Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The Triumph of Stalin

The New Course deals primarily with the problems of the revolutionary socialist party in power in a backward and isolated workers’ state. It gives us the master key to this problem, which cannot be understood without a full realization that the condition for the destruction of the first successful proletarian revolution was the destruction of the revolutionary proletarian party. The first decisive blow in this work of destruction was delivered by the defeat of the Moscow Opposition in 1923-24. But that was only the first blow, not the final knockout.

This is not the place to describe the whole history of the decline of the Russian Revolution. But our story would be incomplete without enumerating the main events of the decline and giving a critical appraisal of the regime that replaced the revolutionary Soviet state.

The defeat of the Opposition was followed by a period of outward calm. But two important processes were at work, running parallel to and connected with each other like the rails of a track. One developed in the country as a whole; the other, in the party bureaucracy itself.

In the country, planned economy remained a paper decision of the Twelfth Congress. With the death of Lenin and the defeat of Trotsky, the narrow-minded bureaucracy permitted itself the greatest extravagances in rejecting the very idea of long-term planning. Zinoviev, in 1924, derided

“the old-fashioned view that a good plan is a panacea, the last word in wisdom. Trotsky’s standpoint has greatly impressed many students. ‘The Central Committee has no plan, and we really must have a plan!’ is the cry we hear today from a certain section of the students.... We want to have transport affairs managed by Dzerzhinsky; economics by Rykov; finance by Sokolnikov; Trotsky, on the other hand, wants to carry out everything with the aid of a ‘state plan.’”

Stalin, now portrayed by the official iconographers as the Father of Planned Economy, took the same view in his first theoretical effort (Theory and Practice of Leninism) in 1924: “Who does not know that disease in ‘revolutionary’ construction, whose cause is a blind faith in the power of schemes, in the decree that is to create and arrange everything.” Two years later he observed that the peasant needed a cow. “He needs Dnieprostroy like he needs a gramophone.”

The result was that, alongside of a growth of state economy could be recorded a growth of the capitalistic elements, the kulak in the village and the Nepman in the town. In 1927, the Opposition was able to show that more than a fifth of the whole production of goods and about forty per cent of the commodities in the general market came from non-state, that is, private, industry. In agriculture, the poor peasants, amounting to about thirty-four per cent of the total, received eighteen per cent of the net income; the kulak, or wealthy peasant, amounting to about seven and a half per cent, received just as much, that is, also eighteen per cent of the net income. Moreover, both groups of the peasantry paid about the same amount in taxes, twenty per cent each. In the typical Northern Caucasus, fifteen per cent of the peasants, the kulak stratum, owned fifty per cent of the means of production, with the proportions exactly reversed for the poor peasants, that is, though representing fifty per cent of the village population, they owned only fifteen per cent of the means of production. Similar disparities were developing in possession of land. The fight against Trotsky’s “underestimation of the peasantry” was bearing fruit in the growth of the economic power of the kulak, principal capitalist element in agriculture, and in the corresponding growth of his urban opposite-number, the Nepman, and the private capitalist producer and trader.

Trotsky’s original proposal to intensify many-fold the work of industrializing the country, as the key to the problem of backward agriculture, having been rejected as a “petty bourgeois deviation,” the leadership proceeded with a leisurely program of state-budget capital investments calculated to make Russia an industrial country in a century or two – if nothing intervened to prevent it. The first draft of the Five Year Plan was imbued with a shop-keeper’s timidity and shortsightedness. Capital investments in industry were to start with 1,142 million rubles in 1928 and end with 1,205 million rubles in 1931. In proportion to the total invested in national economy, capital investments were to decline from year to year, beginning with 36.4 per cent and ending with 27.8 per cent. Production, according to the plan, was to rise from four to nine per cent in the five year period. At this rate, a revived capitalist economy would gain the upper hand before state economy had fairly gotten under way.

