Brian Pearce

1921 and All That

(October 1960)

From Labour Review, Vol. 5 No. 3, October–November 1960, pp. 84–91.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The storming of Kronstadt was indeed symbolic. Kronstadt ... was about to pass into the hands of French and British imperialism. Two or three days more and the Baltic Sea would have been ice-free and the warships of the foreign imperialists could have entered the ports of Kronstadt and Petrograd. Had we then been compelled to surrender Petrograd, it would have opened the road to Moscow, for there are virtually no defensive points between Petrograd and Moscow. Such was the situation. To whom did we turn? Kronstadt is surrounded by sea on all sides, and the sea was blanketed with ice and snow. Nakedly exposed, one had to move over ice and snow against the fortress amply equipped with artillery and machine-guns. We turned to our youth, to those workers and peasants who were receiving military education in our military schools. And to our call they staunchly answered “Present!” And they marched in the open and without any cover against the artillery and machine-guns of Kronstadt. And, as before, beyond Petrograd, so now on the Baltic ice there were many corpses to be seen of young Russian workers and peasants. They fought for the revolution, they fought so that the present Congress might meet.
– L.D. Trotsky, speech at the Second Congress of the Young Communist International, July 14, 1921.

Every so often – approximately once in a decade – groups in the Marxist movement ‘discover’ that Soviet Russia is a capitalist country and not a workers’ state, however much degenerated. This ‘discovery’ coincides with some crisis which renders urgent and practical the question of defending Soviet Russia against threatened attack by imperialist forces. So it was at the end of the 1920s, when a clash occurred on the Manchurian frontier between the Red Army and a Chinese warlord backed by America and Britain, in connection with the affairs of the Chinese Eastern Railway; and Trotsky had to write his article on The Defence of the USSR and the Opposition; against the Leninbund group in Germany who broke away from the Left Opposition over the line to be followed ‘in this critical situation’. So it was again at the end of the 1930s when, in America, Burnham and Shachtman broke with Trotsky at the time of the Red Army’s move into the Baltic States, Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine, and against Finland. So it was once more in 1950 with the showdown imposed by the Korean war and the resultant emergence of the Socialist Review group here and similar groups in other countries. And so it is now, when the sharpening of tension between the USSR and the capitalist world in connection with the failure of the Summit conference has been swiftly followed by the departure of certain members from the Socialist Labour League, carrying the familiar banner.

Reference is made by those who have broken with us to events so far back as the year 1921 which, they say, show that already at that time the capitalist character of the Soviet state revealed itself, and Trotsky, being either unable or unwilling to face this fact, began providing that ‘Left cover for Stalinism’ which he and his followers have – God save us – continued to provide from that day to this. Specifically, the questions are posed: ‘Why did he help to suppress the Kronstadt mutiny?’ and ‘Why did he help to defeat the Workers’ Opposition? Had Trotsky supported Kronstadt and the Workers Opposition, we are to understand, the whole subsequent history might well have been very different and very much better.

Now, what strikes anyone who knows just a little about Russia in 1921, on hearing these questions is that Trotsky could hardly have been with Kronstadt and with the Workers’ Opposition, since they represented mutually antagonistic programmes. At the time, only a severely muddled person like Sylvia Pankhurst could perform this feat – and she had the excuse of knowing a lot less about what was involved than we know today. (Incidentally, a perusal of the file of Sylvia’s paper The Workers Dreadnought, between 1921 and its miserable end in 1924, is to be recommended as an awful warning to the ultra-Lefts of 1960.) One suspects that the bringing-up today of Kronstadt and the Workers’ Opposition does not arise from any even superficial study of the actual events.

What was the setting in which the garrison of Kronstadt, the fortress-island which guards the seaward approach to Leningrad (then called Petrograd), mutinied against the Soviet power, and in which an opposition faction claiming to represent the interests of the Soviet working class, against the line of Lenin and Trotsky, appeared within the Russian Communist Party?

Three years of intervention and civil war had ruined both agriculture and industry in Russia. While the towns were receiving only one-third of their pre-war food supplies, the countryside was receiving no more than a fifth of its pre-war supply/ of manufactured goods. During the fighting, the one industry that had been kept up to the mark was the munitions industry, which provides no consumer goods or agricultural implements. Apart from the devastation inflicted by advancing and retreating armies, the effect of the agrarian revolution had inevitably been to reduce the supply of raw material for industry: break-up of the big estates meant less production of flax, oil-seed plants, and other technical crops, the new peasant smallholders concentrating on subsistence farming. So long as the White armies were actually in the field, with their visible threat to bring back the landlords, the peasants had submitted passively enough to State requisitioning of all their surplus, as the only means to feed the Red Army and the towns. But with the departure of Wrangel’s beaten horde from the Crimea at the end of 1920 the peasants began to question why they should continue to hand over their corn ‘for nothing’ to the procurement squads of ‘the lazy townsfolk’ – and the more sharply because the 1920 harvest was a failure.

