture with all this; the new Bolshevik aim was to be “All power to the soviets”—all future discussion was to be centred around socialist revolution as the practical living alternative to the bourgeois revolution and the provisional government. The previous, more loosely defined, “above and below” perspective of struggle no longer fitted with reality. Now only struggle from below mattered, the culmination of which would be soviet power. Without the appearance of the soviet, without the fact of dual power, there would have been no other viable option but to accept the provisional government and the self-imposed limitations of the bourgeois democratic revolution that had bought it into existence. Certainly the very idea of going beyond the bourgeois democratic revolution and destroying the provisional government would have been inconceivable.

Lih goes on to profess that in the April Theses Lenin “now argued for the soviets as a specific political form, as a higher type of government, one that was fated to replace parliamentary democracy as the only adequate form of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’”.18 But this is not correct. Lenin did not argue that the soviet was a higher type of government merely because it was superior to parliamentary democracy. What he was arguing was something much more profound, namely that it was a completely different type of state, one fated by means of working class self-agency to replace the capitalist state in all its administrative forms, not just its parliamentary democratic form.

On 24 April 1917 at the seventh All-Russia Conference of the Bolsheviks, Lenin was to spell out this point more forcefully:

The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which cover the whole of Russia with their network, now stand at the centre of the revolution… Should they take over the power, it will no longer be a state in the ordinary sense of the word. The world has seen no state power such as this functioning for any considerable length of time, but the whole world’s organised working classes have been approaching it. This would be a state of the Paris Commune type.19

The fact of decisive importance that Lenin is making here is that no capitalist country could tolerate the existence of such a state institution as the soviets and no socialist revolution could operate with any other state institution than this. Lenin is now clearly exhibiting a strong difference of emphasis with Lih’s assertion, noted earlier, that the central tenet of pre-war old Bolshevism was “Democratic revolution to the end”, a slogan, as he puts it, “that implied a vast social transformation of Russia under the aegis of a revolutionary government based on the narod [proletariat and peasantry]”.20 Marot is correct to home in on this rather evasive phraseology. He writes of Lih’s “vast social transformation” that it “has a name. Social Democrats called it the ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’. The vast political transformation accompanying the social revolution also has a name: it is the establishment of a bourgeois-democratic state, based on universal suffrage”.21 Prior to the April Theses this was something all Russian Social Democrats, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, agreed upon; the only disagreement was over which social class was going to achieve it. The Mensheviks held to the view that the Russian Revolution would be a bourgeois revolution led by the bourgeoisie while the Bolsheviks believed that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and supine to lead a revolution against the Tsar and therefore that the workers would be forced to take the leadership role and bring about the bourgeois revolution. Only the outlier Trotsky pointed out the Achilles heel in this old Bolshevik perspective, namely, that once the working class had achieved political domination they would no longer meekly put up with their continued economic enslavement. His theory of permanent revolution, first stated in 1906, starkly posed the question: Why should the proletariat, once in power and controlling the means of coercion, continue to tolerate capitalist exploitation? In other words the very logic of its position would oblige it to take collectivist and socialist measures: “It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie”.22

Marot meticulously shows how Lih gives a flawed interpretation of the old Bolshevik scenario. The latter was predicated not on two stages but only one, namely the overthrow of Tsarism and its replacement by a provisional government heavily dominated by the RSDLP. In 1905 this perspective was never put to the test because no provisional government ever materialised. However, for those holding to the continuity of the old Bolshevik scenario, Lenin does, somewhat inconveniently, present the concept of two stages of revolution. On 7 March 1917 in his “First Letter From Afar” he writes: “The proletariat, utilising the peculiarities of the present situation, can and will proceed, first, to the achievement of a democratic republic…and then to socialism, which alone can give the war-weary people peace, bread and freedom”.23 A month later in the April Theses Lenin reiterated this perspective: “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which…placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”.24 Nevertheless, for Lih, although it may appear that Lenin is calling for a second socialist stage to the Russian Revolution he doesn’t really mean it. With a certain level of chutzpah Lih contends that by taking these statements at face value we might be tempted to read them as follows: first stage = democratic revolution, second stage = socialist revolution. How does Lih get around the very possibility of reading Lenin’s words precisely in this fashion? He simply rewrites them by framing them, as he puts it, in “a firm grounding in the old Bolshevik scenario”. Lenin’s words should now be read as follows:

First stage = the immediate post-tsarist government of revolutionary chauvinists who will try to limit revolutionary transformation as much as possible.

Second stage = a narodnaia vlast [people’s uprising] that will put the party of the proletariat in power and carry out the democratic revolution to the end.25

The first thing to notice is that in Lih’s new interpretation the word socialism, with which Lenin specifically concludes his “First Letter from Afar” and which he identifies as the political vision underpinning the whole necessity for a second stage of the revolution, now disappears. But more immediately, by insisting on two stages Lenin is decisively breaking with the old Bolshevik scenario. It is because Lih does not accept this that Lenin’s actual words have to be rewritten and then represented as two halves of the same old Bolshevik bourgeois democratic whole. To repeat once more, under the old Bolshevik scenario there was never any mandate to overthrow the provisional government, nor could there have been. The goal of old Bolshevism (and indeed Menshevism) was to overthrow Tsarism, not a provisional government, “whether it was soviet-based or not or whether it was revolutionary or not”.26 Until Lenin’s arrival the question of a second stage, of consciously focusing on preparing for a socialist revolution, was never seriously engaged with. The April Theses helped to break this log-jam because it recognised very quickly that the actual provisional government of February 1917 was made up of reactionary chauvinists, not even the lesser evil of “revolutionary chauvinists”, and therefore was utterly different to the one anticipated by old Bolshevism.

