How Lenin set the course for October

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Lenin's arrival at Finland station, Petrograd, 3 April 1917

Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917, five weeks after a revolution had overthrown the hated Tsar. Alan Gibson sets out the pivotal role Lenin played in arguing that the revolution must go further than change at the top. His April Theses are an object lesson in audacity and leadership.

‘This is the ravings of a madman.” So said Alexander Bogdanov about Vladimir Lenin’s speech in the days following his arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd at the beginning of April 1917 — a speech that Pravda published as The April Theses.

Bogdanov, a former member of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, was far from alone at being shocked by Lenin’s “ravings”. Many of the leading Bolsheviks in Petrograd, and other towns across the country, were also disturbed and bewildered by the analysis he outlined and the programme he proposed. As one of them recalled, “Lenin’s theses produced the impression of an exploding bomb.”

So what had Lenin said? To gain its effect, it is important to first explain what he was addressing. The Bolshevik leader arrived in Petrograd five weeks after the momentous February Revolution had overthrown three centuries of autocratic Romanov rule. Out of the turmoil had arisen, almost simultaneously, two political power blocs: the Provisional Government, comprising bourgeois politicians and property owners, and the Soviet of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies, made up of delegates elected from the mutineering barracks and the workplaces across the city and beyond that had battled with the police and built the barricades during the five days of insurrection.

What became known as the period of dual power had presented a dilemma for both blocs. On the one hand, the Provisional Government could not do anything of any significance without the soviet’s agreement. On the other, the soviet’s leaders believed that, despite the overwhelming power they could wield, the Provisional Government should, almost as a matter of historical principle, be in charge.

This was because the majority, including a number of Bolsheviks, believed that the February uprising had achieved the aim they had pursued ever since the failed revolution of 1905 — a bourgeois democratic revolution led by democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. This aim was based on the belief that Russia’s bourgeois class was too weak and cowardly to carry out a revolution in its own name — proved by their actions, or lack of them, in 1917 — but that Russia must still pass through a period of capitalist rule in order to create the conditions for a workers’ socialist revolution.

It wasn’t only their analysis that drove these leaders’ decisions to hand over power. Initially, the majority of the soviet’s delegates were drawn from petty bourgeois sections of the population who gravitated towards the liberal politicians elected to lead it. And the soviet was making a difference. After all, its Order No 1 — what Trotsky called “the single worthy document of the February Revolution” — enabled the election of soldiers’ committees with control over weapons that could “in no case be given up to the officer”. It also abolished saluting off duty.

These leaders also wanted the Provisional Government in power in order to defend the gains of the revolution against not only a possible Tsarist counter-revolution but from an invading German army. This meant continuing to deal with their warring allies, the French, British and US governments.

But this also meant continuing to send tens of thousands of peasant soldiers to the slaughterhouse of the front, and perpetuating the food shortages and profiteering in the towns and cities. For the Bolsheviks, this meant turning on its head the principle they had followed ever since war was declared in 1914 — to campaign for the defeat of their own country and to turn the imperialist war into a class war. For many, however, February had changed everything. One delegate to a Bolshevik conference held only days before Lenin’s arrival argued that “so long as peace is not concluded we must stand fully armed. We are now defending our budding liberties.”

It was into this mess of conflicting ideas and decisions that Lenin descended from a sealed train on 3 April, to be greeted by thousands of soldiers and workers and an assortment of dignitaries from the soviet and government. Having been presented with an enormous bouquet, he was officially welcomed by Nikolai Chkheidze, a Menshevik and the then chair of the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet.

Chkheidze said, “We consider that the chief task of the revolutionary democracy at present is to defend our revolution against every kind of attack both from with and from without… We hope that you will join us striving towards this goal.” A young naval commander then expressed the hope that Lenin might become a member of the Provisional Government.

