Andrew Rothstein

Trotsky on the Russian Revolution

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 15, December 1933, No. 12
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE political struggle has a logic all its own. A man may be an adept at walking the tight-rope. He may strain every nerve in doing so, and be entirely successful in avoiding a fall either to one side of the arena or the other. But in the class struggle man cannot walk the tight rope. The more he tries, the more obvious it becomes that he is on one side and not the other.

Something like this has happened to Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution. For all his pretensions that it is “an honest study of the facts, determination of their real connections,” his book is none the less—or all the more—a bulky, three-volume pamphlet against Leninism, and above all against Lenin’s Party. It would indeed be strange were matters otherwise, when a man fought Lenin’s Party, off and on, from 1903 to 1917, and again from 1927 (to take only the date of his formal expulsion) up to the present day.

From the introduction onwards, when we learn (Vol. I, page 16) that social-democratic (i.e., revolutionary) criticism of Tsardom before the revolution was “nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure,” Trotsky’s monstrous idea of what constitutes a revolutionary Party of the working class is only equalled by his contempt for the one he had to deal with in Russia. This makes his book of great value to those reformist leaders, particularly in the I.L.P., who are now moving heaven and earth to restrain the revolutionary rank and file from joining forces with the Communist Party in this country. No wonder these leaders advertise Trotsky’s books and use his language at every convenient opportunity.

Trotsky’s mantle casts the glamour of revolutionary experience (even that of a renegade who declares that it is not socialism which the U.S.S.R. is building) over I.L.P. attacks on the revolutionary Party of the British working class—for the most part in exactly the same language that Trotsky used for many years about Lenin’s Party.

The amazing description of the rôle of a revolutionary Party in prerevolutionary times, just quoted, is no slip of the pen. Trotsky quotes without a tremor the secret police report on the Bolsheviks just before the war. “The most energetic and audacious element, ready for tireless struggle, for resistance and continual organisation.” But he abstains from giving even elementary flesh and blood to this bare skeleton—from drawing even a summary picture of the actual Bolshevik Party, in its cells, district committees and Central Committee, struggling, resisting and organising. Why? For a very good reason.

During these same years Trotsky was bitterly fighting the Bolshevik policy and working frenziedly for the liquidation of their organisation. This bitter fight went on from 1903 to 1913, in which latter year his attitude was well summed up in his own letter to the Menshevik leader, Chkheidze (April, 1913): “What a senseless incitement seems the rotten discord which is systematically excited by the specialist in such work, Lenin, that professional exploiter of everything backward in the Russian Labour movement . . . Lenin has made Pravda the implement of sectarian intrigue and unprincipled corruption . . . Lenin has to play systematically at hide-and-seek with his readers, talking of unity from below and making a split above, representing conceptions of the class struggle in terms of sect and faction. In short, the whole structure of Leninism to-day is built up on lies and distortions, and contains the poisonous seed of its own decay.” And Trotsky called for the wiping out of all “factional” differences, i.e., the uniting of all groups of the Social-Democrats, opportunist and revolutionary, irrespective of their policy. Trotsky himself described his purpose as “the destruction of the very foundations of Leninism, which is not compatible with the organisation of the workers into a political party, but flourishes magnificently on the dung of factional differences.”

Not only did Trotsky declare himself in this sense, but he worked for it too. And it is not accidental that the chronological table at the end of volume I, which comes from the pen of Trotsky’s “distinguished translator” and disciple, Max Eastman,1 omits (i) the foundation of the Social Democratic Party in 1898; (ii) the all-important Second Congress of the Party in 1903, at which the Bolsheviks split from the Mensheviks (including Trotsky); (iii) the “August Bloc” of all the Menshevik elements which Trotsky organised to fight the Bolsheviks in August, 1912; (iv) the historic revolutionary manifesto against the war published under Lenin’s direction by the Bolsheviks in September, 1914. For the Trotskyists the long years of relentless struggle for the Party, building it up group by group, hammering out its policy step by step, in incessant battle not only against the police but also against opportunism in all its forms (including Trotsky), don’t count—they are merely “a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction,” at best “sectarian” prehistory.

