1922-3: The communist fractions against the rising counter-revolution

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To the generation of revolutionaries which emerged from the resurgence of class struggles at the end of the 1960s, it was difficult enough to recognise the proletarian character of the October 1917 insurrection and the Bolshevik party which provided its political leadership. The trauma of the Stalinist counter-revolution had produced, in reaction, a flight towards the councilist vision of Bolshevism as the protagonist of a purely bourgeois revolution in Russia. And even when, after many hard debates, a number of groups and elements came round to the view that October really had been red, there persisted a strong tendency to place severe constrictions on the political magnitude of the event; “thus far, and no further: the Bolsheviks were proletarian, but we can learn mainly from their shortcomings”. The caricature of such haughty judgements of our own past was that of the Communist Workers’ Organisation, who in 1975 insisted that after 1921 and the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion, not only was the Russian revolution dead and all the parties of the Communist International agents of capitalism – but also that all those groups who today did not share this deadline were themselves counter-revolutionaries1. Nor was this kind of approach absent among the groups who formed the ICC in the same period. The section in Britain, World Revolution, had rejected its original position that the Bolsheviks were agents of a state capitalist counter-revolution, but when it came to the history of the Bolshevik party after 1921 we can find the following view expressed in World Revolution n°2: “…Trotskyism no less than Stalinism was a product of the defeat of the proletarian revolution in Russia. The Left Opposition was not formed until 1923 and long before that Trotsky had been one of the most ruthless supporters and executors of the Bolsheviks’ anti-working class policies (the crushing of the Petrograd strike movement and the Kronstadt uprising, the militarisation of labour, the abolition of the workers’ militias, etc). His disputes with other factions of the bureaucracy were disputes about the best means of exploiting the Russian workers and of extending the state capitalist ‘Soviet’ model to other parts of the world.

It was therefore hardly an accident that, at that time, very little serious study was made of the period between 1921 and the definitive victory of Stalinism in the late 20s. But the revolutionary movement, and the ICC in particular, has come a long way since then; and if we now dedicate a good deal of space to examining the debates that rent the Bolshevik party during this period, it is because we have come to understand that, far from being the expression of an inter-bourgeois feud, these political conflicts expressed the heroic resistance of the proletarian currents within the Bolshevik party against the attempts of the counter-revolution to capture it completely. It is a thus a period which has bequeathed to us some of the most precious lessons about the tasks of a communist fraction - that political organ whose first task is to combat the degeneration of a proletarian revolution and its most vital political instruments.

1922-23: Lenin moves towards opposition

The New Economic Policy, introduced at the 10th Congress of the party in 1921, had been defined by Lenin as a strategic retreat necessitated by the isolation and weakness of the Russian proletariat. Within Russia, this meant the isolation of the proletariat from the peasantry, who had been ready to support the Bolsheviks against the old land-owners during the civil war, but who were now demanding some material compensation for this support. The Bolshevik leadership had in fact seen the Kronstadt rebellion as the warning signal of an impending peasant counter-revolution, and for this reason had suppressed it without mercy (see International Review n°100). But they also knew that the “proletarian state” - of which the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the guardians - could not rule by force alone. Concessions would have to be made to the peasants on the economic front in order to keep the existing political regime intact. These concessions, codified in the NEP, involved the abolition of the forcible grain requisitions which had characterised the War Communism period, and their replacement by a “tax in kind”; private trade would now be permitted to the mass of middle peasants; a “mixed economy” would be established, in which state industries would function side by side with private capitalist enterprises, and even in competition with them.

The real isolation of the Russian proletariat, however, was the result of the international situation. At its Third Congress in 1921, the Communist International had recognised that the utter failure of the March Action in Germany signified the ebbing of the revolutionary tide which had risen in 1917. Faced with the need to reconstruct a ruined and starving Russia, the Bolsheviks realised that they could not count on the immediate assistance of the world proletariat; and by the same token, if the political power they had helped to create was to play a role in the expected future revival of the world revolution, this power would have to take the economic measures necessary for its survival.

