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George Breitman

A Slick Distortion about Trotsky and Lenin

From The Militant, Vol.18 No. 14, 5 Arpil 1954.
Transcribed & marked up by Martin Fahlgren for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2012
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive ( 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 .

Isaac Deutscher, author of a new biography of Leon Trotsky (The Prophet Armed) wants to prove that he is more “objective” than Trotsky and has more to offer to students of Russian revolutionary history. To support this claim, he points to the controversies between Trotsky and Lenin between 1903 and 1917. He cannot accuse Trotsky of suppressing the facts about these controversies, so he accuses him of having “blurred” their sharp outlines and importance.

What are the facts?

Trotsky met Lenin in London in 1902 and worked closely with him until the 1903 congress of the Russian revolutionary party which ended in a split and the formation of the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties. Trotsky, not yet 24 years old, failed to understand the significance of the dispute and the necessity for the kind of party Lenin was trying to build. He went with the Mensheviks, and attacked Lenin vigorously.

The 1903 split

The Mensheviks differed from the Bolsheviks not only over internal organizational principles but also, it began to be clear, over theoretical and political perspectives for the Russian revolution. When they started moving toward an alliance with the liberal capitalists, Trotsky broke with them and began to move in the direction of the Bolsheviks, who were as hostile to such an alliance as he was.

But his return to Lenin’s side was delayed by a number of complications. For one thing, Trotsky developed the theory of the permanent revolution, which forecast that a revolution against Czarism would quickly be turned into a workers revolution that would lead to the establishment of a working class government faced with socialist tasks. It took some years for even Lenin to grasp the correctness of this daring conception, although it was not a basic conflict with his own.

Another complication was that the Mensheviks vacillated back and forth between the perspectives of revolution and reform, especially under the impact of the 1905 revolution. This led to numerous proposals for reuniting the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, which at times Lenin himself supported, and which was actually tried unsuccessfully. Trotsky, although moving closer to the Bolsheviks politically, favored unification of the two groups and worked for it until 1912 in the belief that the revolutionary wing would be predominant in a united party.

Historic context

In the light of everything he stood and fought for from 1917 on, Trotsky’s conciliationist efforts are hard to understand today unless they are examined in their historic context. Lenin had begun to build a new kind of party, whose like had never existed before, a revolutionary combat party fit to lead the workers in taking power. His genius was proved in 1917, when his party fulfilled precisely the mission it had set itself. But it should not be too surprising that other great Marxists, lacking historic working class models to base them selves on, at first mistook the meaning and purpose of Lenin’s pioneering work.

When World War I began, Trotsky realized that it would be wrong in principle as well as impossible to unite the pro-war Mensheviks and the anti-war Bolsheviks. On his return to revolutionary Russia in 1917, he found himself and Lenin in complete agreement on the tasks of the revolution; he also saw now that Lenin’s ideas on revolutionary organization had been completely confirmed by the test of events, and that the Bolsheviks were the only revolutionary party in the country.

He then became a Bolshevik in heart, mind and soul, played a role in the Bolshevik leadership of the revolution second only to Lenin’s, and defended Bolshevism to his dying day.

Trotsky’s answer

After Lenin’s death the Stalinists launched their big slander campaign by quoting Trotsky’s pre-1917 polemics against Lenin to prove that he had never really been, a Bolshevik. Trotsky’s answer was not to “blur” the differences, as Deutscher claims, but to present them in their proper perspective.

Trotsky neither concealed nor denied his early differences with Lenin. He stated what they had been and explained them. Distinguishing between those of his differences with Lenin which had been serious and genuine and those which had been episodic and due partly to misunderstandings on both sides, he admitted where he had been wrong and why (such as in his criticism of Lenin’s organizational principles and in his efforts to reunite the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) and defended the positions on which he had been correct (such as his theory of the permanent revolution, which Lenin accepted in action in 1917).

That is, he examined his relations with Lenin in their totality, and assigned the different parts of their proper sphere and rank. Objectively viewed, the earlier disagreements were far outweighed by the later agreements. If this was not the case, the agreements could never have taken place. The subordinate, transitory character of the disagreements was demonstrated by everything that happened later, including the close and loyal collaboration between Trotsky and Lenin from 1917 on. Lenin himself testified to this by observing that no one had been a better Bolshevik than Trotsky after he joined.

Deutscher’s view

Deutscher, however, is not satisfied with this method or this evaluation, although he does not challenge it directly and in places even pays lip-service to it. In the guise of objective historian he devotes a great deal of space to the early differences — as much space, or more, as he gives to the later agreements between Trotsky and Lenin. The result is to make the differences and the agreements assume an equal importance on the historical scale.

We all know that it is possible to tell a lie while using strictly truthful words, depending on the tone, the arrangement of the words, the words omitted, etc. In the same way Deutscher, even if everything he writes on the differences is factually correct, lends himself to what can only be called a historical distortion — the kind which the Stalinists, who dislike Deutscher on other grounds, can only welcome.

In part, as we have explained, Deutscher does this in an effort to establish his superior “objectivity” over Trotsky. But there is another and more important reason — a political reason — for the emphasis he puts on Trotsky’s early differences with Bolshevism.

And that is the fact that he obviously half-sympathizes with the criticism of Bolshevism that Trotsky later rejected and attacked.

His own sympathies

Naturally Deutscher doesn’t express his sympathies openly and honestly. No, he suggests indirectly to the reader what he finds inconvenient to state directly. But the suggestions are unmistakable. Trotsky’s polemics against Bolshevism are evaluated by Deutscher as “Acute and venomous,” as an “odd ... assortment of great ideas and petty polemical tricks, of subtle historical insights and fustian flourishes,” as “the faithful mirror of the future,” etc. He says the 1903 controversy “at its more advanced stage will become one of the major motifs” of the book; in fact, it is the major theme.

Now let’s examine that part of Trotsky’s polemics against Lenin which Deutscher regards as acute, great, subtle, a faithful mirror and so on. It is all summed up in a single sentence, written by Trotsky in 1904 in a pamphlet, Our Political Tasks, which reads as follows:

”Lenin’s methods lead to this; the party organization (the caucus) at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organization; and finally a single ’dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.”

Out of the millions of words Trotsky wrote in 40 years of steady literary output, this is the favorite sentence of all the renegades and opponents of Bolshevism, and they naturally use it against Trotsky as well as Lenin. Deutscher too is so fond of this sentence that he recurs to it repeatedly and uses it for the climax and conclusion on his last page.

The 1904 prediction

The 24-year old Trotsky, he marvels, “predicted” the post- revolution degeneration of the Bolshevik party with “uncanny clearsightedness,” his chief error being that it was Stalin (unknown in 1904) and not Lenin who became dictator over the party. The obvious implication here is that Trotsky should have stuck by his 1904 prediction instead of turning around and becoming a Bolshevik himself.

The trouble with this prediction was that it too was guilty of a form of “substitutisrm.” It sought to foresee the development of the Bolshevik party solely in abstract terms of its internal organizational procedures, to the neglect of the much more decisive effects on the party of concrete social-political developments in the class struggles outside the party.

The Bolshevik party did not degenerate after the revolution because Lenin had molded it into a highly disciplined organization — in fact, the revolution would never have taken place unless he had done that — but because the revolution, instead of being extended from Russia to the more industrially developed countries of Europe, was defeated in the years after World War I (with the aid of the treacherous Social Democrats) and confined to an economically and cultural weak and backward country.

If the revolution had been extended (and it would have been extended if the revolutionists in Germany and elsewhere had built in advance precisely the kind of party Lenin built in Russia), if the Soviet Union had been able to link its economy with that of more advanced countries, then the relation of forces inside the Bolshevik party would have been different, the party would have been able to escape or overcome the Stalinist degeneration, and it would have continued to function in the Same healthy democratic-centralist fashion that it did in its best and most creative years.

The differences

Thanks to his growing mastery of the Marxist method of analysis and to his own enlightening experience with the Bolsheviks, Trotsky came to see the inadequacy, narrowness and, abstractness of his 1904 prediction. He rejected it totally and fought untiringly against all the opponents of Marxism who sought to explain the degeneration of the Bolshevik party by its adoption of Lenin’s correct organizational principles rather than by the complex historical process that unfolded and crushed the party in the years of reaction after the revolution.

But Deutscher, in his own sly way, tries to patch up one of the main crutches in the arsenal of anti-Bolshevism. The difference between the writings of Trotsky and Deutscher is not only that Trotsky acts openly while Deutscher operates by innuendo, but that Trotsky defends Bolshevism while Deutscher seeks to discredit it. Further proof will be supplied in future articles.

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Last updated: 6 August 2012