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The Autocracy and the Proletariat[1]

V. I. Lenin

Russia is experiencing a resurgence of the constitutional movement. Our generation has never witnessed anything like the present political ferment. Legal newspapers are attacking the bureaucracy, demanding participation of the people's representatives in the state administration, and pressing for liberal reforms. All varieties of meetings of Zemstvo officials,[3] doctors, lawyers, engineers, farmers, municipal councillors,[4] etc., etc., are adopting resolutions more or less definitely demanding a constitution. Passionate appeals for liberty and political accusations of a boldness to which the Russian man in the street is unaccustomed can be heard at every turn. Under pressure of the workers and the radical youth, liberal gatherings are converted into open public meetings and street demonstrations. Undercurrents of discontent are manifestly stirring among wide sections of the proletariat, among the poor of town and country. Although the proletariat is taking a comparatively small part in the more spectacular and ceremonious manifestations of the liberal movement, although it seems to be standing somewhat aloof from the polite conferences of the solid citizens, everything points to the fact that the workers are keenly interested in the movement. Everything points to the fact that the workers are eager for big public meetings and open street demonstrations. The proletariat is holding itself back, as it were, carefully taking its bearings, gathering its forces, and deciding the question whether or not the moment for the decisive struggle for freedom has come.

Apparently, the wave of liberal excitation is beginning to subside somewhat. The rumours and foreign newspaper re ports to the effect that reactionaries have gained the upper hand in the most influential Court circles are being confirmed. The ukase of Nicholas II, published the other day, was a direct slap in the face for the liberals.[5] The tsar intends to preserve and uphold the autocratic regime. The tsar does not want to change the form of government and has no intention of granting a constitution. He promises—only promises—all manner of reforms of a quite paltry nature. No guarantees, of course, are given that these reforms will really be implemented. Police restrictions against the liberal press are becoming daily and hourly more stringent. All open demonstrations are being suppressed again, if anything, with greater severity than before. The screw is being put on the liberal councillors again, both Zemstvo[6] and municipal, still more so in the case of those officials who play the liberal. The liberal newspapers are falling into a despondent tone and apologising to their correspondents for not publishing their letters, which they dare not do.

It is quite within the realm of possibility that the wave of liberal agitation which rose so rapidly after the permission granted by Svyatopolk-Mirsky[7] will abate just as quickly after the new ban. One must distinguish between the profound causes, which inevitably and unavoidably lead—and will lead more and more—to opposition and struggle against the autocracy, and the trivial reasons of a passing liberal ferment. The profound causes lead to profound, powerful, and persistent popular movements. Trivial reasons are at times Cabinet changes or the usual attempt on the part of the government to pursue for an hour the policy of "the sly fox" after some terrorist act. The assassination of Plehve[8] evidently cost the terrorist organisation tremendous effort and involved long preparation. The very success of this terrorist act hears out all the more strikingly the experience of the entire history of the Russian revolutionary movement, which warns us against such methods of struggle as terrorism. Russian terrorism has always been a specifically intellectualist method of struggle. And whatever may be said of the importance of terrorism, not in lieu of, but in conjunction with, the people's movement, the facts irrefutably testify that in our country individual political assassinations have nothing in common with the forcible actions of the people's revolution. In capitalist society a mass movement is possible only as a class movement of the workers. This movement is developing in Russia according to its own independent laws; it is proceeding in its own way, gaining in depth and in breadth, and passing from a temporary lull to a new upsurge. It is only the liberal wave that rises and falls strictly in accord with the moods of the different ministers, whose replacement is accelerated by bombs. Small wonder, then, that sympathy with terrorism is to be met with so often in our country among the radical (or radical-posing) representatives of the bourgeois Opposition. Small wonder that; among the revolutionary intelligentsia, the people most likely to be carried away (whether for long or for a moment) by terrorism are those who have no faith in the vitality and strength of the proletariat and the proletarian class struggle.

The fact that the spurt of liberal activity for one or another reason is short-lived and unstable cannot, of course, make us forget the irremovable contradiction that exists between the autocracy and the needs of the developing bourgeois society. The autocracy is bound to be a drag on social development. The interests of the bourgeoisie as a class, as well as the interests of the intelligentsia, without which modern capitalist production is inconceivable, clash more and more with the autocracy as time goes on. Superficial though the reason for the liberals' declarations may be and petty though the character of the liberals' half-hearted and equivocal position, the autocracy can maintain real peace only with a handful of highly privileged magnates from the landowning and merchant class, but in no sense with that class as a whole. Direct representation of the interests of the ruling class in the form of a constitution is essential for a country that wants to be a European country and, on pain of political and economic defeat, is obliged by its position to become a European country. It is therefore extremely important for the class-conscious proletariat to have a clear understanding both of the inevitability of the liberals' protests against the autocracy and of the actual bourgeois character of these protests.

