Marxist Theory

Trotsky and the Revolutionary Party: An Exploration of a Few Historical Myths

Trotsky and the Revolutionary Party: An Exploration of a Few Historical MythsT


Kunal Chattopadhyay


By the end of the twentieth century, it can hardly be said that there is any dearth of literature on Trotsky. There are well-researched biographies in all the major European languages, studies of his political thought, books and articles on particular facets of his work or his ideas, and discussions on Trotsky in general works on Marxism or on the Russian revolution.[i] But nevertheless, certain myths have become common-sense ideas, and as a result, tend to get repeated from book to book and from article to article. One such is the myth surrounding Trotsky and the revolutionary party. A slightly simplified version is, that Trotsky was, from the 2nd RSDRP Congress till February 1917, a Menshevik.[ii] Under the pressure of events he was compelled to move in the direction of Bolshevism. The story then trifurcates. For the Stalinist/post-Stalinist, this move by Trotsky was opportunistic, and he had never understood or accepted real Leninism, which resulted in his subsequent "anti-Soviet" role.[iii]  The anticommunist scholar's story-line avers that Trotsky, facing power, abandoned his years of democratic commitment and went over to authoritarian Bolshevism. He was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the roots of what under Stalin flowered into a full-fledged totalitarianism.[iv] Finally, for those who would be good Leninists as well as a variant of orthodox Trotskyist, Trotsky recognised the error of his ways in 1917 and became a real Leninist from that time on.[v] An historical examination of Trotsky's role, and of his writings, sharply questions all these simplifications. It is true that Trotsky opposed Lenin at the 2nd Party Congress and sided with the Mensheviks.[vi] It is true that he joined the Bolshevik party only in 1917. And it is true that he considered himself a Leninist in later years, and that this was strongly contested by his opponents in the Russian/Soviet Communist Party.[vii] Beyond these bare bones, however, the story, in all its versions, runs into severe difficulties. In the present paper, the following arguments will be briefly advanced:

1.      Trotsky's project of building the revolutionary party stood in the tradition of the classical Marxist perspective;

2.      Trotsky's critique of Lenin was not Menshevik;

3.      The differences between Lenin and Trotsky cannot be summed up either by the formula that Trotsky had failed to understand the Leninist party building project, or by the formula that the younger Trotsky represented a democratic alternative to authoritarian Leninism;

4.      The historical record shows that the party building work went through many turns, and it is totally erroneous to talk about an infallible Lenin or about a prophetic Trotsky;

5.      After 1917, Trotsky accepted the core arguments of Lenin, but fused them with his own previous insights.


Building the revolutionary Party: Classical Marxism, Lenin, and Trotsky:


The foundation of classical Marxist politics is the principle of proletarian self-emancipation. This was expressed clearly in the Preamble to the Rules of the International Workingmen's Association, drafted by Marx, which began with the assertion that the emancipation of the working class is a task of the working class itself.[viii] A few years later, angered at the idea put forward by some socialists that workers first needed guidance by bourgeois and petty bourgeois intelligentsia, they wrote in a letter to a number of social Democratic leaders: “At the founding of the International we expressedly formulated the battle cry : The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes.”[ix] This has been the historic tenet of party building in Marxism, and it was more or less practised, both by the Second International and by the early Communist International.

When Lenin published his What Is To Be done?, this tenet is what he seemed to challenge. It can be argued that he was in fact not opposing the principle of working class self-emancipation, and that in other writings he distanced himself from the extreme positions developed in this book.[x] But since the first differentiation between Bolsheviks and non-Bolsheviks took place, not on the basis of political programmes but on the basis of the organisational question, this book did become important in the early years. So contemporaries who criticised it cannot be written off on the ground that later on Lenin was to change his position. Since Trotsky is simply portrayed as an anti-centralist as a result of his polemics with Lenin, it is worth looking at his early career. Arrested ,tried, sentenced to exile in Siberia, the young Trotsky had there developed the idea that the numerous small groups of Social Democrats had to be centralised.[xi]  In the exile colonies his arguments were powerful enough, not only to provide material for discussion, but also, eventually, to get him a Siberian mandate to the 2nd Party Congress. He had argued that it was not possible to call a Congress first and then resolve the issue. A political centre had to be created first, and only then a Congress called.[xii] Only a few brief passages of this essay are known, but a curious dispute can be seen over them. Deutscher found in these passages a view "identical with" Bolshevism, while Krasso pronounced magisterially that Trotsky's proto-Bolshevism merely repeated the external and formal aspects of Lenin's theory, without its sociological content.[xiii] As a matter of fact, a reading of the text suggests Trotsky was proposing the creation of a strong political centre, something already being done in emigration by Plekhanov, Axelrod, Lenin, Martov and a few others. They were to launch Iskra precisely to create the authoritative centre before calling a new Congress. It can be demonstrated that for Trotsky centralisation was more a political than an organisational or administrative task. In the article, he advocated de-recognition of local units refusing to accept centralisation , but went on to stress that: 'such a bold measure is only to be applied in exceptional cases. ' He argued that the Central Committee could not go against the party, and that in the ultimate analysis the views of the Central Committee were to be formulations of the common requirements of the whole party.[xiv]  Nor did he repudiate this position at the end of the Congress. It would therefore be very misleading to claim that Trotsky entered the 2nd  Congress as a heated protagonist of centralism and came out of it as an opponent of centralism.[xv] It is more accurate to say that the argument in favour of centralisation was widespread, but Lenin added a special dimension by raising it to the level of a principle. This is more typical of Lenin the man than of Marxist theory. It was his lifelong pattern, to isolate the most important theme of the day, and to take a polemically exaggerated and apparently extreme position. But it had a negative side, in that at times it miseducated those who failed to understand his polemically exaggerated purpose. After his death, many of these polemical or tactical utterances were elevated to an unwarranted canonical status both by hagiographers as well as by demonologists.

What is true, is that Trotsky was immature in the manner in which he launched his polemic, and he was also, quite evidently, incapable of understanding a core point being made by Lenin. Lenin wanted to unify the revolutionary forces in one organisation, and he wanted to emphasise that the "Economists", Social Democrats arguing that struggles over economic demands would automatically lead to socialist consciousness, were wrong, and that socialist consciousness had to be developed by integrating the experiences of all sectors of the working class, by examining social relations in their totality, and that this called for a high degree of political centralisation by the revolutionary party.[xvi] The central thrust of Lenin's work was a positive elaboration of the view that the party had to act as a political centraliser of fragmentary struggles, sectional experiences and partial viewpoints of different parts of the working class, since the class was in practice fragmented. This was another meaning of the inside/outside dichotomy portrayed by Lenin. He was arguing that economic struggles did not automatically lead to socialist consciousness. The political organisation had to be built, so that the working class could gather consciousness about the entire range of politics and develop a revolutionary strategy.  Failing this, the revolutionaries were doomed to tail end the masses. Another important theme of the book was the development of the "professional revolutionary". This call came from two factors. The conjunctural factor was the absence of democracy in Russia. Only if party activists were full-time revolutionaries could the stability of the party be guaranteed. Moreover, the elective principle and publicity for party decisions, essential preconditions for real inner party democracy, were impossible in Russia. The more basic reason was that a party of professional revolutionaries would make it possible to release workers from tiring and tedious jobs, enable them to develop theoretically, and to ensure mass participation in the broad movements.[xvii]

The split between Bolsheviks and Menseviks at the 2nd Party Congress was not yet over basic principle of politics. But it involved a minority refusing to accept majority rule, thereby rendering organisational functioning impossible. In opposition to historians critical of Lenin who gloss over this simple fact, it is essential to stress that in 1903 it was the Menshevik faction that was undemocratic. However, it is also necessary to point out that there were serious problems, both in Lenin's arguments, and in the political practice of would-be Bolsheviks of the first period. Lenin provided a long quotation from Kautsky, to assert that Social Democratic consciousness is brought from outside the working class and is created by the bourgeois scientist.[xviii]There have been arguments to the effect that this was a polemical exaggeration, and that Lenin later repudiated this. While true, this argument disregards or minimises the fact that many of the activists who called themselves Bolsheviks treated the argument as the final word in party building. Thus, Francois Vercammen in his article talks about the fact that Stalin had been a Bolshevik cadre at a time when Trotsky was supposedly a Menshevik. But what was the content of Stalin's Bolshevism? In organisational matters, it was this: during the revolution of 1905, while the mass movement was rushing ahead, he was calling on the working class to rally round the party committees because “only the party committees can worthily lead us”[xix].   Indeed, throughout 1905, Lenin found himself at loggerheads with many of those who had become "good Bolsheviks" by a course of What Is To Be Done?

