125) ‘All Power to the Soviets’

Having won over the Party to the aim of a new revolution led by the working class, Lenin indicated the next step, which was to win the masses. Nothing could be further from the truth than the oft-repeated slander that Lenin was a conspirator, bent on the seizure of power by a minority of revolutionaries, as advocated by the great French revolutionary of the 19th century, Blanqui. Without for a moment doubting the personal sincerity and heroism of Blanqui, who developed important insights on the technique of insurrection, Lenin never had the view that the socialist revolution could be brought about by a determined minority. All his life, Lenin maintained a burning faith in the revolutionary potential and creative capacity of the working class. Socialism must be based on the self-movement of the proletariat, its active participation and control of society from the very first moment. Even before his return to Russia there were a number of Bolsheviks who, motivated by impatience, advanced the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government.” This was an ultraleft slogan, because the mass of the workers were still under the influence of the reformist leaders of the Soviets, who were supporting the Provisional Government. The task facing the Bolshevik Party at that stage was not the conquest of power, but the conquest of the masses. This idea was summed up in Lenin’s celebrated watchword: Patiently explain!

The Bolshevik Party had succeeded in winning over a significant number of the most conscious and advanced layers of the class. Their influence, especially in Petrograd, was growing by the hour. But that was insufficient. In order to change society, it is not enough to have the support of the vanguard, or to be a party of tens of thousands. It is necessary to win over the millions of politically backward workers, and, in the case of Russia, at least a large section of the peasants, beginning with the poor peasants and rural proletariat and semi-proletariat. In the spring of 1917, this gigantic task was still at its early beginnings. It was essential that the Bolshevik workers open a road to the rest of the class, especially in the provinces, who had illusions in the reformist leaders. It was necessary to speak to them in a language they could understand, and to avoid ultraleft gestures that would repel them.

Lenin understood that the working class learns from experience, especially the experience of great events. The only way in which a revolutionary tendency which is as yet in the minority can gain the ear of the masses is by following the course of events shoulder to shoulder with the masses, participating in the day-to-day struggle as it unfolds, advancing slogans which correspond to the real stage of the movement, and patiently explaining the need for a complete transformation of society as the only way out. Shrill calls to insurrection and civil war will not win over the masses, or even the advanced layer, but only repel them. As we see from the above, this is true even in the middle of a revolution. On the contrary, it is necessary to put the onus for violence and civil war on the shoulders of the reformist leaders who have it in their hands to take power peacefully and, by their refusal to do so, make bloodshed inevitable.

Realizing that the ruling class wanted to provoke the workers into premature acts of violence, Lenin denounced those who claimed that he stood for civil war. He repeatedly denied that the Bolsheviks stood for violence, and placed full responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class. This did not at all suit the ultralefts who failed to understand that nine-tenths of the task of the socialist revolution is the work of winning over the masses by propaganda, agitation, explanation, and organization. Without this, all talk of civil war and insurrection is irresponsible adventurism, or, as it is called in the scientific terminology of Marxism, Blanquism.

Here is what Lenin has to say on the subject: “To speak of civil war before people have come to realize the need for it is undoubtedly to lapse into Blanquism.”668

It was not the Bolsheviks, but the bourgeoisie and their reformist allies who constantly raised the specter of violence and civil war. Lenin repeatedly denied any suggestion that the Bolsheviks advocated violence. On April 25, he protested in Pravda against “dark insinuations” of “Minister Nekrasov” about “the preaching of violence” by the Bolsheviks:

You are lying, Mr. Minister, worthy member of the “people’s freedom” party. It is Mr. Guchkov who is preaching violence when he threatens to punish the soldiers for dismissing the authorities. It is Russkaya Volya, the riot-mongering newspaper of the riot-mongering “republicans,” a paper that is friendly to you, that preaches violence.

Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely that our main efforts should now be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems, as distinguished from the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist intoxication.669

On April 21 (May 4, NS) the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution written by Lenin. The aim of the resolution was to restrain the Petrograd local leadership which was running ahead of events. It aimed to put the responsibility for any violence on the Provisional Government and its supporters, and to accuse the “capitalist minority of reluctance to submit to the will of the majority.” Here are two paragraphs from the resolution:

1. Party propagandists and speakers must refute the despicable lies of the capitalist papers and of the papers supporting the capitalists to the effect that we are holding out the threat of civil war. This is a despicable lie, for only at the present moment, as long as the capitalists and their government cannot and dare not use force against the masses, as long as the mass of soldiers and workers are freely expressing their will and freely electing and displacing all authorities—at such a moment any thought of civil war would be naïve, senseless, preposterous; at such a moment there must be compliance with the will of the majority of the population and free criticism of this will by the discontented minority; should violence be resorted to, the responsibility will fall on the Provisional Government and its supporters.

2. By their outcries against civil war the government of the capitalists and its newspapers are only trying to conceal the reluctance of the capitalists, who admittedly constitute an insignificant minority of the people, to submit to the will of the majority.670

In all his speeches and articles of the first half of 1917, Lenin emphasizes the possibility and desirability of a peaceful transfer of power to the Soviets. He even stated that compensation could be paid to the capitalists whose industries were taken over, on condition that they handed the factories over without any sabotage, and collaborated in the process of reorganizing production:

Don’t try to frighten us, Mr. Shulgin. Even when we are in power we shall not take your “last shirt” from you, but shall see that you are provided with good clothes and good food, on condition that you do the job you are fit for and used to!671

Everyone knows that this was the central slogan of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917. But very few people have understood the real content of this slogan. What, concretely, was the meaning of the slogan “All power to the Soviets”? Civil war? Insurrection? The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks? Far from it. The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the Soviets, which were dominated by the reformist parties, the SRs and Mensheviks. The central task was not the seizure of power, but winning over the majority who had illusions in the reformists. The Bolsheviks based their “patient explanation” on the idea, constantly reiterated in the writings and speeches of Lenin from March right up to the eve of the October insurrection, that the reformist leaders should take power into their own hands, that this would guarantee a peaceful transformation of society, that the Bolsheviks were wholeheartedly in favor of this, and that, if the reformist leaders were to take power, the Bolsheviks would limit themselves to the peaceful struggle for a majority inside the Soviets.

Here are a couple of examples of how Lenin put the question (there are many more):

Apparently, not all the supporters of the slogan “All Power Must Be Transferred to the Soviets” have given adequate thought to the fact that it was a slogan for peaceful progress of the revolution—peaceful not only in the sense that nobody, no class, no force of any importance, would then (between February 27 and July 4) have been able to resist and prevent the transfer of power to the Soviets. That is not all. Peaceful development would then have been possible, even in the sense that the struggle of classes and parties within the Soviets could have assumed a most peaceful and painless form, provided full state power had passed to the Soviets in good time.672

After the failure of the Kornilov uprising, in an article called On Compromises, Lenin once again adopted the slogan “All power to the Soviets” and advocated a compromise proposal to the reformist leaders, whereby the Bolsheviks would not press the idea of an insurrection, on condition that the Soviet leaders break with the bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. This would have easily been possible after the collapse of the counterrevolutionary offensive. The reactionaries were demoralized and disoriented. The workers were confident and a massive majority supported the transfer of power to the Soviets. Under such conditions, the revolution could have been carried out peacefully, without violence and civil war. Nothing could have prevented it. One word from the Soviet leadership would have been enough. After that, the question of which party would rule could have been settled through peaceful debate inside the Soviets:

I think the Bolsheviks would advance no other conditions, trusting that the revolution would proceed peacefully and party strife in the Soviets would be peacefully overcome thanks to really complete freedom of propaganda and the immediate establishment of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections) and in their functioning.

Perhaps this is already impossible? Perhaps. But if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realizing such a possibility is still worthwhile.673

Lenin was firmly convinced that a peaceful revolution was not only possible but probable, on one condition—that the reformist leaders in the Soviets took power instead of dedicating all their energies to propping up the rule of the landlords and capitalists. But their refusal to take power, particularly after the defeat of Kornilov, threatened Russia with catastrophe. This is the eternal contradiction of reformism—that, by clinging to the notion of a slow, gradual, peaceful transformation of society, they always create the most convulsive, catastrophic, and violent conditions, preparing the way for the victory of reaction. Lenin was scathing about the hesitations and vacillations of the Mensheviks and SRs, who refused to break with the bourgeoisie and take power. As always, the reformists tried to frighten the masses with the alleged danger of civil war, an assertion which Lenin treated with well-merited contempt and ridicule. In his article The Russian Revolution and Civil War, Lenin answers these arguments, point by point:

If there is an absolutely undisputed lesson of the revolution, one fully proved by facts, it is that only an alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, only an immediate transfer of all power to the Soviets would make civil war in Russia impossible, for a civil war begun by the bourgeoisie against such an alliance, against the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, is inconceivable; such a “war” would not last even until the first battle; the bourgeoisie, for the second time since the Kornilov revolt, would not be able to move even the Savage Division, or the former number of Cossack units against the Soviet Government!674

He argues that a government that bases itself on the mass of workers and peasants, that puts an end to the war, that gives land to the peasants and acts in the interests of the working people, could brush aside the resistance of the propertied classes, and that, on that basis

a peaceful development of the revolution is possible and probable if all power is transferred to the Soviets. The struggle of parties for power within the Soviets may proceed peacefully, if the Soviets are made fully democratic, and “petty thefts” and violations of democratic principles, such as giving the soldiers one representative to every 500, while the workers have one representative to every 1,000 voters, are eliminated. In a democratic republic such petty thefts will have to disappear.

When confronted with Soviets that have given all the land to the peasants without compensation and offer a just peace to all the peoples—when confronted with such Soviets the alliance of the British, French, and Russian bourgeoisie, the Kornilovs, Buchanans, Ryabushinskys, Milyukovs, Plekhanovs, and Potresovs is quite impotent and is not to be feared.

The bourgeoisie’s resistance to the transfer of the land to the peasants without compensation, to similar reforms in other realms of life, to a just peace and a break with imperialism, is, of course, inevitable. But for such resistance to reach the stage of civil war, masses of some kind are necessary, masses capable of fighting and vanquishing the Soviets. The bourgeoisie does not have these masses, and has nowhere to get them.

It is astonishing that even now, Lenin’s approach to the question of power is not understood. Not only do the bourgeois enemies of Bolshevism persistently strive to pin firmly upon Lenin the label of a violent fanatic, hell-bent on blood and mayhem (Orlando Figes is the latest to peddle this disgusting distortion), but, incredibly, many of the sectarian grouplets who, for some reason, imagine themselves to be great Leninists, repeat the same childish nonsense about the inevitability of violence and civil war, without even realizing that Lenin’s position was just the opposite. In dozens of articles and speeches in the course of 1917, Lenin explained that the notion that revolution necessarily meant bloodshed was a reactionary lie, deliberately put in circulation by the bourgeois and reformists in order to frighten the masses:

Some speak about “rivers of blood” in a civil war. This is mentioned in the resolution of the Kornilovite Cadets quoted above. This phrase is repeated in a thousand ways by all the bourgeois and opportunists. Since the Kornilov revolt all the class-conscious workers laugh, will continue to laugh and cannot help laughing at it.675

If we examine world history over the last hundred years, we see that, on countless occasions and in many countries, the working class could have taken power peacefully, as in 1917, if the leaders of the trade unions and mass Socialist and Communist parties had willed it. But, like the Russian Mensheviks and SRs, they had no intention of taking power. They found a thousand and one “clever” arguments to show that the “time was not ripe,” the “correlation of forces was unfavorable,” and of course there was a danger of civil war, violence, the streets running with blood and so on. This was, after all, the argument of the German labor leaders in 1933, when Hitler boasted that he had come to power “without breaking a window pane,” although the German workers’ organizations were the most powerful in the world. It is always the same story with these ladies and gentlemen. Their reformist “gradualism” always prepares a catastrophe. If there is bloodshed, it is always the result of these policies of class collaboration, of parliamentary cretinism, of popular frontism, which considered itself to be “realistic” and “practical” but always turns out to be the worst kind of utopianism in the end.

Our business is to help do everything possible to secure the “last” chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help this by presenting our program, by making clear its general, national character, its absolute harmony with the interests and demands of an enormous majority of the population.

Having seized power, the Soviet could still at present—and that is probably their last chance—secure a peaceful development of the revolution, peaceful elections of the deputies by the people, a peaceful struggle of the parties inside the Soviets, a testing of the programs of various parties in practice, a peaceful passing of power from one party to another.676

And here is how Trotsky sums up the position in The History of the Russian Revolution:

The transfer of power to the Soviets meant, in its immediate sense, a transfer of power to the Compromisers. That might have been accomplished peacefully, by way of a simple dismissal of the bourgeois government, which had survived only on the good will of the Compromisers and the relics of the confidence in them of the masses. The dictatorship of the workers and soldiers had been a fact since the 27th of February. But the workers and soldiers were not [at that point necessarily] aware of that fact. They had confided the power to the Compromisers, who in their turn had passed it over to the bourgeoisie. The calculations of the Bolsheviks on a peaceful development of the revolution rested, not on the hope that the bourgeoisie would voluntarily turn over the power to the workers and soldiers, but that the workers and soldiers would in good season prevent the Compromisers from surrendering the power to the bourgeoisie.

The concentration of the power in the Soviets under a regime of soviet democracy, would have opened before the Bolsheviks a complete opportunity to become a majority in the Soviet, and consequently to create a government on the basis of their program. For this end an armed insurrection would have been unnecessary. The interchange of power between the parties could have been accomplished peacefully. All the efforts of the party from April to July had been directed towards making possible a peaceful development of the revolution through the Soviet. “Patiently explain”that had been the key to the Bolshevik policy.677

But maybe Lenin and Trotsky were only bluffing? Maybe they only put forward the idea of a peaceful transition in order to gain popularity with the workers, making allowance for their reformist pacifist illusions? To imagine such a thing would be not to understand anything of the method of Lenin and Trotsky, based on fearless revolutionary honesty. In his testimony before the Dewey Commission, Trotsky puts this very clearly: “I believe that the Marxist, the revolutionary, policy in general is a very simple policy: ‘Speak out what is! Don’t lie! Tell the truth!’ It is a very simple policy.”678

The Bolshevik Party did not have two different programs, one for the educated few and one for the “ignorant” workers. Lenin and Trotsky always told the truth to the working class, even when this was bitter and unpalatable. If in 1917, that is in the midst of a revolution, when the question of power was poised point blank, they insisted in the idea that a peaceful transformation was possible (not “theoretically” but actually possible), on condition only that the reformist leaders took decisive action, it could only be because this was actually the case. And so it was. Had the Soviet leadership acted decisively, the revolution would have taken place peacefully, without civil war, because they had the support of the overwhelming majority of society. In pointing this simple fact out to the workers and peasants, Lenin and Trotsky were not telling lies, or abandoning the Marxist theory of the state, but merely saying what was obviously true to the mass of workers and peasants.

By bringing out the contradiction between the words and deeds of the reformist leaders, the Bolsheviks prepared the way to winning over the decisive majority in the Soviets, and also in the army (which was also represented in the Soviets). This was the real way in which the Bolshevik Party prepared for insurrection in 1917, not by talking about it, but by actually penetrating the masses and their organizations with flexible tactics and slogans which really corresponded to the demands of the situation, and connected with the consciousness of the masses, not lifeless abstractions learned by rote from a revolutionary cookbook. The only reason why a peaceful revolution was not immediately achieved in Russia was because of the cowardice and treachery of the reformist leaders in the Soviets, as Lenin and Trotsky explained a hundred times.

Unless and until the revolutionary party wins the masses, it is pointless and counterproductive to place the emphasis on the alleged inevitability of violence and civil war. Such an approach, far from “educating” the cadres or preparing them for serious revolutionary work (which at this stage consists almost entirely of the patient preparatory work of gaining points of support among the workers and youth and the labor movement) is more likely to confuse and disorient the cadres and alienate the workers we are trying to win. This was never the method of the great Marxist thinkers in the past, but was always a characteristic of the ultraleft sects on the fringes of the labor movement, who live in a “revolutionary” dreamworld all of their own, which bears no relation to the real world. In this hothouse, shut away from reality, small groups can while away the time endlessly debating the “insurrection” and mentally “preparing” themselves for the “inevitability of civil war” while the real task of building the revolutionary organization entirely escapes them.

In what way does a Marxist tendency concretely prepare for power? By winning over the masses. In what way can this task be achieved? By working out a program of transitional demands which, setting out from the real situation of society and the objective needs of the working class and the youth, links the immediate demands to the central idea of expropriating the capitalists and transforming society. As Lenin and Trotsky explained many times, nine-tenths of the task of revolution consists precisely in this. Unless this fact is grasped, all talk about armed struggle, “military preparations,” and civil war is reduced to irresponsible demagogy.

As we have pointed out, when the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the Soviets, which were entirely dominated by the reformist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were striving for an alliance with the bourgeoisie, they did not play with insurrection, but stressed the need to win a majority in the Soviets (“patiently explain”). The masses tended to look for what appeared to be the easiest, most economical solutions to their problems. That is why the Russian workers and peasants trusted the reformist leaders then as now. The Bolsheviks had to take this fact as their starting point. Lenin had a deep understanding of the psychology of the masses. On July 8, he wrote:

The masses are still looking for the “easiest” way out—through the bloc of the Cadets with the bloc of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks.

But there is no way out.679


668 LCW, The 7th (April) All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP(B), vol. 24, 236 (my emphasis).

669 LCW, A Shameless Lie of the Capitalists, vol. 24, 110–11.

670 LCW, Resolution of the CC of the RSDLP(B) Adopted April 21 (May 4), 1917, vol. 24, 201.

671 LCW, Tidbits for the “Newborn” Government, vol. 24, 363.

672 LCW, On Slogans, vol. 25, 186.

673 LCW, On Compromises, vol. 25, 307.

674 LCW, The Russian Revolution and Civil War, vol. 26, 36.

675 Ibid., 37 and 38.

676 LCW, vol. XXI, book I, 257 and 263–64.

677 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 816 (my emphasis).

678 The Case of Leon Trotsky, 384.

679 LCW, A Disorderly Revolution, vol. 25, 129.

126) The June Days

Beginning in 1905, Lenin had advanced the slogan of a workers’ militia as a central demand for the revolution. It was no accident that the arming of the workers was one of the first demands he put forward in his telegram to the Bolsheviks from Switzerland. In fact, the Russian workers were already carrying this demand into practice without waiting to be told.

In the armed clashes of February, the workers, beginning with the activists, seized a large quantity of arms. 40,000 rifles and 30,000 revolvers were seized from the arsenal alone. A further 24,000 rifles and 400,000 cartridges were reluctantly handed over by the Provisional Government’s Military Commission between March 2 and 3. On this basis, the workers’ militia was formed, firstly to patrol the workers districts, keeping order, preventing pogroms and disarming criminal and hooligan elements. Before long, however, they began to go onto the offensive against counterrevolutionary elements, including oppressive and unpopular members of management. The workers militia had nothing in common with terrorism and guerrillaism, but emerged from the mass movement and was subordinated to it, being closely linked to the Soviets and factory committees that everywhere began to spring up after the February Revolution. If we agree that state power is “armed bodies of men,” then power in Petrograd was in the hands of the armed people. By March 19, there were 85 militia centers functioning in the city, of which 20 were under the control of factory committees or similar bodies. They numbered around 10,000 or 12,000 as opposed to the 8,000 of the regular militia. “In essence,” commented the Populist A.V. Peshekonov, “all power rested completely in the hands of the crowd.”

On April 28, a conference was organized, on the initiative of the Left Menshevik N. Rostov, of elected representatives from 156 enterprises to set up the Red Guard. The statutes of the new force, drafted by Shlyapnikov and adopted by the Vyborg District Soviet, controlled by the Bolsheviks, stated its aims as “to struggle against the counterrevolutionary intrigues of the ruling class [and] defend with arms in hand all conquests of the working class,” but at the same time “to safeguard the lives, security and property of all citizens without distinction of sex, age or nationality.” Membership was open to any man or woman who could prove membership of a socialist party or union, and was elected or recommended by a general meeting of their workmates. The basic unit was the squad of ten (desyatok); these were to combine to make up a “sotnya,” or unit of one hundred, and ten such companies were to constitute a battalion. The whole force was under the control of the district soviet (most of which were controlled by the Bolsheviks). All officers were elected by the rank and file.

Thus, in the beginnings, the workers’ militias saw their role in purely defensive terms. But in the course of experience, their role became transformed, passing almost imperceptibly from defense to offense, until, by November, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, they could place on the order of the day the seizure of state power. One recent analyst has estimated that, on the eve of the October Revolution, the militias counted in their ranks between 70,000 and 100,000. Of these, roughly 15–20,000 were in Petrograd and the surrounding area, and about 10–15,000 in Moscow and the Central Industrial Region.680

With every day that passed, the role of the reformist leaders of the Soviets was becoming exposed. The first All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was held in Petrograd from June 3 to June 24, passed a resolution pledging full support for the government. The Bolsheviks were in a small minority at the Congress: 105 delegates, as against 533 for the Mensheviks and SRs. But the mood in the factories and garrisons in the capital was growing increasingly restless. The large numbers of new recruits made this mood felt within the Bolshevik Party. In early June, under the influence of these moods, the Bolsheviks’ Military Organization had projected an armed demonstration in Petrograd to coincide with the congress. The purpose of the demonstration was to put pressure on the Congress. But it was also a response to the increasing pressure of the advanced workers of Petrograd who were straining at the leash to take power. Had the Bolsheviks not placed themselves at the head of the workers, all kinds of ultraleft and anarchist elements could have exploited the situation to provoke premature armed clashes with calamitous results.

The workers of Petrograd had a clear message for the Soviet leaders: “Take over power in the state! Break with the bourgeoisie! Break the coalition and take power into your own hands!” But the last thing the petty-bourgeois Soviet leaders wanted was power, and the movement of the Petrograd workers terrified them. They were convinced that the Bolsheviks were using the armed demonstration as a front to take power. Such an idea was very far from Lenin’s mind at this stage. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks were attempting to restrain the workers of Petrograd, understanding that the time for a decisive showdown was not ripe. True, the workers could have taken power in Petrograd in June. But the provinces had not yet had time to catch up with the capital. The mass of the workers and peasants would have interpreted this as an attack on “their” government, and rallied to the Soviet leaders who would not have hesitated to drown the movement in blood. The Russian Revolution would have ended up as a heroic failure, like the Paris Commune. Lenin had no intention of going down that road.

In a panic reaction, the Soviet leaders opened up a savage campaign against the projected demonstration. Understanding what this meant, the Bolsheviks decided to retreat and the demonstration was called off. They were still in a small minority at the Congress, and acted accordingly. The main task was still that of winning over a majority in the Soviet by patient work, propaganda and agitation. The question of taking power while the party remained a small minority simply did not arise. The Bolsheviks’ decision to stage a tactical retreat was shown to be correct by what happened next.

To compensate for the calling-off of the Bolsheviks’ demonstration, the reformist leaders called their own “official” demonstration—and had the shock of their lives. On July 1, the masses poured onto the streets of Petrograd in answer to the call of the Soviet leaders. But in their hands they carried banners with Bolshevik slogans:

Down with the secret treaties! Down with the policy of strategic offensives! Long live an honorable peace! Down with the ten capitalist ministers! and All power to the Soviet!

In the entire demonstration there were only three placards that expressed confidence in the Provisional Government—one from a Cossack regiment, one from Plekhanov’s tiny group, and one from the Bund. This demonstration showed not only the reformist leaders but also the Bolsheviks themselves that they were far stronger in Petrograd than what they had imagined.

So long as they were in a minority, Lenin and Trotsky did their utmost to restrain the workers and soldiers, to avoid a premature confrontation with the state. All their emphasis was on peaceful agitation and propaganda. This was not an easy thing to do. For their pains, Lenin and Trotsky frequently incurred the anger of sections of the workers who had moved a bit too far ahead of the class. They were accused of opportunism for not pushing the question of armed insurrection into the foreground. To such criticism, they merely shrugged their shoulders. They understood that the most pressing task was to win over the majority of the workers and soldiers who remained under the influence of the Mensheviks and SRs. That was the real significance of the slogan “all power to the Soviets.” Lenin maintained this position up until July, when he advocated dropping it in favor of “all power to the factory committees.”

At the Congress of Soviets, Lenin made a speech which sums up his whole approach to the question of winning over the workers in the Soviets. No trace of shrill, strident denunciations, but instead a patient, positive-sounding appeal to the workers which takes into account their illusions in the reformist leaders, but at the same time states clearly what is. He warned that only two alternatives were possible:

One or the other: either the usual bourgeois government, in which case the peasants’, workers’, soldiers’ and other Soviets are useless and will either be broken up by the generals, the counterrevolutionary generals, who keep a hold on the armed forces and pay no heed to Minister Kerensky’s fancy speeches, or they will die an inglorious death. They have no other choice. They can neither retreat nor stand still. They can exist only by advancing.681

Then he turned his attention to the burning issue of the war. His analysis of the situation is so clear, the message so direct, that it could not fail to strike a chord with the delegates, even though they were overwhelmingly in favor of the Mensheviks and SRs at this stage. With no trace of rhetoric or demagogy, by the force of an iron logic, Lenin ruthlessly strips away all the diplomatic verbiage to lay bare the class interests that lie beneath:

The capitalists continue to plunder the people’s property. The imperialist war continues. And yet we are promised reforms, reforms and more reforms, which cannot be accomplished at all under these circumstances, because the war crushes and determines everything. Why do you disagree with those who say the war is not being waged over capitalist profits? It is, first of all, which class is in power, which class continues to be the master, which class continues to make hundreds of thousands of millions from banking and financial operations. It is the same capitalist class and the war therefore continues to be imperialist. Neither the first Provisional Government nor the government with the near-socialist Ministers has changed anything. The secret treaties remain secret. Russia is fighting for the Straits, fighting to continue Lyakhov’s policy in Persia, and so on.

I know you don’t want this, that most of you don’t want it, and that the Ministers don’t want it, because no one can want it, for it means the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people. But take the offensive which the Milyukovs and Maklakovs are now talking about so much. They know full well what that means. They know it is linked with the question of power, with the question of revolution. We are told we must distinguish between political and strategic issues. It is ridiculous to raise this question at all. The Cadets perfectly understand that the point at issue is a political one.

It is slander to say the revolutionary struggle for peace that has begun from below might lead to a separate peace treaty. The first step we should take if we had power would be to arrest the biggest capitalists and cut all the threads of their intrigues. Without this, all talk about peace without annexations and indemnities is utterly meaningless. Our second step would be to declare to all people over the head of their governments that we regard all capitalists as robbers—Tereshchenko, who is not a bit better than Milyukov, just a little less stupid, the French capitalists, the British capitalists, and all the rest.

Your own Izvestiya has got into a muddle and proposes to keep the status quo instead of peace without annexations and indemnities. Our idea of peace “without annexations” is different. Even the Peasant Congress comes nearer the truth when it speaks of a “federal” republic, thereby expressing the idea that the Russian republic does not want to oppress any nation, either in the new or in the old way, and does not want to force any nation, either Finland or the Ukraine, with both of whom impermissible and intolerable conflicts are being created. We want a single and undivided republic of Russia with a firm government. But a firm government can be secured only by the voluntary agreement of all people concerned. “Revolutionary democracy” are big words, but they are being applied to a government that by its petty fault-finding is complicating the problem of the Ukraine and Finland, which do not even want to secede. They only say, “Don’t postpone the application of the elementary principles of democracy until the Constituent Assembly!”

A peace treaty without annexations and indemnities cannot be concluded until you have renounced your own annexations. It is ridiculous, a comedy, every worker in Europe is laughing at us, saying: You talk very eloquently and call on the people to overthrow the bankers, but you send your own bankers into the Ministry. Arrest them, expose their tricks, get to know the hidden springs! But that you don’t do although you have powerful organizations which cannot be resisted. You have gone through 1905 and 1917. You know that revolution is not made to order, that revolutions in other countries were made by the hard and bloody method of insurrection, and in Russia there is no group, no class, that would resist the power of the Soviets. In Russia, this revolution can, by way of exception, be a peaceful one. Were this revolution to propose peace to all peoples today or tomorrow, by breaking with all the capitalist classes, both France and Germany, their people, that is, would accept very soon, because these countries are perishing, because Germany’s position is hopeless, because she cannot save herself and because France—(Chairman: “Your time is up.”)

I shall finish in half a minute. (Commotion; requests from the audience that the speaker continue; protests and applause.)

Clearly impressed, almost in spite of themselves, the majority decided to give the speaker extra time, and Lenin continued his speech, exposing the imperialist nature of the war, but, again taking into account the “honest defensist” inclinations of his audience, explains revolutionary defeatism in a language which could get an echo from the workers and soldiers. We are not pacifists, he says. We are prepared to fight against the kaiser, who is also our enemy. But we do not trust the capitalists. Get rid of the ten capitalist ministers! Let the Soviet leaders take the power, and we will wage a revolutionary war against German imperialism, while fighting to extend the revolution to Germany and all the other belligerent powers. That is the only way to get peace:

When we take power into our own hands,” he said,

we shall curb the capitalists, and then the war will not be the kind of war that is being waged now, because the nature of a war is determined by what class wages it, not by what is written on paper. You can write on paper anything you like. But as long as the capitalist class has a majority in the government the war will remain an imperialist war no matter what you write, no matter how eloquent you are, no matter how many near-socialist ministers you have . . .

The war remains an imperialist war, and however much you may desire peace, however sincere your sympathy for the working people and your desire for peace—I am fully convinced that by and large it must be sincere—you are powerless, because the war can only be ended by taking the revolution further. When the revolution began in Russia, a revolutionary struggle for peace from below also began. If you were to take power into your hands, if power were to pass to the revolutionary organizations to be used for combating the Russian capitalists, then the working people of some countries would believe you and you could propose peace. Then our peace would be ensured at least from two sides, by the two nations who are being bled white and whose cause is hopeless—Germany and France. And if circumstances then obliged us to wage a revolutionary war—no one knows, and we do not rule out the possibility—we should say: “We are not pacifists, we do not renounce war when the revolutionary class is in power and has actually deprived the capitalists of the opportunity to influence things in any way, to exacerbate the economic dislocation which enables them to make hundreds of millions.” The revolutionary government would explain to absolutely every nation that every nation must be free, and that just as the German nation must not fight to retain Alsace and Lorraine, so the French nation must not fight for its colonies. For, while France is fighting for her colonies, Russia has Khiva and Bokhara, which are also something like colonies. Then the division of colonies will begin. And how are they to be divided? On what basis? According to strength. But strength has changed. The capitalists are in a situation where their only way out is war. When you take over revolutionary power, you will have a revolutionary way of securing peace, namely, by addressing a revolutionary appeal to all nations and explaining your tactics by your own example.682

What is most striking here is the complete absence of Lenin’s earlier formulations on “revolutionary defeatism.” No reference to civil war. No call to the soldiers to turn their bayonets against their officers, and certainly no hint that the defeat of Russia would be the “lesser evil”! This change reflects an important shift in Lenin’s thinking on tactics since February. The question of defensism versus revolutionary defeatism, which he frequently presented in very black-and-white terms in the previous period, turned out to be not so simple. Of course, fundamentally Lenin’s position on the war had not changed. The change of regime from tsarist autocracy to a bourgeois-democratic republic did not mean that the war on Russia’s side was any less imperialist than before. But when he returned to Russia, Lenin said that he had found, as well as the usual social-chauvinist crowd, a wide layer of honest working class defensists in the Soviets who had to learn by experience and argument the reactionary nature of the war. To have merely repeated the old slogans would have been to cut off the Bolsheviks utterly from the working class. A new approach was needed, which reflected the difference between writing and speaking for small groups of party activists and addressing the broad mass of workers recently awakened to political life.


680 Quoted in Keep, Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 91 and 95.

681 LCW, First All-Russia Congress of Soviets, vol. 25, 18.

682 Ibid., 21–23 and 26–27.