Lenin’s speech begins on this last theme. He talks about the preparations for the Genoa conference to which Soviet Russia was sending a delegation, charged with the task of restoring trade relations between Russia and the capitalist world. Lenin’s approach to this was quite matter of fact: “Needless to say, we are going to Genoa not as Communists, but as merchants. We must trade, and they must trade. We want the trade to benefit us; they want it to benefit them. The course of the issue will be determined, if only to a small degree, by the skill of our diplomats” (Speech to the 11th Congress of the RCP(B), Collected Works, vol. 33. P 264). And indeed Lenin was quite right to make this distinction between communist activity and the requirements of the state. There can be no objection in principle to a proletarian power exchanging its goods for those of a capitalist state as long as it is recognised that this can only be a temporary and contingent measure which cannot call genuine principles into question. Nothing can be gained from gestures of heroic self-immolation, as the debate around the Brest-Litovsk treaty had already demonstrated. The problem here was that the Soviet state’s overtures to the capitalist world were beginning to involve the trading of principles. The failure to come to an agreement with the Entente powers at Genoa led the two outcast states of the day, Russia and Germany, to conclude the Rapallo Treaty in the same year. This treaty contained a number of vital secret clauses, among them the stipulation that the Soviet state would supply arms to the German Reichswehr. This was in stark contrast to the Bolsheviks’ commitment to do away with all secret diplomacy in 1918; it was the first real military alliance between the Soviet state and an imperialist power.

To this military alliance there corresponded a growing political alliance with the bourgeoisie. The “tactic” of the United Front, launched around this period, shackled the Communist parties to the forces of social democracy which had been denounced as agents of the ruling class in 1919. With the emphasis more and more on finding powerful allies for the Russian state abroad, this policy flowed effortlessly into the heinous theory that it was even permissible to forge fronts with the rightwing nationalists in Germany, the prototypes of Nazism. These political regressions were to have a devastating effect on the workers’ movement in Germany in the events of 1923 - and the abortive uprising which took place in that year (see the preceding article in this issue, and International Review n°s98 and 99) was in part suppressed by the Reichswehr with weapons supplied by the Red Army. These were ominous steps in the degeneration of the Communist parties and the integration of the Russian state into the concert of world capitalism.

This downward slide was the product, not of the Bolsheviks’ ill-will, but of profound objective factors, even if subjective errors certainly played their part in accelerating the decline. Lenin’s speech expresses this graphically. He was under no illusions about the economic nature of the NEP: he insisted that it was a form of state capitalism. We have seen (International Review n°99) that in 1918 Lenin was already arguing that state capitalism, being a more concentrated and developed form of bourgeois economy, would be a step forward, a step towards socialism for the backward Russian economy with its semi-mediaeval vestiges. In the 1922 Congress speech, he returned to the same theme, insisting that there was a fundamental distinction to be made between state capitalism under the rule of the reactionary bourgeoisie, and state capitalism administered by the proletarian state: “…we must remember the fundamental thing that state capitalism in the form we have here is not dealt with in any theory, or in any books, for the simple reason that all the usual concepts connected with this term are associated with bourgeois rule in capitalist society. Our society is one which has left the rails of capitalism, but has not yet got on new rails. The state in this society is not ruled by the bourgeoisie, but by the proletariat. We refuse to understand that when we say ‘state’ we mean ourselves, the proletariat, the vanguard of the working class. State capitalism is capitalism which we shall be able to restrain, and the limits of which we shall be able to fix. This state capitalism is connected with the state, and the state is the workers, the advanced section of the workers, the vanguard. We are the state” (ibid, p 278).

