Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 10
The Argument for a Revolutionary Provisional Government

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on the Nature of Government Born out of Revolution

THE MENSHEVIKS, trailing behind the liberal bourgeoisie, saw the goal of the revolution as a victory of the bourgeoisie at the head of a revolutionary government. Their conference of April-May 1905, meeting in Geneva, passed a resolution On Conquering Power and on Participating in the Provisional Government, which declared that as the revolution was a bourgeois one, its outcome would be a provisional government that would be obliged

not only to further the development of the revolution but also to combat those of its factors that threaten the foundations of the capitalist system.

This being so, Social Democracy must endeavour to preserve throughout the revolution a position that will best enable it to further the revolution, that will not hamstring it in combating the inconsistent and selfish policies of the bourgeois parties, and that will keep it from dissolving in bourgeois democracy. Therefore Social Democracy must not aim at seizing or sharing power in the provisional government but must remain the party of the extreme revolutionary opposition.

Following this logic to its conclusion, a conference of Mensheviks in the Caucasus stated:

The Conference believes that the formation of a provisional government by Social Democrats, or their entering such a government would lead, on the one hand, to the masses of the proletariat becoming disappointed in the Social Democratic Party and abandoning it, because the Social Democrats, despite the seizure of power, would not be able to satisfy the pressing needs of the working class, including the establishment of socialism ... and, on the other hand, would cause the bourgeois classes to recoil from the revolution and thus diminish its sweep. [1]

Against this, Lenin argued that one cannot make a revolution if one does not aim at taking state power.

To accomplish the minimum program of Social Democracy, a revolutionary dictatorship was necessary. In his pamphlet Social Democracy and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (written in March-April 1905), Lenin argued that

rejecting the idea of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship in the period of the autocracy’s downfall is tantamount to renouncing the fulfilment of our minimum program. Indeed, let us but consider all the economic and political transformations formulated in that program – the demand for the republic, for arming the people, for the separation of the church from the state, for full democratic liberties, and for decisive economic reforms. Is it not clear that these transformations cannot possibly be brought about in a bourgeois society without the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the lower classes? [2]

He further developed the same idea in his book Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (June-July 1905):

the only force capable of gaining “a decisive victory over Tsarism” is the people, i.e., the proletariat and the peasantry ... “The revolution’s decisive victory over Tsarism” means the establishment of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.

This was the aim of the revolution. He continued:

And such a victory will be precisely a dictatorship, i.e., it must inevitably rely on military force, on the arming of the masses, on an insurrection, and not on institutions of one kind or another established in a “lawful” or “peaceful” way. It can only be a dictatorship, for realisation of the changes urgently and absolutely indispensable to the proletariat and the peasantry will evoke desperate resistance from the landlords, the big bourgeoisie, and Tsarism. Without a dictatorship, it is impossible to break down that resistance and repel counterrevolutionary attempts. [3]

To the argument of the Geneva conference quoted above, Lenin replied:

Just imagine; these people will not enter a provisional government because that would cause the bourgeoisie to recoil from the revolution, thereby diminishing the sweep of the revolution! Here, indeed, we have the new-Iskra philosophy as a whole, in a pure and consistent form: since the revolution is a bourgeois revolution, we must bow to bourgeois philistinism and make way for it. If we are even in part, even for a moment, guided by the consideration that our participation may cause the bourgeoisie to recoil, we thereby simply hand over leadership of the revolution entirely under the tutelage of the bourgeoisie (while retaining complete “freedom of criticism”!) compelling the proletariat to be moderate and meek, so that the bourgeoisie should not recoil. [4]



Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Agreement on the Bourgeois Nature of the Revolution

The Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks disagreed about the nature of the government that would and should come out of the revolution. The Bolsheviks called for a democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants, while the Mensheviks hoped for a bourgeois government. But on one point both wings of Russian Social Democracy agreed: that the coming revolution would be a bourgeois revolution. By this was meant a revolution resulting from a conflict between the productive forces of capitalism on the one hand, and the autocracy, landlords, and other relics of feudalism on the other.

