To Lead the People: Notes on the Russian Revolution: Part I

A historical work only then completely fulfills its mission when events unfold upon its pages in their full natural necessity.  Leon Trotsky

We have to make the ossified conditions dance by singing them their own melody! We have to cause the people to be frightened by their own image, in order to give them courage. Karl Marx

The Material Dynamics of the Russian Revolution

Like earthquakes, revolutions are dramatic events that are notably slow in the making; products of an ever-so-gradual accumulation of unrelieved stresses and strains which suddenly burst constricting boundaries and establish new ones in the reachievement of homeostatic balance.

The Russian Revolution was like that.  Russia had been in a state of chronic crisis for over a century.  Mild social tremors had periodically shaken the nation for half that time.  Intellectuals had been talking and writing about revolution throughout the same period.  Some spoke with fear in their voices, some with anticipation, others with a bit of both.  Even those who did not talk of revolution nevertheless sensed that something was terribly amiss.

If one had to give a unicausal reply to the question: “Why did it happen?,” the answer would be that for the multitude survival itself had finally come to necessitate the economic, social and political overthrow of the preindustrial elite which dominated the country.  Milovan Djilas made that observation, writing: “The basic reason – the vital need for industrial change – was common to all the countries such as Russia, China and Yugoslavia, where revolution took place.”1

For many Russians, it was becoming a question of industrialize or die.  In such a situation, Djilas remarks, “People never die willingly; they are ready to undergo any sacrifice to overcome the difficulties which stand in the way of their economic production and their existence.”2 Leon Trotsky frequently noted this fundamental feature of Russia’s Revolution.  It seemed, he said, “a reproduction in the twentieth century of those convulsions which England had suffered through in the middle of the seventeenth century and France at the end of the eighteenth century.”3 Elsewhere Trotsky observed: “The basis of the revolution was the agrarian problem: the antique land system, the traditional power of the landlords, the close ties between the landlord and the local administration.”4

Although he never fully explored the idea in his voluminous writings, Trotsky, like Djilas, was also cognizant of the emergency nature of the revolution. “A revolution,” he reflected, “takes place only when there is no other way out.”5 “Peoples never resort to suicide. When their burdens are intolerable, they seek a way out through revolution.”6 “It is enough to remember that nowhere and never was the transition from the feudal to the bourgeois regime made without disturbances.”7

Like other Russian Marxists, and like Marx, by a feudal society Trotsky meant one dominated by a land-holding elite that derived and maintained hegemony through its control of agricultural and raw-material production.  For Marx, the progressive (vis-a-vis the feudal order) bourgeois-democratic (capitalist) society was one in which the new elite’s status obtains from its control of finance and industrial production.

One way to illustrate the fundamental character of Russia’s pre-revolutionary crisis is to note that if citizens of an industrial-elite society like the United States elected to adopt a feudal productive system they would have to kill off a significant portion of their numbers.  Simply to feed, let alone provide clothing and housing and meet general medical requirements for 300-plus million people, presupposes a highly sophisticated industrial technology.  The process works both ways.  When a confined population grows to a certain point, socio-economic preservation/survival, demands that industrialization be undertaken.

Seventy or so years before the revolution Russia was a typical feudal society, with a dominant landlord class, a clergy and a military tied in interest and attitude to the landlords, and a mass peasant population.  The latter, the bulk of the population, were as controlled and confined in their daily lives as have been serfs everywhere.   Their masters could beat, maim, even kill them with relative impunity.  A troublesome serf could be sent off to serve in the military for up to twenty-five years merely at his master’s discretion.  To distinguish between the life of a slave and that of the average Russian serf would entail making fine distinctions.

As the Russian population grew in the 19th century it became impossible for the feudal structure to assimilate the fast-growing numbers.  Many individuals, more each day, would have to accept socio-economic diminishment if the agricultural-elite framework was not to be dismantled.

Initially, this meant the serfs.  Having the least socio-economic status to protect, Russian peasants had always sought, and in the developing crisis were able to exercise, the least political power.  Controlled by the landlords, clergy and military, the established political institutions were now used to facilitate a dispossession of the serfs. Various mechanisms were employed, chief among them the “freeing” of the serfs in 1861.

Prior to that time serfs enjoyed certain minimum rights to land usage. Their lords were also responsible for providing them with the basics of life: housing, clothing, firewood and food.  Under the changing circumstances, with not only the serf population but that of the aristocracy increasing rapidly, continuing such practices meant the lords would themselves have to accept a goodly portion of the unavoidable diminishment.  To prevent this, they “freed” their charges.

Henceforth, former serfs could be charged for basic necessities. And they could be driven from lands which the feudal lords needed to preserve the socio-economic status of their own multiplying numbers of sons and daughters.  After 1861 “the peasants eventually found themselves in some ways worse off than they were before.”8 In area after area land was taken from them.  In Saratov, for example, the peasants wound up with less than half the land they had formerly tilled. In the Volga provinces, all of the peasants were able to farm less than was previously worked by two-thirds of their number.9

Freeing the serfs worked to preserve the social existence of elite Russian elements in yet another way.  The former serfs provided a ready source of cheap labor for the cities.  Unable to sustain themselves in the countryside, many children of the feudal aristocracy were moving to the towns to undertake rudimentary, mostly extractive, industrial development.  Others promoted rail operations. “By the late 1880s trade was beginning to move on a colossal scale. In the Donets Basin a new mining industry was expanding, and peasants were migrating there in thousands in search of better wages and conditions . . . a whole new range of industries was springing up around the principal cities.”10 Whereas “in the first quarter of the 18th century the town population numbered somewhat more than 328,000,” by 1897 “the population of the towns numbered 16,289,000.”11

Russian Revolutionary Theory

Simultaneous with the beginning of extractive industrial development Russian political thought began to take on a Marxist coloration. As commercialization of the economy became the only means whereby a majority of the growing population might defend their socio-economic existence, sons and daughters of the elite, particularly children of the top-heavy bureaucratic elite, began to recognize the necessity for razing the country’s feudal structure and undertaking a concentrated industrial development.

In the early years of the crisis, many young people acted to preserve their social existence by fighting against industrialization. These were the Narodniks. “They called for the overthrow of the old regime, the expropriation of the landlords, and the establishment of some sort of peasant socialism based on the traditional Russian peasant commune.”12 While this would have maintained their own status, along with that of a minority, for the majority of Russians it would have been disastrous.  Most young intellectuals grasped that if their socio-economic status was to be maintained industrializing Russia was the only workable solution. Given the intransigence of the feudal-elite who would be expropriated in the process, that meant revolution.

Under the circumstances, for many young intellectuals Marxism had an understandable appeal.  Marx had declared feudalism was no longer viable in many countries.  Capitalism–the industrial-elite/bourgeois-democratic state–was its “natural and necessary” successor he had insisted.  “/That/ truth was acceptable to the nascent Russian middle class as an ideological reinforcement in the struggle against feudalism and autocracy.”13

Many college educated Russians were professionals: lawyers, teachers, chemists, doctors and engineers, for whom job opportunities were few.  As a consequence, a growing number of them took tentative steps in the direction of revolution.  They began to dream, plan and argue for it.  They became, in effect, social workers of revolution. (In a revolutionary era, those who play this “vanguard” role are the liberals of a nonrevolutionary time).  Among members of the intellectual city elite revolutionary ideas soon became quite respectable.  Anatoly Lunacharsky, a major figure in the Russian Revolution, had a rather typical experience:

I became, /he says/, a revolutionary so early in my life that I don’t even remember when I was not one.  My childhood passed under the strong influence of Alexander Ivanovich Antonov /his mother’s friend/ who, though an acting Privy Counsellor and head of the Control Chamber of Nizhi Novgorod, and then of Kursk . . . did not at all conceal his leanings towards radical and left aspirations.14

Many of the “revolutionary” Marxist intellectuals discovered that the easiest way to maintain their increasingly threatened social existence was by trying to organize themselves and workers for an eventual revolution.  “Russia’s factory-working class was scarcely born before it became the chosen vehicle of the revolutionary intelligentsia.”15 “In the 1880s, in various Russian towns, Marxist intellectuals began to set up small propaganda circles to educate workers.”16

Until the abortive revolution of 1905, the “revolutionary” intellectuals often found they could sustain themselves with “lavish donations from rich sympathizers” who had industrial interests they were having difficulty protecting within the feudal framework.17  Occasionally, wealthy individuals like the Moscow millionaire Morozov left their estates to the “revolutionaries.”18 In Morozov’s case his fortune was bequeathed to the Social Democratic Party from which the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions emerged in 1903.  (The Bolsheviks were subsequently accused of diverting Morozov’s funds to their own coffers.)  Georgi Plekhanov, Lenin’s mentor and founder of the first Marxist intellectual organization, the Emancipation of Labour Group, was “wholly dependent on funds raised within the movement, a situation which reinforced his sense of importance.”19

The reference to the Marxist intellectuals as social workers of revolution is apt.   As a job category, social work in industrial nations came into existence and grew as automation, and then cybernation, eliminated jobs of the middle and upper-middle classes.  Whereas its stated function has been to alleviate/eliminate poverty, in practice it has served chiefly to maintain the socio-economic status of the middle class segment who gave it birth and practice it so enthusiastically.  By the 1970s it had become a well-paying profession in the United States, one which provided the social workers not only socio-economic preservation but a sense of purpose and pride, an historic mission.  In like manner, the pro-industrial sons and daughters of the Russian upper-middle classes and elite bureaucrats assured themselves their “revolutionary” efforts were solely for the benefit of workers and peasants, whereas in actuality “revolutionary activism” had become a job category created by the deepening crisis confronting the intellectuals, and its benefits went almost exclusively to the intellectuals themselves.

Prior to 1917, before Russia’ chronic crisis became acute, workers and peasants usually found they could best preserve their socio-economic status by working within the existing institutional framework.  Revolutionary ideas therefore held little or no appeal for them. “During the early 1890s workers were staging strikes quite independently of the /Marxist intellectual circles/, of Marxist influence or even of the influence of the circle-educated elite. . . . It became almost impossible to bring Marxist influence to bear on the workers, who succeeded in winning ever more concessions from employers anxious to exploit the economic boom.”20  “Workers /correctly/ felt they were best equipped to look after their own interests.  The interference of the authorities or of the Marxist intellectuals introduced an entirely alien and undesirable element which could only diminish the prospects of industrial peace and better working conditions.”21

Throughout the pre-revolutionary period, the Marxist intellectuals and the workers and peasants whom they addressed showed almost no understanding of one anothers’ positions. The latter comprehended that to act upon the arguments of the Marxist intellectuals would not only fail to sustain them socio-economically it would embroil them in a struggle which might take countless numbers of their lives.  They were aware, too, that there was no small amount of hypocrisy in the intellectuals’ position.  Whereas they asked workers and peasants to forfeit much, many, their very existence, the intellectuals were not moving to set an example.

“/I/n accepting Marxism, the Russian middle-class intellectual emptied it of any immediate revolutionary content, so that the authorities, who still feared the Narodniks as the main revolutionary party, were not unwilling to tolerate these sworn enemies of the Narodniks whose own programme seemed to carry no immediate threat.”22

When repression was finally directed against the Marxist intellectuals, unlike workers and peasants most of them had sufficient money and connections to escape to Western Europe.  “/F/rom the middle of the 1890s under the combined impact of intensified police activity and a harsh reactionary attitude in the universities, young Russian students and revolutionaries began to leave Russia in large numbers to settle in the emigre colonies of the European university towns.”23

Given that the central function of politics is the preservation of socio-economic status, during this period workers and peasants understandably never comprehended that the intellectuals would eventually become right about their fundamental premise: revolution was going to be a necessity.

On their part, the Marxist intellectuals had a vested interest in remaining ignorant of the rationality of worker-peasant attitudes and behaviors.  Had they recognized that the revolutionary truths necessary for protecting their personal socio-economic existences, could not yet perform the same function for workers and peasants– and were therefore untrue for them–they would have abandoned the very rationale required for carrying out their revolutionary social worker activities.

In justifying their revolutionary social work, Russia’s Marxist intellectuals reflexively stretched and reworked the ideas of their prophet.  Lenin was one of the most adept at this.  Though forced by experience to accept that “the basic aim of planting even the seeds of political awareness in the working masses was almost as far from realization as it had been for the Populists of the seventies,” the intellectuals never questioned the rightness of their analyses for the masses.  Instead, they developed an elitist Hegelian understanding of the role of ideas in determining the course of history.  “/W/hereas Marx had believed in the spontaneous growth of working-class consciousness under the impact of capitalist realities, Lenin tended to assume that the workingman was forever doomed to insufficient consciousness, no matter how miserable his conditions.”25

Under Lenin’s direction:

“/T/he party seem/ed/ to negate the role attributed to the working-class by Marx, that of the chosen people who would destroy the social structure of capitalism and construct a socialist commonwealth.  Similarly, the importance that Lenin attach/ed/ to party doctine seem/ed/ to be opposed to original Marxist conceptions of the negligible role of ideas in history. . . .  /U/nlike Marx, he /Lenin/, did not generally attribute the attainment of consciousness to the working class at all. . . .  According to Leninism, the carriers of proletarian class consciousness were bourgeois intellectuals . . . who had been declassed and uprooted by acquiring an education.”26

“Lenin insisted and consistently argued in Iskra that ‘class political consciousness’ was not a ‘spontaneous’ growth, and could come to the worker only from without’”; from the Marxist intellectual vanguard.27  “’The history of all countries,’” Lenin intoned: “‘bears witness that by its own resources alone the working-class is in a position to generate only a trade-union consciousness, . . .  The teaching of socialism has grown out of philosophical, historical and economic theories worked out by educated representatives of the possessing classes, of the intelligentsia.  The founders of contemporary socialism, Marx and Engels, belonged themselves by their social origin to the bourgeois intelligentsia.  Similarly in Russia the theoretical teaching of social-democracy has arisen altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the workers’ movement.'”  28

While Lenin was right about Marx being from the intelligentsia, rather than the working class, unlike Lenin, Marx never proposed to play the role of commander for a socialist revolution.  To the contrary, he focused instead on explaining why only the working masses would be able to conceptualize and carry out that transformation.  Marx had foretold that the working class, precisely because it was the most economically oppressed, would ultimately discover in its own experience the ideological understanding necessary for a socialist revolution.  The Russian intellectuals proposed workers were not up to the task, that a vanguard would have to make the discovery for them from its middle class experience.  E.H. Carr has noted the “faint aroma of condescension” (not so faint at that), in this position, an aroma which came through in the writings of Plekhanov and Lenin as well as the others.29 Certainly the material connection between the vanguard’s perspective and their elite, vis-a-vis workers and peasants, socio-economic status is apparent.

As the availability of jobs for the young Marxist intellectuals became increasingly restricted, it prompted them to make hesitant moves against the feudal order.  Whereupon the order’s representatives punished them with a variety of additional restraints, which usually had the effect of inflicting further socio-economic injury.  Predictably, that in turn inclined the intellectuals to take second and third steps in the direction of a social revolution.  This was especially the case with members of Russia’s Jewish community.

With few exceptions, Jews throughout feudal Europe had never been allowed to become large landholders; i.e., had not been permitted to enter the feudal aristocracy.  As a consequence, more than most Russians, they had found it necessary to survive by establishing factories and becoming financiers in the towns and cities.  Tied in interest to an industrial world, when Russia’s feudal order crisis began changing from chronic to acute, Jews naturally suffered greater socio-economic injury than other identifiable segments of the population.  Hence, a significant number of them became actively involved in the developing struggle.  As the feudal order was drained of viability and came under attack by pro-industrial elements, finding Jews a major force in the latter community, the landed aristocracy became increasingly anti-Semitic.

Historian Harold Shukman observes:

“Whether or not Alexander III believed the fantastic argument of his advisers that the Jews were behind the discontent of his subjects, he nonetheless opted for the policy that would eventually engender this belief in wide sections of the population.  First, violent pogroms were instigated and demonstratively tolerated by the authorities. . . . To Jewish economic ruin the government added, in 1887, restrictions on education which as much as poverty and civic humiliation fostered in the young an intense hatred of the regime.”30

Lenin’s personal history likewise provides dramatic evidence of the fundamental conservatism of Russia’s incipient anti-feudal revolution.  Lenin and his wife Krupskaya were “both children of reduced noble families.”31 When Lenin was seventeen years of age his brother was hanged for being involved with an assassination attempt on the Tsar.

Lenin’s mother:

“Had to go up to Petrograd alone to plead for her son’s life.  None of the respectable neighbors in Simbirsk would accompany her; it was socially bad and even perhaps politically dangerous to be associated with a case of the sort. The widow sat through the court hearing, saw her son for the last time before he died, and when she returned home she and her family were to some extent socially ostracized.”32

“The young Lenin’s promising educational prospects were disrupted by this event, for the university authorities at Kazan, where he began his law studies soon after his brother’s death, found an early opportunity to expel the bearer of the notorious name.”33

Lenin had been permitted to enter Kazan only on the strength of a letter from the director of his previous school testifying that he was a serious student who would give no trouble.  (Ironically, the letter was written by the father of Aleksandr Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government which the Bolsheviks would overthrow in October 1917). His expulsion came over a rather minor infraction of school rules on political activity. “Repeated requests by Lenin and his mother to regain admission to the university, or to go abroad to study, met with refusal, but by the end of 1891 he succeeded in gaining, with distinction, his law degree as an external student.”34 Acquiring the law degree a year and a half after being expelled from Kazan, “Lenin spent the next four years in forced idleness.  He engaged during this period in no gainful employment and lived entirely off his mother’s widow’s pension.”35 Although “a brilliant, hard-working student, a recent gold-medalist, he found himself condemned because of a minor breach of discipline to a parasitic existence without any hope of reprieve.”36

Martov, Lenin’s closest associate during his early years of revolutionary social work, had walked the same road.

“Martov had already served a short prison sentence in 1891 when his revolutionary views scarcely went beyond romantic protest.  Like Lenin, it was after his university career was cut off that he turned his considerable academic ability to a serious study of Marx and the Marxist writings filtering into Russia . . . “37

In the mid-1890s Martov,  Lenin and other Social Democrats worked enthusiastically in Petersburg to make inroads with the workers.  However, “the group was scarcely able to provoke activity on the factory floor, nor yet capable of exploiting existing strife.  Thus, strikes that took place and to which the group turned its attention were almost completely unaffected by its agitational literature.”38

Coming to the End of the Road

They had a limited and in many respects a bourgeois understanding of its dynamics.  They would drag their feet, even work against it when it arrived.  Yet, the Marxist intellectuals had caught a glimpse of future events which no one else, neither aristocrats, peasants nor workers was able (nor, if their socio-economic status was to be preserved, could afford) to see.  A mighty revolution was coming.  That it would prove to be not a socialist-equalitarian but a bourgeois-industrial-elite/capitalist revolution goes far toward explaining their clearer vision.

Following defeat in a war with Japan, in 1905 the Russian crisis reached a new extreme.  Tens-of-thousands of workers were suddenly ground out of the economy.  Others had to work 12 to 16 hour days for reduced wages.  As a result, virtually overnight workers surpassed the Marxist intellectuals in the fervor of their revolutionary activity, just as Marx’s theory regarding the conservative nature of all political activity would lead us to expect.

Equally predictable, given their more secure social existences, at this juncture the Marxist intellectuals, including the Bolsheviks, neither foresaw nor fully understood the spontaneous worker uprisings.  “It is a cliche in the histories of the /Bolshevik/ party that 1905 (like February 1917) took it by surprise.”39

Seizing the factories, workers began to govern themselves in mass-democratic organizations called “Soviets.” Leon Trotsky, who was active in St. Petersburg during the 1905 uprising, acknowledged of the Soviets: “These were not previously prepared conspirative organizations for the purpose of seizure of power by the workers at the moment of revolt.  No, these were organs created in a planned way by the masses themselves for the purpose of coordinating their revolutionary struggle.”40

But Russia’s feudal order of production had not yet exhaused its capacity to defend the socio-economic existence of the multitude, including workers, and there would be no immediate revolution.  Marx described people in community as always taking up those political attitudes and actions which, under existing circumstances, will maintain them with a minimum of pain, a minimum disruption of their lives.  His thesis provides a convincing materialist explanation for why the 1905 Revolution aborted.  Using the carrot and stick technique, the Tsarist elite bought off those they could afford to buy off and beat down those they could not.  The soldiers, most of them of peasant origin, were still being socio-economically sustained, the government was viable enough for that.  Hence, the soldiers readily carried out the order to suppress the workers’ rebellion.  In Trotsky’s words, the 1905 proletarian revolution was “broken on the bayonets of the peasant army.”41 Spokesmen for the movement, including Trotsky, were brought to trial, jailed or exiled.

“Between January, 1905 and the convocation of the First Duma on the twenty-seventh of April, 1906, the Tzarist government, according to approximate calculations, had killed more than fourteen thousand people, had executed more than a thousand, had wounded twenty thousand, had arrested, exiled or imprisoned about seventy thousand.”42

At the same time, the Tzar issued his October Manifesto authorizing the election of a parliament, the Duma. Although it would have no de facto power, because its creation provided socio-economic maintenance for many of the restive intellectuals who would take their places in it, the Duma served a pacifying function. In addition, a new influx of foreign, primarily European, investment capital was invited.  As before, the capital would only be permitted to develop industries which were not injurious to the interests of the feudal elites who controlled the country.  Additional extractive industries and foreign-owned assembly plants were developed, and the economy immediately responded.

“The country was more prosperous than it had ever been before; the budget was balanced and even showed a surplus, the vast railways network was expanded at a greater rate than any subsequent Communist government has been able to achieve, private trade was booming, and from all over the Western world firms like International Harvester and the Singer Sewing Machine Company began to set up their own establishments in Russia.  Then too, these were years of good harvests, and heavy industries like mining broke all records in production.”43

Since nearly everyone was being socio-economically maintained, political apathy inevitably returned.  “After 1906 both strikes and terrorist activities steadily diminished, and by 1911 the revolutionary movement was virtually at a standstill.”44 The number of persons involved in strikes dropped from a 1905 high of  around 2 million to a mere 8 thousand in 1909.45  “The years 1907-14 are sometimes designated the ‘years of reaction.’”46

The new prosperity inevitably affected the fortunes of the Marxist intellectuals and their organizations.  Many of the intellectuals now began to work within the establishment; although because of their previous organizational activities this was difficult-to-impossible for some of them to accomplish. Those who did return to working within the feudal framework, and those who had hopes of doing so, became noticeably more conservative.  Even the old guard Social Democrats who could not, or would not, forsake their commitment to the eventual revolution, often felt compelled to moderate their positions in an effort to keep up party membership.  In this they were only partially successful:

“The Fifth /Party/ Congress had exulted over a total membership of 150,000, including the national parties and the Bund.  By 1910 the figure was estimated at 10,000 while the total number of Bolshevik committees in Russia amounted to no more than five or six.  Between 1907 and 1912 the Russian Social Democratic Party existed more in the minds of the factional leaders than anywhere else.”47

“From militancy, the mood of the party changed to languor.”48

Just as predictable, the large sums of money formerly available to Marxist intellectual organizations was drastically reduced.  Some funds continued to be received from the wills of wealthy sympathizers.49   But in general, these were lean days, especially for the most militant organization, the Bolshevik.  To maintain the socio-economic status of its members, the latter turned to bank robberies and other expropriative measures during this period.50  Alan Moorehead writes: “Lenin himself gave up hope.  More than once at the time he used the phrase: ‘I do not expect to see the revolution.’”51

But Lenin’s pessimism soon proved unfounded.  The revolution was now only a few years away.  In retrospect, the wholly precarious nature of the 1906-14 boom is evident.  Russia’s population continued its rapid growth and with it grew the dire necessity for industrialization.  The feudal aristocracy, which would have to be economically, socially and politically expropriated in order to finance the industrialization, was not about to accept that alternative without a violent struggle.  They were willing to permit the development of non-threatening extractive and assembly industries only, and while these were greatly responsible for the momentary upswing, they could not long forestall the deluge.

Even if the aristocracy had been willing for foreign investors to undertake the creation of a heavy industrial base, ever looking for opportunities of maximum profit, foreign investors showed no interest in obliging.  (As they continued to express disinterest when Lenin gave them an invitation to industrialize the U.S.S.R. in 1921). The country’s increased dependence on the world economy further heightened the precariousness of its situation, for the international economy was preparing to enter one of its periodic collapses.

By 1914 the deepening world economic crisis was making its negative impress upon Russia.  Unemployment quickly rose.  So, too, did peasant and worker unrest.  Whereas the number of persons involved in strikes had fallen to 8 thousand in 1909, in 1914 it quickly climbed back to a million.52  With that, the Marxist intellectuals began to take heart again.

However, the revolution was still not at hand.  First, there would be a war.  And in respect to that war the Russian intellectuals’ rigidly absolutistic interpretation of Marx’s logic again failed to disclose the natural necessity of events. For years they had argued, at the Stuttgart and Basel congresses they formally avowed, and when World War I began many of them continued to believe, that the workers of Western Europe would simply refuse to fight.  The “class consciousness” of West European workers was extremely high it was reasoned.  Many employed the Marxist jargon, referring to themselves as the exploited and to factory owners as capitalist exploiters. Many had long regarded war as in the interest of capitalists and imperialists only.  Surely they would refuse to take up the gun.

“Lenin expected the social democratic parties of the countries at war to act in accordance to the resolutions discussed at the Basel and Stuttgart congresses.  He expected, that is, the European workers and their leaders to show international solidarity, to declare themselves disinterested in the war and unwilling to shoot at brother proletarians across the trenches; he thought they would be ready to turn the bayonets given them against their own governments and ruling classes.”53

It was even hoped that Russian workers and peasants might resist the cry for war.  Instead, not only did the workers and peasants of Europe and Russia rush enthusiastically to the fray, the Marxist intellectuals, almost to a man, excitedly joined them.  With the beginning of the war on August 1st, 1914:

“Suddenly everyone /in Russia/ discovers that he is possessed with an intense hatred of the Germans and a new emotional love for Russia and the Czar.  The workers abandon their strikes at once, and their demonstrations now are all in favor of the government. . . . Now finally after twenty bitter years /Czar/ Nicholas is at one with his people. 54  The next afternoon, August 2, 1914, the Tzar issued a formal proclamation of hostilities at the Winter Palace. . . .  The palace square, one of the largest in Europe, was packed with thousands of sweltering, excited people carrying banners, flags and icons and waiting impatiently for the moment when they could pour out their emotion in the presence of the sovereign himself. . . .  When Nicholas and Alexandra stepped onto the quay at the Palace Bridge, wave on wave of cheers rolled over them: ‘Batiushka, Batiushka, lead us to victory!'”55

Overnight, a wave of patriotism swept over Russia.  In Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Kharkov, Kazan, Tula, Rostov, Tiflis, Tomsk and Irkutsk, workmen exchanged their red flags of revolution for the icons of Holy Russia and portraits of the Tzar.  Students rushed from the universities to enlist.  Army officers, caught in the street, were happily tossed in the air.”56

“The war checked the rising revolutionary tide,” Trotsky lamented. “We have witnessed a repetition of what happened ten years before, in the Russo-Japanese war.”57 Now that war was declared “defeatism was a sentiment felt only by the extreme left, and expressed solely in the European exile,” and even there, only among a minority living in nations such as Switzerland not engaged in the war.58   Within Russia, Trotsky observed, “not one of the Russian organizations or groups of the /Bolshevik/ Party took the openly defeatist position which Lenin came out for abroad.”59  “’/N/ot a trace was left of the revolutionary movement,’ declared Kerensky. ‘Even the Bolshevik members of the Duma were forced to admit–though somewhat sullenly–that it was the duty of the proletariat to cooperate in the defense.’”60

Not all of the Bolsheviks still in Russia gave their full support.  A few wavered.  But “where the Bolsheviks wavered, the Mensheviks in Russia almost entirely disintegrated and became indistinguishable from other ‘progressives’, combining a patriotic attitude towards the war with a demand for ‘democratic’ reforms.”61  “Among the 9,000 Russians who volunteered in Paris were the majority of Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries who were living there.”62

Given the extent of the world economic crisis in 1914, for the majority of Russians–as for the majority of Western Europeans– the least costly way to preserve their respective socio-economic existences was war.  For workers to have turned upon their employers instead would have meant revolution; and, to date, revolutions have been the most expensive of political undertakings, something all Russians were soon to discover.  In a war, one sends the boy down the street, or a son.  In a revolution everyone’s life and livelihood are temporarily devastated as the established socio-economic-political order is dismantled and replaced.  For that reason, no nation has ever experienced a revolution if it still possessed the strength to maintain it’s population’s social existence by prosecuting a war.  Moreover, any nation which, having proceeded to a certain point with a revolutionary restructuring, found itself again able to prosecute a war less disruptively, has promptly done so, discontinuing the revolutionary struggle.  France under Napoleon Bonaparte is a classic example.

There is nothing particularly mysterious about war.  Like revolution, war is a political act (a “continuation of politics by another means,” as the Prussian theoretician Karl von Clausewitz put it), and political humanity is intent upon on preserving an existing socio-economic condition with minimum effort.  This the war succeeded in doing for the Russian people for a few more months. Unemployment immediately disappeared as a result of war expenditures.  The government “met the immense cost of the war not through increased taxation, but by huge foreign loans and the issue of paper money.”63  “Economic progress and the gradual but certain benefits from the reforms,” writes Harold Shukman, “were the basis of the popularity of the war.”64

But, while no one saw it coming–even Lenin and Trotsky despaired–Russia’s revolution was finally approaching.  It is a testimonial to the conservativism of humanity that the Russian people elected to go to war rather than revolution, though war would very soon become a costlier means of preserving their social existences.

A vast feudal state, with armies equipped, trained and supplied in the manner of a feudal nation, Russia undertook a wholly impossible feat in going to war with the far more modern and mechanized armies of industrial Germany, however apparent the natural necessity of that act.  The cost of the war to Russia quickly became enormous. Accounts of the country’s suffering read as though written by a single author.

“By the end of 1914, after only five months of war, one million Russians – one quarter of the army – had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner.”65

“Although appropriately armed, as it seemed, on the first day of the war, the troops soon turned out to have neither weapons nor even shoes. . . . After a series of partial catastrophes, in the spring of 1915 came the general retreat. . . . About five and a half million were counted as killed, wounded or captured.  The number of deserters kept growing. . . . The Russian army lost in the whole war more men than any army which ever participated in a national war, approximately two and a half million killed . . . “66

“The war had exhausted the Tzarist army.  Something like 15 million men had been called up /by 1916/, and many of them had been sent into the trenches without proper clothing, without boots, even sometimes without a rifle. . . . /According to Hindenberg, the German commander/, ‘the page on which the Russian losses were written has been torn out.  No one knows the figures.  Five or eight million?  We too, have no idea.  All we know is that sometimes in our battles with the Russians we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses from before our trenches in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves.'”67

The suffering quickly reached the cities and the countryside. “Since 1914 wages /in the cities/ had increased by 100 percent, but in the same period prices had gone up by 400 percent  . . .68   “The rise in the cost of living automatically lowered /the value of the increased/ wages.”69   “By the end of 1916 prices are rising in leaps and bounds.  To the inflation and the breakdown of transport, there is added an actual lack of goods.”70 ” The cities naturally suffered more than the countryside, and Petrograd, farthest from the regions producing food and coal, suffered most.  Scarcities sent prices soaring: /by 1917/ an egg cost four times what it had in 1914, butter and soap cost five times as much.”71

While the cities experienced greater misery, the economy of the countryside was also collapsing. “The number of peasants selling tracts of land they could not live on had risen by the beginning of the war to a million, which meant no less than five million souls added to the proletarian population.”72 In the towns and cities, “economic strikes were the inevitable mass reflection–stormy in proportion as they had been delayed.”73 In the countryside, peasants began to seize the land.

The very arteries of the nation were collapsing:

“Russia began the war with 20,071 locomotives; by early 1917 only 9,021 were in service. Similar deterioration had reduced the number of /railway/ cars from 539,549 to 174,346. . . .  In February 1917, winter weather dealt Russia’s railroads a final blow.  In a month of extreme cold and heavy snowfall, 1,200 locomotive boilers froze and burst, deep drifts blocked long sections of track and 57,000 railway cars stood motionless.  In Petrograd, supplies of flour, coal and wood dwindled and disappeared.”74

By 1916, only the civilian and military elites were still being socio-economically sustained by the carnage, and they alone remained enthusiastic.  Trotsky related:

In the drawing rooms of Petrograd and the headquarters at the front they gently joked: ‘England has sworn to fight to the last drop of blood . . . of the Russian soldier.’  These jokes seeped down and reached the trenches.

“In the State Duma and in the press a few of the war profits for 1914 and 1915 were published. The Moscow textile company of  the Riabushinskys showed a net profit of 75 percent; the Tyer Company, 111 percent; the copper-works of Kolchugin netted over 12 million on a basic capital of 10 million.

“/E/verybody splashed about in the bloody mud–bankers, heads of the commissariat, industrialists, ballerinas of the Tzar and the grand dukes, orthodox prelates, ladies-in-waiting, liberal deputies, generals of the front and rear, radical lawyers, illustrious mandarins of both sexes. . . . All came running to grab and gobble . . . And all rejected with indignation the shameful idea of a premature peace.”75

As life in the cities drew to a stop and the nation became unable to prosecute the war, the self-protective reactions of the Russian elite damned them further in the eyes of the broader population. “When the ancients said that Jupiter first makes mad those whom he wishes to destroy,” said Trotsky, “they summed up in superstitious form a profound historical observation . . . the impersonal Jupiter of the historical dialectic . . . withdraws ‘reason’ from historic institutions that have outlived themselves and condemns their defenders to failure.”76 Russia’s feudal order of production had unquestionably outlived itself. By this point, it had been all but drained of viability for the majority of the country’s people.

Yet, not for a moment could Russia’s feudal elites entertain the possibility that they and their institutions must be overthrown. Wrote Trotsky: “The privileged caste cannot believe that no policy whatsoever is possible which would reconcile the old society with the new.”77

In desperation, the aristocracy, the bureaucracy and the monarchy now fell upon the only remaining analyses which gave any hope of maintaining them: they commenced to blame one another for the country’s misfortunes.  Each fastened onto the hopeful conviction that things could be made aright if only the others were reformed or eliminated. “The aristocracy, finding itself in the focus of a general hostility, lays the blame upon the bureaucracy, the latter blames the aristocracy, and then together, or separately, they direct their discontent against the monarchical summit of power.”78 Trotsky speaks of the nobility’s “death weariness”, which he says it converted “into opposition against the most sacred power of the old regime, that is, the monarchy.”79


“The killing of Rasputin was a monarchist act. It was intended by the Grand Duke, the Prince and the Right-wing deputy to cleanse the throne and restore the prestige of the dynasty. It was also intended, by removing what they conceived to be the power behind the Empress, to eliminate the Empress herself as a force in the government.”80

Visiting Russia from Britain, General Sir Henry Wilson wrote home:  “It seems as certain as anything can be that the Emperor and Empress are riding for a fall.  Everyone–officers, merchants, ladies–talk openly of the absolute necessity of doing away with them.”81

Until the last, Tzar Nicholas dreamed of preserving his own office, either by force or through democratic political reform.  But it was all over, the revolutionary struggle was about to start.

The February Rehearsal

In keeping with Marx’s thesis respecting the arch-conservative nature of all political activities, including revolutions, the Russian revolt began in the cities, and there, among the most sorely afflicted.  Trotsky recorded:

On the 19th /of February, 1917/ a mass of people gathered around the food shops, especially women, all demanding bread.  These were the heat lightnings of the revolution coming in a few days.82

“The 23rd of February was International Women’s Day.  The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. . . . Not a single organization called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organization, and a most militant one –the Vyborg borough-committee, all workers–was opposing strikes. . . .  On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support.”83

On the following day the movement not only fails to diminish, but doubles.  About one-half of the industrial workers of Petrograd are on strike on the 24th of February . . .  The slogan ‘Bread!’ is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: ‘Down with autocracy!’  ‘Down with the war!.'”84

“/Then the cossacks begin to go over./ . . . the masses will no longer retreat, they resist with optimistic brilliance, they stay on the street even after murderous volleys, they cling, not to their lives, but to the pavement, to stones, to pieces of ice.”85

“/D/esertion began in the Russian lines. . . . Within a few weeks of the /February/ rising about a million soldiers had deserted and were making their way home in trains, in carts, and on foot, and there was no authority capable of holding them back.”86 When neither war nor the fascist oppression of a minority can preserve a people’s social existence, when, in Trotsky‘s words, “there is no other way out,” then, and only then, do they turn upon the existing socio-economic-political system and violently, painfully, wrought those structural changes which their survival demands.

“/T/he Russian workers, who could not improve their position by one kopeck without blood liquidations, had no choice but to use weapons to escape despair and death by starvation.”87   “/S/o was industrialization /at long last/ a matter of survival for those who were in their turn about to become proletarians.”88

Explicit in Marx’s paradigm is the notion that where building an equalitarian socio-economic-political order is concerned people do not require leaders to direct them.  The aim of political activity being the preservation of socio-economic existence, the head of a peasant or a factory worker can solve the problem of how to realize that goal just as efficiently as the head of an intellectual.

Indeed, insofar as the intellectual has a hegemonic social existence to protect and/or is more socio-economically secure, Marx’s theory argues that in a revolutionary situation he will not move as far as they do in the direction of dismantling non-egalitarian institutions; that in this regard he is bound to be less revolutionary than the people he would lead; that if equality is their objective, in heeding his preachments they are sure to be misled.  So it was with Russia’s Revolution.  In February 1917 the most militant Marxist intellectuals were abroad, untouched by the socio-economic devastation being suffered by Russian peasants and workers; conveniently ignorant of the immediate needs of their people.

Lenin was in Switzerland, Trotsky was on his way to New York. Plekhanov, Axelrod, Martov, Dan and many others were scattered through Europe; and most of them were quarreling bitterly among themselves. None of them were planning to return to Russia, none had any idea that revolution was at hand.  Lenin was even saying at this time that he did not believe he would ever live to see it.”89

“The mob was in the streets, and the truth was that this March rising, like so many other lesser risings in the past, was not directly provoked by the revolutionary leaders, least of all by Lenin and the Bolshevik exiles.”90

“The February revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Romanov dynasty was the spontaneous outbreak of a multitude exasperated by the privations of the war and by manifest inequality in the distribution of burdens . . . The revolutionary parties played no direct part in the making of the revolution.  They did not expect it, and were at first somewhat non-plussed by it. The creation at the moment of the revolution of a Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was a spontaneous act of groups of workers without central direction.”91

With his usual honesty, Trotsky acknowledged that the February uprising received no direction from above, and that the Bolsheviks’ impact was to mitigate, not expedite, the revolt. He relates:

For no one, positively no one—we can assert this categorically upon the basis of all the data—then thought that February 23 was to mark the beginning of a decisive drive against absolutism. . . . Thus the fact is that the February Revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat—the women textile workers.”92

“Only on the morning of the 25th, the Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee at last decided to issue a handbill calling for an all-Russian general strike.   At the moment of issue, if indeed it ever did issue, the general strike in Petrograd was facing an armed uprising.  The leaders were watching the movement from above; they hesitated, they lagged—in other words, they did not lead.  They dragged after the movement.”93

“Even at the meeting of the Vyborg committee the evening of the 26th—that is, twelve hours before the victory—arose discussions as to whether it was not time to end the strike.  This may seem astonishing. But remember, it is far easier to  recognize victory the day after than the day before. . . .  Among the rank and file workers there were fewer oscillations.94 . . .  The masses had almost no leadership from above. . . .  Without a look back, the masses made their own history.”95

We must lay it down as a general rule for those days that the higher the leaders, the further they lagged behind. . . .  Shliapnikov, the chief figure in the Petrograd center of the Bolsheviks, tells how he refused the demands of the workers for firearms—or even revolvers—sending them to the barracks to get them. He wished in this way to avoid bloody clashes between workers and soldiers, staking everything on agitation—that is, on the conquest of the solders by work and example.”96

“How was it with the Bolsheviks? . . .  The principal leaders of the underground Bolshevik organization were at that time three men: the former workers Shliapnikov and Zalutsky, and the former student Molotov. . . .  Up to the very last hour these leaders thought that it was a question of a revolutionary manifestation, one among many, and not at all of an armed insurrection.”97

With virtually no one left to give him support, with even the landed aristocracy now in opposition, the Tzar abdicated. Everyone now took up the cry of revolution.  “In all the commanding staff there was not found one man to take action in behalf of the Tzar.  They all hastened to transfer to the ship of the revolution, firmly expecting to find comfortable cabins there.   Generals and admirals one and all removed the tzarist braid and put on the red ribbon.”98 The centuries-old Russian monarchy came to an end as quietly as the life of an old man.  A Provisional Government was immediately constituted with Aleksandr Kerensky functioning as its most active spokesman and ultimately its head.

But, where changing Russia’s productive-distributive system was concerned, toppling the Tzar and establishing the Provisional Government were only cosmetic alterations. They were in no sense a revolution. The Russian feudal order was still very much intact.  Those who rushed to occupy the seats of the Provisional Government were in the main representatives of the propertied classes.  “Everything had changed. Everything remained the same,” lamented Trotsky:

“. . . the tzarist generals remain generals, the senators senatorialize, the privy councillors defend their dignity, the Table of Precedence is still in effect.  Colored hat-bands and cockades recall the bureaucratic hierarchy; yellow buttons with an eagle still distinguish the student.  And yet more important–the landlords are still landlords, no end of the war is in sight, the Allied diplomats are impudently jerking Russia along on a string. . . .  Wild parties are in progress in the private dining rooms of expensive restaurants.”99

There would be no major alterations in Russia’s policies either foreign or domestic.  The war would continue to be fought and peasants would not be permitted to seize the land, nor workers the factories.  Yet, while nothing significant had changed, the Marxist intellectuals, including the Bolsheviks, promptly demonstrated their willingness to play the role of a loyal opposition.  Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov returned to take over the editorship of Pravda on March 15th and in a lead editorial they argued:

“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 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.'”100

“The policy of the Party throughout the whole country,” noted Trotsky, “naturally followed that of Pravda”.101

However, the soldiers, peasants and workers were entertaining very different ideas.  They understood, even if the Marxist intellectuals did not, that their own survival required the war be terminated, and that land and many factories be seized and operated for their immediate benefit.  Organized in Soviets which, as in 1905,  came into spontaneous existence with the February uprising, workers began to formulate and carry out policies expropriative of the Russian elites; policies which entailed “making the revolution.” Simultaneously: “Peasants began to seize the squires’ estates and divide the land among themselves.  The peasant soldiers, fearful lest they be left out, voted for peace ‘with their feet’ in a growing wave of desertions.”102

It was of no avail to flog the soldiers (it had come to that) or shoot them, for whole regiments simply melted away in the summer’s heat.  Men left the front, carrying their guns and ammunition along with them, demanding that peace be concluded.  The garrison and the factories of Petrograd went out into the streets, urged on by the anarchists, but against the advice of the Bolsheviks, who felt that the country was not yet ripe for the seizure of power.”103

A period which has been aptly described as one of “dual governments” now began.  There was the Provisional Government, representing all the old feudal interests and policies which had to be overturned if the masses were to survive; as noted, the Provisional Government was controlled by the landlords, with Mensheviks and Bolsheviks going along while tugging to the left, the former moderately, the latter with considerable vigor.

Then there were the Soviets, which came much closer to representing the will of the masses.  In the Soviets, workers’ and soldiers’ deputies met and made policy, ignoring or opposing the directives of the Provisional Government.  In respect to these bodies, which were dominated by workers and soldiers of higher status, and were therefore more conservative than the Russian masses in general, the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks pulled to the right.

According to Marx, the political “truths” people entertain invariably betray their interests as well as their aspirations. The Marxist intellectuals, who would in time come to politically represent and defend the nascent financial-industrial-elite, had already constructed theoretical justifications for playing that role. In keeping with their Hegelian interpretation of Marx’s theory, they held it was “objectively true” that countries must pass through specific stages in a specific manner.  A feudal system of production must be supplanted by a bourgeois-democratic (capitalist) order, a bourgeois-democracy by a socialist structure.  The latter would then gradually, non-cataclysmically, metamorphose, into communism.

Both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks considered it a truism that feudal Russia was about to undergo a bourgeois-democratic revolution.  What divided them concerned not what sort of society Russia was: it was feudal.  Nor did they disagree over what it would soon become: obviously capitalist.  Rather, their disputes concerned how long the country would remain capitalist before experiencing a second, socialist revolution; and how, as a consequence, they, as Marxist revolutionaries, should behave after the capitalist revolution occurred.

The Mensheviks believed it would take a long time for Russia’s capitalist order to fully develop, exhaust its creative capacities, and give birth to a socialist-egalitarian working class which could only be protected by carrying out an anti-capitalist revolution.  Hence, they proposed that following the capitalist revolution Marxist revolutionaries should work within the government to provide workers protection as the industrial-elite system flowered.

The Bolsheviks, conversely, expected Russia’s progression from feudalism to capitalism to socialism to happen quickly.  They argued that by transforming the country’s relationships with Europe, a capitalist revolution in Russia would throw Western Europe’s mature capitalist systems into crisis, “sparking” (the Bolshevik newspaper was named Iskra, “the spark”) socialist revolutions on the continent.  The latter, in turn, would push capitalist Russia back into crisis.  Aided and abetted by West European revolutionaries, Russia would then undergo its own socialist revolutionary transformation. Believing the entire process would be rapid, the Bolsheviks held that following Russia’s capitalist revolution Marxist revolutionaries should pressure the government from without, just as they had done with its feudal predecessor.

More conservative than the Bolsheviks in interest and outlook, Mensheviks were inclined to see the Provisional Government as genuinely revolutionary, the political representation of the new capitalist productive order, and, to give it their assistance.  Conscious of, and disturbed by, the Provisional Government’s feudal ties, the Bolsheviks hesitated to consider it a truly capitalist organ, adopting the position of a reluctant, only semi-loyal, opposition.

For Russian workers and peasants, on the other hand, survival demanded that the Marxist intellectuals’ abstract philosophical conceptions be ignored while they went about the daily business of defending their livelihoods and their lives.

From the very beginning the masses repudiated the liberal bourgeoisie, deeming it no different from the nobility and the bureaucracy. . . .  The workers, and not only the Bolsheviks, looked upon the Provisional Government as their enemy.   Resolutions urging the transfer of power to the Soviets passed almost unanimously at factory meetings. The Bolshevik Dingelstead, subsequently a victim of the purge, has testified: ‘There was not a single meeting of workers that would have refused to pass such a resolution proposed by us. . . .’ But, yielding to the pressure of the compromisers, the Petrograd Committee of the Bolshevik Party stopped this campaign. The advanced workers tried their utmost to throw off the tutelage on top, but they did not know how to parry the learned arguments about the bourgeois nature of the revolution.”104

“‘It must be openly acknowledged,'” wrote the Bolshevik Angarsky, who had passed through the same evolution as the others, “‘that a great many of the Old Bolsheviks . . . maintained the Old Bolshevik opinions of 1905 on the question of the character of the Revolution of 1917 and that the repudiation of these views was not easily accomplished.'”  “As a matter of fact /observes Trotsky/, it was not a question of ‘a great many of the old Bolsheviks’, but all of them without exception.  At the March /1917/ conference, at which the Party cadres of the entire country met, not a single voice was heard in favor of striving to win the power for the Soviets.”105

Such was the political climate when Lenin returned to Russia on April 3rd and dropped a bombshell in the form of his April Theses. To the consternation of his party, Lenin sided not with those who were supporting the Provisional Government, nor even with the majority sentiment in the Petrograd Soviet, but with the ultra-left anarchist sentiment of the mass of Russian peasants and workers.  He backed their demands for no further prosecution of the war, upheld their insistance on an immediate expropriation of the land-holders, and on workers’ control of the factories.  Most shocking of all to the Party, he advocated immediate government by workers, soldiers and peasants organized in their Soviets.

He swept aside legislative agrarian reform . . . along with all the rest of the policies of the Soviet, /saying/ ‘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 the . . . majority, tossing them over into the camp of the enemy.  That alone was enough in those days to make his listeners dizzy.”106

“‘All power to the Soviets!,'” Lenin proclaimed, and, seeming to abandon Marxism altogether, “‘Hail the world-wide socialist revolution.'” “It did not even fit the context of the Russian revolution as understood by all without exception who had witnessed or taken part in it.  Lenin had spoken; and his first words had been not of the bourgeois, but the socialist revolution.”107

Not the Bolsheviks, but Lenin, had momentarily caught up with the workers. Now he would attempt to drag members of the party along with him.  Their immediate response was predictably negative.  When Lenin read them his famous April Theses:

“Bogdanov interrupted with cries of ‘Delirium, the delirium of a madman’.  Goldenberg, another former Bolshevik, declared that ‘Lenin has proposed himself as candidate for a European throne vacant for 30 years, the throne of /the anarchist/ Bakunin.'”108

“’Among the newly arrived anarchists,’ wrote the British ambassador, ‘was Lenin.’”109   “Stankevich testifies that Lenin’s speech greatly delighted his enemies: ‘A man who talked 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.'”110

Lenin not only asked for all power to be transferred to the Soviets, he insisted that a single state bank be created with state control of all production and that nationalization of the land be immediately undertaken.  He wanted the police, the army and the bureaucracy to be abolished, and every worker and peasant armed and made eligible to hold office.111  “/T/he Petrograd committee of the party discussed Lenin’s theses and rejected them by thirteen votes to two . . . “112  “/T/hey 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 organization, group or individual, affixed his signature to them.”113

Over the next six months the Party would learn that under the existing circumstances Lenin’s proposals were the minimum the masses could, and therefore would, accept.  They would need to discover that their own positions as “leaders” were dependent upon their going along. “There was nothing in the program which could not be carried out; on the contrary, it would have been difficult and dangerous at this time not to carry it out.”114 But the Bolshevik intellectuals would prove reluctant pupils, manifesting all the hesitation to be expected of them by virtue of their greater socio-economic security.  Like the masses themselves, they would move to the left only when they came under assault; only when they, too, were made to choose between revolution and socio-economic survival.

A revolution, argued Marx, only occurs when the social existence of a significant portion of a nation’s population becomes mutually exclusive with that of the individuals who control the institutional structure.  As the two sides discover they must have at it or fail to be sustained the battle commences. The initial reaction of people who are not as immediately threatened as either of the protagonists is to watch and wait, to vacillate, then gradually move over to the winning side.  In Russia, the social existence of workers and peasants had now become mutually exclusive with that of the landed aristocracy.  The Marxist intellectuals, including the Bolsheviks, acted true to form.  They wavered until the final moment; indeed, they wavered until they were shoved into the revolutionary camp.

Just how far the Marxist intellectuals had to travel is further revealed by the fact that only two months before Lenin’s return Stalin, who as indicated was one of three then speaking for the party through editorship of Pravda, had greeted the February Revolution with the observation: “‘To the extent that the Russian Revolution has won . . . it has already created actual conditions /for national freedom/ by having overthrown the sovereignty of feudalism and serfdom.’”115  In his biography of Stalin, Trotsky commented:

As far as our author was concerned the Revolution was already completely a thing of the past. . . .  Yet still untouched was not only capitalist exploitation, the overthrow of which had not even occurred to Stalin, but even the ownership of land by the landed gentry, something he himself had designated as the basis of national oppression.  The government was run by Russian landlords like Rodzianko and Prince Lvov.”116

Trotsky was virtually alone when, upon returning to Russia in May, he went over to Lenin’s position.  In a speech given on May 5th, Trotsky said: “What do we recommend?  I think that the next step should be the handing over of all power to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers Deputies.”117

In the weeks which followed it became ever clearer to members of the Bolshevik Party that Lenin’s proposals alone would gain them any attention from the masses.  Victor Serge remarks: “/S/uddenly it becomes apparent that he has the ear of the man in the street, and of the man in the factory and barracks!  His whole genius consists only in his ability to say what these people want to say, but do not know how to say . . . “118 Alan Moorehead writes: “In a situation where every party and every politician was being pushed first one way and then another Lenin alone stuck to one uncompromising line of argument, and it was closer to the feelings of the illiterate and irresponsible mass of the Russian people than any other.”119 The elitism and rank condescension contained in the remarks of Serge and Moorehead aside, they make the point that Lenin was coming to be in step with those whom the Marxist intellectuals wished to guide.

All the while, deserting soldiers continued to stream back from the front, workers continued to seize factories and run their affairs in factory committees, and peasants continued to forceably appropriate the land.  The landed aristocracy began to grow desperate.  The Provisional Government was failing to perform the vital function of a political organization: defending the socio-economic existences of those who give it support.  “/T/he institutions and organs of the possessing classes began to denounce the dual power, and to lay blame for the disorders upon the Soviets.”120

The property-holders, deprived of the possibility of using their property, or protecting it, ceased to be real property holders and became badly frightened Philistines who could not give any support to the government for the simple reason that they needed support themselves. They soon began to curse the government for its weakness, but they were only cursing their own fate.”121

In July the Provisional Government issued an order for a large-scale military operation in Galicia. More peasants and workers would be sent to the slaughter.  The masses again responded by taking to the streets in spontaneous protest. They would refuse to go. “On July 16, half a million people marched through the streets /of Petrograd/ carrying huge scarlet banners proclaiming ‘Down With the War!’  ‘Down with the Provisional Government!’”122

Whereupon, the Bolshevik Party again procrastinated.  According to Trotsky:

The Bolsheviks were caught up by the movement and dragged into it, looking around the while for some justification for an action which flatly contradicted the official decision of the party.  And, so as not to lose face, rank and file Bolsheviks were forced to go flatly against the decisions of their leaders: Their Central Committee addressed an appeal to the workers and soldiers: ‘Unknown persons . . . are summoning you into the streets under arms, and that proves that the summons does not come from any of the Soviet parties . . .’  Thus the Central Committee, both of the Party and the Soviet, proposed, but the masses disposed.”123

“When the July demonstration was under discussion, Stalin argued that the workers were not eager for the fray. That argument was disproved by the July days themselves, when, defying the proscriptions of the Compromisers and even the warnings of the Bolshevik Party, the proletariat poured into the street, shoulder to shoulder with the garrison.”124

The July riots constituted a serious attack upon the Provisional Government and the feudal interests which that government (now inadequately) represented, making a counter-attack imperative.  The government responded by striking at the most visible and organized, albeit hesitant, body of opposition, the Bolsheviks. “On July 19th Kerensky got back from the front and writs were issued for the arrest of Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev and others. /Zinoviev and Lenin escaped to Finland./ Trotsky at his own request was arrested later on.”125  “Loyal troops were drafted into the capital . . . “126  “Workers were shot, Bolshevik establishments were raided and looted, party leaders were thrown in jail, and the Party itself was outlawed.”127 Trotsky observes: “The Bolsheviks were blamed for what was really a spontaneous movement and one which the Bolsheviks actually sought to restrain, believing the movement immature and insufficiently directed.”128

At last the Bolsheviks had begun to share the fate of the masses.  They, too, were now engaged in  a battle for socio-economic survival.  Accordingly, they took a few more steps in the direction of revolution.

In August, General Kornilov, acting at the urging of sore-beset aristocrats who had grown disillusioned with Kerensky’s feeble protective efforts, attempted to march on Petrograd and overthrow the Provisional Government.  To save himself, Kerensky issued a general appeal, addressing it even to the Bolsheviks.  Considering him a lesser evil, the Bolsheviks agreed to help, which served to strengthen their hand when Kornilov was easily routed.

As the interests of the masses and the landed aristocracy grew daily more incompatible, it became imperative for the Bolsheviks to give full support to one side or the other; fence straddling was rapidly becoming impossible.

From Finland Lenin sent messages urging that the party seize power.  But “Lenin’s urgent demands for immediate action met stiff resistance from those Bolshevik leaders who had remained in Petrograd, living underground, to direct the work of the Party on the spot.  They tried to disregard the appeals with which Lenin bombarded them from his hideout across the border . . . “129 Lenin argued, it seemed an indisputable fact to him, “that the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks would be supported by the vast masses of Russia’s workers and peasants, and would not be opposed by any unsurmountable forces.”130 Nor would the troops present opposition. “All the units were united by a single sentiment: Overthrow Kerensky as soon as possible, disperse, and go home and institute a new land system.”131

Finally, Lenin contended, for the Bolsheviks to continue hesitating would be to seal their doom.  The Provisional Government was even now preparing its own attack.  On the 5th of October, 1917 Lenin appeared in disguise at a special Central Committee meeting held for the express purpose of discussing insurrection.  He drafted a Committee resolution which stressed the need to act. Among other things, the resolution pointed to: “the obvious preparation of a second Kornilov attack (the withdrawal of troops from Petersburg, the importation of Cossacks into Petersburg, the surrounding of Minsk with Cossacks, etc.)”132 His resolution concluded: “all this places armed insurrection on the order of the day.”133 But Lenin’s blandishments, even at this late date, failed to persuade his comrades. “In private argument” they said of him: “Lenin is a crazy man; he is pushing the working-class to certain ruin.  From this armed insurrection we will get nothing; they will shatter us, exterminate the party and the working-class, and that will post-pone the revolution for years and years, etc.”134

“At a session of the Petrograd Committee on the 15th /just ten days before the Bolsheviks seized power/, Kalinin said: ‘The resolution of the Central Committee was one of the best resolutions ever adopted by the Central Committee . . . We are practically approaching the armed insurrection.  But when it will be possible, perhaps a year from now, is unknown.’”135

Trotsky appears to understate the case when he observes: “plenty of testimony has been preserved in the newspapers, memoirs and historic journals of that time, to prove that on the eve of the overturn the official machine even of this most revolutionary party put up a big resistance.” In actuality the Bolsheviks would not move until they were attacked.

But let Trotsky tell the tale of the final hours:

On the night of October 24th the government summoned up its courage and passed a resolution: to institute legal proceedings against the Military Revolutionary Committee; to shut down the Bolshevik papers advocating insurrection; to summon reliable military detachments from the environs and from the front. . . . Early in the morning the authorities began their preparations for aggressive action.  The military schools of the capital were ordered to make ready for battle. The cruiser Aurora, moored in the Neva, its crew favorable to the Bolsheviks, was ordered to put out and join the rest of the fleet.  Military detachments were called in from neighboring points: a battalion of shock troops from Tzarskoe Selo, the junkers from Oranienbaum, the artillery from Pavlovsk.  The headquarters of the Northern Front was asked to send reliable troops to the capital immediately. . . .  The Minister of Justice, Maliantovich, gave an order for the immediate arrest of those Bolsheviks released under bail who had again brought themselves to attention by anti-government activity.”136

In self-defense, the Bolsheviks finally responded by seizing power.  “The key points in the city were /almost effortlessly/ occupied; the members of the Provisional Government were made prisoners or fugitives; and in the afternoon Lenin announced to a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet the triumph of the workers’ and peasants’ revo-lution.”137

The Resilient Myth

In their book, Obsolete Communism, Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit point to “the myth of the Bolshevik Party as the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.”138 They note, and this essay has documented, that the evidence conclusively demonstrates otherwise.  To be sure, the idea they were playing a critical vanguard role was the utilitarian logic of the Bolsheviks’ own experience and interest.  But, at the time, their personal “truth” was shared by few other Russians.  The Cohn-Bendits speak of a “fundamental contradiction” in Leon Trotsky’s writings.  On the one hand, they observe, there is Trotsky the “honest historian” who acknowledged:

“‘The soldiers lagged behind the shop committees.  The committees lagged behind the masses . . .  The Party also lagged behind the revolutionary dynamic — an organization which had the least right to lag, especially in a time of revo-lution. . . .  The masses at the turning point were a hundred times to the left of the extreme left party.'”139

It is Trotsky the honest historian who grants that where acting was concerned Bolshevik Party members were reluctant revolutionaries every step of the way; that in the years prior to the revolution they had little or no success in even gaining the ear of workers or peasants, let alone educating them; that as late as the beginning of 1917 they “were little known to anybody”;140  that throughout its history the Party had always been what Shukman terms a “cacophony of dissonant voices.”141

Trotsky the honest historian was fond of reminiscing that “Lenin said more than once that the masses are to the left of the Party.  He knew that the Party was to the left of its own upperlayer of ‘Old Bolsheviks.’”142

Yet, the Cohn-Bendits argue, unable to accept the logic of his own experience, Trotsky the “Bolshevik theorist” reasoned: “‘The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing.’  ‘To the question, Who led the February revolution? we can then answer definitely enough: Conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.'”143

The Cohn-Bendits are obviously right.  Trotsky’s argument respecting the importance of the Bolshevik Party for organizing and guiding the Russian Revolution makes no sense whatsoever.  Nor does Trotsky offer a shred of evidence to support his proposition.  He simply states it as a given.  His discussion of the indispensible role of the Bolshevik vanguard is theosophic and wholly unconvincing. Why, then, did he persist with this belief, and why did his comrades?

Consider, again, the value of this myth for middle-class Russian intellectuals during the long years of the pre-revolutionary crisis.  Consider the implications if they had abandoned it.  They would have at once forsaken their role of revolutionary social workers, a role which, as noted, not only gave them socio-economic sustenance but a sense of considerable purpose as well, and this right up to and after the October Revolution.

As the Cohn-Bendits remark: In 1917 “It was the /Bolshevik/ Party that had to rise to the level of the masses, not the other way around.  Lenin had to turn ‘anarchist’, and to carry an incredulous Party with him.  October thus represents the point where the action and aspiration of the masses coincided with those of the temporarily de-Bolshevized Bolshevik Party, and this happy state of affairs persisted until the spring of 1918.”144

Following the October Revolution, for Russia’s Marxist intellectuals to understand and accept Marx’s argument concerning the conservative and thoroughly relative nature of all political understandings would have been to forsake their rationale for exercising control.  So, they did not understand and accept. Instead, they adopted an ideational and absolutistic interpretation of Marx’s paradigm, an Hegelian vision ideally suited to the building of a non-equalitarian society dominated by an industrial-elite; however emotionally committed to equality a few Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky might happen to have been – and they were.

Following the Civil War (1918-21) Russia’s “Communist” Party ever more consciously and confidently embrace its psuedo-Marxist “Scientific Socialism,” as it turned to overseeing a thermidorean reaction.  The country’s financial-industrial-elite, state-capitalist order had at last been born and, acting in the name of socialism and communism, the Party would now energetically represent it.

One of Marx’s central tenets was that the elite which dominates every productive order claims to rule in the interest of the masses.  Russia’s “communist” leaders would provide a graphic illustration of his thesis.


1. Milovan Djilas, The New Class, New York: Praeger Paperbacks,

1975, p. 13.

2. Ibid. p. 12.

3. Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His

Influence, New York: The Universal Library, Grosset & Dunlap,

1941, p. 412.

4. Leon Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, New York: Doubleday

Anchor, 1959, p. 242.

5. Ibid. p. 304.

6. Leon Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, New York, Pathfinder

Press, Inc., 1952, p. 261.

7. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 92.

8. Alan Moorehead, The Russian Revolution, New York: Bantam

Books, 1959, p. 12.

9. Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution 1890-1918, London:

Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1966, p. 2.

10. Moorehead, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 15.

11. Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and

Prospects, London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1962, p. 178.

12. Alfred G. Meyer, Leninism, New York: Frederick A. Praeger,

Inc., 1962, p. 11.

13. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. I, Baltimore:

Penguin Books, 1950, p. 21.

14. Quoted by Isaac Deutscher in: Anatoly Vasilievich

Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, New York: Hill and

Wang, 1968, p. 9.

15. Harold Shukman, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, New

York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967, p. 25.

16. Ibid., p. 27.

17. Ibid., p. 102.

18. Ibid., p. 127.

19. Ibid., p. 31.

20. Ibid., pp. 27-9.

21. Ibid., p. 39.

22. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, op cit., p. 21.

23. Shukman, op. cit., p. 31.

24. Ibid., p. 32.

25. Meyer, Leninism, op. cit., p. 31.

26. Ibid., pp. 21, 29, 31.

27. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, op. cit., p. 27.

28. Ibid., p. 28. (From the collected works of Lenin).

29. Ibid.

30. Shukman, op. cit., p. 36.

31. Moorehead, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 40.

32. Ibid.

33. Shukman, op. cit., p. 42.

34. Ibid.

35. Richard Pipes, “The Origins of Bolshevism,” in Richard Pipes

ed., Revolutionary Russia, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard

University Press, 1968, p. 31.

36. Ibid.

37. Shukman, op. cit., p. 44.

38. Ibid., pp. 45-6.

39. Shukman, op. cit., p. 90.

40. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, op.

cit., p. 192.

41. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, op. cit., p. 64.

42. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 81.

43. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 63.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., p. 76.

46. Shukman, op. cit., p. 123.

47. Ibid., p. 126.

48. Ibid., p. 123.

49. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 80.

50. Ibid., p. 76, Also: Shukman, op. cit., pp. 102-3.

51. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 64.

52. Ibid., p. 76.

53. Meyer, op. cit., p. 156.

54. Moorehead, op. cit., pp. 93-4.

55. Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, New York: Dell

Publishing Co., 1967, p. 277.

56. Ibid., p. 278.

57. Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, op. cit., pp. 40-1.

58. Shukman, op. cit., p. 141.

59. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 35.

60. Massie, op. cit., p. 279.

61. Carr, op. cit., p. 79.

62. Shukman, op. cit., p. 160.

63. Ibid., p. 144.

64. Ibid., p. 141.

65. Massie, op. cit., p. 309.

66. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp. 16-18.

67. Moorehead, op. cit., pp. 3-4.

68. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

69. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 37.

70. Ibid., p. 40.

71. Massie, op. cit., p. 396.

72. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 45.

73. Ibid., p. 37.

74. Massie, op. cit., p. 396.

75. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp. 18, 22.

76. Ibid., p. 91.

77. Ibid., p. 73.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid.

80. Massie, op. cit., p. 386.

81. Ibid.

82. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 42.

83. Ibid., p. 97.

84. Ibid., pp. 98-9.

85. Ibid., pp. 109-10.

86. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 161.

87. Djilas, op. cit., p. 13.

88. Ibid., p. 16.

89. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 7.

90. Ibid., p. 139.

91. Carr, op. cit., p. 81.

92. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 98.

93. Ibid., p. 107.

94. Ibid., p. 110.

95. Ibid., p. 113.

96. Ibid., p. 115.

97. Ibid., p. 139.

98. Ibid., p. 86.

99. Ibid., pp. 336, 338.

100. Ibid., p. 217.

101. Ibid., p. 218.

102. Meyer, op. cit., p. 171.

103. Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, New York: Monad Press

(Pathfinder Press), 1973, p. 19.

104. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 186.

105. Ibid., pp. 197-8.

106. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp. 225-6.

107. Carr, op. cit., p. 89.

108. Ibid., p. 90.

109. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 237.

110. Ibid., p. 235.

111. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 191.

112. Carr, op. cit., p. 91; Moorehead, op. cit., p. 191.

113. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 227.

114. Serge, op. cit., p. 16.

115. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., pp. 189-90.

116. Ibid.

117. Trotsky, Leon Trotsky Speaks, op. cit., p. 52.

118.         Serge, op. cit., p. 15.

119.         Moorehead, op. cit., p. 192.

120.         Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 193.

121.         Ibid., p. 194.

122.         Massie, op. cit., p. 464.

123. Trotsky, Quoted in: Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit,

Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, New York:

McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968, p. 204.

124. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 208.

125. Moorehead, op. cit., p. 209.

126. Carr, op. cit., p. 101.

127. Meyer, Leninism, op. cit., p. 172.

128. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 254.

129. Meyer, op. cit., p. 175.

130. Ibid., p. 176.

131. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 320.

132. Ibid., p. 286.

133. Ibid.

134. Ibid., p. 289.

135. Ibid., p. 288.

136. Ibid., pp. 340-1.

137. Carr, op. cit., p. 109.

138. Cohn-Bendit, op. cit., p. 202.

139. Ibid.

140. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. x.

141. Shukman, op. cit., p. 128.

142. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp. 264, 412.

143. Ibid., pp. 145, 147.

144. Cohn-Bendit, op. cit., p. 217.


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