The Debate Over the Character and Goals of the Russian Revolution

by Ernest Mandel

(January 1982)


Written: 1 January, 1982.
Source: The English version of this article first appeared in the April 1982 issue of International Socialist Review. Afterwards it was published in several places, among them International Internal Discussion Bulletin 18.1982 and Education for Socialists: Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution: A Debate, July 1985.
Transcription/Markup: Martin Fahlgren in 2015 for the Marxists Internet Archive.
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The November 1981 issue of International Socialist Review carried an article by Doug Jenness centered around the idea that in the 1905-1917 period, there had been two different concepts of the Russian revolution among Russian socialists. In the present article we defend the traditional analysis by Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International, according to which there were three – and not two – basically different strategies proposed by Russian socialists in that period.

Russian society entered a deep political and social crisis in the 1870s. The populists of Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) were organizing to overthrow tsarism. In 1882, they killed Tsar Alexander II who, twenty years earlier, had freed Russian peasants from serfdom, but burdened them in exchange with a terrible economic taxation.

The international workers movement, which was beginning to include some Russian emigre activists, took an interest in Russia and tried to obtain more information on the social conditions and political struggles of this far-away country. As a result, the movement was drawn into the debates on the nature of the coming Russian revolution – which revolutionaries considered inevitable – and the perspectives it would open up for Europe and the world.

The positions of Marx and Engels

Vera Zasulich, one of the main figures of Russian populism, invited Marx to take a stand on Russia’s future. After some hesitation,[1] he arrived at an unambiguous position: Russia could “leap over the stage of capitalism.”

In a March 8, 1881, letter to the Russian revolutionary, and again in the preface to the second Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto, published in 1882, Marx stated:

  1. That his thesis on the inevitable emergence of capitalism only applied to Western societies;
  2. That Russia had the possibility of avoiding “the terrible evils of capitalism” if its revolution could triumph in time;[2]
  3. That the starting point of the collectivist, noncapitalist evolution of Russian industrialization could be the collective property of the village community (the obschina);
  4. That this contingency would only be realized if the advance of private property and capitalism, which was under way since the abolition of serfdom in 1861, had not yet reached the stage of decisively dissolving the village community;
  5. That a second condition for the realization of this non-capitalist development in Russia was the victory of the revolution in the West, and the aid which the Western proletariat could thereby extend to the Russian masses in modernizing and industrializing Russia.

Through this analysis, Marx provided support to the revolutionaries of Narodnaya Volya. He believed that Plekhanov’s group in Geneva, which originated in a split from the populists, had committed a mistake in attacking them. Engels maintained this position several years after Marx’s death. He kept up a lively correspondence with populists like Nikolai Danielson and Lavrov, and showed a great deal of sympathy for them.[3]

Nevertheless, toward the end of the 1880s, and into the early 1890s, Engels changed his position; or, more accurately, he noted that history had now answered Marx’s question and had done so in the negative. The delay of the revolution had opened the way to a process of capitalist development in Russia, which was ruthlessly destroying the basis for the survival of the village community:

Remember that our author [Marx] had said in his letter on Zhukovsky [the letter to the editorial board of Oteshestvennie Zapiski mentioned in footnote 2] that the peasant obschina was doomed if the evolution begun in 1861 continued. To my mind, this is exactly what is happening. (Letter to N. Danielson, March 15, 1892).

Engels therefore believed that capitalist development had become inevitable in Russia and would lead to the emergence of a modern proletariat as the only fully revolutionary class, and the only class capable of introducing socialism in Russia. By the same token, he now gave his full support to the first nucleus of Russian Marxists around Plekhanov. All these positions were spelled out in his postscript to Soziales aus Russland (January 1894).

The polemic between the Russian populists and Marxists

Narodnaya Volya had given birth to several populist organizations, and then to the Social Revolutionary Party (SRP), which was clearly derived from populism. The SRP was to remain the largest and most influential organization in Russia until 1917.[4] It differed from the newly formed Russian social democracy, which was officially established as a party in 1898, on a series of analytical and political points.

The SRP believed capitalism could not develop extensively in Russia due to the narrowness of the domestic market. Consequently, it did not believe the proletariat would play a leading role in the coming Russian revolution, and instead attributed this role to the peasantry. It rejected the idea that the peasantry, which was now involved in petty commodity production and aspired to individual ownership of the land, could not form a social force fighting for a socialist society. Its platform therefore advocated the socialization of land and an immediate transition to an agrarian socialism (communism). However, under the pressure of its own peasant base, it gradually abandoned the last point and adopted a program for dividing up the land.

The Russian Marxists, backed up by the Western Marxists, launched a sustained polemic against these populist theses. They stated that capitalist development had become irreversible and prevalent in Russia. Along with capitalist development would come the development of the proletariat and its party, Russian social democracy, which was a part of international social democracy. Like its counterparts, Russian social democracy should struggle for the overthrow of capitalism through the dictatorship of the proletariat and collective ownership of the means of production.

With this goal in mind, the proletariat had to be organized completely independently of all other classes. Flowing from this analysis, the Russian Marxists viewed the populists, the SRP, as objectively bourgeois-democratic and nonproletarian because they lumped together working-class, peasant, semiproletarian plebeian, and urban petty-bourgeois forces.

Moreover, the populists opposed political support for the bourgeois liberal opposition movement, which they characterized as an internal quarrel within the ruling classes. By contrast, the Marxists favored critical support and even temporary agreements with bourgeois liberal opposition movements, while maintaining the political independence of the proletariat and warning the working masses that the liberal bourgeoisie was incapable of waging a consistent, radical, and thorough struggle against absolutism.

The Marxists drew this position from an estimate that can be seen in the following quote from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) program adopted at the Second Congress (1903) and drafted by Plekhanov and Lenin:

On the way to achieving their common ultimate aim, which is conditioned by the dominance of the capitalist mode of production throughout the civilised world, the Social Democrats of the different countries are obliged to undertake different immediate tasks, both because this mode of production has not developed everywhere to the same degree and because its development in the different countries is coming to fruition under a variety of socio-political circumstances.

In Russia, where capitalism has already become the dominant mode of production, there are still very many survivals from the old pre-capitalist order, which was based on the enslavement of the working masses by the landlords, the state or the sovereign. Hindering economic progress to a very considerable extent, these survivals inhibit an all-round development of the class struggle of the proletariat, and contribute to the maintenance and consolidation of the most barbarous forms of exploitation of the many millions of peasants by the state and the property-owning classes, and to keeping the entire people in ignorance and deprived of rights.

The most important of all these survivals and the mightiest bulwark of all this barbarism is the Tsarist autocracy. By its very nature it is inimical to all social progress and cannot but be the most malevolent enemy of all the proletariat’s strivings for freedom.

Therefore, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party takes as its most immediate political task the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a democratic republic. (1903 – Second Congress of the Russian Social-democratic Labour Party).

In other words, the program of the RSDLP, the Russian Marxists, distinguished two stages of the Russian revolution:

The tasks of the first stage were democratic tasks – the bourgeois-democratic republic and the agrarian revolution. The tasks of the second stage were socialist tasks.

The great majority of Russian Marxists – especially Plekhanov, Lenin, Martov, Axelrod, and Trotsky – agreed on that distinction until 1904, despite their differences on the organizational question, which had divided them at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903. This was clearly reflected in the political debates at the Second Congress, especially those on the agrarian question. Here are a few particularly telling interventions:

* Lenin:

We are pursuing in the countryside two aims which are different in kind: first, we want to secure freedom for bourgeois relations; secondly, we want to wage the proletarian struggle.

* Trotsky:

Our general minimum programme represents the maximum that we can demand of the capitalist order. Our agrarian programme calls for clearing feudal hindrances from the path of this capitalist order as a whole. . . . We approach the Polish peasants with the general-democratic part of our programme, we approach the rural poor with our propaganda for socialism.

* Lenin:

Comrade Lieber has forgotten the difference between the democratic and the socialist parts of the programme. What he has taken for “meagerness” is the absence of anything socialistic in the democratic programme. . . . Only the Socialist-Revolutionaries, with their characteristic lack of principle, are capable of confusing, and constantly do confuse, democratic and socialist demands. The Party of the proletariat, however, is in duty bound to separate and distinguish between them in the strictest fashion.

* Plekhanov:

Such a movement in favour of redistribution would certainly be a movement in the bourgeoisie’s favour. We are, of course, not obliged actively to set forth a programme for the bourgeoisie, but if, in the struggle against survivals of serfdom relations, the peasantry should take that path, then it would not be for us to hold back this progressive movement. [5]

The same clarity prevailed concerning the need to support the political struggle of the liberal bourgeoisie against the absolutist autocracy. The Second Congress of the RDSLP adopted two resolutions on this issue; the one submitted by Starover and endorsed by Trotsky stated:

The party does not refuse to enter, and should the need arise will enter, through its central institutions, into temporary agreements with liberal or liberal-democratic trends.

The other, submitted by Plekhanov and endorsed by Lenin, stated:

Social Democracy must support the bourgeoisie insofar as it is revolutionary or even merely oppositional in its struggle against tsardom.

Both resolutions stressed the limited and inadequate character of the bourgeois opposition.[6] The party program also included similar formulations.

At first, the differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks seemed limited to organizational problems; at the Second Congress of the RSDLP some Mensheviks even adopted a more “extremist” (in reality a half-economist, half-workerist) position toward the liberal bourgeoisie than the Bolsheviks.

The differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks after 1905

But it rapidly emerged that deep differences on what tactic was appropriate for the Russian revolution also divided Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Russian revolution of 1905, its aftermath, and the Unity Congress of the RSDLP in Stockholm, clarified the matter.

Both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks agreed on the bourgeois nature of the coming Russian revolution in a twofold sense:

But from these premises, the Mensheviks drew the conclusion that the revolution could succeed only under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. On the one hand, the party of the proletariat would have to drive the bourgeoisie forward with a sword to its back and force it to carry out the revolutionary work it hesitated to perform. In addition, the party of the proletariat would have to fight for the broadest political and economic reforms on behalf of the proletariat (the eight-hour day, compulsory education for all children with free lunches served in the schools, etc.). But this oppositional work would have to keep within the bounds of reason and moderation, lest the bourgeoisie prematurely desert the revolutionary camp and go over to the counterrevolution, which would doom the revolution to failure.

Lenin advocated a position diametrically counterposed to that of the Mensheviks. He reminded them that even the French revolution of 1789 had only been able to accomplish its historical tasks because the Jacobin petty bourgeoisie had successively driven out of power the various fractions of the bourgeoisie which, fearful of the people, had been prepared to capitulate to the counterrevolution or avoid the necessary radical measures. He recalled the revolution of 1848 in which the German bourgeoisie had behaved in an even more counterrevolutionary fashion, leading the revolution to defeat, which led Marx to note that the further east one went, the more cowardly the bourgeoisie became.

All this led to the conclusion that in Russia, where capitalism was far more developed in 1905 than in Germany in 1848, not to mention France in 1789, the bourgeoisie would be absolutely incapable of leading a radical democratic and agrarian revolution and moreover did not aspire to do so. This meant that under bourgeois leadership, the Russian revolution was doomed to fail. It could triumph only with the equivalent of a Jacobin leadership and a Jacobin dictatorship.

In the context of Russian society in 1905, given the social classes existing in the country at that time, this could only mean an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry: the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants.

Two key questions – the one strategic, the other tactical – crystallized the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks on the nature and perspectives of the Russian revolution. The Mensheviks tended more and more to reduce the content of the democratic (bourgeois-democratic) revolution to strictly political questions: free elections, parliamentary representation, democratic freedoms, etc. By contrast, Lenin believed the agrarian question was the key question of the democratic revolution. Because the bourgeoisie feared a radical agrarian revolution – a generalized uprising of the peasantry, a revolutionary takeover of the land by the peasants – it refused to take up a determined struggle against the autocracy, the army, and the state apparatus, which in the last analysis were the guardians of all private property. Any conciliationist approach toward the liberal bourgeoisie necessarily involved both the rejection of a radical and persistent struggle for land and the rejection of a radical and persistent struggle for freedom.

Given their reductionist conception of the democratic revolution, the Mensheviks, after a few hesitations, began leaning more and more toward a political bloc with the bourgeois parties. Lenin rejected such a bloc with all his might, because he considered it would constitute an insurmountable obstacle to launching a successful agrarian revolution.

But Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not change their position on the perspective opened by a victory of the Russian revolution. For them, what was always involved was opening the way to the unfettered development of capitalism in Russia, and not initiating a socialized and collectivized economy (these days, we would say: not establishing a transitional society between capitalism and socialism). This appears clearly in Lenin’s speech to the Fifth Congress (London) of the RSDLP on May 12, 1907:

Speaking objectively, from the point of view not of our desires, but of the present economic development of Russia, the basic question of our revolution is whether it will secure the development of capitalism through the peasants’ complete victory over the landowners or through the landowners’ victory over the peasants. A bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia’s economy is absolutely inevitable. No power on earth can hinder it. But this revolution is possible in either of two ways: in the Prussian, if one might say so, or in the American way. This means the following; the landlords may win, may foist compensation payments or other petty concessions on the peasants, may unite with a handful of the wealthy, pauperise the masses, and convert their own farms into Junker-type, capitalist, farms. Such a revolution will be bourgeois-democratic but it will be to the least advantage of the peasants – to their least advantage from the angle of the rapidity of capitalist development. Or, on the contrary, the complete victory of the peasant uprising, the confiscation of all landed estates and their equal division will signify the most rapid development of capitalism, the form of bourgeois-democratic revolution most advantageous to the peasants. (Collected Works W.W.I, Vol. 12, p. 465).

The resolution is unambiguous: development of capitalism in the American way; the most rapid development of capitalism; it is clear and obvious. Many such quotations can be found in Lenin’s writings between 1905 and 1916, especially in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905):

It means that the democratic reforms in the political system, and the social and economic reforms that have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class. (C.W., Vol. 19, p. 48).

And in his January 3, 1911, letter to Gorky, he wrote:

There is capitalism and capitalism. There is Black-Hundred-Octobrist capitalism and Narodnik (”realistic, democratic,” full of “activity”) capitalism. The more we expose capitalism before the workers for its “greed and cruelty,” the more difficult is it for capitalism of the first order to persist, the more surely is it bound to pass into capitalism of the second order. And this just suits us, this just suits the proletariat ...

There is practically no Octobrist capitalism left in Western Europe; practically all capitalism is democratic. Octobrist capitalism has gone from Britain and France to Russia and Asia. The Russian revolution and the revolutions in Asia [are] the struggle for ousting Octobrist capitalism and replacing it by democratic capitalism. And democratic capitalism [is] the last of its kind. It has no next stage to go on to. The next stage is its death. (C.W., Vol. 34, pp. 438–439, emphasis added, E.M.).

The insurrection, the government, the state

Social democracy and revolutionary-bourgeois (i.e., peasant) democracy together must carry to the end the bourgeois revolution against the bourgeoisie, in order to allow the unfettered development of capitalism in Russia. That, in a few words, was the position of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the 1905 Russian revolution and from then until after the February 1917 revolution, i.e., until the April Theses were formulated.

Unlike the Mensheviks, Lenin, in line with his own position, called for Social Democratic participation in a revolutionary insurrectional government, and even for an insurrectional process culminating in a revolutionary government under Social Democratic leadership:

(1) that in order to complete the revolution, the urgent task now confronting the proletariat is, jointly with the revolutionary democrats, to help to unite the insurrection, and to set up an organ that will unite it, in the shape of a provisional revolutionary government ... (C.W., Vol. 10, p. 155).

Did the idea of the seizure of power by a revolutionary government dominated by social democracy contradict the position on the bourgeois nature of the revolution and its tasks? Did it contradict Lenin’s obstinate and frequent refusal to confuse, i.e., to combine, the democratic tasks and the socialist tasks, the minimum program and the maximum program?

In our opinion, there was no such contradiction in Lenin’s mind, i.e., subjectively. This is why all these positions of Lenin are often stated at the same time in the same writing, the same article, the same report, the same brochure. Nor does the contradiction exist from the point of view of formal logic. One can be for the seizure of power by a provisional government and at the same time stress the fact that this government will be precisely . . . provisional, i.e. that it will have to give up or lose power later on, given the bourgeois character of the revolution.

This emerges from Lenin’s analogy with the Jacobins’ rule during the French revolution. In the Marxist tradition, the function of Danton, Marat, and Robespierre was to push the revolution forward to its ultimate, to push it to a point where the bourgeoisie neither wanted to nor could go. But after successfully carrying out this task, the Jacobins were condemned to lose power. What was on the historical agenda in France was the development of capitalism, not the development of an egalitarian society based on small private property, the utopia desired by the Jacobins, much less the construction of a socialist society.

This emerges even more clearly from the very formulas Lenin used in relation to the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” in which he stressed the transitional, provisional character of this dictatorship, of this government:

In plain and simple Russian, an organ of power of the people which temporarily assumes the duties of a government that has collapsed is called a provisional revolutionary government. Such a government is bound to be provisional, for its authority expires with the convocation of a constituent assembly representing the whole people. (C.W., Vol. 10, p. 67, emphasis added).

This is obvious from Lenin’s stress on the fact that the political counterrevolution, the “political restoration,” would be inevitable unless the socialist revolution triumphs in the West. This is also obvious from Lenin’s stress on the bourgeois character of the state that would emerge from the victory of the Russian revolution:

A bourgeois revolution is a revolution which does not depart from the framework of the bourgeois, i.e. capitalist, socio-economic system. A bourgeois revolution expresses the needs of capitalist development, and, far from destroying the foundations of capitalism, it effects the contrary – it broadens and deepens them. . . . Since the rule of the bourgeoisie over the working class is inevitable under capitalism, it can well be said that a bourgeois revolution expresses the interests not so much of the proletariat as of the bourgeoisie.

But it is quite absurd to think that a bourgeois revolution does not at all express proletarian interests. This absurd idea boils down either to the hoary Narodnik theory that . . . we do not need bourgeois political liberty; or to anarchism, which denies any participation of the proletariat in bourgeois politics, in a bourgeois revolution and in bourgeois parliamentarism. (”Two Tactics,” C.W., Vol. 9, p. 49).

Lenin insisted so strongly on this point that not only did he radically reject any notion of “revolutionary communes,” any notion of a state (in contrast to an insurrection) based on soviets, but he went so far as to state:

The real task the Commune had to perform was primarily the achievement of the democratic and not the socialist dictatorship, the implementation of our “minimum programme”. (C.W., Vol. 9, p. 141).

All these positions therefore were logically consistent. But were they consistent from the point of view of the dialectic of social classes engaged in struggle?

That is another question altogether, one which Trotsky (and history) basically answered in the negative.

Nevertheless, as we stress the contradictory aspect of Lenin’s position, we must at the same time stress its contradictory effects, which were not all negative.

By educating his faction, and then his party, in the spirit of a clear-cut distinction between “minimum program” and “maximum program,” in the spirit of limiting the “first stage” of the revolution to purely democratic tasks, in the spirit of Social Democratic participation in a provisional revolutionary government, Lenin facilitated the confusion in the first weeks of the February revolution, when all the Bolshevik leaders and all the Bolshevik cadres favored “critical” support to and even collaboration with the provisional coalition government and rejected as “utopian,” “semi-anarchist,” etc., any notion of a seizure of power by the working class, of a “workers government,” let alone the dictatorship of the proletariat based on the soviets.

But, by educating his faction, and then his party, in the spirit of a necessary seizure of power, Lenin facilitated the “turn” towards a Soviet regime that was first made spontaneously by the vanguard working-class cadres, and later by the adoption by the party of the same turn to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The education in the spirit of strict class independence did the rest. The correct education given on these two points outweighed the erroneous dogma of the “two stages,” of the separation between the “minimum program” and the “maximum program,” of the counterposition of the “democratic dictatorship” to the dictatorship of the proletariat, of the soviets as “non-party” insurrectional organs in which the Social Democrats could be active but which could not be “substituted” for the “provisional” revolutionary government or the state emerging from the revolution. The soviets became organs of power, neither provisional nor bourgeois: organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the foundation of a new state, a non-bourgeois state, a workers state.

Trotsky’s original position

Beginning in 1904, Trotsky developed an entirely new and original position on character and perspectives of the Russian revolution. He and his supporters alone defended that position against both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. The argument was presented in a small brochure published on the eve of the events of January 1905; then in Results and Prospects, published in 1906; in a less well-known article in the Polish social-democratic review Przeglad Social-Demokratyczny in 1908; and in his book 1905, published in 1909.

His position flowed from his discovery of the law of uneven and combined development, undoubtedly his fundamental contribution to Marxism.

Starting from the position shared by all Marxists that the Russian revolution had to solve the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, above all the conquest of political democracy and the conquest of the land, Trotsky immediately posed a question that Plekhanov and Lenin had either not, or only insufficiently, formulated: In what concrete national and international social and economic context would this revolution unfold? What would its main driving forces be? What would be the relationship of forces between the social classes involved in the revolution?

Trotsky answered: The particularities of uneven and combined development in Russia have caused the growth of the proletariat to considerably outdistance that of the Russian bourgeoisie because the proletariat is the product not only of the “organic” development of Russian capitalism, but also of the intervention of foreign capital and above all of the role of the state in stimulating industrialization. Paradoxically, because of its high degree of concentration in large industries, the Russian proletariat, which emerged in a “backward” country, was more militant and more advanced in many ways than the proletariat of far more-developed countries.

In the first place, this meant that insofar as the proletariat already had its own independent organizations and already acted as an independent force on the political scene, the bourgeoisie as a whole would go over to the counterrevolution, even more because of its fear of the proletariat than of peasant uprisings. Therefore no alliance with the bourgeoisie or with bourgeois parties could lead to the victory of the revolution. There were no differences between Lenin and Trotsky on this point.[7] Together, both opposed the Mensheviks.

Another consequence of Trotsky’s analysis was the recognition that a revolutionary victory won under the leadership of the proletariat, at the head of all the oppressed classes of the nation, could not be confined to winning the goals of the bourgeois-democratic revolution alone. It was inconceivable a proletariat as centralized, as united, as conscious, as militant as the Russian proletariat, would accept being exploited by capitalist bosses after having armed itself and taken power at the head of an insurrection (there was of course no difference between Lenin and Trotsky on the necessity of such an insurrection).

The proletariat, having insured the victory of the agrarian revolution (the conquest of the land by the peasants), would move on to initiate the collectivization and confiscation of large capitalist property too, without interruption, without demobilization and without discontinuity.

In this sense, the revolution would be permanent, the conquest of the historical objectives of the bourgeois-democratic revolution would, in real life, combine with the conquest of the historical objectives of the socialist revolution without an intermediate period of capitalist development.

Would the Russian proletariat, being a small minority in a sea of peasant petty commodity producers, be able to keep power after having taken it? Trotsky answered no. It could remain in power only if the Russian revolution triggered a socialist revolution in the West. On this issue, and contrary to a longstanding myth, Trotsky’s position was not original but was shared by Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Lenin. What is even more surprising, Lenin and the other leaders of the Marxist left stated that even the bourgeois-democratic revolution was doomed to retreat (that is, doomed to a political victory of reaction) if there were no socialist victory in the West:

The only complete guarantee against restoration in Russia (after a victorious revolution in Russia) is a socialist revolution in the West. There is and can be no other guarantee. Thus, from this aspect, the question is: how can the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia facilitate, or accelerate, the socialist revolution in the West? The only conceivable answer to this is: if the miserable Manifesto of October 17 gave a powerful impetus to the working-class movement in Europe, then the complete victory of the bourgeois revolutions in Russia will almost inevitably (or at all events, in all probability) arouse a number of such political upheavals in Europe as will give a very powerful impetus to the socialist revolution. (C.W., Vol. 10, p. 334).

What political forms would the proletariat, at the head of the entire nation, have to use to accomplish the historical tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia? Since the bourgeoisie was doomed to go over to the camp of the counterrevolution, there were only two possibilities: either the alliance between a peasant political force (or political forces) and the party of the proletariat, or the conquest of power by the proletariat (led by its party) supported by the peasantry.

The first possibility was rejected by Trotsky because of the peasantry’s inability to constitute an autonomous political force in the course of a revolution. Only the second variant remained: the Russian revolution could only succeed through the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat leading the peasantry. The law of uneven and combined development implied that the proletariat could take power in a backward country before it did so in the most advanced countries. Trotsky formulated this prediction as early as 1906. Subsequent events are well known.

The differences between Lenin and Trotsky

The differences between Lenin and Trotsky on the perspectives of the Russian revolution therefore basically concerned four points:

1. The impossibility for Russia, given the existing social and economic context, to undergo modernization and industrialization through a “rapid development of capitalism,” and especially through “American-style” development of agriculture. To believe such an outcome possible, as Lenin persistently did until 1916, was to underestimate the weight of imperialism, of the world market (which left no room for a second America!), and of the agrarian crisis in Russia itself, which could no longer be solved in a capitalist framework.

We should draw attention to the fact that the only Marxist who took a few timid steps in the same direction and startled all the Russian Marxists, beginning with Lenin himself, was Kautsky.[8] In his balance sheet of the Russian revolution, Kautsky argued that, in order to resolve the agrarian question, the large industrial monopolies would have to be confiscated along with the large landed estates. But Lenin did not follow him on this road,[9] and Kautsky himself quickly took fright at his own boldness and from 1910 onward retreated to more traditional centrist positions.

2. The impossibility for the peasantry to constitute a political party or force that would be independent both of the bourgeoisie and the working class. Trotsky was certain that this was impossible. By contrast, Lenin was certain that the revolutionary peasantry had to take political power:

But how can a peasant revolution win if the revolutionary peasantry does not seize power? Plekhanov has reduced his own arguments to absurdity. Having stepped on to a slope, he irresistably rolls down. First he denied that it was possible for the proletariat to seize power in the present revolution. Now he denies that it is possible for the revolutionary peasantry to seize power in the present revolution. But if neither the proletariat nor the revolutionary peasantry can seize power, then, logically, that power must remain in the hands of the tsar and of Dubasov. Or should the Cadets take power? But the Cadets do not want to seize power themselves, for they are in favour of retaining the monarchy, the standing army, the Upper Chamber and all the other delights. (C.W., Vol. 10, pp. 340–341).

To those who claimed there were no “revolutionary bourgeois democrats” in Russia to lead the revolution with the representatives of the proletariat, Lenin answered no less clearly:

Unless the activities of the worker democrats and bourgeois democrats are co-ordinated, the bourgeois-democratic revolution cannot be successful. This is gospel truth ...

It seems to you that there are no revolutionary bourgeois democrats in Russia, that the Cadets are the only, or at all events, the main force of bourgeois democracy in Russia. But it seems so to you only because you are short-sighted. . . . There are revolutionary bourgeois democrats in Russia, and there must be, so long as there is a revolutionary peasantry, which by thousands of millions of threads is also bound up with the poorer classes in the towns. (C.W., Vol. 10, pp. 260 and 263).

Moreover, Lenin tended to give concrete content to the algebraic formula “revolutionary bourgeois democrats” leading the peasantry; it meant the Trudoviks (Kerensky’s party) and SRs. See the May 11, 1906, article “The Peasant, or `Trudovik,’ Group and the RSDLP”:

Today there is nothing more important for the success of the revolution than this organisation, education and political training of the revolutionary bourgeois democrats. The socialist proletariat, while ruthlessly exposing the instability of the Cadets, will do everything it can to promote this great work. (C.W., Vol. 10, p. 413).

3. The capacity of the Russian proletariat to begin to resolve the socialist tasks of the revolution. For Trotsky, that capacity was obvious. It appeared in all the great workers’ struggles (especially the mass strikes, the 1905 general strike, and the formation of soviets). For Lenin, that capacity did not exist:

Finally, we will note that the resolution, by making implementation of the minimum programme the provisional revolutionary government’s task, eliminates the absurd and semi-anarchist ideas of giving immediate effect to the maximum programme, and the conquest of power for a socialist revolution. The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class-consciousness and organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible. Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place; only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the masses of the workers are informed about the aims of socialism and the methods of achieving it. (C.W., Vol. 9, pp. 28–29).

For Lenin, therefore, the “self-limitation of the proletariat,” that is the refusal to move beyond the realization of the most radical bourgeois-democratic demands, even while the Social Democrats might participate in a revolutionary insurrectional government, correspond to an objective necessity. Only through prolonged experience with political democracy, through prolonged mass educational and organizational work that would coincide precisely with the “unfettered development of capitalism,” could the proletariat acquire the capacity to accomplish the tasks of the socialist revolution.

4. Logically, Lenin’s position led to counterposing the formula “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” to the formula “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The two formulas were not mere slogans but encapsulated the strategic perspectives of the revolution: the character of the state and society that would emerge from the revolutionary victory:

Without a dictatorship it is impossible to break down that resistance and repel counter-revolutionary attempts. But of course it will be democratic, not a socialist dictatorship. It will be unable (without a series of intermediary stages of revolutionary development) to affect the foundations of capitalism. At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in rural but also in factory life, lay the foundation for a thorough improvement in the conditions of the workers and for a rise in their standard of living, and – last but not least – carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution; the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relationships; nevertheless, the significance of such a victory for the future development of Russia and of the whole world will be immense. (C.W., Vol. 9, pp. 56–57).

And even more sharply and precisely:

This means: not the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, but the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. (C.W., Vol. 11, p. 374).

Clearly then the Russian Marxists were divided between three, not two, conceptions of the Russian revolution, its perspectives, and the strategic tasks it implied.[10]

The verdict of the 1917 revolution

Lenin explicitly changed his position on three of these four issues in his April Thesis of 1917; and now in fact stood for the same positions Trotsky had defended since 1904–1906:

1. Contrary to what he previously contended, he now argued that the experience of all modern revolutions had demonstrated the peasantry’s inability to form a political force independent of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. All illusions about an independent role of the Trudoviks (Kerensky!) or the SRs disappeared. These parties emerged as tail-enders of the bourgeoisie, just as incapable of carrying out a radical agrarian revolution as the bourgeois liberals. Insofar as one wing of the SRs participated in the revolutionary victory, it did so under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and the proletariat, not as a force wielding equal power alongside the proletariat, and even less as the major force involved:

We know from our own experience – and revolutions all over the world confirm it if we take the modern epoch of, say, a hundred and fifty years – that the result has always been the same everywhere: the petty bourgeoisie in general, and the peasants in particular, have failed in all their attempts to realize their strength, and to direct economics and politics their own way. They have had to follow the leadership either of the proletariat, or the capitalists – there is no middle way open to them. Anyone who thinks of a middle way is an empty dreamer. (”Speech to the Congress of Transport Workers,” March 27, 1921. C.W., Vol. 32, pp. 277–278).

2. Contrary to what he previously contended, the socialist revolution was fully on the agenda even before the agrarian revolution was accomplished. Let us not forget that Lenin began his speech to the Second Congress of the soviets, the very congress which took power, with these words: “We will now proceed to the construction of socialism.” The fact that in the beginning, the revolutionary government was content to establish workers control over industry rather than nationalize it, no longer had anything to do with any belief in the “socialist immaturity” of the proletariat. It had to do only with scheduling the socialist tasks of the revolution in a chronologically and economically rational way.

Many more quotations could be produced. It is enough to note that in a March 7, 1918, document (C.W., Vol. 27, pp. 89–90), Lenin explicitly characterized the October revolution as a socialist revolution.

3. Contrary to what he previously contended, the state that issued from the revolution was now clearly presented as a workers state, as the dictatorship of the proletariat, and not as a bourgeois state. This is why all Lenin’s writings after the polemics around the April Theses and, understandably, all references to the October revolution after its victory, never mention the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” but always speak of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The same applies to the documents of the Communist International on the Russian revolution.

In his report on the Russian revolution of 1905, delivered in January 1917, Lenin still stated that this revolution: “was a bourgeois-democratic revolution in its social content, but a proletarian revolution in its methods of struggle. It was a bourgeois-democratic revolution since its immediate aim, which it could achieve directly and with its own forces, was a democratic republic, the eight-hour day and confiscation of the immense estates of the nobility” (C.W., Vol. 23, pp. 238–239).

But a few weeks later, in his “Letters from Afar,” he already saw in the soviets the “embryo of a workers government,” and proclaimed the necessity for a state like that of the Paris Commune, that is for a workers state (C.W., Vol. 23, pp. 295–342). While he still maintained in that text that this would not yet be the dictatorship of the proletariat but the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” he abandoned the formula in the April Theses and “codified” the dictatorship of the proletariat in State and Revolution.

It is clear that in Lenin’s mind, as well as Trotsky’s, “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” were antithetical formulas and mutually exclusive. The one implied a bourgeois state, the other a workers state. By April 1917, Lenin had decided in favor of the workers state.

On March 8, 1918, Lenin characterized the Russian state as issuing from a revolution in the course of which “the workers created their own state” (C.W., Vol. 27, p. 126). On March 9 of the same year, he formulated his position even more clearly:

The Revolution of October 25 (November 7), 1917 in Russia brought about the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has been supported by the poor peasants or semi-proletarians. (C.W., Vol. 27, p. 153).

The only issue on which Lenin did not take a stand after April 1917 was the objective impossibility of a long period of capitalist economic growth in Russia “on the European and not the Asiatic model.” But here too, everything he had written about imperialism, about the First World War, about its objective consequences, and especially The Imminent Catastrophe and the Means to Conjure It, clearly indicate the direction in which he was heading. At any rate, the “unfettered development” of capitalism occurred neither between 1906 and 1914, nor between February and October 1917, much less after October 1917.

It was the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry that made it possible to carry out the agrarian revolution, the main task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia. This was the verdict of history. Only if one reduces, in Menshevik fashion, the tasks of that revolution solely to the overthrow of absolutism (and not even to the complete conquest of freedom since the standing army still stood and there was no Constituent Assembly and no emancipation of the oppressed nationalities) can one claim that the “democratic stage” was realized in February 1917.

In reality, the tasks of the democratic revolution were accomplished only after the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, after the conquest of power by the soviets, after the creation of a workers state. And they were accomplished in the closest combination with a whole series of tasks (not all, of course) that were already socialist in nature.

January 1, 1982

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[1] There are several successive drafts of the letter to Vera Zasulich in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels.

[2] Earlier, in 1877, Marx had already written Mikailovsky, at that time the editor of the review Oteshestvennie Zapiski (Annals of the Fatherland), that Russia had the “greatest opportunity ever presented by history to any nation” to avoid the evils of capitalism.

[3] See Marx’s letter to Jenny Longuet of April 11, 1881. See also Engels’s letter to Vera Zasulich of April 23, 1885.

[4] We shouldn’t forget that even after the October revolution, during the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the SRP still received an absolute majority of votes and seats. It is true that in the cities it was beaten by the Bolshevik Party, and its overall majority reflected mainly the overwhelming weight of the peasantry in Russia. It is also true that it had already split two ways: the right SRs ferociously opposing the seizure of power by the soviets, and the left SRs supporting and even joining, temporarily, a coalition government with the Bolsheviks. The coalition was broken by the left SRs when the Brest Litovsk peace treaty was signed.

[5] See the official record of the Second Congress of the RSDLP, translated from the Russian by Brian Pearce, English edition, London: New Park Publications, 1978, pp. 273, 254–255, 256–257, 267.

[6] Ibid., pp. 19–20.

[7] “It must be agreed that Trotsky’s amendment is not Menshevik, that it expresses the ’very same’, that is, Bolshevik, idea. But Trotsky has expressed this idea in a way that is scarcely better” (”Objections to Trotsky’s Amendments to the Bolshevik Resolution on the Attitude Towards Bourgeois Parties,” at the Fifth Congress of the RSDLP) (C.W., Vol. 12, p. 479).

[8] Under the influence of the Russian revolution Kautsky adopted the most advanced positions of his career between 1906 and 1909, especially in his commentaries on the Russian revolution and in his work Der Weg zur Macht.

[9] Kautsky, “The Motor Forces and Perspectives of the Russian Revolution,” Die Neue Zeit, 1906. Lenin himself noted that this article went much further than even the most extreme Bolsheviks (C.W., Vol. 11, p. 369). Kautsky excluded, however, any realization of the socialist program by the Russian revolution.

[10] Comrade Trotsky admirably summarized his position on the existence of three, not two, conceptions of the Russian revolution in his document, “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution,” appended to his book, Stalin.