We have before us a leaflet on our programme and tactics entitled: The Tasks Confronting the Russian Proletariat – A Letter to Comrades in Russia. This document is signed by P. Axelrod, Astrov, A. Martynov, L. Martov and S. Semkovsky.
The problem of the revolution is outlined in this ‘letter’ in very general fashion, clarity and precision disappearing in proportion as the authors turn from describing the situation created by the war to the political prospects and tactical conclusions; the very terminology becomes diffuse and the social definitions ambiguous.
Two moods seem from abroad to prevail in Russia: in the first place, concern for national defence – from the Romanovs to Plekhanov – and secondly, universal discontent – from the oppositional bureaucratic Fronde to the outbreaks of street rioting. These two pervading moods also create an illusion of a future popular freedom which is to arise out of the cause of national defence. But these two moods are in large measure responsible for the indefiniteness with which the question of ‘popular revolution’ is presented, even when it is formally counterposed to ‘national defence’.
The war itself, with its defeats, has not created the revolutionary problem nor any revolutionary forces for its solution. History for us does not commence with the surrender of Warsaw to the Prince of Bavaria. Both the revolutionary contradictions and the social forces are the same as those which we first encountered in 1905, only very considerably modified by the ensuing ten years. The war has merely revealed in a mechanically graphic way the objective bankruptcy of the regime. At the same time it has brought confusion into the social consciousness, in which ‘everybody’ seems infected with the desire to resist Hindenburg as well as with hatred towards the regime of 3rd June. But as the organization of a ‘people’s war’ from the very first moment comes up against the Tsarist police, thereby revealing that the Russia of 3rd June is a fact, and that a ‘people’s war’ is a fiction, so the approach to a ‘people’s revolution’ at the very threshold comes up against the socialist police of Plekhanov, whom, together with his entire suite, one might regard as a fiction if behind him there did not stand Kerensky, Milyukov, Guchkov and in general the non-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary national-democrats and national-liberals.
The ‘letter’ cannot of course ignore the class division of the nation, or that the nation must by means of revolution save itself from the consequences of the war and the present regime. ‘The nationalists and Octobrists, the progressists, the Cadets, the industrialists and even part (!) of the radical intelligentsia proclaim with one voice the inability of the bureaucracy to defend the country and demand the mobilization of social forces for the cause of defence ...’ The letter draws the correct conclusion regarding the anti-revolutionary character of this position, which assumes ‘unity with the present rulers of Russia, with the bureaucrats, nobles and generals, in the cause of defence of the State’. The letter also correctly points out the anti-revolutionary position of ‘bourgeois patriots of all shades’; and we may add, of the social-patriots, of whom the letter makes no mention at all.
From this we must draw the conclusion that the Social-Democrats are not merely the most logical revolutionary party but that they are the only revolutionary party in the country; that, side by side with them, there are not only groups which are less resolute in the application of revolutionary methods, but also non-revolutionary parties. In other words, that the Social- Democratic Party, in its revolutionary way of presenting problems, is quite isolated in the open political arena, in spite of the ‘universal discontent’. This first conclusion must be very carefully taken into account.
Of course, parties are not classes. Between the position of a party and the interests of the social stratum upon which it rests, there may be a certain lack of harmony which later on may become converted into a profound contradiction. The conduct of a party may change under the influence of the temper of the masses. This is indisputable. All the more reason therefore for us, in our calculations, to cease relying on less stable and less trustworthy elements such as the slogans and tactics of a party, and to refer to more stable historical factors: to the social structure of the nation, to the relation of class forces and the tendencies of development.
Yet the authors of the ‘letter’ completely avoid these questions. What is this ‘people’s revolution’ in the Russia of 1915? Our authors simply tell us that it ‘must’ be made by the proletariat and the democracy. We know what the proletariat is, but what is ‘the democracy’? Is it a political party? From what has been said above, evidently not. Is it then the masses? What masses? Evidently it is the petty industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and the peasantry – it can only be of these that they are speaking.
In a series of articles entitled ‘The War Crisis and Political Prospects’ we have given a general estimation of the possible revolutionary significance of these social forces. Basing ourselves on the experience of the last revolution, we inquired into the changes which the last ten years have brought about in the relation of forces that obtained in 1905: have these been in favour of democracy (the bourgeoisie) or against it? This is the central historical question in judging the prospects of the revolution and the tactics of the proletariat. Has bourgeois democracy in Russia become stronger since 1905, or has it still further declined? All our former discussions centred round the question of the fate of bourgeois democracy, and those who are still unable to give a reply to this question are groping in the dark. We reply to this question by saying that a national bourgeois revolution is impossible in Russia because there is no genuinely revolutionary bourgeois democracy. The time for national revolutions has passed – at least for Europe – just as the time for national wars has passed. Between the one and the other there is an inherent connection. We are living in an epoch of imperialism which is not merely a system of colonial conquests but implies also a definite regime at home. It does not set the bourgeois nation in opposition to the old regime, but sets the proletariat in opposition to the bourgeois nation.
The petty-bourgeois artisans and traders already played an insignificant role in the revolution of 1905. There is no question that the social importance of this class has declined still further during the last ten years. Capitalism in Russia deals much more radically and severely with the intermediate classes than it does in the countries with an older economic development. The intelligentsia has undoubtedly grown numerically, and its economic role also has increased. But at the same time even its former illusory ‘independence’ has entirely disappeared. The social significance of the intelligentsia is wholly determined by its functions in organizing capitalist industry and bourgeois public opinion. Its material connection with capitalism has saturated it with imperialist tendencies. As already quoted, the ‘letter’ says, ‘even part of the radical intelligentsia ... demands the mobilization of social forces for the cause of defence’. This is absolutely untrue; not a part, but the whole of the radical intelligentsia; in fact, one should say, not only the whole radical section, but a considerable, if not the greater part of the socialist intelligentsia. We shall hardly increase the ranks of ‘democracy’ by painting-up the character of the intelligentsia.
Thus the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie has declined still further while the intelligentsia have abandoned their revolutionary position. Urban democracy as a revolutionary factor is not worth mentioning. Only the peasantry remains, but as far as we know, neither Axelrod nor Martov ever set great hopes upon its independent revolutionary role. Have they come to the conclusion that the unceasing class differentiation among the peasantry during the last ten years has increased this role? Such a supposition would be flying in the face of all theoretical conclusions and all historical experience.
But in that case, what kind of ‘democracy’ does the letter mean? And in what sense do they speak of ‘people’s revolution’?
The slogan of a constituent assembly presupposes a revolutionary situation. Is there one? Yes, there is, but it is not in the least expressed in the supposed birth, at last, of a bourgeois democracy which is alleged to be now ready and able to settle accounts with Tsarism. On the contrary, if there is anything that this war has revealed quite clearly, it is the absence of a revolutionary democracy in the country.
The attempt of the Russia of 3rd June to solve the internal revolutionary problems by the path of imperialism has resulted in an obvious fiasco. This does not mean that the responsible or semi-responsible parties of the 3rd June regime will take the path of revolution, but it does mean that the revolutionary problem laid bare by the military catastrophe, which will drive the ruling class still further along the path of imperialism, doubles the importance of the only revolutionary class in the country.
The bloc of 3rd June is shaken, rent by internal friction and conflict. This does not mean that the Octobrists and Cadets are considering the revolutionary problem of power and preparing to storm the positions of the bureaucracy and the united nobility. But it does mean that the government’s power to resist revolutionary pressure undoubtedly has been weakened for a certain period.
The monarchy and the bureaucracy are discredited, but this does not mean that they will give up power without a fight. The dispersal of the Duma and the latest ministerial changes showed whoever needed showing how far from the facts this supposition is. But the policy of bureaucratic instability, which will develop still further, should greatly assist the revolutionary mobilization of the proletariat by the Social Democrats.
The lower classes of the towns and villages will become more and more exhausted, deceived, dissatisfied and enraged. This does not mean that an independent force of revolutionary democracy will operate side by side with the proletariat. For such a force there is neither social material nor leading personnel; but it undoubtedly does mean that the deep dissatisfaction of the lower classes will assist the revolutionary pressure of the working class.
The less the proletariat waits upon the appearance of bourgeois democracy, the less it adapts itself to the passivity and limitations of the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry, the more resolute and irreconcilable its fight becomes, the more obvious becomes its preparedness to go to ‘the end’, i.e., to the conquest of power, the greater will be its chances at the decisive moment of carrying with it the non-proletarian masses. Nothing, of course, will be accomplished by merely putting forward mere slogans such as ‘for the confiscation of land’, etc. This to a still greater extent applies to the army, by which the government stands or falls. The mass of the army will only incline towards the revolutionary class when it becomes convinced that it is not merely grumbling and demonstrating, but is fighting for power and has some chances of winning it. There is an objective revolutionary problem in the country – the problem of political power – which has been glaringly revealed by the war and the defeats. There is a progressive disorganization of the ruling class. There is a growing dissatisfaction among the urban and rural masses. But the only revolutionary factor which can take advantage of this situation is the proletariat – now to an incomparably greater degree than in 1905.
The ‘letter’ would appear, in one phrase, to approach this central point of the question. It says that the Russian Social-Democratic workers should take ‘the lead in this national struggle for the overthrow of the monarchy of 3rd June’. What ‘national’ struggle may mean we have just indicated. But if ‘take the lead’ does not merely mean that the advanced workers should magnanimously shed their blood without asking themselves for what purpose, but means that the workers must take the political leadership of the whole struggle, which above all will be a proletarian struggle, then it is clear that victory in this struggle must transfer power to the class that has led the struggle, i.e, the Social-Democratic proletariat.
The question, therefore, is not simply one of a ‘revolutionary provisional government’ – an empty phrase to which the historical process will have to give some kind of content, but of a revolutionary workers’ government, the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat. The demands for a national constituent assembly, a republic, an eight-hour day, the confiscation of the land of the landlords, together with the demands for 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 role of the Social Democrats. But revolution is first and foremost a question of power – not of the state form (constituent assembly, republic, united states) but of the social content of the government. The demands for a constituent assembly and the confiscation of land under present conditions lose all direct revolutionary significance without the readiness of the proletariat to fight for the conquest of power; for if the proletariat does not tear power out of the hands of the monarchy nobody else will do so.
The tempo of the revolutionary process is a special question. It depends upon a number of military and political, national and international factors. These factors may retard or hasten developments, facilitate the revolutionary victory or lead to another defeat. But whatever the conditions may be the proletariat must clearly see its path and take it consciously. Above everything else it must be free from illusions. And the worst illusion in all its history from which the proletariat has up till now suffered has always been reliance upon others.
1. From Nashe Slovo (Paris), October 17, 1915. – L.T.
Last updated on: 3.3.2007