Popular Fronts vs Proletarian Revolution: Russia-Spain-Sri Lanka

(Two presentations given at the Permanent Revolution Group Winter School, Wellington, New Zealand, 19-20 August 1989)


  1. Preface, Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), May 1993
  2. The Russian Revolution and the Popular Front: How to Defeat Reformism by Marcus P [below]
  3. Coalitionism in Spain and Sri Lanka by Bill Logan

The Russian Revolution and the Popular Front: How to Defeat Reformism

A talk given by Marcus P at the Permanent Revolution Group Winter School, Wellington, New Zealand, 19-20 August 1989

I’m going to talk this morning about the Russian Revolution of 1917. And in relation to that I’m going to be talking about a bad political practice called "popular frontism"–this is a strategy which sees important social progress for working people coming about through collaboration with the capitalist class and the signing of nonaggression pacts with them. It was an utterly indispensable precondition of the working-class seizure of power in October 1917 that, in leading this revolution, the Russian Bolshevik Party successfully countered and discredited the popular-front perspective of the other parties of the left.

Negativity and the Left

The Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) are generally chastised by the rest of the left for being too "negative". We are, apparently, sectarians–we love to sit back and criticise and don’t have a nice word for anybody. By contrast, most of the left have something "positive" they like to cling to and promote to everyone as an example of great politics or a wonderful way of life–usually it’s a country somewhere and its government. I’m sure it all makes them feel better.

The Socialist Unity Party (SUP) of course have got the Soviet Union, which they paint as a socialist paradise, although now they confess that it’s been rather bureaucratic for the last 60 or 70 years since the bureaucrats that run the state there have now come out and said so. The Communist League (CL), formerly the Socialist Action League (SAL), have Cuba–another socialist paradise. And similarly its resident Castroite bureaucrats have recently said it’s had serious bureaucratic deformations for a number of years, although no one ever noticed–well, at least the Communist League never did.

The Maoists have China. The New Zealand Communist Party (CPNZ) has Albania. Pseudo-Trotskyists like the "United Secretariat of the Fourth International" (USec), represented in this country by the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL), have among other things the Polish procapitalist Solidarnosc union. Meanwhile the Workers Communist League (WCL) have just about any vaguely left movement that emerges for them to latch onto.

The PRG on the other hand is always attacked for criticising. The argument usually goes that our criticism is invalid, or, if it is valid, then it’s rather churlish to criticise and not particularly constructive.

And yes, the PRG is quite "negative"–we think it’s an appropriate and level-headed response to the nature of society and the state of left politics in the world today. And this weekend we’re going to talk about the huge stuff-ups that have occurred this century–where militant, mass working-class movements were led to bloody defeat at the hands of popular frontism, that is, of governmental coalitions with the capitalist class. We’ll talk about Allende in Chile in the early 1970s, Sukarno in Indonesia in the 1960s–lots of ordinary people getting shot and tortured. A lot of negative examples where people had the wrong politics, did the wrong thing and chances for world socialist revolution were lost.

But it’s not all negative–there was one time it was done right, when the mistakes were corrected, when the reformists were shown for what they were, when popular frontism was politically defeated by a revolutionary party calling for the working class to stand and fight alone and set up its own state. That was Russia in 1917.

And it’s important to have that–it’s the positive example which shows why and how all the negative examples are in fact negative. We can’t just pick the lessons and laws of class struggle out of our brains–we have to learn them from our history. And we better not forget them or allow them to be distorted with time or with the pressure to bend some of them to get a bit of instant popularity and goodwill. The Russian Revolution was a textbook example of how to defeat the class-collaborationist politics of the reformists and make a revolution. More accurately, it wrote the textbook–it laid out for us the central lessons of Leninism. And that’s why we need to look at it again today.

The Struggle Against "Coalitionism"

It wasn’t actually called "popular frontism" back then–it used to be called "coalitionism": that is, coalitions with the ruling class. The term "popular front", or "people’s front", while it has a clear and specific meaning in our tradition, didn’t in fact originate in the Bolshevik or Trotskyist movements at all–it’s a Stalinist term.

In the mid-1930s the Stalinist Comintern came up with the phrase as a slogan for the building of political coalitions with openly bourgeois parties against fascism. It all kicked off in July 1935 in France with a bloc between the Socialist and Communist parties and the bourgeois Radicals. Now "coalitionism" was definitely a dirty word in the Bolshevik tradition, and other terms for the same idea had arisen on the French left, like "Left bloc" and "cartel", and they’d been similarly discredited. The French Stalinists of course had to pay some lip-service to the Bolshevik tradition and so had to come up with something that at least sounded new.

They chose "Front Populaire". The Trotskyist movement only started using the term "popular front" because in 1935 everyone else on the left started using it, and of course they had to be able to talk to them. So it is important to realise that the term is less a category of revolutionary Marxism than a Stalinist public-relations catchphrase, designed to dress up an old and discredited collaborationist tactic.

Some of you here will know what our organisation’s name means, that "permanent revolution" is the perspective of Trotskyism. And you’ll know that permanent revolution is the antithesis of popular frontism, of class collaboration as a political strategy. And that makes us rather different from all the other groups around on the left.

