Lenin was committed to the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. With Marx he saw the merchant class — the bourgeoisie — as having been historically progressive. But history and class conflict, they believed, had made the bourgeoisie oppressive. Lenin believed in the manifesto that Marx and Engels had written in 1848 with its promise of a collective free enterprise by and for the masses, without bourgeois financiers or aristocratic property owners, without profiteers — just sharing. It was a maximalist point of view compared to the desire for a mix of socialism and capitalism that would develop in Scandinavia.
Lenin was a voracious reader, and his energy as a writer and organizer allowed him to rise to prominence among those Russians hostile toward Russia's dominant aristocrats and its grand and petit businessmen, whom the Marxists called the bourgeoisie. Lenin became leader of the "Bolshevik" wing of Russia's socialist movement. In keeping with Marxism he saw workers as the base for his movement and agent for the coming revolution. He supported the labor movement as the organizer of workers, and he looked forward to the Bolsheviks giving labor the class consciousness it needed for a successful overthrow of the ruling class — the bourgeoisie (the class whose influence had become greater than aristocracy).
War between Russia and Japan in 1905 had produced what has been called a revolution (the Revolution of 1905) forcing the tsar to make a few liberal concessions. As a revolution it had been a failure, and Lenin didn't expect those in power would be foolish enough to give revolution another chance. Then, in late July 1914, Tsar Nicholas II sent Russia into a war against Austria-Hungary and Germany. Lenin and the Bolsheviks declared that war (the Great War) "annexationist, predatory, plunderous." (It was a position parallel to that which Eugene Debs would take in the US, Debs and other socialists accusing capitalists of fomenting war in order to profit from arms sales.) Holding to his point that the war was a capitalist creation, he said that war would not be abolished until a classless socialist society was created. He described capitalists as robbers "now making thousands of millions in profits from contracts." He wanted "to expose all their tricks, arrest the millionaire embezzlers of public property [and] break their unlimited power."
With the tsar's failures as a war leader and his overthrow in mid-March 1917, the Duma was recognized as Russia's governing body. But so too was a rival: the Soviets (Councils) that had come into existence briefly during the Revolution of 1905 and that had appeared again with the overthrow of the tsar. In communities across Russia, people excited by the fall of the tsar and a little bewildered had gathered in Soviets. The Soviets were viewed by its supporters as a democratic — while reactionary monarchists and some liberals were equating democracy with anarchy, radicalism and subversion.
The Provision Government was led by a liberal, Georgy Lvov, who began as Prime Minister by declaring amnesty regarding all acts of a political nature that had been considered criminal under tsarist rule. He declared complete freedom of the press, unions, assemblies, and strikes and promised elections based on universal, direct, equal, and secret vote. Lvov was exuberant about the "powerful impulse of freedom. He spoke of the trials ahead but also of the "vitality and wisdom of our great people." He looked forward to a new enthusiasm among soldiers for their government, new morale, and Russia's army in a better position to help the Allies to win the war. As a supporter of Russia's war effort, he looked forward to a continuation of the respect he had won from liberals and from army commanders during the war.
Lvov was allowing exiles like Lenin to return to Russia, and Lenin with other exiles traveled by train through German territory and through Finland and having arrived in the capital, Petrograd, in mid-April. Russia's allies were against giving socialists passage to return to Russia, concerned about Russia's contribution to the war effort. Germany, on the other hand, was interested in Lenin contributing to Russia quitting the war.
