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The Character of the Russian Revolution: Trotsky 1917 vs. Trotsky 1924

October 25, 2017

Part 6 of the series, ‘All Power to the Soviets!’

See also appendix: “The Character of the Russian Revolution,” by Leon Trotsky (1917). For links to previous parts of the series, see bottom of this post. See also “Index to the 1917 debate.”

Trotsky c1917

Lev (Leon) Trotsky

By Lars T. Lih, October 2017: In April 1917, Georgii Plekhanov—an elder statesman of Russian Social Democracy, but by now isolated on the extreme “defensist” end of the socialist spectrum—wrote a couple of articles that by an unexpected and surprising route became the basis of today’s “rearming” narrative about the Bolsheviks during the revolution. In these articles, Plekhanov made the following assertions:

  1. In his April Theses, Lenin proclaimed the socialist character of the Russian revolution.
  2. In so doing, Lenin overlooked the backward nature of Russian society.
  3. Lenin’s new position was an open break with the Marxist orthodoxy that he himself preached earlier.
  4. Proclaiming the socialist character of the Russian revolution is logically necessary for anyone who supports transferring the vlast (sovereign political authority) to the soviets.
  5. Recognizing the bourgeois-democratic nature of the revolution logically mandates support for the Provisional Government.

These five assertions are completely uncontroversial orthodoxy for the majority of academic and activist writers about the Russian revolution. Oddly enough, however, Lenin himself immediately denied every single assertion.

In an article directed against Plekhanov that was published in Pravda on April 21, Lenin pointed out that “if the [peasant] small proprietors constitute the majority of the population and if the objective conditions for socialism are lacking, then how can the majority of the population declare in favor of socialism? Who can say anything or who says anything about establishing socialism against the will of the majority?” Crucially, Lenin asserted that the drive for soviet power was nevertheless mandated by the democratic nature of the revolution: “How then, without betraying democracy—even democracy as understood by a [liberal politician such as] Miliukov—can one be opposed to the ‘seizure of the political vlast’’ by the ‘Russian toiling masses’”? (See post No. 5, “‘A Basic Question’: Lenin Glosses the April Theses.”)

Lenin was not the only prominent Bolshevik to take potshots at Plekhanov. In August 1917, Lev Trotsky devoted an article to ripping apart “Plekhanovite sociology.” According to Trotsky, Plekhanov’s argument was being used by the Mensheviks and SRs as a feeble excuse for refusing to support soviet power: this is a bourgeois-democratic revolution, therefore we must give the bourgeois parties a cabinet majority that their actual popular support in no way justified. Or, as Trotsky sardonically summed up “the real motto of the SRs and Mensheviks”: “To hell with democracy! Long live Plekhanovite sociology!”

Since both Lenin and Trotsky went out of their way to refute Plekhanov, we have to ask ourselves: how did Plekhanov’s caricature of their position come to seem so accurate and uncontroversial? The answer is simple: in 1924, Trotsky did a flip-flop and strongly endorsed “Plekhanovite sociology.” In his short book Lessons of October, Trotsky pounded home the claim that anyone who defined the revolution as “bourgeois-democratic” was logically prohibited from supporting the drive for soviet power. Thus—amazingly enough—Plekhanov, channeled through Trotsky (1924), laid the basis of today’s “rearming the party” orthodoxy.

Lessons of October first appeared as the introductory essay to a two-volume edition of Trotsky’s speeches, articles and other writings during 1917 and early 1918. Although these writings are a treasure trove of material about the political drama, I know of no sustained analysis of them (and this includes the major biographies by Isaac Deutscher, Tony Cliff, and Pierre Broué).[1] I am working on a full-scale examination of this material, and the present post can be viewed as a trailer for this larger effort. Although I focus on only one article in this short essay, I can affirm that Trotsky’s argument in this article is fully consistent with all his other pronouncements in 1917.

The texts of the relevant articles by Plekhanov and Lenin are available in an appendix to No. 5 of this series.  Accompanying the present post is a newly translated text of Trotsky’s article of August 1917 entitled “The Character of the Russian Revolution.” After providing commentary for this article, I will turn to Trotsky in 1924 and document his dramatic change of position. Thus the interested reader will be fully able to judge for themselves the validity of my interpretation.

