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Trotsky: In Defence of October

The Causes of October


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What questions does the October Revolution raise in the mind of a thinking person?

1) Why and how did this revolution take place? More correctly, why did the proletarian revolution conquer in one of the most backward countries in Europe?

2) What have been the results of the October revolution? And finally:

3) Has the October Revolution stood the test?

The first question, as to the causes, can now be answered more or less exhaustively. I have attempted to do this in great detail in my "History of the Revolution". Here I can only formulate the most important conclusions.

 

The Law of Uneven Development

The fact that the proletariat reached power for the first time in such a backward country as the former Tsarist Russia seems mysterious only at a first glance; in reality it is fully in accord with historical law. 

It could have been predicted, and it was predicted. Still more, on the basis of the prediction of this fact the revolutionary Marxists built up their strategy long before the decisive events.

The first and most general explanation is: Russia is a backward country, but only a part of world economy, only an element of the capitalist world system. 

In this sense Lenin solved the enigma of the Russian Revolution with the lapidary formula, "The chain broke at its weakest link."

A crude illustration: the Great War, the result of the contradictions of world imperialism, drew into its maelstrom countries of different stages of development, but made the same claims on all the participants. It is clear that the burdens of the war would be particularly intolerable for the most backward countries. Russia was the first to be compelled to leave the field. But to tear itself away from the war, the Russian people had to overthrow the ruling classes. In this way the chain of war broke at its weakest link.

Still, war is not a catastrophe coming from outside like an earthquake, but, as old Clausewitz said, the continuation of politics by other means. In the last war, the main tendencies of the imperialistic system of "peace" time only expressed themselves more crudely. 

The higher the general forces of production, the tenser the competition on the world markets, the sharper the antagonisms and the madder the race for armaments, so much the more difficult it became for the weaker participants. That is precisely why the backward countries assumed the first places in the succession of collapse. The chain of world capitalism always tends to break at its weakest link.

If, as a result of exceptional unfavourable circumstances for example, let us say, a successful military intervention from the outside or irreparable mistakes on the part of the Soviet Government itself capitalism should arise again on the immeasurably wide Soviet territory, its historical inadequacy would at the same time have inevitably arisen and such capitalism would in turn soon become the victim of the same contradictions which caused its explosion in 1917. 

No tactical recipes could have called the October Revolution into being, if Russia had not carried it within its body. The revolutionary Party in the last analysis can claim only the role of an obstetrician, who is compelled to resort to a Caesarean operation.

One might say in answer to this: "Your general considerations may adequately explain why old Russia had to suffer shipwreck, that country where backward capitalism and an impoverished peasantry were crowned by a parasitic nobility and a decaying monarchy. 

But in the simile of the chain and it weakest link there is still missing the key to the real enigma: How could a socialist revolution succeed in a backward country? 

History knows of more than a few illustrations of the decay of countries and civilisations accompanied by the collapse of the old classes for which no progressive successors had been found. The breakdown of old Russia should, at first sight have changed the country into a capitalist colony rather than into a Socialist State.

This objection is very interesting. It leads us directly to the kernel of the whole problem. And yet, this objection is erroneous; I might say, it lacks internal symmetry. On the one hand, it starts from an exaggerated conception of the phenomenon of historical backwardness in general.

Living beings, including man, of course, go through similar stages of development in accordance with their ages. In a normal five-year old child, we find a certain correspondence between the weight, size and the internal organs. But it is quite otherwise with human consciousness. 

In contrast with analogy and physiology, psychology, both individual and collective, is distinguished by exceptional capacity of absorption, flexibility and elasticity; therein consists the aristocratic advantage of man over his nearest zoological relatives, the apes. The absorptive and flexible psyche confers on the so-called social "organisms", as distinguished from the real, that is biological organisms, an exceptional variability of internal structure as a necessary condition for historical progress. 

In the development of nations and states, particularly capitalist ones, there is neither similarity nor regularity. Different stages of civilisation even polar opposites, approach and intermingle with one another in the life of one and the same country.

The Law of Combined Development

Let us not forget that historical backwardness is a relative concept. There being both backward and progressive countries, there is also a reciprocal influencing of one by the other; there is the pressure of the progressive countries on the backward ones; there is the necessity for the backward countries to catch up with the progressive ones, to borrow their technology and science, etc. 

In this way arises the combined type of development: features of backwardness are combined with the last word in world technique and in world thought. Finally the countries historically backward, in order to escape their backwardness, are often compelled to rush ahead of the others.

The flexibility of the collective consciousness makes it possible under certain conditions to achieve the result, in the social arena, which in individual psychology is called "overcoming the consciousness of inferiority". In this sense we can say that the October Revolution was an heroic means whereby the people of Russia were able to overcome their own economic and cultural inferiority.

But let us pass over from these historico-philosophic, perhaps somewhat too abstract, generalisations, and put up the same question in concrete form, that is within the cross-section of living economic facts. The backwardness of Russia expressed itself most clearly at the beginning of the twentieth century in the fact that industry occupied a small place in that country in comparison with the peasantry. 

Taken as a whole, this meant a low productivity of the national labour. Suffice it to say that on the eve of the war, when Tsarist Russia had reached the peak of its well-being, the national income was eight to ten times lower than in the United States. This expresses numerically the "amplitude" of its backwardness if the word "amplitude" can be used at all in connection with backwardness.

At the same time however, the law of combined development expressed itself in the economic field at every step, in simple as well as in complex phenomena. Almost without highways, Russia was compelled to build railroads. Without having gone through the European artisan and manufacturing stages, Russia passed directly to mechanised production. To jump over intermediate stages is the way of backward countries.

