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From the Arsenal of Marxism

Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution: How he applied the Marxist method

by Frank Lovell

[In 1980, Pathfinder Press produced a paperback edition of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, with all three volumes combined under one cover, about 1,370 pages. Frank Lovell (1913–1998) reviewed that new edition of Trotsky’s History in the weekly paper of the main current in the U.S. Trotskyist movement at that time, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). (See The Militant, November 21, 1980, Volume 44, Number 43, pages 18–19.)

[Lovell was then a prominent figure in the SWP and a member of its “National Committee.” He had taken part in the industrial union battles of the 1930s and ’40s, and was the SWP’s “trade union director” in the 1970s. (For more about him, see the commemorative book entitled Revolutionary Labor Socialist: The Life, Ideas, and Comrades of Frank Lovell, edited by Paul Le Blanc and Thomas Barrett and published in 2000.)

[Although Lovell’s review of Trotsky’s History was published by the SWP in 1980, one of the ironies of history reared its head by the time the Orwellian year of 1984 came around. By then a new generation of younger people, led by SWP “national secretary” Jack Barnes, had contrived to throw out the SWP’s Trotskyist tradition, expelling Frank Lovell and several hundred others who continued to think that Trotsky’s understanding of Marxism was still the best guide for the working class, and for the destiny of the human race.

[We reproduce Lovell’s review of Trotsky’s master work now, nearly three and a half decades later, because it still speaks forcefully with lessons for the current generation of revolutionaries “as class struggle deepens in this country” and around the world. Our thanks to Joe Auciello for keyboarding this review from an old typescript of Lovell’s. — George Shriver, co-editor, Labor Standard]

The first paperback edition in the United States of Leon Trotsky’s monumental three-volume History of the Russian Revolution comes one year after the centenary of his birth.

It is fitting that this book is now easily available to the present generation of American workers as class struggle deepens in this country.

This is no ordinary history and the author was not a historian by profession. He was a revolutionist.

Trotsky was born November 7, 1879. He was seized by the tsar’s police when he was eighteen, accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Twenty years later, in 1917, the workers of Petrograd took power and established the first viable working-class government. As president of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky was the popular leader of that mass insurrection.

Scientific history

Trotsky was not the first or the only leader who played a role in great historic events and undertook to describe and explain them. But his is the first scientific history of a world-shaking event by one of its most prominent leaders.

He emphasized the scientific nature of his work. He was a disciple of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of scientific socialism.

Using the natural laws of historical development discovered by Marx, Trotsky explained the process through which the conflicting class forces in tsarist society produced the 1905 revolutionary “dress rehearsal” and then the 1917 convulsions, first in “bourgeois February” and again in the workers’ “Red October.” 

In his introduction to the first volume of the History, completed in 1930, Trotsky stated his method. “The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom,” he said, “but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies — open and undisguised — seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement.

“That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.”

This is a long quotation for a brief review. But it is typical of Trotsky’s style. Moreover, method is fundamental. And Trotsky’s methodology is best stated by him.

One question he had to resolve was his own part in the history he writes about. He did this by eliminating all personal recollections, relying strictly on recorded facts, and speaking of himself in the third person.

As the history of the Russian revolution unfolds, it is soon apparent from Trotsky’s exposition that individuals were not the dominant force. The driving force was the great mass of poor, highly exploited peoples in the many nationalities that comprised the tsar’s empire, a semi-feudal land with little modern industry. The directing force became the organized working class, then only a very small part of the Russian population, which finally found expression through the Bolshevik party.

The leaders of those contending class forces that were shaping new social institutions and shattering old ones were overshadowed (and usually overwhelmed) at all crucial junctures.

Role of individuals

Trotsky illustrates, often in minute detail, the role of the individual in history. At every decisive turn it was the masses who took center stage. The leaders lagged behind the masses.

This applies also to the leaders of the Bolshevik party. It was mass resistance to the war effort of Kerensky’s liberal government, combined with Lenin’s intransigent intervention when he returned from exile, that in April 1917 forced the Bolshevik party leaders to reverse their position of critical support to the Kerensky regime and revise their slogans.

In the three months from February to May the Russian masses advanced against all the political fortifications of the old ruling classes. Trotsky says this is “the most indubitable feature of a revolution.”

How does this apply to political parties and slogans for mass action? The revolutionary party seeks always to explain the objective needs of the masses and to advance slogans in tune with changing mass moods. But here, even in the heat of revolution, swift changes of mood lag behind events. The explosive force of mass action derives from deep conservatism. The great mass of people will not take decisive action until brought to the brink of disaster.

In the first volume of the history, Trotsky traces this development through the overthrow of the tsar, the establishment of the Kerensky regime, and up to the first counterrevolutionary attacks in July 1917.

Two years after volume one appeared Trotsky completed volumes two and three, and in that interval the critics had an opportunity to pass judgment. The Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union banned the book and tried to destroy its influence beyond the borders [of the USSR]. Almost without exception, other critics in bourgeois circles and in the socialist movement acclaimed Trotsky’s “literary genius,” already demonstrated in earlier writings. But the bourgeois critics tried in their own subtle ways to kill the book.

Critics charge prejudice

They opined that Trotsky’s use of the Marxist analytical method, and personal prejudices derived from his revolutionary activity, cast some doubt on the validity of his judgment as an historian. 

In his introduction to volumes two and three, Trotsky answered all the critics. He noted that none had questioned the accuracy of references and quotations in the first volume.

As for criticisms of his method, he again defended historical materialism. “For us the fundamental forces of the historical process are classes; political parties rest upon them; ideas and slogans emerge as the small change of objective interests. The whole course of the investigation proceeds from the objective to the subjective, from the social to the individual, from the fundamental to the incidental,” he said. “This sets a rigid limit to the personal whims of the author.”

The author’s work was studied with close attention from the moment of its completion, and not only because it explained the historical process as revealed in the Russian revolution. It was immediately recognized as something more than that: a masterful literary achievement, a revelation of the wellsprings of mass psychology, the insightful story of the struggle for power and transference of governmental authority.

Test of time

It is now half a century since Trotsky wrote the History. How has it stood the test of time? Today it is generally recognized as the standard history of the Russian revolution. None other compares to it. Most borrow from it. If scholars seek further facts, they must first turn to Trotsky for clues.

Trotsky’s purpose was not to lay the basis for further research on this historical event, however fascinating it might be for future pedants.

He wanted to educate his own and future generations in the proper use of the Marxist method and Leninist politics. He also tried to show that revolutionary politics requires a certain art — as in his famous chapter on “The Art of Insurrection” in the third volume, The Triumph of the Soviets.

This work is now one of the pillars of Marxist education and has been studied by serious political activists for three or four generations of working-class youth. Herein are revealed the basic laws of revolution. This is one of the classic examples of Marxist analysis, consciously using the categories of dialectical logic.

Taken as a tool for the education of revolutionary cadres, The History of the Russian Revolution is comparable to Marx’s Capital, the other classic example of the materialist method.

Marx, of course, was the originator of this method. He discovered the economic laws of capitalism, revealed the source of surplus value, and explained the secret of capitalist expansion. But his great three-volume work is much more than that. It is the detailed description of the historic rise and development of capitalism, what Trotsky termed the “microscopic investigation” of the emergence of a new epoch in the history of human development.

Historical materialism

Marx discovered and explained the basic laws of all social development, historical materialism, which he applied and demonstrated in his greatest work, Capital. And for this reason Capital is much more than a textbook on economics, as it is sometimes thought to be. It contains all of Marx’s basic materialist philosophy, his dialectical logic, and his thesis that all recorded history is the history of class struggles and that the modern industrial working class is destined to abolish social classes.

Trotsky’s History likewise contains all these fundamental Marxist concepts. It is true that Trotsky’s work is more circumscribed than Marx’s. Whereas Capital analyzed an entire historical epoch, The History of the Russian Revolution is about one great event that signaled the [beginning of the] end of the capitalist system.

But just as Marx explained the politics of nineteenth century capitalism in its ascendancy, so Trotsky explains the politics of twentieth century capitalism in the epoch of its death agony.

When Trotsky wrote the History, he noted that “the October revolution took place before the eyes of a generation still living.”

The generation that made the revolution is now gone, nearly all the top leaders murdered by the Stalinist regime that usurped power from the workers.

Trotsky wrote that his book “should promote an understanding of the character of the Soviet Union” and the “ever new riddles” of Stalinism.

Although they were unraveled and solved by Trotsky in this and later works, those riddles remain today for many who seek to understand the deformed workers states in Eastern Europe and Asia.

For the present generation, Trotsky’s writings — especially in his History — reveal the secret of many riddles that plague and disorient the working-class movement in the most advanced countries today.

The first is how a revolutionary party is built. What is the secret of the Leninist Party? How did the Bolsheviks succeed? All other questions of present-day working-class politics relate to this.

Oppressed nationalities

One of these is the question of oppressed nationalities. In the United States this remains an unsolved question for many as it relates to the struggle for Black liberation here: Is it a class question that will be answered in the struggle of the working class to abolish capitalist exploitation? Or do Black people in this country suffer double exploitation because they are an oppressed minority, a nation apart from white society?

How to resolve this false division of a problem created by the capitalist class was the specific subject of later writings by Trotsky. But his frame of reference was always the social contradictions of capitalist society, and on this specific antagonism there is no better source for a basic understanding than his chapter in Volume Three of the History on “The Problem of Nationalities,” especially the essay “A Further Note on the Problem of Nationalities,” which refers to the plight of Blacks at that time in the United States.

Still another question raised by the present political situation in the United States and demanding an answer: Who are the natural allies of the workers and how will a coalition led by the organized sector of the working class be forged? There is no better historical example than that provided by the Russian revolution in which the numerically small working class of Russia won the support of the peasants and mobilized their massive power for the final assault on the old order. Trotsky describes this working-class strategy in such a way as to make its application today understandable.

One of the secrets of Bolshevik party-building is the careful study and accurate appreciation of the relationship between the objective social pressures that mold a mass movement and the shifting moods of the masses of people who are affected.

Often there is a great disparity between the two. Sometimes they converge.

Trotsky noted that at different stages of revolutionary developments (and this is also true of the present period of economic stagnation and social instability) the political process “consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis — the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.”

Conscious leadership

The political party that understands this process and gives conscious expression to it will grow and become part of the process. It then provides conscious direction. This is what happened during the Russian revolution. The Bolshevik party was the conscious element that made victory possible.

How did the Bolsheviks become the conscious factor in the revolutionary process, making possible the new state power? “Besides the factories, barracks, villages, the front and the soviets, the revolution had another laboratory: the brain of Lenin,” says Trotsky. Driven underground, Lenin concentrated on “the key problems of Marxism.”

Lenin revives Marxism

During this period immediately preceding the insurrection, Lenin wrote his book, The State and Revolution, to revive the genuine teaching of Marx about the state. It had been accepted by many in the Marxist movement that workers were not equipped to master the machinery of state and would need to use the old capitalist state apparatus for new purposes.

This was a real question for those about to seize power, as it is for revolutionaries today. Trotsky explains how Lenin understood the matter: “You say the workers cannot master the machinery of state? But it is not a question — Lenin teaches — of getting possession of the old machine and using it for new aims: that is a reactionary Utopia. The selection of personages in the old machine, their education, their mutual relations, are all in conflict with the historic task of the proletariat. After seizing the power our task is not to re-educate the old machine, but to shatter it to fragments. And with what replace it? With the soviets. From being leaders of the revolutionary masses, instruments of education, the soviets will become organs of the new state order.”

And that is what happened in October 1917.

Like Lenin before him, Trotsky in his third exile became a laboratory of the continuing revolution. The History of the Russian Revolution is one of the great products of that laboratory. Like Lenin, Trotsky was obliged to re-examine the key problems of Marxism. And like Lenin, he sought to revive the genuine teachings of Marx with the added task of defending and applying the teachings of Lenin.

Trotsky had a total of eleven years — from 1929 to 1940 — to complete his tasks before being assassinated by an agent of the Soviet bureaucracy. He was sixty when struck down.

In the last eleven years of his life he produced — and I am talking only about material that has already been published in English — the equivalent of more than thirty large books, discussing every important question for the revolutionary movement that arose in the eventful decade of the 1930s.

The History of the Russian Revolution is thought by many to be Trotsky’s most brilliant achievement, surpassing even his leadership in the decisive battles of the revolution and the civil war that followed.

Active revolutionist

But even in exile he did not consider himself primarily a writer. He remained throughout his entire life an active participant in the revolutionary struggle. All his writings had a single purpose: to serve that movement. His History is certainly one of the greatest services performed by any of the founders and continuators of scientific socialism — Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.

For Trotsky, his greatest achievement was the founding of the Fourth International, the continuation of the international socialist movement organized first by Marx and Engels and revived in Lenin’s time after the Russian revolution as the Communist (Third) International, which withered under the chilling grip of the counterrevolutionary Stalinist regime.

The geniuses of scientific socialist theory were all active revolutionists. They practiced what they taught. But their writings remain for us and future generations their greatest heritage. The History of the Russian Revolution ranks very near the top in the order of use value for the present. Pathfinder Press deserves special commendation for its timely issuance in paperback.