Leon Trotsky


Before the October Revolution

Lenin’s arrival in Petersburg and his appearance at the workmen’s meetings against war and the Provisional Government I learned from the American newspapers in the Canadian concentration camp Amhurst. The interned German sailors began at once to take an interest in Lenin, whose name they came across for the first time in the newspaper dispatches. They were all impatiently waiting for the end of the war, which would open the gates of the concentration prison for them. They listened with greatest attention to every voice raised against war. Up to this time they had known only Liebknecht. But they had often been told that Liebknecht had been bribed by the Entente. Now they learned of Lenin. I told them of Zimmerwald and Kienthal. Lenin’s appearance won over many to Liebknecht.

On my journey through Finland I received the first new Russian newspapers, with telegrams about the entrance of Zeretely, Skobolef and other “Socialists” in the Provisional Government. The situation thereby became perfectly clear. The second or third day after my arrival in Petersburg I familiarized myself with Lenin’s April theses. It was exactly what the revolution needed. It was only later that I read Lenin’s article in Pravda, The First Stage of the First Revolution, which be had sent from Switzerland. Even yet one can and should read with the greatest attention and political advantage the first very indefinite numbers of the revolutionary Pravda, against whose background Lenin’s A Stranger’s Letter reveals him in his whole collective strength. Very calm in tone and theoretically explanatory, this article resembles a powerful steel spiral, surrounded by a strong band, which in the future will expand, spread out and embrace ideologically the entire meaning of revolution.

I arranged with Comrade Kamenief for a visit to the editorial office of Pravda on one of the first days after my arrival. The first meeting must have taken place on the 5th or 6th of May. I told Lenin that nothing separated me from his April theses and from the whole course that the party had taken since his arrival, and that I was faced with the alternative, either to enter the party organization at once “individually,” or to try to bring with me the best part of the “Unionists,” whose organization in Petersburg numbered almost three thousand workmen, with whom were associated a number of valuable revolutionary forces: Urizky, Lunacharsky, Joffe, Vladimirof, Manuilsky, Karachan, Jurenief, Posern, Litkens and others. Antonof-Ovsyenko had already joined the party; I think Sokolnikof also. Lenin did not express himself categorically for one or the other. It was necessary, above everything else, that I make myself more familiar with the situation and the men. Lenin considered that some form of cooperation with Martof, and particularly with a part of Mensheviki Internationalists who had just returned from abroad, was not out of the question. We must certainly watch what the relations of the “Internationalists” themselves were to the work. As I tacitly agreed with him, I, for my part, did not force the natural development of events. Our political policy was the same. At the workmen and soldiers’ meetings I said from the first day of my arrival: “We, Bolsheviki and Internationalists,” and as the conjunction “and” burdened my speech by its constant repetition I soon shortened the form and began to say: “We, Bolsheviki Internationalists.” Thus the political union preceded the organized one. [1]

I was at the editorial office of Pravda two or three times at the most critical moments before the July days. At these first meetings, and still more after the July days, Lenin gave the impression of intense concentration and formidable self-possession beneath the mask of “prosaic” simplicity and calm. In these days the Kerenskiad seemed all-powerful. Bolshevism represented “a miserable little company.” The party itself did not yet realize its future strength. But at the same time Lenin, determined, led it on to its prodigious tasks.

His speeches at the first Congress of Soviets aroused anxiety and enmity among the Social Revolutionary Menshevist majority. They felt dimly that this man was aiming far ahead, but they did not see the goal itself. And the revolutionary little citizens asked themselves: Who is he? What is he? Is he simply a madman? Or a projectile of history of range as yet unknown?

Lenin’s appearance at the Congress of Soviets, where he spoke of the necessity of imprisoning fifty capitalists, was perhaps not a rhetorical “success.” But it was extraordinarily significant. Short applause of the relatively few Bolsheviki accompanied the speaker as he left the platform with the look of a man who has not said all, and especially not as he wished to say it ... At this moment a breath of the unusual spread through the room. It was a suggestion of what was coming that all felt for a moment as they followed with bewildered looks this so commonplace and so enigmatic man.

Who is he? What is he? Did not Plechanof in his newspaper call Lenin’s first speech on the revolutionary soil of Petersburg a fantasia of fever? Did not the delegates chosen by the masses generally join the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviki? Did not Lenin’s position among the Bolsheviki themselves at first arouse violent dissatisfaction?

On one side Lenin categorically demanded the break, not only with bourgeois Liberalism, but also with all kinds of Defensivism [2] In his own party he organized the struggle against the “old Bolsheviki,” who – as Lenin wrote – had already, more than once, played a melancholy rôle in the history of our party because they thoughtlessly repeated a current formula, instead of studying the peculiarities of the new living reality. [3] Regarded superficially he thereby weakened his own party. On the other hand, he declared at the same time at the Congress of Soviets: “It is not true that no party was ready to seize the power now; there is such a party; it is our party.” Is there not an enormous contradiction between the position of a “Society of Propagandists,” isolated from all others, and this public declaration about the seizure of power in this gigantic land, shattered to its foundations? And the Congress of Soviets did not understand in the least what this curious man wanted, what he hoped for, this cold fanatic who wrote little articles in a little newspaper. When in the Congress of Soviets Lenin declared with great simplicity, which proved its genuineness by its plainness: “Our party is ready to take over the power altogether,” laughter resounded. “Laugh as much as you wish,” said Lenin. He knew; who laughs last, laughs best. Lenin loved this proverb because he was firmly determined to laugh last. He went on calmly to show that, as a beginning, they should imprison fifty or a hundred of the most important millionaires and declare to the people that we looked upon all capitalists as robbers, and that Tereschenko was no better than Miliukof, only duller. Terrible, destructive, deadly simple opinions! And this representative of a small part of the Congress which applauded him discreetly from time to time, said to the whole Congress: “Are you afraid of power? We are ready to seize it.” As answer naturally – laughter, at the moment almost condescending, but just a little troubled.

For his second speech, too, Lenin chose fearfully simple words from the letter of a certain peasant: “We must grab the bourgeoisie more firmly so that they will burst in all their seams, then the war would come to an end; but if we do not grab the bourgeoisie thus, it will be nasty for us.” And this simple naive quotation is the whole program? How can that not be a surprise? And again laughter, condescending and troubled. In reality, these words, “grab the bourgeoisie,” had not much weight as an abstract program of a group of propagandists. The surprised people, however, did not understand that Lenin listened unerringly to the growing attack of history on the bourgeoisie which would inevitably make it “burst in all its seams.” Not in vain had Lenin declared in May to the citizen Maklakof that “the land of the workmen and the poorest peasants is a thousand times more Left than the Tchernofs and the Zeretelys, and a hundred times more Left than we.”

Here was the chief source of Lenin’s tactics. Through the new, but already deeply troubled, democratic surface he perceived deep within “the land of the workmen and the poorest peasants.” It was ready for the greatest revolution. But the country did not yet understand how to prove its readiness politically. The parties that spoke in the name of the workmen and peasants deceived them. Millions of workmen and peasants did not know our party at all, had not yet realized it to be the champion of their endeavors, and our party itself had at that time not yet understood its whole potential power and was in consequence a “hundred times” more Right than the workmen and peasants. We had to force them together. We had to prepare the party for the masses of millions and the masses of millions for the party. Not to hurry forward too far, but also not to stay behind. To explain carefully and perseveringly. Even the simplest things had to be explained. “Down with the ten capitalistic ministers!” The Mensheviki do not agree? Down with the Mensheviki! They laugh? Everything in its time. He laughs best who laughs last.

I remember that I suggested demanding of the Congress of Soviets that they first consider the question of the offensive against the Germans that was being prepared at the front. Lenin agreed to the idea, but he evidently wanted to discuss it with other members of the Central Committee. At the first session of the Central Committee, Comrade Kamenief brought a draft of the declaration of the Bolsheviki about the offensive, hastily sketched by Lenin. I do not know if the document still exists. His text did not suit either the Bolsheviki taking part in the Congress or the Internationalists, I no longer know why. Posern, too, whom we wished to delegate to bring it up, objected. I drew up another text which was accepted. The organizing for bringing this forward, if I am not mistaken, was in the hands of Sverdlof, whom I met for the first time during the first Congress of Soviets as president of the Bolshevik faction.

In spite of his small and slender figure, which indicated the state of poor health, there was something about Sverdlof’s manner that gave the impression of significance and quiet strength. He presided quietly and uniformly, exactly, as a good motor works. The secret lay naturally not in the art of presiding itself, but in the fact that he had an excellent idea of the personal composition of the assembly and knew exactly what he wanted to carry through. Every session was preceded by conferences with the separate delegates, inquiries, and warnings here and there. Before the opening of a session he had, on the whole, an idea of its course. But even without preparatory conferences he knew better than any one else how this or that workman would respond to the question put to him. The number of comrades of whose political horizon he had a clear idea was very large for the scale of our party at that time. He was a born organizer and combiner. Every political question presented itself to him as concretely organizable above everything else, as a question of the correlations of separate people and groupings within the party organization, and of the correlations between the organization as a whole and the masses. The numerical significance he grasped immediately and almost automatically in. algebraic forms. Thereby he furnished, so far as it was a question of revolutionary action, a highly important proof of the political formulas.

After the flash in the pan of the demonstration of the 10th of June, when the atmosphere in the First Congress of Soviets was at white heat and Zeretely threatened to disarm the Petersburg workmen, I went with Comrade Kamenief to the editorial offices of Pravda and wrote there, after a short exchange of opinion, at the suggestion of Comrade Lenin, the draft of an address of the Central Committee of the party to the Executive Committee (of the Congress).

At this meeting Lenin said a few words about Zeretely, in regard to his last speech on the 11th of June: “He was once a revolutionary; how many years he has spent in prison! And now this complete renunciation of the past.”

In these words there was nothing political, they were not spoken for politics, but were only the fruit of a hasty reflection on the lamentable fate of the former great revolutionary. In his tone lay a tinge of regret, of sorrow, but it was said briefly and dryly, for nothing was so repugnant to Lenin as the slightest suspicion of sentimentality and psy-.. chological weakness.

On the 4th or 5th of July I met Lenin (and also Sinovief?) as I remember, in the Tauride Palace. Our attack had been repulsed. The bitterness against the Boisheviki had reached its peak among the governing powers.

“Now they will overthrow us,” Lenin said. “Now is their given moment.” His basic thought was to begin the retreat and, as far as it turned out to be necessary, to go on illegally. Lenin’s strategy had seldom had to make so sharp a turn, but it was as usual based on a rapid estimation of the situation. Later during the Third Congress of the Communist Internationalists, Vladimir Ilyich said incidentally: “In July we committed not a few blunders.” By this he had in mind our hasty armed uprising, the much too aggressive form of the demonstration which was in no proportion to our forces in the scale of the country. Remarkable, nevertheless, is that calm decision with which on the 4th/5th of July he weighed not only the revolutionary, but also the opposite, side of the situation, and came to the conclusion that for “them” it was now the time to attack us. Fortunately our enemies had neither sufficient logical consistency nor decision. Otherwise it is very probable that they, that is their officers’ clique, if they could have laid hands on Lenin the first days after the July rising, would have treated him exactly as the German officers’ camarilla treated Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg a year and a half later.

A direct resolve to bide, or to act illegally, was not made at the above-mentioned meeting. The Kornilof episode was a continual fluctuation. I personally let myself be seen for two or three days more, and at some party and organizing conferences came forward with the theme: What is to be done? The stormy attack on the Bolsheviki seemed insurmountable. The Mensheviki tried in every way to make use of the situation, which had not developed entirely independent of them. I remember that I was obliged to speak in the library of the Tauride Palace at some meeting of the representatives of the mining companies unions. There were altogether a few dozen men present, the leaders of the unions. The Mensheviki predominated. I spoke of the necessity of a protest of the mining companies against the accusation that the Bolsheviki were in alliance with German Militarism. Of the course of this meeting I have only a dim recollection now, but I do remember exactly two or three malicious faces of men who were there to hiss at us.

