Lenin’s April Theses: ‘A program for a real revolution’

Based on a talk by Deirdre Griswold, Workers World editor-in-chief, at a meeting in New York on April 6, 2017.

In Ecuador, a leftist was just elected president. His name is Lenin Moreno.

It’s a reminder of the great respect that exists around the world, especially in countries oppressed by imperialism, for the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, just 100 years ago. It was called Russia, but in fact the revolution grew to include many peoples other than Russians, people from oppressed nations that had been conquered by Russia over centuries of czarist rule.

We all know there are oppressed nations in this country, starting with the Indigenous peoples whose land was stolen by the settlers, to the millions whose ancestors were dragged here from Africa to be enslaved by the Southern plantation owners, to the descendants of Mexican people whose land was also stolen by force in the 1840s.

Just like the U.S., Russia was a country of both class oppression and national oppression.

There were actually two revolutions in Russia in 1917. The first was called the February Revolution and the second the October Revolution, although the date falls on Nov. 7 by our calendar.

Between February and October 1917 there was an extraordinary period in Russia, when the great masses of people were awakened to the possibility that they could fundamentally change the conditions of their lives.

The first revolution in February started with a huge demonstration of women textile workers. Within weeks, the people overthrew the czar and ushered in a period of democracy. Over the next eight months, millions became active in organizations that would shape the future of the country. They were called soviets, which is the Russian word for people’s councils. We might call them people’s assemblies. There were soviets of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors.

The soviets were both an arena for political debate and a place where the people could express their will in democratic votes — and attempt to carry out what they voted for.

What drove the people to a passionate desire for change? What drove many to consider themselves “professional” revolutionaries, not professional in the sense of being paid, but professional in the sense that they saw making a revolution to be their life’s work?

First were the terrible conditions of exploitation, in the workplaces and on the land. Then there was the brutal oppression by the czarist regime and its secret police.

But on top of all that, which had been going on for years, was a huge new factor: war.

The Russian ruling classes went into World War I for the same reasons as the other capitalist powers: to grab territory and riches for themselves. They expected to come out of the war immensely fattened by taking over resources and land from the losing side. Their primary foe was Germany, whose rulers had the same objective.

But of course it wasn’t the rulers who fought and died in the war. It was the workers and peasants, and they died by the millions.

There was a Socialist International in Europe at that time, made up of parties in all the different countries. Before the war started, these socialist parties had met several times and passed resolutions opposing the coming war. They correctly pointed out that only the ruling classes would benefit from war. They called for international solidarity among the workers of all countries.

But when the war came, almost all these socialist parties capitulated to the pressure of “patriotism.” Where they had elected deputies in the parliaments, particularly in Germany, Britain and France, these deputies voted for war credits — that is, they voted the immense funds for war that the governments requested, although the war did cause splits in some of these parties.

What followed was four years of the greatest slaughter Europe had ever seen, with 17 million dead and 20 million wounded, all for the benefit of the ruling classes.

But there was one small group of European socialists who in 1914 had refused to support this inter-imperialist war. The leading figure in it was Vladimir Lenin, head of the Social Democratic Party in Russia, known as the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war meant jail or exile for many of the leaders. But as the war dragged on, deepening the misery of the people, the Bolshevik Party won respect for its principled stand.

By 1917, the people of Russia — and especially the soldiers — had become thoroughly anti-war. In the first revolution, in February, the tsar was toppled and a democracy was proclaimed. The people then hoped and expected that Russia would pull out of the bloody conflict still raging in Europe.

But the democratic government that took over, headed by Alexander Kerensky, was weak. It stayed in the war and became increasingly unpopular.

This was the situation when, in early April 1917, Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland. He was able to come back by negotiating with Germany, which allowed him to cross Germany in a sealed train so there was no chance of him agitating the population against the war.

As soon as he arrived in Russia, he immediately gave a speech to the All-Russia Conference of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, on April 4. It was then published in the Party newspaper, Pravda.

His message was fairly short, but it contained what Lenin thought were the key and indispensable points for moving the revolution forward and averting disaster.

Lenin spelled out in detail exactly what the party should do.

Lenin presents the April Theses at a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet.

The April Theses

1) In our attitude towards the war, which under the new [provisional] government of Lvov and Co. unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war owing to the capitalist nature of that government, not the slightest concession to “revolutionary defencism” is permissible.

The class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war, which would really justify revolutionary defencism, only on condition: (a) that the power pass to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat; (b) that all annexations be renounced in deed and not in word; (c) that a complete break be effected in actual fact with all capitalist interests.

In view of the undoubted honesty of those broad sections of the mass believers in revolutionary defencism who accept the war only as a necessity, and not as a means of conquest, in view of the fact that they are being deceived by the bourgeoisie, it is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them, to explain the inseparable connection existing between capital and the imperialist war, and to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace, a peace not imposed by violence.

The most widespread campaign for this view must be organized in the army at the front.

2) The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.

This transition is characterised, on the one hand, by a maximum of legally recognised rights (Russia is now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world); on the other, by the absence of violence towards the masses, and, finally, by their unreasoning trust in the government of capitalists, those worst enemies of peace and socialism.

This peculiar situation demands of us an ability to adapt ourselves to the special conditions of Party work among unprecedentedly large masses of proletarians who have just awakened to political life.

3) No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding “demand” that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.

4) Recognition of the fact that in most of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies our Party is in a minority, so far a small minority, as against a bloc of all the petty-bourgeoisopportunist elements, from the Popular Socialists and the Socialist-Revolutionaries down to the Organising Committee (Chkheidze, Tsereteli, etc.), Steklov, etc., etc., who have yielded to the influence of the bourgeoisie and spread that influence among the proletariat.

The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.

As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.

5) Not a parliamentary republic—to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step—but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.

Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.

The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker.

6) The weight of emphasis in the agrarian programme to be shifted to the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies.

Confiscation of all landed estates.

Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. The organisation of separate Soviets of Deputies of Poor Peasants. The setting up of a model farm on each of the large estates (ranging in size from 100 to 300 dessiatines, according to local and other conditions, and to the decisions of the local bodies) under the control of the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies and for the public account.

7) The immediate union of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

8) It is not our immediate task to “introduce” socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.

Convene a new party congress and change the program to include the points above.

Change of party’s name: Instead of “Social-Democracy”, whose official leaders throughout the world have betrayed socialism and deserted to the bourgeoisie (the “defencists” and the vacillating “Kautskyites”), we must call ourselves the Communist Party.

Well. That is a program for a real revolution.

We study these points today not because they are a timeless blueprint for a revolutionary program. Not at all.

There is no such blueprint. Marxism above all recognizes that everything is in a process of change, of coming into being, and passing away. What was true yesterday is no longer true today. We must analyze what is the current reality and base our program on that.

That is why, before discussing the April Theses, I wanted you to have a general understanding of what the conditions were like in Russia and in the socialist movement at that time.

Lenin himself constantly updated his analysis of what had to be done. When he delivered his speech on April 4, he stunned a lot of the leaders in his own party. His take on the situation as it existed at that time was very different from his earlier views on how the workers’ revolution would proceed in Russia.

In fact, one of his points of difference with Leon Trotsky back in 1905 had been over what would be the various stages in the revolutionary process in Russia. At that time, Lenin had believed it necessary for Russia to go through a period of bourgeois, capitalist development before the working class and the poor peasants could think of taking power and reorganizing society on a socialist basis.

But the war had changed everything. When Lenin introduced the April thesis, it was two months after the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of a democratic government — democratic in form, but still dominated by the capitalist bourgeoisie. In those two months, the bourgeois democrats had shown themselves incapable of getting Russia out of the war, incapable of breaking up the landed estates, incapable of reorganizing the economy, and incapable of setting up a state apparatus strong enough to fight off attempts at a counter-revolution by the monarchists and aristocrats. These democrats wouldn’t even acknowledge the secret treaties made among the imperialists to carve up the oppressed colonized territories once the war was over.

All of this called for a new understanding of what had to be done.

Trotsky, since 1905, had argued that the workers must take the power in Russia in order to carry out even bourgeois democratic reforms. So now he and Lenin were in agreement.

But Trotsky also changed his views in early 1917. Earlier he had differed with Lenin on the question of what kind of party was needed to carry out the revolution. He was won over to Lenin’s views on the need for a disciplined, combat party based on democratic centralism.

It was on the basis of the April Theses that Trotsky and his grouping joined the Bolshevik Party and played an important role preparing for the revolutionary seizure of power in October.

I’m sure we’ll have more talks later in the year going over some of other milestones in the development of the Russian Revolution. There is a lot to be learned from the strategy and tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks as they faced the threat of counter-revolution. At one point, Lenin had to disguise himself and hide for a while in nearby Finland. Other leaders faced arrest and had to return to clandestine tactics.

But at the same time the masses of the people, seen especially in the constant shifts to the left in the Soviets, pushed ever harder for a revolutionary change that would take the power away from their oppressors.

At times the Bolshevik Party even had to hold back the workers in key cities like Petrograd, so that those elsewhere in the country who were slower to understand what was happening could catch up — and join the revolutionary movement, which they did.

We today talk a lot about revolution, because we see no other way to solve the immense problems created by this dying capitalist system. Certainly there is no hope for the future in the phony promises made by both the reactionaries and the liberal reformers.

In studying the past, we can gain a better understanding of what a revolution is, how it happens and, most important, how it can succeed.


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