It is important to make clear that when Lenin was advocating moving as speedily as possible to the second stage of the revolution this should not be confused with the Menshevik and subsequent Stalinist two stages theory. The latter held to a rigid and predetermined view which continued, throughout the 20th century, to see the bourgeois democratic revolution as a distinctly separate historical epoch. According to the two stages theory, therefore, the working class and consequently socialism must always wait. This vulgar evolutionism was to have devastating repercussions ranging from the Chinese Revolution 1925-1927, Spain 1936 even later on to Indonesia 1965 or Chile 1973. In all likelihood, had the Bolsheviks not led a successful socialist revolution in October 1917 a similar right wing military dictatorship and bloodbath would have ensued.

Of course it is true that after the February 1917 Revolution society had progressed compared to the Tsarist state. Indeed Lenin referred to Russia as “now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world” in terms of formally recognised legal rights and the absence of violence towards the masses.27 But, prior to Lenin’s arrival back in Russia, one thing both old Bolshevism and Menshevism agreed upon was that “carrying out the democratic revolution to the end” was understood to mean bourgeois-democratic rather than socialist revolution. Notwithstanding the April Theses Lih primarily endorses the view that the October Revolution was not a socialist revolution at all—but the completion of the project of pushing the bourgeois democratic revolution to its furthermost limit. Once this point is conceded the rest of the old Bolshevik scenario must also logically follow. Thus a constituent assembly would be set up which would in turn found a republic. The provisional government, having done its job, would dissolve itself and the RSDLP, following the example of Kautsky’s Social Democratic Party in Germany, would take its place as a social-democratic “revolutionary” opposition to capitalism in what would be a capitalist state. At this point Lenin might as well have thrown his copy of The State and Revolution out of the window of an unsealed train going back to Switzerland. Alongside it, he could at the same time have discarded the following passage from his “Third Letter from Afar” written just immediately prior to his arrival in Russia:

We need a state. But not the kind of state the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics. And in this we differ from the opportunists and Kautskyites of the old, and decaying, socialist parties, who have distorted, or have forgotten, the lessons of the Paris Commune and the analysis of these lessons made by Marx and Engels.

We need a state but not the kind the bourgeoisie needs, with organs of government in the shape of a police force, an army and a bureaucracy (officialdom) separate from and opposed to the people. All bourgeois revolutions merely perfected this state machine, merely transferred it from the hands of one party to those of another.28

Apart from the fact that Lih does not give any consideration to this passage, what he does say is that “a soviet republic was the most advanced form of democratic republic”.29 But as we can see this is not Lenin’s position. He plainly says even “the most democratic republic” is still a bourgeois state and thus systematically a state based on class exploitation and capitalist relations of production.

Just using the term “democratic revolution” as Lih does can to a large extent be equivocal and leave the political regime empty of social content. As early as 1884 Engels had seen through this delusion when he wrote about the role of “pure democracy”:

When the moment of revolution comes, of its acquiring a temporary importance as the most radical bourgeois party…and as the final sheet-anchor of the whole bourgeois and even feudal regime…the whole reactionary mass falls in behind it and strengthens it; everything which used to be reactionary behaves as democratic.

In any case, our sole adversary on the day of the crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole collective reaction which will group itself around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.30

Lenin echoed Engels’s warning when he said that “to be revolutionaries, even democrats, with Nicholas [the Tsar] removed, is no great merit. Revolutionary democracy is no good at all; it is a mere phrase. It covers up rather than lays bare the antagonisms of class interests”.31 Clearly, the new editors of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, were unaware of this. Kamenev’s co-editor Stalin wrote on 29 March: “Insofar as the provisional government fortifies the steps of the revolution to that extent we must support it; but insofar as it is counter-revolutionary, support to the provisional government is not permissible”.32

This completely ignores the fact that the most powerful agent of counter-revolution at that point in time was this very same provisional government. This was the reason Lenin called for its overthrow, not just militant opposition to it. This level of political confusion, simply speaking of a division of labour between the provisional government and the soviets, not only overlooked class antagonisms but had already had a disorientating effect on the Bolsheviks. At a session of the whole of the Petrograd Soviet on 2 March only 15 out of the 40 Bolshevik delegates present voted against the transfer of power to the provisional government.33 Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Lih’s claim that old Bolshevism was politically geared to the overthrow of the provisional government.

In December 1915 Lenin had already noted the hypocrisy of hiding behind the phrase “democratic revolution”. Julius Martov had made a statement proclaiming: “It is self-evident that if the present crisis should lead to the victory of a democratic revolution, to a republic, then the character of the war would radically change.” Lenin pulled no punches in his withering attack on what amounted to a precursor of revolutionary defencism:

All this is a shameless lie. Martov could not but have known that a democratic revolution and a republic means a bourgeois-democratic republic. The character of this war between the bourgeois and imperialist great powers would not change a jot were the military-autocratic and feudal imperialism to be swept away in one of these countries. That is because in such conditions, a purely bourgeois imperialism would not vanish, but would only gain strength.34

Lenin returned to reinforce the same point after the February Revolution when he wrote: “The slightest concession to revolutionary defencism is a betrayal of socialism, a complete renunciation of internationalism, no matter by what fine phrases and ‘practical’ considerations it may be justified”.35 By this time, as will be shown below, he could just as well have had Kamenev in his sights as much as Martov. What Lenin was attacking here was the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary Party assertion that, with the Tsarist autocracy toppled, it was now justifiable to argue to carry on fighting the war under the banner of defending the gains of the revolution—hence revolutionary defencism. All of this, of course, was subterfuge. The new provisional government was perfectly happy to endorse the concept of revolutionary defencism because it helped to provide it cover while it continued to espouse the predatory war goals of the previous Tsarist regime. By contrast, revolutionary defeatism held to the view that the main enemy for every working class was its own imperialist-minded ruling class, be it a Tsarist ruling class or a bourgeois one. For Lenin the proletariat could never gain anything discernible out of a capitalist war. The choice was always between class struggle and its own immiseration and exploitation.

The real inheritors of old Bolshevism were the Mensheviks. This became apparent when they adopted the Bolshevik position of 1905 by entering the provisional government in May 1917, thus giving a proletarian stamp of approval to the bourgeois democratic revolution. Lenin’s intervention with the April Theses helped to drag the Bolsheviks back from passively going along the same route.

Lih writes that at their March 1917 conference, prior to Lenin’s arrival, the Bolsheviks had mulled over various formulas in regard to dealing with the provisional government. These included: “offering support ‘insofar as’ the provisional government carried out revolutionary measures, or imposing strict kontrol over the actions of the government, or supporting any revolutionary measures that the government undertook but not the government itself”.36 But surely Marot is correct when he says that in April 1917: “Lenin will oppose these formulas not on the grounds of their lack of effectiveness, but because the formulas all effectively assume that the boundaries of the bourgeois-democratic revolution are sacrosanct, along with the bourgeois state”.37 In reference to imposing “kontrol” over the actions of the provisional government (by the soviets), what he refers to as the “kontrol” tactic, Lih does concede that this was an issue of dispute among the Bolsheviks but in his view not a very profound one. It was really the striving to find “the best method for achieving the old Bolshevik goal of overthrowing the provisional government in favour of a soviet-based provisional revolutionary government”.38

However, Marot, like Lih a fluent Russian linguist, maintains that this was not what was at stake. He argues that “kontrol” means exactly that: “control”, not overthrow. If the heart of the dispute was about choosing the best tactic in order to control the provisional government then indeed it was not a very profound one. If it was about whether or not to overthrow it then it is a strategic issue of an entirely different order. Lenin recognised this in his report to the Seventh Congress on 24 April: “To control you must have power…control without power is an empty petty-bourgeois phrase that hampers the progress of the Russian revolution”.39

Up to 1917 the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, believed a very long and protracted struggle would be required eventually to get rid of Tsarism even when a revolutionary situation was underway. But when it actually came about the collapse of Tsarism happened astonishingly quickly. This dramatic development required a rapid re-assessment of the changing situation, involving a considerable amount of improvisation, as well as a completely fresh perspective involving a reorientation of the party that would inevitably necessitate a break from the old Bolshevik scenario. Even as late as October 1915 Lenin was still talking about consummation of the bourgeois democratic revolution as being the main task facing the Russian working class and arguing the “old Bolshevik” line that it was still “admissible for Social Democrats to join a provisional revolutionary government together with the democratic petty bourgeoisie”.40 But after February 1917 there was no point in doggedly maintaining a strategy suited to a scenario that no longer applied. Unlike 1905 or 1915, Tsarism was now defunct. The old world had collapsed; the “reactionary chauvinist” provisional government had taken over as the official government. What mattered to Lenin now was how the Bolsheviks could best take advantage of this dramatic outcome. Lih appears to miss the key point when he writes of the Bolsheviks’ various options and formulas: “the spirit in which Bolshevik speakers proposed these formulas was diametrically opposed to the spirit of similar formulas coming from the moderate socialists”.41 In other words, although the Bolsheviks may have been more forthright and strident in their propaganda vis-à-vis the provisional government, they were still nevertheless, as Lih concedes, advocating “similar formulas”. As Marot writes: “If this is so—and it is so—how can Lih say that the old Bolsheviks are for overthrowing the provisional government even before Lenin’s arrival? How can he tell the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks apart at this juncture? Not by examining the documentary evidence, where these formulae appear”.42

The fallout from the April Theses

Given the general level of theoretical and strategic malaise among the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s April Theses went down like the proverbial lead balloon. The party’s Petrograd committee voted by 13 to two to reject it and the Bolshevik committees in Moscow and Kiev soon followed suit. In a piece signed by Kamenev, the editorial of Pravda commented: “As for the general scheme of comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution”.43 Kamenev, who Lih quite rightly identifies as the embodiment of “old Bolshevism”, argued forcefully that “Lenin is wrong when he says that the bourgeois democratic revolution is finished… The classical relics of feudalism, the landed estates are not yet liquidated. The state is not transformed into a democratic society… It is early to say that the bourgeois democracy has exhausted all its possibilities”.44

Was Kamenev’s position really so different from that of the Mensheviks? This is what their newspaper Rabochaya Gazeta said on 6 April 1917, two days after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station:

The revolution can successfully struggle against reaction and force it out of its position only so long as it is able to remain within the limits which are determined by the objective necessity (the state of the productive forces, the level of mentality of the masses of people corresponding to it etc.). One cannot render a better service to reaction than by disregarding those limits and by making attempts at breaking them.45

The Menshevik leader Georgi Plekhanov repeatedly quoted Karl Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and used it to mock the Bolsheviks for trying to leapfrog into socialism: “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”.46

Indeed, before changing his mind, Lenin himself had stuck pretty much to this script. In his massive and meticulous study The Development of Capitalism in Russia in 1899 it was his considered view that, as Russia was still in the early stages of capitalist development, this provided an objective basis for a bourgeois-democratic limitation to the revolutionary process.

