[Book] Lenin and Trotsky - What they really stood for

5. Trotsky and Brest-Litovsk

“Although Trotsky had supported Lenin against the opposition of Kamenev and Zinoviev on the need to organise an insurrection in October 1917 he was to find himself at loggerheads with him at the beginning of 1918 on the signing of a peace treaty with Germany. The way he acted on this question highlights both his strength and his weaknesses.” (Cogito, p. 17)

This is the first and last reference in Johnstone’s article of Lenin’s struggle against the “Old Bolsheviks” in 1917. That it comes in a subordinate clause is an indication of the place it occupies in Monty Johnstone’s scheme of things. Of course, Trotsky “just happened” to have the same position as Lenin on the little question of the October revolution, in the face of opposition from Kamenev, Stalin and Zinoviev, but on other “fundamental questions”, he again found himself in opposition to “the correct line”.

Monty Johnstone here attempts the same trick which he used in the section on the “Permanent Revolution”. In that section, by “forgetting” about the position of the Mensheviks, he exaggerates out of all proportion the differences between Lenin and Trotsky. On Brest-Litovsk, again Johnstone knows of only two positions: Lenin’s (i.e. for immediately accepting the German terms) and Trotsky’s (which he characterises as “neither peace nor war”). But Monty Johnstone knows perfectly well that on this question, there were not two positions, but three: the positions of Lenin and Trotsky and that of Bukharin, who stood not only for a rejection of the German terms, but for a revolutionary war against Germany. He also forgets to mention the little point that Bukharin’s position was originally that of the majority of the Party at the time of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.

What was the attitude of the Bolsheviks towards the war? In 1915, considering the possibility of the Bolsheviks coming to power in Russia, Lenin wrote an article in his journal Sotsial-Democrat under the heading Some Theses:

“To the question what the party of the proletariat would do if the revolution put it in power in the present war, we reply: we should propose peace to all the belligerents on condition of the liberation of the colonies, and of all dependent and oppressed peoples not enjoying full rights. Neither Germany nor England nor France would under their present governments accept this condition. Then we should have to prepare to wage a revolutionary war, i.e. we should not only carry out in full by the most decisive measures our minimum programme, but should systematically incite to insurrection all the peoples now oppressed by the Great Russians, all colonies and dependent countries of Asia (India, China, Persia, etc) and also – and first of all – incite the proletariat of Europe to insurrection against its governments and in defiance of its social chauvinists.” (Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 403)

Such was the bold, revolutionary strategy worked out by Lenin in advance for the Russian Revolution. It has nothing in common with the mealy-mouthed pacifism which the Communist Party parsons preach today, and which they try to foist upon the leader of October. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, before 1917, stood for revolutionary war: a war directed by the Revolution against imperialism, which would combine the armed struggle of the Red Army with the insurrection of the workers of Europe and the peoples of the oppressed nations.

In the period of agitation and preparation prior to October, the Bolsheviks repeatedly emphasised that they stood for a “peace without annexations or indemnities”, that they would offer such a peace to the imperialists, and, in the event of their refusing, the Bolsheviks would launch a revolutionary war against them. Thus, Lenin wrote late in September, 1917:

“If the least probable should occur, i.e. if no belligerent state accepts even an armistice, then the war on our side would become a really necessary, really just and defensive war. The mere fact that the proletariat and the poorest peasantry will be conscious of this will make Russia many times stronger in the military respect, especially after a complete break with the capitalists who rob the people, not to mention that then the war on our side will be, not in words, but in fact, a war in alliance with the oppressed peoples of the whole world.” (Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 63)

The idea of revolutionary war was accepted without question as part of the basic strategy of the Party. Thus, when Kamenev and Zinoviev wrote their open letter opposing the October Revolution, one of their key arguments was the prospect of a revolutionary war, with which they attempted to frighten the workers:

“The masses of soldiers support us because we advance not a slogan of war, but a slogan of peace … If we seize power alone now and if we find ourselves compelled by the entire world situation to engage in a revolutionary war, the soldier masses will recoil from us.”

This was a good argument for signing the Brest-Litovsk peace, months in advance. But it was proof, not of the historical foresight of Kamenev and Zinoviev, but only of their shaky nerves and opportunist waverings. Their later support for the signing of the Treaty was merely the obverse side of their opposition to the October insurrection: the two cannot be separated. For a Marxist, not only what is said, but who says it and for what reasons, are the important questions.

What was the attitude of the Bolsheviks towards the treaty of Brest-Litovsk? The army which they inherited from Tsarism had completely disintegrated; whole units had demobilised themselves; discipline had broken down; the officers had gone over to reaction. It was this concrete situation, and not any fundamental theoretical considerations which determined the actions of the Bolsheviks. To portray the disagreements in the Party as anything more than tactical differences is a complete travesty of the truth. Under different circumstances – if, for example, they had had time to build the Red Army – the question would have been posed in an entirely different way, as was demonstrated by the Polish war of 1920.

The first policy pursued by the Bolsheviks was to prolong the negotiations as long as possible, in the hope that a revolutionary movement in the West would come to the assistance of the revolution. This idea, which “realist” philistines today characterise as “Trotskyism” was expressed on dozens of occasions not only by Trotsky but also by all of the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin. Kamenev, for example, who later supported Lenin’s stand on the signing of the peace, said of the propaganda conducted at Brest-Litovsk that “our words will reach the German people over the heads of the German generals, that our words will strike from the hands of the German generals the weapon with which they fool the people”. Events worked out differently to what Kamenev anticipated, but at the time he spoke for the entire Bolshevik Party.

The main credit for conducting the successful propaganda at Brest-Litovsk was Trotsky’s. He turned the conference into a platform for expounding the ideas of the revolution to the war-weary workers of Europe. Trotsky’s speeches were later collected together and published in several editions and in many languages by the Communist International during Lenin’s lifetime. Only after 1924 did the Stalinists suddenly discover in them the “revolutionary phrase”, which warranted their suppression.

The delay of the revolution in the West, and the military weakness of the Russian Revolution, caused a difference of opinion in the Party leadership, a difference in which Lenin found himself in a minority. The first time the differences were expressed was on January 21, 1918 – when the negotiations were nearing a climax. Fearing a new offensive if the Bolsheviks rejected a German ultimatum, Lenin proposed an immediate signing of the peace, even on the disastrous terms offered by the Germans. Trotsky agreed that there was no possibility of continuing the war, but thought that negotiations should be broken off and the Bolsheviks should only capitulate in the event of a new advance. Bukharin demanded the waging of a revolutionary war.

Far from the false picture presented by the Stalinists from 1924 onwards of Lenin and the Bolsheviks being defied by an undisciplined and ultra-left Trotsky, both Lenin and Trotsky constituted the “moderate” minority in the leadership on this question. And what was true of the leadership was doubly true of the rank and file. The overwhelming majority of workers opposed the signing of the treaty. When the leadership invited the Soviets to give their views on Brest-Litovsk, over two hundred responded: of these, only two large Soviets (Petrograd and Sevastopol – the latter with reservations) supported peace. All the other big workers’ centres, Moscow, Ekaterinburg, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, Ivanovo-Vozuesensk, Kronstadt, etc., voted by overwhelming majorities to break off the negotiations.

At the Central Committee meeting on January 24, 1918 the final decision was taken on the line which Trotsky should adopt at Brest-Litovsk. Before the meeting, Trotsky records a conversation with Lenin in which he agreed to Trotsky’s plan to refuse to sign the treaty but to declare hostilities at an end, on condition that should the Germans advance again, Trotsky would support the immediate signing of the treaty and on no account support the proposal for a “revolutionary war”. To this Trotsky agreed.[1] Here Lenin did not put forward his demand for the immediate signing of the treaty, but merely moved a motion which was passed, calling on Trotsky to drag out the negotiations as long as possible. A vote was then taken on Trotsky’s motion to stop the war but refuse to sign the treaty, which was also passed.

According to Monty Johnstone, “when faced with the harsh terms demanded by the Germans, overestimation of the immediate revolutionary perspectives overshadowed his [Trotsky’s] appreciation of the reality of the situation and led him to refuse to sign the treaty.” (Cogito, p. 17)

We have already seen what “led Trotsky to refuse to sign the treaty”, in the above account of the disagreements in the Party. Monty Johnstone, here as elsewhere, confines his “analysis” to a few snippets of quotations which do not deal with any of the fundamental issues, but only the polemical rejoinders of the participants, and which create the impression that Trotsky’s position was his personal whim and not the view of the Party. Johnstone continues:

“Lenin, on the other hand, stressed that the Germans had the whip hand and that the war-weary, ill-equipped and hungry Russian troops could not hold out against their powerful military machine.[!] He therefore [!] urged accepting the German terms, humiliating as he considered them to be, as soon as the Germans presented an ultimatum, warning that the alternative would be that the Germans would advance further into Soviet territory and impose even worse terms.” (Cogito, p. 17)

Monty Johnstone portrays the whole affair as an antagonism between Trotsky and Lenin. He is determined to purvey the image of Lenin as a smug “realist” philistine, opposing the revolutionary “dreams” of Trotsky. He quotes isolated phrases from Lenin about world revolution being “a good fairy tale”, without explaining the reasons which Lenin gave for his stand on Brest-Litovsk, reasons which flowed from an intransigent revolutionary socialist internationalism.

In the course of the discussion Lenin found himself “supported” by Zinoviev and Stalin. Stalin stated that “there is no revolutionary movement in the West, no facts of it, only a possibility.” Zinoviev declared that although “by making peace we shall strengthen chauvinism in Germany and for a certain time weaken the movement in the West” this was far better than “the ruin of the socialist republic”. Lenin was obliged publicly to repudiate support based on the arguments of these “realists”, whose philistinism Monty Johnstone now attempts to foist on him.

In reply to Zinoviev, Lenin stated categorically that if “the German movement is capable of developing at once in the event of peace negotiations … we ought to sacrifice ourselves since the German revolution will be far more powerful than ours.” Precisely to protect his rear against this kind of opportunism, Lenin repeatedly emphasised that:

“It is not open to the slightest doubt that the final victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries, would be hopeless … Our salvation from all these difficulties, I repeat, is an all-European revolution.” (Ibid. p. 212)

After 1924, the legend was invented of Trotsky stubbornly opposing Lenin and the leadership by refusing to sign the peace for which everyone yearned. On February 14, after Trotsky had reported back to the Soviet Central Executive Committee on the action he had taken, Sverdlov moved a resolution, on behalf of the Bolshevik faction that: “Having heard and fully considered the report of the peace delegation, the Central Executive Committee fully approves of the action of its representatives at Brest-Litovsk.” As late as March 1918, Zinoviev said at the Party Congress that “Trotsky is right when he says that he acted in accordance with the decision of the majority of the Central Committee.” No one tried to deny that.

Trotsky, no more than Lenin, was under any illusion that the “war-weary, ill-equipped and hungry Russian troops” could sustain a new attack, let alone launch a revolutionary war. But, on the one hand, the mood both of the mass of workers and the majority of the Party leadership was set against accepting the terms of the treaty which were not merely “humiliating”, but a major disaster for the young Soviet state. On the other hand, a new German offensive would convince the masses of Western Europe that the Bolsheviks only agreed to an annexationist peace under compulsion. This was an important political motive, in view of the vicious smear campaign being waged by the “Allied Governments” (Britain and France), that the Bolsheviks were German agents, paid by the Kaiser to take Russia out of the war. There was a strong feeling in Russia that this was the prelude to negotiations with Germany for a peace settlement at Russia’s expense. (History has since proved that such a policy was being considered by British and French government circles.)

After the renewal of the German ultimatum, Lenin again argued for an immediate signing of the peace, but was defeated, by a narrow majority in the Central Committee. Trotsky still voted against, since the offensive had not begun. Lenin then reformulated the question as follows: “If the German offensive begins, and no revolutionary upheaval takes place in Germany, are we still not to sign peace?” On this the “left” Communists (Bukharin and the supporters of revolutionary war) abstained. Trotsky voted for the motion, which was in line with the agreement he had reached earlier with Lenin. When, on the next day, the Bolsheviks received evidence of the German advance, Trotsky switched over to Lenin’s side, giving him a majority on the Central Committee.

On February 21, new and harsher terms were announced by General Hoffmann, with the clear intention of making impossible the signing of a peace. The German general staff staged a provocation in Finland, where they crushed the Finnish workers’ movement. This underlined the fears of the Bolsheviks that the Allies had come to an agreement with German imperialism to crush the Soviet Republic. There was a serious possibility that, even if the Bolsheviks signed the treaty, the Germans would continue their advance. Trotsky initially held this view, but when Lenin reiterated his position, in the teeth of renewed opposition from the “Lefts”, Trotsky did not side with the advocates of revolutionary war, but abstained, to give Lenin a majority.

It seems strange that one so infatuated with the “revolutionary phrase” should on two decisive occasions have voted on the Central Committee, to give Lenin a majority! But since we are on the subject of “the revolutionary phrase” let us take a look at Lenin’s pamphlet of that name, from which Johnstone quotes so copiously.

‘The Revolutionary Phrase’ was published by Lenin as an article in Pravda on February 21, 1918, as the beginning of a public campaign in favour of signing the peace. Johnstone cites this article several times as though it were directed against Trotsky. In fact, Trotsky’s name does not appear once in this article. Whom is it directed against? The answer is in the very first line:

“When I said at a Party meeting that the revolutionary phrase about a revolutionary war might ruin our revolution, I was reproached for the sharpness of my polemics.” (Works, vol. 27, p. 19, our emphasis)

Anyone who reads the article can see quite plainly that it is directed against those who advocated a revolutionary war against Germany, despite the military weakness of the Soviet Republic: i.e. the “left” Communist group of Bukharin. That is why in all the polemics, Lenin directs 99% of his attacks against Bukharin’s group, and Trotsky, if he is mentioned at all, is taken up only in passing and in a relatively mild manner. The distortion appears all the more crass and clumsy when we recall that Lenin’s article was published on February 21, three days after Trotsky had voted for Lenin’s proposal on the Central Committee. It is sheer dishonesty on Johnstone’s part to print words which Lenin directed against the ultra-left Bukharin in such a way as to suggest that they were meant for Trotsky. This distortion is made possible by the fact that Johnstone does not mention Bukharin at all, thereby creating an entirely exaggerated, false and dishonest impression of the differences between Lenin and Trotsky.

E. H. Carr, the celebrated bourgeois historian, whom Monty Johnstone can hardly accuse of being either a Trotskyist or “unhistorical”, comments on the differences between Lenin and Trotsky on Brest-Litovsk thus:

“Lenin’s disagreements with Trotsky over Brest-Litovsk were less profound than those which separated him from the followers of Bukharin. Trotsky’s strong personality and his dramatic role in the Brest-Litovsk story gave them a greater practical importance and a greater prominence in the eyes both of contemporaries and of posterity. But the popular picture of Trotsky, the advocate of world revolution, clashing with Lenin, the champion of national security or socialism in one country, is so distorted as to be almost entirely false.” (The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3, p. 54, our emphasis)

To judge from Monty Johnstone’s “highly selective, potted history” the entire history of Bolshevism and the Soviet Power (with a few brief exceptions, such as the “episode” of the October Revolution to which Comrade Johnstone kindly devotes one paragraph) consisted of struggles between Lenin and Trotsky! Such is the admirable “balance”, “objective”, work, which Comrade Johnstone promised us in his Introduction.

It will not be amiss to illustrate the utter one-sidedness of Johnstone’s “objectivity” by citing two other incidents concerning the relationship of the Soviet Republic to the capitalist world and the position of Lenin and Trotsky. Immediately after the Brest-Litovsk controversy, Trotsky found himself at loggerheads with an important section of the leadership on the question of accepting aid from Britain and France. The motion of acceptance was moved by Trotsky, and opposed by Bukharin and the “lefts”, together with Sverdlov. Lenin was not present at the meeting, but the minutes contain a note from him which runs as follows: “I request you to add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and ammunition from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.”

Two years after Brest-Litovsk, a similar split in the leadership took place over the war with Poland. Trotsky opposed any attempt to carry the war into Poland once Pilsudski’s attack had been repulsed, on military and political grounds. Lenin favoured an offensive, on the grounds that the workers of Warsaw and other cities would be encouraged by a revolutionary war to rise against Pilsudski and carry out a revolution. The Red Army, after a brilliant advance, was defeated at the gates of Warsaw, and driven back across the Curzon line to a position behind the line they had occupied at the commencement of hostilities. In the treaty which followed, the Bolsheviks were forced to cede a large area of Byelorussia to Poland, which separated Germany and Lithuania from the Soviet Republic.

Was Lenin in 1920 infatuated by the “revolutionary phrase”? Was he guilty of indulging in the “fairy tale” of world revolution and “wishful thinking”? Only a philistine would dare to say so. Lenin was a revolutionary and an internationalist. His actions were dictated, first and foremost, by the interests of the world proletarian revolution.

Lenin had not advocated peace at Brest-Litovsk as anything more than a breathing space, in which to rebuild the shattered armies of Russia, to create a Red Army for defence and offence, as a means of assisting the revolution in the West: in the very same breath that he argued for the signing of peace, Lenin added that it was “indispensable to prepare for revolutionary war”.

Lenin’s own characterisation of his stand over Brest-Litovsk is a sufficient antidote to the poison of pacifism, “peaceful coexistence”, and social patriotism which the Stalinists have tried to read into it:

“At the Brest-Litovsk peace we had to go in the face of patriotism. We said: if you are a socialist, you must sacrifice your patriotic feelings in the name of the international revolution, which is coming, which has not yet come, but in which you must believe if you are an internationalist.” (Works, vol. 28, November/December 1918)

Lenin was the supreme political realist. He always based his actions on a meticulous examination of all the elements which made up the international balance of class forces. But there is no guarantee of success in revolution. To imagine this is to join the ranks of those “objective” philistines, whose peculiar talent is always to be right – after the event. However, the reasons why Lenin was in favour of signing the Brest-Litovsk Peace have nothing in common with those advanced by Johnstone and the Communist Party leaders which are intended, not to shed light upon Lenin’s position on Brest-Litovsk, but as a cover-up for their own pusillanimous and anti-Leninist policies of today.


[1] The accuracy of this report is attested to by Lenin, who repeated it later in a speech at the Eleventh Party Congress. (Works, vol. 27, p. 113)

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