April theses: Before and after April 1917
The April theses represented Bolshevik continuity rather than a break, argues Lars T Lih. This is an edited version of a speech given to a London Communist Forum
Made through worker-peasant alliance
a provisional title for this talk I put forward something like
‘Bringing back Bolshevism to the Bolshevik revolution’, and I am
going to try to explain what I mean by that. I must say that
preparing this talk has been very good for me, in that it has helped
me put my thoughts in order - and express them in a positive way
rather than in the form of a polemic.
ideas on the subject can be traced back to an insight I had long ago.
On the one hand, there is the Bolshevik scenario of a workers’
revolution supported by the peasants, and an alliance in which the
peasants support the workers against the counterrevolution; on the
other hand, the reality of a civil war in which the Bolsheviks put
together a Red Army mostly made up of peasants. It looks like they
put the scenario into practice - they won because they did what they
said they would from the beginning.
was my insight, which I stand by today, and I have since expanded
upon it in more extensive terms. But I find it surprising that this
idea of continuity between old Bolshevism and the October revolution
has been largely neglected by both the academics and the activists -
indeed it is regarded as somewhat scandalous in some camps.
are the obstacles that prevent people seeing something that seems
obvious? I can think of five, but perhaps people can think of others
too. The first, especially among academics, is that they are not
particularly aware of the old Bolshevik scenario of revolution and
worker-peasant power. For them Lenin means party organisation,
authoritarianism, intellectuals running things and so forth. They
think they have understood the essence of Lenin by their wrong
reading of What is to be done? and so there is very little
written about him post-1905. And, of course, this scenario of a vast
workers’ revolution supported by the peasantry is not going to
appeal or make sense to someone who thinks that Lenin had a low
opinion of the capacities of the workers, and an even lower opinion
of the peasants.
second obstacle can be seen amongst left writers, who are actually
familiar with this scenario of worker-peasant revolution - you can
find a good account of it in some books. But they nevertheless choose
to emphasise discontinuity in 1917. It is important to them
and their narrative that there is discontinuity between old
Bolshevism and October, and there are many reasons for this.
will name two. One is a hostility to Lenin’s main lieutenants: that
is, Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin. They all turn out to be villains
later on in the left or in Trotskyist narratives, and they are not
going to be given a break. The other, substantial, reason that needs
to be considered is that they are hung up, I think, on the
juxtaposition between democratic revolution and socialist revolution.
In my view there is certainly a shift, but the discontinuity has been
of the other obstacles are really based on no more than myths. For
example, one widespread idea is that a break occurred in 1914, when
Lenin supposedly read Hegel, discovered Kautsky was a bounder and
rethought everything. I do not think this happened. In fact the
opposite is the case, as Lenin really reaffirmed his beliefs. In
Lenin’s view, it was Kautsky, not himself, who had changed tack.
there is the episode I call ‘April in Petrograd’, where we have
one of the most famous historical narratives. It goes like this:
Lenin arrives, and the Bolshevik leaders are baffled by his new
vision. But he faces them down, there is a debate for about a month
or so, and then everyone gets on board the new line.
this story constitutes a genuine objection to the idea of continuity,
as there is a lot of material out there that seems to confirm the
narrative, but I have been one of the first to genuinely research
this - there has not been an independent study in western literature
that I know of, and everyone is dependent on this or that quote from
secondary sources. What is interesting about it is that activists and
academics alike are reliant for their information on Soviet
historians, who otherwise they would not think of trusting.
there is a connection with a Lenin cult, which we are all part of, as
it is a little hard to escape, where everything Lenin does is always
right. So if there is any disagreement between him and the others,
then obviously the others are wrong. However, even from a
methodological point of view, we have to leave open the possibility
that, say, Kamenev was right and Lenin was wrong on this or that
want to stress here that, though this story is strongly supported by
the Trotskyist tradition, everybody likes it for their own particular
reasons: the academics, the Stalinists, the anti-Stalinists, the
post-Soviets - everyone has a reason for liking this story. It all
goes back to a Nikolai Sukhanov, a memoirist who was on the left, but
an anti-Bolshevik. I think it was Sukhanov and his extremely vivid
account that really got the story going.
there is the Bolshevik-peasant conflict during the civil war,
something that is very much stressed by academic historians. But it
seems people on the left also look at that in order to conclude that
the worker-peasant alliance did not work out.
those are the obstacles that are out there - common assumptions,
genuine problems - and I have been attempting to take these on one by
one: examine them and get them out of the way. But that takes
polemics - pointing out that a certain quote does not fit the
narrative and so on, and I am going to skip that as much as I can, so
as to present the narrative in positive terms, as if no-one was
disputing what I was saying. You can dispute it after I am finished!
first stage to this story, then, is the original Bolshevik scenario
back in 1905-07, and I am going to give you an idea of what I think
the heart of this scenario was. But first let me say something about
my sources. I think I am just about the only one who has not only
examined Lenin, but the writings of other Bolsheviks; and the two
Bolsheviks whose writings are most easily available, having been
republished for various reasons, are Stalin and Kamenev. Both were in
Petrograd in the weeks before Lenin arrived, so they are a very good
source for our purposes. I also should point out, however, that when
Stalin and Kamenev (and other Bolshevik writers) rehash the Bolshevik
scenario for propaganda purposes, they simplify it, which is good in
one sense. For my purpose it is historically more important what the
‘second-tier’ Bolsheviks were saying than what Lenin himself was
saying, as he may have been on his own on certain things. What these
lower-level people were saying was what Bolshevism actually was on
the Bolshevik scenario for what the next revolution was going to look
like was a bigger and better version of the 1905 revolution. The
narod - the people, the workers and the peasants (because it
includes the peasants it cannot be assumed to be a socialist term),
led by the socialist proletariat and its party, Russian Social
Democracy, would establish a provisional revolutionary government,
thwart the various liberal attempts to put brakes on the revolution,
and carry out a vast democratic transformation of Russia. I am trying
to avoid some of the catchphrases we use on the left - ‘democratic
dictatorship’ and so on, and just look at what is really happening
objectively. The essence of it is a worker-peasant vlast’ -
‘power’ or ‘sovereignty’ - that is going to carry through the
revolution to the end. It will carry out the so-called minimum
programme - which is in fact the maximum that can be achieved under
capitalism, and is extremely vast and ambitious.
said provisional revolutionary government, because at the end
of this process there is to be a constituent assembly. With the
winning of the constituent assembly at the end of this revolutionary
transformation, the Bolsheviks - that is, the party of the socialist
proletariat - no longer feels it can be in power and it retires for
the time being. So its rule is provisional, and that represents a
real difference in comparison to 1917.
this scenario did envision a period of bourgeois class rule after
this revolution, but it is very important not to add what is often
said when this point is being made. There is nothing in the Bolshevik
scenario about a long period, nothing about a stable
period of bourgeois rule. Actually, the Bolsheviks did not expect
this period to be very peaceful. In fact they thought it would be
very unpeaceful, and not be very long - everyone thought the world
was in a period of war and revolution, after all. They expected this
period to be short, with socialist revolutions breaking out in
western Europe. They hoped the successful democratic revolution in
Russia would spark this off, and it would rebound back into Russia
and change the situation. That was common currency, not just Trotsky.
were limits set? Why did the Bolsheviks say they could not go all the
way to socialism? I think the essential reason for that is what I
call the ‘axiom of the class ally’: you can only go as far as the
interests of your class ally will allow. And who is the class ally in
this case? It is the peasants, of course, and peasants, which account
for the majority of the country, are in this scenario deemed not to
be ready for socialism.
should say here that Trotsky, in his own scenario of 1905-06,
certainly did not deny this axiom of the class ally - the empirical
fact (as they thought it was) that the peasants would not go to
socialism. However, he thought that for various reasons the workers’
government could keep moving ahead to socialism, even though the
peasants were not on board, even though the majority of the country
was against them, and so the two class forces would end up in a civil
war at some point. But the Bolsheviks and everyone else said, ‘Well,
if the peasants are against us, then we’ve got to wait until we can
win over the majority.’ That is the old scenario that leads up to
make the story plausible here, we have to look at what the old
Bolsheviks were doing in Petrograd before Lenin showed up. This is a
much misunderstood, understudied episode, and we are all paying too
much attention to very partisan historians, including both Soviet
historians and others, who are focussing on little snippets and
ignoring the big picture. I think from the get-go the Bolsheviks in
Petrograd assumed that the embryo of a new vlast’ would
carry the revolution through to the end. They assumed that there were
the soviets on one side, the provisional government, representing the
bourgeois, reformist, liberal elite, on the other, and the soviets
would eventually take over.
if we look at the old-Bolshevik scenario, then what would we predict?
That they would thwart any attempt by liberal bourgeois forces to put
brakes on the revolution, and would put in a worker-peasant power to
carry the revolution through. That is what we would predict, and that
is what happened.
let me try and clear up some misunderstandings. First, in April 1917
the Bolshevik leaders said that the immediate overthrow of the
provisional government was not possible - we don’t have enough
force, we don’t have a basis in the soviets - and so to go out and
call for its overthrow now is silly and adventurist. No doubt they
were correct, and Lenin did not disagree with them when he showed up.
it is not correct that this caution represented a long-distance
perspective; that the Bolsheviks had the idea of a soviet vlast’,
but they did not have Lenin’s urgency. No, I do not think this is a
real contrast. The Bolsheviks were fairly confident that the
provisional government would not be able to handle the problems that
were arising from the revolution, the war, the economy and the
carrying out of land reforms, and that it would rapidly wear out its
welcome and would be tossed out. So the replacement of the
provisional government was an active, near-future perspective.
I think from the beginning the Bolsheviks were fairly
is sometimes translated as ‘compromise’, and was used to describe
the strategy of the ‘moderate socialists’, the Socialist
Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. Their gut reaction was not to use
the soviets as the embryo of a new vlast’,
but to make some sort of compromise or class-collaboration, because
the country needed some sort of agreement between reformist forces,
both liberal and socialist. They could make a good case for this, and
I do not think we should dismiss them, but I believe the Bolshevik
leaders were always against it.
I would like to draw attention to a very common and important
misunderstanding. One of the debates focussed on the question, ‘Is
the democratic revolution over yet?’ The Bolshevik leaders claimed,
sometimes in opposition to Lenin, that the democratic revolution was
not over. The misunderstanding arises when this is equated with
saying that we are not yet at the stage of socialist revolution and
we must tolerate, not throw out, the provisional government. Trotsky
was one of the first to make this supposedly logical implication in
1924. But, no: if you actually understand the overall scenario as I
have outlined it, to say that the democratic revolution has not been
carried out to the end means therefore we have to overthrow
the provisional government as soon as possible, so that we - the only
ones capable of carrying out the democratic revolution to the end -
are in power.
cannot resist saying that I have just been looking at Tony Cliff’s
and noticed that he quoted a certain Bagdatev, a “left extremist
secretary of the Bolshevik committee of the Putilov works”.
Bagdatev says that the democratic revolution is not over, and also
that the provisional government should be overthrown as quickly as
possible, and Tony Cliff’s first reaction is: “What muddled
So, yes, it is muddled thinking, but not on the part of Bagdatev.
Anyway, I do not want to pick on Tony Cliff, because it is a very
I would love to get down into who said what and when, but I think we
need to look at the big picture instead. First of all, we should
consider the situation when Lenin arrives in Russia. Here was Lenin,
back from exile after 10 years and very likely to be out of touch on
this or that question. There would have been issues he was not aware
of, even though he would have quickly picked things up, while those
who greeted him probably would have known the intricacies of the
situation in much more detail. So I think we should assume that what
resulted was largely a mutually respectful interaction.
should bear in mind the possibility that these people had something
significant to say to Lenin. I shall give a straightforward example
of this. Stalin, who was a fairly high-up Bolshevik at this time -
one of the top ten leaders at least - is recorded as saying in a
meeting with Lenin and others that the April theses were too
schematic and that they overlooked the question of small nations.
Often, that is used as evidence that Stalin did not know what was
going on, but the fact is that the April theses did not
mention the national question. Why is that? Because Lenin forgot to
include it. He wrote the document on a train and he simply forgot to
put in anything on the national question. And I am sure that when
Stalin brought it up Lenin would have said he was right and that he
should write up a report about it, which is what happened. And that
provoked a genuine debate, more so than on some other questions, at
the party conference in April, where Lenin sided with Stalin.
are three categories of things going on in the disputes between Lenin
and the so-called old Bolsheviks. One is that there were genuine
misunderstandings - between Lenin and Kamenev, for example. In the
debates in April, both of them say they have cleared up some
misunderstandings - hardly surprising when people had not met for so
long. Otherwise it is very difficult to explain why Kamenev, who was
one of those saying Lenin was wrong, was in the core of five or six
people at the top of the party.
there are issues on which Lenin was wrong, and we tend to
forget some of these for obvious reasons, when we look at the overall
situation. Lenin wanted to focus on agricultural wage workers, and he
thought the party should be sceptical about the regular peasants and
focus most of its attention on these wage workers when it came to
soviets in the villages. He thought the Bolsheviks should push for
communal farming and these people should run it. Everyone else
thought this was crazy, and there was something wrong with Lenin for
suggesting it. And in this case the local people were right: this was
not a viable policy in the short and medium run, and it eventually
we get to the more constructive part. What was actually new in what
Lenin brought for consideration? There were two new perspectives,
which were adopted by the Bolsheviks. First, ‘steps toward
socialism’. This was a metaphor Lenin used a lot, but it is not in
the one-and-a-half-page canonical April theses, unfortunately.
However, ‘steps toward socialism’ were at the heart of everything
else he said during that month, and through the year really. He would
say, ‘We want steps toward socialism’. In other words, we
don’t want to introduce socialism, and anyone that said they
did was wrong. I am still not quite sure what he meant by ‘introduce
socialism’, and why it was so wrong, but he said it many, many
we have to understand this metaphor as the key to understanding
Lenin’s Bolshevism. What they thought was that they would set up a
government based on worker-peasant power, and they would be on the
path to socialism. They would be taking steps along that path -
sometimes they might be forced into a detour, but what was essential
is that they would be on the path. What that means is that class
power was ‘digital’: it is either-or; but the question of
socialist transformation is ‘analogue’: it is more or less. So we
have gradual, more or less, measures of socialist transformation,
while on the issue of class power it is all or nothing: either there
is proletarian power or bourgeois power, according to the Bolsheviks’
way of viewing things.
in 1917, to go back to ‘steps toward socialism’, Lenin had a
fairly specific rationale for this. The place to see this is in an
important pamphlet he wrote in September called The threatening
catastrophe and how to deal with it, which for some reason is not
given enough attention.
argument is this: there are policies that are needed to respond to
the crisis, which have been drawn up not by the Bolsheviks, who are
not economic experts, but rather experts in class politics, but by,
for example, people in Germany, or by the old tsarist regime, or by
the moderate socialists in Russia. Everyone knows what needs to be
done, but it is not being done because the bourgeoisie is in power.
Lenin stresses again and again that only - and he means it - only
the question of class power is preventing this from happening.
Therefore, even though these policies are not socialist, in order to
get them done we will need to have worker-peasant vlast’.
And, if worker-peasant power brings in policies such as regulation of
the banks and so on, then they will be steps toward socialism because
they are carried out by a popular democratic narodnaya vlast’
is an interesting argument and to a certain extent you can sum it up
like this: ‘There are things that those now in power should be
doing which they are not, but when we do them they will be steps
toward socialism’. So it is not a question of a socialist
revolution - Lenin is not saying he is going to do anything different
or claiming that specifically socialist policies that no-one else
wants are the way out of the crisis. The policies that everyone wants
are the way out - but only a worker-peasant government will
actually put the policies into effect.
second thing which was new in Lenin’s mind was to see soviet power
not just as a vehicle for class power. That is to say, in the old
Bolshevik scenario, there is worker-peasant power and soviets are
seen as the best way of achieving it, but they are not the essential
thing: they are just the form that class power will take. What Lenin
added to this was to say - and we know this from all the reading he
was doing of Marx and Engels, and on the Paris Commune - that the
soviets were a higher form of democracy than the old parliamentary
system, an argument that we are all familiar with.
point is that there are two different kinds of reasons for wanting
soviet power: one is that the soviet form itself - direct election,
instant recall - is a good way for the proletarian dictatorship to
work; and the other is just another name or alias for worker-peasant
power. These are interesting and important ideas, but we are mistaken
if we say that they are in any way necessary for the Bolsheviks to do
what they did in 1917.
was the actual message being broadcast to the workers by Bolshevik
Party? It is easy to pick up The state and revolution, but
what was a local Bolshevik agitator actually saying when he got down
to talking to workers?
have looked at what Lenin was saying, as well as the arguments in
pamphlets written by others. I am basing what I am saying here on
such documents. The message was something like this: ‘The country
is going to go to hell in a hand basket unless you get rid of these
guys. The reason they can’t get us out of the mess is because
they’re bourgeois, they’re the elite, they’re the landowners.
