123) Lenin Rearms the Party

On April 3, after weeks of frustrating negotiations to arrange his return through Germany, Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in revolutionary Petrograd. From the moment of his arrival, he adopted a belligerent stance in relation to the bourgeois Provisional Government and the defensist-reformist politicians who were propping it up.

Immediately on his return to Russia, Lenin opened up a struggle against those Bolshevik leaders who had capitulated to the pressures of petty-bourgeois “public opinion,” and had come out in support of the bourgeois Provisional Government. Only after an extremely sharp internal fight did he succeed in rearming and reorienting the Bolsheviks. In this struggle Lenin counted on the support of the Party rank and file, and the working class which, as he never tired of pointing out, is a hundred times more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party. In fact, the line of Kamenev was not well received by the Party in Petrograd, which called for his expulsion. The working-class Bolshevik stronghold of Vyborg demanded the expulsion of Stalin also.651

At the very moment of his arrival in the Finland Station, Lenin served notice of his intentions. Demonstratively turning his back on the assembled dignitaries who had turned up to greet him, he faced the workers with the words: “Long live the socialist world revolution!” This opening shot immediately confirmed the worst suspicions of the party leaders: that Lenin had gone over to—“Trotskyism.” A fierce faction fight ensued, culminating in the April Conference in which Lenin triumphed all along the line. Krupskaya writes:

The comrades were somewhat taken aback for the moment. Many of them thought that Ilyich was presenting the case in much too blunt a manner, and that it was too early yet to speak of a socialist revolution.652

It is obvious that Krupskaya is expressing herself in a diplomatic manner. The differences were of the most serious kind, and the struggle, though not long, was bitterly fought. When Lenin first defended his position in public, the audience was left speechless.

In his memoirs, Raskolnikov, who was present, recalls what happened when Kamenev walked into Lenin’s compartment:

Hardly had he entered the compartment and sat down than Vladimir Ilyich turned on Comrade Kamenev. “What’s this you’re writing in Pravda? We’ve seen several issues, and really swore at you . . .” we heard Ilyich say in his tone of fatherly reproof, in which there was never anything offensive.

Immediately after his arrival at the Finland Station, he was taken to a fashionable residence, the property of a famous ballerina, where in a big room complete with grand piano Lenin was regaled with welcoming speeches—the kind of thing he hated:

A celebration in honor of Ilyich was held here. One after another speakers voiced their feeling of profoundest joy at the return to Russia of the Party’s battle-hardened leader.

Ilyich sat and listened with a smile to all the speeches, waiting impatiently for them to finish.

When the list of speakers was exhausted, Ilyich at once came to life, got to his feet and set to work. He resolutely assailed the tactics which the leading Party groups and individual comrades had been pursuing before his return. He caustically ridiculed the notorious formula of support for the Provisional Government “in so far as . . . to that extent,” and gave out the slogan, ‘No support whatsoever to the government of capitalists,” at the same time calling on the Party to fight for power to be taken over by the Soviets, for a socialist revolution.

Using a few striking examples, Comrade Lenin brilliantly demonstrated the whole falsity of the policy of the Provisional Government, the glaring contradiction between its promises and its actions, between words and deeds, emphasizing that it was our duty to expose ruthlessly its counterrevolutionary and antidemocratic pretensions and conduct. Comrade Lenin’s speech lasted nearly an hour. The audience remained fixed in intense, unweakening attention. The most responsible Party workers were represented here, but even for them what Ilych said constituted a veritable revelation. It laid down a “Rubicon” between the tactics of yesterday and those of today.

Comrade Lenin posed the question clearly and distinctly: “What is to be done?” and summoned us away from half-recognition, half-support of the Government to nonrecognition and irreconcilable struggle.