According to an eyewitness — Nikolai Sukhanov, a leading member of the Petrograd soviet — “Lenin stood there looking as though what was happening did not concern him in the least…and having turned away from the Executive Committee answered thus: ‘Dear comrades, soldiers and workers, I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian Revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army…the hour is not far when…the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters. The Russian Revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution’.”

Lenin was then carried off amid cheering crowds to what would become the Bolsheviks’ temporary headquarters at one of the city’s vacant mansions. More speeches ensued until Lenin once more, according to Leon Trotsky, “let loose upon that audience a cataract of passionate thought which at times sounded almost like a lashing… The fundamental impression made by Lenin’s speech, even among those nearest to him, was one of fright.”

The next day Lenin presented to the Bolshevik party’s conference a short written summary of his views, The April Theses; what Trotsky later called one of the most important documents of the revolution. In it Lenin said:

1) There should be no concessions to support for the imperialist war;
2) The country was “passing from the first stage of the revolution…to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”;
3) There should be no support for the provisional government — “the utter falsity of promises should be made clear”;
4) The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government.

Lenin continued, calling for the abolition of the police, army and bureaucracy, and for the salaries of all elected officials — all of whom would be displaceable — not to exceed the average worker’s wage. He called for the confiscation of all landed estates and its disposal by local soviets of agricultural labourers’ and peasants’ deputies; the nationalisation of all of the country’s banks into a national bank, under the soviets’ control; and for soviet control over social production and the distribution of products.

Lenin’s words did not come without a warning. Ever since the February events Lenin, then exiled in Zurich, had been sending letters outlining his views on events, and particularly on how the February Revolution had completely overturned his previous perspective.

In his five “Letters from Afar” he accused soviet leaders of treachery for telling workers they must support the Provisional Government. He talked of the need to “smash” the state machine “and substitute a new one for it by merging the police force, the army and the bureaucracy with the entire armed people”, in order to defend the revolution, advance the cause of “bread, peace and freedom”.

But the warnings had clearly not been heeded. The immediate effect of his theses on the assembled delegates was at best one of confusion and at worse hostility. Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, who had assumed editorship of Pravda after having been released from prison during the February events, were particularly unfavourable, with the former claiming the theses lacked “concrete instruction” and insisting the “revolution is bourgeois, not social”.

Many delegates agreed that Lenin must have lost contact with Russia, and did not therefore take into consideration present conditions. But over the coming days, one of the other critical points Lenin had raised came to the fore. This was Lenin’s argument that “as long as we are in a minority we carry on the work of criticism and exposing errors and at the same time preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience.”

Applied to the party, this comprised days of discussion and debate at meetings across Petrograd, and critically at major formal gatherings of delegates from different sections of the Bolshevik party. Three weeks after Lenin had shocked the vast majority of his comrades, he finally won a majority of delegates to his position at the party’s Seventh All Russian Conference.

Lenin’s victory was made easier by the widespread protests and demonstrations that greeted the publication of the Provisional Government’s resolve to “bring the world war to a decisive victory”, and to join with its allies in carving up the spoils between them. The battleships and barracks exploded in fury, and within days huge demonstrations had laid siege to the Marinsky Palace, where the government was meeting. The events showed how quickly tens of thousands of soldiers and workers were moving further away from supporting the government, and towards a revolutionary conclusion to the crisis.

The significance of Lenin’s victory cannot be underestimated. The Bolsheviks had been among the leading left parties for two decades, and despite operating illegally and continually subject to arrest and detention, had built a significant following among workers steeled in militant industrial struggle. What they said made a difference; and even more as the revolution encountered one crisis after another on the road to October.

Lenin arrived in Petrograd at a critical point in the course of the Russian Revolution. His determination to “rearm the party”, to carry out days of debate with his comrades, equipped the Bolsheviks not only with the politics to win more and more build support for what would become the October Revolution, but the confidence to carry it through.

This article has been corrected to say Nikolai Chkheidze was a leading Menshevik, rather than a Bolshevik as appears in the print edition