Mon May 27, 2024
May 27, 2024

When Lenin Became Trotskyist

By: Francesco Ricci

Bourgeois Revolution or Socialist Revolution? Since the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially after the blood-soaked Russian Revolution of 1905, the character of the future revolution in the land of the Tsars has been debated in the workers’ movement, even at the European level.(1) Three theories have been pitted against each other.

Three Opposing Theories

The first theory was that of those who called themselves “orthodox Marxists,” led by the father of Russian Marxism, the Menshevik Georgi Plekhanov. Reducing Marx to a mechanical determinist, they argued that Marx had established, on the basis of alleged “laws of history,” that socialism could arise only in countries with mature capitalism; therefore, in Russia, a backward country, the task of the communists was to advocate a bourgeois revolution led by the bourgeoisie and wait a few decades or centuries until full development opened the way to socialist revolution.(2)

A second theory was that of the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, who since 1903 had formally constituted a faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party, in reality (like the Menshevik faction) a real party in its own right, with its own leading bodies and its own press. Lenin did not question the bourgeois character of the future revolution, but since the bourgeoisie was subordinated to imperialism and therefore incapable of leading its own revolution, he assigned this role to an alliance between the proletariat and the peasants, which would have exhausted the democratic tasks (agrarian reform, democratic freedoms, the eight-hour day, etc.) before the possibility arose. The differences with Menshevik theory were profound in terms of the direction and timing of the revolution: but even here the process was divided into stages, albeit not separated by centuries. For Lenin, the result of the first stage was a “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” i.e., a bourgeois republic of a special type.

Finally, there was a third position, held only by Leon Trotsky, who had played a leading role in 1905 by becoming president of that organism of struggle (and potentially of power) born in the first revolution: the St. Petersburg Soviet. Outside the two factions of the party mentioned above, Trotsky broke with the evolutionist schema held, albeit in different forms, by the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

Like Lenin, Trotsky had no confidence in the liberal bourgeoisie; but unlike Lenin, he did not believe it possible to separate the democratic and socialist tasks into two stages. For this reason, he argued that the revolution should lead to a dictatorship of the hegemonic proletariat in alliance with the poor peasants, which would address the solution of the democratic and socialist tasks, which are inextricably intertwined. For Trotsky, as for Lenin, the development of the transition to socialism in Russia would take place within the framework of the international revolution.

For Trotsky, the “maturity” of Russia for the socialist revolution depended on the degree of socio-economic development (concentration of the industrial proletariat; degree of organization, etc.) of Russia, not in isolation, but as part of a totality including “advanced” and “backward” countries, which, developing in an uneven but combined way, would allow the backward not to follow the same path already trodden by the advanced.(4)

A Train Arrives at Finland Station

The debate we have summarized was not between academics but between militants, and each position had to find its own confirmation or negation in practice, in history, which, as Marx said, is the history of the class struggle. It will be the revolution of 1917 that will conclude the discussion and prove Trotsky right.

In order to guarantee the fulfillment of the democratic objectives (bread, peace, land), it was necessary first to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat (supported by the poor peasants): and therefore it was necessary to overthrow the bourgeois government, which was an obstacle on the road to the full power of the soviets.

On April 3, 1917 (April 16 in our calendar), the so-called “armored train” arrived at the Finnish railway station. On this train were Lenin, Zinoviev, Inessa Armand, Radek and other leaders who had come from exile abroad.

Lenin made a first speech to the Soviet delegation and the workers who had come to greet him. He would repeat the same content many times in the following days: The revolution under way is socialist; for this reason (as he had already anticipated in telegrams and letters to the Bolshevik leadership in the preceding weeks) no support should be given to the Provisional Government (which had been installed after the fall of the Tsar); and it is necessary that the Bolsheviks, in a tiny minority, obtain a majority in the soviets which, under the leadership of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SR), support the provisional government, which is a bourgeois government because of the class nature of the state. (5) On this road it will be necessary, once the majority in the soviets has been achieved, to establish a genuine workers government, that is, a dictatorship of the proletariat, after the bourgeois state has been broken on the revolutionary road.

Objectively, these were the same positions that Trotsky had elaborated ten years earlier with the theory of “permanent revolution.” For this reason, many considered the new program “Trotskyist.”(6)

The Cruel April

“April is the cruelest month,” sang the poet T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland.”(7) Certainly that April of 1917 was cruel to the bourgeoisie, but it was not even kind to the Bolshevik leadership.

When Lenin presented his proposal for programmatic change, summarized in what will be remembered as the April Theses, (8) he initially found himself isolated within his own party.

