Stages of Revolution in the International Working Class Movement

Dipankar Basu, Sanhati

Abstract: This article attempts to throw some light on the following two questions: (1) How does the classical Marxist tradition conceptualize the relationship between the two stages of revolution: democratic and the socialist? (2) Does the democratic revolution lead to deepening and widening capitalism? Is capitalism necessary to develop the productive capacity of a society? The answer to the first question emerges from the idea of the “revolution of permanence” proposed by Marx in 1850, accepted, extended and enriched by Lenin as “uninterrupted revolution” and simultaneously developed by Trotsky as “permanent revolution”. This theoretical development was brilliantly put into practice by Lenin between the February and October revolutions in Russia in 1917. The answer to the second question emerges clearly from the debates on the national and colonial question in the Second Congress of the Third International in 1920. From this debate what emerges is the idea of the democratic revolution led by the proletariat as the start of the process of non-capitalist path of the development of the productive capacity of society, moving towards the future socialist revolution. Rather than deepening and widening capitalism, the democratic revolution under the proletariat leads society in the opposite direction, in a socialist, i.e., proletarian direction. Promoting capitalism is not necessary for the development of the productive capacity of a country.

This brief historical note has been occasioned by recent attempts to justify the championing of capitalism by a communist party – Communist Party of India (Marxist) – as the vehicle for its industrialization program in West Bengal, India. The justification, which argues for the necessity of capitalism by taking recourse to the distinction between the two stages of revolution, rests on an erroneous reading of international working class theory and practice. While it correctly posits the distinction between the two stages of social revolution, it does so mechanically, formally, and in a one-sided manner; the crucial and related question of the relationship between the two stages is not accorded the attention it deserves. That, in my opinion, is the primary source of error and leads to arguing for the necessity of “deepening and widening” capitalism as against initiating efforts to transcend it. Such a reformist position is of course not new within the international working class movement; in fact it is strikingly similar in several crucial respects to the Menshevik position in early twentieth century Russia as also to the stance of “social democracy” that developed from Bernstenian “revisionism” in late nineteenth century Germany. This position, moreover, is decidedly not part of the Leninist tradition – the Bolshevik tradition that developed in Russia – or any revolutionary tradition within Marxism; this should be immediately obvious from the enormous theoretical and political effort that Lenin put in combating its deleterious consequences for the historical project of the Russian proletariat.

The issue of the analytical distinction between the two stages of the world-historical revolution has been accepted within the international working class movement, at least of the Marxist variety, for about 150 years. With the publication of the Communist Manifesto, this issue was more or less settled among communists. In pre-revolutionary Russia, this distinction was accepted by all streams of Marxists: the Legal Marxists, the Economists and the Social-Democrats. This distinction was never the bone of contention in the fiery debates in pre-revolutionary Russia between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Neither was this distinction a major point of departure in pre-revolutionary China; nor is this distinction the point of debate within the Marxist left in India. Hence, merely positing this distinction anew, a century after it was accepted by the international working class movement, is hardly sufficient for the development of a Marxist theoretical position. Attention needs to be instead focused, in my opinion, on the more important issue of correctly conceptualizing the relationship between the two stages.

It is not merely a recognition of the distinction but the conceptualization of the relationship between the two that distinguishes the various streams of the Left; that is as much true today as it has been historically. I will demonstrate, by a careful reading of the historical development of Marxist theory and practice, that it is the conceptualization of this relationship that has distinguished the revolutionary from the reformist Marxist stream at crucial historical junctures: Marx and Engels from the other socialists during the middle of the 19th century; the Legal Marxists and the Economists from the early Social-Democrats (including the young Lenin) during the last decade of the 19th century in pre-revolutionary Russia; the Mensheviks from the Bolsheviks in later years leading up to and after the October revolution; Lenin (and Trotsky) from the other Bolsheviks between the February and October revolutions.

Before beginning the main story, two clarifications are in order. First, I would like to state more precisely the sense in which the word “revolution” is used, and second, I would like to indicate the two very different senses in which the phrase “social democrat” will be used throughout this paper. Revolution, in this paper, stands for social revolution, a phenomenon which has been defined by Theda Skocpol’s in the following way:

“Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below… What is unique to social revolution is that basic changes in social structure and in political structure occur together in a mutually reinforcing fashion. And these changes occur through intense socio-political conflicts in which class struggles play a key role.” (Skocpol, 1979)

As Foran (2005) has argued, there are three important characteristics of a social revolution (embedded in the above definition) that needs to be always kept in mind: rapid political change, deep and lasting structural transformation of the economy and active mass participation; whenever I refer to revolution, I will mean the explosive combination of these three elements.

The second point is a terminological clarification regarding the two diametrically opposed use of the phrase “social democrat” in this paper. Social-democrat, with the all important hyphen, will refer to the Marxist revolutionaries in Russia; that is precisely how they referred to themselves and I want to stick to that terminology as well. The hyphen between “social” and “democrat” denotes the indissoluble link between the dual historical tasks of the international proletariat, a theme we will return to constantly throughout this paper. Recall that the first Marxist political party in Russia was called the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP); though Lenin’s April Theses in 1917 had ended with the proposal to change the name of the RSDWP, it was only in 1918 that the party formally started using the term that Marx had preferred: communist.

