Tony Cliff

Lenin 3 – Revolution Besieged

4. The Peace of Brest-Litovsk

One of the first problems for the newly established Bolshevik government was the issue of war or peace with Germany.

For a number of years Lenin argued that if the proletariat came to power in Russia it would have to launch a revolutionary war against the imperialist powers. Thus in an article published on 13 (26) October 1915, he wrote that, if the revolution put the proletariat in power in Russia, it would immediately offer peace to all the belligerents on condition that all oppressed nations be freed. Of course no capitalist government would accept these terms. ‘In that case, we would have to prepare for and wage a revolutionary war.’ And, ‘We would raise up the socialist proletariat of Europe for an insurrection against their governments ... There is no doubt that a victory of the proletariat in Russia would create extraordinarily favourable conditions for the development of the revolution in both Asia and Europe.’ [1] He used similar arguments a number of times after the February revolution.

On 3 (16) December armistice negotiations were opened with representatives of the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian empire, which led to the signing of an armistice. On 9 (22) December peace negotiations began at Brest-Litovsk. The leader of the Bolshevik delegation was Trotsky. He was accompanied by Karl Radek, who had just arrived in Russia and was the editor of the German paper Die Fackel (The Torch), which was distributed in the German trenches. On arriving at Brest-Litovsk Radek, under the eyes of the officers and diplomats assembled on the platform to greet the Soviet delegation, began to distribute revolutionary pamphlets among the German soldiers.

On 14–15 (27–28) December the German representative read out the draft of a harsh annexationist peace treaty. Trotsky broke off negotiations and left for Petrograd.

In critical situations Lenin was in the habit of expressing his views in the condensed form of a thesis. Now, facing an utterly new situation, demanding in his view a radical change of strategy, he did the same. On 7 (20) January 1918 he wrote Theses on the Question of the Immediate Conclusion of a Separate and Annexionist Peace:

That the socialist revolution in Europe must come, and will come, is beyond doubt. All our hopes for the final victory of socialism are founded on this certainty and on this scientific prognosis. Our propaganda activities in general, and the organization of fraternization in particular, must be intensified and extended. It would be a mistake, however, to base the tactics of the Russian socialist government on attempts to determine whether or not the European, and especially the German, socialist revolution will take place in the next six months (or some such brief period). Inasmuch as it is quite impossible to determine this, all such attempts, objectively speaking, would be nothing but a blind gamble.

One cannot make war without an army, and Russia had no army to speak of. ‘There can be no doubt that our army is absolutely in no condition at the present moment to beat back a German offensive successfully.’

The socialist government of Russia is faced with the question – a question whose solution brooks no delay – of whether to accept this peace with annexations now, or to immediately wage a revolutionary war. In fact, no middle course is possible.

One should not derive the necessary tactics directly from a general principle. Some people would argue:

‘such a peace would mean a complete break with the fundamental principles of proletarian internationalism.’

This argument, however, is obviously incorrect. Workers who lose a strike and sign terms for the resumption of work which are unfavourable to them and favourable to the capitalists, do not betray socialism.

Would a peace policy harm the German revolution, asked Lenin. And answered:

The German revolution will by no means be made more difficult of accomplishment as far as its objective premises are concerned, if we conclude a separate peace ...

A socialist Soviet Republic in Russia will stand as a living example to the peoples of all countries, and the propaganda and revolutionizing effect of this example will be immense.

He disdainfully rejected a ‘heroic’ attitude to the solution of life and death questions facing the proletariat.

Summing up the arguments in favour of an immediate revolutionary war, we have to conclude that such a policy might perhaps answer the human yearning for the beautiful, dramatic and striking, but that it would totally disregard the objective balance of class forces and material factors at the present stage of the socialist revolution now under way. [2]

Lenin unfortunately met with very tough resistance in the party ranks. His supporters of the October days were by and large surprised and shocked by his stand. On the whole the Right that opposed him in the days of October now came to his support. The most extreme enthusiast for immediate peace was Zinoviev, while the Left, which had supported Lenin during the revolution, was practically unanimous in opposing his peace policy.

