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Paul Le Blanc: Re-Arming the Party: Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolution in 1917

A widely published historian of Marxism and the workers’ movement, Paul Le Blanc has just published October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy 1917-1924. Links to related articles by Eric Blanc, Lars Lih, and others are listed at The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate. – JR



Trotsky, Lenin, and Kamenev in discussion, 1920

By Paul Le Blanc. A valuable contribution to scholarship on Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 has – through iconoclastic overstatement – been transformed into an odd and misleading conceptualization by two scholars whom I greatly respect and consider to be friends. Lars Lih, whose massive contribution Lenin Rediscovered has rightly enhanced his reputation among Lenin scholars, several years ago initiated the line of thought under consideration here, and he has gone on to develop and argue hard for it. He has been joined recently by an important younger scholar, Eric Blanc, whose most recent contribution – “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?” – will be the focal-point of the present contribution.[1] Read more…


Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?

“The historiographical consensus [on this question] is factually inaccurate and has distorted our understanding of Bolshevism in 1917.”

For a Spanish text see Viento Sur. See also “The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate” and “List of Articles by Eric Blanc.”

By Eric Blanc. A critical engagement with the past remains an indispensable instrument for critically confronting the present. Yet one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, much of our understanding of 1917 and the Bolshevik party remains clouded by accumulated myths and received ideas. Not least of these is the claim that V.I. Lenin radically overhauled Bolshevik politics in April 1917 by convincing the party to fight for a socialist, instead of bourgeois-democratic, revolution. Read more…

The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate

The following are the contributions published so far in an ongoing discussion initiated by Lars Lih and Eric Blanc.
Read more…

30th commemoration of the assassination of Thomas Sankara

The following invitation has been circulated by the Toronto Chapter of GRILA, Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa.

Which way forward for Africa and the Caribbean? Toronto, 14 October 2017, 6:30 p.m., 777 Bathurst St.

Sankara GRILAThomas Sankara, Pan-African revolutionary and former President of Burkina Faso (1983-1987) had a vision for the sustained and dignified progress of his country, the “land of the incorruptible.”

During his short period of rule in Burkina Faso, the country saw an unprecedented participation of the population towards a collective goal of self-sustained development.

The former Burkina Faso head-of-state gave new hope to millions of voiceless Africans (both in Africa and in the Diaspora) weary of watching a ceaseless parade of self-enriching robber barons, who pillage the coffers of their respective states. Thomas Sankara is widely recognized and celebrated in Africa and the world over as a champion of fundamental change who fought to liberate Africa from the control of international financial institutions, deepening poverty, war, and the pillage of its resources. Read more…

Third Comintern Congress: ‘Richness, intricacy and critical thinking’

By Brigitte Studer, Institute of History, University of Bern, Switzerland

John Riddell (ed.): To the Masses. Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2015. 1299 pp. (Historical Materialism Book Series. 91). ISBN 978-9-00428-802-7.

This voluminous book is the latest part of a wide-ranging enterprise undertaken by John Riddell to publish the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Communist International, that is, the congresses held in Lenin’s lifetime.1 This volume includes the plenary discussions and resolutions of the Third Congress that took place in Moscow from 22 June to 12 July 1921, with more than 600 delegates from 55 countries.

It is the congress that inaugurated a new political orientation of international communism which was later termed the “united front” tactic. It is also the congress that broadened the scope of communist activity. Several sessions were dedicated to the mobilisation and organisation of women and the youth, and to the tasks and tactics of communists in trade unions and cooperatives. Read more…

Quebec independence a key to building the left in Canada

By Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler is a socialist and activist based in Ottawa. The following article first appeared on his blog, Life on the Left. —JR

Introduction: The 2017 edition of the Université populaire (the People’s University), meeting in Montréal August 17-19, included a panel of speakers from Quebec and English Canada on the possibilities for building a convergence of left forces in both nations.

It was chaired and introduced by Andrea Levy, a Montréal-based editor of Canadian Dimension, and included André Frappier, a former president of the Montréal postal workers and now a leader of Québec solidaire; Kevin Skerrett, a leading activist in Solidarity Ottawa; Corvin Russell, a Toronto solidarity activist and recently co-author with Andrea Levy of an excellent paper, “Mapping the Canadian Left: Sovereignty and Solidarity in the 21st Century;[1] and myself. I am a member of both Solidarity Ottawa and Québec solidaire. Read more…

Thomas Sankara and national liberation

Internationalism and popular democracy in Burkina Faso, 1983-87

Sankara Poster

By John Riddell: David Crawford Jones’s article on Thomas Sankara, posted earlier this week on this blog , is a perceptive and eloquent tribute to the achievements of Burkina Faso’s revolution under Sankara’s presidency (1983-87).

Yet the text by Jones also criticizes this West African revolution for what he considers to be a fundamental error in strategy, concluding that Sankara represented an oppressive if benevolent Stalinism.

The tension between these two judgments, Jones suggests, arise from two counterposed assessments of Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh either as “great revolutionaries in the tradition of Vladimir Lenin” or as “ruling class tyrants whose revolutions have nothing to do with socialism.” His own view, he says, lies “in between these two adversarial positions.”

Read more…

Exhuming Thomas Sankara: Anti-Imperialism in Burkina Faso, 1983-87


Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, 1983-87

An abridged version of the following text was presented on Sunday, July 9, 2017, to the Socialism 2017 conference in Chicago. See also response by John Riddell and comment by David Crawford Jones

By David Crawford Jones. On May 25, 2015, on a warm Monday morning on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, a large crowd gathered outside the gates to Dagnoen Cemetery, located in an especially destitute neighborhood in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Police, wearing bullet-proof vests with the French word gendarme planted on the back, blocked the crowd’s access to the cemetery grounds. Yet still the mass of people pushed forward, hoping to get even a small glimpse of the shovels piercing the parched earth, robbed of moisture by the steady advance of the Sahara Desert through this landlocked West Africa nation.

Their view of the operation was blocked by the police, by the burnt orange rocks blazing in the sun, and by the few shrubs that ringed the outskirts of Ouagadougou’s most forsaken burying ground. Nonetheless, the crowd knew that its presence was imperative, reflecting both the solemnity of the occasion, as the shovels reached into the earth to pull up a vital piece of the nation’s revolutionary past, as well as the distrust that the masses felt for a government that had long sought to conceal the national legacy of struggle and resistance against corruption, imperialism, and neocolonialism. Read more…

‘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…