Marking 100 years since Russian workers rose to take the reins of the state, a slew of newly published histories has appeared. None achieve the crystalline portrayal of events nor the compelling analysis of why things happened as does Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.
Trotsky was a major figure in the revolution. A leader in the “dress rehearsal” revolution of 1905 and one of the most brilliant orators of his era, he worked indefatigably as the struggle unfolded, collaborated closely with Lenin, and was the architect of the October insurrection in St. Petersburg. Trotsky, however, does not rely on personal reflection. His work cites sources from across the political spectrum, is thoroughly documented, scientifically reasoned, and at the same time passionate and partisan.
This book is justifiably considered by many mainstream critics as the best and most significant historical work of the 20th century. But more importantly, Trotsky wrote for us — we who live in societies bound by capitalism’s chains who have yet to make our own October.
Learning from the past. What forces change a barren, reactionary period like the one that encased pre-revolutionary Russia into the flash flood of rebellion that erupted in February 1917? How did people of the most economically and culturally backward of European nations overthrow the Romanov dynasty and place carpenters, cooks and corporals at the helm of state? How did they unite over a hundred different nationalities and peasants spread across immense geography?
Trotsky sheds light on these enquiries and more. He highlights the role of women, explaining the revolution was begun from below. On March 8 (February 23 in Russia’s old calendar) none of the left parties thought the time propitious for demonstrations. But women workers went out on International Women’s Day, led by “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.” They went to other factories, calling on men to join them. These on-the-ground organizers had a better sense than socialist party officials of the readiness of their class for revolt.
As the demonstrations grew into a general strike, the army was sent to suppress them. Trotsky describes the molecular process by which soldiers were won over. “A great role is played by women workers. … They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: ‘Put down your bayonets — join us.’ The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first, and the bayonets rise.”
Bringing his readers into the streets to taste the experience of being inside the revolutionary struggle: “The masses will no longer retreat, they resist with optimistic brilliance. … The crowd is not only bitter, it is audacious.” And victorious.
The role of the vanguard party. In five days, Nicholas II is consigned to the dustbin of history. But a paradox emerges. Soviets — elected councils of workers and soldiers — spring up. Yet the Bolsheviks are still a small minority; key leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky have yet to make their way back from exile. In their absence, with the reformist bent of other left parties, and with the inexperience of the masses, the state power wrested from the monarchy is handed over to the bourgeoisie.
Trotsky charts the volatile “dual power” as ascendancy shifted from the Provisional Government to the Soviet. Revolutionary consciousness surged, waned and pushed forward again as the workers and soldiers tested and cast aside a series of collaborations with the capitalist parties engineered by timid, compromising leaders; defeated an attempted counter-revolution; and finally chose the banner of Bolshevism.
Trotsky definitively demonstrates that the key to moving the level of struggle from February to October was a revolutionary party that had assimilated the lessons of the past, was rooted deeply in the working class, and developed a leadership that could gauge shifts in mass consciousness and detect the moment when discontent could rise to revolution. The path was hardly smooth. A segment of the Bolsheviks was overly attached to old slogans, slow to recognize new realities, and susceptible to pressure from the bourgeois class and to fears of failure. But Lenin’s keen perception, programmatic clarity and the free, democratic discussion within the party enabled him to appeal to and persuade the party rank-and-file when some among the leadership quailed.
In many ways, Trotsky’s book is more important now than it was when published in 1932. The passing decades have given proof to Trotsky’s conclusion; without a principled vanguard party in the lead, heroic struggles have been lost, or victories ultimately turned to sand. Let we who want a socialist future take to heart all we can learn from History of the Russian Revolution about leadership and the art of insurrection.
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A Russian Revolution commemorative article
Other articles in this series:
The puzzle of Putin’s Russia (June 2017)
Trotsky in New York, 1917 (June 2017)
Secondhand Time: socialist hopes and Stalinist tragedies (August 2017)
What radicals today can learn from the Russian Revolution (October 2017)