The first formal discussion of Lenin’s Thesis took place at the Central Committee meeting of 8 (21) January, with a number of lesser party leaders also present.

Wide sections of the party, including the great majority of the Petersburg Committee and of the Moscow Region Bureau, were in favour of a revolutionary war. The views of many of the rank and file could be summed up in the phrase used by Osinsky (Obolensky), a member of the Moscow Regional Bureau: ‘I stand for Lenin’s old position.’ Even Trotsky did not support Lenin.

At this meeting Trotsky reported on his mission to Brest-Litovsk and presented his conclusion: ‘Neither war nor peace.’ Lenin argued for the acceptance of the German terms. Bukharin spoke for ‘a revolutionary war’. The vote brought striking success to Bukharin. Lenin’s motion received only 15 votes. Trotsky’s position obtained 16 votes. 32 votes were cast for Bukharin’s stand. [3]

Shortly after the meeting Lenin wrote:

The state of affairs now obtaining in the party reminds me very strongly of the situation in the summer of 1907 when the overwhelming majority of the Bolsheviks favoured the boycott of the Third Duma and I stood side by side with Dan in favour of participation and was subjected to furious attacks for my opportunism. Objectively, the present issue is a complete analogy; as then, the majority of the party functionaries, proceeding from the very best revolutionary motives and the best party traditions, allow themselves to be carried away by a ‘flash’ slogan and do not grasp the new socio-economic and political situation, do not take into consideration the change in the conditions that demands a speedy and abrupt change in tactics. [4]

At the next session of the Central Committee, on 11 (24) January, Dzerzhinsky reproached Lenin with timidity, with surrendering the whole programme of the revolution: ‘Lenin is doing in a disguised form what Zinoviev and Kamenev did in October.’

To accept the Kaiser’s diktat, Bukharin argued, would be to stab the German and Austrian proletariat in the back. In Uritsky’s view Lenin approached the problem ‘from Russia’s angle, and not from an international point of view’. Lomov argued that ‘by concluding peace we capitulate to German imperialism’. On behalf of the Petrograd organization Kosior harshly condemned Lenin’s position.

The most determined advocates of peace were Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov, Stalin and Sokolnikov. Stalin said: ‘There is no revolutionary movement in the west, nothing existing, only a potential, and we cannot count on a potential.’ As in October, Zinoviev saw no ground for expecting revolution in the west. No matter, he said, that the peace treaty will weaken the revolutionary movement in the west: ‘of course ... peace will strengthen chauvinism in Germany, and for a time weaken the movement everywhere in the west’.

Lenin hastened to repudiate these two clumsy supporters. ‘Can’t take into account?’ Lenin exclaimed on Stalin’s position. It was true the revolution in the west had not yet begun. However, ‘if we were to change our tactics on the strength of that then we would be betraying international socialism’. Against Zinoviev he declared that it was wrong to say

that concluding a peace will weaken the movement in the west for a time. If we believe that the German movement can immediately develop if the peace negotiations are broken off, then we must sacrifice ourselves, for the power of the German revolution will be much greater than ours. [5]

Lenin did not for a moment forget the revolutionary potential in the west.

Those who advocate a revolutionary war point out that this will involve us in a civil war with German imperialism and in this way we will awaken revolution in Germany. But Germany is only just pregnant with revolution and we have already given birth to a completely healthy child, a socialist republic which we may kill if we start a war. [6]

However, he was willing to let Trotsky try playing for time. Against Zinoviev’s solitary vote, the Central Committee decided to ‘do everything to drag out the signing of a peace’. [7]

On 2 (15) January a group of Central Committee members and People’s Commissars issued a statement demanding an immediate convocation of a party conference, declaring: ‘in event of a peace treaty being signed ... without such a conference having been called, the undersigned find it necessary imperialism’. whatever happens to leave such posts of responsibility in the Party and governmental organs as they may hold.’ The signatories were: ‘Member of the CC RSDLP G. Oppokov (A. Lomov); People’s Commissar V. Obolensky (N. Osinsky); V. Iakovleva, Sheverdin, N. Krestinsky, V. Smirnov, M. Vasilev, M. Savelev; Commissar of the State Bank Georgii Piatakov; Member of the Urals Regional Committee and the TsIK Preobrazhensky.’

On the same day the Executive Commission of the Petersburg Committee of the party issued a denunciation of Lenin’s peace policy, describing it as

the abdication of our positions in full view of the coming international revolution and the sure death of our the vanguard of the revolution ... If the peace policy is continued ... it threatens to split our party. With all this in mind, the Executive Commission demands, in the name of the Petersburg organization, that a special party conference be convened immediately. [8]

On 11 (24) January the Moscow Committee of the party unanimously passed a resolution sharply condemning Lenin’s peace policy.

Acceptance of the conditions dictated by the German imperialists goes contrary to our whole policy of revolutionary socialism, would objectively involve renouncing a consistent line of international socialism in both foreign and internal policy and could lead to opportunism of the worst kind. [9]

For six weeks a sharp internal debate took place in the Bolshevik party and, as in previous crises, nearly split it. On 21 January (3 February) the Special Conference took place. It came to no clear conclusion. When the decisive question was put: ‘Should the peace be signed if a German ultimatum were received?’ the great majority abstained. [10]

With the party leadership in disarray, Trotsky continued with his policy of procrastination. On 29 January (10 February) he broke off negotiations with the Central Powers, declaring that while Russia refused to sign the annexationist peace, it also declared the war to be at an end.

On 13 February Trotsky gave a detailed account of the negotiations at Brest and explained the reasons for his policy at a meeting of the Central Committee. In conclusion he said:

I do not want to say that a further advance of the Germans against us is out of the question. Such a statement would be too risky, considering the power of the German Imperialist party. But I think that by the position we have taken up on the question we have made any advance a very embarrassing affair for the German militarists.

Sverdlov proposed a resolution which was passed unanimously, approving ‘the action of its representatives at Brest-Litovsk.’ [11]

On 18 February the Germans resumed their military offensive. The Central Committee met again. This time Lenin’s proposal to offer peace immediately was defeated by 7 votes to 6. Trotsky voted against. [12] On the evening of the same day the Central Committee met again. Now the mood changed. The news had come that the Germans had captured Minsk and were advancing in the Ukraine, and apparently meeting with no resistance. The Central Committee passed a resolution to ‘send the German Government an offer straight away to conclude peace immediately’; 7 (Lenin, Smilga, Stalin, Sverdlov, Sokolnikov, Zinoviev and Trotsky), voted for this resolution, and 5 (Uritsky, Ioffe, Lomov, Bukharin, Krestinsky) against; there was 1 abstention (Stasova). [13]

To add to the disarray in the leadership’s ranks, a new factor intervened. On 22 February Trotsky reported to the Central Committee an offer by France and Britain to give military aid to Russia in a war against Germany. The majority of the ‘Left Communists’ were opposed in principle to accepting: aid from such imperialist quarters. Trotsky came out clearly in favour of accepting aid, from whatever source. ‘The “Left Communists” arguments do not stand up to criticism. The state is forced to do what the party would not do. Of course the imperialists want to take advantage of us and if we are weak, they will do so; if we are strong, we will not allow it.’

As the party of the socialist proletariat which is in power and conducting a war against Germany, we mobilize every means simultaneously declared the war to be at an end through state institutions to arm and supply our revolutionary army in the best way possible with all necessary resources and, for that purpose, we obtain them where we can, including therefore from capitalist governments. In doing this, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party retains full independence in its external policy, gives no political undertakings to capitalist governments and examines their proposals in each separate case according to what is expedient.

