Leon Trotsky

Bureaucratism and Factional Groups

(December 1923)

Written: 1923.
First Published: 1935 [in English].
Source: New International, New York, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pages 16-19.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: David Walters, February 2005.
Public Domain: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive 2005. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

THE QUESTION of groupings and factions in the party has become the pivotal point of the discussion. In view of the intrinsic importance of the question and the extremely sharp form it has taken on, it demands to be treated with perfect clarity. Often enough, however, the question is put in an erroneous manner.

We are the only party in the country and, in the present period of dictatorship, it could not be otherwise. The different needs of the working class, of the peasantry, of the state apparatus and its functionaries, act upon our party, through the medium of which they seek to find political expression. The difficulties and contradictions inherent in our epoch, the temporary discord of interests of various sections of the proletariat, or of the proletariat and the peasantry, act upon the party through the medium of its workers’ and peasants’ nuclei, of the state apparatus and of the young students. The nuances of opinion, the episodic divergences of view may express the remote pressure of definite social interests and, under certain circumstances, may transform themselves into stable groups. The latter, in turn, may sooner or later take on the form of organized factions which, pitting themselves as such against the rest of the party, are by that token even more subject to external pressure. Such is the logical evolution of groupings in an epoch when the communist party is obliged to monopolize the leadership of political life.

What results ensue? If one does not want factions, there must be no permanent groups, if one does not want permanent groups, temporary groups must be avoided; naturally in order that there be no temporary groups, there must be no differences of opinion, for where there are two opinions, persons inevitably group themselves together. But how, on the other hand, are divergences of view to be avoided in a party of half a million men which directs the country under exceptionally complicated and painful conditions? This is the essential contradiction that resides in the very position of the party of the proletarian dictatorship and from which it is impossible to escape by purely formal procedure alone.

The partisans of the “old course” who vote for the resolution of the Central Committee with the assurance that everything will remain as it was in the past, reason about as follows: Just see, the lid of our apparatus has barely been lifted and already tendencies toward groupings of all sorts are manifesting themselves in the party. The lid must be brought down again vigorously and the boiler hermetically sealed. This is the short-sighted wisdom with which numerous speeches and articles “against factionalism” are permeated. In their innermost conscience, the partisans of the apparatus regard the resolution of the Central Committee either as a political mistake which an effort should be made to render harmless, or else as a manoeuvre which should be utilized. In my opinion, they are grossly mistaken. And if there is a tactic calculated to introduce disorganization into the party, it is that of those persons who persist in the old orientation while feigning to accept respectfully the new one.

It is in conflicts and divergences of view that the working out of the public opinion of the party inevitably takes place. To localize it in an apparatus charged with subsequently supplying the party with the fruit of its labor in the form of instructions, of orders, is to sterilize the party ideologically and politically. To make the whole party participate in the working out and the adoption of resolutions, is to promote temporary ideological groupings which run the risk of being converted into lasting groups and even into factions. What is to be done? Is it possible that there is no way out? Is it possible that there is no intermediate line for the party between the regime of “calm” and that of crumbling into factions? No, there is one, and the task of the leadership consists, every time it is necessary and particularly at turning points, in finding the line that corresponds to the given real situation.

The resolution of the Central Committee says plainly that the bureaucratic regime is one of the sources of factions. This is a truth which now hardly any longer needs to be demonstrated. The “old course” was pretty far from democracy, and yet it did not preserve the party from illegal factions any more than the present stormy discussion which, one cannot conceal it from himself, may lead to the formation of temporary or lasting groupings. In order to avoid it, the leading organs of the party must lend an ear to the voice of the mass, without regarding all criticism as a manifestation of the factional spirit and thereby driving conscientious and disciplined communists to maintain a systematic silence or to constitute themselves into factions.

But this is neither more or less than a justification of Miasnikov [1] and his supporters! – the bureaucrats will say. How so? In the first place, the phrase which we have just underlined is only a textual extract from the resolution of the Central Committee. Furthermore, since when is explanation equivalent to justification? To say that an ulcer is the result of a defective blood circulation due to an inadequate afflux of oxygen, is not to “justify” the ulcer and to consider it a normal part of the human organism. The only conclusion is that it must be scarified, the wound sterilized, and above all, the window must be opened up to permit fresh air to supply the oxygen needed by the blood. But the trouble is that the most militant wing of the “old course” is convinced that the resolution of the Central Committee is wrong, particularly in the passage dealing with bureaucratism as a source of factions. And if it does not say so openly, it is only because of formal reasons, quite in harmony with a mentality impregnated with that formalism which is the essential attribute of bureaucratism.

It is incontestable that factions are a scourge in the present situation and that groups, even if temporary, may be transformed into factions. But as experience shows it is far from enough to declare that groups and factions are an evil for their appearance to be prevented. They will be forestalled only by a correct policy, adapted to the actual situation.

It is enough to study the history of our party, be it only during the revolution, that is, during a period when the constitution of factions is especially dangerous, to see that the struggle against this danger can not be confined to a formal condemnation and a prohibition.

It was in the autumn of 1917, in connection with the cardinal question of the seizure of power, that the most formidable disagreement arose in the party. The furious rhythm of events invested this disagreement with an extreme sharpness which led almost immediately to the constitution of a faction. Involuntarily, perhaps, the opponents of the forcible overturn made a bloc with elements not belonging to the party, published their declarations in outside organs, etc. [2] At that moment, the unity of the party hung by a hair. How was a split averted? Solely by the rapid development of the situation and its favorable outcome. The split would inevitably have occurred if the events had dragged out, and even more certainly if the insurrection had terminated in a defeat. Under the firm leadership of the majority of the Central Committee, the party, in an impetuous offensive, passed over the heads of the opposition; the power was conquered and the opposition, not very numerous but qualitatively very strong, adopted the platform of October. The faction, the danger of split, were overcome at that time not by formal decisions on the basis of the statutes, but by revolutionary action.

The second big dissension arose on the occasion of the Brest-Litovsk peace. The partisans of the revolutionary war [3] constituted at that time a genuine faction with its own central organ. How much truth there is to the recent anecdote, according to which Bukharin was almost prepared, at one moment, to arrest the government of Lenin – I am unable to say! [4] However that may be, the existence of a Left communist faction represented an extreme danger to the unity of the party. To proceed to a split at that time would not have been difficult and would not have required on the part of the leadership ... any great intellectual exertion: it would have sufficed to issue an injunction against the Left communist faction. Nevertheless, the party adopted more complex methods. It preferred to discuss, to explain, to prove by experience, and to resign itself temporarily to that menacing anomaly represented by the existence of a faction organized in its midst.

The question of organizing the military work also engendered the constitution of a fairly strong and fairly obdurate grouping, opposed to the creation of a regular army with a centralized military apparatus, specialists, etc. [5] At times the struggle became extremely sharp. But as in October, the question was resolved by experience: by the war itself. Certain blunders and exaggerations of the official military policy were straightened out under the pressure of the opposition, and that not only without harm but with profit to the centralized organization of the regular army. As to the opposition, it exhausted itself little by little. A large number of its most active representatives participated in the organization of the army, in which they often occupied important posts.

Clearly defined groupings constituted themselves at the time of the memorable discussion on the trade unions. [6] Now that we have the possibility of embracing this whole period at a glance and clearing it up in the light of subsequent experience, we observe that the discussion did not at all revolve around the trade unions, nor even around workers’ democracy. What was expressed in these disputes was a profound uneasiness in the party, whose cause was the excessive prolongation of the economic regime of war communism. The whole economic organism of the country was in a vise. The discussion on the role of the trade unions and of workers democracy concealed the quest for a new economic road. The way out was found in putting an end to the requisitioning of food products and to the grain monopoly, and in the gradual liberation of state industry from the tyranny of central economic direction. [7] These historical decisions were unanimously adopted and completely smothered the trade union discussion, all the more so as, following upon the establishment of the NEP, the role of the trade unions themselves appeared in a completely different light and as, a few months later, it became necessary to alter radically the resolution on the trade unions.

The most lasting and, from certain aspects, the most dangerous group, was that of the “workers’ opposition”. [8] It reflected in a distorted manner the contradictions of war communism, certain mistakes of the party, as well as essential objective difficulties of socialist organization. But this time also we did not limit ourselves to a formal prohibition. On the questions of democracy, formal decisions were made, and on the purging of the party effective and extremely important measures were taken, giving satisfaction to what was right and healthy in the criticism and the demands of the “workers’ opposition”. And what is most important, it is only thanks to the decisions and the economic measures adopted by the party, the result of which was to lead to the disappearance of the divergences of view and the groupings, that the Tenth Congress was able to lay down a formal prohibition against the constitution of factions, with reason to believe that its decision would not remain a dead letter. But, as experience and political common sense show, it goes without saying that, by itself, this prohibition contained no absolute or even serious guarantees against the appearance of new ideological and organizational groupings. The essential guarantee in this case is a correct leadership, attention to the requirements of the moment which are reflected in the party, the flexibility of the apparatus which must not paralyze but rather organize the initiative of the party, which must neither fear criticism nor seek to put a stop to it by the bugbear of factions. The decision of the Tenth Congress prohibiting factions can have only an auxiliary character; by itself, it does not give the key to the solution of all the internal difficulties. It would be “organizational fetishism” to believe that regardless of the development of the party, the mistakes of the leadership, the conservatism of the apparatus, the influences from without it, etc., a decision is enough to preserve us from groupings and from the disorder inherent in the formation of factions. To look at things in this way would be to give proof of bureaucratism.

