The explosion of proletarian anger that swept aside the regime of Nicholas the Last led to a profoundly contradictory situation at the level of state power. Although they had not participated in, let alone led the uprising, conservative and liberal bourgeois politicians constituted themselves as a Provisional Government. They were deeply fearful of where the mass mobilisations and the workers’ and soldiers’ councils – the soviets that had multiplied since February – would lead.
In turn, those who formed the executive of the Petrograd Soviet were desperate for a return to order. The Menshevik (reformist) leadership of the executive – Chkheidze and Skobelev – together with the right wing Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Kerensky, were all convinced that the Russian Revolution, as a bourgeois revolution, would logically find its expression in a bourgeois government. The executive actually urged the bourgeois parties to take power and pledged support to the Provisional Government.
While the mass of Soviet delegates agreed to support the Provisional Government they also resolved, independently of the executive, to establish an “observation committee” to watch over the Provisional Government on behalf of the Soviet This expressed both a profound proletarian mistrust of the Provisional Government and a belief that the Soviet’s job was to pressure and watch over that government to ensure it kept its promises. As a mass meeting of the Petrograd cable workers declared on 3 March:
“We consider the most essential issue of the current moment to be the establishment of strict control over the ministers who are appointed by the State Duma and who do not enjoy popular confidence. This control must be constituted by representatives of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”
The workers looked to the Soviet to exercise that control. Workers’ resolutions were automatically sent to the Soviet, not to the Provisional Government. What had emerged in Russia was a dual power situation. Power was divided between the representatives of two irreconcilable forces. The working masses saw the Soviet as the voice of their struggles. The bourgeoisie saw the Provisional Government as their bastion against those struggles. The arrangement, within which the Soviet supported yet watched over the Provisional Government, showed all too clearly that sovereignty in the state was in reality, split. Yet the willingness of the majority of Soviet delegates to consciously endorse such an arrangement reflected profound illusions on the part of the majority of workers in the feasibility of a partnership with the bourgeoisie. The leaders of the Soviet did not see dual power as an unstable moment in struggle, the outcome of which would be resolved on behalf of one or other of the contending classes. They saw it as a permanent agreement struck between partners. As Trotsky put it later:
“In the revolution of 1917, we see the official democracy consciously and intentionally creating a two power system, dodging with all its might the transfer of power into its own hands.”
In reality the dual power could only have been a prelude to either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat breaking the stalemate to their own final advantage. As Trotsky explained:
“Either the bourgeoisie will actually dominate the old state apparatus, altering it a little for its purpose, in which case the soviets will come to nothing, or the soviets will form the foundation of a new state, liquidating not only the old governmental apparatus, but also the domination of those classes which it served.”
The Bolsheviks unprepared
The momentous events of the Russian Revolution found the Bolshevik Party both organisationally and programmatically unprepared. Prior to Lenin’s return to Russia in April and the subsequent party conference, the Party was both confused and divided. In Petrograd the Party took four distinctly different positions on the dual power situation.
The Vyborg District Committee held to a programme of demands that combined both profound mistrust of the Provisional Government with a belief that the terms of the revolution were strictly democratic. On 1 March they called for the soviets to form a provisional revolutionary government in line with the Bolshevik demands of 1905. However the task of that government was to prepare the way for the convention of a democratic constituent assembly.
The Petersburg Committee was composed primarily of former political detainees, released by the February Revolution. They took a more conservative stance in line with the view that the tasks of the day were those of the democratic revolution. On 3 March they resolved to:
“. . . not oppose the power of the Provisional Government in so far as its activities correspond to the interests of the proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people.”
This position implied no immediate challenge to the dominant line within the Soviet executive. It was evasive as to how “far” the Provisional Government was actually serving the interests of the masses.
The Russian Bureau of the exiled Central Committee, comprising Shlyapnikov, Molotov and Zalutskj, veered in several directions. At first they called for a Provisional Revolutionary Government to be formed from above, by the parties represented on the Soviet executive. Its programmatic agenda was to be confined to implementing the “three whales” of the Social Democratic minimum programme: the eight-hour day, the democratic republic and the confiscation of landed estates and their transfer to the peasantry, as well as preparing a constituent assembly.
Once again the perspective was of a purely democratic stage beyond which the revolution could not go. Indeed initially this perspective led them to ban leaflets issued by the more “left” Vyborg district which were calling for the formation of a soviet-based government from below. However this perspective of a pact with the other Soviet parties hit the snag that the Mensheviks and SRs did not want to share in a government with the Bolsheviks. The rapid realisation of this actually pushed the Russian Bureau left, and by 22 March it was calling the Soviets embryos of a new state power.
