135) The Question of the Soviet Congress

From the point of view of formal logic, defense and offense are immutable opposites. However, in practice, they frequently pass into each other. A defensive struggle, under certain conditions, can be transformed into an offensive struggle, and vice versa. There are many points of comparison between the wars between nations and wars between the classes. But there are also differences. A bourgeois standing army is prepared, financed, and armed for decades in preparation for war. The general staff can choose when and where hostilities begin. Of course, even here, it is not a purely military question. Clausewitz explained that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The military acts of bourgeois governments are determined by the class interests of the bourgeoisie. For this reason, Marxists have always pointed out that the question of who fires the first shot is an entirely secondary consideration which does not have any bearing on the concrete character of a war.

Every government in every war always tries to put the blame for starting it on the shoulders of the enemy. This is neither an accident nor a whim. War is not just a military question, but involves politics. The mobilization of public opinion, at home and abroad, in support of the war is a fundamental question, which can only be resolved on the political plane. Napoleon explained that in warfare morale is to the physical as three to one. Hence, the fundamental task of diplomacy is to convince public opinion that its particular army acted only in self-defense, in response to intolerable provocation, enemy aggression, and so on. A government which did not act in this way would commit an intolerable blunder, and do enormous damage to its war effort.

All this is a thousand times more true in the socialist revolution. The proletariat, unlike the ruling class, does not possess an army, and will never possess an armed force capable of taking on the forces of the bourgeois state, provided that the latter remains intact. Whereas conventional war is mainly a military question, in which diplomacy plays a significant but subordinate role, the task of the socialist revolution is therefore mainly the political task of winning over the masses and the armed forces. The roles are reversed.

In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of the struggles of the working class begin as defensive struggles: struggles to defend living standards, jobs, democratic rights, etc. Under certain circumstances, particularly with correct leadership, these defensive struggles can prepare the way for an offensive, including a general strike, which poses the question of power. However, even in the course of a revolution, it is necessary to place all the responsibility for violence on the shoulders of the ruling class, in order to win over the masses, not only of the working class, but also of the petty bourgeoisie. It is therefore not only correct, but absolutely essential that the movement should be presented in a defensive light. Already in June Lenin wrote:

The socialist proletariat and our party must be as cool and collected as possible, must show the greatest staunchness and vigilance. Let the future Cavaignacs begin first. Our Party conference has already given warning of their arrival. The workers of Petrograd will give them no opportunity to disclaim responsibility. They will bide their time, gathering their forces and preparing for resistance when those gentlemen decide to turn from words to action.738

The history of the Russian Revolution, before, during, and after October, suffices to demonstrate this. On the eve of the October Revolution, there was a difference of opinion between Lenin and Trotsky concerning the date of the insurrection. Lenin wanted to move straight to the seizure of power in September, whereas Trotsky was in favor of postponing the insurrection until the Congress of Soviets. Why did Trotsky take this position? Did he suffer from a lack of audacity? Not at all. Trotsky understood that, even in a revolution, the question of legality is extremely important for the masses. Trotsky was sure that the Bolsheviks would get the majority at the Congress, and could therefore appear before the masses as the legitimate power in society. This was not a secondary question, but was a vital factor in achieving a peaceful transfer of power. Once again, the essential element was not military, but political. Incidentally, the Bolsheviks presented the October insurrection as a defensive action to prevent Russia from sliding into chaos and civil war. And this is no accident. Even when you are in a position to go onto the offensive (which is by no means always the case, rather the contrary), it is always necessary to act and speak as if you were fighting a defensive struggle, placing all the responsibility on the enemy.

Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the taking of power because they were affected by the pressure of bourgeois public opinion and lost their nerve. Exaggeration of the strength of the enemy and a pessimistic appraisal of the fighting potential of the working class is highly characteristic of this state of mind. For them, postponement meant forever. Kamenev’s attitude was shown by a conversation he had with Raskolnikov only a few weeks before the insurrection:

When I met my old friend L.B. Kamenev I immediately launched into a discussion with him about “our differences.” The starting point of Lev Borisovich’s argument was that our Party was not yet ready for insurrection. True, we had large masses of various kinds behind us, and they readily passed our resolutions, but there was still a long way to go from “paper” voting to active participation in an armed uprising. It was not certain that the Petrograd garrison would show itself resolute in battle, ready to conquer or die. When the first critical circumstances arose the soldiers would desert us and run away.

“The Government, on the other hand,” said Comrade Kamenev, “has splendidly organized troops at its disposal, devoted to its cause—Cossacks and cadets who have been well worked up against us and will fight desperately to the end.”

Drawing from all this depressing conclusions about our chances of victory, Comrade Kamenev had arrived at the view that an unsuccessful attempt at insurrection would result in defeat and downfall for our Party, which would throw us back and delay for a long time the development of the revolution.739

Lenin was so insistent about the need to take power immediately, because he feared, not without reason, that the Bolshevik Conciliators would let the opportunity slip altogether. But his objection to the postponement of the insurrection until the Soviet Congress was not so well founded. Trotsky supported this postponement not only to win over the wavering elements on the CC, but for sound tactical reasons. The majority of workers and soldiers still looked to the authority of the Soviets. They would support the seizure of power on the basis that it was done in the name of the Soviets, but not necessarily in the name of the Bolsheviks alone. Therefore, the insurrection should coincide with the Congress of Soviets, where the Bolsheviks and their allies were sure of winning the majority. Lenin was doubtful about this stratagem. Was this not yet another example of prevarication and legalistic-parliamentary cretinism?

However, Trotsky’s position was undoubtedly correct. He understood the need to continue the work of winning over the Soviets right up to the moment of the insurrection, in order to mobilize the maximum forces for the rising, and minimize resistance. That is why he supported, against Lenin’s opposition, the postponement of the insurrection to coincide with the Congress of Soviets where the Bolsheviks would win the majority. Thus, even in the course of an insurrection itself, the question of legality, far from being relegated to an unimportant position, assumes a crucial role in winning over the more inert layers of the masses. The insurrection took place, as Trotsky had proposed, coinciding with the Congress. That, of course, did not prevent the Stalinists from maintaining that Trotsky’s proposal

in practice meant bungling the insurrection and allowing the Provisional Government to pull up its forces to crush the uprising on the day the Congress opened.740

The decision to organize the insurrection was taken by the Central Committee, at Lenin’s insistence, on October 10. It seems clear that Lenin intended to utilize the Northern Region Congress of Soviets, which took place in Petrograd from October 11 to 13, to start the insurrection. According to the Latvian Bolshevik Latsis, the plan was that the Northern Congress would declare itself the government, and this would be the start. This was one of many regional Soviet congresses which were being held in preparation for the coming All-Russian Congress. The Congress was dominated by the left: 51 Bolsheviks, 24 Left SRs, four Maximalists (a small terrorist split-off from the SRs), one Menshevik Internationalist, and only ten SRs and four Mensheviks, who immediately walked out. Originally planned to be held in Helsingfors in Finland, it had been moved to the capital as a more appropriate place from which to start the insurrection.

In a message to the Bolshevik delegates to the Northern Region Congress, Lenin wrote that they would be “traitors to the International” if they limited themselves to “mere resolutions.” But the Congress did not vote for immediate insurrection. Instead, it passed a resolution which declared for a Soviet government, but linked it to the forthcoming All-Russian Congress. This was the general mood at the time. Reports from many areas showed the same picture: that workers would be prepared to fight for the establishment of a Soviet government if it were proclaimed by the Soviet Congress, but not necessarily if it were proclaimed by a single party, the Bolsheviks, without the stamp of authority of the Soviets. Moreover, internal reports, especially from the Bolshevik Military Organization, revealed a disappointing state of unreadiness and “flagrant deficiencies.” Probably these were exaggerated. The Military Organization always tended to attach excessive importance to the purely military-technical side, whereas in practice, the political questions were decisive. Nevertheless, these reports did reveal something. After the bitter experience of the July Days, the Bolshevik activists feared isolation and were inclined to be cautious—perhaps too cautious. Nevertheless, it became increasingly clear that the party was not yet prepared either psychologically or organizationally for the decisive leap. A couple more weeks were needed. And that already meant that the uprising would coincide with the Second All-Russian Congress.


738 LCW, The Turning Point, vol. 25, 83.

739 Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, 256–57.

740 LCW, vol. 26, 547, note 79.

136) The Final Chapter

By skillful and flexible tactics, the Bolsheviks succeeded in drastically increasing their influence in the Soviets in the months before October, to the point where, together with their allies, they could command a majority at the Soviet Congress. That, and that alone, explains the relatively peaceful character of the October insurrection. The reason was not primarily military, but the fact that nine-tenths of the work had already been accomplished beforehand. The most vital arena of struggle was in the Soviets themselves. Anweiler gives the following breakdown of the relations between the parties in the Soviets on the eve of the insurrection:

1) In the workers soviets in almost all the big industrial cities the Bolsheviks had the majority, and the same was true of the majority of soldiers’ soviets in the regiments. The essential points of their influence were:

a) Finland, Estland [Estonia], Petersburg and the surrounding region, part of the Northern Front and the navy; b) The central industrial zone around Moscow; c) The Urals; d) Siberia where they were equally balanced with the SRs.

2) In the peasants’ soviets and in the front-line soviets the SRs were still the dominant force. A strong left wing, which finally split away from the SR party in the weeks leading up to October, was on the side of the Bolsheviks and frequently helped them to obtain a majority in most of the Soviets. The moderate SRs were strongest in:

a) The Black Sea area and the Central Volga; b) The Ukraine (together with the nationalist Socialist parties); c) The Eastern, Southeastern and Rumanian fronts.

3) The Mensheviks had lost their dominant position in the workers’ soviets almost everywhere after the first months of the revolution. Only in the Caucasus, especially in Georgia, where they could also base themselves on the peasant population, were they much stronger than the Bolsheviks in October 1917.

4) For the first time groups of Maximalists and anarchists played an important role in some soviets. They supported the Bolsheviks in October and significantly contributed to the radicalization of the masses.741

Anweiler exaggerates the role of the anarchists and maximalists, who were a tiny minority, representing the ultraleft tendencies that always exist, but cannot play any real role. A certain growth of such tendencies in a revolution is to be expected. Lenin himself explained that the masses were already getting tired of waiting. Individual workers or sometimes small groups of workers who have moved a bit too far ahead of the class can be attracted to the radical-sounding slogans of the ultralefts. But for every one of these there are 50, 100, or 1,000 who will go to the traditional mass organizations, even where these are under the leadership of the reformists. The reason why the anarchists played no significant role in the Russian Revolution was because of the existence of the Bolshevik Party. In State and Revolution, Lenin wrote in sympathetic terms about the anarchist workers, while criticizing their half-baked notions about the state, pointing out that anarchism (and ultraleftism in general) is the price the movement has to pay for the opportunism of the reformist labor leaders.

Under Russian conditions reformism always was a feeble and sickly plant. There was no tradition of powerful reformist trade unions and Labor Parties as in Western Europe. Nevertheless, for the reasons already outlined, the Russian workers in February, even as they established the Soviets, took the line of least resistance and backed the reformist parties in the Soviets. Only through the experience of great events did the masses reject these leaders and move in the direction of Bolshevism. But this process was neither easy nor automatic. It was only made possible by the generally correct policies and tactics of the Bolsheviks, above all, their clear orientation to those mass organizations that had been created by the workers and which, to the end, had tremendous attractive power, despite the policies of the leaders—the Soviets and the trade unions.

The way in which the workers cling to the established mass organizations was strikingly revealed on the eve of October by the controversy around the date of the insurrection and the Soviet Congress. Lenin was quite rightly worried about the constitutional and parliamentary cretinism of Bolshevik leaders like Kamenev and Zinoviev. He feared delay, since every day that passed gave the time and opportunity to the counterrevolutionaries to regroup and launch a new offensive. There were persistent rumors (subsequently shown to be true) that Kerensky was planning to move the center of government to Moscow. There was every possibility that the Provisional Government would let Petrograd fall into the hands of the Germans, rather than see it fall to the Bolsheviks. There is ample evidence that the bourgeoisie in the capital was waiting to receive the kaiser’s armies as saviors. At the time of Kornilov’s uprising, the Germans had taken Riga. Later they occupied two strategic islands in the Baltic, placing them in striking distance of Petrograd. The danger was real enough.

Mikhail Rodzianko, the former head of the Duma, confessed in so many words that it would be better for the Germans to take Petrograd:

“Petrograd appears threatened (by the Germans) . . . I say to hell with Petrograd . . . People fear our central institutions in Petrograd will be destroyed. To this, let me say that I should be glad if these institutions are destroyed because they have brought Russia nothing but grief.”742

At the very least, Kerensky was preparing to get rid of the mutinous Petrograd garrison, using the excuse of the German threat. But, as the gulf between the classes opened ever wider, the threat that the Soviets would be dissolved by the forces of reaction loomed larger.

The main argument employed against Lenin was “we must wait for the Soviet Congress.” But Lenin feared that the Congress would be postponed. The Soviet leaders had already postponed it once, fearing that they would lose control. Why should they not do this again? Then the opponents of insurrection had another argument. Why not wait for the convening of the promised Constituent Assembly? They were always looking for some pretext or other to postpone the insurrection. Here again Lenin thought it highly likely that the Provisional Government would postpone or cancel the convening of elections to the Constituent Assembly. Hence, his implacable opposition to waiting for the Congress of Soviets, or anything else.

Lenin’s impatience, and his constant fear that the Bolshevik leaders were dragging their feet, were partly dictated by the waverings of Kamenev and Zinoviev, who were far from being alone in the Bolshevik leadership. But they were also partly the result of Lenin’s isolation. Trotsky, who was more in touch with the situation on the ground, was in favor of preparing the insurrection, but making it coincide with the Congress of Soviets, which would give it the necessary legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. This showed a sharp insight into the psychology of the workers. The Bolsheviks had certainly made extraordinary progress since the summer. The growth of the membership was now so rapid that it swamped the meager capacity of the party’s apparatus, which was unable to keep pace with it. In August, at the time of the Sixth Congress, the membership stood at around 240,000.743 At the Central Committee meeting of October 16, Sverdlov reported that “the growth of the party has reached gigantic proportions: at the present time it must be estimated at 400,000 at least.”744

In fact, it is impossible to arrive at an exact figure for party membership at this time. The Bolshevik Party’s apparatus was still relatively weak and constantly overwhelmed with work. In a revolution, the demands of the hour must take precedence over such mundane tasks as keeping up-to-date membership figures. Any estimate must therefore necessarily have a conditional character. Lenin himself admitted that it was all but impossible to get an accurate idea of the membership in September, but pointed to the increased donations from workers as proof of the party’s rapid growth:

In the absence of any statistics concerning the fluctuation of the party membership, attendance at meetings, etc., the conscious support of the party by the masses may be judged only from published data concerning cash collections for the party. These data show a tremendous mass-scale heroism on the part of worker-Bolsheviks in collecting money for Pravda, for the papers that have been suppressed, etc. The reports of such collections have always been published.745

What is not in question is the fact that the Bolsheviks, who had started the year as a tiny organization, had grown rapidly to the point where they became the dominant force in the working class. But even with a membership of 400,000, the Bolsheviks would never have been able to lead millions of workers and soldiers to the seizure of power without flexible tactics and methods and a correct orientation towards the mass organizations. The party’s progress in the Soviets has already been alluded to. But this does not tell the whole story. While the Bolshevik slogans were finding a ready echo among the workers, the latter still looked to the Soviets to carry these slogans into practice. The relationship was a dialectical one. Without the policies of the Bolshevik Party, the Soviets were useless. As a matter of fact, under the leadership of the right-wing reformists, they could be characterized as counterrevolutionary Soviets. But from another point of view, the policies of the Bolsheviks, without the Soviets, would not necessarily have won the ear of the masses, who still had profound illusions in those organizations which they had built themselves, and to which they had become accustomed to look for a solution to their problems. The ideas of Bolshevism only acquired an irresistible force when they were linked in the minds of the masses with the organizations to which they had given their allegiance—the Soviets.


741 Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia, 194.

742 Quoted in Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 226.

743 Liebman gives this figure. Schapiro, quoting different sources, puts it at 200,000.

744 Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 158.

745 LCW, The Russian Revolution and Civil War, vol. 26, 32.

137) The Seizure of Power

The hour of decisive action had arrived. By this time, the rank-and-file Bolshevik workers were themselves growing impatient at the lack of decisive action from the top. On October 19 (November 1), at a secret meeting of the amplified CC, Lenin again read out a written statement on the need for an immediate insurrection. With only two votes against—Kamenev and Zinoviev—it was decided that the only way to save the revolution from destruction was an armed uprising. Convinced that an insurrection would be disastrous for the party and the revolution, Lenin’s two old comrades-in-arms opened up a frantic campaign to stop it. On October 18, they went to the extreme of publishing an article in a nonparty paper, Gorky’s Novaya Zhizn’, which publicly opposed the organizing of an insurrection as “an act of desperation” which would bring “the most ruinous consequences for the party, for the proletariat, for the fate of the revolution.” Significantly, the letter, which appeared under Kamenev’s signature, claimed to speak not only in the name of two members of the CC, but of a large number of (unnamed) “party practical workers”:

Not only myself and Comrade Zinoviev, but a number of practical party comrades think that to take upon ourselves the initiative to mount an armed uprising at the present time, under the present correlation of social forces, independently of the Soviet Congress, and a few days before it, would be an inadmissible step, disastrous for the proletariat.746

This was, to put it mildly, a most serious breach of discipline. In presenting their arguments against the armed uprising, Kamenev and Zinoviev had given away to the enemy key party decisions on the insurrection, which were clearly meant to be top secret. Furious at this action, Lenin, in an uncharacteristic action, wrote an angry letter to the CC denouncing Kamenev and Zinoviev as strikebreakers and demanding their expulsion from the party.747 In fact, the Central Committee did not carry out Lenin’s proposal. Kamenev (but not Zinoviev) resigned from the CC, and both men were forbidden to make any further statements contrary to CC decisions. But they were neither expelled nor asked to recant their actions. The day of Stalinist confessions and forced recantations had not yet arrived. Despite the serious nature of their misdemeanor, it was not held against them. The day after the insurrection, Kamenev and Zinoviev presented themselves at the Bolshevik HQ and were given responsible positions in the party and the Soviet state.

The Kamenev-Zinoviev affair did not do lasting damage. The tide was already flowing strongly in the direction of an insurrection. In such conditions, the mistakes of the revolutionaries can normally be rectified by an intelligent leadership that keeps its head. But the converse is true in the camp of reaction. Beset with problems on all sides, trapped in a welter of contradictions, the politicians who yesterday could do no wrong, suddenly find they can do nothing right. That is the explanation of the oft-repeated comments about the “incapacity,” “obstinacy,” and “stupidity” of Kerensky, Tsar Nicholas, King Louis, Marie Antoinette and Charles I, and a long list of other, similar figures. The ancient Greeks used to say: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” But, on closer observation, this madness is rooted in the objective situation. A doomed social system results in a regime of crisis. In such regimes, the options are limited and the scope for error is multiplied a thousandfold. Given a favorable historical conjuncture, even fools and mediocrities can rule successfully (and frequently do). But when a regime and a social system is sick unto death, the talents of even the most able minister will not necessarily be enough to save it. Such regimes are inevitably riven with internal crises and splits at the top. One section of the ruling class tries to stave off disaster through concessions, while another tries to halt the rising tide of revolt by repression. The result is the appearance (and reality) of vacillation and incompetence. All of which does not mean that the quality of the revolutionary leadership is not important. Even the most favorable circumstances can be thrown away in wars and revolutions. Had Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin stood at the head of the Bolshevik Party instead of Lenin and Trotsky, the opportunity would undoubtedly have been thrown away. Then all those clever historians who now pontificate on the stupidity of Kerensky and Nicholas for not doing this or that would be writing their doctoral theses on how intelligent and farsighted they were, and how utopian were Lenin and Trotsky for imagining that the workers could have assumed power.

Accidents can certainly play a role in history, including mistakes, and a regime that is poised on the brink of an abyss is highly prone to making mistakes. The Provisional Government committed a first-class error in demanding the dispatch of two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison to the front. This was a clumsy attempt to weaken the revolutionary garrison in the capital, but instead it was a godsend to the Bolsheviks, for two reasons. Firstly, it caused a wave of indignation in the barracks, pushing even the most backward layers towards the Bolsheviks. Even those regiments that had participated in suppressing the July demonstrations passed resolutions condemning the Provisional Government and calling on the Soviets to take power. Secondly, it showed that the government was preparing to go onto the offensive against Red Petrograd. The revolution was entitled to take action in its own self-defense. This was something that every worker and soldier could understand. And it silenced the waverers in the ranks of the Bolsheviks. Even the reformist leaders, in spite of themselves, were being forced into semi-opposition to the government.

The Soviet Executive itself was forced to refuse to give its signature to this demand. The Bolsheviks led the agitation against it, and demanded the setting up of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, an official Soviet body which soon acquired enormous power and became practically the cutting edge of the October Revolution. The MRC appointed commissars to every store and arms depot without opposition. From then on, no arms could be moved without the permission of the Committee. Trotsky’s order to the Sestoretsky Small Arms factory for the issue of 5,000 rifles to the Red Guard provoked something like panic in bourgeois circles, which raised a hue and cry about the Bolsheviks massacring the bourgeois; but the rifles were issued anyway. Thus, the preparations for the insurrection were taking place under the very noses of the authorities who were powerless to prevent them.

Yet the number of Red Guards in Petrograd was very small. Estimates vary from 23,000 to as few as 12,000. Such a small force could never have defeated the full might of the old state apparatus. But the essence of the matter was the fact that the political work of the Bolsheviks in the nine months prior to October had succeeded in winning over the masses, and thereby also the decisive sections of the army. As the leading figure of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, Trotsky was personally responsible for winning over the Petrograd garrison, as Marcel Liebman points out:

On October 23 the leaders of the insurrection learned that the garrison of the fortress refused to recognize the authority of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Antonov-Ovseyenko proposed to send in a revolutionary battalion to disarm the garrison and take its place. Trotsky, however, urged that, instead of this risky operation, a more typically Bolshevik and socialist method be employed, that of political agitation. He went in person to the fortress, called a general meeting of the soldiers, addressed them, won them over, and persuaded them to pass a resolution announcing their readiness to overthrow the Provisional Government.

While the military preparation of the rising left much to be desired, its political preparation, during the last few days and hours before it began, was intense and exemplary. The regiments stationed in the capital rallied to the insurrection after listening to fiery speeches by Bolshevik delegates; the great meeting halls of Petrograd, such as the Modern Circus, were never empty, and Bolshevik speakers (Trotsky outstandingly) used them to maintain or revive the revolutionary ardor of the workers, sailors, and soldiers. The whole of October was, in Petrograd and in the provinces alike, a period of ceaseless political activity: the Soviets of the various regions assembled in conferences and congresses; the Bolshevik Party, which had been obliged to postpone an extraordinary congress fixed for the end of the month, did the same. In October 1917 the permanent revolution took concrete form in a permanent debate. And if the masses took no direct part in the insurrection, this was, in the last analysis, because there was no need for them to do so. Their rallying to the Bolsheviks’ policy had been able to find other means of expression, appropriate to the proletarian and democratic character of the enterprise, and to socialist tradition.748

It seems a paradox that, compared to all the preparatory work that went on before, the actual seizure of power seems almost like an afterthought. In his monumental work, The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky describes in detail the ease in which Petrograd was taken. The peaceful nature of the revolution was ensured by the fact that the Bolsheviks, under Trotsky’s leadership, had already won over the Petrograd garrison. In the chapter “The Conquest of the Capital,” he explains the manner in which the workers took control of the key Peter and Paul fortress:

All the troops of the fortress garrison accepted the arrest of the commandant with complete satisfaction, but the bicycle men bore themselves evasively. What lay concealed behind their sulky silence: a hidden hostility or the last waverings? “We decided to hold a special meeting for the bicycle men,” writes Blagonravov, “and invite our best agitational forces, and above all Trotsky, who had enormous authority and influence over the soldier masses.” At four o’clock in the afternoon the whole battalion met in the neighboring building of the Cirque Moderne. As governmental opponent, Quartermaster-General Poradelov, considered to be a Social-Revolutionary, took the floor. His objections were so cautious as to seem equivocal; and so much the more destructive was the attack of the Committee’s representatives. This supplementary oratorical battle for the Peter and Paul fortress ended as might have been foreseen: by all voices except 30 the battalion supported the resolution of Trotsky. One more of the potential bloody conflicts was settled before the fighting and without bloodshed. That was the October insurrection. Such was its style.749

From the beginning Lenin insisted that the insurrection must take place on the basis of the mass movement. Shortly before the October Revolution he wrote that the “insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class . . . Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people.750


746 Protokoly Tsentral’nogo Komiteta RSDRP b, 116.

747 See LCW, Letter to the CC of the RSDLP(B), vol. 26, 223–27.

748 Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 179–80.

