Leon Trotsky and revolutionary insurrection




[See also Doug Enaa Greene’s «Day of the people: Gracchus Babeuf and the communist idea«.]

By Doug Enaa Greene

December 15, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — «The entire labor of practical organization of the insurrection was placed under the immediate direction of the president of the Petrograd Soviet, comrade Trotsky. It can be stated with certainty, that the party owes the rapid coming over of the garrison into the camp of the soviets and the skillful work of the Revolutionary Military Committee above all and essentially to Comrade Trotsky.»[1]

Ironically, this recognition of Trotsky’s role as the main organizer of the successful October Revolution was made by Stalin (who would become Trotsky’s bitter opponent in the 1920s).

In 1917, Trotsky’s role in the Bolshevik revolution was widely recognized by friend and foe alike. Yet Trotsky as a theorist and practitioner of insurrection has taken a back seat to discussion of his theories of permanent revolution, analyzes of the USSR under Stalin and his historical texts.

However, Trotsky was one of the most serious Marxist military thinkers and practitioners in the art of revolutionary insurrection (his contribution to the development of the Red Army will not be discussed here). In a number of works, Trotsky laid out the political, social and military conditions which allowed the October Revolution successful – a revolutionary situation resulting in a situation of dual power that produces splits in the ruling class and the army, a vanguard party guided by Marxist theory which is connected to the masses, and a party which carefully plans out the seizure of power and acts boldly in executing it. Trotsky also recognized that the vanguard party would often find itself lagging behind the masses in a revolutionary situation and that the leadership of the party will split as the moment of insurrection approaches.

I. The revolutionary situation

For Trotsky, it was axiomatic that the working class had to seize state power by violent means. As he said in the 1937 work, the Lessons of Spain criticizing anarchism: «To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest power.»[2] Trotsky’s revolutionary practice in 1917 was to develop the means by which the proletariat could victoriously seize state power.

Yet Trotsky did not believe that the working class could seize power at just any moment. For him, it was necessary that a revolutionary situation has developed in a country. In Russia of 1917, Trotsky identified the following factors which allowed the triumph of Bolshevism:

The rotting away of the old ruling classes-the nobility, the monarchy, the bureaucracy. The political weakness of the bourgeoisie, which had no roots in the masses of the people. The revolutionary character of the agrarian question. The revolutionary character of the problem of the oppressed nationalities. The significant social burdens weighing on the proletariat.

To these organic preconditions must be added certain highly important connected conditions. The Revolution of 1905 was the great school or in Lenin’s phrase, «the dress rehearsal» of the Revolution of 1917. The Soviet’s as the irreplaceable organisational form of the proletarian united front in the Revolution were created for the first time in the year 1905. The imperialist war sharpened all the contradictions, tore the backward masses out of their immobility, and thus prepared the grandiose scale of the catastrophe.[3]

Trotsky argued that during a revolutionary situation, the oppressed class has “actually concentrated in its hands a. significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in. the hands of the old lords. That is the initial dual power in every revolution.”[4] During a dual power situation, the ruling class, in the main, still controls the state apparatus and its armed bodies. Yet as the crisis matures, sovereignty splits as the oppressed classes gain some measure of power in organs answerable to their own interests – in the Russian Revolution of 1917 the soviets (councils) were bodies of mass democracy which represented the interests of the popular masses (we will discuss the role of the soviets in revolutionary insurrection below). Trotsky says a dual power situation is by its very nature unstable: “Society needs a concentration of power, and in the person of the ruling class-or, in the situation we are discussing, the two half-ruling classes-irresistibly strives to get it. The splitting of sovereignty foretells nothing less than civil war.”[5] In the end, one class or another is going to come out on top. The question for Trotsky, was how the workers were supposed to win.

II. The party and the masses

While Trotsky believed it a correct appraisal of a revolutionary situation was necessary for the seizure of power, he did not believe that a spontaneous uprising of the masses could succeed. A political instrument in the shape of a revolutionary communist party was needed to win. For example, he described the the role of the Bolshevik Party in the October Revolution as follows: “It learned to recognise the class mechanics of society in its struggles during the events of twelve years (1905-1917). It educated groups equally capable of initiative and of subordination. The discipline of its revolutionary action was based on the unity of its doctrine, on the tradition of common struggles and on confidence in its tested leadership.”[6] Trotsky, like Lenin (but unlike Blanqui) believed that the party which seized power could not a small elite group cut off from the masses. On the contrary, in order to correctly analyze whether the situation was revolutionary, the party had to be intimately connected with the masses.

In discussing the lessons Paris Commune, Trotsky believed that the lack of a party was crucial. He describes the role of the party in a revolution as follows:

The party does not create the revolution at will, it does not choose the moment for seizing power as it likes, but it intervenes actively in the events, penetrates at every moment the state of mind of the revolutionary masses and evaluates the power of resistance of the enemy, and thus determines the most favorable moment for decisive action. This is the most difficult side of its task. The party has no decision that is valid for every case. Needed are a correct theory, an intimate contact with the masses, the comprehension of the situation, a revolutionary perception, a great resoluteness. The more profoundly a revolutionary party penetrates into all the domains of the proletarian struggle, the more unified it is by the unity of goal and discipline, the speedier and better will it arrive at resolving its task.[7]

As should be clear, Trotsky does not the deny the role of the working class in the revolution. Quite the contrary. He is emphatic that “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.”[8] However, a spontaneous revolution cannot succeed, but needs a party or an organization to the energy of the masses toward the seizure of power, otherwise it will dissipate. Trotsky describes the role of the party and the masses with this colorful metaphor: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”[9]

Although the masses make the revolution, there are still the backward and the intermediate along with the advanced. Trotsky recognized that ideas of the masses can swiftly change in a revolutionary situation. “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.’”[10]

However, as the situation develops and the people’s illusions are shattered by events and as they learn through struggle, a transformation takes place in the consciousness of the masses. Trotsky describes this process, using the example of a strike: “The working masses, of course, are also heterogeneous. But they have immeasurably more opportunity for testing their ranks in the process of preparation for the decisive encounter. Strikes, meetings, demonstrations, are not only acts in the struggle, but also measures of its force. The whole mass does not participate in the strike. Not all the strikers are ready to fight. In the sharpest moments the most daring appear in the streets. The hesitant, the tired, the conservative, sit at home. Here a revolutionary selection takes place of itself; people are sifted through the sieve of events.”[11]

Thus, the party, having correctly analyzed the revolutionary situation unites with masses, and channels their energy toward the seizure of power. Victor Serge describes the relation of the party and the masses:

The rebel masses of Russia in 1917 rose to a clear consciousness of their necessary tasks, of their means and the objectives, through the organ of the Bolshevik party. This is not a theory, it is a statement of the facts. In this situation we can see, in superb relief, the relations that obtain between the party, the working class and the toiling masses in general … it is what they all want without having the power to express their hopes firmly, to match them against the economic and the political realities, to formulate the most practical aims and choose the best means of attaining them, to select the most favourable moment for action, to extend the action from one end of the country to the other, to provide the exchanges of information and the necessary discipline, to co-ordinate the innumerable separate efforts that are going on – it is what they really want, without being able to constitute themselves into (in a word) a force of the requisite intelligence, training, will and myriad energy. What they want, then, the party expresses at a conscious level, and then carries out. The party reveals to them what they have been thinking. It is the bond which unites them from one end of the country to the other. The party is their consciousness, their organization.[12]

III. The army

Even in a situation of dual power, when the legitimacy and power of the ruling class is fracturing, the rulers still possess overwhelming repressive force in the shape of the army. Trotsky summed up this problem by saying: “There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the disposition of the army. Against a numerous, disciplined, well-armed and ably led military force, unarmed or almost unarmed masses of the people cannot possibly gain a victory.”[13] This meant that for the revolution to succeed, it was necessary to split the army.

Yet the development of a revolutionary situation such as in 1917, can not but effect the armed forces. During World War, not only did millions of soldiers die, but they were poorly, poorly supplied with arms, and lacking a modern a communication and transport system. The Tsarist Army was the product of Russia’s industrial backwardness and autocracy and was no match for an industrial giant such as Germany. These factors, combined with defeats at the front played an important part in breaking up the army and the collapse of the autocracy and the Provisional Government.

In terms of its class composition, the Russian army was made up largely of peasants, who were hungering for land and tired of the bloody war. After the February Revolution, the Russian bourgeoisie and the Provisional Government showed no interest in giving land to the peasantry or in ending the war. Rather, they continued to launch bloody offensives and to keep putting off land redistribution. Trotsky described the development of the peasant movement in 1917 as one of moving from crude forms of bargaining to fierce violence: “During the first months even direct seizures of various appurtenances wore the aspect of bargains mitigated and camouflaged by the compromisist institutions. Now the legal mask falls away. Every branch of the movement assumes a more audacious character. From various forms and degrees of pressure, the peasants are now passing over to violent seizures of the various parts of the landlord’s business, to the extermination of the nests of the gentility, the burning of manors, even the murder of proprietors and overseers.”[14]

While bourgeois parties defended the rights of the landlords, even traditional peasant parties, such as the Social Revolutionaries, shrunk away from demanding land to the tiller. It was only the Bolsheviks who stood squarely for land to the peasantry. Although the Bolsheviks had little base in the countryside at the beginning of 1917, as the situation matured the peasantry came around to their banner. “The general agitation of the Bolsheviks undoubtedly nourished the civil war in the country. But wherever the Bolsheviks had succeeded in putting down firm roots, they naturally tried, without weakening the assault of the peasants, to regulate its forms and decrease the amount of destruction.”[15] The Bolsheviks were thus not an isolated urban party, but developed significant links to the countryside. And the Bolshevik championing of the agrarian revolt helped to push them toward the decisive seizure of power based on a majority bloc of the oppressed classes. The victory of the October Revolution thus “created the revolutionary framework for the struggle of the peasantry against the landlords and the officials.”[16]

The Bolshevik agitation for land (and an end to the imperialist war) could not but have an eroding effect on the Russian Army. Trotsky recognized that it was necessary for revolutionaries to agitate among the army, splitting the armed forces. As early as 1905, Trotsky laid out the problems involved in splitting the armed forces:

The army’s political mood, that great unknown of every revolution, can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people. The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army; only a minority is consciously revolutionary, while the majority’ hesitates and awaits an impulse from outside. This majority is capable of laying down its arms or, eventually, of pointing its bayonets at the reaction only if it begins to believe in the possibility of a people’s victory.[17]

Thus, the task of fanning the flames of discontent entailed the greatest audacity and courage among the revolutionary party and masses.

