Sun Sep 25, 2022
September 25, 2022

1917-2017: Lenin’s April Theses – A Scandalous Text for Old and New Reformists

It’s a delusion, it’s the delirium of a madman!” – (A. Bogdanov, Menshevik, referring to Lenin’s April Theses)
By Francesco Ricci.
 
It is April 3, 1917 (April 16 of our calendar) when the so-called ‘sealed train’ that houses Lenin, Zinoviev, Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, Radek and others arrives at the Finland Station. To welcome him, there is a delegation from the Petrograd Soviet, led by the Menshevik Cheidze, who gives a welcoming address. Lenin turns his back on him and heads for the crowd. Trotsky writes: “The speech which Lenin delivered at the Finland railway station on the socialist character of the Russian revolution was a bombshell to many [Bolshevik, the editor] leaders of the party.[1]
Lenin, once again, explains his position to 200 militants who, on the evening of April 3, hear him in Petrograd. Among them is Nicolaj Soukhanov (Menshevik Internationalist), who in his Memoirs recounts the effect that this discourse caused: “(…) it seemed that all the elements had come out of their refuges and that the spirit of universal destruction, that did not respect limits nor doubts… hover in the room…“. When Lenin finishes speaking, applauses are heard, but the Bolshevik leaders looked puzzled.
Lenin pointed at the same time to a change of strategy and the necessity, to implement the new line, of destroying the overwhelming influence of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries in the Soviets (the Bolsheviks were a small minority at that time). Coincidentally, and just the next day, a meeting had been organized to move towards the reunification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks…
Soukhanov, who watches, writes: “At this meeting, Lenin seemed to be the living the incarnation of splitting and the whole meaning of his discourse consisted chiefly in burying the idea of unification.[2]
Learning with the Paris Commune
Let us just take a step back. Shortly after learning of the outbreak of the February revolution, Lenin begins, from his exile in Switzerland, a battle to change radically the Party’s strategy. First, on March 6 he sent a telegram to the party: “Our tactics: no trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is especially suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee; … no rapprochement with other parties.[3]
In March, he writes the Letters From Afar (Pravda will publish only an edited one). At the heart of these later letters and fundamental texts, among which the April Theses stand out, of which we shall deal next, there is the example of the Paris Commune, which Lenin had studied again in those months while he was writing the so-called Blue Notebook (Marxism and the State), a collection of commented quotations of all the concepts expressed by Marx and Engels on the theme of the State, the work that will be the basis to write The State and the Revolution.[4]
The revolution that is developing in Russia, says Lenin, is a socialist revolution. Therefore, the aim of the revolution is to “break the bourgeois state,” as the Parisian workers did, and to replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is, it is not a question of changing the ruler of the old state machine, but of destroying it and substituting an entirely new one for it. But to achieve this goal, it is necessary to affirm the complete independence of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie and the provisional government, which is a bourgeois government, although it is currently supported by the Soviets (where the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks have the majority).
When Lenin Became a… “Trotskyist”
It is not possible to appreciate in depth the changes proposed by Lenin without reminding the previous position sustained by the Bolsheviks for years.
From the beginning of the century on, there were three different conceptions of the future Russian revolution[5].
The Mensheviks, in the name of a supposed “Marxist orthodoxy” (in fact, misrepresenting Marx and attributing to him a non-dialectical evolutionist conception of history), believed that Russia should go through a stage of capitalistic industrial development before the socialist revolution – after a considerable period – could succeed. Therefore, there should be a democratic revolution led by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as a subordinate ally, which would free the country from Tsarism, where social-democracy would be the left wing of the “democratic front” led by Liberals. After centuries of capitalist development, the time for socialist revolution would come.
Trotsky’s position was at the opposite pole: he believed that the national bourgeoisie was incapable of achieving democratic goals and therefore foresaw a socialist revolution, led by the proletariat that would hegemonize the poor peasants, to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and assume, continually, the democratic and (on an international scale of an expanding revolution) the socialist tasks (expropriation of big industry, etc.). This would be possible because of the “uneven and combined development” of society and the international revolution that would allow Russia (like other underdeveloped countries) to “leap” a few steps, breaking an “evolutionary” stages scheme, that would be replaced by the “permanent revolution”.
Lenin’s and the Bolsheviks’ position laid between both: the bourgeois revolution “directed to the end,” but (given the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie, tied by a thousand ties to foreign capital) led by the proletariat and the peasantry (In an “algebraic” alliance, according to Trotsky’s critique), to establish a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants.” It is not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but a republic within the limits of bourgeois democracy, as a prelude to a rapid development towards the socialist revolution (its pace being dictated by the European revolution). Lenin believed, therefore, as the Mensheviks did, in a bourgeois revolution, although, unlike the Mensheviks, he managed another leadership, of workers and peasants, independent of the bourgeoisie. His program was different, too, stressing the confiscation of the land of the nobles and the Church; and a different perspective from that anticipated by the Mensheviks – there would be no centuries separating this first revolution from the successive socialist revolution.
