Continuing on from yesterday’s post, with my summary of this historical piece:
Where we left off in this dramatic story:
- Lenin had returned to Russia from exile along with some hastily scribbled notes (later to be known as the “April Theses”);
- He was met at the train station in Petrograd (=Petersburg) by members of the various socialist parties, including his own Bolshevik faction;
- In his own name, and not in the name of his party, Lenin delivered a big rousing speech to the Workers, Soldiers and Sailors delegates clustered outside the station;
- He was denounced as a madman for proposing that Russia should skip the “bourgeois phase” of development (in Marxist terminology) and just jump right into a socialist-style government, based on the soviets (self-rule councils) which had sprung up everywhere.
Debate at the Tauride Palace
I pick up our story where we left off: With the big joint Menshevik-Bolshevik meeting at Tauride Palace. Presiding over the meeting was the man who possessed probably the most authority there at that particular time: Irakli Tsereteli, a Menshevik who served as the Executive Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Tsereteli, hailing from Gruzia, was a long-time member of the Russian Social-Democratic Party. To the end of his long life, Tsereteli remained an internationalist and a socialist, he never gave in to the wiles of the Gruzian nationalists, despite his disagreements with the Bolsheviks. In his role in the Petrograd Soviet, Tsereteli was in charge of the Post and Telegraph services; and also served as Minister of the Interior in the Provisional Government.
Tsereteli decided to confront Lenin at the Tauride Palace meeting. The Mensheviks felt upset and resentful: Here they had been holding down the fort in Petrograd, keeping the Soviet going; helping the Provisional Government; doing all the hard work. Then Lenin arrives out of the blue, in a sealed train, from Germany; and right out of the gate starts issuing commands and making crazy statements about transferring all governmental powers to the soviets. And add on to this, all the past grievances between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Tsereteli reminded Lenin, how once upon a time, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were all part of the same unified Socialist party, the Russian Social-Democratic Party. Once upon a time it was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who had split the party into Mensheviks vs. Bolsheviks. And now Lenin was playing that same, divisive role upon again. After victory had already been achieved!
A significant majority of delegates at the meeting applauded and supported Tsereteli’s words. One by one delegates stood up and denounced Lenin’s “April Theses” as unadulterated “anarchism”. Even the Bolshevik delegate Yuri Steklov, Editor of the official Petrograd Soviet newspaper Izvestia, took the floor and criticized Lenin thusly: “Lenin’s speech consists of purely abstract concepts, proving only that the Russian Revolution has passed him by. After Lenin has had time to acquaint himself with the state of affairs in Russia, he will change his mind all by himself.” Just like Tsereteli and the others, Steklov clearly felt that Lenin was out of touch; that living in emigration as he had, Lenin did not know the situation on the ground, in the same way as those who had lived through those thrilling weeks and months of Revolution. And perhaps there was the same feeling of resentment at the arriving interloper.
And just for the record, because others will be sure to point this out:
Yes, Steklov was Jewish, his real name was Ovsei Moiseyevich Nakhamkis. Like many Russian Jewish intellectuals engaged in underground revolutionary activity, Nakhamkis adopted a Russianized alias as part of his disguise. His biography goes on to note that, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Steklov was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. (Take-away #1: Lenin did not hold a grudge.) Only to be arrested in 1938, during the Stalin purges. (Take-away #2: Unlike Lenin, Stalin apparently did hold grudges). Steklov died in prison in 1941 (amazing that he lasted in that torture chamber for 3 years — he must have been made of stronger stuff); only to be posthumously rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.
And Steklov wasn’t alone in criticizing the leader of his own faction. In his memoirs, the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov wrote:
“Even the Bolshevik faction were not shy, especially in the ‘corridor conversations’ about criticizing their leader’s supposed ‘abstractness’. One Bolshevik even told me in private, that Lenin’s speech not only did not deepen the factional disagreements, but on the contrary, healed over the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. By uniting them all against his position!”
So, what was so cryingly insane about Lenin’s position, Lyskov goes on to ask, in the VZGLIAD piece which I am summarizing?
Lenin insisted that in no way, no shape, no form, could socialists give even the mildest amount of political support to the bourgeois Provisional Government. Basing himself on Marxist theory, and upon his own theory of Imperialism, as he had worked it out while in exile, Lenin deduced from the postulates, that any bourgeois government, any government based on the capitalist system, must remain imperialistic. It could not NOT be imperialistic. QED.
It flowed from this, logically, that the soviet of Workers Deputies was the only possible form of non-imperialistic and revolutionary government possible in Russia. And that this fact must be explained to the masses. “Not a parliamentary republic,” Lenin explained in the debate. “That would be a step backwards. But rather a republic consisting of the soviets of workers, farm laborers (“batraki”), and peasants delegates from across the country. From the bottom up.”
Waiter, can we skip the potatoes and get right to dessert?
Putting his own twist on Marxist theory, Lenin posited that Russia might skip the bourgeois phase of development, along with the parliamentary republican form of government, and jump straight to soviet rule. Most of the other Marxists of that time regarded the soviets as types of anarcho-syndicalist “self-rule” organs, effective just for particular areas of the economy; and did not see them as possible candidates for actual governing, especially at the national level. This is why they suspected Lenin of degenerating into an anarchist mode of thought.
To their view, classical Marxism demanded that the Russian bourgeoisie, just like the French bourgeoisie of 1789, become fiery revolutionaries and come to power, sweeping aside the whole monarchist system. Problem: The Russian bourgeois “revolutionaries” of 1917 were NOTHING LIKE Robespierre and the others from the French revolution. They didn’t even really want to surge to power. They didn’t want to fight for power. (Nor did they particularly want to stop the war, either.) Russian Marxists were trying to make these guys into something they actually were not. Like put red cockades on their collars, when they didn’t want to wear them. Not to mention, the Russian bourgeoisie had practically zero support among the actual masses (of workers, peasants, soldiers, etc.) who had actually made the revolution.
Not to mention the fact, that the soviets, already during their first appearance in the 1905 Revolution, had spontaneously taken on governing chores, and had already built up actual authority among the masses. This was something real, that was really happening. Lenin could see this clearly, even living far away in Switzerland, as he did. Even if others, living much closer to the action, were blind to this fact and kept thinking they had to kowtow to the Provisional Government, just because it was “bourgeois”.
By fall of 1917, 1429 soviets of Workers, Soldiers and Peasant deputies, were operating throughout Russia. In addition, there were 33 soviets of Soldiers deputies and 455 soviets of Peasants deputies. There were soviets of peasant deputies at every geographical level. On the front lines of the war were operating Soldiers soviets at every military level, including Divisional. This was a real and spontaneous governing structure, not an artificial construct. Only those who were mired in ideological preconceptions, could fail to notice this fact. Whereas Lenin, in his “April Theses” noticed these facts and laid out a plan, how to use these “facts on the ground” to resolve the political crisis into which Russia had fallen.