V. I.   Lenin

The Russian Revolution and the Tasks of the Proletariat



What is the state of the democratic revolution in Russia? Is it defeated, or are we merely passing through a temporary lull? Was the December uprising the climax of the revolution, and are we now rushing headlong towards a “Shipov Constitution” regime[1]? Or is the revolutionary movement, on the whole, not subsiding, but rising, in preparation for a new outbreak, using the lull to muster new, forces, and promising, after the first unsuccessful insurrection, a second, with much greater chances of success?

These are the fundamental questions that now confront the Social-Democrats in Russia. If we are to remain true to Marxism, we cannot and should not try, by resorting to generalities, to shirk the task of analysing the objective conditions; for, in the last analysis, the appraisal of these conditions provides the final answer to these questions. On this answer wholly depend the tactics of the Social-Democrats; and our disputes about boycotting the Duma, for example (which, incidentally, are drawing to a close, as the majority of the organisations of the R.S.D.L.P. have declared in favour of the boycott), are only a tiny particle of these big questions.

We have just said that it would be unbecoming for a Marxist to try to evade these questions by resorting to generalities. A sample of these generalities is the argument that we have never regarded the revolution merely as being one of “pikes and pitchforks”; that we were revolutionaries even when we did not call for immediate insurrection; that we will remain revolutionaries also in the parliamentary period   when it sets in, etc. Such arguments would be miserable evasions, replacing the concrete historical question by abstract considerations which explain absolutely nothing, and merely serve to cover up paucity of ideas, or political con fusion. To support our statement with an example, we will refer to Marx’s attitude to the German revolution in 1848. This may be all the more useful since in our country we see a number of symptoms of the same, and perhaps even more sharp, division among the bourgeoisie into a reactionary and a revolutionary section—a division that was absent in the Great French Revolution, for example. Strictly speaking, the fundamental questions about the state of the Russian revolution that we posed above can also be put in a form adapted to the analogy with Germany (in the relative and limited sense, of course, in which any historical analogies may be drawn). We can put it as follows: 1847 or 1849? Are we going through (like Germany in 1847, when the German State Duma, the so-called United Landtag, was being convened) the closing period of the climax of the revolution, or are we experiencing (as Germany did in 1849) the closing period of final exhaustion of the revolution, and the beginning of a humdrum life under a dock-tailed constitution?

Marx was putting this question all through 1850, was studying it and answered it at last, not by an evasion, but with a direct reply deduced from his analysis of the objective conditions. In 1849 the revolution was crushed, a number of insurrections ended unsuccessfully; the Liberty actually won by the people was taken away from them, and reaction was raging against the “revolutionaries”. Open political action by the Communist League (the Social-Democratic organisation of the time, virtually led by Marx) became impossible. “Everywhere the need arose,” we read in the Address of the Central Committee to the members of the League in June 1850, “for a strong, secret (our italics) organisation of the revolutionary party throughout Germany.” The Central Committee, which has its headquarters abroad, sends an emissary to Germany, who concentrates “all the available forces in the hands of the League”. Marx writes (in the Address of March 1850) that a revival, a new revolution, is probable; be advises the workers to organise independently, and particularly urges the necessity of arming   the whole proletariat, of forming a proletarian guard, and of “frustrating by force any attempt at disarming”. Marx calls for the formation of “revolutionary workers’ governments”, and discusses what the proletariat should do “during and after the coming insurrection”. Marx points to Jacobin France of 1793 as the model for the German democrats (see The Revelations About the Cologne Communist Trial, Russ. transl., p. 115 and foll.).[2]

Six months pass. The expected revival does not come about. The efforts of the League fail. “In the course of the year 1850,” wrote Engels in 1885, “the prospects of a new upswing of the revolution became more and more improbable, indeed impossible.”[3] The industrial crisis of 1847 had been over come. A period of industrial prosperity was setting in. And so Marx, reckoning with the objective conditions, raises the question sharply and definitely. In the autumn of 1850 he categorically declares that now, with the productive forces of bourgeois society developing so profusely, “there can be no talk of a real revolution”.[4]

As the reader will see, Marx makes no attempt to dodge a difficult question. He does not play with the word revolution; he does not substitute empty abstractions for a burning political issue. He does not forget that the revolution, in general, is making progress in any case, because bourgeois society is developing; but he says straightforwardly that a democratic revolution in the direct and narrow sense of the term is impossible. He solves a difficult problem without reference to the “mood” of dejection and weariness prevailing among a particular section of the proletariat (as some Social-Democrats who have slipped into tail-ism often do). No, so long as he had no other facts to go by except that the mood was subsiding (in March 1850), he continued to call to arms and insurrection, to prepare for it, and not to depress the mood of the workers by personal scepticism and dismay. Not until he was absolutely convinced that the “exhaustion” of the “real revolution” was inevitable did he change his views. And having changed them, he openly and straight forwardly demanded a fundamental change of tactics and the complete cessation of preparations for insurrection: for such preparations could then only be playing at insurrection. The slogan of insurrection was definitely shelved. It was   openly and definitely admitted that “the form of the movement has changed”.

We must always keep this example of Marx before us in the present difficult times. We must treat the possibility of a “real revolution” in the immediate future, the question of the main “form of the movement”, the question of insurrection and of preparing for it, as seriously as possible; but a fighting political party must solve this problem straight forwardly and definitely, without equivocation, without evasion, and without any reservation. The party that failed to find a clear answer to this question would not deserve to be called a party.


[1] Shipovite-constitutional regime—a regime of police autocracy slightly restricted by a constitution to he “granted by the tsar”. So named after D. N. Shipov, a moderate liberal, one of the leaders of the Zemstvo movement in the 1890s and 1900s, and of the counter revolutionary Octobrist Party in 1905. Lenin described Shipov’s political programme, which was adapted to the conditions imposed by the police, as “Zemstvo Zubatovism”.

[2] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, pp. 106-17; K. Marx, Enthülliungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln, Hottingen-Zürich, 1885.

[3] Frederick Engels, “Concerning the History of the League of Communists” (see Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, p. 354).

[4] Marx and Engels, “Third International Review. From May to October” (see Marx, Engels, Werke, Bd. 7, Berlin, 1960, 5. 416).

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