Skip to content

Lenin’s strategic continuity: 1905 through 1917 and beyond

November 20, 2017

Bolshevik “rearming” in April 1917 consists simply of “genuinely understanding the Bolsheviks 1905 analysis, written by Lenin, and applying it to the new conditions and advance of the class struggle by 1917,” writes U.S.-based socialist Geoff Mirelowitz. He responds here to a number of posts in the ongoing “Bolsheviks in 1917” discussion on this website, listed at “The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate.”

Lenin-and-Trotsky-2

V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky (centre)

By Geoff Mirelowitz. John Riddell is hosting a discussion on this blog that reflects differing points of view on the history of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Up until now, it has been widely agreed that upon his return to Russia from exile in March 1917, Lenin headed a political “rearming” of the Bolshevik Party that ultimately led to the victory of the October Revolution. As I understand this discussion, Eric Blanc and Lars Lih have challenged that view.

In the recent contribution by Paul Le Blanc, “Rearming the Party…”, he agrees there was a rearming and debate upon Lenin’s return, stating it was “relatively easy for Lenin to win the debate so quickly in 1917.” But Le Blanc goes further – quite a bit further – to argue that Lenin’s 1917 position, “…represents an explicit break with Lenin’s own earlier perspectives.” Le Blanc then refers to Lenin’s 1905 polemic Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.

I have followed the discussion and my own opinion is Blanc, Lih, and Le Blanc are each mistaken. Their arguments are each clearly contradicted by conclusions drawn by Lenin and Trotsky, both in 1917 and later.

Lenin’s views were spelled out over and over, beginning in 1905 and continuing through 1917. He then reviewed many of these issues again in November 1918. An extensive list of those articles could be drawn up and perhaps such a list would be of value. But Lenin himself (as we will see) insisted repeatedly that his arguments were politically consistent and I think we can understand them clearly by referring to four articles:

Earlier participants in this discussion have pointed to two articles by Trotsky, the pamphlet What Next, written in 1917 and Lessons of October, written in 1924. Paul Le Blanc calls particular attention to the latter and we can agree on its importance. However I believe he has missed one of Trotsky’s key points, regarding the 1917 debates in the Bolshevik Party. Le Blanc argues Lenin won the debate on Bolshevik strategy “fairly easily.” But Trotsky insists sharp debate continued throughout 1917.

Lars Lih argues that one needs to choose between, “Trotsky in 1917 or Trotsky in 1924.” I have re-read Lih’s article more than once and simply cannot follow what “choice” he believes must be made. He invites others to “bring other texts to the table.” I’m happy to read any historical material anyone thinks is relevant, but I honestly don’t think the issue is “textual.”

The Trotsky of 1917 was fully engaged in the sharp debate he tells us took place then, as a supporter of Lenin’s views inside the Bolshevik Party at that time. In reviewing that debate in 1924, Trotsky does not tell us he changed those views in any way.

Two Tactics in the Democratic Revolution (1905)

We can begin with Lenin in 1905. In Two Tactics he wrote clearly:

Only the most ignorant people can ignore the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place; only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the masses of the workers are informed about the aims of Socialism and about the methods of achieving it. And we are all convinced that the emancipation of the workers can be effected only by the workers themselves; a socialist revolution is out of the question unless the masses become class conscious and organised, trained and educated in open class struggle against the entire bourgeoisie.

Attitude Toward the Peasant Movement (1905)

A few months later in his much shorter Article on the peasant movement, Lenin reviewed his approach again. He makes clear he is describing a process, not a set of stages necessarily separated by a long period of time.

…from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way. If we do not now and immediately promise all sorts of “socialization,” that is because we know the actual conditions for that task to be accomplished, and we do not gloss over the new class struggle burgeoning within the peasantry, but reveal that struggle.

…we can and do assert only one thing: we shall bend every effort to help the entire peasantry achieve the democratic revolution, in order thereby to make it easier for us, the party of the proletariat, to pass on as quickly as possible to the new and higher task—the socialist revolution.

