Letter to Phil Shannon
November 19, 1995
By Doug Lorimer
I thought it would be helpful to follow up the brief comments in my letter in this week's Green Left with a direct letter to you on the points raised in your letter in GLW 211.
Rather than begin by responding to the specific arguments you raised in your letter, I think it will help clarify the issues if I begin with a general presentation of how I assess the differences between Lenin and Trotsky on the relationship between the bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions. I will then take up the specific arguments raised in your letter.
In making such a general presentation it will be necessary for me to extensively cite quotations from Lenin's writings. This is unavoidable since at the heart of the dispute between us is the question of what Lenin's position was before 1917 and whether or not he changed his position in 1917. Settlement of the dispute is therefore impossible without an examination of what Lenin actually wrote on this subject.
All currents within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party recognised that the immediate objective task facing the working people of Russia was to carry through a bourgeois-democratic revolution – to bring down the Tsarist autocracy, abolish semi-feudal landlordism, and secure political liberties. However, the two main currents in the RSDLP – the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks – held fundamentally opposing views about what strategy the Russian working class and its political vanguard should pursue to achieve this immediate objective task.
Looking back on these differences following the October Revolution, Lenin described the basic lines of divergence between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in his November 1918 pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Since the tasks of the impending revolution were bourgeois-democratic, Lenin said, the Mensheviks argued that "the proletariat must not go beyond what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie and must pursue a policy of compromise with it." The Bolsheviks, Lenin wrote, replied that "this was a bourgeois-liberal theory. The bourgeoisie were trying to bring about the reform of the [tsarist] state on bourgeois, reformist, not revolutionary lines, while preserving the monarchy, the landlord system, etc., as far as possible." In direct opposition to the Mensheviks' reformist strategy, the Bolsheviks argued that the "proletariat must carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end, not allowing itself to be `bound' by the reformism of the bourgeoisie."
The Mensheviks viewed the impending bourgeois-democratic revolution as a revolution that would open up a prolonged period of capitalist rule. For the Mensheviks, the role of the working class was to help put the bourgeoisie in power. The Mensheviks therefore sought to forge a strategic alliance with the "enlightenened liberal" elements of the bourgeoisie to achieve the bourgeois-democratic revolution. In opposition to this, the Bolsheviks regarded the impending bourgeois revolution in Russia as fundamentally a peasant revolution against landlordism. They therefore sought to forge a strategic alliance between the working class and the peasantry to accomplish the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Furthermore, they believed the victory of the peasant-democratic revolution would open the door to the proletarian-socialist revolution.
"The Bolsheviks," Lenin wrote, "formulated the alignment of class forces in the bourgeois revolution as follows: The proletariat, winning over the peasants, will neutralise the liberal bourgeoisie and utterly destroy the monarchy, medievalism and the landlord system."
Lenin pointed out that it "is the alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry in general that reveals the bourgeois character of the revolution, for the peasants in general are small producers who exist on the basis of commodity production. Further, the Bolsheviks then added, the proletariat will win over the entire semi-proletariat (all the working and exploited people), will neutralise the middle peasants and overthrow the bourgeoisie; this will be a socialist revolution, as distinct from a bourgeois-democratic revolution. (See my pamphlet Two Tactics, published in 1905 and reprinted in Twelve Years, St. Petersburg, 1907.)"
This was a reference to Lenin's July 1905 pamphlet Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, in which he had presented the above view of the strategic tasks of the working class in the Russian revolution in the context of a polemic against Menshevik leader (and later Stalinist) Aleksandr Martynov.
Unlike the Mensheviks, who ruled the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia off the historical agenda until it had passed through a prolonged period of capitalist industrialisation under a bourgeois parliamentary regime, Lenin argued that the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution by an alliance of the workers and peasants, led by the Marxist party, would enable the working class to forge an anti-capitalist alliance with the semi-proletarian majority of the peasants and pass uninterruptedly on to the socialist revolution. He explained this point as follows in his 1905 article, "Social Democracy's Attitude Toward the Peasant Movement": "... from the democratic revolution we shall pass at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class conscious and organised proletariat, to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.
"If we do not now and immediately promise all sorts of `socialisation' that is because we know the actual conditions for that task to be accomplished, and do not gloss over the new class struggle burgeoning within the peasantry, but reveal that struggle...
"To try to calculate now what the combination of forces will be within the peasantry `on the day after' the revolution (the democratic revolution) is empty utopianism... We shall bend every effort to help the entire peasantry achieve the democratic revolution, in order thereby to make it easier for us, the party of the proletariat, to pass on as quickly as possible to the new and higher task – the socialist revolution."
The immediate strategic aim of Bolshevik activity in Russia therefore was to educate and organise the working class so that it could lead the peasant masses in the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy and the establishment of a "provisional revolutionary government." In its class character and tasks, the Bolsheviks said, such a government would be a "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry." In Two Tactics, Lenin explained that this "slogan defines the classes upon which the new `builders' of the new [political] superstructure can and must rely, the character of the superstructure (a `democratic' as distinct from a socialist dictatorship), and how it is to be built (dictatorship, i.e., the forcible suppression of resistance by force and the arming of the revolutionary classes of the people)."
Through what forms of organisation would this revolutionary worker-peasant dictatorship be realised? In November 1905, a month after the workers formed the first soviet in Russia, Lenin pointed out in his first article on the soviets that "the Soviets of Workers' Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government." In his "Speech on the Attitude to the Bourgeois Parties" to the 5th Congress of the RSDLP (1907), Lenin stated: "In all the embryonic organs of revolutionary power (the Soviets of Workers' Deputies, the Soviets of Peasants' and Soldiers' Deputies, etc.) representatives of the proletariat were the main participants, followed by the most advanced of the insurgent peasantry."
A revolutionary dictatorship – or state power – organised through the soviets, which united the representatives of the proletariat and the insurgent peasantry – that, Lenin argued, would be the basis of the provisional revolutionary government.
What would be the relationship between the proletariat and the peasantry in the bourgeois-democratic revolution? "Our Party," Lenin wrote in 1909, "holds firmly to the view that the role of the proletariat is the role of leader in the bourgeois-democratic revolution; that joint actions of the proletariat and the peasantry are essential to carry it through to victory; that unless political power is won by the revolutionary classes, victory is impossible." (CW, Vol. 15, p. 379)
In his 1918 pamphlet polemicising against Kautsky Lenin pointed out that the Bolsheviks' strategic perspectives had been verified by the course of developments in Russia in 1917-18: "Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the `whole' of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and the second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully, to vulgarise it, to substitute liberalism in its place._._.
"The victorious Bolshevik revolution meant the end of vacillation, meant the complete destruction of the monarchy and of the landlord system (which had not been destroyed before the October Revolution). We carried the bourgeois revolution to its conclusion. The peasantry supported us as a whole. Their antagonism to the socialist proletariat could not reveal itself all at once. The Soviets united the peasants in general. The class divisions among the peasants had not yet matured, had not yet come into the open.
"That process took place in the summer and autumn of 1918._._. A wave of kulak [rich peasant] revolts swept over Russia. The poor peasants learned, not from books or newspapers, but from life itself, that their interests were irreconcilably antagonistic to those of the kulaks, the rich, the rural bourgeoisie._._.
"A year after the proletarian revolution in the capitals, and under its influence and with its assistance, the proletarian revolution began in the remote rural districts, and it has finally consolidated the power of the Soviets and Bolshevism, and has finally proved there is no force in the country that can withstand it.
"Having completed the bourgeois-democratic revolution in alliance with the peasants as a whole, the Russian proletariat finally passed on to the socialist revolution when it succeeded in splitting the rural population, in winning over the rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, and in uniting them against the kulaks and the bourgeoisie, including the peasant bourgeoisie."
How then did Trotsky's pre-1917 views on this question differ from those of Lenin and the Bolsheviks?
Trotsky was in basic agreement with the Bolsheviks on the question of what approach the working class should take toward the liberal bourgeoisie. He agreed with them that the bourgeoisie would ally itself more closely to the old order as the revolution advanced, and that the proletariat should not look to it for leadership or regard it as a reliable or strategic ally in the struggle against the Tsarist autocracy and the social class it was based on, i.e., semi-feudal landed nobility (as the Mensheviks urged). Trotsky agreed with the Bolsheviks that the working class, through its own party, had to play the role of political leader in the Russian revolution.
Trotsky had initially lined up with the Mensheviks following the split in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party in 1903, but he broke with them over the above issue a year later in 1904. This was the key dividing line between a revolutionary working-class position and a petty-bourgeois reformist one in the Russian revolution. Trotsky placed himself in the camp of revolution and remained there, despite serious errors and vacillations, through to 1917, when he came over to Bolshevism. Trotsky's pre-1917 differences with the Bolsheviks were fundamental, however.
While the Bolsheviks recognised that the working class needed to forge an alliance with the peasantry as a whole (including the peasant bourgeoisie, the rich peasants, or kulaks) in order to carry through the bourgeois revolution, Trotsky shared the Mensheviks' assessment of the peasantry, i.e., that it was too backward to play the role of a strategic ally (and be the major social force) in the bourgeois-democratic revolution. For example, in an article printed in September 1915 in Nashe Slovo, which he co-edited with the Menshevik internationalist Julius Martov, Trotsky wrote:
"Today, based on the experience of the  Russian revolution and of the reaction, we can expect the peasantry to play a less independent, not to mention decisive, role in the development of revolutionary events than it did in 1905. To the extent that the peasantry has remained in the grip of `estate' and feudal slavery, it continues to suffer from economic and ideological disunity, political immaturity, cultural backwardness and helplessness. Despite its elemental opposition to the old regime, in every movement the peasantry's social energy is always paralysed by these weaknesses. They force it to halt where really revolutionary action begins._._.
"For the industrial proletariat, therefore, it is now – immeasurably more so than in 1905 – a question of attracting to its side the rural proletarian and semi-proletarian elements rather than the peasantry as `an estate.' In these circumstances, the revolutionary movement acquires an incomparably less `national,' and an incomparably more `class' character than it had in 1905...
