Leon Trotsky
Third Congress of the Communist International

Speech in Discussion of the Policies of the Russian Communist Party
July 5, 1921

Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses), pp. 683-689
Translation: John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Bluden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission

Comrades, I don’t get the opportunity to regularly read Die Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the so-called Social Democracy, edited by Heinrich Cunow, but from time to time an issue falls into my hands. I have just read an article by Heinrich Cunow on the decomposition of Bolshevism, in which he deals with the question we are now discussing.[1] He formulates the question as follows: How can one avoid a complete economic collapse, raise industrial and agricultural production, assure more or less adequate food rations to urban workers, employees, and intellectuals, and eliminate the growing dissatisfaction among these circles?

The polemical barb of this formulation is aimed at us, but it is in essence correct. Then he lists the tendencies which presumably exist in our party and goes on to say: ‘Trotsky is supported by Bukharin, Rakovsky, Pyatakov, Larin, Sholnikov ...’

I have no idea who this Sholnikov is, unless, perhaps, it is a synthesis of Sokolnikov and Shlyapnikov. Comrade Kollontai is not mentioned, I don’t know why. The author continues: ‘and other Left Communists.’ Do you hear, Comrade Béla Kun – Left Communists! (Laughter)

‘...and other Left Communists, in analysing this question, came to the conclusion that the only way out lies through a more rigid application of the communist labour system. Both factories and agricultural enterprises must be placed under even stricter control; economic organisations still retaining their independence must be likewise be nationalised; the peasants must be compelled to deliver their surpluses to the needy cities; and the laws against illicit trading and speculation in foodstuffs must be made more severe. In general, it is necessary to energetically discipline and centralise the economic enterprises.

But this goal can be achieved only when an end is put to the election of the supervisory personnel by the workers, since the workers frequently elect absolutely illiterate individuals. It is necessary to replace these functionaries by people appointed by the Soviet authorities. In order to raise productivity, Trotsky also wants to harness the trade unions, which are predominantly non-Communist and to politicise them, that is, place them under the supervision of the political organisations. Moreover, labour conscription must be introduced among the peasantry, the cultivation of the land must be decreed a ‘state duty’, and the peasants compelled under pain of stringent penalties to cultivate and deliver fixed amounts of the most essential food products. In addition to all this, Trotsky is conducting a fight against leasing large areas to exploitative foreign capitalist companies, which he considers as anti-Communist.

In a word, this article paints a political portrait of our friend Kollontai – but under the pseudonym of Trotsky. In general this article, like everything concocted by its author, is a rehash of trite Bernsteinism of the nineties. And these ideas now appear as the modern postwar doctrine, the spiritual sustenance of the German Social Democracy. Bernstein put all this together far more systematically, consistently, and methodically than does Heinrich Cunow. But this does not affect the essence of the matter.

Let us return to the Russian question. It is not solely Cunow’s personal opinion that we have great differences of views among us, and that I personally belong to the opposition on the question of concessions and on the question of changing our economic policy. Not only the Social Democratic press but also the capitalist newspapers harp on this. Every comrade who is in the least acquainted with our internal affairs is well aware that there are no serious differences among us, in the party, over these questions, except for a very small group whose representative you heard today. If this question ever did come up among us, in the Central Committee, it was discussed only from the standpoint of whether this or that area, this or that concession should be granted or not, that is, from a purely practical standpoint. And it was precisely in these practical aspects that I happened to be in agreement with Lenin. Neither Comrade Bukharin nor Comrade Rakovsky, nor any of the comrades mentioned in Cunow’s article has opposed concessions and the new agricultural or peasant policy in principle.

This is an excellent illustration of the intellectual level of the German Social Democracy. For indeed, insofar as an individual really belongs to the International – as was also the case with the Second International in its best days – he is always greatly concerned in honestly following and understanding what takes place within a sister party, even if he has differences with it. When some lie was spread about tsarism, it was a common saying that tsarism had broad shoulders and could bear up under anything. But from a theoretical representative of a party who is obliged to analyse events calmly, one could demand – not that he should understand and vindicate us, God forbid! – but that he should at least have some comprehension of the things about which he writes. But he lacks even this.

Well, the fact is, there are no differences among us over this question. The figure of 99 percent would be a conservative estimate of the party majority on this issue. But how do matters stand with regard to the danger which the representatives of the Communist Workers Party and Comrade Kollontai depicted before us from two different sides – one from the side of Western European capitalism, and the other from the side of Russian communism? This question also came up for discussion among us in the Economic Commission. One comrade set out to prove that to enable capitalism to unfold its activities ‘on the great Russian steppes’ is to provide it with a road to salvation, with a way out from a difficult situation. But capitalism can move around only within limits offered it by our railroad network, our transport facilities, our open spaces, generally our entire economic culture. We have in mind not a business firm like Gerngross of Vienna which might very well be able to save itself at the expense of the Soviet republic by becoming its supplier; we are talking of capitalism.

