Karl Kautsky

The Lessons of the October Experiment

Source: What Next?
Published: Die Gesellschaft, 1925
Marked up: Zdravko Saveski for marxists.org, 2008

THE DESPOTISM of the Bolshevik party in Russia appears to be stronger and less open to attack than ever. Yet already it shows signs of impending collapse. That has been proved very recently by the Trotsky case. It may seem at first sight as if its swift and easy settlement has strengthened the dictatorial regime to the greatest degree, and has shown that no opposition to this regime is now possible. But it is precisely the ease with which the opposition was suppressed that has demonstrated how deep the inner decay of Bolshevism already is. For this was not an external opposition that faced the present masters of Russia, but one from within their own ranks, the opposition of a man who together with Lenin created the dictatorship and justified it both practically and theoretically, while the majority of Russia's present ruling elite initially adopted a hesitant and vacillating attitude towards it – and for very good reasons.

This position taken by Zinoviev and company was demonstrated clearly by Trotsky's recent writings Lenin and 1917 [On Lenin and Lessons of October], and even more clearly by the fact that they do not know how to answer his criticisms except by silencing the critic.

But something else is demonstrated by both of these writings and particularly by the latter: how even the best minds of Bolshevism have declined intellectually.

Trotsky speaks with contempt about the "parliamentary cretinism" of social democracy, by which he understands any interest in parliamentary proceedings and any involvement in such matters. Engels, who introduced the expression, understood something different by it: the limited mentality of some parliamentarians who believe "that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honour to count them among its members". (Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, pp.107-8. Published under Marx's name, but written for the most part by Engels.)[1]

But such an overestimation of one's own sphere of activity is not found only among members of parliament. In every field of human action the same conceit can be observed among limited minds.

At the same time that Trotsky engaged in the struggle for power and then came to power, he also succumbed to cretinism (in the sense defined here). But not to the parliamentary variety. His is of another type: it is military cretinism. Trotsky believes that all the problems of our time can be solved by means of military force. Eventually he even wanted to revive the faltering production of Soviet Russia by recklessly militarising it. And yet it was faltering precisely because an excess of the militaristic spirit already prevailed within the state administration and statified industry. Trotsky then also failed miserably with his militarisation of labour.

He is no wiser for this. He still believes that anything can be achieved with military force. In his recent book he wants to draw the "lessons of the revolution", but as far as he is concerned no economic or social factors are worthy of consideration here, only the military factor. At one point he even talks in all seriousness about compiling a "manual of civil war" (p.68 of the German edition, published by E. Laub, Berlin).[2]

Elsewhere he says: "That is why we require an approach entirely different from the prevailing one to the questions of civil war in general and of armed insurrection in particular. Following Lenin, all of us keep repeating time and again Marx’s words that insurrection is an art. But this idea is transformed into a hollow phrase, to the extent that Marx’s formula is not supplemented with a study of the fundamental elements of the art of civil war, on the basis of the vast accumulated experience of recent years" (p.75).[3]

It is true that Engels (not Marx, in the already quoted book on revolution and counter-revolution in Germany, p.117) says: "... insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding."[4] But these rules appear to Engels to be very simple. He is not thinking here of drawing up an official manual for the revolution. These rules, for Engels, comprise only two: "Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play."[5] This paragraph from the official manual of revolution should be urgently taken to heart by every member of the Communist International.

And Engels also says: "Secondly, once the insurrection has begun, act with the greatest determination and seize the offensive."[6] That is today still an indisputable principle which, however, naturally applies only so long as "the insurrection has begun". But in his book Trotsky does not deal with that at all. For him the "art of insurrection" is, rather, the art of calling an insurrection into being. Engels, again, does not deal with this at all. He discusses the question of how one should proceed in the insurrection, in connection with the German uprisings of 1849, which arose entirely spontaneously, out of a situation where the Imperial Constitution and the National Assembly were threatened by reaction, and thus, as Trotsky would say, out of "parliamentary cretinism". All the defenders of the National Assembly acted together at that moment, and Engels joined in the insurrection of the petty bourgeoisie in Baden and thus became, to employ Bolshevik phraseology, a "lackey of the bourgeoisie".

By contrast, not only does Trotsky examine the art of staging an insurrection, but it is also an insurrection of a very particular type whose arts he develops; not an insurrection against the counter-revolution, in which all defenders of the revolution work together, but an insurrection against other revolutionaries, who have to be defeated if they will not allow themselves to be commanded by Lenin and Trotsky.

Engels would have rejected participation in such an insurrection with indignation – and Marx no less so. After all, they said in the Communist Manifesto: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties."[7] They were the strongest opponents of sectarianism within the great workers' party which was their objective. They saw in sectarianism a sign of the immaturity of the workers' movement.

