Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

7. The United Opposition

The United Opposition is launched

AFTER TROTSKY’S return to Russia, in the latter part of May 1926, he, Zinoviev and Kamenev set out to unite their factions. This was not easy. First of all, the Trotskyist faction had been dispersed and had to be brought together again. When this took place it became clear that it was far weaker than it had been in 1923. Secondly there was great resistance in the two factions to unity. Among Trotsky’s associates some favoured unity with the Zinovievites, but others – Radek and Antonov-Ovseenko – preferred an alliance with Stalin. Still others declared a plague on both their houses. Mrachkovsky, a hero of the Ural battles declared: ‘Stalin will deceive us, and Zinoviev will sneak away’. [1] Victor Serge, a member of the Leningrad group of Trotskyists, said that this group was far from enthusiastic about merging with the Zinovievites.

We were taken aback by the news that Trotsky had concluded an agreement with the Leningrad Opposition. How could we sit at the same table with the bureaucrats who had hunted and slandered us ... We hesitated to hand over the list of our leading members to them. What would they be up to tomorrow? [2]

Among the Zinovievites there was also great resistance to the merger. After all it was Zinoviev and Co. who had made the most vicious assault on Trotsky over the past two years.

Zinoviev and Kamenev had to explain to their adherents that Trotskyism was a bogey that they themselves had invented. Finally, embarrassed by the charge that they had surrendered to Trotskyism, Zinoviev and Co. asked Trotsky to help. To accommodate them Trotsky made a rotten compromise: he renounced the theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky felt, and continued to feel, that the creation of the bloc with the Zinovievites was justified even after his allies betrayed him and capitulated to Stalin at the end of 1927. Trotsky writes in his autobiography:

Zinoviev and Kamenev openly avowed that the ‘Trotskyists’ had been right in the struggle against them ever since 1923. They accepted the basic principles of our platform. In such circumstances it was impossible not to form a bloc with them, especially since thousands of revolutionary Leningrad workers were behind them. [3]

As we have mentioned, Kamenev and Zinoviev were ecstatically optimistic, but Trotsky felt differently. Victor Serge remembers:

I had no confidence that we would win: I was even sure in my own heart that we would be defeated. I remember saying this to Trotsky ... In the old capital we could count on only a few hundred militants, and the mass of the workers was indifferent to our case. Leon Davidovich spread his hands wide: ‘There is always some risk to be run. Sometimes you finish like Liebknecht and sometimes like Lenin’. [4]

In the end the United Opposition struggled against Stalin and Bukharin for about eighteen months.

The first time the United Opposition leaders acted in concert was at the joint plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of 14-23 July 1926. There Zinoviev made a statement admitting that the Trotskyist Opposition of 1923 had been right, and Trotsky withdrew the charge of opportunism levelled at Zinoviev and Kamenev in The Lessons of October.

Zinoviev stated:

‘I have made many mistakes, but I consider two mistakes as the most important ones. My first mistake of 1917 is known to all of you ... The second mistake I consider more dangerous because the first one was made under Lenin. The mistake of 1917 was corrected by Lenin and made good by us within a few days with the help of Lenin. But my mistake of 1923 consisted in ...’

Ordzhonikidze (interrupting): ‘Then why did you dupe the entire party?’

Zinoviev: ‘We say, there can no longer be any doubt now that the main nucleus of the 1923 Opposition, as the development of the present ruling faction has shown, correctly warned against the dangers of the departure from the proletarian line, and against the alarming growth of the apparatus regime ... Yes, in the question of suppression by the bureaucratised apparatus, Trotsky proved to be right as against us.’ [5]

At the same session Trotsky declared:

There is no doubt that in The Lessons of October I associated the opportunist shifts in policy to the names of Zinoviev and Kamenev. As experience of the ideological struggle in the Central Committee testifies, that was a gross mistake. This mistake is to be explained by the fact that I had no opportunity of following the ideological struggle among the seven [of the Politburo] and of ascertaining in time that the opportunist shifts proceeded from the group headed by Comrade Stalin, in opposition to Comrades Zinoviev and Kamenev. [6]

The major document of the United Opposition was a declaration signed by thirteen Opposition members of the Central Committee, including Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krupskaya and Trotsky. This document embraced the essential principles of the Opposition case for the whole period from 1923 to 1927.