The working class is setting itself the great and epoch- making aims of liberating humanity from every form of oppression and exploitation of man by man. Throughout the World it has striven hard for decades on end to achieve these aims, steadily widening its struggle and organising itself in mass parties, undaunted by occasional defeats and temporary set-backs. Nothing can be more vital for such a truly revolutionary class than to rid itself of all self-deception, of all mirages and illusions. One of the most widespread and persistent illusions with us in Russia is the notion that our liberal movement is not a bourgeois movement, and that the impending revolution in Russia will not be a bourgeois revolution. The Russian intellectual, from the most moderate Osvobozhdeniye liberal[9] to the most extreme Socialist-Revolutionary,[10] always thinks that one makes our revolution colourless, that one degrades and vulgarises it, by admitting it to be a bourgeois revolution. To the Russian class-conscious proletarian this admission is the only true class characterisation of the actual state of affairs. To the proletarian the struggle for political liberty and a democratic republic in a bourgeois society is only one of the necessary stages in the struggle for the social revolution which will overthrow the bourgeois system. Strictly differentiating between stages that are essentially different, soberly examining the conditions under which they manifest themselves, does not at all mean indefinitely postponing one's ultimate aim, or slowing down one's progress in advance. On the contrary, it is for the purpose of accelerating the advance and of achieving the ultimate aim as quickly and securely as possible that it is necessary to understand the relation of classes in modern society. Nothing but disillusionment and unending vacillation await those who shun the allegedly one-sided class point of view, who would be socialists, yet are afraid openly to call the impending revolution in Russia—the revolution that has begun in Russia—a bourgeois revolution.

Characteristically, at the very height of the present constitutional movement, the more democratic of the legal publications took advantage of the unusual freedom to attack, not only the "bureaucracy", but also the "exclusive and hence erroneous theory of the class struggle" which is alleged to be "scientifically untenable" (Nasha Zhizn,[11] No. 28). If you please, the problem of bringing the intelligentsia closer to the masses "has hitherto been dealt with solely by throwing the emphasis on the class contradictions existing between the masses and those sections of society from which ... the greater part of the intelligentsia springs". Needless to say, this presentation of the facts is completely at variance with the real state of affairs. The very opposite is true. The entire mass of the Russian legally-active uplift intelligentsia, all the old Russian socialists, all political figures of the Osvobozhdeniye type have always completely ignored the profound nature of the class contradictions in Russia in general and in the Russian countryside in particular. Even the extreme Left Russian radical intelligentsia, the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, sins most in ignoring this fact; one need only recall its usual arguments about the "labouring peasantry", or about the impending revolution being "not a bourgeois, but a democratic one".

No, the nearer the moment of revolution draws and the more acute the constitutional movement becomes, the more strictly must the party of the proletariat guard its class independence and not allow its class demands to be swamped in general democratic phrases. The more frequently and decidedly the representatives of so-called society come forward with what they claim to be the demands of the whole people, the more relentlessly must the Social-Democrats expose the class nature of this "society". Take the notorious resolution of the "secret" Zemstvo congress. held on November 6-8.[12] You will find there, thrust into the background, deliberately hazy and half-hearted constitutional aspirations. You will find mention there of the people and society, more often society than the people. You will find the most detailed and comprehensive suggestions for reforms of the Zemstvo and municipal institutions — institutions, that is, which represent the interests of the landowners and the capitalists. You will find mention of reforms in the living conditions of the peasantry, of the liberation of the peasantry from tutelage, and of the safeguarding of correct judicial forms. It is quite clear that you are dealing with representatives of the propertied classes who are only bent on securing concessions from the autocracy and have no thought of changing in any way the foundations of the economic system. If people like these want a "radical [allegedly radical][2] change in the present state of inequality and oppression of the peasantry", it only proves anew that the Social-Democrats were right in tirelessly stressing the backwardness of the system and of the living conditions of the peasantry in relation to the general conditions of the bourgeois order. The Social-Democrats have always urged that the class-conscious proletariat should strictly distinguish in the general peasant movement the over-riding interests and demands of the peasant bourgeoisie, however much these demands may be veiled and nebulous, and in whatever cloak of utopian "levelling" the peasant ideology (and "Socialist-Revolutionary" phrase-mongering) may invest them. Take the resolutions of the engineers' banquet in St. Petersburg on December 4. You will find that the 590 banquet guests, and together with them the 6,000 engineers who subscribed to the resolution, declared for a constitution, "without which Russian industry cannot be properly protected", while at the same time protesting against the placing of government orders with foreign concerns.

