Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky; drawing by David Levine

“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 Institute of Professional Education. He resigned of his own accord in 1971, has since devoted himself to writing, and has been able to publish several books outside the USSR.

In view of his failure to grasp the essential nature of Lenin’s role, and the consequences which logically flowed from his insistence on imposing a monopoly of Bolshevik power on a country which was divided in its party political allegiances, Roy Medvedev has little of interest to tell us in The October Revolution. Unofficial history emanating from the Soviet Union is naturally intriguing, but it adds nothing to our knowledge if it is little less biased than the official variety.

There is one respect in which Medvedev shows critical independence. He regards Lenin’s policy during the civil war of increasingly relying on force to extract food from the peasants as mistaken. It did not produce food, it reduced agriculture to ruins, and it created lasting enmity between the towns and the villages. It is Medvedev’s contention that the New Economic Policy calling for limited private enterprise could and should have been introduced years earlier than 1921—a policy incidentally advocated by the Mensheviks, though Medvedev does not say so. He is, no doubt, right that the NEP was required from the start. But this would have needed a different kind of Lenin from the one who decided on the NEP only when Bolshevik power, faced with the Kronstadt revolt and a peasant guerrilla war, was hanging by a thread—and the Mensheviks were safely behind bars. As always, power was for him the dominant consideration.

But if Medvedev is of limited interest when he discusses Lenin, he has much more valuable things to say when he comes to consider Stalin—as his earlier book Let History Judge showed. His latest book on Stalin shows a number of insights which make one hope that some day Medvedev will be able to see the early Lenin as clearly as he sees Stalin. Thus he correctly, in my view, discerns that the policy of Stalin and Bukharin while they remained in alliance against Trotsky, and before Stalin’s dramatic overthrow of the NEP in 1929, was Lenin’s. The NEP had been the result of a drastic revision by Lenin of his views. He had realized that the attempt to bring Russia to socialism without passing through the intermediate stages had ended in disaster, and that the NEP would continue in Russia for a long time (“generations” was Lenin’s word). To put it another way, “Socialism in one country” was Lenin’s policy. But Medvedev also quite rightly discerns that Stalin’s reversal of the NEP had wide support within the Communist Party.


Perhaps the main interest of all Medvedev’s work on Stalin has been his use of unpublished material to which he has access. Here is a quotation from an unpublished manuscript of Pasternak which deserves to be more widely known:

In the early 1930s it became fashionable among writers to visit the collective farms and gather material about the new way of life in the villages. I wanted to be like everyone else and also set out on such a trip with the intention of writing a book. But there are no words to express what I saw. There was such inhuman unimaginable misery, such frightful poverty, that it began to take on an almost abstract quality, as if it were beyond what the conscious mind could absorb. I fell ill, and could write nothing for an entire year.

There is valuable new material in this volume on the subject of the attempts after the fall of Khrushchev to rehabilitate Stalin. The efforts began early in 1965, and were directed by a group which included Trapeznikov, head of the Central Committee Department of Science, Yepishev, head of the Political Department of the Armed Forces, and Pospelov, director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. These efforts were countered by a vigorous move among the intellectuals, which proved to be the beginning of the samizdat movement. The trial and conviction of Sinyavsky and Daniel in February 1966 was the signal for a further wave of intellectual agitation, in which the first twenty-five signatories of a protest were soon joined by others, including Academicians—the whole list includes some of the most distinguished names in Soviet intellectual life.

The protest had some effect, because Stalin’s name was not even mentioned at the Twenty-Third CPSU Congress. But the struggle between the neo-Stalinists and their opponents continued for several years—Medvedev cites a number of incidents in this struggle, including the attack on and discussion in the Marx-Lenin Institute of Nekrich’s book June 22, 1941, which demonstrated Stalin’s failures in preparing for and meeting the German invasion. Medvedev’s general account is also corroborated by such evidence as press articles, and by the treatment of Stalin in encyclopedias and official histories of the CPSU and the USSR published between 1966 and 1969, which marked the zenith of the pro-Stalin campaign. According to Medvedev, a decision was taken at the level of the Central Committee Secretariat to rehabilitate Stalin in connection with the ninetieth anniversary of his birth in December 1969. The familiar stock of portraits and busts was made ready, and a fulsome article prepared for Pravda for December 21, 1969. But at the last minute, according to “one well-informed source,” the Politburo decided against the rehabilitation. (But apparently the Central Committee official concerned failed to ring Ulan-Bator, with the result that the long, sympathetic article on Stalin, complete with portrait, appeared in Mongolian.) The rehabilitation campaign failed. The virtual silence which greeted the one hundredth anniversary of Stalin’s birth last December suggests that it has never recovered.

In Medvedev’s last chapter, which I suspect is the one for the sake of which he wrote his book, the author is concerned to point the contrast between Lenin and Stalin. As I have already suggested the Lenin whom he depicts is largely the product of his imagination—or of Bolshevik hagiography. Thus, the Mensheviks, whom Lenin harassed and persecuted with vicious enthusiasm, were “counter-revolutionaries”—a judgment which is not only nonsense so far as the facts go, but is disgracefully unfair. We are not told a word about the concentration camps set up under Lenin, or of the arbitrariness of the Cheka generally, to which Solzhenitsyn has recently so dramatically drawn attention, but which Western historians had described decades before. Nor do I know of a jot of evidence—and Medvedev cites none—to support the assertion that the ban on socialists (more accurately, elimination by arbitrary arrests and fake trials) and on factions within the Communist Party was only “temporary.”


Nor is it consistent with the evidence to assert that Lenin’s terror was necessary in order to save the Soviet state, whereas Stalin’s was needed merely to preserve his own power. Lenin’s actions may not have been concerned primarily with preserving his own power, but they were concerned with safeguarding the monopoly of Communist Party power—and that, so long as Lenin was active, amounted to the same thing. Above all, Medvedev ignores the powerful argument that it was Lenin who provided Stalin with all the instruments that made the exercise of his tyranny possible.

Where Medvedev is on stronger ground is in contrasting Lenin’s policy as it evolved after a stroke removed him from political life with Stalin’s activities after 1929 in destroying the NEP and introducing forced collectivization of the peasants. I agree with his argument here and should indeed even strengthen it. What Lenin envisaged (as I have already suggested) during the last months of his life, when he could no longer influence the course of affairs, was a long period of domestic peace, the introduction of peasant cooperatives by consent and not by force, and most probably some relaxation of arbitrary terror at home as a part of a policy of securing “peaceful co-existence” (he did use the phrase once or twice, contrary to general belief) with the capitalist powers, if only for a sufficient time to ensure Soviet recovery. But this was the vision of a man whose connection with active politics had ceased, and whose successors were ignoring his advice.

There is much discussion of Lenin in the interviews with Piero Ostellino which are mainly devoted to the topic of dissent in the USSR, and which are of the greatest interest. It seems clearer from these latest pronouncements than it is from his other works that when Medvedev contrasts Lenin with Stalin he is often comparing Lenin during the last conscious months of his life with the Stalin who reversed NEP and broke completely with Lenin’s policy. I think there is much truth in this if one has in mind Lenin’s last writings and his conversations with Bukharin when already incapacitated by a stroke. Lenin was certainly opposed to forcible collectivization of the peasants, for example. But NEP was introduced before Lenin’s stroke at the same time as opposition both within and outside the Communist Party was rigorously suppressed and, pace Medvedev, there is no evidence to support his assertions that these were only intended as temporary measures. The whole of Lenin’s career is one of intolerance, dogmatic assertion of his own opinions, and political annihilation of those who opposed him.

In his discussion of contemporary dissent, in which Medvedev has many things of great value to contribute, the constant refrain is that a wise political system only gains from criticism, and that suppression of critics and intolerance of diversity of opinions are barbarous and inconsistent with Marxism or with socialism. Be that as it may, it was as a matter of historical fact Lenin who incorporated the suppression of dissent and the persecution of political opponents into the accepted practice of Soviet communism. And, as Medvedev says, “Only a socialism that tolerates legal opposition to the government and the ruling party can avoid slipping into totalitarianism and abuse of power.”

Medvedev’s optimism is refreshing, even if it will not convince everyone. He believes that the Soviet leaders in the future will engage in a dialogue with their dissident critics, and that “socialism with a human face” will become a reality in the Soviet Union. Let us hope he will be proved right. But if he is, it will not have come about by a return to Lenin, but by a rejection of him.

Medvedev is fair in his treatment of Trotsky. He gives him credit for his part in the October Revolution, but rejects the arguments of the Trotsky hagiographers that a victory by Trotsky over Stalin would have meant a more benevolent regime for Russia. But Trotsky is only incidental in Medvedev’s work, and the major problems raised by this ever-fascinating figure—both to his enemies and his admirers—are not touched on. For Trotsky is indeed an enigmatic figure—one who could evoke either extreme hostility or lasting admiration and loyalty. The malignant defamation and persecution of this man by Stalin and by hundreds of thousand of his lickspittles throughout the world, culminating in his brutal and perfidious murder by Stalin’s agent, have naturally added to the hero worship, both in his lifetime and after, of one who is acclaimed as the only genuine modern theorist of revolution.

The most balanced assessment of both the faults and the virtues of this remarkable man seems to me to have been achieved by one of his recent biographers, Robert Wistrich, who has summed up his qualities as “heroism, energy and creative imagination,” and his defects as “fanaticism, the marxist dogmatism and intolerance with which he sought to impose his messianic vision of the world.” Yet according to his book, “the mass spell-binder, the strategist and theoretician of revolution, was an inept politician.” His best qualities were displayed in adversity, of which so much fell to his lot.

The problems raised by Trotsky’s career are indeed numerous. Why, in spite of the many advantages which he enjoyed—Lenin’s backing and widespread party and army support, for example—did he fail so lamentably in his conflict with Stalin? How, in view of his ruthless record of the suppression of liberty in Russia, did he achieve the reputation among his hero worshipers as the apostle of a more humane, more libertarian form of communist rule than that constituted by Stalin? And why, in view of his many errors of analysis, and of the ramshackle nature of his legacy, the Fourth International, has he become the posthumous guru of world revolution?

One will look in vain for an answer to the last question in the latest work of Ernest Mandel, the main theorist of the Fourth International. Consistency is not Mandel’s strong point. For example, when he writes that the crushing of “working-class mass uprisings” in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968 prove “the counter-revolutionary nature of the Soviet bureaucracy,” one wonders what he believes was proved by the crushing of the “working-class mass uprising” in Kronstadt in March 1921, which Trotsky not only directed at the time, but justified in exile many years later.

Again, Mandel takes issue with those who criticize Trotsky’s calls for freedom against Stalin’s growing tyranny as being merely a demand for rights for his own opposition—but glosses over Trotsky’s unswerving support for the suppression of all opposition until such time as he was himself enmeshed in the tyranny of his own creation. It is easy to criticize the tyranny which Stalin created—with Lenin’s help. But it is difficult to see how the pluralism and tolerance which Trotsky seemed to advocate in his long years of exile could ever be compatible with the communist monopoly of power in which, following Lenin, he maintained his belief.

Faced with the obvious lack of revolutionary fervor among the prosperous workers of the developed industrial countries, the Trotskyists, including Mandel, have sought support for revolution wherever it could be found—in national liberation movements, among radical students, among supporters of women’s liberation or from minority groups. Mandel himself sent greetings to Polish students and workers “in their fight against bureaucracy and for real soviet democracy,” while at the same time reaffirming Trotskyist support for the Soviet Union and the “Socialist camp” against “imperialism.” But it was not “imperialism” that destroyed “real Soviet democracy,” but Lenin with Trotsky’s help. Trotsky may be, in Mandel’s words, “the main strategist of the theory and practice of world revolution and world socialism,” if only by virtue of the myth which has grown up around him because he was the victim of Stalin’s brutality. But it is difficult to see the connection between an anarchical revolution of students or oppressed minorities with anything that Marx envisaged—unless you believe, as many Trotskyists presumably do, that the destruction of capitalism is desirable at any price, and in any manner.

There was a consistency about Trotsky’s mistakes, as Dr. Wistrich shows very well—a consistency between his own failure as a politician and the errors of his theoretical analysis in subsequent years. The common cause behind them all was Trotsky’s inability to grasp the fact that in a society managed on the principles devised by Lenin what matters is organization and manipulation—not social forces, or classes, or history, or any of the other abstractions which Trotsky so readily invoked, or even deceptive parallels with the French Revolution. In the early struggles against Stalin Trotsky’s main failure was his inability to recognize that what decided issues was not winning an argument in party congresses or conferences, but the patient manipulation of votes behind the scenes by the apparatus which Stalin controlled, and which Trotsky never understood.

Dr. Wistrich is right to point as well to a collapse of will on Trotsky’s part. I suspect there was also at the crucial times, and especially in 1923 when he failed to carry out his promise to Lenin to resist Stalin, the fear that without Stalin communist rule was in danger of collapsing under the weight of its unpopularity. His mastery of the apparatus was Stalin’s hold over his colleagues. Trotsky’s failure to grasp the importance of the party and police apparatus was also at the root of his inability to understand the nature of Stalin’s regime during the years in which from his exile he did so much to attack it—in retrospect the use of such terms as “Bonapartism” and “Thermidor” seems strangely irrelevant to the horrors of Stalin’s regime.

Trotsky could never bring himself to face the fading of the Bolshevik dream which began under Lenin and culminated in Stalin. While fulminating against Stalin’s regime he could still approve Soviet occupation of Poland as “progressive,” and generally sided with the Soviet Union against “imperialism.” One can see, of course, that it would have been impossible for Trotsky to side with the “capitalist” world. But he never could face the fact that Soviet expansion was a greater threat to freedom than anything the capitalist world presented.

No doubt Trotsky’s reputation as a great theorist of revolution will be kept alive by those who hunger for revolution, and who find in Trotsky the convenient myth of an alternative to Stalin under whom (if only he had come to power) all would have been well. As a historical figure he will remain as one who as often as not was wrong in his analysis, who was inconsistent and often unattractive as a politician, but who had a brilliant mind and above all courage. Mr. Segal’s large volume is probably too much of a hagiography. It does not add much to the classical text for hero worshipers of Trotsky offered by the late Isaac Deutscher’s three volumes. Mr. Segal’s work is based on secondary sources, and offers little new insight. But it is very readable, and infused with a warm affection for its subject, which compensates for much in a biography.

This Issue

April 17, 1980