V. I.   Lenin

On the Provisional Revolutionary Government


Article One

Plekhanov’s Reference to History

The Third Congress of the Party. adopted a resolution on the question of the provisional revolutionary government. The resolution expresses the position we have taken in Vperyod. We now propose to examine in detail all objections to our position and to clarify from all points of consideration the true doctrinal significance and the practical implications of the Congress resolution. We shall begin with Plekhanov ’s attempt to deal with the question strictly as a point of principle. Plekhanov entitled his article “On the Question of the Seizure of Power”. He criticises the “tactics aimed [evidently by Vperyod] at the seizure of political power by the proletariat”. As everyone who knows Vperyod is perfectly well aware, it has never raised the question of the seizure of power nor ever aimed at any “tactics of seizure”. Plekhanov seeks to substitute a fictitious issue for the real issue. We have only to recollect the course of the controversy to see this.

The question was first raised by Martynov in his famous Two Dictatorships. He stated that if our Party took the Lead in the uprising and the uprising were successful, this would inevitably bring about our participation in the provisional revolutionary government, which participation was inadmissible in principle and could only lead to disaster and discredit. Iskra defended this view. Vperyod contended that, on the contrary, such an outcome was highly desirable, that Social-Democratic participation in a provisional revolutionary government, which would be tantamount to the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, was permissible, and that without such a dictatorship the republic could not be maintained. Thus, in answering   the question posed by Martynov, both camps to the dispute proceeded from two like premises but reached different conclusions. Both assumed: 1) that the party of the proletariat would take the lead in the uprising, and 2) that the uprising would be victorious and the autocracy completely over thrown; they differed in the evaluation of the tactical conclusions to be drawn from these premises. Does this bear any resemblance to “tactics aimed [!] at the seizure [?] of power”? Is it not obvious that Plekhanov seeks to evade Martynov’s presentation of the question discussed by Iskra and Vperyod? At issue was the question whether a victorious uprising would be dangerous or disastrous, since it might necessitate participation in a provisional revolutionary government. The point that Plekhanov wants to argue is whether the tactics should be aimed at seizure of power. We are afraid that Plekhanov’s wish (which can only be understood as a desire to obscure Martynov’s presentation of the question) will remain a pious wish, since this is a subject that no one has discussed or is arguing.

What this substitution of the question signifies for the whole of Plekhanov’s argumentation is clearly revealed in the “virtuosi-of-philistinism” incident. Plekhanov cannot get over this expression, which was used by Vperyod. He reverts to it time and again, sternly and angrily assuring his readers that Vperyod has dared to apply this none too flattering epithet to Marx and Engels, that Vperyod was beginning to “criticise” Marx, etc., etc. Seeing that Plekhanov’s aim was to rehabilitate Martynov and to give Vperyod a “dressing down”, we quite understand how pleased he would have been had Vperyod said anything like the nonsense he attributes to it. The point is that “Vperyod” did not say anything of the kind, and any attentive reader could easily challenge Plekhanov, who has confused an interesting question of principle by meaningless and paltry cavil.

Tedious though it is to answer cavils, the notorious “virtuosi-of-philistinism” incident will have to be explained at length. Vperyod reasoned as follows. We all talk of achieving the republic. To achieve it in reality, we must “strike together” at the autocracy—“we” being the revolutionary people, the proletariat and the peasantry. But that is not all. It is not enough even to “strike the finishing blow together”   at the autocracy, that is, completely to overthrow the autocratic government. We shall also have to “repulse together” the inevitable desperate attempts to restore the deposed autocracy. In a revolutionary epoch this “repulsing together” is, in effect, the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, the participation of the proletariat in. the revolutionary government. Therefore, they who seek to frighten the working class with the perspective of such a dictatorship, as people like Martynov and L. Martov have done in the new Iskra, contradict their own slogan of struggling for the republic and consummating the revolution. At bottom, these people reason as if they wanted to restrict, to prune down their struggle for freedom—in a word, to measure off in advance the tiniest of modest gains, some sort of skimpy constitution in place of the republic Such people, said Vperyod, vulgarise, philistine fashion, the well-known Marxist thesis concerning the three major forces of the revolution in the nineteenth (and the twentieth) century and its three main stages. The gist of this thesis is that the first stage of revolution is the restriction of absolutism, which satisfies the bourgeoisie; the second is the attainment of the republic, which satisfies the “people”—the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie at large; the third is the socialist revolution, which alone can satisfy the proletariat. “That picture, by and large, is correct,” Vperyod said. We actually have here an ascent by three different schematic stages, varying according to the classes, which, at best, will accompany us in this ascent. But if we interpret this correct Marxist scheme of three stages to mean that we must measure off in advance, before any ascent begins, a very modest part, let us say, not more than one step, if, in keeping with this scheme and before any ascent begins, we sought to “draw up a plan of action in the revolutionary epoch”, we should be virtuosi of philistinism.

This was Vperyod’s line of thought in issue No. 14.[1] And it was on the concluding italicised words that Plekhanov decided to pick. Vperyod, he triumphantly declared, thereby dubs Marx a philistine, because it was in keeping with   this scheme that Marx drew up his plan of activity in the revolutionary epoch itself!

The evidence? The evidence is that in 1850, when the revolutionary people of Germany was defeated in the struggle of 1848-49 because it failed to deal the autocracy the finishing blow, when the liberal bourgeoisie had secured a skimpy constitution and passed over to the side of reaction— in a word, when the German democratic-revolutionary movement had only ascended the first step and halted for want of strength to mount higher, ... then Marx said that the next revolutionary ascent would be an ascent to the second step.

You smile, dear reader? Plekhanov’s syllogism is in fact somewhat—shall we say, to put it mildly—“dialectic”. Because Marx, in the corresponding concrete situation of a concrete democratic revolution, said that the ascent to the first step would be followed by the ascent to the second, therefore only “critics” of Marx could apply the word philistines to people who, before the first step is ascended, try to scare us with the awful perspective (in the event of an exceptionally well organised and accomplished uprising) of having to leap two steps at once.

No, indeed, it is not a nice thing to “criticise” Marx ... but neither is it nice to cite Marx maladroitly. Martynov was unfortunate in interpreting Marx; Plekhanov was unfortunate in defending Martynov.

Let no hypercritical reader infer from what we have said that we advocate “tactics aimed” at unconditionally leaping over one step, regardless of the correlation of the social forces. No, we advocate no such tactics. We only seek to prevent the proletariat from coming under the influence of people capable of talking of the republic and of carrying through the revolution while at the same time frightening themselves and others with the possibility of having to participate in a democratic dictatorship. We pointed out in Vperyod, No. 14, that after the present revolutionary upsurge, reaction would inevitably set in, but that the more freedom we win now and the more ruthlessly we suppress and destroy the counter-revolutionary forces in the epoch of the possible (and desirable) democratic dictatorship, the less will reaction be able to take away from us. We also pointed   out in the same issue that the very question of this dictatorship makes no sense unless one assumes a course of events in which the democratic revolution goes to the length of completely overthrowing absolutism and establishing the republic without stopping midway.

Let us now pass from the “virtuosi-of-philistinism” incident to the substance of the famous Address (of the Central Committee of the Communist League to the League members, March 1850) which Plekhanov cites. In this extremely interesting and informative Address (deserving to be translated fully into Russian) Marx deals with the concrete political situation in Germany in 1850. He indicates the likelihood of another political outbreak, establishes the inevitability of the transition of power to the republican, petty-bourgeois democratic party in the event of a revolution, and analyses the tactics of the proletariat. Dealing with the tactics before and during the revolution, and following the victory of the petty-bourgeois democrats, Marx urges the necessity of creating “an independent secret and open organisation of the workers’ party”; he struggles with might and main against “its reduction to the role of appendage of the official bourgeois-democratic party”; and he stresses the importance of arming the workers, of forming an independent proletarian guard, and of having the proletarians keep a close watch on the treacherous petty-bourgeois democracy, etc.

There is not a word in the Address on the participation of the workers’ party in a provisional revolutionary government, or on the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. From that Plekhanov infers that Marx “apparently regarded as inconceivable the idea that the political representatives of the revolutionary proletariat could work together with those of the petty bourgeoisie to create a new social order”. The logic of this deduction limps. Marx does not raise the question of the participation of the workers’ party in a provisional revolutionary government, but Plekhanov concludes that Marx decides this question generally and in principle in a definitely negative sense. Marx speaks only of the concrete situation; Plekhanov draws a general conclusion without at all considering the question in its concreteness. Yet one has only to scan some passages in the Address which Plekhanov   has omitted to see that his conclusions are entirely false.

The Address was written from the experience of two years in a revolutionary epoch, 1848 and 1849. Marx formulates the results of this experience as follows: “At the same time [i. e., in 1848-49] the former firm organisation of the League was considerably slackened. A large part of the members who directly participated in the revolutionary movement believed the time for secret societies to have gone by and public activities alone sufficient. The individual circles and communities [Gemeinden] allowed their connections with the Central Committee to become loose and gradually dormant. Consequently, while the democratic party, the party of the petty bourgeoisie, organised itself more and more in Germany, the workers’ party lost its only firm hold, remained organised at the most in separate localities for local purposes, and in the general movement thus came completely under the domination and leadership of the petty-bourgeois democrats.”[2] On the following page of the Address Marx declares: “At this moment, when a new revolution is imminent ... it is extremely important that the workers’ party ... act in the most organised, most unanimous, and most independent fashion possible, if it is not to be exploited and taken in tow again by the bourgeoisie as it was in 1848.”

Consider the meaning of these categorical statements! After two years of open revolution, after the victory of the popular uprising in Berlin, after the convocation of a revolutionary parliament, after part of the country had been in open revolt and the power had passed temporarily into the hands of the revolutionary governments, Marx records the defeat of the revolutionary people, and as regards party organisation, a gain for the petty-bourgeois democrats and a loss for the workers’ party. Is it not as plain as plain can be that this implies a political situation in which it would   have been pointless to raise the question of the participation of the workers’ party in the government? After two years of a revolutionary epoch, when Marx, for nine months, had openly published the most revolutionary newspaper of the workers’ party, it had to be recorded that the party was completely disorganised, that there was no clearly marked proletarian current in the mainstream (Stephan Born’s[4] Workers’ Brotherhoods were too negligible), and that the proletariat had fallen completely, not only under the domination of the bourgeoisie, but under its leadership! Obviously, economic relations were still extremely undeveloped, there was practically no large-scale industry, nor was there an independent workers’ movement of any appreciable size, and the petty bourgeoisie was in complete control. Naturally, under such circumstances, the idea of participation by the workers’ party in a provisional government could never be entertained by a writer who was dealing with the concrete situation. Naturally, in his Address, Marx had to knock (pardon the expression) into the heads of the Communist League members axioms, which today seem elementary to us. He had to demonstrate the need for workers to nominate their own candidates in elections independently of the bourgeois democrats. He had to refute the democratic phrase mongering to the effect that the workers’ separation would “split” the democratic party (mark well!—you can only split what was yesterday united and what in the ideological sense is still united). Marx had to warn the members of the Communist League not to be carried away by such phrases. On behalf of the Central Committee of the League, he had to promise to convene a congress of the workers’ party at the first opportunity with the object of centralising the workers’ clubs; in the revolutionary years of 1848-49 the conditions were still lacking for anyone to entertain the idea of convening a separate congress of the workers’ party.

The conclusion is obvious: Marx, in the famous Address, does not even mention the question whether it is admissible in principle for the proletariat to participate in a provisional revolutionary government. He deals exclusively with the concrete situation that prevailed in Germany in 1850. He does not say a word about the participation of the Communist   League in a revolutionary government, because, under the conditions then prevailing, the idea of such participation in the name of the workers’ party for the purpose of the democratic dictatorship could not have arisen.

Marx’s idea consists in the following: We, the German Social-Democrats of 1850, are unorganised, we were defeated in the first period of the revolution and were taken completely in tow by the bourgeoisie; we must organise independently—absolutely and under all circumstances independently—if we do not wish to be caught lagging again in an eventual victory of the organisationally strengthened and powerful petty-bourgeois party.

Martynov’s idea consists in the following: We, the Russian Social-Democrats of 1905, are organised in an independent party and we want to march at the head of the petty-bourgeois people for the first assault on the fortress of tsarism. But if we organise the assault too efficiently and carry it through successfully—which heaven forfend!—we may have to participate in a provisional revolutionary government, or even in the democratic dictatorship. Such participation is inadmissible in principle.

Does Plekhanov seriously want to convince us that Martynov can be defended according to Marx? Plekhanov must take the readers of Iskra for children. All we can say is: Marxism is one thing; Martynovism, another.

Before concluding with the Address we must clarify an other incorrect view of Plekhanov. He rightly points out that in March 1850, when the Address was written, Marx believed that capitalism was in a state of senile decay and the socialist revolution seemed to him “quite near”. Shortly after wards Marx corrected this mistake; as early as September 15, 1850, he broke with Schapper (Schapper found himself with Willich in a minority in the League and resigned from it), who had succumbed to bourgeois-democratic revolutionism or utopianism to the extent of saying, “We must achieve power at once, otherwise we may as well go to sleep.” Marx answered that it was incorrect to regard solely one’s own will, instead of the actual conditions, as the motive force of the revolution. The proletariat might still have   to face fifteen, twenty, or fifty years of civil wars and international conflicts “not only to change the conditions, but to change yourselves [the proletarians] and to render yourselves fit for political rule”.[5] Plekhanov briefly mentions this change in Marx’s views and concludes:

“They [Marx and Engels after this “change”] would have formulated the political tasks of the proletariat on the assumption that the democratic system had come to stay for a fairly long time. But for that very reason they would have all the more emphatically condemned the participation of socialists in a petty-bourgeois government.” (Iskra, No. 96.)

Plekhanov’s inference is entirely false. It brings us back to the confusion of socialist dictatorship and democratic dictatorship for which we have so often had occasion to criticise L. Martov and Martynov. Marx and Engels in 1850 did not differentiate between democratic dictatorship and socialist dictatorship, or, rather, they did not mention the former at all, since they considered capitalism to be in a state of senile decay and socialism near. Nor did they, for the same reason, differentiate at the time between a minimum and a maximum programme. If this distinction is to be made (as it is being made now by all of us, Marxists, who are combating the bourgeois-democratic revolutionariness of the “Socialists-Revolutionaries”, because they do not under stand the distinction), then the question of the socialist and the democratic dictatorship must be dealt with separately. In not so doing, Plekhanov is guilty of inconsistency. By choosing an evasive formulation and speaking in general terms of “the participation of socialists in a petty-bourgeois government”, he substitutes the question of the socialist dictatorship for the clearly, definitely and precisely presented question of the democratic dictatorship. He con founds (to cite the comparison of Vperyod[3] ) the participation of Millerand in a Cabinet together with Galliffet in the epoch immediately preceding the socialist revolution with that of Varlin in a revolutionary government together with petty bourgeois democrats who defended and safeguarded the republic.

Marx and Engels considered socialism near in 1850; hence, they underestimated the democratic gains, which seemed to them to be well-established in view of the unquestionable victory of the petty-bourgeois democratic party.[6] Twenty-five years later, in 1875, Marx drew attention to the undemocratic system in Germany—“military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms”.[7] Thirty-five years later, in 1885, Engels predicted that in the coming European upheaval the power in Germany would pass to the petty-bourgeois democrats.[8] What follows from this is the very reverse of what Plekhanov seeks to prove. If Marx and Eng els had realised that the democratic system was bound to last for a fairly long time, they would have attached all the more importance to the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry with the object of consolidating the republic, of completely eradicating all survivals of absolutism, and of clearing the arena for the battle for socialism. They would all the more strongly have condemned the tail-enders, who, on the eve of the democratic revolution, were capable of frightening the proletariat with the possibility of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship.

Plekhanov is aware of the weakness of his position, which is based on a misinterpretation of the Address. He therefore makes the discreet reservation that his reference to history does not claim to exhaust the subject, although he draws “exhaustively” categorical conclusions based on nothing beyond a reference which has no bearing on the matter, with no attempt even to examine the question posed concretely by Vperyod. Plekhanov seeks to impute to Vperyod both the desire to “criticise” Marx and the point of view of Mach and Avenarius. The attempt but makes us smile. Plekhanov’s position must be weak indeed if he can find no target for his darts among Vperyod’s actual assertions but needs must contrive a target from subjects as foreign to Vperyod as to the point in question. Finally, Plekhanov produces another piece of evidence, which he thinks “incontrovertible”. Actually, this evidence (a letter of Engels to Turati written in 1894) is worse than useless.

From Plekhanov’s version of this letter (unfortunately he does not quote it in full and does not say whether it was published and. where), it appears that Engels had to demonstrate   to Turati the difference between a socialist and a petty-bourgeois revolution. No more need be said, Comrade Plekhanov! Turati is an Italian Millerand, a Bernsteinian, whom Giolitti had offered a portfolio in his Cabinet. Turati evidently confounded two revolutions of an entirely different class content. He imagined he would be furthering the interests of proletarian rule; but Engels explained to him that in the given situation in Italy in 1894 (i. e., several decades after Italy’s ascent to the “first step”, after the conquest of political freedom, which enabled the proletariat to organise openly, widely, and independently!), he, Turati, in a Cabinet of the victorious petty-bourgeois party, would actually be defending and promoting the interests of an alien class, the petty bourgeoisie. What we have here, consequently, is a case of Millerandism. It was against this confounding of Millerandism with the democratic dictatorship that Vperyod spoke out; but Plekhanov made no mention whatever of Vperyod’s arguments. This is a characteristic instance of the false position against which Engels had long warned the leaders of the extreme parties, that is, a position in which they fail to grasp the true nature of the revolution and unconsciously further the interests of an “alien” class. In the name of all that is sacred, Comrade Plekhanov, what on earth has this to do with the question raised by Martynov and analysed by Vperyod? If there is the danger that people who have risen to the first step may confound the second step with the third, can this danger serve as justification for frightening us, as we are about to mount the first step, with the perspective of possibly having to take two at once?

No, Plekhanov’s “brief reference to history” proves precisely nothing. His basic conclusion that “to participate in a revolutionary government together with representatives of the petty bourgeoisie would be a betrayal of the proletariat” is not in the least corroborated by references to the situation in Germany in 1850 or in Italy in 1894, which were radically different from the situation in Russia in January and May 1905. These references add nothing to the question of the democratic dictatorship and of the provisional revolutionary government. And if Plekhanov should want to apply his conclusion to this question, if he considers every participation of the proletariat in a revolutionary government   in the course of the struggle for the republic, in the course of the democratic revolution, inadmissible in principle, we undertake to prove to him that this is an anarchistic “principle” unequivocally condemned by Engels. We shall demonstrate this point in our next article.


[1] See p. 290 of this volume—Ed.

[2] Ansprache der Zentralbehörde an den Bund, von März 1850, K. Marx: Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprocess zu Köln, 1885, Anhang IX, S. 75. (Address of the Central Committee to the League, March 1850, K. Marx: Revelations Concerning the Cologne Trials of the Communists, 1885, Appendix IX, p. 75.—Ed.) The italics in the quotation are ours.—Lenin

[3] See p. 282 of this volume.—Ed.

[4] Stephan Born (1824-98)—representative of the German labour movement, participant in the revolution of 1848, member of the Communist League (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1958, Vol. II, pp. 352-53).

[5] See Karl Marx, “Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln”, Berlin, 1952, S. 39.

[6] Lenin refers to the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in March 1850 (see Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1958, Vol. I, pp. 106-17).

[7] See Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1958, Vol. 1, pp. 106-17.

[8] Lenin refers to Engels’ “On the History of the Communist League” (see Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1958, Vol. II,p. 338).

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