On Compromises (September 1917)
|Written||14 September 1917|
Published in Rabochy Put No. 3, September 19 (6), 1917. Signed: N. Lenin. Published according to the newspaper text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 25, pages 309-314.
The term compromise in politics implies the surrender of certain demands, the renunciation of part of one’s demands, by agreement with another party.
The usual idea the man in the.street has about the Bolsheviks, an idea encouraged by a press which slanders them, is that the Bolsheviks will never agree to a compromise with anybody.
The idea is flattering to us as the party of the revolutionary proletariat, for it proves that even our enemies are compelled to admit our loyalty to the fundamental principles of socialism and revolution. Nevertheless, we must say that this idea is wrong. Engels was right when, in his criticism of the Manifesto of the Blanquist Communists (1873), he ridiculed their declaration: “No compromises!” This, he said, was an empty phrase, for compromises are often unavoidably forced upon a fighting party by circumstances, and it is absurd to refuse once and for all to accept “payments on account” The task of a truly revolutionary party is not to declare that it is impossible to renounce all compromises, but to be able, through all compromises, when they are unavoidable, to remain true to its principles, to its class, to its revolutionary purpose, to its task of paving the way for revolution and educating the mass of the people for victory in the revolution.
To agree, for instance, to participate in the Third and Fourth Dumas was a compromise, a temporary renunciation of revolutionary demands. But this was a compromise absolutely forced upon us, for the balance of forces made it impossible for us for the time being to conduct a mass revolutionary struggle, and in order to prepare this struggle over a long period we had to be able to work even from inside such a “pigsty”. History has proved that this approach to the question by the Bolsheviks as a party was perfectly correct.
Now the question is not of a forced, but of a voluntary compromise.
Our Party, like any other political party, is striving after political domination for itself. Our aim is the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat. Six months o.f revolution have proved very clearly, forcefully and convincingly that this demand is correct and inevitable in the interests of this particular revolution, for otherwise the people will never obtain a democratic peace, land for the peasants, or complete freedom (a fully democratic republic). This has been shown and proved by the course of events during the six months of our revolution, by the struggle of the classes and parties and by the development of the crises of April 20–21, June 9–10 and 18–19, July 3–5 and August 27–31.
The Russian revolution is experiencing so abrupt and original a turn that we, as a party, may offer a voluntary compromise—true, not to our direct and main class enemy, the bourgeoisie, but to our nearest adversaries, the “ruling” petty-bourgeois-democratic parties, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.
We may offer a compromise to these parties only by way of exception, and only by virtue of the particular situation, which will obviously last only a very short time. And I think we should do so.
The compromise on our part is our return to the pre-July demand of all power to the Soviets and a government of S.R.s and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets.
Now, and only now, perhaps during only a few days or a week or two, such a government could be set up and consolidated in a perfectly peaceful way. In all probability it could secure the peaceful advance of the whole Russian revolution, and provide exceptionally good chances for great strides in the world movement towards peace and the victory of socialism.
In my opinion, the Bolsheviks, who are partisans of world revolution and revolutionary methods, may and should consent to this compromise only for the sake of the revolution’s peaceful development—an opportunity that is extremely rare in history and extremely valuable, an opportunity that only occurs once in a while.
The compromise would amount to the following: the Bolsheviks, without making any claim to participate in the government (which is impossible for the internationalists unless a dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants has been realised), would refrain from demanding the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the poor peasants and from employing revolutionary methods of fighting for this demand. A condition that is self-evident and not new to the S.R.s and Mensheviks would be complete freedom of propaganda and the convocation of the Constituent Assembly without further delays or even at an earlier date.
The Mensheviks and S.R.s, being the government bloc, would then agree (assuming that the compromise had been reached) to form a government wholly and exclusively responsible to the Soviets, the latter taking over all power locally as well. This would constitute the “new” condition. I think the Bolsheviks would advance no other conditions, trusting that the revolution would proceed peacefully and party strife in the Soviets would be peacefully overcome thanks to really complete freedom of propaganda and to the immediate establishment of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections) and in their functioning.
Perhaps this is already impossible? Perhaps. But if there is even one chance in a hundred, the attempt at realising this opportunity is still worth while.
What would both “contracting” parties gain by this “compromise”, i.e., the Bolsheviks, on the one hand, and the S.R. and Menshevik bloc, on the other? If neither side gains anything, then the compromise must be recognised as impossible, and nothing more is to be said. No matter how difficult this compromise may be at present (after July and August, two months equivalent to two decades in “peaceful”, somnolent times), I think it stands a small chance of being realised. This chance has been created by the decision of the S.R.s and Mensheviks not to participate in a government together with the Cadets.
The Bolsheviks would gain the opportunity of quite freely advocating their views and of trying to win influence in the Soviets under a really complete democracy. In words, “everybody” now concedes the Bolsheviks this freedom. In reality, this freedom is impossible under a bourgeois government or a government in which the bourgeoisie participate, or under any government, in fact, other than the Soviets. Under a Soviet government, such freedom would be possible (we do not say it would be a certainty, but still it would be possible). For the sake of such a possibility at such a difficult time, it would be worth compromising with the present majority in the Soviets. We have nothing to fear from real democracy, for reality is on our side, and even the course of development of trends within the S.R. and Menshevik parties, which are hostile to us, proves us right.
The Mensheviks and S.R.s would gain in that they would at once obtain every opportunity to carry out their bloc’s programme with the support of the obviously overwhelming majority of the people and in that they would secure for themselves the “peaceful” use of their majority in the Soviets.
Of course, there would probably be two voices heard from this bloc, which is heterogeneous both because it is a bloc add because petty-bourgeois democracy is always less homogeneous than the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
One voice would say: we cannot follow the same road as the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary proletariat. It will demand too much anyway and will entice the peasant poor by demagogy. It will demand peace and a break with the Allies. That is impossible. We are better off and safer with the bourgeoisie; after all, we have not parted ways with them but only had a temporary quarrel, and only over the Kornilov incident. We have quarrelled, but we shall make it up. Moreover, the Bolsheviks are not “ceding” us anything, for their attempts at insurrection are as doomed to defeat as was the Commune of 1871.
The other voice would say: the allusion to the Commune is very superficial and even foolish. For, in the first place, the Bolsheviks have learnt something since 1871; they would not fail to seize the banks, and would not refuse to advance on Versailles. Under such conditions even the Commune might have been victorious. Furthermore, the Commune could not immediately offer the people what the Bolsheviks will be able to offer if they come to power, namely, land to the peasants, an immediate offer of peace, real control over production, an honest peace with the Ukrainians, Finns, etc. The Bolsheviks, to put it bluntly, hold ten times more “trumps” than the Commune did. In the second place, the Commune, after all, means a strenuous civil war, a set-back to peaceful cultural development for a long time to come, an opportunity for all sorts of MacMahons and Kornilovs to operate and plot with greater ease—and such operations are a menace to our whole bourgeois society. Is it wise to risk a Commune?
Now a Commune is inevitable in Russia if we do not take power into our own hands, if things remain in as grave a state as they were between May 6 and August 31. Every revolutionary worker and soldier will inevitably think about the Commune and believe in it; he will inevitably attempt to bring it about, for he will argue: “The people are perishing; war, famine and ruin are spreading. Only the Commune can save us. So let us all perish, let us die, but let us set up the Commune.” Such thoughts are inevitable with the workers, and it will not be as easy to crush the Commune now as it was in 1871. The Russian Commune will have allies throughout the world, allies a hundred times stronger than those the Commune had in 1871.... Is it wise for us to risk a Commune? I cannot agree, either, that the Bolsheviks virtually cede us nothing by their compromise. For, in all civilised countries, civilised ministers value highly every agreement with the proletariat in war-time, however small. They value it very, very highly. And these are men of action, real ministers. The Bolsheviks are rapidly becoming stronger, in spite of repression, and the weakness of their press.... Is it wise for us to risk a Commune?
We have a safe majority; the peasant poor will not wake up for some time to come; we are safe for our lifetime. I do not believe that in a peasant country the majority will follow the extremists. And against an obvious majority, no insurrection is possible in a really democratic republic. This is what the second voice would say.
There may also be a third voice coming from among the supporters of Martov or Spiridonova, which would say: I am indignant, “comrades”, that both of you, speaking about the Commune and its likelihood, unhesitatingly side with its opponents. In one form or another, both of you side with those who suppressed the Commune. I will not undertake to campaign for the Commune and I cannot promise beforehand to fight in its ranks as every Bolshevik will do, but I must say that if the Commune does start in spite of my efforts, I shall rather help its defenders than its opponents.
The medley of voices in the “bloc” is great and inevitable, for a host of shades is represented among the petty-bourgeois democrats—from the complete bourgeois, perfectly eligible for a post in the government, down to the semi-pauper who is not yet capable of taking up the proletarian position. Nobody knows what will be the result of this medley of voices at any given moment.
The above lines were written on Friday, September 1, but due to unforeseen circumstances (under Kerensky, as history will tell, not all Bolsheviks were free to choose their domicile) they did not reach the editorial office that day. After reading Saturday’s and today’s (Sunday’s) papers, I say to myself: perhaps it is already too late to offer a compromise. Perhaps the few days in which a peaceful development was still possible have passed too. Yes, to all appearances, they have already passed. In one way or another, Kerensky will abandon both the S .R. Party and the S.R.s themselves, and will consolidate his position with the aid of the bourgeoisie without the S.R.s, and thanks to their inaction.... Yes, to all appearances, the days when by chance the path of peaceful development became possible have already passed. All that remains is to send these notes to the editor with the request to have them entitled: “Belated Thoughts”. Perhaps even belated thoughts are sometimes not without interest.
- Blanquists—supporters of a trend in the French socialist movement, headed by Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881), the French revolutionary and Utopian communist. The Blanquists expected that “mankind will be emancipated from wage slavery not by the proletarian class struggle, but through a conspiracy of a small minority of intellectuals” = (see present edition, Vol. 10, p. 392). Substituting the actions of a small group of conspirators for those of a revolutionary party, they ignored the actual situation necessary for a victorious insurrection, and spurned contact with the masses.
- See Frederick Engels, Flüchtlingsliteratur. II. Programm der blanquistischen Kommuneflüchtlinge, Marx/Engels, Werke, Bd. 18 Berlin, 1962, S. 528–35.
- See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1965, p. 470.
- After the suppression of the Kornilov revolt the question of forming a new provisional cabinet came up for discussion. The new cabinet was expected to include Cadets in addition to Mensheviks and S.R.s. The Mensheviks and S.R.s, fearing that they might completely forfeit popular confidence, announced their refusal to join a cabinet which included Cadets. On September 1 (14), 1917, the Provisional Government decided to form a Directory of five: A. F. Kerensky, A. I. Verkhovsky, D. N. Verderevsky, A. M. Nikitin and M. I. Tereshchenko. Officially no Cadets were included in this cabinet, but its formation was a result of a behind-the-scenes compromise with them. At a joint plenary session of the CEC of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the Executive Committee of the Congress of Peasants’ Deputies on September 2 (15), the Mensheviks and S.R.s passed a resolution in support of the new cabinet. This meant that although they had declared they would have nothing to do with the Cadets, the Mensheviks and S.R.s again helped the landowners and capitalists to retain power.