The ultimate triumph of Soviet power, which many saw as something in the hazy distance of a more or less indefinite future, was brought down by Comrade Lenin to the plane of an urgently necessary conquest of the revolution, to be attained within a very short time. This speech of his was in the fullest sense historic. Comrade Lenin here first set forth his political program, which he formulated next day in the famous theses of April 4. This speech produced a complete revolution in the thinking of the Party’s leaders, and underlay all the subsequent work of the Bolsheviks. It was not without cause that our Party’s tactics did not follow a straight line, but after Lenin’s return took a sharp turn to the left.653

Taken aback by the conduct of the Bolshevik leader, so completely at variance with that of his lieutenants in Petrograd, the Mensheviks accused him of trying to stir up violence and civil war. In the pages of his journal Yedinstvo, Plekhanov called Lenin’s theses “ravings.” But the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders was not much different. When Lenin’s April Theses were published in the pages of Pravda, on April 7, they appeared over a single signature—Lenin’s own. Not one of the other leaders was prepared to associate their name with Lenin’s position. The very next day, Pravda published an article by Kamenev entitled  Our Disagreements, which disassociated the Bolshevik leadership from Lenin’s position, stating that it represented his own private views which were shared neither by the editorial board of Pravda nor by the Bureau of the Central Committee.

Notwithstanding the reaction of the Mensheviks and the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, Lenin was not insane and was, in fact, more “in touch” with the real situation than his comrades in Russia. For him the essence of the question was very simple: it was necessary to prepare the working class for the seizure of power, not, of course, immediately. Lenin was no adventurist and the idea of a minority taking power was very far from his mind. No. The task of the hour was to arm the vanguard of the class—the most advanced sections of the workers and youth—with the perspective of winning over the masses to the program of socialist revolution as the only way out. This correctly summed up the essence of the situation. But it clashed head-on with the slogan of the “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which everyone knew was not the slogan of a socialist revolution.

The matter was finally settled at a citywide conference which lasted eight days, from April 2–10, and is known to history as the April Conference. The conference was attended by 149 delegates representing 79,000 members—15,000 of them in Petrograd. This was already an impressive result for a party that had been underground and now stood in opposition to the mainstream labor leaders. Rarely has so much depended on the outcome of a single meeting as this. Lenin confronted in open struggle his old colleagues of many years standing who, in the decisive moment, turned out to be his bitterest opponents. Ironically, these “Old Bolsheviks” rallied under the banner of—Leninism! They presented themselves as the defenders of Leninist orthodoxy as summed up in the slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” which Lenin himself had advanced in 1905. But this formula had outlived its usefulness. The very development of the revolution had rendered it redundant.

Both Lenin and Trotsky, as we have seen, had come to the same conclusion. They understood that the Kerensky government could not seriously tackle the problems facing the workers and peasants; but that was precisely because it was a government of the bourgeoisie, not of the workers and peasants. Only the dictatorship of the proletariat, in alliance with the poor peasants, could begin to solve the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia. As Trotsky put it:

The “Old Bolsheviks”—who pretentiously emphasized this appellation in April 1917—were condemned to defeat precisely because they were defending exactly that element of the party tradition which had not passed the historic test.

The inner-party struggle was brief but sharp. But the great strength that Lenin had was the backing of the Bolshevik workers, who stood well to the left of the leadership. They felt from the beginning that there was something wrong with a policy that, against all their instincts and traditions, stood for reconciliation with the Mensheviks and a temporizing attitude to the bourgeois Provisional Government. But the workers were unable to answer the “clever” arguments of the leaders like Kamenev and Stalin who used their authority to silence the doubts of the rank and file. On the contrary, Lenin based himself on the support of the party’s working-class rank and file who instinctively accepted his revolutionary theses:

“These worker-revolutionists,” Trotsky points out, “only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position. But they were ready to respond to the first clear call. It was on this stratum of workers, decisively risen to their feet during the upward years of 1912–14, that Lenin was now banking.”654

By the time the April Conference assembled, the battle had, to all intents and purposes, been won by Lenin and the party’s rank and file. Zalezhky, who was a member of the Petrograd Committee, states that “District after district adhered to them [Lenin’s theses].”

