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Since Lenin Died

Max Eastman

Since Lenin Died

Chapter II:
The Anti-Bonaparte Fraction

A LEGEND has been created and carefully nourished by those now in power in Russia that Trotsky attempted to use his popularity, after Lenin’s death, in order to manoeuvre himself into a position of leadership that Lenin did not want him to have. The fact that Lenin urged upon Trotsky his place at the head of the Government, and that Trotsky declined it, completely discredits this legend. But it leaves a perplexing question in its place. Why did Trotsky decline the elevated position which Lenin offered him? The correct answer I to that question will give you the key to everything that follows. He declined it because he has no ideal whatever of personal political manoeuvring. He has nothing but a complete incapacity for it. He is not only unable to play this game for personal motives, but he is unable to play it when his most impersonal ideals demand that he should. He knows how to fight his enemies, but he does not know how to manage his friends. He does not know how to manipulate men.He has no impulse to do it. He never thinks of it. That is his great weakness.

If Trotsky had appeared at the first break as Lenin’s substitute, the whole party and the whole world would have been set right about their relations, and more than half of what has happened would have been impossible; and certainly any man consciously entering a struggle for power would have grabbed this first and obviously essential strategic moment. Trotsky was incapable of seeing his duty as a struggle for personal power within the party. He was incapable of living the life of the party in those terms. “An intellectual struggle within the party,” he said once, “does not mean mutual rejection, but mutual influence.” [1] And he continued to act upon this maxim after Lenin withdrew, although it then quite obviously ceased to be true. Stalin and Zinoviev and Kamenev had already, at the very beginning of Lenin’s decline, formed a block against Trotsky in the Politburo, the ruling committee of the party. Trotsky was in a continual minority there at the source of power. He knew that he would be baulked at every point as the head of the Government. He knew, I suppose, his own inability to wheedle and coax. He is a natural commander. The situation was complicated, moreover, by his disagreement with Lenin upon that fundamental question of “Government planning,” upon which Lenin subsequently yielded to him. All this would have made no difference if he had seen the situation as the “triumvirate” saw it – as a struggle for power in the future. He saw it as an impossible situation in the present. And with a quixotic objectiveness which is far harder to understand than calculating ambition, he declined Lenin’s proposal that he should become the head of the Soviet Government, and thus of the revolutionary movement of the world. That peculiar reaction – an over-correction, perhaps, of the personal egotism which would dominate a simpler man in such a situation – does not command my admiration. I think it is a misfortune, but it is the fact about Trotsky’s action at this time, and about his character in general. And without understanding this fact andthis character you will not understand the events that followed.

This act of Trotsky’s was simply an invitation to his enemies to perfect and solidify the block which they had already formed against him among the leaders of the party. With Stalin – who possesses all the craftiness that Trotsky lacks – in the key position as secretary of the party, and with Zinoviev enthusiastically cooperating, Kamenev not unwilling, and Bucharin easy to influence, they proceeded, by all those subtle means which the reader understands, to build up an efficient political machine for grabbing and holding the power within the party. The ideology which served them in building up this fractional machine in a party in which fractions are forbidden, was that Trotsky is a potential Bonaparte – or a potential Danton, there was some disagreement about this at the beginning! – and that the revolution must be saved from the danger involved in his popularity.

There are two mistakes which you can make here. One is to imagine that this fractional machine was not deliberately built up, and built up for this specific purpose. The other is to imagine that mere personal ambition was the motive to it. These men were undoubtedly aided by their own thirst of power in arriving at the conviction that they were the true Bolsheviks, and that there was something fundamentally wrong with Trotsky. But the conviction was nevertheless sincere and profound. It is largely explained by the fact that Trotsky stands so high above all the others, both in intellect and self-dependent force, that if he gained an ascendant influence, he would inevitably occupy a position similar to that of Lenin. He would be a single leader. Whereas if his ascendancy could be prevented, there would be no leader – just a group of the old disciples of Lenin, replacing him with their collective wisdom. It is perfectly intelligible that people, who loved Lenin, and had so long followed him, should resent the idea of any leader in his place. Many even of the heartiest admirers of Trotsky felt this emotion. It was easy for his enemies to persuade themselves that in forming a conspiracy against him – a company which can best be described as “Bonaparte Limited” – they were not serving their own selfish ambitions, butthe true interests of “Leninism.”

They did persuade themselves of this. And since it was not objectively true, it carried them into the most extreme absurdity and inconsistency. It carried them to the point of suppressing the writings of Lenin himself, in order to make sure that “Leninism” should not suffer from the increasing prestige which those writings insisted upon giving to Trotsky.

For Lenin did not stop with a formal offer of his place of leadership to Trotsky. He continued to regard Trotsky as his best representative, and the real defender of his policies in the party counsels. Lenin fell sick for the last time in the late autumn of 1922, but from his house in the country he exercised a guiding influence in the party until March, 1923, when a complete collapse withdrew him from political life. And during that last winter when he was compelled to act indirectly, he appealed to Trotsky on three different occasions, and with increasing anxiety, to defend their common policies against this group which had taken control in his absence. The first time it was upon the all-important question of the monopoly of foreign trade. The controlling group had passed a resolution introducing exceptions into this fundamental principle of Lenin’s policy. Trotsky objected; and Lenin, after an extended correspondence with him, stated in a letter dated December, 1922, that he and Trotsky were in “maximum agreement,” and delegated to him the defence of their common view-point at the coming convention of the party. At that convention – in April, 1923 – Trotsky laid down the principle, now universally accepted, that the monopoly of foreign trade is “one of the pillars of the Socialist dictatorship in the circumstances of capitalist encirclement.”

The second time when Lenin called upon Trotsky to defend their common policy, an even more fundamental feature of “Leninism” was at stake – namely, his views on the “National Question.” Stalin and Djerzinsky had been sent to Georgia to investigate a dispute involving the autonomy of the smaller republics entering into the Socialist Soviet Union. Their investigation had apparently made things worse instead of better, and Lenin wrote a series of three Notes – also in December 1922 – in which he criticised their abandonment of his policies in very extreme language. He said, among other things:

“I think the hastiness and administrative impulsiveness of Stalin played a fatal role here, and also his spite against the notorious ‘social-chauvinism’; spite in general plays the worst possible role in politics. I fear also that Djerzinsky ... distinguished himself by his true Russian disposition (it is well known that Russified people of foreign birth always overshoot themselves in the matter of the true Russian disposition) ...  [2]

I wrote long ago in my works on the national question, that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalities is of no use whatever. It is necessary to distinguish the nationalism of the oppressing nations from the nationalism of the oppressed ...

Internationalism from the side of the oppressing, or so-called great nations (although they are great only in their violations) must consist in observing not only a formal equality, but an equality which would destroy upon their side that inequality which is created factually in real life. Any one who has not understood this, decidedly does not understand the proletarian attitude to the national question; he remains essentially at the petty-bourgeois view-point, and therefore may slide at any moment into the bourgeois view-point ...

It behooves us to hold Stalin and Djerzinsky politically responsible for this genuine great Russian nationalistic campaign.”

It was in his effort to combat this campaign, and check the further influence of the viewpoint of Stalin and Djerzinsky at the party convention, that Lenin turned to Trotsky. The great significance of the following letter is obvious. It was written when Lenin was exiled to the country, but still exercising a guiding influence in the Government. It was a few weeks before the relapse which withdrew him entirely from politics.

“March 5, 1923.
Strictly Secret, Personal.

ESTEEMED COMRADE TROTSKY, – I would earnestly request you to take upon yourself the defence of the Georgian affair at the party convention. That affair is now under investigation at the hands of Stalin and Djerzinsky. I cannot rely upon their impartiality, indeed just the contrary. If you would agree to undertake its defence, then I could be at rest. If for some reason you do not agree, then return to me all the papers. I will regard it as a sign of your disagreement.

With the very best comradely greetings,

With this letter to Trotsky, Lenin enclosed an article on the national question, and the three Notes from which I have quoted. And he instructed his secretary to write at the same time to Kamenev, then Chairman of the “Politburo” [3], stating that he had intended to speak at the coming convention on the national question, that he regarded this article as of leading importance, and attributed great significance to it, and that he had authorised Trotsky to defend their common position. This letter to Kamenev he enclosed to Trotsky.

Trotsky immediately communicated to the Central Committee of the party the letter of Lenin, his article, and the three Notes, stating that he was in full accord with the view-point of Lenin. He said that in view of the leading importance of these writings he had made a copy for himself. And he added that since it was evident, both from the letter to him and the letter to Kamenev, that Lenin intended his article to be read at the party convention, he would await an answer from the Central Committee as to whether they agreed to read it or not. A disagreement he would consider a tacit desire to conceal it, and for that he disclaimed all responsibility before the party.

The article which Lenin considered of “leading importance,” and which he designed to have read at the party convention, but which constituted a direct attack upon the authority of Stalin, and a corresponding endorsement of the authority of Trotsky, was not read at the party convention, the triumvirate deciding that it was for the welfare of the party to suppress it.

The third appeal which Lenin made to Trotsky in those last days, was literally a cry for help against the suppression of his writings by this intra-party machine. And again it was an attack upon the authority of Stalin, and indirectly a confirmation of the authority of Trotsky, that the machine was suppressing. Lenin’s article was a demand for the reorganisation of a commissariat called “Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection.” This commissariat had been designed by Lenin to exercise the direct control of the party over the Government, and its personnel was identical with that of the “Central Control Committee” of the party. Stalin had stood for a long time at the head of this commissariat – to which Lenin had really confided the task of making the Government follow the lines of scientific communism. Trotsky moreover had long criticised the conduct of it. Nothing could be more disastrous to the authority of Stalin, and to the machine of which he was the centre, than an attack by Lenin himself upon this commissariat. And Lenin’s attack was absolutely denunciatory and unqualified.

“The People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection does not enjoy at the present time a shadow of authority. Everybody knows that a worse organised institution than this one does not exist, and that under the present conditions you can ask nothing whatever of this institution.”

Bucharin, the editor of Pravda, who had already come under the influence of the anti-Trotsky machine, withheld Lenin’s article from publication. Lenin, not seeing his article in Pravda, became very much agitated, and asked his wife to telephone and insist upon its immediate publication. She did this, and she added that Lenin was dangerously agitated by its non-appearance. The article did not appear, however, and again Lenin was compelled to appeal to Trotsky to interfere on behalf of their common viewpoint. At his direction his wife telephoned to Trotsky, saying that Lenin requested him to insist upon the immediate publication of his article. Trotsky did as Lenin requested, and in view of the resistance offered, he proposed an immediate meeting of the Politburo. All those present at the meeting, including the secretaries, were not only against the policies proposed by Lenin, but they were against the publication of the article. And one of the secretaries, Kuibishev, proposed that they should print one number of Pravda containing the article, in order to show it to Lenin and quiet his agitation, but conceal the article from the party. Trotsky, backed up by the authority of Lenin and the fear of a premature scandal, succeeded in overcoming the resistance of Stalin’s machine, and the article was published. But the degree to which the policies outlined by Lenin have been followed may be inferred from the fact that Kuibishev, the ingenious secretary, is now the People’s Commissioner of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, and the head of the Central Control Committee of the party. [4]

Of course Stalin and his supporters would defend their action by saying that Lenin, having been confined in the country for four months, was out of touch with the actual situation. They could not pretend that he was not in the full possession of his faculties, because the article itself is a piece of political thinking as masterly as any that Lenin ever did. The title, Better Less and Better, has become a Communist proverb. And the article has been regarded by the members of the party, ignorant of its history, as a landmark in Soviet policy. Sentences from it have even been quoted by the triumvirate in order to prove to the party that there was a divergence of policy between Trotsky and Lenin!

Just where Trotsky stood in relation to the policies of Lenin is illustrated in a subsequent incident, involving this same secretary and Kommissar, Kuibeshev. The Politburo was discussing changes in the organisation of the Red Army, designed to weaken the power of Trotsky. Trotsky frankly stated to them that the real motive of their act had nothing in common with the motives officially announced. And Kuibeshev answered him just as frankly:

“We consider it necessary to fight you, and we cannot declare you an enemy; that is why we are compelled to resort to such methods.” [5]

It could hardly be an accident that the necessity to hoodwink Lenin and the necessity to fight Trotsky should have been voiced by the same man – and that man subsequently advanced into one of the most responsible posts in the party and the Government. It goes to prove what all these other facts and documents prove – that there was a condition of sharp conflict in the governing circles of the party, both before and after Lenin’s final collapse, and that the alignment of forces in that conflict was exactly opposite to what has been sedulously advertised by the victorious group. Trotsky with his back to the wall – and without any signs of tact or political subtlety – was defending the policies of Lenin against an opposing group, who were acting with an eye to power in the future.

The friendship of Lenin and Trotsky ended as it began, with Trotsky in the role of Lenin’s Big Stick.


1. See Appendix II.

2. Djerzinsky is of Polish origin.

3. The group of seven members of the Central Committee of the party – the governing authority in Russia.

4. The committee which looks after the Communist ethics of the members and controls the placing of them in the Government.

5. There is no mystery about my possession of this and the foregoing information; it is all contained in official documents stolen by counter-revolutionists and published in Russian, at Berlin, in the Sotzialistichesky Viestnik. This paper, which is a remnant of Menshevism, publishes a great deal of nonsense and irresponsible rumour about Russia, but the authenticity of these documents is recognised by the Bolsheviks. I took pains to assure myself of it absolutely before leaving Russia. One of the documents is a letter of Trotsky to the Central Committee, answering an intimation that he was opposed to “Leninism.” It is that letter which verified all the facts related above – most of which I had already found out in a less precise way in Russia. It is needless to say that I never spoke about any of these matters with Trotsky. I conversed with him only twice after this dispute began, and for about twenty minutes in all. Our first conversation was in regard to my biographical portrait of his youth. It occurred, however, in the midst of the clamour about The New Course, and I asked him one or two questions about that. All that I learned from him I have attributed to him in the text. Subsequently I met him for a moment accidentally; I told him then that I knew about The Testament of Lenin, and he told me to regard whatever I knew as an “absolute secret.” That has been an additional reason for my delay in writing this article.

Since Lenin Died

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Last updated on: 12 October 2009