Leon Trotsky

The Lessons of October

Chapter 6
On the Eve of the October Revolution – the Aftermath

An emergency congress proved unnecessary. The pressure exerted by Lenin secured the requisite shift of forces to the left, both within the Central Committee and in our fraction in the Pre-Parliament. The Bolsheviks withdrew from it on October 10. In Petrograd the soviet clashed with the government over the order transferring to the front the part of the garrison which sympathized with the Bolsheviks. On October 16, the Revolutionary Military Committee was created, the legal soviet organ of insurrection. The right wing of the party sought to retard the development of events. The struggle of tendencies within the party, as well as the class struggle in the country, entered its decisive phase.

The position of the rights is best and most completely illumined in its principled aspects by a letter signed by Zinoviev and Kamenev and entitled On the Current Situation. The letter was written on October 11, that is, two weeks before the insurrection, and it was sent to the most important party organizations. The letter comes out in decisive opposition to the resolution for an armed insurrection adopted by the Central Committee. Cautioning against underestimating the enemy, while in reality monstrously underestimating the forces of revolution and even denying that the masses are in a mood for battle (two weeks before October 25!), the letter states:

“We are deeply convinced that to call at present for an armed uprising means to stake on one card not only the fate of our party but also the fate of the Russian and international revolution.”

But if the insurrection and the seizure of power are out of the question, what then? The answer in the letter is also quite plain and precise: “Through the army, through the workers, we hold a revolver at the temple of the bourgeoisie,” and because of this revolver the bourgeoisie will be unable to quash the Constituent Assembly.

“The chances of our party in the elections to the Constituent Assembly are excellent ... The influence of the Bolsheviks is increasing ... With correct tactics we can get a third and even more of the seats in the Constituent Assembly.”

Thus, this letter openly steers a course towards our playing the role of an “influential” opposition in a bourgeois Constituent Assembly. This purely social democratic course is superficially camouflaged by the following consideration: “The soviets, which have become rooted in life, cannot be destroyed. The Constituent Assembly will be able to find support for its revolutionary work only in the soviets. The Constituent Assembly plus the soviets that is that combined type of state institution towards which we are going.” It is of extraordinary interest with regard to characterizing the entire line of the rights that the theory of “combined” state forms, the correlation of the Constituent Assembly with the soviets, was reiterated in Germany a year and a half or two years later by Rudolf Hilferding, who also waged a struggle against the seizure of power by the proletariat. The Austro-German opportunist was unaware that he was plagiarizing.

The letter On the Current Situation refutes the assertion that the majority of the people in Russia were already supporting us, on the basis of a purely parliamentary estimate of this majority.

“In Russia a majority of the workers,” the letter states, “and a substantial part of the soldiers are with us. But all the rest is dubious. We are all convinced, for instance, that if elections to the Constituent Assembly were to take place now, a majority of the peasants would vote for the SRs. What is this, an accident?”

The above formulation of the question contains the principal and fundamental error, flowing from a failure to understand that the peasants might have strong revolutionary interests and an intense urge to realize them, but cannot have an independent political position. They might either vote for the bourgeoisie, by voting for its SR agency, or join in action with the proletariat. Which one of these two possibilities would materialize hinged precisely upon the policy we pursued. Had we gone to the Pre-Parliament in order to constitute an influential opposition (“a third and even more of the seats”) in the Constituent Assembly, then we would have almost automatically placed the peasantry in such a position as would have compelled it to seek the satisfaction of its interests through the Constituent Assembly; and, consequently, they would have looked not to the opposition but to the majority.

On the other hand, the seizure of power by the proletariat immediately created the revolutionary framework for the struggle of the peasantry against the landlords and the officials. To use the expressions so current among us on this question, this letter expresses simultaneously both an underestimation and an overestimation of the peasantry. It underestimates the revolutionary potential of the peasants (under a proletarian leadership!) and it overestimates their political independence. This twofold error of overestimating and at the same time underestimating the peasantry flows, in its turn, from an underestimation of our own class and its party – that is, from a social democratic approach to the proletariat. And this is not at all surprising. All shades of opportunism are, in the last analysis, reducible to an incorrect evaluation of the revolutionary forces and potential of the proletariat.

Objecting to the seizure of power, the letter tries to scare the party with the prospect of a revolutionary war. “The masses of the soldiers support us not because of the slogan of war, but because of the slogan of peace ... If having taken power at present by ourselves, we should come to the conclusion (in view of the whole world situation) that it is necessary to wage a revolutionary war, the masses of soldiers will rush away from us. The best part of the army youth will, of course, remain with us, but the masses of the soldiers will turn away.” This line of reasoning is most highly instructive. We have here the basic arguments in favor of signing the Brest-Litovsk peace [1]; in the present instance, however, they are being directed against the seizure of power. It is plain enough that the position expressed in the letter On the Current Situation later facilitated in the highest degree the acceptance of the Brest-Litovsk peace by those who supported the views expressed in the above letter. It remains for us to repeat here what we said in another place, namely, that the political genius of Lenin is characterized not by taking the temporary Brest-Litovsk capitulation as an isolated fact but only by considering Brest-Litovsk in combination with October. This must always be kept in mind.

The working class struggles and matures in the never-failing consciousness of the fact that the preponderance of forces lies on the side of the enemy. This preponderance manifests itself in daily life, at every step. The enemy possesses wealth and state power, all the means of exerting ideological pressure and all the instruments of repression. We become habituated to the idea that the preponderance of forces is on the enemy’s side; and this habitual thought enters as an integral part into the entire life and activity of the revolutionary party during the preparatory epoch. The consequences entailed by this or that careless or premature act serve each time as most cruel reminders of the enemy’s strength.

But a moment comes when this habit of regarding the enemy as stronger becomes the main obstacle on the road to victory. Today’s weakness of the bourgeoisie seems to be cloaked by the shadow of its strength of yesterday. “You underestimate the strength of the enemy!” This cry serves as the axis for the grouping of all elements opposed to the armed insurrection.

“But everyone who does not want merely to talk about uprising,” wrote the opponents of insurrection in our own country, two weeks before our victory, “must carefully weigh its chances. And here we consider it our duty to say that at the present moment it would be most harmful to underestimate the forces of our opponent and overestimate our own forces. The forces of the opponent are greater than they appear. Petrograd is decisive, and in Petrograd the enemies of the proletarian party have accumulated substantial forces: 5,000 military cadets, excellently armed, organized, anxious (because of their class position) and able to fight; also the staff, shock troops, Cossacks, a substantial part of the garrison, and very considerable artillery, which has taken up a position in fan-like formation around Petrograd. Then our adversaries will undoubtedly attempt, with the aid of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, to bring troops from the front.” [On the Current Situation]

In a civil war, to the extent that it is not a question of merely counting battalions beforehand but of drawing a rough balance of their state of consciousness, such an estimate can, of course, never prove completely satisfactory or adequate. Even Lenin estimated that the enemy had strong forces in Petrograd; and he proposed that the insurrection begin in Moscow where, as he thought, it might be carried out almost without bloodshed. Such partial mistakes of forecast are absolutely unavoidable even under the most favorable circumstances and it is always more correct to make plans in accordance with the less favorable conditions. But of interest to us in the given case is the fact that the enemy forces were monstrously overestimated and that all proportions were completely distorted at a time when the enemy was actually deprived of any armed force.

This question – as the experience of Germany proved – is of paramount importance. So long as the slogan of insurrection was approached by the leaders of the German Communist Party mainly, if not solely, from an agitational standpoint, they simply ignored the question of the armed forces at the disposal of the enemy (Reichswehr, fascist detachments, police, etc.). It seemed to them that the constantly rising revolutionary flood tide would automatically solve the military question. But when the task stared them in the face, the very same comrades who had previously treated the armed forces of the enemy as if they were nonexistent, went immediately to the other extreme. They placed implicit faith in all the statistics of the armed strength of the bourgeoisie, meticulously added to the latter the forces of the Reichswehr and the police; then they reduced the whole to a round number (half a million and more) and so obtained a compact mass force armed to the teeth and absolutely sufficient to paralyze their own efforts.

No doubt the forces of the German counterrevolution were much stronger numerically and, at any rate, better organized and prepared than our own Kornilovites and semi-Kornilovites. But so were the effective forces of the German revolution. The proletariat composes the overwhelming majority of the population in Germany. In our country, the question – at least during the initial stage – was decided by Petrograd and Moscow. In Germany, the insurrection would have immediately blazed in scores of mighty proletarian centers. On this arena, the armed forces of the enemy would not have seemed nearly as terrible as they did in statistical computations, expressed in round figures. In any case, we must categorically reject the tendentious calculations which were made, and which are still being made, after the debacle of the German October, in order to justify the policy that led to the debacle.

