Art of revolution
Chris Knight discusses the significance of Leon Trotsky’s Lessons of October and the implications in the event of a Corbyn-led Labour government
Leon Trotsky: the revolution took place two weeks before it happened
In this centenary year of the October revolution, it does seem worthwhile looking back at the actual text that Trotsky wrote in 1924 shortly after the catastrophic defeat of the German revolution in 1923 - a really disastrous defeat, leading eventually, of course, to Hitler.
Trotsky attributed the German defeat largely to the crazy policies of the leadership of the German Communist Party, likening their errors to “having a funeral dirge at a wedding and a wedding march at a funeral”. At the very moment when real revolutionary opportunities are opening up you hesitate and pull back; and then, when everything is going wrong and you are most unlikely to win, you choose that moment to launch your insurrection.
Trotsky’s point is that you must get your timing right. You have to seize the moment, on pain of losing everything, should you lose your nerve. If you know your Shakespeare, these are the lines:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
This is Brutus talking to Cassius in the civil war. He is saying, ‘We will never be stronger than we are now: this is the moment to strike.’
Trotsky realised with horror that in Germany, each time there were promising prospects for launching an insurrection, the communists held back, but, whenever things looked utterly hopeless, they switched to insurrectionary tactics. Noting such mistakes, he was dismayed that nobody in the Communist International seemed to know how the Bolshevik insurrection had been won. It was as though all the real lessons had somehow got lost in translation. The details had not come across. At this point, Trotsky suddenly realised that it was his responsibility to explain just how the Bolshevik insurrection had been won. If nobody knew, it was his fault. What with founding the Red Army and winning the civil war, he been rather busy, and had never found time to write things down.
This was the backdrop to Trotsky’s decision in 1924 to publish his short book about the insurrection. It had to be him because no one else could do it. Trotsky was the one who, during 1917, used all his experiences from 1905 to plan and organise what should happen in Petrograd to make an insurrection succeed. Without Lenin’s support, none of this would have been possible. He was building on Lenin’s April theses, which gave him the necessary authority among those who supported the Bolsheviks. But Trotsky believed he had to put on record the actual mechanics of the insurrection before he could hope that communist leaderships across the rest of the world might be able to learn from that experience. That is why he wrote The lessons of October.
In the past, when I have said that an insurrection must be ‘legal’, I have been accused of naivety. People say, ‘Legitimate, yes: of course the insurrection has to have legitimacy. But legality? That is absurd. You can’t have a legal insurrection.’ Well, I am going to be arguing that you can have a legal insurrection in a sense.
Clearly, any insurrection has to speedily establish the new order as the legal power. But it cannot do that without some kind of mass base. And, since there can be no revolution without a dual-power situation building up to it, there will be complex structures of countervailing legalities. The two rival powers, together with their legal claims and frameworks, will be in conflict. And revolutionaries have to exploit the fact that at a certain point, as Trotsky often said, there will be ‘their morality and ours’, ‘their legality and ours’. Even before the insurrection, there will be elements of legality that it would be foolish not to exploit.
In Russia, the insurrection culminated on October 25 with the convening of the 2nd Congress of Soviets. It was by defending the actual building in which the Congress was being held - deploying armed guards so that no-one could disperse it - that the revolution was consummated in a seemingly legal way. As Trotsky explains:
We were more or less able to synchronise 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 that the soviet revised or amended the decisions of the government.
This 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.1
“We took it upon ourselves to revise the order transferring the troops to the front,” recalls Trotsky. Now, this had happened two weeks before the insurrection. Kerensky had been anxious about the presence of a garrison in Petrograd, about two thirds of whom were openly Bolshevik. That garrison represented an obvious threat to the provisional government. And so Kerensky thought the best way to get rid of those Bolsheviks was to send them to the front, where hopefully they would be slaughtered. So the troops were given their orders.
Thanks to the Military Revolutionary Committee, Trotsky and others built on the concept that no order from above - from the government or from the generals - was to be obeyed without the endorsement of the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet, and it was not too difficult for Trotsky to make sure that endorsement of those orders was not given.
Of course, the troops did not want to go anyway - that was absolutely clear. But the fact that the order to move was not endorsed by the soviet simply meant that in the eyes of the workers and soldiers it was not a legal order. So they just did not move - all those soldiers stayed put where they wanted to be: in Petrograd.
What Trotsky points out is that that was the insurrection - an ‘insurrection before the insurrection’. In other words, the key moment which decided the fate of Kerensky occurred two weeks before what is normally considered the insurrection. This was that “tide in the affairs” of humankind, which, taken at the flood, might lead to fortune. October 25 formalised what had already been achieved two weeks before:
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 adapting 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.2
Then Trotsky goes on to discuss how any revolutionary leadership will explore the contradictions within the state, but also the contradictions within the increasingly conflicting elements of legality:
We did not lull the masses with any soviet constitutional illusions, for under the slogan of a struggle for the Second Soviet Congress we won over to our side the bayonets of the revolutionary army and consolidated our gains organisationally. And, in addition, we succeeded, far more than we expected, in luring our enemies, the conciliationists, into the trap of soviet legality.
Resorting to trickery in politics - all the more so in revolution - is always dangerous. You will most likely fail to dupe the enemy, but the masses who follow you may be duped instead. Our ‘trickery’ proved 100% successful - not because it was an artful scheme devised by wily strategists seeking to avoid a civil war, but because it derived naturally from the disintegration of the conciliationist regime with its glaring contradictions.
The Provisional government wanted to get rid of the garrison. The soldiers did not want to go to the front. We invested this natural unwillingness with a political expression; we gave it a revolutionary goal and a ‘legal’ cover. Thereby we secured unprecedented unanimity within the garrison, and bound it up closely with the Petrograd workers. Our opponents, on the contrary, because of their hopeless position and their muddle-headedness, were inclined to accept the soviet cover at its face value. They yearned to be deceived and we provided them with ample opportunity to gratify their desire.
Between the conciliationists and ourselves, there was a struggle for soviet legality. In the minds of the masses, the soviets were the source of all legitimate, but also all legal, power.3
In other words, anything that was a remnant of the tsarist regime was not only illegitimate, but in the eyes of the masses not even legal.
Labour and soviets
In 1969 I wrote a pamphlet, ‘All power to the Labour government: the Russian Revolution and the tasks of socialists in the Labour Party today’. Republished two years ago in the Weekly Worker, the document tried to show how the British Labour Party and the Russian soviets are different in key respects, yet similar in others.4
I explained that the soviets, as they emerged out of the February 1917 revolution, were not particularly revolutionary. They had been much more directly revolutionary in 1905, when they were organs of a general strike. Once Lenin returned from exile in April 1917, he introduced his inflammatory April theses, insisting on the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’. Technically, the implication of this was that all power should be taken into the hands of the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet. Lenin and his allies were saying this not because they had any illusions about that executive committee. On the contrary, they realised the need to reveal to the masses that their leaders - the ones they had confidence in - were satisfied merely with office, as opposed to power. These Mensheviks and others who were technically in government were anxious not to translate office into power - in fact anxious to hand over all power as soon as possible to the bourgeoisie.
So it is very important, it seems to me, that we do not only demand power to people we approve of - that would be the wrong way round. It is the people we do not approve of, the people least likely to take power, but who still have support among the class - they are the people whom we must call on to ‘take the power’, because in a dual-power period this is the key question. Everything hinges on ‘Do we or don’t we take the power?’
Workers do not support their leaders just because they think those leaders have good ideas. Rather, it is because they hope there is going to be some action based on those ideas. They want revolutionary - or at least class - action. And, when it becomes clear to them that action is not going to follow, because their leaders are not interested in taking real power, that is when they look towards others - hopefully revolutionaries - for leadership to actually win that power.
So I am making an analogy between the Labour Party and the soviets in that sense.
Here is Trotsky’s damning description of the executive committee of the soviets from The history of the Russian Revolution:
The educated petty bourgeois oriented himself upon the workers and peasants, but hobnobbed with the titled landlords and owners of sugar factories. While forming a part of the soviet system, through which the demands of the lower classes found their way up to the official state, the executive committee served at the same time as a political screen for the bourgeoisie. The possessing classes submitted to the executive committee so long as it pushed the power over to their side. The masses ‘submitted’ to the executive committee in so far as they hoped it might become an instrument of the rule of workers and peasants.
Contradictory class tendencies were intersecting in the Tauride Palace and they both covered themselves with the name of the executive committee - the one through unconscious trustfulness, the other with cold-blooded calculation. The struggle was about nothing more or less than the question who was to rule the country - the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.5
So we should not have this romantic illusion that, whereas in this country we have been stuck with a wretched labour movement - bureaucratised, trade-unionised - and a reformist Labour Party, the Russians had these brilliant things called soviets.
The way I look at it is rather different. In Britain we had our bourgeois revolution early, in 1640, and eventually chopped the head off the king. Because we had such an early bourgeois revolution, compared with France, Germany or Russia, our bourgeoisie consolidated itself and its parliament became a very powerful instrument of class rule.
By the 19th century, despite the rise of the working class and working class representation, this parliament was very stable and powerful. Partly as a result of the privileges for the labour movement bureaucracy, and for sections of the working class as a result of the empire and colonialism, the labour movement in this country from the very beginning, including with the Chartist movement, increasingly found a place within this bourgeois parliament.
So, instead of replacing it, our labour movement found for itself a place within a pre-existing parliament. But the French, German and Russian bourgeois revolutions came later and, the later the bourgeois revolution, the weaker the bourgeoisie - and the greater the threat posed by the workers’ organisations to the institutions of the bourgeoisie. Insofar as there was any real parliament in 1905 Russia, or in 1917 after February, it was formed by the workers’ movement, taking the form of those soviets. So right from the outset there was nothing like a Labour Party within a parliament because the soviets were their own parliament. That is how I have always thought of the soviets.
The Labour Party has never been made up entirely of one particular ideological faction, any more than the soviets in Russia were. In Russia the soviets were a ‘parliament’ of the whole labour movement, within which various forces - Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks and others - fought out their battles within this framework. And the reason why in this country we have not had soviets, but a Labour Party, is simply because the bourgeoisie has been so much more able to preserve its own privileges, wealth and stability by safely incorporating the labour movement within its bourgeois parliament.
Even though you can argue that the Labour Party and the soviets are opposites - and they are opposites in the sense I have just described - they have important points in common.
And the point in common, of course, is that in each case, to begin with at any rate, the leadership is straddling the classes, attempting to compromise - attempting to make life easier for the ruling class establishment, while at the same time attempting to lull the working class into a false sense of security, sow illusions and mobilise them into supporting what ultimately is a bourgeois government.
Our legality and theirs
Trotsky describes the situation in Russia following the February revolution as one of dual power. On the one hand, the tsar had abdicated, giving way to a Provisional government. Meanwhile, on the other, all of the various working class factions - including those which in Britain would have become reformists and parliamentarians - found themselves with no opportunity for political activity except within the soviets. That is what made the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’, at once clarifying, but in some ways confusing.
In effect, the slogan was a demand that all power should pass into the hands of the Mensheviks and SRs, because they were the leaders of the soviets and also part of the government. But Lenin and Trotsky were not worried about that. They were interested in establishing, in the eyes of the masses, who wanted to seize power and who did not.
And then there were the July days. Lenin and Trotsky always said that it would have been wrong to organise the insurrection in July despite the massive support the Bolsheviks enjoyed on the streets of Petrograd. The argument was that it would have been premature because the rest of the country was not yet with them. However, I feel very strongly, reading Lenin, that it was a traumatic experience for him. He was not going to let that happen twice. In some way an opportunity for an insurrection in Petrograd was missed in July, maybe necessarily. But it was obviously traumatic because the reaction after the crushing of the July upsurge was extremely severe, leading to Lenin being denounced as a German spy and having to go into hiding, leaving Trotsky much more in control of the situation on the ground.
What then happened was that Lenin felt - and you can understand why - that an emphasis on constitutional procedures would give those opposed to seizing power an excuse for delay, allowing the opportunity for insurrection to be missed. So when Lenin denounced the soviet after the July days and urged an insurrection in the name of the Bolsheviks alone, you can see why he was doing that: he did not want to miss the next opportunity, which was bound to come - and did come soon after the revolt of general Kornilov, commander-in-chief of the army, appointed by Kerensky.
Given the uselessness of the soviet leadership, Lenin after July urged the Bolsheviks to drop the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’. And you can understand why he wanted to drop it - all power to those compromisers, those wretches? He points out that the present soviets have failed, have suffered complete defeat, because they are dominated by the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik parties:
At the moment these soviets are like sheep brought to the slaughterhouse and bleating pitifully under the knife. The Soviets at present are powerless and helpless against the triumphant and triumphing counterrevolution. The slogan calling for the transfer of power to the soviets might be construed as a ‘simple’ appeal for the transfer of power to the present soviets, and to say that, to appeal for it, would now mean deceiving the people.6
Similarly, sometimes I am confronted by people who imagine a Corbyn-led Labour government with a programme limited to nationalising gas, water, rail and so on. They ask, ‘How can you call for all power to Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell? You must be joking.’ Well, I understand that, but when you think about the alternatives and how we build on the lessons of October - its similarities and differences - it is not so simple.
Back to Lenin after the July days:
No-one, no force, can overthrow the bourgeois counterrevolutionaries except the revolutionary proletariat. Now, after the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible ... Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present soviets - not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the soviets. It is not a question of soviets in general, but of combating the present counterrevolution and the treachery of the present soviets.7
So that was Lenin’s position. And you can understand why, after the July days when he was in hiding and not really on the ground, he was urging, ‘Just seize the power, take the key buildings. We’ve got plenty of armed comrades in Petrograd. We can win an insurrection’:
In order to treat insurrection in a Marxist way - ie, as an art - we must at the same time, without losing a single moment, organise a headquartersof the insurgent detachments, distribute our forces, move the reliable regiments to the most important points, surround the Alexandriusky Theatre, occupy the Peter and Paul Fortress, arrest the general staff and the government, and move against the officer cadets and the savage division those detachments which would rather die than allow the enemy to approach the strategic points of the city. We must mobilise the armed workers and call them to fight the last desperate fight, occupy the telegraph and the telephone exchange at once, move our insurrection headquarters to the central telephone exchange and connect it by telephone with all the factories, all the regiments, all the points of armed fighting, etc.8
So that was the prescription - don’t worry about the Soviet congress. Trotsky, who was on the ground, knew, on the one hand, that this was a lot better than what other leading Bolsheviks were urging (Zinoviev, for example, was by no means keen to organise an insurrection). However, on the other hand, while there is no question that Trotsky is on Lenin’s side and for an insurrection, circumstances allowed a far better way of doing things. It was important to synchronise the insurrection with the convening of the Second Soviet Congress.
Having discussed Lenin’s demands to just go for armed insurrection, Trotsky writes, giving full credence to Lenin’s passion and instincts:
At the same time, however, it is quite clear that to prepare the insurrection and to carry it out under cover of preparing for the Second Soviet Congress, and under the slogan of defending it, was of inestimable advantage to us. From the moment when we, as the Petrograd soviet, invalidated Kerensky’s order transferring two-thirds of the garrison to the front, we had actually entered a state of armed insurrection.
Lenin, who was not in Petrograd, could not appraise the full significance of this fact. So far as I remember, there is not a mention of it in all his letters during this period. Yet the outcome of the insurrection of October 25 was at least three-quarters settled, if not more, the moment that we opposed the transfer of the Petrograd garrison; created the Revolutionary Military Committee (October 16); appointed our own commissars in all army divisions and institutions; and thereby completely isolated not only the general staff of the Petrograd zone, but also the government. As a matter of fact, we had here an armed insurrection - an armed, though bloodless, insurrection of the Petrograd regiments against the Provisional government - under the leadership of the Revolutionary Military Committee and under the slogan of preparing the defence of the Second Soviet Congress, which would decide the ultimate fate of the state power.
Lenin’s counsel to begin the insurrection in Moscow, where, on his assumptions, we could gain a bloodless victory, ﬂowed precisely from the fact that in his underground refuge he had no opportunity to assess the radical turn that took place - not only in mood, but also in organisational ties among the military rank and ﬁle, as well as the army hierarchy - after the ‘peaceful’ insurrection of the garrison of the capital in the middle of October. The moment that the regiments, upon the instructions of the Revolutionary Military Committee, refused to depart from the city, we had a victorious insurrection in the capital, only slightly screened at the top by the remnants of the bourgeois-democratic state forms.9
In Moscow it was very different. There was not the same structure of soviets and there was no congress planned: “It is plain enough that, had the insurrection begun in Moscow, prior to the overturn in Petrograd, it would have dragged on even longer, with the outcome very much in doubt.”10
One of the reasons why The lessons of October is so important is this: only once in all history has the proletariat, the organised working class, succeeded not just in taking office, but full state power, and so there are obvious lessons for us. It did not last very long - everything went pear-shaped rather rapidly with the failure of the German revolution. But it was the only time and, even if you are not a Bolshevik, even if you have all sorts of criticisms of Lenin or Trotsky, to succeed with any revolution you need to learn about how revolutions work and how to make them succeed.
I think this is an urgent question - we do not have all the time in the world. We may have only a short time before we have to not just learn the lessons of October, but actually act on those lessons. Everyone knows - even Owen Jones, etc are saying the same thing - not just the mass media, but the ruling class, the military, the banks, the establishment as a whole will be screaming blue murder against even a Corbyn-led Labour government trying to nationalise one or two industries. I am not saying we are going to get bemedalled generals immediately organising manoeuvres and sending tanks to Heathrow airport. There will be a run on the pound and all sorts of other things happening first. But, on the other hand, if things drag on, the situation will become very difficult.
I do think there is such a thing as a premature attempt at revolution, and such a revolution cannot succeed without spreading quickly across Europe as a whole. So there may be some case for taking office and a certain amount of power in order to mobilise the movement across Europe, so that the abolition of capitalism takes place across the continent, rather than being locked into a single, isolated country.
But, on the other hand, as Trotsky said, we do not have all the time in the world and each opportunity lasts only for a while. So under circumstances where we might have a Labour government with a mandate, and the masses think it should be free to implement its programme, then that, if necessary, would provide legal cover for a hopefully bloodless insurrection.
How would we proceed? Ideally we would not allow Corbyn and McDonnell to operate in a bubble in Westminster. That would not work. ‘Our’ government has to be outside parliament. So ideally we would have an emergency Labour Party conference to deal with a crisis. If there are rumblings from generals and threats of mutiny, we would need to hold an emergency Labour Party conference in a large, defendable building. There should also be branches of our government in all the main metropolitan centres, so that it was not just confined to London, and all such conferences and branches would have to be defended. What is illegal about defending a building if we in the Labour Party have won the election and are the government? Surely we would have a right to hold our conferences and to decide on policy.
So, yes, ‘All power to the Labour government’would be the logical slogan - I cannot think of a better one. If there is another way of translating ‘All power to the soviets’ into the conditions of the British working class and its history, please tell me.
At the very least ‘Labour take the power’ has to be the slogan - ‘take the power’ addressed to the leadership of the Labour Party. What else can we ask of them? ‘Don’t take the power’has been suggested in the pages of the Weekly Worker, but to me that makes no sense.
An armed insurrection cannot really be legal - in fact, few things can be more illegal than an armed insurrection. And yet, as Trotsky says, you have to quickly ‘legalise’ your insurrection, and in order to do that you have to build on elements of legality in the dual-power period leading up to that seizure of power.
If we can - in that limited sense - provide a legal basis for an insurrection, the coming revolution is far more likely to be popular, far more likely to be bloodless, and far more likely to spread quickly across Europe.
1. L Trotsky The lessons of October Chicago 2017, pp81-82.
2. Ibid p82.
3. Ibid pp82-83.
4. For a discussi-on of Chris Knight’s original 1969 document, see his article, ‘If Labour wins in 2020’ (Weekly Worker August 10 2015).
5. L Trotsky The history of the Russian Revolution London 1965, p578.
6. VI Lenin, ‘On slogans’ CW Vol 25, Moscow 1964, pp189-90.
8. VI Lenin, ‘Marxism and insurrection’ (September 13-14 1917) CW Vol 26, p27.
9. L Trotsky The lessons of October Chicago 2017, pp80-81.
10. Ibid p81.