"The October revolution laid the foundation of a new
culture, taking everybody into consideration, and for that very reason
immediately acquiring international significance. Even supposing for a
moment that owing to unfavourable circumstances and hostile blows the
Soviet regime should be temporarily overthrown, the inexpungable
imprint of the October revolution would nevertheless remain upon the
whole future development of mankind."
Trotsky – The History of the Russian Revolution
years ago this month, an event took place which altered the entire
course of human history. For the first time – if we exclude the brief
but glorious episode of the Paris Commune – the working people took
power into their own hands and began the gigantic task of the socialist
re-construction of society.
Now, on the eve of this great
anniversary, the masses of the former Soviet Union are faced with the
spectre of capitalist counter-revolution. Amidst the most appalling
scenes of economic and social chaos, all the dark forces which had been
swept aside by the revolutionary flood-tide, are creeping back. Private
property, speculation, the Orthodox church, racism, nationalism,
pogroms, prostitution, unemployment and inequality – like a swarm of
grotesque and poisonous insects from under a stone.
And this is
hailed as a "new dawn" by the Western media. People capable of
identifying such monstrosities with "progress" are capable of stopping
at nothing. No lies are too great for them, no distortion too vile. And
the avalanche of lies has already begun.
In order to justify
the capitalist system, it is necessary to blacken the name of
socialism, and especially of scientific socialism, as expressed in the
ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Above all, it is necessary to
show that revolution is a bad thing, that it represents a horrible
deviation from the "norms" of peaceful social evolution, which
inevitably ends in disaster.
Not long ago, we celebrated the
200th anniversary of the French revolution. Despite the fact that this
was a bourgeois revolution, despite the fact that it occurred two
centuries ago, nevertheless, the ruling class in France and elsewhere
could not refrain from denigrating the memory of 1789-93. Even such a
distant historical event was an uncomfortable reminder to the rich and
powerful of what happens when a given socio-economic system reaches its
limits. They even propose to change the terrible words of the
Yet revolutions happen, and not by accident.
A revolution becomes inevitable when a particular form of society
enters into conflict with the development of the productive forces,
which form the basis of all human progress.
One of the greatest books of the twentieth century is Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.
This monumental study of the event of 1917 has never been equalled. It
is an outstanding example of the use of the method of historical
materialism to elucidate the processes at work in society. The events
leading up to October are not merely recounted, but explained in a way
which has a validity and an application far more extensive than the
Russian Revolution itself.
In an effort to discredit the
October Revolution, the ruling class, through the agency of its hired
hacks in the Universities, has assiduously cultivated the myth that the
Bolshevik Revolution was only a "coup d’etat" pulled off by Lenin and a
handful of conspirators.
Intervention of Masses
reality, as Trotsky explains, the essence of a revolution is the direct
intervention of the masses in the life of society and politics. In
"normal" periods, the majority of people are content to leave the
running of society in the hands of the "experts" – the
parliamentarians, councillors, lawyers, journalists, trade union
officials, university professors, and the rest of them.
period, which may be a protracted period of years or even decades,
society may acquire the appearance of a certain "equilibrium." This is
particularly true in a prolonged period of capitalist economic upswing,
like that which lasted for nearly four decades after the end of World
In such periods, the ideas of Marxism are not readily
accepted or understood, because they appear to fly in the face of "the
facts." On the contrary, the illusions of the reformists Labour leaders
of a slow, gradual, evolutionary change – "today better than yesterday,
and tomorrow better than today" – achieve a widespread audience.
beneath the apparently calm surface, powerful currents are building up.
There is a gradual accumulation of discontent and frustration in the
masses, and an increasing malaise among the middle layers of society.
This is particularly felt by the intellectuals and students, who are a
sensitive barometer reflecting the changing moods of society.
a marvellously graphic phrase, Trotsky refers to the "molecular process
of revolution", which goes on in uninterrupted fashion in the minds of
the workers. However, since this process is a gradual one which does
not affect the general political physiognomy of society, it goes
unnoticed by everyone – except the Marxists.
