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Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian Revolution | NYC Marxist School 2023

In this talk, Jack Halinski-Fitzpatrick explains the development of the Russian Revolution and what lessons communists can take away from the greatest event in human history. This talk was part of the NYC Marxist School, which gathered some 200 communists from across the Northeast and Canada on October 7–8 for a weekend of discussions on Marxist theory and revolutionary strategy.

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[Theme Music]

Before I set off to New York, I noticed this statement from the Minnesota Republican Party that Antonio mentioned. My first thought was: “Oh god, they’re not going to let me into the country.” But after I read that, I thought it was it was very interesting, really. You know, they talk about the the consequences of unchecked socialism and communism being real.

They worry also about communism coming back to their backyards. I’d say this is the first time I’ve ever said this, but I agree 100% with the Republican Party. Communism is back. And I’d say also, let’s look at the consequences of the Russian Revolution, for example. Pete, I think, gave a very good list of them of some of the achievements in the previous session.

But there’s plenty more. You know, Russia went from a backward, dominated country really, to one that the US itself considered as a as a rival. Life expectancy doubled, infant mortality halved. By the 1960s, the number of doctors per 100,000 people was 205. And that compares to 110 in Britain. And I also looked up the numbers, that apparently in the US today there’s 278 doctors per 100,000 people.

But also the point is how many people in the US can actually see these doctors is another thing to consider. On top of this, women achieve the right to vote. The right to abortion was granted. The right to divorce was granted. Same sex marriage as well was decriminalized, or same sex relationships, rather. All of this happened well before the so-called land of the free achieved some of these reforms.

Now, we’re talking about the Russian Revolution today, but first of all, I guess we need to define our terms now. What actually is a revolution? Some of us have revolution on our t-shirts, but we need to understand what a revolution actually is. And Leon Trotsky, I think, gave the best definition of revolution. He said that it’s the forcible entry of the masses onto the stage of history.

And what does this mean? Well, in normal times, most people don’t pay attention to politics. You get home from a long day at work. You don’t want to open Marx’s Capital. You just want to put on some reality TV, put on some sports or something totally mind numbing, I think most people want to do. However, there are at certain times in history when that world turns into its opposite, when people on a mass basis involve themselves in politics, they sweep away the so-called experts, and they themselves try concretely to change history.

I’d say as well, if you look at revolutions in the past, you see that there are certain patterns that emerge. And I think the reason for this really is that: what is a revolution? It’s a development of mass consciousness, and mass consciousness, I think, develops according to certain laws. And if that is the case, if it develops according to certain laws, well these laws can be studied.

They can be understood. And then they can if you are able to do that well, you can use it to make use of this knowledge to make predictions about the future. And again, what that means is that if you have some sort of collective leadership, basically that has imbued this method of reading a society, they can use these these methods or this understanding basically to guide a future revolutionary movement to success.

That really is the role of a revolutionary leadership. You know, revolutions don’t happen because revolutionaries wish them into existence or create them out of nothing. Revolutions will happen whether we’re here or not. A revolutionary party acts essentially – it’s like a catalyst in a chemical reaction. The catalyst doesn’t create the reaction in itself, but it can kind of speed it up and make it more economical, basically.

Now, on paper, Russia perhaps seemed like one of the least likely places that a revolution could happen. As I said, it was a very economically backward country. 80% of the population was peasants. The GDP as well was ten times less than the United States at that time. But it was quite an interesting country as well. Industry in Russia developed in quite an unusual way, if you like, if you compare it to Britain.

So in Britain you had the slow development of industry, gradually small scale production. It kind of grew basically into large scale production. In Russia, industry really was – it was a foreign import, if you like. You had the the penetration of foreign capital into Russia, which produced very rapidly massive factories which were the most modern factories in the world.

So foreign imperialism was very important to the development of capitalism in Russia and you can see this by the end of the 19th century. 40% of all stock capital in the country was owned by foreign imperialism. And what this meant was that rather than slowly being drawn into larger and larger scale production, the workers were really workers who had been torn straight from peasant life in small villages into the most massive, large scale factories in the world.

And you had, for example, the working class population of Russia at that time was around 10% of the population, but 40% of the industrial workers worked in gigantic factories. And that was more – that was more advanced even than the United States. At the same time, in the same period the figure for the United States was 18% of industrial workers.

And what this meant was these these rapid changes, this rapid development of Russian society, actually meant that it was very fertile ground for the growth of revolutionary ideas, the most advanced revolutionary ideas. So what you had then in Russia, you had this monarchic state, you had the remnants of feudal labor, but combined at the same time with the most advanced factories in the world and a very weak bourgeoisie, actually, that was actually incredibly reliant on foreign imperialism.

And the working class, if you consider it compared to other countries, it was a very small working class, but it was, relatively speaking, much stronger than the Russian bourgeoisie. And this fact terrified the Russian bourgeoisie. You know, in the past, you can say the bourgeoisie perhaps played a revolutionary role in the French Revolution, in the English revolution. But in Russia, the bourgeoisie was incapable of playing that role.

They worried if the revolution took off, they might risk their own privileges. Even if they might have been superficial opponents of the monarchic state. Now, three revolutions occurred over the period of 13 years in Russia, which I’m going to try my best to cover. And the first of these took place in 1905, but this revolution took place when the Marxists were in an extremely small force, actually.

Again, I think this shows how revolutions will happen, whether the revolutionaries dare to lead it or not. In fact, there will always be a leadership of a movement, regardless of what the anarchists say. It depends really, is whether there’s a good leadership there or not. If there’s no good leadership, some other leadership will be found. And an interesting thing happened in Russia at this time.

So in the context of a kind of growing, seething discontent from below the authorities, the regime tried to try to divert this into into kind of safe channels. So they created police controlled unions, trade unions that were controlled by police. With the conscious aim of diverting the movement into safe channels, but with no alternative, nowhere else to go.

The workers did go to these unions in order to try and change, change their future for the better. And you had a very strange individual thrown up to the kind of top of this movement who is actually a priest could father get on. And he spoke and very militant class language, but mixed with a kind of weird, obviously, you know, very religious language.

00:09:44:18 – 00:10:07:14
Speaker 1
And so this was the kind of general situation as a growing discontent from below. And all that was required was one spark to set off a movement. This happened with- there was an arrest of like four or so members of Father Gapon’s union, and this set off a big movement. So you had a march that took place.

There was a march led by Gapon on the Winter Palace. It was a very tame march. The aim of the march actually was to convince the czar, who they called the little father, to convince him out of the goodness of his heart, to carry out some reforms. But even this march, this tame march, was too much for the regime which responded with brutal repression.

The troops fired on the marchers. You had 4600 killed. And this massacre in itself, this massacre produced a revolution in the minds of the workers. From in the morning, the Bolsheviks, who perhaps wanted to intervene, had their leaflets torn up. They were thrown out of the march in the morning. In the evening, the workers were coming to the Bolsheviks, demanding weapons off them in order to overthrow the regime.

I think this shows something I’d say about consciousness, how consciousness develops, because actually consciousness is incredibly conservative. People will hold on to the old traditions, the old parties, the old ways of doing things for as long as physically possible. People really don’t like change, actually, but it’s big, big events like this massacre that happened that actually changed things.

But when consciousness changes, you know, it resembles an elastic band, basically. So you have the gradual straining of an elastic band. But when an elastic band snaps, it doesn’t do so gradually, It does so rapidly. And so you have a rapid transformation from people being perhaps quite conservative to people being revolutionary. Now, in 1905, also you saw the emergence of something called Soviets.

And, you know, if you ask someone in the street what a Soviet is, probably most people won’t know what it is. They might say, “It’s got something to do with Russia or something like that.” So what were Soviets? Well, Soviets essentially were basically extended strike committees that the workers used in order to organize the struggle against the bosses. The creation- they weren’t created by Marx or Lenin or anyone else.

They were created by the very creative power of the working class. These bodies were rooted in local communities or workplaces. And the representatives who were elected into these Soviets, they had no privileged position, no high wages or things like this. You had regular elections. And what this meant was that these bodies were far more responsive to the moods of the local factory, whatever else that they were representing, than parliament or anything that you see today.

And these bodies are not something that specifically a Russian phenomenon. If you look at any revolution, you see similar bodies being created even in sleepy old Britain and general strike of 1926, you saw workers councils emerging in a similar way. Now, eventually the 1905 revolution went down to defeat and there were plenty of reasons for this. I don’t have time to go into all of them.

But one of the key reasons really was the fact that, you know, because there was no leadership, it took place in a very chaotic and uncoordinated manner. So, for example, the revolution was taking off in the cities at one stage, but the rural areas were a few steps behind the kind of movement in the cities.

But once the movement in the cities had died down, you had then only then the movement took off in the rural areas. So it wasn’t coordinated. And in that, that allowed the regime to basically control it. But Lenin- no revolutionary really is a waste, really. And Lenin was fond of saying that defeated armies learned well, and there were big lessons that were learned out of this movement.

First of all, when the revolution was kind of taking off in the cities, well, the peasants were kind of used basically by the regime to clamp down on the movements. And this really, you know, brought home the realization that it was necessary to link up with the peasants if the working class were to to win next time. The bourgeoisie as well, the liberal bourgeoisie, as predicted, what did they do? Well, they reacted in horror, ran away from the movement. So again, that was a big lesson. You cannot trust the liberal bourgeoisie. But most importantly, I would say, is that the very experience of going through a revolution produces a revolution in the minds of the working class, because they come to realize their own power.

They come to realize also what’s necessary in order to get what you want, which is unity with other members of your class. Now, around this time, there are a number of different theories about how the revolution would take place. And before I go onto to these, I just want to say something. So when I was younger, I made a terrible, terrible mistake, which was to study politics at university.

