Memory wars - part I

In the first of three articles marking the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Jack Conrad explains that Trotsky’s 1924 Lessons of October has been widely accepted as a right and proper account. Certainly, when it comes to the left, however, that orthodoxy needs to be overthrown as a matter of urgency

Ever since November 7 1917 (October 25 using the old Julian calendar) it has been clear that certain fundamental features of the Russian Revolution have a universal significance.

By that is meant not the undoubted massive impact that the revolution had on the 20th century (and in many ways still does today). Rather, that November 1917 must be repeated on an international scale and, for that to happen, we must, as a necessary precondition, equip ourselves with a party that is based on firm Marxist theoretical foundations; that can programmatically map out a viable, a testable, a correct, strategy; that finds its course through open polemics and debate; that defeats internal class enemies and opportunist tendencies; that wins over, using the most varied tactics, not just the advanced part of the working class, but the widest possible masses - including, crucially, key sections of the armed forces.1

Here lies the universal significance of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik success that the leaders of the confessional sects, the lowest-common-denominator broad-left alliances and networks, and the Labour Party mark two projects refuse to understand and why they have objectively proved themselves to be barriers, diversions, from the critically important task of doing what is necessary, if November 1917 is going to be repeated.

Of course, lip service is paid to the Russian Revolution. Basically, however, the Bolsheviks are presented as a confessional sect, that or shrewd operators, coiners of cheap, populist slogans, who went from nothing in February 1917 to everything in November 1917. The comforting notion being that, if the Bolsheviks could do it, so can the chosen confessional sect or broad left.

Opening salvo

How to evaluate the standing Bolshevik programme before November 1917? Till recently, somewhat strangely, it has been Leon Trotsky’s account, beginning with his The lessons of October (1924), which has constituted the prevailing orthodoxy. And we are not only talking about the Trotskyist and Trotskyoid left. ‘Official communism’ adheres to Trotsky’s account, albeit largely minus Trotsky. Mainstream academia too, but usually with Lenin and Trotsky painted in sinister colours.

Trotsky’s Lessons was, it should be noted, the introductory chapter to volume 3 of his never to be completed Collected works.2 More to the point, it was the opening salvo in the 1924 ‘literary discussion’, which pitted Trotsky against Lenin’s closest comrades and lieutenants. After enduring a long and debilitating illness Lenin had, of course, finally died on January 21 1924.

Trotsky depicts the pre-1917 Bolsheviks as calling for a proletarian-led overthrow of tsarism … but wanting to limit social and political tasks to those of a “bourgeois democratic revolution”.3 Socialism - ie, a socialist economy - being categorically ruled out due to impoverished material circumstances and the overwhelming peasant majority.

Again, according to the 1924 Trotsky, given the overthrow of tsarism and the emergence of workers’ and soldiers’ soviets, the Bolshevik leadership within Russia proved worse than useless (when it comes to 1917, we shall from now on, in this article, use the Julian calendar, because the key moments are widely known by their old monthly dates). Anyway, under the duumvirate of Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, which lasted only a matter of weeks, the commitment to a “bourgeois democratic revolution” continued undiminished. Because of this “ossified” formulation, Kamenev and Stalin sought to achieve an unprincipled reunification with the Mensheviks. Trotsky’s 1924 version of events goes on to claim that, despite it having no popular mandate, Kamenev and Stalin rejected mounting rank-and-file Bolshevik demands to overthrow the Provisional government.

The Provisional government was the creation of the fourth duma, whose members were elected through the highly unequal curia system. After the abdication of Nicholas II this duma appointed 24 commissars who formed a Cadet-Left Octoberist-Progressist-Socialist Revolutionary-Popular Socialist-Menshevik coalition government (what we would nowadays call a popular front). The coalition promised to hold fully democratic elections to a Constituent Assembly (a promise that was endlessly delayed). Crucially, however, the Provisional government was supported by the Petrograd and other soviets: these popular assemblies (councils) were elected, representative and authoritative; and had in February-March a solid Socialist Revolutionary-Menshevik majority.

Yet not only was the Provisional government stuffed full of capitalist ministers, even as the number of ‘socialist’ ministers grew, it remained wholly committed to the Anglo-French alliance, the continuation of the horrendous inter-imperialist conflict with Germany-Austria, and to tsarist war aims, not least grabbing hold of Constantinople and thus gaining unrestricted access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks did not join the Provisional government - the rank and file, supposedly, would not allow it (but by implication the leadership would have, if they could have gotten away with it).

Nonetheless, so Trotsky’s story goes, the Bolsheviks merely sought to exert “pressure” on the Provisional government, such was their desire to “remain within the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime”.4 They, therefore, found themselves inexorably dragged towards the prevailing mood of “revolutionary defencism”. A radically false account, as we shall show.

Trotsky argues, “revolutionary defencism”, logically flowed from the deeply flawed theory of stages - a “scholastic parody of Marxism” that can be traced back to the Emancipation of Labour group in the 1880s.5 This theory insisted that Russia would have to undergo two distinct revolutions. First stage - a bourgeois democratic revolution, which would sweep away tsarism and all its remnants. Second stage - after a considerable delay - the socialist revolution would come onto the agenda.

Naturally, in perpetrating this lampoon, Trotsky is loyally echoed by his epigones. Supposedly, “it is clear … from all Lenin’s writings up to 1917” that he expected a substantial interval to elapse between “the coming bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution” (Tony Cliff).6 Purportedly, Lenin envisaged that the overthrow of tsarism would be followed by a “prolonged period of bourgeois democracy and capitalist economic development, after which a second socialist revolution would be possible” (Neil Davidson).7 In a similar fashion we are told that Lenin merely aimed for a “bourgeois republic”, which, after a suitable time lapse, would constitute “a democratic prerequisite of the struggle for socialism” (Paul Le Blanc).8 In other words, Lenin too advocated a “scholastic parody of Marxism”. In fact, though, as we shall show, once again putting the record straight, the theory of stages was held not by the Bolsheviks, but the Mensheviks.

The Trotsky of 1924 is, presumably, the originator of the version of Bolshevik history which has Lenin’s famous April theses representing a dramatic rupture with the stagist schema. For example, as recounted in Lessons of October, only “after the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd”, in early April 1917, was the “problem of the conquest of power” put before the party.9 Indeed, Trotsky even claims that Lenin “came out furiously against the Old Bolshevik slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’”.10 Instead - this time according to Mary Davis, a paid-up ‘official communist’ - Lenin held out the prospect of a “full socialist state”, as opposed to a mere “bourgeois republic”11 Though he never admitted it in any publication, speech, letter or telegram, Lenin had stolen, adopted, or maybe through his own gallant efforts independently arrived at, the theory of permanent revolution, as put forward by Trotsky in his Results and prospects (1906).

We Bolsheviks

Naturally, all contributions to the 1924 ‘literary discussion’ - more on this later - are marked by factional considerations. And, of course, that includes Trotsky’s Lessons of October (and subsequent articles: eg, ‘Our differences’). However, what is notable is that even cold-war warriors have gladly repeated Trotsky - not with any intention of glorifying him, obviously, but with the intention of dismissing, deriding and diminishing the Bolsheviks in general and Stalin in particular (albeit for entirely different reasons, compared with the anti-Stalin left).

Take Leonard Schapiro: he refers to the Bolshevik 7th conference held over 24-29 April 1917 (the first since the fall of tsarism). Schapiro quotes, very sparingly, the agreed resolution on the Bolsheviks’ attitude towards the Provisional government (the rapporteur for the central committee being Stalin). That resolution called for “vigilant control” over the Provisional government and celebrated the popularly elected Petrograd soviet as the “beginning of revolutionary power”. Schapiro then proceeds, in the manner of Trotsky, to claim that Stalin’s approach was “based on the assumption, which no-one questioned, that a long period of bourgeois, middle class, democratic government had now begun, and that the dictatorship of the proletariat only related to the distant future”.12 In other words, Schapiro, like Trotsky, accuses the Bolsheviks of de facto Menshevism (ie, stagism).

With Lessons of October, Trotsky began what amounted to a war over memory. In effect he sought to win the Russian Communist Party - and the Communist International - to what had long been called Trotskyism, but should, under conditions of a burgeoning Lenin cult, be called Leninised Trotskyism. It should also be recalled that Trotsky still enjoyed enormous prestige: not least because of his role as organiser of the October revolution and builder of the Red Army.

His main targets in 1924 were Zinoviev and Kamenev. Note, Trotsky rather foolishly dismissed Stalin as little more than a grey blur. A nonentity. He chose not to even mention him in Lessons. That despite the fact that Stalin was an editor of Pravda in March 1917 and the Bolshevik representative on the Petrograd soviet executive committee. He received the third highest vote at the Bolshevik’s 7th conference central committee elections in April 1917 (Lenin came first, Zinoviev second), served as a commissar in the first Bolshevik government in October 1917 and later, in April 1922, was appointed party general secretary.

In 1924 Stalin was, in Trotsky’s opinion, far less dangerous to the prospects of the revolution than, firstly, Zinoviev and Kamenev and, then, Bukharin. Of course, in 1926 there was a Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev rapprochement. Together they formed the United Opposition. However, even in the late 1920s, Trotsky’s slogan was: “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? Never.”13

Although Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Rykov, Bukharin, Krupskaya, Molotov and other Old Bolsheviks who contributed to the 1924 ‘literary discussion’ - there was a whole slew of books and articles - lacked Trotsky’s natural flare as a writer, he - that is, Trotsky - was at a distinct disadvantage.

Trotsky knew full well that his claims to be counted amongst the ‘we Bolsheviks’ were weak. The fact of the matter is that he only managed to get back into Russia in May 1917, and he did not join the Bolshevik Party till the August of that year. Doubtless that is why he plays down the importance of the pre-1917 political struggles between the Bolsheviks and their rivals, crucially the Mensheviks. Trotsky’s account pivots on the concentrated 12 months of February 1917 to February 1918. Understandable. Prior to 1917 he had been a dogged - albeit annoyingly talented - opponent of Lenin’s. Hence his inescapable admission that he had “made real and major organisational mistakes”.

Yet, Trotsky insists, Zinoviev and Kamenev made their “real and major organisational mistakes” when it really mattered. In the revolutionary year of 1917, when the tactics appropriate to the underground, to the needs of surviving tsarism, gave way to the much more demanding tactics of preparing for insurrection. Here, and it is true, in October, Lenin and Trotsky proved decisive, Zinoviev and Kamenev hesitant.

Trotsky’s record

However, Trotsky’s non-Bolshevik past cannot so easily be disposed of - certainly not if Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Rykov, Bukharin, Krupskaya, Molotov, etc had anything to do with it. One after the other they listed off and duly denounced Trotsky’s numerous pre-1917 anti-Bolshevik manoeuvres, machinations and pronouncements.

Eg, having belligerently sided with the Mensheviks, Trotsky broke with them in 1904, but remained on friendly terms. Indeed Trotsky dismissed the Bolshevik-Menshevik split as an entirely superficial phenomenon. In that semi-Menshevik spirit, he became an inveterate unity-monger. In 1912 Trotsky famously brought together a motley crew of Bundists, Menshevik liquidators and Bolshevik boycottists - the August bloc - in an attempt to sabotage the Bolshevik-sponsored 6th (Prague) Conference of the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party. A move which an infuriated Lenin denounced as an attempt to “destroy the party”.14

Needless to say, when it came to the two really significant factions of the RSDLP, it was the “uncultured”, “barbaric”, “sectarian-frenzied”, “Asiatic” Bolsheviks whom the thoroughly “European” Trotsky considered the biggest obstacle to the unprincipled unity he was desperately seeking.15 Not surprisingly then, he denounced Leninism as “being built on lies and falsification” and containing the “seeds of its own destruction”.16 All eagerly quoted in the ‘literary discussion’ by Trotsky’s Old Bolshevik opponents.

By contrast, of course, even before the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin were to be counted amongst Lenin’s loyal disciples and co-workers. During the struggle of Iskra to form the party; the bitter fallout after the 2nd Congress; the 1905 dress rehearsal; the election campaigns of 1907 and 1912 - they were with Lenin. And naturally Lenin trusted and valued them. Not that they were mere ‘yes’ men.

Leaving aside differences over the December 1905 Moscow uprising and the expulsion of the Bolshevik boycottists in 1909, there was, in April 1917, a very public clash between Lenin and Kamenev. However, I have been won round to the view that in part this was based on the need for clarification from Lenin and in part on Lenin’s obvious misconceptions about the concrete situation in Russia - he had, after all, been out of the country since 1907. There was certainly a difference of temperament: while Lenin was aggressive, single-minded, a bulldog, Kamenev was mild-mannered, accommodating and prone to caution. Nicholas Coombs calls Kamenev’s politics a case study in “Bolshevik centrism”.17

But, as we shall see, on balance, while Kamenev undoubtedly made mistakes in March-April, in practice the Bolsheviks continued with the line worked out, through a lot of trial and error, after he and Stalin returned to Petrograd from Siberian exile and took over editing Pravda. They replaced Vyacheslav Molotov, who had been pursuing a leftist line of calling for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional government (more about this later). No less to the point, after the brief moment of mutual misunderstanding in April, Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin continued as the Bolshevik’s core leadership. No other party could boast such a fundamentally united team.

But, in 1924, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Rykov, Bukharin, Krupskaya, Molotov, etc, were engaged in constructing a “sacrosanct cannon of ‘Leninism’” and building up side by side a “new and satanic credo of ‘Trotskyism’” (EH Carr).18 In that regrettable spirit, they argued that what Trotsky was doing amounted to more than an attempted political mugging of two core Bolsheviks. No, he was attacking the whole history of Bolshevism. And, whereas they were eye-witnesses, principal actors and insiders, Trotsky had to pick up things second-hand. He was, they insisted, a biased, badly informed, recent outsider. Of course, Trotsky himself was contributing to, using, a ‘sacrosanct’ Leninism against his opponents.

In October 1917, it is true, Zinoviev and Kamenev (and a few others, such as Rykov and Nogin) recoiled - took fright - at Lenin’s increasingly agitated demand that the Bolsheviks had to go for a second revolution (and, as it turned out, a Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary Party coalition government). Much to their later shame, they constituted a two-strong minority on the central committee which opposed the vote to support in principle the call for an uprising (the colourful account in John Reed’s Ten days that a “rough workman” intervened during the central committee meeting and thereby helped swing the vote from 10:2 against to 10:2 for is, not surprisingly, untrue19). Moreover, just two weeks before it actually happened, Kamenev and Zinoviev publicly issued a protest letter opposing the widely known Bolshevik plans for an insurrection. Although their letter was couched in veiled terms, it was gleefully published in Novaya Zhizn (a daily paper associated with the leftwing writer, Maxim Gorky). Lenin branded them “strike breakers” and demanded their expulsion.20 The central committee voted to censure, not expel, them.

Seizure of power by one party, the Bolsheviks, could only but split the worker-peasant camp and lead to horrendous bloodshed - so reasoned the pair. Zinoviev and Kamenev banked on the forthcoming elections to the Constituent Assembly and securing a solid leftwing majority. In that spirit they wanted the central committee to continue with Lenin’s old line of calling for a coalition of the socialist parties and a “peaceful revolution”. The realisation of that perspective - agitationally useful in August and September 1917 - relied, of course, on the generals and admirals not launching another putsch … and winning the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks to accept Bolshevik dominance. To state the obvious, that tactic had exhausted itself by October. Rightwing Socialist Revolutionaries and rightwing Mensheviks were, in fact, more and more revealing themselves as out-and-out counterrevolutionaries.

Zinoviev and Kamenev expressed their scepticism about the imminence of revolution in Europe. Russia, they warned, would suffer the fate of the 1871 Paris Commune and be drowned in blood. Reactionary forces were, it is true, openly proclaiming that they preferred German occupation to the chaos of revolution. Minister-president, Alexander Kerensky, ominously talked of abandoning Petrograd. Unwilling to chose between counterrevolution and making the revolution - and that is objectively what circumstances amounted to - Zinoviev and Kamenev resigned from the central committee.

Then there was the regrettable role they played - they were soon back on the central committee - in the immediate period post-October 1917. The railworkers union, the Vikzhel, demanded a socialist coalition government - minus Lenin and Trotsky. Zinoviev and Kamenev were prepared to countenance negotiations on that basis and for a brief moment their viewpoint commanded a majority on the central committee. However, Bolshevik military victory in Moscow swung opinion round back in Lenin’s favour. Negotiations were rejected. In response, once again, Zinoviev and Kamenev, resigned from the central committee (this time joined by Rykov, Milyutin and Nogin). Lenin denounced them as “deserters”.21

However, while the Trotsky of 1924 makes everything of such episodes, the same cannot be said for Lenin. When the leader of the Italian Socialist Party, Giacinto Serrati, attempted to excuse his refusal to abide by Comintern resolutions demanding a split with the centrists, he cited the position upheld by Zinoviev and Kamenev in October 1917. But Lenin would have none of it:

On the eve of the October Revolution in Russia, and immediately after it, a number of very good communists in Russia committed an error, one which our people are now loath to recall. Why are they loath to recall it? Because, unless there is particular reason for it, it is wrong to recall mistakes which have been completely set right.22

However, as already argued, the problem with Trotsky’s account is that to all intents and purposes it threw out the whole of pre-1917 Bolshevism in the attempt to rouse the post-Lenin membership of the Russian Communist Party against Lenin’s most trusted comrades and lieutenants. Even at the level of a ‘literary discussion’ Trotsky was, surely, bound to lose.

The historical irony is that, although Trotsky was politically defeated in the 1920s, his 1920s account of Bolshevism proved victorious. This is something which has had an entirely detrimental effect on the left and any attempt to repeat the Russian Revolution on an international scale.

  1. Here, I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening chapter of Lenin’s ‘Leftwing’ communism, an infantile disorder (1920).↩︎

  2. Between 1924 and 1927, 12 volumes of Trotsky’s Collected works were published in Moscow and/or Leningrad by the State Publishing House. Volume 3, issued in two parts, contained his writings and speeches for the year 1917 (see archive.org/details/Trotsky_CollectedWorks).↩︎

  3. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) New York 1980, p207.↩︎

  4. Ibid p207.↩︎

  5. Ibid p205.↩︎

  6. T Cliff Lenin Vol 2, London 1975, p124.↩︎

  7. N Davidson How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions? Chicago 2012, p228.↩︎

  8. P Le Blanc, ‘The Bolsheviks and socialist revolution’ Weekly Worker October 26 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1176/supplement-the-bolsheviks-socialist-revolution. Paul Le Blanc is quoting Lenin’s Two tactics of social democracy, but he does so in a manner that grossly misrepresents both Lenin and the Bolsheviks (see CW Vol 9, Moscow 1972, pp49, 83).↩︎

  9. L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) New York 1980, p211.↩︎

  10. Ibid p209.↩︎

  11. M Davis, ‘Why was there a revolution in Russia in 1917?’ Morning Star November 4-5 2017.↩︎

  12. L Schapiro The Communist Party of the Soviet Union London 1964, p162.↩︎

  13. Quoted in SF Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik revolution Oxford 1980, p269.↩︎

  14. VI Lenin CW Vol 17 Moscow 1977, p23.↩︎

  15. L Kamenev, ‘Trotskyism or Leninism?’, quoted in F Corney (ed) Trotsky’s challenge: the ‘literary discussion’ of 1924 and the fight for the Bolshevik revolution Leiden 2016, p217.↩︎

  16. Ibid p21.↩︎

  17. etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/7154/2/Coombs17PhD.pdf.↩︎

  18. EH Carr The interregnum 1923-24 Harmondsworth 1969, p325.↩︎

  19. J Reed Ten days that shook the world Harmondsworth 1970, p59.↩︎

  20. VI Lenin CW Vol 26, Moscow 1972, p216.↩︎

  21. Ibid p303.↩︎

  22. Ibid p385.↩︎