In just the same
way, the ground appears to be solid and firm under our feet ("as steady
as a rock," as the saying goes). But geology teaches that rocks are by
no means steady, and that the ground is constantly shifting beneath our
feet. The continents are on the march, and in a state of perpetual
"warfare," one colliding with another. Since geological change is not
measured by years or even centuries, but aeons, the continental shifts
remain unnoticed except for specialists. But fault-lines build up,
subject to unimaginable pressures, which eventually erupt in
Wars and Revolutions
fault-lines exist in the best-ordered societies. The sudden eruption of
wars and revolutions obey approximately the same laws as earthquakes,
and are just as inevitable. The moment inevitably arrives when the mass
of people decide that "things can’t go on like this any longer." The
break occurs when the majority move to take their lives and destiny
into their own hands. This, and nothing else, is the inner meaning of a
For the well-fed academic, a revolution is an
aberration, a "freak," a deviation from the norm. Society temporarily
goes "mad," until eventually "order" is restored. For such a
psychology, the most satisfactory mental image of a revolution is that
of a blind herd which has suddenly panicked, or, better still, a
conspiracy hatched by demagogues.
In reality, the psychological
changes which occur with extreme abruptness in any revolution, are not
accidental, but are rooted in the whole previous period.
human mind, in general, is not revolutionary, but conservative. As long
as conditions are generally acceptable, people tend to accept the
existing state of affairs within society. Consciousness tends to lag
far behind the changes which occur in the objective world of the
economy and society.
Only in the last resort, when there is no
alternative, do the majority opt for a decisive break with the existing
order. Long before this, they will try by every means to adapt, to
compromise, to seek the imagined "line of least resistance." That is
the secret of the appeal of reformist politics, especially in a period
of capitalist upswing, but not exclusively.
Revolution was the product of the entire preceding period. Before
finally opting for the Bolsheviks, the Russian workers and peasants had
already passed through the experience of two revolutions (1905 and
February 1917) and two wars (1904-5 and 1914-17).
Russia, which was numbered as one of the principal imperialist states
with a powerful army, was nevertheless an economically backward
capitalist power. By the law of combined and uneven development,
large-scale industry was established in a handful of centres (mainly
Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Western region, Urals and Donbass) as a
result of Western investment. However, the vast majority of the
population were peasants, sunk in conditions of almost medieval
backwardness. In many respects, the social composition of Russian
tsarism was similar to that of many Third World countries today.
its numerical smallness, the Russian working class set its stamp on
events very early on. In the stormy strike wave of the 1890’s, it
announced its existence to the world. From that moment, the "labour
question" was to occupy a central position in Russian politics.
stormy growth of industry in the early years of this century led to a
rapid growth of the working class. Unlike Britain, where capitalism
experienced a slow, gradual, organic growth for 200 years, the
development of capitalism in Russia was telescoped into a couple of
As a result, Russian industry did not have to pass
through the phase of handicrafts, small cottage industry, through
manufacture to large-scale enterprises. Huge factories were established
with the most modern techniques imported from Britain, Germany and the
USA. Along with the most modern technology imported from the West, came
the most modern and advanced ideas of socialism.
1890’s onwards, Marxism succeeded in displacing the old terrorist and
utopian socialist trend of Narodnism as the dominant tendency in the
sophisticated critics of Bolshevism try to draw a distinction between
civilised "Western" Marxism, and crude, barbarous Leninism, a product,
allegedly, of Russian backwardness.
As a matter of fact, there
is little or nothing of a specifically Russian character about the
ideas of Lenin, who spent all his life tirelessly combating the
Narodniks for their "Russian road to socialism."
Both Lenin and
Trotsky dedicated their lives to the defence of socialist
internationalism. Their ideas can no more be considered "Russian" than
Marx’s ideas be portrayed as "German." Lenin and Trotsky developed and
expanded Marxism, but defended the fundamental ideas and principles
worked out by Marx and Engels from 1848 on.
The first great test for the Russian Marxists came in 1905.
deep social crisis was brought to a head by the Russo-Japanese war,
which ended in a military disaster for tsarism. On the ninth of January
1905, the working people of St. Petersburg assembled, with their
families, for a peaceful demonstration on the square of the Winter
palace. Their aim was to present a petition to the tsar – the "little
The bulk of these workers, most of whom had only
recently come from the villages, were not only religious, but
monarchists. The Marxists (or Social Democrats, as they were then
called) had very small forces, and were split between Bolsheviks and
Mensheviks. When they tried to distribute leaflets denouncing the
monarchy, in several places the workers tore up the leaflets and even
beat them up.
Yet within nine months the same workers had
organised a revolutionary general strike and a soviet, and by the end
of the year, the workers of Moscow had risen in armed insurrection.
all the urban centres the Social Democrats become transformed into the
decisive force. The 1905 revolution was defeated in the main because
the movement in the countryside only got underway after the workers in
the towns had suffered a defeat.
For a number of years
(1907-11), Russia was plunged into the dark night of reaction. Yet by
1911-12, there was a new beginning, characterised by a massive strike
wave (partly reflecting an upturn in the economy), which, beginning
with economic demands, rapidly took on a political character.
this period the Bolsheviks gained a decisive majority in the organised
working class. They broke with the opportunist Menshevik wing in 1912
and set up the Bolshevik Party.