Before the Third (Bolshevik) RSDRP Congress, called by Lenin and his supporters against the Menshevik-dominated party press and party Council, could meet, a revolution had begun in Russia. For a few years, the struggle of workers and radical students had been intensifying and mass strikes developing. Along with repression came an attempt to form legal workers’ societies with police approval, to block the revolutionaries. Quickly, however, these unions became radicalized, and were in most cases disbanded. However, in St. Petersburg, the “Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers”, led by Father Gapon, a prison chaplain, continued . The Gaponist Union opposed class struggle. But in early 1905, a strike began in the giant Putilov works, employing 12,000 workers. Four workers of Gapon’s organization had been sacked. Gapon had to react to stop the erosion of his credibility. As a result, mass meetings were held. A series of general demands were formulated, including an eight-hour day, a general wage rise, etc. The union leaders thought that a petition to the Tsar, and a few benevolent words from the Throne, would be useful to counteract the agitation of radical students.


By 7th January, there was a general strike in St. Petersburg. On the 9th, a peaceful demonstration was confronted with murderous fire. An appalled Gapon told the workers, ‘We no longer have a Tsar’. Within days, a massive protest movement had developed. The patriarchally minded worker had given way to the revolutionary proletariat. The number of workers on strike during January and February 1905 was greater than the total for the ten years prior to this[xx]. Trade unions and workers’ assemblies began to spring up. There was a vast growth in working class assertiveness, and forms of self-organisation. Tsarism contributed unwittingly by deciding to set up a commission under Count Shidlovsky, including workers. Workers were asked to elect delegates to it. The commission did nothing and was soon dissolved, but the election of delegates by the factory taught the workers a valuable lesson in co-ordinating their own affairs[xxi]. Another development was the growth of strike-committees. In a few cases the strikers won the fight to maintain a permanent representation of deputies[xxii]. An example was the ‘Soviet Deputatov  Tipolitograffi Moskvy’ incorporating 110 plants[xxiii]. The final step was the fusion of the economic and political struggles. This resulted in the appearance of general workers’ councils, (the ‘Soviets’ in the sense usually known). Perhaps the first was the Ivanovo – Voznesensk Soviet. The nationally important case was, however, that of the St. Petersburg Soviet. A printer’s strike in Moscow was followed on 27 September by a general strike. On 7th October, the Moscow railways were dying. From the first day, the October strike had a political character. Since October 14, the capital of the Russian Empire had no rail connection, no telephones, no newspaper. The Tsar, despite his dislike for count Witte, sought his help. At his suggestion, though modifying it, the Tsar issued the October 17, 1905, Manifesto, guaranteeing civil liberties, a Duma elected on a fairly wide suffrage, with right to enact laws [xxiv].


The St. Petersburg Soviet sprang up in course of the strike. It had the precedence of the Shidlovsky Commission, and the Menshevik propaganda of a “revolutionary self-government”. On October 10, the Menshevik  Committee in St. Petersburg proposed founding a city-wide committee to lead the general strike. On 13 October, the St. Petersburg Soviet first met at the Technological Institute . Responding to the appeal, workers elected deputies. On 15 October, 226 representatives from 96 factories and workshops  and 5 trade unions were prsent. On 17 October, the body named itself the Soviet Rabochikh Deputatov ( Council of workers’ Deputies)[xxv]. It was this example that inspired the setting up of Soviets elsewhere, in Moscow, Odessa, Novorossiisk, Donets, etc. There were also a few instances of Soldiers’ Councils and Peasants’ Councils.


The Soviet emerged in fulfillment of an objective need for an organization that would represent peoples’ authority, an organisation that would to encompass hundreds of thousands of workers of various factories, varying age-groups, diverse viewpoints, different level of skills and earnings, without imposing on them so much organisational restraint that this newly won cohesion would break down. This set them off from the parties, despite the fact that party activists could be, and usually were, workers or professional revolutionaries dedicated to workers’ struggles. “Prior to the Soviet we find among the industrial workers a multitude of organisations… The Soviet was, from the start, the organisation of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power"[xxvi]. It was this class character of the Soviet, and its non-partisan structure, that was its strength. That did not prevent Social Democrats from gaining intellectual leadership.


The Soviets in fact had a multiple function. They represented the general interests of the proletariat vis-à-vis the rulers, and were created with that purpose. But such a mass working class organisation meant a high degree of political consciousness Among the working class, possible only in a revolutionary period. This also meant that they had to fight for the hegemony of the proletariat in the revolution, and to turn themselves into centres of revolution. The trial of the St. Petersburg Soviet brought this out admirably.


