Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

4. Trotskyists in the USSR

Trotskyists active among the workers

THE ECONOMIC and political crisis of 1927 boosted the influence of the Left Opposition. Reiman records that:

... opposition activity was spreading like a river in flood. The opposition organized 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!’

There were rumors of underground strike committees, in which oppositionists were said to be participating, in the Urals, the Donbass, the Moscow textile region and in Moscow proper – and of funds being raised for striking workers. The GPU reported to the leadership that it could not guarantee ‘order’ nor prevent the ‘demoralization of the workers’ if it was not given the right to arrest oppositionist party members.

In the last couple of months of 1927

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 [1]

As we have already described [2], in the Leningrad celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Trotsky, Zinoviev and other oppositionists were the objects of demonstrative greetings and cheers from the crowd of 100,000 on the official demonstration.

With the worsening of conditions for workers in 1929 shortage of food, rising prices, accelerated speed-up at work, three-shift working in the factories, the influence of Trotskyism increased further. Isabelle Longuet, in her dissertation, L’URSS: La Crise de l’opposition de gauche en 1928-1929 [3] delved deep into Trotsky’s archives, and gives a fascinating picture of the activities of the Trotskyists at the time.

Here we give a few examples from a letter sent by Oppositionists to Trotsky in Alma Ata. In June 1928, in the town of Kremenchuk the workers in the factory making wagons, whether members of the party or not, rejected the wage reform by a majority in the general assemblies. [4] In Dnepropetrovsk the tramway repair workers threatened to strike in order to reverse the decision taken by the leadership to eliminate free transport for their families, which they had obtained, as they recalled, in 1905. They pointed out that ‘the Tsarist authorities had not dared to take away this right. It was now being done by Soviet bureaucrats after eleven years of revolution’. [5]

There was other evidence. In Moscow riots of unemployed led to the ransacking of food shops and were suppressed by the militia. [6] Other reports say that in the main centres of the country, workers were starting to discuss, to make their voices heard after a long silence. Many texts in the Trotsky archives in Harvard give examples of interventions and quote workers’ remarks. In certain factory assemblies workers rejected the resolutions put forward by the party leadership. This was the case in the Vek factory in Kharkov, the Spartak factory in Kazan ,and elsewhere. [7]

During a stormy meeting of the textile workers of Ivanovo-Voznesensk a woman pointed out that her daughter had been fired for voicing criticism: ‘Self-criticism is a good thing, comrade Reporter, but sometimes people can get fired because of it.’ The interventions were sometimes bitter, like one of a Moscow worker: ‘Those who criticise have been deported.’ [8]

Strikes erupted everywhere: at the Konomensky factory in Moscow at the beginning of September [9], in the textile factory Khalturinskaia, a 5,000-strong workplace where there was a solid one-day strike. Again in Moscow workers started to demand real elections, a wage rise, etc. [10] There were numerous reports of Trotskyist intervention in workers’ struggles. In May and June 1928 leaflets were issued dealing with the grain requisitions, the self-criticism campaign, the question of inner-party democracy, and demanding the reintegration of the Bolshevik-Leninists into the party and an end to repression. They called: ‘Communist workers ... take matters into your own hands ... Fight for decent living conditions ... Intervene in the meetings ... Proletarians of Moscow, we have always been at the forefront of the revolutionary struggle, we must not wait any longer.’ [11]

The reports, which the Moscow Oppositionist group regularly sent to Trotsky, are full of workers’ remarks such as: ‘Was the Opposition not right to suggest an obligatory tax on rich peasants?’, ‘Was the expulsion from the party of thousands of devoted comrades just, while today we see that they were mostly right?’

In the face of the campaign of the party leadership against the Left Opposition whom they accused of wanting to form a parallel organisation, some even said: ‘Let it organise – then we will see which party is really on the side of the working class, for the existing party is starting to have a policy which is not ours.’ In Krasnaia Presnia many remarked that the Left Opposition was right in its criticism. [12]

After the July Plenum of the Central Committee the activity of the Left Opposition accelerated. This activity took many shapes. It was above all open intervention. In the factories Oppositionists spoke at open assemblies. According to an incomplete report, they did this in twelve Moscow factories during the report of the Moscow Soviet on its activities in August and September (notably in the Hammer, Morze and Krasnikavchuk factories). They campaigned against the repression of the Left Opposition, submitting resolutions demanding the return of those deported. During a meeting of the party in the Zamorskozhe neighbourhood in Moscow they obtained 170 votes for their motion, while 270 voted against. [13]

The Left Oppositionists intervened in the self-criticism campaign which they denounced as ‘a smokescreen to detract the attention of the workers away from the essential issues,’ and put a proposal for genuine criticism. They also made concrete proposals, demanding the rescinding of the government decision to increase vodka production and authorise its sale in working class areas. They participated actively in the campaign to re-elect factory committees, and to reintroduce collective bargaining. During the report of the Moscow Soviet at the Krasnaia Obrona factory, Nefel, an expelled Oppositionist, intervened as follows: ‘It is the incompetence of the leadership which is at the root of the difficulties. The effective people have been deported.’ He submitted a resolution in which he condemned the work of the Moscow Soviet as unsatisfactory and its policy as ‘anti-working class’. This resolution gained 72 votes out of 256 present. [14]

In some meetings workers demanded that the speaking time for Oppositionists should be prolonged and voted against their expulsion from the party. The bureaucrats could no longer systematically stop them from speaking as they had done in 1927. At the Pervii Mai tea-making factory, which the authorities had decided to close down, the workers elected a committee led by an Oppositionist to conduct an examination of the situation. The workers of this factory, which employed 800 people, thought there had been mismanagement, and the party officials were incapable of answering their questions. At the Tihnensk factory, two Oppositionists were elected to union office by the day team. At the Bogorod tannery, a Bolshevik-Leninist was elected to the factory committee and quickly relieved of his functions by management. At the Lenin factory at Ekaterinoslav, an Oppositionist was elected to the union bureau of a workshop employing 1000 workers. [15]

Apart from this open intervention by Oppositionists – whether already expelled from the party or not – the Opposition also launched ‘clandestine’ operations in public meetings. It published and distributed ‘information bulletins’. Three can be found in the Harvard archives dating from June to October, each of many pages, despite the material difficulties of publication. Circulars for party members, and leaflets directed at the whole of the working class were widely distributed. These leaflets were either printed or typed on a typewriter and roneographed. In Kharkov the GPU seized eight pounds of documents and three pounds of typographical material in a dwelling which the Left Opposition used as a printshop. The documents were distributed in very different ways: for instance, an Oppositionist tells of how, on the evening of an official demonstration of 120,000 people, in the Park of Culture, near the stage where many people had gathered, the light suddenly went off and leaflets started flying. They were signed ‘The Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition of the VKP’ and addressed to all members of the party, workers and youth, demanding the release and return of the deported comrades. The leaflets were immediately snatched up. On 9 September the Left Opposition produced a leaflet announcing that Trotsky was ill and demanding his return to Moscow. This leaflet caused a lot of commotion. In Moscow it was distributed in workplaces, on the streets, in cinemas, in workplace canteens. It was pasted on the walls of workers’ quarters, and even distributed in local meetings held by the party. At the Krasnaya Presnya factory it was workers – whether party members or not – who organised its distribution; they asked for large quantities. The leaflet was received everywhere with great emotion. Workers would meet in small groups to discuss it, asking Oppositionists for more details and protesting when members of the party tore them up. Worried Communist officials seized the leaflets and expelled Oppositionists. In the AMO, Armatura and Kauchuk factories, it was again non-Oppositionist workers who distributed the leaflets, handing them out or posting them. At the No. 6 Bread Factory, the party branch asked a worker to hand them the leaflets he was distributing. The GPU searched his house, to no avail. The other workers replied: ‘We will give them to you after we have read them’. [16]

The Left Opposition was sufficiently well organised to be in a position to act quickly. In Kiev, for example, a leaflet was distributed on 20 October, in protest at the arrests that had occurred only a few hours earlier. Two more leaflets were later issued, one reporting a workers’ demonstration which followed the announcement of the arrests, the other reproducing the addresses of those imprisoned and their threat to go on hunger strike. We can find another example at the Aviakhima No.1 Factory in Moscow, where the Left Opposition managed to inform the workers of the sacking of Novikov, ‘one of the organisers of the struggle of the party members against Kolchak’, a Bolshevik-Leninist employed in that factory who was held in high esteem by the workers.

Another leaflet was particularly important – the one the Left Opposition published on the occasion of the anniversary of the October Revolution. This leaflet, of which 10,000 were produced, bore the words, ‘Composed and printed by Bolshevik-Leninist printers’. It was distributed on 7 November on the route of the demonstration and near the official platform in Red Square. It was also posted on factory walls. [17]

A report sent to Trotsky gives us a glimpse of the state of his forces in October 1928: in the Ukraine, there were groups in Kharkov, Kiev, Ekaterinoslav, Zaporodzhe, Odessa, Nikolaev, Kremenchuk. In Krasnoiarsk, it had links with all three factories. It had dug roots also in the Donbass, a region of massive industrialisation, in which there were no Oppositionists prior to the Fifteenth Party Congress (December 1927). In Ekaterinoslav the Left Opposition grew from 100 to 220 members. 99 percent of the Oppositionists there were workers, most working in large factories. [18]

The Left Opposition made a breakthrough also in the industrial belt of the centre of Russia (Tula, Ivanovo-Voznessensk), as well as in Dnepropetrovsk and Saratov.

There were groups re-emerging in the Caucasus. For instance in Tiflis the group managed to keep in contact with the rest of the Left Opposition, even after a new wave of arrests in June deprived it of all the Old Bolsheviks and of the person in charge of contacts. Baku saw similar developments. There was also an important group in Leningrad, which notably included Aleksandr Lvovna Sokolovskaya, Trotsky’s first wife. [19]

Deep crisis in the Left Opposition

A NUMBER of factors brought about a deep crisis in the Left Opposition in 1929. First there was a decline in the combativity and consciousness of the working class. As we have mentioned, the composition of the working class changed radically during the massive industrialisation drive of the First Five-Year Plan. As Donald Filtzer explains:

... the old, inherited proletariat, a genuine working class formed under Russian capitalism and still intact at the beginning of Stalinist industrialisation, found itself swamped by millions of new workers, largely ex-peasants, with little tradition of industrial life and no experience or self-consciousness of themselves as a working class. [20]

In the ’thirties workers from time to time defended themselves by

collective action: strikes, demonstrations, industrial slow-downs. But at no time did there involve the large mass of workers or pose a serious political threat to the regime, which reacted sharply to any challenge from below. Thus for the mass of workers individual responses were the only avenues open, namely high labour turnover, absenteeism, insubordination, alcoholism, damage to machinery, physical attacks on lower-level management and shock workers, defective output and an indifferent attitude towards work. [21]

In addition to the objective, economic and social factors that weakened the power of the Left Opposition, there was another, far more immediate and direct factor: a deep ideological crisis brought about by Stalin’s ‘move to the left’ – towards collectivisation and massive industrialisation. We shall deal with this now.

Trotskyists in prison and isolators

AFTER THE Fifteenth Party Congress in December 1927, when Trotsky was expelled from the party and deported to Alma Ata, a great number of his supporters were imprisoned and deported. Trotsky estimated the number of those in prison and deported at the time to be 11,000. [22] Another estimate was given by Natalia Sedova. She wrote:

From figures published by the Central Control Commission of the Party and from our own inquires we were able to put the number of Opposition supporters arrested, deported or imprisoned in 1928 at a minimum of eight thousand. [23]

The leading Oppositionists in exile were engaged in very intensive intellectual activity. Trotsky, in his memorial article to his son, ‘Leon (Lyova) Sedov’, written on 20 February 1938, described the ideological life of the Opposition in prisons and places of exile ten years earlier:

The ideological life of the Opposition seethed like a cauldron at the time. It was the year of the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International. The Moscow packets arrived with scores of letters, articles, theses, from comrades known and unknown. During the first few months, before the sharp change in the conduct of the GPU, we even received a great many letters by the official mail service from different places of exile ...

Between April and October we received approximately 1,000 political letters and documents and about 700 telegrams. In this same period we sent out 550 telegrams and not fewer than 800 political letters, including a number of substantial works, such as the Criticism of the Draft Programme of the Communist International and others. [24]

Into this dynamic political life came the shock of the Stalin turn. It brought an unease into the ranks of the Opposition. To begin with, the Oppositionists congratulated themselves on the change, in which they saw a vindication of their own policies; but at the same time some of them felt that they were robbed of their ideas and slogans and deprived of their political raison d’etre. At the beginning, the impact of the Stalin turn on the Oppositionists was limited. They, following Trotsky, believed that the change in Stalin’s policy was a ‘temporary manoeuvre’. And so long as Stalin was still hesitating – as for example with his retreat under pressure at the July 1928 Plenum of the Central Committee – they could hold to this position. Therefore the capitulation of Oppositionists was on a very small scale. This changed after April 1929, when it became clear that Stalin’s change of policy was not short-term, was not a manoeuvre.

Shortly after 15 February 1928, when the Central Committee introduced emergency measures against the kulaks, the first group of Opposition leaders capitulated. It was made up of Iu.L. Piatakov, V.A. Antonov-Ovseenko, N.N. Krestinsky and a few others.

These defections by and large met with contempt among the Oppositionists, but seeds of doubt were already being sown.

Already in March, E.A. Preobrazhensky, in exile in the Urals, made a conciliatory statement towards Stalin. It was quite cautious. In a document of 23 April 1928, entitled, The Left Turn in the Countryside and its Prospects, Preobrazhensky stated that the emergency measures of 15 February were the ‘response to the offensive launched by the kulaks and to the rise in the class struggle in Europe.’ At this stage, Preobrazhensky argued, there were two alternatives: the possibility of a right-wing policy being re-established – ’quickly striking down the left-wing current’, backing down in the face of the ‘grain strikers’, which would lead to a rise in cereal prices at the expense of the workers’ living conditions. This possibility was quite distant. The measures which had already been taken, which already terrorized the kulaks, would make this improbable: it would be very difficult, even impossible, to restore the kulaks’ confidence without a ‘brutal turn to the right’, to which even ‘the most right-wing among the right-wingers ... could not resolve themselves.’ The other possible alternative, and the most likely, was that of a deepening of the left wing course, started with the emergency measures, which were a first step towards ‘a return to Leninist agrarian policy’, which would lean on ‘an upsurge of the poor and middle peasants against the capitalist elements.’

In the second case, Preobrazhensky argued, the Left Opposition would have to ‘put itself collectively at the head of the majority of the party, no matter which idiocies and insults are heaped on it.’ The Opposition had displayed superior foresight: its ideas were ‘reflected in Stalin’s new policy as in a distorting minor.’ The present crisis would not have been as grave had the party acted on the Opposition’s advice earlier. The Opposition must still go on advocating accelerated industrialisation; and it must call as insistently as ever for proletarian democracy. However, continue Preobrazhensky, although the Opposition had correctly interpreted the needs of the time, it was unable to meet those needs in practice. Stalin and his supporters were taking charge of the practical tasks; they were the agents of historic necessity. The Opposition had exaggerated the danger from Stalinist connivance with the kulaks. It was therefore the duty of the Opposition to modify its attitude and to contribute to a rapprochement with the Stalinist faction.

Preobrazhensky suggested that the Left Opposition should draw up a statement to this effect. This document, moreover, should ‘neither demand the reintegration of the Bolshevik-Leninists’, nor mention the repressions. The right to meet would be requested from the Central Committee for the purpose of finalising the document. He also suggested that Rakovsky or Trotsky should put forward the request for the meeting. [25]

Similar ideas came from another Left Oppositionist, Aleksandr G. Ishchenko, who in a letter to Trotsky in April 1928 wrote that Stalin’s left turn opened the door for the Opposition to play a decisive role: ‘The situation opens up the possibility of a concrete action for reinstatement in the Party and to avoid reinstatement being put off indefinitely. A prolonged stay of the Opposition outside the Party would be dangerous for the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ [26]

Not everyone in the Left Opposition agreed. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority rejected Preobrazhensky’s approach. Thus on 4 April I.T. Smilga wrote to Trotsky: ‘The present twist cannot be thought of as a consistent left turn. The terror that the leadership has unleashed on the Left Opposition cannot seriously bring about a solution that will correct the party’s line.’ [27]

The pressure, or rather inducement, for Preobrazhensky to capitulate received a new boost on 15 May. The Central Committee issued an appeal to local party organisations to intensify the work of ‘socialist construction’ in the countryside, the goal being the liquidation of the kulaks. [28] This spurred Preobrazhensky to move closer to Stalin. At the end of May he wrote to Trotsky that the Left Opposition had overestimated the retrogression of Stalin’s policy:

We based our tactics in 1927 on the worst case variant. We gambled on pessimism. We must now have a different tactic, we must take a chance on optimism. If Thermidor has not yet occurred, we should rejoice at that and seek a rapprochement with the Party. Otherwise the Left Opposition will turn into a little ‘sect of true Leninists’. [29]

A few days later Preobrazhensky asserted that it was wrong to claim, as Trotsky did, that it was the activity of the Opposition that had brought about the turn. Every shred of evidence showed that it was the result of what the kulaks had set in motion. The core of Preobrazhensky’s thinking was revealed in his belief that ‘the capacity of the leadership majority to find a way back to Leninist politics has been factually proved by its struggle against the kulaks.’ [30]

In May the Trotskyists in the exile colonies discussed Preobrazhensky’s proposal as embodied in his The Left Turn in the Countryside and its Prospects and overwhelmingly rejected it. The great majority was in very irreconcilable mood and sceptical of the ‘left turn’. They saw Stalin as the defender of the kulaks and agreed with Trotsky that the ‘left turn’ was a short-term event. Stalin was bound to open the door to the Right.

On 16 May 1928, V.B. Eltsin wrote to Trotsky from Koma whence he had been deported, that ‘centrism is twice as dangerous when it plays at left politics.’ [31] In June, in a circular letter, Eltsin criticised Preobrazhensky and Radek sharply, the latter having come under the former’s influence. He accused them, because of their ‘high functionary’s’ nature, of seeing only ‘the struggles at the top’; of forgetting that which is the foundation of the ‘degeneration of the Party and its slide to the right’ – the ebbing of the activity of the working masses. Only a powerful upsurge of the international workers’ movement and an increase in the activity and defensive capacity of Russian workers could breathe fresh life into the politics of the proletariat and the Russian party.

