Tony Cliff


Trotsky on substitutionism


From International Socialism (first series), No. 2, Autumn 1960, pp.  14–17 & 22–26.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff et al., Party and Class, various editions, London.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, Selected Works Vol.  1, Bookmarks, London 2001, pp.  117–32.
Transcribed by Artroom, East End Offset (TU), London.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Twenty years ago Trotsky was assassinated. The best tribute one can pay to this great revolutionary, who so despised all cant, would be a critical study of some of his ideas. We offer the following study of one problem he so brilliantly posed as a very young man, a problem that plagued him for the rest of his life, and that is still with us: the problem of the relation between party and class, and the danger of the former substituting for the latter.

Quite early in his political activity, when only 24 years old, Trotsky prophesied that Lenin’s conception of party organisation must lead to a situation in which the party would “substitute itself for the working classes”, act as proxy in their name and on their behalf, regardless of what the workers thought or wanted.

Lenin’s conception would lead to a state of affairs in which “the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committe”. [1]

To Lenin’s type of centralised party made up of professional revolutionaries, Trotsky counterposed a “broadly-based party” on the model of the Western European Social Democratic parties. He saw the only guarantee against “substitutionism” – the term he coined – in the mass party, democratically run and under the control of the proletarian masses.

He wound up his argument with the following plea against uniformity:

The tasks of the new regime will be so complex that they cannot be solved otherwise than by way of competition between various methods of economic and political construction, by way of long “disputes”, by way of a systematic struggle not only between the socialist and capitalist worlds, but also many trends inside socialism, trends which will inevitably emerge as soon as the proletarian dictatorship poses tens and hundreds of new ... problems. No strong “domineering” organisation ... will be able to suppress these trends and controversies ... A proletariat capable of exercising its dictatorship over society will not tolerate any dictatorship over itself ... The working class ... will undoubtedly have in its ranks quite a few political invalids ... and much ballast of obsolescent ideas, which it will have to jettison. In the epoch of its dictatorship, as now, it will have to cleanse its mind of false theories and bourgeois experience, and to purge its ranks from political phrasemongers and backward-looking revolutionaries ... But this intricate task cannot be solved by placing above the proletariat a few well-picked people ... or one person invested with the power to liquidate and degrade. [2]

In Trotsky’s words about the danger of “substitutionism” inherent in Lenin’s conception of party organisation, and his plea against uniformity, one can see his prophetic genius, his capacity to look ahead, to bring into a unified system every facet of life.

The history of Bolshevism since 1917 seems to have completely vindicated Trotsky’s warning of 1904. But Trotsky never returned to it again. In the present article we shall try to find out why he did not, to reveal the roots of “substitutionism” in particular, and to look at the problem of the relation between the party and the class in general.


The problem of substitutionism

“Substitutionism” is in the tradition of the Russian revolutionary movement. In the 60s and 70s of the 19th century small groups, mere handfuls, of intellectuals pitted themselves against the mighty autocracy, while the mass of peasants in whose name and interests these heroic Narodniks (Populists) acted remained indifferent or even hostile to them.

In the morass of general apathy, before a mass movement of any kind appeared, these mere handfuls of rebellious intellectuals played an important, progressive role. Marx was not the least to accord them the greatest praise and admiration. Thus, for instance, he wrote to his eldest daughter, in the very year in which the People’s Will was crushed:

These are admirable men, without any melodramatic pose, full of simplicity, real heroes. Making an outcry and taking action are two things completely opposite which cannot be reconciled.

“Substitutionism”, however, becomes a reactionary, dangerous element when a rising mass movement already exists and the party tries to substitute itself for this. Trotsky was too scientific a thinker to believe that in the conception, right or wrong, of the party about its role and its relations with the class, one can find sufficient guarantee against “substitutionism” and for real democracy in the workers’ political movement.

The objective conditions necessary to avoid it were clearly formulated by Trotsky a few months before he wrote the above quoted work, when he said at the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (London, 1903):

The rule of the working class was inconceivable until the great mass of them were united in desiring it. Then they would be an overwhelming majority. This would not be the dictatorship of a little band of conspirators or a minority party, but of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, to prevent counter-revolution. In short, it would represent the victory of true democracy.

This paraphrase of The Communist Manifesto is absolutely in harmony with Trotsky’s struggle against “substitutionism”. If the majority rules, there is no place for a minority to act as its proxy.

During the same period Lenin was not less emphatic in saying that any dictatorship of the proletariat when this was a small minority in society must lead to anti-democratic and, in his words, “reactionary conclusions”.

When Trotsky, putting aside his own words, called for a workers’ government as an immediate aim of the revolutionary movement in Russia, Lenin answered sharply:

That cannot be! It cannot be because a revolutionary dictatorship can endure for a time only if it rests on the enormous majority of the people ... The proletariat constitutes a minority ... Anyone who attempts to achieve socialism by any other route without passing through the stage of political democracy, will inevitably arrive at the most absurd and reactionary conclusions, both economic and political. [3]

Trotsky’s warning against “substitutionism” and his emphasis on the rule of “the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority” as the only guarantee against it is indeed a crying contradiction to his call for a workers’ government in 1905 and 1917, when the workers were a tiny minority. Trotsky is torn in the contradiction between his consistent, socialist, democratic conception of opposition to any form of “substitutionism” and his theory of the Permanent Revolution in which the proletarian minority acts as a proxy for all the toilers and as the ruler of society. Alas, this contradiction is not the result of any failure in Trotsky’s thinking, of any inconsistency, but is a reflection of actual contradictions in the objective conditions.

The nature of the revolution, including its actual timing, is not dependent on the size of the working class alone, and not even on its level of class consciousness and organisation, but on many mixed and contradictory factors. The factors leading to revolution – economic stresses, wars or other political and social upheavals – are not synchronised with the enlightenment of the proletariat. A whole number of objective circumstances impel the workers to revolution, while the unevenness in consciousness of different sections and groups in the working class can be quite marked. In a backward country, as Tsarist Russia was, where the workers’ general cultural level was low, and traditions of organisation and mass self-activity weak, this unevenness was particularly marked. And there the working class as a whole was such a small minority that its rule, the dictatorship of the proletariat, had to be the dictatorship not of the majority but of a tiny minority.

To overcome the actual dilemma facing the revolution in Russia – to avoid minority rule on the one hand, and to avoid the passive abstentionist attitude of the Mensheviks (“the proletariat should not take power so long as it is a minority in society”) – Trotsky looked to two main factors: the revolutionary impulse and activity of the Russian workers, and the spread of the revolution to more advanced countries where the proletariat made up the majority of society.

However, what was the fate of “substitutionism” with the decline of the revolutionary impulse in Russia itself and, not less decisive, with the breaking of the revolutionary struggles in the West on the rocks of capitalism?

Subsititutionism in Russia

While the relation between the party and the class was affected by the level of culture and revolutionary consciousness of the working class, it was also influenced by the specific weight of the working class in society: by the size of the class and its relations with other classes, above all – in Russia – with the peasantry.

Now, if the Russian Revolution was a simon-pure bourgeois revolution – as the Mensheviks argued – or if it was a simon-pure socialist one – as the anarchists and Social Revolutionaries who did not distinguish between workers and peasants argued – the question would have been simple. A relative social homogeneity of the revolutionary classes would have constituted a large enough anvil on which to batter out of existence any trend toward the Marxist Party substituting for the proletariat.

However, the October Revolution was the fusion of two revolutions: that of the socialist working class, the product of mature capitalism, and that of the peasants, the product of the conflict between rising capitalism and the old feudal institutions. As at all times, the peasants were ready enough to expropriate the private property of the large estate owners, but they wanted their own small private properties. Whilst they were prepared to revolt against feudalism they were not for that reason in favour of socialism.

Hence it is not surprising that the victorious alliance of workers and peasants in the October Revolution was immediately followed by very strained relations. Once the White armies, and with them the danger of the restoration of landlordism, had been overcome, very little remained of the peasants’ loyalty toward the workers. It had been one thing for the peasant to support a government which distributed land, but it was quite another matter when the same government began to requisition his produce to feed the hungry populations in the cities.

The conflict between the working class and the peasantry was expressed from the beginning of the October Revolution in the fact that already in 1918 Lenin was compelled to take refuge in the anti-democratic measure of counting one worker’s vote as equal to five peasants’ in the elections to the Soviets.

Now the revolution itself changed the relative weight of the proletariat vis-à-vis that of the peasantry, to the detriment of the former.

First, the civil war led to a terrible decline in the specific weight of the working class. The working class victory in the revolution led paradoxically to a decline in the size and quality of the working class.

As many of the urban workers had close connections with the villages, considerable numbers of them hurried back to the countryside as soon as the revolution was over, in order to share in the land distribution. This tendency was further encouraged by the food shortage from which, naturally, the towns suffered the most. Moreover, in sharp contrast to the old Tsarist Army, the new Red Army included relatively more industrial workers than peasants. For all these reasons the town population, and particularly the numbers of industrial workers, declined very sharply between 1917 and 1920. The population of Petrograd fell by 57.5 percent, of Moscow by 44.5 percent, of 40 provincial capitals by 33 percent, and of another 50 large towns by 16 percent. The larger the city, the greater was the relative loss in population. How sharp the decline was is further illustrated by the fact that the number of workers in industry fell from 3,000,000 in 1917 to 1,240,000 in 1921–22, a decrease of 58.7 percent. The number of industrial workers thus declined by three fifths. And the productivity of these workers declined even more than their number. (In 1920 the industrial production of Russia was only some 13 percent of that of 1913!)

Of those remaining, the big majority were the most backward workers who were not needed for the different military fronts or for the administration of the State, trade unions and party. The State administration and army naturally drew most of their recruits from that section of the workers with the oldest social tradition, the greatest political experience and highest culture.

The fragmentation of the working class had an even worse effect. The remainder of the working class was forced by the scarcity of food to behave as small, individualist traders rather than as a collective, as a united class. It has been calculated that in 1919–20 the State supplied only 42 percent of the grain consumed by the towns, and an even smaller percentage of other foodstuffs, all the rest being bought on the black market. [4] The sale by workers of furniture and clothing, and also belts and tools from factories where they worked, was quite common. [5] What an atomisation and demoralisation of the industrial working class!

In their mode of living – relying on individual illicit trade – the individual workers were hardly distinguishable from the peasants. As Rudzutak put it to the Second Congress of Trade Unions in January 1919, “We observe in a large number of industrial centres that the workers, thanks to the contraction of production in the factories, are being absorbed in the peasant mass, and instead of a population of workers we are getting a half-peasant or sometimes a purely peasant population”. [6]

Under such conditions the class base of the Bolshevik Party disintegrated – not because of some mistakes in the policies of Bolshevism, not because of one or another conception of Bolshevism regarding the role of the party and its relation to the class – but because of mightier historical factors. The working class had become declassed.

It is true that in despair, or in desperation, Lenin could say in May 1921, “Even when the proletariat has to live through a period of being declassed, it can still carry out its task of conquering and retaining power”. [7] But what an extremely “substitutionist” formulation this is! Declassed working class rule – the Cheshire Cat’s smile after the Cat has disappeared!

In the case of the Narodniks, the “substitutionist” conception was not a primary cause, but a result of the general apathy and stupor of the people which in turn was rooted in objective social conditions. Now again, in the case of Bolshevik “substitutionism”, it did not jump out of Lenin’s head, as Minerva out of Zeus’s, but was born of the objective conditions of civil war in a peasant country, where a small working class declined in weight, became fragmented and dissolved into the peasant masses.

An analogy might help to clarify the rise of “substitutionism” after the October Revolution. One must only imagine a mass strike in which after a prolonged period the majority of the workers become tired and demoralised, and only a minority continue to man the picket line, attacked by the boss, and derided and resented by the majority of workers. This tragic situation is repeated again and again on the battleground of the class struggle. In the face of the White Guard, with the knowledge that a terrible bloodbath threatened the people if the Bolsheviks gave up the struggle, and with the knowledge of their own isolation, the Bolsheviks did not find a way out. “Substitutionism”, like all fetishisms, was a reflection of social impasse.

Substitutionism in the party

From here it is a short step to the abolition of inner-party democracy, and the establishment of the rule of officialdom within it.

Contrary to Stalinist mythology – as well as that of the Mensheviks and other opponents of the Bolsheviks – the Bolshevik Party had never been a monolithic or totalitarian party. Far from it. Internal democracy had always been of the utmost importance in party life, but for one reason or another this has been glossed over in most of the literature dealing with the subject. It is therefore worthwhile to digress somewhat, and devote a little space to setting out a number of cases which illustrate the degree of inner-party democracy and the lack of monolithism in the history of Bolshevism.

In 1907, after the final defeat of the revolution, the party suffered a crisis over the question of what attitude to take to the elections to the Tsarist Duma. At the Third Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (held in July 1907), in which Bolsheviks as well as Mensheviks were represented, a curious situation arose: all the Bolshevik delegates, with the sole exception of Lenin, voted in favour of boycotting the elections to the Duma; Lenin voted with the Mensheviks. [8] Three years later a plenum of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution calling for unity with the Mensheviks; again the only dissentient voice was Lenin’s. [9]

When the 1914-18 war broke out, not one of the party’s branches adopted the revolutionary defeatist position which Lenin advocated [10], and at a trial of some Bolshevik leaders in 1915, Kamenev and two Bolshevik Duma deputies publicly repudiated Lenin’s revolutionary defeatist position in court. [11]

After the February Revolution the large majority of the party leaders were not for a revolutionary Soviet government, but for support of the Coalition Provisional government. The Bolshevik faction had 40 members in the Petrograd Soviet on 2 March 1917, but when the resolution to transfer power to the bourgeois coalition government was put to the vote, only 19 voted against. [12] At a meeting of the Petrograd Committee of the Party (5 March 1917) a resolution for a revolutionary Soviet government received only one vote. [13] Pravda, edited by Stalin at that time, had a position which can in no way be called revolutionary. It decisively declared its support for the Provisional Government “insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution”. [14]

Again, when Lenin came to Russia on 3 April 1917 and issued his famous April Theses – a light guiding the party to the October Revolution – he was for a time in a small minority in his own party. Pravda’s comment on the April Theses was that it was “Lenin’s personal opinion”, and quite “unacceptable”. [15] At a meeting of the Petrograd Committee of the Party, held on 8 April 1917, the Theses received only two votes, while 13 voted against and one abstained. [16] However, at the Conference of the Party held on 14/#8211;22 April, the Theses gained a majority: 71 for, 39 against and eight abstentions. [17] The same conference defeated Lenin on another important question, viz., whether the party should participate in the proposed Stockholm Conference of the Socialist Parties. Against his views, it decided in favour of full participation. [18]

Again on 14 September Kerensky convened a “Democratic Conference” and Lenin spoke strongly in favour of boycotting it. The Central Committee supported him by nine votes to eight, but as the vote was so nearly equal the final decision was left to the party conference, which was to be constituted out of the Bolshevik faction in the “Democratic Conference”. This meeting decided by 77 votes to 50 not to boycott it. [19]

When the most important question of all, the question of the October insurrection, was the order of the day, the leadership again was found to be sharply divided: a strong faction, led by Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Piatakov, Miliutin and Nogin, opposed the uprising. Nevertheless, when the Political Bureau was elected by the Central Committee, neither Zinoviev nor Kamenev were excluded.

After taking power, the differences in the party leadership continued to be as sharp as before. A few days after the revolution a number of party leaders came out with a demand for a coalition with other socialist parties. Those insisting on this included Rykov, the People’s Commissar of the Interior; Miliutin, the People’s Commissar of Industry and Trade; Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Labour; Kamenev, the President of the Republic; and Zinoviev. They went as far as resigning from the government, thus compelling Lenin and his supporters to open negotiations with the other parties. (The negotiations broke down because the Mensheviks insisted on the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from the coalition government.)

Again, on the question of holding or postponing the elections to the Constituent Assembly (in December 1917), Lenin found himself in a minority in the Central Committee, and the elections were held against his advice. [20] A little later he was again defeated on the question of the peace negotiations with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. He was for an immediate peace. But at a meeting of the Central Committee and active workers, held on 21 January 1918, his motion received only 15 votes against Bukharin’s motion for “revolutionary war”, which received 32 votes, and Trotsky’s, for “neither peace nor war”, which received 16. [21] At a session of the Central Committee next day Lenin was again defeated. But at last he succeeded, under the pressure of events, in convincing the majority of members of the Central Committee of his point of view, and at its session on 24 February his motion for peace gained seven votes, while four voted against and another four abstained. [22]

However, inner-party democracy dwindled under the pressure of the objective circumstances referred to above. Isolated, the party became frightened to think aloud, to voice disagreements. It was as if they were in a small rickety boat in the midst of rapids. The atmosphere of free discussion necessarily died.

The breaches of inner-party democracy became worse and worse. Thus, K.K. Yurenev, for example, spoke at the Ninth Congress (April 1920) of the methods used by the Central Committee to suppress criticism, including the virtual exile of the critics: “One goes to Christiana, another sent to the Urals, a third to Siberia”. [23] He said that in its attitude toward the Party the Central Committee had become “not accountable Ministry, but unaccountable government”. At the same Congress V.N. Maximovsky counterposed “democratic centralism” to the “bureaucratic centralism” for which the Centre was responsible. “It is said”, he commented, “that fish begin to rot from the head. The party begins to suffer at the top from the influence of bureaucratic centralism”. [24] And Sapronov declared, “However much you talk about electoral rights, about the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the yearning of the Central Committee for the party dictatorship, in fact this leads to the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy”. [25]

At the Eleventh Congress, Riazanov said:

Our Central Committee is altogether a special institution. It is said that the English parliament is omnipotent: it is only unable to change a man into a woman. Our Central Committee is more powerful: it has already changed more than one very revolutionary man into an old lady, and the number of these old ladies has increased incredibly. [26]

He further accused it of intervening in all aspects of party life. V. Kosior gave many examples of local leaders both of the party and of the trade unions being removed by decisions of the Political Bureau or the Orgbureau:

Many workers are leaving the party. How to explain this? This, dear comrades, is to be explained by the strong hand regime, which has nothing in common with real party discipline and which is cultivated among us. Our party carries wood, sweeps the streets and even votes, but decides no questions. But the not very healthy proletariat finds itself in these surroundings, and cannot stand it. [27]

At the Twelfth Congress Preobrazhensky complained that 30 percent of the secretaries of the gubernia party committees were “recommended” for the positions by the Central Committee of the party, thus violating the principle of election of all party officials. [28] From here it was but a step to the supreme rule of the General Secretary.

One can say without hesitation that the substitution of a ruling working class for a capitalist class – where capitalism was in its infancy and where the majority of the people were small capitalists (peasants) – was the cause of the substitution of the Marxist party for the working class, and that this led to the substitution of the officialdom for the party, and finally to the individual dictatorship of the General Secretary.

Marx and Engels dealt more than once with the question of what would happen if the working class took power before the historical prerequisites for the substitution of capitalist relations of production by socialist ones were present. They concluded that in such an event the working class would blaze a path for developing capitalism. Engels wrote:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply ... he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party, what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word he is compelled to represent not his party nor his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. [29]

Only the expansion of the revolution could have spared Bolshevism from this tragic fate. And on this probability Bolshevism hinged its fate. Only abstentionists and cowards could advise the Bolsheviks not to go to the limit of the revolutionary potentialities of the Russian proletariat for fear of finding themselves at the end of the cul-de-sac. Revolutionary dynamism and international perspectives beat in the heart of Bolshevism.

The inherent danger of substitutionism

However, if the State built by the Bolshevik Party reflected not only the will of the party but of the total social reality in which the Bolsheviks in power found themselves, one should not draw the conclusion that there was no causal connection at all between Bolshevik centralism based on hierarchy of professional revolutionaries and the Stalinism of the future. Let us look at this question somewhat more closely.

The fact that a revolutionary party is at all needed for the socialist revolution shows that there is an unevenness in the level of culture and consciousness of different sections and groups of workers. If the working class were ideologically a homogeneous class there would not have been any need for leadership. Alas, the revolution would not wait until all the masses had reached a certain intellectual level, or level of class consciousness. Oppressed by capitalism, materially as well as spiritually, different sections of the workers show different levels of class independence. If not for this difference in consciousness among different sections of the working class, the capitalist class in the advanced countries would hardly find any social basis for itself. Under such conditions the class struggle would be the smoothest act of gradual progress. There would indeed scarcely be any class struggle to speak of: instead of which workers face the antagonism of other workers – the threat of strike-breakers (workers), and policemen and soldiers (workers in uniform). If the working class were homogeneous there would not be the need for a workers’ state either: after the revolution the power of coercion would be unnecessary. Alas, the revolution has nothing in common with such anarchist-liberal daydreaming. Working-class discipline presumes, under capitalism and immediately after the proletarian revolution, not only the existence of more advanced and less advanced workers, i.e. the existence of leadership, but also the combination of conviction and coercion – the working class cannot free itself by a stroke from the birthmarks of capitalist barbarism.

Under capitalism discipline confronts the worker as an external coercive power, as the power which capital has over him. Under socialism discipline will be the result of consciousness. It will become the habit of a free people. In the transition period it will be the outcome of the unity of the two elements – consciousness and coercion. Collective ownership of the means of production by the workers, i.e. the ownership by the workers’ state of the means of production, will be the basis for the conscious element in labour discipline. At the same time the working class as a collective, through its institutions – soviets, trade unions, etc. – will appear as a coercive power as regards the disciplining of the individual workers in production.

This conflict between the individual and the collective, the necessity of uniting conviction with its ugly opposite, coercion, the compulsion on the working class to use barbaric methods remaining from capitalism to fight capitalist barbarism, is but another affirmation that the workers are not liberated spiritually under capitalism and would take a whole historical period to grow to full human stature. Agreeing with the anarchists that the state, even the workers’ state, is an ugly offspring of class society, and that real human history will start only by having a really consistent workers’ state, it is nonetheless only on this basis that the state will ultimately wither away.

The fact that the working class needs a party or parties is in itself a proof of the cleavages in the working class. The more backward culturally, the weaker the organisation and self-administration of the workers generally, the greater will be the intellectual cleavage between the class and its Marxist party. From this unevenness in the working class flows the great danger of an autonomous development of the party and its machine till it becomes, instead of the servant of the class, its master. This unevenness is a main source of the danger of “substitutionism”.

The history of Bolshevism prior to the revolution is eloquent with Lenin’s struggle against this danger. How often he appealed to the mass of the workers – especially in the stormy months of 1917 – against the vacillating, compromising party leadership and its machine. As Trotsky so correctly summed up the inter-relation between Lenin, the masses and the party machine:

Lenin was strong not only because he understood the laws of the class struggle but also because his ear was faultlessly attuned to the stirrings of the masses in motion. He represented not so much the party machine as the vanguard of the proletariat. He was definitely convinced that thousands from amongst those workers who had borne the brunt of supporting the underground party would now support him. The masses at the moment were more revolutionary than the party, and the party more revolutionary than its machine. As early as March the actual attitude of the workers and soldiers had in many cases become stormily apparent, and it was widely at variance with the instructions issued by all the parties, including the Bolshevik ... On the other hand, the authority of the party machine, like its conservatism, was only in the making at that time. Lenin exerted influence not so much as an individual but because he embodied the influence of the class on the party and of the party on its machine. [30]

Men make history, and if these men organised in a party have a greater impact on history than their relative number warrants, nevertheless they alone do not make history and, for better or worse, they alone are not the cause of their greater specific weight, neither of the general history of the class nor even of themselves in this class. In the final analysis, the only weapons to fight the “substitutionism” of the revolutionary party for the class, and hence the transformation of the former into a conservative force, is the activity of the class itself, and its pressure not only against its social enemy, but also against its own agent, its party.

This is not the place to point out how far Trotsky in practice went in turning a necessity into a virtue, to what extremes of generalisation he turned to justify anti-democratic, anti-working-class, “substitutionist” practices.

It is enough to mention his arguments in 1921 for the “militarisation of labour” – compulsory labour imposed by the state. The trade unions, he said, should be statified. We need “a new type of trade unionist, the energetic and imaginative economic organiser who will approach economic issues not from the angle of distribution and consumption but from that of expanding production, who will view them not with the eyes of somebody accustomed to confront the Soviet government with demands and to bargain, but with the eyes of the true economic organiser”. [31] What about the defence of workers from the state, even from the workers’ state? Can the trade unions neglect this? Trotsky did not answer the question, did not even pose it. “Militarisation”, he said at the Ninth Congress: unthinkable without the militarisation of the trade unions as such, without the establishment of a regime in which every worker feels himself a soldier of labour, who cannot dispose of himself freely; if the order is given to transfer him, he must carry it out; if he does not carry it out, he will be a deserter who is punished. Who looks after this? The trade union. It creates the new regime. This is the militarisation of the working class. [32]

To cap his “substitutionist” attitude, Trotsky went as far as to say in 1924:

None of us desires or is able to dispute the will of the party. The party in the last analysis is always right, because the party is the single historical instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its basic problems. I have already said that in front of one’s own party nothing could be easier than to acknowledge a mistake, nothing easier than to say: “All my criticisms, my statements, my warnings, my protests – the whole thing was simply a mistake.” I cannot say that, however, comrades, because I do not think it. I know that one must not be right against the party. One can be right only with the party, and through the party, for history has no other road for being in the right. The English have a saying: “My country – right or wrong.” With far more historical justification we may say: my party – in certain concrete cases – right or wrong ... And if the party adopts a decision which one or another of us thinks unjust, he will say: just or unjust it is my party, and I shall support the consequences of the decision to the end. [33]

Substitutionism today

As a point of departure for an evaluation of the role of the revolutionary party in its relation to the working class, we cannot but return to The Communist Manifesto’s statement:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.

From the much higher cultural level of the workers in the industrial countries than in Russia, their greater self-reliance and organisational habits, and the relatively greater social homogeneity of the mass of the toilers in these countries (not engulfed by hordes of peasants) one may deduce that prior to the revolution, during it and after its victory, the unevenness in consciousness of the masses will be much smaller than it was in Russia, although it will not have disappeared completely.

From this a number of conclusions may be drawn.

First, about the size of the revolutionary party as compared with that of the working class as a whole. In October 1906 the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (including both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions) numbered 70,000. At the same time the Jewish Bund numbered 33,000, the Polish Social Democrats 28,000 and the Lettish Social Democrats 13,000. Altogether then, the illegal Socialist parties numbered 144,000. [34] In August 1917 the Bolshevik Party had 200,000 members. On the average, in 25 towns 5.4 percent of the industrial workers were members of the Bolshevik Party. [35] If the proportion of party members among the working class were the same in the advanced countries as it was in 1917, or 1905, in Russia, the party would have to have millions of members.

Because the unevenness in consciousness and culture is smaller in the advanced countries than it was in Russia, the relative size of the party should be even larger than it was in Russia. (The legality of the workers’ parties also contributes to this.) Anyone who draws the opposite conclusion from the actual size of the reformist parties does not understand the real role of the masses in the revolutionary struggle. The reformist party is in the main an apparatus for attracting votes in parliamentary and other elections. Hence it does not need a really active mass membership. On the whole the supporters of such a party do not find it necessary to join it actively or to read its press. Active support of masses for a revolutionary party must lead to a comparatively much greater number of workers joining it.

From this it is clear that little groups cannot in any way substitute for the mass revolutionary party, not to say for the mass of the working class. [36]

Now, what about the relation between the revolutionary party and the class?

Every party, whether reformist or revolutionary, whether conservative or liberal, aims to get support in order to lead towards one aim or another. The revolutionary workers’ party also aims to lead. But here the similarity stops. The methods by which this leadership is established and the nature of the leadership are totally different.

One can visualise three kinds of leadership that for lack of better names we shall call those of the teacher, the foreman and the companion in struggle. The first kind of leadership shown by small sects is “blackboard socialism” (in Britain an extreme example of this sort is the SPGB) in which didactic methods take the place of participation in struggle. The second kind, with foreman-worker or officer-soldier relations, characterises all bureaucratic reformist and Stalinist parties: the leadership sits in a caucus and decides what they will tell the workers to do, without the workers actively participating. What characterises both these kinds of leadership is the fact that directives go only one way: the leaders conduct a monologue with the masses.

The third kind of leadership is analogous to that between a strike committee and the workers on strike, or a shop steward and his mates. The revolutionary party must conduct a dialogue with the workers outside it. [37] The party, in consequence, should not invent tactics out of thin air, but put as its first duty to learn from the experience of the mass movement and then generalise from it. The great events of working-class history have shown the correctness of this emphasis beyond all measure of doubt. The workers of Paris in 1871 established a new form of state – a state without a standing army and bureaucracy, where all officials received the average worker’s salary, with the right of recall of all officials, etc., before Marx began to generalise about the nature and structure of a workers’ state. Again the workers of Petrograd in 1905 established a Soviet independently of the Bolshevik Party, actually in opposition to the local Bolshevik leadership, and in the face of at least suspicion, if not animosity, on the part of Lenin himself. Therefore one cannot but agree with Rosa Luxemburg when she wrote in 1904:

The main characteristics of the tactics of struggle of Social Democracy are not “invented”, but are the result of a continuous series of great creative acts of elementary class struggle. Here also the unconscious precedes the conscious, the logic of the objective historical process comes before the subjective logic of its bearer. [38]

The role of Marxists is to generalise the living, evolving experience of the class struggle, to give a conscious expression to the instinctive drive of the working class to reorganise society on a socialist basis.

Because the working class is far from being monolithic, and because the path to socialism is uncharted, wide differences of strategy and tactics can and should exist in the revolutionary party. The alternative is the bureaucratised party or the sect with its “leader”. Here one cannot but regret Trotsky’s sweeping statement that “any serious factional fight in a party is always in the final analysis a reflection of the class struggle”. [39] This verges on a vulgar materialist interpretation of human thought as growing directly out of material conditions! What class pressures separated Lenin from Luxemburg, or Trotsky from Lenin (1903-17), or what change in class pressures can one see in Plekhanov’s zigzags: with Lenin in 1903, against him in 1903, against him in 1905, with him again (and at last breaking, it is true, with Lenin and with the revolutionary movement and joining the class enemy)? Can the differences in the theory of imperialism between Lenin and Luxemburg be derived from an analysis of their position in class society? Scientific socialism must live and thrive on controversy. And scientists who start off with the same basic assumptions, and then use the same method of analysis, do differ in all fields of research.

In order that the party should be able to conduct a dialogue with the masses, it is necessary not only that the party have confidence in the tremendous abilities of the working class in action, but also that the party understand correctly the situation in the country and the conditions of the working class, materially and morally. Any self-deceit on its part must cut short the dialogue and turn it into a boring monologue.

The party has to be subordinated to the whole. And so the internal regime in the revolutionary party must be subordinated to the relation between the party and the class. The managers of factories can discuss their business in secret and then put before the workers a fait accompli. The revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on policies inside the party without the participation of the mass of the workers – policies which are then brought “unanimously” ready-made to the class. Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership. [40]

Above all, the revolutionary party should follow the guide of the Communist Manifesto when it says:

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from other working-class parties by this only:

(1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others: on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The whole of the working class will have to mix its level of consciousness and organisation through a prolonged struggle, including a struggle of ideas. As Marx said to revolutionaries who flattered the German workers in his time, “While we say to the workers: you have 15 or 20 years of bourgeois and national wars to go through, not merely to alter conditions but to alter yourselves and make yourselves fit to take political power, you tell them on the contrary that they must take over political power at once or abandon all hope.”



1. N. Trotsky, Nashi Politicheskye Zadachi (Geneva, 1904), p. 54.

2. N. Trotsky, Nashi Politicheskye, p. 105, quoted in I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (London, 1954), pp. 92–93.

3. V.I. Lenin, Sochinenya, ix, p. 14.

4. L. Kritsman, Geroicheskii Period Velikoi Russkoi Revolutsii, (Moscow, 1924), pp. 133–136.

5. Chetvertye Vserossiikii Sezd Professionalnykh Soyuzov, Vol. 1 (1921), pp. 66, 119.

6. Vtoroi Vserossiikii Sezd Professionalnykh Soyuzou (1921), p. 138.

7. V.I. Lenin, Sochinenya, xxvi, p. 394.

8. VKP, (b) v Rezoliutsiakh, 4th edn., Vol. 1, p. 126.

9. VKP, (b) v Rezoliutsiakh, 6th edn., Vol. 1, pp. 154–160.

10. L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London, 1932), Vol. 1, p. 59.

11. L. Trotsky, History; V.I. Lenin, Sochinenya, xxi, p. 432.

12. A Shliapnikov, The Year Seventeen (Moscow, 1924), Vol. 1, p. 197.

13. A.S. Bubnov and others, VPK (b), (Moscow-Leningrad, 1931), p. 113.

14. Pravda, 15 March 1917, quoted in L. Trotsky, History, p. 305.

15. Pravda, 8 April 1917.

16. A.S. Bubnov and others, VPK (b), p. 114.

17. VKP (b) v Rezoliutsiakh, 4th edn., Vol. 1, p. 258.

18. V.I. Lenin, Sochinenya, 3rd edn., xx, p. 652.

19. V.I. Lenin, Sochinenya, 3rd edn, xx, p. 526.

20. L. Trotsky, Stalin (London, 1947), pp. 341-342.

21. A.S. Bubnov and others, VPK (b), p. 511.

22. A.S. Bubnov and others, VPK (b), p. 512.

23. 9 Sezd RKP (b), p. 52.

24. 9 Sezd RKP (b), pp. 62–63.

25. 9 Sezd RKP (b), pp. 56–57.

26. 11 Sezd RKP (b), p. 83.

27. 11 Sezd RKP (b), p. 134.

28. 12 Sezd RKP (b), p. 133.

29. F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (London 1927), pp. 135–136.

30. L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 204. It is sad to point out that when Trotsky dealt with the question of the dangers of bureaucratic conservatism in the Trotskyist organisations he pooh-poohed the idea, taking flight in a simplicist materialist interpretation of bureaucratism. When J.P. Cannon, the American Trotskyist leader, was accused of bureaucratic conservatism, Trotsky said that the accusation was “a bare psychological abstraction in so far as no specific social interests are shown underlying this ‘conservatism’.” (L. Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (New York, 1942), p. 81.) What “special social interests” were underlying the “committee men” of pre-1917, of which Stalin was the archetype? This Trotsky did not try to show – quite rightly – in his last work, Stalin, whose central theme is the conservative, anti-democratic nature of the “committee men”.

31. L. Trotsky quoted in I. Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions (London, 1950), p. 42.

32. 9 Sezd RKP (b), p. 101.

33. 13 Sezd RKP (b), pp. 165–166. Trotsky’s and Lenin’s attitude to the Kronstadt rebellion is often quoted by Mensheviks, anarchists and also some other left critics of Trotsky and Lenin as an example of bureaucratic oppression. Actually the main aspect of Kronstadt was a peasant and semi-peasant rebellion against the towns. Hence all the inner-party oppositions – including the Workers’ Opposition of Shliapnikov and Kollontai – took an active part in its suppression, and in its footsteps came the policy of concessions to petty capitalism, to the peasantry – the NEP. However, the question of Kronstadt as well as the different opposition groups which existed prior to Trotsky’s going into opposition and which in 1923 joined him under his leadership is a fascinating study which deserves a separate study.

34. V.I. Lenin, Sochinenya, x, p. 483.

35. 6 Sezd RKP (b), (Moscow, 1958), p. 390.

36. Nobody in Russia doubted that Trotsky’s group alone – the Mezhrayonka – which in August 1917 had some 4,000 members was much too small to be able seriously to affect the march of events. Similarly one can understand Trotsky when in 1921 be referred to the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD) as being slight: “no more than 30,000”40,000” members (L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International (London 1953), Vol. 2, p. 26).

37. Rosa Luxemburg put it thus: “Of course through the theoretical analysis of the social conditions of struggle, Social Democracy has introduced the element of consciousness into the proletarian class struggle to an unprecedented degree; it gave the class struggle its clarity of aim it created, for the first time a permanent mass workers’ organisation, and thus built a firm backbone for the class struggle. However, it would he catastrophically wrong for us to assume that from now on all the historical initiative of the people has passed to the hands of the Social Democratic organisation alone, and that the unorganised mass of the proletariat has turned into a formless filing, into the deadweight of history. On the contrary, the popular masses continue to be the living matter of world history, even in the presence of Social Democracy; and only if there is blood circulation between the organised nucleus and the popular masses, only if one heartbeat vitalises the two, can Social Democracy prove that is it capable of great historical deeds.” (Leipziger Volkszeitung, June 1913, pp. 26–28.)

38. Die Neue Zeit, 1904, p. 491.

39. L. Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (New York, 1942), p. 60.

40. Some cases of secrecy are justified and every worker will understand this. Just as factory meetings can he closed to the capitalists and their newspapermen and other agents, so there are moments in the life of a revolutionary party which have to be kept secret. But in all cases the party should be able to justify this to the workers and convince them that no basic decisions of policy are being hidden from them.

Last updated on 3 February 2017