Notes on Lessons of October

April 28, 2019
This text was produced for a presentation on Leon Trotsky's "Lessons of October" for a reading group. It is more of a summary than anything. It's also strange to note that 100 years later Trotsky's analysis is once more on the table. I for one never expected to read any of his writings but the balance of historical forces is always on the move. Overall, it shows some of the arguments behind moving the Russian revolution away from the democratic February revolution toward the Communist October revolution and how various partisans thought of it. The text is full of subtweets too.

Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” (Уроки Октября) of 1924 presents a retroactive analysis of the October Revolution which, as he points out, had not yet been historicized at that point despite many analyses of events before and afterward. Of course, often history is written when one wants to marshal its lessons for the present. To that end it is worth looking at why he wrote this analysis when he did.

Following Lenin’s strokes in 1922, Soviet leadership was shared between Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin with Trotsky seen as a non-Bolshevik outsider. “Lessons from October” was first published as a preface to the third volume of Trotsky’s Collected Works and seems to be an attempt to claim Lenin’s mantle and position himself as the proper successor in leadership. Trotsky uses the pamphlet to accuse the triumvirate of opposing the Bolshevik seizure of power from the provisional government. It results in his gradual expulsion from the party, a process completed in 1929.

A quick summary:

Chapter 1: We Must Study the October Revolution. Here Trotsky lays out the necessity of studying the revolution in order to carry it out successfully in other countries, using failed revolutions in Germany and Bulgaria as examples. He states it is especially necessary for other countries to have a strong party organization and for this party to understand the path of the October Revolution.

Chapter 2: The Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry—in February and October. The point is made that the course of the Russian Revolution did not match the expectations laid out be theory as it took place in a backward economy and without a preceding bourgeois revolution. The author then gets into the relative dichotomy faced after the February Revolution: to build a bourgeois democracy or push ahead with the proletarian revolution.

Chapter 3: The Struggle Against War and Defensism. This chapter relates how despite the war being at the heart of immediate causes of the revolution, and immediate peace a central demand, the democratic side of the dual-power government attempted to walk back the peace demand and reignite support for the war.

Chapter 4: The April Conference. Trotsky here relates the struggle between Lenin’s point of view (immediate overthrow of the provisional government, seizure of power, and immediate peace) versus the Menshevik/conciliatory/”defensist” point of view to bide by democracy while awaiting revolution in the West.

Chapter 5: The July Days; the Kornilov Episode; the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament. Trotsky continues the theme of arguing against democratic legalistic argumentation over procedure and process and in favor of contestation for power in the streets.

Chapter 6: On the Eve of the October Revolution—the Aftermath. This chapter is a discussion of the balance of forces on the eve of the October Revolution and how some Bolsheviks underestimated their position, as well as the need of a framework for guiding the peasantry away from reaction.

Chapter 7: The October Insurrection and Soviet ‘Legality’. On the place of the soviets as institutions in the revolutionary government and the overthrow of Kerensky. An extended argument against vacillation.

Chapter 8: Again, on the Soviets and the Party in a Proletarian Revolution. Against overemphasizing institutional forms and rather emphasizing the role of the party.

Throughout the pamphlet some themes arise:

The need to seize power immediately

“Lenin’s position was this: an irreconcilable struggle against defensism and its supporters; the capture of the soviet majority; the overthrow of the Provisional Government; the seizure of power through the soviets; a revolutionary peace policy and a program of socialist revolution at home and of international revolution abroad. In distinction to this, as we already know, the opposition held the view that it was necessary to complete the democratic revolution by exerting pressure on the Provisional Government, and in this process the soviets would remain the organs of “control” over the power of the bourgeoisie. Hence flows quite another and incomparably more conciliatory attitude to defensism.”

“The policy of the proletariat must not be guided by schoolboy patterns but in accordance with the real flux of the class struggle.”

“those who had opposed the armed insurrection and the seizure of power as an adventure were demanding, after the victorious conclusion of the insurrection, that the power be restored to those parties against whom the proletariat had to struggle in order to conquer power. And why, indeed, was the victorious Bolshevik Party obliged to restore power to the Mensheviks and the SRs?”

“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.”

The necessity of remaining flexible and not getting bogged down in institutional legalism

“It is indubitable that in July Lenin was weighing in his mind questions like these: Has the time come? Has the mood of the masses outgrown the soviet superstructure? Are we running the risk of becoming hypnotized by soviet legality, and of lagging behind the mood of the masses, and of being severed from them?”

“It is an argument of routinism, an argument of inertia, an argument of stagnation. –... It is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen.”

“The task of the Mensheviks and the SRs consisted in entangling the Bolsheviks in soviet legality and afterwards painlessly transforming the latter into bourgeois parliamentary legality.”

“The persistent, tireless, and incessant pressure which Lenin exerted on the Central Committee throughout September and October arose from his constant fear lest we allow the propitious moment to slip away.”

“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.””

“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.”

“Most highly instructive from this standpoint is the struggle which Lenin launched after the July days against the fetishism of the organizational form of soviets.”

“Each party, even the most revolutionary party, must inevitably produce its own organizational conservatism; for otherwise it would lack the necessary stability. This is wholly a question of degree. In a revolutionary party the vitally necessary dose of conservatism must be combined with a complete freedom from routine, with initiative in orientation and daring in action.”

Revolution or democracy

“The whole of the April Party Conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of power in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (anybody and everybody) to complete the democratic revolution?”

“Either we must assume leadership of the proletarian revolution or we must accept the role of an opposition in a bourgeois parliament that is how the question was posed within our party.”

“the peasants might have strong revolutionary interests and an intense urge to realize them, but cannot have an independent political position. They might either vote for the bourgeoisie, by voting for its SR agency, or join in action with the proletariat. Which one of these two possibilities would materialize hinged precisely upon the policy we pursued.”

The difference between party, masses, and democratic institutions

“if the turn is too abrupt or too sudden, and if in the preceding period too many elements of inertia and conservatism have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfill its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of years or decades. The party is ravaged by a crisis, and the movement passes the party by – and heads toward defeat.”

“To put the case more plainly: the party that does not keep step with the historical tasks of its own class becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes.”

“For Lenin the whole question hinged on the extent to which the soviets continued to reflect the real mood of the masses, and whether or not the party was mistaken in guiding itself by the soviet majority.”

The absolute importance of the party as institution

“One propertied class is able to seize the power that has been wrested from another propertied class because it is able to base itself upon its riches, its cultural level, and its innumerable connections with the old state apparatus. But there is nothing else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party.”

“The transition from an illusory, exuberant, elemental mood to a more critical and conscious frame of mind necessarily implies a pause in revolutionary continuity. Such a progressive crisis in the mood of the masses can be overcome only by a proper party policy, that is to say, above all by the genuine readiness and ability of the party to lead the insurrection of the proletariat.”

“The German revolution might have been triumphant both in 1918 and in 1919, had a proper party leadership been secured.”

Institutions

“What does it mean to lose the propitious moment? The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when the maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are, of course, referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself.”

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