Leon Trotsky

The New Course

Appendix 1
(A Letter to Party Meetings)

December 8, 1923

Dear Comrades:

I had confidently hoped to be recovered soon enough to be able to participate in the discussion of the internal situation and the new tasks of the party. But my illness came at a more inopportune time than ever before and proved to be of longer duration than the first forecasts of the doctors. There is nothing left but to expound my view to you in the present letter.

The resolution of the Political Bureau on party organization bears an exceptional significance. It indicates that the party has arrived at an important turning point in its historical road. At turning points, as has been rightly pointed out at many meetings, prudence is required; but firmness and resoluteness are required too. Hesitancy and amorphousness would be the worst forms of imprudence in this case.

Inclined to overestimate the role of the apparatus and to underestimate the initiative of the party, some conservative minded comrades criticize the resolution of the Political Bureau. The Central Committee, they say, is assuming impossible obligations; the resolution will only engender illusions and produce negative results. It is clear that such an approach reveals a profound bureaucratic distrust of the party.

The center of gravity, which was mistakenly placed in the apparatus by the “old course,” has now been transferred by the “new course,” proclaimed in the resolution of the Central Committee, to the activity, initiative, and critical spirit of all the party members, as the organized vanguard of the proletariat. The “new course” does not at all signify that the party apparatus is charged with decreeing, creating, or establishing a democratic régime at such and such a date. No. This régime will be realized by the party itself. To put it briefly: the party must subordinate to itself its own apparatus without for a moment ceasing to be a centralized organization. In the debates and articles of recent times, it has been underlined that “pure,” “complete,” “ideal” democracy is not realizable and that in general for us it is not an end in itself. That is incontestable. But it can be stated with just as much reason that pure, absolute centralism is unrealizable and incompatible with the nature of a mass party, and that it can no more be an end in itself than can the party apparatus. Democracy and centralism are two faces of party organization. The question is to harmonize them in the most correct manner, that is, the manner best corresponding to the situation. During the last period there was no such equilibrium. The center of gravity wrongly lodged in the apparatus. The initiative of the party was reduced to the minimum. Thence the habits and procedures of leadership fundamentally contradicting the spirit of a revolutionary proletarian organization. The excessive centralization of the apparatus at the expense of initiative engendered a feeling of uneasiness, an uneasiness which, at the extremities of the party, assumed an exceedingly morbid form and was translated, among other ways, in the appearance of illegal groupings directed by elements undeniably hostile to communism. At the same time, the whole of the party disapproved more and more of apparatus methods of solving questions. The idea, or at the very least the feeling, that bureaucratism threatened to get the party into a blind alley, had become quite general. Voices were raised to point out the danger. The resolution on the “new course” is the first official expression of the change that has taken place in the party. It will be realized to the degree that the party, that is, its 400,000 members, want to realize it and succeed in doing so.

In a number of articles, efforts are being made to demonstrate that in order to give life to the party, it is necessary to begin by raising the level of its members, after which everything else, that is, workers’ democracy, will come of its own accord. It is incontestable that we must raise the ideological level of our party in order to enable it to accomplish the gigantic tasks devolving upon it. But precisely because of this, such a purely pedagogical, professorial way of putting the question is insufficient and hence erroneous. To persist in it cannot fail to aggravate the crisis.

The party cannot raise its level except by accomplishing its essential tasks, and by exercising the kind of collective leadership that displays the initiative of the working class and the proletarian state. The question must be approached not from the pedagogical but from the political point of view. The application of workers’ democracy cannot be made dependent upon the degree of “preparation” of the party members for this democracy. A party is a party. We can make stringent demands upon those who want to enter and stay in it; but once they are members, they participate most actively, by that fact, in all the work of the party.

Bureaucratism kills initiative and thus prevents the elevation of the general level of the party. That is its cardinal defect. As the apparatus is made up inevitably of the most experienced and most meritorious comrades, it is upon the political training of the young communist generations that bureaucratism has its most grievous repercussions. Also, it is the youth, the most reliable barometer of the party, that reacts most vigorously against party bureaucratism.