According to Eltsin, it was a mistake to isolate ‘the economic measures from more general conditions’, as did Preobrazhensky, and to ‘judge in terms of what is written in Pravda and not in terms of objective results.’ Eltsin rejected ‘conciliation and combinations at the top which can only sow illusions’. Eltsin concludes: ‘Our task is to combat the danger from the right and unmask centrism today so that tomorrow we have the awakened working masses behind us.’ [32]

Rakovsky, like Eltsin, also repudiated Preobrazhensky. He argued that the Opposition should lean on the left zigzag and on workers’ activity so as to transform the zigzag into a real ‘left policy.’ But this could not be done through an alliance with the leadership, only through ‘working with the rank and file.’ He criticized Preobrazhensky’s practical proposals with the retort that ‘reinstatement today can only be accomplished at the cost of capitulation’: the required declaration should be addressed to the workers and not to the leaders. [33]

Trotsky found it necessary to clarify his position vis-à-vis Stalin’s ‘left turn’. In a circular letter of 9 May 1928 he wrote:

The decisions on domestic matters (in regard to the kulak, etc.) and the decisions of the recent ECCI represent an inconsistent and contradictory step; but all the same they are unquestionably a step in our direction, that is, toward the correct path. This must be stated plainly and distinctly. But, in the first place, we must not overstate the size of this step. After the experiences we have gone through, we must be more cautious than ever when a turn comes, giving no unnecessary credit in advance. In the second place, we must briefly explain the causes, the mechanics, and the ideology behind this turn.

As to the question of the origin of the turn,

who created it? Surely we did, as ‘the only conscious expression of the unconscious process’. [34]

Trotsky cautioned against the tendency to think that the kulak question could be settled just in the countryside, instead of through industrialisation, correct leadership of the International, and training of cadres. His practical conclusions were clear:

Are we ready to support the present official turn? We are, unconditionally, and with all our forces and resources. Do we think that this turn increases the chances of reforming the party without great upheavals? We do. Are we ready to assist in precisely this process? We are, completely and to the utmost of our ability.

... In our letter to the Comintern, do we demand our reinstatement in the Party? Absolutely. Do we promise to observe discipline and not form a faction? We do. Now, with the indicated official change of policy, one we helped bring about, we have many more possibilities and chances of keeping our promise than we had half a year or a year ago. [35]

In letters to the deportees Aleksandr Belobrodov (23 May) and Rafail Yudin (25 May) Trotsky repeated that the Left Opposition was absolutely correct about the perspectives of development of the USSR. The fact that Stalin was stealing the Opposition’s clothes should not dishonour the Oppositionists, but on the contrary should hearten them: Stalin would not be able to carry a consistent policy against the Right. Consequently,

... the party will still have need of us, and very great need at that. Don’t be nervous that ‘everything will be done without us’; don’t tear at yourself and others for nothing; study, wait, watch closely, and don’t let your political line get covered with the rust of personal irritation at the slanderers and tricksters. [36]

In July 1928 it looked as if the old perspectives had proved correct. The Centre (Stalin) capitulated to the Right (Bukharin). Stalin’s ascendancy appeared to have been only a fleeting one: the fundamental struggle was going to be between the Trotskyists and the Bukharinists. And so on 22 July Trotsky wrote in an article entitled The July Plenum and the Right Danger:

The July plenum of the Central Committee marks Rykov’s first victory over Stalin, gained to be sure with the assistance of Stalin himself. The essential idea of Rykov’s report is that the shift to the left that occurred in February was only an episode due to extraordinary circumstances, that this episode ought to be buried and forgotten ...

... The policy of raising the price of grain ... constitutes, and can only constitute, the beginning of a deep and perhaps decisive turn to the right. Legal barriers along the road to the right, such as the restrictions on renting out land and hiring farm labor, will be abolished with a stroke of the bureaucratic pen, along with the monopoly of foreign trade – unless the rights run up against the iron wall of resistance by the proletarian vanguard ...

... the right wing has thrown down the gauntlet to the October Revolution. We must understand that. We must take up the gauntlet. We must immediately and with all our might strike the first blow against the right.

... Our main task now is to prevent the triumph of the right wing ...

We say to our party and to the Communist International: Rykov is openly beginning to surrender the October Revolution to the enemy classes. Stalin is standing now on one foot, now on the other. He is beating a retreat before Rykov and firing at the left ... The party needs the reinstatement of the Opposition in its ranks. [37]

Oblivious to the qualitatively different role Stalin played in 1928 to that he played in 1923-27, the Left Opposition could not but underestimate the independence of the state and party bureaucracy not only from the proletariat, but also from the kulaks and NEPmen.

Trotsky was still convinced that the Stalinist faction would not be able to extricate itself and would be compelled to beg the Left Opposition to come to its rescue. In a letter of 30 August 1928 to S.A. Ashkenazy, a member of the Democratic Centralist Group and now a deportee in Samarkand, Trotsky wrote:

... these comrades are wrong who ... think ... that the July plenum has put the finishing touches on the relationship between the center and the right. No, the important disputes are still ahead, and they are bound to come to the surface. The law of zigzags to the right and to the left remains in force, but the pace of these zigzags is more likely to speed up than slow down ... The party should know that, as before, we are ready to support every step, even an irresolute, half-hearted one, in the direction of the proletarian line, while of course maintaining our full ideological independence and critical ruthlessness in relation to all half-heartedness and flabbiness, not to mention bureaucratic-apparatus-type trickery. [38]

In a letter to Trotsky on 2 June Preobrazhensky suggested that the Left Opposition should appeal to the forthcoming Sixth Congress of the Comintern, explaining that many of the differences between the Opposition and the party majority were outlived as a result of the left turn. This appeal should end with the following words: ‘We wish to make peace with the party majority on the basis of the new course. We ask the conference to reinstate us in the party so that we can fulfil our duties loyally, without factional activity.’ [39]

Let us now turn to Radek, who shortly would join Preobrazhensky on the road to capitulation. At first he was a vociferous opponent. On 10 May 1928 Radek wrote to Preobrazhensky from Tobolsk: ‘I reject Zinovievism and Piatakovism, as I reject Dostoievskyism. Doing violence to their consciousness, they recant. It is impossible to help the working class by falsehood. Those who remain must speak the truth.’ On 24 June Radek wrote to Trotsky: ‘Nobody can propose we deny our views. Such a denial is most laughable, when the historical progress demonstrated brilliantly their correctness.’

On 3 July Radek wrote to the capitulator Vardin: ‘Zinoviev and Kamenev have recanted, if you please, in order to help the party, but the only thing they dare to do is to write articles against the Opposition. This is the logic of their position, as the penitent must prove his repentance.’

At the time of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, Radek and Smilga elaborated their own theses in which they stated: ‘Gravely mistaken are those, who like Piatakov, hurry on the path of burying their past through betrayal.

On 16 September Radek wrote to the exiles in Kolpashev: ‘When Stalin demands from us that we acknowledge our “mistakes” and forget his mistakes – this is a formula demanding our capitulation as a special tendency and our subordination to the centre. On such terms he is ready to pardon us. We cannot accept this condition.’ [40]

But suddenly, in October 1928, Radek suggested an appeal to the Congress of the Comintern, arguing that in practice there was very little distance between the Left Opposition and the Stalinist leadership in the USSR. The Left Opposition ‘has always said that the Party has enough proletarian forces to correct its mistakes’, and ‘fights to reform it’. It believes that the risk of Thermidor has been exaggerated. The campaign of self-criticism was proof of this. Radek therefore considered that ‘the movement started by the Party must be supported by the Left Opposition’, and that in order to achieve this, the Left Opposition should be reintegrated into the party; the Left Opposition would submit to its discipline.

If history shows that some of the Party leaders with whom yesterday we clashed swords are better than the viewpoints they defended, nobody would find greater satisfaction in this than we shall. [41]

To distance himself from Trotsky, Radek, in an essay written at the same time, entitled Development and Significance of the Slogan ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ concentrated his attack on Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution: in particular this theory did not fit China and India. [42] (It was in answer to Radek’s essay that Trotsky began to write the little book that was finally published under the title The Permanent Revolution).

Trotsky, in a circular letter of 24 June, vigorously attacked Preobrazhensky’s move towards capitulation. Quoting Sosnovsky and Rakovsky, Trotsky wrote:

Sosnovsky approaches all these questions from the point of view of the party regime. Rakovsky insists on this most tirelessly. And right now this is the only correct and reliable criterion. Not because the party regime is the independent source of all other phenomena and processes. No, to a large degree the party regime is a derivative factor. But at the same time it has a huge – and at certain moments, decisive – independent significance. Here, as everywhere, are dialectics ... since the party is the sole instrument by which we can consciously affect social processes, for us the criterion of the seriousness and depth of the turn is first of all the refraction of this turn within the party. [43]

The July plenum stopped the slide to capitulation of Preobrazhensky and Radek in its tracks. It looked as if the Right, Bukharin, had won. We have already quoted what Trotsky wrote of the July plenum. I shall repeat one point:

The right has issued entirely victorious from its first skirmish with the center, after four or live months of left’ politics.