“Under the conditions created by a political general strike, …the state mechanism…found itself ultimately incapable of action…Meanwhile the strike had thrown hundreds of thousands of workers from the factories into the streets...who could direct them… . no one , except the Soviet… And that being so, the Soviet, in the political strike which had created it, became nothing other than the organ of self-government of the revolutionary masses: an organ of power ".[xxvii] So said Trotsky in his speech to the court that tried the Soviet. In St. Petersburg , the Soviet’s threats forced the regime to negotiate on different occasions. In Moscow, in Novorossiisk, the Soviets co-ordinated the insurrection.


On the rising trade union movement, the Bolsheviks often had a narrow approach. In September 1905, S. I. Gusev proposed a resolution at the Bolshevik Odessa Committee’s meeting, which counterposed trade unions and the revolution. However, Gusev also proposed trying to gain leadership of trade union. Others, sceptical about the direction of the spontaneous workers’ struggles, now quoted What Is To Be done? to claim that ”the trade union struggle…makes bourgeois notions stick to the proletarians’ psychology”[xxviii]. Leading Bolsheviks like Bogdanov and Lunacharsky were wary of strikes, and counterposed the armed insurrection to the strikes[xxix], instead of looking at strikes as movements that united the workers and raised their class-consciousness.


A similar situation developed regarding the soviets. P. A. Krasikov, a leading Bolshevik, called the St. Petersburg Soviet a “non-party Zubatovite committee”[xxx]. When the Soviet was formed, a member of the  Petersburg Committee, M.M. Essen, exclaimed, “But where do we come in?”[xxxi]. At a meeting of the Bolshevik Executive committee of the Neva District of Petersburg.: “On 29 October, one of the fifteen members opposed taking part in it at all because the ‘elective principle could not guarantee its class consciousness and social Democratic character’ Four voted against taking part in the Soviet, if it did not accept a Social Democratic programme."[xxxii] The Bolshevik Central Committee, elected by the Third Congress, presented an ultimatum to the Soviet. After a very brief debate, it was rejected. It needed Lenin’s intervention before the Bolsheviks changed their position. Knuniants-Radin, a party leader, had asked, ‘Soviet or Party’ ? The basic problem was organizational rigidity. The Bolshevik committeemen took one phase of the movement, when there had been only a party of workers’ leaders and underground activists, as the permanent character, thereby bearing out the validity of the criticisms of Luxemburg and Trotsky. Even the sympathetic Krupskaya recorded in her memoirs that the committeemen were conservative, opposed to inner party democracy, and undesirous of changes[xxxiii].

At the Third Congress, Lenin and Bogdanov proposed that workers should be taken into the party at all levels in large numbers[xxxiv]. The delegate Gradov (Kamenev) accused Lenin of demagogically raising the question of the relationship between workers and intelligentsia[xxxv]. Reports by Leskov, Filippov and Krasikov made it obvious that workers were not being drawn into the party. One delegate, Mikhailov, even accused in disgust that “the requirements for the intelligentsia are very low, and for the workers they are extremely high”[xxxvi].


