The Revolutionary Phrase

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V. I. Lenin


Pravda No. 31, February 21, 1918
Signed: Karpov  Izvestia VTsIK No. 43, March 8, 1918

Published according to the Pravda text, collated with the Izvestia text 

From V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, 4th English Edition,
Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965

Vol. 27, pp. 19-29.

Translated from the Russian by Clemens Dutt Edited by Robert Daglish

Prepared © for the Internet by David J. Romagnolo, (September 1999)


    When I said at a Party meeting that the revolutionary phrase about a revolutionary war might ruin our revolution, I was reproached for the sharpness of my polemics. There are, however, moments, when a question must be raised sharply and things given their proper names, the danger being that otherwise irreparable harm may be done to the Party and the revolution.

    Revolutionary phrase-making, more often than not, is a disease from which revolutionary parties suffer at times when they constitute, directly or indirectly, a combination, alliance or intermingling of proletarian and petty-bourgeois elements, and when the course of revolutionary events is marked by big, rapid zigzags. By revolutionary phrase-making we mean the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances at a given turn in events, in the given state of affairs obtaining at the time. The slogans are superb; alluring, intoxicating, but there are no grounds for them; such is the nature of the revolutionary phrase.

    Let us examine the groups of arguments, the most important of them at least, in favour of a revolutionary war in Russia today, in January and February 1918, and the comparison of this slogan with objective reality will tell us whether the definition I give is correct.



    Our press has always spoken of the need to prepare for a revolutionary war in the event of the victory of socialism in one country with capitalism still in existence in the neighbouring countries. That is indisputable.

    The question is -- how have those preparations actually been made since our October Revolution?

    We have prepared in this way: we had to demobilise the army, we were compelled to, compelled by circumstances so obvious, so weighty and so insurmountable that, far from a "trend" or mood having arisen in the Party against demobilisation, there was not a single voice raised against it. Anyone who wants to give some thought to the class causes of such an unusual phenomenon as the demobilisation of the army by the Soviet Socialist Republic before the war with a neighbouring imperialist state is finished will without great difficulty discover these causes in the social composition of a backward country with a small-peasant economy, reduced to extreme economic ruin after three years of war. An army of many millions was demobilised and the creation of a Red Army on volunteer lines was begun -- such are the facts.

    Compare these facts with the talk of a revolutionary war in January and February 1918, and the nature of the revolutionary phrase will be clear to you.

    If this "championing" of a revolutionary war by, say, the Petrograd and Moscow organisations had not been an empty phrase we should have had other facts between October and January; we should have seen a determined struggle on their part against demobilisation. But there has been nothing of the sort.

    We should have seen the Petrograders and Muscovites sending tens of thousands of agitators and soldiers to the front and should have received daily reports from there about their struggle against demobilisation, about the successes of their struggle, about the halting of demobilisation.

    There has been nothing of the sort.

    We should have had hundreds of reports of regiments forming into a Red Army, using terrorism to halt demobilisation, renewing defences and fortifications against a possible offensive by German imperialism.

    There has been nothing of the sort. Demobilisation is in full swing. The old army does not exist. The new army is only just being born.

    Anyone who does not want to comfort himself with mere words, bombastic declarations and exclamations must see that the "slogan" of revolutionary war in February 1918 is the emptiest of phrases, that it has nothing real, nothing objective behind it. This slogan today contains nothing but sentiment, wishes, indignation and resentment. And a slogan with such a content is called a revolutionary phrase.

    Matters as they stand with our own Party and Soviet power as a whole, matters as they stand with the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow show that so far we have not succeeded in getting beyond the first steps in forming a volunteer Red Army. To hide from this unpleasant fact -- and fact it is -- behind a screen of words and at the same time not only do nothing to halt demobilisation but even raise no objection to it, is to be intoxicated with the sound of words.

    A typical substantiation of what has been said is, for instance, the fact that in the Central Committee of our Party<"p21"> the majority of the most prominent opponents of a separate peace voted against a revolutionary war, voted against it both in January and in February.[2] What does that mean? It means that everybody who is not afraid to look truth in the face recognises the impossibility of a revolutionary war.

    In such cases the truth is evaded by putting forward, or attempting to put forward, arguments. Let us examine them.