But Lenin in April 1917 was not Lenin in 1899, far less Marx in 1859. The big picture was by now markedly different and therefore strategy had to adapt as well. The problem with both the “old Bolsheviks” and the Mensheviks was that their positions had nothing whatsoever to say about Lenin’s justifications for presenting his April Theses. These proceeded from his analysis of imperialism, not from his specific investigation into Russia written 20 years previously. Those material conditions through which the transition to socialism could be accomplished had by now assuredly “matured in the womb of the old society itself”. To quote Marx’s preface more fully than Plekhanov’s and the Mensheviks’ selective usage: “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation”.47 By 1917 the material conditions for revolution were palpably in the course of formation in Russia; as Neil Harding has put it, “imperialism or finance capitalism, had itself at last produced precisely those mechanisms which for the first time enabled the administration of things to be accomplished by the mass of people in and through their own self-activity”.48 For example, cartels and trusts had concentrated and socialised production. Railways, postal and telegraph communications had contributed to establishing the infrastructure necessary to accomplish the task of socialising the basic structure of the economy. In addition large banks had rationalised and concentrated the productive base of society and provided the means for an accurate universal form of book-keeping and accountancy. Against the background of these developments it is hard to disagree with Harding’s assessment that: “within this society, Lenin argued, the material conditions had long previously matured not only for the overthrow of capitalism as an economic structure but, in certain senses, for the transcendence of the state which socialism entailed”.49

Alexei Rykov, a longstanding and respected Bolshevik underground organiser, profoundly disagreed with Lenin and maintained that the actual socialist transformation still had to come from Europe or the United States. Lenin’s rejoinder clearly shows his new thinking: “Comrade Rykov says that socialism has to come from other countries with more developed industry. But that’s not right. No one can say who will begin and who will end. That’s not Marxism but a parody of Marxism”.50 Rykov also asserted what was patently the prevailing view of the Bolsheviks, that: “gigantic revolutionary tasks stand before us, but the fulfilment of these tasks does not carry us beyond the framework of the bourgeois regime”.51

Mikhail Kalinin, another stalwart of old Bolshevism who had joined the RSDLP in 1898, propounded: “I belong to the old Bolshevik Leninists, and I consider that the old Leninism has not by any means proved good-for-nothing in the present peculiar moment, and I am astonished at the declaration of Comrade Lenin that the old Bolsheviks have become an obstacle at the present moment”.52 The Bolshevik trade union leader Mikhail Tomsky, another political heavyweight, was also not prepared to shift from the view which he believed, with some justification, that Lenin himself had held since 1905: “The democratic dictatorship is our foundation stone. We ought to organise the power of the proletariat and the peasants, and we ought to distinguish this from the Commune, since that means the power of the proletariat alone”.53 Lenin, however, remained unmoved by these bonds to the past. Even before his arrival back in Russia in April 1917 he took it as self-evident that the European revolution against imperialism was on the immediate agenda. The objective economic base was ripe for socialism and three years of bloodletting had made millions conscious of the need to overthrow the entire system that had wrought so much death and ruination. Central to the April Theses was the contention that the first socialist revolution would have immense repercussions throughout Europe. Indeed, Lenin based his whole political strategy on the expectation that revolution in Russia would act as the detonator of a general European explosion. Against the background of this analysis he forcefully asserted that: “One must know how to adapt schemes to facts rather than repeat words regarding a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ in general, words which have become meaningless… No, that formula is antiquated. It is worthless. It is dead. And all attempts to revive it will be in vain”.54 Moreover, he added:

Whoever speaks now only of a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” is behind the times, consequently he has in effect gone over to the side of the petty bourgeoisie and is against the proletarian class struggle. He deserves to be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” pre-revolutionary antiques (which might be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).55

For Lenin the old Bolshevik perspective of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry had already been completed. Indeed, it had become a living reality but not in the way it was originally envisaged: “According to the old way of thinking the rule of the bourgeoisie could and should be followed by the rule of the proletariat and the peasantry by their dictatorship. In real life things have already turned out differently; there has been an extremely original, novel and unprecedented interlacing of the one with the other”.56

What Lenin meant by this was that the supposedly “official” provisional government representing the rule of the bourgeoisie existed side by side with the soviets. The latter represented the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and poor peasants (the batraki) represented in their millions in the uniform of the Russian army. Indeed in St Petersburg the power was very much in the hands of the workers and soldiers: “the new government is not using and cannot use violence against them, because there is no police, no army standing apart from the people, no officialdom standing all powerful above the people. This is a fact—the kind of fact that is characteristic of a state of the Paris Commune type”.57

Lenin’s main contention was that prior to February 1917 the original old Bolshevik formula envisaged, in the forthcoming Russian Revolution, “only a relation of classes and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation”.58 But from the earliest days such an institution did actually exist, namely the connected system of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies which lay at the heart of the revolution. The problem was that the majority in the soviets, far from wielding the power they possessed, were in the process of “surrendering helplessly to petty-bourgeois revolution…voluntarily ceding power to the bourgeoisie” and making themselves “an appendage of the bourgeoisie”.59 Continued commitment to the now obsolete old Bolshevik formula would ensure that this process carried on. The Bolsheviks would be neither theoretically nor organisationally equipped to stand against it, let alone counteract it. Lenin believed this corrosive development was already in train.

