The Lessons of October, Chapter 1
Trotsky’s Lessons of October is so rich in lessons, especially on the role of the revolutionary party and its leadership, the art of revolution, tactics and strategy and their correct timing, slogans etc. that it could just have well been included in Topic 12 of this political education series, dealing with the question of the party.
Written in 1924, barely eight years after the 1917 Russian Revolution it describes, the text reflects some on the major issues facing the world Marxist movement at that time, including the recent defeat of the 1918-23 German Revolution and, especially following the death of Lenin in January 1924, the beginning of the political struggle within the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International between the genuine forces of Marxism in the Left Opposition, led by Trotsky himself, and the forces that would act as the hand-maidens to the Stalinist counter-revolution.
The text has been taken from the Marxist Internet Archive (www.marxists.org).
We Must Study the October Revolution
We met with success in the October Revolution, but the October Revolution has met with little success in our press. Up to the present time we lack a single work which gives a comprehensive picture of the October upheaval and puts the proper stress upon its most important political and organizational aspects.1 Worse yet, even the available first-hand material – including the most important documents – directly pertaining to the various particulars of the preparation for the revolution, or the revolution itself remains unpublished as yet. Numerous documents and considerable material have been issued bearing on the pre-October history of the revolution and the pre-October history of the party; we have also issued much material and many documents relating to the post October period. But October itself has received far less attention. Having achieved the revolution, we seem to have concluded that we should never have to repeat it. It is as if we thought that no immediate and direct benefit for the unpostponable tasks of future constructive work could be derived from the study of October; the actual conditions of the direct preparation for it; the actual accomplishment of it; and the work of consolidating it during the first few weeks.
Such an approach – though it may be subconscious – is, however, profoundly erroneous, and is, moreover, narrow and nationalistic. We ourselves may never have to repeat the experience of the October Revolution, but this does not at all imply that we have nothing to learn from that experience. We are a part of the International2, and the workers in all other countries are still faced with the solution of the problem of their own “October.” Last year we had ample proof that the most advanced Communist parties of the West had not only failed to assimilate our October experience but were virtually ignorant of the actual facts.
To be sure, the objection may be raised that it is impossible to study October or even to publish documents relating to October without the risk of stirring up old disagreements. But such an approach to the question would be altogether petty. The disagreements of 1917 were indeed very profound, and they were not by any means accidental. But nothing could be more paltry than an attempt to turn them now, after a lapse of several years, into weapons of attack against those who were at that time mistaken. It would be, however, even more inadmissible to remain silent as regards the most important problems of the October Revolution, which are of international significance, on account of trifling personal considerations.
Last year we met with two crushing defeats in Bulgaria. First, the party let slip an exceptionally favourable moment for revolutionary action on account of fatalistic and doctrinaire considerations. (That moment was the rising of the peasants after the June coup of Tsankov.) Then the party, striving to make good its mistake, plunged into the September insurrection without having made the necessary political or organizational preparations. The Bulgarian revolution ought to have been a prelude to the German revolution. Unfortunately, the bad Bulgarian prelude led to an even worse sequel in Germany itself. In the latter part of last year, we witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world historic importance. Once more, however, neither the Bulgarian nor even the German experiences of last year have received an adequate or sufficiently concrete appraisal. The author of these lines drew a general outline of the development of events in Germany last year. Everything that transpired since then has borne out this outline in part and as a whole. No one else has even attempted to advance any other explanation. But we need more than an outline. It is indispensable for us to have a concrete account, full of factual data, of last year’s developments in Germany. What we need is such an account as would provide a concrete explanation of the causes of this most cruel historic defeat.
It is difficult, however, to speak of an analysis of the events in Bulgaria and Germany when we have not, up to the present, given a politically and tactically elaborated account of the October Revolution. We have never made clear to ourselves what we accomplished and how we accomplished it. After October, in the flush of victory, it seemed as if the events of Europe would develop of their own accord and, moreover, within so brief a period as would leave no time for any theoretical assimilation of the lessons of October.
But the events have proved that without a party capable of directing the proletarian revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible. The proletariat cannot seize power by a spontaneous uprising. Even in highly industrialized and highly cultured Germany the spontaneous uprising of the toilers – in November 1918 – only succeeded in transferring power to the hands of the bourgeoisie. One propertied class is able to seize the power that has been wrested from another propertied class because it is able to base itself upon its riches, its cultural level, and its innumerable connections with the old state apparatus. But there is nothing else that can serve the proletariat as a substitute for its own party.
It was only by the middle of 1921 that the fully rounded-out work of building the Communist parties really began (under the slogan “Win the masses,” “United front,” etc.). The problems of October receded and, simultaneously, the study of October was also relegated to the background. Last year we found ourselves once again face to face with the problems of the proletarian revolution. It is high time we collected all documents, printed all available material, and applied ourselves to their study!
We are well aware, of course, that every nation, every class, and even every party learns primarily from the harsh blows of its own experience. But that does not in the least imply that the experience of other countries and classes and parties is of minor importance. Had we failed to study the Great French Revolution, the revolution of 1848, and the Paris Commune, we should never have been able to achieve the October Revolution, even though we passed through the experience of the year 1905. And after all, we went through this “national” experience of ours basing ourselves on deductions from previous revolutions, and extending their historical line. Afterwards, the entire period of the counter-revolution was taken up with the study of the lessons to be learned and the deductions to be drawn from the year 1905.
Yet no such work has been done with regard to the victorious revolution of 1917 – no, not even a tenth part of it. Of course we are not now living through the years of reaction, nor are we in exile. On the other hand, the forces and resources at our command now are in no way comparable to what we had during those years of hardship. All that we need do is to pose clearly and plainly the task of studying the October Revolution, both on the party scale and on the scale of the International as a whole. It is indispensable for the entire party, and especially its younger generations, to study and assimilate step by step the experience of October, which provided the supreme, incontestable, and irrevocable test of the past and opened wide the gates to the future. The German lesson of last year is not only a serious reminder but also a dire warning.
An objection will no doubt be raised that even the most thorough knowledge of the course of the October Revolution would by no means have guaranteed victory to our German party. But this kind of wholesale and essentially philistine rationalizing will get us nowhere. To be sure, mere study of the October Revolution is not sufficient to secure victory in other countries; but circumstances may arise where all the prerequisites for revolution exist, with the exception of a far-seeing and resolute party leadership grounded in the understanding of the laws and methods of the revolution. This was exactly the situation last year in Germany. Similar situations may recur in other countries. But for the study of the laws and methods of proletarian revolution there is, up to the present time, no more important and profound a source than our October experience. Leaders of European Communist parties who fail to assimilate the history of October by means of a critical and closely detailed study would resemble a commander in chief preparing new wars under modern conditions, who fails to study the strategic, tactical, and technical experience of the last imperialist war. Such a commander in chief would inevitably doom his armies to defeat in the future.
The fundamental instrument of proletarian revolution is the party. On the basis of our experience – even taking only one year, from February 1917 to February 1918 – and on the basis of the supplementary experience in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Germany, we can posit as almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power. Generally speaking, crises arise in the party at every serious turn in the party’s course, either as a prelude to the turn or as a consequence of it. The explanation for this lies in the fact that every period in the development of the party has special features of its own and calls for specific habits and methods of work. A tactical turn implies a greater or lesser break in these habits and methods. Herein lies the direct and most immediate root of internal party frictions and crises.
“Too often has it happened,” wrote Lenin in July 1917, “that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning – lost it as ‘suddenly’ as the sharp turn in history was ‘sudden’.”
Hence the danger arises that if the turn is too abrupt or too sudden, and if in the preceding period too many elements of inertia and conservatism have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfil its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of years or decades. The party is ravaged by a crisis, and the movement passes the party by – and heads toward defeat.
A revolutionary party is subjected to the pressure of other political forces. At every given stage of its development the party elaborates its own methods of counteracting and resisting this pressure. During a tactical turn and the resulting internal re-groupments and frictions, the party’s power of resistance becomes weakened. From this the possibility always arises that the internal groupings in the party, which originate from the necessity of a turn in tactics, may develop far beyond the original controversial points of departure and serve as a support for various class tendencies. To put the case more plainly: the party that does not keep step with the historical tasks of its own class becomes, or runs the risk of becoming, the indirect tool of other classes.
If what we said above is true of every serious turn in tactics, it is all the more true of great turns in strategy. By tactics in politics we understand, using the analogy of military science, the art of conducting isolated operations. By strategy, we understand the art of conquest, i.e., the seizure of power. Prior to the war we did not, as a rule, make this distinction. In the epoch of the Second International we confined ourselves solely to the conception of social democratic tactics. Nor was this accidental. The social democracy applied parliamentary tactics, trade union tactics, municipal tactics, cooperative tactics, and so on. But the question of combining all forces and resources – all sorts of troops – to obtain victory over the enemy was really never raised in the epoch of the Second International, insofar as the practical task of the struggle for power was not raised. It was only the 1905 revolution that first posed, after a long interval, the fundamental or strategical questions of proletarian struggle. By reason of this it secured immense advantages to the revolutionary Russian social democrats, i.e., the Bolsheviks. The great epoch of revolutionary strategy began in 1917, first for Russia and afterwards for the rest of Europe. Strategy, of course, does not do away with tactics. The questions of the trade union movement, of parliamentary activity, and so on, do not disappear, but they now become invested with a new meaning as subordinate methods of a combined struggle for power. Tactics are subordinated to strategy.
If tactical turns usually lead to internal friction in the party, how much deeper and fiercer must be the friction resulting from strategical turns! And the most abrupt of all turns is the turn of the proletarian party from the work of preparation and propaganda, or organization and agitation, to the immediate struggle for power, to an armed insurrection against the bourgeoisie. Whatever remains in the party that is irresolute, sceptical, conciliationist, capitulatory – in short, Menshevik – all this rises to the surface in opposition to the insurrection, seeks theoretical formulas to justify its opposition, and finds them ready-made in the arsenal of the opportunist opponents of yesterday. We shall have occasion to observe this phenomenon more than once in the future.
The final review and selection of party weapons on the eve of the decisive struggle took place during the interval from February to October  on the basis of the widest possible agitational and organizational work among the masses. During and after October these weapons were tested in the fire of colossal historic actions. To undertake at the present time, several years after October, an appraisal of the different viewpoints concerning revolution in general, and the Russian revolution in particular, and in so doing to evade the experience of 1917, is to busy oneself with barren scholasticism. That would certainly not be a Marxist political analysis. It would be analogous to wrangling over the advantages of various systems of swimming while we stubbornly refused to turn our eyes to the river where swimmers were putting these systems into practice. No better test of viewpoints concerning revolution exists than the verification of how they worked out during the revolution itself, just as a system of swimming is best tested when a swimmer jumps into the water.