By Jean-Jacques Marie
On the 27th of February 1917, a general strike swept away the Tsarist regime. The same day, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers was set up. Then, on the 2nd of March, a provisional government was formed headed by the big landowner Prince Lvov and made up of bourgeois ministers with the exception of Alexander Kerenski a revolutionary socialist sympathiser. This government took a stand in favour of private property of land and the means of production and of pursuing the war. In taking a stand in favour of pursuing the war, the provisional government bowed down before Franco-British imperialism. The majority in the Soviet (Mensheviks and Revolutionary Socialists) announced that they offered critical support to the government, just as did the majority of the Bolshevik leadership present in Petrograd (Stalin and Kamenev). In supporting the provisional government that bowed to imperialism, the Soviet Menshevik-Revolutionary Socialist majority also submitted to imperialism.
From Switzerland, where he was exiled, Lenin sent telegrams and letters, called the “Letters from Afar,” which were censored by Stalin and Kamenev, who controlled the Pravda. The main purpose of these letters was to demand independence on the part of the Bolshevik Party and in its policies in relation to the provisional government; independence in its political orientation as well as within the organisation itself.
As early as the 4th of March, Lenin wrote a short text addressed to the Bolsheviks in Stockholm who were returning to Russia: “Only a workers’ government, supported first of all by the large majority of the peasant population, by farm workers and poor peasants and second by the alliance with revolutionary workers of all the countries engaged in the war can ensure peace, bread and total liberty for the people.” He called for “ the following stage in the revolution, that is “the taking over of power by a workers’ government” which requires the absolute independence on the part of the Internationalist Revolutionary Party.
Although he had only scant information through the Swiss press, Lenin had the sense that in the revolutionary euphoria, the Bolsheviks themselves were prey to nourishing illusions in the provisional government and letting themselves be swept into reunification with the Mensheviks. Lenin, who still did not receive the Pravda, which came out again on the 12th of March, went to great lengths to find the means of communicating to the Bolsheviks the orientation he wanted to see them adopt. The 6th (19th) of March, he sent a telegram in French to the Bolsheviks leaving for Russia which reflects his apprehension. He hammered away: “Our tactic: absolute mistrust, no support for the new government, we must be particularly suspicious of Kerenski,” and written in bold: “No attempt at alliance with other parties.”
This is his major worry, because, as Lenin explained, without a party that is strictly independent of other parties it is impossible to follow independent policies. He sent one after the other to the Pravda four “Letters from Afar”. Stalin, who was at the head of the Pravda with Kamenev since their return from exile, printed the first letter, written the 7th (20th) of March, but he cut out one-fifth of its content. Lenin underlined in this correspondence that this first revolution sparked by the war would certainly not be the last. The new government was just “the sales representative of the France-England financial firm”. Therefore “whoever claims that workers should support the new government in order to fight against Tsarist reaction (…) betrays workers, betrays the proletarian cause, the cause of peace and liberty.”
In the second letter, written the 11th (24th) of March, Lenin underlined: “I cannot judge from here, from this cursed distance, how near the second revolution is (…) I do not ask myself questions concerning the solution to problems for which I have not and cannot have concrete elements.” But one thing is certain: “Russia is going through an original phase in its history: that of the passage to the following stage of the revolution, or (…) to the second revolution.”
In the third letter, written the 11th (24th) of March, Lenin declared: The revolution must ‘demolish the State machinery in one full sweep and replace it with another which fuses together police, army, the body of civil servants with the entire people in arms”. At the same time he indicated fairly limited tasks for the Bolshevik Party: explaining to the masses that the war, aimed at plundering riches, organised by the capitalists of the two belligerent camps is at the origin of an unprecedented crisis bringing famine and uncountable misery in everyday life.
These proposals, which were already the outline of the big themes in his policies, appear unacceptable to the chief editors of the Pravda — Stalin and Kamenev — who like the Mensheviks and the Revolutionary Socialists, supported the provisional government. Stalin explained this support insofar as the provisional government “is fighting reaction and counter reaction”, and is the only possible state authority once the monarchy has fallen. The 27th of March, Stalin wrote: “The provisional government has taken on in fact the role of consolidating the conquests of the people in revolution. The Soviet mobilises forces, controls the provisional government, while tripping up and getting confused; takes on the role of consolidator of the people’s conquest which the latter has already realised.”
This policy of critical support leads to the abandoning of the very existence of the Bolshevik Party as an independent party. Since they proposed the same policies (accompanied by verbal criticism, which was just a cover for their capitulation) as the Mensheviks, Stalin and Kamenev took a public stand the 1st of April in favour of reunification with the Mensheviks, from whom the Bolshevik Party had separated to set up a different party in January 1912. They filed away in archives, without publishing them, the last three Letters from Afar written by Lenin, which therefore remained unknown to Bolshevik activists, only being published two months after his death; the second and fourth letters published in the Bolshevik review in March-April 1924, the third in the Communist International review in March April 1924.
The men and women workers and soldiers who had overthrown the monarchy placed their trust only in the Soviet, whose leaders were supporting through thick and thin a provisional government which they criticised for this or that decision.
Yet a million deserters were already scouring the countryside. War until victory, which that the Allies demanded, was being pursued with democratic slogans which did nothing to change the reality and which wore thin very quickly; the pursuit of the war paralysed transport, dislocated the economy, exasperated workers, irritated demoralised the army of soldier peasants and basically ruined the country.
The peasants were starting to occupy the land, and the government began to send in soldiers against them. Workers were demanding wage increases and were trying to take control of their factories. The bosses locked them out: 75 firms were closed down in Petrograd in March and April, more than 10% of the total number. Workers were reacting by setting up factory committees: the social polarisation at the bottom of the ladder was an response to the political coalition at the top.
On his return to Petrograd on the 4th of April 1917, Lenin presented his policy to the Bolshevik activists of Petrograd, then to both the Menshevik and Bolshevik activists who had come together to envisage the reunification of their two parties.
In his exposé defined as the “April Theses”, he defined the two fundamental conditions for the political activity of the revolutionary party: independence and what the Bolsheviks called, from the end of 1921 “the united front”.
Independence; He hammered away on this question: “No support for the provisional government. Unmask the total falsehood in all its promises. (…) The capitalist class, with its ties with banks, can lead no other war than an imperialist war” aimed at plunder and annexing territory.
And he warned his comrades: “Even our Bolsheviks have confidence in this government. This can be explained by revolution going to their heads. It is the ruin of socialism.” … “You trust in this government. If that’s the case, we shall not walk side by side. I prefer to stay in the minority. (…) If we break with those people [he means the leaders of the Soviet who support the provisional government and the war], all the oppressed will turn to us because the war will turn them to us: they have no other solution.”
Russia, Lenin said, is going through “the transition from the first stage of the revolution which transferred power to the bourgeoisie, because of the insufficient development of proletariat organisation and conscience, to its second stage, which should give power over to the proletariat and the poor peasant workers. (…) The people has not taken power because it is not organised and has no conscience. (…) We must build “a republic of Soviets” and a revolutionary International.
Independence therefore demanded a break with provisional government policies and an end to the support accorded to this government.
The United Front …
From that moment Lenin linked closely together the need to have independent policies and organisation for the party, with what the Bolsheviks would later call a “united front” policy.
Lenin started with the dual observation: the masses have their illusions in the Mensheviks and Revolutionary Socialists who head the Soviet, and the Bolshevik party is weak and very much in the minority:
“Our party is in a minority and for the moment only constitutes a weak minority in most of the Soviets, faced with the bloc represented by all the opportunist petit bourgeois elements…” One task results from that point: “explain to the masses that the Soviets of worker representatives are the only possible form for a revolutionary government and that as a result, our task (…) can only consist in explaining to the masses, patiently, systematically, insistently, the errors of their tactics, illustrating this by pointing out their practical needs.”
Lenin insisted on this aspect, which for him was essential: “While we are in a minority our work is that of criticism to help the masses see through these lies. We don’t want the masses to believe us because we say so. (…) We want the masses to shed their errors through their experience.”
This work of explanation is closely linked to the political perspective of a united front which is expressed in the slogan “All power to the Soviets”: the Soviets assemble the elected delegates of workers, peasants and soldiers with the representatives of all the parties claiming to follow Socialism (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Revolutionary Socialists), excluding any representative of bourgeois parties. They assemble then all the oppressed in opposition to the bourgeoisie and capital.
Demanding all power to the Soviets meant counterposing an independent political representation of the exploited and oppressed to an alliance with the bourgeoisie and capital and to submission to them.
From then on, one of the political axes of the Bolshevik Party would be to put forward specific slogans expressing the two aspects of this orientation (independence and united front) at different moments of the class struggle. Thus when the second provisional government was set up, including a number of Menshevik and Revolutionary Socialist ministers (representing the Soviets) under the presidency of Kerenski, the Bolsheviks launched the slogan “Down with the ten capitalist ministers”, which was a particular way of expressing the policy of “”All power to the Soviets.”
This policy was founded on a requisite demand: a break with the capitalist representatives in the government, which happened to be those of the Constitutional Monarchy Party, called the Cadets.
This perspective was opened up at the end of the month of August. The political and military circles of the bourgeoisie attempted at this time a counter-revolutionary coup headed by General Kornilov. All the Soviet parties, in spite of their differences, under the pressure of workers, soldiers and peasants, united to foil this attempt, which they succeed in doing with an ease that indicated the strength represented by the Soviets.
What’s more, the links between the leaders of the bourgeois Constitutional Monarchists (the Cadets), and the organisers of the putsch, were so obvious that in a first moment the Revolutionary Socialist and Menshevik leaders announce their decision not to participate in the government with representatives who had been compromised in this attempt. Lenin immediately drew a political conclusion in keeping with the orientation he had defended since returning to Russia.
The failure of the putsch and this decision appeared to him to open up a new, fleeting perspective, which might, he wrote on the 1st of September, “ensure the pacific progression of the Russian Revolution and very great chances of progress for the world movement towards peace and the victory of Socialism (…) an extremely rare and extremely precious historical possibility”, to be seized urgently. Russia, Lenin felt, was living an exceptional historical moment, where “the pacific development of the revolution is possible and likely, if all the power is transferred to the Soviets and if democracy reigns within the Soviets, the struggle for power between parties can take place there pacifically”. He insisted on his proposal: “the formation of a Revolutionary Socialist and Menshevik government responsible to the Soviets”, that is responsible to the body that represents all the social strata of the oppressed and exploited, who for the most part, although more hesitantly, still have confidence in them.
This proposal would in no way alienate the political independence of the Bolshevik Party. Even if, in this case, the latter would be making concessions that Lenin qualified as a “compromise”. But Lenin went on to clarify this point:
“This compromise would consist in renouncing the demand for immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and poor peasants and the use of revolutionary methods for the victory of this demand, without claiming a place in the government, (which is impossible for an internationalist if the conditions for the dictatorship of the proletariat and poor peasants are not realised).” But “on the other hand they [the Bolsheviks] would demand the free and unrestricted right to agitation”.
The alliance between the Bolsheviks, Revolutionary Socialists and Mensheviks during the five days from the 26th to 31st August, wiped out the Kornilov coup “ so easily that there is no example of this in any other revolution” and thus Lenin proposed that this alliance be pursued with immediate transfer of all power to the Soviets so that “civil war in Russia would be rendered impossible.” No international counter-revolutionary alliance could defeat the Soviets, which would organise the free distribution of all land to peasants and propose a fair, just peace for all peoples; the bourgeoisie, hostile to these measures would no longer have any force at its disposal, no “brutal division” to start up a civil war which “would not even come to a single battle.”
The Soviets, on the other hand, in proposing peace, would find allies in the world and would speed up the revolution, which is ripening everywhere. Giving all power to the Soviets was the “only way of ensuring from now on a gradual, pacific, peaceful evolution of events” “ (7). … But the Revolutionary Socialists and Mensheviks preferred the sterile alliance with the bourgeoisie to an alliance with the Bolsheviks. The ink of Lenin’s article had hardly dried when on the 2nd of September, the Revolutionary Socialists and the Mensheviks decided to support the Directory — the Bonapartist type of bureaucratic organism set up by Kerenski. The compromise and possibility opened up by Lenin faded away.
The third facet of Lenin’s policy is internationalism.
From the moment of his 4th of April speech, Lenin rendered explicit the policy he proposed:
“One Liebknect alone is worth more than a 110 defenders (supporters of the war). If you are a sympathiser with Liebknecht and extend just one finger to the defenders, you are betraying International socialism.”
And the last point in his intervention that day was devoted to the International: “ Renew the International. Take the initiative of forming an International against the social chauvinists and against the centre”. Political independence is a necessity for the working class throughout the world in the same way as it is a necessity for the exploited of Russia.
“One Liebknecht alone but the whole future rests with him.” And he again linked this internationalist statement to his assertion of the indispensable character of political independence.
“I hear that in Russia there is a tendency to reunify, to reunify with the defenders. This is a betrayal of socialism. I consider it is better to stay alone, like Liebknecht, one against 110.”
This internationalism would be expressed then in the break with all those who supported directly (the “social chauvinists”), or indirectly (the centre) the imperialist war and therefore imperialism itself.
This Internationalism was concrete: the Kiehl sailors’ insurrection in Germany, was for Lenin one of the signs of the maturing revolution in Europe, and was then one of the arguments in favour of seizing power in Russia. And in his letter to the Central Committee the 1st of October 1917 he stated:
“The Bolsheviks must seize power immediately. In doing so they will save the world revolution (otherwise, after the executions in Germany, there will be a continued threat of an alliance between imperialists in every country, who will tend to be more tolerant with each other and unite together against us); the Bolsheviks will save the Russian revolution (otherwise the present wave of anarchy can become stronger than us) and the lives of hundreds of thousands of men on the war front.”
And on the 16th of October, he established the close links between the revolution in Russia and the maturing revolution in Europe: “The international situation provides us with many objective elements confirming that if we take action today, we will have proletarian Europe on our side (…) The political analysis of the class struggle in Russia as in Europe underlines the need for the most resolute and the most active policy.”
The Bolsheviks did not then prepare October by striving to “develop struggle,” to multiply strikes and demonstrations, which were generally started by the masses themselves. The peasants were the ones who decided to seize the land (the Bolsheviks furnished this movement with its political and legal form with the 26th of October 1917 decree on land); workers went out on strike against the bosses, who were increasing lockouts and sacking more and more workers; the soldiers organised demonstrations.
The Bolsheviks concentrated on helping these movements find an organised form, on elucidating the question of power which they made emerge and then giving them the indispensable political solution, while developing with insistence a policy of independence and of a united front, based on internationalism — and this on the threefold axis of breaking with the policy of support to the imperialist war, break with the representatives of the bourgeoisie in the government, and break with the defenders of the imperialist war within the workers’ movement.