"Our social relations in this decade have developed toward a further reduction in the potential revolutionary role of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry and a further growth in the numbers and productive importance of the industrial proletariat. If a `national' revolution could not be completed in 1905, then a second national revolution, that is, a revolution that unites `the nation' against the old regime, cannot even be posed" ("The Social Forces in the Russian Revolution," reprinted in Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, New York, 1984).
Thus while he rejected the Mensheviks' petty-bourgeois reformist strategy of an alliance between the working class and the liberal bourgeoisie, Trotsky also rejected, as unrealisable, the Bolshevik perspective of a transitional alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry as a whole. Instead, he believed that not only would the working class play the role of political vanguard in the anti-tsarist struggle, it would be the main social force in overthrowing and destroying the old order. In the first major presentation of his theory of "permanent revolution," contained in "Results and Prospects," the concluding chapter in a volume of essays entitled Our Revolution (1906), Trotsky argued that "the nature of [the] socio-historical relations" in Russia "lays the whole burden of the bourgeois revolution on the shoulders of the proletariat."
By dismissing the possibility and necessity of an alliance between the working class and the peasantry as a whole, Trotsky tended to dissolve the peasant-democratic revolution into the proletarian-socialist revolution, i.e., to believe that bourgeois-democratic tasks (like destroying landlordism) would be carried out by a "workers' government" (and not by a massive movement of the peasantry), and that such bourgeois-democratic tasks could be carried out simultaneously with socialist tasks like the expropriation of bourgeois property, the conversion of private farming into collective farming, etc.
Trotsky's lack of a transitional approach to the relationship between the peasant-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolutions tended to give his perspectives for the Russian revolution an ultraleft character. Thus in "Results and Prospects" he argued that a revolutionary government should not allow the peasants to divide up the large estates of the landed nobility, but rather should immediately reorganise them into collective or state farms. By contrast, the Bolsheviks argued the proletariat should support the confiscation of these estates by peasant committees, leaving open the question of what position it should take toward the problem of how these confiscated estates should be reorganised. This problem, in their view, could only be settled by assessing the relationship of class forces in the countryside and the level of consciousness of the poor peasants, once the estates had taken into the hands of the rural soviets. If, in the course of the democratic revolution, the poor peasants had already differentiated themselves from the rich peasants and developed an understanding of the superiority of socialised production over petty-commodity production, and had thus begun to demand the conversion of the landlords' estates into co-operatives, then the Bolsheviks would help them realise this demand. If, on the other hand, the poor peasantry retained a petty-bourgeois outlook and wished to divide up the landed estates into small farms, the Bolsheviks would not oppose their demand for "equal land tenure," even though they did not advocate it. The key thing was to maintain the alliance between workers and the great majority of the peasantry – its poor, semi-proletarian section.
As things turned out, following the November 7, 1917 insurrection the peasants did demand "equal land tenure," and the Bolshevik-led government acceded to their demand. Commenting upon this in his 1918 pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin, said "when enforcing the land socialisation law – the `spirit' of which is equal land tenure – the Bolsheviks most explicitly and definitely declared: this is not our idea, we do not agree with this slogan, but we think it our duty to enforce it because this is the demand of the overwhelming majority of peasants. And the idea and demands of the majority of working people are things that the working people must discard of their own accord: such demands cannot be either `abolished' or `skipped over.' We Bolsheviks shall help the peasants to discard petty-bourgeois slogans, to pass from them as quickly and as easily as possible to socialist slogans..."
Lenin emphasised that the poor peasants had to learn from their own experience that "equal land tenure" would not solve their problems: "Kautsky will never be able to refute the view that the idea of equal land tenure has a progressive and revolutionary value in the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Such a revolution cannot go beyond this. By reaching its limit, it all the more clearly, rapidly and easily reveals to the people the inadequacy of bourgeois-democratic solutions and the necessity of proceeding beyond their limits, of passing on to socialism."
Trotsky's approach to the land question reflected his "repudiation" of the decisive role of the peasantry in the bourgeois revolution and of a revolutionary-democratic alliance between the working class and the entire peasantry as the necessary bridge to the anti-capitalist alliance of the workers and poor peasants. As Lenin had noted in a 1909 article, "The Aim of the Proletarian Struggle in Our Revolution": "Trotsky's major mistake is that he ignores the bourgeois character of the revolution and has no clear conception of the transition from this revolution to the socialist revolution" (emphasis added).
Lenin's strategy projected a line of march that was necessary for the working class to take and hold power in Russia. The Bolsheviks' understood that the socialist revolution could only begin in Russia if the majority of the population (the workers and poor peasants) understood its necessity. But the workers, and above all, the masses of poor peasants could only come to this understanding through their own experiences in struggle. And as long as the bourgeois-democratic revolution was not completed, they could not be brought to an understanding that their problems stemmed not only from the vestiges of feudalism in Russia (the autocracy and landlordism) but also from capitalism. It was necessary for them to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution for them to come to this understanding and thus for there to exist the political conditions to forge an alliance between the workers and the poor peasants against capitalism, including its rural representatives – the rich peasants. Until that occurred the peasantry, rich and poor, would remain united in opposition to landlordism and any attempt by the working class to implement socialist measures would have alienated the peasant majority. As Lenin emphasised in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky: "... if the Bolshevik proletariat in the capitals and large industrial centres had not been able to rally the village poor around itself against the rich peasants, this would indeed have proved that Russia was `unripe' for socialist revolution. The peasants would have remained an `integral whole', i.e., they would have remained under the economic, political, and moral leadership of the kulaks, the rich, the bourgeoisie, and the revolution would not have passed beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic revolution."
Thus the strategic line of march of the Russian workers to a socialist revolution had to pass through the necessary first stage of forging an alliance with the peasantry as a whole to complete the bourgeois revolution.
By contrast, Trotsky argued in "Results and Prospects" that immediately upon coming to power, "The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages and in this manner destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits. From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonisms between the village poor and the village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie."
Trotsky, however, was pessimistic about the proletariat's ability to forge an alliance with the poor peasants against the rural bourgeoisie: "While the heterogeneity of the peasantry creates difficulties and narrows the basis for a proletarian policy, the insufficient degree of class differentiation will create obstacles to the introduction among the peasantry of developed class struggle, upon which the urban proletariat could rely. The primitiveness of the peasantry turns its hostile face towards the proletariat...
"Thus, the more definite and determined the policy of the proletariat in power becomes, the narrower and more shaky does the ground beneath it become."
Why did Trotsky believe a "proletarian policy" would produce hostility from the entire peasantry, including its semi-proletarian majority? "The very fact of the proletariat's representatives entering the government, not as powerless hostages, but as the leading force," Trotsky wrote, "places collectivism on the order of the day."
That is, in Trotsky's view, the coming to power of a government with a socialist majority would immediately necessitate the introduction of socialist measures, including in the countryside. "For this reason," he argued, "there can be no talk of any sort of special form of proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution, of democratic proletarian dictatorship (or dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry)."
Lacking any conception of the possibility and necessity of measures transitional to the socialist revolution, Trotsky believed that having come to power in a predominately peasant country, the working class would very quickly find itself a besieged minority surrounded by a hostile peasant population. "Left to its own resources," Trotsky wrote, "the working class of Russia will inevitably be crushed by the counter-revolution the moment the peasantry turns its back on it." This was precisely why the Bolsheviks' two-stage strategy was aimed at ensuring that the majority of the peasantry did not "turn its back" on the working class, but rather, as a result of their own experience in taking the bourgeois-democratic revolution to its limit, would be convinced of the necessity to go beyond it to the socialist revolution. As Lenin observed in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky:
"... if the Bolshevik proletariat had tried at once, in October-November 1917, without waiting for the class differentiation in the rural districts, without being able to prepare it and bring it about, to `decree' a civil war or the `introduction of socialism' in the rural districts, had tried to do without a temporary bloc with the peasants in general, without making a number of concessions to the middle peasants, etc., that would have been a Blanquist distortion of Marxism, an attempt by the minority to impose its will upon the majority; it would have been a theoretical absurdity, revealing a failure to understand that a general peasant revolution is still a bourgeois revolution, and that without a series of transitions, of transitional stages, it cannot be transformed into a socialist revolution in a backward country."
This was the same argument that Lenin made in his 1905 writings on the relationship between the peasant bourgeois revolution and the proletarian socialist revolution. In Two Tactics, for example, he wrote: "Such a victory [i.e., the overthrow of Tsarism by a revolutionary alliance of the workers and peasants – DL] will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution; the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relationships." (emphasis added) "It [the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry – DL] will be unable (without a series of intermediary stages of revolutionary development) to affect the foundations of capitalism."
The practical political consequences of Trotsky's pre-1917 position were twofold:
1. He paid scant attention to the need for the revolutionary workers' movement to forge an alliance with peasant organisations. Such an alliance, of course, would only be possible if the revolutionary workers, organised in a Marxist party, could win the political leadership of the peasantry away from their "natural leaders" – the liberal bourgeoisie. By insisting that the peasantry as a whole wouldn't play a decisive role as a revolutionary force, Trotsky ended up giving aid and comfort to those in the workers' movement who sought to ensure that the peasants didn't play such a role. As Lenin observed in his 1915 article, "On the Two Lines in the Revolution": "Trotsky is in fact helping the liberal-labour politicians in Russia, who by `repudiation' of the role of the peasantry understand a refusal to raise up the peasants for the revolution!"
2. Flowing from this serious error, Trotsky failed to understand the centrality of Lenin's struggle to forge a party of the working-class vanguard that excluded from its ranks the agents of the political influence of the liberal bourgeoisie within the labour movement, i.e., the Mensheviks.
If the working class was to provide political leadership to the peasant movement (the decisive social force in the bourgeois revolution) it could only do so by defeating liberal-reformist conceptions within its own organisations – in the first place, within its revolutionary party.
In a 1908 article, "The Assessment of the Russian Revolution," Lenin wrote: "Only if it pursues an unquestionably independent policy as vanguard of the revolution will the proletariat be able to split the peasantry away from the liberals, rid it of their influence, rally the peasantry behind it in the struggle and thus bring about an `alliance' de facto – one that emerges and becomes effective, when and to the extent that the peasantry are conducting a revolutionary fight."
