Revolutionary Situations

  • Vladimir Lenin's writings on the necessary conditions that lead to a revolutionary situation under capitalism.

Russia is experiencing a revolutionary situation because the oppression of the vast majority of the population — not only of the proletariat but of nine-tenths of the small producers, particularly the peasants — has intensified to the maximum, and this intensified oppression, starvation, poverty, lack of rights, humiliation of the people is, further more, glaringly inconsistent with the state of Russia's productive forces, inconsistent with the level of the class consciousness and the demands of the masses roused by the year 1905, and inconsistent with the state of affairs in all neighbouring — not only European but Asian — countries.

But that is not all. Oppression alone, no matter how great, does not always give rise to a revolutionary situation in a country. In most cases it is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way. This is what we see in Russia today. A political crisis is maturing before our very eyes. The bourgeoisie has done everything in its power to back counter-revolution and ensure "peaceful development" on this counter-revolutionary basis. The bourgeoisie gave hangmen and feudal lords as much money as they wanted, the bourgeoisie reviled the revolution and renounced it, the bourgeoisie licked the boots of Purishkevich and the knout of Markov the Second and became their lackey, the bourgeoisie evolved theories based on "European" arguments, theories that revile the Revolution of 1905 as an "intellectualist" revolution and describe it as wicked, criminal, treasonous, and so on and so forth.

And yet, despite all this sacrificing of its purse, its honour and its conscience, the bourgeoisie — from the Cadets to the Octobrists — itself admits that the autocracy and land owners were unable to ensure "peaceful development", were unable to provide the basic conditions for "law" and "order", without which a capitalist country cannot, in the twentieth century, live side by side with Germany and the new China.

A nation-wide political crisis is in evidence in Russia, a crisis which affects the very foundation of the state system and not just parts of it, which affects the foundation of the edifice and not an outbuilding, not merely one of its storeys. No matter how many glib phrases our liberals and liquidators trot out to the effect that "we have, thank God, a constitution" and that political reforms are on the order of the day (only very limited people do not see the close connection between these two propositions), no matter how much of this reformist verbiage is poured out, the fact remains that not a single liquidator or liberal can point to any reformist way out of the situation.

The condition of the mass of the population in Russia, the aggravation of their position owing to the new agrarian policy (to which the feudal landowners had to snatch at as their last means of salvation), the international situation, and the nature of the general political crisis that has taken shape in our country — such is the sum-total of the objective conditions making Russia's situation a revolutionary one because of the impossibility of carrying out the tasks of a bourgeois revolution by following the present course and by the means available to the government and the exploiting classes.

Such is the social, economic, and political situation, such is the class relationship in Russia that has given rise to a specific type of strike impossible in modern Europe, from which all sorts of renegades would like to borrow the example, not of yesterday's bourgeois revolutions (through which shine gleams of tomorrow's proletarian revolution), but of today's "constitutional" situation. Neither the oppression of the lower classes nor a crisis among the upper classes can cause a revolution; they can only cause the decay of a country, unless that country has a revolutionary class capable of transforming the passive state of oppression into an active state of revolt and insurrection.

The role of a truly advanced class, a class really able to rouse the masses to revolution, really capable of saving Russia from decay, is played by the industrial proletariat. This is the task it fulfils by means of its revolutionary strikes. These strikes, which the liberals hate and the liquidators cannot understand, are (as the February resolution of the R.S.D.L.P. puts it) "one of the most effective means of overcoming the apathy, despair, and disunion of the agricultural proletariat and the peasantry,... and drawing them into the most concerted, simultaneous, and extensive revolutionary actions".

The working class draws into revolutionary action the masses of the working and exploited people, who are deprived of basic rights and driven to despair. The working class teaches them revolutionary struggle, trains them for revolutionary action, and explains to them where to find the way out and how to attain salvation. The working class teaches them, not merely by words, but by deeds, by example, and the example is provided not by the adventures of solitary heroes but by mass revolutionary action combining political and economic demands.

To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms:

  1. When it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the "upper classes", a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for "the lower classes not to want" to live in the old way; it is also necessary that "the upper classes should be unable" to live in the old way;
  2. When the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual;
  3. When, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a con­siderable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncom­plainingly allow themselves to be robbed in "peace time", but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the "upper classes" themselves into independent historical action.

Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a general rule, is impossible. The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation. Such a situation existed in 1905 in Russia, and in all revolutionary periods in the West; it also existed in Germany in the sixties of the last century, and in Russia in 1859-61 and 1879-80, although no revolution occurred in these instances. Why was that? It was because it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, "falls", if it is not toppled over.

Will this situation last long; how much more acute will it become? Will it lead to revolution? This is something we do not know, and nobody can know. The answer can be provided only by the experience gained during the development of revolutionary sentiment and the transition to revolutionary action by the advanced class, the proletariat. There can be no talk in this connection about "illusions" or their repudiation, since no socialist has ever guaranteed that this war (and not the next one), that today's revolutionary situation (and not tomorrow's) will produce a revolution. What we are discussing is the indisputable and fundamental duty of all socialists — that of revealing to the masses the existence of a revolutionary situation, explaining its scope and depth, arousing the proletariat's revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary determination, helping it to go over to revolutionary action, and forming, for that purpose, organisations suited to the revolutionary situation.

No influential or responsible socialist has ever dared to feel doubt that this is the duty of the socialist parties. Without spreading or harbouring the least "illusions", the Basle Manifesto spoke specifically of this duty of the socialists — to rouse and to stir up the people (and not to lull them with chauvinism, as Plekhanov, Axelrod and Kautsky have done), to take advantage of the crisis so as to hasten the downfall of capitalism, and to be guided by the examples of the Commune and of October-December 1905. The present parties' failure to perform that duty meant their treachery, political death, renunciation of their own role and desertion to the side of the bourgeoisie.