Lenin prepares the Bolsheviks

Todd Chretien describes how Lenin and the Bolshevik Party changed course after the Tsar was toppled to call for a second revolution in Russia in 1917.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

THE FEBRUARY Revolution in 1917 toppled the Romanov dynasty and replaced it with two competing governments.

The first, the Provisional Government, was an ad hoc formation peopled with large landowners and wealthy capitalists. Prince Lvov, a member of the aristocracy with a certain humanitarian reputation, assumed the title of president, while Alexander Kerensky, a radical lawyer and member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, became the Minister of Justice, lending an air of "radicalism" to the government.

Lvov commanded the allegiance of the military brass, the ruling classes, large sections of the intelligentsia and the more conservative layers of the working class and peasantry.

On the other hand, the Soviet (which means "council" in Russian) of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants represented all categories of urban workers, the soldiers from the trenches and a wide swath of the peasantry.

While the Provisional Government rested on the legal authority of the Tsar's advisory (i.e. powerless) legislature, elected with very limited suffrage, delegates to the soviets were elected directly and immediately recallable.

Although this wasn't apparent to everyone involved, these two forms of government were inherently incompatible--because of the extreme contradictions between the needs of the ruling classes for profit and war, and the desires of the oppressed classes for land, bread and peace.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was largely fought out over the question of which half of this "dual power" would replace the other, and the attitudes of the various political parties towards this confrontation.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE CONSERVATIVE and liberal parties that dominated the Provisional Government realized that the soviets were too powerful to simply wish out of existence. And military repression, which the Czar had used during the 1905 revolution to destroy the soviets, was not possible because so many soldiers looked to the workers' councils as their legitimately elected government.

Thus, they bided their time, hoping the revolutionary wave would roll back and present them with an opportunity to co-opt or repress the soviets. Meanwhile, they did their best to continue Russia's participation in the First World War, defend the landlords and curtail the power of the industrial workers' movement.

The Socialist Revolutionaries (SR)--a broad party representing well-to-do peasants, professionals, students and workers, low-ranking military officers, and especially the bulk of the conscripted peasant soldiers--was deeply divided.

On the one hand, Kerensky had joined the Provisional Government, and he was soon followed by other SR leaders. On the other, the SRs held a majority in the soviets immediately after their formation.

The SRs hoped the Provisional Government would eventually end the war, which they would "critically support" until this point--and enact some sort of land reform, as well as guarantee universal suffrage and democratic elections.

The Mensheviks (the more moderate wing of the Russian socialist movement) refused to join the Provisional Government at first, and were very heavily represented in the soviets, especially the workers' soviets.

They, too, had a range of opinions about the dual power--from a hope that the two institutions could function as some sort of united government with upper and lower houses, to a more radical wing that hoped the soviets could force the Provisional Government to end the war and deliver meaningful reforms.

Some Mensheviks supported continuing the war "defensively," and others were for an immediate end. They all supported reforms such as the eight-hour day, but believed the bourgeoisie must naturally rule Russia, while the working class would remain a radical (or loyal) opposition.

The Bolsheviks (the radical wing of the Russian socialist movement) were also divided.

Some leaders, like Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, and many rank-and-file members had a similar attitude towards the Provisional Government as the left wing of the Mensheviks.

That is, they didn't trust the Provisional Government to end the war or enact reforms, saw it as a representative of the ruling classes and were absolutely opposed to becoming members of it.

However, they did not argue for the soviets to take over. In the Bolsheviks' newspaper, Stalin and Kamenev went so far as to state that the Bolsheviks would "defend" Russia in the war against Germany. Many others among the 25,000 members of the Bolshevik Party saw this acquiescence to the authority of Prince Lvov's government as a betrayal.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE BOLSHEVIK leader Lenin returned to Russia from exile on April 3 and immediately presented a radical new policy to the divided Bolshevik Party.

He put forward his theses to a small gathering of leading members of the Bolshevik and Menshevik Parties on April 4, and they were subsequently printed in the newspaper Pravda. These are excerpts of the main points:

-- [T]he war...under the new government of Lvov and Co. unquestionably remains on Russia's part a predatory imperialist war owing to the capitalist nature of that government...[W]ithout overthrowing capital, it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace, a peace not imposed by violence.

-- [T]he country is passing from the first stage of the revolution--which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organization of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie --to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.

-- No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear.

-- Recognition of the fact that in most of the Soviets of Workers Deputies, our party is in a minority...The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is...to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.

Lenin's "April Theses" were attacked by all the Conservative and Liberal parties. But the hostility with which the SRs and Mensheviks greeted them exposed the gulf between Lenin's view of a socialist revolution based on the self-emancipation of workers and poor peasants, and the other socialist parties' vision of a democratic capitalism based on shared power between the landlords and peasants, the officers and soldiers, and the bosses and workers.

Even most Bolshevik Party leaders hesitated to accept Lenin's ideas. Yet within a few weeks, Lenin's policies had won over the Bolsheviks from top to bottom.

Historians often attribute this rapid about-face to Lenin's supposed dictatorial control over the party. The truth is that Lenin laid out his ideas in the party press, and then argued for them at a series of meetings and finally a delegated party congress in late April.

The fact that the Bolshevik Party changed its line owed much to Lenin's prestige, to be sure; however, it owed much more to the Provisional Government's treacherous policies and the genuine revolutionary beliefs of the vast majority of the Bolshevik leadership and rank and file.

The enthusiasm for Lenin's new tactics also demonstrated the depth of the Bolsheviks' roots among soldiers and workers. Perhaps some party leaders could imagine that things could be sorted out amicably between the Provisional Government and the soviets, but for the soldiers, ending the war was, literally, a question of life and death.

And for the workers, massive wage cuts, military discipline in the factories, and the total lack of union rights were issues that could not be left to a future date.

Thus, by late April, the Bolsheviks ended their initial hesitations, and stood out clearly as the one serious political party with a plan for the basic demands that motivated the February Revolution--Land, Bread and Peace.

As Lenin expected, this radical departure earned the Bolsheviks a great many enemies among the other radical parties, and made them susceptible, in the minds of many workers and soldiers who were just awakening to political life, to charges that they were "reckless."

However, as the war dragged on, the economy deteriorated and the crisis in the countryside escalated, overthrowing the ruling class, which was responsible for the mess, became a plausible solution.

Far from narrowing the Bolshevik membership, "patiently explaining" the party's avowedly revolutionary plans began to attract more and more workers and soldiers. By May, the Bolsheviks' membership had grown to over 100,000, while the other radical parties stagnated, or began to decompose and split among themselves.

This article first appeared in the April 13, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.