The nervous moment of insurrection

The October revolution which brought to power the Bolshevik regime in Russia one hundred years ago was both the greatest achievement of the working class, and a watershed which conditioned in one way or another the whole course of world history for the remainder of the twentieth century. On a longer time scale, it was the greatest advance for humanity in ten thousand years: the first time since the origins of agriculture and the division of human society into opposing classes, exploiters and exploited, that the exploited producers of society’s wealth had conquered and held on to political power.

The world’s greatest revolution also gave us the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century: Trotsky’s monumental History of the Russian Revolution, his detailed account of the nine months from the overthrow of the Czar Nicholas Romanov in February 1917 to the proletarian insurrection in October. Trotsky states his purpose on the first page:

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

The History is above all this story of the masses or workers and peasants pressing their way into the political arena, the ebbs and flows over those crucial ten months, as they reconnoitred and tested the rapidly-changing political space. It is the process of the various classes coming to recognise themselves, their allies and their enemies, and evaluating their own candidates for leadership, and of those leaders responding to changes in the psychology and political preparedness of the masses.

A central narrative in the History is the crisis and split that developed in the Bolshevik Party from the time of the February that overthrew the monarchy, right up to its resolution through the October insurrection. (This aspect of the History expands on an article Trotsky had written six years earlier called Lessons of October. If you don’t have time to read the History – and you shouldn’t make this decision lightly! – then Lessons is the next best thing.) On the centenary of the revolution, I think this aspect is most deserving of our attention for this reason: the Russian revolution has become such a colossal fact of history that it is easy to overlook the fact that history came close to taking another course.

Lev Kamenev (left) and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 1922

Lenin arrived back from exile in April to find the Bolshevik Party disoriented and immobilised by the changes wrought in February, and adapting to capitalist rule. Under the direction of Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin, the party organ had Pravda adopted a stance of exerting pressure on the Provisional Government to begin negotiations to end the war. “Till then, let everyone remain at his post,” Pravda wrote.

Lenin responded: “To urge the [Provisional] government to conclude a speedy, honest, democratic and good neighbourly peace is like the good village priest urging the landlords and the merchants to ‘walk in the way of God’.” Trotsky calls the struggle waged by Lenin in this period, through a series of speeches and written notes, his ‘re-arming’ of the party.

Trotsky explains: “The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centred was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power. This alone is ample proof that we were not then dealing with a mere episodic difference of opinion but with two tendencies of the utmost principled significance. The first and principal tendency was proletarian and led to the road of world revolution. The other was ”democratic,” i.e., petty bourgeois, and led, in the last analysis, to the subordination of proletarian policies to the requirements of bourgeois society in the process of reform. These two tendencies came into hostile conflict over every essential question that arose throughout the year 1917. … These two tendencies, in greater or lesser degree, with more or less modification, will more than once manifest themselves during the revolutionary period in every country.”

Rally of workers at Putilov factory, Petrograd 1917

In April, Lenin, resting on the support of the proletarian ranks of the party, succeeded in re-orienting the Bolshevik Party towards the conquest of power. (Bolshevik workers in the Vyborg district of Petrograd had stormily protested the defencist stance of Stalin and Kamenev and threatened them with expulsion from the party. Trotsky comments: “These worker-revolutionists only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position.”)

The resistance to the struggle for power retreated, but re-surfaced at every important turn. On the eve of the insurrection, the struggle of the two tendencies took an acute form.

Demonstration of Russian women, Moscow, 1917

By mid-September, Lenin noted favourable turns in both the international situation, as mutinies began to break out in the German fleet, and in the national situation, as the peasant revolt reached a decisive phase. The Bolsheviks won a majority in the Moscow and Petrograd soviets. The time for insurrection had come. At the end of September he wrote, “The crisis has matured. The whole future of the Russian revolution is at stake. The honour of the Bolshevik Party is in question. The whole future of the international workers revolution for socialism is at stake.”  In an attachment (not for publication but for circulation to leading Bolsheviks) Lenin expressed frustration with the “tendency among leaders of our Party which favour waiting for the Congress of Soviets, and is opposed to an immediate insurrection. That tendency, or opinion, must be overcome.”

Trotsky writes, “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. All this is nonsense, replied the rights, our influence will continue to grow. Who was right? And what does it mean to lose the propitious moment? … 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. … Neither the elemental disintegration of the state power nor the elemental influx of the impatient and exacting confidence of the masses in the Bolsheviks could endure for a protracted period of time. The crisis had to be resolved one way or another. It is now or never! Lenin kept repeating. …The strength of a revolutionary party increases only up to a certain moment, after which the process can turn into the very opposite. The hopes of the masses change into disillusionment as the result of the party’s passivity, while the enemy recovers from his panic and takes advantage of this disillusionment. … 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.”

Gregory Zinoviev

Lenin’s pressure eventually overcame the resistance of a majority of the Central Committee, and the party adopted a resolution for armed insurrection. At that point the resistance to the seizure of power hardened into a split. Kamenev and Zinoviev, with quiet support from Stalin, circulated a statement opposing the insurrection, warning that the Central Committee was underestimating the enemy. The following day their statement was given to Maxim Gorky’s anti-Bolshevik paper, to be published before the whole world. “Not only Zinoviev and I, but also a number of practical comrades,” – thus wrote Kamenev – “think that to take the initiative in an armed insurrection at the present moment, with the given correlation of social forces, independently of and several days before the Congress of Soviets, is an inadmissible step ruinous to the proletariat and the revolution … To stake everything … on the card of insurrection in the coming days would be an act of despair. And our party is too strong, it has too great a future before it, to take such a step …”  (Trotsky comments: Opportunists always feel “too strong” to go into a fight.)

Joseph Stalin

Lenin branded Zinoviev and Kamenev – his two closest collaborators in the years of exile – as strikebreakers, and demanded their expulsion from the party.

Had there been any truth at all in the assertions of Kamenev and Zinoviev that the time was not yet ripe, that the enemy was strong, and that the masses were not yet ready for insurrection, the publication of the statement against insurrection, revealing the plan before the enemies of the party, might have succeeded in preventing the uprising. As it was, it changed little.

Russian soldiers, prisoners of war of German army 1917

Feebly, the Provisional Government ordered the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, known to be sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, to the front. The order was countermanded by the Petrograd Soviet, a decision entirely in keeping with the wishes of the soldiers. The dual power of the Soviet and the state of near-permanent mutiny in the army was so widely accepted, this counter-order hardly raised an eyebrow. Despite the forewarning, the paralysis of the government was so great that it could hardly lift a finger to defend itself. The insurrection in Petrograd was carried out with clinical precision by the Revolutionary Military Committee, and was almost bloodless.

It could have been otherwise. Trotsky writes about Lenin’s urgent pressure to act in a timely way at the crucial moment of insurrection:

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 hundredfold 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.


A recent series of articles by Lars T Lih, Eric Blanc and others have challenged Trotsky’s idea of Lenin’s re-arming of the party. Eric Blanc writes, for instance, “the available evidence does not confirm the standard ‘re-arming’ account, which has obscured a far more convoluted internal debate and political evolution…There was an important political evolution of the party towards socialist revolution over the course of 1917, but this was uneven, protracted, and was primarily a response to lived developments in the class struggle…The ‘rearming’ account has problematically inflated Lenin’s ability to determine Bolshevik policy, thereby minimising the extent to which the organisation evolved collectively and contentiously through the accumulated experience and contributions of its cadres.”

Trotsky, Lenin, Kamenev

(It should be noted in passing that none of these articles appears to dispute the documentary evidence Trotsky presents to support his view. Trotsky’s History, and the Lessons of October, rest not on his own recollections, but on Bolshevik newspapers and other publications from the time.)

These contributions may add useful further documentary evidence of the confusion of perspective that gripped some of the secondary leaders of the Bolshevik Party. However, the problem Blanc creates in his effort to present a kind of ‘average’ party position on these questions (which he calls ‘ballpark Bolshevism’) is that an ‘average’ position illuminates very little when the  essence of the matter consists in crisis and split.

Lars Lih, in his article “The Character of the Russian Revolution: Trotsky 1917 vs. Trotsky 1924” does not overlook the split in the Bolshevik Party, but he misconstrues it as chiefly a disagreement about the class character of the Russian revolution – whether the Russian revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution or a socialist one. In fact, the essential disagreement between the two tendencies in the Bolshevik Party was not primarily theoretical but political. It was over whether the proletariat should seize power, or whether it should support the capitalist provisional government coming out of the February revolution and that government’s continuation of the imperialist war.

“In his short book Lessons of October, Trotsky pounded home the claim that anyone who defined the revolution as “bourgeois-democratic” was logically prohibited from supporting the drive for soviet power,” Lih claims. He quotes Trotsky as follows:

If this policy [of carrying the democratic revolution to the end] had prevailed, the development of the revolution would have bypassed our party and, in the final analysis, we would have had an uprising of the worker and peasant masses without party leadership—in other words, a repetition of the July days on a colossal scale, that is, not just as an episode but as a catastrophe.

The interpolation in parentheses is Lars Lih’s, and it is a misreading – one could say an outright falsification – of Trotsky’s position. Why did Lih need such an explanatory interpolation at all? For Trotsky had just spelled out, in the sentence immediately prior to the section quoted by Lih, exactly what he meant by “this policy” that would end in catastrophe: it was the policy “to ‘exert pressure’ on the ruling bourgeoisie, a ‘pressure’ so calculated as to remain within the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime.

In other words, the problem was not “carrying the democratic revolution to the end” per se; the problem was stopping at that point. It was in this sense that Trotsky wrote, “Under the actual conditions of revolution, to hold a position of supporting democracy, pushed to its logical conclusion — opposing socialism as ”being premature” — meant, in politics, to shift from a proletarian to a petty-bourgeois position.” [my emphasis – JR]

As Trotsky explains in Lessons of October in commenting on a speech by Kamenev: “the crux of the matter lies precisely in the fact that the ‘complete accomplishment of this [democratic] revolution’ could never take place without changing the bearers of power.” [my emphasis – JR] Lih’s formulation of this debate is precisely how the right wing of the Bolsheviks attempted to frame it – placed in the mouth of Trotsky.

Was Trotsky justified in stating that the key issue in the debate was the struggle for power, rather than the social content of the revolution? Absolutely – the conduct of Rykov, Kamenev, et al in October totally vindicates Trotsky’s assessment.

Out of sleight of hand such as this Lih constructs his entire case against the ‘re-arming the party orthodoxy.’ His article fails to appreciate that revolutions may well, and usually do, combine tasks from differing historical epochs. The October revolution was a proletarian, socialist revolution which brought the working class to power. It was nonetheless confronted with urgent and long-postponed tasks of a bourgeois character, tasks such as agrarian reform, separation of church and state, and liberation of the oppressed nationalities. Lenin summarised the connection between the bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution in a speech on the fourth anniversary of October. “We have consummated the bourgeois-democratic revolution as nobody had done before. We are advancing towards the socialist revolution consciously, firmly and unswervingly, knowing that it is not separated from the bourgeois-democratic revolution by a Chinese Wall, and knowing too that (in the last analysis) struggle alone will determine how far we shall advance…

Alexei Rykov

Once again echoing the arguments of the right-Bolsheviks, Lih also conflates socialism as the character and tendency of a proletarian revolution, the objective basis of which certainly existed in Russia in 1917, and socialism as a higher economic form, which pre-supposes the raising of the cultural level of the masses, international co-operation, and massive industrial development, all of which were very much the music of the future in the backward, impoverished, isolated Russia of 1917.

This same argument was put forward by Rykov in 1917. Trotsky answers: “That the cultural-economic condition of Russia in itself was inadequate for the construction of a socialist society was mere ABC to Lenin. But societies are not so rational in building that the dates for proletarian dictatorships arrive exactly at that moment when the economic and cultural conditions are ripe for socialism. If humanity evolved as systematically as that, there would be no need for dictatorship, nor indeed for revolutions in general. Living historic societies are inharmonious through and through, and the more so the more delayed their development. The fact that in a backward country like Russia the bourgeoisie had decayed before the complete victory of the bourgeois régime, and that there was nobody but the proletariat to replace it in the position of national leadership, was an expression of this inharmony. The economic backwardness of Russia does not relieve the working class of the obligation to fulfil its allotted task, but merely surrounds this task with extraordinary difficulties.” (History p334).

This kind of confusion over fundamental ideas makes my head spin after only a few paragraphs of these articles – and I must admit that I haven’t been able to read them all. Lih is a serious scholar, and I would not exclude the possibility that his study of the documents of 1917 could reveal something of interest. But it is hard to see in his challenge to the “re-arming the party orthodoxy” and Trotsky’s “deeply misleading and mistaken interpretation of 1924” anything other than a re-iteration of the positions taken by Kamenev, Rykov, Stalin, Zinoviev, and all those who trembled, hesitated, vacillated, went to pieces, resisted, and even deserted at the nervous moment of insurrection.

2 responses to “The nervous moment of insurrection

  1. Thanks for this, James. I wholeheartedly agree with your characterization of Trotsky’s History… as the greatest work of literature of the 20th Century. (And I have read most of the more traditional candidates.) I read it the summer of 1979 – began shortly after my return from Cuba, and I couldn’t put it down. With the sheer beauty and wealth of concrete detail (aka ‘material reality’) Trotsky conveys the complexity and convergence in that critical point – when the masses can no longer endure the established order – and the world-changing power unleashed.

  2. Hi James.
    I am re-reading John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World. Not to be compared with Trotsky’s masterpiece of course, but a wonderful book in its own right. Can I share a short passage? Reed is describing the situation in the days immediately following the insurrection, when Kerensky is trying to rally support in some units of the army outside Petrograd, including Cossacks, for an assault on the city. Read this without getting a lump in your throat:
    “As we came out into the dark and gloomy day, all around the grey horizon factory whistles were blowing, a hoarse and nervous sound, full of foreboding. By tens of thousands the working-people poured out, men and women; by tens of thousands the humming slums belched out their dun and miserable hordes. Red Petrograd was in danger! Cossacks! South and southwest they poured through the shabby streets toward the Moskovsky Gate, men, women and children, with rifles, picks, spades, rolls of wire, cartridge-belts over their working clothes…. Such an immense, spontaneous outpouring of a city never was seen! They rolled along torrent-like, companies of soldiers borne with them, guns, motor-trucks, wagons—the revolutionary proletariat defending with its breast the capital of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic!”

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