Leon Trotsky

Bureaucratic Ultimatism

(January 1932)

Written: 27 January 1932.
Extract from What Next – Vital Questions for the German Proletariat.
Source: The Militant, Vol. V No. 18 (Whole No. 114), 30 April 1932, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

(Continued from last issue)

Instead of aiding the social democratic workers to find their way through experience, the C.E.C. of the Communist party abets the leaders of the social democracy against the workers. The Welses and the Hilferdings are enabled to screen with flying colors their own unwillingness to fight, their dread of fighting, their inability to fight by citing the aversion of the Communist party for participating in a common struggle. The stubborn, doltish and insensate rejection by the Communist party of the policies of the United Front provides the social democracy, under the present conditions, with its most important political weapon. This is just the reason why the social democracy – with the parasitism inherent in its nature – snaps up our criticism of the ultimatistic policies of Stalin-Thaelmann.

The official leaders of the Comintern are now expatiating with profound demeanor upon the need to elevate the theoretical level of the party and to study “the history of Bolshevism”. Actually “the level” is falling constantly, the lessons of Bolshevism are forgotten, distorted and trampled under foot. In the meantime, it is by no means difficult to find in the history of the Russian party the precursor of the present policy of the German C.E.C.: he is none other than the deceased Bogdanov, the founder of ultimatism or of “the up-and-outers” (Otzovists). As far back as 1905 he deemed it impossible for the Bolsheviks to participate in the Petrograd Soviet, unless the Soviet recognized beforehand the leadership of the Social Democrats. Under Bogdanov’s influence, the Petrograd Bureau of the C.E.C. (Bolsheviks) passed a resolution in October 1905: to submit before the Petrograd Soviet the demand that it recognize the leadership of the party; and in event of refusal – to walk out of the Soviet. Krassikov, a young lawyers in those days a member of the C.E.C. (Bolsheviks), read this ultimatum at the plenary session of the Soviet. The worker deputies, among them Bolsheviks also, exchanged surprised looks and then passed on to the business in the order of the day. Not a man walked out of the Soviet. Shortly after that Lenin arrived from abroad, and he raked the ultimatists over the coals mercilessly. “You can’t – he lectured them – nor can any one else by means of ultimatums force the masses to skip the necessary phases of their own political development.”

Bogdanov, however, did not discard his methodology, and he subsequently founded an entire faction of “ultimatists” or “up-and-outers” (Otzovists): they received the latter nickname because of heir tendency to call upon the Bolsheviks to get up and get out from all those organizations that refused to accept the ultimatum laid down from above: “you must first accept our leadership.” The ultimatists attempted to apply their policy not only to the Soviets but also in the parliamentary sphere and to the trade unions, in short, to all legal and semi-legal organizations of the working class.

Lenin’s fight against ultimatism was a fight for the correct interrelation between the party and the class. The ultimatists, in the old Bolshevik party, never played a role of the slightest importance, otherwise the victory of Bolshevism would not have been possible. The strength of Bolshevism lay in its wide awake and sensitive relation to the class. Lenin continued his fight against ultimatism even when he was in supreme command, in particular and especially, as regards the attitude to the trade unions.

“Indeed, if now in Russia,” he wrote, “after two and a half years of unheard of victories over the bourgeoisie of Russia and of the Entente, we were to place before the trade unions as a condition for their joining us that they ‘recognize the dictatorship’ we would be guilty of stupidity, we would impair our influence over the masses, we would aid the mensheviks. For the task of the Communists consists in being able to convince the backward to know how to work among them and not to fence ourselves from them by a barrier of fictitious and puerile ‘left’ slogans”. (The Infantile Disease of “Leftism”)

This holds all the more for the Communist parties of the West, which represent only a minority of the working class.

During the last few years, however, the situation in the U.S.S.R. has changed radically. The arming of the Communist party with sovereignty means the introduction of a new element into the interrelation between the vanguard and the class: into this relation there enters the element of force. Lenin’s struggle against party and Soviet bureaucracy was in its essence a struggle not against the faulty organization of departments, nor against departmental red-tape and inefficiency but against the apparatus laying down the law to the class, against the transformation of the party bureaucracy into a new “ruling” clique. Lenin’s counsel, from his death bed, that a proletarian Control Commission be created independent of the C.E.C. and that Stalin and his faction be removed from the party apparatus was aimed against the bureaucratic degeneration of the party. For various reasons, which cannot be dealt with here, the party ignored this counsel. Of recent years the bureaucratic degeneration of the party has reached the extreme limit. Stalin’s apparatus simply lays down the law. The language of command is the language of ultimatism. Every worker must perforce and forthwith accept as infallible all the past, present and future decisions of the C.E.C. The more erroneous the policies become, the greater are the pretensions to infallibility.

After gathering into its hands the apparatus of the Comintern, the Stalinist faction naturally transferred also its methods over to the foreign sections, i.e., to the Communist parties in the capitalist nations. The policy of the German leaders has for its counterpart the policy of the Moscow leadership. Thaelmann observes how Stalin’s bureaucracy rules the roost, by condemning as counter-revolutionary all those who do not recognize its infallibility. Wherein is Thaelmann worse than Stalin? If the working class does not willingly place itself under his leadership that is only because the working class is counter-revolutionary. Double dyed counter-revolutionaries are those who point out the balefulness of ultimatism. The collected works of Lenin are among the most counterrevolutionary publications. There is sufficient reason why Stalin should – as he does – submit them to such rigid censorship, particularly on their publication in foreign languages. Baleful as ultimatism is under all conditions – if in the U.S.S.R. it dissipates the moral capital of the party – it breeds double disaster for the Western parties which must yet begin accumulating their moral capital. Within the Soviet Union, at least, the victorious revolution has created material grounds for bureaucratic ultimatism, in the guise of an apparatus for repression. Whereas in capitalist countries, including Germany, ultimatism becomes converted into an impotent caricature, and interferes with the movement of the Communist party to power. Above all, the ultimatism of Thaelmann-Remmele is funny.

And whatever is funny is fatal, particularly in matters concerning a revolutionary party.

Let us for a moment transfer the problem to England, where the Communist party (as a consequence of the ruinous mistakes of Stalinist bureaucracy) still comprises an insignificant portion of the proletariat. If one accepts the theory that every type of the United Front, except the Communist, is “counter-revolutionary”, then obviously the British proletariat must put off its revolutionary struggle until that time when the Communist Party is able to come to the fore. But the Communist party cannot come to the front of the class except on the basis of its own revolutionary experience. However, its experience cannot take on a revolutionary character in any other way than by drawing mass millions into the struggle. Yet non-Communist masses, the more so if organized, cannot be drawn into the struggle except through the policy of the United Front. We fall into a charmed circle, out of which there is no way out by means of bureaucratic ultimatism. But the revolutionary dialectic has long since pointed the way oat and has demonstrated it by countless examples in the most diverse spheres; by correlating the struggle for power with the struggle for reforms; by maintaining complete independence of the party while preserving the unity of the trade unions; by fighting against the bourgeois regime and at the same time utilizing its institutions; by criticizing relentlessly parliamentarism – from the parliamentary tribunal; by waging war mercilessly against reformism, and at the same time making practical agreements with the reformists in partial struggles.

In England, the incompetence of ultimatism hits one in the eye because of the extreme weakness of the party. In Germany the balefulness of ultimatism is masked somewhat by the considerable numerical strength of the party and by its growth. But the German party is growing on account of the pressure of events and not thanks to the policies of the leadership; not because of ultimatism, but despite it. Moreover, the numerical growth of the party does not play the decisive role; what does decide is the political interrelation between the party and the class. Along this line, which is fundamental, the situation is not improving, because the German party has placed between itself and the class the thorny hedge of ultimatism.


(To be Continued)

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Last updated on: 14.6.2013