Max Shachtman


Genesis of Trotskyism


The Fight for Party Democracy

Like the Communist International itself, the Left Opposition quite naturally was formed in the crucible of the world revolution, the Soviet Union. It took shape for the first time as a distinct grouping in the Communist party in 1923, headed by Leon Trotsky, who stood with Lenin as the outstanding leader of the Russian revolution and the Communist International.

The workers’ republic was at that moment passing through a difficult period. With the New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted in 1921, a large measure of success had been obtained in restoring the economic life of the country. The relationships between the workers and peasants, upon which rests the security of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia, were strengthened. Most of the rigors of the “War Communism” days, when the revolution fought against civil war and imperialist intervention, were overcome. At the same time, however, new problems were arising, sometimes so acutely that they took on the forms of a crisis.

To use the commonly accepted term coined by Trotsky, the workers’ republic was passing through a “scissors” crisis. The “opening” of the scissors represented the gap created by the rise in the price of manufactured commodities and the decline in the price of agricultural products. The problem was to bring prices in both sectors into closer harmony with each other.

Factories were finding it difficult to dispose of their products and production was consequently slowed down. Wages were paid with decreasing regularity and paid in a depreciated money which failed to satisfy the needs of the workers. Not only did unemployment grow, but the workers and peasants found it increasingly hard to purchase manufactured goods. The discontentment of the workers even took the form of strikes.

The situation also accentuated the dissatisfaction of the members of the Communist party. While the “War Communism” atmosphere was largely eliminated from the country’s economy, after the counter-revolution had been smashed and the NEP put into effect, it still prevailed within the party. The intensely military regime imposed upon the party by the demands of the civil war, had not merely outlived the war period itself but had, in some respects, become more dangerous. A vast hierarchy of appointed officials had taken the place of a freely elected party apparatus. The initiative and independence of the rank and file party member were being stifled. The entrenchment of a bureaucratic caste was producing clandestine factional groupings in the party, with Menshevik or anarcho-syndicalist coloration, it is true, but nevertheless reflecting a deep dissatisfaction of the party membership.

The danger of bureaucratism and the need for workers’ democracy in the party had been openly indicated by Lenin before his illness compelled him to withdraw from active party life. He had not only written some scathing passages against bureaucratism and the bureaucrats, but he had even urged Trotsky to undertake, on behalf of both of them, an energetic campaign in the party to purge it of this destructive cancer. The Tenth Party Congress, under Lenin’s direction, had already adopted a resolution for the vigorous execution of the policy of party democracy. After the Twelfth Congress, which reaffirmed the resolution, it was still permitted to remain a dead letter, and the increasingly bad situation was not improved to any degree.

A picture of conditions in the party was given at that time by so staunch a supporter of the leading faction as Bucharin himself:

“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.

“If you raise the question of our party meetings, then how does it go here?m... Election of the presidium 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.”

To meet this situation, Trotsky addressed a letter to the Central Committee of the party on October 8, 1923, expressing his views on the condition of the national economy and the party. He was followed by a letter signed by 46 of the party leaders who joined hands with him on most of the essential ideas he had set down. In addition, Trotsky devoted a series of articles to the situation which were assembled into a pamphlet called The New Course the phrase used to define the turn which Trotsky urged the party to make in the realm of economics and within its own ranks. The fight made by Trotsky, in which he was immediately joined by what was called the “Moscow Opposition,” centered around the demand for a genuine application of the resolution on workers’ democracy and the coordination of industry with agriculture on the basis of a plan in economy.

The Opposition’s demand, contrary to the absurd arguments of the ruling faction, had nothing in common with the Menshevik fight for “pure democracy.” The Mensheviks and other Right wing socialists everywhere have always stood on the platform of overthrowing the proletarian dictatorship in Russia and restoring a regime of capitalist “democracy.” Under it the Russian socialists would be able to operate in the same treacherously respectable manner that has made their brethren the world over so odious.

