Socialist Worker

How Lenin won the Bolshevik party to fight for workers’ power

A sharp argument within the Bolshevik party stopped it from supporting imperialist war—and helped push the revolution forward

Issue No. 2548

Lenin (centre) argued for a break with the Provisional Government and for workers and peasants to take power

Lenin (centre) argued for a break with the Provisional Government and for workers and peasants to take power


The Bolshevik party that led the Russian Revolution in October 1917 had risked being left behind just a few months earlier in April.

It would take a short, but very sharp, argument inside the party to put it back on course.

The outcome of that argument would decide whether the revolution succeeded or was crushed.

A new, unstable system of “dual power” replaced the old Tsarist government after the February revolution.

A Provisional Government was set up, which aimed to run Russia as a capitalist democracy.

But a network of workers’ councils—or soviets—made up of delegates from workplaces and the army, rivalled the power of the government, and had the potential to replace it.

The Bolsheviks had spent their lives preparing for revolution.

A hundred years on from the 1917 Russian Revolution - when workers stormed heaven
A hundred years on from the 1917 Russian Revolution - when workers stormed heaven
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But they had not foreseen a situation of dual power.

They had always seen the working class as the driving force behind the revolution.

But they also thought that a democratic revolution bringing basic rights had to be completed before workers could take power.

So for a short while they did not try to bring down the Provisional Government.

This wanted to keep Russia in the First World War and would later repress revolutionary forces.

In the weeks after February, the Bolshevik leaders only called on workers and peasants to elect representatives to the new government.

Some even backed the war, arguing that it had become a war in defence of a revolutionary government.

Their only demand was that the liberal leaders of the government negotiate a peace settlement.

They were in danger, as the revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, of becoming a “loyal opposition”.

Arguments

The revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, living in exile, saw the danger and snuck back into Russia with a list of ten short arguments—his April Theses.

He argued that the revolution was already becoming a confrontation between capitalists and workers.

Lenin insisted there should be no support for the war, which remained an imperialist bloodbath, and no support for the Provisional Government.

Workers and peasants had to take power through the soviets, putting the land and banks under their control, and abolishing the police, army and bureaucracy.

Finally, there had to be a complete break from the old “social democratic” left wing parties across Europe.

Instead there should be a new “international” of revolutionary parties.

This was important as the old parties had supported their own governments in the war.

At first barely any of the Bolshevik leaders supported Lenin.

Many were shocked as Lenin had argued that—in a backward country like Russia—the revolution would not immediately lead to a struggle for socialism.

But he had much more support among the Bolshevik workers and activists, who already opposed the Bolshevik leaders’ approach.

Lenin’s original theory didn’t fit with how the revolution played out.

But crucially it had stressed the central role of workers, and now its focus on workers’ struggle encouraged activists to push the fight forward.

So when Lenin changed his argument and pushed for the Bolsheviks to start fighting again, Bolshevik members supported him.

By the end of April, Lenin’s position had won out.

Now the Bolsheviks had to take their new arguments into the soviets.

They had to fight alongside other workers and push them on to overthrowing the government and running society for themselves.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read our coverage at tinyurl.com/sw1917

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