Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 2

Can a Counter-Revolution or
a Revolution Be Made on Schedule?

September 23, 1923

“Of course it is not possible. Only trains travel on schedule, and even they don’t always arrive on time.”

Precision of thought is necessary in everything, and in questions of revolutionary strategy more than anywhere else. But since revolutions do not occur so very often, revolutionary concepts and ideas become encrusted with fat, become vague in outline, the questions are raised in a slipshod way, and are solved in the same manner.

Mussolini made his “revolution” (that is, his counter-revolution) according to a schedule, made publicly known beforehand. He was able to do this successfully because the Socialists failed to make the revolution when the time for it came. The Bulgarian Fascists accomplished their “revolution” through a military conspiracy. [1] All the dates were fixed and the roles assigned. The Spanish officer caste did exactly the same thing. [2] Counter-revolutionary overturns are almost always carried out along this pattern. They are usually synchronized with the moment when the disillusion of the masses in revolution or in democracy has taken the form of apathy and a favourable political situation has thus been created for an organized and technically prepared military coup, whose date is definitely fixed beforehand. Obviously, it is not possible to create artificially a political situation favourable for a reactionary coup, much less to bring it off at a fixed date. But when the basic elements of such a situation are at hand, then the leading party does, as we have seen, choose beforehand a favourable moment, and synchronizes accordingly its political, organizational, and technical forces, and – if it has not miscalculated – deals the victorious blow.

The bourgeoisie has not always made counter-revolutions. In the past it has also had occasion to make revolutions. Did it fix any definite dates for them? It would be quite interesting and in many respects instructive to investigate from this standpoint the development of the classic as well as of the epigone bourgeois revolutions (here is a topic for our young Marxist scholars!). But even without such a detailed investigation it is possible to establish the following fundamentals involved in this question.

The propertied and educated bourgeoisie, that is, precisely that section of the “people” which took power, did not make the revolution but waited until it was made. When the movement of the lower layers overflowed and when the old social order or political régime was overthrown, then power dropped almost automatically into the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie. The liberal scholars proclaimed such a revolution as “natural” and ineluctable and they compiled vast platitudes which were passed off as historical laws: revolution and counter-revolution (action and reaction – according to Kareyev [3] of blessed memory) were declared to be the natural products of historical evolution, and consequently beyond the power of men to produce arbitrarily, or arrange according to the calendar, and so forth. These “laws” have never yet prevented well prepared counter-revolutionary coups from being carried out. But way of compensation, the nebulousness of bourgeois-liberal thought finds its way, not infrequently, into the heads of revolutionists, causing great havoc and leading to injurious practices.

But even bourgeois revolutions have by no means invariably developed at every stage in accordance with the “natural” laws of liberal professors. Whenever petty-bourgeois, plebeian democracy overthrew liberalism, it did so by means of conspiracy and organized uprisings, fixed beforehand for definite dates. This was done by the Jacobins, the extreme left wing in the Great French Revolution. This is perfectly comprehensible. The liberal bourgeoisie (the French in 1789, the Russian in February 1917) can content itself with waiting for the mighty elemental mass movement and then at the last moment throw into the scales its wealth, its education, its connection with the state apparatus, and in this way seize the helm. Petty-bourgeois democracy, under similar circumstances, has to act differently: it possesses neither wealth, nor social influence, nor connections. It finds itself compelled to replace these by a carefully thought-out and minutely prepared plan for a revolutionary overturn. But a plan presupposes a definite orientation in point of time and therefore also the fixing of dates.

