Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Russian Revolution and the Vindication of Permanent Revolution

Lenin returns to Russia in April 1917

Between 1914 and 1917 Lenin and Trotsky foresaw that the imperialist war would set the stage for revolutionary eruptions in Europe. This perspective was vindicated with the outbreak of the February Revolution, which arose out of the war and its extreme exacerbation of the crisis of Russian society. After the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew the Tsar, the Mensheviks sided with the bourgeois Provisional Government and opposed a revolution of the working class. The Provisional Government defended capitalist property relations, continued to prosecute the war, and opposed the distribution of land to the peasantry. Lenin returned to Russia in April and, repudiating in practice the longstanding Bolshevik program of the democratic dictatorship, called for the working class to oppose the Provisional Government and take power through the Soviets.

This position validated and endorsed, in all essentials, Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, which had, to an extraordinary degree, anticipated the actual course of revolutionary developments and laid the foundations, theoretically and politically, for Lenin’s decisive reorientation of the Bolshevik Party in April 1917. Lenin’s adoption of Trotsky’s perspective was bitterly opposed by many “Old Bolsheviks,” including Stalin. Prior to Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917, the position taken by Stalin, as editor of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, was that critical support should be given to the Provisional government. He also advocated support for the continuation of the war effort.

In the months leading up to the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government, Lenin undertook an extensive study of the writings of Marx and Engels on the subject of the state. This work answered the opportunists who were striving to portray the state as a supra-class institution, which existed to reconcile and arbitrate differences between classes. Lenin called attention to Engels’s definition of the state as a coercive instrument employed by the bourgeoisie to defend its rule, and to oppress and exploit the working class. This definition, Lenin argued, had lost none of its relevance in the twentieth century. On the contrary:

Imperialism—the era of bank capital, the era of gigantic capitalist monopolies, of the development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism—has clearly shown an extraordinary strengthening of the “state machine” and an unprecedented growth in its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with the intensification of repressive measures against the proletariat both in the monarchical and in the freest, republican countries.[1]

In October 1917, the Bolsheviks, having won the majority in the Petrograd Soviet, organized an insurrection under the leadership of Trotsky, overthrew the Provisional Government and transferred power to the Soviets. Serious historical research has refuted claims that the October Revolution was a conspiratorial “putsch” undertaken by the Bolsheviks without mass support.[2] In fact, there existed overwhelming support in the working class of Petrograd, the Russian capital, for the overthrow of the bourgeois regime. However, within the Bolshevik leadership there was substantial opposition. Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, who were among Lenin’s closest collaborators, were convinced that an insurrection would meet with disaster. They anticipated insurmountable obstacles to the victory of the revolution. They stressed the still substantial military forces commanded by Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, and the artillery that was deployed around the capital. As it turned out, the calculations of the Bolshevik opponents of insurrection were far off the mark. The overthrow of the Provisional Government was achieved with remarkable ease, and with very little bloodshed. Trotsky, commenting later on the significance of the struggle within the Bolshevik Party that preceded the insurrection, noted:

...there are two types of leaders who incline to drag the party back at the very moment when it must take a stupendous leap forward. Some among them generally tend to see mainly the difficulties and obstacles in the way of revolution, and to estimate each situation with a preconceived, though not always conscious, intention of avoiding any action. Marxism in their hands is turned into a method for establishing the impossibility of revolutionary action. The purest specimens of this type are the Russian Mensheviks. But this type as such is not confined to Menshevism, and at the most critical movement it suddenly manifests itself in responsible posts in the most revolutionary party.

The representatives of the second variety are distinguished by their superficial and agitational approach. They never see any obstacles or difficulties until they come into a head-on collision with them. The capacity for surmounting real obstacles by means of bombastic phrases, the tendency to evince lofty optimism on all questions (“the ocean is only knee deep”), is inevitably transformed into its polar opposite when the hour for decisive action strikes. To the first type of revolutionist, who makes mountains out of molehills, the problems of seizing power lie in heaping up and multiplying to the nth degree all the difficulties he has become accustomed to see in his way. To the second type, the superficial optimist, the difficulties of revolutionary action always come as a surprise. In the preparatory period the behavior of the two is different: the former is a skeptic, upon whom one cannot rely too much, that is, in a revolutionary sense; the latter, on the contrary, may seem a fanatic revolutionist. But at the decisive moment, the two march hand in hand; they both oppose the insurrection.[3]

The Russian Revolution provided an impulse for upheavals throughout the world. The revolutionary government called for an end to the war, released secret treaties exposing the imperialist designs of the belligerents, and urged workers to rise up against their governments. The Mensheviks remained intransigent in their opposition to the overthrow of the Provisional Government, despite the fact that the Bolshevik-led revolution clearly enjoyed mass support. Even after the overthrow, the Mensheviks rebuffed efforts of moderate Bolsheviks such as Kamenev to draw them into a socialist coalition government. The Mensheviks insisted that their price for any collaboration with the Bolsheviks was not only the removal of Lenin and Trotsky from any positions of power but also having them handed over to police authorities!

The failure of the Bolshevik Party to come to power could only have led to a counter-revolution, resulting in the restoration of the Tsar or the establishment of a military dictatorship. Once the bourgeoisie and its imperialist patrons recovered from their initial shock, they instigated a civil war with the aim of destroying the revolutionary regime. The Red Army was formed, under the leadership of Trotsky, to defend the Soviet regime against counterrevolution. Trotsky proved to be a military strategist and organizer of genius. His success as the leader of the Red Army reflected his incomparable understanding of the objective tasks confronting the working class and his ability to convey that understanding to the masses.

Leon Trotsky speaks to soldiers of the Red Army

In a speech delivered in April 1918, Trotsky explained:

History is no indulgent, soft mother who will protect the working class: she is a wicked stepmother who will teach the workers through bloody experience how they must attain their aims. The working people are readily inclined to forgive and forget: it is enough for the conditions of struggle to have become a little easier, enough for them to have won something, for it to seem to them that the main job has been done, and they are disposed to show magnanimity, to become passive, to stop fighting. In this lies the misfortune of the working people. But the possessing classes never give up the struggle. They have been educated to offer constant opposition to the pressure of the working masses, and any passivity, indecision, or wavering on our part results in our exposing our weak spot to blows of the possessing classes so that tomorrow or the next day they inevitably launch a new onslaught upon us. The working class needs not the universal forgiveness that Tolstoy preached, but hard tempering, intransigence, profound conviction that without struggle for every step, every inch of the road leading to betterment of its life, without constant, irreconcilable harsh struggle, and without organization of this struggle, there can be no salvation and liberation.[4]

The Bolsheviks were convinced that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended upon the extension of the revolution beyond the borders of Soviet Russia. This position was held by the finest representatives of international socialism. Defending the Bolsheviks, Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’”

The Russian Revolution transformed the question of socialism from a purely theoretical into a practical question. However, Luxemburg insisted that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended on the outcome of the class struggle beyond the borders of Russia. “In Russia the problem could only be posed,” she wrote. “It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism.’”[5] The bourgeoisie saw in the emerging revolutionary movements its most dangerous opponents. The combined forces of world imperialism organized an intervention in Russia in support of counter-revolution. In Germany, the forces of reaction, in league with the Social Democrats who had been raised to power by the working class uprising of November 1918, organized in January 1919 the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

The assassination of these two revolutionary leaders was the political response of the German (and world) bourgeoisie to the Russian Revolution. The ruling classes had concluded from 1917 that the development of Marxist leadership in the working class had to be prevented at all costs. The bloody events of the 20th century would demonstrate the extent to which the ruling classes and their agents among the Social Democrats and Stalinists were guided by this lesson.


“The State and Revolution,” in: V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 410.


See Professor Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power (Bloomfield: Indiana University Press, 2007).


“Lessons of October,” by Leon Trotsky, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2002), pp. 286-87.


How the Revolution Armed: The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, Volume 1: 1918, Translated by Brian Pearce (London: New Park Publications, 1979), p. 58.


The Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 80.