Duncan Hallas

All Power to the Soviets

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.7-11.
Extended Review Part 1, Part 2 in No.90.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Duncan Hallas on the second volume of Cliff’s Lenin to be published by Pluto Press this month

Part 1

The bulk of this book is concerned with the events of nine months, February to October 1917. Inevitably, then, it invites comparison with Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.

“In the face of this magnificent work,” Cliff writes in his foreword, “the question that clearly arises is: why should another book be written dealing with the same period?”

It is a matter of the angle of vision, of the centre of interest. As in Cliff’s Lenin, Volume One (Building the Party), the Bolshevik Party and Lenin’s relationship to it forms the core of the approach. “The masses – workers, soldiers and peasants – appear with all their passion and courage in Trotsky’s History; but the party, alas, is almost absent ... In the History there are sentences like this: ‘Besides the factories, barracks, villages, the front and the soviets, the resolution had another laboratory: the brain of Lenin.’ Lenin, however, could not relate to the masses except through the party.” [1]

Of course Trotsky does make many references to the Bolshevik Party, including some notably unfavourable comments on its Central Committee, but it is true that the party is not at the heart of his work. A good deal of material on the party, not to be found in Trotsky, is presented by Cliff. There is another consideration too. Trotsky’s History is more referred to than read. The very wealth of detail which makes it so vivid deters many readers. The current paperback edition (Sphere, 1967) runs to over 1,200 closely printed pages. Yet the lessons of those nine months in 1917 are an indispensable element in the training of today’s revolutionaries. It is only necessary to think of the events of 25 November in Portugal to realise this. Cliffs book is invaluable in this respect. Clear, concrete and concise; it brings out all that is essential in the experience.

War and the International

If the outbreak of war threatens, it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, with the aid of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert all their efforts to prevent the war by means of coordinated action. If war nevertheless breaks out, it is their duty to work for its speedy end, and to exploit with all their forces the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the population and thereby hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule. (Resolution of the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, 1907)

The collapse of the Second International in August 1914 split the movement into three unequal parts. The first, the ‘social-patriots’`- open supporters of their own governments, had, in the beginning, mass working class support in most of the belligerent countries. The second, the ‘social-pacifists’ – the future centrists, had the majority in most of the ‘neutral’ parties; the Italian, American, Scandanavian and so on, plus minorities that were to grow into big forces in the later stages of the war in the belligerent countries. The third, the revolutionary opposition – the future communists, were everywhere a tiny minority.

In the Tsarist Empire the picture was somewhat different The out and out Russian social-patriots (Pleckhanov etc.) were much weaker, relatively, than their German, French or British counterparts and on the right-wing of Polish socialism, social-patriotism took pro-German or pro-Austrian forms (Pilsudski etc.). The centrist current was correspondingly much bigger. Most of the Mensheviks adhered to it. So, initially, did most of the Bolsheviks!

The leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party called for the defence of the Fatherland and ‘democratic rights’ against Tsarist reaction. Their British and French opposite numbers called for the defence of ‘democracy’ against Kaiserdom and German militarism. It was harder to represent the cause of progress as being bound up with the victory of the Tsarist Empire – although some ‘marxists’ managed it.

The struggle for a revolutionary position against the centrists was therefore, from the beginning, to the fore in the Russian movement. From his Swiss exile Lenin issued a stream of statements and pamphlets from The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War (August 1914) through to Socialism and War (jointly with Zinoviev, July-August 1915).

The war was an imperialist war, “a bourgeois, imperialist and dynastic war” [2] on both sides, the pro-war socialists have betrayed the movement and “the betrayal of socialism by most of the leaders of the Second International signifies the ideological and political bankruptcy of the International”. [3] Moreover, “the so-called Centre of the German and other Social-Democratic parties has in actual fact faintheartedly capitulated to the opportunists,” [4] a new, Third, International must be built on the basis of uncompromising internationalism.

