V. I.   Lenin

On the Provisional Revolutionary Government


Article Two

Only From Below, or From Above As Well As From Below?

In our previous article analysing Plekhanov’s reference to history we showed that he draws unwarranted general conclusions on points of principle from statements by Marx, which apply wholly and exclusively to the concrete situation in Germany in 1850. That concrete situation fully explains why Marx did not raise, and at that time could not have raised, the question of the Communist League’s participation in a provisional revolutionary government. We shall now proceed to examine the general, fundamental question of the admissibility of such participation.

In the first place, the question at issue must be accurately presented. In this respect, fortunately, we are able to use a formulation given by our opponents and thus avoid arguments on the essence of the dispute. Iskra, No. 93, says: “The best way towards achieving such organisation [the organisation of the proletariat into a party in opposition to the bourgeois-democratic state] is to develop the bourgeois revolution from below [Iskra’s italics] through the pressure of the proletariat on the democrats in power.” Iskra goes on to say that Vperyod “wants this pressure of the proletariat on the revolution to proceed not only ’from below’, not only from the street, but also from above, from the marble halls of the provisional government”.

The issue is thus clearly stated. Iskra wants pressure from below, Vperyod wants it “from above as well as from be low”. Pressure from below is pressure by the citizens on the revolutionary government. Pressure from above is pressure by the revolutionary government on the citizens. Some limit their activity to pressure from below; others do not agree with such a limitation and demand that pressure from   below be supplemented by pressure from above. The issue, consequently, reduces itself to the question contained in our subtitle: only from below, or from above as well as from below? Some consider it wrong in principle for the proletariat, in the epoch of the democratic revolution, to exert pressure from above, “from the marble halls of the provisional government”. Others consider it wrong in principle for the proletariat, in the epoch of the democratic revolution, to reject entirely pressure from above, to renounce participation in the provisional revolutionary government. Thus, the question is not whether pressure from above is probable in a given situation, or whether it is practicable under a given alignment of forces. We are for the moment not considering any concrete situation, and in view of the numerous attempts to substitute one question at issue for another, we urgently ask the readers to bear this in mind. We are dealing with the general question of principle, whether in the epoch of the democratic revolution it is admissible to pass from pressure from below to pressure from above.

To elucidate this question, let us first refer to the history of the tactical views of the founders of scientific socialism. Were there no disputes in this history over the general question of the admissibility of pressure from above? There was such a dispute. It was caused by the Spanish insurrection of the summer of 1873. Engels assessed the lessons which the socialist proletariat should learn from that insurrection in an article entitled “The Bakuninists at Work”, printed in the German Social-Democratic newspaper Volksstaat[2] in 1873 and reprinted in the pamphlet Internationales acts dem Volksstaat in 1894. Let us see what general conclusions Engels drew.

On February 9, 1873, King Amadeo of Spain abdicated the throne—“the first king to go on strike”, as Engels facetiously remarks. On February 12 the republic was proclaimed, soon to be followed by a Carlist revolt in the Basque provinces. April 10 saw the election of a Constituent Assembly which, on June 8, proclaimed the federal republic. On June 11 a new Cabinet was formed by Pi y Margall. In the commission charged with drafting the constitution the extreme republicans, known as the “Intransigentes”, were not represented.   And when, on July 3, the new constitution was proclaimed the Intransigentes rose in revolt. Between July 5 and 11 they gained the upper hand in the Seville, Granada, Alcoy, Valencia, and several other provinces. The government of Salmeron, who succeeded Pi y Margall when the latter resigned, sent troops against the rebel provinces. The revolt was suppressed after a more or less stiff resistance. Cádiz fell on July 26, 1873, and Cartagena on January 11, 1874. Such are the brief chronological facts with which Engels introduces his subject.

In evaluating the lessons to be drawn from these events, Engels stresses, first, that the struggle for the republic in Spain was not and could not have been a struggle for the socialist revolution. “Spain,” he says, “is such an industrially backward country that there can be no thought of an immediate complete emancipation there of the working class of that country. Before it comes to that, Spain will have to pass through various preliminary stages of development and remove a considerable number of obstacles from its path. The republic offered that country the chance of going through those preliminary stages in the shortest possible time and of quickly surmounting the obstacles. But that chance could be utilised only through the active political intervention of the Spanish working class. The mass of the workers felt this. They strove everywhere to have a part in the events, to take advantage of the opportunity for action, instead of leaving the owning classes, as heretofore, a clear field for action and intrigues.

It was thus a question of struggle for the republic, a question of the democratic, not of the socialist, revolution. The question of the workers’ taking a hand in the events presented itself in a twofold aspect at the time. On the one hand, the Bakuninists (or “Alliancists”—-the founders of the “Alliance” for struggle against the Marxist “Inter national”) negated political activity, participation in elections, etc. On the other hand, they were against participation in a revolution which did not aim at the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class; they were against participation of whatever kind in a revolutionary government. It is this second aspect of the question that holds special interest for us in the light of our dispute.   It was this aspect, incidentally, which gave rise to the formulation of the difference in principle between the two tactical slogans.

“The Bakuninists,” says Engels, “had for years been propagating the idea that all revolutionary action from above was pernicious, and that everything must be organised and carried out from below upward.”

Hence, the principle, “only from below” is an anarchist principle.

Engels demonstrates the utter absurdity of this principle in the epoch of the democratic revolution. It naturally and inevitably leads to the practical conclusion that the establishment of revolutionary governments is a betrayal of the working class. The Bakuninists drew this very conclusion, which they elevated into a principle, namely, that “the establishment of a revolutionary government is but a new deception and a new betrayal of the working class.”

We have here, as the reader will see, the same two “principles” which the new Iskra has arrived at, namely: (I) that only revolutionary action from below is admissible, as opposed to the tactics of “from above as well as from be low”; 2) that participation in a provisional revolutionary government is a betrayal of the working class. Both these new-Iskra principles are anarchist principles. The actual course of the struggle for the republic in Spain revealed the utter preposterousness and the utterly reactionary essence of both these principles.

Engels brings this truth home with several episodes from the Spanish revolution. The revolution, for example, breaks out in Alcoy, a manufacturing town of comparatively recent origin with a population of 30,000. The workers’ insurrection is victorious despite its leadership by the Bakuninists, who will, in principle, have nothing to do with the idea of organising the revolution. After the event the Bakuninists began to boast that they had become “masters of the situation”. And how did these “masters” deal with their “situation”, asks Engels. First of all, they established in Alcoy a “Welfare Committee”, that is, a revolutionary government. Mind you, it was these selfsame Alliancists (Bakuninists), who, only ten months before the revolution, had   resolved at their Congress, on September 15, 1872, that “every organisation of a political, so-called provisional or revolutionary power can only be a new fraud and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as all existing governments”. Rather than refute this anarchist phrase-mongering, Engels confines himself to the sarcastic remark that it was the sup porters of this resolution who found themselves “members of this provisional and revolutionary governmental power” in Alcoy. Engels treats these gentlemen with the scorn they deserve for the “utter helplessness, confusion, and passivity” which they revealed when in power. With equal contempt Engels would have answered the charges of “Jacobinism”, so dear to the Girondists of Social-Democracy. He shows that in a number of other towns, e.g., in Sanlúcar de Barrameda (a port of 26,000 inhabitants near Cádiz) “the Alliancists ...here too, in opposition to their anarchist principles, formed a revolutionary government”. He reproves them for “not having known what to do with their power”. Knowing well that the Bakuninist labour leaders participated in provisional governments together with the Intransigentes, i.e., together with the republicans, the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, Engels reproves the Bakuninists, not for their participation in the government (as he should have done according to the “principles” of the new Iskra), but for their poor organisation, the feebleness of their participation, their subordination to the leadership of the bourgeois republican gentry. With what withering sarcasm Engels would have flayed those people who, in the epoch of the revolution, try to minimise the importance of “technical” and military leadership, may incidentally be seen from the fact that he reproved the Bakuninist labour leaders for having, as members of the revolutionary government, left the “political and military leadership” to the bourgeois republican gentry, while they fed the workers with bombastic phrases and paper schemes of “social” reforms.

A true Jacobin of Social-Democracy, Engels not only appreciated the importance of action from above, he not only viewed participation in a revolutionary government together with the republican bourgeoisie as perfectly legitimate, but he demanded such participation, as well as energetic military initiative on the part of the revolutionary power,   considering it his duty to give practical and guiding military advice.

“Nevertheless,” he says, “the uprising, even if begun in a brainless way, would have had a good chance to succeed, had it been conducted with some intelligence,[1] if only in the manner of the Spanish military revolts, in which the garrison of one town rises, marches on to the next, sweeping along with it the town’s garrison previously worked on by propaganda, and, growing into an avalanche, the insurgents press on to the capital, until a fortunate engagement, or the crossing over to their side of the troops sent against them, decides the victory. This method was especially applicable in the given situation. The insurgents had long been organised everywhere into volunteer battalions, whose discipline, true, was pitiable, yet assuredly not more pitiable than that of the remnants of the old, largely demoralised Spanish army. The government’s only dependable troops were the gendarmes, and these were scattered all over the country. The thing was, above all, to prevent these gendarmes from being drawn together, which could be done only by a bold assumption of the offensive in the open field. Such a course of action would not have involved much danger, since the government could only put up against the volunteers equally undisciplined troops. For anyone bent on winning there was no other way.”

