Approach to March Revolution

Approach to March Revolution. The March Revolution in Russia found Lenin prepared to take the steps which he could rationalize either as completing the middle-class revolution or beginning a socialist revolution. It was no longer important to draw a sharp line, for revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry had brought him by stages to the conclusion that Trotsky reached in one jump, namely, that the two revolutions would merge. Watching affairs in Russia from exile in Switzerland, he quickly decided that this had indeed happened and that the progress of the revolution would be a transition to socialism.

It would indeed be a grave error if we tried now to fit the complex, urgent, rapidly unfolding practical tasks of the revolution into the Procrustean bed of a narrowly conceived theory.

Within a week of his arrival in Petrograd, therefore, he startled his followers by relegating to the archive of Bolshevik  pre-revolutionary antiques the idea which in 1905 he had said that a socialist must never forget, namely, that the democratic republic was the only possible road to socialism. Life is more original than thought, and Marxism consists in keeping pace with the facts.

It is necessary to acquire that incontestable truth that a Marxist must take cognizance of living life, of the true facts of reality, that he must not continue clinging to the theory of yesterday, which, like every theory, at best only outlines the main and the general, only approximately embracing the complexity of life. . . . Whoever questions the completeness of the bourgeois revolution from the old viewpoint, sacrifices living Marxism to a dead letter. According to the old conception, the rule of the proletariat and peasantry, their dictatorship, can and must follow the rule of the bourgeoisie. In real life, however, things have turned out otherwise; an extremely original, new, unprecedented interlocking of one and the other has taken place.

In short, when the dialectic changes phase, a leader and a party must dare to gamble on the opportunity offered, and at the decisive moment You must be victorious. By April, 1917, Lenin was ready to believe that the moment had come; he was resolved to seize power when and If the enhances looked favorable.

He had still a few obstacles to get over. For the belief that socialism must come by way of the democratic republic was not a superficial part of Marxism. On economic grounds it had been regarded as impossible to construct socialism in an economy that lacked a high level of production, and democratic government had always been thought to be the political superstructure suitable to such an economy.

For this reason democracy was described as a necessary stage on the road to socialism. But this concept of a necessary stage was systematically ambiguous and especially so because it carried ethical overtones that Marxism did not acknowledge. It might mean that the democratic liberties were intrinsic moral values, professed by liberals but not effectively realized in a society with a laissez-faire economy.

The claim of socialism would then amount to saying that these values could be conserved and better realized in a socialist society, together with additional values made possible by the public ownership of the means of production. Democratic institutions like the suffrage and parliamentary representation, together with the civil liberties of free governments, would presumably be carried along into a socialist government. Something of this sort seems usually to have been intended by Marx, though he was quite capable, in a splenetic mood such as that represented by his Critique of the Gotha Program, of contemptuous epithets for representative government like the old democratic litany.

In any case by the end of the century its success in gaining some of its ends by legislation had fixed the democratic character of Marxism in Western Europe. What was at stake was the possibility of any working relation between communism and socialism. After the revolution Karl Kautsky, himself a theoretical Marxian revolutionist, said that socialism included not only the social organization of production but also the democratic organization of society. On Lenin’s choice depended a permanent division in the international working-class movement, which an English Marxist like Harold Laski regarded as the final disaster of his success.

Democracy as a necessary stage to socialism can be, and sometimes was, taken in quite a different way. The expression can be used by a person who attaches no intrinsic or moral value to democracy but means merely that civil liberties like free speech and free assembly offer the best arena for conducting the class struggle, that they can be used as the readiest means of stirring up discontent, or that democratic institutions have weaknesses that can-be used by a person whose purpose is to undermine them.

Democracy can, in short, be given a merely instrumental value, and this is how Lenin for the most part regarded it. There was only one absolute in his scale of values, and that was making the revolution. For the rest, his moral standards were in the highest degree manipulative, and it would be surprising to learn that he ever had any deep moral feeling for democratic methods, of which indeed he had little experience.

His way of getting around democracy as a necessary stage, therefore, was simply to denigrate all the institutions and practices which had come to count in the West as democratic. In his pamphlets on imperialism he had already described these as sham and hypocrisy.

Though he continued to assert, at least for the first three months after his return to Russia, that The most powerful and advanced type of bourgeois state is that of a parliamentary democratic republic, he was soon asserting also hat any capitalist government requires the greatest ferocity and savagery of repression. Even if it includes guarantees of constitutional liberties, these are privileges reserved for the rich, not rights for the working class.

In capitalist society, under the conditions most favorable to its development, we have more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always bound by the narrow framework of capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in reality, a democracy for the minority, only for the possessing classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains just about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics freedom for the slave-owners. The modern wage-slaves, owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, are so much crushed by want and poverty that democracy is nothing to them, politics is nothing to them; that, in the ordinary peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participating in social and political life.

Similarly, during the first months following his return to Russia, Lenin frequently disclaimed the character of an adventurer bent on leading an irresponsible junta to power; he would force no changes in government not ripe in the consciousness of an overwhelming majority. By August, however, he had got around to showing-what is contestable true-that for a philosophy which reduces politics to  class struggle, the concept of majority rule is meaningless; as he w said, it is merely a constitutional illusion.

For any important political issue always arises from a conflict between the interests of two possible ruling classes, and parties are the organs by which the conflict is fought out. In the end the more powerful class wins, and if the issue is vital the struggle is civil war. If a majority of the people Is pleased with the result, this is due to the accident of its being satisfied with what the successful party gives it.

If the majority wants something else, the ruling class still gets its way, and the majority is either suppressed or deceived. In a middle-class government, therefore, constitutional liberties are a shield for the privileges of the capitalists who alone have real power; for the working class they are a facade that covers coercion or deception. Any government at bottom is a dictatorship, and the practical question is, Who controls whom?

This conclusion Lenin would presently apply to the government which he was about to set up, but for the moment he was content to show that majority rule has nothing to do with making a revolution. Among revolutions, he said, there are innumerable instances in which the more organized, more class conscious, better armed minority forces its will upon a majority. A revolutionary party takes power and gets its majority afterwards.

The conclusion was directly relevant to two important strategical problems. One was, as always, the relationship of Lenin’s party, as the vanguard of the proletariat, to the peasants, who unquestionably were a majority. The answer to this was already implicit in Lenin’s slogan, the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, and equally in Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

For both implied utilizing the land hunger of the peasants to get temporary support for a revolution spearheaded by an urban working class minority, and both, implied breaking the alliance as soon as the peasants ceased to be tractable. The other problem was the relationship of the party to the soviets, and this was more difficult.

When Lenin returned in April the actual situation was what he described as Dual Power, the existence side by side of the bourgeois Provisional Government and the soviets. Under the circumstances the only possible slogan for a left-wing party was. All power to the soviets, and this Lenin adopted and continued to use (except for an interval in July when Konrnilov’s plot threatened a military dictatorship).

But in the soviets Marxists of any kind were a minority, and Bolsheviks were a minority among Marxists. Moreover, the revolutionary spontaneity of the soviets and their primitive democracy were more nearly in accord with Menshevik ideas about the federalism of socialist party organization than with Lenin’s theory of a rigidly centralized party. Besides, it was Trotsky, not Lenin, who had been the hero of the St. Petersburg soviet in 1905, and who had described the soviets as an embryo of a revolutionary government, while Lenin’s party had looked askance at both the soviets and the trade unions.

There came to be a myth, sedulously propagated after Lenin became the hero of a successful revolution, that he had instantly perceived, at the very beginning, that the soviets were uniquely suited to be the organs of a socialist revolution. This is not borne out by the record of 1905-1906.

Lenin did indeed recognize the importance of the soviets as organs of direct mass struggle, and he reproved his followers for neglecting them. But his attitude toward the soviets in 1905 was one of little sympathy and a good deal of suspicion. His emphasis fell on their insufficiency for organizing the insurrection, and he even suggested that, if the revolution were properly organized, the soviets might become superfluous.

No other opinion was consistent with Lenin’s belief in the control of spontaneity by consciousness, or his theory of the party as the seat of proletarian consciousness. And indeed this was almost what happened in 1917. By the end of October the party was in control of the soviets, which were on the way to becoming, not exactly superfluous, but a front for government by the party.

As for Trotsky, who did not reach Russia until the middle of May, he was content to forget his blast at Lenin’s party, once he learned that Lenin had already adopted the kernel of his theory that the two revolutions would merge. The two leaders of the revolution had at last got together, and majority rule became indeed an illusion in the last free election at the end of 1917 the Bolsheviks polled about a quarter of the votes.

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