And if anyone else has been as stupid as I was- but I’m lucky. But no. So the reason I wanted to mention that is because if you talk about theories at university, what are theories in university? They’re just like different outfits. It’s like, “I’ll put on a marxist outfit today or put on a constructivist outfit tomorrow and I’ll use this to analyze that” and it’s all very- it’s rubbish, right?

Like what actually is a particular theory. Really – a theory – it’s a hypothesis about reality, right? And you look at the available data, the available information that you have, and from that you generalize lessons and you use it to make a prediction about the future. Then you test that hypothesis against reality. It’s not a study of texts or language or anything like this.

We’re interested in reality. I’ve got that out of the way. So most of the- if you call them Marxist theories at this time, all of them agreed on one thing, which was that the coming revolution in Russia would be a bourgeois democratic revolution, and that was the first task that faced the working class.

But the big division between all of the different theories was who actually was to lead this revolution. So first of all, you had the Mensheviks, which was one strand of the Russian- at that time, the Marxist movement, and they argued that, well, okay, so this is a bourgeois democratic revolution, so therefore the bourgeoisie should lead it. And what should the workers do?

Well, the workers should support the liberal bourgeoisie so that they can carry out a bourgeois revolution. Then you’ll have the growth of capitalism, growth of the working class at some stage, you know, far in the future. Then you’ll have the requisite situation to have a socialist revolution. Now, Lenin and the Bolsheviks disagreed with this. They pointed to the fact that the Russian bourgeoisie had become a reactionary bloc.

And instead they said, well, the working class has to lead this revolution. But the working class was obviously a very small part of Russian society. And so they would need an ally in the peasantry. And so what Lenin and the Bolsheviks said was that these classes would overthrow Tsarism and they would establish a kind of joint state as Lenin called it, a dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.

But once this revolution had been accomplished, it would not be possible to go past the bourgeois democratic stage, because as soon as you achieve this revolution, the peasantry would no longer be a revolutionary body, basically. So what would be done? Well, you would hope then- the idea was that the revolution in Russia would act as a spark that would light the flame across Europe and the more advanced West. And you could have then socialist revolutions in, say, Germany, for example, which when they had been led to success, they would, as Lenin said, show the way to the Russian working class.

Now, Trotsky agreed- there’s a big controversy about this, right? So Trotsky agreed that the bourgeoisie could not lead the revolution. But he said that the peasantry really, if you look at history, the peasantry cannot act as an independent body. Why is this? Well contained within the peasantry, you have extremely rich peasants and you also have extremely poor peasants basically.

Also how the peasantry- what’s their day to day life like. The peasants are separated and so completely self-contained. You know, plots of land have very little to do with each other. And so the peasants can’t act as a unified bloc, that carries out independent action. So instead, it’s the working class that’s the only or the most revolutionary class in society.

So the working class would have to carry out the bourgeois revolution and they would then come to power themselves. But if you have the working class coming to power, well, they’re going to want something from it, right? They’re not going to be happy to just stay at the bourgeois democratic stage. They’re going to start asserting socialist demands, basically.

And so what you have then is that well, on top of that, though, so Trotsky understood as well that the conditions for socialism within Russia were not there. And so in order for the revolution to defend itself, it would need to spread internationally, basically. So that’s what you get. You have the bourgeois democratic revolution merges in with the socialist revolution, which also merges in with the international revolution.

That theory came to be known as the theory of the permanent revolution. And now obviously is kind of alluded to, there’s been a big attempt to exaggerate differences between Lenin and Trotsky on this question with claims, you know, that Trotsky diverged from Marxism, basically. But what explains this difference between Lenin and Trotsky? So in 1905, you got to think, what were these two individuals doing?

In 1905, Trotsky was actually chair of the Petrograd Soviet. And so he had firsthand experience about how the workers might act when they came to power. And so he realized really that the working class would not be satisfied with restraining themselves, basically. Lenin, on the other hand, was quite a bit far removed from the 1905 revolution.

So what did that mean? I think he felt he didn’t have enough concrete evidence in order to be as categorical as Trotsky. So his formula was more of a conditional formula. He did actually leave open the idea that the revolution could move straight on to the socialist revolution. But he had more caveats. He said it would depend on the consciousness and level of organization of the working class.

Now, later, obviously- so you have followers of Stalin who attacked at the Theory of permanent Revolution and advocated instead the theory of stages. So, for example, in China in the 1920s, and there’s countless examples you could give. But here they said, look, the task is the bourgeois democratic revolution. Therefore, the communists need to give support to the liberal bourgeoisie.

And then at some point in the near future, there will be a socialist revolution. But what does this remind you of? It doesn’t remind you of Lenin’s position at all, right? It reminds you of the Menshevik position. This theory, which was proved categorically wrong by the experiences in Russia, was trotted out everywhere by the Stalinist leaders, which led to defeat after defeat after defeat.

