Tag Archives: Leon Trotsky

1917: All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Eastern Front 1914

Russian troops on the Eastern Front, 1914.

On December 17, 1917 (December 4 in the Old Russian calendar), an armistice between the Central Powers and the Bolshevik government in Russia began, temporarily ending a long and bloody German advance and initiating peace negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers. Though official peace through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would not take effect for another three months, Russia was essentially out of the Great War, almost a year after anti-war protests in Petrograd led to the February Revolution. Meanwhile, the ill-reported Russian Civil War between the Red Army and the White Army was only just beginning. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The conflict was a civil war as well as a proxy war. The Reds constituted the Bolsheviks and their allies. The Whites were an amalgamation of pro-monarchists, proto-fascists hoping to establish a military dictatorship, moderate leftists opposed to communism, and troops from the Allied Powers, all of whom wanted to prevent a socialist regime from succeeding. Months earlier, the Allies had praised the Tsar’s abdication, and the US had been the first to recognize the post-Tsarist government. Now, as the revolution pushed Russia out of the war, the Allies directed their praise elsewhere.

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, found themselves isolated, their new government shaky, threatened by violence from all sides. The Civil War lasted from late 1917 (or 1918, depending upon which historiography one chooses) to 1922, ending just two years before Lenin’s death. Trotsky’s 1920 book Terrorism and Communism offers an instructive perspective into this period. In Chapter Four, Trotsky examines the American Civil War as an example of state-sanctioned terrorism from both sides, including Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the repressive violence in the Confederacy against pro-Union sentiments. Trotsky describes Confederate vigilantes running a campaign of terror against those in the Southern States who were seen as disloyal to the South, which he compares to the terror employed by the White Army, writing that the situation in the South was “extremely reminiscent of the scenes which day by day took place in the camps of Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenich, and the other heroes of Anglo-Franco-American ‘democracy'” (Trotsky).

One figure he lists, Alexander Kolchak, is notable for his temporary military dictatorship in Siberia, the Civil War’s Eastern Front. Kolchak was a former admiral in the Russian Navy who, shortly after the October Revolution, joined the White faction in Siberia known as the “directory.” As the White Army became more authoritarian, Kolchak’s supporters overthrew the directory and established a military dictatorship on November 18, 1918, seven days after the armistice in Europe. Kolchak appointed himself “supreme ruler and commander-in-chief” of a White faction in Omsk, Siberia, creating the kind of regime Kornilov failed to make in August, 1917. Under Kolchak, political opponents were imprisoned, peasants were exploited, and unarmed civilians were shot by the hundreds, all to support the White Army. David Fogelsong points out the degree to which the US supported such leaders, writing that with “support from the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the White House, the Russian embassy was able to send millions of dollars of supplies to White forces in the Russian Civil War, particularly those in Siberia” (Fogelsong 69).

The state of Russia between 1918 and 1922 was disconnected and malleable. Mark Steinberg’s description is particularly useful: “But the civil war was a more complex and varied experience than this simple binary of Red versus White suggests. The history of the civil war included terrorism and armed struggle by Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists, and socialists opposed to both Bolshevik ‘dictatorship’ and the return of right-wing dictatorship that the Whites seemed to represent; ‘Green’ armies of peasants who fought against both Reds and Whites, mainly depending on who presented the greater immediate threat to their autonomy” were among those involved (97). The Russian Civil War more closely resembled Balkanization between ideologically opposed factions funded by competing stakeholders, comparable to Iraq and Syria today. The Reds met counter-revolutionary violence with pro-revolutionary terror in their effort to hold the country together. Trotsky’s comparison to the American Civil War is justified, then, as well as instructive: the successful regime employed violence in much the same way the defeated faction did, ending life to preserve it.

Giorgio Agamben writes that the First World War “coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of warring countries” (12), so much so that he describes the period following the War as “a laboratory for testing and honing the mechanisms and apparatuses of the state of exception as a paradigm of government” (6) in which governments utilize “states of emergency” to exert tightly-crafted control over populations so that, gradually, the defense of democracy from external or internal threats can only succeed with the suspension of democratic institutions. Trotsky’s description of the American Civil War, and of political terror in general, is stunningly close to Agamben’s analysis of the same conflict.

Continuing in Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky writes that 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” (Trotsky). He justifies state-sanctioned terror because it matches and counters the terror of the White Army, evident in Kolchak and others. This is, notably, the exact same logic the United States uses to justify torture, drone strikes, and military invasions in the “war on terror.” Agamben’s theorized state of exception, though, is also evident in the rule of the Tsars. Nicholas II and Tsars before him utilized violence to control the terror that anarchists created in the nineteenth century through their attempts to assassinate Russian monarchs using explosives. From both Trotsky and Agamben, we can observe that political violence invites further political violence, resistance invites counter-resistance, and fear invites oppression.

It is tragic, then, that the majority of people who sided with the Bolsheviks wanted an end to the violence of the Great War and its imperial regime. They got what they wanted, hard-fought and seized from ruthless power brokers in the monarchy and its constellation of landlords. But the Great War ended without ceasing, always lingering over the rest of the twentieth century.

If World War One was fought by empires, colonialists, and alliances between the two, these systems arguably sustained themselves after Armistice. Empires and colonists worked together to create what Agamben calls a permanent state of exception, which the Red Army wanted earnestly to oppose. Empires and colonists likewise worked together to end the Revolution, and in so doing, dragged the Revolution into their own system, so that in order to preserve itself, the USSR chose to employ imperialism and colonialism, in Hungary, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. The same can be said of Britain, France, and the US, who exercised imperialism and colonialism in Egypt, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, and Afghanistan. The tragedy is that the Bolsheviks invited a permanent state of exception into their anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist regime.

Agamben’s assessment of the Great War explains the development of Stalinism as a post-war phenomenon, rather than a mutant strain of Leninism. Rather, just as emergency powers and the war on terror are the suspension of democracy in democracy’s defense, Stalinism can be seen as the suspension of Leninism in Leninism’s defense against the White Army, both an external and internal threat.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was overshadowed by the fragmentation of Russia. For a moment, though, there was a temporary peace, or at least the hope for something longer lasting than an armistice. That hope for a lasting peace has haunted a peaceless world for ninety-nine years. A peaceful world is unlikely to emerge by next year’s hundredth anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. But what do we actually gain by giving up and giving into cynicism? Peace is elusive and unsustainable, a moving target. Haven’t we had centuries of target practice already?


Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Fogelsong, David. America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford University Press, 2017.

1917: Into the Dustbin of History

Trotsky speaking in Red Square

Leon Trotsky speaking before a crowd in Petrograd, October, 1917.

“I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” -Vladimir Lenin, in conversation with Valeriu Marcu while exiled in Switzerland.

On this day, one hundred years ago, the October Revolution began. In the Gregorian Calendar, the Revolution started on November 7, but in the old Russian Julian calendar, it was October 25. In memory, it marked the beginning of the state that would become the Soviet Union. For those involved, it was something more important: the end of the Provisional Government and what might be called a de facto state of anarchy.

The word anarchy is worth interrogating. Recent abuses of the word in popular culture suggest that anarchy is a kind of directionless physical violence, which removes it from its more valuable political usage. Anarchy was a widespread political ideology at the turn of the century, seen as the antithesis to monarchy, oligarchy, and above all, hierarchy. These words stem from the Greek arkhon, meaning “ruler,” and in the Athenian Democracy indicated certain offices that one could hold as religious kings, generals, or administrators. Anarchy, then, is the absence of rulers, but specifically the absence of hierarchy, or the stratification of rulers over the ruled. In the context of an oppressive Tsarist empire whose police shot protestors while stoking antisemitism and nationalism and fought a useless war for political ambitions and allegiances, the concept of anarchy would have been quite appealing.

The problem with the Provisional Government that formed after February, 1917, was not that it was explicitly authoritarian. The problem, from its inception, was that it was a balancing act between traditional hierarchies and the growing desire for the end of those hierarchies. Alexander Kerensky came to control the Provisional Government, sharing power with the soviets while trying to maintain the war.  What Trotsky called “dual power” between Kerensky’s Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet (representing workers, peasants, and soldiers), Lenin called “Bonapartism,” in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte. In mid-1917, Lenin wrote that Kerensky was maneuvering “state power, which leans on the military clique (on the worst elements of the army) for support, between two hostile classes and forces which more or less balance each other out.” Lenin was not alone in criticizing the Provisional Government, which was a primary point of contention among Russia’s revolutionaries.

Apart from Kerensky’s perpetuation of the war effort, he was shown to be an unhelpful leader in August, during what became known as the Kornilov Affair. Lavr Kornilov was a general who, in August, attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government and install a right-wing military dictatorship, a proto-fascist regime that would have undermined the February Revolution and reinstated a new Tsarism. As China Mieville writes of the affair, “. . . there was more than one conspiracy simmering away on the right. Various shadowy groups–the Union of Officers, the Republican Centre and Military League–were meeting to discuss plans for martial law” (213). Add to these the threat of the antisemitic Black Hundreds, responsible for mass murders and pogroms across Russia, as well as counterrevolutionary efforts to win the war, the bleak regime Kornilov almost created would have been as oppressive, if not more so, than the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. But the coup failed because Kerensky managed to work alongside the Petrograd Soviet in time to stop Kornilov’s renegades from invading the capitol.

There was leadership, then, but no ruler. Christopher Read writes that one consequence of the Kornilov Affair was “a sort of reverse of the July Days,” that the “right had discredited itself and restored the ascendancy of the left.” He also writes that there were consequences for Kerensky, too, who “made an agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, armed it, withdrew the ban on its members, primarily the Bolsheviks, and released Soviet prisoners from jail. . . But it was not enough. Kerensky was seen to have cultivated Kornilov in the first place, not least in appointing him C-in-C” (Read 92-93). Indeed, Kerensky was seen as having worked with Kornilov, and many believed that he was sympathetic to an authoritarian coup that would relieve him of his duties. If nothing else, the affair proved that the Provisional Government had become dysfunctional, barely clinging to life.

In the months that followed, popular support for the Bolsheviks rose while support for Kerensky plummeted. It is important to note that the goal of most on the far left, including some Mensheviks, was to pass power to the soviets completely, and end the power of the Provisional Government. As early as September, “eighty soviets in large and medium towns backed the call for a soviet government. In towns such as Tsaritsyn, Narva, Krasnoiarsk, and Kostroma soviet power was already a reality” (Smith 147). During this time, the Bolsheviks were actively campaigning from the ground up, organizing factories, speaking in public, and stoking public support for a soviet antithesis to the Provisional Government. It was around this time that Lenin suggested that the Bolsheviks, “‘having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in both capitols, can and must take state power into their own hands‘” (Mieville 246), and should make no compromise with the Provisional Government by simply walking away from it.

Here, Lenin believed that the time was ripe for the soviets to lead the soviets in taking power. Earlier, he had encouraged the Bolsheviks to refrain from leaving the Provisional Government in July because they were not popularly supported, and it was important for him to recognize that the support of the workers, peasants, and soldiers was more important than overthrowing a weak Provisional Government. It had to be done for the soviets and all they represented. Now that it was clear the Bolsheviks were going to gain popular recognition in an upcoming pre-parliament session (which would begin October 7), the Bolsheviks would declare their legitimacy among the soviets and then walk out.

The Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, who helped exiled leaders like Lenin correspond with the party and without whom the revolution would not have succeeded, articulated the main argument against working with the Provisional Government in her text “Why the Bolsheviks Must Win.” She wrote that the “February revolution could remove none of the factors which caused it, namely war, rising prices, famine and privation. At the same time, the Russian bourgeoisie calmly continued their rule” (Kollontai). In other words, the horrors that motivated widespread protests across Russia continued to inflict damage, and needed to be addressed with different means. For many Bolsheviks, this meant an armed insurrection to precipitate the transfer of power to the soviets.

