MARX AND THE PERMANENT REVOLUTION – PART 8: Lenin studies the implications of dual power in 1917

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TROTSKY stands by as LENIN addresses a mass meeting in Petrograd
TROTSKY stands by as LENIN addresses a mass meeting in Petrograd

WHEN Lenin saw, on his return to Russia in April 1917, that the ‘democracy’ in Russia proved even less capable of assuming the power than in Germany he was able to recognise and actually diagnose in writing this revolutionary situation of dual power as it unfolded.

The conditions of revolutionary illegality in Tsarist Russia, the backwardness and true bankruptcy of its absolutism, had drilled the lessons of 1871 into its Marxists – which was also why he could so confidently commend, in his Two Tactics of 1905, the ‘enormous difference’ between the German party of 1848 and the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party that he led. How could Lenin not have had in mind the Paris Commune, when he wrote as follows in What is to be Done? of conditions where a centralised organisation ‘may too easily rush into a premature attack, may thoughtlessly intensify the movement before the growth of political discontent, the intensity of the ferment and anger of the working class etc. have made such an attack possible and necessary’?

But he’d answered himself: ‘Our reply to this is: Speaking abstractedly, it cannot be denied of course that a militant organisation may thoughtlessly engage in battle, which may end in a defeat entirely avoidable under other conditions. But we cannot confine ourselves to abstract reasoning on such a question, because every battle bears within itself the abstract possibility of defeat, and there is no way of reducing this possibility except by organised preparation for battle. If, however, we proceed from the concrete conditions at present obtaining in Russia, we must come to the positive conclusion that a strong revolutionary organisation is absolutely necessary precisely for the purpose of giving stability to the movement and of safeguarding it against the possibility of making thoughtless attacks.’ It was such a party that he sought to build from 1902 onwards.

So this is the crux of this point: that Lenin was able to recognise the dual power as it arose not only as a Marxist, but also as a representative of a democratic and centralist, revolutionary Marxist party built and prepared for such a situation; i.e. of the Bolshevik Party, through whose gains of two decades and more he could best gauge and ascertain every political situation. That was how he came, then, to write after completing his April Theses: ‘The basic question of every revolution is that of state power . . . The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power…’

Explaining its characteristics, he continued: ‘What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of the bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing – the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

‘What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e. a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance is often overlooked, often not given enough thought, yet it is the crux of the matter.

‘This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871…’

He also stressed, concerning the fact of the dual power: ‘This fact must be grasped first and foremost: unless it is understood, we cannot advance. We must know how to supplement and amend “old formulas”, for example, those of Bolshevism, for while they have been found to be correct on the whole, their concrete realisation has turned out to be different. Nobody previously thought, or could have thought, of a dual power.’

Clearly, then, Lenin hadn’t fully anticipated such a dual power before his return, at the time he was writing his Letters from Afar on the basis of foreign newspaper reports. But he had already urged the Russian workers to proceed to a second revolution; and even before indicting the approved representative of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in Russia’s Provisional Government, Kerensky, as ‘the Russian Louis Blanc’, he’d insisted that only a ‘proletarian republic, backed by the rural workers and the poorest sections of the peasants and town dwellers, can secure peace, provide bread, order and freedom’. He also commended the Soviet’s reported call for a members’ ‘supervising committee’ to oversee the Provisional Government’s conduct, insisting this should lead, ‘immediately and despite all obstacles, to the formation of a workers’ militia, or workers’ home guard, extending to the whole people…which would …replace the exterminated and dissolved police force (and) make the latter’s restoration impossible by any government…’

Then, by the time of his third letter, he had also begun to seek to ensure certain key developments might take root even before his arrival: ‘If we want to be Marxists,’ he began, ‘and learn from the experience of revolution in the whole world, we must strive to understand in what, precisely, lies the peculiarity of this transitional moment, and what tactics follow from its objective specific features. . .

‘Under certain circumstances, the new government can at best postpone its collapse somewhat by leaning on all the organisational ability of the entire Russian bourgeoisie and bourgeois intelligentsia. But even in that case it is unable to avoid collapse, because it is impossible to escape from the claws of the terrible monster of imperialist war and famine nurtured by world capitalism, unless one renounces bourgeois relationships, passes to revolutionary measures, appeals to the supreme historic heroism of both the Russian and the world proletariat.

