The character of the Russian Revolution
This article by Lev Trotsky was first published in August 1917 as part 5 of his pamphlet What next?
Petrograd 1917: Red Guards
The liberal and SR-Menshevik politicians and scribes are much concerned over the question of the sociological significance of the Russian Revolution. Is it a bourgeois revolution or some other kind of revolution?
At first glance, this interest in theoretical issues may appear somewhat surprising. The liberals have nothing to gain by revealing the class interests behind ‘their’ revolution. And, as for the petty bourgeois ‘socialists’, in general their political activity is not guided by theoretical analysis, but rather by ‘common sense’: that is, the pseudonym for mediocrity and lack of principle. And, as a matter of fact, all this Miliukov-Dan [Kadet and Menshevik leaders respectively] pontification - originally inspired by Plekhanov - about the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution contains not a single grain of real theory.
Neither Edinstvo [newspaper of Plekhanov’s group], nor Rech [liberal Kadet party], nor Den [SR party], nor the ever-sorrowing Rabochaia Gazeta [Mensheviks] take any pains to specify what is meant by ‘bourgeois revolution’. The intention of their manoeuvres is purely practical: to demonstrate the ‘right’ of the bourgeoisie to hold the vlast. Even though the soviets represent the majority of the population that is capable of political life, even though in all the democratic elections, in city and in country, the capitalist parties collapse with a loud thud - still, ‘since our revolution is bourgeois’, we must preserve the privileges of the bourgeoisie, and assign to it a role in the government, to which the alignment of political groups within the country provides absolutely no justification.
If we were to act in accordance with the principles of democratic parliamentarianism, then clearly the vlast belongs to the SRs - either alone or in conjunction with the Mensheviks. But, ‘since our revolution is bourgeois’, the principles of democracy are suspended, and the representatives of the overwhelming majority of the people receive five seats in the cabinet, while the representatives of an insignificant minority get twice as many. To hell with democracy! Long live Plekhanovite sociology!
“Is it even possible to carry out a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie?” asks Plekhanov insinuatingly, invoking the support of dialectics and of Engels.
‘That’s just it!’ interposes Miliukov. ‘We Kadets would be ready to relinquish the vlast, which the narod clearly do not wish to give us. But we cannot fly in the face of science.’ And for this he invokes the support of Plekhanov’s ‘Marxism’.
“Since our revolution is bourgeois,” explain Plekhanov, Potresov, and Dan, “a political coalition between the toilers and the exploiters is necessary”. And in the light of this “sociology”, the clownish handshake [at the Moscow conference in August 1917] of Bublikov [representative of industry] and Tseretelli [Menshevik leader] is revealed in its full historical significance.
The trouble is merely this: that the same bourgeois character of the revolution, now used to justify the coalition between the socialists and the capitalists, has for a number of years been taken by these very Mensheviks as supporting the very opposite conclusion.
‘Since, in a bourgeois revolution,’ they were wont to say, ‘the government vlast can have no other task than to safeguard the domination of the bourgeoisie, it is clear that Social Democracy can have nothing to do with it: its place is not in the government, but rather in the opposition.’ Plekhanov considered that socialists could not under any conditions take part in a bourgeois government, and he savagely attacked Kautsky, whose resolution admitted certain exceptions in this connection. ‘Tempora legesque mutantur,’ the pedants of the old regime so expressed it: when the times change, the law changes. And, as we see, the same thing happens with the ‘laws of Plekhanovite sociology’.
No matter how contradictory may be the opinions of the Mensheviks and their mentor, Plekhanov, when you compare their opinions before the revolution with their opinions of today, one thought remains unchanged: you cannot carry out a bourgeois revolution ‘without the bourgeoisie’. At first blush this idea would appear to be axiomatic. But in fact it is just a piece of stupidity.
The history of mankind did not begin with the [recent] Moscow conference. Revolutions have occurred in the past. At the end of the 18th century there was a revolution in France, which is called, not without reason, the ‘Great Revolution’. It was a bourgeois revolution. In one of its phases power fell into the hands of the Jacobins, who relied on the sans-culottes, or the urban artisan-proletarian lower classes, and who set up between them and the Girondists - the liberal party of the bourgeoisie, the Kadets of their day - the neat rectangle of the guillotine. It was only the dictatorship of the Jacobins that gave the first French Revolution its present importance, that made it the ‘Great Revolution’.
And yet this dictatorship was carried out not only without the bourgeoisie, but directly in opposition to it. Robespierre, who did not have the opportunity to acquaint himself with Plekhanovite ideas, upset all the laws of sociology and, instead of shaking hands with the Girondists, he cut off their heads. This was very cruel - there is no denying it. But this cruelty did not prevent the French Revolution from becoming great, within the limits of its bourgeois character. Marx, whose name is abused by so many vulgarians in our country, said that the “whole French terror was simply a plebeian effort to dispose of the enemies of the bourgeoisie”. And as the same bourgeoisie feared these plebeian methods of disposing of the enemies of the narod, the Jacobins not only deprived the bourgeoisie of the vlast, but applied an iron repression against the bourgeoisie whenever it made any attempt to halt or to ‘soften’ the work of the Jacobins. It is clear: the Jacobins carried out a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie.
Referring to the English Revolution of 1648, Engels wrote:
In order that the bourgeoisie might gather to itself all the fruits that had then matured, it was necessary that the revolution should go far beyond its original aims, as was again the case in France in 1793 and in Germany in 1848. This, to be sure, is one of the laws of the evolution of bourgeois society.
We see that Engelian law is directly opposed to the Plekhanovite brainstorm that the Mensheviks accept and give out as Marxism.
It may, of course, be objected that the Jacobins were themselves a bourgeoisie - only a small or ‘petty’ one. This is absolutely true. But what else is the so-called ‘revolutionary democracy’ that is led by the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks? Between the Kadets, the party of the larger and middle property-owners, on the one hand, and the SRs, on the other hand, no intermediate party manifested itself in any of the elections held in town or village. It follows with mathematical clarity that the petty bourgeoisie found its political representation in the ranks of the SRs. The Mensheviks, whose policy differs by not a hair’s breadth from the policy of the SRs, reflect the same class interests. There is no contradiction here to the fact that they are also supported by a section of the most backward or conservative/privileged workers.
Why were the SRs unable to take the vlast into their own hands? In what sense and why did the ‘bourgeois’ character of the Russian Revolution (if we grant that such is its character) compel the SRs and Mensheviks to exchange the plebeian methods of the Jacobins with the gentlemanly method of an agreement [soglashenie] with the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie? It is manifest that the explanation must be sought not in the ‘bourgeois’ character of our revolution, but in the pitiful character of our petty bourgeois democracy. Instead of taking the vlast in its hands as a tool for the realisation of essential historical tasks, our pseudo-democracy deferentially transferred over the real vlast to the counterrevolutionary, military-imperialist clique - and Tseretelli, at the Moscow conference, even boasted that the soviets had not surrendered the vlast under pressure, not after a courageous fight and defeat, but voluntarily, as evidence of political “self-limitation”. The gentleness of the calf, holding its neck for the butcher’s knife, is not the quality which is going to conquer new worlds.
The difference between the terrorists of the French revolutionary Convention [who overthrew the monarchy] and the Moscow capitulators [the moderate socialists who played nice with industrialists] is the difference between tigers and lambkins - a difference in courage. But this difference is not fundamental. Behind it stands a decisive difference in the make-up of the democracy itself. The Jacobins were based on the classes of little or no property, including also what rudiments of a proletariat were then in existence. In our case, the industrial working class managed to separate itself out of the ill-defined democracy into an independent historical force of the highest importance. The petty bourgeois democracy lost the most valuable revolutionary qualities just as these qualities were developed by the proletariat, as it separated itself from the petty bourgeoisie. This phenomenon in turn is due to the incomparably higher level to which capitalism had evolved in Russia, as compared with the France at the end of the 18th century. The revolutionary role of the Russian proletariat, which cannot be measured by its numerical strength, is based upon its crucial productive role, which becomes evident most of all in wartime. The threat of a railroad strike again reminds us, in our day, of the dependence of the whole country on the concentrated labour of the proletariat.
The philistine [meshchanskaia] peasant party [the SRs], in the very earliest stages of the revolution, was exposed to a crossfire between the extremely powerful groups of the imperialist classes, on the one hand, and the revolutionary-internationalist proletariat, on the other. In their struggle to exert an influence of their own over the workers, the philistine party constantly contrasted their ‘statesmanship’ and their ‘patriotism’ with the proletarian party, and for this very reason fell into a slavish dependence on the groups representing counterrevolutionary capital. At the same time, it has completely deprived itself of any possibility of really liquidating each and all forms of the old barbarism - even just those which directly shackle those sections of the narod that still follow it.
The struggle of the SRs and Mensheviks for influence over the proletariat was more and more replaced by a struggle by the proletarian party to obtain the leadership of the semi-proletarian masses of the villages and towns. Because they ‘voluntarily’ handed over the vlast to the bourgeois cliques, the SR-Menshevik ‘democracy’ was obliged to concede its revolutionary mission conclusively to the party of the proletariat. This alone shows that the attempt to decide fundamental questions of tactics by a bare allusion to the ‘bourgeois’ character of our revolution can only succeed in confusing the minds of backward workers and deceiving the peasants.
In the French Revolution of 1848, the proletariat was already making heroic efforts to attain independent action. But as yet it had neither a clear revolutionary theory nor an authoritative class organisation. Its importance in production was infinitely lower than the present economic role of the Russian proletariat. In addition, behind 1848 there stood the great revolution [of 1789] that had solved the agrarian question in its own way, and this [response to peasant interests] found expression [in 1848] in the pronounced isolation of the proletariat, Parisian for the most part, from the masses of the narod.
Our situation in this respect is immensely more favourable. Serf-like relations on the land, the confusion in legal status caused by the soslovie system [caste-like ‘estates’], oppression, and the caste-based rapacity by the church confront the revolution as questions that cannot be deferred, demanding decisive and merciless measures. The ‘isolation’ of our party from the SRs and Mensheviks - even an extreme isolation, even solitary confinement - would by no means signify the isolation of the proletariat from the oppressed peasant and urban masses. On the contrary, a sharp contrast between the policy of the revolutionary proletariat and the treacherous defection of the present leaders [vozhdi] of the soviets can only bring about a salutary political differentiation among the peasant millions, remove the peasant poor from the treacherous leadership of the strong SR muzhiki, and convert the socialist proletariat into a genuine vozhd of the narodnaia, ‘plebeian’ revolution.
And, finally, a mere empty reference to the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution tells us absolutely nothing about its international context. And this is the decisive question. The great Jacobin revolution found around it and opposed to it a backward, feudal, monarchist Europe. The Jacobin regime fell and was transformed into the Bonapartist regime due to the burden of the superhuman effort that it was forced to make in order to defend itself against the united forces of medieval backwardness. The Russian Revolution, on the contrary, has before it a Europe that has far outdistanced it, a Europe that has reached the highest degree of capitalist development. The present world slaughter shows that Europe has reached the point of capitalist saturation, that it can no longer live and develop on the basis of the private ownership of the means of production. This chaos of blood and ruin is a savage insurrection of the blind and dark forces of production, the mutiny of iron and steel against the dominion of profit, against wage-slavery, against the base stupidity of humanity’s social relations. Capitalism, enveloped in the flames of a war of its own making, shouts from the mouths of its cannons to humanity: ‘Either place me under control or I will bury you in my ruins as I fall!’
All past development - the thousands of years of human history, of class struggle, of cultural accumulations - are concentrated now in one problem: the problem of proletarian revolution. There is no other answer and no other escape. And therein lies the tremendous strength of the Russian Revolution. It is not a ‘national’, not a bourgeois, revolution. Anyone who conceives of it thus is dwelling in the realm of the hallucinations of the 18th and 19th centuries. And our ‘temporal fatherland’ is the 20th century. The further lot of the Russian Revolution depends directly on the course and on the outcome of the war: that is, on the evolution of class contradictions in Europe, to which this imperialist war is giving a catastrophic character.
Kerensky and Kornilov began too early using the language of competing autocrats [during the ‘Kornilov affair’ of late August]. The Kaledins [Alexey Kaledin was a counterrevolutionary general] showed their teeth too soon. The renegade Tsereteli too early grasped the contemptuously outstretched finger of counterrevolution. As yet the revolution has spoken only its first word. It still has tremendous reserves in western Europe. In place of the handshake of the reactionary ring-leaders with the naive philistines of the petty bourgeoisie will come the great handshake of the Russian Revolution with the proletariat of Europe.