Max Shachtman


The Struggle for the New Course


The Right Wing Is Crushed

The final period of the rise and consolidation of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy is filled with the unexpected and the spectacular. Essentially, Trotsky’s program held its own to the end, and down to the present day. His direst predictions were realized, but in an unforeseeable way.

Those of us who consider ourselves Trotskyists, that is, partisans of revolutionary Marxism and socialist internationalism, do not have the task of repeating everything written and said by Trotsky, in season and out, of trying to justify every analysis and forecast whether confirmed by events or not. Such a job is better left to iconographers and idol-worshippers, of whom there are always enough. Lenin used to say drily about those pretended “orthodox Marxists” who violate the real spirit of Marxism in everything they say and do: “Nothing is easier than to swear by God.” What Trotsky wrote in The New Course about revolutionary tradition and about the critical spirit which is at the heart of Leninism, holds good in all cases, and there is no “swearing by God” in it.

In Trotsky’s analysis, the ruling regime at the time the Opposition was expelled was constituted by a bloc between the Right Wing, represented by Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky, and the Center, represented by Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and their like. The Opposition represented the Left Wing, and from a class standpoint, the interests of the proletariat. The Right Wing represented the new proprietors – kulak and Nepman – and was the canal through which flowed the movement for the restoration of capitalism in Russia. The strength of Stalinist Centrism was deceptive. It had no solid class basis, was strong only in virtue of its control of the party apparatus, and was doomed to vacillate between the two basic class forces in the country, the capitalistic elements and the proletariat, the Right Wing and the Opposition. But its vacillation was not and could not be even-sided, so to speak. It might zig-zag briefly to the Left, but only to follow with a long step backward to the Right. The classes would decide the fate of the Russian revolution, and in the struggle between them, the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Centrists, would be ground to bits.

The workers’ state has gravely degenerated, but it is not yet dead, continued Trotsky. The class enemy has not yet taken power. The first condition for the victory of the counter-revolution is the destruction of the Opposition, but it is not the only condition. The party, suppressed and fettered though it is, is still alive. It still possesses the ability to submit the bureaucracy to its control and to proceed to a regeneration of the workers’ state. The final struggle has not yet been fought. But whichever way the victory goes in that struggle, the Centrist bureaucracy is done for: it will be crushed by the proletariat, or else the Right Wing tail it drags behind it will rise to smash it over the head. And the final struggle? It is close at hand.

In The New Stage, written right after the Fifteenth Congress, at which the Opposition was expelled, Trotsky said that “those who believe that the process of down-sliding will be prolonged at the present pace for another number of years are apt to deceive themselves radically. That is the most unlikely of all perspectives.”

In the same article, he declared that “the elements of the Right flank who, whether they belong to the party or not, participate in the settling of all party questions, are characterized by their organic connection with the new proprietors.” And the Stalinist Center, with pseudo-leftist liner” “The Left maneuvers will not save Stalin’s policy. The tail will strike the head.”

Early in 1928, with the ink on the expulsion decree hardly dried, this prediction seemed about to be confirmed. The famous “grain strike” broke out in Russia. the “bloodless kulak uprising.” The bureaucracy, which had ridiculed the Opposition for talking about a kulak danger, was taken completely unaware. The kulak proved to have the bulk of the surplus of grain left after personal consumption by the peasantry and he held out for higher prices from the state. It was simply the kulak’s way of demanding capitulation from the regime by holding the pistol of starvation at its head. Panic-stricken and desperate, the government was compelled, seven years after the end of the Civil War, to resort again to the system of armed requisitions on the countryside.

