By Adam Powell
On that day of snowy tension, in early November, in the Russian chill, no one expected what was to come before the day’s end. Leon Trotsky, who from his perch at The Smolny, Petrograd’s historic government district, had been overseeing the movements and actions of trade union militants, was fretting over nationalist propaganda. The Bolsheviks in the underground printing press were still churning out pamphlets, proclamations, and statements. The Provisional Government of Kerensky, along with the pacifiers from the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary parties, was still hurling idle threats at the Soviet agitators. Vladimir Ilyich was still in transit to the battleground of his homeland. None knew that history would touch these people and this nation so suddenly and powerfully. Even in those early days and decisive hours, none of the leaders of the soon- to-be-formed Soviet Union knew what, or even how, the revolution would begin. But begin it did, and, a century later, those students of the Soviet experience are still learning from the lessons of the Bolshevik movement.
That Trotsky and Lenin expected an armed insurrection is inarguable. They had promoted such an agenda and had sensed the seeds of resistance since the reactionary days of February, and even more so during the punishing days of July. Nevertheless, they had never expected that it would arise so unannounced, so spontaneously from the throats, feet, and hands of the very workers they had so diligently fought to convince. In this way, the duo’s idea of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” came to life in a startling way. Workers began nationwide strikes, alongside the peasantry and the soldiers, crippling many of the country’s most essential services and instigated armed resistance against the cronies of the February government. In the upheaval, the people turned to the organization that with conviction, sincerity, and integrity had long advocated for a popular resistance against bourgeois society. As history has shown, their confidence was well placed. The Soviet government of Lenin and Trotsky prevailed, despite diplomatic skirmishes, civil war, imperialist intervention, and any number of internal and domestic struggles. That the Soviet Union eventually crumbled is less an indictment of the Bolshevik leaders than it is of those who abandoned its revolutionary struggles.
The reason this revolution is still talked about today, on the very eve of its centenary, is because the lessons to be learned from its creation and execution have never truly been replicated. In no small way, it is the desire of every modern socialist revolutionary to see that trend reversed, and the lessons are far- reaching. Primarily, the Bolshevik Revolution showed the world for the first time in its history that the politics of radical equality could not only awaken the masses, but also reinvent one of the world’s foremost nations. During the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, Trotsky observed that, “The thing that surprises and repels the governments of other countries is that we do not arrest strikers, but capitalists who subject workers to lock- outs; that we do not shoot peasants who demand land, but arrest the landowners and officers who try to shoot the peasants.” What a radical notion, that a government should side with the exploited over the exploiters; that a government should use all means at its disposal to ensure that no person is capable of subjugating another for the benefit of the first.
Further and equally important, we celebrate and learn from this revolution specifically because its leaders have come to be recognized as some of the most brilliant minds ever to hypothesize on matters of socialist revolution and ideology, not to mention their formulations of the conditions of their time. They created within themselves a cult of personality, which to this day defines some of the various schools of thoughts with in today’s socialist movement. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin is one of the most well-known revolutionaries in the history of the world, most certainly in the history of socialist action. His contributions to socialist thought on issues such as war and peace, democratic centralism, pacifism, and so much more still resonate within today’s revolutionaries. Lenin was radicalized against czarist rule after the execution of his brother in 1887. He was eventually expelled from school for participating in anti-government protests and, by 1893, had moved to Petrograd to become a leader in the Russian Social Democrat Labour Party (RSDLP). During a series of arrests and exiles, Lenin came to be recognized for his theoretical insight through his various writings, which were illegally dispersed across the continent. It wasn’t long before an inner-party squabble caused a split, with Lenin’s Bolsheviki advocating for insurrection. As we know, the rest is history.
Although he has been bestowed a much more negative cult of personality over the many years of reaction, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known to most as Leon Trotsky, is widely recognized as one of socialism’s foremost thinkers and writers. The ideology given his namesake, “Trotskyism,” is synonymous with opposition to revisionist policies and the abandonment of the revolution’s ideals. It still holds a prominent place within the modern socialist discussion, particularly among his many devoted apostles. Trotsky helped to establish the South Russian Workers Union in 1897 and, less than a year later, he and other union members were imprisoned for two years. During his years of imprisonment and exile, which would become a recurring condition of Trotsky’s life, he penned countless pamphlets and statements, which still hold resonance among modern socialists. By 1905, Trotsky was again writing leaflets, this time for the RSDLP and the Bolsheviks, while simultaneously attempting to radicalize the Mensheviki faction. A series of strikes went out like wildfire, first among the typesetters and later among many other workers’ groups, and Trotsky spoke before a crowd of more than 200,000 supporters. By the next morning, the Soviet was surrounded and Trotsky was arrested along with a number of union members. Trotsky lived the better part of the following years in exile, working with socialist organizations across the continent, until the February Revolution drew him back to his homeland and his ideological counterpart Lenin. In much the same way Lenin’s prologue ended, so too does Trotsky’s. History has shown what happened when the Bolshevik leaders were finally in place to implement the strategy that had long believed would set the stage for a socialist overthrow of the bourgeois state. In the unrest, which followed the ousting of the czar, and the subsequent government takeover by placating bourgeois opportunists, Lenin and Trotsky knew that the Russian people had reached a fever pitch and would support such an oppressive state, not too different from the one from which they had just gained freedom, for only a short time.
These lessons in themselves are more than enough to consume the literary and educational time reserved for the proletarian revolutionary, but they only scratch the surface of the lessons which can be learned from thoroughly evaluating the successes and failures, of which there were plenty of both, of the October Revolution and the years which followed it. But, perhaps, we do ourselves a great disservice in only evaluating those lessons that had their curriculum based in physical, and therefore verifiable, evidence. The people, the action, the policies, and troubles can all be confirmed through historical documentation, at least that which survived the Stalinist purges of fact and history – when the most potent lessons to be learned are from those occurrences which were too unrehearsed to have left their mark upon national history in a real and tangible way. Rarely a conversation on the Russian Revolution can be held without reference to Lenin and Trotsky, the Petrograd gun battles and shellings, or the orders given by the Bolsheviki leadership to quell the resistance and propel the revolutionaries to victory. Rare indeed, however, are the conversations on the excellent use and dispersion of revolutionary propaganda, or the impetuous uprising that exploded in October of 1917 specifically because this well-crafted literature had hit its mark in a most surprising way.
It would seem that these are the most important lessons to be learned from the Bolshevik Revolution, and not necessarily the strategies on warfare, party building or the consolidation of power. Rather, it is the need for a dynamic propaganda program and the realization that, if that literature successfully completes its mission, those who pen it will have little say in when that revolutionary time bomb ultimately detonates. In a strange way, we must learn that, like a teacher, it is the job of the organized revolutionary movement to effectively educate the exploited and oppressed. Similarly, much like a teacher, we have no say as to when or how that knowledge will be utilized; and, just like a teacher, those who share knowledge will inevitably be the ones that students look to when they find their full understanding lacking.
In this way, the most important lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution, as it pertains to the modern, yet traditionalist, socialist movement spearheaded by comrades within the Socialist Party of the United States of America, are the more intangible. Among these is the efficacy of well-crafted propaganda, established for the symbiotic purposes of education and radicalization, and the acceptance of our place as little more than a radical university for students of the revolution. In the event of a popular uprising, this propaganda will become the epicenter of direction for all of those well-educated and steadfast comrades who have entered the fold via the doorway we’ve opened for them. Quite contrary to a subordinate role in the revolution, these actions position our organization to truly understand the nature of revolution and the role of those organizations that promote and promulgate a proletarian uprising; one not ordered upon the masses but welcomed by those who recognize its necessity.
In consideration of the first tenet, the idea that masterfully-crafted propaganda is the most effective tool for radicalizing the working class of any nation, one need only look at the history of nearly every socialist revolution that has taken place since 1917. As we have already seen, Trotsky and Lenin churned out constant writings in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, proclamations, editorials, statements, and more to great effect among the disenfranchised masses of early 1900’s proletarians. The same can be said of the propaganda campaign waged by the revolutionaries in Cuba. Much like Trotsky and Lenin, Guevara and Fidel spent much of their days penning statements to be disseminated amongst the working peoples of Cuba’s cities. The guerrilla movement had experienced great success among the rural peasantry. This is because it used eloquently and effectively written propaganda, not to mention popularly enjoyed radio broadcasts, to undermine the official statements of the government so effectively that armed insurrection within those city centers began within only a short while. Although we live in an age wholly distant from the struggles of the past, both those of 1917 and those of the 1950’s and 60’s, we can effectively utilize the same methods by simply modifying them to today’s technology. Primarily, the power of print media, which interested parties can carry along to sympathizers and friends for an undisclosed duration, should not be undermined. The establishment of a powerful and properly functioning printed organ could work wonders for the message spreading so desperately needed by this organization. This regularly-published newspaper could be used to several beneficial ends. The most important of which is the simple ability to provide people with a professionally crafted periodical, which will convince the reader of the legitimacy of the organ and, thereby, encourage them to seriously look more into the ideas expressed therein. Further, this outlet could work as an excellent source of revenue building and message spreading if disseminated to local charters, which could both contribute to the organ and distribute it among the working class peoples of their locales.
While my Trotskyist tendencies often lead me to put more stock in the printed word than more modern colleagues, I am in no way under the impression that such a periodical should take the place of more contemporary modes of message spreading. Ideally, the printed word will be the primary method by which information is shared, but certainly not the sole method. Modern technology allows us to review multiple happenings across the planet in only seconds and digest wholly the various schools of thought discussing those events. In the same way, it allows us to instantly share with the wider world our unique perspective on issues plaguing peoples all across the globe. This should be utilized constantly, not in the childish way that many people use social media, but as an extension of the eloquence often reserved for printed works. We have to acknowledge that modern technology, while providing humanity with a wide array of benefits, had widely dumbed down the human population and created a vortex within which most never escape. The desperate need for formal writing in our daily exchanges, whether they be statements or proclamations dispersed through blogs or brief blasts of words on social media platforms, can not be understated. If we want our movement to be taken seriously by the working people of this nation, we must speak in serious language. It is common for modern socialists to condemn such language as bourgeois, but such assertions undermine the very real conditions of the day. Those not speaking or writing with formality are pushed to the side, like every other voice that abets the modern butchery of the English language. Formality in speech may well be a bourgeois construct, but it nonetheless provides a portal through which we are able to appeal to the masses in a legitimate way. As mentioned before, this assertion was not lost on the socialist leaders who have come before us. No different than modern language, the language of the Russian or Cuban proletariat, and likewise that of every other nation, does not conform to the linguistic standards of the intelligentsia. However, it is the language within which we are tasked to educate. Just as our theories educate the masses, so too does our use of language.
The second great lesson to be learned for modern socialists, the one which begs us to bide our time until the toiling masses are awakened to the point of action, is much more difficult to explain and even more difficult still to comprehend. Perhaps patience is not so much the lesson as the primary obligation of education, though the two inevitably walk hand in hand. Armed revolution is the end that we all see as inevitable, for no person will talk the ruling class into surrendering its power. Therefore, we must acknowledge that without the radical education, which is provided by organizations such as our own, there is no hope for the organized mass movement, which will be required to fundamentally change our nation and, therefore, the cultural conditions within it. For this reason, it is imperative that our organization focus more fully on that task, not just of educating the masses to the point that every slight offense is noticed without thought, but of educating our own comrades to the point that every slight offense becomes a new avenue through which to teach. If we will readily admit that the vast majority of United States’ citizens, and truly the vast majority of all peoples, are not yet sufficiently educated on the ideals and motives of revolutionary socialism, then we must also admit that there are those within our ranks who suffer the very same deficiencies. We must never tire in our efforts to guide the ideological growth of our comrades, both in the historic mission of socialism and its modern goals. In doing so, we not only help to mold top-notch comrades, but revolutionary educators as well.
The methods by which this radical education can take shape are numerous. As previously discussed, a central propaganda organ disseminated to all comrades for dispersal among the masses will undoubtedly work wonders. In addition, the establishment of an inner-party organ might well serve to better educate our members. As we have surely seen, despite the younger generation’s insistence to the contrary, the Party disregards opportunities for digital learning and connectivity through seminars, lectures, book clubs, and the like. For this reason, again, a hard copy of a newsletter specifically for the continuing education of comrades would likely work where other efforts have not. With a more firmly established knowledge of our party’s goals and our ideology’s perspectives, comrades can more effectively share that knowledge with the community. Book clubs and lectures are excellent ways to educate the local population, but so too are more light- hearted events which, on the surface, serve no political or ideological purpose, such as community cook-outs, musical performances, movie screenings, and the like – any way that the local cadre can connect with those not already radicalized.
That radicalization, which is the very soil in which our movement will be planted, is the only true goal toward which the modern comrade should strive. Just as each of us were radicalized over time, our ideas sharpened, and our commitment solidified, so too do the yet-uneducated masses need time to develop proper praxis, and the greatest lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution surely only reinforce that assertion. It was not one decision made by Trotsky or Lenin that secured the victory of socialism in Russia a century ago. It was not one battle that ensured that the Leninist vision of society would thrive, if only for a while, in the world’s largest nation. It was the continued determination over many years of thoughtful, brilliant, and resolute men and women, who worked tirelessly to aid and educate the underserved masses of their homeland, which brought forth the greatest socialist victory known to history. While we can certainly learn from the iron discipline of the Bolshevik leaders and the steadfast courage of those who served beside them, the most important lessons are those which are rarely noticed to those beyond the fray: patience and creativity, resourcefulness and empathy, commitment and discipline. Without acknowledging the role of these necessary traits, we cannot claim to have learned anything from the Bolsheviks. Our party will inevitably suffer the same fate if our movement is placed into the hands of the unprepared, inexperienced, and those ignorant of the fundamentals of socialist thought and history.
Of all of the lessons to be learned from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this is perhaps the most important. It is a commonly held belief that the people’s revolution will somehow arrive at a predetermined date and time, as if scheduled by masterminds of the resistance who saw all that would come to pass long ago, and that we will most likely not be around to see its completion. Similarly, it is widely believed that there are certain conditions which must be met before a socialist revolution can be endeavored upon and, no matter what epoch one looks to, we are not living in such conditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people’s revolution cannot be scheduled, it is simply born once the oppressed masses of a nation have finally grown weary of their exploiters. The only condition that must be met for such an uprising is the revolutionary awakening and subsequent consciousness of those same peoples.
Obviously, anyone who has studied the fundamentals of a people-led revolution knows this to be a simplified statement. The conditions for the revolution are much more involved than simple consciousness. Yet, any conditions which must be met are not required for the revolution, but for the primitive stages of a revolutionary mindset. Looking back to 1917, neither Trotsky nor Lenin, nor any of the other Bolsheviks seeking the overthrow of the czarist regime, considered their position to be one of a higher positioning than their proletarian counterparts. They sought not to mobilize the masses as some sort of infantry, rather only to educate those masses to the point that the unsustainable conditions, which were soobvious to the socialist revolutionaries, became obvious to the masses. Neither knew when that task would be completed and the lesson fully ingested, therefore they had no way of knowing the day and hour of the popular revolt. But because they had set for themselves a place of power within the mind of the exploited, just as a teacher instills a place of power within the mind of the student, the Bolsheviks were able to be the apparatus to which the people looked for guidance when their fury finally exploded upon the streets of Petrograd.
This should be the position sought by all comrades within a revolutionary party: to instill in the people, via community work, revolutionary speech, and edification, the belief that we are the organ for change and can be relied upon to react accordingly to the revolutionary will of the people.