The significance of Lenin’s April Theses 1917

As part of our preparation for the national In Defence of Lenin conference we republish here an article by Darall Cozens from 2007.

This month marks 90 years since Lenin returned to Russia from exile. He immediately embarked on the task of convincing not only the mass of workers, but also the Bolshevik leadership, that the tasks of the revolution were socialist, that what was needed was for power to pass to the hands of the Soviets.

Revolutions are the supreme test for revolutionary ideas, programmes and the individuals who support these ideas. Comrades who have studied revolutions in order to understand the processes taking place will be disappointed if they expect a new revolutionary situation to develop exactly like a previous one. The task is to apply the method of analysis to the concrete situation that is unfolding. Theories on how to change society are not abstract schemas or dogmas that are applied at any given moment despite the nature of the concrete situation. Unfortunately however there are so-called revolutionaries who will try to fit the situation to the schema. They fail to recognise that an analysis that was relevant at one time and place is no longer valid because the objective situation has changed.

Revolutions throw up fundamental questions. What is the nature of the revolution? Is it a revolution to establish a bourgeois capitalist democracy or a workers’ democracy? What is the balance of forces between the classes? What forces are to lead the revolution? Is it the working class supported by other socially oppressed or marginalised layers? Is it the working class in alliance with “progressive” elements of the bourgeoisie? In the modern epoch the answers seem clear-cut. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness and socialism is on the agenda. For many revolutionary leaders in February 1917 the answers were not so clear-cut, even for many Bolsheviks.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia was the “dress rehearsal” for the October Revolution. In the space of a few weeks the whole of Russian society was turned upside down. The 300-year-old Romanov dynasty came to an end with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas Second on March 3. Strikes, demonstrations and mutinies in the armed forces had brought down the government. In this revolutionary situation there arose two organs of power. On the one hand there was the Temporary Committee of the fourth Duma, a self-appointed grouping of centre-right politicians supported by the middle and upper classes. This became the Provisional Government (PG) headed by Prince Lvov. The only socialist in the PG was Alexander Kerensky who was Minister of Justice. At the same time, on February 26 and 27, elections were held to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies.

On March 1, the PG began to implement some overdue political and legal reforms to prepare for elections to a Constituent Assembly (CA). The reforms, which any Marxist would have supported, included civil rights such as freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly and of religion, along with the right to strike (strikes had been brutally suppressed under the Tsarist regime), as well as amnesty for political and religious prisoners, an extension of the franchise and the introduction of a secret ballot in elections for the CA. It was also agreed, jointly with the Petrograd Soviet, that a militia would be established to replace the Tsarist police and that the 250,000-strong Petrograd Garrison, the armed power behind the revolution, would not be moved out of the capital.

On the same day however that the PG was issuing these orders, the Soviet published Army Order Number 1 which stated that soldiers and sailors were to obey the orders of the PG only if the Soviet gave its approval. In addition the Order stated that soldiers and sailors were to set up their own committees to take control over weapons out of the hands of the officers. A few days later the Soviet issued Army Order Number 2 which called on soldiers and sailors to sack their commanders and elect others in their place. In addition to this power, the Soviet also had control, through its elected trade union and worker delegates, over the railways, the postal and telegraph services. The Soviet had also set up food supply committees and was publishing its own newspaper – Izvestia (The News). Similar soviets were springing up all over the country (by autumn 1917 there were more than 900)

Frederick Engels once said that in the last analysis the State consists of a body of armed men. In March 1917 there was the PG with nominal political power and the Soviet with real political power in that nothing happened without its approval and it controlled the bodies of armed men. This was a classic situation of dual power where both organs of power even met in the same place – the Tauride Palace! Why then did the Soviet not sweep aside the PG which was a remnant of the fourth Duma that had been elected on a limited franchise and had limited support? The Soviet was an elected body of about 600 delegates that had huge support amongst the working class and the armed forces.


Real power was in the hands of the Soviet, yet it was not taken. To understand this contradiction it is necessary to understand the nature of many of the leaders of the Soviet. This leadership had spent years preparing for a revolutionary overthrow of society and now when power was in their grasp most of them completely failed to recognise the balance of forces and the inability of capitalism to resolve any of the fundamental issues that affect the workers, soldiers and peasants. The issue of food, an end to the war and the land question could not be resolved on the basis of capitalism – and the PG was in fact a capitalist government and as such could not and should not be relied upon. The reforms it had passed were as a result of the mass pressure of the movement of workers, soldiers and peasants. If the pressure were to fade the reforms could just as easily be taken away.

The leadership of the Soviet consisted of Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks believed in the two-stage theory of the revolution. Firstly, the Tsarist regime would fall and a capitalist liberal democracy would be established. Then the capitalist economy would develop and so would the working class. When the working class was strong enough, it could take power in its own name. The Social Revolutionaries (SRs) drew their support from the peasantry and were divided into a right wing that supported the PG and a left wing that was drawing closer to the Bolsheviks. Many in the Bolshevik leadership were in exile or abroad, but Kamenev and Stalin had returned in March from exile in Siberia and were supporting the Soviet’s position of critical support for the PG and were also involved in talks to try and achieve reconciliation between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This position seemed natural as Russia, in Lenin’s words, was now the freest of all the belligerent countries in the world after the reforms of the PG, so why not support the PG?

It was against this background that Lenin returned from exile on April 3rd, arriving at the Finland Station. He descended from the famous “sealed train” that had brought him from Switzerland to Russia passing through Germany, jumped onto an armoured car and to the surprise of many in the Bolshevik leadership declared no collaboration with the bourgeois PG, no deal with the Mensheviks and the immediate withdrawal of Russia from the imperialist war. Lenin went on to a meeting of the Bolshevik Party and he was heard in “stunned silence”. It was obvious that he was in a minority and needed to win a majority for his position. He then went on to a meeting of the Mensheviks after having given a copy of his speech to Tsereteli, the Menshevik leader. Here Lenin was met with heckling and booing.

Not party policy

His speech formed the basis of the April Theses that were published in Pravda, the Bolshevik Party newspaper, on April 7th. The Theses were not party policy but in the following weeks Lenin proved that from afar he had understood better than many of the Bolshevik leaders in Russia the feelings and aspirations of the workers and soldiers. Through a series of meetings, articles and pamphlets he achieved a majority in the Bolshevik party by the end of April. His position was vindicated as party membership rose from about 10,000 in April to half a million in October, with industrial workers making up 60% of the membership.

The growth of the Bolshevik Party was spectacular. At the beginning of March only about 40 of the 600 delegates to the Petrograd Soviet were Bolsheviks. By October they had a majority. In February the Bolsheviks only had 150 members in the Putilov factory that had 26,000 workers! By the end of March some 242 soviets had been established in Russia but only 27 had a Bolshevik majority. By October they had a majority in the Moscow Soviet and at the All Russia Congress of Soviets. Why did the Bolsheviks gain so much power so quickly and attract so many new members? The entry of Tseretelli and Skobelev from the Mensheviks and Chernov from the SRs into the PG in May certainly helped. They lost members to the Bolsheviks as the PG became increasingly isolated. The most important factor however was that the programme and policies of the Bolsheviks articulated the aspirations of the working class, the soldiers and increasingly the peasantry. This programme however would not have existed without the April Theses of Lenin.

So what did the Theses actually say? In a very short document of a few pages there were 10 important points made.

1. The war being fought is an imperialist war and a peaceful, democratic ending to the war will only be possible if capital is overthrown. With “particular thoroughness, persistence and patience” this has to be explained to the masses.

2. The unfolding revolution is passing from the first stage where power was put into the hands of the bourgeoisie to the second stage where power must be placed into the hands of the proletariat and the poorest section of the peasants.

3. No support for the provisional Government, “a government of capitalists”.

4. Recognition that the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the Soviet and therefore it was necessary for a “patient, systematic and persistent explanation” of the errors of the other parties. At the same time to preach of the need to transfer “the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers Deputies.”

5. Not a parliamentary republic but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. No standing army but an armed people. Elected officials subject to recall and paid the same as a competent worker.

6. Confiscation of all landed estates and nationalisation of all lands in the country.

7. Banks to be amalgamated into a single bank under the control of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

8. Social production and distribution of products under the control of the Soviets.

9. Convocation of a Party Congress. Change Party programme on the imperialist war, the state and the minimum programme. Change of name to Communist Party.

10. A new International.

These ten points laid the basis for the October Revolution which would not have been successful without the leadership of Lenin. They confirmed the inability of capitalism to take society forward and therefore the need to move to the stage of the proletarian revolution. This point brilliantly confirmed Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. Production of wealth and finance to be in the hands of the working class through its democratic organisations. A break with the Mensheviks and the formation of a new Party to fight for power. A break too with the reformist Second International and the creation of a new (Third) International.

All of these events took place 90 years ago but the lessons have still not been learnt by many so-called revolutionaries. Capitalism can offer no future for humankind. There is only Socialism or Barbarism. There are no “progressive” capitalists. There are no two stages. The only programme is the socialist revolution under the control of the working class. The task is through “patient, persistent and systematic” explanation to prepare the forces that will change society.