THIS IS A REVIEW OF LEON TROTSKY’S HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION, ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN 1930-32, (EDITION USED HERE-THREE VOLUMES, PATHFINDER PRESS, NEW YORK, 1980) BY AN UNREPENTANT DEFENDER OF THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION OF 1917. HERE’S WHY.
Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is partisan history at its best. One does not and should not, at least in this day in age, ask historians to be ‘objective’. One simply asks that the historian present his or her narrative and analysis and get out of the way. Trotsky meets that criterion. Furthermore, in Trotsky’s case there is nothing like having a central actor in the drama he is narrating, who can also write brilliantly and wittily, give his interpretation of the important events and undercurrents swirling around Russia in 1917.
If you are looking for a general history of the revolution or want an analysis of what the revolution meant for the fate of various nations after World War I or its affect on world geopolitics look elsewhere. E.H. Carr’s History of the Russian Revolution offers an excellent multi-volume set that tells that story through the 1920’s. Or if you want to know what the various parliamentary leaders, both bourgeois and Soviet, were thinking and doing from a moderately leftist viewpoint read Sukhanov’s Notes on the Russian Revolution. For a more journalistic account John Reed’s classic Ten Days That Shook the World is invaluable. Trotsky covers some of this material as well. However, if additionally, you want to get a feel for the molecular process of the Russian Revolution in its ebbs and flows down at the base in the masses where the revolution was made Trotsky’s is the book for you.
The life of Leon Trotsky is intimately intertwined with the rise and decline of the Russian Revolution in the first part of the 20th century. As a young man, like an extraordinary number of talented Russian youth, he entered the revolutionary struggle against Czarism in the late 1890’s. Shortly thereafter he embraced what became a lifelong devotion to a Marxist political perspective. However, except for the period of the 1905 Revolution when Trotsky was Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet and later in 1912 when he tried to unite all the Russian Social Democratic forces in an ill-fated unity conference, which goes down in history as the ‘August Bloc’, he was essentially a free lancer in the international socialist movement. At that time Trotsky saw the Bolsheviks as “sectarians” as it was not clear to him time that for socialist revolution to be successful the reformist and revolutionary wings of the movement had to be organizationally split. With the coming of World War I Trotsky drew closer to Bolshevik positions but did not actually join the party until the summer of 1917 when he entered the Central Committee after the fusion of his organization, the Inter-District Organization, and the Bolsheviks. This act represented an important and decisive switch in his understanding of the necessity of a revolutionary workers party to lead the socialist revolution.
As Trotsky himself noted, although he was a late-comer to the concept of a Bolshevik Party that delay only instilled in him a greater understanding of the need for a vanguard revolutionary workers party to lead the revolutionary struggles. This understanding underlined his political analysis throughout the rest of his career as a Soviet official and as the leader of the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution. After his defeat at the hands of Stalin and his henchmen Trotsky wrote these three volumes in exile in Turkey from 1930 to 1932. At that time Trotsky was not only trying to draw the lessons of the Revolution from an historian’s perspective but to teach new cadre the necessary lessons of that struggle as he tried first reform the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International and then later, after that position became politically untenable , to form a new, revolutionary Fourth International. Trotsky was still fighting from this perspective in defense of the gains of the Russian Revolution when a Stalinist agent cut him down. Thus, without doubt, beyond a keen historian’s eye for detail and anecdote, Trotsky’s political insights developed over long experience give his volumes an invaluable added dimension not found in other sources on the Russian Revolution.
As a result of the Bolshevik seizure of power the so-called Russian Question was the central question for world politics throughout most of the 20th century. That central question ended (or left center stage, to be more precise) with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. However, there are still lessons, and certainly not all of them negative, to be learned from the experience of the Russian Revolution. Today, an understanding of this experience is a task for the natural audience for this book, the young alienated radicals of Western society. For the remainder of this review I will try to point out some issues raised by Trotsky which remain relevant today.
The central preoccupation of Trotsky’s volumes reviewed here and of his later political career concerns the problem of the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the international labor movement and its national components. That problem can be stated as the gap between the already existing objective conditions necessary for beginning socialist construction based on the current level of capitalist development and the immaturity or lack of revolutionary leadership to overthrow the old order. From the European Revolutions of 1848 on, not excepting the heroic Paris Commune, until his time the only successful working class revolution had been in led by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917. Why? Anarchists may look back to the Paris Commune or forward to the Spanish Civil War in 1936 for solace but the plain fact is that absent a revolutionary party those struggles were defeated without establishing the prerequisites for socialism. History has indicated that a revolutionary party that has assimilated the lessons of the past and is rooted in the working class, allied with and leading the plebeian masses in its wake, is the only way to bring the socialist program to fruition. That hard truth shines through Trotsky’s three volumes. Unfortunately, this is still the central problem confronting the international labor movement today.
Trotsky makes an interesting note that despite the popular conception at the time, reinforced since by several historians, the February overthrow of the Czarist regime was not as spontaneous as one would have been led to believe in the confusion of the times. He noted that the Russian revolutionary movement had been in existence for many decades before that time, that the revolution of 1905 had been a dress rehearsal for 1917 and that before the World War temporarily halted its progress another revolutionary period was on the rise. If there had been no such experiences then those who argue for spontaneity would have grounds to stand on. The most telling point is that the outbreak occurred in Petrograd, not exactly unknown ground for revolutionary activities. Moreover, contrary to the worshipers of so-called spontaneity, this argues most strongly for a revolutionary workers party to be in place in order to affect the direction of the revolution from the beginning.
All revolutions, and the Russian Revolution is no exception, after the first flush of victory over the overthrown old regime, face attempts by the more moderate revolutionary elements to suppress counterposed class aspirations, in the interest of unity of the various classes that made the initial revolution. Thus, we see in the English Revolution of the 17th century a temporary truce between the rising bourgeoisie and the yeoman farmers and pious urban artisans who formed the backbone of Cromwell’s New Model Army. In the Great French Revolution of the 18th century the struggle from the beginning depended mainly on the support of the lower urban plebian classes. Later other classes, particularly the peasantry through their parties, which had previously remained passive enter the arena and try to place a break on revolutionary developments.
Their revolutionary goals having been achieved in the initial overturn- for them the revolution is over. Those elements most commonly attempt to rule by way of some form of People’s Front government. This is a common term of art in Marxist terminology to represent a trans-class formation of working class and capitalist parties which have ultimately counterposed interests. The Russian Revolution also suffered under a Popular Front period under various combinations and guises supported by ostensible socialists, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, from February to October. One of the keys to Bolshevik success in October was that, with the arrival of Lenin from exile in April, the Bolsheviks shifted their strategy and tactics to a position of political opposition to the parties of the popular front. Later history has shown us in Spain in the 1930’s and more recently in Chile in the 1970’s how deadly support to such popular front formations can be for revolutionaries and the masses influenced by them. The various parliamentary popular fronts in France, Italy and elsewhere show the limitations in another less dramatic but no less dangerous fashion. In short, political support for Popular Fronts means the derailment of the revolution or worst. This is a hard lesson, paid for in blood, that all manner of reformist socialists try deflect or trivialize in pursuit of being at one with the ‘masses’. Witness today’s efforts, on much lesser scale, by ostensible socialists to get all people of ‘good will, etc.’, including liberal and not so liberal Democrats under the same tent in the opposition to the American invasion of Iraq.
One of Trotsky’s great skills as a historian is the ability to graphically demonstrate that within the general revolutionary flow there are ebbs and flows that either speed up the revolutionary process or slow it down. This is the fate of all revolutions and in the case of failed revolutions can determine the political landscape for generations. The first definitive such event in the Russian Revolution occurred in the so-called "April Days" after it became clear that the then presently constituted Provisional Government intended to continue participation on the Allied side in World War I and retain the territorial aspirations of the Czarist government in other guises. This led the vanguard of the Petrograd working class to make a premature attempt to bring down that government. However, the vanguard was isolated and did not have the authority needed to be successful at that time. The most that could be done was the elimination of the more egregious ministers. Part of the problem here is that no party, unlike the Bolsheviks in the events of the "July Days" has enough authority to hold the militants back, or try to. Theses events only underscore, in contrast to the anarchist position, the need for an organized revolutionary party to check such premature impulses. Even then, the Bolsheviks in July took the full brunt of the reaction by the government with the jailing of their leaders and suppression of their newspapers supported wholeheartedly by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary Parties.
