Trotsky wrote Lessons of October in 1923, a time when the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution had begun to feel distant; the revolutionary tide across Europe, crucially in Germany, had begun to fade; and in Russia, although most forms of soviet and party democracy remained, the bureaucracy headed by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin was the dominant power.
Trotsky knew that in order for there to be any hope for socialism in Russia, the revolution needed to spread to other countries. The study of the October Revolution was necessary in order to win this argument. Trotsky saw this as of extreme importance: “Had we failed to study the great French Revolution, the revolution of 1848, the Paris Commune, we should never have been able to achieve the October Revolution.”
Trotsky emphasises the importance of building a revolutionary party in the years before the revolution. Its rootedness in the working class and radical movements is key to its ability to lead and to be trusted by workers when struggles occur.
But rootedness can’t be allowed to turn into routinism. The party must be able to adapt and change quickly when a revolution occurs, as otherwise crucial opportunities will be missed.
As Trotsky writes, “The danger arises that if the turn is too abrupt or too sudden, and if in the preceding period too many elements of inertia and conservatism have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfil its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of years or decades.”
Even for the Bolsheviks, it wasn’t automatic that all members were in favour of pushing for a socialist revolution when the opportunity arose; Lenin and others had to fight conservatism within the Bolshevik party. But without the layer of cadre who had been around for years, Lenin would not have been able to win the arguments with the rest of the party and shape the revolution.
Trotsky is clear that in Germany the defeat of successive revolutionary waves was in large part due to revolutionary socialist parties not being prepared for the situation. The consequences were disastrous. The movement collapsed and this cleared the path for the rise of fascism.
So why is it still relevant to read Lessons of October today? The current period is full of political uncertainty, with the election of Trump, the rise of fascism in Europe and the brutal austerity from the Tories. There has also been mass resistance on the left, with the women’s marches, the protests against Trump’s Muslim ban, general strikes in Greece, the rise of left presidential candidate Jean Luc Melenchon in France, and in Britain the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
A whole new layer of young people is entering the movement and it is clear to many that capitalism is in a crisis. There are new questions being asked about the system and the way it is organised.
Socialists need to be arguing for a socialist revolution and in order to do that, we need to understand the lessons from the only successful socialist revolution in history.
We need to be able to debunk all the myths about the Russian Revolution, but also convince people of the inspiring possibilities it opened up — just for a few years — and can do again.