April 1917: The Bolsheviks Adopt a Program for Power

Lenin’s April Theses form one of the most decisive manifestos in the history of the revolution. They consist of just a few short notes, the bare skeleton of Lenin’s speeches when he arrived back in Petrograd in April 1917. But the ideas outlined within them brought about a decisive reorientation of the Bolshevik leadership. Lynn Walsh re-examines the April Theses and their lessons for today.

Lenin’s return from exile crystallized a crisis in the Bolshevik party. The leadership in Russia around Kamenev and Stalin, who had assumed responsibility on their return from Siberia in March, endorsed the Soviet’s position of conditional support for the Provisional government of Prince Lvov – even though the Soviet held the real power on the streets and in the factories.

Lenin had already rejected this stance, as his Letters from Afar in February demonstrated. The Provisional government, in his view, was so bound up with the landlords, the industrialists and the bankers that it was incapable of fulfilling its promises. To believe that the government would end the war, distribute the big estates, solve the economic crisis, and meet workers’ demands was a dangerous illusion.

There was no question, as far as Lenin was concerned, of supporting the Provisional government while it carried out reforms in the expectation that, at a later stage, more favorable conditions would emerge for the struggle for socialism. The liberal bourgeois government, pushed reluctantly into power by the February revolution, had already gone as far as it was capable of going. Unless the Soviets smashed the remnants of the old state and placed power decisively in the hands of the workers, the Provisional government would succumb to counter-revolution. The next phase would be a new regime of totalitarian reaction.

Socialist Program

In the April Theses, therefore, Lenin called for a struggle for a socialist program based on the independent action of the working class. Its main elements were:

  • No Support for the Provisional government.
  • Fight for the Soviets to take power.
  • End the war.
  • Confiscate the big estates.
  • Nationalize the banks.
  • Establish workers’ control of industry.
  • Replace the police and army with a workers’ militia.
  • Replace the old state bureaucracy with workers’ administration.
  • Proclaim a Communist Party; establish a new international.

A program on these lines, with the strategy and tactics also spelt out, was an essential pre-requisite for the success of the October revolution. In April it was opposed by the leaders castigated by Lenin as ‘Old Bolsheviks’. However, by appealing to the leading Bolsheviks at rank and file level, Lenin won a majority for his ideas. The new upsurge of workers and peasants, which provokes a new crisis for the Provisional government, confirmed Lenin’s position in a few stormy months. Without the April Theses, 1917 would have ended quite differently.

Underlying Lenin’s strategy and tactics was a clear perspective. This provided a clear guide to action during the ebbs and flows of the revolution. On the other hand, it was precisely because they were working on the basis of a confused perspective, derived from a misinterpretation of Lenin’s previous position, that the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ adopted a policy which prefigured the disastrous Popular Frontism of the Stalinist leaders in the 1930s and since.

Permanent Revolution

The perspective which Lenin arrived at in 1917 coincided with Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, worked out following the experience of the 1905 revolution. This resolved the long debate within the Russian labor movement which revolved around three different conceptions of the coming revolution.

All the Russian Marxists were agreed that the tasks of social transformation facing them were those of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. These were: the breaking up of the big estates and the distribution of the land to the peasants. The abolition of the Tsarist monarchy and the establishment of a democratic republic. The separation of the church and state. The introduction of social reforms, urgently demanded by the workers and the peasants, but also necessary to clear the way for the development of capitalism.

Given this, which political forces would provide the leadership?

Would it be (a) the liberal capitalist representatives? If so, would the workers’ parties, including the Bolsheviks, limit themselves to conditional support for the liberals, accepting that the struggle for socialism would come later, under more favorable conditions which would develop under a capitalist regime?

Would it be (b) the working class, in alliance with the representatives of the peasantry, who would take the power – limiting themselves, however, at this stage to bourgeois-democratic tasks?

Or would it be (c) the working class leading the exploited peasantry behind them, who would take power, carry through the bourgeois-democratic tasks – but at the same time implementing radical changes in their own interest which would begin the transition to socialism?

Position (a) was adopted by the Mensheviks, who formed the right wing of the Social-Democratic party. From Marx, they drew highly schematic conclusions: that feudalism, capitalism and socialism followed in succession and one historical stage had to be complete before another could commence.

There was no question, according to this view, of the working class initiating a socialist revolution until the bourgeois revolution was complete.

This schema, alien to Marx’s dialectical method, took no account of the relationship of forces resulting from Russia’s uneven development.

Elements of modern industry can be injected, through foreign capital, into a society dominated by landlords and ruled by an absolute monarchy. The capitalists had arrived too late on the scene, and were too cowardly to fight for progressive changes. Long before 1917 they had held the real economic power. But they relied on the Tsar for protection, and feared the consequences of any big movements among the masses. Above all, they feared the working class – relatively small, but compact, highly conscious and combative.

The Liberal Capitalists, in Lenin’s view, had long ago proved their inability to carry through their historical tasks. The workers should place no reliance on the liberals whatsoever. Lenin always argued for an independent policy and organization for the working class.

In the years before the revolution Lenin had accepted position (b). Given the bankruptcy of the liberal bourgeoisie, the revolution would be carried through by an alliance of the workers, the most dynamic force, and the peasantry, the predominant exploited class. This perspective was summed up in Lenin’s formula “the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”

‘Dictatorship’ did not mean totalitarian rule (this was before the monstrosity of Stalinism!) but class domination, which would be based on democratic soviet-type organizations. ‘Democratic’ expressed recognition of the bourgeois character of the tasks to be carried out.

However, Lenin was far from putting a Chinese wall between the bourgeois-democratic and the socialist revolutions. He was convinced that, because of capitalism’s international character, the Russian revolution would be one link in a chain of worldwide revolutions. A revolutionary government in Russia would, through collaboration with the revolutionary workers’ governments in the advanced capitalist countries, move towards a second, socialist revolution in Russia. How quickly this would happen would depend not on any predetermined historical timetable, but on the relationship of forces. Above all, it would be determined by the strength of the proletariat involved in the struggle. As far back as 1906 Lenin had written: “We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop halfway.”

Lenin’s formula, as he explained in April 1917, was ‘algebraic’. It expressed the class relationships but left open the specific weight of political forces involved, and did not attempt to quantify the concrete tasks to be carried out.

Trotsky, whose perspective was bolder and more concrete, warned in 1906 that any tendency on the part of the proletariat to accept bourgeois-democratic limits would become anti-revolutionary, and could be potentially fatal to the revolution. A failure on the part of the revolutionary dictatorship to implement socialist measures would in practice undermine the forces of the proletariat. The leadership would in reality be conceded, under these circumstances, to the liberal bourgeoisie – opening the door to the danger of counter-revolution.

Old Bolsheviks

By developing the revolutionary essence of his formula in relation to the concrete events of 1917 Lenin avoided this danger. With regard to the ‘Old Bolsheviks’, Trotsky’s warning proved far-sighted and all too true. They clung to Lenin’s ‘antiquated’ and now ‘meaningless’ (as Lenin made clear in the April Theses) formula of the democratic dictatorship.

Kamenev and Stalin claimed to be standing on Lenin’s previous perspective (b). In reality, the logic of this position – conditional support for the Provisional government and the postponement of the struggle on the workers’ own demands – led them back to the Menshevik’s position (a) of an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie, with the workers playing second fiddle. Was it an accident that, prior to Lenin’s return, Stalin and Kamenev supported discussions with the Mensheviks on re-unification?

The remaining position (c), the only one which proved genuinely revolutionary in 1917, was that of the Permanent Revolution. This was the position adopted by Lenin in February 1917, outlined in his Letters From Afar and spelt out in the April Theses:

“The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution … to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants … The Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government…”

The position of Lenin and Trotsky coincided in 1917. Lenin saw that in the epoch of imperialism which dominated class relations internationally, the bourgeoisie of semi-developed countries like Russia had exhausted their historical mission. They could no longer complete the tasks undertaken by their predecessors in the classical revolutions of the past. These tasks now fell on the shoulders of the working class. Lenin now accepted Trotsky’s bold conclusion that the working class had to take poser notwithstanding its numerical weakness. But in taking on these tasks, left over from a previous era, the proletariat could not avoid linking them with the socialist measures essential to meet the workers’ immediate needs.

Given the economic backwardness and barbarous culture of a country like Russia, however, it was clearly imperative for the proletariat to adopt an internationalist outlook, striving to link up with the proletariat of more advanced countries possessing the material conditions for socialist development. For fundamental material reasons, it is only on the basis of the international extension of the revolution that the workers of a backward country could proceed to the construction of socialism.

Referring to the Permanent Revolution, Lenin told his comrade Adolf Joffe: “Trotsky was right.” After 1917 the polemics of the past no longer seemed so important. Lenin’s contempt for those who clung to the old formula was made clear in the brutal language of the April Theses.

However, there are many later comments which remove all doubt about Lenin’s view. On the fourth anniversary of the revolution, for instance, Lenin said: “In order to consolidate the achievements of the bourgeois-democratic revolution … we are obliged to go farther; and we did go farther. We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing as a ‘by-product’ of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities.”

The April Theses Today

Has the Russian revolution been successfully extended internationally, with the development of a socialist federation embracing economically advanced countries, the discussion of pre-1917 perspectives would now be of only historical interest to Marxists.

Unfortunately, with the defeat of the revolution in Europe, Soviet Russia was isolated. The revolution suffered an inevitable degeneration. The democratic control of the workers was usurped by a bureaucratic elite, which found a bonapartist representative in the person of Stalin.

As the bureaucracy became more remote from the working class within Russia, so it increasingly gave up confidence in the proletariat abroad. The Communist International was transformed into an agency of the bureaucracy’s foreign policy. Searching for national security, the bureaucracy began to play a counter-revolutionary role on the world arena. The perspective for an independent struggle for socialism was abandoned.

In an effort to provide theoretical, ‘Leninist’ justification, Stalin exhumed Lenin’s old formula of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. In other words, they returned to the policy they had supported at the beginning of 1917 – before they had been defeated by Lenin in the struggle within the party.

The revival of this discredited policy was applied with disastrous results to the Chinese revolution of 1925-26. Against the wished of the leadership of the Chinese Communists, the Stalinist bureaucracy imposed a policy of subordination to the Chinese bourgeoisie led by Chiang Kai-chek and the Kuomintang. This led to the defeat of China’s dynamic working class, with the massacre of thousands of Communists and militants. Since then, the same policy has been applied with the same disastrous results.

In the post-Second World War period the ex-colonial lands have experienced a series of revolutionary upheavals. The communist party leaders, still dominated by Stalinist ideology, have invariably subordinated the workers’ organizations to the interests of national-capitalist leaders.

In many cases this has meant support for bonapartist, including military bonapartist leaders. Sukharno in Indonesia, Kassim in Iraq, Gonclaves in Portugal – the list could be extended around the world many times.

In Chile between 1970-73, the CP leaders supported the popular government of Allende. This was on the basis of the so-called anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly program – to make ‘inroads’ into the power of capital. In other words, their perspective was that of completing a bourgeois-democratic stage of revolution, with the struggle for workers’ power and socialism postponed beyond the horizon. Following this line, the CP leaders helped to restrain the magnificent movement of the Chilean workers – who are still living with the horrendous results.

Similarly, in South Africa the Stalinists within the leadership of the ANC base themselves on the theory of stages. In spite of the magnificent movement of the black workers and youth, they believe that the program of the revolution must be limited, at this stage, to national democratic tasks. They fail to see that capitalism has completely exhausted the progressive role it once played.

Crisis of Stalinism

The crisis in Stalinism and the reformist degeneration of the various communist parties has severed many of the links with Moscow. But the CP leaders nevertheless perpetuate the false ideas of Stalin in 1917 – ideas which had to be swept aside by Lenin in order to ensure the success of the revolution.

If in 1917 the idea that the bourgeois-democratic revolution had to be exhausted before the workers could move towards socialism was incorrect, today it is totally absurd.

On the one side, the capitalist class of the underdeveloped countries is even more subservient to the big monopolies and banks of the advanced capitalist countries than in the past. It is unable to play an independent, progressive role. Even where the national bourgeoisie has taken over, they have failed to complete their traditional tasks. On the contrary, given the world-wide capitalist crisis, they have accumulated even more problems and fostered grotesque social contradictions.

On the other side, the national bourgeoisie of the ex-colonial lands is almost everywhere confronted by a powerful working class. Especially in the semi-developed countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the capitalists are paralyzed by fear of the proletariat – much stronger now than the workers of Russia in 1917.

Many strikes, general strikes, and insurrectionary movements have proved the preparedness of the workers to struggle.

The weakness of the proletariat in the ex-colonial lands cannot be attributed to the incompleteness of the national bourgeois-democratic revolution. The failure of the workers in these regions to assume the leadership of the exploited peasantry and the impoverished petty-bourgeoisie and to lead society out of its present blind alley is due to its political weakness. This reflects the absence of revolutionary Marxist policy based on the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky and put to the test in 1917.

That is why the controversy of 1917 is still a live issue. The lessons of the April Theses have to be learned, re-learned and carried to class conscious workers throughout the world.