Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s The Lessons of October


Duncan Hallas, Introduction, in Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October, Bookmarks, London 1987, pp. 1–8.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Leon Trotsky wrote The Lessons of October in September 1924 as a preface to the third volume of his Collected Works, a volume of his writings from the year 1917 which was never translated into English. The preface was in fact published separately, before the appearance of the book, in late October 1924. According to the historian E.H. Carr “... the edition of 5,000 copies was quickly sold out and, when the discussion was at its height, was virtually unobtainable; this led to rumours that it was officially banned.” [1]

“Discussion” is hardly the word. The reaction in the USSR to this short booklet was a storm of polemic, scholastic quibbling, vulgar abuse and down-right falsification. “Throughout the autumn and winter,” wrote Isaac Deutscher, “the country’s political life was entirely overshadowed by this controversy, which has entered the Bolshevik annals under the odd name of ‘the literary debate’.” [2]

Although most forms of soviet and party democracy still remained in 1924, Russia was by then ruled in reality by the triumvirate of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. They had emerged as the ruling group at the twelfth party congress in April 1923 and had consolidated their position in the anti-Trotsky campaign of December 1923, the party conference of January 1924 and the thirteenth party congress of May 1924. Much later Trotsky, writing in exile in 1933, was to describe the twelfth congress as the last genuine congress of the Russian Communist Party, the later ones being mere “bureaucratic charades”. The anti-Trotsky campaign was the last occasion on which the speeches and writings of opponents of the dominant group appeared undistorted in the party press.

Yet Trotsky, although powerless in fact, was still a member of the ruling politbureau and, as Comnuissar for War, of the Soviet government. His prestige stood high in the international communist movement, the more so since the death of Lenin in January 1924 after a long illness left him the best-known surviving leader of 1917. In 1924 this still counted for something. This in part accounted for the virulence of the attacks made on him in the “literary debate”; but there was another factor.

Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev had in common the fact that they were “old Bolsheviks”. Kamenev and Zinoviev had been members of the Bolshevik fraction from its beginning in 1903, Stalin from 1904. All three had been members of the first purely Bolshevik central committee after the final split with the Mensheviks in 1912, Zinoviev by election at the Bolshevik Prague Conference, Stalin and Kamenev by subsequent co-option. Zinoviev had been Lenin’s companion in exile from 1908 till 1917, had been co-author with Lenin of Socialism and War (1915), the definitive Bolshevik statement on the imperialist war and the collapse of the Second International. He had been an intransigent supporter of Lenin at the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal when the anti-war policy had been hammered out. Since 1919 he had been president of the Communist International. Kamenev too had shared Lenin’s exile till 1914, when he was sent back to Russia. Stalin, less close personally to Lenin, had nevertheless been a professional party revolutionary throughout the pre-revolutionary period. He had written, with Lenin’s help, an important book on the Bolshevik attitude to the national question, and had been, since April 1922, general secretary of the party.

All three had been actively promoting a cult of “Leninism” since Lenin had become incapacitated (he suffered a paralysing stroke in May 1922 and two further strokes near the end of the year; by March 1923 his political life was over, though he lived on paralysed until January 1924). Leaving aside for the moment the underlying political content of this cult, entirely alien to the spirit of Lenin’s own attitudes as it was, its immediate function was obvious. The triumvirate represented themselves as proven pillars of Bolshevik orthodoxy, faithful disciples of the infallible Lenin – as he was now being represented – whereas Trotsky, as was well known, had frequently opposed Lenin in the past and had not joined the Bolshevik Party until the summer of 1917.

The Lessons of October struck a most damaging blow both at the myths of the immaculate conception and seamless perfection of Bolshevism and at the political record of the triumvirs themselves, above all at their record in the crucial year 1917.

“We have already said, and we repeat, that the study of disagreements cannot, and ought not in any case, be regarded as an attack against those comrades who followed a false policy. But on the other hand, it is absolutely impernüssible to blot out the greatest chapter in the history of our party merely because some party members failed to keep step with the proletarian revolution,” says the text, “... even within this party, among its tops, on the eve of decisive action there was formed a group of experienced revolutionaries, old Bolsheviks who were in sharp opposition to the proletarian revolution; and who, in the most critical period of the revolution from February 1917 to approximately February 1918, adopted on all the fundamental questions an essentially social-democratic position. It needed Lenin, and Lenin’s exceptional influence in the party ... to safeguard the party and the revolution against the supreme confusion following from such a condition.”

