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Book Review

The History of the Russian Revolution

(March 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 10 (Whole No. 106), 5 March 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Leon Trotsky
The History of the Russian Revolution; Volume 1: The Overthrow of Tzarism
Translated by Max Eastman
Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York. – $4.00

With the enforced leisure imposed upon him by the Stalinist faction for the past four years, the organizer of the Red Army, the comrade-in-arms of Lenin, has forged another great weapon for the international working class in its struggle for a higher form of society, for liberation from the capitalist yoke. And that is precisely what his History of the Russian Revolution is. A weapon, a manual of action for the proletarian revolutionists the world over.

If the Russian revolution in itself served to inspire in thousands of proletarian fighters in every country the spirit of Bolshevik Internationalism, then this History of the Russian Revolution, by the scientific analysis of its inner processes, will teach these fighters how to put that spirit into practice.

Without for one moment leaving out of sight the broad historical outlines of the event, Trotsky displays a painstaking devotion to detail, a penetrating preoccupation with the minutest shadings of action, policy and thought such as only a craftsman is capable of. The whole gigantic scene, all of its complicated mechanism, rises before the reader with the whole lucidity of its deep internal logic. Neither the intrigues and counter-intrigues of the reactionary camarillas within the decrepit Romanov monarchy, nor the nuances of policy among the representatives of the big bourgeoisie, nor the squirming and vacillation of the petty bourgeois leaders are left out of account. Each is accorded its proper place and weight In the continuity of the narrative, each is evaluated from the point of view of the tactics of the revolutionary party.

The major place, however, is of course ceded to the chief actor in the immense drama – to the masses. “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events.” And It is the study of the revolutionary consciousness of the masses in action that makes the book doubly valuable for the Communist militant. Here, the masses are shown marching ahead with determination while their “leaders” turn and twist and attempt to avoid struggle. Here the masses are shown smashing. through the hardened shell of the conservative ideology accumulated by them in the course of peaceful times by bold, revolutionary, everyday activity.

The picture of the masses streaming into the streets in February to proclaim the downfall of the Romanovs, while the “democratic” Miliukovs plead with the doomed dynasty for a “constitutional regime”; the picture of the masses demonstrating openly for the dismissal of Miliukov in April, while Kerensky and Tseretelli and the other conciliators tremble lest the bourgeoisie leave all the power to them; and once again the picture of the masses rallying to the Bolshevik banner against the “offensive” in June, while Kerensky and Tseretelli prepare to outlaw the Bolsheviks as German spies, are only a few of the impressions that will help bring home the lesson of the tremendous historical importance of the masses to those who are dedicated to lead them in the struggles to come.

The masses are not to be trifled with. In the last analysis, it is they who decide, who and what shall prevail. And it is this fact that the Communists, who are needed by the masses just as much as they need them, must understand. “For better or worse, the revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the changes of mass consciousness.” Just to talk about the masses and their role, is not enough. It is necessary to understand what is going on in their minds. “However, the processes taking place in the consciousness of the masses are not unrelated and independent ... consciousness is determined by conditions.” To understand these conditions and their reflections In the mind of the people, a revolutionary, Marxist party is needed for “the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations”. Without a Marxist understanding of the character of the Russian revolution, of the relationship of class forces within it, and; of the specific period of time in which it broke out, a successful conclusion was unthinkable. And it was just this understanding that Lenin brought to the Bolshevik party in April 1917, when the Bolshevik leaders, along with the other political chiefs, lagged behind the consciousness of the masses.

Lenin’s rearming of the party is regarded by Trotsky as the most important factor in shaping the course of the revolution. Just as the “Interference of the masses” formed the unmistakable general feature of the revolution, the rearming of the revolutionary party, and the orientation of the masses subsequent to that, lent it its specific, ultimate character. In the chapter, Rearming the Party, the role of the proletarian vanguard and that of the revolutionary leadership as a whole, is expounded with convincing precision. The personality of Lenin, his indispensable value for the progress of the masses to power, is cast in its true light His great historical significance is enhanced by an objective Marxist evaluation. Lenin’s was the power of determining the conditions of the consciousness of the masses and of “actively orientating the masses by a method of successive approximations”. (And it was this power of Lenin’s, combined with the “interference of the masses” of the party itself in the rearm ing of the party (up to then disorientate) by Kamenev, Molotov and Stalin) that brought the Bolsheviks to the fore as the veritable leaders of the revolution.

Of especial value to the theoretical considerations involved in the estimate of the February revolution, is the appendix to the chapter Peculiarities of Russia’s Development. The dangerous practical implications of a schematic conception of the dialectics of economic development are pointed out in all their sharpness. Without a realistic, Marxist view of the specific character of Russia, without applying the Marxist theory of the permanent revolution to it, it is impossible to grasp the logic of the events of 1917. How can the impotence and the amazingly rapid elimination from power oif the Russian bourgeoisie be understood without it? How can the dominating role of the young and numerically weak Russian proletariat be conceived of, from a different point of view? Those who are inclined to consider his characterizations of Kerensky, Miliukov and the other protagonists of the big and the petty bourgeoisie as caused by personal malice only fall to give the slightest attention to Trotsky’s scientifically grounded analysis of the social basis that produced them. Trotsky cannot be held responsible for the ridiculous spectacle of the Kerenskys and Miliukovs any more than he can be held responsible for the precarious position of the Russian bourgeoisie In 1917. That was merely due to the peculiarities of historical development. And the same holds true for the portraits of Stalin, Tseretelli, Kamenev and the others, as well.

The chapter of The Peasantry is particularly significant in so far as it explodes the myth of the Stalinist epigones of an eternal alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry – as though it were created in heaven. It was certainly not Lenin who developed this disastrous theory which has since his death produced such frightful results in China and elsewhere. Lenin’s conception of the alliance with peasantry like Trotsky’s, was based on the temporary relationships of forces within the country. It was precisely the weakness of the bourgeoisie and the immature development of capitalism in Russia, Trotsky points out, that made the peasantry – always incapable of independent action – more amenable to an alliance with the proletariat. The agrarian problem of the Russia of 1917 and the actual attitude of Lenin towards it, are presented with telling proof.

* * * *

The History of the Russian Revolution is a challenge to the bourgeois historians, it is a challenge to the social democrats and the Stalinists as well. Retracing the events step by step, illuminating each step with irrefutable facts and documents, Trotsky builds up the Bolshevik resume of the February revolution, and flings historic truth in the face of all the slanders and distortions to which this great event has been subjected in the past. It once more proves that only the Marxists can afford today to say what is, to speak out the truth. Without feigning historical impartiality, beneath the cloak of which reaction so desperately attempts to spread its deadly poison, Trotsky gives a fearless and objective account of events as they took place. The right to draw his own conclusions from the facts no one can deny him. That is his revolutionary duty. But in order that his conclusions may be most effective for the progress of the revolution, the Marxist knows that he must base them upon reality.

The great work of comrade Trotsky is so packed with action, so closely cemented with documents, so impregnated with powerful revolutionary lessons, that a brief review like the present cannot, by far, even attempt to do it justice: The History of the Russian Revolution is not merely a new publication, it is a creation that will become part of the life of future revolutionary generations. We shall come back to it again from time to time.

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