Letters from Afar (1917)

Where is the need for the “explicit break” with this continuity? What in this unambiguous analysis of “uninterrupted revolution”; of the connection between the fight for democratic tasks and the “new and higher task” was Lenin “breaking from” in 1917? What had changed by 1917 was not Lenin’s analysis. What changed was the objective political situation. Russia in 1917 was not the Russia of 1905. Lenin explained this with a clarity that remains striking today, in Letters from Afar:

Without the tremendous class battles and the revolutionary energy displayed by the Russian proletariat during the three years 1905–07, the second revolution could not possibly have been so rapid… completed in a few days. The first revolution (1905) deeply ploughed the soil, uprooted age-old prejudices, awakened millions of workers and tens of millions of peasants to political life and political struggle and revealed to each other—and to the world—all classes (and all the principal parties) of Russian society in their true character and in the true alignment of their interests, their forces, their modes of action, and their immediate and ultimate aims…

Without the Revolution of 1905–07 and the counter-revolution of 1907–14, there could not have been that clear ‘self determination’ of all classes of the Russian people and of the nations inhabiting Russia, that determination of the relation of these classes to each other and to the tsarist monarchy, which manifested itself during the eight days of the February-March Revolution of 1917.

Lenin then explains — in equally clear, unmistakable language — the additional factor that changed the situation after 1905:

…the first great Revolution of 1905…led… to the ‘brilliant,’ the ‘glorious’ Revolution of 1917…But this required a great, mighty and all-powerful ‘stage manager,’ capable, on the one hand, of vastly accelerating the course of world history, and, on the other, of engendering world-wide crises of unparalleled intensity—economic, political, national and international. Apart from an extraordinary acceleration of world history, it was also necessary that history make particularly abrupt turns…

“This all-powerful ‘stage manager,’ this mighty accelerator,” said Lenin, “was the imperialist world war.”

Lenin’s Polemic with Kautsky (1918)

Looking back in 1918 in his polemic with Kautsky, Lenin repeated this point and reminded us again that there was no political contradiction between the Bolshevik approach in 1905 and the policy followed in 1917, explicitly referring readers to his 1905 pamphlet:

The Russian revolution is a bourgeois revolution, said all the Marxists of Russia before 1905. The Mensheviks, substituting liberalism for Marxism, drew the following conclusion from this: the proletariat therefore must not go beyond what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie and must pursue a policy of compromise with them. The Bolsheviks said this was a bourgeois-liberal theory. The bourgeoisie were trying to bring about the reform of the state on bourgeois, reformist, not revolutionary lines, while preserving the monarchy, the landlord system, etc., as far as possible. The proletariat must carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end, not allowing itself to be ‘bound’ by the reformism of the bourgeoisie. The Bolsheviks formulated the alignment of class forces in the bourgeois revolution as follows: the proletariat, winning over the peasants, will neutralise the liberal bourgeoisie and utterly destroy the monarchy, medievalism and the landlord system.

It is the alliance between the proletariat and the peasants in general that reveals the bourgeois character of the revolution, for the peasants in general are small producers who exist on the basis of commodity production. Further, the Bolsheviks then added, the proletariat will win over the entire semi-proletariat (all the working and exploited people), will neutralise the middle peasants and overthrow the bourgeoisie; this will be a socialist revolution, as distinct from a bourgeois-democratic revolution. (See my pamphlet Two Tactics, published in 1905…

Lenin then continued, again referring to the 1905 analysis:

The question which Kautsky has so tangled up was fully explained by the Bolsheviks as far back as 1905. Yes, our revolution is a bourgeois revolution as long as we march with the peasants as a whole. This has been as clear as clear can be to us; we have said it hundreds and thousands of times since 1905, and we have never attempted to skip this necessary stage of the historical process or abolish it by decrees…

‘Whether one likes it or not’

Lenin then pointed just as explicitly to the process the discussion on this blog refers to as “rearming the party.”

Beginning with April 1917, however, long before the October Revolution, that is, long before we assumed power, we publicly declared and explained to the people: the revolution cannot now stop at this stage, for the country has marched forward, capitalism has advanced, ruin has reached fantastic dimensions, which (whether one likes it or not) will demand steps forward, to socialism. For there is no other way of advancing, of saving the war-weary country and of alleviating the sufferings of the working and exploited people.

