The Bolsheviks before Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd

Of the two factions of the Russian Social-Democratic WorkersParty, it was the Mensheviks who at first profited most by the February revolution. As in 1905, the promise of constitutional government seemed to justify their program and gave them the advantage over the Bolsheviks. A bourgeois revolutionary regime, enjoying the critical support of good Marxists until such time as bourgeois capitalism had exhausted its potentialities and the way was open for the socialist revolution — this was precisely the Menshevik picture of the first stage in the revolutionary process: Indeed the “dual power,” considered as a constitutional partnership between bourgeois government and proletarian “legal opposition,” was essentially Menshevik in conception.

The main point of embarrassment for the Mensheviks was their attitude to the war, on which they were not agreed among themselves. But a policy of pressing the bourgeois government to end the war on a democratic program without entering into precise details of the ways and means of ending it seemed for the moment to meet all requirements. The Mensheviks quickly emerged into a predominant position in the Petrograd Soviet: its first president was the Georgian Menshevik Chkheidze. The principal rivals of the Mensheviks were the Social-Revolutionaries. It was not long before the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies became Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies; and, as the armies dissolved into struggling masses of peasants crying out for peace and land and counting on the Social-Revolutionaries, the traditional party of the peasant revolution, to fulfill their ambitions , the star of the Social-Revolutionaries (or SRs, as they were commonly called) continued to rise.

The Bolsheviks seemed to have gained least. The suddenness of the revolution had left the determination of Bolshevik policy in the hands of three men (two of them young and without experience) cut off not only from the party center in Switzerland, but from the other experienced party leaders marooned in Siberia.

The position was embarrassing. On the one hand, they were committed by Lenin’s theses of 1914 and by everything he had since written to the sensational policy, known to be distasteful even to many Bolsheviks, of advocating civil war and national defeatism. On the other hand, the party resolution of 1905 had contemplated the establishment of a provisional revolutionary government as the result of a democratic revolution and had admitted that Bolshevik cooperation in such a government might be desirable “for the purposes of a ruthless struggle against all counter-revolutionary attempts and of the defense of the independent interests of the working class.” With so much guidance and no more, Shlyapnikov, Zalutsky and Molotov, constituting the Russian bureau of the central committee, drafted a party manifesto which was issued as a broadsheet on February 26, 1917, and appeared two days later as a supplement to the first issue of the Izvestiya of the Petrograd Soviet.

All things considered , it was a creditable effort. Since no provisional government had yet been proclaimed, the question of defining relations to it did not arise. The manifesto called on the working class and the revolutionary army to create a “provisional revolutionary government,” which would establish a republic, introduce democratic reforms such as the eight-hour day, the confiscation of estates and the creation of a constituent assembly on a basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot, confiscate and distribute stocks of food, and “enter into negotiations with the proletariat of the belligerent countries for a revolutionary struggle of the peoples of all countries against their oppressors and enslavers … and for the termination of the bloody human slaughter which has been imposed on the enslaved peoples.Factory workers and insurgent armies were urged to elect their representatives to this provisional revolutionary government.

The appeal ended with salutes to “the red banner of revolution,” “the democratic republic,” “the revolutionary working class” and “the revolutionary people and insurgent army.” Lenin, who read extracts from this manifesto in the German press while he was still in Switzerland struggling to arrange for his journey to Russia, noted as “especially important and especially topical” the “perfectly correct idea of our central committee that the indispensable thing for peace is relations with the proletarians of all the belligerent countries.”

The February revolution had removed all obstacles other than the shortage of man-power to a revival of the party journal. The publication of Pravda was resumed on March 5, 1917, under an editorial board consisting of Molotov, who as member of the bureau of the central committee bore the chief responsibility, Kalinin, valued perhaps, then as later, less for his intellectual qualities than for his prestige as a usable party member of peasant origin, and Eremeev, of whom little is known except that he had been a contributor to the Pravda of 1912. The first issue was distributed free , the second sold 100,000 copies. The views expressed in the first seven numbers of the new Pravda were broadly those of the party manifesto. It denounced the existing Provisional Government as “a government of capitalists and landowners,” and thought that the Soviet should convene a constituent assembly to establish a “democratic republic.” On the issue of the war, it published on March 10, 1917, a resolution of the bureau advocating a transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war for the liberation of the peoples from the yoke of the ruling classes, though it still refrained from the explicit advocacy of national defeatism. But it was not immune from backslidings. The same issue which printed this resolution printed an article by Olminsky which concluded: The [bourgeois] revolution is not yet completed. We live under the slogan of striking together.In party affairs, each party for itself; but all as one man for the common cause.”

The position was complicated by the revival of the local Petrograd party committee, which, having for the first time acquired legal status, had attracted a large number of new recruits and exhibited a disconcerting variety of opinions. In general, the Petrograd committee stood further to the Right than the bureau. When on March 5, 1917, young Molotov appeared at one of its sessions as delegate of the bureau and proposed a resolution attacking the Provisional Government as counter-revolutionary and demanding its replacement by a government capable of carrying out a program of democratic revolution, he failed to convince the majority of the committee, which adopted a text promising not to oppose the Provisional Government so long as “its actions correspond to the interests of the proletariat and of the broad democratic masses of the people.”

This confused situation was worse confounded by the arrival in Petrograd from Siberia on March 13, 1917 — the day on which the seventh issue of Pravda appeared — of Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov. Kamenev was an experienced writer and had been appointed editor of the central party organ — at that time the Rabochaya Gazeta — by the Prague conference of 1912; Stalin, having been a member of the central committee of the party since 1912, replaced Shlyapnikov as senior party organizer in Petrograd; Muranov was one of the Bolshevik deputies of the fourth Duma. All three had formerly worked on the old Pravda. They at once took over the reins of authority from Shlyapnikov and his young colleagues; and Pravda of March 15, 1917, carried an announcement that Muranov had assumed the direction of’ the journal and that Stalin and Kamenev had joined the editorial board. The former members of the board presumably remained, though with diminished influence and prerogatives.

These proceedings, however distasteful to the stop-gap leaders who had acquitted themselves well in a difficult situation, were natural enough, and would have excited little interest but for the fact that the newcomers carried out a contentious change of policy. A brief article by Stalin in Pravda of March 14, 1917, was less remarkable for what was said than for what was omitted. It urged workers, peasants and soldiers to rally to the Soviets “as organs of the union and the power of the revolutionary forces of Russia.” But it did not mention either the Provisional Government or the war; and the cautious appeal to “maintain the rights that have been won in order finally to beat down the old powers and to move the Russian revolution forward” approached more nearly to the Menshevik formula of pressing the bourgeoisie forward from behind than to the Bolshevik formula of taking the lead. The issue of the following day, which contained the announcement of the changes in the editorial board, carried on its front page a proclamation issued by the Petrograd Soviet “To the Peoples of the Whole World,” announcing that “we shall stoutly defend our own liberty” and that “the Russian revolution will not flinch before the bayonets of the aggressors.”

This was followed by a signed article from Kamenev: When army faces army, it would be the most inane policy to suggest to one of these armies to lay down its arms and go home. This would not be a policy of peace but a policy of slavery, which would be rejected with disgust by a free people. A free people could only “answer bullet with bullet, shell with shell.” This wholehearted endorsement of national defense signally confirmed Kamenev’s statement in court over two years earlier that he did not share Lenin’s position.

According to Shlyapnikov, who at this point becomes our sole authority, Pravda’s change of front excited dismay among the Bolshevik factory workers, and a meeting was held at which the bureau, the Petrograd committee and the exiles from Siberia were all represented. In the course of the discussion, Stalin and Muranov disowned the views of Kamenev, who “submitted to the general decision and took up in the organization a ‘moderate position.'” What resulted from the discussion seems to have been less a compromise than a deadlock; for while Pravda published no more articles so outspokenly in favor of national defense as that of Kamenev, it equally refrained from any fundamental attack on the Provisional Government or on its war policy. An older and more cautious editorial board had repressed the rash ardor displayed in the earlier issues and retired to a more comfortable position on the fence. When a party conference was held to decide the line to be taken at the first all-Russian conference of Soviets at the end of March 1917, the proposal put forward by Stalin to “support the Provisional Government in its activity only in so far as it moves along the path of satisfying the working class and the revolutionary peasantry” scarcely differed in substance from the formula approved by the Menshevik majority at the conference of Soviets; and most Bolsheviks shared the view expressed by Stalin that unification was possible “on a Zimmerwald-Kienthal line” with those Mensheviks who were against national “defensism.”

More than seven years later, at the height of his controversy with Trotsky, Stalin confessed his error at this time. After arguing that the party could neither seek the overthrow of the Provisional Government, since it was bound up with the Soviets, nor support it, since it was an Imperialist government, Stalin continued: “The party — its majority – … adopted a policy of pressure by the Soviets on the Provisional Government in the question of peace, and did not decide at once to take the step forward from the old slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry to the new slogan of power for the Soviets. This half-and-half policy was intended to give the Soviets a chance to detect in the concrete questions of peace the imperialist nature of the Provisional Government and so to detach them from it. But it was a profoundly mistaken position since it bred pacifist illusions, added fuel to the flame of defensism and hindered the revolutionary uprising of the masses. This mistaken position I shared with other party comrades, and renounced it completely only in the middle of April when I adhered to Lenin’s theses.”

The argument is not particularly convincing and attributes to subtlety of intention what was due to mere confusion. But sympathy may be felt with those who sought to hammer out a consistent Bolshevik policy in Petrograd in the March days of 1917. Nobody had yet contested the view that the Russian revolution was not, and could not be, other than a bourgeois revolution. This was the solid and accepted framework of doctrine into which policy had to fit. Yet it was difficult to discover within this framework any cogent reason to reject out of hand the Provisional Government, which was indubitably bourgeois, or to demand a transfer of power to the Soviets, which were essentially proletarian, or — least of all — to denounce the quest for a “democratic”peace and preach civil war and national defeat. The circle could not be squared. It was left to Lenin, before the eyes of his astonished followers, to smash the framework.

E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Vol. 1


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