Jim Higgins

1917: Lenin and the Working Class

(Autumn 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, pp.16-20.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Theory, my friend is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” Goethe (Quoted by Lenin, April 1917).

The fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution is upon us and no doubt it will be celebrated in differing ways in different places. In the West we shall be treated to analyses of the fatal conjuncture of the Slavic mood and the evil genius of Lenin. Weighty, and even weightier tomes, will thud from the academic presses adding obscurity to ignorance. While in China the event may be celebrated by the explosion of yet another and larger bomb, inspired by the pure clean thought of the “great helmsman” and containing a lot of very dirty strontium 90. In Russia, the cradle of the revolution, we can expect to see bigger and better sputniks, some devastating weaponry and record-breaking crowds shuffling past the obscene mixture of skin, bone and formaldehyde that rests in the Lenin mausoleum. In all this trafficking in myths and inappropriate symbols, the real content of the revolution will be lost. For Lenin, as for any serious revolutionary, the real subject of 1917 was, and is, the Russian working class. In eight short months these workers move from Tsarist autocracy to the consummation of the Soviet power. Encapsulated in this process is the conclusive proof of the infinite possibilities for the working class. In this article I shall attempt to show how Lenin’s thought and development through 1917 closely followed and interacted with the development and capacities of the Russian workers.

All this is in no way to suggest that Lenin proceeded by a kind of inspired opportunism. The bourgeois commentators who are unable to see a connection between Lenin, the enthusiastic participator in the pre-war factional struggles, and Lenin, the leader of the victorious Bolsheviks’ are reduced to analyses, in greater or lesser detail, of each episode without thought for the links. The execution of his brother Alexander in 1887 may have brought him into the movement against autocracy. The futility of Alexander’s death may or may not have turned him away from Narodnism and towards the notion of a disciplined revolutionary socialist party. This notion of the party leads inevitably to the struggles of 1903 and What is to be Done? The subsequent fight with the Menshevists, the Godseekers, the Otzovists etc. follows quite naturally from the need for theoretical clarity in such a revolutionary party. All this development has internal consistency and can be worked through as high points in the psychological development of one or two individuals if what is required is an instant gloss with the trappings of scholarship. But such an approach really answers nothing. It cannot answer the why of 1905 and 1917 because it leaves out of account the relationship of these struggles to the working class. The aim was the emancipation of the class and the agency the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. If this is not understood the result can be a degeneration into the petty-bourgeois ideology of Stalinism or the assumption of historical play acting, as in a number of Trotskyist groups, where, like characters in a Pirandello play, they dispute for the leading role of Lenin. To write polemics in the Lenin style is easy, to make a revolution requires talent of a much higher order.

In the discussion that preceded 1917 perhaps none illustrates more clearly Lenin’s attitude to the class than his polemics on the question of the Imperialist war and the antics of the centrists. Martov in the bulletin of the Organising Committee of RSDLP (April 1916) had spoken of the need to maintain contact with the social patriots in the working class in the following vein:

... The cause of revolutionary Social Democracy would be in a sad, indeed hopeless plight, if those groups of workers who, in mental development, approach most closely to the “intelligentsia” and who are most highly skilled, fatally drifted away from it towards opportunism.

To which Lenin replied:

By means of the silly word “fatally” and a certain sleight of hand the fact is evaded that certain groups of workers have already drifted away to opportunism and to the imperialist bourgeois. And that is the very fact that the sophists of the OC (Organising Committee) want to evade. They confine themselves to the official optimism that Kautskyite Hilferding and the others now flaunt: the objective conditions guarantee the unity of the proletariat and the victory of the revolutionary trend! We forsooth are “optimists” with regard to the proletariat!

But in reality all these Kautskyites – Hilferding, the OC supporters are optimists ... with regard to opportunism. That is the whole point.

