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Since Lenin Died

Max Eastman

Since Lenin Died

Chapter XI:
The Meaning of the Dispute

IT is not Trotsky’s character, however, nor his sickness, nor any other personal accident [1], that ultimately explains the success of this stampede, but the dynamic situation within the party. The discussion about party bureaucracy and the need for a new course was not an academic discussion. It was an attack upon an existing force. A sincere enactment of the programme of Workers’ Democracy would have meant a decisive reduction of the arbitrary authority of many thousands of very powerful officials. This body of officials wields not only the political, but the economic sovereignty over one-sixth of the surface of the earth. The fact that they are committed to a regime of personal poverty does not impair their natural human self-importance, nor diminish their instinctive resistance to any attack upon it. Indeed, I am not sure but this “Soviet aristocracy” is more jealous of its authority than aristocracies whose authority has a soldier foundation. The resolution on Workers’ Democracy was an attack upon that authority, and it would be the natural and primitive egoistic instinct of the whole officialdom of the party, having adopted it “in principle,” not to let it go into practice.

Everybody knew that Trotsky was the one very powerful man within that officialdom who was pushing the resolution. Trotsky was the one big Soviet aristocrat, as you might say, who saw the increasing rigidity of that aristocracy as a fundamental danger to the revolution. Therefore, whatever may have been in the consciousness of different individuals, Trotsky had the primitive, unconscious instincts of the organisation men against him from the start.

Moreover, Trotsky insisted upon removing the one small guarantee possessed by this aristocracy of their permanent ascendancy. That guarantee is the idea of the sacredness of “Old Bolsheviks,” and friends of “Old Bolsheviks,” and friends of the friends of “Old Bolsheviks,” and people who have acquired an odour of sanctity from the laying-on of hands of “Old Bolsheviks.” I exaggerate a little, but the fact which I exaggerate is of the utmost importance. As Marxists we are accustomed to explain the nobility attributed to families with a heroic past as an ideology. The real basis of their nobility, we explain, is economic. Within the Russian Communist Party the situation is reversed. There is no economic basis of nobility. [2] The ideology is all there is, and the present value of the heroic past is accordingly defended with exaggerated violence.

To state that a new generation is growing up is no heresy in ordinary circumstances, and to state that an Old Bolshevik is not intrinsically, and just by virtue of his age, a perfect Bolshevik is not a crime. These two statements are as little subject to doubt as the dates on the calendar. But to remind 18,000 revolutionary officials, in many of whom [3] the habits of a superior caste are beginning to rigidify, that a revolutionary aristocracy is not hereditary – that is a disagreeable thing to do. And to tell them plainly that they are not any better than anybody else unless they are – that is violently disturbing. In fact it is revolutionary. Somebody said in the course of this discussion that the party needed a reform, but Trotsky wanted a revolution. That is not true, because Trotsky was attacking this tendency in time to stop it with a mere change of course. But it is true that, to the extent that a bureaucratic aristocracy is actually solidifying within the Communist Party, Trotsky’s position toward it is revolutionary. And the position of those who refuse to recognise it is a counter-revolutionary position. Moreover, Trotsky’s demand that, having recognised this condition and adopted a programme to cure it, the party should put that programme into drastic operation, is Bolshevik. And the attitude of his enemies, who, having adopted a revolutionary programme, employed all the devices of emotional oratory and academic argumentation in order to avoid putting it into operation, is Menshevik. The fact that these psychological tendencies have, within the party, a limited economic expression does not make their definition any less evident. Trotsky’s letters on the New Course are a Bolshevik approach to the problem of forestalling, by a programme of Workers’ Democracy, the further growth and solidification of a nascent bureaucratic caste. Starting with that definition, you will find it more simple to understand why the party organisation could be so easily stampeded against Trotsky.

There is no doubt, however, that under the agitation of Zinoviev another instinctive reaction besides bureaucratic self-interest made its contribution to this stampede, and that is fear. Nobody who has not seen Lenin or read his books can possibly imagine the force of that man’s will, and his intellectual authority. It was a phenomenon like Niagara, which the strongest men could merely stand by and watch. Lenin took the whole responsibility for revolutionising the Russian Empire, and the others faithfully and intelligently helped him as children help their father. That is only an extreme way to express it. And when Lenin was gone the party was left not only with the wisdom he had taught them, but also the irresponsibility, the childlike dependence upon his will and judgment. A large family of orphans suddenly found a sixth part of the terrestial globe in their hands, with all the rest of the globe against them, and no practice in the art of tackling big problems independently and with a feeling of ultimate responsibility for their solution. And their mood was one of exaggerated caution, as is proven by the sudden and surprising advancement of Zinoviev. Zinoviev is a notoriously timid man, and has never been a popular Bolshevik for that reason. And in this period since the departure of Lenin he has sounded the note of caution with hypnotic monotony. In practically every speech he has made and every article he has written, he has repeated these words: “We must be careful,” “We must be extremely careful,” “Since Vladimir Ilych is no longer among us, we must be careful as never before.” That we must be resolute, that we must be strong, that we must be devoted, that we must be at once flexible and firm, honest and astute, that we must be creative, that we must greet every new fact with a new idea, that we must be in a state of growth and permanent revolution, in short – these facts, which are equally obvious if the work which Lenin did is to be done, seem never to have occurred to Zinoviev. And yet his oratory has risen steadily in value during the last year, until from having been the least influential of the leaders he has become almost the mouthpiece of the party. That is sufficient evidence that the mood of the party after Lenin’s death is far from the mood in which they seized the power in October. It is a mood of timidity. And, as so often happens, this timidity toward the real job conceals itself from itself by an exaggerated audacity toward something else. The very wantonness and absurd insolence of this sudden attack upon the one great revolutionist among them, gives to many of these faint-hearted Communists a feeling that they are being very bold and ruthless and revolutionary – very Bolshevik.

At a revolutionary moment the Bolsheviks would throw off this leadership and turn to Trotsky with a single gesture. And they would do the same thing at a moment of critical danger. If Russia were invaded by a capitalist army Trotsky would be at the head of the revolutionary proletariat inside of a month. But in a mood of mere passive timidity no man would turn to Trotsky for leadership. Trotsky’s life is a record of aggressive personal courage, physical and moral, that is not excelled in the history of revolutions. Trotsky is, moreover, the one child in this orphan family who was always thinking and acting independently of the father. He grew up to maturity outside of it, opposing it. He came into Lenin’s party as a grown man, and by the road of pure intellectual conviction. And he never ceased to think creatively and put up independent plans for the advancement of the revolution, plans which he worked out in full, and for which he was ready to take the responsibility. He is ready now to tackle the problem of advancing the revolution, and not merely holding it where it is. He loves the future instead of fearing it. And, in contrast with the perpetual cries of caution emitted by Zinoviev, he has given expression, since Lenin died, to the complete revolutionary will of a man.

“At turning points, as has been justly stated in many meetings, we need caution, but along with caution we need firmness and resolution. Procrastination, formlessness, at turning points, would be the worst kind of incaution.”

That is a sentence from his letter on the New Course, which really distinguishes Trotsky’s attitude from the attitude of the organisation as a whole. Upon that they could honestly attack him. “I love Trotsky, but I am afraid of him,” sang the party poet, Demian Biedny. [4] And that was supposed to designate the weaknesses of Trotsky. It designates the weakness of Demian Biedny and the Russian Communist Party, bereaved of Lenin and agitated by Zinoviev. Trotsky is a great and audacious revolutionist, and yet he is not Lenin; and those two facts together go far to explain why, in the mood of anxiety which followed the death of Lenin, it was so easy to turn Trotsky into an object of dread.

Another thing distinguishes Trotsky’s attitude and makes him vulnerable to a demagogish attack. And that is that he really stands upon the difficult height of Lenin’s wisdom. He is “thinking dialectically,” to use the Marxian expression. He is thinking with a consciousness that the world is a process, and that practical science consists in the application of the right ideas at the right concrete points in that process. It does not consist of learning by heart a set of dogmas that are true in the abstract, and then making automatic and universal inferences from them. This method of thinking was very evident in Trotsky’s discussion about fractions in relation to the programme of Workers’ Democracy. He tried with infinite patience to explain that it was not a question of choosing between these two principles, but a question of understanding the right order of their application – “in our present party situation, in the given epoch, the existing fragment of time.” The principle of no fractions is being used by a bureaucracy to suppress that free discussion which constitutes the fluid life of the party. And the primary danger at the present moment is not fractions, but bureaucratism, which is destroying the fluid life of the party and causing fractions. It is an excellent sample – albeit an extremely cautious one – of that “dialectic” approach to reality which was the secret of Lenin’s political greatness. It is an example of that perfect flexibility of mind united with an inflexible will, which was Lenin’s greatness. But it is obvious that this kind of thinking demands an atmosphere of confidence. Hegel himself, who was the father of the idea of “dialectic thinking,” found some difficulty in distinguishing it from sophism. And Trotsky’s enemies had only to treat the principle of “no fractions” as an abstract law, a dogma of Leninism, and declare that Trotsky was really advocating fractions “between the lines,” as Zinoviev did, or that he “had advocated them” in the private meetings of the Committee, as Stalin did, in order to give to Trotsky’s very wisdom the look of sophistry. His very faithfulness to the method of Lenin made him vulnerable to their crass and dishonest attack.

The similarity of Trotsky’s thinking to that of Lenin is emphasised by the fact that, while the triumvirate are attacking him as a Menshevik in disguise, the Mensheviks are attacking him for not having the courage to be a Menshevik.

“He has not availed himself of one opportunity,” says their leader, Dan, in the Sozialistichesky Viestnik, Nos. 22-23 (Berlin), “to formulate clear and precise political inferences from his criticism of the Zinoviev course, and he has not missed one opportunity to take a stealthy jab at his opponents, to protrude his own personality, to decorate himself with the peacock feathers of senseless arch-revolutionary and bloodthirsty talk.”

To put it shortly, Trotsky is using the concept of “democracy” in a concrete situation, with a concrete meaning carefully defined, at a concrete time, to meet and solve a concrete problem, and he is leapt upon by the abstract dogmatists of democracy and the abstract dogmatists of anti-democracy alike, and with the same bitterness and the same stupid incomprehension. Lenin was forever finding himself in this position. His characteristic political attitude was to be in a state of motion with the concrete reality, while two sets of abstract dogmatists occupying fixed points on each side of him, howled.

Not many people in Russia truly understand the intellectual method of Lenin. We have Lenin’s own word that Bucharin does not understand it. [5] Zinoviev has proven that he does not understand it by announcing that “only Leninism, which Lenin and his co-workers, the old Bolshevik Guard, worked out as the theory of the proletarian revolution, can take Lenin’s place”! [6] Rykov has proven that he does not understand it by stating that “we are not going to introduce any changes into Leninism.” Nobody who understands what Lenin’s method of thinking was, could possibly say that any theory will take his place. Nobody who understands the role played by change in Lenin’s method of thinking, could possibly say that we are not going to introduce any changes into Leninism. Lenin’s place can only be taken by living minds who understand that method, and are as free from dogmatic and abstract formulations and fixed points as Lenin’s mind was. And this is what Trotsky understands.

“At every new problem, at every new turning point, the task is, not by any means to look up information in tradition and seek there the unexisting answer, but, on the basis of the whole experience of the party, to give a new self-dependent decision, which corresponds to the actual situation, and thus to enrich tradition.... If anything can be really fatal to the spiritual life of the party, and to the theoretic education of the young, it is the transformation of Leninism from a method which in its application requires initiative, critical thought, intellectual courage, into a canon which requires only interpreters with a permanent vocation.” [7]

If you know a little about human nature, you know that Trotsky has undertaken here a prodigious task. He has undertaken to keep alive the thinking of Lenin after his brain is dead and embalmed. And all the old religious, theological, metaphysical, absolutistical, canonical, scholastic and dogmatical-academic habits of the human race are against him. Only the fool of these habits could fail to detect, in this fanatical panic against Trotsky, the beginning of the transformation of Bolshevism from a science into a religion. The Russian Communist Party, from being the highest historic example of a purely practical idealistic organisation, is on the way to becoming a political church. From being an organisation whose value was relative, and whose laws were justified by its purpose, it is becoming an organisation whose value is absolute and its laws self-justified. You can convince yourself of this in a half-minute’s conversation with any properly indoctrinated “anti-Trotskyst” on the streets of Moscow. It was not only the beginnings of an official caste that Trotsky was attacking, but the beginnings of a priesthood as well.


1. A great many Marxians will consider this whole book of mine too personal. They will think I am concerned with the moral characters of people instead of the destinies of the revolution, and, unfortunately, the bourgeois reviewers will support this view. As a matter of fact, I have but little interest in moral indignation; I should have been glad to let the myth that all the leaders of the Bolshevik Party are “Supermen” die a natural death. It did good service in its day. My reason for demonstrating so exhaustively, and so often repeating, the fact that the attack upon Trotsky was and is dishonest, is not that I think this is the essence of the question, but that, unless he knows this, the western reader cannot possibly come at the essence of the question. Owing to the discipline of the party and the International, and the necessity of revolutionary solidarity in Russia, the whole news-explanation of this dispute is in the hands of the bureaucracy; and they are using Marxian ideas as weapons in a personal fight. The only way to get down to the facts which interest a Marxian, is to expose this dishonest use of Marxian ideas.

2. There are economic emoluments, to be sure, and special privileges which add to the value of office-holding in the organisation. They are tiny enough compared to the privileges and emoluments of the upper classes in a bourgeois society, but they are by no means insignificant. To lose them constitutes a pretty tragic change in a man’s personal life. They play an immense role, therefore, in explaining what has happened in Russia. But the fact remains that they are not a basis of ascendancy, but a privilege accorded to it. They are not owned.

3. Do not make the mistake of thinking that all of these officials were bureaucratised, or all of the Old Bolsheviks against Trotsky, or anything of that kind whatever. I am merely pointing to the most primitive and general egoistic force involved in the stampede against him. Trotsky himself declared that an “overwhelming majority” of these party workers were free from bureaucratic degeneration. Thousands of them were for him, and are still in their secret hearts. And, on the other hand, thousands of them are against him not through egoistic motives, but exactly because they want to sacrifice everything for “Leninism.” In a mood as heroic as it is undiscriminating, they have sacrificed their love of Trotsky for “Leninism,” and they are clinging to the ideal of the party and of “being impersonal” with their teeth set. Not only in Russia, but throughout the International, the strongest argument which supports the triumvirate may be summed up in this fallacious syllogism: “Leninism is a hard discipline; it is hard not to follow Trotsky; therefore it must be Leninism.”

4. Pravda, January 11th, 1924.

5. See p.30. [See Chapter 3Transcriber Note]

6. Bulletin of the Fifth Congress of the International.

7. Tradition and Revolutionary Politics, an essay in the brochure called The New Course.

Since Lenin Died

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Last updated on: 12 October 2009