The SUP and the NZ Manufacturers Federation

Stalinists like the Socialist Unity Party of course are part of an international tendency which has been pushing blocs with the capitalist class just about everywhere for the last 60 or so years. It all started with the Moscow Stalinists directing the Chinese Communists in the 1920s to go into Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang. This tied the hands of the Communists and prevented them from fighting independently for the leadership of the workers and peasants in the Chinese revolution. They were placed under the Kuomintang’s discipline which involved, amongst other things, saying how the republican-democrat Sun Yat-sen was a really great guy.

The fruits of the Comintern’s China policy were not long in coming: in April 1927 in Shanghai, after Chiang had taken the city, the Kuomintang struck against the Communists, lined them up in their thousands and gave them each a bullet to the back of the skull. This was not all that long after Stalin had hailed Chiang as a "great revolutionary", had exchanged portraits with him, and had made him an honorary member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

But the Stalinists didn’t learn a hell of a lot from this–except that it was a great way to sabotage workers’ revolutions which after all is what Stalinism is all about. So after 1927 the list goes on a fair way. The Socialist Unity Party’s current bloc with the New Zealand Manufacturers Federation for a campaign for import controls is an obvious recent example.

Maoism, which is merely Stalinism with a different state flag, has always been about class-collaboration. Before and after the 1949 victory, Mao pushed for a long-term "bloc of four classes", an extended period of "fair", anti-imperialist Chinese capitalism, involving of course the close cooperation of the indigenous medium and small bourgeoisie. But the Maoist programme of radical land reform, around which the peasant army had been built, was incompatible with the continued viability of large components of the Chinese bourgeoisie and so the latter took off to Formosa. So despite the Chinese Communist Party’s best intentions the bloc never came off–they were faced with the options of collectivising the economy or suffering economic collapse.

The Communist League and Two-Stageism

The Communist League of course, duplicating the best traditions of Stalin’s Menshevism, gives energetic and uncritical political support to the African National Congress (ANC) in the South African struggle. And so, with the ANC, they push the idea of getting together with absolutely anybody who’re prepared to say they’re against apartheid–like, for instance, the Anglo-American mining company–not exactly the most likely historic ally of the oppressed black population. According to the CL, this is the right thing to do because socialism isn’t on the agenda in South Africa and so the struggle is a purely bourgeois-democratic one.

But even where the CL grants official sanction for some kind of fight for socialism, as in Nicaragua, they defend for example the Sandinistas calling for the "patriotic" bourgeoisie to get involved in "national unity".

The Workers Communist League ooze class-collaboration, that is, popular frontism, from every pore. It would be hard to know where to start, so I won’t bother, except to note a recent leaflet from a WCL member presenting a strategy which replicates with some precision Mao’s "four-class bloc" and the Comintern’s 1935 proposal for "People’s Fronts".

Then there are the groups calling themselves Trotskyist. The Revolutionary Communist League in Christchurch would say that popular fronts are bad things–but they support Ernest Mandel’s "United Secretariat", the French section of which has persisted for years in giving electoral support to France’s contemporary People’s Front, the "Union of the Left".

Then there’s the Communist Left from Auckland, who are here today, and who are in many respects quite close to the PRG. The Communist Left say that they are opposed to class-collaboration–but they say that when it happens they will participate in it, at the same time saying it’s a bad thing for workers to participate in it. This is something we have to hammer out with them.

So it’s clear that most of the left are quite keen on popular fronts–or at least they have justifications for participating in them even if they say they don’t like them very much. As a leader of the once-revolutionary international Spartacist tendency once said: "There’s nothing more popular than a popular front." And why shouldn’t there be? There’s nothing like it: everyone knuckles down, buries the hatchet, gets on with the job, forgets their differences. Take Europe in the 1930s–fascists are pretty nasty, they’re about violence and oppression in a very immediate sense. The liberal-bourgeoisie are somewhat more indirect about it. They are really quite nice: you can invite them home to dinner; a lot of them are in favour of things like gay rights. They can talk quite pleasantly–they can even talk quite left sometimes, in a liberal, wishy-washy sort of way.

And isn’t there strength in numbers? Isn’t it better to enlist the power of some of the capitalists against the extreme right? Aren’t two classes better than one? So why shouldn’t the working class forget its differences for a while with the "good" capitalists as a way to take on the fascists?

Well, a couple of fairly fundamental things:

First, the capitalist class never forgets its differences with the working class. The popular-front bloc is formed on a lowest-common-denominator programme–which means that the bourgeoisie gives up nothing except a few dispensable excesses while the working class gives up any right to encroach on bourgeois property. And that’s the bottom line of the front–if it’s not, the capitalists will take off.

Second, the history of class politics has shown that the liberal-bourgeoisie has far more in common with the fascists or the landlords or the foreign imperialists, or whoever the "common enemy" is supposed to be, than it does with the working class. And the bourgeoisie don’t have to learn this–they feel it deeply in their bones. The liberal-bourgeoisie and the extreme right have a lot of property in common. They both therefore fear a militant proletariat. In the end the hatchet gets buried right in the skull of the working class.

This is the lesson of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution–it is the lesson of permanent revolution.

Plekhanov and the Birth of Russian Marxism

Marxism came to Russia in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Georgi Plekhanov published the first Marxist pamphlet in 1882 and formed the Marxist Emancipation of Labour Group around the same time. He translated many of Marx’s works and knew Engels personally. He was considered to be the "father" of Russian Marxism, although his politics took a serious nose-dive later on when he supported the Tsarist war-drive in August 1914.

