Leon Trotsky


Forming the Government

THE power in Petersburg was won. There it was a question of forming the government.

“What name shall we use?” Lenin considered aloud. “Not minister, that is a repulsive, worn-out designation.”

“We might say commissars,” I suggested, “but there are too many commissars now. Perhaps chief commissar ... No, ‘chief’ sounds bad. What about people’s commissars?”

“People’s Commissars? As for me, I like it. And the government as a whole?”

“Council of People’s Commissars?6#8221;

“Council of People’s Commissars,” Lenin repeated. “That is splendid. That smells of revolution.”

I remember this last expression literally. [1]

Behind the scenes tedious discussions went on with Wikshel, the Left Social Revolutionaries, and others. I can give little information on this subject. I only remember Lenin’s furious indignation at Wikshel’s shameless demands, and his no less furious indignation at those among us who were impressed by these demands. But we continued the discussions for, as things stood, we had to reckon with Wikshel.

At Comrade Kamenief’s initiative the law introduced by Kerensky about the death penalty for soldiers was repealed. I no longer remember exactly where Kamenief made this motion; but probably in the Revolutionary Military Committee and apparently on the very morning of the 25th of October. I remember that it occurred in my presence and that I made no objections. Lenin was not yet there. It was evidently before his arrival in Smolny. When he learned of this first legislative act his anger knew no bounds.

“That is madness,” he repeated. “How can we accomplish a revolution without shooting? Do you think you can settle with your enemies if you disarm? What repressive measures have you then? Imprisonment? Who pays any attention to that in a time of bourgeois war when every party hopes for victory?”

Kamenief tried to show that it was only a question of the repeal of the death penalty that Kerensky had introduced especially for deserting soldiers. But Lenin was not to be appeased. It was clear to him that this decree did not mean a cessation of the unheard of difficulties that we faced.

“It is a mistake,” he repeated, “an inadmissible weakness. Pacifist illusion ...” He proposed changing the decree at once. We told him this would make an extraordinarily unfavorable impression. Finally some one said: “the best thing is to resort to shooting only when there is no other way.” And it was left at that.

The bourgeois Social Revolutionary Menshevist press, from the first days after the revolution, formed a unanimous chorus of wolves, jackals, and mad dogs. The Novoe Vremya tried to strike a “loyal” tone and dropped its tail between its legs.

“Shall we not tame this pack?” Vladimir Ilyich asked at every opportunity. “For God’s sake, what kind of dictatorship is that!”

The newspapers had taken up especially the words “steal the stolen” and distorted it in all ways, in proverbs, poems and feuilletons.

“And now they won’t let go of this ‘steal the stolen’,” Lenin once said in comic despair.

“From whom did these words come?” I asked. “Or are they invented?”

“No, I once actually said them,” Lenin answered. “I said it and forgot it, and they have made a whole program out of it.” And he made a joking gesture.

Every one who knows anything about Lenin knows very well that one of his strongest sides was the ability to separate the essence of a thing from its form. But this does not contradict in any way the fact that he valued the form also extraordinarily, for he knew the power of the formal on the mind, and thereby changed the formal into the material. From the moment that the Provisional Government was overthrown Lenin officiated as the government in large things as well as small. – We had as yet no apparatus; connection with the country was lacking; the employees were on strike; Wikshel cut the telephone connection with Moscow; we had neither money nor an army. But Lenin took hold of absolutely everything by means of statutes, decrees, and commands in the name of the government. Naturally he was further removed than any one from a superstitious adherence to formal oaths. He had recognized too clearly that our power lay in the new state apparatus which was built up by the masses, by the Petrograd districts. But to combine the work coming from above, from the abandoned or wrecked government offices, with the productive work from below, this tone of formal energy was necessary, the tone of a government that to-day is a mere idea, but to-morrow or the day after will be the power and consequently must act to-day as the power. This formalism was also necessary to discipline our own brotherhood. Over the stormy element, over the revolutionary improvisations of the foremost proletarian groups, were gradually spun the threads of a government apparatus.