So when the war came, with its natural disorganisation of the revolutionary movement, at first Trotsky sees only “a dreadful desolation in the underground movement,” in which “only scattered groups, circles and solitary individuals did anything” (p. 60). That “only” is a political autobiography in itself. Trotsky does not suspect—or suspecting, he hides—that it was Lenin’s battle for a revolutionary illegal Parry, mercilessly fighting opportunism on all fronts during those previous years of “the dung of factional differences” which alone made it certain that, however much the Tsar’s police arrested, seized, broke up, of the machinery and the leadership, the class conscious workers always built up a new Party organisation around even a single Leninist, and sometimes even without him. That is why the police report which Trotsky himself quotes, without apparently understanding, speaks of the revolutionary activity of the Leninists leading to strikes and disorders, in all the larger centres “since the beginning of the war.” Nothing else could happen, after 10 years of Bolshevik work.

It is essential to understand this. At the present time so-called “Socialists” are glibly talking of the “crushing” of the working class movement in Germany by the bourgeois White Terror, and blaming its “break up” on the German Bolsheviks, while paying lip service to the splendid fighters against Hitler who have made their appearance all over the country. They hide from the workers—just as Trotsky does in his History—that the fighters have been schooled and inspired by the relentless fight of the German Communists in previous years.

So again when Trotsky comes to the revolution of March, 1917. The rôle of the Bolsheviks, so eloquently attested by the secret reports of the police to their superiors, is reduced by him to the very barest minimum, frequently to vanishing point. He speaks of the great political strikes at Petrograd in October, 1916, with a passing reference to “Bolshevik leaflets distributed”—ignoring the manifesto of the Petrograd Bolshevik Committee and its three days’ discussion at many factories which launched the first strike of 60,000 workers and the similar lead which led to the second strike of double the size. He refers to the 575,000 strikers of January and February, 1917, the 150,000 who struck at Petrograd on January 9th (“Bloody Sunday”) the continuous strikes in February, the 90,000 who struck on February 14 on the day the Duma opened—and completely ignores (apart from a passing reference) the intense Party work which lay behind these strikes, backed by the tremendous prestige of the “Leninists” which even the police recognised. It was expressed in the existence of no less than 15 sub-district committees, with live connections in scores of factories, and numerous illegal leaflets which called the strikes referred to (Fleer: “the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks in the War Years”).

No wonder, after the foregoing, that Trotsky describes the actual mass movements which began the revolution, from February 23 onwards, as an initiative “taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat, the women textile workers” (p. 120). Again and again he underlines this point, declaring that two days later, when the Petrograd Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee called for an All Russian General Strike, they were “watching the movement from above . . . they did not lead” (p. 129); and “the masses had almost no leadership from above” (p. 135). He even discovers that the Vyborg subdistrict committee was “opposing strikes,” because it was against action on that particular day, February 23.

What are the facts? The facts are that the Bolshevik Party of course did not “launch” the revolution against absolutism. The first strikes at some factories on February 23 may or may not have been started by members of the Bolshevik Party. But neither these nor the other strikes would have played the part they did but for the immense work of the Bolsheviks in the preparatory period—the 480 strikes at Petrograd with 500,000 participators between July, 1915, and December, 1916: of these, over 250, with 350,000 strikers, political, for the most part led by the Bolsheviks: the minimum figure of 87 leaflets and other publications in not less than 300,000 copies, issued illegally in the factories and barracks of Petrograd by the Bolsheviks during the war period: the contacts with dozens of works and factories already mentioned.

