Max Shachtman

Trotsky’s Struggle Against Stalinism

On the Second Anniversary of the Assassination

(August 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 7, August 1942, pp. 203–204.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

No war that was lost, but could and should have been won, fails to produce an aftermath of criticism of the strategy and tactics employed, of recrimination, and sometimes of apostasy. So it has been with the war launched almost twenty years ago by Trotsky and his comrades in the effort to save the Russian Revolution from the degeneration that finally destroyed it.

If only Trotsky had made Lenin’s Testament public in time! If only he had attended Lenin’s funeral in Moscow! If only he had arrested Stalin with a corporal’s guard of Red Army men before he was driven out of the War Commissariat! If only he had made a bloc with Zinoviev from the very beginning (or – other version – if only he had never made a bloc with him)! If only he had formed a new party fifteen years ago, instead of nine years ago! If only he had possessed, or shown, some of Stalin’s skill at “machine politics”! If only he had gotten along better with people! If only ...!!!

If it were not for the fact that these lamentations come from self-styled friends of the cause Trotsky represented, and that they sometimes find an echo in the ranks of militants in the movement, they would not even be worth recording. But no; on second thought, they merit recording and commentary in any case, for there is much to be learned from a criticism of the critics.

The first thing that strikes the commentator on the criticisms of the way Trotsky conducted the struggle against Stalinism is the common characteristic that unites nearly all the critics. With few exceptions they are all people who have never had any experience in the work of the revolutionary political movement, and have only a book-knowledge about working class organization, based in most cases on the wrong books at that. If some critics differ from others in that they have spent more than ten minutes observing the movement from the outside or in that they have been direct participants in the movement, they are composed almost exclusively of the most mediocre kind of failures.

This apparently ad hominem argument might be set aside as unjust and therefore invalid if it were not that the political and “organizational” character of the critics is literally translated into their criticism, and gives it its literarious, academic, abstract, unreal and erroneous character. They have never been able to understand why their comments appear so ludicrous and preposterous to the more experienced militants in the movement.

Timing is one of the most difficult aspects of that complicated art known as political struggle. To exaggerate, you could almost say that the art of politics is proper timing. With the best principles and program and intentions in the world, a party can break its neck if it takes the beginning of a process as its end, the peak of a process for its ebb, or its ebb for its flow. Proper timing is connected inseparably with proper focusing. If the time is ripe and the place is wrong, all is wrong. You must not start shooting in the valley when you want to take by surprise an enemy entrenched at the top of a mountain. You must not start fighting in one sphere if that means an immediate transfer of the struggle, for which you are unprepared, to another sphere, which is not prepared as a battlefield. Timing and focusing depend in turn upon the relationship of forces. To launch a battle when defeat is assured in advance is seldom superior to the kind of warfare which consists in retreating at all times. It is permissible only when retreat would lead to complete demoralization or decimation of your forces, whereas a fight, even with defeat as the sure outcome, would offer the chance of keeping a diminished force intact for a later attack. The participant in the struggle must assimilate organically these, and a hundred other, vital “commonplaces.” The literary observer of the struggle does not even think of them.

Should Trotsky have launched an open struggle against the Triumvirs (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin) long before he actually did, while Lenin was still more or less active? Should he have appealed right off the bat to the rank and file against the leadership, instead of confining the dispute for so long to the narrow ranks of the party’s upper stratum? There isn’t a second-guesser, or any other kind of besserwisser, who hesitates to speak up boldly, twenty years later, and answer: Yes!

The problem involved was not, however, one so easily and simply disposed of. In the first place, to have expected anybody except a crystal gazer to perceive at that time that the bureaucracy would develop to the point it reached twenty years later would require a degree of unreality attainable only by the most foggy-minded. It would have been necessary, before anything else, to look forward to a long and unbroken line of defeats for the working class throughout the world, a long recession in the strength and morale of the international revolutionary movement on the basis of which the bureaucracy was able to arrive at its present position. There were no serious grounds in 1922–23 for such a perspective. In the second place, the bureaucracy at that time resembled its present-day successor in only the most general and superficial way. There were serious grounds to believe that what was involved was a deviation, an aberration, a deformity that could be cured without too much difficulty and not a full-fledged counter-revolutionary line. If Trotsky had not been merely the most far-sighted thinker of his time but a man gifted with supernatural powers of insight into the future, everyone would have regarded as utter insanity any effort by him to delineate the future of the bureaucracy as it was to develop twenty years later.

Causes of the Reaction

What Trotsky had to fight against were the universally apparent signs of fatigue, of “revolution-weariness,” among the population of the country. The people had undergone the most strenuous sufferings. Their nerves had been kept keyed to the highest pitch for several years. Their bodies had been steadily worn down. To the inferno of normal life under Czarism had been added three terrible years of the World War, then the convulsing strain of two revolutions, one right after the other, then years of the peculiar horrors of civil war, the exhausting rigors of “War Communism,” the ghastly famine, the disappointing failure of the world revolution to triumph in the West. It is not so much that they finally began to break down under all this that deserves to be noted, but rather that they held out so long before breaking down, that they showed such marvelous powers of endurance, such vast reservoirs of revolutionary and idealistic confidence.

The powers of endurance of the masses are not so limitless as the capacity for wind-jamming by dilettantes. The change in the moods of the masses corresponded to the inauguration of what Trotsky so aptly called the period of social, political and ideological reaction in Russia. The new moods of the masses, in which all sorts of reactionary ideas were able to multiply and flourish, were not communicated to them by the Bolshevik Party. The masses communicated their moods to the party. Not even its immunity to the virus of degeneration was absolute, especially by 1922, when many of its best elements had already been killed off in the series of battles the party had led since 1917, and been replaced in large measure by bandwagon-climbers who became the ward-heelers and the voting blocs of the bureaucracy.

The first task, therefore, was to restore the domination of revolutionary ideas in the party, in order that it, in turn, could re-inculcate the masses with them. But the party itself was not a uniform, homogeneous aggregation. When the internal fight broke out, it was composed overwhelmingly of new recruits, new and untrained. Compared with the broad masses of workers, these recruits were still an elite; but compared with the trained and hardened older revolutionists, they were anything but an élite. Another section was composed of the “pre-October” Bolsheviks, but not much older in their party membership than early in 1917. And then there was the real élite, commonly known as the “Old Guard” of the party, who went back to the early years of the struggle against czarism, many of them as far back as the first revolution (in 1905) and even earlier.

Lenin attached the greatest importance to preserving the political and organizational integrity – and, to put it bluntly, the party leadership – of the Old Guard. He had no great illusions about it, and we, who have lived longer and seen more, have found no reason at all for illusions about it. Trotsky had no illusions about it; indeed, one of the reasons for his first clash with the bureaucracy was the warning he issued that the Old Guard might degenerate, as had old revolutionary generations before it. But with all its defects, all its weaknesses, there was no force in the country that compared with it even remotely – provided it was a force capable of preserving the revolution that you were looking for.

Trotsky should have appealed “directly” to the non-party masses against the “case-hardened” party, and “over its head”! How easily such a criticism rolls off the pen of the supercilious and superficial dilettante. But such a course would have been almost like appealing to a superstitious person to help persuade an erring scientist not to become a medicine man. The masses represented the conservative pressure on the party. It is no accident that one of the first public steps taken by the bureaucracy to weaken the revolutionary spirit of the party was the notorious “Lenin Levy,” in which the doors of the already diluted party were thrown open to a flood of raw, ill-educated workers (and not a few ex-Menshevik and ex-SR intellectuals, and worse) who easily became the tools of the Stalinists in the work of smashing the Bolshevik Opposition.

Substantially the same can be said of the idea of precipitating a rank-and-file struggle from the very beginning. The first task of the intelligent and responsible revolutionist was to win the maximum possible support from the trained and tested cadre of the party, the party that was responsible for the revolution and stood at its head. Trotsky wisely set himself that task. It should not be imagined that this cadre was confined to a handful of leaders at the top. No, it embraced thousands, and even tens of thousands. And in the first period of the struggle, despite the pretensions of the Stalinists that they represented the “Old Guard of Bolshevism,” it is a fact that in addition to the revolutionary-minded student youth (largely composed of young proletarians studying in the party political schools) Trotsky rallied the support of hundreds of the most honored and firmest militants in the party. In 1925-26, when the Zinovievist opposition united with Trotsky and his comrades, this held true to an even greater extent. The Old Guard was to a large extent in the ranks of the army fighting the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution. To have proceeded in accordance with the rules gratuitously provided by the light-minded critics would have meant vastly facilitating and accelerating the triumph of the bureaucracy.

Call for a New Party

The experience of the masses can very seldom be anticipated, or substituted for by one’s own experiences or convictions. The triumph of the bureaucracy in the party, and in the country in general, was required before a call could be issued seriously for a new party. The revolutionists had to be convinced that it was no longer possible to use the official party as a base, that it could no longer be reformed. It had to become clear in the eyes of the best militants that the official party had become nothing more – literally nothing more – than an ossified instrument of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy. But above all, the call for the second party – that is, the formation of a new organization out of revolutionary forces outside of the official party as well as directed against it – had to wait until, unlike 1922–23, the revolutionary workers were outside the ranks of the Stalinized party. It had to wait, in other words, for a situation in which an appeal to the “mass” against the “party” was an appeal to the revolutionary, or potentially revolutionary, forces against the conservative or counter-revolutionary force – the official party. Whether Trotsky should have issued such a call on the day he did, sometime in 1933, after the German disaster, or a day or week or month or year earlier or later, is of pretty small importance, and of less interest. Important is the basis on which Trotsky proceeded; the method he employed in reaching a decision on such questions. And, with all the errors in judgment that he made – and they were more numerous and often much more serious and harmful to the cause than some of his newly-acquired idolaters are willing to admit, since they believe that he must be presented not merely as a revolutionary genius but as an infallible archangel – his methods and the considerations of his dilettante or muddleheaded critics.

He lost the war, we said at the outset. But what Stalin won was the victory of the counter-revolution. What Trotsky preserved, even in defeat, was the indispensable, the imperishable. He was not allowed by Stalin to live to see his vindication; he did not succeed in reaching his goal. That is true. But he saved the honor of the revolution. He set up in himself a model of fortitude, of intransigence, of persistency, of superb selflessness, of revolutionary principle and revolutionary integrity. He handed over to the next generation an arsenal of political weapons, not merely intact, but greatly enriched by the most gifted mind of our time. And if all of that was salvaged after a defeat, what greater assurance is needed that the defeat was only for a day and that the coming victory will hold for good?

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