It was the editorial board of Pravda that occupied the most right wing stance within Bolshevism. Edited by Stalin, Muranov and Kamenev, the paper declared on 7 March:
“As far as we are concerned, what matters now is not the overthrow of capitalism but the overthrow of autocracy and feudalism.”
Stalin followed this up with the reasoning that “The Provisional Government has, in fact, assumed the role of defender of the conquests of the revolutionary people . . . At present, it is not in our interest to force events by hastening the eviction of bourgeois strata who, inevitably, will one day detach themselves from us.”
Kamanev’s conditional support
On 15 March, Kamenev used Pravda’s pages to advocate conditional support for Russia’s war effort now that the autocracy had been overthrown. Small wonder then that by mid-March rank and file worker Bolshevik cells in the Vyborg district were voting for calls to expel the Pravda leadership from the party.
This confusion reflected the inherent weaknesses and contradictions of Bolshevism’s previously held programme for a thoroughgoing democratic revolution. It was to be made by the workers in alliance with the peasantry, yet it was to constitute a distinct and self-limited stage from the socialist revolution. February 1917 saw the logic of the mobilised masses’ demands going beyond the minimum programme of the democratic republic. The soviets, militia and factory committees were the embryo of a state of an entirely new sort whose proletarian democratic content transcended the forms and limits of bourgeois democracy.
In their own particular ways the contending factions were either attempting to limit the struggle to the terrain of democratic demands or they were striving to, but as yet programmatically incapable of, consistently going beyond it.
It was Lenin who was able to transcend the limitations of the old Bolshevik programme and perspective. And it is testimony to the vitality and strength of the historically constituted Bolshevik cadre that open debate in the company led to its programmatic re-armament at the crucial hour. Lenin’s writings during the war, especially Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, led him to see that Russia was one, albeit exceptionally weak, link in the chain of world imperialism. Of necessity therefore the programme of the coming Russian Revolution could no longer be conceived in the terms of a national and democratic revolution but instead as a component of the international revolution against capitalism itself.
This realisation, coupled with a sharp recognition of the nature and potential of the soviets in February and March 1917, made it possible for Lenin to re-elaborate and refocus the Bolshevik programme in the face of Russia’s social explosion. This was to pit him against each of the contending Bolshevik groupings in Petrograd and enable him to create a higher synthesis out of their most healthy reflexes, especially the reflexes of those closest to the rank and file insurgent workers.
Break with ‘old Bolshevism’
Lenin’s initial responses to the Russian Revolution were expressed in a series of articles submitted to Pravda, his “Letters from Afar”. Their political content was such a break with the “old Bolshevism” beloved of Stalin that only a curtailed version of one of them was published by the editors.
Lenin argued that the Soviet was “an organisation of workers, the embryo of a workers’ government”, and that the only guarantee of the destruction of Tsarism lay “in arming the proletariat, in strengthening, extending and developing the role, significance and power of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.
In these writings Lenin is now concretely posing the Soviet as an embryo of a workers’ government and not of a Provisional Revolutionary Government, as he had done in 1905 and 1906. While the Provisional Revolutionary Government had been ascribed the task of convening a constituent assembly the call for the latter does not appear in the “Letters” or in the codified “April Theses”. Lenin realised that what was now at stake was the smashing of the state machine of the exploiting classes and replacing it with a state of a new sort based on the workers’ councils.
Lenin opposed the Petrograd Soviet’s endorsement of the Provisional Government but saw real potential in the formation of the “observation committee”. As he put it: “Now, that’s something real! It is worthy of the workers who have shed their blood for freedom, peace, bread for the people.”
It was, however, only “a step along the right road” which must lead to the creation of a workers’ militia which would in turn make it possible to take the road to the “Socialist Republics of all Countries.”
In the formation of the militia and the soviets the Russian workers had undertaken a course in which “they themselves should constitute these organs of state power”. In his third letter Lenin announced: “Isaid that the workers had smashed the old state machine. Iwould be more correct to say have begun to smash it.”
The dual power outcome of the February Revolution necessitated either the transition to the workers’ council (soviet) state or the triumph of bourgeois reaction, There could be no purely democratic stage of the Russian Revolution.
Lenin’s return from exile to the Finland Station allowed him to both intervene directly in the Bolshevik Party and further sharpen his programmatic armoury. At the head of the Soviet’s official welcome party the leading Menshevik Chkheidze urged Lenin to play his part in “the closing of the democratic ranks”. Lenin promptly declined, declaring instead:
“The world-wide socialist revolution has already dawned . . . Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash. The Russian Revolution accomplished by you has paved the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the world-wide socialist revolution.”
Lenin’s forthright declaration in favour of the socialist development of the revolution was a severe shock not only to Chkheidze and the Mensheviks. Many of the leading Bolsheviks, especially leading right wingers like Kamenev, thought he had taken leave of his senses. An eye witness account of his arrival in Russia captures the mood of initial bewilderment that greeted Lenin’s new line:
“It had been expected that Vladimir Illyich would arrive and call to order the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee, and especially comrade Molotov, who occupied a particularly irreconcilable position in regard to the Provisional Government. It turned out, however, that it was Molotov who was nearest of all to Illyich.”
Forging an alliance
Now while it is necessary to avoid over-exaggerating Molotov’s closeness to Lenin, what was revealed in a matter of days was that Lenin did have allies amongst a whole layer of the party. He was not faced with the task of starting all over again. Rather he had to forge an alliance within the party of its largely proletarian left wing. Lenin then led these forces into a struggle for the triumph of his political line.
It was in order to programmatically re-arm the Bolshevik Party for the struggle that Lenin presented his “April Theses”, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”.
The task the theses set themselves was to advance from a stage of the revolution within which the insufficiently class conscious workers had needlessly ceded power to the bourgeoisie (that is, it was not a necessary, self-limiting bourgeois democratic stage) to a second stage “which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.” The existing political regime in Russia made this possible not only because the masses were awakening to political life, but because the dual power regime, at least temporarily, was precluding repressive violence against the masses.
Of necessity this meant the Bolsheviks adopting a stance of no support for the Provisional Government and intransigent opposition to any talk of revolutionary defencism of the bourgeois government. But most importantly it meant recognising that the struggle had gone beyond the democratic programme, not because a democratic stage had been achieved and completed its useful life (as Stalinist historians have always claimed) but because the struggle for a parliamentary republic would be a backward step compared with the struggle to realise the potential of the workers’ council state that existed embryonically in the soviets.
Only this outcome of the unresolved dual power could benefit the working masses. As Lenin put it, “To return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step.” Instead the party must fight for the “abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy”, and for all these functions to be passed to the whole armed people.
Just as Lenin had rejected his previously held idea of a relatively distinct democratic stage in the revolution, he was also clear that his programme did not envisage the immediate “introduction” of socialism. In reality the revolution was to make the transition to socialism, as part of the international revolution, by establishing soviet control over a single national bank and bringing “social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.” At its very heart the “April Theses” contain a programme of transition from dual power (a state of affairs Lenin repeatedly cursed) to the proletarian dictatorship, the goal of the Marxist programme.
Schematism’s Bitter Resistance
Lenin’s struggle to re-arm the Bolsheviks met with bitter resistance from many of his comrades, still stuck in the rut of schematically expecting a democratic stage for the Russian Revolution and convinced that the task was to achieve one. While Pravda published the “April Theses”, Kamenev prefaced them with the remark:
“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 all immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”
Over a process of three weeks of argument and debate, Lenin won the party to his programmatic line of advance. After wavering and vacillating the party now set out to win the masses to recognition of the potential power of the soviets and the fast-growing workers’ militia, the Red Guards. After a period of confusion over the democratic character of the proletariat’s tasks the party now embraced a programme of transition to workers’ power. Breaking with a view of the Russian Revolution as an isolated national event the party now fought for the Russian workers to stand in the vanguard of the international revolution. As Lenin told the party conference that endorsed his line:
“The great honour of striking the first blow has fallen to the Russian proletariat but it should never forget that its progress and revolution are but part of a world-wide and growing revolutionary movement which is daily becoming more powerful . . . We cannot see our task in any other light.”
The role of Lenin in formulating a new strategic line for the party and in winning the bulk of the party to that line, cannot be underestimated. However, the role of the individual in history is conditioned by the circumstances he or she is obliged to work in and the instruments that he or she must work with. In Lenin’s case the objective circumstances he confronted on his return – the dual power situation – had propelled millions into revolutionary struggle against their former masters. He gave a conscious expression to their heartfelt aspiration.
And, in the Bolshevik Party Lenin had an instrument for revolution that had been tempered by years of struggle – both theoretical and practical. The party was, despite the waverings of some leaders, a revolutionary party, receptive to the needs of the revolution. The triumph of Lenin’s line reflected the strength of the party itself and not just Lenin’s genius. As Trotsky put it:
“The revolutionary tradition of the party, the pressure of the workers from below and Lenin’s criticism from above, compelled the upper stratum during the months of April and May employing the words of Stalin – ‘to come out on a new road’”.