Tony Cliff

Lenin’s Central Committee

(January 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 75, pp. 28–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THESE MINUTES of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party [1] were written by Elena Stasova, who was then a Candidate Member of the Committee and its Secretary. They cover the period from the “July Days” of 1917, which found the Bolsheviks in semi-illegality, through to the October insurrection and the first crises of the young Soviet power: the decision to sign the peace treaty imposed by the Germans and Austrians at Brest Litovsk. The minutes were written in the course of the rneetings. There were no stenographers to take down the speeches of the. members of the Central Committee so that notes are very rough. Being handwritten, sometimes with pencil, the deciphering sometimes left a lot to be desired.

Many Central Committee resolutions were largely technical, especially at the beginning of the book. They do not give us the political background or explain the general line of the Party. For example, the Kornilov coup is not mentioned at all although the period covered it. In later parts of the book – during the preparation for October and after – the text is much more comprehensive, the political discussions far better elaborated.

The minutes have the value and limitation of photography. They have a character of immediacy but a price has to be paid for it. The picture given is not all-sided. It was not intended for the eyes of posterity.

The minutes blow sky-high the myth accepted by Lenin’s epigones as well as by many opponents of Bolshevism that the party leadership was a homogeneous, omnipotent or even omniscient band of supermen. It is clear that at every turn of events-on the eve of the uprising, immediately afterwards with the need to consolidate power and later with the dire need to sign peace forced by German imperialism – the Bolshevik leadership was split radically. An important section of it was paralysed with fatalistic inertia and for a time at least only a minority led by Lenin, who towers above the Central Committee, faced up to the new tasks.

Every party, even the most revolutionary, creates its own conservatism. Without it no stability is possible. In a revolutionary party inertia is tempered with initiative and daring. These qualities are put to the severest test during turning points in history. Lenin again and again referred to the fact that even the most revolutionary party, at a time of abrupt changes in the situation, when new tasks arise, frequently pursues the political line of yesterday and thus threatens to become a brake upon revolutionary development. The greatest turning points in history are connected of course, with the act of revolution and the consolidation of power. Every sharp turn in history inevitably causes an inner crisis in the party and in this book we are witness to three of these.

To mark time, to procrastinate on the eve of insurrection, must have the most catastrophic consequences. The time factor is a thousand times more important at the revolution than in “normal” historical development. If the situation allows an uprising today, it does not mean at all That it will allow it a week later. If Lenin had not sounded the alarm and threatened to mobilise the rank and fi1e against the conservative elements in the Central. Committee, the vital opportunity would have been lost.

Both conservatism and revolutionary initiative found their most concentrated expression in the Central Committee of the Party. The main represcntatives of conservatism were the two comrades most closely connected with Lenin in the leadership for long years – Zinoviev and Kamenev. Lenin had to threaten them with expulsion from the party, calling them scabs – for opposing openly, in a non-Bolshevik paper, the Central Committee decision to take steps towards the insurrection (and we must not forget that Zinoviev was for many years abroad with Lenin and acted as his closest comrade in arms).

It needed Lenin’s exceptional influence in the party to overcome the routinism of the Central Committee. The letters of Lenin published in this volume on the eve of insurrection are full of angry protests, against conservatism in the Central Committee.

The vacillation in the leadership did not stop after October. A few days later a number of Peoples Commissars resigned from the Government and a number of members of the Central Committee resigned as Lenin, Trotsky and the other “hards” refused to undo the result of the revolution by getting into a coalition government with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries!

With the threat of German imperialism Learn found himself again in a minority but this time on the right. He was for retreating in the face of the superior power of the German army, while the majority of the Central Committee were now intransigent and uncompromising. Again the minutes show how throughout the agonising weeks Lenin and practically he alone constantly fought and at last won the only tenable position.

Another kind of split in the leadership that is only hinted at in the present minutes, although a number of times (Minutes Nos. 1, 2 and 7) reflected a very serious split in the “July Days” between the Central Committee as a whole and the Bolshevik leadership in the Army. While Lenin in Pravda called during July – when 400,000 workers and soldiers were demonstrating in a very angry mood in the streets of Perograd against the Provisional Government – on the workers and soldiers to avoid direct confrontations with the government because the Bolsheviks did not, as he put it, have enough mass support, Soldatskaya Pravda, the daily of the Military Organisation of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, fanned the flames of discontent and called for an immediate transfer of power from the Kerensky Government to the Soviets!

However, reading carefully the minutes one would be prevented from falling into icon worship of Lenin. The volume certainly prevents hagiography. Right as he was on the central strategic issues, Lenin was wrong and quite seriously wrong on the tactical issue of the insurrection. Take the most important question, the location of the insurrection itself. As Lenin was in his underground refuge, he was unable to estimate realistically a number of important factors in the mood of the mass of the workers and soldiers. From his letters it is clear that he wanted the insurrection to start in Moscow, not in Petrograd. He assumed that the Bolsheviks could gain a practically bloodless victory in Moscow. History proved him to be wrong. Actually, in Moscow the struggle was much longer and much more bloody than in Petrograd. If the insurrection had started in Moscow, as Lenin suggested, it would have been much more difficult to win. The actual organisation of the October insurrection was the work of. Trotsky.

The Minutes throw also clear light on the question whether there was bureaucracy and red tape in the Bolshevik Patty and they make it clear that there must have been no party in history with so little of an internal apparatus and that suffered so little from the dead hand of red tape. The Bolshevik administrative centre was most primitive. The party had a penny-halfpenny machine headed by its Secretary, Ya.M. Sverdlov. As Trotsky put it: “The main part of the equipment of the Central Committee was carried by Sverdlov in his side pocket”. (L. Trotsky, History of tbe Russian Revolution).

The Bolshevik high command was leading a highly centralised organisation with hardly any cumbersome organisational structure. It was a very operational and efficient leadership. The minutes themselves give much evidence of this. They are written for purely operational purposes. They were not, of course, sent to party bodies. They served as reminders for the high command of the party. The reporting to the centre from the branches was also kept to the minimum and the information at the centre was therefore quite often far, from exact. Thus we find that Sverdlov didn’t know the size of the party lit administered. Thus in his report to the Central Committee on 16 October he says that the party membership at present was “at least 400,000” (Minute No. 22). Actually, it was less than 270,000!

How did Sverdlov administer the party? Very simply: he knew a couple of dozen of the key party workers and was in direct touch with them and this is how centralism worked. Thus the minutes record that four members of the Central Committee were instructed to direct the Moscow Region; one member to direct the Urals; one member to direct the Donetz Basin; two to direct the Caucasus; one to direct Finland (Minute No. 2).

The material resources of the party were minimal. Thus on the eve of the October revolution the circulation of the party daily paper, Rabochi, directed at civilians was only 50,000 and the paper directed at the soldiers, Soldat, was 15–18,000 (Minute No. 12). At that time a thousand roubles was a gigantic sum (10 roubles = £1) and thus we are informed that shortly before the uprising, Sverdlov asked for 2,500–3,000 roubles. He needed them for activity in the whole of the province of Petrograd but he was allowed only 1,000 roubles (Minute No. 23). In spite of the spartan regime of economy ruling in the party, it was always in dire need.

How different is this structure from the highly bureaucratic structure of trade unions, Social Democratic parties and even more so, Stalinist parties!

The minutes make it clear that one of the factors making for the smooth working of the party leadership was the complete solidarity of Sverdlov with all the strategic and tactical positions of Lenin. The secretary was very much subordinating his working to the political leadership headed by Lenin (it was only after the rise of Stalin as General Secretary that the administration of cadres became a dominant position in the party structure and General Secretaries the world over became the top leaders of the Communist parties).

This book is important not only for the specialist historians but to anybody interested in the October revolution and especially to those who wish to participate in future Octobers.



1. The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution, Central Committee Minutes of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks), Pluto Press, £2:70 paperback.


Last updated on 3 February 2017