The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Lenin’s Letters on the Insurrection

Sep 18, 2017

This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

By mid-September, the Bolsheviks had won a considerable influence in the Soviets. The idea that the Soviets should take power gained support among the masses across the whole country as they became more conscious that their vital demands, in the most literal sense, could not be satisfied by the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government had convoked a Democratic Conference that began meeting on September 14th in order to reconstitute a ruling authority at the greatest possible distance from the Soviets and the influence of the Bolsheviks. During this period, Lenin, who was still forced into hiding, sent two letters to the Party’s Central Committee defending the idea that the situation was ripe for an insurrection and the taking of power.

In his first letter, The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power, written between September 12th and 14th, Lenin wrote: “The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands. They can because the active majority of revolutionary elements in the two chief cities is large enough to carry the people with it, to overcome the opponent’s resistance, to smash him, and to gain and retain power. For the Bolsheviks, by immediately proposing a democratic peace, by immediately giving the land to the peasants and by reestablishing the democratic institutions and liberties which have been mangled and shattered by Kerensky, will form a government which nobody will be able to overthrow. …

The Democratic Conference represents not a majority of the revolutionary people, but only the compromising upper strata of the petty bourgeoisie. … The Democratic Conference is deceiving the peasants; it is giving them neither peace nor land.”

Lenin developed this idea in Marxism and Insurrection, which he sent to the Bolshevik Central Committee on September 15th: “To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.

Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.

To show that it is precisely the present moment that the Party must recognize as the one in which the entire course of events has objectively placed insurrection on the order of the day and that insurrection must be treated as an art, it will perhaps be best to use the method of comparison, and to draw a parallel between July 3-4 and the September days. On July 3-4, … the objective conditions for the victory of the insurrection did not exist.

(1) We still lacked the support of the class which is the vanguard of the revolution.

We still did not have a majority among the workers and soldiers of Petrograd and Moscow. Now we have a majority in both Soviets. It was created solely by the history of July and August, by the experience of the ‘ruthless treatment’ meted out to the Bolsheviks, and by the experience of the Kornilov revolt.

(2) There was no country-wide revolutionary upsurge at that time. There is now, after the Kornilov revolt. The situation in the provinces and assumption of power by the Soviets in many localities prove this.

(3) At that time there was no vacillation on any serious political scale among our enemies and among the irresolute petty bourgeoisie. Now the vacillation is enormous. …

(4) Therefore, an insurrection on July 3-4 would have been a mistake; we could not have retained power either physically or politically. …

Now the picture is entirely different. We have the following of the majority of a class, the vanguard of the revolution, the vanguard of the people, which is capable of carrying the masses with it.”