Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

1. The New Course Controversy

THE TROIKA of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev was formed with the prime aim of fighting Trotsky, who had missed the opportunity at the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) to carry out Lenin’s wish to fight Stalin’s bureaucratism.

Lenin and Trotsky had agreed to unite against Stalin and against the bureaucracy, concentrating their attack on two main issues: Georgia, whose national rights Stalin was denying, and Rabkrin, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate which was supposed to check bureaucratic tendencies, but was being manipulated by Stalin to reinforce them. Trotsky reported a remark by Lenin’s secretary, 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.’ [1]

However, at the Congress Trotsky avoided any controversy. Stalin’s resolution on the nationalities question was adopted unanimously. Lenin’s denunciation of Rabkrin and of the party Central Control Commission was easily defied by Stalin, and the Congress passed a resolution On the Central Committee Report – again delivered by Stalin – which was complacent about the organisational state of the party, Rabkrin, and the Central Control Commission. Trotsky remained silent, not even hinting at disagreement with Stalin. In fact he even reprimanded people who spoke up in his defence against the Troika. [2]

He actually strengthened the Troika by declaring his ‘unshaken’ solidarity with the Politburo and Central Committee and calling on the rank and file ‘at this critical juncture’ to exercise the strictest self-restraint and utmost vigilance. Speaking on a motion appealing for unity and discipline in Lenin’s absence, he stated: ‘I shall not be the last in our midst to defend [this motion], to put it into effect, and to fight ruthlessly against all who may try to infringe it ... If in the present mood the party warns you emphatically about things which seem dangerous to it, the party is right, even if it exaggerates, because what might not be dangerous in other circumstances must appear doubly and trebly suspect at present.’ [3]

Unrest among industrial workers

NEP brought with it a relative worsening of the economic and social position of the proletariat.

First of all they suffered unemployment. Khozrashchet (the principle of ‘cost accountancy’ or ‘economic accountancy’) which Lenin described as a ‘transition to commercial principles’ and an inescapable element of NEP, immediately resulted in sackings.

The process of dismissing superfluous staffs proceeded at a cumulative rate. The number of railway workers was reduced from 1,240,000 in the summer of 1921 to 720,000 in the summer of 1922; the number of workers and employees per 1000 spindles in a leading textile factory was reduced from 30 in 1920-21 to 14 a year later. [4]

The number of unemployed workers rose very steeply:

January 1922



January 1923


January 1924

1,240,000 [5]

Another whip lashing the industrial workers was the red managers. NEP massively increased their powers. More and more managers came from traditional managerial families and were progressively integrated into the party hierarchy. They acted in an increasingly high-handed fashion towards the workers. In August 1922 the trade union paper Trud launched a strong attack on the new ‘united front’ of managers, which it accused of aiming at ‘a diminution in the role of the unions’, especially in the engagement and dismissal of workers, and of wanting ‘“free trade” in matters of hiring and firing’. The article ended with the rhetorical question, ‘Have our managers so far entered into the role of the “masters” that they prefer to unorganise workers and disciplined members of trade unions’? [6]

What about the workers’ wages? The real earnings of workers in 1922-3 were still only half those of 1913. In 1923 the managers went on the offensive to cut workers’ wages. A leading article in Trud on 11 March 1923, under the title Wages are, However, Falling, reported a general decline since December, referred to ‘the campaign of the industrialists for a gradual reduction in wages’, and complained of the passivity of ‘some’ trade unions. In a resolution of 14 April 1923, on the eve of the Twelfth Party Congress, the central council of trade unions admitted that wages were ‘falling in real terms’, and called for action to arrest the decline. [7]

One ploy which was resorted to by management was postponing the payment of wages so as to benefit from the depreciation of the rouble. As early as the winter of 1921-2, complaints had been heard of wage payments falling into arrears, especially in regions remote from the centre. With the currency frequently depreciating by as much as 30 per cent in a month, the loss to the workers was heavy. For the last three months of 1922 the workers in the Don were reported to have lost 34, 23 and 32 per cent respectively of their real wages through currency depreciation. In January 1923 the trade union newspaper alleged that ‘cases of failure to pay in full for two or three months are more and more becoming a daily occurrence’. [8] E.H. Carr estimates that real wages were cut in 1923 by as much as 40 per cent. [9] He sums up the situation of the workers in general in the following words:

While the standard of living of the industrial worker in 1923 was higher than in the harsh years of War Communism, there had been no time since the revolution when discrimination was so overtly practised against him, or when he had so many legitimate causes of bitterness against a regime which claimed to govern in his name. [10]

At the same time the NEPmen and kulaks were thriving, enormously widening the gap between them and the workers. Wealth and luxury became legitimate, eliminating any need to conceal opulence. Parvenus, with little culture and fat wallets, showed no restraint at all. In the atmosphere of feverish speculation, when it was not clear how long they would be free to make money, the NEPmen and kulaks were guided by one slogan: Seize the time’. They hurried to make money and to squander it. Wealth and luxury ostentatiously paraded everywhere.

