The Legacy of Leon Trotsky

Part I: The Long Road to Revolution

Menshevism & Bolshevism in the RSDLP

Marxism in Russia originated in the early 1880s with the Emancipation of Labor grouping centered on George Plekhanov, widely recognized as the “father” of Russian Marxism. Competing with Narodnism (populism), which was more widely embraced at the time, the Emancipation group was at first largely confined to small study circles, distributing propaganda to a thin layer of advanced workers. With a strike wave and consequent turn toward mass work leading to large-scale recruitment in the mid 1890s, the recognized leadership of the Emancipation group – which spearheaded the founding of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898 – began to recruit a new generation of Marxists, including Lenin, Julius Martov and Lev Davidovich Bronstein, a young militant from Ukraine, who would later adopt the party name Trotsky. Confined to clandestine work due to state repression (its first congress was dispersed by the authorities), the RSDLP barely functioned as an organization. In 1900, the party newspaper, Iskra, was founded under the émigré editorship of Lenin, speaking with the authority of the main party leadership and designed to cohere and politically educate members throughout the Tsarist Empire.

The founding and expansion of the RSDLP in the late 1890s coincided with the growth of a trend within the Russian workers’ movement dubbed Economism, which had loose connections with the “evolutionary” socialism espoused by Eduard Bernstein in Germany at the turn of the century. Economism saw the struggle for socialism and the development of socialist consciousness as growing out of workers’ struggles for “bread and butter” reforms. In his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, Lenin spoke on behalf of the Iskraists when he attacked the Economists for “striving to degrade social-democratic politics to the level of trade union politics! [e.g., forming unions, enacting labor legislation].” Instead, he argued that socialist consciousness did not organically (i.e., “spontaneously”) emerge from the day-to-day experience of workers:

“this consciousness [socialist] could only be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., it may itself realize the necessity of combining in unions, for fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.”

While the “from without” formulation was somewhat open to misinterpretation and later used against him, Lenin’s central point was that economic struggles on their own were insufficient to generate revolutionary socialist (“social democratic” in the terminology of the times) consciousness – this required the active intervention of a revolutionary party to elevate the political understanding of the participants in the class struggle. Far from representing an “elitist” deviation from mainstream Marxism, Lenin’s view was shared by Trotsky and the other Marxist leaders, and was wholly in keeping with the ideological orthodoxy of the Second International, to which the RSDLP belonged (see Lenin and the Vanguard Party).

That orthodoxy also included the broad, inclusive organizational conception – articulated most clearly by Karl Kautsky, leading figure of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) – known as the “party of the whole class”:

“In order that the working class may put forward all its strength in the struggle against capitalism it is necessary that in every country there exist vis à vis the bourgeois parties, only one socialist party, as there exists only one proletariat.”
—Quoted in Ibid.

While the Second International had been built upon the basis of a socialist program, and Marxism was embraced by most party members, the “one party – one class” conception meant that the goal was to encompass all major political tendencies of the workers’ movement. Although petty-bourgeois reformism would thereby find a home within the party, it was viewed as a relic of the immaturity of the working class: as the class developed in size and organizational capacity, it was reasoned, the objective situation would tend to undermine non-revolutionary elements. Lenin’s insistence on the centrality of the Marxist party, while containing within it the seeds of an eventual break with the “party of the whole class” model in favor of the “vanguard” conception, was at the time nothing more than the commonly-held view of all Marxists.

The Second Congress of the RSDLP met in July-August 1903 (first in Brussels, then in London) to formalize the already-existing leadership of the Iskra editorial board (which included the “old” guard of Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich and Alexander Potresov, and the younger Lenin and Martov), adopt a formal political program and establish criteria for party membership. Besides the Iskraist majority, which represented two-thirds of the delegates, the Economists and the Bund (a semi-nationalist tendency claiming sole representation of Jewish workers in the Tsarist Empire) were also represented at the congress. The Second Congress would have a profound impact on the future of the RSDLP and, by extension, the fate of the Russian Revolution – and it was also the occasion of a grave political error by the young Trotsky, one which would lead him down the wrong path for more than a decade.

Although seemingly united going into the congress, the Iskraists quickly divided into two camps over the question of membership – Lenin’s “hards” and Martov’s “softs.” In an attempt to exclude opportunist elements and overcome the loose study-circle nature of the RSDLP, Lenin had proposed a membership criterion that required “personal participation in one of the Party organizations,” as opposed to Martov’s more vaguely defined “rendering [the party] regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organizations.” While seemingly trivial in nature, the difference in formulation anticipated the later division between the vanguard party of professional revolutionaries and the all-encompassing reformist (i.e., social-democratic in the modern sense) party – though this embryonic division was very far from being fully developed or understood by either camp. As Lenin explained, his intention was merely “to distinguish those who only talk from those who do the work” (“Second Speech in the Discussion on the Party,” August 1903).

Martov’s motion passed, but since his bloc partners, the Economists and Bundists, subsequently walked out of the congress over other related organizational issues, Lenin’s group was left with a majority and Martov’s group with a minority – and the Russian words for “Majorityites” (Bolsheviks) and “Minorityites” (Mensheviks) stuck. Lenin proposed a reduced Iskra editorial board with a Bolshevik majority (himself and Plekhanov), as well as the Menshevik Martov. By excluding respected figures of the old guard (Axelrod, Zasulich and Potresov), Lenin offended many delegates, including Trotsky, who had a sentimental attachment to his political elders. In the aftermath of the congress, Plekhanov, who had voted for Lenin’s membership proposal but shied from a definite split over what seemed like a purely organizational matter, reneged and re-established the old editorial board configuration. Lenin resigned in protest, went on to establish a separate Bolshevik-led organization (the Bureau of Majority Committees) with its own newspaper (Vperyod), and held rival congresses, thereby deepening the split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the RSDLP. Still operating within the “party of the whole class” framework, Lenin viewed the Mensheviks as a petty-bourgeois tendency that had emerged in backward and peasant-dominated Russia and accidentally found itself within a Marxist party.

By the time of the Second Congress, Trotsky had already spent years in the workers’ movement, and had been arrested and exiled to Siberia. He wrote articles for Iskra and collaborated with its London-based editorial board. In the months leading up to the congress, Lenin had even tried to co-opt Trotsky onto the editorial board. But when presented with Lenin’s proposal for a new editorial board at the congress, Trotsky launched an attack on Lenin, accusing him of “substitutionism”:

“In the internal politics of the Party [Lenin’s] methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.”
Our Political Tasks, 1904

Trotsky’s harsh treatment of Lenin was essentially without foundation. By extrapolating to absurdity the logic of Lenin’s professional (or “hard”) conception of party membership, Trotsky unwittingly provided an argument, seized decades later, linking Leninism with its antithesis, Stalinism. In his autobiography, written years after having been won to Bolshevism, Trotsky explained the motivation for his earlier pro-Menshevik views:

“My break with Lenin occurred on what might be considered ‘moral’ or even personal grounds. But this was merely on the surface. At bottom, the separation was of a political nature and merely expressed itself in the realm of organization methods. I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at that time I did not fully realize what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order.”
My Life, 1930

Aside from his brief (but important) tenure working closely with the Bolsheviks as chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet during the 1905 Revolution (see below), Trotsky spent the decade-and-a-half between the Second Congress and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution as a largely ineffectual organizational force within the socialist movement, at times closely associated with the Mensheviks, at others attempting in vain to engineer unity between the two factions from the outside. In contrast, Lenin spent this period building the nucleus of a programmatically solid vanguard party that would prove indispensable when a revolutionary opportunity again arose, as Trotsky himself later acknowledged:

“I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both [Bolshevik and Menshevik] factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.”
The Permanent Revolution, 1931

Attempts to unify the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were made both by figures within the Russian workers’ movement and by leaders of the Second International throughout the entire pre-WWI period (even as late as July 1914). However, the point of no return came with the 1912 Prague Conference, at which Lenin definitively broke with the Mensheviks and declared the Bolsheviks to be the RSDLP (see “Leninism: ‘Irreconcilable Ideological Demarcation,” 1917 No.35).

Yet Trotsky continued to push for unity. In an attempt to reverse the results of the Prague Conference, he engineered the unprincipled “August Bloc,” which combined politically heterogeneous elements – the ultralefts (Vperyodists) and the right wing of Russian social democracy (Mensheviks, Bundists) – around little more than opposition to the person of Lenin. When the Bolsheviks refused to participate in the meeting organized by Trotsky, and the Vperyodists walked out, the “unity” conference, now dominated by Mensheviks, took on a decidedly anti-Bolshevik tone.

He later considered this to be one of his biggest political mistakes:

“I participated actively in this bloc. In a certain sense I created it. Politically I differed with the Mensheviks on all fundamental questions. I also differed with the ultra-left Bolsheviks, the Vperyodists. In the general tendency of policies I stood far more closely to the Bolsheviks. But I was against the Leninist ‘regime’ because I had not yet learned to understand that in order to realize a revolutionary goal a firmly welded centralized party is necessary. And so I formed this episodic bloc consisting of heterogeneous elements which was directed against the proletarian wing of the party….

“Lenin subjected the August bloc to merciless criticism and the harshest blows fell to my lot. Lenin proved that inasmuch as I did not agree politically with either the Mensheviks or the Vperyodists my policy was adventurism. This was severe but it was true.

“ …I was sick with the disease of conciliationism toward Menshevism and with a distrustful attitude toward Leninist centralism. Immediately after the August conference the bloc began to disintegrate into its component parts. Within a few months I was not only in principle but organizationally outside the bloc.”
—“From a Scratch – To the Danger of Gangrene (Part 2),” In Defense of Marxism, 1940

For Lenin, the idea of “unity” for its own sake was meaningless at best, destructive at worst:

“There can be no unity, federal or other, with liberal-labor politicians, with disrupters of the working-class movement, with those who defy the will of the majority. There can and must be unity among all consistent Marxists, among all those who stand for the entire Marxist body and the uncurtailed slogans, independently of the liquidators and apart from them.

“Unity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists, and opponents and distorters of Marxism.”
—“Unity,” April 1914

Despite the split at Prague, Lenin continued to formally adhere to the “one class – one party” organizational framework of the Second International and therefore still portrayed the Russian Mensheviks as petty-bourgeois radicals alien to the workers’ movement. His own vanguard party conception was not yet fully developed. Indeed, Lenin would significantly revise this understanding only after the outbreak of WWI and the consequent collapse of the Second International into social-chauvinism (i.e., nationalist support for imperialism).

Revolutionary Organization: the ‘Party of a New Type’

When Lenin read in Vorwärts (the central organ of the German party) that the SPD’s members of parliament had voted to grant the government war credits on 4 August 1914, he is reported to have considered the newspaper a forgery. The SPD was the flagship section of the International, and many of its leaders (e.g., Friedrich Ebert, Gustav Noske, Philipp Scheidemann) came from decidedly working-class backgrounds. But the betrayal was not an aberration, and was repeated in other sections of the Second International. Something had gone fundamentally wrong with the project. Lenin was forced to confront the contradictions in the organizational methods of the International’s “one class – one party” conception. That “one party” now included the social-chauvinists supporting their ruling classes in the imperialist war, with whom “unity” was impossible. He concluded that a “party of a new type” was needed, one that would be built on solidly revolutionary Marxist principles, independent of all other shades of working-class opinion, from the outright social-chauvinists (e.g., Ebert, Noske, Scheidemann) to the vacillating and “centrist” elements (e.g., Kautsky) that excused the behavior of the social-chauvinists and refused to definitively break with them:

“The crisis created by the great war has torn away all coverings, swept away all conventions, exposed an abscess that has long come to a head, and revealed opportunism in its true role of ally of the bourgeoisie. The complete organisational severance of this element from the workers’ parties has become imperative…. The old theory that opportunism is a ‘legitimate shade’ in a single party that knows no ‘extremes’ has now turned into a tremendous deception of the workers and a tremendous hindrance to the working-class movement. Undisguised opportunism, which immediately repels the working masses, is not so frightful and injurious as this theory of the golden mean…. Kautsky, the most outstanding spokesman of this theory, and also the leading authority in the Second International, has shown himself a consummate hypocrite and a past master in the art of prostituting Marxism.”
—“The Collapse of the Second International,” Chp. IX, May-June 1915

Lenin now argued for splitting the workers’ movement into its component political parts (i.e., “complete organizational severance”), called for a new (Third) International and proposed generalizing the method of party-building pursued by the Bolsheviks in the pre-war period:

“The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party has long parted company with its opportunists. Besides, the Russian opportunists have now become chauvinists. This only fortifies us in our opinion that a split with them is essential in the interests of socialism…. We are firmly convinced that, in the present state of affairs, a split with the opportunists and chauvinists is the prime duty of revolutionaries…”

“In our opinion, the Third International should be built upon that kind of revolutionary basis. To our Party, the question of the expediency of a break with the social-chauvinists does not exist, it has been answered with finality. The only question that exists for our Party is whether this can be achieved on an international scale in the immediate future.”
Socialism and War, 1915

At the same time, Lenin was working on an analysis of imperialism that provided a sociological explanation of reformism and opportunism as tendencies organically internal to the workers’ movement that would never mechanically wither away over time. Instead, a hardened labor bureaucracy had arisen, acting as “watchdogs of capitalism” and as a transmission belt for pro-capitalist ideology inside the workers’ movement:

“Is there any connection between imperialism and the monstrous and disgusting victory opportunism (in the form of social-chauvinism) has gained over the labour movement in Europe?
“This is the fundamental question of modern socialism. And having in our Party literature fully established, first, the imperialist character of our era and of the present war, and, second, the inseparable historical connection between social-chauvinism and opportunism, as well as the intrinsic similarity of their political ideology, we can and must proceed to analyse this fundamental question.”

“ …the opportunists (social-chauvinists) are working hand in glove with the imperialist bourgeoisie precisely towards creating an imperialist Europe on the backs of Asia and Africa, and…objectively the opportunists are a section of the petty bourgeoisie and of a certain strata of the working class who have been bribed out of imperialist superprofits and converted to watchdogs of capitalism and corruptors of the labour movement.
“Both in articles and in the resolutions of our Party, we have repeatedly pointed to this most profound connection, the economic connection, between the imperialist bourgeoisie and the opportunism which has triumphed (for long?) in the labour movement. And from this, incidentally, we concluded that a split with the social-chauvinists was inevitable.”

“The bourgeoisie of an imperialist ‘Great’ Power can economically bribe the upper strata of ‘its’ workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million. And how this little sop is divided among the labour ministers, ‘labour representatives’ (remember Engels’s splendid analysis of the term), labour members of War Industries Committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc., is a secondary question.”

“Lucrative and soft jobs in the government or on the war industries committees, in parliament and on diverse committees, on the editorial staffs of ‘respectable’, legally published newspapers or on the management councils of no less respectable and ‘bourgeois law-abiding’ trade unions – this is the bait by which the imperialist bourgeoisie attracts and rewards the representatives and supporters of the ‘bourgeois labour parties’.”
—“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” 1916

Years later, after he had been won to Bolshevism, Trotsky summarized Lenin’s analysis of the roots of social chauvinism:

“Most of the labor parties in the advanced capitalist countries turned out on the side of their respective bourgeoisies during the war. Lenin named this tendency as social chauvinism: socialism in words, chauvinism in deeds. The betrayal of internationalism did not fall from the skies but came as an inevitable continuation and development of the policies of reformist adaptation. ‘The ideological-political content of opportunism and of social chauvinism is one and the same: class collaboration instead of class struggle, support of one’s own government when it is in difficulties instead of utilizing these difficulties for the revolution.’”
“The period of capitalist prosperity immediately prior to the last war – from 1909 to 1913 – tied the upper layers of the proletariat very closely with imperialism. From the superprofits obtained by the imperialist bourgeoisie from colonies and from backward countries in general, juicy crumbs fell to the lot of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy. In consequence, their patriotism was dictated by direct self-interest in the policies of imperialism. During the war, which laid bare all social relations, ‘the opportunists and chauvinists were invested with a gigantic power because of their alliance with the bourgeoisie, with the government and with the general staffs.’”

“The intermediate and perhaps the widest tendency in socialism is the so-called center (Kautsky et al.) who vacillated in peace time between reformism and Marxism and who, while continuing to cover themselves with broad pacifist phrases, became almost without exception the captives of social chauvinists. So far as the masses were concerned they were caught completely off guard and duped by their own apparatus, which had been created by them in the course of decades. After giving a sociological and political appraisal of the labor bureaucracy of the Second International, Lenin did not halt midway. ‘Unity with opportunists is the alliance of workers with their own national bourgeoisie and signifies a split in the ranks of the international revolutionary working class.’ Hence flows the conclusion that internationalists must break with the social chauvinists. ‘It is impossible to fulfill the tasks of socialism at the present time, it is impossible to achieve a genuine international fusion of workers without decisively breaking with opportunism…’ as well as with centrism, ‘this bourgeois tendency in socialism.’ The very name of the party must be changed. ‘Isn’t it better to cast aside the name of Social Democrats, which has been smeared and degraded, and to return to the old Marxist name of Communists?’ It is time to break with the Second International and to build the Third.”
—“Lenin on Imperialism,” 1939

In the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party, quickly becoming one of its top leaders. Lenin is reputed to have said that since Trotsky’s adherence, there had been “no better Bolshevik” than his erstwhile adversary who had once denounced him for “substitutionism.” Lenin, Trotsky and the other leaders of the Bolshevik (Communist) Party of Russia played a decisive role in founding the Third International in Moscow in March 1919 as a major step forward in the project of breaking with the “bourgeois tendency in socialism.”

A revolutionary party cannot emerge semi-spontaneously through an “objective process” of class struggle divorced of conscious revolutionary intervention. Rather, it can only be built through the political development of cadres and their active participation in the class struggle on a Marxist program. Integral to the cohering of a revolutionary vanguard and the expansion of its influence within the working class (ultimately, to include a majority of that class) is ruthless political combat against reformism and centrism. Lenin did exactly this during the period of 1903–1917, while Trotsky sought to conciliate these same elements. As one of Trotsky’s later followers succinctly put it:

“Trotsky’s greatest error, the error which Trotsky had to recognize and overcome before he could find his way to unity with Lenin, was his insistence that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had to unite…. Lenin’s policy was vindicated in life. Lenin built a party, something that [Rosa] Luxemburg was not able to do with all her great abilities and talents; something that Trotsky was not able to do precisely because of his wrong estimation of the Mensheviks.”
—“On ‘Unity with the Shachtmanites’,” James P. Cannon, SWP internal bulletin, August 1945

A party that represents the “unity of the Marxists” can only be constructed on the basis of a genuinely revolutionary political program. Paradoxically, in terms of political analysis of Russia in the period before the 1917 revolution, Trotsky did not lag behind the Bolsheviks but rather ran ahead of them.

Revolutionary Program: 1905 & Permanent Revolution

Tsarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century was a backward country in which the vast mass of the population was agrarian, employed in small-scale farming. While the abolition of serfdom in 1861 had liberated much of the rural population from servitude to the landowners, peasants were still obliged to reimburse their former landlords, and various forms of feudal surplus extraction remained. For many peasants this meant ruin, and they were forced to sell their land and relocate to urban areas, where they joined the ranks of the burgeoning industrial proletariat. Wages were low and work days long. Discipline on the shop floor was maintained by firings and physical beatings, strikes and unions were illegal, and union organizers were routinely jailed or exiled. The Tsarist Empire openly identified as an autocracy, and political dissent was tightly curtailed. In addition to naked class exploitation was the national oppression enshrined in the Tsar’s “prison house of peoples” – over half the inhabitants were non-Russians (Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, etc.).

While retaining elements of feudal society, Russia combined this backwardness with an exceptionally modern industrial sector, which was capable of producing a wide range of commodities and industrial products (e.g., textiles, railway locomotives, armaments) that competed with those of the more advanced Great Powers. In 1908, giant industrial enterprises (those employing above 1,000 workers each) accounted for over 40 percent of all Russian workers, and in the industrial districts of St. Petersburg and Moscow, those numbers rose to 44 and 57 percent respectively, much higher ratios than in the United States, Britain and Germany.

Tsarist Russia was thus a land of stark contradictions: it possessed one of the largest empires on Earth, while at the same time it was a semi-client of Europe’s more industrialized imperialist powers. Trotsky describes the peculiarities of Russia’s “combined and uneven” development in the opening chapter of his magisterial work, The History of the Russian Revolution:

“The fundamental and most stable feature of Russian history is the slow tempo of her development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms and low level of culture resulting from it.”

“A backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries. But this does not mean that it follows them slavishly, reproduces all the stages of their past.”

“The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism. Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.”

“But it is just in the sphere of economy, as we have said, that the law of combined development most forcibly emerges. At the same time that peasant land-cultivation as a whole remained, right up to the revolution, at the level of the seventeenth century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries, and in certain respects even outstripped them….”
“The confluence of industrial with bank capital was also accomplished in Russia with a completeness you might not find in any other country. But the subjection of the industries to the banks meant, for the same reasons, their subjection to the western European money market. Heavy industry (metal, coal, oil) was almost wholly under the control of foreign finance capital, which had created for itself an auxiliary and intermediate system of banks in Russia. Light industry was following the same road. Foreigners owned in general about 40 per cent of all the stock capital of Russia, but in the leading branches of industry that percentage was still higher. We can say without exaggeration that the controlling shares of stock in the Russian banks, plants and factories were to be found abroad, the amount held in England, France and Belgium being almost double that in Germany.”
The History of the Russian Revolution, 1930

This fundamental feature of Russia’s development led Trotsky to develop his theory of “permanent revolution” following the momentous events of 1905. It was this program that would eventually be put into practice by the Bolsheviks in October 1917.

The 1905 Revolution, which Trotsky later referred to as a “prologue” for February and October 1917, occurred after the military defeat of the Tsar’s army at the hands of Japan. On 9 January 1905, hundreds of thousands gathered in St. Petersburg to demand an eight-hour workday. The regime responded by brutally shooting hundreds of protesters. This “Bloody Sunday” massacre set off a huge outburst of anger that resulted in peasant attacks on landowners, mutinies in the army and navy, general strikes, and an attempted armed uprising in Moscow.

The revolution gave rise to “soviets” (i.e., workers’ councils), the most important of which was the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, established in October 1905 as a coordinating body of the general strike. Thrown up more or less spontaneously, the soviets were popular organs embracing the entire spectrum of the working class, their politically heterogeneous nature resulting in a diversity of opinion on a wide variety of issues. They constituted the organizational form of an alternative workers’ state power:

“The Soviet organized the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms…. The name of ‘workers’ government’ which the workers themselves on the one hand, and the reactionary press on the other, gave to the Soviet was an expression of the fact that the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo.”

“ … The Soviet was, from the start, the organization of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power.”
—“Summing Up,” in 1905, Trotsky, 1907

Shortly after Trotsky returned to Russia in October 1905, he was elected vice-chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet and became its head in late November. The Bolsheviks’ initial reluctance to participate in the soviets meant that they were dominated by the Mensheviks, with Trotsky being their most prominent spokesperson. However, the all-embracing character of the soviets and the upsurge of militant mass activity produced a powerful impulse toward cooperation among both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, in some cases resulting in fusions at the local level.

In early December 1905, when the St. Petersburg Soviet repudiated responsibility for loans made to the Tsar’s government, the regime responded by disbanding the Soviet and arresting its leadership. In October 1906, Trotsky was sentenced to a second exile in Siberia.

The Tsar managed to weather the revolutionary upsurge by combining repression with political concessions – a constitution was granted and parliamentary elections were held. Loans from foreign banks allowed the Tsar to remain financially independent of the parliament (the “Duma”), which was eventually dispersed.

In the aftermath of 1905, the leadership of the RSDLP fell into three camps: the Mensheviks, who believed that Russia needed to undergo a period of capitalist development; the Bolsheviks, who projected a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”; and Trotsky, whose theory of “permanent revolution” held that a working-class revolution, supported by the peasants, was on the agenda.

