Lars Lih: The ironic triumph of ‘old Bolshevism’
The ‘April debates’ and their impact on Bolshevik strategy in 1917
Lars T. Lih challenges a commonly held view of the Russian Bolshevik party conduct during the Russian Revolution of 1917, stressing the continuity between the Bolsheviks’ positions before World War 1 and those advanced during the revolutionary upheaval. The text is based on a talk Lih gave in 2010 and recently revised. Following the text is a note on other places where Lih’s views on this topic are available.–JR
By Lars T. Lih. The negative-sounding title of this talk was a necessary starting point. ‘Old Bolshevism’ – before 1917 and Lenin’s April theses – has a bad reputation on the left as well as the right. It is largely seen as representing a stage which had passed and could be safely discarded. Nobody defends it, and it is considered at best irrelevant to our times. But I think there is a lot of misunderstanding as to what it actually was.
The phrase is introduced into history as an insult, when Lenin says in April 1917 that “old Bolshevism needs to be abandoned”, castigating those ‘old Bolsheviks’ who “have played so regrettable a role in the history of our party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote, instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality”. So the term is birthed under a cloud.
When writing my PhD thesis in the 1980s I ran across this quote and had no idea what Lenin was talking about, what old Bolshevism was. But now, after much effort spent in trying to find out, I have finally come to the conclusion that the commonplace idea that old Bolshevism was thrown overboard is very much misplaced.
So what was old Bolshevism? There has been a lack of study on this question because people have focused too exclusively on the origins of the party split in 1903-04 – before the 1905 revolution, after which old Bolshevism really took shape. Also, Marxists have been somewhat hypnotized by the formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. But this is not the only formula that was used, or the only prism through which the actions of the Bolsheviks can be approached.
Old Bolshevism can be defined as strategy, as an outlook. Lenin himself, in 1910 or 1911 said that Bolshevism became a tendency in 1905 – a strong hint that we should be looking for the strategy pursued in this era. First, old Bolshevism was a vision and strategy of democratic revolution, and carrying through the democratic revolution to the end (do kontsa). That phrase – ‘carrying the democratic revolution to the end’ – is probably more helpful than the ‘democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry’. It was commonly used at the time, but its use has been obscured by Soviet translators into English, who not only paraphrased it, but used different paraphrases each time. It was only after a period of analysis that I realized its frequency in these early texts.
The idea was that the tsar was on his last legs and a democratic revolution was bound to occur. But of what kind, what would be the results, and how far could it proceed? The Bolshevik strategy was for the working class to take as much as it could during this period of ferment while it had the chance to do so. The constituent assembly would come in two, four, or five years and the aim in the meantime was a widespread social transformation. The slogans were confiscation of the estates, agrarian reform, a democratic republic and an eight-hour day – reforms embracing the peasants, workers and all citizens.
Behind those slogans is a lot of content: what Lenin and others called ‘the minimum programme’. But ‘minimum’ is a misleading word: the programme was vast, ambitious and unlikely to be executed. These reforms would turn Russia upside-down – especially confiscation of the estates and the emancipation of the peasantry. What Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted was the liquidation of the landowners, the main power in Russian society, as a class, by removing the basis of their existence. The democratic revolution was seen as a process, which is why I think many people have misinterpreted phrases in Lenin’s later writings such as ‘the second revolution’, or going on the ‘next stage of the revolution’. These ideas were always implicit in the concept of the democratic revolution.
The second aspect of old Bolshevism – that of the worker-peasant alliance – was founded on the idea that the workers would fight for democracy as a way to hasten the socialist revolution (that is, something more than democracy in itself). The peasants were deemed ‘bourgeois democrats’, although very revolutionary ones. The peasants, for various reasons owing to their social position, were unable to carry out their own programme and needed leadership from the working class.
The third aspect is the importance of revolutionary power, or vlast, a Russian word that has a more precise meaning than the English word ‘power’. Vlast means the claiming of legitimate authority in semi-state sense, and the right to use force. The vlast is thus more fundamental than a government. It is the energizing centre of a state, if not a full state itself. So the ‘old Bolsheviks’ said the workers and peasants must take power in order to carry the democratic revolution through to the end. In 1905 and after, the soviets were seen as a form of this class power, though not a necessary one. The Bolsheviks were not then thinking in terms of what Lenin said later on in his State and Revolution: namely, that it was a permanent state form which would be more democratic than any we have seen.
Rather the soviets were seen as a form of state power or vlast which would carry out the tasks of the worker-peasant alliance. So they were not thinking of them in the way we do, since we have read State and Revolution, which was published in 1918 and had almost nothing to do with the Russian Revolution. What they meant was the form of class power, and they were mostly concerned that it was our class doing things and not your class.