In point of fact, however, in its manifesto shortly after February 14, the Petrograd committee for the first time declared that “the time for open struggle has arrived” and called for fraternisation with the soldiers as well as for strikes. And the immediate response came, not from the women textile workers as Trotsky alleges, but from one of the Bolshevik strongholds—the giant Putilov Works, 30,000 strong, where a stay-in strike on February 18 was countered with a threat of a general lockout on February 20. The workers at mass meetings in the shops on February 21 refused to surrender, the state controlled management closed down the works on February 22, and 80,000 workers of Petrograd poured into the streets the next day in support of the Putilov Works. The next day they were 200,000. This movement of the biggest detachment of the Petrograd proletariat, one to whom that proletariat was accustomed to turn for a lead, “escaped the notice” of Trotsky.

Only much further on in the book (pp. 167-8), he admits grudgingly that “the mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing.” But even so he goes no further than to refer to the revolutionary experiences of the masses, and to “scattered workers . . . capable of making revolutionary inferences” and “progressive soldiers seized, or at least touched, in the past by revolutionary propaganda.” But what workers; where did they come from; from whom did they learn; what inferences; who “touched” the soldiers? At long last, very cautiously, we learn in one sentence (p. 169) that they were “educated for the most part by the Party of Lenin.” That this is an afterthought is shown by its total lack of connection with anything that went before it. The party of Lenin, up to that point, has been scarcely more, in Trotsky’s representation, than a vague shape in the background which gave little leadership. And no wonder. If Trotsky said more, he would have to reveal that Lenin’s party educated them for years in a life-and-death struggle against the Trotsky-Menshevik alliance!

Of course, Trotsky makes great play with the wavering and confusion in the Bolshevik leadership, during the first month after the March Revolution, singling out Stalin in particular. These waverings have never been concealed by the Bolshevik Party. Lenin’s writings on the subject were republished in his collected works, while Stalin recalled his own mistakes as early as 1924, when Trotsky first resumed his attacks on the Party which had been interrupted or restrained since 1917. It is amusing, however, to see Trotsky attacking Stalin for his shortlived advocacy in March, 1917, of a union of Bolsheviks and internationalist Mensheviks (p. 317) on the ground that thereby he was sweeping aside Lenin’s wartime struggle “against social-patriotism and its pacifist disguise.” For all through the war Trotsky had been specifically attacked by Lenin for his refusal to break with these very Mensheviks, i.e., “social-patriots in pacifist disguise.” Lenin called Trotsky’s group “lackeys of opportunism abroad” (1915) and “waverers even more dangerous than the social patriots” (1917). While Trotsky, on these very grounds, was attacking Lenin’s “policy of group selection and sectarian intolerance” (No. 146 of his paper, Nashe Slovo).

And in the present volume itself. Trotsky gives every kind of psychological explanation of Menshevism except that of bourgeois elements in the ranks of the proletariat (pp. 185-7). He represents their pre-revolutionary rôle as that of putting the bourgeoisie “in touch with the more moderate upper layers of the workers, those with a tendency towards legal activity around the Duma and in the trade unions” (p. 237), a typically vulgarised apportioning of functions between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (as though the Bolsheviks also did not “tend” to legal activity in these institutions), which slurs over the fact that the Bolsheviks did so with a revolutionary, and the Mensheviks with an opportunist, purpose. Trotsky actually declares, in black and white (p. 239) that the bloc of the Menshevik leaders of the Petrograd Soviet with the big industrialists of the Provisional Government, after the March Revolution, “meant their break with the proletarian movement.” So that, prior to 1917, the Mensheviks were part of the proletarian movement, according to Trotsky of 1932! And this individual has the assurance to proclaim himself the “defender” of Lenin against his unworthy followers.