While peasant agriculture often remained at the level of the seventeenth century, Russia's industry, if not in scope, at least in type, reached the level of progressive countries and in some respects rushed ahead of them. 

It suffices to say that gigantic enterprises, with over a thousand workers each, employed in the United States less than 18 per cent of the total number of industrial workers. In Russia it was over 41 %. This fact is hard to reconcile with the conventional conception of the economic backwardness of Russia. It does not on the other hand, refute this backwardness, but dialectically complements it.

The same contradictory character was shown by the class structure of the country. The finance capital of Europe industrialised Russian economy at an accelerated tempo. The industrial bourgeoisie forthwith assumed a large scale capitalistic and anti-popular character. 

The foreign stock-holders moreover, lived outside of the country. The workers, on the other hand, were naturally Russians. Against a numerically weak Russian bourgeoisie, which had no national roots, there stood confronting it a relatively strong proletariat with strong roots in the depths of the people.

The revolutionary character of the proletariat was furthered by the fact that Russia in particular, as a backward country, under the compulsion of catching up with its opponents, had not been able to work out its own social or political conservatism. The most conservative country of Europe, in fact of the entire world, is considered, and correctly, to be the oldest capitalist country England. The European country freest of conservatism would in all probability be Russia.

But the young, fresh, determined proletariat of Russia still constituted only a tiny minority of the nation. The reserves of its revolutionary power lay outside of the proletariat itself in the peasantry, living in half-serfdom; and in the oppressed nationalities.

The peasantry

The subsoil of the revolution was the agrarian question.

 The old feudal monarchic system became doubly intolerable under the conditions of the new capitalist exploitation. The peasant communal areas amounted to some 140 million dessiatines. But 30,000 large landowners, whose average holdings were over 2,000 dessiatines, owned altogether 7 million dessiatines, that is as much as some 10 million peasant population. These statistics of land tenure constituted a ready-made programme of agrarian revolt.

The nobleman, Bokorin, wrote in 1917 to the dignitary, Rodsianko, the Chairman of the last municipal Duma: "I am, a landowner and I cannot get it into my head that I must lose my land, and for an unbelievable purpose to boot, for the experiment of the socialist doctrine." But it is precisely the task of revolution to accomplish that which the ruling classes cannot get into their heads.

In Autumn, 1917, almost the whole country was the scene of peasant revolts. Of the 642 departments of old Russia, 482, that is 77%, were affected by the movements! The reflection of the burning villages lit up the arena of the insurrections in the cities.

But you may argue the war of the peasants against the landowners is one of the classic elements of bourgeois revolution, and not an act of the proletarian revolution!

Perfectly right, I reply so it was in the past. But the inability of capitalist society to survive in an historically backward country was expressed precisely in the fact that the peasant insurrections did not drive the bourgeois classes of Russia forward but on the contrary, drove them back for good into the camp of reaction. If the peasantry did not want to be completely ruined there was nothing else left for it but to join the industrial proletariat. This revolutionary joining of the two oppressed classes was foreseen by the genius of Lenin and prepared for him long before.

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. But thereby it delivered the power to the proletariat and together with it the right to dispose of the destinies of bourgeois society.

In order for the Soviet State to come into existence, it was consequently necessary for two factors of a different historical nature to collaborate: the peasant war, that is to say, a movement which is characteristic of the dawn of bourgeois development, and the proletarian insurrection, or uprising which announces the decline of the bourgeois movement. There we have the combined character of the Russian Revolution.

Once let the Bear the peasant stand up on his hind feet, he becomes terrible in his wrath. But he is unable to give conscious expression to his indignation. He needs a leader. For the first time in the history of the world, the insurrectionary peasants found a faithful leader in the person of the proletariat.

Four million workers in industry and transport leading a hundred million peasants. That was the natural and inevitable reciprocal relations between proletariat and peasantry in the Revolution.

The national question

The second revolutionary reserve of the proletariat was formed by the oppressed nationalities, who moreover were also predominantly peasants. 

Closely allied with the historical backwardness of the country is the extensive character of the development of the State, which spread out like a grease spot from the centre at Moscow to the circumference. 

In the East, it subjugated the still more backward peoples, basing itself upon them, in order to stifle the more developed nationalities of the West. To the 70 million Great Russians, who constituted the main mass of the population were added gradually some 90 millions of other races.

In this way arose the empire, in whose composition the ruling nationality made up only 43 percent of the population, while the remaining 57 per cent, consisted of nationalities of varying degrees of civilisation and legal deprivation. The national pressure was incomparably cruder than in the neighbouring States, and not only than those beyond the western frontier, but beyond the eastern one too. This conferred on the national problem an enormous explosive force.

The Russian liberal bourgeoisie was not willing in either the national or the agrarian question, to go beyond certain ameliorations of the regime of oppression and violence. The "democratic" Governments of Miliukay and Kerensky, which reflected the interests of the great Russian bourgeoisie and bureaucracy actually hastened to impress upon the discontented nationalities in the course of the eight months of their existence: "You will obtain what you can get by force."

The inevitability of the development of the centrifugal national movements had been early taken into consideration by Lenin. The Bolshevik Party struggled obstinately for years for the right of self-determination for nations, that is, for the right of full secession. 

Only through this courageous position on the national question could the Russian proletariat gradually win the confidence of the oppressed peoples. The national independence movement as well as the agrarian movement, necessarily turned against the official democracy, strengthened the proletariat, and poured into the stream of the October upheaval.

In these ways the riddle of the proletarian upheaval in an historically backward country loses its veil of mystery.

 

[Continue...]


1. One dessiatine equals 2.7 acres

 

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