The October Revolution
On Stalin and Stalinism
On Soviet Dissent
Trotsky, Fate of a Revolutionary
Leon Trotsky: A Biography
Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought
“The most popular mass insurrection in history” was Trotsky’s description, in his History of the Russian Revolution, of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917. More accurately, one should date this event from the night of November 6 to 7, when the Bolshevik Red Guards, supported by the few troops who did not remain neutral, seized all the vital points in Petrograd. But no one knew better than Trotsky the importance of myth. It was owing to his insistence that the seizure of power was made to coincide, more or less, with the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets which met on November 7—and hence “Soviet” power, and eventually “Soviet” Union. Lenin was interested in one thing—power—and had he had his own way this would have been secured some days earlier, and dressed up in the necessary rhetoric later.
Of course, Trotsky, when he wrote the sentence I have quoted, knew well enough that he was engaged in perpetuating a myth. Historians who are not, or should not, be concerned to propagate myths ought to know better than to confuse seizure of power by the Bolshevik party, which was Lenin’s main concern, with Soviet power. The difference is of vital importance when one comes to discuss the question of mass support for the Bolshevik coup. The evidence is overwhelming that what the “masses” (in so far as this term has any real meaning in politics other than as a cover for demagogy) wanted in November 1917 was “Soviet” power, which meant the overthrow of the Provisional Government, and the passing of authority to the broad coalition of socialists of all kinds who made up the Soviets. Thus the delegates to the Second All-Russian Congress, when faced with a questionnaire on the form which the future government should take, opted by a large majority in favor of a coalition.
It was Lenin’s intention from the first to institute a monopoly of power for the Bolsheviks. Where Roy Medvedev, in his disappointing study of the October Revolution, gets the idea that Lenin all along intended to govern by a coalition (“visualized Soviet society as pluralist”) is a mystery. Certainly the evidence all points the other way—for example, the official minutes of a meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee of November 14, 1917, when Lenin expressed indignant surprise that some of his colleagues had taken seriously the negotiations then in progress for a coalition government. According to Lenin they were intended only as a delaying tactic until troops could be sent to Moscow.
Perhaps the fact that Medvedev is an almost uncritical admirer of Lenin accounts for the relative tolerance which the Soviet authorities have shown toward him. As he tells us in one of his interviews with Piero Ostellino, to be published this summer as a book, he was expelled from the Communist Party for writing Let History Judge, but left unmolested in his job of doing research on education at the …