Leon Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution - Introduction by Alan Woods

Shortly Wellred Books will be publishing a new edition of Trotsky’s masterpiece The History of the Russian Revolution. The year 2007 is the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution, an event that, from a Marxist point of view, was the greatest single event in history. Alan Woods has written a new introduction to the book which we publish here.

The publication of a new edition of Trotsky's masterpiece is a timely initiative. The year 2007 is the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution, an event that, from a Marxist point of view, was the greatest single event in history. Even for those who do not share this view, even for the most implacable enemies of the Russian Revolution and everything it stands for, the world-historical importance of that revolution cannot be doubted. It falls under the category of such great historical turning-points, like the French Revolution, the Reformation or the First and Second World Wars, which we habitually refer to in terms of "before" and "after".

From any point of view, the October Revolution was an extraordinary occurrence, and one that has no real historical precedent. As Trotsky writes in the Preface to the History: "During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little known to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history - especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million people. It is clear that the events of 1917, whatever you think of them, deserve study."

Those who condemn the Bolshevik Revolution as a coup - that is, as the act of an unrepresentative minority - have yet to explain how it is possible for a tiny minority of conspirators to move millions of men and women to act against their interests. Here we leave the realm of science and enter that of the mystical view of history as the work of "great individuals", who decide the course of history for good or evil. There is no doubt that Lenin and Trotsky were great revolutionaries. But why was this greatness not sufficient to overthrow Tsarism in 1905 or 1912, or, for that matter, to overthrow capitalism in February 1917?

It is clear to any averagely intelligent person that the theory of history as the produce of good or evil individuals explains precisely nothing. The materialist theory by no means denies the role of the individual in history. It is sufficient to point out that in the Autumn of 1917, without the presence of two men - Lenin and Trotsky - the revolution would have never taken place. But in order that Lenin and Trotsky could play a decisive role in events it was first necessary that a particular concatenation of circumstances should have been prepared by history. It was necessary that the workers and peasants of Russia to live through titanic events that shook them out of the lethargy of habit, custom and tradition and impelled them onto the road of struggle. It was necessary for them to pass through a school of reformism after February and to draw the necessary conclusions from their experience.

The possibility of revolution was predicated by these factors, which created a favourable class balance of forces for the transfer of power to the proletariat. But similarly favourable objective conditions for revolution have existed many times before and since, without leading to a revolutionary transformation. The decisive difference here was the presence of the subjective factor: the revolutionary party and leadership.

If the Bolshevik Party had not existed, or if, instead of Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev had stood at its head, there is no doubt whatsoever that the October Revolution would never have taken place. In that case, our bourgeois and reformist historians would today be writing learned histories pointing out the utter impossibility of carrying out a socialist revolution in backward Tsarist Russia. They would ridicule the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky as utopian because of the weakness of the working class, its low level of education, the power of the Tsarist state, the size of its army, its omnipresent secret police, and so on and so forth. Oh yes, the reformists never lack arguments to "prove" the impossibility of revolution.

These arguments are not new. The reformists and other defenders of the status quo have sung the same song throughout history, and are still singing it today. They are arguments against the possibility of revolutions in general. Yet, despite all the wisdom of the reformists, revolutions have taken place in the past, and will take place in the future.

The necessity of revolution

It is impossible to understand the history of our times without having studied in depth the Russian Revolution and the great historic events that flowed from it. No intelligent person can ignore this fact. Yet it is an extremely inconvenient fact for those who stubbornly defend the status quo, who stand before the capitalist system (the "free market economy") in that state of awe that is normally reserved for religion, who claim that the present socio-economic relations have always existed and, consequently, must always exist (hence "the end of history").

For such people as this, revolution in general is the source of all evil. Nothing good, they say, can ever come of it. And they point triumphantly at the collapse of the Soviet Union as the final proof of their theory. However, even the most superficial consideration of history immediately exposes the hollowness of this argument. Revolutions are rare events and it is therefore easy to present them as mere aberrations, departures from an imaginary norm of slow, peaceful, evolutionary change. These departures from the "norm" are seen in much the same way as madness is seen as a departure from "normal" behaviour. Indeed, for the philistines, revolutions are indistinguishable from madness.

The attempt to establish a rigid line of demarcation between evolution and revolution lacks any scientific basis. History, like evolution in the animal kingdom, knows long periods of gradual change (known to scientists as "stasis"), but it also knows periods of sudden transformation when the natural process of change undergoes extreme acceleration. In nature, such periods are characterized by the extinction of previously dominant species and the rise of other species.

For a long time many people denied this. But the discoveries of modern palaeontology, mainly associated with the name of the late Stephen Jay Gould, have definitely established that the line of evolution is not a gradual, uninterrupted upward curve, but a line that is broken at intervals by dramatic events like the Cambrian Explosion. Moreover, such periods of rapid acceleration play a most important role in the development of species. Without them, our own species would never have developed, the planet would still be dominated by single-celled organisms, and the discussion of the significance of the Russian Revolution would be somewhat irrelevant.

Revolutions and wars have shaped human history in a very decisive way. They arise because of the existence of insoluble contradictions in class society. Human society, at least up to the present, has never developed in a planned way. As Trotsky points out, it is not organized like a machine that an engineer can mend, replacing worn-out parts by adding new ones. On the contrary, outmoded property relations, laws, state structures, morality and religion can continue to exist long after their historical usefulness has been exhausted.

For a long time men and women can tolerate this situation. People do not resort to revolution willingly, but only as a final resort. When the contradictions have reached a point where they become intolerable, society enters a phase that is the equivalent of what is known as a critical state in physics. Quantity becomes transformed into quality. That is what a revolution means. In order to rid itself of accumulated rubbish, society is compelled to resort to revolutionary measures. Far from being an act of madness and a departure from the norm, revolutions play a necessary role, without which humankind could never advance to a higher stage of development.

This fact, which is proven by the whole history of the last 10,000 years, is profoundly unpalatable to parsons, pacifists, reformist politicians and all defenders of the status quo. They regard the present society, its economic relations, its morality and religion, as eternal and immutable. They overlook the inconvenient fact that capitalism is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, which owes its existence to revolutions and violent upheavals of all sorts, beginning with the Reformation of the 16th century. This first attempt of the bourgeoisie to challenge the old feudal-monarchist-Catholic order, led to a series of bloody wars of religion, which devastated large tracts of Europe for a hundred years.

From this bloody chaos arose, first the Dutch Republic - the first free capitalist nation on earth. The English bourgeois Revolution of the 17th century, in which Oliver Cromwell and his comrades settled accounts with the Monarchy by revolutionary means, including separating a king's head from his shoulders, was the next decisive victory of the bourgeoisie. Later, it is true, the English bourgeoisie took fright at the consequences of its own actions and invited Charles' wastrel son to come back from France and rule - in collaboration with the bourgeois parliament. The first action of Charles II was to dig up Cromwell's corpse and hang it.

For a long time afterwards the English bourgeoisie spoke contemptuously of its own revolution as "The Great Rebellion". The 19th historian Thomas Carlyle wrote that, before he could compose a decent history of Cromwell, he had first to dig his body out from under a heap of dead dogs. In the same way, the French bourgeoisie, on the 200th anniversary of the Great French Revolution, displayed a mean-spirited and spiteful attitude towards the Jacobins, presenting the events of 1789-93 as a period of regrettable violence and chaos. There were even some who said that France would have been better off if Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had remained in charge!

If the bourgeoisie is afraid to praise revolutions that freed it from feudalism two or three centuries ago, how can one expect an objective attitude towards those revolutions in which the working class tried to free itself from the dictatorship of Capital? Having safely installed itself in power, the bourgeoisie has convinced itself that revolutions are always bad for one's health. They pay an army of professional scribes and hired prostitutes with university degrees to write learned histories that falsify the facts to present all revolutions in a bad light and all revolutionaries as bloodthirsty monsters. The scientific value of such works is zero. But its political value to the bankers and capitalists is incalculable.

Was October a coup?

In introducing his work, Trotsky poses a fundamental question: what is a revolution? And he answers the question in the following way:

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime."

And he continues: "The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

Here we have the final answer to those who try to slander the Bolsheviks as enemies of democracy. The truth is that the October Revolution was the most democratic, the most popular revolution in history. Millions of workers and peasants were mobilized for the revolutionary transformation of society under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. And the regime that emerged from October was the most democratic regime that has ever been seen in any country at any time.

The enemies of October try to portray it as a mere coup, planned and executed by the Bolsheviks behind the backs of the masses. Trotsky's book proves the opposite. All the work of the Bolsheviks, particularly after Lenin returned and began to re-orient the Party in April, was based on the aim of winning over the masses. This meant above all winning a majority in the Soviets, where the Bolsheviks were at first a small minority.

It is a fact that when the masses begin to enter the road of revolution, they first take the road of least resistance. They inevitably turn to the well-known parties and leaders, who are usually reformists or centrists. They promise a wonderful future, if only the masses are patient. They ask the masses to set aside their immediate demands and wait - for elections, for a constituent assembly, for the cumbersome machinery of parliament, for the results of endless debates and lawyers' "democratic" casuistry. The masses desire a quick solution to their most burning problems - in the case of Russia, a speedy end to the War, bread and land. Instead, the reformists offer them speeches and yet more speeches.

The Bolsheviks based themselves at every stage on the masses. Lenin waged a ceaseless struggle against the ultra-lefts who immediately put forward the slogan "down with the Provisional Government", at a time when the masses still had illusions in the Menshevik and SR leaders who were supporting the Provisional Government. He explained that before the Bolsheviks could conquer power, they must first "conquer" the masses, and this had to be done by a combination of the experience of the masses and the patient work of the Bolsheviks, summed up in Lenin's slogan "patiently explain!"

It takes time and experience for the masses to learn. Human consciousness as a rule is not progressive, let alone revolutionary. It is in general profoundly conservative. Men and women normally cling to the familiar, to the well-known, resisting new ideas and change. But at certain periods, when the existing social forms have become an absolute fetter on the means of production, and the old ideas, customs and morality enter into conflict with people's burning needs, the psychology of the masses can experience lightning transformations. Trotsky writes:

"The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man's mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of ‘demagogues'."

In a revolution everything turns into its opposite. In the words of the Bible "the last shall be first, and the first last." We can observe the same thing in any strike. The workers in a particular factory can remain passive for many years. On the surface nothing seems to be happening, but beneath the surface of calm there is a seething mood of discontent. Sooner or later, over some small incident, the subterranean mood of discontent breaks through to the surface in the form of a strike. In every strike we see a change of mood among the workers. Formerly backward, passive and inert sections move into action. They can even jump over the heads of the more politically advanced organized layer. Not for nothing did Lenin assert in 1917 that the masses are always a hundred times more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party.

By July, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in winning over the advanced layer of workers and sailors in Petrograd. It would have been possible for them to seize power at that time. If Lenin and Trotsky had wanted to carry out a putsch, as their bourgeois critics claim, this would have been the moment for it. The big majority of workers and sailors in Petrograd wanted to take power. They were straining at the leash. But Lenin and Trotsky attempted to restrain them. Why? Because they understood that it was necessary to win over a decisive majority of the workers and soldiers, who had still not understood the role of the reformist leaders.

There is nothing more damaging than to split the advanced guard away from the masses on the basis of a temporary mood of frustration and impatience. True, the Bolsheviks could have taken power in Red Petrograd in July. But the counterrevolutionary forces would have aroused the more backward provinces and the soldiers at the front against Petrograd and crushed it. The Russian Revolution would have then entered the annals of history as yet another heroic defeat, like the Paris Commune.

Trotsky provides a wealth of information to show the real mechanics of how the Bolsheviks won over the masses by skilful tactics. When Kornilov attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government and install a military dictatorship in the Summer, the Bolsheviks did not hesitate to offer a united front to the reformist leaders in the Soviet Executive, despite the fact that these very same leaders had connived with Kerensky to suppress the Bolsheviks and arrest their leaders. More than anything else, this served to win over the masses and convince them that the Bolsheviks were the most dedicated defenders of the Revolution.

The question of a coup did not arise because Lenin and Trotsky were Marxists, not ultra-left adventurers. It never occurred to them to pose the question of power before they were sure they had the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers behind them. They secured a decisive majority at the Congress of Soviets - the most representative and democratic organ of popular power in all Russia. Only then did they move to take power - an action that counted on the enthusiastic support of the masses. Precisely for that reason, the actual taking of power was a very peaceful affair. It was peaceful because, in the moment of truth, nobody was prepared to fight and die for the bankrupt provisional Government. But that was the result of nine months of patient work, agitation and propaganda by the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.

Historical destiny of October

In the past 16 years since the fall of the USSR, a whole new literary-historical genre has been born. More than a genre, it is a whole new industry, and moreover, it is an industry with a very satisfactory rate of profit. Every year a new pile of books and articles pour onto the market, each one with "new and startling revelations" about Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. The purpose of this new and profitable line of production is quite clear. It is not at all to serve the interests of historical truth or to advance scientific research: it is to blacken the name of the leaders of the Russian Revolution and to cover them with dirt.

For any serious student of the history of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution it would be easy to dismiss this as childish fairy stories. But fairy stories, when repeated with sufficient frequency, tend to stick in the collective consciousness. And every good fairy story has a moral in the end. The moral we are invited to draw from all this is quite clear: do not try to change society, because revolutions always end in catastrophe. Therefore, be content with what you have, because anything else is bound to be far, far worse.

Was the October Revolution justified? The fall of the USSR seems to prove the opposite. At the present time, there is a ferocious campaign to discredit the ideas of socialism and to "prove" that the Russian Revolution was a gigantic aberration, a historical mistake that it would have been better to have avoided. But in the first place, what failed in the Soviet Union was not socialism, in the sense understood by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but a monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism. In the second place, the argument so frequently repeated, that the October Revolution achieved nothing is palpably and demonstratively false.

The October Revolution was a tremendous act of social emancipation. It ended a thousand years of tsarist oppression. It aroused the masses to political life, and provided inspiration to a whole generation. The democratic and socialist ideals of October did not only attract the exploited and oppressed masses. They also inspired the best of the artists and intellectuals, who were irresistibly drawn to the cause of the Revolution. In an age of apostasy and cynicism, when the very idea of building a new and better world is met with knowing sneers from the tribe of Pharisees and renegades it is difficult to imagine the spirit of liberation that was born out of the Russian Revolution.

For all the horrors of Stalinism, the October Revolution proved in practice the superiority of a nationalized planned economy. It proved that it was possible to run the economy of a vast country without landlords, bankers and private capitalists. In the words of Leon Trotsky, it proved the superiority of socialism, not in the language of Marx's Capital but in the language of cement, iron, steel, coal and electricity. Thanks to the colossal advantages of a nationalized planned economy, the USSR made notable strides forward in education, science, art and culture. A land where large sections of the population had been illiterate before October experienced a cultural revolution like no other in previous history.

In the last decades of the USSR, despite all the harm that was inflicted on the Soviet economy by the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, the USSR was a modern and highly developed economy. It had more scientists and technicians than the USA, Britain and Germany together. And they were very good scientists, as the brilliant successes of the Soviet space programme showed. Even the CIA had to admit that in that field the USSR was at least ten years ahead of the USA.

