Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The NEP and Bureaucratism

On the very eve of the Tenth Congress, an uprising took place among the sailors of the Kronstadt Fortress, guarding the approach to Petrograd (now Leningrad). The Kronstadt sailor of the October Revolution had pretty much disappeared. Recruited mainly from among the proletariat in Petrograd industry, the Kronstadt sailors had been in the fore of every front in the civil war, organizing, inspiring, leading, fighting – and dying. The personnel of the Baltic Fleet was successively replaced with recruits from the seaports of the South, in the Ukraine. They did not have the revolutionary or proletarian background of their predecessors. They remained strongly linked with their agrarian origin and just as strongly influenced by the growing discontent of the peasantry. Kronstadt was an alarming sign, and not the only one. Local peasant uprisings took place in other parts of the country, too, notably and for a much longer time in the Antonov insurrection in the province of Tambov. In the state of acute crisis and tension in the country, the Bolsheviks could not permit the existence of what was tantamount to another power at its front door, a power which controlled the fortress-key of Petrograd, considerable military stores and, not least of all, the Baltic Fleet. Kronstadt was subdued by force. It was painful, tragic. More important, it was a final warning against the regime of War Communism. A week after the uprising began, the Tenth Congress met and, on Lenin’s initiative, adopted the New Economic Policy almost unanimously.

It is not necessary to dwell here upon the New Economic Policy. The indispensable alliance with the peasantry, now completely fallen apart, had to be recemented. The peasant had to be given an incentive to produce and to exchange his surplus more or less freely, This meant, inescapably, the partial restoration of the free market, and consequently, a relaxing of the bonds that previously retarded the growth of capitalist economy. It meant, also, the abolition of the “food quotas,” that is, the requisitioning system, and its replacement by a tax in kind. There were soon to be further relaxations in the system of War Communism: from dissolving the “special detachments” stationed at all railway points to prevent even the smallest amount of grain from being taken from one district to another, to inviting foreign capitalists to lease and operate for their private profit selected and strictly limited portions of Soviet economy – mines and forests, for example.

The evolution of the New Economic Policy – the NEP – is for a later chapter. We record here only the fact that it soon proved to be a success from the standpoint of overcoming the immediate crisis. It set agriculture and industry into motion again, and gave the Bolsheviks a breathing spell during which they might work out broader and solider plans for socialist construction.

What is important about the Tenth Congress, from the standpoint of the New Course, was its decision to prohibit the formation of factions in the party. The decision was taken upon Lenin’s insistence. The party had just passed through a feverish and somewhat exhausting discussion of the trade union question. It turned out to be an abstract, theoretical dispute, which had to be by-passed completely in order to overcome the crisis. The country was smoldering with discontent, which broke out ominously in Kronstadt, Tambov and elsewhere. The crisis was accentuated by the problem of demobilizing the Red Army. Former soldiers, accustomed to taking what they needed at the point of a gun, and now demobilized and unemployed, confronted the regime with “a new form of war ... a new kind of warfare, which can be summarized by the word banditry,” as Lenin bluntly put it.

Inside the party were two organized oppositions, fighting bitterly against the growing bureaucratization of the Soviet and party apparatus, but badly compromising their demand for party democracy by linking it with untenable economic and political programs. Fate is seldom kind to a group that combats bureaucratism in the field of organization and is either devoid of a political program or brackets its fight for democracy with a false political program – its fight is more often doomed than not. There was the Workers’ Opposition, under Shlyapnikov and Kollontai, with an anarcho-syndicalist program of transferring the management of national economy to an “All Russian Congress of Producers.” The Bolshevik leaders were fighting tooth and nail to keep a proletarian grip upon economy. It was all the more necessary in view of the risks of capitalist revival entailed in adopting the New Economic Policy, all the more necessary in a country where the workers’ state was little more than a beleaguered socialist island in a vast and angry peasant sea, all the more necessary where the regime had to resort to arbitrary measures to assure the hegemony of the advanced proletarian minority over the backward agricultural majority. The idea of taking economy out of the hands of the proletarian state and turning it over to the control of a “Congress of Producers,” that is, of workers and peasants, that is, of peasants, could not possibly meet with the approval of the Congress, unless it were prepared to enhance precisely that danger it was called upon to overcome. It was a disastrous platform, all the more unfortunate because the Workers’ Opposition included many exemplary revolutionists. Their condemnation of growing bureaucracy and of its characteristic treatment of rank and file party members and workers in general, was far more valid than not. There was also the group of Democratic-Centralists, led by Ossinsky, Maximovsky, Sapronov, Drobnis, Boguslavsky and other old militants. They fared no better in their fight than the Worker’s Opposition, upon which most attention was concentrated and which was far stronger and more aggressive.

