Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

7. Trotsky as historian of the Russian Revolution

AFTER HE was exiled from Russia Trotsky decided to write a history of the revolution. He undertook this task while contributing to and editing Biulleten Oppozitsii, maintaining a copious correspondence with supporters in several countries, and receiving numerous visitors seeking his advice. Nevertheless, he wrote the half million words that make up the three large volumes of The History of the Russian Revolution in one year.

This monumental work was an outstanding achievement. No other revolution was as fortunate as the Russian in having an historian of genius as one of its key leaders. Trotsky was spurred on to write this history for two reasons. He not only had to defend the revolution from Stalinist distortions, but also his role in the revolution from Stalinist calumnies.

The book combines extreme partisanship with stringent objectivity. Trotsky scorned the position of ‘impartiality’ embraced by the reactionary French historian L. Madelin, who:

asserts that ‘the historian ought to stand upon the wall of a threatened city and behold at the same time the besiegers and the besieged’: only in this way, it seems, can he achieve a ‘conciliatory justice’. However, the words of Madelin himself testify that if he climbs out on the wall dividing the two camps, it is only in the character of a reconnoitre for the reaction. [1]

In comparison with the History Marx’s trilogy on nineteenth century revolutions in France – The Class Struggle in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Civil War in France stand as minor historical works, miniatures compared with Trotsky’s grand mural.

He introduces the reader to the drama of 1917 with a chapter, Peculiarities of Russia’s Development. This serves as a brilliant elaboration of the theory of Permanent Revolution which he developed in 1906. [2] Russia’s backwardness and belated development meant it entered the twentieth century without shaking off the middle ages, without passing through the stages that the West passed through like the Reformation and bourgeois revolution.

However, elements of bourgeois culture were grafted onto its archaic structure. It was forced to advance under pressure from the West. This had important consequences:

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. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past ... The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. Their development as a whole acquires a planless, complex, combined character. [3]

In the revolutions of 1917 this would mean that the weak Russian bourgeoisie, unable to cut off the burden of semi-feudal Tsarism, could be pushed aside by the compact working class supported by the rebellious peasantry.

After this masterpiece of historical analysis, Trotsky goes on to give a superb analysis and description of the revolution. For him the crux of the revolution was the act of self-emancipation of the proletariat: ‘The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny’. [4]

The whole of the History is suffused with imagery of the revolution as ‘the festival of the oppressed’. It is to a large extent a study of revolutionary mass psychology:

The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution. [5]

However the spontaneous activity of the masses is not sufficient for the victory of the revolution. Without a mass revolutionary party, victory for the proletariat is not possible.

Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam. [6]

The February revolution demonstrated this. It was the work of the masses who were not led by a revolutionary party. They were powerful enough to overthrow Tsarism and create the soviets, but not mature enough to prevent the coming to power of the Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov. By contrast, the October Revolution was the act of the masses led by a party – the Bolsheviks.

The revolutionary party must not, indeed can not, substitute for the working class. The task of the party is to raise the level of self-activity of the masses, to sharpen its effectiveness. The secret of the revolutionary party’s success is its ability to attune to the psychology of the masses: ‘The art of revolutionary leadership in its most critical moments consists nine-tenths in knowing how to sense the mood of the masses ...’ [7]

If the party is the teacher of the workers, who teaches the teacher? Trotsky answers: the workers.

The toilers are guided in their struggle not only by their demands, not only by their needs, but by their life experiences. Bolshevism had absolutely no taint of any aristocratic scorn for the independent experience of the masses. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks took this for their point of departure and built upon it. That was one of their great points of superiority. [8]

The History brilliantly describes the changes in the mood of the masses. Trotsky’s ability as an historian to grasp these changes was nourished by his own experience of the revolution. In the heat of the battle he had had to accurately gauge the mood and thoughts of the millions and respond appropriately. This is what made Trotsky such a superb agitator. In the History Trotsky evinces a sublime gift for sensing the developing thoughts of the masses. To give one small example he describes a demonstration at the beginning of February of 2,500 Petrograd workers which in a narrow place ran into a detachment of Cossacks, those age-old suppressors of people’s revolt.

Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled,’ Kayurov recalls, ‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink.’ This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it. The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams This was repeated three or four times and brought the two sides even closer together. Individual Cossacks began to reply to the workers’ questions and even to enter into momentary conversations with them. Of discipline there remained but a thin transparent shell that threatened to break through any second. 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 centre. 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 a Cossack’s horse. [9]

What a brilliantly graphic portrayal of the masses and individuals in action! However, no single passage of the History conveys its real strength. To cite but a single section is like using a torch to illuminate one tiny area in a large mural while the rest is enveloped in darkness. No excerpts can even remotely express the magnificence of the book and Trotsky’s prose. The only way to do it justice is to read it from beginning to end.

Again and again Trotsky picks out of the crowd a few individuals who express the mood of the crowd in a phrase or gesture. Again and again he leads from the general to the particular, and back to the general.

If the Bolshevik Party was crucial for the leadership of the proletariat, Lenin was crucial for the leadership of the party. Throughout the History Trotsky shows the party not as the monolithic ‘iron phalanx’ which marched unhesitatingly towards October. He shows the crisis in the party between the February Revolution and Lenin’s return. At this time the Bolshevik leadership, by and large, was conciliatory towards the Provisional Government and the war. When Lenin arrived from Switzerland he published his April Theses and had to fight very hard to overcome the previous weaknesses of the party leadership. Another major crisis occurred on the eve of October. Now Lenin had to struggle energetically against Bolshevik Central Committee opponents of the insurrection.

From the extraordinary significance which Lenin’s arrival received, it should only be inferred that leaders are not accidentally created, that they are gradually chosen out and trained up in the course of decades, that they cannot be replaced, that their mechanical exclusion from the struggle gives the party a living wound, and in many cases may paralyse it for a long period. [10]

And Trotsky asks:

How would the revolution have developed if Lenin had not reached Russia in April 1917? If our exposition demonstrates and proves anything at all, we hope it proves that Lenin was not a demiurge of the revolutionary process, that he merely entered into a chain of objective historic forces. But he was a great link in that chain. The dictatorship of the proletariat was to be inferred from the whole situation, but it had still to be established. It could not be established without a party. The party could fulfil its mission only after understanding it. For that Lenin was needed ... Is it possible, however, to say confidently that the party without him would have found its road? We would by -no means make bold to say that. The factor of time is decisive here, and it is difficult in retrospect to tell time historically. Dialectic materialism at any rate has nothing in common with fatalism. 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. [11]

In masterly fashion Trotsky gives character sketches of numerous prominent people in that year of revolution, from the Tsar and Tsarina to the ministers, the leaders of the Cadets, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. In all the portraits Trotsky is careful to point out

where in a personality the strictly personal ends – often much sooner than we think – and how frequently the ‘distinguishing traits’ of a person are merely individual scratches made by a higher law of development. [12]

He drew a memorable analogy between Nicholas II and Louis XVI, and also between their Queens.

Nicholas II inherited from his ancestors not only a giant empire, but also a revolution. And they did not bequeath him one quality which would have made him capable of governing an empire or even a province or a county. To that historic flood which was rolling its billows each one closer to the gates of his palace, the last Romanov opposed only a dumb indifference. It seemed as though between his consciousness and his epoch there stood some transparent but absolutely impenetrable medium. [13]

Through quotations from the Tsar’s diary we are provided with evidence of his cruelty, stupidity and, above all, blindness. This explains why he collected around him incompetent people.

Nicholas recoiled in hostility before everything gifted and significant. He felt at ease only among completely mediocre and brainless people, saintly fakirs, holy men, to whom he did not have to look up ... He selected his ministers on a principle of continual deterioration. [14]

A medieval fog befuddled Nicholas’s brain.

The more isolated the dynasty became, and the more unsheltered the autocrat felt, the more he needed some help from the other world. Certain savages, in order to bring good weather, wave in the air a shingle on a string. The czar and czarina used shingles for the greatest variety of purposes. In the czar’s train there was a whole chapel full of large and small images, and all sort of fetishes, which were brought to bear, first against the Japanese, then against the German artillery. [15]

Both Nicholas II and Louis XVI

make the impression of people who are overburdened by their job, but at the same time unwilling to give up even a part of those rights of which they are unable to make any use. [16]

They both go toward the abyss ‘with the crown pushed down over their eyes.’ But would it after all be easier to go to an abyss, which you cannot escape anyway, with your eyes open? What difference would it have made, as a matter of fact, if they had pushed the crown way back on their heads? [17]

Trotsky shows that at the decisive moment, when the revolution sealed their fate, Nicholas II and Louis XVI looked so like each other that their distinctive features seemed to vanish.

To a tickle, people react differently, but to a red-hot iron, alike. As a steam hammer converts a sphere and a cube alike into sheet metal, so under the blow of too great and inexorable events resistances are smashed and the boundaries of ‘individuality’ lost. [18]

As for the Tsarina and Marie Antoinette, both were ‘enterprising but chicken-headed’.

When Alexandra Feodorovna, three months before the fall of the monarchy, prophesies: ‘All is coming out for the best, the dreams of our Friend [Rasputin] mean so much!’ she merely repeats Marie Antoinette, who one month before the overthrow of the royal power wrote: ‘I feel a liveliness of spirit, and something tells me that we shall soon be happy and safe.’ They both see rainbow dreams as they drown. [19]

The character sketches of the leaders of the Cadets, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries are absolutely superb. The temptation is too great not to quote at least one vignette – a description of the Social Revolutionary Party which enjoyed by far the largest following among the people and which set itself in place of the class struggle at the centre of history.

The power of this party seemed unlimited. In reality it was a political aberration. A party for whom everybody votes except that minority who know what they are voting for, is no more a party, than the tongue in which babies of all countries babble is a national language. [20]

The leader to whom such a party inevitably turned was Alexander Kerensky, a man who made no secret of his contempt for all parties and who viewed himself as the direct choice of the nation.

This idea of a master of destiny rising above all classes, is nothing but Bonapartism. If you stick two forks into a cork symmetrically, it will, under very great oscillations from side to side, keep its balance even on a pin point: that is the mechanical model of the Bonapartist super-arbiter. The degree of solidity of such a power, setting aside international conditions, is determined by the stability of equilibrium of the two antagonistic classes within the country. [21]

In the midst of a revolution such stability is not possible. Kerensky was as doomed as Nicholas II. The similarity between the two was uncanny. In June 1917 the Provisional Government headed by Kerensky launched a calamitous new offensive at the front.

All was left to the will of Providence. Only the icons of the czarina were lacking. They tried to replace them with the icons of democracy. Kerensky travelled everywhere, appealing and pronouncing benedictions. [22]

The History of the Russian Revolution is a monument to a genius – a man of action and of letters.


1. L. Trotsky, Preface to History of the Russian Revolution, London 1934, p.21.

2. See Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.1, London 1989, pp.123-39.

3. Trotsky, History, pp.26-7.

4. Ibid., p.17.

5. Ibid., p.18.

6. Ibid., p.19.

7. Ibid., p.138.

8. Ibid., pp.809-10.

9. Ibid., pp.124-5.

10. Ibid., p.344.

11. Ibid., p.343.

12. Ibid., p.73.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p.76.

15. Ibid., p.81.

16. Ibid., p.112.

17. Ibid., p.113.

18. Ibid., p.114.

19. Ibid., p.113.

20. Ibid., pp.239-40.

21. Ibid., p.663.

22. Ibid., p.395.

Last updated on 4 August 2009