Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Volume 1: Appendix III
(to the chapter The Soviet Congress and the June Demonstration)

To Professor A. Kaun, The University of California.

You ask me how correctly Sukhanov describes my meeting in May 1917 with the editors of Novy Zhizn, a newspaper nominally directed by Maxim Gorky. In order that what follows may be understood, I must say a few words as to the general character of the seven-volume Notes of the Revolution by Sukhanov. With all the faults of that work (wordiness, impressionism, political shortsightedness) which make the reading of it at times unbearable, it is impossible not to recognise the conscientiousness of the author which renders his Notes a valuable source for the historian. Jurists know, however, that the conscientiousness of a witness by no means guarantees the reliability of his testimony. It is necessary to take into consideration his level of development, his vision, hearing, memory, his mood at the moment of the event, etc. Sukhanov is an impressionist of the intellectual type, and like the majority of such people lacks the ability to understand the political psychology of men of a different mould. Notwithstanding the fact that he himself in 1917 stood in the left wing of the Compromise camp, and so in close neighbourhood to the Bolsheviks, he was and remained, with his Hamlet temperament, the very opposite of a Bolshevik. There lives always in him a feeling of hostile revulsion from integrated people, people who know firmly what they want and where they are going. All of this brings it about that Sukhanov in his Notes quite conscientiously piles up mistake after mistake so soon as he tries to understand the springs of action of the Bolsheviks, or reveal their motivation behind the scenes. At times it seems as though he consciously confuses simple and clear questions. In reality he is organically incapable, at least in politics, of finding the shortest distance between two points.

Sukhanov wastes no little strength in the effort to contrast my line with Lenin’s. Being very sensitive to the moods of the couloir and the gossip of intellectual circles – in which, by the way, lies one of the merits of the Notes, which contain much material for characterising the psychology of the liberal, radical, and socialistic upper circles – Sukbanov naturally nourished a hope that disagreements would arise between Lenin and Trotsky – the more so that this must lighten somewhat the unenviable fate of Novy Zhizn, standing between the Social Patriots and the Bolsheviks. In his Notes Sukhanov is still living in the atmosphere of those unrealised hopes under the form of political recollections and ex post facto guesses.

Peculiarities of personality, temperament, style, he tries to interpret as a political line.

In connection with the abandoned Bolshevik manifestation of June 10, and more especially the armed demonstration of the July days, Sukhanov tries throughout many pages to demonstrate that Lenin was directly striving in those days for a seizure of power by way of conspiracy and insurrection, while Trotsky by contrast was striving for the real power of the soviets in the person of the then dominant parties, that is, the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. There is not a shadow of foundation for all this.

At the first congress of the soviets on June 4, Tseretelli during his speech remarked in passing: “In Russia at the present moment there is not one political party which would say, Give us the power in our hands.” At that moment a voice was heard from the benches:

“There is!” Lenin did not like to interrupt orators, and did not like to be interrupted. Only serious considerations could have impelled him to abandon on that occasion his customary restraint. According to Tseretelli’s logic, when the nation gets into a tangle of enormous difficulty, the first thing to do is to try to slip the power to others. In this lay the cleverness of the Russian Compromisers who after the February uprising slipped the power to the liberals. To a not very attractive fear of responsibility, Tseretelli was giving the colour of political disinterestedness and extraordinary far-sightedness. To a revolutionist who believes in the mission of his party such cowardly swanking is absolutely intolerable. A revolutionary party which is capable in difficult conditions of turning away from the power, deserves only contempt.

In a speech at that same session Lenin explained his reply from the benches: “The Citizen Minister of Posts and Telegraph (Tseretelli) said that there is no political party in Russia which would express its readiness to take upon itself the whole power. I answer there is. No party can decline to do that, and our party does not decline. It is ready at any minute to take the whole power. (Applause and laughter.) You may laugh all you want to, but if the Citizen Minister puts this question to us he will get the proper answer.” It would seem as though Lenin’s thought is transparent through and through.

At the same congress of the soviets, speaking after the Minister of Agriculture, Peshekhonov, I expressed myself as follows: “I do not belong to the same party with him (Peshekhonov) but if they told me that a ministry was to be formed out of twelve Peshekhonovs, I should say that this was an immense step forward.”

I do not think that at that time, amid those events, my words about a ministry of Peshekhonovs could be understood as an antithesis to Lenin’s readiness to take power: Sukhanov appears as an ex post facto theoretican of this pretended antithesis. Interpreting the Bolshevik preparation of the demonstration of June 10 in favour of the power of the soviets as a preparation for the seizure of power, Sukhanov writes: “Lenin two or three days before the manifestation publicly stated that he was ready to take the power in his hands. But Trotsky said at the same time that he would like to see twelve Peshekhonovs is power. That is the difference. But nevertheless I assume that Trotsky was drawn into the affair of June 10 ... Lenin was not then inclined to enter a decisive engagement without the dubious ‘Mezhdurayonets’. For Trotsky was to him a kind of monumental partner in a monumental game, and in his own party after Lenin himself there was nothing – for a long, long, long distance.”

This whole passage is full of contradictions. According to Sukhanov, Lenin would seem to have been really intending what Tseretelti accused him of: “An immediate seizure of power by the proletarian minority.” A proof of such Blanquism Sukhanov sees, if you can believe it, in those words of Lenin about the readiness of the Bolsheviks to take the power in spite of all difficulties. But if Lenin had really intended on June 10 to seize the power by way of a conspiracy, he would hardly have forewarned his enemies of this at a plenary session of the soviets on June 4. It should hardly be necessary to recall that from the first day of his arrival in Petrograd, Lenin had been telling the party that the Bolsheviks could assume the task of overthrowing the Provisional Government only after winning a majority in the soviets. In the April days Lenin decisively opposed those Bolsheviks who advanced the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government” as the task of the day. Lenin’s reply of June 4 had only one meaning: We, the Bolsheviks, are ready to take the power even today if the workers and soldiers give us their confidence: in this we are distinguished from the Compromisers who, possessing the confidence of the workers and soldiers, dare not take the power.

Sukhanov contrasts Trotsky with Lenin as a realist with a Blanquist. “Without accepting Lenin, one could fully agree to Trotsky’s presentation of the question.” At the same time Sukhanov announces that: “Trotsky was drawn into the affair of June 10” – that is, to the conspiracy for the seizure of power. Having discovered two lines where there were not two, Sukhanov cannot deny himself the pleasure of afterward uniting these two lines in one in order to be able to convict me of adventurism. This is a unique and somewhat platonic revenge for the disappointed hope of the left intelligentsia for a split between Lenin and Trotsky.

On the placards which had been prepared by the Bolsheviks for the cancelled demonstration of June 10, and which were afterwards carried by the demonstrators of June 18, a central place was occupied by the slogan “Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists.” Sukhanov, in the quality of aesthete, admires the simple expressiveness of this slogan, but in his quality of statesman he reveals an incomprehension of its meaning. In the government besides the “ten Minister-Capitalists” there were also six Minister-Compromisers. The Bolshevik placards had nothing to say of them. On the contrary, according to the sense of the slogan, the Minister-Capitalists were to be replaced by Minister-Socialists, representatives of the Soviet majority. It was exactly this sense of the Bolshevik placards that I expressed before the Soviet Congress: Break your bloc with the liberals, remove the bourgeois ministers and replace them with your Peshekhonovs. In proposing to the Soviet majority to take the power, the Bolsheviks did not, of course, bind themselves in the least as to their attitude to these Peshekhonovs; on the contrary, they made no secret of the fact that within the frame of the Soviet democracy they would wage an implacable struggle – for a majority in the soviets and for the power.

But all this is after all mere A-B-C. Only the above-mentioned traits of Sukhanov – not so much as a person but as a type – can explain how this participant and observer of events could get so hopelessly mixed up upon so serious and at the same time so simple a question.

In the light of this analysis of a political episode it is easy to understand the false light which Sukhanov throws upon my meeting which interests you with the editors of Novy Zhizn. The moral of my encounter with the circle of Maxim Gorky is expressed by Sukhanov in the concluding phrase which he puts in my mouth:

"Now I see that nothing remains for me but to found a paper together with Lenin.” The inference is that only my inability to reach an agreement with Gorky and Sukhanov – that is, with people whom I never regarded as either men of politics or revolutionists – compelled me to find my way to Lenin. It is only necessary to formulate this idea in order to demonstrate its absurdity.

Incidentally, how characteristic of Sukhanov is the phrase, “found a paper together with Lenin” – as though the tasks of a revolutionary policy reduced themselves to the founding of a newspaper. For anybody with a minimum of creative imagination, it ought to be clear that I could not so think or so define my tasks.

In order to explain my visit to the newspaper circle of Gorky, it is necessary to remember that I arrived in Petrograd at the beginning of May, something over two months after the revolution, a month after the arrival of Lenin. During this time many things had adjusted and defined themselves. I had to have a direct, and so to say empirical orientation, not only in the fundamental forces of the revolution, in the moods of the workers and soldiers, but also in all the groupings and political shades of “educated” society. The visit to the editors of Novy Zhizn was for me a small political reconnoitre executed with a view to finding out the forces of attraction and repulsion possessed by this “left” group, the chances of splitting off certain elements, etc. A short conversation convinced me of the complete hopelessness of this circle of literary wiseacres, for whom revolution reduced itself to the problem of the leading editorial. And, besides that, since they were accusing the Bolsheviks of self-isolation, laying the blame for this upon Lenin and his April Theses, I undoubtedly must have told them that with all their speeches they had only once more demonstrated to me that Lenin was completely right in isolating the party from them, or rather isolating them from the party. This conclusion, which I had to emphasise with special energy for the sake of its effect upon Riazanov and Lunacharsky, who participated in the conversation, and who were opposed to a union with Lenin, evidently supplied the occasion for Sukhanov’s version.

* * *

It goes without saying that you are completely right in assuming that I would in no case have agreed in the autumn of 1917 to speak about a Gorky jubilee from the tribune of the Petrograd Soviet. Sukhanov did well that time at least in renouncing one of his fantastic ideas: to induce me on the eve of the October insurrection to take part in a celebration of Gorky, who stood on the other side of the barricades.

Appendix II    |    History of the Russian Revolution    |    Volume 2

Last updated on: 1 February 2018