Lenin and bourgeois revolution

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Thu Apr 11 07:21:06 MDT 2002

Louis Proyect:

>> In fact, Kautsky's ideas on bourgeois revolution were about the same as
the French CP historians. So was Lenin's. They were "stagists". They
believed that it would be a mistake to organize a proletarian revolution in
Russia until feudalism had been overthrown in a manner similar to France,

>> Except for Trotsky, the Russian social democracy assumed that after the
Czar was overthrown, there would be an extended period of very radical
bourgeois democracy which would allow the working class to prepare itself
for taking power.<<


I think Lenin's pre-1917 views were more subtle than that, albeit somewhat
contradictory at least on their face.

This topic has been chewed over many times, by many people, and will
continue to be. I think Trotsky's summary of the differences within the
Russian Social Democracy is better than most: it is contained in his essay
"Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution" published as an appendix to his
biography of Stalin, and in a different translation in the 1939-40 Writings
of Leon Trotsky. My comments follow that essay.

Describing Lenin's views in 1905, Trotsky says "The bourgeois character of
the [anti-Czarist] revolution was the meeting of the crossroads for the two
factions of the Russian Social-Democracy." He quotes Lenin: "The Marxists
are thoroughly convinced ... of the bourgeois character of the Russian
Revolution. What does that mean? It means that those democratic
transformations... which became indispensable for Russia, not only do not
signify in themselves the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of the
domination of the bourgeoisie, but, on the contrary, they will be the first
to really clear the ground for a widespread and rapid, a European rather
than an Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will be the first to make
possible the rule of the bourgeoisie as a class...."

To that extent, says Trotsky, "Lenin followed in the footsteps of

But within that perspective of bourgeois revolution, important cleavages
developed. While for Plekhanov and the Menshevik leadership the political
content (program) of the coming revolution was confined beforehand to
changes compatible with the interests and views of the liberal bourgeoisie,
"Bolshevism resolutely refused to acknowledge that the Russian bourgeoisie
was capable of consummating its own revolution." For Lenin, the agrarian
question was decisive to the democratic revolution.

"To the Plekhanovite idea of union between the proletarian and the liberal
bourgeoisie Lenin counterposed the idea of union between the proletariat and
the peasantry. He proclaimed the task of the revolutionary collaboration of
these two classes to be the establishment of a 'democratic dictatorship', as
the only means for radically purging Russia of its feudal refuse, creating a
free class of farmers and opening the way for the development of capitalism
after the American rather than the Prussian model."

Dictatorship "because (said Lenin) the realization of the transformations
immediately and unconditionally necessary for the proletariat and the
peasantry will call forth the desperate resistance of the landlords, of the
big bourgeoisie and of Tsarism. Without dictatorship, it would be impossible
to break that resistance, it would be impossible to defeat
counter-revolutionary efforts."

"Democratic", of course, referred to the class composition of this alliance:
the peasant and proletarian masses - the people.

And what would be the tasks of this democratic dictatorship? "At best (said
Lenin), it would be able to introduce a radical re-distribution of land
ownership for the benefit of the peasantry, carry out a consistent and
complete democratization, including a republic; uproot all the opressive
Asiatic characteristics in the life of the factory as well as the village;
lay down the beginnings of important improvements in the condition of the
workers; raise their standard of living; and finally, last but not least,
carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe."

That was Lenin's "bourgeois revolution". Not a word about the revolutionary
bourgeoisie, it will be noted.

Lenin's conception, said Trotsky, "represented a tremendous step forward,
proceeding, as it did, from the agrarian revolution rather than from
constitutional reforms as the central task of the revolution, and indicating
the only realistic combination of social forces that could fulfill that

The formula had contradictory elements, to be sure. When Lenin called this
dictatorship "bourgeois" he implied that the proletariat would have to
forego posing socialist tasks directly durng the revolution in the interests
of maintaining unity with the peasantry. Why was that? Because in Lenin's
view - which was the prevailing view of virtually all Marxists of his day -
the peasant "was a petty-bourgeois, capable of becoming a socialist only to
the extent that he either materially or spiritually ceased being a
peasant.... Lenin never regarded the peasant as a socialist ally of the
proletariat; on the contrary, it was the overwhelming preponderance of the
peasantry which had led Lenin to conclude that a socialist revolution was
impossible in Russia. That idea recurs time and again in all his articles
that directly or indirectly touch upon the agrarian question." (Trotsky)

This was a major point of difference between Lenin and Trotsky in the years
prior to 1917. While the dictatorship in Lenin's formula was in essence that
of the peasantry (and on occasion was defended as such by Lenin), Trotsky
came to the view that "the peasantry as a whole was utterly incapable of
assuming the reins of government." It was too stratified, too dispersed
geographically, and politically too dependent on the city. Lenin had a
different perspective.

"Had Lenin seen a _socialist_ ally in the peasantry, he would not have had
the slightest basis for insisting upon the _bourgeois_ character of the
revolution and....," writes Trotsky. "On the occasions when Lenin accused me
of 'underestimating' the peasantry, he did not have in mind my failure to
recognize the socialist tendencies of the peasantry [as later alleged by
Stalin] but rather my failure to realize sufficiently, from Lenin's point of
view, the bourgeois-democratic independence of the peasantry, its capacity
to create its _own_ power and through it impede the establishment of the
socialist dictatorship of the proletariat."

