The Russian Revolution and the Tasks of the Proletariat

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Author(s) Lenin
Written 20 March 1906


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Partiiniye Izvestia, No. 2, March 20, 1906. Signed: A Bolshevik. Published according to the text in Partiiniye Izvestia.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1965, Moscow, Volume 10, pages 135-146.

I[edit source]

What is the state of the democratic revolution in Russia? Is it defeated, or are we merely passing through a temporary lull? Was the December uprising the climax of the revolution, and are we now rushing headlong towards a “Shipov Constitution” regime[1]? Or is the revolutionary movement, on the whole, not subsiding, but rising, in preparation for a new outbreak, using the lull to muster new, forces, and promising, after the first unsuccessful insurrection, a second, with much greater chances of success?

These are the fundamental questions that now confront the Social-Democrats in Russia. If we are to remain true to Marxism, we cannot and should not try, by resorting to generalities, to shirk the task of analysing the objective conditions; for, in the last analysis, the appraisal of these conditions provides the final answer to these questions. On this answer wholly depend the tactics of the Social-Democrats; and our disputes about boycotting the Duma, for example (which, incidentally, are drawing to a close, as the majority of the organisations of the RSDLP have declared in favour of the boycott), are only a tiny particle of these big questions.

We have just said that it would be unbecoming for a Marxist to try to evade these questions by resorting to generalities. A sample of these generalities is the argument that we have never regarded the revolution merely as being one of “pikes and pitchforks”; that we were revolutionaries even when we did not call for immediate insurrection; that we will remain revolutionaries also in the parliamentary period when it sets in, etc. Such arguments would be miserable evasions, replacing the concrete historical question by abstract considerations which explain absolutely nothing, and merely serve to cover up paucity of ideas, or political con fusion. To support our statement with an example, we will refer to Marx’s attitude to the German revolution in 1848. This may be all the more useful since in our country we see a number of symptoms of the same, and perhaps even more sharp, division among the bourgeoisie into a reactionary and a revolutionary section—a division that was absent in the Great French Revolution, for example. Strictly speaking, the fundamental questions about the state of the Russian revolution that we posed above can also be put in a form adapted to the analogy with Germany (in the relative and limited sense, of course, in which any historical analogies may be drawn). We can put it as follows: 1847 or 1849? Are we going through (like Germany in 1847, when the German State Duma, the so-called United Landtag, was being convened) the closing period of the climax of the revolution, or are we experiencing (as Germany did in 1849) the closing period of final exhaustion of the revolution, and the beginning of a humdrum life under a dock-tailed constitution?

Marx was putting this question all through 1850, was studying it and answered it at last, not by an evasion, but with a direct reply deduced from his analysis of the objective conditions. In 1849 the revolution was crushed, a number of insurrections ended unsuccessfully; the Liberty actually won by the people was taken away from them, and reaction was raging against the “revolutionaries”. Open political action by the Communist League (the Social-Democratic organisation of the time, virtually led by Marx) became impossible. “Everywhere the need arose,” we read in the Address of the Central Committee to the members of the League in June 1850, “for a strong, secret (our italics) organisation of the revolutionary party throughout Germany.” The Central Committee, which has its headquarters abroad, sends an emissary to Germany, who concentrates “all the available forces in the hands of the League”. Marx writes (in the Address of March 1850) that a revival, a new revolution, is probable; be advises the workers to organise independently, and particularly urges the necessity of arming the whole proletariat, of forming a proletarian guard, and of “frustrating by force any attempt at disarming”. Marx calls for the formation of “revolutionary workers’ governments”, and discusses what the proletariat should do “during and after the coming insurrection”. Marx points to Jacobin France of 1793 as the model for the German democrats (see The Revelations About the Cologne Communist Trial, Russ. transl., p. 115 and foll.).[2]

Six months pass. The expected revival does not come about. The efforts of the League fail. “In the course of the year 1850,” wrote Engels in 1885, “the prospects of a new upswing of the revolution became more and more improbable, indeed impossible.”[3] The industrial crisis of 1847 had been over come. A period of industrial prosperity was setting in. And so Marx, reckoning with the objective conditions, raises the question sharply and definitely. In the autumn of 1850 he categorically declares that now, with the productive forces of bourgeois society developing so profusely, “there can be no talk of a real revolution”.[4]