Not only have Lenin and Trotsky adopted this sign of the immaturity of the movement as their most important principle and made Bolshevism the most intolerant of all sects, but they have gone further than even the most immature of socialist sects have ever gone before: they have propagandised for and carried out the armed insurrection of their sect against other workers' parties – as Trotsky shows, initially in opposition to a substantial section of their own supporters, who rightly held doubts about such a type of civil war, at least so long as they had not themselves tasted the attractions of power. Whoever practises the art of this insurrection may in no way appeal to Engels or Marx. Such an uprising could never emerge out of the spontaneous action of the masses, and, as Trotsky himself shows, an essential condition for its success was the deception of the masses regarding the aim of the action and the lulling of other socialists, with whom a part of the Bolsheviks engaged in friendly negotiations while at the same time the other part brought up machine guns against them. Trotsky takes it upon himself to sneer at the Mensheviks because they trusted in the honesty of the Bolsheviks.[8]

What took place in October 1917 in St Petersburg was precisely not a spontaneous uprising of the masses, like that in February of the same year, but a coup d'état, which Lenin and Trotsky themselves staged, entirely in the old Russian manner. It is the art of such coup d'états that Trotsky is thinking of, and he understands them better than anyone else. His success does not prove that this is the way to socialism which the proletariat has to follow everywhere, but only that in many things Russia is still no further advanced than it was under Catherine II.

It is evidence of Trotsky's military cretinism that he imagines that you need only to know the manual for such insurrections to be able to produce them as you like, anywhere and at any time. If the world revolution has still not happened, this is evidently due to the fact that the manual is not ready yet.

He does not see that the success of the coup d'état in 1917 was due to conditions of a quite specific type which existed only in Russia at that time and which do not exist today in any country in the world, least of all in the capitalist world. It shows an incredible narrowness of vision to think that any lessons for the international proletariat can be gained from the arts of the October putsch of 1917.

Up to today, it still has not registered in Trotsky's consciousness what the real lessons to be drawn from this coup are. He thinks: "... for the study of the laws and methods of proletarian revolution there is, up to the present time, no more important and profound a source than our October experience" (p.14).[9] However, for him the proletarian revolution is identical with the "armed seizure of power".

Seizure of power by whom? By the proletariat? Trotsky himself holds that the Russian proletariat is incapable of maintaining state power. He speaks only of the "organisation of the proletarian vanguard" for the armed insurrection. By that he means the Communist Party. But this was itself split in October, as Trotsky shows. At that time, apart from Lenin and Trotsky, almost all the leaders of Bolshevism harboured doubts about the insurrection. So in the end the "proletarian revolution" is reduced to the seizure of power by the commanders of the vanguard: Lenin and Trotsky.

Was that why all the thinkers and fighters of Russian socialism from Chernyshevsky to Plekhanov struggled, and why all its countless martyrs shed their blood, in order to provide Lenin and Trotsky with absolute power? No, they wanted to free Russia and to establish the conditions there which would make it possible for the proletariat to develop the strength and maturity that would enable it to free itself.

In October 1917 the majority of the Bolsheviks themselves still knew that this was the task of the proletarian revolution, and for that reason they were against the seizure of power that Lenin and Trotsky planned; not because they were in general against the seizure of power by the proletariat, which would be a nonsense, but because they were against the type of seizure of power planned by those two men, since they foresaw that only evil could arise from this for Russia and for its proletariat, as is proved by statements quoted by Trotsky from Zinoviev, Lozovsky and others, the "experienced revolutionists, Old Bolsheviks" whom Trotsky accuses of having adopted an essentially social democratic position in this "most critical period" (p.76).[10]

It was the position that the entire socialist and revolutionary movement had adopted up until then. Only when they got their hands on power did those vacillating Bolsheviks forget, like so many victorious revolutionaries before them who became intoxicated with power, their own past and all knowledge of what inspired them when they themselves had to conduct difficult struggles against the existing power.

For Lenin and Trotsky, during the October days, it was basically a question only of personal power, not the seizure of power by the proletariat.

Trotsky repeatedly points out that Lenin at that time rightly said: Now or never. And, in point of fact, he may have been right in this if the aim was only to capture all power for Lenin. For that, the conditions were perhaps present only in the chaos of October 1917. Once this critical moment had passed, it would perhaps not have been possible again for Lenin to capture absolute power for himself. But from the standpoint of the seizure of power by the proletariat in October it would be ridiculous to say: "Now or never!" In all industrialised countries the proletariat must, along with the development of industry itself, inexorably gain in strength and maturity, and its eventual victory is assured. And this victory, which will arise from the struggles of countless millions, cannot depend on whether or not any single individual has caught the right moment for it.

Incidentally, what a contradiction it is, on the one hand, to say that in Russia there was only one special situation, a single moment, which would never be repeated, for the the insurrection that would capture power for the Communists, whereas, on the other hand, the right moment for the world revolution recurs constantly!

In 1917, on the basis of his utopianism, which it now turns out was as primitive as it was extreme, Lenin could still think that if only he conquered power everything would be won for the proletariat. He could just knock together the new society with a few heavy hammer blows.

