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Letter from Afar, corrections from up close: Censorship or retrofit?

June 24, 2017

Part 3 of Lars Lih’s series ‘All Power to the Soviets’

By Lars T. Lih. The standard “rearming the party” interpretation of Bolshevism in 1917 is a gripping and highly dramatic narrative that goes something like this: Old Bolshevism is rendered irrelevant by the February revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks flounder until Lenin returns home and rearms the party, and the party is subsequently divided over fundamental issues throughout the year. Party unity is restored—to the extent that it was restored—after the other leading Bolsheviks cave in to Lenin’s superior force of will. Only by these means was the party rearmed by a new strategy that proclaimed the socialist nature of the revolution—an essential condition for Bolshevik victory in October.

Observers with strikingly opposed political viewpoints all had their reasons for supporting some version of the rearming narrative.[1] This story seemed doubly confirmed when it became known in the 1950s that the version of Lenin’s first Letter from Afar that was printed in Pravda in March 1917 had been heavily edited, with almost a fourth of the text removed. This fact became the basis of a vivid and persuasive anecdote of how the flabbergasted and frightened Petrograd Bolsheviks allegedly censored Lenin, their own vozhd.

Previous installments of this series:
1. ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ Biography of a Slogan
2. The Proletariat and its Ally: The Logic of Bolshevik ‘Hegemony’

Here’s how the story is usually told: In early March 1917, immediately after the fall of the tsar, Lenin set down his reaction to the cataclysmic events in Russia in four Letters from Afar, using the skimpy news reports available to him in Switzerland. But the Petrograd Bolsheviks were utterly scandalized by the views expressed in Lenin’s Letters, owing to bold innovations that broke fundamentally with Old Bolshevism. Lenin’s audacity so flustered the editors of Pravda that they refused to publish three of the Letters from Afar, and even the one letter that was actually published was heavily censored with cuts that disfigured its essential message.

Kollontai as link

In March 1917 Alexandra Kollontai, then in Oslo, provided a link between Lenin, still in Switzerland, and the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Some years ago, while perusing a Soviet-era document collection, I ran across a telegram to Lenin from his sister Maria that she sent immediately after the Pravda publication of the first (henceforth I will refer to the first Letter from Afar as simply the Letter). Maria Ulyanova was a member of the Pravda editorial board that had allegedly disfigured Lenin’s text, yet she wrote to him saying that his Letter had met with “full solidarity” and asking for more articles. This telegram certainly did not fit the standard story! I quickly realized that neither I nor, it seemed, anybody else had any real grasp of exactly what was cut and what was added in the published version. And so I embarked on a year-long detective adventure during which I laboriously investigated the mail service between Zurich and Oslo, the internal politics of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, and the complicated later history of the Letter’s text.

My findings were published a year and a half ago in the journal Kritika under the title “Letter from Afar, Corrections from Up Close: The Bolshevik Consensus of March 1917.”[2] I showed that the anecdote of the censored Pravda article was a “turncoat narrative,” that is, a story that under examination changes sides: instead of serving as a pillar of the standard narrative, it becomes a strong challenge to it. The Pravda editors did not refuse to publish any of the Letters from Afar, since only the first one arrived in Petrograd in time. Far from being scandalized by the political message of Lenin’s Letter, the Petrograd Bolsheviks enthusiastically endorsed it. The changes made to his text had specific and limited aims: they were not meant to censor or deform his argument, nor did they have that effect.

As this recital of my conclusions shows, my aim at the time was essentially negative: I wanted to discredit a standard narrative that simply did not fit the facts. Returning to this material after a year and a half with a broader perspective, I now want to bring out the more positive aspects of this episode. The Pravda editors did not simply remove a few factual misconceptions on Lenin’s part—rather, they actively retrofitted Lenin’s article with their own hands-on understanding of the Russian political situation. Like any successful retrofit (for example, adding new insulation to an old house), the cuts and additions of the Pravda editors did not interfere with the efficient functioning of the original structure—on the contrary, Lenin’s essential message came through with less distortion and more force.

The unexpected features of the post-February situation could only be grasped by hands-on experience in Petrograd, the maelstrom of national politics. Kamenev and Stalin had to adjust to these realities when they arrived from Siberia in mid-March, and Lenin and Zinoviev likewise had to adjust when they arrived from Switzerland in early April.

Not that these unexpected realities invalidated the basic Bolshevik strategy of “hegemony” (as outlined in earlier installments of this series)—far from it! But adjustments had to be made, adjustments that were straightforward and logical but nevertheless not at all automatic. These adjustments can be summed up with this overall formula: the Bolsheviks had to move out of their comfort zone of underground agitation and move into the realm of genuine mass politics on a national level as a serious contender for power.

When Lenin wrote his Letter in March 7, his faulty information caused him to impose an out-of-date framework on post-February politics. When the Petrograd Bolsheviks received his Letter two weeks later, they perforce knew better and molded Lenin’s Letter accordingly. By the time Lenin arrived two weeks after that, he had already made some of the needed adjustments in his original framework and went on to make more as he immersed himself in the hurly-burly of Petrograd politics. We can even speak of Lenin’s de facto ratification of the editorial changes to his original draft.

So here’s the irony: Lenin’s Letter is usually described as unsuccessfully prodding the Petrograd Bolsheviks in the direction of his April Theses. On the contrary!—we must turn this around and say, the Petrograd Bolsheviks nudged Lenin’s Letter in the direction of the April Theses.

For this reason, the detailed examination of seemingly small editorial changes gives us an unparalleled dynamic picture of the Bolshevik adjustment in action. We see exactly what facets of the situation were new and unexpected for both Lenin in Switzerland and the Bolsheviks in Petrograd. We also see the basic contours of the necessary adjustment, first by senior Bolsheviks such as Kamenev and Stalin and later by émigrés such as Lenin and Zinoviev. Instead of censorship, we see teamwork—teamwork that was possible only because of a shared understanding of basic tasks.

China Miéville’s recently published book October is the first secondary account to contain an accurate account of the Letter from Afar (and this is indicative of Miéville’s wide and careful reading in the best current research). He is nonetheless reluctant to abandon completely the traditional emphasis on disruption and conflict:

While this particular conflict [the Letter from Afar] was largely a retrospective fiction, it undeniably gained in plausibility due to the way Lenin’s formulations, including in his intemperate polemics, evinced an uncompromising tendency, a distinguishing political logic that would, in fact, be key to other real disputes within the party. Not ineluctable by any means, but chafing against Bolshevik moderation and coalition. The “Letters from Afar” were thus “continuity” Bolshevism, and yet contained seeds of a distinct and more trenchant position. One that would become clearer with Lenin’s return.[3]

This is carefully stated and eloquently worded, but in my view, it points us in the wrong direction. When we look at the nitty-gritty of the actual changes, we will have a hard time finding even the germs of later conflict in this episode. We will be less tempted to insist that there must have been some sort of boundary line between Lenin and the other Bolsheviks. Of course, as Alexander Rabinowitch has shown us in such detail, there was plenty of conflict within Bolshevik ranks during 1917 (as earlier and later)—but these were conflicts within a shared understanding, tactical conflicts that produced different groupings on different issues.

The following section sets out the factual conclusions that by themselves invalidate the standard account of the Letter (for supporting arguments, qualifications, references, etc., see my original Kritika article). The rest of the essay examines the editorial process in detail. While based on my earlier findings, the present discussion employs a new and more comprehensive framework that gives more emphasis to the creative molding by the Pravda team.

My analysis is supplemented by two appendices presenting the original source material on which it is based:

Odyssey of the Letter

On March 7, 1917, a week after the abdication of the tsar, Lenin completed the first Letter from Afar, which he promptly sent off to Aleksandra Kollontai in Oslo (then Christiana). Although he circulated the texts of the Letters in Switzerland, Lenin had his heart set on sending them to Petrograd for publication in the newly revived Pravda. Under wartime conditions, using Kollontai as a very circuitous courier seemed the best bet. The other three Letters were written between March 8 and 12, after which Lenin concentrated wholly on the practical task of getting back to Russia (he finally got there at the beginning of April).

In Oslo, Kollontai wrote in her diary on March 13:

It is now more important [than ever] to be there [in Russia]. We must give direction to the party in our spirit, we must immediately draw a sharp line between us and the Provisional Government along with the defencists. That is clear. Our work lies ahead … I am waiting for directives from Vladimir Ilyich, and then I’ll start off. I live in an intoxicating state of happiness­—it’s still so hard to believe … I can hardly wait for an answer from Lenin.

On 15 March, she received the first Letter and sent a telegram to Lenin announcing that she was “thrilled by his ideas”; she set out the next day without waiting for any further Letters. Her long journey to Petrograd under wartime conditions required her to travel 800 miles to the northern tip of Sweden and then cross over to Finland before arriving in the Russian capital on March 18. The day after her arrival, Kollontai dropped off the Letter at Pravda offices and joined the editorial staff.

The Pravda editors took just two days to read the article, decide on necessary changes, make them, and otherwise prepare the article for publication on March 21 and 22. Close to one-fourth of the text was removed (Lenin’s original draft contains approximately 4500 words in the English translation, of which approximately 1100 were cut). The Letter was widely republished in Bolshevik party newspapers throughout Russia, including Tallin, Moscow, Kiev, Kronstadt, Kharkov and Kazan before Lenin’s return in early April, and Helsingfors and the Petrograd Vyborg district afterwards. This is a surprisingly wide circulation for such an allegedly scandalous article.

Who were the Pravda editors in 1917? Among those mentioned in the sources as helping to edit Pravda in March 1917 are Aleksandr Shliapnikov, Petr Zalutski, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lev Kamenev, Koba Stalin, Matvei Muranov, Mikhail Olminskii, Mikhail Kalinin, Maria Ulyanova and (after her return on 18 March) Aleksandra Kollontai.  Most likely, decisions about how to edit Lenin’s article were taken collectively and in consultation with the Petrograd party committees. Kollontai’s presence is especially significant, since we have already seen her great enthusiasm about Lenin’s article. Because we have no clear picture of the concrete decision process, I will refer simply to “the Pravda editors.”

Faced with a text written two weeks earlier by a writer who himself noted that he was “obliged to content himself with meager foreign press dispatches,” the editors were presented with the challenge of presenting it as an effective analysis of a rapidly evolving situation. Publishing an article by the acknowledged leader of the party was a great opportunity but also a great risk for the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s analysis of the basic situation had to be a good one—it had to strike readers as perceptive and insightful rather than out of date and out of touch. The editors could not preface the article with an apology: “Please excuse Comrade Lenin’s misapprehensions—remember, he penned this in Zurich two weeks ago.” The editors needed to make Lenin look good, and, even more imperatively, they needed to ensure that he did not look silly.

Given these constraints, there was no guarantee that Lenin’s article was even publishable. Remarkably, the Pravda editors were able to mold the Letter so that Lenin’s essential message was accommodated to the new post-February political realities. In the following sections, we will look at the editing process in detail. Here we will present some striking direct evidence that reveals how the Petrograd Bolsheviks felt about the Letter and its message.

In his classic memoir of 1917, Zapiski iz revoliutsii, Sukhanov reports a conversation between himself and Kamenev that took place prior to Lenin’s return:

I started to ask Kamenev what in general was being done in his party and in what direction was a “line” being defined. What was Lenin thinking, what was he writing? … [Kamenev responded:] Lenin? Lenin thought that the revolution up to now had unfolded as might have been predicted [zakonomerno], that a bourgeois vlast was historically necessary right now and that there could not have been anything else after the overturn.

“Then you are not yet trying to overthrow the elite [tsenzovoe] government right now [seichas] and do not insist on an immediate vlast of the democracy?”, I inquired further of my interlocutor, who was opening perspectives that were important for me.

“Neither we here nor Lenin over there have this point of view. Lenin writes that our urgent task now is to organize and mobilize our forces.”[4]

Kamenev’s description of what “Lenin writes” can only refer to the Letter, which evidently had not yet been published. His interpretation of Lenin’s message can be paraphrased as follows: Events are unfolding zakonomerno, that is, according to predictable regularities. A “bourgeois” government immediately after the fall of the tsar was no doubt inevitable. The situation is not ripe “yet” for an “immediate” overthrow of this bourgeois government “right away.” Our task is therefore to organize and mobilize in order to replace the present government with a vlast of the democracy. This project will become practical politics as soon as “our forces” are ready. This reading does not misrepresent Lenin’s Letter, either in original or published form.

On March 22—the day that the second installment of Lenin’s Letter appeared in Pravda—his sister Maria Ulyanova sent him the following telegram:

Articles received and printed. Full solidarity [polnaia solidarnost’]. Send articles. Kollontai has arrived. Your arrival desirable, but avoid risk.

Ulyanova states that Lenin’s “articles” have already been published. The only possible explanation of the plural is the two-part publication in Pravda. The request for more articles implies that no other articles by Lenin were available at time of writing, and also that the editors were eager for more of Lenin’s views, not scandalized by them. Recall that Ulyanova was part of the Pravda editorial team and that she sent this telegram after all the excisions and modifications had been made. Either she was lying to her brother about “full solidarity,” or she thought that the editorial revisions had not interfered with Lenin’s message.

A few days later, on March 26, Aleksandra Kollontai sent off a long letter to Lenin in Switzerland in which she informed him that

The beginning of your letters has been printed. Your voice is listened to not only by supporters [nashi] but by opponents … We work closely together at Pravda, in full solidarity and without disputes [tesno, splochenno i bez trenii].

Kollontai’s comment that “the beginning of your letters has been printed” does not contradict Maria Ulyanova’s assertion that Lenin’s “articles” had already been published. Lenin himself made clear that the Letter was the first installment of a projected series.

Can we reconcile Kollontai’s remarks with the standard story of frightened Pravda editors censoring Lenin’s article? Consider. Kollontai at this time was extremely loyal to Lenin personally and insisted when still in Norway that Lenin provide “directives.” She read the Letter as soon as she received it in Norway and promptly informed Lenin in a telegram that she was “thrilled” with the ideas therein set forth. Afterwards, she was among the first to give whole-hearted endorsement of Lenin’s April Theses. Kollontai worked with the Pravda editorial staff immediately after her arrival with the Letter and therefore was perfectly aware of the cuts made in Lenin’s text—indeed, she undoubtedly participated in making them. Yet she expresses no outrage that Lenin had been censored or that his “thrilling” argument had been deformed. She does not even inform Lenin that cuts were made. Instead, she says that the Letter, far from causing scandal among the Bolsheviks, was treated with respect even by non-Bolsheviks. She also goes out of her way to emphasize the unanimity of views at Pravda. Unless we assume a phenomenal and inexplicable duplicity on Kollontai’s part, her letter to Lenin is by itself enough to make the standard story untenable.

These statements testify not only to the attitude of the three people who made them but also of the entire Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd. By the way, all these pieces of evidence have been available in published form for a long time—close to a century in the case of Kamenev, and forty or fifty years in the case of Ulyanova and Kollontai.

Lenin wrote three more Letters from Afar between March 8 and 12 (the so-called Fifth Letter is only an abortive sketch written down on the eve of his departure on the sealed train). None of these letters reached Petrograd before he himself did: Kollontai did not wait for further letters before she set off on her laborious trek back to Russia, and no alternative method for getting them to Russia presented itself. They were first published in 1924, immediately after Lenin’s death. Both Trotsky in 1924 and the editors of the 1920s edition of Lenin’s works state definitely that only the first Letter arrived in Petrograd.

In general, Lenin did not take kindly to people fooling around with his text. In the prewar period, he regularly went ballistic about the way the Pravda editors in Russia treated his submissions, and after returning to Russia in 1917, he was unsparing in his criticism of Pravda and its editors for other reasons. Yet there is no evidence that he resented what the editors had done after he arrived back in Russia a couple of weeks after the publication of the Letter—he certainly does not repudiate the article or insist that a full text be printed forthwith. Indeed, he referred in passing to the Pravda version as a valid statement of his views.[5] We can even speak of Lenin’s de facto ratification of editorial changes, since he adopted most of them in his own rhetoric after his return.

In the 1920s, the Bolshevik leadership may have wanted to keep quiet about the cuts in the Letter, not in order to protect themselves, but in order to protect Lenin: in the context of the Lenin cult, the very fact that he did not fully appreciate every nuance of the situation in Petrograd might be seen as embarrassing.

The only reason we know of the existence of the editorial changes is the publication of Lenin’s original draft in the fourth edition of his complete works in 1949. Stalin was still very much alive and in power, and we may say with complete assurance that the original draft was published with Stalin’s knowledge and explicit authorization. If the usual story of Stalin and Kamenev’s censorship of Lenin is true, Stalin’s publication of Lenin’s draft would be equivalent to a guilty man returning to the scene of the crime and planting new evidence of his own guilt. How plausible is this account of Stalin’s motives? Shouldn’t we assume that, surprising as it may seem, Stalin was proud of the job he and others did in preparing Lenin’s article for publication?

Afterwards, Lenin’s original draft became the standard text in all later editions of his works, including the English-language Collected Works, so that the Pravda text—the version read by people at the time, and thus of far greater historical importance than Lenin’s original draft—has essentially vanished from public view.  When I first started asking myself questions about the changes made to the Letter, I was surprised to run into difficulties when simply trying to locate the Pravda text. In this case, an archival document has driven out of circulation a more significant published document.

In the 1950s, pioneering Soviet historians tried to move away from the heavy constraints of the Stalin cult. Our natural admiration for these brave historians who were fighting the good fight should not lead us to overlook their own specific point of view. Historians such as Eduard Burdzhalov or A. V. Snegov were following a Khrushchev-era anti-Stalin line that aimed at putting as much space between Lenin and Stalin as possible. Since Stalin was a member of the Pravda editorial staff, these historians had a vested interest in portraying the changes introduced by the Pravda editors as anti-Lenin censorship. This interpretation has been uncritically accepted ever since.

The spin put on the Pravda cuts by the Khrushchev-era historians soon congealed into a juicy anecdote that enlivened practically all Western accounts of 1917. As sometimes happens, this anecdote served the bias of opposing camps—both the anti-Lenin academic historians and the pro-Lenin Trotskyist historians—in equal fashion. It did not serve anyone’s interest to throw suspicion on the alleged episode—for example, there are no partisans of Kamenev who might be motivated to protect his reputation.

Before moving on, I will summarize some of the reasons why the standard story of befuddled censorship is incompatible with the facts as just reported. 1. Only one Letter reached Petrograd and therefore the Pravda editors did not refuse to print the other letters. 2. The Pravda version was widely reprinted in Bolshevik newspapers. 3. According to explicit statements by participants made during March 1917 before Lenin’s return, Petrograd Bolsheviks expressed “full solidarity” with Lenin’s Letter. 4. Lenin’s rhetoric after his return to Russia provided de facto ratification of most of the specific changes. 5. Stalin’s decision to allow publication of the original draft in 1949 is not compatible with a guilty conscience about the matter. 6. The Soviet historians in the Khrushchev era who came up with the story about censorship had a parti pris that mandates skepticism about their conclusions. 7. The standard story has never been backed up by any systematic examination of the actual editorial modifications.

Toward a post-February political map

Before the war, the Bolsheviks charted their political strategy by pointing to three fundamental political forces: tsarist reaction, the liberal and quasi-liberal elite opposition, and the narod (workers and peasants combined). According to the Bolshevik strategy of “hegemony” or class leadership, the socialist proletariat must strive to lead the narod against tsarist reaction, since only the proletariat could do what the liberals refused to do: destroy tsarism and transform Russia in a democratic spirit.

In the first days after the February revolution, as Lenin strived to make sense of the fragmented and distorted information at his disposal in Switzerland, he applied this same tripartite map of the post-February situation (all quotations from the Letter in this section come from the original draft):[6]

These three political camps, these three fundamental political forces—(1) the tsarist monarchy, the head of the feudal  landlords, of the old bureaucracy and the high military command; (2) bourgeois and landlord-Octobrist-Cadet Russia, with the petty bourgeoisie (of which Kerensky and Chkheidze are the principal representatives) following in its wake; (3) the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which is looking to make the entire proletariat and the entire mass of the poorest part of the population its allies—these three fundamental political forces fully and clearly revealed themselves even in the eight-day “first stage” and even to an observer so remote from the scene of events as the present writer, who is obliged to content himself with meagre foreign press dispatches [Lenin’s emphasis].

This mapping was inadequate for the new political realities even when Lenin wrote it in early March and it only became more so by the time the Bolsheviks received it two weeks later. First, the utter collapse of tsarism meant that the Romanov dynasty was no longer part of anyone’s political calculations. As Stalin put it in a speech at the end of the month: “As the revolution develops, the Provisional Government will turn itself (objectively, it must do this) into a bulwark of counterrevolution—not a tsarist counterrevolution (danger does not threaten us from this direction)—but an imperialist one.” Indeed, the whole political spectrum in Russia had lurched to the left after the February events to such an extent that the entire right wing of the pre-revolutionary opposition—what Lenin here calls “landlord-Octobrist Russia”—had also disappeared from the scene, leaving the liberal Kadets (short for the Constitutional Democratic Party) as the single non-socialist party left standing. Not knowing of these developments, Lenin painted a highly inaccurate picture of the Provisional Government:

This new government, in which Lvov and Guchkov of the Octobrists and Peaceful Renovation Party, yesterday’s abettors of Stolypin the Hangman, control the posts of real importance, the crucial posts, the decisive posts, the army and the bureaucracy—this government, in which Miliukov and the other Kadets serve mostly for decoration, for a signboard, for sugary professorial speeches, and the “Trudovik” Kerensky plays the role of a balalaika for gulling the workers and peasants.

In actuality, the balance of forces within the government was the reverse of Lenin’s picture. To start off, Lenin had got his Lvovs mixed up and confused G. F. Lvov, the head of the first Provisional Government, with N. N. Lvov, a leader of the prewar conservative reform party Peaceful Renovation.  Further, the right-wing Octobrist Guchkov was not the heart of the new government but rather an isolated outsider who quit the government in frustration at the end of April. If Miliukov was indeed relatively powerless in the cabinet, the reason was not a loose coalition to his right, but rather one to his left consisting of left-wing Kadet liberals plus Kerensky. These forces helped to oust Miliukov shortly after Guchkov’s exit.

Lenin also misapprehended Kerensky’s role: his presence in the government was not due to right-wing forces who wanted a “balalaika.” On the contrary, Kerensky was deputed by the Petrograd Soviet as its representative in the government. Lenin’s mistake about Kerensky reflected a more fundamental misapprehension about the role of the Petrograd Soviet. In his tripartite map, Lenin placed Chkheidze and Kerensky directly in the camp of the liberal opposition while portraying the Soviet as already opposed to the new government. But in fact, Chkheidze  and Kerensky were leaders of the Soviet, and their political influence came from solid majority support among the soviet constituency.

Lenin’s misunderstanding of the role of the Soviet is even more evident in the second installment of his Letters from Afar, written a day or so after completing the first Letter. From the skimpy reports in Western newspapers (especially the London Times), Lenin drew the conclusion that the Bolsheviks had a commanding influence in the Soviet. Thus he describes Kerensky as wavering between “the Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie, the Guchkovs and Miliukovs, and the ‘provisional government’ of the proletariat and the poorest masses of the people: the Soviet of worker deputies and the Russian Social Democratic Worker Party united by the Central Committee” (the last ten words constitute the official title of the Bolsheviks at this time).

In contrast to the situation in 1905, the soldiers in the Petrograd garrison had become an integral part of the soviet constituency and were represented in the Soviet—in fact, they often outweighed the workers. For Lenin in early March, however, the Soviet was “a worker organization” that needed to reach out to win over the soldiers. Finally, a crucial political development had occurred only after Lenin sent off his Letter: the appearance of “revolutionary defencism.” For Lenin, the only socialist supporters of the war were “social patriots” who contributed directly to the tsarist war effort and denied that the war was imperialist on both sides—people such as K. Gvozdev, head of the “Workers Group” that directly strove to mobilize worker support for the tsar’s war. Gvozdev had been Enemy No. 1 for the local Bolsheviks in the months prior to the February revolution, but after February he and other “social patriots” such as Plekhanov and Potresov immediately lost whatever influence they had.

In their place came the “revolutionary defencists.” Kerensky and Chkheidze were proto-revolutionary defencists, since (as Alexander Shliapnikov informs us) they disavowed Gvozdev and his like even before the revolution. But the real spokesman of revolutionary defencism was the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli, who arrived in Petrograd from Siberian exile in mid-March and immediately became the most important leader of the Soviet majority.

From the point of view of the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary defencists were ultimately no better than the social patriots. Nevertheless, the old critiques aimed at social patriotism were no longer serviceable. The revolutionary defencists came out of the anti-war Zimmerwald movement, and thus had good credentials as anti-imperialists. Furthermore, their support for the Provisional Government was tied to insistence on an active peace policy and governmental appeals to the proletarians of the warring countries. Lenin was necessarily unaware of this crucial development when he wrote his Letter in early March.

Lenin’s various misapprehensions in no way cast doubt on the validity of the overall hegemony strategy. The task of the party and the socialist proletariat it represented was still to lead the narod to the full conclusion of the revolution. But given the unexpected minority status of the Bolsheviks within the soviets, their first task was to win majority backing. In this task, their primary rivals were the “agreementists” (soglashateli)—that is, those socialists who at present represented the soviet majority and who sought some sort of “agreement” or coalition with the elite reformers of the Provisional Government.

This adjustment implied a new tripartite political map. Lenin had originally posited three fundamental forces: tsarist reaction, Provisional Government plus petty-bourgeois hangers-on, Soviet. The new political map, one more adequate to the realities of 1917, also had a triangular conflict that consisted of the Provisional Government, the soviet “agreementists,” and the soviet “internationalists” (Bolsheviks and others who rejected coalition). After his return in April, Lenin set forth this revised map in colorful fashion:

There is now going on a struggle between three parties: the first is the party of plunderers and murderers; the second consists of those who cover up these plunderers with eloquent words; finally, the third party stands for no support to the plunderers, explanation of everybody’s mistakes, including the mistakes of the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies.[7]

When senior Bolsheviks Kamenev and Stalin returned to Petrograd in mid-March, they quickly sized up the new and surprising situation. Kamenev’s remarks to his fellow Bolsheviks on March 18 convey both the shock and the adjustment:

After pointing out the [earlier leadership] role of the Bolsheviks versus their insignificant influence in the Petrograd Soviet at the present moment, he [Kamenev] examined this incongruity. It is surprising that the Bolsheviks are not occupying a dominant position in the Petrograd Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies—and why do they allow into the Soviet the liquidators, who do not express the outlook of the Petrograd workers? We are the representatives of the revolutionary element in Petrograd, but in the meantime, it seems that the wide masses do not understand us. Evidently, since we are essentially correct, we are formulating our resolutions and decisions in a way that the masses do not understand.

If we are correct in calling the Provisional Government counter-revolutionary, then, clearly, we should overthrow it and institute a new, revolutionary one. Therefore, either we should declare open war on the Provisional Government, or we should take up some other position in regard to it. The latter is just what is necessary. Have we developed to the point that we can create the dictatorship of the proletariat? No. What is important is not taking power—what is important is keeping it [Nevazhno–vziat’ vlast, vazhno–uderzhat’]. This moment will come, but it will be advantageous for us to put it off, since right now our forces are still inadequate.[8]

The required adjustment had several dimensions. First, accept the new definition of the Soviet as representing both workers and soldier deputies: a new alignment of forces within the Soviet that was both constraint and opportunity. Next, accept the humbling fact of minority standing for the Bolsheviks, since the soviet constituency at present did not support or even understand the Bolshevik message. The proper response to this sobering reality was not to abandon or modify the essentially correct message, but rather to find better ways to get it across. And this imperative of outreach meant a shift away from the Bolshevik comfort zone of underground agitation aimed at “purposive workers.” The Bolsheviks now faced the challenge of genuine mass politics.

The returning émigrés Lenin and Zinoviev had to go through the same sense of shock after their hands-on experience of the Petrograd political situation. As Zinoviev remarked at a party conference a couple of weeks later:

After 1905, the Soviet of Worker Deputies had a glorious reputation. But at present it is not on our side [on ne nash]. And what we’re seeing is horrifying: there are members of the Soviet of Worker Deputies who make completely counterrevolutionary speeches. The situation is worse than you can imagine. But the future will be ours. [Still,] the position of the Soviet is very ambiguous right now—for example, Kerensky has been delegated by the Soviet [to be a member of the Provisional Government].[9]

When Lenin read out his April Theses on the night of his arrival, he still had not corrected all his misapprehensions from afar—for example, he still talked about “the Soviet of worker deputies,” rather than “Soviet of worker and soldier deputies.” Nevertheless, since writing the first two Letters from Afar Lenin had become aware of one important fact, with the result that in his Theses he called for “recognition of the fact that in the majority of soviets of worker deputies, our party is in the minority, for the time being a small one.” Persuasion of the soviet constituency through “patient explanation” was therefore imperative.

As we have seen, this observation was hardly news to the Bolsheviks in Petrograd. Certainly by the time they received Lenin’s Letter on March 19, they were fully aware of the challenge of winning over a soviet majority. Their task was therefore to retrofit the Letter to fit the new realities: remove the more glaring misapprehensions and mold the Letter’s rhetoric toward the pressing task of winning over the soviet constituency. As I stated earlier, Lenin’s Letter is usually described as unsuccessfully prodding the Petrograd Bolsheviks in the direction of the April Theses, but we must turn this around: the Petrograd Bolsheviks nudged Lenin’s Letter in the direction of the April Theses.

Retrofitting the Letter

We will now look in detail at the process whereby the Pravda editors retrofitted Lenin’s Letter with their own hands-on understanding of Russian political realities, helping it convey an effective message that spoke directly to the intended audience. We will start  with the straightforward elimination of assertions that the Pravda editors thought were clearly mistaken (or, in any event, would be rejected as mistaken by readers), and then move on to more creative interventions.

1. No accusation of a “plot” to overthrow the tsar that was organized by the English and French embassies, including direct payments to named Russian groups (see Excisions E, F, G, H, K). Writing on 7 March, Lenin was convinced that there was a direct, cash-on-the-barrelhead conspiracy between the Allied embassies and the liberal elite, including army units. In point of fact, not only was there no conspiracy, but the Allies did not want to see Nicholas deposed in the middle of a war. Judging from what they left in the published article, the Pravda editors themselves believed that the British and French embassies had played a direct role in the removal of Nicholas. Where they drew the line was any specific assertion of criminal behavior. Thus they removed the italicized words in the following passage, replacing them simply with “strove” (Excision F):

The whole course of events in the February-March Revolution clearly shows that the British and French embassies, with their agents and “connections”, who had long been making the most desperate efforts to prevent “separate” agreements and a separate peace between Nicholas the Second (but let us hope and strive to make him “the last”) and Wilhelm II, directly organized a plot along with the Octobrists and Kadets, along with a section of the generals and the officer staff of the army and the St. Petersburg garrison, especially to remove Nicholas Romanov.

Thus Lenin was insistent that there had been a “plot” (a word he used five times). Most instances of this word were simply removed. In one case, “plot” was allowed to remain after it had been defanged. Lenin had written that the Anglo-French imperialists “set up a plot with the officers of the Guards.” In the published version, the imperialists merely “set up a plot” (see Excision K). Since no indication is given of the goals or co-conspirators of this plot, the Pravda version here reads somewhat strangely.

2. Correcting Lenin’s overestimation of tsarism’s role in post-February politics. As we have seen, Lenin’s Letter portrayed tsarist reaction as one of the three fundamental forces in current Russian politics. This picture was outdated even when Lenin wrote the article, and it would have struck readers in late March as seriously out of touch. The passage where Lenin set out his tripartite political map could itself be left in (with changes), since Lenin seemed to be describing the lead-up to the February revolution rather than the post-revolutionary situation. In contrast, Lenin’s extrapolations of tsarism’s role into the post-February political scene were all excised.

At the time of writing the Letter, Lenin was convinced that the Provisional Government was hell-bent on making a deal with the dynasty:

The new government has not yet finished off the tsarist monarchy before it has begun to make a deal with the landlord Romanov dynasty. The bourgeoisie of the Octobrist-Kadet type needs a monarchy to serve as the head of the bureaucracy and the army in order to protect the privileges of capital against the working people [Lenin’s emphasis; Excision P].

By 21-22 March, these accusations would have struck readers as seriously out of date. Mikhail Romanov (the brother of the ex-tsar) had also abdicated; the Romanov dynasty and monarchists in general were without influence. The editors therefore excised this passage and others like it (Excisions I, J, L, P, S, W, Z).

As we have seen, Lenin’s overestimation of the dynasty’s political influence also led to a misapprehension about the political nature of the Provisional Government. According to Lenin, the overtly monarchist Octobrist party was the “decisive” force in the new government, while “Miliukov and the other Kadets serve mostly for decoration.” This whole passage was excised (Excision L).

Other interventions were somewhat more proactive. In one phase, Lenin wrote that “the revolutionary workers were destroying, have destroyed already to a considerable degree and will continue to destroy [razrushali, razrushili, budet razrushat’] to its foundations the infamous tsarist monarchy.” Besides extending credit to the soldiers, the Pravda version says simply “have destroyed” (when used by itself, the verb form razrushili is more final). Presumably by the same reasoning, the editors removed “relative” from the following sentence: “We must now take advantage of the relative freedom of the new order.”

3. Lenin’s Rogues Gallery. Lenin’s Letter is awash in proper names, and although this profusion creates problems for today’s reader, Lenin’s aim was to make his analysis more accessible to his immediate readers: “instead of general critical definitions we use political names familiar in Russia.” These proper names illustrate the key groupings on his political map: tsarist reaction (ex-tsar Nicholas Romanov, his brother Michael, Rasputin), the elite reformers (Guchkov, Lvov, Miliukov), and the right-wing socialists (Plekhanov, Potresov, Gvozdev). The political meaning of these names was unambiguous.

Two other names, however, created real difficulties: Nikolai Chkheidze, the Menshevik chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, and Alexander Kerensky, the socialist lawyer deputed by majority vote in the Soviet to serve as Minister of Justice in the Provisional Government. These two figures symbolized the most unexpected and (for Bolsheviks) scandalous post-February reality: the veto power of the Petrograd Soviet over the government’s program and personnel, combined with its support of the “bourgeois” Provisional Government. Lenin’s political map in the Letter did not yet include these realities, so that his references to Chkheidze and Kerensky were vulnerable in the following ways:

  • Lenin equated Chkheidze and Kerensky with the Provisional Government and contrasted them with the Soviet instead of accurately portraying them as leaders of the Soviet who enjoyed majority support there (Excisions C and L).
  • Kerensky and Chkheidze are equated without justification with the “social patriots” and “liquidators” such as Plekhanov and Gvozdev (Excisions A and T). After his return to Russia, Lenin made the appropriate adjustment: Chkheidze’s name is now paired with Irakli Tsereteli, the iconic “revolutionary defencist.”
  • Lenin calls Chkheidze a “traitor” because he refused to acknowledge that the government was making a deal with the dynasty (Excision P, plus the apparent allusion to Chkheidze in G). But the government was not making a deal with the dynasty and everybody knew it. If this passage had been printed, the only result would have been to make Lenin look silly.
  • Kerensky is described as a crypto-monarchist, a charge implausible in itself and reflective of Lenin’s general overestimation of monarchism as a political force (Excisions P and Q).

What about other mentions of Chkheidze and Kerensky in the Letter—how vulnerable were they to removal by the editors? Well, as it happens, there are no other mentions: we have already eliminated every single one. Therefore, although each particular passage was eliminated on its own demerits, the end result is just the same as if a conscious decision had been made never to mention Chkheidze and Kerensky by name.

In fact, commentators (including myself in my original Kritika article) have all assumed that there was a blanket decision not to mention these two politicians by name.[10] The only question was, what motivated this decision? In my original article, I argued that the editors wanted to avoid directly insulting people whose cooperation was needed to ensure Lenin’s return. China Miéville has well described the contrast between this and earlier explanations: the editors were “not so much soft, then, as strategic.”

This proposed motivation is not implausible: the Bolsheviks really were trying very hard to get Lenin back just at this time, and Chkheidze, at least, provided invaluable help. Nevertheless, if the removal of all mentions of Chkheidze and Kerensky is an accidental by-product of other concerns, then there was no conscious decision and hence no motivation. The editors may not even have noticed that every single mention of these two names had been removed.

Ultimately, I suppose, there is no sure way of assessing motivation or the lack of it. Nevertheless, at present I cannot see any reason for treating Kerensky and Chkheidze as different in principle from Romanov, Guchkov, Gvozdev and the like, whose names were also eliminated on multiple occasions for various reasons. One general motivation suffices for all such cases: removing passages that betray Lenin’s misapprehensions about the concrete political situation in Petrograd.

To conclude: most likely, the Pravda editors were neither soft, nor strategic, not solicitous in any particular way toward Kerensky and Chkheidze. These two were central figures in the unexpected and (to Bolsheviks) counter-intuitive relationship between the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government, so Lenin’s various mentions of their names to illustrate his political map were simply more likely to be candidates for excision.

4. Dialing it down. In a couple of minor instances, the editors do seem to be motivated by a desire to dial down Lenin’s more abusive rhetoric. The words “conman swindles” (Excision R) were removed. A crack about the sincerity of Guchkov and Lvov was taken out. This excision may also have been motivated by stylistic reasons. Compare the following passages:

[Lenin’s original draft:] The government of the Octobrists and Cadets, of the Guchkovs and Milyukovs, is unable—even if it sincerely desired this (only infants can think that Guchkov and Lvov are sincere)—is unable to give the people either peace, bread, or freedom.

[Published Pravda version:] The government of the Octobrists and Kadets, of the Guchkovs and Miliukovs, is unable—even if it sincerely desired this—to give either peace, or bread, or freedom.

Lenin’s original sentence, with its parenthetical statement within a parenthetical statement, is stylistically clumsy and hard to process. More importantly, the accusation of individual insincerity weakens the political point. Besides being somewhat implausible and hard to prove, the accusation implies that replacing these particular “bourgeois” politicians would at least help to solve the problem. Later in 1917, Lenin himself argues that we shouldn’t judge political opponents by their sincerity or lack thereof.

5. The role of the soviets. The change of greatest political significance in the Pravda text is not a cut but an addition: “soldiers” is systematically added to every mention of the Petrograd Soviet, so that the title now reads: “Soviet of Worker and Soldier Deputies.” Furthermore, every mention of the workers’ heroic role in the overthrow of the tsar is widened to share credit with the soldiers. Finally, if the Petrograd Soviet already represented soldiers, it could hardly be described as “beginning to win over the soldier and peasant deputies” (Excision B).

The reason for these changes is easy to see. The soldiers in the Petrograd garrison who were represented in the Soviet had become a political factor of a magnitude that was not apparent to Lenin in Switzerland when he penned the Letter on 7 March. As Kollontai wrote to him in her letter of March 26: “The mood here is dictated by the soldier, and it is the soldier who creates the unique atmosphere, where we see all mixed up together the grandeur of vigorously expressed democratic freedoms, the awakening of a civic awareness of equal rights, and a complete incomprehension of the complexity of the moment we are living through.”

Because Lenin did not fully take in the fact of Bolshevik minority status, he also revealed a tendency to assert prematurely that the Soviet was carrying out Bolshevik policy. Thus, he asserted that the Soviet was “seeking ties with the soldiers and peasants, and also with the agricultural workers, with the latter particularly and first of all, of course, more than with the peasants” (Excision N).  Here he was clearly taking the wish for the fact (the claim that the agricultural workers were a more important target than the peasants was controversial even in Bolshevik ranks and led to disagreements in April).

In Excision O, Lenin refers to the Soviet as “an organization of workers.” I think the problem here is not so much “workers” (the editors could have simply added “and soldiers”), but rather the implication that the Soviet was simply a private organization as opposed to “an embryo of a worker government,” as Lenin described it in the immediately following words.

6. Defeatism. “Defeatism” was a slogan advanced by Lenin (and very few other Bolsheviks) as part of European intra-socialist polemics during the war years. This slogan was never going to fly with a mass audience, as the Bolsheviks quickly discovered in the new post-February context of open mass politics. Pravda articles in March 1917 reveal that the Bolsheviks were taking a beating due to the widespread association of their party with “defeatism.” Indeed, the soldier section of the Petrograd Soviet was so “defensist” that they regarded the “defeatist” Bolsheviks as traitors. Charges of treason and betrayal of Russia put the Bolsheviks on the defensive, and they had to explain away “defeatism” as best they could. For example, “defeatism” was said to be no more than the prediction that the incompetent tsarist autocracy would be defeated, and, as such, no longer relevant after the fall of tsarism. Or, “defeatism” meant nothing more than prioritizing the overthrow of tsarism. In any event, Pravda insisted, the Bolsheviks did not call for soldiers simply to stick their bayonets in the ground or to voluntarily surrender.

