Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

11. The United Opposition is smashed

The Wrangel amalgam

THE WRITING of the Platform and the efforts of the Opposition to publish it and get it into the hands of the party rank and file brought the conflict with the Stalinist machine to a head.

The Opposition failed to collect the number of signatures for the Platform it expected. Serge writes:

... we collected signatures to the Platform. ‘If we get 30,000 of them’, said Zinoviev, ‘they won’t be able to stop us speaking at the Fifteenth Congress ...’ We managed, with considerable difficulty to gather five or six thousand. Since the situation was taking a rapid turn for the worse, only a few hundred, the names of the men of the Bolshevik Guard, were sent to the Central Committee. Events were speeding to a conclusion which would make all this petitioning appear in its true light: as mere child’s play. [1]

The Platform was submitted to a joint meeting of the Politburo and the Central Control Commission on 8 September at which Stalin delivered a long speech, and the Opposition was denied the right to reply. The Central Committee did not publish the Platform as part of the pre-Congress discussion material. Moreover, it forbade the Opposition to circulate the document by its own means.

The Opposition was not ready to give up its right to argue its case. An underground printing plant – made up of an ancient hectograph and three or four typewriters – under the direction of Mrachkovsky, was set in motion to reproduce the Platform. On the night of 12-13 September the GPU raided the printing shop, and arrested several men engaged in producing the Platform. The GPU’s report on the raid alleged that a former officer of Wrangel’s White Guard had been involved in setting up the printing shop. On the day of the raid Trotsky had left for the Caucasus. Several leaders of the Opposition – Preobrazhensky, Mrachkovsky and Serebriakov – declared that they assumed full responsibility for the publication of the Platform. All three were immediately expelled from the party, and one – Mrachkovsky – was imprisoned.

The charge that the Opposition had ties with White Guards was trumpeted. On 22 September a communication relating to the discovery of the printshop was issued in the name of the Politburo and the Praesidium of the Central Control Commission, and transmitted to all party organisations. This stated that ‘a number of the arrested non-party people were found to be actually involved with certain individuals from military circles who were planning a military coup in the USSR modelled on Pilsudski’s coup’. [2] It was in fact found that the ‘Wrangel officer’ was a GPU agent provocateur. Nevertheless, the objective of further discrediting the Opposition had been accomplished. ‘The myth about the “Wrangel officer” is being broadcast through the land, poisoning the minds of a million party members and tens of millions of non party men’, reported the Opposition leaders. They charged Stalin with a deliberate fraud – Without his consent, approval, and encouragement, no one would have ever dared to throw into the party ranks fraudulent accusations about the participation of Opposition Communists in a counter revolutionary organisation.’ [3]

This amalgam was a precursor to future ones culminating in the Moscow Trials of the 1930s.

At the Plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of 21-23 October Stalin moved the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the Central Committee. Trotsky, seeing his last opportunity to speak his views slipping away, took this occasion to attack Stalin, for the first time in public, on the basis of Lenin’s Testament, only to be rebuffed by the General Secretary who quoted back to him Trotsky’s own article of 1925 in which he denied the existence of any such document when Eastman published it in the New York Times. [4] Ordzhonikidze and Bukharin were said to have shouted: ‘Trotsky’s place is in the inner prisons of the GPU’. [5] And Stalin made an ominous remark:

It is said that disorganisers who have been expelled from the Party and conduct anti-Soviet activities are being arrested. Yes, we arrest them and we shall do so in future if they do not stop undermining the Party and the Soviet regime. (Voices: ‘Quite right! Quite right!’) [6]

On 23 October the Central Committee expelled Zinoviev and Trotsky from its ranks. [7]

Opposition leaders’ direct appeal to workers

The next stage of the struggle was the Opposition’s attempt at a direct appeal to the masses. Many small meetings were held in workers’ flats. Trotsky in his autobiography writes:

Secret meetings were held in various parts of Moscow and Leningrad, attended by workers and students of both sexes, who gathered in groups of from twenty to one hundred and two hundred to hear some representative of the opposition. In one day I would visit two, three, and sometimes four of such meetings. They were usually held in some worker’s apartment. Two small rooms would be packed with people, and the speaker would stand at the door between the two rooms. Sometimes everyone would sit on the floor; more often the discussion had to be carried on standing for lack of space. Occasionally representatives of the Control Commission would appear at such meetings and demand that everyone leaves. They were invited to take part in the discussion. If they caused any disturbance they were put out. In all, about 20,000 people attended such meetings in Moscow and Leningrad. The number was growing. The opposition cleverly prepared a huge meeting in the hall of the High Technical School which had been occupied from within. The hall was crammed with two thousand people, while a huge crowd remained outside in the street. The attempts of the administration to stop the meeting proved ineffectual. Kamenev and I spoke for about two hours. Finally the Central Committee issued an appeal to the workers to break up the meetings of the Opposition by force. This appeal was merely a screen for carefully prepared attacks on the Opposition by military units under the guidance of the GPU. Stalin wanted a bloody settlement of the conflict. We gave the signal for a temporary discontinuance of the large meetings. But this was not until after the demonstration of November 7. [8]

The greatest demonstration in support of the Opposition leaders took place in October. The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets held its session in Leningrad. In honour of the occasion the authorities staged a mass demonstration. Trotsky remembers:

When the masses learned that we [Trotsky and Zinoviev] were on the last platform, the character of the demonstration changed instantly. The people began to pass by the first trucks indifferently, without even answering the greetings from them, and hurried on to our platform. Soon a bank of thousands of people had been formed around our truck. Workers and soldiers halted, looked up, shouted their greetings, and then were obliged to move on because of the impatient pressure of those behind them. A platoon of police which was sent to our truck to restore order was itself caught up by the general mood and took no action. Hundreds of trusted agents of the apparatus were despatched into the thick of the crowd. They tried to whistle us down, but their isolated whistles were quite drowned by the shouts of sympathy. The longer this continued, the more intolerable the situation became for the official leaders of the demonstration. In the end, the chairman of the Central Executive Committee and a few of its most prominent members came down from the first platform around which there was nothing but a vast gulf of emptiness and climbed onto ours, which stood at the very end and was intended for the least important guests. But even this bold step failed to save the situation, for the people kept shouting names – and the names were not those of the official masters of the situation. [9]

Serge gives a somewhat different description of the demonstration:

... the demonstrators made a silent gesture by lingering on the spot, and thousands of hands were outstretched, waving handkerchiefs or caps. It was a dumb acclamation, futile but still overwhelming.

Zinoviev and Trotsky received the greeting in a spirit of happy determination, imagining that they were witnessing a show of force. ‘The masses are with us’, they kept saying that night. Yet what possibilities were there in masses who were so submissive that they contained their emotions like this? As a matter of fact everybody in that crowd knew that the slightest gesture endangered his own and his family’s livelihood. [10]

Zinoviev and Trotsky drew very different conclusions from the demonstration. As Trotsky remembers:

Zinoviev was instantly optimistic, and expected momentous consequences from this manifestation of sentiment. I did not share his impulsive estimate. The working masses of Leningrad demonstrated their dissatisfaction in the form of platonic sympathy for the leaders of the opposition, but they were still unable to prevent the apparatus from making short work of us. On this score I had no illusions. On the other hand, the demonstration was bound to suggest to the ruling faction the necessity of speeding up the destruction of the opposition, so that the masses might be confronted with an accomplished fact. [11]

A further opportunity for the Opposition leaders to test their popularity was a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October revolution. They decided to march in separate contingents carrying their own banners, ‘Strike against the Kulak, the NEPman and the Bureaucrat!’ ‘Against Opportunism, Against a Split – For the Unity of Lenin’s Party!’ ‘Let us Carry Out Lenin’s Testament!’ The Stalinists were determined to suppress such independent demonstrations. Trotsky describes the events in Moscow:

On November 7, the placards of the opposition were snatched from their hands and torn to pieces, while their bearers were mauled by specially organised units. The official leaders had learned their lesson in the Leningrad demonstration, and this time their preparations were much more efficient ... As volunteers in the fight against the ‘Trotskyists’ notoriously non-revolutionary and sometimes sheer Fascist elements in the streets of Moscow were now coming to the aid of the apparatus. A policeman, pretending to be giving a warning, shot openly at my automobile. [12]

Victor Serge gives a vivid description of the day in Leningrad:

In Leningrad, adroit marshals allowed the Oppositionists to march past the official dais under the windows of the Winter Palace, before cramming them away between the caryatid statues of the Hermitage Museum and the Archives building. I ran foul of several barriers and was unable to join the procession. I stopped for a moment to survey the multitude of poor folk carrying the red flags. From time to time an organiser turned back to his group and raised a hurrah which found a half-hearted chorus in echo. I went a few paces nearer the procession and shouted likewise – alone with a woman and a child a few steps behind me. I had flung out the names of Trotsky and Zinoviev; they were received by an astonished silence.

The few hundred Oppositionists found themselves quite isolated.

Several hundred Oppositionists were there engaged in fraternal battle against the militia. The horses’ breasts were constantly pushing back the crowd, but the same human wave returned to meet them, led by a tall, beardless, open-faced soldier, Bakaev, the former head of our Cheka. I also saw Lashevich, big and thick-set, who had commanded armies, throwing himself, together with several workers, on a militiaman, dragging him from the saddle, knocking him down, and then helping him to his feet while addressing him in his commander’s voice: ‘How is it that you are not ashamed to charge at the workers of Leningrad?’ Around him billowed his soldier’s cloak, bare of insignia. His rough face, like that of some drinker painted by Franz Hals, was crimson red. The brawl went on for a long time. Around the tumultuous group, of which I was part, a stupefied silence reigned. [13]

The events of 7 November, which demonstrated the passivity of the mass of the workers, their lack of will to fight for the Opposition, caused a crack in the Opposition leadership. Zinoviev as usual flip-flopped from euphoria to deep depression. On 7 November he wrote to Trotsky: ‘All the information at hand indicates that this outrage will greatly benefit our cause. We are worried to know what happened with you. Contacts [that is, secret discussions with the workers] are proceeding very well here. The change in our favour is great. For the time being we do not propose to leave.’ Trotsky’s comment was: ‘This was the last flash of energy from the opposition of Zinoviev. A day later he was in Moscow insisting on the necessity of surrender’. [14]

The events showed that a minority of party members supported the Opposition, and at the other extreme another minority supported Stalin and Bukharin. On the face of it there was symmetry between the Left and Right. Actually there was asymmetry. For the ruling group to win it needed the passivity of the mass of the workers, while the Opposition needed the activity and consciousness of the masses for success.

On 14 November the Central Committee and Central Control Commission, convened for an extraordinary session, expelled Trotsky and Zinoviev from the party as guilty of incitement to counter-revolutionary demonstrations. The Oppositionists Kamenev, Smilga, Evdokimov, Rakovsky, Avdeev were expelled from the Central Committee; and Muralov, Bakaev, Shldovsky, Peterson, Soloviev and Lizdin were expelled from the Central Control Commission. [15]

Ioffe’s suicide

On 16 November Adolf Abramovich Ioffe committed suicide. Ioffe had been a friend of Trotsky since before 1910 when he helped Trotsky to edit the Viennese Pravda. With Trotsky he joined the Bolshevik Party in July 1917 and was a member of its Central Committee during the October revolution. In a note he wrote to Trotsky just before his death he described his suicide as a protest against the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the party, and he expressed his horror at the indifference with which the party had received it. Ioffe wrote to Trotsky:

You and 1, dear Lev Davidovich, are bound to each other by decades of joint work, and, I make bold to hope, of personal friendship. This gives me the right to tell you in parting what I think you are mistaken in. I have never doubted the rightness of the road you pointed out, and as you know I have gone with you for more than twenty years, since the days of ‘permanent revolution’. But I have always believed that you lacked Lenin’s unbending will, his unwillingness to yield, his readiness even to remain alone on the path that he thought right in anticipation of a future majority, of a future recognition by everyone of the rightness of his path. Politically, you were always right, beginning with 1905, and I told you repeatedly that with my own ears 1 had heard Lenin admit that even in 1905, you, and not he, were right. One does not lie before his death, and now I repeat this again to you ... But you have often abandoned your rightness for the sake of an overvalued agreement, or compromise. This is a mistake ... the guarantee of the victory of your rightness lies in nothing but the extreme unwillingness to yield, the strictest straightforwardness, the absolute rejection of all compromise; in this very thing lay the secret of Lenin’s victories. [16]

Trotsky writes:

Ioffe’s funeral was set for a working day at an hour that would prevent the Moscow workers from taking part in it. But in spite of this it attracted no less than ten thousand people and turned into an imposing oppositionist demonstration. [17]

This was the Opposition’s last public meeting and demonstration.

How Strong was the Opposition?

The crisis of the policies of Stalin and Bukharin on the international front – above all China – and on the home front – the worsening economic situation – gave the Opposition a great fillip in 1927.

The historian Michel Reiman, in his important book The Birth of Stalinism, tries to give a picture of the strength of the Opposition, relying largely on top-secret directives, Central Committee and government protocols and reports, and letters from officials in Moscow to Soviet representatives in Berlin – all preserved in the political archives of the German Foreign Ministry. Reiman writes:

The importance of the left opposition is often underestimated in the literature. It is considered an important current in Soviet ideological and political life, a kind of ‘revolt of the Leaders’ in the context of the power struggle with Stalin ...

But this evaluation is wrong. It was not only made up of chiefs without Indians.

... many authors doubt that the opposition had any substantial influence on the mass of party members and even less on broader sections of the population. One can hardly agree with such views: they seem paradoxical indeed in light of the mountain of ammunition expended on the opposition by the party leadership in those years – the multitude of official declarations, reports, pamphlets, and books, not to mention the mass political campaigns that penetrated even the remotest parts of the USSR.

And Reiman goes on to write:

In the spring of 1926 the United Opposition, based on a cadre of old and experienced party leaders, conquered some fairly significant positions. It consolidated its influence in Leningrad, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, and the Urals region; in the universities; in some of the central government offices; in a number of factories of Moscow and the central industrial region; and among a section of the command staff of the army and navy, which had passed through the difficult years of the civil war under Trotsky’s leadership. Repression by the party leadership prevented the opposition from growing, but its influence was still much greater than indicated by the various votes taken in the party cells. [18]

A year later, in June and July 1927,

... opposition activity was spreading like a river in flood. The opposition organised mass meetings of industrial workers in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Leningrad, and Moscow; at a chemical plant in Moscow shouts were heard: ‘Down with Stalin’s dictatorship! Down with the Politburo!’ [19]

The Opposition had quite an influence among Red Army personnel.

Many tried and tested officers belonged to the opposition, and they would be sorely missed in the event of a military conflict.

Qualitatively supporters of the Opposition were superior to Stalin’s supporters.

In the eyes of contemporaries, the energy, commitment, and enthusiasm of the oppositionists contrasted favourably with the bureaucratic sluggishness of their adversaries. [20]

The activity of the Opposition was very impressive indeed. Reiman writes:

... the small amount of existing material gives an impressive picture. Even after the plenum [of the Central Committee and Central Control Commission banning the opposition] the party organisations continued to be flooded – especially in the large urban centres and the two capitals – with opposition literature and leaflets. [GPU] reports of heightened opposition activity came one after the other from various cities and from entire provinces – Leningrad, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, Siberia, the Urals, and of course, Moscow, where the greater number of opposition political leaders were working. There was a steadily growing number of illegal and semi-legal meetings attended by industrial workers and young people. The influence of the opposition in a number of large party units became quite substantial. It hampered the former free functioning of the Stalinist party apparatus. The army was also strongly affected by opposition activity. Reports on a significant rise in the authority of the opposition came from the Leningrad military district and the garrison in Leningrad, from Kronstadt, and from troop units in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. [21]

What was the size of the Opposition?

