Isaac Deutscher, author of the brilliant three-volume Trotsky biography – The Prophet Armed (1954), The Prophet Unarmed (1959) and The Prophet Outcast (1963) – describes the situation facing the Soviet leadership in 1921:
“The nation ruled by Lenin’s party was in a state of near dissolution. The material foundations of its existence were shattered. It will be enough to recall that by the end of the civil war Russia’s national income amounted to only one-third of her income in 1913, that industry produced less than one-fifth of the goods produced before the war, that the coal-miners turned out less than one-tenth and the iron foundries only one-fortieth of their normal output, that the railways were destroyed, that all stocks and reserves on which any economy depends for its work were utterly exhausted, that the exchange of goods between town and country had come to a standstill, that Russia’s cities and towns had become so depopulated that in 1921 Moscow had only one-half and Petrograd one-third of its former inhabitants, and that the people of the two capitals had for many months lived on a food ration of two ounces of bread and a few frozen potatoes and had heated their dwellings with the wood of their furniture – and we shall obtain some idea of the condition in which the nation found itself in the fourth year of the revolution.”
…“Seven years of world war, revolution, civil war, intervention, and war communism had wrought such changes in society that customary political notions, ideas, and slogans became almost meaningless. Russia’s social structure had been not merely overturned; it was smashed and destroyed. The social classes which had so implacably and furiously wrestled with one another in the civil war were all, with the partial exception of the peasantry, either exhausted and prostrate or pulverized.”
—The Prophet Unarmed
Years of war and revolution had decimated the Russian working class and those who survived were completely exhausted. Many of the best elements had either been killed in the civil war or absorbed into the Bolshevik party and the administrative apparatus of the Soviet state. The Bolsheviks were forced to resort to “War Communism” (1918–1921), a regime that substituted administrative fiat for the extension of workers’ control in the factories and enforced requisitions of grain from the peasantry to feed the urban centers and army. Viewed as a short-term expedient, War Communism enabled the Red Army to defeat the Whites and win the civil war, but it generated enormous new contradictions within the isolated workers’ state.
As soon as the immediate threat of Tsarist restoration had passed, the smychka (alliance between the urban proletariat and the poor peasants) began to fray. The peasants were petty proprietors who had only supported the Bolsheviks because of their land policies and in the knowledge that the Whites would have restored the big landowners. But, as the situation stabilized, the peasants sought to escape state control and yearned for the opportunity to sell their products to the highest bidder on the open market.
In March 1921, the naval garrison of Kronstadt, which had been solidly pro-Bolshevik in 1917, mutinied, raising the demand for “soviets without Bolsheviks.” The original working-class sailors of Kronstadt had been ground up in the civil war and their places taken by more backward elements of peasant origin. The Bolsheviks initially sought to defuse the situation, but when this failed they were left with no alternative but to put down the revolt, whose leadership had established connections with counterrevolutionary White generals (see “Kronstadt & Counterrevolution”).
The rising social tensions created by the devastation of the civil war eventually found expression within the Bolshevik Party itself. At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, the “Workers’ Opposition” demanded that control of industry be given to the trade unions. While blaming the party leadership for the desperate situation of the working class, the Workers’ Opposition remained loyal to the Soviet state and actively participated in suppressing the Kronstadt mutiny. Nevertheless, the congress felt that a split in the party was a real possibility that, in turn, could open the door to counterrevolution. It therefore took the extraordinary decision to ban internal party factions, in what was viewed as a temporary measure.
The Bolshevik leadership, led by Lenin, was painfully aware of the growing bureaucratic deformation of the workers’ state. The failure of the revolutionary post-war upsurges to achieve any lasting gains abroad that would ease the pressure on the fledgling Soviet state made it necessary to attempt to find some means of reviving the economy on the basis of the limited internal resources available. At the March 1921 congress the Bolsheviks abandoned War Communism in favor of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), along the lines of proposals made earlier by Trotsky (who had also advocated increased central planning and industrialization). The NEP replaced the forced requisitions of grain with a tax in kind on propertied agricultural producers – a concession to the restive peasantry that was aimed at reviving production and jump-starting an economy that was near collapse after years of war and famine.
While the NEP succeeded in increasing production it also created a layer of rich peasants (kulaks) and petty capitalists (“Nepmen”) in the countryside. This stratum provided fertile ground for the growth of conservative tendencies within society, the party and the state. Compounding the problem was the continued isolation of the Soviet Union and the political demoralization resulting from defeats and missed revolutionary opportunities abroad, including Germany in 1918-1919, Hungary in 1919, Italy in 1919-1920, Germany again in 1921 and both Bulgaria and Germany in 1923.
By 1923, the temporary expedients necessary to prevent a collapse of the workers’ state (see “Platformism & Bolshevism”) had not prevented a process of degeneration reflected in the high-handedness of the party and state bureaucracies, which had essentially fused. The bureaucracy was well represented in the upper echelons of the government – and personified by Joseph Stalin who, as General Secretary of the Communist Party, had consolidated his supremacy by placing apparatchiks loyal to him in positions of power. Politically, the Stalin faction was marked by a growing disdain for what remained of workers’ democracy, as well as by a Great Russian chauvinist attitude toward the myriad minority nations found throughout the Soviet Union.
Lenin had suffered a stroke in 1922, but when he became aware of Stalin’s actions he launched a behind-the-scenes struggle to remove the General Secretary from his post, turning to Trotsky for help (see Lenin’s Last Struggle by Moshe Lewin). In March 1923, Lenin suffered another debilitating stroke that virtually incapacitated him until his death in January 1924. Trotsky lacked Lenin’s tactical/organizational experience and was resented as a newcomer by a significant section of the party cadres. He was outmaneuvered by Stalin, who formed a bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev, known as the “Triumvirate,” to consolidate their leadership of the party.
As a coherent movement to reverse the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution and restore the Soviet state as an organizing center for world revolution, “Trotskyism” really emerged in October 1923. This was marked by the “Declaration of 46,” a letter signed by prominent cadres detailing criticisms of bureaucratization, economic mismanagement and the lack of internal democracy in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), similar to those Trotsky had leveled only a few weeks earlier.
Trotsky’s “Left Opposition” largely consisted of pre-1917 Bolsheviks and veterans of the revolution and civil war. In contrast, the vast majority of the party membership was much less experienced and politically sophisticated with an inclination to go along with the leadership. This was increased with the “Lenin levy” of early 1924 in which 240,000 raw recruits were admitted to the party en masse.
The central party leadership under Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, along with Stalin’s ally Nikolai Bukharin who had swung from the left to the right wing of the party, painted Trotsky as a pessimist, hostile to the peasantry and willing to risk the survival of the Russian workers’ state for the sake of foreign revolutionary adventures. Stalin counterposed a conservative perspective of setting aside the pursuit of world revolution in favor of building “socialism in one country.”
This essentially nationalist project of creating a classless, socialist society in a single country represented a radical departure from Bolshevik tradition. Only six months before the new doctrine was proclaimed, in the first edition of his Foundations of Leninism, Stalin had argued exactly the opposite point of view, as Max Shachtman recounts:
“Stalin himself, who first formulated the theory of national socialism, wrote in the first edition of his ‘Problems of Leninism’ [a.k.a., ‘Foundations of Leninism,” April 1924] that‘the main task of socialism – the organization of socialist production – still remains ahead. Can this task be accomplished, can the final victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible … For the final victory of socialism, for the organization of socialist construction, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia, are insufficient. For this the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are necessary.’”
“It is only in the second edition of the same work, printed in the same year, that he turned this clear and definite conclusion inside out and presented the still cautious formula which has since been developed into an unrestrained nationalistic gospel:‘After the victorious proletariat of one country has consolidated its power and has won over the peasantry for itself, it can and must build up the socialist society.’”—“Genesis of Trotskyism,” 1933
“Socialism in one country,” the central doctrine of Stalinism, represented a wholesale rejection of the militant internationalism which defined Lenin’s party. Initially advanced as a factional club with which to beat Trotsky, this new nationalist perspective corresponded to the political mood of the bureaucracy, which was in turn reinforced by the weariness of the Soviet population. The theory, which was motivated by a desire to maintain the material basis of the bureaucracy, served to justify conservative domestic and foreign policies, and ultimately resulted in the destruction of the Third International as a revolutionary instrument.
In 1926, Stalin attempted to rationalize his volte-face as follows:
“What is meant by the possibility of the victory of socialism in one country?
“It means the possibility of solving the contradictions between the proletariat and the peasantry by means of the internal forces of our country, the possibility of the proletariat seizing power and using that power to build a complete socialist society in our country, with the sympathy and the support of the proletarians of other countries, but without the preliminary victory of the proletarian revolution in other countries.
“Without such a possibility, building socialism is building without prospects, building without being sure that socialism will be completely built. It is no use engaging in building socialism without being sure that we can build it completely, without being sure that the technical backwardness of our country is not an insuperable obstacle to the building of a complete socialist society. To deny such a possibility means disbelief in the cause of building socialism, departure from Leninism.”
—Concerning Questions of Leninism, 1926
The issue of “socialism in one country” was not an arcane theoretical dispute – it had very significant political implications. Stalin’s claim that the “final victory of socialism [in our country] is the full guarantee against attempts at [imperialist military] intervention” (ibid.) implied that one of the central responsibilities of revolutionaries abroad was to neutralize the imperialists and fight to maintain the global status quo. As Trotsky noted, this completely inverted the original raison d’être of the Communist International, which was established as an agency to promote revolutionary struggle:
“By the theory of national socialism, the Communist International is down-graded to an auxiliary weapon useful only for the struggle against military intervention. The present policy of the Comintern, its regime and the selection of its leading personnel correspond entirely to the role of an auxiliary unit which is not destined to solve independent tasks.
“The programme of the Comintern created by Bukharin is eclectic through and through. It makes the hopeless attempt to reconcile the theory of socialism in one country with Marxist internationalism, which is, however, inseparable from the permanent character of the world revolution. The struggle of the Communist Left Opposition for a correct policy and a healthy regime in the Communist International is inseparably bound up with the struggle for the Marxist programme. The question of the programme is in turn inseparable from the question of the two mutually exclusive theories: the theory of permanent revolution and the theory of socialism in one country. The problem of the permanent revolution has long ago outgrown the episodic differences of opinion between Lenin and Trotsky, which were completely exhausted by history. The struggle is between the basic ideas of Marx and Lenin on the one side and the eclecticism of the centrists [i.e., Stalinists] on the other.”
—Permanent Revolution, Trotsky
Trotsky and the Left Opposition pointed to the counterrevolutionary impact of the Stalin-Bukharin leadership’s doctrine:
“The theory of socialism in one country inexorably leads to an underestimation of the difficulties which must be overcome and to an exaggeration of the achievements gained. One could not find a more anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary assertion than Stalin’s statement [in 1926] to the effect that ‘socialism has already been 90 percent realized in the USSR.’ This statement seems to be especially meant for a smug bureaucrat. In this way one can hopelessly discredit the idea of a socialist society in the eyes of the toiling masses. The Soviet proletariat has achieved grandiose successes, if we take into consideration the conditions under which they have been attained and the low cultural level inherited from the past. But these achievements constitute an extremely small magnitude on the scales of the socialist ideal. Harsh truth and not sugary falsehood is needed to fortify the worker, the agricultural laborer, and the poor peasant, who see that in the eleventh year of the revolution, poverty, misery, unemployment, bread lines, illiteracy, homeless children, drunkenness, and prostitution have not abated around them. Instead of telling them fibs about having realized 90% socialism, we must say to them that our economic level, our social and cultural conditions, approximate today much closer to capitalism, and a backward and uncultured capitalism at that, than to socialism. We must tell them that we will enter on the path of real socialist construction only when the proletariat of the most advanced countries will have captured power; that it is necessary to work unremittingly for this, using both levers – the short lever of our internal economic efforts and the long lever of the international proletarian struggle.”
—The Third International After Lenin, 1928
The most acute problem that this “short lever” was designed to address was what Trotsky termed a “scissors crisis,” i.e., the growing disparity between rising prices for industrial goods and falling prices for agricultural products which threatened to pit urban workers against rural peasants and thereby destabilize the state. Trotsky and the Opposition proposed to address this by skimming off some of the social surplus produced by the peasantry and investing it in industrial production. This would expand the range and quality of manufactured products available while also increasing the social weight of the working class. While Bukharin invited the peasantry to “enrich yourselves!,” the opposition warned of the dangers created by the emergence of a powerful layer of kulaks (wealthy peasants). As a counterweight the Opposition advocated the establishment of agricultural cooperatives and the granting of long-term credits to poorer peasants. The intent was to avoid the social polarization of rural society, and with it the growth of support for capitalist restoration, through promoting voluntary collectivization. The regime rejected these proposals, although several years later, when the kulaks attempted to apply pressure by cutting off food to the cities, Stalin reversed direction and implemented a brutal forced collectivization which set back Soviet agricultural production for decades.
Maximizing the power of the “short lever” also required reversing the bureaucratization of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state. The soviets had long been reduced to virtual rubber stamps for the directives of the party’s executive committees and presidiums. Within the party itself, the selection processes, elections, internal political discussions and debates that had always characterized organizational life under Lenin were quickly disappearing. The Left Opposition raised the banner of returning to a “Leninist course” in their struggle to combat the bureaucratic strangulation of the Soviet workers’ state and the party that had helped create it.
The Opposition sought to combat “officialism” (i.e., bureaucracy) by proposing to end the use of arbitrary appointments and dismissals of elected representatives; fostering workers’ democracy in the trade unions and soviets; curbing the growing influence of the kulaks; and strengthening the smychka by drawing both workers and poor peasants into the administration of the state apparatus. They sought to revive “real inner-party democracy” by involving members in discussion and debate of current issues, including the publication of internal party bulletins; opening the party press to internal debates; a concerted program of Marxist education for party members; more thorough vetting of candidate members to exclude careerists; scaling back bloated party budgets while increasing emphasis on unpaid work by party activists; and, finally, re-instating oppositionists who had been bureaucratically expelled.
Although it failed to win mass support within the party’s newly swollen ranks, the Left Opposition’s defense of Leninist orthodoxy posed a potentially serious threat to the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Opposition was expelled in November 1927 but for many years continued to struggle under incredibly difficult conditions to uphold the essential elements of Leninism against the wholesale revision of Marxism that accompanied the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet workers’ state.
The victory of Stalin’s faction resulted in a qualitative transformation of the international Communist movement from an agency of world revolution to a tool of the Stalinist bureaucracy as it sought to strike deals with the imperialists. Over the course of the next decade, the Comintern was gradually turned into an agency for the realization of a consciously counterrevolutionary foreign policy. A major step in that process – and one that Trotsky fought – was the Kremlin’s disastrous instructions to the fledgling Chinese Communist Party that resulted in the defeat of the second Chinese Revolution.
By adopting Lenin’s “April Theses” in 1917, the Bolshevik party had abandoned the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in favor of a perspective that was functionally identical to that of Trotsky’s permanent revolution. But no one, including Trotsky himself, had yet concluded that this experience would be applicable in colonial and semi-colonial countries where there had been no bourgeois-democratic revolution.
The early Communist International took great interest in attempting to forge close connections with anti-colonial movements. In stark contrast to the social-chauvinism that characterized the Second International, the Second Congress of the Comintern in July 1920 clearly stipulated:
“Any party wishing to join the Third International must ruthlessly expose the colonial machinations of the imperialists of its ‘own’ country, must support – in deed, not merely in word – every colonial liberation movement [and] demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies….”
“Terms of Admission into Communist International”
The Comintern declared that communists had “the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies,” including bourgeois nationalist forces, while simultaneously promoting the “victory of soviet power.” A resolution drafted by Lenin and approved by the Second Congress stated:
“… the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.”
—“Theses on the National and Colonial Questions”
This somewhat algebraic formula left open the possibility of various forms of collaboration with bourgeois forces in colonial countries such as India or China. The “Theses on the Eastern Question” adopted by the Fourth Congress in 1922 advocated a strategy of seeking to establish “anti-imperialist united fronts” with “all revolutionary elements” in the colonial world, which hinted at a potential alliance with an “anti-imperialist” wing of the indigenous capitalist class.
The ambiguities in the early Communist International’s attitude toward bourgeois-nationalist forces in the colonial world turned to tragedy in China in the mid-1920s where, under Stalin’s leadership, the Comintern resurrected the Menshevik theory of “two-stage” revolution, i.e., political subordination to the bourgeoisie (see The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by Harold Isaacs).
In 1923, the Comintern had instructed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to fully enter the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). Describing the KMT as a “workers’ and peasants’ party,” the Kremlin sought to forge an “anti-imperialist united front” with General Chiang Kai-shek in pursuit of a “bloc of four classes” (i.e., workers, peasantry, urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie). To maintain such a bloc it was important to suppress any issues likely to alienate the “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisie. Inside the Kuomintang this translated into a policy of complete political subordination as CCP members were instructed not to criticize the utopian reformist doctrines of KMT founder Sun Yat-sen.
On 30 May 1925, the Shanghai municipal police fired on demonstrators and the labor movement, in which CCP members played a leading role, responded with a general strike that spread to Canton (present-day Guangzhou), Hong Kong and beyond. The strike wave alarmed the Kuomintang’s bourgeois leaders and threatened the stability of the “anti-imperialist” alliance. Stalin signaled his desire to maintain friendly relations by accepting the Kuomintang as a “sympathizing” section of the Comintern in early 1926 and celebrating Chiang as an honorary member.
But Chiang was not mollified and in March 1926, as the strike continued, he raided strike headquarters, arrested CCP militants and removed communists from key posts within the KMT. The CCP leadership proposed to respond to Chiang’s rightist coup by breaking with the Kuomintang, but Moscow insisted that the “anti-imperialist united front” be maintained. Stalin betrayed the Chinese communists by ordering a “compromise” with Chiang that involved providing the Kuomintang with a list of all CCP members as well as access to all Comintern-CCP communications.
In a speech in November 1926 Stalin invoked the formula of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” explicitly rejected by Lenin in his April Theses, in order to defend his policy:
“The point lies not only in the bourgeois-democratic character of [Chiang’s] Canton government, which is the embryo of the future all-China revolutionary government; the point is above all that this government is, and cannot but be, an anti-imperialist government, that every advance it makes is a blow at world imperialism – and, consequently, a blow which benefits the world revolutionary movement.”
“I think that the future revolutionary government in China will in general resemble in character the government we used to talk about in our country in 1905, that is, something in the nature of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, with the difference, however, that it will be first and foremost an anti-imperialist government.”
“From this follows the task of the Chinese Communists as regards their attitude to the Kuomintang and to the future revolutionary government in China. It is said that the Chinese Communists should withdraw from the Kuomintang. That would be wrong, comrades. The withdrawal of the Chinese Communists from the Kuomintang at the present time would be a profound mistake. The whole course, character and prospects of the Chinese revolution undoubtedly testify in favour of the Chinese Communists remaining in the Kuomintang and intensifying their work in it.
“But can the Chinese Communist Party participate in the future revolutionary government? It not only can, but must do so. The course, character and prospects of the revolution in China are eloquent testimony in favour of the Chinese Communist Party taking part in the future revolutionary government of China.
“Therein lies one of the essential guarantees of the establishment in fact of the hegemony of the Chinese proletariat.”
— “The Prospects of the Revolution in China,” 1926
A few months later in March 1927, as Chiang’s army menaced the CCP stronghold of Shanghai, a demonstration of half a million workers turned into an insurrectionary general strike. Once again the Kremlin ordered the CCP not to break the “anti-imperialist united front” and demanded that the workers lay down their weapons, whereupon Chiang entered Shanghai, declared martial law and executed tens of thousands of leftists.
Incredibly, Stalin characterized Chiang’s coup as a victory that would “strengthen and broaden the struggle against imperialism,” claiming that the disaster in Shanghai heralded the beginning of a “second stage” of the revolution. Chinese communists were now instructed to rally to the “revolutionary” Left Kuomintang in Wuhan which had fallen out with Chiang:
“Chiang Kai-shek's coup signifies that the revolution has entered the second stage of its development, that a swing has begun away from the revolution of an all-national united front and towards a revolution of the vast masses of the workers and peasants, towards an agrarian revolution, which will strengthen and broaden the struggle against imperialism, against the gentry and the feudal landlords, and against the militarists and Chiang Kai-shek's counter-revolutionary group.”
“It means that, by waging a resolute struggle against militarism and imperialism, the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan will become in fact the organ of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, while Chiang Kai-shek’s counter-revolutionary group in Nanking, by severing itself from the workers and peasants and drawing closer to imperialism, will in the end share the fate of the militarists.
“But it follows from this that the policy of preserving the unity of the Kuomintang, the policy of isolating the Rights within the Kuomintang and utilising them for the purposes of the revolution, no longer accords with the new tasks of the revolution. It must be replaced by a policy of resolutely expelling the Rights from the Kuomintang, a policy of resolutely fighting the Rights until they are completely eliminated politically, a policy of concentrating all power in the country in the hands of a revolutionary Kuomintang, a Kuomintang without its Right elements, a Kuomintang that is a bloc between the Kuomintang Lefts and the Communists.”
—“Questions of the Chinese Revolution,” 1927
But the “revolutionary Kuomintang” soon turned on its would-be allies in the CPP before itself being liquidated by Chiang’s right-wing forces. By December 1927, with the disastrous consequences of the KMT orientation evident to all, Stalin executed an abrupt left turn and ordered the CCP in Canton to attempt an ill-advised and unprepared insurrection that was doomed to defeat. At one time hegemonic within China’s small but combative working class, the CCP never recovered in the urban centers from the disaster of 1927, and instead, under Mao Zedong’s leadership, took refuge in the countryside and pursued a strategy of peasant-based guerrilla warfare.
The question of China played an important role in the internal struggle within the CPSU after Lenin’s death and factional calculations and miscalculations therefore influenced Trotsky’s position at various points. The 1923 Opposition was more a collection of like-minded party members who agreed on several key issues rather than a cohered faction. While Trotsky was seen as the grouping’s most authoritative figure, he maintained some public distance – with the 1921 ban on factions still in effect he was keen to avoid any questioning of his loyalty. The rapidly advancing bureaucratization of the party, manifested in part by the anti-“Trotskyite” witch-hunt of 1924, was alarming, but Trotsky remained the heroic founder of the Red Army and second only to Lenin in the eyes of the population. The post-war revolutionary tide was ebbing, and the Soviet Union was isolated for the time being, but the future course of events remained unclear. Lenin was ill and effectively sidelined, and Stalin had not yet emerged as an advocate of “socialism in one country.” All of these factors contributed to the unwillingness of the 1923 Opposition to engage in hard factional warfare.
Stalin, whose organizational control of the central party administration permitted him to emerge as the leading figure in the CPSU, terminated the Triumvirate in 1925 and formed a bloc with Bukharin, the leader of the party’s right wing. Zinoviev and Kamenev then gravitated toward Trotsky and his Left Opposition, and together they formed the Joint (or United) Opposition in mid-1926 just as events in China were unravelling. However, the United Opposition remained divided on the decisive questions of the Chinese Revolution.
As early as 1923, Trotsky had opposed the CCP’s Kuomintang entry and his was the only dissenting vote when the issue arose in the Politburo. But Zinoviev, who had been chairman of the Comintern at the time and therefore shared responsibility for the entry, opposed the Joint Opposition calling for an exit from the KMT, and Trotsky felt compelled to concede:
“In 1926 and 1927, I had uninterrupted conflicts with the Zinovievists on this question. Two or three times, the matter stood at the breaking point. Our center consisted of approximately equal numbers from both of the allied tendencies, for it was after all only a bloc. At the voting, the position of the 1923 Opposition [i.e., opposition to KMT entry] was betrayed by Radek, out of principle, and by Pyatakov, out of unprincipledness. Our faction (1923) was furious about it, demanded that Radek and Pyatakov be recalled from the center. But since it was a question of splitting with the Zinovievists, it was the general decision that I must submit publicly in this question and acquaint the Opposition in writing with my standpoint….
“Now I can say with certainty that I made a mistake by submitting formally in this question.”
—Letter to Max Shactman, quoted in Shactman’s introduction to Trotsky’s Problems of the Chinese Revolution
Trotsky made a similar compromise on the issue of permanent revolution and sought to downplay past differences with Lenin to undercut accusations of “Trotskyism.” The September 1927 Platform of the Joint Opposition stated:
“We [Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev] announced to the whole Communist International [15 December 1926]: ‘It is not true that we are defending Trotskyism. Trotsky has stated to the International that in all those questions of principle upon which he disputed with Lenin, Lenin was right – and particularly upon the question of permanent revolution and the peasantry.’ That announcement, made to the whole Communist International, the Stalin group refuses to print. It continues to accuse us of ‘Trotskyism’.”
—Platform of the Joint Opposition
Trotsky’s attempts to conciliate his bloc partners proved futile. Soon after the members of the Joint Opposition were expelled from the Communist Party, Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated to Stalin in a vain attempt to regain their status in the party.
A long-time friend and loyal supporter, Adolph Joffe, in his last letter before committing suicide, astutely commented on Trotsky’s tendency to seek a compromise in situations where it would have been better to have fought:
“I have never doubted the rightness of the road you pointed out, and as you know, I have gone with you for more than twenty years, since the days of ‘permanent revolution’. But I have always believed that you lacked Lenin’s unbending will, his unwillingness to yield, his readiness even to remain alone on the path that he thought right in the anticipation of a future majority, of a future recognition by everyone of the rightness of his path.
“Politically, you were always right, beginning with 1905, and I told you repeatedly that with my own ears I had heard Lenin admit that even in 1905, you, and not he, were right. One does not lie before his death, and now I repeat this again to you. But you have often abandoned your rightness for the sake of an overvalued agreement or compromise. This is a mistake. I repeat: politically you have always been right, and now more right than ever. Some day the party will realize it, and history will not fail to accord recognition. Then don’t lose your courage if someone leaves you now, or if not as many come to you, and not as soon, as we all would like.
“You are right, but the guarantee of the victory of your rightness lies in nothing but the extreme unwillingness to yield, the strictest straightforwardness, the absolute rejection of all compromise; in this very thing lay the secret of Lenin’s victories. Many a time I have wanted to tell you this, but only now have I brought myself to do so, as a last farewell.”
—Letter to Trotsky, 16 November 1927
Joffe’s admonition made a lasting impression on Trotsky and stiffened his resolve. He now drew the lesson of the Chinese tragedy and openly asserted the decisive importance of maintaining the complete political independence of the working class from all wings of the bourgeoisie. He clearly assigned responsibility for the debacle to Stalin and Bukharin:
“The Chinese Communist Party entered a bourgeois party, the Kuomintang, while the bourgeois character of this party was disguised by a charlatan philosophy about a ‘workers’ and peasants’ party’ and even about a party of ‘four classes’ (Stalin-Martynov). The proletariat was thus deprived of its own party at a most critical period…. The responsibility falls entirely on the ECCI and Stalin, its inspirers….
“Never and under no circumstances may the party of the proletariat enter into a party of another class or merge with it organizationally. An absolutely independent party of the proletariat is a first and decisive condition for communist politics.”
—“The Political Situation in China and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, June 1929
Trotsky rejected any notion of a “democratic dictatorship” in favor of a strategy of permanent revolution (i.e., struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat) as applicable not just to Russia, but to the entire semi-colonial and colonial world:
“The ‘democratic dictatorship’ can only be the masked rule of the bourgeoisie during the revolution. This is taught us by the experience of our ‘dual power’ of 1917 as well as by the experience of the Kuomintang in China.”
“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”
“As all modern history attests – especially the Russian experience of the last twenty-five years – an insurmountable obstacle on the road to the creation of a peasants’ party is the petty-bourgeoisie’s lack of economic and political independence and its deep internal differentiation. By reason of this the upper sections of the petty-bourgeoisie (of the peasantry) go along with the big bourgeoisie in all decisive cases, especially in war and in revolution; the lower sections go along with the proletariat; the intermediate section being thus compelled to choose between the two extreme poles. Between Kerenskyism and the Bolshevik power, between the Kuomintang and the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is not and cannot be any intermediate stage, that is, no democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants.”
Subsequent historical experience has vindicated Trotsky’s analysis and repeatedly demonstrated that in countries with a “belated bourgeois development” (i.e., neocolonies) national independence from imperialist domination and agrarian revolution (distribution of land to the tillers) must be linked to the fight for workers’ power. Revolutionary struggles of the oppressed must either culminate in the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or succumb to defeat.
But the Stalin-Bukharin bloc had effectively defeated Trotsky and the Left Opposition. In November 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Russian Communist Party, a year later he was exiled from the Soviet Union and subsequently deprived of Soviet citizenship. Adherents of the Left Opposition in the USSR were subject to expulsion, forced confessions, exile, imprisonment and execution. Despite this, the Oppositionists maintained a perspective of fighting to reform and regenerate the Comintern and opposed the idea of building a new International. They maintained that the Comintern – which still commanded the allegiance of most revolutionaries in the international workers’ movement – was the only home for genuine Bolshevik-Leninists because the process of degeneration that was destroying the communist movement and imperiling the Soviet Union was still reversible. It would take another massive defeat for the international working class – this time in Germany – for Trotsky and the International Left Opposition to conclude that the Third International, like the Second, belonged in the “dustbin of history.”
After his expulsion from the USSR, Trotsky lived on the Turkish island of Prinkipo (aka Büyükada). The capitulation by a number of prominent oppositionists (including Zinoviev, Kamenev, Karl Radek, Ivar Smilga and Evgeny Preobrazhensky) weighed heavily on him, as did his difficult financial and familial circumstances. Yet Trotsky closely followed political events in Russia and around the world, and was regularly visited by co-thinkers from Europe and elsewhere.
In the early 1930s Germany occupied a central place in international politics, as the ominous rise of Hitler’s Nazi party threatened to plunge Europe into a new dark era. Trotsky’s lucid analysis of fascism, contrasting with the confusionism of the Stalinist theoreticians, began with the observation that:
“Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brutal force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. The task of fascism lies not only in destroying the Communist vanguard…. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever had been achieved during three-quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions.”
—“What Next?,” 27 January 1932
Under the normal functioning of bourgeois democracy, capitalist rulers regard the fascist fringe as dangerous thugs. Yet in times of crisis, in the face of a combative workers’ movement, the fascists have a certain utility for the propertied elites. In periods of social collapse fascist demagogues can gain a mass following among layers of the petty bourgeoisie (e.g., shop keepers, farmers, middle managers in the private sector and civil service) as well as among the chronically unemployed and impoverished underclass, and even some backward layers of the working class.
In Germany’s 1928 election, Hitler’s Nazis polled less than 3 percent, but as the economic conditions plummeted following the stock market crash of 1929, their vote shot up to 18 percent in 1930 and 37 percent in mid-1932. This gave the National Socialists a plurality of deputies in the German parliament, but the bourgeoisie was not prepared to turn over their state apparatus to the fascist rabble. When Hitler indicated a desire to become German Chancellor in 1932, head of state General Paul von Hindenburg scathingly responded: “That man for Chancellor? I’ll make him my postmaster and he can lick stamps with my head on them” (The Second World War, Vol. 1, 1964, Winston S. Churchill). Between the July and November elections in 1932, the Nazi vote dropped by 2 million. Jospeh Goebbels, Nazi leader in Berlin, was devastated, writing in his diary: “The future looks dark and gloomy; all prospects and hopes have quite disappeared” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer and Ron Rosenbaum).
Two months later, however, Hitler ascended to the chancellorship unopposed. A critical reorientation had occurred within the upper echelons of the German ruling class which quickly swung momentum in favor of the fascists. In late January 1933, Kurt von Hammerstein, commander-in-chief of the Germany army and a known opponent of Hitler, drew the following conclusion:
“We [Hammerstein and outgoing-chancellor Kurt von Schleicher] were both convinced that only Hitler was possible as the future chancellor. Any other choice would lead to a general strike, if not civil war, and thus to a totally undesirable use of the army against the National Socialists.”
— F.L. Carsten, Reichswehr Politics, 1973
A critical factor in the success of the Nazis was the deep division in Germany’s powerful workers’ movement between the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democrats, whose combined support was potentially much larger than that of the fascists. Trotsky and the Left Opposition desperately called for united working-class action – a “workers’ united front” – to crush the Nazi danger before it was too late. The Nazi brownshirts’ success in attacking trade unionists, leftists, Jews and others they considered “undesirable” made them an attractive option for a ruling class concerned about the danger of a potentially insurgent workers’ movement. Only by smashing the fascists on the streets could the danger posed by Hitler’s movement be stopped, and that required concerted working-class mobilization. In 1933 Hitler himself observed:
“Only one thing could have broken our movement – if the adversary had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed, with the most extreme brutality, the nucleus of our movement.”
—Quoted in “The Fight Against Fascism in the USA,” SWP Education for Socialist Bulletins
Following the debacle in China and a revolt by the kulaks at home, Stalin had decreed a sharp left turn and announced that global capitalism had entered a new “Third Period” of terminal disintegration which would open the door to a series of revolutionary breakthroughs for the sections of the Comintern. Taking its cue from the Kremlin, the KPD projected the imminent collapse of German capitalism and its own rapid ascension to power. A key element of the new doctrine was the notion that social-democratic reformism (still embraced by the majority of the German working class) and fascism were “twins” and that the SPD was in fact a “social-fascist” organization (“socialist in words, fascist in deeds”). Instead of a united front with the SPD against the Nazis, the KPD called for rank-and-file social democrats to abandon their own organization and unite under KPD leadership in a “united front from below” (see “The Myth of the ‘Third Period’,” 1917 No. 3, and “Not Twins, but Antipodes,” 1917 No. 4).
Trotsky’s call for a workers’ united front was not an abstract call for unity, nor did it require a suspension of criticism. It was a specific proposal for joint action between the KPD and the Social Democratic Party (including its leadership), as well as other working class organizations, to address the mortal danger posed by the rise of the Nazis:
“The front must now be directed against fascism. And this common front of direct struggle against fascism, embracing the entire proletariat, must be utilized in the struggle against the Social Democracy, directed as a flank attack, but no less effective for all that.”
“It is necessary to show by deeds a complete readiness to make a bloc with the Social Democrats against the fascists in all cases in which they will accept a bloc. To say to the Social Democratic workers: ‘Cast your leaders aside and join our “nonparty” united front’ means to add just one more hollow phrase to a thousand others. We must understand how to tear the workers away from their leaders in reality. But reality today is the struggle against fascism. There are and doubtless will be Social Democratic workers who are prepared to fight hand in hand with the Communist workers against the fascists, regardless of the desires or even against the desires of the Social Democratic organizations. With such progressive elements it is obviously necessary to establish the closest possible contact. At the present time, however, they are not great in number. The German worker has been raised in the spirit of organization and of discipline. This has its strong as well as its weak sides. The overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic workers will fight against the fascists, but – for the present at least – only together with their organizations. This stage cannot be skipped. We must help the Social Democratic workers in action – in this new and extraordinary situation – to test the value of their organizations and leaders at this time, when it is a matter of life and death for the working class.”
“Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for anyplace; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory.”
—Trotsky, “For a Workers’ United front Against Fascism,” December 1931
In September 1932, Ernst Thälmann, leader of the KPD, responded to the idea of a workers’ united front:
“Trotsky gives one answer only, and it is this: the German Communist Party must join hands with the Social Democratic Party…. This, according to Trotsky, is the only way in which the German working class can save itself from fascism. Either, says he, the Communist party makes common cause with the Social Democrats, or the German working class is lost for ten or twenty years. This is the theory of an utterly bankrupt Fascist and counter-revolutionary…. Germany will of course not go fascist – our electoral victories are a guarantee of this.”
—Cited in The Prophet Outcast (1963)
A decade earlier a document on the united front adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (drafted by Trotsky) had outlined precisely the approach the International Left Opposition proposed for the German workers’ movement in the face of the Nazi threat:
“Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders?
“The very posing of this question is a product of misunderstanding.
“If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organizations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form.
“The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organizations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organizations and join us. It may be precisely after engaging in those mass activities, which are on the order of the day, that a major change will take place in this connection. That is just what we are striving for. But that is not how matters stand at present.”
“The circumstances thus make wholly possible joint action on a whole number of vital issues between the workers united in these three respective organizations [i.e., communists, centrists and reformists] and the unorganized masses adhering to them.
“The Communists, as has been said, must not oppose such actions but on the contrary must also assume the initiative for them, precisely for the reason that the greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self-confidence rises, all the more self-confident will that mass movement be and all the more resolutely will it be capable of marching forward, however modest may be the initial slogans of struggle. And this means that the growth of the mass aspects of the movement tends to radicalize it, and creates much more favourable conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle, and, in general, the leading role of the Communist Party.
“The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade-union bureaux, the arbitration boards, the ministerial antechambers.
“On the contrary, we are, apart from all other considerations, interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses. With a correct tactic we stand only to gain from this. A Communist who doubts or fears this resembles a swimmer who has approved the theses on the best method of swimming but dares not plunge into the water.”
—“On the United Front,” 1922, in First Five Years of the Communist International
Had the KPD taken this approach in the early 1930s, the Social Democratic leaders would have been forced to choose between actively combating the fascists or exposing themselves to their ranks as unwilling to fight. Either way the KPD could have won the respect of militant social-democratic workers. And, most importantly, the fascist menace could have been crushed. Instead, the KPD’s insistence that the SPD was itself a “social fascist” organization provided an alibi for the social democrats’ reluctance to unite against the Nazis and thus helped pave the way for Hitler to come to power without any serious, organized opposition from the workers’ movement. In short order both the KPD and SPD were destroyed.
Hitler’s victory was a devastating defeat for the international working class. Up to that point, the International Left Opposition had sought readmission to the Communist International despite the disastrous policies pursued by the Kremlin, on the basis that the Comintern had not definitively demonstrated its historical bankruptcy. The absence of any significant opposition to the German disaster within the Stalinized Comintern now invalidated this perspective. On behalf of the leadership of the International Left Opposition, Trotsky thus raised the call for a new party in Germany and the building of a new International:
“From the day it was founded the Left Opposition has set itself the task of reforming the Comintern and regenerating the latter through Marxist criticism and internal faction work. In a whole number of countries, especially in Germany, the events of recent years have revealed with overwhelming force the fatal character of the policies of bureaucratic centrism [i.e., Stalinism].”
“Theoretically, the collapse of the German Communist Party still left two courses open to the Stalinist bureaucracy: either a complete review of the politics and the regime; or, on the contrary, a complete strangulation of all signs of life in the sections of the Comintern. The Left Opposition was guided by this theoretical possibility when, after advancing the slogan of a new party for Germany [in March 1933], it still left open the question of the fate of the Comintern.”
“The Moscow leadership has not only proclaimed as infallible the policy which guaranteed victory to Hitler, but has also prohibited all discussion of what had occurred. And this shameful interdiction was not violated, nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress; no discussions at party meetings; no discussion in the press! An organization which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it. To say this openly and publicly is our direct duty toward the proletariat and its future. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International.”
—“To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew,” 15 July 1933
Next—Part III: Building the Fourth International