At this time terror assumed fixed forms. Imprisonments were the order of the day. For a few days I lay hidden in the home of Comrade Larin. Then I began to go out again, showed myself in the Tauride Palace, and was soon imprisoned. My release followed during the days of the Kornilof episode and the ensuing Bolshevist counter-blow. At this time we succeeded in bringing the “Unionists” over into the Bolshevist Party. Sverdlof suggested to me that I meet Lenin, who was still in hiding. I no longer remember who introduced me to the conspiring workmen’s quarters (was it not Rachia?), where I met Vladimir Ilyich. There I met Kalinin also, whom Lenin further questioned in my presence about the mood of the workmen; whether they were fighting, whether they would go to the limit, whether we could seize the power, etc.

What was Lenin’s mood at this time? If one wants to characterize it in a few words one must say that it was a mood of restrained impatience and deep anxiety. He saw clearly the moment approaching when everything would be at the knife’s edge, and at the same time he was of the opinion, and not without grounds, that the chiefs of the party did not draw all the necessary conclusions. The deportment of the Central Committee seemed to him too passive and dilatory. Lenin did not feel it yet possible to return openly to the work because he feared that his imprisonment might strengthen the dilatoriness of the party leaders, which would inevitably have led to a neglect of the extraordinary revolutionary situation. Therefore in these days and weeks Lenin’s vigilance and impatience at all signs of hesitation, at all intimations of waiting and indecision, reached their climax. He demanded that we should at once put a real conspiracy to work, surprise the opponent, snatch the power, – and then we would see. At all events there must be more agreement about it.

Lenin’s biographer will have to treat with the greatest attention the fact of Lenin’s return to Russia and his attitude toward the masses. With a short interruption in 1905 Lenin had spent more than fifteen years abroad. His feeling for reality, his instinct for the living, working human being had not only not diminished in this time, but on the contrary had been strengthened by the work of theoretical thinking and of creative imagination. By separate chance meetings and observations he grasped and renewed the picture of the whole. But still he had lived abroad in that period of his life in which he finally developed for his coming historical r6le. He arrived in Petersburg with a completed revolutionary point of view that was a résumé of the entire social, theoretical, and practical experience of his life. And here first, on the living experience of the awakening working masses of Russia, the test was made of what he had gathered, thought over, and made his own.

The formulas stood the test. Moreover, here first in Russia, in Petersburg, they were filled with ordinary decisive concreteness and thereby with unconquerable strength. It is not yet the time to present the picture in perspective of the whole by separate and more or less accidental examples. The whole spoke for itself with all the voices of the revolution, and here Lenin proved, probably he felt it himself for the first time fully and completely, to what degree he possessed the ability to hear the yet chaotic voice of the awakening mass. With what deep organic disdain he watched the petty quarrels of the leading parties of Russia in February, these waves of “powerful” public opinion which passed from one newspaper to another, the shortsightedness, the self-esteem, the talkativeness, – in short, official February Russia.

Behind this scene, set with democratic decorations, he heard events of quite another scale rumbling: When the skeptics pointed out to him the great difficulties of the mobilization of the bourgeois public opinion, and the little citizen element, he set his jaws, and his cheekbones stood out more prominently than ever. That meant that he was forcing himself not to tell the skeptics, sharply and clearly, what he thought of them. He saw and understood the obstacles throughout no less than the others, but he detected clearly, palpably, and physically, those gigantic forces accumulated by history, that now made their way to the surface and cast all obstacles aside. He saw, heard, and, perceived above all the Russian workman, who had grown in numbers, who had not yet forgotten the experience of the year 1905, who had back of him the school of war along with its illusions, the lying and deceit of defensivism, and was now ready for great sacrifices and unheard-of exertions. He perceived the soldier, who had been bewildered by three years of diabolical war, “without meaning and without purpose,” until the thunder of revolution wakened him and he got ready to pay back all those meaningless sacrifices, humiliations, and blows by the explosion of a raging hate that spared nothing. He heard the peasant, who still dragged along in the chains of hundreds of years of slavery, and now, roused by the war, for the first time saw the possibility of settling his accounts formidably and unsparingfy with the oppressors, the slaveholders, the masters. The peasant hesitated helplessly and clumsily between Tchernof’s jingle of words and his own “means,” the great agrarian uprising. Still filled with uncertainty, the soldier sought a path between patriotism and unrestrained deserting. Although they were already incredulous and half hostile, the workmen still listened to the last tirades of Zeretely. Already the steam seethed impatiently in the boilers of the Kronstadt armed cruisers. The sailor combined in himself the steel-sharpened hate of the workmen and the dull bear-like rage of the peasant, and, singed by the glow of the terrible war, had already thrown everything overboard that embodied for him the established bureaucratic and military oppression. The February revolution stood before an abyss. The benevolent coalition had gathered up, stretched out, and sewn together the shreds of czaristic legality, and converted it into a thin surface of democratic legality. But under it everything simmered and bubbled, all the wrongs of the past sought an outlet. Hatred toward the police, the district inspector, the police commissar, the registrars, the manufacturers, those who lived on their incomes, property holders, toward the parasites, the whitehanded, the reviler and the assailant, prepared the greatest revolutionary overturn in history. It was this that Lenin saw and heard, that he felt physically with infallible clearness and absolute conviction when, after a long absence, he came into touch with the land stricken by the convulsions of revolution.

“You fools, babblers, and idiots, do you believe that history is made in the salons, where highborn democrats fraternize with titled liberals, where miserable provincial advocates of yesterday very soon learn to kiss illustrious little bands? Fools! Babblers! Idiots! History is made in the trenches where under the foolish pressure of war-madness the soldier thrusts his bayonet into the officer’s body and escapes to his home village to set fire to the manor house. Doesn’t this barbarity please you? Don’t get excited, history answers you: just put up with it all. Those are merely the consequences of all that has gone before. You imagine that history is made in your contact commissions? Nonsense! Talk! Fancy! Cretinism! History – may that be shown – this time has chosen the palace of Kchesinskaja the dancer, the former mistress of the former czar, as its preparation laboratory. And from there, from this building, symbolic for old Russia, she prepares the liquidation of our entire Petersburg-czaristic, bureaucratic-noble, junker-bourgeois corruption and shamelessness. Here, to the palace of the former imperial ballerina, are coming in streams the Russian delegates of the factories, with the gray, scarred, and lousy messengers from the trenches, and from here new prophetic words will spread over the land.”

The unfortunate ministers of the revolution held councils and tried to find a way to restore the palace to its legal owner. The bourgeois, Social Revolutionary, and Menshevist newspapers ground their teeth in rage because Lenin, from Kchesinskaja’s balcony, hurled the watchwords of social revolution among the masses. But this tardy effort was of no avail, either to add to Lenin’s hate against old Russia, or his decision to settle accounts with it! The one as well as the other had already reached its limit. On Kchesinskaja’s balcony stood Lenin, the same man who two months later hid himself in a hayloft, and who, a few weeks after that, took the place of president in the Council of People’s Commissars.

But at the same time Lenin saw that there existed within the party itself a conservative opposition – for the first time not so much of a political as of a psychological nature – to that great leap that had to be made. Lenin watched with anxiety the growing difference between the mood of part of the party heads and the millions of workmen. He was not satisfied for a moment with the fact that the Central Committee bad adopted the formula of the armed uprising. He knew the difficulties of the transition from words to deeds. With all the forces and means at his disposition he Strove to subjugate the party to the masses, and the Central Committee of the party to the ranks of its fellow members. He summoned single comrades to his place of refuge, gathered news, controlled, arranged cross-examinations, and in every direction, by indirect means, he sent his watchwords to the masses of the party in order to make the heads of the party face the necessity of acting and of going to the limit.

