Written: 20 November, 1918
First Published: 21 November 1918, Pravda No. 252
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 28, 1974, pages 185-194
Translated (and edited): Jim Riordan
Transcription/HTML Markup: robert Cymbala & David Walters
Online Version: V.I.Lenin Internet Archive, 2002
Pravda today carries a remarkably interesting letter by Pitirim Sorokin, to which the special attention of all Communists should be drawn. In this letter, which was originally published in Izvestia of the North Dvina Executive Committee, Pitirim Sorokin announces that he is leaving the Right Socialist-Revolutionary Party and relinquishing his seat in the Constituent Assembly. His motives are that he finds it difficult to provide effective political recipes, not only for others, but even for himself, and that therefore he “is withdrawing completely from politics”. He writes: “The past year of revolution has taught me one truth: politicians may make mistakes, politics may be socially useful, but may also be socially harmful, whereas scientific and educational work is always useful and is always needed by the people. . . .” The letter is signed: “Pitirim Sorokin, lecturer at St. Petersburg University and the Psycho-Neurological Institute, former member of the Constituent Assembly and former member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party”.
This letter is worth mentioning in the first place because it is an extremely interesting “human document”. We do not often meet such sincerity and frankness as are displayed by Sorokin in admitting the mistakenness of his politics. In practically the majority of cases politicians who become convinced that the line they have been pursuing is erroneous try to conceal their change of front, to hush it up, to “invent” more or less extraneous motives, and so on. A frank and honest admission of one’s political error is in itself an important political act. Pitirim Sorokin is wrong when he says that scientific work “is always useful”. For mistakes are made in this sphere too, and there are examples also in Russian literature of the obstinate advocacy of, for instance, reactionary philosophical views by people who are not conscious reactionaries. On the other hand, a frank declaration by a prominent person—i.e., a person who has occupied a responsible political post known to the people at large—that he is withdrawing from politics is also politics. An honest confession of a political error may be of great political benefit to many people if the error was shared by whole parties which at one time enjoyed influence over the people.
The political significance of Pitirim Sorokin’s letter is very great precisely at the present moment. It is a “lesson” which we should all seriously think over and learn thoroughly.
It is a truth long known to every Marxist that in every capitalist society the only decisive forces are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, while all social elements occupying a position between these classes and coming within the economic category of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably vacillate between these decisive forces. But there is an enormous gulf between academic recognition of this truth and the ability to draw the conclusions that follow from it in the complex conditions of practical reality.
Pitirim Sorokin is representative of the Menshevik Socialist-Revolutionary trend, an extremely broad public and political trend. That this is a single trend, that the difference between the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries in their attitude towards the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is insignificant, is especially convincingly and strikingly borne out by the events in the Russian revolution since February 1917. The Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries are varieties of petty-bourgeois democrats—that is the economic essence and fundamental political characteristic of the trend in question. We know from the history of the advanced countries how frequently this trend in its early stages assumes a “socialist” hue.
What was it that several months ago so forcibly repelled those of this trend from the Bolsheviks, from the proletarian revolution, and what is it that is now inducing them to shift from hostility to neutrality? It is quite obvious that the cause of this shift was, firstly, the collapse of German imperialism in connection with the revolution in Germany and other countries, and the exposure of Anglo-French imperialism, and, secondly, the dispelling of bourgeois democratic illusions.
Let us deal with the first cause. Patriotism is one of the most deeply ingrained sentiments, inculcated by the existence of separate fatherlands for hundreds and thousands of years. One of the most pronounced, one might say exceptional, difficulties of our proletarian revolution is that it was obliged to pass through a phase of extreme departure from patriotism, the phase of the Brest-Litovsk Peace. The bitterness, resentment, and violent indignation provoked by this peace were easy to understand and it goes without saying that we Marxists could expect only the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat to appreciate the truth that we were making and were obliged to make great national sacrifices for the sake of the supreme interests of the world proletarian revolution. There was no source from which ideologists who are not Marxists, and the broad mass of the working people, who do not belong to the proletariat trained in the long school of strikes and revolution, could derive either a firm conviction that the revolution was maturing, or an unreserved devotion to it. At best, our tactics appeared to them a fantastic, fanatical, and adventurist sacrifice of the real and most obvious interests of hundreds of millions for the sake of an abstract, utopian, and dubious hope of something that might occur abroad. And the petty bourgeoisie, owing to their economic position, are more patriotic than the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.
But it turned out as we had said.
German imperialism, which had seemed to be the only enemy, collapsed. The German revolution, which had appeared to be a “dream-farce” (to use Plekhanov’s expression), became a fact. Anglo-French imperialism, which the fantasy of the petty-bourgeois democrats had pictured as a friend of democracy and a protector of the oppressed, turned out to be a savage beast which imposed on the German Republic and the people of Austria terms worse than those of Brest, a savage beast which used armies of “free” republicans—French and American—as gendarmes, butchers and throttlers of the independence and freedom of small and weak nations. Anglo-French imperialism was exposed by world history with ruthless thoroughness and frankness. The facts of world history demonstrated to the Russian patriots, who formerly would hear of nothing that was not to the direct advantage (as formerly understood) of their country, that the transformation of our Russian revolution into a socialist revolution was not a dubious venture but a necessity, for there was no other alternative: Anglo-French and American imperialism will inevitably destroy the independence and freedom of Russia if the world socialist revolution, world Bolshevism, does not triumph.
Facts are stubborn things, as the English say. And during recent months we have witnessed facts that signify a most momentous turning-point in world history. These facts are compelling the petty-bourgeois democrats of Russia, in spite of their hatred of Bolshevism, a hatred inculcated by the history of our inner-Party struggle, to turn from hostility to Bolshevism first to neutrality and then to support of Bolshevism. The objective conditions which repelled these democratic patriots from us most strongly have now vanished. The objective conditions existing in the world now compel them to turn to us. Pitirim Sorokin’s change of front is by no means fortuitous, but rather the symptom of an inevitable change of front on the part of a whole class, of the whole petty-bourgeois democracy. Whoever fails to reckon with this fact and to take advantage of it is a bad socialist, not a Marxist.
Furthermore, faith in “democracy” in general, as a universal panacea, and failure to understand that this democracy is bourgeois democracy, historically limited in its usefulness and its necessity, have for decades and centuries been particularly characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie of all countries. The big bourgeois is case-hardened; he knows that under capitalism a democratic republic, like every other form of state, is nothing but a machine for the suppression of the proletariat. The big bourgeois knows this from his most intimate acquaintance with the real leaders and with the most profound (and therefore frequently the most concealed) springs of every bourgeois state machine. The petty bourgeois, Owning to his economic position and his conditions of life generally, is less able to appreciate this truth, and even cherishes the illusion that a democratic republic implies “pure democracy”, “a free people’s state”, the non-class or supra-class rule of the people, a pure manifestation of the will of the people, and so on and so forth. The tenacity of these prejudices of the petty-bourgeois democrat is inevitably due to the fact that he is farther removed from the acute class struggle, the stock exchange, and “real” politics; and it would be absolutely un-Marxist to expect these prejudices to be eradicated very rapidly by propaganda alone.
World history, however, is moving with such furious rapidity, is smashing everything customary and established with a hammer of such immense weight, by crises of such unparalleled intensity, that the most tenacious prejudices are giving way. The naïve belief in a Constituent Assembly and the naïve habit of contrasting “pure democracy” with “proletarian dictatorship” took shape naturally and inevitably in the mind of the “democrat in general”. But the experiences of the Constituent Assembly supporters in Archangel, Samara, Siberia and the South could not but destroy even the most tenacious of prejudices. The idealised democratic republic of Wilson proved in practice to be a form of the most rabid imperialism, of the most shameless oppression and suppression of weak and small nations. The average “democrat” in general, the Menshevik and the Socialist-Revolutionary, thought: “How can we even dream of some allegedly superior type of state, some Soviet government? God grant us even an ordinary democratic republic!” And, of course, in “ordinary”, comparatively peaceful times he could have kept on cherishing this “hope” for many a long decade.
Now, however, the course of world events and the bitter lessons derived from the alliance of all the Russian monarchists with Anglo-French and American imperialism are proving in practice that a democratic republic is a bourgeois-democratic republic, which is already out of date from the point of view of the problems which imperialism has placed before history. They show that there is no other alternative: either Soviet government triumphs in every advanced country in the world, or the most reactionary imperialism triumphs, the most savage imperialism, which is throttling the small and weak nations and reinstating reaction all over the world—Anglo-American imperialism, which has perfectly mastered the art of using the form of a democratic republic.
One or the other.
There is no middle course. Until quite recently this view was regarded as the blind fanaticism of the Bolsheviks.
But it turned out to be true.
If Pitirim Sorokin has relinquished his seat in the Constituent Assembly, it is not without reason; it is a symptom of a change of front on the part of a whole class, the petty-bourgeois democrats. A split among them is inevitable: one section will come over to our side, another section will remain neutral, while a third will deliberately join forces with the monarchist Constitutional-Democrats, who are selling Russia to Anglo-American capital and seeking to crush the revolution with the aid of foreign bayonets. One of the most urgent tasks of the present day is to take into account and make use of the turn among the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary democrats from hostility to Bolshevism first to neutrality and then to support of Bolshevism.
Every slogan the Party addresses to the people is bound to become petrified, become a dead letter, yet remain valid for many even when the conditions which rendered it necessary have changed. That is an unavoidable evil, and it is impossible to ensure the correctness of Party policy unless we learn to combat and overcome it. The period of our proletarian revolution in which the differences with the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary democrats were particularly acute was a historically necessary period. It was impossible to avoid waging a vigorous struggle against these democrats when they swung to the camp of our enemies and set about restoring a bourgeois and imperialist democratic republic. Many of the slogans of this struggle have now become frozen and petrified and prevent us from properly assessing and taking effective advantage of the new period, in which a change of front has begun among these democrats, a change in our direction, not a fortuitous change, but one rooted deep in the conditions of the international situation.
It is not enough to encourage this change of front and amicably greet those who are making it. A politician who knows what he is working for must learn to bring about this change of front among the various sections and groups of the broad mass of petty-bourgeois democrats if he is convinced that serious and deep-going historical reasons for such a turn exist. A revolutionary proletarian must know whom to suppress and with whom—and when and how—to conclude an agreement. It would be ridiculous and foolish to refrain from employing terror against and suppressing the landowners and capitalists and their henchmen, who are selling Russia to the foreign imperialist “Allies”. It would be farcical to attempt to “convince” or generally to “psychologically influence” them. But it would be equally foolish and ridiculous—if not more so—to insist only on tactics of suppression and terror in relation to the petty-bourgeois democrats when the course of events is compelling them to turn in our direction.
The proletariat encounters these democrats everywhere. Our task in the rural districts is to destroy the landowner and smash the resistance of the exploiter and the kulak profiteer. For this purpose we can safely rely only on the semi-proletarians, the “poor peasants”. But the middle peasant is not our enemy. He wavered, is wavering, and will continue to waver. The task of influencing the waverers is not identical with the task of overthrowing the exploiter and defeating the active enemy. The task at the present moment is to come to an agreement with the middle peasant—while not for a moment renouncing the struggle against the kulak and at the same time firmly relying solely on the poor peasant—for a turn in our direction on the part of the middle peasants is now inevitable owing to the causes enumerated above.
This applies also to the handicraftsman, the artisan, and the worker whose conditions are most petty-bourgeois or whose views are most petty-bourgeois, and to many office workers and army officers, and, in particular, to the intellectuals generally. It is an unquestionable fact that there often are instances in our Party of inability to make use of this change of front among them and that this inability can and must be overcome.
We already have the firm support of the vast majority of the proletarians organised in the trade unions. We must know how to win over the least proletarian and most petty bourgeois sections of the working people who are turning towards us, to include them in the general organisation and to subject them to general proletarian discipline. The slogan of the moment here is not to fight these sections, but to win them over, to be able to influence them, to convince the waverers, to make use of those who are neutral, and, by mass proletarian influence, to educate those who are lagging behind or who have only very recently begun to free themselves from “Constituent Assembly” or “patriotic democratic” illusions.