This “we are the state” was already a forgetting of Lenin’s own words in the 1921 trade union debate, in which he had warned against completely identifying proletarian interests with those of the state (see IR 100); equally evident is that Lenin has begun to lose the distinction between the proletariat and the vanguard party. But in any case Lenin himself was acutely aware of the real limits of this “proletarian control of state capitalism”, because this is the moment when he made his famous comparison between the Soviet state, this “heap” as he called it, still profoundly marked by the tares of the old order, and a car which refuses to obey the hands of its driver:

Never before in history has there been a situation in which the proletariat, the revolutionary vanguard, possessed sufficient political power and had state capitalism existing alongside it. The whole question turns on our understanding that this is the capitalism that we can and must permit, that we can and must confine within certain bounds; for this capitalism is essential for the broad masses of the peasantry and for private capital, which must trade in such a way as to satisfy the needs of the peasantry. We must organise things in such a way as to make possible the customary operation of capitalist economy and capitalist exchange, because this is essential for the people. Without it, existence is impossible…You communists, you workers, you, the politically enlightened section of the proletariat, which undertook to administer the state, must arrange it so that the state, which you have taken into your hands, shall function the way you want it to. Well, we have lived through a year, the state is in our hands; but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in this past year? No. But we refuse to admit that it did not operate in the way we wanted. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction” (Ibid, p 279).

In short, the communists were not directing the new state - they were being directed by it. Moreover, Lenin was perfectly lucid about the direction spontaneously being followed by this car: it led towards a bourgeois restoration, which could easily take the form of a peaceful integration of the Soviet state into the capitalist world order. Thus he acknowledges the “class honesty” of a bourgeois political trend like the Russian émigrés around Smena Vekh who had already begun to support the Soviet state because it could envisage the Bolshevik Party becoming the most capable overseer of Russian capitalism.

And yet the profundity of Lenin’s intuitions about the nature and scale of the problem facing the Bolsheviks was not at all matched by the solutions he put forward in the same speech. For him there was no question of confronting the process of bureaucratisation with its proletarian antidote - the revival of political life in the soviets and other unitary organs of the class. The reaction of the Bolshevik leadership to the Kronstadt revolt had already shown its loss of conviction in going down that road. Neither did Lenin call for any let up in the virtual state of siege applied to the party’s own inner life after Kronstadt. In that same year the Workers’ Opposition came under renewed fire after its attempt to appeal to the 4th Congress of the Comintern about the inner party regime in Russia; and Miasnikov was expelled from the party after Lenin had failed to convince him to desist from his calls for freedom of speech.

For Lenin the primary problem was identified as being the “lack of culture” of the communist state managers - their inability to be better administrators than the old Tsarist bureaucrats, or better salesmen and money-makers than the “NEPmen” who were springing up everywhere now that the economy had been liberalised. As an example of the terrible bureaucratic inertia hampering the new administration he cited the absurd story of how a foreign capitalist offered to sell cans of meat to starving Russia, and how the decision to buy the cans was avoided throughout the entire state and party apparatus until the very highest echelons of the party were involved.

No doubt such bureaucratic excesses could have been reduced here and there by making the bureaucrats more “cultured”, but it would do nothing to change the overall direction of the car of state. The power that was really imposing this direction was more than just the NEPman or the private capitalist - it was the vast impersonal power of world capital that was inexorably determining the course of the Russian economy and of the Soviet state. Even in the best of conditions, an isolated workers’ fortress would not have been able to resist this power for very long. In the Russia of 1922, after civil war, famine, economic collapse, the disappearance of proletarian democracy and even of large segments of the proletariat itself, it was entirely utopian to hope that a more effective mode of administration by the communist minority could reverse this overwhelming tide. On the contrary, Lenin was soon compelled to admit more and more that the rot infesting the state machine was not simply limited to its “uncultured” lower strata, but had penetrated the very highest rungs of the party ladder, to the “Old Guard” of Bolshevism itself, giving birth to a veritable bureaucratic faction personified above all by Josef Stalin.

As Trotsky observed in his article ‘On Lenin’s Testament’ written in 1932, “it would be no exaggeration say that the last half year of Lenin’s political life, between his convalescence and his second illness, was filled with a sharpening struggle against Stalin. Let us recall once more the principal dates. In September 1922, Lenin opened fire against the national policy of Stalin. In the first part of December, he attacked Stalin on the question of the monopoly of foreign trade. On December 25, he wrote the first part of his testament. On December 30, he wrote his letter on the national question (the ‘bombshell’). On January 4, 1923, he added a postscript to his testament on the necessity of removing Stalin from his position as general secretary. On January 23, he drew up against Stalin a heavy battery: the project of a Control Commission. In an article on March 2, he dealt Stalin a double blow, both as organiser of the inspectorate and as general secretary. On March 5, he wrote me on the subject of his memorandum on the national question: ‘If you would agree to undertake its defence, I could be at rest’. On that same day, he for the first time openly joined forces with the irrreconcilable Georgian enemies of Stalin, informing them in a special note that he was backing their cause ‘with all my heart’ and was preparing for them documents against Stalin, Ordzhonikidze and Dzerzhinsky”.

Despite being gripped by the illness that would shortly end his life, Lenin put all his political energy into this last-ditch struggle against the rise of Stalinism, and proposed to Trotsky that together they form a bloc against bureaucratism in general and Stalin in particular. Thus having first rung the alarm bells about the general course of the revolution, Lenin was already laying the foundations for - if necessary - passing on to an oppositional stance. But when we read the articles that Lenin wrote at that time (“How we should reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection”, and in particular the March 2nd article Trotsky refers to, “Better fewer but better”), we can see the limitations still being imposed by his position at the very head of the state machine. As in his April speech, the solutions are still entirely administrative: reduce the number of bureaucrats, re-organise Rabkrin (the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate), fusion of Rabkrin and the party’s Control Commission... or else, as at the end of “Better fewer but better”, Lenin begins to place his hopes for salvation less on the workers’ revolution in the West than on the rising of the “revolutionary and nationalist East”. Either way, there is a definite loss of perspective. Lenin had seen the danger in part, but had not yet drawn the necessary conclusions. Had he lived longer, no doubt he would have gone much deeper in identifying the causes of the problem, and thus into the policy to be followed. But now the process of clarification had to pass into the hands of others.

1923: the emergence of the left oppositions

Lenin’s removal from political life was one of the factors which precipitated an open crisis in the Bolshevik party. On the one hand, the bureaucratic faction consolidated its grip on the party, initially in the form of the “triumvirate” formed by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, an unstable bloc whose main cement was the desire to isolate Trotsky. The latter, meanwhile, although with considerable hesitation, was compelled to move towards an overtly oppositional stance within the party.

At the same time, the Bolshevik regime was faced with new difficulties on the economic and social front. In the summer of 1923, the so-called “scissors crisis” called into question the application of the NEP under the triumvirate. The scissors in question were made up of falling agricultural prices on the one hand, and rising industrial prices on the other; in effect it threatened the balance of the entire economy and was the first clear crisis of the “market economy” installed by the NEP. Just as the NEP had been introduced to counter the excessive state centralisation of war communism, which had resulted in the crisis of 1921, so now it became evident that the liberalisation of the economy had exposed Russia to some of the more classic difficulties of capitalist production. These economic difficulties, and above all the government’s response to them – a policy of wage and job-cuts, like in any “normal” capitalist state – in turn aggravated the condition of the working class, which was already at the limits of impoverishment. By August-September 1923 a rash of spontaneous strikes had begun to spread through the main industrial centres.

The triumvirate, which was above all interested in preserving the status quo, had begun to see the NEP as the royal road to socialism in Russia; this view was theorised especially by Bukharin, who had moved from the extreme left to the right wing of the party, and who preceded Stalin in working out a theory of socialism in one country, albeit “at a snail’s pace” thanks to the development of a “socialist” market economy. Trotsky on the other hand had already begun to call for more state centralisation and planning in response to the country’s economic difficulties. But the first definite statement of opposition from within the leading circles of the party was the Platform of the 46, submitted to the Politburo in October 1923. The 46 was made up both of those who were close to Trotsky, such as Piatakov and Preobrazhensky, and elements of the Democratic Centralism group like Sapranov, V Smirnov and Ossinski. It is not insignificant that Trotsky’s signature was not on the document: the fear of being considered part of a faction under the conditions of the ban on factions in 1921 certainly played a part in this. Nevertheless, his open letter to the Central Committee, published in Pravda in December 1923, and his pamphlet The New Course, expressed very similar concerns, and definitively placed him in the opposition’s ranks.

