|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 207 April 2017
Trotsky: new translations
Speech at the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet
LEON TROTSKY’s speech to the Petrograd Soviet on 5 May 1917, the day after he arrived back in Russia. The final paragraph shows that Trotsky and Lenin, although separated by exile, shared the same assessment of the developments in Russia. It was published in Izvestia (The News), the Soviet’s journal, on 7 May. This is a new translation by Pete Dickenson.
News of the Russian revolution caught us in New York, far over the ocean, but there too, in this powerful country where the bourgeoisie rules like nowhere else, the Russian revolution had its effect. The American working class has acquired a bad reputation. They say it does not support revolution. But if you could have seen the American workers in February, you would have been doubly proud of your revolution. You would have realised that it shook not only Russia, not only Europe, but America too. And it would have become clear to you, as it did to me, that it ushered in a new epoch, an epoch of blood and iron, but no longer a struggle of nation against nation but of the suffering and oppressed class against the ruling classes. (Stormy applause)
Workers at rallies everywhere asked me to convey to you their heartfelt delight. (Stormy applause) But I have to tell you something about the Germans. I had the chance to come into close contact with a small number of German proletarians. You may ask where? In a prison camp. The British bourgeois government arrested us as enemies and put us in a prisoner-of-war camp in Canada. (Cries of ‘shame!’) There were 100 officers and 800 German sailors. They asked us how we, Russian citizens, fell into the hands of the British. And when we told them that we were imprisoned not as Russian citizens, but as socialists, they began to tell us that they were the slaves of their government, their Wilhelm.(1) We became very close friends with the German proletarians.
The officer prisoners didn’t like this and they complained to the British commander, claiming that we were undermining the loyalty of their sailors to the Kaiser. Then the British captain, to preserve the loyalty of the German soldiers to the Kaiser, banned me from speaking out. The sailors lodged a strong protest on this account to the commandant. When we left, the sailors saw us off with music and shouted: ‘Down with Wilhelm, down with the bourgeoisie, long live the international unity of the proletariat!’ (Stormy applause) What happened to the consciousness of the German sailors is now occurring in all countries. The Russian revolution is the prologue to the world revolution.
But I can’t hide from you that much of what is happening now I disagree with. I believe that the entry into the government was dangerous.(2) I don’t believe in miracles that can build a government from top down. Before, we had dual power which arose from the contradictions of two classes.(3) But a coalition ministry does not deliver us from dual power but merely transfers it into the government. The revolution will not perish as a result of the coalition, but it is necessary to bear in mind three commandments: (i) distrust of the bourgeoisie; (ii) control over our own leaders; and (iii) trust in our own revolutionary strength. I think your next step should be to transfer all authority to the workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Only a single power will save Russia. Long live the Russian revolution as the prologue to the world revolution! (Applause)
1. Wilhelm is a reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
2. A reference to the second Provisional Government, a coalition set up on 5 May and including members of the right-wing socialists (Mensheviks) and the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries (SRs). As the Mensheviks and SRs were in the leadership of the soviets, this was a conscious attempt by the landlord/capitalist class to undermine the rising power of the workers. The Mensheviks and SRs were willing partners.
3. A reference to the dual power during the first Russian revolution of 1905.
Resolution of the Citywide Conference of the United Social Democrats
This was a meeting on 7 May 1917 involving Trotsky’s Inter-District Organisation, the Bolsheviks, and the United Internationalists (led by Maxim Gorky, a writer and Bolshevik sympathiser, up to the October revolution). It was written by Trotsky and is followed by one of his contributions at the conference. Both were published in Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn (New Life – No.18, 9 May 1917). They are translated here by Pete Dickenson in English for the first time.
1: On the question of the relationship with the Provisional Government
Since the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies is the natural focus of the entire process of the revolution and of its deepening, all the capitalist strata seek to undermine and challenge its authority and significance, establishing on the ruins of the people’s revolution the ‘hard power’ of rural, financial and commercial-industrial capital.
An inevitable step on this road was the attempt of the bourgeoisie to enlist into the Provisional Government the representatives of the workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, thus decapitating the body of the revolution and making it responsible before the people for the military and social policy of capital.
In these circumstances, the agreement of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies to send its representatives into the Provisional Government is a profoundly mistaken act. Being powerless to halt the inherent development of the contradictions between the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses and the possessing classes, it can only introduce temporary confusion into the minds of the people and undermine the authority of its leading bodies.
The first duty of the revolutionary Social Democrats – as the far left-wing of the revolution – is, therefore, relentless criticism before the people of the measures adopted, vigilant control over the internal and foreign policy of the new Provisional Government, exposure of the concealed selfishness of the bourgeoisie and the inevitable half-heartedness of all its steps, and preparation for the transfer of power into the hands of the leading bodies of the revolution.
Since the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies is the only possible, the only real form of people’s revolutionary power, the Conference considers that it is necessary, with all available measures, both ideological and by renewing the internal composition of the soviets, to strive for a fundamental change in the policies of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. From the opportunistic defencism, conducted by the majority of the current Executive Committee [of the Petrograd Soviet], to a consistent and resolute struggle for the conquest of power, with the aims of a speedy conclusion of peace – without annexations and indemnities, overt and covert – for the principle of the self-determination of peoples and for the development of a social revolution in all the countries of the capitalist world.
2: On the question of Tsereteli and Skobelev
Despite the baneful experience of socialist ministerialism in France, Belgium and Britain during the war, citizens Tsereteli and Skobelev joined the new Provisional Government in the name of the Social Democrats and even of the Internationalists, affiliated at one time to the banner of Zimmerwald.(1) Bearing this in mind the Conference draws the attention of all Social Democrats to this exceptional example – even for our time – of ideological apostasy and political capitulation of socialists before the bourgeoisie. The responsibility of all party workers is therefore to explain to the proletarian masses that with their entry into the bourgeois ministry, citizens Tsereteli and Skobelev put themselves outside the ranks of the revolutionary Social Democracy.
1. Irakli Tsereteli was a Georgian revolutionary who later supported the war and became post/telegraph minister in the Provisional Government. Matvey Skobelev also moved to a pro-war position and was labour minister. Before the war, he had been a close associate of Trotsky in Vienna. Zimmerwald refers to a meeting in Switzerland in 1915 of anti-war socialists.
Trotsky on the Provisional Government (1)
They call our revolution bourgeois. This means that the government should have become, at best, a bourgeois democracy and the proletariat should be in opposition. That part of the Social Democratic Party [RSDLP – see p. 25] that gave its members, Tsereteli and Skobelev, to the Provisional Government, became a party of government, a party of the bourgeois revolution, which means a bourgeois party.
The difference between the delegated mass of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and its ideological leaders, Tsereteli and Skobelev, is that the former do not know or understand all the complexity of the driving forces of the revolution whereas Skobelev and Tsereteli – as the ideological leaders of the SD – with their tactics, compromise not only the SD and SR but also that tendency of social democracy (Zimmerwald) that they themselves identified with, and on which we pin all our hopes, in their entirety, for the restoration of the International.
We do not exclude them from the party. With their own behaviour they put themselves outside the ranks of the SD. We do not assume even a shadow of responsibility for them. Entering the government, they became either its hostages or its agents and the only task for us, the revolutionary SD, is to expose them. We pose before ourselves a clear and concrete task: the transfer of all power, in its entirety, to the soviets.
For us this matter is not a matter for today. We know that the conquest of power is an extended process and depends on the tempo of unfolding events. We are not talking about taking power behind the back of the Soviet, because it is the representative form of rule of all revolutionary democracy. We must only seek to create our majority in the Soviet, giving its work a truly revolutionary content and organise the broad mass around our slogans.
To take power as quickly as possible is not in our interest, for the further this moment is postponed, the more organised and conscious our ranks will become, and the more prepared we will be, at the right moment, to take power.
We categorically refuse to give any support to the new Provisional Government. Its crisis will not be a crisis to us because we are constantly telling the working masses about the real essence of the Provisional Government: full of bourgeois selfishness, hidden by democratic phraseology, and now with two socialist carcasses. The entry of the socialists into the government will end in complete bankruptcy, since Chernov will not be able to do anything.(2) He will prepare material for the [promised] Constituent Assembly, but not take any practical steps and, meanwhile, a government is being formed of anti-revolutionary elements. If we get involved in this mess, we will have no hope in the future.
The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is breaking down, sections are falling off to the right and to the left, but this is not the last chapter in the history of the revolution. There will be a third and fourth chapter, when a complete separation of the petty bourgeois elements of the city and the village will come. We don’t know if we will be victorious, but we do know that nothing will change from the transfer of four individuals from the Soviet into the government. Class relations are not changed by accommodations and internal revisions. We must go with our class. We don’t know if we will win but we know there is no other road.
And if Marx is mistaken, predicting social revolution prematurely, this will not mean that our prediction is premature. After all the shocks of the war, after 50 years of education in socialist culture, after all the people have been through, what other conditions could be more favourable for social revolution? If the war – forcing all peoples to throw off all falsehood, lies and the taint of chauvinism – does not lead to social revolution, then this means that Europe is destined for economic degeneration, and it will perish as a civilised country. It will serve only to satisfy the curiosity of tourists, and the centre of the revolutionary movement will be transferred to America or Japan.
1. Originally titled: Speech at the Citywide Conference of the United Social Democrats on the Statement of Comrade Uritsky about the Provisional Government. Moisei Uritsky was a leading member of the Inter-District Organisation, assassinated by the SRs in 1918.
2. Viktor Chernov, a founder and leader of the SRs, agriculture minister in the Provisional Government.