Victor Serge described the two wings of the United Opposition – the Trotskyists and Zinovievists – at the time of its formation in the middle of 1926.

Zinoviev had several thousand adherents in Leningrad, bound together by the ties of old comradeship and the strength of the local Party machine ... the left wing of the movement, of which Trotsky was the most authoritative spokesman, lacked a proper organisation of its own. In Moscow, it had some 600 members, in Leningrad about 50, and in Kharkov several hundred ... [22]

In 1927 the Opposition’s size and influence increased greatly. Stalin, in a speech delivered at the Plenum of the Central Committee on 19 November 1928, had to admit that about 10,000 party members voted with the Opposition on the eve of the Fifteenth Party Congress, while another 20,000 party members sympathised with the Opposition without voting for it. [23] These figures contradict the figures Stalin gave in his report to the Fifteenth Party Congress: ‘... a little over 4,000 voted for the opposition’. [24] One pointer to the size of the Opposition’s support was the turnout of 10,000 people to Ioffe’s funeral that, as we have mentioned, took place during a working day at a time that would have prevented many Moscow workers from participating.

The Stalinist machine did not deal with the Opposition with kid gloves. In party meetings, when Oppositionists spoke, ruffians were sent to break the meetings up. Trotsky, in a speech of 23 October 1927, said:

Fascist gangs of whistlers, using their fists, throwing books or stones, the prison bars – here for a minute the Stalinist path had paused. But this path is predestined ... Stalinism finds in this act its most unrestrained expression, reaching open hooliganism ... the goal is to cut off the Opposition and physically destroy it. One can hear already voices: ‘We will expel a thousand, we’ll shoot a hundred – and have peace in the party’. [25]

Party secretaries threatened to have anyone who voted for an Opposition resolution – voting was open – expelled from the party. [26] The party bureaucracy descended into the gutter, using even the weapon of anti-Semitism (the three leaders of the Opposition – Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev – were Jewish). Trotsky quoted a letter he received from a worker describing how a secretary of a party cell spoke and the reaction:

‘The Yids on the Politburo are kicking up a fuss’ ... No-one dared report this to any quarter – for the very same openly-stated reason: they will kick us out of the factory ... In other words: members of the Communist Party are afraid to report to the party institutions about Black Hundred agitation, thinking that it is they who will be kicked out, not the Black Hundred gangster. [27]

A 1926 report from Smolensk quotes a peasant saying:

‘Our good master, Vladimir Ilich had only just passed away when our Commissars began to fight among themselves, and all this is due to the fact that the Jews became very numerous, and our Russians do not let them have their way, but there is nobody to suppress them, and each one considers himself more intelligent than the others.’ The GPU reported that some ‘unconscious’ workers in Bryansk were saying that Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others were Jewish by origin and that when Lenin died, Trotsky wanted to lead the state, that is, to take Lenin’s place and put Jews in all the responsible positions, but Trotsky and his opposition were unable to do this, and that is why they were fighting against the Central Committee of the Party. [28]

The Sekhondo Chitinskogo provincial committee reported a speaker saying: ‘Trotsky a long time ago began on a splitting policy. Trotsky cannot be a Communist. His very nationality shows that he must favour speculation ... They [Trotsky and Zinoviev] have made a mistake about the Russian spirit. The Russian worker and peasant will not follow these NEPmen’. [29]

Stalin’s comment on the issue of anti-Semitism was calculated to encourage it. He told his supporters: ‘We are fighting Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev not because they are Jews, but because they are Oppositionists.’ [30]

To return to the question of the size of the Opposition: even if we accept the highest estimate – 10,000 who voted for the Opposition and 20,000 who were sympathetic – it was still a tiny proportion of all party members. In 1927 the party had 724,000 members. However, among the Old Bolsheviks support for the Opposition was quite significant. In 1922 there were only 10,431 party members who had joined before the February revolution; in 1925 the surviving number was 8,249; and in 1927 not more than 5,000. [31]

The great majority of party members were lethargic and passive. If not for this they would not have tolerated the hooligans who shouted down Opposition speakers and broke up their meetings. An active audience would have ejected the hooligans. Again and again we read reports about party meetings in which the Opposition got derisory support. This could not have happened had the members been more active. In a large meeting in Moscow in August 1927, where Rykov spoke, his resolution for the expulsion of Trotsky and Zinoviev was voted for unanimously. Similarly in Leningrad, where Bukharin spoke, the resolution was passed by 3,500 to 6. [32] When Bukharin reported on the decision of the Central Committee to expel Trotsky and Zinoviev to a meeting of six thousand party members in Leningrad, Evdokimov and Bakaev spoke on behalf of the Opposition but registered only two dissentient votes. [33]

The Fifteenth Congress and the break-up of the United Opposition

On the eve of the Fifteenth Congress – 2-19 December 1927 – the bloc of Trotskyists and Zinovievists was disintegrating. Trotsky called: ‘Everyone remains at his post! Let nobody leave!’ But Zinoviev and Kamenev were looking for capitulation. Victor Serge writes:

The Leningrad tendency, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Yevdokimov, and Bakaev, favoured capitulation. ‘They want to hound us from the Party; we have to stay in it at all costs. Expulsion means political death, deportation, the impossibility of intervening when the coming crisis of the regime begins ... Nothing can be done outside the Party. Humiliations are of small account to us.’ ...

The Oppositional Centre sat in ceaseless debate throughout the Congress. Our Leningrad allies finally proposed: ‘Let us throw ourselves on their mercy and drink the cup of humiliation.’ The following exchange of replies took place between Zinoviev and Trotsky, on slips of paper passed from hand to hand. Zinoviev: ‘Leon Davidovich, the hour has come when we should have the courage to capitulate ...’ Trotsky: ‘If that kind of courage were enough, the revolution would have been won all over the world by now.’ [34]

On 14 November 31 Oppositionists issued a statement addressed to the Central Control Commission against the expulsion of Trotsky, Zinoviev and other leading members of the Opposition, reaffirming their loyalty to the party and emphasizing their opposition to factionalism and the creation of a new party. The Opposition stated that it was discontinuing the unofficial meetings they had been holding. Without these meetings, and with the press closed to them, the Opposition accepted complete gagging. On 17-20 November Trotsky wrote a statement endeavouring to explain that this was not a capitulation by the Opposition: abiding by the decision to discontinue factional work does not mean giving up the struggle for the views of the Opposition. There is not going to be ‘abandonment of its platform and views, or of the propagation and defence of these views in the party ... repressive measures will not frighten the opposition’. [35]

But the Opposition statement of 14 November was in fact a big step backward that paved the way for even further retreats.

In speech to the Sixteenth Moscow Regional Party Conference on 23 November Stalin referred to the declaration of the 31 Oppositionists as ‘hypocritical’.

The opposition has twice deceived the Party. Now it wants to deceive the Party a third time. No, comrades, we have had enough of deception, enough of games. (Applause)

... What next? The limit has been reached, comrades, for the opposition has exceeded all bounds of what is permissible in the Party. It cannot go on swinging from side to side in two parties at once, in the old, Leninist Party, the one and only Party, and in the new, Trotskyist party. It must choose between these two parties. [36]

When the Fifteenth Party Congress opened, it was revealed that there was not a single Oppositionist among the 1,600 delegates. On the second day of the Congress-3 December – the Opposition issued a new statement: The Statement of the 121, which was a compromise between the Trotskyists and Zinovievites, the former wanting to continue the struggle, the latter to capitulate. The Statement of the 121 said:

The unity of the Communist Party is the highest principle in the epoch of the proletarian dictatorship ... we have taken the path of factionalism, which at times took extremely sharp forms; and on several occasions we resorted to methods which go against party discipline ... There are no programmatic differences between us and the party. We have pointed out the presence and the growth of Thermidorian dangers in the country, and the insufficient measures being taken to guard against them; but we never thought and do not now think that our party or its CC have become Thermidorian, or that our state has ceased to be a workers’ state. We stated this categorically in our Platform. We still maintain, and shall continue to maintain, that our party has been and is the embodiment of the proletarian vanguard, and that the Soviet state is the embodiment of the proletarian dictatorship ...

We cannot renounce views which we are convinced are correct, and which we have submitted to the party in our Platform and our theses; but to preserve the unity of the party, to safeguard its full fighting capacity as the leader of the state and the world proletarian movement, we declare to the congress that we will cease all factional work, dissolve all factional organisations, and call upon all those sharing our way of thinking in the party and the Comintern to do the same ...

We shall continue to work for our party and shall defend our views only within the limits imposed by the party rules and the formal decisions of the party. That is the right of every Bolshevik, as laid down in many basic congress decisions in Lenin’s lifetime and since. This declaration is the expression of our firm determination.

We are convinced that we express the views of all those who share our ways of thinking who have been expelled from the party, and that, on the basis of this declaration, the party should take the first step toward restoring a normal party life, by readmitting those who have been expelled, releasing from prison those who have been arrested for Oppositional activities, and giving each of us the opportunity to demonstrate the firmness of our resolve by our work in the party.

The Declaration ended with these words:

At the congress and during the party discussions before the congress we defended our views with firmness and determination. Now that we have decided to submit to the congress, we shall carry out this resolve with equal firmness and determination, as true soldiers of the Bolshevik proletarian army. [37]

So the Opposition reaffirmed that they had no ‘programmatic differences’ with the ruling group, undertook to end factional activities, pleaded for the reinstatement of those expelled, and gave advance assurance of submission to decisions of the Congress!

This crawling did not save the Opposition. On the same day that the Declaration of the 121 was issued, Stalin viciously assaulted the Opposition leaders at the Congress: they repudiated the possibility of ‘the victorious building of socialism in one country’; they accused the party of ‘Thermidorian degeneration’. Stalin ended his speech with an uncompromising demand that the Opposition,

renounce its anti-Leninist views openly and honestly before the whole Party. The Party has called upon the opposition to admit its mistakes and denounce them in order to free itself of them once and for all. The Party has called upon the opposition completely to disarm, both ideologically and organisationally ...

If the opposition disarms – well and good. If it refuses – we shall disarm it ourselves. [38]

Kamenev tried to plead with the Congress, giving a pathetic description of the Opposition’s plight:

We have to choose one of two roads. One of these roads is that of a second party. That road, under the conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is ruinous for the revolution. It is the road of political and class degeneration. This road is closed to us, forbidden by the whole system of our views, by all the teachings of Lenin on the dictatorship of the proletariat. There remains, therefore, the second road. This road is ... to submit completely and fully to the party. We choose this road, for we are profoundly convinced that a correct Leninist policy can triumph only in our party and through it, not outside the party and against it. [39]

The resolution of the Congress to expel the Opposition broke the will of the Zinovievites and fatally undermined the bloc. On 10 December both sections of the Opposition submitted statements to the Congress: the Zinovievites put forward a document of surrender, the Trotskyists a recapitulation of their principled stand.

The Zinovievite statement, signed by Kamenev, Bakaev, Avdeev and Evdokimov, stated:

The resolution of the Congress on the report of the Central Committee declares that belonging to the Trotskyist Opposition and propagating its views are incompatible with continued membership of the Bolshevik Party. The Fifteenth Congress, in this way, not only rejected our views, but banned its propaganda ... We consider it obligatory to abide by the decision of the Congress ...

In view of this, and in abiding by the resolution of the Congress, we state the following:

1. That the Opposition faction should cease to exist, and 2. that decisions of the Congress to ban the propagating of its views is accepted for implementation by all of us.

The Trotskyist statement, signed by Muralov, Rakovsky and Radek, stated:

Abiding by the decisions of the Congress, we will discontinue all factional work, dissolve all factional organisations, and call upon our co-thinkers to do the same ...

At the same time we believe that our views, as set forth in our Platform and theses, can be defended by every one of us within the limits of the party rules. To renounce the defence of our views within the party would be politically the same as to renounce those views themselves. [40]

Although both declarations accepted the abandonment of factional activity, the Trotskyist one asserted the right of individual members to defend their views. Both ate humble pie. But while the Zinovievites made it clear they were ready to give up the struggle, the Trotskyists insisted on fighting for their views.

All the crawling of the Zinovievites did not save them from expulsion from the party.

On 19 December, the last day of the Congress, Kamenev brought to Rykov a declaration signed by 23 expelled members of the Zinovievite wing of the Opposition, which he asked leave to read to the Congress. Kamenev was refused admission, but the Declaration was read by Rykov from the chair. It included a recantation of the ‘anti-Leninist views’ of the Opposition, recognised as ‘errors’ the setting up of the secret printing press, the 7 November demonstration and the links with the dissident Maslow-Fischer group in Germany, and asked once more for forgiveness. ‘Harsh as may be for us the demand of the Congress ... we ... bow our will and our ideas to the will and ideas of the party ... the sole supreme judge of what is useful or harmful to the victorious progress of the revolution.’

This abject surrender made no impact. Rykov, in the name of the Praesidium of the Congress, proposed not to examine the declaration, but to instruct the Party Central Committee and Central Control Commission to receive only individual applications for reinstatement of former members of the Opposition, and to postpone consideration of them until six months had elapsed after their receipt. The Congress adopted a resolution in this sense. Zinoviev and Kamenev had been ignominiously told to wait. [41]

Trotsky was contemptuous toward the capitulators Zinoviev and Kamenev. Shortly after the end of the Fifteenth Congress he wrote:

The renegacy of Zinoviev and Kamenev was fed by the false belief that one can get oneself out of any historical situation by a cunning manoeuvre instead of by maintaining a principled political line ... All double-dealing and careerist elements concerned with saving their own skins thus seem to gain ideological justification. Abandoning the defence of one’s views means in particular justifying that broad layer of corrupted philistines in the party who sympathise with the Opposition but vote with the majority. [42]

The Fifteenth Congress expelled 75 Oppositionists, including Kamenev, Piatakov, Radek, Rakovsky and Smilga. Immediately after the congress 1,500 Oppositionists were expelled and 2,500 signed statements of recantation – these were practically all Zinovievites. [43]

The zigzags of fighting Stalin, then stopping the fight in order to avoid a fresh outbreak of inner-party struggle, could not but weaken and disorientate Trotsky’s own supporters. One cannot hold cadres if they have to abstain from action. Trotsky himself could keep his own spirit alive however hard the going: throughout the years 1923-27 he did not stop criticising official policies and the regime, even if he had to use hints and allusions, quite unintelligible to many. Rank and file oppositionists cannot survive politically without a fight in the here and now.

Months later, on 23 May 1928, Trotsky admitted that far too many concessions had been made toward Zinoviev and Company,

yielding to weakness of character, indecisiveness, left-centrism, and demands for protective coloration ... On the eve and during the Fifteenth Congress the urge for protective coloration totally overran us, on our right flank. This found expression in a number of declarations which were meaningless or actually wrong. We corrected this distortion with difficulty and with damage to the party. [44]

The bloc with Zinoviev led to the distancing of some of Trotsky’s supporters from him.

In December 1928 Trotsky explained: ‘For the sake of the bloc [with the Zinovievites] we made isolated, partial concessions. Most often these were concessions to some of our closest co-thinkers who gravitated towards the Zinovievists.’ [45]

But still Trotsky was convinced that a bloc with Zinoviev was useful. He wrote: ‘... the bloc was necessary and a step forward.’ [46]

First of all, ‘in coming to us [Zinoviev] dealt an irreparable blow to the legend of Trotskyism.’ [47] Also, ‘hundreds of Petrograd workers did not follow [Zinoviev when he capitulated to Stalin], but remained with us.’ [48]

Unfortunately the first gain, the ‘blow to the legend of Trotskyism’ that Zinoviev delivered when he formed the bloc was largely undone when he capitulated to Stalin and then vehemently denounced Trotskyism. The second, the gain of ‘hundreds of Petrograd workers’ needs to be taken with reservation. First, many of Trotsky’s own supporters were damaged by the concessions made for Zinoviev in order to preserve the bloc. After all, workers appreciate more than anything boldness, firmness, intransigence of leadership. Very few of the Zinovievites survived the Stalinist persecution to fight on in the years following the collapse of the bloc.

The experience of the period 1923-27, when Trotsky made many compromises and concessions (to members of his own faction – above all Radek and Piatakov), to Zinoviev and Kamenev, and finally to Stalin and Bukharin, led to the comments that Ioffe made in his letter to Trotsky before he committed suicide.

After 1927, when Trotsky grasped the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, and called him ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’, when the bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev fell apart – from then onwards Trotsky became completely uncompromising.

Trotsky banished to Alma-Ata

The Politburo decided to deport Trotsky from Moscow. To avoid the scandal of forced deportation, Stalin wanted Trotsky to leave ‘of his own free will’ for Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea. Trotsky refused. On 12 January 1928 the GPU informed him that under Article 58 of the Criminal Code, i.e., under the charge of counter-revolutionary activity, he would be deported to Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, near the Chinese frontier. Natalia Sedova writes:

Leon Davidovich’s forced departure for Alma-Ata was originally fixed for January 16, 1928. But on that day thousands of citizens invaded the railway station and a large crowd of factory workers blocked the line while other workers searched the entire train for Trotsky. The militia was afraid to intervene. A telephone call postponed our departure for two days.

Early next morning the GPU turned up. Our departure had been brought forward by 24 hours and now there were no longer any pretences ... We refused to leave. Trotsky had no intention of giving even the slightest impression that he was acquiescing or passively submitting to so odious and arbitrary a measure. Together with our son Lyova, Ioffe’s widow and the wife of Beloborodov (who had recently been ousted from his post of People’s Commissar for the Interior and was also about to be deponed), we locked ourselves in a room. One of the officers, a man called Kishkin, who had more than once accompanied Leon Davidovich to the front, set about breaking down the door. At the same time, he shouted, ‘Shoot me, Comrade Trotsky!’ He was ashamed of what he was doing, but felt compelled to obey orders. A bullet would have put him out of his misery. His shouts later cost him his life. What better evidence could there have been of his subconscious Trotskyism. When the door was eventually forced, Trotsky refused to leave and soldiers had to carry him out.

Alma-Ata is four thousand kilometres from Moscow and 250 kilometres from a railway.

Three of Trotsky’s secretaries had decided to join him in exile: in theory there was nothing to stop them settling in Alma-Ata and working for a deportee. One of them, Sermuks, had the audacity to demand a room in our hotel. I used to catch sight of his tall figure, his fine fair head and his friendly face in the corridor. We managed to speak to him only once ... He was arrested and spent the rest of his life in jail or exile. Poznansky suffered the same fate. Georgy Butov, the third of Leon Davidovich’s secretaries fared even worse. [49]

Butov was arrested, pressed to give false evidence, and went on a hunger strike for fifty days that ended in his death in a prison hospital. [50] Two days after Trotsky was banished from Moscow,

an official communiqué announced that thirty active members of the opposition, including Trotsky, Radek, Smilga and I. Smirnov, had been expelled from Moscow. Rakovsky was sent to Astrakhan; Radek to Tomsk and then to Tobolsk; most of the other leading Trotskyists were scattered over Siberia. The equivocations of Zinoviev and Kamenev won for them the mild sentence of banishment to Kaluga, a provincial capital some 800 miles south-west of Moscow; and even this sentence does not seem to have been strictly enforced. [51]

In Conclusion

In answering the question: why in the battles between them did Trotsky lose and Stalin win, many writers look to the psychological traits of the contenders, Stalin being more cunning and a better organiser than Trotsky. This explanation is curious. Trotsky, the organiser of the October revolution and of the Red Army inferior to Stalin?! Such an explanation, even if it describes Stalin’s nasty character, gives him far too much honour as the demiurge of history.

It was the objective conditions that determined how successful the Opposition could be. As Trotsky wrote in 1940 in his book Stalin:

The Left Opposition could not achieve power and did not hope even to do so – certainly not its most thoughtful leaders. A struggle for power by the Left Opposition, by a revolutionary Marxist organisation, was conceivable only under the conditions of a revolutionary upsurge. Under such conditions the strategy is based on aggression, on direct appeal to the masses, on frontal attack against the government. Quite a few members of the Left Opposition had played no minor part in such a struggle and had first-hand knowledge of how to wage it. But during the early twenties and later, there was no revolutionary upsurge in Russia, quite the contrary. Under such circumstances it was out of the question to launch a struggle for power. [52]

Understanding the limits that objective conditions imposed on the Opposition could have led it to simple passivity. But Trotsky had throughout his political life been an enemy of mechanical materialism, of fatalism. To Trotsky, as to Marx, ‘men make their own history, though not in circumstances of their own choosing.’ Therefore, in the period of reaction the revolutionary should take into account the low level of activity and consciousness of the masses without simply reflecting it.

... the conditions of Soviet reaction were immeasurably more difficult for the Opposition than the conditions of the Tsarist reaction had been for the Bolsheviks. But, basically, the task remained the same – the preservation of revolutionary traditions, the maintenance of contact among the advanced elements within the Party, the analysis of the developing events of the Thermidor, the preparation for the future revolutionary upsurge on the world arena as well as in the USSR. One danger was that the Opposition might under- estimate its forces and prematurely abandon the prosecution of this task after a few tentative sallies in which the advance guard necessarily crashed not only against the resistance of the bureaucracy but against the indifference of the masses as well. The other danger was that, having become convinced of the impossibility of open association with the masses, even with their vanguard, the Opposition would give up the struggle and lie low until better times. [53]

If there was a serious weakness in the Opposition stand, it was its acceptance of the one-party system and the ban on factions in the party – a ban imposed under the extraordinary circumstances of economic and social collapse of exhausted Russia at the end of the civil war. This largely explains the continuous zigzags of the Opposition: in fighting the Stalinist ruling group, then retreating, giving up practical activity; again, spurred on by events at home and abroad, starting the fight again, then stopping in the middle of the struggle.

One should have a sense of proportion about the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky’s stand in the years 1923-27. While his strategic direction was correct, he made a number of serious tactical blunders and compromises. The point is not that had he been firmer he would have been able to beat Stalin, but that he would have laid firmer bases for the growth of the Opposition, not allowing the 1923 Opposition to wither on the vine, not disorienting his followers in the foreign Communist Parties (this being especially important in view of what was to come), and so on.

One should be clear about the relation between Trotsky’s errors and their consequences. The disproportion between the two was a result of the reactionary character of the historical stage. Not a few mistakes were committed by the Bolshevik leaders during 1917 and the period of the civil war. But the sweep of the revolution repaired the errors. Now the march of reaction exacerbated the impact of every error committed by Trotsky.

Russia’s economic backwardness, the weakness of the proletariat, the rise of the kulak, NEPman and bureaucrat, and above all the defeat of the international revolution, underlined the massive cleft between Trotsky’s great aims and the puny means at his disposal. This chasm between means and ends could have led Trotsky either to strive for the final goal while overlooking the lack of means – an ultra-left stand – or to the opposite: to capitulate to the prevailing circumstances, and give up the final aim. Trotsky chose a third option: to fight for the final aim while flexibly veering in the face of the massive pressure of reactionary forces. In this principled but flexible stand of Trotsky lies the heroism and tragedy of his life at that time.


1. Serge, p.223.

2. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.416.

3. The New International, November 1934, p.124.

4. Stalin, Works, Vol.10, p.179-80.

5. Reiman, p.32.

6. Stalin, Works, Vol.10, p.196.

7. KPSS v rez., Vol.2, p.311.

8. Trotsky, My Life, pp.531-2.

9. Ibid., pp.532-3.

10. Serge, p.219.

11. Trotsky, My Life, pp.533.

12. Ibid., p.534.

13. Serge, pp.226-7.

14. Trotsky, My Life, p.534.

15. Izvestiia Tsentralnogo Komiteta, 15 November 1927.

16. Trotsky, My Life, p.537.

17. Ibid..

18. Reiman, pp.19-20.

19. Ibid., p.22.

20. Ibid., p.24.

21. Ibid., p.27-8.

22. Serge and Sedova, p.137.

23. Stalin, Works, Vol.11, pp.288-9.

24. Stalin, Works, Vol.10, pp.344-5.

25. T. 3100, 3161, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Vol.4, p.223.

26. T. 1010, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Vol.4, p.99.

27. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.45.

28. M. Fainsod, Smolensk under Soviet Rule, Cambridge 1958, p.48.

29. T. 1006, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Vol.4, p.188.

30. Trotsky, Stalin, pp.399-400.

31. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, p.xi.

32. Pravda, 12 August 1927; Carr, The Foundations of Planned Economy, Vol.2, p.35.

33. Pravda and Izvestiia, 27 October 1927; Carr, The Foundations of Planned Economy, Vol.2, p.42.

34. Serge, p.232.

35. T. 3105, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Vol.4, pp.267-8.

36. Stalin, Works, Vol.10, pp.273-4.

37. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), pp.481-3.

38. Stalin, Works, Vol.10, p.378.

39. Piatnadtsatii sezd VKP(b), pp.251-2.

40. T. 1061, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Vol.4, pp.275-6.

41. KPSS v rez., Vol.2, p.371.

42. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.505.

43. Popov, Vol.2, p.327.

44. Trotsky, Challenge (1928-29), p.94.

45. Ibid., p.340.

46. Ibid., p.298.

47. Ibid., p.153.

48. Ibid., p.114.

49. Serge and Sedova, pp.156-8.

50. Ibid..

51. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, Vol.2, p.56-7.

52. Trotsky, Stalin, p.405.

53. Ibid., p.404.

Last updated on 31 July 2009