Skip to content

Did the Bolsheviks advocate socialist revolution in 1917?

October 13, 2017

“The historiographical consensus [on this question] is factually inaccurate and has distorted our understanding of Bolshevism in 1917.”

For a Spanish text see Viento Sur. For a French text, see See also “The Bolsheviks in 1917: Index to a Debate” and “List of Articles by Eric Blanc.”

By Eric Blanc. A critical engagement with the past remains an indispensable instrument for critically confronting the present. Yet one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, much of our understanding of 1917 and the Bolshevik party remains clouded by accumulated myths and received ideas. Not least of these is the claim that V.I. Lenin radically overhauled Bolshevik politics in April 1917 by convincing the party to fight for a socialist, instead of bourgeois-democratic, revolution.

Presidium of a Bolshevik Congress 1920

Interestingly, this account of how Lenin ‘re-armed’ the Bolsheviks is one of the few points of agreement shared by Trotskyists, Stalinists, and liberals alike. According to Trotsky’s influential 1924 polemic The Lessons of October, the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev had been mired in de facto Menshevism before Lenin ‘re-armed’ the party in April to fight for socialist revolution. Since they did not consider Russia to be ripe for this task, Trotsky argued, the ‘Old Bolshevik’ leaders ‘took the position that it was necessary to complete the democratic revolution by putting pressure on the Provisional Government’.[1]Most academic historians have likewise shared this view.[2]

The standard Stalinist analysis was strikingly similar, though it placed less emphasis than Trotsky on the extent of the strategic rupture and absolved Stalin of responsibility for the party’s pre-April waverings. The classic Stalinist Short Course history of Bolshevism, for example, condemned the ‘semi-Menshevik’ position of party leaders such as Kamenev in March and affirmed that ‘the Party needed a new orientation to advance boldly and confidently along the new road. … Lenin’s April Theses laid down for the Party a brilliant plan of struggle for the transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the Socialist revolution.’[3]

Unfortunately, this historiographical consensus is factually inaccurate and has distorted our understanding of Bolshevism in 1917. In this article, I take a fresh look at Bolshevik stances on state power and socialist revolution from April through October. Based on my research in Russian, Latvian, and German primary sources, I show that the available evidence does not confirm the standard ‘re-arming’ account, which has obscured a far more convoluted internal debate and political evolution. We will see that while the Bolsheviks throughout the year hinged their politics on the imminence of international socialist revolution, their orientation within Russia itself remained significantly less socially ambitious. And on several critical issues—including the class leadership of the coming Soviet regime—the Bolsheviks as a whole upheld an open-ended approach up through October. There was an important political evolution of the party towards socialist revolution over the course of 1917, but this was uneven, protracted, and was primarily a response to lived developments in the class struggle.

Getting this history right is important not only for the sake of accuracy but because it helps us better understand the real nature of the Bolshevik party, the example of which continues to inspire and inform Marxist politics today. The ‘rearming’ account has problematically inflated Lenin’s ability to determine Bolshevik policy, thereby minimising the extent to which the organisation evolved collectively and contentiously through the accumulated experience and contributions of its cadres. By greatly oversimplifying the nature of the 1917 debates, moreover, the prevailing historiography has minimised the inherent difficulties and challenges of pursuing effective socialist politics in the face of the necessarily unpredictable dynamics of the class struggle. Contrary to the impression given by the ‘re-arming’ interpretation, revolutionary theory was (and remains) a necessary but insufficient basis for successfully pushing towards anti-capitalist rupture.

Unlike most examinations of this topic, the focus here will not be on Lenin’s writings. These were undoubtedly important, and as such their content will be outlined, but it is hardly the case that Lenin’s approach (which itself was in flux, both strategically and tactically) can be equated with that of the Bolshevik leadership or ranks in 1917. A distinct political portrait arises when we broaden our source base to include other Bolshevik leaders, local and regional party bodies, public speeches, and mass leaflets. Similarly, expanding our analytical attention from Petrograd to include the Russian empire’s periphery and provinces provides a better sense of what we might call ‘ballpark Bolshevism’, i.e., the core political stances generally shared by all levels of Bolshevik cadres and projected by them to working people across the empire.

Our discussion will begin by charting out the meaning ascribed by the Bolsheviks to the demand for Soviet power and the confoundingly wide array of ways they described the unfolding revolutionary process in Russia. From there we turn to a question on which there was a clear Bolshevik consensus: the world socialist revolution was fast approaching. The subsequent segment will demonstrate that Bolsheviks also generally agreed that while workers’ control was necessary and urgent, capitalist production should not be abolished before the West went socialist. But on the most immediate point relating to socialist revolution—i.e., the political composition of the projected revolutionary government—the hegemonic Bolshevik approach remained algebraic for most of the year. Since so much of this question depended on which other socialist currents would ultimately break with the bourgeoisie, it is unsurprising that the precise class-party composition of Soviet rule remained difficult to predict up through October. We conclude with an overview of the famous late-year events in Petrograd, where the Bolsheviks ultimately came to push for a proletarian-led government due to the obstinate refusal of moderate socialists to support Soviet power.

The Meaning of Soviet Power

Much of the confusion around the impact of Lenin’s intervention within the Bolshevik current in April is that it has been assumed that the internal debates revolved around whether to critically back the bourgeois Provisional Government or to push for a Soviet regime of and for working people. In reality, as Lars Lih has shown in numerous articles, there was no substantial debate on this issue, since the Bolshevik leadership in March 1917 was already openly advocating that a Soviet government replace the Provisional Government.[4] As such, the party’s political evolution in April was far less of a break than has usually been claimed.

Much of the documentary basis for the ‘re-arming’ narrative comes from Menshevik declarations in April concerning Lenin’s arrival. But one has to take these with a large grain of salt since the Mensheviks consistently exaggerated their rivals’ extremism and were always looking to paint the Bolsheviks as puppets in the hands of Lenin.[5] The other major source for the standard account comes from questionable 1920’s Bolshevik memoir literature written well after it had become both politically expedient for all wings of the party to emphasise the ‘genius’ of Lenin’s leadership and to claim that the Bolsheviks had from April onwards advocated socialist revolution.[6] A different picture emerges when we look at what the Bolsheviks actually said and wrote in 1917. As self-described ‘old Bolshevik’ leader Kalinin argued at the 24-29 April All-Russian Bolshevik conference:

Read our first document during the Revolution, the [27 February] manifesto of our party, and you will see that our picture of the revolution and our tactics did not diverge from the theses of comrade Lenin. Of course, the picture sketched out by comrade Lenin is whole, complete, but its method of thinking is that of an Old Bolshevik, which can cope with the originalities of this revolution. As a ‘conservative’ I confirm that our old Bolshevik method is quite suitable for the present time and I do not see any significant differences between us and comrade Lenin.[7]

Contrary to what is usually assumed, neither Lenin nor the Bolshevik current in 1917 equated Soviet power as such with workers’ power. The Soviets (councils) represented a segment of the population much larger than just the working class. As Lenin noted in April: ‘in these Soviets, as it happens, it is the peasants, the soldiers, i.e., petty bourgeoisie, who preponderate.’[8]Similarly, Karl Radek explained in September that the ‘transformation of the Workers’ Delegates Council [of 1905] into the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council [in February 1917] thus meant the transformation of a proletarian organ of struggle into an organ of revolutionary democracy, into an organ, therefore, with a predominant—and even artificially proportioned—petty bourgeois majority.’[9] By June 1917 roughly 37 million people were represented by the councils—only about seven million less than voted in the Constituent Assembly elections in November.[10] The defining class characteristic of the Soviets was not that they were a workers’ organisation, but that they were an explicitly and consciously non-bourgeois body.

Rejecting the claim that he was aiming to ‘skip’ the bourgeois-democratic stage, Lenin in April stressed that he was not calling for a ‘workers’ government’ but rather a Soviet regime of workers, agricultural labourers, soldiers, and peasants.[11] Though Lenin personally saw Soviet power as the concretisation of a ‘commune state,’ a ‘step towards socialism’, and ‘the highest form of democracy’, for the majority of workers and Bolsheviks throughout 1917 the demand for ‘All Power to the Soviets’ meant establishing a government without the bourgeoisie.[12] This was certainly a very radical perspective; but it was a very radical perspective that had been advocated by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary Marxists in Russia since 1905. In 1917, Lenin’s particular gloss on Soviet power was conspicuously absent not only in the mass agitation of the Bolsheviks, but also in the writings of most other party cadres.

