On the 100th anniversary of the October revolution, Alex Snowdon introduces a key chapter from Trotsky's radical book on the subject
Leon Trotsky died on 21 August 1940, killed by a Stalinist agent. In 1917 he had been second only to Lenin as a leading figure in the Russian revolutionary movement. In October 1917 he was the main organiser of the insurrection which enabled the Russian working class to overthrow the state.
Trotsky was tremendously talented and had many strengths. He wrote, with outstanding perception, across a wide range of topics; he was a powerful orator, important marxist theoretician and immensely capable political organiser. Trotsky also demonstrated great personal commitment and courage in his continued defiance of Stalin, suffering expulsion from his party, exile from his country and the killings of several of his family before finally being assassinated himself.
He adhered to his revolutionary socialist ideas and principles to the end, despite being personally persecuted and politically marginalised, and dedicated himself to keeping alive the authentic tradition of socialism from below and internationalism. He was helped in this by his gift for brilliant clarity of political analysis, and also his fidelity to the ideas which had guided him and his fellow revolutionaries in more favourable times.
The piece below was originally a chapter in 'The Lessons of October', an extremely insightful little book Trotsky wrote in 1924 as an attempt to learn from the experience of the 1917 revolution. For Marxists, the dramatic and world-shaking events of that year continue to be an indispensable reference point, a source of a great deal of our understanding of revolution. Trotsky's short retrospective analysis is a useful distillation of the main political lessons, as well as an informative introduction to the revolution.
This chapter concerns the insurrection, i.e. the overthrow of the old capitalist state and the seizure of political power, which was just one moment - but nonethless a critical moment - in an ongoing revolutionary process. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks completely rejected elitist notions of a self-selecting vanguard trying to take power, regardless of the wishes and actions of the wider working class. The moment of insurrection had to be finely judged; it must be an expression of the wishes of working people, not just the revolutionary party.
The insurrection was only possible becuase the Bolsheviks had, by that stage, won mass support amongst workers; the soviets, or workers' councils, were already giving expresison to widely-felt revolutionary impulses. Soldiers and sailors mutinied against participation in the mass slaughter of the war; millions of peasants in the Russian countryside were fed up and discontented with hardship.
By 25 October there had been a period of 'dual power', i.e. of the soviets and of the Duma (parliament) headed by Alexander Kerensky, for some months. This was an unstable situation that couldn't last indefinitely. Within the soviets - workers' councils of elected delegates - there were different political tendencies, with the Bolsheviks (and their slogan "All power to the soviets!") increasingly gaining support from the vacillating Mensheviks.
An interesting element in Trotsky's account here, however, is the careful tactical discussion required to ensure the insurrection was successful. It is not widely known that Lenin's own initial ideas on how to proceed were in fact rejected. Trotsky's proposals were, correctly, accepted instead.
The differences - which, as Trotsky notes, were tactical rather than a matter of deep prinicple - concerned location (Moscow or Petrograd?) and the question of who officially called the insurrection (party or soviet?). Trotsky also celebrates Lenin's considerable strengths of leadership evident at this time.
Trotsky himself displayed exceptional strategic and tactical astuteness in his thinking about the crucial questions involved. His organisation of the insurrection reminds us that revolutionary politics is an art, as well as a science, in particularly vivid form. That is conveyed eloquently in this chapter...
Trotsky: Insurrection and revolutionary strategy in 1917
In September, while the Democratic Conference was in session, Lenin demanded that we immediately proceed with the insurrection.
“In order to treat insurrection in a Marxist way, i.e., as an art, we must at the same time, without losing a single moment, organize a headquarters of the insurgent detachments, distribute our forces, move the reliable regiments to the most important points, surround the Alexandrinsky Theater, occupy the Peter and Paul Fortress, arrest the General Staff and the government, and move against the officer cadets and the Savage Division those detachments which would rather die than allow the enemy to approach the strategic points of the city.
We must mobilize the armed workers and call them to fight the last desperate fight, occupy the telegraph and telephone exchange at once, move our insurrection headquarters to the central telephone exchange and connect it by telephone with all the factories, all the regiments, all the points of armed fighting, etc. Of course, this is all by way of example, only to illustrate the fact that at the present moment it is impossible to remain loyal to Marxism, to remain loyal to the revolution unless insurrection is treated as an art.” [CW, Vol.26, Marxism and Insurrection (September 13-14, 1917), p.27]
The above formulation of the question presupposed that the preparation and completion of the insurrection were to be carried out through party channels and in the name of the party, and afterwards the seal of approval was to be placed on the victory by the Congress of Soviets. The Central Committee did not adopt this proposal.
The insurrection was led into soviet channels and was linked in our agitation with the Second Soviet Congress. A detailed explanation of this difference of opinion will make it clear that this question pertains not to principle but rather to a technical issue of great practical importance.
We have already pointed out with what intense anxiety Lenin regarded the postponement of the insurrection. In view of the vacillation among the party leaders, an agitation formally linking the impending insurrection with the impending Soviet Congress seemed to him an impermissible delay, a concession to the irresolute, a loss of time through vacillation, and an outright crime. Lenin kept reiterating this idea from the end of September onward.
“There is a tendency, or an opinion, in our Central Committee and among the leaders of our Party,” he wrote on September 29, “which favors waiting for the Congress of Soviets, and is opposed to taking power immediately, is opposed to an immediate insurrection. That tendency, or opinion, must be overcome.” [CW, Vol.26, The Crisis Has Matured (September 29, 1917), p.82]
At the beginning of October, Lenin wrote: “Delay is criminal. To wait for the Congress of Soviets would be a childish game of formalities, a disgraceful game of formalities, and a betrayal of the revolution.” [CW, Vol.26, Letter to the Central Committee, the Moscow and Petrograd Committees and the Bolshevik Members of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets (October 1, 1917), p.141]
In his theses for the Petrograd Conference of October 8, Lenin said: “It is necessary to fight against constitutional illusions and hopes placed in the Congress of Soviets, to discard the preconceived idea that we absolutely must ‘wait’ for it.” [CW, Vol.26, Theses for a Report at the October 8 Conference of the Petrograd Organization, also for a Resolution and Instructions to Those Elected to the Party Congress (September 29-October 4, 1917), p.144]
Finally, on October 24, Lenin wrote: “It is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal ... History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious today (and they certainly will be victorious today), while they risk losing much tomorrow, in fact, they risk losing everything.” [CW, Vol.26, Letter to Central Committee Members (October 24, 1917), pp.234-35]
All these letters, every sentence of which was forged on the anvil of revolution, are of exceptional value in that they serve both to characterize Lenin and to provide an estimate of the situation at the time. The basic and all-pervasive thought expressed in them is - anger, protest, and indignation against a fatalistic, temporizing, social democratic, Menshevik attitude to revolution, as if the latter were an endless film.
If time is, generally speaking, a prime factor in politics, then the importance of time increases a hundred fold in war and in revolution. It is not at all possible to accomplish on the morrow everything that can be done today. To rise in arms, to overwhelm the enemy, to seize power, may be possible today, but tomorrow may be impossible.
But to seize power is to change the course of history. Is it really true that such a historic event can hinge upon an interval of twenty-four hours? Yes, it can.
When things have reached the point of armed insurrection, events are to be measured not by the long yardstick of politics, but by the short yardstick of war. To lose several weeks, several days, and sometimes even a single day, is tantamount under certain conditions to the surrender of the revolution, to capitulation. Had Lenin not sounded the alarm, had there not been all this pressure and criticism on his part, had it not been for his intense and passionate revolutionary mistrust, the party would probably have failed to align its front at the decisive moment, for the opposition among the party leaders was very strong, and the staff plays a major role in all wars, including civil wars.
At the same time, however, it is quite clear that to prepare the insurrection and to carry it out under cover of preparing for the Second Soviet Congress and under the slogan of defending it, was of inestimable advantage to us. From the moment when we, as the Petrograd Soviet, invalidated Kerensky’s order transferring two-thirds of the garrison to the front, we had actually entered a state of armed insurrection.
