Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


How the Opposition Was Defeated

The first victory over the Opposition was the victory of the secretarial hierarchy. But where were the party masses? What was their reaction? Sympathy for the Opposition and its views was widespread, as the bureaucracy itself later acknowledged. Yet, at the Thirteenth Congress, there was not a single delegate to represent the Opposition. How account for this state of affairs?

There is a series of connected factors that accounts for it.

In the first place, as has been repeatedly stated, it must be borne in mind that the core of the educated, trained and tested Bolsheviks was not, in 1923, what it had been when the revolution took place. Literally thousands had died in the struggles. Thousands of the living had succumbed, to one degree or another, to the virus of bureaucratism.

In the second place, the masses were terribly tired, especially the party masses. It is not easy for those who have merely read about the revolution to appreciate the tension and strain undergone by those who actually lived and fought and suffered through the revolution. Not even Bolsheviks, whom Stalin flatteringly called “people of a special mold ... made of a special stuff,” are figures on a statistical chart. They are men with nerves and muscles, and there is a limit to the endurance of the steadiest nerves and the strongest muscles. “It is useless to deny that many militants are mortally weary,” said Zinoviev as early as 1920. The proletariat, said Lenin a year later, “has undergone, in these three and a half years of its political domination, more misery, privations, famine and aggravation of its economic situation than any class ever did in history. It is understandable that as a result of such a superhuman tension we should now record a peculiar fatigue, a lack of strength, a peculiar nervousness of this class.” The bureaucracy rose on the leaven of this fatigue. The mass on the whole, did not possess the strength to respond to the call issued by Trotsky for an active fight to attain workers’ democracy. To anyone with an understanding of the real situation in 1923, the dilettante criticisms often directed against “Trotsky’s tactics” – “If only he had been more militant in his fight against Stalin! If only he had appealed more directly to the masses against the bureaucracy!” – sound utterly ridiculous.

In the third place, the depression in the working class, and in the party, too, was deepened by the defeat of the German Communist Party in the autumn of 1923. The highest hopes had been placed in the prospects of a revolutionary victory in the convulsive social crisis of 1923 in Germany. Had it come, it is certain that the whole subsequent history of Russia would have been different. But it did not come. The defeat marked the end of the first big post-war revolutionary wave in Europe and the ushering in of a period of relative capitalist stabilization. The bureaucracy rose on this leaven, too. The defeat of the Opposition was due in part to the repercussions of the defeats of the proletariat in the West.

In the fourth place, it should be noted that the Opposition had no press or machinery of its own. The bureaucracy controlled the press and had an excellent machine at its disposal. To every savage article against the Opposition printed in hundreds of central and local party papers, the Opposition had the opportunity to reply with an occasional paragraph. The bureaucracy hammered and thundered; the Opposition was allowed only to whisper. For every article by Trotsky, there were a hundred articles and speeches by Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Bukharin, Rykov, Molotov, Tomsky, Kuibyshev and any number of others.

In the fifth place, we already know from so unsuspect an authority as Bukharin how party meetings were conducted and how voting took place. “The elections of party functionaries (and of Congress delegates, he might have added) are purely passive.” Voting proceeds “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.” That was not Trotsky speaking, but the theoretician of the bureaucracy.

In the sixth place, special note must be taken of the existence of widespread unemployment. To “speak against the ‘superiors,’” meant, more often than not, endangering your job in the factory, if you were a worker, or your position in the apparatus, if you were an official. Only the most courageous would take that risk, which grew with the distance by which the party branch was removed from the capital. “You will laugh at the Employment Office,” cried Postyshev in Kharkov in 1927, and the Oppositionists knew that this threat carried weight, for Postyshev was a member of the Political Bureau of the Ukrainian party. “We will take you off your jobs,” said Kotev in Moscow, and this secretary of the Moscow party committee was not joking, either. It should not be thought that these are isolated, arbitrarily selected quotations. Everybody in Russia, especially from 1923 onward (naturally, things grew worse and worse every year), knew what it meant “to speak against the ‘superiors.’” It even became the subject of cynical joking. In 1926, the official satirical journal of the party, Krokodil, published the following Thoughts for Meditation:

He who criticizes shows clearly that he no longer wishes to remain in the organization for long.