“These comrades”, “some comrades” ... they included, most conspicuously, and in varying degrees, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. Inevitably in the circumstances, they most certainly regarded The Lessons of October as a direct attack on themselves.

Consider the indictment. Soon after the February revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar, the Bolshevik paper Pravda adopted a “defencist” attitude, offering critical support for the war “in defence of the revolution”. This was similar to the attitude which Lenin had so furiously denounced when it was advanced by the French and German “lefts”. Pravda’s general position can be fairly described as one of critical support for the Provisional Government. Pre -eminent among those responsible for this line were the two central committee members who had been able to return from Siberian exile to Petrograd in March 1917: Kamenev and Stalin.

When Lenin returned to Russia in April, determined to transform the party’s line to “Down with the Provisional Government, Down with the War” and to win the party to the perspective of workers’ power, the proletarian revolution, he was opposed by the “old Bolsheviks” led by Kamenev. They clung to Lenin’s own previous slogan, calling for the “democratic (in other words, bourgeois) dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, a position Lenin himself now described as “antiquated ... worthless ... dead”.

Most damaging of all, Zinoviev and Kamenev (though not Stalin, who had slid away from his earlier position) opposed the whole project of the October insurrection – and not only inside the central committee but publicly, an act denounced by Lenin as “strike-breaking”.

An objective revolutionary assessment might well agree with Lenin’s own, in his then unpublished Testament, where he writes: “... the October episode of Zinoviev and Kamenev was not, of course, accidental, but ... it ought to be as little used against them as the non-Bolshevism of Trotsky.” Written at the end of 1922, this document ends with a postscript dated at the beginning of 1923 which calls for Stalin’s removal from the position of party general secretary. Such an assessment would take into account the inevitable element of conservatism in the party in a new and fast-changing situation in 1917, as Trotsky so cogently argues in The Lessons of October, but it would also consider the inadequacy of Lenin’s own position before April 1917.

An objective revolutionary assessment was, however, the last thing to be expected in the circumstances of late 1924. Instead there was a massive, well-orchestrated and entirely hostile response to The Lessons of October. The triumvirate and the apparatus they controlled were concerned above all to preserve their power and their essentially conservative policy. Innumerable articles in the officially-controlled press denounced Trotsky. Replies of any substance were refused publication.

Early in 1925 a massive volume, On Leninism, appeared. It contained refutations of Trotsky’s The Lessons of October and polemics by Andreev, Bukharin, Kamenev, Krupskaya, Molotov, Rykov, Sokolnikov, Stalin, Zinoviev and six others against his political positions since 1903. This work was translated; often in abbreviated form, into the main languages of the Communist International. The English version, published in 1925, was tided The Errors of Trotskyism. The apparatus campaign was entirely successful. By December 1924 Stalin, appearing now as an independent theoretician rather than an apparatchik, felt confident enough to proclaim the doctrine, totally foreign to the ideas put forward by Lenin, of “Socialism in One Country” – and naturally he did this in the name of “Leninism”.

The outcome of the “literary debate” proved two things: first that an appeal to reason, Marxism and revolutionary tradition inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was hopeless by late 1924; second, that the Communist International itself, and specifically its major parties, was unable to challenge the triumvirate even when its vital interests were involved.

To take this second point first. In 1923 the central committees of the French, German and Polish Communist Parties, at that time among the largest and most promising parties outside the USSR, had protested against the anti-Trotsky campaign. By 1925, however, they had all endorsed On Leninism and, still more damaging and ultimately devastating for them, the doctrine of “Socialism in One Country”. The reasons for this political collapse are varied in their specific details but have a common factor: all three parties failed to meet up to their expectations in the revolutionary or near- revolutionary crisis of 1923; this was true above all of the German party, which was the strongest. This, in the end, is what made them pliable to manipulation from a Moscow centre which was less and less concerned with their independent role and more and more concerned with the impact of their activities on the power struggle inside the USSR and, later, with their utility as pressure points in the diplomacy of the USSR with other states.

The Lessons of October was addressed to the communist parties, not simply to the communist party in power in the USSR. Trotsky’s argument starts from the need to study the events of 1923 in the light of an unfalsified account of 1917. As he writes:

Last year we met with two crushing defeats in Bulgaria. First, the party missed an exceptionally favourable moment for revolutionary action ... then the party, striving to make good its mistake, plunged into the September insurrection without having made the necessary political or organisational preparations. The Bulgarian revolution ought to have been a prelude to the German revolution. Unfortunately the bad Bulgarian prelude led to an even worse sequel in Germany itself. In the latter part of last year, we witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world-historic importance.

That defeat in Germany was indeed of world-historic importance ... it led, ultimately though not inevitably, to Hitler and the Second World War. It also led to the consolidation of bureaucratic rule in the USSR and, eventually, to Stalin’s dictatorship and the total destruction of the elements of workers’ power that then still survived.

Earlier in this introduction the question of what the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev really represented was postponed. It must now be addressed. Isaac Deutscher wrote of the political situation in the year 1921: “Whom then did the Bolshevik Party represent? It represented only itself, that is, its past association with the working class, its present aspiration to act as the guardian of the proletarian class interest, and its intention to re-assemble in the course of economic reconstruction a new working class which should be able in due time to take the country’s destiny into its hands. In the meantime the Bolshevik Party maintained itself in power by usurpation.” [3]

Deutscher writes “its past association with the working class” for two reasons. First because the working class, as it is sociologically defined, had shrivelled from around three million to around one million in the years of civil war, foreign intervention and devastation from 1918 to 1921. Secondly because the class-conscious minority of this working class, itself a minority within a working population which was mostly peasants, had either been killed during the civil war, been drawn into administration, or had become demoralised. The peasant masses, having got possession of the land, were now indifferent to the Soviet government, or hostile.

The party in power, therefore, had become “substitutionalist”. Such a state of affairs can perhaps be “carried” for a short time without the party itself being transformed – but not for years on end. By 1924, indeed by 1923 if not earlier, this transformation had taken place. Party and state apparatuses were becoming one. Of course this was still far from the Stalinist tyranny of the future, but the party had effectively become an apparatus party by the early 1920s. The mass recruitment, the “Lenin Levy” decided upon by the thirteenth party conference, inevitably weakened the influence of those party members who still had some Marxist training and internationalist ideas. These included, of course, the supporters of Kamenev and Zinoviev, who soon found themselves in opposition to Stalin, the apparatchilc-in-chief, and as impotent as Trotsky. Both were later to face trial and execution.

Our knowledge of the outcome of the literary debate in no way reduces the importance of The Lessons of October. In this book Trotsky concerns himself with several issues which are alive today.

The whole argument of the book assumes the centrality of the revolutionary socialist party: “... events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible ... there is noting else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party.” Trotsky does not say that any revolution is rendered impossible, for that was proved not so in Russia in February 1917 and has been again many times since, but for the working class to take and hold power the revolutionary party is indispensable.

Trotsky is not concerned here with the problems involved in building such a party, although implicitly some of what he has to say about party conservatism applies to every stage of party development from Marxist study circles onwards. His theme, however, is the party in a revolutionary situation, and what he calls “almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from the preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power.”

There is no need to develop the point here; the whole ten is a sermon on this proposition. Three brief comments are enough.

First, Trotsky’s explanation of the upsurge of the Social-Revolutionaries after February 1917 (and to a much smaller extent the Mensheviks), while essentially correct, may underestimate the degree to which any great revolution, throwing previously passive millions into political life, can temporarily strengthen “left” and not-so-left reformists and centrists. Many occasions, from Germany 1918–19 to Portugal 1974–75, provide evidence of this. If this is so, it in no way weakens the thrust of Trotsky’s argument; rather it strengthens it.

Secondly, the role of a party “cadre”, an experienced layer of party members, apart from the top leadership, is of decisive importance in executing sharp turns in policy. Lenin, returning in April 1917 with his theses, would not have been able to shift the political line of the Bolshevik Party alone. There had to be a layer of politically experienced party members who could respond to the arguments, and respond quickly. Such a cadre cannot be improvised. It has to be built and tested in the “preparatory” years when revolutionary change is not on the agenda.

Finally, without the concrete and essentially correct analyses made by Lenin during these years, and by Trotsky himself too in 1917, without the ability to judge what was still vital and what must be corrected, and do all this in time, the October revolution would not have succeeded.

Duncan Hallas
July 1987     


1. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, London 1972, Vol. 2, p. 19.

2. Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky: the Prophet Unarmed, London 1959, p. 154.

3. Deutscher, p. 9.

Last updated on 7.3.2012