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Revolution Teaches

V. I. Lenin

Differences within or between political parties are usually resolved not only by polemics over principles, but also by the course of political developments. In particular, differences on a party’s tactics, i.e., its political conduct, are often resolved by those with incorrect opinions going over in fact to the correct path of struggle, under the pressure of the course of developments that simply brush aside erroneous opinions, making them pointless and devoid of any interest. This, of course, does not mean that fundamental differences on questions of tactics do not call for explanations of principles, explanations which alone can keep the Party equal to its theoretical convictions. No. This means only that decisions made with regard to tactics must be verified as often as possible in the light of new political events. Such verification is necessary from the standpoint of both theory and practice: from the standpoint of theory in order to ascertain in fact whether the decisions taken have been correct, and what amendments to these decisions subsequent political events make necessary; from the standpoint of practice, in order to learn how to use the decisions as a proper guide, to learn to consider them as directives for practical application.

A revolutionary period, more than any other, provides material for such verification, thanks to the tremendous speed of political development and the sharpness of political clashes. In a revolutionary period the old "superstructure" falls apart, and, in full view of everyone, a new one is created by the independent action of the most diverse social forces, which reveal their true nature in practice.

Thus, the Russian revolution, too, provides us almost weekly with an amazing wealth of political material for verifying previously-made tactical decisions, and for drawing most instructive lessons with regard to our entire practical activities. Take the Odessa events. An attempt at insurrection has failed. A bitter reverse, a severe defeat. But what a world of difference there is between this set-back in the struggle and the set-backs in the efforts made by the Shipovs, Trubetskois, Petrunkeviches, Struves, and all such bourgeois flunkeys of the tsar, to strike a deal! Engels once said that defeated armies learn their lessons well. These splendid words apply in far greater measure to revolutionary armies, whose replacements come from the progressive classes. Until the old, corrupt superstructure, whose putrefaction infects the whole people, is swept away, each new defeat will produce ever new armies of fighters. Of course, there also exists mankind’s far wider collective experience, which has left its impress upon the history of international democracy and of international Social-Democracy, and has been systematised by the foremost representatives of revolutionary thought. Our Party draws on that experience for material to be used in its everyday propaganda and agitation. But while society is based on the oppression and exploitation of millions of working people, only the few can learn directly from that experience. The masses have to learn mostly from their own experience, paying dearly for every lesson. The lesson of January 9 was a hard one, but it revolutionised the temper of the entire proletariat of the whole of Russia. The lesson of the Odessa uprising is a hard one, but, with sentiments already revolutionised, it will now teach the revolutionary proletariat not only how to fight but also how to win. Regarding the Odessa events we say: the revolutionary army has been defeated— long live the revolutionary army!

We have already stated in No. 7 of our paper that the Odessa uprising has shed new light on our slogans calling for a revolutionary army and a revolutionary government[1]. In the preceding number we spoke about the military lessons of the uprising (Comrade V.S. ’s article). In this issue we dwell once more on some of its political lessons (the article "Urban Revolution"). We must now deal with the verification of our recent tactical decisions in the double aspect of theoretical correctness and practical expediency we have spoken of above.

Insurrection and a revolutionary government are the most vital political questions of the present time. These are questions that Social-Democrats have most of all discussed and argued about among themselves. It was to these questions that the main resolutions of the Third Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. and of the Conference of the break-away section of the Party were devoted. It may now be asked: in what light do these differences appear alter the Odessa uprising? Anyone who will now go to the trouble of re-reading, on the one hand, the statements and articles on this uprising, and, on the other, the four resolutions on issues of insurrection and of a provisional government adopted by the Party Congress and by the new-Iskrists’ Conference will at once notice how, under the influence of events, the latter have in actual fact begun to side with their opponents, i.e., to act not according to their own resolutions, but according to those of the Third Congress. There is no better critic of an erroneous doctrine than the course of revolutionary events.

Under the influence of these events Iskra’s Editorial Board has issued a leaflet entitled "The First Victory of the Revolution", addressed to "Russian citizens, workers, and peasants". Here is the most important passage in the leaflet:

"The time has come to act boldly and to support the soldiers’ bold rebellion with all our might. It is boldness that will now win the day!

"Therefore, call open meetings of the people and bring them tidings of the collapse of tsarism’s military prop! Wherever possible seize municipal institutions and make them the bulwark o? the people s revolutionary government! Oust the tsarist officials and appoint general elections to bodies of revolutionary government, to which you will entrust the provisional administration of public affairs pending the final victory over the tsar’s government and the establishment of a new political regime. Seize the branches of the State Bank and the arsenals and arm the people! Establish contacts between the cities, between town and countryside, and let armed citizens hasten to each other’s assistance wherever aid is needed! Take the prisons and free the champions of our cause imprisoned there—they will swell your ranks! Proclaim everywhere the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy and its replacement by a free democratic republic! Arise citizens! The hour of liberation has struck! Long live the revolution! Long live the democratic republic! Long live the revolutionary army! Down with the autocracy!"

Thus, we have before us a determined, open, and clear call for an armed uprising of the whole people. We also have here an equally determined call—though, regrettably, inexplicit and incompletely worded—to form a provisional revolutionary government. Let us first consider the question of an uprising.

Is there any difference in principle between the way this question was handled by the Third Congress and by the Conference? Undoubtedly there is. We have already dealt with this in Proletary, No. 6 ("A Third Step Back"[2]) and we shall now refer, furthermore, to the instructive testimony of Osvobozhdeniye. In ·No. 72 of the magazine we read that the "Majority" is lapsing into "abstract revolutionism, rebelliousness, an eagerness to stir up insurrection among the popular masses by any and every means, and to immediately seize power on their behalf". "On the contrary, the Minority, while steadfastly adhering to the dogma of Marxism, at the same time preserves the realistic elements of the Marxist world outlook." This opinion of liberals who have gone through the preparatory school of Marxism and through Bernsteinism is extremely valuable. The liberal bourgeois have always reproached the revolutionary wing of Social- Democracy with "abstract revolutionism and rebelliousness and have always praised the opportunist wing for its "realism" in stating the question. Iskra itself has had to admit (see No. 73, note referring to Mr. Struve’s approval of the "realism" of Comrade Akimov’s pamphlet) that, when spoken by the Osvobozhdeniye League members, "realist" means "opportunist". The Osvobozhdeniye League members know only pedestrian realism; the revolutionary dialectics of Marxist realism, which emphasises the urgent tasks of the advanced class, and discovers in the existing state of things those elements that will lead to its overthrow, are absolutely alien to them. Therefore, Osvobozhdeniye’s characterisation of the two trends in Social-Democracy once more confirms a fact proved by our literature, namely, that the "Majority" is the revolutionary wing of Russian Social-Democracy, and the "Minority" its opportunist wing.

Osvobozhdeniye definitely admits that, compared with the Congress, "the Conference of the Minority regards insurrection in a quite different way". Indeed, the Conference resolution in the first place defeats its own purpose by now denying the possibility of a planned uprising (Clause 1), now admitting it (par. d), and, in the second place, confines itself to a mere enumeration of the general conditions for "preparing an uprising" such as: a) extending agitation; b) strengthening the ties with the mass movement; c) promoting a revolutionary consciousness; d) establishing connections between the various localities; e) winning over non-proletarian groups to support the proletariat. The Congress resolution, on the contrary, outspokenly proclaims positive slogans, recognises that the movement has already made insurrection imperative, and calls for the organisation of the proletariat for the immediate struggle, for the adoption of the most energetic measures to arm it, for the explanation through propaganda and agitation "not only of the political significance" of the uprising (in essence, the resolution of the Conference confines itself to this), but also its practical and organisational aspect.

For a clearer understanding of the difference between the two solutions of the problem let us recall the evolution of Social-Democratic views on insurrection since the very inception of the mass working-class movement. The first stage: 1897. In his Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats Lenin states that "to decide at the present time the question of what methods the Social-Democracy will resort to for the direct overthrow of the autocracy, whether it will choose an uprising, or a widespread political strike, or some other form of attack, would be akin to generals calling a council of war before they have mustered an army" (p. 18)[3]. Here, as we see, there is not the slightest reference to preparations for an uprising; what is spoken of is merely the mustering of an army, i.e., propaganda, agitation, and organisation in general.

The second stage: 1902. In Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? we read:

"...Picture to yourselves a popular uprising. Probably everyone will now (February 1902) agree that we must think of this and prepare for it. But how? Surely the Central Committee cannot appoint agents to all localities for the purpose of preparing the uprising! Even if we had a Central Committee it could achieve absolutely nothing by such appointments under present-day Russian conditions. But a network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to "sit about and wait" for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would guarantee the highest probability of success in the event of an uprising. Such activity would strengthen our contacts with the broadest strata of the working masses and with all social strata that are discontented with the autocracy, which is of such importance for an uprising. Precisely such activity would serve to cultivate the ability to estimate correctly the general political situation and, consequently, the ability to select the proper moment for an uprising. Precisely such activity would train all local organisations to respond simultaneously to the same political questions, incidents, and events that agitate the whole of Russia and to react to such ’incidents’ in the most vigorous, uniform, and expedient manner possible; for an uprising is in essence the most vigorous, most uniform, and most expedient ’answer’ of the entire people to the government. Lastly, it is precisely such activity that would train all revolutionary organisations throughout Russia to maintain the most continuous, and at the same time the most secret, contacts with one another, thus creating real Party unity; for without such contacts it will be impossible collectively to discuss the plan for the uprising and to take the necessary preparatory measures on its eve, measures that must be kept in the strictest secrecy" (pp. 136-37[4]).

What points does this reasoning bring out with regard to the question of an uprising? 1) The absurdity of the idea of "preparing" an uprising by appointing special agents who would "sit around and wait" for the call. 2) The necessity of contacts established in the course ol work done in common between people and organisations engaged in the regular work. 3) The necessity of strengthening the ties between the proletarian (workers) and the non-proletarian (all the discontented) sections of the population in the course of such work. 4) The necessity of jointly cultivating the ability to appraise correctly the political situation and to "react" to political events in the most expedient manner. 5) The need for actual unification of all local revolutionary organisations.

Consequently, the slogan of preparations for an uprising is already plainly advanced, but as yet there is no direct call to rise, no recognition that the movement "has already led up to" the necessity for an uprising, that it is necessary to arm immediately, to organise ourselves in combat squads, etc. Before us is an analysis of those very conditions for preparing an uprising which are repeated almost literally in the Conference resolution (in 1905!!).

The third stage: 1905. A further step forward is made in the newspaper Vperyod and later on in the resolution of the Third Congress. Besides general political preparations for an uprising, a direct slogan is issued, namely, that we should immediately organise and arm for an uprising, and that special (combat) squads should be formed, as the movement "has already led to the necessity of an armed uprising" (Clause 2 of the Congress resolution).

This piece of historical information leads us to three indubitable conclusions: 1) The assertion of the liberal bourgeoisie, the Osvobozhdeniye League, that we are lapsing into "abstract revolutionism and rebelliousness" is a downright lie. We have always raised, and are now raising, this question not in an "abstract" way, but on a concrete basis, answering it differently in 1897, in 1902, and in 1905. The accusation of rebelliousness is an opportunist phrase of the liberal bourgeois gentry, who are preparing to betray the interests of the revolution and to play it false at a time of decisive conflict with the autocracy. 2) The Conference of the new-Iskrists stopped short at the second stage in the evolution of the question of insurrection.. In 1905 it merely reiterated what had been enough in 1902. It lagged some three years behind revolutionary developments. 3) Under the influence of the lessons of life, namely, the Odessa uprising, the new-Iskrists have in fact acknowledged the necessity of acting according to the Congress resolution and not according to their own, i.e., they have recognised that the task of an insurrection is an urgent one, that a direct call must be made forthwith for the immediate organisation of an uprising and for the arming of the people.

The revolution has dislodged a backward Social-Democratic doctrine at one stroke. Another obstacle to practical unity in work in common with the new-Iskrists has been removed, which, of course, does not yet mean that differences on principles have been entirely eliminated. We cannot be content to have our tactical slogans limp behind events and to their being adapted to events after their occurrence. We must have slogans that lead us forward, light up the path before us, and raise us above the immediate tasks of the moment. To wage a consistent and sustained struggle the party of the proletariat cannot determine its tactics from occasion to occasion. In its tactical decisions it must combine fidelity to the principles of Marxism with due regard for the progressive tasks of the revolutionary class.