Can anyone still fail to see that it is the interests of all sections of the landowning, commercial, industrial and peasant bourgeoisie which are at the bottom of the constitutional aspirations that have erupted to the surface? Are we to be led astray by the fact that these interests are represented by the democratic intelligentsia, which everywhere and always, in all European revolutions of the bourgeoisie, has assumed the role of publicists, speakers, and political leaders?

A grave task now confronts the Russian proletariat. 'The autocracy is wavering. The burdensome and hopeless war into which it has plunged has seriously undermined the foundations of its power and rule. It cannot maintain itself in power now without an appeal to the ruling classes, without the support of the intelligentsia; such an appeal and such support, however, are bound to lead to constitutional demands. The bourgeois classes are trying to force an advantage for them selves out of the government's predicament. The government is playing a desperate game; it is trying to wriggle out of its difficulties, to get off with a few paltry concessions, non-political reforms, and non-committal promises, with which the tsar's new ukase is replete. Whether this game will succeed, even temporarily and partially, will in the long run depend on the Russian proletariat, on the degree of its organisation and the force of its revolutionary onset. The proletariat must take advantage of the political situation, which is greatly in its favour. The proletariat must support the constitutional movement of the bourgeoisie; it must rouse and rally to its side the broadest possible sections of the exploited masses, muster all its forces, and start an uprising at the moment when the government is in the most desperate straits and popular unrest is at its highest.

What immediate form should the proletariat's support of the constitutionalists take? Chiefly, the utilisation of the general unrest for the purpose of carrying on agitation and organising the least involved and most backward sections of the working class and the peasantry. Naturally, the organised proletariat, Social-Democracy, should send its forces among all classes of the population; yet the more independently the classes now act, the more acute the struggle becomes, and the nearer the moment of the decisive battle approaches, the more should our work be concentrated on preparing the proletarians and semi-proletarians themselves for the direct struggle for freedom. At such a moment only opportunists can qualify the speeches of individual workingmen in Zemstvo and other public assemblies as a very active struggle, or a new method of struggle, or the highest type of demonstration. Such manifestations can only be of quite secondary importance. It is far more important now to turn the attention of the proletariat to really high and active forms of struggle, such as the famous mass demonstration in Rostov and a number of mass demonstrations in the South.[13] It is far more important now to increase our ranks, organise our forces, and prepare for an even more direct and open mass conflict.

Of course, there is no suggestion in this that the ordinary day-to-day work of the Social-Democrats should be abandoned. Social-Democrats will never give up that work, which they regard as the real preparation for the decisive fight; for they rely wholly and exclusively on the activity, the class-consciousness, and the organisation of the proletariat, on its influence among the labouring and exploited masses. It is a question of pointing out the right road, of calling attention to the need for going forward, to the harmfulness of tactical vacillations. The day-to-day work, which the class conscious proletariat should never forget under any circumstances, includes also the work of organisation. Without broad and diverse workers' organisations, and without their connection with revolutionary Social-Democracy, it is impossible to wage a successful struggle against the autocracy. On the other hand, organisational work is impossible without a firm rebuff to the disorganising tendencies displayed in our country, as everywhere else, by the weak-willed intellectual elements in the Party, who change their slogans like gloves; organisational work is impossible without a struggle against the absurd and reactionary organisation-as-process "theory", which serves to conceal confusion of every description.

The development of the political crisis in Russia will now depend chiefly on the course of the war with Japan. This war has done more than anything else to expose the rottenness of the autocracy; it is doing more than anything else to drain its strength financially and militarily, and to torment and spur on to revolt the long-suffering masses of the people, of whom this criminal and shameful war is demanding such endless sacrifices. Autocratic Russia has already been defeated by constitutional Japan, and dragging on the war will only increase and aggravate the defeat. The best part of the Russian navy has been destroyed; the position of Port Arthur is hopeless, and the naval squadron sent to its relief has not the slightest chance of even reaching its destination, let alone of achieving success; the main army under Kuropatkin has lost over 200,000 men and stands exhausted and helpless before the, enemy, who is bound to crush it after the capture of Port Arthur. Military disaster is inevitable, and together with it discontent, unrest, and indignation will inevitably increase tenfold.

