Leon Trotsky

The Lessons of October

Chapter 2
The Democratic Dictatorship
of the Proletariat and Peasantry
– in February and October

The course and the outcome of the October Revolution dealt a relentless blow to the scholastic parody of Marxism which was very widespread among the Russian social democrats, beginning in part with the Emancipation of Labor Group [1] and finding its most finished expression among the Mensheviks. The essence of this pseudo-Marxism consisted in perverting Marx’s conditional and limited conception that “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” into an absolute and (to use Marx’s own expression) suprahistorical law; and then, in seeking to establish upon the basis of that law the tactics of the proletarian party. Such a formulation naturally excluded even the mention of any struggle on the part of the Russian proletariat for the seizure of power until the more highly developed countries had set a “precedent.”

There is, of course, no disputing that every backward country finds some traits of its own future in the history of advanced countries, but there cannot be any talk of a repetition of the development as a whole. On the contrary, the more capitalist economy acquired a world character, all the more strikingly original became the development of the backward countries, which had to necessarily combine elements of their backwardness with the latest achievements of capitalist development. In his preface to The Peasant War in Germany, Engels wrote: “At a certain point, which must not necessarily appear simultaneously and on the same stage of development everywhere, [the bourgeoisie] begins to note that this, its second self [the proletariat] has outgrown it.” [(Moscow 1965), p.13]

The course of historical development constrained the Russian bourgeoisie to make this observation much earlier and more completely than the bourgeoisie of all other countries. Lenin, even prior to 1905, gave expression to the peculiar character of the Russian revolution in the formula “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” This formula, in itself, as future development showed, could acquire meaning only as a stage toward the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry. Lenin’s formulation of the problem, revolutionary and dynamic through and through, was completely and irreconcilably counterpoised to the Menshevik pattern, according to which Russia could pretend only to a repetition of the history of the advanced nations, with the bourgeoisie in power and the social democrats in opposition. Some circles of our party, however, laid the stress not upon the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry in Lenin’s formula, but upon its democratic character as opposed to its socialist character. And, again, this could only mean that in Russia, a backward country, only a democratic revolution was conceivable. The socialist revolution was to begin in the West; and we could take to the road of socialism only in the wake of England, France, and Germany. But such a formulation of the question slipped inevitably into Menshevism, and this was fully revealed in 1917 when the tasks of the revolution were posed before us, not for prognosis but for decisive action.

Under the actual conditions of revolution, to hold a position of supporting democracy, pushed to its logical conclusion – opposing socialism as “being premature” – meant, in politics, to shift from a proletarian to a petty-bourgeois position. It meant going over to the position of the left wing of national revolution.

The February revolution, if considered by itself, was a bourgeois revolution. But as a bourgeois revolution it came too late and was devoid of any stability. Torn asunder by contradictions which immediately found their expression in dual power it had to either change into a direct prelude to the proletarian revolution – which is what usually did happen – or throw Russia back into a semicolonial existence, under some sort of bourgeois oligarchic regime. Consequently, the period following the February revolution could be regarded from two points of view: either as a period of consolidating, developing, or consummating the “democratic” revolution, or as a period of preparation for the proletarian revolution. The first point of view was held not only by the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries [SRs] but also by a certain section of our own party leadership, with this difference: that the latter really tried to push democratic revolution as far as possible to the left. But the method was essentially one and the same – to “exert pressure” on the ruling bourgeoisie, a “pressure” so calculated as to remain within the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime. If that policy had prevailed, the development of the revolution would have passed over the head of our party, and in the end the insurrection of the worker and peasant masses would have taken place without party leadership; in other words, we would have had a repetition of the July days [2] on a colossal scale, i.e., this time not as an episode but as a catastrophe.

It is perfectly obvious that the immediate consequence of such a catastrophe would have been the physical destruction of our party. This provides us wit’a measuring stick of how deep our differences of opinion were.

The influence of the Mensheviks and the SRS in the first period of the revolution was not, Of course, accidental. It reflected the preponderance of petty-bourgeois masses – mainly peasants – in the population, and the immaturity of the revolution itself. It was precisely that immaturity, amidst the extremely exceptional circumstances arising from the war, which placed in the hands of the petty-bourgeois revolutionists the leadership, or at least the semblance of leadership, which came to this: that they defended the historical rights of the bourgeoisie to power. But this does not in the least mean that the Russian revolution could have taken no course other than the one it did from February to October 1917. The latter course flowed not only from the relations between the classes but also from the temporary circumstances created by the war. Because of the war, the peasantry was organized and armed in an army of many millions. Before the proletariat succeeded in organizing itself under its own banner and taking the leadership of the rural masses, the petty-bourgeois revolutionists found a natural support in the peasant army, which was rebelling against the war. By the ponderous weight of this multi-millioned army upon which, after all, everything directly depended, the petty-bourgeois revolutionists brought pressure to bear on the workers and carried them along in the first period.

That the revolution might have taken a different course on the same class foundations is best of all demonstrated by the events immediately preceding the war. In July 1914 Petrograd was convulsed by revolutionary strikes. Matters had gone so far as open fighting in the streets. The absolute leadership of that movement was in the hands of the underground organization and the legal press of our party. Bolshevism was increasing its influence in a direct struggle against liquidationism and the petty-bourgeois parties generally. The further growth of the movement would have meant above all the growth of the Bolshevik Party. The soviets of workers’ deputies in 1914 – if developments had reached the stage of soviets – would probably have been Bolshevik from the outset. The awakening of the villages would have proceeded under the direct or indirect leadership of the city soviets, led by the Bolsheviks. This does not necessarily mean that the SRs would have immediately disappeared from the villages. No. In all probability the first stage of the peasant revolution would have occurred under the banner of the Narodniks [populists]. But with a development of events such as we have sketched, the Narodniks themselves would have been compelled to push their left wing to the fore, in order to seek an alliance with the Bolshevik soviets in the cities.

Of course, the immediate outcome of the insurrection would have depended, even in such a case, in the first instance upon the mood and conduct of the army, which was bound up with the peasantry. It is impossible and even superfluous to guess now whether the movement of 1914-15 would have led to victory had not the outbreak of the war forged a new and gigantic link in the chain of developments. Considerable evidence, however, may be adduced that had the victorious revolution unfolded along the course which began with the events in July 1914, the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy would, in all likelihood, have meant the immediate assumption of power by the revolutionary workers’ soviets, and the latter, through the medium of the left Narodniks, would (from the very outset!) have drawn the peasant masses within their orbit.

The war interrupted the unfolding revolutionary movement. It acted at first to retard but afterwards to accelerate it enormously. Through the medium of the multimillioned army, the war created an absolutely exceptional base, both socially and organizationally, for the petty-bourgeois parties. For the peculiarity of the peasantry consists precisely in the fact that despite their great numbers it is difficult to form the peasants into an organized base, even when they are imbued with a revolutionary spirit. Hoisting themselves on the shoulders of a ready’made organization, that is, the army, the petty – bourgeois parties overawed the proletariat and befogged it with defensism. [3]

That is why Lenin at once came out furiously against the old slogan of “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” which under the new circumstances meant the transformation of the Bolshevik Party into the left wing of the defensist bloc. For Lenin the main task was to lead the proletarian vanguard from the swamp of defensism out into the clear. Only on that condition could the proletariat at the next stage become the axis around which the toiling masses of the village would group themselves. But in that case what should our attitude be toward the democratic revolution, or rather toward the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry? Lenin was ruthless in refuting the “Old Bolsheviks” who

“more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality ... But one must measure up not to old formulas but to the new reality. Is this reality covered by Comrade Kamenev’s Old Bolshevik formula, which says that ‘the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed’?

“It is not,” Lenin answers. “The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.” [CW, (Moscow 1964), Vol.24, Letters on Tactics (April 8-13, 1917), pp.44-50]

To be sure, Lenin occasionally remarked that the soviets of workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies in the first period of the February revolution did, to a certain degree, embody the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. And this was true insofar as these soviets embodied power in general. But, as Lenin time and again explained, the soviets of the February period embodied only demi-power. They supported the power of the bourgeoisie while exercising semi-oppositionist “pressure” upon it. And it was precisely this intermediate position that did not permit them to transcend the framework of the democratic coalition of workers, peasants, and soldiers. In its form of rule, this coalition tended toward dictatorship to the extent that it did not rely upon regulated governmental relations but upon armed force and direct revolutionary supervision. However, it fell far short of an actual dictatorship.

The instability of the conciliationist soviets lay precisely in this democratic amorphousness of a demi-power coalition of workers, peasants, and soldiers. The soviets had to either disappear entirely or take real power into their hands. But they could take power not in the capacity of a democratic coalition of workers and peasants represented by different parties, but only as the dictatorship of the proletariat directed by a single party and drawing after it the peasant masses, beginning with their semi – proletarian sections. In other words, a democratic workers’ and peasants’ coalition could only take shape as an immature form of power incapable of attaining real power – it could take shape only as a tendency and not as a concrete fact. Any further movement toward the attainment of power inevitably had to explode the democratic shell, confront the majority of the peasantry with the necessity of following the workers, provide the proletariat with an opportunity to realize a class dictatorship, and thereby place on the agenda – along with a complete and ruthlessly radical democratization of social relations – a purely socialist invasion of the workers’ state into the sphere of capitalist property rights. Under such circumstances, whoever continued to cling to the formula of a “democratic dictatorship” in effect renounced power and led the revolution into a blind alley.

The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centered was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power. This alone is ample proof that we were not then dealing with a mere episodic difference of opinion but with two tendencies of the utmost principled significance. The first and principal tendency was proletarian and led to the road of world revolution. The other was “democratic,” i.e., petty bourgeois, and led, in the last analysis, to the subordination of proletarian policies to the requirements of bourgeois society in the process of reform. These two tendencies came into hostile conflict over every essential question that arose throughout the year 1917. It is precisely the revolutionary epoch – i.e., the epoch when the accumulated capital of the party is put in direct circulation – that must inevitably broach in action and reveal divergences of such a nature. These two tendencies, in greater or lesser degree, with more or less modification, will more than once manifest themselves during the revolutionary period in every country. If by Bolshevism – and we are stressing here its essential aspect – we understand such training, tempering, and organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand; and if by social democracy we are to understand the acceptance of reformist oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality – i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state; then, indeed, it is absolutely clear that even within the Communist Party itself, which does not emerge full – fledged from the crucible of history, the struggle between social democratic tendencies and Bolshevism is bound to reveal itself in its most clear, open, and uncamouflaged form during the immediate revolutionary period when the question of power is posed point-blank.

The problem of the conquest of power was put before the party only after April 4, that is, after the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd. But even after that moment, the political line of the party did not by any means acquire a unified and indivisible character, challenged by none. Despite the decisions of the April Conference in 1917, the opposition to the revolutionary course – sometimes hidden, sometimes open – pervaded the entire period of preparation.

The study of the trend of the disagreements between February and the consolidation of the October Revolution is not only of extraordinary theoretical importance, but of the utmost practical importance. In 1910 Lenin spoke of the disagreements at the Second Party Congress in 1903 as “anticipatory,” i.e., a forewarning. It is very important to trace these disagreements to their source, i.e., 1903, or even at an earlier time, say beginning with “Economism.” [4] But such a study acquires meaning only if it is came to its logical conclusion and if it covers the period in which these disagreements were submitted to the decisive test, that is to say, the October period.

We cannot, within the limits of this preface, undertake to deal exhaustively with all the stages of this struggle. But we consider it indispensable at least partially to fill up the deplorable gap in our literature with regard to the most important period in the development of our party.

As has already been said, the disagreements centered around the question of power. Generally speaking, this is the touchstone whereby the character of the revolutionary party (and of other parties as well) is determined.

There is an intimate connection between the question of power and the question of war which was posed and decided in this period. We propose to consider these questions in chronological order, taking the outstanding landmarks: the position of the party and of the party press in the first period after the overthrow of tsarism and prior to the arrival of Lenin; the struggle around Lenin’s theses; the April Conference; the aftermath of the July days; the Kornilov period; the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament; the question of the armed insurrection and seizure of power (September to October); and the question of a “homogeneous” socialist government.

The study of these disagreements will, we believe, enable us to draw deductions of considerable importance to other parties in the Communist International.

Next Chapter


1. The group was founded by Plekhanov and other Russian émigrés in Switzerland in 1883.

2. The July Days 1917 saw spontaneous mass demonstrations of armed workers and soldiers demanding an end to the Provisional Government and “All power to the soviets!” As a revolutionary movement it was premature. The leadership of the soviets had no intention of breaking with the Provisional Government. It was followed by a period of reaction and witch-hunt against the Bolsheviks.

3. That is, they called for support for the Provisional Government in continuing the war against Germany “in defense of the revolution.” After February 1917 this was also the position of a large part of the Bolshevik Party, including Pravda, of which Stalin was one of the editors. Leinin, on the other hand, argued that the war remained an imperialist war, waged by a bourgeois Provisional Government. He continued to argue for revolutionary defeatism.

4. The Economists held that the economic struggle of the working class was in itself sufficient to develop a mass movement and revolutionary leadership. They therefore played down the importance of the revolutionary party.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007