58) The Duma Dissolved

Into this turbulent scenario stepped the flamboyant Pyotr Arkadevich Stolypin, then Minister of Interior, and from this point on, one of the key players of the period. A wealthy landlord with big political ambitions, Stolypin owned two estates, one in Penza province with 2,850 acres, and another in Kovno, with a further 2,500 acres. In addition, his wife, the daughter of a high official of the imperial household, owned another 14,000 acres in Kazan. He therefore had plenty of reasons for interesting himself in the land question. Although he is generally described as a progressive reformer, Stolypin had earned the tsar’s confidence by his application of the most brutal measures of repression during the period of “pacification” following the 1905 Revolution.

His draconian measures in suppressing one of the most turbulent of the Volga provinces in 1905–6 made him notorious,” writes Lionel Kochan. “His own words are suggestive: of one action against the peasants he reported to the Ministry of the Interior, ‘the whole village, almost, went to prison on my instructions . . . I billeted Cossacks in the houses of the worst offenders, left there a squadron of Orenburgers, and imposed a special regime on the village.’”341

Stolypin’s reputation with the people is shown by the fact that a hangman’s noose was referred to as a “Stolypin necktie,” and as late as the 1930s, railway trucks used to carry political prisoners to Siberia were still referred to as “Stolypin carriages.” However, he was undoubtedly one of the few really competent men among the tsar’s advisers in the period before 1914, until he was removed by an assassin’s bullet. Kerensky characterizes this consummate and skillful reactionary as follows:

Just before the first Duma was due to meet, a new Minister of the Interior was appointed in St. Petersburg. This was the governor of Saratov, Peter A. Stolypin, who was hardly known to anyone at the time of the appointment. In less than three months, just after the dissolution of the Duma on July 8, 1906, he was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers . . . Of provincial upper-class origin, he was not a member of the St. Petersburg court set and had never been employed in any of the higher government establishments of the capital. The whole of his career had been spent in the provinces, where he had no lack of connections among prominent public and Zemstvo figures . . . He did not share the view of his predecessor Goremykin that the Duma was merely an idle “talking-shop.” On the contrary, unlike the hidebound and soulless bureaucrat, Goremykin, he was strongly attracted by the role of a constitutional minister. The idea of making speeches in parliament, openly debating vital issues with the opposition, and governing the country on the basis of his government majority appealed to him greatly.

The fighting spirit lacked by the St. Petersburg officials was more than compensated for by Stolypin. The tsar liked Stolypin for his youth, self-confidence, devotion to the throne, and readiness to carry out the tsar’s plan for illegal changes in the electoral law. The heads of the Council of United Gentry saw in him one of their own kind who would save the system of upper-class land proprietorship from destruction. The Octobrists and various other moderate constitutionalists, frightened by the excesses of the revolution, clutched at him as a drowning man clutches at a straw. They welcomed his program, which was intended to unify the government with the moderately liberal and conservative public, thus strengthening the constitutional monarchy and eliminating for good the revolutionary movement. They thought of him as a Russian Thiers (the man who consolidated the bourgeois Third Republic in France after the defeat of the Commune in 1871).342

Shortly before the dissolution of the Duma, Nicholas had appointed this “strong man” as chairman of the Council of Ministers in place of the “hidebound and soulless” Goremykin. At first, Stolypin, in a show of uncharacteristic modesty, refused to accept the honor, whereupon the tsar instructed him to kneel before his favorite icon. “Let us make the sign of the cross over ourselves and let us ask the lord to help us both in this difficult, perhaps historic, moment.” After this brief consultation with the Almighty, Nicholas then got down to serious business: “On what day would it be best to dissolve the Duma and what instructions do you propose to give to ensure order, chiefly in St. Petersburg and Moscow?” With the help of the Almighty, the date of the coup was fixed for Sunday July 9 (21).

The tsar need not have worried. The first Duma disappeared from history, not with a bang but a whimper. The liberals had not the slightest intention of stirring up the masses. Faced with the fait accompli of dissolution, some 200 deputies travelled to Vyborg, which, being under Finnish control, was relatively safe. There they issued the Vyborg Manifesto which called on the people to engage in acts of civil disobedience, such as nonpayment of taxes and refusal to accept military service, as a sign of protest at the dissolution. This document was drawn up by a joint parliamentary commission made up mainly of the Cadets and Trudoviks. True to form, the Cadets were unenthusiastic even about these demands and later backed out of it. This farcical experience exposed the counterrevolutionary character of the Cadets and the hopelessness of such methods. Horrified at this quite predictable turn of events, the Menshevik Central Committee called on the workers to strike and demonstrate in support of the Duma. But this call went unheeded.

Lenin opposed the call for demonstrations in support of the Duma. Lenin was never afraid to tell the truth to the workers. His position was always dictated by an unerring revolutionary instinct and realism. What should the working class fight for? Not for bourgeois parliamentarism, but against the main enemy—tsarist reaction. The working class must not accept any responsibility for bourgeois pseudodemocracy or spread illusions in the counterrevolutionary liberals, but come out openly for an armed uprising against the autocracy, not for the defense of the Cadet Duma, but for the Constituent Assembly, which will give land to the peasants, an eight-hour day to the workers, and full democratic rights for all. Here we have in a nutshell the difference between revolutionary Marxism and reformism.

