Did the Bolsheviks Seize Power by Deception?

By Paul Flewers

The contrast between the promises and the end result of Bolshevism has often led its critics to claim that the Bolsheviks seized power by deception. By and large, these observers fall into two schools of thought. One school is largely comprised of an unlikely combination of conservative historians and libertarian left wingers, whose ideas on this subject coincide to a surprising degree, whatever their profound disagreements on other matters. They view the Bolsheviks as conscious deceivers, as power-hungry intellectual zealots posing as the friends of the oppressed, taking advantage of social problems and the discontent of the masses, in order to seize power and impose their authoritarian rule, irrespective of their lack of support amongst the population as a whole.

The other school of thought also combines different political outlooks within a common conceptual framework on this particular issue. This school sees the basis of Bolshevik practice in a combination of a problematic political theory and a highly over-optimistic estimation of the national and international situation. In short, the Bolsheviks were fooling themselves, and were victims of their own illusions, although it must be emphasised that with some adherents to this school, the charge of deception is implicit rather than stated. [1]

I. Bolshevism as Manipulation

The conservative and libertarian critics of Bolshevism consider that the Bolsheviks manipulated their way into positions of leadership within the Russian working class. A leading exponent of the conservative school, John Keep, says that the workers’ militias and the factory councils were established by workers in order to protect their neighbourhoods from unsocial elements, and to defend their jobs and wages, but they were infiltrated by Bolsheviks, who used them as weapons ‘of a single political party which made no secret of its intention to seize state power by insurrectionary means’:

‘Many ordinary red guardsmen, and also members of the factory committees, will scarcely have been able to comprehend the import of this transformation. Driven to near despair by the economic crisis, their nerves kept on edge by incessant propaganda, they responded uncritically to the appeals of a party that promised untold blessings once "soviet power" had been achieved.’ [2]

Keep says that intellectuals played a predominant role within the Bolshevik party due to ‘their natural self-assertiveness, nourished by the traditions of clandestine struggle, [which] encouraged these men to take advantage of their commanding position’, and this enabled them to form a new elite after the October Revolution. [3]

For the Russian anarchist Peter Arshinov, the October Revolution represented the accession to power of the intellectuals, the ‘socialist democracy’, of whom the Bolsheviks were merely the most artful. Comprising ‘a well-defined socio-economic group’, the intellectuals promoted a statist system as ‘the ideology of the new ruling caste’, and the Soviet system was ‘nothing other than the construction of a new class domination over the producers, the establishment of a new socialist power over them’, the plans for which having been ‘elaborated and prepared during several decades by the leaders of the socialist democracy’. [4]

The Bolsheviks promised that this revolution would lead directly ‘to the free realm of socialism and communism’, which seemed plausible to the masses, who were ‘inexperienced in politics’:

‘The participation of the Communist Party [sic] in the destruction of the capitalist regime gave rise to enormous confidence in it. The stratum of intellectual workers who were the carriers of the ideals of the democracy was always so thin and sparse that the masses knew nothing of its existence as a specific economic category. Consequently, at the moment of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the masses saw no one other than themselves who might replace the bourgeoisie. And it was precisely at this moment that the bourgeoisie was in fact replaced by these accidental leaders, the deceitful Bolsheviks, experienced in political demagogy …

‘Thanks to its revolutionary energy and its demagogic confusion of the revolutionary idea of the workers with its own idea of political domination, Bolshevism drew the masses to itself, and made extensive use of their confidence.’ [5]

The Bolsheviks keyed into the sentiments and demands of the popular masses, in order to impose upon them a new form of exploitative society, and used the political inexperience of the masses for their own ends. The Bolsheviks, therefore, hijacked the Russian Revolution in order to become a new ruling elite.

Opportunism, deception, duplicity, dishonesty: these are the reasons given by conservative and libertarian critics of Bolshevism. The conclusion to be drawn is that the Russian masses were suffering from some form of collective naivety in order for them to have believed and followed the Bolsheviks. Despite – or rather because of – the fact that he has amassed considerable evidence to show the rise of the Bolsheviks within the Russian working class, Keep is obliged to explain their success by producing an image of the Russian workers as, on the one hand, essentially naive, gullible and simple-minded, and, on the other hand, scheming, narrow-minded and selfish. Not only were the workers unable to understand that their organisations had been hijacked, they were not really interested in anything outwith the factory gates. Referring to the support for the concept of workers’ control at the All-Russian Conference of Factory Committees in October 1917, he asserts:

‘There is little doubt that the majority of the delegates took this slogan in its literal sense as meaning a real transfer of power within the enterprise to the men’s chosen representatives, who were to exercise the function of management in the interests of their electors. Needless to add, they showed no concern whatever for the effects which the full "democratisation" of industrial relations would be bound to have on productivity and the national economy as a whole.’ [6]

And for all the celebration by his political current of the spontaneity of the masses, the anarchist Arshinov is obliged to refer, albeit delicately, to the politically ‘inexperienced’ masses. [7]

Recent scholarship has gone far to dispel many of the orthodoxies of the conspiratorial school, and is able to present a more rational and realistic view of the rise of Bolshevism, especially in respect of the Russian working class. In his study of Petrograd factory workers, Steven Smith considers that ‘it was the struggles of workers in the world of work, and the activities of the work-based organisations, such as the factory committees and trade unions, which were of central importance in promoting revolutionary consciousness in 1917’. He does not deny the ‘crucial part’ played in that development by Bolshevik propaganda and activity, but ‘the Bolsheviks did not themselves create revolutionary feeling; it developed primarily out of attempts by workers to grapple with problems of survival’. [8] Workers’ control developed very rapidly in some sectors, particularly in metalworking (engineering). It was initiated in a spontaneous manner, for various purposes, and developed to varying degrees in different localities and industries. It became more politically aware, especially after May 1917, when the condition of the economy deteriorated, and employers started to take a hard line.

Not having prior to 1917 any idea of actually leading a proletarian seizure of power in the immediate future, and having developed within the traditions of the Second International, the Bolsheviks had no practical theories of workers’ control when it started to appear in the factories. In late May, however, Lenin drafted a resolution which recognised the growth of workers’ control, particularly in Petrograd, and connected it with the need for popular control over not merely industry, but the finance sector, and therefore the economy as a whole, in order to stave off economic collapse. [9] He elaborated this in later pieces, in which he looked at the need for the nationalisation of big business, centralised state control of the economy, and workers’ control of production. [10]

The Bolsheviks were therefore developing a strategy that aimed to shift the concept of workers’ control in individual factories towards popular control of the national economy, which necessitated the soviet seizure of state power. They were attempting to develop a revolutionary consciousness amongst the working class by engaging with them in their struggles over issues within the factories, and showing the workers that the resolution of their problems both at work and in the wider political field could only be solved through their seizing of state power.

Like any political theory, this would be rejected by its audience unless it actually meant something to them. Smith shows how the experiences of many workers made them receptive to the ideas of the Bolsheviks:

‘Strikes were a politicising experience for those who took part in them: they saw with their own eyes how employers were going on investment strike, engaging in lockouts, refusing to accept new contracts or to repair plant; how the government was colluding with the employers, curbing the factory committees and sending troops to quell disorder in the Donbass. The strikes were important, therefore, in making hundreds and thousands of workers aware of political matters and in making the policies of the Bolshevik party attractive to them.’ [11]

In other words, workers were drawn to the Bolsheviks because Bolshevik politics started to make sense. What seemed outlandish or irrelevant during and just after the February Revolution, now increasingly appeared to be quite rational.

Modern scholars do not overlook the less positive features of the workers’ movement. They would not dispute Keep’s statement that some committees tried to keep their factories open by preventing work being sent to provincial enterprises. But they would not move on, as Keep does, from this example to say that the committees in general were only interested in their own factory and not with the working class as a whole. [12] Even if some factory committees were parochially minded, many were forced by necessity to take a broader view. Many workers drew political conclusions from this. Ziva Galili says:

‘These actions implied a two-part position: first, that the state could and should take over the economy in order to regulate it, ensure production and jobs, and redress the imbalance in the apportionment of wealth between workers and employers; and second, that only under the guidance of a government dedicated to the interests of the revolution and democracy would the state perform these functions.’ [13]

These workers recognised that their control of an individual factory would be pointless if there was no overall state administration of industry as a whole:

‘It is thus clear that the issue of industrial order raised that of political order, and the practice of "kontrol", whatever its origins, gave rise to a concept of what the new political order should be. Of course, the connection between the industrial and political orders did not appear with equal clarity to all workers; to some it was merely a dim perception, but the Bolsheviks were ready to articulate, legitimise and exploit it.’ [14]

Bolsheviks had won leading positions in certain trade unions and many factory committees quite early on, and they steadily gained ground at the expense of the moderate socialists, especially in organisations where representatives were directly elected by the workers. Although the Bolsheviks lost popularity after the July Days, they soon revived, and support for the moderate socialists within the working class and the armed forces was soon to start an irreversible slide. The hostility of the moderate socialists to the factory committees, their continued attempts to act as arbitrators under conditions of sharpening class polarisation, their continued support for the war, and their ever louder calls for a coalition government, led to a steady rise in support for the Bolsheviks in the factory committee, union, soviet and municipal elections. [15] An analogous trend, if less developed and defined, was occurring within the armed forces around the demands of the soldiers. [16]

The Bolsheviks’ numerical size and influence grew considerably during 1917, and the rise of the party paralleled the deepening politicisation of the working class, and was indeed part of that process. In her study of the Moscow workers, Diane Koenker says that ‘the process by which the majority of workers identified their interests with the Bolshevik party programme was a product of rational, logical choices that corresponded to the changing political and economic nexus’. [17] This process, which occurred to varying degrees in most urban centres in Russia and its former empire, ultimately brought the overwhelming majority of workers to accept the need for a government based upon the soviets, as they demanded a government that would introduce economic management which they could trust, and make a real effort to gain peace:

‘By October, a wide spectrum of workers favoured soviet power; but since only the Bolshevik party advocated this power as part of their political programme, support for soviet power inevitably translated into support for the Bolshevik party.’ [18]

The Bolsheviks won support within the mass institutions thrown up in 1917 because their policies coincided with the desires and experiences of large numbers of people, particularly amongst the urban working class. Unlike those of other organisations, their policies appeared to correspond to reality, and to show a way forward.

