An April Thesis 2017

One hundred years ago last week, Vladimir Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in what was then known as Petrograd. The violent and incompetent despot, Tsar Nicholas II, had been forced to step down following mass popular demonstrations. He was replaced by a Provisional Government who instituted liberal reforms that even by Lenin’s admission made Russia the “freest” in Europe. Yet when Lenin stepped off that train he declared that he would oppose the Provisional government. He then worked tirelessly to bring it down. The mainstream liberal interpretation of these events have been that the first Russian revolution which brought down the Tsar was a progressive step towards liberal democracy. Whereas the second Russian Revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks later that same year is frequently seen as a disastrous step which crushed the freedom of the Russian people. Historian Orlando Figes sees the downfall of the Tsar as inevitable yet calls the second revolution a “people’s tragedy”. Conservative historian Richard Pipes refuses to even acknowledge Lenin as a revolutionary leader, calling the second revolution a coup. However one a century later, with capitalism and nationalism once again destroying the world economy and leading us to war, it is worth re-visiting the position Lenin took at this crucial moment in world history. From his actions, we have lessons to learn.

The journalist and historian John Reed eloquently put it that “no matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the greatest events in human history and the rule of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of worldwide importance.” This is undoubtedly true. The Russian Revolution continues to be of worldwide importance because it shows us that another way of doing things is possible. What we can learn from Lenin is that incremental change is not always enough and should not always be embraced. Radical action from a relatively small group of people can change the course of history and, especially in desperate and extreme situations, radical action may be necessary.

We can – and must – draw these conclusions from Lenin because, whatever else one may think about him, standing at the Finland station in April 1917, Lenin was right. The overriding cause of the first revolution had been Russia’s entry into that most depressingly pointless of all wars, World War I. Literally millions of Russians were dying in losing battle after losing battle. Morale was low and conscripted soldiers were abandoning their positions at alarming rates. Millions more Russians were on the brink of starvation due to the economic crisis caused by the war. Of course not everyone suffered during this time. The inequality in Russia was astronomical. Wealthy landowners profited off the war, whilst Tsar Nicholas II had been one of the wealthiest individuals in all of human history before he was thrown in jail. The only way to end of the suffering of the Russian people was to end the war.

Yet the new Provisional government – an unelected, self-appointed group largely made up of wealthy former Tsarist ministers – resolved to continue the war. The mood of the country was radical and anti-aristocracy, yet the new government included proto-Fascists like General Kornilov and was run by a Prince (albeit one who believed in freedom of the press). There were also moderates and nominal leftists, but the only thing that could unify them all was that they believed their first priority had to be to win the war. The British, French and American governments accepted their authority – and would agree to lend them large sums of money – only if they continued to send Russian soldiers to fight and die. And despite their dismal military position in 1917, many wealthy Russians were still licking their lips at the thought of capturing the wealth and land of the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. So the new Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov sent a letter to the Allied countries informing them that they would “continue the war in full… and observe the obligations towards them.”

The Provisional government is often seen by liberals as admirable because they declared that political prisoners would be released, declared freedom of speech and religion, the right to protest and formally ended the aristocracy. However according to historian Michael Lynch they did so literally to calls from the crowd of ‘who appointed you lot then?’ And the thing is, political liberty (or lack thereof) wasn’t what this revolution was about. The freedom to eat doesn’t stop your hunger. Food is what is needed. Lenin was much closer to the mark with his slogan of “peace, bread, land”. Lefties today need to remember this. Legal rights are of course important but they do not go anywhere far enough to solve the issues of the common person. And to ensure that the concerns of the common person are addressed, power must be redistributed away from the upper classes and from those that represent the upper class. The ministers of the Provisional government misdiagnosed the problems because they and their friends and family weren’t the ones suffering. In fact in many ways, Provisional government members had a clear economic incentive to continue the war. The oppressed, then and now, must be involved in (perhaps even lead) the decision making processes.

All this is to not even mention that the Provisional government, despite their “liberal” reforms, tried to hide the news of the revolution from the troops at the front. By this stage loyalty was so low that Russian troops were fraternising with the enemy and they found out about the revolution from German troops. For further evidence that the liberalism of the rich and powerful only extends so far as to not threaten their class interests, consider that despite declaring an end to political persecution the Foreign Minister Milyukov tried to convince foreign governments to prevent exiled Bolshevik leaders from returning to Russia.

When Lenin did arrive in Petrograd, he published his April theses. In it he appealed to fellow Bolsheviks and socialists more broadly. They should oppose imperialism and oppose World War I as an imperialist war. They should focus on improving the economic conditions of the workers and peasants. In order for this to happen, not only does the war need to end but socialist policies need to be implemented immediately. Land should be nationalised and redistributed. A national bank should be created to get the economy moving again. Interestingly, in thesis four Lenin pragmatically suggests that it’s not that all capitalist governments should be opposed all the time. It’s that this Provisional government – a government opposed to peace and to any socialist reforms – should be opposed. All politics is contextual and so to must ours be. It often makes sense to work for incremental change within capitalist societies. However, sometimes such change isn’t always enough. The Provisional government was surely the lesser of two evils when compared to the Tsar, yet sometimes the lesser of two evils isn’t enough. Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. It is up to each of us to decide when those situations are. With a global crisis in capitalism that began a decade ago, massive rising inequality, European austerity, Brexit, Trump, Syria, you name it, I would forgive some people for thinking desperate times are here.

One comment

  1. Again a ripping read. Desperate times are indeed here and after two socially destructive conservative governments in Australia, the work has been made that much harder.

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