Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (volumes 1, 2 & 3): an appraisal

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ICC introduction

A number of comrades have been reflecting seriously on the importance of the October Revolution in Russia. The text that follows has been sent to us by a close sympathiser of the ICC in Belgium. The comrade had prepared this contribution for a previous meeting in September 2017 in Belgium on the topic of the October Revolution – we have already published a contribution by another sympathiser written at the same time (see Contribution to the discussion of the centenary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, November 2017).

We are publishing these contributions in the hope that as many comrades as possible will read them and that they will stimulate further reflection and discussion. We encourage all our readers to consider making further contributions themselves, either in the form of texts or participating on our forum at our website.

The text aims to draw the lessons from the revolution in Russia for today and the comrade takes a closer look to how Trotsky’s three-volume History of the Russian Revolution can help us in applying the lessons of this experience in the twenty first century. The contribution discusses what it means for communists to make up a balance sheet of a movement, a theory, an author, etc. – and how this can help us to reconsider our tasks today. Drawing a balance sheet, like any theoretical work, has as its goal to create the conditions for overcoming our weaknesses and give us the strength we need to struggle.

As the author concludes: “Reviewing a work of this magnitude is part of drawing a larger balance sheet. But it cannot be seen as an isolated event, a chapter that we have now closed. Only discussion amongst the revolutionary minorities and inside the proletariat can ultimately help us understand our predicament today. We do not live at the turn of the 20th century and much has changed during the last century. Some experiences have been vital, but all in all, the proletariat has lost more than it has gained. We can only hope that future struggles will provide new experiences that will allow us to overcome capitalism”.

We are in complete agreement with the text as a whole, but in the paragraph on the Kornilov coup and the United Front, towards the end of the article, there is a passage that gives the idea that Kerensky was merely an opportunist at the time, when in reality he was the head of the bourgeois government that was continuing the war effort and aimed to liquidate the revolutionary movement. So the reference in this paragraph to “compromise with opportunists” as a tactic in certain circumstances seems rather ambiguous. There is an article on the ICC website that we think clarifies this issue, pointing out that the Bolsheviks called for support to the workers’ militias and other class organs, not for support to the Kerensky government: ‘The Kornilov coup, August 1917: military blocs or autonomous class struggle?’(


author’s introduction

In the centenary of the Russian Revolution the reaction of the bourgeoisie and its political and intellectual representatives has generally been twofold. On the one hand, especially from the left wing of bourgeois democracy, we are told that the Russian Revolution was one of the most singular, liberating events in history, and yet, at the same time, that “October” never died but lives on in the parties that claim historical ties to the Bolsheviks. In other words, to honour the Russian Revolution means to pay homage to the subsequent Soviet Union and the various extreme left groups of Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist and other varieties. In practice, all these different flavours of leftism invariably end up to be some variant of fervent red flag waving social democracy, different state capitalisms distinguished only by a preference either for the “democratic” form or for coming “from the barrel of a gun”. To be clear on the matter, we believe that the “positions” of these bourgeois parties, which have nothing to do with the historical positions of the Bolsheviks, have only legitimized brutal state capitalist regimes in the name of communism.

On the other hand, it has been held by conservative and liberal thinkers that the Russian Revolution had to end in political repression and economic stagnation. In other words, the uprising of the proletariat in Russia must be held as monstrous from its very inception, because it had to lead to Stalin’s dictatorship and his brutal betrayal of the revolution. It is interesting how few authors of this vulgar-teleological type are willing to use this kind of reasoning to say something about capitalism and the First World War. Other, more “sophisticated” histories of the Russian Revolution use more developed conceptual frameworks. For instance, the “Russian character” is used to demonstrate that it had to be expected that a dictatorial regime had to eventually rise in Russia - see, for example, the recent biography of Stalin published by Prof. Dr. Kotkin. An actual sociological explanation for the rise of Stalin and the state capitalist regime that bears his name, such as the isolation of the backward Soviet Union after the failure of the expansion of the communist revolutions to expand to Germany (1918), Hungary (1919) and other countries, is generally brushed aside. According to these gentlemen and gentleladies, such ideas must be dismissed as speculation and ideological babble. In the end, most of these authors tend to assume that the cause of the decline of the Soviet Union after a short revolutionary, progressive period was the return of the never-changing political struggle for “power”. In other words, according to these learned idiots, the historical significance of the Russian Revolution is that it replaced Czar Nicholas II with General Secretary Stalin.

In this review, I wish to first draw up a short balance sheet of twentieth century “communism” and the “official” story about the Russian Revolution. Then, I will ask the question how the three volumes by Trotsky can aid us in bringing back the proletarian movement in the twenty first century. Then, I take up some issues with Trotsky’s approach to the events and the Russian Revolution in general. Finally, I discuss what it means for communists to make up a balance sheet of a movement, a theory, an author, et cetera – and how this can help us to reconsider our tasks today.

Drawing up the balance sheet

I would argue that to even begin to contextualise the Russian Revolution means to draw an honest and clear balance sheet of the twentieth century. We must break with much of the intellectual garbage that has been strewn on the road to understanding what “communism” means.

After the decomposition of the Russian Revolution under the influence of the failed world revolution, the proletarian movement went into a steep decline, both theoretical and organizational. The state emerging from the proletarian revolution deformed to a state capitalist regime because it had to trade on a world market to survive. In the end, all those who resisted the new capitalist bureaucratic elite were silenced and finally murdered. The so-called ‘Communist’ movements and parties in Europa, Asia, Africa and South America, which took centre stage in twentieth century geopolitics, were nothing more than alternative bourgeois elites supported by the capitalist regimes in Moscow, Beijing or Havana. If these parties or movements were ultimately victorious in their struggle against other fractions of the bourgeoisie, they founded their own state capitalist regimes with material and ideological support from the Eastern bloc, enjoying similar despotic benefits as the political and economic elites in the Soviet Union.

Today, there is no communist party and the few groups of revolutionaries are small and have no real influence within the proletariat. Communist politics has been in a steady stagnation for almost eighty years. Despite the powerlessness of communist politics, the proletariat has had some important moments of resurgence since the end of the Second World War. So, despite all odds, the working class has not yet been defeated. But neither has the bourgeoisie yielded. The rule of capital continues to ravage our lives and holds the futures of our children to a kind of permanent ransom. The continuing civil wars in Syria and Iraq, climate change, racism, hatred of minorities: all these small and large horrors of our time, new and persisting, cannot be understood without the drive to keep the working class divided, to accumulate at all costs, to divide and conquer markets.

It remains to be seen if movements will arise that will be able to break with bourgeois ideology, whether such movements will be able to dispel the illusions of leftism. And more importantly, it remains to be seen whether the revolutionary minorities will be able to find the momentum to rebuild a revolutionary and proletarian party on a world scale when the moment arrives.

Trotsky’s History

How can an almost 100-year-old historical work aid us in rediscovering the foundations for a struggle of the class in our times? In other words, how do the three volumes by the famous Russian revolutionary Trotsky help us in recovering the “lessons of October”, in other words, the lessons of the Russian Revolution?

The importance of Trotsky’s work lies with the centrality of the Russian Revolution to the imagination of the non-communist majority when communism is mentioned, discussed or in any other way touched upon. The Russian Revolution is consciously or unconsciously held to be the only example of a proletarian revolution, although any serious survey of the last century tells a rather different story. Similar proletarian revolutions and revolts inspired by the Russian Revolution took place in developed countries like Germany (1918), Hungary (1919), and many other countries worldwide. In the case of the German Revolution, the proletariat was able to maintain its struggle for power for almost a year. The Russian Revolution was nevertheless the only revolution in which the proletariat could hold state power despite the bourgeois forces opposing it in the February-November 1917 period of dual power[1] and in the subsequent Civil War-period (1917-1922). Thus, it is also the only revolution that the bourgeoisie and its army of intellectuals have to deal with, while the other revolutions are ignored, belittled or blatantly erased. And as we have already noted, because the Russian Revolution was so completely derailed owing to its isolation from the proletariat of the industrialized core of the world, the Russian Revolution also invites us to talk about communism in the negative, dismissive manner that is constantly rewarded by the bourgeois intellectual circles and academia.

It is precisely here that Trotsky’s work allows for a critical reassessment of the Russian Revolution. In addition to the available historical sources of the Russian Revolution and his own experiences, Trotsky not only uses numerous eyewitness accounts of his allies, but also of his foes. In doing this, he brings forward the entirety of the truth without becoming apolitical or irrelevant. The three volumes deal chronologically with the various events and figures of the Russian Revolution leading up to the proletarian bid for power in February 1917 and the final dismantling of the bourgeois state in October of 1917. Both singular volumes and an abridged version of the three volumes are available for free on in different digital formats (pdf, epub, …). The collected three volumes can also be bought at a relatively cheap price (45 dollars) in a new abridged, hardcover edition from the North America-based publisher Haymarket Books, that has been somewhat promoted in light of the centenary of the Russian Revolution.[2]

It is without a doubt a lengthy work that requires one’s full attention if one is to grasp the totality of the subject studied. Trotsky simply does not summarize, he enumerates, contextualizes, in other words, explains. There can be no doubt that the different events and dramatis personae can be confusing at times and sometimes the author seems to assume that his audience will simply understand after a first or second mention. Trotsky himself is aware of the wide, multi-faceted scope of his work and addresses the issue by criticizing some of the assumptions about what good writing means:

Thousands and thousands of books are thrown on the market every year presenting some new variant of the personal romance, some tale of the vacillations of the melancholic or the career of the ambitious. The heroine of Proust requires several finely-wrought pages in order to feel that she does not feel anything. It would seem that one might, at least with equal justice, demand attention to a series of collective historic dramas which lifted hundreds of millions of human beings out of non-existence, transforming the character of nations and intruding forever into the life of all mankind.”

Introduction to Volumes Two and Three, Volume 2, History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky


Despite perhaps the issue of their length, the three volumes are written in an accessible style that never leaves room for obscurantism. Even more, irrespective of the seriousness of the matter, Trotsky never fails to engage his readers. One cannot pay a better compliment to a work. The author provides a good overview of the events during the Russian Revolution between February and August of 1917, but more importantly, he lays bare the meaning of these events as instances of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Most works of history suffer from the fact that they remain on the level of the phenomena, on the level of the dates and the specific figures involved. While Trotsky does not fear the individual names or the dates to the moment of a particular day, he clearly places them within the context of the broader developments of Russian class society.[3]

In what follows, we will discuss some of the insights into the Russian Revolution that Trotsky provides to contemporary communists. In particular, we focus on the original insights of the communist movement that have come under scrutiny by so-called “modernizers”, including communizers and other new tendencies. While some of the errors of the modernizers, such as the dismissal of the necessity of the party, are due to the historic ties of the modernizers to the council communists, e.g. the later Anton Pannekoek and others, other ideas are more recent, such as the dismissal of the transitional state.

Recovering the lessons

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Russian Revolution is the February Revolution in which the czarist government was toppled after the formation of Soviets in the major cities. In its primary incarnation, the February Revolution was, to a certain extent, spontaneous. The figureheads that we now instinctively connect to the Russian Revolution (Lenin, Trotsky …) were either abroad in political exile or imprisoned in a Czarist punitive colony in Siberia. At the inception of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky was still living and working in New York, eating breakfast in the same Bronx-based diner almost every day[4]. The February Revolution was not planned. It was also not predicted beforehand. The first moment of the revolution is traditionally held to have been the march of women workers on International Women’s Day. However, as Trotsky points out, the march of the workers was not intended, the Bolsheviks had even tried to contain any outburst of proletarian anger due to the possibility of firm state repression:

The 23rd of February was International Woman’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough committee, all workers – was opposing strikes.” (History of the Russian Revolution, chapter 7)

Nevertheless, the march of the women workers was soon to be joined by other workers from other industries, ultimately growing into a mass demonstration. In these mass demonstrations, the forces of the proletariat and the forces of the Czarist state measured their respective strength and resolve. To aid the proletariat in its struggle against the regime, the Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils arose. Ultimately, these councils ended up routing the armed forces of the Czarist state, thus becoming a state power of their own. The seamless but unplanned transition between the events seems to suggest that the revolution was “spontaneous”. The slow emergence of the revolutionary moment in the Russian Revolution might be accommodated to argue that the proletarian revolution is somehow the necessary consequence of the increasing contradictions of capitalism: the revolution as a volcano of long grinding tectonic plates, a missile that somehow hits its mark without itself knowing. Especially during the 1960’s and 1970’s, students and workers were drawn to the idea that revolutions happened spontaneously, as a means of understanding why they went out into the streets to struggle for a different world. As few of them had any prior knowledge of marxism or proletarian politics, they argued that it was the historical moment itself that leads the proletariat to rediscover the struggle against the bourgeoisie and its rule.

While the idea might sound reasonable at first glance, even dialectical in the naïve sense of the word, to argue that the revolution has nothing to do with consciousness suffers from the dualist presupposition (i.e. metaphysical confusion) that consciousness is not part of the material world but separate from it. While it is true that there will always be the contradictions in capitalism to lead the proletariat to come into conflict with the rule of the bourgeoisie, our understanding of class struggle as a revolutionary minority is as much part of the struggle against the bourgeoisie as these tensions themselves. In other words, we cannot simply “wait out” for class struggle to occur and fight the struggle “for us”. It is precisely in this idea of the revolution as somehow “occurring” that materialism is exchanged for the most vulgar metaphysics, a de-Christianised Judgement Day, the moment of its arrival promulgated but unknown to even the highest of angels. Trotsky correctly takes aim at the idea that spontaneity explains revolutionary processes by explaining that it involved a fundamental role for the party and revolutionary workers to fight for revolutionary consciousness during seemingly “calm” periods between openly revolutionary moments. He points particularly to the role of the earlier revolution of 1905, and to the consciousness of a very particular set of workers (the Petrograd and Moscow workers). More importantly, Trotsky argues for the importance of the revolutionary workers and their party, who fought tirelessly against the perspectives of the liberals and the reformists between the revolutions:

“The mystic doctrine of spontaneity explains nothing. In order correctly to appraise the situation and determine the moment for a blow at the enemy, it was necessary that the masses or their guiding layers should make their examination of historical events and have their criteria for estimating them. In other words, it was necessary that there should be not masses in the abstract, but masses of Petrograd workers and Russian workers in general, who had passed through the revolution of 1905, through the Moscow insurrection of December 1905, shattered against the Semenovsky regiment of the Guard. It was necessary that throughout this mass should be scattered workers who had thought over the experience of 1905, criticised the constitutional illusions of the liberals and Mensheviks, assimilated the perspectives of the revolution, meditated hundreds of times about the question of the army, watched attentively what was going on in its midst - workers capable of making revolutionary inferences from what they observed and communicating them to others. And finally, it was necessary that there should be in the troops of the garrison itself progressive soldiers, seized, or at least touched, in the past by revolutionary propaganda”. (History of the Russian Revolution, chapter 8)

In other words, the February Revolution was not an organized revolution, although the proletariat had been prepared by revolutionary minorities for the re-emergence of a revolutionary situation. Trotsky justifiably emphasizes the role of the individual Bolsheviks on the shop floor and in the streets before and during the revolution. His conclusion is that although the working class will come into conflict with the bourgeoisie due to the antagonistic yet interdependent interests of both classes in capitalism, it is only through the coordination of the practical and theoretical work of an organized and prepared party that a revolution can hope to succeed.

Moreover, and more importantly, Trotsky argues that the party played a vital role during the months after the February revolution, by leading the proletariat onwards to its historic tasks. No-one can argue against the important role of the communist party in realizing the Russian Revolution. It was only through the positions that party took that the broad masses came to find an explanation of why and how they felt power slipping through their hands. During the months before October, the Bolsheviks were held in contempt by a large part of the proletariat because of an immense smear campaign by all parties. But, through the dissemination of Bolshevik propaganda amongst the proletariat, in addition to the attribution of all problems to the Bolsheviks by the other parties, led them to find the Bolsheviks again due to the correctness of their positions. In a fictional situation in which the Bolsheviks would have been defeated during March or June, the proletariat would have been led into the demolition of proletarian power and the return of bourgeois rule, covered in red flags.

To say that an organized minority (i.e. the party) has an important role to play in a revolution is not to say that the higher levels of the party of the Bolshevik party were without their errors during the months after February. In the months after February, most of the Bolsheviks took it for granted that there would be workers’ councils until the creation of a Constituent Assembly. Trotsky makes note of the role that the tendency around Stalin and Kamenev played in steering the Bolshevik Party into line with the Menshevik party after the February Revolution. In their minds, the Revolution in Russia should not and could not move beyond a bourgeois revolution due to the backwardness of Russia. In other words, they had not understood that the proletarian revolution can only be an international revolution. Lenin and his current would fundamentally shake up this belief within the Bolshevik party from the end of March and the beginning of April, most importantly through the publication of the so-called April Theses. The present leaders of the Bolsheviks, with Stalin at its head, were wavering on the question of whether it was the opportune time to strike at the state. To them, the existence of the worker’s councils and the Provisional Government was not an expression of the existence of a situation of dual power. At some point after February, Trotsky argues, Stalin held that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks should merge, because there were no substantial differences in position between the parties.

In other words, with regards to the immediate tasks that the historical situation demanded of the revolutionary party, many of the leading members of the party wavered and seemed stupefied during the months after February. Theoretical examination of the development of the class struggle was forgotten in the name of reconciliation with centrist and opportunist elements. Some believed that there was still a role to play for the bourgeoisie in creating a full-blown capitalist order. The central role of Lenin during these days of confusion, and especially the role of his April Theses in changing for the better the consciousness within the party, are thoroughly examined by Trotsky’s History. It set the task of insurrection firmly on the agenda, even when most in the party were still wavering.

Yet despite the important role of the party, if there is one specific strength for our times specifically in the historical work done by Trotsky, it is that he demonstrates very clearly that the communists in Russia stood at the head of a mass mobilization of the proletariat. There is no contradiction between the action of the masses and the party. Workers halted the Czarist war machine by coming out in the street during the February Revolution. Although it is clear that the October Revolution required active preparation by the Bolsheviks, the conquest of power by the communists was not the consequence of the covert conspiracy of a minority (commonly called “Blanquism”). To speak of a coup, or even worse, “Lenin’s coup” as some scholars have, is utterly indefensible when one takes the historical data seriously. The historical moment was present for a communist revolution. In October power was taken by the Military Revolutionary Committee, led by Trotsky (delegated by the Soviet for this task). Against the vision defended by Lenin (that the Bolsheviks should take power urgently at the end of September-beginning of October) it was Trotsky who defended that power should be taken by the organs mandated by the soviet, regrouped under the command of the MRC. The assembly of the All Russian Congress of Soviets accepted with widespread enthusiasm the taking of the power in the name of the Soviet. As Trotsky correctly points out, the fact that the working class does not come out en masse to take over the streets in the early stage of the Civil War doesn’t mean that the Bolsheviks had no support from the majority of the proletariat. On the contrary, by October 1917, the working class was in general agreement with the taking over of power by the more developed, communist layers of the proletariat – which demonstrated itself precisely in the calmness of daily life surrounding the breaking down of the surpassed capitalist state.

There is in the book also an important lesson about the necessity of a transitional period. The proletarian revolution does not immediately do away with bourgeois influences or achieve the immediate abolition of capitalist exchange and accumulation. Political power is always the first step, even before any economic steps can be taken. While the abolition of capitalist relations is a precondition for any transition from capitalism, it is not an unconscious or spontaneous process. On the contrary, the book demonstrates that it requires a clear consciousness from the proletariat to follow through on the preliminary step that is the taking of political power. Also, theorists from communization and other modernizers fail to consider the danger of immediate counter-revolution from the expropriated class and its intellectual and state supporters. Any real revolution is clearly a period of chaos and uncertainty. The outcome of a revolution is never set in stone from its outset. The period of transition and the workers’ councils are, just as the party, a tool that is necessary for the revolution to establish communism. That does not mean that we cannot and should not criticize the concrete figures and policies of the party and the instruments of proletarian power, expressed by the workers’ councils. On the contrary, it is precisely because the wielding of political power by the proletariat has the concrete goal of abolishing capitalism, that we have a clear framework from which we can and should criticize all elements that fail to aid the proletariat in its task.

For our times it is interesting to note that the book places Russian Czarism and the February regime firmly within the historical framework of capitalist decline and the moral and political failure of bourgeois rule worldwide. With regards to those who consider capitalism as a system that exists without real contradictions, Trotsky firmly argues that the nature of the Czarist regime reflected both the national and international development of forces. The chapters on the situation of the Czar and his household, the intrigues with Rasputin, that are some of the first chapters of the book, are also among its most powerful. The lack of intelligence, the absence of any passions, let alone moral passion, in the Czar, are immediately linked to the backwardness of the Russian social formation. It is also one of the few humorous passages within the book, but it is a kind of sad, ironic humour that encourages us to identify the idiocy of our times. Trotsky knows, like all communists before and after him, that societies have their ascendant and descendent phases. And, more importantly, as a world system, capitalism has phases of its own. Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and others, all knew, unlike contemporary so-called “communists” and “socialists”, that we are fighting in increasingly worsening conditions. Even the introduction to the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, a confused document of  an organization headed by Trotsky, that failed to clearly see the failure and the total defeat of the proletariat in its time (1938), still clearly identifies the uphill battle that communists have to wage and the fact that time is ticking for the proletariat:

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet ‘ripened’ for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”[5]

Finally, and as a warning for our times, Trotsky also points out the introduction of the parliamentary spectacle by Kerensky and his bourgeois allies to draw the attention of the proletariat away from its goals and its power in the councils. More importantly, the idea that we are “all in this together”, to create an inclusive community that supposedly communists do not want to belong to due to their principled stance regarding the revolution and the interests of the proletariat, has at its core the goal to demonstrate bourgeois power. It also creates a scapegoat of those who are supposedly working against the full deployment of bourgeois power, those who are working against the “nation” by emphasizing that the final battle has not been fought yet, i.e. the communists. But in the end, these ideological obfuscations cannot hold faced with contradictions that they cannot abolish and thus come back to haunt them. The History of the Russian Revolution demonstrates so clearly the failure of any such ideological spectacles to really confront the problems of a capitalism that is slowly imploding under its own weight:

All those who were about to retire from the political arena behaved as though they had agreed for one last time to play their best rôles on the stage of a theatre. They were all eager to shout with all their might: Here is what we wanted to be! Here is what we would have been, if they had not prevented us! What prevented them was the workers, the soldiers, the peasants, the oppressed nationalities. Tens of millions of ‘slaves in revolt’ prevented them from demonstrating their loyalty to the revolution.”[6]

The Russian Revolution, despite it all?

There are, however, some criticisms to be made with regards to the book. A major recurring aspect of all these different criticisms is the historical time in which it was written and the tasks that the history holds itself to. But I also wish to further explore some of the gaps within the book that I find to be important when discussing the Russian Revolution one hundred years later.

Proletarian democracy and legality

There have always been internal criticisms of the Bolshevik policies in the Revolution and the Civil War by other communists. One of the most important criticisms has been by Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that the destruction of pluralism within the proletarian democracy was a danger to the proletarian revolution and a disgrace to the emancipation of humankind communism strives for. Trotsky makes the argument in his history that it was not the Bolsheviks who closed ‘state power’ to other tendencies within the proletarian movement, such as the anarchists and the Left Mensheviks. According to him, the other tendencies simply walked out during the final destruction of bourgeois rule (i.e. the capture of the Winter Palace), leaving the proletarian democracy solely in the hands of the Bolsheviks. However, it is noteworthy that Trotsky is not willing to discuss the immediate history following the Russian Revolution, in which high-ranking members of the other parties were accused and acquitted of political crimes. In some cases, the death penalty was demanded against the former political figureheads of opposing parties. Imprisonments and shootings of opposition members simply became a daily matter very quickly after the monopolization of power by the Bolsheviks, and Trotsky is suspiciously silent about the possible consequences of this monopolization of power.

Some well-known and important examples. According to the much-repeated statement of an anarchist who went by the pseudonym Voline, Trotsky, when he stood at the head of the Red Army, was at one instance in December 1919 asked over the telegraph by one of his regiments whether to shoot a handful of anarchists who had been taken prisoner, amongst which was Voline. In reply, Trotsky is supposed to have answered “shoot them out of hand”, that is to say, shoot them out of principle. Victor Serge, who wrote an important autobiography in which he discusses his experiences during the civil war period, tells the story of the abolition of the death penalty in the year 1919. The evening before the decree would become active, the Soviet Secret Police (i.e. the Cheka) “cleared out”, i.e. executed, the approximately 600 prisoners left in its Moscow and St. Petersburg prison cells (p. 116).

Even then, we have not even touched upon the important Kronstadt uprising (1921) against the Bolshevik domination over the Soviets, an uprising which, if we take a close look at the fifteen demands raised by the sailors and workers of the rebellion, can only be deemed legitimate. But due to the exclusion of other voices than those of the Bolsheviks, there was not a platform to resolve these matters within the Soviet state itself. Trotsky and his army did not even consider the possibility of negotiation with the demands: they drowned the uprising in blood. The citadel was stormed. Even more ghastly is that Trotskyists of all shades have until this day been creating false evidence to suggest that the uprising was nothing but a plot or machination by the agents of French imperialism and the White Army. As I see it, and as most communists see it, contemporary Trotskyists insist on defending the indefensible, on both a moral and an intellectual level.

Proletarian democracy, if we are to use such a word, cannot be made a fetish. Democracy is, as Jacques Camatte argues in his Democratic Mystification (1969): "the behaviour of humans, the organisation of those who have lost their original organic unity with the community.” In other words, proletarian democracy exists because there is a contradiction within society that has not yet be resolved and must therefore be programmatically resolved. Institutions of representation, of which the councils are the primary form, are a means for the proletariat to make certain that the proletarian revolution can find a continued consensus amongst the proletariat in its task of dismantling capitalism.

Is violence a part of revolution? The answer is yes, unfortunately. History has shown that those in power never give up their privileges without a struggle. But that does not mean that violence, on the part of a revolutionary movement, can exist outside of any consideration of humanity or even proletarian legality. Even then, proletarian violence is essentially directed violence, it is not the wild and random violence of the state or of the various bourgeois terrorisms. Above all, it can never be directed against other tendencies within the class itself. The proletariat wields violence to maintain its class rule to end the bourgeoisie’s class rule, nothing more. In this sense, it is remarkable that Trotsky regularly laments in his history the “naivity” of the early revolution. He notes that the Bolsheviks tried to prevent the lynching of high officials during the capture of the Winter Palace:

In the crowd, which had made its sacrifice of dead and wounded, there was in truth a flare up of spite against the conquered. ‘Death to them! Shoot them!’ Individual soldiers tried to strike the ministers. The Red Guards quieted the intemperate ones: Do not stain the proletarian victory! Armed workers surrounded the prisoners and their convoy in a solid ring.”[7]

It is even noted by him that to a certain extent, the bloodlessness of the October Revolution demonstrates the support of the proletariat for the Bolsheviks. But then he fails to ask the question what this says of the months and years after those bloodless days in October 1917.

Rosa Luxemburg remarked that for Trotsky and Lenin, democracy and dictatorship are opposites, while she argued that it precisely that every democracy has a form of dictatorship at its core. One might argue that this is what Camatte is referring to when he argues that democracy is unthinkable in a truly ‘human community’, a concept developed by Bordiga to clarify what communism is. We might therefore argue that it is not so much democracy that a revolution needs as a form of legality, underpinned by a form of morality that reflects the enormous potential of the proletariat. While the ICC and other left communist organizations have produced new insights into the question of morality, there is still work to be done of the questions of concrete civil rights, legal procedures and limits to the power of the state, that can aid in maintaining both the moral power of the proletariat in addition to the political and economic power of the proletariat in the period of transition. A discussion on what form a proletarian legality should take, based on the insights from earlier struggles of the proletariat and scientific and philosophical theories, is not merely an idealistic struggle. In the hands of proletarian power, there does not have to be a contradiction between a concrete tool for increasing the power of the proletariat and an increasing sensitivity to the possibility of human emancipation and the value of human life.


Trotsky writes his three volumes leading up to 1930. Nevertheless, the Russian Revolution is only discussed by Trotsky in the very narrow framework of February 1917 to October 1917. The timing of the book is remarkable because the histories and testimonies of his opponents (Miliukyov, Sukhanov and others), with whom he polemicizes in these books, had been soundly defeated in 1930. Sukhanov, with whom Trotsky particularly takes up a few questions, was to be shot in 1931 by Stalin and his allies. In many ways, it seems a little unholy to attack a man who was already scapegoated by the Stalinists yet was, by all accounts, politically marginalized and powerless.  Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is primarily a polemical work in which the revolution is defended against the bourgeois distortions. Nevertheless, in the year 1930, we wonder whether Trotsky has even considered that more pressing questions are on the agenda than the remnants of a caste of mostly exiled bourgeois politicians. Only in very few instances does Trotsky polemicize with Stalin and the ‘official historians’, and generally these arguments can still be used against the Stalinists. In general, this book would have answered the questions of 1922, but it does not answer the questions of 1930 or of later periods.

But the question of Stalinism and the Russian Revolution goes further. Trotsky uses a few appendices to argue that Stalin played no part in the October Revolution despite Stalinist distortions produced to the contrary during the 1930’s. All in all, this is without a doubt correct to point out, but it fails to answer the real political questions that go with the matter of the Stalinist counter-revolution. The History of the Russian Revolution lacks any comparison or discussion of the world-historical meaning of the Russian Revolution. It might be true that Stalin was a scheming, not very bright and cowardly bastard, but that does not change the fact he became the head of the counter-revolution via the state very quickly. The explanation for Trotsky’s failure to address some of the real questions surrounding the Russian Revolution, especially for us now, can only be explained by his own problems in seeing beyond the Russian Revolution and grasping its place in the international situation. While Trotsky was always willing and able to argue that the Russian Revolution would not survive without a revolution in the more developed centres of capitalism, he was never fully able to give up on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, even when he was exiled from the country in 1929.

Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism always remained lacking. Generally, Trotsky tends to assume that the developments within the Soviet Union are still open to change. Even when the horrors of the Gulags started unfolding, Trotsky still felt able to look beyond the horrors and see a bright future ahead. In this sense, revolutionary enthusiasm, being present at the birth of a new society, is a twofold curse. On the one hand, it was this enthusiasm that the Stalinists used to mislead their own population and the rest of the world with the idea that something wonderful was unfolding in the Soviet Union and that the “issues” with the Soviet Union were merely bumps on the great road towards a future of endless possibilities. On the other hand, to those who knew what the Soviet Union really was, a slaughterhouse, their original revolutionary enthusiasm blocked them for formulating a true understanding of what was unfolding, because it was difficult to let go of the original enthusiasm and admit that all had been lost due to forces outside of one’s own power.

Especially Trotsky, with his later activity within the Fourth International, was more blind than others of his own generation to the ultimate sliding of the Russian Revolution towards state capitalism. In the History, one does not really find much with which to argue against Stalinism. Even more, he celebrates the revolution so much that one might ask whether Trotsky actually lived through the slow decomposition of the Bolshevik Party in the subsequent decade. Is the revolution still worth celebrating without some necessary remarks about its later fate? How can one, without mixed feelings, celebrate the birth of something precious that by then has already perished and withered?

Revolutionary tactics and the united front

This leaves one major criticism that can be directed at Trotsky and his History of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution was a major event that not only saw the first seizure of power by the proletariat, but it also fundamentally altered the nature of the relations between the left fractions that came from the parties of the Second International, after the Second International accepted that their constituent parties would support their respective states during the First World War. In the period of 1914-1917, the left fractions were generally weak, fragmented and confused. The Junius Pamphlet, written by Rosa Luxemburg in 1915 to put into perspective the First World War as an imperialist conflict, still addresses its appeal to social democracy as a whole, not only the left fractions. Even though leading figures of the left fractions had previously fought difficult, uphill struggles inside the old parties (e.g. SPD in Germany, SDAP in the Netherlands …), they did not hold it possible that the old parties had fully lost the internationalist outlook of the proletariat.

Slowly, generally after having been expelled or pestered out of the parties of the Second International, the left fractions existed either in marginal groups or in broader, centrist groups that combined elements that favoured class struggle (i.e. the left fractions) and other social democratic elements who were against the war (“pacifists”), but who opposed the pursuit of international class struggle against imperialist war. But in Russia, the left fractions had split from the other currents within the social democratic party much earlier. The discussions going on between different German social democrats in 1914-1917 had already been finished in Russia. Already in 1903, Lenin and others on the left had actively fought against reformist tendencies within Russian social democracy, leading to the final split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1905. Due to the creation of a revolutionary party, as opposed to a party wavering on the question of revolution, the Bolsheviks could actively intervene in the proletariat to work towards the October Revolution.

