We have before us a sheet inscribed with a program and a tactical plan for action. It is entitled The Task of the Russian Proletariat. A Letter to Comrades in Russia, and it bears the signatures of P. Akselrod, Astror, A. Martynov, L. Martov and S. Semkovskv.
The Letter poses the problem of revolution in a highly generalized way. As the authors stop describing the situation war brought about by the war and try to discuss political prospects and tactical conclusions, so their analysis becomes less definite and clear-cut even the actual terms used become vague and the social definitions ambiguous.
Russia’s condition today, as visible to an outsider, appears at first glance to be dominated by two principal moods or outlooks: on the one hand, a concern with national defense (apparently shared by everyone from Romanov to Plekhanov), and, on the other hand, a universal discontent, also exhibited by almost everyone, from the oppositional-bureaucratic fronde all the way to the participants in spontaneous street clashes. These two dominant moods create the illusion that the popular revolution to come will grow directly out of the cause of national defense. But the same two moods also largely determine the vagueness with which the question of the “popular revolution” is posed, even when, as in Martov et al., it is formally opposed to the cause of “national defense.”
The war and its defeats have created neither the problem of revolution nor the revolutionary forces for resolving it. History does not begin, for us, with the surrender of Warsaw to the Bavarian prince. Both the revolutionary contradictions and the social forces today are the same as those with which we first came properly face to face in 19o5 – with the very significant changes introduced by the intervening ten years. All that the war has done is to reveal, with mechanical clarity, the objective non-viability of the regime. At the same time it has caused great confusion in the public mind so that “everybody” seems equally imbued with the desire to resist Hindenburg and, at the same time, with detestation of the regime of June 3. But just as the very first steps towards organizing a “people’s war” are bound immediately to run into the Tsar’s police, making it obvious that the Russia of June 3 is fact and the “people’s war” is fiction, so the approach to a “popular revolution” is barred at the very threshold by the attitude of Plekhanov, who, it is true, might also be regarded as fiction together with all his disciples, were he not backed by Kerensky, Milyukov, and Guchkov and non-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary national-democracy and national – liberalism in general.
The Letter cannot, of course, ignore the class dismemberment of our nation which is expected to save itself from the consequences of the war and of the present regime by means of revolution. “The nationalists and the Octobrists, the progressives, the Kadets, the industrialists and even part (!) of the radical intelligentsia, screaming in unison that the bureaucracy is incapable of defending the country, demand the mobilization of public forces for national defense.” The Letter concludes, perfectly rightly, that this attitude, which presupposes “an alliance in the cause of national defense with Russia’s present rulers, her bureaucrats, noblemen and generals,” is anti-revolutionary. And it points out, again quite rightly, that anti-revolutionary attitudes are characteristic of “bourgeois patriots of every hue” – as well as of the social-patriots, whom the Letter does not mention.
It follows from this that the social-democratic party is not only the most consistent party of revolution, but in fact the only revolutionary party in the land; and that all the other parties arc not simply less committed to using revolutionary methods, but are actually non-revolutionary. In other words, the social-democratic party, in seeing the problem in terms of revolution, is completely isolated in the open political arena, and this despite the “universal discontent.” That is the first conclusion about which we must be perfectly clear.
But, of course, parties are not identical with classes. The attitude of a political party and the interests of the social stratum which it represents may not completely overlap, and this may eventually develop into a profound contradiction. Again, the behavior of parties may be influenced by the mood of the popular masses. That is certainly true. But that makes it all the more essential for us, in making our calculations, to take less account of the less permanent and reliable factors, such as party slogans and party tactics, and concentrate on the more enduring historical factors, such as the social structure of the nation, the correlation of class forces, and established trends of development.
Yet the authors of the Letter completely avoid these questions. All they tell us about the nature of “popular revolution” in the Russia of 1915 is that it “must be made” by the proletariat and the democracy. We know what the proletariat is, but what is the “democracy”? A political party? It follows from the foregoing that this is not so. The popular masses, then? Which ones? What is meant is doubtless the petty bourgeoisie of industry and trade, the intelligentsia, and the peasantry.
In a series of articles entitled The Military Crisis and Political Prospects we have given a general assessment of the potential revolutionary significance of these social forces. Proceeding from the experience of the revolution of 1905, we have studied the question of how the past decade has modified the correlation of forces and asked ourselves whether these modifications are for democracy (bourgeois) or against it. The question is a central one when discussing revolutionary perspectives and the proletariat’s tactics. Has bourgeois democracy grown stronger in Russia since 1905, or has it become still weaker than before? The question of our bourgeois democracy has been argued over many times, and anyone who does not yet know the answer to it is bound to be in the dark. We have supplied the answer. A national bourgeois revolution in Russia is impossible because of the absence of a genuinely revolutionary bourgeois democracy. The time for national revolutions is past, in Europe anyway, and so is the time for national wars. There is a deep inner connection between the two. We arc living in the era of imperialism, which means not only a system of colonial expansion but also a very distinctive type of domestic regime. It is no longer a matter of a bourgeois nation opposing an old regime, but of the proletariat opposing the bourgeois nation.
The role of the artisanal and commercial petty bourgeoisie was negligible even in the revolution of 1905. In the ten years which have elapsed, the social significance of this class has unquestionably diminished still further. Capitalism in Russia has an incomparably more cruel and more drastic way of dealing with the intermediate classes than in the countries of the old economic culture.
The intelligentsia has, of course, expanded numerically, and its economic role has become more significant. But its former illusory “independence” has finally vanished at the same time. The social significance of the intelligentsia is wholly determined by its role in the organization of the capitalist economy and of bourgeois public opinion. Its material connection with capitalism has permeated it through and through with imperialist tendencies. We have already quoted the Letter as saying that “even part of the radical intelligentsia ... demands the mobilization of public forces for national defense.” That is quite incorrect. Not “part” of the radical intelligentsia, but the whole of it demands such mobilization; and not only the whole of the radical intelligentsia, but also a large, if not the major, part of the socialist intelligentsia. By making the intelligentsia out to be better than it really is we shall hardly swell the ranks of “democracy.”
The petty bourgeoisie of industry and trade, then, is weaker than ever, and the intelligentsia has abandoned its revolutionary positions. Urban democracy as a revolutionary factor scarcely deserves a mention. There remains the peasantry. But, so far as we know, neither Akselrod nor Martov ever cherished any exaggerated hopes of the peasantry’s independent revolutionary role. Have they reached the conclusion that, in the past ten years of a continually increasing differentiation within the peasant class, this role has become stronger? Such a supposition would be clearly inconsistent both with theoretical considerations and with the whole of our historical experience.
But then, what “democracy” does the Letter have in mind? And what does it mean by popular revolution?
The slogan of a Constituent Assembly presupposes a revolutionary situation. Does such a situation exist? Yes, it does. But the question of whether Russia has at last produced a bourgeois democracy able and willing to settle accounts with Tsarism is quite irrelevant to it. On the contrary, if there is something the war has made absolutely clear, it is the absence of a revolutionary democracy in Russia.
The attempt of the Russia of June 3 to settle the revolutionary problem at home by imperialist actions abroad has obviously failed. But that does not mean that the responsible or semi-responsible parties of the June 3 regime will now take to the revolutionary path. What it does mean is that the revolutionary problem revealed by the military catastrophe, while continuing to drive the country’s rulers on to the path of imperialism, redoubles the importance of the only revolutionary class in the land.
The bloc of June 3 has been fragmented. Within it there is friction and struggle. That does not mean that the Octobrists and the Kadets are ready to adopt a revolutionary view of power, or ready to storm the fortress of the bureaucracy and the united nobility. But it does mean that the regime’s ability to resist a revolutionary attack has undoubtedly, for a certain period, been weakened.
The monarchy and the bureaucracy have been compromised. That does not mean that they will surrender power without a fight. They have made it clear, by the dissolution of the Duma and by the latest ministerial changes, how far they are from giving in. But bureaucratic instability, which is bound to increase, will greatly assist the social-democrats in their work of revolutionary mobilization of the proletariat.
The lowest strata of the urban and rural population will become more and more impoverished, ill-used, discontented, embittered. That does not mean that an independent force of revolutionary democracy will fight side by side with the proletariat. Neither the social material nor the leading personnel for such a force exists. But it does mean that the climate of profound discontent among the lowest strata of the population will assist the revolutionary onslaught of the working class. The less the proletariat reckons on the emergence of a bourgeois democracy, the less it tries to adapt itself to the passivity and narrow-mindedness of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, the more resolute and irreconcilable it becomes, the more clearly it manifests its determination to light “to the end” – that is to say, until it has seized power – the greater chance it will have of carrying the non-proletarian popular masses with it at the moment of decision. Slogans, such as confiscation of lands, etc., are useless in themselves. And that is even more true of the army, by which state power stands or falls. The mass of the army will be swayed in favor of the revolutionary class only when it is convinced that this class is not merely demonstrating or protesting, but is actually fighting for power and has a chance of winning.
In Russia there exists an objective revolutionary problem – the problem of state power – which the war and its defeats have revealed more sharply than ever. There exists the ever increasing disorganization of the rulers. There exists the growing discontent of the urban and rural masses. But the proletariat alone, and to an incomparably greater degree than in 1905, is the only revolutionary factor that can exploit this situation.
There is one sentence in the Letter which seems to touch upon this central element in the entire problem. Russia’s social-democratic workers, it says, must place themselves “at the head of the all – national struggle for the overthrow of the monarchy of June 3.” We have just explained what “all-national” must mean. But if the words “at the head” do) not simply mean that the politically conscious workers must shed their blood more freely than anyone else without understanding exactly what they will achieve by so doing, but that they must assume political leadership in a struggle which will, above all, be the struggle of the proletariat itself, then it is clear that victory in this struggle must transfer power to those who have led it, that is to say, to the social-democratic proletariat. Hence what we are talking about is not a “provisional revolutionary government” (an empty formula which history is supposed to fill with a content as yet unknown) but a revolutionary workers’ government – the seizure of power by the Russian proletariat.
The all-national Constituent Assembly, the republic, the eight-hour working day, the confiscation of landowners’ lands, all these are slogans which, together with the slogans of the immediate cessation of the war, the right of nations to self-determination, and a United States of Europe, will play a tremendous part in the agitational work of the social-democratic party. Yet revolution is first and foremost a problem of power – not of the political form (Constituent Assembly, republic, European federation), but of the social content of power. Under existing conditions, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly or of the confiscation of landowners’ lands loses all direct meaning unless it is backed by the proletariat’s immediate readiness to fight for the seizure of power. For unless the proletariat seizes power from the monarchy, no one else will do so.
The tempo at which the revolutionary process will unfold is another matter. It depends on many factors, military, political, national, and international. These factors may speed up the development or slow it down, ensure the revolution’s victory or lead to another defeat. But, whatever the conditions, the proletariat must see its path clearly and tread it in full consciousness. Above all else, it must be free from illusions. And the worst illusion of the proletariat throughout its history has always been reliance on others.
1. From the newspaper Nasho Slovo, Paris, 17 October 1915. We reprint this article, written at a later period, because it offers a concise description of the conditions pertaining to the period of transition from the first revolution of 1905 to the second of 1905. (Author)