1924-28: the triumph of Stalinist state capitalism

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In the summer of 1927, replying to a series of articles in Pravda which rejected the possibility of any ‘Thermidorian degeneration’ of the USSR, Trotsky defended the validity of this analogy with the French revolution, in which an element of the Jacobin party itself became the vehicle for the counter-revolution. Despite the historical differences in the two situations, Trotsky argued that the isolated proletarian regime in Russia could indeed succumb to a “bourgeois restoration”, not only through an outright, violent overthrow by the forces of capitalism, but also in a more gradual and insidious manner. “Thermidor”, he wrote, “is a special form of counter-revolution carried out on the instalment plan through several instalments, and making use, in the first stage, of elements of the same ruling party – by regrouping them and counterposing them to others” (‘Thermidor’, published in The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-7, Pathfinder Press, 1980). And he pointed out that Lenin himself had fully accepted that such a danger existed in Russia: “Lenin did not think that the possibility was excluded that economic and cultural shifts in the direction of bourgeois degeneration could take place over a long period even with power remaining in Bolshevik hands; it could happen through an inconspicuous cultural-political assimilation between a certain layer of the Bolshevik party and a certain layer of the rising new petty bourgeois element”.

At the same time Trotsky was quick to argue that, at this juncture, Thermidor, though a growing danger posed by the growth of bureaucratism and of openly capitalist influences within the USSR, was still far from being completed. In the Platform of the United Opposition which was published not long after this article, he and his co-authors expressed the view that the perspective of international revolution was far from exhausted and that within Russia itself there persisted considerable gains from the October revolution, in particular the Russian economy’s “socialist sector”. The Opposition therefore remained committed to the struggle for the reform and regeneration of the Soviet state, and to its unconditional defence from imperialist attack.

In historical hindsight, however, it is clear that Trotsky’s analyses lagged behind reality. By the summer 1927, the forces of bourgeois counter-revolution had all but completed their annexation of the Bolshevik party.

Why did Trotsky underestimate the danger?

There are three key elements in Trotsky’s misreading of the situation facing the Opposition in 1927.

  1. Trotsky underestimated the depth and extent of the counter-revolution’s advance because he was unable to go back to its historical origins – in particular, to recognise the role played by the Bolshevik party’s political errors in accelerating the degeneration of the revolution. As we have shown in previous articles in this series, while the fundamental reason for the weakening of proletarian power in Russia lay in its isolation, in the failure of the revolution to extend and in the devastation caused by the civil war, the Bolshevik party had itself made matters worse through its entanglement with the state machine and its willingness to substitute its own authority for the authority of the unitary organs of the class (soviets, factory committees, etc). This process was already discernible in 1918 and reached a particularly grave point with the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921. And Trotsky found it all the harder to criticise these policies in that he had often played a prominent role in implementing them (eg his calls for the militarisation of labour in 1920-21).

  2. Trotsky clearly understood that the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy had been greatly facilitated by the succession of international defeats suffered by the working class - Germany 1923, Britain 1926, China 1927. But he was unable to see the historic scale of this defeat. In this he was by no means unique: it was not until the advent of Hitler to power in Germany, for example, that it became clear to the Italian left fraction that the course of history had been overturned and that it was running towards war. Trotsky, on the other hand, was never really able to see that such a profound reverse had occurred and throughout the 1930s continued to see signs of impending revolution when in fact the workers were more and more being taken off their own terrain and led onto the slippery slope of anti-fascism, and thus of imperialist war (Popular Fronts, war in Spain…). In any case, Trotsky’s unfounded ‘optimism’ about the possibilities of revolution led him to misinterpret the causes and effects of Stalinist foreign policy and the reactions of the great capitalist powers. The Platform of the United Opposition in 1927 (influenced, without doubt, by the ‘war scare’ of the day, which considered a declaration of war by Britain on the USSR to be imminent), insisted that the imperialist powers would be compelled to launch an attack on the Soviet Union, since the latter, despite the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy, still constituted a threat to the world capitalist system. In such circumstances, the Left Opposition remained wholeheartedly committed to the defence of the USSR. It had of course made many incisive criticisms of the way the Stalinist bureaucracy had sabotaged the workers’ struggle in Britain and China. Indeed, the disastrous results of Comintern policies in those two countries had been a decisive element in spurring the 1926-7 Opposition to regroup and intervene. But what Trotsky and the United Opposition did not grasp was that Stalinist policy in Britain and China, where the class struggle was directly undermined in favour of cementing an alliance with bourgeois factions ‘friendly’ to the USSR (the trade union bureaucracy in Britain, the Kuomintang in China), marked a qualitative step even in comparison to the CI’s opportunist bungling in Germany in 1923. These events expressed a decisive turn towards the insertion of the Russian state into the world wide power games of capital. From now on, the USSR was to act on the world arena as another contending imperialism, and the defence of the USSR was to become more and more indefensible from the communist point of view, since the USSR’s very reason for existence – to serve as a bastion of the world revolution – had been liquidated.

  3. Closely linked to this error was Trotsky’s failure to identify the real spearhead of the counter-revolution. His defence of the USSR was based on a false criterion: not, as it was with the Italian left, on the consideration of its international role and effect, and not even on whether the working class actually retained political power, but on a purely juridical criterion: the retention of nationalised property forms at the centres of the economy and a state monopoly over foreign trade. From this standpoint, Thermidor could only take the form of an overthrow of these juridical forms and a return to classical expressions of private ownership. The real ‘Thermidorian’ forces, therefore, could only be those elements outside the party who were pushing for a return to private (or rather, individual) ownership, such as the kulaks, NEPmen, political economists like Ustryalov, and their most overt points of support within the party, in particular the faction around Bukharin. Stalinism was characterised as a form of centrism, without any real policy of its own, perpetually balancing between the right and the left wings of the party. With his own attachment to the identification between nationalised property forms and socialism, Trotsky was unable to see that the capitalist counter-revolution could establish itself on the basis of state property. This condemned the current he led to misunderstanding the nature of the Stalinist project, and to perpetually ‘warning’ about a return to private property forms which never came (at least not until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and even then only partially). We can see this fatal delay in understanding very clearly in the way the Opposition responded to Stalin’s declaration of the infamous theory of “socialism in one country”.

Socialism in one country and the theory of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’

In the autumn of 1924, in a long and turgid opus entitled Problems of Leninism, Stalin formulated the theory of “socialism in one country”. Basing his argument on a single phrase written by Lenin in 1915, a phrase which could in any case be interpreted in different ways, Stalin broke with a fundamental principle of the communist movement from its inception – that the classless society could only be established on a world wide scale. His innovation made a mockery of the October revolution itself, because as Lenin and the Bolsheviks had never tired of saying, the workers’ insurrection in Russia had appeared as an internationalist response to the imperialist war; and it was, and could only be, the first step towards a world wide proletarian revolution.

The proclamation of socialism in one country was not a mere theoretical revision; it was the open declaration of the counter-revolution. The Bolshevik party as a whole had already been caught in the contradiction of interests between its internationalist principles and the demands of the Russian state, which was increasingly representing the needs of capital against the working class. Stalinism solved this contradiction at a single stroke: henceforth, it would owe loyalty only to the requirements of Russian national capital, and woe to those in the party who still clung to its original proletarian mission.

Two crucial events had enabled the Stalinist faction to show its true intentions so plainly: the defeat of the German revolution in October 1923, and the death of Lenin in January 1924. More than any of the previous reverses in the post-war revolutionary wave, the defeat in Germany in 1923 showed that the retreat of the European proletariat was more than a temporary affair, even if no one at the time could guess just how long the night of the counter-revolution would endure. This result could only strengthen the hand of those for whom the idea of extending the revolution across the globe was not merely a distraction from but an obstacle to the task of building Russia into a serious economic and military power.

As we saw in the last article in this series, Lenin had already initiated a struggle against the rise of Stalinism, and he would certainly not have countenanced the open abandonment of internationalism that the bureaucracy proclaimed with such indecent haste after his death. Certainly Lenin alone would not have been a sufficient barrier to the victory of the counter-revolution. As Bilan wrote in the 1930s, given the objective limitations facing the Russian revolution, his fate as an individual would no doubt have been that of the rest of the opposition: “If he had survived, centrism would have had the same attitude towards Lenin as it took towards the numerous Bolsheviks who paid for their loyalty to the internationalist programme of October 1917 with deportation, prison and exile” (Bilan 18, April-May 1935, p 610, ‘L’Etat Proletarien’). All the same, his death removed a major obstacle to the Stalinist project. Once Lenin was dead, Stalin not only buried his theoretical heritage; he also set about creating the cult of “Leninism”. His notorious “we vow to thee, comrade Lenin” speech at the funeral already set the tone, modelled as it was on the rituals of the Orthodox Church. Symbolically, Trotsky was absent from the funeral. He had been recuperating from illness in the Caucasus, but he also fell for a little manoeuvre of Stalin consisting in misinforming Trotsky about the date of the ceremony. Thus Stalin was able to present himself to all the world as Lenin’s natural successor.

Crucial as Stalin’s declaration was, its full import was not immediately grasped within the Bolshevik party. This was in part because it had been put forward unobtrusively, somewhat buried in an indigestible helping of Stalin’s ‘theoretical’ work. But more importantly, it was because the Bolsheviks were insufficiently armed theoretically to combat this new conception.

We have already noted during the course of this series that confusions between socialism and the state centralisation of bourgeois economic relations had long haunted the workers’ movement, particularly in the period of social democracy; and the revolutionary programmes of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave had by no means exorcised this ghost. But the ascendant tide of revolution had kept the vision of authentic socialism well to the fore, above all the necessity for it to be established on an international basis. In contrast, as the retreat of the world revolution left the Russian outpost high and dry, there was an increasing trend towards theorising the idea that by developing the statified ‘socialist’ sector of its economy, the Soviet Union could take major steps towards building a socialist society. The Italian left, in the same article as the one just cited, noted this tendency in some of Lenin’s later writings: “Lenin’s final articles on cooperation were an expression of the new situation resulting from the defeats suffered by the world proletariat, and it is not at all astonishing that they could be made use of by the falsifiers who came up with the theory of ‘socialism in one country’”.

These ideas were further theorised by the left opposition, particularly Trotsky and Preobrazhensky, in the ‘industrialisation debate’ of the mid-20s. This debate had been provoked by the difficulties encountered by the NEP, which had exposed Russia to the more open manifestations of capitalist crisis, such as unemployment, price instability, and disequilibrium between the different branches of the economy. Trotsky and Preobrazhensky criticised the cautious economic policy of the party apparatus, its failure to adopt any long term plans, its over-reliance on light industry and the spontaneous operation of the market. To rebuild the Soviet economy on a healthy and dynamic basis, they argued, it was necessary to allocate more resources to the development of heavy industry, which also required long term economic planning. Since heavy industry was the core of the state sector, and the state sector was defined as inherently ‘socialist’, industrial growth was identified with progress towards socialism and thus corresponded to the interests of the proletariat. The ‘industrialisers’ of the left opposition were convinced that this process could be kick-started in Russia’s predominantly agrarian economy, not by becoming too dependent on the import of foreign capital and technology, but by a kind of ‘exploitation’ of layers of the peasantry (the richer ones in particular) through taxation or price manipulations. This would generate sufficient capital to finance investment in the state sector and the growth of heavy industry. This process was described as “primitive socialist accumulation”, comparable in its content, if not in its proposed methods, to the period of primitive capitalist accumulation described by Marx in Capital. For Preobrazhensky in particular, “primitive socialist accumulation” was no less than a fundamental law of the transitional economy, and was to be understood as a counter-weight to the operation of the law of value: “Every reader can count on his fingers the factors that counter-act the law of value in our country: the foreign trade monopoly; socialist protectionism; a harsh import plan drawn up in the interests of industrialisation; and non-equivalent exchange with the private economy, which ensures accumulation for the state sector, notwithstanding the highly unfavourable conditions created by its low level of technology. But all of these, given their basis in the unified state economy of the proletariat, are the external means, the outward manifestations of the law of primitive socialist accumulation” (‘Economic Notes III: On the Advantage of a Theoretical Study of the Soviet Economy’, 1926, published in The Crisis of Soviet Industrialisation, a collection of Preobrazhensky’s essays edited by Donald A Filtzer, Macmillan, 1980)

This theory was flawed in two key respects:

  • it was a fundamental error to identify the growth of industry with the needs and class interests of the proletariat, and to argue that socialism would arise in a quasi-automatic manner on the basis of a process of accumulation which, though dubbed ‘socialist’, actually had all the essential features of capitalist accumulation, based as it was on the extraction and expanding capitalisation of surplus value. Industry, state-owned or otherwise, does not equal the working class; on the contrary, industrial growth carried out on the foundations of the wage labour relation can only signify the increasing exploitation of the proletariat. This false identification on Trotsky’s part paralleled his identification between the working class and the transitional state which he had theorised during the trade union debate of 1921. Its logic was to leave the proletariat with no justification for defending itself against the demands of the ‘socialist’ sector. And as with the problem of the state, the Italian left fraction in the 1930s was able to show the profound dangers inherent in such an identification. Although at the time it shared some of Trotsky’s illusions that the ‘collectivised’ sector of the economy conferred a proletarian character on the Soviet state, it did not at all agree with Trotsky’s enthusiasm for the industrialisation process per se, insisting that progress towards socialism should be measured not in the rate of growth of constant capital, but by the extent to which production was geared towards the satisfaction of the proletariat’s immediate material needs (prioritising the production of consumer goods rather than producer goods, shorter working day, etc). Taking this argument one step further, we would say that progress towards socialism demands a complete overturning of the logic of the accumulation process;

  • secondly, if Russia was able to take decisive steps towards socialism on the basis of its vast peasantry, what was the actual role of the world revolution? With the theory of “primitive socialist accumulation”, the world revolution appears merely as a means of speeding up a process already well underway in a single country, rather than being a sine qua non even for the political survival of a proletarian bastion. In some of his writings, Preobrazhensky comes perilously close to this conclusion, and this was to leave him entirely vulnerable to the demagogy of Stalin’s ‘left turn’ in the late 20s, when the latter appeared to be carrying through the programme of the industrialisers within the party.

Since it was itself carrying these confusions, it was not accidental that the left current around Trotsky did not immediately grasp the full counter-revolutionary significance of Stalin’s declaration.

1925-7: the opposition’s last stand

In fact, the first explicit attack on the theory of socialism in one country came from an unlikely source – Stalin’s former ally Zinoviev. In 1925, the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev fell apart. Its only real unifying factor had been “the struggle against Trotskyism” - as Zinoviev later admitted, this bugbear of “Trotskyism” was really an invention of the apparatus, aimed mainly at preserving the triumvirs’ position in the party machine against the figure who, after Lenin, most obviously embodied the spirit of the October revolution – Leon Trotsky. But as we saw in the last article in this series, the initial stand of the left opposition around Trotsky had been broken because of its inability to answer the charge of “factionalism” thrown at it by the apparatus, a charge backed up by the measures that all the main tendencies in the party had voted for at the 10th Congress in 1921. Faced with the choice of constituting itself into an illegal grouping (such as Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group), or retreating from any organised action within the party, the opposition adopted the latter course. But as the counter-revolutionary policies of the apparatus became more and more overt, those who retained a loyalty to Bolshevism’s internationalist premises - even, as in some cases, a very tenuous one – were compelled to become more overt in their opposition.

The emergence of the opposition around Zinoviev in 1925 was one expression of this, even if Zinoviev’s sudden turn to the left also reflected his anxiety to retain his own personal position within the party and the power base of his party machinery in Leningrad. Naturally enough, Trotsky, who in 1925-26 had gone into a phase of semi-retreat from political life, was highly suspicious of this new opposition, and at first remained largely neutral in the initial exchanges between the Stalinists and the Zinovievists, as for example at the 14th Congress, where the latter admitted that they had been largely mistaken in their diatribes against Trotskyism. Nevertheless, there was a basic element of proletarian clarity in Zinoviev’s criticisms of Stalin – as we have said, he actually denounced the theory of socialism in one country before Trotsky, and began to talk about the danger of state capitalism. And as the bureaucracy strengthened its grip over the party and over the entire working class, and particularly as the catastrophic results of its international policy became apparent, the push towards a common front between the different opposition groupings became more and more urgent.

Despite their misgivings, Trotsky and his followers joined forces with the Zinovievists in the United Opposition in April 1926. The United Opposition also at first comprised Sapranov’s Democratic Centralism group (known as the Decists); indeed Trotsky claimed that “the initiative for the unification came from the Democratic Centralists. The first conference with the Zinovievists took place under the chairmanship of Comrade Sapranov” (‘Our Differences with the Democratic Centralists’, November 11 1928, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1928-29, Pathfinder Press 1981). At some point in 1926, however, it appears that the Decists were expelled – supposedly for advocating a new party, although this does not accord with the demands contained in the group’s 1927 platform, which we will return to later1.

Despite its formal agreement not to organise as a fraction, the Opposition of 1926 was obliged to constitute itself as a distinct organisation, with its own clandestine meetings, bodyguards and couriers; and at the same time, it made a far more determined attempt than the 1923 opposition to get its message across, not just to the party leadership, but to the rank and file of the party. Each time it took a step in the direction of forming itself into a definite fraction, however, the party apparatus redoubled its maneouvres, slanders, demotions and expulsions. The first wave of these repressive measures came after the spies of the apparatus exposed an Opposition meeting in the woods outside Moscow in the summer of 1926. The initial response of the Opposition was to reiterate its criticisms of the policies of the regime at home and abroad, and to take its case to the mass of the party’s membership. In September and October, delegations of the Opposition spoke at factory cell meetings throughout the country. The most famous of these was at the Moscow aircraft factory, where Trotsky, Zinoviev, Piatakov, Radek, Sapranov and Smilga defended the Opposition’s standpoint against the heckling and abuse heaped on it by the goons of the apparatus. The response of the Stalinist machinery was even more vicious. It moved to eliminate the leading Oppositionists from their most important posts in the party. Its warnings against the Opposition became more and more explicit, hinting not only at expulsion from the party but at physical elimination. The ex-Oppositionist Larin spoke Stalin’s hidden thoughts at the 15th party conference in October-November 26: “Either the Opposition must be excluded and legally suppressed, or the question will be settled with machine guns in the streets, as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries did in Moscow in 1918” (cited in Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia, Simon and Schuster, 1960, p 282).

But as we have already said, Trotsky’s Opposition was also shackled by its own fatal flaws: its dogged loyalty to the banning of factions adopted at the 1921 Party Congress and its hesitations in seeing the really counter-revolutionary nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Following the condemnation of its factory cell demonstrations in October, the Opposition leaders signed a statement admitting that they had violated party discipline and abjuring future “factional” activity. At the plenum of the ECCI in December, the last time that the Opposition was allowed to state its case in the International, Trotsky was again hamstrung by his unwillingness to put the unity of the party into question. As Anton Ciliga put it: “notwithstanding the polemic brilliance of his oratory, Trotsky wrapped his exposition of the debate in too great a prudence and diplomacy. The audience was unable to appreciate its depth, the tragedy of the divergences separating the Opposition from the majority (…) The Opposition – I was struck by this at the time – was not aware of its weakness; it was also to underestimate the magnitude of its defeat and to neglect to draw the lessons from it. Whereas the majority, led by Stalin and Bukharin, manoeuvred to obtain the total exclusion of the Opposition, the latter constantly sought for compromise and amicable arrangements. This timid policy of the Opposition was instrumental, if not in bringing about its defeat, certainly in weakening its resistance” (The Russian Enigma, first published as Au pays du grand mensonge in 1938, first English edition 1940; this edition 1979, p 7-8).

The same pattern repeated itself towards the end of 1927. Stirred into action by the bureaucracy’s fiasco in China, the Opposition formulated its formal platform for the 15th Congress. This attempt was met by a typical manoeuvre of the apparatus. Having obliged the Opposition to resort to a clandestine printing press to produce the platform, the press was raided by the GPU; the latter conveniently discovered that a “Wrangel officer”, in touch with foreign counter-revolutionaries, was involved in the press. Although this “officer” proved to be a GPU agent provocateur, the discredit heaped upon the Opposition was exploited to the maximum. Under increasing pressure, the Opposition decided once again to make a direct appeal to the masses – speaking at various rallies and party meetings, and in particular intervening in the demonstrations celebrating the October revolution (November 1927) with its own banners. At the same time, the Opposition made an attempt finally to raise the issue of Lenin’s testament. In fact it was too little, too late. The mass of workers were descending into political apathy and could make little of the Opposition’s differences with the regime. As Trotsky himself realised against Zinoviev’s short-lived optimism at this juncture, the masses were weary of revolutionary struggle and were more likely to be swayed by Stalin’s promises of socialism in Russia than by any calls for further political upheaval. But in any case, the Opposition was unable to present a clearly distinct revolutionary alternative, a point underlined by the mildness of the banners raised in the November demonstration, which raised slogans such as “down with Ustryalovism” “against a split”, and so on - in other words, stressing the need for “Leninist unity” in the party at a time when Lenin’s party was being annexed to the counter-revolution! Once again, the Stalinists exhibited no such mildness. Their thugs beat up many of the demonstrators on the day, and soon afterwards Trotsky and Zinoviev were summarily expelled from the party. It was the beginning of a spiral of expulsions, exiles, imprisonment, and finally, massacres against the proletarian vestiges of the Bolshevik party.

Most demoralising of all was the effect that the mounting repression had on the morale of the Opposition itself. Almost immediately after the expulsions, the Zinoviev-Trotsky alliance came apart, with the weakest component breaking first: Zinoviev, Kamenev and the majority of their followers capitulated abjectly, confessed their “errors”, and begged to be readmitted into the party. Many of the more right wing Trotskyists also capitulated at this time2.

Having destroyed the left within the party, Stalin soon turned on his allies on the right – the Bukharinists, whose policies were most openly favourable to the private capitalist and the kulak. Facing a series of immediate economic problems, in particular the so-called goods famine, but above all urged forward by the need to develop Russia’s military capacities in a world heading towards new imperialist conflagrations, Stalin announced his “left turn” – a sudden lurch towards rapid industrialisation and the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” – the forced expropriation of the upper and middle peasants.

Stalin’s new turn, accompanied as it was by a campaign against the “rightist danger” in the party, had the effect of further decimating the ranks of the opposition. Those like Preobrazhensky who had laid so much emphasis on industrialisation as the key to advancing towards socialism, were rapidly seduced into the idea that Stalin was objectively carrying of the programme of the left and urged the Trotskyists to return to the party fold. Such was the political fate of the theory of “primitive socialist accumulation”.

The events of 1927-28 clearly marked a turning point. Stalinism had triumphed definitively through the destruction of any opposition forces in the party; there were now no further obstacles to the pursuit of his essential programme - the construction of a war economy on the basis of a more or less integral state capitalism. This effectively spelt the death of the Bolshevik party, its total fusion with the state capitalist bureaucracy. With its next stroke, Stalinism asserted its final domination over the International, and the latter’s complete transformation into an arm of Russian foreign policy. By adopting the theory of socialism in one country at its 6th Congress in August 1928, the CI signed its death warrant as an International just as surely as the Socialist International had done in 1914. This was true even if, as in the period after 1914, the death agony of the individual Communist parties outside Russia was a more drawn-out process, only reaching its end in the mid-30s with the routing of their own left oppositions and the open adoption of a position of national defence in preparation for the second world holocaust.

The break between Trotsky and the communist left

But while the above conclusion may be crystal clear in hindsight, the question was still being hotly debated in the surviving opposition circles. In 1928-9 this largely took the form of a debate between Trotsky and the Democratic Centralists, whose growing influence on his followers can probably be measured by the amount of energy he put into polemicising against their ‘ultra left, sectarian’ errors.

The Decists had existed since 1919 and had consistently criticised the dangers of bureaucratism in party and state. Having been ejected from the United Opposition they presented their own platform to the 15th congress of the party – a crime for which they were immediately expelled from its ranks. According to Miasnikov, writing in the French paper L’Ouvrier Communiste in 1929, this text, which was signed “The Group of Fifteen”3, was not in direct continuity with the Decist group which had preceded it and showed that Sapranov had moved towards the analyses of his Workers’ Group: “In its main points, in its estimation of the nature of the state in the USSR, its ideas about the workers’ state, the programme of the Fifteen is very close to the ideology of the Workers’ Group”.

At first sight however the platform does not differ radically from the stance adopted by the platform of the United Opposition, even if it is perhaps more thoroughgoing in its castigation of the oppressive regime facing the working class in the factories, the growth of unemployment, the loss of all proletarian life in the soviets, the degeneration of the internal party regime and the catastrophic effects of the policy of ‘socialism in one country’ on the international level. At the same time it is still situated within the problematic of radical reform, identifying itself with the call for more rapid industrialisation and putting forward a number of measures aimed at regenerating the party and restoring the proletariat’s control over the state and the economy. At no point does it call for a new party or for a direct struggle against the state. What is noticeable however is that the text attempts to go to the root of the problem of the state, reaffirming the marxist critique of the weak side of the state as an instrument of the proletarian revolution and warning of the dangers of the state totally detaching itself from the working class. Moreover, in its treatment of the question of state ownership, it points out that there is nothing inherently socialist about this: “For our state enterprises the sole guarantee against their development in a capitalist direction is the existence of the proletarian dictatorship. Only the fall of this dictatorship, or else its degeneration, can alter the direction of their development. In this sense, they represent a solid base for building socialism. That doesn’t mean that they are already socialist (…) To characterise such forms of industry, where labour power still remains a commodity, as socialism, even as bad socialism, would be to embroider reality, to discredit socialism in the eyes of the workers; it would be to present tasks as well established when they are not yet and pass off the NEP for socialism”. In short, without the political domination of the proletariat, the economy, including its statified components, can only proceed in a capitalist direction, a point that was never clear with Trotsky for whom nationalised property forms could themselves guarantee the proletarian character of the state. Finally, the platform of the Fifteen appears to be much more alert to the imminence of Thermidor. In fact it puts forward the view that the final liquidation of the party by the Stalinist faction would signify the end of any proletarian character to the regime: “The bureaucratisation of the party, the degeneration of its leading elements, the fusion of the party apparatus with the bureaucracy of the government, the reduced influence of the proletarian element of the party, the introduction of the governmental apparatus into the internal struggles of the party – all this shows that the Central Committee has, in its policies, already gone beyond the limits of muzzling the party and is beginning its liquidation, the transformation of the party into an auxiliary apparatus of the state. The execution of this liquidation could mean the end of the proletarian dictatorship in the USSR. The party is the vanguard of and essential arm of the proletarian class struggle. Without it, neither victory, nor the maintenance of the proletarian dictatorship is possible”.

Thus even if the Platform of the Fifteen still appears to underestimate the degree to which capitalism had already triumphed in the USSR, it was far easier for the Decists, or at least a substantial part of them, to draw rapid conclusions from the events of 1927-28: the destruction of the opposition at the hands of Stalin’s state terror signified that the Bolshevik party had become a “stinking corpse”, as the Decist V Smirnov described it, and that there was nothing left to defend in the regime. Certainly this was the view that Trotsky combats in the letter ‘Our Differences with the Democratic Centralists’, in which he writes to the Decist Borodai that “your Kharkov colleagues, from what I am informed, have addressed themselves to the workers with an appeal based upon the false idea that the October revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat are already liquidated. This manifesto, false in essence, has done the greatest harm to the Opposition" . No doubt Trotsky also defined as “harm” the fact that a growing wing of the Opposition was coming round to such conclusions.

In the same way, the Decists were able to grasp that there was nothing socialist in Stalin’s sudden ‘left turn’ and to resist the wave of capitulations that it provoked. But they were by no means left unscathed and these events produced splits in their ranks as well. According to Ciliga and others, Sapranov himself capitulated in 1928, believing that the offensive against the kulaks expressed a turn towards socialist policies. However, there are also indications that he soon concluded that Stalin’s industrialisation programme was state capitalist in nature. Among other things, Miasnikov wrote in L’Ouvrier Communiste in 1929 that Sapranov had been arrested that year, and also announced a regroupment between the Workers’ Group, the Group of Fifteen and remnants of the Workers’ Opposition. Smirnov, on the other hand, lost his bearings in a different way:

The young Decemist Volodya Smirnov even went so far as to say: ‘there never has been a proletarian revolution, nor a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, there has simply been a ‘popular revolution’ from below and a dictatorship from above. Lenin was never an ideologist of the proletariat. From beginning to end he was an ideologist of the intelligentsia’. These ideas of Smirnov were bound up with the general view that the world was steering straight towards a new social form – state capitalism, with the bureaucracy as the new ruling class. It put on the same level Soviet Russia, Kemalist Turkey, fascist Italy, Germany on the march to Hitlerism, and the America of Hoover-Roosevelt. ‘Communism is an extremist fascism, fascism is a moderate Communism’, he wrote in his article ‘Comfascism’. That conception left the forces and perspectives of socialism somewhat in the shade. The majority of the Decist fraction, Davidov, Shapiro, etc considered that the young Smirnov’s heresy had gone beyond all bounds, and he was expelled from the group amid uproar” (Ciliga, op cit, p 280-282). Ciliga added that it was not hard to see Smirnov’s idea of a ‘new class’ as a precursor of Burnham; likewise his view of Lenin as the ideologist of the intelligentsia was later taken up by the council communists. What may have begun as a valuable insight – the universal scope of state capitalism in the epoch of capitalist decadence – had in the circumstances of defeat and confusion become a route towards the abandonment of marxism.

In a similar way, those in the milieu of the Russian communist left who called for the immediate formation of a new party, while motivated by correct concerns, had lost sight of the realities of the period. A new party could not be created by an act of will in a period of deepening defeat for the world proletariat. What was required above all was the formation of left fractions capable of preparing the programmatic bases for a new party when the conditions of the international class struggle permitted it; but this was a conclusion that only the Italian left was able to draw with any real consistency.

All this testifies to the extreme difficulties facing the opposition groups at the end of the 20s, who were more and more forced to develop their analyses inside the jails of the GPU, which ironically remained as oases of political debate in a country that was being silenced by an unprecedented state terror. But through the whole trauma of capitulations and splits, a definite process of convergence was taking place around the clearest positions of the communist left, involving the Decists, surviving members of the Workers’ Group and the Workers’ Opposition, and the ‘intransigents’ of the Trotskyist opposition. Ciliga himself belonged to the extreme left of the Trotskyist opposition and described his break with Trotsky in the summer of 1932, after receiving an important programmatic text by Trotsky, entitled ‘The problems of the development of the USSR: outline of a programme for the International Left Opposition as regards the Russian question’: “Since 1930 it [the left wing of the Trotskyist current] had been waiting for its leader to speak up openly, and declare that the present Soviet state was not a workers’ state. Now, in the very first chapter of his programme, Trotsky clearly defined it as a ‘proletarian state. A further defeat awaited the left wing in the treatment of the Five Year Plan: its socialist character, the socialist character of its aims and even of its methods were vigorously asserted in the programme (…) It was henceforward an idle hope to expect Trotsky ever to distinguish between bureaucracy and proletariat, between state capitalism and socialism. Those among the left ‘negators’ who could not possibly see any socialism in what was being built up in Russia had no other course open to them than to break with Trotsky and leave the Trotskyist collective. About ten – among them myself – took a decision to that effect (…) Thus, having shared in the ideological life and in the struggles of the Russian Opposition, I ended – as so many others before me and after me – with the following conclusion: Trotsky and his supporters are too closely linked with the bureaucratic regime of the USSR to be able to conduct the struggle against this regime to its final consequences (…) to him, the task of the opposition was to improve, not to destroy the bureaucratic system, to fight against the ‘exaggeration of privileges’ and the extreme inequalities of the standards of life’ – not to fight against privileges and inequalities in general….

Bureaucratic or proletarian opposition?’ was the title I gave to the article in which, in prison, I expressed my new attitude towards Trotskyism. Henceforward I belonged to the camp of the Russian extreme left wing opposition: ‘Democratic Centralism’, ‘Workers’ Opposition’, ‘Workers’ Group’.

What separated the opposition from Trotskyism was not only in the way of judging the regime and of understanding the present problems; it was, before all, the way in which the part played in the revolution by the proletariat was being considered. To the Trotskyists it was the party, to the extreme left wing it was the working class which was the mover of the revolution. The struggle between Stalin and Trotsky concerned party politics and the directing personnel of the party; to one as to the other the proletariat was but a passive object. The groups of the extreme left wing communists, on the other hand, were above all interested in the actual conditions of the working class and the part played by it, in what it actually was in Soviet society and what it should be in a society which sincerely set itself the task of building socialism. The ideas and the political life of these groups opened up new perspectives to me and confronted me with problems unknown to the Trotskyist opposition; how should the proletariat set about conquering the means of production taken from the bourgeoisie, efficaciously to control both party and government, to establish a workers’ democracy and safeguard the revolution from bureaucratic degeneracy” (ibid, p 271).

Ciliga’s conclusions may have had a certain councilist flavour and in later years he too was to become disillusioned with marxism. Nonetheless he was describing a real process of proletarian clarification in the most difficult of conditions. Of course it is particularly tragic that much of the fruits of this process have been lost and that it they had no immediate impact on the demoralised Russian proletariat. Some indeed would dismiss these efforts as irrelevant and testimony to the sectarian and abstentionist nature of the communist left. But revolutionaries work on the scale of history and the struggle of the Russian left communists to understand the terrible defeat that had befallen them retains a theoretical importance that is still very much relevant to the work of revolutionaries today. And it is worth pondering the negative significance of the fact that it was not the theses of the intransigents, but Trotsky’s attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, to find something proletarian in the Stalinist regime, that were to predominate in the opposition movement outside Russia. His failure to recognise the completion of Thermidor was to have disastrous consequences, contributing to the ultimate betrayal of the Trotskyist current through the ideology of ‘defence of the USSR’ in the second world war.

With the eventual silencing of the Russian communist left, the search to solve the ‘Russian enigma’ during the 30s and 40s was essentially taken up by revolutionaries outside the USSR. It is to their debates and analyses that we will turn in the next article in this series.


1 In fact, there is much that remains obscure about the history of the Decists and other left currents in Russia, and a great deal of further research is required. The ICC’s sympathiser, Ian, who died in 1997, was engaged in extensive research into the Russian communist left, and was convinced in particular of the importance of the role played by Sapranov’s group. It can only be regretted that he did not live to complete these inquiries. The ICC is attempting to take up some of the strands of this work; we also hope that the re-emergence of a proletarian political milieu in Russia will make it easier to carry this research forward.

2 These were not the first of the old oppositionists to make their peace with the regime. In the preceding year the leaders of the Workers’ Opposition, Mevdiev, Shliapnikov and Kollontai, and even the once resolute Left Communist and Democratic Centralist Ossinski, together with Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, had renounced all oppositional activity.

3 The Platform of the Group of Fifteen was originally published outside Russia by that branch of the Italian left which produced the journal Reveil Communiste in the late 20s. It appeared in German and in French under the title A la Veille de Thermidor, Revolution et Contre-revolution dans la Russie des Soviets, Plateforme de l’Opposition de Gauche dans le parti Bolshevique (Sapranov, Smirnov, Obhorin, Kalin, etc), in early 1928. The ICC intends to produce an English version of the text in the near future.