‘Until Bolsheviks surmounted the April crisis, the revolution could not go forward’

There have been plenty of attempts of late years to prove that the April party crisis was a passing and almost accidental confusion. They all go to pieces at first contact with the facts.

What we already know of the activity of the party in March reveals the deepest possible contradiction between Lenin and the Petersburg leadership. This contradiction reached its highest intensity exactly at the moment of Lenin’s arrival. Simultaneously with the All-Russian Conference of representatives, of 82 soviets, where Kamenev and Stalin voted for the resolution on sovereignty introduced by the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, there took place in Petrograd a party conference of Bolsheviks assembled from all over Russia. This conference, at the very end of which Lenin arrived, has an exceptional interest for anyone wishing to characterize the mood and opinions of the party and all its upper layers as they issued from the war. A reading of the reports, to this day unpublished, frequently produces a feeling of amazement: is it possible that a party represented by these delegates will after seven months seize the power with an iron hand? A month had already passed since the uprising – a long period for a revolution, as also for a war. Nevertheless opinions were not defined in the party on the most basic questions of the revolution. Extreme patriots such as Voitinsky, Eliava, and others, participated in the conference alongside of those who considered themselves internationalists. The percentage of outspoken patriots, incomparably less than among the Mensheviks, was nevertheless considerable. The conference as a whole did not decide the question whether to break with its own patriots or unite with the patriots of Menshevism. In an interval between sessions of the Bolshevik conference there was held a united session of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – delegates to the Soviet conference – to consider the war question. The most furious Menshevik-patriot, Lieber, announced at this session: “We must do away with the old division between Bolshevik and Menshevik, and speak only of our attitude toward the war.” The Bolshevik, Voitinsky, hastened to proclaim his readiness to put his signature to every word of Lieber. All of them together, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, patriots and internationalists, were seeking a common formula for their attitude to the war.

The views of the Bolshevik conference undoubtedly found their most adequate expression in the report of Stalin on relations with the Provisional Government. It is necessary to introduce here the central thought of this speech, which, like the reports as a whole, is not yet published. “The power has been decided between two organs of which neither one possesses full power. There is debate and struggle between them, and there ought to be. The rôles have been divided. The Soviet has in fact taken the initiative in the revolutionary transformation; the Soviet is the revolutionary leader of the insurrectionary people; an organ controlling the Provisional Government. And the Provisional Government has in fact taken the rôle of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people. The Soviet mobilizes the forces, and controls. The Provisional Government, balking and confused, takes the rôle of fortifier of those conquests of the people, which they have already seized as a fact. This situation has disadvantageous, but also advantageous sides. It is not to our advantage at present to force events, hastening the process of repelling the bourgeois layers, who will in the future inevitably withdraw from us.”

Transcending class distinctions, the speaker portrays the relation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as a mere division of labour. The workers and soldiers achieve the revolution, Guchkov and Miliukov “fortify” it. We recognize here the traditional conception of the Mensheviks, incorrectly modelled after the events of 1789. This superintendent’s approach to the historical process is exactly characteristic of the leaders of Menshevism, this handing out of instructions to various classes and then patronisingly criticising their fulfillment. The idea that it is disadvantageous to hasten the withdrawal of the bourgeoisie from the revolution, has always been the guiding principle of the whole policy of the Mensheviks. Inaction this means blunting and weakening the movement of the masses in order not to frighten away the liberal allies. And finally, Stalin’s conclusion as to the Provisional Government is wholly in accord with the equivocal formula of the Compromisers: “In so far as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution, in so far we must support it, but in so far as it is counter-revolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.”

Stalin’s report was made on March 29. On the next day the official spokesman of the Soviet conference, the non-party social democrat Steklov, defending the same conditional support to the Provisional Government, in the ardor of his eloquence painted such a picture of the activity of the “fortifiers” of the revolution – opposition to social reforms, leaning towards monarchy, protection of counter-revolutionary forces, appetite for annexation – that the Bolshevik conference recoiled in alarm from this formula of support. The right Bolshevik Nogin declared: “The speech of Steklov has introduced one new thought: it is clear that we ought not now to talk about support, but about resistance.” Skrypnik also arrived at the conclusion that since the speech of Steklov “many things have changed, there can be no more talk of supporting the government. There is a conspiracy of the Provisional Government against the people and the revolution.” Stalin, who a day before had been painting an idealistic picture of the “division of labour” between the government and the Soviet, felt obliged to eliminate this point about supporting the government. The short and superficial discussion turned about the question whether to support the Provisional Government “in so far as,” or only to support the revolutionary activities of the Provisional Government. The delegate from Saratov, Vassiliev, not untruthfully declared: “We all have the same attitude to the Provisional Government.” Krestinsky formulated the situation even more clearly: “As to practical action there is no disagreement between Stalin and Voitinsky.” Notwithstanding the fact that Voitinsky went over to the Mensheviks immediately after the conference, Krestinsky was not very wrong. Although he eliminated the open mention of support, Stalin did not eliminate support. The only one who attempted to formulate the question in principle was Krassikov, one of those old Bolsheviks who had withdrawn from the party for a series of years, but now, weighed down with life’s experience, was trying to return to its ranks.

Krassikov did not hesitate to seize the bull by the horns. Is this then a dictatorship of the proletariat you are about to inaugurate? he asked ironically. But the conference passed over his irony, and along with it passed over this question as one not deserving attention. The resolution of the conference summoned the revolutionary democracy to urge the Provisional Government toward “a most energetic struggle for the complete liquidation of the old régime” – that is, gave the proletarian party the rôle of governess of the bourgeoisie.

The next day they considered the proposal of Tseretelli for a union of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin was wholly in favour of the proposal: “We must do it. It is necessary to define our proposal for a basis of union; union is possible on the basis of Zimmerwald-Kienthal.” Molotov, who had been removed from the editorship of Pravda by Kamenev and Stalin because of the too radical line of the paper, spoke in opposition: Tseretelli wants to unite heterogeneous elements, he himself calls himself Zimmerwaldist; a union on that basis is wrong. But Stalin stuck to his guns: “There is no use running ahead and trying to forestall disagreements. There is no party life without disagreements. We will live down petty disagreements within the party.” The whole struggle which Lenin had been carrying on during the war years against social patriotism and its pacifist disguise, was thus casually swept aside. In September 1916 Lenin had written through Shliapnikov to Petrograd with special insistence: “Conciliationism and consolidation is the worst thing for the workers’ party in Russia, not only idiotism but ruin to the party … We can rely only on those who halve understood the whole deceit involved in the idea of unity and whole necessity of a split with that brotherhood (Cheidze Co.) in Russia.” This warning was not understood. Disagreements with Tseretelli, the leader of the ruling Soviet bloc, seemed to Stalin petty disagreements, which could be “lived down” within a common party. This furnishes the best criterion for an appraisal of the views held by Stalin at that time.

On April 4 Lenin appeared at the party conference. His speech, developing his “theses,” passed over the work of the conference like the wet sponge of a teacher erasing what had been written on the blackboard by a confused pupil.

“Why didn’t you seize the power?” asked Lenin. At the Soviet conference not long before that, Steklov had confusedly explained the reasons for abstaining from the power: revolution is bourgeois – it is the first stage – the war, etc. “That’s nonsense,” Lenin said. “The reason is that the proletariat was not sufficiently conscious and not sufficiently organised. That we have to acknowledge. The material force was in the hands of the proletariat, but the bourgeoisie was conscious and ready. That is the monstrous fact. But it is necessary to acknowledge it frankly, and say to the people straight out that we did not seize the power because we were unorganised and not conscious.”

