Leon Trotsky On The Lessons Of The Russian Revolution
Workers Vanguard No. 968
5 November 2010
In Honor of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution
For New October Revolutions!
(From the Archives of Marxism)
November 7 (October 25 by the calendar used in Russia at the time) marks the 93rd anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the workers’ seizure of power in Russia gave flesh and blood reality to the Marxist understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Despite the subsequent Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state, culminating in its counterrevolutionary destruction in 1991-92, the October Revolution was and is the international proletariat’s greatest victory; its final undoing, a world-historic defeat. The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) fought to the bitter end in defense of the Soviet Union and the bureaucratically deformed workers states of East Europe, while calling for workers political revolutions to oust the parasitic nationalist Stalinist bureaucracies that ruled these states. This is the same program we uphold today for the remaining workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba.
Having been expelled from the USSR in 1929 by Stalin, Trotsky spent the remainder of his life in exile. In November 1932, he gave a speech to a Danish social-democratic student group in Copenhagen. He outlined the political conditions and the social forces that drove the Russian Revolution, stressing the decisive role of the Bolshevik Party. Illuminating the worldwide impact of the Russian Revolution and its place in history, Trotsky underlined the necessity of sweeping away the decaying capitalist order and replacing it with a scientifically planned international socialist economy that will lay the material basis for human freedom.
The ICL fights to forge workers parties modeled on Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks to lead the struggle for new October Revolutions around the globe.
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Revolution means a change of the social order. It transfers the power from the hands of a class which has exhausted itself into those of another class, which is on the rise....
Without the armed insurrection of November 7, 1917, the Soviet state would not be in existence. But the insurrection itself did not drop from Heaven. A series of historical prerequisites was necessary for the October revolution.
1. The rotting away of the old ruling classes—the nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy.
2. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people.
3. The revolutionary character of the peasant question.
4. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nations.
5. The significant social weight of the proletariat.
To these organic pre-conditions we must add certain conjunctural conditions of the highest importance:
6. The Revolution of 1905 was the great school, or in Lenin’s words, the “dress rehearsal” of the Revolution of 1917. The Soviets, as the irreplaceable organizational form of the proletarian united front in the revolution, were created for the first time in the year 1905.
7. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility and thereby prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.
But all these conditions, which fully sufficed for the outbreak of the Revolution, were insufficient to assure the victory of the proletariat in the Revolution. For this victory one condition more was needed:
8. The Bolshevik Party....
In the year 1883 there arose among the emigres the first Marxist group. In the year 1898, at a secret meeting, the foundation of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party was proclaimed (we all called ourselves Social-Democrats in those days). In the year 1903 occurred the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In the year 1912 the Bolshevist fraction finally became an independent Party.
It learned to recognize the class mechanics of society in struggle, in the grandiose events of twelve years (1905-1917). It educated cadres equally capable of initiative and of subordination. The discipline of its revolutionary action was based on the unity of its doctrine, on the tradition of common struggles and on confidence in its tested leadership.
Thus stood the Party in the year 1917. Despised by the official “public opinion” and the paper thunder of the intelligentsia press, it adapted itself to the movement of the masses. Firmly it kept in hand the control of factories and regiments. More and more the peasant masses turned toward it. If we understand by “nation,” not the privileged heads, but the majority of the people, that is, the workers and peasants, then Bolshevism became in the course of the year 1917 a truly national Russian Party.
In September 1917, Lenin, who was compelled to keep in hiding, gave the signal, “The crisis is ripe, the hour of the insurrection has approached.” He was right. The ruling classes had landed in a blind alley before the problems of the war, the land and national liberation. The bourgeoisie finally lost its head. The democratic parties, the Mensheviks and social-revolutionaries, wasted the remains of the confidence of the masses in them by their support of the imperialist war, by their policy of ineffectual compromise and concession to the bourgeois and feudal property-owners. The awakened army no longer wanted to fight for the alien aims of imperialism. Disregarding democratic advice, the peasantry smoked the landowners out of their estates. The oppressed nationalities at the periphery rose up against the bureaucracy of Petrograd. In the most important workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets the Bolsheviki were dominant. The workers and soldiers demanded action. The ulcer was ripe. It needed a cut of the lancet.
