Marxist Theory

Trotsky, Socialist Democracy and Stalinism

Kunal Chattopadhyay

Trotsky’s greatest sin, it seems, was that he often disagreed with the “general line” of the party. Or so the contemporary devotees of Joseph Stalin would still like us to believe. Perhaps this should be viewed, rather, as Trotsky’s continuing commitment to the pre-Stalinist Marxist tradition, for which commitment to working class democracy, viewed as more expansive than the best that bourgeois democracy could afford to offer, and hence as his greatest legacy for socialists in the twenty-first century if they do not want to bow movingly to market forces, yet want to be relevant. For the days when one could say in a commanding tone, “this is the party line”, and expect everyone to lie down and play dead like tame dogs, are gone forever.


When Karl Marx started his political career, he began as a democrat. Unlike many earlier and contemporary socialists and communists, he did not advocate an educational dictatorship of the party (or a group of wise and enlightened elite, by whatever name) over the working people. And his call for a “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” was not a call for party dictatorship. One has to remember that in the Paris Commune, there were very few people holding close to Marx’s views, and that moreover it was an elected body with laws far more democratic than anything that then existed in any liberal state. Yet both Marx and Engels unhesitatingly called the Commune a dictatorship of the proletariat.


The Young Trotsky’s Critique of Lenin


Trotsky stood in this tradition, as despite occasional ferocious statements, did Lenin, till 1921. In 1904, in his polemical pamphlet against Lenin entitled Our Political Tasks, Trotsky wrote that “The problems of the new regime are so intricate that they can be solved only through the rivalry of the various methods of economic and political reconstruction, by long “debates”, by systematic struggle – not only between the socialist and the capitalist worlds, but also between the various tendencies within socialism, tendencies that must inevitably develop as soon as the dictatorship of the proletariat creates tens and hundreds of new unsolved problems …. And no ‘strong authoritative organisation’ will be able to put down these tendencies and disagreement for the purpose of accelerating and simplifying the process, for it is only too clear that the proletariat capable of a dictatorship over society will not tolerable a dictatorship over itself.” This is not to try and replace the myth of the infallible Lenin followed by the infallible Stalin, by another myth of the prophetic Trotsky. Considering that at stake was also a debate over whether a minority, defeated in a democratically organised Congress, should accept the decisions of the Congress or not, where Trotsky was supporting the creation of a special category of members who had the right to flout decisions because they were leaders, he made his share of errors. On this issue he was wrong, not just according to some special canons of Leninism, but by any commonsense definition of democracy. However, by the time Trotsky came to write this particular pamphlet, Lenin had tried to bolster his claims with further arguments. Trotsky argued, against Lenin, on three points, which together constituted, according to him, an alternative (and superior) theory of organisation. The first is the opposition that he set up between the self activity of the class and a “fantastic” sectarian error, whereby Lenin allegedly wanted a ready made set of tactics to enable the Central Committee to control the masses. The second point is the opposition between democracy and Lenin’s “pitiless centralism” (to borrow a term used by Rosa Luxemburg). The third point is the contrast between a formalist and a historical political viewpoint. One important charge he made against Lenin and his supporters was that they believed in automatic success due to their possession of Marxist doctrine. One can refer to statements like: “The Party is the organized detachment of the working class”, or the “General Staff”. Trotsky himself was a Marxist. And it was certainly not his intention to decry the merits of Marxism. But he did question its exclusive possession by any individual, group of individuals, or party; and even more strongly did he reject the notion that possession of Marxism was a guarantee against mistakes. Acknowledging the existence of different political trends in the Russian working class movement, he insisted that they have to be situated in the historical context, and argued that part of their mistakes stem from an ahistoricity. “Each period has its own routine and tends to impose its own tendencies on the movement as a whole.” The necessary and correct industrial work gave rise to the errors of “economism”. The centralising of Iskra gave rise to the errors of Bolshevism. So ran his argument. The problems arose because “Each new tendency casts the previous one into anathema. For the bearers of new ideas, each preceding period seems no more than a gross deviation from the correct path, an historical aberration, a sum of errors, the result of a fortuitous combination of theoretical mystifications.” Trotsky’s position is of more general value, because even if Lenin is taken to be free of every error that Trotsky mentions, the “Leninism” that has been propagated, by Stalinists, and sometimes by sectarians who believe that revolutionary discipline means utterly wooden rigidity entirely measures up to Trotsky’s critique.


On one hand, then, references to The Party of the proletariat in the singular. On the other hand, the inevitability of the struggle of tendencies, not only between capitalism and socialism, but also within socialism. The tension this created in Trotsky's thought was to be resolved only in the 1930s, when he finally accepted that a vanguard party can remain one only in a pluralistic political system. Alternatives to this range from denunciations of “party persons taking the capitalist road”, gun-point arrest and summary executions of feared rivals (e.g., the Beria or the Mehmet Shehu cases), or, alternatively, the abandonment of the concepts of vanguard party and class vanguard, either openly and fully, or de-facto, partially, in the name of pluralism.


Revolution and Reaction in Russia


However, even before the 1930s, Trotsky was to take his position for deepening of democracy. Trotsky’s writings themselves present a confusing picture, and one has to pick one’s way carefully. There is no doubt that he genuinely considered himself a Leninist after 1917, though he continued to cherish his independence of mind. In late 1924, in his unpublished pamphlet ‘Our Differences’ Trotsky stated that he had been fundamentally wrong, because he had expected events to force the two factions together. He admitted that his “conciliationism” had led him to err, chiefly in the direction of not realising the need to split with the Mensheviks. He acknowledged that Lenin’s criticisms of his line regarding party unity were correct. However, Trotsky no less than Lenin progressed in his thinking, and we find him taking a dialectical stand in 1905 on the question of building the party. At that time, he was editing a popular socialist paper, Nachalo. Though his famous biographer Isaac Deutscher gives the impression that he only preached permanent revolution and unity, we find him devoting space to programme and organisation as a whole. And what emerges clearly from those articles is that while he decried what he felt were Bolshevik rigid attitudes, he did not thereby lapse into any spontaneism or into condoning arm-chair socialists.


In the period of reaction, no less than during the revolution of 1905, the revolutionary camp was not simply equated with the Bolshevik faction, nor was Bolshevism identical to Leninism. At the Third Congress of the RSDLP, a purely Bolshevik affair, one of the points where Lenin was defeated was over whether the committees should have a majority of workers, or not. On the other hand, at the Fourth or Unity Congress at Stockholm, a Menshevik majority (62 to 44 for the Bolsheviks) approved of the principles of democratic centralism. In a report on the Stockholm Congress Lenin called the principles of democratic centralism the heart of the system, and called for a generalisation of the elective principle. The application of this principle, Lenin held, “implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action …”

As the mass party of 1905-6 collapsed responses varied. Among Bolsheviks, there developed a current, originally in a majority, especially among the underground committees, that favoured boycotting the elections to the Duma (Russia’s very limited power semi-parliament), and later, for recalling the Duma deputies and sticking only to the underground structures. Among Mensheviks, a considerable number of theorists and émigré leaders became “liquidators”, people who wanted to drop the old structures and build a workers’ party within the constraints of existing legality. In between these two extremes stood a majority of activists. Re-examining the issues and the documents in debate, one finds that Lenin and Trotsky also stood in between. But until 1912, Lenin tended to consider all legal activists as liquidators. According to Marcel Liebman, a historian sympathetic to him, Down to 1914, he had a tendency to pass up opportunities on open work.


A large group of worker activists or ‘praktiki’, who had been party members in 1905-6, sought to fuse legal work with the underground. They were criticised from opposite ends by Lenin and the liquidators. Younger Mensheviks, notably the ‘praktiki’, by and large rejected the liquidators’ proposals. Between 1909 and 1911, this meant a definite rise in Trotsky’s influence. Left Mensheviks, as well as Bolshevik – conciliators (i.e., those who wanted to unite the revolutionary forces though they supported the Bolshevik programme) found in Trotsky a leading figure who advocated a line they found close to their outlook. A distortion of this history began in 1923, when Lenin lay dying and a Triumvirate, consisting of Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin tried to organise a tight control over the party. Zinoviev wrote a History of the Bolshevik Party which began the distortions of history completed over a decade later in Stalin’s History of the CPSU(B) – Short Course. In these histories, bereft of documentary evidence, Lenin’s views were proclaimed the sole correct revolutionary general line. Trotsky was cast as an arch-villain who opposed Lenin and was therefore a renegade. The problem was of course, that Lenin till 1912 considered himself a part of the common Social Democratic Party, so opposing Lenin did not mean, for example, opposing any general line. Secondly, whether Lenin was correct at different moments can only be tested by looking at the specific history, not by a teleology that claims the Bolshevik triumph of 1917 as proof of Lenin’s correctness all his life (in High Stalinist myth, of course, he abandoned terrorism for Marxism at age 11, on hearing of the death sentence on his elder brother Alexander). Moreover, during the revolution of 1905, Lenin had changed his own position about party democracy, and argued that it was wrong to demand that the Soviet should accept the programme of the RSDRP. On the question of the party press, Lenin stressed that here there could be no question of a mechanical “rule of the majority over the minority ...” In other words, the party press should publish different viewpoints. Indeed, during the period of reaction, when Lenin differed with Bogdanov, leader of the boycottists, he had Bogdanov expelled from the Bolshevik faction, arguing that while a party was broad and contained many shades, a faction had to be tightly knit. This was an acknowledgement of the validity of the criticism made earlier by people like Trotsky or Luxemburg, and also a blow to the Stalinist myth that a party had to be monolithic.


From October Revolution to the Collapse of Democracy


In 1917, when Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks, he did so with the conviction that a proletarian revolution was in the offing, and all revolutionaries should unite. When he did so, he did not abjure his earlier views, and in exhorting his supporters in the Inter-Borough Organisation (a revolutionary, non-Bolshevik organisation) to unite with the Bolsheviks, he argued that the Bolsheviks had in practice “de-Bolshevised” themselves. And contrary to Cold War propaganda, serious historiography has repeatedly shown that the Soviet insurrection of October 1917 was more democratic than any of the alternatives.  Throughout Russia, from late August, new elections to soviets were being organised. The Bolsheviks made significant gains. Thus, at the Second Congress of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Urals, representing 505,780 workers and soldiers, which met on 17-21 August, the Bolsheviks had 77 deputies against 23 for the Mensheviks. On 31 August - 1st September, the Petrograd Soviet adopted a resolution on power, which led to the resignation of the old executive committee. On 5 September, the Moscow Soviet passed a resolution condemning the Provisional Government by 355 votes to 254. By September 21, the Saratov Soviet had 320 Bolsheviks against 103 SRs, 76 Mensheviks, and 34 non-party deputies. The First Congress of Soviets had stipulated that fresh Congresses were to be called every three month. But the Executive Committee elected by that Congress, controlled by Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, now began to hesitate. So the Bolsheviks started putting pressure by organising regional congresses. These included the Moscow regional Congress, the All Siberian Congress, the Congress, the regional Congresses at Minsk (Byelo Russia), the Northern Caucasus, provincial Congresses in Vladimir and Tver, etc. But the most important was the Congress of Northern Soviets.  Represented in it were Soviets from Petrograd, Moscow, Archangel, Reval, Helsingfors, Kronstadt, Vyborg, Narva, Gatchina, Tsarskoe Selo, the Baltic Fleet, the Petrograd Soviet of Peasant Deputies, the Petrograd District Soviets, and the soldiers organisations of the Northern, Western, South-Western and Rumanian fronts. Alexander Rabinowich’s classic work, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, lays out in detail the network of mass organisations through which the Bolsheviks established their hegemony. As Marc Ferro, a hostile historian, was compelled to write about the moment of insurrection, a state without a government (the nationwide network of council type institutions) was facing a government without a state (Kerensky’s government, based on absolutely no institutional support whatsoever). Between this and the Stalinist dictatorship lay a Civil War and a 14-country war of intervention, followed by a counter-revolution within the revolution as Stalin consolidated his rule between 1923 and 1928-29.


There did occur a phase, under the blows of the civil war, when every non-Bolshevik party sided with White Guard counter-revolution, that Lenin and Trotsky alike played a role in legitimising authoritarianism in the name of Marxism. What were wrong were not always the specific acts. In a Civil War, when your opponent is shooting at you, you cannot extend full democracy to them. Serious histories of the Civil War, like W. Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory, or of the Red Terror, like Leggett’s The Cheka, show that the Reds were in fact less violent than the Whites, who often shot workers because they were workers, something that does not stir the souls of upper class writers as much as the shooting of Nicholas and Alexandra. But when Trotsky (or Lenin) started justifying these actions not as emergency measures to save the republic but as Marxist theory, they committed serious errors. The climax came in 1921, when, at the end of the Civil War, but following the Kronstadt uprising, all opposition parties were banned, as were opponent factions within the party. Yet, Trotsky, while still in full power, as Commissar for War and Politbureau member, came out opposing the continuation of these measures by 1923. In late 1923, a strike wave broke out. Feliks Dzherzhinskii, head of the OGPU, successor of the disbanded Cheka, wanted party members in factories to finger the strike leaders and report them to the secret police. It was this proposal that moved Trotsky to write two letters to the Central Committee, demanding restoration of democratic rights. These started the New Course debate, which Stalin and the Triumvirate won only after gagging open discussions and rigging the only open voting that took place, in Moscow. By 1926-7, the Platform of the United Opposition was calling for restoration of Soviet Democracy. And alone among all the Bolshevik leaders, it was Trotsky who wrote, in The Revolution Betrayed, in a self-critical tone that “The degeneration of the party became both cause and consequence of the bureaucratization of the state.” In analysing this degeneration, he came to the conclusion that “The prohibition of oppositional parties brought after it the prohibition of factions. The prohibition of factious ended in a prohibition to think otherwise than the infallible leaders.” On the basis of this analysis, when it came to drafting the programme of the Fourth International Trotsky wrote that “Democratization of the Soviets is impossible without legalization of soviet parties,” and he further said that “the workers and peasants themselves, by their own free votes will indicate what parties they recognize as Soviet parties.” This was absolutely a negation of any conception of the “general line of The Party”.


The Creation of the General Line


The idea that there is something called the general line of the party, and that opposing it is a secular sin not less heinous than heresy as detected and rooted out by Torquemada, was a concept that developed as Lenin lay dying. Stalin’s funeral speech on Lenin’s death is overlaid with religious overtones. The embalming of Lenin showed the turn in the party upper ranks towards cultism. Trotsky later claimed he and Krupskaya had opposed this. This naturally meant a consolidation of every anti-democratic practice. Indeed, as early as the 1923 Congress of the party, which Lenin could not attend due to his stroke, Stalin responded to demands for broadening inner party democracy by arguing that a party of 400,000 could not have full democracy as long as it was ruling a country surrounded by imperialism. This was and has been the logic for imposing and maintaining de jure or de facto one party rule with a top down commandist structure in every so-called communist country. By the mid 1920s, one of Stalin’s then supporters (later executed for siding with Bukharin), Uglanov, was defining party democracy in terms that made it look exactly like bureaucratic rule. Responding to him, Trotsky wrote: “Comrade Uglanov for the first time has made an open attempt to overcome the contradiction between the programmatic definition of democracy and the actual regime by bringing the program down, drastically, to the level of what has existed in practice. As the essence of democracy he proclaims the unlimited domination of the party apparatus, which presents[ the report -- KC], draws in [comments by masses -- KC], checks and rectifies [itself, without the ranks having the right to reject the leadership itself—K.C.]. ... Attempting to define the essence of democracy, Comrade Uglanov has defined the essence of bureaucracy.” By the mid-1930s, the situation was worse. The 1934 Congress of the Party was called the Victor’s Congress, because the spine of all opposition within the USSR except those of Trotskyists and their allies, the Democratic Centralist group, had been broken. Their leaders had been made to grovel. Yet the majority of the delegates to even this Stalinist Party Congress, and the majority of Central Committee members, would be executed over the years, many in secret trials, some in show trials where they would “confess”, like the hapless Bukharin to save his wife and child.


The central story would be, that these people had started out as opponents of the “general line” and as a result had become counter revolutionaries. So in place of Marx’s notion of a pluralist commune state, the idea of the general line came to mean that there could be no alternative thinking. Stalin explained this in an interview with a journalist, Roy Howard, where he said that a party is part of a class, so since there were no opposed classes in the USSR there could not be a multi-party system.  Obviously, this was grammatically no less than politically utter nonsense. A class can have more than one part, else why use the term part. So each part should be free to create its own party. Even more pertinent is the question whether parties and classes are to remain welded till the end of time. Would differences disappear if classes were abolished? If not, then there would be formed parties – over environmental alternatives, over alternative models of social construction. The reason why Trotsky, alone among the opponents of Stalin, could articulate this idea was because of his past. Even Bukharin, a very talented theoretician, was helpless, because after all, in power, he had said that if there were two parties in the USSR the place for the second party would be in prison. That was why, when the ruthless murder machine crushed the old Bolshevik Party, including the majority of the Central Committee that had made the October Revolution, the majority of pre-1917 activists, and the majority of the Civil War era cadres, only those who had a clear understanding of the democratic promise of classical Marxism could avoid the options of surrendering to the murder machine like Koestler’s Rubashov, or defecting to the capitalist west. Today, in most of the world, Stalinism is utterly discredited. From the vantage point of what we know clearly today, Khruschev’s speech was a bid to save the Stalinist system by purging it of its most extreme excrescences. Khruschev, after all, defended the mass murders of workers and peasants, of non-Bolsheviks (the Mensheviks and SRs) as well as the dissidents within the party. It was only Stalin’s murder of dissident Stalinists that he rued. Yet what is known today ( and even what was written in Soviet years by dissidents like Evgeniia Ginsberg, a survivor of the Gulag, or documented through painstaking research under dictatorial rule by Roy Medvedev) suggests that Stalin and his henchmen, who of course included Khrushchev, killed more communists (not only Russian but global) than did most bourgeois states, and that socialism cannot survive unless it clearly disavows his crimes. In a country like India, where the vast majority do not have access to any Western language information system, it is by simply suppressing or not making available in Indian language editions the information available to much of the world including Spanish and Portuguese speaking South America (the continent where leftists are currently advancing, but by openly rejecting Stalinism), that the Indian Stalinist left hopes to buy time for a few more years. The fables they spread, to the effect that revelations about the Moscow Trials, the mass murders etc are all undocumented gossip, can be disproved with ease. Contemporaries like Anton Ciliga (Ten Years in the Country of the Big Lie) or Alexander Orlov (The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes), as well as later historians like Robert Conquest (The Great Terror), Roy Medvedev, and others have shown how terrible were these purges. If socialism is to survive other than as a museum piece or as a part of Political Science curricula, it has to take the ideas of revolutionary democratic politics to heart. For that, Trotsky’s alternative to the brutal culmination of the politics of the general line remains an essential contribution.