Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution (part 1)

A new edition of Trotsky’s classic is being published by Haymarket Books this year. Here, we present part one of a two-part series outlining the main features of Trotsky’s work.

“The history of a revolution is for us first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of their own destiny.… The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they ­cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active ­orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.”—Introduction to Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution.

Revolutions, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote, “must not by any means be regarded as a single act…but as a series of more or less powerful outbreaks rapidly alternating with periods of more or less intense calm.” To understand and navigate this process, revolutionaries must understand both the objective possibility of working-class rule, and the specific opportunities and challenges at every given moment. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution chronicles the revolutionary process of 1917, the challenges for the young working class, its “successive approximations,” as it forged a course through first overthrowing the ancient rotten monarchy of the tsar in February, then casting off the newborn, rotten bourgeois democracy of the Provisional Government in October.

Dozens of histories of the Russian Revolution have been written; what makes Trotsky’s History unique is its uncompromisingly working-class, Marxist account of the totality of the process, made all the more tangible from the point of view of a participant.

Trotsky’s personal involvement in no way inhibits his scientific view. Historian and Trotsky biographer Isaac Deutscher writes,

as in the best military thinking, extreme partisanship and scrupulously sober observation indeed go hand in hand. To the good soldier nothing is of greater importance than to get a realistic picture of the ‘other side of the hill,’ unclouded by wishful thinking or emotion. Trotsky, the commander of the October insurrection, had acted on this principle; and Trotsky the historian does the same. He achieves in his image of the revolution the unity of the subjective and objective elements.1

Trotsky scorned historians who sought to “stand on the wall” observing both sides dispassionately; he believed such an “objective” view inevitably threw support to the reactionary forces.

Beyond the analytical incisiveness of the History, it is a work of great emotion and poetry, and Trotsky’s success at communicating the sweep of the revolution is often achieved through the tiniest detail depicting the psychological transformation of the masses. A wink, a hesitation, the trembling but defiant voice of a soldiers’ deputy in the Soviet embodied the growing boldness of an oppressed class rising to its feet against its oppressors. Deutscher wrote of this aspect of the History: “He lets us feel that here and now men make their own history; and that they do it in accordance with the ‘laws of history,’ but also by acts of their consciousness and will. Of such men, even though they may be illiterate and crude, he is proud; and he wants us to be proud of them. The revolution is for him that brief and pregnant moment when the humble and downtrodden have their say.”2

The massive History of the Russian Revolution was written in one year while Trotsky was in exile in Prinkipo, an island off the coast of Turkey. His exile followed years of battling the rising Stalinist bureaucracy inside Russia, culminating in his expulsion from the Bolshevik Central Committee in 1927, removal to Alma Ata (Kazakhstan) in 1928, and final removal from the USSR in 1929. From being leader of the Red Army and hero of the civil war, Trotsky was vilified as the agent of counterrevolution within the international communist movement. As Stalin sought to destroy any vestige of workers’ power within Russia, a campaign of lies and slander against Trotsky paralleled a rewriting of Bolshevik Party history and the inversion of Marxist theories of revolution to suit Russia’s foreign policy needs. “Not for a moment did Stalin himself slacken,” writes Deutscher, “or allow his propagandists and policemen to relax, in the anti-Trotskyist campaign which he carried into every sphere of thought and activity.”3 Trotsky thus wrote History of the Russian Revolution both to rescue a real history of the Russian Revolution and to defend his own role within it.

The Stalinist image of an infallible party always a step ahead of the class does not withstand an honest appraisal of the revolution. The dynamism and ultimately the success of the Bolshevik Party sprang from the interpenetration of the party and the working class, and the energetic debates within the party. Trotsky brilliantly captures the tension between the formal leadership in the party center and the party’s broad layer of cadre leading in the streets and localities. The caricature of a party center issuing orders to an obedient, passive membership bears no resemblance to the real history of 1917, when in initial weeks of the revolution militants and worker cadres outpaced the center. Nor does the myth of the omniscient Central Committee hold; in reality, the party and Lenin were forced to reconsider their fundamental theoretical assumptions about the nature of the revolution because of the logic of the initiatives taken by the working class, including members of their own party.

This is not to say that Trotsky deemphasizes the role of the Bolsheviks or their outstanding leaders. While reasserting his own leading role (he became president of the Petrograd Soviet in August and led the October insurrection), Trotsky, who was not to join the Bolsheviks until July of 1917, gives the greatest responsibility for the success of the Bolsheviks to Lenin. But his is not the Lenin of Stalinist myth. The cogency of Lenin’s political insights didn’t spring from an otherworldly vision, but from his ability to listen with great sensitivity and look at reality without sentimentality to perceive what was really there.

Stalin does not fare as well in Trotsky’s History. Where Stalin is present, he is often arguing against Lenin, and is firmly on the conservative side of most debates. The real history defies both the myth of the unity of Lenin and Stalin, and of a monolithic leadership of the Bolsheviks.

Combined development

Trotsky establishes in the opening chapter of History of the Russian Revolution the unique “combined” character of Russia’s economic development, with one foot in the agrarian past and one in the industrial present. The world’s largest and most advanced factories existed within a sea of peasants laboring on the land with techniques unchanged for centuries. Trotsky writes:

A backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries…. Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness—and such a privilege exists—permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.

Forced to defend itself from, and compete with, neighboring capitalist powers, Russia absorbed the most modern technology and industries—but it did this by grafting the most modern capitalist methods, with the aid of state aid and foreign investment, on top of the most backward rural social relations, and without overthrowing the preexisting political and social order dominated by the monarchy and landlords.

Unfortunately for the rulers of Russia, they also imported the class struggle that is an essential component of capitalism. The working class leapt from conditions of peasant livelihood directly into the collective urban experience, which included “sharp changes of environment, ties, relations, and a sharp break with the past. It is just this fact—combined with the concentrated oppressions of tsarism—that made the Russian workers hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought—just as the backward industries were hospitable to the last word in capitalist organization.” Despite their numerically small proportion—about 10 percent of the population in 1917—the working class held an economic and social position that meant they could lead the peasant majority in overthrowing capitalism in Russia, but could only be successful as part of an international wave of revolts.

Trotsky writes:

The law of combined development of backwards countries—in the sense of a peculiar mixture of backwards elements with the more modern factors—here rises before us in its most finished form, and offers a key to the fundamental riddle of the Russian revolution.… In order to realize the Soviet state, there was required a drawing together and mutual penetration of two factors belonging to completely different historical species: a peasant war—that is, a movement characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development—and a proletarian insurrection, the movement signalizing its decline. That is the essence of 1917.

While the economy straddled two contending modes, the political system was decidedly backward looking. Despite utter dependence on foreign loans and technology, Tsar Nicholas’ court refused to embrace modernity: “On the contrary, it withdrew into itself. Its spirit of medievalism thickened under the pressure of hostility and fear, until it acquired the character of a disgusting nightmare overhanging the country.”

Trotsky’s characterization of the tsar and tsarina are hideously funny, depicting them as cruel, shallow, and utterly detached from the suffering of the millions of their subjects. The so-called leader and master of the Russian Empire had an outlook that “was not broader than that of a minor police official—with this difference, that the latter would have a better knowledge of reality and be less burdened with superstitions.” Most damning are the tsar’s diaries, which chronicle the most tedious banalities of his daily life while Russia convulses. When the State Duma reopened under the pressure of massive social instability he wrote: “April 14. Took a walk in a thin shirt and took up paddling again. Had tea on the balcony. Stana dined and took a ride with us. Read.” Later that summer when the tsar dissolved the Duma he spares only a few words on the crisis: “It has happened! The Duma was closed today. At breakfast after Mass long faces were noticeable among many…. The weather was fine…. Went paddling in a canoe.”

In February of 1917, in response to a telegram from the president of the Duma on the collapse of the military, he wrote “Again that fat-bellied Rodzianko has written me a lot of nonsense, which I won’t even bother to answer.”

Trotsky argues that the apparently personal traits of the tsar—his detachment and blandness—were the personification of the obsolescence of the monarchy. “In reality his ill-luck flowed from the contradictions between those old aims which he inherited from his ancestors and the new historic conditions in which he was placed.”

Russia’s bourgeoisie, who hated the tsar and longed for his wretched court and its superstitions and rituals to be swept away, were paralyzed by fear of a rebellion from below that a palace coup would unleash. Remembering well the 1905 Revolution, which nearly toppled the tsar, they “could not fail to ask… Will not the palace revolution, instead of a means for preventing a real revolution, turn out to be the last jar that loosens the avalanche? May not the cure prove more ruinous than the disease?”

Both the court and the bourgeoisie were held aloft by collaboration with Western capital. With the onset of World War One, their partnership moved from economic to military. Horribly lagging behind technologically, Russia’s sole contribution was cannon fodder: “The one thing the Russian generals did with a flourish was drag human meat out of the country.”Fifteen million men were conscripted into the army, and five and a half million of them were killed, captured, or wounded in the three years of war. In the early months of World War One the national rulers were able to defuse the class bitterness that had resurfaced in 1912 after years of repression. But not for long. Trotsky writes, “The war itself, its victims, its horror, its shame, brought not only the old, but also the new layers of workers into conflict with the tsarist regime. It did this with a new incisiveness and led them to the conclusion: we can no longer endure it. The conclusion was universal; it welded the masses together and gave them a mighty dynamic force.”

The futility of the war was obvious; desertions and disobedience began early as soldiers lacked not only guns but also shoes. The military mobilization consumed enormous resources, including up to 50 percent of food and fuel, which dragged the working population into poverty. The outbreak of war in 1914 had put a quick halt to a mounting surge of working-class protest throughout Russia, giving way to brief but wild displays of patriotism. In 1915 this reversed course: economic strikes resumed, and escalated so rapidly their numbers doubled by 1916.

The overthrow of the tsar

The intolerable situation was building to a head in the winter of 1917, leading to an acknowledgement among radicals that they were on the road to a dramatic explosion. But none saw how short a road it was. What became the first day of the February Revolution didn’t appear to anyone to be of any historic importance. In recognition of International Women’s Day, ninety thousand of Petrograd’s workers (men and women) went on strike on February 23. A procession of women marched on the local Duma (city council) demanding bread, which “was like demanding milk from a he-goat.” Among the banners appeared slogans for the overthrow of the tsar and the end to the war, but the day passed peacefully.