This applies all the more to the proletarian revolution. The Communist Party cannot adopt a waiting attitude in the face of the growing revolutionary movement of the proletariat. To do so is to adopt essentially the point of view of Menshevism. Mensheviks try to clamp a brake on the revolution so long as it is in process of development, they exploit its successes as soon as it is in any degree victorious, and they strive with might and main to keep it from being completed. The Communist Party cannot seize power by utilizing the revolutionary movement from the sidelines but only by means of a direct and immediate political, organizational and military-technical leadership of the revolutionary masses, both in the period of slow preparation as well as at the decisive moment of the overturn. Precisely for this reason the Communist Party has absolutely no use for the great liberal law according to which revolutions happen but are never made and therefore cannot be fixed for a specific date. From a spectator’s standpoint this law is correct, but from the standpoint of the leader this is a platitude and a vulgarity.

Let us imagine a country where the political conditions for the proletarian revolution are either completely mature or are obviously and distinctly maturing day by day. In such circumstances what should be the attitude of the Communist Party to the question of an uprising and of setting of date for it?

If the country is passing through a profound social crisis, when the contradictions become aggravated in the extreme, when the toiling masses are in constant ferment, when the party is obviously supported by an unquestionable majority of the toilers and, in consequence, by all the most active, class-conscious and self-sacrificing elements of the proletariat, then the task confronting the party – its only possible task under the circumstances – is to fix a definite time in the immediate future, a time in the course of which the favourable revolutionary situation cannot abruptly react against us, and then to concentrate every effort on the preparation of the blow, to subordinate the entire policy and organization to the military object in view, so that this blow is dealt with maximum power.

To consider not merely an imaginary country, let us take our own October revolution as an example. The country was in the throes of a great crisis, internal and international. The state apparatus was paralysed. The toilers streamed in ever greater numbers to the banners of our party. From the moment when the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and afterwards in the Moscow Soviet, our party was faced with the question – not of the struggle for power in general but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the soviets was to convene. Some members of our Central Committee, from the first, were of the opinion that the moment of the actual blow should be synchronized with the political moment of the soviet congress. Other members of the Central Committee feared that the bourgeoisie would have time to make its preparations by then and would be able to disperse the congress, they wanted the blow delivered at an earlier date. The Central Committee fixed the date of the armed uprising for October 15, at the latest. This decision was carried out with a deliberate postponement of ten days because the course of agitational and organizational preparations showed that an uprising independent of the soviet congress would have sown confusion among considerable layers of the working class who connected the idea of the seizure of power with the soviets, and not with the party and its secret organizations. On the other hand, it was perfectly clear that the bourgeoisie was already too much demoralized to be able to organize any serious resistance in the space of two or three weeks.

Thus, after our party had won the majority in the leading soviets, and had in this way secured the basic political premise for the seizure of power, we were faced with the stark necessity of fixing a calendar date for the decision of the military question. Before we had the majority, the organizational technical plan was of course bound to be more or less provisional and elastic. For us the gauge of our revolutionary influence was the soviets which had been created by the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries at the beginning of the revolution. And the soviets, on the other hand, furnished us with a political cover for our conspiratorial work; and afterwards, the soviet served as the organs of power after it had been actually seized.

What would our strategy have been if there had been no soviets? In that case, we obviously should have had to turn to other gauges of our revolutionary influence: the trade unions, the strikes, the street demonstrations, democratic elections of all kinds, and so forth. Although the soviets are the most accurate gauge of the actual activity of the masses during the revolutionary epoch, still without the existence of the soviets we would have been fully able to ascertain the precise moment at which the actual majority of the working class and of the toilers as a whole was on our side. Naturally at this moment we should have had to issue to the masses the slogan of the formation of soviets. But by doing so, we would have already transferred the whole question to the plane of military clashes, and consequently before we issued the slogan of forming soviets we should have had a thoroughly worked out plan for an armed uprising on a fixed date.

Once the majority of the toilers is on our side, or at least the majority in the decisive centres and provinces, the formation of soviets would be sure to follow our summons. The more backward cities and provinces would emulate the leading centres with more or less delays. We should then be faced with the political task of convening the soviet congress and with the military task of ensuring the transfer of power to this congress. Quite obviously these are only two aspects of one and the same problem.

