The article below was first published in Socialism and Liberation in April 2005.
The 1917 Russian Revolution was the first time in history that the working class seized and held power, organizing a workers state in the interest of the vast majority of toilers rather than a rich minority elite. This great revolution actually came in two phases. The February Revolution swept away the czar (king) and the old feudal ruling class. The October Revolution overthrew the capitalist class and put Russia on the road to building socialism.
V.I. Lenin wrote the “April Theses” at a decisive moment in the aftermath of the February Revolution. They were written to give political orientation to the Bolshevik party, which led the working class in the October socialist revolution. Lenin argued that the working class couldn’t remain subordinate to the capitalist class. The working class needed a second, socialist revolution.
Prior to the Russian Revolution, the vast majority of the population was poor peasants subsisting in the countryside. The land-owning nobility met peasant uprisings for land and food with brutal repression. Capitalist industry was developing rapidly in the cities, but Russia had not experienced a bourgeois-democratic revolution like the other European imperialist powers. All classes were denied basic democratic freedoms as the country remained in the clutches of czarist absolutism.
The country was still ruled by the extreme repression of the czar and the old feudal monarchy. The bourgeoisie—the capitalist class of factory owners and merchants—was growing, but was still politically very weak as a class.
World War I broke out in August 1914. It was the bloodiest, most destructive event the planet had ever seen. The great imperialist powers were at war in a scramble to re-divide the colonized territories around the world. Russia formed an alliance with the British and French ruling classes with the promise of securing domination of parts of the Middle East and Central Asia.
Although they were initially drawn into the war based on patriotism and “Russian pride,” the war turned out to be a catastrophe for the people. By 1917, millions of Russian workers and peasants had died in the war for this cause. Much of the country’s resources were diverted to the war. This led to food shortages and widespread hunger in the cities. All the while, the big landowners and the growing capitalist class lived in extreme decadence.
Bread, land and peace
The February Revolution of 1917 began on International Women’s Day with a strike by women workers in Petrograd. They had three simple demands: bread, land and peace. The conditions of the war and the deprivation were causing such an acute crisis—the workers couldn’t take it anymore and took to the streets.
Over a period of five days the protests grew. As the workers gained confidence and militancy, the soldiers stationed in Petrograd, who had been ordered to suppress the demonstrations, joined them. After five days they toppled the czarist government and overthrew the czar.
In the immediate aftermath of the February Revolution, the workers and soldiers established Soviets. The Soviets first appeared on the historical stage in the 1905 Russian Revolution, which although defeated, served as a dress rehearsal for the events twelve years later. Soviets were elected councils, organized by the workers and soldiers in each military unit and factory. They were the seeds of workers’ power.
‘Pressure’ or ‘overthrow’ the capitalists?
Russia’s workers and peasants were represented by three main parties, all of which identified themselves as socialists. The Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks represented two distinct wings of the Marxist working class movement, while the Socialist Revolutionaries were a peasant-based populist party.
As the czar’s government fell, the leading parties in the soviets, the Mensheviks and the SRs, turned toward the representatives of the capitalist class to take power in Russia. They believed the country needed more time to develop capitalism before being ready for socialism.
The workers were armed, mobilized and capable of seizing power. But they were not sufficiently conscious and organized to realize it.
The leadership of the Mensheviks and the SRs formed a coalition with the capitalists in a Provisional Government. The capitalists in the Provisional Government consented to work with the soviets, making promises and using leftist rhetoric to appease the workers—while agreeing to the demands of British and French capitalism that Russia not withdraw from the war.
The Bolshevik Party had been the only party in Russia that opposed the war from the outset. Other parties, even those that called themselves socialist, capitulated to the intense pro-war hysteria to support “defense of the fatherland.”
The Bolshevik Party was severely punished for its anti-war position. Party leaders, including Lenin, were exiled or imprisoned, and the party was forced into a clandestine or underground existence. While many Bolshevik party members participated in the fighting of the February Revolution, the party was too organizationally weak and politically disoriented to strike an independent course from the other left parties.
The period directly following the February Revolution was a joyous time for the workers of Russia. The workers had closed the book on 400 years of czarism, and the heavy repression of the czar was lifted. There was an overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism about the new “democratic” revolution.
The leaderships of the left parties believed they could compromise with the capitalists and “pressure” them to take good positions on the issues of land reform, workers rights, and most of all, ending the war. Even the Bolsheviks in Russia, largely cut off from their exiled leadership, initially took a position of “critical support” for the Provisional Government.
From his exile in Switzerland, Lenin was urging the other Bolshevik leaders not to collaborate with the capitalist class. He said the policy of “pressure” was delusional. “To urge that government to conclude a democratic peace is like preaching morality to brothel keepers,” he wrote. (Letter from Afar, March 12, 1917)
The April Theses
Lenin finally arrived back into the country on April 3. He brought an argument that was later called the April theses. The main tenets were:
The current situation in Russia is one of “Dual Power” between the capitalist class and the working class. Now the workers must continue the struggle to achieve a socialist revolution and overthrow the capitalists.
Despite the demands of the February Revolution, the Russian capitalists are continuing to wage an imperialist war. The position of the party must be for an end to the war and the defeat of its own capitalist class.
The party must take the position of “No Support for the Provisional Government,” and must direct its efforts toward the coming socialist revolution. It should prepare to raise the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!”
In a country that was celebrating its newfound freedoms and a working class that was enamored with its new government, Lenin’s position was not very popular. In the first party meeting to discuss Lenin’s thesis, it was outvoted 13-2. At party conferences later in April, Lenin continued to argue his points, and by the end his position won out strongly.
The immediate interests of the working class, over which they fought the February Revolution, were bread, land and peace. Lenin knew that the Russian capitalist class could not meet these simple demands.
Lenin analyzed Russian capitalist interests in their international context. The Russian capitalists were inextricably linked to British and French imperialism. If they had any hope of becoming stronger as a class, they would never abandon their imperialist allies in World War I. Russia’s survival as a player in the imperialist arena depended on its securing colonized territory for exploitation.
The bourgeois-democratic Provisional Government could make many promises to the people, but Lenin insisted they would not pull out of the war. In addition, any steps toward land reform would have caused millions of peasant soldiers to desert the war front in order to come home and claim land. This was a reform the capitalists couldn’t afford.
The majority of the workers supported the Provisional Government in April. But Lenin’s April Theses were premised on one irrefutable conclusion: the bourgeois government would not be willing or able to withdraw from the war. The crisis of the continuing war would ultimately force the workers to take the only action that could resolve their demands—overthrowing the capitalist class and starting the socialist revolution. Lenin argued that the party should orient itself to help lead the working class to this end.
While the other socialist parties were collaborating with the capitalists and attempting to “pressure” them in a more left direction, the Bolsheviks began to organize for their overthrow.
In “The Bolshevik Revolution,” historian E.H. Carr wrote of Lenin’s ability to win over the Bolshevik party to his political position, that it was a “power resting not on rhetoric, but on clear-headed and incisive argument conveying … a unique mastery of the situation.” Lenin’s clarity of vision was based not on clairvoyance but on his ability to analyze class interests and to anticipate the potential of the working class to take power.
The April Theses is an important example of the critical role of leadership in discerning the right direction in a revolutionary situation. In April 1917, the Bolsheviks were a small minority party, but Lenin’s political reorientation rearmed the party and put it on a revolutionary footing.
In April, May and June, support for the Bolsheviks grew tremendously. By September, they had won the majority in the Soviets. And in October 1917, with the revolutionary leadership of the Bolsheviks, the workers and peasants of Russia accomplished the world’s first successful socialist revolution.