Lenin’s office and mine in Smolny were in opposite ends of the building. The corridor that connected us, or rather separated us, was so long that Vladimir Ilyich laughingly suggested establishing a bicycle connection. We were connected by telephone and sailors were constantly running in bringing important notices from Lenin. On little slips of paper were two or three expressive sentences, each categorically formulated, the most important words two or three times underlined, and at the end a question that was also direct to the point. Several times a day I went through the endless corridor, that resembled a bee-hive, to Vladimir Ilyich’s room. Military questions were the center of the conversations. The work for the Foreign Ministry I had left entirely to Comrades Markin and Salkind. I confined myself to drawing up a few agitatory notes and to seeing a few people.

The German attack presented the most difficult problems, which we had no means of solving, and also not the slightest idea how we should find these means, nor how we should create them. The draft written by me: The socialist fatherland is in danger, was discussed with the Left Social Revolutionaries. As recruits of internationalism the title of the appeal alarmed the latter. On the other hand Lenin thoroughly approved of it. “That shows at once the change, from our cessation to the defense of the fatherland, at 180 degrees. It is exactly what we need!” In one of the last points of the draft there was the question of the immediate execution of any one who gave assistance to the enemy. The Left Social Revolutionary Steinberg, whom a curious wind had driven into the revolution and even into the Council of People’s Commissars, raised objections to this severe threat as it destroyed the “pathos of the appeal.”

“On the contrary,” exclaimed Lenin, “just there lies the real revolutionary pathós (he displaced the accent ironically). Do you think we can be victors without the most severe revolutionary terror?”

That was the period when Lenin, at every passing opportunity, emphasized the absolute necessity of the terror. All signs of sentimentality, laziness, or indifference – and all these were present even though in an attenuated form – did not enrage him in and for themselves, but as a sign that even the heads of the workmen’s class did not yet sufficiently estimate the unheard – of difficulties of the problems, which could only be solved by measures of equally unheard – of energy.

“They,” said Lenin speaking of the enemy, “are faced by the danger of losing everything. And moreover they have hundreds of thousands of men who have gone through the school of war, sated, determined, officers ready for anything, ensigns, bourgeois, and heirs of land owners, police and well-to-do peasants. And there are, pardon the expression, ‘revolutionaries’ who imagine we should complete the revolution in love and kindness. Yes? Where did they go to school? What do they understand by dictatorship? What will become of a dictatorship if one is a weakling?”

We heard such tirades from him a dozen times a day and they were always aimed at some one among those present who was suspected of “pacifism.” Lenin let no opportunity pass, when they spoke in his presence of the revolution and the dictatorship, particularly if this happened at the meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars, or in the presence of the Left Social Revolutionaries or hesitating Communists, of remarking: “Where have we a dictatorship? Show it to me. It is confusion we have, but no dictatorship.”

The word “confusion” he was very fond of.

“If we are not ready to shoot a saboteur and white guardist, what sort of big revolution is that? Just see how the bourgeois pack writes about us in the press! Where is there a dictatorship here? Nothing but talk and confusion ...” These speeches expressed his actual feeling, but at the same time they had a twofold end: according to his method Lenin hammered into the heads the consciousness that only unusually strong measures could save the revolution.

The weakness of the new state apparatus was most clearly manifest at the moment the Germans began the attack. “Yesterday we still sat firm in the saddle,” said Lenin when alone with me, “and to-day we are only holding fast to the mane. But it is also a lesson. And this lesson cannot fail to have an effect upon our cursed negligence. To create order and really to attack the thing, is what we must do, if we do not wish to be enslaved! It will be a very good lesson if ... if only the Germans, along with the Whites, do not succeed in overthrowing us.”

“Well,” Vladimir Ilyich once asked me quite unexpectedly, “if the White Guards kill you and me will Bucharin come to an understanding with Sverdlof?”

“Perhaps they will not kill us,” I answered jokingly.