The following day the movement expanded to half the city’s workers and immediate demands for food were surpassed by political slogans. The tsar’s cavalry, the Cossacks, were called out, but the crowd carefully avoided direct confrontation, confident that the mounted guards wouldn’t shoot, and they didn’t. Outside one of Petrograd’s largest factories a confrontation seemed imminent when Cossacks met advancing strikers:

Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers…the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams…. The officers hastened to separate their patrol from the workers, and, abandoning the idea of dispersing them, lined the Cossacks out across the street as a barrier to prevent the demonstrators from getting to the center. But even this did not help: standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from ‘diving’ under their horses. The revolution does not choose its paths: it made its first steps toward victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse.

The third day the strike continued to deepen, and the army was called out as the Cossacks wavered and the hated police were chased out of the streets. Women again took the lead, approaching the soldiers and “more boldly than the men, take hold of their rifles, beseech, almost command: ‘Put down your bayonets—join us.’” Seeing the army begin to buckle as it gathered in the arms of its working-class sisters and brothers, the government struck back before dawn on February 26, arresting more than a hundred activists. In confrontations through the day forty protestors were shot. However, the crowd was not cowed by this offensive: “The masses will no longer retreat, they resist with optimistic brilliance…. The crowd is not only bitter, it is audacious.”

Pressure on the soldiers began to break down discipline, first in small groups within units, then suddenly giving way to a flood of mutiny. Unlike the working class, which has the experience of partial struggles against their oppressors, military discipline with its penalty of death gives mutinies an explosive, all-or-nothing character, which cannot be solely instigated by words. Trotsky brilliantly explains:

The more the soldiers in their mass are convinced that the rebels really are rebelling—that this is not a demonstration after which they will have to go back to the barracks and report, that this is a struggle to the death, that the people might win if they join them, and that this winning will not only guarantee impunity, but will alleviate the lot of all—the more they realize this, the more willing they are to turn aside their bayonets, or go over with them to the people. In other words, the revolutionists can create a break in the soldiers’ mood only if they themselves are actually ready to seize the victory at any price whatever, even the price of blood. And this highest determination never can, or will, remain unarmed.

The fifth day ended with the collapse of the military’s obedience, the tsar’s abdication, and a mass march to Tauride Palace, which became the new center of power. But the marchers did not themselves enter Tauride Palace to rule a new Russia—the thousands of leaders who produced the revolution returned to the working-class districts and barracks, leaving the halls of power to be occupied by party heads and professional politicians who positioned themselves on the side of the uprising.

No single party could claim responsibility for the success of the February Revolution, and the lack of an acknowledged platform or visible leadership has lead to the characterization of the revolution as “spontaneous.” But Trotsky dissects the movement in the chapter “Who Led the February Revolution?” to illuminate the deeper influences that shaped the insurrection. All the parties were caught unawares; the Bolsheviks initially argued against the Women’s Day strikes. In the words of a leader of the Socialist Revolutionaries: “The revolution caught us, the party people of those days, like the foolish virgins of the Bible, napping.” Much of the formal leadership of the left, including the Bolsheviks, was abroad, and the underground organizations had been severely damaged, if not totally shattered, in the right-wing surge that accompanied the opening of the war.

This however, was not enough, Trotsky argues, to eradicate the revolutionary traditions and lessons carried by worker militants. Decisive within the working-class vanguard were “workers who had thought over the experience of 1905, criticized the constitutional illusions of the liberals and Mensheviks, assimilated the perspectives of the revolution, mediated hundreds of times about the question of the army, watched attentively what was going on in their midst—workers capable of making revolutionary inferences from what they observed and communicating them to others.” (The Mensheviks Trotsky refers to, and to which we will return, were the moderate socialists who allied themselves with the liberals.) Trotsky credits the Bolsheviks for this influence, despite their organizational weaknesses in the beginning of the outbreak, and argues it was the process of struggle that turned those rudimentary ideas into a driving force for revolution. He writes:

To the smug politicians of liberalism and tamed socialism everything that happens among [the?] masses is customarily represented as an instinctive process, no matter whether they are dealing with an anthill or a beehive. In reality the thought which was drilling through the thick of the working class was far bolder, more penetrating, more conscious, than those little ideas by which the educated classes live. Moreover, this thought was more scientific: not only because it was to a considerable degree fertilized with the methods of Marxism, but still more because it was ever nourishing itself on the living experience of the masses which were soon to take their place in the revolutionary arena. Thoughts are scientific if they correspond to an objective process and make it possible to influence that process and guide it.

He concludes: “To the question, who led the February Revolution? We can then answer definitely enough: Conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin. But we must here immediately add: This leadership proved sufficient to guarantee the victory of the insurrection, but it was not adequate to transfer immediately into the hands of the proletarian vanguard the leadership of the revolution.”

Dual power

The bourgeoisie was deeply frightened by the revolution. Trotsky quotes one commentator saying of the liberals: “Officially they celebrated, eulogized the revolution, cried ‘Hurrah!’ to the fighters for freedom, decorated themselves with red ribbons and marched under red banners.... But in their souls, their conversations tête-à-tête, they were horrified, they shuddered, they felt themselves captives in the hands of hostile elements traveling an unknown road.”

At first the bourgeois politicians of the Duma dismissed the massive outpouring of bitterness in the streets, hoping the tsar would smash it. When it advanced and broke the back of tsarism, they were paralyzed, and simply awaited arrest in the Tauride Palace, quivering and wringing their hands. However, when a mass of soldiers and workers approached Tauride Palace, it was not to arrest the Duma, but to demand it assume power. Ironically, the deputy who delivered the message that the Duma must plant itself at the head of a movement it feared and hated was Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist deputy who came to have enormous influence in the coming months, attempting to deliver the movement into the hands of the bourgeoisie. Hearing this news, the Liberal Duma representatives hastily formed a Provisional Committee, as if cobbling together a raft to ride out the breaking wave of revolution.

At the same hour, and in the same building as the founding of the Provisional Committee, the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was convened. Drawing on the experience of the 1905 Revolution, two Menshevik politicians formed the Executive Committee and called for all workplaces to send delegates to form a new Soviet. Originally formed in the mass strike movement of 1905, the soviets (Russian for “council”) began as committees for organizing strike activity, but grew as the conflict developed into organs for self-governance and centers for armed struggle against tsarism. However, the motivation of the Mensheviks was not to deepen the initiative of the rebellious working class, but to bring the movement to heel under the establishment of a bourgeois democracy. Trotsky describes them as socialists who “had taught the masses that the bourgeoisie is an enemy, but themselves feared more than anything else to release the masses from the control of that enemy.” If they were able to outflank the militants and Bolsheviks in calling the soviet into being, they could moderate its demands and trajectory.

However, the aims of the Mensheviks and the reality of the life of the Soviet diverged immediately. The memory of the movement of 1905 blazed bright in the minds of the oppressed, and they rushed to build local soviets. At the first mass meeting soldiers sent their representatives, who were

shell-shocked as it were by the insurrection, and still hardly in control of their tongues. But they were just the ones who found the words which no orator could find. That was one of the most moving scenes of the revolution, now first feeling its power, feeling the unnumbered masses it has aroused, the colossal tasks, the pride in success, the joyful failing of the heart at the thought of the morrow which is to be still more beautiful than today.

The soviet was embraced by the representatives of the soldiers and became the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies to formalize the alliance between the factories and the barracks that had been born in the insurrection against the tsar.

The soviet immediately set about to address the most pressing issues of the country’s population: food and money. A Food Commission formed, a decision was made to occupy the state bank, the mint, and the treasury. The telegraph, telephone, and rail systems all went (voluntarily) into the hands of the soviet. Peasants, and the lower ranks of the middle class, gravitated toward the soviet, as the “masses poured into the soviet as though into the triumphal gates of the revolution. All that remained outside the boundaries seemed to fall away from the revolution, seemed somehow to belong to a different world. And so it was in reality.”

The soviet represented the sheer force of the mobilized working class and soldiers in their creativity and scope. It held the loyalty of the armed forces and armed workers, and was seen by them as “our” government. The Provisional Committee, in contrast, was weak and isolated, able to survive only so long as the soviet permitted it; only so long as the soviet was dominated by parties who supplied the bourgeoisie with the necessary lifeline.

Unbeknownst to the thousands of workers and soldiers who sent delegates to the soviet, members of the Soviet Executive Committee approached the Provisional Committee on March 1 and pressed it to take governmental power into its hands.

Trotsky explains:

Even in those very first days of victory, when the new power of the revolution was forming itself with fabulous speed and unconquerable strength, those socialists who stood at the head of the soviet were already looking around with alarm to see if they could find a real “boss.” They took it for granted that the power ought to pass to the bourgeoisie. Here the chief political knot of the new regime is tied: one of its threads leads into the chamber of the Executive Committee of workers and soldiers, the other into the central headquarters of the bourgeois parties.

Trotsky continues: “only behind the backs of the workers and soldiers, without their knowledge, and against their actual will, had the socialist leaders been able to expropriate this power for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.”

Trotsky characterizes the coexistence of the Provisional Government (so called after March 1) as “dual power”—an unstable balance between two competing centers of class power. Trotsky gives a brilliant analysis of the instability of the competing authorities:

The political mechanism of revolution consists of the transfer of power from one class to another. The forcible overturn is usually accomplished in a brief time. But no historic class lifts itself from a subject position to a position of rulership suddenly in one night, even though a night of revolution…. The historic preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-revolutionary period, a situation in which the class which is called to realize the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in the hands of the old lords. That is the initial dual power in every revolution.

While the bourgeoisie and their allies in the moderate socialist parties were aware of the threat dual power presented for the establishment of capitalism, the working class and soldiers for the most part did not see the inherent contradiction. They voted in large numbers for parties that sought to undermine the revolutionary potential of the soviet. Thus the initial stage of the revolution was characterized by the most militant, direct action tactics in battle against the tsar—including revolutionary organs of power, the soviets—and the political dominance of parties who opposed workers’ power and the key demands of land and peace, and who handed power over to the bourgeoisie.

Trotsky’s explanation captures the dynamism of the class struggle, which exists simultaneously in political and economic spheres, in elections and insurrection.

The active and militant minority inevitable puts forward under fire from the enemy its more revolutionary and self-sacrificing elements. It is thus natural in the February fights the worker-Bolsheviks occupied the leading place. But the situation changes the moment the victory is won and its political fortification begins. The elections to the organs and the institutions of the victorious revolution attract and challenge infinitely broader masses than those who battled with arms in their hands…. An overwhelming majority of the workers, Menshevik, Social Revolutionary and non-party, supported the Bolsheviks at the moment of direct grapple with tsarism. But only a small minority of the workers understood that the Bolsheviks were different from other socialist parties…. And since the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries comprised infinitely larger ranks of the intelligentsia—who came pouring in from all sides—and thus got into their hands an immense staff of agitators, the elections, even in shops and factories, gave them an enormous majority.

The parties that dominated the life of the oppressed classes in the months after February believed, in the words of Nikolai Sukhanov, a Menshevik chronicler of the revolution, “The power destined to replace tsarism must be only a bourgeois power…we must steer our course by this principle. Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse.”

Class collaboration under the auspices of building a new revolutionary state was boldly promoted by Russia’s chief “socialist” parties: the Mensheviks, who dominated the urban working class and petty bourgeoisie, and the Socialist Revolutionaries, who thought themselves the representatives of Russia’s peasants. The common language of Russia’s left was colored by Marxism, “not so much a criticism of capitalist society as an argument for the inevitability of the bourgeois development of the country.” Therefore, the majority “Marxists” (“Compromisers” in Trotsky’s lexicon) saw their role as facilitating the establishment of bourgeois democracy, from which, at some much later date, a real movement for socialism could emerge. They thought any attempt to pursue an independent working-class path, or to dare to speak of socialism in the near term would doom the revolution.

The Compromisers made it possible for the bourgeoisie to assume power after February, and their position within the Soviet Executive Committee allowed them to hold it. They used their leadership position to limit the scope of the lower classes’ incursions into bourgeois power: they could be found resisting the eight-hour workday, standing against the seizure of land by peasants, attempting to curb workplace democracy, and providing political cover for the war. In electing the parties of compromise, the suffering classes had identified them as “opponents of the tsar, the capitalists, and the landowners. But in voting for them they created a partition wall between themselves and their own aims. They could not now move forward at all without bumping into this wall erected by themselves, and knocking it over.”

The Provisional Government

The victorious movement dashed the hopes of the Liberal bourgeois parties to negotiate an easy transfer of power from the old tsar to a new tsar; instead they found themselves forced into governing by an insurrection they had feared all along.

The Provisional Government was dominated by the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets). The new ministry included the nephew of the tsar, Prince Lvov, as prime minister, (who Trotsky characterizes as having “a strong dislike for excitement”) and some of Russia’s richest industrialists and landlords. The minister of finance, Tereshchenko, “was an owner of sugar factories, estates, forests, and other innumerable properties, worth some eighty million rubles in gold, president of the Military-Industrial Committee of Kiev, possessed of a good French pronunciation, and on top of it all a connoisseur of the ballet.” The one “socialist” minister allowed in this coterie of bosses and war profiteers was the Social Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, whose radical understanding of the new regime was summed up when he said: “The policies of a revolutionary government ought never to offend anybody unnecessarily.”

Too weak and cowardly to rule on their own behalf, the Liberals had hidden behind the tsar’s truncheon. They now wrapped themselves in the red flag handed to them by the Compromisers. They had every intention of continuing the war and annexing anything they could get their hands on—but they needed to reinvent the rationale for the slaughter. The slogan that united the bourgeoisie with the revolutionary masses was “defense”: defense of revolutionary Russia, defense of the revolution. With the cover provided by the moderate socialist parties, an offensive war for empire was transformed into revolutionary self-defense. This slogan successfully dragged even some of the most dyed-in-the-wool revolutionaries behind it, including some leading Bolsheviks.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The Bolsheviks agreed with the Menshevik assessment that the overthrow of the tsar would be a bourgeois-democratic, not socialist, revolution. But the Bolsheviks had a fundamentally opposite view of the role of the working class and of the liberal bourgeoisie. They saw the Russian workers as the natural leader of a revolutionary movement and the liberals as counterrevolutionary. They also viewed the peasants, whose historic struggle for land could break out into mighty flashes of struggle against the landlords and agricultural capitalists, as the workers’ natural ally against the tsar. The Mensheviks held that the most important alliance in the overthrow of the tsar was the liberal bourgeoisie, and that therefore the demands of the lower classes be curtailed to not frighten off these allies. While many things changed over the months of revolution, these parties stayed true to their chosen allies: the Mensheviks clung at any cost to their liberal bourgeois allies, and the Bolsheviks drew closer to the peasantry through revolutionary action.

The same way society was polarized by the competing interests of the bourgeois and working-class elements, the Bolshevik Party was pulling in opposite directions. At the level of the shop floor, the worker-cadre fought Menshevism, but in the Tauride Palace, the party center was pulled toward the petty bourgeois slogan of “defense,” and critical support of the Provisional Government. Meanwhile, in the working-class heartland of St. Petersburg, the Vyborg district, cadres of the Bolshevik Party raised demands of “All Power to the Soviets” against the Mensheviks and their own leaders. Local sections passed resolutions criticizing the vacillation within their own party.

The wavering of the party center in the first days after the revolution was steadied by the return of firm hands to the helm of Pravda. Unfortunately they were the hands of Stalin and Kamenev, and they were firmly conservative. Trotsky spares no details in chronicling the defensist, compromising nature of Stalin’s leadership during March, attempting to crack the facade manufactured by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the infallible party and unity of Lenin and Stalin. Stalin forcefully articulated the preexisting party line that the revolution must be bourgeois. In Pravda, the “defensist” line was fiercely voiced: “Our slogan is not the meaningless ‘down with war.’ Our slogan is pressure upon the Provisional Government with the aim of compelling it…to make and attempt to induce all the warring countries to open immediate negotiations…and until then every man remains at his fighting post!”The party center even began to gravitate toward the idea of reuniting with the Mensheviks in a single party.4

