Zurich and Elsewhere, January 1917 – The Left in Exile

2. Jahrestag der Oktoberrevolution, 1919
2. Jahrestag der Oktoberrevolution, 1919 Foto: Boris Souvarine Public Domain

The revolution in February did not only come as a surprise to the bourgeois and ‘courtly’ opposition. Although the Bolsheviks were able to reorganise themselves (primarily in the factories and the army) and other left parties were able to consolidate themselves over the course of 1916, a revolution did not yet appear to be directly imminent.

The leaderships and many activists of the various left groups were scattered throughout the world. A preferred emigration destination for members of the left of various tendencies was Switzerland; others found their way to Scandinavia, the USA, Italy…Here are just a few examples of the people who would go on to play important roles just a few weeks later: the Bolshevik Lenin and the Menshevik Martov were in Switzerland. Trotsky ended up in the USA. Chernov of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party was living in England. The Bolshevik functionaries Stalin and Kamenev (who would go on to lead the strong Petrograd party organisation before Lenin’s return) were in Siberian exile. The return to Russia and the centres of revolutionary activity from March 1917 on proceeded slowly over many months, in some cases until the autumn.

If one considers the activity of Russian social democrats in exile, in January, despite the unrest in the country (in the first two months of 1917, there are supposed to have been 1,000 political strikes), nothing indicated that they reckoned with an imminent revolutionary storm. In a speech at the beginning of January, Lenin said, ‘We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution. But I can, I believe, express the hope with great confidence that the youth which is working so splendidly with the socialist movement of Switzerland, and of the whole world, will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win in the coming proletarian revolution.’ This assessment might also have something to do with Russian information policy: from 20 January on, due to a government crisis, no newspapers were allowed to be sent abroad.

The main focus of Lenin’s practical work at this point in time were the debates about the position of the international left social democrats regarding war, pacifism and the thesis on the ‘defence of the motherland’. Closely connected to this, he got involved in the Swiss social democratic movement. His letters at this time show that he invested a lot of time and energy. Although he regarded it as unlikely that Switzerland would get drawn directly into the war, he nonetheless asked Inessa Armand to take responsibility for the party funds in Geneva on 16 January 1917. In the event of war, Geneva would be occupied by France, and one would therefore still have contact with Russia. On the same day, the government of Switzerland undertook a reinforcement of its border guard.

It was a time of study. In the years since 1914, Lenin had concerned himself intensively with philosophical and economic questions. The manuscript for ‘Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism’ had been finished in 1916. Now he studied Marx and Engels on the question of the state. He gave the title ‘Marxism and the State’ to the collection of material that emerged. It would become the basis of ‘The State and Revolution’, written in August and September 1917. Both the struggle for an unequivocal position against the imperialist war as well as the engagement theoretical questions were aimed at preparing for a revolution.

Lenin’s later opponent, Alexander F. Kerensky, first a minister of the future provisional government, later minister president, was able to remain in the country and become politically active. Since the revolution of 1905-1907, Kerensky had been connected with the labour movement, was a member of the Trudovik party, worked as a lawyer and parliamentarian (from 1912 to 1917 as a deputy, then as chair of the Trudovik fraction, then of the Socialist-Revolutionary fraction), had voted against the war in 1914 but later became a supporter of it. Neither he nor the other legally operating politicians had counted on a revolution of the sort that then broke out. Kerensky was the only minister of the first provisional government who had not already held a senior post under the Tsar. That also confirms that he was among those planning a ‘coup from above’ in January. The bourgeois opposition – including right-wing social democrats – which was also interested in changes, albeit of a less fundamental nature, therefore had the personnel for a new beginning. It does not matter whether the masses saw their only hope in the Duma, the parliament; that’s how Kerensky presents it in his memoirs. The fact is, Kerensky and other functionaries of different more-or-less left parties, and of course the opposition within the bureaucracy and bourgeoisie, ‘were there’; others were not.

Nobody other than ‘the masses themselves’ would have to find, a month later, the political means to overthrowing Tsarist rule. The revolutionary process would then show whether and in what manner the many years of mostly illegal work on the part of the various left currents would bear fruit in the long-term…

Sources and further reading:

  • Hedeler, W. 2016. Die Rückkehr der Emigranten nach der Februarrevolution 1917 nach Russland, Pankower Vorträge Heft 205. Berlin: Helle Panke e.V. Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Berlin.
  • Chonos. Vsemirnaja istorija v internete/Biografičeskij ukazatel’; www.hrono.ru/biograf/index.php
  • Lenin, W.I. ‘Lectures on the 1905 Revolution’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jan/09.htm
  • Kerenski, Alexander. 1989. Die Kerenski-Memoiren. Rußland und der Wendepunkt der Geschichte. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.
  • Zu Lenins Arbeit in den schweizerischen Bibliotheken und Archiven: www.sozialarchiv.ch/2016/03/16/vor-100-jahren-lenin-im-sozialarchiv/
  • Hedeler, Wladislaw, and Volker Külow. 2016. „Die Entstehung und Veröffentlichung von Lenins Werk „Der Imperialismus als höchstes Stadium des Kapitalismus“.“ In Wladimir Iljitsch Lenin: Der Imperialismus als höchstes Stadium des Kapitalismus. Gemeinverständlicher Abriss. Kritische Neuausgabe mit Essays von Dietmar Dath und Christoph Türcke, herausgegeben und kommentiert von Wladislaw Hedeler und Volker Külow, 195-296. Berlin: Verlag 8. Mai.