This was true back in 1905-06. This class power would take the national form of a revolutionary provisional government (in Russian, ‘temporary’ and ‘provisional’ are the same word). Their concept of a revolutionary provisional government was not that of the actual Provisional Government which arose in 1917, and the Bolsheviks knew this straightaway. Stalin says that explicitly in March: “the Provisional Government is certainly not the revolutionary provisional government”. However, that phrase does change in meaning. But it was accepted that it would be temporary – lasting years maybe. Such a bourgeois republic could only last as long as the workers could work with the peasants, who on the whole were not socialists.
So was this set of ideas replaced in April, and what were the issues in the debate? Mikhail Kalinin wondered why Lenin attacked ‘old Bolshevism’ so vociferously: Kalinin did not see that Lenin’s new theses contradicted old Bolshevism in any crucial way. Statements like this damage the standard picture that the Bolsheviks held up their hands in horror at everything Lenin was saying about the socialist revolution. This is not the case (although there were disagreements, which I will come to).
There is also the question of Stalin, Kamenev and others who had showed up in the February revolution and essentially ran things while Lenin was in exile until his return in April. The usual picture painted is that these leaders wanted to control things in one way, content to let the Provisional Government rule, with the Bolsheviks keeping an eye on things and making sure the government did what it was ‘supposed’ to, until Lenin returned and overturned all this.
What I think happened is rather different. One thing is clear – Stalin, Kamenev et al knew the Provisional Government was counterrevolutionary; they assumed that it would be replaced by a soviet government in a matter of months. So it is not that they were pro-Provisional Government. (There were in fact those among the Bolsheviks at this time who did advocate support for the government, believing it would carry out extensive reforms. These people promptly left, even before Lenin’s arrival – for example, Wladimir Woytinsky, who later wrote some interesting memoirs about the Russian Revolution.)
So what was the disagreement? I think there were two forms of kontrol – I stick with the Russian word here because it means something else than the English term ‘control’ – in Russian the word really means ‘a checking up on’. There are two motivations for this strategy of control or kontrol. One, which I think is that of the moderate socialists, was to show that soviet power – a vlast based on the soviets – was not necessary. Yet in the minds of Kamenev, Stalin and others the opposite was the case. They wanted the strategy of kontrol in order to prove that soviet power was absolutely necessary.
It was an attempt to show that the Provisional Government was not going to carry out what it claimed it was going to and to show the workers and peasants that they are not going to get anywhere unless they replace the government with their own. For Lenin’s opponents, kontrol was just a way of demonstrating this. For example, Kamenev made this point to explain what he was doing. This was after Lenin came back and they were debating about whether the control strategy was a good one or not.
Kamenev said: “When I ask for the government to publish secret treaties, people will say to me: excuse me, you’re demanding something impossible. But the demands I make are not founded on the expectation that [Paul] Miliukov will respond to me and publish the treaties. The policy of making demands that I am advocating is an agitational device for the development of the masses, a method of exposure of the fact that Guchkov and Miliukov cannot do this, that they do not want the publication of the secret treaties that they are against the policy of peace. It is a device for showing the masses that if they really want to create a revolutionary policy on an international level, then the vlast must be transferred into the hands of the soviet”.
Those Bolsheviks who, like Kamenev, were opposed to Lenin were arguing that his opposition to the Provisional Government was too empty, too formal – too much like just sitting there saying that it is an imperialist government. They asked: how do we get across the message that an imperialist government is bad? Let’s put across some specific demands to expose this government. Let’s be more specific and help the Bolsheviks who are working in local soviets.
So my argument about this whole debate is that it was a kind of misunderstanding. Lenin read in the papers about kontrol and got upset. When hearing Lenin say that all that was needed was patient explanation about the need for soviet power, others responded by pointing out that they were in a revolutionary situation and there was a need to be doing things. That is the rather paradoxical aspect of this whole debate. These old Bolsheviks were accusing Lenin of being rather passive! And if you read some of what Lenin was saying then you can see why they were wondering what their chief was actually thinking. In any event, I think this debate is not as important as it is made out to be and that both sides were thinking along the same lines and just trying to formulate a concrete strategy.
There was also a debate about socialist aims. I must say that I did not find anything in the debates about the need for socialist aims in this democratic revolution. That is what we are meant to be scandalized by. I did find some comments, like Rykov’s point about how the Bolshevik revolution must start in the west. So it was there, but not a matter of great controversy. For example, Kamenev states that Lenin’s scheme and understanding of what would come next was good and he agreed with the strategy. But he found it too schematic and did not sufficiently get across concrete advice for the present. In turn, Lenin was not saying that they are going to turn the country upside down with a vast socialist transformation. He had some concrete economic measures like nationalization of the banks, and nobody opposed him by arguing that a measure like this could not be done because it was too early for socialism.
So I am now slowly approaching what I think was the central issue in these different party debates in April. Some sided with Lenin right away, whereas others like Kalinin were baffled. It was about an issue that sounds doctrinal, but – as I will try to show – has an important strategy attached to it. The doctrinal question is: is the bourgeois-democratic revolution over or not?
We all know that Kamenev says that it was not finished, and that shows that he was somehow conciliatory to the government. I start off with this following premise: I have a book by Kamenev which is about 700 pages long, that contains his articles from 1905 to 1913, that is, when he was one of the main spokesmen for old Bolshevism. It is impossible for me to think that this man who wrote these articles, when 1917 rolls around, is going to misunderstand Bolshevism to such an extent that he would say ‘Oh, let’s have a nice bourgeois democratic government – the Provisional Government is bourgeois and we have to allow it to be like this because it is a bourgeois revolution’. That is not what he was saying or what he meant.
The confusion results from the phrase I mentioned at the beginning: ‘democratic revolution to the end’. Had the democratic revolution gone to the end? For Kamenev, and indeed everybody else around him, of course it had not – there was lots left to do: land reform, getting out of the war, economic reform and so on. The process of ‘carrying through the democratic revolution to the end’ had just started.
This issue is not just doctrinal and not just labelling, there is a crucial tactical issue involved. If the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed, then you continue to work with the peasants as a whole. Yet if it is over and done, then you can only work with the poorer peasants. Thus the question at stake here is: who will be our class allies in the coming months? A comment from one Bolshevik in these debates struck me, when he asked, ‘How can the democratic revolution be over? The peasants do not have the land!’ What Kamenev was not saying was that, since the bourgeois democratic revolution was incomplete, we should therefore support the Provisional Government. Rather that the government was doomed, but we still have a long way to go to replace it.
That then leads to the question of why Lenin rejected this and why he thought the bourgeois democratic revolution was over at this point and why they could no longer go with the peasants as a whole. That is a good question. I think the answer is that he wanted to take steps towards socialism, and in order to do that he wanted to believe that the peasants were more differentiated in class terms than they actually were, more proletarian in their outlook, and that there was more class struggle going on within the peasantry than was actually the case. He was so eager to see this that he was ready to do a very un-Bolshevik thing: write off the peasantry and to say that they are not going to support us, that they have been taken in by the imperialist bourgeoisie and support the war effort; thus they should be forgotten and we must move on. He is skeptical to the point of dismissal about the revolutionary potential of the peasantry as a whole – especially the so-called petty bourgeois peasantry, who farm their own land.
I do not want to get into exactly why he got into this idea, but he did. And it took him several years to get past it. That was the argument. It was about a basic question of strategy: namely, should we continue with the old Bolshevik wager on the worker-peasant alliance? Or do we move beyond it now? Not in the future, but now? That is what I think the dispute was. At least that is how the old Bolsheviks opposed to Lenin understood it, and that is what I think scandalized them so much.
I am not 100% sure that the old Bolsheviks understood him correctly, but I can see why they said what they did. That, I think, was the question. I also think that Lenin was wrong, and that he admitted as much. That is to say, after giving in this debate several reasons for saying explicitly that the bourgeois democratic revolution is over (none of which I find particularly convincing), in later years he says just as explicitly that the bourgeois democratic revolution did not end until much later. In late 1918 he stated that October 1917 only began the full democratic revolution and that only now could they move towards socialism. Then later on, in 1921, I found a comment where Lenin says something along the lines of: ‘Well, at least we carried out the bourgeois democratic revolution, at least we accomplished that much – we haven’t got to socialism yet, but we will.’ It is very explicit.
So in April 1917 Kamenev said the bourgeois democratic revolution was not finished and Lenin said it was. Later on Lenin says that actually it was not finished in April 1917. Therefore, Lenin changes his mind and de facto admits that Kamenev was right. His argument in April 1917 is one of the things we forget because it did not pan out.
Although I think Lenin was mistaken in April 1917, I praise him for his later flexibility. I think he was wrong about this issue, which was the source of controversy in April 1917, but he adjusted his views – he did not force his attitude upon the party. The strategy he was advocating for building exclusive poor peasant soviets was never carried out or even attempted, and there is nothing in the records showing that Lenin insisting that it be carried out.
To sum up, it is quite strange that Lenin, who did more than anybody else in formulating the strategy of old Bolshevism, was the one saying at this point that they need to move beyond it. In response, the ‘old Bolsheviks’ he comes up against constantly stress that it should not be moved beyond because it is an excellent strategy. And they were right. It was an excellent strategy – a strategy that won them power.
What I have said so far is the negative aspect of this discussion. I think the idea that Lenin won the party around to a new strategy in April 1917 is seriously deficient – firstly because they did not need to be turned around on the issue of the Provisional Government, and secondly because, on the issue that they were most divided on, it was Lenin who backed down, not the other leading Bolsheviks, such as Kamenev.
Having thrown a skeptical look on the traditional account of the Bolshevik revolution, let me pose this question: can the October revolution be thought of as a triumph of old Bolshevism? Does it work? Does it make sense? This is more speculative and interpretational – unlike in the instance of the ‘April debates’ I am unable to simply say to you that I have read the documents and you have not! Let us just think about this.
The strategy that won the October revolution was exactly the one that old Bolshevism had predicted: an anti-tsarist revolution broke out, the liberals and other wavering forces tried to stop it from going too far, the socialist proletariat pushed forward in order to have a fuller and more complete transformation. Their message to the people was that, unless they have class power, unless they get rid of these liberals and the elite, then they will not even get the basic tasks of the revolution achieved. This message made sense to a lot of people. The Bolsheviks became the majority and they came to power. That is the first thing. I would say the principal reason for the Bolsheviks coming to power in October 1917 was the strategy they had formulated a decade previously.
The second thing is the message that the Bolsheviks were putting across to the people. This is also very interesting. I found a book in Russian in the McGill library from the early 1950s, immediately after Stalin died. The book was a volume of leaflets published by the Moscow organization of the Bolshevik Party. A leaflet should not be conceived of simply as a double-sided piece of A4 paper that contains a few slogans. These were printed in tiny print across eight, sometimes even ten pages. They were more like articles than simply a bunch of slogans. So what was the actual concrete message that the Bolsheviks were sending out to the population at this time? I think this is a question we do not often ask ourselves when thinking about the Russian Revolution. Indeed, how many of us have read Bolshevik leaflets from this time?
The standard story about the April theses implies that Lenin came back from exile and then won the party to propagating the need for socialist revolution. Indeed, this is exactly the point the 1950s Soviet editor made in his introduction to the leaflets. Yet what I found in this sample of leaflets was that in the early summer of 1917, when they did stress socialism a little, it was always phrased in very careful language along the lines of a socialism that was ‘only beginning’.
But what really surprised me is that in late August following the attempted coup d’état by the army commander Kornilov, socialism is dropped altogether. So even in the extremely radicalized times of September and October you will have a very hard time finding any mention of socialism – it just was not the Bolshevik message. Actually, if you look at some of Lenin’s writings in this period you will also notice a strange lack of insistence on it. I am not sure how to explain this, but I assume it was based on the fact that this message was not working, not finding resonance amongst the population. People did not care about it.
The historian, David Mandel, explains 1917 by arguing that the workers supported the Bolsheviks because they were socialists, and as such could be trusted to do all the necessary things. They were tribunes of the people and they were ready to do bold things, but people did not care about whether they were going to introduce socialism or not. If the April 1917 story is correct, then, these leaflets did not say what we should expect them to.
But what they did emphasize was class power. Them or us. The Bolsheviks told their audience: ‘Look around you – we are still in the war, the economy is going into a tailspin, the peasants do not have the land. Why is that? Because they are still in power.’ One good passage I found went something like this: ‘You don’t put bankers in charge of economic reform; you don’t put generals in charge of peace policy: clear them out and replace them with the class power of the workers and peasants, the people, the narod.’ ‘Class power’ is the key phrase. And it was given as a response to the very concrete problems of the day.
Finally, was October a democratic revolution that carried out the minimum programme à la old Bolshevism? Or was it a socialist revolution, as we tend to think of it? I think of it another way around: maybe it was a democratic revolution carried out by socialists who did not have much chance at the time or for many years afterwards to do things that were very socialist. But what they did was informed by their socialism. This was part of the old Bolshevik outlook: namely, that we socialists can carry out the democratic revolution better than any bourgeois democrat precisely because we are socialists.
The first things we think of in terms of a democratic revolution are free speech, contested elections, etc. and, of course, these things were eliminated by the Bolsheviks fairly quickly. So in that sense it sounds weird to say that October was a democratic revolution. But there are other ways in which democracy was understood at the time. Democracy for old Bolshevism meant people running things for themselves, organization of the people, through the people, for the people. There are five main pillars of what constituted this great democratic revolution carried out by the Bolsheviks:
- The war: Have the interests of the soldiers and the peasants sufficiently at heart to know that we have to get out of the war by any means.
- The economy: Use state power to solve the economic crisis. If you look at Lenin’s September 1917 pamphlet The impending catastrophe and how to combat it, this is what he is saying: if we had a truly “revolutionary democratic” government, it could take measures now that can really help the poor people. Everyone knows what needs to be done. The only reason it is not being done is because of the elite and their interests. So if you look at Lenin’s rhetoric he is not talking about new, crazy, socialist ideas, but about doing what the Provisional Government said it would do but is failing to accomplish because it upheld the class interests of the elite. This is Lenin’s diagnosis of the situation.
- The state: The state became a people’s state in the sense that the people were running things. A famous phrase of Lenin’s is his line that any cook can rule and administer the state: not immediately, but if we train them. (By the way, this metaphor goes back to a tsarist minister of education, who was of the opinion that it was wrong to educate the children of cooks, as it would not be good for them and not be good for tsarism.)
- Mass popular education: Lenin, whose father was an educational reformer, was saying that now there is a power which can educate the people as a whole, unlike the tsarist types from the past. Along with that there was a commitment to mass, popular education, which was a basic feature of the soviet regime from the outset.
- Land reform: Finally, there was a commitment to the destruction of the class power of the landowners.
In reality, from the word go, the Bolsheviks had to enact measures to get them out of the huge national crisis. Sometimes these measures were socialist (or could at least be argued to be such) and sometimes they were not. Mainly they were not. Already by 1920 the Bolsheviks were perfectly aware that the economic system they had constructed could not be called socialist (I insist on this, since there is a widespread misapprehension about the Bolshevik stand in 1920). However, they did think that the new government was a class power, run by the people and led by committed socialists, and that this class power had transformed Russia. Later they hoped the country would move onto socialism. So I admire the October revolution more as a democratic revolution than a socialist one – or at least for the first 10 years of its existence.
I do think it was old Bolshevism which came to power in 1917. But this was ironic for a number of reasons. Firstly, what was conceived as something temporary actually turned out to be rather long-lasting. Secondly, what replaced old Bolshevism was what I call ‘state Bolshevism’. The Bolsheviks became the glue holding the state together and this was something that changed everything. Thirdly, old Bolshevism had set itself the mission of democratically transforming Russia, but when they carried this out they were given another mission – rescuing Russia from huge social and political crisis. I admire the Bolsheviks for taking on this mission, but they certainly were not planning to do it, not looking forward to it and they did not exactly like doing so. But they did it, and a lot of heroism and tragedy results from it.
I should end with one more comment. I have stressed the democratic revolution, and this is something that perhaps comes across as entirely positive. But the other side of mass democracy is that it can be cruel, intolerant and so on, because a democratic revolution after many years of war and economic dislocation was never going to be pretty. This aspect also needs to be emphasized.
The democratic nature of the October revolution is thus a vast topic. I only hope we can move beyond some old legends that have kept us from giving this topic the attention it deserves.
Lars Lih’s other presentations of these views:
The ideas of this text are developed more fully in Lars Lih’s article, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context,” in Russian History 38 (2011), 199–242. Lih offers to provide digital versions of this article to interested scholars who lack access to academic online resources. PDFs will be provided for personal research purposes only. Send inquiries to larslih [at] yahoo.ca.
In addition, a video of Lih’s talk on this topic in 2010 is available at https://vimeo.com/17271793. A transcription of the talk initially appeared in Weekly Worker October 7 2010, and it provided the basis for the present text.
For another approach by Lih to these issues, see “The Bolsheviks Achieved a Mighty Peoples’ Revolution.” For a list of Lars Lih’s writings, indicating his works available online, see Lars Lih bibliography on this website.
- Sed’maia (aprel’skaia) vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov); Petrogradskaia obshchegorodskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov)Moscow 1958, p110-12.
- JS Stalin WorksVol 3, p11.
- L Kamenev Mezhdu dvumia revoliutsiiamiMoscow 2003 (first published 1922).
- One possible explanation is the influence of a Karl Kautsky article, ‘Prospects of the Russian Revolution’. See ‘Kautsky, Lenin, and the April Theses’ in Weekly Worker for a translation and a discussion of the article’s potential impact on Lenin.
- Listovki Moskovskoi organizatsii bol’shevikovMoscow 1954 (no named editor).
- D Mandel The Petrograd workers and the Soviet seizure of power: from the July days 1917 to July 1918 New York 1984.