Trotsky 1917: Trotsky Refutes Plekhanov

In August 1917, Trotsky was in jail due to a crackdown on the Bolsheviks by the Provisional Government. His enforced leisure enabled him to write something more extensive than the speeches and appeals that make up the bulk of his output in 1917. The result was a pamphlet entitled What Next? One section of this pamphlet, entitled “The Character of the Russian Revolution,” attacks “Plekhanovite sociology,” that is, Plekhanov’s argument about the “bourgeois” nature of the Russian revolution originally put forth in April. By mid-August, this argument had become a rhetorical commonplace, not only for moderate socialists such as Fedor Dan, the Menshevik leader, but also liberals such as Pavel Miliukov.

Trotsky wrote his article immediately after the Moscow Conference (also known as the State Conference) that had met earlier during August. This conference was a semi-official attempt to give broad legitimacy to the Provisional Government by obtaining a seal of approval from a comprehensive spectrum of political groupings—except, of course, the Bolsheviks, who boycotted it. The Moscow Conference was accompanied by a growing hankering in respectable circles for a coup against the soviets  and other “committees” among soldiers and peasants (“committee” became a curse word in polite society), a hankering that was especially manifested in the rapturous reception given to General Lavr Kornilov and his demands for “discipline.” (By the time Trotsky finished his article, Kornilov had made his coup attempt and Trotsky is able at least to mention it.)

For Trotsky, the moment that summed up the spirit of the conference was a handshake between a representative of Russian industrial owners, Aleksandr Bublikov, and the most determined proponent of coalition among the moderate socialists, the Menshevik party leader Irakli Tsereteli. This handshake was a perfect icon for the “agreementism” between socialists and liberals that formed the main target of Bolshevik rhetoric throughout the year.

“The liberal and SR-Menshevik scribes and politicians are much concerned over they question of the sociological significance of the Russian Revolution. Is it a bourgeois revolution or some other kind of revolution?” Thus Trotsky begins his essay. The “scribes and politicians” argued that the Bolshevik slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” made no sense in a bourgeois revolution. Trotsky’s response: let us grant for the sake of argument that the present Russian revolution is indeed a “bourgeois revolution.” Does this characterization justify the agreementist politics of coalition with the bourgeoisie and a rejection of an exclusively soviet vlast? Not in the least. On the contrary, a drive for soviet power is mandated by the imperative to carry the bourgeois revolution to its full conclusion.

Trotsky dismissed the sudden interest of liberals and moderate socialists in the sociological character of the revolution as cynical grasping at straws. Bourgeois parties such as the liberal Kadets were getting trounced in democratic local elections, and the moderate socialists were finding out that their insistence on a coalition between “the toilers and the exploiters” was extremely unpopular. How then could liberals and moderate socialists justify coalition with a cabinet dominated by “bourgeois” parties?

Enter Plekhanov, whose “sociology” provided a ready-made excuse for both liberals and the socialist agreementists. Plekhanov “proved” that you can’t carry out a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, so that the liberals and the agreementists were forced by the laws of science to ignore that fact that “the Soviets represent the majority of the population that is capable of political life.”

In fact (continues Trotsky), “Plekhanovite sociology” contains no theoretical value whatsoever—only political cowardice. The SRs are the majority party in the country, and if they took seriously the idea of a bourgeois revolution, they would energetically “take the vlast in [their] hands as a tool for the realization of essential historical tasks.” Instead, caught in the crossfire between the imperialist elite and the militant proletariat, the moderate socialists indulge in a handshakes that are a token of their docile “agreement” with the industrialists. In this way, the SRs and their allies the Mensheviks “completely deprived [themselves] of any possibility of really liquidating each and all forms of the old barbarism—even if just those which directly shackle those sections of the narod that still follow [these parties].”

Why did the moderate socialists insist on using the “gentlemanly” method of “agreements” rather than the more ruthlessly plebian methods of genuinely radical petty-bourgeois democrats such as the Jacobins? “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.” (The phrase “petty bourgeois democracy” refers to the parties representing the non-proletarian sections of the narod or people at large.) “To hell with democracy! Long live Plekhanovite sociology!”: this was the real motto of the moderate socialists.

Having to his own satisfaction eviscerated the theoretical pretensions of the agreementists, Trotsky proceeds to justify the Bolshevik slogan of “All Power to the Soviets!”  In so doing, he explicitly maps the disputes of 1917 back to the prewar clash between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. “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.”

Back in 1906, Lenin, Trotsky and Kautsky were all on the same page about the stupidity of this seeming axiom (as documented in post No. 2, “The Proletariat and its Ally: The Logic of Bolshevik ‘Hegemony’”).  As Kautsky put it, “The age of bourgeois revolutions, that is, of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over—in Russia too.” On the contrary, the role of the leader of the Russian “bourgeois democratic” revolution now falls to the proletariat.

Thus the leadership role of the socialist proletariat in the democratic revolution was the heart of the hegemony scenario shared by Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. In “The Character of the Russian Revolution,” the text from 1917 under review, Trotsky succinctly sets forth the logic of this scenario. The class that should have led the revolution has “defected,” so that the proletariat must become the real leader of the narod:

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 … 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 muzhiks, and convert the socialist proletariat into a genuine vozhd of the narodnaia, “plebeian” revolution.

Up to the end of his article, Trotsky has assumed for the sake of argument that the present Russian revolution is indeed “bourgeois.” In the last few paragraphs, Trotsky takes back this assumption: the Russian revolution “is not a ‘national,’ not a bourgeois revolution.” Luckily, backward Russia has “tremendous reserves” in a much more advanced and potentially socialist Western Europe: “The Russian revolution has before it a Europe that has far outdistanced it, a Europe that has reached the highest degree of capitalist development … 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.”

The potential impact of the democratic Russian revolution on Western Europe was a commonplace on left Social Democratic circles since the revolution of 1905, so that Trotsky’s 1917 observations about the international character of the revolution are completely compatible with the prewar Bolshevik hegemony scenario. The international context does not lead Trotsky to draw any implications about the purely “national” dynamics of the revolution. The agreementists are still political cowards for refusing the vlast. The proletariat is still mandated by the tasks of the national democratic revolution to seek the vlast as leader of the narod.

When we put Trotsky’s “The Character of the Russian Revolution” next to Lenin’s “A Basic Question” as presented in an earlier post, we see that Trotsky lines up with Lenin to make a concerted attack on “Plekhanovite sociology.” The two leaders make the same basic points: we do not have to affirm the socialist character of the revolution in order to justify soviet power. We do not have to deny that the Russian revolution taken by itself is a “bourgeois-democratic” one. Basic democratic principles justify soviet power. Long-standing class dynamics justify the role of the Russian proletariat as vozhd of the Russian narod.

1924: Trotsky Channels Plekhanov

In 1917, the “agreementist” leaders of the SRs and the Mensheviks argued as follows: Russia is experiencing a “bourgeois-democratic revolution” and therefore the slogan “the whole vlast to the soviets” is illegitimate and disastrous. In response, Trotsky, in line with Lenin and all other Bolshevik spokesmen, replied: your argument is nothing but logical stupidity and cowardly evasion. Even granted that (taken by itself in a purely national context) the present revolution is “bourgeois-democratic,” this fact mandates taking over the vlast in order to carry out a sweeping democratic transformation of society.

There was also a short-lived discussion among the Bolsheviks themselves over similar issues in spring 1917. Lev Kamenev and other Bolshevik praktiki were worried: some of the rhetoric of their newly returned leader seemed to imply that the party no longer regarded the peasantry as an ally in the revolution. These Bolsheviks therefore insisted that the peasants still did not have the land and that therefore the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” was not over. The Old Bolshevik prescription therefore still applied: establish a worker-peasant vlast to carry the democratic revolution to the end.

In response, Lenin clarified his position: he definitely was not writing off the peasant ally. Russia’s peasant majority meant that the country was not ready for socialism, if only because soviet transformation required majority support. Nevertheless, as against agreementists such as Plekhanov, Lenin insisted that a democratic revolution mandated soviet power. In this way, the Bolsheviks cleared up their mutual misgivings and ended up pretty much on the same page. The party’s goal was a worker-peasant vlast, based on the soviets, that would carry out sweeping “democratic” measures (land to the peasants, immediate peace), with the further aim of taking any further “steps toward socialism” that did not alienate the peasantry, and also of inspiring a fully socialist revolution in Western Europe.

In 1924, in his book-length essay Lessons of October, Trotsky returned to the dispute among Bolsheviks in spring 1917. His argument now took on a surprising turn. After pointing to Kamenev’s 1917 argument that “the bourgeois-democratic revolution is not yet finished,” he claimed Kamenev’s position was incompatible with any genuine support for a soviet and indeed for any other kind of revolutionary vlast. In other words, he made an 180° turn from his argument in 1917. In effect, he now sided with the “Plekhanovite sociology” he had earlier derided: he now insisted that if Russia was experiencing a democratic revolution, then soviet power was illegitimate, and Bolsheviks were confined to doing no more than put pressure on the “bourgeois” Provisional Government.

I seek to establish this change of position, not because I take great pleasure in catching out Trotsky contradicting himself, but for two other reasons. First, Trotsky’s 1924 position has been immensely influential, indeed foundational, for our understanding of Bolshevik politics in 1917. Second, Trotsky 1917 provides one of the best refutations of what I consider to be his own deeply misleading and mistaken interpretation of 1924. (In what immediately follows, “according to Trotsky” and similar phrases refer only to Trotsky’s 1924 essay Lessons of October. All citations are taken from chapter 2 of Lessons.)[2]

According to Trotsky, there was a deep split in the Bolshevik party throughout the year 1917 between those who proclaimed “the socialist character of the Russian revolution” and those who insisted on “the completion [zavershenie] of the democratic revolution”:

For many leaders of the party, the speech which Lenin delivered at the Finland railway station on the socialist character of the Russian revolution had the effect of an exploding bomb. The polemic between Lenin and the advocates of “the completion of the democratic revolution” began from the very first day.

What was at stake in the split was the question of the vlast: one side wanted to fight for it, and the other side did not:

The task of the conquest of power was put before the party only on April  4, that is, after the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd … The whole of the April Party Conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of the vlast in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (somebody or other) complete the democratic revolution?

Anyone who called for completion of the democratic revolution thereby renounced the struggle for power and confined themselves merely to putting pressure on the Provisional Government. Thus there was no essential difference between Bolsheviks such as Kamenev and Bagdatev and the agreementist leaders of the Mensheviks and the SRs:

Consequently, the period following  the February revolution could be regarded from two points of view: either as a period of the strengthening, development, or completion [zavershenie] of the “democratic” revolution, or as a period of the preparation of the proletarian revolution. The first point of view was held, not only by the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, but also by a certain section of the leading elements of our own party. The difference was this: these [Bolshevik] leading elements really tried to push the democratic revolution as far as possible to the left. But the method was essentially one and the same—to “exert pressure” on the ruling bourgeoisie, a “pressure” so calculated as to remain within the framework of the bourgeois democratic regime.

Any Bolshevik who argued that the bourgeois-democratic revolution was not yet finished was ipso facto an enemy of “the revolutionary course.” Their point of view was nothing but a recipe for disaster:

The fundamental disputed issue, around which all others centered, was this: fight for the vlast or not? take over the vlast or not? This fact alone shows that we were not dealing with an episodic difference of opinion but with two tendencies of the utmost principled significance …

If this policy [of carrying the democratic revolution to the end] had prevailed, the development of the revolution would have bypassed our party and, in the final analysis, we would have had an uprising of the worker and peasant masses without party leadership—in other words, a repetition of the July days on a colossal scale, that is, not just as an episode but as a catastrophe.

In this way Trotsky painted a picture of two mutually exclusive positions: socialist/vlast/revolutionary vs. democratic/pressure/reform. There are many problems with Trotsky’s account as a description of events in 1917. What exactly does it mean to proclaim “the socialist character of the revolution”? What is the textual basis for Lenin’s alleged characterization? (For a reception history of the April Theses, see post No. 1, “Biography of a Slogan.”) How does Trotsky’s 1924 account square with Lenin’s own 1917 argument found in “A Basic Question,” published during the April conference?

Trotsky’s account hardly prepares us for the actual arguments of Bolsheviks like Kamenev, who insisted that as long as the peasants had not seized the land, the bourgeois-democratic revolution was not finished (for Kamenev’s call for soviet power prior to Lenin’s return, see post No. 2, “Letter from Afar, Corrections from Up Close: Censorship or Retrofit?”). From Kamenev’s point of view in April, the people sidestepping the question of the vlast were precisely those who prematurely called it a socialist revolution, even before the democratic revolution was finished—that is, prematurely rejecting the peasant as an ally in the struggle for a revolutionary vlast. For this reason, Kamenev claimed that Lenin’s outlook threatened to turn the Bolsheviks into a party of propagandists for socialism rather than a party of action. The question is not whether Kamenev fully grasped Lenin’s position (he didn’t, so Lenin hastened to clarify matters)—rather, the grounds on which Kamenev rejected Lenin’s alleged position was precisely those of a struggle for the vlast.

How does Trotsky’s account deal with a party activist such as Sergei Bagdatev? According to Trotsky, the April Conference revealed a deep split between those who called for completing the democratic revolution and those who called for a struggle for the vlast. But, as we saw in an earlier post (No. 4, “Thirteen to Two: Petrograd Bolsheviks debate the April Theses”), Bagdatev called both for carrying the democratic revolution to the end and for soviet power. In fact, he was rapped on the knuckles by the Conference for moving too aggressively toward an actual seizure of power. If we follow Trotsky’s argument, we must dismiss Bagdatev as no more than a victim of “muddled thinking.”

When reading Trotsky’s 1924 account of Bolshevik discussions in April 1917, we should be aware that he himself only arrived back in Russia in early May. Obtaining a detailed knowledge of these discussions was hardly a priority until after Lenin’s death in early 1924, when he began to read sources in connection with the publication of his 1917 writings. Sukhanov’s recently published memoir in particular had great influence on the interpretation advanced in this collection. As Trotsky himself mentions, the proceedings of the April Conference had not yet been published.

Trotsky’s insistence on dismissing the advocates of “democratic revolution” as enemies of “the revolutionary course” also threatens to distort and diminish the actual revolution of 1917. Impelled by his own rhetoric, Trotsky seems to condescend to the democratic revolution as a sideshow, as “a series of reforms.” Look at the October revolution itself. The Second Soviet Congress did three things: land to the peasants, a democratic peace, and a government based solely on the most vibrant electoral institution in the land, the soviets. All three are “democratic,” not socialist measures—yet they transformed Russia top to bottom. Trotsky is less impressed with these sweeping measures than “a purely socialist invasion of the workers’ state into the sphere of capitalist property rights” (leaving unexplained why an energetic democratic vlast would be afraid of intruding on the rights of property owners).

But for the present we leave aside these larger questions and turn our attention to Trotsky’s assumption that there is an unbreakable logical link between calling for completion of the democratic revolution on the one hand and Menshevik-style agreementism and “pressure” on the other. This assumption is key to Trotsky’s whole account. So strong is this link in Trotsky’s mind that he barely needs to refer to textual evidence. Did this person call for completion of the democratic revolution?—then he was little more than a reformist, frightened at the prospect of threatening bourgeois property rights.

There are two striking things about this Trotsky’s 1924 assumption. First, he has taken over the premises of “Plekhanovite sociology” lock, stock, and barrel. According to Plekhanov, Lenin proclaimed the socialist character of the Russian revolution in his April Theses. He did so because he realized that soviet power was justified only if the revolution was socialist. Lenin’s new assertion was a sharp break from the earlier position of both him and his party, or so Plekhanov assures us. Those who correctly realized that the revolution was bourgeois-democratic in nature (as Plekhanov did) were committed to supporting the Provisional Government (as Plekhanov did). Plekhanov himself had long argued that only the bourgeoisie could be the real leader of the bourgeois-democratic revolution—an argument that in 1917 was curtly dismissed by Trotsky as “stupid.”

Of course, in Trotsky’s 1924 version the value signs are reversed. Trotsky supported soviet power, so he is happy rather than distressed that Lenin allegedly broke with Old Bolshevism in order to proclaim the socialist character of the revolution. But otherwise, the argument is identical: a socialist revolution mandates fighting for soviet power, while a democratic revolution mandates restricting oneself to putting pressure on a bourgeois Provisional Government.

The other striking thing about Trotsky’s 1924 argument is that probably the most cogent refutation can be found in the article penned by Trotsky himself in 1917. Let us review the major assertions found in Lessons of October and then see how Trotsky’s 1917 article “Character of the Russian Revolution” denies each one.

In 1924, Trotsky argues that deciding the character of the Russian revolution was “of the utmost principled significance,” indeed, a matter of life and death for the revolution. If the Bolsheviks hadn’t come up with the correct solution to this question, catastrophe loomed. In 1917, he derided the whole issue of the character of the revolution as an academic “sociological” one with no political importance, except to show how desperately the moderate socialists wanted to evade their responsibilities.

For Trotsky in 1924, there is only one correct revolutionary answer to this sociological question: the Russian revolution is a socialist one. He makes no distinction between internal and international dynamics. In 1917, Trotsky carefully separated out the political dynamics of the revolution in its strictly Russian context and the international dynamics of the impending socialist revolution in Europe as a whole. When talking about the revolution in its strictly Russian context, Trotsky in 1917 offers no alternative to labeling it a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” as that term was understood in Marxist discourse (a revolution that carried out necessary but non-socialist historical tasks on the basis of a wide coalition of “the revolutionary classes”). Precisely on the basis of this characterization, Trotsky makes his case for the failure of the moderate socialists and for the legitimacy of Bolshevik slogans.

In 1924, Trotsky insists that socialists who labeled the revolution as “bourgeois democratic” were logically compelled to renounce any effort to take over the vlast. In 1917, Trotsky insisted that socialists who labeled the revolution as “bourgeois democratic” were logically compelled to strive for the vlast.  He pointed out that if the SRs took their own argument seriously, they would use their status as majority party to take over the vlast and carry out the huge historical tasks assigned by Marxism to the democratic revolution.

In 1924, Trotsky claims that any socialist who wanted to complete the democratic revolution thereby restricted themselves to merely putting pressure on a Provisional Government dominated by the bourgeoisie. In 1917, this same claim was advanced by the moderate socialists, and Trotsky dismissed it as a feeble excuse for giving the elite parties a dominant position in the Provisional Government—a position that was certainly not justified by their support in society.

In 1924, Trotsky claims that the Bolshevik leaders were shocked and scandalized by the idea that the bourgeoisie would not be the governmental leaders of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. In 1917, Trotsky correctly identified the long-standing split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks on exactly this issue. If by “Old Bolshevism” we mean “the outlook of Bolshevism prior to the revolution” (Lenin used the term in a different sense in April 1917), then the heart of Old Bolshevism was precisely the denial that the bourgeoisie would or even could be the leader of the bourgeois revolution.

In 1924, Trotsky asserted that anyone who wanted to complete the democratic revolution was thereby logically committed to accepting the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. In 1917, he attributed this argument specifically to Plekhanov and the Mensheviks and he dismisses it as “stupidity.”

Most importantly, in 1917 Trotsky gave us an excellent formulation of the long-standing Bolshevik hegemony scenario, as applied to the ongoing revolution: “bring about a salutary political differentiation among the peasant millions, remove the peasant poor from the treacherous leadership of the strong SR muzhiks, and convert the socialist proletariat into a genuine vozhd of the narodnaia, ‘plebeian’ revolution.” In 1924, the hegemony scenario is forgotten and Trotsky insists that the revolution be called “proletarian” as opposed to “narodnaia.”

To sum up: In 1917, Trotsky rejected with scorn the motto “To hell with democracy! Long live Plekhanovite sociology!”. In 1924, he fully endorsed the reasoning behind this motto.

As we know, Trotsky was a voluminous writer. I have pointed to specific texts that support my contention that a radical shift in Trotsky’s analysis of Bolshevism occurred between 1917 and 1924. I invite readers to bring to the table any further texts that might support or weaken these claims.

In this series, I have argued against the “rearming” narrative as championed, among others, by Trotsky in 1924 and afterwards. Some people have understandably asked: who is more likely to have understood the dynamics of the Russian revolution, Lars Lih or Lev Trotsky? Put this way, only one answer seems intuitively obvious. But the question is badly framed. It should read: who is more likely to have understood the dynamics of the Russian revolution, Trotsky in 1917 or Trotsky in 1924? Anyone interested in the Russian revolution will have to confront this question. Alas, no matter what the answer, the result will be disagreement with Trotsky. On the other hand, no matter what the answer, the result will be agreement with Trotsky.

Previous posts in ‘All power to the soviets’: a series by Lars T. Lih

For explanation of some Russian words found in this article, see “A small glossary for discussion of Bolshevik policy.”


[1] For an accurate although brief account, see Ian Thatcher, Trotsky (Routledge, 2005).

[2] Chapter 2 can be found on Marxists Internet Archive. I am responsible for the translations. For a new scholarly edition of Lessons, see Trotsky’s Challenge: The ‘Literary Discussion’ of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution, Translated, annotated, and introduced by Frederick C. Corney (Brill, HM series, 2016); this edition also contains all the many responses made by Trotsky’s Bolshevik opponents at the time. As far as I know, no one has yet asked how far the writings of Trotsky in 1917 substantiate the claims made by Trotsky in 1924.

  1. geoff1954 permalink

    Allow me to concede at the outset that perhaps I am missing something fundamental in this discussion. If so, I hope — again — that someone will explain it to me as simply as possible.

    To be completely frank — and again with no disrespect intended to anyone — I find Lars Lih’s article above confusing, just as I found Paul LeBlanc’s most recent article, “Re-Arming the Party: Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolution in 1917,” confusing. (Please see my comments on that post.) Yet when I go back to the most basic source material by Lenin and Trotsky, any confusion disappears.

    In my comments on Paul LeBlanc’s article I argued that what had changed between 1905 and 1917 was not the political approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks (as expressed in “Two Tactics”) but the objective situation itself. Lenin pointed to the further development of the class struggle in Russia and the “great accelerator” of the imperialist war.

    As I re-read Trotsky’s “Lessons of October,” I see the same point being made.

    “The February revolution, if considered by itself, was a bourgeois revolution. But as a bourgeois revolution it came too late and was devoid of any stability…” wrote Trotsky.

    “The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centered was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power,” Trotsky continued.

    Why was this question posed? For the same reasons that Lenin had enumerated:

    1. The victory of the February Revolution and
    2. The crisis created by the imperialist war

    As Trotsky explained, “the outbreak of the war forged a new and gigantic link in the chain of developments….The war interrupted the unfolding revolutionary movement. It acted at first to retard but afterwards to accelerate it enormously.”

    Trotsky then returns to the debates within the Bolshevik Party:

    “This alone is ample proof that we were not then dealing with a mere episodic difference of opinion but with two tendencies of the utmost principled significance. The first and principal tendency was proletarian and led to the road of world revolution. The other was “democratic,” i.e., petty-bourgeois, and led, in the last analysis, to the subordination of proletarian policies to the requirements of bourgeois society in the process of reform.”

    Two tendencies that we might recall emerged in public immediately prior to the October Revolution when Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the seizure of power.

    Trotsky then demonstrated his agreement with Lenin by quoting Lenin’s argument in April 1917 in “Letters on Tactics.” But before re-reading the words Trotsky calls our attention to, let’s make sure we all understand the context in which Lenin was speaking:

    “What, then, is the first stage?” Lenin asked.

    “It is the passing of state power to the bourgeoisie.

    “Before the February-March revolution of 1917, state power in Russia was in the hands of one old class, namely, the feudal landed nobility, headed by Nicholas Romanov.

    “After the revolution, the power is in the hands of a different class, a new class, namely, the bourgeoisie.

    “The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term.

    “To this extent, the bourgeois, or the bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia is completed.

    “But at this point we hear a clamour of protest from people who readily call themselves ‘old Bolsheviks.’ Didn’t we always maintain, they say, that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed only by the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’? Is the agrarian revolution, which is also a bourgeois-democratic revolution, completed? Is it not a fact, on the contrary, that it has not even started?

    “My answer is: The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out diflerently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variated than anyone could have expected.”

    Let’s return to Trotsky in “Lessons of October,” for just a moment. In the same Chapter Two cited above, Trotsky continues by citing Lenin’s refutations of the arguments of “Old Bolsheviks” concerning the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” who:

    “…more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality … But one must measure up not to old formulas but to the new reality. Is this reality covered by Comrade Kamenev’s Old Bolshevik formula, which says that ‘the bourgeois democratic revolution is not completed’?

    “It is not,” Lenin answers. “The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.” [CW, (Moscow 1964), Vol.24, Letters on Tactics (April 8-13, 1917), pp.44-50]

    Fortunately for the discussion that is taking place on these pages today, that is not all Lenin said on this subject in “Letters on Tactics.” Again his arguments are in such unmistakable language I am inclined to ask, “What is all the shouting about today?”

    “‘The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,'” says Lenin, “has already become a reality in the Russian revolution, for this ‘formula’ envisages only a relation of classes, and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation, this co-operation. ‘The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’—there you have the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ already accomplished in reality.

    “This formula is already antiquated. Events have moved it from [the] realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it.

    “A new and different task now faces us: to effect a split within this dictatorship between the proletarian elements (the anti-defencist, internationalist, ‘Communist’ elements, who stand for a transition to the commune) and the small-proprietor or petty-bourgeois elements (Chkheidze, Tsereteli, Steklov, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the other revolutionary defencists, who are opposed to moving towards the commune and are in favour of ‘supporting’ the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois government).

    “The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘old Bolsheviks’).

    “The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry has already been realised, but in a highly original manner, and with a number of extremely important modifications. I shall deal with them separately in one of my next letters. For the present, it is essential to grasp the incontestable truth that a Marxist must take cognisance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, which, like all theories, at best only outlines the main and the general, only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity.”

    Here Lenin concludes by citing the words of Goethe’s Faust, that we are all, I am sure, familiar with.

    “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”

    To put it simply, Lenin and Trotsky agreed on the essential political dynamics of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Trotsky cited that same agreement in “Lessons of October,” in 1924.

  2. John Marot permalink

    Lih takes a polemical intervention of Trotsky’s against Plekhanov, written from jail, in August 1917. He then examines this intervention in relation Trotsky’s Lessons of October, written in 1924, where Trotsky discusses a pivotal episode in the history of the Bolshevik Party, the April Crisis. Lih then argues that Trotsky has two diametrically different views of the April Crisis in the Bolshevik Party. But in the first essay inmate Trotsky expresses NO VIEWS on the April Crisis because it is not the subject of his polemic — politically discrediting the Mensheviks and the SRs is. Here, Trotsky presupposes that the Bolsheviks have all *accepted* Lenin’s April Theses and are acting on them. In Lessons of October, Commissar of War Trotsky does have a view about the April Crisis because it is about how the Bolsheviks *came to accept* Lenin’s April Theses — a very different objective. Indeed, these objectives are incommensurable, situated on two very different planes. To place these two texts side by side and compare them is an adventitious exercise that does nothing to advance our understanding of the issues at hand.

  3. In his “History of the Russian Revolution”, Trotsky shows how in February, the power had actually been taken by “the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” organized by the Workers and Soldiers Councils, the soldiers being in their majority peasants in uniform. The councils, or soviets in Russian, occupied the railway stations, the telegraph center, and similar levers of power.

    The only problem was that the leaders of the councils did not dare to exercise the power themselves, but tried to impose the power to the bourgeois politicians of the Duma, who themselves resisting taking the reins in their hands, demanding the consent of the monarchy for this.

    I did recently read a number of pages of this account searching for arguments for another discussion.

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