Trotsky, never one for pacifist delusions, did not believe that the task of splitting the army “can take the form of a peaceful, spontaneous manifestation. The ruling classes, confronted with the question of their own life or death, never willingly surrender their positions because of theoretical considerations concerning the class composition of the army.”[18] The ruling class would engage in a fight to the finish before letting the army reach such a state of disintegration as to allow the revolutionaries to brush it aside and peacefully ascend to power.

Thus, it will not take just peaceful agitation and patient explanation among the soldiers to split the army, but revolutionary daring:

Under what conditions, then, did we think — and do we think now — that the army can be expected to pass over to the side of revolution? What is the prerequisite for this? Machine guns and rifles? Of course, if the working masses possessed machine guns and rifles they would wield great power. Such power would even largely remove the inevitability of an insurrection. The undecided army would lay down its arms at the feet of the armed people… However important weapons are, it is not in weapons that the most essential strength lies. No, not in weapons. Not the capacity of the masses to kill, but their great readiness to die, that, gentlemen of the court, is what we believe ensures, in the last count, the success of a people’s rising.[19]

It is interesting here to note that Trotsky thinks little of the barricade, a symbol chiefly associated with revolutionary uprisings. For Trotsky, the barricade is more important for the moral role it plays in breaking down military discipline:

we should not forget that a barricade — clearly a mechanical element in the rising — plays, above all, a moral role. In every revolution, the significance of barricades is not at all the same as that of fortresses in a battle. A barricade is not just a physical obstacle. The barricade serves the cause of insurrection because, by creating a temporary barrier to the movement of troops, it brings them into close contact with the people. Here, at the barricades, the soldier hears — perhaps for the fist time in his life — the talk of ordinary honest people, their fraternal appeals, the voice of the people’s conscience; and, as a consequence of such contact between citizens and soldiers, military discipline disintegrates and disappears.[20]

In order to split the army, the revolutionaries must have the will to win and be ready to die for their cause. When the soldiers, infected by revolutionary propaganda in a deepening crisis in which they too are affected by, see this resolution and courage, the bravery will demoralize the soldiers and the ruling class. Ultimately, the army will shatter and enough soldiers will break and go over to the side of the people, to ensure the triumph of the revolution. This happened in both February and October of 1917.

IV. Confidence in our own revolutionary strength

While it was true that the ruling class “possesses wealth and state power, all the means of exerting ideological pressure and all the instruments of repression. We become habituated to the idea that the preponderance of forces is on the enemy’s side; and this habitual thought enters as an integral part into the entire life and activity of the revolutionary party during the preparatory epoch.”[21] Having read about the bloody history of past revolutions from the Paris Commune to any number of failed revolts, Trotsky was under no illusion about how much power the ruling class could bring to bear.

At the same time, Trotsky believed that it was a dangerous for communists to believe that the class enemy was all-powerful. To do so was to accept that their rule was eternal and to accept at the best which could be hoped for were a few reforms in a legislature or at worst an uprising drowned in the blood of proletariat martyrs. Yet Trotsky was fighting to win and knew that in a revolutionary situation, due to the growing indignation of the lower classes and army, the development of dual power and growth of revolutionary consciousness of the there was a chance for victory. And that chance needed to be taken.

Yet even for the revolutionary party, as Rosa Luxemburg said, «In so-called normal times of everyday bourgeois life, we know almost nothing about how deeply our ideas have already sunk roots, how strong the proletariat is, or how inwardly rotten is the structure of the ruling society.»[22] The revolution comes upon the revolutionaries like a lightning bolt, lighting a fire in the minds of men. Suddenly, the invincibility of the ruling class begins to melt away and the masses, yesterday quiet and subdued are now clamoring for power. And in this moment, when new possibilities and roads are presenting themselves, revolutionaries cling to old slogans and ideas.

As Trotsky recognized, this conservatism effected the Bolsheviks as well. “The most revolutionary party which human history until this time had ever known was nevertheless caught unawares by the events of history. It reconstructed itself in the fires, and straightened out its ranks under the onslaught, of events. The masses at the turning point were ‘a hundred times’ to the left of the extreme left party.”[23] In the aftermath of the February Revolution, the masses were pushing for their own interests against the Provisional Government while the Bolsheviks were calling for critical support to Kerensky. Furthermore, initially the Bolsheviks balked at Lenin’s April Theses which demanded Soviet Power and no support to the Provisional Government.

Trotsky believed that “even the most revolutionary party, must inevitably produce its own organizational conservatism; for otherwise it would lack the necessary stability. This is wholly a question of degree.”[24] Yet this became a danger in the “revolutionary party the vitally necessary dose of conservatism must be combined with a complete freedom from routine, with initiative in orientation and daring in action. These qualities are put to the severest test during turning points in history…when an abrupt change occurs in a situation and when new tasks arise as a consequence, frequently pursue the political line of yesterday and thereby become, or threaten to become, a brake upon the revolutionary process.”[25] Thus if the conservatism of the Old Bolsheviks prevailed in April, the Bolsheviks would have remain tied to giving ‘critical support’ to the Provisional Government and the revolution would have been shipwrecked. Yet the Bolsheviks were able to learn from their mistakes and change course.

In the Bolshevik Party, according to Trotsky, “both conservatism and revolutionary initiative find their most concentrated expression in the leading organs of the party.”[26] This was reflected in the opposition of the Bolsheviks to Lenin’s new perspective in April. While the leadership was often vacillating, the rank-and-file of the party «the worker-Bolsheviks» were pushing to the left. In his struggles in April, Trotsky says, “It was on this stratum of workers, decisively risen to their feet during the upward years of 1912-14, that Lenin was now banking. Already at the beginning of the war, when the government dealt the party a heavy blow by arresting the Bolshevik faction of the Duma, Lenin, speaking of the further revolutionary work, had demanded the education by the party of «thousands of class conscious workers, from among whom in spite of all difficulties a new staff of leaders will arise.”[27]

Although the party was infused with new blood in 1917 and took the initiative as the revolutionary situation developed, the party still had to pass through the difficult test of insurrection. This was reflected in the opposition of Zinoviev and Kamenev to the plan for an insurrection. As Trotsky observed, such a profound change in course is «the most difficult thing for a Communist party will be passing from the work of preparing for revolution — of necessity long — to the direct struggle for power. This passage will not be made without provoking crises, and serious crises. The only way to reduce their extent and to facilitate the grouping of the most resolute in the leading elements is to lead the party cadres to think about and probe in advance the questions of revolutionary insurrection, and this the more concretely the nearer events come.»[28] These profound crises in the party were bound to lead to deep splits, but Trotsky believed that the party leadership needed be resolute, to train its cadre to ask the ‘premature questions’ on the nature of insurrection and be prepared to change course as the situation developed.

In the end, the Bolsheviks were able to take power in 1917, despite the profound shifts in the situation, changes in strategy and the splits which developed in the leading bodies. Trotsky describes the rocky road which the Communists traveled to power: “The growth of the Bolshevik influence, which took place with the force of a natural historical process, reveals its own contradiction upon a closer examination, its zigzags, its ebbs and flows. The masses are not homogeneous, and more over they learn to handle the fire of revolution only by burning their hands and jumping away. The Bolsheviks could only accelerate the process of education of the masses. They patiently explained. And history this time did not take advantage of their patience.”[29] Thus, the party was structured in such a way that it was able to ride the rapids of revolution.

In a 1917 speech,Trotsky summed up three precepts that the masses should keep in mind:

1. Trust not the bourgeoisie.

2. Control our own leaders.

3. Have confidence in our own revolutionary strength.[30]

For he recognized that the lag of ideas behind revolutionary events, which sometimes the workers understand better than the leadership, meant that the party cadre had to be controlled by the masses in order to be steered on the path to insurrection. And what is needed is the development of proletariat leadership which is intimately linked to the masses and able grasp the twists and turns quickly to lead the masses to the conquest of power. Victor Serge describes this type of proletariat leader: “they must see reality, grasp possibility, and conceive the action which will be the link between the real and the possible. In doing so, the only vantage-point they can ever adopt is that of the proletariat’s own higher interests. Their whole thinking has to be that of the proletariat, with the advantage of scientific discipline. Proletarian class-consciousness attains its highest expression in the leaders of the organized vanguard of the working class.”[31]

V. The October Revolution

Following the July Days, when a mass demonstration nearly toppled the Provisional Government and the right-wing Kornilov coup, popular support moved steadily toward the Bolsheviks.[32] The revolutionary situation was reaching its crescendo. The Soviets and the masses were moving to the left and rallying around the slogans of the Bolsheviks, who were the only party that promised to end the war, fight the counterrevolution, provide land and bread and deliver power to the masses. The industrialists and landlords were growing wary of the popular disturbances and losing faith in the ability of the Provisional Government to maintain law and order.

It had been due to armed worker Red Guards under Bolshevik leadership and agitation among Kornilov’s troops that the coup attempt had been thwarted. By the end of August and the beginning of September, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. In this acceleration of the revolutionary situation and the swing of support toward the Bolsheviks, both Lenin and Trotsky argued that the moment had come to launch an armed insurrection.

There was debate in the Bolshevik Party about whether or not to wait for the opening of the Second Congress of Soviets meeting in Petrograd in late October. Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should act before the Congress, pre-empting any decision that they might make. However, it was Trotsky’s view which carried the day. According to Trotsky, the seizure of power should be done in the name of the Congress of Soviets, which made it ‘legal’ and legitimate. The Soviets were the only institutions in Russia which had the support of the masses, and by seizing power on that basis, the Bolsheviks would be able to draw in the widest amount of support for the revolution.

