Kerensky, head of the
government that Lenin ousted,
debates Max Shachtman

(February 1951)

From Labor Action, 19 February 1951
Copied with thanks from the Workers' Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

SELDOM does history record the former head of a government, deposed by social revolution, facing up in an open debate 34 years later to a modern representative of the same ideological current which swept him from power. This was the situation in the February 8 [1951] debate at the University of Chicago where Max Shachtman confronted Alexander Kerensky, the head of the régime which was overthrown by the great Russian Revolution.

To recall to consciousness all the relevant facts of that vast revolution and vindicate its democratic and socialist aims and achievements, Shachtman, national chairman of the Independent Socialist League, brought a clearly defined and thoroughly Marxist appreciation of the meaning of democracy.

Alexander Kerensky, erstwhile president of the short-lived Russian Provisional Government and self-styled “arch-democrat”, brought no understanding whatsoever of democracy, substituting for that lack his own garbled version of historical facts and a relentless penchant for reiterating fraudulent quotations from Lenin. Indeed, how could a “democrat” proceed otherwise, who could not even explain publicly that he was not put into office by popular election!

The intervening years since the revolution have witnessed the rise in Russia of the totalitarian bureaucratic oligarchy of Stalinism. Grabbing onto this bare historical fact, Kerensky sought to bury the anti-democratic crimes of his own régime by pointing an accusing finger at Lenin and the Bolsheviks as those responsible for Stalin’s monstrous despotism. Shachtman thus faced a double task in this debate, one familiar enough to genuine socialists: that of establishing historical truth against the combined opposition of both capitalist and Stalinist falsifiers of the past 34 years.

This is the reason that Shachtman, in opening the discussion, found it necessary to remark: “The Stalinist régime never slackens in its efforts to portray itself as the legitimate successor of the Bolshevik Revolution. It needs this great authority to help befuddle the thinking of people and to maintain itself in power… It came into power as the result of a counter-revolution which systematically destroyed not only every single one of the great achievements of the Bolshevik Revolution but likewise exterminated all its founders, builders and defenders”.

Scouting the idea that the evening’s discussion on “Was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Democratic?” was of merely historical interest, Shachtman indicated its vital relationship to the most important social and political question of our time, the answer to which will determine conclusively the fate of society. Formulated by Lenin, the leader of Bolshevism, that question is: the working class cannot attain socialism except through the fight for democracy, and democracy cannot be fully realized without the fight for socialism.

Following is a running summary and digest of the presentations and rebuttals of the two speakers. The digest of Shachtman’s presentation is based on his written notes.

ONE must judge a revolution out of the circumstances from which it sprang. The social structure of Czarism, the most reactionary and outlived in Europe, was in a state of complete collapse. The imperialist war was bleeding the country white; a consciousness of the futility of continuing it deepened not only among the people at home but also among the soldiers at the front. At the top in official and court circles, bigotry, corruption and every conceivable form of social and intellectual leprosy was eating into the régime. At the front, a blood-letting that was as useless as it was incredible; at home a veritable orgy of war-profiteering among the capitalist classes and an unendurable growth of hunger among the working classes.

In February 1917 the Czarist régime appeared to be the most powerful in the world, with the world’s biggest army at its disposal, with a subject people at once docile and impotent. Shortly after, the régime was overthrown by the same people and the same army.

It was an imposing example to all statesmen and politicians that the patience of the people is not inexhaustible and that, once they are determined to rise in the struggle for liberty, for their aspirations, they stand on no ceremony, on no formalities. They take action directly and stop waiting for the promises of their well-wishers to be fulfiled in some distant and indefinite future. The example was also instructive to statesmen and politicians capable of learning from the people. As it soon turned out, not many of them are capable of learning very much.

Tonight we are discussing democracy, the rule of the sovereign people.

Democracy does not consist in imposing upon the people what their rulers, by themselves, decide is a good thing for the people. It consists in the free expression of the desires of the people and their ability to realize these desires through institutions manned by their freely-chosen representatives. What then did the people who had just put an end to czarist rule want? It would be a bold man who contended that two opinions are possible on this score.

They wanted:

  1. an end to the imperialist war;
  2. the convocation of a national, democratically-representative Constituent Assembly;
  3. an end to the rule of the predatory landlords and a distribution of land among the peasants;
  4. a radical change in industry, beginning with the 8-hour work day and the assuring of the beginning of the end of completely arbitrary rule of industry by the capitalist class by the establishment of workers’ control in industry;
  5. the right of national self-determination for the nationalities oppressed by czarism.

Not a single one of these desires is, by itself, the equivalent of socialism. Every single one of the demands of the Russian people was democratic through and through. And yet, as we shall see, they required a socialist revolution for their realization.

Virtually from the first day the revolution established what were tantamount to two governments, two powers, contesting with one another for political supremacy.

One was the soviets; in 1917, as in 1905 they were spontaneously established. More democratic institutions it would be hard to imagine. They were directly and freely elected and sat in permanent session as direct representatives of the workers, peasants and soldiers. They were not the creation or invention of the Bolsheviks. While they were spontaneously formed without waiting for instructions from anybody, they were dominated by the right-wing socialists and the Socialist-Revolutionists. The Bolsheviks started as a tiny minority in the soviets.

While the soviets were the only elected body on a nation-wide basis in the land, and only they could thus speak authoritatively for the people, being referred to even by Kerensky as the “revolutionary democracy,” they did not seek to become the government of Russia under their compromising leadership.

But they were the real power, recognized by all: by the czarist generals who wanted to crush them and restore reaction; by all the provisional governments; by the Bolsheviks who wanted them to take all governmental power; and above all by the people. Not a single significant political or military step could be taken by the official government without their support.

Appearing to stand above the soviets were the various provisional governments. These were not democratic, if by that term is understood a government elected by popular suffrage in regularly fixed elections and submitting its conduct to the control of any popularly elected democratic body.

The provisional government was constructed exclusively from the top, bureaucratically, by agreements among party leaders, self-constituting and self-perpetuating. Unstable by its very nature, it had no independent power of its own. It depended for its existence on the unpreparedness, and therefore the tolerance, of the reactionary forces on the one side and the revolutionary forces on the other.

While the soviets mistakenly thought the government could be the vehicle for the advancement of the revolution, they watched its every step, particularly its reactionary wing and allies, and tried to control each step, reflecting the attitude of the whole people. The provisional government tried to maintain itself by satisfying both the real social and political forces, the reaction and the revolution.

This aim was utopian; the two forces could not be reconciled. Both forces realized their life and future depended on the other’s destruction. The governments became more and more governments of chaos, sure to produce nothing but that.

The 8 months’ record of provisional governments in this stormy period when the desires of the people were urgent and manifest consisted of the following:

  1. The main body of the czarist officialdom remained intact, only few changes being made at the top. Czarist officers primarily remained at the head of the army, doing everything to undermine the soldiers’ soviets, soldiers’ rights, and even keeping enough power to threaten this same government. Cossack regiments, symbol of the czarist knout, were kept intact.
  2. The Constituent Assembly was not convened, on the basis of all kinds of pretexts. The real reason for this, as the bourgeoisie openly declared, was that the election results would not be acceptable to them and would mean that the régime might refuse to continue the imperialist war.
  3. While the people wanted peace, the provisional government, in obedience to Czarist commitments made to the Anglo-French allies, drove the army into the June offensive at a horrible cost in lives and against conservative military opinion that it would be doomed. The people did not want to fight for the Czar’s secret treaties, authentic agreements made among imperialist pirates. While Kerensky had been told by Miliukov about them, he never repudiated them and refused to publish them, since such would be a “discourtesy to the Allies”.
  4. While the rule of the landlords continued, the peasants who wanted the land received promises. But they were taking the land, carrying out the revolution themselves in the traditional style of every great agrarian revolution. The provisional government forbade them to act, instead of carrying out its own reforms. It sent Cossacks against the peasants, who had never seen a Bolshevik in their lives but who were taking things into their own hands.
  5. No changes in industry. While the capitalists sabotaged production by locking out workers, the government failed to intervene. The 8-hour work day decreed by the government was not enforced. Everything was promised for after the “Constituent Assembly” met, but its convocation was constantly delayed. Workers saw that their soviets’ influence in the government declined as that of the capitalists and Czarists grew.
  6. The treatment of oppressed nationalities represents the “acid test” for a democrat. The Finnish social-democrats obtained a majority in early June and declared for their autonomy, enjoyed previously under the Czars. The provisional government dissolved the Finnish parliament, barring its doors with Russian soldiers… In June Kerensky prohibited the holding of the Ukrainian Soldiers Congress called by the nationalist Rada. Vinnichenko, head of that body and an anti-Bolshevik, attacked the provisional government for being “imbued with the imperialist tendencies of the Russian bourgeoisie”. In October Kerensky demanded an explanation of alleged criminal agitation started there for a Ukrainian Constituent Assembly and an investigation of the Rada was ordered.

On the basis of this record of failing to meet the continuing demands of the revolution, the provisional government of Kerensky fell. It also explains why the power of the compromiser Menshevik-SR leadership in the Soviets likewise fell. They had urged confidence in the provisional government, which showed it did not deserve the masses’ confidence.

After the Kornilov affair, the Bolsheviks won uninterrupted victories in the soviets, while the Mensheviks and SRs split up and declined. Bolshevik influence was won fairly, openly, democratically, in spite of huge handicaps. Their leaders were arrested or driven underground, presses and headquarters smashed, press outlawed, forbidden entry to the garrisons and a lynch spirit aroused against them as German agents.

On November 7 the soviet congress, whose convocation had been delayed by its compromising leadership, was called together by that same leadership. The Bolsheviks had a clear majority. The congress endorsed the uprising led by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet under Trotsky by electing a new government of Bolsheviks holding soviet power. Two weeks later the Peasant Soviet Congress, called by the compromisers, gave a majority to the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks, and the Left SRs entered the new soviet government.

In a few days the soviet government did all the things the provisional government had failed to do:

  1. gave the land to the peasants;
  2. offered peace by broadcast to all governments and peoples, starting with proposals for a 3 months’ armistice;
  3. inaugurated workers’ control of production to stop bourgeois sabotage of industry;
  4. decreed freedom for all nationalities, beginning with Finland and the Ukraine;
  5. denounced and published all secret treaties and Czarist rights in China and Persia;
  6. wiped out all Czarist power in the army and began creation of new workers’ and peasants’ army;
  7. abolished special Cossack privileges and caste position;
  8. inaugurated the new soviet régime of direct representation, with full right of recall.

The Constituent Assembly finally met in January; and because of its then unrepresentative character, big changes having occurred in mass thinking since its lists were drawn and the election held, and its refusal to recognize that the revolution had conferred full power on the soviets, it was dissolved.

No champions could be found among the people for it – only reaction supported it. The country rallied to the soviet power as the only guarantee of the great democratic achievements consolidated by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The future proved to be a difficult one. The country was plunged into civil war by the dispossessed classes, landlords, bankers, bondholders, monarchist and reactionary scum in general who sought to arouse the wealthier peasants against the régime, and by all the imperialist powers who forgot their differences in the face of the socialist enemy.

This civil war brought devastation to the country from which it took years to emerge. It forced upon the soviets a harsh régime, and laid the basis for the eventual rise and triumph of a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy which is in power today.

But in spite of that these achievements are immortal; nothing that happened afterwards can eradicate that from history or from the thoughts of mankind. They are a monument and a guidepost.

The road out of the blind alley into which society is being driven more and more, lies in the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy receives its clarity, purpose and guarantee in the struggle for socialism; the struggle for socialism lies in the hands of the working class – the beast of burden, the despised of the earth – whose will to victory was forever underlined by their first great revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

KERENSKY’S presentation followed Shachtman, who had devoted his time to developing the whole picture of the unfolding revolution in Russia, in its historical context and in a rounded interpretation. Kerensky devoted his time to picking holes in this interpretation, from the viewpoint of a government official of narrow social vision.

He based himself on the necessity for the provisional government to “defend Russia” during the war, opposing the elements of extreme monarchist reaction who favoured a separate peace with Germany and likewise opposing the desire of the people to get out of the disastrous war.

He took the stand that the social reforms demanded by the people must be postponed until the war was over. The government could legitimately adopt measures such as its land reforms, the 8-hour day, the need for a Constituent Assembly, the right of self-determination for oppressed nationalities – but (and it was a very big but) nothing could really be done until the Constituent Assembly met, and it would be better for that body to meet only after the conclusion of the war.

After all, the organization of a Constituent Assembly is a “big job”. The Germans were advancing, and the “Lenin crisis in the rear” forced the Constituent Assembly commission to cease its never-ending labour after only three weeks. The provisional government was “in direct contact with all forces – exception: the Bolsheviks”.

This section of Kerensky’s presentation had already been anticipated in Shachtman’s speech, which had made clear in advance the garbled version of history which Kerensky was presenting. Nor did Kerensky even try to meet Shachtman on the ground of the meaning of democracy and the role of the masses.

Instead he spent the major part of his time plucking out and attacking quotations from Lenin’s writing, with a view to proving their conspiratorial, treasonous and totalitarian nature.

According to Kerensky’s story, Lenin foresaw that Kerensky’s proposals would win the support of the peasantry – after the victory of Russia’s noble but crumbling armies. Therefore Lenin had to act fast, before this happened.

He had to marshal his Bolsheviks to organize army deserters in the countryside and to steer a course toward armed insurrection, before the provisional government had a sporting chance to show its sterling mettle to the peasants on some indeterminate future date after the equally indeterminate conclusion of hostilities.

The aim of Bolshevism, according to Kerensky, was to exploit the country in totalitarian fashion. The real question here, he announced, is what happened after the revolution – but he abruptly stopped at this point, apparently remembering that the subject of the discussion was the revolution itself; however, he picked up this theme from time to time later.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, he said, were playing a double game of trickery on the country and the government. Lenin sent various “secret instructions” to his central committee. (Kerensky, without pointing it out, was referring to the period when his own government had jailed Trotsky and other Bolsheviks and had forced Lenin to go into hiding!)

In one of those “instructions” Lenin committed the heinous crime of saying that the soviets would be of value to the people only if they carried through the needs of the revolution.

Another aim of Bolshevism, Kerensky charged, was “to distract the freest country in the world from preparing a base for the future world socialist movement.” So, Lenin concluded, the provisional government had to be stopped.

“For this they ruined Russian democracy,” he cried, after having made clear that he understood nothing about the urgent desire of the Russian masses for the democratic and socialist reforms which only the Bolsheviks were fighting for.

Striking a personal note, Kerensky drew some applause when he cried: “Maybe my government was unpopular but I needed no bodyguards. In Kiev when I took a walk the people liked to gather around me and speak to me”. Kerensky was presumably referring to Stalin’s secluded and guarded living habits (and it is a safe bet that he was not referring to [US President] Truman’s bodyguard; but while he was supposed to be discussing Lenin and the days of the Russian Revolution, he made no mention of the fact that Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders continually mingled with the workers at all kinds of meetings and elsewhere, guarded at other times as the crisis neared only against the police vengeance of Kerensky himself.

He concluded his presentation by quoting an attack by Proudhon on ... Marx. The French petty bourgeois radical had denounced Marx’s Communist Manifesto with the cry that “Communism is nothing more than inequality, subjugation, and slavery”.

The fight in 1917, said Kerensky, was “not a fight between capitalism and socialism, but between freedom and slavery.” And “Stalin is the most faithful, most able, most talented disciple of Lenin.”

Shachtman opened his rebuttal with a reminder to the audience that he had initially stated that the Stalinists have the biggest lie factory against the Bolshevik Revolution, but they by no means have a monopoly on the business.

He proceeded to discuss Kerensky’s garbled quotations – that is, forgeries – purporting to prove that Lenin favoured “treason”, discussing in particular Lenin’s opposition to the czar’s war and the world-wide imperialist war and his views on the so-called “revolutionary defeatism”.

The ISL chairman demanded to know “who elected” the supposedly “democratic” provisional government – which, of course, had been put into power by no popular vote of any kind. In contrast, he pointed out, the Bolshevik government took power with the support of a free vote of the broadest and most representative body ever assembled in Russia or for that matter in the world – the soviets (councils) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers of the country – in a congress organized and prepared by enemies of the Bolsheviks.

It will be a curious spectacle for future historians to picture the president of a government whom no people had elected contesting the democratic character of the only revolutionary regime in the history of the world’s revolutions which did come to power with the recorded, freely voted support of the broad masses!

Shachtman presented the documentation of the recent book on The Election to the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917 by O H Radkey as even more conclusive proof that the compromising leadership of the Mensheviks and SRs “no longer commanded the allegiance” of the masses.

He stressed the absurdity, not to speak of the slanderousness, of Kerensky’s claim that the Bolsheviks were able to lead a vast, tumultuous, surging mass revolution of the people through “trickeries.”

How many insurrections, he asked, had Kerensky ever organized in which he gave public instructions (not “secret instructions”) so that the reaction would know the time, place, and forces at his disposal?

“Whom did the Bolsheviks suppress during the civil war? White guards, czarists and Mensheviks who had taken up arms against the government and the revolution ... Did that ‘maniac’ Lincoln ever permit the Confederate States in the US Civil War to open up a recruiting station in Chicago?”

Kerensky had referred in rapturous terms to the president of the first provisional government in 1917, Prince Lvov, one of the biggest landowners in Russia, as “one of the most extraordinary democrats in the world”. Shachtman stated his regret that he had no time to take up this democratic idol of Kerensky’s properly, but it is worthwhile to mention Kerensky’s estimate for the light it casts on his own conceptions of democracy.

Kerensky had argued that while his provisional government had denied self-determination to Finland and the Ukraine, it had granted immediate freedom to Poland. Shachtman had only to point out that this was done when (and because) Poland was under the German sword at the time!

Kerensky was magnanimously giving freedom to a people whom he no longer controlled, while ruthlessly maintaining Russian control over the Finns and Ukrainians whom the Germans did not have in their power.

As reported above, Kerensky had also waved the flag of the Kronstadt revolt against the Bolsheviks, which took place in 1921 during the civil war of the White Guards and foreign armies against the revolution.

It was “ill-advised” for Kerensky to mention the word Kronstadt on his lips, Shachtman said. The provisional government – in 1917 – had “merely” ordered submarines to blow up the ships of the pro-Bolshevik Kronstadt sailors to compel their submission to the government!

In his rebuttal, Kerensky differentiated his own attack on Lenin as a “German agent” (one of the crudest of all the slanders against Lenin) from that of others in that he did not accuse Lenin of being a vulgar agent for German gold. It was “Lenin’s point of view”, he said, that coincided with German interests.

Taking up the question of why he had denied self-determination to the Ukrainians, he gave as his excuse the Ukrainians’ “excessive” territorial demands, which for him could be solved only by the same Constituent Assembly which he was continually postponing.

His main appeal was “Why was it necessary to organize the uprising?”, implying that it is “always possible” for things to be worked out.

As is also reported elsewhere, Shachtman, by the terms of the debate, was then supposed to have a surrebuttal, but he did not get the opportunity since the chairman adjourned the meeting due to the lateness of the hour. But even without this last word, there is little doubt that the solid, fact-buttressed, cogent picture of the Russian Revolution that he had presented clearly lighted up the socialist inspiration and democratic heritage of the great revolutionary struggle.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 3.5.2011