From the plane of pseudo-objectivism, behind which the political capitulators were hiding, Lenin shifted the whole question to the subjective plane. The proletariat did not seize the power in February because the Bolshevik Party was not equal to its objective task, and could not prevent the Compromises from expropriating the popular masses politically for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

The day before that, lawyer Krassikov had said challengingly: “If we think that the time has now come to realize the dictatorship of the proletariat, then we ought to pose the question that way. We unquestionably have the physical force for a seizure of power.” The chairman at that time deprived Krassikov of the floor on the ground that practical problems were under discussion, and the question of dictatorship was out of order. But Lenin thought that, as the sole practical question, the question of preparing the dictatorship of the proletariat was exactly in order. “The peculiarity of the present moment in Russia,” he said in his theses, “consists in the transition from the first stage of the revolution, which gave the power to the bourgeoisie on account of the inadequate consciousness and organization of the proletariat, to its second stage which must give the power to the proletariat and the poor layers of the peasantry.” The conference, following the lead of Pravda, had limited the task of the revolution to a democratic transformation to be realized through the Constituent Assembly. As against this, Lenin declared that “life and the revolution will push the Constituent Assembly into the background. A dictatorship of the proletariat exists, but nobody knows what to do with it.”

The delegates exchanged glances. They whispered to each other that Ilych had stayed too long abroad, had not had time, to look around and familiarize himself with things. But the speech of Stalin on the ingenious division of labour between the government and the Soviet sank out of sight once and for ever. Stalin himself remained silent. From now on he will have to be silent for a long time. Kamenev alone will man the defences.

Lenin had already given warning in letters from Geneva that he was ready to break with anybody who made concessions on the question of war, chauvinism and compromise with the bourgeoisie. Now, face to face with the leading circles of the party he opens an attack all along the line. But at the beginning he does not name a single Bolshevik by name. If he has need of a living model of equivocation and half-wayness, he points his finger at the non-party men, or at Steklov or Cheidze. That was the customary method of Lenin: not to nail anybody down to his position too soon, to give the prudent a chance to withdraw from the battle in good season and thus weaken at once the future ranks of his open enemies. Kamenev and Stalin had thought that in participating in the war after February, the soldiers and workers were defending the revolution. Lenin thinks that, as before, the soldier and the worker take part in the war as the conscripted slaves of capital. “Even our Bolsheviks,” he says, narrowing the circle around his antagonists, “show confidence in the government. Only the fumes of the revolution can explain that. That is the death of socialism … If that’s your position, our ways part. I prefer to remain in the minority.” That was not a mere oratorical threat; it was a clear path thought through to the end.

Although naming neither Kamenev nor Stalin, Lenin was obliged to name the paper: “Pravda demands of the government that it renounce annexation. To demand from the government of the capitalists that it renounce annexation is nonsense, flagrant mockery.” Restrained indignation here breaks out with a high note. But the orator immediately takes himself in hand: he wants to say no less than is necessary, but also no more. Incidentally and in passing, Lenin gives incomparable rules for revolutionary statesmanship: “When the masses announce that they do not want conquests, I believe them. When Guchkov and Lvov say they do not want conquests, they are deceivers! When a worker says that he wants the defense of the country, what speaks in him is the instinct of the oppressed.” This criterion, to call it by its right name, seems simple as life itself. But the difficulty is to call it by its right name in time.

On the question of the appeal of the Soviet “to the people of the whole world” – which caused the liberal paper Rech at one time to declare that the theme of pacifism is developing among us into an ideology common to the Allies – Lenin expressed himself more clearly and succinctly: “What is peculiar to Russia is the gigantically swift transition from wild violence to the most delicate deceit.”

“This appeal,” wrote Stalin concerning the manifesto, “if it reaches the broad masses (of the West), will undoubtedly recall hundreds and thousands of workers to the forgotten slogan ‘Prôletarians of all Countries Unite!’”

“The appeal of the Soviet,” objects Lenin, “– there isn’t a word in it imbued with class consciousness. There is nothing to it but phrases.” This document, the pride of the home-grown Zimmerwaldists, is in Lenin’s eyes merely one of the weapons of “the most delicate deceit.”

Up to Lenin’s arrival Pravda had never even mentioned the Zimmerwald left. Speaking of the International, it never indicated which International. Lenin called this “the Kautskyanism of Pravda.” “In Zimmerwald and Kienthal,” he declared at a party conference, “the Centrists predominated … We declare that we created a left and broke with the centre … The left Zimmerwald tendency exists in all the countries of the world. The masses ought to realize that socialism has split throughout the world …

Three days before that Stalin had announced at that same conference his readiness to live down differences with Tseretelli on the basis of Zimmerwald-Kienthal – that is, on the basis of Kautskyanism. “I hear that in Russia there is a trend toward consolidation,” said Lenin. “Consolidation with the defensists – that is betrayal of socialism. I think it would be better to stand alone like Liebknecht – one against a hundred and ten.” The accusation of betrayal of socialism – for the present still without naming names – is not here merely a strong word; it fully expresses the attitude of Lenin toward those Bolsheviks who were extending a finger to the social patriots. In opposition to Stalin who thought it was possible to unite with the Mensheviks, Lenin thought it was unpermissible to share with them any longer the name of Social Democrat. “Personally and speaking for myself alone,” he said, “I propose that we change the name of the party, that we call it the Communist Party.” “Personally and speaking for myself alone” – that means that nobody, not one of the members of the conference, agreed to that symbolic gesture of ultimate break with the Second International.

“You are afraid to go back on your old memories?” says the orator to the embarrassed, bewildered and partly indignant delegates. But the time has come “to change our linen; we’ve got to take off the dirty shirt and put on clean.” And he again insists: “Don’t hang on to an old word which is rotten through and through. Have the will to build a new party … and all the oppressed will come to you.”

Before the enormity of the task not yet begun, and the intellectual confusion in his own ranks, a sharp thought of the precious time foolishly wasted in meetings, greetings, ritual resolutions, wrests a cry from the orator: “Have done with greetings and resolutions! It’s time to get down to business. We must proceed to practical sober work!” An hour later Lenin was compelled to repeat his speech at the previously designated joint session of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, where it sounded to a majority of the listeners like something between mockery and delirium. The more condescending shrugged their shrugged their shoulders: This man evidently fell down from the moon; hardly off the steps of the Finland station after a ten-year absence he starts preaching the seizure of power by the proletariat. The less good-natured among the patriots made references to the sealed train. Stankevich testifies that Lenin’s speech greatly delighted his enemies: “A man who talks 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.”

Nevertheless, with all its boldness of revolutionary grasp, its inflexible determination to break even with his former long time colleagues and comrades-in-arms, if they proved unable to march with the revolution, the speech of Lenin – every part balanced against the rest – was filled with deep realism and an infallible feeling for the masses. Exactly for this reason, it seemed to the democrats a fantastic skimming of the surface.

The Bolsheviks are a tiny minority in the Soviet, and Lenin dreams of seizing the power; isn’t that pure adventurism? There was not a shadow of adventurism in Lenin’s statement of the problem. He did not for a moment close his eyes to the existence of “honest” defensist moods in the broad masses. He did not intend either to lose himself in the masses or to act behind their backs. “We are not charlatans” – he throws this in the eyes of future objections and accusations – “we must base ourselves only upon the consciousness of the masses. Even if it is necessary to remain in a minority – so be it. It is a good thing to give up for a time the position of leadership; we must not be afraid to remain in the minority.” Do not fear to remain in a minority – even a minority of one, like Liebknecht’s one against a hundred and ten – such was the leitmotif of his speech.

“The real government is the Soviet of workers’ deputies … In the Soviet our party is the minority … What can we do? All we can do is to explain patiently, insistently, systematically the error of their tactics. So long as we are in the minority, we will carry on the work of criticism, in order to free the masses from deceit. We do not want the masses to believe us just on our say so; we are not charlatans. We want the masses to be freed by experience from their mistakes.” Don’t be afraid to remain in the minority! Not for ever, but for a time. The hour of Bolshevism will strike. “Our line will prove right … All the oppressed will come to us, because the war will bring them to us. They have no other way out.”

“At the joint conference,” relates Sukhanov, “Lenin was the living incarnation of a split … I remember Bogdanov (a prominent Menshevik) sitting two steps away from the orator’s tribune. ‘Why, that is raving,’ he interrupted Lenin, ‘that is the raving of a lunatic … You ought to be ashamed to applaud such spouting,’ he cried, turning to the audience, white in the face with rage and scorn. ‘You disgrace yourselves, Marxists!’”

A former member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, Goldenberg, at that time a non-party man, appraised Lenin’s theses in these withering words: “For many years the place of Bakunin has remained vacant in the Russian revolution, now it is occupied by Lenin.”

“His programme at that time was met not so much with indignation,” relates the Social Revolutionary Zenzinov, “as with ridicule. It seemed to everybody so absurd and fantastic.”

On the evening of the same day in the couloirs of the Contact Commission, two socialists were talking with Miliukov, and the conversation touched on Lenin. Skobelev estimated him as “a man completely played out, standing apart from the movement.” Sukhanov was of the same mind, and added that “Lenin is to such a degree unacceptable to everybody that he is no longer dangerous even to my companion Miliukov here.”

The distribution of rôles in this conversation, however, was exactly according to Lenin’s formula: the socialists were protecting the peace of mind of the liberal from the trouble which Bolshevism might cause him.

Rumors even arrived in the ears of the British ambassador that Lenin had been declared a bad Marxist. “Among the newly arrived anarchists,” wrote Buchanan, “was Lenin, who came through in a sealed train from Germany. He made his first public appearance at a meeting of the Social Democratic Party and was badly received.”

The most condescending of all toward Lenin in those days was no other than Kerensky, who in a circle of members of the Provisional Government unexpectedly stated that he must go to see Lenin, and explained in answer to their bewildered questions: “Well, he is living in a completely isolated atmosphere, he knows nothing, sees everything through the glasses of his fanaticism. There is no one around him who might help him orient himself a little in what is going on.” Thus testifies Nabokov. But Kerensky never found the time to orient Lenin in what was going on.

The April theses of Lenin not only evoked the bewildered indignation of his opponents and enemies. They repelled a number of old Bolsheviks into the Menshevik camp – or into that intermediate group which found shelter around Gorky’s paper. This leakage had no serious political significance. Infinitely more important was the impression which Lenin’s position made on the whole leading group of the party. “In the first days after his arrival,” writes Sukhanov, “his complete isolation among all his conscious party comrades cannot be doubted in the least.” “Even his party comrades, the Bolsheviks,” confirms the Social Revolutionary Zenzinov, “at that time turned away in embarrassment from him.” The authors of these comments were meeting the leading Bolsheviks every day in the Executive Committee, and had first-hand evidence of what they said.

But there is no lack of similar testimony from among the ranks of the Bolsheviks. “When the theses of Lenin appeared,” wrote Tsikhon, softening the colours as much as possible, as do a majority of the old Bolsheviks when they stumble on the February revolution, “there was felt in our party a certain wavering. Many of the comrades argued that Lenin showed a syndicalist deviation, that he was out of touch with Russia, that he was not taking into consideration the given moment,” etc. One of the prominent Bolshevik leaders in the provinces, Lebedev, writes: “On Lenin’s arrival in Russia, his agitation, at first not wholly intelligible to us Bolsheviks, but regarded as Utopian and explainable by his long removal from Russian life, was gradually absorbed by us, and entered, as you might say, into our flesh and blood.”

Zalezhski, a member of the Petrograd Committee and one of the organizers of the welcome to Lenin, expresses it more frankly “Lenin’s theses produced the impression of an exploding bomb.” Zalezhski fully confirms the complete isolation of Lenin after that so warm and impressive welcome. “On that day (April 4) Comrade Lenin could not find open sympathisers even in our own ranks.”

Still more important, however, is the evidence of Pravda. “On April 8 [April 21 on the modern calendar], after the publication of the theses – when time enough had passed to make explanations and reach a mutual understanding – the editors of Pravda wrote: “As for the general scheme of Comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.” The central organ of the party thus openly announced before the working class and its enemies a split with the generally recognised leader of the party upon the central question of the revolution for which the Bolshevik ranks had been getting ready during a long period of years. That alone is sufficient to show the depth of the April crisis in the party, due to the clash of two irreconcilable lines of thought and action. Until it surmounted this crisis the revolution could not go forward.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Bolsheviks and Lenin,” The History of the Russian Revolution


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