The reading of a slate of candidates in the midst of a general meeting, is called an election.

He who evades all responsibilities is called a responsible militant.

To avoid all misunderstanding, it shall be stipulated that the withholdings on wages should never exceed the amount of the wages themselves.

For the “salvation of the trade unions,” Krokodil then recommends the following precepts:

  1. Blessed be the docile who do not get into trouble with the factory director, for in Heaven they shall belong to the Presidium of the Factory Councils.
  2. Blessed be those who always approve.
  3. Blessed be those who vote unanimously for a resolution, for they are assured of the benevolence of the higher-ups.
  4. Blessed be those who embezzle funds, for their accounts shall never be checked.
  5. Blessed be those among you who shall not be criticized or expelled, but who shall be chosen upon a slate prepared in advance by the higher-ups and which meets with the approval of the bureaucracy, now and forever. Amen!

With its power growing to the point of absolutism the bureaucracy could afford such satire, at least in 1926, at the expense of its subordinates in a hierarchy that was also a vast reservoir of whipping-boys.

In the seventh place, no sooner had Lenin been embalmed and exhibited in those obscene obsequies that were an insult to all that this great revolutionist and man of science and culture stood for, than the bureaucracy opened the doors of the party to the first “Lenin Levy.” Between the Thirteenth Conference, in January, 1924, and the Thirteenth Congress, in May of the same year, no less than 240,000 “workers from the bench” were taken into the party, increasing its membership by fifty per cent at one stroke.

Of this mass, how many joined the party because they were stirred by deep revolutionary convictions? Surely, not many. They had stood by for six and a half years of the party’s most urgent and difficult period without feeling the need to enter. For the most part, they joined the party now because it was well in power and the bars against admission were suddenly dropped. Party membership meant certain economic benefits, better jobs and the possibility of still better jobs, and, generally speaking, a superior political status. Even Yaroslavsky admits, with his customary delicacy in treating such questions, that “all those who came to the party during the Lenin Week did not assimilate themselves into the party in equal degree ... It is certain that a large portion of the workers who came to the party during the ‘Lenin Levy’ and quit it in 1927, had not sufficiently thought over their attitude toward the party at the time of joining it.” Popov explains the Lenin Levy by writing that “the more violent and rabid the attacks launched by the petty-bourgeois Opposition on the party and its Leninist leadership, the stronger was the urge to join the party ranks felt among the broad proletarian masses.”

It was nothing of the sort. The more the bureaucracy felt its powers and ambitions menaced by a cohesive and more-or-less trained party, the greater was its need and determination to dissolve the party. The first big step in this dissolution of the Bolshevik Party – principal guarantee (the liberal critics to the contrary notwithstanding) of a socialist development of the Russian Revolution – was to flood it overnight with a gray and untrained mass, who proved to be fairly docile tools of the bureaucracy itself. The very conditions under which the new members joined made this inevitable. The new recruit, looking for an improvement in his position, was not likely to “speak against the ‘superiors’” who had it exclusively in their power to make this improvement possible. What seemed, in the first flush of enthusiasm, to be a further proletarianization of the party, was in actuality a powerful instrument for de-proletarianizing it, for diffusing its rigidly socialist character. The new membership became a speechless voting bloc against the revolutionary Opposition.

There is a profound lesson in this for the starry-eyed, neo-Tolstoyan idolators of the proletariat as such. There is also food for thought here for those who charge the Stalinist reaction with having replaced the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with the “dictatorship of the party.” In reality, the victory of the Stalinist reaction was possible only because it succeeded in destroying the so-called “dictatorship of the party” – that is, the governmental rule of the conscious, tested and responsible revolutionary vanguard of the working class, capable of controlling and finally eliminating bureaucratism and of assuring a rational evolution toward socialism. This “dictatorship” it replaced with the dictatorship of bureaucratic absolutism, under no control whatsoever by the mass or any section of it. To crush the Opposition, the bureaucracy required the support of the backward elements of the population, the worn-out party members, the passive sections of the working class, the property-hungry sections of the peasantry. To consolidate its autocratic power, the bureaucracy required the total destruction of the party as an indispensable prerequisite for the total destruction of the conquests of the revolution.


Last updated on 9.4.2005