The Mensheviks considered the Russian working class to be too small to take power, and regarded any attempt to do so as a colossal blunder. Instead, they envisaged a strategic alliance with (i.e., political subordination to) the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie as the first phase of a “two-stage” road to socialism:

“For Plekhanov, Axelrod and the leaders of Menshevism in general, the sociological characterization of the revolution as bourgeois was valuable politically above all because in advance it prohibited provoking the bourgeoisie by the specter of socialism and ‘repelling’ it into the camp of reaction. ‘The social relations of Russia have ripened only for the bourgeois revolution,’ said the chief tactician of Menshevism, Axelrod, at the Unity Congress [1906]. ‘In the face of the universal deprivation of political rights in our country there cannot even be talk of a direct battle between the proletariat and other classes for political power… The proletariat is fighting for conditions of bourgeois development. The objective historical conditions make it the destiny of our proletariat to inescapably collaborate with the bourgeoisie in the struggle against the common enemy.’ The content of the Russian revolution was therewith limited in advance to those transformations which are compatible with the interests and views of the liberal bourgeoisie.”
—“Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution,” Trotsky, 1940

Lenin’s conception of “the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” shared elements of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Lenin observed that the Russian bourgeoisie, unlike the French bourgeoisie of 1789, lacked the revolutionary will to see things through to the end and therefore equivocated, temporized and sought to make alliances with elements of the aristocracy. Instead, the peasantry, in alliance with the workers, would have to play the decisive role in the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism, which would open the road for rapid capitalist economic development and lay the foundation for a future socialist revolution:

“Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does that mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms, which have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.”

“We must be perfectly certain in our minds as to what real social forces are opposed to ‘tsarism’ (which is a real force, perfectly intelligible to all) and are capable of gaining a ‘decisive victor’ over it. Such a force cannot be the big bourgeoisie, the landlords, the factory owners, ‘society’ which follows the lead of the Osvobozhdentsi [the liberals]. We know that owing to their class position they are incapable of waging a decisive struggle against tsarism; they are too heavily fettered by private property, by capital and land to enter into a decisive struggle. They need tsarism with its bureaucratic, police and military forces for use against the proletariat and the peasantry too much to be able to strive for its destructions. No, the only force capable of gaining ‘a decisive victory over tsarism,’ is the people, i.e., the proletariat and the peasantry…. ‘A decisive victory of the revolution over tsarism’ is the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”
Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905

Lenin’s concept of the “democratic” rule of the revolutionary peasantry and working class was abstract, and its connection to international socialist revolution unclear. Yet, as Trotsky later observed:

“Lenin’s conception represented an enormous step forward [in contradistinction to the Mensheviks] insofar as it proceeded not from constitutional reforms but from the agrarian overturn as the central task of the revolution and singled out the only realistic combination of social forces for its accomplishment. The weak point of Lenin’s conception, however, was the internally contradictory idea of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.’ Lenin himself underscored the fundamental limitation of this ‘dictatorship’ when he openly called it bourgeois. By this he meant to say that for the sake of preserving its alliance with the peasantry the proletariat would in the coming revolution have to forego the direct posing of the socialist tasks. But this would signify the renunciation by the proletariat of its own dictatorship.”
—“Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution

The program of permanent revolution projected that the working class, supported by the majority of the peasantry, would lead the struggle for democracy (i.e., smash the Tsarist autocracy and expropriate the large landowners), while also undertaking the first stages of socialist construction:

“The perspective of the permanent revolution may be summed up in these words: The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.”

The validity of the core propositions of Trotsky’s permanent revolution – that the Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to realize the democratic tasks; the peasantry was incapable of acting independently; and the overthrow of Tsarism led by the working class would represent the opening chapter in an international socialist revolution – “was not revealed in 1905 only because the revolution itself did not receive further development,” i.e., the workers and peasant revolt was contained. The confirmation of permanent revolution came a dozen years later when the Bolshevik Party led the workers to power in the October Revolution of 1917.

Imperialism & Internationalism in WWI

Prior to the outbreak of WWI, the Second International had formally stood on the principles of internationalism and working-class solidarity. Its founding congress in Paris in 1889 proclaimed that war was a product of class society and that it would remain until socialism had replaced capitalism. The congress also called for abolishing standing armies and replacing them with popular militias of the armed people.

In 1907 the Second International passed the “Stuttgart Resolution on Militarism and the International Conflicts,” drafted by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, a leading figure in the left wing of the German SPD, which proposed:

“In case war should break out anyway, it is their [i.e., the working class and socialists’] duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination, and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist rule.”

The “Basel Manifesto,” adopted by the Second International in 1912, reiterated this sentiment and condemned the idea that socialists in any future conflict would side with their own imperialist rulers:

“The [proletarians] consider it a crime to shoot each other down in the interest and for the profit of the capitalism, and for the sake of dynastic ambition and of diplomatic secret treaties.”

On 25 July 1914, leaders of the SPD proclaimed:

“Comrades, we appeal to you to express at mass meetings without delay the German proletariat’s firm determination to maintain peace…. The ruling classes who in time of peace gag you, despise you and exploit you, would misuse you as food for cannon. Everywhere there must sound in the ears of those in power: ‘We will have no war! Down with war! Long live the international brotherhood of peoples!’”
—Quoted in Lenin and the Vanguard Party

Ten days later, on 4 August 1914, the parliamentary fractions of both the French and German sections of the International abandoned any pretense of working-class solidarity and voted for war credits, thereby endorsing the imperialist aims of their respective rulers. The French reformists depicted their support for the war as a “defense of the Republic” against German militarism, while their German counterparts argued that a military defeat for Germany would negate all the gains the socialist movement had won in the past (e.g., trade-union organizations, numerous party newspapers and publications, parliamentary representatives).

After escaping en route to exile in Siberia in January 1907, Trotsky had moved to Vienna. As a Russian émigré, he was forced to flee Vienna for neutral Switzerland when the Austro-Hungarian Empire went to war with Russia in August 1914. While in Switzerland he wrote The War and the International (1914):

“Capitalism has created the material conditions of a new Socialist economic system. Imperialism has led the capitalist nations into historic chaos. The War of 1914 shows the way out of this chaos by violently urging the proletariat on to the path of Revolution.”

“In these historical circumstances the working class, the proletariat, can have no interest in defending the outlived and antiquated national ‘fatherland,’ which has become the main obstacle to economic development. The task of the proletariat is to create a far more powerful fatherland, with far greater power of resistance – the republican United States of Europe as the foundation of the United States of the World.”

“The collapse of the Second International is a tragic fact, and it were blindness or cowardice to close one’s eyes to it.”

“This book was written in extreme haste, under conditions far from favourable to systematic work. A large part of it is devoted to the old International which has fallen. But the entire book, from the first to the last page, was written with the idea of the New International constantly in mind, the New International which must rise up out of the present world cataclysm, the International of the last conflict and the final victory.”

Trotsky’s views on the imperialist war were in line with Lenin’s anti-imperialist position of “revolutionary defeatism.” Beginning from the necessity to “convert the imperialist war into civil war,” Lenin argued:

“Both the advocates of victory for their governments in the present war and the advocates of the slogan ‘neither victory nor defeat’, equally take the standpoint of social-chauvinism. A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow. Only a bourgeois who believes that a war started by the governments must necessarily end as a war between governments and wants it to end as such, can regard as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘absurd’ the idea that the Socialists of all the belligerent countries should wish for the defeat of all ‘their’ governments and express this wish. On the contrary, it is precisely a statement of this kind that would conform to the cherished thoughts of every class-conscious worker, and would be in line with our activities towards converting the imperialist war into civil war.
“Undoubtedly, the serious anti-war agitation that is being conducted by a section of the British, German and Russian Socialists has ‘weakened the military power’ of the respective governments, but such agitation stands to the credit of the Socialists. Socialists must explain to the masses that they have no other road of salvation except the revolutionary overthrow of ‘their’ governments, and that advantage must be taken of these governments’ embarrassments in the present war precisely for this purpose.”
Socialism and War, Chp. I, 1915

Lenin denounced social-chauvinist claims that any of the imperialist belligerents were engaged in a “war of defense.” He also asserted that when colonies or semi-colonies were attacked by imperialist powers, Marxists stood for the defeat of imperialism and the military victory of the dependent country:

“For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be ‘just’, and ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slaveholding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers.”

In September 1915, a small number of left-wing socialist leaders from across Europe meeting in Zimmerwald, Switzerland condemned the social-chauvinism of the official leadership of the Second International and raised the banner of working-class internationalism. While refusing to endorse Lenin’s position of revolutionary defeatism, the “Zimmerwald Manifesto” denounced the imperialist slaughter and the war aims of the belligerent powers, called for a “fight for a peace without annexations or war indemnities” and urged workers to lift up the banner of socialism and embark upon “irreconcilable working-class struggle.”

The Manifesto reaffirmed the Marxist principle of internationalism, despite the fact that its signatories (who included Trotsky, Lenin, Martov and Axelrod) had important political differences on a variety of issues. Despite this, the Bolshevik delegation viewed the Zimmerwald movement as a significant step toward a new, revolutionary International.

Lenin’s policy of revolutionary defense of colonies and semi-colonies against imperialism was subsequently codified by the Third (or Communist) International. The Second Congress of the “Comintern,” in 1920, adopted Lenin’s “Twenty-One Conditions” for admission, including the following:

“Any party wishing to join the Third International must ruthlessly expose the colonial machinations of the imperialists of its ‘own’ country, must support – in deed, not merely in word – every colonial liberation movement, demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies, inculcate in the hearts of the workers of its own country an attitude of true brotherhood with the working population of the colonies and the oppressed nations, and conduct systematic agitation among the armed forces against all oppression of the colonial peoples.”
—“Terms of Admission into Communist International”, July 1920

Internationalism, anti-imperialism and the permanent revolution were the key programmatic elements that allowed the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, to guide the Russian working class to power in October 1917.

The Russian Revolution & Civil War

The October Revolution of 1917, the most important event in modern history, marked the first time the working class successfully overturned capitalism and established a state power designed to serve the interests of the exploited and oppressed. The key to that success was the intervention of a revolutionary party with the political capacity to win the backing of the vast majority of Russia’s workers and poor peasants.

The October Revolution, much like the “dress rehearsal” of 1905, was conditioned by military defeats suffered by the Tsarist regime. During the first half of 1914, a million workers had participated in a series of illegal strikes. One of the factors propelling Russia into the war was the hope within the ruling class that the conflict would produce a surge of nationalism to unify the nation and quell working-class dissent. When war broke out, Russia did experience a huge wave of patriotic fervor, like all the other combatants. Much of the left succumbed and supported the war, while the more left-wing groups who opposed participation in the war from the beginning, particularly the Bolsheviks and Martov’s Menshevik Internationalists, suffered a sharp drop in support. Many neighborhoods, trade-union branches and factory shop floors that had once been Bolshevik strongholds, now turned on them.

However, as the war dragged on, casualties mounted and the economy frayed, the mood changed. By 1917, 10 million of the 15 million soldiers in Russia’s army had been captured, seriously wounded or killed. In the days following International Women’s Day on 23 February 1917, demonstrators cried “Bread!” “Down with autocracy!” “Down with the war!” (see “Five Days,” Chp.7 in The History of the Russian Revolution). When the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) police turned their guns on the protests, the workers responded by setting up soviets, modelled on those of 1905. When, on 26 February, the Tsar demanded that the Petrograd garrison crush the upsurge, the soldiers responded by refusing orders and joining the protesters. The Tsar was forced to abdicate, and his regime collapsed.

To fill the void, a Provisional Government composed of representatives of various capitalist parties and “moderate socialists” (i.e., pro-capitalist reformists) was hastily assembled. The existence of this bourgeois body side-by-side with the workers’ soviets (a nascent alternative governmental structure) created an unstable situation of “dual power,” as Trotsky explained in The History of the Russian Revolution:

“The political mechanism of revolution consists of the transfer of power from one class to another. The forcible overturn is usually accomplished in a brief time. But no historic class lifts itself from a subject position to a position of rulership suddenly in one night, even though a night of revolution. It must already on the eve of the revolution have assumed a very independent attitude towards the official ruling class; moreover, it must have focused upon itself the hopes of intermediate classes and layers, dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs, but not capable of playing an independent rôle. The historic preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-revolutionary period, a situation in which the class which is called to realise the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in the hands of the old lords. That is the initial dual power in every revolution.
“But that is not its only form. If the new class, placed in power by a revolution which it did not want, is in essence an already old, historically belated, class; if it was already worn out before it was officially crowned; if on coming to power it encounters an antagonist already sufficiently mature and reaching out its hand toward the helm of state; then instead of one unstable two-power equilibrium, the political revolution produces another, still less stable. To overcome the ‘anarchy’ of this twofold sovereignty becomes at every new step the task of the revolution—or the counter-revolution.”
—“Dual Power,” Chp.11

The Provisional Government, although officially recognized by Russia’s military allies, had little popular support. The soviets, which had substantial authority with the plebeian masses, lacked official status and were distrusted by the propertied elites. This contradiction was initially masked by the fact that the soviets were dominated by reformist left parties that pledged allegiance to, and participated in, the Provisional Government.