In launching their uprising under the rubric of legality, the Bolsheviks also wanted to make it appear defensive in response to the actions of the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks expected the Provisional Government to either disperse revolutionary troops in the capital or to disperse the Soviets. Trotsky explained the strategy as follows:

Our strategy was aggressive in its nature; we were beginning an attack on the power, but our agitation was so arranged that the enemy should set about breaking up the Congress of Soviets, and it would in consequence be necessary to oppose them with the most ruthless resistance. This whole plan was based upon the strength of the revolutionary stream which was rising high everywhere and which left the enemy neither rest nor peace. The rear-guard regiments would have preserved their neutrality in case of the worst happening to us.[33]

In this way, the Provisional Government appeared as violating the will of the masses and defending a decomposing social order that only benefited the wealthy classes.

A sign of the wasting away of mass support for the Provisional Government and allegiance to the Soviet can be seen in the behavior of the Petrograd garrison. On October 16, the Provisional Government prepared to send the garrison to the front, arguing that a German offensive was imminent. However, the garrison refused to leave Petrograd did not trust the government’s intention towards the revolution nor its ability to fight the Germans.

Instead, the garrison placed its self under the authority of a Soviet body called the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC). According to Alexander Rabinowtich, the MRC was set up by the Petrograd Soviet in mid October to “determine the minimum military force required in Petrograd itself (and hence not available for transfer), to make a precise accounting of all garrison personnel and reserves of provisions and weapons, and to formulate a working plan for the defense of the capital.”[34] Initially he MRC was not wholly a Bolshevik organ nor was its original goal one of insurrection. However, Trotsky and other key Bolsheviks quickly assumed leadership. The MRC was welcomed by the soldiers and refused to countersign orders for the garrison to move to the front. The MRC also appointed its own commissars in military units and strategic points in the capital. The refusal of the garrison to leave the capital had already given the signal for an open clash between the Soviet and the Provisional Government.

According to Trotsky, the garrison’s behavior was one of loyalty to the Soviet and thus helped to legitimize his strategy of seizing power in the name of the Soviets:

The garrison was confidently advancing to the revolution, seeing it not as an insurrection, but as a realisation of the irrefutable right of the Soviet to decide the fate of the country. This movement had incomparable power, but at the same time a certain heaviness. The party was obliged to attune its activity with some skill to the political stride of the regiments, a majority of whom were awaiting a summons from the Petersburg Soviet, but some from the Congress of Soviets.[35]

Yet while the Bolsheviks were planning to seize power in the name of the Soviets, actually planning for the insurrection was done by the Bolsheviks and the Military Revolutionary Committee. The MRC was organized with its own communications, intelligence and munitions departments, and acted like a general staff of the Red Guards and the revolutionary soldiers of the capital. Trotsky and the MRC came up with a detailed plan by October 23 which is described by Isaac Deutscher as follows:

It was as simple as it was carefully laid. It provided for a rapid occupation by picked detachments of all the strategic points in the capital. Liaison between insurgent headquarters and the garrison functioned infallibly. The picked units were ready for the signal.[36]

When Kerensky attempted to ban Bolshevik newspapers, the MRC moved quickly into action on October 24.

Trotsky had the MRC take over the telephone and telegraph systems along with the railroads. Members were sent to make contact with key workers at the post offices, railroads, and telegraphs. The printing presses of the right-wing newspapers were also taken by the insurgent workers. Approaches to the bridges were also secured by the MRC. Trotsky also had to deal with the last minute work of winning over soldiers who were still on the government’s side (which he accomplished). The following day, October 25, which was also the opening of the Second Congress of the Soviets, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. There was remarkably little bloodshed.[37]

While the seizure of the Winter Palace was going on, both Lenin and Trotsky attended the opening meeting of the Second Congress of the Soviets. When the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries denounced the bloodshed and the conspiratorial methods of the Bolsheviks, Trotsky responded in a memorable exchange:

What has taken place is an uprising, not a conspiracy. An uprising of the masses of the people needs no justification. We have been strengthening the revolutionary energy of the workers and soldiers. We have been forging, openly, the will of the masses for an uprising. Our uprising has won. And now we are being asked to give up our victory, to come to an agreement. With whom? You are wretched, disunited individuals; you are bankrupts; your part is over. Go to the place where you belong from now on the dust-bin of history![38]

Despite the objections and walkout by the right-wing socialists, the Congress approved the seizure of power and voted for a Bolshevik government which would, in the words of Lenin ‘proceed to construct the socialist order.’

VI. There is always some risk to run

Although the Bolshevik revolution was largely bloodless, both Lenin and Trotsky feared that even the smallest delay would mean missing the decisive moment and the revolution would be lost.

According to Trotsky,

What does it mean to lose the propitious moment? The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when the maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are, of course, referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself. During revolution all these processes take place with lightning speed. The whole tactical art consists in this: that we seize the moment when the combination of circumstances is most favorable to us. The Kornilov uprising completely prepared such a combination. The masses, having lost confidence in the parties of the soviet majority, saw with their own eyes the danger of counterrevolution. They came to the conclusion that it was now up to the Bolsheviks to find a way out of the situation. Neither the elemental disintegration of the state power nor the elemental influx of the impatient and exacting confidence of the masses in the Bolsheviks could endure for a protracted period of time. The crisis had to be resolved one way or another. It is now or never! Lenin kept repeating.[39]

However, the decisive moment of insurrection for Trotsky was something that the party had to prepare for as the crisis grew acute. The heightened mood of the masses could not be maintained forever. If the party did not act, then it risked the masses melting away:

To rise in arms, to overwhelm the enemy, to seize power, may be possible today, but tomorrow may be impossible. But to seize power is to change the course of history. Is it really true that such a historic event can hinge upon an interval of twenty—four hours? Yes, it can. When things have reached the point of armed insurrection, events are to be measured not by the long yardstick of politics, but by the short yardstick of war. To lose several weeks, several days, and sometimes even a single day, is tantamount under certain conditions to the surrender of the revolution, to capitulation.[40]

However, when the decisive moment comes, the party needs to act with resolution, courage, and according to plan to bring about the revolution.

As Marxists, we must know and understand that wanting an insurrection is not sufficient for carrying it out. When the objective conditions for an insurrection present themselves, it won’t just happen — it has to be made. And for that, the revolutionary general staff must first have a plan for the insurrection before unleashing it.[41]

If the party waits until the moment comes to develop its insurrectionist plans, then it is already to late.

The need for planning and conspiracy did not mean that the Bolsheviks were acting like Blanquists (seizing power on behalf of a small group). Rather, as Trotsky argues, planning for insurrection cannot be done directly by the working class:

Just as a blacksmith cannot seize the red hot iron in his naked hand, so the proletariat cannot directly seize the power; it has to have an organisation accommodated to this task. The co-ordination of the mass insurrection with the conspiracy, the subordination of the conspiracy to the insurrection, the organisation of the insurrection through the conspiracy, constitutes that complex and responsible department of revolutionary politics which Marx and Engels called «the art of insurrection.» It presupposes a correct general leadership of the masses, a flexible orientation in changing conditions, a thought-out plan of attack, cautiousness in technical preparation, and a daring blow.[42]

Thus, revolutionaries need to develop their plans which requires a general staff, adaptability in changing conditions, and the will to win.

Even though the October Revolution was carefully planned and went off like clockwork, there was always the chance of its defeat. In deed, this is a risk which every revolutionary endeavor entails. There is no guarantee of success, no vote that can promise a smooth course free of sacrifice and risk. During the 1920s, Trotsky uttered the following words in regards to his inner party struggle, but they can easily be applied to the October Revolution:

There is always some risk to be run. Sometimes you finish like Liebknecht and sometimes like Lenin.[43]

Yet Trotsky warns that in readying for the moment is not “to be taken too literally as meaning a definite day and hour… Between the moment when an attempt to summon an insurrection must inevitably prove premature and lead to a revolutionary miscarriage, and the moment when a favourable situation must be considered hopelessly missed, there exists a certain period — it may be measured in weeks, and sometimes in a few months — in the course of which an insurrection may be carried out with more or less chance of success.”[44] Thus, there is a window where the chances for a revolutionary blow to be struck, without necessarily promising success, just a chance. And when that window is open, it is the task of revolutionaries to seize it without fail. “To discriminate this comparatively short period and then choose the definite moment — now in the more accurate sense of the very day and hour — for the last blow, constitutes the most responsible task of the revolutionary leaders.”[45]

Although the Bolshevik revolution was accomplished with little loss of life and according to a carefully laid out plan, we should not for a moment believe that October was a mere coup. According to Trotsky, the reason for the bloodless takeover in the capital was that support and the will to resist had effectively melted away from the Provisional Government:

The scattered government patrols, in contrast, being convinced in advance of their own isolation, renounced the very idea of resistance. The bourgeois classes had expected barricades, flaming conflagrations, looting, rivers of blood. In reality a silence reigned more terrible than all the thunders of the world. The social ground shifted noiselessly like a revolving stage, bringing forward the popular masses, carrying away to limbo the rulers of yesterday.[46]

But more than this, the whole theory and practice of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was one of an insurrection of, by and for the masses with an organization able to channel their revolutionary energies. Writing several years later, Trotsky says that the «political preconditions for the success of an armed insurrection lie in the support which the majority of workers in the principal centers and regions of a country give to the militant vanguard, and the corresponding shattering of the government apparatus».[47]

VII. Some other lessons

Due to the October Revolution’s success in creating the world’s first socialist state, there was an urge for communists to universalize its experience and expect that other countries would follow a similar course by the seizing power in the major industrial and political centers. This view was later codified by the Communist International in its book, Armed Insurrection, which was to serve as a manual for communists in the art of insurrection.[48] Yet the path to power of nearly all subsequent socialist revolutions would be by way of guerrilla warfare. Yet Trotsky, who participated in early discussions around the development of the manual for Armed Insurrection warned: “every war unfolds in a situation and under conditions no one can see.”[49] However, as will become clear below, despite his warning, Trotsky looks at revolutions following a similar scenario to the October Road.

Yet Trotsky did develop up with basic lessons that revolutionaries should keep in mind in future efforts, the following which we will highlight here: 1. Politics in command, 2. Mass initiative and the role of partisan detachments, 3. Plan of battle

Trotsky argued that politics needed to be guiding the party’s actions, and that military efforts should be subordinated to them: “victory can be achieved only by a communist party which is centralized; which sets itself as a precise objective the seizure of power; which carefully thinks out this aim, refines it, prepares it and fulfills it, relying on an insurrection of the masses.”[50] The key point here is that the party needs to rely on an insurrection of the masses, without this, no insurrection can succeed.

For Trotsky, the political preconditions for an insurrection were three fold – 1. the growth of party influence in the main centers of the country where the majority of the workers are located. 2. Setting up soviets in the major centers where the party has support and the government apparatus is shattering. 3. Once the soviets are under the leadership of the party, summoning a national conference. In this situation, Trotsky believes that the party must make plans, assigning members key roles to seize strategic points.[51]

In terms of mass initiative, Trotsky recognized that even though a centralized party and carefully laid-out plans were needed in an insurrection, he pointed that “the plan of insurrection is not built on centralized control of revolutionary troops but on the greatest initiative of each detachment which has been assigned in advance, with the maximum precision, the task it has to carry out.”[52]

Indeed, without the will to win or die, there is no hope for the victory of the revolution. This mass initiative manifests itself in how the insurrection takes shape and is organized. Trotsky goes so far as to say that “As a general rule, insurgents fight according to ‘guerrilla’ methods, that is, as detachments of a partisan or semi-partisan type, bound together much more by political discipline and by the clear consciousness of the single goal to be reached than by some kind of regular, centralized hierarchy of control.»[53] Trotsky goes on and argues that during the insurrection that partisans should be organized to seize strategic points in a town, who know their particular tasks before hand. The detachments should then proceed on their assignments and be largely self-reliant.

Although Trotsky argues that a general plan is needed for the conquest of power, partisan detachments should not neglect the methods appropriate to their own style of warfare. He warns that “any attempt to centralize and hierarchize these detachments would inevitably lead to bureaucratism, which in time of war is doubly reprehensible; first, because it would make the heads of detachments falsely believe that someone else will pass them orders whereas, on the contrary, they must be fully convinced that they can exercise the greatest freedom of movement and maximum initiative; second because bureaucratism, tied to a hierarchical system, would transfer the best elements of all kinds of general staffs. From the first moment of the insurrection, these general staffs for the most part will be suspended between heaven and earth, while the detachments, waiting for orders from above, will find themselves suffering inaction and loss of time. This will ensure that the insurrection will fail.”[54] Trotsky’s warning against stifling the initiative of partisan detachments by the general staff seems to echo his criticism of conservatism in the top layers of the Bolsheviks Party during the 1917.

It will be objected that Trotsky’s praise of guerrilla and partisan detachments goes against his anti-guerrilla positions advocated during the Russian civil war. This is true and Trotsky’s support for partisan warfare here is conditional. He believes that while partisans can play a progressive role before the seizure of power, afterward it is necessary to establish a centralized Red Army. When a centralized Red Army is set up, Trotsky hopes to incorporate the best and most reliable partisan units in the army organization. If the partisans are not incorporated, then there is the danger that they “could undoubtedly become factors of disorder, capable of degenerating into armed bands in the service of petty-bourgeois anarchistic elements for use against the proletariat state.”[55]

As we have already discussed, Trotsky believes that as a revolutionary situation matures that the party should carefully plan for the insurrection. He says as the masses become convinced that the class enemy will not yield without a battle, their organization will develop and they will “will look for reliable leadership; they want to be convinced that we will and can lead them and that in the decisive battle they can count on victory.”[56] However as the mood of the masses reaches a boiling point, there will be hesitation within the party leadership itself. Trotsky says that the “retreat of the masses before the battle and the hesitation of the leaders are two phenomena which, without being equivalent, are nonetheless simultaneous.”[57] That is why, according to Trotsky, such defeatist moods in the party leadership (the people don’t want to fight, insurrection is adventurism, etc), such pessimism in the party is bound to lead the revolution to ruin and “after the defeat, provoked by the party itself, there is nothing to stop the party telling all and sundry that the insurrection was an impossibility because the masses did not want it.”[58] No doubt Trotsky was reflecting on the attitude of the German Communist Party during the abortive revolution in 1923 and also on how Zinoviev and Kamenev had argued before the October Revolution.

Trotsky argues that there is an element of chance in any insurrection, which the party has to understand. To those who argue that in a complex situation with so many variable that “it is impermissible to tie one’s hands in advance by some decision or other, was invoked as something new and instructive.”[59] Yet Trotsky says if we carry such an argument to its conclusion, then we “shall have to renounce plans and dates in military operations too, because in war, it happens that the situation changes rapidly and unexpectedly.”[60] Trotsky recognizes that no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy, and that it was unlikely that any operation would be 100 percent fulfilled. While recognizing this contingency, Trotsky argued that “any military leader who relied on this to deny the usefulness of a plan of campaign in general would quite simply deserve to be put in a strait-jacket.”[61]

For Trotsky, the method of planning was important. A revolutionary needed the ability to develop a method of thinking and planning for the decisive engagement. Even if the situation was full of variables, a commander who was equipped with the ability to rapidly analyze and adapt could prevail. For Trotsky, military theory and the art of insurrection should not lock us into a set of predetermined blinders, structures and verdicts. Rather, theory should be flexible, critical and self-critical. Initiative and daring, even faith, should be encouraged as part of the development of revolutionary military planning.

While Trotsky was the architect of the October Revolution and offered many insights into the development of revolutionary military doctrine, he possessed blinders of his own. Trotsky’s problems of civil war, admittedly an incomplete draft, did not consider the possibilities of guerrilla warfare or organization of the peasantry (who were given a more auxiliary role). Some version of the October Road with the development of soviets (or equivalent organization) and urban insurrection based on the proletariat was the only scenario Trotsky seriously considered for the conquest of power. It would take communists after Trotsky, such as Mao, Che and Giap who would develop new modes of revolutionary warfare. That being said, Trotsky’s insights in regards to analyzing a revolutionary situation, the relation party and class, divisions in the party, splitting the army, and successful planning should be carefully read by communists seriously contemplating the conquest of power.

[Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area and was active in the Occupy movement. He has previously been published by Socialism and Democracy, Green Left Weekly, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Counterpunch and MRZine. Doug Enaa is currently working on a study of the 19th century French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui. He can be reached by email at greene.douglas@ymail.com.]


[1] Quoted in Issac Deutscher, Stalin (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 210-11.

[2] Leon Trotsky, “The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning,” in The Spanish Revolution (1931-1939) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 36.

[3]http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/11/oct.htm [Accessed November 5, 2013]. Trotsky listed an eighth condition, the Bolshevik party, which we will discuss more fully in the following section. A major portion of Trotsky’s analysis of the Russian Revolution centers around his theory of permanent revolution. We can not go in depth into Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution here, but a short summary of it is that Trotsky postulated that in order for an underdeveloped country to accomplish the tasks of a bourgeois democratic revolution (land reform, establishing a republic, etc.), the revolution must go beyond its bourgeois limits and leadership will fall to the working class (because the bourgeoisie is afraid of allying with the proletariat to bring about these sweeping changes, but is more willing to compromise with the old ruling class) and become a socialist one. Such a revolution will thus be done by stages (first a lengthy stage of capitalist development followed at an undetermined time by a socialist revolution), but that the process will be continuous or permanent. Nor can the revolution remain isolated for an extended period in a single country, but must spark revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries. For Trotsky’s elaboration of the theory of permanent revolution see his The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978).

[4] Leon Trotsky History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967a), 207.

[5] Ibid. 208.

[6] “In Defense of October,” Marxists Internet Archive. (note 3)

[7] Leon Trotsky, “Lessons of the Paris Commune,” in Leon Trotsky on the Paris Commune (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 56.

[8] Trotsky 1967a, xvii.

[9] Ibid. xix.

[10] Ibid. xviii.

[11] Ibid. 120-121.

[12] Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), 55-6.

[13] Trotsky 1967a, 120.

[14] Leon Trotsky 1967c, 6.

[15] Ibid. 25.

[16] Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (London: Union Books, 1993), 36.

[17] Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 268-9.

[18] Ibid. 268.

[19] Ibid. 396-7.

[20] Ibid. 397.

[21] Trotsky 1993, 37.

[22] Richard Day and Daniel Gaido, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), 369.

[23] Trotsky 1967a, 435.

[24] Trotsky 1993, 65.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. 66

[27] Trotsky 1967a, 325.

[28] Leon Trotsky, “Problems of Civil War,” in The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-1925) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), 205.

[29] Trotsky 1967a, 435-6.

[30] Leon Trotsky, “All Power to the Soviets” in Leon Trotsky Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 52.

[31] Serge 1972, 61.

[32] For the July Days see Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution: The Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (Indianapolis. Indiana University Press 1968), 135-228. For Kornilov see Alexander Rabinowitch, Bolsheviks Come to Power: Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York. W.W. Norton and Company 1978), 94-150.

[33] Leon Trotsky, “Lenin,” Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1925/lenin/03.htm [Accessed November 5, 2013].

[34] Rabinowitch 1978, 233.

[35] Trotsky 1967c, 104.

[36] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (Trotsky 1879-1921) (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 253.

[37] For sources on the October Revolution beyond what has been listed in this essay see for starters, Marcel Liebman, Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage Books. 1970), 257-93; John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (New York: Vintage Books, 1960); E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1 (1917-1923) (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), 81-111.

[38] Leon Trotsky, My Life (New York: Pathfinder Books, 2001), 389.

[39] Trotsky 1993, 40.

[40] Trotsky 1993, 49.

[41] Trotsky 1975, 203.

[42] Trotsky 1967c, 169.

[43] Quoted in Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 220.

[44] Trotsky 1967c, 173.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid. 233.

[47] Trotsky 1975, 208.

[48] Trotsky argues that the manual on armed insurrection was originally conceived by the Military Science Society in 1924, but was shelved as part of the struggle against Trotskyism. See Trotsky’s The Third International After Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970) 146-7. See also A. Neuberg, Armed Insurrection (New York: St. Martin’s, 1970).

[49] Trotsky 1975, 198.

[50] Ibid. 207.

[51] Ibid. 208-210.

[52] Ibid. 202.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid. 220.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid. 213.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.


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