Our Russian example is of great significance in this connection. Two weeks prior to our bloodless victory in Petrograd – and we could have gained it even two weeks earlier – experienced party politicians saw arrayed against us the military cadets, anxious and able to fight, the shock troops, the Cossacks, a substantial part of the garrison, the artillery, in fan-like formation, and the troops arriving from the front. But in reality all this came to nothing: in round figures, zero. Now, let us imagine for a moment that the opponents of the insurrection had carried the day in our party and in the Central Committee. The part that leadership plays in a civil war is all too clear: in such a case the revolution would have been doomed beforehand – unless Lenin had appealed to the party against the Central Committee, which he was preparing to do, and in which he would undoubtedly have been successful. But, under similar conditions, not every party will have its Lenin ...

It is not difficult to imagine how history would have been written, had the line of evading the battle carried in the Central Committee. The official historians would, of course, have explained that an insurrection in October 1917 would have been sheer madness; and they would have furnished the reader with awe – inspiring statistical charts of the military cadets and Cossacks and shock troops and artillery, in fan-like formation, and army corps arriving from the front. Never tested in the fire of insurrection, these forces would have seemed immeasurably more terrible than they proved in action. Here is the lesson which must be burned into the consciousness of every revolutionist!

The persistent, tireless, and incessant pressure which Lenin exerted on the Central Committee throughout September and October arose from his constant fear lest we allow the propitious moment to slip away. All this is nonsense, replied the rights, our influence will continue to grow. Who was right? And what does it mean to lose the propitious moment? This question directly involves an issue on which the Bolshevik estimate of the ways and means of revolution comes into sharpest and clearest conflict with the social democratic, Menshevik estimate: the former being active, strategic, and practical through and through, while the latter is utterly permeated with fatalism.

What does it mean to lose the propitious moment? The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when the maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are, of course, referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself.

During revolution all these processes take place with lightning speed. The whole tactical art consists in this: that we seize the moment when the combination of circumstances is most favorable to us. The Kornilov uprising completely prepared such a combination. The masses, having lost confidence in the parties of the soviet majority, saw with their own eyes the danger of counterrevolution. They came to the conclusion that it was now up to the Bolsheviks to find a way out of the situation. Neither the elemental disintegration of the state power nor the elemental influx of the impatient and exacting confidence of the masses in the Bolsheviks could endure for a protracted period of time. The crisis had to be resolved one way or another. It is now or never! Lenin kept repeating.

The rights said in refutation:

“It would be a serious historical untruth to formulate the question of the transfer of power into the hands of the proletarian party in the terms: either now or never. No. The party of the proletariat will grow. Its program will become known to broader and broader masses ... And there is only one way in which the proletarian party can interrupt its successes, and that is if under present conditions it takes upon itself to initiate an uprising ... Against this perilous policy we raise our voice in warning.” [On the Current Situation]

This fatalistic optimism deserves most careful study. There is nothing national and certainly nothing individual about it. Only last year we witnessed the very same tendency in Germany. This passive fatalism is really only a cover for irresolution and even incapacity for action, but it camouflages itself with the consoling prognosis that we are, you know, growing more and more influential; as time goes on, our forces will continually increase. What a gross delusion! The strength of a revolutionary party increases only up to a certain moment, after which the process can turn into the very opposite. The hopes of the masses change into disillusionment as the result of the party’s passivity, while the enemy recovers from his panic and takes advantage of this disillusionment. We witnessed such a decisive turning point in Germany in October 1923. We were not so very far removed from a similar turn of events in Russia in the fall of 1917. For that, a delay of a few more weeks would perhaps have been enough. Lenin was right. It was now or never!

“But the decisive question” – and here the opponents of the insurrection brought forward their last and strongest argument – “is the sentiment among the workers and soldiers of the capital really such that they see salvation only in street fighting, that they are impatient to go into the streets? No. There is no such sentiment ... If among the great masses of the poor of the capital there were a militant sentiment burning to go into the streets, it might have served as a guarantee that an uprising initiated by them would draw in the biggest organizations (railroad unions, unions of postal and telegraph workers, etc.), where the influence of our party is weak. But since there is no such sentiment even in the factories and barracks, it would be a self-deception to build any plans on it.” [On the Current Situation]

These lines written on October 11 acquire an exceptional and most timely significance when we recall that the leading comrades in the German party, in their attempt to explain away their retreat last year without striking a blow, especially emphasized the reluctance of the masses to fight. But the very crux of the matter lies in the fact that a victorious insurrection becomes, generally speaking, most assured when the masses have had sufficient experience not to plunge headlong into the struggle but to wait and demand a resolute and capable fighting leadership. In October 1917, the working class masses, or at least their leading section, had already come to the firm conviction – on the basis of the experience of the April demonstration, the July days, and the Kornilov events – that neither isolated elemental protests nor reconnoitering operations were any longer on the agenda – but a decisive insurrection for the seizure of power. The mood of the masses correspondingly became more concentrated, more critical, and more profound.

The transition from an illusory, exuberant, elemental mood to a more critical and conscious frame of mind necessarily implies a pause in revolutionary continuity. Such a progressive crisis in the mood of the masses can be overcome only by a proper party policy, that is to say, above all by the genuine readiness and ability of the party to lead the insurrection of the proletariat. On the other hand, a party which carries on a protracted revolutionary agitation, tearing the masses away from the influence of the conciliationists, and then, after the confidence of the masses has been raised to the utmost, begins to vacillate, to split hairs, to hedge, and to temporize – such a party paralyzes the activity of the masses, sows disillusion and disintegration among them, and brings ruin to the revolution; but in return it provides itself with the ready excuse – after the debacle – that the masses were insufficiently active. This was precisely the course steered by the letter On the Current Situation. Luckily, our party under the leadership of Lenin was decisively able to liquidate such moods among the leaders. Because of this alone it was able to guide a victorious revolution.

We have characterized the nature of the political questions bound up with the preparation for the October Revolution, and we have attempted to clarify the gist of the differences that arose; and now it remains for us to trace briefly the most important moments of the internal party struggle during the last decisive weeks.

The resolution for an armed insurrection was adopted by the Central Committee on October 10. On October 11 the letter On the Current Situation, analyzed above, was sent out to the most important party organizations. On October 18, that is, a week before the revolution, Novaya Zhizn [New Life] published the letter of Kamenev.

“Not only Comrade Zinoviev and I,” we read in this letter, “but also a number of practical comrades think that to assume the initiative of an armed insurrection at the present moment, with the given correlation of forces, independently of and several days before the Congress of Soviets, is an inadmissible step ruinous to the proletariat and to the revolution.” [Novaya Zhizn, No.156, October 18, 1917]

On October 25 power was seized in Petrograd and the Soviet government was created.

On November 4, a number of responsible party members resigned from the Central Committee of the party and from the Council of People’s Commissars, and issued an ultimatum demanding the formation of a coalition government composed of all soviet parties.

“Otherwise,” they wrote, “the only course that remains is to maintain a purely Bolshevik government by means of political terror.” [2]

And, in another document, issued at the same time:

“We cannot assume any responsibility for this ruinous policy of the Central Committee which has been adopted contrary to the will of the great majority of the proletariat and the soldiers who are longing for the quickest possible cessation of bloodshed between the different sections of democracy. For this reason we resign from our posts in the Central Committee in order to avail ourselves of the right to express our candid opinions to the masses of workers and soldiers and summon them to support our cry: ‘Long live the government of all soviet parties!’ Immediate conciliation on this basis!” [The October Revolution, Archives of the Revolution 1917, pp.407-10]

Thus, those who had opposed the armed insurrection and the seizure of power as an adventure were demanding, after the victorious conclusion of the insurrection, that the power be restored to those parties against whom the proletariat had to struggle in order to conquer power. And why, indeed, was the victorious Bolshevik Party obliged to restore power to the Mensheviks and the SRs? (And it was precisely the restoration of power that was in question here!) To this the opposition replied:

“We consider that the creation of such a government is necessary for the sake of preventing further bloodshed, an imminent famine, the crushing of the revolution by Kaledin and his cohorts; and in order to insure the convocation of the Constituent Assembly and the actual carrying through of the program of peace adopted by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies.” [Ibid., pp.407-10]

In other words, it was a question of clearing a path for bourgeois parliamentarianism through the portals of the soviets. The revolution had refused to pass through the Pre-Parliament, and had to cut a channel for itself through October; therefore the task, as formulated by the opposition, consisted in saving the revolution from the dictatorship, with the help of the Mensheviks and the SRs, by diverting it into the channel of a bourgeois regime. What was in question here was the liquidation of October – no more, no less. Naturally, there could be no talk whatever of conciliation under such conditions.

On the next day, November 5, still another letter, along the same lines, was published.

“I cannot, in the name of party discipline, remain silent when in the face of common sense and the elemental movement of the masses, Marxists refuse to take into consideration objective conditions which imperiously dictate to us, under the threat of a catastrophe, conciliation with all the socialist parties ... I cannot, in the name of party discipline, submit to the cult of personal worship, and stake political conciliation with all socialist parties who agree to our basic demands, upon the inclusion of this or that individual in the ministry, nor am I willing for that reason to prolong the bloodshed even for a single minute.” [Rabochaya Gazeta (Workers’ Journal), No.204, Nov. 5, 1917]

The author of this letter (Lazovsky) ends by declaring it urgent to fight for an emergency party congress which would decide the question “whether the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks) will remain a Marxist working class party or whether it will finally adopt a course which has nothing in common with revolutionary Marxism.” [Ibid.]

The situation seemed perfectly hopeless. Not only the bourgeoisie and the landlords, not only the so-called “revolutionary democracy” who still retained the control of the leading bodies of many organizations (the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Railwaymen [Vikzhel], the army committees, the government employees, and so on) but also some of the most influential members of our own party, members of the Central Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars, were loud in their public condemnation of the party’s attempt to remain in power in order to carry out its program. The situation might have seemed hopeless, we repeat, if one looked only at the surface of events. What then remained? To acquiesce to the demands. of the opposition meant to liquidate October. In that case, we should not have achieved it in the first place. Only one course was left: to march ahead, relying upon the revolutionary will of the masses.

On November 7, Pravda carried the decisive declaration of the Central Committee of our party, written by Lenin, and permeated with real revolutionary fervor, expressed in clear, simple, and unmistakable formulations addressed to the rank and file of the party. This proclamation put an end to any doubt as to the future policy of the party and its Central Committee:

“Shame on all the faint-hearted, all the waverers and doubters, on all those who allowed themselves to be intimidated by the bourgeoisie or who have succumbed to the outcries of their direct and indirect supporters! There is not the slightest hesitation among the mass of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, Moscow, and other places. Our party stands solidly and firmly, as one man, in defense of Soviet power, in defense of the interests of all the working people, and first and foremost of the workers and poor peasants.” [CW, Vol.26, From the Central Committee of the RSDLP(B) to All Party Members and to All the Working Classes of Russia (November 5-6, 1917), pp.305-06]

The extremely acute party crisis was overcome. However, the internal party struggle did not yet cease. The main lines of the struggle still remained the same. But its political importance faded. We find most interesting evidence of this in a report made by Uritsky at a session of the Petrograd Committee of our party on December 12, on the subject of convening the Constituent Assembly.

“The disagreements within our party are not new. We have here the same tendency which manifested itself previously on the question of the insurrection. Some comrades are now of the opinion that the Constituent Assembly is the crowning work of the revolution. They base their position on the hook of etiquette. They say we must not act tactlessly, and so on. They object to the Bolsheviks, as members of the Constituent Assembly, deciding the date to convoke it, the relationship of forces in it, and so on. They look at things from a purely formal standpoint, leaving entirely out of consideration the fact that the exercise of this control is only a reflection of the events taking place outside the Constituent Assembly, and that with this consideration in mind we are able to outline our attitude toward the Constituent Assembly ... At the present time our point of view is that we are fighting for the interests of the proletariat and the poor peasantry, while a handful of comrades consider that we are making a bourgeois revolution which must be crowned by the Constituent Assembly.”

The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly may be considered as marking the close not only of a great chapter in the history of Russia, but of an equally important chapter in the history of our party. By overcoming the internal friction, the party of the proletariat not only conquered power but was able to maintain it.

Next Chapter


1. This treaty between Soviet Russia and Germany was signed on March 3, 1918.

2. The four Central Committee members who resigned were Kamenev, Zinoviev, Rykov and Nogin. Miliutin, teodorovich, Rykov and Nogin resigned as People’s commissars. Within a matter of weeks, however, they had backed down and asked to be reinstated.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007