As the reader will see, Marx makes no attempt to dodge a difficult question. He does not play with the word revolution; he does not substitute empty abstractions for a burning political issue. He does not forget that the revolution, in general, is making progress in any case, because bourgeois society is developing; but he says straightforwardly that a democratic revolution in the direct and narrow sense of the term is impossible. He solves a difficult problem without reference to the “mood” of dejection and weariness prevailing among a particular section of the proletariat (as some Social-Democrats who have slipped into tail-ism often do). No, so long as he had no other facts to go by except that the mood was subsiding (in March 1850), he continued to call to arms and insurrection, to prepare for it, and not to depress the mood of the workers by personal scepticism and dismay. Not until he was absolutely convinced that the “exhaustion” of the “real revolution” was inevitable did he change his views. And having changed them, he openly and straight forwardly demanded a fundamental change of tactics and the complete cessation of preparations for insurrection: for such preparations could then only be playing at insurrection. The slogan of insurrection was definitely shelved. It was openly and definitely admitted that “the form of the movement has changed”.

We must always keep this example of Marx before us in the present difficult times. We must treat the possibility of a “real revolution” in the immediate future, the question of the main “form of the movement”, the question of insurrection and of preparing for it, as seriously as possible; but a fighting political party must solve this problem straight forwardly and definitely, without equivocation, without evasion, and without any reservation. The party that failed to find a clear answer to this question would not deserve to be called a party.

II[edit source]

And so, what objective facts have we to go by in solving this problem? There are a number of superficial and conspicuous facts that would seem to support the opinion that the directly revolutionary “form of the movement” is completely exhausted, that a new insurrection is impossible, and that Russia has entered the era of paltry bourgeois quasi-constitutionalism. That a turn has taken place among the bourgeoisie is beyond doubt. The landlords have deserted the Cadets and have joined the Union of October Seventeenth. The government has already granted a two-chamber “Constitution”. Martial law, arrests and other punitive measures make possible the convening of a sham Duma. Insurrection in the towns has been suppressed, and the peasant movement in the spring may prove to be isolated and impotent. The landlords are selling out their estates, and that means that the bourgeois, “orderly” section of the peasantry is growing. That a mood of dejection prevails after the suppression of the insurrection is a fact. Lastly, it must not be forgotten that it is easier and cheaper, so to speak, to predict the de feat of revolution in general than to predict its revival; for at present power is on the side of reaction, and in “most cases”, up to now, revolutions have finished unfinished.

What evidence is there that supports an opposite opinion? We will allow this question to be answered by K. Kautsky, whose sober views and ability calmly, practically and thoroughly to discuss topical and acute political problems are known to all Marxists. Kautsky expressed his opinion soon after the suppression of the Moscow insurrection, in an article entitled “The Chances of the Russian Revolution”. This article has appeared in Russian—of course, mutilated by the censor (in much the same way as was the Russian translation of another splendid essay by Kautsky, The Agrarian Question in Russia).

Kautsky does not attempt to dodge the difficult problem. He does not try to get rid of it by uttering empty phrases about the revolution in general being invincible, about the proletarian class being always and constantly revolutionary, etc. No, he bluntly puts the concrete historical question of the chances of the present democratic revolution in Russia, here and now. Without beating about the bush, he starts his article by stating that since the beginning of 1906 hardly any news other than sad has been received from Russia, which “might give rise to the opinion that the revolution has been utterly suppressed and is at its last gasp”. It is not only the reactionaries that are exultant over this, but also the Russian liberals, writes Kautsky, showering on these heroes of the “coupon”[5] a string of contemptuous epithets that they fully deserve (evidently Kautsky has not yet been converted to Plekhanov’s theory that Russian Social-Democrats should “value the support of the non-proletarian opposition parties”).

And so Kautsky analyses in detail this naturally, plausible opinion. That there is an outward resemblance between the defeat of the Moscow workers in December and the defeat of the Paris workers in June (1848) is beyond doubt. In both cases the armed uprising of the workers was “provoked” by the government at a time when the working class was not yet sufficiently organised. In both cases reaction triumphed despite the heroic resistance of the workers. What conclusion does Kautsky draw from this? Does he repeat Plekhanov’s pedantic admonition that it was wrong to take up arms? No. He does not hasten to indulge in cheap and short sighted moralising after the event. He studies the objective facts that can reply to the question whether the Russian revolution is completely crushed or not.

Kautsky sees four radical points of difference between the defeat of the proletariat in Paris in 1843 and the defeat of the proletariat in Moscow in 1905. First, the defeat of Paris was the defeat of the whole of France. Nothing like this can be said about Moscow. The workers of St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, Warsaw and Lodz are not defeated. They have been exhausted by the frightfully hard, twelve months’ struggle; but their spirit has not been broken. They are gathering their strength to renew the struggle for freedom.

Secondly, an even more essential difference is that in France, in 1848, the peasants were on the side of reaction, whereas in Russia, in 1905, the peasants are on the side of the revolution. Peasant revolts are in progress. Whole armies are engaged in crushing these revolts. These armies are devastating the country as only Germany was devastated during the Thirty Years’ War.[6] Military reprisals cow the peasants for a time; but they only aggravate their poverty and make their conditions more desperate. They, like the devastation caused during the Thirty Years’ War, will inevitably rouse larger and larger masses who will be compelled to declare war on the existing system, who will prevent the restoration of peace in the country, and will join every insurrection.

The third and extremely important difference is the following. The way for the revolution of 1848 was paved by the crisis and famine of 1847. The reaction was strengthened by the termination of the crisis and a period of industrial prosperity. “The present reign of terror in Russia, however, must inevitably lead to an aggravation of the economic depression which has been weighing on the country for years.” The full effects of the famine of 1905 will yet be felt within the next few months. The suppression of a revolution represents civil war on the very greatest scale, war against the whole people. This war is costing no less than a foreign war, and besides is devastating the home country, not some foreign land. Financial collapse is imminent. Moreover, the new trade agreements threaten particularly severe con sequences for Russia, and may even give rise to a world economic crisis. Thus the longer the reign of reactionary terror lasts, the more desperate will become the economic position of the country and the more will anger against the hated regime grow. “Such a situation,” says Kautsky, “will make any powerful movement against tsarism invincible. And there will be no lack of such a movement. The Russian proletariat, which has already given, so many great proofs of its heroism and devotion, will see to that.”

The fourth difference that Kautsky points out is of particular interest for Russian Marxists. Nowadays, unfortunately, we hear a lot of inane, virtually and purely Cadet, snickering over “Brownings” and “fighting squads”. No one has the courage and straightforwardness, of which Marx gave such an example, to say that insurrection is impossible; and that it is no use making further preparations for it. But people here are very fond of snickering over military operations by revolutionaries. They call themselves Marxists, but prefer to shirk the task of analysing the military aspect of insurrection (to which Marx and Engels always attached great importance[7]) by declaring with the inimitable majesty of a doctrinaire: “It was wrong to take up arms....” Kautsky behaves differently. Few as the facts about the insurrection at his disposal have been, he nevertheless tries to analyse the military aspect of the question as well. He tries to appraise the movement as a new form of struggle devised by the masses, unlike our revolutionary Kuropatkins,[8] who appraise a battle according to the rule: if they’re giving something away, take it; if there’s a fight on, run; if you’re beaten, well, you shouldn’t have taken up arms!

“Both the June fighting in Paris,” says Kautsky, “and the December fighting in Moscow were barricade fighting. But the former was a disaster; it marked the end of the old barricade tactics. The latter marked the beginning of new barricade tactics. And consequently we must revise the opinion which Engels expressed in his “Introduction” to Marx’s Class Struggles, that the period of barricade fighting is over for good.[9] Actually, only the period of the old barricade tactics is over. This is what the Moscow fighting showed, when a handful of insurgents managed to hold out for two weeks against superior forces armed with all the resources of modern artillery.”

That is how Kautsky speaks. He does not sing a requiem for the insurrection because the first attempt failed. He does not grumble over the failure, but studies the birth and growth of a new and higher form of struggle, examines the significance of the disorder and discontent among the troops, the assistance the workers received from the townspeople, the combination of the mass strike with insurrection. He studies the way in which the proletariat is learning the art of insurrection. He revises obsolete military theories, and there by calls upon the whole Party to analyse and assimilate the experience of Moscow. He regards the whole movement as a transition from strike to insurrection, and tries to grasp how the workers should combine the two for the purpose of achieving success.

Kautsky concludes his article as follows: “Such are the lessons of Moscow. How far they will influence the forms of the struggle in future, it is impossible, as yet, to foresee from here [i.e., from Germany]. Indeed, in all preceding manifestations of the Russian revolution so far we have seen spontaneous outbreaks of the unorganised masses; none of these were planned or prepared beforehand. Probably this will continue to be the case for some time.

“But while it is impossible, as yet, definitely to predict the forms that the struggle will assume in the future, all the signs are that we must expect further battles, that the present ominous [unheimliche] stillness is merely the calm be fore the storm. The October movement made the masses in town and country conscious of their power. Then the reaction in January hurled them into an abyss of torment. Here everything in flames them, arouses their anger, and they are ready to pay any price, however high, to escape. Soon the masses will rise again and attack with mightier force than ever! Let the counter-revolution celebrate its triumph over the bodies of the heroes who fell in freedom’s cause. The end of this triumph is approaching: the red dawn is rising, the proletarian revolution is at hand.”

III[edit source]

The question we have outlined is the fundamental question of Social-Democratic tactics as a whole. This is the first question that the coming Party congress will have to settle in the clearest and most unambiguous manner; and all members of the Party, all class-conscious workers should immediately do their utmost to collect the comprehensive material that will help to settle it, discuss it and send delegates to the congress who will be fully prepared for their important and responsible task.

The elections of delegates for the congress should take place on the basis of a clear distinction between tactical platforms. Strictly speaking, the consistent and complete reply that is given to this question, one way or the other, will settle all the minor details of Social-Democratic tactics.

Either—or.

Either we admit that at the present time “there can be no talk of a real revolution”, in which case we must say so openly and emphatically, in the hearing of all, so as not to mislead either ourselves, or the proletariat, or the people. In that case, we must absolutely reject the task of completing the democratic revolution as the immediate task of the proletariat. In that case, we must completely shelve the question of insurrection and cease all work of arming and organising fighting squads; for it is unbecoming for the workers’ party to play at insurrection. In that case, we must admit that the strength of revolutionary democrats is exhausted and make it our immediate business to support one or other section of the liberal democrats, as the real oppositional force under a constitutional regime. In that case, we must regard the State Duma as a parliament, even if a bad one, and not only participate in the elections, but also go into the Duma. In that case we must put the legalisation of the Party first, change the Party programme accordingly, and adjust all our work to the “legal” limits, or at any rate relegate underground work to a minor and subordinate place. In that case, we can regard the organisation of trade unions just as primary a Party task as armed up rising was in the preceding historical period. In that case, we should also shelve the revolutionary slogans of the peasant movement (such as confiscation of the landed estates), because these slogans are in practice slogans of insurrection, and to call for insurrection without previously preparing for it in military fashion, without believing in it, would be unworthy playing at insurrection. In that case, we must stop talking not only about a provisional revolutionary government, but also about so-called “revolutionary local self-government”; for experience has shown that bodies that are rightly or wrongly called by that name are actually transformed by the force of circumstances into organs of insurrection, into rudiments of a revolutionary government.

Or we admit that we can and must talk of a reel revolution at the present time; we admit that new and higher forms of the open revolutionary struggle are inevitable, or at all events, most probable. In that case, the. principal political task of the proletariat, the nerve centre of all its work, the soul of all its organised class activities, must be the task of completing the democratic revolution. In that case, all evasion of this task would merely mean degrading the concept of class struggle to Brentano’s interpretation[10] of it: it would mean converting the proletariat into a hanger-on of the liberal-monarchist bourgeoisie. In that case, the Party’s urgent and central political task is to prepare the forces of the proletariat, and to organise it, for armed uprising as the highest form of struggle achieved by the movement. In that case, it is our bounden duty critically to study the whole experience of the December uprising for the most direct practical purposes. In that case, we should increase tenfold our efforts to organise and arm fighting squads. In that case, we should prepare for insurrection also by means of fighting guerrilla operations, for it would be ridiculous to “prepare” only by enrolling and registering new recruits. In that case, we should regard civil war as having been declared and in progress, and the whole of the Party’s activities should be guided by the rule: “In war as in war!”. In that case, it is absolutely essential to train the cadres of the proletariat for offensive military operations. In that case, it is logical and consistent to issue revolutionary watchwords for the masses of the peasantry. The task of concluding fighting agreements with the revolutionary, and only the revolutionary, democrats comes into the foreground: the criterion for distinguishing between the various sections of the bourgeois democrats is the question of insurrection. With those who are in favour of insurrection the proletariat “strikes together”, although it “marches separately”; those who are opposed to insurrection we ruthlessly fight, or spurn them as contemptible hypocrites and Jesuits (the Cadets). In that case, we put into the foreground of all our agitation the criticism and exposure of constitutional illusions from the standpoint of open civil war, and concentrate on circumstances and conditions that will steadily pave the way for spontaneous revolutionary outbreaks. In that case, we regard the Duma, not as a parliament, but as a police headquarters, and reject all participation in the farcical elections because it can only corrupt and disorganise the proletariat. In that case, we take as the basis of organisation of the party of the working class (as Marx did in 1849) a “strong, secret organisation”, which must have a separate apparatus for “public activities”, and send its special feelers into all legal societies and institutions, from the workers’ trade unions to the legal press.

To put it in a nutshell: either we must admit that the democratic revolution is at an end, shelve the question of insurrection and take the “constitutional” path. Or we recognise that the democratic revolution is still in progress, make it our primary task to complete it, develop and apply in practice the slogan of insurrection, proclaim civil war and ruthlessly denounce all constitutional illusions.

It is scarcely necessary to tell the reader that we are emphatically in favour of the latter solution of the problem that now confronts the Party. The purpose of the tactical platform published in this issue is to sum up and expound in systematic form the views that we shall uphold at the congress and in the course of our work in preparing for it. This platform should be regarded not as something complete, but as an outline explanation of tactical problems, and as a preliminary draft of the resolutions and decisions we shall advocate at the Party congress. This platform has been discussed at private gatherings of like-minded ex-“Bolsheviks” (including the editors of, and contributors to, Proletary) and is a product of collective effort.

  1. Shipovite-constitutional regime—a regime of police autocracy slightly restricted by a constitution to he “granted by the tsar”. So named after D. N. Shipov, a moderate liberal, one of the leaders of the Zemstvo movement in the 1890s and 1900s, and of the counter revolutionary Octobrist Party in 1905. Lenin described Shipov’s political programme, which was adapted to the conditions imposed by the police, as “Zemstvo Zubatovism”.
  2. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, pp. 106-17; K. Marx, Enthülliungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln, Hottingen-Zürich, 1885.
  3. Frederick Engels, “Concerning the History of the League of Communists” (see Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, p. 354).
  4. Marx and Engels, “Third International Review. From May to October” (see Marx, Engels, Werke, Bd. 7, Berlin, 1960, 5. 416).
  5. (Mr.) Coupon—a synonym of capital and the capitalists, used by writers in the eighties and nineties of the nineteenth century. It was coined by the Russian author Gleb Uspensky, who first used it in his sketches entitled Grave Sins.
  6. Thirty Years’ War (1618-48)—a war that resulted from an aggravation of the antagonisms between various alignments of European states, and took the form of a struggle between Protestants and Catholics. It hogan with a revolt in Bohemia against the tyranny of the Hapsburg monarchy and the onslaught of Catholic reaction. The states which then entered the war formed two camps. The Pope, the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs and the Catholic princes of Germany, who rallied to Catholicism, opposed the Protestant countries— Bohemia, Denmark, Sweden, the Dutch Republic, and a number of German slates that had accepted the Reformation. The Protestant countries were hacked by the French kings, enemies of the Hapsburgs. Germany became the chief battle field and object of military plunder and predatory claims. The war, which at first was in the nature of resistance to the reactionary forces of feudal-absolutist Europe, developed, particularly from 1635 onwards, into a series of invasions of Germany by rival foreign conquerors. It ended in 1648, with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which reaffirmed the political dismemberment of Germany.
  7. See Frederick Engels, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany” (New York Daily Tribune, April 17, 1852-September 18, 1852 and the “Introduction” to Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850 (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1955. pp. 130-34).
  8. Kuropatkin, A. N. (1848-1925)–tsarist general, commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces in the Far East in 1904-05.
  9. The reference is to Frederick Engels’s “Introduction” to Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1860. Vorwärts, which published the “Introduction” in 1895, eliminated, without the author’s knowledge, all the more important formulations concerning the class struggle of the proletariat, and thus produced a distorted text. For details of this, see Frederick Engels’s letters of April 1 and 3, 1895 (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1955, pp. 568-69).
    The opportunist leaders of the German Social-Democrats look advantage of the document to justify their policy of renouncing the revolution, rejecting the necessity of insurrection and barricade fighting by the proletariat, and to uphold conciliatory tactics.
    The “Introduction” was first published in full in the Soviet Union—see Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, Moscow and Leningrad, 1930. Besides, it was included in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, pp. 118-38.
  10. Brentanoism—"a liberal-bourgeois doctrine which recognises non-revolutionary ’class’ struggle by the proletariat” (V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, 4th Russ. ed., Vol. 28, p. 209), and affirms that the working-class problem can be solved within the framework of capitalism, through factory legislation and the association of workers in trade unions. So named after L. Brentano, one of the principal exponents of the Katheder-Socialist school in bourgeois political economy.