Karl Radek

The Paths of the
Russian Revolution


The revolution of February 1917 picked up again the thread of the first revolution of 1905. A rapid victory was only possible in February 1917 because the revolution of 1905 had already profoundly worked the terrain in Russia. The opportunists of the Second International who had explained after the defeat of 1907 that the Russian Revolution had been futile (Karl Leutner [20], the animator of the Wiener Arbeiterzeitung, explained in 1908 that the ‘remarkably organised’ revolution of the Young Turks impressed him far more than the Russian revolutionary chaos) once more appeared in the light of the events of 1917 to be short-sighted. Thanks to the experiences accumulated in the course of the revolution of 1905-06, the Russian popular masses were to begin the revolution of 1917 with a store of political concepts which had been reinforced and sharpened by two and a half years of experience of war; they were therefore to push the revolution straightaway much further than the bourgeoisie wished to tolerate. The arrest of the Tsar, the checkmating of the installation of the regency [21], and the proclamation of the republic were not the least important results of the work of the first revolution. At the same time, the worker and soldier masses spontaneously began to form Soviets of workers and soldiers. The peasants imitated them in the countryside, and these mass organisations, formed spontaneously, became, before even being conscious of the fact that they were the constituent organs of proletarian power, the organs which would take power. The governmental power fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and it only later invited the petit-bourgeois proletarian and peasant parties of the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries to participate in government. But the bourgeois Provisional Government from the first day of its existence had to complain about ‘double government’, for the Soviets of workers and soldiers not only grabbed control over the bourgeois Provisional Government, but even part of the executive power. Perhaps I might be permitted to recall here a fact that is little known, but which casts a glaring light upon the creative power of the popular masses during the revolution. When during the first days of the February Revolution – at the time when the news of the St. Petersburg events was still very vague – a group of Bolsheviks who were in Norway asked Comrade Lenin a question about the attitude to be adopted towards the slogan of a Constituent Assembly. Lenin replied in the following manner: The Constituent Assembly, he said, will certainly not be rapidly convoked by the Provisional Government; parliament, moreover, in general is of highly doubtful importance as a central focus for the revolution. He advised the passing over of the local administration, everywhere, or wherever possible, into the hands of the working class, in order to make of it strongholds for the revolution. Lenin had therefore already recognised in a penetrating manner that it would not be the bourgeois democratic republic that would maintain the power of the revolution, but a republic of the type of the Paris Commune [22], in which the revolutionary people at the same time concentrated into one hand legislative, executive and judicial power. But he could not discover the concrete form of this republic of the type of the Paris Commune. It was created by the masses of the workers and soldiers by their obscure impulses towards struggle.

But what was the content of the February Revolution? It was a revolution where the peasants in uniform and the workers, crushed by the burden of the war, arose not only against the war itself and its continuation, but against the government which had conducted it so badly and had imposed all its burdens upon them. Only a small minority of the proletarians and soldiers were then opposed to the war in general. But the masses mature very quickly in a revolution. The February Revolution therefore very quickly became a revolution against the war. It turned against the imperialist bourgeoisie and the nobility who more and n ire openly and recklessly opposed the revolution. The workers and peasants were the bearers of the revolution. Their positive aims stemmed from their social petition. The peasants aspired to take over the land. Neither Stolypin’s punitive expeditions nor his agrarian reform had killed the revolutionary tendencies of the peasants; no more could they create a rich peasantry strong enough to form a rampart against the revolutionary tendencies in the village. The workers aspired to an immediate improvement in their situation, and since this aim was unobtainable by the usual ways in the economic collapse provoked by the war, they spontaneously began to take in hand the control of production by factory committees, with the aim of overcoming the anarchy of production and so improving their situation.

What were the positions taken up by the parties of the revolution? The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks set themselves the task of holding back the struggle of the workers against the capitalists, and of preventing the peasants from taking possession of the lands of the nobility, since this ‘disorder’ would be prejudicial to the conduct of the war. They justified their social patriotism by saying that the revolution had triumphed in Russia, and that consequently it was not a question of defending the fatherland, but of defending the revolution. Even Tsereteli and Chernov, who were Zimmerwaldists, took the road to Damascus and united themselves politically with the most vulgar social patriots of the type of Plekhanov and Alexinsky. [23] By wanting to hold back the social aims of the revolution – even of the bourgeois-democratic revolution – until the convening of the Constituent Assembly, they were applying their concept of the Russian Revolution which they had developed in the course of the first revolution; they were handing over power to the bourgeoisie as the class whose interests made up the objective limit of the revolution, and to whom the leadership of the revolution therefore belonged. Their antiquated verbiage about the role of Social Democracy as an extreme opposition vanished like vapour into thin air. They were not an extreme opposition to the bourgeoisie, but the only supporters of the bourgeois government within the masses of peasants, soldiers and workers.

On its part the Bolshevik Party explained that you cannot envisage the immediate victory of Communism given Russia’s degree of social development. ‘It is not our immediate task to “introduce” Socialism, but only to bring social product on and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of workers’ deputies.’ [24] This is how Lenin formulated the social tasks of the revolution on his arrival in Petrograd on 3 April. In his polemic against Kamenev [25], who was defending the old concept of the Bolsheviks on the bourgeois content of the revolution, Lenin referred to what he had already written in 1905 in one of his pamphlets on the two tactical lines which we have already quoted:

‘Like everything else in the world, the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry has a past and a future. Its past is autocracy, serfdom, monarchy and privilege ... Its future is the struggle against private property, the struggle of the wage-worker against the employer, the struggle for Socialism.’ [26]

And he went on:

‘Comrade Kamenev’s mistake is that even in 1917 he sees only the past of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. As a matter of fact its future has already begun, for the interests and policies of the wage-worker and the petty proprietor have actually diverged already, even in such an important question as that of “defencism”, that of the attitude towards the imperialist war.’ [27]

This reference to the war constitutes the crucial point for understanding the differences that exist between the policy of the Bolsheviks at the time of the first and the second revolution. The simple fact that the second revolution happened at a far higher level of Russian economic development increased the weight of the proletarian elements in this revolution. The conditions of war in which it broke out confronted these elements with new tasks, and created a new international context for revolutionary politics in Russia. The first question with which the revolution was confronted – and it was a life and death question – was that of its attitude as regards the war. The revolution that was born from the failure of Tsarism during the war and the misery of the masses engendered by it struck at the very roots of the war. If it had not been capable of killing off the war, the war would have struck it down. Because the revolution threatened Russia’s military potential, of necessity it had to provoke the most determined resistance of the classes who were interested in pursuing the war: finance capital, the nobility, and the officer caste. To undermine the power of these classes it was not enough to install a parliamentary republic whilst everywhere else keeping the old repressive organs of the Tsarist state. It was necessary to replace the police and gendarmerie with a popular militia. The Soviets had to try to take over local power; but it was insufficient and impossible to limit the revolutionary overthrow to the political sphere, because the millions of peasant soldiers – after the unheard-of sacrifices of the war and at the very moment when they were smashing the armed violence of the nobility – also wanted to take over the land for which they had fought during the war. The workers, whom the revolution had armed and enthused with confidence in themselves, would naturally not content themselves with standing guard over the cash boxes of the bourgeoisie. Everywhere in the factories they began to interfere with management. But when the owners closed the factories, in order to subdue the workers with a lockout, they occupied the factories and sold the products. This was not only the logic of the revolution, it was also revolutionary necessity if we wished to break the power of the classes whose interests were to prosecute the war. To break the power of the nobility it was necessary to incite the peasants and not to wait for the convening of the Constituent Assembly in order to take over the land. To break the power of the capitalists it was necessary to show how the employers’ syndicates and the banks were coining the blood of the Russian workers and peasants into gold. The proletariat had to break open the cash boxes and vaults that were guarding the business secrets of the bourgeoisie. Marxist theory laid down that the reorganisation of society on a Socialist basis was impossible in Russia; but at the same time it asserted that it was also impossible, without workers’ control over heavy industry and finance, not only to improve the ever-deteriorating portion of the working class, but also to put an end to the war. The war therefore confronted the revolution with new social tasks:

‘Under no circumstances can the party of the proletariat set itself the aim of “introducing” Socialism in a country of small peasants so long as the overwhelming majority of the population has not come to realise the need for a Socialist revolution.

‘But only bourgeois sophists, hiding behind “near-Marxist” catchwords, can deduce from this truth a justification of the policy of postponing immediate revolutionary measures, the time for which is fully ripe; measures which have been frequently resorted to during the war by a number of bourgeois states, and which are absolutely indispensable in order to combat impending total economic disorganisation and famine.

‘Such measures as the nationalisation of the land, of all the banks and capitalist syndicates, or, at least, the immediate establishment of the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, etc., over them – measures which do not in any way constitute the “introduction” of Socialism must be absolutely insisted on, and, whenever possible, carried out in a revolutionary way. Without such measures, which are only steps towards Socialism, and which are perfectly feasible economically, it will be impossible to heal the wounds caused by the war and to avert the impending collapse; and the party of the revolutionary proletariat will never hesitate to lay hands on the fabulous profits of the capitalists and bankers, who are enriching themselves on the war in a particularly scandalous manner.’ [28]

This is how Lenin formulated the tasks of the Bolshevik Party and of the revolution in a draft platform for the party which he wrote in 1917. This programme, which objectively went beyond the limits of Social Democracy’s minimum programme, already constituted a transitional programme towards Socialism. It was not aimed at establishing measures to achieve Socialism. But whereas the minimum programme of Social Democracy contained reforms for improving the condition of the working class within the limits of a capitalist society in which the bourgeoisie held power, here the Bolshevik Party was setting in motion a programme which was placing the bourgeoisie and capitalist production under the control of the working class. The development of events had necessarily to lead to the struggle of the Soviets of workers and peasants against the bourgeois Provisional Government, if they in their turn took up this programme; consequently, it had to lead to the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.

Could such a dictatorship last, could it realise this programme which in fact only constituted the vital necessities of the revolution? It is clear that this was impossible so long as Russia was surrounded by a normal capitalist world. But Russia was not surrounded by a normal capitalist world, but by the ocean of flames of the world war. The February Revolution had already threatened the war and shaken the ruling classes in all the capitalist countries. Even though censorship had everywhere suppressed the news of the February revolution, its echo was undoubtedly very powerful. In Germany Bethmann-Hollweg [29] rushed to the Prussian Landtag, the bastion of German reaction, before the news of the revolution had even been made public, and announced an era of reform. In Britain the strike wave increased. The French government was sitting on a powder barrel. The revolution shook the equilibrium that had been formed during the war, and threatened not only to provoke the defeat of the Entente but also to spread the revolution throughout all Europe. Without a doubt the seizure of power by the proletariat and peasantry in Russia as well as their resolute policy of peace had to make a revolutionary breach in the war front through which other detachments of the proletariat would penetrate. The predictions of the revolutionary Marxists that the imperialist war would be transformed into a civil war and would open up the era of world revolution were beginning to be realised. The Russian Revolution was the signal for the European revolution, and it had the chance of not being left isolated to the destructive attack of world capital. In an international revolutionary situation, the programme of the world proletarian revolution developed in a backward petit-bourgeois country.

The programme of the Bolsheviks corresponded to the necessities of the Russian Revolution, and this is why it became the programme of the revolution. The peasant masses were struggling for peace and land. The working masses were struggling for peace and for measures of transition towards Socialism. Thanks to the war, which had enlisted millions of peasants into the army and had thus overcome their dispersion and atomisation, the peasant mass had acquired a powerful centralised thrust that it had never previously possessed in history. Thanks to the young revolutionary working class which controlled the centres of industry and communications, the peasant mass received a political leadership which it had heretofore lacked in history. The Bolshevik Party, the result of a 25 year history of revolutionary struggles, understood how to appreciate the situation coldly and lucidly, and to concentrate the spontaneous movements of the masses on the decisive objectives of the political struggle. That is how the victory of the October Revolution came about as an historic fact which can only be denied either by blind doctrinaires or by émigrés led astray by class hatred. Even that limited and stupefied individual who is Karl Kautsky had to recognise in his latest work against the Russian Revolution:

‘The question is not to know whether the seizure of political power by the proletariat in Russia should be approved of or not; the revolution of 1917 was like any great revolution, an elemental event which it was impossible either to prevent or to provoke at will.’

And Kautsky then adds:

‘But this still does not reply to the question of the attitude to be adopted by Socialists. This reply is obvious for a Marxist: they had to take into consideration the level of maturity of economic relations as well as of the proletariat, and to determine from there the tasks of the victorious proletariat.

‘Before the appearance of the Marxist conception of history, which makes the evolution of history depend upon economic development and which shows that this develops according to laws and cannot leap over any stage, before this Marxist conception of history therefore, revolutionaries in periods of revolutionary upheaval saw no limit to their will. In one leap they tried to attain the highest ends. But they therefore always failed; that is why every revolution, in spite of the real progress it produced, always ended with the downfall of the revolutionaries. Marx taught the method of only setting feasible ends, including during periods of revolution, which could be attained with the means and forces at our disposal, and in this way avoiding defeats. The Mensheviks recommended this method in Russia and successfully applied it in Georgia. [30] The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, set for the Russian proletariat tasks which it was impossible for it to resolve given that circumstances were not ripe. It is therefore not surprising that their Communism has collapsed.’ [31]

The question of the fall of Communism in Russia is still a matter for further discussion. Let us note in the meantime that Kautsky – who represents the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia as an elemental event which it was as impossible to prevent as to provoke at will – is condemning the methods of ‘limitation’ envisaged by the Mensheviks as an attempt to hold back historical necessity. For all that, by placing himself in sympathy on the side of the Mensheviks, he is pronouncing as an historian his own condemnation as a politician. The question of knowing what the Bolsheviks, coming to power in a country in which the great majority of the population was petit-bourgeois, should have done, forms the crucial point of the nature of the policy of the proletarian state in Russia from the seizure of power up to the change of course in the March of this year. [32]


20. Karl Leutner (1869–1944) was a leading Austrian Social Democrat, and the editor of Arbeiterzeitung.

21. On 2 March 1917 (old style) Milyukov tried to get the Duma Committee and the Petrograd Soviet to accept the idea of a regency instead of a republic for the future government of Russia. His suggestion was firmly repudiated.

22. The Paris Commune was when the working class of Paris took over the running of the city in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War.

23. Grigory Alexeyevich Alexinsky (1879-?) was an ex-Bolshevik who became a chauvinist during the First World War, and attempted to have Lenin tried as a German agent in 1917.

24. V.I. Lenin, The April Theses, Collected Works, Volume 24, Moscow 1964, p. 24.

25. Lev Borisovich Kamenev (Rosenfeld, 1883–1936) was the main Bolshevik leader who opposed the overthrow of the Provisional Government in 1917. He was murdered by Stalin after the first Moscow Trial.

26. V.I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, Collected Works, Volume 9, Moscow 1964, pp. 84–5; Letters on Tactics, Collected Works, Volume 24, p. 52.

27. V.I. Lenin, Letters on Tactics, Collected Works, Volume 24, p. 52.

28. V.I. Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, Collected Works, Volume 24, pp. 73–4.

29. Theobald Von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856–1936) was Prime Minister of Prussia and Chancellor of Germany, 1909–17.

30. Georgia was proclaimed an independent republic on 26 May 1919, with the Menshevik Noah Zhordania as its president. It was troubled by peasant uprisings, and gave passage to armies operating against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. It was reconquered by the Red Army in 1921.

31. Karl Kautsky, Von der Demokratie zur Staatssklaverei. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Trotzki, Berlin: Verlag Genossenschaft “Freiheit”, 1921, p. 16.

32. The Tenth Congress of the Communist Party meeting in March 1921 put an end to War Communism, and instituted the New Economic Policy.

Last updated on 18.10.2011