While the Mensheviks participated in yet another pantomime with the Cadets, Lenin pressed home his call for a revolutionary united front with the Trudoviks. Under pressure from the mood of the working class and peasants, the Trudoviks actually agreed to a joint appeal with the Social Democrats for an armed uprising. Here, in outline, was the possibility of a “left bloc” with the Trudoviks, a united front of the organizations of the working class and peasant masses for the purpose of struggle against the autocracy and the liberals. While Lenin ruled out any deals with the bourgeois liberals, he accepted the possibility of temporary agreements with the Trudoviks, as the parliamentary representatives of the peasantry, and even occasionally voting together with the Trudoviks against the Cadets to win over the former. Such partial and temporary parliamentary agreements with the representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie—without for a moment renouncing the right to criticize the Trudoviks for their inconsistency and vacillations—had nothing whatsoever in common with the political bloc with the liberals advocated by the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks’ position was to use the Duma as a platform to expose the tsarist regime and the liberals, and at the same time for organizing outside parliament in preparation for revolution.


341 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 123.

342 Kerensky, Memoirs, 94–95.

59) The Question of Guerrilla War

In the period 1905–6, the revolutionary movement included an element of “guerrilla warfare,” with partisan detachments, armed expropriation, and other forms of armed struggle. But the fighting squads were always closely linked to the workers’ organizations. Thus, the Moscow military committee included not just RSDLP members, but also SRs, trade unionists (printers), and students. As we have seen, partisan groups were used for the purpose of defense against pogromists and the Black Hundred gangs. They also helped to protect meetings against police raids, where the presence of armed workers’ detachments was frequently an important factor in preventing violence. Occasionally, such groups could pass over to the offensive, though the target was not the armed forces of the state (against which they could not hope to win in a straight fight), but strikebreakers and fascists. One armed workers’ group staged an attack on a Black Hundred group in the Tver Inn in Petersburg in January 1906. Where conflicts with the police took place, it was usually in connection with the release of political prisoners, as in the daring raid on the Riga police department in order to secure the release of arrested Latvian revolutionaries. Precisely in Latvia the guerrilla movement reached its highest intensity when, in December 1905, a number of towns were actually captured by armed detachments of insurgent workers, agricultural laborers, and peasants before the uprising in Latvia was brutally suppressed by punitive expeditions under tsarist generals.

Other tasks included the capture of arms, the assassination of spies and police agents, and also bank raids for funds. The initiative for the setting up of such guerrilla groups was frequently taken by the workers themselves. The Bolsheviks strove to gain the leadership of these groups, to give them an organized and disciplined form, and provide them with a clear plan of action. There were, of course, serious risks entailed here. All kinds of adventurist, déclassé, and shady elements could get mixed up in these groups, which, once isolated from the movement of the masses, tended to degenerate along criminal lines to the point where they would become indistinguishable from mere groups of bandits. In addition to this, they were also wide open to penetration by provocateurs. As a rule it is far easier for the agents of the state to infiltrate militaristic and terrorist organizations than genuine revolutionary parties, especially where they are composed of educated cadres bound together by strong ideological ties, although even the latter are not immune to penetration, as we shall see later. However, Lenin was well aware of the dangers of degeneration posed by the existence of the armed groups. Strict discipline and firm control by party organizations and experienced revolutionary cadres partially guarded against such tendencies. But the only real control was that of the revolutionary mass movement.

As long as the guerrilla units acted as auxiliaries to the mass movement (that is, in the course of the revolutionary upswing) they played a useful and progressive role. But, wherever the guerrilla groups were separated from the mass revolutionary movement, they inevitably tended to degenerate. For this reason, Lenin considered it completely inadmissible to prolong their existence, once it was clearly established that the revolutionary movement was in irreversible decline. Once this stage was reached, he immediately called for the dissolution of all the guerrilla groups. In the initial stages, however, they played a positive role. There were many heroic and self-sacrificing people involved, working under the strict control of the Party. Such a man was the famous Armenian revolutionary Semeno Arshakovich Ter-Petrosyan (Kamo).

One of the main reasons for continuing the tactic after the defeat of the December uprising was simply that the party was short of funds. Up to that time, the party had relied to a great extent on big donations from wealthy sympathizers. In the period of constitutional agitation before 1905, and during the initial period of the revolution, a large part of the “progressive” bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia looked upon the Social Democracy with approval and even admiration. They tended to see it as merely as a more radical expression of the bourgeois-democratic movement. The activities of the revolutionary students and workers were regarded with indulgence, and even the kind of sneaking admiration which comes from the nostalgia for a lost youth. And as is natural in the outlook of hardheaded men of money, an element of calculation was involved. The bourgeoisie hoped to use the revolutionary movement as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the autocracy for a share in government. But after October 1905, the attitude of the liberal bourgeoisie began to change. The tsar’s manifesto having satisfied their basic demands, their enthusiasm rapidly began to cool. The Moscow rising finally convinced them that the workers meant business. This was getting to be a dangerous game! The reaction bared its teeth, and like Pontius Pilate, the liberals washed their hands of the whole affair. “We told you not to go too far! Don’t provoke the reaction! Why not accept what’s on offer? After all, half a loaf is better than a prison sentence.”

The sudden drying up of funds placed the party in a difficult position. Under attack from all sides, the Party was desperately short of resources, especially as the bourgeois liberals had turned against the revolution. Many former wealthy businessmen and intellectual fellow travellers, who had earlier been prepared to give money to the revolutionaries for a variety of motives, now hastily moved away, suddenly recalling that they had careers and families to worry about. For the working class, however, there was nowhere to retreat. This was now a life-or-death struggle. It was at this point that the question of expropriations assumed a burning importance. Kamo already had a long record of revolutionary activity, including imprisonment and escape from Baku prison, before he became famous for his part in the armed struggle. Cool-headed, brave, and efficient, Kamo was the personification of the best type of Bolshevik activist. After the mutinies at Sveaborg and Kronstadt, the peasant movement grew in intensity. There seemed to be every possibility that the revolution was entering into a new stage. The question of accumulating arms acquired a fresh urgency. Kamo was in charge of obtaining weapons, but there was a severe problem of cash. At the Stockholm Congress the Mensheviks had got control of the Central Committee, and they were not keen on the idea of arming. “Letters and telegrams to the Central Committee went unanswered. Requests for money remained like a voice crying in the wilderness.”343

Kamo did not flinch from taking the necessary action to arm the party. In a series of spectacular bank raids which drove the police frantic, large sums of money were “expropriated.” Yet Kamo himself lived very modestly on 50 kopeks a day. Like other Bolshevik partisans, he was totally dedicated to the party and the cause of the working class. His legendary bravery and audacity were shown by the Tiflis bank raid in the summer of 1907. Travelling on a forged passport as a well-known Georgian nobleman, Kamo went to Tiflis to organize a major expropriation. On the morning of June 23, dressed as an army officer, although he was suffering from wounds caused by an accidental explosion, Kamo led a spectacular attack which netted 250,000 rubles—a huge amount—from the State Bank. His later experiences read like an adventure novel. Having escaped to Germany, Kamo was arrested in Berlin with a suitcase full of dynamite. He had been betrayed by the agent provocateur Zhitomirsky.

Accused and indicted as a “terrorist-anarchist,” for four years he pretended to be mad. As a punishment for his conduct, he was placed naked in a basement cell at sub-zero temperatures for nine days. Sent to a prison for the criminally insane, he kept up the act. For four months he never lay down but stood with his face to a corner, standing first on one leg then another. The brutal treatment to which he was subjected included force-feeding, during which several of his teeth were broken. On two occasions he attempted suicide by hanging and opening his veins with a sharp bone. At first, the authorities believed he was feigning madness, but after six months of torture, they began to believe that his madness was the genuine article. Finally, in March 1909, the doctors decided that the state of the mentally deficient “anarcho-terrorist” Ter-Petrosyan was quite satisfactory, that he was quiet and rational, and even able to perform handicraft and gardening. Being returned to prison, Kamo again feigned madness and was subjected to more torture. “Civilized” German doctors inserted needles under his fingernails, his body was burned with red-hot irons, but to no avail. Kamo’s body was permanently scarred, but he kept up the pretense of insanity until finally the authorities decided that the upkeep of this foreign lunatic should not be paid by the German people, and ordered his extradition to Russia. Finally, he effected yet another daring escape from a mental hospital in Tiflis.

In her biography of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls how Kamo visited them in Paris:

He was very distressed to hear that a rupture had occurred between Ilyich and Bogdanov and Krassin. He was greatly attached to all three. Besides, he was unable to grasp the situation that had developed during the years he had spent in prison. Ilyich told him how things stood.

Kamo asked me to buy him some almonds. He sat in our Paris kitchen eating almonds, as if in his native Georgia, and telling us about his arrest in Berlin, about the way he had simulated insanity, about the sparrow he had tamed in prison, etc. Listening to his stories, Ilyich felt extremely sorry for that brave, devoted, childishly naïve man with the warm heart, who was so eager to perform deeds of valor, but who now did not know what to turn his hand to. His schemes were fantastic. Ilyich did not argue with him, but tried delicately to bring him back to earth with suggestions about organizing the transportation of literature and so forth. In the end it was decided that Kamo was to go to Belgium, have an operation on his eyes there (he was cross-eyed, and this always gave him away to the police spies), and then make his way south to Russia and the Caucasus. Ilyich examined Kamo’s coat and said: “Haven’t you got a warm coat? You’ll be cold in this, walking about on deck.” Ilyich himself always promenaded the deck incessantly when travelling by boat. Hearing that Kamo had no other coat, Ilyich got out the soft grey cloak which his mother had given him as a present in Stockholm and of which he was very fond, and gave it to Kamo. His talk with Ilyich, and the latter’s kindness, somewhat soothed Kamo.344

Like many others who had played an active part in the revolution, Kamo was now like a fish out of water in the period of reaction. The inactivity, the isolation, the pressures of émigré existence, all depressed and frustrated him. He soon returned to underground activity in his native Caucasus, where the revolutionary movement was on the eve of a new awakening. Rearrested, he was given four death sentences, later commuted to 20 years’ penal servitude as a sign of the tsar’s magnanimity on the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Kamo was sent to the penal prison at Kharkov where he sat out the war sewing dresses, underclothes, and boots in the company of common criminals who learned to respect the man they called Big Ivan. Even in this hellish place, the spirit of revolt did not die. In order not to have to take his hat off in the presence of the warders, he went bare-headed even in the coldest weather. Kamo was only released from this place by the February Revolution, after which he immediately rejoined the ranks of the Bolshevik Party and played a heroic role in the Civil War. Having survived all these trials and tribulations, ironically, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1922.


343 S.F. Medvedeva, Kamo, The Life of a Great Revolutionist, 18.

344 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 212–13.

60) Lenin’s Attitude to Guerrillaism

The question of guerrilla war was closely linked to the perspective for a revival of the revolution, and the possibility that the peasant movement might give an impulse to the movement of the workers in the cities. The apparently theoretical discussions at the Fourth Congress on the agrarian question were but a pale reflection of a stark reality. The peasants’ rebellion was on the upswing. Month by month the violent outbursts in the villages increased in number and intensity. But the consolidation of the Stolypin reaction forced Lenin to reconsider the position. A turning point was the defeat of the mutinies at Sveaborg and Kronstadt. Whereas the Mensheviks had already given the movement up as lost, Lenin’s tactics were directed towards winning over the left petty bourgeois, the poor peasants, to the idea of an armed uprising, a movement in the villages which in turn could link up with the movement in the towns to bring about the overthrow of the autocracy. Nor was this perspective as utopian as might appear. While the working class of Petersburg and Moscow had suffered defeat, the movement in the villages was just beginning to get seriously underway. This in turn had an effect on the mass of peasants in uniform who made up the overwhelming majority of the tsarist army. Shaken by military defeat and months of revolution, the mood of the men in grey overcoats was becoming ever more unsettled. The critical point was reached on the night of July 17. A mutiny of soldiers and sailors erupted in the Sveaborg fortress near Helsingfors. When the St. Petersburg RSDLP committee got news of the uprising it sent representatives to the sailors in an attempt to persuade them to postpone the action. But it was already too late.

Although the RSDLP’s military organization participated in the revolt—two Lieutenants, A.P. Yemelyanov and Y.L. Kokhansky, were Social Democrats—the rising was mainly under the influence of the Social Revolutionaries. Out of ten artillery companies, seven participated actively in the rising, which advanced revolutionary-democratic slogans: down with the autocracy, for freedom for the people, land to the peasants. The Finnish workers took action in support of the mutineers. A general strike was begun in Helsingfors on July 18, spreading to other towns. The movement lasted for three days, but, badly prepared and with no clearly thought-out plan of action, subjected to a heavy bombardment from pro-government ships, the Sveaborg rising was crushed. The mutineers were handed over to the tender mercies of the tsarist courts-martial. Forty-three men were executed and hundreds others sent to penal servitude or imprisoned. This was no isolated case. Other mutinies occurred elsewhere. The news of the Sveaborg events caused a ferment in the naval garrison in Kronstadt and an actual mutiny on the cruiser Pamyat’ Azova near Revel. It seems that in this case, the RSDLP had been planning an action, but was disrupted by the arrest of the local military and workers’ organization on July 9. The government was aware of the plans for an uprising from its network of spies and quickly acted to smother the revolt. More than 2,500 Kronstadt mutineers were arrested. As in Sveaborg, the courts-martial were pitiless: 36 men were sentenced to death; 130 were sentenced to penal servitude; a further 316 were imprisoned, and 935 sent to corrective battalions.

The impact of the peasant movement was clearly discernible in the mutinies, which also contained the negative side of all peasant jacqueries in history—lack of perspective and formlessness—which enables a small force of determined disciplined officers used to command to subordinate to their will a far larger number of troops who lack discipline, organization and a clear plan of action, and who have been conditioned all their lives to obey. These were indeed the last throes of the revolution. After Sveaborg, the general outcome was no longer seriously in doubt. Reaction was triumphant, and celebrated its victory in the customary fashion—with a new wave of arrests, summary court martials, shootings, lockouts. Unemployment soared. And as Trotsky explained at the time, this onset of mass unemployment, coming in the wake of a severe political defeat, could not have the effect of reviving the fighting spirits of the workers, but precisely the opposite. The workers were stunned and disoriented. It would take time for them to recover. Trotsky predicted—and he was shown to be correct—that there would be no revival of the revolutionary movement in Russia until there was some kind of upturn in the economy.

Marxists have always conceived the peasant war as an auxiliary of the workers in the struggle for power. That position was first developed by Marx during the German revolution of 1848, when he argued that the German revolution could only triumph as a second edition of the Peasants’ War. That is to say, the movement of the workers in the towns would have to draw behind it the peasant masses. The Bolsheviks also explained that it was the workers in the cities who had to lead the peasants behind them. It is important to note that during the Russian Revolution the industrial working class represented no more than 10 percent of the population. Yet the proletariat played the leading role in the Russian Revolution, drawing behind itself the multi-millioned mass of poor peasants—the natural ally of the proletariat. No reference or hint at the possibility that the peasantry can bring about a socialist revolution can be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The reason for that is the extreme heterogeneity of the peasantry as a class. It is divided into many layers, from the landless laborers (who are really rural proletarians) to the rich peasants who employ other peasants as wage laborers. They do not have a common interest and therefore cannot play an independent role in society. Historically they have supported different classes or groups in the cities. The only class able to lead a successful socialist revolution is the working class. This is not for sentimental reasons but because of the place it occupies in society and the collective character of its role in production.

By its very nature, guerrilla warfare is the classical weapon of the peasantry, and not the working class. It is suited for conditions of armed struggle in inaccessible rural areas—mountains, jungle, etc.—where the difficulty of the terrain makes it complicated to deploy regular troops and where the support of the rural masses provides the necessary logistic support and cover for the guerrillas to operate. In the course of a revolution in a backward country with a sizeable peasant population, guerrilla warfare can act as a useful auxiliary for the revolutionary struggle of the workers in the towns. But it would never have occurred to Lenin to put forward the idea of guerrillaism as a substitute for the conscious movement of the working class. Guerrilla tactics, from a Marxist standpoint, are only permissible as a subordinate and auxiliary part of the socialist revolution. This was precisely Lenin’s position in 1905. It had nothing in common with the kind of individual terrorist tactics pursued by the Narodnaya Volya and their heirs, the Social Revolutionary Party, still less the insane tactics of the modern terrorists and “urban guerrilla” organizations which are the very antithesis of a genuine Leninist policy.345

In his article on guerrilla war, Lenin gives a graphic picture of the situation:

The phenomenon in which we are interested is the armed struggle. It is conducted by individuals and by small groups. Some belong to revolutionary organizations, while others (the majority in certain parts of Russia) do not belong to any organization. Armed struggle pursues two different aims, which must be strictly distinguished: in the first place, this struggle aims at assassinating individuals, chiefs and subordinates in the army and police; in the second place, it aims at the confiscation of monetary funds both from the government and from private persons. The confiscated funds go partly into the treasury of the Party, partly for the special purpose of arming and preparing for an uprising, and partly for the maintenance of persons engaged in the struggle we are describing. The big expropriations (such as the Caucasian, involving over 200,000 rubles, and Moscow, involving 875,000 rubles) went in fact first and foremost to revolutionary parties—small expropriations go mostly, and sometimes entirely, to the maintenance of the “expropriators.” This form of struggle undoubtedly became widely developed and extensive only in 1906, i.e., after the December uprising. The intensification of the political crisis to the point of an armed struggle and, in particular, the intensification of poverty, hunger, and unemployment in town and country, was one of the important causes of the struggle we are describing. This form of struggle was adopted as the preferable and even exclusive form of social struggle by the vagabond elements of the population, the lumpenproletariat and anarchist groups.

Lenin insisted that armed struggle must be part of the revolutionary mass movement, and specified the conditions in which it was permissible:

“1) the sentiments of the masses be taken into account; 2) the conditions of the working class movement in the given locality be reckoned with, and 3) care be taken that the forces of the proletariat should not be frittered away.” And he also made it clear that, far from being a panacea, guerrilla war was only one possible method of struggle permissible only “at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising.”

The danger of degeneration inherent in such activity becomes an absolute certainty the moment the guerrilla groups are isolated from the mass movement. In the period following 1906, when the workers’ movement was in decline and the revolutionaries were reeling from a series of body-blows, the guerrilla organizations increasingly displayed signs that they were ceasing to be useful auxiliary organs of the revolutionary party, and becoming transformed into groups of adventurers, or even worse. Even while defending the possibility of guerrilla tactics as a kind of rearguard action against reaction at a moment when he still expected the revolutionary movement to revive, Lenin warned against “anarchism, Blanquism, the old terrorism, the acts of individuals isolated from the masses, which demoralize the workers, repel wide strata of the population, disorganize the movement, and injure the revolution,” and added that “examples in support of this appraisal can easily be found in the events reported every day in the newspapers.”346

As time passed, Lenin came to understand that the tactic of expropriation had outlived its usefulness. He was already coming round to this point of view before the Tiflis raid. But, given the acute shortage of funds, accepted the windfall by way of exception. However, the money from the raid did the party no good. The entire sum was in 500 ruble banknotes, impossible to exchange in Russia. The money was sent abroad, but to no result. The provocateur Zhitomirsky, who occupied a key position in the Bolsheviks’ foreign organization, alerted the police to the scheme. Litvinov, the future Soviet ambassador to London, was arrested while attempting to exchange the notes in Paris. The same fate awaited Olga Ravich, who later became Zinoviev’s wife, in Stockholm. But although the booty from Tiflis proved useless to the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks seized upon it to make a scandal that dragged on for years. The question of expropriations was also the occasion for heated discussions within the Bolshevik faction, where it soured relations. Finally, at the insistence of the Mensheviks, the question of expropriations was placed on the agenda of the Party control commission in January 1910. A resolution was passed condemning expropriations as an inadmissible violation of party discipline, while recognizing that the participants in these actions had not meant to damage the labor movement, but had merely been guided by “a faulty understanding of Party interests.”347

Not everyone who participated in the guerrilla movement was a Kamo. As the reaction dragged on and the workers’ movement remained in a depressed state, the dangers of the movement falling into the hands of déclasséd elements and actual criminals multiplied. Prominent among those who, in contradiction with Lenin’s position, persisted in the tactic of guerrillaism and expropriations long after the conditions for them had ceased to exist, was Koba-Stalin. Such tactics seriously undermined the movement. Olminsky, who was close to Lenin at this time, wrote:

Not a few of the fine youth perished on the gibbet; others degenerated; still others were disappointed in the revolution. At the time people at large began to confound revolutionists with ordinary bandits. Later, when the revival of the labor movement began, that movement was slowest in those cities where the “exes” (expropriations) had been most numerous. (As an example, I might name Baku and Saratov.)348


345 Such tactics led to defeat after defeat where they were put into practice in modern times, most notoriously in the 1970s in Latin America. It is a striking proof of how far the movement has been thrown back since the Second World War that ideas belonging to the prehistory of the movement, which should long ago have been consigned to the dustbin of history, have reemerged, parading as something new and original.

346 LCW, Guerrilla Warfare, vol. 11, 216, 222 (footnote), 219, and 216–17.

347 Trotsky, Stalin, 110.

348 Quoted in Trotsky, Stalin, 98–99.

61) The Stolypin Reaction

The Stolypin reaction began with draconian measures. On August 19, he set up field courts martial which meted out savage sentences against anyone who had been involved in revolutionary activity. Thousands of people were tortured, executed and exiled. Thousands of peasants were tried in military field courts. “Justice” was summary. Most of these trials were over in four days. The usual sentence was death, and 600 persons were executed in the first period. The “reformist” premier orchestrated a campaign of terror unprecedented even in the bloody annals of Russian tsarism. In the period 1907–9 more than 26,000 were brought before the tsarist tribunals. Of these, 5,086 were sentenced to death. By 1909 the jails were filled to overflowing with 170,000 people. But Stolypin was astute enough to realize that the revolutionary movement could not be extinguished by violence alone. There could be no question of a lasting solution unless the land question were addressed. With characteristic decision, Stolypin moved to tackle the problem through a land reform from the top. In order to consolidate itself, the reaction needed a broader social base. The bourgeois and landlord oligarchy, fused together in one reactionary bloc, looked around for allies in the village.

Land relations in prerevolutionary Russia were characterized by extreme backwardness. The peasants lived in 120,000 village communes, eking out an existence on the basis of subsistence economy with an extremely low productivity of labor. Peasant rights were nonexistent. Remnants of decaying feudalism still remained, despite the fact that serfdom had been abolished in 1861. The old feudal labor service persisted, along with the old serf mentality. Land hunger and a sense of deep resentment against the landlord simmered beneath the surface, but, finding no organized expression, remained latent like an inactive volcano. At the beginnings of the new century, the peasant had heard the echoes of revolt from the towns, and something stirred deep within him:

“No rumors came to me about any little books (revolutionary propaganda),” a peasant said after the peasant outbreaks of 1902. “I think if we lived better, the little books would not be important, no matter what was written in them. What’s terrible is not the little books, but this; there isn’t anything to eat.”

Whereas Lenin advocated a revolutionary settling of accounts with the landlords, Stolypin’s reform represented a reactionary bourgeois solution to the agrarian problem. A new law was drafted which forcibly broke up the commune to the advantage of the “bourgeois” minority of the peasantry, the so-called strong peasant or kulak: It was, to quote its author, “a wager, not on the needy and the drunken, but on the sturdy and the strong.” The prior condition for the introduction of capitalist agriculture into Russia was the breaking up of the communes and the creation of a class of rich peasants.

“The natural counterweight to the communal principle,” affirmed Stolypin, “is individual ownership. It is also a guarantee of order, since the small owner is the cell on which rests all stable order in the state.”349

The ukaz was issued in late 1906 and finally became law on June 14, 1910. The basic thrust of the law was to give peasants the right to leave the village commune—the obshchina—though in practice, only wealthy peasants had the means to be independent.

“The reform was put into effect with tremendous energy,” Kerensky writes, “but also with gross disregard for the most elementary tenets of law and justice. The government, which was ‘backing the strongest,’ expropriated the land belonging to the commune and gave it to those well-to-do peasants who opted to withdraw from it. They were given the best plots of land, in complete violation of the commune’s right to tenure. And the new owners of this land were given loans, amounting to 90 percent of cost, with which to set up their farms.”

Stolypin’s reform meant a violent shaking-up of relations on the land. By the end, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the land was in peasant hands. Yet in spite of all the benefits offered them, by the first day of January, 1915, only 2,719,000 peasant households could say that their holdings had become their private property (about 22 or 24 percent of the total amount of available peasant land). How did the majority of peasants view Stolypin’s land reform?

“For the most part,” Kerensky affirms, “the peasants took an unfavorable or even hostile view of the Stolypin land reform for two reasons. First, and most important, the peasant did not want to go against the commune, and Stolypin’s idea of ‘backing the strongest’ ran counter to the peasant’s outlook on life. He had no wish to become a semilandowner at the expense of his neighbors.”

Such a policy provided no solution to the pressing problems of the Russian peasant. But, in truth, the burning desire of the peasants for land was expressed in a whole series of uprisings in the villages which served notice on the autocracy that these “dark masses” were no longer content to support the unbearable burden of landlord oppression in silence. The proverbial patience of the Russian muzhik had reached breaking point. Here lay a mortal danger for the autocracy and an inexhaustible reserve of strength for the revolution. Thus, more than ever, the fate of the proletariat was inextricably bound up with the question of a revolutionary solution of the land problem. Kerensky concluded gloomily: “By his land reform Stolypin has thrown the brand of civil war into the Russian countryside.”350

Looking back on the years of reaction (1907–10), Lenin wrote in 1920:

Tsarism was victorious. All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralization, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counterrevolutionary sentiments. At the same time, however, it was this great defeat that taught the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very useful lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in an understanding of the political struggle, and in the art and science of waging that struggle. It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. Defeated armies learn their lesson.351

The workers’ movement was badly hit, and not only by arrests. Between 1906–10, 500 trade union organizations were shut down. Union membership plunged as unemployment rose inexorably. Membership of legal trade unions fell from 246,000 to 50,000, then to 13,000. The working day was lengthened to 12 hours, 15 in some cases. The rapid rise in unemployment, partly reflecting a world economic crisis, made the position of the workers still worse. In the Moscow area about a quarter of the metalworkers were out of work in 1907. A similar situation existed elsewhere. Coming on the heels of a serious political defeat, the onset of mass unemployment took the fighting spirit out of the working class. The employers drew up blacklists of activists, who were systematically expelled from the workplaces. Wages were driven down.

The downturn in the fortunes of the revolution inevitably provoked a series of internal crises and splits in all of the left parties. This is true not only of the Social Democrats, but also of the Social Revolutionaries. To numerical decline and financial difficulties were added scandals and splits. None other than the SRs’ leading terrorist and chief of its Battle Organization, Evno Azef, was unmasked as a provocateur. There was a right-left split in the SRs between the popular socialists (the right wing) and the Maximalists on the left who demanded immediate socialization of the land and factories. This was, in itself, quite a significant development, anticipating the split away of the Left SRs in 1917. At the SR’s Fifth Party Congress in May 1909, the delegate from Petersburg, Andreyev, pointed out that, in an organizational sense, the party had ceased to exist in the capital; only isolated individuals were left.352 There was even a split in the tiny anarchist movement between the advocates of terrorism and the anarcho-syndicalists.

Meanwhile, the reunification of the RSDLP did not signify an end to the inner-party struggle, but quite the opposite. Not only did relations between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks steadily worsen, but a whole series of splits opened up within the two main factions. The Menshevik right wing (Axelrod, Cherevanin) not only advocated a deal with the Cadets, but also put forward the idea of a “labor congress” of a nonparty character—a kind of reformist Labor Party in place of the old revolutionary Social Democracy. Here, at a very early date, we already have the germs of liquidationism. The disease of class collaborationism was widespread among all shades of Menshevik opinion. Plekhanov wrote an Open Letter to Conscious Workers in the left Cadet organ Tovarishch, calling on them to support the liberal bourgeoisie. The Menshevik Basilev went so far as to call for a fusion of Social Democrats with the SRs, and Cadets in one constitutional party, a proposal which Lenin called the “Mont Blanc of opportunism.” The only way out of the impasse was the immediate convening of a new party congress. Lenin waged a tireless campaign for this, basing himself on the Petersburg committee.

The reaction had won the battle but was not yet confident in itself. The regime combined the carrot with the stick. The tsar convened the second Duma, while stepping up repression. Once again, the issue was posed: should Social Democrats participate in elections to the Duma—yes or no? By this time, Lenin had come around to the view that boycott would be wrong. He had already come to the conclusion that it had been a mistake to boycott the first (Witte) Duma, although he was in a minority of one in this opinion among the leaders of the Bolshevik faction. In September 1906 he wrote that the boycott tactic must be reconsidered. By their very nature tactics cannot be regarded as something static and fixed for all time. They must reflect the existing situation in society, the psychology of the masses, and the stage the movement is at. If the revolution was in retreat, the party could not renounce any legal arena of struggle. It had a duty to utilize each and every opening, each and every platform which would serve to maintain the party’s links with the masses. To behave in any other way would be to make the party into a sect. A sectarian lives in his own little world, remote from the masses, and for this very reason, the concrete questions of tactics are a matter of indifference to him. Since he has invented his own (imaginary) proletariat in an ideal (equally imaginary) world, he has no need to strive to establish contacts with the real working class and its existing organizations. In his article Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International (1935), Trotsky characterizes sectarianism as follows:

The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.

Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living—that is to say, imperfect and unfinished—mass struggle . . . Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.353

The matter is completely different for a genuine Marxist tendency, which must find an answer to the question: how is it possible to link the finished scientific program of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, contradictory, and inchoate movement of the masses? Such a question cannot be answered by repeating abstract formulae. The link must be established at every stage by taking into account the real conditions in which the movement is unfolding. For the advanced Social Democratic workers, it was clear that the Duma could not resolve a single one of the problems facing the proletariat and poor peasants. But for the masses, especially in the countryside, this was far from evident. Considerable illusions had been aroused in the possibility of achieving reforms through parliament, especially that most essential reform of all-agrarian reform. The village sent its representatives to the Duma, represented by the Trudovik (Labor) bloc, and waited impatiently for results. Even among the workers, while there were fewer illusions in the Duma, the defeat of the revolution meant that the latter began to occupy greater attention.

As a general rule, you only boycott a parliament when there is a realistic prospect of replacing it with something better, as was the case in November 1917. But where this is not the case, to boycott elections means only that the workers’ party is boycotting itself. Such a position has nothing in common with Leninism. Lenin was in favor of flexible tactics, reflecting the changed situation. As opposed to the Mensheviks who favored electoral deal with Cadets —the bourgeois liberals—Lenin supported electoral deals with the Trudoviks and SRs against the right parties and against the liberals. The idea of a Left Bloc of the parties of the proletariat and the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie against the bourgeois liberals was really an extension of the policy of the united front to the electoral plane. In the Duma it was permissible to vote together with these parties on specific points where principled agreement existed, while the Social Democrats kept their hands free at all times to criticize the inconsistent, ambiguous, and contradictory policies of the petty bourgeois parties.

The golden rule was: the absolute independence of the workers’ party at all times from all other tendencies (including the radical petty bourgeoisie); no programmatic blocs: no mixing up of banners; complete freedom of criticism. Above all, it was necessary to wage an implacable struggle against the bourgeois liberals. The essential aim was in fact to drive a wedge between the political representatives of the petty bourgeoisie and the Cadets. The outspoken rejection of reformist and parliamentary illusions and all forms of class collaboration—these were the essential features of Lenin’s policy in this period, reflected in a hundred speeches, articles, and resolutions. This policy in turn was the reflection of a longer-term strategy—to fight for the hegemony of the proletariat over the petty-bourgeois masses, especially the peasantry. The results of this strategy were fully revealed in the October Revolution.

This issue was settled at the November 1906 Conference, which, because of the prevailing situation of reaction, was held at Tammerfors in Finland. This was really a defining moment in the history of the party. The Mensheviks and Bund openly supported a bloc with the Cadets. Lenin regarded this as the decisive step which marked the definitive passing over of the Mensheviks to opportunism.354 But there was now a change of mood in the party, reflected in a growing support for Lenin’s position, which got the backing of 14 delegates (65 percent of the conference), expressed in a “minority report” stressing the need for class independence and that the only agreements permissible were episodic blocs with the revolutionary petty-bourgeois democrats. The Tammerfors Conference revealed the existence of sharp internal conflicts, but it did not lead to a split. Lenin confined himself to arguing for his ideas and fighting for the majority, confident that experience would prove him to be correct. To have split the party at such a time would have been irresponsible. More time was needed for the disputed questions on tactics to be clarified by events. However, the internal situation in the RSDLP was complicated. A de facto split on election tactics took place in the St. Petersburg organization which was finally settled at a local Conference held in early January 1907 which rejected blocs with the Cadets. Having lost the argument and the vote, the Menshevik delegates walked out to pursue their separate policy. This was a harbinger of future events. While formally united, the tensions between the different factions constantly increased.

Article four of the resolution on election tactics passed by the Conference states that “local agreements with revolutionary and oppositionist-democratic parties” were permitted “if, during the election campaign, they saw that there was a danger of the parties of the Right getting in.” In practice, this was used by the Mensheviks to support Cadet candidates in many areas. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks argued that

in the first stage of the electoral campaign, i.e., before the masses, they must, as a general rule, come forward as an independent party, and present Party candidates only for election.

Exceptions were allowed

in urgent cases, and then only with parties which wholly subscribed to the principal slogans of our immediate political struggle, i.e., which recognized the necessity of an armed insurrection, and fought for a democratic republic. In addition, such coalitions may be formed only with regard to the drawing up of a common list of candidates, and can in no way interfere with the political agitation of the Social Democrats.355

The elections to the second Duma took place on February 20, 1907. Despite everything, its composition was more left than that of the first Duma. The left was represented by 222 deputies out of a total of 518. The breakdown was as follows: 65 Social Democrats, 104 Trudoviks, 37 SRs, 16 “popular socialists.” This compared with just 54 right wingers (monarchists and Octobrists). The real losers were the Cadets, who had lost support to both the right and the left and now had only 98, as against 184 in the first Duma.356 There were more peasants in the second Duma than the first. However, the leftish composition of the Duma was paradoxically a symptom of the revolution’s decline, not of its rise. Although the masses—not just the workers but also the petty bourgeoisie—attempted to take their revenge on the autocracy by voting for the left in the Duma elections, they were no longer capable of a new insurrection.

The tactic of participating in elections was amply justified by the results. By dropping the boycott, they secured 65 deputies, mainly at the expense of the Cadets. The workers returned Social Democratic candidates on the first ballot. In Petersburg, oddly enough, the SR Party got many of its candidates elected. In the villages, many Left Bloc candidates were returned. The situation within the party was extremely fluid, and opinions were changing and veering in all kinds of directions. Differences began to emerge within the Menshevik faction, part of which joined the Left Bloc. In practice the differences between the right (monarchist/landlords) and Cadets were minimal: the “liberal” bourgeois defended the interests of their landlord cousins, while reading them lectures on the best methods of keeping the masses in subjugation. In fact, many of the Cadets were themselves big landlords. The central question in all the Duma’s deliberations was the agrarian question. The Social Democratic parliamentary fraction provided a real rallying point for the left. But the fraction was still dominated by the Mensheviks, who had 33 deputies plus a number of sympathizers.357 The Bolsheviks numbered 15 and three sympathizers.

Differences between the two factions surfaced immediately. Consistent with their policy of striving for deals with the Cadets, the Mensheviks proposed a Cadet for Speaker, while the Bolsheviks advocated either a Trudovik or a nonparty peasant. The Social Democratic deputies in the Duma fought consistently to support the peasants’ demands. But life itself was revealing the glaring inadequacy of the old RSDLP agrarian program. The Fourth Party Congress limited its demands to the municipalization of land. But the situation had progressed far beyond such half measures. The peasants demanded nationalization, and they did not limit themselves to speeches. There were 131 “incidents” in March, 193 in April, 211 in May, and 216 in June. The debates in the Tauride palace were lit up by the bonfires of revolt that blazed in the villages.


349 Quoted in B.H. Sumner, A Survey of Russian History, 115 and 116.

350 Kerensky, Memoirs, 97 and 98.

351 LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, 27–28.

352 See McKean, Between the Revolutions, 62.

353 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, 153.

354 See Lenin, Collected Works in Russian, vol. 14, 125.

355 Quoted in Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 146–47.

356 The figures for the representation of the parties in the Duma have been calculated differently by different authors. Sometimes the discrepancies are just one or two, but sometimes they are quite important. For instance, the Istoriya puts the number of Trudovik deputies at 104, Kochan at 98, and Pares at 201! This may be the result of the somewhat unstable lines of division between the formations on the “right” and “left.” In the given example, Pares probably confused the total number of peasant deputies with those specifically organized in the “labor” (Trudovik) group. Such discrepancies are common in this field. The figures reproduced here are from the Istoriya KPSS.

357 Here is another discrepancy. The Istoriya puts the number of sympathizers at three; Kochan at 11.