Lenin’s opening speech emphasized the international dimension of the revolution:

The great honor of beginning the revolution has fallen to the Russian proletariat. But the Russian proletariat must not forget that its movement and revolution are only part of a world revolutionary proletarian movement, which in Germany, for example, is gaining momentum with every passing day. Only from this angle can we define our tasks.

This was the opening shot in the debate and Lenin weighs every word. What does it mean? Lenin answers the argument of the Mensheviks, Kamenev, and Stalin that the Russian workers cannot take power because the objective conditions in backward, feudal Russia do not permit it. And the answer is as follows: it is true that the objective conditions for socialism do not exist in Russia, but they do exist on a world scale. Our revolution is not an independent act, but part of the world revolution. If we have the possibility of assuming power before the German, French, and British workers, then we should do so. We can begin the revolution, take power, start to transform society on socialist lines, and this will give a powerful impulse to the revolution that is already maturing in Europe. We can begin, and with the help of the workers of Germany, France, and Britain, we shall finish the job. Of course, if we do not have the perspective of international revolution, our task would indeed be hopeless. But that is not the position. “Only from this angle can we define our tasks.” The same theme was hammered home repeatedly by Lenin during the course of the conference.

Yes, we are in the minority. Well, what of it? To be a socialist while chauvinism is the craze means to be in the minority. To be in the majority means to be a chauvinist.

Lenin’s resolution on the Current Situation stated:

“Operating as it does in one of the most backward countries of Europe amidst a vast population of small peasants, the proletariat of Russia cannot aim at immediately putting into effect socialist changes.

“But it would be a grave error, and in effect even a complete desertion to the bourgeoisie, to infer from this that the working class must support the bourgeoisie, or that it must keep its activities within limits acceptable to the petty bourgeoisie, or that the proletariat must renounce its leading role in the matter of explaining to the people the urgency of taking a number of practical steps towards socialism for which the time is now ripe.”

From the first premise it is customary to make the conclusion that “Russia is a backward country, a peasant, petty-bourgeois country, therefore there can be no question of a social revolution.” People forget, however, that the war has placed us in extraordinary circumstances, and that side by side with the petty bourgeoisie we have big capital. But what are the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies to do when they assume power? Should they go over to the bourgeoisie? Our answer is—the working class will continue its class struggle.655

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

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

To ignore or overlook this fact would mean taking after those “old Bolsheviks” who more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality.656

In answer to those elements who asserted that the proletariat had to obey the “iron law of historical stages,” could not “skip February,” had to “pass through the stage of the bourgeois revolution”, and who thereby tried to cover up their own cowardice, confusion and impotence by appealing to “objective factors,” Lenin replied scornfully:

Why didn’t they take power? Steklov says: for this reason and that. This is nonsense. The fact is that the proletariat is not organized and class conscious enough. This must be admitted; material strength is in the hands of the proletariat, but the bourgeoisie turned out to be prepared and class conscious. This is a monstrous fact, but it should be frankly and openly admitted, and the people should be told that they didn’t take power because they were unorganized and not conscious enough.657

There was no objective reason why the workers—who held power in their hands—could not have elbowed the bourgeoisie to one side in February 1917, no reason other than unpreparedness, lack of organization, and lack of consciousness. But this, as Lenin explained, was merely the obverse side of the colossal betrayal of the revolution by all the so-called workers’ and peasants’ parties. Without the complicity of the Mensheviks and SRs in the Soviets, the Provisional Government could not have lasted even for an hour. That is why Lenin reserved his most stinging barbs for those elements among the Bolshevik leadership who had got the Bolshevik Party itself into tow with the Menshevik-SR bandwagon, which had confused and disoriented the masses, and deflected them from the road to power.

The person who now speaks only of a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of “Bolshevik” prerevolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of “old Bolsheviks”).

Referring to the power of the working class, and the impotence of the Provisional Government, Lenin pointed out:

This fact does not fit into the old schemes. One must know how to adapt schemes to facts, instead of reiterating the now meaningless words about a “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in general.



Is this reality [of dual power] covered by Comrade Kamenev’s old-Bolshevik formula, which says that the “bourgeois-democratic revolution is not completed”?

It is not. The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.658

One point Lenin was particularly emphatic about. It was essential that the Bolsheviks maintain absolute independence from all other tendencies. Lenin was all too aware that in the general atmosphere of euphoria, there would be a strong pull in the direction of unification of “all progressive trends.” The history of conciliationism on the part of the Old Bolsheviks, particularly Kamenev, filled him with apprehension. That is why he wrote in his first telegram: “No rapprochement with other parties.” On the other hand, at the March Conference, Stalin was already contemplating the overcoming of “trivial differences” within the framework of a united party of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin’s narrow committeeman’s mentality saw everything from the standpoint of organization. A bigger party meant more members, more money, a bigger apparatus, and consequently a broader arena in which to develop his activities. Compared to this, what were a few theoretical differences but—“trivialities”? Here, in a particularly crude form, we see the difference between the psychology of a revolutionary and a bureaucrat.

The Old Bolsheviks thought they could bring about unity with the Mensheviks on the basis of the “Zimmerwald-Kienthal principles” precisely when the Zimmerwald movement had exhausted its historic mission and was in the process of breaking up. In any case, it had always been a compromise, a transitional step in the direction of a new and genuinely revolutionary International. Lenin had already made his mind up. Not “back to Zimmerwald” but “forward to the Third International!” was his slogan. In a letter to Radek dated May 29 he wrote:

I fully agree with you that Zimmerwald has become a hindrance and that the sooner we break with it the better (you know that I disagree with the conference on this point). We must speed up a meeting of the Lefts, an international meeting and only of the Lefts.

One week later he wrote:

If it’s true that that muddled wretched Grimm (no wonder we never trusted that ministeriable scoundrel!) has handed over all Zimmerwald affairs to the Left Swedes and that the latter are convening a Zimmerwald conference within the next few days, then I—personally (I am writing this only in my own name)—would strongly warn against having anything to do with Zimmerwald.

“What a good chance this is to seize the Zimmerwald International now,” Grigory said today.

In my opinion, this is super-opportunist and harmful tactics.659


651 See Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 123.

652 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 347 and 348.

653 Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, 71 and 76–77.

654 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 338 and 339.

655 LCW, The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP(B), vol. 24, 227 (my emphasis), 245, and 306.

656 LCW, Letters on Tactics, vol. 24, 44.

657 LCW, Report at a Meeting of Bolshevik Delegates, vol. 36, 437.

658 LCW, Letters on Tactics, vol. 24, 45,46, and 50 ( my emphasis).

659 LCW, To Karl Radek, May 29 (June 11), 1917, vol. 43, 632 and 634–35.

124) The First Coalition

The most burning issue facing the revolution was the war and the ever deepening mood of discontent of the soldiers. After the collapse of the old regime, the soldiers spontaneously moved to purge the officers who had opposed the revolution. The men in grey coats demanded their right to be treated like human beings, not animals. Out of this was born the celebrated Order Number One, which Trotsky describes as “the single worthy document of the February Revolution”.660 The initiative for this remarkable document came from the ranks themselves. In it one can hear the real voice of the front, the anguished but hopeful voice of men who, staring death in the face, had not lost the spark of human dignity and the desire to be treated like human beings. Here, in turn, was the real face of the February Revolution: not the studied and artificial speeches of the politicians, but the masses newly awakened to political life seeking democratic rights and freedom in place of the old ranks and servility. Order Number One expresses better than anything else the democratic and revolutionary aspirations of the masses.

The demands put forward represented a real soldiers’ charter:

Elected committees at all level of the army and the navy.

Election of representatives to the Soviet where these have not been held.

The soldiers will obey only the Soviet and its committees.

The orders of the Provisional Government will be obeyed only where they are not in contradiction to those of the Soviet.

All weapons to be under the control of elected soldiers’ committees, and in no case to be given to officers.

While on duty, strict maintenance of discipline: when off duty and out of barracks, full freedom and civil rights.

Elimination of officers’ titles, no “bull”; officers are forbidden to behave rudely to soldiers, and especially to use the familiar form (“ty”) when addressing them.

The demands were called “Order Number One.” It fell like a bombshell among the reactionary officers and their political friends in the Provisional Government. Here was a challenge to the autocratic “divine right” of the officer caste to rule the roost, and, by extension, a challenge to the pillars of the existing bourgeois order. The “Provisional Committee of the Duma” immediately clashed with the soldiers’ deputies who drew up the “Order Number One” for the Petrograd garrison. The reactionary officers, now sporting republican insignia in their buttonholes, tried to prevent it being carried out at the front, alleging it to be a “purely Petrograd affair.” In this they had the backing of the SRs and Mensheviks, who were as anxious as they to put an end to the revolutionary “madness” and restore (bourgeois) order. In vain. The demand for democratic rights contained in the “soldiers charter” spread through the army like wildfire. The clash over Order Number One showed the shape of things to come.

What the army wanted was the immediate conclusion of a peace without annexations or indemnities. The Soviet leaders made speeches about a “just peace,” but as long as the power remained in the hands of bankers and industrialists, tied hand and foot to the interests of Anglo-French capital, this was just a dream. Throughout the spring, the discontent of the soldiers grew, as the government dragged its feet over the question of peace. The bourgeoisie, through its chief representative in the government, Milyukov, made no secret of its intention to pursue the war to a “victorious conclusion.” This enraged the soldiers and created an explosive situation in Petrograd.

The processes that unfolded after February can be observed in every revolution. The fall of the old regime is greeted with enthusiasm by the masses. There is universal rejoicing, as men and women enjoy the new-found freedoms. This is the stage of democratic illusions, a carnival in which people become drunk with the sensation of liberation and hopes that know no bounds. Alas, this beautiful love feast is not destined to last. The enormity of the illusion rapidly finds its counterpart in the depth of disappointment as expectation cracks its head against reality. “We have scotched the serpent, not killed him,” exclaims Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Gradually, the idea begins to dawn upon the masses that, beneath the tinsel and the speeches, nothing has really changed. The old order has merely swapped its garb and its mode of address, but the same old masters still remain, and the same old problems too.

This rapid spread of disillusionment does not affect all layers at once. It finds its first expression in the ranks of the most advanced section of the masses. Vaguely realizing that the power won with so much effort and sacrifice is slipping out of their hands, the advanced guard instinctively lashes out. This is a moment of utmost danger for the revolution. The advanced guard understands more than the mass, and impatiently pushes ahead with demands for precipitate action. But it is necessary to win over the rest of society, which lags behind and has not yet drawn the necessary conclusions. If the advanced guard breaks away from the mass, it can become isolated and cut down by the reaction. Under such conditions it is the duty of the party to attempt to restrain the advanced elements, to avoid battle until such time as the reserve battalions are in place.

The process of successive approximation by which the masses search out the political party that best expresses their aspirations commenced as soon as the revolution began. There were a whole succession of what we can liken to sorties in a battle, in which the masses tested out the defenses of the enemy and their own strength. These sorties took the form of mass demonstrations, beginning in April, when thousands of workers, soldiers, and sailors poured onto the streets of Petrograd, carrying banners displaying the slogans: “Down with Milyukov!” “Down with Annexation Politics!” and even the odd ultraleft “Down with the Provisional Government!” These were undoubtedly Bolshevik slogans, but the demonstrations themselves had not been called by the party. As Alexander Rabinowitch explains:

Rank-and-file party members from garrison regiments and factories undoubtedly helped provoke the street demonstrations in the first place, although the Central Committee did not become involved until after the movement was well underway; subsequently, the top party leadership endorsed the demonstrations. Impulsive elements in the Petrograd party organization and in the Bolshevik Military Organization, responsive to their militant constituents and fearful of losing ground to the anarchists, took a significantly more radical tack; some officials of the Petersburg Committee prepared and widely circulated a leaflet appealing, in the party’s name, for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government and the arrest of cabinet ministers.661

The immediate aim of the demonstration was to protest against plans to continue the war. But this question raised the question of power. The April mobilizations were the first in a whole series of mass demonstrations whereby the masses attempted to force the government and the Soviet leaders to do their bidding. In essence, they played a similar role to reconnaissance missions in war, probing the weaknesses of the enemy and allowing the workers and soldiers to test their strength on the streets. Significantly, the demonstrators only agreed to disperse when asked to do so by the Petrograd Soviet, having openly defied the government’s orders to disperse. This detail says it all. The real power was in the hands, not of the Provisional Government, which the masses hated and distrusted, but in the hands of the reformist leaders, the “moderate socialists” in the Soviet Executive, who feared it as the Devil fears holy water. The masses were compelled to take the reformists by the scruff of the neck and push them into the government. That was the real meaning of the April demonstrations. The sudden eruption of the masses onto the street had an immediate result. The government entered into crisis, in which the bourgeoisie was forced to pass the hot potato to the reformist leaders.

The April demonstration was the first serious test of strength between the workers and the Provisional Government and its right-wing socialist backers. And it was successful. Two of the bourgeois ministers most hated for their pro-war policies, Guchkov and Milyukov, were forced to resign, and several leaders of the Soviet entered the government. The Georgian Menshevik Iraklii Tsereteli became Minister of Post and Telegraphs. The veteran SR Victor Chernov became Minister of Agriculture. Alexei Peshekonov, head of the Popular Socialist Party, became Minister of Food supply. Pavel Pereverzev occupied the post of Minister of Justice, and Kerensky became the Minister of War and the Navy. In this way the Soviet leaders accepted direct responsibility for the Provisional Government, instead of supporting it from the outside. The first coalition had been formed.

The masses mostly welcomed this as a sign that “their” ministers would somehow bring about a change of course in the government. But Lenin immediately denounced the participation of the Mensheviks and SRs in the government, pointing out that, by joining the bourgeois Provisional Government, the SRs and Mensheviks “saved it from collapse and allowed themselves to be made its servants and defenders.”662 The Soviet leaders were, in effect, hostages of the bourgeois ministers who called all the shots. They accepted ministerial portfolios, while the real power was left in the hands of the landlords and capitalists, except that here there was another, alternative power which was waiting with anxious expectation for its most pressing problems to be resolved. Vain hope! Terrified of offending the bourgeoisie, who, according to the dogma of the “two stages” ought to rule, the reformist leaders merely acted as a left cover for the Provisional Government, which, in turn, was merely a façade behind which the forces of reaction were regrouping and preparing for a counterattack, once the masses had been sufficiently demoralized and disappointed by the school of coalition politics.

This coalition of the labor leaders with the bourgeoisie was shot through with insoluble contradictions which paralyzed it from the start. It was essentially similar to all such coalitions, from Millerandism in France, passing through the Lib-Lab politics of the British labor leaders to the so-called People’s Front governments in France and Spain in the 1930s. All were justified in the name of the “unity of progressive forces” and “national unity”—the emptiest of all slogans, signifying the “unity” of the horse and its rider. In reality, through such coalitions, the bourgeoisie use and discredit the labor leaders in order to demoralize the masses, while behind the scenes they prepare reaction. The Provisional Government after April was entirely typical of this kind of coalition. The Soviet leaders were placed in those ministries that would bring them in conflict with the aspirations of the workers and peasants—labor, agriculture, and so on. Kerensky, who enjoyed a measure of popularity to begin with, was entrusted with whipping the soldiers into line and getting them to accept the need for a new offensive in the name of “peace, progress, and democracy,” of course.

The entry of the “socialist” ministers into the Provisional Government was a turning point. From now on the workers and peasants could compare words and deeds. The ground was being prepared for the reformist labor leaders to be exposed in practice. That was one side of the question. But the most decisive element was the fact that, under Lenin’s guidance, the Bolsheviks had stayed out of the coalition and maintained an implacable opposition towards it. What had seemed to some a utopian and sectarian stance was now revealed as the only realistic position for a revolutionary party. This was the key to the success of the Bolsheviks and the reason why they grew so rapidly at the expense of the Mensheviks and SRs in the following months. As Rabinowitch observes:

Once they had joined the first coalition, the moderate socialists became identified in the popular mind with the shortcomings of the Provisional Government. Only the Bolsheviks, among the major Russian political groups, remained untainted by association with the government and were therefore completely free to organize opposition to it, a situation of which the party took full advantage.663

But the revolutionary wing faced an uphill struggle that must have seemed all but impossible at first. Their slogans seemed too far advanced for the masses. The Menshevik and SR leaders, on the other hand, offered them what seemed to be the easy option. The revolution had triumphed. Russia was now the freest country in the world. With a little patience, all would be resolved. What was needed was for everyone to unite and sink their differences and everything would be fine. The intense pressure for unity was one of the reasons why Kamenev and Stalin had capitulated to the Mensheviks before Lenin’s return. Their mistake had been to see only the situation before them, and not to see the underlying process that would soon stand all this on its head. The philosophical basis of all kinds of reformism is vulgar empiricism that masquerades as “realism,” or, as Trotsky once expressed it, the slavish worship of the established fact. But what is a “fact” at one moment can become a fiction the next. In order that the masses should draw the necessary conclusions, two things are necessary: firstly, that the working people, through their own experience, come to understand their true situation, and secondly, that there exists a revolutionary party with a farsighted leadership capable of going through the experience together with them and explaining its significance at each stage.

But the masses do not all draw the same conclusions simultaneously. By June-July, a layer of the advanced workers and sailors in Petrograd had drawn a balance sheet of the Provisional Government and the Soviet leaders and found them wanting. Likewise, a section of the Bolshevik Party, under the influence of impatience, wanted to move too far ahead too soon; echoing the ultralefts and anarchists, they raised the revolutionary slogan “Down with the Provisional Government.” This was the slogan of insurrection. What attitude did Lenin take? He completely rejected it. Why? Because such a slogan did not at all correspond to the real stage the movement was at. Lenin, who was a revolutionary to the fingertips, nevertheless implacably opposed this slogan, and instead oriented the Party towards the conquest of the masses, insisting on the need to “patiently explain.” The problem was that the mass of the working class in the more backward provinces had not yet had time to understand the role of the reformist leaders in the Soviets, and the peasants still less so. The Bolsheviks had succeeded in winning the most advanced sections of the class. But it would have been a fatal error to bring these into collision with the less conscious majority who still had illusions in the Mensheviks and SRs. Basing themselves on the advanced workers, the Bolsheviks now had to find the way to winning over the majority.

The explosive growth of Bolshevism in the nine months from February to October is a phenomenon for which it would be difficult to find a parallel in the history of political parties. The year 1917 perfectly sums up the whole essence and meaning of the history of Bolshevism. All programs, policies, tactics, and strategies are finally subjected to the acid test of practice. Nowhere is this assertion truer than in the course of a revolution. Looking back on the experience of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky commented:

We must remember, however, that at the beginning of 1917 the Bolshevik Party led only an insignificant number of the toilers. Not only in the soldiers’ soviets but also in the workers’ soviets, the Bolshevik fraction generally constituted 1 to 2 percent, at best 5 percent. The leading parties of petty-bourgeois democracy (Mensheviks and the so-called Social Revolutionaries) had the following of at least 95 percent of the workers, soldiers, and peasants participating in the struggle. The leaders of these parties called the Bolsheviks first sectarians and then . . . agents of the German kaiser. But no, the Bolsheviks were not sectarians! All their attention was directed to the masses, and moreover not to their top layer, but to the deepest, most oppressed millions and tens of millions, whom the parliamentarian babblers usually forgot. Precisely in order to lead the proletarians and the semiproletarians of city and countryside, the Bolsheviks considered it necessary to distinguish themselves sharply from all factions and groupings of the bourgeoisie, beginning with those false “Socialists” who are in reality agents of the bourgeoisie.664

As we have seen, the Bolshevik Party before the war had succeeded in winning over the decisive majority of the organized workers. In a sense it was the traditional party of the working class in Russia. But during the war, the class balance of forces was drastically modified. The youth—the natural “constituency” of Bolshevism—was in the army. A large part of the experienced worker-cadres, too, were at the front, where they were submerged in a sea of backward and politically illiterate peasants. The workers’ organizations were decimated by arrests. The workers had their heads down. The influx of a large number of inexperienced elements into the factories—peasants, women, raw youths—made things worse at first. Under such circumstances, no serious advance was possible. It was sufficient to keep what was left of the cadres together and prepare for a break in the situation.

It is difficult to calculate with any precision the membership of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, and different authors give different estimates. The “official” estimate given by the Bol’shoya Sovietskaya Encyclopedia was 23,600 for January 1917, before the start of the revolution, but this piece of guesswork is certainly an exaggeration. The figure of 8,000 members in the whole of Russia is probably not far from the true figure. Rabinowitch claims that there were 2,000 members in Petrograd in February and that the national membership of the party doubled to 16,000 by April:

In February there had been about 2,000 Bolsheviks in Petrograd. At the opening of the April Conference party membership had risen to 16,000. By late June it had reached 32,000, while 2,000 garrison soldiers had joined the Bolshevik Military Organization and 4,000 soldiers had become associated with the “Club Pravda . . .

The overwhelming majority of the new recruits were very raw, as the same author points out:

The party’s rapid growth since February had flooded the ranks with militants who knew next to nothing about Marxism and who were united by little more than an overwhelming impatience for immediate revolutionary action.665

The rapid influx of new, fresh recruits, many of them youngsters (the Mensheviks contemptuously referred to the Bolsheviks as “a party of kids”), was part of the reason why Lenin could succeed in overcoming the resistance of the conservative “Old Bolsheviks.” This transformed the party. Marcel Liebman points out that

beginning in April 1917, the Bolshevik Party was reinforced by a steady and large-scale influx of new members. This influx had the effect of crushing the nucleus of “old Bolsheviks” who claimed to be the guardians of Leninist orthodoxy, submerging them under the weight of new members who had been radicalized by the revolutionary events and were not paralyzed by the principles of that orthodoxy.666

The most significant feature of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was its youthfulness. With one exception, all the members of the Moscow party Bureau were under 30 years old. There was a conflict between the Bureau and the Moscow Party Committee, which was made up of older, more conservative Party members. In his biography of Bukharin, Stephen F. Cohen describes the situation of the Bolsheviks in Moscow:

While a majority of the Moscow Committee eventually supported insurrection, its response to the radical course set by Lenin and the Left was sluggish and halfhearted throughout. Most of its senior members believed, as one insisted, that “There do not exist the forces, the objective conditions for this.” Bureau leaders, constantly prodding their elders, remained worried as late as October that the “peace-loving” mood and “significant wavering” in the Moscow Committee would prove fatal “at the decisive moment.” Consequently, despite the radical support of some older Moscow Bolsheviks, the young Muscovites tended to regard the final victory in Moscow as their personal achievement, a tour de force of their generation. As Osinsky later put it, they had led the struggle for power “against significant resistance by a large part of the older generation of Moscow officials.”667


660 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 291.

661 A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, xxxii.

662 LCW, vol. 25, 237.

663 Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, xxviii.

664 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, 166–67.

665 Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, xxix–xxx and xxxi.

666 Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 134.

667 Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, 50.