Nov 23, 2007

Book Review: Lessons of October

Leon Trotsky (Лeв Давидович Трóцкий), also known as Lev Davidovich Trotsky and Lev Davidovich BronsteinTrotsky, Leon
New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1937 (1924)

Leon Trotsky played an integral part in the October Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, moving from revolutionary to politician to military commander of the Red Army. Yet for all his political activities, perhaps Trotsky’s greatest legacy is his work as a writer and theorist. Lessons of October is a lengthy essay originally intended to be a preface to a larger collection of Trotsky’s writings, and contains many of the same themes to be found in his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution. Written in 1924, only months after the death of Lenin, this text contains considerable evidence of the worsening rift between Trotsky and the troika of Josef Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev, and the book also highlights the philosophical difference in opinions between the internationalist perspective of Trotsky and the nationalist, “socialism in one country” approach of Stalin.

While Trotsky claimed that he wrote Lessons of October merely to address the lack of a “single work which gives a comprehensive picture of the October upheaval,” readers might also sense an underlying agenda of political payback from the increasingly isolated Trotsky against his Party rivals. Still, there is credibility in Trotsky’s argument that the Bolsheviks were “part of the International, and the workers in all other countries are still faced with the solution of the problem of their own ‘October.’” In Trotsky’s eyes, the October Revolution could serve as a political and organizational blueprint for future socialist revolutions around the globe, and any “trifling personal considerations” that might arise from embarrassing disclosures in the book were insignificant in comparison with the inspiration that Lessons of October could offer fellow revolutionaries. With the memories of failed revolutions still fresh in his mind, Trotsky asserted that an objective analysis of the October Revolution was necessary for the success of future revolutions and for the future of socialism itself:
It is difficult, however, to speak of an analysis of the events in Bulgaria and Germany when we have not, up to the present, given a politically and tactically elaborated account of the October Revolution. We have never made clear to ourselves what we accomplished and how we accomplished it. After October, in the flush of victory, it seemed as if the events of Europe would develop of their own accord and, moreover, within so brief a period as would leave no time for any theoretical assimilation of the lessons of October. But the events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible. The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising.
Trotsky took polemical aim at the “petty bourgeois revolutionary parties” – such as the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries, and the Constitutional Democrats – that supported the Provisional Government. In Trotsky’s eyes, any political party that joined with the new government was merely exchanging one tyrant (the Tsar) for another (the Provisional Government), and he praised Lenin for his steadfast refusal to support the Provisional Government, a body riddled with “defensism and conciliationism.” Those who cooperated with the Provisional Government, argued Trotsky, were in direct conflict with Marxist theories of revolution, and the Bolsheviks were faced with clear choices in 1917:
The war created a revolutionary situation precisely by reason of the fact that it left no room for any reformist “pressure.” The only alternative was either to go the whole way with the bourgeoisie, or to rouse the masses against it so as to wrest the power from its hands. In the first case it might have been possible to secure from the bourgeoisie some kind of sop with regard to home policy, on the condition of unqualified support of their foreign imperialist policy. For this very reason social reformism transformed itself openly, at the outset of the war, into social imperialism. For the same reason the genuinely revolutionary elements were forced to initiate the creation of this new International.

Russian general Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov (Лавр Георгиевич Корнилов)Left: Russian general Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov

The Kornilov Affair, in which rightist forces attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government in July 1917, merits little attention in Trotsky’s evaluation of the revolutionary year, although the author did acknowledge that the failed coup d'état “created an abrupt shift in the situation in our favor.” It is interesting to compare the lengthy discussion given by Alexander Kerensky of the events surrounding the actions of Lavr Kornilov in The Catastrophe with the brief account provided by Trotsky; one gets the sense that the Bolsheviks viewed this event as a minor episode in a tumultuous year, while Kerensky viewed the event as a crucial turning point away from democracy and toward Bolshevik tyranny.

Trotsky’s efforts to describe the rift between Bolshevik factions in the weeks prior to the October Revolution is also the section of the book in which the author painted rivals Kamenev and Zinoviev in the worst light. He quoted extensively from a letter entitled “On the Current Situation,” which was written and signed by the pair on 11 October 1917 and immediately delivered to leading Bolshevik figures. The authors of the letter, Trotsky argued, lacked the vision and faith necessary to move forward with the revolution, and instead advocated a course of “passive fatalism” in which the Bolsheviks should participate in the planned Constituent Assembly. He argued that – if the Bolsheviks had followed the advice of Kamenev and Zinoviev – the Bolshevik Revolution might never have occurred:
On the other hand, a party which carries on a protracted revolutionary agitation, tearing the masses away from the influence of the conciliationists, and then, after the confidence of the masses has been raised to the utmost, begins to vacillate, to split hairs, to hedge, and to temporize -- such a party paralyzes the activity of the masses, sows disillusion and disintegration among them, and brings ruin to the revolution; but in return it provides itself with the ready excuse -- after the debacle -- that the masses were insufficiently active. This was precisely the course steered by the letter "On the Current Situation." Luckily, our party under the leadership of Lenin was decisively able to liquidate such moods among the leaders. Because of this alone it was able to guide a victorious revolution.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Влади́мир Ильи́ч Улья́нов), better known by the alias Vladimir Lenin (Ленин)Left: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

It was vision and courage of Lenin, in Trotsky’s opinion, that was the deciding factor in the Bolshevik Revolution, and Trotsky reiterated this theme throughout the text. No doubt this was driven in part by the author’s reverence for the late Bolshevik leader, but there lurks under the surface an implicit polemic that the troika of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev were betraying both the legacy of Lenin and the Revolution itself. Lenin, noted Trotsky, embodied a relentless “anger, protest, and indignation” against the “fatalistic, temporizing, social democratic, Menshevik attitude to revolution,” and the author argued that Lenin’s perseverance in forcing the party to seize the initiative away from the stalling tactics of the likes of Kamenev and Zinoviev was the primary factor in the ultimate success of the October Revolution:
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.
The chronological approach used by Trotsky in Lessons of October makes the text useful for undergraduate and graduate readers, though general readers unfamiliar with Marxist rhetoric might struggle with some of the more theoretical passages Trotsky developed. One can also see evidence of Trotsky moving toward his theory of permanent revolution in this text, both in terms of his internationalist approach to Bolshevism and his awareness that counter-revolutionary forces tend to arise within a revolutionary struggle even as the revolution is unfolding. Trotsky also intended that this text serve as guidance to future revolutionaries, and – while noting that each revolution has its own unique set of circumstances and history – the author reminded readers that to ignore the lessons of the October Revolution “is to invite inevitable defeats.” Finally, it is clear that Trotsky’s admonition found its way toward future revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez, and the lessons he drew from the October Revolution continue to provide insight into the rise of the Bolshevik regime.


Anonymous said...

Lessons from Bolshevism: communism sucks. Nuff said!!!

historymike said...


OK, so it's "USA! USA!Ronald Reagan beat up Mikhail Gorbachev, and American-style democratic capitalism is the end of history," for historical analysis?

Methinks Anonymous needs to spend some time hitting the books and less time parroting the pablum being dished out by the mainstream media.

While I agree that Soviet-style communism was a failure, and I remain skeptical about the ability of Marxist theories to solve questions of greed and selfishness, that does not mean that Adam Smith was a god.

For all we know, the dominant economic and political forms of the world in 100 years might look markedly different from today.

Who knows? Perhaps money will disappear, or some as-yet evolving socioeconomic system might arise in place of the American system so worshipped by the likes of Francis Fukuyama.