Let us now imagine that our Central Committee, in the above-described situation, that is, in the absence of soviets, had met in a decisive session in the period when the masses had already begun to move spontaneously to our side but had not yet ensured us a clear and overwhelming majority. How should we then have laid out our plan of action? Would we schedule an uprising?

The answer to this may be adduced from the above. We should have said to ourselves: At the present moment we still do not possess a clear and undisputed majority; but the swing among the masses is so great that the decisive and militant majority necessary for us is merely a matter of the next few weeks. Let us assume it will take approximately a month to win over the majority of the workers in Petrograd, in Moscow and in the Donets basin; let us set ourselves this task and concentrate the necessary forces in these centres. As soon as the majority has been gained – and we shall ascertain in action if this be the case after a month has elapsed – we shall summon the toilers to form soviets. For this, Petrograd, Moscow and the Donets basin would not require more than a week or two; it may be calculated with certainty that the remaining cities and provinces will follow the example of the main centres within the next two or three weeks. Thus the creation of a network of the soviets would require about a month. After soviets have been formed in the important provinces, in which we have of course the majority, we shall convene an All-Russian Soviet Congress. We shall require an additional two weeks to assemble this congress. We have, therefore, two and a half months at our disposal before the congress. In the course of this time the seizure of power must not only be prepared, but actually accomplished. We should accordingly place before our military organization a program allowing it two months, at most two and a half, for the preparation of the uprising in Petrograd, in Moscow, on the railways, and so on. I use here the conditional tense (we should have decided, we should have done this and that) because in reality, although our operations were by no means unskilful, still they were by no means so systematic, not because we were in any way disturbed by “historic laws” but because we were carrying out the proletarian uprising for the first time.

But are not miscalculations likely to occur by this method? Seizure of power means war, and in war there can be defeats as well as victories. But the systematic course here described is the best and most direct road to the goal, that is, it enhances the chances of victory to the maximum. Thus, for instance, should it have turned out, a month after the decisive Central Committee session in our foregoing example, that we had not yet the majority of the toilers on our side, then we would not, of course, have issued the slogan calling for the formation of soviets, for in this case the slogan would have miscarried (in our example we assume that the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks are against the soviets). And had the reverse been the case, and we had found a decisive and militant majority on our side, say, within two weeks, then this would have abridged our plan and moved up the decisive moment of the uprising. The very same thing applies to the second and third stages of our plan: the formation of soviets and the convocation of the soviet congress. We should not have issued the slogan of the soviet congress until we had secured, as I have said, the actual formation of soviets in the most important centres. In this way the realization of each successive stage in our plan is prepared and secured by the fulfilment of antecedent stages. The work of military preparation proceeds parallel with all the other work according to a rigid schedule. Therewith the party retains throughout absolute control of its military apparatus. To be sure, there is always a great deal that is entirely unforeseen, unexpected and spontaneous in the revolution; and we must of course make allowances for the occurrence of all such “accidents” and adjust ourselves to them; but we can do this with greater success and certainty if our conspiratorial plan is thoroughly worked out beforehand.

Revolution possesses a mighty power of improvisation, but it never improvises anything good for fatalists, bystanders, and fools. Victory comes from the correct political evaluation, from correct organization and from the will to deal the decisive blow.

Published in Pravda, September 23, 1923


1. The Bulgarian coup was carried out by the Bulgar reactionaries in the summer of 1923. The coup had been a long time in preparation and its success was assured by the vacillation and indecision by Stambulisky’s Peasant Party.

2. The coup in Spain, which placed Primo de Rivera in power, was carried out on September 13, 1923.

3. Kareyev was a Czarist academician and historian who belonged to the subjective sociological school of Lavrov. Karayev contributed to populist and liberal periodicals, devoting many of his articles to a polemic against the Russian Marxists, who heaped deserved ridicule upon him.

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Last updated on: 18.1.2007