Saturday, November 18, 2017

October Revolution Special Broadcast

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Centenary of the October Revolution

Petrograd Soviet in session
Listen to a special presentation on the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution on WBAI radio in New York, 99.5 FM, on Thursday, Nov 16 from 4 - 6 PM.  The program can also be heard  on the Internet at 

Note:  Today we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution.  It is an event that the Russia of Vladimir Putin has tried to eradicate, replacing the old Revolution Day holiday with a Czarist invention, "National Unity Day", marking an uprising against the Poles in 1612.   But historical memory cannot be so easily destroyed.  This defining moment of the 20th cetury, in which for the first time in history the working class took power and kept it for a number of years, will not go gently into the night. It will remain a source of inspiration for the millions who struggle against war, imperialism, social inequality and all forms of oppression.  And there is no better work of literature on the October Revolution than that written by one of its leaders, Leon Trotsky. His Preface to the History of the Russian Revolution remains an outstanding account of the dialectic of mass consciousness as a revolutionary epoch interrupts "normal" history. 

This version is reprinted from the Marxist Internet Archives.  

Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution


During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little know to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history – especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million people. It is clear that the events of 1917, whatever you think of them, deserve study.

The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.

The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus 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. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.

Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

The difficulties which stand in the way of studying the changes of mass consciousness in a revolutionary epoch are quite obvious. The oppressed classes make history in the factories, in the barracks, in the villages, on the streets of the cities. Moreover, they are least of all accustomed to write things down. Periods of high tension in social passions leave little room for contemplation and reflection. All the muses – even the plebeian muse of journalism, in spite of her sturdy hips – have hard sledding in times of revolution. Still the historian’s situation is by no means hopeless. The records are incomplete, scattered, accidental. But in the light of the events themselves these fragments often permit a guess as to the direction and rhythm of the hidden process. For better or worse, a revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the changes of mass consciousness. The historic course of Bolshevism demonstrates that such a calculation, at least in its rough features, can be made. If it can be made by a revolutionary leader in the whirlpool of the struggle, why not by the historian afterwards?

However, the processes taking place in the consciousness of the masses are not unrelated and independent. No matter how the idealists and the eclectics rage, consciousness is nevertheless determined by conditions. In the historic conditions which formed Russia, her economy, her classes, her State, in the action upon her of other states, we ought to be able to find the premises both of the February revolution and of the October revolution which replaced it. Since the greatest enigma is the fact that a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power, it behoves us to seek the solution of that enigma in the peculiarities of that backward country – that is, in its differences from other countries.

The historic peculiarities of Russia and their relative weight will be characterised by us in the early chapters of this book which give a short outline of the development of Russian society and its inner forces. We venture to hope that the inevitable schematism of these chapters will not repel the reader. In the further development of the book he will meet these same forces in living action.

This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollections. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon historically verified documents. The author speaks of himself, in so far as that is demanded by the course of events, in the third person. And that is not a mere literary form: the subjective tone, inevitable in autobiographies or memoirs, is not permissible in a work of history.

However, the fact that the author did participate in the struggle naturally makes easier his understanding, not only of the psychology of the forces in action, both individual and collective, but also of the inner connection of events. This advantage will give positive results only if one condition is observed: that he does not rely upon the testimony of his own memory either in trivial details or in important matters, either in questions of fact or questions of motive and mood. The author believes that in so far as in him lies he has fulfilled this condition.

There remains the question of the political position of the author, who stands as a historian upon the same viewpoint upon which he stood as a participant in the events. The reader, of course, is not obliged to share the political views of the author, which the latter on his side has no reason to conceal. But the reader does have the right to demand that a historical work should not be the defence of a political position, but an internally well-founded portrayal of the actual process of the revolution. A historical work only then completely fulfils the mission when events unfold upon its pages in their full natural necessity.

For this, is it necessary to have the so-called historian’s “impartiality”? Nobody has yet clearly explained what this impartiality consists of. The often quoted words of Clemenceau that it is necessary to take a revolution “en bloc,” as a whole – are at the best a clever evasion. How can you take as a whole a thing whose essence consists in a split? Clemenceau’s aphorism was dictated partly by shame for his too resolute ancestors, partly by embarrassment before their shades.

One of the reactionary and therefore fashionable historians in contemporary France, L. Madelin, slandering in his drawing-room fashion the great revolution – that is, the birth of his own nation – asserts that “the historian ought to stand upon the wall of a threatened city, and behold at the same time the besiegers and the besieged”: only in this way, it seems, can he achieve a “conciliatory justice.” However, the words of Madelin himself testify that if he climbs out on the wall dividing the two camps, it is only in the character of a reconnoiterer for the reaction. It is well that he is concerned only with war camps of the past: in a time of revolution standing on the wall involves great danger. Moreover, in times of alarm the priests of “conciliatory justice” are usually found sitting on the inside of four walls waiting to see which side will win.

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, 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 the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.

The sources of this book are innumerable periodical publications, newspapers and journals, memoirs, reports, and other material, partly in manuscript, but the greater part published by the Institute of the History of the Revolution in Moscow and Leningrad. We have considered its superfluous to make reference in the text to particular publications, since that would only bother the reader. Among the books which have the character of collective historical works we have particularly used the two-volume Essays on the History of the October Revolution (Moscow-Leningrad, 1927). Written by different authors, the various parts of this book are unequal in value, but they contain at any rate abundant factual material.

The dates in our book are everywhere indicated according to the old style – that is, they are 13 days behind the international and the present Soviet calendar. The author felt obliged to use the calendar which was in use at the time of the revolution. It would have been no labour of course to translate the dates into the new style. But this operation in removing one difficulty would have created others more essential. The overthrow of the monarchy has gone into history as the February revolution; according to the Western calendar, however, it occurred in March. The armed demonstration against the imperialist policy of the Provisional Government has gone into history under the name of the “April Days,” whereas according to the Western calendar it happened in May. Not to mention other intervening events and dates, we remark only that the October revolution happened according to European reckoning in November. The calendar itself, we see, is tinted by the events, and the historian cannot handle revolutionary chronology by mere arithmetic. The reader will be kind enough to remember that before overthrowing the Byzantine calendar, the revolution had to overthrow the institutions that clung to it.
November 14, 1930

Monday, October 23, 2017

Greece at the Crossroads: Epilogue

In July or 2015, a few days after Tsipras’s betrayal of the referendum, my partner and I found ourselves in  the tiny village of Komitata on the Ionian island of Kefallonia.  In the one café at the center of the village we listened to Tsipras explaining his decision on television.  I subsequently wrote about this event in the book of essays we published titled ‘Greece at the Crossroads’. [1]
This past August we returned to Kefallonia and paid a visit to the café and its owner, Tasso.  He is a man in his 60’s who opened the café after retiring from a job he held for many years in the island’s capital, Argostoli. It was a little over two years since that evening when we first met Tasso and I was curious to know what he thought about the events of July 2015 and the present situation in Greece.

The past two years have witnessed a political stalement in Greece following the shock experienced by many of Tsipras's betrayal of the referendum of July 2015.  Since winning the hastily called election of September of 2015, the Syriza-ANEL coalition government, now purged of its troublesome left wing, has fully embraced its role as the instrument of EU imposed austerity on the working class of Greece. Tsipras’s poll numbers are at an all-time low since the heady days of January 2015 when Syriza first came to power. The journalist Helena Smith writes, 

The fallout from the U-turn has been colossal. Syriza’s popularity has plummeted; Tsipras’s own ratings have nosedived. Some polls show the leftists trailing by as many as 16 points, others less, but all seem to reflect a view that the charismatic politician “lied” by adopting the virulent neoliberal budget cuts and tax rises he had once vowed to overturn. [2] 

There is however little love for the opposition New Democracy. And the opposition is in no hurry to call new elections even though they would likely win.  They would rather sit back and let Syriza take responsibility for the cuts that are being imposed on Greece as a result of the Third Memorandum Agreement.

In the meantime Tsipras has been bragging to the foreign press that thanks to his leadership Greece has finally “turned the corner” and the economy is now growing. [3]  In a follow-up article in September, Guardian correspondent Helena Smith, expressing some skepticism about Tsipras’s claims to have turned the corner on the economic crisis, wrote of him,

To the delight of many, nonetheless, Tsipras, the man who set Europe ablaze with Marxist ideology and anti-austerity rage back in the heady days of January 2015, is becoming more pragmatic by the day. The 42-year-old’s embrace of the free-market policies he once abhorred was cemented last Sunday, when he announced that he would personally oversee the foreign investment drive now viewed as key to curing the curse of Greece’s unemployment rate. [4]

When we arrived in Greece in late June the entire country was in the middle of a trash collectors strike.  The strike, with over 10,000 part time employees participating, was in reaction to planned layoffs that will eventually destroy 150,000 government jobs. [5] The air in the streets of Athens was becoming increasingly putrid as the synergy between an unbearable heat wave and the rotting garbage left in the street took its toll. All this was the background to our return to the café in Komitata.

We sat with Tasso at a table on the plaza outside his café while we talked.  I asked him first of all how he would characterize his politics and what was his reaction to the events of July 2015.  In response to his political leanings, Tasso answered with a question of his own,

“Did you see the wall of my café?”

I took a quick peek inside the café and noticed three items on the wall; a clock, an iconic poster of Che Guevara, and a decoration of a hammer and sickle. Only instead of the hammer, Tasso had hung on the wall the traditional “worry beads” (κομπολόι). Tasso explained that the beads were his father’s, who took comfort in them when he was imprisoned during the Civil War.  Almost everywhere you turn in Greece, there are images pregnant with the history of the class struggle if you know where to look.

The wall in the café 

Tasso continued,

“We all had hope when Syriza won the election (in January of 2015).  We were very happy with the results of the referendum.  But then the ‘NO” became a “YES”. We couldn’t believe it!”

I then asked Tasso, “If there was a new election called tomorrow, who would you vote for?”

Tasso replied, “I would vote for the Far Left”.  He clarified this by saying he meant anyone to the left of Syriza, someone who would genuinely oppose the austerity.   I asked if he meant a group like ANTARSYA, to which he replied, “Yes”. 

Tasso then asked me about my politics, and I replied that I am a Trotskyist.  Tasso then said,
“We have a Trotskyist in the village”. 


I was astounded by Tasso's response since this village is in a remote part of a remote island, on the highest point of a one lane country road that winds its way through a mountain, far from the more popular tourist destinations in the Aegean such as Santorini or Mykonos.  There are no more than a dozen or so year round residents in this village.

The outside of Tasso's café

This past week, back in New York, I saw Tsipras on television in a joint news conference with Trump. While ostensibly on a mission to encourage foreign investment in Greece, Tsipras announced that a deal had been worked out for Greece to invest in American made military hardware to modernize its Air Force and beef up its military base in Crete.  Trump also praised Greece for devoting at least 2% of its GDP to its military, in fulfillment of its NATO commitment.  It is difficult to imagine a more candid representation of the complete betrayal of the Greek working class than this image of Tsipras embracing Trump.

Tsipras and Trump

The other side of this dismal picture however is the determination of the Greek working class. The betrayal of the referendum was a huge shock and unquestionably set in a period of demoralization. But the working class, though battered, has not been defeated. Nothing has been resolved. Despite Tsipras's happy talk, there is no economic recovery in sight. Greece's debt load of €340bn, or 180% of GDP is by any estimate competely unsustainable no matter how deep the austerity goes. The average income of a Greek household has dropped by 40% since the start of the economic crisis and unemployment remains amost 22% with youth unemployment much higher.  Pensioners continue to see their benefits cut to the point where the comfortable middle class life that they anticipated in their dreams has been turned into the  nightmare of a daily struggle for survival.

We are now in a period of anticipation before the next outbreak of the class struggle.  If you have any doubts about that just make a trip to the village of Komitata and have a talk with Tasso.

Alex Steiner
October 23, 2017 

[1]  See my political memoir, Greece at the Crossroads, Part I,
and Greece at the Crossroadds, Part II,
[2]  Helena Smith interview with Alexis Tsipras, Alexis Tsipras: 'The worst is clearly behind us', July 24, 2017,
[3]  Helena Smith, Ibid.
[4]  Helena Smith, The eurozone may be back on its feet. But is Greece?, Sept. 16, 2017,
[5]  For an account of the background to the strike see, Greek waste disposal workers strike against mass layoffs,