Leon Trotsky

Trotsky on the Workers’ State

Our Differences with
the Democratic Centralists

Letter to Borodai

(End of 1928)

Written: End of 1928.
Published: The New International [New York], Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 124–127.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Damon Maxwell, July 2008.
Proofreading: Einde O’Callaghan (May 2015).
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Dear Comrade Borodai:

I have just received after almost a month’s delay, your letter of October 12 from Tyumen. I am replying immediately by return mail, in view of the importance of the questions you put to me. Taking your point of departure from the standpoint of the Democratic-Centralist group to which you belong, you put seven questions and demand that the answers given be “clear and concrete” and “not nebulous.” An altogether legitimate wish. Only, our way of being concrete should be dialectical, that is, encompass the living dynamics of evolution and not substitute ready-made labels which, at first sight, seem very “clear” but are in reality false and devoid of content. Your way of putting the questions is purely formal: yes, yes – no , no. Your questions must first be put upon a Marxian basis in order that correct replies may be made.

1. After setting forth the character of the social composition of the party and its apparatus, you ask: “Has the party degenerated? That is the first question.” You demand a “clear” and “concrete” reply: Yes, it has degenerated. However, I cannot answer that way, for at present our party, both socially and ideologically, is extremely heterogeneous. It includes nuclei that are entirely degenerated, others that are still healthy but amorphous, others that have hardly been affected by degeneration, etc. The regime of apparatus oppression, which reflects the pressure of other classes upon the proletariat, and the decline of the spirit of activity of the proletariat itself, renders very difficult a daily check upon the degree of degeneration of the various strata and nuclei of the party and of its apparatus. But this check can and will be achieved by activity, especially by our active intervention in the internal life of the party, by mobilizing tirelessly its living and viable elements. Naturally, such intervention is out of the question if the point of departure is that the party as a whole has degenerated, that the party is a corpse. With such an evaluation of the party, it is absurd to address oneself to it, and still more absurd to wait tor it, or for this or that section of it, that is, primarily, for its proletarian kernel, to heed or to understand you. To conquer this kernel, however, is to conquer the party. This kernel does not consider itself – and quite rightly – either dead or degenerated. It is upon it, upon its tomorrow, that we base our political line. We will patiently explain our tasks to it, basing ourselves upon experience and facts. In every cell and at every worker's meeting, we will denounce as a falsehood the calumny of the apparatus which says that we are plotting to create a second party; we shall state that a second party is being built up by the Ustrialov-people [1] in the apparatus, hiding behind the Centrists; as for us, we want to cleanse Lenin’s party of the Ustrialovist and semi-Ustrialovist elements; we want to do this hand in hand with the proletarian kernel which, aided by the active elements of the proletariat as a whole, can still become master of the party and save the Revolution from death, by means of a profound proletarian reform in every field.

2. “Is the degeneration of the apparatus and of the Soviet power a fact? That is the second question,” you write.

Everything that has been said above applies equally to this question. There is no doubt that the degeneration of the Soviet apparatus is considerably more advanced, than the same process in the party apparatus. Nevertheless, it is the party that decides. At present, this means: the party apparatus. The question thus comes down to the same thing: Is the proletarian kernel of the party, assisted by the working class, capable of triumphing over the autocracy of the party apparatus which is fusing with the state apparatus? Whoever replies in advance that it is incapable, thereby speaks not only of the necessity of a new party on a new foundation, but also of the necessity of a second and new proletarian revolution. It goes without saying that it can in no way be stated that such a perspective is out of the question under all circumstances. However, it is not a question of historical divination, but rather of not surrendering to the enemy but – on the contrary – of reviving and consolidating the October Revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Has this road been tried to the very end? Not at all. At bottom, the methodical work of the Bolshevik-Leninists to mobilize the proletarian kernel of the party in the new historical stage has only begun.

The arid reply – “Yes, it has degenerated” – that you would like to get to your question about the degeneration of the Soviet power, would contain no clarity in itself and would open up no perspective. What we have here is a developing, contradictory process, which can be concluded in any way or the other by virtue of the struggle of living forces. Our participation in this struggle will have no small importance in deter-mining its outcome.

3. “Taking the present situation in the country and the party as a whole, do we still have a dictatorship of the working class? And who possesses the hegemony in the party and in the country? That is the third question,” you ask further.