The July plenum of the Central Committee marks Rykov’s first victory over Stalin, gained to be sure with the assistance of Stalin himself.

The ‘shift to the left that occurred in February was only an episode due to extraordinary circumstances,’ and now the episode has been ‘buried’ [44] ‘Stalin, the vanquished’ made an ‘impotent speech’!

Similar arguments were made by other leaders of the Opposition. Thus L.S. Sosnovsky, in a letter to Trotsky, declared that the turn to the left was at an end: ‘The anti-kulak course was a disagreeable outburst which they tried to forget’. [45] And F.N. Dingelstedt wrote on 8 August: ‘The illusions of the left course have long dissipated. Is there a 180 degree turn?’ [46]

An interesting episode

ON 11 JULY 1928 Bukharin secretly met Kamenev. Bukharin was very nervous; he was terrified of Stalin. Together with Sokolnikov he arrived stealthily at Kamenev’s house. Kamenev recounts:

[Bukharin’s] look was extremely troubled and tormented. With great agitation, talking for an hour without any interruption on my part, he recounted the following. (This record is as accurate as possible).

Bukharin said:

The differences between us and Stalin are many times more serious than all the differences we had with you ... for several weeks I have not spoken with Stalin. He is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to the preservation of his own power. He changes his theories depending on whom he wants to get rid of at the moment ... He will cut our throats.

Bukharin begged Kamenev to tell no one of the meeting.

There is no reason anyone should know of our meeting. Don’t talk with me by phone, because my phones are tapped. The GPU follows me and the GPU is watching you. I would like us to keep each other informed, but not through secretaries or intermediaries ...

Kamenev’s general impression was:

He [Bukharin] is extremely upset. At times his lips twitch from nervousness. Sometimes he gives the impression of a man who knows he is doomed ...

General impression, more than anything, is a sense of doom. His phrase: I wonder if all our ‘fuss’ is just masturbation. Sometimes I say to Yefim [Tseitlin, Bukharin’s secretary], Aren’t things hopeless for us? (1) If the country perishes, we perish. (2) If the country pulls through, Stalin will make a quick about-face and we will still perish. What to do? What can you do when you are dealing with such an opponent: a Genghis Khan; the low cultural level of the Central Committee. [47]

Trotsky responded favourably to Bukharin’s appeal. In a circular letter entitled A heart-to-heart Talk with a Well-Meaning Party Member, written on 12 September (the ‘well-meaning party member was a Bukharinist who had written to Trotsky), Trotsky wrote that on major issues of policy the gulf between the Left Opposition and the Bukharinists was as wide as ever, but, in the interests of restoring party democracy, Trotsky was ready to cooperate with the Right.

Preparations for the Sixteenth Congress should be organized in such a way that, unlike the Fifteenth, Fourteenth, and Thirteenth, it would be a congress of the party and not of the factional apparatus. Before the congress, the party should hear all the factions into which it has been splintered by the regime of the last few years ... Since there is still a good way to go before achieving a true liberation of the party, it is necessary to introduce the secret ballot into all elections leading up to the Sixteenth Congress.

These are strictly practical proposals. On the basis of these proposals we would even be willing to negotiate with the rights, because the implementation of these elementary preconditions of party principle would give the proletarian core the opportunity to really call to account not only the rights but also the centrists, i.e., the main support and protection for opportunism in the party. [48]

This statement of Trotsky caused astonishment among the Trotskyists who for a long time had been arguing that a bloc with the Stalinist Centre – under certain conditions – was allowed, but with the Bukharinist right – never. To allay his adherents’ unease Trotsky wrote another article On the Topics of the Day (December 1928). He repeated that he still viewed the Bukharinist Right rather than the Stalinist Centre as the chief political antagonist. He did not propose any bloc with Bukharin on issues of policy. He was ready to ‘negotiate with Bukharin in the same way that duellists parley through their seconds over the rules and regulations by which they will abide.’

We are prepared to conclude an ‘agreement’ with any section of the party in any place, on any particular matter, for even a partial restoration of the party statutes. In relation to the rights and centrists as political factions, this means that we are ready to conclude an agreement with them about the conditions for an irreconcilable struggle. That’s all. [49]

Nothing came of the idea of collaboration between Trotskyists and Bukharinists in the interests of restoring party democracy. [1*]

Although nothing came of the idea of common action between the Trotskyists and Bukharinists, the episode itself throws a very searching light on Trotsky’s whole analysis of Stalin’s centrism. As we have previously explained, the concept of Stalin’s centrism fitted the period 1923-27, but no later. Now Stalin was far to the right of Bukharin. Bukharin was a right-wing Bolshevik, Stalin the annihilator of Bolshevism.

Galloping capitulation

AS ALREADY mentioned, at the end of 1928 and beginning of 1929, Stalin relaunched the drive toward collectivisation and industrialisation, formalised at the Sixteenth Party Conference (April 1929) which launched the Five-Year Plan. This accelerated the capitulations among the Oppositionists.

In April, Aleksandr G. Ishchenko, together with another 37 Oppositionists addressed the party conference, stating that the measures taken by the party leadership proved that it remained Leninist and undermined the predictions of the Left Opposition about its slide to the right. Thermidor had not happened, and the Left Opposition had been wrong. Ishchenko considered that the Bolshevik-Leninists ‘can get out of the impasse by addressing themselves to the Party, by going back into the Party and helping it to construct socialism.’ [51] The 38 Oppositionists were followed by a series of others: Pravda enumerated some additional sixty during the month of April.

On 5 April 1929 Preobrazhensky issued a statement To All Comrades of the Opposition. He recalled how formerly two variants for the evolution of the regime had been anticipated, and that in 1927 the Opposition had bet on the worse. But it was wrong. The present policies of the party and government leadership regarding industrialisation and collectivisation were the same as those advocated by the Opposition. For Preobrazhensky these measures in the decisive domain of the economy marked a real turn to the left which would swing the party and the leadership onto the socialist path. There were therefore practically no more differences between the Centre and the Left Opposition. The other issues – bureaucratisation, absence of democracy, pressure on the workers, repression against the Bolshevik-Leninists – all this was from now on secondary. Alas, Preobrazhensky complained, the comrades in the Opposition still behaved as though their forecasts about the drift to the right had come true. They were also not conscious of the immediate threat facing the Soviet regime: the tensions of spring 1929 could be compared with those which led to the Kronstadt uprising, when the regime was within a hair’s breadth of extinction.

Preobrazhensky was not under the illusion that the reinstatement of members of the Opposition in the party was anything other than virtual surrender. He concluded that

Those of us who have fought in the ranks of the party for ten, twenty years or more, will return to it with very different feelings from those they had when they first joined. They will come back without their former enthusiasm, like men with broken hearts. They will not even possess the assurance that the Central Committee has agreed to reinstate them, no matter what the terms proposed ... Even if we are reinstated, we shall have to carry the responsibility for matters we have warned against and submit to methods we would not approve of ... If we are all reinstated, just as we are, we shall have to take our party card as we would a heavy cross. [52]

In May Preobrazhensky was allowed to travel to Moscow in order to try and make peace with the party leadership. At first he sought to obtain favourable terms for the Opposition as a whole – including the cessation of persecutions, a halt to deportations, rehabilitation of party members victimised on charges of counter-revolutionary activity, and – last but not least – the rescinding of Trotsky’s banishment. In June Radek and Smilga also obtained permission to return to Moscow to take part in the discussion.

It was during the long journey, when they stopped at the station at Ishin, that Radek made clear to a couple of Oppositionists he bumped into, how far he had moved towards Stalin.

Radek described the situation in apocalyptic terms:

The country is passing through another 1919. The situation in the Central Committee is catastrophic. Rightists and Centrists are getting ready to arrest one another. The Centre-Right bloc has broken up and there is a savage struggle against the Rightists. Their sixteen votes can double, triple ... There is no bread in Moscow. The discontent of the masses is growing and may degenerate into an uprising against Soviet power. We are on the eve of peasant insurrections. The situation obliges us to return to the party at all costs! The decision we make will flow from an appreciation of the general state of the party and the split in the Opposition, the objective of which is to be readmitted to the party.

Asked about his attitude to Trotsky, Radek replied that he had broken off all relations with him, and that he considered him a ‘political enemy’.

When asked: ‘Will you call for the repeal of Article 58?’ of the Soviet Penal Code (providing for punishment of those engaged in counter-revolutionary activity against the Soviet state) Radek answered:

Under no circumstances. For those who will march with us it will be repealed in fact. But we will not repeal it for those who carry out destructive work in the party and organise the rising of the masses. We sent ourselves to jail and exile. The youth which has now joined the Opposition has nothing in common with the party and Bolshevism. It is no more than an anti-Soviet youth. We must fight these people with all means. A third of the members will come with us, and those who will stay have nothing in common with Bolshevism.

With one phrase he swept away the objections of those astonished that he could consider denying the Platform of 1927.

Our platform has stood the test magnificently, and from being a document of struggle it has become the platform of the party. What have you to say against Kalinin’s Thesis? Against the Five-Year Plan? [53]

As early as May 1929 Trotsky realised that a new wave of capitulations and vacillations had started. On 22 May he wrote a letter entitled The Capitulators of the Third Wave. (The first wave of capitulators was that of Zinoviev and Kamenev at the end of 1927, the second that of Piatakov, Antonov-Ovseenko and Krestinsky).

A revolution is a mighty devourer of people. Of the older generation there is an enormous percentage of desolate souls among the ruling majority – and no small percentage among the Oppositionists. The reaction is in full swing in the party and the Comintern, reflecting the general shift of class forces on a world scale. In such circumstances, withdrawals and capitulations inevitably become the norm. Bolshevism, from 1907 to 1910 and again from 1914 to 1917, experienced a whole series of such departures, splits, group and individual capitulations. Only by way of such self-cleansing and self-clarification was it able to grow and strengthen itself for the October victory. We are not in the least frightened by the withdrawal of comrades, even those with the most ‘respected’ names. By the example of their waverings we will teach steadfastness to the youth. [54]

On 14 June Trotsky wrote an article, Tenacity! Tenacity! Tenacity! in which he reiterated his argument that Stalin’s ‘left turn’ was a shallow move resulting from the pressure of the Left Opposition.

The present crushing of the Right, sharp in form but superficial in content, in its turn is only a by-product of the policy of the Opposition. Bukharin is completely correct when he accuses Stalin of not having thought up a single word, but just used bits of the Opposition platform. What has produced the left twitch of the apparatus? Our attack, our irreconcilability, the growth of our influence, the courage of our cadres. If at the Fifteenth Congress we had committed harakiri along with Zinoviev, Stalin would have had no convincing reason to deny his own past and adorn himself with feathers plucked from the Opposition.

Trotsky ends the article with these words: ‘Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity! – that is the slogan for the current period. And let the dead bury their dead.’ [55]

Alas, Trotsky’s courage and tenacity was not able to dam the massive wave of capitulations. Confidence in the ideas of the Opposition was undermined when it became clear that Stalin’s course of collectivisation and industrialisation was not temporary. On 14 July Pravda published the capitulation statement of Radek, Preobrazhensky and Smilga:

We, the undersigned, declare our agreement with the political general line of the Party and our break with the Opposition ...

We believe that the policy of industrialisation of the country, translated into the concrete figures of the Five-Year Plan, is the programme for the construction of socialism and the consolidation of the class position of the proletariat. The carrying out of the Five-Year Plan solves the fundamental questions of the revolution in the present period, and that is why we believe it to be our Bolshevik duty to take an active part in the struggle for the implementation of the Plan.

We support the struggle against the kulaks, who over the last few years have carried out obstinate attacks against the economic position of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We salute the policy of the large construction of state farms and collective farms, these levers for the economic transformation of agriculture.

... We support the fight against the Right which objectively reflects the discontent of the capitalists and petty bourgeois elements of the country against the offensive socialist policy carried by the party.

... We believe Leninism is the ideological basis for communism. We have nothing in common with the theory of permanent revolution of L.D. Trotsky. The development of the Russian and Chinese revolutions have demonstrated its inaptitude and inexactitude. To defend this theory is nothing other than to revise Leninism. Its practical application would lead the proletariat into isolating itself from its class allies and to defeat. [56]

To prove his loyalty, Preobrazhensky, in his first article published in Pravda, waxed lyrical about collectivisation.

The working masses in the countryside have been exploited for centuries. Now, after a chain of bloody defeats beginning with the peasant uprisings of the Middle Ages, their powerful movement for the first time in human history has a chance of victory.

... I said to myself, looking at this new village cemented together by the kolkhoz, ‘they will not desert the kolkhoz; a year or two of economic success on the basis of the new system and this welding together of the village economy from below will compel the collective farmers to fight with machine guns like lions against all the forces of world imperialism.’ [57]

Preobrazhensky went even further in prostrating himself before Stalin at the Seventeenth Party Congress (January-February 1934):

Did I anticipate collectivization? I did not ... Collectivization of the peasants is the greatest of our conquests ... You know that neither Marx nor Engels, who wrote a great deal about problems of socialism in the village, had any definite idea how the transformation would come about. You know that Engels thought that this would be a fairly lengthy evolutionary process. In this question, what was needed was the greater far-sightedness of Comrade Stalin, his great courage in the formulation of new tasks, the greatest hardness in carrying them out, the deepest understanding of the epoch and of the relationship of class forces ... This was the greatest of the overturns (perevorotov) known to history. [58]

The impact of the capitulation of Radek, Preobrazhensky and Smilga on the other Oppositionists was very serious indeed. E.B. Solntsev wrote to Rakovsky:

What I was writing to you a month ago as a possible perspective has today become reality. Catastrophe befell. Panic and confusion rule. People are searching for individual solutions to the situation. Internal reports which already then were far from being good, have now become truly insufferable everywhere ... Complete ideological and moral degeneration: no one trusts anyone, no one believes anyone. An atmosphere of mutual suspicion has been created ... a distancing and isolation from each other. Everyone fears being betrayed ... Thus each tries to slide themselves into the party on the backs of others. The dam is open ...

In addition to the 400 Oppositionists who joined Radek, Preobrazhensky and Smilga in the act of capitulation, another 612 left the Opposition individually or in small groups. [59]

To stop the haemorrhage from the Opposition, on 22 August 1929, Kh. Rakovsky, V. Kossior and M. Okhudzhava issued a Declaration to the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission. This Declaration in a way revealed the real dilemma facing the Left Opposition in relation to Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, industrialisation and collectivisation. It was against capitulation to Stalin, but it used arguments which were very consonant with his policies. The Declaration stated:

We consider the fight to implement the five-year plan as the most serious conflict to take place since the Civil War ... Fulfilment of the targets set will significantly strengthen the position of the proletariat in its struggle with the internal and external hostile environments.

While practical implementation of the Five-Year Plan was criticised, basic support was given to the main thrust of the policy.

The proletarian and broad working masses can be genuinely involved in the five-year plan for industrialization only if there is continuous improvement in their material position.

Together with the party, we recognize the necessity of the struggle to increase labour discipline and against workshop, localist and inward-looking moods among the workers ...

Together with the majority of the party, we recognize that the development of collective and state farms is an effective means of overcoming agrarian capitalism and introducing into agriculture the socialist form of production.

But the collective farms would not guarantee the weakening of the power of the kulaks. On the contrary:

We consider that admitting the rich peasants to the collective farms brings into them a disruptive element and constitutes an attempt to apply the false theory of the kulak ‘growing into’ socialism.

The rich peasants are again trying to do what they failed at during the Civil War – to bring down the proletarian dictatorship. This time they are trying to do so in conditions that are much more favourable for them ...

We consider that the task set by the Sixteenth Party Conference of struggle with the domination of the rich peasants can be fulfilled in practice only through the organization of local unions of poor peasants.

Inner-party democracy was crucial.

In conditions of capitalist encirclement the dictatorship of the proletariat is exercised through the Communist Party with the aid of the trade unions. For a long time to come a significant proportion of power will necessarily be concentrated in the hands of the party and its leadership. The party must be an elected power and a power whose officials can be replaced and must be under the vigilant control and free criticism of the entire party.

Further, the incompatibility of ‘Socialism in one country’ with a consistent carrying through of revolutionary policy was underlined.

We consider ... that the complete organization of socialist production is possible only on an international scale.

Finally, the Declaration stated:

We have set out in this declaration all the important questions on which the opinion of the opposition coincides with the opinion of the majority of the party and at the same time have not concealed from the latter and its leadership the disagreements that remain. It is the direct duty of every Bolshevik-Leninist to give the party and the Central Committee full and unconditional assistance in carrying out the plans for socialist construction by participating directly in the construction and by helping the party organs to overcome the difficulties that stand in the way.

... The new circumstances must lead to a softening of the bitterness that has arisen in relations between the Leninist opposition and the party leadership. This bitterness arose as a result of our own actions in the period when the policy of new socialist construction was only in formation and as a result of the repression launched against the opposition by the leadership.

This bitterness was particularly strengthened by the expulsion from the Soviet Union of L.D. Trotsky, an act which we consider to be the greatest political mistake of the party leadership. We declare that from our side we will strive to eliminate bitterness in relations with the party leadership, and will appeal to the Central Committee, Central Control Committee and the party as a whole to make it easy for us to return to the party by freeing the Bolshevik-Leninists, removing Article 58 from the exiles and bringing L.D. Trotsky back from exile ...

We consider that the existence of factions among communists, irrespective of whether they are inside the party or outside its legal boundaries, is always harmful. It threatens the party with splits, injures its authority in the eyes of the working masses and weakens the foundations of the proletarian dictatorship ... We declare that we are entirely prepared to repudiate factional methods of struggle and to submit completely to the party constitution and to party discipline, which guarantees every member of the party the right to defend his communist views. [60]

When the editors of Biulleten Oppozitsii published the Declaration, they added a note stating that by mid-September some 500 Oppositionists, scattered through 75 exile colonies and special prisons, had declared support for it. [61]

When the Declaration reached Trotsky on 22 September 1929, he reacted by writing a comment on it, that while supporting it, still recorded a certain unease. [2*] He appended his signature to the Declaration because it was ‘in no way equivocal’, although it was ‘moderate’.

... it is absolutely clear that ... we thought it possible and obligatory for us to maintain our position inside the framework of a united party ... our fidelity to Lenin’s party and to the October Revolution remained unshakable.

Trotsky still argued that to refuse to sign the Declaration meant wrongly admitting:

that Thermidor is an accomplished fact, the party is a corpse, and the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat lies through a new revolution. Although this opinion has been attributed to us dozens of times, we have nothing in common with it. That is why the declaration of August 22 shows itself to be a natural stage on the political road of the Opposition.

Trotsky acknowledged that with the ‘left turn’ a new situation had arisen:

... the formal break between the Right and the center, the shift of the official leadership to the left, and the extensive use of the ideas and slogans of our platform in the struggle against the Right should – arguing purely theoretically – facilitate immensely the reconstitution of the unity of the party on a Leninist foundation.

However Stalin’s adoption of the Opposition’s policy was fortuitous, or merely tactical.

The fact that many of the slogans, ideas, and formulations of our platform have now officially become party property in no way prevents the authors and defenders of that same platform from being in prison and exile ...

The leadership maintains and even reinforces repression because the coincidence of the many extremely important practical measures it has taken in its present policy with the slogans and formulations of our platform in no way removes for it the dissimilarity in the theoretical principles from which the leadership and the Opposition set off in examining the problems of the day. To put it in other words, the leadership, even after having absorbed officially a good number of our tactical deductions, still maintains the strategic principles from which yesterday’s right-center tactic emerged.

Stalin carried out the Five-Year Plan within the framework of ‘Socialism in One Country’, while the Opposition viewed the building of socialism in the context of international revolution. In a letter to leading Oppositionists in the USSR Trotsky wrote:

You are absolutely correct to point out that the five-year plan of socialist construction can become a very important stage in the development of the October Revolution. In terms that are measured but not equivocal, you point out the conditions that would be needed for it but which do not exist as yet. Rejecting, further, the theory of socialism in one country, you say in the same connection that, even if the indispensable internal conditions existed and the five-year plan were realised in fact, the fundamental problem of the October Revolution – the transformation of bourgeois society into a socialist society – cannot in any case be fully resolved without a parallel development of the international revolution, and without its victories in the advanced capitalist countries. [62]

In another comment on the Declaration, written on 25 September, Trotsky again showed his unease.

Certainly a number of critical observations could be made concerning the text of the declaration. I have presented some of these, in positive and constructive form, in my open letter. It cannot be forgotten that the document was formulated through correspondence between exiled and imprisoned persons and constitutes, as always in such cases, compromise among various shades of opinion. There will be dissatisfaction with it both from the left and from the right ...

The declaration is written in a very cautious tone, which is consistent with its purpose. This purpose is indicated quite clearly in the last two lines: The signers do not of course hope for immediate practical results but wish ‘to win the sympathy and support of the overwhelming majority of the ranks of the party and of the working class.’ What is involved here is the use of a united-front policy toward the official Communist parties. Some of those who signed the declaration may still go off to the right, that is, toward the capitulators, when they receive the Stalinists’ answer, the nature of which is obvious beforehand. But it is likewise to be expected that there will be wide discussion in party cells about the very existence of the declaration, that it will attract the attention of many revolutionary-minded workers and increase the Opposition’s contacts and influence within the ranks of the party.

Some ultra-lefts will perhaps see the declaration as a capitulationist move. But if we gave in to such ultra-lefts, we would inevitably turn into a sect [63]

Rakovsky, Kossior and Okudjhava, as well as Trotsky, still clung to the reasoning of the years 1923-27: the Stalinist faction was centrist, balancing between the Right and the Left, and was bound in the final analysis to strengthen the Right. Thus Rakovsky, Okudjhava and Kossior, in an article entitled On Capitulation and Capitulators, written after the surrender of Radek, Preobrazhensky and Smilga, said: ‘No one can guarantee that Centrism will not do an about turn in the event of a new grain strike; on the contrary, this is most probable: from using Article 107 against the kulak they will turn to a neo-NEP.’ [64]

In another article the same authors state:

The move by the Centre to the left (industrialisation and collectivisation) was forced on it – on the one hand by the pressure of the Right, which wished to remove the Centre with the help of the kulaks’ grain strike, and on the other hand by the pressure of the working class, in the interests of whom the grain strike was beaten, and finally, by the pressure of the Leninist opposition. The elimination of the action of the last two factors would quickly create the conditions for a new right turn of the Centre, either in alliance with the Right’s leaders, or by the elimination of today’s leaders by those of the Right. [65]

Again the collectivisation did not and would not weaken the power of the kulaks. ‘In conclusion: the relative weight of the prosperous section of the rural population in the overall economy will grow even further despite talk of struggle against agrarian capitalism.’ [66]

Neither Rakovsky, Kossior or Okudjhava imagined that within a couple of years Stalin would wipe out 25 million private peasant smallholdings, including the kulaks!

How was the 22 August Declaration received by the deportees? Isabelle Longuet writes:

The left wing of the Left Opposition criticised it strongly for its overtly conciliatory character, its ambiguity on international policy, its concession on the question of factional work. Stolovsky, the spokesman of the Kamen colony, wrote characteristically: ‘The so-called left-wing policy of the leadership is the worst of bureaucratic adventures. Each one of these steps, whether to the left or to the right, leads to catastrophe.’ Some refused to support the 22 August Declaration, as was the case of a faction of the Rubkovsk colony, which addressed an open letter to Rakovsky explaining its disagreement: the Declaration did not have the unifying effect anticipated, because some used its overtly conciliatory aspect to capitulate. (Two Rubkovsk Bolshevik-Leninists had already done so.) Wanting to keep those whose hostility to Centrism was fading risked a slide of the whole Left Opposition ... As to the content of the Declaration, they attacked it for not being critical enough of the capitulators and for overestimating the shift to the left. For them, the way in which economic measures were applied were as decisive as the measures themselves. It was on the question of democracy and that of the evaluation of ‘Centrism’ that disagreement was most marked: ‘There is nothing to be expected from Centrists,’ they wrote. It was to the masses themselves (party members and non-party) to conquer party democracy and working class democracy. Centrism would not ‘agree to commit suicide’ in according it. They proposed addressing the working class in its entirety at the same time as the Party, without mentioning the demand for reintegration ‘as long as the Party keeps the same leadership’. [67]

To accelerate the disintegration of the Left Opposition, Stalin used his control of the postal services. As Rakovsky, Okudjhava and Kossior explained: repression did not express itself only

in the use of open force, but also in depriving the opposition of its elementary rights of correspondence and in the singular ‘technical aid’ afforded to the capitulationists by the GPU, which reached a point where the apparatus itself, in some places at least, disseminated the documents of the capitulationists. Some capitulationists, remaining in the opposition, acted according to the instructions of the apparatus (Ishchenko) or by prior agreement with it (the negotiations of Preobrazhensky with Yaroslavsky and Ordzhonikidze concerning the fact that the ‘bombardment’ of the opposition would come from two sides: the centrists and the capitulationists). The opposition was caught between two lines of fire. The celebrated ‘freedom of correspondence’ was reduced in actual fact to real freedom for the capitulationists alone, and the removal of the ‘freedom’ for the Leninist opposition. But it should be noted that here also a peculiar and discriminatory postal policy is employed: the documents of the capitulationists were not allowed through to those comrades from whom a decisive rebuff could have been expected. Replies to the capitulationist documents were withdrawn from circulation completely. [68]

Trotsky was very cut off from his supporters even before he was exiled from the USSR. As has already been mentioned, in October 1928 Trotsky ceased to receive letters from friends and followers; the only communication he received was from those who were ready to desert the Opposition. His own letters failed to reach their destination.

And the stream of capitulations did not stop. On 27 October 1929 Ivan N. Smirnov, the victor over Kolchak, and one of Trotsky’s closest associates, together with M.S. Boguslavsky, the veteran Bolshevik, capitulated. [69] Victor Serge writes:

Ivan Nikitich Smirnov told one of my friends something like this: ‘I can’t stand inactivity. I want to build! In its own barbaric and sometimes stupid way, the Central Committee is building for the future. Our ideological differences are of small importance before the construction of great new industries.’ [70]

Straight after Smirnov’s capitulation came that of S.V. Mrachkovsky, a legendary figure from the period of the civil war, A.G. Beloborodov, the old Bolshevik and Commissar of the Interior of RSFSR. V.A. Ter-Vaganian, the old Bolshevik theoretician, and hundreds of other deportees.

On 16 October 1929, the Oppositionist Iasha A. Kievlesko wrote to Sedov:

Almost the entire historical leadership has deserted the battleground, taking with them many good comrades. And those of us who are left are far from being united. Firstly it is very difficult to evaluate our numbers, for comrades are leaving in droves. Today they pose as intransigent accusers of the ‘opportunists’, tomorrow they hurry to send a rallying telegram to the group of three [Radek, Preobrazhensky, Smilga]. [71]

On 12 November 1929 the Oppositionist B.N. Viaznikovets wrote to Sedov:

We must realise that the most resolute Oppositionists have become undecided. Numerous desertions are to be anticipated.

I.N. [Smirnov] believes he will take with him about 500 people, which is very probable. On the side of KhG [Rakovsky] are 300-500 people ...

The situation is extremely tense. I think that, in order to get out of it, L.D. [Trotsky] must propose talks with the Central Committee, otherwise he loses all his followers. Perhaps he must give up his amour propre ...

I do not think I am being pessimistic, but if we look the truth in the face, we must realise that our situation is very bad. Our cadres have rallied around the 16 October Declaration [of I.N. Smirnov]. In the factories and plants all activity has completely ceased.

What can explain this? Not personal interest or fatigue. The reason is that the Centrists have broken the alliance with the Right and have been forced to follow the path that we are indicating. [72]

On 14 January 1930 Ia.A. Kievlesko wrote to Sedov:

There are seven comrades in this colony [Petropavlovsk]. Their morale is very low. G. writes: ‘The more we think about our situation, the more we conclude that the steps taken by an important part of the Opposition were inevitable.’ And Frid adds: ‘The economic policy of the Party was globally correct; we decided to suspend our factional activity.’ [73]

At the end of 1929, according to Rakovsky, the number of Bolshevik-Leninists in places of exile and prison was around 800. [74] Some two years earlier the number estimated, as we mentioned earlier, was between 8,000 and 11,000. On 31 October 1930, Trotsky wrote to Max Shachtman, the American Trotskyist that the Opposition as an organisation did not exist any longer. [75] [3*]

Trotsky was unbending. His moral courage was dauntless. On 26 November 1929 he wrote in a letter to friends in the USSR:

Let there remain in exile not three hundred and fifty who are true to our banner, but thirty-five or even three; the banner will remain, the strategic line will remain, and the future will remain. [78]

Of the veterans, Old Bolsheviks, and especially the leading personnel of the Trotskyist movement, very few remained steadfast: the great honourable exception was old Khristian Rakovsky. But even he finally surrendered. In February 1934 the news reached Trotsky who at that time was in France, that Rakovsky had capitulated. On 23 February 1934 Izvestia published a telegram from Rakovsky, addressed to the Central Committee, which said:

Confronted with the rise of international reaction, directed in the last analysis against the revolution of October, my old disagreements with the party have lost their significance. I consider it the duty of a Bolshevik Communist to submit completely and without hesitation to the general line of the party.

L.S. Sosnovsky’s capitulation came a few days later. [79]

The news of Rakovsky’s capitulation must have had a shattering effect on Trotsky. Rakovsky had been closer to him as ‘friend, fighter and thinker’ than any other associate. Despite his age – 61 years old at the time – he stood out against Stalin after nearly all the other leaders of the Opposition had surrendered. In the places of exile and imprisonment he had a moral authority second only to Trotsky’s. In almost every issue of Biulleten Oppozitsii Trotsky had published something by or about Rakovsky. After every defeat of the Opposition, and after every series of capitulations, he had pointed to Rakovsky as a shining example. In his diary, on 25 March, 1935, Trotsky wrote of what the break with Rakovsky had meant to him personally:

Rakovsky was virtually my last contact with the old revolutionary generation. After his capitulation there is nobody left. Even though my correspondence with Rakovsky stopped, for reasons of censorship, at the time of my deportation, nevertheless the image of Rakovsky has remained a symbolic link with my old comrades-in-arms. Now nobody remains. For a long time now I have not been able to satisfy my need to exchange ideas and discuss problems with someone else. [80]

But Trotsky’s moral courage and intransigence had no bounds. And so he broke off publicly all personal and political relations with Rakovsky. On receiving the news of Rakovsky’s capitulation he made the following statement:

We register the purely formal declaration of the old warrior, who by his whole life has demonstrated his unshakable devotion to the revolutionary cause; we register it with sadness and pass on to the order of the day. [81]

Three weeks later, in an article entitled The Meaning of Rakovsky’s surrender, Trotsky wrote:

We have no time to weep long over lost friends – be it even comrades of thirty years of struggle. Let every Bolshevik say to himself: ‘A sixty-year-old fighter with experience and prestige left our ranks. In his place I must win three twenty-year-old ones, new Rakovskys will be found who, with us or after us, will carry forward our work.’ [82]

In his declaration of surrender, Rakovsky did not recant his past ideas, and made it clear that it was the threat of international reaction – the rise of Fascism – which made him give up the struggle against Stalin and submit to discipline. To recapitulate Trotsky’s words: Without exaggerating by a hair’s breadth, we can say that Stalin got Rakovsky with the aid of Hitler.’ [83]

This was also the conclusion of Louis Fischer who visited Rakovsky in 1935 and recorded his impressions:

I visited him twice in his apartment in Moscow in 1935 and Madame Rakovsky served me tea as she had in Saratov. I also saw him three or four times in his office in the Commissariat of Health, where he had taken over the direction of all the Commissariat’s scientific research institutions (he was a physician by profession). What I heard from him in Moscow confirmed what I had written in Madrid. Exile had not broken him. But he looked out on Europe from Barnaul and found no revolution ... Fascism creeps from country to country. The intensity of human distress is equalled only by the ferocity of political reaction ... Hitler brought him back to Stalin. [84]

Police persecutions could not by themselves explain the capitulation of thousands of Oppositionists. After all many of the Old Bolsheviks stood the test of years of prison in Siberia under Tsarism and did not give way. People like Rakovsky, who had four decades of struggle behind them would not give way just to persecution. Capitulations were far more the outcome of conviction, that Stalin’s policies of collectivisation and speedy industrialisation were socialist policies, and that there were no realistic alternatives to them.

It was the ideological crisis of the Trotskyist movement that disarmed the Oppositionists and tempted them to surrender to Stalin. This, far more than the police persecution, broke the spirit of the prisoners and deportees. As Rakovsky, Okudjhava and Kossior explained: Without brutal repressions the left course would have shoved into the ranks of the Opposition new adherents, because the left course marked the bankruptcy of the Stalinist policy. But it would be also true to say, that without the new course, repression would not have had the effect it achieved.’ [85]

The Oppositionists who remained in prison and exile ceased to constitute a cohesive group. They became a loose collection of splinter groups, isolated from the working class of the country.

Lacking any contact with Trotsky, fragmentation and despair were all-pervasive in their ranks.

In later years tens of thousands of people were imprisoned and exiled by Stalin as Trotskyists, and many of them, being opponents of the regime, showed allegiance to Trotsky, even if they were not very clear what his policies at the time were.

One impressive demonstration of the new wave of Trotskyism was the hunger strike and work stoppage throughout the entire Vorkuta system of camps, which started on 27 October 1936, and continued for 132 days, a strike described as ‘heroic’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archipelago. [86]

Another report by a Menshevik prisoner who did not agree with the Vorkuta Trotskyists, but could not fail to be moved by their courage, stated that there were several thousand Trotskyists around the Patchora district.

In addition to these genuine Trotskyists, there were in the camps of Vorkuta and elsewhere more than 100,000 prisoners who, members of the party and the youth, had adhered to the Trotskyist Opposition and then at different times and for diverse reasons (of which the principal were, evidently, the repressions, unemployment, persecutions, exclusion from schools and university faculties, etc.) were forced to ‘recant their errors’ and withdraw from the Opposition ... The Trotskyists formed the only group of political prisoners who openly criticized the Stalinist ‘general line’ and offered organized resistance to the jailers. [87]

Some idea of the harsh conditions the political prisoners lived under can be gleaned from the dramatic description of Maria Joffe, who was in prisons and labour camps for 28 years, from 1929 to 1957. She was the widow of Adolf Ioffe, an old comrade-in-arms of Trotsky, who committed suicide on 10 November 1927. [88] She was a woman of magnificent courage. She describes life in the gulag, where conditions were as horrific as in Nazi concentration camps. We give only a snippet, a description of the penalty cell in which she was incarcerated for many days and nights.

... a tiny privy, less than one metre in width and less than two in length ... The stench in that place was such that it seemed to billow out and hit me in the face with such force that, with a gasp, my whole body jerked back. However, I was pushed in and the door locked behind me.

An enormous latrine bucket without a cover ... and almost overflowing even before my arrival stood in front of me, with strings of wood lice over it and all over the walls. The floor was covered in human excrement ... with white maggots crawling out of it ... there was no air whatsoever, none ... only unbearable stench, stifling my throat ... I felt I was suffocating ... I thought I was dying! Suddenly, the light was switched off and I was left in total darkness ... in total darkness with the wood lice, which would no doubt crawl all over me, and the fat, white maggots ready to devour me ... as corpses are devoured. I wanted to shout, to scream but a husky rattle was all my throat could produce. I would be devoured like a corpse ... no air ... no light ... only worms ... what a terrifying, horrible way to die ... I felt them coming nearer ... crawling up to me ... and put up my hands to guard my eyes ... mouth ... nose from those loathsome maggots and wood lice ...

... A human being was confined to a privy. To breathe in unbearable stench for many, many days and with open, sleepless eyes, see nothing whether it be day or night, but pools of urine, trampled on heaps of excrement with their mass of continually wriggling maggots, whole long chains of wood lice. [89]

Ideological split in the Trotskyist camp

ONE RESULT of the crisis of Trotskyism under the impact of the Five-Year Plan was a radical split among those who remained in exile and prisons.

One of the best witnesses for this was Ante Ciliga. He was a leading Yugoslav Communist who spent ten years in the USSR (1926-1935), the last six of them in prisons and exile colonies. He wrote:

From May 21st, 1930, until December 3rd, 1935, the day on which I crossed the Polish border, I was deprived of liberty. I spent more than three years in the soviet prisons of Leningrad, Chelyabinsk, Verkhne-Uralsk, then again at Chelyabinsk, finally at Irkutsk and at Krasnoyarsk. As for the last two years, I spent them in exile in Siberia, first at Krasnoyarsk, later at Yeniseisk. [90]

He writes about the Verkhne-Uralsk camp.

When I arrived at the isolator in November 1930, the era of capitulations, which had for the last eighteen months been demoralizing and disorganizing the Russian Opposition, was drawing to a close. But echoes were still to be heard of the storm that had carried before it four-fifths of the Opposition ...

The vast majority of the Communist prisoners were Trotskyists: 120 out of 140. [91]

The Verkhne-Uralsk isolator sheltered nearly all the most active members of the Trotskyist section.

The organization of the Trotskyist prisoners called itself the ‘Collective of the Verkhne-Uralsk Leninist Bolsheviks’. It was divided into Left-wing, Centre and Right-wing. This division into three sections persisted during the three years of my stay, although the composition of the sections and even their ideologies were subject to certain fluctuations. Upon my arrival at Verkhne-Uralsk I found three programmes and two Trotskyist newspapers.

  1. The Programme of the Three, drawn up by three Red professors, namely, E. Solntsev, G. Yakovin and G. Stopalov. It expressed the opinions of the Right-wing section, which at that time was the strongest.
  2. The Programme of the Two, written by Trotsky’s son-in-law, Man-Nivelson, and by Aron Papermeister, was the credo of the small Centre group.
  3. The Theses of Militant Bolsheviks emanated from the Left-wing: Puchas, Kamenetsky, Kvatchadze, Bielenky. [92]

The three groups were very committed.

Right-wing and Centre, between them, published Pravda in Prison (Truth in Prison), the Left-wing The Militant Bolshevik. These newspapers appeared either once a month or every two months. Each copy contained ten to twenty articles in the form of separate writing books. The ‘copy’, i.e. the packet of ten to twenty writing books, circulated from ward to ward and the prisoners read the notebooks in turn. The papers appeared in three copies, one copy for each prison-wing. [93]

When the horrors of famine resulting from the forced collectivisation and the misery associated with the forced industrialisation became all too clear in 1932, the debate between the three Trotskyist groups became far sharper. Its central theme was the class nature of the Stalinist regime.

In the end, three distinct resolutions were put to the vote. The first one recognized, in spite of the many ‘bureaucratic deviations’, the proletarian character of the State, for there remained ‘vestiges of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ such as nationalization of private property and repression of the bourgeoisie. From this it followed that it was considered possible to re-establish the authentic dictatorship of the proletariat by a thorough reform of the system.

Those who denied the existence of a dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR could not agree among themselves, and put forward two distinct resolutions. The one ... found that there was no longer a dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR, but that ‘the economic foundations of the October revolution persisted’. They concluded that it was necessary to have a ‘political revolution’ backed up by a ‘thorough economic reform’ ...

The other ‘negators’, who included myself, believed that not only the political order but also the social and economic orders were foreign and hostile to the proletariat. We therefore envisaged not only a political but also a social revolution that should open up a road to the development of socialism. According to us, the bureaucracy was a real class, a class hostile to the proletariat. [94]

Flying the flag of revolution

ALTHOUGH Trotskyism as an organised movement ceased to exist in the USSR in the early 1930s, and what remained was fragmented, still many tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, identified with Trotsky. This demonstrates the heroic role of Trotsky as the symbol and banner of resistance to Stalinism. Amidst the terrible conditions that broke the bodies and spirits of millions a bacchanalian cult developed around Stalin to which many Old Bolsheviks succumbed. Those whose spirits were not broken were eliminated in secret. Amidst all this human destruction Trotsky stood as a giant of rebellion.


1*. The Left Opposition distributed leaflets in Moscow with the text of the Bukharin-Kamenev conversation. [50] Bukharin and Kamenev were immediately summoned to appear before Ordzhonikidze at the Central Control Commission. Following that new, strong measures of suppression were taken against the Opposition. This was a crippling blow.

2*. One sign of Trotsky’s uneasiness with the Declaration was that in the same issue of Biulleten Oppozitsii that it appeared, Trotsky published a letter from an anonymous correspondent criticising Rakovsky for pandering to the capitulators.

3*. For a time Trotsky himself had a very exaggerated impression of the number of Left Oppositionists in places of exile and prison who remained steadfast. Thus, in a discussion with Albert Glotzer, a leading American Trotskyist, in October-November 1931, he said: ‘There are in exile today between three and five thousand young Oppositionists, as well as a few thousand Old Bolsheviks’. [76]

Actually Trotsky had hardly any connection with any of his supporters in the USSR after 1931, as he told the Dewey Commission. [77]


1. Reiman, pp.22, 27-8.

2. T. Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.3, pp.259-61.

3. Isabelle Longuet, La Crise de L’Opposition de gauche en 1928-1929, Paris. Univ. de Saint Denis 1987, Mémoire de Maitrise, Université de Paris VIII.

4. T1586, Longuet, p.51.

5. T2439, Longuet, pp.51-2.

6. T1780, Longuet, p.52.

7. T1795, T1464, Longuet, p.52.

8. T2560, Longuet, p.53.

9. T2502, Longuet, p.53.

10. A letter from Moscow, in Biulleten Oppozitsii, May 1930, No.11, pp.31-2.

11. T1392, T1617, T1745, T2698, T2829, Longuet, pp.54-5.

12. T2066, T1586, Longuet, pp.55-6.

13. T2535, T2066, Longuet, pp.56-7.

14. T2066, T2436, T2752, T2854, Longuet, pp.57-8.

15. T2533, T2560, Longuet, pp.58-9.

16. T2851, T2560, T2533, T2535, Longuet, pp.60-1.

17. T2849, T2875, T2865, Longuet, pp.61-2.

18. T2851, T2898, Longuet, pp.64-5.

19. Longuet, p.65.

20. Filtzer, pp.7-8.

21. Ibid., pp.255-6.

22. The Case of Leon Trotsky, London 1937, pp.331-2.

23. V. Serge and N.S. Trotsky, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, London 1975, p.158.

24. WLT, 1937-38, pp.168-9.

25. T1262.

26. T1254.

27. T1273.

28. Pravda, 16 May 1928.

29. T1497.

30. T1593.

31. T1464.

32. T1587.

33. T1309.

34. Challenge, 1928-29, pp.77-8.

35. Ibid., p.80.

36. Ibid., p.108.

37. Ibid., pp.168, 173, 175.

38. Ibid., pp.180.

39. T1606.

40. Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.3-4, September 1929, pp.35-7.

41. T1780a.

42. T2324.

43. Challenge, 1928-29, p.128.

44. Ibid., pp.168, 172.

45. T2071.

46. T2218.

47. Challenge, 1928-29, pp.379-83.

48. Ibid., p.249.

49. Ibid., p.342.

50. Inside the Right-Centre Bloc, Biulleten Oppozitsii, No.1-2, July 1929, pp.15-17.

51. Pravda, 9 June 1929.

52. T15264.

53. Biulleten Oppozitsii, Oct. 1929, No.6, p.25.

54. WLT, 1929, p.136.

55. Ibid., pp.162, 164.

56. Pravda, 14 July 1929.

57. Ibid., 16 March 1930; Davies, pp.274-5.

58. Nove, p.221.

59. Correspondance internationale, No.102, 9 October 1929, p.1415; Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No.7/8.

60. C. Rakovsky, Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR, 1923-30, London 1980, pp.138-44.

61. Biulleten Oppozitsii, October 1929, No.6, p.3.

62. WLT, 1929, pp.325-8.

63. Ibid., pp.329-30.

64. Biulleten Oppozitsii, Nov.-Dec. 1929, No.7, p.6.

65. Ibid., p.8.

66. Ibid., p.9.

67. Longuet, p.194.

68. Rakovsky, pp.151-2.

69. Pravda, 27 October 1929.

70. V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, London 1984, pp.252-3.

71. Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No.7/8, p.108.

72. Ibid., pp.124-5.

73. Ibid., p.139.

74. T3491.

75. T1082, P Broué, in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, No.6, p.43.

76. WLT, 1929-33, pp.97-8.

77. The Case of Leon Trotsky, pp.124, 128.

78. WLT, 1929, p.398.

79. Pravda, 27 February 1934.

80. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, p.53.

81. WLT, 1933-34, p.245.

82. Ibid., p.278.

83. Ibid., p.277.

84. L. Fischer, Men and Politics, New York 1946, pp.293-4.

85. Kh. Rakovsky, M. Okudjhava and V. Kossior, On Capitulation and Capitulationists, Biulleten Oppozitsii, November-December 1929, No.7, p.4.

86. See A. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 2, 1918-1956, Parts iii-iv, London 1976, pp.303-7, 372-6.

87. ‘MB’, The Trotskyists in Vorkuta Prison Camp, Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik, 1961, in T. Ali, editor, The Stalinist Legacy, London 1984, pp.187-8.

88. See Cliff, Trotsky, Vol.3, pp.262-3.

89. M. Joffe, One Long Night. A Tale of Truth, London 1978, pp.104, 116.

90. A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, London 1979, p.135.

91. Ibid., p.209.

92. Ibid., pp.210-11.

93. Ibid., p.211.

94. Ibid., pp.264-5.

Last updated on 4 August 2009