Vladimir llyich Lenin, Marxist revolutionary and
leader of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, published this speech in September 1917 just weeks before the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution. In it Lenin attacks the Provisional Government, a coalition of political groups that had overthrown the Tsarist regime in March that year. Lenin believed the March Revolution was just a first stage that must be followed by a second revolution. In this, power would be taken into the hands of the working people (the proletariat) and the peasants, rather than being held by the bourgeoisie (the middle classes) who only wanted moderate changes.
Since its establishment the Provisional Government had faced competition from workers’ councils or ‘Soviets’. The Soviets controlled the transport system and national industrial resources. The Provisional Government lacked any real power and could not resolve Russia’s serious economic crisis and food shortages. Its commitment to the war against Germany was also unpopular.
By the end of 1917, Petrograd was in turmoil. Workers were taking over factories and Lenin’s slogan, ‘Power to the Soviets’, was becoming reality. Together with Leon Trotsky, head of the Petrograd Soviet, Lenin and other top Bolsheviks hurriedly planned for an armed uprising.
On the night of 6 November 1917 Lenin ordered his Red Guards to take over key institutions in Petrograd, including the Provisional Government’s headquarters in the Winter Palace. With very little bloodshed, the Bolsheviks seized power in the second 1917 Russian Revolution.
Lenin was born in 1870 into a middle-class family. His real name was Vladimir lIyich Ulyanov. Both his parents were teachers deeply committed to improving the lot of ordinary Russians. Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, introduced Vladimir to revolutionary ideas and when Alexander was executed in 1887 for his role in plotting against the Tsar, Lenin was deeply affected. He immersed himself in radical writings, particularly those of Communist thinker Karl Marx. Lennin attended university in Kazan but expelled and exiled for his radical views.
After gaining a law degree as an external student of St Petersburg University in 1891, Lenin briefly practised law. His main interest, however, was planning for revolutionary change in Russia through adapting Marx’s ideas. The Russian working class had failed to fulfil Marx’s predictions that they would spontaneously rise up and gain power. Lenin believed that radical awareness had to be created in them through agitation by a well-organised revolutionary party that would act as a vanguard in the revolution.
After being imprisoned and sent to Siberia during 1897 and 1900, Lenin went abroad where he organised a secret newspaper Iskra (The Spark). During this time he became the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party. On arrival in Russia from Switzerland on 16 April 1917, Lenin received a triumphant welcome from his followers.
After the October Revolution, as head of the first Soviet government, Lenin guided the Soviet state successfully through its early years, including a civil war between 1918 and 1921. In 1922 he had the first of a series of strokes that led to his death in 1924. His body was embalmed and displayed in a glass coffin that became a great Communist shrine for those who revere Lenin as the founder of Russian Communism and the formulator of Marxism-Leninism. It is still visited today. Although famed for his political thinking, Lenin’s main historical significance is as a revolutionary leader who managed to seize and retain power through his skills in political strategy and his organising abilities.
The key question of every revolution is undoubtedly the question of state power. Which class holds power decides everything. When Dyelo Naroda, the paper of the chief governing party in Russia, recently complained that, owing to the controversies over power, both the question of the Constituent Assembly and that of bread are being forgotten, the Socialist-Revolutionaries should have been answered, ‘Blame yourselves. For it is the wavering and indecision of your party that are mostly to blame for “ministerial leapfrog”, the interminable postponements of the Constituent Assembly, and the undermining by the capitalists of the planned and agreed measures of a grain monopoly and of providing the country with bread.’
The question of power cannot be evaded or brushed aside, because it is the key question determining everything in a revolution’s development, and in its foreign and domestic policies. It is an undisputed fact that our revolution has ‘wasted’ six months in wavering over the system of power; it is a fact resulting from the wavering policy of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. In the long run, these parties’ wavering policy was determined by the class position of the petty bourgeoisie, by their economic instability in the struggle between capital and labour.
The whole issue at present is whether the petty-bourgeois democrats have learned anything during these great, exceptionally eventful six months. If not, then the revolution is lost, and only a victorious uprising of the proletariat can save it. If they have learned something, the establishment of a stable, unwavering power must be begun immediately. Only if power is based, obviously and unconditionally, on a majority of the population can it be stable during a popular revolution, i.e., a revolution which rouses the people, the majority of the workers and peasants, to action. Up to now state power in Russia has virtually remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie, who are compelled to make only particular concessions (only to begin withdrawing them the following day), to hand out promises (only to fail to carry them out), to search for all sorts of excuses to cover their domination (only to fool the people by a show of ‘honest coalition’), etc., etc. In words it claims to be a popular, democratic, revolutionary government, but in deeds it is an anti-popular, undemocratic, counter-revolutionary, bourgeois government. This is the contradiction which has existed so far and which has been a source of the complete instability and inconsistency of power, of that ‘ministerial leapfrog’ in which the SRs and Mensheviks have been engaged with such unfortunate (for the people) enthusiasm.
In early June 1917 I told the All-Russia Congress of Soviets that either the Soviets would be dispersed and die an inglorious death, or all power must be transferred to them …. The slogan, ‘Power to the Soviets’, however, is very often, if not in most cases, taken quite incorrectly to mean a cabinet of the parties of the Soviet majority. We would like to go into more detail on this very false notion ….
‘Power to the Soviets’ means radically reshaping the entire old state apparatus, that bureaucratic apparatus which hampers everything democratic. It means removing this apparatus and substituting for it a new, popular one, i.e., a truly democratic apparatus of Soviets, i.e., the organised and armed majority of the people – the workers, soldiers and peasants. It means allowing the majority of the people initiative and independence not only in the election of deputies, but also in state administration, in effecting reforms and various other changes.
To make this difference clearer and more comprehensible, it is worth recalling a valuable admission made some time ago by the paper of the governing party of the SRs, Dyelo Naroda. It wrote that even in those ministries which were in the hands of socialist Ministers (this was written during the notorious coalition with the Cadets, when some Mensheviks and SRs were ministers], the entire administrative apparatus had remained unchanged, and hampered work.
Let those who say: ‘We have no apparatus to replace the old one, which inevitably gravitates towards the defence of the bourgeoisie’, be ashamed of themselves. For this apparatus exists. It is the Soviets. Don’t be afraid of the people’s initiative and independence. Put your faith in their revolutionary organisations, and you will see in all realms of state affairs the same strength, majesty and invincibility of the workers and peasants as were displayed in their unity and their fury against Kornilov.
There is no middle course. This has been shown by experience. Either all power goes to the Soviets both centrally and locally, and all land is given to the peasants immediately, pending the Constituent Assembly’s decision, or the landowners and capitalists obstruct every step, restore the landowners’ power, drive the peasants into a rage and carry things to an exceedingly violent peasant revolt.
Only the dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants is capable of smashing the resistance of the capitalists, of displaying truly supreme courage and determination in the exercise of power, and of securing the enthusiastic, selfless and truly heroic support of the masses both in the army and among the peasants.
Power to the Soviets – this is the only way to make further progress gradual, peaceful and smooth, keeping perfect pace with the political awareness and resolve of the majority of the people and with their own experience. Power to the Soviets means the complete transfer of the country’s administration and economic control into the hands of the workers and peasants, to whom nobody would dare offer resistance and who, through practice, through their own experience, would soon learn how to distribute the land, products and grain properly.
Vladimir llyich Lenin, Marxist revolutionary and