Eastman Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Since Lenin Died

Max Eastman

Since Lenin Died

Chapter IV:
The Resolution on Workers’ Democracy

IN order to understand what happened after Lenin’s collapse and complete withdrawal from the Government, you must know that Trotsky had the support not only of Lenin, but also of the underlying masses of the party membership. Any measure tending to give these masses a fresh and free opportunity to express themselves, would have resulted in the elevation of Trotsky to exactly the position of superior influence which Lenin desired for him. Without realising this, you cannot penetrate beneath the ideological surface of the dispute which followed. For it was a dispute about reducingthe party bureaucratism [1], and giving to these under lying masses a real and continuous opportunity to express themselves.

Hardly more than six months after Lenin’s collapse a crisis arose, which forced home this question upon every alert mind in the Central Committee as the critical question of the day. In that crisis Trotsky demanded a thoroughgoing abandonment of bureaucratic methods, and a return to Lenin’s original programme of “Workers’ Democracy.” The Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev machine also advocated this change – being compelled to it by the flagrancy of the conditions they had created, as well as by the authority of Lenin and Trotsky – but they advocated it with the firm determination that it should not go far enough to endanger their control, or result in the elevation of Trotsky to that position which the rank and file of the party desired for him. That is the whole real explanation of that confusing dispute about bureaucratism and Workers’ Democracy which shook the Russian Communist Party to its depths, and has disturbed the equilibrium of the whole international movement.

The crisis I refer to occurred in September 1923. An acute economic depression was causing discontent among the workers and peasants, in some cities even giving rise to strikes – a phenomenon as portentous as it is rare in Soviet Russia. And at the same time two secret societies were discovered within the Communist Party, called the “Workers’ Group” and “Workers’ Truth” – the one Menshevik in tendency, the other Anarcho-syndicalist. A number of members of the party who belonged to these groups were arrested, the groups were immediately disbanded and those members expelled. But obviously that was merely a treatment of the symptoms. The question remained how to explain this phenomenon, and how to prevent its recurrence in the future. And it was fairly obvious to all thoughtful Communists that these conspiracies were formed below because the party was too much ruled by appointment from above. Among the broad masses there was no initiative, no free discussion, no opportunity for the rank and file member to exercise a normal influence upon the conduct of affairs.

It is important to understand that it was not Trotsky alone who realised this. It was not he alone who pointed to the bureaucratisation of the party as the cause of this crisis, and demanded its correction by a programme of party democracy. [2] The initiative in this direction was quite general. The difference between Trotsky’s demand and that of the heads of the bureaucracy themselves, was that Trotsky’s demand was not qualified by contrary considerations of a personal nature. He could advocate that the party be thoroughly and genuinely revived from the bottom without the fear that such a revival would destroy his own influence. The triumvirate could not do so, because it would weaken them and take the control of the party out of their hands. Thus arose that peculiar situation which has been so difficult for western Communists to understand: Trotsky and the triumvirate split upon the programme of “Workers’ Democracy,” yet upon that programme they were all verbally agreed.

Another thing should be clearly understood: this programme of democracy within the party – called “Workers’ Democracy” by Lenin – was not something new or specially devised to meet this crisis. It was a part of the essential policy of Lenin for going forward toward the creation of a Communist society – a principle adopted under his leadership at the Tenth Congress of the party, immediately after the cessation of the civil war. [3] It was not put into operation then because of special objective conditions – the Cronstadt rebellion, the introduction of the New Economic Policy. Trotsky merely revived this original plan of Lenin, and demanded that it be enacted now in a different situation of which it was obviously the true solution. And the heads of the bureaucracy were compelled – in the name of “Leninism” – to join with him in reviving this programme. But in the name of their own ascendancy, they were compelled to continue to postpone its thorough-going enactment. Trotsky was perfectly aware of this, and he addressed a letter to the Central Committee on October 8th which, although temperate and cautious in describing the programme to be adopted, insisted with the utmost vigour that it must be adopted, and that it must be sincerely put into effect.

Trotsky’s letter – from which I have translated some essential paragraphs in Appendix IV – concluded with the following statement:

“It is known to the members of the Central Committee and Central Control Committee, that while fighting with all decisiveness and definiteness within the Central Committee against a false policy, I decisively declined to bring the struggle within the Central Committee to the judgment even of a very narrow circle of comrades, in particular those who in the event of a reasonably proper party course ought to occupy prominent places in the Central Committee. I must state that my efforts of a year and a half have given no results. This threatens us with the danger that the party may be taken unawares by a crisis of exceptional severity ... In view of the situation created, I consider it not only my right, but my duty to make known the true state of affairs to every member of the party whom I consider sufficiently prepared, matured, and self-restrained, and consequently able to help the party out of this blind alley without fractional convulsions.”

This honest and clear avowal gave to Trotsky’s enemies the opportunity to “censure” him for an action tending to “initiate a fraction,” and to set afloat the rumour that Trotsky is impulsive in a crisis and incapable of discipline. [4] It is quite plain that if Trotsky were forming a fraction in a party in which fractions were forbidden, he would not have made this honest and clear avowal. And if you wish to consider facts and not forms, Trotsky’s scrupulous abstinence from consultation with any party member outside the Central Committee for the whole period during which an efficient political machine was built up, in flagrant defiance of the principle of party unity, in order to deprive him of power, is nothing less than a miracle of submission to discipline. Trotsky made no motion against the proceeding so long as its result was merely to deprive him of power. When he felt that the revolution was endangered by it, he moved. Trotsky is the most disciplined character I ever knew. He is the one I would most implicitly trust to carry out to the last punctilious detail, and without regard to his own impulses or emotions, any line of conduct which he had decided was right. And if there is another equally striking trait of his character, it is that he has not enough ordinary human diplomacy in him to form a personal fraction if he wanted to. He does not know how to gather people around him, and that, as I have explained, is the very reason, why he has fumbled the torch of leadership which Lenin tried to hand on to him.

On October 15th the Central Committee received a letter signed by forty-six well-known party members, representing a great variety of positions and points of view, expressing a trend of opinion similar to that in Trotsky’s letter, and testifying to a strong current of feeling in the party in favour of the “New Course.” At the same period Radek addressed a letter to the Central Committee, in which, while not pronouncing upon the questions raised by Trotsky, he expressed urgently the necessity of reaching a working agreement with him. Pushed by these signs of party opinion, as well as by their own sense of the necessity of it, the controlling group proceeded to draw up a rather half-hearted programme of ‘’Workers’ Democracy.’’ Trotsky emphatically rejected as unsatisfactory to him this first draft of the programme, and they appointed a new committee, with Trotsky on it, to draw up another. That committee succeeded in arriving at a form of words satisfactory to Trotsky – it was quite obviously in its main features dictated by him – and the Resolution on Workers’ Democracy was signed unanimously by all the members of the Politburo and the Central Control Committee.

Before signing this resolution, Trotsky took the precaution to state formally that it was understood between him and the other signatories that he believed the programme should be “pushed from beneath,” and he would agitate in that sense, while they believed that its enactment should be restrained from above, and they would interpret it in that sense. And in order that there should be some record of this formal understanding, he accompanied his signature with a “special opinion” to the effect that he agreed to the resolution only upon condition that it should be regarded as a practical programme actually to be put in operation, and not a mere formula designed to quiet an agitation and serve a temporary political purpose.

The resolution was published in Pravda on December 7th, with the unanimous signature of the leaders of the party. And the whole party membership – not to say the whole of Russia – breathed a sigh of relief. The issue had been met, a decision made, and the party was going forward on a “New Course,” which was but the full enactment of a long-familiar policy of Lenin.

That was the ideological aspect of the thing. But it is obvious that the dynamic problem – the conflict of personal forces – had not been resolved. The resolution on Workers’ Democracy was exceedingly drastic in its attribution of the current troubles to the bureaucratisation of the party, and in demanding an absolutely new regime of “free discussion and election of governing officials and collegiums from top to bottom.” Its form of expression was a complete victory for Trotsky, and if it were put into operation by a disinterested power, the result would have been an automatic increase of Trotsky’s authority and the triumph of his policies in the Central Committee. Since, however, it was to be put into operation by the very bureaucracy which it attacked, and since this bureaucracy was inflexibly determined to hold its power at the expense of Trotsky, it is plain that nothing had been finally settled. Trotsky’s victory was merely a preliminary one. He had gained the right, under the literal meaning of the resolution, to agitate for a genuine stoppage of the system of bureaucratic appointments, and a genuine revival of party initiative, such as would break the strangle-hold of the triumvirate, and give him and those whom he trusted an authority in the governing organ of the party. And he had reinforced that right, and insured himself in the possession of it, by a formal announcement and a written declaration that he intended to agitate for just such a genuine application of the literal meaning of the resolution. That was all that he had achieved, and that was all that had been settled by the unanimous adoption of the resolution on Workers’ Democracy.


1. Lenin had already sounded the alarm more than once in regard to the bureaucratisation of the party. In that very article about Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, which the ruling group attempted to suppress, he said: “Our new Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, we hope, will leave behind the quality which the French call pruderie, which we may call a ridiculous affectation and a ridiculous self-importance, which is to the last degree characteristic of all our bureaucrats, Soviet bureaucrats and party bureaucrats alike. In parenthesis be itsaid that we have a bureaucracy not only in the Soviet institutions, but in the party too.”

2. Bucharin described the situation at the beginning of the discussion in just as extreme language as any ever used by Trotsky: “If we conducted an investigation,” he said, “and inquired how often our party elections are conducted with the question from the chair, ‘Who is for?’ and ‘Who is against?’ we should easily discover that in the majority of cases our elections to the party organisations have become ’elections’ in quotation marks, for the voting takes place not only without preliminary discussion, but according to the formula ‘Who is against?’ And, since to speak against the authorities is a bad business, the matter ends right there. Such is the election of the secretaries of our lower branches.

“If you raise the question of our party meetings, then how does it go here? ... Election of the praesidium of the meeting. Appears some comrade from the District Committee, presents a list, and asks, ‘Who is against?’ Nobody is against, and the business is considered finished ... With the order of the day, the same procedure ... The President asks, ‘Who is against?’ Nobody is against. The resolution is unanimously adopted. There you have the customary type of situation in our party organisations ... It goes without saying that this gives rise to an enormous wave of dissatisfaction. I gave you several examples from the life of our lowest branches. The same thing is noticeable in a slightly changed form in the succeeding ranks of our party hierarchy.” (From a speech subsequently quoted by Trotsky. See the Stenographic Report of the Thirteenth Congress of the Party, p.154)

3. The following sentences from the resolutions of the Tenth Congress will show this programme in its origin:

“A party of revolutionary Marxism radically rejects the search for any form of party organisation that shall be right absolutely and valid for all stages of the revolutionary process, and likewise any such method of work. On the contrary, the form of organisation and the methods of work are entirely determined by the specific character of the given historic situation and the problems which arise directly out of that situation ... The needs of the current moment demand a new organisational form. That form is Workers’ Democracy. A course of Workers’ Democracy shall be adopted with the same decisiveness, and as energetically carried into execution, as in the period just past the course toward militarisation of the party, to the extent that this does not meet an obstacle in the need for struggle with the counter-revolution.” (Stenographic Report of the Tenth Congress, pp.128ff.)

4. See Appendix V.

Since Lenin Died

Eastman Internet Archive   |   Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on: 12 October 2009