Social democrat, without the hyphen, on the other hand will refer to representatives of the reformist trend in the international working class movement: Bernstein and his followers, the later Kautsky, the later Plekhanov and the Mensheviks in Russia certainly but also later day reformist socialists in Europe and Asia. Note, in passing, that social democracy has a long history, especially in Western Europe, and is marked by certain unmistakable characteristics which we can easily discern in our midst even today: legal opposition within a bourgeois parliamentary framework, willingness to ally with sundry bourgeois parties, undue and an over emphasis on the need for reforms within the system, indefinite postponement of decisive struggles, the attempt to “manage” the contradiction between labour and capital rather than to resolve it in the favour of labour, etc. The reformist and the revolutionary streams also differ markedly in their understanding of social revolution: for the reformists, revolution will emerge ready made from the womb of history by its ineluctable laws; the role of human intervention, though formally accepted, is relegated to a secondary position. For revolutionaries like Lenin and the Bolsheviks and Trotsky, on the other hand, revolution has to be first and foremost made by human intervention, mass political action riding on the tide of history.

Marx: From the Manifesto to the Communist League

In the Communist Manifesto published on the eve of a revolutionary wave in Europe in 1848, Marx and Engels had summarized the materialist understanding of historical development. The struggle between social classes was identified as the motor force of historical change, with the victorious class rapidly reorganizing the whole structure of material production accompanied by changes in the political, cultural and ideological spheres of social life. Generalizing from English and French history, Marx and Engels identified two stages in this world-historical movement: the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the proletarian-socialist revolution. The bourgeois revolution, led by the revolutionary bourgeoisie, in alliance with the oppressed peasantry, would overthrow the feudal order and usher in bourgeois capitalism. The development of capitalism would go hand in and with the growth and development (political, social, ideological and technological) of the proletariat, the grave digger of capitalism; in due time, when the productive forces of society had developed to support a higher form of social organization and when the proletariat had become mature and strong politically, it would usher in the socialist revolution and begin the process of the transcendence of class society.

Quite early on Marx had started realizing the limitations of the strict schema of the two stages of revolution (the bourgeois-democratic to be followed by the proletarian-socialist) that he had generalized from English and French history and that he, along with Engels, had so eloquently summarized in the Communist Manifesto. There are two historical reasons which, to our mind, prompted Marx to question this schema. First, the whole generalization referred to a historical period where the proletariat had not yet entered into political stage; if the proletariat were to enter the historical stage even before the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution that would change the historical dynamics radically. Second, there might be historical reasons because of which the bourgeoisie of a particular country is “weak” and therefore incapable of and unwilling to lead the democratic revolution to completion; and so in this case, the strict schema presented in the Communist Manifesto would again need modification. With the advantage of hindsight we can see that the modifications that would need to be worked out would specifically relate to two issues: the relationship between the two revolutions and the class-leadership in the democratic stage of the revolution.

A close reading shows that even in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had taken care to allow possibilities of different trajectories, than the one they had sketched, in concrete circumstances. For instance, they had explicitly referred to the potential weakness of the German bourgeoisie and therefore hinted at the possibility of the proletariat having to take the responsibility of the democratic revolution. Once the German bourgeoisie had shown it’s true colors in 1848, whereby it regrouped with feudal elements to keep the proletariat in check and thereby aborted the democratic revolution, Marx had started his decisive move away from the schema of the Manifesto. While maintaining the analytical distinction between the two stages, he drew a much closer link between them. This more nuanced position was explicitly brought to the fore in his address to the Central Committee of the Communist League in London in 1850. Drawing lessons from the recent revolutionary upsurge in Europe and looking to the future, he drew attention of the international working class to the essential continuity between the two stages of the revolution, what Lenin would later characterize as the “indissoluble link” between the two revolutions.

“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible … it is our interest and task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state power and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society but the foundation of a new one.” (Marx, 1850)

The two most crucial, and intimately related, ideas that stand out in this speech are the utmost necessity of maintaining the independence of the proletariat vis-a-vis the liberal bourgeoisie and of realizing the continuity of the two revolutions in practice. Arguing for the creation, in all situations and at all costs, of an independent party of the proletariat, Marx had exhorted the proletariat at the same time to aim for the “revolution of permanence”.

“But they [i.e., the proletariat] must do the utmost for their final victory by clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an independent party as soon as possible, and by not allowing themselves to be seduced for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeois into refraining from the independent organization of the party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution of Permanence.” (Marx, 1850)

This remarkable document, in essence, foreshadows much of what emerged as Bolshevism in late nineteenth century Russia. The tight and indissoluble link between the twin tasks of the proletariat (and hence the indissoluble link between the democratic and the socialist revolutions), the utmost importance of maintaining an independent political position of the proletariat, the utter necessity of avoiding tailism in practical politics, themes that were hammered out later by the Bolsheviks in the heat of the Russian revolution are already present in Marx’s speech to the Communist League. It is clear that Lenin’s idea of an “uninterrupted revolution”, a position he stressed in his debates with the reformists in Russia, and Trotsky’s idea of a “permanent revolution” are both derived from this speech of Marx.

Note however that the formulation of the necessity of the “leadership” of the proletariat in the bourgeois-democratic revolution is still not explicitly developed by Marx. Revolutionary social-democrats in Russia, reflecting on and reacting to the specific context of the Russian revolution extended the classical Marxist framework by taking the idea of the class-independence of the proletariat, which is already there in Marx, one step further by arguing for its leadership position in the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

Legal Marxists and Economists: Early Debates in Russia

The origin of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) can be traced back to a relatively little known “conference” of nine men in Minsk in March 1898. Though none of the nine men played any leading role in the subsequent revolutionary history of Russia, the conference did come out with a “manifesto of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party” as a precursor of later-day party programmes. The manifesto unequivocally accepted Marx’s historical account of the two stages of the future social revolution (as worked out by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto): bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolution. More important and interesting from our viewpoint, the Minsk conference manifesto went on to argue that the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying through the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end and thus identified the young Russian proletariat as the historical agent on whose able shoulders fell the “dual task” of both revolutions: the democratic and the socialist.

When, therefore, the second Congress – the defining congress of the Russian revolution, the birthplace of Bolshevism as a political stream – of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDWP) met in 1903 to debate on the party programme, it worked within the framework inaugurated by the conference of 1898. It started with the dual tasks of the Russian proletariat, i.e., the twin tasks of the democratic and the socialist revolution, as an axiom, as a point of departure, as a self-evident historical and political truth; there was no disagreement or debate on this point with the RSDWP. The real debate was on how to define the content of these revolutions and on how to define the relationship between the two; it was the issue of the relationship that was to rend the RSDWP into two factions, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. But before looking at that debate, we must spend some time studying the debates that preceded the second Congress, the debates of the young Lenin with the Legal Marxists and the Economists; a study of the early debates is interesting and useful because many of the positions of the Mensheviks were repetitions of either the Economists’ or the Legal Marxists’ discredited positions, positions against which the whole RSDWP had argued during these early years.

Before the RSDWP could consolidate the political-economic tasks of the proletariat concisely in a party programme, it had to successfully argue against three contemporary socialist trends within late-nineteenth century Russia: the Narodniks, the Legal Marxists and the Economists. The theoretical arguments against the Narodniks were largely, and successfully, carried home by Plekhanov, the Father of Russian Marxism; when Lenin did join the fray, he largely repeated Plekhanov’s arguments and marshaled empirical evidence in favour of the general Marxist point about the development of capitalism in Russia. From this he drew an important political conclusion that separated the Social-Democrats from the Narodniks forever: the proletariat and not the peasantry was to be the historical agent of social revolution in Russia. The development of capitalism in Russian agriculture was, according to Lenin, accelerating the class divisions among the peasantry; the peasantry, as a single, homogeneous social entity was rapidly disappearing and so basing a strategy of social revolution on this vanishing social entity was historic folly. The only stable social class that was emerging and strengthening itself with capitalism and whose interests were in contradiction to capitalism was the proletariat; hence, argued Lenin, the only feasible strategy of revolution could be one led by and in the long-term interests of the proletariat.

As to the other two trends, Legal Marxism and Economism, it was Lenin’s energetic intervention and crystal-clear prose that ripped apart their arguments and exposed their utter hollowness. As Lenin remarked several times later in his life, the debate with the Legal Marxists and the Economists foreshadowed the subsequent, fierce and often bitter, debates between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In both debates, as also his debates with the Narodniks, what distinguished Lenin’s position from his opponents was his consistent, unwavering and uncompromising class viewpoint, the viewpoint of the emerging Russian proletariat.

Lenin’s debate with the Legal Marxists and the Economists (rather than with the Narodniks) is more relevant for our current discussion because this debate related directly to the issue of the correct understanding of the relationship between the dual tasks of the proletariat. The tidy schema of revolution worked out by Marx and Engels in the Communist manifesto was a generalization from English and French history, as we have already remarked. It distinguished analytically between the bourgeois and the socialist revolutions and stressed the historical precedence of the former to the latter. We have already seen how Marx himself modified this schema in the concrete context of nineteenth century Germany; the Legal Marxists, on the other hand, stuck to this schema in a most doctrinaire fashion (foreshadowing the whole history of social democracy and reformism) and with disastrous consequences.

Accepting the Marxist distinction between the two revolutions and the historical precedence of one over the other led the Legal Marxists to argue for the reformist path to the transcendence of capitalism. One of it’s leading proponents, Peter Struve, chastised Russian socialists for concerning themselves with fanciful and unrealizable projects of “heaven storming”; he, instead, wanted them to patiently “learn in the school of capitalism”. The echo of that Legal Marxist injunction can still be heard, via Bernstein’s “revisionism” in late-nineteenth Germany, in social democratic circles in India today! This was, of course, an abandonment of the proletarian viewpoint, as Lenin pointed out. The mistake of the Legal Marxists lay precisely in an incorrect understanding of the relationship between the dual tasks of the proletariat. The democratic revolution was not an end in itself, as the Legal Marxists tended to implicitly suggest, but was inseparably tied with it’s twin, the socialist revolution. It is not that the Legal Marxists did not accept the necessity of the socialist revolution; being Marxists, they had to accept it as later-day social democrats did. But this acceptance came with the caveat that the period separating the two revolutions was so large that in essence one could very well forget about the socialist revolution at the moment and instead engage in activities to “learn in the school of capitalism”.

Though the Economists took a different lesson from the neat schema of the Communist Manifesto as compared to the Legal Marxists, they arrived at the same practical conclusions. For the Economists, it was important to draw a sharp distinction between the economic and the political spheres. In their opinion, workers were only concerned with economic issues, issues of wage and work, that directly effected their daily lives; they were not concerned with political issues, issues of political freedom and governance and power. The political sphere, according to the Economists, was the sole preserve of intellectuals; since, moreover, the current conditions called for a bourgeois-democratic revolution, socialist struggles, i.e., struggles for the capture of state power by the proletariat, were pushed into the indefinite future. Juxtaposing a sharp distinction between the economic and the political with their reading of the schema of the Communist Manifesto led the Economists to suggest that socialists should restrict themselves “to support[ing] the economic struggle of the proletariat and to participat[ing] in liberal opposition activity”. What was ruled out was an independent political party of the working class, which axiomatically ruled out revolutionary political activity.

In an early piece on this issue in 1898, Lenin made clear the correct Marxist understanding of the matter and distinguished the social-democrats sharply from the Legal Marxists and the Economists:

“The object of the practical activities of the Social-Democrats is, as is well known, to lead the class struggle of the proletariat and to organize that struggle in both its manifestations: socialist (the fight against the capitalist class aimed at destroying the class system and organizing socialist society), and democratic (the fight against absolutism aimed at winning political liberty in Russia and democratizing the political and social system of Russia). We said as is well known. And indeed, from the very moment they appeared as a separate social-revolutionary trend, the Russian Social-Democrats have always quite definitely indicated this object of their activities, have always emphasized the dual manifestation and content of the class struggle of the proletariat and have always insisted on the inseparable connection between their socialist and democratic tasks — a connection clearly expressed in the name they have adopted.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 2, p. 327)

The inseparability of the dual tasks of the proletariat derives, according to Lenin, from the following two facts: first, the proletariat can only emancipate itself fully, and thereby society, through political liberty. Hence, it supports the struggle for political liberty against absolutism and feudal oppression as its own struggle, as the political bed on which will grow the socialist struggle. This is the reason why the class conscious proletariat supports every revolutionary movement against the present social system, why it supports the struggle of progressive classes against reactionary classes and strata in general. Second, among all the classes and strata fighting for democracy, the proletariat is the only thoroughly consistent, unreserved, staunch and resolute supporter of democracy; it is the only class which is ready to take the fight for democracy to its end, to its natural culmination, to its full completion. Every other class, by its very position within the class structure of society, can only provide qualified support to the struggle for democracy; their democracy is half hearted, it always looks back, as Lenin put it. An understanding of the social-democratic party as “deriving its strength from the combination of socialist and democratic struggle into the single, indivisible class struggle of the … proletariat” remained the hallmark of Bolshevism right through the tumultuous days of the victorious October revolution.

It is this insistence on the uninterruptedness of the twin revolutions that found expression in the Bolshevik formulation of the proletariat as the leader of both the revolutions; and it is the recognition of this historical role of the proletariat that informed the refusal of the Bolsheviks to relinquish the leadership role to the bourgeoisie, to become its political “tail”. It is the same dogged insistence, so strikingly consistent, that led to the split with the Mensheviks in 1903.

Two interesting and important things emerge from these early debates. First, some of the ideas that were to dominate the subsequent debates of the Russian revolution, the ideas moreover that would separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks (the revolutionaries from the reformists) and would separate Lenin (and Trotsky) from the rest of the Bolsheviks between the February and the October revolutions, were introduced within the Russian working-class movement at this juncture. It is these ideas, among others, that would be refined, deepened, enriched and applied with uncanny consistency in the subsequent history of the Russian revolution. Second, that an eclectic, half-hearted, formal and mechanical acceptance of Marxism can be combined with utterly reformist politics came to the fore with rare clarity in Russian history for the first time during these early debates. As later events demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate to this day, formal acceptance of Marxism can often be combined with reformist politics.

A closer reading of international working class history demonstrates that acceptance of Marxism alongside reformist practice is already hidden as a possibility in the formulation of the “dual tasks” of the proletariat. It must be recalled the formulation of the “dual tasks” found its way into the programme of the RSDWP in the distinction between the minimum and the maximum programmes. The minimum programme referred to the set of measures that could be implemented within, and without challenging, a bourgeois democratic setup. Following the Communist Manifesto, these included abolition of private property in land, a progressive income tax, abolition of inheritance, free education for all and other such concrete measures of bourgeois reform. The maximum programme, on the other hand, enshrined revolutionary aspirations, the overthrow of capitalism and the beginning of socialist construction. The distinction between the minimum and maximum programmes thus provided space for reformist politics by a gradual and subtle decoupling of the two programmes and shifting the emphasis on the former.

“One of the unforeseen effects of this division [between the minimum and and maximum programmes] was to attract into social-democratic parties a large body of members who by conviction or temperament were more interested in the minimum than in the maximum programme; and in countries where some of the minimum demands had in fact been realized, and others seemed likely to be realized in the future, through the process of bourgeois democracy, the parties tended more and more to relegate the demands of the maximum programme to the category of remote theoretical aims concentrate party activities on the realization of the minimum programme.” (Carr, 1952, p. 17-18, emphasis added).

Lessons of 1905: Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

Though the dispute between what later came to be known as the Bolsheviks (“the majority”) and the Mensheviks (“the minority”) during the second congress of the RSDWP in 1903 seemed to rest on an issue of party statute, i.e., what should be the qualification for party membership, later events made clear that deeper issues of theory and practice were involved. As the bitter debates following the split in the party were to make clear, the schism in the RSDWP really rested on different ways of understanding the relationship between the dual tasks of the proletariat in concrete, practical terms. This followed quite clearly from the diametrically opposite political lessons the two streams drew from the failed revolution of 1905. The difference can be most clearly seen if we organize the discussion around the following two questions: (1) relationship of the two revolutions, and (2) the role of the peasantry.

The Mensheviks adhered to the cut-and-dried formula about the strict sequence of the two revolutions that they picked up in a doctrinaire fashion from the Communist Manifesto. For the Mensheviks, the bourgeois revolution had to come first and so far the Bolsheviks were in agreement with them. The doctrinaire understanding of the Mensheviks, their intellectual sterility, came to the fore when they went on, from this correct premise, to insist that it was “only through the bourgeois revolution that capitalism could receive its full development in Russia, and, until that development occurred, the Russian proletariat could not become strong enough to initiate and carry out the socialist revolution” (Carr, 1950, p.39). In other words, the two revolutions must be separated by an indefinite period of time during which capitalism needs to develop, flourish, and display its bourgeois magic.

In effect, therefore, the Mensheviks never fully agreed with Lenin’s 1898 formulation of the “indissoluble link” between the two revolutions; in fact their position was a regression even from the position worked out by the first Congress in 1898 in Minsk. That is why they could insist on allowing capitalism in Russia to receive it’s “fullest development” and only then initiating the struggle of the proletariat for socialism. The immediate and practical implication of the Menshevik understanding was what Lenin termed political “tailism”, i.e., allowing the proletariat as-a-class to become an appendage to, a follower of, the bourgeoisie in the democratic revolutionary struggle instead of forcibly usurping the leadership position for itself.

The Menshevik position followed from an incorrect class analysis of Russian society; their chief error was to neglect the emergence of the proletariat on the historical scene and to take the cue from the Marx of the Communist League to re-work the schema of the Manifesto. Thus, on the eve of the revolution, one of their leading spokesmen could say:

“If we take a look at the arena of the struggle in Russia then what do we see? Only two forces: the tsarist autocracy and the liberal bourgeoisie, which is now organized and possesses a huge specific weight. The working mass, however, is atomized and can do nothing; as an independent force we do not exist; and thus our task consists in supporting the second force, the liberal bourgeoisie, and encouraging it and in no case intimidating it by presenting our own independent political demands.” (quoted in Zinoviev, 1923).

This is precisely where Lenin differed sharply from Menshevik class analysis and politics; Lenin’s analysis of the the 1905 revolution started in fact with the recognition of the entrance of the Russian proletariat on the historical scene. From this fact he drew the conclusion that Marx had hinted at in his speech to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850: the bourgeoisie was neither willing nor capable of completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This was both because it was weak (lacking in independent development) and because it realized that completion of the democratic revolution carried within it the danger of the proletariat’s political ascendancy. Thus, completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, as a prelude to the consummation of the socialist revolution, fell on the shoulders of the Russian proletariat. The tight link between the two revolutions, a position that Lenin had already worked out in 1898, was reiterated once again:

“From the democratic revolution we shall begin immediately and within the measure of our strength – the strength of the conscious and organized proletariat – to make the transition to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half way” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 9, p. 237)

According to Lenin’s analysis, two important conditions had to be satisfied for the Russian proletariat to complete its dual historical tasks: (1) successful alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry, and (2) victorious socialist revolutions in European countries. It was on the crucial question of the alliance with the peasantry that Lenin differed sharply not only from the Mensheviks but also from Trotsky (who had otherwise worked out a position very similar to Lenin’s). For both the Mensheviks and Trotsky, the peasantry was a repository of reaction; while Trotsky arrived at this incorrect conclusion on the basis of his experience of the 1905 revolution, the Mensheviks adhered to this position out of their doctrinaire understanding of Marxism. Lenin, on the other hand, realized that though the peasantry was not revolutionary in the Narodnik sense but it’s force could still be harnessed for the revolution because at that juncture it was less interested in protecting private property than in confiscating the land-owners’ land, the dominant form of rural private property (Carr, 1950).

Thus, Lenin arrived at an elegant formulation of the role of the peasantry in the revolution. The proletariat, in alliance with the whole peasantry would complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution and overthrow feudalism, absolutism and the monarchy despite the vacillation, or even opposition, of the bourgeoisie. This would immediately lead to the next stage of the revolution, where the proletariat would have to split the peasantry along class lines, ally with the landless labourers and the poor peasantry against the rich peasants and start the transition towards socialism.

This second point, where the urban proletariat had to ally with the rural proletariat was an immensely important practical point. Between the February and October revolutions, where Lenin discerned precisely this transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the socialist stage taking place, the utmost importance of an independent organization of the rural proletariat was repeatedly indicated. For instance in the third of the Letters From Afar written on March 11(24) 1917, which discusses the issue of the proletarian militia, he says:

“The prime and most important task, and one that brooks no delay, is to set up organizations of this kind [i.e., Soviets of Workers’ Deputies] in all parts of Russia without exception, for all trades and strata of the proletarian and semi-proletarian population without exception…for the entire mass of the peasantry our Party … should especially recommend Soviets of wage-workers and Soviets of small tillers who do not sell grain, to be formed separately from the well-to-do peasants. Without this, it will be impossible … to conduct a truly proletarian policy in general…” (Lenin, 1917, in Zizek, p. 41)

In a footnote, he adds: “In rural districts a struggle will now develop for the small and, partly middle peasants. The landlords, leaning on the well-to-do peasants, will try to lead them into subordination to the bourgeoisie. Leaning on the rural wage-workers and rural poor, we must lead them into the closest alliance with the urban proletariat.” Note that in Lenin’s formulation, the idea of an “agrarian revolution” as the axis of the bourgeois-democratic revolution is not explicitly there; the experience of the Chinese revolution would be required to extend the classical Marxist framework further by explicitly theorizing the nature and complexities of the agrarian revolution in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial social formation as part of what Mao called the new democratic revolution. This constant and critical engagement with received wisdom is the hallmark of a living revolutionary tradition.

Revolution at the Gates: Between February and October 1917, and Beyond

The February 1917 revolution in Russia caught all the socialists unawares; neither had they planned for it nor had they participated in it. This was true as much of the Mensheviks as of the Bolsheviks. The revolution had given rise to a situation of “dual power”: a Provisional Government of the bourgeoisie and the landlords and a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants (in the form of soldiers) in the form of the Soviets. The crucial question that again divided the revolutionaries from the reformists was a correct understanding of the relationship between the two.

For the Mensheviks, the problem was resolved in a rather straightforward manner. In keeping with their schematic reading of Marxism, they saw the task of the proletariat at the present moment to be one of supporting the bourgeoisie and helping it complete the democratic revolution; hence they argued for the Soviets supporting the Provisional Government, pushing for democratic reforms from behind rather than leading them, in short aiding in the “fullest development” of bourgeois capitalism till such time that it [capitalism] exhausted all it’s progressive possibilities and the proletariat became mature and strong enough to make the final bid for power. All the Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, accepted the Menshevik position in essence. It was left to the political genius of Lenin to break through this reformist consensus.

Exiled in Switzerland and getting news about Russian development only through the bourgeois press, Lenin had already started developing the essentials of revolutionary understanding about the transition from the first to the second stage of the revolution; his Letters From Afar give indications of the direction of his thinking. To the complete astonishment of his followers, the first public statement that Lenin made immediately after his arrival in the Finland station in Petrograd in April 1917 was to hail the proletarian-socialist revolution and not to dish out homilies for the bourgeois-democratic revolution! When he presented his April Theses within party circles the next day, outlining a program for the transition to a socialist stage of the revolution, he was completely isolated. Bogdanov is said to have constantly interrupted his speech with shouts of “Delirium, the delirium of a madman,” and not one Bolshevik other than Kollantai spoke in favour of his plans. When it was published in the Pravda, the editorial team distanced itself from the argument by attributing it to an individual and not to the Party.

Between the February and the October revolution, Lenin applied with ferocious consistency the theory that he had developed so painstakingly in his debates with the reformist Mensheviks. Formulations of the indissoluble link between the two stages of the revolution and the associated idea of the leadership of the proletariat (in alliance with the peasantry) in the democratic revolution, which he had argued for tirelessly over the years were now about to be realized in practice. The fact that the proletariat and the peasantry (in the form of soldiers) had established an independent, revolutionary site of political power in the form of the Soviets was the crucial signal to Lenin that the bourgeois-democratic revolution had been completed and that the transition to the next stage was underway. Since there could not be two powers in the State, only one of the two – proletarian or bourgeois – would survive in the ensuing struggle that he could foresee. The task of the proletariat, therefore, was to start preparing for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and transferring all power to the Soviets, and not to stand up in support of the bourgeoisie, as the Mensheviks argued. Waiting for the “fullest development” of capitalism, as reformist doctrine suggested, was tantamount to ensuring that the Soviets got crushed by force like the Paris Commune in 1871.

Note that in Lenin’s insistence on the completion of the bourgeois-democratic stage of the revolution there is no place for the discourse of productive forces or the development of capitalism. It was not that capitalism had flourished and the productive forces had developed adequately in Russia between February and October 1917 to warrant the call for a socialist revolution; that was obviously not the case as the Bolsheviks were acutely aware. It was rather the case that the establishment of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry was envisioned as an alternative path of development, a non-capitalist framework of social relations for the development of the productive forces. It is of course not true that the democratic revolution establishes socialism; its social and economic content remains bourgeois, but with the proletariat at the helm of affairs, a transition towards socialism is initiated, the movement is imparted an unmistakable socialist, i.e., proletarian orientation.

In the context of imperialism, questions about the character of the two revolutions, about the role of communists in them and about the question of the attitude towards capitalism in the colonial and semi-colonial countries had been discussed threadbare in the Second Congress of the Communist International in July 1920. Even though there were disagreements between Lenin, the official rapporteur on the “national and colonial question”, and M. N. Roy, who presented his own theses on the question, they came out with one striking agreement: where the working class was victorious and able to establish its political hegemony, it could lead the country (essentially the peasant masses) onto the path of socialism without the intervening capitalist stage of development. Presenting his report to the Congress on July 26, Lenin summarized this point of agreement as follows:

“… are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of economic development is inevitable for backward nations now on the road to emancipation and among whom a certain advance towards progress is to be seen since the war? We replied in the negative. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal – in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development… the Communist International should advance the proposition, with appropriate theoretical grounding, that with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 244, emphasis added).

The essence of the democratic revolution under the leadership of the proletariat is the inauguration of a non-capitalist path of economic and social development. As Lenin points in the same report that we have just quoted from, forms of socialist organization, i.e. Soviets, can and should be formed not only in a proletarian context but also in a context marked by “peasant feudal and semi-feudal relations”. It is obvious that these institutions would impart the socialist orientation to the whole movement, would form the seeds of the future socialist society, seeds moreover nurtured, supported, defended and deepened in a still predominantly bourgeois society. To insist, as some have done recently, that the task of the proletariat during the democratic stage of the world historical revolution is to work for deepening capitalism, instead of forging a non-capitalist path of development through Soviet forms of organization, is to turn 150 years of international revolutionary working class theory and practice on its head.


The Menshevik position about the “fullest development” of capitalism being a necessary condition for the launching of the socialist struggle finds echoes in India today with the insistence on the development of the “most thorough-going and broad-based” capitalism being the precondition for initiating the socialist struggle. While it is hardly surprising that such a position finds political expression in inveterate “tailism”, what really is rather more difficult to believe is the accompanying ahistorical rhetoric of “different” capitalisms. It almost seems to have been asserted that we can choose among the different varieties of capitalisms being offered by history, limited only by our powers of imagination. Which one do you want comrade, history seems to have asked? Well, the social democrats answered, we want the one which is technologically progressive (leads to the fullest development of the productive forces) and also looks after the welfare of the workers and peasantry (through social reforms and huge expenditures in health and education and nutrition). Does the march of history and the development of the structural contradictions of global capitalism at the beginning of the twenty first century afford us the this luxury, this luxury to choose between capitalisms, between good and bad capitalisms? One is reminded of how Marx had chastised Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy for wanting capitalism without it’s socio-economic ills. The social democrats in India seem hell bent on committing the same mistake all over again.


Carr, E. H. The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Volume One. The Macmillan Company. 1950.

———— The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Volume Two. The Macmillan Company. 1952.

Foran, J. Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions. Cambridge University Press. 2005

Lenin, V. I. Collected Works. Fourth Edition, Progress Publishers. 1965 (various volumes).

Marx, K. Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. March 1850, in On Revolution, The Karl Marx Library, edited and translated by Saul K. Padover. McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1971.

Skocpol, T. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge University Press. 1979.

Zinoviev, G. History of the Bolshevik Party. New Park Publications. 1974 [1923].

Zizek, S. (editor), Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, V. I. Lenin. Verso. 2002.


  1. The article by Dipankar Basu, ignores a very significant issue. It is stated that the idea of development and flowering of capitalism via democratic revolution in Russia was a Menshevik innovation, based upon outdated perspective of Communist Manifesto. The fact is that the idea of ‘flowering’ is equally attributable to Lenin himself and Bolsheviks in General. It is none but Lenin himself, In ‘two tactics of Social Democracy in Democratic Revolution’, argues that the impending bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia would provide the ground for capitalism to flourish. This was common point of view of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It was Leon Trotsky, who had proposed the other possibility of working class coming to power in Russia through a proletarian-socialist revolution, even before it takes power in the West. This was the sole proposition around 1905, elaborated by Trotsky in ‘Results and Prospects’ that allowed the possibilty of a development opposite to capitalist road. Lenin had simply swiched over to the position after February 1917. The abandoning of the old perspective by Lenin, in ‘letters from afar’ and ‘April Thesis’, was opposed by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in April conferences. Pointing to this common erroneous understanding of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Trotsky rightly thought that the two trends would come together at certain point. However, It did not happen, as at crucial stage in March-April 1917, Lenin changed his viewpoint. This made October revolution possible and excluded the otherwise inevitable outcome of coming together of the two currents, i.e. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It was for this common understanding of both currents that Trotsky said that toxic consequences of menshevism were already apparent, and that of Bolshevism would appear later. Is the writer unaware of these, or is there a deliberate omission of the great contribution of Leon Trotsky? Be that as it may, the lapse makes the analysis something perverse to apparent historical facts and presents a mere caricature of the development of the course of history around the three Russian revolutions from 1905 to 1917.

  2. Sukla Sen says:

    A nice summing up of the debate.

    It, however, on the one hand, severely underrates
    Trotsky’s seminal contribution to the whole debate
    and, on the other, ignores Lenin’s “evolution” – three
    major milestones being ‘Two Tactics’ in 1905; ‘April
    Thesis’ and ‘Letters on Tactics’ in 1917; and,
    finally, ‘Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky’
    in 1918.

    I’d like to quote an earlier intervention of mine in a
    slightly different context (of revolution in Nepal) on
    this list instead of redoing the whole thing once

    In the context of the impending revolution in the
    early twentieth century, both Lenin and Trotsky
    actively engaged with the prospects and feasibility of
    a (‘socialist’) revolution in Russia under the
    leadeship of the woking class and thereby the RSDLP.
    Kautsky dismissed any such possibility in backward
    Russia toeing the commonly accepted interpretation of
    Marx’s position in those days.
    Kautsky, even when his reputation got severely
    tarnished for taking a rabidly ‘nationalist’ position
    in the First World War, was otherwise considered the
    authoritative interpreter of Marx in those days.

    Both Lenin and Trotsky, two leading figures of the
    more radical trends within the RSDLP, could hardly
    have had accepted the Kautskyist position on the
    impossibility of a revolution led by the working class
    in a backward Russia without damaging the political
    prospects of the RSDLP itself.
    But while Lenin made a clean (theoretical) break with
    the ‘traditional’ position through successive stages –
    quite in tandem with the evolution of revolutionary
    process itself in Russia, Trotsky had achieved it,
    with his characteristic flourish and brilliance, in
    one clean sweep and pretty much earlier.

    Three works of Lenin may be considered as the defining
    milestones indicating the defining stages of his
    (theoretical) evolution in this regard. The first one
    is ‘Two Tactics of Social Democracy’ (1905), wherein
    the concept of Democratic Dictatorship of the
    Proletariat and the Peasantry as the immediate goal of
    the forthcoming Russian revolution, in partial
    departure from and also deference to the traditional
    ‘stagist’ theory. Post-February 1917, Confronted with
    practical question of the precise relationship with
    the government that came into being as the outcome of
    the revolutionary upheaval, Lenin formulated his
    celebrated ‘April Theses’ to the great dismay of many
    of his comrades. He asserted that there’s no point
    collaborating with the Kerensky government and help it
    ‘develop’ capitalism in Russia so as to ripen the
    necessary condition for an authentic ‘socialist’
    revolution. He averred that the ‘old formulas’ were
    dead. He stood for an openly confrontationist stand in
    relation to the new regime. After a bitter struggle,
    which initially had appeared rather hopeless, Lenin’s
    line prevailed within the Bolshevik party and the
    ground for collaboration with Trotsky was laid down
    with the complete (programmatic) break with the
    stagiest theory of revolution. (This, however, didn’t
    stop Lenin in readily coming forward to counter the
    Kornilov reaction – on the specious ground that
    Kornilov and Kerensky are the two sides of the same
    coin, in the name of saving the Kerensky regime. In
    fact, the October revolution turned out almost to be
    the extrapolation of the successful military campaign
    against Kornilov.) Lenin, however, put down his
    theoretical arguments in a much more comprehensive
    manner much later after October Revolution in his ‘The
    Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’
    “But beginning with April 1917, long before the
    October Revolution, that is, long before we assumed
    power, we publicly declared and explained to the
    people: the revolution cannot now stop at this stage,
    for the country has marched forward, capitalism has
    advanced, ruin has reached unprecedented dimensions,
    which (whether one likes it or not) will demand steps
    forward, to Socialism. For there is no other way of
    advancing, of saving the country which is exhausted by
    war, and of alleviating the sufferings of the toilers
    and exploited.

