M. Shachtman

Nine Years of the Struggle
of the Left Opposition – 1923

(April 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 16 (Whole No. 112), 16 April 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The first struggle in the Russian party around which the Left Opposition took shape occurred in 1923 between the 12th and the 13th party Congresses. It was concerned with four questions, of fundamental importance:

  1. the relations between the city and the country, the key question for the proletarian dictatorship in Russia which is based upon the alliance of the workers and the peasants;
  2. the problem of a plan in the development of economy, which continues to run through all the subsequent internal struggles like a red thread;
  3. the question of the internal party regime, which the passage of the years has only rendered infinitely more acute; and finally,
  4. the questions of revolutionary strategy raised by the abortive German revolution of 1923 and the Bulgarian insurrection of the same year.

The last point we will deal with in our next article. Here we will occupy ourselves with the first three points which are so inextricably intertwined.

To present the dispute of 1923 clearly means to dig under a veritable mountain of thick filth and falsification with which the bureaucracy has covered the true essence of the problem for nine years. It may perhaps best be understood by first giving an account of the situation existing in those days. In this way it will be possible to examine the contending views against their natural background.

The Program for Workers’ Democracy

As far back as the 10th Congress of the party, when the counter-revolution and the civil war had been liquidated on every important front, a program intended to terminate the atmosphere of “war Communism” in the party and to substitute for it “workers’ democracy” was adopted under the leadership of Lenin.

“The needs of the current moment,” read the resolution of the congress, “demand a new organizational form. That form is workers’ democracy. A course of workers’ democracy shall be adopted with the same decisiveness, and as energetically carried into execution, as in the period just past the course toward militarization of the party, to the extent that this does not meet an obstacle in the need for struggle with the counterrevolution.”

The outbreak of the counter-revolutionary uprising in Kronstadt and the subsequent promulgation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) resulted in the execution of the 10th Congress program being arrested for the time being. But the problem of democracy in the party lost none of its actuality, particularly in view of how matters began to develop in the country as a whole and in the party specifically. The problem was aggravated by the following circumstance:

In the summer of 1923, Russia experienced a severe economic crisis which became popularly known by a famous designation of Trotsky’s as “the scissors crisis”. The name was derived from the symbol of the widening blades of a scissors, one blade representing the price of agricultural products and the other the price of manufactured objects, the latter of which increased with the decrease of the former. To draw together the blades of the scissors, that is, to bring the prices of agricultural and industrial products into greater harmony, became the intensely urgent problem of the Soviet power, particularly calculated to establish a corresponding political harmony between the proletariat and the peasantry on the one hand, and between both of them and the Soviet power on the other hand.

Although the 12th party congress in April 1923 had dealt formally with the question, not a single practical step had been taken to solve the problem. To the contrary: the summer and fall crisis was proof that the situation had worsened. Industries, finding it hard to dispose of their products, slowed up their production and consequently found it increasingly difficult to pay wages regularly. When they were paid it was in the form of a depreciated money which could not satisfy the needs of the workers. The number of unemployed was on the increase. Manufactured goods, therefore, were not only unavailable to the peasants, but also to the workers. To add to the difficulties, strikes – a phenomenon rare and alarming under the Soviets – broke out in various parts of the country. The mounting dissatisfaction of the workers found expression in the party, too. In distorted form, it was reflected notably in the formation of two secret groups, the “Workers’ Group”, with distinctly Menshevik ideas, and the “Workers’ Truth Group”, with anarcho-syndicalist ideas. Even when the groups had been discovered and their leaders expelled, the questions nevertheless remained : How shall their appearance be explained? And the answer which met with growing agreement was that these phenomena were the result of the internal party regime of “war Communism” which continued to live after the period of war communism in the country had died out.

Trotsky’s Intervention

On October 8, Trotsky wrote to the Central Committee to express his opinion on the whole matter. In it he pointed out that repressive measures alone could not solve the problem. The crisis was due to the inadequate application of the 12th congress decisions on the organization of industry, especially with regard to the concentration of industry and the necessity of a plan. (Here, by the way, can be traced the origin of the struggle for a plan in economy which the Bolshevik-Leninists commenced and which the bureaucracy resisted for years afterwards.) Finally, he showed, the crisis was due to the inability of the party masses to exchange views, to exercize any influence upon the leadership, or to participate in the affairs of the state – a condition resulting from a hierarchical and bureaucratic regime in the party with the prncipal mass of the officals appointed from above instead of elected by the membership.

How serious the bureaucratic distortion of the party had become may be seen even more clearly from the following two incidents. Lenin, desperately ill, was unable to participate directly in the affairs of the party But even from his sick-bed, he was in a position to see how matters stood and how great was the danger to the party and the revolution. Late in 1923, only a very short time before his death, he drew up one document after another directed against the secret clique of Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev-Bucharin which had already constituted itself with the determination to perpetuate themselves in control. It is in this period that Lenin wrote his numerous letters against Stalin, then the letter breaking off all personal relations with Stalin, and finally the famous “testament” in which he proposes that Stalin be removed from the post of party secretary. In one of the documents he wrote at that time, later known to the party as Better Less and Better, Lenin wrote scathingly about the “Rabkrin” at the head of which stood Stalin:

“Our new Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, we hope, will leave behind the quality which the French call pruderie, which we may call a ridiculous affectation and a ridiculous self-importance, which is the last degree characteristic of all our bureaucrats, Soviet bureaucrats and party bureaucrats alike. In parenthesis be it said that we have a bureaucracy not only in the Soviet institutions but in the party too.”

How far the bureaucratism had already gone in the party was described at that time, among others, also by Bucharin, who was one of the leaders in the fight against Trotsky and the Opposition.

In one of his speeches in 1923, he made these illuminating remarks:

“If we conducted an investigation and inquired how often our party elections are conducted with the question from the chair, ‘Who is for?’ and ‘Who is against?’ we should easily discover that in the majority of cases our elections to the party organizations have become ‘elections’ in quotation marks, for the voting takes place not only without preliminary discussion, but according, to the formula ‘Who is Against?’ And, since, to speak against the authorities is a bad business, the matter ends right there. Such is the election of the secretaries of our lower branches.

“If you raise the question of our party meetings, then how does it go here? Election of the praesidium of the meeting. Appears some comrade from the district committee, presents a list, and asks ‘Who is against?’ Nobody is against, and the business is considered finished. With the order of the day, the same procedure. The chairman asks, ‘Who is against?’ Nobody is against. The resolution is unanimously adopted. There you have the customary type of situation in our party organizations ... It goes without saying that this gives rise to an enormous wave of dissatisfaction. I gave you several examples from the life of our lowest branches. The same thing is noticeable in a slightly changed form in the succeeding ranks of our party hierarchy.”

It is as a remedy for this whole state of affairs that Trotsky proposed the realization in life of the decisions of the 12th party congress on plan in economy and for a genuine workers’ democracy in the country. Let us emphasize here that the demand for workers’ democracy raised so pointedly here was presented only as a revolutionary Marxist can: Not as an abstraction, not in the name of that “pure democracy” at whose shrine the Mensheviks worship so piously, but as a concrete need of the hour. Trotsky’s demand for workers’ democracy was presented in direct connection with the needs of the socialist industry and the satisfaction of the needs of the working class. And when one takes into consideration, further, the fact that Trotsky raised the whole problem in connection with the “scissors crisis” and the discontentment of the peasantry, that he presented the solution with an eye towards strengthening the bonds between the proletariat and the peasantry, it is already sufficient for a refutation of the absurd and unscrupulous inventions about an alleged “under-estimation of the peasantry” which the bureaucrats soon discovered to be the fundamental deviation of “Trotskyism”.

(Continued in next issue)

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