But apologies for and whitewashing of the Mensheviks’ anti-revolutionary rôle are a natural and inevitable complement of Trotsky’s systematic concealment and depreciation of the importance of the Bolshevik party organisation. One may note in passing that Trotsky, after flagellating Stalin to his heart’s content, cleverly passes over the fact that the majority decision on the question of unity (adopted before Lenin’s arrival) was that it was possible only with those Mensheviks who held a genuinely anti-“patriotic” standpoint, and that in any case the Bolsheviks would only go into the forthcoming meeting with the Mensheviks unofficially and for information purposes (Proletarskaya Revolutsia, No. 63, p. 155). The lordly Trotsky, as ever, knows only leaders: all the rest and the Party organisation as a whole may pass their resolutions if they please—they remain mere cyphers, “the dung of factional differences.” And even long after Lenin’s arrival, we learn, the party only “finally fell into step” with the workers (p. 368) in October—when, as Trotsky is too modest to recall, he had become one of the Party leaders.

One curious detail of this policy of never representing the Party as something vertebrate, alive, fighting and radiating energy: Trotsky even contrives to suggest that the enormous growth of the Party in membership and influence, from 12,000 in March to 240,000 in September, was something spontaneous. On pp. 430-1 we learn that “the Putilov workers had gone over to the Bolsheviks . . . the growth of the class struggle almost automatically raised the influence of the Bolsheviks . . . the factory and shop committees went over to the Bolsheviks much sooner than the Soviet . . . in the fundamental questions of economic life the Petrograd proletariat . . . had gone over to the Bolsheviks . . . The influence of the Bolsheviks in the metal workers’ union had grown still more swiftly,” etc. If the phrase had occurred once or twice there would have been no special meaning in it, but repeated so persistently, and in the light of all that goes before, its special meaning is unmistakable. Trotsky implies that the Bolsheviks were not a fighting organisation, alive at every point from Lenin to the remotest cell, which battled for its new members and won them from the enemy, but a revolutionary shadow which the enlightened workers at a certain stage (coinciding, so it happens, with the time when Trotsky at last came in) were good enough to clothe in flesh and blood. The history of the Bolshevik Party, in other words, began in 1917. The truth is the very opposite, as every factory in Leningrad could tell: but Trotsky’s objective does not coincide with the truth.

Up to the moment of Trotsky’s entry into the Bolshevik Party in July, 1917, this picture of the Party holds good. At the beginning of July the famous armed demonstration of the Petrograd workers and soldiers, known to history as the “July days,” took place. Then (to quote Lenin), out of the growing fury of the masses at the renewal of the Imperialist war by their “revolutionary” government, “followed the explosion of their anger—an explosion which the Bolsheviks tried to restrain, and to which they naturally had to try and impart the most organised form possible” (Lessons of the Revolution, July, 1917). The measures which the Kerensky Government took against the militant workers, on that occasion, opened a new and decisive chapter in the history of the Revolution.

Trotsky’s one concern in his second volume—devoted almost entirely to the preparation and the aftermath of the July days—is to show once again how the Party was not merely failing to lead the masses, but even distrusted by them. Again and again this theme recurs, like a haunting refrain. “Even broad circles of the Party were beginning to lose patience. . . . ‘Why don’t they get busy up there?’ the soldiers and sailors would ask, having in mind not only the compromise leaders but also the governing bodies of the Bolsheviks (p. 19). . . . ‘We have to play the part of a firehose,’ said a Vyborg Bolshevik (p. 21). . . . The masses did feel that the Party was irresolute (p. 26).... The Bolsheviks were caught up by the movement and dragged into it (p. 29). . . . The workers and soldiers had not yet acquired the conviction that they ought to come out only upon the summons of the Party and under its leadership. The experiences of February and April had taught them rather the opposite (p. 74). . . . From their mighty mass movement the political axis had been torn out (p. 76).” And so on, without end.

