The red Jacobins: Thermidor and the Russian revolution in 1921

Lenin and Trotsky.
Lenin and Trotsky.

Stalin was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, as conscious agent of the bureaucratic elite that stole power and bloodily repressed opposition. But did Lenin and Trotsky’s earlier suppression of party factions fatally secure his passage to total power? Mark Hoskisson argues that the anti-Stalinist left has underestimated the significance of 1921 in sealing the fate of the revolution

Submitted by Eleanor on September 24, 2010

Stalin was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, as conscious agent of the bureaucratic elite that stole power and bloodily repressed opposition. But did Lenin and Trotsky’s earlier suppression of party factions fatally secure his passage to total power? Mark Hoskisson argues that the anti-Stalinist left has underestimated the significance of 1921 in sealing the fate of the revolution

In 1936 the Russian Communist paper, Pravda, wrote of Stalin that he was the “genius of the new world, the wisest man of the epoch, the great leader of communism.” Pravda, a paper that began its life seething with hatred for authority and exposing the crimes of dictators was, by the 1930s, spewing forth endless fawning articles about the great leader. Communism had become a cult.

Stalin became the General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party in 1922. At that time Lenin and Trotsky were both authoritative leaders of that organisation and of the state it ruled. Lenin fell ill in 1923 and died in early 1924. Trotsky commenced his opposition to Stalin in 1923-24. In 1928 he was exiled, first internally and later from the country whose destiny he had so decisively helped shape.

Stalin was the architect of a sweeping bureaucratic counter-revolution in the 1920s. He was the butcher of the Bolshevik Party in the 1930s and one of the most hideous bureaucratic dictators of the twentieth century. In the run up to World War Two Stalin used the “theory” of “socialism in one country” as an excuse to back various imperialist powers and subordinate the class struggle in the countries of his temporary allies to his narrow foreign policy needs. The result of this strategy was an endless round of terrible, often bloody, defeats for the world working class.

Stalin banned all independent, let alone radical, thought and helped pave the road back to capitalism in Russia less than 80 years after it was overthrown. Stalin was responsible for untold human suffering. Pravda’s sycophantic words about Stalin, which are typical of the vast self-serving propaganda machine he created, will induce nausea in any genuine militant.

The greatest historical event of the twentieth century, the working class revolution in Russia in October 1917, was utterly and completely betrayed. Its legacy is the memory of Stalin’s salt mines and gulags, his famines and bread queues, his secret police and his murderous tyranny.

The left critique

On the Trotskyist left the received wisdom is that Stalin began his counter-revolution in 1923-24 and that he completed it in 1928. During this five year period Trotsky’s Left Opposition fought and was defeated inside Russia. For the following five years, according to Trotsky, it remained possible to unseat Stalin through the reform of both the Communist Party and the Soviet State. Only with the victory of fascism in Germany in 1933 and the refusal of the Russian Communist Party or any section of the Communist International to recognise that Stalin’s policy was to blame for Hitler’s triumph, did Trotsky argue that the political counter-revolution was complete and the need for a new party and new revolution were now on the agenda.

On the anarchist and libertarian left the view is that the counter-revolution began more or less immediately after the Bolsheviks took power. According to most anarchist historians it was underway when the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty was signed in early 1918 and the Left Social Revolutionaries (Left SRs) quit the government as a result. It was in full swing in July 1918 when the Left SRs were suppressed following an attempted rising against the Bolshevik government. The final and irreversible triumph of the counter-revolution was the suppression of the Kronstadt Soviet’s rising in 1921, the key event of the counter-revolution for anarchists.

The difference between the Trotskyist and anarchist viewpoint is symptomatic of an ideological gulf between anarchism and communism. This article does not share the anarchist theoretical explanation of the counter-revolution: namely that the Bolshevik Party was inherently autocratic; that its functioning prior to the revolution prefigured its later authoritarian actions; and that both parties and states are an anathema in the working class’ struggle for liberation.

Rather the Bolshevik Party was a key agency that helped make the working class revolution possible; the workers’ state was vital in the struggle to defend working class power; and Bolshevism’s descent into counter-revolution marked a distinct break with, not a continuation of, its fundamental character and policies in the period 1912 to 1920.

But do our differences with anarchism make the Trotskyist position – and the movement that has held to this position for over 80 years – correct? Surely the debris of the Trotskyist movement today as well as its history of splits, manoeuvres and sharp practices, should prompt us to at least ask the question: is there a connection between the state it is in today and the lessons it has drawn regarding the timing and character of the counter-revolution in Russia? After all, despite the time that has elapsed since 1917, most of the groups calling themselves Trotskyist model their internal regimes, their methods of organisation and action on the lessons of Bolshevik history in one way or another.

Trotskyist practice

The Trotskyist movement predicted, in its 1938 Transitional Programme: “As time goes on, their [the reformist bureaucracy’s] desperate efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International.”1

There were certainly conjunctural and objective reasons that prevented the Fourth International from growing to become such a leadership during and immediately after the war.2 But, even allowing for the impact of such factors the prediction has never come near to being fulfilled. Quite the opposite is the case. And in the absence of mass influence the revolutionary movement has spiralled into decline, fragmenting along the way into hundreds of antagonistic particles.

And throughout the history of that decline many wrong practices found their way into that movement. Many of the practices that took root in the movement were wrong. And Trotsky himself, despite being driven to despair by the manoeuvres and manipulations of his movement, tolerated them. He was fatally flawed in organisational matters. His own lack of experience in building a mass revolutionary organisation – his organisations in pre-revolutionary Russia were small and he only joined the Bolshevik Party two months before the October Revolution – began to tell as the 1930s wore on. He placed more and more weight on the “objective conditions of decaying capitalism”3 and not enough on the difficult task of transforming tiny, marginalised and inexperienced circles of cadre into substantial revolutionary parties. Indeed, experiments in party building in his movement (for example entryism and “exitism” in relation to the mass reformist parties) led to it having arguably less influence when it formed the Fourth International than it did in 1933 when it broke with the Communist (Third) International.

His movement paid dearly for this after Trotsky’s assassination by a Stalinist agent in 1940. As the movement split, reformed and split again, we have had everything from the bizarre personality cults (Healy, Posadas) through to the competing sects who, while presenting a saner image, have leaderships that will do almost anything to secure their control of a campaign or movement regardless of the negative impact of their actions on the wider class struggle. Their struggle is, in the first place, one to justify their distinct existence and aggrandise their specific grouping. In other words they are, in the classical sense, sects.

Given then that the Trotskyist movement, born in 1923, has failed, we have to ask: does the reason for this failure lie not only in the defeats and isolation of the 1930s, but in its origins within the post-revolutionary Bolshevik Party and the practices it inherited from the period before it moved into opposition to the bureaucracy? Did the degeneration of the Russian Revolution begin with Lenin and Trotsky at the helm, alongside Stalin?

Posing this question of course poses the old question, “Did Lenin lead to Stalin?”. To answer it properly we need to refine it as follows: was Stalin’s final triumph made possible by Lenin and Trotsky’s actions in 1921 in the party crisis of that year?

The answer is yes. The start of the bureaucratic counter-revolution came in March 1921 not 1924. Trotsky’s first opposition struggle came three years too late to save both the revolution and the party from the results of this – the protracted bureaucratic degeneration of both within the framework of a degenerated workers’ state.


Throughout the entire period that Trotsky fought Stalin as an oppositionist inside the Communist Party (albeit as an expelled member for five years) he insisted that no counter-revolution had taken place. Debates had taken place within the opposition over this question with the analogy of “Thermidor” being used. Thermidor is the term for the start of the counter-revolution during the great French Revolution of the eighteenth century.