Operating within the framework of Lenin’s “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” and anticipating that the overthrow of Tsarism would usher in a period of bourgeois-democratic rule, the Bolshevik Party was initially disoriented by the February Revolution. The all-Bolshevik Third RSDLP Congress in 1905 had claimed:

“Depending upon the alignment of forces and other factors which cannot be precisely defined in advance, representatives of our party may be allowed to take part in the provisional revolutionary government so as to conduct a relentless struggle against all counter-revolutionary attempts and to uphold the independent interests of the working class.”
—Quoted in Lenin and the Vanguard Party (our italics)

Events in February 1917 convinced Lenin to adjust this perspective and declare that the working class had to take power, with the support of the poor peasantry. This meant embracing the political core of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

In early April 1917, shortly after returning from exile, Lenin presented “The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution” (aka the “April Theses”), which was sharply critical of the policy pursued by the resident Bolshevik leadership of Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev. Their attitude had been to conditionally support the Provisional Government, as Stalin explained in March 1917:

“…the Provisional Government has in fact taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolutionary people…. It is not to our advantage at present to force events, hastening the process of repelling the bourgeois layers, who will in the future inevitably withdraw from us. It is necessary for us to gain time by putting a brake on the splitting away of the middle-bourgeois layers…”

“In so far as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution, to that extent we must support it; but in so far as it is counter-revolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.”
—“The March 1917 Party Conference (Part 1),” quoted in The Stalin School of Falsification, Trotsky

In stark contrast, Lenin’s “April Theses” declared:

“No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear…. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding ‘demand’ that this government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.”

“The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government…. [W]e preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies”
—“The April Theses

A few days later Lenin specifically repudiated the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”:

“This formula is already antiquated. Events have moved it from the realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it.”

“The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times; consequently he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘old Bolsheviks’).”
—“Letters on Tactics

Despite Lenin’s enormous political authority, his policy was widely regarded as sectarian by most of the Bolshevik cadre. Only after several weeks of intense political struggle did Lenin manage to win a majority of delegates at a Bolshevik conference in late April. This political reorientation was decisive in opening the path to victory in October. While many important political problems had to be solved during the subsequent six months, the acceptance of the “April Theses” set the strategic course toward proletarian revolution.

The Provisional Government soon demonstrated that it could satisfy neither the demands of the workers and peasants, nor those of the big landowners and capitalists. Increasingly large sections of the population began to see that the “dual power” in Russian society would not last indefinitely. Sooner or later there would either be a hard shift to the right, likely resulting in a military dictatorship committed to crushing the soviets and rebellious workers’ movement, or a decisive turn to the left to oust the Provisional Government and establish working-class rule. As the middle ground disappeared, the growing social polarization strengthened both the Bolsheviks and the militarist counterrevolutionaries.

Lenin’s “April Theses” and the policy of implacable opposition to the Provisional Government signaled a political convergence between Trotsky and the Bolsheviks on the decisive questions. Upon his return to Russia in May, Trotsky worked closely with the Bolsheviks, while formally adhering to the Mezhrayontsi (Inter-Borough) organization in Petrograd, a small RSDLP grouping which briefly occupied a middle position between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Trotsky later explained that: “The sole consideration which delayed my formal entry into the party for three months was the desire to expedite the fusion of the best elements of the Mezhrayontsi organization, and of revolutionary internationalists in general, with the Bolsheviks” (Lessons of October, 1924). He succeeded in negotiating fusion in July 1917.

In June 1917, Alexander Kerensky, the “socialist” who headed the Provisional Government, launched a military offensive that, despite initial promise, soon turned into a huge defeat. This broke the back of residual pro-war sentiment and translated politically into a dramatic popular swing to the left, favoring the Bolsheviks.

In July, Petrograd was rocked by large-scale armed pro-Bolshevik demonstrations by sailors, soldiers and workers who wanted to immediately bring down the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks, who had promoted leftist dissent, believed that an insurrection would be premature because outside the capital, and Moscow, the reformists who backed the Provisional Government retained mass support. An attempted seizure of power by the Bolsheviks could have very easily been isolated and ended in a bloody defeat.

With the insurgent Petrograd masses held in check, Kerensky lashed out at the left, outlawing the Bolshevik party and jailing Kamenev and Trotsky, while Lenin and his closest collaborator, Gregory Zinoviev, fled to Finland to avoid arrest. Kerensky appointed General Lavr Kornilov, a far-right monarchist, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. When Kornilov returned the favor by almost immediately plotting to oust Kerensky, attempts were made to dismiss him. He responded by beginning to mobilize his troops to march on Petrograd to disperse the Provisional Government and crush the workers’ movement.

The Bolsheviks, who still enjoyed massive popular support among workers as well as sailors and soldiers, proposed a military bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov. Kerensky was in no position to refuse, and agreed to release the jailed Bolsheviks. Kornilov’s forces were met by Bolshevik agitators who persuaded many of them to abandon their mission, thus removing the threat. A few weeks later when it was revealed that Kerensky had been conspiring with Kornilov, support for the Provisional Government fell to a new low, thus setting the stage for the Bolsheviks to make their move.

The question of insurrection produced another major debate within the Bolshevik leadership. Between July and October the Bolsheviks had gained solid majorities in the soviets in Petrograd and Moscow, as well as other urban centers. While their support was rising across the country, they did not yet have a majority in most of the smaller cities, particularly in the non-Russian parts of the empire.

Lenin, who insisted that the opportunity would not last long, favored a policy of striking immediately. As in April, he was initially isolated and unable to win a majority for several weeks. On 10 October the party leadership voted in favor of insurrection, but two members of the Central Committee, Kamenev and Zinoviev, who disagreed with the decision, broke discipline and revealed the Bolshevik plans. Lenin denounced them as “strikebreakers of the revolution,” and unsuccessfully demanded their expulsion from the party. Though the Bolshevik plan was now exposed, Kerensky was simply too weak to act upon the information.