On February 15, 1928, a sobered Pravda admitted that “the village has expanded and enriched itself. Above all, it is the kulak who has expanded and enriched himself ... [The kulak] has established an alliance with the city speculator who pays higher prices for grain.” But Pravda made another admission which was even more damaging to the bureaucracy, which had jeered the Opposition out of court as “super-industrializers.” It acknowledged that the lack of industrial products to supply to the peasantry “permits the peasants in general and the kulak in particular to hoard grain.” Trotsky had tried in vain to pound this idea into the skulls of the bureaucracy as early as 1923, in The New Course, and even earlier. When Smilga, an Opposition economist, had pointed out in 1927 that a good harvest would only aggravate the crisis, given the lag in industry, he was simply stared at uncomprehendingly. Now, however, the problem had gone beyond the boundaries of theoretical discussion. The kulak was on strike, and in his demands he was being supported by wide sections of the middle peasantry, who also wanted more for their modest grain surpluses.

At the July, 1928, Plenum of the Central Committee, the desperate War Communism measures employed to procure grain were rejected. The kulak was given a concession, grain prices were raised. The prevailing tone at the Plenum, where Stalin seemed to take a back seat, was not that industrialization was being pushed too slowly, but that it was being forced too fast. Rykov seemed to have won the day. The Right Wing seemed on the road to consolidating and improving its positions. From exile in Alma-Ata, Trotsky again sounded the alarm:

Rykov is beginning openly to surrender the Revolution of October to the enemy classes. Stalin is standing now on one foot, now on the other. He is beating a retreat before Rykov and firing to the Left.

Three months later, on October 21, 1928, Trotsky wrote his famous article, On the Situation in Russia, which was so sharp and conclusive that the bureaucracy used it as the pretext for banishing him from the Soviet Union to Turkey. In it he developed a comparison between the Kerensky period in 1917 and the Stalinist regime, which he called “Kerenskyism upside-down.”

The function of the historic Kerensky period consisted in this: that on its back the power of the bourgeoisie passed over to the proletariat. The historic role of the Stalin period consists in this: that upon its back the power is gliding over from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie; in general, the post-Lenin leadership is unwinding the October Film in reverse direction. And the Stalin period is this same Kerensky period moving toward the Right.

And further, in the same article, on the struggle between the Right and the Center: “We thus come to the conclusion that a ‘victory’ of the Right would lead directly along the Thermidorian-Bonapartist road, a ‘victory’ of the Centrists would lead zig-zag along the same road. Is there any real difference? In the final historic consequence, there is no difference.” And again: “Will the Master himself [Stalin] eventually mount the white horse, or will he be found lying under Klim’s [Voroshilov’s] horse? From the class standpoint that is a quite unimportant question.” In these observations, it should be noted, the reference to Thermidor and Bonapartism were to different stages of the triumphant bourgeois counterrevolution. The advent of Thermidor meant, in Trotsky’s historical analogy, that the bourgeoisie had already reconquered state power, even if it retained some of the terminology and outward forms of Soviet institutions and waved a red flag. Bonapartism differed from Thermidor only in that it meant the open rule of the bourgeoisie by means of a military dictatorship.

What did a Kerensky period imply? The existence of a duality of power in the country. The duality of power is a phenomenon of every revolutionary – and counter-revolutionary – situation. No more brilliant analysis of it has ever been made than the one presented by Trotsky in the chapter on the subject contained in his History of the Russian Revolution. It was seen in Germany and Austria in 1918-19, in Hungary in 1919, in Russia in 1917. In Russia it was seen in the Kerensky regime, on the one side, representing the state power in the hands of a bourgeoisie already so weak that it was unable to crush outright the power of the working class; and on the other side, by the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers, controlled by the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionists, representing a power that was not yet ready to take over control of the state in its own class interests.

In the very nature of the situation, the dual power cannot long endure. It is the direct prelude to the decisive struggle. It is a sign of the utter instability and high tension reached by class relations. One side or the other must deliver the stroke that will make possible more or less unchallenged stability and order. The nascent working-class power must be crushed – the Kornilov, quasi-fascist adventure almost succeeded in doing this in August, 1917. Or else, the precarious bourgeois power must be overturned – which is what the Bolshevik-led Soviets did succeed in doing some three months later.

The “Kerenskyism upside-down” of the Stalin regime meant the existence of a duality of power in the country, according to Trotsky, but in an exactly reversed direction. Stalin represented the proletarian Kerensky, as it were. That is, the still-existing workers’ state was already so weak that it could not crush outright the “revolutionary” (that is, the counter-revolutionary) power of the class enemy, the bourgeoisie, the Nepmen, the kulaks, represented by the Right Wing inside and at the periphery of the ruling party. The Ring Wing, on the other hand, was not yet ready to make an open bid for the new class power, but it was girding for it. The Stalinist bureaucracy vacillated from one side to the other or marked time, while the fundamental class forces were moving toward the final clash that would determine the outcome – regeneration of the revolution, or victory of the counter-revolution. Whatever the outcome, the duality of power could not last long, and the fate of the Center – of Stalinist Kerenskyism – was sealed as irrevocably as was the fate of its class counterpart in 1917.

That was Trotsky’s analysis, and it is most important to trace his elaboration of it and to check it against the actual course of events.

A bourgeois party is already in the process of formation and we are moving toward a duality of power, he wrote as early as the end of 1927: “The fake Stalinist struggle against two parties camouflaged the growth of dual power in the country and the formation of a bourgeois party at the Right Wing of the CPSU.”

The position of the Stalinist faction is fundamentally hopeless, in spite of the apparent turn it is making to the Left, to a struggle against the Right, he wrote on July 1928.

“The Rights understand that the more blows the apparatus deals to the Left, the more it becomes dependent upon them. They aim to pass from the defensive to the offensive and to take their revenge when the Left experiment will be terminated by a defeat (and the Rights, under the present conditions, firmly count on that). Will this happen? Such an eventuality is not at all excluded. It can take place so long as the turn rests upon the status quo in the party. Not only can this happen, but it will probably take place; even more, it is inevitable.”

Right in the face of the first big assault launched by Stalin against the Right Wing of Rykov-Bukharin-Tomsky, Trotsky wrote in November, 1928, in his Crisis in the Right-Center Bloc that regroupings of forces lie ahead and in the course of them

“the ‘annihilated’ Right Wing will become stronger and more conscious.... In contrast to Centrism, the Right Wing has great reserves of growth which, from the political point of view, have as yet scarcely broken through. The final result is therefore the following: Strengthening and formation of the wings [i.e., bourgeois and proletarian] at the expense of Centrism, despite the growing concentration of power in its hands.”

These forecasts were decidedly not confirmed by what followed. In 1929, the Stalinist machine had sufficiently strengthened its fences to open up its campaign against the Right Wing, at first cautiously, then more boldly and brutally, but, as always, with cynicism, disloyalty and from ambush. Insofar as the arguments had political content, they were a bland plagiary from what the Trotskyist Opposition had said about the Right Wing. Without turning a hair, Stalin, with his parrots following in less restrained chorus, announced that the Right Wing represented the danger of capitalist restoration, the kulak, the Nepman, the Soviet bureaucrat; that the Right Wing stood in the way of industrialization of the country and collectivization of agriculture.

At a secret session of the Central Committee, Bukharin read from a document indicting the Right Wing. Are these charges true? he challenged the assembled horde of Stalinists. They shouted their rude affirmation. “I have been reading from a secret Trotskyist leaflet!” retorted Rukharin. This did not save him from being himself denounced for spreading “Trotskyist slanders.” As he felt himself crowded more and more into a corner by the machine he had helped to create, he bitterly attacked the growth of bureaucratism and absolutism in the party. “Twelve years after the revolution there is not a single secretary of a Provincial Committee who is elected,” said Bukharin at the January-February, 1929, Plenum of the Central Committee; “the party takes no part in the settling of questions. Everything is done from above.” His remarks were greeted with shouts from all sides “Where did you copy that from? From whom? From Trotsky! ...”

The bureaucracy could stand almost anything except an attack upon the system that made their existence and power possible. All those who helped Stalin build up his system and then broke with it, learned it too late: first Zinoviev, then Bukharin, then Syrzov and Lominadze and Schatzkin, then the capitulators from Trotskyism, then Aveli Yenukidze and the Ukrainian Petrovsky, then all the others who represented in one degree or another the traditions and policies and continuity of the Bolshevik Party.

