In Defense of October: A Reading Guide

Leon Trotsky Public Domain

We present here a reading guide to In Defense Of October, which can help comrades digest the key ideas from this classic Marxist text by Leon Trotsky.

In 1932, Trotsky accepted an offer to speak on the topic of the Russian Revolution before an assembly of Social Democratic students in Copenhagen, Denmark. The transcript of his speech, In Defense of October, is a concise and vigorous defense of the Russian Revolution of 1917, placing the event in its proper historical and political context. Particularly instructive is Trotsky’s application of the theory of combined and uneven development, as well as the theory of permanent revolution, utilized to great effect to illustrate how a proletarian revolution was possible in a country with a relatively small working class and low level of technical and social development.

In the final decade of his life, Trotsky was driven above all by the need to train the next generation of revolutionaries in the methods of genuine Marxism, fully preserved against the adulteration, obfuscation, and distortions that would be put forth by subsequent revisionists, Stalinists, hack theoreticians, academics, and opportunists of all types. It was essential that future Marxists understand the importance of the October Revolution and its world-historical significance: that despite its problems and deformations, the revolution had demonstrated, in practice, the effectiveness of Bolshevik strategy and tactics and the absolute superiority of a planned economy—the only way forward out of capitalist barbarism.

History and revolution

Trotsky prefaces his speech with a brief explanation of the materialist conception of history—the philosophy of dialectical materialism as applied to a study of history. Revolution means “a change of the social order,” by means of an insurrection that has the support of the majority of the population. Trotsky explains further that “the active intervention of the masses in historical events is, in fact, the most indispensable element of a revolution.”

Because we live in class society, humans cannot yet consciously set up our own social arrangements and condition ourselves to them. Instead, people “act under the influence of social conditions which are not freely chosen by them but are handed down from the past and imperatively point out the road which they must follow. For this reason, and only for this reason, a revolution follows certain laws.”

However, the masses are not passive bystanders in this process. Marxism’s philosophical position on this question is that people are not merely objects upon which conditions impose their character, but are also active subjects capable of influencing their own conditions. As Trotsky points out, “human consciousness does not merely passively reflect its objective conditions. It is accustomed to react actively to them.”

The horrors of war, poverty, oppression, and societal decay are all the products of the “old society,” which in turn fuels the class struggle. But Trotsky acknowledges that these factors alone are not enough to make a proletarian revolution. In addition to objective conditions that compel the masses to move in the direction of revolution to solve their problems, the working class also requires the subjective factor: revolutionary theory, a revolutionary party, and a revolutionary program. “In order to sweep away the outlived social order, the progressive class must understand that its hour has struck and set before itself the task of conquering power. Here opens the field of conscious revolutionary action, where foresight and calculation combine with will and courage.”

Questions for discussion:

  • What are the objective and subjective conditions required for a successful revolution that can lead humanity to a new, historically progressive society?
  • Why are both strategy and tactics of equal importance to revolutionaries? How are they related and differentiated?
  • Academics and political scientists often see revolutions as “freak” occurrences, accidents of history that can and should be avoided. How does Trotsky’s explanation dispel this idea?

The causes of October

Trotsky proceeds to sketch out the conditions that led to Russia’s revolutionary upheaval. He notes that one of the burning questions in analyzing the Russian Revolution is why and how a proletarian revolution broke out and ultimately succeeded in a historically backwards country. In the past it was supposed—erroneously—that the proletariat could only take power as the result of a revolution in a country with an already-high level of development of the productive forces and efficiency of social labor.

The outbreak of the first “Great War” and the demands it imposed upon its belligerents exposed how unevenly each country has adapted its institutions and economic activity to the laws of capitalism. On the grand scale of imperialist conflicts, this exposes the susceptibility of the weaker, more “backward” capitalist countries to internal social crises. Hence the idea, attributed to Lenin, of world capitalism “breaking at its weakest link” in Russia. The strain of an imperialist, predatory war between world powers proved too great for tsarist Russia to bear, and the masses rose to fight back.

However, this is just one side of the question. It explains in part how the revolution broke out, but not the necessity of the revolution being proletarian and socialist in character. Nations evolve in an extremely heterogeneous manner, but all of them, advanced and underdeveloped, are pulled into the same vortex of capitalist global development. In this whirlpool they reciprocally influence one another through trade, cooperation, financial ventures, and war. This reciprocity gives rise to the combined nature of their development, particularly in backwards countries where the most rotten holdovers from feudalism coexist with the most sophisticated technology developed for the purposes of capitalist production and exploitation.

Trotsky presents ample evidence for the dialectical interrelation between combined and uneven development and their effects in Russia. The Tsarist Empire was far more backward than any of the other European countries at the time. Characteristic of many backward countries under the pressure of foreign finance capital, industry and commerce had been developed and localized in a few major cities, while most of the rest of the country languished in agricultural backwardness inherited from the days of serfdom. Although numerically smaller than the US working class, the urban proletariat of Russia was twice as concentrated as American workers were at that time.

This meant that the Russian workers were particularly inclined to move as a class, and to more clearly identify their own interests as a class. The majority of the empire’s population was made up of peasants, and more than half of the entire population was made up of oppressed nationalities—tens of millions of Ukrainians, Tatars, Poles, Semitic peoples, and others who were forced to adopt the language and culture of the Tsarist Empire as a matter of official imperial policy.

This social backwardness had been preserved by the bourgeoisie in Russia, who, as Trotsky explains, had developed very late historically and was too dependent on both foreign capital and the moldering nobility to play a progressive role in developing the country: “Had the agrarian question been courageously solved by the bourgeoisie, the proletariat of Russia would not, obviously, have been able to arrive at the power in 1917. But the Russian, bourgeoisie, covetous and cowardly, too late on the scene, prematurely a victim of senility, dared not lift a hand against feudal property.”

Therefore, any revolutionary movement that sought to develop the country beyond the level of a semi-feudal capitalist colony had to merge the demands of agrarian and democratic reform—a hallmark of bourgeois-democratic revolutions—with the aims of a proletarian revolution. This key perspective was developed by Trotsky before and during the 1905 Revolution in Russia, with his elaboration of the theory of permanent revolution. In short, this consists of the idea that, in backwards countries, the tasks of the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution must be merged as a permanent (i.e., uninterrupted) struggle for power and transformation, led by the working class. Such a struggle must not stop at the fulfillment of bourgeois-democratic tasks, but must continue on to the socialist transformation of society.

Questions for discussion:

  • What does Trotsky mean when he says the Russian bourgeoisie arrived “too late on the scene, prematurely a victim of senility”?
  • What is the role of the proletariat during a revolution in a backwards country, in which the class does not comprise the majority of the population?
  • Trotsky claims that the muzhiks—poor peasants—are broadly incapable of generalizing their own interests and aims. Based on the dialectical materialist outlook that objective conditions determine social consciousness, how can we explain this assertion?
  • The theory of permanent revolution maintains that, in ex-colonial countries, both socialist and democratic demands should be taken up by the working class in a revolution, without handing power back to the capitalists or waiting for their satisfaction by a capitalist government. What significance does this theory maintain for Marxists today?

The role of a revolutionary party

Building on his enumeration of the objective causes of October, Trotsky puts forward another essential precondition to the workers’ winning of power. The events of the 1905 Revolution served as a “dress rehearsal” for 1917 that prepared the workers and peasantry to take power, in large part through the creation of the soviets. But in a revolution, workers need more than their own spontaneously built organs of power. “To be able to take the power firmly and surely into its hands the proletariat needs a party, which far surpasses other parties in the clarity of its thought and in its revolutionary determination.”

The Bolshevik Party had been prepared in advance through the previous two decades’ struggle against tsarism. Combating all kinds of small-circle dynamics and the influence of alien class ideas and petty-bourgeois counter currents, the Bolsheviks built their party and set about the task of winning over the advanced layers of the working class. This was far from a linear process of growth—the party endured state censorship, the arrest and exile of many of its leaders, demonization by the official press, and the indifference of the majority of the people right up until the February Revolution of 1917. It was only on the basis of those momentous events that the Bolsheviks’ program, the only one in Russia that coherently welded together the interests of the workers, peasants, and oppressed nationalities, gained a mass echo and won broad support among the masses.

As the Marxists strengthened their influence, the bourgeoisie panicked. The reformist organizations attempted to derail the revolution and the increasingly radical aims of the masses, but this only further discredited them in the eyes of the working class and poor peasants. Having made progressive inroads into the soldiers’ soviets, the Bolsheviks were able to win over the rank and file of the army. All of these accomplishments and the strategic preparations of the party were key in the process of congealing the radicalization of the masses towards socialism, and ultimately, the success of the armed insurrection in October (old calendar).

Without the careful preparation of the party beforehand, stretching back decades before the outbreak of the decisive revolution, it would have been impossible to conceive of the workers taking and holding power on their own.

Questions for discussion:

  • Why is the spontaneity of a mass movement not enough to ensure the overthrow of capitalism and formation of a workers’ state?
  • Based on Trotsky’s elaboration of a cycle in which the workers accept their lot in life, hope for change, get frustrated, then rise up only to be betrayed by their leaders and return to their again, what can we infer about the “default” state of mass consciousness and how it changes on the basis of experience?
  • Trotsky characterizes the assassination of tsarists officials and even the tsar himself by petty-bourgeois radicals as an “attempt to make chemical preparation take the place of a revolutionary class.” Aside from individual terrorism, what other examples of “substitutionalism” can we observe in various political trends today?

What did the revolution achieve?

“Periods of time must be commensurate with the tasks, and not with individual caprices.” The privations of World War I toppled four empires and left much of capitalist Europe shattered for well over a decade and a half. And yet, reactionaries contend that this should have been enough time for backwards Russia to recover entirely from the same trauma—not to mention recuperating from the loss of massive swathes of its territory; winning a brutal civil war against imperialist invasion and domestic counterrevolution; surviving a continuous stream of blockades and sanctions; and more. They then go on to critique the USSR for not achieving a socialist utopia.

The October Revolution didn’t happen because it was “the right choice” from a moralistic standpoint. The Russian masses were given two options: watch passively as society crumbled beneath their feet and suffer through barbarism commensurate with that degeneration, or fight for the possibility of socialism and a better world. Scientific socialism isn’t predicated on being on the right side of a moral argument, but on a scientific appraisal of human society and the progress of history through development of the productive forces and the class struggle.

Based on these criteria, as laid out by Trotsky, the revolution proved its worth many times over. Producing one set of industrial indices and statistics after another, Trotsky demonstrates how the planned economy enabled Russia to wrench itself out of illiteracy, rudimentary labor technique, a low technological level, and agrarian medievalism, into a rising industrial superpower. By assimilating all available technology and know-how, imported from the more developed countries, and without the anarchy of the market or the profit motive as the driver of investment, the Soviet Union achieved economic growth unprecedented in the history of the world.

Trotsky points out, however, that this rapid tempo is not without its drawbacks or its own unevenness of development. Agriculture, specifically, had not achieved this rate of growth, and different sections of heavy industry had not been synchronized in their development to allow for a harmonious plan to truly emerge. Regardless of these shortcomings, the October Revolution’s place in history is reaffirmed by Trotsky—it remains the greatest single event in the whole of human history.

For the first time, humanity was shown a glimmer of what is possible when the interests of a minority are not put forth as the interests of society as a whole. It proved that the working class can run society; that humanity doesn’t need to be pitted against itself in a humiliating competition for the necessities of life; that we don’t need to live in a system which is in antagonism to ourselves and to nature; and that our mastery over production was just a stepping stone to mastering our own social existence.

As Trotsky so eloquently puts it: “Once he has done with the anarchic forces of his own society man will set to work on himself, in the pestle and retort of the chemist. For the first time mankind will regard itself as raw material, or at best as a physical and psychic semi-finished product. Socialism will mean a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom in this sense also, that the man of today, with all his contradictions and lack of harmony, will open the road for a new and happier race.”

With this sense of revolutionary optimism, the Marxists will energetically take part in the struggles against capitalism of today and tomorrow, and proudly carry the banner of October around the world.

Questions for discussion:

  • What did the success of the planned economy prove? Why is this of “world-historical” importance?
  • Why is it important for a revolutionary movement to not indiscriminately attempt to “smash” the culture and accomplishments of society it is building upon?
  • What are some examples we can give of how capitalism has “outlived itself as a world system”?

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!