Monday, January 7, 2019

The Bolsheviks in 1917: Different perspectives, different objectives

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Kamenev, the most consistent voice of the Bolshevik Right shown with Lenin and Trotsky after 1917 revolution.
The article below is the latest installment in a controversy being conducted for the past several years in the pages of the Weekly Worker, the publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)--an anti-Stalinist group not to be confused with the official Communist Party of Britain.  It was originaly published in the Weekly Workers edition of 12/20/2018 [].  It is a continuation of an exchange that we published previously, The record re-examined: Trotsky's Lessons of October in context.  The principals in this exchange are:

Lars T. Lih, an independent Montreal-based scholar of Soviet history--the author of Lenin Rediscovered and other works. He does not purport to be a Marxist. Jack Conrad is a leader of the CPGB. Both Lih and Conrad argue that, contrary to the widespread belief of Trotskyists and many historians, there was never any fundamental difference between Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution and Lenin's pre-1917 revolutionary perspectives. From this they conclude that Lenin, in calling for a socialist revolution in 1917, did not, as is also widely believed, adopt a view closer to Trotsky's, and hence had no need to wage a struggle within the Bolshevik party to overthrow the Provisional Government and seize power in the name of the soviets. Conrad and Lih argue, on the contrary, that the Bolsheviks were "fully armed" from the beginning. In the following article, and others in the Weekly Worker, Jim Creegan, a Marxist residing in New York City, disputes all these claims in favor of the view of Trotsky and other historians.     

Different Perspectives, Different Objectives

I hope  any readers who may have been following the debate between myself and Lars T Lih/Jack Conrad  over the past few years will forgive me if I briefly summarise it for the benefit of anyone tuning in for the first time. I have defended in these pages the traditional view of Trotsky and other historians that there were important differences between the perspectives of Lenin and Trotsky at the time of the aborted Russian Revolution of 1905 on how the revolution would unfold—whether it was the revolution occurring then, or the one that would surely in their view erupt again after temporary defeat. Lenin, in 1905,  put forward the idea of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, which he thought would clear the way for a democratic republic and a period of capitalist development as a  prologue to workers’ revolution. Trotsky, on the other hand, espoused the theory of permanent revolution, according to which there would be no intermediary stage between the bourgeois and socialist revolutions; that the working class would be the revolution’s leading force; that once having seized power, the workers, supported by the peasants, would be forced by the logic of circumstances to take irrevocable socialist measures, which could only be consolidated with aid of victorious revolutions in the more advanced countries of  Europe.

This traditional view holds further that Lenin in 1917, relying on his own independent assessment of revolutionary possibilities, discarded his earlier perspectives to adopt a standpoint identical in all essentials to that of Trotsky, causing the latter to join the Bolsheviks. This change, however, was not at first accepted by much of Lenin’s own party, which still clung to the earlier theory of stages; that Lenin therefore had to conduct an internal fight, lasting about a month from his return to Russia in April, to reorient the Bolsheviks  toward the seizure of power in the name of the working class and socialism.

Lih and Conrad reject this long-established view. They argue that there was in fact no significant difference between Lenin’s democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, on the one hand, and Trotsky’s permanent revolution, on the other, and that Lenin therefore did not have to change his views or wage an internal struggle to realign Bolshevism toward socialist revolution. Jack Conrad, in particular, asserts that Lenin’s notion of democratic dictatorship anticipated from the outset the passsage from bourgeois to socialist revolution without any change at the level of political regime. Thus, argue Conrad and Lih, the Bolsheviks were fully prepared for 1917 from 1905 onward.

Lenin’s Major Prognosis

I believe I have demonstrated (“Democratic dictatorship vs. permanent revolution”, Weekly Worker, 21 May, 2015), through a careful exegesis of Lenin’s principal 1905 programmatic work —Two tactics of social-democracy in the democratic revolution-- that he regarded the democratic dictatorship necessary to vanquish tsarism as no more than a temporary interlude between tsarism and a bourgeois-democratic republic. I have since come across a quotation to this effect that is even more categorical than anything in Two tactics. In April of 1905 Lenin writes in opposition to the Mensheviks, who were trying to introduce a bogus distinction between a provisional revolutionary government and the democratic dictatorship:  “…the provisional revolutionary government can be nothing else but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry…” He continues:

To speak of the “provisional revolutionary government” is to stress the constitutional aspect of the case, the fact that the government originates, not from the law, but from the revolution, that it is a temporary government committed to the future Constituent Assembly. (emphasis added).