The Right Wing was dismissed from its posts like so many hired hands and publicly humiliated and pilloried: Uglanov from secretaryship of the powerful Moscow Committee, Bukharin from the presidency of the Comintern to which he was elected only yesterday (his removal was quickly followed by the expulsion of all the leaderships he had helped to install in the foreign Communist parties, in place of the leaderships Zinoviev had helped to install in those parties, in place of the leaderships that had leaned toward Trotsky ...), Rykov from the chairmanship of the Council of People’s Commissars (that is, the prime ministry of the republic), Tomsky from the chairmanship of the Soviet trade unions, all their followers from all their posts.

Trotsky found it difficult to reconcile himself to a belief in what was unmistakably – not at the time, perhaps, but certainly now, looking backward – the definite beginning of the end of the Right Wing and the rise to totalitarian power of the Stalinist “Centrists,” of whose inability to endure, much less to grow, he had continuously expressed himself with such confident categoricalness. The panicky policy of industrialization and mechanical collectivization, he described as a brief zig-zag to the Left, and not a Left course; Stalin would only follow it with a longer and much more significant swing to the Right.

In refusing to accept the Stalinist turn as a Left course, Trotsky was entirely correct, if by Left course is meant a policy aimed at strengthening the tendency toward a socialist development of the country. But if by a basic swing to the Right is meant a return to the policy of capitulating to capitalistic elements in the country, of facilitating the restoration of capitalism (the policy followed between 1923 and 1928), Trotsky’s prediction was wrong and misleading. The bureaucracy struck out on a road of its own, neither back to capitalism nor forward to socialism. Trot-sky’s refusal to allow for such a development disoriented his analysis of developments in Russia, invested it with a peculiarly twisted nature.

For a very brief period, however, toward the end of 1929 and the beginning of 1930, the prediction about the basic swing to the Right seemed about to be verified. The policy of forced collectivization – going madly beyond anything the Left Opposition had ever proposed, and denounced in time by Trotsky – again brought the country to a sharp crisis. The peasants, driven into the collective farms like cattle, proceeded to destroy their own cattle on a wholesale scale. Whole villages were devastated by Stalinist commissars, backed by the GPU. Millions were driven into exile and forced labor, under the general accusation of “kulakist activity.” The peasantry was returning to the moods of 1920, of Kronstadt and Tambov. Stalin was compelled to call a halt, decrying “dizziness from success,” and punishing a few thousand scapegoats in the apparatus for his own crimes.

The Right Wing leaders had the noose around their necks relaxed and were allowed to whisper, softly and respectfully, in the press. Proceeding from his old analysis, Trotsky took this really unimportant bureaucratic shifting of broken people to be of weighty political significance. “The Bloc is restored,” he wrote early in 1930. “It is now incontestable that the swing to the Left in 1928, constituting a particularly brutal zigzag, did not result in a new course,” he wrote in March of the same year in an open letter to the Russian party membership. “It could not result in one.” He saw his original prediction coming true: “the ‘annihilated’ Right Wing will become stronger and more conscious,” which could only mean the strengthening of the consciousness and power of the capitalist-restoration movement, a return to the building of “socialism” at a “snail’s pace.”

A year later, in his April 4, 1931, theses on Russia, Trotsky was forced to modify his view. But radical though this modification was, it only led him to new contradictions. “Only blind people, hirelings, or dupes, can deny the fact that the ruling party of the USSR, the leading party of the Comintern, has been completely crushed and replaced by the apparatus.” And the Right Wing, or the class forces it represented, and which were on the road to taking power? Where, at least, is the Right-Center bloc which, he wrote only a year earlier, “is restored”? The Right has been crushed! “The crushing of the Right Wing of the party and its renunciation of its platform, diminish the chances of the first, step-by-step, veiled, that is, the Thermidorian form of the [bourgeois] overthrow. The plebiscitary degeneration of the party apparatus undoubtedly increases the chances of the Bonapartist form.”