Lenin, who was not in Petrograd, could not appraise the full significance of this fact. So far as I remember, there is not a mention of it in all his letters during this period. Yet the outcome of the insurrection of October 25 was at least three-quarters settled, if not more, the moment that we opposed the transfer of the Petrograd garrison; created the Revolutionary Military Committee (October 16); appointed our own commissars in all army divisions and institutions; and thereby completely isolated not only the general staff of the Petrograd zone, but also the government.
As a matter of fact, we had here an armed insurrection - an armed though bloodless insurrection of the Petrograd regiments against the Provisional Government - under the leadership of the Revolutionary Military Committee and under the slogan of preparing the defense of the Second Soviet Congress, which would decide the ultimate fate of the state power.
Lenin’s counsel to begin the insurrection in Moscow, where, on his assumptions, we could gain a bloodless victory, flowed precisely from the fact that in his underground refuge he had no opportunity to assess the radical turn that took place not only in mood but also in organizational ties among the military rank and file as well as the army hierarchy after the “peaceful” insurrection of the garrison of the capital in the middle of October. The moment that the regiments, upon the instructions of the Revolutionary Military 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. This is precisely why it was painless. In Moscow, on the other hand, the struggle was much longer and bloodier, despite the fact that in Petrograd the power of the Council of People’s Commissars had already been established. It is plain enough that had the insurrection begun in Moscow, prior to the overturn in Petrograd, it would have dragged on even longer, with the outcome very much in doubt.
Failure in Moscow would have had grave effects on Petrograd. Of course, a victory along these lines was not at all excluded. But the way that events actually occurred proved much more economical, much more favorable, and much more successful.
We were more or less able to synchronize the seizure of power with the opening of the Second Soviet Congress only because the peaceful, almost “legal” armed insurrection - at least in Petrograd - was already three-quarters, if not nine-tenths achieved. Our reference to this insurrection as “legal” is in the sense that it was an outgrowth of the “normal” conditions of dual power. Even when the conciliationists dominated the Petrograd Soviet it frequently happened that the soviet revised or amended the decisions of the government.
This was, so to speak, part of the constitution under the regime that has been inscribed in the annals of history as the “Kerensky period.” When we Bolsheviks assumed power in the Petrograd Soviet, we only continued and deepened the methods of dual power. We took it upon ourselves to revise the order transferring the troops to the front.
By this very act we covered up the actual insurrection of the Petrograd garrison with the traditions and methods of legal dual power. Nor was that all. While formally adapting our agitation on the question of power to the opening of the Second Soviet Congress, we developed and deepened the already existing traditions of dual power, and prepared the framework of soviet legality for the Bolshevik insurrection on an All-Russian scale.
We did not lull the masses with any soviet constitutional illusions, for under the slogan of a struggle for the Second Soviet Congress we won over to our side the bayonets of the revolutionary army and consolidated our gains organizationally. And, in addition, we succeeded, far more than we expected, in luring our enemies, the conciliationists, into the trap of soviet legality.
Resorting to trickery in politics, all the more so in revolution, is always dangerous. You will most likely fail to dupe the enemy, but the masses who follow you may be duped instead. Our “trickery” proved 100 percent successful - not because it was an artful scheme devised by wily strategists seeking to avoid a civil war, but because it derived naturally from the disintegration of the conciliationist regime with its glaring contradictions.
The Provisional Government wanted to get rid of the garrison. The soldiers did not want to go to the front. We invested this natural unwillingness with a political expression; we gave it a revolutionary goal and a “legal” cover. Thereby we secured unprecedented unanimity within the garrison, and bound it up closely with the Petrograd workers.
Our opponents, on the contrary, because of their hopeless position and their muddle-headedness, were inclined to accept the soviet cover at its face value. They yearned to be deceived and we provided them with ample opportunity to gratify their desire.
Between the conciliationists and ourselves, there was a struggle for soviet legality. In the minds of the masses, the soviets were the source of all power. Out of the soviets came Kerensky, Tseretelli, and Skobelev.
But we ourselves were closely bound up with the soviets through our basic slogan, “All power to the soviets!” The bourgeoisie derived their succession to power from the state Duma. The conciliationists derived their succession from the soviets; and so did we. But the conciliationists sought to reduce the soviets to nothing; while we were striving to transfer power to the soviets.
The conciliationists could not break as yet with the soviet heritage, and were in haste to create a bridge from the latter to parliamentarism. With this in mind they convened the Democratic Conference and created the Pre-Parliament. The participation of the soviets in the Pre-Parliament gave a semblance of sanction to this procedure. The conciliationists sought to catch the revolution with the bait of soviet legality and, after hooking it, to drag it into the channel of bourgeois parliamentarism.
But we were also interested in making use of soviet legality. At the conclusion of the Democratic Conference we extracted from the conciliationists a promise to convene the Second Soviet Congress. This congress placed them in an extremely embarrassing position. On the one hand, they could not oppose convening it without breaking with soviet legality; on the other hand, they could not help seeing that the congress - because of its composition - boded them little good.
In consequence, all the more insistently did we appeal to the Second Congress as the real master of the country; and all the more did we adapt our entire preparatory work to the support and defense of the Congress of Soviets against the inevitable attacks of the counter-revolution. If the conciliationists attempted to hook us with soviet legality through the Pre-Parliament emanating from the soviets, then we, on our part, lured them with the same soviet legality - through the Second Congress.
It is one thing to prepare an armed insurrection under the naked slogan of the seizure of power by the party, and quite another thing to prepare and then carry out an insurrection under the slogan of defending the rights of the Congress of Soviets. Thus, the adaptation of the question of the seizure of power to the Second Soviet Congress did not involve any naive hopes that the congress itself could settle the question of power. Such fetishism of the soviet form was entirely alien to us.
All the necessary work for the conquest of power, not only the political but also the organizational and military-technical work for the seizure of power, went on at full speed. But the legal cover for all this work was always provided by an invariable reference to the coming congress, which would settle the question of power. Waging an offensive all along the line, we kept up the appearance of being on the defensive.
On the other hand, the Provisional Government - if it had been able to make up its mind to defend itself seriously - would have had to attack the Congress of Soviets, prohibit its convocation, and thereby provide the opposing side with a motive - most damaging to the government - for an armed insurrection. Moreover, we not only placed the Provisional Government in an unfavorable political position; we also lulled their already sufficiently lazy and unwieldy minds.
These people seriously believed that we were only concerned with soviet parliamentarism, and with a new congress which would adopt a new resolution on power - in the style of the resolutions adopted by the Petrograd and Moscow soviets - and that the government would then ignore it, using the Pre-Parliament and the coming Constituent Assembly as a pretext, and thus put us in a ridiculous position.
We have the irrefutable testimony of Kerensky to the effect that the minds of the sagest middle-class wiseacres were bent precisely in this direction. In his memoirs, Kerensky relates how, in his study, at midnight on October 25, stormy disputes raged between himself, Dan, and the others over the armed insurrection, which was then in full swing.
“Dan declared, first of all, that they were better informed than I was, and that I was exaggerating the events, under the influence ‘of reports from my ‘reactionary staff.’ He then informed me that the resolution adopted by the majority of the soviets of the republic, which had so offended ‘the self-esteem of the government,’ was of extreme value, and essential for bringing about the ‘shift in the mood of the masses’; that its effect was already ‘making itself felt,’ and that now the influence of Bolshevik propaganda would ‘decline rapidly.’ On the other hand, according to Dan’s own words, the Bolsheviks themselves had declared, in negotiations with the leaders of the soviet majority, their readiness to ‘submit to the will of the soviet majority’; and that they were ready ‘tomorrow’ to use all measures to quell the insurrection which flared up against their own wishes and without their sanction!
In conclusion, after mentioning that the Bolsheviks would disband their military staff ‘tomorrow’ (always tomorrow!) Dan declared that all the measures I had taken to crush the insurrection had only ‘irritated the masses’ and that by my meddling I was generally ‘hindering the representatives of the soviet majority’ from successfully concluding their negotiations with the Bolsheviks for the liquidation of the insurrection ...
To complete the picture, I ought to add that at the very moment Dan was imparting to me this remarkable information, the armed detachments of ‘Red Guards’ were occupying government buildings, one after another. And almost immediately after the departure of Dan and his comrades from the Winter Palace, Minister Kartashev, on his way home from a session of the Provisional Government, was arrested on Milliony street and taken directly to Smolny, whither Dan was returning to resume his peaceful conversations with the Bolsheviks.
I must confess that the Bolsheviks deported themselves at that time with great energy and no less skill. At the moment when the insurrection was in full blast, and while the ‘red troops’ were operating all over the city, several Bolshevik leaders especially designated for the purpose sought, not unsuccessfully, to make the representatives of ‘revolutionary democracy’ see but remain blind, hear but remain deaf. All night long these wily men engaged in endless squabbles over various formulas which were supposed to serve as the basis for reconciliation and for the liquidation of the insurrection.
By this method of ‘negotiating’ the Bolsheviks gained a great deal of time. But the fighting forces of the SRs and the Mensheviks were not mobilized in time. But, of course, this is QED!” (A. Kerensky, From Afar, pages 197-98)
Well put! QED! The conciliationists, as we gather from the above account, were completely hooked with the bait of soviet legality. Kerensky’s assumption that certain Bolsheviks were specially disguised in order to deceive the Mensheviks and the SRs about the pending liquidation of the insurrection is in fact not true.
As a matter of fact, the Bolsheviks most actively participating in the negotiations were those who really desired the liquidation of the insurrection, and who believed in the formula of a socialist government, formed by the conciliation of all parties. Objectively, however, these parliamentarians doubtless proved of some service to the insurrection - feeding, with their own illusions, the illusions of the enemy. But they were able to render this service to the revolution only because the party, in spite of all their counsels and all their warnings, pressed on with the insurrection with unabating energy and carried it through to the end.
A combination of altogether exceptional circumstances - great and small - was needed to ensure the success of this extensive and enveloping manouevre. Above all, an army was needed which was unwilling to fight any longer. The entire course of the revolution - particularly during the initial stages - from February to October, inclusive, would have been, as we have already said, altogether different if at the moment of revolution there had not existed in the country a broken and discontented peasant army of many millions.
These conditions alone made it possible to bring to a successful conclusion the experiment with the Petrograd garrison, which predetermined the victorious outcome of October.
There cannot be the slightest talk of sanctifying into any sort of a law this peculiar combination of a “dry” and almost imperceptible insurrection together with the defense of soviet legality against Kornilov and his followers.
On the contrary, we can state with certainty that this experience will never be repeated anywhere in such a form. But a careful study of it is most necessary. It will tend to broaden the horizon of every revolutionist, disclosing before him the multiplicity and variety of ways and means which can be set in motion, provided the goal is kept clearly in mind, the situation is correctly appraised, and there is a determination to carry the struggle through to the end.
In Moscow, the insurrection took much longer and entailed much greater sacrifices. The explanation for this lies partly in the fact that the Moscow garrison was not subjected to the same revolutionary preparation as the Petrograd garrison in connection with the transfer of regiments to the front.
We have already said, and we repeat, that the armed insurrection in Petrograd was carried out in two installments: the first in the early part of October, when the Petrograd regiments, obeying the decision of the soviet, which harmonized completely with their own desires, refused to carry out the orders from headquarters - and did so with impunity - and the second on October 25, when only a minor and supplementary insurrection was required in order to sever the umbilical cord of the February state power. But in Moscow, the insurrection took place in a single stage, and that was probably the main reason that it was so protracted.
But there was also another reason: the leadership was not decisive enough. In Moscow we saw a swing from military action to negotiations only to be followed by another swing from negotiations to military action. If vacillations on the part of the leaders, which are transmitted to the followers, are generally harmful in politics, then they become a mortal danger under the conditions of an armed insurrection. The ruling class has already lost confidence in its own strength (otherwise there could, in general, be no hope for victory) but the apparatus still remains in its hands.
The task of the revolutionary class is to conquer the state apparatus. To do so, it must have confidence in its own forces. Once the party has led the workers to insurrection, it has to draw from this all the necessary conclusions. √Ä la guerre comme à la guerre (“War is war”). Under war conditions, vacillation and procrastination are less permissible than at any other time.
The measuring stick of war is a short one. To mark time, even for a few hours, is to restore a measure of confidence to the ruling class while taking it away from the insurgents. But this is precisely what determines the relationship of forces, which, in turn, determines the outcome of the insurrection. From this point of view it is necessary to study, step by step, the course of military operations in Moscow in their connection with the political leadership.
It would be of great significance to indicate several other instances where the civil war took place under special conditions, being complicated, for instance, by the intrusion of a national element. Such a study, based upon carefully digested factual data, would greatly enrich our knowledge of the mechanics of civil war and thereby facilitate the elaboration of certain methods, rules, and devices of a sufficiently general character to serve as a sort of “manual” of civil war. But in anticipation of the partial conclusions of such a study, it may be said that the course of the civil war in the provinces was largely determined by the outcome in Petrograd, even despite the delay in Moscow.
The February revolution cracked the old apparatus. The Provisional Government inherited it, and was unable either to renew it or to strengthen it. In consequence, its state apparatus functioned between February and October only as a relic of bureaucratic inertia.
The provincial bureaucracy had become accustomed to do what Petrograd did; it did this in February, and repeated it in October. It was an enormous advantage to us that we were preparing to overthrow a regime which had not yet had time to consolidate itself. The extreme instability and want of assurance of the February state apparatus facilitated our work in the extreme by instilling the revolutionary masses and the party itself with self-assurance.
A similar situation existed in Germany and Austria after November 9, 1918. There, however, the social democracy filled in the cracks of the state apparatus and helped to establish a bourgeois republican regime; and though this regime cannot be considered a pattern of stability, it has nevertheless already survived six years.
So far as other capitalist countries are concerned, they will not have this advantage, i.e., the proximity of a bourgeois and a proletarian revolution. Their February is already long past. To be sure, in England there are a good many relics of feudalism, but there are absolutely no grounds for speaking of an independent bourgeois revolution in England.
Purging the country of the monarchy, and the Lords, and the rest, will be achieved by the first sweep of the broom of the English proletariat when they come into power. The proletarian revolution in the West will have to deal with a completely established bourgeois state. But this does not mean that it will have to deal with a stable state apparatus; for the very possibility of proletarian insurrection implies an extremely advanced process of the disintegration of the capitalist state.
If in our country the October Revolution unfolded in the struggle with a state apparatus which did not succeed in stabilizing itself after February, then in other countries the insurrection will be confronted with a state apparatus in a state of progressive disintegration.
It may be assumed as a general rule - we pointed this out as far back as the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern - that the force of the pre-October resistance of the bourgeoisie in old capitalist countries will generally be much greater than in our country; it will be more difficult for the proletariat to gain victory; but, on the other hand, the conquest of power will immediately secure for them a much more stable and firm position than we attained on the day after October.
In our country, the civil war took on real scope only after the proletariat had conquered power in the chief cities and industrial centers, and it lasted for the first three years of soviet rule. There is every indication that in the countries of Central and Western Europe it will be much more difficult for the proletariat to conquer power, but that after the seizure of power they will have a much freer hand.
Naturally, these considerations concerning prospects are only hypothetical. A good deal will depend on the order in which revolutions take place in the different countries of Europe, the possibilities of military intervention, the economic and military strength of the Soviet Union at the time, and so on.
But in any case, our basic and, we believe, incontestable postulate, that the actual process of the conquest of power will encounter in Europe and America a much more serious, obstinate, and prepared resistance from the ruling classes than was the case with us - makes it all the more incumbent upon us to view the armed insurrection in particular and civil war in general as an art.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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