Nevertheless, it should not be thought that our system of solving questions — settled almost exclusively by the party functionaries — has no influence on the older generation, which incarnates the political experience and the revolutionary traditions of the party. There too the danger is very great. It is not necessary to speak of the immense authority of the group of party veterans, not only in Russia but internationally; that is universally recognized. But it would be a crude mistake to regard it as absolute. It is only by a constant active collaboration with the new generation, within the framework of democracy, that the Old Guard will preserve itself as a revolutionary factor. Of course, it may ossify and become unwittingly the most consummate expression of bureaucratism.

History offers us more than one case of degeneration of the “Old Guard.” Let us take the most recent and striking example: that of the leaders of the parties of the Second International. We know that Wilhelm Liebknecht, Bebel, Singer, Victor Adler, Kautsky, Bernstein, Lafargue, Guesde, and many others were the direct pupils of Marx and Engels. Yet we know that in the atmosphere of parliamentarism and under the influence of the automatic development of the party and the trade union apparatus, all these leaders turned, in whole or in part, to opportunism. We saw that, on the eve of the war, the formidable apparatus of the social democracy, covered with the authority of the old generation, had become the most powerful brake upon revolutionary progress. And we, the “elders,” ought to say to ourselves plainly that our generation, which naturally enjoys the leading role in the party, is not absolutely guaranteed against the gradual and imperceptible weakening of the revolutionary and proletarian spirit in its ranks if the party were to tolerate the further growth and stabilization of bureaucratic methods, which transform the youth into the passive material of education and inevitably create an estrangement between the apparatus and the mass, the old and the young. The party has no other means to employ against this indubitable danger than a serious, profound, radical change of course toward party democracy and an increasingly large flow into its midst of working class elements.

I shall not dwell here upon the juridical definitions of party democracy, nor upon the limits imposed on it by the party statutes. However important they may be, these questions are secondary. We shall examine them in the light of our experience and will introduce into them the necessary modifications. But what must be modified before anything else is the spirit that reigns in our organizations. Every unit of the party must return to collective initiative, to the right of free and comradely criticism without fear and without turning back and to the right of organizational self-determination. It is necessary to regenerate and renovate the party apparatus and to make it feel that it is nothing but the executive mechanism of the collective will.

The party press has recently presented not a few examples that characterize the already ossified bureaucratic degeneration of party morals and relations. The answer to the first word of criticism is: “Let’s have your membership card!” Before the publication of the decision of the Central Committee on the “new course,” merely pointing out the need to modify the internal party régime was regarded by bureaucratized apparatus functionaries as heresy, as factionalism, as an infraction of discipline. And now the bureaucrats are ready formally to “take note” of the “new course,” that is, to nullify it bureaucratically. The renovation of the party apparatus naturally within the clear cut framework of the statutes must aim at replacing the mummified bureaucrats with fresh elements closely linked with the life of the collectivity or capable of assuring such a link. And before anything else, the leading posts must be cleared of those who, at the first word of criticism, of objection, or of protest, brandish the thunderbolts of penalties before the critic. The “new course” must begin by making everyone feel that from now on nobody will dare terrorize the party.

It is entirely insufficient for our youth to repeat our formulas. They must conquer the revolutionary formulas, assimilate them, work out their own opinions, their own character; they must be capable of fighting for their views with the courage which arises out of the depths of conviction and independence of character. Out of the party with passive obedience, with mechanical leveling by the authorities, with suppression of personality, with servility, with careerism! A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own arid defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organization. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.

Yes, our party would be unable to discharge its historic mission if it were chopped up into factions. That should not and will not happen. It will not decompose in this way because, autonomous collectivity that it is, its organism resists it. But it will successfully combat the dangers of factionalism only by developing and consolidating the new course toward workers’ democracy. Bureaucratism of the apparatus is precisely one of the principal sources of factionalism. It ruthlessly represses criticism and drives discontent back into the depths of the organization. It tends to put the label of factionalism upon any criticism, any warning. Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.

Conscious of the situation, the party will accomplish the necessary turn with the firmness and decisiveness demanded by the tasks devolving upon it. By the same token, it will raise its revolutionary unity to a higher level, as a pledge that it will be able to accomplish its immeasurably significant national and international tasks.

I am far from having exhausted the question. I deliberately refrained from examining here several essential aspects, out of fear of taking up too much of your time. But I hope that I shall soon succeed in recovering from malaria which to judge from myself is in clear opposition to the “new course.” Then I hope to be able to do orally what was not possible in this letter more fully to supplement and elaborate my views.

With comradely greetings,
L. Trotsky

P.S. – The publication of this letter in Pravda having been postponed for two days, I take advantage of the delay to add a few supplementary remarks.

I have learned from some comrades that during the reading of my letter to the district meetings, certain comrades expressed the fear that my considerations on the relationships between the “Old Guard” and the young generation might be exploited to counterpose (!) the youth to the old. Unquestionably, this apprehension could have assailed only those who, but two or three months ago, rejected with horror the very idea of the necessity of a change in orientation.

At any rate, to place apprehensions of this type in the foreground at the present moment and in the present situation denotes a lack of understanding of the real dangers and of their relative importance. The present mood of the youth, symptomatic to the highest degree, is engendered precisely by the methods employed to maintain “calm” which are formally condemned by the resolution unanimously adopted by the Political Bureau. In other words, “calm,” as it was understood, threatened the leading layer with increasing estrangement from the younger communists, that is, from the vast majority of the party.

A certain tendency of the apparatus to think and to decide for the whole organization leads to seating the authority of the leading circles exclusively upon tradition. Respect for tradition is incontestably a necessary element of communist training and party cohesion, but it can be a vital factor only if it is nurtured and fortified constantly by an active verification of this tradition, that is, by the collective elaboration of the party’s policy for the present moment. Otherwise, it may degenerate into a purely official sentiment, and be nothing more than a hollow form. Such a link between the generations is obviously insufficient and most fragile. It may appear to be solid right up to the moment when it is ready to break. That is precisely the danger of the policy of “calm” in the party.

And, if the veterans who are not yet bureaucratized, who have still kept a revolutionary spirit alive (that is, we are convinced, the vast majority), become clearly aware of the danger pointed out above and help the party with all their strength to apply the resolution of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, every reason for counterposing the generations in the party will disappear. It would then be relatively easy to calm the passions, the possible “excesses,” of the youth. But what is necessary first of all is to act so that the tradition of the party is not concentrated in the leading apparatus, but lives and is constantly renewed in the daily experience of the organization as a whole. In this way, another danger will be parried: that of the division of the old generation into “functionaries,” charged with maintaining “calm,” and non-functionaries. No longer enclosed within itself, the party apparatus, that is, its organic skeleton, far from being weakened, will find itself growing stronger. And it is beyond dispute that we need in our party a powerful centralized apparatus.

It may perhaps be objected that the example of the degeneration of the social democracy which I cited in my letter is incorrect in view of the profound differences in epochs: yesterday’s stagnant reformism and today’s revolutionary epoch. Naturally, an example is only an example and not at all an identity. Nevertheless, this indiscriminate contrast of epochs does not in itself decide anything. Not for nothing do we point to the dangers of the NEP, which are closely linked with the retardation of the world revolution. Our daily practical state work, which is more and more detailed and specialized, conceals, as the resolution of the Central Committee points out, a danger of the narrowing down of our horizon, that is, of opportunistic degeneration. It is quite plain that these dangers become all the more serious the more bossing by “secretaries” tends to replace the genuine leadership of the party. We would be shabby revolutionists if we were to rely upon the “revolutionary character of the epoch” for the overcoming of our difficulties, and above all of our internal difficulties. This “epoch” must be assisted by the rational realization of the new orientation unanimously proclaimed by the Political Bureau.

To conclude, one more remark. Two or three months ago, when the questions that are the object of the present discussion had not yet appeared on the party’s agenda, some responsible comrades from the provinces shrugged their shoulders indulgently and told themselves that these are Moscow inventions; in the provinces all goes well. Even now this tone is reflected in certain correspondence from the provinces. To contrast the tranquil and reasonable province to the turbulent and contaminated capital, is to display that same bureaucratic spirit we spoke about above. In reality, the Moscow organization is the largest, the strongest, the most vital of all our party organizations. Even at the dullest moments of so-called “calm” (the word is a very expressive one, and should not fail to enter our party history!), its activity has been more intense than anywhere else. If Moscow is distinguished now from other points in Russia, it is only in that it has taken the initiative in reexamining the course of our party. That’s a merit and not a defect. The whole party will follow in its footsteps and will proceed to the necessary reassessment of certain values of the current period. The less the provincial party apparatus resists this movement, the more easily will the local organizations traverse this inevitable stage of fruitful criticism and self-criticism, whose results will be translated into a growth of the cohesion and an elevation of the ideological level of the party.

L. Trotsky

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