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Since Lenin Died

Max Eastman

Since Lenin Died

Chapter V:
Trotsky’s Bad Tactics

IF Trotsky had been a great politician and not just a great man, consecrating himself with a rather naive directness to the task of carrying forward the living wisdom of Lenin, he would have exercised the utmost caution after winning this preliminary victory. He would have taken pains, in agitating for a sincere application of the programme of Workers’ Democracy, not to utter one word which might by the most inflamed imagination be conceived as overstepping the literal meaning of the words of that resolution. These words were abundantly adequate to his purpose.

But Trotsky had learned only the larger wisdom of Lenin, his mode of approaching and solving revolutionary problems. He had not learned his political craft, his sly art of handling human beings. And because of that quality in him which Lenin called “too great self-confidence,” Trotsky never could learn this art. Trotsky is not any more self-confident than Lenin, but he has a peculiar obtuseness to the feelings and reactions of others. He is full of his own purpose and his own idea, and lacks that instinctive sense of the purposes and ideas of others which would make him adroit in the achievement of his own. He behaves at times with the blundering presumptuousness of a child.

It was certainly a childlike blunder that Trotsky committed after gaining this preliminary victory. For instead of clinging like a leech to the literal wording of the resolution, he opened his agitation with a discourse richly illuminating it, a profoundly thoughtful and far-seeing essay on the resolution from the standpoint of one who sincerely and whole-heartedly believes in its application. Trotsky’s discourse took the form of a letter to be read at a meeting of his own party local – he being sick in bed with a fever and unable to address the meeting in person – a letter which would subsequently come before the party by way of publication in Pravda. In this letter Trotsky draws the outlines of a new day of revolutionary life and growth that is dawning for the party, and he draws it with the hand of a master of Marxism and the wisdom of Lenin. [1] He draws it, moreover, in essential fidelity to the resolution on Workers’ Democracy. He proposes no practical step that is not contained in that resolution. But through the mere breadth of his view and the natural richness of his mind – unrestrained by a sense of the political manoeuvre he is engaged in – he oversteps in two respects the literal wording of the resolution. And he oversteps it in two respects upon which there had evidently been a dispute in the meetings of the Politburo, and upon which Trotsky had evidently made a concession to the other side. There is no use minimising the blunder involved here, or the legitimate irritation which it may have caused to those who had just reached an agreement with him. But it is important that this blunder should be accurately defined.

It was universally recognised that the discontent with party bureaucracy was strongest among the Communist youth. And it was also recognised that this discontent often took the form of a protest against the excessive authority attributed to “Old Bolsheviks” as such. There was a certain restiveness under the extreme application of the “priority system,” which necessarily prevails in a revolutionary party surrounded with counter-revolutionary influences. Trotsky evidently wished to allude to this discontent in the resolution on Workers’ Democracy. He wished to explain it as a result of the excessive bureaucratism of the party, and as indicating a danger which could be eliminated only by a thorough-going application of the principles of Workers’ Democracy.

I say “evidently” because he did advance this point in his original letter to the Central Committee. In paragraph 12 of that letter he stated and emphasised the fact that the staff of the Old Bolsheviks is “the revolutionary leaven of the party and its organisational backbone,” and he added that the Old Bolsheviks ought to occupy all the governing positions in the party. But he pointed out that the universal system of appointing them from the top, and the creation of a whole self-sufficient officialdom of appointed secretaries, who identify themselves with old Bolshevism, creates a discontent which may in the future endanger that very leadership of the old underground fighters which every one agrees should be preserved.

In the resolution on Workers’ Democracy this reason for its application is not stated. The resolution simply demands a “strengthening of the party’s educative work, in every way avoiding its regimentary presentation ... especially among the Communist youth.”

It is impossible to doubt that Trotsky must have argued for a full statement of his point of view here, and in the process of arriving at a compromise agreed to leave it out. Nevertheless, he proceeded to expound it explicitly and eloquently in his first contribution to the discussion that followed. His exposition did not, of course, add anything to the practical measures advocated in the resolution. He did not offer a further programme, or any amplification of the programme contained in it. But he offered an additional reason for its sincere application, touching a theme which the others did not wish to touch. There is no denying that this was an improper thing to do. It was a typical example of that fault which Lenin called “too great self-confidence,” but which might perhaps be better described as forgetting all about the existence of the other man.

It is obvious that people cannot co-operate if they permit each other to make blunders of this kind. But it is also obvious that they cannot co-operate if, when one of them makes a blunder of this kind, he is not given an opportunity to correct it. And an essential point in understanding what followed the publication of Trotsky’s letter is the fact that it lay in the hands of his enemies, and was read by them, and its contents, were discussed by them for four days before it was published. Moreover, as that delay was unusual under these circumstances, Trotsky spoke to Stalin about it, and Stalin, with entire good humour and with a laughing reference to the contents of the letter, assured Trotsky that they were printing it in a forthcoming issue of the paper. Its contents were known before it was published to every important man subsequently involved in the attack upon Trotsky. It was also known to every one of these men that Trotsky is minutely scrupulous in living up to any agreement that he has made, and that he had been infinitely patient and reasonable in all the long process of arriving at this agreement. It is therefore inconceivable that, if any of these men had had a real desire to support that agreement and preserve the unity of the Politburo, he would not have telephoned to Trotsky and called his attention to his transgression of it before the letter was published.

What they did do was to decide that it would be possible, upon the basis of this indiscreetly discursive letter, to bring the war against Trotsky out into the open. They decided to attack him all at once, and from every direction, and with every weapon except intellectual honesty, and destroy his authority in the party. The enthusiasm for the programme of Workers’ Democracy had taught them that there was no other way to make fast the power of their bureaucratic machine, which was now completely identified in their minds with the perpetuation of “Leninism.”

I do not know circumstantially when this decision was reached, but I am convinced that it was reached only after the publication of Trotsky’s letter. The friendly way in which Stalin spoke to Trotsky about the letter before it was published is a reason for believing this. Another reason is, that on the day of its publication, December 11th, at a meeting of the 4,000 party workers of Moscow, addressed by both Zinoviev and Kamenev, Trotsky’s letter was discussed at some length, and no decisive attitude was adopted towards it. Zinoviev alluded to it with animosity, but only hinted that maybe it foretold a violation of the unanimity of the Politburo. And Kamenev strongly defended Trotsky’s letter – which he described as an incautious formulation – against the insinuation that it was intended to serve as an attack upon the other members of the Central Committee. A third reason is that two days after this meeting, Pravda published an article by Zinoviev [2] – written, I suppose, some days before – in which he had carried out in good faith the agreement that had been made with Trotsky. Trotsky’s letter having “pushed the resolution from beneath,” Zinoviev wrote an article “restraining it from above.” His article is not a direct reply to Trotsky, but its relevance is shown by the fact that in the opening paragraphs he repeats the very things Trotsky had said about the danger of a bureaucratic degeneration, citing the same “frightening example” of the German Social Democrats, and then proceeds to dwell at greater length upon the dangers that lie in the opposite direction. Two days after the publication of this temperate and dignified counter-statement, which was in keeping with the agreement that he had made with Trotsky, Zinoviev launched into a wild and ill-prepared tirade against him before the party workers of Petrograd. And on the same day that he did this – December 15th – Stalin published in Pravda an equally hasty and ill-considered, and almost incredibly brief and offhand denunciation of Trotsky, tacked on to the tail of a long article about other people. Those are some of the reasons why I am convinced that the decision to wage this personal war on Trotsky was made only after the publication of his letter. It was based upon the reception accorded to his letter, and not upon the contents of the letter.

A month later, after the campaign against Trotsky had attained the proportions of a stampede, Kamenev described with great eloquence how they had all realised on the very night when Trotsky’s letter was first read at the meeting of his local branch, that he had “gone to war” on the Central Committee. “For us,” he said, “– I can say it before this responsible assembly and you ought to weigh it well – for us all, when we learned late at night that Comrade Trotsky’s letter had been read at the meeting of the Krasno-Presninsky local at his request – for us all it was clear, and we could understand it, and we did understand it only thus: it was a rupture of the achieved agreement. Comrade Trotsky had gone to war on the Central Committee, notwithstanding the fact that every concession which he demanded had been made to him in order to achieve unanimity.” [3]

Now, if you will consider how unlikely it is that a man of mature years, to say nothing of a man possessing the poise of a great military leader, after spending the better part of a month in the painful labour of reaching an agreement, would take up his pen and paper the next morning and deliberately violate it; and if you will consider further the fact that Trotsky had no need to violate it in order to gain his ends – the agreement had been a victory for him, and not for them; and if you will consider further the fact that no ordinary person in all Russia, reading Trotsky’s letter in his morning paper, so much as imagined that it was a violation of the agreement; and if you will consider in addition the little incident of a good-natured conversation about the letter with Stalin himself, which I have upon Trotsky’s own authority; you will agree that it is not very probable that on the same night when Trotsky’s letter was read at a meeting of his local, all the other members of the Politburo instantaneously realised that Trotsky had “gone to war on the Central Committee.” And this will prepare you for the rather surprising news that Kamenev himself, at the meeting on December 11th – five days after this tragical midnight experience which he describes – not only spoke of Trotsky’s letter with perfectly friendly respect, but said in so many words that he did not know whether it was meant as an attack upon the Central Committee or not:

“That Comrade Sapronov agrees to take the formula of Trotsky, in order to beat the Central Committee, of that I have no doubt. But does Trotsky agree with Sapronov? That I don’t know. (Applause.) Like Radek, I regret that Trotsky used a formula which permitted Sapronov to seize it and direct it against the Central Committee ... The article of Trotsky needs supplementation and explanation.” (Pravda, for December 14th, 1923.)

I do not know the personal reasons for this misstep of Kamenev’s. Like the distant historian, I merely discover it in the documents which have come with me out of Russia. But I assume that by the middle of January Kamenev had preached himself into actually believing what he originally knew to be a myth. Kamenev is a great and sincere talker like John Wesley, the evangelist, who says in his diary: “Once the devil suggested to me that I did not believe what I was preaching, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll preach till I do!’”

Zinoviev, in his speech on December 11th before the Moscow party workers, spoke of Trotsky’s letter as “foretelling nothing good.” “We will see how the matter goes farther,” he said. “Whoever shall violate the achieved agreement will answer for it before the whole party.” [4]

In his wild speech before the party workers of Petrograd, four days later, he said: “We achieved an agreement, and what happened? The unanimous resolution was printed and the next day Comrade Trotsky contributed his letter which was an indubitable violation of the agreement.” [5]

It seems obvious that between these two speeches a definite decision was reached. And this obvious-seeming thing becomes certain when you remember that Kamenev’s statement at the Moscow meeting was in direct contradiction to Zinoviev’s. Kamenev said that Trotsky’s letter was not an indubitable violation of the agreement. The only question is, How was this decision reached and what was the exact nature of the decision? And the whole answer is, that the decision was reached without consulting Trotsky, or asking him to explain his letter, although he was accessible by telephone, and lying in bed not three minutes away from the probable scene of any discussion that occurred. Is it conceivable that, if the doubtful point to be decided was whether Trotsky had in fact deliberately violated the agreement and “gone to war on the Central Committee,” nobody would have asked him a question? I am not talking now about the words in which the decision may have been expressed by this or that person, but about the real nature of the decision. It was a decision, not that Trotsky had gone to war on the Central Committee, but that the Central Committee should go to war on Trotsky. “We have got to depopularise Trotsky,” is the way in which one of the leaders expressed this decision.

To sum up: For four days after Trotsky’s letter was first read to his local branch, and for four more days after it was published in Pravda, the whole rank and file of the party, and the non-party workers, and the general readers of Pravda, continued to breathe the air of relief that had been generated by the unanimous resolution on Workers’ Democracy. Accepting Trotsky’s letter as but a characteristically luminous and human interpretation of that resolution, they continued to believe that the party was going forward unanimously and sincerely on a new course. The atmosphere is indicated and the fact proven by these words from Pravda for December 13th: “The firm word has been spoken, the direction taken. The party will tranquilly and firmly accomplish its historic change of course.”

That tranquil and firm accomplishment of a real change of course was, as I have said, exactly what the enemies of Trotsky feared. It was the thing that would loose their artificial grip on a party that, in its natural action, trusted Trotsky more than it trusted them. Therefore they were faced with the alternative of accepting a substantial defeat in the personal war on Trotsky, or bringing that war out into the open and “daring to name him an enemy.” They decided – while he lay in bed with a chronic fever – that they dared to do it. And they proceeded to denounce his wise but indiscreet letter as a “Fractionalist Manifesto,” an “Attack on the Old Guard,” a “Pitting of the Youth against the Old Bolsheviks,” an “Insinuation against the Disciples of Lenin,” a “Giving of the Slogan, Shatter the Apparatus of the Party,” a manifestation of “Left Communism,” a manifestation of “Right Communism,” a “Resurrection of Menshevism,” a “Demand for the Legalisation of Fractions” – as everything and anything except what it was, a sincere declaration that the programme of Workers’Democracy was to be taken seriously, just as Lenin had originally intended it, as a turning point in the life of the party.


1. See Appendix VI.

2. Workers’ Democracy and the Problems of the Party Apparatus, Pravda, December 13th, 1923.

3. Speech printed in Pravda, January 12th, 1924.

4. The Fate of Our Party, by G. Zinoviev, p.93.

5. The Fate of Our Party, by G. Zinoviev, p.117. Italics mine.

Since Lenin Died

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Last updated on: 12 October 2009