Leon Trotsky

Results and Prospects

III. 1789 – 1848 – 1905

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive, a subarchive of the Marxists’ Internet Archive, by Sally Ryan in 1996.

History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain.

The year 1848 already differs tremendously from 1789. In comparison with the Great Revolution, the Prussian and Austrian Revolutions surprise one with their insignificant sweep. In one way they took place too early and in another too late. That gigantic exertion of strength which is necessary for bourgeois society to settle radically with the lords of the past can only be attained either by the power of a unanimous nation rising against feudal despotism, or by the mighty development of the class struggle within this nation striving to emancipate itself. In the first case, which was what happened in 1789-93, the national energy, compressed by the fierce resistance of the old order, was wholly expended in the struggle against reaction; in the second case, which has never yet occurred in history, and which we are considering merely as a possibility, the actual energy necessary for overcoming the dark forces of history is generated within the bourgeoisie nation by means of an ‘internecine’ class war. The severe internal friction, absorbing a great deal of energy and depriving the bourgeoisie of the possibility of playing the chief role, urges its antagonist the proletariat to the forefront, gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month, places it at the head of affairs, and hands it the tightly-drawn reins of power. This class, determined, knowing no doubts, imparts a mighty sweep to events.

Revolution can be achieved either by a nation gathering itself together like a lion preparing to spring, or by a nation in the process of struggle becoming conclusively divided in order to free the best part of itself for the execution of those tasks which the nation as a whole is unable to carry out. These are two opposite sets of historical conditions, which in their pure form are, of course, possible only in logical contraposition.

A middle course in this, as in so many cases, is worst of all, but it was this middle course that developed in 1848.

In the heroic period of French history we saw a bourgeoisie, enlightened, active, as yet not aware of the contradictions of its own position, upon whom history had imposed the task of leadership in the struggle for a new order, not only against the outworn institutions of France but also against the reactionary forces of the whole of Europe. The bourgeoisie, consistently, in all its factions, regarded itself as the leader of the nation, rallied the masses to the struggle, gave them slogans and dictated their fighting tactics. Democracy bound the nation together with a political ideology. The people – urban petty-bourgeois, peasants and workers – elected bourgeois as their deputies, and the instructions given these deputies by their constituents were written in the language of a bourgeoisie coming to awareness of its messianic mission. During the revolution itself, though class antagonisms were revealed, yet the powerful inertia of the revolutionary struggle consistently threw the more conservative elements of the bourgeoisie off the political path. No stratum was thrown off before it had transferred its energy to the stratum behind it. The nation as a whole continued therefore to struggle for its aims with sharper and more determined methods. When the upper layers of the rich bourgeoisie, breaking away from the national core which had entered into the movement, formed an alliance with Louis XVI, the democratic demands of the nation were directed against this bourgeoisie, and this led to universal suffrage and the republic, as the logical, inevitable form of democracy.

The Great French Revolution was indeed a national revolution. And what is more, within the national framework, the world struggle of the bourgeoisie for domination, for power, and for undivided triumph found its classical expression.

Jacobinism is now a term of reproach on the lips of all liberal wiseacres. Bourgeois hatred of revolution, its hatred towards the masses, hatred of the force and grandeur of the history that is made in the streets, is concentrated in one cry of indignation and fear – Jacobinism! We, the world army of Communism, have long ago made our historical reckoning with Jacobinism. The whole of the present international proletarian movement was formed and grew strong in the struggle against the traditions of Jacobinism. We subjected its theories to criticism, we exposed its historical limitations, its social contradictoriness, its utopianism, we exposed its phraseology, and broke with its traditions, which for decades had been regarded as the sacred heritage of the revolution.

But we defend Jacobinism against the attacks, the calumny, and the stupid vituperations of anaemic, phlegmatic liberalism. The bourgeoisie has shamefully betrayed all the traditions of its historical youth, and its present hirelings dishonour the graves of its ancestors and scoff at the ashes of their ideals. The proletariat has taken the honour of the revolutionary past of the bourgeoisie under its protection. The proletariat, however radically it may have, in practice, broken with the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless preserves them, as a sacred heritage of great passions, heroism and initiative, and its heart beats in sympathy with the speeches and acts of the Jacobin Convention.