If capitalism could, by basing itself on Russia, gain an equilibrium during the coming decades, then this would signify that we have no need whatever of turning to Western European capitalism; for this would signify that we are powerful and strong enough to brush aside the cooperation of Western European and American capitalism. But this is not the situation. We are not strong and powerful enough to be able to renounce capitalist technology, which is as yet available only in its capitalist form; we are certainly not strong and powerful enough to enable capitalism to heal all its wounds with Russia’s assistance. This is the inner logic of the situation. In any case, comrades who fear that capitalism may become strengthened by obtaining here a field for its activity must take into consideration that in between this developing capitalism in Russia and the world revolution stands Soviet Russia. Long before Russian capitalism could start relaxing and regaining its strength ‘in the Russian steppes’, it would have to crush the budding communist economy. The first victim would be our budding socialist organisation. In the Economic Commission I said that the key factor is still that the power in our country belongs to the vanguard of the proletariat; that in our country the working class rules, represented in political and state relations by this vanguard; and that is why we ought to grant concessions only to the extent that it benefits our cause. That is the obvious prerequisite.

If capitalism had conquered militarily, the question of concessions would have never arisen. Capitalism would have resolved it on its own, and we would not then have had a tactical question. But we do have this question today. Why? Because the power in our country belongs to the working class. It conducts negotiations with capitalism; it has the possibility of granting concessions to some while refusing others; it has the opportunity to make combinations; to weigh the overall state of its own economic development and that of the world revolution; to reflect and seek advice; and then make its decision. That is how things stand.

I then drew the conclusion that those Western European and American comrades, who really fear that capitalism may regain its health in Russia, show thereby that they overestimate our technological and transport facilities and underestimate our Communist powers of judgement. As I said, Comrade Kollontai, who belongs among comrades usually called Left Communists, was not mentioned in connection with the concessions question. But she has done so herself. She has the full right to do it. She puts the discipline of the International above the discipline of the party. I do not know, perhaps it also pertains to the question of concessions, but she wants to display the spirit of knighthood – I don’t know how to put it in German – she wants to conduct herself like an Amazon –

Radek: Like a Valkyrie!

Trotsky: Like a Valkyrie. I place the responsibility for this expression on Comrade Radek. (Laughter) That is how Comrade Kollontai conducted herself in placing her name on the speakers’ list, although it is customary among us to first take up the question with the delegation, with the Presidium, and with the Central Committee. I merely ask the comrades who are present here and for whom Comrade Kollontai is the spokesperson how they regard the fact that no one raised any objections to it at the session of the Central Committee? We deemed it wholly natural for a politically insignificant and hardly noticeable minority on this question to acquaint the world congress with its own views and its own tendency.

Let us now pass on to the substance of Comrade Kollontai’s speech. Her main idea is that the capitalist system is outlived and that therefore it is impermissible, so to speak, to derive any benefits from it. That is her basic idea. Everything else is for her superfluous. This gives us an entirely adequate idea of Comrade Kollontai’s historical and politico-economic approach. In the language of philosophy, this is a purely metaphysical outlook, which operates with immutable, non-historical, dogmatic concepts. Capitalism has outlived itself, and it is therefore not possible to get anything from it that can be of use to us. But, comrades, if it were actually true that capitalism has outlived itself, and we were then attacked by a British or French army, say, on the shores of the Black Sea, I could say that capitalism has outlived itself and then sit down with arms folded. (Loud applause) I believe that we would then all be sent to hell, with the permission of Comrade Kollontai. (Loud applause)

Capitalism will not stop to inquire whether or not it has outlived itself in line with Comrade Kollontai’s dogmatic conceptions. It will run us through with bayonets manufactured in its capitalist factories; it will kill and bury us with soldiers rigidly trained under its capitalist discipline. But the fact that an outlived capitalism is capable of slaughtering and murdering us shows that it has plenty of power left. And the very fact that Comrade Kollontai, who belongs to an opposition in the Russian party, is compelled to present her oppositional views to a world congress that must convene in Moscow is itself a scrap of evidence that while capitalism is outlived in the great historical sense and cannot open up any new possibilities for mankind, it still remains powerful enough to prevent us from convening our congresses in Paris or Berlin. (Applause) That is a significant fact. Or let us take capitalist technology, for example. What does Comrade Kollontai think of a good locomotive, an honest-to-goodness German capitalist locomotive? This is an interesting question. I am afraid that the German proletariat, even after its conquest of power, will have to travel across the country for a couple of years or so using genuine capitalist locomotives. At least for another two years. After all, it will be very busy and I hardly believe that it will be able immediately in the very first months to begin building new locomotives.

But comrades, is it permissible – from the standpoint of the ten commandments of Comrade Kollontai – to buy a new German locomotive from the firm of Ebert and company? That is the first question. I believe that in answering this point-blank question Comrade Kollontai will not deny us the right to buy a locomotive from Ebert. But if we buy a locomotive there, we must also pay for it there, and, what is more, with gold. And, comrades, gold that flows from Russia into capitalist coffers strengthens them. Of course the amount is far too small to pay the German debts. Fortunately, we do not have such a quantity of gold. (Laughter) But if we want to remain steadfast in principle, we must not pay gold to capitalists.

Or suppose we pay with lumber instead of gold. Comrade Kollontai will perhaps then say: I agree to permit trade between Soviet Russia and Germany or Britain, but concessions are out. What are concessions? To get locomotives, we must sell lumber. But we lack enough saws and other mechanical appliances and so we say: ‘There is the wood, growing in a forest; let the British capitalist come with his machines and technical equipment, chop himself some trees and logs, and give us locomotives in return.’ In short, I should very much like to know where Comrade Kollontai’s principled opposition begins and where it ends. Is it with the purchase of locomotives, with the payment in gold, or with payment in lumber in the shape of forests? I am afraid that the opposition begins only with the chopping of trees. (Loud laughter)

Comrade Kollontai furthermore asserts that we, in general, want to replace the working class with specialists and with experts, such as technicians.

Kollontai: I didn’t say that.

Trotsky: You said that the initiative of the working class is being replaced by other forces, that the vanguard of the working class is being compelled to cede its place to other forces. And these other forces are on the one hand the so-called technical intelligentsia, and on the other – the peasantry. Of course replacing the peasantry is excluded. But the class that holds the power in its hands negotiates with the peasantry. As regards the technicians, on this question, too, we had a controversy in our party. The echoes of it still reverberate to this day.[2] And perhaps we have heard – if not the last – then the next to the last echo from the lips of Comrade Kollontai.

In a general sense, comrades, the proletariat obviously has considerable power and initiative, and we hope that the power of the working class will considerably alter the face of humankind as a whole. But we never claimed that the working class possesses from its birth the capacities needed to build a new society. All it can do is create the necessary social and political preconditions for this society. What is more, by taking direct control of state power, it can find all the necessary assistants; place them, wherever necessary, in the service of communist economy; and thereby set the entire machine in motion. But we never said that an ordinary worker, by becoming a Communist, acquires the ability to perform the work of a technician, astronomer, or engineer. And now these technical forces are designated simply as ‘other social forces’, and the fact that these forces have been placed in the service of our cause is characterised as a lack of confidence in the working class. I must state that such reasoning has absolutely nothing in common with Marxism and communism.

Comrades, in the extremely simple field in which I have had to work up to now, the military field, we were compelled from the beginning to resort to the aid of alien technical forces. A good deal of friction arose over this among us. The Central Committee committed quite a few errors, and our military organisation encountered opposition on more than one occasion. We were told: ‘You are placing alien technical forces (the reference here was to the officers) in the service of the proletariat.’ Yet it later became obvious that if we had based ourselves solely on the energy and self-sacrifice of our own comrades, who were certainly carrying out their duty to the fullest extent, and had failed to utilise alien military forces, we would have perished long ago. This is absolutely clear. The Russian working class with its abilities and its capacity for self-sacrifice achieved wonders. It also displayed great initiative after it seized power through its capacity – even though it was backward and was living in a peasant country – to draw officers into its service, sometimes utilising force and sometimes propaganda. (Loud applause) We had to have an army. But the working class did not possess sufficient experience and knowledge, and we could not place officers from among the workers immediately and everywhere. Today we already have a great many red officers drawn from the working class. They occupy the highest posts, and their number is increasing daily.

The very same thing applies to the technical field as well. The fact that we are still encircled by a capitalist world forces us to the concessions that we must carry out in the field of technology, too. But we have complete faith that our working class, which feels itself more and more as a member of the great International, will also be able to withstand this breathing spell of capitalism and the unstable equilibrium that now prevails and that will last a while yet. During this pause it will borrow alien forces and alien means, and place them in the service of its own cause. We say to the Russian workers: ‘We are conducting negotiations with foreign capitalists, but we shall take all the necessary measures to stand on our own feet.’ We want the working class to survey this entire field of activity and say: ‘I can offer this or that concession to the German and American capitalists, but I want machinery in return.’ Does this betray a lack of faith in the power of the Russian working class, of the Russian proletariat? If anyone is to be reproached with lacking faith in the power of the working class, it is not us but the little group in whose name Comrade Kollontai has spoken here today. (Loud applause and cheers)



1. Cunow’s article, ‘Der Bankrott des Bolschewismus’ [The bankruptcy of Bolshevism], was published in Die Neue Zeit, 22 and 29 April 1921 (2, 4, pp. 73 – 80 and 2, 5, pp. 97 – 102).

2. A reference to the debate in the Russian Communist Party over the Red Army’s use of thousands of officers and military specialists from the old tsarist army. Trotsky had instituted this policy, over the objections of a military opposition led by Kliment Voroshilov and Joseph Stalin. Lenin declared his support for Trotsky’s position, and the RCP’s Eighth Congress in March 1919 ratified that stance.