Many Bolsheviks well after April generally continued to see the fight for Soviet power as part of the democratic revolution. Speaking to the Moscow Soviet in the summer, one Bolshevik leader thus argued: ‘When we speak of transferring power to the soviets, this does not mean that the power passes to the proletariat, since the soviets are composed of workers, soldiers, and peasants; it does not mean that we are now experiencing a socialist revolution, for the present revolution is bourgeois-democratic.’[13]

Without understanding the actual meaning ascribed to Soviet power by Bolsheviks and working people in 1917, it is hard to make sense of party stances and debates throughout the year. Consider, for example, the resolution on Soviet power passed in April by the Bolshevik conference. According to the ‘re-arming’ account, this conference concretised its call for socialist revolution in the demand for a Soviet regime. In reality, the conference declared that any majoritarian representative body could serve as the vehicle for the new revolutionary power. Thus, it called for the party to orient towards ‘the second stage of the revolution—which must transfer all state power to the Soviets or to other bodies directly expressing the will of the majority of the people (organs of local self-government, the Constituent Assembly, etc.).’[14]

Soviets and a Constituent Assembly, in other words, would act as instruments of what in 1917 was referred to as the ‘democracy’ or ‘revolutionary democracy’, i.e., the worker-peasant majority. The Bolsheviks, including both Lenin and Trotsky, consistently campaigned for giving power to both Soviets and a Constituent Assembly up through the October Revolution. The significant difference between pre- and post-April Bolshevik approaches was not that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was discarded or minimised, but that Soviet power was less frequently framed as a provisional step towards the latter. Nevertheless, the precise relationship between the two bodies was left undefined, since this clearly would depend on the concrete political-electoral composition of both. In an internal letter to Bolshevik leaders on the eve of the October uprising, Lenin insisted that ‘once power is in the hands of the Soviets’ the success of the Constituent Assembly would be ‘guaranteed.’ The Bolsheviks, he noted, ‘have said so thousands of times and no one has ever attempted to refute it. Everybody has recognised this “combined type” [of state].’[15] That after 1917 Bolsheviks and moderate socialists alike counterposed democracy to (proletarian) dictatorship, and counterposed democratic republics to Soviet republics, need not to oblige us to overlook how these concepts were employed in the first year of revolution.

Given the aforementioned nature of the demand for Soviet power, it is understandable why there was only one major Bolshevik-affiliated committee in the spring to oppose Lenin’s April call to replace the Provisional Government with a Soviet regime. And even this exception proves the general rule, since this opposition came from Kiev, where the RSDRP committee was headed by former members of G.V. Plekhanov’s ‘party-Menshevik’ current. Led by Georgy Piatakov, the Kiev Committee had in February and March consistently argued that the Russian proletariat’s strategic perspective must be limited to pressuring the bourgeois government to cede to its demands; unlike the Petrograd Bolshevik leadership, the Kiev Committee did not raise the perspective of workers and peasants seizing power to win the democratic revolution. Significantly, the committee’s case against the April Theses—the ‘largest outright opposition to Lenin’s ideas in the country’ as one recent Ukrainian study notes—was premised on the strategy of left Menshevism rather than ‘Old Bolshevism’.[16]

According to the Kiev Committee, since Russia was not ready for socialist revolution, therefore the proletariat must limit itself to forcing the bourgeoisie in power to cede to its democratic and economic demands. Like the Mensheviks, the Kiev leaders conflated overthrowing the Provisional Government with socialist revolution: ‘The defeat of the government, the socialist revolution, is impossible because the economic prerequisites do not exist for this.’[17] But this internal opposition proved to be rather short lived. At the 15-17 April regional Bolshevik meeting in Kiev, after an extensive debate on the April Theses, the vast majority of the participants decided to reject the line of their local leaders; bowing to the popular sentiment, Piatakov and the rest of the Kiev leadership dropped its opposition to the fight for Soviet power.

April marked a moment of political evolution rather than strategic rupture for Bolshevism. Though substantial political opposition like that seen in Kiev was rare, the discussions in April played an important role empirewide in politically cohering the Bolsheviks and undercutting their early year vacillations. Sharp attacks on the Provisional Government were stepped up after the April conference. Local Bolshevik militants across the empire began for the first time to consistently foreground the call for a Soviet regime, which was henceforth less often framed as a temporary power. The need to clearly demarcate themselves from the conciliatory socialists also became more widely accepted.

How much of this evolution was due to Lenin’s impact or to the rapidly changing political context is difficult to measure precisely. In March, the Provisional Government had not yet announced any major measures openly in contradiction with the popular demands for change. Early Bolshevik vacillations generally reflected an adaptation to the post-February euphoria—and this mood in Russia didn’t last more than a month. April was marked by a massive outcry from workers in response to the revelation that the government planned to continue the war ‘until victory’. The soon-to-be well-known slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ was raised by protestors for the first time in the April demonstrations. And whereas the Soviet leadership had initially fought in practice to push the Provisional Government forward, from early April onwards it increasingly focused on propping up the bourgeois regime and dampening popular militancy—an orientation culminating in the moderate socialist entry into the Provisional Government in early May. In the midst of an unprecedented proletarian upsurge against the Provisional Government and a sharp shift to the right by the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks, it is not surprising that many Bolsheviks across the empire took a more militant and independent stand. And as the convocation of a Constituent Assembly continued to be pushed by the government into the indefinite horizon, the authority and permanency of the Soviets in the eyes of workers were correspondingly heightened. Particularly given the absence of any existing national parliament, the Soviets became the dominant democratic expression of working people, into which they increasingly invested their participation and aspirations.

Across Russia from late April onwards, the Bolsheviks churned out leaflet after leaflet, and made speech after speech, reaffirming the same simple message: to satisfy the demands of the people, workers and their allies must break with the bourgeoisie and take all power into their hands. In other words, to defend and deepen the revolution required class struggle not class collaboration. ‘Our programme is the struggle with the bourgeoisie,’ explained one Bolshevik rank-and-file militant.[18] In June, Armenian Bolshevik agitators in the army declared that the only way to win the masses’ demands was through ‘overthrowing the bourgeois Provisional Government and creating a real People’s Government’.[19]

Throughout 1917 it was almost always the moderate socialists (and the liberals), rather than the Bolsheviks, who framed the sole options for Russian development as capitalist democracy or socialism. The Mensheviks’ argument, repeated incessantly across the empire, was the following: Socialism is off the table, because peasants are a majority and because workers are insufficiently organised and conscious. Therefore, an extensive period of bourgeois democratic rule and capitalist development is needed during which the proletariat can become sufficiently educated and organised to achieve its final goal. In the interim, socialists must not push for a non-bourgeois government, lest they scare off the liberals and pave the way for counter-revolution.

Rather than engaging with Lenin or the Bolsheviks’ actual arguments, Menshevik polemicists generally accused the Bolshevik leader and his current of advocating the clearly utopian adventure of immediate socialist revolution. Upon Lenin’s return in April, the Petrograd Menshevik newspaper Rabochaia Gazeta thus derided the promises of ‘full and immediate economic liberation’ made by the ‘Leninists’. The title of paper’s April 9 anti-Bolshevik polemic speaks for itself: ‘The Revival of Anarchism and Maximalism.’[20]

In response to such claims, Latvian Bolshevik leader Pēteris Stučka posited that erecting such a rigid dichotomy between bourgeois and socialist revolution was essential for justifying their refusal to support the demand for Soviet power.[21] Along these lines, Trotsky similarly noted that the Mensheviks in February had invoked the bourgeois nature of the revolution to justify their refusal to take power; then in May they raised this same point to justify participation in a coalition government. Trotsky concluded that these invocations were ‘purely practical’ measures ‘to preserve the privileges of the bourgeoisie, and to assign to it in the government a role, to which it is by no means entitled by the alignment of political groups within the country.’[22]

The Bolsheviks and other radicals generally refused to enter into this debate within the analytical framework of the moderate socialists. Bolshevik cadres repeatedly rejected the accusations that they were trying to ‘introduce socialism’ as an inaccurate straw-man argument that deflected attention from the real political alternative: collaboration or rupture with the bourgeoisie.[23] Instead of making a case for a Russian socialist revolution, they insisted that while socialism would have to be built internationally, it was both possible and necessary in Russia to break with the native and imperialist capitalists. Even if one believed that the revolution was bourgeois in nature, they argued, it didn’t follow that this obliged the establishment of a bourgeois government. Not only would such a regime be incapable of achieving the central bourgeois-democratic goals (agrarian reform, a Constituent Assembly, etc.), but it would also be necessarily anti-democratic since most people in Russia were peasants or workers.[24]

Space reasons obviously preclude recounting the specific form that the October Revolution took in each city and region of the empire. For all the tactical and political differences that local contexts imposed, there was nevertheless a common underlying content to the late 1917 struggle for Soviet power across imperial Russia. The shared goal was a clean political break with the bourgeoisie to implement the urgent demands of working people. In the immediate aftermath of the October uprising, for instance, the declaration of the Baku Bolshevik committee made the following case for Soviet power: ‘Either revolution or counter-revolution. Either the power of the bourgeoisie or the power of the Soviets. … Down with the bourgeois coalition government! Long live the Great Russian Revolution! Long live the heroic proletariat and the garrison of Petersburg! Long live the power of the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ deputies!’[25]

The October Revolution did break with the native and international bourgeoisie and implement the core aspirations for which working people had fought throughout the year, including Russia’s exit from World War One, land to the peasants, workers’ control of production, and the election of a Constituent Assembly. Unlike the moderate socialists, the Bolsheviks upheld and implemented orthodox Marxism’s longstanding commitment to proletarian hegemony. But, as the following sections will show, it is hardly the case that the Bolsheviks from April onwards put an equals sign between the establishment of a Soviet regime and socialist revolution.

Categorising the Revolution

It has often been overlooked that in 1917 there was no clear Marxist definition of socialist revolution. Nor was there a general agreement on the exact political boundary between a democratic and socialist revolution, or for that matter between a capitalist and socialist society. These conceptual ambiguities—rooted in the difficulties of categorising extremely fluid and hybrid socio-political processes—were very much part of the story of 1917. One manifestation of the reigning theoretical haziness was that both the Bolsheviks’ April conference and the Sixth Congress (26 July-3 August, 1917) decided to postpone the thorny discussion of updating the party programme.

Marxists of the era generally agreed that there were at least two central components to a socialist revolution. The first related to the means of production: some significant inroads into capitalist property would have to take place, leading towards the full socialisation of production. But how much control and/or ownership would be seized immediately was undefined. The fact that since 1905 the conception of democratic revolution articulated by Karl Kautsky and other revolutionary social democrats had projected the nationalisations of some major industries further muddied the theoretical waters.

The second connotation related to social class and the government: unlike a democratic revolution, a socialist revolution would be exclusively (or perhaps primarily) the act of the urban and rural working class, culminating in its seizure of state power. Much of the uncertainty of how to categorise the revolution in Russia revolved around the expectation that it would also be the product of a non-proletarian class (the peasantry) and would likely not result in an exclusively working-class government.

In light of these conceptual grey areas, it is not surprising that Bolshevik political stances and debates generally concentrated on concrete political and economic questions—different categories to describe the revolution were invoked in these debates, but they did not constitute their analytical starting point. In other words, the evolving Bolshevik meta-categorisations of the revolution tended to nebulously reflect much more substantial political positions and discussions.

In February and March, the revolution had been described primarily as democratic or bourgeois-democratic. Such designations continued well past April. Of the many examples that could be cited, at a late July meeting of Latvia’s main Soviet, one Bolshevik declared that since the upheaval across Russia was taking place in an era when the world capitalist system was ripe for overthrow, therefore ‘in these circumstances, the Russian revolution does not have the character of what we call a bourgeois revolution—rather, it is distinct: a democratic revolution.’[26] Other top Bolshevik leaders continued to use this term through the Summer.[27]Even after the October Revolution, one can find numerous of examples of Bolshevik cadres arguing that the revolution underway was democratic rather than socialist.[28]

For his part, Lenin argued in April that the ‘main flaw’ in the reasoning of socialists regarding the ‘tasks of the revolutionary proletariat’ was that they put this question ‘in too general a form, as the question of the transition to socialism.’ Instead, he made the case for focusing on ‘concrete steps and measures’ and argued that the establishment of Soviet power would begin a novel ‘transitional’ social period.[29] This conception that Russia was undergoing an exceptional historical process with as-yet undetermined possibilities for radical social transformation was widespread among Bolshevik cadres. During the April discussion and throughout the year, various Bolsheviks positively invoked Kautsky’s influential 1906 argument that the Russian Revolution was a unique project situated on the border of democratic and socialist revolution.[30] In this context, it merits mention that Trotsky had argued as early as 1906 that ‘the issue, of course, is not what to call our revolution—whether it is bourgeois or socialist’ and that ‘under whatever political banner the proletariat has come to power, it will be obliged to take the path of socialist policy.’[31]

From the Summer onwards, Bolsheviks increasingly came to describe the revolution simply by the class forces involved: i.e., workers and peasants (including the soldiers). The declaration announcing the Provisional Government’s overthrow in Petrograd thus typically concluded: ‘Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants!’[32] Analogous formulations were the norm across the empire.[33]

In Bolshevik discourse up through (and usually well past October) invocations of socialist revolution almost always related to the approaching social overturn in the West and/or the world revolution. Categorising the seizure of power by working people in Russia as a socialist revolution was extremely uncommon (and completely absent from the April discussions and resolutions in Petrograd and beyond). In fact, top Bolshevik leaders – including Lenin in April – explicitly rejected the claims that they were calling for socialist revolution inside of Russia.[34]

A partial exception took place in the immediate aftermath of the July Days, when a wing of the Bolshevik leadership dropped the slogan ‘All Power to Soviets’, having been won to Lenin’s argument that the SRs and Mensheviks had irrevocably capitulated to the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie and that the existing Soviets could no longer become organs of revolutionary power. At the Petrograd party conference and again at the Sixth party congress Stalin described the forthcoming Russian Revolution as a socialist revolution, the first such explicit use of the term by a Bolshevik leader that I have found in 1917.[35] But other cadres such as V. Volodarsky sharply rejected this innovation: ‘This revolution is a transition to a socialist revolution, but it is not a socialist revolution, in which we lose our allies and fight alone. Between us and Western Europe there is a big difference. We have more than a bourgeois revolution, but it is not a socialist revolution.’ Other cadres similarly insisted that Stalin’s case marked a break with the more modest stance taken by the April conference. Arguing against Stalin, future Left Opposition leader Y.A. Preobrazhensky insisted that successful socialist transformation in Russia required Western workers’ rule and he rejected Stalin’s sharp counterposition of socialist and bourgeois revolution. This method, he argued, was undialectical and had more to do with Menshevism than Bolshevism. Ultimately the Sixth Congress open-endedly resolved that the events were leading to ‘an increase in the elements of the proletarian revolution’.[36] Furthermore (for reasons discussed below) even this compromise formulation, and the line of the Sixth Congress to which it was linked, was ignored by the party committees.

In virtually all Bolshevik internal resolutions, literature, and agitation leading up to the October Revolution—and issued by the 25-26 October All-Russian Second Soviet Congress—references to socialist revolution relate only to the international process.[37] It is true that in Lenin’s essay Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?—published in the party’s theoretical magazine eight days before the start of the October Revolution—he in passing described the forthcoming upheaval in Russia as a socialist revolution.[38] But particularly before the dramatic events of 25-26 October, there is little evidence to suggest that this conception was widely shared within the Bolshevik party or among the workers that supported it. To quote David Mandel: ‘October was first and foremost an act of defence of the actual and promised achievements of February in conditions where society had split into two irreconcilably hostile camps. And although October was seen as opening the way to socialism, all the measures taken in October and the following months were seen either as completing the democratic revolution or as fundamentally defensive actions aimed at preserving the revolution in the new circumstances.’[39] Though various top Bolshevik cadres began to explicitly identify Russia’s revolution as socialist following the October uprising—particularly during the debates on incorporating SR-Mensheviks into the government, signing a separate peace with Germany, and regarding the Constituent Assembly—only in early 1918 did this formulation generally become widely used in the party and government.[40]

The International Socialist Revolution and Workers’ Control

One of the key complicating factors in categorising the revolution was that by 1917 all Bolsheviks and internationalist Marxists saw socialist revolution as first and foremost a worldwide phenomenon. Thus the Russian Revolution could be treated as the spark for and a constituent component of the international socialist revolution even if the process within Russia itself was still considered to be primarily or exclusively democratic. Indeed, this had become the hegemonic stance among the Bolsheviks and revolutionary socialists across the empire from at least 1914 onwards. Affirming this approach at the April conference, Bagdatev argued that fully carrying out the party’s minimum programme was ‘logically impossible’ without the socialist revolution in Western Europe that would be sparked by the Soviet conquest of power in Russia.[41] Similarly, Latvian Bolshevik leader Fricis Roziņš wrote in July: ‘Peace and freedom can only be won by the proletarian revolution. The bourgeois revolution in Russia must initiate the proletarian revolution in all capitalist countries. From this theoretical understanding follows all [the internationalists’] practical activities.’[42]

The importance of the fact that the Russian Revolution had erupted in the context of World War One cannot be overemphasised. On the one hand, the catastrophe of the war led all revolutionary Marxists internationally to confidently predict impending socialist explosions in the West—by 1917 this was seen as a matter of weeks and months, not years. Moreover, since a serious fight for peace would put Russia on a collision course with foreign imperialism, the majority view among radicals throughout the entire year was that a successful revolution in Russia would be crushed by foreign powers if it did not succeed in spreading abroad.

