Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


Trotsky Begins the Fight

The decisions of the Twelfth Congress shattered against the wall of Soviet bureaucratism, its skepticism, its conservatism, its preoccupation with preserving itself. Contributing to these characteristics of the country’s governmental apparatus were factors that have already been mentioned: the impossibility of improvising over-night a completely new machinery of administration in place of what existed under Czarism; the employment of tens of thousands of former Czarist officials in the minor positions; the influx of more tens of thousands of former Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionists and others who became more or less reconciled to the new power; the death of many of the best Bolshevik militants, best from the standpoint of devotion to working-class socialist principles and ideals. The Bolshevik Party was the only legal party in the country, and it had to staff the machinery of government and industry in all decisive posts. It could not be expected to remain immune from the ideas, morals and manners of the government bureaucracy as a whole.

Soviet bureaucratism became party bureaucratism. In increasing number the government official was the party official. To an increasing degree, the behavior and outlook he developed in the governmental machinery were adopted by him in the party machinery, even though the socialist forces of resistance were greater there. The transference of large numbers of party officials from military work – with the termination of the civil war – to civilian work, did not bring with it a corresponding modification in the methods appropriate to the conditions of civil war, or at any rate, imposed by these conditions.

... the trade union worker who has passed through military training – who has, for example, occupied the responsible post of regimental commissar for a year – does not become worse from the point of view of trade union work as a result. He is returned to the union the same proletarian from head to foot, a veteran – hardened, more independent, more decisive – for he has been in very responsible positions.

Thus spoke Trotsky in 1920, at the height of the War Communism period, and of the illusions it engendered. Experience in the post-civil war days compelled a revision of this judgment. The returned military commissar of the party tended to direct the new work assigned to him in civil life, be it in the government or in the party, by means of orders that must be obeyed on the spot, without preliminary discussion and, more often than not, without the possibility of democratic verification of the propriety or effectiveness of the order. Most important of all is the fact that election to office was becoming a thing of the past, giving way in every field to the practice of appointment from above. In the army, the political commissar had to be appointed, for there was no other way under the circumstances. Back in civilian life, appointment also became the rule, with a resultant bureaucratic hierarchy.

The degeneration of the Soviet apparatus and the growth of a party bureaucracy occupied Lenin’s mind with increasing persistency in the last two or three years of his life. He was merciless in ridiculing the idealization of the Soviet machine. He pounded harder and harder at the unculture of the ruling group.

We do not have a workers’ state, he insisted, but a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations. “What we lack is clear enough,” he said in March, 1922, at the party Congress. “The ruling stratum of the communists is lacking in culture. Let us look at Moscow. This mass of bureaucrats – who is leading whom? The 4,700 responsible communists the mass of bureaucrats, or the other way around? I do not believe you can say that the communists are leading this mass. To put it honestly, they are not the leaders but the led.” Later on he wrote: “We have a bureaucracy not only in the Soviet institutions, but in the institutions of the party.” At the end of 192z he harshly described the state apparatus as “borrowed from Czarism and barely touched by the Soviet world ... a bourgeois and Czarist mechanism.” A month later, in a veiled public attack upon Stalin as head of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, he repeated his view that the state machine was still “a survival to a large extent of the former bureaucracy ... with only a superficial new coat of paint.” The very next month, he called for a thorough reorganization of the apparatus because “our condition is so sad, not to say so repugnant, as regards the state machine.”

But with the monopoly of state power in the hands of the Bolshevik Party no reorganization of the governmental machine was conceivable without a most thoroughgoing reorganization of the party machinery. What good did the fine resolutions of the Twelfth Congress against bureaucratism do if the struggle against the tumor was in charge of the very center of bureaucratism itself?

“The central point, the main task, lies in people, in the selection of people,” was Lenin’s concluding thought in his report to the preceding Congress. But the very concrete and living people in the leadership of the ruling party, and the selection of people they had made for the subordinate positions in the country, were precisely the ones against whom a struggle for workers’ democracy had to be conducted. The fulfillment of a resolution against bureaucratism by people who incarnate it, is an obvious impossibility. That is why the decisions of the Twelfth Congress, like similar decisions repeatedly adopted in the years to follow, never left the paper they were written on.

The decisions could be put on file. But precisely because the bureaucracy would not and could not do anything to realize them, the problems they were aimed at solving only became more acute. In the Fall of 1923, the crisis in the country broke out more sharply than before. The conditions previously described became aggravated. High prices for manufactured products soon reached the point where it was impossible to sell them on the market. As a consequence, factories either decreased their production or closed down altogether. Where they continued to operate, workers found themselves being paid irregularly and in depreciated currency. Those that slowed down or shut down, only contributed to the rising army of the unemployed. Manufactured products became less and less available to the people as a whole – to the workers because they were unemployed or poorly and irregularly paid; to the peasants because they were unable to realize a higher price for their own products. The “scissors” remained wide open. In spite of previous Congress decisions on long-term planned economy, the Gosplan (Government Planning Commission) remained subordinate and ineffectual, and economic problems were dealt with in hand-to-mouth fashion by the party leadership.

The discontentment of the workers mounted and could not be ignored. Strikes broke out in various parts of the country, and more threatened to break out. More significant, in a sense, was the discovery of a number of rebellious groups that had been organized secretly inside the Communist Party itself. Of these, two stood out: the “Workers’ Group” and the “Workers’ Truth.”

The “Workers’ Group” was organized in 1923 by an old Bolshevik proletarian, Myaznikov, who had formerly supported the Workers’ Opposition, and another old leftist, Kuznyetsov, who had been expelled from the party in 1920. The group, composed of workers, bitterly assailed the bureaucratism of the party and the Soviet regime and, so far as can be judged, demanded a return to the “Soviets of 1917.” Myaznikov is supposed to have demanded freedom of speech and press for all groups, “from the monarchists to the anarchists inclusive.” His program called for a general strike against the regime. Exiled by the bureaucracy later on, he succeeded in escaping in 1929 to Turkey, by way of Persia. The group itself was speedily and mercilessly crushed in 1923 by essentially police measures.

The “Workers’ Truth” group, which appeared in the same critical year, seems to have had less of a working class and more of an intellectual composition. It is said to have drawn its political inspiration from the old Bolshevik scholar, Bogdanov, who had retired from active participation in politics and worked for the Soviet regime in a scientific institution. It saw in the NEP the “restoration of normal capitalist relations.” The achievement of the October Revolution lay in the fact that it had “opened up broad perspectives for the rapid transformation of Russia into an advanced capitalist country.” As for the regime in Russia, “the Soviet state is the direct representative of the national interests of capital.” The group was thus the first one with origins in the communist movement to adopt the infantile theory, developed by Karl Kautsky, that Russia is a capitalist state. Its highly conspiratorial activity was directed at overturning the state. Upon its discovery, its was suppressed as counter-revolutionary.

The programs of these obscure groups were far less important than their symptomatic significance. In one way or another, they reflected the discontentment and uneasiness of the membership with the regime of bureaucratism and economic chaos. The party leadership could think of no better way of dealing with these alarming signs of the reaction to its rule than to tighten the vise. A special committee, headed by Dzerzhinsky, the former chief of the Cheka, was set up and “demanded from communists the immediate denunciation, either to the Control Commission or to the GPU, of illegal groups within the party.” The causes of the crisis were to be removed by police measures against its symptoms!

Trotsky decided to open fire. On October 8, 1923, he addressed the Central Committee and Central Control Commission of the party with an analysis of the situation, a criticism of the methods employed to deal with it, and a program for emerging from the crisis.

One of the proposals of Comrade Dzerzhinsky’s commission [the letter began] declares that we must make it obligatory for party members knowing about groupings in the party to communicate the fact to the GPU, the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission. It would seem that to inform the party organizations of the fact that its branches are being used by elements hostile to the party, is an obligation of party members so elementary that it ought not to be necessary to introduce a special resolution to that effect six years after the October Revolution. The very demand for such a resolution is an extremely startling symptom alongside of others no less clear.... The demand for such a resolution means: a) that illegal oppositional groups have been formed in the party, which may become dangerous to the revolution; b) that there exist such states of mind in the party as to permit comrades knowing about such groups not to inform the party organizations. Both these facts testify to an extraordinary deterioration of the situation within the party from the time of the Twelfth Congress ...

The principle of free electivity was disappearing along with free discussion. Substituting for it was the principle of appointment, with the appointive powers centering more and more in the hands of the party secretariat, headed by Stalin. Bukharin had said in a joke, back in 1921, that the history of humanity was divided into three great periods: the matriarchate, the patriarchate and – the secretariat. It was not very funny then; by 1923 the joke was clearly on the party.

In the fiercest moment of War Communism [continued Trotsky’s letter], the system of appointment within the party did not have one-tenth of the extent that it has now. Appointment of the secretaries of provincial committees is now the rule. That creates for the secretary a position essentially independent of the local organization ...

The Twelfth Congress of the party was conducted under the sign of democracy. Many of the speeches at that time spoken in defense of workers’ democracy seemed to me exaggerated, and to a considerable extent demagoguish, in view of the incompatibility of a fully developed workers’ democracy with the regime of dictatorship. But it was perfectly clear that the pressure of the period of War Communism ought to give place to a more lively and broader party responsibility. However, this present regime, which began to form itself before the Twelfth Congress, and which subsequently received its final reinforcement and formulation – is much farther from workers’ democracy than the regime of the fiercest period of War Communism. The bureaucratization of the party apparatus has developed to unheard-of proportions by means of the method of secretarial selection. There has been created a very broad stratum of party workers, entering into the apparatus of the government of the party, who completely renounce their own party opinion, at least the open expression of it, as though assuming that the secretarial hierarchy is the apparatus which creates party opinion and party decisions. Beneath this stratum, abstaining from their own opinions, there lies the broad mass of the party, before whom every decision stands in the form of a summons or a command. In this foundation-mass of the party there is an unusual amount of dissatisfaction ... This dissatisfaction does not dissipate itself by way of influence of the mass upon the party organization (election of party committees, secretaries, etc.), but accumulates in secret and thus leads to interior strains.

Trotsky struck right at the heart of the problem. The country could not solve the growing crisis, even if it continued to orient itself mainly upon the coming of the Western European revolution, without adopting a program of national, centralized planning for the purpose of hastening the development of a socialistic system of production and exchange. But such a program was itself unrealizable without freeing the “main productive force in society,” the working class, from the tightening vise of secretarial bureaucratism.

“Soviet democracy,” Trotsky wrote seven years later, at the height of the illusions created by the successes of the first Five-Year Plan, “has become an economic necessity.” This simple statement, apparently commonplace, was already contained in essence in the first steps Trotsky took in 1923 to launch the fight for democracy in the ruling party. Later on we shall see how profound, how monumentally important, is the thought represented in this statement, how much it deserves to be inscribed as a basic socialist truth in the theory and practice of the proletarian movement.

So long as the discussion of the problem remained in the sphere of the leadership, which was stacked overwhelmingly against Trotsky and his program, it was content to leave things as they were, that is, to continue bureaucratizing the party and tightening its stranglehold upon it. But Trotsky’s letter marked a new stage in the long efforts to break this stranglehold. For the first time, he decided to appeal over the head of the bureaucracy to the ranks of the party.

It is known to the members of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission the concluded his letter] that while fighting with all decisiveness and definiteness within the Central Committee against a false policy, I decisively declined to bring the struggle within the Central Committee to the judgment even of a very narrow circle of comrades, in particular those who in the event of a reasonably proper party course ought to occupy prominent places in the Central Committee. I must state that my efforts of a year and a half have given no results. This threatens us with the danger that the party may be taken unawares by a crisis of exceptional severity.... ln view of the situation created, I consider it not only my right, but my duty to make known the true state of affairs to every member of the party whom I consider sufficiently prepared, matured and self-restrained, and consequently able to help the party out of this blind alley without factional convulsions.

From the standpoint of the need of information, Trotsky’s warning was not even necessary. Even if they could not formulate the problem and the solution as comprehensively as Trotsky, the active militants in the ranks were well enough aware of what was happening in the party. They understood the first simple remedial steps that had to be taken. The spontaneous enthusiasm with which they welcomed Trotsky’s program, even in the restrained form in which it was made public, was ample proof of this. But that only hardened the determination of the bureaucracy to combat it.

One week after Trotsky’s letter was written, on October 15, a group of forty-six party members and leaders of long standing and prominence addressed a letter of their own to the Central Committee. They were not people who could be easily ignored or dismissed, as Trotsky’s rank-and-file supporters were dismissed after the fight broke out, as “students,” as “Mensheviks,” and the like. Included among them were such Old Bolsheviks, organizers and leaders of the Revolution and the Civil War, as Pyatakov, Muralov, Serebryakov, Byeloborodov, Rosengoltz, Sosnovsky, Voronsky, Preobrazhensky, Ivan Smirnov, Antonov-Ovseyenko, Vladimir Smirnov, Sapronov, Rafael, Kassior, Maximovsky, Alsky, Yevgenya Bosch , Stukov, Yakovleva, Ossinsky, Eltzin, Drobnis, Bubnov, Boguslavsky and a score of others. It was known that Rakovsky and Krestinsky, Soviet diplomats abroad at the time, were in substantial solidarity with the “Forty-Six.” In a separate letter to the Committee, Karl Radek urged it to come to an agreement with Trotsky at all costs.

The “Forty-Six” proposed the convocation of a special conference without waiting for the regular Congress (in those days there was still such a thing as a regular Congress), to take the measures indicated for a solution of the crisis in the country and in the party. Their position was not identical with Trotsky’s on all points (most of them were to become members of the Trotskyist Opposition when it was finally formed), but it was sufficiently close to his to remove the bureaucracy’s doubts about the existence of a widespread demand for party democracy. It never forgave Trotsky for launching the movement to curb their powers and aspirations. It never forgave the “Forty-Six” for associating themselves with Trotsky. Read over the names of the signatories to the letter of October 15, 1923: almost all of them were later murdered in a GPU cellar with a bullet at the base of the skull.

The mass murders belong to the period of 1934-37; this was still 1923. It was impossible to proceed with the same methods. For one thing, the bureaucracy was not the same in 1923 as it was a dozen years later. For another, Lenin was still alive. In the leading circles it was no secret that, as soon as his health and his authoritative voice were restored, he would openly side with those he had steadily encouraged to take the offensive against bureaucratism. More important, however, the party had not yet been exterminated by the bureaucracy but only repressed and intimidated and was therefore still a living threat to its officialdom.

On the sixth anniversary of the revolution, therefore, Zinoviev, then the most prominent member of the ruling Troika (trio) along with Leo Kamenev and Stalin, published an article in Pravda, the main organ of the Bolshevik Party, in which the idea of workers’ democracy, surrounded though it was with all sorts of cautions and warnings and qualifications, was favorably treated. So far as the masses knew, Zinoviev was expressing the views of the whole leadership, Trotsky included. Once these views were made public, under “official” auspices, they were not only warmly greeted but served to open up a wide and energetic discussion in the ranks.

In the Political Bureau itself, the discussion of Trotsky’s program continued heatedly, with Trotsky on the one side and all the other members, who had, as Zinoviev later acknowledged, constituted themselves a tight and secret faction against Trotsky, on the other side. A frontal attack upon Trotsky in public was then still impossible. His authority was immense, his ideas too obviously popular, and there was the question mark at the end of all reports about Lenin’s condition.

The first draft of the resolution on workers’ democracy did not meet with Trotsky’s approval. In those days, that was sufficient to serve as a veto, for it was immediately discarded. Another sub-committee, this time with Trotsky as one of its members, was assigned to draft a new resolution. The second draft was satisfactory – much of it was written by Trotsky himself – and it was adopted unanimously by the Political Bureau and the Central Control Commission on December 5, 1923. Trotsky’s standing at that time may be judged from the fact that Kamenev, at a party meeting in Moscow, recommended the resolution with the observation that it satisfied Trotsky on almost every point. That was true and it meant something. The vote of the other members of the Political Bureau for the resolution meant nothing, however, so far as their real convictions were concerned.

The resolution released the bands compressing a coiled spring. The party literally sprang forward in a discussion which, for intensity and scope, had not been seen since the days of the dispute over the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans in 1918, when the organization was a hair’s breadth removed from a split. The pages of the party press were forced open to the discussion. Pravda ran as many as thirty columns a day of controversial material on both sides of the question. On one side were the rank-and-file militants speaking up vehemently for the New Course, and many prominent leaders as well, including the “Forty-Six.” On the other side, and benefitting from a disproportionate amount of the space allotted, the Troika and its partisans all the way down the ladder of the secretarial hierarchy. The attacks upon Trotsky were still highly circumspect and accompanied by assurances of respect and esteem. They were made by indirection, allusion, and insinuation, so that only the informed and practiced eye could understand them. The main direct attacks were made upon Trotsky’s followers and co-thinkers, who had openly formed themselves into what came to be known as the Moscow Opposition. Given Trotsky’s silence, which the bureaucracy thought would be imposed upon him by the meaninglessly unanimous vote for the resolution in the Political Bureau, it was expected that the Opposition would wear itself out or be ground down under the weight of the secretarial machine.

Trotsky did not, however, remain silent. It was a great misfortune that he had been ill and confined to bed most of the time since early November (the Political Bureau discussions on workers’ democracy often had to take place in his chambers). He was unable to appear in person before the party membership. But the manner in which the bureaucracy conducted the discussion, the attitude it took toward those militants who spoke up aggressively for applying the resolution in practice and immediately, prompted him to intervene despite his illness. There had also come to his ears some of the lies, canards, and misrepresentations that the machine men were whispering around against him, against his alleged views and intentions, against his alleged past. They were lies which the Troika assigned its subordinates to spread from mouth to ear. The situation had not yet reached the point where they could be told brazenly in public and end up by being canonized into that organized system of colossal lies known as Stalinist history. It was imperative to speak out.


Last updated on 9.4.2005