In the party, or rather in its upper circles, a schism was developing in the Troika. The elimination of Trotsky from the leadership only posed the question of domination in a new sphere. Formally, the dispute developed over what was to be done with Trotsky. Interestingly enough, Zinoviev and his clan demanded that the strongest organizational measures be taken against Trotsky, including complete removal from the Political Bureau; whereas Stalin appeared as the “defender” of Trotsky and the opponent of the “amputation” of adversaries. But this was only the formal and personal aspect of the dispute. In actuality, it had deep political roots and acquired even deeper ones.

We have already pointed out how the adoption of factional weapons for personal or factional expediency can acquire social significance. To beat down Trotsky, Stalin and Zinoviev dug into the dust-bin of outlived controversy and brought up the charge of the “underestimation of the peasantry.” This sin flowed from Trotsky’s “theory of the permanent revolution.” It is not necessary to say more about this theory here than has already been said above. The interested reader will find a more adequate and thorough exposition in Trotsky’s book, The Permanent Revolution. In 1924, however, in a purely factional polemic against this theory, Stalin revised what he himself had written in the first edition of his pamphlet (Theory and Practice of Leninism), and set forth the point of view that even if the world revolution did not come, Russia could build up a socialist society by its own efforts. Here is the origin of the notorious theory of “socialism in a single country,” the banner under which the nationalist bureaucracy conquered power in Russia.

Building socialism by Russian efforts alone came to mean building it with the forces at hand. Among these forces was the increasingly strong kulak, presented to the party by the still prudent bureaucracy under the euphemistic titles of the “strong peasant,” the “economical peasant,” the “industrious peasant.” The bureaucracy looked upon his growth without any feeling of alarm. It calculated that so long as it retained state power, the country as a whole would grow stronger and wealthier, the stronger and wealthier the “industrious peasant” became. Bukharin issued the slogan to the village: “Enrich yourselves,” which the kulak, the only social force in agriculture capable of realizing the slogan, proceeded to do. “The economic possibilities of the well-to-do peasant, the economic possibilities of the kulaks, must be unfettered,” wrote Pravda in April, 1925. “We will realize socialism at a snail’s pace,” wrote Bukharin. And the kulak? “The kulak will grow over peacefully into socialism.”

The trend toward conciliation, if not toward downright favoring of the kulak, became increasingly marked in the party. But there was still enough socialist life left in its ranks to evoke a reaction. As often happens in politics, more or less accidental or personal shifts connected themselves with political shifts. The Leningrad party organization, with strong revolutionary traditions, found itself released from the bureaucratic control exercized over it in the preceding fight by the Zinoviev machine simply by virtue of the rupture between this machine and the Stalin-Bukharin machine.

Stalin was then still so unsure of his position that he made all but public overtures to Trotsky for support against Zinoviev or at least benevolent neutrality. He went out of his way to emphasize that Zinoviev had exaggerated the fight against Trotsky, that he had demanded Trotsky’s expulsion, whereas he, Stalin, had effectively resisted. But Trotsky would not join with Stalin. When the fight between Zinoviev’s Leningrad Opposition and the leadership broke out into the open, at the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925, Trotsky remained silent. There was purpose in his silence. To have sided openly with the Leningraders, especially at a time when they had not yet roundly developed their own standpoint, would have made it easier for Stalin to crush them by distracting attention from the political issues they raised to a new witch-hunt after “Trotskyism.”

The Leningraders charged the leadership of Stalin and Bukharin, especially the section of it represented by the latter, with a false foreign and domestic policy, and with the establishment – this from Zinoviev and Kamenev! – of a bureaucratic regime. The leadership was taken to task for the new theory of “socialism in a single country.” The policy of favoring the kulak, of making agricultural economy dependent upon him, was denounced. Kamenev in particular took issue with the theory that state industry was already socialist industry, a theory that the Stalinists were later to distort even more preposterously. The party, said the new Opposition, was underestimating the danger of the kulak and other capitalistic elements, the danger of capitalist restoration, of a Thermidorian counter-revolution.

The arguments of the Leningraders, essentially sound, even if they were not in the most graceful position to put them forward in light of their role in the first fight against “Trotskyism,” were of no avail. The bureaucratic secretarial machine of Stalin, which they had helped to build up, was no less inflexible against them than it had been against Trotsky. If anything, it was more inflexible and contemptuous, for Zinoviev never enjoyed a tenth of the popularity of Trotsky, either in the party or among the masses. Besides, in politics it is so: the fight against a turncoat is always more violent than against an opponent who was never a friend. The Congress hooted down the Opposition, and cast a unanimous vote against it, unanimous, that is, except for the still solid Leningrad organization.

What was the state of the party then, of that “delicate manometer,” as Trotsky once called it, which shows the real condition of the steam boiler? It may be described by reporting one all-significant episode.

In order to get together for the purpose of discussing party problems, people like Zinoviev, chairman of the Communist International, head of the Leningrad Soviet, member of the Political Bureau, Lashevich, an old Bolshevik militant and then Vice-Commissar of War, and men of equal prominence, found themselves compelled, eight years after the revolution that crushed Czarism and overthrew capitalist rule, to gather secretly in the woods of Moscow – in a massovka, as revolutionists used to call such meetings in the day of Czar Nicholas the Bloody. Those in attendance were stationed around the meeting to prevent it from being surprised. And there was the inevitable stoolpigeon to inform Stalin, so that the story might be made public and exploited factionally! If this is what the chairman of the Communist International and the Vice-Commissar of War had to go through to discuss party matters, nothing need be said about the situation in which the nameless rank-and-filer found himself.

The views of the two Oppositions were drawing closer. The pressure of the apparatus helped; so did the general alarm felt by the independent, thinking militants over the course to the Right that the leadership was steering. At a 1926 Plenum of the Central Committee, the two groups united, together with remnants of earlier groups (Workers’ Opposition, Democratic-Centralists), into the United Opposition Bloc, or Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition. An important date. It marks the last organized stand of the representatives of October against the growing counter-revolution. Its platform, written in 1927 for presentation to the Fifteenth Party Congress, may be read in the English translation which Max Eastman published in this country under the title, The Real Situation in Russia. In Russia the platform was officially suppressed, its circulation prohibited, and those who attempted to distribute it were simply arrested.

Zinoviev’s Shift to Opposition helped bring to light some of the secrets of the apparatus underworld. At the July, 1926, Plenum, he stated before the whole Central Committee and Central Control Commission:

We say, there can no longer be any doubt now that the main nucleus of the 1923 Opposition [i.e., Trotsky], as the development of the present ruling faction has shown, correctly warned against the dangers of the departure from the proletarian line, and against the alarming growth of the apparatus regime ... Yes, in the question of suppression by the bureaucratized apparatus, Trotsky proved to be right as against us.

At the Plenum, Zinoviev and Kamenev presented a formal statement to the same effect. Shortly afterward, when the bloc had already been formed, Trotsky asked Zinoviev the direct question whether the fight against “Trotskyism” would have been launched even if Trotsky had not written, in 1924, the Lessons of October, a study in the problems of revolutionary leadership in Russia of 1917 and Germany of 1923, which evoked an even heavier attack upon him by the bureaucracy than had the publication of The New Course. Zinoviev promptly replied:

Yes, indeed. The Lessons of October served only as a pretext. Failing that, a different motive would have been found, and the discussion would have assumed somewhat different forms, nothing more.

To a couple of Leningraders who came to Moscow, bewildered at the fact that Zinoviev, who had educated them in “anti-Trotskyism,” should now form a bloc with Trotsky, their leader explained:

You must keep the circumstances in mind. You must understand it was a struggle for power. The trick was to string together old disagreements with new issues. For this purpose, “Trotskyism” was invented.

At the same meeting, which took place at Kamenev’s home in October, 1926, Lashevich, a blunt military man, upbraided the visitors:

Why do you keep standing the matter on its head! We invented “Trotskyism” together with you in the struggle against Trotsky. Why won’t you understand this? You are only helping Stalin!

Invented or not, Trotskyism came to mean something very specific and clear-cut. Its program can thus be summed up: Only the international revolution can solve our problem fundamentally; only an intensive program of industrialization and collectivizing agriculture can save us from collapse or capitalist restoration; only a democratic reorganization of the party and the Soviets can save us from bureaucratic degeneration. It was a Marxian program through and through.

But in spite of its overwhelmingly superior arguments, in spite of the heroic efforts it made to win the party to its banner, the Opposition went down to defeat. The social winds were not in its sails. It was battered by an outgoing tide and it could not make land.

The bureaucracy had strengthened itself steadily, grown in confidence and arrogance. It was armed with the terrible weapon of job control, in factory and office, and it wielded it without scruple or mercy. It did not hesitate to employ the police against the Opposition. It had its hoodlums cruise around in trucks and, descending upon party discussion meetings, heckle, boot and whistle at the Opposition speakers. There were times when old revolutionists felt with shame that the days of the Czarist Black Hundreds were back again. No weapon was too base to use against the Opposition, not even the weapon of anti-Semitism. The faction of Stalin, Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky and Kalinin was “jokingly” referred to as the pravoslavnaya, the “orthodox,” but only dolts failed to understand that the term was not being used in the sense of “orthodox Marxism” but rather of the Greek Orthodox Church, in contrast to Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other Opposition leaders of Jewish origin. An official proclamation even announced piously, and slyly, that the Opposition had to be condemned, not because there are Jews in it, but because it represents a petty bourgeois deviation from Leninism, etc., etc.; and the nod was as good as a word.

Above all, the international working class had suffered another series of heavy defeats, to which the policy of the renovated Communist International had directly and heavily contributed: the defeat of the English general strike in 1926, the lamentable collapse of the Communist Party in the Polish civil war of the same year, the complete paralysis of Austrian communism in the Vienna up-rising of that year, and then the crushing of the great Chinese revolution. The bureaucracy was armed, so to speak, with these defeats. It exploited the moods of depression among the workers:

– Why waste time with this infernal permanent revolution business, and call down upon ourselves unnecessarily the wrath of the world bourgeoisie? The revolution will not come for a long time yet. (Lozovsky spoke of a capitalist stabilization for decades.) Why depend upon it? Should we not rather get down to business at home, liquidate this trouble-making Opposition of disgruntled intellectuals and revolutionary phrase-mongers, and begin building our socialism in one country?

To a tired people, these arguments were insidiously persuasive. Those who hesitated were not long in being reminded that much stronger arguments were at the disposal of the persuader.

At the arbitrarily postponed Fifteenth Party Congress at the end of 1927, the Opposition was formally excommunicated. The defense of its views was declared incompatible with membership in the party; all the leading Oppositionists were expelled from the party outright.

These decisions split the Opposition right down the middle. The Trotskyist wing, represented by Nikolai Muralov, Christian Rakovsky and Karl Radek (Trotsky was already expelled and, formally, could not sign an “inner-party” document), handed in a dignified and courageous document agreeing to abide by the Congress decisions, to suspend all factional activity and dissolve all factional organization, but asserting the impossibility of renouncing their views unless convinced of their wrongness. The bureaucracy of course found this statement unacceptable.

The Zinovievist wing, represented by Leo Kamenev, Ivan Bakayev, I. Avdeyev and Gregory Yevdokimov, declared that it renounced its views and surrendered unconditionally. The capitulators were later reinstated, one by one, under the most humiliating conditions. It was the beginning of the end of the Old Bolshevik opposition. In the years to follow, one after another of the leading militants was to be killed; it was a fate reserved even for the many who followed the footsteps of Zinoviev. Only Trotsky remained, unbending, intransigeant, incorruptible and tireless, true to himself and to the unflickering ideal of socialist freedom; and even he was finally reached by the assassin’s hand.


Last updated on 9.4.2005