The Bolsheviks were probably the most revolutionary party in the history of revolutions. They certainly were the most consciously revolutionary in their commitment to political program, organizational form and organizational practices. Notwithstanding this, before the arrival in Petrograd of Lenin from exile the Bolshevik forces on the ground were, to put it mildly, floundering in their attitude toward political developments, especially their position on so-called critical support to the Provisional Government (read, Popular Front). Hence, in the middle of a revolutionary upsurge it was necessary to politically rearm the party. This political rearmament was necessary to expand the party’s concept of when and what forces would lead the current revolutionary upsurge. In short, mainly through Lenin’s intervention, the Party needed to revamp its old theory of "the democratic dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry" to the new conditions which placed the socialist program i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat on the immediate agenda. Informally, the Bolsheviks, or rather Lenin individually, came to the same conclusions that Trotsky had analyzed in his theory of Permanent Revolution prior to the Revolution of 1905. This reorientation was not done without a struggle in the party against those forces who did not want to separate with the reformist wing of the Russian workers and peasant parties, mainly the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries.
This should be a sobering warning to those who argue, mainly from an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist position, that a revolutionary party is not necessary. The dilemma of correctly aligning strategy and tactics even with a truly revolutionary party can be problematic. The tragic outcome in Spain in the 1930’s abetted by the confusion on this issue by the Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and the Durrutti-led left anarchists, the most honestly revolutionary organizations at the time, painfully underscores this point. This is why Trotsky came over to the Bolsheviks and why he drew that lesson on the organization question very sharply for the rest of his political career.
The old-fashioned, poorly trained, inadequately led peasant-based Russian Army took a real beating at the hands of the more modern, mechanized and disciplined German armies on the Eastern Front in World War I. The Russian Army, furthermore, was at the point of disintegration just prior to the February Revolution. Nevertheless, the desperate effort on the part of the peasant soldier, essentially declassed from his traditional role on the land by the military mobilization, was decisive in overthrowing the monarchy. Key peasant reserve units placed in urban garrisons, and thus in contact with the energized workers, participated in the struggle to end the war and get back to the take the land while they were still alive. Thus from February on, the peasant army through coercion or through inertia was no longer a reliable vehicle for any of the various combinations of provisional governmental ministries to use. In the Army’s final flare-up in defense, or in any case at least remaining neutral, of placing all power into Soviet hands it acted as a reserve, an important one, but nevertheless a reserve. Only later when the Whites in the Civil War came to try to take the land did the peasant soldier again exhibit a willingness to fight and die. Such circumstances as a vast peasant war are not a part of today’s revolutionary strategy, at least in advanced capitalist society. In fact, today only under exceptional conditions would a revolutionary socialist party support, much less advocate the popular Bolshevik slogan-‘land to the tiller’ to resolve the agrarian question. The need to split the armed forces, however, remains.
Not all revolutions exhibit the massive breakdown in discipline that occurred in the Russian army- the armed organ that defends any state- but it played an exceptional role here. However, in order for a revolution to be successful it is almost universally true that the existing governmental authority can no longer rely on normal troop discipline. If this did not ocassionally occur revolution generally would be impossible as untrained plebeians are no match for trained soldiers. Moreover, the Russian peasant army reserves were exceptional in that they responded to the general democratic demand for "land to the tiller" that the Bolsheviks were the only party to endorse and, moreover, were willing to carry out to the end. In the normal course of events the peasant, as a peasant on the land, cannot lead a modern revolution in even a marginally developed industrial state. It has more often been the bulwark for reaction; witness its role in the Paris Commune and Bulgaria in 1923, for examples, more than it has been a reliable ally of the urban masses. However, World War I put the peasant youth of Russia in uniform and gave them discipline, for a time at least, that they would not have otherwise had to play even a a subordinate role in the revolution. Later revolutions based on peasant armies, such as China, Cuba and Vietnam, confirm this notion that only exceptional circumstances, mainly as part of a military formation, permit the peasantry a progressive role in a modern revolution.
Trotsky is politically merciless toward the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaderships that provided the crucial support for the Provisional Governments between February and October in their various guises and through their various crises. Part of the support of these parties for the Provisional Government stemmed from their joint perspectives that the current revolution was a limited bourgeois one and so therefore they could no go further than the decrepit bourgeoisie of Russia was willing to go. Given its relationships with foreign capital that was not very far. Let us face it, these allegedly socialist organizations in the period from February to October betrayed the interest of their ranks on the question of immediate peace, of the redistribution of the land, and a democratic representative government.
This is particularly true after their clamor for the start of the ill-fated summer offensive on the Eastern Front and their evasive refusal to convene a Constituent Assembly to ratify the redistribution of the land. One can chart the slow but then rapid rise of Bolsheviks influence in places when they did not really exist when the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, formerly the influential parties of those areas, moved to the right. All those workers, peasants, soldiers, whatever political organizations they adhered to formally, who wanted to make a socialist revolution naturally gravitated to the Bolsheviks. Such movement to the left by the masses is always the case in times of crisis in a period of revolutionary upswing. The point is to channel that energy for the seizure of power.
The ‘August Days’ when the ex-Czarist General Kornilov attempted a counterrevolutionary coup and Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, in desperation asked the Bolsheviks to use their influence to get the Kronstadt sailors to defend that government points to the ingenuity of the Bolshevik strategy. A point that has been much misunderstood since then, sometimes willfully, by many leftist groups is the Bolshevik tactic of military support- without giving political support- to bourgeois democratic forces in the struggle against right wing forces ready to overthrow democracy. The Bolsheviks gave Kerensky military support while at the same time politically agitating, particularly in the Soviets and within the garrison, to overthrow the Provisional Government.
Today, an approximation of this position would take the form of not supporting capitalist war budgets, parliamentary votes of no confidence, independent extra-parliamentary agitation and action, etc. Granted this principled policy on the part of the Bolsheviks is a very subtle maneuver but it is miles away from giving blanket military and political support to forces that you will eventually have to overthrow. The Spanish revolutionaries in the 1930’s, even the most honest grouped in the Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) learned this lesson the hard way when that party, despite its equivocal political attitude toward the popular front, was suppressed and the leadership jailed by the Negrin government despite having military units at the front in the fight against Franco.
As I write this review we are in the fourth year of the American-led Iraq war. For those who opposed that war from the beginning or have come to oppose it the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution shows the way to really end a fruitless and devastating war. In the final analysis if one really wants to end an imperialist war one has to overthrow the imperialist powers. This is a hard truth that most of even the best of today’s anti-war activists have been unable to grasp. It is not enough to plead, petition or come out in massive numbers to ask politely that the government stop its obvious irrational behavior. Those efforts are helpful for organizing the opposition but not to end the conflict on just terms. The Bolsheviks latched onto and unleashed the greatest anti-war movement in history to overthrow a government which was still committed to the Allied war effort against all reason. After taking power in the name of the Soviets, in which it had a majority, the Bolsheviks in one of its first acts pulled Russia out of the war. History provides no other way for us to stop imperialist war. Learn this lesson.
The Soviets, or workers councils, which sprang up first in the Revolution of 1905 and then almost automatically were resurrected after the February 1917 overturn of the monarchy, are merely a convenient and appropriate organization form for the structure of workers power. Communists and other pro-Communist militants, including this writer, have at times made a fetish of this organizational form because of its success in history. As an antidote to such fetishism a good way to look at this form is to note, as Trotsky did, that a Soviet led by Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries does not lead to the seizure of power. That tells the tale. This is why Lenin, in the summer of 1917, was looking to the factory committees as an alternative to jump-start the second phase of the revolution.
Contrary to the anarchist notion of merely local federated forms of organization or no organization, national Soviets are the necessary form of government in the post- seizure of power period. However, they may not be adequate for the task of seizing power. Each revolution necessarily develops its own forms of organization. In the Paris Commune of 1871 the Central Committee of the National Guard was the logical locus of governmental power. In the Spanish Civil War of 1936 the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias and the factory committees could have provided such a focus. Enough said.
For obvious tactical reasons it is better for a revolutionary party to take power in the name of a pan-class organization, like the Soviets, than in the name of a single party like the Bolsheviks. This brings up an interesting point because, as Trotsky notes, Lenin was willing to take power in the name of the party if conditions warranted it. Under the circumstances I believe that the Bolsheviks could have taken it in their own name but, and here I agree with Trotsky, that it would have been harder for them to keep it. Moreover, they had the majority in the All Russian Soviet and so it would be inexplicable if they took power solely in their own name. That, after a short and unsuccessful alliance with the Left Social Revolutionary Party in government, it came down to a single party does not negate this conclusion. Naturally, a pro-Soviet multi-party system where conflicting ideas of social organization along socialist lines can compete is the best situation. However, history is a cruel taskmaster at times. That, moreover, as the scholars say, is beyond the scope this review and the subject for further discussion.
The question of whether to seize power is a practical one for which no hard and fast rules apply. An exception is that it important to have the masses ready to go when the decision is made. In fact, it is probably not a bad idea to have the masses a little overeager to insurrect. One mistaken assumption, however, is that power can be taken at any time in a revolutionary period. As the events of the Russian Revolution demonstrate this is not true because the failure to have a revolutionary party ready to roll means that there is a fairly short window of opportunity. In Trotsky’s analysis this can come down to a period of days. In the actual case of Russia he postulated that that time was probably between late September and December. That analysis seems reasonable. In any case, one must have a feel for timing in revolution as well as in any other form of politics. The roll call of unsuccessful socialist revolutions in the 20th century in Germany, Hungary, Finland, Bulgaria, Spain, etc. only painfully highlights this point.
Many historians and political commentators have declared the Bolshevik seizure of power in October a coup d’etat. That is facile commentary. If one wants to do harm to the notion of a coup d’etat in the classic sense of a closed military conspiracy a la Blanqui this cannot stand up to examination. First, the Bolsheviks were an urban civilian party with at best tenuous ties to military knowledge and resources. Even simple military operations like the famous bank expropriations after the 1905 Revolution were mainly botched and gave them nothing but headaches with the leadership of the pre- World War I international social democracy. Secondly, and decisively, Bolshevik influence over the garrison in Petrograd and eventually elsewhere precluded such a necessity. Although, as Trotsky noted, conspiracy is an element of any insurrection this was in fact an ‘open’ conspiracy that even the Kerensky government had to realize was taking place. The Bolsheviks relied on the masses just as we should.
With almost a century of hindsight and knowing what we know now it is easy to see that the slender social basis for the establishment of Soviet power by the Bolsheviks in Russia was bound to create problems. Absent international working class revolution, particularly in Germany, which the Bolsheviks factored into their decisions to seize power, meant, of necessity, that there were going to be deformations even under a healthy workers regime. One, as we have painfully found out, cannot after all build socialism in one country. Nevertheless this begs the question whether at the time the Bolsheviks should have taken power. A quick look at the history of revolutions clearly points out those opportunities are infrequent. You do not get that many opportunities to seize power and try to change world history for the better so you best take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves.
As mentioned above, revolutionary history is mainly a chronicle of failed revolutionary opportunities. No, the hell with all that. Take working class power when you can and let the devil take the hinder post. Let us learn more than previous generations of revolutionaries, but be ready. This is one of the political textbooks you need to read if you want to change the world. Read it.