All of this is not to say that Lenin was in favour of an immediate seizure of power and initiation of the socialist revolution, at least not before winning a Bolshevik majority in the soviets—a fact he explicitly stated in point eight of the April Theses: “It is not our immediate task to introduce socialism”.60 Lenin was forced to re-emphasise this point because Kamenev, in his first intervention in the April debates, argued that the call for the overthrow of the provisional government and transference of power to the soviets would “disorganise the revolution”.61

Lih considers that the old Bolshevik position was to overthrow the provisional government at the earliest opportunity. But this is not the stance that Kamenev, the epitome of old Bolshevism, took. Instead, when the Petrograd Committee actually did raise the slogan “Down with the provisional government” on 21 April, far from supporting this campaign and overthrowing the provisional government at the earliest opportunity, Kamenev was quick to focus on it as an example of adventurism and vacillation by the party. In his winding up speech at the April Conference Lenin agreed with Kamenev that the party had vacillated but the vacillation had been: “away from the revolutionary policy… In what did our adventurism consist? It was the attempt to resort to forcible measures”.62 The problem with this particular situation, Lenin argued, was that the balance of forces was still an unknown quantity: “We did not know to what extent the masses had swung to our side during that anxious moment. If it had been a strong swing things would have been different”.63 In such a case, we can presume, the slogan might well have been legitimate. In Lenin’s view the reason for vacillation had been organisational weakness, a failure of democratic centralism and of revolutionary discipline: “Our decisions are not being carried out by everyone”.64 What was meant to be a peaceful reconnoitring of the enemy’s forces was undermined by the Petersburg Committee moving too quickly to the left and giving battle prematurely: “We advanced the slogan for peaceful demonstrations but several comrades from the Petrograd Committee issued a different slogan. We annulled it but could not stop it in time to prevent the masses following the slogan of the Petrograd Committee”.65 Nevertheless Lenin insisted that the line marked out was correct and that: “in future we shall make every effort to achieve an organisation in which there will be no Petrograd ‘Committee-men’ to disobey the Central Committee”.66 Clearly a bit more centralisation in the party was required—not in opposition to democracy but as an essential condition for it to exist.

At this point what was of equal importance to Lenin, as much as the question of organisation or—for that matter—any alleged “bourgeois democratic stage”, was gauging the prevailing level of consciousness of the Russian working class. At the end of the April debates Lenin placed the emphasis on “patient explanation”: “there is not the slightest doubt that, as a class, the proletariat and semi-proletariat are not interested in the war. They are influenced by tradition and deception. They still lack political experience. Therefore our task is one of patient explanation”.67 The task now was two-fold. While the Bolsheviks remained in a minority they had both to criticise and expose errors but at the same time advocate the strategic and political importance of: transferring state power to the soviets “so that people may overcome their mistakes by experience”.68 Lenin in effect had put a reasoned wager on the majority of workers rapidly becoming disillusioned with the moderate orientation of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. The circumstances of the April Theses have to be set firmly in the context of the pull of rapprochement with the Mensheviks and the wider gravitational drag of left reformism. They cannot be dismissed as much ado about nothing. Lenin’s reaction is perhaps the most important example of him “bending the stick”—purposely over-emphasising his position.

Kamenev was still wedded to carrying on fighting the imperialist war under the guise of “revolutionary defencism”. Indeed he had already displayed his disavowal of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism during a trial in a Tsarist court in 1914. In an editorial in Pravda on 15 March 1917 he went so far as to insist that: “Soldiers and sailors remain steadfast at their posts and answer the enemy bullet for bullet and shell with shell”.69 All of this was couched in terms of displaying practical unity with the provisional government insofar as it struggled against Tsarist reaction and counter-revolution. Nevertheless it is clear that, while Lenin was correctly convinced that the only road to peace lay in the overthrow of the provisional government, Kamenev and other leading old Bolsheviks were prepared to give succour to a government that was still thoroughly committed to the war aims of the Entente alliance that had bound Tsarist Russia to British and French imperialism.

At the April debates Lenin explained how any unity with the Mensheviks on their terms would have meant not only the continuation of the war but also retreat on the question of land reform as well as the re-establishment of managerial control in the workplace. This would have not only led to demoralisation among the revolution’s most enthusiastic supporters but would have also raised the confidence of counter-revolutionary forces.

We must return briefly to the issue of the “kontrol tactic”. Lih acknowledges that there were what he calls disagreements in the April debates but he puts much of this down to misunderstandings, deliberate or otherwise, rather than any deep cleavage in strategy. He argues correctly that the only Bolsheviks who openly advocated unity with the Mensheviks (on the basis that the February Revolution had made past differences redundant) were a small group around Wladimir Woytinsky who had left the party just prior to Lenin’s arrival. He assesses that for this group and other “moderate socialists” kontrol in practice meant demonstrating that soviet power was not necessary.

