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‘A basic question’: Lenin glosses the April Theses

Part 5 of the series ‘All Power to the Soviets!’

See also appendix: “Lenin refutes a misreading of the April Theses.” For links to previous parts of the series, see bottom of this post.

Lenin A

V.I. Lenin in 1920, drawing by Isaak Brodsky

By Lars T. Lih: In April 1917, Lenin was churning out articles for Pravda at an alarming rate. One such article is “A Basic Question,” written on April 20 and published the next day. This article later made its way into Lenin’s collected works, where it is easily available today. It is in no way a hidden or undiscovered document—and yet, in the context of a new look at the events of spring 1917, “A Basic Question” becomes a remarkable and revealing document. I have therefore newly translated it and provided a commentary.

Officially, this article is a rejoinder to a critique of the April Theses by Georgy Plekhanov that was published on April 20 (a translation of Plekhanov’s article will be found in the Appendix). In reality, Lenin is less interested in refuting Plekhanov than in reassuring Bolshevik praktiki (the mid-level activists who did the hands-on “practical” work of the party). Sergei Bagdatev was a Bolshevik praktik who was also an ardent advocate of soviet power; in Part 4 of this series, we heard him express his misgivings that some aspects of Lenin’s April Theses might hamper the drive to establish soviet power. His underlying worry was about the class basis of the ongoing revolution: was Lenin really saying that we don’t need the peasant as an ally, as implied by the April Theses and various other comments? In “A Basic Question,” Lenin emphatically responded to this worry: no, that isn’t what I meant—that isn’t what I meant at all. Read more…

Lenin refutes a misreading of the April Theses

The following exchange between Plekhanov and Lenin in April 1917 appears as an appendix to “’A basic question’: Lenin glosses the April Theses,” by Lars T. Lih.

1. Plekhanov, “To the Students” (from Edinstvo, 17 April 1917)

To the Association [artel] of Socialist Students, in answer to an invitation for a rally celebrating the First of May. Read more…

Tactics, strategy, and the ‘united front’

A response to Mario C. Plaza’s “How Lenin uses the term “tactics,” plus his subsequent comment.

By John Riddell. In his stimulating contribution, “How Lenin uses the term “tactics,” Mario C. Plaza arrives at the conclusion:

Lenin normally uses the term “tactics” (not strategy) in a broad sense that includes what we now normally call strategy.

Mario’s careful reading of Lenin has led him to the view regarding the use of the word tactics that I myself reached in translating documents of the early Communist International (Comintern).

The question is not purely terminological; it can have implications for practical work. It is relevant, for example, to the Marxist position on seeking a “united front” of working people against capitalist attacks. Read more…

‘Workers and soldiers: Everything is working in our favor’

‘1917: The view from the streets’ – leaflets of the Russian Revolution #16-17.

Soldiers sack b hq

Pro-government soldiers seize, wreck Bolshevik headquarters.

One hundred years ago this week, the Bolsheviks responded to the ‘July Days’ setback by calling on working people to ignore provocations and expose rightist slanders.

This is the last of the “View from the Streets” series. See “Afterword” by Barbara Allen, below.

The July demonstrations subsided quickly due to the Provisional Government’s success in painting the Bolsheviks as German-sponsored saboteurs of the Russian war effort; an upsurge in violence associated with the demonstrations; and news that loyal troops were on their way to Petrograd. The government quickly shut down Pravda, evicted the Bolsheviks from their party headquarters, and arrested many of their leaders. Lenin escaped arrest by going underground and fleeing in disguise to Finland. The two documents below represent the Bolsheviks’ responses to the rapidly developing situation.

Selection, translation, and annotation by Barbara Allen. Read more…

Thirteen to two: Petrograd Bolsheviks debate the April Theses

Part 4 of Lars T. Lih’s series ‘All Power to the Soviets’

See also appendix:April Theses: Bolsheviks set the record straight’. For previous posts in the series, see bottom of this post.

Everywhere and always, every day, we have to show the masses that until the vlast has been transferred into the hands of the Soviets of Worker and Soldier Deputies, there is no hope for an early end of the war and no possibility for the realization of their program.—Sergei Bagdatev, explaining his misgivings about Lenin’s April Theses at the April Conference of the Bolshevik party

By Lars Lih: In almost any account of the doings of the Bolshevik party in spring 1917, you will find a sentence along the following lines: Lenin’s April Theses were so shocking to party members that a meeting on April 8 of the Petrograd Committee rejected the Theses by a vote of thirteen to two (and one abstention).  No more than a single sentence is ever devoted to this episode, but just by itself this one sentence certainly packs a wallop. Thirteen to two!—the Petrograd Bolsheviks must really have been scandalized by Lenin’s radical new approach.

The power of a good story should not be underestimated. The anecdote about the thirteen-to-two vote after Lenin’s arrival stands side by side with the anecdote about the alleged “censorship” of Lenin’s Letters from Afar before Lenin’s returned to Russia. The status of these two anecdotes as unquestioned fact probably gives more support to the standard rearming narrative than any amount of serious argument. Earlier in the series, I looked at the episode of Lenin’s Letters and showed that it was a “turncoat document”—one that changes sides under interrogation. In that case, an anecdote that previously supported the “rearming” narrative that the April Theses were a radical break with the long-standing Bolshevik outlook now supports the “fully armed” narrative. Read more…

April Theses: Bolsheviks set the record straight

Appendix to ‘Thirteen to two: Petrograd Bolsheviks debate the April Theses’ 

For the significance of these two documents, see “Background,” below

  1. Two Excerpts from V. N. Zalezhskii, “Pervyi legal’nyi Pe-Ka”, in Proletarskaia revoliutsiia,” 1923, No. 1 (13)

[p. 145-6:] The issue of our attitude toward the Provisional Government came before the PK [Petrograd Committee] on the 2nd or 3rd of March in connection with the position taken by the Ispolkom of the Soviet, which, as we know, adopted on the advice of that “prudent Ulysses” Chkheidze the famous formula of support: “insofar as” [postolku-poskolku]. The PK, as the directive organization of the mass of the Petersburg proletariat, of course had to respond immediately to this formula. I well remember the debates in the PK about this issue. Read more…

How Lenin uses the term ‘tactics’

A terminological issue with political implications

By Mario C. Plaza. Although Lenin is considered one of the main strategists of the Russian Revolution, the term “strategy” is hardly used is his works. The word does appear sometimes in his writings of the 1920s, but not always in a political sense; sometimes he’s talking about military movements.

Moreover, we usually read many comments or works about him talking about “tactics and strategy” as a fixed term. And so, in the index volumes of Lenin’s works, we find a listing for “Tactics and Strategy of Bolshevism.”

Instead of strategy, one of the key concepts in his thought is “tactics.” What exactly did he mean by this concept? I am writing these notes in search of an answer to this concept, and I ask for help from anyone who has thoughts about this and wants to contribute. I know this is a technical question, but addressing it can help us read Lenin’s texts more thoroughly as we take part in today’s emancipatory politics. Read more…

The 1917 July Days uprising: Soviet leadership clashes with ranks

‘1917: The view from the streets’ – leaflets of the Russian Revolution #14-15.

July Days in Petrograd: Protesters on Nevskii Prospect flee army assault.

One hundred years ago this week, between 16-20 [3-7] July 1917, a protest movement of workers and soldiers in Petrograd was repelled by military and police attacks, with hundreds of casualties.

The July Uprising or July Days came about due to the failure of the Russian military offensive in June, a worsening of the crisis in Petrograd’s food and fuel supply, and a crisis of confidence in the government after two Liberal (Kadet) ministers resigned over their opposition to Ukrainian autonomy. Read more…

Assessing revolutionary social democracy: A response to Duncan Hart

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1917 helsinki general strike-3

Helsinki general strike 1917

By Eric Blanc. First of all, I would like to thank Comrade Duncan Hart for his contribution “Lessons from Finland: Reply to Eric Blanc.” While I do not share its analysis, I agree that a serious discussion about the Finnish Revolution is useful for Marxists today. Though some of Hart’s criticisms of the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP) are well founded, I will argue below that his text fundamentally mischaracterizes the political stance of the SDP and its revolutionary social democratic leaders.

As such, Hart’s article does not help us come to a clearer analysis of Finnish (and German) “orthodox” Marxism, Finland’s 1917-18 revolution, or the lessons we can learn from this history. My forthcoming book goes into these questions in detail; here, a few comments will have to suffice. Read more…

Lessons from Finland: Reply to Eric Blanc

By Duncan Hart. Eric Blanc’s article “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 revolution” raised a series of political arguments that would be extremely damaging for the Left today to adopt from the Finnish experience – primarily that the revolution vindicated the political strategy of Kautskian Social Democracy. Unfortunately Jacobin, which first published Blanc’s article, declined to publish my response, so I am posting it here so at least some comrades might read it.

Finland’s revolution of 1917-1918 deserves more attention than it has received from the Left. It provides  an example of a relatively developed society, both politically and economically, where a social revolution of the working class arguably progressed to a greater extent than any other society excepting Russia. Read more…

The Cuban Revolution dared to win


The following text is based on the notes for a presentation by Felipe Stuart Courneyeur to the Canada-wide convention of the Canadian Network on Cuba, held at Toronto’s City Hall June 3-4, 2017[1]. He shared the panel with Sandra Rodríguez, head of the North American Bureau of Cuba’s Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP).

Stuart Courneyeur has dual Nicaraguan-Canadian nationality; he divides his time between the two countries. He is an active member of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional.

People cheer for the "Cuban Five" in Havana

Celebrating the release of the ‘Cuban 5’ political prisoners from U.S. jails, Havana, December 2014.

Read more…

Comintern publishing effort prepares two new books

With special thanks to the many readers of this blog who have helped over the years  in ways large and small to prepare and publicize these volumes.—JR

2WC cover 1

Second World Congress, 1147 pages, published 1991

By Mike Taber and John Riddell. In 1983 a project was begun to translate into English and annotate major documents of the world socialist movement from 1907 to 1923. The project’s core was publication of the proceedings and decisions of the first four congresses of the Communist International (Comintern) – those congresses held while Lenin was still alive.

Edited by John Riddell, the project aimed above all to make accessible to new generations of revolutionary-minded working people and activists the lessons of the first major attempt to build a genuinely worldwide movement dedicated to the goal of overturning capitalist rule and putting working people in power. Read more…

Letter from Afar, corrections from up close: Censorship or retrofit?

Part 3 of Lars Lih’s series ‘All Power to the Soviets’

By Lars T. Lih. The standard “rearming the party” interpretation of Bolshevism in 1917 is a gripping and highly dramatic narrative that goes something like this: Old Bolshevism is rendered irrelevant by the February revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks flounder until Lenin returns home and rearms the party, and the party is subsequently divided over fundamental issues throughout the year. Party unity is restored—to the extent that it was restored—after the other leading Bolsheviks cave in to Lenin’s superior force of will. Only by these means was the party rearmed by a new strategy that proclaimed the socialist nature of the revolution—an essential condition for Bolshevik victory in October.

Observers with strikingly opposed political viewpoints all had their reasons for supporting some version of the rearming narrative.[1] This story seemed doubly confirmed when it became known in the 1950s that the version of Lenin’s first Letter from Afar that was printed in Pravda in March 1917 had been heavily edited, with almost a fourth of the text removed. This fact became the basis of a vivid and persuasive anecdote of how the flabbergasted and frightened Petrograd Bolsheviks allegedly censored Lenin, their own vozhd. Read more…

Lenin’s ‘Letter from Afar,’ as printed in Pravda, March 21 and 22, 1917

Appendix 1 to “Letter from Afar, Correction from Up Close: Censorship or Retrofit” by Lars Lih

Translated by Lars Lih. Location of cuts made by Pravda editors is indicated by bracketed letters, A to Z; the excised passages can be found in Appendix 2. Text in brackets was added by the Pravda editors. Read more…

Passages excised from Lenin’s Letter from Afar

Appendix 2 to “Letter from Afar, Correction from Up Close: Censorship or Retrofit” by Lars Lih

See also Appendix 1: “Lenin’s Letter from Afar, as Printed in Pravda, March 21 and 22, 1917

The following passages were deleted from Lenin’s first “Letter from Afar” when it was printed in Pravda on March 21 and 22, 1917 LINK). Prepared by Lars Lih. Read more…