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Thirteen to two: Petrograd Bolsheviks debate the April Theses

July 20, 2017

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.

In this post, we turn our attention to the other major anecdotal pillar of the “rearming” narrative. Indeed, one can argue that the thirteenth-to-two vote is the one hard fact showing widespread, total rejection of the April Theses by party members. Only—on close inspection this hard fact melts away like snow in sunshine. Our knowledge of the debate comes from a rather confused set of minutes that was first published in 1927. As far as I know, these minutes have not been investigated in detail by anyone after their first publication. When I embarked on such an investigation, I quickly saw that something was wrong with the standard account.

The thirteen-two vote implies that only two people supported the Theses—but when we look at the remarks of the six people who spoke during the committee discussion, we find that four of them had nothing but praise for the Theses. The other two speakers (one of whom was a non-voting guest) were worried about the possible implications of some of the Theses that in their view would cause difficulties for practical agitation. Even these two speakers had warm words for the Theses as a whole.

According to the minutes published in 1927, the thirteen-two vote was about whether to accept the Theses “as a whole” [v tselom vse]. Since all participants made clear their general support for the Theses, the committee vote cannot be understood as a wholesale rejection of the Theses. Rather, it indicates that some committee members had reservations that prevented the committee from giving unqualified support.

These facts about the vote are not the only reason why the debate in the Petrograd Committee undermines rather than supports the standard “rearming” narrative. According to this narrative, resistance to the April Theses is read as resistance to the whole idea of overthrowing the Provisional Government and replacing it with soviet power. Yet the committee member who expressed the most misgivings about Lenin’s Theses was Sergei Bagdatev, a Bolshevik who was so eager for soviet power that he was rapped on the knuckles by Lenin and the Central Committee for issuing the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government!” during the anti-government demonstrations that took place at the end of April.

As the epigraph to this article shows, Bagdatev affirmed his support for soviet power in order to explain his misgivings about the Theses. During both the Petrograd Committee meeting and the April party conferences, Bagdatev stressed that he spoke as a praktik, that is, as someone directly concerned with what worked and what didn’t when addressing the Bolshevik target audience: “I go to the rallies and listen attentively to the voice of the masses and I have come to the conclusion about what we should demand from the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies, more accurately from the Provisional Government via the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies.”[1]

At least one historian has noted that Bagdatev is not playing the role assigned to him in the rearming narrative. In his biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff writes about this episode:

Bagdatev, the left extremist secretary of the Bolshevik Committee of the Putilov works … could say: “Kamenev’s report on the whole anticipated my position. I also find that the bourgeois democratic revolution has not ended and Kamenev’s resolution is acceptable for me … I think that Comrade Lenin had too early rejected the point of view of old Bolshevism.”

At the same time [Bagdatev] showed his radicalism by stating: “everywhere and always every day, we have to show the masses that until power has been transferred into the hands of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, there is no hope for an early end of the war and no possibility for the realization of their program.”

What muddled thinking![2]

Cliff is to be commended for noting an anomaly, that is, existing evidence that the standard interpretation is hard put to assimilate. Unfortunately, instead of considering the possibility that the standard narrative is muddled, Cliff simply assumes that the long-time Bolshevik activist is muddled. As we shall see, Bagdatev is not muddled at all: his misgivings about the April Theses are shrewd and to the point.

A voice from the archives

After arriving at the conclusion that something was seriously wrong with the anecdote of the thirteen-two vote, I had the somewhat unsettling but gratifying experience of receiving confirmation by a voice from the grave—that is, by an archival document written in 1934 but only published in 2003. This document has been completely overlooked to date, and I myself only ran across it last year (2016).

Owing to a projected republication of the committee minutes in 1934 (which never occurred), the two major participants in the original 1917 debate—Bagdatev and V. N. Zalezhsky—wrote a letter to the Leningrad Institute for Party History in order to set the record straight: the original stenographer had misinterpreted the thirteen-two vote. The committee had actually voted unanimous approval of the Theses as a whole; the recorded thirteen-two vote was on a motion by Zalezhsky, who wanted an even greater show of solidarity and proposed that the Theses be accepted without any reservations or criticisms whatsoever. This was the proposal that was rejected by a large margin. Bagdatev and Zalezhsky’s statement from 1934 poses a direct challenge to the entire “rearming” narrative of Lenin’s April Theses “exploding like a bomb” among Bolshevik activists. Given its crucial importance, I have translated it in its entirety (see Appendix).

Any lingering doubts that the 1934 document was perhaps some sort of post-facto revisionism were laid to rest when I looked up an article published by Zalezhsky in 1923. This article was written while memories were still fresh and before the whole issue of the April Theses was politicized by Trotsky’s 1924 pamphlet Lessons of October. Zalezhsky’s 1923 account was vetted by Aleksandr Shliapnikov, a senior Bolshevik leader also present in Petrograd at the time, who corrected some details. Since Zalezhsky was not yet misled by the confusing set of minutes, he stated as a fact that “it was precisely among the members of the PK that [Lenin’s] famous theses … found the greatest sympathy and the swiftest recognition.” (The relevant passages from this article are provided in the Appendix.)