The proletariat is the child of capitalism – of world capitalism and not only European capitalism, or of imperialist capitalism. On a world scale, fifty years sooner or fifty years later ... the proletariat of course “will be” united, and the revolutionary Social Democracy will “inevitably” be victorious within it. But that is not the point Messrs Kautskyites. The point is that at the present time, in the imperialist countries of Europe, you are fawning on the opportunists, who are alien to the proletariat as a class ..., and unless the labour movement rids itself of them it will remain a bourgeois labour movement. By advocating unity with the opportunists .. you are , objectively, defending the enslavement of the workers by the imperialist bourgeoisie with the aid of its best agents in the Labour movement. [1]

In this last paragraph there is none of the sentimental maundering that characterises many an intellectual’s attitude to the working class. There is a clear differentiation between class interest and bourgeois tendencies within the labour movement. To see this vital difference is to go a long way to understanding Lenin’s success and Martov’s failure in the course of the revolution. Martov was, despite his intellectual realisation of revolutionary necessity, incapable of acting because of past friendly associations with his present opponents. This lesson is one that the present-day Communist Party has either forgotten or never learned. In their grotesque hunt for “unity of the Left” they are prepared for every rotten compromise which, particularly in the trade unions, makes them virtually indistinguishable from every other Labour faker.

Before the revolution Lenin was living in Switzerland, where contrary to the myth of Lenin’s Russian exclusionism, he was an individual member of the Swiss Social Democratic party and worked assiduously for the Left of that organisation. The Swiss party was considered to be on the left of the Zimmerwald International but this and its own party programme adopted at the 1915 congress which called for “revolutionary mass action” were largely paper. In this situation Lenin produced a programme tailored to meet the needs of the Swiss problem but based on an intransigent internationalism. Its aim was to mobilise a campaign around the issue of the war, counterposing the overthrow of capitalism as the end of all war. He showed that the fact of Swiss neutrality was being imported into the internal affairs of labour and that while war profits mushroomed working-class standards diminished. He called for a heavy progressive taxation on wealth and property; and for large scale nationalisation together with a series of democratic demands: the emancipation of women, naturalisation of foreign workers – foreigners suffered specific economic disabilities in Switzerland – and the extension of the principle of the referendum to socialist objectives. It is of course true that such a programme would have received an affirmative response from most Social Democrats (at least from Kautsky leftwards); the significant difference is that Lenin insisted a programme is only a serious matter when it is put to the scrutiny of the working class. As a concomitant of the programme he called for mass leafleting and propaganda in the trade unions and the party, coupled with strikes, demonstrations and mass actions.

Lenin, both before and after the revolution, attempted to test his theories in actual discussion with workers. In Krupskaya’s Memories of Lenin she shows one of his less successful attempts; unsuccessful but nevertheless significant. Lenin and Krupskaya were at a Swiss sanatorium for treatment for Krupskaya’s illness, she writes:

Among the visitors to the “Milk” sanatorium was a soldier ... his lungs were not particularly strong, and he had been sent for treatment. He was quite a nice fellow. Vladimir Ilyich hovered about him like a cat after lard, tried several times to engage him in conversation about the predatory character of the war; the fellow would not contradict him but was clearly not interested. [2]

In his Lecture on the 1905 Revolution Lenin develops this theme of the self-activity of the class and the tactics of the Social Democracy. He shows that under conditions of autocracy even a peaceful demonstration led by a Priest with simple demands for the easing of suffering, cannot succeed without going over to fight the autocracy. From humble petitions the people moved rapidly and inevitably to political strikes. Under the impetus of working-class action the peasants began to take over the large estates (2,000 estates burned and the produce distributed). The soldiers and sailors arrested many of their officers. In the first month of the 1905 revolution there were more strikers (440,0000 than in the previous ten years (430,000). “An eight hour day and arms” was the slogan of the Petrograd workers; it was these same workers who produced the “peculiar mass organisations” – the Soviets of Workers deputies. This development of the 1905 revolution led Lenin to say “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic.” In this monumental upheaval Social Democracy developed from organisations numbered in hundreds to parties with tens of thousands of members. In Petrograd alone there were three Social Democratic papers with circulations ranging from 50,000 to 100,000. The limits set were the limits the workers themselves imposed. With the benefit of hindsight, Lenin was able to say the revolution of 1905 was “a bourgeois democratic revolution in its social content but a proletarian revolution in its methods of struggle.” [3] 1905 was the direct precursor of 1917. In 1905 the Tsarist regime suffered a blow to which it succumbed twelve years later. The Russian workers appeared on stage for the first time and immediately took the primary role with the peasantry following their lead. If many of the lessons of 1905 were only half way learned by some, and not at all by other, valuable experience had been gained by the workers and Social Democracy.

