The Contradiction of Trotsky - Claude Lefort

Claude Lefort writes on Leon Trotsky for Socialisme Ou Barbarie.

Submitted by libcom on July 25, 2005

(Translated from LES TEMPS MODERNES, 39 (1948-1949) in "The Political Forms of Modern Society)

Let us hold out our hands to each other and rally around our Party's committees. We must not forget even for a minute that only the Party committees can worthily lead us, only they will light our way to the Promised Land.

It was in these words, with the turn of phrase now familiar to us all, that as early as 1905 Stalin addressed the Russian workers on the occasion of their first revolution. It may well have been on that very same day, Trotsky notes, that Lenin dispatched from Geneva the following appeal to the masses: 'Make way for the anger and hatred that have accumulated in your hearts throughout the centuries of exploitation, suffering and grief! (1)

Nothing could be more typical of the two men, or better bring out the contrast between them, than these two statements, one made by a revolutionary for whom the oppressed masses are the essential force of history, the other made by a party militant, already a 'bureaucrat', for whom the party apparatus alone knows what the future is to be and is capable of bringing it about. For us who are familiar with the course that events have taken since then, this psychological opposition assumes a more general significance, for it forms part of a broader opposition that is essentially historical in character.

In his long book on Stalin, Trotsky tried to expose the character of his protagonist and the nature of his behaviour before his accession to power and to show how both were in a sense legitimated by history during the decline of the revolution, with the formation of a new social stratum, the bureaucracy. In substantiating his thesis. Trotsky used the traditional methods of the historian: he examined the documents, explored the annals of Bolshevism, cited eye-witnesses, interpreted dates, placed side by side documents written prior to 1923 and the commissioned panegyrics composed after the advent of the bureaucracy.(2) In the first phase of his political activity, Stalin is shown to have been a 'provincial' militant, intellectually mediocre and politically inept. In Georgia, he never managed to bring together a Bolshevik fraction to confront the Mensheviks within the social-democratic fold; he attended the first Bolshevik Party congresses only in the capacity of an observer, since he never managed to win a sufficient number of votes to get elected as a delegate. At the London Congress, the mandate that he claimed was shown to be fraudulent and he was deprived of voting rights. He was able to join the Bolshevik Central Committee only by co-option, that is, without ever having been elected by the party militants. The uprising of February 1917 suddenly gave him, in Lenin's absence, an exceptional degree of power which he used as badly as possible: he was in favour of supporting the provisional government, the revolutionary war and, in the final analysis, the revolution in two stages. He was one of those opportunistic conciliators whom the workers in the party wanted to expel, (3) and whom Lenin was later to return to their places, when he put forward his famous April theses and rearmed the party with a view to the seizure of power. These fragments of information enable Trotsky to sketch a portrait of a rather uninteresting character, a 'functionary' as Trotsky says, by which he wished to stress Stalin's narrow preoccupation with his work, his limitations as a theoretician and his propensity for routine. Trotsky's intention is obvious: he wanted to show that the 'qualities' which enabled Stalin to become the man of the bureaucracy are precisely those which prevented him from being a revolutionary figure.

The argument is clear enough and sufficiently supported with evidence. But, in that case, one cannot but be surprised that a political writer of Trotsky's abilities should have believed it his duty to devote such a large book to him, to undertake a task that consists very largely of anecdotal history, almost of detective work, to prove that, through-out the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary period, Stalin was an obscure figure, and that it was precisely this fact which enabled him to emerge, in 1924, as a 'ready-male dictator'. Stalin's life was not unknown to the public. In 1935 Boris Souvarine had published a substantial work on Stalin, (4) to which Trotsky added little that was new and of which, curiously enough, he pretended to be unaware. If we assume that Trotsky felt that he had a duty to inform the revolutionary vanguard about the background and development of the current dictator of Russia, then this duty had already been carried out. But Souvarlne was not content, as Trotsky had been in his three hundred pages, to describe Stalin's behaviour. He had skillfully integrated this study into a much broader and more interesting analysis - the Bolshevik Party. The single-minded determination with which Trotsky stresses the mediocrity of his 'hero', and the subordinate nature of the posts that he occupied in the revolutionary apparatus has, of course, been taken as an indication of Trotsky's personal resentment and desire for self-justification. Trotsky, it is said, set out to compare his own situation and destiny with those of Stalin before the revolution; he wanted to bring out the enormous distance that separated himself from that obscure functionary of Bolshevism. However, if one knows anything about Trotsky's temperament one soon realizes that such concerns were quite alien to him and that such an interpretation is artificial. If one must speak of self-justification, it would be more appropriate to do so by giving this term a political sense. One might say, for instance, that Trotsky wished to show that he had been deprived of power not because of any lack of political intelligence, but by the overwhelming power of objective factors. And this power of objective factors could be proved by the very mediocrity of the new leader. The end of Trotsky's Introduction makes this interpretation a very tempting one, 'He [Stalin] took possession of power', writes Trotsky,

not with the aid of personal qualities, but with the aid of an impersonal machine. And it was not he who created the machine, but the machine that created him. That machine, with its force and its authority, was the product of the prolonged and heroic struggle of the Bolshevik Party, which itself grew out of ideas. The machine was the bearer of the idea before it became an end in itself ... Lenin created the machine through constant association with the masses, if not by oral word, then by printed word, if not directly, then through the medium of his disciples. Stalin did not create the machine but took possession of it.(5)

Trotsky was already expressing, in a different form, the same sentiments when, in My Life, he wrote:

And the fact that today he is playing first is not so much a summing-up of the man as it is of this transitional period of political backsliding in the country. Helvetius said it long ago: 'Every period has its great men, and if these are lacking, it invents them.' Stalinism is above all else the automatic work of the impersonal apparatus of the decline of the revolution.(6)

However I do not believe that this interpretation is entirely satisfactory either. Trotsky's study of Stalin does not strike me so much as a conscious attempt at self-justification; it seems to me, above all, to play the role of a substitute. When we open his Stalin, we are in no doubt that Trotsky has written under this title a new study of the USSR, that he has taken up again the whole problem of Stalinism and tried to give it an economic and social characterization: this was certainly his concern, as we know from his last published articles. It is what we expected of him. But this Stalin, this imposingly long work which laboriously follows the steps of the then anonymous master of the Kremlin, showing us that he was unable to direct a particular strike, or that while in deportation he went around with common-law criminals and was despised by the political prisoners: this work that one would have liked to regard as important is restricted to demolishing a legend in which serious people do not believe. I regard this work, therefore, as a kind of aborted attempt. Trotsky gossips quite unnecessarily about Stalin, because he would like to, but cannot, define Stalinism. Nothing could better confirm us in this belief than the second part of the book, which is intentionally more limited and insubstantial and which deals by allusion with events of the first importance:' this is because it concerns specifically the period of the crystallization and triumph of the bureaucracy, that is, not so much Stalin himself as Stalinism. But Trotsky could not claim that he had exhausted the subject in the two or three chapters that he devoted to it in The Revolution Betrayed and in My Life.

It is to this formative period of Stalinism that I should like to return, beginning with the scattered statements on the subject that are to be found in Trotsky's last work. By its inadequacies, its contradictions, by its silences as well, it calls for a critique that would put Trotsky back in his place as an actor in a situation which, when writing his book, he tries all too easily to master.

Trotsky's Struggle against Stalin

A reading of Stalin, or of the earlier The Revolution Betrayed or My Life, would lead one to believe that the attitude of Trotsky and of the Left Opposition, in the great period of 1923-7, was a perfectly rigorous one. It is as if Trotsky, 'bearer' of revolutionary consciousness, had been swept aside by the inexorable course of things that were then developing in a reactionary direction. There were a great many who, taking sides against Trotsky and in a way for Stalin, reproached Trotsky only for not having been realistic enough, not having been able to 'adapt' the politics of revolutionary Russia to the difficult circumstances of a capitalist world undergoing reconsolidation. They did not dispute that Trotsky had then adopted a clearly revolutionary attitude, but it was precisely this attitude that they denounced as abstract. In any case, it is not usually denied that the Left Opposition had a coherent strategy, whether it was justified at the level of revolutionary morality or whether it was regarded as inopportune. Trotsky himself largely lent support to this view. In his works, he speaks of this period with perfect serenity, repeating that he acted as he had to act in the given objective situation. History, he says in essence, was taking a new course. No one could block the ebbing tide of the revolution. Thus, recalling the events of the decisive year 1927, he writes in My Life:

We went to meet the inevitable debacle, confident, however, that we were paving the way for the triumph of our ideas in a more distant future ... It is possible by force of arms to check the development of progressive historical tendencies; it is not possible to block the road of the advance of progressive ideas for ever. That is why, when the struggle is one for great principles, the revolutionary can only follow one rule: Fais ce que tu dois, advienne que pourra. (8)

It would be quite admirable, when one is in the midst of historical action, to retain such lucidity and to be able to stand above day-to-day events, perceiving what is permanent in the heart of what is immediately present. But one must ask whether Trotsky was as lucid when he was acting as he was when he was writing. For it is one thing to judge one's own past actions, to look back on a relatively closed period in which the most diverse actions seem to take on a single, absolute meaning; it is a quite different thing to act in an equivocal situation with an indeterminate future. In his Stalin Trotsky defines once again the principles of the Left Opposition in its anti-Stalinist struggle:

Numerous critics, publicists, correspondents, historians, biographers, and sundry amateur sociologists, have lectured the Left Opposition from time to time on the error of its ways, saying that the strategy of the Left Opposition was not feasible from the point of view of the struggle for power. However, the very approach to the question was incorrect. The Left Opposition could not achieve power, and did not hope even to do so--certainly not its most thoughtful leaders. A struggle for power by the Left Opposition, by a revolutionary Marxist organization, was conceivable only under the conditions of a revolutionary upsurge. Under such conditions the strategy is based on aggression, on direct appeal to the masses, on frontal attack against the government. quite a few members of the Left Opposition had played no minor part in such a struggle and had first-hand knowledge of how to wage it. But during the early twenties and later, there was no revolutionary upsurge in Russia, quite the contrary. Under such circumstances it was out of the question to launch a struggle for power.

Bear in mind that in the years of reaction, in 1 908-1911 and later, the Bolshevik Party refused to launch a direct attack upon the monarchy and limited itself to the task of preparing for the eventual offensive by fighting for the survival of the revolutionary traditions and for the preservation of certain cadres, subjecting the developing events to untiring analysis, and utilizing all legal and semi-legal possibilities for training the advance stratum of workers. The Left Opposition could not proceed otherwise under similar conditions. Indeed the conditions of Soviet reaction were immeasurably more difficult for the Opposition than the conditions of the Tsarist reaction had been for the Bolsheviks. (9)

The first observation to be made is that this interpretation of the years following 1927 is in contradiction with Trotsky's general theses on the nature of Stalinism. In all his works he has said that Stalinism is based on a proletarian infrastructure: it is reactionary, but it is a moment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For example, in 'The Workers' State, Thermidor and Bonapartism' Trotsky writes:

This usurpation [of power by the bureaucracy] was made possible and can maintain itself only because the social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is determined by those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution. In this sense we may say with complete justification that the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. (10)

How, then, if one maintains Trotsky's general theses on the nature of Stalinism, could the struggle against Stalin, still regarded by him as a political struggle, require, as he says in his last work, a revolutionary upheaval? When Trotsky compares the situation of the Left Opposition with that in which the Bolshevik Party found itself in its struggle against Tsarism, he implies--quite rightly, in my opinion, but in contradiction with all his theses--that the struggle against the bureaucracy could only be a class struggle. I can only agree with the conclusions that he draws from this: the maintenance of revolutionary traditions, the preservation of the cadres, the tireless analysis of events in order to instruct the most conscious workers. But it is no accident if these conclusions, whose true import he fails to grasp, correspond in no way to the real tactics which were his and those of the Left Opposition in practice.

Indeed it is striking to see, when one examines the events of this period closely, that the struggle of the Left Opposition against Stalin almost never assumed a revolutionary form and always developed around compromise. The problem is not the one that Trotsky poses, namely, whether it was possible or desirable to undertake a struggle for power. The question was to lead the struggle--or to lay the ground for the future--in a revolutionary spirit. The Bolsheviks were in retreat between 1908 and 1911 and postponed until later the struggle for the seizure of power; but, on the theoretical plane, they did not make the slightest concession to their adversaries. At no time did the Bolsheviks ever indulge in a policy of compromise or conciliation with Tsarism. By contrast, it is Trotsky himself who declared in November 1934, referring to his attitude to Eastman when the latter revealed on his own initiative the existence of Lenin's Testament: 'My statement at that time on Eastman cannot be understood except as an integral part of our line, which, at that time, was orientated towards conciliation and appeasement.' (11) In 1929 he was writing from the same point of view and in a much more brutal manner:

Right up to the last minute, I avoided the struggle, for, in the first stage, it had the character of an unprincipled conspiracy directed towards me, personally. It was clear to me that a struggle of this nature, once begun, would inevitably assume an exceptional vigour and, in the conditions of the revolutionary dictatorship, might lead to dangerous consequences. This is not the place to try to find out whether it was correct at the cost of the greatest personal concessions to tend to preserve the foundations of a common work, or whether it was necessary for me to throw myself into an offensive all along the line, despite the absence, for such an offensive, of adequate political bases The fact is that I chose the first solution and that in spite of everything I do not regret it. (12)

Trotsky speaks here in an intentionally vague way of personal concessions'. But it is clear that, given his situation, those conditions could only have a political character. Without going into detail as to what those concessions were, in other words, what the Left Opposition's policy of conciliation and appeasement' actually was, something should be said about a period that Trotsky usually passes over fairly rapidly: the year 1923, when Lenin was still alive and preparing a 'bomb against Stalin' for the Twelfth Congress, when Trotsky was still regarded as the second most important Bolshevik leader by the majority of the party, and when, above all, Stalin had not yet succeeded in achieving complete control of the party apparatus and the newfound power of the bureaucracy was still vulnerable. It is usually thought that the antagonism between Trotsky and Stalin was much more severe than that between Stalin and Lenin. Yet it appears, quite indisputably, according to Trotsky's own memoirs, that it was not he, at this time, who wanted to take up the struggle against Stalin, but Lenin. While fatally ill, Lenin had perceived, quite lucidly, the extreme danger that Stalin and his bureaucratic methods represented for the future of the party. The documents that he left and which are known as the Testament leave no doubt on this question. They show in the most striking way that Lenin had decided to launch a decisive struggle against the heads of the bureaucracy: Stalin, Ordzhonikidze and Dzerzhinsky. Trotsky's memoirs show just as clearly that, although he basically shared Lenin's point of view, he did not wish to trigger off decisive hostilities against the Stalinists. Relating a conversation that he had had at this time with Kamenev, who had already gone over to Stalin's side and was acting as his emissary, Trotsky writes:

'Sometimes,' I said out of fear of an imaginary danger, people are capable of bringing real danger down upon themselves. Remember, and tell others, that the last thing I want is to start a fight at the congress for any changes in organization. I am for preserving the status quo. If Lenin gets on his feet before the congress, of which there is unfortunately little chance, he and I will discuss the matter together anew. I am against removing Stalin, and expelling Ordzhonikidze, and displacing Dzerzhinsky from the commissariat of transport. But I do agree with Lenin in substance.'' (13)

Apart from Trotsky's memoirs, the documents are there to show that, against Lenin's will, Trotsky turned the Twelfth Congress of the Bolshevik Party into a congress of unanimity; the 'bomb' concerning the "national question that Lenin had advised Trotsky to explode at this congress was set aside. Again it is Trotsky who prides himself on having avoided any struggle with Stalin by contenting himself with amending his resolution instead of fighting it. Significant too was his refusal to present the political report to the congress in Lenin's absence. And the justifications that he gave are no less significant. His whole conduct seems to have been dictated by a concern not to present himself as a pretender to Lenin's succession. It is difficult to understand these preoccupations, these sentimental scruples on the part of a Bolshevik, when a vital political question was at stake.

In fact, Trotsky had refused from the beginning, even when in a superior position, to initiate a struggle to regenerate the party by attacking the bureaucracy. When he maintains that a struggle for power was impossible, it is difficult to believe him - at least in the case of the year 1923, when nothing had yet been decided. Indeed he himself was to write later:

Would Lenin have been able to carry out the regrouping in the party direction that he planned? At that moment, he undoubtedly would ... Our joint action against the Central Committee at the beginning of 1923 would without a shadow of a doubt have brought us victory. And what is more, I have no doubt that if I had come forward on the eve of the twelfth congress in the spirit of a 'bloc of Lenin and Trotsky' against the Stalin bureaucracy, I should have been victorious even if Lenin had taken no direct part in the struggle. (14)

It is true that Trotsky adds: 'How solid the victory would have been is, of course, another question.' But even if one answers this question negatively, as he does by showing that the flow of history was then turning into the ebb of the revolution, the task of the politician could never be to compromise with the ebb.

Now, from that point on and 'to the very last minute', the Left Opposition practised a policy of' conciliation' and 'appeasement'. Even this policy could not remain coherent, for even if the Left Opposition did not want a fight, the bureaucracy did. Its triumph involved the annihilation of the former revolutionary leader, at the very time that this leader was seeking an understanding. So Trotsky was led to attack on several occasions; but his attacks bore the sign of his weakness. As Souvarine rightly remarks, Trotsky wore himself out in a vain polemic within the politbureau. In his articles (those that he published on the New Course in 1923, and the Lessons of 0ctober in 1924) he piled allusion on allusion and wrote in such a way that he could be understood only by the leadership of the party. None of his writing was intended to instruct the ordinary militants. Far more seriously, while the bureaucratic repression pitilessly tracked down the members or sympathizers of the Left Opposition, Trotsky did nothing to defend them; by his constantly shifting line he disarmed them politically; he gave them no platform for struggle, no theoretical element that might enable them to recognize themselves and to regroup.

This is not the place to follow in detail Trotsky's political development throughout this period, but we should highlight a few particularly important episodes. At the time of the Thirteenth Congress, the first to be completely 'fabricated' by the bureaucrats, Trotsky, after having defended his views of the State Plan, felt obliged to stress the unity of the party in terms that could not fail to throw all his supporters into confusion.

None of us desires or is able to dispute the will of the Party. Clearly, the Party is always right ... We can only be right with and by the Party, for history has provided no other way of being in the right. The English have a saying 'My country, right or wrong,' whether it is in the right or in the wrong, it is my country. We have much better historical justification in saying whether it is right or wrong in certain individual concrete cases, it is my party ... And if the Party adopts a decision which one or other of us thinks unjust, he will say, just or unjust, it is my Party, and I shall support the consequences of the decision to the end. (15)

It was Trotsky who, in his Stalin of 1940, imposes upon himself the most categorical refutation of this view when he declares that a political party is neither 'a homogeneous entity', nor 'an omnipotent historical factor', but 'only a temporary historical instrument, one of very many instruments and schools of history'. (l6) The true meaning of Trotsky's statement at the Thirteenth Congress emerges when one realizes that at that time he was aware of the complete bureaucratization of the organization and the mystification which prevailed at the congress. Indeed, shortly before, there had taken place a massive intake of new members to the party which came to be known as 'Lenin's levy' and which, Trotsky was to write later, was a 'manoeuvre . .. to dissolve the revolutionary vanguard in raw human material, without experience, without independence, and yet with the old habit of submitting to the authorities'. (17) This levy had been made in order to turn the party into a docile instrument in the hands of its general secretary. However 'Lenin's promotion', which, Trotsky was to say on another occasion, 'delivered a mortal blow to Lenin's party', was also approved by him during the Thirteenth Congress. Trotsky even pushed concession to the point of declaring that it 'brought the party nearer to being an elected party' (18)

It is true that the struggle against Trotskyism had not yet come out into the open and, more importantly, that Stalinism was only just emerging as a political entity. Trotsky's concessions seemed all the more tragic when battle commenced. After the first phase of this battle, after Trotsky had triggered off a struggle in favour of the New Course, after he had been the object of a campaign of systematic attacks from the politbureau, after Stalin had put forward his view of socialism in one country,' (19) Trotsky published an article in Pravda (January 1925) in which he denies ever having thought of opposing a platform to the Stalinist majority.'(20) This was to state clearly that there was no fundamental divergence between him and this majority. Capitulation appears again in that year 1925, on the occasion of the Eastman affair. In a work entitled Since Lenin Died, the American journalist, a Bolshevik sympathizer, had taken it upon himself, as I have already indicated, to reveal the existence and the content of Lenin's Testament, which Trotsky, in agreement with the Central Committee, had thought good to conceal not only from the Russian masses, but also from the party militants and from communists throughout the world. Trotsky's declaration, at this time, would deserve to be quoted in full, so striking is the degree to which it reveals Trotsky's bad faith and the practice of the 'supreme sacrifice' Trotsky accuses Eastman of 'despicable lying' and implies that he is an agent of international reaction. 'Comrade Lenin', he writes, 'did not leave a testament: the nature of his relations with the Party and the nature of the Party itself excludes the possibility of such a testament.' Referring to Lenin's letter on the reorganization of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspection (in which Stalin had the upper hand), Trotsky does not hesitate to declare: 'Eastman's affirmation according to which the C.C. was anxious to conceal, that is to say, not publish, Comrade Lenin's article on the Workers' and Peasants' Inspection is equally erroneous. The different points of view expressed in the C.C., if it is actually possible to speak of a difference of points of views, in this case, was of absolutely secondary importance.' (21) How could Trotsky speak in this way, when Lenin, on this very point, was making a fundamental attack, and when Trotsky was fully in agreement with him, as he has repeated a hundred times?

We cannot complete the balance sheet of this politics of conciliation without showing that, even on the theoretical level, Trotsky was confused. I have already shown that he did not regard the struggle against the theory of socialism in one country, when it was 'discovered' by Stalin, as a matter of fundamental principle. One must also recognize that Trotsky did not oppose the entry of the Chinese communists into the Kuomintang nor the tactics used by the British communists within the trade-union Anglo-Russian Committee. In each case, he took up the struggle against the Stalinist policy only when it was obviously turning into a disaster.' (22) I said above that the tactics of the Left Opposition had helped to disarm the revolutionary vanguard in Russia; I should add, in the light of these examples, that it also had a negative effect on the revolutionary vanguard throughout the world. Trotsky said that Stalin appeared to the world one day as a 'ready-made dictator' -- he forgot to mention his own responsibility in this regard.

Finally, it was in the last stage of the struggle between the Opposition and the Stalinist leadership, as this struggle became more violent, that the capitulations became more radical and more tragic. On two occasions, in October 1926 and in November 1927, the Left Opposition, which then had the support not only of Trotsky but also of Kamenev and Zinoviev, solemnly condemned itself, repudiated its supporters abroad and undertook its own dissolution. Finally, when there was no hope left for it, when Stalin had at his disposal a Congress (the Fifteenth) that obeyed him blindly, the Opposition made a final attempt to return to favour, and drew up a new condemnation of its own activity, namely, the Declaration of the 121. This is a document of the greatest historical importance, because it represents the last public action of the Left Opposition in Russia. The declaration begins by proclaiming that the unity of the Communist Party is the highest principle during the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We find the same terms that Trotsky had used in his speech to the Thirteenth Congress quoted above. The party is regarded as a divine factor in historical development, independently of its content and its line. The declaration thus underlines the danger of a war against the USSR and declares that there is nothing more urgent than to re-establish 'the combatant unity of the party' One may find it extraordinary that the Opposition was seeking above all to preserve the facade of party unity, whereas the gravest dissensions were setting it against the leadership of this party. But the 121 had decided to regard their dissensions with the party as insignificant. Of course, on several occasions, they repeated that they were convinced of the correctness of their views and that they would continue to defend them, as the organizational statutes allowed them to do, after they had dissolved their fraction; but at the same time they proclaimed: ' There is no programmatic difference between us and the Party' (23) And they bitterly denied that they had ever believed that the party or its Central Committee had followed a Thermidorian course. Now, not only had the party completely lost its revolutionary and democratic character in 1927, but it had adopted the perspective of socialism in one country, that is, it had in fact renounced the perspective of world revolution.

Bolshevism and the Rise of Bureaucracy

So that royal road, along which Trotsky, if his Stalin is to be believed, would have led the Left Opposition, never in fact existed. For five years Trotsky improvised a policy from day to day, a policy of harsh concessions, of revolt - when the domination of the bureaucracy became too unbearable - then of capitulations which led to new explosions. It is not possible here to follow the behaviour of the various representatives of the Opposition. But there were many defectors among them, not to mention Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had become professionals of capitulation. Of course, the face of Trotsky stands out from the group, for he was not a man to give in completely. But his responsibility can only be more striking. How could he blame the defectors when his entire policy tended to deny any 'programmatic difference' with the Stalinists? This policy can be summed up in the formula that he used in 1927: 'What separates us [from the bureaucracy] is incomparably less than what unites us.' (24) It was a policy of suicide, since, despite all his practical declarations, Trotsky was not taken in by the bureaucratic degeneration, as a thousand details prove. His interventions in the higher bodies of the party and the notes that he himself mentions in his memoirs leave no doubt on the matter. He deliberately misled public opinion in the name of higher ends, that is, in order to defend the Soviet state in the world .

How can we understand that Trotsky, while perceiving the complete bureaucratization of the party and the reactionary character of the policies of its leaders, continued to feel at one with this party and its leaders? One can only answer this question by standing back and placing Trotsky and Trotskyism in their objective development. What is interesting, for me, is not to see whether Trotsky acted well or badly in a given situation, but to explain his attitude. In this sense, much of Souvarine's critique seems to me to be artificial. In many passages, he criticizes Trotsky for leading the struggle badly, for provoking the hatred of the leaders by inopportune polemics, for pushing Zinoviev and Kamenev in Stalin's direction instead of driving them apart, in general for being unable to wait for the bloc of his enemies to crumble, for being unable to play for time and manoeuvre as his adversaries were doing. I do not share Souvarine's point of view. Even if Trotsky had often been intransigent and clumsy, despite his general line of conciliation, this is merely a minor aspect of the question; and, in any case, he should not be criticized for being incapable of manoeuvring within the circles of leadership, but, on the contrary, for having all too often confined his actions to these circles. Indeed, Souvarine seems to appreciate this all too well when he levels his criticism, not at Trotsky's personality, but at the development of his positions.

If we are to offer an objective critique of Trotsky and of the Left Opposition, we must put aside evaluative criteria in favour of a concrete, historical point of view. Trotsky seems to adopt this point of view when he tries to reduce everything to some such explanation as 'the revolution was at an ebb'. In fact this explanation, though not incorrect, is unsatisfactory, for it is much too broad. The conception of the revolutionary ebb may enable us to understand the failure of the Opposition, but not its ideological disarray. It is because the explanation is too broad that Trotsky often invokes another one, this time too narrow: the machinations of Stalin and his supporters. In fact we can understand the policies of Trotsky and of the revolutionary leaders who surrounded him, after 1923, only by integrating them into the previous development of the Bolshevik Party.

For it is certainly Bolshevism that continued to be expressed in the Left Opposition, and what we have to try to explain is its inability to survive as a revolutionary ideology and strategy. In a passage in his Stalin, Trotsky attempts to elude the problem:

Sterile and absurd are the Sisyphean labours of those who try to reduce all subsequent developments to a few allegedly basic original attributes of the Bolshevik Parry ... The Bolshevik Party set for itself the goal of the conquest of power by the working class. In so far as that party accomplished this task for the first time in history and enriched human experience with this conquest, it fulfilled a tremendous historical role. Only the bewildered with a liking for abstruse discussion can demand of a political party that it should subjugate and eliminate far weightier factors of mass and class hostile to it. (25)

One cannot but agree as to the prodigious historical role of the Bolsheviks. But the question is badly put. It is obviously not a matter of requiring the party to win some sort of triumph over the course of history, but to understand how the course of history is expressed through the structure and life of the party itself. The fact that the Bolshevik Party carried out the October Revolution must not lead one to deify it and to see its subsequent failure as a mere accident. The failure of the Bolshevik Party in 1923 must be understood in terms of the internal dynamics of that party. In no sense am I trying to minimize the role of objective factors, but rather to discern, on the basis of the Bolshevik experience, the enduring power which they may have.

I have no wish to go over again - enough books and studies of every kind have brought this out - the very particular character of Russia within the capitalist world prior to 1917, the backward nature of its economy and the lack of education among the masses. If this very situation, as has also been stressed, was favourable to the formation of a vigorous revolutionary party, the social contradictions having been carried to their breaking point, then it is no less true - and commentators have usually had little to say about this aspect of things - that it had fundamental consequences as regards the structure and functioning of the party. The development of the professional revolutionary in Russia was probably unique and unparalleled in other countries: the necessities of illegality in the face of the Tsarist autocracy, the habit of living under oppression and in great poverty, helped to create the type of revolutionary practitioner represented par excellence by the Bolshevik. But one must also see that, by the very logic of his situation, the professional revolutionary was led to detach himself from the masses, to maintain only superficial relations with the real vanguard in the factories. Secrecy obliged the revolutionary to live in small, relatively closed circles. This climate was favourable to centralization, not to democracy. In his Stalin, Trotsky supports this view:

The negative aspect of Bolshevism's centripetal tendencies first became apparent at the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democracy. The habits peculiar to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was already emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meagre scope for such of the formalities of democracy as electiveness, accountability and control. Yet, undoubtedly the committeemen narrowed these limitations considerably more than necessity demanded and were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary workingmen than with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called imperatively for lending an attentive ear to the voices of the masses. Krupskaya notes that, just as in the Bolshevik committees, so at the Congress itself, there were almost no workingmen. The intellectuals predominated. 'The "committeeman",' writes Krupskaya, 'was usually quite a self-confident person; he was fully aware of the tremendous influence wielded by the Committee's activities on the masses; the "committee-man", as a rule, did not recognize any internal party democracy.' (26)

Of course, this divorce between certain professional revolutionaries and the masses was less marked in the great revolutionary moments, but the effects were nonetheless very serious. They could be observed on the occasion of the 1905 revolution, when the Bolsheviks refused to recognize the Soviets that had been spontaneously created by the workers. 'The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks', notes Trotsky,' was frightened at first by such an innovation as a non-partisan representation of the embattled masses, and could find nothing better to do than to present the Soviet with an ultimatum: immediately adopt a Social-Democratic programme or disband.' (27)

It may be said that, if the Bolsheviks did not bring about a series of catastrophes, it was thanks to Lenin and to his exceptional ability to discern the revolutionary significance of every situation. But even Lenin's pre-eminence deserves reflection; one is struck by how insubstantial the best Bolshevik leaders appeared to be without him. There is a veritable gulf between Lenin and the other Bolshevik .leaders, as well as a gulf between those leaders and the average militants of the party organization. Innumerable cases might be cited as evidence, but no doubt the best known is provided by the events of February 1917 when, with Lenin in exile, Kamenev and Stalin took over the leadership of the party in his absence. When Lenin returned and presented his April theses, he was almost alone against the entire party, finding support only among the Bolshevik workers of Viborg. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the strength of the party was hanging on a thread. Of course, the Bolshevik workers were the best guarantee of its power, but they could not by themselves run the party organization and, among the cadres, no one other than Lenin could. This very special physiognomy of the Bolshevik Party became all the more apparent in the aftermath of the revolution and throughout the period of the civil war. Indeed the civil war, combined with economic chaos and the low level of education of the Russian masses, necessitated an increased concentration of power and an increasingly voluntarist political strategy in the face of an increasingly difficult situation. Souvarine describes perfectly the evolution, in these conditions, of the Council of People's Commissars, which soon became the blue-print of the Bolshevik Central Committee and did nothing more than give a constitutional form to its decisions. He also shows that the Central Committee in turn existed less and less as a 'college' and that real power was concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy within the politbureau. In all institutions, in the trade unions and in the Soviets, there was only one power and one policy, that of the Bolsheviks, who more and more became mere functionaries, alienated from the masses and from the workers in particular. The same logic led the Bolsheviks to eliminate all opposition. We know only too well the exceptional violence with which Lenin set about exterminating his adversaries, whether they were left-wing socialist revolutionaries or anarchists. Volin provides some striking information on this point. One sees the Bolsheviks fabricating compromising documents against the anarchists in order to inculpate them for criminal activities of which they were absolutely innocent. The terror that began by exterminating all the opposition parties and competing groups, and which culminated, within the Bolshevik Party itself, by forbidding the existence of factions, reached its paroxysm with the repression of the workers of Kronstadt who, once regarded as the revolutionary elite and fighting for demands some of which were confused but most of which were democratic, were treated as agents of counter-revolution and ruthlessly crushed. (28)

All the facts concur: the party which, from its origin and by reason of the objective situation, tended to develop towards a military structure and functioned as a body loosely linked to the masses began to accentuate these traits considerably during the post-revolutionary period. One cannot but follow Souvarine when he takes up Bukharin's definition of the party as 'entirely apart from and above everything'.(29) On the other hand, it seems to me that Souvarine oscillates between a (subjective) criticism of the leaders' attitude and an objective interpretation that links this development of Bolshevism to the given economic, social, national and world situation. I repeat, the first criticism has no significance for me; let us put aside that kind of value judgement. The political strategy of the Bolshevik Party between 1917 and 1923 was that of a revolutionary organization struggling desperately to preserve, until the outbreak of world revolution, a proletarian victory unprecedented in history. This strategy was essentially contradictory, since it led to the adoption of an anti-proletarian content in the name of the higher interests of the proletariat. But its contradictions were themselves objective, for they expressed the contradictions of the victorious Russian proletariat, stifled in its victory by negative factors on a national and international scale. The post-revolutionary period in Russia is the tragic moment of Bolshevism, torn apart between its ends and the nature of the forces that it tried to animate. This tragedy culminated in the repression of the workers of Kronstadt by Trotsky, who was led to crush them and to forge false evidence in order to persuade the whole world of their guilt. But this moment of contradiction was essentially transitory. Bolshevism could not remain split between its real behaviour and its principles; whatever the supreme ends at which it aimed, it could not survive if it were cut off from its real content -the proletarian masses that it represented. It could not remain without a social basis, as a pure will determined to force the course of history.

At the very heart of the party, the contradiction was expressed as the difference between the strategy of Lenin and Trotsky, who side by side were 'steering towards world revolution', and the very body of the party, which was beginning to crystallize socially and was already taking on the form of a privileged caste. It is only from this point of view that one can understand the defeat of Trotsky, his expulsion in 1927 and, above all, his ideological collapse from 1923 on. Trotsky's struggle against the bureaucracy lacked any basis because Trotsky himself was objectively an artisan of that bureaucracy. Trotsky could not reproach Stalin for carrying out an anti-proletarian and anti-democratic policy when he had himself inaugurated that policy. He could not criticize the repression practised on the Opposition when he himself had taken part in the repression of the 'Workers' Group' and 'Workers' Truth'. He was no longer free to find support among the vanguard of the factories because he had cut himself off from it. He had no overall platform against Stalin because he had allowed himself to be caught up in the contradiction that consists in directing the proletariat, according to its higher interests and against its immediate interests.

The turning-point of 1923 often seems difficult to understand. In fact, at this period the revolutionary character of Bolshevism was already hanging by a thread, in so far as the policies of Lenin and Trotsky were orientated towards world revolution. In the absence of this revolution, the thread could only snap. The contradiction was too intense and could not persist. Thus the rise of Stalin represents the eclipse of the contradiction and the emergence of a new term. In order to strengthen its hold, the new regime did not need to wage war against all the preceding values. They had destroyed themselves and, losing their true content, had already become, in a sense, the means of mystification. Thus Stalin could emerge without his policy seeming at first to be in opposition to Bolshevik policy. Thus the struggle he conducted against Trotsky could appear as a struggle between individuals. And Trotsky himself could declare that it was an 'unprincipled conspiracy, directed against him personally'. In fact it was an absolute break with the past, as the future was to show, but it appeared to be no more than an imperceptible transition, a question of individuals. Trotsky wanted to see the very existence of the party and the formal survival of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an historical guarantee of world revolution; he wanted to believe that this bureaucratized party, which was pursuing a counter-revolutionary strategy, was an essential element for the international proletariat. This is the significance of the strange declarations referred to above on the unity of the party and the significance, in general, of his conciliatory line. Such, too, was the significance of his intermittent shifts and changes. At one and the same time, he concealed the Testament and accused Stalin of abandoning Leninist policy; at one and the same time, he called for a 'new course', a true democratization of the party, and declared, despite its bureaucratization, that 'the Party is always right'. He was no longer free to act as a revolutionary because he participated in a process which led him to turn his back on the masses. He was no longer free to act as a bureaucrat because he always sought to act, whatever his tactics might have been, in accordance with the revolutionary ideal.

Perhaps these contradictions are most strikingly expressed in his hesitation over the dating of 'Thermidor'. In 1923, he rejected any analogy with the Thermidorian reaction. In 1926, he was predicting the possibility of a Thermidorian course; at the same time he violently attacked the Leftists of Democratic Centralism, who were declaring that Thermidor was already a fact. In November 1927, following a demonstration in the streets in which supporters of the Opposition were molested by Stalinist gangs, he declared that they had just witnessed a general repetition of Thermidor. In 1927, with the 121, he declared that he had never thought that the party or its Central Committee were Thermidorian. In 1928-9, he announced yet again that there was a Thermidorian threat; then, in 1930, he brusquely declared: 'With us, Thermidor has dragged on.' Finally, in 1935, in his pamphlet, 'The Workers' State, Thermidor and Bonapartism', he writes: 'The Thermidor of the Great Russian Revolution is not before us but already far behind. The Thermidoreans can celebrate, approximately, the tenth anniversary of their victory.' (30)

It was worth examining carefully Trotsky's attitude at the dawn of Stalinism, for it enables us to elucidate the (theoretical) policy to which he adhered until his death. I have said that Trotsky represented, between 1923 and 1927, the contradictions of Bolshevism. I should now add that he never emerged from this divided situation. Subsequently he transported into the domain of revolutionary theory the contradiction in which he had become objectively enclosed. Of course, he was forced by events to perceive the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism, but he was not capable of taking an overall view of the new Stalinist society and of defining it. He transferred on to economic categories (collectivization, state planning) the fetishism that he had first professed with regard to political forms (party, Soviets). He declared both that 'in contradistinction to capitalism, socialism is built not automatically but consciously. Progress towards socialism is inseparable from state power', (31) and that 'the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted, but unquestionable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy'.(32) He shows how bureaucracy found an autonomous economic and social base, (33) but he continues in all his works to maintain that bureaucracy is not a system of exploitation, that it is simply a parasitical caste. He writes, quite brilliantly, that 'the Russian Thermidor would have undoubtedly opened a new era of bourgeois rule, if that rule had not proved obsolete throughout the world',34 thus indicating that the mode of exploitation based on private property had been superseded in the course of history without, for all that, resulting in the realization of socialism; and yet elsewhere he reiterates his view that the reign of bureaucracy was purely transitory and would inevitably collapse before the only two historical possibilities: capitalism or socialism.[· · ·]


1 Leon Trotsky, Stalin, trans. Charles Malamuth (London: Hollis andCarter, 194~7), p. 64.

2 Ibid., p. 18.

3 Ibid., p. 187.

4 Boris Souvarine, Stalin, trans. C. L. R. James (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1939).

5 Trotsky, Stalin, p. xv.

6 Leon Trotsky, My Life (London: Thornton Buttenvorth, 1930), p. 432.

7 The work, it is true, was left unfinished, but Trotsky indicates in the Introduction that he intentionally gave a secondary place to the post-revolutionary period.

8 Trotsky, My Life, p. 453.

9 Trotsky, Stalin, pp. 403-4. (Here, and in what follows, the emphasis is Lefort's.)

10 Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934-35) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971),p. 173.

11 New International (Nov. 1934).

12 Trotsky's What happened and how?, quoted in Political Correspondence of the Workers' League for a Revolutionary Party (March 1947), p. 27.

13 Trotsky, My Life, p. 414.

14 Ibid., p. 410.

15 Boris Souvarine, Stalin, pp. 362-3.

16 Trotsky, Stalin, p. 403.

17 Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, trans. Max Eastman (London:Faber and Faber, 1937), pp. 97-8.

18 Souvarine, Stalin, p. 361.

19 Stalin, October and the Permanent Revolution (October 1924).

20 After the Thirteenth Congress, certain new problems concerning the domain of industry, the Soviets or international politics arose or became more clearly defined. The idea of opposing any platform to the work of the Central Committee of the Party with a view to their solution was absolutely alien to me. For all the comrades who assisted at the meetings of the Politbureau, the Central Committee, the Soviet of Labour and Defence, the Revolutionary Military Soviet, this assertion does not need proof. (quoted in Political Correspondence)

21 Text of Trotsky's letter quoted in The Bulletin of the Workers' League for Revolutionary Party (Sept.-Oct. 1947), p. 30.

22 Two extracts quoted in Political Correspondence are significant in this respect. In a speech to students from the Far East, Trotsky declares: 'We approve of the communist support given to the Kuomintang in China where we are trying to bring about a revolution.' (Reported by International Press Correspondence, May 1924.) Furthermore, to the Congress of Textile Workers, Trotsky says: 'The Trade Union Angle- Russian Committee of Unity is the highest expression of this change in the European and especially British situation, which is operating under our eyes and is leading to the European revolution.' (Reported by Pravda, January 1926.)

23 Quoted in The Bulletin (Sept.-Oct. 1947).

24 Quoted by Souvarine, Stalin, p. 455.

25 Trotsky, Stalin, p. 403.

26 Ibid., p. 61.

27 Ibid., p. 64.

28 In this study, written in 1948, I merely allude to the crushing of the Kronstadt Commune and the repression practised by Bolshevik power against the workers' opposition movements. As far as Kronstadt is concerned, my sources were Voline's La revolution inconnue (republished in 1969 by Pierre Belfond) and an article by Victor Serge, 'Kronstadt', in Politics (April 1945). Since then, a great deal more information has been published. The following should be mentioned: Ida Mett, La Commune de Cronstadt (Paris: Spartacus, 1949); R. V. Daniels, 'The Kronstadt Revolt of 1921', American Slavic and East European Review (Dec. 1951) L. Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy (London: London School of Economics, 1955), ch. XVI; George Katkov, 'The Kronstadt Rising', St Anthony 's Papers, no. 6 (1959); La Commune de Cronstadt. Recueil de documents (Paris: Bélibaste, 1969), which includes a translation of Kronstadt's Itvestia and extracts from the diary of an eye-witness, the anarchist Berkman; and P. Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

As far as the repression of the opposition movements is concerned, see especially the testimony of Ciliga, analysed in my Elements d'une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), pp. 145 ff., and E. H.Carr, The Interregnum, 1923-24 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954), pp.88-93, 276-8, 300-2. On the 'Workers' Group' see L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (London: Constable, 1960), pp. 276-7; R. V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 158-9. On 'Workers' Truth' see Daniels, Conscience of the Revolution, pp. 204 and 210, and A Documentary History of Communism, (New York: Vintage, 1960), vol. I, pp. 2i0-23; Schapiro, Communist Party of the Soviet Union, pp. 198-204.

29 Souvarine, Stalin, p. 319.

30 Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934-35), p. 182.

31 Ibid., p. 179.

32 One may also compare this statement with the final lines of Trotsky's Stalin which completely contradict it:

"'L'Etat, c'est moi' [I am the State] is almost a liberal formula by comparison with the actualities of Stalin's totalitarian regime. Louis XIV identified himself only with the State. The Popes of Rome identified themselves with both the State and the Church - but only during the epoch of temporal power. The totalitarian state goes far beyond Caesaro-Papism, for it has encompassed the entire economy of the country as well. Stalin can justly say, unlike the Sun King 'La Society c'est moi' [I am Society]." (Stalin, p. 421: Lefort's emphasis)

33 For example in the passage of his Stalin where, referring to the period that saw the liquidation of the kulaks, Trotsky writes: 'Thus opened the irreconcilable struggle over the surplus product of national labour. Who will dispose of it in the nearest future - the new bourgeoisie or the Soviet bureaucracy? - that became the next issue. He who disposes of the surplus product has the power of the State at his disposal.' (Stalin, p. 397)

34 Ibid., p. 406.



6 years ago

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Submitted by spacious on July 7, 2018

Comparing with the French text posted here - -, it appears that this translation is missing the last paragraph. In French it reads:

Nous avons suffisamment insisté sur le sens de notre critique pour espérer éviter les malentendus. Le Stalinisme est pour nous un système d’exploitation, qu’il convient de comprendre, comme il convient de comprendre le capitalisme moderne, en vue de contribuer au mouvement ouvrier, seul susceptible de les renverser. Quand nous apprécions le bolchevisme, notamment dans sa phase de décadence, c’est en gardant avec lui un lien de participation, car sa force et sa crise sont celles de l’idéologie révolutionnaire.
Par ailleurs les appréciations romantico-fatalistes, du genre : « l’échec du bolchevisme, le parti génial des surhommes, montre bien que la révolution est impossible », nous sont étrangères. Le bolchevisme est pour nous l’expression d’une époque. Il n’a pas échoué parce que le prolétariat est sans avenir, mais parce qu’il était une anticipation historique. Il a échoué parce que la révolution socialiste est dans son essence mondiale et que ses fondements — la concentration des forces productives, l’interpénétration des économies — étaient encore insuffisants à l’époque de la Première Guerre mondiale; il a échoué parce que la révolution socialiste est par essence prolétarienne et que ses conditions — la capacité de gestion du prolétariat — n’étaient pas mûres. Ce serait une autre tâche — qui déborde le cadre de cette étude — de montrer d’une part que les bases d’une telle révolution se sont élargies en même temps que s’étendait la « barbarie », d’autre part que cette révolution présenterait des traits — participation effective de l’avant-garde prolétarienne au pouvoir, importance des organes autonomes de la classe, rôle réduit du ou des partis — sensiblement différents de ceux qu’à revêtus la révolution russe.