It should be remembered,
however, that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had been tendencies in the
existing traditional mass party of the workers – the RSDLP (Russian
Social Democratic Labour Party), and even after 1912, the Bolsheviks
still called themselves the RSDLP (B).
First World War
the eve of the First World War, Russia stood once more on the brink of
revolution. It is possible that the Bolsheviks could have come to power
then, but the situation was cut across by the outbreak of hostilities
in August 1914. During the war, the Bolshevik party was decimated by
arrests and exile. The youth, which was the party’s main avenue of
recruitment, was conscripted into the army, where the worker element
was scattered in a sea of backward peasant soldiers.
Lenin was in contact with maybe a couple of dozen collaborators. In
1915, at the Conference of socialist internationalists in Zimmerwald,
Lenin joked that you could put all the internationalists in the world
into two stage-coaches.
At a meeting of Swiss young socialists
in January 1917, Lenin said that he probably would not live to see the
socialist revolution. Within a few weeks, the tsar had been overthrown,
and by the end of the year, Lenin was at the head of the first workers’
government in the world.
How to explain such a dramatic turn of
events? Vulgar historians explain revolution as the product of extreme
misery. That is one-sided and false. If that were true, as Trotsky
explains, the masses in a country like India would always be in revolt.
The victory of reaction in the period of 1907-11 was facilitated by the
economic crisis which, coming after a political defeat, temporarily
stunned and disoriented the workers. As Trotsky predicted, it took an
economic revival (1911-12) to allow the movement to recover.
Booms and Slumps
reality, neither booms nor slumps in and of themselves cause
revolutions. But it is the rapid successions of boom and slump, the
interruption of the "normal" pattern of existence, which provokes
general uncertainty and instability, and causes people to question the
existing state of things. Even more profound are the shocks caused by
wars, which turn the world upside down, uproot millions and compel men
and women to shed their illusions and finally stand face to face with
The February revolution was a concrete expression of
the fact that the old regime had reached an impasse. As in 1904-5, the
sledge-hammer of military defeat served to expose the inner rottenness
But to expose something is not to cause it. The
crisis on international finance markets and the run on the pound
recently exposed the chronic weakness of the British economy. But the
decay of British capitalism has taken place gradually over a period of
decades, disguised by the general upswing of the world economy. This
was explained by the Marxists decades ago. The difference now is that,
under the relentless pressure of world capitalist crisis, the mass of
the British people are beginning to wake up to the fact.
even during the war, the strike movement in Petrograd assumed sweeping
proportions at the start of 1917. The mood of discontent emanating from
the industrial centres found an echo in the ranks of the army,
suffering from defeat and exhaustion. The crisis of the regime
anticipated the movement of the masses.
begins, not at the bottom, but at the top. Its first manifestation is a
series of crises and splits in the ruling class, which feels itself to
be in a blind alley, and unable to continue to rule in the old way.
expresses it in the following sense: "A revolution breaks out when all
the antagonisms of a society have reached their highest tension. But
this makes the situation unbearable even for the classes of the old
society – that is, those who are doomed to break up."
of corruption and scandal always hangs around a regime which has
outlived itself. The present-day epidemic of political and financial
scandals in Britain, Japan, the USA, Italy, are no more an accident
than the Rasputin regime at the court of "Nicholas the Bloody," or the
"Pompadour factor" of the Ancient Regime in France.
all its armed might, its police, its Cossacks, its secret police,
tsarism fell at the first serious challenge, like a rotten apple in a
puff of wind. The army collapsed like a pack of cards, once the workers
confronted it with a manifest determination to change society.
working-class as a whole learns from experience – especially the
experience of great events. The experience of 1905, despite the defeat,
had left an indelible impression which immediately re-emerged in
February with the creation of the Soviets – elected committees of
workers and soldiers – which were at the same time organs of struggle
and, potentially, organs of a new power.
As has happened many
times in history, in the February Revolution, the workers had the power
in their hands, but did not recognise the fact. With correct
leadership, the working class could have immediately carried out the
socialist revolution. But under the leadership of the Mensheviks and
Social Revolutionaries, the February revolution ended in the abortion
of "dual power."
Revolution means the explosive entry onto the
political stage of millions of men and women with no previous
experience of politics, in search of a solution to their most pressing
Inevitably, in the first instance, the masses seek
the line of least resistance, the easiest solutions, the well-known
political figures, the familiar political parties.
In the case
of Russia, the war itself had a fundamental effect on the balance of
class forces. Here, the "masses" represented, first and foremost, the
peasantry, which had been the backbone of the tsarist army. Up to 1914,
the Bolsheviks had the leadership of four-fifths of the organised
working class. But that situation was altered by the war.
the February revolution, the entire balance of class forces was changed
by the explosive emergence on the scene of the mass of politically
untutored workers, who tended to back the Mensheviks. The decisive
element in the equation was the army, and here the peasants had a
crushing preponderance. The peasant soldiers, recently awakened to
political life, looked, not to the Bolsheviks, but to the "moderate"
Socialist leaders the Mensheviks and especially the Social
The workers, after the experience of 1905,
were fearful of a rupture with the peasants in uniform, and, for the
time being, were prepared to wait. The combined weight of the peasantry
and the politically inexperienced mass of workers swung behind the
Mensheviks and the SRs, reducing the Bolsheviks to a small minority in
the first stages of the revolution.
masses placed their trust in the reformist labour leaders. And the
latter, as always, placed their trust in the "liberal" wing of the
bourgeoisie, which in turn, was desperately striving to defend the
monarchy and put an end to the revolution. Meanwhile, behind the
scenes, the reactionary generals were preparing a counter-coup.
for the first or last time, the workers had fought and conquered, only
to be cheated of the fruits of victory by their leadership. The SR and
Menshevik leaders were obsessed by a single idea: to hand back the
power as quickly as possible to the bankers and capitalists.
Provisional Government which emerged from the February Revolution was a
government of landlords and capitalists calling themselves "democrats."
The right-wing Labour ("Trudovik") leader Kerensky entered the
government as Minister of Justice. The war minister was the big Moscow
industrialist, Guchkov. The "liberal" Milyukov became Foreign Minister.
worker activists were deeply distrustful of the government. But among
the mass of society there was a wave of euphoria. The masses had
illusions in their leaders, and regarded Kerensky as their spokesman in
The prevailing atmosphere of revolutionary
democratic intoxication even affected some of the Bolshevik leaders in
Petrograd. Lenin was still in exile in Switzerland. The main leaders in
Petrograd were Kamenev and Stalin, who succumbed to the pressure for
"unity." Instinctively, the Petrograd Bolsheviks came out against the
Provisional Government, which they correctly characterised as a
counter-revolutionary government. However, Kamenev and Stalin steered
the party into a close alliance with the SRs and Mensheviks, and even
proposed re-unification with the latter.
From the exile in
Switzerland, Lenin watched the situation with alarm. His first
telegrams to Petrograd were utterly intransigent in tone and content:
"Our tactic: absolute lack of confidence; no support to the new
government; suspect Kerensky especially; arming of the proletariat the
sole guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd town council; no
rapprochement with other parties."
After Lenin’s return in
April, the Bolshevik Party entered into a crisis. This is a law in a
revolutionary situation, when the pressure of alien class forces bears
heavily upon the party and its leadership: the pressure for "left
unity," the fear of isolation, and the rest.
between Lenin and the majority of the leaders was so great that,
immediately after his return, Lenin was compelled to publish his April
Theses in Pravda under his own signature.
At the April
Conference, where fierce struggle occurred, Lenin warned that, rather
than accept the position of Kamenev and Stalin, he would prefer to be
alone "like Karl Liebknecht, one against 110" (referring to
Liebknecht’s courageous anti-war stand in the parliamentary faction of
the German SPD).
Lenin explained that the revolution had not
achieved its central objectives: that it was necessary to overthrow the
provisional government; that the workers must take power, allied with
the mass of poor peasants. Only by these means could the war be ended,
the land be given to the peasants and the conditions established for a
transition to a socialist regime.
In essence, these ideas were
identical to the perspectives brilliantly worked out by Trotsky in
1904-5, and known to history as the "permanent revolution."
ideas won the day. However, the Bolsheviks remained a minority in the
Soviets, and the Soviet leaders – the SRs and Mensheviks – were backing
the Provisional Government. And here we see the flexible tactics of
Lenin, far removed from ultra-left adventurism. Under the slogan:
"Patiently Explain," he urged the Bolsheviks to face to the Soviet
workers to put demands on the reformist leaders, to demand action
instead of words, to publish the secret treaties, to end the war, to
break with the bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. If they
would do these things, Lenin repeated many times, then the struggle for
power would be reduced to the peaceful struggle for a majority in the
Mensheviks and SR leaders had no intention of breaking with the
bourgeois Provisional Government. In reality, they were terrified of
taking power, and were more afraid of the workers and peasants than the
counter-revolutionary general staff.