But to believe today, after the experience of the last seven years, that the central problem of socialism consists only in the question of how one conquers power, without any consideration of the methods, the aims and the conditions of this conquest – to speak today of the lessons of the "October experiment" and only discuss the question of the military victory of one's own sect, or rather its high command, without the slightest reference to the economic and social conditions of that time, is to demonstrate an almost frightening military cretinism. The military are concerned only with defeating the enemy, destroying its resources and imposing on their own army the blind obedience of all subordinates. They are not concerned with anything more.

And that is exactly how Trotsky thinks today. It does not occur to him that it is necessary to examine whether those within his own ranks whom he accuses of being "social democrats", "Mensheviks" and "accomplices of the bourgeoisie" were perhaps fundamentally correct when they saw, in a coup d'état against fraternal socialist parties, a danger to the progress of Russia and its proletariat, even if today they are ashamed of the good sense they showed at that time. Perhaps today the facts speak a language which cannot be misunderstood and which clearly shows what a "blind alley", to use Veresaev's words,[11] Russia and its working classes have been led into by the "October experiment".

The present holders of power there still do not understand any of this. While they resort to contradictory methods, seeking to win the trust and confidence of capitalists and governments abroad in order to get hold of loans, and at the same time making propaganda for the overthrow of these governments and capitalists through the world revolution, they get ever deeper into the swamp.

Anyone who looks at things from an economic standpoint will find that the "October experiment" has by no means been a success. Militarily, however, it has succeeded. Every opponent inside Russia has been defeated, and the blind obedience of subordinates has been fully imposed, not only among the general population but also in the Red Army and the Communist Party itself.

And today Trotsky will nevertheless no longer think quite so favourably of the "October experiment" as he did a few months ago, when he wrote his latest works. And he may perhaps discover some lessons in this experiment which have hitherto eluded him.

For him, the central problem during the October days was the seizure of power, of personal power. It appears to have been a complete success: Lenin and Trotsky became autocrats to whom everyone submitted. Trotsky himself made the greatest contribution to the construction of that terrible apparatus of domination whose machinery crushes anyone that is prepared to defy the ruling elite. But lo and behold! Because of purely personal differences, or so it would seem, the worshipper of power comes into conflict with his colleagues who, after Lenin's withdrawal from the affairs of government, have made themselves at home at the head of the state, and he himself is then seized by this merciless machinery. To such perfect working order has he brought it. What a success! What was for him the means to total power has condemned him to complete powerlessness. His "arts" have thus brought power to those whom he himself criticises as "Mensheviks" and "opportunists". And therefore also as robbers and murderers!

Perhaps Trotsky will now begin to think a little less contemptuously of democracy.

That a man like Trotsky, who for all his weaknesses nevertheless stands head and shoulders above his Bolshevik opponents and who has done so much for their state apparatus, should be disposed of so rapidly and so easily is most surprising. That Patroclus and even Achilles should fall and Thersites return has of course often occurred in history; and it has not infrequently happened that in a duel between Thersites and Achilles the former has won by some dirty trick.[12] But that Achilles should challenge Thersites to a duel and at the first sign of resistance lay down his arms without a fight – that has hardly any precedent in history. And just as rarely has it occurred that, if Achilles is banished, the whole army of his comrades who have fought beside him lines up almost unanimously behind Thersites and enthusiastically agrees. This phenomenon is a serious symptom of the inner weakness of Bolshevism. It appears so serious because it is perhaps the most prominent example, but it is in no way the only one of its kind. In a social structure as decayed as Soviet Russia, conflicts between members of the ruling caste are inevitable. But until now every attempt by a former champion of the Communist Party to raise criticisms of the government has ended with the critic being transferred to some sinecure and condemned to silence. And each of them has quietly accepted this.

That shows that not only has the Medusa's head of the Terror and the Cheka petrified the mass of the population but it also seems to have killed off all independent life among those who hold it in their hands. It has transformed the champions of the ruling party itself into slaves and subservient creatures.

That is very convenient for the existing rulers, as long as everything goes smoothly. But so much the worse for the regime if it enters into a crisis that threatens its existence. Then it will look around in vain for defenders. Does anyone imagine that those who allow a Trotsky to fall without a word of opposition will risk their lives, if one day it should come to that, in order to save a Zinoviev?

The ease of Trotsky's suppression shows that the regiment of Bolshevism has very few men with backbone in its ranks. It is a colossus with feet of clay which can no longer survive any serious crisis, and which is moreover incapable of any regeneration from within. The first deep-going crisis that it meets must end in catastrophe for it.

Editorial notes

[1] Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol.11, p.79.

[2] Trotsky, The Lessons of October, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-25, 1975, p.247.

[3] Ibid., p.253. [Transcriber's Note: This quote was shortened in the original English translation].

[4] Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol.11, 1979, p.85.

[5] Ibid., pp.85-6. Kautsky's emphasis.

[6] Ibid., p.86. The translation has been amended.

[7] Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol.6, 1976, p.497.

[8] Trotsky, The Lessons of October, op.cit., pp.244-5.

[9] Ibid., p.203.

[10] Ibid., p.254.

[11] Presumably a reference to the Russian writer Vikenty Veresaev (1867-1945).

[12] Kautsky refers to characters and events in the Iliad, the Greek epic poem attributed to Homer.