Marxism became one of several left, socialist tendencies in Russia and all these tendencies had some kind of mutual influence on each other, with an interbreeding of Marxism, anarchism, populism and various kinds of terrorism. The dominant strand in Russian anti-Tsarist politics was that of the Narodniks–a broad, populist, peasant-oriented movement which aimed at the construction of socialism on the basis of the peasant commune.

In early 1898 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) had its founding conference and became the Russian component of the Second International which had been formed in 1889. Participants were Plekhanov and other Marxists like Akselrod, Struve and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

But the Russian Social Democrats didn’t remain a single tendency for long. At their second Congress in 1903 they split over an ostensibly minor organisational disagreement about what a member actually had to do to be a member. Out of this came two factions, the Majority (Bolsheviki) and the Minority (Mensheviki). The names correspond to how the numbers shook down at the time and were somewhat accidental in view of the fact that, until September 1917, Menshevism was the more popular tendency in the Russian workers’ movement.

Two or three years later the differences had coalesced into much clearer ones of fundamental political strategy. They concerned opposed perspectives as to how the Russian proletariat should relate to other classes in the struggle to overthrow the Tsarist regime. In essence, although no one called them this at the time, they were the opposed strategies of "popular frontism" and "permanent revolution".

Classical Marxism on the Democratic Revolution

Proponents of class-collaboration like the Mensheviks have always been able to milk a certain credibility out of orthodox, classical Marxism in order to push the idea that in many places and points in the twentieth century the way ahead for the proletariat lies in getting in behind the capitalist class and pressuring it to play the kind of forceful, independent, dynamic and progressive role history has supposedly set it up to play.

Well, certainly the international bourgeoisie had done this kind of thing historically, although never in quite the way with which it is often credited. The great European bourgeois-democratic revolutions that marked the abolition of the old feudal regimes were generally made on the backs of peasants and urban petty-artisans.

But certainly in that period of the rise of western European capitalism of the seventeenth, eighteenth and to a lesser extent, nineteenth centuries, the bourgeoisies of Britain, France, the Netherlands et alia, were the new class. They were dynamic, relatively cohesive, out to radically transform the world and stamp it with their mark.

The rise of capitalism meant of course the facilitating of a new variant of exploitation. But it was also a real liberation from the old world, from the "idiocy of rural life". It meant the age of "reason", of Voltaire and the Enlightenment. It meant an assault on medieval religion and mysticism and on open human enslavement. It meant huge advances in technology and the productivity of labour after centuries of feudal stagnation.

Towards the end of this period, in 1859, in the preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, Marx outlined a history of different "modes of production", of the rise of class society out of early primitive communalism and the ensuing series of different kinds of class societies. In particular he discussed the rise of the last kind of class system, the capitalist system, and how this system laid the basis for one last great social convulsion which would lead to socialism, to an integrated, rational, classless society.

The Mensheviks took this not as a description of the history of the social systems in the most advanced territories on the globe–instead they saw it as most importantly a predictive model, a statement of what inevitably must happen in every society in every country on the globe.

They looked at Russian society and saw that the bourgeois revolution proper had clearly never come to Russia–it was a vast and phenomenally backward country structured around the absolutist rule of the medieval Romanov dynasty. There was a huge, horribly oppressed peasant population on whose backs trod the landowning nobility. The Tsarist regime was viciously despotic, openly undemocratic and it couldn’t tolerate even the lukewarm dissent from the fairly conservative sections of the populace.

So far it sounds pretty much like France in the 1780s. And that’s what the Mensheviks said. There’s obviously a social upheaval brewing here–everyone could see that. And according to the Mensheviks it was clearly going to be a bourgeois-democratic revolution where what happens is we kick out the monarchy, we set up a popular republic based on free and equal suffrage and a democratic parliamentary assembly, we topple the old landowners and their privileges, the peasants carve up their land amongst them, and capitalism modernises the country and brings us into the twentieth century.

So they said that every Marxist knows that you have feudalism, then capitalism and then socialism–Marx says so, the dialectic says so. So it obviously has to be a bourgeois revolution. And who leads a bourgeois revolution? The bourgeoisie, of course. So the political strategy of the Mensheviks was for the working class to push the capitalists along as a left ally and trim all the edges, to be the left conscience of a bourgeois order. Class-collaboration. Popular frontism.

Russia in the Imperialist Epoch

Now Russia was very similar to France before its great revolution. But it was also very different–and that the Mensheviks didn’t see. Their problems stemmed from the fact that they tried to understand Russia as a single country–they didn’t see that the Russian question was set against an international system fundamentally different from that of the eighteenth century, which in turn had partially transformed the Russian social structure.

By the start of this century international capitalism had been chugging along for quite some time–and it had become more international. The period of the rise of European capitalism beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been about the consolidation of nation-state boundaries under the leadership of each national bourgeoisie; the period of imperialism beginning in the late nineteenth century, described by Lenin as the epoch of capitalist decay, is about the disintegration of these boundaries–they begin to mean less and less in real economic life, as the most powerful national capitalist classes began to look abroad for new markets, new materials and new labour.

