The Bolsheviks and democracy
Jim Creegan rides to the defence of Trotsky’s Lessons of October
During the centennial year of the October revolution, this paper featured seven articles by Lars T Lih, and one by Jack Conrad, expanding upon their at least partly shared interpretation of the events of 1917.
These articles contain too many assertions to take issue with in a single reply. But one text at which both writers take aim is The lessons of October, written by Trotsky in September 1924 as an extended introduction to the third volume of his collected works, containing his speeches and writings from 1917, then slated for publication by the Soviet government. Both Lih and Conrad allege that this essay is the original source of the so-called Trotskyist myths surrounding the revolution, dutifully repeated by historians down the decades. In what follows, I will evaluate the claims of Jack Conrad concerning the author’s motives, and the political significance of this work at the time it was written. A future article will assess the claims of Lih and Conrad concerning the originality of Trotsky’s arguments in regard to Lenin’s April theses and the Bolshevik seizure of power.
The lessons of October argues that Lenin, upon his return to Petrograd in April 1917, created an internal crisis in the Bolshevik Party, which he successfully resolved by reorienting the party toward the conquest of power seven months later. In recounting this history, Trotsky implicitly contrasts his own role as the insurrection’s principal leader with that of the reigning triumvirs of the Bolshevik Party in 1924 - Joseph Stalin, who played a negligible part, and Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, both of whom publicly denounced Bolshevik plans in a Menshevik newspaper on the eve of the insurrection. The ‘October’ of the title also refers to the ‘German October’ of 1923, during which plans for a workers’ insurrection were aborted in what Trotsky considered a missed revolutionary opportunity.
Jack Conrad avers that, in writing Lessons,
Trotsky had thrown down a political gauntlet and other prominent members of the Communist Party - not least those on the politburo and the central committee - piled in against him: Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Bukharin, Nadezhda Krupskaya, etc.
Though Trotsky fulsomely praised the dead Lenin and spoke about “we Bolsheviks”, his aim was to attack, to demean Lenin’s closest lieutenants. They were hardly going to take that lying down. And, besides defending their own revolutionary records and sense of honour, they feared that Trotsky might be contemplating staging a Bonapartist military coup. He had certainly set his sights on replacing, or at the very least augmenting, Leninism with Trotskyism.1
The above passage is breathtaking in its lack of historical context. It contains no reference to the nearly two-year-long intra-party disputes that set the scene for Lessons,and echoes the accusations levelled at the time by the triumvirs - that Trotsky initiated an unprovoked attack on their political reputations out of personal ambition. Thus, before examining the contents of The lessons of October, it will be necessary to recreate, in barest outline, the political background against which it was written.
For those readers acquainted with the classics from which my narrative is drawn - the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s monumental Trotsky biography, The prophet unarmed (London 1959); EH Carr’s A history of Soviet Russia, the interregnum (London 1969); and Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s last struggle (New York 1968) - what follows will retread familiar ground. This article is written mainly for the benefit of readers who may be less than fully conversant with the details of this highly dramatic turning point in Soviet history.
In December of 1922, when a series of paralysing strokes forced Lenin to retire from active politics with uncertain prospects for recovery, the question of succession loomed in the collective mind of the ruling Communist Party, and especially of its top leaders. The second most prominent Bolshevik, in the eyes of the party rank and file, the Soviet masses and the world at large, was Leon Trotsky. It was he who had headed the Military Revolutionary Committee that led the October insurrection, and who had been the insurrection’s principal orator and public face. As Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, Trotsky had appeared on the global stage as leader of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations with Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1918, introducing the Soviet regime to the world, and using the negotiations as a platform from which to beam revolutionary propaganda to the masses of the belligerent countries. It was Trotsky who had commanded the Red Army to victory against the whites during the civil war. The Soviet government was widely known internationally as the Lenin-Trotsky regime. Trotsky was thus the most obvious candidate to become Lenin’s successor.
