Leon Trotsky

How Did Stalin Defeat the Opposition?

(November 1935)

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive, now a subarchive of the Marxists’ Internet Archive, by Doug Fullarton in 1996

November 30, 1935

The questions posed by Comrade Zeller’s letter are of interest not only for history but also for the present time. It is not unusual to meet them as often in political literature as in private conversation, although in different forms, mostly personal ones. “How and why did you lose power?” “How did Stalin lay his hands on the apparatus?” “What makes for Stalin’s strength?”

The question of the internal laws of revolution and counterrevolution is posed everywhere and always in a purely individual way, as if the matter concerned a game of chess or some sporting contest and not profound conflicts and changes with a social character. In this context many pseudo-Marxists are in no way distinguished from vulgar democrats who use the criteria of parliamentary lobbies when faced with great popular movements.

Whoever understands history even slightly knows that every revolution has provoked a subsequent counterrevolution which, to be sure, has never completely thrown the nation all the way back to its starting point in the sphere of the economy but has always taken from the people a considerable part, sometimes the lion’s share, of its political conquests. And the first victim of the reactionary wave as a general rule is that layer of revolutionaries which stood at the head of the masses in the first period of the revolution, the period of the offensive, the “heroic” period. This general historical observation should lead us to the idea that the matter is not simply one of the skill, the cunning, or the art of two or a few individuals, but of incomparably more profound causes.

Marxists, unlike superficial fatalists (of the type of Leon Blum, Paul Faure, etc.), do not deny the role of the individual, his initiative, his audacity, in the social struggle. But unlike the idealists, Marxists know that consciousness is, in the last analysis, determined by being. The role of the leadership in the revolution is enormous. Without a correct leadership, the proletariat cannot conquer. But even the best leadership cannot foment revolution when it does not have the objective conditions. Among the greatest merits of a proletarian leadership must be reckoned the capacity to distinguish the moment when one can attack and when it is necessary to withdraw. It was this capacity which constituted the main strength of Lenin. [1]

The success or failure of the Left Opposition’s struggle against the bureaucracy, to some degree or other, naturally, depended on the qualities of the leaders in the two warring camps. But before speaking of these qualities, we should clearly understand the characters of the warring camps themselves, for the best leader of one camp could be absolutely worthless for the other, and vice versa. The question – it is very current (and very naive) – “Why did Trotsky at the time not use the military apparatus against Stalin?” is the clearest evidence in the world that the questioner cannot or does not wish to reflect on the general historical reasons for the victory of the Soviet bureaucracy over the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat. I have written about these reasons more than once in a certain number of books, beginning with my autobiography. I propose to sum up the most important conclusions in a few lines.

It is not the present bureaucracy which ensured the victory of the October Revolution, but the working and peasant masses under Bolshevik leadership. The bureaucracy began to grow only after the definitive victory, swelling its ranks not only with revolutionary workers but also with representatives of other classes (former czarist functionaries, officers, bourgeois intellectuals, etc.). The present bureaucracy, in its overwhelming majority, was, at the time of the October Revolution, in the bourgeois camp (take as examples merely the Soviet ambassadors Potemkin, Maisky, Troyanovsky, Surits, Khinchuk, etc.). Those of the present bureaucracy who in the October days were in the Bolshevik camp in the great majority of cases played no role even slightly important in either the preparation or the conduct of the revolution, or in the first years following it. This applies above all to Stalin himself. As for the present young bureaucrats, they are chosen and educated by the older ones, most often from among their own children. And it is Stalin who has become the “chief” of this new caste which has grown up after the revolution.

The history of the trade union movement in every country is not only the history of strikes and in general of mass movements; it is also the history of the formation of the trade union bureaucracy. It is sufficiently well known what enormous conservative power this bureaucracy has been able to acquire, and with what infallible sense it chooses its “genial” leaders and forms them according to its needs: Gompers, Green, Legien, Leipart, Citrine, etc. [2] If Jouhaux has succeeded until now in maintaining his positions against attacks from the left, it is not because he is a great strategist – though, no doubt, he is superior to his bureaucratic colleagues (it is not for nothing that he fills the first place among them) – but because there is not a day, not an hour, when his entire apparatus does not struggle obstinately for its existence, does not select collectively the best methods for that struggle, does not think for Jouhaux, and does not inspire him with the necessary decisions. But that in no way means that Jouhaux is invincible. Given a sudden change in the situation – toward revolution or toward fascism – the whole trade union apparatus will lose its self-confidence, its skillful maneuvers will show themselves to be without power, and Jouhaux himself will produce an impression, not remarkable but miserable. We need only recall what despicable nonentities the powerful and arrogant chiefs of the German trade unions showed themselves to be in 1918, when the revolution broke out against their will, as well as in 1932, when Hitler was advancing.

These examples show the sources of the strength and the weakness of the bureaucracy. It emerges from the movement of the masses in the first period, the heroic period. But having risen above the masses, and then having resolved its own “social question” (an assured existence, influence, respect, etc.), the bureaucracy tends increasingly to keep the masses immobile. Why take risks? It has something to lose. The supreme expansion of the influence and well-being of the reformist bureaucracy takes place in an epoch of capitalist progress and of relative passivity of the working masses. But when this passivity is broken, on the right or on the left, the magnificence of the bureaucracy comes to an end. Its intelligence and skill are transformed into stupidity and impotence. The nature of the “leadership” corresponds to the nature of the class (or of the caste) it leads and to the objective situation through which this class (or caste) is passing.

The Soviet bureaucracy is immeasurably more powerful than the reformist bureaucracies of all the capitalist countries taken together, since it has in its hands state power and all the advantages and privileges bound up with that. True, the Soviet bureaucracy has grown on the soil of the victorious proletarian revolution. But it would be the greatest naivete to idealize it for that reason. In a poor country – and the USSR is at present still a very poor country, where a private room, sufficient food and clothing are within the reach of only a tiny minority of the population – in such a country millions of bureaucrats, great and small, make every effort to ensure before anything their own well-being! Hence the great egoism and the great conservatism of the bureaucracy, its fright in the face of the discontent of the masses, its hatred of criticism, its angry persistence in stifling all free thought, and finally, its hypocritical and religious kneeling before the “leader” who embodies and defends its unlimited domination and its privileges. All that, taken together, is the content of the struggle against “Trotskyism.”

It is absolutely beyond question and of major importance that the Soviet bureaucracy became more powerful as the blows struck harder against the world working class. The defeats of the revolutionary movements in Europe and Asia gradually undermined the confidence of the Soviet workers in their international ally. Inside the country acute misery still reigned. The boldest and most devoted representatives of the working class had either perished in the civil war or had risen higher and, for the main part, been assimilated into the ranks of the bureaucracy, having lost their revolutionary spirit. Weary, because of the terrible efforts of the revolutionary years, without perspective, poisoned with bitterness because of a series of disappointments, the great mass fell into passivity. Reaction of this kind is to be seen, as we have already said, after every revolution. The immense historical advantage of the October Revolution, taken as a proletarian revolution, is that the exhaustion and the disappointment have benefited not the class enemy, the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, but the upper layer of the working class itself and the intermediary groups linked with it who have entered the Soviet bureaucracy.

The genuine revolutionary proletarians in the USSR drew their strength not from the apparatus but from the activity of the revolutionary masses. In particular, the Red Army was created not by “men of the apparatus” (in the most critical years the apparatus was still very weak), but by the cadres of heroic workers who, under Bolshevik leadership, gathered around them the young peasants and led them into battle. The decline of the revolutionary movement, the weariness, the defeats in Europe and in Asia, the disappointment of the working masses, were inevitably and directly to weaken the positions of the internationalist-revolutionaries and, on the other hand, were to strengthen the positions of the national and conservative bureaucracy. A new chapter opens in the revolution. The leaders of the preceding period go into opposition while the conservative politicians of the apparatus, who had played a secondary role in the revolution, emerge with the triumphant bureaucracy, in the forefront.

As for the military apparatus, it is a part of the bureaucratic apparatus, in no way distinguished in qualities from it. It is enough to say that in the years of the civil war, the Red Army absorbed tens of thousands of former czarist officers. On March 13, 1919, Lenin said to a meeting in Petrograd: “When Trotsky told me recently that, in the military sphere, the number of our officers was several tens of thousands, then I had a concrete picture of what is meant by the secret of using our enemy: how to have communism built by those who were formerly our enemies; build communism with bricks collected against us by the capitalists! And we have no other bricks!” These cadres of officers and functionaries carried out their work in the first years under the direct pressure and surveillance of the advanced workers. In the fire of the cruel struggle, there could not be even a question of a privileged position for officers: the very word was scrubbed out of the vocabulary. But precisely after the victories had been won and the passage made to a peaceful situation, the military apparatus tried to become the most influential and privileged part of the whole bureaucratic apparatus. The only person who would have relied on the officers for the purpose of seizing power would have been someone who was prepared to go further than the appetites of the officer caste, that is to say, who would have ensured for them a superior position, given them ranks and decorations, in a word, would have done in one single act what the Stalinist bureaucracy has done gradually over the succeeding ten to twelve years. There is no doubt that it would have been possible to carry out a military coup d’état against the faction of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, etc., without any difficulty and without even the shedding of any blood; but the result of such a coup d’état would have been to accelerate the rhythm of this very bureaucratization and Bonapartism against which the Left Opposition had engaged in struggle.

The task of the Bolshevik-Leninists was by its very essence not to rely on the military bureaucracy against that of the party but to rely on the proletarian vanguard and through it on the popular masses, and to master the bureaucracy in its entirety, to purge it of its alien elements, to ensure the vigilant control of the workers over it, and to set its policy back on the rails of revolutionary internationalism. But as the living fountain of the revolutionary strength of the masses was dried up in the civil war, famine, and epidemics, and as the bureaucracy grew terribly in numbers and insolence, the revolutionary proletarians became the weaker side. To be sure, the banner of the Bolshevik-Leninists gathered tens of thousands of the best revolutionary fighters, including some military men. The advanced workers were sympathetic to the Opposition, but that sympathy remained passive; the masses no longer believed that the situation could be seriously changed by struggle. Meanwhile the bureaucracy asserted: “The Opposition proposes international revolution and is ready to drag us into a revolutionary war. Enough of shake-ups and misery. We have earned the right to rest. We need no more of ‘permanent revolution.’ We will build the socialist society at home. Workers and peasants, rely on us, your leaders!” This nationalist and conservative agitation was accompanied – to mention it in passing – by furious slanders, sometimes absolutely reactionary, against the internationalists. It drew the military and state bureaucracies tightly together, and indubitably found an echo in the weary and backward masses. So the Bolshevik vanguard found itself isolated and crushed piecemeal. Therein lies the secret of the victory of the Thermidorean bureaucracy.

Talk about the extraordinary tactical and organizational qualities of Stalin is a myth, deliberately created by the bureaucracy of the USSR and of the Communist International and repeated by left bourgeois intellectuals who, despite their individualism, willingly bend the knee to success. These gentlemen neither understood nor recognized Lenin when, pursued by the international scum, he prepared the revolution. On the other hand, they “recognized” Stalin when this recognition brought only satisfaction and sometimes direct advantages.

The initiative for the struggle against the Left Opposition belongs properly not to Stalin but to Zinoviev. At first Stalin hesitated and waited. It would be wrong to think that Stalin even had a strategic plan from the outset. He kept testing the ground. There is no doubt that his revolutionary Marxist tutelage weighed on him. In effect, he sought a simpler, more national, “surer” policy. The success which attended him was something unexpected, in the first place by himself. It was the success of the new leading layer, of the revolutionary aristocracy which was trying to liberate itself from the control of the masses and which needed a strong and reliable arbiter in its internal affairs. Stalin, a figure of the second rank in the proletarian revolution, appeared as the unchallenged leader of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, first in its ranks – nothing more.

The Italian fascist or semifascist writer Malaparte has published a book, Coup d’État: The Technique of Revolution, in which he develops the idea that “Trotsky’s revolutionary tactics” in contrast to Lenin’s strategy could assure victory in a given country under given conditions. It is difficult to imagine any theory that could be more absurd! However, the sages who use hindsight to accuse us of losing power because of indecision, at bottom look at things from Malaparte’s point of view: they think that there are certain special technical “secrets” with whose help revolutionary power can be won or preserved, independently of the effect of great objective factors (victory or defeat for the revolution in the East and the West, the rise or fall of the mass movement in a country, etc.). Power is not a prize which the most “skillful” win. Power is a relationship between individuals, in the last analysis between classes. Governmental leadership, as we have said, is a powerful lever for success. But that does not at all mean that the leadership can guarantee victory under all conditions.

What is decisive in the last analysis are the class struggle and the internal modifications produced inside the struggling masses.

It is impossible, to be sure, to reply with mathematical precision to the question: How would the struggle have developed had Lenin been alive? That Lenin would have been the implacable enemy of the greedy conservative bureaucracy and of Stalin’s policy, which steadily bound to itself all of his own kind, is indisputably demonstrated in a whole series of letters, articles, and proposals by Lenin in the last period of his life, especially in his testament, in which he recommends that Stalin be removed from the post of general secretary, and finally from his last letter, in which he breaks off “all personal and comradely relations” with Stalin. In the period between the two attacks of his illness, Lenin proposed a common faction with me to struggle against the bureaucracy and its general staff, the Organizational Bureau of the Central Committee, where Stalin was in command. For the Twelfth Party Congress, Lenin – to use his own expression – was preparing a “bomb” against Stalin. All this has been told – on the basis of precise and indisputable documents – in my autobiography and in a special article, “On the Suppressed Testament of Lenin.” Lenin’s preparatory measures show that he thought that the imminent struggle would be very difficult; not because – there is no doubt about it – he feared Stalin personally as an opponent (it would be ridiculous to speak of that) but because he saw clearly behind Stalin’s back the tissue of the common interests of the powerful caste of the leading bureaucracy. While Lenin was still alive, Stalin was conducting a sapping operation by means of agents cautiously spreading the rumor that Lenin was an invalid intellectual, out of touch with the situation, etc., in a word, putting into circulation the same legend which has now become the unofficial version of the Communist International to explain the acute hostility between Lenin and Stalin during the last year and a half of Lenin’s life. In fact, all the articles and letters that Lenin dictated when he was ill represent perhaps the ripest fruits of his thought. The perspicacity of this “invalid” would have been more than enough for a dozen Stalins.

It can be said with certainty that if Lenin had lived longer, the pressure of bureaucratic omnipotence would have been exerted – at least in the first years – more lightly. But in 1926 Krupskaya said to a group of Left Oppositionists, “If Lenin were alive today he would now be in prison.” The fears and alarming forebodings of Lenin were still fresh in her memory, and she had absolutely no illusions as to the personal omnipotence of Lenin, understanding, in her own words, the dependence of the best helmsman on the winds and on favorable or contrary currents.

Does that mean that Stalin’s victory was inevitable? Does that mean that the struggle of the Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) was hopeless? Such a way of putting the question is abstract, schematic, and fatalistic. The development of the struggle has shown, without any doubt, that the Bolshevik-Leninists would not have been able to win a complete victory in the USSR – that is to say, conquer power and cauterize the ulcer of bureaucratism – without support from the world revolution. But that in no way means that their struggle did not have results. Without the Opposition’s bold criticism and without the bureaucracy’s fear of the Opposition, the course of Stalin-Bukharin toward the kulak [wealthy peasant] would have ended up in the revival of capitalism. Under the lash of the Opposition the bureaucracy was forced to make important borrowings from our platform. The Leninists could not save the Soviet regime from the process of degeneration and the difficulties of the personal regime. But they saved it from complete dissolution by barring the road to capitalist restoration. The progressive reforms of the bureaucracy were the by-products of the Opposition’s revolutionary struggle. For us it is far too insufficient. But it is still something.

On the arena of the world workers’ movement, on which the Soviet bureaucracy depends only indirectly, the situation is immensely more unfavorable yet to the USSR. Through the intermediary of the Communist International, Stalinism has become the worst brake on the world revolution. Without Stalin there would have been no Hitler. At the present moment in France, by the policy of prostration whose political name is the “People’s Front,” Stalinism is preparing a new defeat for the proletariat.

But here, too, the Left Opposition’s struggle has not been sterile. Throughout the whole world are growing and multiplying cadres of genuine proletarian revolutionaries, real Bolsheviks, who are joining not the Soviet bureaucracy in order to use its authority and treasury, but the program of Lenin and the banner of the October Revolution. Under the truly monstrous persecutions – also without precedent in history – by the joint forces of imperialism, reformism, and Stalinism, the Bolshevik-Leninists are growing, strengthening themselves, and increasingly gaining the confidence of the advanced workers. An infallible symptom of the crisis which is being produced is the magnificent evolution of the Socialist Youth of the Seine.

The world revolution will go forward under the banner of the Fourth International. Its first successes will not leave standing one stone upon another of the omnipotence of the Stalinist clique, its lies, its slanders, and its hollow reputations. The Soviet republic, like the world proletarian vanguard, will finally liberate itself from the bureaucratic octopus. The historic collapse of Stalinism is predetermined and it will be a merited punishment for its innumerable crimes against the world working class. We want and look forward to no other revenge!


1. The Stalinists do exactly the opposite: when there was an economic revival and relative political equilibrium, they proclaimed “The conquest of the street,” “Barricades,” “Soviets everywhere” (the “third period”); and now, when France is going through a deep social and political crisis, they throw themselves around the necks of the Radicals, that is, of a bourgeois party that is absolutely rotted away. A long time ago it was said that these gentlemen are in the habit of singing funeral psalms at weddings and wedding hymns at funerals.

2. Only a pure lackey could speak of Stalin as a Marxist “theoretician.” His book Problems of Leninism is an eclectic compilation, full of schoolboy errors. But the national bureaucracy has conquered the Marxist opposition by its social weight, not at all by “theory.”

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007