The history of the October Revolution November 7th, 1917 VOL.2
The Serge-Trotsky Papers: Correspondence and Other Writings between Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky, Edited by David Cotterill (Pluto Press, 1994). 275 pp., $44.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon, 20 November 1995
Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky, two of the most outstanding and talented socialists of the Russian Revolution and the international socialist movement, had, by 1939, parted from each other in a mood of acrimony and estrangement, much to the delight of inveterate anti-Marxists eager to darken the "anti-democratic" Trotsky, and the Bolshevik political tradition, against the libertarian light of the freedom-loving Serge.
But was it as simple as this? The recently published Serge-Trotsky correspondence, though a useful study in the personal and political chemistry of life on the left, does not ultimately contribute much to resolve the matter.
In 1917, Victor Serge had shed the anti-Marxism of his anarchist circles in Spain. He saw a radically democratic revolution in Russia and concluded that the discipline and organisation of the Bolsheviks, a mass revolutionary workers' party, was responsible for the revolution being effective in establishing working-class power and, with it, real freedom and democracy for the vast majority.
Serge arrived in Russia in 1919, at the height of the civil war, joined the Bolshevik Party and defended the revolution with pen and machine-gun (though he was never called upon to use the latter). He never forgot his origins, however, and always cast a critical, libertarian eye on proceedings. His "double duty", as he termed it, was to protect the revolution from its external enemies and from its internal excesses.
Serge deplored any infringements on liberty and the early symptoms of bureaucratic sclerosis, yet he recognised that the dominating element of the revolution during the harsh civil war years was "the danger of [the revolution's] death" and the victory of an incalculably worse capitalist counter-revolution.
Serge concluded that, though deplorable, it was necessary at that particular time to take actions such as outlawing the Mensheviks and anarchists after they had carried out assassinations and attempted insurrections, to suppress the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921, which would have opened the way to a successful military and political counter-revolution, and to establish a security police.
"The Revolution has the right and the duty to defend itself against those who, even with the best intentions, try to shoot it in the back", wrote Serge. The struggle for power brooked no half-measures. If the Bolsheviks had not fought to defend working-class power, wrote Trotsky, then fascism would have been a Russian word instead of an Italian one.
Trotsky and Serge were also at one during the struggle against the Stalinist cancer which fed off the revolution's battered working-class social base. The working class was physically decimated and weakened by the exhaustion involved in defending a revolution from a hostile environment of isolation, material poverty, counter-revolution and imperialist invasion and blockade.
When the revolution was in mortal peril, Serge and Trotsky were driven together, and the underlying differences between anarchism and Marxism were submerged. When the revolution was lost to Stalin in the late '20s, however, Serge and Trotsky began to drift apart. They fell out, from 1936 onwards, over the Spanish revolution and the role of the Fourth International, the Trotsky-inspired global revolutionary body which never had the numbers to match its ambition to challenge the Stalinist Third International.
Serge supported the POUM, an "independent Marxist" party in Spain which had some illusions about the revolutionary potential of the Popular Front, a cross-class alliance which had the allegiance of most workers but was politically bourgeois-Stalinist.
The timing, the social base and the revolutionary consciousness of the European working class, Serge argued, were not right for Trotsky's vanguard international to lead the struggle in Spain. Trotsky disagreed, labelling Serge a "centrist", a four-star abuse word in the Marxist armoury for someone who vacillates between reform and revolution.
Serge was clearly too naive about the POUM, whereas Trotsky was too optimistic about the prospects for the Fourth International. Their differences over Spain led Serge away from Trotsky.
Political differences over the suppression of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, which resurfaced at this time, also led Serge to emphasise abstract libertarian principles over material context and the hard political decisions posed by the practical issue of class power. Serge began to stress the negative "germs" of Bolshevism. Trotsky, for his part, rather too brusquely tended to dismiss his critics as dilettantes and fair-weather socialists.
Personality differences did not assist in clarifying their political differences. Trotsky's letters reveal traces of what one of Trotsky's sons, Sedov, described as his father's "lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy", characteristics which were heightened during his exile and political isolation. To Trotsky's often petulant mood, Serge appears the more reasonable and generous person.
Yet it is not enough to blame Trotsky's personality (although it did play a part) for their estrangement. Nor can it be explained by the shenanigans (though real) of Stalin's agents in sowing misunderstanding and discord between the two. For Trotsky was, on political essentials, right - on Kronstadt, on the Popular Front and the POUM in Spain. Trotsky speaks of the "pitiless logic" of revolution - where revolution stops short of the conquest and vigorous defence of working-class power, the result is counter-revolution, fascism, military despotism and general carnage.
Serge was gradually shifting away from a classical revolutionary politics. He was under pressure from the big working-class defeats during the '30s and his isolation both from the working-class left currents which were predominantly loyal to Stalin and from Trotsky's band of revolutionaries. Serge declared, shortly before his death in 1947, that "proletarian revolution is no longer to be our aim". He began to take refuge in a primitive libertarianism, adopting the most un-Serge-like view that fear of liberty and of the masses "marks almost the entire course of the Russian Revolution".
The earlier Serge would never have subscribed to such silly right-wing drivel as the original sin theory of Stalinism - that Lenin ate of the Bolshevik apple and democratic socialism was forever damned.
This book of Serge-Trotsky correspondence, swimming in the always less than placid waters of polemic, presents both Serge and Trotsky in a partial and unflattering light. Trotsky's brilliant analytical mind (however wrong on details or on some forecasts) and his organisational genius (however mistaken on the Fourth International) are on limited display, as are Serge's psychological insight and exceptional literary skills in writing the meaning of revolution into the bones and souls of the leaders and humble makers (and betrayers) of revolution.
Too often, the impression left by the book is of two embittered old men arguing over Kronstadt. To be sure, there are lessons to be had from this - how to strike a balance between political necessity and principle without idealising the Bolshevik or any other revolutionary regime - but the Trotsky-Serge contribution to the history and living tradition of socialism has many other pages to it. Serge's novels are real diamonds of left-wing art, and Trotsky's anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist politics are diamond-like in their strength and clarity, even with the occasional flaws of both men.
The Russian Revolution: Still inspiring after 80 yearsBy Arthur Perlo, People's Weekly World, 8 November 1997
"One of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars" - this was how Vladimir Lenin described the American Revolution.
But it also describes the Russian Revolution which Lenin led, 142 years after the "shot heard round the world" in Lexington, Mass., and exactly 80 years ago Nov. 7. With all the noise today about the "death" of Communism, we would do well to remember how truly liberating that revolution was for the people of the Russian empire, and for the people of the world.
At the time of the Russian Revolution, most of the world's people - in Africa, Asia, Latin America and parts of Europe - lived in colonies or semi-colonies. They were forced - directly or indirectly - to labor for the profits of their European and North American masters, and any resistance was brutally suppressed. Europe was in the midst of World War I, in which millions of workers and peasants were slaughtered in a contest to decide which European rulers would get to exploit the colonies and weaker countries.
Russia, the weakest of the "great powers" of World War I, was known throughout the world as a backward, decaying empire. Today, Hollywood portrays its ruler, Czar Nicholas, as a tragic figure. But the Russian royal family, along with the Russian Orthodox Church, were notorious for their corruption, brutality and ignorance, ruling an empire of more than 100 different nationalities, and building grand palaces out of the blood of impoverished subjects.
More openly than today, all the world's great powers were ruled by old nobility and rich capitalists who were contemptuous of ordinary workers and peasants. Then, on Nov. 7, 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks took power in Russia.
The Bolshevik Party (later the Communist Party) was the party of the industrial workers in Russia. Its allies were the parties representing the peasants, especially the poor and landless peasants. With virtually all of the other political parties and classes against them, the new government turned to the working class to run the government and the economy.
The new government immediately implemented their revolutionary program - land to the peasants, an eight-hour day for the workers, and peace from the bloody slaughter of WWI. Equality of all nationalities was proclaimed.
Many Russian Jews, including my great-grandparents, had earlier fled the Russian empire where they were forbidden to own land, pursue professions or live in cities, and were victims of the Russian version of the Ku Klux Klan.
After the revolution, all legal restrictions were abolished, and the first Soviet President was a Jew, Yakov Sverdlov. This sent a powerful message around the world, at a time when Jews faced open and widespread discrimination in the United States, and most African Americans lived in semi-slavery in the American South.
Setting a new standard
The American Revolution of 1776 shook the world with the idea that people should govern their own country, although these governing people were usually rich white men. The Russian Revolution had an equally profound effect, proclaiming that working men and women of all nations and races should both govern and own their country.
)From the start, the world's capitalists feared and hated the Russian Revolution because it challenged their profits and destroyed the myth that ordinary workers can't run things for themselves. Winston Churchill helped organize an army from fourteen capitalist countries (including the U.S.) to "strangle the Bolshevik infant in its crib."
But the workers and peasants of Russia supported their revolution; workers in the United States, Britain, France and Germany refused to be used as cannon fodder against the workers of Russia. Churchill's attempt failed, but the new Soviet Union, formed out of the Russian Revolution, was left to try to rebuild a country, poor and backward to start with, devastated by seven years of WWI and then civil war, and facing continued diplomatic and economic warfare against it by the leading capitalist countries.
Within two decades, the new country had an amazing list of accomplishments. Industry and agriculture were able to supply the country for the first time with its basic needs. Illiteracy was reduced from over half to almost nothing.
The Soviet Union led the world in social services like health care, child care and education, and in labor conditions such as an 8-hour day, paid vacations and pensions.
By the 1930s, when the rest of the world was in the grip of the Great Depression's mass misery and desperation, the Soviet Union had a stable, expanding economy with full employment.
The Soviet Union guaranteed full political and economic rights to women, who were employed in all occupations, as doctors, engineers and political leaders. The many nationalities, formerly oppressed and "Russified" under the Czar's empire, for the first time had the opportunity for education in their own languages and cultures, and produced their own professionals and leaders to develop their rapidly growing economies.
At a time when the U.S. government was forcing Native American children into "English-only" boarding schools to destroy their culture, the Soviet government was helping the indigenous peoples of Siberia to develop written languages, and finding ways for them to blend their traditional lifestyles with the developing modern economy.
Twenty-four years after the revolution, the Soviet Union underwent trial by fire when it was attacked by the Nazi armies. Although the Nazis had triumphed throughout Europe, the Red Army defeated them.
This was only possible because of the huge advances made since the Revolution in industry, agriculture, and education; because of the unity of the many nationalities formerly oppressed by the Russian Czar, and because of the support by the people for their country and their socialist system.
Legacy and inspiration
The Russian Revolution left a rich legacy. Inspired in part by its achievements, workers in many capitalist countries won benefits like social security, unemployment insurance, shorter hours, vacations and health care. The Soviet Union gave diplomatic, economic and military aid to colonial people fighting for their freedom. And here in the United States, the example of the Soviet Union was an important factor in the federal government's decision in the late 1950s and 1960s to begin to end segregation.
The Russian Revolution, and the Soviet system built on it, were far from perfect. Many things have been written about their failings - some of them are even true. Seventy years after the revolution, the unremitting diplomatic and economic warfare waged by the United States and other capitalist countries, combined with internal weaknesses and treachery by its leaders, overthrew the Soviet Union.
In Russia and the other former Soviet republics, working people have seen their living standards slashed, pensions disappear, and education and health care destroyed. They are ruled by gangsters who have virtually turned their country into a colony of foreign capitalists.
This is part of a world capitalist offensive against the working class. People who never had a kind word about the Soviet Union are saying that its fall opened the door to this "New World Order." But the many successes of the Russian Revolution are a continuing inspiration, and even its failures will provide lessons to help the Soviet people to take back their country and rebuild a better socialist society. And the lessons learned from the Russian Revolution will also help us, when the time comes to build our own brand of "Bill of Rights Socialism," of, by, and for the people.
To me, the best ideals of the Russian Revolution are expressed in the words of a popular Soviet song of the 1940s, as sung by the great African American artist Paul Robeson: "To our youth, now every door is open. Everywhere, our old with honor go. Everywhere throughout our mighty union, all our people flourish free from strife. Side by side, the black, the white, the yellow, work to build a peaceful, better life."
Ideals like this inspired the Soviet people for 70 years.
They still inspire working people throughout the world.
October 1917 changed the 20th centuryBy Deirdre Griswold, Workers World, 20 November 1997
[The following is excerpted from a speech by Workers World editor Deirdre Griswold to a New York meeting celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.]
The Soviet Union has been such an overwhelming presence in world affairs that it is hard to imagine the 20th Century without it.
How long would the First World War have lasted without the Russian Revolution? Would the German, British, French and American generals who sent millions to their deaths in the trenches have suddenly become pacifists and called off the war?
In 1916 in the Battle of the Somme, 60,000 soldiers lost their lives in one day--more than the U.S. lost in the entire Vietnam War--but that didn't stop the slaughter. The imperialist generals finally ended it only out of fear that the revolutionary fervor in Russia would engulf them too.
All the imperialists held colonies. The Russian Revolution inspired these oppressed nations to fight for their liberation. Ho Chi Minh, for example, wrote about his great excitement on first reading Lenin. When the socialist revolution spread to China, this was taken by all the colonized peoples as a sign that their time had come. Would decolonization have happened without these great revolutions?
There are plenty of people in the progressive movement, how