One final nail can be hammered into the coffin of the standard anecdote. After the debate on April 8, committee members went around to district party committees (Petrogradskoi, Vasileostrovskoi, second Gorodskoi) around the city. Members of the city-wide committee such as Liudmilla Stal and Zalezhsky successfully proposed resolutions that repeated the line taken by the committee: “After considering Lenin’s theses, the meeting judged them correct in general [v obshchem i tselom] and mandated its representatives to defend them, but during the debates at the conference they can introduce this or the other particular correction.”[3] As a result, as Zalezhsky remarked in 1923, “district after district showed their solidarity with the Theses, and at the All-Russian party conference that began on April 22, the Petersburg organization as a whole spoke in favor of the theses.”

To sum up: new archival evidence shows that Lenin’s April Theses were unanimously accepted as a whole by the Petrograd Bolshevik Committee on April 8. The thirteen-two vote does not mean thirteen members of the Committee rejected the Theses as a whole. It does not even mean that thirteen members had specific objections in mind. It only means that thirteen members thought that Bagdatev or any other critic had the right to bring forward their misgivings at the upcoming party conferences.

Turncoat documents

The minutes of the Petrograd Committee meeting in April are yet another turncoat document that seems to offer strong support for one narrative, but, under intensive interrogation, switches sides and offers strong support for a rival. The new understanding of the thirteen-two vote is not the only reason for this switch in allegiance. Let us summarize the crucial points brought out by an examination of the substantive course of the debate:

  1. The common assumption that a large majority of Petrograd Bolshevik activists rejected the April Theses in toto is a myth. On the contrary, the Petrograd Committee showed strong support for the crucial parts of the Theses, accompanied with requests for clarification on the practical implications of certain points.
  2. Those Bolsheviks who supported the Theses without reservation all stressed the continuity of Lenin’s views with the past—with prewar Bolshevism as well as the committee’s own recent position in March 1917. Thus these supporters of the Theses saw no need to “rearm” Old Bolshevism with a radical overhaul.
  3. The Bolshevik praktiki in Russia did not need an émigré from Switzerland to tell them that the war was imperialist, that the Provisional Government was counterrevolutionary, or that soviet power was a priority goal. These parts of the April Theses did not spark controversy. Indeed, the misgivings of the praktiki arose from the suspicion that some of Lenin’s Theses would hamper their drive to persuade the masses of these crucial points.
  4. The practical methods defended by these Bolshevik critics were the ones actually used throughout the year—the methods that led to victory in October. To say that Bolshevik critics were right is not at all to say that Lenin was wrong. The critics said to Lenin something like the following: your Theses as presented upon your arrival here seem to imply x, y, or z. Do you really mean that? Because if you do, we foresee big problems in obtaining mass support for Soviet power. Lenin’s response to such questions, for the most part, was to say: no, I don’t mean that (see Part 5 of this series). And by the time he had succeeded in clarifying what he actually had in mind, the Bolsheviks realized that they were all essentially on the same page.

An examination of the course of the debate in the Petrograd Committee will illustrate these points.

The non-controversial heart of the April Theses

Historians often operate with the dubious assumption that the reaction to the April Theses was either thumbs-up or thumbs-down—that people were either for or against them as a whole.  According to Christopher Read, there was no point of contact between Lenin and the Petrograd Bolsheviks, so that “when he arrived back he did not, in any real sense, have a party.” His Theses “had the impact of a hand grenade,” forcing Lenin to act “like a schoolmaster in front of a dim class.” Read goes through the Theses point-by-point on the evident assumption that if a position is in the Theses, the Petrograd Bolsheviks disagreed with it.[4] (From my point of view, the “dim class” had something to teach the schoolmaster.)

Perhaps one reason for this unwarranted assumption is precisely the anecdote of the thirteen-two vote in the Petrograd Committee: imagine, a large majority completely rejects the April Theses as a whole! In actuality, a proper examination of this episode will show us which points in the April Theses were controversial and which were accepted without demur. Bagdatev had specific criticisms relating to four of Lenin’s ten Theses. In no case did he object to everything contained even in these four paragraphs. Let us set these particular points aside, however, and list all the Theses that were evidently non-controversial and taken for granted by members of the Petrograd committee (Lenin’s numbering):

  1. No concession to “revolutionary defencism.” Only soviet power can justify the war.
  2. Russia is going through a transition from the first stage of the revolution—one that gave the vlast to the bourgeoisie—to a second stage that will create a vlast resting on the proletariat and poorest peasantry. This transition requires a new kind of party work, one aimed at the newly awakened mass constituency.
  3. “No support for the Provisional Government.” No objection was made to this assertion but rather to Lenin’s insistence in this same point that no “demands” should be made on the government.
  4. As long as the Bolsheviks are in a minority in the soviets, we must preach the necessity of transferring all of the vlast to the soviets in order to persuade them in a peaceable manner.
  5. Confiscation of gentry land, nationalization of all land, etc.
  6. Amalgamation of the banks into one national bank under government regulation.
  7. Creation of a new, revolutionary International.

These non-controversial theses set out the basic political strategy of the Bolsheviks: full soviet power, rejection of “revolutionary defensism,” exposure campaigns aimed at winning over the soviet constituency, land to the peasants, state regulation of the economy, a sharp break with the existing socialist International. Controversies only arose about how best to achieve these aims held in common. Let us now turn to the specific misgivings expressed by Bagdatev at the Petrograd Committee on April 8 as well as at the party conferences held in the following weeks.

