Max Shachtman


Genesis of Trotskyism


The Break-up of the Bloc Between the Right Wing and the Center and the Launching of the ‘Third Period’

The struggle conducted on an international scale against the Left Opposition was led jointly by the Centrist faction and the Right wing. In their endeavors to beat down the Marxian wing of the International no distinctions could be perceived between Brandler and Thaelmann, Jilek and Gottwald, Sellier and Thorez, Lovestone and Yoster, Kilboom and Silen. This unity was symbolized by the combination of Stalin. and Bucharin who established them selves as the “incorruptible Leninist Old Guard.”

It was no mere fictitious unity. On all questions of inter national and domestic policy, of principle and tactics, these two sections of the ruling bloc held a common view. They went hand in hand against “Trotskyism,” and hand in hand with Purcell and Chiang Kai-shek. Together they defended the theory of socialism in one country, of “two class workers and peasants parties. “They jointly introduced to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 the revisionist program adopted by the delegates.

But at the end of 1927, the ebb-tide of reaction which had brought the regime into power was giving way to a Leftward turn in the ranks of the international proletariat. In Russia itself, the “bloodless kulak uprising” of 1928 had a sobering effect upon the workers and they began to press upon the leadership for a turn of the helm to the Left. It was in this atmosphere that Stalin was compelled to steer in the opposite direction from the one he had been sailing for five years. Starting cautiously with an attack upon obscure representatives of the Right wing, he succeeded so quickly in stripping the latter of its support that he was able in 1929-1930 to make a frontal attack upon its real leadership: Rykov, Bucharin and Tomsky.

To a Communist public dumbfounded by the unexpected ness of the attack, the three leaders of the Right wing were presented by Stalin .as the banner-bearers of the capitalist restoration. The president of the Communist Inter national, the head of the Soviet government, and the leader of the Soviet trade unions were depicted by Stalin as the agents of the Thermidorian counter-revolution! But it is precisely this “trio” with whom Stalin had for five-six years been in the most intimate “indissoluble” alliance against the Left wing of the party.

If Stalin’s indictment of the Right wing had any meaning at all – and it did – it was, at the same time, a murderous arraignment of the Centrist faction itself. For what pretense could it make to Bolshevism when it had admittedly been in indistinguishable solidarity for half a decade with restorationists? Where in all history could an instance be found of the genuine revolutionary tendency having been in an inseparable bloc with another tendency which, within virtually twenty-four hours, proved to be the champion of black reaction?

Given the fact that both sections of the leadership had a common-principle basis, given the fact that to cut off the Right wing Stalin had to borrow copiously from the ideological arsenal of the Left Opposition (the Right wing did not hesitate to accuse him of “Trotskyism” just as Trotsky foretold in 1926!), Stalin’s campaign against the Right wing served at the same time as a deadly self revelation of Centrism, and an involuntary tribute to the justice of the whole Opposition struggle.

Let it not be forgotten that the whole Fifteenth Russian party Congress condemned the Oppositionists as panic mongers for warning against the growing Kulak danger. Just as Rykov had taunted the Opposition with the question: If the Kulak is so dangerous why hasn’t he played us some trick? – so Molotov cried impatiently in December 1927 that the Kulak was nothing new, that there was no need of alarm or of special measures beyond those already in force. Everybody “agrees,” argued Molotov, who insistently minimized the magnitude of the exploiting farmers, “it exists, and there is no need to speak about it.”

Only a few brief weeks later the whole Soviet Union was violently shaken by a demonstration of the tremendous power which the Kulak had amassed all the while that Bucharin-Stalin-Molotov-Rykov had been covering him up from Trotsky’s criticisms. In January 1928, right after the congress and emboldened by their success in having the Left wing cut off from the party, the Kulaks rose in what came to be known as their “bloodless uprising.” Powerful and confident, they refused to turn over their hoarded stocks of grain and, in effect, declared: Unless the Soviet power yields to our demands for prices above those fixed by the proletarian state we shall keep our stores and starve the cities, the working-class centers, into submission!

So effective and alarming was their resistance that for the first time in many long years, the Soviets were compelled to requisition the villages’ grain by armed force. All the official philosophy of “Enrich yourselves!” the vicious self-consolation about the insignificance of the Kulak, the rabid hounding of the Opposition for its timely warnings, were now whipped to tatters by the realities The revolutionary spirit of a now alarmed working class, which had by no means been entirely eliminated by the campaign against the Opposition, forced its way into the open in spite of the obstacles put in its path by the bureaucratic regime. It is this pressure from below which gave the real impulsion to the break-up of the hitherto solid Right-Center bloc. This still unclear revolt against the previous line of yielding to the capitalist elements inside and outside the country, jerked the helm out of the hands of the Right and forced a change in the course.

On the basis of this Leftward current in the masses, the Stalinist faction opened up a new phase of its development, the “third period” of its blunders on a Soviet and an international scale. This flight of the frightened bureaucrats from yesterday’s rank opportunism to adventurism is embraced in what has become known as the “third period.”

The arbitrarily defined period does not commence in the Comintern’s history with its proclamation at the Sixth Congress, but even more definitely at the Ninth Plenum of the CI early in 1928. At that time the first signs of a working-class resurgence in Europe could be detected, but only the first signs. The vote cast for the Communist parties, particularly in Germany, was increasing, but with it, also, the vote cast for the social democracy. In a number of other countries, however, the working class was either writhing in the pain of a still unsurmounted defeat, as in China, or else passive under the soporific effects of a temporary economic boom, as in France and the United States.

The Ninth Plenum, instead of establishing the precise stage of development of the international labor movement, proclaimed the rise of a “new and higher” stage of the Chinese revolution (not counter-revolution, but revolution!), gave its blanket endorsement to guerrilla adventurism, and announced from the mouth of Thaelmann and the other spokesmen of the Comintern that the working masses throughout the world were becoming “more and more radicalized.” The warnings against this light minded conception of an automatic, horizontal pr ogress of the revolutionary movement were of no avail, for they were uttered by the Opposition. Trotsky’s clear-sighted analysis of the real status of the movement was not only passed over in silence at the Sixth Congress to which it was presented, but it was not even given to the assembled delegates.

The Sixth Congress in the middle of 1928 carried the Ninth Plenum a few steps further in absurdity. Formally, it marked the culminating point of the collaboration between Centrism and the Right wing (Stalin and Bucharin). Actually, it incorporated into the foundation of the next period a mixture of opportunist premises and ultra-Left deductions which have been at the root of all the confusion and defeats suffered by Communism since that time.

The Sixth Congress had many points of similarity with the Fifth, which was held in 1924 after the defeat in Germany. In 1924, no defeat was acknowledged; on the contrary, the revolution was proclaimed to be right ahead. In 1928, the same error was made with regard to the Chinese revolution. In the period of the Fifth Congress, Stalin made the novel discovery that the “social democracy was the most moderate wing of Fascism.” In 1928, the Sixth Congress laid the basis for the unique philosophy of “social-Fascism.” The Fifth Congress celebrated the victory of “Bolshevization” and “monolithism,” at a time when the very basis under the various “Bolshevik leaderships” imposed upon the national sections was being undermined. In 1928, the most violent internal struggles were being fought behind the scenes of the “unified Communist International.” The Fifth Congress, with all its ultra-Leftist palaver, contained not merely the germs of a brief spurt to the Left but also a protracted swing to the Right, to the period of the Anglo-Russian Committee, of the Chiang Kai-shek alliance, the Anti-Imperialist League and the “Peasants’ International.” The Sixth Congress, for all its endorsement of adventurist conclusions, consecrated the revisionist theory of socialism in one country and established the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” (that is, the Kerenskiad or the Kuo Min Tang tragedy) as an iron law governing the destinies of the revolution on three-quarters of the earth.

The struggle against the “Right danger” launched at the Sixth Congress, which Bucharin had resisted only as recently as the Fifteenth Congress of the Russian party, was platonic and anonymous. Its value may be estimated from the fact that it was proclaimed from the Congress tribune by the international leader of the Right wing, Bucharin. In this manner, the formal unification of the ruling bloc was preserved and used to cover up the bitter internal dispute.

It is instructive to observe that at the very time that Stalin was busily engaged in sapping the ground under Bucharin and Co., going so far as to organize an unofficial congress of his own, simultaneously with “Bucharin’s Congress,” he nevertheless took the leadership in condemning any rumors about disagreements in the Russian party leadership as “Trotskyist slanders.” In a special report on the subject made by Stalin himself to the Council of Elders at the Congress, he repudiated all rumors regarding differences in the Russian Political Bureau. He emphatically denied that there were any Right wingers or Right wing views in the Political Bureau or even the Central Committee, and, to confirm his assertions, introduced a resolution, signed by himself and every other member of the Political Bureau which declared:

“The undersigned members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union declare before the Council of Elders of the Congress that they most emphatically protest against the circulation of rumors that there are dissensions among the members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU.”

Needless to say, the assembled marionettes listened solemnly and approvingly to this criminally ludicrous deception of the Communist International, concocted jointly by Stalin and Bucharin.

The dissolution of this state of affairs was not long delayed. In almost less time than it takes to tell it, virtually all the leading spokesmen of the Sixth Congress were either crushed organizationally, expelled outright, or saved from expulsion by humiliating capitulation. Just as the leaders of the Fifth Congress lasted but a brief moment in the seats of power, so did the Sixth Congress “Bolsheviks” meet with a speedy end. Bucharin, the political leader of the Congress, the reporter on the program, the president of the Comintern, was denounced a few months later as the leader of the capitalist-restorationist tendency in the Soviet Union (no less!). Lovestone, Gitlow and Wolfe were unceremoniously expelled as agents of the American bourgeoisie. Roy, who had made a livelihood denouncing Trotsky as an agent of Chamberlain, found himself designated in exactly the same manner. Jilek and Co. in Czechoslovakia, Kilboom in Sweden, Brandler (and almost Ewert) in Germany, Sellier and Co. in France, and a host of others, were expelled or withdrew from the Comintern.

The removal of any Right wing restraint made possible the climb to the heights of absurdity at the Tenth Plenum in 1929, to the very peaks of the “third period.” The Tenth Plenum was the reductio ad absurdum of the Sixth Congress with a number of novelties added by Stalin and Molotov on their own account. It was the Plenum par excellence of the “third period”, the same “third period” which was at first denounced as an opportunistic idea by the Thaelmann-Neumann delegation to the Sixth Congress.

The “third period,” its proponents explained, was characterized by a constantly increasing radicalization of the masses, simultaneously in every country. There can be no fourth period, announced Molotov, for the third period ends with revolution. The present “heightened political sensitivity of the broad masses,” added Losovsky, “is a characteristic sign of the eve of a revolution.” Moireva, a member of the ECCI [Executive Committee of the Communist International], declared:

“It is my opinion from the May events as well as from the recent Polish events that there were a series of elements in them that recall our July days. The fact alone that the Communist parties had to restrain the most advanced sections of the working class in their surge forward, speaks for a rapidly approaching revolutionary situation.”

This extravaganza is illuminated only if it is remembered that “our July days” were the direct precursor of the October insurrection in Russia. It should be borne in mind that all these fantasies were presented to the official Communist world as unshakable articles of faith more than three years ago!

From this “third period” with its incessantly rising radicalization of the masses in virtually every country in the world, in which France was solemnly announced to be at the head of the revolutionary list (in 1929!), flowed the theory of social Fascism, a disease of senile decay from which the Comintern is suffering to this day. With Stalin’s ingenious formula of 1924 in mind, Manuilsky now announced that “the fusion of the social democracy with the capitalist state is not merely a fusion at the top. This fusion has taken place from top to bottom, all along the line.” Improving on Lenin, Manuilsky announced that Noske back in 1918 was already a social Fascist.

The master strategist, Bela Kun, who destroyed the Hungarian revolution by failing to understand the nature of the social democracy in 1918, now tried some ten years later to repair the damage by advancing an even worse interpretation:

“Social-Fascism is the type of Fascist development in those countries in which capitalist development is more advanced than in Italy ... In this stage of development, social reformism dies out: it is transformed partly into social demagogic elements and partly into the element of mass violence of Fascism.”

From this Manuilsky drew the conclusion concerning the united front policy that “we have never considered it as a formula for everybody, for all times and people. Today we are stronger and proceed to more aggressive methods in the struggle for the majority of the working class.” What the lesser functionaries had to con tribute to the question may easily be imagined from these few quotations.

The official motivation for the establishment of the “third period” and all its commandments was false from beginning to end. But this does not mean that there was not a profound reason for the 180 degrees turn in the course of the Comintern. Centrism, bereft of any anchor in principles, possessing no platform distinctly its own, was driven to the Left by the pressure of events and criticism. Having no real foundation, it must base itself upon an artificially preserved prestige. In order to maintain the continuity of its prestige, that is, in order to explain away the head-over-heels turn to the Left, or more precisely, in order to justify the change without in any way leaving room for criticism of its preceding course, the “third period” was called into existence.

By its proclamation the Centrists were able to justify the “united front from the top” with Chiang Kai-shek and Purcell as well as no united front at all. Both were justified by one brilliant theory: the arbitrary establishment of “periods.” In the “second period,” according to this convenient dogma, it was the essence of Bolshevism to maintain a united front with proved strikebreakers in return for their “struggle to defend the Soviet Union” from British imperialism. In the “third period,” however, all social democrats from Purcell down to the socialist worker in the shop had become Fascist and the Communist must therefore have nothing to do with them. The “third period” formulae were the philosophy by which Centrism linked together the two mutually supplementary periods of its blunders, crimes, and ideological disorder without prejudice to itself: at least, that was the intention of its artificers.

The “third period” was, and to the extent that the remnants of it still clutter the road it still is, a milestone of Centrism’s road of bankruptcy and decay. The more than three years since its proclamation have witnessed a new series of defeats added to those accumulated between 1923 and 1928.

It is in this period that the rise of Fascism in Germany could proceed without encountering any effective resistance by the Communists, who were prohibited by the dogma of “social Fascism” from making a united front with the social democratic workers. Disoriented by the fantastic prediction of Molotov that France stood at the head of the list for revolutionary struggle, the Comintern was taken totally unawares by the upheaval in Spain. When it was finally shaken out of its stupor, the Spanish Communist party was rendered impotent by the extreme sectarianism of its policy, by its rejection of the tactic of the united front.

In the United States the unparalleled opportunities for revolutionary work afforded by the convulsions of the crisis were lost, one after the other, by the application of tactics which repelled hundreds of thousands of workers moving in the direction of Communism. In England, France, Czechoslovakia – in a word, in every important country, the theory and practice of the “third period” brought the Communist movement to its knees, introduced confusion into its mind, paralyzed its limbs and isolated it from the masses. If the international social democracy is still a big power to be reckoned with today, if it still retains its sway over millions of workers, it has the blunders of Stalinism to thank for it.

The passionate desire of the masses for a united front to resist the encroachments of the bourgeoisie was repulsed by the bureaucratic demand of the Communist parties for a “united front from below” or a “Red united front,” that is, a united front dependent upon the acceptance in advance by non-Communist workers of Communist leadership. The hatred of Fascism manifested by socialist workers, as well as Communists, was never utilized by the Stalinists. Instead, they repelled the socialist workers by their empty chatter about “social Fascism” and their alliance – in Germany, at any rate – with the Hitler bands in the notorious “Red” Referendum in Prussia. The resistance which the socialist workers were eager to offer to the capitalist attacks, was further weakened by the sectarian policy of splitting the unions and forming tiny Communist trade union sects.

The Comintern’s isolation from the masses on the political field as well as in the trade unions, which the Opposition forecast in time, has proceeded hand in hand with an unprecedented ideological and moral degeneration in the ranks of official Communism. This could not be expected to continue over a long period without ending in a terrific crash, be it inside the Soviet Union or outside of it.

The accumulated effects of this degeneration within the Soviet Union have brought in their train the dangers of Thermidor and Bonapartism, just as they threaten the whole Communist International with discreditment and dissolution.


Last updated on 9.4.2005