    Argument No. 1. In 1792 France suffered economic ruin to no less an extent, but a revolutionary war cured everything, was an inspiration to everyone, gave rise to enthusiasm and carried everything before it. Only those who do not believe in the revolution, only opportunists could oppose a revolutionary war in our, more profound revolution.

    Let us compare this reason, or this argument, with the facts. It is a fact that in France at the end of the eighteenth century the economic basis of the new, higher mode of production was first created, and then, as a result, as a superstructure, the powerful revolutionary army appeared. France abandoned feudalism before other countries. swept it away in the course of a few years of victorious revolution, and led a people who were not fatigued from any war, who had won land and freedom, who had been made stronger by the elimination of feudalism, led them to war against a number of economically and politically backward peoples.

    Compare this to contemporary Russia. Incredible fatigue from war. A new economic system, superior to the organised state capitalism of technically well-equipped Germany, does not yet exist. It is only being founded. Our peasants have only a law on the socialisation of the land, but not one single year of free (from the landowner and from the torment of war) work. Our workers have begun to throw the capitalists overboard but have not yet managed to organise production, arrange for the exchange of products, arrange the grain supply and increase productivity of labour.

    This is what we advanced towards, this is the road we took, but it is obvious that the new and higher economic system does not yet exist.

    Conquered feudalism, consolidated bourgeois freedom, and a well-fed peasant opposed to feudal countries -- such was the economic basis of the "miracles" in the sphere of war in 1792 and 1793.

    A country of small peasants, hungry and tormented by war, only just beginning to heal its wounds, opposed to technically and organisationally higher productivity of labour -- such is the objective situation at the beginning of 1918.

    That is why any reminiscing over 1792, etc., is nothing but a revolutionary phrase. People repeat slogans, words, war cries, but are afraid to analyse objective reality.


    Argument No. 2. Germany "cannot attack", her growing revolution will not allow it.

    The Germans "cannot attack" was an argument repeated millions of times in January and at the beginning of February 1918 by opponents of a separate peace. The more cautious of them said that there was a 25 to 33 per cent probability (approximately, of course) of the Germans being unable to attack.

    The facts refuted these calculations. The opponents of a separate peace here, too, frequently brush aside facts, fearing their iron logic.

    What was the source of this mistake, which real revolutionaries (and not revolutionaries of sentiment) should be able to recognise and analyse?

    Was it because we, in general, manoeuvred and agitated in connection with the peace negotiations? It was not. We had to manoeuvre and agitate. But we also had to choose "our own time" for manoeuvres and agitation -- while it was still possible to manoeuvre and agitate -- and also for calling a halt to all manoeuvres when the issue became acute.

    The source of the mistake was that our relations of revolutionary co-operation with the German revolutionary workers were turned into an empty phrase. We helped and are helping the German revolutionary workers in every way we can -- fraternisation, agitation, the publication of secret treaties, etc. That was help in deeds, real help.

    But the declaration of some of our comrades -- "the Germans cannot attack" -- was an empty phrase. We have only just been through a revolution in our own country. We all know very well why it was easier for a revolution to start in Russia than in Europe. We saw that we could not check the offensive of Russian imperialism in June 1917, although our revolution had not only begun, had not only overthrown the monarchy, but had set up Soviets everywhere. We saw, we knew, we explained to the workers -- wars are conducted by governments. To stop a bourgeois war it is necessary to overthrow the bourgeois government.

    The declaration "the Germans cannot attack" was, therefore, tantamount to declaring "we know that the German Government will be overthrown within the next few weeks ". Actually we did not, and could not, know this, and for this reason the declaration was an empty phrase.

    It is one thing to be certain that the German revolution is maturing and to do your part towards helping it mature, to serve it as far as possible by work, agitation and fraternisation, anything you like, but help the maturing of the revolution by work. That is what revolutionary proletarian internationalism means.

    It is another thing to declare, directly or indirectly, openly or covertly, that the German revolution is already mature (although it obviously is not) and to base your tactics on it. There is not a grain of revolutionism in that, there is nothing in it but phrase-making.

    Such is the source of the error contained in the "proud", "striking", "spectacular", "resounding" declaration "the Germans cannot attack".



    The assertion that "we are helping the German revolution by resisting German imperialism, and are thus bringing nearer Liebknecht's victory over "Wilhelm" is nothing but a variation of the same high-sounding nonsense.

    It stands to reason that victory by Liebknecht -- which will be possible and inevitable when the German revolution reaches maturity -- would deliver us from all international difficulties, including revolutionary war. Liebknecht's victory would deliver us from the consequences of any foolish act of ours. But surely that does not justify foolish acts?

    Does any sort of "resistance" to German imperialism help the German revolution? Anyone who cares to think a little, or even to recall the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia, will quite easily realise that resistance to reaction helps the revolution only when it is expedient. During a half century of the revolutionary movement in Russia we have experienced many cases of resistance to reaction that were not expedient. We Marxists have always been proud that we determined the expediency of any form of struggle by a precise calculation of the mass forces and class relationships. We have said that an insurrection is not always expedient; unless the prerequisites exist among the masses it is a gamble; we have often condemned the most heroic forms of resistance by individuals as inexpedient and harmful from the point of view of the revolution. In 1907, on the basis of bitter experience we rejected resistance to participation in the Third Duma as inexpedient, etc., etc.

    To help the German revolution we must either limit ourselves to propaganda, agitation and fraternisation as long as the forces are not strong enough for a firm, serious, decisive blow in an open military or insurrectionary clash, or we must accept that clash, if we are sure it will not help the enemy.

    It is clear to everyone (except those intoxicated with empty phrases) that to undertake a serious insurrectionary or military clash knowing that we have no forces, knowing that we have no army, is a gamble that will not help the German workers but will make their struggle more difficult and make matters easier for their enemy and for our enemy.



    There is yet another argument that is so childishly ridiculous that I should never have believed it possible if I had not heard it with my own ears.

    "Back in October, didn't the opportunists say that we had no forces, no troops, no machine-guns and no equipment, but these things all appeared during the struggle, when the struggle of class against class began. They will also make their appearance in the struggle of the proletariat of Russia against the capitalists of Germany, the German proletariat will come to our help."

    As matters stood in October, we had made a precise calculation of the mass forces. We not only thought, we knew with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the Soviets, that the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already<"p25"> come over to our side in September and in early October. We knew, even if only from the voting at the Democratic Conference[3] that the coalition had also lost the support of the peasantry -- and that meant that our cause had already won.

    The following were the objective conditions for the October insurrectionary struggle:

    (1) there was no longer any bludgeon over the heads of the soldiers -- it was abolished in February 1917 (Germany has not yet reached "her" February);

    (2) the soldiers, like the workers, had already had enough of the coalition and had finished their conscious, planned, heartfelt withdrawal from it.

    This, and this alone, determined the correctness ot the slogan "for an insurrection" in October (the slogan would have been incorrect in July, when we did not advance it). <"p26">

    The mistake of the opportunists of October[4] was not their "concern" for objective conditions (only children could think it was) but their incorrect appraisal of facts -- they got hold of trivialities and did not see the main thing, that the Soviets had come over from conciliation to us.

    To compare an armed clash with Germany (that has not yet experienced "her" February or her "July", to say nothing of October), with a Germany that has a monarchist, bourgeois-imperialist government -- to compare that with the October insurrectionary struggle against the enemies of the Soviets, the Soviets that had been maturing since February 1917 and had reached maturity in September and October, is such childishness that it is only a subject for ridicule. Such is the absurdity to which people are led by empty phrases!



    Here is another sort of argument. "But Germany will strangle us economically with a separate peace treaty, she will take away coal and grain and will enslave us."

    A very wise argument -- we must accept an armed clash, without an army, even though that clash is certain to result not only in our enslavement, but also in our strangulation, the seizure of grain without any compensation, putting us in the position of Serbia or Belgium; we have to accept that, because otherwise we shall get an unfavourable treaty, Germany will take from us 6,000 or 12,000 million in tribute by instalments, will take grain for machines, etc.

    O heroes of the revolutionary phrase! In renouncing the "enslavement" to the imperialists they modestly pass over in silence the fact that it is necessary to defeat imperialism to be completely delivered from enslavement.

    We are accepting an unfavourable treaty and a separate peace knowing that today we are not yet ready for a revolutionary war, that we have to bide our time (as we did when we tolerated Kerensky's bondage, tolerated the bondage of our own bourgeoisie from July to October), we must wait until we are stronger. Therefore, if there is a chance of obtaining the most unfavourable separate peace, we absolutely must accept it in the interests of the socialist revolution,

page 27

which is still weak (since the maturing revolution in Germany has not yet come to our help, to the help of the Russians). Only if a separate peace is absolutely impossible shall we have to fight immediately -- not because it will be correct tactics, but because we shall have no choice. If it proves impossible there will be no occasion for a dispute over tactics. There will be nothing but the inevitability of the most furious resistance.<"p27"> But as long as we have a choice we must choose a separate peace and an extremely unfavourable treaty, because that will still be a hundred times better than the position of Belgium.[5]

    Month by month we are growing stronger, although we are today still weak. Month by month the international socialist revolution is maturing in Europe, although it is not yet fully mature. Therefore . . . therefore, "revolutionaries" (God save us from them) argue that we must accept battle when German imperialism is obviously stronger than we are but is weakening month by month (because of the slow but certain maturing of the revolution in Germany).

    The "revolutionaries" of sentiment argue magnificently, they argue superbly!



    The last argument, the most specious and most widespread, is that "this obscene peace is a disgrace, it is betrayal of Latvia, Poland, Courland and Lithuania". <"p27a">

    Is it any wonder that the Russian bourgeoisie (and their hangers-on, the Novy Luch,[6] Dyelo Naroda [7] and Novaya Zhizn [8] gang) are the most zealous in elaborating this allegedly internationalist argument?

    No, it is no wonder, for this argument is a trap into which the bourgeoisie are deliberately dragging the Russian Bolsheviks, and into which some of them are falling unwittingly, because of their love of phrases.

    Let us examine the argument from the standpoint of theory; which should be put first, the right of nations to self-determination, or socialism?

    Socialism should.

    Is it permissible, because of a contravention of the right of nations to self-determination, to allow the Soviet Social-

page 28

ist Republic to be devoured, to expose it to the blows of imperialism at a time when imperialism is obviously stronger and the Soviet Republic obviously weaker?

    No, it is not permissible -- that is bourgeois and not socialist politics.

    Further, would peace on the condition that Poland, Lithuania and Courland are returned "to us" be less disgraceful, be any less an annexationist peace?

    From the point of view of the Russian bourgeois, it would.

    From the point of view of the socialist-internationalist, it would not.

    Because if German imperialism set Poland free (which at one time some bourgeois in Germany desired), it would squeeze Serbia, Belgium, etc., all the more.

    When the Russian bourgeoisie wail against the "obscene" peace, they are correctly expressing their class interests.

    But when some Bolsheviks (suffering from the phrase disease) repeat that argument, it is simply very sad.

    Examine the facts relating to the behaviour of the Anglo-French bourgeoisie. They are doing everything they can to drag us into the war against Germany now, they are offering us millions of blessings, boots, potatoes, shells, locomotives (on credit . . . that is not "enslavement", don't fear that! It is "only" credit!). They want us to fight against Germany now.

    It is obvious why they should want this; they want it because, in the first place, we should engage part of the German forces. And secondly, because Soviet power might collapse most easily from an untimely armed clash with German imperialism.

    The Anglo-French bourgeoisie are setting a trap for us: please be kind enough to go and fight now, our gain will be magnificent. The Germans will plunder you, will "do well" in the East, will agree to cheaper terms in the West, and furthermore, Soviet power will be swept away. . . . Please do fight, Bolshevik "allies", we shall help you! <"p28">

    And the "Left" (God save us from them) Bolsheviks[9] are walking into the trap by reciting the most revolutionary phrases. . . .

    Oh yes, one of the manifestations of the traces of the petty-bourgeois spirit is surrender to revolutionary phrases. This is an old story that is perennially new. . . .



    In the summer of 1907 our Party also experienced an attack of the revolutionary phrase that was, in some respect, analogous.

    St. Petersburg and Moscow, nearly all the Bolsheviks were in favour of boycotting the Third Duma; they were guided by "sentiment" instead of an objective analysis and walked into a trap.

    The disease has recurred.

    The times are more difficult. The issue is a million times more important. To fall ill at such a time is to risk ruining the revolution.

    We must fight against the revolutionary phrase, we have to fight it, we absolutely must fight it, so that at some future time people will not say of us the bitter truth that "a revolutionary phrase about revolutionary war ruined the revolution".



  <"en1">[1] With this article, published in Pravda on February 21, 1918, Lenin launched a public campaign in the press for the conclusion of peace.    [p. 19]

  <"en2">[2] The reference is to the voting on the question of peace at the meetings of the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P.(B.) on January 11 (24)[*] and on February 17, 1918. At the first meeting two members of the Central Committee voted in favour of a revolutionary war; at the second meeting no votes were cast in favour of this proposal. Those in favour of continuing the war abstained from voting.    [p. 21]

  <"en3">[3] The reference is to the voting at the Democratic Conference on the question of coalition with the bourgeoisie. Lenin analyses the results of the voting in his work Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? "The latest returns of the voting by 'curias' for and against coalition with the bourgeoisie in Tsereteli's 'Bulygin Duma', i.e., in the notorious 'Democratic' Conference, constitute one of the objective and incontrovertible proofs of this. If we take the Soviets' curias we get:

 For coalition 


Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies .   .
Soviets of Peasants' Deputies  .   .   .   .   .   .



All Soviets   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .



    So, the majority as a whole is on the side of the proletarian slogan: against coalition with the bourgeoisie." (See present edition, Vol. 26, p. 97.)
    The All-Russia Democratic Conference was held by the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary Central Executive Committee of the Soviets ostensibly to decide who should rule the country. The organisers' real aim, however, was to distract the attention of the masses of the people from the mounting revo<"fnp555">lution. The conference took place from September 14 to 22 (September 27 to October 5), 1917 in Petrograd. It was attended by more than 1,500 people. The Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leaders did all they could to weaken worker and peasant representation and to increase the number of delegates from the various petty-bourgeois and bourgeois organisations, thus ensuring themselves a majority at the conference. The Bolsheviks took part in the conference in order to use it as a platform for exposing the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries. have led to the destruction of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin called the "Left Communists" an "instrument of imperialist provocation". With Trotsky's support the "Left Communists" launched an open campaign against the Party line and caused disorganisation by resigning from their posts in the Party and the Soviets, and so on. Lenin and his associates had a hard struggle in the Central Committee against Trotsky and the "Left Communists" to achieve a decision in favour of concluding peace with Germany and thus save the young Soviet Republic from destruction. Under Lenin's leadership the Party came out firmly against the provocatory policy of Trotsky and the "Left Communists"; the "Left Communists" were isolated and routed.    [p. 28] <"fnp555">    [p. 25] - <"fnp555">

    * The new calendar was introduced on February 21, 1918. Dates up to the reform are indicated in both Old and New Styles, the New Style date appearing in brackets.

  <"en4">[4] This is a reference to the defeatism of Zinoviev and Kamenev, who opposed armed uprising in October 1917.    [p. 26]

  <"en5">[5] The reference is to the occupation of Belgium by German troops for nearly four years during the world war of 1914-18.    [p. 27]

  <"en6">[6] Novy Luch (New Ray ) -- organ of the Mensheviks' combined Central Committee. The newspaper began publication in Petrograd on December 1 (14), 1917 under the editorship of Dan, Martov, Martynov and others. It was closed down in June 1918 for counter-revolutionary agitation. The reference here is to the Mensheviks associated with the paper.    [p. 27]

  <"en7">[7] Dyelo Naroda (People's Cause ) -- organ of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, first published in Petrograd, then in Samara and Moscow. It appeared irregularly and under various titles from March 1917 to March 1919. The reference here is to the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries associated with the paper.    [p. 27]

  <"en8">[8] Novaya Zhizn (New Life ) began publication in April 1917 in Petrograd. The group connected with the paper referred to here consisted of Menshevik supporters of Martov, who called themselves internationalists, and of lone intellectuals of a semi-Menshevik orientation. In October 1917 this group threw in its lot with the rest of the Mensheviks in opposing the armed uprising, after the October Revolution, with the exception of a few individuals who joined the Bolsheviks, it took up a hostile attitude to Soviet power. In July 1918 Novaya Zhizn was closed down along with other counter-revolutionary newspapers.    [p. 27]

  <"en9">[9] "Left Bolsheviks", or "Left Communists" -- an anti-Party group formed at the beginning of 1918 during the controversy over concluding peace with Germany. The "Left Communists", like the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, opposed peace negotiations and upheld the adventuristic policy of involving the young Soviet Republic, which as yet had no army, in "revolutionary war" against imperialist Germany. The group was led by Bukharin, Radek and Pyatakov. The "Left Communists" and Trotsky, who pursued the line of continuing the war in a more oblique and disguised form under the slogan of "not waging war but not concluding peace either", attempted to impose on the Party a policy that would