Only under these social and political conditions was the insurrection possible. And thus it also became inevitable. But there is no playing around with the insurrection. Woe to the surgeon who is careless in the use of the lancet! Insurrection is an art. It has its laws and its rules.
The Party carried through the October insurrection with cold calculation and with flaming determination. Thanks to this, it conquered almost without victims. Through the victorious Soviets the Bolsheviki placed themselves at the head of a country which occupies one sixth of the surface of the globe....
Let us now in closing attempt to ascertain the place of the October Revolution, not only in the history of Russia but in the history of the world. During the year 1917, in a period of eight months, two historical curves intersect. The February upheaval—that belated echo of the great struggles which had been carried out in past centuries on the territories of Holland, England, France, almost all of Continental Europe—takes its place in the series of bourgeois revolutions. The October Revolution proclaims and opens the domination of the proletariat. It was world capitalism that suffered its first great defeat on the territory of Russia. The chain broke at its weakest link. But it was the chain that broke, and not only the link.
Capitalism has outlived itself as a world system. It has ceased to fulfill its essential mission, the increase of human power and human wealth. Humanity cannot stand still at the level which it has reached. Only a powerful increase in productive force and a sound, planned, that is, Socialist organization of production and distribution can assure humanity—all humanity—of a decent standard of life and at the same time give it the precious feeling of freedom with respect to its own economy. Freedom in two senses—first of all, man will no longer be compelled to devote the greater part of his life to physical labor. Second, he will no longer be dependent on the laws of the market, that is, on the blind and dark forces which have grown up behind his back. He will build up his economy freely, that is, according to a plan, with compass in hand. This time it is a question of subjecting the anatomy of society to the X-ray through and through, of disclosing all its secrets and subjecting all its functions to the reason and the will of collective humanity. In this sense, Socialism must become a new step in the historical advance of mankind. Before our ancestor, who first armed himself with a stone axe, the whole of nature represented a conspiracy of secret and hostile forces. Since then, the natural sciences, hand in hand with practical technology, have illuminated nature down to its most secret depths. By means of electrical energy, the physicist passes judgment on the nucleus of the atom. The hour is not far when science will easily solve the task of the alchemists, and turn manure into gold and gold into manure. Where the demons and furies of nature once raged, now rules ever more courageously the industrial will of man.
But while he wrestled victoriously with nature, man built up his relations to other men blindly, almost like the bee or the ant. Belatedly and most undecidedly he approached the problems of human society. He began with religion, and passed on to politics. The Reformation represented the first victory of bourgeois individualism and rationalism in a domain which had been ruled by dead tradition. From the church, critical thought went on to the state. Born in the struggle with absolutism and the medieval estates, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people and of the rights of man and the citizen grew stronger. Thus arose the system of parliamentarism. Critical thought penetrated into the domain of government administration. The political rationalism of democracy was the highest achievement of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.
But between nature and the state stands economic life. Technology liberated man from the tyranny of the old elements—earth, water, fire and air—only to subject him to its own tyranny. Man ceased to be a slave to nature, to become a slave to the machine, and, still worse, a slave to supply and demand. The present world crisis testifies in especially tragic fashion how man, who dives to the bottom of the ocean, who rises up to the stratosphere, who converses on invisible waves with the Antipodes, how this proud and daring ruler of nature remains a slave to the blind forces of his own economy. The historical task of our epoch consists in replacing the uncontrolled play of the market by reasonable planning, in disciplining the forces of production, compelling them to work together in harmony and obediently serve the needs of mankind. Only on this new social basis will man be able to stretch his weary limbs and—every man and every woman, not only a selected few—become a full citizen in the realm of thought.
—“Leon Trotsky Defends the October Revolution” (Militant, 21 January 1933)