That this was the view of the Mensheviks needs no repetition. But that Lenin at the time held the same opinion, and that he held to it for many years afterwards, needs some demonstration, especially in the light of the actual victory of the October Revolution, which went far beyond the limits of a bourgeois revolution.

Thus Lenin wrote about the future Russian Revolution in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution:

At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in rural but also in factory life, lay the foundation for a thorough improvement in the conditions of the workers and for a rise in their standard of living, and – last but not least – carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution; the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relationships. [5]

Again, “this democratic revolution in Russia will not weaken but strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie.” [6]

In view of Russia’s backwardness and the smallness of her working class he rejected

the absurd and semi-anarchist ideas of giving immediate effect to the maximum program, and the conquest of power for a socialist revolution. The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class-consciousness and organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible. Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place ... Whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy, will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense. [7]

Further, “we Marxists should know that there is not, nor can there be, any other path to real freedom for the proletariat and the peasantry, than the path of bourgeois freedom and bourgeois progress.” [8]

In the same book, Lenin makes it clear that the program of the revolution should be limited to reform within the framework of capitalism:

a programme of action that will conform with the objective conditions of the present period and with the aims of proletarian democracy. This program is the entire minimum program of our party, the program of the immediate political and economic reforms which ... can be fully realised on the basis of the existing social and economic relationships. [9]

Lenin did not change this opinion until after the revolution of February 1917. In The War and Russian Social Democracy (September 1914), for example, he was still writing that the Russian Revolution must limit itself to “the three fundamental conditions for consistent democratic reform, viz., a democratic republic (with complete equality and self determination for all nations), confiscation of the landed estates, and an eight-hour working day.” [10]

It is clear, moreover, from all Lenin’s writings up to 1917 that he anticipated that a whole period would elapse between the coming bourgeois revolution and the proletarian, socialist revolution. His treatment of the agrarian problem, as we shall see in Chapter 11, illustrates this point. Nationalisation of the land, he insisted, was not a socialist, but a capitalist demand, albeit one that, in clearing the way for capitalist development, would lead to a rapid increase in the number of proletarians and a sharpening of the class struggle. It would make possible the “American path of capitalist development” – that is, development unfettered by any remnants of feudalism. The abolition of private property in land was the maximum of what can be done in bourgeois society for the removal of all obstacles to the free investment of capital in land and to the free flow of capital from one branch of production to another. “Nationalisation makes it possible to tear down all the fences of land ownership to the utmost degree and to ‘clear’ all the land for the new system of economy suitable to the requirements of capitalism.” [11]

Clearly, if Lenin had foreseen that the bourgeois revolution would develop into the socialist revolution, there would have been no reason for him to emphasise such arguments as these for nationalisation of the land.




Trotsky, like Lenin, was convinced that the liberal bourgeoisie could not carry out any revolutionary task consistently, and above all that the agrarian revolution, a fundamental element in the bourgeois revolution, could be carried out only by an alliance of the working class and the peasantry. “The agrarian problem in Russia is a heavy burden to capitalism: it is an aid to the revolutionary party and at the same time its greatest challenge: it is the stumbling block for liberalism, and a memento mori for counterrevolution.” [12] But he differed fundamentally from Lenin in his view of the nature of the coming Russian revolution.

In all the revolutions since the German Reformation, the peasants had supported one faction or another of the bourgeoisie, but in Russia the strength of the working class and the conservatism of the bourgeoisie would force the peasantry to support the revolutionary proletariat. Although, in the revolution against the tsar and the great landowners, an alliance would be forged between the workers and the majority of the peasants, the subsequent government would not be a coalition of two independent forces, but would be led by the proletariat. In no uncertain terms, Trotsky argued that the revolution could not therefore confine itself to the carrying out of bourgeois democratic tasks, but must proceed immediately to carry out proletarian socialist measures:

The proletariat grows and becomes stronger, with the growth of capitalism. In this sense the development of capitalism is also the development of the proletariat towards dictatorship. But the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and, finally, upon a number of subjective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers ... To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is in some way automatically dependent on the technical development and resources of a country is a prejudice of “economic” materialism simplified to absurdity. This point of view has nothing in common with Marxism.