But this statement represented a completely new analysis, in irreconcilable opposition to his traditional analysis of the Right Wing, the bureaucratic Center and their reciprocal relationship. According to the latter, the Center stood between the Right, or bourgeois wing, and the Left, or proletarian wing. In any case, it was certainly to the Left of the Right Wing. According to the new analysis, the Center (i.e., the plebiscitary bureaucratic regime) had changed places with the Right Wing. In the history of the French Revolution, and in the analogy applied by Trotsky to the Russian Revolution, the Bonapartist stage of the counter-revolution (in bourgeois France or in socialist Russia) certainly represented a much further shift to the Right than did the Thermidorian stage. In fact, in the very same theses, Trotsky wrote that in contrast to the Thermidorian stage of the counter-revolution, “the Bonapartist overthrow appears as a more open, ‘riper’ form of the bourgeois counter-revolution, carried out against the Soviet system and the Bolshevik Party as a whole, in the form of the naked sabre which is raised in the name of bourgeois property.” But if that was true, then the whole preceding analysis of the Right-Center bloc, of its disruption and its alleged reconstitution, was deprived of its original meaning.

Only once more did Trotsky return to his original prediction, in connection with the second expulsion of Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1932 and a new wave of persecution against Trotskyists and ex-Trotskyists. In October of that year, he wrote: “The nearest future, one should expect, will make clear that the Left and the Right Opposition are not only neither crushed nor annihilated, but, on the contrary, that they alone exist politically.” The nearest future showed nothing of the kind, however. The systematic underrating of the power, the reserves, the durability and the class significance of the Stalinist bureaucracy, left Trotsky’s predictions about its future hanging in mid-air.

For that matter, only once again did Trotsky return to the new theory he advanced so suddenly in 1931. In the basic program of the Fourth International, drafted in mid-1938, he wrote that the frame-ups against the former Right Wing leaders “were aimed as a blow against the Left. This is true also of the mopping up of the leaders of the Right Opposition, because the Right group of the old Bolshevik Party, seen from the viewpoint of the bureaucracy’s interests and tendencies, represented a Left danger.”

But how could the Right Wing, basing itself, as Trotsky had said, upon the economic foundations of capitalism, represent a Left danger to the interests of a bureaucracy basing itself, again in Trotsky’s words, upon the economic foundations of a workers’ state?

This declaration, completely incomprehensible to and unexplainable by those who consider psittacosis and “swearing by God” to be the principal claims to the title of Trotskyist, has far greater importance than the mere fact that it is in flagrant contradiction to what Trotsky had said about the Right Wing and the Centrists for more than a decade. It helps forge, as we shall see, the key to the problem of the class character of Russia, which Trotsky so erroneously considered a “workers’ state” until the last day of his life.

The crushing of the Right Wing – not its expected reconsolidation, but its crushing – and the economic developments accompanying and following it, were a decisive indication that the Stalinist “turn” that began in 1928-29, which Trotsky rightly refused to label a Left course, was nevertheless not a mere episodic zigzag. With hesitations and even retreats of quite minor importance, it proved to be the inauguration of an organic course toward the independent development of the bureaucracy as a new ruling class. Trotsky barred the way to recognizing this development by his dogmatic insistence upon only two alternatives – a capitalist state or a workers’ state. Inasmuch as Russia was obviously not developing in the direction of capitalism, a simple process of elimination imposed upon Trotsky the theory that Russia remained a workers’ state, degenerated, but proletarian nevertheless. The prognosis of a capitalist restoration, to be accomplished in the process of short leaps to the Left and long retreats to the Right, was becoming increasingly untenable.

In the 1931 theses, Trotsky acknowledged that “through the combined effect of economic successes and administrative measures, the specific gravity of the capitalist elements in economy has been greatly reduced in recent years, especially in industry and trade. The collectivization and the de-kulakization have strongly diminished the exploitive role of the rural upper strata in the given period.” That was true; it was too obvious as early as 1931 to be denied. But what followed in Trotsky was not true: “The relationship of forces between the socialist and the capitalist elements of economy has undoubtedly been shifted to the benefit of the former.”

If that was so, what had happened to the duality of power? Its existence had been proclaimed years before. A permanent state of dual power is an absurdity. The fact that the Right Wing (Trotsky, remember, spoke of the “formation of a bourgeois party at the Right Wing of the CPSU” in 1928) was destroyed, the fact that the “specific gravity of the capitalist elements in economy has been greatly reduced in recent years,” that “the exploitive role of the rural upper strata” had been “strongly diminished,” that the “relationship of forces between the socialist and the capitalist elements of economy has undoubtedly been shifted to the benefit of the former” – should have meant that the capitalist element of the dual power had been enormously weakened if not practically wiped out in the process.

The duality of power had been brought into the discussion in the first place precisely because the Right Wing was growing, because the specific gravity of the capitalist elements in economy was rising, because the exploitive role of the rural upper strata was being reinforced, and so on and so forth. If the opposite tendency was now at work – and it was, and continued to be to an even higher degree each year – then all talk of the danger of a capitalist restoration from forces developing within Russian economy would have to be relegated to a more or less surmounted past, or else applied primarily if not exclusively to the danger of restoration imposed by imperialism from without, a danger that would be present even in a healthy and revolutionary workers’ state. It would have to be acknowledged that Stalin was substantially right in speaking contemptuously of the “remnants of capitalism,” at least so far as Russian economy was concerned.

But Trotsky was unable to make such an acknowledgment and he refused to do so. The dogma of the “degenerated workers’ state” made such an acknowledgment impossible. In the face of the rather spectacular economic progress in the period of the Five-Year Plans, Trotsky spoke on the one hand of the unmistakable “socialist successes” and on the other of the growth and even imminence of a bourgeois restoration, not so much from imperialism abroad as from the bureaucracy at home. What was wrong was that Trotsky kept looking for the forces of capitalist restoration where they were not to be found. These forces had been crushed, more or less, but there were no corresponding socialist successes. That was precisely the point.

The Right Wing has been destroyed; the kulaks undermined; the “socialist” elements of economy strengthened at the expense of the capitalist elements. Yet, continued Trotsky, the capitalist danger exists and even grows. “The elements of the second power contained in the bureaucratic apparatus have not disappeared with the inauguration of the new course, but have changed their color and their arms,” he wrote in his 1931 thesis. “They have undoubtedly even become stronger, insofar as the plebiscitary degeneration of the apparatus progressed.” But there was no tangible sign of this increased strength of a capitalist element of the dual power in 1931, and even less in 1933, and in 1936, and in 1939, and in 1943.

“By juridically reinforcing the absolutism of an ‘extra-class’ bureaucracy,” he wrote in the same spirit in 1936, in The Revolution Betrayed, “the new constitution creates the political premises for the birth of a new possessing class.” But this new capitalist class (the only new possessing class Trotsky had in mind), did not get born any more than the workers’ state got regenerated.

“The political prognosis has an alternative character,” he wrote in the 1938 program of the Fourth International. “Either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism ... The execution of the generation of Old Bolsheviks and of the revolutionary representatives of the middle and young generations has yet more swung the political pendulum to the side of the Right, the bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy and its allies throughout the land. From them, i.e., from the Right, we can expect ever more determined attempts in the next period to revise the socialist character of the USSR and bring it closer in pattern to ‘Western civilization’ in its fascist form.”

To this day, no one, not even the “official” Trotskyist press (God save the mark!) has been able to show any significant evidence that the bureaucracy is preparing to “overthrow the new form of property and plunge the country back to capitalism,” or to reduce to flesh and bones and names and addresses the “bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy” which is making attempts – let alone “determined attempts” – to revise the “socialist” character of the USSR, that is, to transform state property into private property.


Last updated on 10.4.2005