749 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, 211–12 (my emphasis).

750 LCW, Marxism and Insurrection, vol. 26, 22.

138) Was October a Coup?

Bourgeois critics of Bolshevism frequently describe the October Revolution as a coup. That argument is false to the core. The revolution took place over nine months, during which the Bolshevik Party, using the most democratic means, won over the decisive majority of the workers and poor peasants. The fact that they succeeded so easily in overcoming the resistance of the Kerensky forces can only be explained by this fact. Moreover, as we shall see, there is no way that the Bolsheviks could have held onto power, without the support of the overwhelming majority of society. At every stage, the decisive role was played by the active intervention of the masses. This is what set its stamp on the whole process. The ruling class and its political and military representatives could only grind their teeth, but were powerless to prevent power from slipping from their hands. True, they were involved in constant conspiracies against the revolution, including the armed uprising of General Kornilov, which aimed at overthrowing Kerensky and instituting a military dictatorship, but all of this foundered on the movement of the masses.

The fact that the masses supported the Bolsheviks was accepted by everyone at the time, including the staunchest enemies of the revolution. Naturally, they put this down to all kinds of malign influences, “demagogy,” the immaturity of the workers and peasants, their supposed ignorance, and all the rest of the arguments which are essentially directed against democracy itself. How it came about that the masses only became ignorant and immature when they ceased to support the Provisional Government must be one of the greatest mysteries since Saint Paul saw the light on the road to Damascus. But if we leave aside the obvious motivation of spitefulness, malice, and impotent rage, we can see that the following passage from a right-wing paper constitutes a valuable admission that the Bolsheviks indeed enjoyed the support of the masses. On October 28, Russkaya Volya wrote the following:

“What are the chances of Bolshevik success? It is difficult to answer that question, for their principal support is the . . . ignorance of the popular masses. They speculate on it, they work upon it by a demagogy which nothing can stop.”751

It is impossible to understand what happened in 1917 without seeing the fundamental role of the masses. The same is true of the French Revolution of 1789–94, a fact which historians frequently fail to grasp (there are exceptions, notably the anarchist Kropotkin, and, in our own times, George Rudé). But here for the first time in history, if we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, the working class actually succeeded in taking power and at least beginning the socialist transformation of society. That is precisely why the enemies of socialism are compelled to lie about the October Revolution and slander it. They cannot forgive Lenin and the Bolsheviks for having succeeded in leading the first successful socialist revolution, for proving that such a thing is possible, and therefore pointing the way for future generations. Such a precedent is dangerous! It is therefore necessary to “prove” (with the assistance of the usual crew of “objective” academics) that this was all a very bad business, and must not be repeated.

The claim that the October Revolution was only a coup is often justified by pointing to the relatively small numbers actually involved in the insurrection itself. This apparently profound argument does not resist the slightest scrutiny. In the first place, it confuses the armed insurrection with the revolution, that is to say, it confuses the part with the whole. In reality, the insurrection is only a part of the revolution—a very important part, it is true. Trotsky likens it to the crest of a wave. As a matter of fact, the amount of fighting that took place in Petrograd was very small. One can say that it was bloodless. The reason for this was that nine-tenths of the tasks were already accomplished beforehand, by winning over the decisive majority of the workers and soldiers. It was still necessary to use armed force to overcome the resistance of the old order. No ruling class has ever surrendered power without a fight. But resistance was minimal. The government collapsed like a house of cards, because nobody was prepared to defend it.

In Moscow, mainly because of the mistakes of the local Bolsheviks, who did not act with sufficient energy, the counterrevolutionary Junkers initially went onto the offensive and carried out a massacre. Despite this, incredibly, they were allowed to go free on giving their word that they would not participate in any further violent acts against the Soviet power. This kind of thing was quite typical of the early days of the revolution, characterized by a certain naïvety on the part of the masses who had yet to understand what terrible violence the defenders of the old order were capable. Far from being a bloodthirsty regime of terror, the revolution was an extraordinarily benign affair—until the counterrevolution showed its real nature. The White General Krasnov was one of the first to lead an uprising against the Bolsheviks at the head of the Cossacks. He was defeated by the Red Guards and handed over by his own Cossacks, but again was released on parole. Of this Victor Serge writes correctly:

The revolution made the mistake of showing magnanimity to the leader of the Cossack attack. He should have been shot on the spot. At the end of a few days he recovered his liberty, after giving his word of honor never to take up arms again against the revolution. But what value can promises of honor have towards enemies of fatherland and property? He was to go off to put the Don region to fire and the sword.752

Do the relatively small numbers involved in the actual fighting mean that the October overturn was a coup? There are many similarities between the class war and war between nations. In the latter too, only a very small proportion of the population are in the armed forces. And only a small minority of the army is at the front. Of the latter, even in the course of a major battle, only a minority of the soldiers are normally engaged in fighting at any given time. Experienced soldiers know that a lot of time is spent waiting in idleness, even during a battle. Very often the reserves are never called into action. But without the reserves, no responsible general would order an advance. Moreover, it is not possible to wage war successfully without the wholehearted support of the population at home, even though they do not directly participate in the fighting. This lesson was carved on the nose of the Pentagon in the latter stages of the Vietnam war.

The awakening of the masses, their active participation, their initiative and creative power, lies at the heart of every great revolution. It was displayed in a truly spectacular fashion in the nine months that separated the February from the October Revolution. Time and time again, in February, in May, in June, in July, in September, the masses moved to transform society. If they did not immediately succeed, that was not for lack of trying, but because every time they were thrown back by their leaders, who stubbornly refused to take the power when it was presented to them on a plate. How many times since then have we seen the same thing? In Germany in 1918, 1920, and 1923; in Britain in 1926 and 1945; in Spain in 1936; in France in 1936 and again in 1968; in Portugal in 1974–75; in Italy in 1919–20, in 1943 and in 1969, and throughout the 1970s; in Pakistan in 1968–69; in Chile in 1970–73, and in many other countries throughout the world. In every case, after the leadership has thrown away the possibility of changing society even by peaceful means and prepared the victory of reaction, the same cynics wheel out the same tired old arguments: that the objective situation was not ripe; that the balance of forces was unfavorable; that the masses were not ready; that the state was too strong, and so on and so forth. The blame for defeat is always placed at the feet of the soldiers who fought, but never on the generals who refused to lead. And if, instead of Lenin and Trotsky, the leadership of the Bolshevik Party had been in the hands of Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, these same ladies and gentlemen would now be writing, with an impressive battery of facts, how the Russian Revolution was doomed to defeat from the beginning, on account of the hopelessness of the objective situation, the unfavorable class balance of forces, and the “immaturity” of the masses.

Actually, the masses displayed the greatest maturity and initiative, as they do in every revolution. The awakening of the masses, their high level of consciousness, their newly found pride in themselves as thinking human beings is manifested in a thousand ways. It is best revealed, not by dry statistics, but precisely by anecdotes which bring the statistics to life, like the one cited by that most perceptive observer of the Russian Revolution, John Reed:

All around them great Russia was in travail, bearing a new world. The servants one used to treat like animals and pay next to nothing, were getting independent. A pair of shoes cost more than 100 rubles, and as wages averaged about 35 rubles a month the servants refused to stand in queue and wear out their shoes. But more than that. In the new Russia every man and woman could vote; there were working-class newspapers, saying new and startling things; there were the Soviets; and there were the Unions. The izvoshchiki (cabdrivers) had a Union; they were also represented in the Petrograd Soviet. The waiters and hotel servants were organized, and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read “No tips taken here” or, “Just because a man has to make his living waiting on table is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip.”753

The argument that the Bolsheviks were able to take power without the masses (a coup) is usually linked to the idea that power was seized, not by the working class, but by a party. Again, this argument is entirely false. Without organization—the trade unions and the party—the working class is only raw material for exploitation. This was already pointed out by Marx long ago. True, the proletariat possesses enormous power. Not a wheel turns, not a light bulb shines, without its permission. But without organization, this power remains as just potential. In the same way, steam is a colossal force, but without a piston box, it will be harmlessly dissipated into the air. In order that the strength of the working class should cease to be a mere potential and become a reality, it must be organized and concentrated in a single point. This can only be done through a political party with a courageous and farsighted leadership and a correct program. The Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, was such a party. Basing themselves on the magnificent movement of the masses, they gave it form, purpose and a voice. That is its cardinal sin from the standpoint of the ruling class and its echoes in the labor movement. That is what lies behind their hatred and loathing of Bolshevism, their vitriol and spiteful attitude towards it, which completely conditions their attitude even three generations later.

Far from moving behind the backs of the masses, the Bolsheviks were the party that gave a conscious expression to the strivings of the working class to change society. As a matter of fact, throughout the course of 1917, if anything, the party often lagged behind the revolutionary mood of the masses, a fact that was quickly grasped by Lenin, and which is clear from countless sources, like the following extract from the memoirs of a prominent Bolshevik activist, the sailor Raskolnikov, who recalls a mass meeting of soldiers which he addressed shortly before the insurrection:

I was amazed at the militant mood of revolutionary impatience I found at this meeting. I felt that every one of these thousands of soldiers and workers was ready at any moment to take to the streets, arms in hand. Their ebullient feelings, their seething hatred of the Provisional Government was not at all disposed towards passivity. Only at Kronstadt, on the eve of the July affair, had I observed a similar ferment of revolutionary passion yearning for action. This still further strengthened my profound conviction that the cause of the proletarian revolution was on the right road.754

It is necessary to add that at every stage the Bolsheviks always had before them the perspective of the international revolution. They never believed that they could hold power in Russia alone. This burning spirit of internationalism runs like a red thread through all the writings and speeches of Lenin. As late as October 24, Lenin wrote to the party leaders an impassioned call to action:

With all my might, I urge comrades to realize that everything now hangs by a thread; that we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by conferences or congresses (even congresses of Soviets), but exclusively by peoples, by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people.755


751 Quoted in J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, 298 (my emphasis).

752 Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, 87.

753 Reed, Ten Days, 14.

754 Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, 266.

755 LCW, Letter to Central Committee Members, vol. 26, 234.

139) The Triumph of Bolshevism

The actual seizure of power passed off so smoothly that many did not realize it had taken place. For this reason, the enemies of the October Revolution present it as a coup. In fact, there are two reasons why it went so smoothly—one technical, the other political. The technical preparations for the final offensive were meticulously carried out by the Military Revolutionary Committee under the leadership of Trotsky. The basic rule, as always in warfare, was to concentrate, at the decisive moment and at the decisive point, an overwhelming superiority of force, and then strike hard. But this did not exhaust the question of tactics in the insurrection. The element of surprise and of manoeuvering to deceive the enemy as to the real intentions of the revolutionaries played a role here, as in any other kind of military operation. Every step was presented as a defensive move, but in practice, the character of the insurrection was necessarily offensive, moving swiftly to take one position after another, taking the enemy unawares and off guard.

But the real reason why the insurrection was carried off so quickly and almost painlessly was neither military nor technical, but political. Nine-tenths of the work of the insurrection had already been accomplished beforehand—by winning a clear majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. In the moment of truth, the Provisional Government, like the tsarist regime in February, had no one to defend it. The real position at the moment of the insurrection is shown by the statements of one of the main players—Kerensky. In an extract pregnant with unconscious irony, he writes:

The night of October 24–25 was a time of tense expectation. We were waiting for troops to arrive from the front. They had been summoned by me in good time and were due in Petrograd on the morning of October 25. But instead of the troops, all we got were telegrams and telephone messages saying that the railways were being sabotaged.

By morning (October 25) the troops had not yet arrived. The central telephone exchange, post office, and most of the government offices were occupied by detachments of Red Guards. The building that housed the Council of the Republic, which only the day before had been the scene of an endless and stupid discussion, had also been occupied by Red sentries.756

The same Kerensky who had earlier boasted to the British ambassador that he was just waiting for the Bolsheviks to make a move, in order to put them down, now found himself with no troops to do the job and was obliged to flee Petrograd in a car graciously lent by the American embassy.

This is not the place to repeat the history of the insurrection, which is sufficiently well known from the writings of John Reed and Leon Trotsky. What is astonishing about the October Revolution is the degree to which it was played out in the full glare of public attention. If people were not aware that the Bolsheviks intended to take power, then the public declarations of Kamenev and Zinoviev would soon have alerted them to the fact. The French paper Entente, published in Petrograd on November 15, one week after the revolution, commented:

“The Government of Kerensky discusses and hesitates. The Government of Lenin and Trotsky attacks and acts.

“This last is called a Government of Conspirators, but that is wrong. Government of usurpers, yes, like all revolutionary Governments which triumph over their adversaries. Conspirators—no!

“No! They did not conspire. On the contrary, openly, audaciously, without mincing words, without dissimulating their intentions, they multiplied their agitation, intensified their propaganda in the factories, the barracks, at the Front, in the country, everywhere, even fixing in advance the date of their taking up arms, the date of their seizure of the power . . .

They—conspirators? Never . . .”757

Towards the evening of October 24, groups of Red Guards began to occupy the print shops of the bourgeois press, where they printed large numbers of revolutionary proclamations as well as Bolshevik papers like Rabochy Put’ and Soldat. Soldiers ordered to attack the printshops refused to obey orders. This was the general picture in Petrograd. Resistance was practically nonexistent. As sleepy delegates to the Congress watched from doorways—some with alarm, others with expectation—detachments of soldiers and sailors departed from the Smolny Palace to key points of the city. By one o’clock in the morning, they had occupied the telegraph agency. Half an hour later, the post office was taken. At five o’clock, the telephone exchange followed. By ten o’clock in the morning, a cordon was thrown around the Winter Palace, where some resistance was anticipated. In point of fact, it fell, not with a bang, but a whimper.

The October insurrection merely legitimized what was a self-evident reality. Everyone knew that the Bolsheviks and their allies would have a decisive majority at the Congress of Soviets. The decision was therefore made that the insurrection should coincide with the opening of the Congress. The formal aspect here quite clearly had to take second place to the exigencies of a military operation. The notion that the question of an armed uprising should be determined by the result of a public debate in the Congress is as ludicrous as would be the demand that the plans for battle should be publicly debated in parliament in time of war. Anyone who demanded such a thing would undoubtedly be branded a traitor and probably locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane. Yet such considerations do not prevent the critics of October from complaining that Lenin and Trotsky did not wait for the formal approval of the Congress of Soviets before launching the offensive. Such arguments are without a shred of validity. The opinion of the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers was already well known: that the Soviets should take power. That question had been settled in advance, and the Congress simply put a stamp on it. Once this central question was resolved, the issue of when and how the rising should be carried out—a purely technical and military decision—had to be determined by the appropriate bodies, in this case the Military Revolutionary Committee, according to the rules, not of formal democracy, but of war.

At 2.35 p.m., Trotsky opened an emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet. Stepping up to the tribune, he shouted the words everyone had been waiting for:

“On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists! Long live the Military Revolutionary Committee!” One after another, he listed the conquests of the insurrection, pausing only to explain the situation of the Winter Palace:

“The Winter Palace has not been taken, but its fate will be decided momentarily . . . In the history of the revolutionary movement I know of no other examples in which such huge masses were involved and which developed so bloodlessly. The power of the Provisional Government headed by Kerensky, was dead and awaited the blow of the broom of history which had to sweep it away . . . The population slept peacefully and did not know that at this time one power was replaced by another.”758

At that point, Lenin entered the hall, still disguised as a workman. In the middle of his speech, Trotsky paused and turned to the man to whom he was now completely united as a comrade-in-arms. All the differences of the past forgotten in the heat of struggle. “Long live Comrade Lenin, back with us again,” were Trotsky’s words as he ceded the speakers’ platform to Lenin, who now addressed the delegates for the first time. In his historic speech to the Congress of Soviets on October 25, 1917, he said:

Comrades, the workers’ and peasants’ revolution, about the necessity of which the Bolsheviks have always spoken, has been accomplished.

What is the significance of this workers’ and peasants’ revolution? Its significance is, first of all, that we shall have a Soviet government, our own organ of power, in which the bourgeoisie will have no share whatsoever. The oppressed masses will themselves create a power. The old state apparatus will be shattered to its foundations and a new administrative apparatus set up in the form of the Soviet organizations.

From now on, a new phase in the history of Russia begins, and this, the third Russian Revolution, should in the end lead to the victory of socialism.

One of our urgent tasks is to put an immediate end to the war. It is clear to everybody that in order to end this war, which is closely bound up with the present capitalist system, capital itself must be fought.

We shall be helped in this by the world working-class movement, which is already beginning to develop in Italy, Britain and Germany.

The proposal we make to international democracy for a just and immediate peace will everywhere awaken an ardent response among the international proletarian masses. All the secret treaties must be immediately published in order to strengthen the confidence of the proletariat.

Within Russia a huge section of the peasantry have said that they have played long enough with the capitalists, and will now march with the workers. A single decree putting an end to landed proprietorship will win us the confidence of the peasants. The peasants will understand that the salvation of the peasantry lies only in an alliance with the workers. We shall institute genuine workers’ control over production.

We have now learned to make a concerted effort. The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organization, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.

We must now set about building a proletarian socialist state in Russia.

Long live the world socialist revolution! (stormy applause.)[759]


[756] Kerensky, Memoirs, 437.

[757] Quoted by John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World, 107.

[758] Quoted in A. Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power, 278.

[759] LCW, Meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, October 25 (November 7), 1917, vol. 26, 239–40.

140) The Struggle at the Congress

To all intents and purposes, the insurrection had triumphed. The only goal that had not yet been achieved was the taking of the Winter Palace, which remained in the hands of forces loyal to the government. Lenin, who had hoped that the uprising would all be over before the opening of the Congress of Soviets, displayed his impatience at the delay, which was caused by the inexperience of the insurrectionists. The political preparations for the uprising had been carried out with far greater professionalism than the technical side, which was far from perfect. There were many organizational defects. Troops arrived late because a locomotive had burst its pipes, the shells for the assault cannon proved to be the wrong size, they could not find a red lantern to signal the start of the attack, and so on. But in the end, none of this was decisive. Such anecdotes belong to the category of historical accidents. What was decisive was the winning over of the masses which left the Provisional Government isolated and defenseless in the moment of truth. Thus, although there were originally 3,000 defenders inside the Winter Palace, they just melted away in the course of the night. The real situation was understood by the commanding officers inside. A council of war was convened, at which Admiral Verderevsky made the most pertinent observation: “I don’t know why this session was called,” he said. “We have no tangible military force and consequently are incapable of taking any action whatever.”

The taking of the Winter Palace was a bloodless affair, more akin to a police operation. When warning shots were fired from the cruiser Aurora, the garrison simply melted away into the night. The Right SR Minister of Agriculture, Semyon Maslov, rang the Duma in a state of despair:

“The democracy sent us into the Provisional Government; we didn’t want the appointments, but we went. Yet now, when tragedy has struck, when we are being shot, we are not supported by anyone.”[760]

When the assault was finally launched, there was no resistance. At about 2 a.m., while the tired and demoralized members of the Provisional Government waited around the table, the door burst open and, in the words of one of those present:

“A little man flew into the room, like a chip tossed by a wave, under the pressure of the mob which poured in and spread at once, like water filling all corners of the room.”

The little man was Antonov-Ovseyenko of the Military Revolutionary Committee. “The Provisional Government is here—what do you want?” asked the Minister Konovalov. “You are all under arrest,” came the peremptory reply.

The start of the Congress of Soviets had been scheduled for 2 p.m., but was delayed, finally opening its doors at 10.40 p.m., while the siege of the Winter Palace was still in progress. The debates were occasionally punctuated by the sound of gunfire. Inside the Congress, a dramatic scene was being played out.

“It had been a momentous session,” wrote John Reed. “In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee Trotsky had declared that the Provisional Government no longer existed.

“The characteristic of bourgeois governments,” he said, “is to deceive the people. We, the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, are going to try an experiment unique in history; we are going to found a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers, and peasants.”

The voting strength at the Congress gave the Bolsheviks and their Left SR allies a clear majority. Out of a total of 670 delegates, there were 300 Bolsheviks, 193 SRs—of whom more than half were Lefts—and 82 Mensheviks—of whom 14 were Internationalists. As we have seen, the Bolsheviks had a crushing domination in the key industrial centers in the north and west. And their support was still growing. The congress opened with the election of the Soviet presidium. The Bolsheviks presented a joint slate with the Left SRs and Menshevik Internationalists. The result was: 14 Bolsheviks, seven SRs, and four Mensheviks. However, the latter refused to take the seats allocated to them. The overwhelming majority of the Congress voted for the formation of a Soviet government.

The indignation of the Mensheviks and SRs knew no bounds. When Trotsky announced that the insurrection had triumphed, that troops loyal to the Provisional Government were advancing against Petrograd, and that a delegation must be sent to them to tell them the truth, there were howls of “You are anticipating the will of the Congress of Soviets!” But the time for formal niceties was long past. Trotsky answered coldly: “The will of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets has been anticipated by the rising of the Petrograd workers and soldiers.”

The Mensheviks and SRs were not alone in their opposition to the uprising. Even at this late hour, the Bolshevik Conciliators were still against taking power. John Reed reports a momentary encounter with Riazanov, the vice chairman of the trade unions, “looking black and biting his grey beard. ‘It’s insane! Insane!’ he shouted. ‘The European working class won’t move! All Russia—He waved his hand distractedly and ran off.” Martov, now a very sick man, maintained his vacillations right to the end. Lenin’s hopes that he would at last find his way to the revolutionary camp proved futile. Martov insisted on the formation of a coalition government with the right-wing socialist leaders “in order to prevent civil war.” This proposal would, in effect, have nullified the insurrection and put the clock back to where it had been before. Such an outcome was unthinkable. Lenin and Trotsky were both against it, but the conciliators were in favor. On behalf of the Bolshevik contingent, Lunacharsky announced that he had nothing against the proposal, which was actually passed. But the Mensheviks immediately revealed the complete hollowness of the proposal by denouncing the overthrow of the Provisional Government, and walking out of the Congress. As they walked out, in the midst of jeers and whistles from the delegates, Trotsky’s voice thundered after them:

All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki, Socialist Revolutionaries, Bund—let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history![761]

The victory of the insurrection was not the final episode of the Bolshevik Revolution. The forces of reaction rallied and attempted a counterattack which was defeated. Then a bloody civil war was unleashed against the Bolsheviks that lasted another four years. In this conflict the Soviet power was confronted with the might of world imperialism in the shape of 21 foreign armies of intervention. At one point, all the territory that remained in the hands of the Bolsheviks was the area around Moscow and Petrograd—approximately equivalent to the old Muscovy. Yet one by one the enemies of the revolution were thrown back. From the shattered remnants of the old tsarist army Trotsky fashioned a new proletarian force, the Red Army, which astonished the world with its victories. The heroism, organization, and discipline of the Red Army were the key to victory, but it could never have succeeded without the internationalist appeal of the Bolshevik Revolution. Through the medium of the Communist International, Lenin and Trotsky issued an appeal to the workers of the world, which was taken up with enthusiasm. The British dockers refused to load arms ships bound to counterrevolutionary Poland. There were mutinies in every one of the armies dispatched against the Bolsheviks. Against all expectations, the Soviet power survived to show the world for the first time that it is possible to run society without private capitalists, bankers, and landowners. It is true that, under conditions of terrible economic and cultural backwardness, the Russian Revolution suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration. But not before it had provided a spectacular proof of the tremendous potential of a nationalized planned economy.

The historic ascent of humanity taken as a whole, may be summarized as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces—in nature, in society, in man himself. Critical and creative thought can boast of its greatest victories up to now in the struggle with nature. The physico-chemical sciences have already reached a point where man is clearly about to become master of matter. But social relations are still forming in the manner of the coral islands. Parliamentarism illumined only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave-dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October Revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned.[762]

We will leave the final word to a great revolutionary who has too often been falsely portrayed as an implacable opponent of Lenin and Bolshevism. From her prison cell in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg greeted the October Revolution with the following words:

Only a party which knows how to lead, that is, to advance things, wins support in stormy times. The determination with which, at the decisive moment, Lenin and his comrades offered the only solution which could advance things (“all power in the hands of the proletariat and peasantry”), transformed them almost overnight from a persecuted, slandered, outlawed minority whose leader had to hide like Marat in cellars, into the absolute master of the situation.

Moreover, the Bolsheviks immediately set as the aim of this seizure of power a complete, far-reaching revolutionary program: not the safeguarding of bourgeois democracy, but a dictatorship of the proletariat for the purpose of realizing socialism. Thereby they won for themselves the imperishable historic distinction of having for the first time proclaimed the final aim of socialism as the direct program of practical politics.

Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary farsightedness and consistency in a historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which Western Social Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.”

Rosa Luxemburg’s final judgment on the Bolshevik Party can stand as the last word of the history of the greatest revolutionary party in history:

What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”[763]


[760] Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks to Power, 284 and 290 (my emphasis).

[761] Reed, Ten Days, 122–23, 123, and 131.

[762] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 1191.

[763] Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 39–40 and 80.