The political contradictions involved in this tangle of sham analysis are innumerable. If the “political axis” could be torn out from the mass movement by the betrayal of the opportunist parties—the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries—how could they be at the same time rising in revolutionary impatience against the Bolshevik leadership? And particularly, if the Party, they left, was “irresolute.” If the experience of February and April had taught them not to follow the lead of the Party, while in July the Bolsheviks had to be “dragged” into the movement, how was it that the July days were—after a brief period of White Terror—followed by an unexampled growth of confidence in the Bolsheviks? Experience in other lands (the German Communists in 1923, for example), teaches that, if a revolutionary party at critical times lags behind the masses for a few weeks, let alone months, it forfeits their confidence for years to come. But, according to Trotsky, this didn’t happen. On the contrary, he suddenly makes a somersault and announces, in imitation of Lenin (p. 79), that the Bolsheviks were nevertheless right in not making a revolution—the masses were not yet clear and homogeneous enough!

The difference between the Bolshevik Party and the Trotskyist understanding of the masses was never clearer, by the way, than on this point. So far from agreeing with Trotsky’s estimate of the Party’s position at the time, Lenin, on the contrary, wrote that “the Bolshevik organisation alone had moral authority in the eyes of the masses, and induced them to renounce violence. . . . Our party did its revolutionary duty, moving together with the justly indignant masses on July 4” (A Reply, July 26-27, 1917). Again, Trotsky (forgetting his own earlier remarks on the impatience of the masses), writes in the best “blood and iron” style that “the workers and soldiers could not understand (the need for a new revolution). . . . The front and the provinces needed time to make their own inferences from the adventure of the offensive. . . . The Petrograd workers and soldiers had to test the situation with their own experience. . . . The offensive must be given time to exhaust itself” (pp. 87-89)

They had to be taught by hard knocks, says this dispassionate arbiter from the heights of Olympus. Whereas Lenin—while agreeing that the situation in any case was not ripe for an insurrection—points out that the main point is quite a different one: “On July 4, there was still possible a peaceful transference of power to the Soviets, there was still possible a peaceful development of the Russian Revolution. . . . The movement of July 3-4, was the last attempt by means of a demonstration to impel the Soviets to take power” (A Reply). “Precisely before July 4, the slogan of transference of power to the existing Soviets was the only correct one. Then it was possible peacefully, without civil war, for then there were not the systematic acts of violence against the people, introduced after July 4. . . . After July 4, the transference of power to the Soviets became impossible without civil war, since power from July 4-5 passed to the military Bonapartist clique, supported by the Cadets and Black Hundreds.” (They Don’t See the Wood far the Trees, August 19, 1917.)

Trotsky mentions this view of Lenin’s, as he mentions everything, but, in true opportunist fashion, without connecting up events and conclusions. On the contrary, Trotsky makes it quite clear in another connection that he does not agree with this estimate of July 4. Whereas Lenin was most insistent that “the Kerensky ministry is undoubtedly a ministry of the first steps of Bonapartism” (July 29), that “power passed on the 4-5 of July to the military Bonapartist clique” (August 19), and that “power has already been seized and consolidated by them” (September 1), Trotsky revolts against this view—which he carefully represents as Stalin’s (Vol. 2, p. 324)—asserting that in that case there would have been no necessity for the Monarchist General Kornilov to have resorted to insurrection shortly afterwards. That Lenin had already most inconveniently replied in advance to this very point—the Tsar was also in power after the crushing of the Bolshevik—led insurrection of December, 1905, but it took him two general elections before he felt strong enough to re-establish the full dictatorship—is of course of no consequence to Trotsky.

Why is it of consequence to us, however? Partly because it throws light on Trotsky’s differences with Lenin in his estimate of the character of the revolution itself. Lenin said, again and again, that the revolution had actually brought about in real life—and thereby had outgrown—the old Bolshevik slogan of “the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” (Works, English edition, Vol. XX., Part i, pp. 120, 125, 133, etc.). Trotsky, on the other hand, asserts that “the régime which issued from the February revolution . . . was a living and exhaustive proof of the fact that such a dictatorship was impossible” (Vol. I, p. 328-9). Lenin said that, owing to lack of organisation and class consciousness among the workers and peasants, which the Mensheviks made worse, the Soviet power was surrendering its authority to the capitalists (Works, Vol. XX, Part i, p. 116). Trotsky, by skilfully sliding from the revolutionary peasantry in particular to the petty-bourgeoisie in general, and from them to the petty-bourgeois parties—Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries—suggests that it was the peasantry (as part of the petty-bourgeoisie) which was “compelled to choose” between the proletariat and the capitalists, i.e., that the Mensheviks and S.R.’s really had no choice but to act as they did.