After his return, Lenin also repeated the assurance about not simply sticking bayonets in the ground. But in his Letter, prior to his immersion in mass politics, after noting the “series of extremely severe defeats sustained by Russia and her allies,” Lenin went on to make a bitter polemical point in defense of “defeatism”:

Those who, openly groveling to the bourgeoisie or simply lacking backbone, howled and wailed against “defeatism,” are now faced by the fact of the historical connection between the defeat of the extremely backward and barbarous tsarist monarchy and the beginning of the revolutionary conflagration.

This polemical sally was cut (Excision D). A gloating reference by the leader of the party to Russia’s defeat by Germany was exactly what was not needed.

In his magisterial study of the “defeatism” slogan, Hal Draper makes the point that Lenin’s return to Russia was also a journey from an obsession with intra-socialist polemics to genuine mass politics.[11] Looking back in 1921 during the Third Comintern Congress, Lenin himself made this point and admitted that, as an émigré, he had focused too insistently on slogans like “civil war”. For this reason, “on 7 April, I published my theses, in which I called for caution and patience” (not the usual view of the Theses today!). In consequence, “we completely changed our position” and accepted the existence of “honest defencism.”[12] (Of course, by “honest defencism,” Lenin did not mean the “revolutionary defencism” of socialist leaders such as Tsereteli, but rather the very understandable feeling of ordinary workers and soldiers that foreign troops should be prevented from occupying one’s country.)

7. Agitational campaigns. The switch to mass politics was not only a matter of abandoning sectarian slogans. The above-ground Bolsheviks could now employ time-honored Social Democratic techniques that previously they could only envy at a distance: uncensored newspapers, mass rallies, and coordinated agitational campaigns. The Bolshevik leaders had already begun to think about how to employ these new/old tools, and these plans are reflected in some of the changes they made to Lenin’s Letter. Lenin’s original draft describes the Provisional Government in this way:

a government of plunder [grabezh], one that wants to plunder Armenia, Galicia, and Turkey …

In the Pravda version, this passage is changed to read:

a government of conquest [zakhvat] that has not uttered one word to renounce the tsarist policy of the conquest of Armenia, Galicia, and Turkey …

This simple change is more revealing than is apparent at first glance. In their much-misunderstood editorials in mid-March, Kamenev and Stalin set forth a new plan for getting the Bolshevik message across to the mass soviet constituency. Their thinking can be outlined as follows: first of all, we must make absolutely clear that the Bolsheviks do not intend to call for mutiny in the ranks and sabotage of the army. If we fail to do this, we are consigning ourselves to marginality. But at the same time, we must find a way to demonstrate to this inexperienced new constituency that the Provisional Government is neither willing nor able to carry out a non-imperialist foreign policy. We will drive the point home by using agitational campaigns that will voice demands that the Provisional Government make radical peace overtures, publish the secret treaties signed by the tsarist government, and so forth. The government’s inevitable failure to meet these straightforward and understandable demands will drive the point home better than any amount of propaganda lectures.

A week later, when the Pravda editors received Lenin’s Letter, they tweaked it to fit in with the projected campaign . One of the themes of this campaign was the Provisional Government’s refusal to renounce the treaty obligations undertaken by the tsarist government. The editors therefore inserted the following words into Lenin’s sentence: a government of “conquest that has not uttered one word to renounce the tsarist policy of the conquest of Armenia, Galicia, and Turkey.”

In the same Pravda issue as the first installment of Lenin’s Letter, an unsigned front-page article entitled “War and Social Democracy” expanded the point:

While calling on other peoples to declare war on their own imperialism, the laboring masses of Russia must first of all declare open war on imperialist strivings in their own country. Still today, strivings toward conquest [zakhvatnye stremleniia] of tsarism remain the official program of Russia, since the new government of Russia is in no hurry to renounce them. Still today, the proletarians [in European countries] to whom the Russian revolution has addressed its summons for an uprising are being fooled by their own imperialists and their sidekicks, the social chauvinists, who use the fact—a shameful one for free Russia—that the Provisional Government has not uttered the slightest indication of any renunciation of tsarist foreign policy.

This Pravda article not only reveals the preference of the editors for “conquest” instead of Lenin’s “plunder,” but it also should put paid to the widespread myth that the Petrograd Bolsheviks were some sort of quasi-defencists prior to Lenin’s return.

The wording of the new agitational theme was probably also influenced by another “letter from afar,” Zinoviev’s article “War and Revolution,” published in Pravda immediately following Lenin’s Letter. Writing in early March, Zinoviev had presciently outlined the potential clash on this issue between Soviet and Provisional Government, one that eventually resulted in the first big governmental crisis at the end of April: “Meanwhile, all these Miliukovs, Lvovs, Guchkovs and Shingarevs have not renounced tsarist declarations that they do not want to end the war until they get Constantinople.”

More evidence of tweaking Lenin’s Letter in this direction is provided by the following ringing sentence in the unsigned Pravda article “War and Social Democracy” just mentioned:

Just let the governments of belligerent countries stand in the way of realizing such a peace, as proposed by the Russian narod and supported by the proletariat of all belligerent countries!

The point of emphasizing “all belligerent countries” was to underscore that the Anglo-French allies of the Provisional Government were just as imperialist as the German enemy. The Bolsheviks therefore demanded that Russian foreign policy rip the mask off Allied war aims and even to incite revolution in France and England—not, of course, because they expected the Provisional Government to do any such thing, but because they felt such a demand would expose the counter-revolutionary nature of the present government and the need for a worker-peasant vlast to conduct an effective peace policy.

Turning to Lenin’s Letter as printed in Pravda, we find the same emphasis given to the word “all”:

Second, the ally of the Russian proletariat is the proletariat of all the belligerent countries and of all countries in general.

This emphasis is not in Lenin’s original; it was added by the editors to align it with Pravda’s new campaign. After his return to Russia, Lenin did not disdain the agitational theme that exposed the Provisional Government’s loyalty to tsarist commitments.

Lenin’s message

For a while now, we have been peering at Lenin’s misapprehension of some of the political realities of post-February Russia. It is time to step back and look at Lenin’s positive message—a message, as we have seen, strongly endorsed by the Petrograd Bolsheviks. This message can be stated succinctly as follows: the hegemony strategy of Old Bolshevism is still valid, and here’s why.

Let us recall the main tenets of the hegemony strategy, as set out originally in 1905-06. This strategy arose out of an empirical reading of the contending class forces in post-1905 Russia. The Social Democratic proletariat must lead the narod (primarily the peasants) in carrying out a compete democratic transformation of Russia. This task requires the creation of a worker/peasant vlast (sovereign authority), for which the socialist proletariat and its party will provide essential political leadership. The efforts of liberal elite reformers to lead the revolution must be fought tooth and nail, because they will necessarily strive to halt the revolution midway—indeed, they will inevitably make some sort of deal with tsarist counterrevolution. Socialists who strive for an agreement with liberals are misguided at best, traitors at worst. The full and complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is bound to spark off socialist revolution in Europe that in turn will allow backward Russia to move toward socialism in an international framework.

The major new development since the original statement of the hegemony strategy in 1905-06 was of course the world war. According to Lenin’s presentation in the Letter, the war only strengthens and accelerates the predictions of the hegemony strategy. At home, it deepens the chasm separating the narod from a liberal elite that is forcing the Russian people to fight a disastrous war at the behest of foreign governments. Abroad, the war is preparing the ground for an outburst of socialist revolution that will greet the creation of a revolutionary worker/peasant vlast in Russia (the forthcoming “second stage” of the revolution).

Thus Lenin hammers home the following themes in his Letter:

  • The 1905 revolution revealed the “interests, forces, modes of action and the immediate and ultimate aims” of the various classes in Russian society in ways that are still valid in 1917.
  • The war is “a mighty accelerator” of the revolutionary crisis in Russia. The war shows that the bourgeois Provisional Government is an “agent” of the imperialist Allies; it is engendering a “revolutionary crisis” in all the belligerent countries.
  • The present revolution is based on the narod and therefore the proletariat must fight for influence over its potential allies, “the broad mass of the semi-proletarian and, partly, of the small-peasant population, who number scores of millions and constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of Russia” (of course, given these allies, it follows that the present Russian taken by itself must be a “bourgeois revolution”).
  • The Provisional Government cannot give “either peace, or bread, or freedom”; the “cruel lessons of the war” will enlighten the narod about the real nature of the government.
  • The Soviet is an “embryo vlast” that will steadily gain the loyalty of the proletariat’s potential allies. At a later, second, stage of the revolution, the proletariat and its allies will achieve “a democratic republic and complete victory of the peasantry over the landlords,” and then, with the help of socialist workers in Europe, the proletariat will move toward socialism. (Compare Lenin’s final paragraph in the Letter with his formulation of the “two allies” framework” in October 1915: “The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is carrying out the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe. The second task now stands very close to the former, yet it remains a special and second task, for it is a question of the different classes who are collaborating with the proletariat of Russia. For the first task, the petty-bourgeois peasantry of Russia is the ally [sotrudnik]; for the second, the ally is the proletariat of other countries.”)[13]

In the version of the Letter printed in Pravda, Lenin’s message comes through loud and clear without any distortion—and without distracting misapprehensions. Nor was there anything in this message to surprise or shock the Petrograd Bolsheviks. A week earlier, the same basic strategic line was laid down in a Pravda editorial drafted by Kamenev: the Provisional Government cannot meet “essential needs of the proletariat and peasantry,” and thus “it will inevitably attempt to halt the revolutionary movement.” The revolution will “develop and deepen” until the stage is reached when the workers and peasants will take “full and complete vlast [vsia polnota vlasti] in their own hands.” This stage of the revolution will be reached soon, very soon—but in the meantime, “the slogan of the moment still remains: organization of the forces of the proletariat, consolidation of the forces of the proletariat, peasantry and army by means of the Soviets of Deputies, absolute lack of belief in any liberal promises.”[14]

The unexpected realities of the post-February situation required some adjustment, and the changes made to the Letter show the adjustment being made in real time. Nevertheless, the big story here is the shared understanding that united the Bolsheviks, whether in Switzerland or Petrograd: the hegemony strategy, the role of the war, and the drive toward a worker/peasant vlast rooted in the soviets. The shared understanding documented in Lenin’s Letter from Afar became the basis of Bolshevik victory in October.


Related reading on this website:


[1] For classic accounts, see Lev Trotsky, Questions of October (1924), Stalin’s Short Course (1938), and R. V. Daniels, Conscience of the Revolution (1960).

[2] “Letter from Afar, Corrections from Up Close: The Bolshevik Consensus of March 1917,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 16, 4 (Fall 2015): 799–834.

[3] China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, Verso: 2017, p. 99.

[4] Nikolai Sukhanov, Zapiski o revoliutsiia, 3 vols. (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1991), 1:273.

[5] Lenin, PSS, 31:132-3.

[6] The text of the original draft can be found at

[7] Remarks during the city party conference on 22 April, PSS, 31:325.

[8] Pervyi legal’nyi PK Bol’shevikov v 1917 g. (Leningrad, 1927: Gosizdat), pp. 49-50. Kamenev was speaking at a meeting of the Petrograd Committee.

[9] Sed’maia (aprel’skaia) vserossiiskaia Aprel’skie konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov); Petrogradskaia obshchegorodskaia Aprel’skie konferentsiia RSDRP (bol’shevikov) (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1958), 42.

[10] For reasons that now elude me, I also included Prince Lvov as someone whose name had been removed. This is simply an error.

[11] Hal Draper, The Myth of Lenin’s “Revolutionary Defeatism,” first published in New International, vol. XIX Nos. 5 and 6 and vol. XX No. 1 (1953-1954). The text can be accessed at MIA online:

[12] My thanks to John Riddell for alerting me to Lenin’s comment; it can be found in John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. 1170.

[13] “Several Theses,” in Lenin, PSS 27:48-51 (Lenin’s emphasis).

[14] For full text and commentary, see Lars T. Lih, “Fully Armed: Kamenev and Pravda in March 1917,” or

One Comment
  1. John Marot permalink

    Lih thinks the lessons the Bolshevik learned from the 1905 Revolution — Old Bolshevism’s ‘logic of hegemony’ — can serve as a guide to understand what the Bolsheviks did in 1917. They can’t. That is because those lessons do not take into account the extraordinary novelty of the February 1917 Revolution, to wit: Every Social Democrat prior to 1917 thought *one* government — *a* Provisional Government (PG) — would succeed Tsardom. But, in February 1917, *two* governments arise — the Soviet and the PG — and that throws everyone for a loop.

    Lih does not understand the significance of this unprecedented and cardinal feature — but Lenin bends over backwards to analyse and bring out its significance in the April Theses. Furthermore, prior to 1917, the Bolsheviks expected they would dominate the (one) Provisional Government, making it a Revolutionary Provisional Government. But — lo and behold — this Provisional Government is dominated by the Kadets, a, in the Bolshevik view, *cowardly* liberal bourgeois party that could not be expected to lead anything — letting alone leading (formally) the bourgeois-democratic revolution!.

    But, this is what, incredibly, has happened. Lih does not understand how this astounding turn of events has thrown the Bolsheviks for another loop! Lenin writes in an excised passage: “Let us not make the mistake of those who—like certain “O.C.” supporters or “Mensheviks” who are oscillating between the Gvozdev-Potresov line and internationalism and who only too often slip into petty-bourgeois pacifism—are now ready to extol “agreement” [soglashenie] between the workers’ party and the Kadets, “support” of the latter by the former, and so on.

    In conformity with the old (and by no means Marxist) doctrine that they have learned by rote.” Here, Lenin is also implicating those Old Bolsheviks who are seeking a rapprochement with the Mensheviks and, therefore, a rapprochement with their policy of critical support to the counter-revolutionary Provisional Government. Lih does not understand this.

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