What gave liberalism its charm if not the traditions of the Great French Revolution? At what other period did bourgeois democracy rise to such a height and kindle such a great flame in the hearts of the people as during the period of the Jacobin, sansculotte, terrorist, Robespierrian democracy of 1793?

What else but Jacobinism made and still makes it possible for French bourgeois-radicalism of various shades to keep the overwhelming majority of the people and even the proletariat under its influence at a time when bourgeois radicalism in Germany and Austria has closed its brief history in deeds of pettiness and shame?

What is it if not the charm of Jacobinism, with its abstract political ideology, its cult of the Sacred Republic, its triumphant declarations, that even now nourishes French radicals and radical-socialists like Clemenceau, Millerand, Briand and Bourgeois, and all those politicians who know how to defend the mainstays of bourgeois society no worse than the dull-witted Junkers of Wilhelm II By the Grace of God? They are envied hopelessly by the bourgeois democrats of other countries; and yet they shower calumnies upon the source of their political advantage – heroic Jacobinism.

Even after many hopes had been destroyed, Jacobinism remained in the memory of the people as a tradition. For a long time the proletariat spoke of its future in the language of the past. In 1840, almost half a century after the government of the ‘Mountain’, eight years before the June days of 1848, Heine visited several workshops in the faubourg of Saint-Marceau and saw what the workers, ‘the soundest section of the lower classes’, were reading. ‘I found there’, he wrote to a German newspaper, ‘several new speeches by old Robespierre and also pamphlets by Marat issued in two-sous editions; Cabet’s History of the Revolution; the malignant lampoons of Carmenen; the works of Buonarroti, The Teachings and Conspiracy of Babeuf, all productions reeking with blood ... As one of the fruits of this seed,’ prophesies the poet, ‘sooner or later a republic will threaten to spring up in France.’

In 1848 the bourgeoisie was already unable to play a comparable role. It did not want and was not able to undertake the revolutionary liquidation of the social system that stood in its path to power. We know now why that was so. Its aim was – and of this it was perfectly conscious – to introduce into the old system the necessary guarantees, not for its political domination, but merely for a sharing of power with the forces of the past. It was meanly wise through the experience of the French bourgeoisie, corrupted by its treachery and frightened by its failures. It not only failed to lead the masses in storming the old order, but placed its back against this order so as to repulse the masses who were pressing it forward.

The French bourgeoisie succeeded in bringing off its Great Revolution. Its consciousness was the consciousness of society and nothing could become established as an institution without first passing through its consciousness as an aim, as a problem of political creation. It often resorted to theatrical poses in order to hide from itself the limitations of its own bourgeois world – but it marched forward.

The German bourgeoisie, however, from the very start, did not ‘make’ the revolution, but dissociated itself from it. Its consciousness rose against the objective conditions for its own domination. The revolution could only be carried out not by it but against it. Democratic institutions represented to its mind not an aim to fight for but a menace to its welfare.

In 1848 a class was needed that would be able to take charge of events without and in spite of the bourgeoisie, a class which would not only be prepared to push the bourgeois forward by its pressure but also at the decisive moment to throw its political corpse out of the way. Neither the urban petty-bourgeoisie nor the peasants were able to do this.

The urban petty bourgeoisie was hostile not only to yesterday but also to the morrow. Still enmeshed in mediaeval relations, but already unable to stand against ‘free’ industry, still setting its imprint on the towns, but already giving way before the middle and big bourgeoisie, steeped in prejudice, deafened by the noise of events, exploited and exploiting, greedy and helpless in its greed, the petty bourgeoisie, left stranded, could not control the tremendous events of the day.

The peasantry was to an even larger extent deprived of independent political initiative. Shackled for centuries, poverty-stricken, furious, uniting in itself all the threads of the old exploitation and the new, the peasantry at a certain moment constituted a rich source of revolutionary strength; but, unorganized, scattered, isolated from the towns, the nerve centres of politics and culture, stupid, limited in their horizons to the confines of their respective villages, indifferent to everything that the town was thinking, the peasants could not have any significance as a leading force. The peasantry was pacified immediately its back had been relieved of the burden of feudal obligations, and repaid the towns, which had fought for its rights, with black ingratitude. The emancipated peasants became the fanatics of ‘order’.

The intellectual democrats lacked class power. One moment this group followed its elder sister, the liberal bourgeoisie, as a sort of political tail, at another it abandoned the liberal bourgeoisie at the critical instant in order to expose its own weakness. It confused itself in unsolved contradictions and carried this confusion around with it everywhere.

The proletariat was too weak, lacked organization, experience and knowledge. Capitalism had developed sufficiently to render necessary the abolition of the old feudal relations, but not sufficiently to bring forward the working class, the product of the new industrial relations, as a decisive political force. The antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, even within the national framework of Germany, had gone too far to allow the bourgeoisie fearlessly to take up the role of national hegemon, but not sufficiently to allow the working class to take up that role. The internal friction of the revolution, it is true, prepared the proletariat for political independence, but at the time it weakened energy and unity of action, caused a fruitless expenditure of effort, and compelled the revolution, after its first successes, to mark time tediously and then, under the blows of reaction, to retreat.

Austria provided a particularly clear and tragic example of this unfinished and incomplete character of political relations in the period of revolution.

The Viennese proletariat in 1848 exhibited wonderful heroism and inexhaustible energy. Again and again it rushed into battle, urged on only by a hazy class instinct, lacking a general conception of the aims of the struggle, and passing gropingly from one slogan to another. The leadership of the proletariat, remarkably enough, passed into the hands of the students, the only active democratic group which, owing to its activity, had a great influence on the masses, and for that reason also upon events. The students undoubtedly could fight bravely on the barricades and fraternise honourably with the workers, but they were totally unable to direct the progress of the revolution which had handed them the ‘dictatorship’ of the street.

The proletariat, unorganized, without political experience and independent leadership, followed the students. At every critical moment the workers invariably offered the ‘gentlemen who worked with their heads’ the assistance of ‘those who worked with their hands’. The students at one moment summoned the workers to battle and at another moment themselves barred their way from the suburbs into the city. Sometimes, using their political authority and relying upon the arms of the Academic Legion, they forbade the workers to put forward their own independent demands. This was a classically clear form of benevolent revolutionary dictatorship over the proletariat. What was the outcome of these social relations? Why, this: when, on 26th May, all the workers of Vienna, at the call of the students, rose to their feet in order to resist the disarming of the students (the Academic Legion), when the whole of the population of the capital, covering the entire town with barricades, showed remarkable power and took possession of Vienna, when all Austria was rallying to armed Vienna, when the monarchy was in flight and had lost all importance, when as a result of the pressure of the people the last of the troops had been withdrawn from the capital, when the government of Austria resigned without nominating a successor – there was no political force found to take the helm.

The liberal bourgeoisie deliberately refused to take the power secured in such brigand-like fashion; it only dreamed of the return of the Emperor who had fled to the Tyrol.

The workers were sufficiently brave to beat the reaction, but were not sufficiently organized and conscious to occupy its place. A powerful labour movement existed, but proletarian class struggle with a definite political aim had not yet been sufficiently developed. The proletariat, incapable of taking the helm, could not accomplish this great historical task and the bourgeois democrats, as often happens, sneaked away at the moment of greatest urgency.

To compel these deserters to fulfil their obligations would have required on the part of the proletariat not less energy and maturity than would have been necessary for the setting up of a provisional workers’ government.

Altogether, a position was created concerning which a contemporary accurately said: ‘A Republic had actually been set up in Vienna, but unfortunately no one saw this.’ The Republic that nobody noticed departed for a long time from the stage, giving place to the Habsburgs ... An opportunity, once missed, never returns.

From the experience of the Hungarian and German revolutions Lassalle drew the conclusion that from now on revolutions could only find support in the class struggle of the proletariat. In a letter to Marx dated 24th October, 1849, Lassalle writes: ‘Hungary had more chances than any other country of bringing its struggle to a successful outcome. Among other reasons this was because the party there was not in a state of division and sharp antagonism as it was in Western Europe; because the revolution, to a high degree, had taken the form of a struggle for national independence. Nevertheless, Hungary was defeated, and precisely as a consequence of the treachery of the national party.’