And now a certain stage, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, the two tendencies of the Russians Social Democratic Labor Party. But now at some stage these two tendencies split from each other and in 1903, Trotsky himself, he kind of remained apart from both of these tendencies.

But I think there was quite a good reason for that really. So he first of all, he said the Menshevik theory of revolution was reactionary. It was reactionary now, because in order to carry out- because they said that, you know, the working class could not lead the revolution, they at this stage would hold back the hold back the working class.

And in that way, they would act. Their theory is reactionary, basically. But interestingly, he said that the Bolshevik theory as well was reactionary, but that reactionary nature would only reveal itself after the revolution. Because if the theory says once the revolution has happened, we can’t go beyond bourgeois democratic demands, then at that stage the Bolsheviks, if they stuck rigidly to that theory, would then hold back the revolution.

And I think actually that Trotsky was proved right on that question. The point is, though, that he was proved wrong, I would say, because he- so he stayed separate from these two tendencies and he thought to himself, actually, I think the experience of the revolution itself will eventually lead to a merge of the best elements from the Bolsheviks and the and the Mensheviks.

But Lenin instead- Lenin, I think, was the only one who understood: No, actually, we need a firm struggle for to create a cadre organization on the basis of solid theory, basically. It’s not- you can’t just leave it up to fate basically to create the Revolution organization. And Lenin was 100% right on that question.

Now, after the defeat of 1905, Trotsky wrote: actually, for the labor movement to recover, at this stage, what would be needed is an economic upswing. Now, that’s a bit strange- if you just believe what the straw man critics of of Marxism say, well, an economic boom creates class struggle. That’s the opposite, right?

But what Trotsky argued was that coming after a big defeat, an economic downswing can actually lead to demoralization of workers because rather than wanting to struggle, instead they’ve lost confidence, one in their own power to change society. So instead they just look to keep their own job safe, basically. And again Trotsky was proved right on this.

You had an upswing or upturn of the economy and you saw a rise of the class struggle. So in July 1914, it reached a bit of a peak where you had a three day general strike inspired by the Bolsheviks with 130,000 workers coming out. But this kind of growing movement was cut across by a dramatic incident, a dramatic event which maybe comrades have guessed- of the outbreak of the First World War.

And this came as a big shock. It caused a big shock in the world Marxist movement, because what you had is that every so-called Marxist party, apart from in Russia and in Serbia, all of them voted for the war essentially. And this was so shocking to them. I mean, even Lenin, when he read that the German SPD had voted for the war, he basically thought it was fake news created by the German general staff.

And so at this time, Lenin took quite an extreme position on the war. Actually, his position was, let’s turn the world War into a civil war. And he also said that actually the defeat of Russia in this war would be the lesser evil compared to the victory of Russia. Now, Lenin and Trotsky slightly disagreed on this. Both agreed that this was a reactionary, imperialist war that needed to be opposed.

But Trotsky said that this position that Lenin was taking, actually it would be quite off putting to the mass of the working class because it could be misinterpreted, basically- it could be misinterpreted basically as support for the German imperialists. And and I think Trotsky was correct in this. But the point is, Lenin was not at this time speaking to the mass of the working class.

No. You know, if you think about it, if all of these heroes of the labor movement- you imagine that the IS of the IMT start supporting British nationalism, that’s going to cause a big- everyone’s going to be a bit shocked, right? That’s the sort of situation that the Marxists found themselves in that period. And so in order to cut across that, in order to make sure that none of the Communists bent to nationalism or any of that, Lenin was extremely sharp.

You know, he called that bending the stick in the other direction in order to make sure that his points were understood. And actually later, when he was speaking to the mass of the working class, he did kind of modify his tone slightly, basically. And so now the outbreak of the war itself really isolated the revolutionaries. And I think you do see this happen basically when there’s a big unexpected crisis, like a war.

And what does what effect does this have? Well it tends to actually benefit the government that’s in power at the time. People very much want to believe that the government is able to solve their problems because their lives are at stake, right? You saw a similar phenomenon, I think, after the outbreak of COVID.

Every government that was in power saw opinion poll ratings go up. So all of this looked very bleak for the revolutionaries. So bleak, in fact, that in January 1917, Lenin was giving a speech to a number of Swiss revolutionaries. And he said, well, look, you know, the thing is, I don’t think I personally will live to see the revolution.

Little did he know that in ten months time this guy would actually be in power. So let’s go through the year. So the start of 1917 begins with with a big strike wave In Petrograd. You also have a series of attempted palace coups at the top. And this is interesting. I think it’s interesting as well, if you watch- I’ve watched with fascination about what’s happening in U.S. politics at the moment. It’s just as mad as Britain, I think, at the moment.

But the first sign of a revolution is splits at the top. And why is this? Because if the social system is going into crisis, you have different layers of the ruling class begin to blame each other for this problem. Now, the revolution itself was sparked by a mass movement of women workers actually, this kind of layer of society that had been ignored for their lives, basically began to stand up and and fight back.

It was the kind of initial kind of reason for its was a bread shortages basically. And so it caused a mass movement. You had women workers marching on the factories, calling the male workers out on strike. You have on the 23rd of February of 90,000, striking on the 25th of February, just two days later, you have 250,000 people striking.

In this situation, the soldiers begin firing on on the workers. But this has no impact on the movement whatsoever. And the masses lost their fear, basically. And when this happens in this scenario, no repression at all can stop the movement. Now, any army really is a reflection of society. So if you have class divisions in society, you also have class divisions in the army.

What that means, we kind of slightly discussed it earlier, is that the rank and file of an army can have sympathy for their class brothers and sisters who are protesting. But behind every soldier is an officer who has a gun. So it’s not like the army are going to break easily. Right. And in order to break the army, the army needs to be- well, the rank and file of the army needs to be convinced that the movement is serious.

It’s ready to win and actually take power, because if the movement fails, these these soldiers risk being court martialed or worse. But in February, this exactly this thing happens on the 26th of February, when ordered to fire on the workers, the soldiers turned their guns on the police. This fearsome Tsarist army basically melted into nothing and the czar was forced to abdicate.

Now, at this stage, the Bolsheviks were quite a dominant force in the more advanced layers of the working class. But a revolution, as I said, that’s the entry of the masses onto the stage of history. And these masses came onto the stage of history without having the experience of previous movements, basically. So they were unable to distinguish between different shades of left.

So they went really for, the first of all, the most well-known leaders and the most well-known parties. And it happened at that stage that the most well-known parties and leaders were the mensheviks and another sort of Socialist party, the socialist revolutionaries. And so these parties were handed power. But going by their theory, they didn’t really want power, right?

So they handed power straight over to the liberal bourgeoisie, basically. So it’s a strange revolution, right? The workers lead, put their leaders in power, but then it’s handed straight over to another class. So this resulted basically in a bit of a strange situation where you have you have basically effectively two states existing side by side, where you have on the one hand this state of the liberal bourgeoisie which was set up called the provisional government, which was a government that was dominated by big industrialists and landlords.

On the other hand, you have the system of Soviets were linked up together on a national basis, and that’s two states existing in one country. It’s a system known as dual power. Now, some historians blame this whole situation on the stupidity of the czar, how out of touch and all of these things that he was.

Now, he was stupid, he was out of touch. I found a great quote. Once the revolution was actually taking place in the country, he wrote in his diary: “Took a walk in a thin shirt and took up paddling again and had tea on the balcony.” Very nice, right. But it’s quite interesting, if comrades one day should read the history of the Russian Revolution by Trotsky, he gives these examples.

But then he also quotes what historians said about Louis the 16th and Charles the first. Two other monarchs who were overthrown in revolutions. And he says- and he actually the quotes, you could basically use exactly the same quotes for all three of these individuals. But why is this? Well, if the system is doomed and you’re at the top of it, really you can’t do anything right, regardless of how intelligent you are.

You know, think about it. Well, am I going to unleash a wave of repression? Well, that could do in this sort of situation is lead to a backlash from below. Okay, fine. But should they carry out reforms from above? In that situation, it might just encourage the movement even more. Because that shows what what struggle gets. So there’s no way out for the people at the top. Not to feel sorry for them at all.

But it’s these big social historical forces that force these unique, seemingly individuals, to- similar personality traits, basically. Now, after the February revolution, you have the return of many of the kind of leaders of the Bolshevik Party who had previously been in exile and before many of these leaders had returned, the Bolshevik party did tend to lag behind events.

They were kind of taken by surprise by the February revolution. But they eventually adapted to it. And you had their papers were a genuine reflection of the radical rank and file of the party. But this all changed when you had the return of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin. They completely changed the line of the paper. So, for example, they began to support the war, for example.

They very rigidly followed Lenin’s schema from 1905. They said, “Well, look, if this is a bourgeois democratic revolution, we need to support the progressive bourgeoisie. We can’t go further than the bourgeois democratic revolution. What does that mean? Let’s support the provisional government. But only so far as the provisional government strengthens the revolution.”

But what was the provisional- The provisional government was made up of landlords and industrialists. How on earth was this government ever going to fortify or strengthen the revolution? That I think is proof of Trotsky’s prediction, right? How this theory that Lenin had back in 1905 had now shown itself basically to be reactionary. And Lenin realized this. He was trapped in exile at this time, and he was incredibly furious.

I found one quote. He said- he didn’t mince his words. “Our party would disgrace itself forever, kill itself politically if it took part in such a deceit, I would choose an immediate split with no matter who in our party, rather than surrender to social patriotism.” Now, eventually, Lenin did manage to return. And I really want to quote this story because the story of his actual return is fantastic.