In the evening on April 16, crowds in and around the train station in Petrograd greeted Lenin. The station and adjacent civic square were lit by floodlights. A long line of friendly armed guards was on the platform. A crowd of workers, sailors and soldiers was chanting Lenin’s name. When Lenin came into view a detachment of soldiers presented arms with fixed bayonets, and a band played the Marseillaise. After accepting their cheers, Lenin scolded them. The Bolsheviks had been working with others in the Soviets, wishing to be identified as a part of the revolution that overthrew the Tsar. Lenin told them that they should stand apart from others who supported the revolution, that they should stop supporting the Provisional Government and should begin advocating socialist revolution (the overthrow of the bourgeoisie). The stunned Bolsheviks thought that Lenin was out of touch because of his having been abroad. He spoke also of his expectations for Germany:
The piratical imperialist war is the beginning of civil war throughout Europe ... The hour is not far distant when at the call of our comrade Karl Liebknecht [in Germany] will turn their arms against their own capitalist exploiters ... The worldwide socialist revolution has already dawned ... Germany is seething ... Any date now the whole of European capitalism may crash. The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!
Lenin's strategy of not supporting the Provisional Government gained more credence when, on April 18, Russia's Foreign Minister, Pavel Miliyukov, informed Britain and France that Russia intended to pursue the war and looked forward to the annexation of Ottoman territories. (Milyukov was leader of the liberal Kadet Party, and his degree in history might have been taken as a sign to some of wisdom in international affairs.) Miliyukov spoke of Germany having seized "entire provinces of our country," but he said that liberating the country from the "invading enemy" and defending the nation's liberty was a most urgent task.
The Provisional Government — its liberal leadership, its conservatives and its moderate socialists — were clinging to the patriotic notion that Russia was in a fight to the death with Germany, a war they believed that Russia must win. Letting the Germans overrun their country was unthinkable, while Lenin saw those who supported the war as nationalist chauvinists. Germany, he believed, was not about to establish rule over Russia. (Germany had enough trouble facing Britain, France and now the United States on its Western Front. Lenin was looking forward to the Germans having their own workers' revolution that opposed imperialism.
The Minister of Justice, Alexander Kerensky, was also for continuing the war. A young man, almost 36, and energetic, he was the cabinet's socialist among the non-socialist liberals. Like others on the Left, he was for the settlement of the war that didn't involve territorial gains.And he was big on making speeches:
Comrades, soldiers, in all the world there is no army today as free as the Russian army. Today, the Russian soldier is a free citizen with the right to join organizations... I joined the cabinet of the Provisional Government as a representative of your interests. And the Provisional Government will listen to what you have to say. In a few days, a document will be released, stating that Russia renounces all expansionist aims.
Russia's Provisional Government could have just held to defensive warfare, but the Wilson administration told them that aid would be forthcoming only if they organized a new military offensive. The Soviets, meanwhile, were supported defense of the homeland – a defensive war – while Lenin was against the war entirely.
Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd had taken up the slogans "Bread, Land, Peace" and "All power to the Soviets." When Petrograd’s First All-Russian Congress of the Workers’ and Soldier’s Soviets met on June 17, Lenin was there representing the Bolsheviks. Amid the speechmaking and arguing, Lenin announced that the Bolsheviks were ready to take power. This produced laughter from the predominately non-Bolshevik assembly. Lenin also announced that what Russia needed was the arrest of fifty to one hundred of the most substantial capitalists and to force them to reveal the clandestine intrigues that kept the Russian people at war and in misery. The blinders he said would then fall from the eyes of the masses and food shortages and inflation would disappear.
There were socialist intellectuals in the Soviets who thought Lenin a threat to order and stability. They believed in a socialism that worked within that order and stability. Hunger and other miseries were creating more followers for the Bolsheviks — the only revolutionary party that stood in opposition to the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks created their own private army, the Red Guard, which Lenin refused to subordinate to the Petrograd Soviet. And the Bolsheviks were conducting a propaganda campaign among the soldiers, including those at the front. They were distributing a newspaper free to the troops and advising soldiers to keep themselves armed. To pay for the distribution and perhaps some other expenses, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were secretly accepting money from German agents — as later described by the German foreign minister to Russia, Richard von Kühlman. Not supporting the German war effort any more than they supported Russia’s war effort, the Bolsheviks were trying to distance themselves from the charge that they were German agents.
CONTINUE READING: The Bolsheviks take Power (to December 1917)
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.