And, whereas Lenin insisted that the dual power thus created was “strikingly unique . . . unparalleled in history,” because the power of the Provisional Government rested on the support given to the big bourgeoisie by the second government—the Soviet, representing the workers and peasants—Trotsky “simplifies” dual power into “a temporary correlation of powers” through “dread of interference of a third force,” and professes to find numerous parallels in the English Revolution of the XVII. century and the French Revolution of the XVIII (Vol. I, pp. 223-7). Actually, the examples Trotsky quotes are the very opposite of Lenin’s definition: since they show alternative governments fighting for mastery, and not one ruling by grace of the opportunist controllers of the other, as in Russia.

That is quite natural. Trotsky’s whole purpose is to blur the distinction between the Russian Revolution and its predecessors. The distinction that not only were both the proletariat and the peasantry motive forces in the Revolution (Trotsky’s chapter on the peasantry in Vol. 3 is entirely disconnected with all that went before), but that the Soviets which they created were seized upon by the petty bourgeois parties and monstrously utilised as a footstool for continuing capitalist rule. Why should Trotsky blur over this fact? Because it confirmed the Bolshevik conception which Trotsky had fought against for years. The whole course of 1917, and particularly the rôle of the opportunist parties, were a ruthless condemnation of Trotsky’s own political creed and policy right up to 1917—and after it. After all, one cannot fight for half one’s political life for a bloc with the Mensheviks and against the Bolsheviks without committing oneself to an unpleasantly notorious extent.

Incidentally, it is not without significance that Trotsky passes very hastily over the question of how his own organisation—the “Mejrayontsi”—came at last to join the Bolsheviks in July, 1917. Half a page, with a declaration of his own, favouring fusion, quoted from Pravda, is, he thinks, quite enough (Vol. 2, p. 311). Why this coyness? For a simple reason revealed in the Review of the Lenin Institute (No. IV., published in 1925), where Lenin’s notes at the Mejrayontsi conference are reprinted. Trotsky at that Conference opposed immediate unity with the Bolsheviks, which Lenin had suggested; he declared that he could not call himself a Bolshevik, since “the Bolsheviks have debolshevised themselves”: and secured the rejection of Lenin’s proposals. Moreover, as late as the end of June, Trotsky was still paternally reproving (in strangely familiar terms!) the “difficulties in the way of unity due to Bolshevik habits of sectarianism” (Vperiod, No. 5).

Trotsky hides the facts about his own hankering after some bridge between opportunism and revolution—right up to the point when opportunism called in military dictatorship against the masses—for exactly the same reason that he does all in his power to belittle and discredit the revolutionary party, up to the moment he vouchsafed to confer his adherence upon it.

Trotsky’s “History” is much more an apologia of his past—and his present. To many people it may seem strange that one who played a not inconsiderable part in one stage of the revolution—from 1917 to 1923, should descend to counter-revolution. But the history of every revolution knows such cases. And we may safely refer such questioners—as well as those who, to-day also, attack the “exclusiveness” of the Communists, to the remark of Engels that “the movement of the proletariat inevitably passes through various stages of development: at every stage a section of the people stick fast and go no further.” Marx, on the same subject, observed that revolutions have a marvellous facility for throwing out their dross.



1. Eastman’s reputation received a final kick last month in the shape of a commendation from Postgate in the latter’s new “interpretation” of Karl Marx.