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin, Trotsky, and the other Russian revolutionaries quickly became authorities amongst the different left fractions. The left fractions, significantly, now generally called themselves communists after the 1918 Russian fraction’s change of name from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) into the All-Russian Communist Party. Even before Stalinist “bolshevization” during the 1920’s (i.e. total submission of other parties to the interests of the Russian state), Russian communists actively influenced the policies of newly founded communist parties by means of their worldwide organization (the Communist International), in which the Russians wielded enormous power and prestige. The authority of the “Russian experience” led other communist parties to adopt positions and use tactics that many within those parties opposed: how could one go against the lessons of October, given that it was the only successful proletarian revolution? Much has been written on the questions of parliamentarism and trade unionism during this period, especially by some remarkable Dutch-German communists like Anton Pannekoek, Herman Görter, Jan Appel, and others, who correctly argued that the struggle for reforms is in the period of imperialist conflict and capitalist decadence is pointless. However, the German Communist Party (KPD) was influenced to adopt policies that failed to consider the material differences between the Russian revolutionary situation and pre- or post-revolutionary situations in many of the Western nations.

One tactical question is, however, of major importance: the united front. There were countless discussions in the Communist International on the scope and the intent of the united front. Especially in Italy and Germany the Communist International found that there was much resistance to the tactic amongst communist militants. The central idea of the united front was that communists were supposed to work with the social democrats to the fullest of their abilities in struggles against the bourgeoisie, against the growing fascist danger. However, as many left communists could point out, the social democrats and other supporters and legitimizers of the bourgeois state had supported the growth of the fascist movement as a means to save the state. Especially the German communists had not forgotten who had given the order to shoot communists in the streets: Friedrich Ebert, a social democrat and a former student of Rosa Luxemburg, had given his and his party’s blessing to the reign of the right-wing militias (Freikorps) in the first place. Now, the Communist International asked of the communists to work together with those same elements who were clearly a danger to the working class and its revolutionary minorities.

What does this have to do with the Russian Revolution? The Trotskyists, after having split from the Communist International much later (1928) than other left fractions of the communists (1922-1926), still held that the united front is a valid tactic to be used against fascism. They held one episode from the Russian Revolution as a primary example of the efficacy of the united front: the Kornilov Affair. In August 1917 the leaders of the bourgeois government, Kerensky at its head, felt that the situation was ripe to finally crush the revolutionary movement, expressed in the soviets and the factory committees and its revolutionary political organizations with military force. To a large extent the goal was shaped by an increased understanding amongst the proletarians (especially the proletarians of St. Petersburg) that their power was slowly being corroded by their supposed allies (Mensheviks and others); the Bolsheviks correctly felt that the moment was right to clearly state that the situation of dual power, in which proletarian and bourgeois powers contend in a final bid for dominance, is only temporary. In other words, the Bolsheviks insisted that there were still tasks ahead. In this phase, in which the revolutionary perspective was not finally crushed, General Kornilov took his soldiers from the front and departed for Petrograd with the claim that he would return Russian politics to “normality”, in other words, crush the revolutionaries. Kerensky played an important role in the rise of Kornilov. He advanced Kornilov as the “saviour” of the Russian people at different occasions and praised his military achievements. He communicated with him many times in the lead-up to the Putsch, suggesting that Kornilov should act. Now, when Kornilov was heading for St. Petersburg, Kerensky was afraid that his plan might backfire: Kornilov had no reason to keep him, the “reconciliatory” figure of Kerensky, once the Bolsheviks had been destroyed. Thus, he came to arm the proletariat, who quickly disarmed any counter-revolutionary regiments that made it into St. Petersburg in the first place.

Trotsky uses the example of the Kornilov Affair to argue that the united front had previously been used effectively and should therefore be used in Germany during the rise of fascism:

“On August 26 (old style), 1917, General Kornilov led his Cossack corps and one irregular division against Petrograd. At the helm of power stood Kerensky, lackey of the bourgeoisie and three-quarters a confederate of Kornilov. Lenin was still in hiding because of the accusation that he was in the service of the Hohenzollerns. For the same accusation, I was at that time incarcerated in solitary confinement in Kresty Prison. How did the Bolsheviks proceed in this question? They also had a right to say: ‘In order to defeat the Korniloviad – we must first defeat the Kerenskiad.’ They said this more than once, for it was correct and necessary for all the subsequent propaganda. But that was entirely inadequate for offering resistance to Kornilov on August 26, and on the days that followed, and for preventing him from butchering the Petrograd proletariat. That is why the Bolsheviks did not content themselves with a general appeal to the workers and soldiers to break with the conciliators and to support the red united front of the Bolsheviks. (Bulletin of the Opposition, No. 27, March 1932)

The problem with using the Kornilov Putsch as an example of the united front is that the Kornilov Affair was clearly a counter-revolutionary measure. In other words, that the revolutionary process was threatened with being smashed by the Kornilov Putsch. The united front tactic differs from the Russian situation, at the time, in that it stands for the defence of reformist, supposedly half- or semi-proletarian parties in a period when revolution is internationally isolated and degenerating. Communists will agree that they have to defend the proletariat in its revolutionary tasks, even if it involves ‘ad hoc’ compromises with centrist or opportunist elements in order to prevent the crushing of the revolutionary process. Kornilov was frightened and made a mistake during a critical period, and the proletariat made good use of this mistake – that is to say, the weapons in its hands – after the Bolsheviks made clear to it the real nature of the situation. But the Kornilov experience teaches us that such compromises can only be used as a tactic when there is a powerful revolutionary drive concentrated in the hands of the proletariat. At the current stage, as in the case of the German social democrats during the rise of fascism, there was only a danger to strengthen the state. Ultimately the state does not fear fascism in any form, because historical fascism only existed to aid the state in its struggle to make capitalism survive yet another few years by crushing any reminder of the subsided revolutionary moment. Bilan, the periodical of the Italian Communist Left in exile, accurately argued around the same time as Trotsky that fascism is yet another disguise of bourgeois rule, but rule of the bourgeoisie fighting for its life:

Experience has shown – and this annihilates the possibility of any distinction between fascism and capitalism, that capitalism’s conversion to fascism does not depend on the will of certain groups within the bourgeois class, but on the necessities of a whole historical period, and the specificities of states which are less able to resist the crisis and the death-agony of the bourgeois regime.” (Bilan, no.7, 1934, ‘Anti-fascism, formula of confusion’)

Even then, we could argue that in our historical moment none of these concepts make any sense anymore: there are no centrist or opportunist elements in our current day. No-one in their right mind would still argue that the contemporary social democrats defend the interests of the masses of people. Still, much of the left continues to defend the idea of a united front, especially now (2017) that the self-styled neo-Nazis and other right-wing “historical re-enactment societies” are openly part of the entourage of the Trump presidency. They hold that we need a shared defence against the supposed return of a right-wing conspiracy. The confusion rests upon two errors. First, they falsely hold that fascism can somehow return despite that the fact that there has been no revolutionary situation, which is a historical precondition for fascism. We can sufficiently prove this by using Trotsky’s own history. Second, that such a defence would hold against fascism has historically been disproven time and time again.[8]

Trotsky correctly points out the development of the Russian Revolution, the balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie at critical moments in the struggle for power. But ultimately, he does not draw any lessons with regards to the revolution as a general method of the proletariat. In other words, he does not draw lessons from the Russian Revolution that might aid us in understanding the current political condition, even when there are clear possibilities to do so. For instance, in the work, Trotsky does not clearly explain what demarcates a proletarian party from a non-proletarian party. Nevertheless, the question is very important giving the important role that the Mensheviks played in confusing the proletariat in the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, Trotsky considers the Mensheviks to be at least partially proletarian, despite the fact that a general consensus within the Mensheviks was willing to continue the war in a new “revolutionary” form. For us, such a discussion would have been invaluable. It would have given up a weapon to fight against the contemporary Trotskyists that hold the social democrats are somehow proletarian. It would have allowed us, to some extent, to save Trotsky from the Trotskyists, by showing the grand distortions that underlay the idea that there is a continuity between leftism and communism. Alas, speculation will lead us nowhere. Here, we can merely conclude that much that we would have liked to see in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution reflects the things that we would have liked to have seen in Trotsky as a communist.

And now, the future?

Ultimately these volumes of history by Trotsky have become a historical work in their own right, distinguished by great insights, but also political shortcomings. Of course, we have the hindsight of more than eighty years. Trotsky had only ten. Still, we have pointed out that Trotsky fails in a few important instances, despite the fact that his work remains an incomparable history of the Russian Revolution.

We have drawn up a few elements of such a balance sheet in this review. We have made a balance sheet of the Russian Revolution, and of Trotsky and his work. Balance sheets serve a purpose: we do not scrutinize the words and deeds of others because we have to demonstrate that we are somehow brighter than someone else (as is the rule in academia). Neither do we draw balance sheets to demonstrate how theoretically developed our arguments are, as a purely masturbatory exercise. Our goal is the destruction of the bourgeois state and the transformation of capitalism into a truly human community, communism. To this end, we need to overcome the obstacles that are placed on our path. These obstacles do not only exist outside of the class (as in repression and the political fractions of the bourgeoisie), they also exist inside of the proletariat as errors and confusions. Drawing a balance sheet, like any theoretical work, has as a goal to create the conditions for overcoming our weaknesses and create the power we need to struggle.

By way of a conclusion: reviewing a work of this magnitude is part of drawing a larger balance sheet. But it cannot be seen as an isolated event, a chapter that we have now closed. Only discussion amongst the revolutionary minorities and inside the proletariat can ultimately help us understand our predicament today. We do not live at the turn of the 20th century and much has changed during the last century. Some experiences have been vital, but all in all, the proletariat has lost more than it has gained. We can only hope that future struggles will provide new experiences that will allow for new means of overcoming capitalism.

Pjotr, October 2017


[1]              Dual power denotes the period in a proletarian revolution when there are two power centres, one bourgeois and another proletarian.


[2]              Haymarket is firmly located within the leftist current of the Socialist Workers’ Party and offers other books by authors from this current (e.g. Tony Cliff) to further study the Russian Revolution. The Tony Cliff tendency is difficult to categorize within leftism. In general, they deny being Trotskyists. Nevertheless, the positions they take are generally similar to ordinary Trotskyists.  Theoretically, they support the notion of state capitalism as a means to understand the former USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries. Practically however, they shamelessly support these same state capitalist regimes due to their run-of-the-mill leftist “anti-imperialism” i.e. pseudo-intellectualized anti-Americanism. In these and most other aspects, they are indistinguishable from other Trotskyists and leftists.


[3]              But not so much in an international and historical context, more on which later.


[4]              Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution (2017), Kenneth D. Ackerman, Counterpoint Press: New York.


[5]              Transitional Programme, Fourth International (Trotsky), 1938.


[6]              History of the Russian Revolution, Volumes 2 and 3, Chapter 30, ‘The State Conference in Moscow’.


[7]              ibid, Volumes 2 and 3, Chapter 45, ‘Capture of the Winter Palace’.


[8]              France is particularly good example. The Blum government was a social democratic and Communist Party-supported government that was simply pushed out of the state once it had served its electoral purpose as an anti-fascist veil for the French state.



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