The truth was that the
Provisional Government was an empty shell. There were only two real
powers in the land, and one or the other had to be overthrown.
the one hand, the Soviets of workers and peasants’ deputies; on the
other, the remnants of the old state apparatus, grouped around the
monarchy and the general staff, which, under the protective shadow of
the Provisional Government, was preparing for a showdown with the
One of the
main features of a revolutionary situation is the suddenness with which
the mood of the masses can change. The workers learn quickly on the
basis of events.
Thus a revolutionary tendency can experience
explosive growth, passing from a tiny minority to a decisive force, on
one condition; that it combines flexible tactics with implacable
firmness on all political questions.
At the beginning, Lenin
was derided by his opponents as a hopeless "sectarian," who was doomed
to impotence by keeping out of the "left unity." However, the tide soon
began to flow strongly in the direction of Bolshevism.
revolution, Trotsky wrote, "the more extreme always supersedes the
less." The workers come to understand the correctness of the ideas of
the revolutionary tendency from their own experience, especially the
experience of great events.
These are absolutely necessary in
order that the workers convince themselves of the need for a radical
transformation of society. The different stages in the growth of
consciousness of the class are reflected by the rise and fall of
successive political parties, trends, programmes and individuals.
failure of the bourgeois Provisional Government to solve a single one
of the basic problems of society provoked a sharp reaction in the main
working class centres, especially Petrograd, where the militant
proletariat was combined with the revolutionary sailors (who, unlike
the infantry, were usually drawn from the factory proletariat,
especially the skilled workers).
The constant increase in
prices, the cut in the bread ration, caused a ferment of discontent.
Above all the continuation of the war raised the temperature to boiling
The workers reacted by a series of mass demonstrations
starting in April, which indicated an ever-increasing shift to the left
in the mood of the workers. In a parallel move, the forces of reaction
attempted to mobilise on the streets, leading to a series of clashes.
The Bolsheviks called a demonstration in April, to put pressure on the reformist leaders, and test the mood of the capital.
from the factories and workers’ districts flooded in to the Soviet
Executive, demanding a break with the bourgeoisie. Workers came to the
local committees asking how to transfer their names from the Mensheviks
to the Bolsheviks.
By the beginning of May, the Bolsheviks already had at least one third of the workers in Petrograd.
"Every mass action," wrote Trotsky,
"regardless of its immediate aim, is a warning addressed to the
leadership. This warning is at first mild in character, but becomes
more and more resolute. By July it has become a threat. In October we
have the final act."
The apologists for the ruling
class always seek to present revolution as a bloodthirsty event. The
reformist leaders throw in their two-ha’pence, by posing as
peace-loving parliamentary democrats. But history demonstrates the
falsity of both assertions. The bloodiest pages in the history of
social strife occur when a cowardly and inept leadership vacillates at
the decisive moment, and fails to put an end to the crisis of society
by vigorous action. The initiative then passes to the forces of
counter-revolution which are invariably merciless, and prepared to wade
through rivers of blood to "teach the masses a lesson."
April 1917, the reformist leaders of the Soviet could have taken power
"peacefully" – as Lenin invited them to do. There would have been no
civil war. The authority of these leaders was such that the workers and
soldiers would have obeyed them unconditionally. The reactionaries
would have been generals without an army.
But the refusal of
the reformists to take power peacefully made bloodshed and violence
inevitable, and put the gains of the revolution in jeopardy. In the
same way the German Social Democratic leaders handed back the power won
by the German workers and soldiers in 1918, a crime for which the whole
world paid with the rise of Hitler, the concentration camps, and the
horrors of a new world war. Instead of taking power, the Menshevik and
SR leaders entered the first coalition government with the bourgeois
The masses at first welcomed this, believing that the
socialist Ministers were there to represent their interests. Once
again, only events could bring about a change in consciousness.
Inevitably, the socialist ministers became the pawns of the landowners
and capitalists, and above all of Anglo-French imperialism, which was
impatiently demanding a new offensive on the Russian front.
same "socialists" who had held a pacifist position earlier, once they
crossed the threshold of the Ministry, instantly forgot their
Zimmerwald speeches and enthusiastically backed the war. A new
offensive was announced. Measures to re-introduce discipline in the
army reflected an attempt to re-assert the power of the officer caste.
The mood of the workers in Petrograd was near boiling point. As a
warning shot and a trial of strength, the Bolsheviks considered an
armed demonstration to put pressure on the Congress of Soviets in June.
party was giving voice to the growing feeling of frustration of the
Petrograd workers, summed up in slogans, directed at the reformist
leaders of the Soviet: "Take over state power!" "Break with the
bourgeoisie!" "Drop the idea of a coalition and take the reigns of
power into your own hands!" The idea of an armed demonstration caused
an hysterical reaction on the part of the middle-class leaders who
launched a campaign of slander, misrepresenting it as an attempted
coup. The Menshevik Minister Tsereteli warned ominously that "people
who did not know how to use arms must be disarmed." As a small minority
in the Congress of Soviets (which the demonstration was planned to
coincide with), the Bolsheviks decided to retreat. The idea of an armed
demonstration was dropped. In its place, the Congress of Soviets itself
called an unarmed demonstration on July 1st. This attempt to out-manoeuvre the Bolsheviks backfired.
Growth of Consciousness
workers and soldiers came to the "official" demonstration carrying
placards with the slogans of the Bolsheviks: "Down with the secret
treaties!" "Down with the ten capitalist ministers!" "No to the
offensive!" All Power to the Soviets!" In a revolution, even such
extremely democratic and flexible organisations as the Soviets were not
capable of reflecting the rapid shifts of mood of the masses. The
Soviet lagged behind the factory committee, the factory committees
lagged behind the masses. Above all, the soldiers lagged behind the
workers, and the backward provinces lagged behind revolutionary
The process of the growth of consciousness is never
uniform. Different layers arrive at different conclusions at different
times. There is always a danger that the more advanced layers of the
class will go too far too soon, and become separated from the majority,
with calamitous consequences.
Infuriated by the offensive, the
most radical sections of the Petrograd garrison were preparing for an
armed demonstration. Realising that the provinces were not yet ready
for a showdown with the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks tried to
restrain the soldiers, but eventually were compelled to put themselves
at the head of the demonstration in order to prevent a massacre.
the Bolsheviks had warned, the government seized on the opportunity to
crack down on the movement, leaning on more backward regiments. The
"July Days" ended in a defeat, but thanks to the responsible leadership
of the Bolsheviks, the losses were kept to a minimum, and the effects
of the defeat were not long-lasting.
A revolution is not a
one-act drama. Neither is it a simple, forward-moving process. The
Russian revolution unfolded over nine months. The Spanish revolution
took place over seven years -from the fall of the monarchy in 1931 to
the May Days of Barcelona in 1937. Within the revolution, there are
periods of breathtaking advance, but also periods of lull, of defeat,
even of reaction.Thus the February revolution was succeeded by the
reaction that followed the July Days. The Bolsheviks were accused of
being German agents and mercilessly hounded, arrested and imprisoned.
Lenin was forced to go into hiding, and then move to Finland.
February onwards, the counter-revolution had been biding its time,
hiding behind the coat-tails of the Provisional government. The
offensive, and the crushing of the Bolsheviks in July, now tilted the
pendulum to the right. The officer caste began serious preparations for
a coup d’etat, culminating in General Kornilov’s uprising at the end of
August. Only the courageous reaction of the workers and soldiers saved
the revolution. The railway workers, risking their lives, refused to
drive the trains, or mis-directed them. Kornilov’s army found itself
without supplies, without petrol, disorganised and disoriented.
Agitators, mainly Bolsheviks, got to work among Kornilov’s troops and
won them over. Kornilov ended up a general without an army.
Reluctantly, the Mensheviks and SRs were forced to legalise the
Bolsheviks. But by now the masses had begun to realise the true state
of affairs. In an early article on the revolution, written between
sessions at the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations in 1918, Trotsky
recalled events still fresh in his mind: "The growth of the influence
and strength of the Bolsheviks was undoubted, and it had now received
an irresistible impetus. The Bolsheviks had warned against the
Coalition, against the July offensive, and had foretold the Kornilov
rebellion. The popular masses could now see that we had been right."
by the advance of Kornilov’s "savage division," the reformist Soviet
leaders had been compelled to arm the workers. The position of the
Bolsheviks now became decisive in the Petrograd soviet. Moreover, the
time was growing near for the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets,
at which the Bolsheviks were assured of a majority. At one point, the
counter-revolutionary policies of the reformist leaders of the Soviets
had inclined Lenin to consider dropping the slogan "All power to the
Soviets," and substituting for it the idea of taking power through the
factory committees. This fact shows the extreme flexibility of Lenin’s
tactics. There was no question of making a fetish out of any
organisational form, even the Soviets. However, the Soviet form of
direct elections from the workplaces and garrisons represented a far
more democratic expression of the will of society than any regime of
bourgeois parliamentary democracy known to history.
One of the
most blatant lies about October is that the Bolsheviks were
"undemocratic" because they based themselves on Soviet democracy rather
than a parliament ("Constituent Assembly"). The argument is that Lenin
and Trotsky represented, not the masses, but only a small, tightly
disciplined group of conspirators. For these critics, October was not a
revolution, but a "coup."
The truth is very different. The
Soviet system in 1917 and the years immediately following the
revolution was the most democratic system of representation of the
people ever known. Even the most democratic models of bourgeois
parliamentarianism cannot compare with the simple and direct democracy
of the Soviets. Incidentally, the Russian word "soviet" merely means a
"council" or "committee." The Soviets were born in 1905 as extended
"strike committees." In 19l7, the workers soviets were broadened to
include representation by the soldiers, who were overwhelmingly
peasants in uniform. Representatives to the soviets were elected
directly by their workmates and instantly recallable. Compare this to
the present system in Britain, where parliaments are elected every four
years on average. There is no means of recall. Once a parliament is
elected, it cannot be removed until the next general election.
Governments are free to renege on their promises – and invariably do
so, in the knowledge they cannot be removed.
Most of the
parliamentarians are professional politicians, with no contact with the
people who elected them. They live in another world, with high salaries
and expenses which puts them in a different social category to the
people they are supposed to represent.
In a revolutionary
situation, where the moods of the masses change rapidly, the cumbersome
mechanisms of formal bourgeois democracy would be utterly incapable of
reflecting accurately the situation. Even the soviets, as we have seen,
often lagged behind.
In his 1918 work, Trotsky characterises
the democracy of the Soviets in the following way: "They depend on
organic groups, such as workshops, factories, mines, companies,
regiments, etc. In theses cases, of course, there are no such legal
guarantees for the perfect accuracy of the elections as in those to
municipal councils and zemstvos (a kind of elected district council in
the rural areas under tsarism, AW), "but there is the far more
important guarantee of the direct and immediate contact of the deputy
with his electors. The member of the municipal council or zemstvos
depends on an amorphous mass of electors who invest him with authority
for one year, and then dissolve. "The Soviet electors, on the other
hand, remain in permanent contact with one another by the very
conditions of their life and work: their deputy is always under their
direct observation and may at any moment be given new instructions,
and, if necessary, may be censured, recalled, and replaced by somebody
The right wing socialists tried by all means to prevent
the soviets from taking power. First, they organised the so-called
"Democratic Conference," calling for a "responsible " Ministry. This
satisfied no-body, and was attacked from the right and the left. The
rapid polarisation between the classes doomed all the manoeuvres of the
"centre" to defeat in advance. The endless intrigues and combinations
of the politicians contrasted with the desperate position on the front
that cold and wet Autumn. The mood in the villages was increasingly
impatient. The right wing socialists argued that the peasants should
wait for the election of the "Constituent Assembly." The Bolsheviks
demanded the immediate transference of the land to the peasants’
committees. The slogans of "peace, bread and land" won the mass of the
peasants over to the side of the Soviets. By October, the stage was set
for the last act in the revolutionary drama.
Contrary to a
widespread prejudice, revolution is not the same as insurrection.
Nine-tenths of the work of the revolution consisted in winning over the
decisive majority of the workers and soldiers by patient political
work, summed up by Lenin’s slogan:
main blows of the Bolshevik propaganda and agitation were directed, not
against the right-wing labour leaders, but against the class enemy –
the monarchy, the landowners, the capitalists, the Black Hundreds
(fascists), and the liberal bourgeois Ministers in the coalition
October, the Bolsheviks had a clear majority in the Soviets. Trotsky
insisted that the date of the insurrection should be timed to co-incide
with the opening of the Congress of Soviets, where the Bolsheviks would
win the majority of the Executive Committee, and could therefore act
with the full authority of the Soviets, which comprised the decisive
majority of society.
A point is reached in every revolution
where the question of power is posed point-blank. At this stage, either
the revolutionary class goes over to a decisive offensive, or the
opportunity is lost, and may not return for a long time. The masses
cannot be kept forever in a state of agitation. If the chance is lost,
and the initiative passes to the counter-revolution, then bloodshed,
civil war and reaction will inevitably follow.
