Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

1. The consolidation of Soviet power

ON 25 OCTOBER (7 November) [1*] 1917 the Bolsheviks took control in Petrograd. When Lenin came out of hiding after nearly four months, he said to Trotsky: ‘You know, from persecution and life underground, to come so suddenly into power ...’ – he paused for the right word – ”Es schwindet (it makes one giddy)”, he concluded, changing suddenly to German, and circling his hand around his head.’ [1]

Trotsky goes on to recount:

The government must be formed. We number among us a few members of the central committee. A quick session opens over in a corner of the room.

‘What shall we call them?’ asks Lenin, thinking aloud. ‘Anything but ministers – that’s such a vile, hackneyed word.’ ‘We must call them commissars’, I suggest, ‘but there are too many commissars just now. Perhaps “supreme commissaries”? No, “supreme” does not sound well, either. What about “people’s commissars”?’

‘“People’s commissars”? Well, that might do, I think,’ Lenin agrees. ‘And the government as a whole?’

‘A soviet, of course ... the Soviet of People’s Commissars, eh?’ ‘The Soviet of People’s Commissars?’ Lenin picks it up. ‘That’s splendid; smells terribly of revolution!’ [2]

Thus the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom for short) was born.

Lenin suggested that Trotsky should head the government, as he had headed the body that led the insurrection, the Military Revolutionary Committee. Trotsky resisted this suggestion. He writes that Lenin

insisted that I take over the commissariat of the interior, saying that the most important task at the moment was to fight off a counter-revolution. I objected, and brought up, among other arguments, the question of nationality. Was it worth while to put into our enemies’ hands such an additional weapon as my Jewish origin.

Lenin almost lost his temper. ‘We are heading a great international revolution. Of what important are such trifles?’ A good-humoured bickering began. ‘No doubt the revolution is great’, I answered, ‘but there are still a good many fools left.’

‘But surely we don’t keep step with fools?’

‘Probably we don’t, but sometimes one has to make some allowance for stupidity. Why create additional complications at the outset?’

Sverdlov and other members of the central committee were won over to my side. Lenin was in the minority. [3]

Sverdlov proposed the appointment of Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs, as he was the right man ‘to confront Europe’ on behalf of the revolution.

The Congress of the Soviets

On 26 October (8 November) the Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets opened. Its social composition was very different from that of the First Congress, held six months earlier in June. This had been made up largely of petty-bourgeois elements: intellectuals and army officers had been prominent. The October congress was both younger and much more proletarian. As John Reed describes it:

I stood there watching the new delegates come in – burly, bearded soldiers, workmen in black blouses, a few long-haired peasants. The girl in charge – a member of Plekhanov’s Edinstvo group – smiled contemptuously. ‘These are very different people from the delegates to the first Sezd,’ she remarked. ‘See how rough and ignorant they look! The Dark People ...’ It was true; the depths of Russia had been stirred, and it was the bottom which came uppermost now. [4]

The political composition of the second congress was also very different from that of the first. Whereas the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks had predominated at the June congress, now the majority of the delegates were followers of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks held some 390 seats out of a total of 650. The strength of the Social Revolutionaries was estimated variously as between 160 and 190. But these figures are misleading, since the Social Revolutionaries had split, and most of their delegates were supporters of the Left Social Revolutionary Party, which was pro-Bolshevik at the time. The Mensheviks, who in June had accounted for more then 200 delegates, were now reduced to a mere 60 or 70, and these were split into a number of groups. The Right Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks together could count on fewer than 100 votes.

The congress elected a new executive. This consisted of fourteen Bolsheviks, seven Social Revolutionaries, three Mensheviks and one United Internationalist (from Maxim Gorky’s group). The Right Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks at once declared that they would refuse to share executive power with the Bolsheviks.

Martov, the Menshevik leader, then mounted the rostrum and declared that the most urgent problem was to overcome the current crisis by peaceful means. The Bolsheviks, recognising the need to expose the real nature of Social Revolutionary and Menshevik policy, did not oppose Martov’s statement, despite the anti-Bolshevik tenor of his speech. ‘The Bolsheviks had absolutely nothing against it; let the question of a peaceable settlement of the crisis be made the first item on the agenda. Martov’s motion was voted on: against it – nobody.’ [5]

However the Right Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionary leaders flatly rejected collaboration with the ‘party of insurrection’. Following their statement the entire right – Mensheviks, Right Social Revolutionaries and the Jewish Bund – walked out of the congress.

Martov continued to argue as if nothing had happened, and went on to preach conciliation. Trotsky then rounded on him:

Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history!

‘Then we’ll leave,’ Martov shouted from the platform amidst stormy applause for Trotsky. [6]

Towards a coalition government?

Avilov, speaking for the Mensheviks who had not left the congress, then argued the need to establish a socialist coalition – a coalition of all socialist parties. It should be stressed that from the outset no one among the Bolsheviks wanted an exclusively Bolshevik government, although Lenin and Trotsky did want a Bolshevik-dominated one, one that excluded any ‘defencists’ who had supported Russia’s part in the First World War. Trotsky decisively rejected Avilov’s suggestion:

A few days ago, when the question of the uprising was raised, we were told that we were isolating ourselves, that we were drifting on the rocks ... Nevertheless the revolution ... gained an almost bloodless victory. If it had been really true that we were isolated, how did it happen that we conquered so easily? No ... Not we but the [Provisional] Government and the democracy, or rather the quasi-democracy ... were isolated from the masses. By their hesitations and compromises they lost contact with the real democracy. It is our great virtue as a party that we have a coalition with the [masses] ... with the workers, soldiers, and poorest peasants.

... If a coalition is necessary, it must be a coalition with our garrison, especially with the peasants and working classes. Of this kind of a coalition we can be proud. It has stood the test of fire ...

Our whole hope is that our revolution will kindle a European revolution. If the rising of the people does not crush imperialism then we will surely be crushed. There is no doubt about that. The Russian revolution will either cause a revolution in the West, or the capitalists of all countries will strangle our [revolution]. [7]

When the Menshevik motion calling for a coalition government was put to the vote it received about 150 of the 650 votes. Probably some of the moderate Bolsheviks must have voted for it. [8]

A few days later, on 29 October (11 November) the call for a coalition government of all socialist parties was again put forward by the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Railway Workers (Vikzhel), a majority of whom were Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries. Vikzhel declared: ‘The Council of People’s Commissars formed in Petrograd rests on only one party and so cannot get recognition and support from the country as a whole. A new government must be formed ...’ Vikzhel demanded an end to the fight against the counter-revolution, threatening to bring the railways to a halt. [9]

At this critical moment a number of leading Bolsheviks ranged themselves against Lenin and Trotsky, demanding that the party should relinquish power to a coalition of all socialist parties. Before the October insurrection the leaders of the right wing of Bolshevism – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Nogin and Lunacharsky – had argued that the uprising was premature and would meet defeat. Now, after the victorious insurrection, they argued that the Bolsheviks would not be able to retain power unless they entered a coalition with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries.

On 29 October (11 November) the central committee of the Bolshevik Party – with both Lenin and Trotsky absent – unanimously passed a resolution to widen the base of the government. [10] Ominously, in the original secretarial note in the minutes there followed this text crossed out: ‘and we agree to renounce the candidature of Trotsky and Lenin if they demand this.’ After the crossed-out words is written: ‘(Approved)’. [11] Kamenev, chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets (VTsIK), was authorised to organise a conference to discuss the issue of a coalition government.

The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries put the following conditions for their entry into the coalition: the new government was to be responsible not to the soviets, but to ‘the broad circles of revolutionary democracy’; it was to disarm the Bolshevik detachments; and Lenin and Trotsky were to be debarred from it. [12] These conditions amounted to the demand that the Bolsheviks should declare the October Revolution null and void, that they should disarm themselves, and that they should ostracise the leaders and organisers of the insurrection.

The Bolshevik negotiators, especially Kamenev and Riazanov, stood on the right of the party, and were so anxious to come to an agreement with the Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries that they were ready to accept their demands. So anxious were they for a compromise that while the battle of Pulkovo Heights was still undecided, where the Red Guards were fighting Kerensky’s troops at the last line of defence on the outskirts of Petrograd, they signed a joint appeal for a ceasefire – an appeal implicitly directed against their own party and government.

On 1 (14) November Kamenev reported the demands of the Mensheviks to an enlarged meeting of the central committee. The committee split. Trotsky declared:

One thing is clear from the report, and that is that the parties which took no part in the insurrection want to grab power from the people who overthrew them. There was no point in organising the insurrection if we do not get the majority; if the others do not want that it is obvious they do not want our programme. We must have 75 per cent. It is clear that we cannot give a right of objection, just as we cannot yield on Lenin’s chairmanship; such a concession is completely unacceptable.

Dzerzhinsky asserted that ‘the delegates did not observe the central committee’s instruction. The central committee definitely decided that the government must be responsible to the VTsIK ... We always stated definitely that we would not allow objections to Lenin and Trotsky. None of this was implemented, and I propose an expression of no confidence in the delegation and that they be recalled and others sent.’ The same hard line was taken by Uritsky: ‘... there is no doubt that we must not yield on either Lenin or Trotsky, for in a certain sense this would be renunciation of our programme; there is no need to insist on the others.’

Lenin then stated:

It is time to make an end of vacillation. It is clear that Vikzhel is on the side of the Kaledins and the Kornilovs [Tsarist generals]. There can be no wavering. The majority of the workers, peasants and army are for us. No one here has proved that the rank and file are against us; choose between Kaledin’s agents and the rank and file. We must rely on the masses, and send agitators into the villages.

The right-wingers on the central committee, however, were unyielding in their fight for a coalition. Rykov declared: ‘If we break off [the negotiations] we will lose the groups which are supporting us ... and we will be in no position to keep power. Kamenev conducted the talks absolutely correctly.’ Miliutin raised ‘the question of whether we are going to insist on keeping power exclusively in our hands ... if we do not get carried away ... it will become clear to us that we cannot sustain a long civil war’.

After heated discussion the question, whether to break off the talks or not, was put to the vote. The result was: for breaking off – four; against – 10. The intransigent Lenin and Trotsky found themselves in a minority [13], and the Bolshevik delegates continued their effort to form a coalition government.

On the same day, a debate on the same subject took place in the Petrograd committee of the party. Lenin did not mince his words:

... now, at such a moment, when we are in power, we are fated with a split. Zinoviev and Kamenev say that we will not seize power [in the country as a whole]. I am in no mood to listen to this calmly. I view this as treason ... Zinoviev says that we are not the Soviet power. We are, if you please, only the Bolsheviks, left alone since the departure of the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, and so forth and so on. But we are not responsible for that. We have been elected by the Congress of the Soviets ...

As for conciliation, I cannot even speak about that seriously. Trotsky long ago said that unification is impossible. Trotsky understood this, and from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik.

They [Zinoviev, Kamenev and company] say that we will be unable to maintain our power alone, and so on. But we are not alone. The whole of Europe is before us. We must make the beginning.

Lenin went on: ‘Our present slogan is: No compromise ... for a homogeneous Bolshevik government’. He did not hesitate to use the threat, which he meant seriously, to ‘appeal to the sailors’: ‘If you get the majority, take power in the central executive committee and carry on, but we will go to the sailors.’

Opposing Lenin’s views, Lunacharsky argued that the coalition government was a necessity. He pointed to the sabotage carried out by technical personnel as proof of the need of the Bolsheviks to join a coalition. ‘We cannot manage with our forces. Famine will break out.’

Trotsky came out strongly in support of Lenin’s point of view: against conciliation and against a coalition government with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries.

We are told that we are incapable of building up. In that case we should simply surrender power to those who were correct in struggling against us ... We are told that we cannot sit on bayonets. But neither can we manage without bayonets. We need bayonets there in order to be able to sit here ... Conciliation with Vikzhel will not do away with the conflict with the Junker detachments of the bourgeoisie. No. A cruel class struggle will continue to be waged against us in the future as well ...

We are confronted with armed violence which can be overcome only by means of violence on our part. Lunacharsky says that blood is flowing. What to do? Evidently we should never have begun. Then why don’t you openly admit that the biggest mistake was committed not so much in October but towards the end of February when we entered the arena of future civil war.

We already have a coalition. Our coalition is with the peasants – the soldiers who are now fighting for the Bolshevik power. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets transmitted power to a certain party. You simply forget this. If after taking power we are incapable of realising our own programme, then we ought to go to the soldiers and workers and declare ourselves bankrupt. But nothing whatever can come of merely leaving a few Bolsheviks in a coalition government. We have taken power; we must also bear the responsibilities.

Following this speech by Trotsky, Nogin again argued the case for the conciliators:

The Social Revolutionists left the soviets after the revolution; the Mensheviks did likewise ... this means that the soviets will fall apart. Such a state of affairs in the face of complete chaos in the country will end with the shipwreck of our party in a very brief interval.

Then a number of speakers came on Lenin’s and Trotsky’s side: Globov, Slutsky and Bold. And Trotsky spoke again:

We have had rather profound differences in our party prior to the insurrection, within the central committee as well as in the broad party circles. The same things were said; the same expressions were used then as now in arguing against the insurrection as hopeless. The old arguments are now being repeated after the victorious insurrection, this time in favour of a coalition. There will be no technical apparatus, mind you. You lay the colours on thick in order to frighten, in order to hinder the proletariat from utilising its victory ... I repeat that we shall be able to draw the petty bourgeoisie behind us only by showing that we have in our hands a material fighting force. We can conquer the bourgeoisie only by overthrowing it. This is the law of the class struggle. This is the guarantee of our victory. Then and only then will the Vikzhel follow us. The same ‘night be said about other technical branches. The apparatus will place itself at our service only when it sees that we are a force.

... You keep repeating that we cannot sit on bayonets. But in order for us to carry on these discussions here it is indispensable to have bayonets at Tsarskoe Selo [where Red Guards were fighting Kerensky’s troops].

All government is based on force and not conciliation. Our government is the force exercised by the majority of the people against the minority. This is beyond dispute. This is the ABC of Marxism. [14] [2*]

The right-wing Bolsheviks did not limit the expression of their opinion to a discussion within the party. At a meeting of the central executive committee of the soviets Larin, a recent convert to Bolshevism from Menshevism, moved a resolution criticising the Soviet government for violating freedom of the press:

At the present moment, on the eve of the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the situation in regard to the press needs to be improved. The measures taken against press [freedom] could be justified during the actual course of the struggle [for power], but not now ... Censorship of every kind must be completely eliminated. [17]

Kamkov, the Left Social Revolutionary, supported Larin’s argument. Trotsky defended the Soviet government’s policy limiting press freedom:

To demand that all repressive measures should be abandoned during a civil war is equivalent to demanding that the war itself should cease. Such a demand could come only from adversaries of the proletariat. Our opponents are not offering us peace. I assert that no one can provide a guarantee against a [victory of] the Kornilovites. In the circumstances of civil war it is legitimate to suppress newspapers that support the other side ...

But when we are finally victorious our attitude toward the press will be analogous to that on freedom of trade. Then we shall naturally move on to a [regular] regime in press matters. [18]

Two resolutions were tabled: Larin’s, which failed by 31 votes to 22, and Trotsky’s, which passed by 34 votes to 24 with one abstention. [19] Two Bolsheviks, Riazanov and Lozovsky, voted against Trotsky’s resolution.

The same day four people’s commissars – Nogin, Rykov, Miliutin and Teodorovich – resigned from the government, and Shliapnikov, people’s commissar for labour, declared his political solidarity with them but did not resign.

The open revolt of the right-wing Bolsheviks against Lenin and Trotsky seemed to be just what the Mensheviks had hoped for when they banked on the peaceful liquidation of the new regime. Answering the members of the Menshevik central committee who had opposed the decision to negotiate with the Bolsheviks, the Menshevik leader Dan argued that the agreement was impossible ‘without a split in Bolshevism’, that the Leninists’ rejection of the agreement was costing the Bolsheviks ‘enormous masses of workers’, and that ‘thanks to our tactics, the Bolsheviks are already splitting.’ [20]

But Dan miscalculated. Lenin, Trotsky and the majority of the Bolshevik central committee were not going to be intimidated by the Bolshevik leaders who resigned their offices. On 3 (16) November these were charged with violating party discipline, and threatened with expulsion from the party:

The CC is forced to repeat its ultimatum and to suggest that you either give an immediate undertaking in writing to submit to CC decisions and to promote its policy in all your speeches, or withdraw from all public party activity and resign all responsible posts in the workers’ movement until the party congress.

If you refuse to make one of these two pledges, the CC will be obliged to raise the question of your immediate expulsion from the party. [21]

Kamenev was replaced as chairman of the VTsIK by Sverdlov. No concession was made to the viewpoint of those who had resigned. On the contrary, the negotiations with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were allowed to collapse.

The right-wing opposition in the central committee then also collapsed. On 7 (20) November, Zinoviev surrendered and asked to be taken back on the committee. In words foreshadowing his future, more tragic capitulations, Zinoviev appealed to his friends:

... we remain attached to the party, we prefer to make mistakes together with millions of workers and soldiers and to die together with them than to step to one side at this decisive, historic moment. [22]

Three weeks later, on 30 November (12 December), similar statements were issued by Rykov, Kamenev, Miliutin and Nogin. Thus a very threatening split in the party at a critical moment of history was averted.

The logic of the class struggle was far too strong to be blocked by the right-wing Bolsheviks. Not only did Lenin and Trotsky oppose them, but the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaders pulled the rug from under their feet by putting forward demands more appropriate for victors than vanquished:

  1. that the Red or Workers’ Guard be disarmed.
  2. that the garrison be placed under orders of the city council, and
  3. that an armistice be declared, offering for their part to secure a pledge that the troops of Kerensky on entering the city would not fire a shot or engage in search and seizure. A socialist government would then be constituted, but without Bolshevik participation. [23]

At the Vikzhel conference on 1 (14) November

the Mensheviks said that one should talk to the Bolsheviks with guns ... and the central committee of the Social Revolutionaries was against an agreement with the Bolsheviks. [24]

One positive outcome of the negotiations was that the Left Social Revolutionaries, resentful of the attitude of the Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries, decided to join the Bolsheviks in the government.

The intransigence of Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov and others overcame the vacillations of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov and company. But why did they face so much opposition? Was it only a question of vacillation among a few top leaders of the party?

No. Revolutions, by their nature, generate uncertainty, for in a revolution the balance of class forces shifts continually and rapidly. There are equations with numerous unknowns. Under such conditions vacillation is extremely dangerous but also unavoidable. These vacillations of necessity affect the mass of the workers as well as the rank and file of the revolutionary party. It is the task of party leaders to reject these vacillations and overcome them, but they may also come to reflect them. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov and company openly defied the central committee majority because they felt that many Bolshevik party workers throughout the country were behind them.

Some workers and their organisations were unsure on the question of a coalition government of all socialist parties. For example, the Petrograd Council of Trade Unions had been under Bolshevik influence for months. It had welcomed the insurrection, and on 27 October (9 November) had appealed to all Petrograd workers to support the new regime. Nevertheless, four days later, after heated debate, the council passed a resolution demanding ‘immediate agreement among all socialist parties’ and the formation of a coalition government.

The central committee of the Trade Union of Sailors and River Transport Workers on 29 October (11 November) also issued an appeal to support the new government, but next day it demanded a cabinet ‘of all socialist parties and factions of revolutionary democracy’. Similar demands appear in resolutions of other trade unions and individual Petrograd factories.

The soviet of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies of the Vyborg district of Petrograd, the citadel of Bolshevism, on 29 October (11 November) condemned the ‘traitorous path’ taken by Menshevik defencists and Social Revolutionaries. But on 1 (14) November the same soviet issued an appeal signed by the Bolshevik, Menshevik and Social Revolutionary factions to ‘end party squabbles and discord’ and consolidate ‘all socialist forces’.

The great Obukhov metal works provides another good illustration of the political wavering of Petrograd workers at this time. At a meeting on 19 October (1 November) the Menshevik Internationalist David Dallin could not finish his speech, and other Mensheviks could not even begin theirs, because the workers objected to the least criticism of the Bolsheviks. The audience shouted for Dallin’s arrest as a counter-revolutionary Kornilovite and traitor to the people. Yet the next day the workers passed a resolution in the spirit of the Vikzhel demands, and during the following night an excited delegation from the plant burst in on a meeting of the Vikzhel commission demanding peace among all socialist parties.

Even the Bolshevik sailors of the destroyer Oleg, which had been called out from Kronstadt, broadcast from their ship on 30 October the ‘glad tidings’ of negotiations among ‘all socialist parties, who are trying to form a bloc’. [25]

It was the clarity of vision of Lenin and Trotsky and their intransigence that overcame the vacillations of the central committee and in the rest of the party – and that in the first few days after the victory of the October insurrection.

The beginning of the Red Terror

At the beginning the new government treated its opponents very mildly; but it quickly learned the cost of such behaviour. The military cadets that the Bolsheviks had released on parole from the Winter Palace on 26 October (8 November) betrayed their trust two days later and staged an uprising. Similarly mild treatment was shown to General Krasnov, which he also repaid with treason.

Victor Serge, in his book Year One of the Russian Revolution, wrote on the events in Moscow:

The Whites surrendered at 4 p.m. on 2 (15) November. ‘The Committee of Public Safety is dissolved. The White Guard surrenders its arms and is disbanded. The officers may keep the side arms that distinguish their rank. Only such weapons as are necessary for practice may be kept in the military academies ... The MRC [Military Revolutionary Committee] guarantees the liberty and inviolability of all.’ Such were the principal clauses of the armistice signed between Reds and Whites. The fighters of the counter-revolution, butchers of the Kremlin, who in victory would have shown no quarter whatever to the Reds ... went free.

Serge comments:

Foolish clemency. These very Junkers, these officers, these students, these socialists of counter-revolution, dispersed themselves throughout the length and breadth of Russia and there organised the civil war. The revolution was to meet them again, at Iaroslav, on the Don, at Kazan, in the Crimea, in Siberia and in every conspiracy nearer home. [26]

These were the early days of revolutionary innocence. The morning after the October insurrection, on Kamenev’s initiative and in Lenin’s and Trotsky’s absence, the death penalty was abolished. When Lenin learned about this first piece of legislation he was very angry. ‘How can one make a revolution without firing squads? Do you think you will be able to deal with all your enemies by laying down your arms. What other means of repression do you have? Imprisonment? No one attaches any importance to this during a civil war when each side hopes to win.’

‘It is a mistake,’ he went on, ‘an inadmissible weakness, a pacifist illusion’, and much more. ‘Do you really think that we shall come out victorious without any revolutionary terror?’ [27]

Trotsky too had no doubt that the revolution would have to use terror to fight the counter-revolution. ‘We shall not enter the kingdom of socialism in white gloves on a polished floor’, he told the All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies on 3 (16) December. [28]

On 28 October (10 November), after the suppression of the revolt of the military cadets, Sovnarkom issued a decree written by Trotsky banning the Kadet Party – the main counter-revolutionary party of the bourgeoisie:

Fully conscious of the enormous responsibility for the destiny of the people and the revolution now being placed on the soldiers of soviet power, the Council of People’s Commissars decided that the Kadet Party, being an organisation for counter-revolutionary rebellion, is a party of enemies of the people. [29]

Trotsky declared:

We have made a modest beginning with the arrest of the Kadet leaders ... In the French Revolution the Jacobins guillotined better men ... for opposing the people’s will. We have executed nobody and are not about to do so. [30]

Alas, this promise did not hold. To organise a struggle against counter-revolution, on 7 (20) December 1917, Sovnarkom established the Cheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. At first its staff was small, its resources limited, and the few death sentences it passed were on common criminals. M.I. Latsis, a member of the Cheka in 1918, states that during the first six months of its existence the Cheka had 22 people shot. [31]

The revolutionary terror in Russia, like its predecessor during the great French revolution of 1789, was a reaction to foreign invasion and the immensity of the threat to the revolution. The Paris terror of 2 September 1793 followed the Duke of Brunswick’s proclamation threatening foreign invasion and ruthless repression of the revolution. In Russia too it was foreign invasion, starting with the victories of the Czechoslovak troops over the Red Army in 1918, that threatened the greatest danger to the Soviet Republic. On 20 June the popular Bolshevik orator, Volodarsky, was assassinated by counter-revolutionaries. On 30 August an attempt was made on Lenin’s life. He was badly wounded and for a few days was in a critical condition. Another Bolshevik leader, Uritsky, the president of the Petrograd Cheka, was murdered. The Red Terror was unleashed in retaliation. On 2 September 500 hostages were shot in Petrograd.

Whereas between September 1917 and June 1918 the Cheka had executed 22 people, in the second half of 1918 more than 6000 executions took place. [32] In the three years of civil war, 1918-20, 12,737 people were shot. [33]

Compared with the White Terror, however, the Red Terror was mild. Thus in Finland alone, in April 1918, between 10,000 and 20,000 people were slaughtered by the counter-revolutionaries. [34] With complete justification Lenin told the Seventh Congress of Soviets on 5 December 1919:

The terror was forced on us by the terror of the Entente, the terror of mighty world capitalism, which has been throttling the workers and peasants, and is condemning them to death by starvation because they are fighting for their country’s freedom. [35]

Trotsky expressed the same idea in a speech on 11 September 1918:

Now that the workers are being charged with committing cruelties in the civil war we must reply, instructed by our experience: the only unpardonable sin which the Russian working class can commit at this moment is that of indulgence towards its class enemies. We are fighting for the sake of the greatest good of mankind, for the sake of the regeneration of mankind, to drag it out of darkness, out of slavery ... [36]

Marx himself provided his followers with the clearest guide on the subject of terror. In the autumn of 1848, denouncing ‘the cannibalism of the counter-revolution’, he proclaimed that there was ‘only one means to curtail, simplify and localise the bloody agony of the old society and the bloody birthpangs of the new, only one means – the revolutionary terror’. [37]

Trotsky, following the same line of argument, wrote in 1920:

The problem of revolution, as of war, consists in breaking the will of the foe, forcing him to capitulate and to accept the conditions of the conqueror ...

The degree of ferocity of the struggle depends on a series of internal and international circumstances. The more ferocious and dangerous is the resistance of the class enemy who have been overthrown, the more inevitably does the system of repression take the form of a system of terror. [38]


1*. Until February 1918, Russia followed the old Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar in use in the rest of Europe. The old calendar was abolished on 1 (14) February 1918. For dates before then, the old calendar date is given, with the new in brackets. After that date, only the new is given.

2*. The minutes of this meeting were omitted when the collected protocols of the Petrograd committee for 1917 were published in 1927. The proof sheet immediately reached Trotsky from one of his supporters, and he immediately published it in facsimile in the bulletin of the opposition, [15] and later reprinted it in his book The Stalin School of Falsification. [16] A comparison of the type with that of the published edition leaves little doubt that it is genuine. The facsimile bears a large fat question mark against a passage in Lenin’s speech which refers with praise to Trotsky’s attitude on coalition. In the same pencil is noted in the corner of the proof sheet, ‘Scrap’.


1. Leon Trotsky, My Life (New York 1960), page 337.

2. Trotsky, My Life, pages 337-8.

3. Trotsky, My Life, pages 340-1.

4. John Reed, Ten days that shook the world (London 1961), page 28.

5. N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A personal record (London 1955), page 636.

6. Sukhanov, pages 639-40.

7. Vtoroi Vserossiiskii Sezd Sovetovv RiSD, pages 84-7; J. Bunyan and H.H. Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1918: Documents and Materials (Stanford 1924). pages 135-6.

8. L.H. Haimson, The Mensheviks (Chicago 1974) pages 59-60.

9. The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918 (London 1974) (hereafter referred to as CC Minutes), page 292.

10. CC Minutes, page 127.

11. CC Minutes, page 127 note.

12. CC Minutes, pages 291-5.

13. CC Minutes, pages 128-35.

14. Quoted in Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification (New York 1962), pages 107-123.

15. Biulleten Oppozitsiu, number 7 (1929), pages 30-2.

16. Trotsky, Stalin School, pages 107-23.

17. J.L.H. Keep (editor), The Debate on Soviet Power: Minutes of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets (Oxford 1979), page 68.

18. Debate on Soviet Power, page 71.

19. Trotsky, Sochineniia (Moscow), volume 3, book 2, pages 104-6 and 402.

20. Quoted in Haimson, page 75.

21. CC Minutes, page 143.

22. CC Minutes, page 150.

23. O.H. Radkey, The Sickle under the Hammer (New York 1963), pages 66- 7.

24. Bunyan and Fisher, page 190.

25. Haimson, pages 67-8.

26. Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (London 1972), page 79.

27. Quoted in Trotsky, On Lenin (London 1971), page 115.

28. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 2, page 202.

29. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 133.

30. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 138.

31. M. Latsis, Chrezvychainaia Komissiia po borbe s kontrrevoliutsiei (Moscow 1920).

32. Serge, Year One, page 307.

33. Latsis, page 9.

34. Serge, Year One, page 189.

35. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, translated from the fourth Russian edition (Moscow) volume 30, page 223.

36. Serge, Year One, page 298.

37. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Ier Teil, volume 7, page 423.

38. Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (Ann Arbor 1972), pages 54-5.

Last updated on 31 July 2009