In our view, the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers – and in the event of the victory of the revolution it must do so – before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get the chance to display to the full their talent for governing. [13]

In the event of a decisive victory of the revolution, power will pass into the hands of that class which plays a leading role in the struggle – in other words, into the hands of the proletariat. [14]

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasant as the class which has emancipated it. [15]

But is it not possible that the peasantry may push the proletariat aside and take its place? That is impossible. All historical experience protests against this assumption. Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role. The history of capitalism is the history of the subordination of the country to the town. [16]

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie ... The barrier between the “minimum” and the “maximum” program disappears immediately the proletariat comes to power. [17]

There was another important element in Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, namely the international character of the coming Russian revolution. He believed that it would begin on a national scale, but could be completed only by the victory of the revolution in the more developed countries:

But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty – that it will come up against political obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct state support of the European proletariat, the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship. Of this there cannot for one moment be any doubt. But on the other hand there cannot be any doubt that a socialist revolution in the West will enable us directly to convert the temporary domination of the working class into a socialist dictatorship. [18] [1*]

There is no doubt that Trotsky’s perspective on the Russian Revolution was proved in 1917 to be absolutely correct. He was proved right in relation not only to the Mensheviks, but also to Lenin’s 1905–16 perspectives for a democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants. However, despite his clear vision of future developments, Trotsky badly misjudged the concrete prospects for the development of Bolshevism versus Menshevism. From an abstract standpoint, the Bolsheviks, claiming the Russian Revolution to be a bourgeois revolution, were no less in error than the Mensheviks. Both were bound, in Trotsky’s view, to become obstacles in the path of the revolutionary. Thus he wrote in 1909, in an article entitled Our Differences, published in Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish Marxist journal Przeglad social-demokratyczny:

Whereas the Mensheviks, proceeding from the abstract notion that “our revolution is a bourgeois revolution,” arrive at the idea that the proletariat must adapt all its tactics to the behavior of the liberal bourgeoisie in order to ensure the transfer of state power to that bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks proceed from an equally abstract notion – “democratic dictatorship, not socialist dictatorship” – and arrive at the idea of a proletariat in possession of state power imposing a bourgeois-democratic limitation upon itself. It is true that the difference between them in this matter is very considerable; while the anti-revolutionary aspects of Menshevism have already become fully apparent, those of Bolshevism are likely to become a serious threat only in the event of victory. [20]

But Trotsky misjudged Lenin, whose 1905 perspective, as described above, included not only the limitation of the coming revolution to the bourgeois democratic tasks, but also its inner dynamic of independent working-class action. And when it came to the test in 1917, Bolshevism, after an internal struggle, overcame its bourgeois democratic crust. Lenin discovered that a revolutionary army with a limited program can overcome the limits of the program, so long as it is authentically revolutionary, independent, and hegemonic in the struggle. On s’engage, et puis ... on voit.

In Lenin’s position regarding the prospects of the Russian Revolution, there was a contradiction between the bourgeois democratic tasks of the revolution and its proletarian leadership. The first element does not differentiate between Bolshevism and Menshevism, while the latter does so in a fundamental way.

The Bolsheviks claimed for the proletariat the role of leader in the democratic revolution. The Mensheviks reduced its role to that of an “extreme opposition.” The Bolsheviks gave a positive definition of the class character and class significance of the revolution, maintaining that a victorious revolution implied a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” The Mensheviks always interpreted the bourgeois revolution so incorrectly as to result in their acceptance of a position in which the role of the proletariat would be subordinate to and dependent on the bourgeoisie. [21]

Social Democrats ... rely wholly and exclusively on the activity, the class-consciousness and the organisation of the proletariat, on its influence among the labouring and exploited masses. [22]

From the proletarian point of view hegemony in a war goes to him who fights most energetically, who never misses a chance to strike a blow at the enemy, who always suits the action to the word, who is therefore the ideological leader of the democratic forces, who criticises halfway policies of every kind. [23]

From the independence and hegemony of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution it is only one step to Lenin’s proposition that, in the process of the revolution, the proletariat may overstep bourgeois democratic limitations: “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 halfway.” [24]

In short, Lenin poses two different answers to the question what happens after the victory of the revolution? The first, to be found mainly in Two Tactics and in his writings between 1905 and 1907, is that there will be a period of capitalist development. The second can be summed up as: Let us take power, and then we shall see.

Trotsky misjudged Lenin’s stand because he did not grasp it dialectically. One must take into account the dynamic forces that Lenin was relying on and shaping: the proletariat’s fight against Tsarism and against its accomplices, the liberal bourgeoisie; the proletariat’s struggle as the spearhead of the peasantry; the proletariat leading an armed insurrection; the Marxist party fighting for the conquest of power; and so on. In this algebra of revolution, the real value of the unknown or doubtful element in Lenin’s equation – how far the revolution would go beyond the minimum program – would be decided largely by the dynamic of the struggle itself.

Above all, Trotsky’s genius for graphic abstract generalisation misled him. He failed to judge the merits of Bolshevism in terms not only of the different programs, but also of the people, collected, organised, and trained, behind the programs. So one finds that in the whole of his book on the history of the 1905 Revolution, he does not once mention the Bolsheviks or Lenin. Much later he admitted:

Having stood outside both of the two factions in the period of emigration, the author did not fully appreciate the very important circumstance that in reality, along the line of the disagreement between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there were being grouped inflexible revolutionaries on the one side and, on the other, elements which were becoming more and more opportunist and accommodating. [25]

One must remember that, to add to the misunderstandings between Trotsky and Lenin, Lenin himself probably did not read Results and Prospects before 1919. The first edition of 1906 was confiscated by the police. It is true that he referred to the work a couple of times, but the fact that he never quoted it – and his habit was to quote and requote in his polemics – leads one to believe that his first reading was of the second edition.

In conclusion, we may say that Lenin’s abstract, algebraic formula of the democratic dictatorship was translated in life into the language of arithmetic and that the conclusions drawn were the result of the sum total of the activity of the Bolshevik Party leading the working class.




1*. This aspect of Trotsky’s theory was a development of Marx’s analysis of the German Revolution of 1848. Even before that revolution, The Communist Manifesto had predicted that because of the “advanced conditions” and “developed proletariat” of Germany, “the bourgeois revolution in Germany” would be “but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” And after the defeat of 1848, Marx stated that, faced with the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry out the antifeudal revolution, the working class had to struggle for the growth of the bourgeois revolution into the proletarian, and of the national revolution into the international revolution.

In an address to the central council of the Communist League (March 1850), Marx said:

While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible ... it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of the proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians.

Marx ended his address with the phrase: “Their (the workers’) battle-cry must be: the permanent revolution!” [19]




1. Dan, Origins, op. cit., p.332.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.286.

3. ibid., vol.9, p.56.

4. ibid., p.94.

5. ibid., pp.56–57.

6. ibid., p.23.

7. ibid., pp.28–29.

8. ibid., p.112.

9. ibid., p.27.

10. ibid., vol.21, p.33.

11. ibid., vol.13, p.328.

12. Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., p.35.

13. Trotsky, Results and prospects, The Permanent Revolution, op. cit., pp.194-95.

14. ibid., p.201.

15. ibid., p.203.

16. ibid., pp.204-05.

17. ibid., pp.233-34.

18. ibid., pp.236-37.

19. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol.2, p.161.

20. Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., pp.316-17.

21. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.13, p.111.

22. ibid., vol.8, p.27.

23. ibid., vol.9, p.314.

24. ibid.

25. Trotsky, Results and prospects, op. cit., pp.163-64.


Last updated on 4.12.2003