This is the
experience of every revolution. We saw it in the period of 1918-23 in
Germany, and in Spain from 1931-37. In both cases, the working class
paid for the crimes of the leadership with a ghastly defeat, the
fascist dictatorships of Hitler and Franco and the Second World War,
which nearly resulted in the destruction of civilisation.
is the importance of leadership that, ultimately, the fate of the
Russian revolution was determined by two men – Lenin and Trotsky. The
other leaders of the Bolsheviks – Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev –
repeatedly vacillated under the pressure of middle-class "public
opinion" – in reality the prejudices of the upper layers of the middle
class, the intelligentsia and educated liberal leaders masquerading as
socialists. These leaders represented the first confused, amorphous
strivings of the masses to find a way out by the shortest road.
the workers and peasants learned by experience that this alleged
short-cut represented a cruel deception. This experience, together with
the correct policies, strategy and tactics of Lenin and Trotsky,
prepared the ground for the massive shift of opinion in the direction
of Bolshevism. This would never have been possible if the line of the
conciliators had been accepted.
Lenin was constantly being
accused of "sectarianism" by the enemies of Bolshevism – and by a
section of the Bolsheviks leaders who wanted a "broad left front" with
the Mensheviks and SRs, and were terrified of being "isolated." This
fear was even more pronounced after the experience of July. With the
exception of Lenin and Trotsky (who joined the Bolsheviks in the period
of reaction during the Summer, together with an important group of
non-party Marxists, the Mezhrayontsy), most of the other prominent
Bolsheviks favoured participating in the "Democratic Conference" and
even in the fake "pre-parliament" which was set up at this Conference –
a "parliament" without any powers, elected by nobody and representing
The old party leaders reflected the past of the
workers and peasants, not their present or their future. Finally, the
Bolsheviks demonstratively walked out of the "pre-parliament," to the
general applause of the workers and soldiers – and the horror and
indignation of the conciliators.
Thanks mainly to the work of
Trotsky, the Petrograd garrison was won over to the Bolshevik cause.
Trotsky made use of the Military Revolutionary Committee, set up by the
reformist-led Executive of the Soviet, to arm the workers in defence
against the reactionaries. The workers in the arms factories
distributed rifles to the Red Guard. Mass meetings, demonstrations and
even military parades were held openly on the streets of Petrograd.
from being the work of a tiny, secret group of conspirators, the
preparations for the insurrection involved a massive participation by
workers and soldiers.
John Reed, in his celebrated book Ten
Days that Shook the World gives a graphic eye-witness account of these
mass meetings, which were held at all hours of the day and night,
addressed by Bolsheviks, left SRs, soldiers recently arrived from the
front, and even anarchists. Even in the February revolution, there had
been few meetings such as this. And all spoke with one voice: "Down
with Kerensky’s government!" "Down with the war!" "All power to the
power base of the Provisional Government had shrunk practically to
nothing. Even those conservative regiments drafted in from the front
became infected by the mood of revolutionary Petrograd. The support for
the Provisional Government in the capital collapsed immediately the
workers began to move. The insurrection in Petrograd was a virtually
Some years later, the celebrated Soviet
director Sergei Eisenstein made a film called October, which contains a
famous scene of the storming of the Winter Palace, during which there
were a few accidents. More people were killed and injured then than in
the actual event! The propaganda of the bourgeois against the October
revolution is a crude falsification of history. The actual seizure of
power took place smoothly, and with very little resistance. The
workers, soldiers and sailors occupied one government building after
another, without firing a shot. How was this possible? Only a few
months earlier, the position of Kerensky and the Provisional Government
appeared to be unassailable. But in the moment of truth, it found no
defenders. Its authority had collapsed. The masses deserted it and
moved over to the Bolsheviks.
The very idea that all this was
the result of a clever conspiracy by a tiny group is worthy of a police
mentality, but will not stand a moment’s analysis from a scientific
point of view. The overwhelming victory of the Bolsheviks at the Soviet
Congress underlines the fact that the right-wing reformist leaders had
lost all their support. The Mensheviks and SRs won only one-tenth of
the Congress – about 60 people in all. The Soviets voted by a massive
majority for the assumption of power.
Lenin moved two short
decrees on peace and the land which were unanimously approved by
Congress, which also elected a new central authority, which they called
the "Council of People’s Commissars," to avoid the bourgeois
ministerial jargon. And power was in the hands of the working people.
A New October
seventy five years later, the film of history appears to be being
played in reverse. The Soviet working class has paid a terrible price
for the crimes of Stalinism. The collapse of the bureaucratic regime
has been the prelude to an attempt to move back to capitalism. However,
as Lenin used to say "history knows all sorts of transformations." On
the road of capitalism, there is no future for the working people.
the basis of their experience, the workers of the former USSR will come
to understand that fact. The old ideas, programme and traditions will
be re-discovered. The basis will be laid for a new edition of the
October Revolution, on a qualitatively higher basis, not only in the
former Soviet Union, but on a worldwide scale.