Lessons of October

Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group looks at how the Bolsheviks combined illegality and legality

In October 1917, the working class for the first time succeeded in conquering state power. Lenin had long realised that to accomplish such a task an armed insurrection would be necessary. In the event, the uprising was so swift, decisive and bloodless that, on coming out of hiding and returning to Petrograd, Lenin thought something must be wrong. The streets seemed too tranquil. The comrades, surely, were being far too optimistic? On what grounds was Trotsky, for example, claiming the insurrection had already been accomplished? Where were all the barricades, demolished buildings, evidence of violent clashes? It took some time for Trotsky to persuade him that all was in fact as it should be: the insurrection had been so successful that scarcely a shot had been fired.

During the night of October 24-25 1917, fewer people were killed than might be expected through road accidents on a normal day. Ironically, more actors, stage-hands and others were in fact killed in various accidents while Eisenstein was filming his subsequent re-enactment of the event! But none of this detracts from the basic point made by Lenin in his State and revolution: to conquer state power, our class cannot avoid armed insurrection. This will prove bloodless only to the extent that the enemy is prevented from deploying violence at the crucial time.

This is actually a law of proletarian insurrection. Bolshevism is certainly not pacifism. But, since the enemy will at first be fully armed while the working class from the outset is likely to be unarmed, it is in our interests to do all in our power to prevent violence from breaking out. As Trotsky pointed out in his History of the Russian Revolution, the more successful and well prepared the insurrection, the more bloodless it is likely to prove.

'Rule of law'

An armed insurrection is the most unconstitutional, illegal action imaginable. Assuming the conditions are ripe, it is precisely such action that revolutionary socialists must be prepared to lead. As the insurrection unfolds, however, it transcends its former illegality, moving toward legality of a new kind. With the disarming of the enemy camp, the insurrection becomes not just 'legal' in a business-as-usual sense. It becomes the source of all future legality in society. No-one is allowed to flout the law. Everyone's duty is to respect it and help enforce it. When Marx spoke of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', it was just such law enforcement that he had in mind. Socialism is incompatible with free market lawlessness, state terrorism or mob rule. It is inconceivable without generalised, rigorously enforced, truly international respect for the rule of law.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq proved that, unfortunately, powerful states can violate so-called 'international law' with complete impunity. As far as the ruling elite is concerned, any crime it succeeds in perpetrating can be dressed up as 'legal' on condition sufficient hired experts can be persuaded to agree. If the hired experts do all converge on a verdict, then probably the ruling class is feeling comfortable and the situation is not yet ripe for revolution. But supposing they do not agree? Supposing we find conflicting interpretations at the very highest level of the state? If such conflicts deepen, then the scene may be set for a clash of rival legalities, leading ultimately to a situation of dual power.

The more clearly and persuasively an insurrection's future legality can be brought forward and acknowledged in the present, the greater the likelihood of avoiding violence on the night. The prospects will be most promising when those gathering in the streets can reasonably view themselves as defenders of the rule of law. This happened across eastern Europe in 1989: the stigma of illegality was thrown back and attached to the enemy at an early stage. Wherever such action proves possible, the insurrection can assert itself as a gigantic act of popular law enforcement. Trotsky's genius in 1917 was revealed in his ability to achieve this reversal of perspectives in the eyes of the working class.

The first Russian revolution of 1905 was triggered by the defeat of the tsarist navy in the Russo-Japanese war. Sailors on the battleship Potemkin mutinied, although in most other respects the armed forces remained loyal to the tsar. After two years of indecisive trench warfare following the outbreak of World War I, the terrible ordeals suffered by poorly equipped troops led to a new mood of mutiny and to the fall of the tsar in February 1917.

The outcome was a provisional government whose legitimacy rested in part on the support of the soviets - reformist-led workers' councils - that had sprung up in an echo of the events of 1905. The genius of Lenin was to realise that the crucial slogan in this incipient dual power situation was 'All power to the soviets!' The slogan entailed insisting that those soviet ministers who were already part of the provisional government mobilise their working class constituency, break with the openly capitalist ministers and form an exclusively soviet government of their own. 'Break with the bourgeoisie! Take the power! Or make way for those of us who will!' That was how the Bolsheviks raised the question of state power.

Trotsky championed this slogan consistently, even during the most difficult late summer months following the chaotic 'July days'. After July, a mood of reaction set in, leading to accusations that Lenin was a 'German spy'. Menshevik and other leaders of the soviets bent under the pressure, colluding with new attempts by the generals and by Kerensky and bourgeois ministers to prosecute the war. Lenin was right to consider the leadership of the soviets utterly reactionary. But he was wrong to conclude, as he did, that the soviets were therefore little more than "organs for collaboration with the bourgeoisie". He was certainly wrong to suggest that any future uprising in support of 'Land, peace and bread!' would have to be waged under the flag of Bolshevism in direct defiance of the soviets.

Trotsky was at this stage more in touch with events on the ground. He realised that if the slogan 'All power to the soviets!' could be maintained even despite their current leadership, the impending 2nd Congress of Soviets might well turn out to have a Bolshevik majority. In that case, the actual convening of the congress would afford an ideal legal cover for the insurrection on which Lenin was insisting. By deploying troops to defend the congress against any attempts to disband it, the congress and its surroundings could be turned into a fortress. Then, as forces loyal to the congress extended their reach across the capital, the insurrection might be accomplished with scarcely a shot being fired.

Trotsky was determined that the rising wave of anti-Kornilov, pro-democracy mutinies in the armed services during the late summer should flow smoothly and directly into proletarian insurrection. To this end, he was instrumental in setting up a 'military revolutionary committee' to protect the impending congress against any external threat. This committee defined itself from the outset as accountable to the soviet, which was constitutionally still part of the provisional government. Defying general Kornilov and his attempt to stage a military coup, the Bolshevik and other members of the military revolutionary committee had a specific mandate. They were there to uphold soviet democracy and the rule of law.

Trotsky invited the various soldiers' and sailors' councils across Petrograd to pledge their loyalty, one by one. The resolutions flooded in. They affirmed that no orders from any senior officer would be considered legal unless specifically endorsed by Trotsky's military revolutionary committee. Although this was couched in purely defensive terms, the outcome was that the committee now had the potential to deploy troops. Under the authority of the military revolutionary committee - set up to defend the rule of law - the Bolsheviks and their allies were able to oversee the details of an armed insurrection. Legality and illegality were in this way skilfully combined and counterposed.

Russia 1917, Britain 2006

Trotsky wrote his History of the Russian Revolution not for academics or history professors. He wrote it to enable future generations to learn the lessons of October. This raises an obvious question: how relevant is any of this to the situation facing us in Britain today? The short answer, of course, is that there is little direct relevance. We are not in a dual power situation. The left in Britain is extremely weak, we do not have soviets - the list could go on.

But we do have a crisis in the labour movement, including a growing crisis in what is left of the Labour Party. This crisis is fuelled largely by New Labour's continued prosecution of an increasingly unpopular war. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by British and American forces is considered by most experts in international law to have been illegal from the outset. More to the point, those responsible for this illegal act are now visibly having second thoughts. There is rich irony in this. Having identified Iran and Syria with an 'axis of evil', GW Bush is now being urged by his own close advisors to go running to precisely these same so-called 'terror states' for help in rescuing him from the prospect of Vietnam-style defeat in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, an increasing number of British troops now serving in Iraq no longer believe in either the justice or legality of their cause. In many cases, to judge by their outspoken comments on the internet, they seem to be in near-mutinous mood. Liberal Democrat and New Labour politicians have expressed disquiet at the outspokenness of army head Sir Richard Dannatt in questioning his political masters' 2003 decision to "kick in the door" in Iraq. Some legal experts consider Dannatt to be guilty of virtual mutiny against an elected government.

Dannatt is no fool. His troops cannot go forward in Iraq. But then neither can they simply retreat. Dannatt knows that in situations of this kind military discipline can start to collapse. Britain's troops on the ground have clearly had enough. Why risk your life in a lost and discredited cause? From Dannatt's standpoint, his own carefully calculated 'mutiny from above' must appear preferable to the alternative he now genuinely fears - the danger of mutiny from below.

Although the situation is uneven, in certain parts of the British army a new kind of consciousness is evidently emerging. The many courageous, thoughtful servicemen who have been speaking out so movingly against their political masters are gaining in self-esteem. If the officers have been echoing many of their complaints, it can only be for one reason: the other ranks are becoming a political force. In other words, the disaffected troops are acquiring a consciousness of their own strength - their own collective ability to inform themselves of the true facts of their situation and make intelligent decisions on that basis. Potentially at least, this is the most revolutionary kind of consciousness it is possible to have.

In this situation, anti-war forces in the labour movement, including the Labour Party, should obviously not leave everything to the generals. We ourselves should speak up for the disaffected troops. We do not have soviets, but we do have a relatively well organised labour movement. We also have an administration that calls itself a Labour government, even though to most of us Blair's regime is nothing of the kind. Since May Day 1997, the electorate have voted in successive elections for a Labour government. Yet, despite this, they have had to suffer an intensification of Thatcher's detested policies - albeit draped in 'Labour Party' garb. I am uncertain of the legal niceties, but surely a case might be made that fraud on such a scale undermines public confidence in British electoral law?

In any event, our ultimate project must be to rid ourselves of the current crisis-ridden administration, replacing it with a Labour government accountable to our own movement and prepared to govern in the interests of our class. Do not hate the media - be the media! Do not hate the government - be the government! Allowing ourselves to dream, we might envisage moving toward this goal by insisting on an emergency Labour Party conference, opening up the proceedings to allow everyone, including disaffected troops, to express their views. I touch on this possibility only as a thought experiment - to illustrate a theoretical point. Needless to say, opportunities of this kind are hardly visible even on the distant horizon just now. The most obvious immediate demand in the present situation is that all service personnel should be granted the legal right to participate in Stop the War demonstrations and to join a trade union affiliated to the TUC.

Over the centuries, the British ruling class has proved enormously resilient. One possibility is that it will succeed in extricating its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan without everything falling apart. But, while that scenario must be taken into account, it is equally true that Bush, Blair and their friends in high places must now be running scared. If the current crisis continues to deepen, who knows where it might lead? In any event, the ultimate task of revolutionaries is to fearlessly raise the only question that matters at the end of the day - 'Who rules?' In this context, October 1917 must continue to serve as our inspiration and guide.