A striking example of this is furnished us by the history of the Petrograd organization. Shortly after the Tenth Congress, which interdicted the constitution of groups and factions, a very lively organizational struggle arose in Petrograd, which led to the formation of two groupings flatly opposed to each other. The simplest thing, at first thought, would have been to issue an anathema against at least one of these groupings. But the Central Committee categorically refused to employ this method which was suggested to it from Petrograd. It assumed the role of arbitrator between the two groups and, in the long run, succeeded in assuring not only their collaboration but their complete fusion in the organization. There is an important example which deserves to be kept in mind and which might serve to clarify some bureaucratic heads.

We have said above that every important and lasting group in the party, and this is even truer of organized factions, has a tendency to become the spokesman for some social interests or other. Any deviation may, in the course of its development, become the expression of the interests of a class hostile or semi-hostile to the proletariat. Now, bureaucratism is a deviation, and an unhealthy one; that, let us hope, is not open to dispute. From the moment that this is the case, it threatens to run the party off the right road, off the class road. Therein precisely lies its danger. But – and this is a fact which is instructive to the highest, and at the same time the most alarming degree – those who asseverate most flatly, with the greatest insistence, and sometimes most brutally, that every difference of opinion, every grouping of views, even if temporary, is an expression of the interests of classes opposed to the proletariat, do not want to apply this criterion to bureaucratism.

And yet, the social criterion is perfectly in place in this instance, for bureaucratism is a well-defined evil, a notorious and incontestably harmful deviation officially condemned but still showing no signs of disappearing. Moreover, it is pretty difficult to make it disappear at one blow. But if bureaucratism, as the resolution of the Central Committee says, threatens to detach the party from the masses and consequently to weaken the class character of the party, it follows that the struggle against bureaucratism can in no case be the result of non-proletarian influences. On the contrary, the aspiration of the party to preserve its proletarian character must inevitably engender resistance to bureaucratism. Obviously, under cover of this resistance, various wrong, unhealthy and injurious tendencies may manifest themselves. And they cannot be disclosed save by the Marxian analysis of their ideological content. But to identify resistance to bureaucratism with a grouping which allegedly serves as a channel for alien influences, is to be oneself the “channel” for bureaucratic influences.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to understand in too simplified a manner the thought that party differences and, even more so, groupings, are nothing but a struggle for influence of opposed classes. Thus, in 1920, the question of the invasion of Poland produced two currents of opinion, one advocating a more audacious policy, the other preaching prudence.[9] Did that show different class tendencies? I do not think that that can be affirmed. There were only differences in the appraisal of the situation, the forces, the means. But the essential criterion of appraisal was the same in both camps.

It often happens that the party can resolve one and the same problem by different means. And if a discussion then arises, it does so for time purpose of learning which of the means is the best, the most expedient, the most economical. According to the question involved, these differences may embrace substantial layers of the party, but this does not necessarily mean that there is a struggle of two class tendencies.

There is no doubt that we shall still have many disagreements, for our road is a painful one and the political tasks as well as the economic questions of socialist organization will unfailingly engender divergences of view and temporary groupings of opinion. For our party, the political verification of all the nuances of opinion by means of a Marxian analysis will always be one of the most effective preventive measures. But it is this concrete Marxian verification that must be resorted to, and not stereotyped phrases which are the defense mechanism of bureaucratism. If the road of the “new course” is trod more seriously, it will be possible to control all the better the heterogeneous political ideology which is now rising against bureaucratism and to cleanse it of any alien and injurious element. But this is impossible without a serious turn-about-face in the mentality and the intentions of the party apparatus. But what we are witnessing on the contrary at the present moment is a new offensive of the latter, which pushes aside all criticism of the “old course”, formally condemned but not yet liquidated, by treating it as a manifestation of factional spirit. If factions are dangerous – and they are – it is criminal to close one’s eyes to the danger represented by the conservative bureaucratic faction. It is precisely against this danger that the resolution of the Central Committee directs its main shafts.

The maintenance of the unity of the party is the gravest concern of the great majority of the communists. But it must be said openly: if there is a serious danger at present to the unity or at least to the unanimity of the party, it is unbridled bureaucratism. It is from this camp that provocative voices have been raised. It is there that some have dared to say: we are not afraid of split. It is the representatives of this tendency who dig into the past, hunting there for everything that might be used to inject more rancor into the discussion, who artificially revive the memories of the former struggle and the former split in order imperceptibly to accustom the mind of the party to the possibility of so monstrous, so disastrous a crime as a new split. Some wish to counterpose the need of unity in the party to its need of a less bureaucratic regime.

If the party let itself be swayed, if it sacrificed the vital elements of its own democracy, it would succeed only in exacerbating its internal struggle and in shaking its cohesion. One cannot demand of the party confidence in the apparatus when he himself has no confidence in the party. There’s the whole question. Preconceived bureaucratic distrust towards the party, towards its mind and its spirit of discipline, is the principal cause of all the evils engendered by the domination of the apparatus. The party does not want factions and will not tolerate them. It is monstrous to think that it will smash, or permit anybody to smash its apparatus. It knows that this apparatus is composed of the most valuable elements, embodying the greatest part of the past experiences. But it wants to renew it and to remind it that it is its apparatus, that it is elected by it and that it must not detach itself from it.

In meditating well on the situation created in the party and which has showed itself in a particularly clear light in the course of the discussion, one sees that the future presents itself in a double perspective. Either the organic ideological regrouping which is now taking place in the party along the line of the resolutions of the Central Committee will be a step forward along the road of the organic growth of the party, the beginning of a new great chapter – and that would be the most desirable way out for all of us and the most beneficial one for the party, which will then easily overcome excesses in the discussion and in the opposition and, with greater reason, vulgar democratic tendencies. Or else, passing over to the counter-offensive, the apparatus will fall more or less under the sway of its most conservative elements and, on the pretext of combating the factions, will throw the party back and reestablish “calm”. This second eventuality would be incomparably more grievous; it would not prevent, it goes without saying, the development of the party, but this development would take place only at the cost of considerable efforts and disturbances. For this method would only still further foster tendencies which are harmful, disintegrating, opposed to the party. These are the two eventualities to envisage.

Moscow, December 1923.


1. Old worker-Bolshevik, expelled in 1922 for Menshevik tendencies. Years later, Stalin sent him into exile, whence he escaped to Persia in 1929, then to Turkey<./p>

2. The principal opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev, revealed and criticized the party’s plans in Gorky’s paper on the eve of the uprising. They were supported by Rykov, Nogin, Miliutin, Losovsky, Shliapnikov, Riazanov, Larin and others.

3. Led by Bukharin, they published an independent extra-party paper in Petrograd, The Communist, violently attacking the Lenin policy. Others in the group included Radek, Krestinsky, Ossinsky, Sapronov, Yakovlev, Pokrovsky, Piatakov, Preobrazhenskv, Safarov, etc. Trotsky, before abstaining from the vote in order to accord Lenin a majority for his standpoint defended the position “Neither peace nor war.”

4. On December 21, 1923, Pravda published a letter signed by nine of the former Left Communists, confirming the anecdote. At a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Soviets, the Left Social Revolutionist, Kamkov, said “in a joking tone” to Bukharin and Piatakov: “Well, what are you going to do if you get the majority of the party? Lenin will resign and we will have to constitute a new Council of People’s Commissars with you. In that case, I think we would elect Piatakov as chairman ...” Later, the Left Social Revolutionist, Proshyan, said laughingly to Radek: “All you do is write resolutions. Wouldn’t it be simpler to arrest Lenin for a day, declare war on the Germans and then reelect him unanimously chairman of the Council ?”

5. The “military opposition” of 1918-1919 was led by V.M. Smirnov, and supported by Voroshilov, Piatakov, Mezhlauk and Stalin, among others, against Trotsky. The Eighth Congress of the RCP in 1919 voted support for the latter’s policy.

6. From November 1920 (Fifth trade union Congress) to March 1921 (Tenth party Congress). The Central Committee was divided into two groups, one of eight led by Lenin, the other of seven, including Trotsky, Bukharin, Dzherzhinsky, Andreyev, Krestinsky, Preobrazhensky and Serebriakov. The party congress supported Lenin’s group. .

7. The directing centers (glavs) of production, vertically divided, as it were, had to be abolished in 1921 as an unhappy attempt at economic organization.

8. Led by Shliapnikov, Kollontay, Medvediev, Kisseliev, Lutovinov and others, who advocated that the management of economic life be turned over to the trade unions.

9. Lenin led the former, Trotsky and Radek the latter.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 7.1.2007