Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

2. The campaign against Trotsky

The Troika’s reaction to Trotsky’s New Course

THE REACTION of the Troika to Trotsky’s New Course was vehement. It began on 15 December 1923 with an article by Stalin in Pravda and a speech by Zinoviev in Petrograd (published in Pravda on 20 and 21 December). They both charged Trotsky with violating the unanimity of the Politburo by making a public statement in opposition to the unanimously adopted resolution of 5 December. From mid-December until the Thirteenth Party Conference – of 16-18 January 1924 – violent controversy raged in the key party organisations.

The Troika fired a barrage of criticism against Trotsky. He was accused of disloyalty to the Politburo, of criminally inciting the young against the Old Bolsheviks, who were the bearers of the revolutionary tradition. It was said to be wicked to turn the rank and file of the party against the apparatus: every good Bolshevik was aware of the crucial role of the apparatus in preserving and leading the party. Trotsky was equivocal over the ban on factions: he did not dare to challenge the decision of the Tenth Congress on the ban, but sought surreptitiously to undermine this decision. The Troika said he pretended to speak for the workers, but played up to the students and the intelligentsia. His hatred of the party apparatus, his slander of the Old Guard, his disrespect for the Bolshevik traditions and his underestimation of the peasantry; all these clearly demonstrated that he was alien to the party, to Lenin – that he was still a semi-Menshevik.

Stalin’s article of 15 December lashed out. It stated:

I must dispel a possible misunderstanding. It is evident from his letter, Trotsky includes himself among the Bolshevik old guard, thereby showing readiness to take upon himself the charges that may be held at the old guard if it does indeed take the path of degeneration. It must be admitted that this readiness for self-sacrifice is undoubtedly a noble trait. But I must protect Trotsky from Trotsky, because, for obvious reasons, he cannot, and should not, bear responsibility for the possible degeneration of the principal cadres of the Bolshevik old guard. Sacrifice is a good thing, of course, but do the old Bolsheviks need it? I think that they do not.

... it is impossible to understand how opportunists and Mensheviks like Bernstein, Adler, Kautsky, Guesde, and the others, can be put on a par with the Bolshevik old guard, which has always fought, and I hope will continue to fight, with honour, against opportunism, the Mensheviks and the Second International ... [1]

Stalin’s article opened the floodgates for the anti-Trotsky campaign. It aimed to divert the party’s attention from the New Course discussion. The editor of Pravda, Nikolai Bukharin, made it clear that he supported the Troika by publishing an article entitled Down with Factionalism, which was described as The Reply of the Central Organ to the critics, and continued through five issues of Pravda (28, 29, 30 December 1923, and 1 and 4 January 1924). Bukharin wrote:

After October our Party lived through three strong crises: Brest, the trade unions and the present.

In all these stages of party development Comrade Trotsky was wrong ...

The Brest Peace. In what consisted the mistakes of Comrade Trotsky (and the Left Communists)? It consisted in being carried away by the revolutionary phrase, blueprint, pretty plan. The opponents of the Brest Peace had such blueprints, but they did not see the damned reality that Lenin’s genius so brilliantly saw. Above all, they did not see the peasantry, which did not want and were not able to wage the war.

At present, Bukharin said, Trotsky was exhibiting the same one-sidedness and utopian predilection in his call for planning, for the ‘dictatorship of industry’.

Bukharin was ferocious in bashing Trotsky. He conveniently forgot that during the Brest-Litovsk controversy he, Bukharin, was associated with the Left Communists, and took a position far more extreme in opposition to Lenin than Trotsky. He was a great enthusiast for the militarisation of labour (in 1919-20), and supported to the hilt Trotsky’s position in the trade union controversy (December 1920-March 1921).

Scores of articles attacking the Opposition appeared in Pravda and only a tiny number of articles defending it. Certain Pravda staff members who favoured reporting both sides of the argument impartially were summarily sacked by order of the Central Control Commission. [2] Trotsky’s pamphlet The New Course was hardly to be found in any bookshop, as Max Eastman recorded. [3] Everything possible was done to propagate the argument that Trotsky had always been hostile to Bolshevism, and that Trotskyism had always been a trend hostile to Lenin.

Isaac Deutscher is correct when he writes:

In the long history of inner-party oppositions none had been weighed down by so heavy a load of accusations and none had been ground down so remorselessly by the party machine as was the 1923 Opposition. By comparison the Workers’ Opposition had been treated fairly, almost generously; and the oppositions which had been active before 1921 had as a rule enjoyed unrestricted freedom of expression and organisation. [4]

The party crisis of November-December 1923 was the last occasion on which Pravda provided a forum for conflicting groups within the party. Thereafter it spoke exclusively as the official voice of the Politburo.

The Thirteenth Party Conference

The preparations for the Thirteenth Party Conference, held in January 1924, were in the hands of the secretaries. The election of delegates was indirect and proceeded through several stages. At every stage the secretaries did their best to eliminate supporters of the Opposition. Bukharin himself admitted the steamroller tactics the supporters of the Troika used in party meetings.

Our cell secretaries ... are usually appointed by the district committees ... As a rule, the voting takes place according to a definite pattern. They come into the meeting and ask: ‘Is anyone opposed?’ and since everyone is more or less afraid to voice dissent, the individual who was appointed becomes secretary of the cell bureau. If we were to conduct a survey and ask how often the voting takes place with the chairman asking ‘All in favour?’ and ‘All opposed?’ we would easily discover that in the majority of cases the elections in our party organisations have in fact been transformed into a mockery of elections, because the voting takes place not only without preliminary discussion, but, again, according to the formula, ‘Is anyone opposed?’ And since it is considered bad form for anyone to speak against the leadership’, the matter is automatically settled. This is what elections are like in the local cells ... [5]

The fear of reprisal was especially great because of the threat of the sack, with unemployment so massive and the power of the ‘Red Manager’ so great.

How much support did the opposition get? It is difficult to gauge this since the press tended to give prominence only to results favourable to the official line. But there is a record of a large party meeting in Moscow in which Kamenev, appearing as spokesman for the Central Committee, could muster only 6 votes against an overwhelming majority of Opposition supporters. [6] Rykov admitted that both Piatakov and other Opposition speakers ‘frequently’ obtained majorities at party meetings. [7] Again Iaroslavsky admitted that a majority of party cells in higher education institutions had voted for the Opposition. [8]

The lower down the party structure the stronger was the Opposition. At the district conferences of Moscow Province the Opposition had far greater weight than in the regional conference. In different districts of Moscow the Opposition fared not badly. At the Baumanskii party district conference, it received 178 votes against 234 for the Central Committee. At the Zamostvoretskii party district conference it won 205 votes against the Central Committee vote of 327. In the Ragozhko-Simonovskii party district conference it won 90 votes while the Central Committee gained 121. In Khamobvnicheskii party district conference it won 157 votes against the Central Committee’s 178 (with four abstentions). At the Krasno-Presnenskii party district conference it received 188 votes against 605 for the Central Committee (with three abstentions).

In the uezd (local) party organisations, the Opposition won a majority in four, the Central Committee in nine, while one remained neutral. [9]

Of all the delegates to the conferences of the district party organisations in the Moscow Province which were held on 23 December, 36 per cent were supporters of the Opposition. At the higher level conference, that of the Province of Moscow, held on 10-11 January 1924, only 18 per cent of the delegates belonged to the Opposition. Sapronov, pointing out these facts at the Thirteenth Party Conference, asks:

If the Opposition lost 18 per cent between the district conferences and the provincial conferences, then I pose the question: of how many votes was the Opposition deprived in the workers’ cells by the pressure of the apparatus, when these votes went to the district conferences?

And Sapronov drew the conclusion that the Opposition had been defrauded of an actual majority in the Moscow Province. [10]

The Opposition was far weaker in Petrograd. Pravda reported that a mass meeting of party members addressed by Zinoviev adopted a resolution condemning the Opposition by 3,000 votes to 5 (with five abstentions). [11] Altogether, in meetings held in December, of the 21,167 party members who took part, 1,132 voted for the Opposition, and 280 abstained. [12]

The Opposition captured the party organisations in Riazan, Penza, Kaluga, Khabarovsk, Kiev, Odessa, Viatka, Simbirsk and Chelyabinsk. [13]

As the majority of the Central Committee of the Komsomol were not reliable supporters of the Troika, the general secretariat of the party, violating the statutes of the Komsomol, replaced it with its own nominated Central Committee. [14]

Students sympathetic to the Opposition were expelled from the universities in large numbers. [15]

Opposition sympathisers were quite strong in the Red Army, so the oppositionist Antonov-Ovseenko was removed from the crucial post of head of the Political Administration of the Army. (Antonov-Ovseenko was replaced by A. Bubnov, a former Democratic Centralist and one of the signatories of the Declaration of the Forty Six, who now switched to the side of the Troika and became a supporter of Stalin until he was purged in the 1930s.)

The main cause of the Opposition’s defeat, however, was to be found not in the machinations of the bureaucracy, but in the lack of fighting spirit in the proletariat. As Trotsky wrote many years later:

At the time of the party discussion in the autumn of 1923, the Moscow organisation was divided approximately in half, with a certain preponderance in favour of the Opposition in the beginning. However, the two halves were not of equal strength in their social [potential]. On the side of the Opposition was the youth and a considerable portion of the rank and file; but on the side of Stalin and the Central Committee were first of all the specially trained and disciplined politicians who were most closely connected with the political machine of the general secretary. My illness and my consequent non-participation in the struggle was, I grant, a factor of some consequence; however, its importance should not be exaggerated. In the final reckoning it was a mere episode. [All-important was the fact that] the workers were tired. Those who supported the Opposition were not spurred on by a hope for great and serious changes. On the other hand, the bureaucracy fought with extraordinary ferocity. [16]

The party apparatus demonstrated its decisive power. The Opposition got only three delegates to the Thirteenth Party Conference out of 128 delegates with deciding votes (and 222 with consultative votes.)

Trotsky was not present at the conference. As we have already mentioned, in early January he left Moscow to recuperate at the Black Sea resort of Sukhum. The leadership of the Opposition at the conference fell to Preobrazhensky, Piatakov, Osinsky and Sapronov, none of whom had the authority of Trotsky.

The conference turned into an orgy of ferocity against the Opposition led by Stalin and supported by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Stalin’s vitriolic attacks on Trotsky, in which he called him a Menshevik, ‘patriarch of bureaucrats’, and so on, culminated in a quote from the resolution of the Tenth Party Congress on the banning of factions in which the following hitherto undisclosed clause was revealed, requiring the Central Committee

... in case (cases) of breach of discipline or of a revival or toleration of factionalism, to apply all-party penalties up to and including expulsion from the party and ... A condition for the application of such an extreme measure (to members and candidate members of the CC and members of the Control Commission) must be the convocation of a plenum of the Central Committee to which all candidate members of the Central Committee and all members of the Control Commission shall be invited. If such a general assembly of the most responsible leaders of the Party by a two-thirds majority, considers it necessary to reduce a member of the Central Committee to the status of a candidate member, or to expel him from the Party, this measure shall be put into effect immediately. [17]

The conference adopted a resolution denouncing the Opposition – Trotsky and the Forty Six – as guilty of ‘petty-bourgeois deviation from Leninism’ and going on to state categorically:

The Party will politically annihilate anyone who makes an attempt on the unity of the Party ranks. Party unity is more assured now than ever before ...

Decisive measures, up to expulsion from the Party, must be adopted against the spreading of unverified rumours and prohibited documents ...

The Conference orders the Central Committee to publish the previously unpublished seventh paragraph of the resolution ‘On Party Unity’ adopted at Comrade Lenin’s proposal by the Tenth Congress, which entitles a joint meeting of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission by two­-thirds majority to demote from member to candidate member, or even to expel from the Party, any Central Committee member who has violated Party discipline or has ‘tolerated factionalism’. [18]

The resolution was passed with three votes against.

The death of Lenin

On 21 January 1924, after nine months of total disability, Lenin suffered another severe stroke and died. Trotsky, as we have mentioned, was away from Moscow. On the day of Lenin’s death his train was halted at Tiflis. There he received a coded message from Stalin informing him of Lenin’s death. Trotsky wondered whether he should return to Moscow. In his autobiography he writes:

I got the Kremlin on the direct wire. In answer to my inquiry I was told: ‘The funeral will be on Saturday, you can’t get back in time, and so we advise you to continue your treatment’. Accordingly, I had no choice.

Stalin had cheated.

As a matter of fact the funeral did not take place till Sunday, and I could easily have reached Moscow by then. Incredible as it may appear, I was even deceived about the date of the funeral. The conspirators surmised correctly that I would never think of verifying it and later on they could always find an explanation. [19]

Thus Trotsky was kept away from the elaborate funeral ceremonies in the course of which the triumvirate presented themselves to the world as Lenin’s successors.

Trotsky’s wife Natalia wrote in her diary:

Considerably delayed by the snow, the newspapers began to bring us the memorial speeches, obituaries and articles. Our friends were expecting LD to come to Moscow, and thought that he would cut short his trip in order to return, since no one imagined that Stalin’s telegram had cut off his return. I remember my son’s letter, received at Sukhum. He was terribly shocked by Lenin’s death, and though suffering from a cold, with a temperature of 104, went in his not very warm coat to the Hall of Columns to pay his last respects, and waited, waited, and waited with impatience for our arrival. One could feel in his letter his bitter bewilderment and diffident reproach. [20]

Trotsky’s absence from Lenin’s funeral must have left a very damaging impression on the minds of millions.

The opportunity which Trotsky missed was seized upon by Stalin, who assumed the lead in the funeral proceedings. The elaborate ceremony was altogether out of gear with Lenin’s simple style that detested all pomp.

Its aim was to build the new Lenin cult.

At a session of the Second All-Union Congress of Soviets held on the evening of 26 January, the day before the funeral, Stalin made his famous oration pledging the party to execute Lenin’s will, a speech peppered with liturgical refrains.

Comrades, we Communists are people of a special mould. We are made of a special stuff. We are those who form the army of the great proletarian strategist, the army of Comrade Lenin. There is nothing higher than the honour of belonging to this army. There is nothing higher than the title of member of the Party whose founder and leader was Comrade Lenin. It is not given to everyone to be a member of such a party ... DEPARTING FROM US, COMRADE LENIN ENJOINED US TO HOLD HIGH AND GUARD THE PURITY OF THE GREAT TITLE OF MEMBER OF THE PARTY. WE VOW TO YOU, COMRADE LENIN, THAT WE SHALL FULFIL YOUR BEHEST WITH HONOUR!

There followed much repetition of the same kind of bombast, after which the same liturgical refrain repeats.





Stalin’s funeral oration was a combination of Marxist terminology with the language of the Orthodox Prayer Book. The vow to Lenin was sheer hypocrisy in view of what had recently happened to the relations between Lenin and Stalin: Lenin’s assault on Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism, Stalin’s bureaucratic high-handedness in Rabkrin and his rudeness to Krupskaya that led Lenin finally to break off all personal relations.

No sooner had Lenin died than the bureaucracy initiated a Lenin cult that would have revolted the great revolutionary and would never have been tolerated while he was alive. Petrograd, the city of the revolution, was renamed Leningrad, and Lenin’s body, despite the indignant protests of Krupskaya, was embalmed and put on display in a Mausoleum in Red Square. [1*] Trotsky commented: ‘The attitude towards Lenin as a revolutionary leader gave way to an attitude like that towards the head of an ecclesiastical hierarchy’. [22]

Krupskaya was disgusted with the new Lenin cult. In a letter in Pravda of thanks for condolences received she wrote:

I have a great request to you: do not allow your mourning for Ilyich to take the form of external reverence for his person. Do not raise memorials to him, palaces named after him, solemn festivals in commemoration of him, etc. To all this he attached so little importance in his life, all this was so burdensome to him. Remember how much poverty and neglect there still is in our country. If you wish to honour the name of Vladimir Ilyich, build creches, kindergartens, houses, schools, libraries, medical centres, hospitals, homes for the disabled, etc., and, most of all, let us put his precepts into practice. [23]

The creation of the Lenin cult was a springboard for further attacks on Lenin’s comrade in arms, Trotsky. Here is Trotsky’s description of what happened shortly after Lenin’s death:

At a signal from Pravda a campaign against Trotskyism burst forth simultaneously on all platforms, in all pages and columns, in every crack and comer. It was a majestic spectacle of its kind. The slander was like a volcanic eruption. It was a great shock to the large mass of the party. I lay in bed with a temperature, and remained silent. Press and orators did nothing but expose Trotskyism, although no one knew exactly what it meant. Day after day they served up incidents from the past, polemical excerpts from Lenin’s articles of twenty years’ standing, confusing, falsifying and mutilating them, and in general presenting them as if everything had happened just the day before. No one could understand anything of all this. If it had really been true, then Lenin must have been aware of it. But was there not the October revolution after all that? Was there not the civil war after the revolution? Had not Trotsky worked together with Lenin in creating the Communist International? Were not Trotsky’s portraits hanging everywhere next to those of Lenin? But slander poured forth in a cold lava stream. It pressed down automatically on the consciousness, and was even more devastating to the will. [24]

Natalia’s diary around this time is poignant. Not only did it show Trotsky ill, but also his impotence in the face of the deluge.

The second attack of LD’s illness coincided with a monstrous campaign of persecution against him, which we felt as keenly as if we had been suffering from the most malignant disease. The pages of Pravda seemed endless, and every line of the paper, even every word, a lie. LD kept silent. But what it cost him to maintain that silence! Friends called to see him during the day and often at night. I remember that someone asked him if he had read that day’s paper. He replied that he no longer read the newspapers. And it is true that he only took them up in his hands, ran his eyes over them and then threw them aside. It seemed as if it were enough for him merely to look at them to know all that they contained. He knew only too well the cooks who had made the dish, and the same dish every day, to boot. To read the papers at that time was exactly, he would say, like pushing a funnel brush into one’s own throat. It ‘night have been possible for him to force himself to read them if LD had decided to reply. But he remained silent. His cold lingered on, thanks to his critical nervous condition. He looked pale and thin. In the family we avoided talking about the persecution, and yet we could talk of nothing else. I remember how I felt when I went to my work every day at the Commissariat of Education; it was like running a gauntlet. [25]

The Lenin Levy

After Lenin’s death the Central Committee decreed a three months’ recruiting campaign into the party called the ‘Lenin Levy’. Rules governing admission were relaxed. In the months February, March and April, the ‘Lenin Levy’ brought in 240,000, increasing the total membership of the party by more than 50 per cent.

This mass recruitment made a mockery of Trotsky’s demand to increase the number of manual workers in the party, as it simply meant its dilution. When unemployment was so widespread, belonging to the party was attractive, as its members were the last to be discharged. The new raw recruits were used by the Troika to fight ‘Trotskyism’.

Trotsky found it impossible to oppose the ‘Lenin Levy’. As a matter of fact he even praised it. In a speech on 11 April 1924 he said:

The most important fact of recent weeks and months has been the influx of workers from the plant floors into the ranks of our party. This is the best way for the fundamental revolutionary class in our country to show its will: by raising its hand and saying, we vote our confidence in the RKP ... This vote is a reliable, sure, and unerring verification by comparison with which parliamentary votes seem phantom like, superficial, and, most of all, simply charlatanistic. [26]

Twelve years later, in his book The Revolution Betrayed, he gave a much more incisive judgment of the ‘Lenin Levy’:

The political aim of this manoeuvre was to dissolve the revolutionary vanguard in raw human material without experience, without independence, and yet with the old habit of submitting to the authorities. The scheme was successful. By freeing the bureaucracy from the control of the proletarian vanguard, the ‘Leninist levy’ dealt a death blow to the party of Lenin. [27]

The Thirteenth Party Congress

The Central Committee met on 22 May 1924, on the eve of the Thirteenth Party Congress. The question of what to do with Lenin’s Testament was the decisive issue on the agenda. Krupskaya, who must have known Lenin’s wishes, desired that it should be read at the forthcoming Congress which then would take action upon it. The idea was received with consternation by Stalin. After all, a postscript to the Testament recommended his removal from the post of General Secretary of the party. Zinoviev and Kamenev were reminded in the Testament that their failure at the crucial moment of the 1917 revolution was ‘not accidental’. None of the leaders except Trotsky had anything to gain from the publication of the Testament; Stalin had most to lose.

At the meeting of the Central Committee the Testament was read by Kamenev who presided over the proceedings. Then Zinoviev spoke in terms which were recorded from memory by one of those present:

Comrades, the last wish of Ilyich, every word of Ilyich, is without doubt law in our eyes. More than once we have vowed to fulfil everything which the dying Ilyich recommended us to do. You know well that we shall keep that promise ... But we are happy to say that on one point Lenin’s fears have not proved well founded. I mean the point about our general secretary. You have all been witnesses of our work together in the last few months; and, like myself, you have been happy to confirm that Ilyich’s fears have not been realised.

Kamenev followed in support of the plea not to carry out the injunction to depose Stalin. Nobody seems to have taken up the indictment against him even though many of those present may have shared Lenin’s doubts. Trotsky remained silent throughout the proceedings. If, however, Stalin (and with him the present leadership) were to remain, nothing but harm could be done by divulging Lenin’s reflections and apprehensions to the world. By a majority of 30 votes to 10, and against the opposition of Krupskaya, it was decided not to read the Testament to the Congress, but to communicate it confidentially to the heads of the delegations attending the Congress. [28]

Stalin sought a vote of confidence from the CC by offering to resign as general secretary. Zinoviev and Kamenev called for a vote by a show of hands, but nobody voted for his removal. Trotsky, who was present, remained silent. The result was a unanimous endorsement. Stalin could later boast at the joint plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission in October 1927 that everybody ‘including Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev, obliged Stalin to remain at his post.’ [29]

How depressed and paralysed must Trotsky have been! In payment for his support for Stalin at this difficult time Zinoviev earned the right to be the main speaker at the coming Congress by delivering the political report of the Central Committee. This turned out to be an almost hysterical call for unity of the party: ‘In this hall there is not one man who would not be ready to give up everything for our party to be united, for this is the single serious prerequisite of all further successes of the revolution and all further successes of the Comintern.’

In his extreme propagation of the idea of monolithic unity Zinoviev accused Trotsky of responsibility for the formation of factions and groupings. He taunted Trotsky for his charge of lack of inner-party democracy and the dominance of the bureaucracy in the party, argued that the party must become ‘a thousand times more monolithic than hitherto’, and concluded by issuing a challenge to Trotsky to get up before the Congress and recant his errors.

The most sensible step, and most worthy of a Bolshevik, which the opposition could take, is what a Bolshevik does when he happens to make some mistake or other – to come before the party on the tribune of the party congress and say: ‘I made a mistake, and the party was right.’ ...

There is one way really to liquidate the controversy and end it once for all – to come forward on this tribune and say: ‘The party was right, and those were wrong who said that we were on the brink of ruin’. [30]

This was the first time that dissidents in the party were called upon to disavow their ideas in order to escape censure. The demand for contrition would later be made of Zinoviev as well as all those who joined him in his demand for Trotsky to recant.

Trotsky was very isolated at the Congress. The Congress was attended by 748 delegates with a deciding vote and 416 with a consultative vote. The Opposition was represented by two with a consultative vote, Trotsky and Preobrazhensky. The party apparatus had done its job ruthlessly. Only four months before, on the eve of the Thirteenth Party Conference, thousands of party members had supported the Opposition.

Trotsky made a much shorter speech than he usually did at party congresses. He said very little about the economic issues, although he reiterated his demand for more planning and repeated his accusation that ‘the party, in the form of its leading apparatus, did not approach the tasks of planned guidance of the economy with the necessary energy’. [31] He spoke with extreme moderation, reasserting his opposition to factionalism and his loyal submission to the discipline of the party. He went on to praise the ‘Lenin Levy’ as a demonstration of the ‘increased confidence of the working masses in the party ... Undoubtedly the Lenin levy brought our party closer to being an elected party.’ This is a demonstration of proletarian democracy:

... the working class at a certain stage of its development has shown in a particularly impressive way how it views the balance sheet of the party’s work over many years and has raised on its shoulders two or three hundred thousand workers and presented them to the party. [32] [2*]

Trotsky went on to reiterate the danger of bureaucratisation in the party, supporting his case with a quotation from Bukharin (quoted above) about party meetings that start with ‘Who is for?’ and ‘Who is against?’ and end with unanimous support for appointed officials and official resolutions.

He went on to vehemently deny the allegation that he supported the right of factions or groupings to exist in the party.

... party democracy in no way implies freedom for factional groupings, which are extremely dangerous for the ruling party, since they always threaten to split or divide the government and the state apparatus as a whole. I believe this is undisputed and indisputable ...

The report that I was in favour of allowing groupings is not true. It was impermissible to draw distinctions between factions and groupings ... under the present historical conditions groupings are merely another name for factions. [34]

In the final part of his speech Trotsky could not but express his real anger at Zinoviev’s call on him to recant:

Comrades, an invitation was extended here for all who have committed errors to stand up and confess them. Nothing could be simpler or easier, morally and politically, than to admit before your own party that you have made this or that mistake. For that, I believe, no great moral heroism is required.

But the resolution of 5 December 1923 constituted an admission by the Central Committee that it had made mistakes and that a new course should be set. Those whose warnings had prompted that resolution could not now declare themselves to have been wrong.

Comrades, none of us wants to be or can be right against the party. In the last analysis, the party is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument that the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks. I have already said that nothing would be simpler than to say before the party that all these criticisms, all these declarations, warnings, and protests – all were mistaken from beginning to end. I cannot say so, however, comrades, because I do not think it. I know that no one can be right against the party. It is only possible to be right with the party and through it since history has not created any other way to determine the correct position.

The English have a proverb: My country right or wrong. We can say with much greater historical justification: whether it is right or wrong in any particular, specific question at any particular moment, this is my party. [35]

Trotsky went on to say he could not vote for the resolution of the Thirteenth Party Conference which had condemned him.

Not only an individual party member but even the party itself can make occasional mistakes; such mistakes, for instance, were represented by individual decisions of the last conference, certain parts of which I believe were incorrect and unjustified. But the party could not make any decision, no matter how incorrect and unjustified, that could shake by even one iota our total devotion to the cause of the party, and the readiness of every one of us to shoulder the responsibility of party discipline under all circumstances. And if the party passes a resolution that one or another of us considers unjust, that comrade will say: Right or wrong, this is my party, and I will take responsibility for its decision to the end. [36]

Trotsky refused to recant his ideas – party discipline required only that once outvoted he agreed to abide by the majority in action.

Trotsky’s restrained speech did not save him from torrents of abuse. One delegate after another attacked him. All the leaders of the European communist parties present, except the French, rose to add their voices to the shower of abuse rained upon him. Hypocritically seizing on the ambiguity in Trotsky’s statement that ‘none of us wants to be or can be right against the party’, Stalin and Zinoviev twisted the knife in the wound. Said Stalin:

... the Party, Trotsky says, makes no mistakes. That is wrong. The Party not infrequently makes mistakes. Ilyich taught us to teach the Party, on the basis of its own mistakes, how to exercise correct leadership. If the Party made no mistakes there would be nothing from which to teach it ... It seems to me that this statement of Trotsky’s is a kind of compliment accompanied by an attempt – an unsuccessful one it is true – to jeer at the Party. [37]

And Zinoviev, following in Stalin’s footsteps, declared:

Comrade Stalin said, and I, of course, am in full accord with him, that the party can make mistakes. It is useless to hand us these sour-sweet compliments. The party has no need of that. Carr you imagine Vladimir Ilyich ever coming out on the platform and saying that the party can not make a mistake? [38]

The main resolution of the Congress confirmed the verdict of the Thirteenth Party Conference on the ‘petty-bourgeois deviation’ of the Opposition, and praised the Central Committee for its ‘firmness and Bolshevik intransigence ... in defending the foundations of Leninism against petty bourgeois deviation.’ ‘The slightest factionalism must be prosecuted most severely. The firm and monolithic quality of the RKP, based on the firm principles of Leninism, are the most important prerequisite for the further successes of the revolution.’ [39]

The Thirteenth Congress closed the discussion in the party, and prohibited Trotsky from speaking in public about the disputed questions.

Trotsky, isolated and depressed, had been routed in his absence at the Thirteenth Party Conference in January; now in May, at the Party Congress, the complete collapse of his influence and authority was further confirmed.

In the elections to the Central Committee at the Thirteenth Congress Trotsky came very low indeed, No.51 out of 52.

After the Congress the Central Committee elected Bukharin to full membership of the Politburo to fill Lenin’s place and added Dzerzhinsky. Frunze and Sokolnikov became candidates. Bukharin, Dzerzhinsky and Frunze were supporters of Stalin at the time; Sokolnikov was a supporter of Zinoviev.

Trotsky’s situation was very depressing indeed. He was completely isolated in both the Politburo and the Central Committee. As he was ill, the Politburo held lengthy sessions in his apartment so that he could participate in drawing up resolutions that were bound to boomerang on Hm. Trotsky has left no record of these sessions except a description which he quoted from Natalia’s unpublished memoirs.

These were hard days, days of tense fighting for Lev Davidovich at the Politburo against the rest of the members. He was alone and ill, and had to fight them all. Owing to his illness, the meetings were held in our apartment. I sat in the adjoining bedroom and heard his speeches. He spoke with his whole being. It seemed as if with every such speech he lost some of his strength – he spoke with so much ‘blood’. And in reply I heard cold, indifferent answers. Everything, of course, had been decided in advance, so what was the need of getting excited? After each of these meetings LD’s temperature mounted. He came out of his study soaked through and undressed and went to bed. His linen and clothes had to be dried as if he had been drenched in a ram storm. At that time, the meetings were frequent and were held in LD’s room, whose faded, old carpet appeared in my dream every night in the shape of a live panther. The meetings during the day became nightmares. [40]

The real tragedy of Trotsky was that while he opposed the Troika that dominated the party, he still was not ready to go to the mass of the workers outside of the party or even the rank and file of the party as this would violate the ban on factionalism that Lenin, with his support, had imposed on the party at the Tenth Congress. Above all Trotsky was afraid to mobilise non-party people, many of whom were influenced by Mensheviks, SRs and others, who, together with the new bourgeoisie of the NEP, raised their heads in opposition to Bolshevism. He still considered the Communist Party to be the revolutionary party and thought that his place was inside it whatever happened. When many years later Trotsky wrote in an obituary of Krupskaya that ‘her revolutionary instinct came into conflict with her spirit of discipline’ [41] he was laying bare his own plight.


1*. In June 1924 Iuzovka, an iron and steel town in the Ukraine, was renamed Stalinsk, the neighbouring railway station known as Iuzovo became StaliNo.In September 1924 Elizavetgrad, also in the Ukraine, was named Zinoviesk. In April 1925 Tsaritsin was renamed Stalingrad.

2*. A few weeks after the Congress Stalin said the ‘Lenin Levy’ was ‘evidence of the Party’s profound democracy ... It actually is the elected organ of the working class.’ [33]


1. J.V. Stalin, Works, Moscow 1949, Vol.5, pp.394-5.

2. Carr, The Interregnum, pp.319, 322-3.

3. M. Eastman, Since Lenin Died, London 1925, p.53.

4. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, London 1959, p.126.

5. Quoted by Trotsky at Thirteenth Party Congress, May 1924, Challenge (1923-25), p.149.

6. Trinadtsaia konferentsiia RKP(b), p.218.

7. Ibid., p.108.

8. Ibid., p.126.

9. Hatch, pp.406-412.

10. Trinadtsaia konferentsiia RKP(b), Moscow 1963, pp.131-3.

11. Pravda, 18 December 1923.

12. T.E. Nisonger, The Leningrad Opposition of 1925-26 in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, PhD Thesis, Columbia University, 1976, p.111.

13. Trinadtsaia konferentsiia RKP(b), pp.124, 133.

14. G. Zinoviev, Chetirenadtsatii sezd VKP(b), Moscow 1926, p.459.

15. Eastman, p.82.

16. Trotsky, Stalin, p.387.

17. Stalin, Works, Vol.6, pp.24-5.

18. KPSS v rez., Vol.1, p.784-5.

19. Trotsky, My Life, p.508.

20. Ibid., p.511.

21. Stalin, Works, Vol.6, pp.47-53.

22. Trotsky, My Life, p.514.

23. Pravda, 30 January 1924, quoted in Carr, The Interregnum, p.349.

24. Trotsky, My Life, p.514.

25. Ibid., p.515.

26. Leon Trotsky Speaks, New York 1972, p.196.

27. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp.97-8.

28. The fullest report of this meeting is in B. Bazhanov, Stalin, Paris 1931, pp.32-4; quoted in Carr, The Interregnum, pp.360-1.

29. Stalin, Works, Vol.10, p.181.

30. Trinadtsatii sezd RKP(b), p.115.

31. Trotsky, Challenge (1923-25), p.158.

32. Ibid., p.160.

33. Stalin, Works, Vol.6, p.267.

34. Ibid., pp.153-4.

35. Ibid., p.161.

36. Ibid., p.162.

37. Stalin, Works, Vol.6, pp.238-9.

38. Trinadtsatii sezd RKP(b), p.261.

39. KPSS v rez., Vol.1, pp.819-21.

40. Trotsky, My Life, pp.499-500.

41. Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.75-76, March-April 1939, p.32.

Last updated on 5 August 2009