So he returns to this at the station and he’s greeted by various dignitaries, but also a big crowd of workers and a menshevik called Sukarnov describes the scene. He said “Lenin walked or rather ran into the room in a round hat, had his face chilled and a luxurious bouquet in his arms. He stopped still in front of Chkheidze as though he had run into a completely unexpected obstacle.”

Chkheidze was the chair of the Soviets. Has a menshevik. “Chkheidze said, ‘Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd Soviet and the whole revolution we welcome you to Russia. But we consider the chief task at present is to defend our revolution against every kind of attack, both from within and from without. We hope that you will join us in striving towards this goal.’

Lenin stood there as though what was happening didn’t concern him in the least. He glanced from one side to the other, looked over the surrounding public, and even examined the ceiling while rearranging his bouquet. Turning to the crowd and away from the officials, he says ‘the Russian Revolution has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution’ ” And various sources I’ve read of the reaction to this speech say that it was basically fear was the response of various leaders of the different parties.

It was, “What is this?” Lenin had become a Trotskyist who was advocating a socialist revolution. It’s crazy. And Lenin went immediately into the attack against these old Bolshevik leaders. He criticized them. He said, You’ve not adapted the old schema to new facts. He said, concretely, things have worked out differently to how we expected back then. It said- he actually said the February regime to some extent, was the realization of what he’d said in the past of the democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry- a real mouthful.

Anyway, this regime that emerged was a complete dead end. And so he said the Soviets, when they assumed power, they should not hand power to the bourgeoisie but carry on the class struggle. He then said the revolution might have begun in Russia, but it’s only the start of the world revolution. What is this, but the adoption of the theory of the permanent revolution?

Right? And it’s there’s so much evidence this. But unfortunately, you have to clear the pile of crap the Stalinists have have unloaded onto it, basically. And I mean, for example, when Lenin was alive, Trotsky’s works were published in bulk and sent out as textbooks of the revolution. I think one thing you can agree, Lenin- he didn’t exactly- He was keen about theory. I don’t think thinking he thought this was a wrong thing to advise, he would allow that to happen- even in his collected works that were published whilst he was alive, there’s a little footnote that talks about “Trotsky’s now celebrated theory” Now celebrated theory! What does that mean? It’s been proven correct by experience.

Again, I don’t think Lenin- some oversights, He would let that appear in his works. So this kind of dead end situation that I’ve been talking about is breeding intense dissatisfaction amongst all layers of society. And so in response, there needed to be something done. So maneuvers from the top where the provisional- two ministers resigned from the provisional government, and yet several members of the Soviet elected members into this government.

But Lenin criticized this. He said it was a ridiculous thing to do and these ministers were only a subordinate force in the government. They wouldn’t be able to actually affect any policy. So the only thing that would happen was that they take the blame for the for the status quo, basically. And that, again, proved to be true. The only people actually who joined the government were the Mensheviks and the others.

The Bolsheviks stayed out, didn’t receive any of the blame for what the government was doing, and then increased their popularity off the back of that. Now, as I said, there’s kind of there are different layers to the working class, right? There’s kind of more advanced layers who perhaps pay more attention, who for whatever reason do actually read and study and pay attention to politics.

And then there’s the kind of broader mass who pay less attention. But this revolution was was bringing the broad mass into political action. But the different layers had learned different lessons at different times. And this produced a bit of a danger because there’s always the danger in a revolutionary situation that the Advanced Guard, seeing the revolution being betrayed in front of their eyes- But they see it, but maybe the broad mass of the population doesn’t see it at that time, they then move ahead of the rest of the population. And you did see this in June and July 1917, this happened. So it was a big push in Petrograd, which really was far ahead of anywhere else during the revolution.

There was a big push towards an armed demonstration. And the Bolsheviks were really worried about this, actually, because they thought, “God, this will look like an insurrection when we’re not ready for it.” So they tried their best to stop it, but unfortunately, the movement had already begun. And so what did the Bolsheviks do? They didn’t leave the movement to itself.

Instead, they took the mood of the advance guard into account, and they actually put themselves at the front of the demonstration. But to try and give it a bit more of an organized character, to try and hold it back as much as they possibly could. And ultimately, they were proved right about their prognosis about the situation because the provisional government was able to call in troops back from the front.

And the troops who came back from the front were able to disarm the revolutionary units in Petrograd. And they did unleash a wave of repression. But because the Bolsheviks had kept this movement within certain bounds, it did not lead to a complete smashing of the revolutionary forces. I think this as well, this really does show you that sometimes a revolutionary organization needs to go through the experience of events side by side with the working class, even if you might think what they’re doing is is wrong.

Now, I’m going to skip a little bit. There was this mounting crisis, right? And growing dissatisfaction from all layers in society. And eventually what this produced in the eye, in the minds of the ruling class was a desire for basically a strong man to come along who could restore order and get rid of all this nonsense revolution once and for all.

In this search, they found a man named General Kornilov who they encouraged to basically start a coup. Now, this presented the Bolsheviks with a dilemma. So Kornilov was obviously an outright reactionary. He planned to overthrow the government, but the provisional government itself as well was reactionary. Right? So, you know, feel mechanical about things, why defend a reactionary government?

Why don’t you let them fight against each other, basically? But what the Bolsheviks were doing here, they responded to a call from the Mensheviks to a united struggle, basically, of different working class organizations to defend the revolution. Actually saw that Kornilov wasn’t just planning to get rid of the provisional government. He was also planning to get rid of all of the revolutionary parties, all of the Soviets and everything.

But they carried out this United front as a way to basically prove to the rank and file of the mensheviks who might still have illusions in that party that actually the Bolsheviks were the best defenders of the revolution. Ultimately, General Kornilov was defeated with barely a shot being fired. But how did that happen? It was because they carried out a political struggle against him.

So they had won over, for example, workers on the railways who changed the direction of the tracks and things like this. So you had soldiers ending up in cul de sacs and things like this. Then what happened to the trapped soldiers? Will they were met by friendly Bolshevik agitators who would convince them at that point.

Because these rank and file soldiers, again, were not exactly natural supporters of the regime. And in the end, this fearsome army of Kornilov basically melted away into nothing. Now, Marx once said that the revolution sometimes needs the whip of counter-revolution. And after this attempted coup, you kind of see this playing out. The Bolsheviks became the decisive force in Petrograd and Moscow.

You had soldiers turning against their officers, voting for peace and deserting as well, deserting from the front. These radicalized soldiers would then return to their village homes and they’d carry out agitation there. And so from September, you see a series of peasant revolts. You have an explosion as well of forcible seizures of land from the landlords by peasants.

Now, a revolution, I think we have to have a bit of modesty here. It’s not an easy thing, you know. It seems easy when we read all these books and all the answers are there for us. But it’s not an easy thing to manage as a revolutionary party. You can go ahead too early, which would have been the case of the Bolsheviks had led the charge in July.

But it’s equally easy to miss the boat and delay, refuse to take power until it’s too late. I think Germany was mentioned- all those examples in both directions in the previous session. And what does this mean? Well, eventually, if the revolutionary leadership prevaricates, delays forever, eventually the working class will become tired. They can’t be in permanent struggle forever.

They will go home eventually. And how do you appreciate the right moment to strike? Well, at this time, Lenin was devouring reports. He would have loved these reports, that these polls that Pete quoted in the previous session- devouring election statistics. Any anecdotes from any comrade in a local workplace. Everything, he was reading. Everything that he possibly could to try and generalize from all of those examples the the class balance of forces.

And he decided, looking at all of this, the time to strike was now. So on the 10th of October, the Bolshevik leadership voted to work towards an insurrection. And it was all of the Bolshevik leadership, apart from Zinoviev and Kamenev, voted for the insurrection. On the 16th of October, Kamenev actually resigned from the CC and along with Zinoviev, they published a letter in a public forum criticizing the move to insurrection.

So they were giving the game away. It’s a really criminal thing to do. And Lenin was furious. He called these two individuals strikebreakers. And now, again, I want to say it can be easy sometimes, when someone’s presenting something to think, yeah, obviously these two people are idiots. Like, look, the Russian Revolution was successful. But the point is-

They didn’t know that, right? When a revolution is approaching this extreme pressure on the revolutionary organization, these people were not only risking their own execution, they were risking the smashing of the revolutionary forces for a generation. And how do you overcome that? Well, the only way, I’d say, is to have a very rigorous approach to Marxist theory.

It’s to be able to look below the surface. Lenin was able to realize that the time was now to strike not only because he’d amassed loads of information, but he had a method that he was able to use in order to analyze all of that information. That’s a critical lesson that we need to absorb, really, if we are going to be successful in the future, because any weaknesses in a revolutionary organization are cruelly, cruelly exposed in a revolutionary situation.

Now, there was further debate within the revolutionary forces as well about how and when exactly to carry out the the insurrection. So Lenin was completely against any delay whatsoever, as you can imagine. But Trotsky actually, interestingly, wanted to postpone the actual insurrection itself until after the Congress of Soviets. He argued that actually the question of legality and legitimacy is extremely important to the masses, even at a time of revolution.

And so he said, look, since the Bolsheviks, they will get a majority at the Congress and they will be able to carry out an insurrection in the name of the Soviets. And ultimately, Trotsky did win this argument, and it made the seizure of power far smoother because they were able to do it in the name of the Soviets, basically.

Now, in a state of absolute panic, the provisional government was attempting to fight back. So they did things like they tried to send two-thirds of the Petrograd garrison of Soviets- which is that’s not the Soviets- the Petrograd garrison, the military basically- to send two thirds of them out the front. You know, it was a Bolshevik dominated kind of body.

And so clearly this was an attack on the revolution. Again as well, they cut off the phone lines to the Bolshevik HQ. It became also an open secret that the bourgeoisie were willing to basically let Petrograd fall to the Germans in order to let them deal with the Reds basically if we can’t do it ourselves. So all of this was used to by the Bolsheviks to show that the provisional government actually were the ones that are preparing the counterrevolution.

Now, in this context, the Mensheviks called for the setting up of something called the Military Revolutionary Committee, which was a body that was aimed or intended to defend Petrograd, basically. And this was an official Soviet body and ended up being used to direct the insurrection by Trotsky became its chair. So the revolution in the end was carried out by legitimate bodies in a defensive action.

I think that’s something to remember that, actions by a revolutionary organization are always far more easier when they’re presented as a as a defensive maneuver. Now, in the history of the Russian Revolution, I thought it was quite funny because Trotsky says the insurrection itself was almost like an anticlimax. You have a thousand pages building up to this momentous moment, and it’s just kind of like a police operation, basically- a really organized with very little opposition.

But the reason for this was because the vast, vast bulk of the revolution itself really happened in the nine months leading up to that day. Really, it was just it was like a rubber stamp of an already decided decision, actually. They had the masses on side, they had the army on side. There’s no one prepared to defend the government.

Just to give one example, I mean, even the filming of it- there was so little opposition to this revolution that less people died in the seizing of power than in the filming of the film of the October Revolution by Sergei Eisenstein. I think there was an explosion or something on set. Anyway. And so, yeah, I’m going to skip one thing if thats alright. Anyway, so the Bolshevik Revolution was not a coup.

They clearly had the backing of the masses. It was also not bloodthirsty whatsoever. If anything, they were completely naive, really. There was one example of a general called Praznov- he was captured. And what did they do? Well, they said, “Look, why don’t you promise just not to do this again and then we’ll let you go?”

So they did. What did he do? Couple of weeks later, he was involved in the Civil War. They actually- and even Victor Serge, who was an anarchist, he became a member of the Bolshevik party. He criticized this. He said that’s a completely naive thing to do. This is a battle to the death, a revolution. Now, there are some who accuse Marxists of basically reducing everything to economics.

Right? So isn’t it people who create history? Yeah, of course it is individuals who create history. But these individuals don’t choose what time period they are born into, right? They don’t make history in conditions of their own choosing. However, one thing I think we can say is that, look, without Lenin, without the presence of one individual human being, the Russian Revolution might never have happened.

Maybe Trotsky could have come back and won the Bolsheviks on side, but he would have, I think, had a far more difficult time than Lenin did. And if it was not possible then for Trotsky to do that, well, you could have had the old Bolsheviks leading the, you know, the Bolsheviks to to prevaricate the moment being lost, the working class going home, the petty bourgeois, the middle class swinging over to reaction.

What you could have had was fascism arrive in Russia far sooner than arrived in history in Germany. But whilst Lenin’s presence itself was vital, Lenin himself, you know, he’d been a communist for many years before the revolution actually happened. And so what was required was both the presence of Lenin, but also the conditions in order for him to make a difference.

Now, the October revolution was the greatest event in human history. But I’m sure everyone’s aware we’re not actually living under communism right now. Right? So obviously something went wrong. And what happened? Well, so both Lenin and Trotsky, right? They both argued that what was necessary was for the revolution to spread internationally. Only then would you be able to then build socialism and then communism within the country.

And as was alluded to in the previous session, the Russian Revolution did spark a wave of revolutions across Europe, but for various reasons, all of them, unfortunately, were defeated. What did that mean? Well, you had the revolution then, isolated in a backward country. Alongside this, you have 21 of the richest countries in the world invade all at once.

And Russia was plunged into civil war. And so what you have is under conditions of starvation, the enforced lengthening of the working day as well, giving less time for workers participate in politics. You have then the workers leaving, the Soviets being less active in the party. And instead you have an invasion of kind of middle class careerists, which Lenin wrote a lot about in his final years.

And all of that eventually led to the kind of gradual rise to the top of the bureaucratic caste who were able to run the- it went from being a very democratic society to a brutal dictatorship run purely in the interests of this caste at the top. And eventually, again, this is proof, I would say, of Trotsky’s there, of the permanent revolution. Of a revolution isolated in one country, and eventually the whole system collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

Now, obviously, it’s quite a sad ending, but I don’t think it should be a sad ending whatsoever, really. I think it should fill everyone in this room with immense optimism, but also an immense sense of responsibility, because, look, if these amazing gains, amazing reforms could have been achieved in a country like Russia at that time, just think what could happen in a country like the United States if the working class was to come to power here, but also it should fill everyone in this room with an immense responsibility.

Now, I come from an increasingly backward country these days, but the United States is the most powerful imperialist country in the world. If we thought the the wave of revolutions that spread across Europe after the Russian Revolution was something, just imagine if the Communists take power in the United States. Imagine the wave of revolutions that we’d see across the world.

So I’d say everyone here has got a big job on their hands. We need to learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution. We need to absorb them so that we can build a Bolshevik party in the United States and in the world, so we can take power and get rid of this rotten system.