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Since Lenin Died

Max Eastman

Since Lenin Died

Chapter VI:
Stalin’s Assault

THE reader who feels shut off from these facts by the barrier of language will perhaps find it hard to believe that the decision to destroy Trotsky by falsifying the meaning of his letter, was deliberate. In whose minds it was deliberate and whose were merely dragged along in the panic that followed, I am not able to say. But that the decision was deliberate is clearly proven not only by the date upon which the attack began and the intervening events I have described, but also – and beyond the shadow of doubt – by the perfectly wanton distortion and misinterpretation and direct turning upside-down of every word written and every position taken by Trotsky, both in his original letter and in his small series of supplementary articles, by the calumniation of his character, and the wrenching out of perspective of his whole history and the history of the party. To a detached reader the documents in this campaign of slander are so flagrant that, if he does not regard it as a deliberate perpetration, he can only conclude that the whole leadership of the Russian Communist Party has been in the hands of hysterics. The speeches and articles of Stalin and Zinoviev and Kamenev and Bucharin and their lieutenants, if regarded as a discussion of the points raised in Trotsky’s letter, would be thrown out of a prize essay contest in a school for defective children. But if regarded as an attempt to generate, by fair means or foul, the universal suspicion that Trotsky is an enemy of Leninism, to produce a thoughtless, blind, and convulsive stampede of the organisation men to throw him out, these speeches I command a certain respect. They show a keen sense of the emotional and intellectual weak points of the Russian Communist.

Of the reader who doubts whether this perpetration was deliberate, I demand the effort of minute attention to the following series of quotations. It is obvious that I cannot reproduce the whole fabric of falsification that has been weaved in the course of this discussion. I have read it all and listened to much of it, and I can only give you my assurance that these examples are typical, and they comprise all the essential points that have been advanced against Trotsky.

“Attacking the Old Guard”

Stalin opened the campaign in Pravda for December 15th with the sudden announcement that Trotsky’s letter was not a “summons to the members of the party to support heartily the Central Committee and its resolution,” but a disingenuous document which “could only be interpreted as an attempt to weaken the will of the members of the party toward an actual unity in support of the Central Committee and its position.” It was a “diplomatic attempt to support the Opposition in its struggle against the Central Committee of the party under the guise of a defence of the resolution of the Central Committee.”

This imputation to Trotsky of a duplicity and equivocation, which every stroke of his pen and every act of his lifetime of service to revolutionary truth belies, was necessary at the beginning of the campaign against him, because everybody was reading his letter. It was perfectly evident that it did not attack, but supported the resolution of the Politburo. A little later Trotsky’s letter and some supplementary articles in the pamphlet form were practically suppressed by the Politburo, and even when I left Moscow – though the crisis was past – it was still difficult to get a book seller to produce one. Under these circumstances it was no longer necessary to accuse Trotsky of meaning things he had not said. They simply declared that he had said things which he had not said. At the beginning, however, the whole campaign rested upon an “interpretation” of what were supposed to be “indirect hints” in Trotsky’s perfectly outspoken and only too ingenuous letter.

Let us read these “indirect hints” as they are quoted by Stalin:

The resolution of Workers’ Democracy declared that under the influence of the New Economic Policy the party is in danger of “a loss of the perspective of Socialist construction and of the world revolution; in danger of the degeneration of a part of the party workers as a result of their activities in close contact with a bourgeois milieu.”

Trotsky’s letter points out the obvious fact that no one is free from such danger, not even “we, the Old Bolsheviks.” Here is what he says:

“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 Liebknecht, 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 ... 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 ...”

This temperate and self-evident statement might almost be replaced with a quotation from Lenin: “History knows transformations of all kinds; to rely on conviction, loyalty, and other superlative spiritual qualities – that is no serious thing in politics.” [1] And it might be replaced with a quotation from the article, of Zinoviev, printed in Pravda two days before it [2]:

“One of the causes of the unheard-of collapse of the German Social Democracy, a once-powerful proletarian party, was undoubtedly the excess of workers’ bureaucracy and, in particular, the hardening of the party apparatus ... The party apparatus gradually degenerated and turned into a closed caste, hostile to the fundamental interests of the proletariat. The frightening example of the German Social Democracy ought to stand continually before the eyes of any mass proletarian party.”

Such a statement is obviously a natural amplification of what the resolution says about the danger of a “degeneration of a part of the party workers.” Nevertheless, from the pen of Trotsky this statement becomes a “hint about opportunism in regard to the Old Bolsheviks,” and upon the basis of this, and of this alone, Stalin declares that Trotsky, instead of “having in mind the interests of the party,” has in mind “designs for undermining the authority of the majority of the Central Committee, the guiding nucleus of the Bolshevik Old Guard.”

That Trotsky did not have in mind any hint or childishly concealed insult against the other members of the Central Committee is perfectly evident in what he said: “We ourselves,” who “naturally play the role of leadership in the party.” It is evident, moreover, in the whole texture of his character, his manner of life and intercourse with men, and his entire literary and political history. Trotsky himself told me that he had nothing of the kind in his mind when he wrote this sentence, and the fact needs no further proof for those who know him. But there is a proof which is interesting, and that is that Trotsky does not think that these other members of the Central Committee who are trying to destroy his authority, are examples of a “degeneration into opportunism.” I have talked with him about the principal figures among them, and he expressed very widely differing and very precisely discriminating opinions, and no one of these opinions could be brought under the head of a degeneration into opportunism. I think it is no great violation of confidence – and it is an important factor in the situation – to say that he described Stalin to me as, among other things, “a brave man and a sincere revolutionist.”

That Trotsky had not the remotest idea of “undermining the authority of the Bolshevik Old Guard,” is also perfectly evident in the paragraphs Stalin quoted. “We – our generation – naturally playing the role of leadership.” It is still more evident in a paragraph preceding what Stalin quoted, where Trotsky says that the more experienced comrades “inevitably enter into the apparatus,” and that is exactly why the problem of the old and the young arises in connection with the bureaucratisation of the apparatus. And lest that should not be enough, Trotsky reinforced this point in a postscript to his letter, printed with it in Pravda, in which he expressly alludes to the possibility of such a misinterpretation, and warns the reader against it. Here Trotsky makes it as clear as words can make it that what he is advocating is a real “party leadership” on the part of the Old Guard, as opposed to a “tight-shut secretarial regime of command.” And this, of course, is the whole sense and meaning of the resolution which had just been unanimously signed by the Politburo.

The simple fact is that Trotsky stated a thing here which is true, and which it was good for the party to hear, but which it was extremely bad manoeuvring for him to state at that moment, and Stalin was clever enough to see this, to grab Trotsky’s statement, falsify it, and use it as a weapon with which to assail Trotsky and turn his preliminary victory into a defeat. And Stalin had already in his hand so perfect a machine for the distribution and suppression of ideas that this falsification of Trotsky’s wise and temperate words has now become a rubber-stamp slogan with Communist editors all over the earth, and I have to sit here and read in the educational columns of L’Humanité, a year later, the outrageous statement – it is a flat lie, and nothing else – that Trotsky conducted “an impassioned criticism of the Bolshevik Old Guard.”

“Pitting the Youth against the Old”

But this accusation cannot properly be separated from the other one contained in Stalin’s article, namely, that Trotsky is “pitting the younger generation against the old” – “egging them on” is a more literal translation. Stalin quotes just two sentences from Trotsky’s letter to prove this statement. “The youth – the most reliable barometer of the party – reacts most sharply against party bureaucratism ... It is necessary that the youth should take the revolutionary formulas fighting.”

On the basis of these two sentences, snatched violently out of their context, Stalin delivers the following assault:

“Where did Comrade Trotsky get this setting-against-each-other of the ‘Old Guard’ who may degenerate and ‘the youth’ who constitute ‘the most reliable barometer of the party,’ the ‘Old Guard’ who may bureaucratise and the ‘Young Guard’ who must ‘take the revolutionary formulas fighting?’ Whence comes this opposition and for what is it needed? Haven’t the youth and the Old Guard gone always with a united front against the foe within and without? Doesn’t the unity of the old and the young represent the fundamental strength of our revolution? Whence this attempt to uncrown the Old Guard and demagogishly tickle the youth, so as to open and widen the little rift between these fundamental troops of our party? To whom is all this useful, if you have in view the interests of the party, its unity, its solidarity, and not an attempt to weaken its unity for the benefit of an opposition?” [3]

The question, Where did Trotsky get this subject of discussion? – perfectly well understood by Stalin from the endless debates in the Politburo – was answered in the sentence just preceding one of those which Stalin quoted:

“To the extent that the most experienced comrades, and those distinguished by service, inevitably enter into the apparatus [4] 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.”

And that Trotsky’s purpose was not to “set against each other” the youth and the older generation, but exactly the contrary, to prevent by a thorough abandonment of bureaucratic methods the possibility of such a setting-against-each-other, is stated explicitly four times in this brief letter and its postscript:

“In as 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 quotation is surely sufficient to make it indubitable what Trotsky really said. He said that since the Old Bolsheviks inevitably play the role of leadership in the party, therefore the only way to avoid a gradual “setting-against-each-other” of these Old Bolsheviks and the rising generation, is for the latter to make this a genuine leadership (as described by the resolution of the Politburo) and not a regime of bureaucratic command.

Stalin, by first pretending that Trotsky has attacked the leadership of the Old Bolsheviks, is able to carry off the pretence that he is trying also to “set against each other” the two generations.

Any grown person can see at a glance what happened here. Both Stalin and Trotsky, and indeed every sincere revolutionist in Russia, was aware of the flagrancy of the bureaucratic methods employed in the party, of the special reaction against them among the youth, and of the dangers involved. But those bureaucratic methods, presided over by Stalin, were the source of his power. And that revival of initiative would automatically transfer the substance of that power to Trotsky, for the simple reason that the mass of the party, just like all the rest of the world, recognised Trotsky’s superior moral and intellectual revolutionary greatness. Therefore Stalin was compelled to sign a resolution attacking his own bureaucracy and demanding a revival of party initiative, and at the same time prevent its thorough-going application. He saw Trotsky bringing all the powers of his personality, his art of objective and concise thinking, his mastery of Marxism, and of the method of Lenin, his sensitivity to political facts, and his great literary skill, into the field in support of that resolution. He saw that Trotsky’s letter was enthusiastically received by an immense majority of the party. And, having no weapon left but his brutality, he walked up and hit Trotsky over the head with a club. That is the real meaning of Stalin’s sudden and dishonest article in Pravda for December 15th. And that is the only real fact which lies behind the universally advertised opinion that Trotsky attacked the leadership of the OldBolsheviks, or attempted to pit the younger generation against the old.


1. Lenin, Complete Works, Vol.XVIII., Part 2, p.42.

2. December 13th, 1923.

3. See Appendix VII.

4. My italics.

Since Lenin Died

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Last updated on: 12 October 2009