Thursday, April 21, 2011

Leon Trotsky - Lessons of October

This short volume by Leon Trotsky is an undisguised polemic. Written in 1924, in the aftermath of a series of failed revolutions across Europe, it was clear that the revolutionary movement that had developed following the First World War was at a turning point. Trotsky's volume is in itself a hard restatement of the need for revolutionary organisation to successfully lead a working class revolution.

Trotsky understood that there was a danger that having led a successful revolution in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks Party was seen as having a sort of God like status. The idea that revolutionaries elsewhere needed to simply emulate the actions and organisations of the Lenin and the Bolsheviks and that would be enough to seize power. So in part he wrote a "warts and all" history of the Bolsheviks. He documents the way in which following the first revolution of 1917, in February, when the Tsar was deposed, the position of the Bolsheviks was to their right of the position that they took in October. From afar Lenin wrote, begged and urged them to turn further towards the idea of proletarian revolution, instead many, like Stalin tailed the right-wing of the socialist movement.

"Russia is too backward for the workers to take power" they argued, yet a few months later they did just that. At the end of the book, Trotsky explores the idea of insurrection as art. Taking power is not a science. There are a myriad of factors that must be taken into consideration before a successful seizure of power can be made. He documents and explores what happened in Russia - but argues that this shouldn't form a blueprint for anywhere else. He looks at those organs of democratic power in Russia - the Soviets - but explains that there is a danger that other revolutionaries fetishise these as instruments of revolution, rather than noticing other social structures - workers councils, factory committees or even the Trade Unions that might take on this role. I should add though, that I think Trotsky's understanding of the role of the unions here is flawed and based on a peculiarly Russian naivety towards these bodies, as explored in this excellent book here.

Finally Trotsky is launching a weapon in a developing argument in Russia at the time. As the effect of international isolation, civil war and Russian backwardness took their toil on the revolution, Trotsky was fighting against marginalisation from the new bureaucratic cliques developing around Stalin. The Lessons of October are then also a polemical fight in this battle.

The edition I have read comes with very useful notes and an introductory essay by Duncan Hallas. This frames the book very helpfully and can be read online here. I'd recommend it, before dipping into the Trotsky.

Related Reviews

Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

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