That is, unless the Russian proletariat pursued an independent class policy in the struggle for democracy, refusing to tailor its struggle to the reformism of the liberal bourgeoisie (as the Mensheviks advocated), it would not be able to win the peasants away from the influence of the liberals and forge a revolutionary-democratic alliance with it.
"In a word," Lenin wrote in Two Tactics, "to avoid finding itself with its hands tied in the struggle against the inconsistent bourgeois democracy, the proletariat must be class-conscious and strong enough to rouse the peasantry to revolutionary consciousness, guide its assault, and thereby independently pursue the line of consistent proletarian democratism." It couldn't do this if it was led by a party that united proletarian revolutionists and petty-bourgeois reformists. Lenin therefore sought to build a party consisting only of proletarian revolutionists, a party that could educate and organise the Russian workers to provide revolutionary leadership to the peasant masses in carrying through and completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution as the necessary bridge to the proletarian-socialist revolution.
Unlike Lenin, who recognised the petty-bourgeois reformist character of Menshevism, Trotsky believed the Menshevik leaders were sincere, if mistaken, revolutionary Marxists who should be included within the ranks of the workers' party. He regarded Lenin's struggle to build a party which excluded the Mensheviks as an expression of "organisational sectarianism," rather than as being based on a principled understanding of the fundamental interests and tasks of the Russian workers' movement.
The Bolsheviks' strategy reflected the class interests of the Russian workers. In opposition to this, the Mensheviks' strategy was an adaptation to the class interests of the bourgeoisie. By contrast, Trotsky's position did not reflect the interests of any of the fundamental classes in Russia. Rather, it was a centrist amalgamation of the two principal class lines, which is also why it failed to win any substantial influence among the masses. As Lenin observed in his 1915 article, "On the Two Lines in the Revolution": "From the Bolsheviks, Trotsky's original theory has borrowed their call for a decisive proletarian revolutionary struggle, while from the Mensheviks it has borrowed `repudiation' of the peasantry's role."
Under the impact of the Mensheviks' support for Russian imperialism's war effort and their support for the bourgeois-landlord Provisional Government that emerged out of the February 1917 revolution, Trotsky came to see the correctness of the Bolsheviks' struggle against Menshevism and agreed with the political line the Bolsheviks had adopted prior to his return to Russia in May 1917.
But, as was revealed years later, Trotsky regarded the change in tactical line adopted by the Bolsheviks in April 1917 as a break with their pre-1917 strategic perspectives. Thus in his 1924 article "Lessons of October," Trotsky claimed that upon his return to Russia in April 1917 Lenin "came out furiously against the old slogan of `the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,' which under the new circumstances meant the transformation of the Bolshevik Party into the left wing of the defensist bloc..."
"Lenin," Trotsky wrote, "occasionally remarked that the soviets of workers', soldiers' and peasants' deputies in the first period of the February revolution did, to a certain degree, embody the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry... But they could take power not in the capacity of a democratic coalition of workers and peasants represented by different parties, but only as the dictatorship of the proletariat directed by a single party and drawing after it the peasant masses, beginning with their semiproletarian sections."
"In other words," Trotsky added, "a democratic workers' and peasants' coalition could only take shape as an immature form of power incapable of attaining real power._._. Any further movement toward the attainment of power inevitably had to explode the [bourgeois-]democratic shell, confront the majority of the peasantry with the necessity of following the workers, provide the proletariat with an opportunity to realise a class dictatorship, and thereby place on the agenda – along with a complete and ruthlessly radical democratisation of social relations – a purely socialist invasion of the workers' state into the sphere of capitalist property relations."
Trotsky thus implied that in April 1917 Lenin had rejected his previous strategic perspective of a transitional worker-peasant government to carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and had come over to Trotsky's perspective of a "workers' government" that would carry out the tasks of the democratic and socialist revolutions simultaneously.
But this was not what Lenin had proposed in April 1917. In his April 1917 "Letters on Tactics," Lenin noted that, "The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone could have expected…
"`The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry' has already become a reality (In a certain form and to a certain extent) in the Russian revolution, for this `formula' envisages only a relation of classes, and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation, this co-operation. `The Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies' – there you have the `revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry' already accomplished in reality."
"This formula is already antiquated," Lenin added. Why? Because events had "moved it from the realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it..."
"The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry has already been realised," Lenin wrote, "but in a highly original form, and with a number of extremely important modifications."
The peculiarity of the situation arising out of the February 1917 revolution was that the workers and the peasants (in the form of millions of conscripted peasant soldiers) had created a revolutionary workers' and peasants' government, the Petrograd soviet, but this government was voluntarily ceding power to the rival Provisional Government created by the liberal bourgeoisie.
In his April 1917 pamphlet The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution: Draft Platform of the Proletarian Party, Lenin explained that the dual power situation "expresses a transitional phase of the revolution's development, when it has gone farther than the ordinary bourgeois-democratic revolution, but has not yet reached a `pure' dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry."
Why had the revolution not created a "pure" dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, but instead two, interlocking, dictatorships – one bourgeois, the other, worker-peasant? Lenin ptovided the following explanation: "The class significance (and the class explanation) of this transitional and unstable situation is this: like all revolutions, our revolution... immediately drew unprecedently vast numbers of ordinary citizens into the movement...
"Millions and tens of millions of people, who had been politically dormant for ten years and politically crushed by the terrible oppression of tsarism and by inhuman toil for the landowners and capitalists, have awakened and taken eagerly to politics. And who are these millions and tens of millions? For the most part small proprietors, petty bourgeois, people standing midway between the capitalists and the wage-workers...
"A gigantic petty-bourgeois wave has swept over everything and overwhelmed the class-conscious proletariat, not only by force of numbers but also ideologically; that is, it has infected and imbued very wide circles of workers with the petty-bourgeois political outlook._._.
"An attitude of unreasoning trust in the capitalists... characterises the politics of the popular masses in Russia at the present moment; this is the fruit that has grown with revolutionary rapidity on the social and economic soil of the most petty-bourgeois of all European countries. This is the class basis for the `agreement' between the Provisional Government and the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies."
This was also the reason why the petty-bourgeois reformist parties – the Mensheviks and the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionaries – dominated the newly formed soviets, and the Bolsheviks initially found themselves a small, isolated minority. It was also the reason a section of the Bolshevik leadership, headed by Stalin and Kamenev, initially adopted a conciliationist position toward the Provisional Government and the Mensheviks, even raising the possibility of reunifying the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties.
In sharp opposition to such conciliationist positions, Lenin argued that the revolution could only move forward if the Bolsheviks could win a majority in the soviets. To do this they would have to overcome the masses' petty-bourgeois reformist illusions in the liberal bourgeoisie and its Menshevik and SR allies: "Our work must be one of criticism, of explaining the mistakes of the petty-bourgeois Socialist-Revolutionary and Social-Democratic parties, of preparing and welding the elements of a consciously proletarian, Communist Party, and of curing the proletariat of the `general' petty-bourgeois intoxication.
"This seems to be `nothing more' than propaganda work, but in reality it is most practical revolutionary work; for there is no advancing a revolution that has come to a standstill, that has choked itself with phrases, and that keeps `marking time', not because of external obstacles, not because of the violence of the bourgeoisie... but because of the unreasoning trust of the people.
"Only by overcoming this unreasoning trust (and we can and should overcome it only ideologically, by comradely persuasion, by pointing to the lessons of experience) can we set ourselves free from the prevailing orgy of revolutionary phrase-mongering and really stimulate the consciousness of both the proletariat and of the masses in general, as well as their bold and determined initiative in the localities – the independent realisation, development and consolidation of liberties, democracy, and the principle of people's ownership of the land."
Lenin explicitly rejected any idea that this tactical line involved abandoning the Bolsheviks' strategic orientation of forging a revolutionary worker-peasant alliance to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution. In "Letters on Tactics" he wrote: "But are we not in danger of falling into subjectivism, of wanting to arrive at the socialist revolution by `skipping' the bourgeois-democratic revolution – which is not yet completed and has not yet exhausted the peasant movement?
"I might be incurring this danger if I said: `No Tsar, but a workers' government.' But I did not say that, I said something else. I said there can be no government (barring a bourgeois government) in Russia other than that of the Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies... And in these Soviets, as it happens, it is the peasants, the soldiers, i.e., the petty bourgeoisie, who predominate...
"In my theses, I absolutely ensured myself against skipping over the peasant movement, which has not outlived itself, or the petty-bourgeois movement in general, against any playing at `seizure of power' by a workers' government, against any kind of Blanquist adventurism...
"In my theses, I very definitely reduced the question to one of a struggle for influence within the Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Deputies."
Nor did Lenin propose that upon taking all power into their hands, the soviets should immediately introduce socialist measures. In a "Resolution On the Current Situation," which was adopted by the 7th conference of the Bolshevik Party at the end of April 1917, Lenin argued: "Operating as it does in one of the most backward countries of Europe amidst a vast population of small peasants, the proletariat of Russia cannot aim at immediately putting into effect socialist changes.
"But it would be a grave error, and in effect even a complete desertion to the bourgeoisie, to infer from this that the working class must support the bourgeoisie, or that it must keep its activities within limits acceptable to the petty bourgeoisie, or that the proletariat must renounce its leading role in the matter of explaining to the people the urgency of taking a number of practical steps towards socialism for which the time is ripe.
"These steps are: first, nationalisation of the land. This measure, which does not directly go beyond the framework of the bourgeois system, would, at the same time, be a heavy blow at private ownership of the means of production, and as such would strengthen the influence of the socialist proletariat over the semi-proletariat in the countryside.
"The next steps are the establishment of state control over all banks, and their amalgamation into a single central bank; also control over the insurance agencies and big capitalist syndicates (for example, the Sugar Syndicate, the Coal Syndicate, the Metal Syndicate, etc.,), and the gradual introduction of a more just progressive tax on incomes and properties. Economically, these measures are timely; technically, they can be carried out immediately; politically, they are likely to receive the support of the overwhelming majority of the peasants, who have everything to gain by these reforms...
"Great care and discretion should be exercised in carrying out the above measures; a solid majority of the population must be won over and this majority must be clearly convinced of the country's practical preparedness for any particular measure. This is the direction in which the class-conscious vanguard of the workers must focus its attention and efforts, because it is the bounden duty of these workers to help the peasants find a way out of the present debacle."
When the rising Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union attempted to use Trotsky's 1924 interpretation of Lenin's "April theses" to portray him as an opponent of Leninism, Trotsky initially retreated from this interpretation. Thus in a 1928 article ("Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution"), he wrote: "Beginning in April 1917, Lenin explained to his opponents, who accused him of having adopted the position of the `permanent revolution,' that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry was realised partially in the epoch of dual power. He explained later that this dictatorship met with its further extension during the first period of soviet power from November 1917 to July 1918, when the entire peasantry, together with the workers, effected the agrarian revolution while the working class did not as yet proceed with the confiscation of the mills and factories, but experimented with workers' control." (Emphasis added)
However, under the pressure of the struggle against the Stalinists – who sought to justify their policy of a strategic alliance with the nationalist bourgeoisie in carrying out national-democratic revolutions in the colonial and semicolonial countries by appeals to Lenin's policy of a strategic alliance between the workers and the revolutionary-democratic representatives of the petty-bourgeois peasantry – Trotsky increasingly implied there was a continuity between the former and the latter. He again interpreted Lenin's reorientation of Bolshevik tactics in April 1917 as a shift toward the strategic perspectives he had advanced in his pre-1917 "permanent revolution" theory. Moreover, he advanced this theory – a theory which had explicitly rejected the idea of a transitional worker-peasant dictatorship in Russia to carry through and complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution as a necessary step toward the proletarian-socialist revolution – as generally applicable to all backward countries.
Now, let me take up the specific points you raised in your letter in GLW 211:
1. You state that "Lenin's position on the separation of the bourgeois from the socialist revolutions in Russia underwent many modifications up to 1917." This is an assertion which is contradicted by everything Lenin wrote on this subject. From 1905 to 1917 Lenin maintained a consistent position on the relationship between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolutions, summarised in the quotes cited above from The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
2. You claim that the "old formulas… were blown apart by Lenin's provocative April Theses and by his support for dissolving the Constituent Assembly, the organ of bourgeois rule, in favour of transferring all power to the organs of direct workers' rule, the soviets."
The assumption behind this claim seems to be that prior to 1917 Lenin believed that the bourgeois-democratic revolution would transfer political power to "organs of bourgeois rule."
This view is explicitly presented by Mandel in his new book on Trotsky. According to Mandel (see footnote 14, page 89): "The Mensheviks thought that these [bourgeois-democratic tasks – DL] could be carried out by a bourgeois-democratic government which should have the support of the Social Democracy. This option of critical support was carried as far as a coalition. The Bolsheviks supported the view that the workers, in an alliance with the peasants, should exercise state power in the framework of a bourgeois state (the `democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants')." Thus, according to Mandel's grotesque falsification of the Bolsheviks' position, the difference between the Menshevik and Bolshevik perspectives before April 1917 was that the Bolsheviks advocated socialist participation in a bourgeois government, while the Mensheviks were for giving such a government critical support, i.e., the Bolsheviks were to the right of the petty-bourgeois reformist Mensheviks!
The "old formulas" of the Bolsheviks, however, envisaged a bourgeois-democratic revolution carried out through the transfer of political power, not to "organs of bourgeois rule," but to a revolutionary government based on organs of workers' and peasants' power. As I have already noted above, in November 1905 Lenin described the soviets "as embryos of a provisional revolutionary government."
In his "April theses" ("The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution") Lenin did not advocate a transfer of power to "organs of direct workers' rule." In fact, he explicitly rejected the idea that power should be transferred to the workers' alone. Thus, in his April "Letters on Tactics" Lenin posed the question: "... are we not in danger of falling into subjectivism, of wanting to arrive at the socialist revolution by `skipping' the bourgeois-democratic revolution – which is not yet completed and has not yet exhausted the peasant movement?" He answered, "I might be incurring this danger if I said: `No tsar, but a workers government.' But I did not say that. I said that there can be no government (barring a bourgeois government) in Russia other than the Soviets of Workers', Agricultural Labourers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies... And in these Soviets, as it happens, it is the peasants, the soldiers, i.e., the petty-bourgeoisie, who predominate..." That is, Lenin advocated the transfer of power from the bourgeois Provisional Government to the soviets of workers' and peasants' deputies, to organs of workers' and peasants' rule.
Furthermore, Lenin argued that it was necessary to conduct propaganda attacking the bourgeois-landlord Provisional Government "for not having appointed an early date, or any date at all, for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, and for confining itself to promises." He argued "that without the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies the convocation of the Constituent Assembly is not guaranteed and its success is impossible." In fact, it was only after the October insurrection, after the transfer of power to the soviets, that elections were held to the Constituent Assembly, to a bourgeois parliamentary institution. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved in January 1918 when its petty-bourgeois reformist Menshevik and Right SR majority refused to endorse the bourgeois-democratic agrarian reform approved by the Soviet government, and therefore provided clear evidence to the peasant masses that the organs of workers' and peasants' power were superior to any bourgeois parliament.
Lenin certainly argued – against Kamenev and other Bolsheviks who stood for giving critical support to the petty-bourgeois reformist leaders of the soviets – that those who simply repeated the "old formula" of the need for a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry were "behind the times." As Lenin stated in his "Letters on Tactics": "The person who now speaks only of a `revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry' is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty-bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of `Bolshevik' pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of `Old Bolsheviks'..."
But, as I have explained above, Lenin put the "old formula" in the archives, not because it had been proven wrong, but because it had been realised in life, but in a highly original way. It was therefore necessary to do more than just speak about the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry (note that Lenin does not say that the person who in April 1917 speaks about the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship, but the person who speaks only about it, and says nothing else, "is behind the times." In his new book on Trotsky, Mandel misquotes Lenin's remarks, leaving out the word "only" from this passage – see footnote 23, page 89.)
In the conditions arising out of the February Revolution it was necessary to recognise that (a) the revolutionary worker-peasant dictatorship had been realised in the form of the soviets, and (b) it was ceding power to the bourgeois-landlord dictatorship due to the liberal-democratic illusions of the peasant-soldiers, which had also infected wide layers of workers. Proceeding from this analysis, it was necessary to work out a tactical line to win the workers and peasants away from their petty-bourgeois reformist misleaders. That was the real meaning of the reorientation in the tactics of the Bolsheviks advocated by Lenin in April 1917; it had nothing to do with a supposed change in Lenin's view of the relationship between the bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions.
3. You write: "The transition between the bourgeois and socialist revolutions was the difference between February and October, as `uninterrupted,' as `permanent', as `Trotskyist' as you can get in the revolutionary calendar."
It is not quite clear to me what point you are making here. The February Revolution transferred power to the bourgeoisie (actually to a class-collaborationist bloc between the landlord-bourgeois Provisional Government and the petty-bourgeois reformist led soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies), but left untouched the basic social and economic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly the transfer of the semi-feudal landed estates to the peasantry. It was the October Revolution – which transferred power from the bourgeois government to a workers' and peasants' government, to a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry – that carried through and completed the bourgeois-democratic revolution. As Lenin explained in a report to the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March 1919:
"... our revolution was largely a bourgeois revolution until the Poor Peasants' Committees were set up, i.e., until the summer and even autumn of 1918... But from the moment the Poor Peasant Committees began to be organised, our revolution became a proletarian revolution... And only when the October Revolution began to spread to the rural districts and was consummated, in the summer of 1918, did we acquire a real proletarian base; only then did our revolution become a proletarian revolution in fact, and not merely in our proclamations, promises and declarations."
The developments in the countryside that Lenin describes here coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War, which saw the rich peasants and the capitalists going over to armed counter-revolution. Between June and October 1918, virtually all industry was nationalised.
Do you really mean to say that the "Trotskyist" conception of "permanent revolution" envisages a transition between the bourgeois and the socialist revolutions such as was manifested by the relationship between the February and October revolutions in Russia in 1917?
I raise this question because this is exactly how the Stalinists justified their neo-Menshevik "bloc of four classes" line in China in 1926-27, i.e., they claimed that Lenin's conception of the uninterrupted growing over of the bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution was illustrated by the relationship between the February and October revolutions. Thus, in December 1925 Stalin wrote: "With the peasantry as a whole against the tsar and the landlords – that is the bourgeois revolution. With the poor peasants against the bourgeoisie – that is the October Revolution" (On the Opposition, Peking, 1974, p. 250-1). In August 1927, Stalin made this claim even more strongly, arguing that in his "April theses" Lenin had "recognised two stages in our revolution: the first stage was the bourgeois-democratic revolution, with the agrarian movement as its main axis; the second stage was the October Revolution, with the seizure of power by the proletariat as its main axis" (ibid, p. 776).
Stalin and his supporters argued that a bourgeois revolution of the February-type (i.e., the transfer of power to a government based on a bloc of the nationalist-liberal bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the urban petty-bourgeoisie, and the peasantry) had to be carried out in China before the Chinese workers and poor peasants could advance to the socialist revolution. We know the cost to the revolutionary movement of the Stalinists' application of this policy in China, and the even greater costs it brought when they applied it four decades later in Indonesia.
I am sure that it was not your intention to present such an interpretation of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution. But this is the trap that awaits those who try to argue that this theory was confirmed by the course of events in 1917.
The only viable alternative to this trap, from a Marxist point of view, is to recognise that the bourgeois revolution in Russia was carried through under the Bolshevik-led Soviet regime. That is, to acknowledge the correctness of Lenin's analysis of the October Revolution in its first stage from November 1917 until June-July 1918 as a peasant-democratic revolution carried out under proletarian political leadership, which grew over, in its second stage from July through to October 1918, into a proletarian-socialist revolution. It was the continuity of proletarian leadership that gave the transition from the bourgeois to the socialist revolution its uninterrupted character, i.e., that made them two stages of a single, uninterrupted revolutionary process. That was not the perspective that Trotsky advanced in his theory of permanent revolution. But it was the strategic perspective that Lenin fought for, both before and after April 1917.
I hope these comments will convince you of the continuity and correctness of Lenin's strategic perspectives for the Russian revolution and the erroneousness of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. And even if they don't, they should help to put any further public, or private, exchanges on the issue on a clearer basis.