We already have sufficiently firm support among the working people. This was quite strikingly borne out by the Sixth Congress of Soviets. We are not afraid of the bourgeois intellectuals, but we shall not for a moment relax the struggle against the deliberate saboteurs and whiteguards among them. But the slogan of the moment is to make use of the change of attitude towards us which is taking place among them. There still remain plenty of the worst bourgeois specialists who have wormed themselves into Soviet positions. To throw them out, to replace them by specialists who yesterday were our convinced enemies and today are only neutral is one of the most important tasks of the present moment, the task of every active Soviet functionary who comes into contact with the “specialists”, of every agitator, propagandist, and organiser.
Of course, like every other political action in a complex and rapidly changing situation, agreement with the middle peasant, with the worker who was a Menshevik yesterday and with the office worker or specialist who was a saboteur yesterday, takes skill to achieve. The whole point is not to rest content with the skill we have acquired by previous experience, but under all circumstances to go on, under all circumstances to strive for something bigger, under all circumstances to proceed from simpler to more difficult tasks. Otherwise, no progress whatever is possible and in particular no progress is possible in socialist construction.
The other day I was visited by representatives from a congress of delegates of credit co-operative societies. They showed me the congress resolution protesting against the merger of the Credit Co-operative Bank with the People’s Bank of the Republic. I told them that I stood for agreement with the middle peasants and highly valued even the beginnings of a change in attitude from hostility to neutrality towards the Bolsheviks on the part of the co-operators, but the basis for an agreement could be created only by their consent to the complete merger of their special bank with the single Bank of the Republic. The congress delegates thereupon replaced their resolution by another, which they had the congress adopt, and in which everything hostile to the merger was deleted; but . . . but what they proposed was a plan for a special “credit union” of co-operators, which in fact differed in no way from a special bank! That was ridiculous. Only a fool, of course, will be deceived by such verbiage. But the “failure” of one such . . . “attempt” will not affect our policy in the least; we have pursued and will pursue a policy of agreement with the co-operators, the middle peasants, at the same time suppressing every attempt to change the policy of the Soviet government and of Soviet socialist construction.
Vacillation on the part of the petty-bourgeois democrats is inevitable. It was enough for the Czechs to win a few victories for these democrats to fall into a panic, to begin to spread panic, to hasten to the side of the “victors”, and be ready to greet them in a servile manner. Of course, it must not be forgotten for a moment that now, too, any partial success of, let us say, the Anglo-American-Krasnov whiteguards would be enough for vacillation to begin in the other direction, increasing panic and multiplying cases of the dissemination of panic, of treachery, and desertion to the imperialists, and so on and so forth.
We are aware of that. We shall not forget it. The purely proletarian basis we have won for the Soviet government, which is supported by the semi-proletarians, will remain firm and enduring. Our ranks will not falter, our army will not waver—that we already know from experience. But when profound world-historic changes bring about an inevitable turn in our direction among the mass of non-Party, Menshevik, and Socialist-Revolutionary democrats, we must learn and shall learn to make use of this change of front, to encourage it, to induce it among the various groups and sections of the population, to do everything possible to reach agreement with them and thus facilitate the work of socialist construction and ease the burden of grievous economic dislocation, ignorance, and incompetence which are delaying the victory of socialism.
 Further on in the article Lenin quotes Pitirim Sorokin’s letter as published in Pravda No. 251, November 20, 1918, where it was erroneously said that the letter was originally published in Izvestia of the North Dvina Executive Committee. Actually the newspaper was called Kresfyanskiye i Rabochiye Dumy (Peasants’ and Workers’ Thoughts ); the letter appeared in issue No. 75 dated October 29, 1918.
 The resolution was adopted by the emergency congress of the Moscow People’s Bank shareholders on November 16, 1918, and was directed against the proposed nationalisation of the bank.