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The Mechanics of Revolution Explained by Leon Trotsky
The following is an extract from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, Sphere Books Ltd. The leader of the revolution itself, a master of dialectical revolutionary theory, no one but Trotsky could have written such an incisive work as this. Marx referred to revolution as “the locomotive of history”. This book traces the path of that locomotive from the English revolution of the seventeenth century, through the French revolution of the eighteenth, to the Russian revolution of the twentieth. The appallingly derelict state of world capitalism, and the presence of means of production ideally suited to socialist planned economy, render world social revolution an immediate necessity for humanity in the twenty-
What constitutes dual power? We must pause upon this question, for an illumination of it has never appeared in historic literature. And yet this dual power is a distinct condition of social crises, by no means peculiar to the Russian revolution of 1917, although there most clearly marked out.
Antagonistic classes exist in society everywhere and a class deprived of power inevitably strives to some extent to swerve the governmental course in its favour. This does not as yet mean, however, that two or more powers are ruling in society. The character of a political structure is directly determined by the relation of the oppressed classes to the ruling class. A single government, the necessary condition of stability in any regime, is preserved so long as the ruling class succeeds in putting over its economic and political forms upon the whole of society as the only forms possible.
The simultaneous domination of the German Junkers and the bourgeoisie – whether in the Hohenzollern form or the republic – is not a double government, no matter how sharp at times may be the conflict between the two participating powers. They have a common social basis, therefore their clash does not threaten to split the state apparatus. The two-
The political mechanism of revolution consists of the transfer of power from one class to another. The forcible overturn is usually accomplished in a brief time. But no historic class lifts itself from a subject position to a position of rulership suddenly in one night, even though a night of revolution. It must already on the eve of the revolution have assumed a very independent attitude towards the official ruling class; moreover, it must have focused upon itself the hopes of intermediate classes and layers, dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs, but not capable of playing an independent role. The historic preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-
But that is not its only form. If the new class, placed in power by a revolution which it did not want, is in essence an already old, historically belated, class; if it was already worn out before it was officially crowned; if on coming to power it encounters an antagonist already sufficiently mature and reaching out its hand towards the helm of state; then instead of one unstable two-
The double sovereignty does not presuppose, generally speaking, indeed it excludes – the possibility of a division of the power into two equal halves, or indeed any formal equilibrium of forces whatever. It is not constitutional, but a revolutionary fact. It implies that a destruction of the social equilibrium has already split the state superstructure. It arises where the hostile classes are already each relying upon essentially incompatible governmental organisation – the one outlived, the other in process of formation – which jostle against each other at every step in the sphere of government. The amount of power which falls to each of these struggling classes in such a situation is determined by the correlation of forces in the course of the struggle.
By its very nature such a state of affairs cannot be stable. Society needs a concentration of power, and in the person of the ruling class – or, in the situation we are discussing, the two half-
The English revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.
At first the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although as always in civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.
It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in the social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Pretorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command; a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived; that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is – the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament, the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-
In the great French revolution, the Constituent Assembly, the backbone of which was the upper levels of the Third Estate, concentrated the power in its hands – without however fully annulling the prerogatives of the king. The period of the Constituent Assembly is a clearly marked period of dual power, which ends with the flight of the king to Varennes, and is formally liquidated with the founding of the Republic.
The first French constitution (1791), based upon the fiction of complete independence of the legislative and executive powers, in reality concealed from the people, or tried to conceal, a double sovereignty; that of the bourgeoisie, firmly entrenched in the National Assembly after the capture by the people of the Bastille, and that of the old monarchy still relying upon the upper circles of the priesthood, the clergy, the bureaucracy, and the military, to say nothing of their hopes of foreign intervention. In this self-
But before it comes to war and the guillotine, the Paris Commune enters the scene – supported by the lowest city layers of the Third Estate – and with increasing boldness contests the power with the official representatives of the national bourgeoisie. A new double sovereignty is thus inaugurated, the first manifestation of which we observe as early as 1790, when the big and medium bourgeoisie is still firmly seated in the administration and in the municipalities. How striking is the picture – and how widely it has been slandered! – of the efforts of the plebeian levels to raise themselves up out of the social cellars and catacombs, and stand forth in that forbidden arena where people in wigs and silk breeches are settling the fate of the nation. It seemed as though the very foundation of society, trampled underfoot by the cultured bourgeoisie, was stirring and coming to life. Human heads lifted themselves above the solid mass, horny hands stretched aloft, hoarse but courageous voices shouted! The districts of Paris, bastards of the revolution, began to live a life of their own. They were recognised – it was impossible not to recognise them! – and transformed into sections. But they kept continually breaking the boundaries of legality and receiving a current of fresh blood from below, the destitute Sansculottes. At the same time the rural municipalities were becoming a screen for a peasant uprising against that bourgeois legality which was defending the feudal property system. Thus from under the second nation arises a third.
The Parisian sections at first stood opposed to the Commune, which was still dominated by the respectable bourgeoisie. In the bold outbreak of August 10, 1792, the sections gained control of the Commune. From then on the revolutionary Commune opposed the Legislative Assembly, and subsequently the Convention, which failed to keep up with the problems and progress of the revolution – registering its events, but not performing them – because it did not possess the energy, audacity and unanimity of that new class which had raised itself up from the depths of the Parisian districts and found support in the most backward villages. As the sections gained control of the Commune, so the Commune, by way of a new insurrection, gained control of the Convention. Each of the stages was characterised by a sharply marked double sovereignty, each wing of which was trying to establish a single strong government – the right by a defensive struggle, the left by an offensive. Thus – characteristically – for both revolution and counter-
The Russian bourgeoisie, fighting with and co-
What, then, is the peculiarity of this dual power as it appeared in the February  revolution? In the events of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the dual power was in each case a natural stage in a struggle imposed upon its participants by a temporary correlation of forces, and each side strove to replace the dual power with its own single power. In the revolution of 1917, we see the official democracy consciously and intentionally creating a two-
A certain analogy can be found in 1848, in the conduct of the German bourgeoisie with relation to the monarchy. But the analogy is not complete. The German bourgeoisie did try earnestly to divide the power with the monarchy on the basis of an agreement. But the bourgeoisie neither had the full power in its hands, nor by any means gave it over wholly to the monarchy. “The Prussian bourgeoisie nominally possessed the power, it did not for a moment doubt that the forces of the old government would place themselves unreservedly at its disposition and convert themselves into loyal adherents of its own omnipotence”. (Marx and Engels)
The Russian democracy of 1917, having captured the power from the very moment of insurrection, tried not only to divide it with the bourgeoisie, but to give the state over to the bourgeoisie absolutely. This means, if you please, that in the first quarter of the twentieth century the official Russian democracy had succeeded in decaying politically more completely than the German liberal bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. And that is entirely according to the laws of history, for it is merely the reverse aspect of the upgrowth in those same decades of the proletariat, which now occupied the place of the craftsmen of Cromwell and the Sansculottes of Robespierre.
If you look deeper, the twofold rule of the Provisional Government and the Executive Committee [of the Soviet] had the character of a mere reflection. Only the proletariat could advance a claim to the new power. Relying distrustfully upon the workers and soldiers, the Compromisers were compelled to continue the double book-
In the immeasurably greater maturity of the Russian proletariat in comparison with the town masses in the older revolutions, lies the basic peculiarity of the Russian revolution. This led first to the paradox of a half-
A year after their victory the same situation was repeated in Germany, with a different correlation of forces. The social democracy was steering for the establishment of a democratic government of the bourgeoisie and the liquidation of the soviets. Luxemburg and Liebnecht steered toward the dictatorship of the soviets. The Social Democrats won. Hilferding and Kautsky in Germany, Max Adler in Austria, proposed that they should “combine” democracy and the soviet system, including the workers’ soviets in the constitution. That would have meant making potential or open civil war a constituent part of the state regime. It would be impossible to imagine a more curious Utopia. Its sole justification on German soil is perhaps an old tradition; the Württemberg democrats of ’48 wanted a republic with a duke at the head.
Does this phenomenon of the dual power –heretofore not sufficiently appreciated – contradict the Marxist theory of the state, which regards government as an executive committee of the ruling class? This is just the same as asking: does the fluctuation of prices under the influence of supply and demand contradict the labour theory of value? Does the self-
It may seem as though this theoretical inquiry has led us away from the events of 1917. In reality it leads right into the heart of them. It was precisely around this problem of twofold power that the dramatic struggle of parties and classes turned. Only from a theoretical height is it possible to observe it fully and correctly understand it.