Leon Trotsky

Lessons of October

(November 1935)

Written: November 4, 1935.
First Published: New Militant [New York], November 30, 1935.
Translated: New Militant.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

I accept with the greatest readiness Fred Zeller’s suggestion to contribute an article to Revolution on the occasion of the eighteenth anniversary of the October overturn. True, Revolution is not a “big” daily newspaper; it is just striving to become a weekly. High-placed bureaucrats might pull contemptuous faces on this score. But I have had occasion to observe many times how “powerful” organizations with a “powerful” press crumbled to dust under the impact of events, and how, on the other hand, small organizations with a technically weak press were in a short time transformed into historic forces. Let us firmly hope that precisely this fate is in store for your paper and for your organization.

In the year 1917, Russia was passing through the greatest social crisis. One can say with certainty, however, on the basis of all the lessons of history, that had there been no Bolshevik Party the immeasurable revolutionary energy of the masses would have been fruitlessly spent in sporadic explosions, and the great upheavals would have ended in the severest counter-revolutionary dictatorship. The class struggle is the prime mover of history. It needs a correct program, a firm party, a trustworthy and courageous leadership – not heroes of the drawing room and of parliamentary phrases, but revolutionists, ready to go to the very end. This is the major lesson of the October Revolution.

We must remember, however, that at the beginning of 1917 the Bolshevik Party led only an insignificant number of the toilers. Not only in the soldiers’ soviets but also in the workers’ soviets, the Bolshevik fraction generally constituted 1 to 2 percent, at best 5 percent. The leading parties of petty-bourgeois democracy (Mensheviks and the so-called Socialist Revolutionaries) had the following of at least 95 percent of the workers, soldiers, and peasants participating in the struggle. The leaders of these parties called the Bolsheviks first sectarians and then ... agents of the German kaiser. But no, the Bolsheviks were not sectarians! All their attention was directed to the masses, and moreover not to their top layer, but to the deepest, most oppressed millions and tens of millions, whom the parliamentarian babblers usually forgot. Precisely in order to lead the proletarians and the semi-proletarians of city and countryside, the Bolsheviks considered it necessary to distinguish themselves sharply from all factions and groupings of the bourgeoisie, beginning with those false “Socialists” who are in reality agents of the bourgeoisie.

Patriotism is the principal part of that ideology by means of which the bourgeoisie poisons the class consciousness of the oppressed and paralyses their revolutionary will, because patriotism means the subjection of the proletariat to the “nation,” astride which sits the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were patriots: up until the February overturn, half concealed; after February, openly and brazenly. They said: “Now we have a republic, the freest republic in the world; even our soldiers are organized into soviets; we must defend this republic against German militarism.” The Bolsheviks replied: “No question but that the Russian republic is now the most democratic one; but this superficial political democracy may even tomorrow crumble into dust since it rests on a capitalist foundation. So long as the toiling people, under the leadership of the proletariat, do not expropriate their own landowners and capitalists and do not tear up the robber treaties with the Entente, we cannot consider Russia our fatherland and cannot take its defence upon ourselves.” Our adversaries grew indignant. “If so, you are not simply sectarians, you are agents of the Hohenzollerns! You betray to them the Russian, French, English, and American democracies!” But the power of Bolshevism lay in its ability to scorn the sophistries of cowardly “democrats” who called themselves Socialists but who, in reality, kneeled before capitalist property.

The judges in the dispute were the toiling masses; as time went on their verdict leaned more and more in favour of the Bolsheviks. And no wonder. At the time the soviets rallied around themselves all the proletarian, soldier, and peasant masses who became awakened for the struggle and on whom the fate of the country depended. The “united front” of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries dominated the soviets and actually had power in its hands. The bourgeoisie was completely paralysed politically since ten million soldiers, exhausted by the war, stood fully armed on the side of the workers and peasants. But what the leaders of the “united front” dreaded most of all was to “scare off” the bourgeoisie, to “push” it to the camp of reaction. The united front dared not touch either the imperialist war, or the banks, or feudal land ownership, or the shops and plants. It marked time and spouted general phrases while the masses lost patience. More than that: the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries directly transferred the power to the Cadet party, rejected by the toilers and despised by them. The Cadets represented an imperialist bourgeois party, basing itself on the top layers of the “middle classes” but remaining true to the interests of “liberal” property owners on all fundamental questions. The Cadets can, if you please, be compared with the French Radicals: the same social base, that is, the “middle classes”; the same lulling of the people to sleep with empty phrases; and the same loyal service to the interests of imperialism. Just as with the Radicals, the Cadets had their left and their right wing: the left – to befuddle the people; the right – to make “serious” politics. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries hoped to get the support of the middle classes by an alliance with the Cadets, that is, with the exploiters and defrauders of the middle classes. By this the social patriots signed their own death warrant.

Binding themselves voluntarily to the chariot of the bourgeoisie, the leaders of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were trying to persuade the toilers to leave the expropriation of the property owners to the future, and in the meantime ... to die on the front for “democracy”; that is, for the interests of this same bourgeoisie. “We must not push the Cadets into the camp of the reaction,” the opportunists repeated, parrot-like, at countless meetings. But the masses could not and did not want to understand them. They gave all their trust to the united front of the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries and were ready to defend it at all times arms in hand against the bourgeoisie. But meanwhile, having obtained the trust of the people, the parties of the united front called the bourgeois party to power and hid behind it. The aroused revolutionary masses never forgive cowardice and betrayal. First the Petersburg workers, and after them, the proletariat of the whole country; after the proletariat, the soldiers; and after the soldiers, the peasants, became convinced through experience that the Bolsheviks were right. Thus, within but a few months the handful of “sectarians,” “adventurers,” “conspirators,” “agents of Hohenzollern,” etc., etc., transformed themselves into the leading party of millions of awakened people. Loyalty to the revolutionary program, irreconcilable hostility to the bourgeoisie, decisive rupture with social patriots, deep trust in the revolutionary force of the masses – these are the chief lessons of October.

The entire press, including the papers of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, carried on a vicious campaign, really unheard of in history, against the Bolsheviks. Thousands upon thousands of tons of newsprint were filled with reports that the Bolsheviks were linked to the tsarist police, that they received carloads of gold from Germany, that Lenin was hiding in a German airplane, etc., etc. In the first months after February this torrent of abuse overcame the masses. Sailors and soldiers threatened more than once to bayonet Lenin and other leaders of Bolshevism. In July 1917 the slander campaign reached its highest peak. Many sympathizing lefts and semi-lefts, especially from among the intellectuals, became frightened by the pressure of bourgeois public opinion. They said: “Certainly the Bolsheviks are not agents of Hohenzollern but they are sectarians, they are tactless, they provoke the democratic parties; it is impossible to work with them.” This, for instance, was the tone pervading the big daily of Maxim Gorky, around which gathered all sorts of centrists, semi-Bolsheviks, semi-Mensheviks, theoretically very left, but terribly afraid of a break with the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. But it is a law that whoever is afraid of a break with the social patriots will inevitably become their agent.

Meanwhile a directly opposite process was taking place among the masses. The more disillusioned they became with the social patriots, who betrayed the interests of the people for the sake of friendship with the Cadets, the more attentively they listened to the speeches of the Bolsheviks, and the more convinced they became of their correctness. To the worker in the shop, the soldier in the trench, the starving peasant, it became clear that the capitalists and their lackeys were slandering the Bolsheviks precisely because the Bolsheviks were firmly devoted to the interests of the oppressed. Yesterday’s indignation of the soldier and sailor against the Bolsheviks became remoulded into passionate devotion to them and unselfish readiness to follow them to the very end. And, on the other hand, the hatred of the masses for the Cadet party was inevitably transferred to its allies, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. The social patriots did not save the Cadets, but themselves perished. The final break in the mood of the masses, which took place within two or three months (August-September), made the October victory possible. The Bolsheviks took over the soviets and the soviets took power.

Messrs. Sceptics might say: but in the end the October Revolution brought the triumph of bureaucracy. Was it worth making? A separate article or perhaps two should be devoted to this question. Here let us say briefly: history goes forward not along a straight line but along a devious one; after a gigantic jump forward there follows, as after an artillery shot, a rebound. Nevertheless history goes forward. No doubt, Soviet bureaucratism is an ugly ulcer, threatening both the conquests of the October Revolution and the world proletariat. But the USSR possesses something besides bureaucratic absolutism: nationalized means of production, planned economy, collectivization of agriculture, which, despite the monstrous harm of bureaucratism, lead the country forward economically and culturally while the capitalist countries are moving backwards. The October Revolution can be freed from the vise of bureaucratism only by the development of the international revolution, the victory of which will really assure the building of a socialist society.

Finally – and this is not insignificant – the October Revolution is important also because it gave the international working class a number of priceless lessons. Let the proletarian revolutionists of France firmly learn these lessons and they will become invincible.

November 4, 1935

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007