Letters from afar: Concerning a proletarian militia

Written on March 24 (March 11 old style), 1917:

The conclusion I drew yesterday about Chkheidze’s vacillating tactics has been fully confirmed today, March 10 (23), by two documents. First—a telegraphic report from Stockholm in the Frankfurter Zeitung containing excerpts from the manifesto of the Central Committee of our Party, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, in St. Petersburg. In this document there is not a word about either supporting the Guchkov government or overthrowing it; the workers and soldiers are called upon to organize around the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, to elect representatives to it for the fight against tsarism and for a republic, for an eight-hour day, for the confiscation of the landed estates and grain stocks, and chiefly, for an end to the predatory war. Particularly important and particularly urgent in this connection is our Central Committee’s absolutely correct idea that to obtain peace relations must be established with the proletarians of all the belligerent countries.

To expect peace from negotiations and relations between the bourgeois governments would be self-deception and deception of the people.

The second document is a Stockholm report, also by telegraph, to another German newspaper (Vossische Zeitung) about a conference between the Chkheidze group in the Duma, the workers’ group (? Arbeiterfraction) and representatives of fifteen workers’ unions on March 2 (15) and a manifesto published next day. Of the eleven points of this manifesto, the telegram reports only three; the first, the demand for a republic; the seventh, the demand for peace and immediate peace negotiations; and the third, the demand for “adequate participation in the government of representatives of the Russian working class”.

If this point is correctly reported, I can understand why the bourgeoisie is praising Chkheidze. I can understand why the praise of the English Guchkovites in The Times which I quoted elsewhere has been supplemented by the praise of the French Guchkovites in Le Temps. This newspaper of the French millionaires and imperialists writes on March 22: “The leaders of the workers’ parties, particularly M. Chkheidze, are exercising all their influence to moderate the wishes of the working classes.”

Indeed, to demand workers’ “participation” in the Guchkov-Milyukov government is a theoretical and political absurdity: to participate as a minority would mean serving as a pawn; to participate on an “equal footing” is impossible, because the demand to continue the war cannot be reconciled with the demand to conclude an armistice and start peace negotiations; to “participate” as a majority requires the strength to overthrow the Guchkov-Milyukov government. In practice, the demand for “participation” is the worst sort of Louis Blanc-ism, i.e., oblivion to the class struggle and the actual conditions under which it is being waged, infatuation with a most hollow-sounding phrase, spreading illusions among the workers, loss, in negotiations with Milyukov or Kerensky, of precious time which must be used to create a real class and revolutionary force, a proletarian militia that will enjoy the confidence of all the poor strata of the population, and they constitute the vast majority, and will help them to organize, help them to fight for bread, peace, freedom.

This mistake in the manifesto issued by Chkheidze and his group (I am not speaking of the 0. C., Organizing Committee party, because in the sources available to me there is not a word about the 0. C.)—this mistake is all the more strange considering that at the March 2 (15) conference, Chkheidze’s closest collaborator, Skobelev, said, according to the newspapers: “Russia is on the eve of a second, real [wirklich] revolution.”

Now that is the truth, from which Skobelev and Chkheidze have forgotten to draw the practical conclusions. I cannot judge from here, from my accursed afar, how near this second revolution is. Being on the spot, Skobelev can see things better. Therefore, I am not raising for myself problems, for the solution of which I have not and cannot have the necessary concrete data. I am merely emphasizing the confirmation by Skobelev, an “outside witness”, i.e., one who does not belong to our Party, of the factual conclusion I drew in my first letter, namely: that the February-March Revolution was merely the first stage of the revolution. Russia is passing through a peculiar historical moment of transition to the next stage of the revolution, or, to use Skobelev’s expression, to a “second revolution”.

If we want to be Marxists and learn from the experience of revolution in the whole world, we must strive to under stand in what, precisely, lies the peculiarity of this transitional moment, and what tactics follow from its objective specific features.

The peculiarity of the situation lies in that the Guchkov-Milyukov government gained the first victory with extraordinary ease due to the following three major circumstances: (1) assistance from Anglo-French finance capital and its agents; (2) assistance from part of the top ranks of the army; (3) the already existing organisation of the entire Russian bourgeoisie in the shape of the rural and urban local government institutions, the State Duma, the war industries committees, and so forth.

The Guchkov government is held in a vise: bound by the interests of capital, it is compelled to strive to continue the predatory, robber war, to protect the monstrous profits of capital and the landlords, to restore the monarchy. Bound by its revolutionary origin and by the need for an abrupt change from tsarism to democracy, pressed by the bread-hungry and peace-hungry masses, the government is compelled to lie, to wriggle, to play for time, to “proclaim” and promise (promises are the only things that are very cheap even at a time of madly rocketing prices) as much as possible and do as little as possible, to make concessions with one hand and to withdraw them with the other.

Under certain circumstances, the new government can at best postpone its collapse somewhat by leaning on all the organizing ability of the entire Russian bourgeoisie and bourgeois intelligentsia. But even in that case it is unable to avoid collapse, because it is impossible to escape from the claws of the terrible monster of imperialist war and famine nurtured by world capitalism unless one renounces bourgeois relationships, passes to revolutionary measures, appeals to the supreme historic heroism of both the Russian and world proletariat.

Hence the conclusion: we cannot overthrow the new government at one stroke, or, if we can (in revolutionary times the limits of what is possible expand a thousandfold), we will not be able to maintain power unless we counter the magnificent organisation of the entire Russian bourgeoisie and the entire bourgeois intelligentsia with an equally magnificent organization of the proletariat, which must lead the entire vast mass of urban and rural poor, the semi-proletariat and small proprietors.

Irrespective of whether the “second revolution” has already broken out in St. Petersburg (I have said that it would be absolutely absurd to think that it is possible from abroad to assess the actual tempo at which it is maturing), whether it has been postponed for some time, or whether it has already begun in individual areas (of which some signs are evident)—in any case, the slogan of the moment on the eve of the new revolution, during it, and on the morrow of it, must be proletarian organization.

Comrade workers! You performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy. In the more or less near future (perhaps even now, as these lines are being written) you will again have to perform the same miracles of heroism to overthrow the rule of the land lords and capitalists, who are waging the imperialist war. You will not achieve durable victory in this next “real” revolution if you do not perform miracles of proletarian organisation!

Organization is the slogan of the moment. But to confine oneself to that is to say nothing, for, on the one hand, organization is always needed; hence, mere reference to the necessity of “organizing the masses” explains absolutely nothing. On the other hand, he who confines himself solely to this becomes an abettor of the liberals, for the very thing the liberals want in order to strengthen their rule is that the workers should not go beyond their ordinary “legal” (from the standpoint of “normal” bourgeois society) organizations, i. e., that they should only join their party, their trade union, their co-operative society, etc., etc.

Guided by their class instinct, the workers have realized that in revolutionary times they need not only ordinary, but an entirely different organization. They have rightly taken the path indicated by the experience of our 1905 Revolution and of the 1871 Paris Commune; they have set up a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies; they have begun to develop, expand and strengthen it by drawing in soldiers’ deputies, and, undoubtedly, deputies from rural wage-workers, and then (in one form or another) from the entire peasant poor.

The prime and most important task, and one that brooks no delay, is to set up organisations of this kind in all parts of Russia without exception, for all trades and strata of the proletarian and semi-proletarian population without exception, i. e., for all the working and exploited people, to use a less economically exact but more popular term. Running ahead somewhat, I shall mention that for the entire mass of the peasantry our Party (its special role in the new type of proletarian organisations I hope to discuss in one of my next letters) should especially recommend Soviets of wage-workers and Soviets of small tillers who do not sell grain, to be formed separately from the well-to-do peasants. Without this, it will be impossible either to conduct a truly proletarian policy in general,[1] or correctly to approach the extremely important practical question which is a matter of life and death for millions of people: the proper distribution of grain, increasing its production, etc.

It might be asked: What should be the function of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies? They “must be regarded as organs of insurrection, of revolutionary rule”, we wrote in No. 47 of the Geneva Sotsial-Demokrat, of October 13, 1915.

This theoretical proposition, deduced from the experience of the Commune of 1871 and of the Russian Revolution of 1905, must be explained and concretely developed on the basis of the practical experience of precisely the present stage of the present revolution in Russia.

We need revolutionary government, we need (for a certain transitional period) a state. This is what distinguishes us from the anarchists. The difference between the revolutionary Marxists and the anarchists is not only that the former stand for centralized, large-scale communist production, while the latter stand for disconnected small production. The difference between us precisely on the question of government, of the state, is that we are for, and the anarchists against, utilizing revolutionary forms of the state in a revolutionary way for the struggle for socialism.

We need a state. But not the kind of state the bourgeoisie has created everywhere, from constitutional monarchies to the most democratic republics. And in this we differ from the opportunists and Kautskyites of the old, and decaying, socialist parties, who have distorted, or have for gotten, the lessons of the Paris Commune and the analysis of these lessons made by Marx and Engels.

We need a state, hut not the kind the bourgeoisie needs, with organs of government in the shape of a police force, an army and a bureaucracy (officialdom) separate from and opposed to the people. All bourgeois revolutions merely perfected this state machine, merely transferred it from the hands of one party to those of another.

The proletariat, on the other hand, if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following   the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat, must organize and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.

And the workers of Russia have already taken this path in the first stage of the first revolution, in February–March 1917. The whole task now is clearly to understand what this new path is, to proceed along it further, boldly, firmly and perseveringly.

Formation of Red Guards (workers’ militia) at a Petrograd factory.

The Anglo-French and Russian capitalists wanted “only” to remove, or only to “frighten”, Nicholas II and to leave intact the old state machine, the police force, the army and the bureaucracy.

The workers went further and smashed it. And now, not only the Anglo-French, hut also the German capitalists are howling with rage and horror as they see, for example, Russian soldiers shooting their officers, as in the case of Admiral Nepenin, that supporter of Guchkov and Milyukov.

I said that the workers have smashed the old state machine. It will he more correct to say: have begun to smash it.

Let us take a concrete example.

In St. Petersburg and in many other places the police force has been partly wiped out and partly dissolved. The Guchkov-Milyukov government cannot either restore the monarchy or, in general, maintain power without restoring the police force as a special organisation of armed men under the command of the bourgeoisie, separate from and opposed to the people. That is as clear as daylight.

On the other hand, the new government must reckon with the revolutionary people, must feed them with half-concessions and promises, must play for time. That is why it re sorts to half-measures: it establishes a “people’s militia” with elected officials (this sounds awfully respectable, awfully democratic, revolutionary and beautiful!)—butbut, firstly, it places this militia under the control of the rural and urban local government bodies, i.e., under the command of landlords and capitalists who have been elected   in conformity with laws passed by Nicholas the Bloody and Stolypin the Hangman!! Secondly, although calling it a “people’s militia” in order to throw dust in the eyes of the “people”, it does not call upon the entire people to join this militia, and does not compel the employers and capitalists to pay workers and office employees their ordinary wages for the hours and days they spend in the public service, i.e., in the militia.

That’s their trick. That is how the landlord and capitalist government of the Guchkovs and Milyukovs manages to have a “people’s militia” on paper, while in reality, it is restoring, gradually and on the quiet, the bourgeois, anti-people’s militia. At first it is to consist of “eight thousand students and professors” (as foreign newspapers describe the present St. Petersburg militia)—an obvious plaything!—and will gradually be built up of the old and new police force.

Prevent restoration of the police force! Do not let the local government bodies slip out of your hands! Set up a militia that will really embrace the entire people, be really universal, and be led by the proletariat!—such is the task of the day, such is the slogan of the moment which equally conforms with the properly understood interests of furthering the class struggle, furthering the revolutionary movement, and the democratic instinct of every worker, of every peasant, of every exploited toiler who cannot help hating the policemen, the rural police patrols, the village constables, the command of landlords and capitalists over armed men with power over the people.

What kind of police force do they need, the Guchkovs and Milyukovs, the landlords and capitalists? The same kind as existed under the tsarist monarchy. After the briefest revolutionary periods all the bourgeois and bourgeois-democratic republics in the world set up or restored precisely such a police force, a special organisation of armed men subordinate to the bourgeoisie in one way or another, separate from and opposed to the people.

What kind of militia do we need, the proletariat, all the toiling people? A genuine people’s militia, i.e., one that, first, consists of the entire population, of all adult citizens of both sexes; and, second, one that combines the   functions of a people’s army with police functions, with the functions of the chief and fundamental organ of public order and public administration.

To make these propositions more comprehensible I will take a purely schematic example. Needless to say, it would be absurd to think of drawing up any kind of a “plan” for a proletarian militia: when the workers and the entire people set about it practically, on a truly mass scale, they will work it out and organize it a hundred times better than any theoretician. I am not offering a “plan”, I only want to illustrate my idea.

St. Petersburg has a population of about two million. Of these, more than half are between the ages of 15 and 65. Take half—one million. Let us even subtract an entire fourth as physically unfit, etc., taking no part in public service at the present moment for justifiable reasons. There remain 750,000 who, serving in the militia, say one day in fifteen (and receiving their pay for this time from their employers), would form an army of 50,000.

That’s the type of “state” we need!

That’s the kind of militia that would be a “people’s militia” in deed and not only in words.

That is how we must proceed in order to prevent the restoration either of a special police force, or of a special army separate from the people.

Such a militia, 95 hundredths of which would consist of workers and peasants, would express the real mind and will, the strength and power of the vast majority of the people. Such a militia would really arm, and provide military training for, the entire people, would be a safeguard, but not of the Guchkov or Milyukov type, against all attempts to restore reaction, against all the designs of tsarist agents. Such a militia would be the executive organ of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, it would enjoy the boundless respect and confidence of the people, for it itself would be an organisation of the entire people. Such a militia would transform democracy from a beautiful signboard, which covers up the enslavement and torment of the people by the capitalists, into a means of actually training the masses for participation in all affairs of state. Such a militia would draw the young people into political life and teach them not only by words, hut also by action, by work. Such a militia would develop those functions which, speaking in scientific language, come within the purview of the “welfare police”, sanitary inspection, and so forth, and would enlist for such work all adult women. If women are not drawn into public service, into the militia, into political life, if women are not torn out of their stupefying house and kitchen environment, it will be impossible to guarantee real freedom, it will be impossible to build even democracy let alone socialism.

Such a militia would be a proletarian militia, for the industrial and urban workers would exert a guiding influence on the masses of the poor as naturally and inevitably as they came to bold the leading place in the people’s revolutionary struggle both in 1905–07 and in 1917.

Such a militia would ensure absolute order and devotedly observed comradely discipline. At the same time, in the severe crisis that all the belligerent countries are experiencing, it would make it possible to combat this crisis in a really democratic way, properly arid rapidly to distribute grain and other supplies, introduce “universal labor service”, which the French now call “civilian mobilization” and the Germans “civilian service” and without which it is impossibleit has proved to be impossible—to heal the wounds that have been and are being inflicted by the predatory and horrible war.

Has the proletariat of Russia shed its blood only in order to receive fine promises of political democratic reforms and nothing wore? Can it be that it will not demand, and secure, that every toiler should forthwith see and feel some improvement in his life? That every family should have bread? That every child should have a bottle of good milk and that not a single adult in a rich family should dare take extra milk until children are provided for? That the palaces and rich apartments abandoned by the tsar and the aristocracy should not remain vacant, but provide shelter for the homeless and the destitute? Who can carry out these measures except a people’s militia, to which women must be long equally with men?

These measures do not yet constitute socialism. They concern the distribution of consumption, not the reorganization of production. They would not yet constitute the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, only the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasantry”. It is not a matter of finding a theoretical classification. We would be committing a great mistake if we attempted to force the complex, urgent, rapidly developing practical tasks of the revolution into the Procrustean bed of narrowly conceived “theory” instead of regarding theory primarily and predominantly as a guide to action.

Do the masses of the Russian workers possess sufficient class-consciousness, fortitude and heroism to perform “miracles of proletarian organisation” after they have per formed miracles of daring, initiative and self-sacrifice in the direct revolutionary struggle? That we do not know, and it would be idle to indulge in guessing, for practice alone furnishes the answers to such questions.

What we do know definitely, and what we, as a party, must explain to the masses is, on the one hand, the immense power of the locomotive of history that is engendering an unprecedented crisis, starvation and incalculable hardship. That locomotive is the war, waged for predatory aims by the capitalists of both belligerent camps. This “locomotive” has brought a number of the richest, freest and most enlightened nations to the brink of doom. It is forcing the peoples to strain to the utmost all their energies, placing them in unbearable conditions, putting on the order of the day not the application of certain “theories” (an illusion against which Marx always warned socialists), but implementation of the most extreme practical measures; for without extreme measures, death—immediate and certain death from starvation—awaits millions of people.

That the revolutionary enthusiasm of the advanced class can do a great deal when the objective situation demands extreme measures from the entire people, needs no proof. This aspect is clearly seen and felt by everybody in Russia.

It is important to realize that in revolutionary times the objective situation changes with the same swiftness and abruptness as the current of life in general. And we must be able to adapt our tactics and immediate tasks to the specific features of every given situation. Before February 1917, the immediate task was to conduct bold revolutionary-internationalist propaganda, summon the masses to fight, rouse them. The February–March days required the heroism of devoted struggle to crush the immediate enemy—tsarism. Now we are in transition from that first stage of the revolution to the second, from “coming to grips” with tsarism to “coming to grips” with Guchkov-Milyukov landlord and capitalist imperialism. The immediate task is organisation, not only in the stereotyped sense of working to form stereo typed organisations, but in the sense of drawing unprecedentedly broad masses of the oppressed classes into an organization that would take over the military, political and economic functions of the state.

The proletariat has approached, and will approach, this singular task in different ways. In some parts of Russia the February-March Revolution puts nearly complete power in its hands. In others the proletariat may, perhaps, in a “usurpatory” manner, begin to form and develop a proletarian militia. In still others, it will probably strive for immediate elections of urban and rural local government bodies on the basis of universal, etc., suffrage, in order to turn them into revolutionary centers, etc., until the growth of proletarian organisation, the coming together of the soldiers with the workers, the movement among the peasantry and the disillusionment of very many in the war-imperialist government of Guchkov and Milyukov bring near the hour when this government will be replaced by the “government” of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

Nor ought we to forget that close to St. Petersburg we have one of the most advanced, factually republican, countries, namely, Finland, which, from 1905 to 1917, shielded by the revolutionary battles of Russia, has in a relatively peaceful way developed democracy and has won the majority of the people for socialism. The Russian proletariat will guarantee the Finnish Republic complete freedom, including freedom to secede (it is doubtful now whether a single Social-Democrat will waver on this point when the Cadet Rodichev is so meanly haggling in Helsingfors for bits of privileges for the Great Russians)—and precisely in this way will win the complete confidence and comradely assistance of the Finnish workers for the all-Russian proletarian cause. In a difficult and big undertaking mistakes are inevitable, nor will we avoid them. The Finnish workers are better organizers, they will help us in this sphere, they will, in their own way, push forward the establishment of the socialist republic.

Revolutionary victories in Russia proper—peaceful organisational successes in Finland shielded by these victories—the Russian workers’ transition to revolutionary organisational tasks on a new scale—capture of power by the proletariat and poorest strata of the population—encouragement and development of the socialist revolution in the West—this is the road that will lead us to peace and socialism.

V.I. Lenin, Letters from Afar, “Third Letter: Concerning a Proletarian Militia”


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