The very success of the Red Army in driving out the landlords’ men thus created a situation of extreme difficulty in relations between the Soviet government and the peasantry. And the political method formerly employed, of stirring up the poor peasants against the better-off ones in order to find a reliable ally in the countryside, had similarly become unusable. Christ said the poor are always with us, but the policy of dividing up the landlords’ land sponsored by the Soviet Government had for the time being eliminated the poor peasant – a countryside overwhelmingly occupied by middle peasants now faced the city, and in a more an sceptical spirit. Peasants were often heard to say that they were ‘for the Bolsheviks, but against the Communists’; meaning that they, of course, approved of the decree surrendering the use of the land to their disposition, issued when the ruling party was still called the Bolshevik Party, but disproved of the requisitioning of their produce which was characteristic of the Communist Party now in power (the change in the party’s official me had been made in 1918).

The towns and the urban working class certainly presented the peasants with no very impressive picture at the end of 1920 and the beginning of 1921. The small industrial proletariat which had made the October Revolution had been decimated and dispersed through its efforts in the civil war period – heavy casualties at the fronts, on the one hand, and on the other, drawing-off of the most advanced and devoted elements to take on responsible tasks in the army and the administration. The Russian working class of 1921 were only to a very limited extent the same people, or even the same sort of people, who had ‘shaken the world’ in 1917. The survivors were exhausted and considerably demoralized. Difficulty in getting enough to eat produced the rate of 40 per cent. absenteeism in the factories and the notorious vogue of the ‘cigarette lighters’ – generic name for the little knick-knacks made in the factory’s time and from the factory’s materials with which workers tried, on illegal visits to the countryside, to barter with the peasants for extra food. Numerous workers took up petty speculation and fiddling as a full-time occupation.

In the Ukraine a substantial partisan army of peasants, gathered around the Anarchist adventurer Nestor Makhno, which had co-operated with the Red Army against Wrangel, was now in revolt against the Soviet power. When Makhno occupied an industrial area the miners, metal-workers and railwaymen found themselves reduced to starvation, for it was against his principles to force the peasants to feed the townsmen. (Makhno’s general attitude to the workers is exemplified in the story told of his reply to some railwaymen who asked him for their wages: he advised them to fix fares and sell tickets themselves and share out the proceeds; a singularly cynical proposal when the bulk of the traffic was military! [1]) Makhno did not withdraw across the Dniester into Rumania until August, 1921. And in Tambov province, which had been a byword for ‘agrarian disorders’ in late Tsarist times, the opening of 1921 saw a peasant revolt, led by one Antonov, directed against the Soviet power.

So far back as February, 1920, Trotsky, who, as political head of the armed forces, had perhaps better opportunities to know the mood of the peasantry than any other Soviet leader, had proposed to the Party’s Central Committee that the policy of requisitioning be abandoned. To continue it would be politically dangerous, he foresaw, and it would, in face of peasant resistance, yield less and less in terms of actual supplies for the towns. In its place a limited tax in kind should be introduced, which would relieve the pressure on the peasant and give him an incentive to increase production. Whatever the obvious difficulties, this was the only possible method of getting anything out of the peasantry in the long run. But Trotsky’s proposal had been rejected at that time. A year later, however, in February 1921, the Political Bureau began considering the idea in a new spirit. Lenin submitted to the Central Committee on February 24 a resolution in favour of going over to the tax in kind, and an article in Pravda discussed it on February 26 – dates which are important in relation to the common idea that ‘Kronstadt forced the. New Economic Policy’. [2]

The International Setting

Another date of importance is February 11, the date of a telegram from Helsinki which appeared in the Paris newspaper Le Matin of February 13, forecasting that there would shortly be a mutiny by the sailors stationed at Kronstadt. [3] It must be realised that this was a period when an extremely delicate internal situation in Soviet Russia coincided with an extremely delicate external situation. The French imperialists had not given up hope of returning Wrangel’s army to Russian soil, to renew the civil war. The remnants of that army were being reorganized in camps near Constantinople, and wireless signals exchanged between the French fleet operating in the Black Sea and the Menshevik Government of Georgia, intercepted by the Soviet forces, suggested that Wrangel’s men might soon be landed in Georgia in order to attack Soviet Russia from there. This had stimulated the Red Army command to move troops into Georgia in support of a revolt by Georgian Communists, and the situation in the Caucasus was still far from settled. Peace had still to be signed with the Poles and the Turks. British and Indian troops stationed on the Caspian coast of Persia, under the command of General Ironside, of Archangel notoriety, might attempt a landing at Baku, repeating ‘Stalky’ Dunsterville’s adventure of 1918. True, the British Government of Lloyd George was in the process of signing a trade agreement with Soviet Russia, but it was known that military and other elements enjoying the support of the Right-wing Tories were keen to put a spoke in that wheel. This was the moment when the scandal of the forged copies of Pravda broke – the smuggling into Petrograd via Helsinki of an alleged issue of the Russian Communist Party’s paper containing provocative news items, a stunt by the British secret service which was exposed when the Daily Herald obtained and published a photograph of one copy of the false Pravda from which the British printer’s imprint had not been guillotined!

On March 2, 1921, the sailors of Kronstadt arrested the local representatives of the Soviet power and declared themselves to be in revolt against it They put forward, in an initial statement of aims and subsequently in the daily newspaper which they published during the course of their mutiny, a comprehensive political programme. Central it this was the demand that the peasant be allowed to do what he liked with ‘his’ land and the produce thereof. The fact that some (very little) of the land taken from the landlords had not been divided up but had been turned into State farms was treated as a grievance. The Soviet power was referred to as ‘the new lord of the manor’. The hegemony of the Communist Party must be ended: the ‘political departments’ in the armed forces and all public and social institutions must be abolished, ‘because no party should be given special privileges in the propagation of its ideas’. Fresh elections must be held throughout the Soviet hierarchy, with secret ballot and complete freedom for all trends. Though they do not appear to have used the actual phrase themselves, the slogan: ‘Soviets, but without Communists!’ which was invented for them by Milyukov, the exiled leader of the Constitutional-Democratic (Cadet) Party, expressed very well one of the mutineers’ main ideas.

Who were the Kronstadt mutineers? We have the advantage of possessing now the impressions in book form, of Alfred Rosmer, respected veteran of the revolutionary socialist movement in France (Moscow sous Lénine, 1953), who was in Russia in those days. Like Trotsky and all other honest observers, he stresses the point that ‘the Kronstadt of 1921 was no longer the Kronstadt of 1917’. In the October Revolution the Kronstadt sailors had been shock-troops of Bolshevism. Those sailors, insofar as they were still alive, were now dispersed over Russia, in positions of command. Kronstadt was full of peasant lads, many of them conscripted in the Ukraine, Makhno’s region, and few of these had even been to sea, owing to the British blockade of the Baltic. The traditions of the October Revolution meant little to them, but they were acutely responsive to peasant discontents.

Rosmer recalls that it was not until March 7 that military operations against Kronstadt were begun, after attempts at conciliation had failed. All the enemies of the Soviet power, from monarchists to anarchists, had hastened to acclaim the mutineers and urge them on to ‘the last, decisive fight’. Chernov, leader of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party warned the sailors: ‘Don’t let yourselves be deceived by getting involved in parleying with the Communists who only want to gain time.’ This was the same Chernov, Rosmer reminds us, whom Trotsky had rescued from a lynching by the Kronstadt sailors in July 1917. Anarchist agitators, who were active among the sailors, worked upon them to inflame their feelings and prevent any peaceful settlement: the atmosphere they created is epitomized in the nickname they fastened on Trotsky in the mutineers’ newspaper which they largely wrote – ‘Malyuta Skuratov’, the name of the leader of Ivan the Terrible’s bodyguard, a figure with the same characteristics in Russian folk-memory as those of our own Judge Jeffreys.

Once it was clear that the Kronstadt men would submit only to force, it was essential to apply that force without delay. Soon the ice in the Gulf of Finland would crack up; Kronstadt would then be isolated from the mainland – and accessible to the navies of Britain and France. There must be an attack across the ice. And who was to make this attack? The ordinary Red Army soldiers, mostly peasants and not very advanced politically, could not be used for this task. So it was done by the cadets of the Petrograd military schools and the special troops of the Cheka, reinforced by 300 of the delegates to the Tenth Party Congress, then meeting in Moscow. These were the heroes who marched across the ice with no cover but the white sheets they wrapped round themselves for camouflage, sheets which served as shrouds for the many who fell through the holes opened at their feet by the gunfire from the fortress. These were the Communists who saved the Soviet Republic in its hour of ‘mortal danger’. [4]

The operation against Kronstadt was all the harder to carry out for the sadness and regret that was mingled with the determination of the attackers to conquer. [5] No pretence was made that the Kronstadt mutineers were ‘White Guards’. Lenin spoke of the revolt while it was still in progress as ‘an outburst of the petty-bourgeois, anarchist element’, and described the participants as people ‘who seem to be only a little to the Right of the Bolsheviks and perhaps even to the “Left” of the Bolsheviks’. [6] In his pamphlet On the Food Tax, he showed how the mutineers were mainly dupes rather than agents of Milyukov and Co., whose far-sighted attitude could be expressed like this:

‘Let us support anybody, even the Anarchists, let us support any kind of Soviet power, if only the Bolsheviks are overthrown ... The rest “we”, the Milyukovs, “we”, the capitalists and landlords, will do “ourselves”. As for the Anarchists ... we will chase them away with a few smacks ... Provided the power is shifted from the Bolsheviks, no matter whether it goes slightly to the Right or slightly to the Left, the rest will adjust itself. In this Milyukov is perfectly right ...’ [7]

The Workers’ Opposition

Where in all this were the Workers’ Opposition? Their delegates to the Party Congress were in the front ranks of the attack across the ice. Their spokesman Lutovinov, who was in Berlin when the mutiny occurred, made a point of issuing a statement condemning it. The Workers’ Oppositionists would have had a very quizzical smile for those who today claim that a good Communist in 1921 should have been both for them and for the Kronstadters.

To understand the real relationship it may be best to begin by looking at what happened in Petrograd when the Kronstadt mutiny began. All through February there had been a wave of strikes in the Petrograd factories and a very ugly situation had developed. Some say that the unrest in Petrograd gave the signal for the Kronstadt mutiny. Be that as it may, the moment the mutiny began the troubles in Petrograd ceased, and that city presented no security risk during the operation. Whatever the Petrograd workers’ grievances, they realized perfectly well that the Kronstadt programme was not only not a workers’ programme, but that the working class would be the first victim of a victory for Kronstadt. [8] On that, at least, there was, and rightly, no difference of view between any group of workers and the leadership of the Communist Party!

What, then, was the Workers’ Opposition and why did its agitation lead to the expulsion of some of its leaders from the Party early in 1922? Why did the antagonism between this group and the Soviet power become especially sharp after the adoption of the New Economic Policy in March, 1921, which appeased the peasantry and removed for the time being the danger of further Kronstadts?

The strain which the conditions of civil war imposed on the Russian workers has already been mentioned. As the Communist cream of the working class was skimmed off to provide cadres for the Army and the State, the truth that this class is not ‘instinctively’ Marxist became all too plain, and was underscored by the consequences of the extreme rawness of many of the workers. To some extent, the very characteristics of these workers which had enabled the Bolsheviks to lead them into the October insurrection held problems for the post-October period. [9] For many workers the revolution inevitably meant an opportunity to loaf, to repudiate all discipline, and to exploit. ‘Workers’ control’ covered a multitude of sins. ‘Another proprietor came who was equally as individualist and anti-social as the former one, and the name of the new proprietor is the control committee. In the Donets area the metal works and mines refused to supply each other with coal and iron on credit, selling the iron to the peasants without regard for the needs of the State’ (Izvestia, April 27, 1918, quoted in M.H. Dobb, Russian Economic Development Since The Revolution [1928]). Lenin’s pamphlet The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, written in May 1918 [10], gives expression to some of the preoccupations which were troubling him so early as the first months of the Revolution and which were to become acute in 1921–22.

‘The Russian worker’, wrote Lenin, ‘is a bad worker compared with the advanced peoples. Nor could it be otherwise under the Tsarist regime and in view of the tenacity of the remnants of serfdom. The task that the Soviet Government must set the people in all its scope is – learn to work. The Taylor system, the last word of capitalism in this respect, like all capitalist progress, is a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of very great scientific achievements in the field of analysing mechanical motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc. The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field. The possibility of building socialism is conditioned precisely upon our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet organization of administration with the up-to-date achievements of capitalism. We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our purposes. At the same time, in working to raise the productivity of labour, we must take into account the specific features of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, which, on the one hand, require that the foundations be laid of the socialist organization of competition, and on the other hand the use of compulsion, so that the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat shall not be desecrated by the practice of a jellyfish proletarian government ...

‘It must be said that large-scale machine industry – which is precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism – calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people. The technical, economic and historical necessity of this is obvious, and all those who have thought about socialism have always regarded it as one of the conditions of socialism. But how can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one. Given ideal class consciousness and discipline on the part of those taking part in the common work, this subordination would rather remind one of the mild leadership of a conductor of an orchestra. It may assume the sharp forms of a dictatorship if ideal discipline and class consciousness are lacking. Be that as it may, unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organized on the pattern of large-scale machine industry.’ [11]

At the Ninth Party Congress, in 1920, Lenin had to fight hard to get acceptance of the principle of one-man management in industry, against people who considered, on grounds of alleged principle, that every decision must be taken by a committee. ‘Comrades’, he cried, ‘such theoretical confusion cannot be tolerated. Had we permitted a tenth part of this theoretical confusion in the fundamental question of our military activities and the civil war, we would have been beaten, and would have deserved to be beaten’. [12]

As soon as they realized that the Soviet Government had come to stay, or rather that to get rid of it would be a bigger task than they had originally supposed, the Mensheviks set themselves to play upon all the most backward sentiments of the workers in order to set them against the Soviet power. These former pillars of class-collaboration became keen fomenters of strikes for higher wages, shorter hours, etc., etc. They became indistinguishable from syndicalists in their practical attitude. It was only natural that when an anarcho-syndicalist trend appeared in the Communist Party during 1920, the so-called Workers’ Opposition, there should emerge as its leading ‘personality’ the egregious Alexandra Kollontai, a Menshevik right down to 1916. (Perhaps best-known for her activity as a propagandist for ‘free love’, Kollontai developed after her ultra-Left phase of 1918–1922 into a reliable supporter of the powers that were, and served as Stalin’s ambassadress in Norway and in Mexico.) Kollontai wrote a pamphlet on The Workers’ Opposition in Russia and this was published in an English translation by Sylvia Pankhurst, the British ‘dissident Communist’, with whom she had much in common. It is one of the most revealing sources for an understanding of the ideology of the Workers’ Opposition.

Kollontai and her friends objected strongly to the employment of technical experts from the old intelligentsia to develop Soviet industry. Here they echoed the resentment of the ‘Military Opposition’ in the Red Army to Trotsky’s use of Tsarist officers. [13] And they argued that, even if there was a place for non-proletarian specialists in the army, there was none for such people in production. Militarism had no future, it was natural that bourgeois specialists should have a role to play in that sphere, but production was the workers’ own sphere, and there they knew better on all questions than anybody else. Trotsky’s notions about planning industrial progress were unacceptable because they were incompatible with a regime whereby each industry, and each enterprise within each industry, was to be run by its own workers – with ‘practical self-activity of the masses’ and no ‘restrictions on initiative’. Lenin’s conception of the trade unions as ‘schools of communism’, through which the workers would be prepared to take into their own hands the entire management of industry was radically false – the workers were already equipped to do all that was needed. The idea that the trade unions and other mass organizations were ‘transmission belts’, with the Party as the ‘power-house’, was most pernicious, for it implied that the Party possessed some quality that the workers as a class did not possess. [14]

Communism and Syndicalism

All appointments in the economic sphere, at every level, the Workers’ Opposition demanded, must be subject to approval by the trade unions; nay, they must have the power of ‘compulsory nomination’ to all such posts. And industry must be governed by a so-called ‘Congress of Producers’ freely elected by the rank and file. (Agriculture and the peasantry found no place in this scheme of theirs.) On this aspect of the Workers’ Opposition programme Trotsky commented that they ‘place the workers’ right to choose their representatives above the Party, as it were, as if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy’. [15] Lenin thus contrasted the Communist and syndicalist conceptions as brought into focus by the dispute with the Workers’ Opposition:

‘Communism says: The vanguard of the proletariat, the Communist Party, leads the non-Party masses of the workers, educates, prepares, teaches and trains the masses (the “school” of Communism), first the workers and then the peasants, in order that they may eventually concentrate in their hands the entire management of the whole of the national economy.

‘Syndicalism transfers to the masses of non-Party workers, who are divided according to industry, the management of branches of industry (the “Chief Committees and Central Boards”), thus destroying the need for the Party, and without carrying on prolonged work either in training the masses or in actually concentrating in their hands the management of the whole of the national economy.’ [16]

The Workers’ Opposition’s ‘Congress of Producers’ was to be a sort of conference of plenipotentiaries of the various industries and enterprises. They were not interested in the problems of socialist planning and the need arising therefrom for centralized, authoritative direction of the economy as a whole. Preobrazhensky, later the chief economist of the Left Opposition, remarked about the whole school of thought: ‘The boundless ignorance of the Anarchists where the most important and most difficult problems are concerned is so great that they do not even conceive of the entire complexity of the question raised and have never interested themselves in solving it’. They were essentially in favour of a ‘headless’ economy. [17] Justifying themselves, the Workers’ Opposition made great play with the idea that the state’s function after the revolution was limited to withering away: to which Trotsky replied that while, under socialism, the state would of course ‘have melted away entirely into a producing and consuming commune, none the less, the road to socialism lies through a period of the highest possible intensification of the principle of the state’. [18]

The true inwardness of the Workers’ Opposition outlook showed itself most crudely in their proposals for raising the standard of living of the workers. The basic food ration, travelling facilities and a number of other amenities were to be made available to the workers gratis. There was, of course, no attempt to show how this could be done in the ruined conditions of Russian economy in 1920-1921: somehow, the workers were to enjoy plenty in the midst of poverty. And wages should be equalised. On this point Preobrazhensky, in the pamphlet already quoted, explained that the Donbas coal-miners had to be paid more than other workers ‘because every pood of bread given to the miners in this period of building up the economy, when our entire progress depends on coal, gives a bigger result than five poods given to other branches of industry ... We are too poor to afford the luxury of equality’. Trotsky insisted that ‘wages ... must be brought into the closest possible touch with the productivity of individual labour ... Under socialist production, piecework, bonuses, etc., have as their task to increase the volume of the social product, and consequently to raise the general well-being. Those workers who do more for the general interest than others receive the right to a greater quantity of the social product than the lazy, the careless and the disorganizers’. [19]

The method of the Workers’ Opposition propagandists when discussing these matters was systematically to mix up the two phases of socialism defined by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme.

Insofar as Workers’ Opposition spokesmen interested themselves at all in the vital problems of agriculture, they had a short answer to these problems. Maximum freedom for the workers must be matched by a renewal of serfdom for the peasants. The requisitioning of surplus production against which the peasants were rebelling in 1920–1921 was not enough, one must go further in that direction. The peasants must be legally obliged to cultivate certain tracts of land and to grow certain crops thereon. The peasants must, in fact, be squeezed harder in order to provide the needs of the workers, who were the only people worthy to be considered. The Soviet power should ‘free’ itself of any sort of concern for the well-being of the peasantry. This anti-peasant outlook coincided with the traditional political approach of the Mensheviks. (Mr. Leonard Schapiro comments in his book The Origin of the Communist Autocracy [1955], discussing the authorship of the inaugural resolution of the Kronstadt mutineers: ‘The stress on the rights of the peasants is sufficient to dispose of any suggestion that the resolution was Menshevik-inspired’.)

For this reason, the adoption by the Tenth Party Congress of the New Economic Policy, with its replacement of requisitioning by the tax in kind (or food tax) intensified the bitterness of the Workers’ Opposition. As Schapiro puts it in his recent book The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, ‘the followers of the Workers’ Opposition regarded NEP as a betrayal of the workers in the interests of the inferior peasants’. That the path to a real, as against an illusory, improvement in the workers’ conditions lay through concessions to the peasantry was too complicated an idea for them. Lenin explained: ‘The political situation in the spring of 1921 was such that immediate, resolute and very urgent measures had to be taken to improve the conditions of the peasantry and to increase its productive forces. Why the peasantry and not the workers? Because in order to improve the conditions of the workers, grain and fuel are required.’ [20] In future the workers would, however, get only part of their food supply through coercion (the tax in kind); the rest must be got through exchange of goods, and that thrust forward the whole complex problem of developing industrial production, which the Workers’ Opposition in practice opposed (as well as that of increasing trade contracts with the capitalist world, which they found ‘theoretically’ objectionable).

Two Classes

Hence, the agitation of the Workers’ Opposition during 1921–1922 challenged the very foundations of the Soviet power. Among the more important (but least often remembered) phrases in the document known as Lenin’s Testament (Letter to the Twelfth Party Congress), written in December, 1922, is this: ‘Our Party relies on two classes, and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between those two classes’. The safeguarding of the alliance with the peasantry was vital to the continued existence of the Soviet power. Talk of the peasantry being obliged by its class position willy-nilly to follow either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie too often failed to take into account that which class the peasantry chose to follow could prove decisive for the revolution. In the last analysis, it was the vacillations of the middle peasantry that had determined the to-ings and fro-ings in the civil war. To those bold proletarian spirits who asked whether the peasants weren’t more trouble than their alliance was worth, and, after all, hadn’t the Paris Commune got on without them, Trotsky replied: ‘It is quite true that the Commune was “spared” peasant support. But in return the Commune was not spared annihilation by the peasant armies of Thiers!’ [21]

But did not the adoption of the New Economic Policy (’new exploitation of the proletariat’, as the Workers’ Opposition nicknamed it) imply a retreat, and the danger of capitalist restoration? It did indeed. True, War Communism’, with its regime a requisitioning, had been forced on the Soviet Government by the intervention and civil war and bore no relation to Lenin’s original plans of early 1918; but, once in being, could it not have served as the starting-point for a development in the direction of true, non-‘war’ communism? In Trotsky’s words, ‘our War Communism could have developed, without a retreat, into complete socialism and communism on one condition, namely, that the proletariat of Europe seized power in 1920 and 1921. Had that happened, not only would hostile pressure from the outside have ceased, but we should have obtained inexhaustible resources for technical, organizational and cultural assistance’ [22] Lenin had warned, already in 1919, of how the future of relations with the peasantry would depend in the first instance on the success or failure of the revolution in the West: ‘If we could tomorrow give 100,000 first-class tractors, supply them with petrol, supply them with mechanics ... the middle peasant would say: “I am for the commune ...” But in order to do this it is first necessary to conquer the international bourgeoisie to compel it to give us these tractors.…’ [23] With the failure of the post-war upsurge to break through in successful proletarian revolutions in Western Europe, the moment of truth had come and had to be faced in the spring of 1921: ‘We know that only agreement with the peasantry can save the socialist revolution in Russia until the revolution in other countries takes place’. [24]

But did not the ‘surrender’ to the peasantry in 1921 lead inevitably to the triumph of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, ask some (in the same breath with their protest against the suppression of Kronstadt)? Not inevitably. All that ‘inevitably’ followed from the adoption of the New Economic Policy was that the Soviet power was able to survive in Russia, something for which the ultra-Lefts presumably do not wish to reproach Lenin or Trotsky, though one sometimes wonders. Bureaucratic tendencies had certainly begun to appear in the Soviet regime long before the adoption of NEP, and were warned against on many occasions by Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Communists. The strengthening of capitalist forces inside Russia which followed the adoption of NEP certainly brought new nourishment to these tendencies. But those working consciously within the Party for policies which would counter and overcome both bureaucracy and capitalism, on a realistic basis, had excellent grounds to hope for success. In 1923 the bureaucracy was quite shaken up (’The New Course’), and a victorious workers’ revolution in Germany would certainly have put everything in a new and more favourable setting. But that revolution failed, and its failure, fostering discouragement and apathy, gave instead a fresh fillip to the Thermidorean degeneration. Even then the process was far from rapidly completed. In 1926 the breakaway of Zinoviev and Kamenev brought new allies to Trotsky’s Left Opposition and put the bureaucracy in a very awkward plight. Only the defeat of the British General Strike and of the revolution in China saved the bureaucracy’s bacon.

Critics of Trotsky’s conduct in 1923–1928 often seem oblivious of the real danger of capitalist restoration, through the kulaks and the ‘Nepmen’, allied with outside capitalist forces, which existed during that period. The practical possibilities were by no means confined to either a strengthening of bureaucracy or a victory of the Left Opposition. In his methods and tactics Trotsky had, as a Communist, to take this real situation into account. The danger of capitalist restoration existed right down to Stalin’s ‘Left Turn’ in 1928-1929, with the subsequent collectivization of agriculture and the series of Five-Year Plans for industry. (Indeed, that it had been fully eliminated could not be certain until such tests as, first, the Second World War, and second, the death of Stalin, had been undergone.) And there was nothing ‘inevitable’ about Stalin’s ‘Left Turn’ – those who see Trotsky’s struggle within the Party in 1923–1928 as so much waste of time fail to appreciate that it was the propaganda and pressure of the ‘Left Opposition’ that tipped the scale at the crucial time against Bukharin and the Right-wingers whose policy would have opened the door to capitalist restoration.

It was the struggle led by Trotsky that ensured for Soviet Russia the line of economic development which, at whatever cost and with whatever distortions imposed by the bureaucratic parasites, preserved and strengthened this first workers’ state. If the Soviet state stands there today with its great factories and its great armed forces, that is due to Trotsky and the policy he followed, not only in the civil war period but all through the 1920s and after. That is, in fact, precisely Trotsky’s historic crime in the eyes of the bourgeoisie and their hangers-on.

When Trotsky died in 1940 it was still impossible to see how long the bureaucracy would be able to continue to keep its seat on the neck of the Soviet working class, and it was easier than it is now to speculate about the USSR being a type of society where the bureaucracy could rule secure for ever. Trotsky continued to the end, however, to point to the internal backwardness and external isolation of the USSR as the two conditions on which the bureaucracy depended. ‘In the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state it is not the general laws of modern society from capitalism to socialism which find expression but a special, exceptional and temporary refraction of these laws under the conditions of a backward revolutionary country in a capitalist environment’.[25] With the growth in the numbers, consolidation and consciousness of the Soviet working class, on the basis of their country’s economic progress, and with the spread of the revolution to Eastern Europe and China we have seen the bureaucratic regime in the USSR enter into a period of acute crisis (beginning in 1948 with the intensified police terror, stepped-up jingoism, more and more Byzantine cult of Stalin, and passing after the dictator’s death in 1953 into a phase in which panicky reforms alternate with equally panicky repressions, and fresh ‘revisions’ of Leninist doctrine alternate with cries of ‘Back to Lenin!’) The prerequisites for the political revolution in the USSR are being assembled through the dialectical interaction of processes going on inside the country and outside. As in 1921, decisive responsibility rests upon the working class of the imperialist countries, and above all on their political leaders, to create the world environment in which the Soviet working class can rise to its full stature.


1. For a revealing account of Makhno and his regime, by a sympathiser and admirer, see Max Nomad, Apostles of Revolution (1939).

2. Trotsky’s letter of February. 1920, advocating the tax in kind is reproduced in his book The New Course. For the whole story of the genesis of NEP, see E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume II, pages 272 and 280–281.

3. Mentioned in the Soviet Government’s communiqué of March 2, 1921: in Trotsky, Kak vooruzhalas revolyutsia, Volume III, Part 1.

4. Trotsky. ‘Trotskyism’ and the PSOP, in The New International, October 1939.

5. This mood is reflected in the contemporary account given by a Frenchman who visited Soviet Russia in that period: Morizet, Chez Lênine et Trotski (1922).

6. Report to the Tenth Party Congress, in Selected Works, 12-volume edition, Volume IX.

7. Selected Works, Volume IX.

8. It was the contrast between the Petrograd workers’ attitude in 1921 and the Budapest workers’ active participation in the Hungarian revolt of 1956 that made so patently dishonest the attempt by the Stalinists to represent the latter as ‘another Kronstadt’.

9. The Russian proletariat ‘was thrown into the factory cauldron, snatched directly from the plough. Hence the absence of conservative tradition, absence of caste in the proletariat itself, revolutionary freshness; hence – along with other causes – October, the first workers’ government in the world. But hence also illiteracy, backwardness, absence of organizational habits, absence of system in labour, of cultural and technical education. All these minuses in our cultural economic structure we are feeling at every step’. (Trotsky, Reply to Pokrovsky [1922], Appendix 1 to Volume I of History of the Russian Revolution.)

10. In Selected Works, Volume VII. This little work of Lenin’s deserves to be as well-known as The State and Revolution.

11. Lenin did not, of course, fail to add: ‘The more resolutely we now have to stand for a ruthlessly firm government, for the dictatorship of individuals in definite processes of work, in definite aspects of purely executive functions, the more varied must be the form and methods of control from below in order to counteract every shadow of possibility of distorting the principles of Soviet Government, in order repeatedly and tirelessly to weed out bureaucracy’.

12. In Selected Works, Volume VIII. See also Trotsky, The Defence of Terrorism (1921), especially quotation from his speech of March 28, 1918, entitled, Labour, Discipline and Order will Save the Socialist Soviet Republic.

13. See Trotsky’s 1919 article Scientifically – or ‘Somehow’?, in Labour Review, July-August 1959.

14. Revived in the Workers’ Opposition were the ideas of the Polish anarcho-syndicalist Waclaw Machajski, who was in Siberia with Trotsky in 1902. Machajski (of whom Trotsky writes in Lenin, My Life and The Soviet Union and the Fourth International) perceived in Marxian Socialism a plot for the ‘exploitation of the proletariat by the intelligentsia’ (or, as the incredible ‘authorized English translation’ of Trotsky’s Lenin has it, ‘profit-sharing of the proletariat through the intelligence’). He even accused Marx of fiddling the figures in his analyses of national income in Capital so as to mask the exorbitant share taken by ‘mental workers’. Parallel with the Workers’ Opposition in 1920–1922 there ran the Proletcult (proletarian culture) movement, also with echoes of Machajski, in which the leading role was played by Bogdanov, on whose activity as an ultra-Left in 1909–1910 see the article Building the Bolshevik Party in Labour Review, February-March, 1960. (Trotsky discusses ‘Proletcult’ in Literature and Revolution.)

15. Speech at Tenth Party Congress (1921), quoted in Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions (1950).

16. The Party Crisis, January 1921, in Selected Works, Volume VIII.

17. Preobrazhensky, Anarkhizm i Kommunism (1921).

18. In The Defence of Terrorism.

19. ibid. On the question of the rates of payment of technical and other specialists, Lenin observed in his 1919 article On the Party Programme (Selected Works, Volume VIII): ‘Of course we are now overpaying experts, but to pay them a little more for science is not only worth while, but necessary and theoretically essential’.

20. The Food Tax (April 21, 1921), in Selected Works, Volume IX. In the same volume is Lenin’s report to the Third Congress of the Communist international in which, speaking in July, 1921, he mentioned that rank-and-file workers resented the concessions made to the peasantry.

21. The Defence of Terrorism.

22. Speech on the Fifth Anniversary of the October Revolution, October 20, 1922 (in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume II).

23. Work in the Rural Districts, report to the Eighth Party Congress, March, 1919: in Selected Works, Volume VIII.

24. Lenin, The Tax in Kind (March 15, 1921): in Selected Works, Volume IX.

25. Trotsky, The USSR in War (1939) in In Defence of Marxism.

Last updated on 15.10.2011