Many top-ranking Bolsheviks were, however, determined to prevent such an outcome. Trotsky was a latecomer to the party, having only officially joined in the summer of 1917. He had sided with the Mensheviks at the famous Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903. And, though he had separated himself from the Menshevik faction the following year to act as an independent social democrat, Trotsky had remained an at-times bitter factional opponent of the Bolsheviks during the very years of European exile, when Zinoviev and Kamenev had functioned as Lenin’s dutiful lieutenants. Still harbouring memories of factional rancour, regarding Trotsky as less than one of themselves and perhaps feeling eclipsed by his meteoric rise, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin secretly agreed to act in concert. By deliberating together and voting en bloc, the triumvirs could dominate the six-man politburo that presided over the party, and effectively exclude Trotsky from decision-making.
The motives of the triumvirs may have been more personal than political at first. But in politics - especially in a country that was ruled by a single party, through which tensions in the larger society necessarily made themselves felt - individuals and small groupings at the summits of power tended to act as magnets for larger social forces.
Rectify or retrench?
The regime that emerged at the end of the civil war was a far cry from the proletarian democracy envisioned by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The soviets, in whose name Lenin’s party had taken power, were now little more than rubber-stamp bodies for decisions taken by Bolshevik leaders - the working class base of the soviets and the party had been decimated by battlefield deaths, transfers of the most reliable cadres to the front and to administrative posts, and virtual starvation in the major cities. The exigencies of war had necessitated an extreme centralisation of power. A systematic ‘red terror’ was launched against counterrevolutionaries and those who abused their authority to commit economic crimes. Not only had all non-Bolshevik parties been outlawed, but factions were prohibited within the party itself by a ban introduced by Lenin at the 10th Congress in 1921. Lenin then feared that the party, increasingly faction-ridden, might disintegrate in the face of waning Bolshevik support, manifested most dramatically in the Kronstadt rising. Having concentrated enormous power in their hands, a privileged stratum of state and party apparatchiks were becoming more and more accustomed to ruling by command.
Together with Lenin, Trotsky had viewed this centralisation as necessary due to the extreme peril in which the party regime - which had emerged as the sole defender of the revolution’s gains - found itself. But, beginning during the civil war, and widening afterwards, a division appeared in the party between those who regarded the bureaucratic-commandist status quo as a situation to be corrected, and those who viewed it as the norm, to be upheld and consolidated. Despite occasional lip service to workers’ democracy, the triumvirs leaned for support upon the apparatus. And, despite his earlier opposition to anti-bureaucratic groupings within the party - the Workers’ Opposition and Democratic Centralists - and with much initial reluctance and hesitation, Trotsky was to place himself at the head of the currents within Bolshevism that invoked the radical democratic hopes of the revolution against the increasingly authoritarian drift of the 1920s Soviet republic.
The first leading Bolshevik to sound the alarm about the dangers of bureaucratic degeneration was not Trotsky, but the afflicted Lenin. His illness perhaps allowed him the distance required for a more objective look at the Soviet regime and where it was headed, and to reverse himself on many issues of state and party policy. And, in his efforts to rein in the apparatus, it was not to his “closest lieutenants”, but increasingly to Trotsky, that he turned. One factor in prompting the triumvirs to form a bloc were indications that Lenin was moving closer to Trotsky on economic issues.
Trotsky had for some time advocated the strengthening of the central planning apparatus, Gosplan, albeit within the framework of the New Economic Policy, against the market forces - the small peasant producers and profiteering middlemen - that the NEP had unleashed, and who constituted an incipient threat to socialised industry. Lenin, along with the triumvirs, had opposed him. But in late 1922 Lenin became alarmed by a decision of the party central committee to relax the monopoly on foreign trade, which protected the Soviet economy from the invasion of cheap western goods. He prevailed upon Trotsky to have the decision reversed in the central committee, which it promptly was. Lenin had also come nearer to Trotsky’s point of view about the need to strengthen central planning - also opposed by the triumvirs - and wrote a letter to the politburo to this effect. In what was to become a familiar pattern, the politburo refused to publish Lenin’s letter.
In a private meeting in December 1922, Lenin, encouraged by their joint success in protecting the trade monopoly, offered Trotsky an “anti-bureaucratic bloc”. Trotsky accepted, adding that bureaucratic methods had become entrenched not only in the state machine, but in the party as well, including its highest echelons. It hardly needs to be pointed out that neither man at this point perceived bureaucracy, which was a new phenomenon, as the juggernaut it would become. Lenin tended to view bureaucratic methods as a hold-over from tsarist days, sill potent due to the revolution’s isolation and Russia’s extreme economic distress and cultural backwardness. Both thought the problem could be addressed within the confines of the then-existing one-party dictatorship, by administrative measures from the top.
There were two issues that preoccupied Lenin in the last year and a half of his life. One was his effort to restructure the party and state regimes to make them less cumbersome and more competent. The other was the nationalities question, which concerned the status of non-Russian republics, and especially Georgia, within the newly created Soviet federation. On both these questions, Lenin’s initiatives ran into delays and resistance from the ruling triumvirate.
Pushing at the outer limits of the strict restrictions on political activity prescribed by his doctors, Lenin conceived a scheme for enlarging the party central committee and creating a Central Control Commission to act as a watchdog over the bureaucracy in party and government. In furtherance of this project, he penned an article, ‘Better fewer, but better’, in February 1923, intended for immediate publication in Pravda, the official party paper. It was to be his last article. It inveighed against bureaucratic haste and high-handedness; it contained a criticism of an earlier control agency, until recently headed by Stalin, the Commissariat of Workers and Peasants’ Inspection (known by the Russian acronym of Rabkrin), which, Lenin wrote, “does not at present enjoy the slightest authority” and was worse organised than any government institution. The jab at Stalin was unmistakable to anyone acquainted with Kremlin politics. Despite insistent demands from Lenin and Trotsky that the article be published, the triumvirs delayed printing it for a month. At one point, one of Stalin’s closest collaborators, Valerian Kuibyshev, suggested that a special single issue of Pravda containing the article be printed for the sole purpose of showing Lenin as proof of publication.
An even more highly charged issue was the status of the Soviet republic of Georgia. During the civil war, the Red Army had ousted a Menshevik government in Tiflis (Tbilisi), which had turned the province into a staging-ground for the anti-Soviet operations of the Entente. In the aftermath, however, a dispute arose as to the terms under which Georgia was to be incorporated in the new Soviet federation. Stalin, as commissar of nationalities (and himself a Georgian), wished simply to ratify the existing power of Moscow by incorporating the Georgian government into that of the Russian federation, along with the other Caucasian republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. He also favoured outlawing the Georgian Mensheviks, as they had been banned in Russia. On both these issues, Stalin encountered growing resistance from the Georgian Bolsheviks, who, while agreeing on the necessity of close cooperation with Moscow, insisted on greater local autonomy and questioned the wisdom of a Menshevik ban. Stalin, initially supported by Lenin, accused the Georgian Bolsheviks of ‘nationalist deviation’.
Yet, in the isolation of the small Kremlin room to which illness had confined him, Lenin became alarmed by recent reports. He received news that Stalin had ordered the entire Georgian Bolshevik central committee to leave their posts and report to Moscow, in effect decapitating the Georgian party by fiat; worse still, he heard that Stalin’s principal Georgian point man, Grigory Ordzhonikidze (also a Georgian) had struck one of the leaders of the Georgian party in the course of a heated argument. Lenin - one of whose signature contributions to Marxism was his insistence on the right of nations to self-determination - began to conclude that representatives of the central government were acting like arrogant imperial proconsuls, and re-enacting, in the name of Soviet power, a role all too familiar in the annals of tsarism: that of the Great Russian bully. Lenin sent a note to the beleaguered Georgians, declaring his support, and his intention to prepare notes and a speech on their behalf. Moreover, he became aware that certain documents in a Georgian dossier he had asked for had somehow gone missing. He began to suspect that Stalin, entrusted with the supervision of his medical care and convalescence, was deliberately controlling his access to information for political purposes under the guise of restricting his activity for health reasons.
But Lenin suffered further strokes. Unable to fight for his positions himself, it was once again to Trotsky that he entrusted his purpose. He sent Trotsky a note, asking him to take up his defence of the Georgians at the upcoming 12th Congress in April 1923, and warning him to avoid any “rotten compromise” that Stalin might propose. He dashed off another note to Stalin, threatening to break off all personal relations if he failed to apologise for his abusive verbal treatment of Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, when she had made inquiries on his behalf.
Most significantly of all, Lenin, in January 1923, dictated an addendum to his ‘testament’. The document was first dictated to his secretaries in December 1922 with a view to guiding the party in the event of his death. It recognised Stalin and Trotsky as the two leading members of the party, and anticipated the danger of a split between them. It contained a balanced appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of each: Trotsky was the most able member of the politburo, but too self-confident and overly inclined to administrative solutions; Stalin, in his role as general secretary, had amassed a great deal of power, which he might not know how to use. Then, in the later addendum, dictated the following month, Lenin said that Stalin was too rude, and should be removed as general secretary. Moshe Lewin, in Lenin’s last struggle, concludesthat the addendum was principally a reaction to the Georgian affair, about which Lenin suspected Stalin of playing him false. The implication, though, was only too evident: of the two leading party members, Lenin was urging the removal of one, but not the other. Lenin’s testament remained unknown to both the triumvirs and Trotsky at the time of writing.
Trotsky’s performance at the 12th Congress in April 1923 represented perhaps the greatest failure of his political career. Although the triumvirs held a decisive majority of delegate votes, the congress was seething with oppositional undercurrents in search of a leader: the aggrieved Georgians, adherents of tendencies calling for greater internal democracy; Nikolai Bukharin, who took the side of the Georgians and denounced the dictatorship of the triumvirs. Yet Trotsky studiously avoided an adversarial role . He gave not one word of encouragement to the malcontents, and limited himself to a lengthy (and by all accounts masterful) speech on the economy and the need to strengthen elements of state planning.
Trotsky had, in the lead-up to the congress, completely ignored Lenin’s advice to “brook no rotten compromise”. When Kamenev, having learnt of Lenin’s threat to break personal relations with Stalin, came to Trotsky begging forgiveness, Trotsky was the soul of magnanimity: he assured Kamenev that an apology from Stalin for his abuse of Krupskaya - which Stalin quickly delivered - would suffice to set things right again. He agreed to turn over Lenin’s private notes to the politburo, to do with as it saw fit. And, most fatally, he agreed to a resolution reaffirming the rights of national minorities - one which the triumvirs were quick to ignore in practice - as all that was necessary to satisfy Lenin and his concerns over the Georgian question and preserve a facade of party unity at the congress.
Trotsky’s abstention calls to mind Hamlet, catching Claudius in a moment of weakness and repentance, and failing to strike the fatal blow. No student of Trotsky’s career will deny that there was about him a certain aloofness that made him reluctant, in the words of Isaac Deutscher, to descend from the “high drama” of the revolution to the “low farce” of the succession struggle. He also showed signs of the “too far-reaching self-confidence” that Lenin noted in his testament. He may have thought that Lenin’s support made him invulnerable, and, in his autobiography, said he held out the hope that Lenin would yet recover. He was also reluctant to feed the accusations of personal ambition being levelled against him. But, whatever his thinking, most historians agree that Trotsky, at the 12th Congress, missed his main chance to mount a formidable opposition against Stalin and the triumvirs.
The triumvirs, however, missed no chances. They started a whispering campaign amongst the delegates, unfounded in fact, to the effect that Trotsky, in his capacity as head of the military, threatened to become a Soviet Bonaparte. They whispered too that, by advocating the expansion of central planning, Trotsky was the enemy of the peasant. The triumvirs also seized upon the occasion of the first congress held without Lenin to foster a cult of the stricken leader, and presented themselves as his faithful disciples and the guardians of party unity. They upheld the ban on factions, and Zinoviev even went so far as to assert that any criticism of the leadership was an instance of “objective Menshevism”, whether or not the critics had any connection to actually existing Mensheviks. Zinoviev emerged as the point man for the triumvirs at the congress, taking the lead in chastising oppositional elements, thus earning their enmity, while Stalin sat modestly in the background.
If the widening rift between Trotsky and the triumvirs could up to this point have been construed as personal rivalry, the sequel to the 12th Congress can leave no doubt as to the political stakes involved. In the summer of 1923, economic strikes took place in Moscow and Petrograd. Members of Workers Truth, some of whom were oppositionists in the Communist Party, were suspected of involvement - they were expelled from the party, and a few were briefly detained. GPU (secret police) chief Felix Dzerzhinsky then demanded that the politburo pass a resolution requiring party members to report the existence of “groupings” that were defying the faction ban to the GPU. Trotsky wrote a letter of protest to the politburo, saying that, while loyal party members should report illegal activity, a special resolution demanding that they do so was unnecessary. He pointed further to the unhealthy situation in the party that made it necessary for internal criticism to go underground. He decried the pervasive practice of choosing local party officers by secretarial appointment from above - Stalin being the general secretary who made the appointments - rather than by election from below. This method of selection, he argued, had created an internal party apparatus loyal to the centre rather than to the members, and which was stifling all internal criticism and debate in favour of unthinking obedience.
A week later, the politburo received another letter. It was signed by 46 prominent old Bolsheviks, some of whom were Trotsky’s close associates, and others who had belonged the Workers’ Opposition and Democratic Centralists. They used language similar to Trotsky’s in denouncing secretarial patronage in the selection of local leaders, but went further by demanding an end to the 1921 ban on factions. They also echoed Trotsky in advocating a strengthening of central planning, which they claimed the party leadership was neglecting despite its verbal commitment.
Isaac Deutscher points out that the 46 immediately found themselves in a Catch 22. Coming together to demand an end to the faction ban could itself be portrayed as factional activity - which it promptly was by the triumvirs. But the latter were themselves caught off balance. They soon found out that the signatories - heroes of the revolution and holders of important government and party posts - were simply too prominent to be suppressed by bureaucratic measures. When condemnation by an enlarged session of the central committee called for that purpose - and denunciation in party cells of the letter, which members were initially forbidden to read - only aroused deep suspicion in the ranks, the triumvirs decided upon a tactical retreat. They now threw open the pages of Pravda for debate, and permitted the circulation of the letter of the 46; party cells were also allowed greater freedom of discussion, and the opposition granted a hearing there.
The triumvirs were alarmed by the response. The opposition caught fire, especially in Moscow, where the triumvirs were often received with derision and outvoted in party cells and factories. One third of the Moscow garrison of the Red Army declared for the opposition. The central committee of the Communist Youth, and a majority of its cells, did likewise. The triumvirs were forced to retreat further. Just as they had responded to Lenin’s pressure on the Georgian question with a disingenuous resolution upholding the rights of national minorities, they now pushed through the central committee the New Course resolution, for which they obtained Trotsky’s vote, lamenting the rise of bureaucracy in the party and, without lifting the faction ban, supposedly signalling a rebirth of party democracy. And, just as they had no intention of carrying out their earlier resolution on the nationalities question, the triumvirs belied their anti-bureaucratic words by their deeds. One of Trotsky’s closest allies, and second in command of the October insurrection, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, was now removed as chief political commissar of the Red Army, and the central committee of the Communist Youth was dissolved and replaced by appointees of the secretariat.
Trotsky was, however, able to publish a series of articles in Pravda, which, together with a letter to party meetings written at the same time, were collected into a pamphlet entitled The new course. Deutscher is justified in his claim that The new course contains “in a nutshell most of the ideas which at once became the hallmark of ‘Trotskyism’”2 - at least in regard to the regime question.
Here, Trotsky first clearly asserts that bureaucracy is more than “the aggregate of the bad habits of officeholders”. It is a “social phenomenon, in that it is a definite system of administration of people and things”,3 belonging to a particular stratum of Soviet society and having its deepest roots in the state apparatus. He goes on to identify the main supporters of bureaucratism in the party with those who claimed authority in the name of ‘Old Bolshevism’: ie, the triumvirs. He then proceeds to reprove their characteristic traits and methods: the claims to infallibility, the expectation of servility from the young and those beneath them in the hierarchy, and fear of initiative from below; their tendency to paint every internal difference of opinion as a fundamental divergence in class outlook; their inclination to employ empty phrases and arid formulas in place of creative thinking, and to turn Leninism into an exercise in scholastic, decontextualised quotation-mongering rather a body of critical thought:
Out of the party with passive obedience, mechanical levelling by the authorities, with suppression of personality, with servility, with careerism! A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person: he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party.4
The new course gained for Trotsky the instant adhesion of anti-bureaucratic currents. With it he had - belatedly, but unmistakably - stepped into the role of leader of the opposition, and exposed himself further to the torrents of obloquy that were already beginning to descend upon him, and have clung to his name like a lingering infection in the eyes of some detractors to this day.
The triumvirs were incapable of challenging Trotsky in open and honest debate. They rather responded in the typical manner of oligarchs determined to preserve their power in the face of damning, unanswerable truths: with innuendo, distortion and outright calumny. They played upon the understandable bewilderment, even indignation, of younger rank-and-file members at hearing the leaders of their party taxed with bureaucratic abuse. They charged Trotsky with being a petty bourgeois individualist, attempting to undermine the unity of the party and incite the youth against the old guard out of personal ambition. They dredged up, in selective and truncated form, his past differences with Lenin. They alleged that he underestimated the peasantry, and had not fully absorbed the traditions of Bolshevism, remaining at heart a semi-Menshevik.
This phase of the anti-Trotsky campaign was in full flood in January 1924, when Trotsky - en route to Baku for a southern vacation advised by his doctors as a cure for recurring fevers - received word of Lenin’s death. Inquiring of Stalin whether or not to return to Moscow for the funeral, Stalin wired back that Trotsky could not get back in time for the funeral, to be held the next day, and advised him to continue on his southern journey. In fact, the funeral was held several days later, and would have given Trotsky ample time to return. His conspicuous absence at the elaborately staged obsequies fed the rumour mill and allowed Stalin to give the main funeral oration, and the triumvirs once again to present themselves as Lenin’s true disciples and heirs.
The 13th Congress was held in May 1924. In preparation, the central committee assembled to hear for the first time Lenin’s testament, which they received in stunned silence. Stalin, whose removal Lenin demanded from the grave, was saved by Zinoviev and Kamenev, who assured the other members that Stalin had corrected the defects that had turned Lenin against him, and implored him to remain as general secretary. Over the protest of Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya, the central committee decided against the release of the testament to the party membership or to the assembled delegates at the coming congress; only the heads of delegations were to be discretely informed. Trotsky, perhaps still sensitive to accusations of personal ambition, remained silent during these deliberations.
The 13th Congress, unlike the 12th, presented no challenge to the triumvirs. Stalin had used the very powers of appointment decried by Trotsky in The new course to weed out oppositionists and secure the selection of machine-loyal delegates. The congress was, in Deutscher’s words, “an orgy of denunciation”.5
Trotsky, however, was still restrained by unqualified party patriotism. It was, after all, the Bolsheviks that had been the only party in the world to lead a successful proletarian revolution. And it was the Bolsheviks who saw themselves as the sole guardians of the revolution’s gains in a country with a non-socialist peasant majority, a disintegrated working class and a shattered economy. Trotsky did not regard the maintenance of party unity as unimportant, and refused to go as far as the 46 in demanding an end to the ban on factions and groupings. But rising to answer his accusers, he said:
Comrades, none of us wishes to or can be right against the party. In the last instance the party is always right, because it is the only historic instrument which the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks … The English have a saying: ‘My country, right or wrong’. With much greater justification we can say, ‘My party, right or wrong’ - wrong on certain partial, specific issues or at certain moments …6
It was these partial wrongs that Trotsky said he was seeking to rectify, completely within the framework of a party discipline that now demanded he cease all oppositional activity. Yet Zinoviev was not satisfied with his declarations of loyalty or his acceptance of these restrictions. For the first time in party history, he demanded that Trotsky recant his criticisms before the congress. Krupskaya, while not supporting Trotsky’s views, protested that such a demand was psychologically and politically insupportable. For his part, Trotsky refused to capitulate:
... nothing would be easier than to say before the party that all these criticisms and all these declarations, warnings and protests were mistaken from beginning to end. I cannot say so, however, because, comrades, I do not think so.7
The next move of the triumvirs was to carry the anti-Trotsky campaign into the Communist International, headed by Gregory Zinoviev. Zinoviev demanded, and ultimately obtained, a condemnation of Trotsky by the Comintern executive, over the initial objections of the Polish and French parties. The docility in this affair of the Comintern - once an equal association of courageous and independent-minded revolutionaries - can only be explained by the failure of the October revolution to spread to the rest of Europe, and especially Germany, on which the Bolsheviks had pinned their highest hopes. The debacle of the carefully planned German insurrection of 1923 is beyond the scope of this article. But its defeat, combined with earlier Finnish, Hungarian and Italian reversals, clearly sapped the self-assurance of foreign communist leaders, making them less confident in their own abilities, and more inclined to follow Moscow’s lead.
The ruling triumvirate took full advantage of this situation, using it to expand its ability to promote and demote foreign leaders much in the same way that Stalin, as general secretary, used his broad powers of appointment to select his own loyalists as local party chiefs and conference delegates. The triumvirs were quick to blame the failure of the German revolution on the head of that country’s party, Heinrich Brandler, who was quickly deposed. Though by no means uncritical of Brandler, Trotsky registered a protest against the Comintern executive acting as a “guillotine” for foreign leaders.
Back in Russia, the triumvirs announced the ‘Lenin Levy’ - a mass recruitment of 240,000 new workers to the party in honour of the departed leader. Trotsky, it is true, had urged the expansion of working class membership as a counterweight to the party’s increasing preponderance of administrators and technicians. But, where Trotsky had cautioned that new proletarian recruits be carefully screened for leadership ability and political consciousness, the triumvirs threw open the doors indiscriminately to inexperienced and untutored workers from the factory bench, calculating - correctly - that these novices would prove pliable to directions from on high. With this move, the triumvirs perfected a well-rehearsed technique: appearing to address genuine anti-bureaucratic grievances, while in fact strengthening the grip of the bureaucracy.
And to this stratagem a new one was added. The triumvirs now introduced into the history of October 1917 a previously unheard of political body - absent from any contemporary account - called the “revolutionary centre”, which supposedly directed the insurrection, and which was headed by Stalin. Just as Stalin, encountering frictions with Krupskaya, was to remark that the party leadership could “find Lenin a new widow”, so he and his collaborators now contrived to find a replacement for the body that actually directed the rising - the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Leon Trotsky. What Trotsky was to call “the Stalin school of falsification” had made its debut.
Lessons in context
We finally arrive, by way of a lengthy historical detour, at the starting point of this article: Trotsky’s The lessons of October, written in September 1924. The detour was necessary to counter the impression created by Jack Conrad that this essay was conceived by Trotsky for the petty, personal motive of inflating his reputation at the expense of “Lenin’s loyal lieutenants”, instead of what it was: an episode in an unfolding conflict over the nature and direction of the Soviet state and its governing party. Far from initiating an attack on “old Bolsheviks” and their honour, Trotsky rose to defend his own historical reputation against a swelling tide of innuendo and outright falsehood.
Muzzled by the faction ban and ‘party discipline’ from openly arguing his positions before the party or the people, could he be faulted for turning to recent history - the only medium left to him for expressing his views? Constantly cast under suspicion for his Menshevik past and pre-1917 differences with Lenin, can he be accused of self-promotion by pointing out that the ultimate test of a revolutionary is not past organisational differences, but the revolution? Or that in the defining moment, he, Trotsky, had demonstrated the audacity and clarity of vision which his accusers notoriously lacked? Jack Conrad reverses the roles of accuser and accused, only to disparage the accused for mounting a forceful defence.
The principal argument of The lessons of October is that the triumvirs - for whom Trotsky remained at best a partially reconstructed Menshevik - themselves pursued in October 1917 a quasi-Menshevik line of pressuring the provisional government to the left, and that a sharp intervention by Lenin was required to reposition the party for the seizure of power. I shall consider in a future article the accuracy of Lars Lih’s and Jack Conrad’s contention that The lessons of October is the original and uncorroborated source of this account.
But I would also suggest that a broader issue of historical verisimilitude is at stake - one that counterposes the ability to penetrate beneath the surface of events to the tendency to adapt to prevailing moods and circumstances. Trotsky’s principal adversaries in 1924 - Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin - were leaders of a revolutionary party. Yet their response to the February revolution was a somewhat more left-slanted version of support for the then widely acclaimed, classless ‘revolutionary democracy’ that had toppled the tsar. Exhibiting a similar adaptive mentality seven years later, they embraced the prevailing bureaucratic power configuration that had evolved as a result of the civil war and the revolution’s isolation. To them, the existing methods were most effective in ‘getting things done’; the compatibility of such methods with the proletarian democracy for which the revolution had been carried out, or the prospects for world revolution on which it had staked its future, were, at best, secondary considerations, and, when invoked against prevailing practices, wilful obstruction.
This pragmatism also found a reflection in the image of themselves and their regime. If unquestioning obedience is the most efficient way to produce results, those who issue the orders rely not only upon coercion, but also tend to legitimate their authority by presenting their decisions as unfailingly correct, and themselves as possessing a monopoly of revolutionary wisdom. Trotsky noted this tendency in later official accounts of the Red Army during the civil war:
… you would think that there are only heroes in our ranks; that every soldier burns with a desire to fight; that the enemy is always superior in numbers; that all our orders are reasonable and appropriate to the occasion; that the execution is always brilliant …8
It was only a projection into the recent past of the triumvirs’ self-proclaimed infallibility in 1924 to present the Bolsheviks of 1917 as a similarly unified party, led by an all-knowing, quasi-deified Lenin, with themselves as his faithful apostles, pursuing a straight and unerring course toward the conquest of power. Unfortunately, Lars T Lih’s and Jack Conrad’s talk of the “fully armed” Bolsheviks of 1917 augments this salutary myth - instantly recognisable as dubious to anyone with a genuine sense of what revolutions are like. Revolutions are the volcanic eruptions of history, leaving no accustomed routines or habits of thought undisturbed, including those of revolutionaries.
The Bolsheviks would have to have been a hermetically sealed vessel of timeless Marxist truth to have greeted the maelstrom of October with the undivided resolution that Lih and Conrad credit them with. Leaving to one side the specific views of individual Bolsheviks, which account makes more intuitive sense: the triumvirate-Lih-Conrad narrative of Bolshevik infallibility; or Trotsky’s portrayal of a party of human beings, with varying shades of opinion and individual dispositions, organically connected to the society around them, attempting to find their bearings amid events unfolding with mercurial speed, and rising to the occasion only as the result of an internal crisis?
Elementary social realism is as important an antidote to heroic legends as detailed factual knowledge. It too should weigh in determining whether Lih and Conrad have ‘put the record straight’ - or only succeeded in adding to historical fictions a little too close for comfort to Stalinist hagiography.
Jim Creegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. ‘Putting the record straight’ Weekly Worker November 9 2017.
2. I Deutscher The prophet unarmed p119.
3. L Trotsky The challenge of the left opposition (1923-25) New York 1975, p91.
4. Ibid p127.
5. I Deutscher The prophet unarmed p138.
6. Ibid p139.
7. Ibid p139.
8. Quoted ibid p120.