Lenin, who had not been present at the meeting of the Central Committee, added the following statement to the minutes of the session: ‘Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.’ [14]

To explain his readiness to use the conflict between the imperialist powers in the interests of the proletariat in power, Lenin wrote, on 22 February, an article entitled The Itch.

Let us suppose Kaliaev [A], in order to kill a tyrant and monster, acquires a revolver from an absolute villain, a scoundrel and robber, by promising him bread, money and vodka for the service rendered.

Can one condemn Kaliaev for ‘dealing with a robber’ for the sake of obtaining a deadly weapon? Every sensible person will answer ‘no’. If there is nowhere else for Kaliaev to get a revolver, and if his intention is really an honourable one (the killing of a tyrant, not killing for plunder), then he should not be reproached but commended for acquiring a revolver in this way. But if a robber, in order to commit murder for the sake of plunder, acquires a revolver from another robber in return for money, vodka or bread, can one compare (not to speak of identifying) such a ‘deal with a robber’ with the deal made by Kaliaev? [15]

In a postscript to the article, Lenin added:

The North Americans in their war of liberation against England at the end of the eighteenth century got help from Spain and France, who were her competitors and just as much colonial robbers as England. It is said that there were ‘Left Bolsheviks’ to be found who contemplated writing a ‘learned work’ on the ‘dirty deal’ of these Americans. [16]

In the end, however, nothing came of the offer of aid from Britain and France.

On 22 February, the German reply to the Russian peace offer was received. It was followed by a revolt in the Bolshevik Party. When the severe German terms became known, both the Petersburg Committee and the Moscow Regional Bureau combined to oppose Lenin’s peace policy, in even more extreme terms than hitherto. On the same day Bukharin decided to resign from the Central Committee and from his post as editor of Pravda. The following jointly offered their resignation from all responsible posts held by them, and reserved their rights to ‘freely agitate both within the Party and outside it’: Lomov, Uritsky, Bukharin and Bubnov (members of the Central Committee); V.M. Smirnov, Iakoleva, Piatakov, Stukov and Pokrovsky of the Moscow Regional Bureau; and Spunde of Petrograd. The declaration accompanying the resignation was a harsh condemnation of Lenin’s policy:

the advance contingent of the international proletariat has capitulated to the international bourgeoisie. By demonstrating to the whole world the weakness of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, it strikes a blow at the cause of the international proletariat ...

The surrender of the proletariat’s positions abroad inevitably prepares the way for surrender internally, too. [17]

On 21 February Lenin launched a public campaign in the press for his peace policy, with an article in Pravda called The Revolutionary Phrase. He was relentless in his criticism of the Left Communists:

the revolutionary phrase about a revolutionary war might ruin our revolution. By revolutionary phrase-making we mean the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances at a given turn in events.

The Bolsheviks must face the fact that ‘The old army does not exist. The new army is only just being born.’ [18]

It was empty talk to suggest helping the German revolution by sacrificing Soviet power in Russia.

It is one thing to be certain that the German revolution is maturing and to do your part towards helping it mature, to serve it as far as possible by work, agitation and fraternization, anything you like, but help the maturing of the revolution by work. That is what revolutionary proletarian internationalism means.

It is another thing to declare, directly or indirectly, openly or covertly, that the German revolution is already mature (although it obviously is not) and to base your tactics on it. [19]

We must fight against the revolutionary phrase, we have to fight it, we absolutely must fight it, so that at some future time people will not say of us the bitter truth that ‘a revolutionary phrase about revolutionary war ruined the revolution’. [20]

Lenin was frequently forced to reiterate the basic Marxist tenet that one cannot identify the specific with the general, that the concrete is not the same as the abstract. As he wrote in his Pravda article of 25 February, A Painful But Necessary Lesson:

It is indisputable that ‘every strike conceals the hydra of the social revolution’. But it is nonsense to think that we can stride directly from a strike to the revolution. If we ‘bank on the victory of socialism in Europe’ in the sense that we guarantee to the people that the European revolution will break out and is certain to be victorious within the next few weeks, certainly before the Germans have time to reach Petrograd, Moscow or Kiev, before they have time to ‘finish off’ our railway transport, we shall be acting, not as serious internationalist revolutionaries, but as adventurers. [21]

On 16 February Germany declared that as from noon of 18 February it considered itself at war with Russia. At the time announced, German forces went on the offensive along the whole front and met no resistance at all.

On 23 February the Central Committee discussed the new German terms. According cording to these, Soviet Russia was to lose all the Baltic territory, and part of Belorussia; it was also proposed that the towns of Marz, Batum and Ardagan be surrendered to Turkey. Under the conditions of the ultimatum, Russia would have to completely demobilize the army immediately, withdraw forces from Finland and the Ukraine and conclude peace with the Ukrainian People’s Republic, i.e. with the bourgeois-nationalist Central Rada. The German government demanded that the terms it had set out be adopted within 48 hours, that plenipotentiaries be dispatched immediately to Brest-Litovsk and that peace be signed in three days.

Lenin insisted that the terms must be accepted, and to drive the point home he threatened to resign from all his positions in government and party. The members of the Central Committee reacted in various ways. Lomov was unmoved. ‘If Lenin threatens resignation, there is no reason to be frightened. We have to take power without V.I. [Lenin]. We have to go to the front and do everything we can.’ However, other members, above all Trotsky, gave way under Lenin’s pressure. Although not convinced by his arguments, Trotsky declared he was not ready to oppose Lenin’s policy any more.

We cannot fight a revolutionary war when the Party is split ... The arguments of V.I. [Lenin] are far from convincing: if we had all been of the same mind, we could have tackled the task of organizing defence and we could have managed it. Our role would not have been a bad one even if we had been forced to surrender Peter and Moscow. We would have held the whole world in tension. If we sign the German ultimatum today, we may have a new ultimatum tomorrow. Everything is formulated in such a way as to leave an opportunity for further ultimatums. We may sign a peace; and lose support among the advanced elements of the proletariat, in any case demoralize them.

A similar attitude of abstention was taken by Krestinsky, Ioffe and Dzerzhinsky. [B]

The outcome was that Lenin just got his way. There were 7 votes for his position (Lenin, Stasova, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Stalin, Sokolnikov and Smilga), 4 against (Bubnov, Uritsky, Bukharin and Lomov) and 4 abstentions (Trotsky, Krestinsky, Dzerzhinsky and Ioffe).

Immediately after this session Bukharin, Uritsky, Lomov, Bubnov, Iakovleva, Piatakov and Smirnov declared they were ‘resigning from all responsible party and Soviet posts and retaining complete freedom to campaign both within the party and outside it for what we consider to be the only correct positions’. Stalin raised ‘the issue of whether leaving a post does not in practice mean leaving the party’. Lenin hastened to avoid blood-letting. He indicated that ‘resigning from the CC does not mean leaving the party’. [22]

On 24 February the Moscow Regional Bureau unanimously adopted a resolution of no confidence in the Central Committee. In explanation it stated:

The Moscow Regional Bureau considers a split in the party in the very near future hardly avoidable, and it sets itself the aim of helping to unite all consistent revolutionary communists who equally oppose both the advocates of the conclusion of a separate peace and all moderate opportunists in the party. In the interests of the world revolution, we consider it expedient to accept the possibility of losing Soviet power, which is now becoming purely formal.

The Bureau made it clear that it was not going to abide by the discipline of the Central Committee.

Lenin’s reaction was most patient and tolerant. The party was still deeply democratic.

In all this there is not only nothing appalling, but also nothing strange. It is completely natural for comrades who differ sharply with the Central Committee on the issue of a separate peace to reprimand the Central Committee sharply and express their conviction on the inevitability of a split. All this is the legal right of members of the party, and this is fully understandable. [23]

On 24 February a Soviet peace delegation left for Brest-Litovsk. Peace negotiations were resumed on 1 March, and on 3 March the treaty was signed. The Soviet delegates made it quite clear that they were signing it under duress. Thus, before signing the Russian delegation issued a statement saying:

Under the circumstances Russia has no freedom of choice ... The German proletariat is as yet not strong enough to stop the attack [of German imperialism]. We have no doubt that the triumph of imperialism and militarism over the international proletarian revolution will prove to be temporary and ephemeral. Meanwhile the Soviet government ... unable to resist the armed offensive of German imperialism, is forced to accept the peace terms so as to save revolutionary Russia. [24]

The Harsh Terms of the Peace Treaty

It was estimated that by this treaty Russia lost territories and resources approximately as follows: 1,267,000 square miles, with over 62,000,000 population, or one-fourth of her territory and 44 per cent of her population; one-third of her crops and 27 per cent of her state income; 8o per cent of her sugar factories; 73 per cent of her iron and 75 per cent of her coal. Of the total of 16,000 industrial undertakings, 9,000 were situated in the lost territories. [25]

Opposition to Lenin’s peace policy now spread widely among the masses. In February a referendum of the views of 200 Soviets was held. Of these a majority – 105 – voted for war against Germany. In the industrial city Soviets the majority in favour of war was overwhelming. Only two large Soviets – Petrograd and Sebastopol – went on record as being in favour of peace. On the other hand several of the big centres (such as Moscow, Krondstadt, Ekaterinburg, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, Ivanovo-Voznessensk), voted against Lenin’s policy with overwhelming majorities. Of the Soviets of 42 provincial cities that were consulted, 6 opted for peace, 20 for war; 88 county towns and villages opted for peace, 85 for war. [26]

However, the debate in the party came to an end with a specially convened Seventh Congress on 6–8 March. The day before it opened, a new daily, Kommunist, ‘Organ of the St Petersburg Committee and the St Petersburg Area Committee of the RSDLP’ appeared. It was edited by Bukharin, Radek and Uritsky, with the collaboration of a number of prominent Party leaders: Bubnov, Lomov, Pokrovsky, Preobrazhensky, Piatakov, Kollontai, Inessa Armand and others. The list of names gives some idea of the strength and quality of Kommunist.

After a bitter debate, the Seventh Congress resolved to support Lenin’s policy by 30 votes to 12, with four abstentions. Local party organizations followed this line, either immediately or after a time.

By 7 March a Petrograd Party Conference had adopted a resolution condemning the Left Communists and calling upon them to stop their ‘independent organizational existence’. As a result of this resolution Kommunist was soon forced to cease publication in Petrograd and was transferred to Moscow, where it reappeared in April under the auspices of the Moscow Regional Bureau. On 15 May Lenin was able to win the stronghold of the Left Communists, the Moscow region; after a debate with Lomov at a party conference his line was adopted by 42 votes to 9.

In some places the Left Communists continued to prevail. Thus in Ivanovo-Voznessensk, a district party conference held on 10 May, having heard a report by Bukharin, voted 12 to 9 with 4 abstentions for Bukharin’s policy. [27]

The final ratification of the treaty took place at the Fourth Congress of Soviets on 15 March, 1918, by a vote of 748 to 261 with 115 abstentions. Among the latter were 64 Left Communists.

From then on the Left Communists lapsed into silence regarding the war question (although, as we shall see later, they continued to oppose Lenin’s policy in a different sphere – that of economic affairs). But the Left Socialist Revolutionaries voiced their opposition to the peace policy all the more loudly and impatiently. Immediately after the ratification of the peace they withdrew from the Council of People’s Commissars.

Trotsky’s Position

As Stalinist historiography exaggerates beyond recognition the differences between Lenin and Trotsky regarding the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, it is important to elaborate somewhat on Trotsky’s position.

Throughout the debate on Brest-Litovsk there was not the slightest disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky about the impossibility of a revolutionary war. Thus, for instance, in a speech on 8 (21) January Trotsky said: ‘It is clear as day that if we wage revolutionary war, we shall be overthrown.’ [28] He explains his position at the time thus:

It was obvious that going on with the war was impossible. On this point, there was not even a shadow of disagreement between Lenin and me. We were both equally bewildered at Bukharin and the other apostles of a ‘revolutionary war’. But there was another question, quite as important. How far could the Hohenzollern government go in their struggle against us? ... Could Hohenzollern send his troops against revolutionaries who wanted peace? How had the February revolution, and, later on, the October revolution, affected the German army? How soon would any effect show itself? To these questions, no answer could as yet be given. We had to try to find it in the course of the negotiations. Accordingly we had to delay the negotiations as long as we could. It was necessary to give the European workers time to absorb properly the very fact of the Soviet revolution, including its policy of peace. [29]

Lenin’s suggested tactics for the peace negotiations in Brest-Litovsk proved to be correct in practice. This, however, does not mean to say that Trotsky’s position must inevitably have been wrong. Possibly the tactic he suggested of ‘neither war nor peace’ would have worked. From the memoirs of Ludendorff and various statements made by German representatives at Brest-Litovsk, it is clear that the Austrian and German leaders hesitated before launching their offensive against Russia.

The Austrian monarchy especially was almost desperate. On 4 (17) January the Foreign Minister of Austria, Czernin, got a message from the Austrian Emperor which stated:

I must once more earnestly impress upon you that the whole fate of the monarchy and of the dynasty depends on peace being concluded at Brest-Litovsk as soon as possible ... If peace be not made at Brest, there will be a revolution. [30]

While Trotsky was on his way to Brest-Litovsk on 15 (28) January a wave of strikes and outbreaks spread through Germany and Austria. Soviets were formed in Berlin and Vienna. Hamburg, Bremen, Leipzig, Essen and Munich took up the cry. ‘All Power to the Soviets’ was heard in the streets of Greater Berlin, where half a million workers downed tools. In the forefront of the demands were the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or indemnities, on the basis of the self-determination of peoples in accordance with the principles formulated by the Russian People’s Commissars at Brest-Litovsk, and the participation of workers’ delegates from all countries in the peace negotiations. [31]

The Austrians were supported in their attempts to achieve unconditional peace by the Bulgarians and the Turks, and, even more important, by the German Foreign Minister, Baron Von Kühlmann, and Prime Minister, von Hertling.

Ludendorff’s and Kühlmann’s memoirs made it clear that for days there was a balance between the war party, headed by the German general staff (Hindenburg, Ludendorff, Hoffmann), and the peace party, headed by von Kühlmann and von Hertling. The latter argued repeatedly that the situation on the home front did not permit a military offensive against the Russians. But the German supreme command remained adamant and in the end, with the Kaiser’s backing, won the day.

Thus Trotsky’s position during the Brest negotiations was based not on sheer idealism, but also a great deal of realism. When events proved that Lenin was right, Trotsky was generous in acknowledging this. On 3 October 1918, at a session of the Central Executive Committee, he declared:

I feel it my duty to say, in this authoritative assembly, that when many of us, including myself, were doubtful as to whether it was admissible for us to sign the Brest-Litovsk peace, only Comrade Lenin maintained stubbornly, with amazing foresight, and against our opposition, that we had to go through with it, to tide us over until the revolution of the world proletariat. We must now admit that we were wrong. [32]

Realism and Principled Politics

Lenin’s strength in the fateful days of war and peace was his strictly uncompromising adherence to principles, combined with his readiness to adapt his tactics to the changing objective circumstances.

With full recognition of the need to retreat in the face of the imperialist pressure, he insisted on the necessity of adhering to the internationalist principle of subordinating everything, including the fate of Russia, to the needs of the world revolution. While arguing at the Seventh Party Congress for immediate ratification of the peace treaty, he did not for a moment lower the international sights of the revolution.

