“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 these crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they…sweep aside their traditional representatives and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime.”
Perceived wisdom tells us workers cannot take power and that socialist revolution is a pipedream. Except – they can and they did in Russia in 1917, and Trotsky’s magnificent work stands as an unanswerable testimony to that fact.
Written shortly after Trotsky’s expulsion and exile from Russia, the book is both a revolutionary manual and a fierce polemic against the triumphant Stalinist bureaucracy.
Trotsky sets out the dialectical process that led to the conquest of power in a manner that demonstrates both his mastery of the Marxist method while at the same time applying his marvellous literary technique and razor sharp analytical skills to the people and events of 1917 that were to shape and shake the world.
The Romanov dynasty that had ruled the Russian empire for centuries is revealed for the historical anachronism it was. As revolt spreads, including uprisings of soldiers and sailors following the Tsarist decree to dissolve the toothless “parliament” the Duma, Trotsky quotes the diary entry of Tsar Nicholas, “Was quietly busy until dinner and all evening. Went paddling in a canoe.” Trotsky comments, “It was in a canoe he went paddling – that is told. But with what he was busy all evening is not indicated. So it was always”.
Once the Tsar was gone, the issue of who was to rule was posed. A situation of “dual power” arose. On one side stood the committees of workers and soldiers – the soviets – a new form of direct democracy. On the other, the provisional government seeking to turn Russia into a modern bourgeois state. It was however no foregone conclusion that the Bolsheviks would come out for power to go to the soviets.
Here the true nature of democratic centralism is spelled out by Trotsky not as a parlour game but as a process vital to the revolution itself. The democratic nature of the Bolsheviks allowed for the most acrimonious and rancorous debate. It pitched Lenin and the most advanced sections of the party who stood for a policy of “All power to the Soviets”, against those like Kamenev and Stalin who argued for conciliation and support for the provisional government. Once Lenin had won the debate the party as a whole set about the task of winning the majority of the working class to that position.
The Bolsheviks had to endure what Trotsky called the “month of slander” when in desperation the Russian ruling class accused Lenin and Trotsky of being in the pay of Germany. But such was the respect among workers for the Bolsheviks as the best and most resolute fighters, the smear campaign fell on deaf ears.
When it became clear that the revolutionary process was moving towards a full blown workers’ revolution the Russian ruling class turned to General Kornilov to drown the revolution in blood. But it was too late, the Bolsheviks had dug their roots deep into the masses, and the attempt at a military coup was (literally) derailed. The Bolsheviks tactical acumen allowed them to be the most resolute defenders of the revolution and the motor driving it further still. The vacillation of the provisional government, headed by Kerensky, convinced the majority of workers that only the Bolsheviks could safeguard the revolution.
On the morning of the 26 October 1917, the day after the Congress of Soviets had voted for the transfer of all power to the soviets, the Bolsheviks paper Pravda said, “They wanted us to take power alone, so that we alone should have to contend with the terrible difficulties confronting the country… so be it! We take the power alone, relying upon the voice of the country and counting upon the friendly help of the European proletariat. But having taken power, we will deal with the enemies of the revolution and its saboteurs with an iron hand. They dreamed of a dictatorship of Kornilov… We will give them the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Now that’s what I call an editorial!
“Who would believe that the janitor or watchman of the court building would suddenly become Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals or the hospital orderly manager of the hospital?”, wrote General Zalesssky. Well, you will after you’ve read this masterpiece.
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