However, for Kamenev, Stalin and other “old Bolsheviks” the opposite was the case. Their strategy, according to Lih, was to show by what today might be called transitional demands: “that the provisional government was not going to carry out what it claimed it was going to do, and to show the workers and peasants that they are not going to get anywhere unless they replace the government with their own”.70 Lih cites as an example the demand by Kamenev for the provisional government to publish secret treaties knowing that they would not be prepared to do this. Their refusal to do so would thus expose them to the masses as being against a policy of peace. All of this is set in contrast to Lenin’s “patient explanation” which can be viewed as rather passive. In other words, Lih proposes that it is Lenin, not the old Bolsheviks, who needed shaking up. He writes:

Those Bolsheviks who, like Kamenev, were opposed to Lenin were arguing that his opposition to the provisional government was too empty, too formal—too much like just sitting there saying that it is an imperialist government. They asked: how do we get across the message that an imperialist government is bad? Let’s put across some specific demands to expose this government.71

But, as noted above, Marot argues that kontrol meant control. And for Lenin: “There can be no control without power. To control by means of resolutions etc is sheer nonsense”.72 However, for Lih the interpretation is more nuanced; along the lines of keeping a watching-brief or as he puts it: “checking up on” the provisional government.73 But, if correct, this can hardly be said to be any more vigorous than Lenin’s supposed “passive” patient explanation.

Did “patient explanation” really mean, as Lih suggests, “just sitting there saying it is an imperialist government”.74 Manifestly in practice it really meant party members going to the masses, concentrating on the need for taking the vlast (power) from below and directly confronting the fact that despite its democratic trappings the provisional government was still a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie determined to keep power in the hands of the capitalist class. Hammering this point home systematically and persistently at the grassroots in the workplace, the streets, the barracks, as well as in the soviets was far more subversive than “clever” tactical manoeuvres to catch the opposition out. For Lenin the provisional government was already debased as things stood. Any support or denunciation of it was not contingent on any further actions on its part. Moreover Kamenev’s half-baked attempts at posing transitional demands were never going to be a substitute for the real thing: “peace, bread and land”. Instead Lenin was banking on the perspective of a deteriorating state of affairs both at the front and at home and on the continued resistance of the stratum of workers who had risen to their feet in the upwards years of 1912-14 following the massacre of 500 miners in the Lena goldfields. Even prior to the April debates Lenin had argued that:

All countries are on the brink of ruin; people must realise this; there is no way out except through a socialist revolution. The government must be overthrown, but not everybody understands this correctly. So long as the provisional government has the backing of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, you cannot “simply” overthrow it. The only way it can and must be overthrown is by winning over the majority in the Soviets.75

On this point it is worth noting that even as late as mid-June at the first All-Russia Congress of Soviets there were still only 105 Bolshevik delegates out of 882.76 The pressure to accommodate to the majority must have been enormous. Patient explanation, or as Trotsky put it, “bringing the consciousness of the masses into correspondence with that situation into which the historic process had driven them”,77 was one of the elements of practical agitation by which the social base of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries operating in the soviets could be undermined.

All of this soon came to pass. By mid-summer the provisional government’s demand for increased conscription into the army coupled with mass desertions following its orders, under pressure from its fellow imperialist allies, to resume offensive military operations began to erode its support base. Within the Bolshevik Party Kamenev’s de facto “revolutionary defencism” position was also being undercut. Kamenev, if he truly was the embodiment of old Bolshevism, never really seemed to learn from this. In regard to the so-called Democratic Conference in September, an event actually called by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and dismissed by Lenin as “idiotic babbling”,78 he severely criticised Kamenev for his “constitutional” approach: “Comrade Kamenev was wrong in delivering the first speech at the conference in a purely ‘constitutional’ spirit when he raised the foolish question of confidence or non-confidence in the government.” What he should have been concentrating on was exposing the widely known truth of provisional government leader Alexander Kerensky’s “secret pacts with the Kornilov gang”.79 His wrath was also aimed at the 136 Bolshevik delegates. “The Bolsheviks should have walked out…and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions…the Bolshevik delegation ought to have gone to the factories and the barracks; that was the proper place for delegates”.80

A few weeks later, on the very eve of the October Revolution, Kamenev alongside Grigori Zinoviev publicly denounced the plans for insurrection in the Menshevik press. There is too long a trail here to suggest that his and the old Bolsheviks’ dispute with Lenin over the April Theses was merely one of mutual misunderstanding. There was a right-leaning wing and a left-leaning wing among the Bolshevik leaders. Kamenev rep.resented one, Lenin the other.

Socialism and Bolshevik propaganda

Finally, Lih sets great store in the claim that Lenin in reality played down the vision of socialism as being central in the build-up to the October Revolution. We need to be aware that at this time, during the summer months of 1917 and encompassing the dramatic events of the July Days, when sections of the Bolsheviks were drawn towards a premature insurrection, Lenin was very wary of being tactically deflected into an abstract cul de sac of arguments about the nature of socialism. He was especially concerned not to overlook exposing what he termed the plunder of the state such as the 500 percent profits being made from war supplies: “The bourgeoisie want nothing better than to answer the people’s queries about the scandalous profits of the war supplies deliverers, and about economic dislocation, with ‘learned’ arguments about the ‘utopian’ character of socialism”.81

Nevertheless Lih is content to ignore this context. He approvingly quotes the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov, who stated in his memoir of 1917: “Was there any socialism in this [the Bolsheviks’] platform? No, I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on socialism as the object and task of a soviet government; nor did the masses in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about socialism”.82 In endorsing Sukhanov’s view, Lih produces evidence in the form of a study of a sample of 50 leaflets issued by the Moscow organisation of the Bolsheviks between April and October 1917. Lih contends that, in the three months preceding the October Revolution, “socialism in general only gets a passing mention…in the ten or so leaflets…issued during and immediately after the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. Neither socialism nor any kind of socialist measure are mentioned anywhere”.83 Setting aside Lih’s reference to “the Bolshevik coup”, surely to a large extent all this misses the point. What was of much greater significance was that of all the political organisations the Bolsheviks alone called for “all power to the soviets” recognising them as the social force that could bring about socialism. This was a slogan that the political logic of pre-April 1917 Bolshevism, with the residue of its Kautskyan legacy still hanging over it, could never have advanced. Marot rightly contends that:

Whether they often or seldom called for it is not critical. No other political formation called for it. No other party called for workers’ power. At this point, in the summer and autumn of 1917, long after the conclusion of the April debates, the Bolsheviks were confident that if the workers came to power it would mean the overthrow of the provisional government since there could be no stable soviet workers’ state even under the most democratic bourgeois rule.84

Lih cites the 50 Moscow Bolshevik leaflets in support of his view that an orientation towards “socialism” or a socialist revolution was not a necessary pre-condition for a revolutionary overthrow of the provisional government, a view that was certainly held by Kamenev. But is this the only factor in play here? In trying to avoid the pitfalls of either being rigidly dogmatic on the one hand or prosaic on the other concerning the overall conceptual rigour of their political message, the Bolsheviks knew what every revolutionary socialist activist, before or since, knows, that if they were to reach beyond their primary circle of supporters and connect with the workers and peasants they were trying to win over, they would need to adopt a more everyday style of language in their pamphlets. After all, the largest party in Russia was also the party whose vast majority held the greatest ideological fear of seeing the revolution develop towards socialism—the (misleadingly named) petty-bourgeois populist Socialist Revolutionary Party. In his concluding speech to the April Conference of the Bolsheviks on 29 April Lenin went some way to distinguish between party “political” resolutions and party agitational and propaganda pamphlets. He summed it up as follows:

Our resolutions are not written with a view to the broad masses, but they will serve to unify the activities of our agitators and propagandists, and the reader will find in them guidance in his work. We have to speak to the millions; we must draw fresh forces from amongst the masses, we must call for more developed class-conscious workers who would popularise our theses in a way the masses would understand. We shall endeavour in our pamphlets to present our resolutions in a more popular form, and hope that our comrades will do the same thing locally. The proletariat will find in our resolutions material to guide it in its movement towards the second stage of our revolution.85

It is, of course, also perfectly possible that within this context of “patient explanation” the Moscow comrades didn’t always get it quite right.

When Lenin addressed the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets on 26 October 1917, the day after the provisional government was dispatched into the dustbin of history, he finished his report by announcing: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”.86 He did not say “we shall now proceed to complete the democratic revolution to the end”. Lih’s continual discounting of Lenin’s interventionist role in the Bolshevik Party leads him to emphasise the “inner continuity” of the party while depriving the April Theses of any lasting significance in actively sharpening the party’s revolutionary edge. Lenin was focused on active agency and the ability to exploit a chaotic situation, not simply waiting passively for the “Marxian” laws of economic determinism to clarify the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. Trotsky seems to have a far greater grasp than Lih of the relationship between the two when he writes:

The Party could fulfil its mission only after understanding it. For that Lenin was needed. Until his arrival, not one of the Bolshevik leaders dared to make a diagnosis of the revolution… His divergence from the ruling circles of the Bolsheviks meant the struggle of the future of the party against its past. If Lenin had not been artificially separated from the party by the conditions of emigration and war, the external mechanics of the crisis would not have been so dramatic, and would not have overshadowed to such a degree the inner continuity of the party development.87

Lenin was never the type of leader to allow himself to be held back by what he viewed as shibboleths or dogmatic orthodoxy even if such ideas were held by large swathes of old Bolsheviks; the thoughtful, loyal, resilient but also conservative backbone of the party. He would have been well aware that without the courage and sacrifices of these comrades there would have been no Bolshevik Party and without a party no realistic prospect of achieving a socialist revolution. But, just as importantly, he also knew that a “Leninist” party could only be successful when it substantially grasped strategically as well as theoretically the context within which it was working and changed accordingly. The key question here was did an advanced revolutionary class exist or did it not? In delivering the April Theses Lenin did not cease to be a “Leninist” or in many ways, for that matter, an old Bolshevik. What he did in Trotsky’s words: “was to throw off the worn-out shell of Bolshevism in order to summon its nucleus to a new life”.88 When Lenin delivered the April Theses we see him in practice arriving at the same conclusion as that which Trotsky had theorised ten years earlier. The theory of permanent revolution and the April Theses now dovetailed together. Lih’s assessment of old Bolshevism makes it virtually indistinguishable from Menshevism. Without the political and strategic renewal, the break in gradualness, spurred on by the April Theses—“Leaps, Leaps, Leaps” as Lenin noted in the margins of Hegel’s Science of Logic—the revolution would have been halted at its bourgeois democratic stage and then been rapidly beaten back.89

It is not the purpose of this article to delve into the debates concerning the precise meaning of Leninist or Leninism. There are already immense amounts of literature and articles covering this topic ranging from the proverbial number of angels on the head of a pin to much more thoughtful and contextual appraisals. A good example of the latter is Paul Le Blanc’s Unfinished Leninism, where the Stalinist usurpation and subsequent destruction of Lenin’s worldview are largely taken as read. For my part I am content at present to locate my use of these terms within the commentary of the Russian literary critic D S Mirsky: “Leninism is not identical with the sum of Lenin’s outlook. The Marxist precedes in him the creator of Leninism, and the vindication and re-establishment of genuine Marxism was one of his principal tasks in life”.90 As we enter the sociopathic age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the persistent failure of neoliberalism as well as that of social-democratic reformism to confront and deal with the historic levels of inequality that global capitalism is creating has produced an intense stirring of discontent and protest. The spectre of a re-run of the 1930s or even a return to the inter-imperialist rivalry reminiscent of the years prior to 1914, but this time with nuclear weapons, is a chilling prospect. With the recent revelation that eight individuals have a combined wealth greater than that of the bottom three and a half billion of the planet’s population91 the ideals of the April Theses and the October Revolution remain unfinished business.


1 Sukhanov, 1984, p280. Nikolai Sukhanov was a Menshevik who witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia.

2 Dates in this article refer to the old style or Julian calendar which was 13 days behind the western Gregorian calendar. Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1918.

3 The soviets or workers’ councils comprised delegates elected directly from workplaces, army regiments and local communities.

4 Also known as “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”—Lenin, 1917c.

5 Lenin, 1905, pp17-28.

6 Lenin, 1902.

7 Lenin, 1905, p20.

8 Marxism on the State provided the draft for Lenin’s most insightful contribution to Marxism: The State and Revolution, written in August-September 1917.

9 Lih, 2011.

10 Lih, 2011, p199.

11 Lih, 2011, p199.

12 Trotsky, 1932.

13 Corr and Jenkins, 2014.

14 Lih, 2011, p217.

15 Marot, 2014, p151. Marot argues that for Lih “to talk about one is to talk about the other and vice-versa”—Marot, 2014, p144.

16 The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, within which the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were both factions. It was not until the 1912 Prague All-Russia Congress of the RSDLP that Bolshevism effectively crystallised as a distinct party.

17 Riddell, 2017.

18 Lih, 2011, p222.

19 Lenin, 1917a, p241.

20 Lih, 2011, p199.

21 Marot, 2014, p158.

22 Trotsky, 1931.

23 Lenin, 1917b, p308.

24 Lenin, 1917c, p21.

25 Lih, 2011, p218.

26 Marot, 2014, p163.

27 Lenin, 1917c, p21.

28 Lenin, 1917d, pp325-326.

29 Lih, 2011, p222.

30 Engels, 1884.

31 Lenin, 1917e, p149.

32 Quoted in Trotsky, 1937.

33 A G Shlyapnikov, referred to in Cliff, 1976, p98.

34 Lenin, 1915a, p435.

35 Lenin, 1917f, p65.

36 Lih, 2011, p216.

37 Marot, 2014, p162.

38 Lih, 2011, p230.

39 Lenin, 1917a, p232.

40 Lenin, 1915b, pp401-406.

41 Lih, 2011, p216.

42 Marot, 2014, p163.

43 Pravda, 8 April 1917.

44 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p319.

45 Quoted in Harding, 1978, p147.

46 Marx, 1859.

47 Marx, 1859, my emphasis.

48 Harding, 1978, p147.

49 Harding, 1978, p148.

50 Lenin, 1917a, p246.

51 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p325.

52 Quoted in Trotsky, 1980, p325.

53 Trotsky, 1980, p319.

54 Lenin, 1917g, pp45-51.

55 Lenin, 1917g, p46.

56 Lenin, 1917g, p46.

57 Lenin, 1917g, p47.

58 Lenin, 1917g, p45.

59 Lenin, 1917g, p47.

60 Lenin, 1917c, p23.

61 Marot, 2014, p165.

62 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

63 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

64 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

65 Lenin, 1917a, p244.

66 Lenin, 1917a, p247.

67 Lenin, 1917a, p237.

68 Lenin, 1917c, p22.

69 Rabinowitch, 1991, p36.

70 Lih, 2015, p5.

71 Lih, 2015, p5.

72 Lenin, 1917e, p153.

73 Lih, 2015, p5.

74 Lih, 2015, p5.

75 In a speech delivered at the Petrograd City Conference of the Bolsheviks on 14 April—Lenin, 1917e, p147.

76 Bunyan and Fisher, 1934, p11.

77 Trotsky, 1980, p326.

78 Lenin, 1917h, p43.

79 Lenin, 1917h, p45. By this time the “socialist” Kerensky had become prime minister and General Kornilov had become the extreme right wing commander-in-chief of the army.

80 Lenin, 1917h, p43.

81 Lenin, 1917j, p45.

82 Lih, 2011, pp234-235.

83 Lih, 2011, p238.

84 Marot, 2014, pp165-166.

85 Lenin, 1917a, p313.

86 Lenin, 1917i, introduction.

87 Trotsky, 1980, pp330-331.

88 Trotsky, 1980, p235.

89 Lenin, 1914, p123.

90 Mirsky, 1931, p192

91 Socialist Worker, 2017.


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