[Book] The Revolutionary philosophy of Marxism

History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk

Leon Trotsky


Trotsky’s “shorter history” of the Russian Revolution is an excellent introduction to his masterpiece, The History of the Russian Revolution, both of which are “must reads” for anyone wishing to understand the dialectical process of revolutions. In this brief excerpt, part of a speech to the Central Executive Committee which Trotsky delivered in February 1918 in his capacity as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, he touches on the contradictions and tensions of the class struggle, as the Russian Bolsheviks faced down German imperialism in a high-stakes game of “chicken,” as each side waited for the coming of their salvation or ruin—the German Revolution.

Speech of the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs

… One may complain that the proletariat of other countries, especially of the Central Empires, is passing to an open revolutionary struggle too slowly. Yes, the tempo of its advance is much too slow. But in Austria-Hungary we saw a movement which assumed the proportions of a national event and which was a direct and immediate result of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.

Before we departed from here we discussed the matter together, and we said that we had no reason to believe that that wave would sweep away the Austro-Hungarian militarism. Had we been convinced to the contrary, we should have certainly given the pledge so eagerly demanded from us by certain persons, namely, that we should never sign a separate treaty with Germany. I said at the time that it was impossible for us to make such a pledge, as it would have been tantamount to pledging ourselves to defeat German imperialism. We held the secret of no such victory in our hands, and insofar as we could not pledge ourselves to change the balance and correlation of the world’s powers in a very short period of time, we openly and honestly declared that the revolutionary government might, under certain circumstances, be compelled to accept an annexationist peace. For, not the acceptance of a peace forced upon us by the course of events, but an attempt to hide its predatory character from our own people would have been the beginning of the end of the revolutionary government.

At the same time, we pointed out that we were departing for Brest in order to continue the negotiations in circumstances which were apparently becoming more favorable to us and less advantageous to our adversaries. We were watching the events in Austria-Hungary, and various circumstances made us think that, as hinted at by Socialist spokesmen in the Reichstag, Germany was on the eve of similar events. Such were our hopes, and then in the course of the first days of our new stay at Brest the wireless brought us via Vilna the first news that a tremendous strike movement had broken out in Berlin, which, like the movement in Austria-Hungary, was the direct result of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. But, as it often happens, in consequence of the “dialectical,” double-edged, character of the class struggle, it was just this powerful swing of the proletarian movement, such as Germany had never seen before, that aroused the propertied classes and caused them to close their ranks and to take up a more irreconcilable attitude.

The German ruling classes are only too well-imbued with the instinct of self-preservation, and they understood that any, even partial concession, under such circumstances, when they were being pressed by the masses of their own people, would have been tantamount to a capitulation before the idea of revolution. That is why, after the first period of conferences, when Kühlmann had been deliberately delaying the negotiations by either postponing the sittings or wasting them on minor questions of form, he, as soon as the strike had been suppressed, and his masters, he felt, were for the time being out of danger, reverted to his old accents of complete self-confidence, and redoubled his aggressiveness.

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