From the preceding replies it is clear that you put this question also inexactly, not dialectically but scholastically. It is precisely Bukharin who presented this question to us dozens of time in the form of a scholastic alternative: Either we have the Thermidor and then you, Opposition, should be defeatists and not partisans of defense, or, if you are really partisans of defense, then acknowledge that all the speeches about Thermidor are nothing but chatter. Here, comrade, you fall completely into the trap of Bukharinist scholastics. Along with him, you want to have “clear,” that is, completely finished social facts. The developing, contradictory process appears “nebulous” to you. What do we have in reality? We have a strongly advanced process of duality of power in the country. Has power passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie? Obviously not. Has power slipped out of the hands of the proletariat? To a certain degree, to a considerable degree, but still far from decisively. This is what explains the monstrous predominance of the bureaucratic apparatus oscillating between the classes. But this state apparatus depends, through the medium of the party apparatus, upon the party, that is, upon its proletarian kernel, on condition that the latter is active and has a correct orientation and leadership. And that is where our task lies.

A state of duality of power is unstable, by its very essence. Sooner or later, it must go one way or the other. But as the situation is now, the bourgeoisie could seize power only by the road of counter-revolutionary upheaval. As for the proletariat, it can regain full power, renovate the bureaucracy and put it under its control by the road of reform of the party and the Soviets. These are the fundamental characteristics of the situation.

Your Kharkov colleagues, from what I am informed, have addressed themselves to the workers with an appeal based upon the false idea that the October Revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat are already liquidated. This manifesto, false in essence, has done the greatest harm to the Opposition. Such declarations must be resolutely and implacably condemned. That is the bravado of adventurers and not the revolutionary spirit of Marxists.

4. Quoting from my Postscript on the July victory of the Right wing over the Center [2] you ask: “Are you thus putting entirely within quotation marks ‘the Left course’ and the ‘shift’ that you once proposed to support with all forces and all means? That is the fourth question.”

This is a downright untruth on your part. Never and nowhere have I spoken of a Left course. I spoke of a “shift” and a “Left zig-zag,” contrasting this conception to a consistent proletarian line. Never and nowhere have I proposed to support the alleged Left course of the Centrists, nor did I promise to support it. But I did propose and promise to support by all means every step that Centrism really took toward the Left, no matter if it was a halt-measure, without ceasing for a single instant to criticize and unmask Centrism as the fundamental obstacle in the way of awakening the spirit of activity of the proletarian kernel of the party. My “Postscript” was precisely a document exposing the political capitulation of the Centrists to the Right wing during the July Plenum. But I did not and I do not hold that the history of the development of the party and particularly the history of the struggle of the Center against the Right wing came to an end at the July Plenum. We are right now witnesses of a new Centrist campaign against the Right-wingers. We must become independent participants in this campaign. Naturally we see right through all the hypocrisy and duplicity, the perfidious half-wayness of the apparatus in the Stalinist struggle against the Right-wingers. But behind this struggle we see profound class forces which seek to break a path for themselves through the party and its apparatus. The driving force of the Right wing is the new evolving proprietor who seeks a link with world capitalism; our Right-wingers are timid and mark time, for they do not yet dare to straddle this warhorse openly. The functionary of the party, the trade unions and other institutions, is the rampart of the Centrists: in spite of everything, he depends upon the working masses and seems to be obliged in recent times to take these masses into account more and more: hence, the “self-criticism” and “the struggle against the Right.” It is thus that the class struggle is refracted and distorted, but nevertheless manifested in this struggle; by its pressure, it can transform the quarrel between the Centrists and the Right-wingers in the apparatus into a very important stage in the awakening and enlivening of the party and the working class. We would be pitiable imbeciles if we took the present campaign against the Right-wingers seriously. But we would, on the other hand, be pitiful scholiasts and sectarian wiseacres if we failed to understand that hundreds of thousands of workers, party members, do believe in it, if not 100 per cent then at least fifty or twenty-five per cent. They are not yet with us, to be sure. Do not forget that, do not become ensnared in sectarian trivia. Centrism holds on not only because of the oppression of the apparatus, but also because of the confidence or the half-confidence of a certain part of the worker-party members. These workers who support the Centrists will enter the struggle against the Right much more readily than they did in the struggle against the Opposition, when they had to be dragged along with a rope around their neck. A serious and intelligent Oppositionist will say, in any workers’ cell, in any workers’ meeting: “We are summoned to fight against the Right wing – that’s a wonderful thing. We have called on you to do this for a long time. And if you’re thinking of fighting seriously against the Right wing, you can count upon us to the limit. We will be no strikebreakers. On the contrary, we’ll be in the front lines. Only, let us really fight. The leaders of the Right wing must be named out loud, their Right-wing deeds must be enumerated, etc.” In a word, the Oppositionist will push the proletarian kernel of the party forward like a Bolshevik, and he will not turn his back upon it on the pretext that the party has degenerated.

5. “Is it still possible to entertain illusions about the ability to defend the interests of the revolution and of the working class? That is the fifth question.”

You put the fifth question just as inexactly as the first four. To entertain illusions about the Centrists means to sink into Centrism yourself. But to shut your eyes to the mass processes that drive the Centrists to the Left means to enclose yourself within a sectarian shell. As if it was a matter of whether Stalin and Molotov are capable of returning to the road of proletarian policy. In any case, they are incapable of doing it by themselves. They have proved it completely. But it is not a question of divining the future fate of the various members of the Stalinist staff. That doesn’t interest us at all. In this field, all sorts of “surprises” are possible. Didn’t the former leader of the Democratic-Centralists, Ossinsky, become an extreme Right-winger, for example? ... The correct question is this: Are the tens and hundreds of thousands of workers, party members and members of the Communist Youth, who are at present actively, half-actively or passively supporting the, Stalinists, capable of redressing themselves, of reawakening, of welding their ranks together “to defend the interests of the revolution and of the working class”? To this, I answer: Yes, this they are capable of doing. They will be capable of doing this tomorrow or the day after if we know how to approach them correctly; if we show them that we do not look upon them as corpses; it, like Bolsheviks, we support every step, every half-step, they take toward us; if, in addition, we not only do not entertain “illusions” about the Centrist leadership but expose them implacable, by dint of the daily experience of the struggle. At the moment, it must be done by the experience of the struggle against the Right wing.

6. After characterizing the Sixth Congress [of the Communist International] and describing certain phenomena inside the party, you write: “Is not all this the Thermidor with the dry guillotine? That is the sixth question.”

This question has been answered concretely enough above. Once more, do not believe that Bukharinist scholastics, turned upside down, is Marxism.

7. “Do you personally,” you ask me, “intend to continue in the future to call the comrades belonging to the Group of Fifteen by the splendid epithet of ‘honest revolutionists,’ and at the same time to separate yourself from them? Is it not time to terminate the petty quarrel? Is it not time to ponder the consolidation of the forces of the Bolshevik guard? That is the seventh and last question.”

Unfortunately, this question is not put quite correctly either. It is not I who separated myself from the Democratic-Centralists, but it is this grouping that separated itself from the Opposition as a whole to which it belonged. It is on this ground that a subsequent split took place in the Democratic-Centralist group itself. That is the past. Let us take the very latest phase, when the most serious exchange of opinions took place among the exiled Opposition, resulting in the elaboration of a whole series of responsible documents that received the support of 99 per cent of the Opposition. Here, too, the representatives of the Democratic-Centralists, without contributing anything essential to this work, once more separated themselves from us, by showing themselves to be more papist than the Pope, that is, than Safarov. [3] After all this, you ask me if I intend to continue in the future to “separate” myself from the Democratic-Centralists! No, you approach this question from the wrong end. You represent things as if, in the past, the Zinovievs, the Kamenevs and the Pyatakovs, hindered the unification. You are mistaken on this score, too. One might conclude from your remarks that we, the 1923 Opposition, were for the unification with the Zinovievists, and the Democratic-Centralist group was against. On the contrary. We were much more cautious in this question and we were much more insistent in the matter of guarantees. The initiative for the unification came from the Democratic-Centralists.

The first conferences with the Zinovievists took place under the chairmanship of Comrade Sapronov. [4] I do not say this as a reproach at all, for the bloc was necessary and a step forward. But “our yesterdays must not be distorted.” After the Democratic-Centralist group separated itself from the Opposition, Zinoviev was always for a new unification with it; he raised the question dozens of times. As for myself, I spoke up against it. What were my reasons? I said: We need the unification, but a lasting and serious unification. If, however, the Democratic-Centralist group split away from us at the first clash, we ought not rush into new corridor-fusions, but leave it to experience to check the policies and either deepen the split or prepare the conditions for a genuine, serious, durable unification. I hold that the experience of 1927–28 ought to have shown how absurd were the suspicions and insinuations of the Democratic-Centralist leaders toward the 1923 Opposition. I counted above all on the principled documents we addressed to the Sixth Congress facilitating the unification of our ranks. That is what did happen in the case of a number of comrades of the Democratic-Centralists. But the recognized leaders of your group did everything in their power not only to deepen and sharpen the differences of opinion but also to poison relations completely. For my own part, I take the writings of V. Smirnov calmly enough. But in recent times I have received dozens of letters from comrades who are indignant to the highest degree over the character of these writings, which sound as if they were specially calculated to prevent a coming-together and to maintain at all costs a separate chapel with a pastor of its own.

But apart from the whole past history of who separated from whom, of how it was done, of who honestly wants unity in our ranks and who seeks to keep a parish of his own, there still remains the whole question of the basis in ideas of this unification.

On this score, Comrade Rafael wrote me on September 28:

“Our friends of the Group of Fifteen have begun to conduct a furious campaign especially against you, and there is a touching harmony between the editorial in Bolshevik [5], No. 16, and Vladimir Mikhailovich Smirnov and other comrades of the Group of Fifteen. The fundamental error of these comrades is the fact that they attribute too great value to purely formal decisions and combinations in the upper spheres, particularly to the decisions of the July Plenum. They do not see the forest for the trees. Naturally, these decisions are, during a certain phase of development, the reflection of a certain relationship of forces. But in any case, they cannot be looked upon as determining the outcome of the struggle that continues and will continue for a long time. Not a single one of the problems that provoked the crisis has been resolved; the contradictions have accentuated. Even the official editorial in Pravda, on September 18, had to acknowledge this. In spite of the ‘steel hammer’ that drives an ‘aspen-wedge’ into the Opposition every day (how many times already), the Opposition lives and has the will to live; it has cadres tempered in battle, and what cadres! To draw, at such a moment, conclusions like those of the Group of Fifteen, is false to the bottom and exceptionally harmful. These conclusions create a demoralizing state of mind, instead of organizing the working class and the proletarian kernel of the party. The position of the Fifteen cannot but be passive, for if the working class and its vanguard have already surrendered all their positions and conquests without a struggle, then on whom and on what can these comrades count? You do not organize the masses to revive a ‘corpse,’ and as to a new struggle, given the situation of the working class as they picture it to themselves, the time it will take is much too long and this will lead inevitably to the position of Shiyapnikov.”

I think Comrade Rafael is perfectly right in characterizing the situation the way he does.

You write that the proletariat does not like nebulous half-measures and diplomatic evasions. That is right. And that’s the reason why you must finally cast up a balance. If the party is a corpse, a new party must be built on a new spot, and the working class must be told about it openly. If Thermidor is completed, and if the dictatorship of the proletariat is liquidated, the banner of the second proletarian revolution must be unfurled. That is how we would act if the road of reform, for which, we stand, proved hopeless. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Democratic-Centralists are up to their ears in nebulous half-measures and diplomatic evasions. They criticize our road of reform in a very “Left” manner – a road which, I hope, we have shown by deeds is not at all the road of Stalinist legality; but they do not show the working masses any other road. They content themselves with sectarian mutterings against us, and count meanwhile on spontaneous movements. Should this line be reinforced, it would not only destroy your whole group, which contains not a few good and devoted revolutionists, but like all sectarianism and adventurism, it would render the best service to the Right-Centrist tendencies, that is, in the long run, to bourgeois restoration. That is why, dear comrade, before uniting – and I am for unification with all my heart – it is necessary to establish the ideological delimitations, based upon a clear and principled line. It is a good old Bolshevik rule.


With communist greetings,


1. N. Ustrialov – bourgeois professor – expert employed at that time in a Soviet economic institution. Advocated support of bureaucracy against Opposition in the expectation that Right-wing elements of former would lead to the restoration of capitalism. – Trans.

2. Reference to the July 1928 Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, at which the Right wing (Rykov) won an apparent, but actually a deceptive and short-lived victory over the Center (Stalin) on policy in agriculture. – Trans.

3. Extreme Left-wing leader of the Zinovievist section of the Opposition, and one of the last of the “Leningraders” to capitulate. Later murdered in the Moscow Trials frame-up. – Trans.

4. Leader of the Democratic-Centralists, who initiated the Opposition bloc in 1928, composed of the 1923 Opposition (Trotsky), the Leningrad Opposition (Zinoviev), the Workers’ Opposition (Shlyapnikov) and the Democratic-Centralists. – Trans.

5. Official theoretical organ of the CPSU – Stalinist, of course. – Trans.

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Last updated on: 25 May 2015