So get rid of them and put in a worker-peasant vlast’ that
is going to take the measures everyone knows is necessary.’
was the message - protect the revolution, respond to the national
crisis, carry out the basic programme of the revolution. If you want
all of those things, then get rid of the current regime and introduce
soviet power, which represents workers and peasants. One leaflet put
it well, saying something like, ‘You can’t expect a government of
bankers to carry out bank nationalisation. You can’t expect a
government of landowners to carry out land reform. You can’t expect
a government of generals to carry out peace negotiations.’ Good
points - and that was the central message.
could be summed up as Vsya vlast’ sovyetam (‘All
power to the soviets’), but I actually found more often - and I
think this is the more underlying message - Vsya vlast’ narodu
(‘All power to the people’), and this slogan actually meant
something back then. But something I found to be surprising was that
in the months leading up to the revolution, socialism was downplayed.
‘Socialist revolution’ was hardly mentioned, which is quite
astounding really. There was an article, for example, by Lenin
entitled ‘Paths to the revolution’, published in late September
or October, and it does not mention socialism or socialist
revolution, although it does include all sorts of things like bank
reform and peace negotiations. But after October the rhetoric shifted
very drastically, and ‘steps toward socialism’ was very
why did they downplay socialism before? I am sure it was a conscious
decision, made to try and convince people to carry out the
revolution. Because they were close to the people, if they thought
socialist revolution would appeal to them, then they would have
called for it. They must have known that it would not appeal.
actually carried out the revolution? Well, the workers of Petrograd.
The Bolshevik message that was being relayed to them is the best clue
as to what they thought they were doing. They thought they were
putting in worker-peasant power to defend the revolution, and to
respond to a national crisis that was spiralling out of control. Why
do we not think of things in the same way?
summarise, then, after October the Bolsheviks set up popular,
worker-peasant power, and they adopted the phrase, ‘gradual but
firm and undeviating steps toward socialism’. The first time I came
across that was in Bukharin, but from more recent research I think
that Lenin was the first to use that exact phrase. The new regime had
the will for socialism, but did not promise any particular, concrete
step toward it, because that depended on circumstances. Throughout
the civil war especially there were only infrequent opportunities for
actual socialist measures.
it was considered essential to keep the peasants on board, because
socialism had to have their support. This was part of the regime’s
outlook from the beginning, and this is why I think it is a bit
misleading to say that the Bolsheviks adopted Trotsky’s
perspective, because he did not have this perspective back in
1905-06. But Lenin thought there were going to be rapid steps to a
communal form of agriculture very quickly - right away even - because
of the crisis. That was one of his pet ideas.
my short biography, Lenin, I set out his progressive
disillusionment with both communes and state farms. They were pretty
pathetic during the civil war, and Lenin was perfectly aware of this
and he got more and more exasperated. Not with the peasants - he did
not think it was their fault - but with the people sent to run them.
One thing he emphasised was that there was to be absolutely no use of
force whatsoever. At the height of the civil war he says any use of
force to make peasants adopt any form of collective farming would be
a most unBolshevik thing.
when it looked like the peasants were not going towards communal
forms of agriculture, what was the answer? The Bolsheviks decided
they would have to wait and try to convince the peasants through
other means. Rather different from Stalin in 1931, who may have
started by having a great campaign for collectivisation to convince
everybody, but as soon as the peasants stopped being convinced he
just kept on going. During the civil war, there were peasant
uprisings in response to harsh policies that extracted resources such
as grain from the villages. Under Lenin there was misunderstanding
and violence. However, this was in Bolshevik eyes - and I think
correctly so - seen as an inevitable cost of carrying out policies
which were in the peasants’ direct interest. Namely, defending the
revolution against counterrevolutionary landowners, keeping the
economy going and getting in a new governmental system that would
the civil war was won, because ultimately, after swinging back and
forth, the peasants supported the reds more than the whites. And you
have to remember that the Red Army was a peasant army. If in 1910
someone had said that this urban radical party was going to create a
great peasant army staffed by tsarist officers that would win a civil
war, it would have sounded like the craziest thing ever. It is
amazing that this actually happened and we need to bear that in mind.
And the Bolsheviks learnt this lesson. The traditional historiography
really gets things wrong when it claims that the Bolsheviks
ruthlessly imposed their policies on the peasants, where in reality
it was seen as very important to keep them on board - with the
peasants you could win, without them, you were doomed.
fact, the original Bolshevik scenario of a proletarian revolution
with peasant support - or, to put another way, a worker-peasant
revolution in which the workers are giving political leadership to
the peasants - does account for both the actual occurrence of the
October revolution and its successful defence against
T Cliff Lenin Vol 2, chapter 7: