Tony Cliff

‘The revolution changed to a sword the pen of its best publicist’

(July 1990)

From The sword of revolution, Socialist Worker Review, No.133, July/August 1990, pp.18-20.
Extracts from Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923, London 1990.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE OCTOBER revolution of 1917 raised the working class to power in Russia and established the first workers’ state in history to survive for more than a few months.

Great opportunities opened up, but success did not follow automatically. All the major capitalist powers launched armies of intervention against the new regime. The heritage of the past, in the form of economic backwardness as well as armed opposition from Russia’s old rulers, had yet to be overcome.

Lenin and Trotsky knew that only revolution in the west could ultimately save them. For this they forged the Communist International.

But they also bent every effort to win the undecided battle in Russia itself.

By the late 1920s both battles were lost, but it was not inevitable. As Cliff’s book shows, this was a time when political conviction – above all in the ability of the working class to reshape both history and itself – were of decisive importance. Trotsky, the sword of the revolution, was central to keeping the revolution alive for longer than any of the regime’s critics imagined possible.

Cliff shows that far from instigating a Red Terror, the first moves of the regime were perilously liberal:

AT THE beginning the new government treated its opponents very mildly; but it quickly learned the cost of such behaviour. The military cadets whom the Bolsheviks had released on parole from the Winter Palace on 26 October (8 November) betrayed their trust two days later and staged an uprising. Similarly mild treatment was shown to General Krasnov which he also repaid with treason.

Victor Serge, in his book Year One of the Russian Revolution, wrote on the events in Moscow:

‘The whites surrendered at 4pm on 2 (15) November. “The Committee of Public Safety is dissolved. The White Guard surrenders its arms and is disbanded. The officers may keep the side arms that distinguished their rank. Only such weapons as are necessary for practice may be kept in the military academies ... The MRC (Military Revolutionary Committee) guarantees the liberty and inviolability of all”. Such were the principle clauses of the armistice signed between Reds and Whites. The fighters of the counterrevolution, butchers of the Kremlin, who in victory would have shown no quarter whatever to the Reds ... went free’.

And Serge comments:

‘Foolish clemency. These very Junkers, these officers, these students, these socialists of counter-revolution, dispersed themselves throughout the length and breadth of Russia and there organised the civil war. The revolution was to meet them again, at Iaroslav, on the Don, at Kazan, in the Crimea, in Siberia and in every conspiracy nearer home.’

Even much later on, in more difficult conditions, democracy flourished as it never did under Stalin:

Throughout the Civil War, the atmosphere of free discussion in party conferences and congresses was maintained. During the debate on the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty the party enjoyed, in the words of E.H. Carr, ‘a freedom and publicity of discussion rarely practised by any party on vital issues of public policy’. Bukharin’s pamphlet defending ‘Left Communism’ against Lenin’s position was published in May 1918 in one million copies.

In the trade union debate the democratic traditions of Bolshevism remained dear. As Robert V. Daniels, a historian not sympathetic to Bolshevism, put it: ‘The fall of 1920 was the high point of open discussion in the Communist Party and of free opposition to the leaders’ authority.’

The Bolsheviks were forced at Brest Litovsk to accept a humiliating treaty with Germany, but even here the class struggle was waged:

Throughout, Trotsky used the negotiations as a platform for mass propaganda. Hence he opposed all evasions. On 29 December 1917 (11 January) von Kuhlmann, leader of the German delegation, stated:

‘Every peace treaty has to be preceded by some kind of preamble saying that the state of war is at an end and that the two parties henceforth desire to live in peace and concord ...’

Trotsky intervened:

‘I will take myself the liberty to propose the deletion of sentence two of the draft, which by reason of its profoundly conventional and ornamental character is out of keeping, I think, with the severely businesslike purpose of this document... Such declarations, copied from one diplomatic document into another, have never yet characterised the real relations between states.’

At another opportunity Trotsky tore the veil hiding real political power. On 1 (14) January General Hoffmann denounced the Bolsheviks because their government was supported by force. Trotsky replied:

‘The general was quite right when he said that our government rests on force. Up to the present moment there has been no government dispensing with force. It will always be so long as society is composed of hostile classes ... What in our conduct strikes and antagonises other government is the fact that instead of arresting strikers we arrest capitalists who organise lockouts; instead of shooting the peasants who demand land, we arrest and shoot the landlords and the officers who try to fire upon the peasants ...’

At this point Trotsky remembers Hoffmann’s face went purple. Czernin comments in his diary: ‘Hoffmann made his unfortunate speech. He had been working on it for several days, and was very proud of it.’

And Trotsky’s military art was not separate from his political skills:

It was Trotsky’s political genius that dominated his role as head of the Red Army.

In an article entitled Leon Trotsky, the Organiser of Victory, Karl Radek wrote:

‘The history of proletarian revolution has shown how one can change the pen for the sword. Trotsky is one of the best writers on world socialism, and his literary qualities did not prevent him from being the first head, the first organiser of the first army of the proletariat. The revolution changed to a sword the pen of its best publicist.’

‘THIS PROCESS of awakening of the individual personality assume chaotic form, in the early stages. Whereas yesterday still the peasant did not think of himself as a person, and was ready, at the first order from the Government, to go forth blindly to shed his blood, now he is unwilling to subordinate himself blindly. He asks: where are they telling me to go, and why? And he declares: I’m not going. I don’t want to submit!

‘We have reached the situation where every peasant and every worker is aware of himself as a human personality with a right to respect, but also feels that he is part of the working class of republican Russia and will be prepared unquestioningly to lay down his life for this Soviet Republican Russia ...

‘This is the psychological cement by means of which we can create a new army, a real, conscious Soviet army, bound together by a discipline that has passed through the soldiers’ brains, and not just the discipline of the rod. This is the discipline we advocate, and we do not want to know any other.

Trotsky: How the Revolution Armed, Vol.1.

Trotsky’s initiatives were often instrumental in turning individual key battles, as well as the civil war as a whole:

Trotsky arrived at Sviiazhsk, a little town on the western bank of the Volga, opposite Kazan. He found the Red Army completely demoralised – there had been mass desertions from the ranks and prostration among commanders and commissars. In his autobiography Trotsky described the situation he found:

‘Each unit lived its won distinct life, sharing in common only a readiness to retreat... The soil itself seems to be infected with panic. The fresh Red detachments, arriving in vigorous mood, were immediately engulfed by the inertia of retreat. A rumour began to spread among the peasantry that the Soviets were doomed. Priests and tradesmen lifted their heads. The revolutionary elements in the villages went into hiding. Everything was crumbling; there was nothing to hold to. The situation seemed hopeless.’

The fate of the revolution was hanging by a thread. Its territory was now reduced in size to the ancient Moscow principality. It had hardly any army; it was surrounded by enemies on all sides. After Kazan would have come the turn of Nizhni-Novgorod, from which a practically unobstructed road lay open to Moscow. The fate of the revolution was being decided here, at Sviiazhsk. And here, at the most critical moment, it rested on a single battalion, on one company, on the courage of one commissary.’

Out of the panic-stricken undisciplined mob, Trotsky created within a few weeks a genuine fighting force which, as the Fifth Army was one of the best of the sixteen armies which were organised during the civil war. Despite all the demoralisation in the Red Army ranks, Trotsky writes,

‘The revolution was saved. What was needed for that? Very little. The front ranks of the masses had to realise the mortal danger in the situation. The first requisite of success was to hide nothing, our weakness least of all. Not to trifle with the masses, but to call everything by its right name...

‘The propaganda throughout the country was being fed by telegrams from Sviiashsk. The Soviets, the party, the trade unions, all devoted themselves to raising new detachments, and sent thousands of communists to the Kazan front. Most of the youth of the party did not know how to handle arms, but they had the will to win, and that was the most important thing. They put backbone into the soft body of the army.’

Yet while the civil war was raging, the desperate conditions in the cities and the weakness of the working class gave opportunists the chance to carve out careers as bureaucrats. These were the people that were to form Stalin’s social base:

‘Trotsky was disgusted with the boorish attitude towards the military specialists. He took up the subject in A letter to a Friend, written on 10 January 1919. He wrote with scorn:

‘Our own bureaucrat ... is real historical ballast – already conservative, sluggish, complacent, unwilling to learn and even expressing enmity to anybody who reminds him of the need to learn.

‘This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counterrevolution, even though they are not guilty of any conspiracy ...’

The other leaders of the party tried every dodge to avoid backing Lenin against Stalin’s emergent machine. Trotsky wrote of a reorganisation plan of Lenin’s.

‘How did the Political Bureau react ... Comrade Bukharin hesitated to print Lenin’s article Better fewer, but better, while Lenin, on his side, insisted upon its immediate appearance. N.K. Krupskaya told me by telephone and asked me to take steps to get it printed as soon as possible. At the meeting of the Political Bureau, called immediately upon my demand, all those present – comrades Stalin, Molotov, Kuibyshev, Rykov, Kalinin, Bukharin – were not only against comrade Lenin’s plan but against the printing of the article. The members of the Secretariat were particularly harsh and categorical in their opposition. In view of the insistent demand of comrade Lenin that the article should be shown to him in print, comrade Kuibyshev, afterwards the head of Rabkrin, proposed at the above mentioned session of the Political Bureau that one special number of Pravda should be printed with Lenin’s article and shown to him in order to placate him, while the article itself should be concealed from the party ... I was supported only by comrade Kamenev, who appeared at the meeting of the Political Bureau almost an hour late.

‘The chief argument that induced them to print the article was that an article by Lenin could not be concealed from the party in any case.’


Last updated on 31.12.2004