120) The Mensheviks and the February Revolution

By its very nature, a revolution stirs society to the depths, arousing the millions of politically backward and inert masses to political life. Above all in a backward, predominantly peasant country like Russia, this meant the awakening of the peasantry and other layers of the petty bourgeoisie of town and countryside. The pressure of the petty bourgeois masses played a disproportionate role in the early stages. This was expressed in the system of elections in the Soviets. Initially, the workers were entitled to one representative for every 1,000 voters, one soldier elected for every company (rota in Russian) in Petrograd. This voting system gave an overwhelming preponderance to the soldiers, that is to say, the peasants, over the workers’ representatives in the Soviets. There were 2,000 soldiers deputies as against 800 workers. At the beginning of the revolution the Bolsheviks were submerged in this sea of politically untutored and often illiterate peasants. Motivated by the petty-bourgeois spirit, they tended to elect as their representatives “intellectuals” and “the gentlemen who know how to speak.” These were overwhelmingly made up of the democratic middle class (many of them junior officers in the army) who gravitated massively to the moderate socialist and reformist parties—the Mensheviks and SRs.

The most prominent Menshevik leaders—Dan, Chkheidze, Tsereteli— were defensists, but there was a small group of Menshevik Internationalists —Martov, Martynov, and others—who opposed the war. These left reformist or “centrist” elements (centrist, in the sense of standing between Marxism and reformism) had initially moved to the left, but, typically, did not want to break completely with the defensists, and therefore subsequently moved back to the right. The line of the Mensheviks in 1917, in contrast to 1905, was dictated by its right wing. The “lefts” played no independent role. Nor could they. The only consistently revolutionary tendency was the Bolshevik Party, which attracted to itself, as Lenin later observed, all the best elements in the Russian labor movement. The best of the left reformists, one way or another, found their way into the ranks of the Bolshevik Party. The rest sunk without trace.

The Menshevik and SR leaders who dominated the Soviet in the beginning were, in practice, self-appointed. But they initially had a number of advantages over the Bolsheviks. They had the “big names” from the Duma group, people known to the masses through the legal press during the war years. They also offered what appeared to be an “easy way out” to the mass of politically untutored workers and peasants who now flooded onto the scene, intoxicated with democratic illusions. These petty-bourgeois leaders were inwardly terrified of the revolution and from the first were anxious to hand power over to the “natural” leaders of society—the bourgeoisie.634

There were other reasons why the Mensheviks and SRs came to the fore after February. The Petrograd proletariat, which was solidly Bolshevik in 1912–16, had been seriously diluted by the war. The raw layers who entered the factories did not have the same level of consciousness or tradition as the veterans of 1905 whom they replaced. Trotsky explains:

The hegemony of the lower middle-class intellectuals was at bottom the expression of the fact that the peasantry, suddenly called to take part in organized political life through the machinery of the army, had by sheer weight of numbers pushed aside and overwhelmed the proletariat for the time being. Even more, insofar as the middle-class leaders had been raised to a dizzy height by the powerful mass of the army, the working class itself, with the exception of its advanced sections, could not but become imbued with a certain political respect for them and try to maintain political contact with them for fear of finding themselves divorced from the peasantry. And this was a very serious matter, for the older generation still remembered the lesson of 1905, when the proletariat was crushed, just because the massive peasant reserves had not come up in time for the decisive battles. That is why in the first phase of the new Revolution also the proletarian masses showed themselves highly accessible to the political ideology of the SRs and the Mensheviks—especially as the Revolution had aroused the hitherto slumbering backward masses of workers, and thus made the hazy radicalism of the intellectuals a sort of preparatory school for them.635

The leading figures in the Petrograd Soviet—Chkheidze, Kerensky, the Soviet’s chairman, and Skobelev—were all Mensheviks and defensists. On the Soviet’s executive committee there were 12 others, but only two Bolsheviks: Shlyapnikov and Zalutsky. On a Bolshevik proposal, the EC was broadened to include three representatives from each party: Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and SRs. In this way, Molotov and K.I. Shutko were added for the Bolsheviks and P.I. Stuchka from the Latvian Social Democrats. The total number of Bolsheviks in the Soviet, on March 9, was 40. The army was also represented on the Soviet. Soldier delegates were sent to the Tauride Palace, including men from the front. This meant, in effect, that for the first time the representatives of the peasantry sat alongside their proletarian brethren. This was indeed the practical realization of the revolutionary unity of the proletariat and peasantry.

The Soviet launched its own publication, Izvestiya (The News), the first issue of which came out on February 28 under the editorship of Y.M. Steklov. Here at last was the parliament of the revolutionary people in arms! No power on earth could prevent it from taking over the land and factories and instituting a genuinely democratic republic of the toilers. It was sufficient that it should will it. There was only one obstacle—that the workers and peasants should be conscious of their power. But such a consciousness was as yet lacking. In this way was born the abortion of “dual power.”

The reasons for the dual power regime were explained by Trotsky:

The “united front” of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries dominated the Soviets and actually had power in its hands. The bourgeoisie was completely paralyzed politically since ten million soldiers, exhausted by the war, stood fully armed on the side of the workers and peasants. But what the leaders of the “united front” dreaded most of all was to “scare off” the bourgeoisie, to “push” it to the camp of reaction. The united front dared not touch either the imperialist war, or the banks, or feudal land ownership, or the shops and plants. It marked time and spouted general phrases while the masses lost patience. More than that: the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries directly transferred the power to the Cadet party, rejected by the toilers and despised by them.636

The Mensheviks and SRs clung to the bourgeois liberals. The latter clung to what remained of the old order. The workers and peasants, only recently awakened to political life, were striving to find their way and as yet lacked the experience and self-confidence to rely on their own strength. Lenin grasped immediately the significance of the Soviet as a “real popular government.” But this conception was a book sealed by seven seals to the leaders of all the parties, including, at first, the Bolsheviks themselves. The first concern of the bourgeois liberals was to restore “order” and “get things back to normal.” Yet the workers and soldiers, instinctively reluctant to disarm or take a step back, having come so far, looked for guidance and leadership to the Soviet. Increasingly distrustful, a delegation of soldiers and sailors deputies came to the Tauride Palace to present their demands to the Soviet. Two members of this delegation (A.M. Paderin and A.D. Sadovsky) were Bolsheviks.

The vacillations of the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd did not reflect the outlook of the rank-and-file Bolshevik workers who were more in touch with the mood in the factories and barracks. The Bolsheviks in the Vyborg district demanded that power be taken over by the Soviet. Naturally, the Soviet leaders refused on the grounds that the revolution was “bourgeois” and the working class was “not ready” to take power. The bourgeois politicians maneuvered to head off the revolution. The open defensists favored the entry of the Soviet leaders into a coalition with the bourgeoisie. The shamefaced defensists (Chkheidze, Sukhanov, Steklov) favored staying out of the coalition, but not the assumption of power. Instead, the Soviet should “control” the bourgeois government from outside. This attempt to combine fire and water anticipated the position later taken by the German centrists who advocated a mixed constitution in which the workers’ councils (soviets) should exist side by side with the bourgeois government. A similar line was taken by Stalin and Kamenev.

The Menshevik policy went against the grain of the masses, but the latter were politically inexperienced, naïve and trusting in their leaders. The Menshevik orators and “big names” overawed them and silenced their doubts. In the name of “unity” and “defense of democracy,” unity of all “progressive forces,” etc., they used the argument that the working class could not transform society “on its own,” and all the dismal litany traditionally rattled off by the reformist leaders to convince the workers that it is powerless to change society, and must forever put up with the rule of capital. They argued the Soviet would “put pressure on the bourgeois liberals” to act in the workers’ interests.

Footnotes

634 The Istoriya, which describes the February rising, without the slightest foundation, as a purely Bolshevik affair, is at a loss to explain how the Mensheviks and SRs could be the principal beneficiaries!

635 Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, in The Essential Trotsky, 27–28.

636 Trotsky, Lessons of October, in Writings, 1935–36, 167–68.

121) The Bolsheviks and the Provisional Government

Faced with an entirely new and unexpected turn of events, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd felt out of their depth. They anxiously awaited the arrival of the exiled leaders to provide them with direction. Shlyapnikov admits that the Bolsheviks, who concentrated all their efforts in winning the immediate battle for power, gave little thought to the question of what power meant and how, concretely, the “provisional revolutionary government” would be formed. At bottom, this was the result of a mistaken theory, summed up in the formula “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” which utterly disarmed and disoriented the Bolshevik leaders after the overthrow of tsarism. Even the most radical of them had no other perspective than the consolidation of a bourgeois regime.

“The coming revolution must only be a bourgeois revolution,” wrote Olminsky, adding that “that was an obligatory premise for every member of the party, the official opinion of the party, its continual, and unchanging slogan right up to the February Revolution of 1917, and even some time after.”

The same idea was expressed even more crudely in Pravda on March 7, 1917, even before Stalin and Kamenev had given it an even more right-wing slant: “Of course, there is no question among us of the downfall of the rule of capital, but only the downfall of the rule of the autocracy and feudalism.”637

The rank-and-file Bolshevik workers in the factories, in contrast to the leaders, displayed a healthy skepticism and distrust of the Provisional Government from the outset. Their outlook was shaped, not by old slogans, but by their class and revolutionary instinct. At every stage they stood to the left of the Central Committee which, without the steadying hand of Lenin, frequently vacillated. Paradoxically, the absence of the leaders from Petrograd in the beginning permitted the voice of the rank and file to be heard more clearly. Once they got over the initial disorientation, they adopted a more or less correct position. Thus, early on, the Petrograd Bolsheviks issued a manifesto, which Lenin heartily welcomed, To All the Citizens of Russia, demanding a democratic republic, the eight-hour day, seizure of the landlords’ estates, and an immediate end to the war of plunder.

This position would have placed the Bolsheviks on collision course with all the other tendencies of the “progressive camp” which were attempting to put the brakes on the revolution for the sake of reaching an accommodation with the bourgeois liberals. Although it did not refer to the Soviets it said that:

The factory workers and also the revolutionary soldiers must immediately elect their representatives for a provisional revolutionary government, which must be set up under the protection of the insurrectionary, revolutionary people and army.

The manifesto also appealed for the setting up of soviets.

Proceed immediately to the election in the factories of factory strike committees. Their elected representatives will make up a Soviet of workers’ deputies, which will take upon itself the organizing role in the movement, which will set up a provisional revolutionary government.

The instinctively revolutionary position of the Bolshevik rank-and-file, and its opposition to class collaborationism was reflected in the radical stance taken by Pravda in the early days of the revolution, before the arrival of Stalin and Kamenev. Pravda (3/9/1917) wrote:

The Soviet of Workers and Soldiers deputies must immediately get rid of this Provisional Government of the liberal bourgeoisie and declare itself to be the provisional revolutionary government.638

However, the arrival of the exiles immediately changed things for the worse. Since Lenin was stranded in Switzerland, blocked by the refusal of the Allies to allow him to travel to Russia through their territory, the first to return were those who had been sent to Siberia, Kamenev and Stalin among them. They immediately steered the Party on a rightward course, which signified drawing close to the Mensheviks.

The leaders of the Bolsheviks in Russia joined the Mensheviks and SRs in supporting the Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov, despite all Lenin’s warnings against blocs with the liberal bourgeoisie. Even before the return of Stalin and Kamenev, there were sharp differences. When Molotov, in the name of the Bureau of the Central Committee, put before the Petrograd Committee a resolution criticizing the Provisional Government, denouncing its counterrevolutionary policy and calling for its replacement by a “democratic government,” he was rebuffed. Instead, the Petrograd Committee passed a resolution in which it agreed to refrain from attacks on the Provisional Government “so long as its actions correspond to the interests of the proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people.”639 Instead of appearing as an independent revolutionary force, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd acted as the fifth wheel in the cart of the “progressive democrats.” This reflected the pressure of petty-bourgeois public opinion. The general mood in the aftermath of the February overthrow was one of euphoria and universal rejoicing. Intense pressure grew for the unity of all “progressive forces,” and weighed heavily on the leading stratum of the most radical wing which was constantly urged to modify its stance and fall into line with the majority. This threw the Bolshevik leaders off balance, and they moved towards accommodation with the Mensheviks. In many areas, local committees of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks spontaneously merged. As Trotsky recalls:

The barriers between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, between the Internationalists and the Patriots, fell down. The whole country was flooded with buoyant but nearsighted and verbose conciliationism. People floundered in the welter of heroic phrases, the principal element of the February Revolution, especially during its first weeks. Groups of exiles started from all the ends of Siberia, merged into one stream and flowed westward in an atmosphere of exultant intoxication.640

The arrival of the exiles from Siberia instantly imparted a sharp rightward slant to the political positions taken by the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd. Up until this time, the local leadership, made up of Shlyapnikov, Zalutsky, and Molotov, had steered a more radical course. These three leaders stood on the left wing of the party. But the newly arrived Kamenev and Stalin used their seniority to push the party’s line sharply to the right. This was immediately reflected in the pages of the central organ. In an editorial in Pravda on March 14, two days after his return, Kamenev wrote an editorial in which he asked: “What purpose would it serve to speed things up, when things were already taking place at such a rapid pace?”641 The next day, he wrote another piece commenting on Kerensky’s statement that Russia would “proudly defend its freedoms” and would not “retreat before the bayonets of the aggressors.” Kamenev enthusiastically concurred, in language which completely renounced Lenin’s policy of opposition to the war:

When army faces army, it would be the most insane policy to suggest to one of those armies to lay down its arms and go home. This would not be a policy of peace, but a policy of slavery, which would be rejected with disgust by a free people.642

Stalin held the same position as Kamenev, only more cautiously. He published an article approving the stance of the Soviet in its manifesto (which Lenin blasted) and said that what was needed was “to bring pressure to bear on the Provisional Government to make it declare its consent to start peace negotiations immediately.” According to Stalin it was “unquestionable” that “the stark slogan ‘Down with the war!’ was absolutely unsuitable as a practical means.”643

The first All-Russian Conference of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was convened at the end of March 1917. Simultaneously with this, the Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee issued a call for the All-Russian Conference of party workers, which opened on March 28. This was the first really representative conference of the party to be held since the overthrow of tsarism. Lenin was still struggling to return from his Swiss exile, and was therefore absent. The political proceedings therefore constitute an accurate reflection of how the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd viewed the revolution. Among the central issues discussed were the attitude to the war and the Provisional Government, as well as relations to other parties. The report on the attitude to the Provisional Government was delivered by Stalin. The whole thrust of this report, permeated through and through with opportunistic adaptation and conciliationism, is radically opposed to the line advocated insistently by Lenin.

The central idea of Stalin’s speech is that the Bolsheviks should give critical support to the bourgeois Provisional Government, to act as a kind of loyal opposition, which, while remaining outside the government, and with certain reservations, nevertheless supports it:

“Insofar as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution,” he says, “to that extent we must support it; but in so far as it is counterrevolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.”

This position did not command unanimous support at the Conference. In fact, the resolution adopted by the Bureau of the Central Committee while unsatisfactory, at least made some correct points:

“The Provisional Government,” it reads, “brought forward by the moderate bourgeois classes of our society and linked through all its interests with Anglo-French capitalism, is incapable of solving the tasks posed by the revolution.”

It continues:

Therefore the task of the day is: consolidation of all forces around the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies as the embryo of revolutionary power, alone capable both of repelling the attempts on the part of the tsarist and bourgeois counterrevolution as well as realizing the demands of revolutionary democracy and of explaining the true class nature of the present government.

The most urgent and important task of the Soviets, the fulfillment of which will alone guarantee the victory over all the forces of counterrevolution and the further development and deepening of the revolution, is, in the opinion of the party, the universal arming of the people, and, in particular, the immediate creation of Workers’ Red Guards throughout the entire land.

The minutes state that Stalin publicly distanced himself from the resolution of the Bureau:

Comrade Stalin reads the resolution on the Provisional Government adopted by the Bureau of the Central Committee, but states that he is not in complete agreement with it, but is rather in accord with the resolution of the Krasnoyarsk Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

The Krasnoyarsk resolution, which reflects the thinking of the more backward provinces, had a completely opportunist character, based on the idea that the Soviets can coexist with the bourgeois Provisional Government and, by means of pressure, make it submit to its will:

2) to make entirely clear that the only source of the power and the authority of the Provisional Government is the will of the people who have accomplished this revolution and to whom the Provisional Government is obliged wholly to submit;

3) to make likewise clear that the submission of the Provisional Government to the basic demands of the revolution can be secured only by the unrelaxing pressure of the proletariat, the peasantry and the revolutionary Army, who must with unremitting energy maintain their organization around the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies born out of the revolution, in order to transform the latter into the terrible force of the revolutionary people;

4) to support the Provisional Government in its activities only in so far as it follows a course of satisfying the demands of the working class and the revolutionary peasantry in the revolution that is taking place.

In an incredible intervention in the course of the debate, Stalin made a bad situation still worse:

In such a situation, can one speak of supporting such a government? One can rather speak of the Government supporting us. It is not logical to speak of support of the Provisional Government, on the contrary, it is more proper to speak of the Government not hindering us from putting our program into effect.

How could the Bolsheviks “put their program into effect” while allowing a bourgeois government to remain in power? How was it possible to get peace from a government tied hand and foot to British and French capital? How could land be transferred to the peasantry by a government dominated by the “men of property”? The idea that the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets could coexist for any length of time with a government of capitalists, let alone oblige it to act against its own vital interests, was in flagrant contradiction to the ABCs, not only of Marxism, but of common sense. This same formula was later used by the German Social Democratic leaders to derail and destroy the German Revolution of November 1918. Had the line of Stalin and Kamenev prevailed, the Russian Revolution would have undoubtedly ended up in a similar defeat.

The confused nature of these speeches and resolutions, and the disorientation of the Bolsheviks at this time, has its roots in the confused and contradictory nature of the old Bolshevik slogan “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” which Trotsky had pointed out long before. Starting out from the definition of the class nature of the revolution as bourgeois-democratic, the Bolsheviks were now faced with the dilemma of what to do, if the working class was not supposed to take power. Stalin and Kamenev concluded that the working class must support the “progressive” bourgeoisie, although hedging it round with “ifs” and “buts.”

The line of capitulation to middle-class “democracy” advocated by Stalin and Kamenev effectively blurred the lines of demarcation between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. So much so, that the March Conference actually considered the question of fusion. Indeed, if the Stalin-Kamenev line were accepted, there would be no serious reason to maintain the existence of two separate parties. In the session of March 30, Kamenev reported on his contacts with the Mensheviks, as the minutes show:

Kamenev: Reports that he has entered into negotiations with the internationalist SRs and Mensheviks. Inasmuch as it is clear that an absolutely unacceptable resolution of the Executive Committee [of the Soviets] will be passed, it is necessary to counterpose to it a joint resolution of the internationalists. The SRs (22) are a national minority. They will not vote against the resolution of the Bolsheviks and will withdraw their resolution. The Mensheviks are seeking to introduce a single resolution and are for uniting on a joint resolution. Should factional discipline be imposed to compel the minority to submit to the majority, the internationalists will come out in favor of our resolution.

Those speakers on the left of the party who opposed these moves towards unity and who dared to raise the question of the workers taking power were given short shrift. Thus, when Krassikov intervened on these lines, he was stopped in his tracks by the chairman:

Krassikov: The gist of the matter is not in the amendments and not in a demonstrative presentation of social democratic slogans, but in the current moment. If we recognize the Soviets of Deputies as the organs that express the will of the people, then the question before us is not the consideration of what concrete measures must be taken on this or that issue. If we think that the time has now come to realize the dictatorship of the proletariat, then we ought to pose the question that way. We unquestionably have the physical force for a seizure of power. I believe that we will have sufficient physical force both in Petrograd as well as in other cities. [Commotion in the hall. Shouts: “Not true.] I was present . . .

The Chairman (interrupting): The question under discussion involves the practical steps for today. The question of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not under discussion.

Krassikov (continues): If we do not pose the question that way then ought we to take steps in relation to the Provisional Government which . . .

The Chairman deprives him of the floor.

Although formally Kamenev’s proposal was to link up with the left (internationalist) wing of Menshevism, the real intention was to unite in a single party. Prominent Menshevik leaders like Lieber were present in the Conference, and participated in it. On the session of April 1, a resolution on unity written by the Georgian Menshevik leader Tsereteli was put to the congress. Although representatives of the Bolshevik left wing, including at that time the student Molotov, opposed it, Stalin expressed himself in favorable terms:

Order of the day: Tsereteli’s proposal for unification.

Stalin: We ought to go. It is necessary to define our proposals as to the terms of unification. Unification is possible along the lines of Zimmerwald-Kienthal.

Luganovsky: The Kharkov Committee is carrying on negotiations precisely along these lines.

Molotov: Tsereteli wants to unite heterogeneous elements. Tsereteli calls himself a Zimmerwaldist and a Kienthalist, and for this reason unification along these lines is incorrect both politically and organizationally. It would be more correct to advance a definite internationalist socialist platform. We will unite a compact minority.

Luganovsky (in refuting comrade Molotov) says: At the present time we are unaware of any disagreements. The Mensheviks abstained in the Soviet and spoke more strongly than did . . . the Bolsheviks who came out against. Many disagreements have been outlived. It is out of place to underscore tactical differences. We can have a joint Congress with the Mensheviks, the Zimmerwaldists and Kienthalists.

In view of the controversy sparked off by this proposal, Stalin once again intervened in the debate to defend unification in unmistakable terms which, despite his habitual caution, faithfully echo his earlier comments, describing the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism as “a storm in a tea-cup”:

Stalin: There is no use running ahead and anticipating disagreements. There is no party life without disagreements. We will live down trivial disagreements within the party. But there is one question—it is impossible to unite what cannot be united. We will have a single party with those who agree on Zimmerwald and Kienthal . . .644

After all this time, to describe the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism as “trivial disagreements” shows that Stalin, the party “practico,” had no real understanding of the fundamental ideas of Bolshevism. These “trivial disagreements” were nothing other than the differences between reformism and revolutionism, between a class policy and a policy of class collaboration. In the end, the Conference voted to allow negotiations with the Mensheviks to proceed, and elected a negotiating committee composed of Stalin, Kamenev, Nogin, and Teodorovich.

Footnotes

637 Quoted in Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 127.

638 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 674 and 688.

639 Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 122.

640 Trotsky, Stalin, 181.

641 Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 123.

642 E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 1, 75.

643 Stalin, Works, vol. 3, 8.

644 Quoted in Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, 239, 240, 241, 242, 255, 256, 258, 274, and 275, which reproduces the official transcript of the Conference (my emphasis).

122) Lenin and Trotsky in 1917

From his far-off exile in Switzerland, Lenin watched with growing anxiety the evolution of the line pursued by the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd. Immediately on hearing the news of the tsar’s overthrow he telegraphed Petrograd on March 6:

Our tactic: no trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is particularly suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council; no rapprochement with other parties.

As soon as Pravda recommenced publication, Lenin started to send his famous Letters from Afar. Reading these articles, and comparing them to the speeches at the March Conference, we seem to be in two different worlds. No wonder they fell like a bombshell on the astonished Central Committee members! Lenin bombarded Pravda with letters and articles demanding that the workers break with the bourgeois liberals and take power into their own hands. In Letters from Afar we see Lenin’s revolutionary genius in its authentic stature. His ability to sum up the essence of a situation at a glance, his imaginative sweep, his way of grasping precisely which concrete slogans apply, and how to get from A to B. The February Revolution, he stressed in the first letter, had put the Guchkovs and Milyukovs in power “for the time being.” But a capitalist government cannot solve the problems of the Russian people.

The tsarist monarchy has been smashed, but not finally destroyed.

Side by side with this government . . . there has arisen the chief, unofficial, as yet underdeveloped, and comparatively weak workers’ government, which expresses the interests of the proletariat and of the entire poor section of the urban and rural population. This is the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in Petrograd which is seeking connections with the soldiers and peasants, and also with the agricultural workers, with the latter particularly and primarily, of course, more than with the peasants.

Upon the solution of this contradiction, this regime of “dual power,” hung the fate of the revolution. What attitude should the Bolsheviks have towards the Provisional Government?

He who says that the workers must support the new government in the interests of the struggle against tsarist reaction (and apparently this is being said by the Potresovs, Gvozdyovs, Chkhenkelis, and also, all evasiveness notwithstanding, by Chkheidze) is a traitor to the workers, a traitor to the cause of the proletariat, to the cause of peace and freedom.

And here Lenin comes over to a position that is identical to that first defended by Trotsky over a decade earlier:

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practiced by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organization, their own unity, and their own weapons.

In the second letter, Lenin makes a withering criticism of the Manifesto issued by the leaders of the Soviet which hides behind pacifist phraseology and declares that all democrats must support the Provisional Government, and authorizes Kerensky to enter it. Lenin retorts that

The task is not to ‘coax’ the liberals, but to explain to the workers why the liberals find themselves in a blind alley, why they are bound hand and foot, why they conceal both the treaties tsarism concluded with England and other countries and the deals between Russian and Anglo-French capital, and so forth.645

When Lenin’s letters reached the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, they were aghast. They thought that their leader must be completely insane! Or at least, he must be so far out of touch as to fail to understand the practicalities of the situation in Russia. A bitter conflict now opened up between Lenin and his closest comrades. In Pravda No. 27, Kamenev wrote:

As for Comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears to us to be unacceptable, inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.646

This accurately conveys the opinions of Kamenev, Stalin, and most of the other “Old Bolsheviks” in the spring of 1917.

Out of all the leaders of the Social Democracy at that time, only one completely coincided with the position defended by Lenin. That man was Leon Trotsky, with whom Lenin had clashed so frequently in the past. When Trotsky first heard of the February Revolution, he was still in exile in the United States. Immediately he wrote a series of articles in the paper Novy Mir (New World), which were published in its issues of March 13, 17, 19, and 20, 1917. What is most striking is the fact that, although there was no communication between Trotsky and Lenin, who was thousands of miles away in Switzerland, the content of these articles is identical to that of Lenin’s Letters From Afar, written at the same time. Let us recall that these letters of Lenin proved to be so shocking to the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd that Kamenev and Stalin had them suppressed or published in a mutilated form. At a time when the “Old Bolsheviks,” against Lenin’s explicit advice, were moving closer to the Mensheviks, Lenin’s ideas seemed to them to be pure “Trotskyism,” and they were not wrong. The logic of events had pushed Lenin and Trotsky together. Independently, and starting from different directions, they came to the same conclusion: the bourgeoisie cannot solve the problems of Russia. The workers must take power.

In his article Two Faces—Internal Forces of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

Formally, in words, the bourgeoisie has agreed to leave the question of a form of government to the discretion of the Constituent Assembly. Practically, however, the Octobrist-Cadet Provisional Government will turn all the preparatory work for the Constituent Assembly into a campaign in favor of a monarchy against a republic. The character of the Constituent Assembly will largely depend upon the character of those who convoke it. It is evident, therefore, that right now the revolutionary proletariat will have to set up its own organs, the Councils of Workingmen’s, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, against the executive organs of the Provisional Government. In this struggle the proletariat ought to unite about itself the rising masses of the people, with one aim in view—to seize governmental power. Only a revolutionary labor government will have the desire and ability to give the country a thorough democratic cleansing during the work preparatory to the Constituent Assembly, to reconstruct the army from top to bottom, to turn it into a revolutionary militia, and to show the poorer peasants in practice that their only salvation is in support of a revolutionary labor regime. A Constituent Assembly convoked after such preparatory work will truly reflect the revolutionary, creative forces of the country and become a powerful factor in the further development of the revolution.647

These lines, which are typical of the position taken by Trotsky at the time, exactly reproduce that of Lenin. But Lenin was not aware of this. He was misled by the false reports of Trotsky’s position sent from America by Alexandra Kollontai, who, having only recently broken with Menshevism, was anxious to present herself to Lenin as an ultraradical, and falsely presented Trotsky as a “centrist.” Lenin accepted this nonsense as good coin and wrote some very harsh things about Trotsky in his replies to Kollontai, which were later used unscrupulously by the Stalinists. Only later, when Trotsky had returned to Russia and immediately began to play an outstanding role in the revolutionary wing, did Lenin change his opinion of Trotsky, saying of him that there was “no better Bolshevik.” As for Kollontai, she carried her ultraleftism to its logical conclusion, entering into conflict with both Lenin and Trotsky, before she finally became a submissive servant of the totalitarian regime of Stalin.

The complete convergence of views between Lenin and Trotsky in the moment of truth was no accident. As long ago as 1909, Leon Trotsky—the only one to predict that the revolution would triumph as a workers’ revolution or not at all— had warned that the counterrevolutionary nature of the slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” would only become clear in the moment when the question of power was posed. Now he was proved to have been correct. The weak side of Lenin’s theory, and its effect in practice, was the cause of very serious mistakes made by the Bolshevik leaders at the time of the February Revolution, which were only corrected by Lenin after his return on the basis of a sharp internal struggle. Even Zinoviev admits this in his tendentious History of the Bolshevik Party, published in 1923 as part of the campaign against “Trotskyism,” although in a typically roundabout and dishonest way:

This evolution in our views over the years from 1905 to 1917 cannot be denied, any more than the fact that it proceeded with definite inconsistencies which were to produce among us very dangerous differences on the eve of October 1917. Some of us (including myself) for too long upheld the idea that in our peasant country we could not pass straight on to the socialist revolution, but merely hope that if our revolution coincided with the start of the international proletarian one it could become its overture.648

These lines, despite their evasive character, hold the clue to all that happened in the Bolshevik Party in the first few months after February 1917. What happened to his letters sheds a lot of light on Lenin’s relations with the “Old Bolsheviks.” It was a carbon copy of what had happened in 1912–13. Even the actors were the same. Stalin and Kamenev were once again the editors. Once again they opted for the line of least resistance called conciliationism. And once again they reacted to Lenin’s criticism and protests by blatant censorship. The Bolshevik leaders were so embarrassed by Lenin’s letters that, when Kollontai brought the first two letters to Petrograd late in March, they hesitated for several days before publishing. Even then, they printed only one of the two, which was censored to cut out all those passages where Lenin opposed any agreement with the Mensheviks. The same fate awaited the remainder of Lenin’s articles. They were just not published or issued in a mutilated form. Krupskaya comments:

Only the first letter was published on the day Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg, three others were lying in the editors’ office and the fifth had not even been sent to Pravda, as Lenin had started writing it just before leaving for Russia.649

In his autobiography, Trotsky recalls:

In New York, at the beginning of March, 1917, I wrote a series of articles dealing with the class forces and perspectives of the Russian Revolution. At that very time, Lenin, in Geneva, was sending to Petrograd his Letters From Afar. And both of us, though we were writing in different parts of the world and were separated by an ocean, gave the same analysis and the same forecast. On every one of the principal questions, such as the attitude toward the peasantry, toward the bourgeoisie, the Provisional Government, the war, and the world revolution, our views were completely identical. Here a test of the relations between “Trotskyism” and Leninism was made on the very touchstone of history. And it was carried out under the conditions of a chemically pure experiment. At that time I knew nothing of Lenin’s stand; I argued on the basis of my own premises and my own revolutionary experience, and I drew the same perspective and suggested the same line of strategy as Lenin.

But perhaps the question was quite clear to everyone at that time, and the solution universally accepted? On the contrary; Lenin’s stand at that period, that is, before April 4, 1917, when he first appeared on the Petrograd stage, was his own personal one, shared by no one else. Not one of those leaders of the party who were in Russia had any intention of making the dictatorship of the proletariat—the social revolution—the immediate object of his policy. A party conference which met on the eve of Lenin’s arrival and counted among its numbers about 30 Bolsheviks showed that none of them even imagined anything beyond democracy. No wonder the minutes of that conference are still kept a secret! Stalin was in favor of supporting the Provisional Government of Guchkov and Miliukov, and of merging the Bolsheviks with the Mensheviks.650

Footnotes

645 LCW, Telegram to the Bolsheviks Leaving for Russia, March 6 (19) 1917, vol. 23, 292, 298 (emphasis in original), 304, 305, 306, and 317.

646 LCW, Letters on Tactics, vol. 24, 50.

647 Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, 46–47.

648 Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, 177–78.

649 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 338.

650 Trotsky, My Life, 329–30.