“The devil knows,” said Lenin and began to laugh himself. With that the conversation ended.

In one of the rooms at Smolny the staff held its sessions. It was the most confused of all the institutions. One never knew who made the arrangements, who commanded, and what was proper. Here was introduced for the first time the question of the military specialists in its general form. We had had some experience in this direction already in a struggle with Krasnov when we made Colonel Muravief commanding officer and he, on his side, appointed Colonel Walden to conduct the operations before Pulkoy. Four sailors and a soldier were sent to Muravief with instructions to be on guard and not to take their hands from their revolvers. That was the origin of the system of the Commissars. To a certain extent this experience was also the basis of the formation of the Supreme War Council.

“Without severity to presuming and experienced military men we will not get out of this chaos,” I said to Vladimir Ilyich every time I had been to the staff.

“That is evidently right; but they will certainly make use of treachery.”

“We must appoint a commissar for each one.”

“You had better give them two,” Lenin exclaimed, “and strong ones. But it cannot be that we have no strong communists.”

Thus began the formation of the Supreme War Council.

The question of the transfer of the government to Moscow caused no little friction. It seemed to be a desertion of Petrograd, which had laid the cornerstone of the October revolution. The workmen would not understand it. Smolny had become the symbol of the Soviet power and now they propose to liquidate it, etc.

Lenin was literally beside himself and replied to these objections: “Can you cover the question of the fate of the revolution with that kind of sentimental stupidity? If the Germans at a single bound take possession of Petersburg with us within it, the revolution is lost. If on the other hand the government is in Moscow, then the fall of Petersburg would only mean a serious part blow. How is it possible that you do not see and comprehend that? Besides if we stay in Petersburg under the present conditions we increase its military danger and at the same time rouse the Germans to occupation of Petersburg. If on the contrary the government is in Moscow the temptation to take Petersburg is incomparably less. Is it any great advantage to occupy a hungry revolutionary city if this occupation does not decide the fate of the revolution and of peace? What is that stupid speech about the symbolic meaning of Smolny?

“Smolny is only Smolny because we are in it. And when we are in the Kremlin all their symbolism will be transferred to the Kremlin.”

Finally the opposition was conquered. The government moved to Moscow. I remained in Petersburg for some time, I believe, as the president of the Petersburg revolutionary committee. On my arrival in Moscow I encountered Vladimir Ilyich in the Kremlin, in the so-called Cavaliers’ wing. The “confusion,” that is the disorder and chaos, were no less here than in Smolny. Vladimir Ilyich scolded good-naturedly about the Muscovites who fought for precedence, and he drew the reins tighter, step by step.

The government, which was renewed rather often in its separate parts, developed a feverish work in decrees. Every session of the Council of People’s Commissars at first presented the picture of legislative improvisation on the greatest scale. Everything had to be begun at the beginning, had to be wrung from the ground. We could not offer “precedents,” for history knew of none. Even simple requests were made difficult by the lack of time. The questions came up in progression of revolutionary inquisitiveness, that is, in incredible chaos. Big and little were mingled most remarkably. Less important practical problems led to the most involved questions of principle. Not all, by no means all, the decrees were in harmony, and Lenin joked more than once, even openly, at the discords in our product of decrees. But in the end these contradictions, even if uncouth viewed from the practical tasks of the moment, were lost sight of in the work of revolutionary thinking, that, by means of legislation, pointed out new ways for a new world of human relations.

It remains to be said that the direction of this whole work was incumbent upon Lenin. He presided unweariedly, five or six hours at a time, at the Council of People’s Commissars – and these meetings took place daily at the first period – passed from question to question, led the debates, allotted the speakers time carefully by his watch, time that was later regulated by a presiding time-meter (or second-meter).

In general the questions came up without any preparation, and they never could be postponed, as has already been stated. Very often the nature of the question, before the beginning of the debate, was unknown to the members of the Council of People’s Commissars as well as to the president. But the discussions were always concise, the introductory report was given five to ten minutes.

None the less the president towed the meeting into the right channel. If the meeting was well attended and if there were any specialists and particularly any unknown persons among the participants, then Vladimir Ilyich resorted to one of his favorite gestures: he put his right hand before his forehead as a shield and looked through his fingers at the reporters and particularly at the members of the assembly, by which means, contrary to the expression “to look through the fingers,” he watched very sharply and attentively. On a narrow strip of paper was posted in tiny letters (economy!) the list of speakers. One eye watched the time that was posted above the table every now and then, to remind the speaker it was time to stop. At the same time the President quickly made a note of the conclusions that had seemed to him especially important in the course of the debate, in the form of resolutions. Generally, in addition to this, Lenin, to save time, sent the assembly members short memoranda in which he asked for some kind of information. These notes would represent a very voluminous and very interesting epistolary element in the technique of soviet legislation, but a large part of them has been destroyed as the answer was written on the reverse side of the note which the President then carefully destroyed. At a definite time Lenin read aloud the resolution points, that were always intentionally stiff and pedagogic – in order to emphasize, to bring into prominence, to exclude any changes; then the debates were either at an end, or entered the concrete channel of practical motions and supplements. Lenin’s “points” were thus the basis of the respective decree.

Among other necessary attributes this work required a strong creative imagination. This word may seem inadmissible at the first glance, but nevertheless it expresses exactly the essence of the thing. The human imagination may be of many kinds: the constructive engineer needs it as much as the unrestrained fiction writer. One of the most precious varieties of imagination consists in the ability to picture people, things, and phenomena as they are in reality, even when one has never seen them. The application and combination of the whole experience of life and theoretical equipment of a man with separate small stopping places caught in passing, their working up, fusion, and completion according to definite formulated laws of analogy, in order thereby to make clear a definite phase of human life in its whole concreteness – that is imagination, which is indispensable for a lawmaker, a government worker, and a leader in the time of revolution. The strength of Lenin lay, to a very important degree, in the strength of his realistic imagination.

Lenin’s definiteness of purpose was always concrete, otherwise it would have belied its name. In the Iskra, I believe, Lenin for the first time expressed the thought, that in the complicated chain of political action one must always seek out the central link for the moment in question in order to seize it and give direction to the whole chain. Later, too, Lenin returned to this thought quite often, even to the same picture of the chain and the ring. This method passed from the sphere of the conscious, as it were, into his unconsciousness and finally became second nature. In particularly critical moments, when it was a question of a very responsible or risky tactical change of position, Lenin put aside everything else less important that permitted postponement. This must by no means be understood in the sense that he had grasped the central problem in its main features only and ignored details. Quite the contrary. He had before his eyes the problem that he considered could not be postponed, in all its concreteness, took hold of it from all sides, studied the details, now and then even the secondary ones, and sought a point of attack in order to approach it anew and give force to it, he recalled, expounded, emphasized, controlled, and urged. But all was subordinated to the “link of the chain” which he regarded as decisive for the moment in question. He put aside, not only all that was at variance, directly or indirectly, with the central problem, but also that which might distract his attention and weaken his exertion. In particularly critical moments he was likewise deaf and blind to everything that had nothing to do with the question which held his entire interest. Merely the raising of other questions, neutral ones so to speak, he felt as a danger from which he instinctively retreated.

When one critical step had been successfully overcome, Lenin would often exclaim for some cause or another: “But we have quite forgotten to do so and so ... We have made a mistake while we were entirely occupied with the main problem.

“They often answered: “But this question came up and exactly this proposition was made, only you would not hear anything of it then.”

“Yes, really?” he would reply. “I do not remember at all.”

Then he laughed slily and a little “consciously” and made a peculiar motion of the hand, characteristic of him, from above below, that seemed to mean: one cannot decide everything at the same time. This “defect” was only the reverse side of his faculty of the greatest inward mobilization of

all his forces, and exactly this faculty made him the greatest revolutionary of history.

In Lenin’s theses about peace written in January, 1918, he says: “For the success of socialism in Russia a certain period of time of at least a few months is necessary.”

Now these words seem quite incomprehensible. Is it not a mistake? Are not years or decades meant? But no, it is no mistake. One could probably find a number of other statements of Lenin of the same type. I remember very well that in the first period, at the sessions of the Council of People’s Commissars at Smolny, Ilyich repeatedly said that within a half year socialism would rule and that we would be the greatest state in the world. The Left Social Revolutionaries, and not alone they, raised their heads in question and surprise, regarded each other, but were silent. This was his system of inculcation. Lenin wanted to train everybody, from now on, to consider all questions in the setting of their socialistic structure, not in the perspective of the “goal,” but of today and tomorrow.

In this sharp change of position he seized the method so peculiar to him, of emphasizing the extreme: Yesterday we said socialism is the goal; but today it is a question of so thinking, speaking, and acting that the rule of socialism will be guaranteed in a few months. Does that mean too that it should be only a pedagogical method? No, not that alone. To the pedagogic energy something must be added: Lenin’s strong idealism, his intense will-power, that in the sudden changes of two epochs shortened the stopping places, and drew nearer to the definite ends. He believed in what he said. And this imaginative half-year respite for the development of socialism just as much represents a function of Lenin’s spirit as his realistic taking hold of every task of today. The deep and firm conviction of the strong possibilities of human development, for which one can and must pay any price whatsoever in sacrifices and suffering, was always the mainspring of Lenin’s mental structure.

Under the most difficult circumstances, in the most wearing daily work, in the midst of cormmissariat troubles and all others possible, surrounded by a bourgeois war, Lenin worked with the greatest care over the Soviet constitution, scrupulously harmonized minor practical requisites of the state apparatus with the problems of principle of a proletarian dictatorship in a land of peasants.

The Constitution Commission decided for some reason or other to remodel Lenin’s Declaration of the Rights of Producers and bring it into “accord” with the text of the constitution. When I came from the front to Moscow I received from the Commission, among other material, the outline of the transformed “declaration,” or at least a part of it. I familiarized myself with it in Lenin’s office, where only he and Sverdlof were present. They were doing the preparatory work for the Council of Soviets.

“But why is the declaration to be changed?” I asked Sverdlof, who was the head of the Constitution Commission.

Vladimir Ilyich raised his head with interest.

“Well, the Commission has just discovered that the ‘declaration’ contains discrepancies with the constitution and inexact formulations,” Jakov Michailovich answered.

“In my opinion that is nonsense,” I replied. “The declaration has already been accepted and has become an historical document – what sense is there in changing it?”

“That is quite right,” Vladimir Ilyich interrupted. “I too think they have taken up this question quite unnecessarily. Let the youth live unshaven and disheveled: be he what he may, he is still a scion of the revolution ... he will hardly be better if you send him to the barber.”

Sverdlof tried “dutifully” to stand by the decision of his Commission, but he soon agreed with us. I realized that Vladimir Ilyich, who more than once had had to oppose propositions of the Constitution Commission, apparently did not wish to take up the struggle against a rearrangement of the Declaration of the Righta of Producers, whose author he was. However, he was delighted by the support of a “third person” who unexpectedly turned up at the last moment. We three decided not to change the “declaration” and the worthy youth was spared the barber.

The study of the development of Soviet lawmaking in bringing into prominence its chief motives and turning points, in connection with the course of the revolution itself and the class relationships in it, presents a tremendously important task, because the results of it for the proletariat of other countries can be and must be of the greatest practical significance.

The collection of Soviet decrees forms, in a certain sense, a by no means unimportant part of the collected works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.


1. Comrade Miliutin has told this story differently; but the above seems to me more correct. At all events Lenin’s words: “That smells of revolution” had to do with my suggestion to call the government as a whole: “Council of People’s Commissars.”

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Last updated on: 14.4.2007