Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 9
Lenin on Armed Insurrection

“Major questions in the life of nations
are settled only by force
. [1]

FOR LENIN, the armed insurrection was the climax of the revolution. The passive Mensheviks never understood the role of active preparation for an uprising. The old Blanquist putschists spoke only of the technical side of the insurrection, abstracting it completely from the general mass movement, from the daily life of the masses, from their organisation and class consciousness. But Lenin referred over and over again to the insurrection as an art that needed active study and execution, but an art related to the general movement of the revolution.

Marx said that revolution was the midwife of a new society; midwifery has certain specific rules that have to be studied. Lenin posed the question of insurrection in this light, looking at the concrete circumstances of its occurrence. Hence at different periods of his life, he posed the question differently.

In 1897, he postponed consideration of the question. In his Tasks of Russian Social Democrats, he states that

to decide at the present time the question of what methods the Social Democracy will resort to for the direct overthrow of the autocracy, whether it will choose an uprising, or a widespread political strike, or some other form of attack, would be akin to generals calling a council of war before they have mustered an army. [2]

The mustering of an army called for general organisation, propaganda, and agitation. In 1902, in What Is to Be Done? he dealt with the insurrection in terms of general preparation:

Picture to yourselves a popular uprising. Probably everyone will now agree that we must think of this and prepare for it. But how? Surely the Central Committee cannot appoint agents to all localities for the purpose of preparing the uprising! Even if we had a Central Committee it could achieve absolutely nothing by such appointments under present-day Russian conditions. But a network of agents that would form in the course of establishing and distributing the common newspaper would not have to “sit about and wait” for the call for an uprising, but could carry on the regular activity that would strengthen our contacts with the broadest strata of the working masses and with all social strata that are discontented with the autocracy, which is of such importance for an uprising. Precisely such activity would serve to cultivate the ability to estimate correctly the general political situation and, consequently, the ability to select the proper moment for an uprising. Precisely such activity would train all local organisations to respond simultaneously to the same political questions, incidents and events that agitate the whole of Russia and to react to such “incidents” in the most vigorous, uniform and expedient manner possible; for an uprising is in essence the most vigorous, most uniform, and most expedient “answer” of the entire people to the government. Lastly, it is precisely such activity that would train all revolutionary organisations throughout. Russia to maintain the most continuous, and at the same time most secret, contacts with one another, thus creating real party unity; for without such contacts it will be impossible collectively to discuss the plan for the uprising and to take the necessary preparatory measures on its eve, measures that must be kept in the strictest secrecy. [3]

The third stage of consideration of the question comes in 1905. After Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, Lenin advances insurrection as a direct appeal, in the paper Vperyod and at the third Congress in May 1905. In a Resolution on the Armed Uprising put at the Congress, he states:

the third Congress of the RSDLP holds that the task of organising the proletariat for direct struggle against the autocracy by means of the armed uprising is one of the major and most urgent tasks of the party at the present revolutionary moment.

Accordingly, the Congress instructs all party organisations:
(a) to explain to the proletariat by means of propaganda and agitation, not only the political significance, but the practical organisational aspect of the impending armed uprising,
(b) to explain in that propaganda and agitation the role of mass political strikes, which may be of great importance at the beginning and during the progress of the uprising, and
(c) to take the most energetic steps towards arming the proletariat, as well as drawing up a plan of the armed uprising and of direct leadership thereof, for which purpose special groups of party workers should be formed as and when necessary. [4]

The armed uprising was central to all the resolutions of the third Congress. Every item on the agenda was debated and decided in the light of it.

A couple of months after the Congress, in his book Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, Lenin again emphasised the urgency of preparation for the insurrection:

Undoubtedly we still have a great deal to do in educating and organising the working class; but now the gist of the matter is: where should we place the main political emphasis in the work of education and organisation? On the trade unions and legally existing associations, or on an insurrection, on the work of creating a revolutionary army and a revolutionary government? Both serve to educate and organise the working class. Both are, of course, necessary. But in the present revolution the problem amounts to this: which is to be emphasised in the work of educating and organising the working class, the former or the latter. [5]

A little later, he pronounced judgement: “Major questions in the life of nations are settled only by force.” [6]

On the eve of the armed uprising in Moscow, in December 1905, Lenin made it clear that once the masses are roused to revolution and are ready to act, the party must call for insurrection and explain to the masses the practical steps necessary for its success.

The slogan of insurrection is a slogan for deciding the issue by material force, which in present-day European civilisation can only be military force. This slogan should not be put forward until the general prerequisites for revolution have matured, until the masses have definitely shown that they have been roused and are ready to act, until the external circumstances have led to an open crisis. But once such a slogan has been issued ... once the die is cast, all subterfuges must be done with; it must be explained directly and openly to the masses what the practical conditions for a successful revolution are at the present time. [7]



Insurrection as an Art

Again and again, especially after the December 1905 armed struggle in Moscow, Lenin referred to Marx’s and Engels’ profound “propositions that insurrection is an art, and that the principal rule of the art is the waging of a desperately bold and irrevocably determined offensive.” He emphasised the tremendous importance of military knowledge, military technique, and military organisation. The workers must learn from the capitalists’ knowledge and techniques, and from their own experience in struggle.

In an article called Lessons of the Moscow Uprising, written in August 1906, Lenin says:

There have been new advances in military technique in the very recent period. The Japanese war produced the hand grenade. The small-arms factories have placed automatic rifles on the market. Both these weapons are already being successfully used in the Russian revolution, but to a degree that is far from adequate. We can and must take advantage of improvements in technique, teach the workers’ detachments to make bombs in large quantities, help them and our fighting squads to obtain supplies of explosives, fuses and automatic rifles. [8]

And on the lessons of the Moscow Uprising he writes:

Military tactics depend on the level of military technique. This plain truth Engels demonstrated and brought home to all Marxists. Military technique today is not what it was in the middle of the 19th century. It would be folly to contend against artillery in crowds and defend barricades with revolvers. Kautsky was right when he wrote that it is high time now, after Moscow, to review Engels’ conclusions, and that Moscow had inaugurated new barricade tactics. These tactics are the tactics of guerrilla warfare. The organisation required for such tactics is that of mobile and exceedingly small units, units of ten, three or even two persons. We often meet Social Democrats now who scoff whenever units of five or three are mentioned. But scoffing is only a cheap way of ignoring the new question of tactics and organisation raised by street fighting under the conditions imposed by modern military technique. Study carefully the story of the Moscow uprising gentlemen, and you will understand what connection exists between “units of five” and the question of “new barricade tactics.”

Moscow advanced these tactics, but failed to develop them far enough, to apply them to any considerable extent, to a really mass extent. There were too few volunteer fighting squads, the slogan of bold attack was not issued to the masses of the workers and they did not apply it; the guerrilla detachments were too uniform in character, their arms and methods were inadequate, their ability to lead the crowd was almost undeveloped. We must make up for all this and we shall do so by learning from the experience of Moscow, by spreading this experience among the masses and by stimulating their creative efforts to develop it still further. [9]

Lenin already saw very clearly that the revolution could not be victorious unless at least a section of the army went over to the side of the revolutionaries. This became even clearer in 1917. But to achieve this the soldiers must be convinced of the readiness of the workers to seize victory even at the cost of their own lives.

Of course, unless the revolution assumes a mass character and affects the troops, there can be no question of serious struggle. That we must work among the troops goes without saying. But we must not imagine that they will come over to our side at one stroke, as a result of persuasion or their own convictions. The Moscow uprising clearly demonstrated how stereotyped and lifeless this view is. As a matter of fact, the wavering of the troops, which is inevitable in every truly popular movement, leads to a real fight for the troops whenever the revolutionary struggle becomes acute ... We shall prove to be miserable pedants if we forget that at a time of uprising there must also be a physical struggle for the troops.

In the December days, the Moscow proletariat taught us magnificent lessons in ideologically “winning over” the troops, as, for example, on December 8 in Strastnaya Square, when the crowd surrounded the Cossacks, mingled and fraternised with them, and persuaded them to turn back. Or on December 10, in Presnya District, when two working girls, carrying a red flag in a crowd of 10,000 people, rushed out to meet the Cossacks crying: “Kill us! We will not surrender the flag alive!” And the Cossacks were disconcerted and galloped away, amidst the shouts from the crowd: “Hurrah for the Cossacks!” These examples of courage and heroism should be impressed forever on the mind of the proletariat. [10]

Characteristically, Lenin did not limit himself to issuing general slogans, but also attended to practical affairs. He made sure that the combat squads did not remain on paper or become overwhelmed by routine. Immediately after Bloody Sunday, he translated into Russian a pamphlet called On Street Fighting (The Advice of a General of the Commune) by General Gustave-Paul Cluseret. [11] General Cluseret, during an adventurous life, had participated in the suppression of the Paris workingmen’s revolt in June 1848, but had then served with Garibaldi in Italy, later with the North in the American Civil War (where he became a general), and finally became a military leader of the Paris Commune. Lenin also read everything he could find on military science. His favourite authority was Clausewitz, author of the classic study On War. Lenin also carefully re-read everything Marx and Engels had written on military matters and insurrection. He was the only Russian émigré leader who reacted in this way to Bloody Sunday.

He propagated the results of his studies amongst his comrades. After receiving a report from the Combat Committee of the Petersburg Committee on the organisation of preparations for insurrection, which proposed an organisational scheme, he wrote, on October 16, 1905, warning sharply against constructing pyramids on paper and concocting blueprints:

Judging by the documents, the whole thing threatens to degenerate into office routine. All these schemes, all these plans of organisation of the Combat Committee create the impression of “red tape” – forgive me my frankness, but I hope that you will not suspect me of fault-finding. Schemes and disputes and discussion about the functions of the Combat Committee and its rights, are of the least value in a matter like this.

What is necessary, above all, is action:

What is needed is furious energy, and again energy. It horrifies me – I give you my word – it horrifies me to find that there has been talk about bombs for over six months, yet not one has been made! And it is the most learned of people who are doing the talking.

He recommends the committee to turn to the young people:

Go to the youth, gentlemen! That is the only remedy! Otherwise – I give you my word for it – you will be too late (everything tells me that), and will be left with “learned” memoranda, plans, charts, schemes, and magnificent recipes, but without an organisation, without a living cause. Go to the youth. [12]

Then Lenin spells out the practical steps necessary:

Form fighting squads at once everywhere, among the students, and especially among the workers, etc. Let groups be at once organised of three, 10, 30, etc., persons. Let them arm themselves at once as best they can, be it with a revolver, a knife, a rag soaked in kerosene for starting fires, etc. Let these detachments at once select leaders, and as far as possible contact the Combat Committee of the St. Petersburg Committee. Do not demand any formalities, and, for heaven’s sake, forget all these schemes, and send all “functions, rights and privileges” to the devil ... Do not refuse to contact any group, even if it consists of only three persons; make it the one sole condition that it should be reliable as far as police spying is concerned and prepared to fight the tsar’s troops. Let the groups join the RSDLP or associate themselves with the RSDLP if they want to; that would be splendid. But I would consider it quite wrong to insist on it.

The role of the Combat Committee of the St. Petersburg Committee should be to help these contingents of the revolutionary army, to serve as a “bureau” for contact purposes; if in such a matter you begin with schemes and with talk about the “rights” of the Combat Committee, you will ruin the whole cause; I assure you, you will ruin it irreparably.

You must proceed to propaganda on a wide scale. Let five or 10 people make the round of hundreds of workers’ and students’ study circles in a week, penetrate wherever they can, and everywhere propose a clear, brief, direct, and simple plan: organise combat groups immediately, arm yourselves as best you can, and work with all your might; we will help you in every way we can, but do not wait for our help; act for yourselves.

The principal thing in a matter like this is the initiative of the mass of small groups. They will do everything. Without them your entire Combat Committee is nothing. I am prepared to gauge the efficiency of the Combat Committee’s work by the number of such combat groups it is in contact with. If in a month or two the Combat Committee does not have a minimum of 200 or 300 groups in St. Petersburg then it is a dead Combat Committee. It will have to be buried. If it cannot muster a hundred or two of groups in seething times like these, then it is indeed remote from real life.

The propagandists must supply each group with brief and simple recipes for making bombs, give them an elementary explanation of the type of the work, and then leave it all to them. Squads must at once begin military training by launching operations immediately, at once. Some may at once undertake to kill a spy or blow up a police station, others to raid a bank to confiscate funds for the insurrection, others again may drill or prepare plans of localities, etc. But the essential thing is to begin at once to learn from actual practice: have no fear of these trial attacks. They may, of course, degenerate into extremes, but that is an evil of the morrow, whereas the evil today is our inertness, our doctrinaire spirit, our learned immobility, and our senile fear of initiative. Let every group learn, if it is only by beating up policemen: a score or so victims will be more than compensated for by the fact that this will train hundreds of experienced fighters, who tomorrow will be leading hundreds of thousands. [13]

While Lenin’s general approach to the question of an armed insurrection was consistent and concrete in the extreme, the technical advice he gave was faulty, and not suited to the needs of the time. From the measures they took, it seems that he and Leonid Krasin – the Bolshevik chief of the “fighting groups,” whose job was to procure and manufacture arms and prepare for the actual uprising – assumed that street fighting would take the form of mass charges and scuffles at close quarters. They therefore put the emphasis on hand grenades and revolvers. When the uprising did take place in December 1905 in Moscow, these weapons of close fighting were found to be no match for the long-range rifles and artillery of the tsarist army, as Lenin readily admitted after the event.

In the October 1917 insurrection, Lenin again gave advice that was not tactically appropriate to the concrete situation (for example, to start the uprising in Moscow and not in Petrograd). This advice was fortunately countermanded by Trotsky, who was the actual organiser of the October insurrection. In 1905, Krasin agreed with Lenin’s technical advice. From the top of a mountain, the high command can see the whole field of struggle quite clearly; but it can easily misjudge what is actually happening or going to happen on the ground, where the combatants are engaged.



An Uprising Can and Should Be Timed

In February 1905, Lenin was already arguing that the revolutionary leadership not only should be able to time the armed uprising, but that it has to do so.

if we have really prepared an uprising, and if a popular uprising is realisable by virtue of the revolutions in social relations that have already taken place, then it is quite possible to time the uprising ... Can the working-class movement be timed? No, it cannot; for that movement is made up of thousands of separate acts arising from a revolution in social relations. Can a strike be timed? It can ... despite the fact that every strike is the result of a revolution in social relations. When can a strike be timed? When the organisation or group calling it has influence among the masses of the workers involved and is able correctly to gauge the moment when discontent and resentment among them are mounting. [14]

If a strike needs a resolute leadership to plan actions and to time them, the need is even greater in the case of an armed insurrection. Only a seriously committed revolutionary party is capable of leading a genuine insurrection of the masses, for the masses differentiate clearly between a vacillating and a resolute leadership.

The issue of the timing of an uprising, already acute in February 1905, became central in 1917. During the months of September and October, Lenin implored, castigated, and pleaded with the Bolshevik leaders to name the day of the uprising. “The success of both the Russian and the world revolution depends on two or three days’ fighting,” he said. [15]



Lenin’s Remarkable Creative Imagination

Lenin’s conclusions on the nature of insurrection were based on the very limited experience of the uprising in Moscow in December 1905. This uprising involved very few workers and ended after a very short time. One of the leaders of the insurrection wrote in his memoirs: “The number of armed fighters amounted probably to several hundred. The majority were armed with poor revolvers, but some had Mausers and Winchesters, arms that were quite powerful enough for street fighting.” Another prominent leader made the following assessment:

How many fighters were there in Moscow, you will ask me. At a rough estimate, according to the information I disposed of, there were some 700–800 members of fighting squads armed with revolvers. In the railway district there were not more than 100, in Presnya, Khamovniki and Butyrki including what we had inherited, but not including the Schmidt squad, the number was 180 or 200; the figure includes the “bulldogs” and revolvers taken from the police and the double barrelled guns received from the inhabitants. [16]

Another leading participant in the insurrection estimated the number of combatants at 2,000. [17]

And if we count all those who served the movement as scouts, revolutionary “sappers,” and ambulance workers (a very dangerous duty in those days, as the Dubasov troops specially singled out all those who helped the wounded), we shall be very near to the figure of 8,000 quoted by Lenin in his speech on the occasion of the twelfth anniversary of our first revolution. [18]

The first barricades were erected on December 9. The last resistance was crushed eight days later in the Presnya district by the Semyonovsky regiment. From the failure of this uprising, Lenin drew one set of conclusions, while Plekhanov, now on the extreme right of the Mensheviks, drew exactly the opposite:

“The political strike, inopportunely begun,” said Plekhanov, “resulted in the armed uprising in Moscow, Rostov, and elsewhere. The strength of the proletariat proved inadequate for victory. It was not difficult to foresee this. And therefore it was wrong to take up arms.” The practical task of the class-conscious elements in the working-class movement “is to point out to the proletariat its mistake, and to explain to it how risky is the game called armed uprising.” “We must value the support of the non-proletarian opposition parties, and not repel them by tactless actions.” [19]

In contrast with this complacency and passivity, Lenin’s reaction was to call for self-criticism of the leadership, and a more active attitude to the question of armed revolt.

The proletariat sensed sooner than its leaders the change in the objective conditions of the struggle and the need for a transition from the strike to an uprising. As is always the case, practice marched ahead of theory. A peaceful strike and demonstrations immediately ceased to satisfy the workers; they asked: What is to be done next? And they demanded more resolute action. The instructions to set up barricades reached the districts exceedingly late, when barricades were already being erected in the centre of the city. The workers set to work in large numbers, but even this did not satisfy them; they wanted to know: what is to be done next? – they demanded active measures. In December, we the leaders of the Social Democratic proletariat, were like a commander in chief who has deployed his troops in such an absurd way that most of them took no active part in the battle. The masses of the workers demanded, but failed to receive, instruction for resolute mass action.

Thus, nothing could be more short-sighted than Plekhanov’s view, seized upon by all the opportunists, that the strike was untimely and should not have been started, and that “they should not have taken to arms.” On the contrary, we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary. [20]



In Conclusion

In its practical, decisive attitude to the armed uprising, Bolshevism differed radically from Menshevism. As early as March 1904, in a polemic against the Bolshevik Vperyod, Martov had written in a leading article that Social Democracy can “prepare the uprising” in only one sense – by preparing its own forces for an eventual uprising of the masses. The technical side of this preparation, however important it is, must definitely be subordinated to the political side of the matter. And the political preparation of our party and of the whole conscious proletariat for this entirely feasible uprising must, once again, be included in the deepening and broadening of the agitation, in the consolidation and development of the organisation of all revolutionary elements of the proletariat. [21] Lenin’s reply to Martov was that “to separate the ‘technical’ side of the revolution from its political side is sheer nonsense.” [22]

In 1907, at the fifth Party Congress in London, Martov demonstrated even more clearly his conception of the party’s passive role in an armed insurrection. “A Social Democratic Party may take part in an armed uprising, may call upon the masses to rise ... but cannot prepare an uprising if it is to remain faithful to its program of not becoming a party of ‘putschists.’” [23]

Lenin spoke very scornfully of Martov’s formula of “arming the people with a burning desire to arm themselves.” In his very first article after hearing the news of Bloody Sunday, Lenin wrote: “The arming of the people is an immediate task.” The question of the armed uprising was bound up with the objective of the revolutionaries: did they aim to take power into their own hands or not? As Lenin put it: “You cannot fight if you do not expect to capture the point you are fighting for.” [24]

It is impossible to wage war consistently while rejecting the idea of victory. The Mensheviks believed that the Russian revolution would bring the liberal bourgeoisie to power. From this derived their passive, irresolute attitude to the question of the insurrection. The Bolsheviks aimed at taking power; hence their decisive, relentless, practical approach to the art of insurrection.

October 1917 was to provide the crucial test of Lenin’s concept of the interrelation between the mass movement and the planned, armed insurrection. To achieve the right balance between political leadership and technical planning in an armed insurrection, it must be cautiously prepared and boldly executed. A revolutionary situation is short-lived, and the mood of the masses changes very quickly during such stirring days. The revolutionary party has to decide on the exact day and the exact way of carrying out the insurrection, because it is a question of life and death for the working class.

The accuracy of Lenin’s foresight about the nature of the proletarian armed uprising is demonstrated by the following quotation. One could easily mistake the time of writing for 1917, rather than August 1906:

Let us remember that a great mass struggle is approaching. It will be an armed uprising. It must, as far as possible, be simultaneous. The masses must know that they are entering upon an armed, bloody and desperate struggle. Contempt for death must become widespread among them and will ensure victory. The onslaught on the enemy must be pressed with the greatest vigour; attack, not defence, must be the slogan of the masses; the organisation of the struggle will become mobile and flexible; the wavering elements among the troops will be drawn into active participation. And in this momentous struggle, the party of the class-conscious proletariat must discharge its duty to the full. [25]



1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.9, p.132.

2. ibid., vol.2, p.342.

3. ibid., vol.5, pp.515–16.

4. ibid., vol.8, pp.373–74.

5. ibid., vol.9, pp.18–19.

6. ibid., p.132.

7. ibid., p.369.

8. ibid., vol.11, p.177.

9. ibid., pp.176–77.

10. ibid., pp.174–75.

11. Leninskii Sbornik, vol.26, pp.355–65.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.9, p.344.

13. ibid., pp.344–46.

14. ibid., vol.8, p.153.

15. 8 October 1917, . ibid., vol.26, p.181.

16. Pokrovsky, Brief History, op. cit., vol.2, pp.208–09.

17. ibid., p.212.

18. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.23, p.250.

19. ibid., vol.10, pp.113-14.

20. ibid., vol.11, p.173.

21. Iskra, March 2, 1904; Dan, Origins, op. cit., p.203.

22. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.174.

23. Piatyi sezd RSDRP, Moscow 1934, p.62.

24. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.398.

25. ibid., vol.11, p.178.


Last updated on 10.12.2003