Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

16. Trotsky and the triumvirate

IN DECEMBER 1922 or January 1923, when Lenin finally ceased to take part in politburo work, Stalin, together with Zinoviev and Kamenev, created a secret faction in the politburo. They pledged themselves to co-ordinate their moves and act in unison. (Stalin made the first public admission of the existence of this triumvirate, or troika, at the Twelfth Party Congress). [1]

Why did the three join forces? They wanted to oppose any move to give Trotsky the leadership of the party if Lenin died.

Stalin hated Trotsky, as we have seen, throughout the civil war. He was always full of envy of him. Trotsky was an intellectual giant, brilliant writer, orator, the organiser of the October insurrection and the supreme war leader. Stalin was inarticulate, his writing as dull as dishwater, almost unknown outside party circles, and had played no prominent role in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. It is no accident that his name hardly appears in John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world, and that Lunacharsky, in his Revolutionary silhouettes, published in 1923, did not find it necessary to include a silhouette of Stalin. Again, Khruschev, in his secret speech to the Twentieth Congress in 1956, said: ‘I will probably not sin against the truth when I say that 99 per cent of the persons present here heard and knew very little about Stalin before the year 1924.’ [2]

Zinoviev could not forgive Trotsky for his glorious success in October 1917 when Zinoviev himself, to his shame, had opposed the insurrection and was called a ‘strikebreaker’ by Lenin. Zinoviev opposed Trotsky’s military policy throughout the civil war. He was also one of the most vocal opponents of Trotsky over the issue of the militarisation of labour and the trade unions.

Kamenev was Zinoviev’s alter ego. He had sided with him on all these issues.

The administrative strength of the members of the troika was impressive. Stalin was the only person who was on all four leading bodies of the party – the central committee, the politburo, the orgburo and the secretariat. Zinoviev and Kamenev were the virtual bosses of Petrograd and Moscow respectively and enjoyed a good deal of local power. As against this, Trotsky had no party apparatus at his command.

In Lenin’s absence the politburo consisted of six members: the troika, Trotsky, Tomsky and Bukharin. Tomsky, as the right-wing Bolshevik leader of the trade unions, came into sharp conflict with Trotsky’s policy over the militarisation of labour and statification of the trade unions.

Uniting all of them, excluding Trotsky, was the esprit de corps of old Bolshevism, and both Zinoviev and Stalin had written sharp attacks on Trotsky in the years when he was outside the Bolshevik Party.

Trotsky procrastinates

Lenin and Trotsky had agreed to unite against Stalin and against the bureaucracy, concentrating their attack on two main issues: Georgia and Rabkrin. Trotsky reported a remark by Fotieva: Vladimir Ilyich is preparing a bomb for Stalin at the congress’. The word ‘bomb’ was Lenin’s, not hers. Vladimir Ilyich asks you to take the Georgian case in your hands. He will then feel confident.’ [3]

What would Trotsky do? On 6 March 1923 Kamenev came to see him. He was crestfallen and anxious to mollify him. Trotsky showed magnanimity and forgiveness. He told Kamenev that he had decided not to take any action against Stalin despite Lenin’s clear stand. In his autobiography he described his meeting with Kamenev:

‘I am against removing Stalin and expelling Ordzhonikidze ... But I do agree with Lenin in substance. I want a radical change in the policy on the national question, a discontinuance of persecutions of the Georgian opponents of Stalin, a discontinuance of the administrative oppression of the party, a firmer policy in matters of industrialisation, and an honest co-operation in the higher centres ... it is necessary that Stalin should write to Krupskaya at once to apologise for his rudeness, and that he revise his behaviour. Let him not overreach himself. There should be no more intrigues, but honest co-operation ...’ Kamenev gave a sigh of relief. He accepted all my proposals. His only fear was that Stalin would be obstinate. ‘He’s rude and capricious.’

‘I don’t think’, I answered, ‘that Stalin has any alternative now.’ Late that night Kamenev informed me that he had been to see Stalin in the country, and that Stalin had accepted all the terms. [4]

Thus Trotsky made a ‘rotten compromise’, the very thing Lenin had warned against.

While Kamenev was acting as go-between, Lenin succumbed to another stroke. He was to survive it by ten months, but paralysed, speechless most of the time, and suffering from spells of unconsciousness. When it became clear that Lenin had finally left the political scene, Stalin took his own path with a vengeance.

The first and by far the most important opportunity for Trotsky to make use of the ‘bomb’ against Stalin was the Twelfth Party Congress (17-25 April 1923) – but he made no attempt to do so.

Stalin himself presented the report on the national question to the congress, while Lenin’s attack on Stalin and Ordzhonikidze over the national question was kept from the delegates. Stalin viciously attacked the Georgian Communists, accusing them of ‘Georgian chauvinism’:

It is on this dangerous path that our comrades, the Georgian deviators, are pushing us by opposing federation in violation of all the laws of the party, by wanting to withdraw from the federation in order to retain an advantageous position. They are pushing us on to the path of granting them certain privileges at the expense of the Armenian and Azerbaidzhanian republics. But this is a path we cannot take, for it means certain death to our entire policy and to Soviet power in the Caucasus.

... under present conditions it is impossible to maintain peace in the Caucasus, impossible to establish equality, without the Transcaucasian Federation. One nation must not be allowed more privileges than another. This our comrades have sensed. That is why, after two years of contention, the Mdivani group is a small handful, repeatedly ejected by the party in Georgia itself.

To add insult to injury Stalin cited Lenin in support of his policy:

It was also no accident that Comrade Lenin was in such a hurry and was so insistent that the federation should be established immediately. Nor was it an accident that our central committee on three occasions affirmed the need for a federation in Transcaucasia. [5]

In vain did the Georgian delegates demand that Lenin’s notes on the subject should be read out. The only member of the politburo to take up their case was Bukharin. Criticising Stalin and Zinoviev by name, and alluding to Lenin’s supposed notes, he exposed Stalin’s campaign against ‘local deviations’ as a fraud. Why, he asked, did Lenin ‘sound the alarm’ only against Great Russian chauvinism?

Why did Comrade Lenin begin to sound the alarm with such furious energy on the Georgian question? And why did Comrade Lenin say not a word in his letter about the mistakes of the deviators, but on the contrary, direct all his strong words against the policy which was being carried out against the deviators? If Comrade Lenin were here he would give it to the Russian chauvinists in a way that they would remember for ten years. [6]

Similar to Bukharin’s attack on Great Russian chauvinism was Rakovsky’s. He said:

The national question is one of those questions which is pregnant with very serious complications for Soviet Russia and the party. This is one of those questions which – this must be said openly and honestly at the party congress – threaten civil war, if we fail to show the necessary sensibility, the necessary understanding with regard to it. It is the question of the bond of the revolutionary Russian proletariat with the sixty million non-Russian peasants, who under the national banner raised their demands for a share in the economic and political life of the Soviet Union. [7]

Rakovsky referred to ‘a multitude of comrades who regard the national question with a smile, with a sneer, [and say] “but we are a country that has gone beyond the stage of nationalities ... where material and economic culture opposes national culture. National culture is for backward countries on the other side of the barricades, for capitalist countries; and we are a communist country”.’ [8]

The bureaucratic mentality, against whose spread Lenin had inveighed, was producing a Great Russian mentality, argued Rakovsky:

Our central authorities begin to view the administration of the whole country from the viewpoint of the comfort of their office armchairs. Naturally, it is inconvenient to administer twelve republics, but if there were only one, if by pressing a single button one could administer the whole country, that would be very convenient. [9]

Rakovsky quoted the conduct of a high Ukrainian official who, as he was leaving a congress at which he had voted for a resolution asserting the equal rights of the Ukrainian language, replied curtly to a question addressed to him in Ukrainian: ‘Speak to me in an intelligible language.’ [10]

Rakovsky also cited a number of instances when the organs of the RSFSR had issued decrees and laws for the other Soviet republics, even before the union had been formally ratified and the authority of the federal government constitutionally ascertained. He charged that since December 1922 the union commissariats had actually governed the entire country, leaving the republics no self-rule whatsoever. To combat the mounting wave of Russian nationalism, Rakovsky concluded, it was necessary to strip the government of the USSR of nine-tenths of its commissariats. [11]

But the impact of Bukharin’s and Rakovsky’s speeches was minimal. Stalin in reply dared to say:

Many speakers referred to notes and articles by Vladimir Ilyich. I do not want to quote my teacher, Comrade Lenin, since he is not here, and I am afraid that I might, perhaps, quote him wrongly and inappropriately. [12]

And what was Trotsky doing? He absented himself completely from the debate on the national question, explaining that he had been occupied with amendments to his resolution on industry! [13]

Stalin’s resolution on the nationalities question was adopted unanimously.

Again, who presented to the Twelfth Congress the organisational report of the central committee, including the report on Rabkrin? Stalin!

Lenin’s denunciation of Rabkrin, although known to delegates, because it had been published in Pravda and referred to by one delegate as ‘something like a bombshell’ [14], was easily defused by Stalin. In his report on party organisation Stalin expounded and defended Lenin’s proposal for the organisation of Rabkrin. He repeated and endorsed Lenin’s condemnation of bureaucracy:

[Lenin] said that our policy was correct, but the apparatus was not working properly and, therefore, the car was not running in the right direction, it swerved. I remember that Shliapnikov, commenting on this, said that the drivers were no good. That is wrong, of course, absolutely wrong. The policy is correct, the driver is excellent, and the type of car is good, it is a Soviet car, but some of the parts of the state car, [for example] some of the officials in the state apparatus, are bad, they are not our men. That is why the car does not run properly and, on the whole, we get a distortion of the correct political line ... That is why the apparatus as a whole is not working properly. If we fail to repair it, the correct political line by itself will not carry us very far. These are the ideas Comrade Lenin elaborated as far back as a year ago, and which only this year he formulated in a harmonious system in the proposal to reorganise the central control commission and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. [15]

His main conclusion was the need to strengthen the ‘registration and distribution department ... the organ of the central committee whose function is to register our principal workers’. [16] In other words strengthen Usprad, Stalin’s own organisational base!

The time had come, said Stalin, to train a generation of ‘young leaders to take the place of the old ... to draw new, fresh forces into the work of the central committee ... to promote the most capable and independent of them’. [17] While carrying out Lenin’s wish to enlarge and combine the central control commission and Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, Stalin made this body, apart from the secretariat itself, the most solidly reliable instrument at his command.

In his reply to the discussion of the central committee organisational report, after another vicious attack on the Georgian Communists, Stalin ended with the following words:

In conclusion, a few words about the present congress. Comrades, I must say that I have not for a long time seen a congress so united and inspired by a single idea as this one is. I regret that Comrade Lenin is not here. If he were here he would be able to say: ‘I tended the party for twenty-five years and made it great and strong’. (Prolonged applause) [18]

The congress passed a resolution On the Central Committee Report which was very complacent regarding the state of organisation of the party, Rabkrin and the central control commission:

While supporting the plan for the radical reorganisation of Rabkrin and the central control commission, the congress is convinced that an appropriate improvement in the central state and party control apparatuses, given the necessary organisational connection between them and the systematic combination of their efforts, will make it possible to attain both goals: (1) to undertake a decisive improvement of the state apparatus, and (2) to secure the party against the distortion of its line and against an actual breakaway of some groups of party workers from the party as a whole.

The congress notes with satisfaction the improvement of the central committee’s organisational apparatus and of all the organisational work of the party centre generally, and instructs the new central committee to give high priority to the work of the accounts and assignment section, which is now to play an especially important role in the correct assignment of personnel to ensure that the party exerts real leadership in all areas of the administration without exception. [19]

Trotsky again did not intervene in the discussion of the central committee report. He spoke at the congress only on his industrial report. He did not give even a hint of any disagreement with Stalin. Trotsky went so far to avoid controversy that he actually reprimanded people who spoke up to defend him against the troika. [20] [1*]

What about the publication of Lenin’s Testament? Members of the Politburo and the praesidium of the central control commission were asked for their views at the beginning of June 1923.

Zinoviev was against publication. Stalin said: ‘I submit that there is no necessity to publish, the more so since there is no sanction for its publication from Ilyich.’ Kamenev’s comment was: ‘It must not be printed. It is an undelivered speech meant for the politburo. No more. Personal description is the basis and content of the article.’ Tomsky affirmed: ‘I am for Comrade Zinoviev’s proposal – that only the members of the CC be informed. It should not be published for no one among the public at large will understand anything of this.’ A. Solts, of the presidium of the central control commission, said: ‘This note by V.I. had in view not the public at large but the CC and that is why so much space is allotted to the description of persons ... It should not be printed.’ The same position was taken by Bukharin, Rudzutak, Molotov and Kuibyshev. The only one in favour of publication was Trotsky. [21]

But Trotsky was too late. Having remained silent at the Twelfth Congress, he was in no position to insist on publishing Lenin’s Testament two months later.

Trotsky’s report on industry

Trotsky gave the report to the congress on industry. It was analytically brilliant, but to avoid polemics with the majority of the politburo it avoided bringing the differences out into the open. Trotsky argued that ‘only the development of industry creates an unshakeable foundation for the proletarian dictatorship’. He urged a policy of the ‘correct relating of market and plan’ whereby the government should avoid either inept administrative interference with the market or insufficient regulation of the market. ‘State activity as a whole must place its primary concern on the planned development of state industry.’ Trotsky showed how the exchange of goods between agriculture and industry, which the NEP had been designed to promote, strengthened the production of consumer goods while having no impact on the production of heavy industry, which remained on a very low level. It was the task of the coming period to revive heavy industry, by ‘draining off into the mill of socialism as large a part as possible of what we previously called the surplus value created by the whole labouring population of our union.’ [22]

Trotsky then moved to expand a point that made his speech famous when the rest of it was forgotten. He exhibited a diagram showing the relation between the prices of agricultural products and prices of industrial products since the previous summer: and he showed how the prices diverged more and more widely, giving the diagram the aspect of an open pair of scissors. Unfortunately he was still fudging, hence he did not describe the appearance of the ‘scissors’ as a major crisis, though he explained that it revealed the lag of industry behind the recovery of private farming.

Trotsky now proceeded to his conclusions, which had been agreed in advance in the politburo. The first was the need to promote the export of grain. The second, which was accepted in principle by everyone but could appear as trite, was to increase the efficiency of industry by measures of concentration and by cutting down overhead costs.

Finally he wound up his speech with a long exposition of the principles of planning. What was needed, he said, was a ‘single economic plan’. The development of planning would be in three stages: first, ‘means of production to produce means of production’; then ‘means of production to produce objects of consumption’; and finally, ‘objects of consumption’. The aim of the plan was, in the final analysis, to overcome the market, to overcome the NEP:

The New Economic Policy is the arena which we ourselves have set up for the struggle between ourselves and private capital. We have set it up, we have legalised it, and within it we intend to wage the struggle seriously and for a long time.

Lenin had said that the NEP had been conceived ‘seriously and for long’; and the opponents of planning often quoted this saying: ‘Yes, seriously and for a long time’, Trotsky retorted:

But not forever. We have introduced NEP in order to defeat it on its own ground and largely by its own methods. In what way? By making effective use of the laws of the market economy ... and also by intervening through our state-owned industry in the planning of these laws and by systematically broadening the scope of planning. Ultimately we shall extend this planning principle to the whole market, and in so doing swallow and eliminate it. In other words, our successes on the basis of the New Economic Policy automatically bring us nearer to its liquidation, to its replacement by the newest economic policy, which will be a socialist policy. [23]

The working class would have to shoulder the main burden of industrial reconstruction. Trotsky cited a remark from a report to the congress on the state industry of the Moscow region: ‘The working class, being in power, has the possibility, when class interests require it, of giving industry a credit at the expense of the worker’s wage.’ ‘In other words’, paraphrased Trotsky, ‘there may be moments when the government does not pay you a full wage or pays only a half, and you, the worker, give a credit to your state at the expense of your wages.’ [24] Unless the worker was ready to produce surplus value for the workers’ state there was no way forward for socialism. Trotsky concluded with a postscript on the inevitable hardships of a period of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’. (The term ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ was first coined by Vladimir Smirnov.) [25]

The assumption behind the talk of ‘giving up half the wages’ to the state was the identification of the working class with the state – the same identification that had underlain Trotsky’s position in the trade union debate. The question of the bureaucratisation of the state was thus overlooked, as was the weakness of the proletariat in a sea of peasantry. The term ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ would become a source of very sharp controversy in years to come.

The failure to recognise the conflict between management and workers was a thread running through Trotsky’s resolution at the Twelfth Congress. The workers must be helped to understand that the ‘director, who strives to earn profits, is serving the interests of the working class in the same degree as the trade-union worker who strives to raise the standard of living of the worker and to protect his health.’ The director who ‘proves himself by the positive result of his work’ should be able to count on the unqualified ‘protection and support’ of party organs. [26]

The rationalisation of industry, Trotsky argued, would lead to unemployment: ‘the necessity of dismissing men and women workers’ was a ‘hard, very hard nut’, but it was less damaging than the ‘concealed unemployment’ of inefficient production.

Thus Trotsky stressed the dialectical relation between planning and the market. He saw the combination of the two as that of two antagonistic elements fighting for supremacy, in which one should end victorious. What was called for was not an abrupt ending of the NEP but the expansion of the state sector so that one day it would supersede the private sector and with it the NEP.

Trotsky’s report to the congress passed without any overt dissent: an agreement between members of the politburo meant that no one would criticise Trotsky’s report. [2*] In exchange he kept quiet on the national question, Rabkrin and the rest.

Trotsky’s report and the resolution accompanying it stopped short of any specific directive. Nine months after the congress Trotsky complained that ‘at the Twelfth Congress questions concerning the planned direction of the economy were broached at bottom only formally. This is what explains in large measure why the ways and means set down in the resolution of this congress remained almost entirely unapplied up to recently ...’ [30]

The enigma: Why did Trotsky keep quiet?

When the Twelfth Congress opened, again and again there were massive displays of homage to Trotsky. As usual the chairman read greetings to the congress, which poured in from party cells, trade unions, and groups of workers and students all over the country. In almost every message tributes were paid to Lenin and Trotsky. Only now and then did the greetings also refer to Zinoviev and Kamenev, while Stalin’s name was hardly mentioned. The reading of the messages went on through several sessions. [31] Zinoviev, who delivered the political report of the central committee, was not received by the customary applause. He delivered it in virtual silence; the reaction of the delegates was clear. Stalin got a similar reception. The applause for Trotsky was tumultuous.

Why did Trotsky not use his popularity and the mandate he got from Lenin to launch a general offensive against Stalin, against the bureaucracy, against Great Russian chauvinism?

In later days Trotsky was convinced that had he spoken up at the Twelfth Congress, relying on the documents Lenin had supplied him with, he could probably have defeated Stalin quickly, even if in the long run this would not have prevented the victory of the bureaucracy. He wrote:

Our joint action against the central committee at the beginning of 1923 would without the shadow of doubt have brought us victory. And what is more, I have no doubt that if I had come forward on the eve of the Twelfth Congress in the spirit of a ‘bloc of Lenin and Trotsky’ against the Stalin bureaucracy, I should have been victorious even if Lenin had taken no direct part in the struggle. How solid the victory would have been is, of course, another question. To decide that, one must take into account a number of objective processes in the country, in the working class, and in the party itself. That is a separate and large theme ... In 1922-3 ... it was still possible to capture the commanding position by an open attack on the faction then rapidly being formed of national socialist officials, or usurpers of the apparatus, of the unlawful heirs of October, of the epigones of Bolshevism. [32]

‘If ... If ...’ It is very difficult to speculate what would have happened if a certain action had been taken, how a change of one link in the historical chain of events would have shaped the rest of the chain. With this reservation in mind, one might say, accepting Trotsky’s estimate that his intervention against Stalin in the spirit of a bloc with Lenin would have succeeded – at least temporarily, that this would have affected the policies carried out by the Comintern in Germany in the autumn of 1923 when the Communist Party was on the verge of taking power but was hindered by poor leadership, not least that in Moscow.

A few months after the congress, in September 1923, the leaders of the German Communist Party asked the politburo of the Russian party to send Trotsky to Germany to direct the coming insurrection. Stalin, Zinoviev and company blocked the assignment. Had Trotsky thrown the ‘bomb’ at Stalin during the Twelfth Congress, the troika might perhaps not have been able to prevent Trotsky going to Germany, which was then in the midst of a revolutionary situation. If Trotsky, the organiser of the Russian October insurrection, had taken hold of the German party, who knows whether the German October would not have ended in victory instead of defeat?

Of course, we can speculate only on probabilities. Every prognosis inevitably includes a conditional element. The shorter the period over which this prognosis extends, the greater this element. Time is an important element in politics, particularly in a revolutionary epoch.

Trotsky himself argued, in his book The Lessons of October, published in 1924, that correct leadership in Germany might radically have changed the situation of the proletarian revolution in Russia, with enormous consequences.

For lack of a ha’porth of tar a ship sank.

Small incidents can play a disproportionate role in history. If Rosa Luxemburg had hidden herself more effectively in January 1919 and not been murdered, the German Communist Party would not have been led for years afterwards by inexperienced and relatively weak people.

What was the reason for Trotsky’s silence at the Twelfth Congress? There are a number of explanations. One is given by Trotsky himself, who said that he avoided coming out against Stalin as this could have been interpreted as fighting for personal power while Lenin was still alive. This is what Trotsky wrote in his autobiography:

The chief obstacle was Lenin’s condition. He was expected to rise again as he had after his first stroke and to take part in the Twelfth Congress as he had in the Eleventh. He himself hoped for this. The doctors spoke encouragingly, though with dwindling assurance ... Independent action on my part would have been interpreted, or, to be more exact, represented as my personal fight for Lenin’s place in the party and the state. The very thought of this made me shudder. I considered that it would have brought such a demoralisation in our ranks that we would have had to pay too painful a price for it even in case of victory. In all plans and calculations, there remained the positive element of uncertainty – Lenin and his physical condition. Would he be able to state his own views? Would he still have time? Would the party understand that it was the case of a fight by Lenin and Trotsky for the future of the revolution, and not a fight by Trotsky for the place held by Lenin, who was ill? [33]

Hoping for Lenin’s recovery and believing that their joint action would be much more effective than his own solitary effort, said Trotsky, he bided his time.

Another much less flattering explanation of Trotsky’s astonishing behaviour was given by his close friend and admirer, Adolf Ioffe. In a letter written to Trotsky an hour before Ioffe committed suicide in 1927, he wrote:

I have never doubted the rightness of the road you pointed out, and as you know I have gone with you for more than twenty years, since the days of ‘permanent revolution’. But I have always believed that you lacked Lenin’s unbending will, his unwillingness to yield, his readiness even to remain alone on the path that he thought right in anticipation of a future majority, of a future recognition by everyone of the rightness of his path ... you have often abandoned your rightness for the sake of an overvalued agreement or compromise. This is a mistake ... the guarantee of the victory of your rightness lies in nothing but the extreme unwillingness to yield, the strictest straightforwardness, the absolute rejection of all compromise; in this very thing lay the secret of Lenin’s victories. [34]

Ioffe’s judgment was based on the experience of the period 1923-7, when Trotsky made many compromises and concessions. This was due not to lack of character but to lack of theoretical and political clarity. (This will be dealt with in the next volume of this biography). Once Trotsky had clearly grasped the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism he was completely uncompromising despite extraordinary pressures. There is no doubt that Lenin, with his sense of urgency, his understanding of the need to concentrate on the decisive link in the chain of events at the time, even at the cost of secondary elements, would not have been influenced by such secondary considerations as how his fight against Stalin would look to bystanders.

Isaac Deutscher suggests a different explanation for Trotsky’s behaviour:

The truth is that Trotsky refrained from attacking Stalin because he felt secure. No contemporary, and he least of all, saw in the Stalin of 1923 the menacing and towering figure he was to become. It seemed to Trotsky almost a bad joke that Stalin, the wilful and sly but shabby and inarticulate man in the background, should be his rival. He was not going to be bothered about him. He was not going to stoop to him or even to Zinoviev; and, above all, he was not going to give the party the impression that he, too, participated in the undignified game played by Lenin’s disciples over Lenin’s still empty coffin. [35]

Trotsky’s disdainful attitude towards Stalin was of long standing. He wrote later that he was hardly aware of Stalin’s existence until after the October revolution. [36] Yet Stalin had been the editor of the party’s paper, Pravda, and a member of the central committee. Trotsky’s attitude reveals how far he was from Lenin in grasping the personal-administrative elements in the Bolshevik Party, which he had belatedly joined.

Another factor probably affected Trotsky’s behaviour at the Twelfth Congress. He knew of his very high popularity among the masses, but he felt insecure among the party cadres. In the eyes of many Old Bolsheviks Trotsky was still an outsider. At the Eleventh Congress, the previous year, an incident occurred that demonstrated this. In the course of the debate Lenin, Zinoviev and Trotsky expressed the same view on the merger of party and state and argued for the need to separate them. Mikoyan, a young Armenian delegate, remarked that he was not surprised to hear this view from Trotsky who was ‘a man of the state but not of the party’, but he could not understand how Lenin and Zinoviev took the same stand. [37] From the time Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks he depended very much on Lenin’s support to bridge the gulf with the Old Bolsheviks; now Lenin was not there to support him. This undermined his confidence vis-à-vis the party cadres.

Above all, Trotsky’s hesitation in carrying Lenin’s struggle against Stalin into the open was due to his fear of splitting the party and encouraging the counter-revolution. His vast knowledge of the French Revolution of 1789 must have made him aware of this danger. He must have recalled how the extreme left in the French revolution, in the days following 9 Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre, motivated by sheer hatred of Robespierre, supported the right. Gracchus Babeuf, the first modern communist, went so far as to declare on 5 September 1794: ‘10 Thermidor was the end of our confinement; since then we have been in labour to be reborn into liberty.’ [38] After a time Babeuf regretted having been one of the first to inveigh against the ‘Robespierre system’. [39] But it was too late. Although there was no collusion between Babeuf and the neo-Hebertists on the one hand and the Monarchist reactionaries and the Thermidorians on the other, the campaign of Babeuf and his companions did help towards the success of reaction.

It was this fear of counter-revolution that dominated Trotsky’s thinking. On 10 May 1922, more than a year after the Kronstadt rising, writing in Pravda on the signs of economic recovery and general improvement of conditions in the country, Trotsky posed the question whether the time had not come to put an end to the one-party system and to lift the ban at least on the Mensheviks. His answer was a categoric ‘No’. Why? Because ‘within the boundaries of capitalist encirclement they were and remain the semi-political, semi-military agencies of imperialism, armed to its teeth.’ [40]

Trotsky had to ask himself whether he could take responsibility for possibly sparking off a new Kronstadt uprising. He clearly considered it the duty of revolutionaries, in the absence of any existing alternative, to remain loyal to the party of the revolution to the last possible moment. This was a weighty consideration, much easier to dismiss when the degeneration of the party had run its course than in the midst of the struggle.

The main influences on Trotsky’s behaviour were the same circumstances that made Lenin’s grasp so unsure, so vacillating, contradicting his whole character, his whole political past. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky could see a solution. There was a possibility that the siege of Russia might eventually be lifted by the international revolution. But what to do in the meantime? The proletariat was weakened and atomised, and the party no longer enjoyed the working-class support it had commanded when it entered the civil war; yet a revolutionary party and government that had fought a cruel and devastating civil war could neither abdicate the day after its victory, nor submit to its defeated enemies and their revenge, even when it discovered that it could not rule according to its own principles.

Lenin and Trotsky knew very well that the workers were exhausted. Trotsky’s own supporters, as he put it later, were not stirred on by a hope of great and serious changes. On the other hand, the bureaucracy fought with extraordinary ferocity. [41] To fight with little hope is very difficult indeed. As Trotsky wrote many years later:

The Left Opposition could not achieve power, and did not hope even to do so – certainly not its most thoughtful leaders. A struggle for power by the Left Opposition, by a revolutionary Marxist organisation, was conceivable only under the conditions of a revolutionary upsurge. Under such conditions the strategy is based on aggression, on direct appeal to the masses, on frontal attack against the government. Quite a few members of the Left Opposition had played no minor part in such a struggle and had first-hand knowledge of how to wage it. But during the early 1920s and later, there was no revolutionary upsurge in Russia, quite the contrary. Under such circumstances it was out of the question to launch a struggle for power.

Inability to foresee victory must engender paralysis of will power. The ‘danger was that, having become convinced of the impossibility of open association with the masses, even with their vanguard, the opposition would give up the struggle and lie low until better times.’ [42]

Gramsci refers to ‘the optimism of the will and the pessimism of the intellect’. The tragedy was that at the time of the Twelfth Congress Trotsky could not point to any mass support to which to attach that will. The Russian proletariat was exhausted and isolated.

At the end of the Twelfth Congress Stalin’s position was strengthened: he was again re-elected to the post of general secretary; Ordzhonikidze was put in charge of Rabkrin; Dzerzhinsky became the chairman of VSNKh (the National Economic Council) and Kuibyshev, again Stalin’s close associate, was appointed to preside over the central control commission! Among the 40 members elected by the Twelfth Congress to the central committee, Trotsky had no more than three political friends: Rakovsky, Radek and Piatakov.

After the congress Stalin strengthened his position in the politburo by the replacement of Radek with his ally Rykov. Of the four candidate members, of whom Bukharin now became one, three – Kalinin, Molotov and Rudzutak – were all good Stalinists.

The Twelfth Congress of the party was a watershed in the development of the Soviet regime. It was the first congress of the party in which Lenin did not participate and it was not yet clear whether he would ever return to political activity. Things were still in limbo. Only after the congress, when it became obvious that Lenin would never return, did the troika – Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev – dare to launch a massive campaign against ‘Trotskyism’.

For a few months after the congress there was still a prospect of immediate victory for the proletarian revolution in Germany – an event that would radically have altered the situation in Soviet Russia. But after October-November 1923 it became clear that the revolutionary opportunity in Germany had been missed. The defeat of the German revolution opened the door to Stalin’s newly formulated concept of ‘Socialism in one country’. This became the whip used by Stalin and his theoretical aide Bukharin to fight Trotsky and his supporters.

During the years 1923-7 (the theme of my next volume) the rising bureaucracy became increasingly independent of the proletariat, and relied more and more on the rich peasants – the kulaks – and the rising merchants – the NEPmen. Trotsky challenged the three social forces that benefited from the NEP – the bureaucracy, the kulaks and the NEPmen. He developed a policy of planned industrialisation of the country, aimed at increasing the social weight of the proletariat, enlarging its size, raising its living standards and expanding workers’ democracy. Stalin (and Bukharin) opposed both the demand for planned industrialisation and the call for democratisation.

Objective circumstances in Russia helped Stalin to defeat Trotsky. The proletariat was still smaller in size than it had been in 1917, and its confidence was undermined by widespread unemployment and the harassment of the managers of industry. At the same time the kulaks and NEPmen – blessed by Bukharin, who called to them: ‘Enrich yourselves’ – went from strength to strength.

The right turn of the Stalin-Bukharin bloc in internal matters was accompanied by a massive shift to the right in Comintern affairs. Thus on the occasion of the Chinese Revolution (1925-7) the Communist Party of China was forced by Moscow to subordinate itself to the bourgeois party of the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang was accepted into the Comintern as a sympathetic section, while the Chinese Communist Party was forced to be in the Kuomintang and under its discipline. When Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army entered Shanghai in March 1927 Stalin sent a cable congratulating him. When Chiang ordered the workers disarmed, the Chinese Communist Party was instructed by the Comintern leadership not to resist. A few days later Chiang’s troops murdered tens of thousands of Shanghai workers and Communists.

Similarly right-wing policies were adopted by the Comintern for Britain. On the eve of the general strike of May 1926, and during the strike itself, the Comintern’s policy was to collaborate with the Trades Union Congress and bolster trust in the left officials of the unions, while these acted as a figleaf for the right-wing officials. The sabotage of the general strike by the TUC led to the unmitigated defeat of the working class. This was a decisive turning point in British history: a long, though not uninterrupted period of working-class militancy came to an end, giving way to a prolonged period of dominance of the unions by openly class-collaborationist right-wing leaders, and a massive reinforcement of the Labour Party right.

Trotsky’s writings on China and Britain are amongst the best Marxist essays on strategy and tactics ever produced. Nonetheless, however correct his analysis, the defeats inflicted on the working class by Stalin’s policies did not strengthen Trotsky’s position, but Stalin’s. A weakened Communist movement was opened up to the blandishments of the bureaucracy and its appeal for ‘socialism in one country’, for defence of the status quo and against any revolutionary upheavals. To add to Trotsky’s difficulties, the implications of the degeneration of the state, party and Comintern were less clear at the time than with the benefit of hindsight. Lack of theoretical and political clarity led Trotsky to make a number of concessions and compromises, above all to Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to become his new allies in the United Opposition of 1926-7. Nothing was more alien to Trotsky’s character than hesitation and fudging. When by 1927 he grasped the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, and called Stalin ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’, he became completely uncompromising.


1*. That Trotsky was later very embarrassed by his behaviour at the Twelfth Congress is clear from the fact that no reference at all to the congress can be found in his autobiography, while four pages are devoted to describing duck hunting in precisely the place where a description of the congress would be expected.

2*. Zinoviev, however, hinted at disagreement with Trotsky: ‘Our Vladimir Ilyich taught ... that it is necessary to begin with the peasant economy’ [27]; the peasant question was ‘the basic question of our revolution’ [28]; Lenin had ‘scoffed at a number of comrades who were too excited about “paper” plans. We know from our daily work with Vladimir Ilyich that no one jeered as much as he at “new”, “great”, hypertrophic “plans”.’ A ‘dictatorship of industry’ would imperil the smychka, the alliance of workers and peasants. Talk of overcoming the NEP was adventurism. Kamenev repeated this same idea, that the ‘dictatorship of industry’ threatened the smychka. [29]


1. See Stalin, Works, volume 5, page 231.

2. The Anti-Stalin Campaign and International Communism (New York 1956), page 76.

3. Trotsky, My Life, page 482.

4. Trotsky, My Life, page 486.

5. Stalin, Works, volume 5, pages 261-2.

6. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 563.

7. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 529.

8. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 530.

9. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 532.

10. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 526.

11. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), pages 531-2.

12. Stalin, Works, volume 5, page 271.

13. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 577.

14. Denadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 96.

15. Stalin, Works, volume 5, pages 209-10.

16. Stalin, Works, volume 5, page 213.

17. Stalin, Works, volume 5, page 223.

18. Stalin, Works, volume 5, page 240.

19. KPSS v rezoliutsiiakh, volume 1, page 685.

20. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 365.

21. Trotsky Papers, volume 2, pages 813-5.

22. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), pages 321-2.

23. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 331.

24. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 315.

25. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 321.

26. KPSS v rezoliutsiiakh, volume 1, page 702.

27. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 25.

28. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 36.

29. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), page 394.

30. Trotsky, The New Course, page 8.

31. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), pages 89, 48, 496 and 502-3.

32. Trotsky, My Life, page 481.

33. Trotsky, My Life, pages 481-2.

34. Trotsky, My Life, page 537.

35. Deutscher, page 93.

36. Trotsky, Stalin, pages 242-3.

37. Odinnadtsatii sezd RKP(b), pages 453-7.

38. A. Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787-1799 (London 1974), volume 2, page 422.

39. Soboul, page 439.

40. Trotsky, First Five Years, volume 2, page 122.

41. Trotsky, Stalin, page 387.

42. Trotsky, Stalin, pages 403-4.

Last updated on 28 July 2009