As for Russian Social-Democrats, the defeat – the military defeat – of Tsarism is the lesser evil:

In the present situation, it is impossible to determine, from the standpoint of the international proletariat, the defeat of which of the two groups of belligerent nations would be the lesser evil for socialism. But to us Russian Social-Democrats there cannot be the slightest doubt that, from the standpoint of the working class and of the toiling masses of all the nations of Russia, the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy, the most reactionary and barbarous of governments, which is oppressing the largest number of nations and the greatest masse of the population of Europe and Asia, would be the lesser evil. [5]

This, the famous doctrine of revolutionary defeatism, was unacceptable even to the majority of Bolsheviks, as was Lenin’s slogan (applicable to all belligerents) “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. The five Bolshevik Duma deputies, acting jointly with the Menshevik deputies, failed to take an unequivocal stand against the war. When they, and other leading Bolsheviks, were put on trial for treason early in 1915, the majority repudiated revolutionary defeatism.

Of the Moscow party members “only a few isolated people adhered (not always firmly) to the policy of defeatism. The biggest group of ‘defeatists’ had only seven members.” [6] This was probably typical. The waverers were not, for the most part, actually pro-war. They had slid into a centrist position indistinguishable from that of many Mensheviks. The same phenomena was to recur after the February revolution. The party bent under the pressure of frenzied ‘patriotism’ in the first case and revolutionary euphoria in the second.

On the international field Lenin and his close collaborators were similarly isolated at first.

In September 1915, the Italian and Swiss parties succeeded in convening a conference of anti-war socialists at Zimmerwald near Berne in Switzerland. Both these parties were dominated by the ‘centre’. The Swiss were neutral (although both pro-French and pro-German tendencies existed in the party) and the majority of the Italians, the PSI, maintained a centrist anti-war position even after Italy’s entry into the war in May 1915.

At Zimmerwald the split between the centrists and the left came into the open. As well as the sponsors there were German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Russian and other delegates present. By 19 votes to 12, the conference rejected the draft resolution submitted by Lenin which contained the call to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. In spite of this, Lenin called the conference “the first step” and the left, including the Bolsheviks, voted for the manifesto of the majority as well as publishing their own rejected resolution. “The capitalists of all countries claim that the war serves to defend the fatherland ... They are lying,” declared the manifesto. “It is a fact that this manifesto is a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it,” wrote Lenin. In spite of its “inconsistency and timidity”, it would “be sectarianism to refuse to take this step forward”. [7] In the atmosphere of frenzied ‘patriotism’ which still existed in 1915, when any contact with ‘enemy’ nationals was regarded as treason, Zimmerwald was indeed a real step forward for socialist internationalism.

At the next conference, at Kienthal in 1916, the left took a harder line. “Every step forward taken by the international labour movement along the road mapped out by Zimmerwald shows more and more clearly the inconsistency of the position adopted by the Zimmerwald majority” declared the (unsuccessful) Bolshevik resolution, for it “is afraid of a break with the International Socialist Bureau (the Second International’s completely inactive centre) ... It is the social-chauvinists and’ Kautskyites of all countries who will undertake the task/of restoring the bankrupt International Socialist Bureau. The task of socialists is to explain to the masses the inevitability of a split with those who pursue a bourgeois policy under the flag of socialism.” [8]

By this time the anti-war movements were gaining real support. Easter 1916 saw the Dublin rising against British imperialism. Karl Liebknecht and Otto Ruble had broken with the SPD and were agitating against the war in the Reichstag. In May 1916 the arrest of Liebknecht for treason provoked a strike of 50,000 workers iii Berlin and a wave of clashes with the police. The shop stewards’ movement was gaining ground in Britain.

And in Russia, rising mass discontent with the incompetence and brutality of the regime, with hunger and the endless slaughter at the front was destroying the foundations of Tsarism. The Bolshevik Party was reviving fast. “The prominent Bolshevik trade unionist, Pavel Budaev, described the situation as being at boiling point ... We can sum up by saying that the war at first set Bolshevism back, but only to accelerate its growth even more powerfully in the ensuing period, and prepare it for its final victory.” [9]

The ‘Spontaneous’ Revolution

The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies has in fact taken the initiative in effecting revolutionary transformations. The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is the revolutionary leader of the insurrectionary people; an organ of control over the provisional government. On the other hand the provisional government has in fact taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people. (Stalin, Speech to All-Russian Conference of the Bolshevik Party, 28 March 1917)

“The 23rd of February (1917) was International Women’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended ... meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day.” [10]

But it was the first day of the revolution. Women textile workers in Petrograd, by no means the vanguard of the working class in ordinary circumstances, came out on strike on their own initiative and dragged the Bolshevik-led metal workers of the Vyborg district behind them. “With reluctance, the Bolsheviks agreed to this,” [11] testified their local leader. About 90,000 workers came out on the 23rd and crowds of women besieged the town hail demanding bread. There was no shooting, contrary to what the Vyborg committee of the Bolsheviks had feared.