Thermidor in France was a single event – the arrest of the Jacobin leaders including Robespierre and St Just – on 27 July 1794 (Ninth Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar) followed by their execution on 28 July. This event put an end to the “Terror” that Robespierre was conducting – against both the counter-revolution and opponents to his left. Some of the most left wing Jacobins supported Thermidor, only to be repressed in its aftermath.

Thermidor in France opened up a period of political reaction against the extreme plebeian democracy of the early period of the revolution, including a direct suppression of local government democracy in Paris – the epicentre of the revolution. It culminated in the dissolution of the revolutionary parliament, the Convention, in 1795 and its replacement by the undemocratic Directory. Following a coup in 1799 (the 18 Brumaire – 9 November) the Directory was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte who established first a Consulate (a Triumvirate) and later the Empire, with himself as the Emperor.

The events of France were studied closely by all Bolshevik oppositionists, looking for clues as to how Stalin’s rise to power had occurred. But Trotsky’s view, up to his 1935 essay, The workers’ state, Thermidor and Bonapartism, was that, despite the defeat of the Left Opposition, Thermidor had not occurred in the Soviet Union. It lay in the future and would inevitably assume the character of capitalist reaction.

This view dictated the Left Opposition’s line of march in all party disputes in the 1920s. It consistently identified the right wing of the party led by Rykov and Bukharin as the main danger, as the likely source of Thermidorian reaction, because of its political line. That is, the right argued for the prolonged continuation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) and, in particular, concessions to the better off peasants (the kulaks).

Trotsky’s hostility to the continuation of NEP caused the Left Opposition to under-estimate the danger from Stalin, from the apparatus, from within the party centre. Stalin was described as centrist, capable of veering to the left and the right. In the long term this posed a danger to the revolution, but in the short term, Trotsky believed, it meant that the centre would and could be allies of the left against the right.

He accused the Democratic Centralist Opposition – which by the mid-1920s favoured a new party – of ultra-leftism with regard to Stalin. Indeed he argued that the proletarian wing of Stalinism would have to turn to the Trotskyists, saying, “the best elements of the current apparatus will have to summon us to help. We forewarn them of this.”4

The implication was that while the right was pro-capitalist, the centre could be won back or at least “reformed” through the efforts of the Left Opposition. These efforts would be directed at the “proletarian core” of the Russian party, as Trotsky referred to it in the 1920s. As late as 1928, after the Left Opposition had been defeated, after its protests at the 1927 tenth anniversary celebrations of the revolution fizzled out like a damp firework, and after Trotsky had been expelled and exiled, Trotsky argued against the Democratic Centralists and insisted the task was still to win back and reform the party by allying with its “proletarian core”:

“To conquer this core, however, is to conquer the party. This core does not consider itself – and quite rightly – either dead or degenerated5. It is upon it, upon its tomorrow, that we base our political line.”6

The reason for these illusions in the party “core” – which was actually far from being a revolutionary proletarian core – and the Stalinist centre was Trotsky’s belief that Thermidor, and the Bonapartist dictatorship that would follow it could only possibly come from without, from capitalist restoration and reaction and from the right wing of the party which “has its chief support outside the party”. Thermidor could not come from within the workers’ state itself. He explained this position as follows in October 1928:

“The conditions necessary for Thermidor to materialise can develop in a comparatively short period of time. We have already more than once called attention to the fact that the victorious bourgeois counter-revolution must take the form of fascism of Bonapartism, but absolutely cannot take the form of bourgeois democracy . . . We thus come to the conclusion that a ‘victory’ of the right would lead directly along the Thermidorian-Bonapartist road, while a ‘victory’ of the centrists would zig-zag along the same road. Is there any real difference? As a final historical consequence there is no difference . . . But this is only as a final historical consequence. At the present stage, however, centrism reflects on a much larger scale those who have ‘risen’ from the working class. The right has its roots in the new property owners, chiefly the peasant proprietors. It would be a very crude mistake, a Democratic Centralist type blurring of political distinctions, to ignore the struggle of these two elements. The centrists do not want to break openly with the workers. They fear this break much more than the right, which above all does not want to offend the property owners.”7

Trotsky in exile was a revolutionary, not a Thermidorian. He favoured an independent intervention by the working class into this struggle, as only such an intervention could curb the excesses of the bureaucratic apparatus and re-open the path to revolutionary progress. But the Opposition would nevertheless be in a tactical alliance with the centre against the right. To exclude this likely line-up, said Trotsky, would be sectarian and doctrinaire. And this remained Trotsky’s operative position up until 1933.

He recognised that the significant “proletarian core” was, after 1930, now to be found mainly in the Communist International (Comintern) and specifically the German party. The outcome of the struggle against fascism in Germany would determine whether or not this core could be won back to revolutionary socialism. But until this was decided Trotsky still argued that an orientation to the Comintern’s proletarian core was crucial.

By 1932 the reality of the break in the revolutionary tradition caused by Stalinism was clear to Trotsky and he was combining an orientation to the Comintern with an attempt to build the Left Opposition more as a party than as an external faction. Nevertheless, he continued to see the Right Opposition as an enemy, possibly a more dangerous enemy, even though within Russia itself it had been crushed by Stalin and internationally had been expelled.

Trotsky’s understanding of Thermidor, an understanding that he based his strategy towards first the Russian Party and then the Comintern on, was wrong. In 1935 he publicly revised his position and accepted that Thermidor was not external (social) counter-revolution. It was internal (political) reaction. He elaborated his new understanding in the book The Revolution Betrayed, in 1936.

In France the Directory and later Napoleon, emanating as they did from Jacobinism itself, did not reintroduce feudalism. And in Russia Stalin, a long standing Bolshevik, did not reintroduce capitalism. But in both cases the mass movements that made the revolutions were deprived of political power by Thermidorian reaction.

Trotsky now argued that in Russia a new revolution was required, as was a new party. The task of this revolution was regime change and the reintroduction of genuine soviet democracy (a political revolution). The new party was to lead such a revolution and put socialism back on the agenda by utilising the social conquests of the October Revolution to reform the Soviet economy from top to bottom.

Trotsky also recognised that the Bonapartism that followed Thermidor was in Russia a specific form of dictatorship, Soviet Bonapartism with Stalin as the Bonaparte. His Bonapartism was made possible by his role as chief gendarme. The backwardness of the Soviet economy and the generalised want it created led to the growth of bureaucracy. Trotsky used the analogy of a shop with too few goods, “When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It knows who is to get something and who has to wait.”8 In order to regulate the queue a gendarme was required. In stepped the bureaucracy. This gendarme inevitably acquired its own interests as an agency standing between classes. It needed to be held together because otherwise class pressures would rip it apart. It required a strong man to do this. And Stalin was this man.

While this marked a major change of position by Trotsky relative to everything he had argued from 1923 on, he insisted that despite his understanding of Thermidor being wrong the Left Opposition’s strategy – reform, utilisation of the party and its proletarian core and blocs with the Stalinists – had all, nevertheless been correct right the way up to 1935. The years during which Stalin had consolidated his counter-revolution had not seen Trotsky make a single significant mistake. As he put it in his 1935 essay:

“We need only review accurately the gist of the controversies of 1926-27 for the correctness of the position of the Bolshevik Leninists [the Trotskyists] to emerge in all its obviousness in the light of subsequent developments. As early as 1927, the kulaks struck a blow at the bureaucracy by refusing to supply it with bread, which they had managed to concentrate in their hands. In 1928 an open split took place in the bureaucracy. The right was for further concessions to the kulak. The centrists, arming themselves with the ideas of the Left Opposition whom they had smashed conjointly with the rights, found their support among the workers, routed the rights and took the road of industrialisation and, subsequently, collectivisation. The basic social conquests of the October Revolution were saved in the end at the cost of countless unnecessary sacrifices.”9

This is an argument saying that Stalin saved the basic social conquests of October by stealing the ideas of the left and battering the right – hence the Left Opposition was right all along to keep open the possibility of a deal with Stalin despite now recognising that he was already carrying through a newly understood brand of Thermidor, namely bureaucratic political reaction. But it elects to ignore the fact that the Left Opposition’s search for a bloc with Stalin – even in 1928 – meant disaster for Russia and the International.

Trotsky’s position meant that his struggle was always hamstrung. Instead of espousing an open militant struggle against Stalin, including through building new mass organisations, Trotsky limited his strategy to reform. The struggle consisted at first of debates within the leading bodies of the party, eventually within the whole party and only in 1927 through peaceful protests at the tenth anniversary celebrations of the revolution.

Only after all these avenues of protest were closed did the struggle assume a more militant, but also desperate, form via hunger strikes in the prisons. By then it was too late – Stalin had won.

This was a direct result of its failure to recognise that a political counter-revolution had taken place under the auspices of Stalin and the centre faction. In one article in 1928 Trotsky refers to his erstwhile allies against Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, as a “pair of Sancho Panzas”. Sadly the Don Quixote of the time, tilting at the windmills of the Right, was Trotsky himself.

Trotsky does not draw this conclusion. Instead he refines his understanding of Thermidor into the essentially correct equation of political counter-revolution plus exclusion of the masses from power plus the maintenance of the social transformations introduced as a result of the revolution. He also backdates the process to the point at which he suffered his first major defeat as an opponent of the regime, 1924. He writes:

“The smashing of the Left Opposition implied in the most direct and immediate sense the transfer of power from the hands of the revolutionary vanguard into the hands of conservative elements among the bureaucracy and the upper crust of the working class. The year 1924 – that was the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor.”10

While the recognition of Stalin as the key agent in the counter-revolution is a welcome revision by Trotsky, his change of line in 1935 leaves too many questions unanswered.

His new chronology is convenient. If Thermidor began in 1924 then the quite weak character of the later struggle against Stalin by the United Opposition (of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev) can be explained by the pre-existing Thermidorian victories. Trotsky is excused of blame for his failure to take the fight to Stalin from 1924 on.

But this excuse cannot conceal the real reason for the weakness of the later struggle. The United Opposition involved a pact with one of the most bureaucratic wings of the party (Zinoviev’s Leningrad organisation). This repelled many oppositionists and Trotsky ended up spending as much time justifying his deal as he did fighting Stalin. He weakened his own position through this pact – though at the time it fitted with his view of the “centre” (in this case Zinoviev) coming over to the left.

In Trotsky’s revised understanding of Thermidor he can distance himself from those who were his enemies in the early 1920s (the right and the centre) and those who later became his allies (Zinoviev).

The new position also holds out an olive branch to the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists. With both groupings dying in the gulags together with his own supporters, Trotsky comes to agree with their line of calling for a new revolution – but he does so without conceding to the earlier and more consistent oppositionists that they were right at any previous stage of the struggle.

Last but not least Lenin died in early 1924. If Thermidor began in that year then it began after Lenin’s death. He cannot be implicated in any aspect of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. As Trotsky puts it:

“A second stroke and then death, prevented him from measuring forces with this internal reaction [the Stalin faction].”11

So, although Trotsky’s revised understanding of Thermidor is neat and, in some aspects, correct, it leaves unanswered the cardinal question of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution: how was Stalin able to accomplish Thermidor in 1924?

In France the Robespierre faction had alienated itself from the masses outside of a shrinking base in Paris and from both the Jacobin left and right. No one came to the town hall to defend Robespierre and St Just. The faction fell to the Thermidorians because there was no one left to support it. It could not win without the masses, or at least a section of them. It could not win without the Jacobins, or at least a section of them.

Was Trotsky or the Opposition in this position in 1924? No – he was still an influential figure and the opposition had real support inside the party and the army. That is why Stalin could defame it but could not repress it. It was why, at the end of the 13th congress in 1924 Stalin comments, following his victory over the opposition, that the attitude towards those now coming back to the party from the ranks of the opposition “should be an exceptionally comradely one. Every measure must be taken to help them come over to the basic core of the Party and work jointly and in harmony with this core.”12

The political defeat of the Opposition at the 13th Congress was a peaceful affair. No one was killed and Trotsky was not expelled from the party or arrested. Of course Stalin was lying through his teeth regarding his “comradely” offer. He was busy consolidating the rule of the bureaucracy and Trotsky was a real obstacle and had to be removed. But, not until three years later.

Indeed while Trotsky was relieved of his position as Commissar for War, he carried on in high office after the 13th congress. And within two years Trotsky was able to launch a second factional struggle via the United Opposition. Robespierre, by contrast, was executed the day after Thermidor!

Perhaps most importantly, if 1924 was the year of Thermidor then it is time to recognise that Trotsky was implicated in carrying it through – implicated by his refusal to stigmatise the bureaucracy as the major enemy of the working class and fight it by revolutionary means; implicated by his “tactical” denunciation of his own international supporters, Eastman, Rosmer and Monatte; implicated by his open and outright defence of the suppression of party democracy with statements such as this at the 13th party Congress in May 1924:

“. . . party democracy in no way implies freedom for factional groupings, which are extremely dangerous for the ruling party, since they always threaten to split or divide the government and the state apparatus as a whole. I believe this is undisputed and indisputable. And we unanimously agreed to cite the resolution of the Tenth Congress, where Vladimir Ilyich personally defined both factions and groupings and explained the political danger they entail . . . it is sufficient – as far as a statement for the record is concerned – to say that I have never recognised freedom for groupings inside the party nor do I now recognise it because under present historical conditions groupings are merely another name for factions.”13

In other words, if 1924 was the year of Thermidor then Trotsky was a Thermidorian.

The balance sheet of Bolshevism, 1917-21

To best understand the specific character of the Soviet Thermidor of March 1921 it is necessary to compare some key moments in the evolution of the party between 1917 and 1920 with the events of 1921. This survey of Bolshevism is far from being a complete or exhaustive balance sheet. But it does illustrate the difference in the party before and after 1921.

The Central Committee on the eve of the October insurrection in 1917, was confronted with the demand from Lenin that it expel Zinoviev and Kamenev from the party for publicising and criticising the party’s plans for insurrection. What is remarkable about this event is that, at its meeting on 20 October 1917, the Central Committee refused to accede to Lenin’s demand. The charges against Kamenev and Zinoviev were serious. Lenin called them strike-breakers. The Central Committee did not approve of their action but because it recognised the norm of public debates between Bolsheviks, it restricted itself to accepting Kamenev’s resignation from the Committee and instructing both men to refrain from making any further public statements on the dispute because of the sensitive nature of the topic – an armed rising.

This is hardly evidence, as the anarchists would have it, of a party that is inherently authoritarian or simply the pliant tool of one man. It is evidence of a party seething with political life, will and energy in which decisions over the fate of the revolution were debated amongst equals.

As Victor Serge commented:

“They [Lenin and Trotsky] were only the first among comrades and they would have accorded a cold reception to the dangerous imbecile who took it into his head to place them above their comrades or above the party. The life of the Politbureau and the Central Committee was at all times collective. The party discussed, tendencies appeared and disappeared and opposition elements, which must not be confused with counter-revolutionists, agitated unceasingly in broad daylight during the whole civil war – until 1921.”14

Each major dispute followed this pattern. And this confounds the claims of the reformist opponents of Bolshevism, especially the Mensheviks, that the Bolshevik “coup” of October 1917 was in fact the start of a counter-revolution. It wasn’t. The Bolsheviks led a mass revolution. It had the undisputed support of the majority of the working class. The poor peasantry flocked to support the revolution. The revolution was both justified and necessary.

Thermidor was not the refusal by the Bolshevik majority to form a coalition government with other socialist parties or the setting up of the Cheka in late 1917. Still less was it the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

The debate on the formation of a socialist coalition after October 1917 is a good example of how the party conducted itself in the state and internally. It followed the pattern of the pre-revolutionary debates within the Bolshevik Party, open, honest and fearless on the part of all protagonists. Lenin firmly opposed any coalition with the Mensheviks and the SRs (as distinct from the Left SRs who had now split with their party and formed a distinct group).

Kamenev, pursuing his pre-rising position of calling for a government of all the socialist parties, refused a demand from Lenin that he cease publicly arguing for his position. In the cross-party talks demanded by the Menshevik-led All Russian Union of Railway Workers (Vikzhel), which the Bolshevik Central Committee fully participated in, Kamenev was a key negotiator for the Bolsheviks despite his open opposition to Lenin’s line of rejection of a broad socialist coalition.

Perhaps though, Lenin’s rejection of a broad Soviet government was an indication of his desire to establish monolithic power for the Bolsheviks as early as November 1917? Such a view is commonly held by reformists but it is flatly contradicted by one pertinent fact: it was not the Bolsheviks who rejected a coalition, it was the Mensheviks and the Right SRs.

In the Vikzhel negotiations the Bolshevik position was in favour of a coalition but only of one by parties that recognised the decision of the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets to assume all power in the immediate aftermath of the 23 October rising by the Bolshevik-led Military Revolutionary Committee. It is eminently reasonable, then, to expect all parties represented within the Soviet to comprise such a coalition government, especially as the Bolsheviks had a clear majority within the second congress. A proposal for such a coalition was advanced by the Bolshevik Party.

The Mensheviks and the SRs – who had walked out of the second congress and refused to recognise its legitimacy – demanded as the pre-condition for any coalition the absolute exclusion of the Bolsheviks. They made clear that the Bolshevik leaders, and especially Lenin and Trotsky, would be put on trial for carrying out the revolution. In short these reformists demanded that the revolution be turned back and that the leaders of the working class be put on trial.

As one account of the negotiations records regarding the failure to create a coalition government:

“More important, however, is at the first two Vikzhel plenary meetings and in the meeting of the ‘Special Commission’ on 30 October, the Mensheviks and the SRs stymied all efforts at compromise by insisting that the Bolsheviks be eliminated from the government altogether.”15

This position changed under pressure from the working class, but throughout the negotiations the reformists demanded the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from any socialist coalition government.

Lenin attacked the very idea of a coalition and fought for his line in the party – at one point threatening a split if he lost – but at no point did he propose that the struggle between the conflicting positions be suppressed within the party. Indeed it was even conducted semi-publicly. This was typical of the Bolshevik Party in this period. It was also typical of the openness of political life in the early days of the Soviet State.

Indeed the debate over the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty – which Lenin fought to get accepted against massive opposition from within the party – was an even more poignant indication that Thermidor was a long way off. The “Left Communist” faction, in alliance with the Left SRs, fought to within an inch of victory to oppose the peace, to wage a revolutionary defence of the country and to appeal directly to the European workers for aid. The leaders of the Left Communists included Bukharin – later a rightist – demonstrating the fluidity that was prevalent and acceptable amongst Bolshevik cadres in the days before Thermidor. The Left published a paper and organised their own fraction in the soviets.

And in the debate over the peace they were able to put their own position forward to the working class. As Rabinowitch recounts of one crucial Central Committee meeting:

“Lenin was prepared to go to the limit to keep the Left Communists in the fold. Early in this part of the meeting, when Lomov asked Lenin if he would allow the left to agitate against the peace, Lenin quickly answered yes. Moreover, Lenin did not object when Sverdlov, near the end of this discussion, tacitly accepted Uritskii’s offer to delay the resignations [of the left leaders] if he and his colleagues were given full freedom to lobby and even vote no to the treaty in the CEC [the executive committee of the All Russian Soviet].”16

The Left SRs split with the government over Brest-Litovsk. The Left Communists did not. The Left SRs eventually engaged in a series of terrorist acts designed to wreck the peace and staged an attempt on Lenin’s life in the summer of 1918. But even though there was repression of the Left SRs in July 1918 and the launch of the Red Terror in August, there is no real evidence of Thermidorian reaction taking place in the organisations of the working class and the party itself during these events.

The Left SRs had taken up arms. This was increasingly true of white guard elements in the cities. The revolution under attack defended itself with vigour. But terror and the use of force are not inherently counter-revolutionary. Far from it, they are essential weapons of the revolution. Which is why we do not equate the Red Terror with Thermidor. And nor did the working class itself which, in August 1917, was ahead of the Bolshevik Party in calling for the Red Terror as a means of defending the revolution. For example, following the assassination of one of the key leaders of the Petrograd Soviet, Volodarskii, on 20 June 1918, Rabinowitch’s reports:

“Also on the morning of 21 June a stream of worker delegations showed up at Zinoviev’s office in Smolny to demand immediate repression as retaliation for Volodarskii’s killing so that ‘revolutionary leaders would not be cut down one at a time’.”17

In the civil war that followed the summer of 1918, excesses, centralisation, inevitable curbs on the norms of every day working class democracy occurred – but all such events were generally acknowledged as deviations caused by exceptional circumstances. They commanded support amongst key sections of the working class and the poor peasantry which in its majority supported the struggle against the White armies.

Most importantly, all measures taken by the government and the party remained open to challenge by organised groups within the party. For example, at the height of the war the Military Opposition debated questions of Red Army organisation and democracy, over partisan methods of waging war and over the role and appointment of military specialists (former Tsarist officers).

Stalin had a hand in these disputes, urging a more pro-party line against what he considered to be Trotsky’s bureaucratic approach which made the “specialists” more important than the party. But in the period December 1918 through to the Eighth Party Congress in 1919 a public debate was conducted in which prominent party members wrote scathing articles directed against Trotsky’s military policy in the press. For example, an article published in Pravda, the party paper, by A Kamenskii, accused Trotsky not merely of being wrong on the military question but of executing party cadres.

Trotsky was furious at this, demanded that Pravda cease printing such critical articles and that the Central Committee exonerate him from the charges levelled. While the Central Committee did exonerate Trotsky, declare its agreement with Trotsky’s military policy and go on to censure Kamenskii for basing his accusation on “insinuations” rather than facts, its resolution explicitly left the door open to a public debate on the policy issues:

“The fact that the responsibility for the policy of the War Ministry is shared by the entire party as a body naturally does not remove the right of individual members to subject this policy to criticism, either of principle or of a purely practical nature.”18

As in the debates over peace in connection with Brest Litovsk, so in the ones over war during the civil war. While the Red Army was locked in combat with the Whites, the Bolshevik Party maintained a healthy, vibrant democracy in which groups came together, organised, fought, won, lost, dissolved and regrouped without any decisive negative impact on the fate of the revolution.

Even as late as 1920 – when the bureaucracy of the party had increased in both size and influence – the debates that shook Bolshevism and divided the leadership into warring factions over the issue of the militarisation of labour (and later that year over the role of the trade unions in a workers’ state) were still profoundly democratic. Arthur Ransome was a first hand witness inside Russia in early 1920 when the debate over the militarisation of labour took place around theses originally drafted by Trotsky. Ransome says: “. . . the discussion was not limited to the newspapers or to the commission. The issue was discussed in Soviets and conferences of every kind all over the country.”19 Ransome was also witness to a debate between Radek and Larin at a large conference of Communist Party members in March 1920 on the same issue. After exhaustive, comradely but fierce debate Radek won the day, but the conference insisted on electing Larin as one of their delegates to the all-Russian conference despite his own initial resistance.20 These debates reflected not merely the goodwill of the Bolshevik leaders. They reflected the living democratic spirit that had made the revolution in the first place.

Closing down party democracy

The question was how could this spirit be maintained and then put to good use during the reconstruction period that would follow the war, given the context of the destruction of the working class itself as a result of the huge efforts made to take the revolution forward and win the civil war, and the consequent decline of its organs of direct democracy.

Lenin and Trotsky both commented at various points during the civil war and Red Terror that the erosion of the democratic organs of the workers’ state meant that the dictatorship of the proletariat had assumed the form of the dictatorship of the party. This was far from desirable and in the long term could not provide a model for the development of a healthy workers’ state, let alone socialism.

The dictatorship of the party in the name of a class is an absurdity from the point of view of the fundamental revolutionary principle that the liberation of the working class shall be carried through by the class itself. Any party has to be subordinate to the class – not the other way round. And under the rule of the working class subordinate has to mean accountable to the mass democratic organs of the working class and capable of being recalled (i.e. removed from office as a government party) by those organs.

To ensure that the route to such a goal could be kept open it was absolutely essential that the party that had been temporarily entrusted with stewardship on behalf of the workers of the dictatorship of the proletariat, should maintain the highest levels of internal democracy, keep open the possibility of the renewal and change of leadership, and be allowed to reflect the moods and trends of the working class so that as it revived that class could once again exercise direct control of its fate through its own recreated organs of democracy.

The most important lesson from this period of Soviet history was that the party’s democracy needed to be maintained above all else because this democracy was the last vestige of the “commune type state” by 1921 and the last active means of regenerating that commune type state.

By 1922 Lenin recognised that what existed in Russia was not a workers’ state ruled by soviets but “the same Russian apparatus we took over from Tsarism, only superficially anointed with the holy soviet oil.”21 Another observer quoted by Anweiler refers to the soviets after 1918 as “silent walk-on players”.22 This was a million miles from the state Lenin had both envisaged and tried to create in 1917 when he wrote State and Revolution as a libertarian “doctrinal birth certificate” as Marcel Liebman calls it, for the Soviet state.23

This being the case renewal via the soviets themselves was not an option. It had to come from the one remaining institution that still lived and breathed with revolutionary energy – the party. That the party was still alive and still capable of regenerating the revolution was demonstrated by the formation of two powerful and influential oppositions in 1920 and 1921. The Democratic Centralists, led by V V Osinsky, and the Workers’ Opposition, led by Kollontai and Shliapnikov. Both came into existence in this period to fight the growing trend towards bureaucratisation and centralisation and to fight the Bolshevik leadership – Lenin and Trotsky included – who seemed to favour this trend. Both oppositions commanded serious support in the party rank and file and in the wider working class.

Miasnikov, a determined Bolshevik and opponent of bureaucratism, argued positions very similar to these two oppositions throughout 1920 and 1921. He went on to organise a clandestine group to oppose bureaucratism, “The Workers Group of the Russian Communist Party”. For this “crime” he was arrested by the GPU on 25 May 1923 and then exiled.

This action against Miasnikov was the logical result of the positions taken in 1921 by Lenin and the party leadership on party unity and the prohibition of factions in the party. It was living proof that Thermidor had happened.

In the French Revolution the targets of Thermidor were the radical Jacobin faction around Robespierre and St Just, local democracy in the Paris city government and the democratic parliament, the Convention.

In the Russian revolution by 1921, outside of Kronstadt, no real Soviets existed. Local government too was utterly tied to the rule of the local party organisations across the whole country. Thermidor did not have to attack working class democracy. But the Red Jacobins – the representatives of the legacy of October 1917 and the struggle to build a commune type state and an economy run by the workers rather than the party – the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists did exist.

How could their programme for reform of the state be blocked? By a monolithic party that could crush all opposition in the name of defending the socialist motherland. The Soviet Thermidor’s specific character was to create such a party.

So you are saying Lenin led to Stalin!

Thermidor occurred in Russia in 1921. The political counter-revolution took place inside the Bolshevik Party. It was led by Lenin, supported by Trotsky and executed by Stalin. The possibility of revolutionary advance through the Bolshevik Party was eliminated.

Specifically Thermidor comprised: the formal decisions of the 10th Communist Party Congress banning factions in the party; the suppression of the Kronstadt rising and the excuses given for that suppression; the massive expansion of the central apparatus of the party and its elevation to a position of absolute control on all party matters and increasingly many government ones too; and, on the back of this bureaucratisation, the demonising and destruction through a system of expulsion and internal exile, of the left Bolsheviks, the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists in 1921 and then in 1923 through the direct intervention of the GPU, the secret police, into party political disputes with the police attack on Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) by Lenin, without any decision by a party or soviet congress approving this policy, was the pretext for the carrying out of these actions. Lenin wanted, as he put it, to ensure that there was an orderly retreat (from war communism) as many of the norms of capitalist economic activity were reintroduced under NEP.

The international context of this retreat was the ebbing of the revolutionary wave in Western Europe, after the end of the Russian-Polish war in which Russia ended up effectively “losing”. Lenin, who had tied the fate of the Russian Revolution to the success of the international revolution, was now determined to maintain the rule of the Bolshevik Party – to maintain its state power. His motivation seemed honourable and understandable – never give up.

But history is shaped by action not by the motivation for such action. In 1917 Lenin’s action was to fight for the party to put itself at the head of the revolution so as to lead a class to victory. The effect was overwhelmingly positive in demonstrating the historic viability of working class revolution and working class political rule. In 1921 Lenin’s actions created the conditions for a party regime which could rule unchallenged from within or without. On the back of this regime Stalin’s fast developing bureaucracy could thrive and prosper.

In the absence of any external checks on the Bolshevik Party’s apparatus via genuine soviets, internal checks were of supreme importance for the fate of the revolution. Thermidor involved the final elimination of those internal party checks and opened the door for Stalin’s rise to power. Lenin’s ban on factions and demand for unity of the party at the expense of any meaningful internal political struggles was Stalin’s most powerful weapon in the following decade. In the name of party unity he completed the destruction of the party as a revolutionary instrument. As Trotsky put it:

“However, what was in its original design merely a necessary concession to a difficult situation, proved perfectly suited to the taste of the bureaucracy, which had then begun to approach the inner life of the party exclusively from the viewpoint of convenience in administration.”24

The background to the action taken by the Bolshevik leaders in 1921 was the objective development of the revolution – the famine in the country, the revolts by the peasantry, the strikes and political unrest, the ebbing of the revolutionary wave across Europe, the crisis in the institutions of both party and state.

But while objective factors are crucial, the subjective factor, the human agency acting on and shaping the objective, is of enormous importance, particularly in a working class revolution where the importance of consciousness – that is, awareness of what you are doing and why – is so pivotal. It represents that most fundamental of Marxist precepts – action. If everything is objectively determined then we need not bother with action. But because it isn’t human action plays a pivotal role in history.

In this case the actions taken by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin resulted in a dramatic reversal for both the Russian Revolution and the world revolutionary movement. The “final historical consequence” of this, was the restoration of capitalism in the 1990s.

It should not surprise us that those closest to making the revolution were also those who arrested its further development. In July 1794 the leaders of Thermidor, such as Carnot, were veterans of revolutionary struggle. Carnot had founded the revolutionary army and was on the Committee of Public Safety with Robespierre.

In May 1649 Cromwell, who consistently refrained from compromise with the monarchy and pushed aside those who favoured such compromise, liquidated the left wing Levellers saying of his former allies:

“I tell you sir you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you . . . To be broken and routed by such a despicable, contemptible generation of men [is unthinkable].”25

In March 1921 it was Lenin, the architect in chief of the October Revolution, who introduced the fateful resolution destroying meaningful democracy in the Bolshevik Party, the resolution on party unity. The violence that accompanied this political Thermidorian action was the suppression of the Kronstadt rising. The promise of future reaction was Lenin’s threats to oppositionists in the party who chose to oppose the party line.

The oppositionists of the time – the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists were not executed. All out bureaucratic terror came later in the Russian case – during the 1930s when Stalin was consolidating his position as the Soviet Bonaparte (Shliapnikov, for example, was executed by Stalin in 1937). But the oppositions of 1921 were destroyed as effective groupings within the party, as potential alternative leaderships, by administrative, and even as early as 1923, by police means.

The ability of the party leadership to carry through the isolation and destruction of an opposition with the authority of the whole party behind it directly paved the way for Stalin. The demonisation of “opposition” per se was crucial in enabling him to exercise increasingly arbitrary control over the party and destroy all later oppositions that surfaced to the rule of his apparatus.

Stalin’s control of the apparatus had evolved since the seventh congress of 1918. That congress – where Brest-Litovsk was debated – was a high water mark of internal democracy. In 1919 his power had started to develop, on the back of decisions at the eighth congress, to create Organisational and Political Bureaus. Initially these bodies were seen as purely administrative arms of the Central Committee. But they came, eventually, to replace that committee in terms of power and authority. Decisions made at the “Orgburo” and “Politburo” were routinely rubber stamped by a hand-picked Central Committee.

In 1920, despite criticism by the Democratic Centralists of the drift towards bureaucratism and party rule, the Secretariat – the body that became Stalin’s key means of controlling the party – was given a permanent staff. Following the trade union debate – the last genuine democratic debate of Bolshevism in the winter of 1920 – at the congress of 1921 the old Bolshevik Secretariat of Krestinksy, Preobrazensky and Serebriakov was ousted (they were thrown off the Central Committee too) and replaced by Stalin’s men, Molotov, Yaroslavsky and Mikhailov.

Their elevation was accompanied by increased influence in the party as they now had a staff that had grown from 30 when the Secretariat was set up in 1919, to 602 in 1921. It even had its own military detachment of 140. And Stalin had control over the allocation of cadres to areas of party work – control that gave him the power to shift men and women around as though they were chess pieces. It also gave him the power to use party postings as a bureaucratic weapon – a form of exile for anyone who proved recalcitrant.

On the eve of the 10th congress the Bolshevik Party was primed for bureaucratic rule. Despite his later regrets Lenin furnished the apparatus with the means to achieve this objective. In the first battle with Trotskyism, Stalin was able to use Lenin and the Tenth Congress to compromise his new opponent, weaken him and isolate him. When Preobrazhensky’s 1923 Opposition, which Trotsky really led, cited the democratism of pre-1921 Bolshevism Stalin retorted:

“What, indeed, does Preobrazhensky propose? He proposes nothing more nor less than a reversion to Party life ‘on the lines of 1917-18’. What distinguished the years 1917-18 in this respect? The fact that, at that time, we had groups and factions in our Party, that there was an open fight between the groups at that time, that the Party was then passing through a critical period, during which its fate hung in the balance.

“Preobrazhensky is demanding that this state of affairs in the Party, a state of affairs that was abolished by the Tenth Congress, should be restored, at least ‘partly’. Can the Party take this path? No, it cannot. Firstly, because the restoration of Party life on the lines that existed in 1917-18, when there was no NEP, does not, and cannot, meet the Party’s needs under the conditions prevailing in 1923, when there is the NEP. Secondly, because the restoration of the former situation of factional struggle would inevitably result in the disruption of Party unity, especially now that Comrade Lenin is absent.

“Preobrazhensky is inclined to depict the conditions of internal Party life in 1917-18 as something desirable and ideal. But we know of a great many dark sides of this period of internal Party life, which caused the Party very severe shocks.”26

And Trotsky could hardly disagree with a word of this.

Lenin’s crisis in 1921

What then caused Thermidor in 1921?

In England in 1649 it was fear of the left mounting an attack. In France in 1794 it was fear that the continuation of the terror would lead to the mutual ruin of the contending factions. In Russia in 1921 it was the fact that Lenin decided to switch from war communism to state capitalism and retreat on all fronts, from revolution back towards the idea of taking Russia through a capitalist “stage” of development.

In taking such a dramatic step backwards Lenin was accepting the need for Bolshevism to retreat, but did not accept the need for Bolshevism to make itself accountable. Retreat became entwined with the maintenance of Bolshevik power despite the fact that what had withered from 1917 was not the capitalist state machine but the organs of the workers’ state.

For a long time debates have centred on whether or not NEP was a correct move and whether or not the criticisms of the Workers’ Opposition and others were utopian given the overriding need to get Russia operating economically so that it could feed and clothe its people.

This is a fair assessment but also misses the point, the central point of working class revolution: namely, that such decisions need to be made by a working class – through its democratic state organs – and not by a tiny central committee faction “acting” on behalf of the working class. Victor Serge expressed the point brilliantly when he wrote in an article called “Centralisation and Jacobinism” around this time:

“Centralisation. Agreed. But not of an authoritarian type. We may have recourse to the latter from necessity but never from principle. The only revolutionary form of organisation is: free association, federation, co-ordination. It does not exclude the centralisation of skills and information; it excludes only the centralisation of power, that is, of arbitrariness, of coercion, of abuse. It must spring from the masses and not be sent down to them in order to control them.”27

Lenin and his closest supporters, including Trotsky, in the name of defending soviet power – which was a mere phrase – chose centralisation from above. They introduced NEP – it was not even subject to a party or soviet vote. In doing so Lenin recognised the need to close down avenues of democratic debate in the last body within the workers’ state that allowed them – the party – because if such avenues were left open enemies not only of Bolshevism but of working class revolution would march down them.

Lenin knew that NEP, with its free market and its encouragement of enterprise, posed such a danger. He knew that it was a massive retreat. But he felt that the combination of NEP and a monolithic party could just about pull the country through its crisis. Perhaps in the future the workers could, in Lenin’s words, be “trained” to rule. At the moment that option did not exist.

The programme of “State and Revolution” had already been neutered by the demands of civil war. Now the programme of inner party democracy, the programme that had forged the Bolshevik Party, enabled it to win leadership of the workers, make a revolution and win a civil war – was about to be neutered too, not by objective forces but by the Bolshevik leadership with Lenin in the vanguard.

Lenin, in his writings and speeches in this period, was crystal clear. In the “Party Crisis” in January 1921 he summed up the preceding debate in the leadership over the “militarisation of labour” and the role of the unions by pointing to this and that mistake on all sides but by arguing in relation to the Workers’ Opposition that its positions represented a break with communism:

“This is a clean break with communism and a transition to syndicalism. It is, in essence, a repetition of Shliapnikov’s ‘unionise the state’ slogan, and means transferring the Supreme Economic Council apparatus piecemeal to the respective trade unions . . .

“Communism says: The Communist Party, the vanguard of the proletariat, leads the non-Party workers’ masses, educating, preparing, teaching and training the masses (‘school’ of communism) – first the workers and then the peasants – to enable them eventually to concentrate in their hands the administration of the whole national economy.

“Syndicalism hands over to the mass of non-Party workers, who are compartmentalised in the industries, the management of their industries (‘the chief administrations and central boards’), thereby making the Party superfluous, and failing to carry on a sustained campaign either in training the masses or in actually concentrating in their hands the management of the whole national economy.”28

By describing party members as syndicalists and by counterposing them to communism Lenin has made clear there cannot be room for both. It was only a short step from this description of the party crisis to resolving it by banning such opposition altogether. In his opening speech to the Tenth Congress this is exactly what Lenin did. In his opening speech to the congress Lenin said:

“You, comrades, cannot fail to be aware that all our enemies – and their name is legion – in all their innumerable press organs abroad repeat, elaborate and multiply the same wild rumour that our bourgeois and petit bourgeois enemies spread here inside the Soviet Republic, namely: discussion means disputes; disputes mean discord; discord means that the Communists have become weak; press hard, seize the opportunity, take advantage of their weakening. This has become the slogan of the hostile world. We must not forget this for a moment. Our task now is to show that, to whatever extent we have allowed ourselves this luxury in the past, whether rightly or wrongly, we must emerge from this situation in such a way that, having properly examined the extraordinary abundance of platforms, shades, slight shades and almost slight shades of opinion, that have been formulated and discussed, we at our Party Congress could say to ourselves: at all events, whatever form the discussion has taken up to now, however much we have argued among ourselves – and we are confronted with so many enemies – the task of the dictatorship of the proletariat in a peasant country is so vast and difficult that formal cohesion is far from enough. (Your presence here at the Congress is a sign that we have that much.) Our efforts should be more united and harmonious than ever before; there should not be the slightest trace of factionalism – whatever its manifestations in the past. That we must not have on any account. That is the only condition on which we shall accomplish the immense tasks that confront us. I am sure that I express the intention and firm resolve of all of you when I say: at all events, the end of this Congress must find our Party stronger, more harmonious, and more sincerely united than ever before. (Applause)”29

This is not the Lenin of 1917. This is not the Lenin of the revolution. This is a Lenin who, on the back of the defeat of his Polish war and the receding prospects of international revolution, had decided that only the party united around his platform, by bureaucratic force if need be, could maintain Bolshevik rule. And the survival of Bolshevik rule had replaced the abolition of capitalism and the withering away of the capitalist state as the short term programme of the party. By July 1921, with NEP well underway, Lenin was explicit about this. Bolshevik rule was what he was now fighting to preserve. Socialism was something that would happen later:

“We tell the peasants quite openly that they must choose between the rule of the bourgeoisie and the rule of the Bolsheviks – in which case we shall make every possible concession [to the free market and the peasantry] within the limits of retaining power, and later we shall lead them to socialism. Everything else is deception and pure demagogy. Ruthless war must be declared against this deception and demagogy.”30

Or to put it another way disagree with Bolshevik rule and we will wage ruthless war on you – as we have now done to the Workers’ Opposition. The language is Thermidorian, not revolutionary. The actions taken were utterly destructive of all remaining revolutionary energy, will and determination in the country. The revolution had turned on itself.

What Lenin created in 1921 was party rule. And in circumstances where all other parties had been made illegal by that year, where all channels of political communication were dominated by the state and where the state organs could only operate on the say so of the party the potential triumph of the Stalinist regime had received a major boost. The fear of discussion, dispute and opposition that Lenin articulated in March 1921, that was represented by the crushing of Kronstadt and that in a matter of months was transformed into the political persecution of the Workers’ Opposition by Lenin, was a call on the evolving bureaucracy to replace the weapon of criticism within the party with the criticism of weapons.

Actually, it is best to let Lenin state what he felt needed to be done with one of the leaders of the Workers’ Opposition, Shliapnikov following the debate: “Why is Shliapnikov not prosecuted for making such statements? Are we seriously discussing discipline and unity in an organised Party, or are we at a meeting of the Kronstadt type? For his is a Kronstadt, anarchist type of statement, to which the response is a gun.”31

And within less than two decades Lenin’s wish was granted by Stalin – all criticism of the leadership of the party or state was dealt with by the gun. And the legacy was a revolution destroyed by a parasitic bureaucracy, a workers’ movement corrupted by the malpractice that for Stalinism was the norm, the “efficient” means of getting the job done, and a revolutionary tradition tainted by its refusal to face up to the fact that Lenin, and Trotsky were responsible for these world historic errors.

NEP may well have been necessary in the circumstances but it was an almighty concession to capitalism by a workers’ state that no longer had the majority support of the working class. It was a gamble and would only succeed if the party could use it to regenerate soviet life and take it back to the glory days of 1918 and to the precepts of The State and Revolution.

The party – now less than 50% working class in its composition – chose the opposite path. It chose to close the possibility of regeneration and open the door to bureaucratic degeneration, causing Serge to note:

“The state of siege had now entered the party itself, which was increasingly run from the top, by the Secretaries. We were at a loss to find a remedy for this bureaucratisation: we knew that the party had been invaded by careerist, adventurist and mercenary elements who came over in swarms to the side that had the power.”32

The secretaries all bowed before one man – the general secretary, Stalin – who was in his all powerful position courtesy of the decisions of the tenth congress.

In September 1927 Stalin demonstrated a better understanding of the significance of 1921 than Trotsky. During a thoroughly ignorant, impudent and apolitical assault on Trotsky in which he repeatedly labelled him as a “down-at-heel party aristocrat” at the International Control Commission of the Communist International, Stalin stated:

“Trotsky tries to make it appear that the present regime in the party, which is opposed by the entire opposition, is something fundamentally different from the regime that was established in the Party in Lenin’s time. He wants to make it appear that he has no objection to the regime established by Lenin after the Tenth Congress but that, strictly speaking, he is fighting the present regime in the party which, he claims, has nothing in common with the regime established by Lenin. I assert that here Trotsky is uttering a plain untruth. I assert that the present regime in the party is an exact expression of the regime that was established in the party in Lenin’s time, at the Tenth and Eleventh Congresses of our party. I assert that Trotsky is fighting the Leninist regime in the party, the regime that was established in Lenin’s time, and under Lenin’s guidance . . . What are the underlying principles of that regime? . . . no factionalism whatsoever can be permitted, and all factionalism must be abandoned on pain of expulsion from the party. When was this regime established? At the Tenth and Eleventh Congress of our Party, that is, in Lenin’s time.”33

And that was why Stalin was able to isolate Trotsky with such terrible consequences for revolutionary socialism. His case was plausible because it was Lenin who set up the regime and all later attempts to claim what Lenin might or might not have said in the light of Stalin’s use of this new prohibition on party democracy are utterly irrelevant. What happened, happened.

Lenin and Trotsky rebel . . . too late

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin justified their actions of 1921 in very different terms to their forebears in the revolutions of England and France. There was also another important difference – in how the three men reacted to the actions they had authorised.

Lenin clearly, by the time of his first illness in 1922, regretted the consequence of his action. He tried to carry out a campaign against Stalin, but was unable to participate in political life and had to rely on the good will of others if his “last struggle” as it has been termed (against the now blindingly obvious reactionary consequences of 1921) was to be carried into life.

But while this means he emerges with an element of personal honour intact for his belated attempt to oust Stalin, he is stained with political culpability for creating the conditions that allowed Stalin’s rise in the first place. Lenin, in 1921, swung the party behind a fatal line. He was never able to swing it away from this line.

Trotsky, in 1921, was semi-detached from daily life of the Bolshevik Party leadership. His attention was focused elsewhere – on the army, on the railways, on the need for “organisation” to counter the chaos of Russian society. As Stalin never ceased reminding him Trotsky was an outsider in a party where being an insider, “a member of the old guard”, counted for much.

It is possible that Trotsky was motivated to support Thermidor in 1921 because he felt politically closer to those “tightening up” society (Lenin and Stalin) than those who stood firmly on the terrain of workers’ democracy above all else (The Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists). And this had the added advantage of keeping him in with the “old guard”.

In addition, Trotsky’s whole experience in 1918-20 was of leading the Red Army at the front and then pushing through the militarisation of labour when the civil war was won to aid economic reconstruction. It would have been a natural progression for him to see the effective “militarisation” of the party as a logical step to shore up the political apparatus from the negative effects of unleashing the market inside Russia.

But whatever his subjective motivation Trotsky, even in 1936, defended the decision of the 10th Congress as “a necessary concession to a difficult situation”34

The ban on factions meant that between 1921 and 1924 the expression of differences was driven beneath the surface and became highly personalised. And as Trotsky began to express differences with the “old guard”, especially after Lenin’s death, Stalin hit back with his campaign against “Trotskyism”. Trotsky was driven into opposition twice, defeated twice and then cast into the wilderness of exile from both his homeland and his party. His opposition to Stalin in the 1930s was courageous, politically principled but also, tragically, too late.

We identify ourselves politically with Trotsky not only because of his many brilliant political insights but also because he chose revolutionary honesty over bureaucratic subservience. He revived the international revolutionary left, however imperfectly, after his exile. But we can also criticise him for his post-facto view that the start of Thermidor was at the point when he suffered his first major defeat – 1924 – rather than in 1921 when the party was deprived of the means of renewing itself and its leadership in a democratic and revolutionary fashion.

Stalin, in complete contrast to Lenin and Trotsky, saw 1921 as an opportunity to impose order. Stalin had long believed that a socialist revolution was premature in Russia (along with many other leading Bolsheviks). The chaos was a product of Russia’s backwardness. The party had to become the instrument to overcome that backwardness.

In 1921 Russia was plagued by social chaos, economic dislocation and famine. The Communist Party and its government, following the long civil war which brought military victory, were isolated, lacking mass support and deeply unpopular amongst sections of the population which had previously been Bolshevik bastions, notably Kronstadt. Outside Russia the prospect of international revolution was receding.

These factors focused Stalin’s attention on the need for order in the name of “discipline”. He recognised that the state apparatus of repression – which was supposedly a temporary and emergency war measure – could easily be enmeshed with his own party apparatus. Thus fused this bureaucracy could become a tool for stabilising society and then wresting it out of backwardness.

Politically – but only after Lenin’s death – Stalin theoretically justified his project under the banner of “socialism in one country”. But it had little to do with socialism in the sense of the “economic emancipation” of the working class. It was principally a means of rapidly industrialising a backward peasant country while simultaneously satisfying the bureaucracy that had arisen on the back of the workers’ state.

Stalin never regretted executing the political counter-revolution commencing in 1921. He triumphed as a result of it and drove his country forward in terms of development but backwards in terms of the revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky – whatever their later changes of outlook and their regrets (and in Trotsky’s case his valiant struggle which led to his execution at Stalin’s hands) – made this triumph possible. To say otherwise is to indulge in mysticism because it suggests Stalin’s triumph was caused by purely objective factors and that the two most significant and popular personalities of the revolution may as well have not existed as far as his rise to power is concerned.


Let me codify exactly what this article is saying so that the precise elements of its “revisionism” are clear:

* The Bolshevik Party led a successful working class revolution in Russia commencing in October 1917

* The ultimate fate of that revolution – as Lenin always recognised – was tied up with the fate of the European-wide revolution. International revolution had to come to the aid of Russia or Russia would fall

* By consolidating working class power through the early months of 1918 and then through the civil war up to 1920, the Bolsheviks were rightly trying to keep the Russian Revolution alive and trying to use its continued existence as a means of rallying the international working class to revolution

* Despite the inevitable erosion of everyday workers’ democracy that was evident at times during the civil war – and that was a real threat to the revolution – the Bolshevik Party itself remained a fundamentally democratic organisation. Its survival as a democratic organisation was a pledge for the future of the revolution even though the revolution was going through a stage of terror, one party rule and the growth of a dangerous level of centralisation and bureaucratism in the state

* The absence of soviets and any real vestiges of the democracy that had been characteristic of the days after October 1917 meant that the survival of party democracy was vital for the future healthy development of the revolution especially since, after the end of the war with Poland, it became clear that the international revolution was not on the short term agenda

* The task of revolutionary Bolshevism in 1921 was therefore to preserve party democracy as a stepping stone to reviving real soviet democracy

* Instead of pursuing this road Lenin, supported by Trotsky, moved to curtail party democracy at the 1921 Tenth Party Congress, specifically identifying factions with counter-revolutionary dangers and therefore banning factions within the party

* From 1921 to 1923 Stalin was able to use his base within the party apparatus to consolidate absolute control over it and thereafter use that control to consolidate the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. He was precisely able to do this because of the decisions of the Tenth Party Congress. This congress, not 1924, marked the beginning of Thermidor

* The Trotskyist left’s failure to confront this truth is a fatal flaw in its political DNA: its fundamental notion of party organisation incorporates the Thermidorian inheritance of 1921.

Our task is to rebuild a new revolutionary organisation that recalls Bolshevism’s heroic period. This was a time when despite Tsarist repression, or the turmoil of revolution or even the daily crises of trying to win a civil war with the whole imperialist world ranged against you, you could still stand up at a party congress and say, “comrades, Lenin is talking rubbish let’s organise a faction against him” and not get expelled for it.


1. The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder 1977, p113
2. See Death Agony of the Fourth International, Irish Workers Group/Workers Power, 1983, Chapters 1 and 2
3. Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, op cit, p113
4. Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29) p264
5. Ibid, p274
6. Ibid, p293
7. Ibid, pp274-276
8. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder 1974, p112
9. Leon Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, Pathfinder 1975, pp167-168
10. Ibid, p174
11. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op cit, p97
12. Stalin, On the Opposition, p104
13. Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-25, pp155-156
14. Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, Pathfinder, 1973, p 22.
15. Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, Indiana University Press, 2008, p26
16. Ibid, p175
17. Ibid, p315
18. Francesco Benvenuti, The Bolsheviks and the Red Army, 1918-1922, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p85
19. A Ransome, The crisis in Russia 1920, Redwords 1982, p81
20. Ibid, pp45-55
21. Quoted in Oscar Anweiler, The Soviets, Pantheon Books, 1974, p242
22. Ibid, p243
23. Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, Merlin Press, 1980, p193
24. The Revolution Betrayed, op cit, pp96-97
25. Christopher Hill, God’s Englishmen, Penguin, 1972, p105
26. Stalin, On the Opposition, p36-37
27. Victor Serge, The Revolution in Danger, p105
28. V I Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 32, Lawrence and Wishart (Progress Publishers) 1965, p43
29. V I Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32, pp168-169
30. Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, Pathfinder, 1979, p62
31. V I Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32, p.206
32. Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Oxford 1967, pp118-9
33. Stalin, On the Opposition, pp857-858
34. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op cit, p96




11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by rooieravotr on January 27, 2013

I think it would be wise to explain where this text comes from, and what the context of its original publication is.

S. Artesian

11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by S. Artesian on January 27, 2013

Yes, that would be nice. Then we can get to the internal inconsistencies like stating Trotsky, "in 1921, was semi-detached from daily life of the Bolshevik Party leadership. His attention was focused elsewhere – on the army, on the railways, on the need for “organisation” to counter the chaos of Russian society" and then going on to state: "Stalin, in complete contrast to Lenin and Trotsky, saw 1921 as an opportunity to impose order."

Then maybe we can get to the real ideological purpose of the article, one that does a bit of disservice to history.


9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Kronstadt_Kid on October 25, 2014

The above article was published in the UK journal 'Permanent Revolution'. Here is a response -


9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on November 9, 2014


The above article was published in the UK journal 'Permanent Revolution'. Here is a response -

it would be great if you could post that to the library here as well!