On the 75th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination Michael Wallace reviews one of Trotsky’s key works- “The Lessons Of October”- in which Trotsky summarized the key lessons of the Russian Revolution.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the assassination of legendary Russian revolutionary socialist and Marxist thinker, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was murdered on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on the 20th August, 1940, while living in exile in Mexico City.
Second only to Lenin as a key leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which established the world’s first worker’s state, Trotsky also led the successful defense of the Revolution as commander of the Red Army, defeating 14 invading armies from the West.
After exile at the hands of Stalin’s dictatorship in 1929, Trotsky became a symbol of implacable resistance to world capitalism and also became a brilliant critique of the rise of fascism throughout the 1930s and the need to combat it with the tactic of the ‘united front’ of the left.
He also remained a resolute opponent of totalitarian Stalinism, Trotsky argued for the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the restoration of mass working class democracy, a courageous stance which ultimately led to his death. However, if Stalin and his capitalist cheerleaders thought that killing Trotsky would kill his ideas, they were gravely mistaken.
The body of work he left behind is an invaluable reference and powerful call to action for international working class solidarity, organisation and resistance.
One of the most important books Trotsky wrote is the ‘Lessons of October,’ which was published in 1924 and is a vital read for those who want to learn about the type of organisation Trotsky believed can carry out a successful revolution.
The book was written after a decisive year for the international workers’ movement in 1923, when the revolutionary tide sweeping Europe after the victory of 1917 began to ebb away.
Germany was close to a workers’ revolution in 1923. An enormous strike movement from below drew millions of workers towards the German Communist Party. Had capitalism in Germany been toppled, the fledgling Soviet Union would have been released from international isolation and bureaucratisation.
The omens were good as the German working class was one of largest and most powerful in the world at the time- yet the opportunity for a successful insurrection was missed. The German Communist Party backed away and the moment was lost forever.
Trotsky analysed why this historical opportunity was missed by comparison with the successful Russian Revolution. The whole theme was that “events have proved that without a party capable of directing the working class revolution, the revolution itself is rendered impossible…there is nothing else that can serve the working class as a substitute for its own party.”
According to Trotsky, a successful revolution is only made possible by a substantial revolutionary party deeply rooted in the working class. Only with the ability of organised revolutionaries to lead an insurrection can a spontaneous explosion of class anger be turned into a weapon to smash the capitalist state.
And for the working class to take and hold power a revolutionary party is indispensable. In Russia the Bolsheviks were able to win 66% of the votes in the mass assemblies- called ‘Soviets’- and lead them in a successful socialist revolution. Without the party the Soviets would have remained in the hands of more moderate groups and eventually fallen to an attack from the Right.
Secondly, the role of an experienced layer of Party members, apart from a top leadership, is vital in responding to arguments quickly, in bringing about sharp turns in policy at critical moments. Such a layer of socialist activists can help the working class change from one front of battle to another.
In 1923 the German party leadership were unable to move to openly challenge for state power because they were worried their organisation would be smashed in the process- conservatism stopped them leading the working class to decisive victory. The defeat led ultimately, but not inevitably, to Hitler and World War II.
When Trotsky’s book was published it created a storm of criticism because of revelations that Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had claimed loyalty to Lenin, had actually opposed him and the October Revolution.
Soon after the first revolution of February 1917 and the overthrow of the Tsar, other leaders in the Bolshevik Party offered critical support for the imperialist First World War and for the pro-war Provisional Government “in defence of the revolution”.
The main culprits were Kamenev and Stalin. In April 1917 when Lenin returned from exile in April 1917, he was determined to transform the Party’s line to “Down with the Provisional Government, Down with the War”. Lenin won the Party to fight for workers’ power. There’s little doubt that without the political analyses, judgement, timing and leadership of Lenin and Trotsky the October Revolution would not have happened.
But without the mass revolutionary Bolshevik organisation- which was rooted in the factories and working class areas- their correct analysis would have remained ineffective. It was that mass organisation that made their ideas a factor in changing the course of history.
Unsurprisingly, only 5,000 copies of Lessons of October were published in the Soviet Union with the book officially banned, denounced and falsified by a rapidly degenerating leadership. But Trotsky continued to battle the rising bureaucracy and defend Lenin’s political legacy.
After Trotsky’s defeat and exile, Stalin was confident enough to announce his total break with Marx and Lenin with the theory of ‘socialism in one country’. This renounced international revolution in favour of military and economic competition with western capitalist powers. This led to further isolation for Russia and bolstered the power of Stalin and his clique- leading to the establishment of a ‘State Capitalist’ regime.
Under 21st century capitalism, we now face appalling inequality and poverty, economic crisis, brutal wars and climate destruction- threatening the very existence of the human race. Despite attacks by those who try to discredit the man and his legacy, Trotsky’s ideas and practice are more relevant then ever and remain a source of inspiration for a new generation of workers, activists and socialists today.
Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” is available to read online here: