Trotsky on democracy in the Russian Revolution (1918)

Submitted by sm on 7 April, 2007 - 6:02


When, after Korniloff’s adventure, the paramount parties on the Soviets made an attempt to make amends for their previous attitude of indulgence towards the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, they demanded the speedy convocation of the Constituent Assembly.

Kerensky, who had just been saved by the Soviets from the too close embrace of his ally Korniloff, was obliged to give in. The Constituent Assembly was fixed for the end of November. But the circumstances had by that time become such that no guarantee whatsoever was available that the Constituent Assembly would, indeed, be called together.

Complete disorganization reigned at the front, the number of deserters was growing every day, and the soldiers threatened to leave the trenches in regiments and corps and to withdraw to the rear, devastating everything on their way. In the country districts seizures of private lands and livestock were going on in a most haphazard fashion. Martial law was in consequence proclaimed in many places.

Meanwhile the German troops continued to advance, took Riga and threatened Petrograd. The Right wing of the bourgeoisie was openly rejoicing over the danger threatening the revolutionary capital. The Government offices had been evacuated from Petrograd. and Kerensky intended to transfer the seat of his Government to Moscow.

All that made the possibility of the Constituent Assembly being called together not only remote, but well-nigh unlikely.

From this point of view the November overturn may have been regarded as the salvation of the Constituent Assembly as well as of the Revolution as a whole. And when we argued that the road to the Constituent Assembly lay not through Tsereteli’s Provisional Parliament, but through the seizure of power by the Soviets, we were absolutely sincere.

But the endless postponements of the summoning of the Constituent Assembly had not been without effect on it. Announced in the first days of the Revolution, it made its appearance after eight or nine months of a severe struggle between classes and parties. It came too late to have still a chance of playing a constructive role.

Its intrinsic futility had been predetermined by one single fact which at first might have appeared as of small importance, but which later on affected the fate of the Constituent Assembly tremendously.

During the first phases of the Revolution the party of the Socialist Revolutionaries had been numerically the strongest. I have already mentioned its amorphous condition and its mixed social composition.

The Revolution had been irresistibly leading to the internal differentiation among those who were marching under the Populist banner. The left wing of this party, representing a portion of the industrial workers and the great masses of the poorer peasantry, was separating more and more from the rest, and ultimately found itself in an irreconcilable opposition to the leaders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, who represented the lower and middle bourgeoisie. But the inertia of the party frame and traditions delayed the inevitable split.

The proportional system of elections rests, as is well known, entirely on party lists. As these lists had been drawn up two or three months before the November Revolution, the names of the Left and the Right Socialist Revolutionaries figured pell-mell in the same list, under the banner of the same party.

In this way, by the time of the November Revolution, when the Right Socialist Revolutionaries were already arresting members of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Left were joining the Bolsheviks for the overthrow of the Government of the Socialist Revolutionary Kerensky, the old lists were still retaining their validity, and peasants at the elections for the Constituent Assembly were obliged to vote for lists headed by Kerensky’s name and containing names of Left Socialist Revolutionaries who were taking part in the conspiracy against him.

The months preceding the November Revolution were marked by an incessant orientation of the masses towards the Left and a wholesale flow of the workers, soldiers, and peasants into the ranks of the Bolsheviks. During the same period the same process was manifesting itself in the ranks of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in the shape of the extension of the Left wing at the expense of the Right.

Yet three-fourths of the names figuring on the party lists of the Socialist Revolutionaries were those of the old leaders of the Right wing, whose revolutionary reputation had been forfeited completely during their coalition with the Liberal bourgeoisie.

To this must be added the fact that the elections took place during the first weeks following the November Revolution. The news of the change was spreading in slowly widening circles from the capital to the provinces, from the towns to the villages. In many places the masses of peasantry had a very vague idea of what had taken place in Petrograd and Moscow.

They nominally voted for “Land and Liberty,” for their representatives on the land committees, who, for the most part, were following the Populist banner. In effect, they were voting for Kerensky and Avksentieff, who were dissolving those very land committees and arresting their members.

The result of it all was a most incredible political paradox: one of the two parties which were to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, viz. the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, was actually elected on the same lists as the party which had obtained the majority in the Constituent Assembly.

These facts show clearly what a belated product the Constituent Assembly was in comparison with the actual progress of party warfare and party differentiations. We must now examine the question also from the point of view of principle.


As Marxists, we have never been worshippers of formal democracy. In a society split into classes, the democratic institutions, far from abolishing the class struggle, only lend the class interests a highly imperfect form of expression.

The possessing classes have always at their disposal thousands of means to, pervert and adulterate the will of the labouring masses.

In time of revolution democratic institutions form a still less perfect apparatus for the expression of the class struggle. Marx called Revolution “the locomotive of history.” The open and direct struggle for power enables the labouring masses to acquire in a short time a wealth of political experience and thus rapidly to pass from one, stage to another in the process of their mental evolution.

The ponderous mechanism of democratic institutions cannot keep pace with this evolution – and this in proportion to the vastness of the country and the imperfection of the technical apparatus at its disposal.

The Right Socialist Revolutionaries were in a majority at the Constituent Assembly. In accordance with parliamentary usage, they should have formed the Government. But the Right Socialist Revolutionaries had had the chance of forming such a Government during the whole period of Revolution before November.

Yet they had refrained from doing so, had handed over the lion’s share of power to the Liberal bourgeoisie, and exactly for that reason they had lost the last vestige of influence among the most revolutionary sections of the people by the very time when the numerical composition of the Constituent Assembly placed them under the formal obligation to assume the reins of government.

The working class, together with the Red Guard, were deeply hostile to the Right Socialist Revolutionaries. The overwhelming majority of the army supported the Bolsheviks.

The revolutionary elements in the villages divided their sympathies between the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks. The sailors, who had been so prominent in all the incidents of the Revolution, were almost to a man with our party.

The Right Socialist Revolutionaries had, in fact, been compelled to leave the Soviets, which had assumed power in November, that is, before the Constituent Assembly.

On what support could a Ministry formed by such a majority of the Constituent Assembly depend? It would have had behind it the rich of the villages, intellectuals, and the old officialdom, and perhaps would have found support, for the time being, among the middle class. But such a Government would have been completely deprived of the material apparatus of power.

In the centres of political life, like Petrograd, it would have met at once with an uncompromising resistance. If the Soviets had, in accordance with the formal logic of democratic institutions, handed over their power to the party of Kerensky and Tchernoff, the new Govemment, discredited and impotent, would have only succeeded in temporarily confusing the political life of the country, and would have been overthrown by a new rising within a few weeks.

The Soviets decided to reduce this belated historical experiment to a minimum, and dissolved the Constituent Assembly on the very day when it assembled.

On this account our party has been made the butt of most violent accusations. No doubt the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly made a very unfavourable impression in the leading quarters of the Socialist parties of the West, and the politically unavoidable and necessary act was denounced there as a piece of party tyranny and sectarian arbitrariness.

Kautsky, with his customary pedantry, explained in a series of articles the mutual relationship between the Socialist and Revolutionary tasks of the proletariat and the regime of political democracy. He endeavoured to prove that the observance of the principle of democracy was always, in the last resort, advantageous to the working class.

Of course, in a general way, and on the whole, that is true. But Kautsky reduced this historical truth to a piece of professorial banality. If it always, in the end, pays the proletariat to wage its class struggle and even to exercise its dictatorship within the frame of democratic institutions, it does not at all follow that history always affords the chance of such a combination.

It does not follow from the Marxian theory at all that history invariably creates conditions which are the most “advantageous” to the proletariat.

It is at present difficult to say what course the Revolution would have taken if the Constituent Assembly had been summoned in its second or third month. Very probably the parties of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, which then predominated, would have discredited themselves, together with the Constituent Assembly, in the eyes not only of the more active elements which were supporting the Soviets, but even in those of the backward popular masses, whose hopes would have been bound up, not with the Soviets, but with the Constituent Assembly.

In such circumstances the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly might have been followed by new elections from which the parties of the Left would have emerged in a majority. But the course of events went in a different direction. The elections to the Constituent Assembly took place in the ninth month of the Revolution, and by that time the class struggle had reached such a degree of intensity that it burst, by its internal pressure, the formal framework of democracy.

The proletariat led the army and lower masses of peasantry. These classes were in a state of direct and fierce revolt against the Right Socialist Revolutionaries. Yet, thanks to the cumbrous machinery of democratic elections, this party obtained a majority in the Constituent Assembly, representing the pre-November phase of the Revolution.

This was a contradiction which could not be solved within the framework of formal democracy, and only political pedants, who do not clearly realize the revolutionary logic of the relations of classes, can, in face of the situation resulting from the November events, preach to the proletariat banal truths concerning the advantages of democracy for waging the class war.

History chose to put the problem in a form much more concrete and acute. The Constituent Assembly, by its composition, was obliged to hand over the reins of power to the Tchernoff-Kerensky-Tsereteli group.

Was this group capable of guiding the Revolution? Could they find support In the class which formed the backbone of the Revolution? No. The material class-contents of the Revolution came into an irreconcilable conflict with its democratic forms.

Thereby the fate of the Constituent Assembly was decided in advance. Its dissolution appeared as the only conceivable surgical way out of the contradictory situation which was not of our making, but had been brought about by the preceding course of events.

From The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, chapters 29 and 30.

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