Lenin’s State and Revolution comes under heavy criticism from the conservative-libertarian axis. The council communist Paul Mattick sees the book as an example of gross opportunism:

‘Everything Lenin wrote prior to State and Revolution, and every step taken after the seizure of power, turns the apparent radicalism displayed in this pamphlet into a mere opportunistic move to support the immediate aim of gaining power for the Bolshevik party … It was … not a momentary emotional aberration on the part of Lenin that induced him to grant so much revolutionary self-determination to the workers, but a pragmatic move in the manipulation of the revolution in accordance with his own party concept of the socialist state.’ [19]

A prominent conservative historian, Adam Ulam, says of State and Revolution that ‘no work could be more unrepresentative of its author’s political philosophy and his general state of mind’. But it is not surprising that this work – ‘almost a straightforward profession of anarchism’ – bore so little relationship to his political practice:

‘How indeed could the Bolsheviks come to power if they chose to remind the peasant that Marxism demanded that he forsake his small plot and work as a hired hand on a state-run farm? Or the worker that he must submit to the state-appointed factory director, the soldier that the proletarian dictatorship would not tolerate the lax discipline of the post-February army?’ [20]

It is true that State and Revolution stands in marked contrast with much of Lenin’s other writings. But does that make it a work of mere opportunism or trickery? If anything, State and Revolution is a theoretical work that is extremely abstract in its approach. Most of it consists of a polemic against the orthodox Marxism of the Second International. Lenin never managed to write the chapter that dealt with Russia, and its practical use in the October Revolution was ruled out as it was not published until 1918.

Its theoretical nature is clear as it does not refer to the specific features of Russia in 1917. The only references to Russia are brief criticisms of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. [21] If anything, it was aimed at a country more suited for a ‘classical’ socialist revolution. State and Revolution investigates the question of socialist revolution in the abstract. Whilst it is unwarranted to consider it as a work of deception on Lenin’s part, it was not – nor could be – a blueprint for Bolshevism in Russia. [22]

II. Bolshevism as Self-Delusion

Bolshevism underwent a dramatic change in early 1917. The experience of the February Revolution led Lenin to re-evaluate the Bolsheviks’ strategy. Up until then, the party had considered that the bourgeois revolution in Russia would lead to the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry within the confines of a bourgeois republic, a theory which Hal Draper has rightly described as ‘an invitation to a muddle’. [23] In his April Theses Lenin declared that the Provisional Government could not be supported as it could not solve the problems facing Russia, and that power must reside in a government based upon the soviets. Despite encountering opposition from various leading Bolsheviks (not to mention the bemusement of most other Russian socialists), his call for a soviet government struck a positive chord with many party members [24], and the Bolshevik conference in April 1917 endorsed this position.

EH Carr refers to the ‘real problem’ flowing from the Bolsheviks’ political re-evaluation:

‘It may well have been true, as the rapid disintegration of the February Revolution seemed to show, that bourgeois democracy and bourgeois capitalism on the Western model, which was what the Mensheviks wanted and expected, could not be rooted in Russian soil, so that Lenin’s policy was the only conceivable one in the empirical terms of current Russian politics … But what this policy committed its sponsors to was nothing less than to make a direct transition from the most backward to the most advanced forms of political and economic organisation.’ [25]

It is this question which, to a large degree, forms the basis of the criticisms of Bolshevism presented by the second school of thought, rather than a preoccupation with political manipulation.

The Mensheviks’ paper Rabochaia Gazeta responded to Lenin’s April Theses by saying that counter-revolution could only be staved off so long as the Russian Revolution was ‘able to remain within the limits’ which were ‘predetermined by the objective necessity (the state of the productive forces, the level of mentality of the masses of people corresponding to it, etc)’. Lenin’s ultra-radicalism, whilst appealing to ‘the most cherished aspirations of the proletariat’, was playing into the hands of reaction, as the possibility of bringing those aspirations into being was ‘illusory’, and ‘the backward majority’ of Russia would be roused against the gains of the February Revolution. [26] In July 1917 the Mensheviks’ leadership denied that the ‘internal chaos’ in Russia, the disruption of the economy, the imminent famine and unemployment could be countered by the Bolsheviks seizing power: ‘No, because no seizure whatever will furnish bread to the people; on the contrary it will merely aggravate the general disorganisation, will create a panic, that is, an absurd, senseless fear, mutual distrust and bitterness.’ The statement condemned the slogan of ‘All power to the Soviets’ as they were supported by only a minority of the population, and it was essential to retain the support of ‘those bourgeois elements’ who still wished ‘to defend … the conquests of the revolution’. [27] The Mensheviks considered that the October Revolution represented the foisting upon Russia of ‘a utopian programme’ that was ‘radically out of keeping with the backward state of the country’, and which could only be pursued in opposition to the majority of the population. [28]

In early 1919 the left wing Menshevik Yuli Martov produced a substantial critique of Bolshevism. He said that the Bolsheviks’ methods were derived from their political impatience. Wishing ‘to jump over the historic inertia of the masses’, their desire to find ‘political instruments that might best express the genuine will of the majority’ resulted in ‘the organisation of a minority dictatorship’. [29] Their impatience was greatly reinforced by the ‘economic retrogression’ that had occurred during the war. The organisation of society appeared to be an easy task, and the most militant workers had reverted to a crude anarchistic conception of the transition towards socialism through ‘the destruction of the state and not by the conquest of the state’. Although ‘Lenin himself did not realise it’, this would lead to the creation of a bureaucratic and repressive state, which would be presented to the masses ‘as the destruction of the old state machinery, as the rise of a society based on a minimum of repression and discipline, as the birth of a stateless society’:

‘On the one hand, such illusions are manipulated by certain extremist minorities of the socialist proletariat. On the other hand, these groups are themselves the slaves of these illusions. It is under the influence of this double factor that these minorities act when they seek to find a practical medium by which they might elude the difficulties connected with the realisation of a real class dictatorship… Fundamentally, this anarchist illusion of the destruction of the state covers up the tendency to concentrate all the state power of constraint in the hands of a minority, which believes neither in the objective logic of the revolution nor in the class consciousness of the proletarian majority and, with still greater reason, that of the national majority.’ [30]

Martov considered that the Bolsheviks did manipulate their constituency, but this was due more to their own illusions than to purely political manoeuvring. Dubious tactics were not the main problem, there was a deeper factor. As part of a long-standing tradition of revolutionary impatience, they reflected the consciousness of part of the working class. Martov considered Bolshevism to be a dangerous political deviation, which could only be a disaster for the Russian working class and for the cause of socialism in general.

The international dimension of the October Revolution is of prime importance, indeed, it is the axis around which Bolshevik policies revolved in 1917, and their whole political orientation during this period cannot be understood unless the international dimension is taken into account. The Bolsheviks recognised that the inability of a government based upon parliamentary democracy to deal with the deepening problems which it was confronting meant that the choice of government for Russia was between one based upon the organisations thrown up from below during and after the February Revolution, and some form of right wing authoritarian administration.

Trotsky recognised shortly after the 1905 Revolution that the leading role played by the working class in any future revolution in Russia would necessarily present it with the need to seize state power. However, he also recognised that proletarian power could only be guaranteed through the proletariat seizing power in the advanced capitalist countries. The Russian proletariat would ‘have no alternative but to link the fate of its political rule, and hence the fate of the whole Russian revolution, with the fate of the socialist revolution in Europe’. [31] The adoption by the Bolsheviks of Trotsky’s schema meant that whilst they were impelled to seize power in Russia, their regime could only survive through proletarian revolutions occurring in the advanced capitalist countries.

This was a high risk strategy, but, as Alexander Rabinowitch says, Lenin ‘was obsessed by the thought that all of the major European countries were on the threshold of socialist revolution and that a proletarian insurrection in Russia would be the spark that would spur desperate, peace-hungry workers everywhere to rise against their governments’. [32] Everything ultimately hinged upon this, and the Bolsheviks’ rivals appeared not to have recognised its centrality. [33] Isaac Deutscher speaks of the Bolsheviks’ ‘passionate, almost Messianic, belief’ in this, and how ‘the dazzling blaze of this great vision brightened in their eyes even the darkest aspects of the legacy they were taking over’. [34] Robert Service says that Lenin was hopelessly over-optimistic, and ‘was mistaking war-weariness and political discontent for a pan-European revolutionary situation’, although he recognises that conservatives and liberals across Europe thought much the same. [35]

Whilst many scholars reject the conspiratorial view of the Bolsheviks’ relationship with the working class, they do not overlook the problems involved with it, and with the closely related issue of the Bolsheviks’ industrial policy. Service considers that Lenin gravely underestimated the depth of the economic crisis in Russia during 1917, and that his statements that the economic problems in Russia could easily be rectified by a soviet regime were due to his own underestimation of the problems. [36] He concludes: ‘If Lenin fooled the workers in 1917, it was partly because he fooled himself to a considerable extent. The same could be said for many other leading Bolsheviks.’ [37]

Whilst the Bolsheviks played an active part in the factory committees and other mass institutions, and help to widen the scope of workers’ control into the quest for the regulation of the national economy by a soviet regime, they were unable to devise an economic strategy that could combine local initiative with central planning. Lenin’s writings on the subject show, as Marcel Liebman says, a ‘deeply democratic inspiration’ [38], but they are not much more than a statement of intent, and are only a little more substantial than the abstractions of State and Revolution. In 1917 Lenin saw the basis of a new society in the activity of the masses and in the vast array of institutions they had formed. As Liebman says:

‘The men and women whom he called upon to govern independently, and to whom he wished to see entrusted the conduct of public affairs, were the same working men and women who had succeeded in breaking through the innumerable forms of conservative conditioning …’ [39]

In the rising tide of mass activity in 1917, it was as if Lenin could only see the positive side of the masses, and was temporarily blind to the negative aspects: the low cultural level (illiteracy, drunkenness, etc.). The Bolsheviks were to find that the running of the economy was far more problematic than they had anticipated.

Nevertheless, it would be one-sided to see this purely as self-delusion. It was also a political problem. The Bolsheviks were faced with issues which had never been a practical matter for the socialist movement. Smith says that the general industrial theory of the Second International, from which the Bolsheviks had not broken, had limited its conception of production to its technical aspects, and ignored the wider social issues involved in modern industry. [40] Sam Farber dismisses the idea that the Bolsheviks were cynically using the factory committees as a means to help them to seize power, and says:

‘In the last analysis, the key political problem was that Lenin and the mainstream of the Bolshevik party, or for that matter the Mensheviks, paid little if any attention to the need for a transformation and democratisation of the daily life of the working class on the shopfloor and in the community. These political traditions were even less likely to see this transformation and democratisation as an essential part of the process by which that class could indeed become the ruling class.’ [41]

In power with the economy in a state of collapse and the working class starting to disintegrate, with no common policy or concrete ideas within the party on how to combine local industrial initiatives with central economic administration, not to mention a whole host of other problems, the Bolsheviks took the easy option of imposing a strictly centralised industrial policy, and restricting the scope of activity of factory committees.

III. The Sins of Omission

The Bolsheviks have been accused of deliberate chicanery or short-term opportunism in policy formulation, and of failing to point out the longer-term consequences of their policies. Most observers, including many modern scholars, consider that the Bolsheviks promoted an opportunist agrarian policy. Lenin’s policy shifted in 1917, moving away from the demand to nationalise the land towards permitting the entire peasantry to divide it up amongst themselves. Indeed, he lifted his entire agrarian programme from the Socialist Revolutionaries. Service says that Lenin ‘was not at all disconcerted by the accusation that he had stolen another party’s policy’:

‘The result was not intellectual coherence… He desired theoretical consistency and Marxist justification if he could obtain it; but it was not his absolute priority. He had a revolutionary’s urgent sense that something needed to be done and that mistakes and uncertainties had to be accepted as an unavoidable cost.’ [42]

And yet it can be legitimately argued that the Bolsheviks had little choice in this matter. As Deutscher says, ‘they sanctioned the share-out accomplished by the peasantry itself’. [43] The Bolsheviks were not in a position to influence to any real degree the peasants’ redistribution of the land.

The Bolsheviks have been accused of hiding their ultimate policy of agricultural collectivisation, so as not to alienate the peasantry. [44] Carr’s explanation is a little more ambiguous, saying that ‘in the turbulent atmosphere of revolutionary tactics a proposition of little immediate relevance and no appeal to the peasant easily dropped into the background’. [45] Nevertheless, whatever the short-term benefits to the Bolsheviks of their adaptation to and endorsement of the peasants’ struggle for land during 1917, the consequences of these tactics were soon to pose severe problems for them.

Similarly, the Bolsheviks have been accused of opportunism in respect of the national question, although modern scholars see it as being due to political expediency, rather than to pure deception and dishonesty. Richard Pipes, a leading conservative writer, says that the inability of the Provisional Government to assert its authority within the non-Russian areas of the former empire permitted the Bolsheviks, who were ‘concentrating on the seizure of power and unhampered by any moral scruples or constitutional considerations’, to manipulate the aspirations of the non-Russian masses for their own advantage, as they ‘had no intention of respecting the principle of national self-determination’ once in power. Lenin saw national struggles ‘as something to exploit’, as ‘a psychological weapon’. [46] Service, on the other hand, says that Lenin considered it ‘wiser to leave the non-Russian areas’ of the former empire ‘to stoke up their own anger against the Provisional Government and to await further developments’. [47]

Here too it can be argued that the situation was largely outwith their control, as although, as Stephen Jones says, ‘non-Russian perceptions of the Bolshevik stance on the national question, involving a commitment to national self-determination and to the defence of national rights, were probably not unfavourable’ [48], they were weak in many non-Russian areas, and the party was more divided on this issue than on any other. Once again, however, once in power, democratic slogans, however sincerely believed in, and tactics based upon short-term political expediency, were soon to clash with policies based upon reasons of state.

Conservative and libertarian commentators customarily claim that the Bolsheviks deliberately concealed their real intentions of one party rule. Others would dispute this conspiratorial view, yet they would concur with this statement from Keep:

‘Most ordinary members of urban soviets, and even the political activists to whom they looked for guidance, expected the overthrow of the "bourgeois" Provisional Government to lead to the creation of a coalition regime representing all those factions and tendencies that stood for immediate peace and radical social change. Hardly anyone wanted single party rule.’ [49]

It is true that many of those who supported the concept of a soviet government visualised it as some kind of coalition of the various socialist parties, but it is equally true, as we have seen, that as 1917 drew by the Bolsheviks were increasingly seen as the only party that would bring about a soviet government.

But were the Bolsheviks intending to introduce a one party state? Whilst Lenin and Trotsky did not wish to share power with the mainstream Menshevik and right wing Socialist Revolutionary leaders, other party leaders called for a broad coalition after the establishment of a Soviet regime, and even resigned from the government when this failed to materialise. The mainstream Mensheviks and right wing Socialist Revolutionaries, in a move which Keep calls ‘politically short-sighted’ [50], walked out of the national Soviet congress that was held subsequent to the overthrow of the Provisional Government, followed by the Menshevik Internationalists, thus giving the Bolsheviks more or less full sway to form a government of their choice. The Mensheviks and right wing Socialist Revolutionaries then proposed a government with the conditions that Lenin and Trotsky be excluded, key posts be held by non-Bolsheviks, no single party to have a majority, and that it be responsible to an assembly along the lines of the State Conference, which would not reflect the true strength of the Bolsheviks. Such conditions, as Deutscher puts it, ‘amounted to a demand that the Bolsheviks should declare the October Revolution null and void, that they should disarm themselves in the face of their enemies, and that they themselves should ostracise the inspirer and leader of the insurrection’, [51] things which were unacceptable even to the most moderate Bolshevik.

A coalition Soviet government was established with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. Its members played important roles in both the government and state apparatus, including the secret police. They resigned from the government after the signing of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, they were not expelled from it, and they only fell into direct conflict with the Bolsheviks after they had staged an armed uprising against the government.

Rather than envisaging a one party state, the evidence points to Lenin and Trotsky seeking a soviet government in which the Bolsheviks, as the party which enjoyed mass support in increasing numbers of soviets and committees and was the main driving force for a soviet government, would play a predominant role, but which would work with other parties that wholeheartedly supported the concept of a soviet government. This explains both their hostility towards the Mensheviks and the right wing Socialist Revolutionaries, and their willingness to work with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. This is not to deny that by the fact of being the party that most consistently demanded and fought for a soviet government, the Bolsheviks identified the revolution with their political pre-eminence, and predicated the survival of the revolution upon it, and this, especially under the increasingly difficult conditions after the October Revolution, led to them monopolising political power. But it is wrong to assume that this course of events was either premeditated or preordained.

Some commentators have pointed to the gaps in Lenin’s public statements during the period between the February and October Revolutions. Service, for example, says that ‘Lenin cannot have wanted to upset popular sensibilities unnecessarily’ with talk about terror and dictatorship, and he ‘never satisfactorily explained precisely how to effect’ his political strategy of ‘a combination of the revolution from above with the revolution from below’, although he does not think that this was necessarily due to deviousness on Lenin’s part. [52]

There were many significant lacunae in Lenin’s writings. Many of the problems involved in the seizure of power by a proletarian party and in the exercise of power under a soviet regime could not be addressed in advance. The quest for a soviet government in 1917 was very much a step into the dark. The Bolsheviks had no historical precedents apart from the short-lived Paris Commune on which they could base themselves and from which they could learn. The Second International, from which the Bolsheviks had only recently broken, had had no experience of leading a revolution, let alone wielding power. The lack on the part of the Bolsheviks of any worked out theories in respect of the issues involved during 1917 and afterwards – not least the crucial factors of the relationship between the revolutionary party and the working class, and the mechanics of a regime based upon mass organisations – was not accidental. It was not a deceitful attempt to hide the future subordination of the proletariat to the ruling party, rather, it was a question of imponderables.

IV. Conclusion: Time For an Objective Assessment

The re-evaluation of Bolshevik strategy in early 1917 shifted the further development of the revolution in Russia from a national to an international dimension. The establishment of the Soviet regime in backward Russia was in response to the inability of the Provisional Government to deal with domestic problems, and was to be a detonator for proletarian revolutions in the advanced countries of Western Europe. Indeed, Trotsky said that Lenin ‘regarded the very conquest of power in Russia primarily as the impetus for a European revolution, a thing which, as he often repeated, was to have incomparably more importance for the fate of humanity than the revolution in backward Russia’. [53] It was this factor that encouraged the Bolsheviks to work for the seizure of power in a country which was backward and unready in itself for a socialist transformation, and it was the urgency of firing this detonator which encouraged them to take all manner of short cuts to weaken the political and administrative authority of the Provisional Government. That is why they encouraged the struggles of the peasants for land redistribution and the nationalities for autonomy and independence, irrespective of the longer-term problems that would ensue.

Nobody can deny that the Bolsheviks employed opportunist tactics in their day to day work, politicians invariably do, and the other parties in Russia were by no means innocent in this respect. But it is incorrect to claim, as the conservative and libertarian observers do, that this constituted the entirety of Bolshevik practice. The Bolsheviks’ push for state power was not based upon a narrow quest for power as such. They saw themselves as the only organisation that could seize power in Russia and thus spark off the European revolutionary upsurge. In many respects, Bolshevism in power was a holding operation, clinging onto state power under very difficult conditions whilst waiting for proletarian revolutions to occur in Western Europe. In doing so, the consequences of their opportunist tactics became clear as discontent arose amongst the peasantry and the non-Russian nationalities. Similarly, their political shortcomings in respect of the relationship between the party and the working class led them to tackle economic problems through bureaucratic centralising measures, which alienated sections of their working class constituency, and brought to the forefront a paternalistic attitude that had been transcended to a large extent during 1917.

The Bolsheviks considered that their relationship with the working class was unproblematic, and they had no idea as to what they should do if their support within the working class fell away once they had taken power. But their holding onto power when disaffection amongst the working class became evident cannot be explained by a crude lust for power on their part. The Bolsheviks viewed their seizure of power as a qualitative historical shift forwards, not merely as part of the to and fro of a parliamentary regime. They assumed that the tide of history was running in their favour, and felt that any relinquishing of power would be disastrous, set the course of history into reverse, and cause great demoralisation within the proletariat on an international level. It was these factors, rather than any specific desire for power and predilection for manipulation and deceit, that lay behind the contrast between the aims of the Bolsheviks and the manner in which they came to power and subsequently acted.

Having long been confronted by a deluge of anti-Bolshevik material from the conspiratorial school, anti-Stalinist Marxists, particularly but not exclusively those in and around the Trotskyist movement, have clung to a rather romantic, uncritical view of Bolshevism, which does not challenge except in detail the Stalinist view of an unproblematic relationship between the Bolsheviks and the Soviet state and the proletariat during the period of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. Sufficient scholarship on the subject has now been produced to undermine the conspiratorial school, specifically by proving the existence of a conscious mass base for the Bolsheviks in 1917. However, these very same commentators have brought into relief the problems that arose in respect of the relationship between the party and state and the proletariat once the Bolsheviks had taken power. If some of these problems were specific to the Russian experience, and are therefore of historical interest, then others are no less relevant to the development of a Marxian movement today, and need to be discussed.

The Russian Revolution remains a major landmark both in history in general and for the Marxian movement. We must neither demonise nor sanctify the Bolsheviks, but attempt to understand both their positive and negative aspects. Recent scholarship permits us to go beyond the traditional clichés and mythologies, and to attempt to construct a truly objective appraisal. This article is only a start, and I am sure that other contributors to New Interventions will develop the discussion.



1. The two schools of thought are by no means homogenous, and there are considerable differences of opinion and emphasis within them. Neither are they totally separate, and adherents to one school may well concur with ideas more generally associated with the other. Cf. R. Service, The Industrial Workers, and E. Acton, Epilogue, in R. Service (ed.), Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution, Basingstoke 1992, pp.147ff., 167ff.

2. J.L.H. Keep, The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilisation, London, 1976, p.95. ‘Mass Manipulation’ would be a more suitable subtitle.

3. Ibid., p.123.

4. P Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement 1918-1921, London 1987, pp.34-5.

5. Ibid., pp.76-7.

6. Keep, op. cit., p.89.

7. Arshinov, op. cit., p.76.

8. S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918, Cambridge 1983, p.3.

9. V.I. Lenin, Resolution on Measures to Cope with Economic Disorganisation, Collected Works, Volume 24, Moscow 1977, pp.513-5.

10. V.I. Lenin, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It, Collected Works, Volume 25, Moscow 1977, pp.327ff., and Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, Collected Works, Volume 26, Moscow 1977, pp.89ff.

11. Smith, op. cit., pp.116-8. Diane Koenker’s study of the Moscow workers makes the same point. She says that the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries lost support amongst the workers due to their conciliatory approach to the employers:

‘The Bolsheviks… had offered the most consistent class interpretation of the revolution, and by late summer their interpretation appeared more and more to correspond to reality. The language of class struggle provided workers who had no theoretical understanding of Marx with a familiar conceptual tool with which to understand the actions of the Provisional Government… The combination of theory and experience had produced Moscow’s class consciousness.’ (D. Koenker, Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution, Princeton, 1981, p.364)

In his study of the red guards and workers’ militias, Rex Wade clearly shows the relationship between their politicisation and the rising influence of Bolshevism amongst them (cf. R.A. Wade, Red Guards and Workers’ Militias in the Russian Revolution, Stamford 1984, pp.285ff.).

12. Keep, op. cit., p.88.

13. Z. Galili, The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies, Princeton 1989, p.377.

14. Ibid.

15. For evidence of this cf. D. Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power: From the July Days 1917 to July 1918, London 1984, pp.221ff., 345ff.; A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, London 1979, pp.154ff; T. Cliff, Lenin: All Power to the Soviets, London 1976, pp.285ff.; O.H. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, February to October 1917, New York 1958, pp.430, 433.

16. Marc Ferro says that after July, ‘there was a Bolshevisation of slogans, watchwords and arguments’ in the army: ‘In both front and rear, the popularity of Lenin’s party went up, since he was thought to want an immediate peace, all power for the soviets, and a social revolution.’ (M. Ferro, October 1917: A Social History of the Russian Revolution, London 1980, p.80)

17. Koenker, op. cit., p.362.

18. Ibid.

19. P. Mattick, Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie?, London 1983, pp.233-4.

20. A. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia, London 1966, pp.353-4, original emphasis.

21. V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Collected Works, Volume 25, op. cit., p.408, 421, 428.

22. In the second volume of his biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff describes State and Revolution as ‘a perfect synthesis of theory and practice’:

‘In State and Revolution there is a remarkable combination of scientific sobriety and real will for action. It is the apex of Lenin’s writing – his real testament. It became the guide for the first victorious proletarian revolution and is bound to grow in importance in future revolutionary struggles.’ (Cliff, op. cit., p.327)

Cliff overlooks the fact that on the practical level State and Revolution does not go beyond generalities, and ones which were to prove extremely difficult to adhere to in the harsh realities of Russia in 1917. Paul LeBlanc similarly overlooks the abstract nature of Lenin’s book (P. LeBlanc, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, New Jersey, 1990, pp.393-4). Marcel Liebman, however, says that State and Revolution ‘shows glaring weaknesses where one of the most important and most difficult problems is concerned, namely, that of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, London 1980, p.193).

23. H. Draper, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin, New York 1987, p.86.

24. Cf. R. Service, The Bolshevik Party in Revolution: A Study in Organisational Change 1917-1923, London 1979, p.39.

25. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Part 1, Harmondsworth 1977, pp.110-1.

26. Rabochaia Gazeta, 6 April 1917, cited in A Ascher (ed.), The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, London 1976, p.94.

27. Statement of the RSDLP Organising Committee, July 1917, cited in ibid., p.98.

28. RSDLP Party Conference Resolution, 27 December 1918-1 January 1919, cited in ibid., p.109.

29. Y. Martov, Decomposition or Conquest of the State, The State and the Socialist Revolution, London, 1977, p.27.

30. Ibid., pp.47-8.

31. L.D. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, New York 1974, p.115.

32. Rabinowitch, op. cit., p.xix.

33. Draper says that in his polemics against the Bolsheviks, Kautsky also repeatedly ‘posed the problems of socialist revolution in Russia in its national isolation’ (Draper, op. cit., p.132).

34. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921, Oxford 1979, p.318. But he also speaks of Trotsky’s ‘ever-recurring dialogue with the sceptic’ who doubted that Western Europe was on the verge of revolutionary upheavals (ibid., p.266).

35. R. Service, Lenin: A Political Life, Volume 2, Basingstoke 1991, p.242.

36. Ibid., p.233.

37. Service, The Industrial Workers, op. cit., p.160.

38. Liebman, op. cit., p.195.

39. Ibid., p.208, original emphasis.

40. Smith, op. cit., p.263.

41. S. Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, London 1990, pp.72-3, original emphasis. Maurice Brinton, a libertarian who has transcended the usual conspiracy theories of his political current, says that ‘the “proletarian” nature of the [Bolshevik] regime was seen by nearly all the Bolshevik leaders as hinging on the proletarian nature of the party that had taken state power’:

‘None of them saw the proletarian nature of the Russian regime as primarily and crucially dependent on the exercise of workers’ power at the point of production … The Bolshevik leaders saw the capitalist organisation of production as something which, in itself, was socially useful … What was wrong with capitalist methods of production, in Lenin’s eyes, was that they had in the past served the bourgeoisie. They were now going to be used by the workers’ state and would thereby become "one of the conditions of socialism".’ (M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917-1921: The State and Counter-Revolution, London 1970, pp.42-3, original emphasis)

42. Service, Lenin: A Political Life, Volume 2, op. cit., p.237.

43. Deutscher, op. cit., p.315.

44. L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, London 1970, p.189.

45. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Part 2, Harmondsworth 1966, p.37.

46. R. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917-1923, Cambridge 1957, pp.49, 51, 53.

47. Service, Lenin: A Political Life, Volume 2, op. cit., p.232.

48. S. Jones, The Non-Russian Nationalities, in Service (ed.), Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.41.

49. Keep, op. cit., p.306. Cf. Rabinowitch, op. cit., p.314.

50. Keep, op. cit., p.313.

51. Deutscher, op. cit., p.331.

52. Service, Lenin: A Political Life, Volume 2, op. cit., pp.226. In respect of the first factor, he adds that Lenin may well have thought that ‘resistance to Bolshevism would be small and that he would “need” to use little violence’ (ibid., p.291), and that, in respect of the second factor, his ‘general strategy’ of revolution, ‘for all its theoretical gaps and subterfuges, did not lack sincerity’ (ibid., p.298).

53. L.D. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, London 1977, p.980.

Updated by ETOL: 25.10.2003