As Lenin argued in April: ‘We are now tied up with all the other countries, and are unable to disentangle ourselves—the proletariat will either break free as a whole or it will be crushed.’[43]The Bolsheviks’ main rejoinder to Menshevik polemics on the absence of objective conditions for socialism within Russia was to insist on the actuality of world revolution. Stučka declared that the revolution in Russia would only be won when the proletariat in the West ‘raised the Red Flag’ because otherwise the Soviet government would fall under the blows of global capitalism.[44]

Very much contrary to his later advocacy of ‘socialism in one country’, Stalin in 1917 similarly affirmed that the ‘Russian revolution is not something isolated. It is vitally bound up with the revolutionary movement in the West … only in alliance with the workers of the West, only by shaking the foundations of capitalism in the West, can they [workers and soldiers] count on the triumph of the revolution in Russia!’[45] Like Trotsky, he explicitly argued that without the support of revolutions abroad, not only socialist transformation but even the basic survival of the Russian Revolution would be impossible.[46]

The centrality of the imminent worldwide anti-capitalist conflagration was an ever-present aspect of Bolshevik agitation and propaganda in 1917. Over and over, the party press insisted that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended on the international class struggle. Party literature thus consistently seized upon and highlighted any instance of a rise in worker and anti-war struggle abroad. This wager on world revolution was affirmed on the eve, during, and following the October Revolution. Lenin later noted that not a single Bolshevik in October 1917 would have believed that a Soviet regime in Russia could have survived three years without the spread of revolution abroad: ‘when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution.’[47]

This stance constituted one of the core strategic difference between moderate and radical socialists across the empire. While the Bolsheviks and their allies wagered their push for a seizure of power on the ability of workers abroad to do the same, the moderates justified their conciliationism by affirming that that Western revolution was not on the immediate agenda and that it would thus be foolhardy to premise a political project in Russia on expectations for its extension abroad. Revolution in their eyes was primarily a process that took place within discrete nations, each of which had to have fully ‘mature’ conditions before socialist revolution would be possible.

In hindsight, it might appear as if the moderates were proven right by the survival of capitalism outside Russia. But such an analysis obscures the fact there was a post-1917 international revolution and that its defeat was in large part due to the class-collaborationism of the conciliatory socialists in Russia and abroad. As such, moderate socialist scepticism regarding worldwide anti-capitalist upheaval, far from being a neutral analysis, was a political intervention and to a significant degree a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just as on international revolution, there was a general Bolshevik consensus up through at least October regarding workers’ control and the expropriation of capitalist property. Put simply, the Bolsheviks were in favour of the former but not the latter (until revolution in the West). Even Lenin’s talk of ‘steps towards socialism’ in April did not include the partial or complete expropriation of capitalist industry. Lenin posited that ‘we cannot be for “introducing” socialism—this would be the height of absurdity’ since ‘the majority of the population in Russia are peasants, small farmers who can have no idea of socialism’.[48] As such, Bagdatev agreed with the specific planks proposed by Lenin, but argued that these were fully within the framework of the party’s minimum programme.[49]

The factory committee movement for workers’ control likewise did not aim to socialise capitalist industry. Disputing bourgeois ownership or administration of the workplace was not the goal—indeed, the word kontrol in Russia actually translates better as supervision or checking. Workers’ control for most of 1917 was a largely defensive measure that consisted of monitoring the actions of the employers. The goal was to ensure that the bosses respected the rights of employees and, above all, that they did not continue to dislocate and sabotage production. In his classic study, S.A. Smith notes that ‘the policy of workers’ control over production was first and foremost an attempt by factory committees to stem the tide of industrial chaos.’[50] Anarchists and SR-Maximalists called for the immediate seizure of industry and the complete proletarian management of the factories, but this stance was generally rejected by the committees (as well as the Bolsheviks) throughout 1917. Workers’ control was analogous to the ‘dual power’ structure of government envisioned by the Mensheviks: though they did not seek full power for themselves, workers demanded partial authority to pressure the bourgeoisie in the right direction.

The push for the Bolsheviks to take a positive approach towards the factory committees and workers’ control came not from Lenin, but from rank-and-file workers and party labour militants.[51] As Bolshevik labour leader Vladimir Milyutin noted to the Sixth Congress, the party had ‘borrowed’ the demands for workers’ control ‘from the experience of self-activity carried out on the ground’.[52] Like in the labour movement generally, the hegemonic stance among Bolsheviks was that the possibility for workers’ control (in conjunction with Soviet state control) to be expanded toward full ownership and management of industry depended on the spread of revolution internationally. One Bolshevik leader explained to the June factory committee conference that ‘no one knows how [the] revolution will end up: at the least, in the deprivation of capital of a part of its rights; at the most, who will say that from a Russian revolution it will not become a world revolution?’[53] Nevertheless, it was clear to all that even the relatively limited workers’ control that prevailed up through October pointed in a different direction than the normal functioning of capitalism.

Though the employers had grudgingly acquiesced to workers’ control in the spring, from early September onwards they led an aggressive campaign against the factory committees with the goal of regaining full control of their enterprises. In a context marked by the rapid dislocation of industry and a capitalist offensive against the committees, workplaces across the empire were the sites of bitter battles for authority throughout the Fall. Indeed, the mutual intransigence of workers and bosses pushed the workplace struggle further and faster than even most Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, had desired.

The October Revolution codified workers’ control but it did not nationalise industry. Indeed, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership for months after October sought to reach some sort of working arrangement with the owners of industry. Nevertheless, as Trotsky had predicted in 1906, upon leading workers to power the Bolsheviks were compelled to go much further than they had initially planned. Capitalist economic sabotage and political resistance, a wave of workers’ wildcat expropriations, and the dynamics of civil war swept the party into nationalising all major industries in the second half of 1918. Though there was likely no other viable option in the given context, this wave of Soviet nationalisations deepened the catastrophic collapse of production and played a central role in the massive growth of a privileged state bureaucracy.[54]

The Class Leadership of Soviet Power

Whereas there was little internal Bolshevik discord in 1917 regarding world revolution and workers’ control, the question of the party/class leadership of Soviet government was far more contentious. And ultimately it was this question that was decisive for the course of the revolution and for practical party politics. Though my preceding analysis has overlapped in important respects with the pioneering work of Lars Lih, in my view his stress on the continuity of Bolshevism in 1917 has led him to minimise the importance of this debate.

Ever since 1905 the Bolsheviks had insisted on the need for a Soviet government of workers and peasants, without specifying which class (and its corresponding party) should be hegemonic in such a power. The crucial thing to note about the Bolshevik call for a ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ was that it referred to the general class content of a revolutionary state power without specifying the weight of the working class and its political representatives inside of it. Crucially, this meant that Bolshevik strategy could be concretised in a number of different directions. In contrast, Trotsky argued that the proletariat had to be the hegemonic current within any government capable of leading the democratic revolution to victory. Trotsky justifiably argued that his position regarding this issue––‘who is to wield the hegemony in the government itself, and through it in the country?’––was one of the most fundamental tenets of the strategy of permanent revolution.[55]

From 1905 onwards, Bolsheviks at different times projected distinct concrete governmental visions for the democratic revolution. It is generally overlooked that these sometimes included support for a form of proletarian state hegemony virtually identical to that of Trotsky.[56] At other times, however, the Bolsheviks projected that the workers’ party could act as an equal (or even minority) partner in a government with ‘petty-bourgeois’ revolutionary democrats (e.g. the SRs and Trudoviks).[57]

For most of 1917, the Bolsheviks upheld this open-ended approach regarding whether (proletarian) Bolshevik governmental leadership would prove to be necessary for the victory of the democratic revolution or whether the (petty-bourgeois) moderate socialists––Mensheviks and SRs—could be compelled to break with the bourgeoisie. The April debates did not lead the Bolshevik current as a whole to adopt Trotsky’s longstanding view that a viable workers’ and peasants’ regime required proletarian hegemony in the state. On this question the April conference’s central message was that a cross-class Soviet government could and should be established through the uncompromising promotion of the ‘proletarian line’ (i.e. for a break with the bourgeoisie) within the Soviets.[58] Though a few formulations in the April resolutions written by Lenin vaguely pointed in the direction of proletarian state leadership as a necessary next step, the precise class-political leadership of the projected Soviet government was generally left unspecified.

Underlying the ambiguities of the April resolutions was the fact that a wide range of different views had been articulated during the conference. Lenin’s stance differed in a substantial way from that articulated most clearly by Kamenev. According to Lenin, it was now anachronistic to speak only of a ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ since this dictatorship had been unexpectedly realised in a Soviet whose petty-bourgeois leaders had handed power over to the big bourgeoisie. He concluded that a ‘new and different task now faces us: to effect a split within this dictatorship’ between the ‘proletarian’ elements and the ‘petty-bourgeois’ elements (Right Menshevik and SR leaders) committed to supporting the bourgeoisie.[59] Reflecting this analysis, Lenin projected that the main allies of workers in class struggle and in the future state power would be poor peasants and agricultural labourers, rather than the peasantry as a whole.

This stance pointed in the direction of proletarian hegemony in revolutionary government, a form of power that Lenin tended throughout 1917 to describe as a government of workers and poor peasants. Lenin’s framing of the establishment of Soviet power as a ‘step towards socialism’ likewise had strong connotations of working-class hegemony. It is not entirely surprising that a few Bolsheviks and the overwhelming majority of Mensheviks saw Lenin’s stance as equivalent to socialist revolution. But it is crucial to note that Lenin rejected this label and affirmed that it was ‘quite possible’ that the petty-bourgeoisie and its representatives en toto might still break from the bourgeoisie and take state power together with the proletariat. He concluded that ‘if this is still possible, then there is one, and only one, way towards it, namely, an immediate, resolute, and irrevocable separation of the proletarian Communist elements from the petty-bourgeois elements.’[60]

Lenin’s party critics generally remained more hopeful in the potential for the entire petty-bourgeoisie and its political representatives to break with the capitalists. Kamenev declared that ‘a clash of the bourgeoisie with the entire revolutionary democracy is inevitable’—given this impending split from the capitalists it was therefore necessary to ‘build all of our tactics to not break the bloc’ between the proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie.[61] At the April conference Bagdatev argued that the essence of the party critics’ disagreements with Lenin was that they did not think that winning the Soviet to the stance of the Bolsheviks was a precondition for its assumption of power.[62]

Throughout the year, the defining attribute of Bolshevik moderates was that they were the most consistently oriented towards winning the SRs and Mensheviks to jointly form a broad multi-party socialist government. There were compelling reasons to orient in this direction. Since the working class was a minority in Russia, a politically broad Soviet government seemed to offer the best possible prospects for cementing a worker-peasant alliance and a solidly majoritarian social base against the bourgeoisie. The Bolsheviks lacked strong rural support and rural class differentiation (apart from Latvia) was far less prevalent than Lenin claimed in April. The approach of Bolshevik moderates, in other words, differed considerably from the Mensheviks and it should not be lightly dismissed as doctrinairism or reformism.

These distinct Bolshevik expectations coexisted well past April. Given the ambiguities of the April party discussions, and the fact that Lenin himself did not deny the potential for a SR-Menshevik rupture with the liberals, the Bolsheviks overwhelmingly continued to conceive of and agitate for Soviet power within a strategic framework open to all eventualities about its potential class leadership. Neither the post-April internal discussions nor the party press indicate that the Bolsheviks were specifically oriented towards establishing Soviet power through first winning a majority for their party. Given the moderate socialist dominance of the Soviets, the slogan ’All Power to the Soviets’ concretely meant the creation of a SR-Menshevik government. Bolshevik agitation for this demand was not primarily a tactical ruse to expose their rivals, but a serious push to form a broad non-capitalist power committed to meeting the demands of working people.

Bolshevism’s post-April stance was not that the SRs and Menshevik leaderships were incapable of breaking with the bourgeoisie, but rather that they could and should do so immediately. In his July call for the moderate socialists to ‘take power into their own hands’, Baku Bolshevik leader Stepan Shaumian concluded with the following question: ‘Will the ruling socialist parties listen to the imperious voice of life or will they continue to persist in their stupid misunderstanding of the interests of the revolution?’[63] Bolshevik agitation for Soviet power, he explained, gave expression to ‘the desire of the revolutionary proletariat to tear the petty-bourgeois Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties from the influence of [liberal leaders] Milyukov and Guchkov, and from their slavish subordination to Russian and Allied imperialism.’[64]

Speaking to the Sixth Congress, Stalin uncontroversially explained the meaning given by the Bolsheviks to their famous watchword: ‘Our slogan was “All power to the Soviets!” and, hence, a united revolutionary front. But the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries feared to break with the bourgeoisie, [they] turned their backs on us.’[65] The dominant Bolshevik approach was that only time would tell whether the moderate socialists would break. In contrast, Trotsky argued in June that ‘with downfall of the present government will come the downfall of the present leaders of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. To preserve the authority of the Soviet as a representative of the Revolution, and to secure for it a continuance of its functions as a directive power, is now within the power only of the present minority of the Soviet.’[66]

The first major break within Bolshevik approaches to Soviet power came not in April, but after the July Days. Following the coalition government’s bloody repression of workers and its subsequent anti-radical offensive, Lenin declared that the SRs and Mensheviks had definitively ‘betrayed the cause of the revolution’ and that it was no longer possible to peacefully push the existing Soviets to take power since these (in his view) had yielded all their authority to the bourgeois dictatorship. The party should drop the call for ‘All Power to the Soviets’ and orient instead towards an armed proletarian uprising against the counter-revolutionary militarist regime. He argued that, unlike in the preceding period, a rupture with the bourgeoisie now absolutely required that the masses ‘turn their backs on the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties … after the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible.’ This did not mean that Lenin had abandoned the goal of creating a majoritarian Soviet regime representing both workers and the broad mass of peasants—but, in his view, the path towards this now necessarily passed through the immediate assumption of power by the armed workers.[67]

Lenin’s sharp insistence that the advance of the revolution absolutely required a proletarian-led government was new, as was his view that power should be taken independently of the existing Soviets and against their SR-Menshevik majorities. Various radical Bolshevik cadres in Petrograd supported this stance, which coincided with a strong sense of the militant proletariat’s isolation from the moderate socialists after the July Days. But on the whole this line proved to be far more disputed in the Bolshevik leadership and ranks than the April Theses.

Since Lenin was in hiding, the new line’s main defender at the party’s Sixth Congress in late July-early September was Stalin, who went further than Lenin himself by arguing that Russia was now ready for a socialist revolution even before it erupted in the West. But top Bolshevik leaders at the Sixth Congress sharply disputed the call for a proletarian seizure of power independent of the Soviets, as well as the related description of the revolution as socialist in nature. Dropping the fight to transform the Soviets into organs of power, in their view, dangerously risked isolating the party and the working class. They insisted that it was premature to write off the current Soviets and the alliance with the petty-bourgeois masses that these bodies represented.[68]

This revealing discussion has largely been overlooked in the historiography since it contradicts the prevailing misunderstanding of the demand for Soviet power. At the Sixth Congress, it was the Bolshevik moderates who most consistently demanded ‘All Power to the Soviets’ against the line of advocates of socialist revolution (and/or taking power independently of the Soviets). In the end, the Sixth Congress dropped the call for ‘All Power to the Soviets’ and passed a series of compromise resolutions that leaned in the direction of Lenin’s stance while simultaneously reaffirming much of party’s preceding approach.[69]

It is highly instructive to examine the reaction of the party as a whole to the new line espoused by Lenin and (in more attenuated form) the Sixth Congress. The call to drop the fight for ‘All Power to the Soviets’ was basically ignored across the board; by all accounts, Bolshevik committees continued to raise this demand and to push for the moderate socialists to break with the liberals. This was the case not only in the main provincial and borderland cities, but also in Moscow and Petrograd. ‘At the local level there was widespread refusal to implement a change in policy that ran counter to mass feelings,’ notes Acton. ‘The result was to soften what might have been a deeply damaging blow to the party’s image as the champion of soviet-based government.’[70]

The defeat of Kornilov at the hands of a broad multi-party resistance in late August radically changed the political situation. Contrary to what Lenin had been insisting for the past month, the anti-Kornilov struggle had demonstrated that the existing Soviets were not obsolete and that the SRs and Mensheviks had not definitively subordinated themselves to the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. In the wake of this united victory it seemed to many across the political spectrum that the Soviet leadership would finally break with the liberals. From his hideout in Finland, Lenin made yet another abrupt political reversal and now lent his support for the Bolshevik leaderships’ call on the SR-Mensheviks leadership to form a Soviet government. Since his immediate goal remained ‘the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat’, Lenin personally argued that the Bolsheviks should not participate in the proposed SR-Menshevik Soviet government.[71] But the anti-coalition state proposals made by the Bolshevik Central Committee (which now included Trotsky) to the Soviet Executive leadership on 31 August and again for the 14-22 September All-Russia Democratic Conference did not reject this possibility.

In this spirit, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd’s City Duma on 1 September declared: ‘Let only the genuine revolutionary democracy take the management of the great revolutionary Petrograd into its hands and we, too, will take our place in its ranks to work intensively and selflessly for the benefit of the capital of the world revolution.’[72] The leadership’s editorial two weeks later struck a similar note: ‘You want a united front with the Bolsheviks? Then break with the Kerensky government, support the Soviets in their struggle for power, and there will be unity.’[73] Had this compromise been accepted, a regime resembling Kamenev and co.’s vision of a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants would have been the result. But the SR-Menshevik leaderships—despite the strong growth of anti-coalition wings within both parties—set up yet another government with the liberals.

Only days after the Bolshevik leadership made their proposed compromise to the moderate socialists, a major new development entered into the political equation: the Bolsheviks for the first time won the leadership of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Soviets across the empire soon followed. Now that the Bolsheviks were the strongest current within these bodies, the demand for Soviet power took on a whole new political content. A Soviet government henceforth likely meant a Bolshevik-led government; in terms of Bolshevik class analysis, it would be a regime in which the proletariat was the hegemonic force.

Had the moderate socialists agreed to accept the legitimacy of such a Bolshevik-led Soviet regime, its broad social base would have represented the vast majority of the population. Most people continued to envision Soviet power as a multi-party regime representing workers, peasants, soldiers, the left intelligentsia and their political representatives. But the continued opposition of the SRs and Mensheviks to Soviet power raised the spectre that a Bolshevik-led Soviet government might be primarily (or exclusively) based on the working class. Left wings in the SR and Mensheviks were growing, but it was unclear where their political allegiances would ultimately fall. In this context, the assumption of power by the Soviets without the agreement of other socialist currents brought with it the potential danger of proletarian isolation and civil war.

In such a context, Lenin’s exhortations—made from mid-September onwards—that the Bolshevik leadership immediately organise an armed uprising to depose the Provisional Government were at first flatly rejected by the rest of the Bolshevik Central Committee. For weeks after the moderates’ initial rebuff of their proposed compromise, Bolshevik cadres nevertheless continued in negotiations and pressure initiatives to find a way to peacefully establish a multi-party working people’s government in agreement with the other socialist currents. This stance resulted not only from Bolshevik leaders’ desire to secure as broad a base as possible for anti-bourgeois rupture, but also from the ongoing pressure from below for the unity of the ‘revolutionary democracy’. In such a context, the political success of the Bolsheviks required that they challenge the moderates for the mantle of unity.

But by October 10, the impasse of negotiations with the moderates, combined with the Kerensky government’s new initiatives to restore order, led the majority of the Central Committee to finally accept Lenin’s argument concerning the necessity of an armed uprising. The party would have to forge ahead towards the establishment of a Soviet regime despite the uncertainty of support from other socialist currents and/or their constituencies. Like Lenin, the party majority now wagered that upon assuming power they would subsequently be able to win over the broad mass of peasants, a dynamic hopefully foreshadowed by the growing Bolshevik-Left SR collaboration.

This did not mean, however, that the Bolshevik leadership agreed with Lenin’s ill-advised push for the party to organise an insurrection weeks before the forthcoming Second All-Russia Soviet Second Congress. Instead, the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Trotsky sought to promote the overthrow of the government through a more cautious and defensive approach that would tie armed actions to legitimacy of the Soviet, its institutions, and its Second Congress. Ultimately, it was the latter method that prevailed, though it would appear that Lenin played an important role in pushing these ongoing military manoeuvres into a more offensive mode a few hours before the Second Congress opened on 25 October.

As is well known, a minority of two in the Bolshevik Central Committee, Kamenev and Zinoviev, voted against the October 10 resolution and proceeded to argue against an armed uprising in the non-Bolshevik press. The essence of their case—which was shared by many Bolshevik party cadres across the empire—was that the proletariat and its party was still too weak and isolated for an armed conquest of power to succeed. Pointing towards the importance of the forthcoming Constituent Assembly, they argued that time was on the side of the workers since (among other things) in the future ‘the position of the petty-bourgeois parties…will not be exactly the same as it is now.’ Pressure from below ‘will put ever greater pressure on them and force them to seek an alliance with the proletarian party against the landowners and capitalists represented by the Kadet Party.’[74]

In a certain sense, Kamenev and Zinoviev’s opposition to an immediate armed uprising was no different from that which had prevailed among the Bolsheviks before October 10. As the preceding months of debates had demonstrated, there was no obvious answer to the question of if and when attempts to reach an agreement with the moderate socialists should be abandoned. Moreover, in the concrete circumstances of October 1917 there was a very significant tension between the Bolshevik party’s principled insistence on proletarian hegemony in the fight for Soviet power and the desire shared by workers and party militants alike to establish a broadly-based regime of working people. Lenin, Trotsky, the Bolshevik Central Committee had not abandoned the latter goal, but its realisation in practice was now based more on a wager on future developments than on a political certainty.

Perhaps the main criticism to be levelled against Kamenev and Zinoviev is that they failed to make a political turn when conditions warranted it. Though they pointed to real political dilemmas and dangers, their initial opposition to the uprising cannot be reduced to a simple difference in tactics. Their tendency towards treating an alliance with moderate socialists as a precondition for Soviet government threatened to subordinate the Bolsheviks to political forces who themselves remained subordinate to Capital. In this sense, Trotsky was not off the mark in arguing that the minority leadership opposition in October reflected ‘the pressure exerted on the party by bourgeois public opinion at a time when mortal peril was gathering above the heads of bourgeois society.’[75] This point, however, should not be overstated since despite their early opposition to the initiation of an armed uprising, Kamenev and Zinoviev both ended up playing central roles during the founding of the new Soviet government on 25-26 October – indeed, Kamenev was elected chair of the Soviet Central Executive Committee and Zinoviev wrote multiple leading Bolshevik articles on 25 October and then became editor of Izvestiya, the paper of the Soviet leadership.[76] That the actual October insurrection had been so defensive, and so tied to Soviet legality, meant that moderate Bolshevik hopes in finding an accord with a large swath of the SRs and Mensheviks had not yet been dashed.

Though the Kamenev-Zinoviev wing leaned on the important strategic aspects of ‘Old Bolshevism’, it makes little sense to reduce this tradition to their wavering. By mid-October the other top Bolshevik leaders had become convinced that the establishment of a proletarian-led Soviet government was necessary and possible despite the opposition of the SRs and Mensheviks and the related threat of Civil War. As we have seen, the party’s algebraic stance on Soviet rule could be developed in different directions. And even had Bolshevism been based on a less open-ended strategy, the party still would have been subjected to intense external political pressures and it would still have had to grapple with the challenge of wagering on the best moment and means to push for power.

The Bolsheviks were the leading current in the armed actions that overthrew the Provisional Government on 25 October, but nobody knew ahead of time whether they would have an absolutely majority or only a large plurality at the Second All-Russia Soviet Congress. As it turned out, the vast majority of delegates supported granting all power to the Soviets, though the Bolsheviks themselves fell just short of having a majority (300 of the 670 delegates). Had they so desired, the non-Bolshevik currents could have exerted considerable influence over the Congress (which was chaired by Kamenev) and the new government. Though Lenin had advocated the establishment of a specifically Bolshevik administration, the Bolshevik delegates unanimously accepted the proposal made in the opening congress session by Martov for the establishment of a broad multi-party socialist power. Yet the potential for creating some form of wide Soviet regime was soon squandered by the walkout of the moderates and the refusal of any other political currents to participate in the newly established government.