The revolution of February 1917, when it actually broke, took most of the socialists by surprise (only a month before the revolution Lenin said “we of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution”). The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who formed the majority in the Soviet were unable to comprehend the dual power that the Soviet represented. The preconceptions created by generations of theorising blinded them to the new and complex reality. The autocracy had been smashed and, according to the blue-print, the era of capitalist democratic reform would be ushered in with the socialists acting as a loyal opposition. Socialism would only be on the order of the day when capitalism had fulfilled its classical role of developing the productive forces and creating a mass working class. Unfortunately reality was more complicated. The immediate problem of alleviating pressing misery was incapable of solution while the Provisional Government continued the war, but the soviet supported the Provisional Government. The solution of the agrarian problem was one of immense difficulty and without the arbitrariness of poor peasant seizure there was no clear cut distribution that would harmonise with the complicated class divisions on the land. The Provisional government refused to act and maintained the existing land tenure. At the same time the workers were in a state of turmoil, not immediately sure as to their objectives, but unconvinced that things must change and putting their trust in their own creation – the Soviet. In the first flush of the revolution they were prepared to take on trust the Mensheviks and SR leadership when they pointed to the “democratic regime” as the prime gain of the revolution and when they claimed that defence of the Provisional Government was defence of the revolution. But it was not only the Soviet majority that suffered from illusions; the Bolsheviks were, in the main, caught in the same trap. On 1 March the Executive Committee of the Soviet discussed the conditions for handing over power to the Provisional Government, and not a voice was raised against the Government despite the fact that there were 11 Bolsheviks on a Committee of 39 members. “In the Soviet the day after the Executive meeting, according to Shylapnikov himself, out of 400 deputies only 19 voted against the transfer of power to the bourgeoisie and this although there were already 40 in the Bolshevik faction.” [4] the Petrograd committee of the Bolsheviks announced that it would not oppose the power of the Provisional Government. With the return of Stalin and Kamenev to take over direction of the party in early March the line moved smartly to the right. In the Pravda of 15 March they said “... the Bolsheviks will decisively support the Provisional Government in so far as it fights reaction or counter-revolution... the Russian soldier must stand firm ly at his post answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell. Our slogan is not the meaningless ‘down with war.’ Our slogan is: pressure on the Provisional Government with the aim of compelling it ... to make an attempt to induce all the warring countries to open immediate negotiations... until then every man remains at his fighting post.” [5] for those who like to imagine that they see the degeneration of the revolution in direct line from Lenin’s policy it might be as well to examine the policies advocated by Lenin’s Bolshevik opponents in 1917, opponents who later took over the party not on the basis of Leninism but as a direct continuation of its opposite. The Pravda article of Stalin and Kamenev could well have been written at any time during Stalin’s “Peace” campaign; it reeks of opportunism, class collaboration and a complete ignorance of Marxism.

In Switzerland Lenin was chafing at his inability to return to Russia and to influence events directly. His Letters from Afar although written on the basis of press reports contain brilliant insights into the character of the Provisional Government and its “social patriot” camp followers. Away from the actual struggle, his mind was still cast in some of the old categories, “The democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” but even then, at a time when the social democrats were handing over power to Milyukov and Kerensky, Lenin was calling for the arming of the people under the auspices of the soviet. The letters warned against an “epidemic of excitement,” leading to calls for unity with the Centre and right wing Social Democrats. In a letter to Kollontai on 17 March he says, “On no account with Kautsky. Definitely a more revolutionary programme and tactics.” for Lenin, 1914 had been the great watershed that divided the revolutionaries from the Kautskys of the Second International; the issue of the imperialist war had definitely sorted the reformist sheep from the revolutionary movement.

More certainly than ever before he knew that the possibilities of the revolution could only be achieved by an uncompromising internationalism. The revolution was not the occasion for papering over differences but for new and more hopeful approaches to the working class. The Letters from Afar call on the workers to act with the rural wage labourers to forge a unity that would do more than rid the peasant of the feudal aristocracy and lead on to a social upheaval in the town and country.

That Lenin still retained some of the limitations of the old programme is clear from his Farewell Letter to the Swiss Socialists in which he says:

Socialism cannot triumph there (Russia) immediately and directly. But the peasant character of the country, the vast reserve of land in the hands of the nobility, may... give tremendous sweep to the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia and may make our revolution the prologue to the world socialist revolution. [6]

Russia according to this formulation was merely the first incomplete break in international capitalism. The final solution to the problems in Russia would appear in the revolution in the West, particularly Germany. Whatever lack of precision there may be in this perspective for the revolution, he was quite clear that the attitude of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd was both wrong and unprincipled:

On the 17th of March, through friends in Stockholm, he wrote a letter filled with alarm: “Our party would disgrace itself forever, kill itself politically, if it took part in such deceit (support for the Provisional Government’s war aims – JH) ...I would choose an immediate split with no matter who in our party, rather than surrender to social patriotism.” [7]

Whatever had been Lenin’s attitude to the immediate limitations of the revolution and independent class activity, it underwent a rapid change on his return to Russia. He arrived on 3 April and next day he addressed a meeting of the Bolsheviks followed immediately by a delivery of the same address to the Mensheviks (April Theses). The theses, which shocked Bolsheviks and Mensheviks alike, made a complete break with the old programme. All power to the soviets. No return to the Parliamentary Republic. Uncompromising opposition to the war. Abolition of the army, the police and the standing bureaucracy and its replacement by the armed people. Nationalisation of the land and the banks, the disposition of the land to be under the control of the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers. Social production and distribution under control of the Soviets of Workers Deputies. From the Bolsheviks he demanded an immediate party congress to change the name of the party to the Communist Party, to alter the programme and to call for a new International.

Lenin was accused of telescoping history, denying Marxism and of political hysteria. His Bolshevik critics argued that he was jumping over a stage when he dismissed the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” as a necessary precondition for the fulfilment of bourgeois democracy. Lenin would have none of this ritualism:

... The revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants has certainly become a reality, in a certain way and to a certain extent, in the Russian revolution, for this formula envisages only a relation of classes and not a concrete political institution ... The formula is now antiquated ... a new and different task faces us; to effect a split within this dictatorship between the proletarian elements ... And the small proprietors and petty-bourgeois elements who are opposed to moving towards the commune and are in favour of the bourgeois government. To deal with the question of the completion of the bourgeois revolution in the old way is to sacrifice Marxism to the dead letter. [8]

It is obvious that at this stage Lenin understands for the first time the significance of the Soviets. The working class that spontaneously produced the Soviets was capable of far more than the and plans of the “orthodox Marxists.” From this fundamental premise the need for a second revolution becomes clearer. The tactics within the Soviet must be to break with those elements whose real desire was to break the Soviet power and consolidate the bourgeois republic. To do this formally was not difficult but the success of the tactics and the programme depended on how closely they related to the workers’ own needs. It was to this that Lenin now addressed himself. He produced a stream of propaganda articles containing simple explanations of the Bolshevik policy. He described where the parties stood in relation to the war, the Provisional Government, internationalism, the land and workers power.

Later in April, Lenin fought for his point of view at the Bolshevik conference and emerged victorious. A furious press campaign was started against him and the Bolsheviks. But they persisted in their propaganda. On May Day, Milyukov announced that the Provisional Government had promised the Allies war to the victory. Two days later there was an armed demonstration against the war. A reshuffle of the Government became necessary and the “socialists” joined the Ministry with Kerensky as Minister of War. Early in May the Kronstadt Soviet declared itself the sole governing body for Kronstadt. The Bolshevik propaganda was beginning to bite.

To take some of the steam out of the situation the SR and Menshevik majority called for a demonstration “to show the enemy the unity and strength of democracy.” This took place on 18th June and half a million workers and soldiers answered the call, but the slogans in support of the “democracy” were in very short supply. Only the Bund, Plekhanovs tiny group and a Cossack regiment carried slogans in support of the Government. For the rest there was an abundance of Bolshevik slogans – “Down with the ten capitalist ministers,” “All power to the Soviets.” as Trotsky said “It was a great victory, and moreover it was won on the arena and with the weapons chosen by the enemy.” The real class issue was being joined. Lenin’s intransigence in refusing unity with the Mensheviks was being proved correct. With the benefit of the experience of successive Labour administrations, one can recognise the same hypocrisy in the “socialists” of the Soviet and provisional Government’ talk about socialism coupled to a profound respect for the status quo; the socialist objectives remain inscribed in the tablets but there is always some clear and present danger that makes there implementation a thing of the future. To defend democracy they smash democracy and anyone who calls for the real solution to present and future dangers is a wildcat, or whatever is the present cant abuse word. For Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the abuse worked out to be the unlikely combination of anarchists and spontaneous street demonstration which the Bolsheviks against their better judgement felt compelled to support, the Government took the opportunity to ban the Bolsheviks and arrest its leaders.

Lenin went into hiding for one hundred and eleven days. It was during this time that he was able to write his book State and Revolution. This is a book that unfailingly mystifies the bourgeois commentators. For them Lenin was seized with some kind of mental aberration when, during a period of revolutionary tumult, he felt it necessary to discuss at length and in detail the Marxist theory of the state. But it is precisely the fact that Lenin was one of the few Marxists who was prepared to think through the implications of working-class power and activity that made him a great revolutionary. In observing the movement in life itself and them measuring the basic principles against what he saw, he was doing what he had always done before: in 1903 and the party controversy, through the giant leap forward of 1905, to the realisation in 1917 that dual power existed but could not go on for ever. One side had to triumph;: the Soviet and parliamentary democracy were mutually antagonistic forms. Given the past struggle it was but a short step to the call for “Soviet Power.” In State and Revolution Lenin gives form to the theory of the workers’ state, cutting through all the obscurity and falsification of the “popes of Marxism.” The bourgeois state must be smashed; its forms are not just inappropriate, they are impossible. Only the working class, organised as the ruling class, can start the long slow climb out of barbarism. For a Marxist, as opposed to the bourgeois commentator, perhaps the most appropriate time for theoretical works on the state is when the question of power is on the agenda.

From 6 July to 25 October Lenin was virtually isolated from contact with the party and the workers, but he was writing a constant stream of articles and letters, refuting slanders, commenting on the developing situation and especially urging a more audacious course on the Bolsheviks. During his period the economy was declining rapidly, peasant unrest was boiling over, and Kornilov, weary of Kerensky’s vacillation in dealing with the Soviet, attempted a coup. The constant worsening of the situation in town and country gave added relevance to the Bolshevik programme. On 12 September Lenin wrote to the Central Committee:

The Bolsheviks, having gained a majority in the Soviets ... of both capitals (Petrograd and Moscow), can and must take power into their own hands. [9]

The situation, he argued, was such that only the implementation of the Bolshevik programme could save any gains of the February revolution, let alone make an advance. The SRs and the Mensheviks were for the war and support of the Provisional Government but neither the Government nor the Soviet could fight a war. The peasants were agitating for land and the Government was putting them down. The revolution was foundering on the incapacity of the government and its supporters. The objective conditions for the second revolution were ripe; it was necessary now to agitate among the workers:

... we must dispatch our entire group to the factories and the barracks. Their place is there, the pulse of life is there, there is the source of salvation for our revolution. [10]

In criticizing the Bolsheviks for their presence at the “Democratic Conference,” after it became clear that Kerensky was intent on a compromise with the army, Lenin said “Ten soldiers or ten workers from a backward factory who have become politically enlightened are worth a thousand times more than a hundred delegates hand picked by the Lieberdans.” (Lieberdan – Composite nickname from Lieber and Dan the Menshevik leaders – JH)

In a front page article in the Bolshevik paper Rabochy Put, 29 September, entitled The Crisis Has Matured, Lenin put the case for the second revolution in the context of the international socialist movement. The crisis, he said, was maturing in Germany, Italy and France. In Russia under the slogan of democracy the coalition of bourgeoisie and social patriots were smashing the peasant revolts in the tradition of Stolypin and preparing the defeat of the Soviets in the interest of continuing the war. In an addendum to the article which was circulated only to the Central Committee and the Moscow and Petrograd committees of the Bolshevik party, he called for a decision on the seizure of power, through Moscow, Petrograd and the Baltic Fleet. In the discussions in the Central Committee, Lenin again won the day. The resolution called on “all organisations and on workers and soldiers to make all round energetic preparations for an armed uprising.” But the insurrection was not and could not be a putsch:

Military conspiracy is Blanquism, if it is organised not by a party of a definite class, if its organisers have not analysed the political moment ..., if the party has not on its side the majority of the people ..., if the development of revolutionary events has not brought about a practical refutation of the conciliatory illusions of the petty bourgeoisie, if the majority of Soviet type organs ... have not been won over, if there is not a matured sentiment in the army against the government that protracts the war ..., if the slogans of the uprising have not become widely known and popular (All Power to the Soviets, etc.), if the country’s economic situation inspires hope for a favourable solution of the crisis by peaceable and parliamentary means. [11]

In this Lenin illustrates the whole maturing revolutionary crisis. An insurrection is inevitably an event that is decided secretly, what distinguishes the Bolshevik seizure of power from putschism is that it is based on the development of the consciousness of the working class.

On 25th October the Military Revolutionary Council led the insurrection which overthrew the Provisional Government. The same day power was handed over to the All Russian Congress of Workers and Soldiers Deputies. For the first time in history the workers gained power and kept it.

Lenin now moved on to the next great period in his life. A few short weeks saw the decrees on Workers’ Control, the Land, Rules for Office Employees, a declaration of the rights of the peoples of Russia which proclaimed complete equality for nationalities. On behalf of the Government, Lenin ordered Dukhonin, the Commander in Chief, to make an immediate offer of a ceasefire to all the belligerent nations. The Bolsheviks had begun to deliver on the programme that took them to power.

The importance of Lenin in 1917 cannot be overstated. It is literally true, as Trotsky said, that he “re-armed the Bolshevik party.” In the years of reaction and division, he maintained his position of socialist internationalism. He was prepared to reject old theories and old comrades in so far as they fell short of the ideal. The conventional portrait of Lenin misses his essence completely, his obsession was not with revolution for its own sake but with freedom and real democracy. The shifts and changes were not the dictates of a capricious mind but the result of a close analysis of the working class and its revolutionary possibilities. The development of Lenin’s thought from 1893 to 1917 mirrors at greater or lesser remove the development of the working class.

The future of the revolutionary movement is not in fruitless attempts to force 1967 into the mould of Lenin’s fifty year old prescriptions, but in an attempt to see as clearly as he the immediate and future capacities of the class.

Real human history began fitfully in October 1917; it is the task of the revolutionary movement to regain that impetus.



1. Lenin, Works, Vol.23, p.110.

2. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, Vol.2, p.187.

3. Lenin, Works, p.239.

4. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.1, p.300.

5. Ibid., Vol.1, p.305.

6. Lenin, Works, Vol.23, p.371.

7. Trotsky, op. cit., Vol.1, p.308.

8. Lenin, Works, Vol.24, p.44.

9. Ibid., Vol.26, p.19.

10. Ibid., p.27.

11. Ibid., p.213.


Last updated on 1.1.2008