Regarded from the world-historical point of view, there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries. When the Bolshevik Party tackled the job alone, it did so in the firm conviction that the revolution was maturing in all countries. [33]

it is the absolute truth that without a German revolution we are doomed. [34]

Despite the harshness of the steps he had to take, Lenin did not for a moment try to pull the wool over the eyes of the workers. On the contrary, the truth had to be told to them, however unappetizing it might be. He always stuck to the rule that any manoeuvring that replaces the real struggle may destroy the revolutionary morale of the masses. In all the changes of direction imposed on revolutionary leaders, they must never hide the basic truth from the workers. As Trotsky put it:

The essence of the matter is that Lenin approached the Brest-Litovsk capitulation with the same inexhaustible revolutionary energy which secured the party’s victory in October. Precisely this intrinsic, and as if organic, combination of October and Brest- Litovsk, of the gigantic sweep with intrepidity and circumspection, of both boldness and foresight, gives a measure of Lenin’s method and of his power. [35]

Principled politics combined with ruthlessly clear realism were the decisive traits of Lenin’s behaviour during the Brest affair. He emerged with enormous moral credit from the controversy. Having the courage of his convictions enabled him to defy the prevailing mood in the party. His extraordinary powers of persuasion enabled him finally to change party opinion.


A. A member of the combat group of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, who took part in a number of terrorist acts. On 4 (17) February 1905 he assassinated the Governor General of Moscow, the Grand Duke S.A. Romanov, uncle of Nicholas II. He was executed at Schlüsselburg on 10 (23) May.

B. It is interesting to note that vacillation did not leave the pro-peace camp in the Central Committee untouched. Thus Stalin, at just this moment, found it possible to state: ‘It is possible not to sign but to start peace negotiations.’ And Lenin had to come down sharply against the vacillation of his own supporters: ‘Stalin is wrong when he says it is possible not to sign. These terms must be signed. If you do not sign them, you will be signing the death sentence of Soviet power in three weeks.’


1. Lenin, Works, Vol. 21, p. 404.

2. ibid., Vol. 26, pp. 444, 447–8.

3. CC Minutes, op. cit., p. 173.

4. Lenin, Works, Vol. 26, p. 451.

5. CC Minutes, op. cit., pp. 177–8.

6. ibid., p. 174.

7. ibid., p. 179.

8. ibid., pp. 189–91.

9. ibid., p. 194.

10. V.I. Lenin, Sochineniia, 1st edition, Moscow 1924–5, Vol. 15, p. 626.

11. J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, Brest Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, London 1938, p. 237.

12. CC Minutes, op. cit., p. 205.

13. ibid., pp. 210–11.

14. ibid., pp. 212–15.

15. Lenin, Works, Vol. 27, p. 37.

16. ibid., p. 39.

17. CC Minutes, op. cit., p. 216.

18. Lenin, Works, Vol. 27, pp. 19–20.

19. ibid., pp. 23–4.

20. ibid., p. 29.

21. ibid., p. 65.

22. CC Minutes, op. cit., pp. 218–25.

23. Lenin, Works, Vol. 27, pp. 68–9.

24. Bunyan and Fisher, op. cit., p. 523.

25. ibid., pp. 523–4.

26. Leninskii sbornik, Vol. 11, pp. 59–61.

27. ibid., p. 89.

28. ibid., p. 42.

29. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., pp. 380–1.

30. Wheeler-Bennett, op. cit., p. 170.

31. ibid., p. 196.

32. Piatii sozyv vserossiiskogo tsentralnogo ispolnitelnogo komiteta sovetov rabochikh, krestianskikh, krasnoarmeiskikh, kazachikh deputatov: stenograficheskii otchet, Moscow 1919, p. 248.

33. Lenin, Works, Vol. 33, p. 95.

34. ibid., p. 98.

35. Trotsky, On Lenin, op. cit., pp. 103–4.

Last updated on 19.9.2012