So imperialism and a lot of European capital had by this time found its way to Russia. But instead of revolutionising its colonies and remaking them in its own image, imperialism instead generally just tapped into the old peasant-based, semi-feudal systems and attempted to find a mutually acceptable arrangement with the existing regimes. In Russia this created an integrated bloc of ruling layers where foreign capital, the monarchy, the old landowning nobility and the national bourgeoisie all had a vested interest in the existing social order. They were woven together through the banking system, through a variety of close social ties and in general through their common hostility towards any revolutionary stirrings in the working class and the peasantry.

Bolsheviks Oppose Reliance on Russian Capitalists

Now the Bolsheviks saw that the Menshevik project for the bourgeois-led revolution was not really on–the bourgeoisie were not going to lead the workers in a revolution against the Tsar when the Tsar’s police forces had been happily smashing working-class strikes for them for a number of years. And the bourgeoisie were hardly going to lead a nationalist-republican drive against the foreign banks that propped up their position within Russia. So what social force then could lead the coming revolution?

Imperialism had produced a craven and gutless Russian bourgeoisie–but it had also created a powerful and militant urban working class. In 1789 in France the "working class" essentially amounted to artisans from small workshops–in Russia in the early years of this century the proletariat was massed in large factories, sometimes tens of thousands in a single plant. They’d been concentrated by capitalism, they’d been moulded by the experience of the failed 1905 revolution which saw the emergence of workers’ councils, of "soviets". They had experienced the mass strike and the flexing of their collective social muscle. There were only two or three million of them in a vast peasant country, but Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw correctly that they were the social force that could lead the fight for a new regime.

So that was clear–Bolshevism meant no truck with the bourgeoisie, no political alliances with the ruling classes. The Mensheviks saw the creation of a parliamentary assembly by the liberal capitalists as being the great social question for Russia–but Lenin saw that it was the 150-odd million seething, starving, land-hungry peasants that were the key. The social question in Russia was in fact the agrarian question–any revolutionary upheaval had to address the question of dividing up the great estates of the old landowners.

It was however unclear to the Bolsheviks whether or not the peasantry would be able to play an independent role, create an independent party and government in opposition to the bourgeoisie and landowners and realise its programme of land reform. So in opposition to the Menshevik strategy the Bolsheviks put forward a slightly open-ended formulation: in 1905 Lenin wrote Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution and advanced the conception of a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry", as representing the regime that the working class should be fighting for. The fight was accordingly to be based around the three slogans: "democratic republic", "confiscation of the landed estates" and "the eight-hour working day", known as the "three whales" of Bolshevism. So it left open the question of the precise role of the peasantry in the struggle and therefore the relations between the two classes in this dictatorship.

Lenin’s "Democratic Dictatorship" Slogan

The Bolsheviks agreed with the Mensheviks that the coming struggle was not one for socialism or the dictatorship of the proletariat–it was to be a democratic dictatorship. But the Russian revolution for the Bolsheviks was to have a world-historic role, for at the time Russia had something of the role of the United States today–it was the great international gendarme. The smashing of the reactionary Tsarist state would trigger revolutions in the Western European countries and so be a spark for world socialist revolution. Lenin was above all a revolutionary internationalist.

The questions that the Bolshevik programme left unanswered in 1905 had been answered around the same time, at least in terms of a hypothesis, by Leon Trotsky. In 1906 in a work called Results and Prospects, Trotsky put forward the perspective of "permanent revolution", a phrase first used by Marx in 1848. Trotsky agreed with Lenin that the Russian capitalists were too pathetic to make a revolution and that if they did so they’d be undoing themselves; he agreed that the agrarian-peasant question was crucial; he agreed on the leading role of the working class; he agreed that the coming Russian revolution could be decisive in being a beacon for revolution in the west.

Trotsky on the Peasantry

But he went further: he said that the peasantry was too fragmented and differentiated to play an independent role. In reality the peasantry aren’t a single class but have a whole lot of layers reflecting all the other classes in society: the rich peasants are close to the capitalists and landowners, the poor are essentially proletarian. "The peasantry always has two faces, one turned towards the proletariat, the other towards the bourgeoisie."

In times of relative political peace, this compromise can be maintained. But when you have a revolution, the petty-bourgeois peasantry has to follow one of the two main social classes of the modern epoch. The peasantry has no programme or property form of its own around which it can build a "peasant" state or society.

So Trotsky said that the proletariat had to lead the revolution and concentrate the state power, the dictatorship, in its own hands. But to do that would mean that, in completing the democratic tasks of the revolution, socialist questions are placed immediately on the agenda. For if the working class is to maintain state power, it cannot defend the property and social power of the bourgeoisie, a class fundamentally in conflict with it. A state based on workers’ soviets is not going to send in its police and army to smash a strike for shorter hours–if it’s the state of the working class it must defend the right of the workers to expropriate and run the factory.

So the revolution has to be made "permanent" in that international revolution flows from the national seizure of power, but also in that socialist tasks flow immediately out of the democratic phase of the revolution.

Lenin Was Right–Trotsky Was Better

Bolshevik and Trotskyist ideas were in a sense in opposition to each other before 1917, and Lenin was in political conflict with Trotsky who opposed the Bolshevik conception of the party as dictatorial and argued for unification with the Mensheviks. It wasn’t until Lenin came back to Russia from Switzerland in April 1917 that the Bolshevik strategy was reoriented around a perspective for workers’ soviet power and thus an implicit acceptance of permanent revolution.