(Incidentally, writing in 1939, Trotsky adds some interesting comments on
this question of the peasantry, which are worth noting in light of the
subsequent history of China and south-east Asia:

"It is, of course, possible to ask whether the classical Marxist view of the
peasantry had not proved erroneous [by the course of the Russian revolution,
and perhaps also by what Trotsky was observing of the developing Chinese
revolution]. That theme would lead us far beyond the limits of this
appendix. Suffice it to say for the nonce that Marxism never ascribed an
absolute and immutable character to its estimation of the peasantry as a
non-socialist class. Marx said long ago that the peasant is capable of
judgment as well as prejudgment. The very nature of the peasantry is altered
under altered conditions. The régime of the dictatorship of the proletariat
discovered very great possibilities for influencing the peasantry and
re-educating it. History has not yet plumbed to the bottom the limits of
these possibilities.... Yet, whatever the situation on that score today,
after twenty-odd years of the new régime, the fact remains that prior to the
October Revolution, or rather prior to the year 1924, no one in the Marxist
camp, and least of all Lenin, had regarded the peasantry as a factor of
socialist development. Without the aid of a proletarian revolution in the
West, he reiterated time and again, restoration is unavoidable in Russia. He
was not mistaken: the Stalinist bureaucracy is nothing else than the first
stage of bourgeois restoration.")

To return to our main theme, it was not the peasantry but the attitude
toward the liberal bourgeoisie that became "the touchstone in the divergence
between revolutionists and opportunists among Social-Democrats" in Russia,
Trotsky writes. "How far the Russian Revolution could venture, what
character would be assumed by the future provisional revolutionary
government, what tasks would confront it, and in what order it would dispose
of them --- these questions could be correctly posed in all their importance
only in reference to the basic character of the proletariat's politics, and
that character was determined, above all, by its relation to the liberal
bourgeoisie. Plekhanov demonstratively and stubbornly shut his eyes to the
fundamental object-lesson of nineteenth-century political history: wherever
the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to
the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses,
the quicker the reactionary transformation of the liberalism. No one has yet
invented a way to paralyze the workings of the law of the class struggle."

Thus we have here the main components of Lenin's pre-1917 strategy in
preparation for the impending Russian Revolution. In class terms, it is a
policy of fostering and maintaining the political and organizational
independence of the proletariat, which allies with the peasantry in a
struggle for state power but makes no political concessions to the liberal
bourgeoisie and is constantly alert to the inability of the bourgeoisie, or
any section of it, to overthrow Czarism let alone "consummate its own
revolution". This revolution is "bourgeois" only because the peasantry, the
overwhelming mass of the democracy, while an indispensable ally of the
proletariat in the democratic revolution, is not a socialist ally. And the
more thorough-going the peasant revolution, and the sooner the socialist
revolution in the more advanced European countries, the shorter would be the
"bourgeois" stage, the more sweeping the revolution and the sooner the
socialist tasks could be initiated and undertaken.

Lenin's approach is concrete, based on an analysis of the real class forces
as they maneuvered in the period leading up the revolution. It is anything
but a rigid schema based on some preconception of bourgeois hegemony.

In February 1917, instead of the democratic dictatorship, we got dual power:
the regime of the constitutional democrats (liberal bourgeoisie and
petty-bourgeoisie) vs. the soviets, with their peasant representatives
(mainly Socialist Revolutionaries), soldiers (workers and peasants in
uniform), and the proletariat. Far from being locked into a schema of
stages, Lenin easily made the transition in his political perspectives. The
slogan of the "democratic dictatorship" was replaced by "all power to the

Whether this meant socialism would of course depend primarily on the
prospects for the European revolution. Lenin's concept of revolution, like
Marx's, was never limited to the national framework.

If this is an accurate (albeit very much abridged) presentation of Lenin's
fundamental views, and of the major differences within the Russian Social
Democracy, I wonder, then, how it can be seriously argued that Lenin's
concept of the revolution was "about the same as [that of] the French CP
historians" cited by Edward George, which (in Ed's words) "suggests a clear
fight for mastery over social forms between the bourgeoisie and nobility as
social classes". And how is it "Kautskyist"? More to the point, what is
"Kautskyism" in this context?

Lenin's bourgeois revolution is a revolution without a revolutionary
bourgeoisie. And that distinction, it seems to me, is what Edward George is
trying to make in opposition to what he terms the "classic theory" of the
French CP historians and New Left Review writers. So why their "theory"
should be termed "classic", while that of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky,
etc., etc. is not, remains a mystery to me.

And just how the "classic" theory of the post-1939 CP historians and fellow
travellers should be responsible for the "manifest failure" of Trotskyism
and the discredit of Marxism as historiography (as Ed claims), likewise
puzzles me.

The idea that Lenin had a "stages" or "Kautskyist" conception of the
revolution became current in some parts of the post-WWII Trotskyist
movement, although it was not held by Trotsky himself, as we have just seen.
And it does not stand up to the test of reality.

Richard Fidler

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