Though the strikers and the Petrograd Bolsheviks did not yet know it, the Tsarist officials were afraid that the infantry would not obey orders to fire. They were kept confined to barracks and next day, the 24th, about half the workers in Petrograd were on strike and demonstrating in great masses on the streets.

The government brought out its most reliable troops, the Cossack cavalry. They did not mutiny but they did not do what was expected of them either.

The Cossacks charged repeatedly but without ferocity ... the mass of the demonstrators would part to let them through and close up again. There was no fear in the crowd. The Cossacks’ promise not to shoot passed from mouth to mouth ... Towards the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred ... 28 policemen were killed. [12]

Three more days and it was all over. The Bolsheviks issued an all-out strike call on the 25th and a quarter of a million came out. After sporadic shooting the army mutinies began. By the 27th the huge garrison intended to overawe the capital – 150,000 men – had melted away. Tsarism was finished.

The five days of the February revolution are an interesting illustration of the unevenness of the revolutionary process. The local Bolshevik leaders, who had the only serious organised working class base in Petrograd, did not at first believe that success was possible. They feared that if they led out the most militant sections, there would be bloody reprisals which might behead the movement. They underestimated just how rotten the regime had become, how little reliance the government could put on its troops. They were dominated by the caution born of long experience. Even when the movement was well underway they did not quickly grasp its true significance.

It took inexperienced workers, women, without any such inhibitions, to trigger off the February revolution. The Bolshevik organisation, as a party, lagged behind those it had been accustomed to regard as ‘backward’!

But that does not at all mean that the party’s role was not vital. The revolution was ‘spontaneous’, that is to say it was not directed by any party. At the same time it was led by Bolsheviks (and to some extent other militants). Without them the women’s magnificent effort would have come to nothing.

One must hasten to say that the revolution’s spontaneity does not mean that its participants and rank and file leaders lacked political ideas. – writes Cliff. – Trotsky asked the question: who led the February revolution? And he gave the following acdurate reply: “We can answer then, definitely enough: Conscious and tempered workers, educated for the most part in the party of Lenin. But we must immediately add: This leadership proved sufficient to guarantee the victory of the insurrection, but it was not adequate to transfer immediately into the hands of the proletarian vanguard the leadership of the revolution”. [13]

It was not. But who was in power? The workers of Petrograd and the soldiers of the garrison had made the revolution. A Petrograd ‘Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’ sprang up at once-soon to be followed by similar bodies all over Russia. In those first days after the fall of the Tsar effective power was in their hands. The old state machine had been destroyed.

However the leadership of the important Soviets was predominantly in the hands of Mensheviks and representatives of the peasant party, the Socialist Revolutionaries. For them the object of the revolution was a democratic, capitalist republic.

They hastened to support a ‘Provisional Government’ under a Tsarist nobleman, Prince Lvov, that had been cobbled together out of members of the Duma, the fake parliament set up after 1905. This government had no serious basis of support except that of the SoViet leaders. This support was willingly given and, for the time being, it was enough.

Of course the ‘liberals’ were above all concerned to ‘restore order’, to re-establish the power of the officers over the soldiers and of the factory management over the workers. And they were determined to carry on the war. Russian imperialism was as important to them as to any Tsar. The war must be won and, meanwhile, land reform, the demands of the non-Russian peoples of the Empire, the election of a Constituent Assembly and so on must be postponed. Having put the capitalist liberals’ in power, the Menshevik and SR leaders then went on to adopt their policies.

How did it come about that the Mensheviks and SRs dominated the Soviets? Cliff refers to “the preponderance at the beginning of the revolution of the petty-bourgeois masses – peasants in the main – led by intellectuals, and the immaturity of the revolution” [14], and goes on to note that the soldiers, peasants in uniform for the most part, were heavily over-represented in the Petrograd Soviet, that the largest factories tended to be under-represented and so forth. It is also true that the industrial working class itself was swollen with new recruits – 40 per cent in Petrograd were post-1914 – who lacked the traditions and experience of the prewar struggles.

The Bolsheviks had a solid base among class-conscious workers, especially in the metal trades, but, as Cliff says: “Although the revolution was led by class-conscious workers who were mostly Bolsheviks ... the number of class-conscious workers active in the revolution could be counted in thousands or tens of thousands, while the number who were aroused by the revolution was measured in millions.” [15] The ‘immaturity of the revolution’ was inherent in this situation.

There was, however, also another important factor. The Bolshevik Party itself was not clearly and sharply differentiated politically from the Menshevik-SR bloc: “at a session of the Executive Committee of the Soviet on 1 March, when the question at issue was that of handing over power to the bourgeoisie (i.e., the Provisional Government – DH), not one voice was raised in opposition, despite the fact that 11 of the 39 members of the Executive Committee were Bolsheviks, and that three members of the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee were present (Shliapnikov, Molotov and Zalutsky).” [16] (My emphasis – DH)

From the start there was opposition in the party to this tailing of the Menshevik-SR line. So far was the party from being ‘monolithic’ or ‘homogeneous’ that the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee, the Petersburg Committee and the Vyborg District Committee all advocated different positions on the vital question of the hour – attitude to the Provisional Government! In one of the most interesting sections of this book, Cliff shows conclusively that the essentials of Lenin’s April Theses were being fought for in the Petrograd party before Lenin’s return from exile.

In March, though, the helm was pushed further to the right. Nationally known party leaders, notably Kamenev and Stalin, returned from Siberian exile and, as full members of the Central Committee, took over the direction of affairs. Their line, expressed in Pravda, was effectively that of a ‘left face’ for the Soviet majority which, in turn, was the ‘left face’ of the Provisional Government.

The new editors announced that the Bolsheviks would decisively support the Provisional Government ‘insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution’ forgetting that the only important agent of counter-revolution at the time was this same Provisional Government. [17]

The Provisional Government, however, was energetically pro-war. Russian imperialism was as vital to it as to any Tsar..

And so Kamenev wrote in Pravda:

The war goes on. The great Russian revolution did not interrupt it. And no one entertains the hope that it will end tomorrow, or the day after ... No, the free people will stand firmly at their posts, will reply bullet for bullet and shell for shell. This is unavoidable ... We cannot permit any disorganisation of the military forces of the revolution! War must be ended in an organised way, by a pact amongst the peoples which have liberated themselves, and not by the will of the neighbouring conqueror and imperialist. [18]

This was indistinguishable from the ‘negotiated peace’ position of the majority of the Mensheviks (prior to February 1917) or from that of the centrists (soon to be a majority) of the French Socialist Party – living in a country that got rid of its Tsar more than a century earlier – who had been denounced by Lenin as “capitulating to the social-chauvinists”.

Nor, as Cliff makes abundantly clear, can this lurch to the right be attributed simply to the political defects of Kamenev, Stalin and their circle. It was widespread in provincial Bolshevik organisations, whose connection with the Petrograd centre was very loose at this time.

The Karkov Bolshevik paper Sotsial-Demokrat wrote on 19 March: “Until German democracy takes power into its hands our army must stand up like a wall of steel, armed from head to foot against Prussian militarism, for the victory of Prussian militarism is the death of our freedom”. [19]

Of course, the ‘socialist’ lickspittles of French, and even British, imperialism could, and did, say exactly the same. Sections of the party, including the majority of ist central leadership, were sliding into outright pro-war positions. In Baku, the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders was such that they joined the local provisional government. [20]

How could this happen? Two reasons spring into view. The first is the manifest inadequacy of Bolshevik theory in the new situation. The second is the enormous gravitational pull of the newly awakened masses on an organisation which, although still small, (23,000 members in illegality in January 1917), was nonetheless a mass party in terms of its periphery and influence.

Those who have mass influence are also influenced by the masses. The one thing is inconceivable without the other. And without a firm and authoritative political centre, able to resolve the contradiction between revolutionary ends and the pressure of mass feeling on the party’s leading militants in the working class, to resolve it by inner party struggle and the development of realistic transitional aims and slogans, the party is doomed to opportunistic tailing of anti- revolutionary forces or to sectarian isolation. The Bolshevik Party was able, although not without a sharp internal struggle, to achieve the necessary synthesis. The return of Lenin from exile, on 3 April 1917, was the vital factor.

