Leon Trotsky

The Third International
After Lenin

What Now?

(Part 1)

1. The Aim of This Letter

2. Why Has No Congress of the Comintern Been Convoked for More Than Four Years?

1. The Aim of This Letter

The purpose of this letter is to achieve clarity without suppressing or exaggerating anything. Clarity is the indispensable condition for revolutionary policy.

This attempt to arrive at an understanding can have meaning only if it is free from all traces of reticence, duplicity, and diplomacy. This requires that all things be called by their names, including those which are most unpleasant and grievous for the party. It has been the custom in such cases to raise a hue and cry that the enemy will seize upon the criticism and use it. At the present moment, it would be maladroit to pose the question of whether the class enemy can glean the greatest profit from the policy of the leadership that has led the Chinese revolution to its cruel lest defeats, or from the stifled warnings of the Opposition that have disturbed the false prestige of infallibility.

The same thing might be said on the question of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the grain collections, the kulak in general, and the line followed by the leadership of any communist party. No, it is not the criticism of the Opposition that has retarded the growth of the Comintern during the last five years. The social democracy has no doubt attempted in a number of instances to glean a little profit from the criticisms of the Opposition. It still has enough sense and cunning for that. It would have been strange had it failed to do so. The social democracy at present is a parasitic party, in the broad historical sense of the term. Fulfilling the work of guaranteeing bourgeois society from below, that is to say, protecting it on the essential side, the social democracy during the post-war years, particularly after the year 1923, when it was obviously being reduced to a cipher, has thrived upon the mistakes and oversights of the communist parties, their capitulations at the decisive moments, or, on the other hand, their adventuristic attempts to resuscitate a revolutionary situation which has already passed. The capitulation of the Comintern in the Autumn of 1923, the subsequent stubborn failure of the leadership to understand the import of this colossal defeat, the adventuristic ultra-left line of 1924 to 1925, the gross opportunist policy of 1926 to 1927 – these are what caused the regeneration of the social democracy and enabled it to poll more than nine million votes in the last German elections. To argue, under these conditions, that the social democracy now and then pulls out of its context some critical remark or other of the Opposition, and after slobbering over it offers it to the workers, is really to waste time with bagatelles. The social democracy would not be what it is if it did not go even further, if in the guise of its Left wing – which is as necessary a safety valve in a social democratic party as the party itself is in bourgeois society – it did not express from time to time spurious “sympathies” for the Opposition, in so far as the latter remains a small and suppressed minority and inasmuch as such “sympathies” cost the social democrats nothing and at the same time arouse the responsive sympathies of the workers.

The present social democracy has not and cannot have a line of its own on the fundamental questions. In this domain, its line is dictated by the bourgeoisie. But if the social democracy simply repeated everything said by the bourgeois parties, it would cease to be useful to the bourgeoisie. Upon secondary, intangible, or remote questions, the social democracy not only may but must play with all the colors of the rainbow, including bright red. Moreover, by seizing upon this or that judgment of the Opposition, the social democracy hopes to provoke a split in the communist party. In the eyes of anyone who understands the workings of such a mechanism, the attempts to discredit the Opposition by referring to the fact that some Right wing grafter or Left wing stripling of the social democracy quotes approvingly a sentence from our criticism, must appear in a pitiable ideological light. Basically, however, in all questions of politics that are in the least serious, above all in the questions of China and of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the sympathies of the international social democracy have been on the side of the “realistic” policy of the leadership, and in no wise on ours.

But much more important is the general judgment which the bourgeoisie itself passes on the tendencies struggling within the framework of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern. The bourgeoisie has no reason to dodge or dissemble on this question, and here it must be said that all – even the least – serious, important, and authoritative organs of world imperialism, on both sides of the ocean, consider the Opposition their mortal enemy. Throughout the entire recent period, they have either directly expressed their qualified and prudent sympathy for a number of measures taken by the official leadership, or they have expressed themselves to the effect that the total liquidation of the Opposition, its complete physical annihilation (Austen Chamberlain even demanded the firing squad), is the necessary premise for the “normal evolution” of the Soviet power towards a bourgeois regime. Even from memory, without having any sources for reference at our disposal, we can point to numerous declarations of this type: the Information Bulletin of French heavy industry (Jan. 1927), the pronouncements of the London and New York Times, the declaration of Austen Chamberlain, which was reprinted by many publications, including the American weekly, The Nation, etc. The fact alone has been sufficient to compel our official party press, after its initial and not entirely successful attempts, to stop entirely reprinting the judgments passed by our class enemies upon the crisis which our party has undergone during the last months and is still undergoing. These declarations have emphasized much too sharply the revolutionary class nature of the Opposition.

We believe, therefore, that a great deal would be gained for the cause of clarity, if by the time the Sixth Congress convened two conscientiously collated books were published: a White Book containing the judgments of the serious capitalist press with regard to the controversies in the Comintern, and a Yellow Book with parallel judgments of the social democracy.

In any case, the fake bogey of the possible attempts on the part of the social democrats to involve themselves in our disputes will not keep us for a moment from pointing out clearly and precisely what we consider to be fatal for the policy of the Comintern, and what, in our opinion, is salutary. We will be able to crush it, not by resorting to diplomacy, not by playing hide-and-seek, but by means of that correct revolutionary policy which is still to be elaborated.

*  *  *

At this time, with the publication of the draft program, all the fundamental theoretical and practical problems of the international proletarian revolution must naturally be examined in the light of the new draft. In fact, the task of the latter consists in furnishing, along with a theoretic method of handling the problems to be considered, a generalized verification and appraisal of all the experience already acquired by the Comintern. It is only by viewing the problem in this way that me can succeed in checking up and in arriving at a healthy judgment of the draft itself, in establishing the extent of its accuracy with regard to principles and the degree of its completeness and viability. We have formulated this criticism, in so far as it could be done in the very limited amount of time at our disposal, in a special document devoted to the draft program. The fundamental problems which it seemed to us most essential to illumine in our criticism, we grouped into the three following chapters:

  1. The Program of the International Revolution or the Program of Socialism in One Country?
  2. The Strategy and Tactics of the Imperialist Epoch.
  3. Balance and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution, Its Lessons for the Countries of the East and for the Communist International as a Whole.

We have endeavored to analyze these problems by examining the living experience of the international workers’ movement and more particularly that of the Comintern during the last five years. From it we drew the conclusion that the new draft is completely inconsistent, shot through with eclecticism in its principled theses, lacking in system, incomplete, and patchy in its exposition. The section dealing with strategy is primarily characterized by its tendency to avoid the profound and tragic questions of revolutionary experience in the last few years.

We shall not here return to the questions examined in the document already sent to the Congress. The aim of the present letter is altogether different, as can readily be seen from what has been said above. It has to do, let us say, with conjuncture and policy: in the general perspective, we must find what is the exact place occupied by the Leftward turn now officially effected, in order to make it a point of departure for the rapprochement of tendencies existing in the Communist Party of the USSR and in the Comintern, which up to yesterday were drawing further and further apart. Obviously, there can be no question of a rapprochement save on the basis of perfect clarity in ideas and not at all on that of flattery or of bureaucratic Byzantinism.

This turn has manifested itself most crassly by far in the internal problems of the USSR, whence came the impulsion which produced it. We therefore intend to devote this letter mainly to problems of the crisis in the CPSU, which is a result of the crisis in the Soviet revolution. But since, while examining the cardinal questions of the evolution of the workers’ state we cannot in any way “abstract ourselves from the international factor,” which is of decisive importance in all our internal developments and problems, we are compelled, in this letter also, to characterize briefly the conditions and methods of work of the Comintern, by repeating certain of our theses devoted to the draft program.

As a conclusion to these introductory observations, I wish to express my firm conviction that the criticism of the draft program, as well as the present letter to the congress, will be brought to the attention of all the members of the congress. I have an indefeasible right to that, if only because the Fifth Congress elected me an alternate on the Executive Committee. This letter, considered formally, is a statement of the reasons for my appeal against the unjust decisions that have deprived me of the rights and duties with which I was charged at the supreme order of the Comintern.

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2. Why Has No Congress of the Comintern Been Convoked for More Than Four Years?

More than four years have elapsed since the Fifth World Congress. During this period, the line of the leadership has been radically altered, together with the composition of the leadership of different sections, as well as of the Comintern as a whole. The chairman elected by the Fifth Congress has been not only deposed but even expelled from the party, and readmitted only on the eve of the Sixth Congress. All this was effected without the participation of a congress, although there were no objective obstacles to prevent its being convoked. In the most vital questions of the world working class movement and of the Soviet republic, the Congress of the Comintern proved to be superfluous; it was adjourned from year to veer as an obstacle and a dead weight. It was convoked only at a time when the conclusion was reached that the congress would be confronted with entirely accomplished facts.

According to the letter and spirit of democratic centralism, the congress should occupy a decisive place in the life of the party. This life has always found its supreme expression in the congresses, their preparation, and their work. At the present time, the congresses have become a dead weight and an onerous formality. The Fifteenth Congress of the CPSU was arbitrarily postponed for more than a year. The Congress of the Comintern has convened after a lapse of four years. And what years! In the course of these four years, filled with the greatest historical events and most profound differences in views, plenty of time was found for countless bureaucratic congresses and conferences, for the utterly rotten conferences of the Anglo-Russian Committee, for the congresses of the decorative League of Struggle Against Imperialism, for the jubilee theatrical congress of the Friends of the Soviet Union’the only time and place that could not be found was for the three regular congresses of the Communist International.

During the civil war and the blockade, when the foreign delegates had to overcome unprecedented difficulties, and when some of them lost their lives en route, the congresses of the CPSU and of the Comintern convened regularly in conformance with the statutes and the spirit of the proletarian party. Why is this not being done now? To pretend that we are now too busy with “practical” work is simply to recognize that the mind and the will of the party hinder the work of the leadership and that the congresses are a fetter in the most serious and important affairs. This is the road of the bureaucratic liquidation of the party.

Formally, during these last four years and more, all questions have been decided by the ECCI or by the Presidium; as a matter of fact, however, they were decided by the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or rather, to be more precise, by the Secretariat, basing itself upon the party apparatus that depends upon it. In question here is not, of course, the ideological influence of the CPSU This influence was infinitely greater under Lenin than it is today, and it had a mighty creative importance. No, what is in question here is the almighty Secretariat of the CEC of the CPSU, functioning purely behind the scenes – a phenomenon of which there was not even a sign under Lenin and against which Lenin strictly warned in the last advice he gave to the party.

The Comintern has been proclaimed the only international party to which all national sections are completely subordinated. In this question Lenin played the role of moderator to the end of his days. On more than one occasion he warned against centralist predilections on the part of the leadership, fearing that, if the political pre-conditions were lacking, centralism would degenerate into bureaucratism. The development of the political and ideological maturity of the communist parties has its own internal rhythm, based on their own experiences. The existence of the Comintern and the decisive role played in it by the CPSU can accelerate this rhythm. But this acceleration can be conceived only within certain imperative limits. When they are overstepped by attempts to substitute strictly administrative measures for independent activity, for self-criticism, for the capacity of self-orientation, directly opposite results may be attained, and in a whole series of cases such directly opposite results have been reached. Nevertheless, when Lenin ceased working, the ultra-centralist manner of handling questions was the one which triumphed. The Executive Committee was proclaimed as the central committee with full powers in the united world party, responsible only to the congresses of the world party. But what do we see in reality? The congresses were not called precisely when they were most needed: the Chinese revolution by itself would have justified the calling of two congresses. Theoretically, the Executive Committee is a powerful center of the world workers’ movement; in reality, during the past few years it has been repeatedly revamped in a ruthless fashion. Certain of its members, elected by the Fifth Congress, who played a leading role within it, were deposed. The same thing took place in all the sections of the Comintern, or at least in the most important ones. Who was it, then, that revamped the Executive Committee, which is responsible only to the congress, if the latter was not convoked? The answer is quite clear. The directing nucleus of the CPSU, whose personnel was changing, selected each time anew the members of the Executive Committee, in complete disregard of the statutes of the Comintern and the decisions of the Fifth Congress.

The changes effected in the directing nucleus of the CPSU itself were likewise always introduced in some unexpected fashion, behind the back not only of the Comintern, but of the CPSU itself, in the interval between congresses and independent of the latter, by means of physical force on the part of the apparatus.

The “art” of leadership consisted of confronting the party with a fait accompli. Then the congress, postponed in conformity with the workings of the mechanism operating behind the scenes, was selected in a manner corresponding rigorously with the new composition of the leadership. At the same time the directing nucleus of the preceding day, elected by the previous congress, was simply labeled as an “anti-party summit.”

It would take too long to enumerate all the most important stages of this process. I shall limit myself to citing a single fact, but one which is worth a dozen. The Fifth Congress, not only from the formal point of view, but in fact as well, was headed by the Zinoviev group. It is precisely this group that gave the fundamental tone to this congress, by its struggle against so-called “Trotskyism.” The needs engendered behind the scenes and the machinations of this struggle contributed in great measure to creating the deviation in the entire orientation of the congress. This became the source of tile greatest errors during the years that followed. They are discussed in detail elsewhere. Here we need only single out the fact that the leading faction of the Fifth Congress was unable to maintain itself until the Sixth Congress in any party of the Comintern. As for the central group of this faction, it affirmed, in the person of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sokolnikov, and others, in the declaration of July 1926, that “at the present time there can no longer be any doubt that the principal nucleus of the Opposition of 1923 correctly warned against the dangers of deviating from the proletarian line and against the menacing growth of the apparatus regime.”

But that is not all. At the time of the joint Plenum of the Central Committee and of the Central Control Commission (July 14-23, 1926), Zinoviev, the director and inspirer of the Fifth Congress, declared – and this stenographic declaration was published again by the Central Committee before the Fifteenth Party Congress – that he, Zinoviev, considered as “the principal errors committed during his life,” the following two: his mistake of 1917 and his struggle against the Opposition of 1923.

“I consider,” said Zinoviev, “the second error as being more dangerous, for the mistake of 1917, committed during Lenin’s life, was rectified by Lenin ... whereas my error of 1923 consisted in the fact that ...”

ORDJONIKIDZE: “Then why did you stuff the heads of everyone in the party? ...”

ZINOVIEV: “Yes, in the question of the deviation and in the question of bureaucratic oppression by the apparatus, Trotsky proved to be correct as against you.”

But the question of back-sliding, that is to say of the political line, and that of the party regime, completely comprise the sum total of the divergences. Zinoviev, in 1926, concluded that the Opposition of 1923 was right on these questions, and that the greatest error of his life, greater even than his resistance to the October overturn, was the struggle he conducted in 1923-1925 against “Trotskyism.” Nevertheless, in the course of the last few days, the newspapers have published a decision of the Central Control Commission re-admitting Zinoviev and Co. into the party, as they had “renounced their Trotskyist follies.” This whole, absolutely incredible episode, which will seem like the work of some satirist to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren – although it is completely attested by documents – would perhaps not warrant mention in this letter if it concerned only a person or a group, if the affair were not intimately bound up with the ideological struggle that has been waged in the Comintern for the past few years, if it had not grown organically from the same conditions that permitted dispensing with the congress for four years, that is to say, by virtue of the unrestricted power of bureaucratic methods.

At the present time, the ideology of the Comintern is not guided but manufactured to order. Theory, ceasing to be an instrument of knowledge and foresight, has become an administrative technical tool. Certain views are attributed to the Opposition and on the basis of these “views” the Opposition is judged. Certain individuals are associated with “Trotskyism” and are subsequently recalled as if it were a matter of functionaries constituting the personnel of a chancellery. The case of Zinoviev is not at all exceptional. It is simply more outstanding than the others, for after all no less a person than the ex-chairman of the Comintern is involved, the director and inspirer of the Fifth Congress.

Ideological upheavals of this type inevitably accompany organizational upheavals, which always come from above and which have already been constituted into a system, forming in a way the normal regime not only of the CPSU but also of other parties in the Comintern. The official reasons for deposing an undesirable leadership rarely coincide with the true motives. Duplicity in the domain of ideas is an inevitable consequence of the complete bureaucratization of the regime. More than once in the course of these years have the leading elements of the communist parties in Germany, France, England, America, Poland, etc., resorted to monstrous opportunist measures. But they went completely unpunished, for they were protected by the position they took on the internal questions of the CPSU To vote, and even more, to howl against the Opposition, is to insure oneself against any blows from above. As for the blows which might come from below, a guarantee against them is furnished by the fact that the apparatus is free from any control.

The latest instances are still very fresh in everybody’s mind. Up to very recently, the Chinese leadership of Chen Tu-hsiu, of Tang Ping-shan, and Co., completely Menshevik, enjoyed the full support of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, as against the criticism of the Opposition. There is nothing astonishing in that: at the time of the Seventh Plenum of the ECCI, Tang Ping-shan swore that:

“... At the very first appearance of Trotskyism, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Youth unanimously adopted a resolution against Trotskyism.” [1]

An enormous role is played in the ECCI itself and within its apparatus by elements which resisted and hindered, in so far as they were able, the proletarian revolution in Russia, Finland, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and other countries, but who, in good time, made up for this by presenting their credentials in the struggle against “Trotskyism.” Tang Ping-shan is only the disciple of these elements; if abuse is heaped on him, while his masters are able to evade it, it is because the irresponsible regime requires an occasional scapegoat.

It is unfortunately impossible not alone to dispute, but even to endeavor to soften the formal assertion that the most outstanding, the most general, and at the same time, the most perilous characteristic trait of the last five years has been the gradual and increasingly accelerated growth of bureaucratism and of the arbitrariness which is linked with it, not only in the CPSU but in the Comintern as a whole.

The ignoring of and trampling upon statutes, the continual creation of upheavals in the organization and in the domain of ideas, the postponement of congresses, and conferences which are each time confronted with accomplished facts, the growth of arbitrariness’all this can not be accidental, all this must have profound causes.

It would be unworthy of Marxism to explain these phenomena solely or principally on personal grounds, as the struggle of cliques for power, etc. It goes without saying that all factors of this kind play an important role (see the Testament of Lenin). But involved here is so profound and so prolonged a process that its causes must be not only psychological but political as well, and so indeed they are.

The principal source of the bureaucratization of the whole regime of the CPSU and the Comintern, lies in the ever increasing gap between the political line of the leadership and the historical line of the proletariat. The less these two lines have coincided, the more the line of the leadership has revealed itself refuted by events, the harder it has been to apply the line by resorting to party measures, by exposing it to criticism, and the more it has had to he imposed on the party from above, by measures of the apparatus and even of the state.

But the growth of the gap between the line of the leadership and the historical line of the proletariat, that is to say, the Bolshevik line, can occur only under the pressure of non-proletarian classes. This pressure, considered generally, has grown to extraordinary proportions in the course of the last five years, cutting across violent oscillations in both directions, throughout the world as well as inside the USSR. The more the apparatus freed itself from the criticism and control of its own party, so much the more did the leadership become susceptible and conciliatory to the aspirations and suggestions of non-proletarian classes, transmitted through the medium of the apparatus. This operated to shift the political line still further to the Right and consequently required even harsher bureaucratic measures in order to impose it on the proletarian vanguard.

The process of political back-sliding was thus inevitably completed by organizational repressive measures. Under these conditions the leadership refused absolutely to tolerate Marxian criticism any longer. The bureaucratic regime is “formalistic”; scholasticism is the ideology most suitable to it. The last five years constitute in their entirety a period devoted to the scholastic distortion of Marxism and Leninism, to their slavish adaptation to the requirements of political back-sliding and the spirit of bureaucratic usurpation. “Allow the kulak to grow into socialism,” “enrich yourselves!” the recommendations “not to leap over stages,” the “bloc of four classes,” the “two-class parties,” “socialism in one country"’all these ideas and slogans of Centrism sliding to the Right have inevitably engendered the application of articles of the Penal Code against the real disciples of Marx and of Lenin.

It goes without saying that the Marxian interpretation of the causes of scholastic impoverishment, of the progress of bureaucratism and arbitrariness, does not in the least absolve the leadership from personal responsibility, but on the contrary makes that responsibility even greater.

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1. Minutes, p.805.

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Last updated on: 14.4.2007