The United Opposition defined its attitude as that of the Bolshevik left, defending the interests of the working class against the kulaks, NEPmen and bureaucracy. The declaration starts with an assault on the bureaucracy of state and party:

The immediate cause of the increasing crises in the party is bureaucratism, which has grown appallingly in the period since Lenin’s death and continues to grow. [7]

The growth of the bureaucracy was rooted in the economic backwardness of the country.

The Declaration attributed factionalism to the growth of bureaucratism, which was in turn the product of ‘the lowering of the specific weight of the proletariat in our society’.

One crucial criterion for socialist advance is a rise in the level of workers’ wages. The government imposed a wage stop, authorising no increase in workers’ earnings unless accompanied by a rise in productivity. Workers’ wages were still lower than before the war and they were not paid punctually.

Inefficiency and sloppiness in setting pay rates and work norms, which make life hard for the workers, are nine times out of ten the direct result of bureaucratic indifference to the most elementary interests of the workers and of production itself. These can also be considered the source of non-punctual payment of wages, i.e., the relegation to the background of what should be the foremost concern. [8]

Workers’ wages should be improved, as also should the housing conditions of workers. Taxation had to be reformed. State revenue came increasingly from indirect taxes, the brunt of which was borne by the poor. This burden had to be lightened, and the kulaks and NEPmen made to carry a heavier burden of taxes.

The climax of the Declaration was the demand for more rapid industrialisation:

The year just passed has shown with full clarity that state industry is lagging behind the economic development of the country as a whole. The new harvest again catches us short of reserves of industrial goods. But progress towards socialism can be assured only if the rate of industrial development, instead of lagging behind the overall movement of the economy, draws the rest of the economy along after it, systematically bringing the country closer to the technological level of the advanced capitalist countries. Everything should be subordinated to this goal, which is equally vital for both the proletariat and the peasantry. Only on the condition of a satisfactory powerful development of industry can both higher wages for the workers and cheaper goods for the village be assured.

The lagging of industry threatened the smychka of the proletariat and the peasantry.

If the upper layers in the village were able to hold back last year’s harvest until this spring, thereby cutting into both exports and imports, increasing unemployment and causing retail prices to rise, that means that the economic and tax policies that gave the kulaks the chance to pursue such a course against the workers’ and peasants’ interests, were in error. Under these conditions, correct tax policies, along with correct price policies, are an essential part of socialist management of the economy. Several hundred million roubles accumulated and concentrated in the hands of the upper strata of the villages even now go to promote the debt bondage of the rural poor to the loan sharks and usurers. The merchants, middlemen, and speculators have already piled up many hundreds of millions of roubles, which have long since been parlayed into billions. It is necessary to apply the tax screws more energetically in order to extract a significant portion of these resources to nourish industry, to strengthen the system of agricultural credit, and to provide the lowest strata in the villages with support in the form of machinery and equipment on advantageous terms. The question of the smychka between agriculture and industry under present circumstances is above all a question of industrialisation. [9]

The Declaration denounced the policy of relying on the kulaks.

In questions of agricultural policy, the danger of a shift toward the upper strata in the village has become more and more plainly delineated ... The alliance with the middle peasant is more and more transformed into an orientation toward the ‘well-to-do’ middle peasant, who more often than not proved to be a junior edition of the kulak. One of the primary tasks of the socialist state is, through the formation of cooperatives, to bring the poor peasants out of their dead-end situation.

... the fact is that under the pretext of an alliance of the poor with the middle peasants we everywhere observe the political subordination of the poor to the middle peasants and through them to the kulaks. [10]

The Declaration criticises the policy of the Comintern, inspired by the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, and leading to reliance for the defence of peace on British trade union leaders, in the Anglo-Russian Committee. (See further on this point in the next chapter.)

Finally the Declaration turns to the issue of factionalism and denounces the persecution of the Opposition: to lead the party forward ‘does not mean strangling it’.

The United Opposition retreats and capitulates

Again and again we see the same unfolding of events. The Opposition moves forward, meets massive resistance from the Stalinists, and retreats.

The reaction of the Central Committee majority to the Opposition’s Declaration was vehement. The debate at the Central Committee Plenum was heated, and this was exacerbated by the unfortunate occurrence of a grim incident: Dzerzhinsky, the Chairman of the Supreme Economic Council, upheld the official economic policy and reputedly threatened the Opposition with ‘fresh gunpowder’. After two hours of a shrieking speech he left the rostrum, suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died in the lobby before the eyes of the Central Committee.

The Central Committee completely rejected all the Opposition demands. It repudiated the demand for a review of the wage scales; it refused to exempt poor peasants from taxation and impose heavier taxes on the better-off peasants; it resisted the demand for accelerated industrialisation. Finally it reaffirmed its support for the Bukharin-Stalin Comintern policy, and in particular for the Anglo-Russian Committee.

Stalin violently assaulted the Opposition, not dealing with the essence of the controversy, but concentrating on the issue of party discipline. He accused the Opposition of forming a faction – thus violating the Leninist decision of the Tenth Congress – and Zinoviev of abusing his position as President of the Comintern for factional purposes, attacked Lashevich and a group of less prominent oppositionists for holding a clandestine meeting in the woods outside Moscow, and finally laid into one Ossovsky, who had expressed the view that the Opposition should constitute itself as an independent party.

The Central Committee resolved to expel Ossovsky from the party, to dismiss Lashevich from the Central Committee and the Commissariat of War where he was Deputy Commissar, and to deprive Zinoviev of his seat on the Politburo. [11] As Kamenev had been only an alternate member of the Politburo since the Fourteenth Congress, Trotsky alone of all the Oppositionists now remained on this body.

It was now clear to Trotsky that to restrict the discussion to the Central Committee and Politburo – where the Opposition was in a tiny minority – was hopeless. Hence the Opposition decided to appeal to the rank and file of the party against the Politburo and the Central Committee. Accordingly in the summer of 1926 the adherents of the Opposition brought their arguments to the notice of all party members. They distributed policy statements, tracts and ‘theses’, and spoke at party cells.

Trotsky’s first speech was to a Party cell of workers on the Kazan railway on 30 September 1926. On the following day, Radek, Piatakov, Zinoviev and Trotsky spoke at a party meeting in the Aviapribor factory in Moscow. [12]

However, the party machine went in to full steam to stop the Opposition in its tracks. All its meetings were disrupted by jeering and heckling, which often made it impossible for the speakers to be heard. Deutscher writes:

For the first time in nearly thirty years, for the first time since he had begun his career as revolutionary orator, Trotsky found himself facing a crowd helplessly. Against the scornful uproar with which he was met and the obsessive hissings and hootings, his most cogent arguments, his genius for persuasion, and his powerful and sonorous voice were of no avail. The insults to which other speakers were subjected were even more brutal. It was clear that the Opposition’s first concerted appeal to party opinion had met with failure. [13]

On 2 October the Moscow Party Committee passed a resolution condemning the meeting at Aviapribor accusing Trotsky, Zinoviev and Piatakov, who spoke at it, of factionalism, and inviting the Central Committee to call the Opposition to account.

The failure of the Opposition campaign became evident, and on 4 October, the leaders of the Opposition made what was really an appeal for terms of surrender. It was the Zinovievites who put the pressure on Trotsky to do this. Trotsky was not surprised. He knew Zinoviev. In a different context years later he wrote: ‘Zinoviev ... was inclined, as everybody knew, to fall into panic whenever a difficult situation arose.’ [14]

In return for the Opposition’s agreement to abstain from ‘factionalism’, Stalin was supposed to call off the campaign of hounding the Opposition before the approaching Fifteenth Party Conference. Of course, Stalin did not abide by this agreement. At a meeting of the Politburo on 11 October he dictated draconian terms to the Opposition:

The opposition must consent to these conditions if it desires peace in the Party.

What are our conditions?

The first point is that it must publicly declare that it will unreservedly obey the decisions of our Party bodies.

The second point is that the Opposition must openly admit that its factional activity was erroneous and harmful to the Party.

The third point was that the Opposition must distance itself from former members of the Workers’ Opposition like Shliapnikov and Medvedev.

The fourth point was that the Opposition must dissociate itself from opposition groups in Communist parties abroad. [15]

The Opposition leaders capitulated. On 16 October they issued a statement declaring:

We categorically reject the theory and practice of ‘freedom of factions and groupings’ and recognise that such theory and practice are contrary to Leninism and the decisions of the party. We consider it our duty to carry out the decisions of the party regarding the impermissibility of factional activity. At the same time, we consider it to be our duty to admit openly before the party that we and our supporters, in putting forward our views on a number of occasions after the Fourteenth Congress, have committed acts which violated party discipline and that we have followed a factional course which goes beyond the limits of ideological struggle within the party laid down by the party. In recognising these acts as wrong, we declare that we emphatically ‘denounce factional methods of propagating our views, as these methods endanger the unity of the party, and we call upon all comrades who share our views to do the same. We call for the immediate dissolution of all factional groupings which have been formed around the views of the ‘Opposition’.

At the same time, we admit that by our appearances in Moscow and Leningrad in October, we violated the decision of the Central Committee on the impermissibility of a discussion, in that we opened such a discussion against the decisions of the Central Committee.

... we consider it absolutely impermissible to support either directly or indirectly the factionalism of any group in the various sections of the Comintern against the line of the Comintern ...

The statement ends with these words:

... we pledge ourselves to render every possible assistance to the party in the liquidation of factional struggle and to combat new breaches of discipline. [16]

Stalin’s conditions were accepted completely. The Opposition’s statement appeared in Pravda on 17 October. Pravda declared: this was ‘the complete, absolute and magnificently sustained victory of the party over the United Opposition’.

The United Opposition found itself trapped by its own acceptance of the banning of factions.

The banning of factions was not a part of the Bolshevik tradition, but on the contrary, was at complete variance with it, as Trotsky explained many years later. He wrote on 15 July 1939:

The entire history of Bolshevism was one of free struggle of tendencies and factions. In different periods Bolshevism passed through the struggle of pro- and anti-boycottists, ‘otzovists’, ultimatists, conciliationists, partisans of ‘proletarian culture’, partisans and opponents of the armed insurrection in October, partisans and opponents of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, left communists, partisans and opponents of the official military policy, etc. etc. The Bolshevik Central Committee never dreamed of demanding that an opponent ‘abandon factional methods’, if the opponent held that the policy of the Central Committee was false. Patience and loyalty towards the opposition were among the most important traits of Lenin’s leadership.

It is true that the Bolshevik Party forbade factions at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, a time of mortal danger. One can argue whether or not this was correct. The subsequent course of development has in any case proved that this prohibition served as one of the starting points of the party’s degeneration. The bureaucracy presently made a bogey of the concept of faction’, so as not to permit the party either to think or to breathe. Thus was formed the totalitarian regime which killed Bolshevism. [17]

Now, the acceptance by Trotsky and the other leaders of the United Opposition in October 1926 that they would restrict their arguments to the party’s leading bodies alone without appealing to the rank and file, committed them to complete impotence. In addition, they disavowed all the foreign groups and individuals who had declared support for the Russian Opposition and paid for this by expulsion from their own parties.

The Yugoslav Communist observer Ante Ciliga, a supporter of the Opposition, wrote about Trotsky’s ‘prudence and diplomacy’:

Whereas the majority, led by Stalin and Bukharin, manoeuvred to obtain the total exclusion of the Opposition, the latter constantly sought for compromises and amicable arrangements. This timid policy of the Opposition was instrumental, if not in bringing about its defeat, certainly in weakening its resistance. [18]

It was the pressure of the Zinovievites and the fear of a split in the United Opposition, and above all the feeling of tragic helplessness that led Trotsky to go along with the statement of 16 October. He also hoped that this would give the Opposition some breathing space. The leaders of the Opposition hoped that Stalin would stop the organisational reprisals against it after they issued the statement of 16 October, but in vain. On 18 October a bombshell exploded. Max Eastman published Lenin’s Testament in the New York Times. This was the first time that the full text saw the light of day. A year earlier Eastman had published excerpts from the Testament in his book Since Lenin Died, and Trotsky, under Politburo pressure, disavowed Eastman and denied the authenticity of the Testament. As Zinoviev and Kamenev at the Fourteenth Party congress (December 1925) had demanded the publication of the Testament and repeated this demand again and again, it seemed to Stalin that Eastman’s article in the New York Times was inspired by the leaders of the Opposition.

When on 21 October the Politburo met, newspapers all over the world were full of the sensational disclosure of Lenin’s Testament. This enraged Stalin and Bukharin who now launched a vicious attack on the Opposition. In theses for the coming Fifteenth Party Conference the Politburo accused the Opposition of not renouncing its ‘errors of principle’, and of not denouncing Trotskyism, which was a Social-Democratic deviation’, despite its formal submission to party discipline.

Trotsky must have felt that Stalin had tricked the Opposition into committing suicide, and so at an angry scene at the Politburo he called Stalin ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’. This vehement outburst horrified its hearers, even including some of the Trotskyists.

Natalia Sedova describes this scene:

Muralov, Ivan Smirnov and the others came to our flat in the Kremlin one afternoon, waiting for Leon Davidovich to return from a Politburo meeting. Piatakov arrived first, very pale and visibly upset. He poured himself a glass of water, gulped it down and said, ‘I have been under fire, but this – this was worse than anything I’ve ever seen! Why, oh why, did Leon Davidovich say that? Stalin will never forgive him or his children for generations to come!’ Piatakov was so overwrought that he was unable to tell us clearly what had happened. When Leon Davidovich finally came into the dining-room, Piatakov rushed up to him. ‘Why, why did you say that?’ Leon Davidovich brushed the question aside; he was exhausted but calm. [19]

The Central Committee deprived Trotsky of his seat on the Political Bureau, and announced that Zinoviev would not represent the Soviet Communist Party on the Executive of the Comintern, thus removing him, in practice, from the presidency of the Comintern.

The Fifteenth Party Conference

When the conference opened on 26 October the Opposition leaders hoped to salvage something from the ceasefire by prudent behaviour; so they refused to participate in the discussion for six days, even during the debate on the economic theses, which were presented by Rykov.

On the seventh day, 1 November, Stalin presented his theses on the Opposition, which contained the nastiest possible attack on it.

Stalin recalled all that Zinoviev had said about Trotsky as the enemy of Leninism, and Trotsky’s description of Zinoviev and Kamenev as the ‘strike-breakers of October’. He ridiculed the ‘mutual amnesty’ they guaranteed each other. He repeated ad nauseam the history of Trotsky’s antagonism to Lenin’s ideas, and accused Zinoviev and Kamenev of ‘surrendering to Trotskyism’. He denounced the Opposition for inciting the party against the peasantry in the interests of excessive industrialisation which ‘would condemn millions of workers and peasants to impoverishment’, and would not be different to the capitalist method of industrialisation. Instead Stalin put forward the policy of the party majority, the ‘socialist’ method of industrialisation:

What is the principal merit of the socialist method of industrialisation? It is that it leads to unity between the interests of industrialisation and the interests of the main mass of the labouring sections of the population, that it leads not to the impoverishment of the vast masses, but to an improvement of their living standards, not to an aggravation of the internal contradictions, but to the latter being evened out and overcome. [20]

Again and again Stalin denounced the Opposition as Menshevik, Social-Democratic’.

Finally, he called on the conference to give the Opposition a unanimous rebuff.

Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky all spoke in reply.

Both Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s speeches were plaintive and pleading. Both tried to exonerate themselves from the charge that they had ‘surrendered to Trotskyism’, claiming that they had united with Trotsky only for a definite and limited purpose, as Lenin had often done.

Zinoviev said that had he been told that it was undesirable ‘in the interests of peace’ for the Opposition to offer an explanation, he would not have spoken. Trotsky’s speech was brilliant in content and form, although moderate in tone – the latter probably as a concession to his Zinovievite allies.

Trotsky argued the Opposition’s case for industrialisation as the key to strengthening the coalition of the workers and peasants. What was ‘Social-Democratic’ in this policy? He pointed out the speedily increasing social differentiation of the peasantry. The Opposition asked that the well-to-do pay higher taxes and that the poor be granted relief. ‘What is there in it that is Social-Democratic?’ The Opposition was against a credit policy which favoured the kulak. Was this Social-Democratic?

There have been differences of opinion on the question of wages. In substance, these differences consisted of our being of the opinion that at the present stage of development of our industry and economy, and at our present economic level, the wage question must not be settled on the assumption that the workers must first increase the productivity of labour, which will then raise the wages, but that the contrary must be the rule, that is, a rise in wages, however modest, must be the prerequisite for an increased productivity of labour ... This may be right or it may not, but it is not ‘Social-Democratic’. [21]

The Opposition did not share Bukharin’s view that capitalism had regained stability. Was that Social-Democratic? Was the Opposition’s criticism of the Anglo-Russian Committee Social-Democratic?

Trotsky recalled his service in the Comintern, his close collaboration with Lenin, and especially his support for Lenin in the transition to NEP, the NEP he is allegedly wishing to destroy. He was charged with ‘disbelief in the building of socialism.

Yet had he not written:

... the advantages of our system over capitalism ... will enable us in the next few years to increase the coefficient of our industrial expansion not only to twice the figure of 6 per cent attained in the pre-war period, but to three times that figure, and perhaps to even more. [22]

Trotsky then went on to refute the theory of ‘socialism in one country’. He quoted liberally from Lenin in his support. Particularly withering was his criticism of Bukharin’s defence of the theory.

In his last article in Bolshevik, which I must say is the most scholastic work which has ever issued from Bukharin’s pen [laughter], he says: ‘the question is whether we can work towards socialism, and establish it, if we abstract this from the international factors’ ...

... Just listen to this: Whether we can work towards socialism, and establish it, if we abstract this question from the international factors’. If we accomplish this ‘abstraction’, then of course the rest is easy. But we can not. That is the whole point. [Laughter]

It is possible to walk naked in the streets of Moscow in January, if we can abstract ourselves from the weather and the police. [Laughter]. But I am afraid that this abstraction would fail, both with respect to weather and to police, were we to make the attempt. [Laughter]

‘We repeat once more: it is a question of internal forces and not of the dangers connected with the outside world. It is therefore a question of the character of the revolution’. [He said, quoting Bukharin] ...

The character of our revolution, independent of international relations! Since when has this self-sufficing character of our revolution existed? I maintain that our revolution, as we know it, would not exist at all but for two international prerequisites: firstly, the factor of finance capital, which, in its greed, has fertilised our economic development; and secondly, Marxism, the theoretical quintessence of the international labour movement which has fertilised our proletarian struggle. This means that the revolution was being prepared, before 1917, at those crossroads where the great forces of the world encountered one another. Out of this clash of forces arose the ‘Great War’, and out of this the October Revolution. And now we are told to abstract ourselves from the international situation and to construct our socialism at home for ourselves. That is a metaphysical method of thought. There is no possibility of abstraction from the world economy.

Trotsky goes on to deal with foreign trade.

What is export? A domestic or an international affair? The goods to be exported must be produced at home, thus it is a domestic matter. But they must be exported abroad, hence it is an international transaction. And what is import? Import is international! The goods have to be purchased abroad. But they have to be brought into the country, so it is a domestic matter after all. [Laughter] This example of import and export alone suffices to cause the collapse of Comrade Bukharin’s whole theory, which proposes an ‘abstraction’ from the international situation. The success of socialist construction depends on the speed of economic development, and this speed is now being determined directly and more sharply than ever by the imports of raw materials and machinery ... The whole of our constructive work is determined by international conditions. [23]

In the same speech Trotsky made a very serious concession to the Zinovievites: he denounced the theory of permanent revolution.

I have no intention, comrades, of raising the question of the theory of permanent revolution. This theory – in respect both to what has been right in it and to what has been incomplete and wrong – has nothing whatever to do with our present contentions. In any case, this theory of permanent revolution, to which so much attention has been devoted recently, is not the responsibility in the slightest degree of either the Opposition of 1925 or the Opposition of 1923, and even I myself regard it as a question which has long been consigned to the archives. [24]

The Fifteenth Party Conference was marked by defections from the United Opposition. In his closing speech Stalin announced that Krupskaya had broken off relations with the Opposition. This defection must have had a shattering impact. In addition Shliapnikov and Medvedev, having been disowned by the Opposition leadership, now signed recantations of their views, which Stalin broadcast as a sign of the ‘further collapse of the Opposition bloc’. Finally Stalin played the leaders of foreign Communist Parties against the Opposition. On their behalf Clara Zetkin, the veteran German Communist, criticised Trotsky and Zinoviev. [25]

By far the nastiest attack on the Opposition was carried out by Bukharin. Deutscher describes the scene

Now [Bukharin] stood by Stalin’s side, as Zinoviev had stood there two years earlier, and assailed the Opposition with reckless virulence, exulting in its plight, bragging, threatening, inciting, sneering, and playing up to the worst elements in the party. The kindly scholar was as if transfigured suddenly. The thinker turned into a hooligan and the philosopher into a thug destitute of all scruple and foresight. He praised Stalin as the true friend of the peasant smallholder and the guardian of Leninism; and he challenged Trotsky to repeat before the conference what he had said at the Politburo about Stalin ‘the grave-digger of the revolution’. He jeered at the restraint with which Trotsky had addressed the conference, a restraint due only to the fact that the party had ‘seized the Opposition by the throat’. The Opposition, he said, appealed to them to avert the ‘tragedy’ that would result from a split. He, Bukharin, was only amused by the warning: ‘Not more than three men will leave the party. This will be the whole split!’, he exclaimed amid great laughter. ‘This will be a farce, not a tragedy.’ He thus scoffed at Kamenev’s apology.

‘When Kamenev comes here and ... says: “I, Kamenev, have joined hands with Trotsky as Lenin used to join hands with him and lean on him”, one can only reply with Homeric laughter: what sort of a Lenin have they discovered! We see very well that Kamenev and Zinoviev are leaning on Trotsky in a very odd manner. (Prolonged laughter; and applause) They “lean” on him in such a way that he has saddled them completely (giggling and applause), and then Kamenev squeals: “I am leaning on Trotsky”. (Mirth) Yes, altogether like Lenin! (Laughter)’ ... self-assured and complacent, juggling and jingling with quotations from Lenin, [Bukharin] returned to the attack on permanent revolution, on Trotsky’s ‘heroic postures’, hostility towards the muzhik, and ‘fiscal theory of building socialism’; and again and again he extolled the steadfastness, the reliability, and the caution of his own and of Stalin’s policies which secured the alliance with the peasantry. When the Opposition ‘screamed’ about the strength of the kulak and the danger of peasant strikes and of famine in the towns, it was trying to frighten the people with bogeys. The party should not forgive them this and the ‘chatter about the Soviet Thermidor’, unless they came with their heads bowed to repent, confess, and beg: ‘Forgive us our sins against the spirit and the letter and the very essence of Leninism!’ Amid frantic applause he went on:

‘Say it, and say it honestly: Trotsky was wrong when he declared that ours was not a fully proletarian state! Why don’t you have the plain courage to come out and say so? ... Zinoviev has told us here how well Lenin treated oppositions. Lenin did not expel any opposition even when he was left with only two votes for himself in the Central Committee ... Yes, Lenin knew his job. Who would try and expel an opposition when he could muster two votes only? (Laughter) But when you get all the votes and you have only two against you and the two shriek about Thermidor, then you may well think about expulsion.’

The conference was delighted with this display of cynicism and shook with merriment. From the floor Stalin shouted: ‘Well done, Bukharin. Well done, well done. He does not argue with them, he slaughters them!’ [26]

The Opposition was routed. The Conference sanctioned the expulsion of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev from the Politburo, threatening them with reprisals if they dared to reopen the controversy.

The harassment of the Opposition was continued before an international audience when the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern met on 22 November. The removal of Zinoviev from presidency of the Executive Committee was confirmed and he was stripped of all his Comintern functions. On 7 December Stalin made a three-hour speech attacking the Opposition leaders. Discussion on the question lasted a week. Bukharin, Kuusinen, Treint, Pepper, Birch, Stern, Brandt, Remmele and many others attacked Trotskyism. Stalin’s resolution describing the Opposition as a ‘right-wing danger to the party, frequently concealed behind left phrases’, connected with other oppositions both in Russia and abroad, passed unanimously. The Executive Committee of the Communist International approved the expulsion of Trotskyists and Zinovievites from foreign Communist Parties. [27]

Again lying low

In the winter of 1926-27 the United Opposition reached a fate similar to that of the 1923 Opposition after its defeat. With the banning of factions the choice was either to go on fighting and risk expulsion from the party or accept defeat. The Zinovievites were inclined to lie low. Zinoviev and Kamenev went so far as to advise their followers to keep their views to themselves, and if need be even to deny their association with the Opposition. Such advice, of course, could not but demoralise those to whom it was given. They began to desert and recant.

The Trotskyists, who had already gone through a similar experience in 1923-4, knew they could gain nothing from a policy of passivity. Trotsky, in a memorandum written on 26 November, re-examined the recent experience, and with complete realism still argued that however difficult the situation, however depressed the workers’ mood, revolutionaries should not give in to that. In the memorandum Trotsky analyses the reasons for the strength of the bureaucracy and the weakness of the Opposition. He finds the main cause in the conservative mood of the workers.

It would be wrong to ignore the fact that the proletariat today is considerably less receptive to revolutionary perspectives and to broad generalisations than it was during the October Revolution and in the ensuing few years ...

... the masses, especially the older generation ... have grown more cautious, more sceptical, less directly responsive to revolutionary slogans, less inclined to place confidence in broad generalisations. These moods, which unfolded after the ordeals of the civil war and after the successes of economic reconstruction and have not yet been undone by the new shifts of class forces – these moods constitute the basic political background of party life. These are the moods which bureaucratism – as an element of law and order’ and ‘tranquility’ – relies on. The attempt of the Opposition to put the new problems before the party ran up against precisely these moods.

The older generation of the working class, which made two revolutions, or made the last one, beginning with 1917, is suffering from nervous exhaustion, and a substantial section of it fears any new upheavals, with their attendant prospects of war, havoc, epidemic, and so on.

The attack on the theory of permanent revolution fed on workers’ spiritual exhaustion.

A bogey is being made out of the theory of permanent revolution precisely for the purpose of exploiting the psychology of this substantial section of the workers, who are not at all careerists, but who have put on weight, acquired families. The version of the theory which is being utilised for this is of course in no way related to the old disputes, long relegated to the archives, but simply raises the phantom of new upheavals – heroic ‘invasions’, the disruption of law and order’, a threat to the attainments of the reconstruction period, a new period of great efforts and sacrifices.

The youth are not exhausted, but are far too inexperienced:

The young generation, only now growing up, lacks experience in the class struggle and the necessary revolutionary tempering. It does not explore for itself, as did the previous generation, but falls immediately into an environment of the most powerful party and governmental institutions, party tradition, authority, discipline, etc. For the time being this renders it more difficult for the young generation to play an independent role. The question of the correct orientation of the young generation of the party and of the working class acquires a colossal importance. [28]

This explanation of the objective causes for the weakness of the Opposition could have become an excuse for giving up the struggle.

Nothing was further from Trotsky’s thinking.

To repeat what Trotsky said: a revolutionary has to fight, no matter whether he is destined to end as Lenin did – to live and see his cause triumph – or to suffer the fate of Liebknecht who served his cause through martyrdom.

The winter of 1926-7 passed with the Opposition paralysed by irresolution brought about by Zinoviev’s panic and Trotsky’s efforts to prevent the dissolution of the partnership with Zinoviev. But one thing workers do not like is nebulousness, half measures and diplomatic evasions.

Two great events taking place outside the Soviet Union had a big impact on the inner-party struggle: the general strike in Britain in May 1926, and the rise and fall of the Chinese revolution. The Chinese revolution gave a new fillip to the United Opposition. As Trotsky wrote in his autobiography:

As early as the beginning of 1927, Zinoviev was ready to capitulate, if not all at once, at least gradually. But then came the staggering events in China. The criminal character of Stalin’s policy hit one in the eye. It postponed for a time the capitulation of Zinoviev and of all who followed him later. [29]


1. Trotsky, in Biulletin Oppozitsii, Nos.54-55, March 1937, pp.11-12.

2. Serge, pp.212-3.

3. Trotsky, My Life, p.521.

4. Serge, p.220.

5. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, New York 1962, p.91.

6. Quoted in Stalin, Works, Vol.8, pp.248-9.

7. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.74.

8. Ibid., p.84.

9. Ibid., pp.78-9.

10. Ibid., p.80.

11. KPSS v rez., Vol.2, pp.160-66.

12. E.H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, London 1971, Vol.2, p.14.

13. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, p.281.

14. Writings of Leon Trotsky, (1939-40), New York 1973, p.175.

15. Stalin, Works, Vol.8, pp.221-3.

16. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), pp.127-9.

17. Leon Trotsky on France, New York 1979, pp.230-1.

18. A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, London 1979, p.8.

19. V. Serge and N. Sedova, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, London 1975, p.149.

20. Stalin, Works, Vol.8, p.300.

21. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.134.

22. Ibid., p.144.

23. Ibid., pp.158-9.

24. Ibid., p.145.

25. Platnadtsatala konferentsiia VKP(b), Moscow 1927, pp.698-707.

26. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, pp.304-5.

27. J. Degras, ed., The Communist International, 1919-1943. Documents, London 1971, Vol.2, pp.330-5.

28. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), pp.170-1.

29. Trotsky, My Life, p.529.

Last updated on 31 July 2009