Max Shachtman

Introduction to
Leon Trotsky’s The New Course


Source: Introduction to Leon Trotsky, The New Course, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1965.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxists’ Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

More than 40 years of volcanic turbulence have passed since the year 1923. For the destiny of the Bolshevik revolution, then groping through the first decade of its existence, it was a year of crucial importance, a junction point for events that proved. far-reaching enough to influence the life of the entire globe and to shape its problems down to our own day.

The ‘New Economic Policy’ precipitously inaugurated by Lenin two years earlier was showing its first positive results, but also its complexities and difficulties. Lenin himself was effectively removed by illness from leadership of the ruling party, the revolution and the new state whose course he had always overwhelmingly determined; and at the start of the next year his life itself ended after a furious and futile battle to dispel a dense bureaucratic fog pressing in on all sides to obscure the light expected from the revolution. In September 1923 the failure of the last attempt at a Communist uprising in Germany put a period to the postwar revolutionary thrust from which all the Bolsheviks hoped and expected salvation.

Intimately related to these three developments was the eruption in the same year of the most fateful conflict in the history of Bolshevism and of its revolution – the fight between Trotsky and the official party leadership. Trotsky’s New Course was the first public herald of this fight.

Since that time an ample and illuminating literature has been written about the conflict and its outcome. The serious has gained ground over the trivial, revelation over falsification, understanding over ignorance. The student of politics, the scholar and the statesman are now provided with an abundance that was not and could not be available 40 years ago. In The Struggle for the New Course – itself more than two decades old, and therefore requiring some amendment – I gave my own critical description of how the conflict unfolded and what it signified. [1] Now, in this Introduction to the new edition, it may be useful to call attention to one aspect of Trotsky’s work which was not adequately treated.

In The New Course Trotsky insisted that the canker of bureaucratism, which had spread so wildly during the civil war and afterward, could be cured only by the restoration of democratic rights to the membership of the ruling party, the Bolsheviks. To any straightforward person this meant primarily and above all, as it meant to Trotsky, the replacement of the appointive system by the elective system. By the former, officials are designated by hierarchical superiors without reference to the ranks and therefore beyond their control. By the latter, officials are designated by choice of the ranks and thereby subject to their control.

But Trotsky’s appeal for democracy was strictly confined to that part of the population – a minority in the working class and an even tinier minority among the peasantry – which made up the only party allowed legal existence, the Bolsheviks. It did not even occur to Trotsky that the same democratic rights should be extended to the population as a whole, not even to the working class as a whole, at least not for a quite indefinite period of time. ‘We are the only party in the country’, he wrote in the same work (see Chapter 3), ‘and, in the period of the dictatorship, it could not be otherwise.’

The concept that the Bolsheviks should have a monopoly on legal political existence was not unique to Trotsky. Far from it. The concept was, to be sure, no part of Bolshevik doctrine at the time of the revolution. On the contrary, Lenin asserted that, among other virtues of the Soviet system of government, it made possible the peaceful transfer of power from one competing political party to another. The change took place during the civil war, when all other parties who took up arms against the Bolshevik regime or who failed to break sharply with those who did were simply outlawed. That decision, understandably dictated by expediency and by no means novel in history, was, however, presently erected into unassailable dogma which proclaimed, in the words of one Bolshevik leader, that there is room in Russia for many parties, one in power and the others in prison. On this new dogma, Lenin stoutly insisted. All the other Bolsheviks, with rare exceptions, adopted the same view until it was taken for granted as a simple article of revolutionary faith. Trotsky was not one of the exceptions. He too took it for granted.

The Bolsheviks – Trotsky, his supporters, his opponents, and the partisans of each abroad – gave no sign of realising that a legal monopoly for one political party was incompatible with democratic rights (the right of choice in the very first place) for the people or even for the working class in whose best interests the Bolsheviks claimed to act and that the denial of democratic rights to those outside the party could be enforced only by the denial, sooner or later, of the same rights to the members of that very party itself. For this is a veritable law of politics: every serious difference of opinion in a serious political party entails an appeal – direct or indirect, explicit or implicit, deliberate or unintentioned – to one or another segment of the people outside this party, an appeal to its interests and therefore to its sympathetic response and support. The only means thus far devised to prevent intervention into political life by the ‘outsiders’ is to prevent the appearance of differences of opinion among the ‘insiders’, the ‘élite’. And the only means yet devised to prevent such differences from occurring or, at least, from appearing, is to deny democratic rights and effective political life and decision to the ‘insiders’ as well.

Trotsky clung tenaciously to the new dogma until the end of his membership in the Bolshevik party. In the concluding words of the 1927 Platform of the Opposition for which he was expelled shortly after it was written, he noted that ‘we decisively condemn the slogan “Two Parties” as the slogan of adventurers’. [2] Nevertheless, he changed with changing circumstances and changing considerations, even if the change was gradual, very gradual, and incomplete in coming. A little over a year after expulsion from the party, he was forced to defend himself from his own partisans when he proposed that the Bukharinist ‘Right wing’, which was breaking with Stalin, should be allowed to present its views before the forum of the party. Karl Radek and other prominent friends of Trotsky, themselves deported by Stalin, denounced Trotsky’s proposal as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and ‘kulakist’ (although Bukharin was still a leader of the party!) and used the occasion to part from Trotsky and go over to Stalin.

Only at the end of 1933, after the debacle in Germany, did Trotsky find it possible to cut the first serious breach in the dogma of the monopoly on political existence of the Bolshevik party. With the debatable claim that the official party was dead, he called for the formation of a new Communist Party in Russia. It was much too late for even the most meagre response to the call. But three years later, in his last full-scale work on Russia, The Revolution Betrayed, he abandoned the dogma explicitly and emphatically. During the civil war, he wrote:

The opposition parties were forbidden one after the other. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of Soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle, but as an episodic act of self-defence. [3]

The actual evidence on this score was not convincing, for it came indeed to be regarded as a principle of the revolution. At any rate, Trotsky continued:

The prohibition of other parties, from being a temporary evil, has been erected into a principle ... An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history – provided, of course, you do not take the police appearance for the reality. [4]

From this re-evaluation followed a next step, this one in the programme he wrote in the middle of 1938 for the abortive Fourth International he tried to found:

Democratisation of the Soviets is impossible without legalisation of Soviet parties. The workers and peasants themselves by their own free vote will indicate what parties they recognise as Soviet parties. [5]

The second part of this formula still faltered under the burden of excessive prudence and ambiguity. But Trotsky had obviously moved a long distance from the first days of his struggle in 1923.

How much farther he might have moved, and in what direction, nobody knows. I find speculation about this to be idle and fruitless. Great historical figures, and I hold Trotsky to be one of them, do not need their admirers to adorn them in garments they never wore in days of triumph or adversity, or that they might never have donned if more years had been granted them. Critics, and very stern critics too, exist in ample number to detail Trotsky’s deficiencies and tardiness in the struggle against the growth of Stalinist totalitarianism, to point out that others fought the trend before him or with greater consistency. There may well be some justice in this severity. However, it may also be well to recall that throughout the course of the conflict, the great bulk of those who shape opinion, conservative, liberal or radical, leaned toward Stalin and not toward Trotsky, especially in the days of the universal delusions – the ‘Popular Front’, the Moscow Trials, the ‘most democratic constitution in the world’, and the ‘war against Fascism’.

But that was yesterday. Much has changed in Russia since the death of Trotsky’s foremost antagonist. The era of liberalisation has set in, and there is no lack of dazzled delight over it. The Russian masses have at last been granted full right to read in the official press that their enthusiastically beloved leader has begged to be relieved of his post for the cult of personality, for nepotism, for adventurism, and for all-round incompetence so as to retire to the void in which he will, like all others, be wisely governed by a new and, it is to be assumed, equally beloved leader. But the right of the people to choose – their democratic right to select freely their representatives, their leaders, the policies that govern their nation at home and abroad – is as inaccessible to them today as it was yesterday. On that tomorrow when it becomes accessible to all of them, it seems impossible to believe that they will not recall the name of Trotsky as one of the great pioneers of their achievement.


1. See Max Shachtman, The Struggle for the New Course.

2. See Leon Trotsky, Platform of the Joint Opposition.

3. See Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 5.

4. See Leon TrotskyThe Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 10.

5. See The Transitional Program.

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