So, if the USSR was so advanced, how did it collapse? The question is self-evident, and the answer was provided by Trotsky as early as 1936 in a major work of Marxist theory entitled The Revolution Betrayed. In this book, Trotsky explains that a nationalized planned economy needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen. By this he did not mean the miserable caricature of bourgeois formal democracy, which is only a fig leaf to disguise the dictatorship of the big banks and monopolies, but a genuine workers' democracy in which the masses exercise direct control over industry, society and the state through democratically elected councils (soviets) subject to instant recall.

The isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of extreme economic and cultural backwardness was the soil in which the bureaucracy thrived, gradually pushing the workers out of the soviets and concentrating power into its own hands. Under Stalin, all the political gains of the October Revolution were eliminated. The bureaucracy constituted itself into a ruling caste that elevated itself above the working class and ruled in its name.

Like every other ruling class or caste in history, it used the state to defend its power and privileges. All elements of workers' democracy were ruthlessly suppressed and replaced with a repulsive totalitarian dictatorship. In the end, that voracious bureaucracy undermined and destroyed the nationalized planned economy, leading the land of October back to capitalism. Nowadays, the former leaders of the CPSU who used to talk about "socialism" and "communism" are singing the praises of market economics. They have every reason to, since they have plundered the state and converted themselves into the owners of big private monopolies.

What they cannot explain is how a nation that in 1917 was more backward than Pakistan today managed to transform itself very quickly into the second most powerful nation on earth, how the USSR succeeded almost single-handedly in defeating Hitler's Germany with all the resources of Europe behind it, and how after the War it succeeded, without the benefit of Marshall Aid, in rebuilding a country that had lost 27 million people - more than all the other countries put together.

And what have these admirers of capitalism got to say about Russia today? The restoration of capitalism has not conferred any benefits on the peoples of the former USSR. As Trotsky predicted, the return to capitalism in the Soviet Union has caused an unprecedented decline in the productive forces and culture. Its effects in all spheres of science, art, music and culture, have been catastrophic.

The return to capitalism has brought misery to the overwhelming majority of the population. It has led to a resurgence of all the most disgusting and degenerate features of Russia's barbarous past: dirt and ignorance, superstition and pornography, the Orthodox Church and prostitution, anti-Semitism and Black Hundred fascism. Along with the collapse of the health service, we have an unprecedented epidemic of sickness, alcoholism, drug abuse and Aids.

In place of the monstrous corrupt regime of the Stalinist bureaucracy, we have the even more monstrous and corrupt regime of Putin. In vain the bourgeois Pharisees of the West wring their hands and complain. They worked hard for the restoration of capitalism in Russia. With the invaluable assistance of the bureaucracy, they got what they wanted. It is no use saying: we did not want this kind of capitalism, we wanted something else. This is the only kind of capitalism the people of Russia can expect.

The existence of vast oil and gas reserves and the demand for Russian raw materials created by the present unstable boom in the West has given the regime a temporary appearance of stability. But beneath the surface, enormous discontent is accumulating. The conditions are being created for one explosion after another.

If there existed in Russia a Bolshevik Party of a genuine Leninist type - even with the 8,000 members that the Party had in March 1917, the crisis of the regime could lead very quickly to the overthrow of the decrepit Russian bourgeoisie and the return to a regime of Leninist soviet democracy on a far higher level than in 1917. But decades of Stalinist totalitarianism destroyed the legacy of Leninism almost entirely. The CPRF is a communist party in name only. It is organically incapable of providing a revolutionary lead.

The new generation of Russian workers will need time to recover their strength and rediscover the road to socialist revolution. That can only be done by returning to the ideas, programme and traditions of Bolshevism-Leninism. They will rediscover the profound and true ideas of Lenin, and above all, of his faithful comrade in arms, the indefatigable defender of the ideals of October, that great Marxist, revolutionary and martyr of the working class, Lev Davidovich Trotsky.

London, January 4, 2007