The Platform of the 46 was initially a response to the economic problems facing the regime. It took up the cudgels for greater state planning against the pragmatism of the dominant apparatus and its tendency to elevate the NEP into an immutable principle. This was to be a constant theme of the left opposition around Trotsky - and as we shall see, not one of its strengths. More important was the urgent warning it issued about the stifling of the party’s internal life:

Members of the party who are dissatisfied with this or that decision of the central committee, who have this or that doubt on their minds, who privately note this or that error, irregularity or disorder, are afraid to speak about it at party meetings, and are even afraid to talk about it in conversation… Nowadays it is not the party, not its broad masses, who promote and choose members of the provincial committees and of the central committee of the RCP. On the contrary the secretarial hierarchy of the party to an ever greater extent recruits the membership of conferences and congresses which are becoming to an ever greater extent the executive assemblies of this hierarchy… The position which has been created is explained by the fact that the regime is the dictatorship of a faction inside the party… The factional regime must be abolished, and this must be done in the first instance by those who have created it; it must be replaced by a regime of comradely unity and internal party democracy” (cited in EH Carr, The Interregnum, p 368-70).

At the same time, the Platform distanced itself from what it referred to as “morbid” opposition groups, even if it saw the latter as expressions of the crisis within the party. This was undoubtedly a reference to currents like the Workers’ Group around Miasnikov and Bogdanov’s Workers’ Truth which had emerged around the same time. Shortly afterwards, Trotsky took a similar view: a rejection of their analyses as too extreme, while at the same time seeing them as manifestations of the unhealthy state of the party. Trotsky was also unwilling to collaborate in the methods of repression aimed at eliminating these groups.

In fact, these groups can by no means be dismissed as “morbid” phenomena. It is true that the Workers’ Truth group expressed a certain trend towards defeatism and even Menshevism: as with most of the currents within the German and Dutch left, its insights into the rise of state capitalism in Russia were weakened by a tendency to put into question the October revolution itself, seeing it as a more or less progressive bourgeois revolution (see the article on the communist left in Russia in International Review n°9).

This was not the case at all with the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), led by long-standing worker-Bolsheviks like Miasnikov, Kuznetsov and Moiseev. The group first came to prominence by distributing its Manifesto in April-May 1923, just after the 13th Congress of the Bolshevik party. An examination of this text confirms the seriousness of the group, its political depth and perceptiveness.

The text is not devoid of weaknesses. In particular, it is drawn towards the theory of the offensive, which failed to see the retreat in the international revolution and the consequent necessity for a defensive struggle by the working class; this was the reverse of the coin to the analysis of the Communist International, which saw the retreat in 1921 but which drew largely opportunist conclusions from it. By the same token, the Manifesto adopts the erroneous view that in the epoch of the proletarian revolution, struggles for higher wages no longer have any positive role.

Despite this, the strengths of the document far outweigh its weaknesses:

  • its resolute internationalism. In contrast to Kollontai’s Workers’ Opposition group, there is not a trace of Russian localism in its analysis. The whole introductory part of the manifesto deals with the international situation, clearly locating the difficulties of the Russian revolution in the delay of the world revolution, and insisting that the only salvation for the former lies in the revival of the latter: “The Russian worker has learned to see himself as a soldier in the world army of the international proletariat and to see his class organisations as the regiments of this army. Every time the disquieting question of the destiny of the October revolution is raised, he turns his gaze beyond the frontiers of Russia, to where the conditions for revolution are ripe, but where the revolution does not come”.

  • its searing critique of the opportunist policy of the United Front and the slogan of the Workers’ Government; the priority accorded to this question is a further confirmation of the group’s internationalism, since this was above all a critique of the politics of the Communist International. Nor was the group’s position tainted with sectarianism: it affirmed the need for revolutionary unity between the different communist organisations (such as the KPD and the KAPD in Germany), but completely rejected the CI’s call for a bloc with the social democratic traitors, its spurious new argument that the Russian revolution had succeeded precisely though the Bolsheviks’ clever use of the United Front tactic: “…the tactic that will lead the insurgent proletariat to victory is not that of the United Front, but the bloody, uncompromising fight against these bourgeois fractions with their confused socialist terminology. Only this combat can lead to victory: the Russian proletariat won not by allying with the Socialist Revolutionaries, the populists and the Mensheviks, but by struggling against them. It is necessary to abandon the tactic of the United Front and warn the proletariat that these bourgeois fractions – in today’s period, the parties of the Second International – will at the decisive moment take up arms for the defence of the capitalist system”;

  • its interpretation of the dangers facing the Soviet state - the threat of “the replacement of the proletarian dictatorship by a capitalist oligarchy”. The Manifesto charts the rise of a bureaucratic elite and the political disenfranchisement of the working class, and demands the restoration of the factory committees and above all of the soviets to take over the direction of the economy and the state2. For the Workers’ Group, the revival of workers’ democracy was the only means to counter the rise of the bureaucracy, and it explicitly rejected Lenin’s idea that the way forward lay through a shake-out of the Workers’ Inspection, since this was merely an attempt to control the bureaucracy through bureaucratic means;

  • its profound sense of responsibility. In contrast to the critical notes appended by the KAPD when it published the Manifesto in Germany (Berlin 1924), and which expressed the German left’s premature pronunciation of the death of the Russian revolution and the Communist International, the Workers’ Group is very cautious about proclaiming the definite triumph of the counter-revolution in Russia or the final death of the International. During the Curzon crisis of 1923, when it seemed that Britain might declare war on Russia, the members of the Workers’ Group committed themselves to defending the Soviet republic in event of war; and above all, there is not the least hint of any repudiation of the October revolution and of the Bolshevik experience. In fact, the group’s stated attitude to its own role corresponds very closely to the notion of the left fraction as later elaborated by the Italian Left in exile. It recognised the necessity to organise itself independently and even clandestinely, but both the group’s title (Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party - Bolshevik), and the content of its Manifesto, demonstrate that it saw itself as being in full continuity with the programme and statutes of the Bolshevik party. It therefore appealed to all healthy elements within the party, both in the leadership and in the different opposition groupings like the Workers’ Truth, the Workers’ Opposition, and the Democratic Centralists, to regroup and wage a determined struggle for the regeneration for the party and of the revolution. And in many ways this was a far more realistic policy than the hope of the ‘46’ that the factional regime in the party would be abolished “in the first instance” by the dominant faction itself.

In sum, there was nothing morbid in the project of the Workers’ Group, nor was this a mere sect with no influence in the class. Estimates put its membership in Moscow at 200 or so, and it was thoroughly consistent in its advocacy of taking the side of the proletariat in its struggle against the bureaucracy. It thus sought to make an active political intervention in the wildcat strikes of summer-autumn 1923. Indeed it was for this very reason, coupled with the growing political influence of the group within the ranks of the party, that the apparatus unleashed the full force of repression against it. As he had predicted, there was even an attempt to shoot Miasnikov “while trying to escape”. Miasnikov survived and though imprisoned and then forced into exile after his escape from prison, continued his revolutionary activity abroad for two decades. The group in Russia was more or less crippled by mass arrests, although it is clear from The Russian Enigma, Anton Ciliga’s precious account of the opposition groups in prison in the late 20s, that it by no means disappeared completely and continued to influence the “extreme left” of the opposition movement. Nonetheless, this initial repression was a truly ominous moment: it was the first time that an avowedly communist group had suffered direct state violence under the Bolshevik regime.

Trotsky’s fatal hesitations

The fact that Leon Trotsky openly threw in his lot with the left opposition in 1923 was of capital importance. Trotsky’s international reputation as a leader of the Russian revolution was second only to Lenin’s. His criticisms of the regime in the party, and of its political orientations, sent a clear signal around the world that all was not well in the land of the Soviets; and those who had already begun to feel uneasy about the direction being taken not only by the Soviet state, but above all by the Communist parties outside Russia, had a figure around whom they could rally their forces, a figure who indisputably stood for the tradition of the October revolution and of proletarian internationalism. This was particularly the case for the Italian Left in the mid-20s.

And yet from the beginning, it is evident that the oppositional policies adopted by Trotsky were less coherent and above all less resolute than those defended by the communist left as such, in particular the Miasnikov current. Indeed, Trotsky largely failed to carry through the struggle against Stalinism even in the limited terms envisaged by Lenin in his last writings.

To give the most important examples: At the 12th Congress of the party in April 1923, Trotsky failed to deliver the “bombshell” that Lenin had prepared against Stalin concerning the national question, his role in Rabkrin, his disloyalty, even though Trotsky at this stage was still very much at the center of the party and enjoyed widespread support. On the eve of the 13th Congress, at the meeting of the central committee on May 22 1924, where Lenin’s testament and his call for Stalin’s removal were debated and Stalin’s political survival hung in the balance, Trotsky remained silent; he voted for the non-publication of the testament, against the express wishes of Lenin’s wife Krupskaya; in 1925 Trotsky even dissociated himself from his American sympathiser, Max Eastman, who had described and quoted from the testament in his book Since Lenin Died. Trotsky was persuaded by the Politburo to sign a statement denouncing Eastman’s efforts to bring the testament to light as “pure slander…which can only serve the ends of the enemies incarnate of communism and the revolution”. When he finally changed his mind and decided to publicise the testament, it was too late: Stalin’s grip over the party apparatus had become virtually unbreakable. Furthermore, during the period between the dissolution of the 1923 left opposition and the formation of the United Opposition with the Zinovievists, Trotsky frequently absented himself from the affairs of the central committee, focussing more on cultural or technical matters, and, when physically present, often took no real part in the proceedings.

A number of different factors can be involved to explain Trotsky’s hesitations. Although all are fundamentally political in nature, some of them are also connected to certain of Trotsky’s individual characteristics. Thus, when Trotsky’s comrade Yoffe wrote his last message to Trotsky before taking his own life, he made a number of criticisms of Trotsky’s shortcomings: “I have always thought that you have not enough in yourself of that ability which Lenin had to stand alone and remain alone on the road which he considered to be the right road…You have often renounced your own correct attitude for the sake of an agreement or a compromise, the value of which you have overrated” (quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, OUP 1959, p382). In effect, these are accurate descriptions of a tendency which had been quite marked in Trotsky prior to going over to the Bolshevik party – a tendency towards centrism, the incapacity to take clear and incisive positions, the tendency to sacrifice political principles in favour of organisational unity. This hesitant approach was further reinforced by Trotsky’s own fears of being seen to be involved in a vulgar struggle for personal power, for Lenin’s crown. This is in fact Trotsky’s own principal explanation for his vacillations during this period: “I have no doubt that if I had come forward on the eve of the 12th Congress in the spirit of a ‘bloc of Lenin and Trotsky’ against the Stalin bureaucracy, I should have been victorious… In 1922-3… it was still possible to capture the commanding position by an open attack on the faction… of the epigones of Bolshevism…. However, “Independent action on my part would have been interpreted, or to be more exact, represented as my personal fight for Lenin’s place in the party and the state. The very thought of this made me shudder” (Trotsky, My Life, p 481). There is certainly some truth in this: as one of the oppositionists remarked to Ciliga, Trotsky was too “chivalrous a man”. Faced with the ruthless and unprincipled manoeuvring of Stalin in particular, Trotsky was loath to descend to the same level, and thus found himself outmanoeuvred at virtually every turn.

But Trotsky’s hesitations must also be examined in the light of a number of more general political and theoretical weaknesses, all closely inter-linked, which prevented him from taking an uncompromising stance against the rising counter-revolution:

  • the inability to recognise clearly that Stalinism was indeed the bourgeois counter-revolution in Russia. Despite Trotsky’s famous description of Stalin as “the gravedigger of the revolution”, Trotsky and his followers had their eyes fixed on the danger of a “capitalist restoration” in the old sense of a return to private capitalism. This is why he saw the main danger within the party incarnated in Bukharin’s right wing faction, and why his watchword remained: “a bloc with Stalin against the right perhaps; but a bloc with the right against Stalin, never”. Stalinism was seen as a form of centrism, inevitably fragile and bound to be pulled either towards the right or the left. As we will see in the next article in this series, this inability to appreciate the real danger represented by Stalinism was linked to Trotsky’s erroneous economic theories, which identified state-controlled industrialisation as a form of socialism, and which never understood the real meaning of state capitalism. This profound political weakness was to lead Trotsky into increasingly grave mistakes in the last ten years of his life;

  • part of the reason why Trotsky was unable to see that the regime in Russia was being reabsorbed into the capitalist camp was his own close involvement in many of the errors that had accelerated this degeneration, not least the policies of militarisation of labour and repression of workers’ discontent, along with the opportunist tactics adopted by the Comintern in the early twenties, particularly the ‘United Front’. Partly because he was still tangled up in the higher branches of the bureaucratic tree, Trotsky never came to question these errors and consistently failed to take his opposition to the point where he was standing with the proletariat and against the regime. Indeed it was not until 1926-7 that Trotsky’s opposition really took its case even to the rank and file of the party; it was hardly able to contemplate agitating among the mass of the workers. For this reason many workers did indeed see the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin as no more than a distant clash between the “great ones”, between equally distant bureaucrats.

Trotsky’s inability to break from an attitude of “no one can be right against the party” (a term he publicly defended at the 13th Congress) was severely criticised by the Italian Left in its reflections on the defeat of the Russian revolution, and the meaning of the Moscow Trials in particular: “The tragedy of Zinoviev and the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ is the same: their desire to reform the party, their subjection to a fetishism of the party which personifies the October revolution and which has pushed them at the last trial to sacrifice their lives.

We find these same concerns in the attitude of Trotsky when, in 1925, he allowed himself to be chased out of the Commissariat of War, even when he still had the support of the army, above all in Moscow. It wasn’t until 7 November 1927 that he came out openly against the party; but it was too late and he failed pitifully. This attachment to the party and the fear of becoming an instrument of the counter-revolution in Russia has prevented him from taking his critique of Russian centrism to its extreme but logical consequences, even after his expulsion” (Bilan n°34, “La Boucherie de Moscou”, August-September 1936).

Faced with an advancing counter-revolution that was strangling the very breath out of the party, the only way to save anything from the wreckage would have been to have formed an independent fraction, which while trying to win over the healthy elements within the party, did not flinch at the necessity of carrying out illegal and clandestine work amongst the class as whole. This, as we have seen, was the task which Miasnikov’s group set itself in 1923, only to be thwarted by the action of the secret police. Trotsky, by contrast, found himself hamstrung by his own loyalty to the ban on factions which he himself had supported at the 1921 party congress. Both in 1923, and then in the final battle in 1927, the apparatus made full use of this ban to confuse and demoralise the oppositions around Trotsky, giving them the choice between dissolving their groupings or taking the leap into illegal activity. On both occasions the first course was favoured in the vain hope of preserving the unity of the party; on neither occasion did it preserve the oppositionists from the wrath of the Stalinist machine.


The next article in this series will examine the process that culminated in the final victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia.


1 The CWO subsequently rejected this approach, particularly when it became more acquainted with the political method of the Italian communist left.

2 However, the Manifesto seems also to argue that the trade unions should become organs for the centralisation of economic management – the old position of the Workers’ Opposition which Miasnikov had criticised in 1921 (see the previous article in this series, International Review n°100).