The decision to prohibit organized factions has its importance in our history because it undoubtedly proved to be one of the main starting points for the further bureaucratic decay of the party, one of the principal instruments in the hands of the Stalinist autocracy-in-formation. Perhaps this could not have been foreseen then, in March, 1921. It should not be hard to see and understand twenty-two years afterward. Lenin himself was to find it necessary soon afterward to propose a common “faction” with Trotsky precisely for the purpose of combating the swelling incubus of bureaucratism. But the gears placed in the party mechanism by the gravely erroneous decision on factionalism of the Tenth Congress, even though it was prompted by a desperate concern for maintaining the proletarian dictatorship, later helped to grind that dictatorship to a powder, and with it its only faithful defenders.

It is important here to note parenthetically, that the decisions of the Tenth Congress on factional organization and discussion were twisted all out of shape by the characteristically disloyal distortions of Stalinism. As the years obscured the decisions with their successive veils, the official history and interpretation became increasingly monstrous, until it was commonly accepted that the Stalinist system of party administration was identical with that set up by Lenin under the gunfire of Kronstadt. The legend must be dispelled in order that the dimensions of the gulf between the two systems may be more accurately marked off.

At the very best, to be sure, the decision of the Tenth Congress was ambiguous. It banned “platform-factions,” but only provisionally, only as an emergency. The whole history of the Bolshevik Party is replete with the appearance of groups standing on specific platforms within the broad framework of the fundamental party program. In fact, at the Congress itself there was not only a special platform of the Workers’ Opposition group, another of the “Democratic-Centralists,” still another of Bukharin, Larin, Sokoloikov and Yakovleva, a fourth of Trotsky, Bukharin, Dzerzhinsky, Rakovsky and others, but one supported by Lenin, Zinoviev, Tomsky, Rudzutak, Kalinin, Lozovsky, Petrovsky, Sergeyev, Stalin, Schmidt, Miliutin and Tsiperovich. The banning of factional platforms was not intended to mean a banning of discussion. Not at all. The Congress, on that point, merely took the position that the greatest leeway in discussion and debate is not always and everywhere identical with or dependent upon factional groupings or factionalism in general. In the famous resolution itself, the fourth point provided:

It is necessary that every party organization take vigorous care that the absolutely necessary criticism of the shortcomings of the party, all analyses of the general party direction, all appraisals of its practical experience, every examination of the execution of the party decisions and of the means of correcting mistakes, etc., shall not be discussed in separate groups standing upon any “platform,” but rather in the meetings of all the party members. Toward this end, the Congress decides to publish a periodical Discussion Bulletin and special periodicals. Everyone who comes forward with a criticism must take into consideration the position of the party in the midst of its encircling enemies, and he must also strive, in his direct activity in Soviet and party organs, to correct practically the mistakes of the party.

At the same Congress, Riazanov, one of the party theoreticians and later a victim of the Stalinist terror, went so far as to propose an amendment to the resolution that read: “The Congress condemns factionalism with the utmost energy and pronounces itself at the same time with the same energy against elections to the Congress on the basis of platforms.” Lenin immediately interposed an objection, which is itself enough to explode the later Stalinist legends:

I think that the desire of Comrade Riazanov is unfortunately not realizable. If fundamental disagreements exist on the question, we cannot deprive members of the Central Committee of the right to address themselves to the party. I cannot imagine how we can do this. The present Congress can in no way and in no form engage the elections to the next Congress. And if, for example, questions like the Brest-Litovsk peace arise? Can we guarantee that such questions will not arise? It cannot be guaranteed. It is possible that it will then be necessary to elect by platform. That is quite clear. (Minutes of the Tenth Congress, page 292.)

In the same period, Lenin wrote elsewhere:

But if deep, fundamental disagreements of principle exist, we may be told: “Do they not justify the sharpest factional action?” Naturally they justify it, if the disagreements are really very deep, and if the rectification of the wrong policy of the party or of the working class cannot be otherwise obtained. (Collected Works, Vol.XVIII, Pt.I, page 47. Russian edition.)

These qualifications, emphasizing the limits surrounding the decision, did not prevent it from becoming the banner in the hands of a bureaucracy marching toward its totalitarian consolidation. The situation in the governmental apparatus, and along with it, in the party, steadily deteriorated. A number of the fundamental reasons for a weakening of the socialist character of the regime, including those connected with the War Communism days, has already been listed. The shift from the economic policies of War Communism to the New Economic Policy brought about an improvement in the economic position of the country, but no improvement so far as the problem of bureaucratism was concerned. If anything, the shift aggravated the problem. To put it more accurately, the new problems generated by the NEP could not be dealt with rationally because of the existence of bureaucratism. In revenge, these problems created the conditions for the further expansion of bureaucratism.

What were these new problems? The NEP opened a free, if limited and controlled, market for the peasants. Agricultural production began to increase. The surplus remaining to the peasant after his personal needs and the government tax-in-kind were satisfied, was put on the market for sale. The discontentment of the peasant subsided. Banditry on the countryside began to disappear. Agrarian uprisings against the regime reached the vanishing point. The government was even able, what with this change and with the good crop of 1922, to accumulate a considerable surplus. Looked at narrowly, the situation in agriculture was not only greatly improved over the period of War Communism, but seemed to make possible a great improvement in both the economic and political situation in the country.

But only if looked at narrowly. The urban side of Soviet economy, fundamentally decisive, was not so encouraging. Industry, terribly weakened by the World War, the revolutionary disturbances and the civil war, developed only with difficultly. There was as great a lack of capital funds as there was of administrative experience and efficiency.

Looking backward, it is possible to see much more clearly than ever that here was the key problem for Russia – the problem of the accumulation of capital and the expansion of industry, but above all, the problem of how, on what basis, to effect this accumulation and expansion. The revolution foundered on this problem. Given its isolation, from which revolution in the advanced West did not relieve it, it could not but founder. As will be seen later, the problem was solved in a unique way, but it was not solved, and under the circumstances could not be solved, socialistically. Lenin and Trotsky proved to be right – “without a revolution in Germany, we shall perish” – but they were right in an unforeseen way.

Industry developed slowly following the NEP, we repeat. The ambitious plans of Lenin to draw foreign capitalism into a Soviet-controlled system of “state capitalism,” to attract foreign capital by offering it attractive concessions and participation in mixed enterprises (business partnerships with the Soviet government), never reached serious fulfillment. Lusting for profit opportunities though it always does, the foreign bourgeoisie demurred this time. From the standpoint of its class interests, for good cause; at any rate, for understandable reasons. Lenin’s “state capitalism” never got much beyond the stimulation of the private-property instincts of the peasantry, the opening of a limited free market and the creation of a not very viable urban petty-bourgeoisie, the famous Nepman.

Left more or less to its own resources, Soviet (that is, state) industry proved incapable of satisfying the needs of the workers, which was dangerous enough. But it also proved incapable of satisfying the needs of the peasants, the overwhelming majority of Russia’s population, and that could swiftly be fatal to the regime. The low productivity of labor meant an inadequate supply of manufactured commodities and high prices on the market. The attempt to keep all plants running, even the most inefficient and unprofitable, meant the same thing – and more of it. Clumsy, inexperienced, and uncoordinated administration of industrial enterprises, meant higher costs of production and, again, higher prices. The need of maintaining a vast, growing, but in large part superfluous, governmental apparatus – and obviously it could not be maintained from any other source but industry – did not contribute to the reduction of manufacturing costs. Many other such factors could be enumerated, but one more should be because of its significance for future developments: the administration of many enterprises, in their anxiety to acquire a surplus for capital expansion, raised the prices of their products excessively. This phenomenon was to become so widespread and menacing that a special investigating commission of the party, in September, 1923, found it necessary to recommend the most rigorous measures to counteract it.

The full import of rising industrial prices cannot be understood without reference to the growth of the Nepmen. If Soviet industry and commerce could not reach a point where they could fully play the part of socialistic opposite number, so to speak, of “state-capitalistic” agricultural production, then given the free market, the development of a “state-capitalistic” opposite number was inevitable. The peasant’s surplus sought him out and found him in the Nepman, the petty capitalist producer and trader.

The role of private capital in Soviet economic life – not big foreign capital so much as small native capital – grew apace. In the first period of the NEP, for example, from January to July, 1922, the number of private trading enterprises increased from 285,000 to 450,438. As the peasant gravitated away from state enterprises and toward the Nepmen, it became evident that the latter was naturally interposing himself as intermediary between the mass of the agriculturists and the workers’ state. This evolution had a profound social significance. The extension and consolidation of this relationship between essentially capitalistic forces could only mean, in the end, the collapse of all socialistic production and exchange and with it the collapse of the workers’ rule.

The situation was alarming enough to occupy the main attention of the Twelfth Party Congress, in April, 1923. It was the first Bolshevik assembly that Lenin, who was desperately sick, did not attend. The principal report was delivered by Trotsky, the most obviously-indicated deputy of the party leader. Trotsky brilliantly outlined the basic answer to the problem of the “scissors,” as he called it. The two blades of the “scissors” represented the rising prices of industrial products and the declining prices of agricultural prices. The blades were drawing apart. Economically this meant crisis, politically the rupture of the smychka. The blades had to be drawn together, not so much by raising the prices of agricultural products. but by lowering the prices of industrial products. How? In the first place, the whole of economy to be organized according to a single, comprehensive plan, so as to bring order and progress in place of disorder, economic disproportions and the imminent threat of stagnation. Secondly, by a regime of strict economy in political and economic administration, especially in cutting down overhead, that is, bureaucratic inefficiency in general and bureaucrats in particular. Thirdly, by concentration on the most efficient enterprises, those best equipped technically and most favorably situated geographically, and in general, rationalization of all enterprises. Fourthly, by drawing the rank and file workers into the leadership and direction of industry, raising their economic and cultural standards, making room for them at the encrusted top, that is, by reviving workers’ democracy which the period of War Communism had rudely undermined. Let us note here that before, in, and after The New Course, workers’ democracy for Trotsky was not a need derived from an abstract and desirable political ideal alone, but a direct economic necessity, one inseparably bound up with socialist progress.

In the subsequent international campaign against “Trotskyism,” the records of the Twelfth Congress (Trotsky was to call it the last real Congress of the Bolshevik Party) were coolly rewritten to say that its main reporter “had proposed that we should build up our industry by exploiting the peasants, and. .. in fact did not accept the policy of an alliance of the proletariat with the peasantry” (History of the CPSU, page 263). But at the Congress itself, Trotsky’s proposals were unanimously endorsed by the whole leadership. None of the other leaders who were so soon to attack him all along the line, had any proposals of their own to make, much less any proposals contrary to Trotsky’s. Nevertheless, the decisions of the Twelfth Congress remained for the most part on paper. The situation did not get better, it got worse. To understand why, we must go back once more, as we shall have to do again and again and again, to the inside of it, to its evolution.


Last updated on 10.4.2005