We must prepare for that moment with the utmost energy. At that moment, one of the outbreaks which are recurring, now here, now there, with such growing frequency, will develop into a tremendous popular movement. At that moment the proletariat will rise and take its stand at the head of the insurrection to win freedom for the entire people and to secure for the working class the possibility of waging the open and broad struggle for socialism, a struggle enriched by the whole experience of Europe.


[1] Lenin's article "The Autocracy and the Proletariat" was published as an editorial in issue No. I of the newspaper Vperyod.

Vperyod (Forward) was an underground Bolshevik weekly published in Geneva from December 22, 1904 (January 4, 1905), to May 5 (18), 1905. Eighteen numbers were issued. The newspaper's organiser, manager, and guiding spirit was V. I. Lenin. Other members of the Editorial Board were V. V. Vorovsky, M. S. Olminsky, and A. V. Lunacharsky.

The outstanding role which the newspaper played in combating Menshevism, re-establishing the Party principle, and formulating and elucidating the issues posed by the rising revolution was acknowledged in a special resolution of the Third Party Congress, which recorded a vote of thanks to the Editorial Board.

Over forty articles and minor items by Lenin were published in Vperyod. Some issues of the newspaper, e.g., Nos. 4 and 5, which dealt with the events of January 9 (22), 1905, were written almost entirely by Lenin.

Vperyod maintained regular contacts with the Party organisations in Russia. Especially close connections existed with the St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Baku, Ekaterinoslav, and other Party committees, as well as with the Caucasian League Committee of the R.S.D.L.P., which formed a special publicists' group to assist Lenin's paper.

Lenin's articles in Vperyod were often reprinted in the local Bolshevik press and published in the form of leaflets and pamphlets.

[2] Interpolations in square brackets (within passages quoted by Lenin) have been introduced by Lenin, unless otherwise indicated.—Ed.

[3] Zemstvo—the name given to the local government bodies formed in the central provinces of tsarist Russia in 1864. They were dominated by the nobility and their powers were limited to purely local economic problems (hospital and road building, statistics, insurance, etc.). Their activities were controlled by the Provincial Governors and by the Ministry of the Interior, which could rescind any decisions of which the government disapproved.

[4] Municipal councillors—members of municipal councils in tsarist Russia.

[5] The reference is to the tsar's ukase of December 12 (25), 1904, to the Senate.

[6] Zemstvo councillors—members of Zemstvo assemblies in tsarist Russia.

[7] The reference is to the tsarist government's brief flirtation with the liberals in 1904. Svyatopolk-Mirsky, the Minister of the Interior, sanctioned the Zemstvo meetings, slightly relaxed the censorship, pardoned several banished liberal politicians, etc.

[8] Plehve, V. K.—a statesman in tsarist Russia; between 1902 and 1904 Minister of the Interior and Chief of the Gendarmes. He waged a bitter fight against the revolutionary movement.

[9] Osvobozhdeniye liberals—bourgeois liberals grouped round the magazine Osvobozhdeniye (Emancipation), which was published abroad in 1902-05 under the editorship of P.B. Struve. The Osvobozhdeniye liberals organised the liberal-monarchist Osvobozhdeniye League in January 1904. Later they formed the nucleus of the principal bourgeois party in Russia—the Constitutional-Democratic Party (Cadets).

[10] Socialists-Revolutionaries (S. R. 's)— a petty-bourgeois party in Russia, which arose at the end of 1901 and the beginning of 1902 as a result of the union of the Narodnik groups and circles. The news paper Revolutsionnaya Rossiya (Revolutionary Russia) (1900-05) and the magazine Vestnik Russkoi Revolutsii (Herald of the Russian Revolution) (1901-05) became its official organs. The views of the S.R.'s were an eclectic mixture of the ideas of Narodism and revisionism; they tried, as Lenin put it, to patch up "the rents in the Narodnik ideas" with "bits of fashionable opportunist 'criticism' of Marxism". (See present edition, Vol. 9, "Socialism and the Peasantry", p. 310.) The S.R.'s failed to see the class distinctions between proletariat and peasantry, glossed over the class differentiation and contradictions within the peasantry, and rejected the proletariat's leading role in the revolution. The tactics of individual terrorism which the S.R.'s advocated as a basic method of struggle against the autocracy caused great harm to the revolutionary-movement and made it difficult to organise the masses for revolutionary struggle.

The agrarian programme of the SR.'s envisaged the abolition of private ownership of the land and its transfer to the village communes on the basis of equalised tenure, as well as the development of all forms of co-operation. There was nothing socialistic in this programme, which the SR.'s sought to present as a programme for "socialising the land", since abolition of private ownership of the land alone, as Lenin pointed out, cannot abolish the domination of capital and the poverty of the masses. The real, historically progressive content of the S.R. agrarian programme was the struggle for the abolition of landlord ownership, for the "American" way of capitalist development in Russian agriculture. This programme objectively expressed the interests and aspirations of the peasantry at the stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The Bolshevik Party fought hard against the attempts of the SR.'s to camouflage themselves as socialists and to spread their influence to the working class, against their tactics of individual terrorism; the S.R. 's were the chief opponents of the Bolsheviks, who struggled to gain influence over the peasantry and to strengthen the alliance between the working class and the peasantry. At the-same time, on definite conditions, the Bolsheviks concluded temporary agreements with the SR.'s in the struggle against tsarism.

In the final analysis, the absence of class homogeneousness in the peasantry was responsible for the political and ideological instability and the organisational confusion in the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, and for its constant vacillation between the liberal bourgeoisie and the proletariat. There had been a split in the Socialist-Revolutionary Party during the first Russian revolution, its Right Wing forming the legal Toilers' Popular-Socialist Party, which held views close to those of the Constitutional-Democrats and the "Left" Wing taking shape as the semi-anarchist league of "Maximalists". During the Stolypin reaction, the Socialist-Revolutionary Party experienced a complete ideological and organisational break-down, and the First World War saw most SR.'s adopt the standpoint of social-chauvinism.

After the victory of the February bourgeois-democratic revolution in 1917, the SR.'s, together with the Mensheviks and Constitutional-Democrats, were the mainstay of the counter-revolutionary bourgeois-landlord Provisional Government, in which leaders of the party (Kerensky, Avksentyev, Chernov) participated. Influenced by the revolutionising of the peasantry, the "Left" Wing of the S.R. s founded an independent party of Left S.R.'s at the end of November 1917. Striving to maintain their influence among the peasant masses, the Left S.R.'s formally recognised the Soviet power and entered into an agreement with the Bolsheviks, but with the development of the class struggle in the villages they turned against the Soviet power. During the foreign military intervention and the Civil War, the SR.'s carried on counter-revolutionary subversive activity, strongly supported the interventionists and whiteguard generals, took part in counter-revolutionary plots, and organised terrorist acts against leaders of the Soviet state. After the Civil War, the S.R.'s continued their hostile activity against the Soviet state within the country and abroad among whiteguard émigrés.

[11] Nasha Zhizn (Our Life)—a newspaper close to the Left Wing of the Constitutional-Democrats, published in St. Petersburg between 1904 and 1905.

[12] Lenin applies the word "secret" ironically to the congress of chairmen of Zemstvo Boards and other Zemstvo officials which was due to be held on November 6, 1904, in St. Petersburg by permission of the tsar. Five days before the opening, when the delegates had begun to arrive, it was announced that the tsarist government had proposed the postponement of the congress for a year. However, Minister of the Interior Svyatopolk-Mirsky, who was flirting with the liberals, allowed the Zemstvo delegates to have a chat "over a cup of tea in private apartments".

[13] The famous Rostov strike broke out on November 2 (15), 1902. It quickly developed into a political demonstration in which up to thirty thousand workers took part. The strike lasted until November 25 (December 8). It was led by the Iskrist Don Committee of the R.S.D.L.P. (See present edition, Vol. 6, "New Events and Old Questions", pp. 278-83.)

The number of mass demonstrations in the South mentioned by Lenin refers to the mass political strikes and demonstrations which took place in the South of Russia in 1903, involving the Transcaucasus (Baku, Tiflis, and Batum) and the chief Ukrainian cities (Odessa, Kiev, and Ekaterinoslav).

Published: Vperyod, No. 1, January 4, 1905 (December 22, 1904). Published according to the text in the newspaper Vperyod.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962, Moscow, Volume 8, pages 17-28.
Translated: Bernard Isaacs and The Late Isidor Lasker

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