A revolutionary line of march: ‘Old Bolshevism’ in early 1917 re-examined

Lev Kamenev reading Pravda

March 31, 2017 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Historical MaterialismIn the hundred years since the overthrow of Tsarism, there has been a near consensus among socialists and scholars that Bolshevism underwent a strategic rupture in early 1917. According to this account, the Bolsheviks supported the liberal Provisional Government until Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia in April and veered the party in a radical new direction by calling for socialist revolution and soviet power.

Through a re-examination of Bolshevik politics in March 1917, the following article demonstrates that the prevailing story is historically inaccurate and has distorted our understanding of how and why the Bolsheviks eventually came to lead the Russian Revolution.

That important facts about early 1917 remain obscure one century later in part stems from an ongoing uncritical acceptance of Leon Trotsky’s interpretation of ‘Old Bolshevism’, first articulated in his famous 1924 pamphlet ‘The Lessons of October’. Trotsky claimed that because the Bolshevik leadership had not hitherto advocated socialist revolution in Russia, it had therefore sought only to pressure the bourgeois Provisional Government, rather than overthrow it.[1]

According to Trotsky, ‘Old Bolsheviks’ such as Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin ‘took the position that it was necessary to complete the democratic revolution by putting pressure on the Provisional Government’.[2] Adherence to the ‘doctrinaire’ conception of democratic revolution had led ‘inevitably to Menshevism’ in March.[3] Not until Lenin’s April 1917 campaign to convince the party to fight for socialist revolution did the Bolshevik leadership break from this de facto Menshevism, seek to overturn the bourgeois regime, and fight to establish a soviet government.[4]

Were such claims correct, it would indeed be fair to state that Lenin’s April interventions brought about a dramatic break with ‘Old Bolshevism’. On the basis of my original research into Russian and Latvian Bolshevik newspapers, leaflets, minutes, and resolutions across the empire in March 1917, I will show below that irrefutable primary sources undermine the entire edifice of Trotsky’s argument.

The top Bolshevik leaders in March––including both Kamenev and Stalin––did call for the elimination of the Provisional Government and the establishment of a revolutionary soviet government. Only by breaking with the national and imperialist bourgeoisie, they argued, could working people end the war, win their social demands in Russia, and spark the world socialist revolution. Without this programmatic foundation, the rise of the Bolshevik party in 1917 would have been unthinkable. April marked a moment of political evolution rather than strategic rupture for Bolshevism.

My argument coincides in part with historian Lars Lih’s groundbreaking challenges to Trotsky’s narrative.[5] The available evidence generally corroborates Lih’s stress on the Bolshevik party’s radicalism in March and its strategic continuities up through October 1917. That said, Lih overstates the case by minimising the early political vacillations of the party and downplaying some significant changes in Bolshevik politics over the course of the year.

Despite the party’s militant strategy, Bolshevik leaders not infrequently politically bent to moderate socialists and workers during March, particularly in the periphery of the empire. In most regions, this wavering constituted a break from (rather than expression of) the stance articulated by the party’s ‘Old Bolshevik’ leadership. But political inconsistency before Lenin’s return was also facilitated by certain tensions in Bolshevik strategy, particularly its open-ended approach to which party and class should lead the revolutionary regime. Ambiguities in the ‘old Bolshevik’ call for a ‘democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants’ meant that party policy could be–and indeed was–developed in distinct directions following Tsarism’s demise.

On the whole, however, it is justified to highlight Bolshevism’s continuities in 1917, especially because these have been so widely denied by decades of historiography. Bolshevik vacillations–unavoidable to a certain extent for any political current engaged in mass struggle–were overshadowed by the current’s general orientation to proletarian hegemony.

Trotsky can be excused for putting forward a one-sided account of ‘Old Bolshevism’ during his desperate struggle to uphold workers’ democracy and proletarian internationalism against rising Stalinism in the 1920s. In the face of an increasingly bureaucratised Communist party and Soviet state, it is hard to fault Trotsky for using all the polemical weapons at his disposal to discredit the ‘Old Bolshevik’ triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev. But there is no need today to remain wedded to Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917, which is clearly contradicted by a wide range of primary sources. Revolutionary Marxism, including the strategy of permanent revolution, is strong enough to withstand a critical re-assessment of the actual politics of Bolshevism in March 1917.

The Political Context

Bolshevik policy prior to Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd can only be adequately examined in light of the context of that very particular moment in the revolution. At no other point in 1917 would the stance of both the Provisional Government and the moderate socialists be so in line with popular sentiment.

By March the basic structure of dual power had been established in the capital and across the empire. The Provisional Government nominally ruled the land, but the soviets held more real power and authority. Elected by nobody, and isolated from the working class due to the liberal leaders’ longstanding support for the war and the monarchy, the Provisional Government’s survival depended on the support given to it by the moderate socialist leaderships. In the eyes of most politically active workers and soldiers, the soviets were the sole legitimate power. In the famous phrase of the 2 March Petrograd Soviet resolution, the new bourgeois administration would be supported only ‘in so far as’ [постольку, поскольку] it met the people’s demands.

Menshevik leaders could largely take political credit for establishing this dual power regime, which to a great extent reflected their post-1905 strategy of conditional support for the liberals. Though Menshevism remained a heterogeneous political tent, one fundamental point upon which all wings agreed was that the bourgeoisie must assume the reigns of power following the downfall of the autocracy. Given Russia’s backward social conditions, socialist transformation was impossible and, therefore, a working people’s government was off the table.

By 1917 most Mensheviks had long ago abandoned the strategy of the hegemony of the proletariat and viewed liberals as indispensable allies of the proletariat. On an immediate level, they felt that only an alliance with a wing of the bourgeoisie would be sufficient to defeat the serious threat of a right-wing counter-revolution. Ideologically, the Mensheviks were committed to the view that decisive forces in the upper class would support democracy and social progress against the remnants of feudalism. At the same time, opinions among Mensheviks continued to vary widely concerning expectations in Russian liberalism. This is important to stress, since Menshevism in March was significantly more oppositional than it became after the April Crisis and the conciliatory socialists’ subsequent entry into the Provisional Government.

In early 1917 the general Menshevik sentiment was that steady pressure by an independent labour movement was necessary to push from below to overcome the hesitations of the bourgeoisie. Mensheviks held firm to this relatively oppositional stance for most of March and they sought to use their strength to steer the government in a progressive direction. Thus they rejected the liberals’ initial attempt to maintain monarchic rule; they asserted the Soviet’s political control over the mass of soldiers; they sought to build up the Soviet as an effective proletarian bastion to drive forward the government and society generally; and they initiated a major campaign to pressure the Provisional Government and the Allies to take concrete steps towards ending the war.

Under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), the Soviet scored some important early victories. It obliged the Provisional Government to grant political freedom and legal equality for all, abolish the police and security apparatus, release all political prisoners, refrain from reprisals against mutinous soldiers, remove the top Tsarist officials, and agree to rapidly convoke a Constituent Assembly. The latter promise, in particular, should be underscored, since many socialists in March emphasised the provisional nature of the current government, which they believed would only be around for a few months.

The viability of the Menshevik dual power plan hinged on two factors: the bourgeoisie’s ability to continue to meet the people’s urgent demands and the proletariat’s ability to refrain from pushing too far, too fast. Events would soon show that neither class behaved in the way the Mensheviks had hoped.

March constituted the high point of the Provisional Government’s grudging acceptance of progressive measures. Despite the Soviet’s campaign for peace, Russian liberals––backed by French and English imperialism––continued the war and stated that no major social reforms would be implemented until military victory. When news of the administration’s plans to continue the war ‘until victory’ became public in April, anti-government demonstrations and riots broke out in the capital, against the wishes of the Soviet leadership. The April Crisis made it clear that the current Provisional Government lacked sufficient popular legitimacy to govern. A restructuring of the administration––and Menshevik strategy––was required. Forced to choose between their principled opposition to participation in a capitalist government and their commitment to an alliance with liberals, the Mensheviks chose the latter.

Bolshevism and Revolutionary Government

The specific political configuration of Russian society in March 1917 had not been foreseen by the Bolsheviks. From 1905 onwards, they had assumed that either workers and peasants would establish their own ‘democratic dictatorship’ or Russian liberals would come to power in the framework of a constitutional monarchy. Yet the unexpected emergence of a post-Tsarist liberal government did not invalidate the Bolsheviks’ main line of march: proletarian hegemony to establish a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government to end the war and meet the people’s urgent social demands. ‘Bolshevism did not primarily make a prediction about the day after the fall of the tsar, but rather proposed a scenario of the “active forces” of Russian society, joined to a corresponding strategy for carrying the revolution “to the end,”’ notes Lih.[6]

In the first few days of March, the most radical (arguably ultra-left) Petrograd Bolsheviks had called for immediate mass agitation for an armed uprising against the Provisional Government.[7] Most Bolshevik leaders, in contrast, argued that such a push was dangerously premature, given that workers generally supported the moderate socialists in the Soviet; since the Bolsheviks were organisationally weak; and because revolutionary developments outside Petrograd lagged behind the capital.[8] Additionally, the Provisional Government in these very days was ceding to key democratic measures. As Bolshevik leader Filipp Goloschekin put it at the party’s late March conference, ‘the Provisional Government is counter-revolutionary both in its personnel and in its essence. Under the pressure of the masses it is accomplishing revolutionary tasks, and to this extent, it entrenches itself. We must not overlook that the masses are saying that the Provisional Government has done everything. … If we want to struggle against the counter revolution, we must aim for the seizure of power, but without forcing events.’[9]

On 4 March, the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee––the top Bolshevik leadership body inside of Russia, led by Alexander Shlyapnikov and Vyacheslav Molotov––affirmed the current’s strategic orientation in a resolution published in the party’s central newspaper, Pravda:

The present Provisional Government is essentially counter revolutionary, because it consists of representatives of the big bourgeoisie and the nobility, and thus there can be no agreement with it. The task of the revolutionary democracy is the creation of a Provisional Revolutionary Government that is democratic in nature (the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry).[10]

The Vyborg Bolsheviks felt that this goal was an immediate task and passed the following resolution at a big factory rally in early March: ‘The Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies must immediately eliminate the Provisional Government of the liberal bourgeoisie and declare itself to be the Provisional Revolutionary Government.’[11]

Other Bolshevik leaders put forward a somewhat more cautious tactic. On 3 March the Petersburg Committee of the party resolved that it would ‘not oppose the Provisional Government power in so far as its actions comply to the best interests of the proletariat and the broad masses of the democracy and the people.’[12] Various authors have incorrectly claimed that these Bolsheviks had thereby adopted the Mensheviks’ stance of conditional support for the Provisional Government.[13] In fact, the resolution only implied that the Bolsheviks did not seek to immediately eliminate the regime and that they would support the specific progressive measures that it implemented––additionally, as Bolshevik leader V. N. Zalezhsky explained, the use of the phrase ‘does not oppose’ instead of ‘support’ was consciously employed to differentiate the Bolsheviks’ stance from that of the Soviet leadership.[14]

The political orientation of the Bolsheviks’ Petersburg Committee was soon expounded in the party press. One of the more articulate explanations came from Latvian Bolshevik leader, Pēteris Stučka, a member of the Petersburg Committee and one of the three Bolsheviks represented in the Soviet Executive Committee. As a supporter of the Petersburg Committee’s 3 March ‘in so far as’ resolution, Stučka elaborated on how it fit into party strategy in his 7 March article ‘Our Mission’.

This important document––overlooked in the historiography because it was published in Latvian––sought to answer ‘whether the revolution has come to an end or is just beginning’ and, subsequently, how the Bolsheviks addressed the question of state power. Stučka noted that though the workers and peasants in uniform had made the revolution, the Provisional Government was run by the ‘counter-revolutionary’ bourgeoisie. The new administration had been obliged by popular pressure to take some real steps forward (such as eliminating the monarchy), but it was incapable of meeting the essential tasks of the revolution: ‘As soon as it loses the support of the revolutionary people, it will fall.’ He explained that this strategic perspective constituted ‘the foundation which separates us from the moderate leftists’ who believe that ‘the fall of the Provisional Government would mean the collapse of the whole revolution’.

In contrast, Stučka concluded that only a ‘truly revolutionary provisional government, that is, a provisional government of workers and peasants’ could lead Russia out of its crisis and meet the demands of the people such as land to the peasants and an end to the imperialist war. With this state power objective in mind, the immediate task of revolutionaries was to reject ‘moderation’, to raise ‘direct revolutionary slogans’, and to ‘criticise every step’ of the Provisional Government, while ‘supporting only those [steps]’ that did not go against the development of the revolution.[15]

Clearly Bolshevik leaders integrated the ‘in so far as’ formulation into a distinct strategy from that of the conciliatory socialists. Petrograd Soviet leader Nikolai Sukhanov recalled that to not oppose the Provisional Government’s progressive steps ‘was the official position of the Bolsheviks at that time. But the sabotaging of Right Socialists, and demagogy addressed to the masses—that was also their official position.’[16] Whereas the Menshevik leadership actively supported the establishment of bourgeois rule and limited its strategic perspective to pressuring the liberals, the Bolsheviks rejected an alliance with the bourgeoisie and explicitly called for the replacement of the current government with a workers’ and peasants’ regime. Russian historian V.I. Startsev notes that ‘the similarity of the [3 March Bolshevik] resolution to the 2 March Soviet resolution was purely superficial, one could say grammatical, in that it included “in so far as”’.[17]

‘Old Bolsheviks’ in March were quite clear that the revolution was far from over. Crucially, the Bolsheviks never reduced the goal of the democratic revolution to ending autocratic rule––in their view, this upheaval would only be complete once the landed estates were confiscated, the workers armed, a republic established, and a series of radical economic measures enacted. As ‘Old Bolshevik’ Nikolai Miliutin put it later in the month, ‘our revolution is not only a political but also a social revolution.’[18]

On 12 March, party leaders Kamenev, Stalin, and Matvei Muranov arrived in Petrograd and promptly assumed editorial responsibility for Pravda. Their arrival tilted the balance of forces towards the relatively cautious elements within the party leadership and away from the more intransigent Russian Bureau and Vyborg Committee. Put simply, Kamenev and Stalin promoted the revolutionary ‘in so far as’ line first elaborated by the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee on 3 March.

Contrary to Trotsky’s unfounded claims, the new Pravda editors openly affirmed the party’s objective of eliminating the current government and putting all power into the hands of workers and peasants.[19] Throughout the month, Kamenev and Stalin affirmed that they did not support the government as such, only the particular progressive actions that it was compelled from below to implement. To quote Kamenev: ‘Support is absolutely inacceptable. It is impermissible to have any expression of support, even to hint at it. We can not support the Government because it is an imperialist government.’[20]

In a 14 March article, Kamenev clearly reiterated the standard Bolshevik perspective on state power:

The proletariat and the peasantry and the army composed of [these groups] will consider that the revolution that has begun will be completed only when their demands are entirely and fully satisfied, when all the remnants of the former regime are torn to the ground, both in economic and in the political sphere. This full satisfaction of the [demands of] workers, peasants and the army is possible only when all the power is in their own hands. Insofar as the revolution will widen and deepen, it will arrive at this, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.[21]

To underscore the continuity of their strategy on soviet power, on 17 March the new editors published on Pravda’s front page the entire Bolshevik 1906 resolution on the soviets, which affirmed that these bodies were ‘embryos of revolutionary power’ that must be ‘turn[ed] into a provisional revolutionary government’ through a proletarian-led uprising. The editors declared that the orientation of the resolution ‘basically remains true today’ even though ‘today’s soviets operate on a terrain that has already been cleared of Tsarism’.[22]

This line was developed in Pravda’s 18 March issue, in which Stalin explicitly called for the establishment of an empirewide Soviet body, which must take political power. ‘The first condition for the victory of the Russian revolution’, he argued, is that an ‘all-Russian Soviet’ must ‘transform itself at the necessary moment from an organ of the revolutionary struggle of the people into an organ of revolutionary power’.[23]

To be sure, Kamenev and Stalin (unlike the most radical elements in the Bolshevik party) were not calling for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government. Against the impetuousness of Petrograd Bolshevik militants eager to initiate an armed uprising at the earliest possible moment, Kamenev insisted that it was necessary not only to conquer power, but to keep it.[24] ‘This moment will come, but it is beneficial for us to delay, as our forces are still currently insufficient’, he argued in the Petrograd Committee.[25]

The Pravda editors in March viewed party isolation and tendencies towards ultra-leftism as a grave danger. This issue was not a figment of their imagination: wings of the Petrograd organisation, particularly in the Vyborg district, were treading close to Blanquism by pushing to take down the government well before the majority of workers supported soviet power. After returning to Russia, Lenin similarly fought hard against impatient Bolsheviks, whose reckless actions in April and July threatened to abort the revolutionary process through a premature uprising.

Similarly, there is considerable evidence that Pravda’s flanking tactics may have been the best suited for the political climate in March. To cite just one example, Israel Getzler’s study of Kronstadt shows that the tactical pivot under Kamenev’s guidance succeeded in turning around the party’s fortunes in this strategic locale: ‘If the unsuccessful Bolshevik debut in Kronstadt [under the influence of the Vyborg Committee] was to some extent due to its aggressive, ‘maximalist’, jarring tone, the moderate, ‘minimalist’ stance adopted from the latter part of March until the ‘April Days’ seems to have served well in the building up of the Bolshevik party organization and influence.’[26]

Calls in March for a revolutionary soviet government (and/or dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) were not limited to Petrograd. In Latvia, one party committee declared that ‘the only consistent expression of the workers’ interests is the Soviet of Workers' Deputies, and therefore it is our duty to support it in every way, to transfer the power of the Provisional Government to it, and through this to continue the revolution until final victory.’[27] Similar proclamations were made by Bolsheviks in Moscow, Ekaterinburg, Kharkov, and Krasnoyarsk.[28]

The April 3-4 Bolshevik Moscow citywide conference likewise gives a good sense of the general party leadership’s state perspective on the eve of Lenin’s return. Only a single person, V.I. Yahontov, opposed the fight for a new revolutionary regime, arguing that ‘if the working class takes power into its own hands, it will not be able to cope with the economic breakdown.’ The other delegates responded by shouting him down––‘you are a Bolshevik?’ they taunted.[29] Yahontov immediately after joined the Mensheviks, as did a handful of co-thinkers in Petrograd led by Wladimir Woytinsky (who was likewise sharply criticised and politically isolated by the Petrograd Bolsheviks).

It is significant that the very few opponents of seizing power among the Bolsheviks were overwhelmingly marginalised before Lenin’s return and that they therefore immediately joined the Menshevik party. If there were no major differences between the currents, as Trotsky implies, how can one explain the resignations of Yahontov and Woytinsky?

Likewise, how are we to account for the numerous examples of the right-wing press publicly singling-out the Bolsheviks for political denunciation? Shlyapnikov’s memoir documents ‘the furious persecution and slander’ of the upper class against the party throughout the month due to its opposition to the war and the government––‘the hostility of the bourgeoisie proved to us that the decisions we took were correct’, he concludes.[30] Michael Hickey’s recent work on the revolution in Smolensk similarly observes that ‘Bolshevist positions repeatedly came under fire in the local press even before Lenin's return to Russia’.[31]

Bolshevism’s stance on the war and the Provisional Government was also sharply attacked by the moderate socialists in March. The party’s refusal to support the military effort was particularly controversial. As Shlyapnikov recalls, ‘the bourgeoisie and the defencist Mensheviks and SRs managed to create literally a pogrom mood against us. There were days when we could not speak to soldiers to outline our internationalist views.’[32] Polemics over the question of soviet power likewise began well before Lenin’s return. Against their radical rivals, the Mensheviks responded that the need for an alliance with the bourgeoisie, as well as the low level of Russia’s level of economic development, precluded the rule of working people. ‘If the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies took power into its own hands, it would be an illusory power, a power that would immediately lead to the eruption of civil war,’ declared the Mensheviks’ main Petrograd newspaper.[33]

As we have seen, Bolshevik leaders explicitly called for a soviet regime prior to the arrival of Lenin in April. Contrary to the assumptions of most academic and activist historians today, socialist revolution was not seen by Marxists at this time as a necessary corollary of soviet power. Looking back at the politics of the party in March, Stučka noted in 1918 that ‘we, the Bolsheviks, the Petrograd executive committee, both raised the demand for all power to the soviets, but we did not yet think about immediately moving to socialism’.[34]

It should be underscored that until late 1917 the demand for ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ concretely meant the establishment of a government led by the Mensheviks and SRs, two currents openly opposed to direct socialist transformation. Similarly worth noting is the fact that the Menshevik Internationalists later in the year called for a soviet government but not socialist transformation. Thus Rafael Abramovitch, a central leader of the Menshevik (and Bundist) Internationalists, argued in July 1917 that the Soviet must take the reigns of power.[35] He declared: ‘The revolution now only has one way forward: the dictatorship, the rule of the working class, together with the revolutionary layers of the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie! In Russia, the bourgeois-democratic revolution must take place without the help of and even against the will of the middle or big bourgeoisie!’[36] Various other parties and currents across the empire put forward calls for soviet power from a range of distinct strategic perspectives, most of which did not include socialist revolution.[37]

Unlike the later-day stageism of the Stalinised Communist International, the ‘old Bolsheviks’ did not argue that socialist transformation in Russia could only take place after an extended period of capitalist development and political democracy. In fact, Bolshevik leaders explicitly rejected this view in March 1917. They argued, instead, that the working class at the head of the peasantry had to seize power in Russia to spark the international overthrow of capitalism.

In countless leaflets, speeches, and articles, Bolsheviks affirmed that the capitalist crises expressed and exacerbated by the imperialist conflict must lead to an imminent world socialist revolution, which would allow the Russian Revolution to move beyond capitalism. In a typical article on 21 March, Stučka made the case for why revolutionary Marxists in the Russian empire rejected the view that ‘first there must be a long period of social freedom and only then can one start a serious struggle for socialism’, which would mean ‘postpon[ing] socialism itself for many years’. He explained that while ‘there was little hope of putting socialism into practice within Russia’s borders only, the rise of social revolution across Europe without a doubt will also drag Russia into it.’ The transformative experience of revolution, Stučka declared, would allow Russia’s workers to reach radical conclusions without an extended period of political freedom: ‘it should be noted that six months in the life of a revolution equals the same as decades of peaceful development.’[38]

Up through and often well past October, most Bolshevik leaders continued to predicate the potential for any substantial socialist transformation of the Russian economy on successful proletarian revolutions in Europe. Lenin’s April proposals for ‘steps towards socialism’—calls for ‘socialist revolution’ in Russia were conspicuously absent—did not include expropriating capitalist industry. He posited that ‘we cannot be for “introducing” socialism—this would be the height of absurdity’ since ‘the majority of the population in Russia are peasants, small farmers who can have no idea of socialism’.[39] Explicitly disputing the claim that he was aiming to ‘skip’ the bourgeois-democratic stage, Lenin insisted in April that he was not advocating a ‘workers’ government’ but rather a broader regime of workers, peasants, soldiers, and agricultural labourers.[40]

For months after the October Revolution, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership continued to push back against the calls and initiatives from below to nationalise production. Nevertheless, as Trotsky had predicted in 1906, upon leading workers to power the Bolsheviks were compelled to go much further than they had initially planned. Capitalist economic sabotage, workers’ wildcat expropriations, and the dynamics of civil war swept the party into nationalising all major industries in the second half of 1918. Though there was likely no other viable option in the given circumstances, this wave of premature nationalisations deepened the catastrophic collapse of production and played a central role in the massive growth of a privileged state bureaucracy.[41]

Bolshevism’s evolution regarding socialist transformation was far more convoluted and protracted than has usually been assumed. Though the historical record undermines claims that Lenin won the party to socialist revolution in April 1917, it confirms the prescience of Trotsky’s argument for permanent revolution made eleven years prior:

Under whatever political banner the proletariat has come to power, it will be obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, will be able, even if it so desires, to limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.[42]

Conciliation in the Capital

Despite the Bolshevik leaders’ general agreement on the governmental goal of the revolution in March 1917, they often sharply conflicted on the best tactics to win it. Crucial ongoing points of debate included: How far, and on what issues, would it be possible to push the liberals and conciliatory socialists to cede to the masses’ demands? Was the seizure of power an immediate or medium-term task? In the interim, should demands be placed on the Provisional Government and should its progressive steps be supported?[43]

Given the complexity and fluidity of the post-Tsarist political situation, it is not surprising that there was considerable internal conflict over how best to advance the struggle. The future course of events was very difficult to predict. To quote one Latvian Bolshevik leader, ‘finding the correct tactical line in these circumstances [following the fall of the Tsar] was extremely difficult.’[44] How to engage in mass politics while avoiding the twin traps of sectarian isolation or unprincipled adaptation was no easy feat; nor was the fine line between opportunism and a necessary compromise always self-evident. As would be the case in April and throughout 1917, the Bolshevik party was the most strategically cohesive empirewide socialist current, but the political and tactical approaches of its militants were far from homogenous.

For the purposes of this article, there is no need to delve into the details of all these debates. I do think, however, that it is important to point out that there was a marked tendency of various Bolsheviks to problematically bend to outside political forces in March. In the wake of the Tsar’s overthrow, revolutionary Marxists across the empire were subjected to tremendous pressures––from the conciliatory socialists and from the mass of workers––to tone down or hold back their independent line for the sake of unity. All regions were swept by a ‘honeymoon’ mood of euphoria and class collaboration. One left SR recalled that ‘the events of February made people forget what only a few days earlier had been their irreconcilable differences with the landowners and capitalists. It seemed like all were united.’[45] And no less important as a factor pushing towards conciliationism was the widespread fear in early March of the immediate danger of a counter-revolutionary reaction.[46]

Across the empire, from ‘the South’ to the Baltic, various tendencies of revolutionary socialists in early 1917 reversed (or temporarily abandoned) their programmatic commitments to proletarian hegemony. For instance, the Finnish Social Democratic Party in March dropped its longstanding opposition to class collaboration and participation in capitalist government. Party leader Otto Kuusinen recalled the dynamic:

This spring-time liberty fell for us like a gift from the skies, and our party was overwhelmed by the intoxicating sap of March. The official watchword had been that of independent class-struggle, i.e., the same which German Social Democracy had put forward before the war. During the reactionary [pre-1917] period it was easy enough to maintain this position; it was not exposed to any serious attack, and resistance on the part of the Socialists of the Right could not manage to make itself felt. In March the Party’s proletarian virtue was exposed to temptation and to fall into sin.[47]

Holding a certain political strategy could not completely immunise any socialist tendency from adapting to the inevitable pressures of outside society, particularly those refracted through rival socialist currents and/or mass sentiment. Nor could it prevent the emergence of ultra-left, impatient tendencies in the party ranks. A revolutionary programme, in this sense, was a necessary but insufficient condition for revolutionary practice.

Though the Bolsheviks acquitted themselves better than most socialists in imperial Russia, they too were subjected to the same centrifugal forces and manifest some of the same vacillations. ‘The pressure was so strong that even some of those whom we previously considered ‘ours’ wavered and retreated’, recalls Shlyapnikov.[48] Various Bolshevik party leaders politically bent in ways that went beyond simply pedagogically presenting their demands in an understandable manner to broad sections of workers.

Kamenev was particularly culpable in this regard. For example, in a 15 March article in Pravda he put forward a perspective on the war that was mostly indistinguishable from the Soviet leadership’s stance of ‘revolutionary defencism’. While denouncing the war as imperialist and calling for a campaign of revolutionary class struggle to force the Provisional Government and Europe’s other bourgeois regimes to end it, Kamenev echoed the moderate socialists’ call for the defence of Russia against Germany in the meantime:

When one army is against another the army, it would be the most absurd policy to suggest that one of them lay down their arms and go home. That would not be a policy of peace and but a policy of slavery, a policy which would be indignantly rejected by a free people. No, it will stand firmly at its post, answering bullet for bullet and shell for shell.[49]

This formulation marked a significant departure away from the Bolsheviks’ hitherto clear opposition to defencism––not surprisingly it was immediately rejected by other Bolshevik leaders. After some sharp pushback within the party leadership, Kamenev dropped this concession to defencism the next day. Indeed, as Shlyapnikov notes, the second half of March was marked by an ‘even greater’ bourgeois persecution of the Bolsheviks for their opposition to the war, which obliged the party to concentrate its activities on a self-preservation campaign against this offensive.[50] Trotsky’s assertion that Kamenev’s 15 March piece ‘expresses perfectly accurately the position of Pravda prior to Lenin’s return to Russia’ has little basis in fact.[51]

Testifying to the anti-defencist consensus in the party, Kamenev delivered the main Bolshevik speech on the war at the 29 March-3 April All-Russian Soviet conference. Intransigently denouncing the war and calling for world socialist revolution, Kamenev affirmed (as Lenin too would later) that only ‘when society’s working classes conquer power’ would national defence be warranted.[52] Illustrating the balance of forces inside the working class at this moment, the Bolshevik proposal was overwhelmingly defeated, 57 to 325.

Though Kamenev’s sharp defence of internationalism contradicts the widespread misconception that he was for unity at any price with the moderate socialists, some of his actions at this conference also testify to a tendency towards conciliationism. Declaring that the bourgeois Provisional Government would inevitably clash with working people, his opening plenary speech cuttingly criticised the Soviet leadership’s resolution on state perspectives and announced that the task of the day was to strengthen ‘the embryos of revolutionary power: the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies’.[53] In the hopes of cohering the conference around the Soviet leadership’s text, Menshevik leader Irakli Tsereteli responded by demagogically declaring that ‘if [the Petrograd Soviet] considers it necessary for the interests of the people, it could even seize power’.[54] An amendment was likewise accepted to scratch the initial proposal’s call to support the Provisional Government.

At this point, while various top Bolshevik leaders including Shlyapnikov argued for sticking with their original plan to present a separate governmental resolution, Kamenev won the majority of the fraction to a more conciliatory approach. In the plenary he read out loud the party’s militant proposal on state power, but declared that the Bolsheviks would vote for the compromise resolution––a vague ‘in so far as’ text that was basically uncritical of the Provisional Government and that said nothing explicit about the need to establish a government of workers and peasants.[55] Not without reason, Shlyapnikov concluded that ‘this decision of the majority of our faction was a concession to the compromisers, dictated by diplomatic considerations on the need for the ‘unity of the democracy’ in the face of a common enemy––the bourgeoisie.’[56]

A drift towards conciliationism was hardly a secondary matter. Lenin’s longstanding intransigence against the Mensheviks and SRs was in large part aimed at pushing back against the real tendency of some of his comrades to bend to the moderate socialists, who in turn were bending to the liberal bourgeoisie. ‘Whoever wants to help the waverers must first stop wavering himself,’ Lenin insisted.[57]

It is important to note that for Kamenev this ongoing search for an agreement with other socialists was connected to a certain extent with aspects of ‘Old Bolshevism’. Bolshevik strategy had left unanswered which (if any) social class and party should be dominant in the desired ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’, a regime that was often envisioned as a coalition between different socialist parties. The tension between such an algebraic conception and the Bolsheviks’ simultaneous insistence on proletarian hegemony became starkly evident when the moderate socialists handed power to the liberals after the fall of the autocracy. In such a context, the burning question for Bolshevik strategy became whether other socialist currents could be convinced or compelled to break with the bourgeoisie and join the fight for a new revolutionary regime.

As Trotsky, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish Social Democrats had done since 1905-06, Lenin during 1917 increasingly pushed for a government in which the proletarian party would be the dominant political current.[58] In April, while noting that the petty-bourgeoisie might eventually break with the bourgeoisie, he declared that the call for a ‘democratic dictatorship’ was ‘antiquated’ in the concrete circumstances because the petty-bourgeois socialists at that moment were supporting the liberals.[59] By September, Lenin was arguing that ‘our Party, like any other political party, is striving after political domination for itself. Our aim is the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat’.[60] In 1906, Trotsky had justifiably argued that his response to this question––‘who is to wield the hegemony in the government itself, and through it in the country?’– was one of the most fundamental tenets of the strategy of permanent revolution.[61]

Though they did not reject the goal of Bolshevik leadership in a revolutionary government, Kamenev and his allies particularly stressed the strategic possibility and desirability of including SRs and Mensheviks––who stood at the head of the ‘petty-bourgeois’ masses––in revolutionary governance. In his April debates with Lenin, Kamenev argued that ‘a clash of the bourgeoisie with the entire revolutionary democracy is inevitable’––given this impending split of the petty-bourgeoisie from the capitalists it was therefore necessary to ‘build all of our tactics to not break the bloc’ between the proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie.[62]

This was a reasonable wager. Since workers were a minority in Russia, a Bolshevik-Socialist Revolutionary-Menshevik government offered the best possible prospects for a new revolutionary power to cement a worker-peasant alliance and a solidly majoritarian social base. Particularly because the Bolsheviks lacked strong rural support, hopes to establish such a regime can hardly be reduced to, or dismissed as, political faintheartedness or a ‘doctrinaire’ adherence to an out-dated theory.

The problem, however, was that the SRs and Mensheviks were committed to an alliance with the liberals for most of the year. And in the fall, when large wings of moderate socialists did call for a break with the bourgeoisie, most nevertheless refused to participate in a revolutionary soviet government where the Bolsheviks would be a leading force. In such conditions, the push by Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and various other Bolshevik militants for a multi-tendency ‘homogenous socialist government’ famously pitted them against the rest of the Bolshevik leadership, who were prepared to take power without the other socialist currents.

Lih has minimised the importance of this strategic divergence, the practical consequences of which could be profound. Kamenev’s conciliatory approaches in March, however, cannot be arbitrarily equated with that of the party leadership as a whole. Historian D.A. Longley notes that ‘the “right swing” after Stalin's return affected only a very small part of the Petrograd party and was more a triumph of public relations of the “rightist” group than a significant shift in party policy.’[63]

The Russian Bureau, the Vyborg Committee, and top Bolshevik leaders such as Stučka, Shlyapnikov, and Molotov were no less committed than Kamenev and Stalin to the political perspective of ‘old Bolshevism’. Yet in March 1917 they took a more radical stance against the government and implemented a more independent approach towards other socialist currents. In so doing, they leaned on Bolshevism’s longstanding strategic insistence on proletarian hegemony in the fight for state power, as well as its well-known tradition of sharply criticising moderate socialists.

Based on their own concrete experiences and assessments, many Bolshevik leaders before April had already become skeptical about the potential for the moderates to break from the bourgeoisie. During the February Revolution, for instance, Shlyapnikov had unsuccessfully attempted to convince the SRs and Mensheviks to form a revolutionary government with the Bolsheviks.[64] Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa notes that following this aborted effort, Shlyapnikov and the Russian Bureau re-oriented their views as early as March 1:

Since the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet disagreed with the formation of a provisional revolutionary government and Bolshevik strength was not yet pronounced, Shliapnikov and his colleagues of the Russian Bureau concluded that it was still premature to adopt even their own slogan. For the time being it was necessary for the Bolsheviks to concentrate on organizational work and agitation among the masses and achieve a majority in the Soviet.[65]

The course of the Bolshevik party as a whole paralleled Shlyapnikov’s evolution. Up through at least October 1917, it remained an open question whether the moderate socialists could be brought on board the project of a workers’ and peasants’ government. The fact that most Bolshevik leaders eventually concluded that soviet power could only be established under their party’s hegemony had as much to do with the lived experience of class struggle as high ideology.

Beyond the Capital

Though Petrograd was the centre of the empire’s political life, it is important to broaden the geographic scope of our analysis of socialist politics in 1917. Whether an adaptation of Bolsheviks in Petrograd to ultra-leftism or opportunism was their greatest weakness in early 1917 is hard to say––but in the imperial provinces and periphery it is clear in hindsight that the latter was by far the deeper problem.

To understand why Bolshevik conciliationism was deepest outside the capital, some key contextual factors must be foregrounded. The February Revolution really took on an insurrectionary character only in Petrograd and for most of 1917 class polarisation in the rest of the empire continued to lag behind the capital. Ronald Suny’s description of Baku was valid for most regions: ‘The moderate socialist parties … benefited from the defensist mood of the population and the relative calm in Baku during the first months of the revolution.’[66]

In further contrast with Petrograd and Moscow––where the national party leaderships were based and where factional differences were sharpest––a large number, perhaps a majority, of Bolshevik militants elsewhere remained in joint Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDRP) committees with Mensheviks up through the February Revolution and the early months of 1917.[67] From the party’s initial split in 1903 onwards, RSDRP organisations (as well as factional allegiances) were almost always significantly weaker outside the capital, prompting local militants to combine their forces. Not until the summertime of 1917 (i.e., following the Mensheviks’ entry into the government) did the establishment of separate Bolshevik organisations become the norm––and even after October some Bolsheviks continued to work in united committees.[68]

Bolshevik participation in joint RSDRP bodies did not as such imply a political adaptation to the Mensheviks. Many militants hoped to win the committees to a Bolshevik, or at least firmly ‘internationalist’, perspective and correctly saw that splitting away prematurely would isolate them from the RSDRP ranks, who were still firmly disposed towards party unity. This organisational flexibility was often crucially important, as it allowed the Bolsheviks win over much of the membership when the realities of the Menshevik leadership’s class-collaborationism became more evident in practice.[69]

Yet the degree of political commitment to the strategy of ‘Old Bolshevism’ remained uneven in the periphery and provinces. For geographic as well as political reasons, these Bolshevik militants in early 1917 were often very weakly ideologically and organisationally connected to the national leadership in Petrograd. Georgian Bolshevik leader Filipp Makharadze typically explained that in February the current had no distinct organisational expression ‘either in Tiflis or the provinces’ and that they had ‘no contact with the Central Committee’.[70] As one Baku socialist lamented in April, not only was the local RSDRP party organisation very weak, but ‘there is no definite [political] line.’[71]

In March 1917, the pressures of collaboration inside united RSDRP committees, the concentration of top party cadre in Petrograd or abroad, the relatively weak ideological commitments of local militants, and the conciliatory context of the periphery weighed heavy on Bolshevik practice. In most towns outside of Petrograd and Moscow, a sharp political delineation from the conciliatory socialists was the exception rather than the norm. Pressures towards unity frequently led local Bolsheviks to act on a vague, lowest-common-denominator orientation that did not go beyond calling for pressure on the government to meet the peoples’ demands.[72] Whereas the ‘in so far as’ formulation was attached by the top Bolshevik leadership to an explicit advocacy of a workers’ and peasants’ government, such a state objective was rarely articulated by borderland Bolsheviks either publicly or in internal party resolutions.

Bolshevik leaflets and resolutions as well as numerous studies of local militants across the empire––from Ukraine, to Transcaucasia, to the Volga––testify to the tendency of these party activists in March to avoid Bolshevism’s call for a Provisional Revolutionary Government and/or drop its opposition to defencism.[73] A few illustrative examples can be cited. In Ekaterinoslav, the Bolshevik organisation did not raise the need for a new government, arguing instead that ‘the power of [proletarian] class organisations has to be used to revolutionise the bourgeoisie’.[74] And in Tallinn, the Estonian Bolsheviks during late March supported a resolution declaring that ‘until the possibility of making peace has been fully explored we must continue to support a defensist war’.[75]

Such positions went far beyond tactical flexibility. They illustrated real political weaknesses in the Bolshevik current. Unlike in Petrograd, however, there is little evidence that such vacillations were significantly rooted in the ambiguities of ‘Old Bolshevism’. These positions were not articulated as, or justified with reference to, the long-standing tenets of Bolshevism. Rather than reflecting an affirmation of party strategy, it was precisely a lack of sharp commitment to revolutionary theory generally, and Bolshevik theory in particular, that manifest itself in these regions. This dynamic helps explain the ease with which these very Bolshevik party committees following April adjusted their stance and adopted the slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets!’. By way of contrast, despite Lenin’s vehement call for a new orientation on the national question, most borderland Bolshevik organisations and leaders up through 1918 continued to uphold their longstanding commitment to an intransigent internationalism that tended to dismiss national movements for self-determination.

At the same time, it merits mention that many of the local Bolsheviks initially prone to watering down their current’s stance began to more clearly differentiate themselves from the Mensheviks by late March. Major divergences continued to mark the two tendencies even in towns where the Bolsheviks initially limited their perspectives to class struggle to pressure the bourgeoisie. Whereas the commitment of most Mensheviks to an alliance with liberals prevented them from consistently relying on popular struggle to push the regime, Bolsheviks were free of any such political contradictions. In city after city, factional strife emerged when the Bolsheviks resolutely fought to arm the workers and for mass action to win a democratic republic, the eight-hour day, land confiscation, and peace. Donald Raleigh’s study of Saratov, for instance, notes that ‘by the end of March tactical differences reflecting the Bolsheviks’ willingness to implement their minimum program began to isolate them from their socialist comrades.’[76] In Georgia, the local cadre similarly fought against the Menshevik leaders’ push for a strategic alliance with the bourgeoisie, a class that these Bolsheviks declared to be ‘inherently counter-revolutionary’.[77]

Put briefly: Bolshevik circles outside Petrograd and Moscow were marked by major conciliatory tendencies during March, though the overall trend was towards greater conflict with the moderate socialists and the government. For Russia’s peripheral Bolsheviks, the discussions and debates of April played a deeper reorienting role than in the centre.

The 24-29 April All-Russian Bolshevik conference, and the preceding internal discussions of Lenin’s ‘April Theses’, significantly strengthened the party’s political cohesion and intransigence empirewide. Sharp attacks on the Provisional Government were stepped up after April and local Bolshevik militants across the empire began for the first time to consistently foreground the call for a soviet regime. The need to clearly demarcate themselves from the conciliatory socialists also became much more widely accepted.

How much this evolution was due to Lenin’s impact or to the rapidly changing political context is difficult to gauge precisely. In March, the Provisional Government had not yet announced any major measures openly in contradiction with the popular demands for change. April, however, was marked by a massive outcry from below in response to the revelation that the government planned to continue the imperialist war ‘until victory’. The soon-to-be well-known slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ was raised by protestors for the first time in the April demonstrations. And whereas the Soviet leadership had initially fought in practice to push the Provisional Government forward, from early April onwards it increasingly focused on propping up the bourgeois regime and dampening popular militancy. In the midst of an unprecedented proletarian upsurge against the Provisional Government and a marked shift to the right by the SRs and Mensheviks, it is not surprising that many Bolsheviks across the empire took a more militant and independent stand.

This did not mean that Bolsheviks as a whole from April onwards accepted Lenin’s particular views on important issues such as ‘steps towards socialism’, the predominance of Bolsheviks in revolutionary government, or soviets as the highest form of democracy and the permanent expression of workers’ rule. Up through October and often even into 1918, the stance of the party and its leadership as a whole generally remained open-ended on these questions.

Bolshevism’s increasingly radical evolution was frequently determined by the response of party leaders at all levels to the ‘big events’ of the class struggle––notably the stubborn refusal of SRs and Mensheviks throughout 1917 to break with the bourgeoisie, the election of a moderate majority to the Constituent Assembly, and the sabotage of capitalists after October. Lenin’s interventions were important but far from consistently decisive.


This article has shown that Bolsheviks––in sharp contrast with conciliatory socialists––were homogeneously committed in March 1917 to class independence and the fight for proletarian hegemony over the revolutionary process.

The top Bolshevik leadership consistently argued that the overthrow of the Tsar did not mean that the democratic revolution was finished. Counter-revolution had not been crushed and the essential demands for peace, land, the eight-hour day, and a republic through a Constituent Assembly had not yet been satisfied. Since the liberal bourgeoisie would inevitably resist such a radical social transformation, workers and peasants would have to seize full political power. In so doing, the Russian Revolution would immediately set off a socialist upheaval in the West, which in turn would allow Russia to transcend the limits of capitalism.

Though this perspective was indisputably radical, Bolshevik practice in Petrograd, and particularly in the periphery, was often irresolute. For the most part, this dynamic reflected a practical adaptation to the ‘honeymoon’ context of March; the algebraic, open-ended formulations of ‘Old Bolshevik’ state perspectives also facilitated the tendency of some party leaders to vacillate.

The big story of March, however, is that the strategy of ‘Old Bolshevism’ set the stage for the party’s militancy throughout 1917. Bolsheviks over the course of the year were committed to a break with the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a soviet government. Within this consensus, party leaders at different moments put forward distinct views on whether moderate socialists could be won to this governmental goal. Whether the resulting regime could advance beyond capitalism before the impending socialist revolution in Europe was a far more marginal discussion up through October, though different perspectives on this issue were also put forward.

An accurate assessment of the Russian Revolution requires acknowledging the facts about Bolshevik politics in general and during March in particular. Doing so does not require overlooking the party’s early limitations. Nor does it require downplaying the real political modifications in its perspective over 1917––though these have often been exaggerated and/or wrongly attributed primarily to Lenin’s personal influence.

To conclude, it should be underscored that the tensions and ambiguities in Bolshevik strategy reflected the real social and political contradictions of promoting proletarian-led revolution in an economically backwards, war-torn, primarily-peasant society. The course of events largely vindicated the ‘Old Bolshevik’ stress on the need for a worker-peasant alliance and its scepticism about building socialism within the confines of Russia. At the same time, experience likewise confirmed the case of Trotsky (and later Lenin) that workers and peasants in Russia could come to power only under the governmental leadership of a revolutionary Marxist party––and that the resulting regime must attack the foundations of capitalist property relations.

The sole path to positively resolving these contradictions was through the spread of workers’ rule abroad. And regarding the imminence and necessity of world revolution, the perspectives of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ and Trotsky fully converged. All revolutionary Marxists agreed in 1917 that the Russian Revolution would be defeated it if remained isolated. This prediction was borne out, though in an unforeseen form: tragically, the defeat of the international revolutionary wave of 1917-23 resulted in the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet regime and the Bolshevik party. This basic point cannot be over-emphasised today, as a new generation of socialists seeks to grapple with the lessons of the Russian Revolution.

Eric Blanc is an independent researcher in Oakland, California. He is the author of the forthcoming monograph, Anti-Colonial Marxism: Oppression & Revolution in the Tsarist Borderlands (Brill Publishers, Historical Materialism Book Series).


Acton, Edward 1990, Rethinking the Russian Revolution, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Allen, Barbara C. 2014, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937, Leiden: Brill.

Arens, Olavi 1976, Revolutionary Developments in Estonia in 1917-18 and their Ideological and Political Background, PhD Dissertation, Columbia University.

Blanc, Eric 2017, ‘Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited’, Historical Materialism Blog. Accessed at: http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/before-lenin-bolshevik-theory…

Бурджалов Э.Н. 1971, Вторая русская революция. Москва. Фронт. Периферия. Москва: Наука.

Burdzhalov, E. N. 1987 [1967], Russia's Second Revolution: The February 1917 Uprising in Petrograd, translated by Donald J. Raleigh, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chamberlin, William Henry 1965, The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921, New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Elwood, Ralph Carter (ed.) 1974, Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Volume 1, The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, 1898–October 1917, Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 

Dauge, Pauls 1958, P. Stučkas dzīve un darbs, Rīgā: Latvijas valsts izdevniecība.

Day, Richard B and Daniel Gaido (eds.) 2009, Witness to Permanent Revolution: the Documentary Record, Leiden: Brill.

Gelbard, Arye 1982, Der Jüdische Arbeiter-Bund Russlands im Revolutionsjahr 1917, Wien: Europaverlag.

Getzler, Israel 1983, Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haimson, Leopold H. (ed.) 1974, The Mensheviks: From the Revolution 1917 to the Second World War, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi 1981, The February Revolution, Petrograd, 1917, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Hickey, Michael C. 1996, ‘Discourses of Public Identity and Liberalism in the February Revolution: Smolensk’, The Russian Review, 55, 4: 615-37.

 Ибрагимова, 3. И. and М. С. Искендерсва (eds.) 1957, Большевики в борьбе за победу социалистической революции в Азербайджане. Документы и материалы. 1917–1918 гг., Баку: Азербайджанское государственное издательство.

Jones, Stephen Francis, Georgian Social Democracy, 1892-1921: In Opposition and Power, PhD Dissertation, University of London.

Курас, І.Ф. (ed.) 1990, Большевистские организации Украины: организационно-партийная деятельность. Февраль 1917 – июль 1918, Киев: Издательство политической литературы Украины.

Kuusinen, O. W. 1919, The Finnish Revolution: A Self-Criticism, London: Workers' Socialist Federation.

Латвияс КП ЦК Партияс вēстурес инститьūц (ed.) 1963, Коммунистическая партия Латвии в Октябрьской революции 1917 Документы и материалы (март 1917 - февр. 1918), Латвийское гос. изд-во: Рига.

Lenin, V.I. 1964, Collected Works, Volume 24, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1964b, Collected Works, Volume 25, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Longley, D. A. 1972, ‘The Divisions in the Bolshevik Party in March 1917’, Soviet Studies, 24, 1: 61-76.

Lih, Lars T. 2014, ‘Fully Armed: Kamenev and Pravda in March 1917’, The NEP Era: Soviet Russia 1921-1928, 8: 55-68.

Lih, Lars T. 2015, ‘Letter from Afar, Corrections from Up Close: The Bolshevik Consensus of March 1917’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 16, 4: 799–834.

Mandel, David 1983, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime: From the February Revolution to the July Days, 1917, New York: St. Martin's Press.

Манилова, В. (ed.) 1928, 1917 год на Киевщине: хроника событий, Киев: Гос. изд-во Украины.

Marot, John 2014, ‘Lenin, Bolshevism, and Social-Democratic Political Theory: The 1905 and 1917 Soviets’, Historical Materialism, 22, 3–4: 129–171.

В. П. Насырин 1956, ’О некоторых вопросах социалистического преобразования промышленности в СССР’, Вопросы истории, 5: 90-9.

Петербургский комитет РСДРП(б) 2003 [1917], Петербургский комитет РСДРП(б) в 1917 году: Протоколы и материалы заседаний, edited by Т.А. Абросимова, Т.П. Бондаревская, Е.Т. Лейкина, В.Ю. Черняев, Санкт-Петербург: Бельведер.     

Raleigh, Donald J. 1986, Revolution on the Volga: 1917 in Saratov, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

РСДРП (большевиков) 1958 [1917], Седьмая (апрельская) Всероссийская конференция РСДРП (большевиков); Петроградская общегородская конференция РСДРП (большевиков). Апрель 1917 года. Протоколы, Москва: Госполитиздат.

Сахнин, Алексей Викторович 2010, Внутрипартийная борьба в РСДРП(б) в конце февраля - апреле 1917 г. Механизм руководства и выработка стратегии, PhD Dissertation, Московский государственный университет имени М. В. Ломоносова.

Service, Robert 1979, The Bolshevik Party in Revolution: A Study in Organisational Change, 1917-1923, New York: Barnes Noble Books.

Смирнова, А.А. 2004, ‘Петроградские меньшевики и эсеры на Всероссийском совещании советов рабочих и солдатских депутатов’, Вестник Санкт-Петербургского университета, 3-4: 45-56.

Шляпников, А. Г. 1992 [1923], Канун семнадцатого года: Семнадцатый год, T. 2, Москва: Республика.

Шляпников, А. Г. 1994 [1925], Канун семнадцатого года: Семнадцатый год, T. 3, Москва: Республика.

Старцев, В.И. 1978, Революция и власть: Петроградский Совет и Временное правительство в марте-апреле 1917 г., Москва: Мысль.

Stučka, Pēteris 1978, Rakstu Izlase, 2. sējums, Rīga: Liesma.

Sukhanov, N.N. 1955 [1922], The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record, edited and translated by Joel Carmichael, London, New York: Oxford University Press.

Suny, Ronald Grigor 1972, The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1969 [1906], The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, New York: Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1937, The Stalin School of Falsification, translated by John G. Wright, New York: Pioneer Publishers.

Trotsky, Leon 2016 [1924], ‘The Lessons of October’ in Trotsky's Challenge: The “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution, edited by Frederick C. Corney, Leiden, Boston: Brill.

Van Ree, Erik 2000, ‘Stalin's Bolshevism: The Year of the Revolution’, Revolutionary Russia, 13, 1: 29-54.

[1] Trotsky 2016 [1924], pp. 92, 95-6, 101.

[2] Trotsky 2016 [1924], p. 101.

[3] Trotsky 2016 [1924], p. 92. Trotsky asserts that ‘in limiting, for doctrinaire reasons, the tasks of the revolution to its designation (‘bourgeois’ revolution), it was impossible not to end up with a policy of supervising the Provisional Government.’ (p. 102.)

[4] Trotsky 2016 [1924], pp. 92-102. For a recent effort to uphold Trotsky’s interpretation, see Marot 2014.

[5] For his important pieces on the Bolsheviks in March, see Lih 2014 and Lih 2015. Lih argues that ‘the strategy outlined in the March consensus was consistently applied throughout the year and led to victory in October.’ (Lih 2015, p. 801) For an earlier article challenging Stalin’s supposed Menshevism in March, see Van Ree 2000.

[6] Lih 2014, p. 61.

[7] Шляпников 1992 [1923], pp. 217-8, 230.

[8] For a discussion of why the Bolshevik leadership declined to fight for power after the toppling of Tsarist authority on 27 February, see Blanc 2017.

[9] Cited in Trotsky 1937, pp. 248-9.

[10] ‘Тактические задачи’, Правда, 9 March, 1917. On Shlyapnikov, see Allen’s recent biography. (Allen 2014.) All dates in this article are cited according to old Julian calendar, which was thirteen days behind the modern Gregorian calendar.

[11] ‘Резолюция по текущему моменту’, Правда, 9 March, 1917.

[12] ‘Протокол собрания от 5 марта 1917 года’, Правда, 7 March, 1917.

[13] See, for example, Elwood 1974, p. 197.

[14] Сахнин 2010, p. 67.

[15] ‘Mūsu uzdevums’ [7 March, 1917] in Stučka 1978, pp. 122-4.

[16] Sukhanov, N.N. 1955 [1922], p. 191.

[17] Старцев 1978, p. 37.

[18] Cited in Trotsky 1937, p. 247.

[19] Another widespread myth concerning the Bolsheviks in March is that the Pravda editors politically censored Lenin’s March ‘Letters from Afar’. This claim has been rather conclusively debunked by Lih. (Lih 2015)

[20] Cited in Trotsky 1937, p. 270. For Stalin’s opposition to supporting the government, see Trotsky 1937, p. 239.

[21] ‘Временное Правительство и революционная социал-демократия’, Правда, 14 March, 1917.

[22] ‘Советы Рабочих и Солдатских Депутатов и наша партия’, Правда, 14 March, 1917.

[23] ‘Об условиях победы русской революции’, Правда, 18 March, 1917.

[24] Петербургский комитет РСДРП(б) 2003 [1917], p. 120.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Getzler 1983, pp. 43-4.

[27] ‘Сообщение Руиенской социал-демократической группы’ [12 March, 1917], in Латвияс КП ЦК Партияс вēстурес инститьūц 1963, p. 24.

[28] Бурджалов 1971, pp. 33-4, 38, 197, 225, 319, 336.

[29] Cited in Сахнин 2010, p. 211.

[30] Шляпников 1992, p. 434.

[31] Hickey 1996, p. 631.

[32] Шляпников 1992 [1923], p. 399.

[33] Cited in Шляпников 1992 [1923], p. 371.

[34] ‘Oktobra revolūcijas gada svētkos. 1917.-1918’ [1918] in Stučka 1978, pp. 279-80.

[35] Gelbard 1982, p. 70.

[36] Cited in Gelbard 1982, p. 71.

[37] Calls for a soviet government were raised, with distinct levels of consistency, also by the Polish Socialist Party-Left, the anarchists, the SR-Maximalists, the Left SRs, the left wing of the Ukrainian Social Democrats and Ukrainian SRs, as well as the Menshevik and Bundist Internationalists. As will be demonstrated in subsequent instalments in this series, most of these currents did not equate soviet government with socialist revolution.

[38] ‘Pilsoniskā revolūcija un proletariāts’ [21 March, 1917], in Stučka 1978, p. 128.

[39] ‘Report on the Current Situation’ [April 1917] in Lenin 1964, p. 242.

[40] Lenin argued that ‘power in Russia now can pass from Guchkov and Lvov only to these Soviets. And in these Soviets, as it happens, it is the peasants, the soldiers, i.e., petty bourgeoisie, who preponderate.’ (‘Letters on Tactics’ [April 1917] in Lenin 1964, p. 48.)

