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Lenin refutes a misreading of the April Theses

August 15, 2017

The following exchange between Plekhanov and Lenin in April 1917 appears as an appendix to “’A basic question’: Lenin glosses the April Theses,” by Lars T. Lih.

1. Plekhanov, “To the Students” (from Edinstvo, 17 April 1917)

To the Association [artel] of Socialist Students, in answer to an invitation for a rally celebrating the First of May.

Dear Comrades! I greatly regret that my poor health—I hope, only temporary—does not allow me to express my support in person. But nothing can be done about it and I am compelled to limit myself to talking with you in written form. The adhesion of as many people of higher education as possible is very important for the liberation movement of the international proletariat. Education helps us investigate phenomena and evaluate them historically. Since I am speaking with people who are working to improve their education, I permit myself to bring your attention to the following remarkable circumstance:

The decision to celebrate May First was taken by the Paris International Socialist Congress in 1889. At this Congress were representatives from many capitalist countries that stood then on a higher level of economic development than Russia has attained today. The anarchists proposed to the congress that it call the proletariat to social revolution. The congress, in which Marxists had a majority, invited the proletariat to work for the 8-hour day. It understood that the social—to be more exact, the socialist—revolution presupposed a long work of enlightenment and organization in the depths of the working class.

Today, among us, this is forgotten by people who call the Russian toiling masses to the seizure of the political vlast, since this can only make sense given the presence of the objective conditions needed for social revolution. These conditions do not yet exist, and it behooves you, who are familiar with the scientific method, to bring all this as often as possible to the attention of those who need to know it. The task of the parties of the left in Russia consists of the systematic strengthening of the positions achieved by the revolution that has just taken place. To achieve these tasks, they should not overthrow the Provisional Government—as some political fanatics wish—but support it in solidarity.

2. Lenin’s Reply (from Pravda, 21 April 1917)[1]

A Basic Question

(How the socialists who have gone over to the bourgeoisie argue)

Mr. Plekhanov illustrates this kind of argument very well. In his First of May letter to the Association of Socialist Students published in today’s Rech [Kadet/liberal], Delo Naroda [SR], and Edinstvo [Plekhanov’s newspaper], he writes:

“It (the International Socialist Congress of 1889) understood that the social—to be more exact, the socialist—revolution presupposed a long work of enlightenment and organization in the depths of the working class. Today, among us, this is forgotten by people who call the Russian toiling masses to the seizure of the political vlast, since this can only make sense given the presence of the objective conditions needed for social revolution. These conditions do not yet exist …”

And so on in the same strain, right up to an appeal for “support in solidarity” of the Provisional Government.

This argument of Mr. Plekhanov is the typical argument of a small group of “has-beens” who call themselves Social Democrats. And because it is typical it is worth dealing with at length.

First of all, is it reasonable or honest to quote the First Congress of the Second International, and not the last one?

The First Congress of the Second International (1889–1914) took place in 1889; the last, in Basel, in 1912. The Basel Manifesto, adopted unanimously by all, speaks precisely, definitely, directly, and clearly (so that not even the Plekhanovs can twist the sense of it) of a proletarian revolution, and furthermore, speaks of it precisely in connection with the very war that broke out in 1914.

It is not difficult to understand why those socialists who have gone over to the bourgeoisie need to “forget” the Basel Manifesto as a whole, or this, the most important part of it.

Secondly, the seizure of political power by “the Russian toiling masses,” writes our author, would “only make sense given the presence of the objective conditions needed for social revolution.”

This is a muddle, not an idea.

Even if we grant that the word “social” here is a misprint for “socialist”, this is not the only muddle. What classes do the Russian toiling masses consist of? Everybody knows that they consist of workers and peasants. Which of these classes is in the majority? The peasants. Who are these peasants as far as their class position is concerned? Small or very small proprietors. The question arises: if the small proprietors constitute the majority of the population and if the objective conditions for socialism are lacking, then how can the majority of the population declare in favor of socialism? Who can say anything or who says anything about establishing socialism against the will of the majority?

Mr. Plekhanov has got mixed up in the most ludicrous fashion at the very outset.

