‘Lenin’s speech was attacked from all sides, only Kollontai speaking in support of it’

The scene of Lenin’s arrival at the Finland station in Petrograd on the evening of April 3 [April 16 on the modern calendar], 1917, has been recorded by at least four eye-witnesses. He had been met at Beloostrov, the last station outside Petrograd, by a group representing the Russian bureau of the central committee and headed by Shlyapnikov. In the train Lenin plied Shlyapnikov with questions “about the position of things in the party . . . about the causes of the turnover in Pravda towards defencism, about the position of individual colleagues.” On arrival in Petrograd he was greeted by members of the central committee and the Petrograd committee of the party and of the staff of Pravda. Among them was Kamenev, whom he at once began good-humoredly to chide: “What is this you are writing in Pravda? We saw some of your articles and roundly abused you.” Alexandra Kollontai produced a bouquet which Lenin carried awkwardly; and the party proceeded to the former imperial waiting-room. Here Lenin was officially welcomed by Chkheidze, the president of the Petrograd Soviet, who, in a few carefully chosen words, expressed his hopes for “a closing of the ranks of democracy” in defence of “our revolution.”

Lenin, turning vaguely away from the official party towards the assembled crowds outside, addressed them as “dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers,” greeted in their persons “the victorious Russian revolution,” declared that the “robber imperialist war” was the beginning of civil war all over Europe, and concluded:

“Any day, if not today or tomorrow, the crash of the whole of European imperialism may come. The Russian revolution, made by you, has begun it and opened a new epoch. Hail the world-wide socialist revolution.”

As Sukhanov notes, it was not a reply to Chkheidze. It did not even fit “the context of the Russian revolution as understood by all without exception who had witnessed it or taken part in it.” Lenin had spoken; and his first words had been not of the bourgeois, but of the socialist, revolution.

On the square outside the station there was a mass demonstration of Bolsheviks headed by an armored car carrying the banner of the party. Lenin, standing on the armored car, addressed the cheering crowds in similar terms and, later on the same evening, spoke for two hours to a party audience at party headquarters. The slowly mounting astonishment with which his words were received by the other party leaders was described by an eyewitness ten years later:

“It had been expected that Vladimir Ilich would arrive and call to order the Russian bureau of the central committee and especially comrade Molotov, who occupied a particularly irreconcilable position in regard to the Provisional Government. It turned out, however, that it was Molotov who was nearest of all to Ilich.”

On the following day there were more discussions at his sister’s flat and at the editorial offices of Pravda; and in the afternoon he spoke before a gathering of social-democrats — Bolshevik, Menshevik and independent — at the Tauride palace, where the Soviet held its sessions. It was on this last occasion that Lenin for the first time read the famous “April theses” which summarized his views; that Bogdanov interrupted with cries of ” Delirium, the delirium of a madman”; that Goldenberg, another former Bolshevik, declared that “Lenin had proposed himself as candidate for a European throne vacant for 30 years, the throne of Bakunin”; and that Steklov, the editor of Izvestiya and soon to join the Bolsheviks, added that Lenin’s speech consisted of “abstract constructions” which he would soon abandon when he had acquainted himself with the Russian situation. Lenin’s speech was attacked from all sides, only Kollontai speaking in support of it; and he left the hall without exercising his right of reply. On the same evening he re-read the theses to a gathering of Bolshevik leaders, and once more found himself completely isolated. The theses “On the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution” were published in Pravda of April 7 [April 20], 1917.

The key to Lenin’s position was in the second of his theses:

“The peculiarity of the current moment in Russia consists in the transition from the first stage of the revolution, which gave power to the bourgeoisie as a result of the insufficient consciousness and organization of the proletariat, to its second stage, which should give the power into the hands of the proletariat and poorest strata of the peasantry.”

The negative conclusion of this was to reject the Provisional Government and its support of the war, and to abandon the folly of demanding that “this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be imperialist.” The positive conclusion was to explain to the masses that “the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is the one possible form of revolutionary government.” So long as the Soviet was “subject to the influence of the bourgeoisie,” that is to say, so long as it contained a non-Bolshevik majority, this work of education was the main task of the party. But the goal was clear:

“Not a parliamentary republic — a return to that from the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies would be a step backwards – but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Poor Peasants’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, growing from below upwards.”

Lenin thus implied that the moment when the Bolsheviks, by means of mass education, secured a majority in the Soviet would be the moment of the passing of the revolution into its second, or socialist, phase. This implication was carried into the economic theses, which proposed the nationalization of all land and the transformation of large estates into model farms under the control of the Soviet, the fusion of existing banks into a national bank (a milder periphrasis for the nationalization of banks), and added as the third point:

“Not the ‘introduction’ of socialism as our immediate task, but immediate transition merely to control by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies over the social production and distribution of products.”

The theses ended with a proposal to revise the party program and to change the name of the party from “social-democratic” to “communist,” and with a demand for the creation of a revolutionary International.

Lenin’s cautious phraseology left room for a certain practical vagueness about the precise moment of the transition to socialism, but none for doubt about this transition as the main goal; and it was on this point that the battle was at once joined. On the day after the publication of the theses, Pravda carried what appeared to be an editorial note signed by Kamenev emphasizing that they represented only Lenin’s “personal opinion” and concluding:

“In so far as concerns Lenin’s general scheme it appears to us unacceptable, since it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois revolution is finished and counts on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”

On the same day the Petrograd committee of the party discussed Lenin’s theses and rejected them by 13 votes to 2, with 1 abstention. The challenge had still to be taken up at the Petrograd “all-city” party conference on April 14, 1917, and at the all-Russian conference which was to follow ten days later. Meanwhile Lenin developed his views in a further article in Pravda and in two pamphlets, though the second of these was not published till some months later.

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

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