Trotsky, once again chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, proposed that the uprising be set to coincide with the opening of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, whose delegates could then legitimize the seizure of power. The Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which was headed by Trotsky and charged with the defense of the capital against counterrevolution, was the mechanism for coordinating the seizure of power. It had a Bolshevik majority but also included 14 members of the Left Social Revolutionaries and four anarchists. When the Provisional Government ordered the Petrograd garrison to the front, the soldiers mutinied and declared loyalty to the Soviet. This gave the Military Revolutionary Committee de facto military control of the capital. As Trotsky noted in retrospect:

“The moment when the regiments, upon the instructions of the Military Revolutionary Committee, refused to depart from the city, we had a victorious insurrection in the capital, only slightly screened at the top by the remnants of the bourgeois-democratic state forms. The insurrection of October 25 was only supplementary in character.”
Lessons of October

After Kerensky closed the Bolshevik press on 24 October, the Military Revolutionary Committee immediately reopened it:

“The seals were torn from the building, the moulds again poured, and the work went on. With a few hours’ delay the newspaper suppressed by the government came out under protection of the troops of a committee which was itself liable to arrest. That was insurrection. That is how it developed.”
The History of the Russian Revolution

Within hours Petrograd was in the hands of soldiers and Red Guards (workers’ militias) loyal to the Military Revolutionary Committee. On 25 October 1917, the Red Guards seized the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, and swept away the remnants of bourgeois rule.

The next day the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets endorsed the seizure of power, and appointed a new cabinet with Lenin as the Premier and Trotsky as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Lenin’s address to the congress began: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The delegates of the right wing of the Social Revolutionaries (i.e., peasant radicals) and the more conservative elements among the Mensheviks walked out in protest, prompting Trotsky to observe that they were headed for the “dustbin of history.” The Left Social Revolutionaries, who formed a coalition government with the Bolsheviks, and a handful of minor party delegates, remained. A new state – comprised of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets led by a Bolshevik majority and defended by the armed working class – was born: the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Upon taking power the Bolsheviks immediately issued several important decrees that helped consolidate the new regime. The “Decree on Establishment of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government” formally put power in the hands of the soviets. The “Decree on Peace” proposed to immediately withdraw Russia from the war and called for a conference at which all belligerents would agree to a peace without annexations or indemnities. The “Decree on Land,” based on the Left SRs’ agrarian program, called for the expropriation of large landowners, the nobility and the church, and for their land to be distributed to the poor peasants (see “The Land Question in the Russian Revolution”).

Kerensky, who had escaped before the capture of the Winter Palace, gathered the forces he could muster. Four days after the Bolshevik-led revolution, Kerensky’s supporters, commanded by Cossack General Peter Krasnov, counterattacked. In Petrograd the Red Guards quickly repelled the insurgents, but in Moscow fighting continued for several days with a substantial number of casualties.

The capitalist press around the world denounced the Bolsheviks as bloodthirsty maniacs and violent enemies of civilization. In fact, after the Kerensky-Krasnov episode, there was very little violence. Indeed, the Bolsheviks were initially extremely conciliatory to their opponents. Following Krasnov’s aborted assault he was released after promising not to take up arms against the new regime again – a promise he broke within weeks.

The Bolsheviks, who anticipated that the October Revolution would quickly be aided by revolutions throughout Europe, moved very cautiously against propertied interests (with the exception of the church, nobility and large landowners). The Soviet government had no intention of nationalizing most of the large capitalist enterprises immediately, and only did so in May 1918 as a defensive measure.

Europe’s rulers were far less conciliatory. Winston Churchill, Britain’s Minister of Munitions, bluntly declared: “The baby [i.e., Soviet Russia] must be strangled in its crib.” Prime Minister David Lloyd George said:

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution…. The greatest danger that I see in the present situation is that Germany may throw in her lot with Bolshevism…. Once that happens all eastern Europe will be swept into the orbit of the Bolshevik revolution…. Bolshevik imperialism does not merely menace the states on Russia’s borders. It threatens the whole of Asia and is as near to America as it is to France.”
—“Fontainebleau Memorandum,” 25 March 1919

In December 1917, barely a month after the revolution, the British and French governments had worked out a division of labor for organizing the counterrevolution: France was to be responsible for Ukraine, while Britain looked after the Caucuses. In addition to providing munitions and political support, Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, Japan and half a dozen other countries intervened militarily in Russia’s civil war on the side of the counterrevolutionary Whites. In May 1918, some 50,000 Czech prisoners, spurred on by the Allied powers and the Whites, revolted and seized a large chunk of Central Siberia.

The German rulers, with whom Trotsky as Minister of Foreign Affairs met in early 1918 at Brest-Litovsk (in present-day Poland) to discuss peace terms, proved no less hostile. The Bolshevik leadership was seriously divided over the negotiations: a left wing, led by Nikolai Bukharin, rejected on principle any compromise with the imperialists; Lenin, fearing an imminent collapse of Russia’s armed forces, favored immediate acceptance of German terms; and Trotsky proposed a policy of “no peace, no war” (i.e., neither pursue the war, nor sign a treaty). Trotsky mistakenly calculated that given the de facto cessation of hostilities, Germany would not seek to grab more Soviet territory. When the German army began driving deeper into Russia, the Bolsheviks were forced to sign a humiliating treaty in which they gave up a third of the country and much of its industrial and agricultural capacity.

These concessions enraged the Left SRs, who quit the government and insurrected. They bombed the Bolshevik Central Committee building, killing 14 people; captured Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka (state security service); seized the Moscow telegraph center; assassinated the German ambassador; and shot Lenin (who survived but was seriously wounded). The Bolsheviks responded by banning the Left SRs. During the Civil War (1918-1921), the Bolsheviks resorted to “Red Terror” in defense of the Soviet regime (see “Conversation With An Anarchist”), seeing these measures as temporary expedients necessitated by an acute danger.

The October Revolution of 1917 posed the gravest threat ever faced by global capitalism. By expropriating the ruling class and creating a new state power – a workers’ government – Russia’s insurgent proletariat sent shock waves around the world. The leadership provided by the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Trotsky (including in his role as head of the Red Army), proved to be the decisive factor in the survival of the revolution. But the isolation of the Soviet workers’ state, which was neither inevitable nor anticipated by the Bolsheviks, exacted a heavy price, and provided the context for the crucial political struggle over the fate of the revolution encapsulated in the conflict between Trotsky and Stalin following Lenin’s death in 1924.

Next—Part II: The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution