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History of the Russian Revolution
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More importantly, it's one of the best books ever written about revolution, as relevant today as ever.
The most important conclusion that emerges is the crucial role of a revolutionary party with an overwhelmingly working class membership, leadership and political orientation: a party that has trained itself in the many years of partial struggles that precede a revolutionary crisis; studied together the lessons of past revolutionary struggles throughout the world; and done everything possible to educate broader layers of workers in those lessons.
(The point is illustrated both positively and negatively. More than once, Lenin had to turn to the Bolshevik's working class rank and file against wavering intellectuals in the party leadership.)
Please don't be put off by the first chapter, the driest and most difficult in the book. The basic idea is that capitalism arrived late in Russia, imported from abroad in the form of huge factories, which laid the basis for the rapid development of a strong, militant labor movement. As a result, the emerging capitalist class was reluctant to mobilize the masses against the feudal nobles and landlords that stood in their way, for fear that the aroused workers might turn on the capitalists themselves.
Under the impact of war and economic crisis, the resulting mixture of different forms of class oppression exploded in a combined revolt of workers, farmers, and oppressed nationalities, destroying both feudalism and capitalism by the time it was through.
(1) If you're wondering what went wrong in the Soviet Union after such a promising start, I recommend "The Revolution Betrayed" by Trotsky; also "Lenin's Final Fight" by Lenin.
(2) I disagree with Trotsky's assessment of the pre-1917 differences between himself and Lenin concerning the role of working farmers, the relationship between democratic (anti-feudal) revolution and socialist revolution, and Lenin's formula, "the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry". I think Trotsky's discussion of this is confusing. I recommend "Their Trotsky and Ours" by Jack Barnes. There is also a good debate in "Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution" by Doug Jenness, Ernest Mandel, and V.I. Lenin.
(3) Another reviewer pointed out that this book is available online. However, the printed version has glossaries of people, places, organizations and unfamiliar terms; a more complete chronology; and a thorough index. I relied very heavily on all of these, so much so that I used color-coded post-its to turn to them easily. Also, parts of the online version are full of obvious typos; books from Pathfinder Press are proofread very thoroughly.
(4) Finally, I recommend the ads in the back of the book. Pathfinder Press is defined by a political goal, not commercial success. It aims to provide a platform for revolutionary leaders speaking in their own words. If you like one book, you will probably like others.
The life of Leon Trotsky is intimately intertwined with the rise and decline of the Russian Revolution in the first part of the 20th century. As a young man, like an extraordinary number of talented Russian youth, he entered the revolutionary struggle against Czarism in the late 1890's. Shortly thereafter he embraced what became a lifelong devotion to a Marxist political perspective. However, except for the period of the 1905 Revolution when Trotsky was chairman of the Petrograd Soviet and later in 1912 when he tried to unite all the Russian Social Democratic forces in an ill-fated unity conference, which goes down in history as the `August Bloc', he was essentially a free lancer in the international socialist movement. At that time Trotsky saw the Bolsheviks as "sectarians" as it was not clear to him at that time that for socialist revolution to be successful the reformist and revolutionary wings of the movement had to be organizationally split. With the coming of World War I Trotsky drew closer to Bolshevik positions but did not actually join the party until the summer of 1917 when he entered the Central Committee after the fusion of his organization, the Inter-District Organization, and the Bolsheviks. This act represented an important and decisive switch in his understanding of the necessity of a revolutionary workers party to lead the revolution.
As Trotsky himself noted, although he was a late comer to the concept of a Bolshevik Party that delay only instilled in him a greater understanding of the need for a vanguard revolutionary workers party to lead the revolutionary struggles. This understanding underscored his political analysis throughout the rest of his career as a Soviet official and as the leader of the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution. After his defeat at the hands of Stalin and his henchmen Trotsky wrote these three volumes in exile in Turkey from 1930 to 1932. At that time Trotsky was not only trying to draw the lessons of the Revolution from an historian's perspective but to teach new cadre the necessary lessons of that struggle as he tried first reform the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International and then later, after that position became politically untenable , to form a new, revolutionary Fourth International. Trotsky was still fighting from this perspective in defense of the gains of the Russian Revolution when a Stalinist agent cut him down. Thus, without doubt, beyond a keen historian's eye for detail and antidote, Trotsky's political insights developed over long experience give his volumes an invaluable added dimension not found in other sources on the Russian Revolution.
As a result of the Bolshevik seizure of power the so-called Russian Question was the central question for world politics throughout most of the 20th century. That central question ended practically with the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's. However, there are still lessons, not all negative, to be learned from the experience of the Russian Revolution. Today, an understanding of this experience is the task for the natural audience for this book, the young alienated radicals of Western society.
The central preoccupation of Trotsky's volumes reviewed here and of his later political career concerns the problem of the crisis of revolutionary leadership of the international labor movement and its national components. That problem can be stated as the gap between the already existing objective conditions necessary for beginning socialist construction based on the current level of capitalist development and the immaturity or lack of revolutionary leadership to overthrow the old order. From the European Revolutions of 1848 on, not excepting the heroic Paris Commune, until his time the only successful working class revolution had been in led by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917. Why? Anarchists may look back to the Paris Commune or forward to the Spanish Civil War in 1936 for solace but the plain fact is that absent a revolutionary party those struggles were defeated without establishing the prerequisites for socialism. History has indicated that a revolutionary party that has assimilated the lessons of the past and is rooted in the working class allied with and leading the plebian masses in its wake is the only way to bring the socialist program to fruition. That hard truth shines through Trotsky's three volumes. Unfortunately, this is still the central problem confronting the international labor movement today. Read this book many times.
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