One of the reasons for the long misapprehension of the Petrograd Committee debate is the unsatisfactory state of the minutes. As all who have worked with these minutes discover, the secretary who recorded the debate was often out of her depth, with the result that the speakers sometimes make no sense and other times their remarks require emendation. Fortunately, in the case of the most important speakers—Bagdatev, Zalezhsky, and Stal—we have other sources that guarantee that all remarks quoted here represent their views. Bagdatev and Stal spoke at the two Bolshevik conferences in April; Zalezhsky’s later memoirs and analyses are also helpful in establishing the meaning of the text. (In the text that follows, “CC” indicates the Petrograd city conference and “ARC” indicates the All -Russian conference.)[5]

Sergei Bagdatev’s misgivings

In his remarks both at the Petrograd Committee meeting and at the April party conferences, Bagdatev stressed that he accepted the general thrust of the theses. Nevertheless, he had misgivings about the possible implications of some of the Theses for practical Bolshevik agitation. We should bear in mind that Lenin’s Theses were first published in Pravda only one day previously in the form of ten pithy epigrams, and their implications were far from clear.

Bagdatev’s misgivings arose out of his commitment to the political strategy worked out in March, so let’s review it (for more detail, see earlier posts in this series). The Petrograd Bolsheviks took over from prewar Bolshevism the axiomatic goal of establishing a vlast based on the workers and peasants, probably in the form of the soviets. The task of this revolutionary vlast was to carry out the aims of the revolution “to the end”; the socialist proletariat and its party would provide essential political leadership. After the February revolution, the Bolsheviks were confronted with the fact that the actually existing soviets were not yet ready to live up to the role assigned to them in the Old Bolshevik scenario. The first task of the Bolsheviks was therefore to persuade the soviet constituency to fight for full soviet power. But this task presented unexpected challenges, since this constituency included non-“purposive” workers and soldier/peasants and not just the milieu of purposive workers in which the  underground party had thrived.

The response of the Petrograd Bolsheviks to this tactical challenge can be paraphrased as follows: We Bolsheviks can feel assured that the counterrevolutionary, elite-based Provisional Government cannot solve the problems of the revolution, of the war, and of the spiraling economic crisis (the razrukha). Not only will the government fail to live up to its commitments to the soviets, but it is sure to resort soon to an open offensive against the soviets. But how do we get the soviet constituency to realize all this, while avoiding any risk of premature attempts to overthrow the government? Solution: we will mount agitation campaigns that will place carefully chosen demands on the Provisional Government—demands (a) that the soviet constituency will accept as reasonable, and (b) that the Provisional Government will reliably refuse to carry out, no matter what its rhetoric. As a result, the soviet constituency will realize the utter inadequacy of the Provisional Government and therefore that a soviet vlast is the only viable alternative.

An energetic campaign that fulfilled these criteria was launched in March and called for the publication of the secret treaties. This campaign continued throughout the year and was vital to Bolshevik success. At the April conferences, Kamenev defended demands of this kind as “an agitational device for the development of the masses, a method of exposure.”

As we shall see, Bagdatev’s four misgivings were aimed at protecting what he rightly thought of as a winning strategy.

First misgiving

Does Lenin really mean to ban the use of “demands” in agitation campaigns?

Lenin came back to Russia dead set against two kinds of “demands.” First, he condemned socialists who made demands on the government in the genuine hope that the government would carry them out. This kind of “demand” was the essence of what was soon to be called “agreementism” (soglashatelstvo). No Bolshevik disagreed with Lenin about this kind of demand. But immediately after his arrival, Lenin also opposed demands made with a very different aim, namely, to expose and thus condemn “agreementism” itself. This kind of “demand” would enable the soviet constituency to see in practice the futility of any expectation that the government would ever fulfill the soviet program. Demands of this kind were the heart of agitation campaigns that aimed at discrediting the government’s false rhetoric. The aim was not to shore up “agreementism” but rather to undermine it.

Lenin wanted “the utter falsity of all the Provisional Government’s promises” to be made clear—but at the same time he rejected the use of “demands”: “Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.” But from the point of view of the praktiki, it made no sense to choose between exposure and making demands: the latter was a means to the former.

Lenin’s rejection of campaign-oriented “demands” was clearly a product of his polemical obsession with West European socialists such as Kautsky, who (according to Lenin) fostered illusions by making “demands” for peace, etc. But this obsession did not fit the Russian situation, where the Bolsheviks were not engaged in intra-socialist polemics but in winning over the masses.

When Lenin looked over the March Pravda during the train trip home, he darkly suspected that the “demands” therein mentioned were perhaps a form of agreementism unworthy of Bolsheviks. Even if this were not the case, he felt, “demands” were an improper and/or ineffective method of exposing the government, since they sowed illusions that the government might actually fulfill the request. Besides, to make a demand in and of itself implies support. In contrast, Lenin advocated “patient explanation” that would discourage the soviet constituency from making demands of any sort.

To the praktiki, this advice asked them to switch from mass campaigns—noisy processions in the street carrying placards that demanded this or that, or mass rallies and factory meetings that passed resolutions calling on the government to do this or that—and to rely on lectures by propagandists expatiating on the class basis of society. (“Propaganda” was a technical term used by the praktiki to mean intensive educational efforts aimed at small groups.) In response to Lenin, Bagdatev insisted that demand-based exposure campaigns aimed at a mass constituency were an essential tool for achieving soviet power:

Approaching the mass in concrete terms, we must tell them that the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies must take over the vlast, since the Provisional Government cannot realize the democratic demands of the masses. And we must set forth these demands in order to show the masses that in real life [na dele] the government is unable to satisfy them and for this reason we must transfer the vlast to the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies.  [CC, 18]

He was understandably upset to learn from the April Theses that “Com. Lenin is against making demands on the government” [ CC 17]:

Is Lenin correct, [or is it rather] good practice to demand that the Provisional Government repudiate annexations and contributions[?] It is practical. Is [making demands just] another illusion[?] But it can’t be done otherwise! …

We say: we demand the publication of the treaties, knowing ahead of time that this is hopeless. Sometimes doing this is necessary. The experience of reality is necessary. Let the crowd see [for themselves]. An object lesson, and a necessary one …

Lenin’s Theses are basically correct, but they pose problems for praktiki, since the demand for peace, for the publication of treaties and the 8-hour working day are [all] concrete demands.

Making this sort of demand did not imply support of the government—it was merely a recognition of reality:

I didn’t say anything about supporting the Provisional Government. As long as the troops follow the orders of the Provisional Government, we say [to them]: demand this and that from it. We say to the narod, to the army: if you don’t believe us, support the Provisional Government, demand this or that [from them]. This is a question of practice.”

Instead of arguing about whether to make demands, the Bolsheviks would be better advised to think about which concrete demands to make—for example, the pros and cons of demanding land confiscation vs. demanding the publication of secret treaties: “About the confiscation of [gentry] lands: in our case, this is the most advantageous issue on which to give battle. Here the Provisional Government cannot talk its way out, as it does with the publication of secret treaties, [by arguing that this is equivalent to] a separate peace.”

Bagdatev’s discussion of “demands” show that his misgivings on this score were not due to some highfalutin ideological objection or to dogged loyalty to an out-of-date Old Bolshevism. He and Lenin want the same thing: to win over the soviet constituency as a first step to replacing the Provisional Government with soviet power. As a hands-on activist, Bagdatev thought he had something useful to say to an émigré who had arrived only a week earlier. I think most informed observers—once they grasp Bagdatev’s point—will agree with him.

Second misgiving

Does Lenin really mean to say that the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution is over and thus that we no longer need peasant allies?

“The whole question is whether the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed.” So Bagdatev proclaimed during the Petrograd Committee debates. According to a tradition that goes back to Trotsky in 1924 and was later enshrined in Stalin’s Short Course—a tradition still unchallenged today—Bagdatev’s assertion is logically equivalent to proclaiming, “let the bourgeois Provisional Government rest undisturbed, since there is no ideological rationale for soviet power.” But, as we have seen, Bagdatev was an energetic advocate for replacing the Provisional Government with soviet power. There are two possibilities: either Bagdatev is very muddled indeed, or the currently unchallenged scholarly tradition has completely mistaken the import of Bagdatev’s assertion about the unfinished revolution. The second alternative is correct.

Let us translate Bagdatev’s assertion out of Bolshevik-ese. The Old Bolshevik scenario said that a revolutionary government based on the workers and peasants was necessary in order to combat bourgeois liberal leadership of the revolution and to drive the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution “to the end” [do kontsa]. Only when the revolution was completed would the rationale for a worker-peasant vlast recede. Therefore, for a Bolshevik to say that the bourgeois-democratic revolution was not yet completed [ne zakonchena] was equivalent to affirming that a worker/peasant vlast was still necessary. By the same token, to affirm that the bourgeois-democratic revolution was already completed was equivalent to saying there was no longer a rationale for a worker/peasant class alliance (see the earlier post in this series on the logic of “hegemony”).

Not only in the April Theses but in other scattered comments after his return, Lenin seemed disillusioned about the prospect of the Russian peasants supporting even a thorough-going democratic revolution, much less a socialist one.[6] Bagdatev reacted strongly against this skepticism, arguing as follows: Lenin thinks that the revolutionary democracy—that is, the non-proletarian section of the narod—is already imperialist in its views, and that the petty bourgeoisie has a material interest in these policies. This attitude can be put down to émigré skepticism: “if he has doubts about the peasantry, then I think that this speaks to a simple lack of knowledge or a real feel for the peasant mass.” Our peasantry is not like the European one: “In my opinion, com. Lenin’s evaluation is mistaken: here in Russia, imperialism has not set down such deep roots” as in Europe.

Bagdatev’s misgivings on this issue, like all his other misgivings, arose from very practical concerns, not ideological pedantry. A central question of revolutionary strategy in 1917 was: can we rely on the peasantry? If the Bolsheviks insisted that the peasant majority first had to come over “to our point of view”—that is, become committed socialists—then the party certainly could not count on them as allies in the coming months of revolution. This reasoning was axiomatic for all Russian Social Democrats (including Trotsky). And, if the Bolsheviks gave up on enlisting the peasants as allies, Bogdatev said, what was the point of even talking about transferring the vlast to “soviets of worker, soldier and peasant deputies”?

It would be incorrect to assume that the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies could not take over the vlast unless they came over to our point of view [about socialism]. And the entire essence of our disagreements is bound up in this: com. Lenin assumes that the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies must [first] come over to our view of things and only then can it take the vlast in its hands and begin to sketch out socialist steps [ARC].

Bagdatev also used socialist jargon about “the minimum program” vs. “the maximum program.” Again, we need to translate out of Bolshevik-ese. The “minimum program” may sound unambitious, but it actually refers to the maximum transformation of Russia possible while retaining capitalism. Thus, in 1917, the “minimum program” meant achieving the most highly advanced democratic republic in Europe, the liquidation of the gentry landowners as a class, a radical change in foreign policy, and extensive government regulation of the economy. For Bagdatev, then, the various concrete measures mentioned in the April Theses (confiscation of the estates, bank regulation) were all part of the minimum program.

Just as important, the “minimum program” in Bolshevik discourse implied “the program we share with the peasants.” To go from the minimum program to the “maximum program”—direct socialist transformation—meant leaving behind peasant allies. It meant focusing the party’s attention on converting peasants to “our point of view” about socialism rather than fighting alongside the soldiers and peasants to achieve all the ambitious “democratic” tasks just mentioned.

The whole question consists of this: can we step forward now with the maximum program of our revolution? For example, the confiscation of gentry lands [part of the minimum program] does not logically contradict the ideology of the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies …

I think that com. Lenin is too quick to abandon Old Bolshevik point of view. We always thought that nationalization of banks, and railroads, etc. would not go beyond capitalism, would not take us to the socialist system [and thus these measures are also part of the minimum program]. The Old Bolsheviks assume that the dictatorship of the workers and peasants is still on the agenda …

Therefore, my thought is as follows: the bourgeois-democratic revolution is still not completed. Implementing the 8-hour day, a huge progressive tax on capital, arming the whole narod—all of these are principles of our minimum program which the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies can carry out without coming over to our point of view.

I have been at pains to translate Bagdatev’s argument out of Bolshevik-ese for the benefit of all those scholars who have not yet learned to “read Bolshevik.” This is a difficult task, with plenty of scope for misunderstanding. I mention this, not just out of self-pity, but because the Bolsheviks faced the same problem in 1917. Language that made perfect sense within the circle of longtime activists made no sense to the larger soviet constituency. In particular, labelling the on-going Russian revolution as “bourgeois-democratic” was a non-starter.

The Bolsheviks therefore dropped the qualifier “bourgeois-democratic” and simply talked about “the revolution.” They did not start talking about the “socialist revolution,” a term that is conspicuous by its absence in Bolshevik rhetoric before October (except when talking about international revolution). In fact, the meaning of “revolution” in the Bolshevik message in 1917 is pretty much what Bagdatev sketched out in these comments in April: a large-scale program of democratic transformation (including extensive regulation of the economy) carried out by a worker/peasant vlast. The Bolshevik message in 1917 was “the revolution is far from finished—let’s carry it out to the end.”

To sum up: historians have not understood why Bagdatev and others were so insistent that the bourgeois-democratic revolution had not been completed. To make sense of it, they have imputed all sorts of implausible motives. Perhaps this assertion was due to a militant lack of ambition: an absolute insistence that the revolution limit itself to petty reformism.[7] Or perhaps it was due to “stagism,” that is, a pedantically Marxist insistence that history proceed by proper stages: feudal, bourgeois, socialist. Or maybe it was a fussy loyalty to the terminology of Old Bolshevism. In the rare case where a historian notices that Bagdatev was in fact an ardent partisan of soviet power, his position is simply put down to muddled thinking.

None of the above. Bagdatev was a revolutionary praktik, and his insistence on this point was based on a central question of practical politics: the class forces driving the revolution. Soviet power made sense only if the non-proletarian section of the narod—primarily the peasants—were on board. Bagdatev had good reason to be unsure of Lenin’s position on this vital issue. It was up to Lenin to allay these misgivings, and (as we shall see) he eventually did so.

Third misgiving

Does Lenin really want to give up on the slogan “Convene the Constituent Assembly”?

Long before 1917, Russian revolutionaries had traditionally called for a Constituent Assembly that would establish a new post-revolutionary political order. An elected Constituent Assembly would be the cleanest and most radical break with the existing tsarist system—a guarantee that the tsarist government itself could not influence the outlines of the future. Even though the February revolution disposed of the tsar and his government more sweepingly than expected, a Constituent Assembly remained an axiomatic goal in 1917, one accepted by the entire political spectrum.

Like everybody else in spring 1917, Bagdatev could only guess at the future relations between the Constituent Assembly, the soviets, the Provisional Government, and local self-government. What prompted his worries about the April Theses on this point was Lenin’s assertion that a Republic of Soviets superseded parliamentary government. Bagdatev wasn’t interested in assessing the theoretical advantages of a soviet-based republic over a parliamentary one, nor was he interested in whether or not such an advanced form of democracy was suitable for Russia in 1917. Rather, he saw the call for a Constituent Assembly as an effective slogan that would help overthrow the Provisional Government, and he was worried that Lenin’s rejection of “parliamentarianism” implied a rejection of this slogan:

Com. Lenin says that to go from the Soviets back to parliamentarianism would be to go backwards and not forward—that Soviets of worker and soldier deputies can replace local self-government, and therefore, [it seems to follow] that they can replace the Constituent Assembly as well. [But] the best method to force the Provisional Government to leave is to demand the promptest possible calling of the Constituent Assembly, after it has turned into a demand of the majority. In Lenin’s theses, there is nothing about the Constituent Assembly.

Was Bagdatev’s misgiving justified—that is, did the April Theses really entail a rejection of the Constituent Assembly? This is a tricky question to answer. If we look at Lenin’s pronouncements after October 1917, the answer is “yes.” Lenin justified the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 by claiming that soviet-style democracy was superior to “parliamentarianism.” Furthermore, he pointed to the April Theses and the resolution of the April party conferences as a clear statement of this position and therefore a justification in advance of the Bolshevik attitude toward the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. In fact, most of Lenin’s retrospective allusions to the April Theses focus on this contrast between soviet democracy and parliamentarianism.

If we look at the statements of Lenin and indeed of the entire party issued prior to October, a startlingly different picture emerges. Not only did the Bolsheviks support the convening of the Constituent Assembly, they pictured themselves as its great champion against the Provisional Government. In his urgent and confidential missives to his party comrades in fall 1917, Lenin insisted on the danger to the Constituent Assembly should the Provisional Government not be promptly overthrown. The strong contrast between the statements issued before and after October was an embarrassment to the Bolsheviks and led to various attempts to explain it away.[8]

These later events were of course unknown to Bagdatev when the Petrograd Committee debated the Theses on April 8. Nevertheless, by the time of the debate, Lenin had already twice made clear that there was no clash between his Theses and the call for a Constituent Assembly. In his speech to a group of Bolsheviks the day after he arrived, he said (according to the minutes) that “I would be happy if the Constituent Assembly were called for tomorrow, but to believe that Guchkov [a minister in the Provisional Government] will call the Constituent Assembly is naïve … The Soviet of Worker Deputies is the only government that can summon this assembly.”

In the first publication of the Theses that appeared in Pravda the day before the Petrograd Committee debates, Lenin was exasperated with his critics: “I attacked the Provisional Government for not having appointed an early date or any date at all for the calling of the Constituent Assembly, and for trying to get out of it just with promises. I argued that without the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the calling of the Constituent Assembly is not secured and its success is impossible. And the view is attributed to me that I am opposed to the earliest possible calling of the Constituent Assembly!”

We historians have had a long time to assimilate the April Theses; Bagdatev had one day. If he overlooked this comment in Lenin’s article (not in the Theses themselves), he can be forgiven. Thus his misgivings on this point seem like a simple misunderstanding. Furthermore, as far as I can make out (the recorded remarks are a little hard to decipher), the Bolsheviks who defended the April Theses all assumed the future existence of the Constituent Assembly.

Bagdatev was not the only participant in the Petrograd Committee to express misgivings about Lenin’s call for a Republic of Soviets. The familiar question arose: what class forces would support this republic? The following exchange is telling. The first speaker is Konstantin Iurenev, a leader of the Mezhraiontsy, the group that Trotsky joined when he returned to Russia a month later.[9] Iurenev’s presence as a guest in this Bolshevik debate indicates that a de facto amalgamation of the two groups was already in progress (it became official in August). The second speaker, Liudmilla Stal, was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the April Theses, calling them “a breath of fresh air.”

Iurenev: When Lenin talks about the soviets, he always mentions the Soviet of worker deputies, but we should be talking about the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies … The slogan of a Soviet of worker and batrak deputies—that will come later. Now we need [to focus on] the Soviet of worker and soldier deputies, for we have to rely on the army. For the revolution (as long as it does not carry a socialist character), we need only the Soviets of worker and soldier deputies.

Stal: Lenin didn’t mention soldiers when he spoke about the Soviet of worker deputies, because the soldiers will become the narod, so that we need to demobilize the army and arm the whole narod.

Iurenev’s insistence on the full title of the Petrograd Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies was very far from punctilious pedantry. The Soviet’s role as the only legitimate representative of the peasant soldiers in the Petrograd garrison was central to the dynamics of the Russian revolution. The Petrograd Bolsheviks had corrected Lenin on this point even before he arrived back in Russia: in his Letter from Afar as published in March, the Pravda editors simply added “Soldier” to every mention of the Soviet (as explained in an earlier post in this series). Iurenev’s remark here can be decoded as follows: if the revolution really carried a “socialist character,” we could rely entirely on the proletariat, that is, a combination of urban workers and batraki (agricultural wage workers). But we are not at that stage, if only because we need the peasant army to defend soviet power.

Liudmilla Stal’s rejoinder tells us two things. First, the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the representative and leader, not just of the workers, but the narod as a whole (some historians still deny this). Second, Stal’s defense of the April Theses was off-base. Lenin overlooked the presence of “soldier deputies” in the Theses, not because he wanted to make some subtle point, but simply because he hadn’t fully grasped the situation in Russia when he penned the Theses on the sealed train. Go back and look at my two earlier quotations from Lenin about the Constituent Assembly. In remarks made the day after his arrival, he doesn’t include the soldiers as part of the soviet constituency. In his Pravda article published a few days later, the correct title is used. In this case, Lenin’s friendly critics understood his position better than his uncritical friends.

The dispute over the Constituent Assembly brings out once again the central lesson of the debate in the Petrograd Committee: both sides were searching for the best way to replace the Provisional Government with soviet power. As the following remark shows, Bagdatev did not foresee the actual fate of the Constituent Assembly. What he did foresee quite well was the use made of the Constituent Assembly as a talking point against the Provisional Government and for soviet power:

We should allow the bourgeoisie into the Constituent Assembly and not try to crush them from below—that would be disadvantageous to us, we need to meet them in the Constituent Assembly. Without waiting for the calling of the Constituent Assembly, we can overthrow the Provisional Government and summon the Constituent Assembly on our own initiative, but give battle to them there.

Fourth misgiving

Does Lenin really think this is a good time to forego the advantages of a long-established brand?

Point 9 of the April Theses is devoted to specifically “party tasks”; one of which was “change of name of the party.” In a footnote, Lenin gives his rationale: “Instead of ‘Social-Democracy,’ whose official vozhdi throughout the world have betrayed socialism and deserted to the bourgeoisie (the ‘defencists’ and the vacillating ‘Kautskyites’), we must call ourselves the Communist Party.”

Lenin’s desire to change the name of the party arose out of his disgust at the “betrayal” on the part of the vozhdi or leaders of the West European parties. (NB: Lenin takes care not to anathematize the parties per se). Lenin was not signaling his ideological disillusionment with the outlook of prewar “revolutionary Social Democracy,” but rather his continued loyalty to it and his outrage at those who had failed to live up to it.

From the point of view of Russian Bolshevik praktiki, Lenin’s insistence on this point was an import from foreign socialist polemics that overlooked the disadvantages for the party in Russia. As Kalinin remarked at the city party conference: “I understand the comrades who have arrived from abroad, where the word ‘Social-Democrat’ has been so befouled. But that’s not the case with us.” Kalinin did not oppose the name-change in and of itself, but he felt that more time should be taken to explain the reasons for it.

In the dispute over this issue at the April 8 meeting of the Petrograd Committee, both sides framed the issue as an exercise in cost/benefit analysis, with general agreement on the nature of both the benefits and the costs. The benefit was making a clear-cut distinction between the Bolsheviks and the wishy-washy “center”; the cost was the confusion the name-change would cause in the wider soviet constituency—as in the cry that later became famous, “Down with the Communists! Long live the Bolsheviks!”.

Bagdatev: Point 9. On changing the name of the party. Lenin is wrong here. We mustn’t hurry with this change [of name] of the party [before] the congress. We want to expand entry into the party, and not cut off the comrades from ourselves. Now is not the time to divide the mass just because they don’t fully understand [some complicated issue]. This [whole] point on party tasks is superfluous.

Zalezhsky: On changing the name of the party: Of course, this is not a very important issue, but I don’t agree with [Bagdatev’s] rationale, namely, the fear of cutting off the center. For Lenin wants to name the party in such a way as to sharply divide us from those chauvinists and in general those who now name themselves Social Democrats.

Antipov: The name change would be a loss for revisionism, but not for us. Pushing away the mass would indeed be undesirable, but cutting off the center would be great.

Stal: Lenin’s point of view has sweep. People are afraid of changes in our brand [vyveska]—they shouldn’t be.

In this exchange, Zalezhsky says that Bagdatev was opposed to cutting off the center, but Antipov realized that Bagdatev’s real concern was “pushing away the mass.” Bagdatev was not against the name-change per se, if the groundwork for explaining its rationale was done properly.

As Zalezhsky says, the name-change was not an important issue, especially in 1917. Only a party congress could make the change, and the semi-underground Sixth Congress in August 1917, with many top leaders absent, was hardly the time and place to do it. Lenin rammed the name-change through at the Seventh Congress in March 1918. Throughout 1917, the whole issue was conspicuous by its absence.

Like every other misgiving expressed by Bagdatev, his stand on the name-change issue was motivated by the standpoint of a praktik who was searching for the most effective ways of obtaining mass support for soviet power. The praktiki were the ones who had to address a rally of factory workers and who feared they would meet with blank incomprehension after saying “the Communists propose such and such a resolution.” During two decades of struggle, the Russian Social Democratic party had built up a proud reputation as a champion of the proletariat. Why throw away this hard-won respect just to spit at the German Social Democrats?

The April Theses: Not a radical break

Historians today almost invariably present the April Theses as a sharp break with earlier Bolshevism. When we listen to the first Bolshevik supporters of the Theses, we find the opposite: a great stress on continuity with Bolshevik positions in the past.  As Mikhail Kalinin at the April city conference: “our picture of the revolution and our tactics [in March] differ in no way from com. Lenin’s theses … The method of thinking remains an old Bolshevik one that can handle the particularities of this revolution.” The debate at the Petrograd Committee took place a week or so earlier than Kalinin’s remarks, yet the most fervid supporters of the Theses on the Petrograd Committee made similar claims.

  1. N. Zalezhsky was an enthusiastic supporter who urged that Lenin’s Theses be accepted without demur. During the debate, he argued that “Lenin has not changed his views, and he earlier thought about revolution in the same way as now. The opinion of international socialism in the event of war [was that] the proletariat should deepen the conflict that was created during wartime.” (Zalezhsky is alluding to the Basel Manifesto, a document of immense importance in Bolshevik rhetoric.) Zalezhsky also argued that Lenin’s Theses were consistent with the Petrograd Committee’s own stand during March, since the Petrograd Committee never had a policy of support for the Provisional Government. (Zalezhsky reaffirmed this argument in the 1923 article excerpted in the Appendix.)
  2. K. Antipov, another defender of the Theses in this debate, stated “there is absolutely nothing new in Lenin’s theses.” Liudmilla Stal call the Theses a “breath of fresh air,” yet she also insisted that “when Lenin put forth the slogan ‘socialist revolution,’ a lot of people got scared. But we already said earlier that our revolution will find an echo in the West.” (Note that the words “socialist revolution” do not occur in the April Theses.)
  3. On the topic of socialist revolution, a comment made by Stal at the April conference of the Petrograd Bolsheviks is extremely revealing. In the April Theses, Lenin called for a “state-commune,” which he defined in a cryptic footnote as “the kind of state prefigured by the Paris Commune.” An objection heard in at least one local district Bolshevik meeting was that Russia was not ready for a “commune-state”.[10] Stal responded:

By taking up Lenin’s slogans, we will be doing what life itself is telling us. There’s no need to fear the commune, because—it is alleged—this means a worker government. The Paris Commune was not based only on the workers but also on the petty bourgeoisie. In Kautsky’s opinion, the Russian revolution should be something between a socialist and democratic one.

The phrase “worker government” was a slogan associated with Parvus and Trotsky (how accurately is not the question here). The Kautsky article to which she refers, “The Driving Forces and Prospects of the Russian Revolution” (1906), was regarded by all Bolsheviks as almost a manifesto of Bolshevik political strategy, as discussed at length in an earlier post. Stal is here making the point we have seen over and over again in these debates: our “petty-bourgeois” peasant allies are crucial. The label we give the revolution—democratic, socialist, or something in-between—is a secondary matter, as long as we align ourselves with the actual class forces driving it.[11]

Take-home points

  1. Every time we read in a standard account of the events of 1917 about the thirteen-to-two vote in the Petrograd Committee, we should reflect that the author is perforce drawing completely the wrong lessons from this episode. The Petrograd Bolsheviks were not rejecting the April Theses in toto with horror at Lenin’s radicalism—on the contrary, they found nothing even controversial about the core message. Although they supported the Theses as a whole, they did not think it lèse-majesté to make specific criticisms and ask for clarifications. Although the episode of the Petrograd Committee vote rarely takes up more than a sentence in presentations of the standard narrative, its removal has wide implications: when we look around for other hard facts to support the rearming-the-party interpretation, we will see that they are not easy to find.
  2. The particular misgivings voiced by critics such as Bagdatev—“demands” as an agitational technique, the Constituent Assembly as a talking point against the government, the “unfinished bourgeois-democratic revolution” and the peasants, the downside of a sudden name change—concerned practical questions within a generally accepted political strategy. All sides accepted the near-term goal of replacing the Provisional Government with soviet power; all sides accepted that the soviet constituency had to be won over—but how best to do all this?
  3. The key issue behind the misgivings expressed by Bolshevik activists was the question: which class forces are driving the revolution? In particular, is it worthwhile to win over the soldiers and peasants? This was the crucial practical question behind arcane-seeming disputes such as the one over whether the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution was finished or unfinished.
  4. There were more misunderstandings than genuine differences of opinion between Lenin and the Petrograd Bolsheviks. And on reflection, such misunderstandings were inevitable. The full implications of the “theses written on a train” were not clear to anybody—including Lenin! And the returning émigrés had their own share of misunderstandings about the post-February situation in the capital and the country. A period of adjustment and mutual clarification was necessary—and that is what we see.

Notes

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all citations are from Peterburgskii komitet RSDRP(b) v 1917 godu: Protokoly i materialy zasedanii (St. Petersburg, 2003), 178-196.

[2] https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1976/lenin2/07-rearm2.htm Lenin 2, Chapter 7, “Lenin Rearms the Party.”

[3] Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie for April, pp. 60, 83-4.

[4] Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life, Routledge, London, 2005, pp. 142-50; see also his War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-22: The Collapse of Tsarism and the Establishment of Soviet Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[5] Citations from the party conferences in April come from Sed’maia (aprel’skaia) vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov); Petrogradskaia obshchegorodskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov) (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1958); “CC” indicates the Petrograd city conference and “ARC” indicates the All -Russian conference.

[6] For more discussion, see Lih, “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context,” Russian History 38 (2011), 199–242. A preliminary, abridged draft of this text is available on this website.

[7] Trotsky, Lessons of October.

[8] In his short history of the revolution written in early 1918, Trotsky made no reference to the later dogma about the superiority of soviets to parliaments, and in consequence his defense of disbanding the Constituent Assembly is more to the point. (The Marxists Internet Archive contains Trotsky’s history under the title “History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk”; the relevant passage can be found at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/hrr/ch03.htm.)

[9] For essential background, see Ian Thatcher, “The St Petersburg/ Petrograd Mezhraionka, 1913-1917: The Rise and Fall of a Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party Unity Faction,” at Slavonic and East European Review, 87:2 (2009), 284-321.

[10] The following response to this objection was made: “Cde. Magidov and the rapporteur [V. Kosior] answered Com. Kochetov by pointing to a series of arguments that Lenin’s viewpoint was correct, that the issue of the war could be solved by a world socialist revolution, and that conditions for a socialist revolution had fully developed in the West.” Thus Lenin’s defenders did not see him as arguing for socialist revolution in Russia itself. (Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie for April, p. 60)

[11] One of the themes of my research over the last decade has been Lenin’s explicit and admitted debt to Karl Kautsky. Lenin’s disgust with Kautsky after 1914 was fueled by the charge that Kautsky was a “renegade” to his own earlier outlook—an outlook to which Lenin himself remained explicitly loyal. Many critics absolutely refuse to accept this finding. And now we see a Bolshevik activist enthusiastically accepting Lenin’s April Theses—and quoting Kautsky to explain her support! Add Stal to the list of “muddled thinkers” whose remarks have to be explained away.

I discuss Kautsky’s 1906 article further and provide its final section in Part 2 of the present series.

Previous posts in ‘All power to the soviets’: a series by Lars T. Lih

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