Finally Lenin returns to the continuity of Bolshevik strategy and tactics:

Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the ‘whole’ of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully, to vulgarise it, to substitute liberalism in its place. It means smuggling in a reactionary defence of the bourgeoisie against the socialist proletariat by means of quasi-scientific references to the progressive character of the bourgeoisie in comparison with medievalism.

Trotsky’s ‘Lessons of October’ (1924)

The point that I believe Paul Le Blanc missed in his reading of Lessons of October was Trotsky’s insistence that far from winning “easily,” Lenin and those who shared his views had to continue to fight to rearm the party “throughout the year 1917.” Trotsky wrote:

The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centered was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power. This alone is ample proof that we were not then dealing with a mere episodic difference of opinion but with two tendencies of the utmost principled significance…These two tendencies came into hostile conflict over every essential question that arose throughout the year 1917.

It seems unambiguous to me that Trotsky is discussing two tendencies within Bolshevism; “whether … we should struggle for power,” “whether … we should assume power.” [Added emphasis mine. GM] These two tendencies we might recall emerged again in public, immediately prior to the October Revolution when Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the insurrection. This fact confirms Trotsky’s argument that the debate continued throughout 1917.

In further confirmation that in 1924 Trotsky was describing a debate within Bolshevism in 1917, this thought from Lessons of October also seems singularly relevant:

If by Bolshevism – and we are stressing here its essential aspect – we understand such training, tempering, and organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand; and if by social democracy we are to understand the acceptance of reformist oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality – i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state; then, indeed, it is absolutely clear that even within the Communist Party itself, which does not emerge full-fledged from the crucible of history, the struggle between social democratic tendencies and Bolshevism is bound to reveal itself in its most clear, open, and uncamouflaged form during the immediate revolutionary period when the question of power is posed point-blank.

We might also note what Trotsky does not say. He refers to “the fundamental controversial question around which everything else centered,” as well as to the “essential aspect” of Bolshevism without any reference to a debate between the place of bourgeois democratic tasks that still remained to be achieved, or socialist measures that Lenin had taught in 1905, “we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to…”

I will “cheat” here by adding one more of Lenin’s writings on this subject, the pamphlet Letters on Tactics, because Trotsky cited it in 1924. Published in April 1917 it further confirms the fundamental consistency of Lenin’s views as well as the modifications required by history’s “abrupt turn.”

Referring to the victory of the February 1917 revolution Lenin wrote:

To this extent, the bourgeois, or the bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia is completed.

Lenin then turns to those he is debating inside the Bolshevik Party:

But at this point we hear a clamour of protest from people who readily call themselves ‘old Bolsheviks.’ Didn’t we always maintain, they say, that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed only by the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’? Is the agrarian revolution, which is also a bourgeois-democratic revolution, completed? Is it not a fact, on the contrary, that it has not even started?

My answer is: The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variated than anyone could have expected. (emphasis by Lenin)

In Lessons of October, Trotsky cites the same Letters on Tactics. Trotsky’s reference is in complete harmony with what has been cited above:

“Lenin was ruthless,” said Trotsky. And, now quoting Lenin:

in refuting the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who more than once already 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 … But one must measure up not to old formulas but to the new reality. Is this reality covered by Comrade Kamenev’s Old Bolshevik formula, which says that ‘the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed’?

And Lenin answers:

It is not. The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.

Conclusion

In closing I will only add that the additional documentary material that has been brought forth in this discussion is all of interest. But I fail to see how it changes the conclusions drawn by both Lenin and Trotsky concerning how the party was rearmed in 1917. Nor does it contradict the clear fact that the rearming consisted of genuinely understanding the Bolsheviks 1905 analysis, written by Lenin, and applying it to the new conditions and advance of the class struggle by 1917.

Geoff Mirelowitz has been a revolutionary socialist and active trade unionist for over four decades in the United States. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He is currently engaged in a battle against the improper firing of his crew by the BNSF railroad, for fighting for changes in safety practices.

 

Advertisements

From → USSR/Russia

4 Comments
  1. Bob Lyons permalink

    I don’t for the life of me understand how any other conclusion to the issue could be reached other than the one proposed here br comrade Mirelowitz, based on both a Formalist textual reading and a Contextural analysis of the matter.

    The fact that there was a debate at all should indicate a prima facia case for it

  2. Paul LeBlanc permalink

    I want to respond briefly to one aspect of Geoff Mirelowitz’s thoughtful contribution — the part in which he criticizes what I wrote. I think there is a misunderstanding regarding my sources, and also an apparent assumption that he and I disagree on an important point he makes.

    Geoff notes that “earlier participants in this discussion have pointed to two articles by Trotsky, the pamphlet What Next, written in 1917 and Lessons of October, written in 1924,” he he goes on to emphasize that “Paul Le Blanc calls particular attention to the latter.” While I in no way disagree that Trotsky’s 1924 work is important, I actually do not utilize or comment on this in my contribution.

    I am particularly reliant, instead, on the Reminiscences of Lenin by Nadezhda Kruspkaya (a central figure in the history of Bolshevism, a key eyewitness, and Lenin’s partner). In her account of the debate around Lenin’s April Theses. she writes: “A struggle started within the Bolshevik organization. It did not last long.” Following Krupskaya’s account, I suggest that Lenin won fairly easily because there was much common ground between Lenin most of his comrades — particularly around the long-standing Bolshevik orientation of proletarian hegemony in the revolutionary struggle, related to the call for a worker-peasant alliance.

    Mirelowitz writes:”The point that I believe Paul Le Blanc missed in his reading of Lessons of October was Trotsky’s insistence that far from winning ‘easily,’ Lenin and those who shared his views had to continue to fight to rearm the party ‘throughout the year 1917.’”

    As already indicated, in my contribution I was not offering a reading of Trotsky’s 1924 work. Also, I restricted my discussion there to April 1917, involving a relatively short debate in which (I argue) a Bolshevik majority cohered around Lenin’s perspective. As various historians and commentators have pointed out — including Trotsky and Mirelowitz — there were still Bolsheviks who disagreed with Lenin’s orientation later in 1917, but these were a clear minority, and while there were connections between the April debates and the October debates, they were not exactly the same debate.

    That being said, I do not disagree with the broader point that Geoff is making here, regarding “Trotsky’s insistence that … Lenin and those who shared his views had to continue to fight to rearm the party ‘throughout the year 1917.’”

  3. If you think that Lenin’s views on the character of the coming Russian Revolution prior to the April Theses were applicable to other countries, as is clearly Eric Blanc and Geoff Mirelowitz’s intention, then you have to account for the disaster that befell the Chinese Communist Party in 1927 that operated under those guidelines. Trotsky not only had to contend with Stalin and Bukharin’s application of what amounted to a stagist strategy but even from members of his own United Left Opposition, including Zinoviev and Kamenev. If Lenin’s train to the Leningrad station had derailed in 1917 and the accident had cost him his life, I am positive that Kerensky would have remained the head of state.

    Finally, in recommending things to read about Lenin’s views on capitalism, you have to start with “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” that was written in 1899 and that established his reputation as a leading Marxist. It is basically a call for the overthrow of feudal relations in the countryside using the USA as a model rather than Junkers Germany. The word socialism is hardly mentioned.

  4. geoff1954 permalink

    I extend a thanks to Paul LeBlanc for the factual correction he offers, and my own apology for confusing the main source he was drawing on for his conclusions.

    That said, one of Paul’s concluding comments deserves more thought I think:

    “…there were still Bolsheviks who disagreed with Lenin’s orientation later in 1917, but these were a clear minority, and while there were connections between the April debates and the October debates, they were not exactly the same debate.”

    It may be true that the April and October disagreements were not identical, but Trotsky’s argument — as I understand it — is that they were over fundamentally the same issue. In “Lessons of October: Trotsky wrote:

    “The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centered was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power…we were not then dealing with a mere episodic difference of opinion but with two tendencies of the utmost principled significance…These two tendencies came into hostile conflict over every essential question that arose throughout the year 1917.”

    Trotsky also reminds us that Lenin begin insisting on the need for insurrection in September. Others can correct me if I am wrong but it is also my understanding that Lenin made clear to the Bolshevik leadership that if he could not persuade them to act quickly — and I think it is clear Lenin was concerned he could not — he would take the dispute to the ranks of the party.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: