Leon Trotsky

The Lessons of October

Chapter 4
The April Conference

The speech which Lenin delivered at the Finland railway station on the socialist character of the Russian revolution was a bombshell to many leaders of the party. The polemic between Lenin and the partisans of “completing the democratic revolution” began from the very first day.

A sharp conflict took place over the armed April demonstration, which raised the slogan: “Down with the Provisional Government!” This incident supplied some representatives of the right wing with a pretext for accusing Lenin of Blanquism. [1] The overthrow of the Provisional Government, which was supported at that time by the soviet majority, could be accomplished, if you please, only by disregarding the majority of the toilers.

From a formal standpoint, such an accusation might seem rather plausible, but in point of fact there was not the slightest shade of Blanquism in Lenin’s April policy. For Lenin the whole question hinged on the extent to which the soviets continued to reflect the real mood of the masses, and whether or not the party was mistaken in guiding itself by the soviet majority. The April demonstration, which went further “to the left” than was warranted, was a kind of reconnoitering sortie to test the temper of the masses and the reciprocal relationship between them and the soviet majority. This reconnoitering operation led to the conclusion that a lengthy preparatory period was necessary. And we observe that Lenin in the beginning of May sharply curbed the men from Kronstadt, who had gone too far and had declared against the recognition of the Provisional Government ...

The opponents of the struggle for power had an entirely different approach to this question. At the April Party Conference, Comrade Kamenev made the following complaint:

“In No.19 of Pravda, a resolution was first proposed by comrades [the reference here is obviously to Lenin – L.T.] to the effect that we should overthrow the Provisional Government. It appeared in print prior to the last crisis, and this slogan was later rejected as tending to disorganization; and it was recognized as adventuristic. This implies that our comrades learned something during this crisis. The resolution which is now proposed [by Lenin – L.T.] repeats that mistake ...”

This manner of formulating the question is most highly significant. Lenin, after the experience of the reconnoiter, withdrew the slogan of the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government. But he did not withdraw it for any set period of time – for so many weeks or months – but strictly in dependence upon how quickly the revolt of the masses against the conciliationists would grow. The opposition, on the contrary, considered the slogan itself to be a blunder. In the temporary retreat of Lenin there was not even a hint of a change in the political line. He did not proceed from the fact that the democratic revolution was still uncompleted. He based himself exclusively on the idea that the masses were not at the moment capable of overthrowing the Provisional Government and that, therefore, everything possible had to be done to enable the working class to overthrow the Provisional Government on the morrow.

The whole of the April Party Conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of power in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (anybody and everybody) to complete the democratic revolution? Unfortunately, the report of the April Conference remains unpublished to this very day, though there is scarcely another congress in the history of our party that had such an exceptional and immediate bearing on the destiny of our revolution as the conference of April 1917.

Lenin’s position was this: an irreconcilable struggle against defensism and its supporters; the capture of the soviet majority; the overthrow of the Provisional Government; the seizure of power through the soviets; a revolutionary peace policy and a program of socialist revolution at home and of international revolution abroad. In distinction to this, as we already know, the opposition held the view that it was necessary to complete the democratic revolution by exerting pressure on the Provisional Government, and in this process the soviets would remain the organs of “control” over the power of the bourgeoisie. Hence flows quite another and incomparably more conciliatory attitude to defensism.

One of the opponents of Lenin’s position argued in the following manner at the April Conference:

“We speak of the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies as if they were the organizing centers of our own forces and of state power ... Their very name shows that they constitute a bloc of petty bourgeois and proletarian forces which are still confronted with uncompleted bourgeois democratic tasks. Had the bourgeois democratic revolution been completed, this bloc would no longer exist ... and the proletariat would be waging a revolutionary struggle against the bloc ... And, nevertheless, we recognize these soviets as centers for the organization of forces ... Consequently, the bourgeois revolution is not yet completed, it has not yet outlived itself; and I believe that all of us ought to recognize that with the complete accomplishment of this revolution, the power would actually have passed into the hands of the proletariat.” (from the speech of Comrade Kamenev)

The hopeless schematism of this argument is obvious enough. For the crux of the matter lies precisely in the fact that the “complete accomplishment of this revolution” could never take place without changing the bearers of power. The above speech ignores the class axis of the revolution; it deduces the task of the party not from the actual grouping of class forces but from a formal definition of the revolution as bourgeois, or as bourgeois democratic. We are to participate in a bloc with the petty bourgeoisie and exercise control over the bourgeois power until the bourgeois revolution has been completely accomplished. The pattern is obviously Menshevik. Imitating in a doctrinaire fashion the tasks of the revolution by its nomenclature (a “bourgeois” revolution), one could not fail to arrive at the policy of exercising control over the Provisional Government and demanding that the Provisional Government should bring forward a policy of peace without annexations, and so on. By the completion of the democratic revolution was understood a series of reforms to be effected through the Constituent Assembly! Moreover, the Bolshevik Party was assigned the role of a left wing in the Constituent Assembly.

Such an outlook deprived the slogan “All power to the soviets!” of any actual meaning. This was best and most consistently and most thoroughly expressed at the April Conference by the late Nogin, who also belonged to the opposition:

“In the process of development the most important functions of the soviets will fall away. A whole series of administrative functions will be transferred to the municipal, district, and other institutions. If we examine the future development of the structure of the state, we cannot deny that the Constituent Assembly will be convoked and after that the Parliament ... Thus, it follows that the most important functions of the soviets will gradually wither away. That, however, does not mean to say that the soviets will end their existence in ignominy. They will only transfer their functions. Under these same soviets we shall not achieve the commune republic in our country.”

Finally, a third opponent dealt with the question from the standpoint that Russia was not ready for socialism.

“Can we count on the support of the masses if we raise the slogan of proletarian revolution? Russia is the most petty bourgeois country in Europe. To count on the sympathy of the masses for a socialist revolution is impossible; and, consequently, the more the party holds to the standpoint of a socialist revolution the further it will be reduced to the role of a propaganda circle. The impetus to a socialist revolution must come from the West.”

And further on:

“Where will the sun of the socialist revolution rise? I believe that, in view of all the circumstances and our general cultural level, it is not for us to initiate the socialist revolution. We lack the necessary forces; the objective conditions for it do not exist in our country. But for the West this question is posed much in the same manner as the question of overthrowing tsarism in our country.”

Not all the opponents of Lenin’s point of view at the April Conference drew the same conclusions as Nogin – but all of them were logically forced to accept these conclusions several months later, on the eve of October. Either we must assume leadership of the proletarian revolution or we must accept the role of an opposition in a bourgeois parliament that is how the question was posed within our party. It is perfectly obvious that the latter position was essentially a Menshevik position, or rather the position which the Mensheviks found themselves compelled to occupy after the February revolution. As a matter of fact, the Mensheviks had for many years tapped away like so many woodpeckers at the idea that the coming revolution must be bourgeois; that the government of a bourgeois revolution could only perform bourgeois tasks; that the social democracy could not take upon itself the tasks of bourgeois democracy and must remain an opposition while “pushing the bourgeoisie to the left.” This theme was developed with a particularly boring profundity by Martynov. With the inception of the bourgeois revolution in 1917, the Mensheviks soon found themselves on the staff of the government. Out of their entire “principled𔄭 position there remained only one political conclusion, namely, that the proletariat dare not seize power. But it is plain enough that those Bolsheviks who indicted Menshevik ministerialism and who at the same time were opposed to the seizure of power by the proletariat were, in point of fact, shifting to the pre-revolutionary positions of the Mensheviks.

The revolution caused political shifts to take place in two directions: the reactionaries became Cadets [2] and the Cadets became republicans against their own wishes – a purely formal shift to the left; the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks became the ruling bourgeois party – a shift to the right. These are the means whereby bourgeois society seeks to create for itself a new backbone for state power, stability, and order. But at the same time, while the Mensheviks were passing from a formal socialist position to a vulgar democratic one, the right wing of the Bolsheviks was shifting to a formal socialist position, i.e., the Menshevik position of yesterday.

The same regroupment of forces took place on the question of war. The bourgeoisie, except for a few doctrinaires, kept wearily droning the same tune: no annexations, no indemnities – all the more so because the hopes for annexation were already very slim. The Zimmerwaldian Mensheviks [3] and the SRs, who had criticized the French socialists because they defended their bourgeois republican fatherland, themselves immediately became defensists the moment they felt themselves part of a bourgeois republic. From a passive internationalist position, they shifted to an active patriotic one. At the same time, the right wing of the Bolsheviks went over to a passive internationalist position, (exerting “pressure” on the Provisional Government for the sake of a democratic peace, “without annexations and without indemnities”). Thus at the April Conference the formula of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry was driven asunder both theoretically and politically, and from it emerged two antagonistic points of view: a democratic point of view, camouflaged by formal socialist reservations, and a revolutionary socialist point of view, the genuinely Bolshevik and Leninist point of view.

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1. Louis Auguste Blanqui 81805-1881) and his followers argued in favour of armed insurrection by small groups of conspirators, as opposed to the Marxist concept of mass revolutionary action.

2. These were the Constitutional Democrats, who wanted to see a constitutional monarchy in Russia.

3. This is a reference to the Zimmwerwald conference of September 1915, at which various socialist groups declared their opposition to the war, including a section of the Russian Menshevik Party, which was split on the issue.

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Last updated on: 13.1.2007