Rearming The Party

In our attitude towards the war, which under the new government of Lvov and Co unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war owing to the capitalist nature of that government, not the slightest concession of ‘revolutionary defencism’ is permissible ... No support for the Provisional Government ... The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government ... (Lenin, April Theses 1917)

Pravda said in its first free number: “The fundamental problem is to establish a democratic republic.” [21] That is, of course, a capitalist regime and this position was orthodox Bolshevism. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike had maintained that the Russian revolution must be, could only be, a bourgeois revolution, the Russian equivalent of the English, American and French revolutions.

They differed, on this issue, only in their assessment of which class would lead and consolidate it. For the Mensheviks, a bourgeois revolution must be led by the bourgeoisie, by the capitalist liberals. For the Bolsheviks, this was out of the question. The Russian bourgeoisie was too late historically and too weak in relation to the working class as well as to Tsardom. An alliance of workers and peasants, the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ must substitute for the bourgeoisie and carry out, in ‘Jacobin’ fashion, the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the most radical and thoroughgoing way. The immediate aims were summarised by Lenin himself as late as September 1914 – democratic republic, self-determination for the subject peoples, seizure of the landed estates and the eight hour working day. [22] Even the April Theses themselves state bluntly “it is not our immediate task to ‘introduce socialism’.” [23]

This well-established position-for many ‘old Bolsheviks’ the ‘democratic-dictatorship’ line was the essence of Bolshevism, its specifically unique feature-was now being used to justify an essentially Menshevik political line. For by no stretch of imagination could the government of Prince Lvov be considered anything but a bourgeois government.

This was the situation when, on 3 April, Lenin arrived at the Finland Station. Immediately he declared his total opposition to the line of his own party and he declared it publicly and vigorously. The April Theses, without explicitly repudiating the ‘democratic-dictatorship’ (Lenin’s own invention), in effect adopted the ‘permanent revolution’ position hitherto associated with Trotsky.

No support for the Provisional Government ... Exposure (of) the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government ... The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this (i.e., the SovietsDH) government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the needs of the masses. As long as we are in a minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience. Not a parliamentary republic ... but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom. [24]

Worker-Bolsheviks, especially in Petrograd, had, from the beginning, regarded the Provisional Government with hostility, had resisted the slide into support for the imperialist war, had groped towards the position Lenin now advanced. Their training, as well as their situation, pushed them in this way. For, whatever its defects, the democratic-dictatorship line had at least imbued them with hatred and contempt for the capitalist liberals-therein was its great superiority over Menshevism. But to break the blockage at the top, to overturn the leadership of Kamenev-Stalin, a clear alternative theoretical conception was necessary. Trotsky had supplied one „ but Trotsky was still outside the party. It needed a party man of irreproachable standing to re-arm the party. Lenin was irreplaceable here.

Within a comparatively short period Lenin was able to rally the rank and file, to win a majority and to steer the party towards a new revolution. But April was only the first step. Hardly had the Bolshevik right-wing been defeated than a new danger arose – ultra-left impatience. from the very workers who had enabled Lenin to defeat the right! An immensely complex and fast changing situation required, not just a new line, but sensitive and speedy tactical shifts and turns.

(The second part of this review article will appear in our next issue.)




1. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II. Foreword, pp.x-xi.

2. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.21 p.15.

3. Lenin, CW, Vol.21, p.16.

4. Lenin, CW, Vol.21, p.17.

5. Lenin, CW, Vol.21, p.32-33.

6. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.25.

7. Lenin, CW, Vol.21, p.387.

8. Lenin, CW, Vol.22, pp.178-179.

9. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.44.

10. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.1, p.109.

11. Trotsky, History, Vol.1, p.109.

12. Trotsky, History, Vol.1, p.111.

13. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.84.

14. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.92.

15. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.97.

16. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.98.

17. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.104.

18. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.105.

19. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.106.

20. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.107.

21. Trotsky, History, Vol.1, p.274.

22. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.II, p.124.

23. Lenin, CW, Vol.24, p.24.

24. Lenin, CW, Vol.24, p.22-23.


Last updated on 19.10.2006