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Book Review: Trotsky and February 1917, Preparing for revolution

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Peter Taaffe, from the February 2017 issue of Socialism Today (monthly magazine of the Socialist Party – CWI England & Wales)

When the Russian revolution began in February 1917, leading revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, were in exile. Commentating from afar they sought to influence events, while planning their return. In the meantime, the Russian government was headed by right-wing socialists, the Mensheviks, and the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries.

Leon Trotsky, co-leader of Russia’s October revolution, 1917, devoted just ten pages in My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1930) to the ten weeks he spent in New York during the first world war. Those pages contain a brief but brilliant summing up of the temper of the U.S. workers’ movement and its leaders at the time. Kenneth D. Ackerman covers the same theme in Trotsky in New York 1917, a book-length analysis of the mood in what was then and still remains the citadel of world capitalism. However, the author covers a wider scope than Trotsky, relating his work in New York to his broad historical contribution.

Some may consider that the author is somewhat overzealous in this task – at least in terms of length – but they would be mistaken. The book, coming from a non-Trotskyist, inevitably contains some inaccurate criticisms of Trotsky’s alleged political approach but there is also invaluable material about his stay in the city and elsewhere. Some of this criticism is borrowed from opponents of Trotsky at the time – like Alexandra Kollontai who had an ultra-left approach to the first world war, and to both Trotsky and Lenin later.

There are also some irritating, inaccurate personal criticisms of Trotsky for allegedly “abandoning” his first wife, the Russian Marxist, Aleksandra Sokolovskaya, and their two daughters, Zinaida and Nina, in Siberia. They had been exiled there following the defeat of the first revolution in 1905. In fact, Trotsky escaped from exile with Aleksandra’s full agreement so he could re-join the revolutionary struggle in the underground. Life then parted them, sadly, but they remained firm friends and comrades with a mutual love for their children, who were later cruelly persecuted and murdered by Stalin.

Nevertheless, Ackerman fills out Trotsky’s life in New York, in the process presenting a fascinating view of the labor movement at this time. He also, in the main, presents an accurate picture of Trotsky’s ideas, of his relationship with Lenin, and their shared analysis of perspectives for the forthcoming Russian revolution. This is important because in this year, the hundredth anniversary of the revolution, we can predict that there will be an avalanche of books from bourgeois writers, the aim of which will be to falsify the real history of the revolution – the greatest single event in human history to date – and its heroic leadership and participants.

This book has the merit of describing, fairly accurately, the mesmeric effects of Trotsky, in the first instance, and the Russian revolution on the American working class. In so doing, Ackerman reminds us of the vibrant socialist past of the U.S. The book is worthwhile for this alone, particularly as the conditions which created revolution in Russia were partly reflected in the U.S. at the time, and this is a prelude to similarly titanic events which will develop under the whip of Donald Trump’s reaction.

Bernie Sanders articulated the growing, popular, anti-system, anti-capitalist mood when he demanded a ‘political revolution’ against Wall Street in his bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Unfortunately, he did not go further and demand a social and economic revolution, the aim of which would be to take power out of the hands of the 1% and put it into the hands of the majority, the 99%. He even opposed the first necessary step towards this: the nationalization of the banks.

Trotsky and the U.S. Workers’ Movement

Trotsky’s fame had preceded him to New York. A German language newspaper announced: “Leon Trotsky is arriving today.” Ackerman writes: “Within two days, at least six New York newspapers with more than half a million readers would announce Trotsky’s arrival in the city. Three put the story on the front page, and two, the Forward and the New York Call, included front-page photos.” Trotsky’s reputation as the heroic leader of the 1905 soviets (workers’ councils) guaranteed a wide audience for his Marxist and socialist ideas.

He eagerly reached out to the exploited masses of New York, in the first instance the massive one-and-a-half million Russian-speaking immigrants through the journal Novy Mir (New World). This had a circulation of 8,000 and, according to Ackerman, was “arguably the most impactful Russian journal in the western hemisphere, easily overshadowing the city’s three larger-circulation Russian dailies.”

Trotsky’s message to the native-born as well as Russian-speaking population was of total opposition to the slaughter of the first world war, coupled with his expectation of imminent revolution. He wrote: “I left Europe wallowing in blood, but I left with a profound faith in a coming revolution. And it was with no democratic ‘illusions’ that I stepped on the soil of this old-enough New World.” (My Life, Chapter 22) But this brought him quickly into opposition to the right-wing leaders of the Socialist Party of America. They were already divided between the socialist/internationalist opponents of the war and pro-war leaders like Morris Hillquit, described by Trotsky in My Life as “the ideal socialist leader for successful dentists.”

In contrast, Eugene Debs recognized a kindred spirit in Trotsky, the genuine voice of the Russian revolution, always embracing him whenever they met. Trotsky valued the admirable qualities of Debs as a “sincere revolutionary.” Nevertheless, he was realistic when he wrote – clearly with Hillquit in mind – that Debs “succumbed to the influence of people who in every respect were his inferiors.” Association with these leaders inevitably blunted the appeal of the Socialist Party’s message to the more militant sections of the working class, which later led to splits and divisions.

Ackerman shows the growing influence which class policies and socialism had acquired in the U.S.: “By 1917 the Socialist Party had reached a remarkable status in America. Its candidates had won elections all across the country. Two Socialists had sat in the U.S. Congress. Socialists held mayor’s offices in 56 towns and cities, including Milwaukee and Schenectady. They held more than 30 seats in state legislatures, from Minnesota to California to Oklahoma and Wisconsin, plus dozens of city council and alderman seats. The party had more than 110,000 dues-paying members and about 150 affiliated newspapers and magazines. Its flagship national magazine, Appeal to Reason, reached almost 700,000 readers each month, and its presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, won almost a million votes in 1912, about 6% of the total running head-to-head against Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.”

Trotsky ceaselessly spoke and wrote against the war, attacking all those “socialist” leaders who supported the continuation of the slaughter. He indicated this clearly in a speech just ten days after he arrived in New York at what was billed as a meeting to “salute the Russian fighter for freedom.” His speech needed translation into four languages and began with an attack on president Wilson, “a tool of the capitalist class.” Then he shifted to his main theme, writes Ackerman: “The socialist revolution is coming in Europe… and America must be ready when it comes. Socialists were caught napping when the war started but they must not be nodding when revolution comes. In France, the soldiers who come out of the trenches say: ‘We will get them.’ The French think that the soldiers mean they will get the Germans, that they want to kill the workers in the other trench. But what they really mean is that they will ‘get’ the capitalists.”

Such sentiments brought Trotsky into head-on collision not just with the bourgeois, but with the right-wing leaders of the American Socialist Party, just as he had earlier clashed with their European cousins, the rotten leadership of social democracy which had betrayed the working class in its support for the slaughter of war. Therefore, when the news broke of the first demonstration in the Russian capital, Petrograd, in early March – February in Russia, because it used the old-style Julian calendar – there was great enthusiasm among the working people of New York, particularly those with Russian antecedents. And Trotsky and Lenin, separated by thousands of miles, took the same position in relation to the prospects of revolution.

Ackerman confirms this. He reports that, as early as March 16 – the same day that Trotsky was telling the New York Times that the Petrograd regime could never survive – Lenin cabled from Zürich to his followers in Russia demanding that they should continue their opposition to the war and resist any rapprochement with the Mensheviks. Lenin went further and demanded: “Our tactics – complete distrust. No support for the Provisional Government. Distrust Kerensky above all. Arm the proletariat as the only guarantee. Immediate elections to the Petrograd city council. No alliance with other parties”.

Revolution Echoes Worldwide

Revolution is, above all, a process involving the direct intervention of the masses in shaping their own destiny. The bourgeois concept that in some way a revolution can be “made” by a handful of conspirators is false to the core. Only when the masses have exhausted other channels – peaceful protests, petitions, etc – do they decide to act, because “we cannot live like this any longer.” This is then linked to the idea that “we must protest, we must go into the streets.” The Russian masses, at least its most determined layers, had already arrived at these conclusions in late 1916 and the first months of 1917 as the mountain of dead from the war piled higher. Food stocks diminished, shortages were evident and starvation haunted the cities.

Yet, before this, even Lenin in exile in Switzerland was not able to grasp fully the underlying, explosive situation that was developing. In early 1917, he commented: “We of the older generation may not live to see the revolution.” However, once the dam broke, with the working women of Petrograd the first into battle demanding bread for their families, Lenin and Trotsky recognized the beginnings of revolution. Not only in Russia. Ackerman comments: “Two revolutions hit New York…” one in distant Russia, the other in downtown New York, as “riots broke out, led by mothers and housewives protesting the high cost of food… 500 marched on City Hall shouting ‘Bread! We starve!’”

New York at that time had a considerable and diverse population of poor and working-class people – as it still does today, with an estimated 800 languages spoken. By the time of the second world war, the city was one of the biggest manufacturing centers in the U.S. The historian, Joshua B Freeman, wrote: “Nearly half its workforce made, moved, or maintained physical objects for a living, everything from corsets to skyscrapers to aircraft carriers” (Working-Class New York, 2001).

The conditions for revolution were ripening worldwide, and the socialist Russian revolution of October 1917 found an enormous echo in many other countries, particularly the US itself. The American ruling class took fright and resorted to brutal repression, symbolized by the Palmer raids against the left and the labor movement. The effects were partly reflected in the magisterial novel, USA, by John Dos Passos – especially in the chapter ‘1919’ (!).

This is also illustrated by Ackerman when he describes the reaction to the news on 15 March of the revolutionary events in Russia: “From the street came excited shouts. Celebrations were erupting all across New York’s vast immigrant neighborhoods: Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, especially the Lower East Side. Spontaneous parades, rounds of drinks, songs and dancing spread like wildfire with the news. One parade carrying red flags grew so boisterous that it degenerated into a riot… people threw bricks and bottles and smashed windows until police broke them up with clubs.”

Capitalist Slander Offensive

Lenin in Zürich and Trotsky in New York – along with thousands of other revolutionaries – prepared urgently to return to Russia, no easy task given the obstacles in their path. Lenin’s route was through territory under the occupation of German imperialism, Trotsky’s via dangerous, submarine-infested oceans, with the ever present danger of naval attack. Moreover, his journey was under the resentful eye of British imperialist forces.

Lenin, desperately seeking to return, was offered help from Parvus, a pseudonym for the Russian, Alexander Helphand. He had been a friend of Trotsky, who he had once called “one of the most important of the Marxists,” who “contributed the lion’s share of the theory of the permanent revolution.” According to Trotsky, however, Parvus always had something “mad” about him, including an “amazing desire to get rich.” Trotsky had broken with him, as had Lenin, for his pro-war support for German imperialism.

Now Lenin negotiated through Parvus with the German authorities for his return to Russia in the famous “sealed train,” which was not actually sealed. This incident, conducted openly in full view of the workers’ movement, became part of the bourgeois-fostered legend that Lenin and the Bolsheviks accepted “German gold,” and collaborated with the German military and ruling class. A similar, infamous charge was made in the 1970s, by Nora Beloff in the Observer, that we – the ‘Militant’ now the Socialist Party – were financed by foreign powers! There was even a suggestion that Russia – still under Stalinist oppression – gave us money, ignoring the river of blood that separated Trotskyism from Stalinism. This slander only arose when we began to gain substantial influence in the British labor movement.

Ackerman points out that there were 32 Russians on the ‘sealed train’ – Lenin and “a host of other prominent Bolsheviks and Mensheviks,” including the Menshevik leader, Julius Martov. They would travel together in a railroad car, “part of which would be marked off and considered neutral territory.” These facts did not prevent a monstrous slander campaign against Lenin and the Bolsheviks after their arrival in Petrograd, slanders which have been repeated endlessly even to this day. It reached such a pitch that the revolutionary sailors who had helped overthrow tsarism were, for a time, taken in by these tales and actually threatened to bayonet Lenin on sight!

The virtual monopolization of the media gives the capitalist establishment the means for molding public opinion – partially offset today by the development of social media. This can hold back the masses from drawing clear class conclusions. But not forever. Events, and in a revolution they are titanic events, are much more convincing that newspaper editorials. The direct experience of the failure of landlordism and capitalism, enormously accentuated by the slaughter of the first world war, allowed the workers and peasants to draw their own far-reaching conclusions.

Changing Political Consciousness

Anti-Bolshevik propaganda could work for a period but the experience of the masses in the revolution was a great teacher. The soldiers who threatened to kill Lenin would become the most ardent supporters of the Bolsheviks, and later of the workers’ government he led. In February 1917, the Bolsheviks had barely 1% support in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets). Yet, within eight short months, the greatest and most successful revolutionary party in history was able to conquer power. Of course, only gradually did the masses – the peasants as much as the workers – become convinced that the Bolsheviks alone were really prepared to fight for their demands and aims.

Trotsky gives a very striking example of this in his monumental History of the Russian Revolution (1930): “At the beginning of July… 2,000 Donetsk miners, kneeling with covered heads in the presence of a crowd of 5,000 people and with its participation, declared: ‘We swear by our children, by God, by the heaven and earth… Believing in the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, we swear we will never listen to the Leninists, for they, the Bolshevik Leninists, are leading Russia to ruin with their agitation, whereas the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks united in a single union say: the land to the people, land without indemnities; the capitalist structures must fall after the war and in the place of capitalism there must be a socialist structure… We give our oath to march forward under the lead of these parties, not stopping even at death’. This oath of the miners directed against the Bolsheviks in reality led straight to the Bolshevik revolution” (Volume 2, Chapter 35).

This summarizes the process of changing consciousness, under the blows of big events, which takes place in a revolution. Moreover, it indicates the severe limits on the ruling class in its ability to distort the views of genuine Marxism. This was clearly demonstrated in big events in Britain, such as the Liverpool city council struggle and the battle against the poll tax in the 1980s and into the 1990s. In the teeth of vicious hostile propaganda against Militant, the main political force behind Liverpool and the poll tax victories, the masses drew their own conclusions. The demands which we consistently advocated were adopted: ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay!’ As a result, 18 million people refused to pay the tax. The Liverpool working class repudiated Margaret Thatcher and her Tory government through mass resistance. It was even more the case during the tumultuous events of the Russian revolution.

The charge leveled against Trotsky and Lenin, that they were in the pay of the German general staff, that they could be bought by the class enemies of the working class, will no doubt be resurrected this year as the events of the revolution are once more pored over. But the slanders are shown to be totally false in Ackerman’s book. He quotes one of Trotsky’s self-described rivals in New York: “He [Trotsky] is absolutely unpurchaseable. Money would not tempt him to part a hair’s breadth from Simon-pure Marxism.”

Just as important in this book is the impact Trotsky had on workers, no matter what circumstances he found himself in. After leaving New York, Trotsky was illegally detained in a British prisoner-of-war camp in Nova Scotia. This prevented him from intervening at an early stage after the February revolution. Even so, he had a huge effect on his fellow captives, German sailor prisoners-of-war: “He soon found himself giving talks to small ad hoc circles, all under the watchful eye of Colonel Morris [the camp commandant] and his guards.” He led constant discussion groups with the German prisoners, telling them “about the Russian revolution, about Lenin, about America’s intention to join the war, and about how, once the war ended, they could go home and overthrow the government in Germany, just as Russian soldiers would help topple the tsar. They could get rid of the Kaiser and the whole capitalist crowd in Berlin who had started this pointless bloodshed in the first place.”

Colonel Morris complained: “After only a few days here [Trotsky] was by far the most popular man in the whole camp with the German prisoners-of-war, two thirds of whom are socialists.” Many of them went on to play an important role in the workers’ movement and in the German revolution.

Menshevik Failure

Relatively favorable accounts of the role of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks will by no means form the majority of the books and articles which will be published in and around the revolution’s centenary. Most will be overwhelmingly hostile. One such new publication is Two Years of Wandering, by Fedor Dan. Many anti-Bolshevik historians describe the October revolution of 1917 as a coup. The introduction to this book by Francis King supports the Mensheviks’ interpretation of the revolution and is critical of the Bolsheviks. Yet he also makes some important points which effectively undermine the contention that the Bolsheviks and the October revolution were “undemocratic.”

King admits that the Bolsheviks won a majority in the soviets which effectively elected the government. He writes: “In June [in the first All-Russia Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets] there had been 248 Mensheviks, plus 32 Menshevik internationalists, to 105 Bolsheviks.” The Mensheviks and their allies had a large majority and formed the government. The Bolsheviks were fighting loyally within the soviets to attain a majority. By October, as King concedes, there were “just 65 Mensheviks, of whom 30 were internationalists… ranged against 252 Bolsheviks. A clear majority of delegates supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the members of which were still besieged in the Winter Palace… The Bolshevik seizure of power rapidly led to a shift… and a political realignment… It revealed starkly the failure of the policies followed between February and October. Revolutionary defencism and the attempt at all cost to keep representatives of Russia’s liberals and propertied elements in the government had become increasingly discredited.”

The Bolsheviks won a majority in the soviets democratically, and used this legitimacy to carry through the October revolution. Following the February revolution, the other parties – particularly the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks – wanted to continue the war while desperate Russian troops and their families wished to end it immediately. Dan declared, on June 14: “Russia cannot end this war on its own… The war can only be ended by the joint efforts of international democracy.” In other words, they wanted to continue the war! They held the ludicrous conception that the war would be ended by a harmonious, simultaneous repudiation of the conflict. In the meantime, it would go on. This is shown by their decision to convene a mass demonstration on 18 June to “coincide with a military offensive by Russian troops.”

In so doing they clearly set themselves against the express wishes of the overwhelming majority of the troops who were threatening to leave the trenches – many had already done so. The masses were insistently demanding the unilateral proclamation of peace. This was accompanied by the call for food, and for land to the peasants. Only the Bolsheviks were prepared to fight for this to the end.

Two Years of Wandering does not add anything to our understanding of the process of revolution. It amounts to a lament by one of the leaders of the main parties, the Mensheviks, which with the Social Revolutionaries at one stage had a majority in the soviets. The Bolsheviks had no more than 4% support in the soviets in April 1917 when Lenin returned to Petrograd. The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries became the power.

Why did they lose it? The truth is that they did not really want power if this meant going outside the framework of landlordism and capitalism. The capitalists and landlords were demanding the continuation of the war, the repudiation of the masses’ demands, and the crushing of democratic rights and workers’ organisations. Even in the elections to the all-Russia Constituent Assembly, King writes that “the Mensheviks’ support had sunk by the end of 1917. They won little more than 3% of the total poll, and almost half of that vote was concentrated in their Georgian stronghold.” He comments, correctly: “The Bolsheviks wanted political power, and believed they could use it to build a socialist society. The Mensheviks, as led by Martov and Dan, did not.”

They thought that a socialist revolution, the beginning of a world revolution, was impossible. Dan wrote of the “limits of the potential of the Russian revolution as a whole”. He was prepared to concede only that: “It can provide a stimulus to world social and political processes only as a ‘peasant’ revolution, albeit one which is strongly influenced in its course by proletarian ideology and politics, but not directly as a socialist revolution.” He thereby demonstrated the limits of the opponents of Bolshevism and the reasons for the ultimate failure and marginalization of Menshevism.

Lenin and Trotsky United

Lenin and Trotsky were well aware that socialist revolution limited to Russia could not succeed by itself. But they saw it as an overture to revolution in Europe and the world. This would be a prelude to building a socialist confederation of Europe leading to a socialist world. Their perspective was borne out with the outbreak of the post-war revolutionary wave. This did not succeed only because of the cowardly role of the social democratic leaders who supported their own ruling classes, helping to defeat the working-class movement for socialist change.

Ackerman’s book, while being superior to Dan/King’s, is not free from errors and even serious mistakes. The author makes a number of blunders, which he has taken largely from other false accounts of Trotsky’s alleged history in the revolutionary movement in Russia. For instance, he repeats the legend that Trotsky had a shared political position with the Mensheviks. In fact, Trotsky completely opposed, as did Lenin, the political perspectives of Menshevism: that the forthcoming revolution would have a bourgeois democratic character and that, therefore, the workers’ movement should give its support to the liberal bourgeoisie. Socialism in Russia, for them, was the music of the distant future.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution agreed that a bourgeois democratic (capitalist) revolution was necessary, clearing away all the historical rubbish of elements of feudalism. This, however, could only be accomplished by a movement led by an exceptionally dynamic working class, with the peasant masses behind them. Having established a workers’ and poor peasants’ government, it would then be necessary to go forward to the socialist tasks: the nationalisation of industry, planning of society, etc. Moreover, this could only be consolidated by the spread of the revolution internationally, particularly to more industrially developed states like Germany. This could then lay the basis for a workers’ socialist confederation of Europe.

There were no fundamental differences on this between Lenin and Trotsky in 1917, or on the question of the need for a party to organize the masses in the taking of power and its consolidation. It is true that Trotsky made some unfortunate remarks in his youth criticizing Lenin’s position on the character of the party, which he freely admitted to later. He also entertained the illusion that the pressure of the masses could force a principled unity between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. He admitted subsequently that this was a mistake, and confirmed this in action by joining with the Bolsheviks in one common party. The first world war completely discredited any idea of the possibility of unity between pro-war “patriotic” socialists, including most of the Mensheviks, and principled revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky.

Trotsky: Agent of Change

Trotsky in New York deserves to be read for a number of reasons. It provides invaluable information on Trotsky’s effect on the workers’ movements of the U.S. for the short period he was there. It also illuminates the militant history of U.S. labor, and the figures associated with this – such as Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood, both Socialist Party of America leaders and co-founders, in Chicago 1905, of the militant union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World; and James Cannon, who Trotsky met at the time and who later broke from Stalinism to become a Trotskyist.

This is important at a moment when it is necessary to remind the new generation in the U.S. of its own workers’ and labor movement history. For instance, the Seattle general strike of 1919; or the bitter steel strike of the same year, led by William Z. Foster, who went on to join the Communist International. Moreover, the explosive economic and social situation in the U.S., under the whip of Trump reaction, will help enormously to radicalize the working class, particularly young people. Trump will act as an unconscious agent of class struggle and a recruiting sergeant to socialism. This will also add to the favorable prospects for building a mass socialist force in all the cities of the U.S. and on a national scale.

This book, therefore, is well worth reading, and not least for Kenneth D Ackerman’s conclusion: “In the 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Supreme Court re-examined the cases of thousands of victims of the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. The court decided to ‘rehabilitate’ hundreds, clear them of old charges, restore their names and reputations. They included Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and even Trotsky’s son Sergei. But not Trotsky himself. Gorbachev permitted Trotsky’s name to be discussed in public, a few scholarly papers were written, but no clean bill for him ever appeared. Gorbachev himself continued to repeat the old Stalinist line, calling Trotsky an ‘excessively self-assured politician who always vacillated and cheated.’

“Even then Trotsky still appeared too dangerous. He still represented the historical alternative, the possibility that things can always be different, that socialism could have worked, that ruling powers any place and any time can be overthrown by the conscious, organised will of the people. All this made Trotsky dangerous to the Russian tsar in 1905, to Kerensky in 1917, to Hillquit in New York, to Stalin in the 1920s, even to Gorbachev in the 1980s. For all his faults, he remains the eternal agent of change.”

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
By Kenneth D Ackerman
Published by Counterpoint, 2016

Two Years of Wandering: a Menshevik leader in Lenin’s Russia
By Fedor Il’ich Dan
Translated, edited and introduced by Francis King
Published by Lawrence and Wishart, 2016, £15

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