• #OctoberRevolutionSeries: How Lenin Asked His Comrades to Take Their Shirts off and Declare Themselves a Communist Party

    An excerpt from the introduction to Lenin in 1917 by V I Lenin

    Prakash Karat

    December 1, 2017

    This is our seventh story for our #OctoberRevolutionSeries, a series we began in October to remember the centenary of the Russia Revolution. The first is an excerpt from Cecilia Bobrovskaya's memoirs; the second is from an essay by Prabir Purkayastha; the third is our inaugral bookend by Githa Hariharan on Sevtlana Alexievich's novel Second Hand Time; and the fourth is a conversation with Professor Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, who talks of his research on autobiographical texts by György Lukács, Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin; the fifth is Parvathi Menon's foreword to Kollontai's book with a excerpt from Kollontai's essays in The Soviet Woman (LeftWord Books, 2017); and the sixth an essay by Kollontai.

    Lenin in 1917 was not a sudden phenomenon. It was a product of an accumulation of revolutionary theory which combusted with the gathering mass discontent of the working class, the peasantry and the army of peasant soldiers on the war front.

    Lenin developed this theory over a period of nearly two decades in mainly four areas, which had a direct bearing on the October Revolution. First, Lenin analysed the nature of capitalist development in Russia, understood the role of the peasantry in Russia and carefully studied the differentiation of the peasantry and its potential for revolutionary struggles . This was done in The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1898). Second, Lenin looked carefully at the Russian bourgeoisie and concluded that it was not capable of carrying out a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The task had to be taken up by the workers and the revolutionary sections of the peasantry. He worked out these ideas in Two Tactics for a Social Democratic Revolution (1906). Third, Lenin precisely studied the international situation, looking at the question of finance capital and the growth of monopolies, at the emergence of inter-capitalist and inter-imperialist conflict and at the places where revolutionary change—the “weakest link”—might be possible. This was accomplished in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Finally, in two texts—What is to be done? (1902) and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1906)—Lenin worked out the role of the revolutionary party and the nature of its organisation along with disassociating this kind of party from the revisionism that would make it unprepared for revolutionary times. Between the two revolutions, Lenin produced State and Revolution, which was—in a sense—the culmination of his theoretical endeavour. In other words, his analysis of capitalism and imperialism, of the national and colonial questions, his theory of revolution, and the role of the Communist Party in making the revolution, are not discrete ideas that Lenin came up with responding to contingent matters. His entire body of writings is part of a unified theoretical framework.

    [. . .]

    After returning from exile Lenin arrived at the Finland Station at Petrograd on the night of April 3. The next day, at two meetings, Lenin read out his April Theses. These took the Bolshevik leaders and other revolutionaries by surprise. Astonishment, stupefaction and plain confusion were the reactions to the political programme Lenin set out.

    The April Theses called for no concession to “revolutionary defencism”, which meant the continuation of the imperialist war in defence of Russia. Lenin called instead for the revolutionaries to oppose the war and to end the rule of the “bourgeois-landlord government”. He rallied the workers, peasants and soldiers to make the Soviets the real seat of power. This was the essence of the April Theses that Lenin expounded first to the Bolsheviks and then to a meeting of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

    It was in these April Theses, which were published as “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”, that Lenin gave specific call for a second revolution. As he put it, “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”.

    Lenin recognised that the Bolsheviks—his party—were in the minority in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The task for the proletariat was to convince the other socialist parties that they must come over to the side of the Bolsheviks. “It is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them”, that is, to the broad sections of the masses who believe in revolutionary defencism. If the masses shift their view, then their representatives would be forced to follow. Patient work was required so that the masses could see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government.

    What is of note here is that neither the Mensheviks nor the Socialist Revolutionaries nor any of the other socialist parties produced the kind of precise theory developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. None of the Menshevik leaders—neither Plekhanov nor Vera Zasulich, nor Fyodor Dan nor Julius Martov nor Alexander Potresov produced a coherent revolutionary theory. It is a sign of the confusion that prevailed amongst the other socialist parties, who put their faith in the provisional government and could not see the power of imperialism. None of these party leaders developed the kind of theoretical armour that Lenin had prepared since 1898 and that the Bolsheviks had developed in their struggles since the split with the Mensheviks in 1903. It was, therefore, possible for Lenin to call upon the proletariat to offer the Bolshevik theory to their class and to push the Mensheviks from below; no other socialist party had the theory to offer the proletariat at that time.

    The second part of the April Theses set out the new forms of State power, with Lenin indicating various policies that would need to be enacted by the second revolution’s state. The new state would not be a “parliamentary republic . . . but a republic of Soviets, Agricultural Labourers, Peasants”, with their deputies from throughout the country. It would be a state that would confiscate all landed estates, nationalise all lands and end predatory landlordism. There would be no need for a police force and an army, nor for a bureaucracy. The Soviets would set up a “Commune State”.

    The direction of the new politics broke the link between social democracy and the Bolsheviks. It was time to change the name of the party and call it a Communist Party. As Lenin put it, “you must take off your dirty shirt and put on a clean one”. He also called for the creation of a new International, not one that had been ground down by social democracy’s vacillation.

    The essential elements of Lenin’s new revolutionary strategy had been contained in his “Letters from Afar”. But these had not had a direct impact on the Bolshevik ranks. Only the first letter was published in the party paper, Pravda. The editorial board did not print the rest. They would only be published after the October Revolution.

    The April Theses, therefore, became the catalyst and the initiator of the second stage of the revolution, which would succeed in October. Lenin had to struggle to convince the Bolshevik Old Guard and party committees about the efficacy of the new theses. The inner-party struggle lasted just three weeks. On April 24, at the National Conference convened by the party, Lenin’s resolution was adopted.

    Here was a rare historical moment, when the sheer intellectual power of Lenin’s theory and practice set in motion a revolutionary vanguard to lead the revolutionary movement.


    Prakash Karat is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He served as General Secretary of the party from 2005 to 2015. He is the author of Language and Nationality Politics in India (1972) and Subordinate Ally: The Nuclear Deal and India-US Strategic Relations (LeftWord 2008), and editor of A World to Win—Essays on the Communist Manifesto (LeftWord 1999) and Across Time and Continents: A Tribute to Victor Kiernan (LeftWord 2003). He is Managing Director of Naya Rasta Publishers Private Limited, of which LeftWord Books is an imprint.

    This is an excerpt from Lenin in 1917 by V I Lenin (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2017), edited by Prakash Karat, republished with permission from the publisher.

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