The Russian Revolution: Excerpts from Leon Trotsky’s stirring firsthand account

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Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is unique as a systematic analysis of the first seizure of state power by the working class, written by one of the revolution’s foremost leaders. For activists today opposing corporate globalization, war and environmental destruction, it is an invaluable guide to how revolutions unfold and what makes them succeed. Its irresistible optimism comes from an objective appreciation of the vast power of the only class that can give humanity control over society.

“A leaping movement” of the masses
“During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little known to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history — especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million.”

“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. … 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 dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

“The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all.”

“The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of ‘demagogues.’”

The role of leadership
“The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis — the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process … express the growing pressure to the left of the masses.”

“Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

“In the February revolution, as we know, the worker-Bolsheviks played the decisive role. They thought it self-evident that that class which had won the victory should seize the power. … Lenin had never lost touch with [these workers]. … The chief strength of Lenin lay in his understanding the inner logic of the movement, and guiding his policy by it. He did not impose his plan on the masses; he helped the masses to recognize their own plan.”

Women workers to the fore
“The 23rd of February was International Woman’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. … Not a single organization called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organization, and a most militant one — the Vyborg borough committee, all workers — was opposing strikes. … On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support.”

“Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat — the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives. … Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war.”

“A great role is played by women workers in relationship between workers and soldiers. 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 guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened, a joyous and grateful ‘Hurrah!’ shakes the air. … Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals — the revolution makes another forward step.”

Legacy of the October Revolution
“The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarised as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces — in nature, in society, in man himself. … But social relations are still forming in the manner of the coral islands. Parliamentarism illumined only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms … , democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned.

“Enemies are gleeful that 15 years after the revolution the Soviet country is still but little like a kingdom of universal well-being. … Capitalism required a hundred years to elevate science and technique to the heights and plunge humanity into the hell of war and crisis. … The process of vast transformations must be measured by an adequate scale.

“But the misfortunes which have overwhelmed living people? The fire and bloodshed of the civil war? Do the consequences of a revolution justify in general the sacrifices it involves? … It would be as well to ask in face of the difficulties and griefs of personal existence: Is it worth while to be born? Melancholy reflections have not so far, however, prevented people from bearing or being born. … But the people are seeking the way out of their unbearable difficulties in revolution.”

“It is our turn to ask: Did the war justify itself? What has it given us? What has it taught?”

“The October revolution laid the foundation of a new culture taking everybody into consideration. … Even supposing for a moment that owing to unfavourable circumstances and hostile blows the Soviet regime should be temporarily overthrown, the inexpugnable impress of the October revolution would nevertheless remain upon the whole future development of mankind.”

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