In Defense of October: a Reply to Chris Trotter

Guest post by Terry Coggan, a New Zealand Marxist and trade unionist.

Chris Trotter manages to inflict so much injury on historical truth in his short article marking this month’s centenary of the Russian Revolution (read Trotter’s article here) that it’s hard to know where to begin. According to our latter-day Menshevik, the Bolsheviks “not so much made as destroyed the revolution” by staging a “blatantly unconstitutional seizure of power”; they violated representative democracy by dispersing the Constituent Assembly; and they “utterly refused to share power with any of the other participants in the Russian Revolution”. None of these charges is new, of course – it’s surprising that Trotter didn’t throw in other standard canards like the killing of the Tsar’s family or the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising, but perhaps it was a question of space.

Revolutionary Russian soldiers, February 1917

Before dealing with specifics, let us identify Trotter’s main ploy: he tries to separate the Bolsheviks from the insurgent mass of workers and peasants by counterposing the “joyous eruption of ‘people power’ ” in Russia in 1917 to the usurpation of that “people’s revolution” (his underlining) by those evil Bolsheviks.

But there was no opposition between the masses and their vanguard in 1917. The Bolsheviks didn’t capture the revolution, they led it. This is recognized by every conscientious historian, beginning with Nicholas Sukhanov, who as a Menshevik was a political opponent of the Bolsheviks. He wrote in the 1920s:

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1917

“Yes, the Bolsheviks were working zealously and unceasingly. They were among the masses, in the factories every day and all the time…. They became the party of the masses because they were always there, guiding both in great things and small the whole life of the factories and barracks. The masses lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. They were wholly in the hands of the party of Lenin and Trotsky.”

Nikolai Sukhanov

Sukhanov goes on to state flatly, “To talk  about military conspiracy instead of national insurrection, when the party was followed by the overwhelming majority of the people, when the party had already conquered all real power and authority, was clearly an absurdity.”

Armoured cruiser Aurora, 1917. Revolutionary sailors of the Kronstadt naval base took a major part in the October insurrection

Trotter, along with those bourgeois historians who routinely refer to the October insurrection as a “coup d’état”, don’t notice their own contradictions . Coup d’états are carried by armed forces; the Bolsheviks had no army (the creation of the Red Army lay in the future); they relied on politically winning over the Provisional Government’s soldiers and sailors, most importantly the Petrograd garrison and Kronstadt naval base, and on getting arms into the hands of  ordinary workers, to create the famous Red Guards. Perpetrators of coup d’états are concerned to keep the monopoly of armed force in their own hands; the last thing they think of doing is arming the people.

Russian peasant family, early 1900s

Trotter attempts to cast doubt on the fact that  the Bolsheviks launched the October insurrection backed by, to use Sukhanov’s phrase, “the overwhelming majority of the people”  by characterizing their majority in the urban Soviets of Workers and Soldiers as “fragile”.  And, by stating that the peasantry gave their support overwhelmingly to their rivals, the Social Revolutionary Party (SRs), he implies that the Bolsheviks lacked support in the countryside.

Of the 650 delegates who gathered in Petrograd for the  Second All-Russia Congress of Workers and Soldiers Soviets on the eve of the insurrection, 390 were Bolsheviks, reflecting the party’s solid base in Petrograd, Moscow and other urban centers. Add in the Left SRs and 505 delegates at the Congress were for overthrowing the Provisional Government and establishing soviet power –  a decisive majority, even if we keep in mind Trotsky’s point that such majorities are not counted up, but won over.

Alexander Kerensky (left) leader of the Social Revolutionary Party, and of the Provisional Government

A large majority of the peasantry did support the SRs until well into 1917. But the SRs forfeited that support when as part of various provisional governments established after the overthrow of the Tsar in February, they not only refused to withdraw Russia from the imperialist war, in face of the increasingly desperate opposition in the ranks of the army, nine-tenths made up by peasants, but they failed to carry out their own agrarian policy – the expropriation of the landlords and the distribution of land to the peasants. Millions of peasants were spontaneously enacting this programme anyway by  seizing estates all across the country.  The Party split, with its left wing joining the Bolsheviks in endorsing the land seizures. The legitimacy of the October insurrection was sealed in November/December 1917 when the Extraordinary All-Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies adhered to the new Soviet government, in which the Bolsheviks had been joined by the Left SRs. The Congress approved the decree on land, a virtual copy of the original Social Revolutionary agrarian programme,  which had been adopted by the Congress of  Workers and Soldiers Soviets two  weeks earlier.

Peasant support for the Bolsheviks largely lasted through the Civil War, for one simple reason that Lenin pointed to in his report to the Eleventh Communist (Bolshevik) Party Congress in 1922, the last one he attended: “No propaganda was required there. Every non-Party peasant understood what was going on. The landowners were coming back. The Communists knew how to fight them. That is why, taken in the mass, the peasants followed the lead of the Communists; that is why we were victorious.”

Trotter complains that the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was “blatantly unconstitutional.” Well, all revolutions are in one sense “unconstitutional”, in that they overthrow the existing order. But new constitutions are also written in the course of revolutions – think of the Constitution of the United States of America, or indeed of the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic adopted by the Fifth All-Russia Congress of Soviets in July 1918. This constitution-making process had begun under the system of dual power that took shape after the February Revolution in Russia, and to that extent the actions of both elements of that power, the Provisional Government and the soviets, enjoyed “legal” status. That is why the Bolsheviks decided to delay the insurrection to coincide with the convening of the Congress of the Soviets, to take power in its name, despite Lenin’s initial alarm that this risked losing the opportune moment to strike. In his 1924 book Lessons of October Trotsky explains:

“We were more or less able to synchronize the seizure of power with the opening of the Second Soviet Congress only because the peaceful, almost “legal” armed insurrection – at least in Petrograd – was already three-quarters, if not nine-tenths achieved. Our reference to this insurrection as “legal” is in the sense that it was an outgrowth of the “normal” conditions of dual power. Even when the conciliationists dominated the Petrograd Soviet it frequently happened the the soviet revised or amended the decisions of the government. That was, so to speak, part of the constitution under the regime that has been inscribed in the annals of history as the “Kerensky period.” When we Bolsheviks assumed power in the Petrograd Soviet, we only continued and deepened the methods of dual power. We took it upon ourselves to revise the order transferring the troops to the front. By this very act we covered up the actual insurrection of the Petrograd garrison with the traditions and methods of legal dual power. Nor was that all. While formally adopting our agitation on the question of power to the opening of the Second Soviet Congress, we developed and deepened the already existing traditions of dual power, and prepared the framework of soviet legality for the Bolshevik insurrection on an All-Russian scale.”

Trotter, like all good liberal democrats and parliamentary socialists over the years, particularly bemoans the fate of the Constituent Assembly, dissolved by the Bolshevik-led  government in January 1918. Even Rosa Luxemburg, a genuine revolutionary who embraced the Russian Revolution as “the salvation of the honour of international socialism”, initially criticized the Bolsheviks for dispersing the Assembly, although she changed her mind in the course of 1918 when she saw how, in the throes of  revolutionary upheavals in Germany, the capitalist class and its allies in the  officialdom of the German labour movement were focusing all their efforts on convoking a Constituent Assembly, so that it could strip the Workers and Soldiers Councils of the powers they had acquired through struggle, in other words become a vehicle of the counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks in the first place opposed the Constituent Assembly because it was unrepresentative. Having been elected on electoral lists drawn up prior to the October Revolution, by the time it convened it lagged far behind the development of the political struggle and the development of political groupings. (There were 370 Right SRs and 40 Left SRs in the Assembly, for instance. The November/December Congress of Peasants Deputies, meeting  in the heat of the intensified battle for the land, had 110 Left SRs and 50 Right SRs.) But more importantly the Constituent Assembly was functionally redundant. A new and qualitatively superior form of the state was in place. To go back to a bourgeois parliament when soviet power had been established would have been like insisting on using a dial-up modem to access the internet after broadband has become available.

A meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, June 1917

Trotter himself acknowledges the force of this argument when he writes “Perhaps the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ “soviets” (councils) whose members were directly elected at the factory, barracks and village level, and instantly recallable if they deviated from their mandates, were a better and more accountable form of democratic representation.” Trotter mentions some of the reasons, outlined by Marx in relation to the Paris Commune of 1871, and by Lenin in his book State and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution, why a soviet or council system is an historic advance over even the most democratic parliament.  Other reasons include turning representative institutions from talking shops into working bodies by combining legislative and executive functions, and the reduction of the salaries of all state officials to the level of an average worker’s wage. (Thus did Marx and Lenin hold out the prospect of “cheap government” under workers’ rule, in contrast to the bloated bureaucracies typical of capitalist states – of which the revelations of legions of highly paid functionaries doing unproductive work at the Auckland City Council is a recent and local example.)

A soviet system makes it possible to draw working people, as they acquire the necessary education and technical skills, into state administration at all levels, replacing career politicians and civil servants. “We are convinced,” Lenin told the Third Congress of Soviets in January 1918, “that with every step Soviet power takes the number of people will constantly grow who have  completely throw off  the old bourgeois notion that a simple worker and peasant cannot administer the state.” A week after the conquest of power, he wrote a newspaper article headed To the Population in which he urged:

“Comrades, working people! Remember that now now you yourselves are at the helm of the state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority, legislative bodies with full powers. Rally around your Soviets. Strengthen them. Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.”

Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in 1917

In his great masterpiece, The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote “of all the forms of revolutionary representation, the soviet is the most flexible, immediate and transparent. But still it is only a form. It cannot give more than the masses are capable of putting into it at a given moment.” The circumstances of the four years after the October Revolution– civil war in which a million Red Army soldiers, including the flower of the Petrograd and Moscow proletariat, died in combat or from disease, industrial collapse, widespread famine, and above all the failure of revolution in other countries, especially Germany – meant that the soviets could not fulfill their potential. Nonetheless, Lenin still regarded them as one of, if not the greatest achievement of the October Revolution. He said in 1922:

“For hundreds of years states have been built according to the bourgeois model, and for the first time a non-bourgeois form of state has been discovered. Our machinery of government may be faulty, but it was said that the first steam engine that was invented was also faulty. No one even knows whether it worked or not, but that is not the important point; the important point is that it was invented. Even assuming that the first steam engine was of no use, the fact is that we now have steam engines. Even if our machinery of government is very faulty, the fact remains that it has been created; the greatest invention in history has been made; a proletarian type of state has been created.”

What of Trotter’s assertion that the Bolsheviks “utterly refused to share power with any of the other participants in the Russian Revolution”? For a start, he ignores the fact that the Left SRs accepted the Bolsheviks’ invitation to join the new revolutionary government, contributing three members to the first Council of People’s Commissars. But even beyond that, Trotter’s accusation is without foundation. The historian David Mandel describes what really happened:

“As for the totalitarian tendencies ascribed to the party, one only need to recall the unanimous support among Petrograd’s Bolsheviks on the morrow of the October insurrection in favour of the formation of a broad coalition of all the socialist parties, from the Bolsheviks on the left to the Popular Socialists on the right. How does this fit with the claim that the Bolsheviks aspired to a one-party dictatorship? If that coalition was not formed it was because the moderate socialists rejected the principle of a government accountable to the soviets, representative organizations of the workers and peasants….They insisted on including , in one form or another, representatives of the propertied classes, and on limiting the Bolsheviks to a minority status in the government, even though the Bolsheviks had constituted the majority at the recent Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies. [They also insisted on the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from any government! TC.] The Mensheviks and SRs were demanding, in effect, to annul the October insurrection and to restore the status quo ante, which had been the reason for the insurrection. When the workers saw that to be the case, they lost interest in the proposed coalition.”

To return to Trotter’s false dichotomy: on the one hand the “vivid colours” of a people’s revolution (good); on the other the “carefully planned and ruthlessly executed coup d’état” of the Bolsheviks (bad). In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky exposed the political roots of such an approach. We will give him the last word:

“Historians and politicians usually give the name of spontaneous insurrection to a movement of the masses united by a common hostility against the old regime, but not having a clear aim, deliberate methods of struggle, or a leadership consciously showing the way to victory. This spontaneous revolution is condescendingly recognized by official historians – at least those of democratic temper – as a necessary evil the responsibility for which falls upon the old regime. The real reason for their attitude of indulgence is that ”spontaneous” insurrection cannot transcend the framework of the bourgeois regime.

“The social democrats take a similar position. They do not reject revolution at large as a social catastrophe, any more than they reject earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, eclipses and epidemics of the plague. What they do reject – calling it “Blanquism”, or worst still Bolshevism – is the conscious preparation of an overturn, the plan, the conspiracy. In other words, the social democrats are ready to sanction – and that only ex post facto – those overturns which hand the power to the bourgeoisie, but they implacably condemn those methods which alone might bring power to the proletariat. Under this pretended objectivism they conceal a policy of defense of the capitalist society.”


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