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Since Lenin Died

Max Eastman

Since Lenin Died

Appendix VI:

Trotsky’s Letter on the New Course

(In order that the reader may have a consecutive impression of Trotsky’s thought in the letter to his local branch, which was the original and fundamental basis of the campaign against him, I translate it here in full.)


I have confidently expected each day that I should be able to take part in the discussion of the intra-party situation and the new problems. But illness arrived this time more inopportunely than ever, and has proven more prolonged than the doctors predicted. Nothing remains but for me to express my thoughts in the present letter.

The resolution of the Politburo on the question of party structure has an unusual significance. It means that the party has come to a serious turning-point on its historic path. At turning-points, as has been justly pointed out at many meetings, there is need of caution, but along with caution there is need of firmness and decisiveness. Procrastination, formlessness at turning-points would be the worst kind of incaution.

Certain conservatively disposed comrades, inclined to overestimate the role of the apparatus and underestimate the self-activity of the party, take a critical attitude to the resolution of the Politburo. They say the Central Committee is undertaking an impossible task, the resolution will only propagate false illusions and lead to negative results. It is plain that such an approach to the problem is saturated with bureaucratic lack of confidence in the party. The New Course announced in the resolution of the Central Committee consists in this, that the centre of gravity, wrongly shifted under the old course to the side of the apparatus, shall be shifted back to the side of initiative, critical self-activity, self-government of the party, as the organised advance guard of the proletariat. The New Course does not mean that the task is laid upon the party apparatus by such and such a date to decree, create, and establish a regime of democracy. Not at all. The party itself can realise that regime. The problem may be briefly formulated thus: the party shall subordinate to itself its apparatus, not for one instant ceasing to be a centralised organisation.

In recent debates and articles there is frequent reference to the fact that “pure,” “developed,” “ideal” democracy is unattainable, and that, in general democracy is not for us an end in itself. That is absolutely unquestionable. But with exactly the same right and foundation we may say that pure and absolute centralism is unattainable, and incompatible with the nature of a mass party, and that neither centralism nor the party apparatus is by any means an end in itself. Democracy and centralism are two sides in the structure of our party. The problem is to equilibrate those two sides more correctly – that is, in a manner better adapted to the existing circumstances. In the recent period this equilibrium has been lacking. The centre of gravity has been wrongly transferred to the side of the apparatus. The self-activity of the party has been reduced to a minimum. That has created habits and methods of administration fundamentally contradictory to the spirit of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. The excessive strengthening of this apparatus-centralism at the expense of the self-activity of the party has created in the party a feeling of unhealthiness. On the extreme flank this has found unusually morbid expression, even to the point of the creation of illegal groups under the leadership of elements clearly hostile to Communism. At the same time, throughout the whole party a critical attitude has arisen toward the apparatus method of deciding questions. An understanding, or at least a feeling, that party bureaucratism threatens to lead the party into an impasse has become almost universal. Warning voices have been raised. The first official and in the highest degree important expression of the crisis at which the party has arrived, is the resolution on the new course. It will be realised in actual life to the degree that the party – that is, the 400,000 members of it – desire and are able to realise it.

In a number of articles the thought has been insistently advanced that the fundamental way to revive the party is to raise the cultural level of its rank and file members, after which all the rest – that is, Workers’ Democracy – will be added of itself. That we need to raise the cultural and intellectual level of our party, in view of the gigantic tasks standing before it, is unquestionable. But exactly for that reason such a pedagogical, instructorial statement of the problem is wholly inadequate, and consequently wrong, and if it is stubbornly adhered to will only bring a sharpening of the crisis. The party can raise its level as a party only in completely fulfilling its fundamental tasks by the way of a collective, self-active leadership of the working class and the government of the working class. Not a pedagogical but a political approach is needed. We must not state the problem as though the application of party democracy was to be placed in dependence (by whom?) upon the degree of “preparedness” for it of the party members. The party is the party. We can present very severe demands to anybody who wants to join our party and remain in it; but those who join it become thereby active participants in its whole work.

Destroying self-activity, bureaucratism thereby prevents a raising of the general level of the party. And that is its chief fault. To the extent that the most experienced comrades, and those distinguished by service, inevitably enter into the apparatus, to that extent the bureaucratism of the apparatus has its heaviest consequences in the intellectual-political growth of the young generation of the party. This explains the fact that the youth – the most reliable barometer of the party – react the most sharply of all against party bureaucratism.

It would be wrong to think, however, that the excess of apparatus-methods in deciding party questions leaves no trace on the older generation, which incarnates the political experience of the party and its revolutionary traditions. No, the danger is great also on this side. It is needless to speak of the enormous significance – not only on a Russian, but on an international scale – of the older generation of our party; that is generally known and generally acknowledged. But it would be a crude mistake to estimate that significance as a self-sufficient fact. Only a continual interaction of the older and younger generation within the frame of party democracy can preserve the Old Guard as a revolutionary factor. Otherwise the old may ossify, and, unnoticed by themselves, become the most finished expression of the bureaucratism of the apparatus.

The degeneration of an “Old Guard” has been observed in history more than once. To take the freshest and clearest recent example: the leaders and parties of the Second International. We well know that Wilhelm Liebnecht, Bebel, Singer, Victor Adler, Kautsky, Bernstein, Lafargue, Guesde, and others, were the direct and immediate disciples of Marx and Engels. We know, however, that all these leaders – some partially and some altogether – degenerated into opportunism in the circumstances of parliamentary reform, and the self-sufficient growth of the party and trade-union apparatus. We saw especially on the eve of the imperialist war how the powerful social-democratic apparatus, protected by the authority of an older generation, became a gigantic brake upon revolutionary development. And we ought to state – we ourselves, the “old men” – that our generation, while naturally playing the role of leadership in the party, nevertheless does not contain within itself any automatic guarantee against a gradual and unnoticeable weakening of the proletarian and revolutionary spirit, provided the party permits any further growth and hardening of the bureaucratic-apparatus method of politics, which converts the younger generation into passive material for education, and creates inevitably an alienation between the apparatus and the mass, between the old and the young. Against that indubitable danger there is no other defence, but a serious, deep, radical change of course in the direction of Workers’ Democracy, with a continually increasing introduction into the party of proletarians who remain in the shops.

I will not pause here on this or that juridical, constitutional definition of party democracy, and juridical limitation of it. However important these questions are, they are secondary questions. We will decide them on the basis of the experience we have, and what needs changing we will change. But first of all it is necessary to change the spirit that prevails in the organisations. It is necessary that the party, in the person of all its local branches and associations, should restore to itself its collective initiative, its right of free comradely criticism – without fear and without favour – its right of organisational self-determination. It is necessary to revive and renew the apparatus, making it feel that it is the executive mechanism of the collective whole.

In the party Press of recent days there have appeared many examples characterising the extreme bureaucratic degeneration of party morals and relations. In answer to the voice of criticism: “Show your membership card!” Up to the publication of the resolution of the Central Committee on the New Course, the bureaucratised representatives of the apparatus treated the very mention of the necessity for a change of intra-party policy as heresy, fractionalism, and a loosening of discipline. Even now they are only formally prepared to “take cognisance” of the New Course; that is, bureaucratically reduce it to nothing. The renewal of the party apparatus – of course, within the strict limits of the constitution – ought to be carried out with the goal of replacing the officialised and bureaucratised, with fresh elements in close union with the collective life or capable of guaranteeing such a union. And first of all ought to be removed from the party positions those elements who at the first voice of criticism, of objection, of protest, are inclined to demand one’s party ticket for the purpose of repression. The New Course ought to begin with this, that in the apparatus all should feel, from bottom to top, that nobody dares to terrorise the party.

It is wholly inadequate that the youth should repeat our formulas. It is necessary that the youth should take the revolutionary formulas fighting, transform them into flesh and blood, work out for themselves their own opinion, their own personality, and be able to fight for their own opinion with that courage which comes from sincere conviction and independence of character. Passive obedience, mechanical drill, characterlessness, obsequiousness, careerism – away with these things from the party! A Bolshevik is not only a disciplined man; no, a Bolshevik is a man who, boring deep, has worked out for himself in each given instance a firm opinion, and courageously and independently defends it, not only in war with his enemies, but also within his own organisation. To-day he may be in the minority in the organisation. He submits because it is his party. But that obviously does not always mean that he was wrong. Maybe he sooner than others saw or understood a new problem, or the need of a turn. He insistently raises the question a second time, a third, a tenth time. In that he does a service to the party, helping it to meet the new problem full-armed, or to accomplish the new turn without organisational disturbance and fractional convulsion.

Yes, the party could not fulfil its historic mission if it fell apart into fractional groupings. That must not, and will not be. The party as a whole, as a self-active collectivity, will prevent that. But the party can wrestle successfully with the danger of fractions only by developing, strengthening and making durable the course toward Workers’ Democracy. The bureaucratism of the apparatus is one of the chief sources of fractionalism. It suppresses criticism and drives dissatisfaction underground. It is inclined to tack the label of fractionalism upon every individual or collective voice of criticism or warning. Mechanical centralism is inevitably accompanied by fractionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of Workers’ Democracy, and a terrible political danger.

In clear understanding of the whole situation, the party will accomplish the necessary change of course with that firmness and decisiveness which is demanded by the depth of the problems standing before us. The party will thereby raise to a higher degree its revolutionary unity, a pledge that it can accomplish industrial and international tasks of immeasurable importance.

I have in no sense exhausted the question. I have purposely refrained from examining many of its essential elements, through fear of taking too much of your time. But I hope that I will soon get the better of the malaria, which – judging by my example – is in plain opposition to the new party course, and then I will try in freer vocal speech to supplement and make precise what I have not finished saying in this letter.

With comradely greeting,            

Dec. 8, 1923


P.S. – Taking advantage of the fact that this letter appears in Pravda with a delay of two days, I want to make a few supplementary remarks.

I am told that certain individual comrades, when my letter was read at the meeting of the local branch, expressed an anxiety lest my reflections as to the mutual relations of the “Old Guard” and the younger generation might be employed for a setting against each other (!) of the young and the old. You can guarantee at a glance that this kind of thought will come into the heads of those comrades who only two or three months ago shuddered at the mere posing of the question of a change of course. At any rate, to advance into a prominent position such an anxiety in the present circumstances, and at the given moment, shows an incorrect estimation of the real dangers, and the order in which they stand. The present mood of the youth, which has, as every thinking member of the party understands, a highly symptomatic character, was created by those same methods of “dead calm,” of which the resolution unanimously adopted by the Politburo is a condemnation. In other words, it is exactly that “dead calm” which holds the danger of a growing alienation between the governing stratum of the party and its younger members – that is, its enormous majority. The tendency of the party apparatus to think and decide for the party, leads in its development to an effort to base the authority of the governing circles only on tradition. A respect for party tradition is undoubtedly a necessary constituent element of party education and amalgamation; but this element can be alive and steady, only if it is continually nourished and reinforced by an active and self-dependent verification of that tradition through the collective working out of the policy of the present day. Without that activity and self-dependence, a respect for tradition may degenerate into official romanticism, or even into mere officialism – form, that is, without content. It is needless to say that this kind of a bond between the generations would be wholly inadequate and unstable. Externally it might appear solid five minutes before there appeared an alarming crack in it. Exactly here lies the danger of a bureaucratic course, supported by a “dead calm” in the party. And in so far as the durably revolutionary, non-officialised representatives of the older generation – that is, as I firmly believe, its overwhelming majority – take clear account of the dangerous perspective characterised above, and, standing on the ground of the resolution of the Politburo, put forth all efforts to help the party convert that resolution into reality, in so far disappears the chief source of a possible setting against each other of the different generations in the party. This or that “superfluity,” or the impulse of the young in that direction will be then comparatively easy to overcome. But it is necessary, first of all, to create such conditions that party tradition will not be concentrated in the apparatus, but will live and renew itself in the daily experience of the party. By the same means we shall avoid another danger: a splitting of the older generation itself into the “apparatus men” – i.e., those who are useful in preserving the “dead calm” – and the non-apparatus elements. It is needless to say that the apparatus of the party – that is, its organisational backbone – delivered of its self-sufficient narrowness, will not be weakened but strengthened. As to the fact that we need a powerful centralised apparatus in our party there can be no two opinions.

One might also, perhaps, object that the reference in my letter to the bureaucratic degeneration of the Social Democrats was not right, in view of the deep distinction of the two epochs, the former an epoch of stagnant reformism, the present a revolutionary epoch. To be sure, an example is only an example, and not by any means an identity. However, that wholesale contrasting of epochs in itself decides nothing. Not without good reason do we point to the danger of the New Economic Policy, closely connected as it is with the protracted character of the international revolution. Our daily practical government work, continually becoming more detailed and specialised, hides in itself, as the resolution of the Central Committee points out, the danger of a narrowing of the horizon – that is to say, an opportunistic degeneration. It is perfectly obvious that these dangers become more serious, in proportion as party leadership is replaced with a tight-shut regime of “secretarial” command. We should be poor revolutionists if we hoped that the “revolutionary character of the epoch” would help us to wrestle with all our difficulties, and, above all, with intra-party difficulties. Let’s help the “epoch,” as we should, with a genuine realisation of the new party course unanimously adopted by the Politburo of the Central Committee.

In conclusion, one more remark. A couple of months ago, when the questions which are the topic of the present discussion first appeared on the order of the day of the party, certain responsible provincial comrades were inclined to shrug their shoulders condescendingly: Well, that’s only a Moscow invention; everything’s all right in the provinces. And even now in certain correspondence from the provinces we hear the same note. This contrasting of infected or busybody Moscow with the tranquil and reasonable provinces, is nothing but a clear expression of the same bureaucratism, although in a provincial edition. In reality the Moscow organisation of our party is the most inclusive, the most rich in abilities, and the livest. Even in the deadest moments of the so-called “dead calm” (a very expressive name, and don’t let it fail of a place in the history of the party!), there was more independent life and activity in Moscow than anywhere else. If Moscow is at the present moment distinguished from other points, it is only that she has taken the initiative in reconsidering the party course. That is not a minus for her, but a merit. The whole party will follow Moscow through the necessary stage of transvaluating certain values in the period just past. The less the provincial party apparatus opposes this, the more systematically the provincial organisations will pass through the inevitable and progressive stage of criticism and self-criticism. The party will harvest the results in the form of increased solidarity and a higher level of party culture.


Since Lenin Died

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