That is how a founder of scientific socialism reasoned when faced with the problems of an uprising and direct action in the epoch of a revolutionary upheaval! Although the uprising was begun by the petty-bourgeois republicans and although confronting the proletariat was neither the question of the socialist revolution nor that of elementary political freedom, Engels set very great store on the highly active participation of the workers in the struggle for the republic; he demanded of the proletariat’s leaders that they should subordinate their entire activity to the need for   achieving victory in the struggle, which had begun. Engels himself, as a leader of the proletariat, even went into the details of military organisation; he was not averse to using the old-fashioned methods of struggle by military revolts when victory demanded it; he attached paramount importance to offensive action and the centralisation of the revolutionary forces. He bitterly reproved the Bakuninists for having made a principle of “what in the German Peasant War and in the German uprisings of May 1849 was an unavoidable evil, namely, the state of disunion and isolation of the revolutionary forces, which enabled the same government troops to put down one uprising after another." Engels’ views on the conduct of the uprising, on the organisation of the revolution, and on the utilisation of the revolutionary governmental power are as far removed from the tail-ist views of the new Iskra as heaven is from earth.

Summarising the lessons of the Spanish revolution, Engels established in the first place that “the Bakuninists, as soon as they were confronted with a serious revolutionary situation, were compelled to give up their whole former programme”. To begin with, they had to scrap the principle of abstention from political activity and from elections, the principle of the “abolition of the state”. Secondly, “they gave up the principle that the workers must not participate in any revolution that did not aim at the immediate and complete emancipation of the proletariat, and they them selves participated in an avowedly purely bourgeois movement”. Thirdly, and this conclusion answers precisely the point in dispute, “they trampled under foot the article of faith they had only just proclaimed— that the establishment of a revolutionary government is but a new deception and a new betrayal of the working class; they did this, sitting coolly in the government committees of the various towns, almost everywhere as an impotent minority outvoted and politically exploited by the bourgeois”. By their inability to lead the uprising, by splitting the revolutionary forces instead of centralising them, by leaving the leadership of the revolution to the bourgeois, and by dissolving the solid and strong organisation of the International, “the Bakuninists in Spain gave us an unsurpassable example of how not to make a revolution”.

*     *

Summing up the foregoing, we arrive at the following conclusions:

1) Limitation, in principle, of revolutionary action to pressure from below and renunciation of pressure also from above is anarchism.

2) He who does not understand the new tasks in the epoch of revolution, the tasks of action from above, he who is unable to determine the conditions and the programme for such action, has no idea whatever of the tasks of the proletariat in every democratic revolution.

3) The principle that for Social-Democracy participation in a provisional revolutionary government with the bourgeoisie is inadmissible, that every such participation is a betrayal of the working class, is a principle of anarchism.

4) Every “serious revolutionary situation” confronts the party of the proletariat with the task of giving purposive leadership to the uprising, of organising the revolution, of centralising all the revolutionary forces, of boldly launching a military offensive, and of making the most energetic use of the revolutionary governmental power.

5) Marx and Engels could not have approved, and never would have approved, the tactics .of the new Iskra at the present revolutionary moment; for these tactics are nothing short of a repetition of all the errors enumerated above. Marx and Engels would have called the new Iskra’s doctrinal position a contemplation of the “posterior” of the proletariat, a rehash of anarchist errors.

In the next article we shall discuss the tasks of the provisional revolutionary government.[3]


[1] Wäre er nur mit etnigem Verstand geleitet warden. Poor Engels! A pity he was not acquainted with the new Iskra! He would have known then how disastrous, noxious, utopian, bourgeois, technically one-sided, and conspiratorially narrow is the “Jacobin” idea that an insurrection can be conducted (geleitet werden)!—Lenin

[2] Der Volksstaat (The People’s State)—Central Organ of German Social-Democracy, published in Leipzig from 1869 to 1876, edited by Wilhelm Liebknecht. Marx and Engels contributed to the news paper.

[3] Lenin’s third article on the subject of “The Provisional Revolutionary Government” did not appear in print. Lenin dealt with the question of the aims of the provisional revolutionary government   in his “Sketch of a Provisional Revolutionary Government” (see pp. 534-36 of this volume), in his article “The Revolutionary Army and the Revolutionary Government” (see pp. 559-67 of this volume), and in his book Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.

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