Into this morass of confusion Lenin reappeared from exile, riding a “sealed train” through Germany from Finland. Passing through Germany left Lenin and the Bolsheviks open to the Compromisers’ vitriol that they were “German agents,” but the crisis in the party and fear a revolutionary moment might be wasted outweighed this threat. Lenin had grown alarmed at the direction of the party center, and had written a number of letters (“Letters from Afar”) berating the comrades for their vacillation toward the Provisional Government, even threatening to split.5

Upon his return (literally when he stepped off the train at Finland Station), he set forth a shocking new analysis of the situation: the overthrow of the tsar was just the opening round of a deeper, international, socialist revolution that could start in Russia. He argued the situation of dual power was not an “advantageous” arrangement as Stalin had put it in Pravda, it was an unstable balance that could only end in the smashing of the soviets or the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks needed to prepare for an overthrow of the Provisional Government in favor of “All Power to the Soviets,” to open the era of international revolution.

Lenin’s new formulation came like a thunderclap in a chapel. His comrades of years were shocked, calling him an anarchist, and declaring he had been away too long. He was not only arguing for a change of practical tactics, but a complete renovation of one of the core pillars of Bolshevik theory. He adopted Trotsky’s formulation from 1906 of permanent revolution—that the working class was compelled to lead the bourgeois revolution because of the vacuum left by the decayed bourgeoisie, but in doing so had begun to construct an alternative social order opposed to bourgeois rule. With a self-conscious leadership, the class could move forward to begin constructing a socialist order, based on the spread of revolution to more advanced countries like Germany.

Members of the Bolshevik center argued against this new theory, arguing the democratic revolution had not been completed, and therefore could not move on to a socialist stage. They were also influenced by fear of cutting themselves off from the many workers who still identified with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Lenin argued,

We are not charlatans. We must base ourselves on the consciousness of the masses. Even if it is necessary to remain in a minority—so be it…. All we can do is to explain patiently, insistently, systematically the error of their tactics. So long as we are in the minority we will carry on this work of criticism, in order to free the masses from deceit. We do not want the masses to believe us just on our say-so…. We want the masses to be freed by experience by their mistakes…. The oppressed will come to us because the war will bring them to us.

Lenin’s ability to win the party over was not based on his oratorical skills or dictatorial command of the membership. In the words of his comrade Ludmilla Stahl, in embracing the struggle for socialism “we are now doing what life itself suggests to us.” Lenin was not pulling theories out of the air; he made an objective assessment of the situation that included a working class whose self-activity had created a situation of dual power. And in turn the level of self-activity and its direction was shaped by the presence of thousands of worker-cadres of the Bolsheviks. As a leading Bolshevik, Olminsky, said “We (at least many of us) were unconsciously steering a course toward proletarian revolution, although thinking we were steering a course toward a bourgeois-democratic revolution. In other words, we were preparing the October Revolution while thinking we were preparing the February.”

Trotsky explains the battle against the Menshevik’s class collaboration was already in full swing in the streets and factories:

The worker-Bolsheviks immediately after the revolution took the initiative in the struggle for the eight-hour day; the Mensheviks declared this demand untimely. The Bolsheviks took the lead in arresting the tsarist officials; the Mensheviks opposed ‘excesses.’ The Bolsheviks energetically undertook the creation of a workers’ militia; the Mensheviks delayed the arming of the workers, not wishing to quarrel with the bourgeoisie. Although not yet overstepping the bounds of bourgeois democracy, the Bolsheviks acted, or strove to act—however confused by their leadership—like uncompromising revolutionists.

The Party now shifted to agitating for “All Power to the Soviets” and away from critical support for the Provisional Government. The political lines of demarcation were sharpened between the Compromisers and the Bolsheviks. The April Theses that summarized Lenin’s new approach to Russia’s revolution retheorized the activity of the party, giving greater confidence and cohesion to its cadres, which would immediately allow the party the flexibility to navigate the crisis that exploded in April.

This episode has received much attention from both fawning Stalinists and right-wing critics who seek to paint Lenin as the iron hand driving the party. Trotsky does argue that Lenin played a decisive role in this and later events of the revolution. The conflict within the party was brewing before Lenin arrived in Russia, but would not have been resolved in a decisive enough manner to take advantage of the moment.

Without Lenin the crisis, which the opportunist leadership was inevitably bound to produce, would have assumed an extraordinarily sharp and protracted character. The conditions of war and revolution, however, would not allow the party a long period for fulfilling its mission. Thus it is by no means excluded that a disoriented and split party might have let slip the revolutionary opportunity for many years. The role of personality arises before us here on a truly gigantic scale. It is necessary only to understand that role correctly, taking personality as a link in the historic chain.

Lenin did tip the balance, and was uniquely positioned to do so given the years of common work he shared with the cadre of the party; but had the party not been in such a state of balance, his efforts would not have yielded such dramatic results. It is also worth pointing out that much of the cadre who had been working in a “conservative” vein within the old framework was eager to implement the new perspective. Lenin did not throw aside the old cadres—they were by and large moved by the pressure from below and sharp debate within the party.

At the end of March, the Cadet minister of foreign affairs, Pavel Miliukov, publicized the Provisional Government’s aims of “liberating” Constantinople, Armenia, northern Persia, and parts of Turkey and Austria. The Liberals were attempting to continue a war of aggression under the flag of “defending” revolutionary Russia—they even went so far as to claim to be spreading progress and defending national liberation by invading. When the soviet attempted to force Miliukov to renounce all annexations, he declared to international journalists, “The universal desire to carry the world war through to a decisive victory has only been strengthened” by the revolution. Miliukov’s candid exposure of Russia’s ambitions inspired an immediate and red-hot response. The following day 25,000–30,000 armed soldiers and workers registered their disagreement. A burst of strikes emptied the factories in support of the armed demonstrators. The minimum demand: remove Miliukov. The sharpness of the reply is explained by the mood of betrayal: “It had been assumed that, up above, everything was being done to bring peace. The Bolsheviks, to be sure, were asserting that the government wanted the war prolonged for the sake of robberies. But could that be possible?” Miliukov was sent packing on May 2, and under pressure of the armed masses the soviet assumed more power as compared to the Provisional Government.

The April demonstrations were the first outbreak of resistance that targeted the workers and soldier’s “own” leaders. When faced with the question of becoming the sole revolutionary government, the mighty leaders of the soviet replied “We? But our hands tremble.” The masses, having not yet fully embraced the notion of overthrowing the Provisional Government in favor of soviet power, attempted to use “their” leaders to hold the Liberals’ feet to the fire.

But in the workers’ districts, a molecular change was occurring:

Workers came to the party committees asking how to transfer their names from the Menshevik Party to the Bolshevik. At the factories they began insistently to question deputies about foreign policy, the war, the two-power system, the food question; and as a result of these examinations Menshevik and SR delegates were more and more frequently replaced by Bolsheviks…Sukhanov estimates that at the beginning of May the Bolsheviks had behind them a third of the Petrograd proletariat. Not less, certainly—and the most active third besides. The March formlessness had disappeared; political lines were sharpening; the “fantastic” theses of Lenin were taking flesh in the Petrograd workers’ districts.

The Provisional Government found itself caught in a conundrum; with every step toward consolidation or pursuing its own interest, it unleashed the fury of the working class, peasantry, and soldiers, but if it sat idly, the encroachment by the oppressed classes on its power would continue unchecked. Trotsky describes its paralysis: “Up to the days of October in the hard moments it was always undergoing a crisis, and in the intervals between crises it was merely existing.” The Liberals drew the Compromisers into a new Cabinet; at first hesitant, the Compromisers were forced by the mood of their base. As one delegate to a congress of soviets later explained the frustration in the army: “We thought that the groan which arose from the army when it learned that the socialists would not enter the ministry to work with people whom they did not trust, while the whole army was compelled to go on dying with people whom it did not trust, must have been heard in Petrograd.” Many of the oppressed still believed that their leadership, if they assumed more power within the given system, and if they felt the pressure of the masses, could change course and deliver land, bread, peace, and workers’ control.

The Coalition Government, formed in May, immediately came under pressure from its allies in the Entente to initiate an offensive on the Eastern front. America, the new entrant to the carnage, offered $75,000,000 in credit to the Provisional Government if they would undertake a new offensive. The Soviet Executive Committee, which wholly supported the offensive, feared this position would cement their isolation from the masses. They therefore brought the issue before the full Congress of Soviets, then meeting in Petrograd, which approved it.

Kerensky, now minister of war, with corrupt brilliance summarized the hypocrisy of the petty bourgeois conception of a “defensive” offensive: “You will carry on the points of your bayonets—peace.” From every political side came projections of failure; the offensive clearly was meant to satisfy the Allies and disorganize the left, especially to weaken the fraternization between the Russian and “enemy” troops. But the offensive backfired and became the final blow against military discipline:

A century of taunts and violence had burst to the surface like a volcano. The soldiers felt themselves again deceived. The offensive had not lead to peace but war. The soldiers did not want war. And they were right…. They were guided by a true national instinct, refracted through the consciousness of men oppressed, deceived, tortured, raised up by revolutionary hope and again thrown back in to the bloody mash. The soldiers were right. A prolongation of the war could give the Russian people nothing but new victims, humiliations, disasters—nothing but an increase of domestic and foreign slavery.

The soldiers turned more decisively to the left, as more proof piled up that the new regime was no different from the old. With the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries formally working in unity with the Liberals, “every soldier that expressed a little more boldly than the rest what they all were feeling was so persistently shouted at from above as a Bolshevik, that he was obliged in the long run to believe it.”

As the politicization of the armed forces progressed, the possibility of victory shrank: “When enlightened pacifists try to abolish war by rationalistic arguments they are merely ridiculous, but when the armed masses themselves bring weapons of reason into action against a war, that means the war is about over.”

While the army was seething and tearing itself apart at the front, Petrograd became the scene of a different type of confrontation as the competing parties measured the depth of their loyalty among the masses. The first Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd beginning June 3; 1,088 delegates representing 20,000,000 workers, soldiers, and peasants attended. The political character of the soviet lagged behind the real mood of the people—dominated by “people who had registered as socialists in March but got tired of the revolution by June.”

Much to the delegates’ chagrin, the Bolshevik Military Organization called for a demonstration on June 10 in response to a brewing confrontation over the seizure by anarchists of a bureaucrat’s summer home for a workers’ school. The Bolsheviks’ plan was to march to the halls where the soviet was meeting, to keep fresh in their mind who they were meant to be representing under the banners of “All Power to the Soviets” and “Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists.” Giving an indication of the growing hegemony of the Bolsheviks within the most militant section of the working class, the Central Council of Factory and Shop Councils decided to organize for the demonstration.

The Compromise leadership of the Executive Committee swiftly attempted to bully the Bolsheviks out of their plans. The Menshevik paper of June 10 declared, “It is time to brand the Leninists as traitors and betrayers of the revolution.”

After whipping up a sizable hysteria over the prospect of a Bolshevik coup, the soviet banned all demonstrations in Petrograd for three days. Fearing to lead the workers prematurely into a confrontation with the Compromisers, the Bolsheviks sent representatives to the factories and barracks to call off the action. Almost simultaneously, delegates from the soviet undertook the same project to tell potential protestors to stay away from the Bolshevik demonstration, but were surprised to find themselves unwelcome: “They had assumed the authority of the congress was inviolable, but had run into a stone wall of distrust and hostility…. One after another the delegates reported how, although they had called off the battle, they were defeated.”

Within the soviet, the Compromisers grew furious over the affront to their power. Menshevik Minister of the Interior Irakli Tseretelli demanded the disarming of the Bolsheviks, which was a thorny problem because they had no stores of arms, but the loyalty of sections of the army and armed workers. Trotsky describes the logic of Tseretelli’s demand:

To carry the Compromise policy through to a successful end—that is, to the establishment of a parliamentary rule of the bourgeoisie—demanded the disarming of the workers and soldiers. But Tseretelli was not only right. He was besides that powerless. Neither the soldiers nor the workers would have voluntarily given up their arms. It would have been necessary to employ force against them. But Tseretelli was already without forces.

Not wanting to advertise their shift to the right, the Mensheviks argued the soviet should call a demonstration, to rally the masses behind its own banner and pull them away from the Bolsheviks. The slogans made the most timid of demands, although in reality the Compromisers had no intention of fulfilling them: “Universal Peace,” “Immediate Convocation of a Constituent Assembly,” “Democratic Republic.” Tseretelli arrogantly called out the Bolsheviks in the soviet: “Now we shall have an open and honest review of the revolutionary forces…. Now we shall see whom the majority is following, you or us.”

Few political characters have gotten their comeuppance so fully and so quickly. Trotsky describes the scene as the soviet delegates viewed the march:

The first Bolshevik slogans were met half-laughingly—Tseretelli had so confidently thrown down his challenge the day before. But these same slogans were repeated again and again. ‘Down with the Ten Minister Capitalists!’ ‘Down with the Offensive’ ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ The ironical smiles froze, and then gradually disappeared. Bolshevik banners floated everywhere. The delegates stopped counting the uncomfortable totals. The triumph of the Bolsheviks was too obvious.

The victory of the Bolsheviks was all the more biting because it “was won on the arena and with the weapons chosen by the enemy.” The most militant workers, regardless of formal party affiliation, were flocking to the Bolshevik slogans and pulling further away from the Compromisers’ influence.

The spring of 1917 was an intractable tangle of interrelated crises for the oppressed classes: the war, the land question, hunger, rising prices, and fuel shortages. The illusions that the Compromisers would deliver on the promises of February unwound in the weeks and months leading into the summer. The June demonstration revealed how thin the thread connecting the masses to their nominal leaders had become.

The pressure of both the military offensive at the front and a bosses’ offensive of lockouts in the cities fueled continuous activity in response. The Bolsheviks won over the leadership of their peers most rapidly at the point of direct confrontation—the shop committees in the factories were solidly Bolshevik months before the party dominated the soviet. The vanguard of the class had drawn the conclusion that “individual economic strikes in the conditions of war, breakdown, and inflation could not bring a serious improvement, that there must be some change in the very foundation. The lockout not only made the workers favorable to the demand for the control of industry, but even pushed them toward the thought of the necessity of taking the factories into the hands of the state.”

The demand “All Power to the Soviets” rang out in demonstrations, newspapers, shop committees, soldiers’ committees, and land committees. By June the Bolsheviks were the largest party in the Moscow Soviet. The June demonstration was a test of the contending forces in Russia, but a peaceful one. The coming tests of strength would become more violent, and the last illusions of the oppressed in the road of Compromise would be painfully chiseled away by hard experience.

In the chapter “Shifts in the Masses” Trotsky assesses the course of 1917:

A revolution teaches and teaches fast. In that lies its strength. Every week brings something new to the masses. Every two months creates an epoch. At the end of February, the insurrection. At the end of April, a demonstration of the armed workers and soldiers in Petrograd. At the beginning of July, a new assault, far broader in scope and under more resolution slogans. At the end of August, Kornilov’s attempt at an overthrow beaten off by the masses. At the end of October, conquest of power by the Bolsheviks. Under these events, so striking in their rhythm, molecular processes were taking place, welding together the heterogeneous parts of the working class into one political whole.”

The last four months of this “molecular process” will be the subject of the second half of this article.

  1. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: 1929–1940 (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 219.
  2. Ibid.,  233.
  3. Ibid., 125.
  4. The Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority) were the product of a split in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in 1903. They remained two factions of the same party, more or less united at different periods, until they formally split into two separate parties in 1912.
  5. Lenin railed against the collapse of the leadership: “Our party will disgrace itself forever, commit political suicide, if it tolerated [taking up defensism]…I personally will not hesitate for a second to declare, and to declare in print, that I shall prefer even an immediate split with anyone in our party, whoever it may be, to making concessions to the social-patriotism of Kerensky and Co.” V. I. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 11 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960), 309–310.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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