Take another urgent political question, that of a provisional revolutionary government. Here we see, perhaps, even more clearly that in its leaflet the Iskra Editorial Board has in fact abandoned the slogans of the Conference and has accepted the tactical slogans of the Third Congress. The absurd theory of "not setting ourselves the aim of seizing" (for a democratic revolution) "or sharing power in a provisional government" has gone by the board, for the leaflet makes a direct appeal for the "seizure of municipal institutions" and the organisation of a "provisional administration of public affairs". The absurd slogan of "remaining a party of extreme revolutionary opposition" (absurd in a period of revolution, although quite appropriate in a period of parliamentary struggle alone) has in fact been shelved, for the Odessa events have forced Iskra to realise that during an insurrection it is ridiculous to confine one self to this slogan, that it is necessary to call energetically for an uprising, for its vigorous prosecution and for the use of revolutionary power. The absurd slogan of "revolutionary communes" has also been discarded, for the events in Odessa have forced Iskra to realise that this slogan merely serves to confuse the democratic revolution with the socialist. To confuse these two very different things would be slicer adventurism, testifying to complete obscurity in theoretical thinking, and capable of hampering implementation of essential practical measures facilitating the working-class struggle for socialism in a democratic republic.

Call to mind the polemic between the new Iskra and Vperyod, the former’s tactics of action "only from below", as opposed to the Vperyod tactics of action "both from below and from above", and you will see that Iskra has accepted our solution of the question by now itself calling for action from above. Remember Iskra’s apprehensions that we might discredit ourselves by assuming responsibility for the treasury, finances, etc.—and you will see that, though our arguments failed to convince Iskra, the events did convince it of the correctness of those arguments, for in the leaflet quoted above Iskra clearly recommends "seizure of branches of the State Bank". The absurd theory that a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, their joint participation in a provisional revolutionary government constitutes "treason to the proletariat" or "vulgar Jaurèsism (Millerandism)" has simply been forgotten by the new-Iskrists, who are themselves now calling upon the workers and peasants to seize municipal institutions, branches of the State Bank and arsenals "to arm the whole people" (apparently, this time meaning to arm with weapons and not merely with a "burning desire to arm themselves"), to proclaim the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy, etc.—in a word, to act wholly in accordance with the programme provided in the resolution of the Third Congress, to act precisely as is indicated by the slogan calling for a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship and a provisional revolutionary government.

True Iskra mentions neither of these slogans in its leaflet. It enumerates and describes actions whose sum is characteristic of a provisional revolutionary government, but avoids mentioning the term. That is to be regretted. In actual fact it accepts this slogan, but the absence of a clear term can only create vacillation and uncertainty, and sow confusion in fighters’ minds. Fear of the words revolutionary government" and "revolutionary power" is a purely anarchist fear, and unworthy of a Marxist. To "seize" institutions and banks, "appoint elections", establish "provisional administration", and "proclaim the over throw of the monarchy"—for all this the first and absolutely necessary step is the proclamation of a provisional revolutionary government to unite all the military and political activities of the revolutionary people and direct these activities towards a single aim. Unless there is such unity, unless the provisional government is universally recognised by the revolutionary people, unless it assumes all power, any "seizure" of institutions and any "proclamation" of a republic will remain merely an outburst of senseless rebelliousness. Unless it is concentrated by the revolutionary government the people’s revolutionary energy will merely dissipate after the first success of the uprising, squander itself on trifles, and lose its national scope. It will be unable to cope with the task of keeping what has been seized, or of giving effect to what has been proclaimed.

We repeat: Social-Democrats who do not recognise the decisions of the Third Congress of the R.S.D.L.P. have been in actual fact forced by the course of events to act in full accordance with the slogans proclaimed by the Congress and to throw the Conference’s slogans by the board. Revolution teaches. It is our duty to make the most of the lessons it provides, frame our tactical slogans in conformity with our conduct and our immediate aims, give the masses a proper understanding of those immediate aims, and start most extensively organising the workers everywhere to fight in an uprising, create a revolutionary army, and form a provisional revolutionary government!


[1] "The Revolutionary Army and the Revolutionary Government", 1905. See present edition, Vol. 8, pp. 559-67.—Ed.

[2] First published in 1905. See present edition, Vol. 8, pp. 544-54.—Ed.

[3] First published in pamphlet form in Geneva, 1898. See present edition, Vol. 2, p. 342.—Ed.

[4] First published in Iskra, 1902. See present edition, Vol. 5, pp. 515-16.—Ed.

Published: Proletary, No. 9, July 26 (13), 1905.
Published according to the text in Proletary.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 9, pages 146-155.
Translated: The Late Abraham Fineberg and Julius Katzer

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