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Creegan: In April 1917 Lenin insisted on overthrow of the government

April 22, 2015

Response by Jim Creegan to Lars T. Lih’s ‘Bolshevism Was Fully Armed’[1]

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By Jim Creegan. Lars Lih’s article, ‘The Bolsheviks were fully armed’(February 26), seems to me to suffer from the absence of at least two crucial distinctions.

The first – and more important – concerns Lih’s view, which he shares with the CPGB, that there was no operational difference between, on the one hand, the Bolshevik slogan of ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ and, on the other, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s April theses. On the contrary, the differences were of great practical significance.

The pre-April Bolsheviks were still invested in the notion of a two-stage revolution. They differed from the Mensheviks, who proposed to “make the bourgeoisie fight”, in their belief that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak and vacillating to carry such a revolution to its conclusion. The work of clearing the way for a preliminary stage of capitalist development would therefore devolve upon the proletariat and peasantry. Their revolutionary dictatorship was, however, seen as a temporary affair, and one that could not transgress the bounds of bourgeois property due to Russia’s overwhelming peasant majority. Once political democracy had been achieved, according to this perspective, the dictatorship would end and the Social Democrats would assume the role of a working class opposition in a bourgeois parliament.

Trotsky’s prognosis differed from that of the Bolsheviks in two important respects. First, he considered it utopian to imagine that the working class, once having conquered power in a revolution waged not only against tsarism, but against the bourgeoisie as well, could turn around and cede power to the bourgeois class antagonist it had just vanquished. Second, he predicted that the working class would, by the very logic of the revolutionary situation, be compelled to take measures that encroached upon bourgeois property (ie, socialist measures) and that, once taken, such measures would be irreversible. A socialist regime in backward Russia could not sustain itself, however, without the aid of the international and, particularly, the European working class. Lenin’s post-April views coincided in practice with Trotsky’s. Hence the rapprochement between the two after years of sometimes bitter factional rivalry, although it is true that Lenin arrived at his views via his own analysis of the dynamics of the February revolution, not by reading Trotsky.

Kamenev’s Pravda editorial, written before Lenin’s return, is obviously guided by the ‘democratic dictatorship’ formula that Lenin was in the process of discarding. Lih is right to point out that this conception did envisage an eventual clash between the bourgeois Provisional government (PG) and the masses. But Lih seems oblivious to the fact that the PG, whatever measures it was taking to dismantle tsarism, was thoroughly committed to the war aims of the Entente – a fact that Kamenev’s editorial also fails to mention. And it was precisely against the war that the masses were revolting. The clash with the PG was not a future inevitability. It was already taking place on the eastern front, from which soldiers were deserting in droves. Lenin was correctly convinced that the road to peace could only lie through the overthrow of the PG, which he therefore demanded that the Bolsheviks adopt as their strategic goal.

This brings me to Lih’s second confusion. He seems not to appreciate the distinction between overthrowing the PG as the major Bolshevik political goal and calling for an immediate insurrection. The first is a matter of strategy, the second of tactics. Proclaiming ‘Down with Kerensky!’ no more implies an immediate insurrection than the slogan, ‘Down with the tsar!’, means that the people should take to the streets the following day. Without setting a precise date for insurrection, Lenin insisted upon his return that the Bolshevik leadership adopt the overthrow of the PG and power to the soviets as the main strategic task of the entire revolutionary process, towards which they must strive to reorient the party, the soviets and the masses. This would have to involve propaganda, agitation and military preparation.

Kamenev’s editorial may, as Lih argues, anticipate a clash with the PG in the near term. Yet he sees such a clash, whose outcome he does not specify, as the result of an automatically unfolding revolutionary dynamic rather than posing the overthrow as a concrete task. He substitutes process for agency. This is undoubtedly the reason why Lenin greeted Kamenev upon returning to Petrograd with the words, “What’s that garbage you’ve been writing in Pravda?”

[1]. First published in Weekly Worker, 5 March 2015 .

From → History, USSR/Russia

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