The February revolution was the confirmation (at least for those who wanted to think) that the only correct and viable conception was Trotsky’s. To guarantee the achievement of the democratic objectives (agrarian revolution, reduction of the working day, peace, the Constituent Assembly), it was necessary first to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat (supported by the poor peasants) based on the Soviets. Therefore, it was necessary to destroy the bourgeois rule, which represented an obstacle on the path to the full power of the Soviets.
Lenin did not hesitate to abandon the old theory and, to great scandal of many, he began to defend, indeed, the theory that Trotsky had elaborated over ten years ago. That is why Trotsky comments: “It is not strange that Lenin’s April Theses were condemned as Trotskyist.”[6]
The Rediscovery of Dialectic in Marxism
It was rightly observed by several scholars[7] that the change advocated by Lenin at the Finland station was based, from a theoretical point of view, on the study of Hegel’s Science of Logic, which Lenin began in 1914. A study he felt necessary to explain the betrayal of the Second International in World War I and to understand the complete capitulation of his masters of the past: Plekhanov and Kautsky (the latter, along with the bureaucratic deviation of the SPD, was progressively abandoning Marxism, of which he had been the “red pope” in the II International).
In those months, closed in the library of Bern, Lenin discovers another Marx, decontaminated of the Feuerbachian prejudices. A dialectical Marxism (that of the Theses on Feuerbach, written by Marx in 1845), born out of the rupture with the “old materialism.” A Marxism based on the understanding of the subject-object dialectic, devoid of any causal conception, which contrasts with that mechanical determinism, which had also partially influenced him during a period (let us think about his Materialism and Empiriocriticism of 1909). It is the discovery of the true Marx, who had been distorted by his disciples and deformed by the opportunism of the Second International: the Marx who affirms “the educator must be educated” (the third Theses on Feuerbach), that is, circumstances may be altered by human action, by the class struggle, by revolutionary praxis. Lenin rediscovers Marx who claims that man makes history, even in circumstances he has not determined. In this Marx, there is no “law of historical development,” which prescribes to every people a linear evolution, no determinism.
It is the rupture with the ossified Marxism of Plekhanov that, not by chance, before the October Revolution, will exclaim: “It is the violation of all the laws of history.”
It is in this crucial passage, condensed in his Philosophical Notebooks[8] that Lenin, contemplating Hegel’s books, grabs the dialectic that Marx had absorbed from Hegel and to which he had conferred a revolutionary character. Lenin should not start from scratch: he is always the only one who, since 1902, branding his vanguard party theory that brings socialism “out” of the day-to-day clash between classes, had implicitly rejected socialism understood as a mere product of the impulse of “economic laws”. In Bern, so to speak, he begins to solve a contradiction that remained in his thinking: the contradiction between the conception of the party and its program.
Lenin’s Struggle to “Rearm” the Party
Most of the Bolshevik leadership do not immediately understand the need for Lenin’s change.
Kamenev and Stalin, the main leaders before Lenin’s arrival in Russia, remain anchored in the previous position (which they, furthermore, deformed it to the right) and believe that the Bolsheviks should provide support to the provisional government “to the extent that” it would implement certain policies; that is, it is about “pushing” the government forward. For them, the revolution lives its first stage: the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”, while the socialist one could only develop in an afterward stage. Thus, the Bolsheviks, before Lenin’s arrival, approached the Mensheviks’ positions: for example, on the question of war, the Pravda under Stalin and Kamenev repudiates the revolutionary defeatism that had characterized Bolshevism and pleases the resolution of the Social-Patriots on the war, approved by the Soviets of the Moscow region with the support of the Bolsheviks.
At the party’s National Conference, which begins in Petrograd on March 27, Stalin presents the report on the government. In his report, he argues that the interim government is consolidating the revolutionary achievements and therefore the task of the soviets is to “control” and push it forward. As a logical consequence, Stalin presents a motion for merging with the Mensheviks, which is passed by 14 votes to 13. It is understandable why, once the bureaucracy consolidates its power, Stalin will censure the minutes of this Conference (published only in the 1960s).
The April Theses
The April Theses are undoubtedly the most important text written in the frenetic months of the Russian revolution. It is a short text: 10 theses written on five or six pages, published in the Pravda on April 7 (20, according to our calendar).
Let us reread it together.
Thesis 1: Rejection of the “revolutionary defensism” line of the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, which supports the continuity of the war.
Thesis 2: The bourgeoisie robbed the power of the proletariat, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organization of the latter; it is necessary to reverse the situation by returning power to the proletariat supported by the poor peasants. It is not a task for an indeterminate future: it is “the duty of the present moment”.
Thesis 3: No (even though critical) support for the Provisional Government. On the contrary, relentless exposure of its bourgeois nature. By reversing the policy hitherto pursued by Kamenev and Stalin, it should be pointed out that the government should not be supported under conditions, it should not be “critically stimulated” because it would only mean “sowing illusions” about the (impossible) fact that a bourgeois government could reconcile the interests of the two mortal class enemies, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This fundamental thesis deserves an observation: for Lenin, it is not a matter of obeying abstract criteria, a dogma. The fact is that supporting a bourgeois government in any way means creating obstacles to gain the proletariat’s consciousness of the need to “break” the bourgeois state machine, an inevitable step in forming a “workers’ government for the workers.”
Thesis 4: Since the Bolsheviks are in “a small minority” in the soviets, as against the “opportunist elements”, it is necessary to patiently explain to the masses why they are following a wrong policy and why it is necessary to transfer “the entire state power to the Soviets.”
Thesis 5: The objective is not a bourgeois parliamentary republic, but a republic of the Soviets, that is to say, the dissolution of the repressive forces, the replacement of the permanent army with the armament of the proletariat, the eligibility and revocability of all officials at any time.
Thesis 6: Confiscation of all landed estates and nationalization of all lands under the control of the Soviets.
Thesis 7: Union of all banks into a single national bank under the control of the Soviets.
Thesis 8: To bring social production and distribution under the control of the Soviets.
Thesis 9: Consistently with all this, it is necessary to immediately summon a congress and change the program and the party’s name to Communist Party.
Thesis 10: The immediate creation of a new revolutionary International against the reformists and against the “Center” (Kautsky, Chkheidze, etc.).[9]
Lenin dismisses the old program, summed up as the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” as “a formula that is already antiquated” and the person who speaks only of it “should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques.” However, Stalin will revive it in the course of the Soviets bureaucratic degeneration in the coming decades, but this is another story.[10]
Trotsky’s Arrival: “The Best Bolshevik”
On April 12, the Pravda publishes an article by Kamenev that criticizes the April Theses stressing that they are Lenin’s personal position, not the party’s. Kamenev adds that Lenin’s line is unacceptable since he proposes the immediate transformation of the revolution into a socialist one, something that for Kamenev (and not only for him) reminds much of Trotsky’s position that the Bolsheviks had fought.
In the following days, Lenin began a hard fractional battle and managed to gain the support of an important part of the working class, that, on the other hand (as the Vyborg workers, the party’s backbone), had already expressed strong criticism of the Pravda’s policy. However, that takes time: he is not immediately successful. In his first attempt, in a Petrograd Committee session, on April 12, the Theses were voted down by 13 votes to 2 and 1 abstention. A week later, at a conference in the Petrograd region, Lenin beats Kamenev by 20 votes to 6, and 9 abstentions. Finally, at the party’s 7th Pan-Russian Conference (Petrograd, April 24-29), Lenin’s Theses won the majority. Nonetheless, a specific resolution on the theme of the socialist “character” of the revolution secures only 71 votes out of 118[11]: The old “complete the democratic revolution first” thought still attaches a sector of the party. Consequently, this wing of the party (most notably Kamenev, Rykov, Nogin, while Stalin in the meantime aligns with the majority) thinks that the role of the Soviets is simply to “control” the power that should remain in the hands of the provisional government.
On the question of the change of the party’s name, which he proposed to set the party more clearly from the Mensheviks, Lenin gets only his own vote. It is not a simple victory, therefore, and the fact that the provisional government was approaching a first deep crisis, facing street demonstrations, certainly helped him. Above all, as Trotsky observes,[12] Lenin’s victory over the party’s right wing recalls the fact that, in addition to the wrong programmatic formula of a “democratic dictatorship,” the Bolshevik party had been preparing for fifteen years to be at the head of the proletariat in the struggle for power. In those decisive months, its membership acted unconsciously looking for another perspective and, in practice, overcoming its own leadership. Lenin would illuminate them with the April Theses.
Meanwhile, on May 4 (17 in the new calendar), Trotsky also arrives in Petrograd. He had spent the first few months of the year in New York after being expelled from Spain and France. A campaign by the Petrograd Soviet releases him from prison in the Amhrest military camp, Canada, where he stayed for one month, and prompts him to come back. In the first weeks after the outbreak of the revolution, he had written a great deal of articles (mostly published in the Russian-language journal Novy Mir) where he resumed his theory of “permanent revolution” and developed it in concrete terms: Irreconcilable opposition to the provisional government as an indispensable premise to transfer all power to the Soviets and thus to develop the socialist revolution.
Trotsky begins the collaboration with Lenin, just after his arrival. It will result in the merger of the Interdistrict group[13] with the Bolsheviks. While Lenin overcomes his “centrist” program of “democratic dictatorship,” Trotsky overcomes his “centrist” critiques of the Bolshevik-type party and abandons his unitary point of view. In fact, since 1914 he has been gradually shifting his position to conclude that “it was necessary not only an ideological struggle against Menshevism (…) but also an organizational uncompromising rupture“.[14]
Thus, the “permanent revolution” ceases to be considered (at least until the beginning of the Stalinization process, in 1924) Trotsky’s only idea but turns to be the practice and patrimony of Bolshevism and the successive Communist International (1919). Trotsky, in Lenin’s assertion, is “the best Bolshevik”.
An Essential Lesson for Today
What position would the world left have assumed, in the hundredth anniversary of the October revolution, if they had witnessed it? For us, the answer is quite simple: the major left would have supported the Provisional Government, delivering ministers to its cabinet; another part (which we have defined as “centrist”, i.e. semi-reformist) would have given “critical” support, breeding illusions on the possibility of pushing the government to the left by means of street actions. While only a small part of the world left (certainly the IWL-FI, and who else?) would act according to Lenin’s line in that telegram: no support for the government, no rapprochement with other left parties that support the government.
Are we wrong? No, and the confirmation of this comes from the mere observation of what the whole left has done in the last decades but us. It is enough to observe the policy of the Italian Communist Refoundation party in this quarter of a century: support for the two-term imperialist Prodi governments with its own minister, or the support given by the entire reformist and semi-reformist left in recent years for the Greek “left-wing” bourgeois government of Tsipras as a model to be followed. The same as the PT’s administrations in Brazil, cited as an example of the ability to govern capitalism differently, reconciling the interests of the opposite classes.
Are these not the proof that all this left, if they were present in the 1917 revolution, would have been on the opposite side of Lenin?
In making this observation, we should add that when we speak of the Prodi, Lula-Dilma, and Tsipras governments, we are not talking about governments born out of a revolution and supported by the soviets, like those to whom – in any case – the Bolsheviks opposed in 1917! Therefore, we must conclude that present-day reformism stands on an even lower step than that Menshevik reformism which, according to Trotsky’s famous definition, had earned the right to end up in the trash bin of history.
Thus, the April Theses continue, a century later, being a scandalous text for the reformists, while they celebrate October as a glorious event of the past, emptied of its teachings. These teachings, on the contrary, we must recover, so that the working class can move, with the struggles and the revolution, toward a new October.
***
Translation: Marcos Margarido.
**
Notes:
[1] Trotsky, The Lessons of October, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/ch4.htm
[2] N. Soukhanov, Le Discours de Lénine du 3 Avril 1917, published by Cahiers du Mouvement Ouvrier, n. 27, 2005, Editor J.J. Marie. Our translation.

[3] Lenin, Telegram to the Bolsheviks Leaving for Russia, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/mar/06.htm.

[4] To learn more of the Letters From Afar and the Paris Commune, read our recent article published on the IWL-FI website: 1871-1917: Por que os bolcheviques estudaram a Comuna de Paris para fazer a Revolução de Outubro
[5] We presented this debate in a more detailed fashion in What is the theory of permanent revolution?, published in Trotskismo Oggi, n. 1, September 2011.
[6] Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. I, p. 347.
[7] There are a number of studies, as by Michael Löwy, including “From Hegel’s Great Logic to Petrograd’s Finland Station” in Dialectique et Révolution (Anthropos, 1973), or the more recent and interesting one (although we do not share some of its conclusions) by Kevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel & Western Marxism: A Critical Study (University of Illinois Press, 1995).
[8] V. I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, in Collected Works, Volume 38.
[9] V. I. Lenin, April Theses, in Collected Works, Volume 24 – www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/04.htm
[10] The expressions in quotation marks in this sentence are from Lenin, Letters on Tactics (Collected Works, Volume 24).
[11] For a detailed analysis of the vote at the April Conference, see Marcel Liebman, La révolution russe (Marabout Université, 1967) or Jean Jacques Marie, Lenin (Balland, 2004).
[12] Read Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, especially the chapters: “The Bolsheviks and Lenin” and “The rearming of the party,” for an overview of the question of the April Theses and the struggle in the party.
[13] The Interdistrict Group or Mezhraionka, an organization of about 4,000-5,000 militants, was more like a coordination of ex-Mensheviks and ex-Bolsheviks. Ioffe, Lunacharsky, Antonov-Ovseenko, Urickij were members. To read more, see Ian D. Thatcher, The St. Petersburg / Petrograd Mezhraionka, 1913-1917: The Rise and Fall of a Movement for Social-Democratic Unity in Slavonic & East European Review, 87, 2009.
[14] On this, see Leon Trotsky, “The Rearming of the Party,” in History of the Russian Revolution.

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