    “Things have turned out just as we said they would.
    The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the
    correctness of our reasoning. First, with the “whole”
    of the peasantry against the monarchy, against the
    landlords, against the medieval regime (and to that
    extent, the revolution remains bourgeois,
    bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants,
    with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited,
    against capitalism, including the rural rich, the
    kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the
    revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to
    raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and
    second [the ‘democratic’ and the ‘socialist’], to
    separate them by anything else than the degree of
    preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its
    unity with the poor peasants, means monstrously to
    distort Marxism, to vulgarize it, to substitute
    liberalism in its place. It means smuggling in a
    reactionary defence of the bourgeoisie against the
    socialist proletariat by means of quasi-scientific
    references to the progressive character of the
    bourgeoisie as compared with medievalism.”
    By that time, as the leading figure of
    post-revolutionary Russia he had earned the necessary
    prestige to address Kautsky in such abusive terms with
    great self-confidence. Here Lenin proffered that there
    is no Chinese Wall between the democratic revolution
    and the socialist one except for “the degree of
    preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its
    unity with the poor peasants” (not the peasantry as a
    whole). Post-April the whole theory of ‘Democratic
    Dictatorship’ goes into oblivion. And this was not to
    be resurrected till Lenin breathed his last.
    This was, at least on paper, almost similar to the
    position that Trotsky had arrived at (way back in 1905
    itself in his ‘Results and Prospects’). More so, as
    Lenin talks of the ‘rolling’ character of the
    revolution: “the revolution cannot now stop at this
    stage [i.e. it must roll forward]”. But nevertheless
    the two positions, contrary to the claims made by
    Trotsky and his followers, were not exactly congruent.

    Both Trotsky and Lenin started off from the premise
    that the bourgeoisie had ceased to be revolutionary
    and hence could no longer lead ‘bourgeois democratic’
    revolutions. Consequently, it is for the other
    ‘fundamental’ and revolutionary class viz. the
    proletariat to take the lead. However, Lenin was
    initially unable to think beyond (bourgeois)
    ‘democratic’ revolution. And hence the thesis of the
    Democratic Dictatorship. (It is pertinent to note that
    in putting forward this formulation Lenin had to also
    radically break with the traditional Marxist
    visualisation/characterisation of the peasantry as “a
    sack of potatoes”. Subsequently Mao made an even more
    radical break in this regard. And it was for a
    quasi-Marxist Franz Fanon to make similar
    (theoretical) break with the usual Marxist evaluation
    of the role of the (urban) petty bourgeoisie,
    particularly in capitalistically underdeveloped
    colonised societies. The Cuban revolution was a sort
    of highly successful demonstration of Fanon’s
    theoretical position.) Trotsky, however, went far
    beyond. If the Proletariat emerges as the ‘leader’ of
    the ‘revolution’, it is logically totally untenable
    why they should stop at the democratic stage just in
    order to enchain themselves once again, albeit under a
    new dispensation, under its own leadership! Hence the
    theory of continuous/uninterrupted/telescoped or
    Permanent Revolution. Hence the theory of the fusing
    of two (successive) revolutions – the ‘democratic’ and
    the ‘socialist’ into one integrated whole. (The theory
    of Permanent Revolution, however, has an external
    dimension as well in clear acknowledgement of the
    classical Marxist reservation regarding building
    socialism on a less than global scale and that too in
    an industrially backward nation.)

    But while for Trotsky there is no revolution except
    under the leadership of the proletariat, and once that
    is so, there’s just no stopping halfway; Lenin, even
    in his most matured position, is far less
    self-assured. There’s of course no Chinese wall. But
    that only means that there’s a wall nevertheless. And
    whereas scaling of the wall would evidently be highly
    desirable and it’d be criminal to stop short in
    deference to some (metaphysical) rules of
    impermissibility, whether the wall can be actually
    scaled or not would depend on “the level of
    consciousness of the proletariat and the degree of
    solidarity between the proletariat and the poor
    peasantry”, which evidently is not a given. And, it’d
    also imply that even if you cannot make it to the last
    post, it’d be quite worthwhile to cover as much
    distance as one could under the given circumstances
    (marked by the inadequacies of “the degree of
    preparedness” and “the degree of solidarity”).

    The history of the twentieth century, particularly its
    second half, however, calls for certain basic
    modifications in these formulations.
    The working class, in any case even numerically weak
    in the underdeveloped East, for the most part played a
    rather secondary role, if at all any, in the unfolding
    epic saga of decolonisation. One can of course counter
    with the argument that the resultant revolutions(?)
    were at best “truncated and half-baked” giving
    credence to (at least) the Leninist formulation. But
    given the significant strides made by a number of the
    newly independent nations, an honest reappraisal of
    the role, and potentials, of the colonial and
    post-colonial bourgeoisie, and petty bourgeoisie,
    would very much be in order.

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