To find himself in a ridiculous position is the very least punishment a man can suffer, who, following the example of the capitalist press, creates an “enemy” of his own imagination instead of quoting the exact words of this or that political opponent.

Further. In whose hands should “the political vlast” be, even from the point of view of a vulgar bourgeois democrat from Rech [the official newspaper of the liberal Kadet party]? In the hands of the majority of the population. Do the “Russian toiling masses,” so ineptly discussed by our muddled social-chauvinist, constitute the majority of the population in Russia? Undoubtedly they do—the overwhelming majority!

How then, without betraying democracy—even democracy as understood by a Miliukov—can one be opposed to the “seizure of the political vlast” by the “Russian toiling masses”?

The deeper into the wood, the thicker the tangles. Each step in our analysis opens up new abysses of confusion in Mr. Plekhanov’s ideas.

The social chauvinist is against the political vlast passing to the majority of the population in Russia!

Mr. Plekhanov is talking about something he doesn’t understand. He has also confused—though Marx as far back as 1875 made a point of warning against such confusion—the “toiling masses” with the mass of proletarians and semi-proletarians. We shall explain the difference to the ex-Marxist, Mr. Plekhanov.

*Can the majority of the peasants in Russia demand and carry out the nationalization of the land?[2] Certainly it can. Would this be a socialist revolution? No. It is still a bourgeois revolution, for the nationalization of the land is a measure that is not incompatible with the existence of capitalism. At the same time, it is a blow to private ownership of the most important means of production. Such a blow would strengthen the proletarians and semi-proletarians far more than was the case during the revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Further. Can the majority of the peasants in Russia declare for the merging of all the banks into one, in a way that will ensure that there will be a branch of a single nation-wide state bank in each village?

It can, because the convenience and advantage for the narod of such a measure are unquestionable. Even the “defencists” could be for such a measure, as it would heighten Russia’s capacity for “defense” enormously.

Is it economically possible to carry out such a merger of all the banks immediately? Without a doubt, it is fully possible.

Would this be a socialist measure? No, this is not yet socialism.

Further. Can the majority of the peasants in Russia declare in favor of the syndicate of sugar manufacturers passing into the hands of the government, under the supervision [kontrol] of the workers and peasants, and the price of sugar being lowered?

It certainly can, for this would benefit the majority of the narod.

Is such a measure possible economically? It is fully possible,* since the sugar syndicate has not only developed economically into a single industrial organism on a state-wide scale, but it was already under tsarism been subject to supervision by the “state” (that is, bureaucrats serving the capitalists).

Would the taking over of the syndicate into the hands of a democratic-bourgeois, peasant, state be a socialist measure?

No, this would not yet be socialism. Mr. Plekhanov could have easily convinced himself of that if he had recalled the well-known axioms of Marxism.

The question is: Would such measures as the merging of the banks and turning over the sugar manufacturing syndicate to a democratic peasant government enhance or diminish the role, significance, and influence of the proletarians and semi-proletarians among the general mass of the population?

They would undoubtedly enhance them, for those measures do not arise from small producers; they are made possible by those “objective conditions” which were still lacking in 1889, but which already exist now.

Such measures would inevitably enhance the role, significance, and influence upon the population especially by the city workers, as the vanguard of the proletarians and semi-proletarians of town and country.

After such measures, further steps towards socialism in Russia will become fully possible, and—given the aid to the workers here that will come from the more advanced and experienced workers of Western Europe, who have broken with the West-European Plekhanovs—Russia’s genuine transition to socialism would be inevitable, and the success of such a transition would be assured.

This is how every Marxist and every socialist who has not gone over to the side of “their own” national bourgeoisie should argue.

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

For explanation of some Russian words found in this article, see “A small glossary for discussion of Bolshevik policy.”

Notes

[1] “Odin iz korennykh voprosov” (literally, “one of the basic questions), in Lenin, PSS 31:300-3. Another translation of this article is available in the Marxists Internet Archive.

[2] The passage marked by asterisks is quoted in the 1924 article by Nikolai Bukharin discussed in my commentary.

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