The new line was the exact opposite of that of his party, which, under the leaders present in Russia at the time, Kamenev and Stalin, maintained the old line of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” and even reinterpreted it with a further distortion to the right, offering “critical support” to the bourgeois government and even preparing to unite with the Mensheviks participating in the bourgeois government.

For Lenin, on the other hand, the old slogan of “democratic dictatorship” was considered worthy of being consigned to the museum of history (from which, unfortunately, it would be resurrected by the Stalinists a decade later).

Only after an intense struggle did Lenin win a majority in the party.(9)

Studying Hegel in Bern

Lenin’s programmatic turning point did not begin in April 1917: it began several years earlier. When, on August 4, 1914, the Second International (to which the Bolsheviks belonged) and its main party (the German SPD) collapsed because almost all national leadership had supported their respective bourgeoisies in the carnage of the First World War. Lenin, like everyone else, confused by this betrayal, feels the need to trace the theoretical “justifications” that cover the material interests of a leading bureaucracy increasingly subordinated to the bourgeoisie and its state.

For this reason, he undertook an apparently abstract study of pure philosophy. He who, a few years earlier, had devoted only one book to exquisitely philosophical subjects, still deeply indebted to Plekhanov’s epistemological conceptions, Materialism and Empiriocriticism (10). He, who considered himself “a dilettante in philosophy”, immersed himself in the study of the history of philosophy, of Aristotle and the Greeks, and especially of Hegel. It seems that he had already read some of the latter’s books: but not the most important one, namely the Science of Logic.(11)

Of this study, carried out between September 1914 and May 1915, only the notes and excerpts remain, published as Philosophical Notebooks.(12)

Armed with this knowledge, Lenin rediscovers, so to speak, the true Marx, deformed by the opportunism of the Second International: the Marx who affirms that “the educator must be educated” (third of the Theses on Feuerbach), that circumstances can be changed by human action, by class struggle, by revolutionary praxis. He finds the Marx who affirms that it is man who makes history, even in circumstances which he has not determined, but which are nevertheless not dictated by non-existent “laws of history” (as Plekhanov claimed), but are inherited from the preceding class struggle. There is no fatalism in this Marx.

It was during this period that Lenin realized that Plekhanov, with whom he had already broken politically in 1904 but who had remained his philosophical point of reference, did not understand the essentials of Marxism.

The Notebooks are full of criticism of Plekhanov: precisely on the points that Lenin had defended on materialism and empiricism. Plekhanov is accused of having criticized idealism “more from the vulgar materialist point of view than from that of the dialectical materialist”; he is accused of having written “on philosophy (on dialectics), perhaps a thousand pages”, but on Hegel’s logic: “nihil”, nothing.

The conclusion is dry. “One cannot fully understand Marx’s Capital (…) unless one has carefully studied and understood all of Hegel’s logic”. And the accusation is not directed only at Plekhanov: “Consequently, after half a century, no Marxist has understood Marx!!!”(13) It is clear that Lenin includes himself and his earlier works: the scathing criticism of Plekhanov implies a clear self-criticism.

The break with the Plekhanovite interpretation of the materialist conception of history is a break with his own previous philosophical consciousness. It is not that before this study Lenin was a tout-court determinist. On the contrary, we maintain that his conception of the vanguard party and of the relationship between party, consciousness, and the masses (socialism conceived not as a spontaneous “reflection” of the struggle, but as something that the workers’ party carries “from outside” the ordinary class conflict) was already deeply dialectical before 1914, in full agreement with the real Marx. We maintain, however, that this dialectical conception, which inspired the construction of the Bolshevik Party, a conception that broke with the determinism of the various Plekhanovs in the political terrain, had not yet been translated into an awareness of the theoretical-philosophical errors contained in Plekhanov’s epistemology. And it is precisely this unresolved contradiction between the two elements that, in our opinion, explains the contradictory program of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants”.

As is well known, this interpretation of Lenin’s maturation and radical change from a philosophical point of view has been defended for years by various authors. Most of them are scholars whose political positions are far removed from ours: but this does not, of course, invalidate their analysis, nor does it oblige us to accept their political conclusions.

We do not have space here to go into the subject in any depth. We will limit ourselves to noting that the philosophical study in Switzerland preceded the most fruitful period of Lenin’s elaboration. AIt was in period in which he studied  imperialism,  war, we can see from the comments on the writings of the most Hegelian of military theorists, von Clausewitz; (15). And his studies of this period also include the polemics on the national question against the position of some Bolsheviks, such as Bukharin, who oppose the demand for self-determination of the oppressed peoples on the basis of a vulgar materialism(16); in addition he studied the Marx-Engelian concept of the State, distorted by Kautsky, another mechanistic interpreter of Marx. All of his studies are what will lead to the April Theses, the “theoretical rearmament” of the Bolsheviks, the implicit acceptance of the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution that will make the October Revolution possible. Undoubtedly this is the most important historical fact in Lenin’s life, but also in the long history of the emancipation of the lower classes. At least until, armed with Lenin’s theoretical legacy, we are able to lead the next revolution to victory.


(1) For more on the debate involving Ryazanov, Kautsky, Parvus, Luxemburg, etc., see the anthology Witnesses to Permanent Revolution (Brill, 2009), edited by D. Gaido and Richard B. Day.

(2) It is an unfounded commonplace that, according to Marx, revolution necessarily had to take place first in Western Europe. In fact, Marx and Engels claimed, for example, that the Russian Revolution could have served “as a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two would complement each other (…)” (see Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, edizioni Lotta Comunista, 2009, pp. 105-107). In several texts, Marx rejects the attribution to him of having elaborated a “historical-philosophical theory” that would impose the same path on all countries: see the letter to the editors of Otiecestvennye Zapiski (1877), in Marx-Engels, Lettere sul Capitale, Laterza, 1971, or the letter of 1881 to the Russian leader Vera Zasulich (ibid.), which Zasulich kept hidden for a long time because it contradicted the supposed Menshevik orthodoxy.

(3) The bourgeois character of the revolution in Russia was an axiom for Lenin at this time. See: “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” (1905), in Collected Works, Editori Riuniti, 1965, vol. 9, pp. 9 ff.

(4) This is the “theory of uneven and combined development”. Exposed by Trotsky in History of the Russian Revolution (1932), edizioni Alegre, 2017, p. 61 ff.

(5) From Switzerland, Lenin sent a telegram to the party leadership on March 6, 1917: “Our tactics: total mistrust, no support for the new government: suspect Kerensky in particular; arm the proletariat, only guarantee (…) no rapprochement with other parties”. He then wrote a series of letters with the same content (“Letters from a Distance,” in op. cit., vol. 23, pp. 297 ff.), only one of which was published in Pravda, abridged.

(6) Leon Trotsky himself states this ironically, op. cit. vol. I, p. 416.

7) T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land [La tierra baldía], (1923), trans. La terra desolata. Quattro quartetti (Feltrinelli, 2014).

(8) V.I. Lenin, “April Theses,” in Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 10 ff.

(9) In the first vote, in the Petrograd Committee on April 12, the Theses were rejected by 13 votes against and 2 votes in favor. At the 7th All-Russian Party Congress (Petrograd, April 24-29), Lenin’s Theses received a majority. But even here, a specific resolution on the question of the socialist character of the revolution received only 71 votes out of 118. For a detailed analysis of the April conference, see Marcel Liebman, La révolution russe (Marabout Université, 1967); or even Jean Jacques Marie, Lénine (Balland, 2004)

(10) V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1908, published in 1909) in Collected Works, vol. 14. This is a polemic with the epistemological positions of a section of the Bolsheviks led by Anatoly Lunacharsky, Vladimir Bazarov and Alexander Bogdanov, author of the three-volume work Empiriocriticism (1904-1906). We undertake to return to this debate in a future specific article.

(11) According to N. Krúpskaia, Bolshevik leader and companion of Lenin, in her My Life with Lenin (Red Star Press, 2019), the young Lenin had already begun to study Hegel, and especially the Phenomenology of Spirit, during his first exile in Siberia. However, no further traces of these early readings have survived.

(12) V.I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, in Collected Works, vol. 38. This editorial title includes both the eight notebooks of 1914-1915 (three of which are devoted to Hegel’s Logic) and earlier philosophical writings.

(13) V.I. Lenin, ibid. pp. 166-167.

(14) We refer in particular to the studies of Michael Löwy, including those published in Dialectique et révolution (Anthropos, 1973); Löwy’s The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Haymarket, 2010); or Kevin Anderson, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism (University of Illinois Press, 1995).

(15) Lenin’s notebook containing excerpts and annotations from von Clausewitz’s main work (On War) is not included in the Collected Works. The most recent edition in Italian is in Lenin, L’arte dell’insurrezione, Gwynplaine, 2010.

(16) Lenin’s polemic (of 1915-1916) against the so-called “imperialist economism” or “Baugy group” (after the name of the Swiss town where they met), Bukharin, Radek, Pyatakov, etc., is contained in volume 23 of the Collected Works.

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