[41] On the nationalisation of industry and the related political issues, see, for example, Насырин 1956 and Chamberlin 1965, Volume 2, pp. 96-116. Chamberlin notes that ‘the attempt to nationalize everything from locomotive works to public baths and to provision the population through state agencies with everything from bread to mushrooms inevitably led to an enormous, unwieldy and incompetent bureaucracy, which stifled all creative initiative and often led to bungling misuse and neglect of the slender resources which the country possessed.’ (Chamberlin 1935, p. 113.)

[42] Trotsky 1969 [1906], pp. 101-2. My emphasis.

[43] In April, as in the month prior, Kamenev and many other Bolsheviks argued that this ‘control’ tactic was the most effective path toward soviet power in the given circumstances: rather than relying on propaganda, raising demands on the regime would allow the proletarian party to ‘enable the masses to comprehend through practical experience’ the nature of the Provisional Government and the need for soviet power. (РСДРП (большевиков) 1958 [1917], pp. 83-4.) This stance was sharply criticised by Lenin, who believed that placing demands on the bourgeois regime only fuelled illusions in it.

[44] Dauge 1958, p. 471.

[45] Cited in Mandel 1983, p. 80.

[46] For example, on the moderating impact of this fear on Moscow Bolsheviks, see Бурджалов 1971, p. 87.

[47] Kuusinen 1919, p. 1.

[48] Шляпников 1992 [1923], p. 367.

[49] ‘Без тайной дипломатии’, Правда, 15 March, 1917.

[50] Шляпников 1992 [1923], p. 452; Шляпников 1994 [1925], p. 213.

[51] Trotsky 2016 [1924], p. 98.

[52] Cited in Шляпников 1994 [1925], p. 232. The Bolsheviks’ proposed resolution similarly declared that solely ‘the transfer of power to the proletariat and the revolutionary democracy’ could make Russia’s involvement in the war anything other than imperialist in nature. (‘Резолюция о войне’ Правда, 29 March, 1917.)

[53] Cited in Шляпников 1994 [1925], pp. 252-3.

[54] Cited in Смирнова 2004, p. 50.

[55] For the Bolsheviks’ original proposal––which called to ‘rally around the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies as the embryos of revolutionary power’––see ‘Резолюция’, Правда, 8 April, 1917. (Shlyapnikov cites a milder wording of this proposal in Шляпников 1994 [1925], pp. 223-4.)

[56] Cited in Шляпников 1994 [1925], p. 259.

[57] ‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution’ [April 1917] in Lenin 1964, p. 84.

[58] The views of Trotsky, Kautsky, and Luxemburg are documented in Day and Gaido 2009.

It is significant that only Trotsky among these forces believed that such a proletarian government could––indeed, must––transgress the bounds of capitalism prior to Western social revolution. In 1917, as in previous years, one cannot assume that arguments for the working class to take political power were seen by their authors or audience as calls for socialist revolution. Whether it was realistic to believe that a workers’ government could remain within the bounds of capitalist property relations is a distinct question.

[59] ‘Letters on Tactics’ [April 1917] in Lenin 1964, p. 45. In this important document Lenin argued that it was ‘quite possible’ that the ‘petty-bourgeoisie’ could eventually break with the bourgeoisie, which would thereby put the ‘democratic dictatorship’ back on the table. But he argued that the only way to promote such a potential development was through clear political separation from the moderate socialists, rather than accommodation to them.

[60] ‘On Compromises’ [September 1917] in Lenin 1964b, p. 310. Significantly, Lenin here declared that even if (as he proposed) the moderate socialist Soviet leadership broke with the liberals and took full power, the Bolsheviks still would not participate in the resulting government. The extent of his strategic break with the old ‘democratic dictatorship’ conception is evident.

[61] Trotsky 1969 [1906], p. 70.

[62] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958 [1917], pp. 81-2.

[63] Longley 1972, p. 62.

[64] Шляпников 1992 [1923], pp. 66, 165, 196.

[65] Hasegawa 1981, p. 537. My emphasis.

[66] Suny 1972, p. 80.

[67] For example, see Service 1979, pp. 25, 53, 56, 60; Suny 1972, p. 77; Haimson 1974, p. 11; Jones 1984, p. 311; Шляпников 1994 [1925], p. 205. Since a myth persists today that the Bolshevik leadership in March sought to reunify with the Mensheviks, it should be stressed that the pervasiveness of such joint committees predates the February revolution. In a subsequent article in this series, I will show that the ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders did not seek a merger with the Mensheviks as a whole; rather, they (like Lenin) only raised the perspective of a potential merger with revolutionary internationalist Mensheviks.

[68] Haimson 1974, p. 12; Acton 1990, p. 197; Suny 1972, pp. 94-7; Jones 1984, pp. 320-1.

[69] Acton 1990, p. 197.

[70] Cited in Jones 1984, p. 311.

[71] Cited in Suny 1972, p. 88.

[72] For a typical example, see ‘Обращение временного бакинского комитета РСДРП’ [22 March, 1917] in Ибрагимова and Искендерсва 1957, pp. 7-9.

[73] See, for example, the Kiev Bolshevik committee’s March resolution, which did not pose the question of taking power. (‘Резолюция о текущем моменте’ [8 March, 1917] in Манилова 1928, pp. 167-8.) Bolshevik conciliationism in the periphery is well documented in the best studies that examine the party in March beyond Petrograd: Шляпников 1994 [1925] and Бурджалов 1971. See also Suny 1972, pp. 75-6 and Raleigh 1986, pp. 108, 114.

[74] Cited in Бурджалов 1971, p. 230.

[75] Cited in Arens 1976, p. 88.

[76] Raleigh 1986, p. 114. For similar conflicts in Ekaterinoslav, see Бурджалов 1971, pp. 230-1.

[77] Cited in Бурджалов 1971, p. 286.


Actually the first person to criticise Old Bolshevism was Lenin!

The fact is, that in his March 1917 Pravda editorial, Kamenev suggested that there *was* a de-facto political alliance between the Liberal-capitalist Provisional Government and “the Democracy” (i.e. the workers and peasants organised in Soviets).
This may have been a temporary marriage of convenience designed to overcome against a common enemy, but it was an alliance nevertheless.

Kamenev’s prognosis on how long the government would last is an entirely separate issue.
His practical conclusion in March 1917 was to give the Provisional Government “critical support”
This was based on the assessment that the Democratic revolution was incomplete (despite the fact that the feudal estates had yet to be officially broken up) and the government could still be pressurised from the left.

Whereas Lenin, in his first letter on tactics (April 1917) argued that “the bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia is completed.”

However much Lih wants to spin it, this was a break with the Old Bolshevik strategy described in “Two tactics”, but one dictated by reality.

Lenin argued that the old formula of a “democratic dictatorship” of workers and peasants couldn’t work, because the peasants were voluntarily ceding power to a bourgeois government which wanted to continue the war.

Hence the task was to split “the democracy” into its petit bourgeois and proletarian components.

He specifically criticises Kamenev;

“Is this reality covered by Comrade Kamenev’s old-Bolshevik formula, which says that “the bourgeois-democratic revolution is not completed”?
It is not. The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.”

To fully understand Lenin’s arguments it’s important to read them in full and study them carefully.

It wasn’t accidental that Kamenev continued to oppose the overthrow of the provisional Government right up to October.

Trotsky was justified in writing his critique the Lessons of October, because he’d been called a traitor by a member of the ruling troika (Zinoviev) and accused of “underestimating the peasantry”.
Yet his views in October 1917 dovetailed with Lenin’s.

Just a small addendum to the previous post.

1) re Kamenev's prognosis - should read:-

'This was based on the assessment that the Democratic revolution was incomplete (* in particular, because* the feudal estates had yet to be officially broken up....)'

2) Footnote 13 of Lenin's "Letter on tactics" regarding Trostky's old slogan of "No Tsar, but a workers government" is clearly not from the original 1917 document, but is a Stalinist interpolation from the 1970's Progress Publishers, Moscow edition.

But note that Lenin criticises the *slogan*, not Trotsky, who wasn't using this slogan by 1917. Whereas he specifically singles out Kamenev for criticism (as he did in October)