‘This, and the history of Germany during 1848-49,’ continues Lassalle, ‘brings me to the conclusion that no revolution can be successful in Europe, unless it is from the very first proclaimed to be purely socialistic. No struggle can be successful if social questions enter into it only as a sort of hazy element, and remain in the background, and if it is carried on under the banner of national regeneration or bourgeois republicanism.’

We shall not stop to criticise these very decided conclusions. It is undoubtedly true, however, that already in the middle of the nineteenth century the problem of political emancipation could not be solved by the unanimous and concerted tactics of the pressure of the whole nation. Only the independent tactics of the proletariat, gathering strength for the struggle from its class position, and only from its class position, could have secured victory for the revolution.

The Russian working class of 1906 in no way resembles the workers of Vienna of 1848. The best evidence of this is the springing up all over Russia of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. These were not previously-prepared conspirative organizations for the purpose of seizure of power by the workers at the moment of revolt. No, these were organs created in a planned way by the masses themselves for the purpose of co-ordinating their revolutionary struggle. And these Soviets, elected by the masses and responsible to the masses, are unquestionably democratic institutions, conducting a most determined class policy in the spirit of revolutionary socialism.

The social peculiarities of the Russian revolution are particularly evident in the question of the arming of the nation. A militia, the National Guard, was the first demand and the first gain of every revolution, in 1789 and in 1848, in Paris, in all the states of Italy, in Vienna and in Berlin. In 1848 the National Guard, i.e., the arming of the propertied and the ‘educated’ classes, was the demand of the whole of the bourgeois opposition, even of the most moderate, and its object was not only to safeguard the liberties won, or rather, subject to ‘conferment’, against reversals from above, but also to protect bourgeois private property from attacks by the proletariat. Thus the demand for a militia was clearly a class demand of the bourgeoisie. ‘The Italians very well understood’, says the English liberal historian of united Italy, ‘that an armed civil militia would make the further existence of despotism impossible. Besides this it was a guarantee for the propertied classes against possible anarchy and any sort of disorder from below.’ [1] And the ruling reaction, not having a sufficient number of troops in the centre of operations to deal with ‘anarchy’, that is with the revolutionary masses, armed the bourgeoisie. Absolutism first allowed the burghers to suppress and pacify the workers and then it disarmed and pacified the burghers.

In Russia the demand for a militia found no support in the bourgeois parties. The liberals cannot help understanding the serious significance of arms; absolutism has given them some object-lessons in this respect. But they also understand the absolute impossibility of creating a militia in Russia apart from or against the proletariat. The Russian workers do not resemble the workers of 1848 who filled their pockets with stones and armed themselves with picks while the shopkeepers, students and lawyers had royal muskets on their shoulders and swords at their sides.

Arming the revolution, in Russia, means first and foremost arming the workers. Knowing and fearing this, the liberals altogether eschew a militia. They even surrender their position to absolutism without a fight just as the bourgeois Thiers surrendered Paris and France to Bismarck simply to avoid arming the workers.

In that manifesto of the liberal-democratic coalition, the symposium called The Constitutional State, Mr. Dzhivelegov, discussing the possibility of revolutions, quite rightly says that ‘Society itself, at the necessary moment, must be prepared to stand up in defence of its Constitution’. But as the logical conclusion from this is the demand for the arming of the people, this liberal philosopher finds it ‘necessary to add’ that ‘it is not at all necessary for everyone to bear arms’ [2] in order to prevent reversals. It is only necessary that society itself shall be prepared to offer resistance – in what manner is not indicated. If any conclusion at all can be drawn from this, it is that in the hearts of our democrats the fear of the armed proletariat is greater than the fear of the soldiery of the autocracy.

For that reason the task of arming the revolution falls with all its weight upon the proletariat. The civil militia, the class demand of the bourgeoisie in 1848 is, in Russia, from the very first a demand for the arming of the people and above all for the arming of the proletariat. The fate of the Russian Revolution is bound up with this question.


1. Bolton King, History of Italian Unity, Russ. trans., Moscow 1901, vol.1, p.220. – L.T.

2. The Constitutional State, a symposium, 1st edition, p.49. – L.T.

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Last updated on: 3.3.2007