Tony Cliff

Lenin 2


This volume covers the political activities of Lenin between the outbreak of the First World War and the October Revolution. It is in the nature of the subject that by far the greater proportion of the book deals with the period February to October 1917.

Among the many sources on which I have drawn, some deserve special mention because of their general interest and scope. These are N.N. Sukhanov’s The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record, John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, and, above all, Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky’s monumental work is an outstanding achievement, written by a man of genius who was one of the supreme leaders of the revolution. In the face of this magnificent work, the question that clearly arises is, Why should another book be written dealing with the same period?

Trotsky’s book has tremendous strengths, but, in my eyes, a serious defect. To start with the strengths: the revolution is excellently analyzed and described as an event in which the oppressed millions, who for centuries have been kept down, get up off their knees and speak out. The changes in the consciousness of the workers, peasants, and soldiers under the feverish conditions of the struggle are beautifully described.

The one thing noticeably missing is the Bolshevik Party: its rank and file, its cadres, its local committees, its Central Committee. This gap in Trotsky’s work must be understood to some extent as a mirror image of the Stalinist distortion of the Bolshevik Party’s role in 1917.

In the Stalinist legend the Bolshevik Party, with a few insignificant exceptions, always followed Lenin’s will. The party was practically a monolith. But in fact nothing was further from the truth. Again and again Lenin had to fight to win his party members.

Whereas in April his main problem was to overcome the conservatism of the top leadership of the party, in June and at the beginning of July he had to contend with the revolutionary impatience of rank-and-file leaders and members. In September and October he had to fight to spur the leadership on to the great leap of the insurrection: many of the hotheads of April, June and July – including the Bolshevik Military Organization and the Petersburg Committee of the party – now became overcautious.

Trotsky, who stood outside the Bolshevik camp from its formation in 1903 until after the February Revolution (officially joining the party at the end of July 1917), was naturally anxious to prove that being an “old Bolshevik” did not make everything right. Indeed, the political stance of the Bolshevik leadership before Lenin’s return to Russia and the opposition of most prominent party leaders to the insurrection show that Trotsky had a point. However, in stating his case, he undervalued the party as a whole. Throughout his History the party is hardly referred to. There is no systematic exposition, for instance, of the different roles of the Vyborg District Committee, the Petersburg Committee and the Bolshevik Military Organization. As the Bolshevik Party was a mass party with deep roots in the working class, the unevenness within the class, say, between the proletariat of Petrograd and Odessa, naturally had a serious influence on the party’s working. This does not come through clearly in Trotsky’s book.

To transform words into deeds a centralized party was necessary. But how did the Bolshevik Party really work during the revolution? During the war it was composed of a large number of small groups, some loosely federated, but most of them cut off from each other and from Lenin, who was abroad. These local committees had to develop an independent ability to carry out political action. How were such local groups organized into a coherent fighting party? How did the administration of the party work? What kind of people made up the cadres of the party, what was their social composition, their age, their political experience?

The masses – workers, soldiers and peasants – appear with all their passion and courage in Trotsky’s History, but the party, alas, is almost absent. This very much affects Lenin’s role in the historical drama. As a result of the events of 1917 and after, Trotsky came to admire Lenin more than any other person of his time. Without any false modesty, he saw Lenin as a teacher and himself as a disciple. In the History there are sentences like this: “Besides the factories, barracks, villages, the front and the Soviets, the revolution had another laboratory: the brain of Lenin.” [1] Lenin, however, could not relate to the masses except through the party.

The role of the party was to raise the level of consciousness and organization of the working class, to explain to the masses their own interests, to give clear political expression to the emotions and thoughts of the masses. If the party was necessary to give the proletariat confidence in its own potentialities, so also was Lenin’s role in relation to the party. For Lenin to relate to the masses – for his slogans to find their way to them, and for him to learn from them – there had to exist party cadres. Practically everything Lenin wrote in 1917 was for party members; this is proved by the simple fact that at its height the party press had a circulation only marginally larger than the party membership. Lenin’s April Theses were really directed at party members, and his writings on insurrection – practically all of them in a few copies on small sheets of paper – were directed to the party cadres. Lenin’s success in arming the party in April and guiding it through all the sudden changes of April, June, July, the Kornilov coup and finally the insurrection (events with which we deal in this book) was due to the fact that he personified the tradition of Bolshevism and that he had the confidence of the party cadres as a result of many years of hard revolutionary struggle. Lenin influenced the party and the party influenced the class and vice versa. The proletariat created the party and the party shaped Lenin.

The present book tries to deal with the interrelations between the working class, the party and Lenin. It presents a political biography of Lenin, which is meshed in with the political history of the working class. In fact, as the revolution was the zenith of Lenin’s, the party’s and the proletariat’s activities, the fusion of the three reached its climax at that time. Hence, at that time, one can in no way separate the personal from the general, the biographical from the historical. The year 1917 was the greatest test for Lenin as the leader of the party and the working class.

As usual, I have found myself confronted with the difficult problem of selection and compression of the enormous amount of material available on such a broad subject. This central theme of the dynamic interrelation between the proletariat, the Bolshevik Party and Lenin has guided the choice of the material for a history of manageable length.

Finally, I must make a couple of technical remarks. The first concerns the name of the capital of Russia. Until the outbreak of the First World War it was called St. Petersburg. Then this German-sounding name was hastily changed to Petrograd. The anti-war position of the Bolsheviks of the city was symbolized by their decision at the time to retain the title of the Petersburg Committee. In this book we use either of the two names – largely according to the context. Usually we call the city Petrograd, but refer to the party committee of the capital as the Petersburg Committee.

Secondly, the dates given in this volume refer to the Julian calendar, which was thirteen days behind the Western Gregorian calendar in the period covered. In a few cases, when referring to events in Western Europe, like Lenin’s leaving Switzerland on his way to Russia, we use dates from both calendars.




1. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London 1934, p.975.


Last updated on 21.10.2007