To form a correct picture of Lenin’s behavior in these days we must be sure of one thing: he had unbounded faith that the masses would and could complete the revolution, but he had not the same conviction in regard to the party staff. And he realized at this time more and more clearly that there was not a minute to lose. A revolutionary situation cannot arbitrarily be maintained until the moment that the party is ready to make use of it. We had this experience in Germany not long ago.

Even a short time ago we heard the view expressed: if we had not seized the power in October, it would have happened two or three months later. A big mistake! If we had not seized the power in October, we would not have seized it at all. Our strength before October lay in the uninterrupted influx of the masses, who believed that this party would do what the others had not done. If they had seen any vacillation at this moment on our part, any delay, any incongruity between word and deed, then in the course of two or three months they would have drifted away from us as they did formerly from the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviki. The bourgeoisie would have had a breathing spell and would have made use of it to conclude peace. The ratio of forces would have changed radically, and the proletarian revolution would have been postponed to an indefinite future. It was just this that made Lenin decide to act. From this sprang his uneasiness, his anxiety, his mistrust and his ceaseless hurry, that saved the revolution.

The dissensions within the party, which came to an open breach in the October days, had already appeared significantly at some stages of the revolution. The first conflict, more one of principle and yet calmly theoretic, arose immediately after Lenin’s arrival in connection with his theses. The second resultless clash was connected with the armed demonstration of the 20th of April. The third hinged on the attempt at an armed demonstration on the 10th of June. The “Moderates” believed Lenin wanted to foist upon them an armed demonstration with the aim of an uprising in the background. The next and sharper conflict flared up in connection with the July days. The differences of opinion filled the press.

A further stage in the development of the inner struggle was reached in the question of the preliminary parliament. This time the two groups came openly and sharply to blows. Was a protocol agreed to in this session? Has it been kept? I do not know. But the debates were undoubtedly of extraordinary interest. The two tendencies, one for seizing the power, the other for the r6le of opposition in the Constituent Assembly, were clearly enough defined. The advocates of the boycott of the preliminary parliament were in the minority, and yet the difference of the majority was not very great. Lenin from his hiding place reacted on the debates in the faction and on the written resolution by a letter to the Central Committee. This letter, in which Lenin declared himself in more than energetic terms with the boycotters of the Bulygin Duma [4] of Kerensky-Zeretely, I do not find in the second part of Volume XIV of his Collected Works. Has this extraordinarily valuable document been preserved? The differences of opinion reached their highest tension just before the October stage, when it was a question of the suspension of exchange during the uprising and the appointment of the date of the uprising. And finally, soon after the revolution of October 25th, the differences of opinion over the question of coalition with the other socialistic parties grew extraordinarily sharp.

It would be interesting to the highest degree to reconstruct concretely Lenin’s r6le on the eve of April 20th, of June 10th, and of the July days. “We did stupid things in July,” Lenin said later, in private conversations as well as, so far as I remember, in a conference with German delegates about the March events in Germany 1921. What were these “stupid things”? Were they the energetic, or much too energetic, method of attack and the active, or much too active, attempts to get information? Without such attempts to get information from time to time we might have lost contact with the masses. On the other hand, as is well known, active reconnoitering here and there becomes unconsciously a pitched battle. That was almost the case in July. The signal for retreat was given, however, at just the right time. And our enemy had not the courage in those days to go to extremes. This was certainly not chance; the Kerenskiad was in its whole being a half-measure, and this faint-hearted Kerenskiad paralyzed the Korniloviad to the degree that it feared itself.


1. N.N. Suchanof constructs, in his history of the revolution, a particular political policy that would have separated we from Lenin’s. But Suchanof is a well-known “constructivist”

2. ‘Adherent of a revolutionary defensive war against the German ...’ – Translator

3. Collected Works, Vol.XIV, Part I, page 22.

4. ‘In the beginning of 1905 Bulygin was commissioned by the Czar to carry out the electoral law for a duma that was to present propositions to the czar for “benevolent consideration.” – Translator

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Last updated on: 14 April 2009