But before 1917 it’s not very useful to say that "Lenin was wrong and Trotsky was right"–we say that on the question of permanent revolution "Lenin was right but Trotsky was better". In a sense, permanent revolution was just an interesting hypothesis put forward by someone who was not even that interested in building a party. By contrast, Lenin was committed to the project of forging a disciplined, independent cadre organisation around a revolutionary programme. While the "democratic dictatorship" slogan was flawed, it placed the Bolsheviks fundamentally in the camp of revolution against the popular frontism of the Mensheviks.

So that’s what everyone was saying before 1917. So what did 1917 say?

In Russia the smell of revolution had been around since 1905 when mass strikes and uprisings had been brutally suppressed by the Tsar. In 1905 the soviet had first appeared as a form of organisation and it remained as a powerful and reverberating tradition in the political culture of the proletariat. By February 1917 the Tsarist regime was rotten–the people had had two and a half years of a stagnant but viciously destructive war, and there was no bread. The cries were for: Bread, Peace and Land!

There being a war on, there was also a vast army of conscripted peasants. Everyone had relatives or knew people at the front or in a garrison somewhere. So as opposed to a specialist regular army which is experienced by the bulk of the populace as being distinctly removed from them, it was far more just a large section of the oppressed population in uniform.

International Women’s Day in Petrograd

The Russian Revolution began on 23 February 1917, according to the old Russian Calendar: International Women’s Day. There were no strikes planned by any of the left organisations; but the bread-lines had been getting longer and the women textile workers in the Vyborg district in Petrograd went on strike anyway. They sent delegates to the metal-works factories and by the end of the day 90,000 men and women were out on strike. The workers’ parties, including the Bolsheviks, essentially assented to all this after the fact.

That started five days of general strikes and street demonstrations in Petrograd. The crucial question was what was the army going to do. The strikers, the police and the city army garrison jostled against each other, sizing each other up. Trotsky wrote that the "fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition in the army." On the 26th one company from the Pavlosky regiment mutinied–on the 27th all three garrison regiments mutinied and refused to march out against the demonstrators. On the same day a Petrograd Workers’ Soviet was set up–two days later the soldiers followed suit. On March 2nd the Tsar abdicated and the February Revolution was an accomplished fact.

So far I’ve talked in abstract about the considerable gap between the Menshevik perception of the Russian bourgeoisie and the latter’s actual character. I want to be a bit more concrete and look specifically at the role of the capitalist parties in the February events.

The Tsar had allowed several rather manacled and ineffectual parliaments in recent years. When things started to unwind in Petrograd the political representatives of the capitalist class were sitting in the current assembly, the State "Duma". Now the 1905 revolution had dampened down the liberal-bourgeoisie’s anti-Tsarist, republican sentiments quite a bit. The sight of thousands of militant workers out on the streets had been a bit of a worry–and now in 1917, with mass demonstrations and gunfire out on the streets again, they sat in the Tauride Palace quaking in their boots wondering what was going to happen to them.

On the 27th the Tsar, by now getting very jumpy, decided to dissolve the Duma–the Duma then published that they’d passed a staunch resolution refusing to submit to the Tsar’s decree. Now this was total fabrication: the President of the Duma, Rodzianko, recorded that no such resolution had been passed–he was proud that they’d submitted to the Tsar and to the rule of law. Things were getting pretty sparse at the Tauride Palace anyway since most of the leaders knew about the Tsar’s decree and were away keeping their heads down.

Later that afternoon the word came that the workers and soldiers were coming to the Duma building. After that day the liberals would write how the soldiers were coming to swear loyalty to them, the "leaders" of the revolution–at the time the liberals were skipping out the back door because they thought with good reason that they were most likely to get shot. As the soldiers entered the palace, the President of the Duma quickly suggested that a Provisional Committee should be elected, but since everyone was rapidly disappearing there wasn’t much time for voting–so Rodzianko said that the Duma’s Council of Elders should handle it. "Aye!" came the cry from the small handful left in the hall.

The bourgeoisie knew that with the maintenance of the Tsar’s government they had a guaranteed share in the state power–the state was a bourgeois state in that it firmly and consistently defended their property against the working class. If that state was toppled it was very doubtful whether something as good would be put in its place. And the bourgeoisie didn’t need to be psychic to realise that a lot of those workers out on the streets were not convinced that this was just an anti-feudal revolution going on. So these stout revolutionaries thought they’d wait and find out how the winds were blowing before they did anything.

So historical irony was floating around in fairly copious amounts that day. But it gets worse.

The workers and soldiers had formed themselves into soviets. The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, the traditionally dominant parties of the worker and peasant left, gained ascendancy in the new soviets; while the Bolshevik workers had been to the fore in the street battles, the call of the Petrograd Soviet for the election of deputies had resulted in an influx of the Russian left-intelligentsia, in which the moderate socialist parties were more than amply represented.

