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Lih: The Bolsheviks achieved a mighty peoples revolution

April 22, 2015

Rejoinder to Jim Creegan’s ‘Lenin insisted on overthrow of the Provisional Government. First published in Weekly Worker, 26 March 2015.

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By Lars T. Lih. Jim Creegan’s letter on the Kamenev editorial from March 1917 brings up issues that demand further discussion. Before turning to these wider issues, however, let me challenge some of Creegan’s factual assertions. I am not “oblivious” to the fact that the Provisional Government of 1917 remained loyal to tsarist treaty commitments—and neither were the Bolsheviks! Articles in Pravda in March 1917 denounced the imperialist war and the government’s commitment to it. But Creegan is wrong to stat that mutiny and mass desertion was already taking place when Kamenev wrote his editorial, or when Lenin returned in April, or for a considerable time thereafter. The political problem that the Bolsheviks faced was the exact opposite: the soldier section of the Petrograd Soviet was so “defensist” that they regard the “defeatist” Bolsheviks as traitors. Precisely for this reason, Lenin dropped all talk of “defeatism” after his return.

Lenin did not call for armed insurrection as either a strategic or tactical goal in spring 19176. On the contrary, he called for “peaceful development” of the revolution whereby a soviet majority (not necessarily a Bolshevik one) would reject coalition politics and create an all-socialist government. Only after the July Days was this tactic/strategy rejected—and even then, only provisionally.

There is no basis for claiming that the Petrograd Bolsheviks passively waited for an automatic process to unfold, thus “substituting process for agency.” On the contrary, they called for active organization of soviet and party forces, campaign to bring home the need for soviet power by exposing the counterrevolutionary nature of the Provisional Government, arming the workers, etc. etc. On the other hand, Lenin also relied on an “automatic unfolding revolutionary dynamic”—namely, the objective reasons that the elite-based Provisional Government would not and could not satisfy the needs of the Russian workers and peasants. Creegan desperately wants to dig as deep a gulf as possible between Lenin and his closest associates, but he can do so only by systematically shuttering out the “active” side of Kamenev and the “automatic” side of Lenin.

Why is Creegan so fervidly anti-Old Bolshevik? All for the greater glory of Lev Trotsky and his formula of “permanent revolution.” For some reason, many admirers of Trotsky don’t think he looks good unless Old Bolsheviks look bad. This problem brings us to the wider issues about the profound nature of the Russian revolution and the role of Bolshevism. Let us start by positing that any political strategy from the 1905-1907 period would need substantial modification to fit a revolution that broke out in very different circumstances over a decade later. Creegan points out some of the changes required by the Old Bolshevik outlook, but he and the Trotskyist tradition in general seem to be under the mistaken impression that their hero’s scenario from 1905-1907 did not also require substantial modification in 1917 and years after. We can illustrate this by looking at the question of the peasantry.

Talking about the Russian revolution without talking about the peasant is almost like talking about Hamlet without the Prince. When Creegan discusses the Old Bolshevik strategy, he brings in the peasant (the proletariat in power “could not transgress the bounds of bourgeois property due to Russia’s overwhelming peasant majority”). When he discusses the “permanent revolution” strategy, the peasant is only vaguely implied (“a socialist regime in backward Russia could not sustain itself” in the absence of European revolution). Let us review the logic of Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” and the role in it played by the peasant.

The centrality of the peasant to the 1905 revolution was evident to all Social Democratic observers, and so they applied what I have termed “the axiom of the class ally”: the proletariat cannot go further in any revolution than the class interests of a necessary class ally. Attached to this major premise was a minor premise about Russia: the peasantry was not ready to move toward socialism. Conclusion: the upcoming Russian revolution could not directly move to socialism and the proletariat could therefore not remain in power after the revolutionary period. Although Trotsky fully accepted both premises, he still thought that the proletariat could and should stay in power until forced out.

He pictured post-revolutionary relations with the peasantry as follows: the proletariat in power would carry out various democratic reforms that would win the loyalty of the peasant. But the class nature of the proletariat would compel it to take socialist measures that would inevitably alienate the peasant majority. The resulting clash would be “the beginning of the end … the conflict will end in civil war and the defeat of the proletariat. Within the confines of a national revolution, and given our social conditions, there is no other ‘way out’ for the proletariat’s political domination.” In other words, in the absence of European revolution, even an originally democratic revolution would inevitably end up in civil war between workers and peasants, leading to defeat (both political and moral, although Trotsky didn’t stress this point) for the proletariat. Trotsky was unfazed by this horrendous outcome because he was so sure that the Russian revolution would lead to a successful European revolution.

Let us now turn to the Russian revolution and its aftermath. In 1917, Lenin did make an innovation (not a fundamental break) by proposing that meaningful “steps toward socialism” could be made in Russia with the peasant’s support (thus preserving the axiom of the class ally). After the October revolution, efforts were made to pursue this path by encouraging collective agricultural production. But the peasants did not take kindly to these efforts, and the Bolsheviks voluntarily called them off (long before the introduction of NEP in 1921, by the way). Of course, there was much conflict between the peasantry and “soviet power” during the civil war, but these conflicts arose from the burdens of achieving a common goal, namely, defeating the anti-democratic counterrevolution. If the Bolsheviks had been compelled, à la Trotsky, to alienate the peasantry by forcing socialist measures on them, the revolution would have gone down the drain in short order. Luckily, the Bolsheviks—very much including Trotsky himself—refused to act out this logic.

We should not let ourselves get bogged down in some sort of contest over which 1905 strategy—Old Bolshevism vs. “permanent revolution”—had to be modified the most. Yet I believe that the heart of Old Bolshevism was preserved. This core can be stated as follows: the socialist proletariat will carry out a mighty “people’s revolution” (narodnaia revoliutsiia) by providing political leadership to the peasantry, resisting “bourgeois liberal” attempts to cut short the revolution halfway, beating back the armed counterrevolution, and carrying out a vast political and social transformation of Russia. The victorious Red Army—manned by peasant recruits, officered by politically neutered “bourgeois specialists,” and guided by a party based in the socialist proletariat—was the incarnation and vindication of Old Bolshevism.

  1. Levi Rafael permalink

    The old hydra of “Trotsky underestimated the peasantry” seems to come up in this article. For a century now Trotsky is portrayed as being anti-peasant, or for not sufficiently taking them into account when formulating his interpretation of permanent revolution and recognizing the necessity to begin the social revolution in the backward, semi-feudal/colonial countries. Yet I believe that it was Trotsky who was encouraging Lenin during the most turbulent years of War-Communism that something akin to the NEP needed to be adopted to win the support of the peasantry and to keep the economy afloat. Trotsky’s interpretation of the worker-peasant alliance was that the alliance should be under workers’ hegemony and should seek to ally itself with the poorer sections of the peasantry against the wealthier, labor-exploiting peasantry. Lenin was pretty clear that this was also his conception of the worker-peasant alliance towards the end of his life. It confuses me why Trotsky is still portrayed as having put forward anti-peasant demands, when in Permanent Revolution and in his work during the Left Opposition years that he makes it quite clear that he was a staunch defender of the worker-peasant alliance, but argued that only the working class could effectively lead this alliance by being able to supply the poorer peasants with modern farm machinery that would have modernized peasant agriculture and thus create a material incentive for poorer peasants to the formation of cooperatives.

  2. I don’t see evidence that Trotsky’s approach to the peasantry in the years of “war communism” and NEP was different from that of Lenin and the Bolshevik mainstream. Note for example his article “the Communists and the French peasantry” in his “First Five Years of the Communist International” and compare it with the Comintern’s resolution on the topic, “Theses on the Agrarian Question”, drafted by Lenin and adopted by the Second Congress (1920). Both items are on line.

    Also, I do not think that Lars Lih is asserting that Trotsky’s pre-1917 assessment of the peasantry’s revolutionary potential is different from that of Lenin. It’s the strategy for revolution that was different.

    It does seem to me that the Russian peasantry showed a capacity to embrace socialist revolution greater than what any wing of pre-1917 Social Democrats had anticipated — but whether that is true depends on one’s conception of socialist revolution.

    John Riddell

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