The constituent assembly would in turn establish a republic. “A republic necessarily implies a government, and—no social democrat ever doubted it—a bourgeois government at that.”[1]

In the above article, Lenin pours scorn upon the formal Menshevik schema which states that the Russian revolution, being  bourgeois, must be led by the bourgeoisie. He writes that the Russian bourgeoisie are far too pusillanimous to conduct a resolute fight against tsarism. A bourgeois republic can only be established by the revolutionary action of the masses. But Lenin never explains exactly how a constituent assembly will lead to the formation of a bourgeois-democratic republic. It would stand to reason that he assumes that the bourgeois parties present would also have the support of a majority of peasant representatives. Even if this were so, is not Lenin, by assuming that the antagonisms between the bourgeoisie and the workers thrown into action by the revolution can be resolved by voting in a peaceful parliamentary manner, descending into a formalism of his own? Will the working class, having seized control of factories and the  governments of major cities and towns, meekly stand aside and hand everything back to the bourgeoisie as the result of a constituent assembly vote? This is the heart of Trotsky’s criticism of the Lenin of 1905.

Lenin’s Other Scenario

Yet, upon further research, the matter turns out to be a little more complicated. A comrade here in New York has drawn my attention to two passages in Lenin’s writings that were unknown to me at the time I wrote “Democratic dictatorship vs. permanent revolution”. Polemicising in March-April 1905 from his Swiss exile against the right Menshevik, Alexander Martynov, who stressed the strictly limited bourgeois character of the revolutionary upheaval, Lenin wrote:

…[The revolutionary Social-Democrat ]… will not confine himself on the eve of the revolution to pointing out what will happen “if the worst comes to the worst”. Rather, he will also show the possibility of a better outcome. He will dream—and he is obliged to dream if he is not a hopeless philistine—that, after the vast experience of Europe, after the unparalleled upsurge of energy among the working class in Russia, we shall succeed in lighting a revolutionary beacon that will illumine more brightly than ever the path of the unenlightened and downtrodden masses; that we shall succeed… in realising all the democratic transformations, the whole of our minimum programme, with a thoroughness never equalled before. We shall succeed in ensuring that the Russian revolution  is not a movement of a few months, but a movement of many years… And if we succeed in achieving this, then… the revolutionary conflagration will spread to Europe; the European worker… will rise in his turn and show us “how it is done”; then the revolutionary upsurge in Europe will have a repercussive effect upon Russia and will convert a few revolutionary years into an era of several revolutionary decades; then—but we shall have ample time to say what we shall do “then”, not from the cursed remoteness of Geneva, but at meetings of thousands of workers in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, at the free village meetings of the Russian “muzhiks”. [2]

And, writing in September of the same year, still in exile:

…we shall certainly be with the rural proletariat, with the entire working class, against the peasant bourgeoisie. In practice this may mean the transfer of the land to the class of petty peasant proprietors—wherever big estates based on bondage and feudal servitude still prevail, and there are as yet no material conditions for large-scale socialist production; it may mean nationalisation—given complete victory of the democratic revolution—or the big capitalist estates being transferred to workers’ associations, for from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way. [3] (emphases in the original)

           It is undeniable that in these two passages—the first written before, and the second written after, the publication of his most definitive revolutionary prospectus, Two Tactics (July, 1905)--Lenin envisages the possibility of the revolution exceeding the bourgeois-republican bounds he sets for it in the latter work and many other articles. These quotations lend some support to Jack Conrad’s argument that Lenin, not unlike Trotsky, saw the transition from the democratic revolution to proletarian dictatorship as a single, uninterrupted process, without a change in political regime, and therefore had a perspective similar to Trotsky’s. Was Lenin simply contradicting himself?

Any student of Lenin’s writings is puzzled at first by the numerous inconsistencies to be found there. The inconsistencies become more understandable when we consider that Lenin approaches various situations not merely from the standpoint of a  scholar whose only concern is for theoretical lucidity, but from that of a revolutionary combatant, using Marxism to interrogate not only the most likely outcome of unfolding events, but also straining at the outer limits of  possibility—“dreaming”, as he puts it. Lenin no doubt considered it his responsibility to set out what he thought to be the most probable scenario, the one he saw as likely to take place without the immediate assistance of the proletariat of the more advanced countries, and limited by the petty bourgeois craving of the peasant for a plot of his own. This is the scenario upon which he bases Two Tactics.  But Trotsky wrote that for Lenin, no theoretical schema stood higher than reality. Hence Lenin regarded this scenario—a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ dictatorship, followed by a constituent assembly, followed by an extended period of capitalist development-- as the most probable future trajectory. He did not, however, see this projection as graven in stone, and saw the revolution as an open-ended process, whose outcome depended upon two factors that were not entirely predictable: first, the extent to which an offensive of Russian workers and peasants would stimulate the workers of other European countries to revolt, and the  degree to which their revolt might rebound back on Russia, and, second; the extent to which landless peasants—the rural proletariat—could be brought into alliance with industrial workers to bring about a collectivist, as opposed to a petty-bourgeois proprietary, solution to the agrarian question.

We will refrain from commenting here upon the realism of these two prospects. But it can be safely said that the fact that the February revolution of 1917, occurring , unlike the 1905 revolution,  amidst a world war that plunged Europe into the abyss, was probably the major factor inclining Lenin to place his bets on a fully socialist Russian revolution as part of a larger, more-or-less simultaneous, European conflagration. To this  he added that the cards within Russia had been differently dealt than anticipated in 1905. Instead of bourgeois, peasant and proletarian parties fighting things out in a single constituent assembly, there had arisen the phenomenon of dual power: an unelected bourgeois provisional government (which rightwing socialists soon joined), and  democratically elected workers and soldiers’ soviets, which allowed the workers, through the largely peasant army, to exert a radicalising influence on the peasantry as a whole, independently of the bourgeoisie . These two circumstances moved Lenin to view as possible, even inevitable, the devoutly to be wished consummation of  uninterrupted revolution that he had only glimpsed as an outside chance in 1905.

‘Old Bolshevism’

Lenin’s exceptional 1905 probing of the outer limits of revolution  did not, however, translate into a definite programme, or comprise the expectations that settled into the mind of the average Bolshevik, or even the party’s other top leaders. Far more often  had Lenin reiterated that theirs was a bourgeois revolution, not to be confused with the socialist one; that the revolutionary dictatorship was separate and distinct from the “commune state”, aka the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin’s churning intellect, conjuring with various permutations and possibilities, was one of the things that set him apart as a genius of revolution. Followers of lesser cerebral fertility, on the other hand, felt the need for a stock formula for the future. They found it, not without encouragement from Lenin, in the Bolshevik version of a two-stage revolution.  

The events of 1917  demonstrate that theory, far from being a purely mental exercise, can have profound implications for practice. The Bolshevik party contained deep reserves of revolutionary experience and ardour that made many of its rank and file recoil instinctively from the critical support to the Provisional Government offered by Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov in their capacity as editors of Pravda in March of 1917, and made it possible for Lenin to reorient the party in the short interval of a single month. Yet not until his return could even the most militant Bolsheviks answer the theory of stages that the recently returned Pravda editors and many other senior Bolsheviks invoked in support of their advocacy of pressuring the Provisional Government from the left, as opposed to overthrowing it.

Lars T Lih and Jack Conrad assert that Lenin’s return changed nothing of fundamental importance, and that the notion that he rearmed the party originated with Trotsky’s Lessons of October,  published in 1924. My most recent article (“The Bolsheviks and Democracy”, Weekly Worker, 1Nov.)  attempted to recount the major events of the anti-Trotsky campaign being waged by the ruling triumvirs of that year—Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin—to which Trotsky’s Lesson’s of October was at least partly a defensive response rather than the attempt at self-aggranisement of  Conrad’s telling. In what follows, I  will  summon the testimony of contemporary witnesses, some of whom had few warm feelings for Trotsky, to establish that Lenin’s struggle to reorient the Bolsheviks in April of 1917 was far from a myth promulgated by Trotsky in 1924. I will  also attempt to show that there was indeed a Bolshevik right clustred around Kamenev, which more or less clung to Lenin’s more widely known 1905 “Old Bolshevik” perspectives--of a revolution limited to a bourgeois-democratic ‘minimum programme’, and culminating in a constituent assembly—as their guiding light.  

From the Witness Box

Probably the most widely read account of Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd in April comes from the memoirs of  the left-Menshevik, Nikolai Sukhanov, who attended several of Lenin’s speeches propounding the April Theses to the Bolsheviks and wider socialist audiences. Sukhanov recollects:

   The Bolsheviks were still in a state of bafflement and perplexity. And the support Lenin found may underline more clearly than anything else his complete intellectual isolation, not only among Social-Democrats in general but also among his own disciples… Lenin was supported by no one but [Alexandra] Kollontai  (a recent Menshevik), who rejected any alliance with those  who could not and would not accomplish a social revolution! Her support called forth nothing but laughter, and hubbub. (emphasis added)[4]

Lars T Lih disparages Sukhanov’s testimony as motivated by his strong Menshevik inclination to make Lenin appear more extreme that he actually was. One can only wonder what motives Lih would impute to another member of the audience at the first full-length speech in which Lenin propounded the April Theses, the veteran sailor-Bolshevik Felix Raskolnikov, who writes:   
The most responsible party workers were represented here, but even for them what Ilyich [Lenin] said constituted a veritable revelation. It laid down a Rubicon between the tactics of yesterday and those of today… 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.[5]

In his History of the Russian Revolution (1932), and his Stalin, published in 1941 from an unfinished manuscript Trotsky was still working on at the time of his assassination the previous year, the author cites a number of independent sources  to corroborate his account of Lenin’s re-arming of the party in 1917. Since, however, most of the quotations he supplies are not referenced in these works, and therefore not available for verification to readers, I shall refrain from reproducing them here and confine myself to  quoting only carefully referenced materials. (A special note of appreciation in this regard must go to the outstanding scholar of Bolshevism and the October Revolution, Paul Le Blanc, for mining several of these sources.)

One such source is Angelica Balabanova, the Russian-Italian Marxist who became recording secretary for the Communist International:

I had been trained, like most Marxists, to expect the social revolution to be inaugurated in one of the highly industrialized countries, and at the time Lenin’s analysis of the Russian events seemed to me almost utopian.[6]   
Another is Alexandra Kollontai, who, as one of Lenin’s closest collaborators at the time, was instrumental in attempting to route his articles from Geneva to Petrograd from her place of exile in Stockholm, and who soon returned to Petrograd herself. She corroborates Sukhanov’s account:

I was in substantial agreement with Lenin and stood closer to him than many of his older followers and friends. [In many meetings in April] I was the only one of his party comrades who took the floor to support his theses.[7]

 Moving from leading party strata to a  rank-and-file Bolshevik military organisation, we have the testimony of A. F. Ilvin-Ganevsky, a navy sub-lieutenant stationed near the Finnish border:

In the [Bolshevik] Committee there were two points of view on the political situation, one more moderate, approaching the point of view of Kamenev at that time, and the other more revolutionary, based on the famous theses of Lenin immediately on his arrival from abroad…[8]

Then there are the words of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya:

Lenin expounded his views on what had to be done in a number of theses…The comrades  [in attendance at a meeting of the Soviet at the Taurida Palace on April 4] 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.
A struggle started within the Bolshevik organization. It did not last long. A week later a general city conference of the Bolsheviks of Petrograd took place at which Ilyich’s point of view was upheld.[9]

We are also privileged to have the late-life recollections of that well known purveyor of ‘Trotskyite’ myths, V. M. Molotov. Molotov was Stalin’s foreign minister, and one who remained loyal to the vozhd (supreme leader), even after Stalin had his wife deported to the gulag. Being the highest ranking Bolshevik in Petrograd before the return of Kamenev, Muranev and Stalin in March of 1917, Molotov was briefly editor of Pravda, which under his direction took a line much more hostile to the Provisional Government than the trio that soon replaced him and corrected his ‘leftist’ deviation:

We Bolsheviks were suddenly confronted with a different direction. Lenin later spoke to a very small group, about forty-five persons, no more…

   In Petrograd I sat at the presidium of a party conference while Lenin took the floor and said: The danger to us now comes from the old Bolsheviks who do not understand that we have entered a new stage. They think we have a democratic revolution. But we should move to socialist revolution! What!—to socialist revolution?

   I had never opposed Lenin, but neither I nor any of those who were always with Lenin immediately grasped the sense of his message. All Bolsheviks spoke about democratic revolution, now behold—socialist revolution!

   Well, after all, Kamenev was a Bolshevik, Rykov was a Bolshevik—yet they did not understand matters Lenin’s way. They asserted, as usual, that we were still at the stage of democratic revolution… [Lenin said] The main danger lies within the party. Not because [the old Bolsheviks] are bad people but because their minds have not made a U-turn. I was ready to lay down my life for certain goals, but the goals suddenly changed: one needed to think things over again, and that was not so simple. Lenin had opened our eyes.[10]

Finally, we have this retrospective look at 1917:

The party—its majority… adopted a policy of pressure by the Soviets on the Provisional Government in the question of peace, and did not decide at once to take the step forward from the old slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry to the new slogan of power for the Soviets. This half-and-half policy was intended to give the Soviets a chance to detect in the concrete questions of peace the imperialist nature of the Provisional Government and so to detach them from it. But it was a profoundly mistaken position since it bred pacifist illusions, added fuel to the flames of defencism and hindered the revolutionary uprising of the masses. This mistaken position I shared with other party comrades, and renounced completely only in the middle of April when I adhered to Lenin’s theses.[11]

The above are the words of Joseph Stalin in 1924, when memories of the revolution were still too fresh for its history to be falsified completely. Such a thorough rewriting took place in 1939, with the publication of the infamous Short course. This shamelessly doctored history of the Bolshevik party (“paper will take anything that is written on it”, as the vozhd once remarked) has Stalin siding with Lenin from the very beginning.

I  rest my case against the claim that Lenin’s rearming of the party was a myth invented by Trotsky in 1924 .

No Bolshevik Right?

A corollary to the Conrad-Lih “fully armed” thesis is that there was no coherent right wing of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, and  that there were no lasting or important differences between Lenin and  Lev Kamenev, who is usually thought of as the most consistent spokesman of the Bolshevik right. Lars T Lih, in fact, performs prodigies of tortured exegesis to prove that the Pravda editorial, penned by  Kamenev immediately upon his return from exile—seen by many on the Bolshevik left to take a position of revolutionary defencism in the war and critical support for the Provisional Government—represented nothing more than a temporary tactical misunderstanding between Kamenev and Lenin. Lih says the same thing about a second Pravda editorial, written by Kamenev after the publication of Lenin’s April theses in that paper, asserting that the theses represented only Lenin’s personal point of view and not that of the party, and  were “unacceptable” because the bourgeois stage of the revolution was not completed. Yet I think Lih would have difficulty explaining why these presumed tactical differences persisted through the entire month of April, up to the eve of the October Revolution, and even after the conquest of power.

Lenin won the support of the Bolshevik majority for his April Theses at two crucial conferences: the Petrograd City conference in mid-April, and the all-Russian Bolshevik conference at the end of the same month (or the beginning of May by the Western calendar). Yet at both these conclaves Kamenev continued to oppose Lenin’s call for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and power to the soviets on the basis that the bourgeois revolution was still in progress. E.H. Carr, the most prominent English-language historian of the Russian Revolution, describes how Kamenev persisted in opposing Lenin, even against his newly acquired party majority:

…Now only Kamenev presented a coherent defence of the policies accepted by all leading Bolsheviks in Petrograd before the presentation of the April Theses. The main issue was narrowed down to the question of whether, as Lenin proposed, the party should work for a transfer of power to the Soviets, or whether, as Kamenev desired, it should be content with the ‘most watchful control’ of the Provisional government by the Soviets, Kamenev being particularly severe on anything that could be construed as incitement to overthrow the government. In the decisive vote, Kamenev’s amendment was defeated by twenty votes to six.[12]      
Nor did Kamenev abandon his position at the later April conference, even when opposed by other prominent Bolsheviks, including his fellow Pravda editor . “At the conference,” writes Carr, “the tide flowed still more strongly in Lenin’s favour. Stalin briefly, and Zinoviev at greater length, supported him against Kamenev”[13] (emphasis added)

That Kamenev and Zinoviev were the only two members of the Bolshevik Central Committee to vote against Lenin’s plan for an insurrection, and that they both publicly denounced the plan in Maxim Gorky’s Menshevik paper, Novaya Zizhn, are well known. Less familiar are the efforts of Kamenev and his cohorts to cobble together an all-socialist Soviet government after the seizure of power. When the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, rejected their efforts to negotiate a broad coalition with the Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, six leading party members—Kamenev, Rykov, Zinoviev, Nogin and Miliutin—collectively resigned in protest from the party’s Central Committee. Though they never organised themselves into a formally declared  faction, these individuals (with the exception of Zinoviev, who did not consistently adhere to the right) formed a distinct “moderate” current of opinion within the Bolshevik Party of 1917. To the above names can be added Lunacharsky, Tomsky and Kalinin.

Why did Lenin and Trotsky so adamantly reject the notion of an all-socialist Soviet government? The answer is that the non-Bolshevik socialists, with whom such a coalition Kamenev and company proposed, had all along rejected the idea of breaking with bourgeois parties and putting the soviets in power. Inviting them into government would have been tantamount to undoing the October Revolution. (The one non-Bolshevik party that did accept the soviet-power framework, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, was soon invited by the Bolsheviks to join a coalition government).

Earlier, in September, in the wake of a failed coup attempt by a Tsarist officer and aspiring rightwing strongman, Lavr Kornilov, the question arose of forming an all-socialist coalition in place of Kerensky’s Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks even at one point expressed a willingness to abandon their intention to overthrow the Provisional Government if the then-existing cross class coalition were replaced by a government comprised exclusively of socialist groups, excluding all bourgeois parties. Such a proposal gained widespread support among many Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).  Alexander Kerensky, however, vetoed not only any proposal that  would exclude bourgeois parties, but even a far more moderate suggestion to exclude the principal bourgeois party, the Cadets (Constitutional Democratic Party), which was deeply implicated in the Kornilov affair. Kerensky, on the contrary, handed the Cadets key cabinet portfolios. Yet the “moderate” socialists who then held a majority on the Soviet executive still refused to withhold support from the Provisional Government, Kerensky’s insistence on including the most reactionary bourgeois elements notwithstanding.

A few months later, immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power, a proposal was put forward by the left Menshevik, Jules Martov, for the formation of a soviet government that would include all socialist parties. The Bolshevik delegates to the Soviet at the time accepted Martov’s proposal. The Right SRs and a majority of Mensheviks, however, walked out of the Soviet rather than legitimating its newly established power by joining such a government.

After the soviet power became an accomplished fact, the same socialists who had recently walked out returned, now themselves demanding a coalition of all socialist parties. They had one important condition, however: that any such soviet coalition government exclude Lenin and Trotsky. It was in answer to this coalition-government demand that Trotsky, speaking from the rostrum of the Soviet, famously relegated these ‘compromisers’ to the “dustbin of history”.  And it was such a coalition—of the Bolsheviks with socialists who had consistently refused to break with the bourgeoisie and consistently opposed soviet power—that Kamenev and his confreres proposed to welcome into the first soviet-power regime. Jack Conrad can dilate all he likes about Lenin’s ‘close comrades’, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Yet the fact is that, at this crucial juncture, Lenin’s closest comrade in resisting the vacillations of the Bolshevik right, and putting the soviet power on a firm basis, was Leon Trotsky.

There is reason to believe that the “moderation” of Kamenev and his co-thinkers involved more than a deficit of revolutionary mettle. If they supported the passage of political power to the soviets, which many certainly did, it may not have been because they, like Lenin and Trotsky, saw it as a step to proletarian dictatorship and, with the aid of the international revolution, to socialism. There is evidence to suggest that Lenin’s  1905 ‘Old Bolshevik’ perspective still figured as a significant strand of their outlook;  they tended to see soviet power as the fulfilment of Lenin’s aim of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In this optic,  the rule of the soviets was not an end in itself, but either a complement to the Constituent Assembly, or, even more in keeping with Lenin’s Two Tactics,  a transition point in a process  of which an all-class Constituent Assembly was the culmination. Zinoviev and Kamenev wrote in On the Present Situation, their famous pre-insurrection dissent:

   The chances of our party in the elections to the Constituent Assembly are excellent….l                                                     
   …The Soviets, which have become rooted in life, can not be destroyed. The Constituent Assembly will be able to find support for its revolutionary work only in the Soviets. The Constituent Assembly plus the Soviets—this is that combined type of state institutions toward which we are going. It is on this political basis that our party is acquiring enormous chances for a real victory.[14] 

Kamenev’s ally, Viktor Nogin, saw even less of a future for the soviets (if I may be permitted a single unreferenced citation from Trotsky, the authenticity of which I have no doubt):

In the process of development the most important functions of the soviets will fall away. A whole series of administrative functions will be transferred to the municipal, district and other institutions. If we examine the future development of the structure of the state, we cannot deny that the Constituent Assembly will be convoked and after that the Parliament… Thus it follows that the most important functions of the soviets will gradually wither away. That, however, does not mean to say that the soviets will end their existence in ignominy. They will only transfer their functions. Under these same soviets we shall not achieve the commune-republic in our country.[15]

Thus the weight of evidence suggests that there were two revolutionary perspectives at work in the mind of the Bolsheviks in 1917: one that aimed at proletarian revolution and socialism-- formulated most clearly and unequivocally by Trotsky in his 1906 work Results and Prospects, which propounded the theory of permanent revolution--and adumbrated in certain respects by Lenin in the two obiter dicta quoted above. It was to this perspective, arrived at via his own thinking, that Lenin, through the extraordinary force of his revolutionary imagination and political will, won the majority of his party in April of that momentous revolutionary year. Yet a Bolshevik minority of more cautious and conservative temperament still took refuge in the earlier two-stage scenario promulgated and emphasised by Lenin in Two tactics in of social-democracy in the democratic revolution (1905), even after Lenin himself had relegated this ‘Old Bolshevik’ prognosis to the museum of antiques. It is true that Trotsky did not possess the political authority to actualise his views. The critical element in the success of the October Revolution was the existence of the instinctively revolutionary and battle-tempered party that Lenin and others had laboured to build over previous years. But without the evolution of Lenin’s views, the Bolsheviks would never have gained the adherence of the revolution’s second-greatest leader. And without a determined struggle for that changed perspective on Lenin’s part, and his and Trotsky’s efforts to  resist the counsels of a minority  still acting on the basis of the old two-stage theory, the vast rising of the Russian masses in 1917 may have gone down in history with the Paris Commune as another valiant but ill-fated episode in the history of class struggle.


[1] “The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, Collected Works, (Moscow, 1962), Vol. 8, p. 302

[2] “Social-Democracy and the Provisional Revolutionary Government”, CW,  Vol. 8, Pp. 287-288

[3] “Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement”, CW, Vol. 9, Pp. 236-237

[4] Boris Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917, Oxford, 1984, p. 288

[5] Quoted in “Paul Le Blanc: Re-Arming the Party: Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolution in 1917” from F. F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, London, 1972, pp 76-77)

[6] Quoted by Paul Le Blanc, op. cit, from My Life as a Rebel by Angelica Balabanoff, Bloomington, pp. 143-144)
[7] Quoted a Sexually Emancipated Communist by Le Blanc, Ibid. from The Autobiography of Woman, (New York, 1975, pp. 27, 31)

[8] Quoted by Le Blanc, op. cit., from A. F. Ilyin Genevsky, From the February to the October Revolution 1917, New York, 1970, p. 27)

[9] N.K. Krupsaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, New York, 1960, pp. 348-349

[10] Molotov Remembers, Chicago, 1993, pp. 93-94

[11] Quoted in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 1, Middlesex, 1984, pp. 87-88), p.87         

[12] Ibid. p. 93
[13] Ibid., p. 93  

[14] Zinoviev Internet Archive

[15] Quoted in The Lessons of October by Leon Trotsky, which appears as part of a larger volume of Trotsky’s writings, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), New York, 1975, pp. 218-219.

Jim Creegan can be reached at

Jim Creegan

New York,

17 December, 2018

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