Social Revolutionaries: Solemn Designation of Confusion

The Social Revolutionary party had been formed as a fusion of Narodnik groups. It was the party of the peasantry, of the countryside. But it also prevailed in the cities and was more popular than the Mensheviks. This was partly because the soldiers were in reality just peasants in uniform–and partly because, as Trotsky wrote, the SRs, with their vague programme, "came forward as a solemn designation for everything in the February revolution that was immature, unformulated and confused." And those were pretty confused times.

By the beginning of March it was clear to everyone that the soviets held real state power in their hands. All the workers at the telegraph offices, the railroad stations, the printing presses, the banks would only take orders from the soviet. And of course, the most crucial thing: they had the guns. The soldiers had rebelled and were ignoring their officers, maybe shooting them or arresting them if they felt like it.

Mensheviks: Tsar Must Be Replaced by "Bourgeois Power"

Unfortunately, despite the bourgeoisie having absolutely no mass support anywhere, the Menshevik and SR leaders ran frantically to the State Duma to try to get the capitalists to take the power. The Duma recoiled in horror–they just wanted to keep out of trouble. Sukhanov, one of the Soviet leaders doing the grovelling, later wrote that the Soviet "was in a perfect position either to give the power to the bourgeois government, or not give it." But he then added: "The power destined to replace Tsarism must be only a bourgeois power .... Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse."

The Mensheviks couldn’t quite see the contradiction in that. The fact was that the uprising had already succeeded and they had already seized the power, but now they wanted to give it back again on the basis of an idea of how history is "supposed" to work.

The Soviet executive started negotiations with the capitalists at the Tauride Palace. Now the bourgeoisie were cowardly but they were starting to find that they didn’t have as much to be cowardly about as they had thought–the Soviet leaders seemed bent on doing the job of sabotaging the revolution for them. The Soviet executive presented its demands. Or rather its demand–it didn’t have many. It said nothing about the war, the republic, land reform or bread–it just wanted freedom of agitation. This was at a point when it had the power to decide who in Russia would or would not have freedom to agitate.

But it gets worse still. The moderate socialists wanted to give the power to the bourgeoisie–but the bourgeoisie wanted to try to give it back to the Tsar. They wanted a monarch at all costs and said so, for they saw it as their main chance to try and tie back together and re-establish the rapidly crumbling ancien régime. Now the socialists were a bit worried–they didn’t fancy their chances of getting the rank-and-file to accept another Tsar.

Guchkov, one of the leaders of the Octobrists, the big industrial and landowning capitalist party, went out to see the Tsar at the town of Pskov. He travelled back and declared at the railway works that the Tsar had abdicated in favour of his brother–he finished with a rousing "Long live the Emperor Mikhail!". The railway workers immediately jumped on him, arrested him and he was almost executed. So the Duma started to shy away from the monarchy idea.

But Guchkov stood firm. And so did Pavel Miliukov, who was the head of the liberal-bourgeois Constitutional Democrat Party, known as the "Kadets". Now the moderate socialists desperately wanted Miliukov in the new government, so it was eventually agreed to let Mikhail, Nicolas II’s younger brother, decide whether or not he wanted to be Tsar. They went to talk to him. Miliukov even offered to try to organise an army and a coup for him if he agreed. But the Grand Duke was into horse-racing and not very keen on politics and so didn’t want to be Tsar and so that was settled.

Finally the Duma Provisional Committee suspiciously agreed to form a government without a Tsar. At the head of it was Rodzianko, the Duma President. Thus it came about that this shattering, world-historic revolution of workers and peasants had as its official leader a great Russian landowner, an ex-Lord Chamberlain of the Tsar, someone who introduced himself as the "biggest and fattest man in Russia", and someone who at this time kept looking round every few minutes to see if he was going to be arrested.

The Period of "Dual Power"

So began the period of "dual power". Someone wrote at the time: "The old government is in prison, and the new one under house arrest." The capitalist politicians and the soviet leaders were all hoping that the situation would be resolved by the soviets just disappearing and the Provisional Government taking sole control. The bourgeoisie objected to the soviets as "private" institutions with no state legitimacy. But legitimacy doesn’t come from a constitution, it comes from mass recognition of the right to exist, and the soviets had that. They weren’t going to just disappear–the oppressed classes were organised and had guns in their hands.

The bourgeois government directed its efforts towards the maintenance of order: it continued to prosecute the imperialist war in order to, it said, "defend the revolution"; with a similar logic, it called for the workers to abandon strikes and demands for an eight-hour day and to get back into the factories. Meanwhile the land question would be dealt with ... sometime. Thus the government’s line was that all the old evils which the revolution had supposedly been against now had to be cheerfully shouldered in defence of that same revolution. This probably mystified some of the more unsophisticated workers and soldiers who thought naively that things are supposed to change after you have a revolution.

The month of April was a key time for the revolution. I’ve talked about the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries and their betrayals. But the actual pronouncements of the Bolshevik leaders were often not too wonderful either–although in the street action the Bolshevik rank-and-file had been at the head of the revolution, as the party had been tempered for more than a decade as the militant, uncompromising, revolutionary opposition to the moderate socialists.

Stalin’s Menshevism

But in February and March, Lenin and the central party leaders were still abroad, and events found the Bolshevik second-rank leadership disorientated and waffling. Central Committee members Stalin and Kamenev arrived back from exile and were even worse. They naturally took over the editorship of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, and began a string of prevaricating articles offering to politically support the Provisional Government, to support the war effort and, on the basis of this, to consider joining up with the Mensheviks again. Well, they were certainly talking and acting like Mensheviks.

In April, having done a deal with the German government for unobstructed passage, Lenin arrived back from Switzerland, leapt off the train and said, in effect: "What is this crap I’m hearing?" He threatened to split with any Bolshevik who would support the government or the war or unite with the Mensheviks. He said the Bolsheviks had to call for the soviets to take all the power in their hands–"Down with the Imperialist Miliukov-Guchkov Government!". The message was clear: socialist revolution was on the agenda.

The effect in the party was profound consternation–this line was in stark conflict with what anyone else was saying at the time, and seemed in direct conflict with the familiar "democratic dictatorship" line which the Bolsheviks had been pushing for the last 12 years. People like Kamenev thought Lenin had gone off his head. Yet Lenin’s new argument corresponded to the developing mood of the Bolshevik rank-and-file and of their worker and soldier support. It seemed a radically new theory but it offered a direction out–all the old theories and the current capitulation of the soviet leaders seemed to be leading the workers and peasants straight back into the jaws of the old order.

"... We Must Not Be Afraid to Remain in the Minority ..."

In a short time Lenin had brought the party around. But at that point the Bolsheviks were only a small minority in the soviets; in the meantime they must not be afraid to be a minority but must "patiently explain" to the masses. There was now a revolutionary pole in the soviets–the real war was on.

Terrified of taking the power, the soviet leaders had thrust it onto the Kadets. Yet by the end of April, following some virulent demonstrations in the capital against the Provisional Government, it was clear that the latter enjoyed support from virtually no one. Faced with this the Kadets at the beginning of May called on the socialists to enter the government and form a cabinet with them. The soviet leaders agreed. Then began a succession through 1917 of different coalition cabinets of Kadets, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries headed by the SR, Alexander Kerensky.

This is the popular front in classic form–the pattern has continued throughout this century, in Spain and France in the 1930s, in Chile in the 1970s, and so on. When working-class militancy reaches a level such that no openly bourgeois government can contain it and there is a clear threat to the existing order, the parties of the bourgeoisie call on the reformist leaders of the working class to enter into the bourgeois government to take their share of responsibility for holding back their followers, of strangling any movement for revolutionary change.

The reformists say to the working class: Look, the bourgeoisie are crucial to this struggle–we just can’t do without them in the fight against the fascists (or the monarchists, or the military, or the landowners, or whoever the greater evil is supposed to be). But of course if we are going to make an alliance with the capitalists we can’t expect them to have our socialist programme–so we’ll have to accept their programme of respect for bourgeois property, of keeping "order".

But as we’ve seen, the Russian bourgeoisie were something a lot less than crucial to the struggle against the Tsar, the nobility and the feudal regime. On the contrary, they wanted to patch things up with them and restore the old order.

In June the Bolsheviks came out leading demonstrations against Kerensky’s recent war offensive. They carried banners with the slogans: "Down with the Offensive!" and "All Power to the Soviets!". But the most important slogan they raised at that point was: "Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!". Not "Down with the Kerensky Government!"–but "Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!"

It was a call to split the coalition government along class lines. The Bolsheviks called on the reformist socialists to break with the capitalists and form a government of their own. The Bolsheviks refused absolutely to enter the coalition government–but they said they would enter a government if the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries took the power in their own name–they would give them revolutionary aid. So against class-collaboration, against Kerensky’s popular front, the Bolsheviks counterposed the idea of the working-class united front–they said: "If you stand alone, we’ll support you."

Drawing the Class Line

The difference between the "united front" and the "popular front" in the Leninist understanding is central to all this. Unless this is clear you can’t understand the way in which the Bolsheviks related to the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries–you can’t understand the tactics and slogans they used in defeating reformism in 1917.

On the one hand the reformist parties were just like the capitalist parties, like the Kadets and the Octobrists. None of these organisations had a revolutionary socialist programme, their ideas were essentially all about continuing the existing order, the rule of the bourgeoisie. So despite obvious differences in rhetoric, at one level they were all bourgeois parties.

But the reformist parties were also very different: the Mensheviks called themselves "Marxists", the SRs called themselves "socialists"–and they got their support from calling themselves those things. They were based organisationally on the support of the workers and peasants, the oppressed toiling classes, who saw them as fighting for their interests against social layers alien and in opposition to them, the owners of the factories and the great estates. And so representatives of these parties sat in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets–the Kadets weren’t in the soviets because the soviets by definition were independent worker organisations.

Because of this the reformists were in an obvious sense workers’ parties–they stood in some deformed and partial ways for working-class independence. And that was something that the Bolsheviks as revolutionaries had in common with them. That’s why the Bolsheviks were in the soviets with them–the soviets were really just broad, working-class united fronts from which the ruling classes were by the very nature of the soviets excluded.

The Contradictions within Reformism

So Leninism describes these reformist parties as "bourgeois-workers’ parties"–they are things of contradiction, in that their generally rotten, bourgeois programme contains one vital, progressive, anti-bourgeois element: the stand for working-class independence. Or, put another way, they contain a contradiction between their fundamentally bourgeois programme and their proletarian organisational base.

So, supporting one side of the contradiction, the positive working-class aspect, revolutionaries will often work with reformists in united fronts for limited reforms, for wage rises and so on. Or something else, which is just a variant of the united front, they might call for a critical electoral vote for a reformist party if it does say it stands up for workers as a class; or revolutionaries might join it and help build it, as the Permanent Revolution Group has done with the New Labour Party.

But if the New Labour Party went into a bloc with the National Party, an openly bourgeois party, like the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries did with the Kadets in May 1917, then we would split from it. We’d say that workers shouldn’t give this party or the bloc it’s in one iota of support, because it’s renounced its stand for working-class independence and said instead: "We have something fundamentally in common with the capitalists". It’s not part of a united front of workers’ parties, it’s joined a "popular", cross-class front.

The Bolsheviks and Kerensky

That’s what the Bolsheviks were on about with Kerensky’s government in 1917. They refused to participate in the coalition government as the other socialist parties were doing. But they didn’t say "Down with the Twenty Capitalist and Socialist Ministers!" or however many there were–they pointed a way out to the reformists. They said to them: "You’re a bunch of sell-outs and traitors. But if you threw out the ten capitalist ministers and stood alone, then you wouldn’t be and we’d tell people to support your government." Dumping the bourgeois ministers would resolve the dual power situation in that the soviets, the workers and peasants, would possess both sides of the fractured state power–it would be "All Power to the Soviets!", the Bolshevik programme.

But it wasn’t the reformists’ programme. The socialists refused to stand alone. By September it was clear that their propping up of the capitalist government meant essentially the maintenance of the old pre-February regime: there was no land, no peace and no bread.

In the late 1930s Trotsky wrote: "The obstinate unwillingness of the Mensheviks and SRs to take power ... definitely doomed them before mass opinion and prepared the victory of the Bolsheviks."

The Kornilov Affair

The necessity of a revolutionary pole resolutely opposed to the popular front and to participation in it was further illustrated in August 1917. In July Kerensky had installed General Kornilov, a right-wing militarist, as Commander-in-Chief of the army and was looking to use him as a cudgel against the Bolsheviks. But Kornilov became a rallying point for the right and laid plans to strike not only against the revolutionary left but also for a coup to oust Kerensky and disperse the soviets. When Kornilov began to ignore Kerensky’s orders, Kerensky ran screaming to the Bolsheviks for help.

The Bolsheviks said: "Yeah, we’ll help you. We’ll join forces militarily with you but we’ll keep saying as we’ve said all along that your government is a load of shit. And we’ll point out that it was your coalition government that led to this coup. And after we’ve got Kornilov, we’ll get you".

Kornilov’s coup was sabotaged by workers at key points and his troops deserted him. He was defeated because the Bolsheviks had gathered the most militant layers of the working class around a revolutionary, anti-Kerensky programme who saw the fight against Kornilov as being about the defence of soviet power and not about the defence of Kerensky’s bourgeois government.

Only a few days after the Kornilov affair, the Bolsheviks found that their resolutions were being carried in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. With a majority of working-class support, the call for "All Power to the Soviets!" was no longer just a Bolshevik slogan–it now signified a direct plan for insurrection.

Soviet Workers’ State Established

By the end of October, Kerensky was running for the border and his ministers were all in jail. Organised by the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Trotsky, the working-class had seized power. The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies convened on the evening of October 25. Lenin, shortly to be elected head of the new Council of People’s Commissars, announced: "We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order." There was no more dual power–now there was workers’ power.

So that was the Russian Revolution–it had borne out Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution that only the working class taking state power with the support of the peasantry could actually achieve the tasks of the classical bourgeois-democratic revolutions in a backward country such as Russia.

It had shown that the peasantry as a class could play no independent role: the Social Revolutionaries, the peasant party, were incapable of charting their own course and seizing the land because they would not break with the bourgeoisie–on the contrary it was only the Bolsheviks taking the power in October that allowed the SR programme of land reform to be implemented.

And most importantly the Russian Revolution had shown that the capitalist class was politically bankrupt and that there was nothing to be gained by trying to do deals with them.

Marxist Leadership a Prerequisite for Revolutionary Victory

All this is about the key questions of programme and consciousness, about political ideas being important. It’s not just about popular fronts being terrible–but the even more fundamental point that it’s very important whether or not popular fronts are terrible, that we should worry about it.

The Permanent Revolution Group doesn’t think that socialism is inevitable–nothing is inevitable. But we do think that the human race has at least a decent shot at it. And whether it happens or not will of course depend on the broad, impersonal sweep of history, on objective movements and conditions. But just as importantly it will depend on fragments of time when history stands suspended, when the fate of ordinary working people hangs in the balance.

Like when Lenin was haggling away with the Bolshevik Central Committee in April over whether or not to support the Provisional Government. He might not have won them over and the party would then have followed the centre-right grouping of Kamenev and Stalin–or Lenin might just have given up and bent to the pressure: "OK, let’s enter the government–we’ll remain isolated if we don’t". But he didn’t bend–and that changed the world.

Moments like that await us in the future, moments when the future hangs on the decisions of revolutionaries–even of a small revolutionary minority, as were the Bolsheviks in April 1917. For our part, we better understand the past, the successes and the failures, and understand why they happened. Because the future may depend on what we decide–and so we better choose right.

Posted: 24 June 2005