Max Shachtman


Genesis of Trotskyism


The Lessons of October

Germany in the autumn of 1923 was confronted with a revolutionary situation favorable in the highest degree to the proletariat. The Communist party was not only growing steadily, but the ruling class encountered new difficulties every day. The occupation of the Ruhr by France reenacted the World War on a smaller scale and brought to the breaking point all those contradictions of European capitalism which the Versailles Treaty had only accentuated. So ripe was the situation that, as Trotsky wrote,

“it became quite clear that the German bourgeoisie could extricate itself from this ‘inextricable’ position only if the Communist party did not understand at the right time that the position of the bourgeoisie was ‘inextricable’ and did not draw the necessary revolutionary conclusions.”

Yet this is precisely what the Communist party failed to understand and to do. The high point of the revolutionary situation was reached in October. The leadership, steeped in the habits of the gradual and normal accumulation of forces on the side of the party, remained entirely passive or kept to the old pace. The desperate bourgeoisie attacked in military formation, overthrew the socialist-Communist coalition governments in Saxony and Thuringia, and won a decisive victory without the party firing a shot. At the crucial moment, the Communist leaders sounded the call for an ignominious retreat. The party was thrown into despair and the masses into confusion.

The policy pursued by the party leaders in Germany was not peculiar to Brandler and Thalheimer. It was derived from the leadership of the Communist International and the Russian Communist party, that is, of the same faction which had launched the war against Trotsky a few months previously. The fatal policy of hesitation, doubt, of counting up the armed forces on both sides of the barricades to see which class had a majority of one soldier – was injected into the veins of the already sluggish and timid German party leaders by the equally timid and hesitant Russian party leaders.

Here is what Stalin wrote to Zinoviev and Bucharin in August 1923 about the situation in Germany:

“Should the Communists (at the present stage) strive to seize power without the social democracy? – are they ripe for this already? – this in my opinion is the question ... If now in Germany, the power, so to say, will fall and the Communists will seize it, they will fall through with a crash. This is in the ‘best’ case. And in the worst -they’ll be smashed to bits and thrown back. The thing is not in this, that Brandler wants to teach the masses, but that the bourgeoisie plus the Right social democracy would surely turn this teaching-demonstration into a general slaughter (at present they have all the chances for it) and would destroy them. Certainly the Fascists are not nap ping, but it is more advantageous to us for the Fascists to attack first: this will rally the whole working class around the Communists. (Germany is not Bulgaria.) Besides, the Fascists in Germany, according to the data we have, are weak. In my estimation the Germans must be restrained, not spurred on.”

What Stalin did was simply to set down in a letter what was uppermost in the minds of all the other members of his faction. Together with Zinoviev, he failed to heed the criticisms which Trotsky made of the German party leaders, weeks and months before the crucial hour struck. On the contrary, they jumped to the defense of Brandler and Thalheimer. In the official material issued on the September 1923 Plenum of the Russian party Central Committee, weeks before the German retreat, they wrote:

“Comrade Trotsky, before leaving the session of the Central Committee, made a speech which greatly excited all the Central Committee members. He declared in this speech that the leadership of the German Communist Party is worthless and that the Central Committee of the German CP is allegedly permeated with fatalism and sleepy-headedness, etc. Comrade Trotsky declared further that under these conditions the German revolution is condemned to failure. This speech produced an astounding impression. Still the majority of the comrades were of the opinion that this philippic was called forth in an incident that occurred at the Plenum of the Central Committee which had nothing to do with the German revolution and that this statement was in contradiction to the objective state of affairs.”

It was only after the crushing October defeat that Brandler and Thalheimer were made the scapegoats by Zinoviev and Stalin. They were held to be exclusively responsible for the course to which they had been inspired by the leadership of the Comintern. The establishment of Brandler’s culpability in the German situation constituted the beginning and the end of the analysis made by the bureaucracy. And a very convenient analysis it was, for it shifted from the shoulders of Stalin and Zinoviev their own heavy responsibilities for what happened -as well as for what did not happen – in Germany.

But if they were remiss in their duty, the task of examining the German October was brilliantly performed by Trotsky in his Lessons of October. The essence of this document lies in a masterful comparison of the problems confronting the Russian Bolsheviks on the eve of the insurrection, and how they solved them successfully, with the problems confronting the German and Bulgarian par ties and how they failed to solve them. (In September, a month before the October defeat, the Bulgarian Communist party had also suffered a crushing blow which set it back for years.) In summing up his study, which was calculated to -educate the Communist parties in the acute problems of the proletarian uprising – seen in the light of a great victory and a grave defeat – Trotsky wrote later on:

“The German defeat of 1923 naturally had many national peculiarities. But it already contained many typical features, also, which signalized a general danger. This danger can be characterized as the crisis of the revolutionary leadership on the eve of the transition to armed uprising. The depths of the proletarian party are by their very nature far less susceptible to bourgeois public opinion. Certain elements of the party leadership and the middle layers of the party will always unfailingly succumb in larger or smaller measure to the material and ideological terror of the bourgeoisie. Such a danger should not simply be rejected. To be sure, there is no remedy against it suitable for all cases. Nevertheless, the first step towards fighting it – is to grasp its nature and its source. The unfailing appearance of the development of Right groupings in all the Communist parties in the ‘pre-October’ period is on the one hand a result of the greatest objective difficulties and dangers of this ‘jump’ but on the other hand the result of a furious assault of bourgeois public opinion. There also lies the whole import of the Right groupings. And that is just why irresolution and vacillations arise unfailingly in the Communist parties at the moment when it is most dangerous. With us, only a minority within the party leadership was seized by such vacillations in 1917, which were, however, overcome, thanks to the sharp energy of Lenin. In Germany, on the contrary, the leadership as a whole vacillated and that was carried over to the party and through it to the class. The revolutionary situation was thereby passed up... All these were not of course the last crisis of leadership in a decisive historical moment. To limit these inevitable crises to a minimum is one of the most important tasks of the Communist parties and the Comintern. This can be achieved only when the experiences of October 1917 and the political content of the Right Opposition inside our party at that time are grasped and contrasted with the experiences of the German party in 1923. Therein lies the purpose of the Lessons of October.”

It is precisely this analysis which the Russian party leaders sought with might and main to avoid. When Trotsky spoke of the Right wing in the Russian party in 1917, everybody knew that he referred to Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Tomsky, Stalin and the others who had, at one time or another in the months preceding the Bolshevik uprising, taken a stand against the socialist revolution towards which Lenin and Trotsky were steering the party. They knew, further, that an examination into this highly-important phase of the German retreat would reveal that these same leaders had not risen very much higher on the revolutionary scale in 1923 than they had in 1917.

As a result, the rich lessons afforded the working class and Communist movements by the defeats in Germany and Bulgaria were not drawn by the leadership of the Communist International. It resolved to sacrifice them in the interests of the struggle against “Trotskyism” which they invented in order to cover up their own disastrous course. The official press was filled with interminable articles and speeches by the party leaders, denouncing and distorting Trotsky’s position, boasting of their own “Leninist purity,” and demanding that the whole International record itself against the Opposition.

An example of how the Communist International registered itself against Trotsky is offered by the voting in the American party. Although the “Lessons of October” was never printed by the party in the English language and never read by ninety-nine percent of the membership or leadership in the United States, they were all compelled to cast a solemn vote in support of the “Leninist Old Guard” and in condemnation of Trotsky’s views. This pernicious system was later extended and sanctified to such a degree that in every subsequent dispute between the bureaucracy and the Opposition, it was taken for granted that the latter was wrong. It had to be attacked even though its viewpoint was never made public to the Communist workers.

This corruption of the parties became the characteristic feature that distinguished all the following years of the campaign against the Left Opposition, down to this very day. Nor could it be otherwise. Whoever is sure of his position need not fear the presentation of the opposing standpoint. Only those who are obliged to defend a false position, must use the bureaucratic means of suppressing the contrary standpoint, for in an objective and democratically organized discussion the incorrect view would be unable to stand up under fire.


Last updated on 9.4.2005