Leon Trotsky

The New Course

The Question of the
Party Generations

IN one of the resolutions adopted during the discussion in Moscow, the complaint is made that the question of party democracy has been complicated by discussions on the relationships between the generations, personal attacks, etc. This complaint attests to a certain mental confusion. Personal attacks and the mutual relationships between generations are two entirely different things. To pose now the question of party democracy without analyzing the membership of the party, from the social point of view as well as from the point of view of age and political standing, would be to dissolve it into a void. It is not by accident that the question of party democracy rose up first of all as a question of relationships between the generations. It is the logical result of the whole evolution of our party. Its history may be divided schematically into four periods:

  1. quarter of a century of preparation up to October, the only one in history;
  2. October;
  3. the period following October; and
  4. the new course, that is, the period we are now entering.

Despite its richness, its complexity and the diversity of the stages through which it passed, the period prior to October, it is now realized, was only a preparatory period. October made it possible to check up on the ideology and the organization of the party and its membership. By October, we understand the acutest period of the struggle for power, which can be said to have started approximately with Lenin’s April Theses[1] and ended with the actual seizure of the state apparatus. Even though it lasted only a few months, it is no less important in content than the whole period of preparation which is measured in years and decades. October not only gave us an unfailing verification, unique in its kind, of the party’s great past, but it itself became a source of experience for the future. It was through October that the pre October party was able for the first time to assess itself at its true worth.

The conquest of power was followed by a rapid, even abnormal, growth of the party. A powerful magnet, the party attracted not only workers with little consciousness, but even certain elements plainly alien to its spirit: functionaries, careerists and political hangers on. In this chaotic period, it was able to preserve its Bolshevist nature only thanks to the internal dictatorship of the Old Guard, which had been tested in October. In the more or less important questions, the leadership of the older generation was then accepted almost unchallenged by the new members, not only by the proletarian ranks but by the alien elements. The climbers considered this docility the best way of establishing their own situation in the party. But they miscalculated. By a rigorous purging of its own ranks, the party rid itself of them. Its membership diminished, but its consciousness was enhanced. It may be said that this checkup on itself, this purge, made the post-October party feel itself for the first time a half million headed collectivity whose task was not simply to be led by the Old Guard but to examine and decide for itself the essential questions of policy. In this sense, the purge and the critical period linked with it are the preparation, as it were, of the profound change now manifesting itself in the life of the party and which will probably go down in its history under the name of “the new course.”

There is one thing that ought to be clearly understood from the start: the essence of the present disagreements and difficulties does not lie in the fact that the “secretaries” have overreached themselves on certain points and must be called back to order, but in the fact that the party as a whole is about to move on to a higher historical stage. The bulk of the communists are saying in effect to the leaders: “You, comrades, have the experience of before October, which most of us are lacking; but under your leadership we have acquired after October a great experience which is constantly growing in significance. And we not only want to be led by you but to participate with you in the leadership of the class. We want it not only because that is our right as party members but also because it is absolutely necessary to the working class as a whole. Without our modest experience, experience which should not merely be taken note of in the leading spheres but which must be introduced into the life of the party by ourselves, the leading party apparatus is growing bureaucratic, and we, rank-and-file communists, do not feel ourselves sufficiently well armed ideologically when confronting the non party people.” The present change is, as I have said, the result of the whole precedent evolution. Invisible at first glance, molecular processes in the lift and the consciousness of the party have long been at work preparing it. The market crisis gave a strong impetus to critical thought. The approach of the events in Germany set the party a quiver. Precisely at this moment it appeared with particular sharpness that the party was living, as it were, on two storeys: the upper storey, where things are decided, and the lower storey, where all you do is learn of the decisions. Nevertheless, the critical revision of the internal régime of the party was postponed by the anxious expectation of what seemed to be the imminent showdown in Germany. When it turned out that this showdown was delayed by the force of things, the party put the question of the “new course" on the order of the day.

As often happens in history, it is precisely during these last months that the “old course” revealed the most negative and most insufferable traits: apparatus cliquism, bureaucratic smugness, and complete disdain for the mood, the thoughts and the needs of the party. Out of bureaucratic inertia, it rejected, from the very beginning, and with an antagonistic violence, the initial attempts to put on the order of the day the question of the critical revision of the internal party régime. This does not mean, to be sure, that the apparatus is composed exclusively of bureaucratized elements, or even less, of confirmed and incorrigible bureaucrats. Not at all! The present critical period, whose meaning they will assimilate, will teach a good deal to the majority of the apparatus workers and will get them to abandon most of their errors. The ideological and organic regrouping that will come out of the present crisis, will, in the long run, have healthful consequences for the rank and file of the communists as well as for the apparatus. But in the latter, as it appeared on the threshold of the present crisis, Bureaucratism has reached an excessive, truly alarming development. And that is what gives the present ideological regrouping so acute a character as to engender legitimate fears.

It will suffice to point out that, two or three months ago, the mere mention of the Bureaucratism of the apparatus, of the excessive authority of the committees and the secretaries, was greeted by the responsible representatives of the “old course,” in the central and local organizations, with a shrug of the shoulders or by indignant protestations. Appointment as a system? Pure imagination! Formalism, Bureaucratism? Inventions, opposition solely for the pleasure of making opposition, etc. These comrades, in all sincerity, did not notice the bureaucratic danger they themselves represent. It is only under pressure from the ranks that they began, little by little, to recognize that there actually were manifestations of Bureaucratism, but only somewhere at the organizational periphery, in certain regions and districts, that these were only a deviation in practice from the straight line, etc. According to them, Bureaucratism was nothing but a survival of the war period, that is, a phenomenon in the process of disappearing, only not fast enough. Needless to say how false is this approach to things and this explanation. Bureaucratism is not a fortuitous feature of certain provincial organizations, but a general phenomenon. It does not travel from the district to the central organization through the medium of the regional organization, but much rather from the central organization to the district through the medium of the regional organization. It is not at all a “survival” of the war period; it is the result of the transference to the party of the methods and the administrative manners accumulated during these last years. However exaggerated were the forms it sometimes assumed, the Bureaucratism of the war period was only child’s play in comparison with present day Bureaucratism which grew up in peacetime, while the apparatus, in spite of the ideological growth of the party, continued obstinately to think and decide for the party.

Hence, the unanimously adopted resolution of the Central Committee on the structure of the party has, from the standpoint of principle, an immense importance which the party must be clearly aware of. It would indeed be unworthy to consider that the profound meaning of the decisions taken boils down to a mere demand for more “mildness,” more “solicitousness” toward the masses on the part of the secretaries and the committees, and to some technical modifications in the organization. The resolution of the Central Committee speaks of a “new course, and not for nothing. The party is preparing to enter into a new phase of development. To be sure, it is not a question of breaking the organizational principles of Bolshevism, as some are trying to have us believe, but to apply them to the conditions of the new stage in the development of the party. It is a question primarily of instituting healthier relations between the old cadres and the majority of the members who came to the party after October.

Theoretical preparation, revolutionary tempering, political experience, these represent the party’s basic political capital whose principal possessors, in the first place, are the old cadres of the party. On the other hand, the party is essentially a democratic organization, that is, a collectivity which decides upon its road by the thought and the will of all its members. It is completely clear that in the complicated situation of the period immediately following October, the party made its way all the better for the fact that it utilized to the full the experience accumulated by the older generation, to whose representatives it entrusted the most important positions in the organization.

On the other hand, the result of this state of things has been that, in playing the role of party leader and being absorbed by the Questions of administration, the old generation accustomed itself to think and to decide, as it still does, for the party. For the communist masses, it brings to the forefront purely bookish, pedagogical methods of participating in political life: elementary political training courses, examinations of the knowledge of its members, party schools, etc. Thence the bureaucratism of the apparatus, its cliquism, its exclusive internal life, in a word, all the traits that constitute the profoundly negative side of the old course. The fact that the party lives on two separate storeys bears within it numerous dangers, which I spoke of in my letter on the old and the young. By “young,” I mean of course not simply the students, but the whole generation that came to the party after October, the factory cells in the first place. How did this increasingly marked uneasiness of the party manifest itself? In the majority of its members saying or feeling that: “Whether the apparatus thinks and decides well or badly, it continues to think and decide too often without us and for us. When we happen to display lack of understanding or doubts, to express an objection or a criticism, we are called to order, discipline is invoked; most often, we are accused of being obstructers or even of wanting to establish factions. We are devoted to the party to our very marrow and ready to make any sacrifice for it. But we want to participate actively and consciously in working out its views and in determining its course of action.” The first manifestations of this state of mind unmistakably passed by unperceived by the leading apparatus which took no account of it, and that was one of the main causes of the anti party groupings in the party. Their importance should certainly not be exaggerated, but neither should their meaning be minimized, for they ought to be a warning to us.

The chief danger of the old course, a result of general historical causes as well as of our own mistakes, is that the apparatus manifests a growing tendency to counterpose a few thousand comrades, who form the leading cadres, to the rest of the mass whom they look upon only as an object of action. If this régime should persist, it would threaten to provoke, in the long run, a degeneration of the party at both its poles, that is, among the party youth and among the leading cadres. As to the proletarian basis of the party, the factory cells, the students, etc., the character of the peril is clear. Not feeling that they are participating actively in the general work of the party and not getting a timely answer to their questions to the party, numerous communists start looking for a substitute for independent party activity in the form of groupings and factions of all sorts. It is in this sense precisely that we speak of the symptomatic importance of groupings like the “Workers’ Group.”  [2]

But no less great is the danger, at the other pole, of the régime that has lasted too long and become synonymous in the party with bureaucratism. It would be ridiculous, and unworthy ostrich politics, not to understand, or not to want to see, that the accusation of bureaucratism formulated in the resolution of the Central Committee is directed precisely against the cadres of the party. It is not a question of isolated deviations in practice from the ideal line, but precisely of the general policy of the apparatus, of its bureaucratic tendency. Does bureaucratism bear within it a danger of degeneration, or doesn’t it? He would be blind who denied. In its prolonged development, bureaucratization threatens to detach the leaders from the masses, to bring them to concentrate their attention solely upon questions of administration, of appointments and transfers, of narrowing their horizon, of weakening their revolutionary spirit, that is, of provoking a more or less opportunistic degeneration of the Old Guard, or at the very least of a considerable part of it. Such processes develop slowly and almost imperceptibly, but reveal themselves abruptly. To see in this warning, based upon objective Marxian foresight, an “outrage,” an “assault,” etc., really requires the skittish susceptibility and arrogance of bureaucrats.

But, in actuality, is the danger of such a degeneration really great? The fact that the party has understood or felt this danger and has reacted to it energetically which is what was the specific cause of the resolution of the Central Committee bears witness to its profound vitality and by that very fact reveals the potent sources of antidote which it has at its disposal against bureaucratic poison. There lies the principal guarantee of its preservation as a revolutionary party. But if the old course should seek to maintain itself at all costs by tightening the reins, by increasingly artificial selection, by intimidation, in a word, by procedures indicating a distrust of the party, the actual danger of degeneration of a considerable part of the cadres would inevitably increase.

The party cannot live solely upon past reserves. It suffices that the past has prepared the present. But the present must be ideologically and practically up to the level of the past in order to prepare the future. The task of the present is to shift the center of party activity toward the masses of the party.

But, it may be said, this shifting of the center of gravity cannot be accomplished at one time, by a leap; the party cannot "put in the archives” the old generation and immediately start living a new life. It is scarcely worth while dwelling on such a stupidly demagogical argument. To want to put the old generation in the archives would be madness. What is needed is that precisey this old generation should change its orientation and, by virtue of that, guarantee in the future the preponderance of its influence upon all the independent activity of the party. It must consider the “new course” not as a maneuver, a diplomatic stroke, or a temporary concession, but as a new stage in the political development of the party. In this way, both the generation that leads the party and the party as a whole will reap the greatest benefit.


1. The April Theses was delivered by Lenin upon return to Petrograd on April4, 1917. The April Theses was an attack on the Bolshevik leadership (Kamanev, Zinoviev and Stalin) for their conciliatory stand toward the capitalist government. The Theses reoriented the party for a working class seizure of power and against any attempts at compromise with the government.

2. The Workers Group was one of several dissident factions inside the Bolshevik Party that was opposed to the leadership.

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Last updated on: 4.1.2007