Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy


THE PRESENT volume deals with the interval separating two decisive periods of Trotsky’s life.

In the years of the revolution and civil war Trotsky was leading millions. Together with Lenin he was the leader of the Bolshevik Party, the government and the Communist International. At the end of 1927 Trotsky was expelled from the Party, exiled first to Alma Ata in the far east of the USSR, then banished from the country. From 1927 until his assassination in 1940 he was isolated and led only tiny groups of supporters throughout the world. The intervening years 1923-7 saw him moving into opposition against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy.

During the revolution and civil war Trotsky was in his element. His voice articulated the aspirations of the fighting revolutionary workers. From 1927 onward hardly any workers listened to him.

The fate of his main antagonist – Stalin – was the exact opposite.

During 1917 Stalin played a minor role. Dull as a writer and poor as an orator, without the spark of imagination needed to fire the masses (whom anyway he did not trust), Stalin lived a shadowy existence at the time of the great revolutionary events. As Sukhanov, the perspicacious chronicler of the revolution writes: ‘Stalin ... doing his modest activity in the Executive Committee [of the Soviets] produced – and not only on me – the impression of a grey blur, looming up now and then dimly and not leaving any trace. There is really nothing more to be raid about him. [1]

John Reed, throughout his brilliant Ten Days that Shook the World, did not record one speech or action of Stalin.

Many writers have explained Stalin’s victory over Trotsky in terms of his superior organisational abilities. This is a ridiculous proposition given Trotsky’s known role in organising the October revolution and in building and leading the many-millioned Red Army.

It was changes in the objective conditions, namely the retreat of the revolution, that explains the rise of Stalin. Marxism recognises the important role of the individual in history. But it sees him or her as a link in a chain of objective conditions. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx showed how ‘the class struggle created the circumstances and the conditions that permitted a mediocre and vulgar personage to play the role of a hero.’ Elsewhere Marx wrote: ‘Every social epoch needs its great men, and when it does not find them it invents them ...’ [2] Stalin perfectly fitted the period of reaction. Had he not existed, someone similar to him would have emerged to play this role.

A period of reaction will always find a figurehead because reaction relies on all the old habits of thought, the deference and lack of confidence of the workers, their submission to routine, the natural conservatism of the state bureaucracy and so on. But, as Trotsky noted of Lenin’s role in October, a period of advance and especially of revolution cannot simply wait on history to invent its great men.

The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalin were rooted in Russia’s economic and social backwardness and its isolation. The civil war brought about the disintegration of the Russian proletariat as a class. Its regroupment was further weakened by the defeat of the international proletariat – in the German revolutions of 1918 and 1923, the British general strike in 1926 and the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. The workers were exhausted and depressed. This was the background for the rise of the bureaucracy with Stalin at its head.

It was the workers’ weariness that led them to accept Stalin’s doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’, which fitted the popular craving for stability, safety and peace. The same weariness made them indifferent to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which looked like a call for risky experiments.

The support of a minority of the working class was not enough for Trotsky to win; he needed the active and conscious following of the majority. For Stalin minority support was enough to win so long as the majority were passive and acquiescent.

Trotsky, who during the revolution and civil war motivated millions, now found himself out in the cold, unable to rouse the workers. While many thousands of workers were ready to give their lives at his call during the civil war, now they were hardly ready even to listen to him.

‘Men make their own history, though not in circumstances of their own choosing’. For Trotsky the objective circumstances were not only the material, economic and social conditions at the time, but also the level of consciousness of the working class. This gravely circumscribed his ability to resist Stalinist reaction.

The workers’ retreat was accompanied by the danger of capitalist restoration. In the years of the New Economic Policy, NEP, with the increasing strength of the kulaks and NEPmen, this threat was by no means a figment of Trotsky’s imagination and, combined with the weariness of the mass of workers, restricted Trotsky’s ability to act. His fear of splitting the party and encouraging counter-revolution was very real. [3]

In the years 1923-27 Trotsky’s genius co-existed with a serious weakness. His Achilles heel can be summed up by one word: conciliationism.

His genius is illuminated in the wealth of his writings. He reacted to every event at home and abroad. His strategic and tactical mastery is exceptional. From this period we inherit a body of writings that is unsurpassed as a rich source of applied Marxism. He also made the first powerful attempt at an historical materialist analysis of Stalinism. (All subsequent serious analyses, even if deviating from his, have taken his as a point of departure.) At the same time his sure touch, sharpness and iron will co-existed with zigzags and compromises with his partners in the United Opposition, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Conciliating these two meant indirectly conciliating the leading group in the party and state.

This intransigence and strict adherence to revolutionary principles alongside volatility and a fudging of the issues is reminiscent of the earlier period between 1903 and his joining the Bolsheviks in July 1917, when Trotsky combined brilliant revolutionary politics and theory – above all the theory of permanent revolution – with conciliation with the Mensheviks.

Trotsky’s attempt to conciliate the Mensheviks derived from his belief that they would move towards revolutionary politics when the objective situation became revolutionary. As he wrote many years later: ‘My conciliationism flowed from a sort of social-revolutionary fatalism.’ [4]

Now – in the years 1923-27 – his conciliationism was the product of a belief that the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International were not lost to the revolution, that they were still the instruments of the future proletarian revolution.

On 12 July 1928, in a declaration to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, Trotsky wrote:

We base all our calculations on the fact that there exist within the AUCP, the Comintern, and the USSR enormous internal revolutionary forces, which now are suppressed by the false leadership and the onerous regime, but which, with experience, criticism, and the advance of the class struggle throughout the world, are perfectly capable of correcting the line of the leadership and assuring a correct proletarian course. [5]

Until 1933, when the Comintern’s disastrous policy led to the catastrophe of the Nazi victory, Trotsky continued to argue that the Soviet regime, the party and the Comintern, were still susceptible to reform. He wrote:

The recognition of the present Soviet state as a workers’ state not only signifies that the bourgeoisie can conquer power only by means of an armed uprising but also that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of subordinating the bureaucracy to it, of reviving the party again, and of regenerating the regime of the dictatorship – without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform. [6]

Only in 1933 did Trotsky change his mind and abandon the belief that the Russian party and Comintern could be reformed. On 1 October 1933 he wrote:

After the experiences of the last few years, it would be childish to suppose that the Stalinist bureaucracy can be removed by means of a party or soviet congress. In reality, the last congress of the Bolshevik Party took place at the beginning of 1923, the Twelfth Party Congress. All subsequent congresses were bureaucratic parades. Today, even such congresses have been discarded. No normal ‘constitutional’ ways remain to remove the ruling clique. The bureaucracy can be compelled to yield power into the hands of the proletarian vanguard only by force. [7]

If the Stalinist bureaucracy could not be removed except by force in 1933, it was no more removable a number of years earlier. When in 1927 Stalin said to the Opposition: ‘These cadres can be removed only by civil war’, [8] he was stating a fact.

However, if it is easy to see with hindsight that the Stalinist bureaucracy could ‘be removed only by civil war’, this was not so obvious at the time. The situation was extremely complicated and confusing, and Trotsky had no historical experience on which to fall back. The degeneration of a workers’ state was a new and unprecedented phenomenon – the only previous workers’ state, the Paris Commune, existed only in one city and was crushed after 74 days.

As a consequence, Trotsky seriously underestimated the threat posed by both Stalin as an individual and the Stalinist bureaucratic faction. He was acutely aware of the danger of capitalist restoration posed by the rise of the NEPmen and the kulaks, but failed to conceive of the possibility of capitalist restoration, on the basis of state property, by the bureaucracy itself: he lacked a conception of state capitalism. [1*]

This, in turn, meant that Trotsky failed to understand the character of the bureaucracy as a ruling class bent on pursuing its own independent interests in fundamental opposition to both the working class and the peasantry. Thus when Trotsky wrote about the bureaucracy his terms of reference were the bureaucracy of the trade unions and Social Democratic parties. This labour movement bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society – the employers and the workers. Its behaviour is characterised above all by vacillation; moving, now to the left under pressure from the working class, now to the right under pressure from the capitalists. Similarly Trotsky characterised the Stalinist bureaucracy as ‘centrist’, vacillating between the pressure of the Russian working class and the aspirant bourgeoisie of NEPmen and kulaks. His expectation and fear was that Stalin would capitulate to the right. His hope, and all his efforts, were directed to this end; that pressure from the working class and the left could prevent this capitulation. In the event neither Trotsky’s fear nor his hope materialised. Instead the Stalinist bureaucracy moved against both the left (Trotsky, the ‘United Opposition’ etc.) and the right (Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky, etc.) in quick succession. In the space of a couple of years the bureaucracy completely crushed the workers, the kulaks and the peasantry as a whole, and emerged as the sole political power in Russia with Stalin at its head as personal dictator.

The Stalin faction was able to do this because it was fundamentally different from the trade union bureaucracy under capitalism. In a society where the state is already the principle repository of the means of production and the bourgeoisie has been decisively smashed and expropriated (as the Russian bourgeoisie was in 1917-18) a state bureaucracy which frees itself completely from control by the working class (as the Stalinist bureaucracy did in the years 1923-28) becomes the de facto owner and controller of those means of production and the employer of the workers. In short it becomes a new exploiting class.

The political intransigence of revolutionary Marxists in the struggle against capitalism is founded on the knowledge that the class antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is fundamentally irreconcilable. Trotsky, in general, was not lacking in this intransigence. But at this point in time, when the Stalinist bureaucracy was just taking shape, his failure to see it as a class enemy disorientated him strategically and blunted his political edge. In particular it hindered him from seeing that the Russian Communist Party, and hence the Comintern, were dead for the purposes of revolution.

It led him also to continue to argue for the one-party state. Thus in 1923 he wrote: ‘We are the only party in the country, and in the period of the dictatorship it could not be otherwise.’ [My emphasis] [9]

Trotsky restated this idea in September 1927 in the Platform of the Opposition: ‘We will fight with all our power against the idea of two parties, because the dictatorship of the proletariat demands as its very core a single proletarian party.’ [10]

A corollary of the acceptance of the one-party state was an acceptance of the banning of factions in the party.

This attitude plus the belief that the party, even if under the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy, could still be peacefully reformed, created impossible barriers to any consistent policy of opposition: it forced Trotsky to retreat again and again whenever the leadership decided to ban his activities, which happened throughout the years 1923-27.

He was caught on the horns of a dilemma – how to fight the bureaucracy while avoiding factionalism. In these circumstances he repeatedly succumbed to the pressure of the Zinovievites and of the Stalin-Bukharin group.

Trotsky’s conciliationism in 1923-27 was demonstrated repeatedly in his going into battle against the ruling group in party and state, then stopping, retreating, keeping quiet, then starting again. This volume will describe these zigzags.

At the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) Trotsky failed to carry out Lenin’s wish to attack Stalin’s policy on the national question, his role in Rabkrin, (the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate), his ‘rude and disloyal’ behaviour as General Secretary. He made no effort to prevent Stalin’s reappointment as General Secretary at the Central Committee meeting following the Congress. He hid his differences with the Troika – Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev – from the party.

Against the protests of Krupskaya the Central Committee voted by an overwhelming majority for the suppression of Lenin’s Testament; Trotsky did not come to Krupskaya’s aid but kept silent. He praised the indiscriminate mass recruitment to the party involved in the ‘Lenin Levy’, which he was later to describe as ‘a death blow to the party of Lenin’. [11]

After the flare-up of the inner-party struggle around The New Course and The Lessons of October – from the end of 1924 until the middle of 1926 – Trotsky avoided controversy, going to the extraordinary length of denouncing Max Eastman’s account of Lenin’s Testament in his book Since Lenin Died.

It took a great effort in mid-1926 to reassemble the 1923 Opposition and its strength was very much smaller than originally. The Zinoviev group which joined with Trotsky’s in the United Opposition was a broken reed. The ease with which Stalin overwhelmed the Zinovievite Leningraders demonstrated the actual feebleness of Zinoviev’s influence; outside Leningrad no support was forthcoming for Zinoviev at all.

The adherence of Zinoviev and Kamenev to the United Opposition was double edged. It was an added force, but it was also a source of weakness. Zinoviev and Kamenev had always been compromisers. Even when they joined Trotsky in the United Opposition they continued to look over their shoulders to avoid sharpening their differences with Stalin and Bukharin. They insisted that they had not ‘capitulated’ to Trotskyism.

To keep his alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev intact Trotsky went so far as to publicly reject the theory of permanent revolution, to accept the slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, and to give up his demands for the break-up of the Anglo-Russian Committee and the withdrawal of the Chinese Communist Party from the Kuomintang.

With regard to the last point: Zinoviev, as President of the Comintern until May 1926, was in fact largely responsible for the policy of the Comintern in China. Although since 1923 Trotsky opposed the Chinese Communist Party’s adherence to the Kuomintang, he made no public statement to this effect. Not only was the general public and the rank and file of the party unaware of his position, but even the Central Committee and the Executive Committee of the Comintern were not informed. The first time he argued openly in writing for the Chinese Communist Party to leave the Kuomintang was on 10 May 1927, i.e. after Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang, had carried out a massacre of workers and Communists in Shanghai. The fact that the United Opposition dealt with the Chinese events so late and with so many reservations, weakened its impact considerably.

It was the pressure of Zinoviev and Kamenev that got Trotsky to agree to ask the Politburo for a truce on 4 October 1926, to admit to being guilty of factionalism, to accept the break-up of the faction and to denounce co-thinkers of the Opposition in other Comintern sections. The surrender was to no avail. Stalin only pressed home his attack.

In the winter of 1926-7 the Opposition was torn by internal discord. Trotsky did his best to prevent the partnership from falling apart, repeatedly making concessions to the Zinovievists and thus indirectly to Stalin, for which the United Opposition paid with indecision and vacillation.

A number of writers sympathetic to Trotsky have either overlooked the concessions he made or saw them as accidental aberrations. Harold Isaacs, in his outstanding book, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, does not mention any of Trotsky’s statements in support of the Chinese Communist Party being inside the Kuomintang, or his denial of the theory of permanent revolution. Isaac Deutscher points to single concessions Trotsky made, but as he takes them as separate, isolated items, he does not see a pattern in them nor look for any general explanation. Trotsky, however, was too great a man to need any falsehood, cover-up or downplaying of mistakes he may have committed.

The zigzags in the fight against Stalin could not but weaken Trotsky’s own supporters. Cadres cannot be kept if they have to abstain from action. Trotsky could keep up his own spirit however tough the going; throughout the years 1923-27 he did not stop criticising official policies and the regime, even if he had to use hints and allusions obscure to many. Rank and file oppositionists cannot survive politically without a fight in the here and now.

The problem of how to keep the cadres together without involving them in a struggle going beyond the party ranks, which meant appealing to the workers en masse; how to carry on the inner-party struggle without breaking the ban on factionalism, posed a real dilemma for Trotsky.

He was clear about the need for a revolutionary not to reflect the reactionary mood of tired workers. He knew he must be ready to remain isolated and to pursue the struggle, whether in the end he lived to see his cause triumph, like Lenin, or served his cause through martyrdom like Liebknecht.

But his conciliationism undermined this understanding. Adolf Ioffe recognised this weakness when he wrote Trotsky a letter a few hours before he committed suicide, criticising him because he ‘lacked Lenin’s unbending will, his unwillingness to yield, his readiness 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 abandoned your rightness for the sake of an overvalued agreement or compromise.’ [12]

Nevertheless, even when all the compromises and vacillations have been taken into account, the fact remains that Trotsky fought the Stalinist reaction and continued to fight it when so many others capitulated or fell by the wayside. Moreover he did so when the physical and psychological pressures to give in were immense. This was an enormous historical achievement.

By 1927 Trotsky grasped the enormity of Stalin’s crimes and called him ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’ when the bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev fell apart. From then on he became completely uncompromising.

Even if the gap between the grand aims and the puny means were as wide as ever, even if the consciousness of the masses lagged far behind the objective needs for the liberation of the proletariat, Trotsky never again failed to draw the political conclusion. His clarity of vision in the years following 1927 do not lessen the tragedy of his life, where ends and means were as far apart as ever; but then it was grand tragedy. This will be dealt with in the next volume of this biography.


1*. For a full analysis of state capitalism as it developed in Russia after 1928, see T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia. This matter will also be discussed further in the next volume of this biography.


1. N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917. A Personal Record, London 1955, p.230.

2. K. Marx, The Class Struggle in France, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol.10, p.99.

3. See T. Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.2, London 1990, p.277.

4. L. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, London 1971, p.49.

5. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29), hereafter referred to as Challenge (1928-29), New York 1981, p. 147.

6. Trotsky, Writings (1930-31), New York 1973, p.225.

7. Trotsky, Writings (1933-34), New York 1972, pp.117-8.

8. Trotsky, Writings (1929), New York 1975, p.60.

9. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), hereafter referred to as Challenge (1923-25), New York 1980, p. 78.

10. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), hereafter referred to as Challenge (1926-27), New York 1980, p. 394.

11. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London 1987, p.98.

12. Trotsky, My Life, New York 1960, p.537.

Last updated on 31 July 2009