Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Chapter 15
The Bolsheviks and Lenin

On the 3rd of April Lenin arrived in Petrograd from abroad. Only from that moment does the Bolshevik Party begin to speak out loud, and, what is more important, with its own voice.

For Bolshevism the first months of the revolution had been a period of bewilderment and vacillation. In the “manifesto” of the Bolshevik Central Committee, drawn up just after the victory of the insurrection, we read that “the workers of the shops and factories, and likewise the mutinied troops, must immediately elect their representatives to the Provisional Revolutionary Government.” The manifesto was printed in the official organ of the Soviet without comment or objection, as though the question were a purely academic one. But the leading Bolsheviks themselves also regarded their slogans as purely demonstrative. They behaved not like representatives of a proletarian party preparing an independent struggle for power, but like the left wing of a democracy, which, having announced its principles, intended for an indefinite time to play the part of loyal opposition.

Sukhanov asserts that at the sitting of the Executive Committee on March 1 the central question at issue was merely as to the conditions of the handing over of power. Against the thing itself – the formation of a bourgeois government – not one voice was raised, notwithstanding that out of 39 members of the Executive Committee, 11 were Bolsheviks or their adherents, and moreover three members of the Bolshevik centre, Zalutsky, Shliapnikov and Molotov, were present at the sitting.

In the Soviet on the next day, according to the report of Shliapnikov himself, out of 400 deputies present, only 19 voted against the transfer of power to the bourgeoisie – and this although there were already 40 in the Bolshevik faction. The voting itself passed off in a purely formal parliamentary manner, without any clear counter-proposition from the Bolsheviks, without conflict, and without any agitation whatever in the Bolshevik press.

On the 4th of March the Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee adopted a resolution on the counter-revolutionary character of the Provisional Government, and the necessity of steering a course towards the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. The Petrograd committee, rightly regarding this resolution as academic – since it gave no directives for today’s action – approached the problem from the opposite angle. “Taking cognisance of the resolution on the Provisional Government adopted by the Soviet,” it announces that “it will not oppose the power of the Provisional Government in so far as,” etc. ... In essence this was the position of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – only moved back to the second line trenches. This openly opportunist resolution of the Petrograd Committee contradicted only in a formal way the resolution of the Central Committee, whose academic character had meant nothing politically but putting up with an accomplished fact.

This readiness to submit silently, or with reservations, to the government of the bourgeoisie did not have by any means the entire sympathy of the party. The Bolshevik workers met the Provisional Government from the first as a hostile rampart unexpectedly grown up in their path. The Vyborg Committee held meetings of thousands of workers and soldiers, which almost unanimously adopted resolutions on the necessity for a seizure of power by the soviets. An active participant in this agitation, Dingelstedt, testifies: “There was, not one meeting, not one workers’ meeting, which would have voted down such a resolution from us if there had only been somebody to present it.” The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were afraid in those first days to appear openly before audiences of workers and soldiers with their formulation of the question of power. A resolution of the Vyborg workers, in view of its popularity, was printed and pasted up as a placard. But the Petrograd Committee put an absolute ban upon this resolution, and the Vyborg workers were compelled to submit.

On the question of the social content of the revolution and the prospects of its development, the position of the Bolshevik leadership was no less cloudy. Shliapnikov recalls : “We agreed with the Mensheviks that we were passing through the period of the breakdown of feudal relations, and that in their place would appear all kinds of ‘freedoms’ proper to bourgeois relations.” Pravda said in its first number: “The fundamental problem is to establish a democratic republic.” In an instruction to the workers’ deputies, the Moscow Committee announced: “The proletariat aims to achieve freedom for the struggle for socialism, its ultimate goal.” This traditional reference to the “ultimate goal” sufficiently emphasises the historic distance from socialism. Farther than this nobody ventured. The fear to go beyond the boundaries of a democratic revolution dictated a policy of waiting, of accommodation, and of actual retreat before the Compromisers.

It is easy to imagine how heavily this political character-lessness of the centre influenced the provinces. We will confine ourselves to the testimony of one of the Saratov organisations : “Our party after taking an active part in the insurrection has evidently lost its influence with the masses, and this has been caught up by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Nobody knew what the slogans of the Bolsheviks were. ... It was a very unpleasant picture.”

The left Bolsheviks, especially the workers, tried with all their force to break through this quarantine. But they did not know how to refute the premise about the bourgeois character of the revolution and the danger of an isolation of the proletariat. They submitted, gritting their teeth, to the directions of the leaders. There were various conflicting currents in Bolshevism from the very first day, but no one of them carried its thoughts through to the end. Pravda reflected this cloudy and unstable intellectual state of the party, and did not bring any unity into it. The situation became still more complicated toward the middle of March, after the arrival from exile of Kamenev and Stalin, who abruptly turned the helm of official party policy to the right.

Although a Bolshevik almost from the very birth of Bolshe-vism, Kamenev had always stood on the right flank of the party. Not without theoretical foundations or political instinct, and with a large experience of factional struggle in Russia and a store of political observations made in Western Europe, Kamenev grasped better than most Bolsheviks the general ideas of Lenin, but he grasped them only in order to give them the mildest possible interpretation in practice. You could not expect from him either independence of judgment or initiative in action. A distinguished propagandist, orator, journalist, not brilliant but thoughtful, Kamenev was especially valuable for negotiations with other parties and reconnoitres in other social circles—although from such excursions he always brought back with him a bit of some mood alien to the party. These characteristics of Kamenev were so obvious that almost nobody ever misjudged him as a political figure. Sukhanov remarks in him an absence of “sharp corners.” “It is always necessary to lead him on a tow-line,” he says. “He may resist a little, but not strongly.” Stankevich writes to the same effect: Kamenev’s attitude to his enemies “was so gentle that it seemed as though he himself were ashamed of the irreconcilableness of his position ; in the committee he was certainly not an enemy but merely an opposition.” There is little to add to that.

Stalin was a totally different type of Bolshevik, both in his psychological make-up and in the character of his party work : a strong, but theoretically and politically primitive, organiser. Whereas Kamenev as a publicist stayed for many years abroad with Lenin, where stood the theoretical forge of the party, Stalin as a so-called “practical,” without theoretical viewpoint, without broad political interests, and without a knowledge of foreign languages, was inseparable from the Russian soil. Such party workers appeared abroad only on short visits to receive instructions, discuss their further problems, and return again to Russia. Stalin was distinguished among the practicals for energy, persistence, and inventiveness in the matter of moves behind the scenes. Where Kamenev as a natural result of his character felt “embarrassed” by the practical conclusions of Bolshevism, Stalin on the contrary was inclined to defend the practical conclusions which he adopted without any mitigation whatever, uniting insistence with rudeness.

Notwithstanding their opposite characters, it was no accident that Kamenev and Stalin occupied a common position at the beginning of the revolution: they supplemented each other.

A revolutionary conception without a revolutionary will is like a watch with a broken spring. Kamenev was always behind the time – or rather beneath the tasks – of the revolution. But the absence of a broad political conception condemns the most wilful revolutionist to indecisiveness in the presence of vast and complicated events. Stalin, the empiric, was open to alien influences not on the side of will but on the side of intellect. Thus it was that this publicist without decision, and this organise without intellectual horizon, carried Bolshevism in March 1917 to the very boundaries of Menshevism. Stalin proved even less capable than Kamenev of developing an independent position in the Executive Committee, which he entered as a representative of the party. There is to be found in its reports and its press not one proposal, announcement, or protest, in which Stalin expressed the Bolshevik point of view in opposition to the fawning of the “democracy” at the feet of liberalism. Sukhanov says in his Notes of the Revolution: “Among the Bolsheviks, besides Kamenev, there appeared in the Executive Committee in those days Stalin ... During the time of his modest activity in the Executive Committee he gave me the impression – and not only me – of a grey spot which would sometimes give out a dim and inconsequential light. There is really nothing more to be said about him.” Although Sukhanov obviously underestimates Stalin as a whole, he nevertheless correctly describes his political characterlessness in the Executive Committee of the Compromisers.

On the 14th of March the manifesto “to the people of the whole world,” interpreting the victory of the February revolution in the interests of the Entente, and signifying the triumph of a new republican social patriotism of the French stamp, was adopted by the Soviet unanimously. That meant a considerable success for Kamenev and Stalin, but one evidently attained without much struggle. Pravda spoke of it as a “conscious compromise between different tendencies represented in the Soviet.” It is necessary to add that this compromise involved a direct break with the tendency of Lenin, which was not represented in the Soviet at all.

Kamenev, a member of the emigrant editorial staff of the central organ, Stalin, a member of the Central Committee, and Muranov, a deputy in the Duma who had also returned from Siberia, removed the old editors of Pravda, who had occupied a too “left” position, and on the 15th of March, relying on their somewhat problematical rights, took the paper into their own hands. In the programme announcement of the new editorship, it was declared that the Bolsheviks would decisively support the Provisional Government “in so far as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution.” The new editors expressed themselves no less categorically upon the question of war: While the German army obeys its emperor, the Russian soldier must stand firmly at his post answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “Our slogan is not the meaningless ‘down with war.’ Our slogan is pressure upon the Provisional Government with the aim of compelling it ... to make an attempt to induce all the warring countries to open immediate negotiations ... and until then every man remains at his fighting post!” Both the idea and its formulation are those of the defensists. This programme of pressure upon an imperialist government with the aim of “inducing” it to adopt a peace-loving form of activity, was the programme of Kautsky in Germany, Jean Longuet in France, MacDonald in England. It was anything but the programme of Lenin, who was calling for the overthrow of imperialist rule. Defending itself against the patriotic press, Pravda went even farther “All ‘defeatism,’” it said, “or rather what an undiscriminating press protected by the czar’s, censorship has branded with that name, died at the moment when the first revolutionary regiment appeared on the streets of Petrograd.” This was a direct abandonment of Lenin. “Defeatism” was not invented by a hostile press under the protection of a censorship, it was proclaimed by Lenin in the formula: “The defeat of Russia is the lesser evil.” The appearance of the first revolutionary regiment, and even the overthrow of the monarchy, did not alter the imperialist character of the war. “The day of the first issue of the transformed Pravda,” says Shliapnikov, “was a day of rejoicing for the defensists. The whole Tauride Palace, from the business men in the committee of the State Duma to the very heart of the revolutionary democracy, the Executive Committee, was brimful of one piece of news: the Victory of the moderate and reasonable Bolsheviks over the extremists. In the Executive Committee itself they met us with venomous smiles ... When that number of Pravda was received in the factories it produced a complete bewilderment among the members of the party and its sympathisers, and a sarcastic satisfaction among its enemies ... The indignation in the party locals was enormous, and when the proletarians found out that Pravda had been seized by three former editors arriving from Siberia they demanded their expulsion from the party.” Pravda was soon compelled to print a sharp protest from the Vyborg district: “If the paper does not want to lose the confidence of the workers, it must and will bring the light of revolutionary consciousness, no matter how painful it may be, to the bourgeois owls.” These protests from below compelled the editors to become more cautious in their expressions, but did not change their policy. Even the first article of Lenin which got there from abroad passed by the minds of the editors. They were steering a rightward course all along the line. “In our agitation,” writes Dingelstedt, a representative of the left wing, “we had to take up the principle of the dual power ... and demonstrate the inevitability of this roundabout road to that same worker and soldier mass which during two weeks of intensive political life had been educated in a wholly different understanding of its tasks.”

The policy of the party throughout the whole country naturally followed that of Pravda. In many soviets resolutions about fundamental problems were now adopted unanimously: the Bolsheviks simply bowed down to the Soviet majority. At a conference of the soviets of the Moscow region the Bolsheviks joined in the resolution of the social patriots on the war. And finally at the All-Russian Conference of the representatives of 82 soviets at the end of March and the beginning of April, the Bolsheviks voted for the official resolution on the question of power, which was defended by Dan. This extraordinary political rapprochement with the Mensheviks caused a widespread tendency towards unification. In the provinces the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks entered into united organisations. The Kamenev-Stalin faction was steadily converting itself into a left flank of the so-called revolutionary democracy, and was taking part in the mechanics of parliamentary “pressure” in the couloirs upon the bourgeoisie, supplementing this with a similar, pressure upon the democracy.

The part of the Central Committee which lived abroad and the Central Organ, The Social Democrat, had been the spiritual centre of the party. Lenin, with Zinoviev as assistant, had conducted the whole work of leadership. The most responsible secretarial duties were fulfilled by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaia. In the practical work this small centre relied upon the support of a few score of Bolshevik emigrants. During the war their isolation from Russia became the more unbearable as the military police of the Entente drew its circle tighter and tighter. The revolutionary explosion they had so long and tensely awaited caught them unawares. England categorically refused to the emigrant internationalists, of whom she had kept a careful list, a visa to Russia. Lenin was raging in his Zurich cage, seeking a way out. Among a hundred plans that were talked over, one was to travel on the passport of a deaf-and-dumb Scandinavian. At the same time Lenin did not miss any chance to make his voice heard from Switzerland. On March 6 he telegraphed through Stockholm to Petrograd: “Our tactic; absolute lack of confidence; no support to the new government; suspect Kerensky especially; arming of proletariat the sole guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd Duma; no rapprochement with other parties.” In this directive, only the suggestion about elections to the Duma instead of the Soviet, had an episodic character and soon dropped out of sight. The other points, expressed with telegraphic incisiveness, fully indicate the general direction of the policy to be pursued. At the same time Lenin begins to send to Pravda his Letters from Afar which, although based upon fragments of foreign information constitute a finished analysis of the revolutionary situation. The news in the papers soon enabled him to conclude that the Provisional government, with the direct assistance not only of Kerensky but of Cheidze, was not unsuccessfully deceiving the workers, out the imperialist war for a war of defence. On the 17th of March, through friends in Stockholm, he wrote a letter filled with alarm. “Our party would disgrace itself for ever, kill itself politically, if it took part in such deceit ... I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party rather than surrender to social patriotism ...” After this apparently impersonal threat – having definite people in mind however – Lenin adjures: “Kamenev must understand that a world historic responsibility rests upon him.” Kamenev is named here because it is a question of political principle. If Lenin had had a practical militant problem in mind, he would have been more likely to mention Stalin. But in just those hours Lenin was striving to communicate the intensity of his will to Petrograd across smoking Europe, Kamenev with the co-operation of Stalin was turning sharply toward social patriotism.

Various schemes – disguises, false whiskers, foreign or false passports – were cast aside one after the other as impossible. And meanwhile the idea of travelling through Germany became more and more concrete. This plan frightened the majority emigrants – and not only those who were patriotic, either. Martov and the other Mensheviks could not make up their minds to adopt the bold action of Lenin, and continued to knock in vain on the doors of the Entente. Later on even many of Bolsheviks repented of their journey through Germany, in view of the difficulties caused by the “sealed train” in the sphere of agitation. From the beginning Lenin never shut his eyes to those future difficulties. Krupskaia wrote not long before the departure from Zurich: “Of course the patriots will raise an outcry in Russia, but for that we must be prepared.” The question stood as follows: either stay in Switzerland or travel through Germany. There was no other choice. Could Lenin have hesitated for a moment? Just one month Martov Axelrod and the others had to follow in his steps.

In the organisation of this unusual trip through hostile territory in war time, the fundamental traits of Lenin as statesman expressed themselves – boldness of conception a meticulous carefulness in its fulfilment. Inside that great revolutionist there dwelt a pedantic notary – one who knew his function, however, and drew up his paper at the moment when it might help in the overthrow of all such notarial acts for ever. The conditions of the journey through German were worked out with extraordinary care in this unique international treaty between the editorial staff of a revolutionary paper and the empire of the Hohenzollerns. Lenin demanded complete extraterritoriality during the transit: no supervision of the personnel of the passengers, their passports or baggage. No single person should have the right to enter the train throughout the journey. (Hence the legend of the “sealed” train.) On their part, the emigrant group agreed to insist upon the release from Russia of a corresponding number of German and Austro-Hungarian civil prisoners.

At the same time a joint declaration was drawn up with several foreign revolutionises. “The Russian internationalists who are now going to Russia in order to serve there the cause of the revolution, will help us arouse the proletariat of other countries, especially of Germany and Austria, against their governments.” So speaks the protocol signed by Loriot and Gilbeaux from France, Paul Levy from Germany, Platten from Switzerland, by Swedish left deputies and others. On those conditions and with those precautions, thirty Russian emigrants left Switzerland at the end of March. A rather explosive trainload even among the loads of those war days!

In his farewell letter to the Swiss workers Lenin reminded them of the declaration of the central organ of the Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1915: If the revolution brings to power in Russia a republican government which wants to continue the imperialist war, the Bolsheviks will be against the defence of the republican Fatherland. Such a situation has now arisen. “Our slogan is no support to the government of Guchkov-Miliukov.” With those words Lenin now entered the territory of the revolution.

However, the members of the Provisional Government did not see any ground for alarm. Nabokov writes: “At one of the March sessions of the Provisional Government, during a recess, in a long conversation about the increasing propaganda of the Bolsheviks, Kerensky exclaimed with his usual hysterical giggle: ’Just you wait, Lenin himself is coming, then the real thing will begin!’” Kerensky was right. The real thing would begin only then. However the ministers, according to Nabokov, were not greatly disturbed: “The very fact of his having appealed to Germany will so undermine the authority of Lenin that we need not fear him.” As was to be expected, the ministers were exceedingly perspicacious.

Friendly disciples went to meet Lenin in Finland. “We had hardly got into the car and sat down,” writes Raskolnikov, a young naval officer and a Bolshevik, “when Vladimir Ilych flung at Kamenev: ‘What’s this you’re writing in Pravda? We saw several numbers and gave it to you good and proper.’” Such was their meeting after a separation of several years. But even so it was a friendly meeting.

The Petrograd Committee, with the co-operation of the military organisation, mobilised several thousand workers and soldiers for a triumphal welcome to Lenin. A friendly armoured car division detailed all their cars to meet him. The committee decided to go to the station with the armoured cars. The revolution had already created a partiality for that type of monster, so useful to have on your side in the streets of a city.

The description of the official meeting which took place in the so-called “Czar’s Room” of the Finland station, constitutes a very lively page in the many-volumed and rather faded memoirs of Sukhanov. “Lenin walked, or rather ran, into the ’Czar’s Room’ in a round hat, his face chilled, and a luxurious bouquet in his arms. Hurrying to the middle of the room, he stopped still in front of Cheidze as though he had run into a completely, unexpected obstacle. And here Cheidze, not abandoning his previous melancholy look, pronounced the following ‘speech of greeting,’ carefully, preserving not only the spirit and voice of a moral instructor: ‘Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd Soviet and the whole revolution. We welcome you to Russia ... but we consider the that the chief task of the revolutionary democracy at present is to defend our revolution against every kind of attack both from within and from without ... We hope that you will join us in striving towards this goal.’ Cheidze ceased. I was dismayed with the unexpectedness of it. But Lenin, it seemed, knew well how to deal with all that. He stood there looking as though what was happening did not concern him in the least, glanced from one side to the other, looked over the surrounding public, and even examined the ceiling to the ’Czar’s Room’ while rearranging his bouquet (which harmonised rather badly with his whole figure), and finally, having turned completely away from the delegates of the Executive Committee, ‘answered’ thus: ‘Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers, I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army ... The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters ... The Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new, epoch, Long live the world wide socialist revolution!’”

Sukhanov is right – the bouquet harmonised badly with the figure of Lenin, and doubtless hindered and embarrassed him with its inappropriateness to the austere background of events. In general, as it happens, Lenin did not like flowers in a bouquet. But doubtless he was far more embarrassed by that official and hypocritical Sunday school greeting in the parade room of a station. Cheidze was better than his speech of greeting. He was a little timid of Lenin. But they undoubtedly had told him that it was necessary to pull up on the “sectarian” from the very beginning. To supplement Cheidze’s speech, which had demonstrated the pitiable level of the leadership, a young naval commander, speaking in the name of the sailors, was brilliant enough to express the hope that Lenin might become a member of the Provisional Government. Thus the February revolution, garrulous and flabby and still rather stupid, greeted the man who had arrived with a resolute determination to set it straight both in thought and in will. Those first impressions, multiplying tenfold the alarm which he had brought with him, produced a feeling of protest in Lenin which it was difficult to restrain. How much more satisfactory to roll up his sleeves! Appealing from Cheidze to the sailors and workers, from the defence of the Fatherland to international revolution, from the Provisional Government to Liebknecht, Lenin merely gave a short rehearsal there at the station of his whole future policy.

And nevertheless that clumsy revolution instantly and heartily took its leader into its bosom. The soldiers demanded that Lenin climb up on one of the armoured cars, and he had to obey. The oncoming night made the procession especially impressive. The lights on the other armoured cars being dimmed, the night was stabbed by the sharp beam from the projector of the machine on which Lenin rode. It sliced out from the darkness of the street sections of excited workers, soldiers, sailors – the same ones who had achieved the great revolution and then let the power slip through their fingers. The band ceased playing every so often, in order to let Lenin repeat or vary his speech before new listeners. “That triumphal march was brilliant,” says Sukhanov, “and even somewhat symbolic.”

In the palace of Kshesinskaia, Bolshevik headquarters in the satin nest of a court ballerina – that combination must have amused Lenin’s always lively irony – greetings began again. This was too much. Lenin endured the flood of eulogistic speeches like an impatient pedestrian waiting in a doorway for the rain to stop. He felt the sincere joyfulness at his arrival, but was bothered by its verboseness. The very tone of the official greetings seemed to him imitative, affected – in a word borrowed from the petty bourgeois democracy, declamatory, sentimental and false. He saw that the revolution, before having even defined its problems and tasks, had already created its tiresome etiquette. He smiled a good-natured reproach, looked at his watch, and from time to time doubtless gave an unrestrained yawn. The echo of the last greeting had not died away, when this unusual guest let loose upon that audience a cataract of passionate thought which at times sounded almost like a lashing. At that period the stenographic art was not yet open to Bolshevism. Nobody made notes. All were too absorbed in what was happening. The speeches have not been preserved. There remain only general impressions in the memoirs of the listeners. And these have been edited by the lapse of time; rapture has been added to them, and fright washed away. The fundamental impression made by Lenin’s speech even among those nearest to him was one of fright. All the accepted formulas, which with innumerable repetition had acquired in the course of a month a seemingly unshakeable permanence, were exploded one after another before the eyes of that audience. The short Leninist reply at the station, tossed out over the head of the startled Cheidze, was here developed into a two hour speech addressed directly to the Petrograd cadres of Bolshevism.

The non-party socialist, Sukhanov, was accidentally present this meeting as a guest – admitted by the good-natured Kamenev, although Lenin was intolerant of such indulgences. Thanks to this we have a description made by an outsider – half-hostile and half-ecstatic – of the first meeting of Lenin with the Petersburg Bolsheviks.

“I will never forget that thunderlike speech, startling and amazing not only to me, a heretic accidentally dropped in, but also to the faithful, all of them. I assert that nobody there had expected anything of the kind. It seemed as if all the elements and the spirit of universal destruction had risen from their lairs, knowing neither barriers nor doubts nor personal difficulties nor personal considerations, to hover through the banquet chambers of Kshesinskaia above the heads of the bewitched disciples.”

Personal considerations and difficulties – to Sukhanov that meant for the most part the editorial waverings of the Novy Zhizn circle having tea with Maxim Gorky. Lenin’s considerations went deeper. Not the elements were hovering in that banquet hall, but human thoughts – and they were not embarrassed by the elements, but were trying to understand in order to control them. But never mind – the impression is clearly conveyed.

“On the journey here with my comrades,” said Lenin, according to Sukhanov’s report – “I was expecting they would take us directly from the station to Peter and Paul. We are far from that, it seems. But let us not give up the hope that it will happen, that we shall not escape it.”

For the others at that time the development of the revolution was identical, with a strengthening of the democracy; for Lenin the nearest prospect led straight to the Peter and Paul prison-fortress. It seemed a sinister joke. But Lenin was not joking, nor was the revolution joking.

“He swept aside legislative agrarian reform,” complains Sukhanov, “along with all the rest of the policies of the Soviet. He spoke for an organised seizure of the land by the peasants, not anticipating ... any governmental power at all.”

“‘We don’t need any parliamentary republic. We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the Soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies!’”

At the same time Lenin sharply separated himself from Soviet majority, tossing them over into the camp of the enemy. That alone was enough in those days to make his listeners dizzy!”

“Only the Zimmerwald Left stands guard over the proletarian interests and the world revolution” – thus Sukhanov reports, with indignation, the thoughts of Lenin, “The rest are the same old opportunist speaking pretty words but in reality betraying the cause of socialism and the work masses.”

Raskolnikov supplements Sukhanov: “He decisively assailed the tactics pursued before his arrival by the ruling party groups and by individual comrades. The most responsible workers were here. But for them too the words of Ilych were a veritable revelation. They laid down a Rubicon between the tactics of yesterday and today,” That Rubicon, as we shall see was not laid down at once.

There was no discussion of the speech. All were too much astounded, and each wanted a chance to collect his thoughts. “I came out on the street,” concludes Sukhanov, “feeling as though on that night I had been flogged over the head with a flail. Only one thing was clear: There was no place for me, a non-party man, beside Lenin!”

Indeed not!

The next day Lenin presented to the party a short written exposition of his views, which under the name of Theses of April 4 has become one of the most important documents of the revolution. The theses expressed simple thoughts in simple words comprehensible to all: The republic which has issued from the February revolution is not our republic, and the war which it is now raging is not our war, The task of the Bolsheviks is to overthrow the imperialist government. But this government rests upon the support of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who in turn are supported by the trustfulness of the masses of the people. We are in the minority. In these circumstances there can be no talk of violence from our side. We must teach the masses not to trust the Compromisers and defensists. “We must patiently explain.” The success of this policy, dictated by the whole existing situation, is assured, and it will bring us to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so beyond the boundaries of the bourgeois régime. We will break absolutely with capital, publish its secret treaties, and summon the workers of the whole world to cast loose from the bourgeoisie and put an end to the war. We are beginning the international revolution. Only its success will confirm our success, and guarantee a transition to the socialist régime.

These theses of Lenin were published in his own name and his only, The central institutions of the party met them with a hostility softened only by bewilderment. Nobody – not one organisation, group or individual – affixed his signature to them. Even Zinoviev, arriving with Lenin from abroad, where for ten years his ideas had been forming under the immediate and, daily influence of Lenin, silently stepped aside, Nor was this side-stepping a surprise to the teacher, who knew his closest disciple all too well.

Where Kamenev was a propagandist populariser, Zinoviev was an agitator, and indeed, to quote an expression of Lenin, “nothing but an agitator.” He has not, in the first place, a sufficient sense of responsibility to be a leader. But not only that. Lacking inner discipline, his mind is completely incapable of theoretical work, and his thought dissolve into formless intuitions of the agitator. Thanks to an exceptionally quick scent, he can catch out of the air whatever formulas are necessary to him – those which will exercise the most the most effective influence on the masses. Both as journalist and orator he remains an agitator, with only this difference – that in his articles you usually see his weaker side, and in oral speech his stronger. Although far more bold and unbridled in agitation than any other Bolshevik, Zinoviev is even less capable than Kamenev of revolutionary initiative. He is, like all demagogues, indecisive. Passing from the arena of factional debate to that of direct mass fighting, Zinoviev almost involuntarily separated from his teacher.

There have been plenty of attempts of late years to prove that the April party crisis was a passing and almost accidental confusion. They all go to pieces at first contact with the facts. [1]

What we already know of the activity of the party in March reveals the deepest possible contradiction between Lenin and the Petersburg leadership. This contradiction reached its highest intensity exactly at the moment of Lenin’s arrival. Simultaneously with the All-Russian Conference of representatives, of 82 soviets, where Kamenev and Stalin voted for the resolution on sovereignty introduced by the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, there took place in Petrograd a party conference of Bolsheviks assembled from all over Russia. This conference, at the very end of which Lenin arrived, has an exceptional interest for anyone wishing to characterize the mood and opinions of the party and all its upper layers as they issued from the war. A reading of the reports, to this day unpublished, frequently produces a feeling of amazement: is it possible that a party represented by these delegates will after seven months seize the power with an iron hand? A month had already passed since the uprising – a long period for a revolution, as also for a war. Nevertheless opinions were not defined in the party on the most basic questions of the revolution. Extreme patriots such as Voitinsky, Eliava, and others, participated in the conference alongside of those who considered themselves internationalists. The percentage of outspoken patriots, incomparably less than among the Mensheviks, was nevertheless considerable. The conference as a whole did not decide the question whether to break with its own patriots or unite with the patriots of Menshevism. In an interval between sessions of the Bolshevik conference there was held a united session of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – delegates to the Soviet conference – to consider the war question. The most furious Menshevik-patriot, Lieber, announced at this session: “We must do away with the old division between Bolshevik and Menshevik, and speak only of our attitude toward the war.” The Bolshevik, Voitinsky, hastened to proclaim his readiness to put his signature to every word of Lieber. All of them together, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, patriots and internationalists, were seeking a common formula for their attitude to the war.

The views of the Bolshevik conference undoubtedly found their most adequate expression in the report of Stalin on relations with the Provisional Government. It is necessary to introduce here the central thought of this speech, which, like the reports as a whole, is not yet published. “The power has been decided between two organs of which neither one possesses full power. There is debate and struggle between them, and there ought to be. The rôles have been divided. The Soviet has in fact taken the initiative in the revolutionary transformation; the Soviet is the revolutionary leader of the insurrectionary people; an organ controlling the Provisional Government. And the Provisional Government has in fact taken the rôle of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people. The Soviet mobilizes the forces, and controls. The Provisional Government, balking and confused, takes the rôle of fortifier of those conquests of the people, which they have already seized as a fact. This situation has disadvantageous, but also advantageous sides. It is not to our advantage at present to force events, hastening the process of repelling the bourgeois layers, who will in the future inevitably withdraw from us.”

Transcending class distinctions, the speaker portrays the relation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as a mere division of labour. The workers and soldiers achieve the revolution, Guchkov and Miliukov “fortify” it. We recognize here the traditional conception of the Mensheviks, incorrectly modelled after the events of 1789. This superintendent’s approach to the historical process is exactly characteristic of the leaders of Menshevism, this handing out of instructions to various classes and then patronisingly criticising their fulfillment. The idea that it is disadvantageous to hasten the withdrawal of the bourgeoisie from the revolution, has always been the guiding principle of the whole policy of the Mensheviks. Inaction this means blunting and weakening the movement of the masses in order not to frighten away the liberal allies. And finally, Stalin’s conclusion as to the Provisional Government is wholly in accord with the equivocal formula of the Compromisers: “In so far as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution, in so far we must support it, but in so far as it is counter-revolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.”

Stalin’s report was made on March 29. On the next day the official spokesman of the Soviet conference, the non-party social democrat Steklov, defending the same conditional support to the Provisional Government, in the ardor of his eloquence painted such a picture of the activity of the “fortifiers” of the revolution – opposition to social reforms, leaning towards monarchy, protection of counter-revolutionary forces, appetite for annexation – that the Bolshevik conference recoiled in alarm from this formula of support. The right Bolshevik Nogin declared: “The speech of Steklov has introduced one new thought: it is clear that we ought not now to talk about support, but about resistance.” Skrypnik also arrived at the conclusion that since the speech of Steklov “many things have changed, there can be no more talk of supporting the government. There is a conspiracy of the Provisional Government against the people and the revolution.” Stalin, who a day before had been painting an idealistic picture of the “division of labour” between the government and the Soviet, felt obliged to eliminate this point about supporting the government. The short and superficial discussion turned about the question whether to support the Provisional Government “in so far as,” or only to support the revolutionary activities of the Provisional Government. The delegate from Saratov, Vassiliev, not untruthfully declared: “We all have the same attitude to the Provisional Government.” Krestinsky formulated the situation even more clearly: “As to practical action there is no disagreement between Stalin and Voitinsky.” Notwithstanding the fact that Voitinsky went over to the Mensheviks immediately after the conference, Krestinsky was not very wrong. Although he eliminated the open mention of support, Stalin did not eliminate support. The only one who attempted to formulate the question in principle was Krassikov, one of those old Bolsheviks who had withdrawn from the party for a series of years, but now, weighed down with life’s experience, was trying to return to its ranks.

Krassikov did not hesitate to seize the bull by the horns. Is this then a dictatorship of the proletariat you are about to inaugurate? he asked ironically. But the conference passed over his irony, and along with it passed over this question as one not deserving attention. The resolution of the conference summoned the revolutionary democracy to urge the Provisional Government toward “a most energetic struggle for the complete liquidation of the old régime” – that is, gave the proletarian party the rôle of governess of the bourgeoisie.

The next day they considered the proposal of Tseretelli for a union of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin was wholly in favour of the proposal: “We must do it. It is necessary to define our proposal for a basis of union; union is possible on the basis of Zimmerwald-Kienthal.” Molotov, who had been removed from the editorship of Pravda by Kamenev and Stalin because of the too radical line of the paper, spoke in opposition: Tseretelli wants to unite heterogeneous elements, he himself calls himself Zimmerwaldist; a union on that basis is wrong. But Stalin stuck to his guns: “There is no use running ahead and trying to forestall disagreements. There is no party life without disagreements. We will live down petty disagreements within the party.” The whole struggle which Lenin had been carrying on during the war years against social patriotism and its pacifist disguise, was thus casually swept aside. In September 1916 Lenin had written through Shliapnikov to Petrograd with special insistence: “Conciliationism and consolidation is the worst thing for the workers’ party in Russia, not only idiotism but ruin to the party ... We can rely only on those who halve understood the whole deceit involved in the idea of unity and whole necessity of a split with that brotherhood (Cheidze Co.) in Russia.” This warning was not understood. Disagreements with Tseretelli, the leader of the ruling Soviet bloc, seemed to Stalin petty disagreements, which could be “lived down” within a common party. This furnishes the best criterion for an appraisal of the views held by Stalin at that time.

On April 4 Lenin appeared at the party conference. His speech, developing his “theses,” passed over the work of the conference like the wet sponge of a teacher erasing what had been written on the blackboard by a confused pupil.

“Why didn’t you seize the power?” asked Lenin. At the Soviet conference not long before that, Steklov had confusedly explained the reasons for abstaining from the power: revolution is bourgeois – it is the first stage – the war, etc. “That’s nonsense,” Lenin said. “The reason is that the proletariat was not sufficiently conscious and not sufficiently organised. That we have to acknowledge. The material force was in the hands of the proletariat, but the bourgeoisie was conscious and ready. That is the monstrous fact. But it is necessary to acknowledge it frankly, and say to the people straight out that we did not seize the power because we were unorganised and not conscious.”

From the plane of pseudo-objectivism, behind which the political capitulators were hiding, Lenin shifted the whole question to the subjective plane. The proletariat did not seize the power in February because the Bolshevik Party was not equal to its objective task, and could not prevent the Compromises from expropriating the popular masses politically for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

The day before that, lawyer Krassikov had said challengingly: “If we think that the time has now come to realize the dictatorship of the proletariat, then we ought to pose the question that way. We unquestionably have the physical force for a seizure of power.” The chairman at that time deprived Krassikov of the floor on the ground that practical problems were under discussion, and the question of dictatorship was out of order. But Lenin thought that, as the sole practical question, the question of preparing the dictatorship of the proletariat was exactly in order. “The peculiarity of the present moment in Russia,” he said in his theses, “consists in the transition from the first stage of the revolution, which gave the power to the bourgeoisie on account of the inadequate consciousness and organization of the proletariat, to its second stage which must give the power to the proletariat and the poor layers of the peasantry.” The conference, following the lead of Pravda, had limited the task of the revolution to a democratic transformation to be realized through the Constituent Assembly. As against this, Lenin declared that “life and the revolution will push the Constituent Assembly into the background. A dictatorship of the proletariat exists, but nobody knows what to do with it.”

The delegates exchanged glances. They whispered to each other that Ilych had stayed too long abroad, had not had time, to look around and familiarize himself with things. But the speech of Stalin on the ingenious division of labour between the government and the Soviet sank out of sight once and for ever. Stalin himself remained silent. From now on he will have to be silent for a long time. Kamenev alone will man the defences.

Lenin had already given warning in letters from Geneva that he was ready to break with anybody who made concessions on the question of war, chauvinism and compromise with the bourgeoisie. Now, face to face with the leading circles of the party he opens an attack all along the line. But at the beginning he does not name a single Bolshevik by name. If he has need of a living model of equivocation and half-wayness, he points his finger at the non-party men, or at Steklov or Cheidze. That was the customary method of Lenin: not to nail anybody down to his position too soon, to give the prudent a chance to withdraw from the battle in good season and thus weaken at once the future ranks of his open enemies. Kamenev and Stalin had thought that in participating in the war after February, the soldiers and workers were defending the revolution. Lenin thinks that, as before, the soldier and the worker take part in the war as the conscripted slaves of capital. “Even our Bolsheviks,” he says, narrowing the circle around his antagonists, “show confidence in the government. Only the fumes of the revolution can explain that. That is the death of socialism ... If that’s your position, our ways part. I prefer to remain in the minority.” That was not a mere oratorical threat; it was a clear path thought through to the end.

Although naming neither Kamenev nor Stalin, Lenin was obliged to name the paper: “Pravda demands of the government that it renounce annexation. To demand from the government of the capitalists that it renounce annexation is nonsense, flagrant mockery.” Restrained indignation here breaks out with a high note. But the orator immediately takes himself in hand: he wants to say no less than is necessary, but also no more. Incidentally and in passing, Lenin gives incomparable rules for revolutionary statesmanship: “When the masses announce that they do not want conquests, I believe them. When Guchkov and Lvov say they do not want conquests, they are deceivers! When a worker says that he wants the defense of the country, what speaks in him is the instinct of the oppressed.” This criterion, to call it by its right name, seems simple as life itself. But the difficulty is to call it by its right name in time.

On the question of the appeal of the Soviet “to the people of the whole world” – which caused the liberal paper Rech at one time to declare that the theme of pacifism is developing among us into an ideology common to the Allies – Lenin expressed himself more clearly and succinctly: “What is peculiar to Russia is the gigantically swift transition from wild violence to the most delicate deceit.”

“This appeal,” wrote Stalin concerning the manifesto, “if it reaches the broad masses (of the West), will undoubtedly recall hundreds and thousands of workers to the forgotten slogan ‘Prôletarians of all Countries Unite!’”

“The appeal of the Soviet,” objects Lenin, “– there isn’t a word in it imbued with class consciousness. There is nothing to it but phrases.” This document, the pride of the home-grown Zimmerwaldists, is in Lenin’s eyes merely one of the weapons of “the most delicate deceit.”

Up to Lenin’s arrival Pravda had never even mentioned the Zimmerwald left. Speaking of the International, it never indicated which International. Lenin called this “the Kautskyanism of Pravda.” “In Zimmerwald and Kienthal,” he declared at a party conference, “the Centrists predominated ... We declare that we created a left and broke with the centre ... The left Zimmerwald tendency exists in all the countries of the world. The masses ought to realize that socialism has split throughout the world ...

Three days before that Stalin had announced at that same conference his readiness to live down differences with Tseretelli on the basis of Zimmerwald-Kienthal – that is, on the basis of Kautskyanism. “I hear that in Russia there is a trend toward consolidation,” said Lenin. “Consolidation with the defensists – that is betrayal of socialism. I think it would be better to stand alone like Liebknecht – one against a hundred and ten.” The accusation of betrayal of socialism – for the present still without naming names – is not here merely a strong word; it fully expresses the attitude of Lenin toward those Bolsheviks who were extending a finger to the social patriots. In opposition to Stalin who thought it was possible to unite with the Mensheviks, Lenin thought it was unpermissible to share with them any longer the name of Social Democrat. “Personally and speaking for myself alone,” he said, “I propose that we change the name of the party, that we call it the Communist Party.” “Personally and speaking for myself alone” – that means that nobody, not one of the members of the conference, agreed to that symbolic gesture of ultimate break with the Second International.

“You are afraid to go back on your old memories?” says the orator to the embarrassed, bewildered and partly indignant delegates. But the time has come “to change our linen; we’ve got to take off the dirty shirt and put on clean.” And he again insists: “Don’t hang on to an old word which is rotten through and through. Have the will to build a new party ... and all the oppressed will come to you.”

Before the enormity of the task not yet begun, and the intellectual confusion in his own ranks, a sharp thought of the precious time foolishly wasted in meetings, greetings, ritual resolutions, wrests a cry from the orator: “Have done with greetings and resolutions! It’s time to get down to business. We must proceed to practical sober work!” An hour later Lenin was compelled to repeat his speech at the previously designated joint session of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, where it sounded to a majority of the listeners like something between mockery and delirium. The more condescending shrugged their shrugged their shoulders: This man evidently fell down from the moon; hardly off the steps of the Finland station after a ten-year absence he starts preaching the seizure of power by the proletariat. The less good-natured among the patriots made references to the sealed train. Stankevich testifies that Lenin’s speech greatly delighted his enemies: “A man who talks that kind of stupidity is not dangerous. It’s a good thing he has come. Now he is in plain sight ... Now he will refute himself.”

Nevertheless, with all its boldness of revolutionary grasp, its inflexible determination to break even with his former long time colleagues and comrades-in-arms, if they proved unable to march with the revolution, the speech of Lenin – every part balanced against the rest – was filled with deep realism and an infallible feeling for the masses. Exactly for this reason, it seemed to the democrats a fantastic skimming of the surface.

The Bolsheviks are a tiny minority in the Soviet, and Lenin dreams of seizing the power; isn’t that pure adventurism? There was not a shadow of adventurism in Lenin’s statement of the problem. He did not for a moment close his eyes to the existence of “honest” defensist moods in the broad masses. He did not intend either to lose himself in the masses or to act behind their backs. “We are not charlatans” – he throws this in the eyes of future objections and accusations – “we must base ourselves only upon the consciousness of the masses. Even if it is necessary to remain in a minority – so be it. It is a good thing to give up for a time the position of leadership; we must not be afraid to remain in the minority.” Do not fear to remain in a minority – even a minority of one, like Liebknecht’s one against a hundred and ten – such was the leitmotif of his speech.

“The real government is the Soviet of workers’ deputies ... In the Soviet our party is the minority ... What can we do? All we can do is to explain patiently, insistently, systematically the error of their tactics. So long as we are in the minority, we will carry on the work of criticism, in order to free the masses from deceit. We do not want the masses to believe us just on our say so; we are not charlatans. We want the masses to be freed by experience from their mistakes.” Don’t be afraid to remain in the minority! Not for ever, but for a time. The hour of Bolshevism will strike. “Our line will prove right ... All the oppressed will come to us, because the war will bring them to us. They have no other way out.”

“At the joint conference,” relates Sukhanov, “Lenin was the living incarnation of a split ... I remember Bogdanov (a prominent Menshevik) sitting two steps away from the orator’s tribune. ‘Why, that is raving,’ he interrupted Lenin, ‘that is the raving of a lunatic ... You ought to be ashamed to applaud such spouting,’ he cried, turning to the audience, white in the face with rage and scorn. ‘You disgrace yourselves, Marxists!’”

A former member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, Goldenberg, at that time a non-party man, appraised Lenin’s theses in these withering words: “For many years the place of Bakunin has remained vacant in the Russian revolution, now it is occupied by Lenin.”

“His programme at that time was met not so much with indignation,” relates the Social Revolutionary Zenzinov, “as with ridicule. It seemed to everybody so absurd and fantastic.”

On the evening of the same day in the couloirs of the Contact Commission, two socialists were talking with Miliukov, and the conversation touched on Lenin. Skobelev estimated him as “a man completely played out, standing apart from the movement.” Sukhanov was of the same mind, and added that “Lenin is to such a degree unacceptable to everybody that he is no longer dangerous even to my companion Miliukov here.”

The distribution of rôles in this conversation, however, was exactly according to Lenin’s formula: the socialists were protecting the peace of mind of the liberal from the trouble which Bolshevism might cause him.

Rumors even arrived in the ears of the British ambassador that Lenin had been declared a bad Marxist. “Among the newly arrived anarchists,” wrote Buchanan, “was Lenin, who came through in a sealed train from Germany. He made his first public appearance at a meeting of the Social Democratic Party and was badly received.”

The most condescending of all toward Lenin in those days was no other than Kerensky, who in a circle of members of the Provisional Government unexpectedly stated that he must go to see Lenin, and explained in answer to their bewildered questions: “Well, he is living in a completely isolated atmosphere, he knows nothing, sees everything through the glasses of his fanaticism. There is no one around him who might help him orient himself a little in what is going on.” Thus testifies Nabokov. But Kerensky never found the time to orient Lenin in what was going on.

The April theses of Lenin not only evoked the bewildered indignation of his opponents and enemies. They repelled a number of old Bolsheviks into the Menshevik camp – or into that intermediate group which found shelter around Gorky’s paper. This leakage had no serious political significance. Infinitely more important was the impression which Lenin’s position made on the whole leading group of the party. “In the first days after his arrival,” writes Sukhanov, “his complete isolation among all his conscious party comrades cannot be doubted in the least.” “Even his party comrades, the Bolsheviks,” confirms the Social Revolutionary Zenzinov, “at that time turned away in embarrassment from him.” The authors of these comments were meeting the leading Bolsheviks every day in the Executive Committee, and had first-hand evidence of what they said.

But there is no lack of similar testimony from among the ranks of the Bolsheviks. “When the theses of Lenin appeared,” wrote Tsikhon, softening the colours as much as possible, as do a majority of the old Bolsheviks when they stumble on the February revolution, “there was felt in our party a certain wavering. Many of the comrades argued that Lenin showed a syndicalist deviation, that he was out of touch with Russia, that he was not taking into consideration the given moment,” etc. One of the prominent Bolshevik leaders in the provinces, Lebedev, writes: “On Lenin’s arrival in Russia, his agitation, at first not wholly intelligible to us Bolsheviks, but regarded as Utopian and explainable by his long removal from Russian life, was gradually absorbed by us, and entered, as you might say, into our flesh and blood.”

Zalezhski, a member of the Petrograd Committee and one of the organizers of the welcome to Lenin, expresses it more frankly “Lenin’s theses produced the impression of an exploding bomb.” Zalezhski fully confirms the complete isolation of Lenin after that so warm and impressive welcome. “On that day (April 4) Comrade Lenin could not find open sympathisers even in our own ranks.”

Still more important, however, is the evidence of Pravda. “On April 8, after the publication of the theses – when time enough had passed to make explanations and reach a mutual understanding – the editors of Pravda wrote: “As for the general scheme of Comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.” The central organ of the party thus openly announced before the working class and its enemies a split with the generally recognised leader of the party upon the central question of the revolution for which the Bolshevik ranks had been getting ready during a long period of years. That alone is sufficient to show the depth of the April crisis in the party, due to the clash of two irreconcilable lines of thought and action. Until it surmounted this crisis the revolution could not go forward.


1. In gthe big collection volume issued un der the editorship of Professor Pokrovsky, Essays on the History of the October Revolution (Vol.II, Moscow 1927), an apologetic work is devolted to the “April confusion” by a certain Bayevsky, which for its un ceremonious treatment of fqacts and documents might be called cynical, were it not childishly impotent.

Last Chapter    |    History of the Russian Revolution    |    Next Chapter

return return return return return

Last updated on: 25 December 2014