A. Ciliga

In Stalin’s Prisons – V

Discussions and Divisions in the Trotskyist Group


Written: 1936–37.
Published: 1938, in Paris, under the title Au Pays du Grand Mensonge.
Source: The New International, Vol. X No. 5, May 1944, pp. 156–159.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[Continued from last issue]

While we were in prison discussing among ourselves and fighting against the GPU, events were precipitating in the country. In 1931 and 1932, the Five-Year Plan was reaching its peak.

Whither Russia? Is it going to explode like a boiler, or will it meet the test and see the spread of a new order? What to do? Defend the existing regime, or combat it? In what name, with what program? These questions were asked by the entire country as well as by the Opposition.

Trotskyists and the Five-Year Plan

In our prison, the Trotskyists, after their split, saw the problem in different lights. The “majority” – that is, the right wing and center – were interested only in the political aspects of the Five-Year Plan. The Red professors demonstrated in countless articles that this industry should have been created of that one, that it would have been better to begin with this plant instead of the other. They made deep analyses of the figure of the annual plans and disputed among themselves over percentages. All these reflections were not devoid either

of seriousness, of competence, or of dialectical power, but they were nonetheless pedantic and sterile. The country was in war: a social and economic war. What good were all these schedules, where everything was arranged minute by minute? It was clear that indigent and backward Russia could make its revolution only by first building up, by a superhuman effort, certain essential bastions, ready to line up the whole of its economy later on along these advanced positions! That is why all the lamentations of the professors of economic science on the frightful disproportions of the Five-Year Plan did not move me.

In the Spring of 1932, when the famine burst upon the country and the rate of industrialization had obviously exceeded the limit of possibilities, the theoreticians of the “majority” felt a new mission growing in their minds: to set up the plan for the retreat. They said to themselves: “Since the party, in the person of Stalin, once borrowed from the Opposition its industrialization plan, the party will not be able to do without the Opposition now that a plan of retreat must be established.” To listen to them, the Stalinist policy was not determined by the social realities of the regime or the necessities of its development, but solely by the “myopia and the stupidity of Stalin.”

However, the elaboration of the plan of retreat produced a new split in the Trotskyist majority. The right, under the leadership of Solntsev, Yakovin, Melnais, etc., judged that the retreat should be slow and prudent: the coercive measures taken against the peasants must be abated but not abolished, otherwise the kolkhozes would be threatened with collapse, bringing back to life the system of commodity exchange. On the other hand, they desired to make a bloc with the Stalinists for tactical reasons. This bloc was to prevent the petty bourgeois elements from preparing their “Thermidor” with the benevolent neutrality of the right wing of the All-Russian Communist Party – Bukharin & Co.

The Trotskyist center (Dingelstedt, Man-Nevelson, Aaron Papermeister, etc.) supported, contrariwise, the slogan of Rakovsky: “Restore the NEP,” a slogan he had enunciated in his letters from exile. Their specialist in agrarian questions, the agronomist Sassarov, even admitted that the dissolution of all the kolkhozes was inevitable. In a word, the Trotskyist center found that the retreat had to go back all the further because of the fact that Stalin had gone ahead too far. As to the tactic to be followed, the Trotskyist center thought of making a bloc with the right wingers of the All-Russian Party. This bloc would force Stalin to constitute a “coalition” Central Committee – that is, a Central Committee in which all the communist factions would be represented – and to install democracy within the party. But it was not a question of eliminating completely the Stalinist faction, for it was feared that such an operation would threaten to shake “the proletarian power” and to facilitate a bourgeois restoration ...

Misplaced Criticism

In a word, the Trotskyist “majority” had no political program of great scope to oppose to the official program of Stalin. But still more: no attempt was made to criticize seriously the social character of the Five-Year Plan and the entire Stalinist regime. If the “labor policy” of Stalin was criticized, it was for the volume of sacrifices that it demanded and not for the social principles that it violated. If the “distortions” and “bureaucratism” of Stalin were criticized, they continued nonetheless to calculate the percentage of socialism realized in the USSR according to the percentage of the successes and failures of the Stalinist industrialization.

All these preoccupations of the Trotskyist “majority” left me indifferent. These people did not seem to me to differ greatly from the bureaucrats of Stalin. They were a little more correct and human, that’s all. All my hopes went with the “minority” which, in 1931 and 1932, discussed passionately the questions of principle posed by the Five-Year Plan and by the whole Soviet regime. They did not confine themselves to judging the victory of the plan or the necessity of falling back toward the NEP. They posed dearly the question: does a dictatorship of the proletariat still exist in the USSR, is the economic development a socialist development by its social content, or state-capitalistic, or is it a transitional stage?

The transfer of prisoners following the hunger strike in the Summer of 1931 had greatly weakened the Trotskyist minority. The “Militant Bolsheviks” had lost their ideologist, Pushas, the “state-capitalists” had lost Densov. The Trotskyist Left of our prison decided nevertheless to work out its own program, with a position of intransigence toward the Stalinist bureaucracy. But it was soon seen that the differences within the left wing were profound; it was thereupon resolved to discuss first certain questions and to seek a compromise in the formulae sufficiently general to satisfy the varying opinions. The first question discussed was that of the character of the Soviet state. Is it a workers’ or socialist state? If not, what class does it represent? The discussion lasted more than six months, for it was not easy to establish contact among the members of the “minority,” scattered to the four corners of the prison. But we did not want to risk a new split and were patient. We had still another thought in mind which advised us against great haste: we hoped that meanwhile Trotsky would cross the Rubicon and would deny the workers’ character of the Stalinist state. Many of us were already convinced that there was not a trace of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the USSR, but thought it inopportune to proclaim it publicly before Trotsky pronounced himself on if. As for myself, while waiting with the others for a decisive political gesture from Trotsky, a gesture that seemed to be made logically inevitable by his preceding declaration – “the preparations for the installation of Bonapartism are already completed in the party” – I, along with other comrades, considered it was better to speak out without waiting for Trotsky. Would it not be easier for him to formulate the expected conclusion if he saw that it was already taking shape spontaneously in the minds of the militants themselves? Moreover, was it always necessary to wait for the word of the “leader,” like common Stalinists?

Three Positions on Russia

In the end, three different resolutions were submitted to a vote. The first recognized, in spite of the numerous “bureaucratic deviations,” the working class character of the state, because “vestiges of the dictatorship of the proletariat” subsisted in it, like the nationalization of private property and the repression of the bourgeoisie. It followed that there could be hope of “restoring the genuine proletarian dictatorship by means of a profound reform of the structure.”

The “deniers” of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR were unable to agree among themselves and presented two distinct resolutions. Some, guided by what remained of the principles of the “Militant Bolsheviks,” found that there was no longer a proletarian dictatorship in the USSR but that the “economic foundations of the October Revolution subsisted.” They concluded that it is necessary to make a “political revolution” plus a “profound reform of the economy.” To them the existing regime seemed to be “above the classes” because, according to them, the bureaucracy in power was not a class but only a transitional social formation.

The other “deniers” – including myself – believed that not only the political order but also the social and economic order were alien and hostile to the proletariat. Therefore, we envisaged not only a political but also a social revolution that would open up the road to the development of socialism. According to us, the bureaucracy was a real class, and a class hostile to the proletariat.

Each of the three resolutions received the same number of votes, about fifteen. In other words, the “deniers” had the majority. But the others threatened to make a split if the point of view of the “deniers” was proclaimed obligatory upon the right-wing Trotskyists. The blind alley was broken through by declaring that the question of the character of the Soviet state remained open.

The slogan of the “Return to the NEP” was also subjected to a lively discussion and finally rejected by a crushing majority.

The attitude of the prisoners toward what was happening in the country and toward the Stalinist policy may be defined as follows, if it may be a little schematized: the majority of the political prisoners, regardless of their nuance, judged that the policy of the government was nothing but a preposterous adventure, that it violated the laws of evolution, that it betrayed, in a word, the incompetence of the leaders. At any moment we expected a catastrophe followed by a complete change in the leading personnel and this expectation stifled every desire to seek the social meaning of the events. But there were also other prisoners, less numerous and more isolated, who discovered a “method in this madness” of the government. They thought that their real task consisted precisely in analyzing and making conspicuous those things that were profoundly coherent in the apparent chaos of the policy of the bureaucrats. There was certainly no lack of material for them to analyze!

During the year 1930 and at the beginning of 1931, the government, in order to realize its plan of industrialization and production, employed primarily the methods of administrative coercion toward the workers: compulsory “emulation” in the factories, forced exploits of “udarniks” (elite workers), abolition of the right of the worker to quit the factory where he was working, the “right” granted women and adolescents to work at night and in the mines, etc. These measures aroused a campaign abroad against “forced labor,” but, on the other hand, the official phraseology had some Westerners believe that the Soviet government was in the process of building up, even if by barbarous means, something that looked like socialism.

Changes in the Regime After 1931

The reforms that followed beginning with June 1931 revealed the true countenance of the regime. Stalin commenced by heaping anathema upon one of the aspirations dearest to the heart of the workers, one of the last conquests of October that had not yet been wrested from them: the principle of economic equality within the proletariat. Upon an order from the dictator, a new gospel was set up: the labor hierarchy, the “reform of the wage system” with the aim of creating the “greatest differences of remuneration between the extreme groups.” This essentially capitalist principle was declared to be in conformity with socialism and communism. The principle it replaced had a merciless war declared upon it and was stigmatized under the name of petty bourgeois “levelingism”! ...

It was no longer collectivism, nor solidarity, even if forced, that was to stimulate the worker to produce, but the old capitalist principle of egotism and profit. In addition, a system of piecework was introduced which had long ago been abolished in the West, thanks to the efforts of the labor movement. Having thus multiplied administrative coercion by a new “sweating system,” the Soviet leaders proclaimed that the intensity of labor was without limits: the physiological limit that exists in capitalist production “is abolished with us, in the country of socialism, thanks to the enthusiasm of the workers.” The “galley pace” of labor in chains in the capitalist countries was now to be ... accelerated!

If every effort was made to create the “greatest differences of remuneration” among the workers according to their skills, what is to be said of the abyss that was created between the workers and the functionaries, communist or non-communist?

The “happy life” which the upper strata enjoyed to the detriment of the wretched masses does not fail to astonish the foreign tourist in the USSR, provided he takes the trouble to look around him. This “happy life” was legalized for the first time after the speech of Stalin in June 1931. To add further to the privileges in food supply and lodgings, a new network of exclusive “distributors” and restaurants reserved for the upper communist or non-party administration was created. Finally, “state stores” were created for their exclusive use, where absolutely everything could be bought at prices beyond the reach of the worker. The cast-off clothing of “war communism” which the bureaucracy liked to dress up in at the beginning of the Five-Year Plan was dumped in the garbage. All this smacked of class egotism a mile away, and the tales of the recently-arrived prisoners confirmed the impression that this new policy corresponded to a profound and durable tendency. The people were not mistaken who defined the situation in this bitter phrase: “There are no classes among us, there are only categories.” Indeed, the whole population of Russia was divided from the standpoint of living standards into five or six categories, which fixed everyone’s position in society. But at the time of which we speak, the label “dictatorship of the proletariat” had not yet been replaced by that of “Soviet people”: the most favored workers belonged as yet to category No. 1; and the bureaucracy designated its privileges modestly under the soothing title of “Category Number Zero.”

The turn was, however, so patent and so brutal that the people at liberty could not be mistaken about it. A Moscow factory director who arrived in our prison in 1932 described the position of the communist personnel as follows: “In the daytime, we carry on propaganda among our workers in favor of the general line and we explain to them that socialism is about to triumph among us; but in the evening, among ourselves, we drink our tea and ask ourselves if it is the proletariat we represent or a new class that exploits us?”

The tendency to consolidate the new order of things born out of the Five-Year Plan manifested itself also by a desire to reconcile the various elements composing the social elite. The “non-party specialists,” only yesterday hounded mercilessly, were now proclaimed the allies of the communist bureaucracy. “There are obvious symptoms of a change of attitude in intellectual circles,” declared Stalin. “These intellectuals, who once sympathized with the saboteurs, now support the Soviet power ... Even more, a part of the saboteurs of yesterday is beginning to collaborate with the working class.”

The middle stratum of the intellectuals, especially the technicians, was placed at the level of the factory workers, and a little later, in 1932, a solemn decree of the Central Executive Committee granted children of qualified intellectuals equal rights with children of workers. The attorney-general of the USSR, Krylenko, principal prosecutor in all the sabotage trials, commented on one of Stalin’s speeches as follows: “The factory workers have become the masters of their country with full powers; now, after a long development in the relations between the Soviet government and the leading technical personnel, the latter, too, must participate to the full in the common cause, with the same rights as the factory workers.” Thus were laid the foundations of the future “non-party Bolsheviks” which were to lead, in the Constitution of 1936, to the granting of civic rights to the non-communist intellectuals. The communist bureaucracy prepared itself to share with the “engineers” the monopoly of power it held “in the name of the working class.”

“NEP Without Nepmen”

The “new style” of the Soviet cities, the reopening of elegant stores, restaurants and night clubs, the high-wide-and-handsome life of the leaders – all this brought back to mind the NEP. But there was no private initiative, no tradesmen, no “Nepmen.” The “NEP without the Nepmen” seemed absurd to us in prison and the prisoners, imbued with outlived principles, predicted with eager rivalry the early appearance of this indispensable personage. But there were also prisoners who sought to understand the future otherwise than with the aid of old patterns and who replied: “To be sure, the NEP without the Nepman, that’s the symbol of the new Russia which is replacing private trade by state trade, the tradesman by the bureaucrat, the private NEP by the state NEP!”

Rakovsky’s letters from exile were very useful to us for an understanding of this evolution. Rakovsky and Trotsky supplemented each other in a certain sense, the former being very apt at grasping the social processes without being able to draw the political conclusions from them, the latter suffering from the reverse defect. And it is most unfortunate for the Russian Trotskyists that these two personages were not able to come together.

From 1928 onward, Rakovsky wrote several studies on the structure and functioning of the Soviet bureaucracy, of which the main one was The Laws of Socialist Accumulation During the ‘Centrist’ Period of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; it has remained unknown abroad. It disclosed the parasitic and exploitive character of the bureaucracy, “which has transformed itself into a special social order to the detriment of the workers and peasants.” From this to the conclusion that this bureaucracy was nothing but a new ruling class was only a step; but Rakovsky did not have the audacity to take it. At the decisive turn he chose to “save what can still be saved” and to “return to the NEP.” His policy, instead of being inspired by the new interests of the proletariat, was dominated by the fear of a restoration of private capitalism. Rakovsky – in a study we have just alluded to – disclosed one of the salient traits of the Soviet bureaucracy: the sacerdotal cult of two truths, one, the “esoteric truth,” in Rakovsky’s words, the real truth, destined only for the initiated; the other, the esoteric pseudo-truth for the needs of the throng. He liked to compare these proceedings with those of the Catholic Church, of the Jesuits and other religious orders. The bureaucracy “merely managed” the means of production belonging legally to the proletariat, just as the church administered the patrimonium pauperum for its profit.

The “Total Collectivization”

In our prison discussions, the industrialization raised far fewer tempests than the “total collectivization.” Indeed, if the Trotskyist opposition had adopted a clear-cut attitude toward the industrialization, the same could not be said of the peasant question. In the industrial field, Stalin had only followed the path drawn by the Trotskyist Opposition since 1923. Trotsky was not wrong in writing in 1931 that “all the viable elements of the official plan are only the echo of the ideas and the slogans of the Left Opposition.” So we discussed only the manner in which Stalin was carrying out the industrialization plan.

The attitude of the Trotskyist Opposition toward the “total collectivization” was much more complex. It was not Trotsky – despite the prevailing opinion – but rather Zinoviev, who, toward the end of the NEP, urged a reenforcement of the anti-peasant policy. The program of the Trotsky-Zinoviev bloc in 1926–27 was determined, in its agrarian section, by the Zinovievists. When, in 1923, Trotsky proposed for the first time the industrialization plan, he foresaw at the same time that the agrarian development would have the “farm” as its type. He expressed this idea very clearly in his celebrated speech at Dnepropetrovsk.

Stalin began by carrying out the program of the Trotsky-Zinovievist opposition; then, in the offensive fire against the peasants, he was led to proclaim the “total collectivization” and the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” But while Zinoviev accepted this policy, Trotsky was fiercely opposed to it. To go from “the struggle against the exploitive tendencies of the kulaks” to their complete expropriation, to push the partial collectivization to the point of “totality” – this, in his view, was only an anti-Marxian utopia in view of the historical conditions, and could lead only to a catastrophe. In February 1930, in the midst of the bitter-end collectivization, Trotsky wrote that there should be collectivized, “up to the end of the Five-Year Plan, only twenty to twenty-five per cent at most of the peasant holdings, on penalty of exceeding the limits of reality.” Stalin’s haste, which did not even wait for the tractor factories to be complete, exacerbated Trotsky’s irony: “By joining the bad hoes and the poor nags of the muzhiks you do not create big agricultural enterprises any more than a ship is built by joining together fishing boats.”

These opinions of Trotsky, which just arrived in prison at that time, made a strong impression on the prisoners. Had not Stalin just pushed the collectivization to fifty and sixty per cent, and introduced – how belatedly! – mechanized exploitation? Some among us then began to await the verdict of events, others demanded loudly the return to the NEP.

[Continued in next issue]


Last updated on: 15 October 2015