‘Hence the conclusion: we cannot overthrow the new government at one stroke, or, if we can (in revolutionary times the limits of what is possible expand a thousandfold) we will not be able to maintain power unless we counter the magnificent organisation of the entire Russian bourgeoisie and the entire bourgeois intelligentsia with an equally magnificent organisation of the proletariat, which must lead the entire vast mass of urban and rural poor, the semi-proletariat and small proprietors…

‘Guided by their class instinct, the workers have realised that in revolutionary times they need not only ordinary, but an entirely different organisation. They have taken the path indicated by the experience of our 1905 Revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune; they have set up a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies; they have begun to develop, expand and strengthen it by drawing in soldiers’ deputies, and, undoubtedly, deputies from rural wage-workers, and then (in one form or another) from the entire peasant poor.

‘The prime and most important task, and one that brooks no delay, is to set up organisations of this kind in all parts of Russia without exception, for all trades and strata of the proletarian and semi-proletarian population without exception, i.e. for all the working and exploited people, to use a less economically exact but more popular term. Running ahead somewhat, I shall mention that for the entire mass of the peasantry our Party . . . should especially recommend Soviets of wage workers and Soviets of small tillers who do not sell grain, to be formed separately from the well-to-do peasants. Without this, it will be impossible either to conduct a truly proletarian policy in general, or correctly to approach the extremely important practical question which is a matter of life and death for millions of people: the proper distribution of grain, increasing its production, etc.

‘It might be asked: What should be the function of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies? They “must be regarded as organs of insurrection, of revolutionary rule”, we wrote in…1915. This theoretical proposition, deduced from the experience of the Commune of 1871 and of the Russian Revolution of 1905, must be explained and concretely developed on the basis of precisely the present stage of the present revolution in Russia…

‘We need a revolutionary government, we need (for a certain transitional period) a state. . . We need a state, but not the kind the bourgeoisie needs, with organs of government in the shape of a police force, an army and a bureaucracy (officialdom) separate from and opposed to the people. All bourgeois revolutions merely perfected this state machine, merely transferred it from the hands of one party to those of another.

‘The proletariat, on the other hand, if it wants to uphold the gains of the present revolution and proceed further, to win peace, bread and freedom, must “smash”, to use Marx’s expression, this “ready-made” state machine and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people. Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat must organise and arm all the poor exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power…

‘These measures do not yet constitute socialism. They concern the distribution of consumption, not the reorganisation of production. They would not yet constitute the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, only the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasantry”. It is not a matter of finding a theoretical classification. We would be committing a great mistake if we attempted to force the complex, urgent, rapidly developing practical tasks of the revolution into the Procrustean bed of narrowly conceived “theory” instead of regarding theory primarily and predominantly as a guide to action…

‘What we do know definitely, and what we, as a party, must explain to the masses is, on the one hand, the immense power of the locomotive of history that is engendering an unprecedented crisis, starvation and incalculable hardship. That locomotive is the war, waged for predatory aims by the capitalists of both belligerent camps. This “locomotive” has brought a number of the richest, freest and most enlightened nations to the brink of doom. It is forcing the peoples to strain to the utmost all their energies, placing them in unbearable conditions, putting on the order of the day not the application of certain “theories” (an illusion against which Marx always warned socialists), but implementation of the most extreme practical measures; for without extreme measures, death – immediate and certain death from starvation – awaits millions of people.’

Among the key demands of the April Theses were:

• ‘In our attitude towards the war . . . not the slightest concession to “revolutionary defencism” is permissible…The class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war , which would really justify revolutionary defencism, only on condition: a) that the power pass to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants allied with the proletariat; b) that all annexations be renounced in deed and not in word; c) that a complete break be effected in actual fact with all capitalist interests.

• ‘Not a parliamentary republic – to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step – but a Republic of Soviets of Workers, Agricultural Labourers and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country…

• ‘Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy. The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker…

• ‘Confiscation of all landed estates. Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants Deputies. The organisation of separate Soviets of Deputies of Poor Peasants…

• ‘The immediate amalgamation of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies…

• ‘Party tasks: a) Immediate convocation of a Party Congress; b) Alteration of the Party Programme, mainly: 1) On the question of imperialism and the imperialist war; 2) On our attitude towards the state and our demand for a “commune state”; 3) Amendment of our out-of-date minimum programme. c) Change of the party’s name.

• ‘A new International. We must take the initiative in creating a revolutionary International, an International against the social-chauvinists and against the “Centre”.’

It was Lenin’s Marxist analysis of the regime of dual power in Russia, and his revolutionary conclusions concerning it, that brought his and Trotsky’s position on the revolution, namely its source, its tasks and its future development to the point where they were identical.

This enabled them to jointly lead the successful October revolution, part of whose permanence was that it was the beginning of the world socialist revolution, which was why they founded the Communist International. The majority of the Bolshevik leadership did not accept Lenin’s conclusions without a major fight – they were in fact considering joining the Provisional Government.