After walking out on the pre-parliament, the Bolshevik Central Committee met in secret on October 10 to vote on whether or not to implement an insurrection. By ten to two, after numerous speeches from numerous members, they voted in favor of insurrection. They were now popular representatives of the peasants and workers, and the time had come for another, more radical change necessitated by the moment’s urgency. For the Central Committee members, waiting for more elections would result only in more casualties as the German army approached and increase the chance of another Kornilov-inspired coup. If they waited any longer, the comatose Provisional Government might be toppled and a military dictator might be installed.

The insurrection began on October 25. Fittingly, this was also Trotsky’s birthday.

That day, Trotsky spoke to an “emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet” and announced, “‘On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists‘” (Mieville 289). The Second Congress of Soviets opened to debate a new soviet-led government. Meanwhile, Red Guards (a paramilitary branch of the Bolsheviks), seized key areas of Petrograd, including bridges, train stations, the post office, and eventually the Winter Palace, where they arrested the remaining members of the Provisional Government, who surrendered peacefully. All except Kerensky, who had long since fled the city.

A number of elected officials who opposed the insurrection walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, while Trotsky pontificated on the legitimacy of the move he and the Bolsheviks made: “A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy.” While those who dissented walked up and left, just as the Bolsheviks had at the pre-parliament weeks before, Trotsky denounced them, shouting, “you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: to the dustbin of history” (298-299). On those words, the opposition left the Congress to continue debating a new regime, one without monarchy, oligarchy, or hierarchy.

By early morning on October 26, after tense nightlong debates, the Second Congress of Soviets passed a resolution drafted by Lenin to build a soviet-exclusive government, end the war, grant self-determination to nations Russia had subjugated, and transfer land to the peasants (303-304), thus creating an all-soviet state.

The October Revolution occurred without a single loss of life. It was armed, but bloodless. A ship controlled by the Red Guards, the Aurora, fired a blank shot, and some shots were fired periodically during the arrest of the Provisional Government, but nobody died in the October Revolution, partly because of how well organized the Red Guards were, but mostly because the government in place was apathetic to its own demise. It did not resist arrest and cancellation, which suggests that the October Revolution was not a coup, as some historians contest. As S. A. Smith puts it, “. . . a coup implies the seizure of a functioning state machine. Arguably, Russia had not had this since February” (43).

It is telling that the document announcing the insurrection’s success, titled “To the Citizens of Russia,” begins not by declaring a new soviet regime but by iterating that “The Provisional Government has been deposed” (Lenin). A bottom-up regime change was important, but it was more important to end what was in place, a doomed, if not failed, attempt to sustain a fraction of the old guard through the exhausted imitation of the old guard’s strategies. It was not a state of anarchy the way contemporary anarchists would have preferred. Kerensky held together a stitched-up government of poorly balanced provisions and hierarchy beyond its health. He was not a competent ruler, but he still ruled, and as such, he presided over a kind of anarchy by leaving the Provisional Government open to coups that favored hierarchy, which would have been a return to pre-revolutionary Russia.

The October Revolution was an attempt to replace the lasting remains of the Tsarist regime with something new, something untried, something that could create a state without hierarchy. It was a somewhat democratic effort to reaffirm the rule of the soviets, to make every worker, peasant, and soldier free of status. It seems that in the moment, the only other option was a cynical return to military dictatorship, well-known to those many who survived it before. The Bolsheviks wanted to give the Congress an alternative, however strange and frightening it may have been, to what Russians had spent decades suffering through. After the bloody Civil War, Lenin’s too-soon passing, and Stalin’s hijacking of the state, the Second Congress is easily obscured in its long, cold aftermath.

One step forward, one step back.

Trotsky condemned those who refused to try for an alternative to hierarchy to the “dustbin of history,” where, now that Russia is under a new brand of right-wing authoritarianism, the entire Soviet Union now rests, sometimes even in peace.


Mieville, China. October. Verso, 2017.

Read, Christopher. War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Smith, S. A. Russia in Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. Sterling, 2011.

Thorley, John. Athenian Democracy. Routledge, 1996.