The Opposition demanded workers’ democracy in order to prevent a bureaucratic degeneration of the party and the proletarian dictatorship. The warnings of Trotsky in 1923, in which he merely elaborated Lenin’s words that “history knows degenerations of all sorts,” were denounced as slanders by that very same “Old Guard” and “Leninist Central Committee” which broke into dozens of fragments in the years that followed.

The program for restoring workers’ democracy and eliminating the bureaucratic deformities which were beginning to cripple the party and the dictatorship, had another important aspect. From the very beginning, it was coupled with the perspective of speeding up the industrialization of economically backward Russia.

Trotsky pointed out that the workers’ republic could overcome the obstacle of a primitively organized and managed agriculture and enter the broad highway towards socialism, only by laying a solid foundation in the form of big-scale machine industry. With such a base, the proletariat would be able to satisfy the needs of the peasantry for cheap manufactured products. By pursuing a policy of systematically reducing the economic and political importance of the exploiting peasants (the Kulaks), it would commence in earnest the socialist transformation of an agriculture provided with the technical equipment of large industry.

To accomplish these ends, Trotsky advocated the centralization of national economy and its harmonized direction by means of a national, long-term plan, pointing to the successes attained in 1920 by planned economy in the field of restoring the efficiency of railroad transportation. The antagonism which the proposal for economic planning met in the party leadership in those days is astounding in the face of the general acceptance of the idea a decade later and the tremendous progress made by applying planned economy five years after if was first advanced in the party by the Opposition.

The essence of the dispute on this score was not put badly by Zinoviev, a violent opponent of Trotsky at the time and spokesman for the Stalin-Bucharin-Zinoviev majority faction, in his speech of January 6, 1924:


“It seems to me, comrades, that the obstinate persistence in clinging to a beautiful plan is intrinsically nothing else than a considerable concession to the old-fashioned view that a good plan is a universal remedy, the last word in wisdom. Trotsky’s standpoint has greatly impressed many students. ‘The Central Committee has no plan, and we really must have a plan!’ is the cry we hear today from a certain section of the students. The reconstruction of economics in a country like Russia is indeed the most difficult problem of our revolution ... We want to have transport affairs managed by Dzherzhinsky; economics by Rykov; finance by Sokolnikov; Trotsky, on the other hand, wants to carry out everything with the aid of a ‘state plan.’”

In this as in every other case where the majority came into conflict with the Opposition, the course of the class struggle took it upon itself to justify a hundred times over the point of view originally advanced by Trotsky and his comrades. The majority met the Opposition’s program for planned economy with the only weapons at their command – ridicule, abuse, and misrepresentation. In the end they were reluctantly compelled to borrow wholesale from the very same program to vote against which they had years before mobilized the whole Communist movement.

Unable to meet the Opposition on the questions which it actually raised, the party leaders resorted to all manner of demagogy. What Trotsky actually wrote was twisted and distorted beyond recognition. Where he advocated drawing the young Communist generation closer into the leadership so that it might restore its vitality, his standpoint was presented to the party as if he stood for pitting the “young” against the “old” – the timeworn trick of an opportunistic bureaucracy. Where he pointed out that the principal cause for the formation of so many factions in the party resided in the repression of all initiative and criticism from the ranks, he was charged with defending factions as a principle. Where he pointed out that all history revealed that no leadership was immune from degeneration, that the party must take drastic measures to guard against the rise of bureaucratism – the others charged him with declaring that the party had degenerated and the revolution had been swamped by a bureaucracy. Where he pointed out that the town must lead the country, the worker the peasant, and industry agriculture he was subjected to the reactionary accusation of “underestimating the peasantry.”

With the tremendous apparatus at their command, the party leaders were able to swing to their support a majority of the party members. The control of the machinery of the Communist International further facilitated the “voting down” of the Opposition in the parties abroad, in which not one-tenth of the members had ever seen or read what Trotsky himself actually wrote and stood for!

One of the main reasons for the comparative ease with which a majority was rigged up against the Left wing of the party was the event which took place almost at the same time as the Russian discussion. This was the October 1923 retreat of the Communists in Germany, which had a powerful effect not only on the Russian discussion but also on the life of the international Communist movement for several years to come.


Last updated on 9.4.2005