Soviet novels of the time frequently dealt with the disillusion of revolutionaries with NEP as privileges proliferated. Evidence of the social corruption of the time can be found in the reminiscences of an American journalist whose grasp of politics was poor but whose reportage of life in Russia in the early 1920s was unsurpassed. He described the life of the privileged in Moscow during NEP as la dolce vita. Champagne and vintage wines from France and Germany, fifty-year old cognac, fragrant coffee, sugar, meat and chicken, fresh caviare were available. People gorged themselves with the sweets of pleasure, trying to tear from life the joys they had been denied for so long.

It was a strange sight, this Praga in the centre of the world’s first Proletarian Republic. Most of the men looked like the low-class jackals and hangers-on of any boom ... but there were also former nobles in faded broadcloth and Red Army soldiers in uniform ... eager for Moscow’s fleshpots and the flutter at the tables. A smattering, too, of foreigners, fixers, agents and the commercial vanguard of a dozen big firms attracted by Lenin’s new policy of concessions, hurrying to see if it was true that Russia ‘night again become a honey-pot for alien wasps. And women of all sorts ... mostly daughters of joy, whom NEP had hatched in flocks, noisy ... as sparrows. Later, in increasing numbers, the wives and families of NEPmen, the new profiteers, with jewels on their stumpy fingers. [11]

Prostitution, the complete degradation of women in the interests of men with money, not only appeared in brothels and bars, but was admitted as a commonplace in contemporary Soviet literature. For instance, Isaac Babel wrote a number of stories dealing with prostitutes, such as My First Fee (1922), The Chinaman (1923) and Through the Fanlight (1923).

Society was sinking into a cesspool.

The fall in real wages led to increasing conflicts in state industry during the winter of 1922-3, and these spread on a significant scale a few months later. In July and August 1923 Moscow and Petrograd were shaken by industrial unrest. Workers felt they were made to carry far too great a burden. Their wages were a pittance, and often they did not even receive them. The trade unions, reluctant to disturb the peace, refused to press workers’ claims. Unofficial strikes broke out in many places, and were accompanied by violent explosions of anger. The trade union leaders, as well as the party leaders, were caught by surprise.

In November 1923 rumours of a general strike circulated throughout Moscow, and the movement seemed on the point of turning into a political revolt. Not since the Kronstadt rising of 1921 had there been so much tension in the working class and so much alarm in ruling circles. [12]

The strike wave gave a new lease of life to the Mensheviks, who were blamed for instigating a large number of them. Mensheviks and SRs were accused of causing a major strike at the textile plant Trekhgornaia Manufaktura in 1923. One report linked unspecified ‘opponents’ to a strike of railroad workers in Sokolnicheskii raion (district). And at a May non-party conference in Krasno-Presnenskii raion speakers with a ‘Menshevik odour’ criticised wage iniquities and the poor conditions affecting workers.

On 4 June 1923 the Central Committee issued a circular On Measures of Struggle with Mensheviks, in which they were accused of consciously supporting counter-revolution. Simultaneously the GPU carried out a massive round-up of Mensheviks, and as many as 1,000 were arrested in Moscow alone. [13]

A more serious challenge to the Soviet government came from two dissident groups within the party: ‘Workers’ Truth’ and the Workers’ Group.

The Workers’ Truth group was composed largely of students, disciples of Bogdanov, the old Bolshevik who broke from Lenin in 1907. It consisted of no more than 20 members. Outside of discussion circle activity the organisational work of the group consisted of publishing two numbers of its journal.

Far more influential was the Workers’ Group, composed mainly of workers led by Miasnikov, Kuznetsov and Moiseev, who had been expelled from the party in 1922. The group was formed in the spring of 1923. Immediately after the Twelfth Party Congress it issued a manifesto denouncing the ‘New Exploitation of the Proletariat’, and urging workers to fight for Soviet democracy. In May Miasnikov was arrested, but his group continued its propaganda. When the strikes of July-August broke out they wondered whether they should go to the factories with a call for a general strike. They were still arguing about this when in September the GPU arrested a number of them, about twenty people in all. The group apparently had about 200 members in Moscow. [14] It was estimated that about 200 Communists were expelled from the party at the end of 1923 for their involvement with Workers’ Truth and the Workers’ Group. [15]

However small the Workers’ Group, its influence was quite widespread. Rank and file party members listened sympathetically to their appeals. In the presence of mass discontent when the trade unions did not voice the workers’ grievances, and the party paid little attention to them, a small group could have a far wider impact than its size warranted. After all, the instigators of the Kronstadt revolt had not been more numerous or influential.

The party leaders sought to stamp out the sparks. Dzerzhinsky, head of the GPU, was charged with the business of suppression. When he found that many party members were sympathetic to the two groups, he turned to the Politburo and asked it to declare that it was the duty of all party members to denounce to the GPU party members who cooperated with these subversive groups: in effect this meant their acting as policemen. Dzerzhinsky’s stance could be explained only by the bureaucratic nature of the party and the massive alienation of the rank and file from it.

Trotsky’s reaction to workers’ unrest

Dzerzhinsky’s statement led Trotsky to speak out. He did not condone the existence of Workers’ Truth or the Workers’ Group and did not condemn their persecution. He did not protest at the arrest of their supporters. He did not support their incitement of workers to industrial action. He did not see how the government could meet workers’ demand when industrial output was still negligible. He saw the way to assuage workers’ demands by a long-term industrialisation policy. Nor was Trotsky ready to support the demand for workers’ democracy in the extreme form in which the Workers’ Group and Workers’ Truth raised it. But he found that Dzerzhinsky had gone too far, and on 8 October 1923 he wrote a letter to the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission complaining about Dzerzhinsky’s stance.

Trotsky admitted that he himself had at first been sceptical about the arguments of the illegal groupings about democracy. Referring to the Twelfth Party Congress he stated:

Many of the speeches of that time made in defence of workers’ democracy seemed to me exaggerated, and to a considerable extent demagogic, in view of the incompatibility of a fully developed workers’ democracy with the regime of a dictatorship ...

However, things went from bad to worse:

the regime which had essentially taken shape even before the Twelfth Congress and which, after it, was fully consolidated and given finished form, is much further removed from workers’ democracy than was the regime during the fiercest period of war communism. The bureaucratisation of the party apparatus has reached unheard-of proportions through the application of the methods of secretarial selection. Even in the cruellest hours of the civil war we argued in the party organisations and in the press as well ... while now there is not a trace of such an open exchange of opinions on questions that are really troubling the party ...

As a result,

Within the basic stratum of the party there is an extraordinary degree of discontent ... This discontent is not being alleviated through an open exchange of opinions in party meetings or by mass influence on the party organisations (in the election of party committees, secretaries, etc.), but rather it continues to build up in secret, and, in time, leads to internal abscesses. [16]

Trotsky also renewed his attack on the Troika’s economic policy. The ferment within the party was intensified, he argued, by the industrial unrest. And this was brought about by a lack of economic planning. He found out that the concession the Troika had made to him at the Twelfth Congress was spurious. The congress had adopted his resolution on industrial policy, but this had remained a dead letter.

Trotsky ends his letter with a statement that although hitherto he had declined to make his views public, now he would have to spread his ideas – not to the public as a whole, not even to all party members, but to those ‘mature’ enough.

I have deliberately avoided submitting the struggle within the Central Committee to the judgment of even a very narrow circle of comrades: specifically to those who, given any party course that was at all reasonable, would surely occupy a prominent place in the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission. I am compelled to state that my efforts over the past year and a half have yielded no result.

I think it is not only my right but my duty to make the true state of affairs known to every party member whom I consider to be sufficiently prepared, mature, self-restrained, and consequently capable of helping the party find a way out of this impasse without factional convulsions and upheavals. [17]

Trotsky’s letter was kept secret from the party rank and file.

On 15 October another letter was written, this time by a group of forty-six prominent party members. They issued a statement directed against the official leadership, criticising it in terms practically identical to those Trotsky had used. They declared that the country was threatened with economic ruin, because the ‘majority of the Politburo’ did not see the need for planning in industry. The Forty Six also protested against the rule of the hierarchy of secretaries and the stifling of discussion:

Members of the party who are dissatisfied with this or that decision of the central committee or even of a provincial committee, who have this or that doubt on their minds, who privately note this or that error, irregularity or disorder, are afraid to speak about it at party meetings, and are even afraid to talk about it in conversation ... Nowadays it is not the party, not its broad masses, who promote and choose members of the provincial committees and of the central committee of the RKP. On the contrary the secretarial hierarchy of the party to an ever greater extent recruits the membership of conferences and congresses which are becoming to an ever greater extent the executive assemblies of this hierarchy ... The position which has been created is explained by the fact that the regime is the dictatorship of a fraction within the party ...

The fractional regime must be abolished, and this must be done in the first instance by those who have created it; it must be replaced by a regime of comradely unity and internal party democracy. [18]

The Forty Six went beyond Trotsky’s letter of 8 October. They demanded that the ban on inner party groupings should be abolished. They finally asked the Central Committee to call an emergency conference to review the situation.

Among the Forty Six were Trotsky’s closest political friends: Evgenii Preobrazhensky, the brilliant economist; Iuri Piatakov, the most able of the industrial administrators; Lev Sosnovsky, Pravda’s gifted contributor; Ivan Smirnov, the victor over Kolchak; Antonov-Ovseenko, hero of the October insurrection, now chief political commissar of the Red Army; N. Muralov, commander of the Moscow garrison. Radek expressed solidarity with the Forty Six in a separate declaration. They formed the core of the so-called 1923 Opposition, and represented the Trotskyist element in it.

Besides them there were former adherents of the Workers’ Opposition and Decemists (Democratic Centralists), like V. Smirnov, T. Sapronov, V. Kossior, A. Bubnov and V. Ossinsky, whose views differed from that of the Trotskyists. Many of the signatories appended strong reservations on special points to the common statement or expressed plain dissent. The Forty Six did not represent a solid faction, but a loose coalition of groups and individuals united only in a general protest against the lack of democracy in the party.

The fact that Trotsky did not sign the document of the Forty Six was symptomatic of his irresolute attitude and his unwillingness, so long as Lenin’s recovery was still possible, to openly challenge the Troika. He thus also avoided the accusation of ‘factionalism’.

The declaration of the Forty Six lost some of its sting by its admission that ‘the present leaders would not in any conditions fail to be appointed by the party to the outstanding posts in the workers’ dictatorship’ – thus accepting that there was no alternative leadership available. The declaration was also weakened by the fact that the only concrete recommendation was the summoning of a conference of the Central Committee and active party workers to consider what should be done.

On 24 October Trotsky wrote another letter to the Central Committee criticising the inner-party regime, and referring especially to Lenin’s sharp criticism of Rabkrin.

The Troika reacts

The Central Committee and the Central Control Commission, together with delegates of ten leading party organisations, met for a plenary session from 25 to 27 October. The Troika used this session for counter measures against Trotsky and the Forty Six. Trotsky was kept away from the meeting by the onset of the mysterious illness which affected him most of that winter. In the latter part of October he had caught a severe chill while on a duck-hunting expedition, an occasion narrated at some length in his autobiography and accompanied by philosophical reflections on the role of accidents in history. [19] The sequel was what he later called ‘a dogged, mysterious infection, the nature of which still remains a mystery to my physicians’. [20] The intermittent fever lasted well into January when Trotsky left Moscow for the Caucasus.

At the party conference, which followed this plenum on 16-18 January 1924, Preobrazhensky was the main Opposition spokesman, and he continued to carry this major task throughout the ensuing few months of what has become known as the New Course controversy. He offered to the Central Committee and the Plenum of the Central Control Commission a resolution embodying the principle of workers’ democracy, including free expression and discussion, real control and election by the membership and an end to the dominance of the secretariat. [21]

Preobrazhensky’s proposal was rejected out of hand by the Troika. Instead they counter-attacked, accusing Trotsky and the Forty Six of factionalism.

The Troika justified the Central Committee’s decision not to distribute the Declaration of the Forty Six on the grounds that it would violate the banning of factional activities pronounced by the Tenth Party Congress. At the same time, the Central Committee declared its acceptance of the principle of workers’ democracy. [22]

The resolution embodying both these elements was carried overwhelmingly at the party conference: by 102 votes to 2, with 10 abstentions. This was the springboard for the campaign against the Opposition which was shortly to begin.

News about the Opposition spread, and interest in their ideas was widespread. So the Troika was not satisfied merely with the refusal to publish Trotsky’s letters of 8 and 15 October and the Declaration of the Forty Six, plus the threat of persecution of the Opposition. They decided to take the wind out of the Opposition’s sails by adopting its principles as their own. In an article in Pravda on 7 November, entitled New Tasks of the Party, Zinoviev proclaimed:

It is necessary that inner-party democracy, of which we have spoken so much, begins to a greater degree to take on flesh and blood ... Our chief trouble consists in the fact that almost all very important questions are pre-decided from above downwards.

A note appended to the article announced that the columns of the paper would be thrown open for a discussion in which party members, trade unionists and non-party people were invited to participate. The response was massive and the debate carried on in the columns of Pravda throughout the greater part of November. The Politburo appointed a sub-committee consisting of Stalin, Kamenev and Trotsky, to elaborate a resolution on party democracy. The Troika was ready to make verbal concessions to Trotsky, doing everything necessary to maintain the appearance of unity. They asked Trotsky to put his signature next to theirs under the text they had plagiarised from him. Since Trotsky himself had never come out openly in opposition to the Troika, this manoeuvre worked.

In terms of a description of the problems facing the country, the government and the party, the resolution proposed by Stalin, Kamenev and Trotsky was quite close to Trotsky’s thinking. It was vague when prescribing for inner-party democracy, but did demand ‘a serious change of the party course in the direction of a real and systematic application of the principles of workers’ democracy’. But on the crucial issue of the control exercised by the centre over the appointment of local party secretaries it remained equivocal. It recalled that the party statute required the confirmation of such appointments by the highest party authority, but thought that the time had come, ‘in the light of the experience which we now have, especially of the lower organisations’, to ‘verify the usefulness’ of this and other similar restrictions on the autonomy of local branches. ‘In any case’, concluded this section of the resolution, ‘the right to confirm secretaries cannot be allowed to be converted into their virtual nomination.’

Whilst paying lip service to inner-party democracy, the resolution was adamant in condemning any factional grouping in the party.

Workers democracy means the liberty of frank discussion of the most important questions of party life by all members, and the election of all leading party functionaries and commission by those bodies immediately under them. It does not, however, imply the freedom to form factional groupings, which are extremely dangerous for the ruling party, since they always threaten to split or fragment the government and the state apparatus as a whole. [23]

While accepting inner-party democracy, the resolution condemned the Workers’ Group and Workers’ Truth, and by implication the Declaration of the Forty Six. It cited and endorsed the earlier resolution of the Central Committee of 25 October approving the ‘course set by the Politburo for inner-party democracy’, sharply condemned the Forty Six and criticised Trotsky’s letter of 8 October. This resolution was unanimously approved at the joint session of the Politburo and the Praesidium of the Central Control Commission on 5 December. The members of the Troika could heave a sigh of relief: the danger of an open split in which Trotsky would lead the rank and file of the party against them had once again been averted.

Trotsky attached the utmost importance to this resolution which he treated as a vindication of his own point of view. In the heat of subsequent controversy he described it as initiating a fourth period in party history, the previous periods being ‘pre-October’, ‘October’, and ‘post-October’. [24] In May 1924, at the Thirteenth Party Congress, he declared that the resolution gave him the essentials of what he wanted. [25]

In words, the 5 December resolution was perhaps a victory for Trotsky. But the actual power to nominate the secretaries of provincial and local party committees, who played a crucial role in deciding the election of delegates to party congresses and conferences, remained with the Central Committee. The implementation of workers’ democracy was to remain in the hands of the bureaucracy, and since the bureaucracy was determined to hold on to its power, the resolution settled nothing.

Trotsky’s elaboration on the New Course

Although he put his name to the Politburo resolution, Trotsky still feared it could become a paper concession by the Troika, who tried to use it to escape censure, as with the concessions they made to the resolutions at the Twelfth Party Congress. To prevent its becoming a dead letter, he decided to appeal to the rank and file of the party to put pressure on the leadership.

In a series of brief articles written for Pravda in December 1923 Trotsky elaborated on the theme of bureaucratic abuse and the lack of rank and file initiative and independence. In January 1924 this collection, together with another couple of hitherto unpublished articles, was issued as a pamphlet with the title The New Course. These articles contained in a nutshell most of the ideas which became the hallmark of ‘Trotskyism’.

On 8 December Trotsky wrote an Open Letter to party members in which he made clear his position. He described the New Course as a historical turning point, but warned the rank and file that some of the leaders were already having second thoughts and trying to sabotage the New Course.

The excessive centralisation of the apparatus at the expense of initiative engendered a feeling of uneasiness, an uneasiness which, at the extremities of the party, assumed an exceedingly morbid form and was translated, among other ways, in the appearance of illegal groupings directed by elements undeniably hostile to communism. At the same time, the whole of the party disapproved more and more of apparatus methods of solving questions. The idea, or at the very least the feeling, that bureaucratism threatened to get the party into a blind alley, had become quite general. Voices were raised to point out the danger. The resolution on the ‘new course’ is the first official expression of the change that has taken place in the party. It will be realised to the degree that the party, that is, its 400,000 members, want to realise it and succeed in doing so. [26]

Trotsky then went on to appeal to the youth to assert themselves and not regard the Old Guard’s authority as,

absolute. It is only by constant active collaboration with the new generation, within the framework of democracy, that the Old Guard will preserve itself as a revolutionary factor. Of course, it may ossify and become unwittingly the most consummate expression of bureaucratism.

This was the first time Trotsky charged the Old Guard with the danger of ‘bureaucratic degeneration’. He supported the charge by referring to the historical experience of the Second International.

History offers us more than one case of degeneration of the ‘Old Guard’. Let us take the most recent and striking example: that of the leaders of the parties of the Second International. We know that Wilhelm Liebknecht, Bebel, Singer, Viktor Adler, Kautsky, Bernstein, Lafargue, Guesde, and many others were the direct pupils of Marx and Engels. Yet we know that in the atmosphere of parliamentarism and under the influence of the automatic development of the party and the trade union apparatus, all these leaders turned, in whole or in part, to opportunism.

...we, the ‘elders’, ought to say to ourselves plainly that our generation, which naturally enjoys the leading role in the party, is not absolutely guaranteed against the gradual and imperceptible weakening of the revolutionary and proletarian spirit in its ranks if the party were to tolerate the further growth and stabilisation of bureaucratic methods ... [27]

Thus, after a delay of some nine months, Trotsky at last threw the bombshell Lenin expected him to throw at the Twelfth Party Congress. Now that Trotsky put himself publicly at the head of the Opposition, open political combat between the factions became inevitable.

Trotsky for the first time developed a critique of the Soviet bureaucracy in a sustained way. He rejected the view that the bureaucracy was an accidental phenomenon, insisting that it was rooted in the objective difficulties confronting the revolution.

It is unworthy of a Marxist to consider that bureaucratism is only the aggregate of the bad habits of office holders. Bureaucratism is a social phenomenon in that it is a definite system of administration of people and things. Its profound causes lie in the heterogeneity of society, the difference between the daily and the fundamental interests of various groups of the population. Bureaucratism is complicated by the lack of culture among the broad masses. With us, the essential source of bureaucratism resides in the necessity of creating and sustaining a state apparatus that unites the interests of the proletariat and those of the peasantry in perfect economic harmony from which we are still far removed. The necessity of maintaining a permanent army is likewise another important source of bureaucratism. [28]

To fight the stranglehold of the party and state bureaucracy one had to confront the economic and social conditions of Russia’s backwardness and its isolation in the world capitalist system.

The weaker state industry was relative to the kulak and NEPman, the further was the rise of the bureaucracy in state and party.

... the growing discord between the state and peasant economy, the growth of the kulaks in the countryside, their alliance with private commercial-industrial capital: these would be – given the low cultural level of the toiling masses of the countryside and in part of the towns – the causes of the eventual counter-revolutionary dangers. [29]

The struggle against the rising bureaucracy was therefore a struggle on many fronts: a struggle for inner-party democracy plus a struggle to overcome the economic backwardness of the country and the low cultural level of the masses plus a struggle to spread the revolution internationally.

The struggle against the bureaucratism of the state apparatus is an exceptionally important but prolonged task, one that runs more or less parallel to our other fundamental tasks – economic reconstruction and the elevation of the cultural level of the masses. [30]

In the last analysis, the question will be resolved by two great factors of international importance: the course of the revolution in Europe and the rapidity of our economic development. [31]

In arguing for the need to accelerate industrial development in Russia, The New Course elaborated the guiding lines that epitomised Trotskyism from then on.

To maintain and strengthen the smychka (alliance) between the proletariat and the peasantry, a correct relationship between industry and agriculture was needed. The economic planning of the former must aid and shape the latter.

State industry must adapt,

itself to the peasant market and to the individual peasant as a taxpayer. But this adaptation has as its fundamental aim to raise, consolidate, and develop state industry as the keystone of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the basis of socialism. [32]

Trotsky then goes on to explain that the industrial plan must not be made at the cost of the peasantry, but must aid it.

The workers’ state must come to the aid of the peasants (to the degree that its means will permit!) by the institution of agricultural credits and agronomical assistance, so as to lighten the task of exporting their products (grain, meat, butter, etc.) on the world market ... it is mainly through industry that we can act directly, if not indirectly, upon agriculture. It must furnish the countryside with agricultural implements and machines at accessible prices. It must give it artificial fertilizers and cheap domestic articles. In order to organise and develop agricultural credits, the state needs a substantial revolving fund. In order to procure it, its industry must yield profits, which is impossible unless its constituent parts are rationally harmonised among themselves. That is the genuinely practical way of working toward the realisation of the smychka between the working class and the peasantry. [33]

How different this plan is from the Stalinist command economy from 1928 onwards, and from the caricature Stalinists and others made of Trotsky’s arguments for economic planning.

Weaknesses in Trotsky’s New Course

The New Course, brilliant though it was, had some significant defects.

First of all it was weak on specific proposals and demands. It is true that Trotsky confronted the Old Guard with the charge, still strongly qualified, of bureaucratic degeneration. But he did not call for its overthrow.

He also heavily qualified his warning about the dangers of the degeneration of the leaders of the party and the state:

... in actuality, is the danger of such degeneration really great? The fact that the Party has understood or felt this danger and has reacted to it energetically – which was the specific cause of the resolution of the Central Committee – bears witness to its profound vitality and by that very fact reveals the potent sources of antidote which it has at its disposal against bureaucratic poison. There lies the principal guarantee of its preservation as a revolutionary party. [34]

Further, the bureaucracy was not beyond redemption. The apparatus was not,

composed exclusively of bureaucratised elements, or even less of confirmed and incorrigible bureaucrats. Not at all! The present critical period, whose meaning they will assimilate, will teach a good deal to the majority of the apparatus workers and will get them to abandon most of their errors. The ideological and organic regrouping that will come out of the present crisis will, in the long run, have healthful consequences for the rank and file of the communists as well as for the apparatus. [35]

The most damaging weakness of The New Course was that it represented the Opposition as the best defenders of party unity and the strongest opponents of inner party factions. Trotsky proposed not the allowing of factions, but a style of leadership that would render them unnecessary.

We are the only party in the country, and in the period of the dictatorship it could not be otherwise ... the Communist Party is obliged to monopolise the direction of political life. [36]

It is incontestable that factions are a scourge in the present situation, and that groupings, even if temporary, may be transformed into factions ... The party does not want factions and will not tolerate them. [37]

On the one hand the party was strangled by the bureaucracy, but on the other Trotsky was unwilling to call on social forces outside the party to combat the bureaucracy.

The very fact of the Opposition arguing against factionalism could not but play into the hands of the Troika who repeatedly accused the Opposition of being a faction.

The New Course calls on the party to guard its monopoly of power as the sole guarantee of the survival of the revolution. At the same time, within the party, it objects to the monopoly of power of the Old Guard. It was quite easy for the Troika and its adherents to argue that the latter was the necessary consequence of the former. If one had to substitute the 400,000 party members for the millions of the proletariat, should not the latter be substituted by the ‘more reliable’ veterans – especially as 97 per cent of the party members in 1923 joined the party only after the October revolution?

There was a further weakness in The New Course. It urged the party to preserve its proletarian outlook, while at the same time it pointed out that only a sixth of the party members currently held manual occupations (by 1923 nearly two-thirds of all party members held administrative posts of one kind or another.) [38] With such a composition, inner-party democracy must mean insignificant proletarian, and predominant bureaucratic influence. The author’s Trotsky (Vol.2) states:

Lenin and Trotsky could not turn to the proletarian element in the party because this was now only a small minority. They could not rely on inner-party democracy – even if by a miracle it had been restored – because the party was made up largely of factory managers, government officials, army officers and party officials. Such a democracy would have reflected the aspirations of the bureaucracy. Lenin and Trotsky could not call on the ‘Old Guard’, first because these were a tiny minority of the party – a mere 2 per cent – and secondly because many of them made up an important part of the bureaucratic caste. [39]

Finally, the stand for democracy in The New Course seemed of questionable validity when compared with Trotsky’s (and Lenin’s) position on the same issue at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921. This is what Trotsky said then:

The Workers’ Opposition has come out with dangerous slogans, fetishising the principles of democracy. They seem to have placed the workers’ voting rights above the Party, as though the Party did not have the right to defend its dictatorship even if that dictatorship were to collide for a time with the transitory mood of the workers’ democracy ... What is indispensable is the consciousness, so to speak, of the revolutionary historical birthright of the Party, which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship in spite of the temporary vacillations in the elemental stirrings of the masses, in spite of the temporary vacillations even in the workers’ milieu. That consciousness is for us the indispensable cement. It is not on the formal principle of workers’ democracy that the dictatorship is based at any given moment, though the workers’ democracy is, of course, the only method by whose help the masses are increasingly drawn into political life. [40]

Furthermore, The New Course was couched in terms so general and elusive that very few grasped its meaning.

When sketching the defects of The New Course one glaring omission must not be overlooked: the wages issue, which was so convulsing the workers at the time, is missing. The failure of the Opposition to make common cause with the industrial workers and reflect their discontent, was one of its greatest weaknesses. As a matter of fact, the industrial unrest paralysed Trotsky. He was afraid of splitting the party and encouraging counter revolution. [41] So we find Trotsky in the grip of a contradiction. The industrial unrest of 1923 was a spur to The New Course, but also a shackle on it.

Significantly Shliapnikov, the former leader of the Workers’ Opposition, could argue that ‘there is no reason to separate Comrade Trotsky in question of policy from the other members of the Central Committee’, and that Trotsky, who merely wanted greater concentration of industry and more power in the hands of Gosplan, was indifferent to ‘the fate of the working class’. [42]

Above all, the New Course controversy demonstrated the tragic problem of a proletariat which made up a small minority of the population, weakened by civil war, in the midst of a mass of peasantry in a backward rural country surrounded by world capitalism. In 1904 Trotsky wrote: ‘It is only too clear that a proletariat capable of exercising its dictatorship over society will not tolerate any dictatorship over itself.’ [43] But what if the proletariat, due to conditions, ceases to be ‘capable of exercising its dictatorship over society’?


1. Trotsky, My Life, p.482.

2. See Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.2, pp.263-9.

3. Dvenadtsatii sezd RKP(b), Moscow 1923, p.320.

4. M. Dobb, Soviet Economic Development since 1917, London 1948, p.42.

5. Ibid., pp.46-7.

6. Ibid., p.93.

7. E.H. Carr, The Interregnum, 1923-1924, hereafter referred to as The Interregnum, London 1954, p.75.

8. Ibid., pp 77-8.

9. Ibid., p.123.

10. Ibid., p.85.

11. W. Duranty, I write as I please, New York 1925, p.138.

12. J.B. Hatch, Labor and Politics in NEP Russia: Workers, Trade Unions, and the Communist Party in Moscow, 1921-26, Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Irvine 1985, p.195.

13. Ibid., p.109-110.

14. V. Sorinn, Rabochaia Gruppa, Moscow 1924, pp.97-112.

15. Hatch, pp 220-1.

16. Trotsky, Challenge (1923-25), pp.55-6.

17. Ibid., p.58.

18. Carr, The Interregnum, pp.368-70.

19. Trotsky, My Life, pp.498-9.

20. Trotsky, Stalin, London 1947 p.381.

21. Trinadtsataia Konferentsiia RKP(b), Moscow 1924, pp.106-7.

22. KPSS v rezoliutsiiakh i resheniiakh sezdov, konferentsii i plenumov TsK, hereafter referred to as KPSS v rez., Moscow 1953, Vol.1, pp.767-8.

23. Trotsky, Challenge (1923-25), p.408.

24. Trotsky, The New Course, Challenge (1923-25), p.67.

25. Trinadtsatii sezd RKP(b), Moscow 1924, p.154.

26. Trotsky, Challenge (1923-25), pp.123-4.

27. Ibid., pp.125-6.

28. Ibid., pp.91-2.

29. Ibid., p.92.

30. Ibid..

31. Ibid., p.75.

32. Ibid., pp.119-20.

33. Ibid., p.140.

34. Ibid., p.72.

35. Ibid., p.69.

36. Ibid., pp.78-9.

37. Ibid., pp.80-1, 86.

38. Izvestiia TsK RKP(b), June 1923.

39. Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.2, p.260.

40. Desiatii sezd RKP(b), Moscow 1921, pp.350-1.

41. See Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.2, p.277.

42. Pravda, 19 Jan. 1924, quoted in Carr, The Interregnum, p.125.

43. L. Trotsky, Nashi Politicheskye Zadachi, Geneva, 1904, p.105, quoted in Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.1, London 1989, p.63.

Last updated on 31 July 2009