The Bolsheviks’ desire to prevent proletarian isolation nevertheless found expression, among other things, in the new government’s immediate implementation of the SR agrarian programme and its incorporation a few weeks later of the Left SRs as minority partners in power. On a local and regional level, the newly established Soviet governments included an even wider array of political currents, namely non-Russian Marxists, SR-Maximalists, anarchists, and revolutionary nationalists. Only in the course of 1918 would these alliances be blown apart by the storms of foreign intervention, civil war, and economic collapse.


Much more could be said about Bolshevik stances on socialist revolution in 1917, but the preceding discussion was hopefully sufficient to have clarified the main lines of development. October can be justifiably described as a socialist revolution in so far as it established a proletarian-led state power that asserted workers’ control over the economy and that actively promoted the international overthrow of capitalism. But it is not historically accurate to claim that the Bolshevik current from April 1917 onwards saw this goal as the revolution’s necessary next stage, nor that it equated the establishment of such a government with socialist revolution.

Ultimately, the tensions and ambiguities in Bolshevik strategy reflected the real social and political contradictions of promoting working-class hegemony in an economically backwards, war-torn, primarily peasant society. The course of events largely vindicated the ‘Old Bolshevik’ stress on the need for a worker-peasant alliance and the centrality of democratic demands. At the same time, the experience of 1917 likewise confirmed Trotsky’s argument that the success of this democratic revolution required proletarian governmental leadership. Events similarly vindicated his contention that the resulting regime would have to attack the foundations of capitalist property relations.

Since socialism could not be built within the confines of Russia alone, the sole path to positively resolving the inherent contradictions facing the new Soviet government was through the spread of workers’ rule abroad. And regarding the imminence and necessity of world revolution, the perspectives of all Bolsheviks in 1917 fully converged. The axiom that the Russian Revolution would be defeated if it remained isolated was borne out, though this defeat took the unforeseen form of Stalinist degeneration. In short: Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was confirmed by the experience of the Russian Revolution, but the same cannot be said of his polemical account of how Lenin ‘re-armed’ the Bolsheviks.

The author would like to thank John Riddell, Todd Chretien, Lars Lih, and Charlie Post for their comments on this article.

First published in the Historical Materialism Blog.

Works Cited

Acton, Edward 1990, Rethinking the Russian Revolution, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Anweiler, Oskar 1974, The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, New York, Pantheon Books.

Blanc, Eric 2017a, ‘Before Lenin: Bolshevik Theory and Practice in February 1917 Revisited’,Historical Materialism Blog. Accessed at:

Blanc, Eric 2017b, ‘A Revolutionary Line of March: “Old Bolshevism” in Early 1917 Re-Examined’, Historical Materialism Blog. Accessed at:

Бош, Е. Б. 1925, Год борьбы. Борьба за власть на Украине с апреля 1917 г. до немецкой оккупации, Москва, Ленинград, Госиздат.

Chamberlin, William Henry 1935, The Russian Revolution 1917-21, Volume 1, London: Macmillan.

Commission of the Central Committee Of The C.P.S.U. (B.) 1939, The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), Short Course, New York: International Publishers.

Corney, Frederick C. (ed.) 2016, Trotsky’s Challenge: The “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution, Leiden, Boston: Brill.

Day, Richard B. and Daniel Gaido (eds.) 2009, Witness to Permanent Revolution: the Documentary Record, Leiden: Brill.

Джапаридзе, П. А. 1958, Избранные статьи, речи и письма 1905-1918 гг., Москва: Государственное издательство политической литературы.

Elwood, Ralph Carter (ed.) 1974, Resolutions and Decisions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Volume 1, The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, 1898–October 1917, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Galili y Garcia, Ziva 1989, The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Getzler, Israel 1992, ‘Soviets as Agents of Democratisation’ in Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917, edited by Edith Rogovin Frankel, Jonathan Frankel, and Baruch Knei-Paz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hedlin, Myron W. 1975, ‘Zinoviev’s Revolutionary Tactics in 1917’, Slavic Review, 34, 1: 19-43.

Ибрагимова, 3. И. and М. С. Искендерсва (eds.) 1957, Большевики в борьбе за победу социалистической революции в Азербайджане. Документы и материалы. 1917–1918 гг., Баку: Азербайджанское государственное издательство.

Iskolats 1973, Iskolata un tā prezidija protokoli (1917.-1918.), edited by A. Spreslis, Rīga: Zinātne.

Kowalski, Ronald L. 1997, The Russian Revolution: 1917-1921, Hoboken: Routledge.

Mandel, David 1983, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime: from the February Revolution to the July Days, 1917, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Mandel, David 1984, ‘The Intelligentsia and the Working Class in 1917’, Critique, 14, 1: 67-87.

Маркарян, Александр Рафаелович 1985, Деятельность большевиков Закавказья в период двоевластия, PhD Dissertation, Ереванский государственный лингвистический университет имени В. Я. Брюсова.

Lenin, N. and Leon Trotzky 1918, The Proletarian Revolution in Russia, edited by Louis C. Fraina, New York: Communist Press.

Lenin, V.I. 1964a, Collected Works, Volume 24, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1964b, Collected Works, Volume 26, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1965, Collected Works, Volume 29, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Lenin, V.I. 1966, Collected Works, Volume 31, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Любовець, Олена and Валерій Солдатенко 2010, Революційні альтернативи 1917 року й Україна, Київ: Наукова Думка.

Longley, D.A. 1978, Factional Strife and Policy Making in the Bolshevik Party, 1912-april 1917 (With Special Reference to the Baltic Fleet Organisations 1903-17), PhD Dissertation, University of Birmingham.

Rabinowitch, Alexander 1968, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Radek, Karl 1917, ‘Der Arbeiter- und Soldatendelegiertenrat’, Bote der Russischen Revolution. Organ der ausländischen Vertretung des Zentralkomitees der Sozialdemokratischen Arbeiterpartei Russlands (Bolschewiki), 3: 1-5.

Raleigh, Donald J. 1986, Revolution on the Volga: 1917 in Saratov, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Roziņš, Fricis 1965, Rakstu izlase, 3, Rīga: Latvijas Valsts izdevniecība.

RSDRP Central Committee 1974, The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks), August 1917 – February 1918, London, Pluto Press.

РСДРП 1959 [1905], Третий съезд РСДРП. Апрель-май 1905 года: Протоколы, Москва: Госполитиздат.

РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917], Седьмая (апрельская) Всероссийская конференция РСДРП (большевиков); Петроградская общегородская конференция РСДРП (большевиков). Апрель 1917 года. Протоколы, Москва: Госполитиздат.

РСДРП (большевиков) 1958b [1917], Шестой съезд РСДРП (большевиков). Август 1917 года. Протоколы, Москва: Госполитиздат.

Service, Robert 1979, The Bolshevik Party in Revolution: A Study in Organisational Change, 1917-1923, New York: Barnes Noble Books.

Шаумян, С. Г. 1958, Избранные произведения, Tom 2 1917-1918 гг., Москва: Госполитиздат.

Shkliarevsky, Gennady Lazarevich 1985, The Russian Revolution and Organized Labor, PhD dissertation, University of Virginia.

Шляпников, А. Г. 1992 [1923], Семнадцатый год, Москва: Республика.

Slusser, Robert M. 1987, Stalin in October: the Man Who Missed the Revolution, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Smith, S.A. 1983, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917-1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, S.A. 2006, ’The Revolutions of 1917–1918’ in The Cambridge History of Russia, Volume III: The Twentieth Century, edited by Ronald Grigor Suny, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Солдатенко В. Ф. 2004, Георгій Пятаков: миттєвості неспокійної долі, Київ: Світогляд.

Stalin, J.V. 1953a, Works, Volume 3, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Stalin, J.V. 1953b, Works, Volume 4, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Stučka, Pēteris 1978, Rakstu Izlase, 2. sējums, Rīga: Liesma.

Treijs, R. 1977, ‘“Brīvais strēlnieks” padomju varas pirmajos mēnešos (1917.g. Oktobris – 1918.g. Februāris),’ in Latvijas Komunistiskās partijas stratēģijas un taktikas problēmas, 1917. gada Oktobris, edited by L. Malakhovska, V. Raevskiĭ, A. Favorskiĭ, Rīga: P. Stučkas Latvijas Valsts universitāte.

Trotsky, Leon 1969 [1906], The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, New York: Pathfinder Press.

White, James D. 1985, ‘Early Soviet Historical Interpretations of the Russian Revolution 1918–24’, Soviet Studies, 37, 3: 330-352.


[1] ‘The Lessons of October’ [1924], Leon Trotsky, in Corney 2016, p. 101.

[2] Slusser 1987, p. 54.

[3] Commission of the Central Committee Of The C.P.S.U. (B.) 1939, pp. 183-84.

[4] Many of Lih’s important pioneering contributions can be found here: For my recent accounts of Bolshevism in February and March 1917, see Blanc 2017a and Blanc 2017b.

[5] For typical Menshevik claims about Lenin’s purported ‘anarchism’, see Rabinowitch 1968, p. 40.

[6] On the dubious analytical and factual accuracy of some of these memoir accounts, see Longley 1978, pp. 252, 337-38. On the evolution of early Bolshevik historiography concerning 1917, see White 1985 and the introduction in Corney 2016.

[7] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917]p. 18.

[8] ‘Letters on Tactics’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, p. 48.

[9] Radek 1917, pp. 3-4.

[10] Getzler 1992, 30.

[11] ‘Letters on Tactics’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, p. 48.

[12] Smith 2006, p. 134; Anweiler 1974, p. 157-58.

[13] Cited in Anweiler 1974, p. 171.

[14] ‘On the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’ [1917] in Elwood 1974, p. 223. My emphasis.

[15] ‘Letter to Comrades’ [1917] in Lenin 1964b, p. 200.

[16] Любовець and Солдатенко 2010, pp. 82, 91.

[17] Солдатенко 2004, p. 100.

[18] Cited in Service 1979, p. 45.

[19] Cited in Маркарян 1985, p. 145.

[20] Cited in Galili y Garcia 1989, p. 157. Only by way of exception did the Mensheviks engage with the actual stance of their rivals. For instance, in mid-October Menshevik leader D. Kol’tsov argued that there was no ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism. Marxist theory, he asserted, did not support the conception of a ‘semi-socialist revolution.’ (Cited in Shkliarevsky 1985, p. 330.)

[21] ‘Demokrātija un kapitālisms’ [1917] in Stučka 1978, p. 203.

[22] ‘What Next? After the July Days,’ Leon Trotsky [1917], in Lenin and Trotzky 1918, pp. 268-69.

[23] Шаумян 1958, p. 47.

[24] ‘What Next? After the July Days,’ Leon Trotsky [1917], in Lenin and Trotzky 1918, pp. 268-71.

[25] ‘Kо всем рабочим Бакинского района’ [1917] in

Ибрагимова and Искендерсва 1957, p. 179.

[26] Iskolats 1973, p. 29.

[27] ‘Политический кризис’ [1917] in Шаумян 1958, p. 22; ‘Новый взрыв революции в Петрограде’ [1917] in Шаумян 1958, p. 27.

[28] Treijs, R. 1977, p. 38; Raleigh 1986, p. 320.

[29] ‘Report on the Current Situation April 24 (May 7)’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, p. 241.

[30] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917], pp. 15, 96; РСДРП (большевиков) 1958b [1917], pp. 114, 132.

[31] ‘Kautsky on the Russian Revolution’ [1906], Leon Trotsky, in Day and Gaido 2009, pp. 574, 578. My emphasis.

[32] ‘To the Citizens of Russia!’ [1917] in Lenin 1964b, p. 236.

[33] For one of many such examples, see ‘Kо всем товарищам солдатам Kавказской армии’ [1917] in Шаумян, С. Г. 1958, p. 108.

[34] ‘Letters on Tactics’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, p. 52; ‘Речь на заседании бакинского совета рабочих и военных депутатов’ [1917] in Джапаридзе 1958, p. 166.

[35] ‘Reply to the Discussion’ [1917] in Stalin 1953a, p. 133; ‘Speeches at the Sixth Congress of the R.S.D.L.P.(B.)’ [1917] in Stalin 1953a, p. 185.

[36] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958b [1917], p. 119, 128, 133, 254.

[37] See, for example, the documents collected in Бош 1925, Chamberlin 1935, Ибрагимова С. Искендерсва 1957, Elwood 1974, RSDRP Central Committee 1974, Stalin 1953a.

[38] ‘Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?’ [1917] in Lenin 1964b, p. 105.

[39] Mandel 1984, p. 80.

[40] For the invocation of the category of socialist revolution in the post-October internal debates on Soviet power, see RSDRP Central Committee 1974. On the post-October general evolution of Bolshevik categorisations of the revolution, see, for example, the documents collected in Бош 1925, Chamberlin 1935, Ибрагимова С. Искендерсва 1957, Stalin 1953a, Stalin 1953b. Lenin’s descriptions of the October revolution continued to vary after 1917. Sometimes he called it a socialist revolution. (‘Theses on the Question of a Separate Peace’ [1918] in Lenin 1964b, p. 445.) Other times he called it fundamentally bourgeois-democratic. (‘Report of the Central Committee March 18’ [1919] in Lenin 1965, p. 157.)

[41] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917], p. 18.

[42] Roziņš 1965, p. 273.

[43] ‘Report On The Current Situation’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, pp. 239-40.

[44] ‘Revolūcijas Burzmā’ [1917], in Stučka 1978, pp. 226-27.

[45] ‘Yellow Alliance’ [1917] in Stalin 1953a, pp. 267, 270.

[46] ‘О политическом положении,’ Пролетарий, 16 August, 1917. Significantly, these arguments were not included in Stalin’s collected works.

[47] ‘Speech at a Joint Plenum of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Red Army Deputies’ [1920] in Lenin 1966, p. 397.

[48] ‘Report on the Current Situation’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, p. 242.

[49] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917], p. 91.

[50] Smith 1983, p. 146.

[51] Shkliarevsky 1985, pp. 146-50, 190.

[52] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958b [1917], p. 153.

[53] Cited in Mandel 1983, p. 153.

[54] On the nationalisation of industry and the related political issues, see, for example, Chamberlin 1965, Volume 2, pp. 96-116.

[55] Trotsky 1969 [1906], p. 70. It should be noted that, among others, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky in this period similarly advocated for Russia a governmental power in which the working class party would be the hegemonic force; neither of these two leaders equated the establishment of such a government with socialist revolution.

[56] See, for example, РСДРП 1959 [1905], p. 102-3.

[57] See, for example, Шляпников 1992 [1923], pp. 66, 165.

[58] ‘On the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’ [1917] in Elwood 1974, p. 223.

[59] ‘Letters on Tactics’ [1917] in Lenin 1964a, pp. 44-46.

[60] Ibid., pp. 46, 51.

[61] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917]pp. 81-2.

[62] РСДРП (большевиков) 1958a [1917], pp. 90-91.

[63] ‘Новый взрыв революции в Петрограде’ [1917] in Шаумян 1958, p. 28.

[64] ‘О Кадетском Съезде’ [1917] in Шаумян 1958, p. 61.

[65] ‘Report on the Political Situation’ [1917] in Stalin 1953a, p. 188.

[66] ‘The Farce of Dual Power’ [1917], Leon Trotsky, in Lenin and Trotzky 1918, p. 192.

[67] ‘On Slogans’ [1917] in Lenin pp. 188, 191.

[68] See, for example, РСДРП (большевиков) 1958b [1917], pp. 114-17.

[69] For the full Sixth Congress resolutions see РСДРП (большевиков) 1958b [1917], pp. 253-76.

[70] Acton 1990, pp. 197-98.

[71] ‘On Compromises’ [1917] in Lenin 1964b, pp. 310-11.

[72] ‘Declaration by the Bolshevik Group’ [1917] in RSDRP Central Committee 1974, p. 40.

[73] ‘The Revolutionary Front’ [1917] in Stalin 1953a, p. 326.

[74] ‘Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s Opposition to Insurrection’ [1917] in Kowalski 1997, p. 83.

[75] ‘Our Differences’, Leon Trotsky, in Corney 2016, p. 310.

[76] For one of the few serious accounts of the late year moderate Bolshevik opposition, see Hedlin 1975

One Comment
  1. A fascinating account of the crucial moments. The factor which would have altered the course to the bureacratization induced by the international geopolitical isolation would have been the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. The CA basis of a direct democracy constituational process would have lifted the isolation of the Bolsheviks in power and led to the construction of an organized Civil Society and Judiciary.
    Presently in Québec we have calls for the CA from both the Québec solidare and Green parties.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: