Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The Campaign Against “Trotskyism”

Trotsky’s first article, published by Pravda on December 4, the day before the resolution on workers’ democracy was finally adopted in the Political Bureau, dealt with the problem of the Red Army, bureaucratic trends within it, and their connection with the development of bureaucratism in Soviet and party life (see Appendix II). [1*] How much there was in common between Trotsky’s views on this question and the “Bonapartist plans” the bureaucracy charged him with having may be judged by the reader when he examines this luminous essay. It brings the development of bureaucratism in the Soviet Union back to one of its principal starting points: the regime that developed – one might almost say “necessarily developed” – among the communists in the Red Army under the rigorous conditions of the Civil War.

His second article was published in Pravda two days later (see Appendix III). [1*] It was Trotsky’s first attempt to demolish the myth about his “underestimation of the peasantry,” which was already being spread throughout the country by a hierarchy instructed from above.

Like so many of the weapons that the bureaucracy employed against Trotsky, this one was chosen originally for its factional convenience. The bureaucracy did not proceed against Trotsky, who represented the interests of proletarian revolution, with a thoroughly thought-out and carefully planned scheme, with a full and conscious realization of the social significance of its fight. Some of its weapons were picked up and used “experimentally,” so to speak. As it progressed, those weapons unsuited to its developing social position and interests were reshaped or dropped altogether. Other weapons, picked at random for their apparent factional usefulness at the moment, proved to be of more durable value and significance; they were retained and “improved upon.”

The accusation against Trotsky that he “underestimated the peasantry” is of the latter type. It was adopted, to begin with, because it seemed to lend the authority of Lenin to the bureaucracy’s fight. Lenin had said the same thing against Trotsky in the old, pre-war controversies of the Russian movement. He never referred to it again after the October Revolution, except to go out of his way to emphasize, as Trotsky points out, his solidarity with the latter on the question of the peasantry. The pre-war controversies between Lenin and Trotsky were more or less outlived. Life had settled them, confirming Trotsky’s prognoses far more than Lenin’s. By quoting the pre-revolutionary Lenin against the post-revolutionary Trotsky, by ripping the quotations not only out of their literary text but out of the text of time, and above all by citing them without even allowing a discussion of whether or not they had survived the test of experience, the bureaucracy was able to link an obsolete theoretical discussion with a living factional fight, and to present themselves as the continuators of Lenin, the defenders of “Leninism” against a “resurgence of Trotskyism.”

But what started only as a weapon of factional expediency was turned by the logic of the fight into an organic social characteristic of the bureaucracy. When it was deliberately invented in a closed factional circle, it was conceived as a clever trick in the campaign to eliminate a political rival. For the campaign to be effective, the idea had to spread far and wide. But where the idea caught on – and given its social meaning it was bound to catch on – it sunk roots of its own and set off a whole train of related ideas. These, in turn, reacted upon the campaign and upon those who originated it.

“Trotsky underestimates you and your importance,” the bureaucracy whispered (later, it shouted) to the peasant. The tone and language were not very much different from that employed by the White Guards in the Civil War days: “The Bolsheviks are city people, intellectuals; they don’t understand our good Russian peasant and care less; they want to socialize agriculture, to take away your little farm, your cow, your pig.”

It was the traditional language of reaction seeking to exploit, for its own benefit, the backwardness of the village against the progressiveness of the city, the retarded bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes on the countryside against the revolutionary and progressive classes of the urban centers. That is how Napoleon operated with his “allotment farmer” against the revolutionary plebeians of the cities. That is how Hitler roused the German Bauer against the “Marxists,” the “intellectuals,” and the trade unions of the metropolitan centers. That is how our own “agrarian” demagogues, reactionary through and through and always linked with big business more solidly than appears on the surface, operate with farmers against the proletariat. It is one of the distinguishing hallmarks of social reaction.

“Trotsky underestimates you,” the peasantry was told. That was equivalent to exciting a section of the working class with the same suggestion, because the Russian working class of our time has just come from the village and is still tied to it in a hundred ways – by blood ties, by the tie of similar thought patterns, and even by direct economic ties. As the fight developed, Bukharin put forward the slogan to the peasants, borrowed from Guizot in the French Revolution: “Enrich yourselves!” The peasant mass, influenced by its most conscious section, the rich peasant (kulak) to whom the slogan really meant something, could not help but draw the conclusion: “Trotsky wants to do something terrible to us, to keep us in our wretchedness and poverty. Bukharin tells us to go ahead, to expand, to enrich ourselves. We are assured the protection of the state while we are doing it.” Still later, toward the very end of the fight inside the party, the bureaucracy went so far as to proclaim that “the Opposition wants to rob the peasantry.”

At every stage in the fight to crush the proletariat, to wipe out the proletarian revolutionary state, to smash “Trotskyism,” the bureaucracy, with a sure social instinct, did not hesitate to mobilize under its banner the petty bourgeois reaction on the countryside. This mobilization, and this alone, made possible its first decisive victory over the working class of Russia.

We must break into our narrative and anticipate events. It is necessary to point out here that the persistent myth about Trotsky and the mobilization of the peasantry behind the bureaucracy, did not mean that the latter best represented its interests or that the former was its enemy. Subsequent events amply sufficed to prove the contrary.

Only the socialist road can liberate the peasant from the centuries-old curse of what Marx harshly called “rural idiocy.” It liberates him by completely abolishing his status as a peasant, his subjection to the most reactionary and uneconomical form of production – agriculture. It converts him into a free producer on the land, which has been reorganized on a modern, mechanized, large-scale, cooperative basis. This is possible only when large-scale industry has developed to the point where it not only dominates overwhelmingly the entire country, but where the productivity of labor is higher than it has ever been in any capitalist country and is therefore in a position to produce the comforts as well as the needs of life in abundance, for all to enjoy. This, in turn, is conceivable only after the victory of the proletarian revolution in several advanced capitalist countries. This was Trotsky’s view, and the traditional view of Marxism.

The bureaucracy, posing as the “friend of the peasant” soliciting his support against Trotsky, went through two main periods. ln the first, during which it successfully crushed the Trotskyist Opposition in the party, the “friend of the peasant” enormously strengthened the economic and political position of the kulak in the village, at the expense not only of the urban worker, but also of the big majority of the poor peasants in the village. In the second period, when it began “the liquidation of the kulak as a class,” it doomed to starvation and death upwards of 5,000,000 peasants in the Ukraine alone. It uprooted millions upon millions of other peasants from their lands to be convoyed by the GPU to the extremities of the country as the Egyptian slaves of Stalin’s “socialist construction.” All the other peasants (except for the bureaucratic upper crust) were reduced to state-serfs. Stalin paid off the petty bourgeois masses he mobilized against the workers far more cruelly than Hitler paid off his. He was no underestimator of the peasantry, but its undertaker.

But let us return to the sequence of events.

Trotsky’s third article was in the form of a letter, on December 8, to be read at a party meeting (see Appendix I). [1*] It was his first direct attack upon party bureaucratism in public, the first appeal to the rank and file of the party to realize the New Course by its own cooperative efforts, with the aid and under the leadership of the party officialdom if the latter would reform itself and its conceptions; if not, then in struggle against the officialdom. In the ensuing storm of attacks, Trotsky developed and amplified his views in a series of seven additional articles which he published under the title, The New Course, on the eve of the party conference held in January, 1924. All of them appear in the present volume.

Rereading them almost a score of years later, it is startling to find them so fresh and vibrant, and much more meaningful than when they first appeared. The New Course is a charter of workers’ democracy. The organizational principles of Bolshevism were summed up in the two words, “democratic centralism.” But no one ever produced a manual on democratic centralism. There is no book of rules on how to proceed in handling the multitude of problems created by the relationships between leadership and followers that are always changing and always different in a situation that is never the same today as yesterday – something like a Roberts’ Rules of Order.

Trotsky did succeed, however, in setting down with his usual brilliance and more than ordinary profundity the standards that should guide the revolutionary communist, be he leader or rank-and-file militant, in maintaining the class integrity of his party, and in maintaining (or rather, in the given case, re-acquiring!) and extending party democracy. Friction, and even struggle, between the “young” and the “old” in the working-class movement, is as old as the movement itself, but never has the problem and the way to deal with it been put forth with such illuminating clarity. The same holds true of the question of revolutionary tradition in the movement, of conservatism and dogmatism, of discipline and factionalism, on all of which there has been so much confusion, miseducation and poison introduced into the body and mind of the movement in twenty years.

Trotsky did not treat these questions primarily from a universal standpoint, but more from the standpoint of the concrete way in which these problems manifested themselves in the Bolshevik Party at a particular stage of the development of the revolution. He would undoubtedly have been the first to repudiate any attempt to apply his conclusions mechanically, to the letter, in all situations, in all countries, and at all times. Nevertheless, it would be most narrowminded not to see that his analysis and most of his conclusions, above all the spirit and the method embodied in them, do apply, mutatis mutandis, to similar problems that have always troubled the labor and revolutionary movements throughout the world.

The New Course was much more than a charter of workers’ democracy, although for that alone it remains one of the true classics of the revolutionary movement; indeed, for the problems it deals with, it is the classic. But it went further. It took up also two of the most vital, and interrelated, problems of the Russian Revolution – long-term economic planning, and relations to the peasantry. What Trotsky wrote must be carefully read, along with his later works on the same subjects, and in the light of the subsequent development of the Soviet Republic, to appreciate fully the creative Marxian thinking, the farsightedness, the truly socialist statesmanship of the author.

The Troika, however, was not interested in Marxian thinking, or in socialist statesmanship. Its horizon was limited by one primary concern: crush Trotsky and all he represented, and thus insure its own bureaucratic position. The publication of Trotsky’s December 8 letter was the signal for the launching of the open and direct campaign against him throughout the party. The situation was favorable for the Troika and it was well prepared for the fight. Trotsky was not. Party meetings were organized by the hierarchy of secretaries throughout the land, and official speakers dinned into the ears of their auditors a prepared mass of misrepresentations, half-truths, and downright falsehoods and slanders such as Russia had never before known, but which it was to hear more and more of in the years to come.

Trotsky is trying to destroy the unity of the party Trotsky is mobilizing the inexperienced, or the student, youth against the “Old Guard” of Bolshevism Trotsky is trying to destroy Lenin’s Old Guard Trotsky is not a member of the Old Guard himself, but a newcomer to our party Trotsky slanderously accuses the Old Guard of degeneration! Trotsky is fomenting factionalism in the party and is demanding the right of permanent factions against the party!

The party can only spread out its hands in bewilderment [said Zinoviev] when it reads in Comrade Trotsky’s letter an attack upon the direct disciples of Comrade Lenin, whom Comrade Trotsky compares with Eduard Bernstein, Kautsky, Adler, Guesde and other social-democratic leaders.

It is quite incomprehensible [said Stalin] that such opportunists and Mensheviks as Bernstein, Adler, Kautsky, Guesde and others can be named in the same breath as the old Bolshevist Guard which has been fighting honorably all this time against opportunism, Menshevism and the Second International, and will, I hope, continue to fight them in the future.

We read with alarm [said a resolution of the Petrograd party, inspired by Zinoviev] the lines of Comrade Trotsky which attempt to set the youth against the fundamental generation of old revolutionary Bolsheviks, the underground workers, the fundamental stall of our party.

According to Trotsky [said Bukharin], it is not the Old Guard which should guide the young, but on the contrary, it is the young who should take it upon themselves to conduct the old.... That is evidently a demagogical viewpoint sufficiently remote from Leninism.

Whatever may be said of that charge, one thing is certain: Bukharin’s demagogy and falsification were “sufficiently remote” from what Trotsky actually wrote on the subject, as the reader may judge from the essay in question. Equally remote and not less demagogical was another polemical attack by Stalin:

Doesn’t the unity of the old and the young represent the fundamental strength of our revolution? Whence this attempt to uncrown the Old Guard and demagoguishly tickle the youth, so as to open and widen the little rift between these fundamental troops of our party? To whom is all this useful, if you have in view the interests of the party, its unity, its solidarity, and not an attempt to weaken its unity for the benefit of an opposition?

The Troika felt quite safe in these utterly dishonest attacks on three counts: first and foremost, they had the machine of the party and the press; secondly, Trotsky’s illness prevented him from participating actively in the discussion; and thirdly, The New Course was printed in a ridiculously small edition (ridiculously small from the standpoint both of the eminence of its author and of the widespread interest in the subject) and was practically unavailable in the bookshops shortly after its publication. The present reader, fortunately, is finally in a position to safeguard himself by a study of the text, which gives Trotsky’s real opinion and not the ones maliciously imputed to him, against the body of misrepresentation and falsehood that has become sacrosanct evangel in the Stalinist movement by dint of twenty years of persistent and massive repetition, and fifteen years of police-pistol rule.

The bureaucracy, however, carried the day. Its victory was not easy, but it was fairly well guaranteed. In the big industrial centers like Moscow, the Urals, Kharkov (but not in Petrograd, where Zinoviev’s machine was smooth and relentless), the Opposition enjoyed strong support among the rank and file. Each new version of the periodically re-written official party histories gives more sharply reduced figures of the Opposition’s strength. Stalin’s own official history of the party, in 1939, says that “They were routed both in Moscow and all other parts of the Soviet Union. Only a small number of nuclei in universities [Hm!] and offices [Hm! Hm!] voted for the Trotskyists.” But even as late as 1929, in the then official but later denounced and renounced history of the party, Yaroslavsky came closer to the truth by writing that “In Moscow, in 1924, about a third of the organization pronounced itself at district conferences for the policy of the Opposition. In certain districts, as in Khamovniki, the policy of the Opposition won about half the organization.” If Yaroslavsky had written, “about half of the entire Moscow organization,” and not merely of the Khamovniki district, he would have been still closer to the truth.

If a good half of the party voted openly for the Opposition in Moscow, it is not difficult to see how strong it really was throughout the ranks of the organization. This “half” represented the most courageous and boldest people. To their number should be added the secret sympathizers among the “other half” who feared to express themselves for a group which were already branded as heresiarchs, and, in effect, excommunicated from the secretarial machine whose wide powers, public as well as illicit, the average member had cause to know of and to fear. And if the machine was feared in such a “public” center as Moscow, where the Oppositional leaders were situated, and still influential enough to intervene against too outwardly arbitrary a procedure of the bureaucracy, it is not difficult to judge how matters stood in the provincial centers, where the political level of the membership was lower and the power of the bureaucrat, as well as his lack of scruples in exercising it, was correspondingly greater.

In any case, what did rank-and-file votes mean under conditions where the machinery of the party (and of the employer-state) was controlled by the bureaucracy? They could be an important barometer of the party’s feelings and wishes – to the extent that votes were freely cast according to convictions – but even where they were cast against the bureaucracy, they could not decide anything fundamental. The bureaucracy had the party machine in its hands, and it renewed, that is, perpetuated, itself not by the system of free elections, following free discussion in the ranks and in the press – free from the fear of reprisals, above all – but by the system of hierarchical appointment. What you had was, on one side, the party mass, and on the other, the party apparatus exercising control over it. In that sing-song style which makes him sound as if he were mocking his listeners, Stalin argued:

Bolshevism cannot accept a contrasting of the party and the apparatus. Of what does the apparatus in reality consist? The apparatus of the party – that is, the Central Committee, the Regional Committees, the Provincial Committees, and the District Committees. Are these committees subordinated to the party? Of course they are subordinated, for they are ninety per cent elected by the party. They are wrong who say that the Provincial Committees are appointed. They are wrong. You know, comrades, that our Provincial Committees are elected, just like the District Committees, just like the Central Committee. They are subordinated to the party, but after they are elected they ought to lead the party – that is the point. Etc., etc.

That was not the point, however. The point was that they were not really elected by the membership. Stalin could speak that way (January 20, 1924) only after the campaign had been openly and brutally launched against Trotsky, and it was found necessary to challenge his every statement, even those which only yesterday had been acknowledged in a matter-of-fact way by all, the bureaucracy included.

Here, for example, is how Bukharin described the party situation in a speech at a Moscow party meeting before the discussion broke out sharply, when the bureaucracy considered it possible to tell the well-known truth without fear of strengthening the position of Trotsky, whose silence they counted on. Remember that Bukharin was then the editor of the official party organ, Pravda, was even looked upon as the theoretician of the Troika, which he defended unconditionally and which, in turn, defended him. The quotation is lengthy, but the reader will appreciate the fullness and faithfulness of the picture it draws:

Comrades, it seems to me indispensable to draw a concrete picture of the restlessness that agitates our party. It is useless to speak here of premises a priori, of differentiation, etc., etc.; the question must be posed clearly of knowing where what troubles the mass of our party comes from, and where the discontentment of the mass o[ non-party people comes from, a discontentment we must take into account, beginning with the Central Committee and ending with the bureaus of the party nuclei: an infinitude of defects has provoked a certain state of half-crisis inside our party, a state which has manifested itself above all as a consequence of the economic crisis through which our country is now passing; these defects can all be classified into definite categories.

Where is the evil? Look at the life of a party nucleus, and first of all, at its working mechanism, for every nucleus has its own. To judge by the Moscow organizations, the secretaries of the nuclei are usually appointed by the district committees, and note that the districts do not even try to have their candidates accepted by these nuclei, but content themselves with appointing these or those comrades. As a rule, putting the matter to a vote takes place according to a method that is taken for granted. The meeting is asked: ‘Who is against?” and inasmuch as one fears more or less to speak up against, the appointed candidate finds himself elected secretary of the bureau of the group. If we were to make an investigation to establish how many times the putting of a vote has included “Who is for?” and “Who is against?” we would be able to show without difficulty that among us, in most cases, the elections of party functionaries are purely passive, because not only does the voting take place without preliminary discussion, but again according to the formula, “Who is against?” and inasmuch as it doesn’t bode well for anyone to speak against the “superiors,” the affair is automatically settled.

Let us speak now of our party meetings ... How do they go? I myself have taken the floor more than once in numerous meetings in Moscow and I know how the so-called discussion is practiced in our party organizations. One of the members of the Regional Committee presents his slate and asks: “Who is against?” Nobody is against, naturally, and the affair is settled. The same comrade then proclaims that the bureau has been elected unanimously. After which comes the agenda; same procedure. In the course of the ret cent years I recall only isolated and extremely rare cases in which party meetings added any new points to the agenda. ln general. to finish off, a resolution is read which has been prepared in advance and which is adopted, as is the rule. The chairman asks once more: “Who is against?” and nobody is against. The resolution is adopted by unanimous vote. That is the customary manner of functioning of our party organizations. How then can we fail to understand those of our most active elements when they express their discontent on this score? They cannot be satisfied with such a state of affairs.

Quite often the lower strata of our organizations even put up the barrier: “No discussion,” “Who is against?” etc., and this system reduces the internal life of the party to a void. It goes without saying that a great wave of discontentment results from this. I have cited some examples borrowed from the life of our lower nuclei; the same thing can be observed in somewhat modified form in all the other categories of the party hierarchy.

This is a hardly overdrawn picture of the ruling party at the beginning of the fight. What it must have looked like at the end of the fight, when the Opposition was expelled from the party (December, 1927), and what it looks like now, when the bureaucracy has attained totalitarian omnipotence, created a new party in its own image and fused it with the state machine in a GPU crucible, should not be hard to visualize. In any case, Bukharin involuntarily gives one of the reasons why his faction was able to defeat the Opposition in the party. At the Thirteenth Party Conference in January, 1924, the Opposition had less than a handful of votes; the secretaries were there in triumphant force. The conference voted to condemn the Opposition as a “reflection of the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie on the positions of the proletarian party and against its policy.” It proclaimed that:

Without hesitating for a moment, the worker-nuclei throughout the Union of the Republics gave a most energetic reply to the errors of the Opposition. The young members of the party who witnessed sharp discussions for the first time were able to see a living example of what is genuine Bolshevism. The members of the Communist Youth who are closest to the life of the factories and the shops supported the fundamental policy of the party without hesitation.

Mark these words well. They are part of the specific language of all reactionary bureaucracies, above all, the kind tainted with Stalinism. The revolutionary opposition is always “petty bourgeois” or under the “pressure of the petty bourgeoisie”; the proletarian sections of the party are always or almost always on the side of “the party”; the youth is almost always divided between the “student youth,” who lean toward the “petty bourgeois opposition,” and those “closest to the life of the factories,” who support the policy of “the party” and – “without hesitation.” We do not mean that this language communicates the truth; we mean simply that it is the specific language, the specific demagoguery of a reactionary or conservative labor bureaucracy, encountered repeatedly in the further evolution of the Stalinist party, but not confined to it. Its adepts and imitators are to be found elsewhere, even among anti-Stalinists.


Note from MIA

1*. These Appendices have not yet been included.

Last updated on 15.4.2005