Condemnations of the critiques by Trotsky and Luxemburg appear somewhat exaggerated , but not totally unfounded, when this history is kept in mind. Trotsky’s central charge against Lenin was that of “substitutionism”. That is, he accused Lenin of wanting to replace the self-activity of the working class by the voluntarist actions of a self-proclaimed vanguard. In attempting to reject what he saw as Leninist elitism, he was also rejecting the necessity of uniting the vanguard workers around a common banner and thereby making them a more effective force. This led him to argue that :“The most conscious and therefore the most revolutionary elements will always be a ‘minority’ in our party. And this can only be explained by our faith in the fate of the working class as being social revolution, and revolutionary ideas as being those corresponding best to the historical movement of the proletariat.”[xxxvii] In pursuit of this line of argument, he said that Leninism was the theory of an ‘orthodox theocracy’. To it he opposed the idea of a broad-based mass party which would yet be revolutionary. It had key flaws, above all for being a kind of proposal for an ideal type regardless of concrete situations. Both Trotsky and Luxemburg erred centrally over the question of whether or not to organise the most politically conscious and militant workers separately. The building of the revolutionary party of the working class is the process whereby the theoretical consciousness developed by revolutionary nuclei are tested through practice and fused with the outlook of a significant section of advanced workers. It is true, as both of them asserted, that the revolutionary party cannot claim to be THE VANGUARD. It can act as a vanguard force only by constantly drawing in the vanguard of the class within its fold and by being in the class struggles. To do so, however, the revolutionary activists had to be united first. On this point Trotsky acknowledged his error several times, as in the unpublished November 30, 1924 manuscript ‘Our Differences’[xxxviii] 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 Deutscher gives the impression that he only preached permanent revolution and unity, we find him devoting space to programme and organisation as a whole.  In an article of late November, he defended the three conditions for membership: acceptance of the programme, membership of a definite organisation, and regular financial contribution. He then went on to argue that two false alternatives were being presented: "either to become dissolved in the masses, having popularised among them our basic demands and the name of international Social-Democracy, but having lost at the same time the character of a centralised political organisation, or to stand aloof from the masses, reserving for ourselves 'supreme' political control over its slogans…we should say that both roads were equally dangerous, and essentially led to one and the same result, namely, the annihilation of a genuinely proletarian Party, that sets itself definite tasks and develops independent tactics for their performance."[xxxix] Thus, his conception of party building was a revolutionary, and not a Menshevik one. And where he differed with Lenin, he was not always wrong. Let us look at Trotsky's recasting of the question of spontaneous struggles and the class-conscious organisation: "Between these two factors -- the objective fact of its class interest and its subjective consciousness -- lies the realm inherent in life, that of clashes and blows, mistakes and disillusionment, vicissitudes and defeats. The tactical farsightedness of the Party of the proletariat is located entirely between these two factors and consists of shortening and easing the road from one to the other…. The Party bases itself on the given level of consciousness of the proletariat; it will involve itself in every important political event by making an effort to orient the general direction towards the immediate interests of the proletariat, and, what is still more important, by making an effort to embed itself in the proletariat by raising the level of consciousness, to base itself on this level and use it for this dual purpose…. The greater the distance separating the objective and subjective factors, that is, the weaker the political culture of the proletariat, the more naturally there appear in the Party those 'methods' which, in one form or another, only show a kind of passivity in the face of the colossal difficulties of the task incumbent upon us. The political abdication of the 'Economists', like the 'political substitutionism' of their opposites, are nothing but an attempt by the young Social Democratic Party to 'cheat' history."[xl]

Trotsky's opposition to Lenin centred here on three points: the opposition between the self-activity of the class and Lenin's allegedly fantastic error of wanting a ready made set of tactics whereby the party could control the masses; the opposition between democracy and bureaucratic centralism; and the opposition between a formalist and a historical point of view. In the Report of the Siberian Delegation, Trotsky wrote that 'for many comrades, 'politics' and 'centralism' still only have a purely formal meaning, that they are only the empty anti-thesis of 'economism' and 'dilettantism'."[xli] He went on to explain that unless the general political interest of the working class was linked to day to day needs and struggles, it would result in a purely formal centralism and a formal political style without solid content. The crux of his charge against Lenin and his supporters is that they believed in automatic success due to their possession of Marxist ideas. As a Marxist himself, Trotsky was not decrying the value of Marxism. But he was questioning its exclusive possession by any individual, group of individuals, or party. And even more strongly he was challenging the notion that possession of Marxism was a guarantee against mistakes. And in looking at the class movement and the history of organisations, he made the perceptive comment that part of the mistakes of organisations stem from an ahistoricity: "Each period has its own routine and tends to impose its own tendencies on the movement as a whole."[xlii] This was how he viewed the one-sidedness of the economists, the aberrations of some of Lenin's supporters who are cited in the pamphlet, and this was how he was to look at problems of party development in later periods. This gave him the idea that a mere attempt to "liquidate" a phase of party history was a wrong way of trying to move forward. Every partial process, he indicated, had a tendency of imposing its inertia on the movement as a whole, and that a living revolutionary organisation always had to be aware of this danger.

In presenting his critique of Lenin, whatever else he did, Trotsky did not slide into opportunism or pro-opportunist political positions himself. Even though in the pamphlet he still considered him a part of the minority, he was already arguing that the task for which the minority had set itself up as a faction was over, and it should now dissolve.[xliii] Politically, he was hostile to the economists and other groupings. At the earlier phases of the Second Party Congress, he had indeed earned the title "Lenin's cudgel" for the vehement way in which he defended the political programme of the Iskra-ists. But he insisted that opportunism, revisionism etc were not external elements, viruses, on the healthy body of the proletariat. They were parts of the proletarian movement, and political differences with them could not be settled simply by reference to any higher authority. They had to be won through a combination of political debates and practice.

The resolution of this conflict can be achieved only by knocking down another pillar of so-called Leninist orthodoxy, namely, the idea that a single party can exhaustively represent a class. This was what led Trotsky to make an assertion in Our Political Tasks to which we will find him returning all his life: "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 unresolved problems….And no 'strong authoritative organisation' will be able to put down these tendencies and disagreements 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 tolerate a dictatorship over itself."[xliv] Though Trotsky, too was to accept for a while the need for the strong, authoritative hand of one party, he alone among leading Bolsheviks returned subsequently to a clear articulation of the need for political pluralism within the council system.[xlv]


Liquidationism and the Underground:


The revolutionary yeas 1905-6 were succeeded by a period of powerful counteroffensive by the regime. Legal rights began to shrink, and trade unions, to say nothing about soviets, collapsed. The Bolshevik-Menshevik schism, apparently healed by the revolution, reappeared and intensified. Too often, the history of party building in this period is reduced a so-called struggle against liquidators and recallists. This is a simplification which does gross damage to the real history of the Russian working class movement and the history of the Social Democratic Party. Within Russia, there were those who wanted to build a revolutionary party. And all of these people did not consider themselves to be 'Leninists'. A large group of worker-activists, who had been party members in 1905-06, sought to fuse legal work with the underground. They were criticised from opposite ends by Lenin, who wanted complete domination of legal work by the underground committees, and by rightwing Mensheviks like Potresov and Axelrod, who wanted to abolish the old party and set up a broad based party even in the authoritarian regime. Vercammen, in his article, tries to claim, in a couple of cleverly worded passages, that Trotsky was in agreement, (with reticence) with this perspective.[xlvi] That is not what modern research indicates. Since Vercammen footnotes Swain, it is worth looking briefly at his findings. There were younger Mensheviks, the 'praktiki' or practical workers, who rejected the proposals of liquidators (i.e., those who wanted to "liquidate" the old party). There were Bolsheviks who opposed Lenin's orientation as well as that of Bogdanov and his fellow recallists. Forces like these sometimes found in Trotsky an alternative rallying point.

By late 1909, on the initiative of Bolshevik-conciliators like Rykov, Goldenberg-Meshkovskii and Kamenev, it was decided that the Bolshevik factional paper Proletarii would become a theoretical paper, while Trotsky would be asked to join forces with the Bolsheviks, the Poles of the SDKPiL (Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Felix Dzerzhinsky etc.), and the Pravda, edited by Trotsky from Vienna, would become a powerful agitational paper.[xlvii] Swain is wrong to conclude that from this point the terms Bolshevik and Menshevik became meaningless, because a significant part of the Mensheviks followed Martov, who was unwilling to break with the liquidators.[xlviii] However, this event shows that a different kind of leftwing regroupment, based on revolutionary principles, but calling for a different relationship between the pro-party legal activists and the underground, was possible. Inside Russia, the older factional line-ups did collapse considerably, as Trotsky was later to show.[xlix] Until 1912, Trotsky continued to try and build a revolutionary party based on the self-activity of the worker militants. For writers who have a totally uncritical view of Lenin, this phase constitutes an embarrassment, since  "by smudging over the dividing line between 'liquidator' and 'legal activist', Lenin was able to brand anyone as a 'liquidator'. Thus the majority of delegates to the Proletarian meeting were, by Lenin's definition, 'liquidators'."[l] In fact, Swain, and even more Bonnell, shows that the liquidators were in a minority among the practical workers.[li] This can once again be touted as a case of "bending the stick", but if that were so, there is no reason now, with a dispassionate historical analysis, to uphold Lenin as the sole distillation of the revolutionary line. Nor does it explain the intensity of Lenin's attacks on Trotsky, nor, finally, the decision to hijack the title Pravda. Only by recognising that Pravda from Vienna was a potential challenger to the position of leadership of the left wing of the party can we make sense of this. This may appear sectarian in retrospect, but it is necessary to look at the context more closely. In the Marxist tradition of party building, two distinct lines had coexisted rather uneasily. One was the building of a distinct communist organisation, as in 1848-51 (the Communist League) and the other was the building up of the mass workers' party, which was what Marx tried to promote through the First International , particularly from its London Conference.[lii] In a way, the mass parties of the Second International straddled both traditions. But in Russia, no party had yet been built up, properly speaking.[liii] This is why, time and again, the "organisational question" looms so large in Russian and other East European debates. The fact that neither Lenin, nor Trotsky, was fully correct did not mean that a compromise resolution, and a compromise tactical line, was able to unite them. Instead, they fought in an extremely heated manner.

Trotsky's central thesis was that the underground committees had become cut off from the working class, and were taking the class to be merely raw material fit to be taken in tow by the committees.[liv] Reacting to this, Pravda advocated a line of retaining the underground committees but making them responsive to the pro-party legal activists and the struggles they were waging. At a Temperance Congress, such activists, supported by Pravda but not by either the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks, put up a good performance. Trotsky's influence was to rise correspondingly, so that at the January 1910 Plenum of the Central Committee, strong backing from delegates from the interior saw his proposal being passed rather than those proposed by Lenin and Martov. Zinoviev in his tendentious history presents the Plenum as a purely émigré conflict, because he could not admit that on the key issue of the struggle against liquidationism, the practical workers had supported Trotsky.[lv] Bolshevik-conciliators like Dubrovinsky, Rykov, Sokolnikov and Lozovsky supported the resolution. That this did not lead to a unification of forces on the left was more the responsibility of Trotsky. Whatever Lenin's aims, and his detractors have certainly ascribed the worst to him, is hands were tied because the majority of Bolsheviks were opposing him. But when Martov refused to break with the open liquidators, Trotsky did not take up the battle against him. In addition, the agent provocateur Roman Malinovsky's betrayal[lvi] resulted in the arrest of the newly created Russian Bureau, where Trotsky had a number of supporters. Nonetheless, as late as the first quarter of 1911, after the old splits were hardening again in emigration, the resolution of the January 1910 Plenum was being accepted in Russia, and underground committees and legal activists merging to form common organisations. When Lenin attempted to make the split final in 1912, he could do so because he had accepted this basis. It was at this point that the weak side of Trotsky's conciliationism caught up with him. By rejecting the invitation to the Prague conference, and by calling a counter-conference at Vienna hich the Leninist Bolsheviks boycotted and the Bogdanovist Bolsheviks walked out of, he created a bloc in which Martov, and Mensheviks to his right, became dominant. Trotsky himself had to abandon the bloc shortly, while between 1912 and 1914, the Bolsheviks became the dominant force among the politically conscious workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow.[lvii] Bonnell's study shows that the new organisational structure enabled party cadres to translate party strategy into effective action. In that sense, it was a revamped party, which differed markedly from the orientation of 1907-9, and also from all later official Soviet claims about Leninist parties.


Beyond the Revolutionary Year:


The revolution of 1917 saw Trotsky joining the Bolsheviks. His demand that they should change the name was not a serious proposition, yet it contained the germ of his later understanding of Bolshevism. For, the party of 1917 was vastly different from those conceptions of What is To Be Done, which emphasised that revolutionary consciousness would have to be bought from outside the working class and that from ithin itself the proletariat can only develop trade union consciousness, or from the conception of a party run essentially by small groups of committees. In terms of the programme, the Bolshevik propaganda was marked by an important shift that few historians have noticed. During 1914- January 1917, a major difference between the Bolsheviks (especially Lenin) and other anti-war, revolutionary socialists, like Luxemburg and Trotsky, was Lenin's stress that to be a consistent communist meant to be a defeatist. The problems with the "defeatist" formula were manifold and each of Lenin's main essays on the subject tended to present a slightly different meaning to skirt some problem or the other. Lenin had opposed the slogan of peace as one that fell short of the goal of proletarian revolutionaries. In 1917 the Bolsheviks, confronting not the patriotism of small groups of leaders, but of the masses of workers, had to revise their tactics in order to get a hearing. The slogan for peace was different from the slogan for defeatism. This suggested that wen the revolutionary party wished to win over the bulk of the class, not the "sharpest" formulation, but the one that best linked the revolutionary line with the aspirations of the masses, was ultimately the most revolutionary. There were important lessons to be learnt from all this, regarding the relationship between class, party and other class organisations in the preparation and the making of revolutions. It was Trotsky, who subsequently drew these lessons, in a series of important conclusions about Bolshevism. In 1917 and later, Trotsky was always to acknowledge that he had been wrong not to recognise the need for a split with the Mensheviks.[lviii] That this was the key issue seems recognised as well in Lenin's comment about Trotsky being the best Bolshevik ever since he understood that there could be no unity with the Mensheviks.[lix] But in a number of pieces, notably The Lessons of October, the History of the Russian Revolution and the Stalin, Trotsky explicitly tried to reconcile his past critiques with his acceptance of Bolshevism. As a result, in The Lessons of October, on one hand, he was willing to recognise, in a sharper formulation than in the pre-1917 era, the centrality of the party as an instrument of the struggle for power: "Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer".[lx] But in the same work he was also to warn that it was "almost an unalterable law' that a revolutionary party would face a crisis at each turning point, and revolutions are lost if the party cannot make the transition in time.[lxi] This was not an abstract theorisation. The work was written soon after the defeat of the German revolution of 1923, and in the middle of the "Bolshevisation" of the Comintern embarked upon by Zinoviev, which was the starting point of the bureaucratic transformation of the Comintern. Here, Trotsky was trying to set the record straight on what was permanent and what was not, in Bolshevism. When he took up the theme in the History of the Russian Revolution, a false idea of the vanguard had taken hold, and he was challenging that quite sharply. In the History, we find that the Bolshevik workers, and workers standing on the left (like the mezhraiontsi), had led the insurrection, but when new political institutions were created, hegemony passes to the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. The reason, he argued, was that the mass of workers made little distinction between the three socialist parties, so that the two moderate ones, with a far greater share of the intellectuals, could build up an apparatus. This created a wall between the working class and its aims. Thereafter, only a complex interweaving of class, party and leadership could ensure first, the reconquest by the Bolsheviks of the vanguard layers of the working class, and then the establishment of the hegemony of the Bolsheviks and the vanguard around them over the majority. This required a leadership possessing certain capabilities. Here Trotsky argued that Lenin could provide the kind of leadership that we see him playing in 1917, because a leadership is also constructed, not obtained ready-made, and Lenin's position had been created through his role, in conjunction with bolshevism as a current, within the working class for many years.[lxii] The other pole of this was the stress on the ability of the party to learn from the working class and to negotiate crisis points by being revolutionary in principle, but capable of strategic shifts in time. All this implies that revolutionary parties are not easily constructed, and that substituting them by apparently easier options can be dangerous. Through much of the 20th Century, one could have written off this claim as a counterfactual. After all, the Chinese revolution was made without either the kind of leadership or the democratic class-party relationship Trotsky was emphasising. Much of the world seemed to be going the "socialist" way through precisely the substitutionism that the young Trotsky had inveighed against. But at the beginning of the new century, looking at how the "socialist" states collapsed and how so many of the "communist" leaders turned out to be willing fighters for capitalist restoration (Yeltsin, Deng, Jaruzelski, and others), it is worth looking more seriously at the alternative Trotsky had stood for. When the relationship is one of a Great Helmsman and a minority always deciding on the line and the working class being told to implement it, such a movement may be said to be based on the working class, but it is hardly one where the self-emancipation of the proletariat that is being worked out. Looking back over a century of revolutions, it is necessary to make a distinction between those made by the working class, and those made by revolutionary elites in the name of the working class. When confronting weak bourgeois rulers, the substitutionist revolutions could take power, but never were these workers' powers as classical Marxism envisaged. Such substitutionism led to dictatorships and an eventual road back to capitalism. Only, in the Russian revolution, there had to be a Stalinist counter-revolution by a new bureaucracy first.



T I am grateful to Paul LeBlanc, Peter Solenberger, and Ron Lare for discussions on various previous drafts. This paper was presented at the 61st Session of the Indian History Congress, Calcutta 2001.


Notes and references:

[i] For bibliographic detail about the major works, the reader can consult Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, Kolkata, 2006. The most comprehensive, though by no means fiully representative especially of Asian writings is Wolfgang and Petra Lubitz, An International Classified List of Publications about Leon Trotsky and Trotskyism: 1905 - 1998, 2 vols., 3rd Edition, Munchen 1999.

[ii] All official histories from the Soviet Union had this line. See, for example, V. A. Grigorenko et al, The Bolshevik Party's Struggle Against Trotskyism (1903 - February 1917), Moscow, 1969, p.30.

[iii] The fountainhead was J. Stalin,  History of the CPSU(B) -- Short Course, Moscow, 1938; though one may fairly say that most of Zinoviev's book, written in 1924, had a similar motive. In 1924, however, slander could not reach such peaks as it did in 1938.

[iv] See B. Knei-Paz,The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, Oxford, etc., 1978pp. 225, 226, 232.

[v] J.Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, London, 1978, pp.46-55; T. Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October, London, Chicago and Melbourne,1989, pp. 50 - 79; E. Mandel, Trotsky: a Study in the Dynamics of his Thought, London, 1979, p.53.

[vi] However, he joined them for just about a year, agreed with them only on certain organisational issues, and broke with them oer the political orientation that they began to exhibit. On this see A. Woods, Bolshevism -- the road to revolution, London, 1999, pp.142-3.

[vii] G.Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party, London, 1983 is among the first major broadsides by his opponents in the Bolshevik Party.

[viii]K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, , vol. 20, Moscow, 1985, p.14.

[ix] Ibid, vol. 24, Moscow, 1989,p.269.

[x] This has been argued by Neil Harding Lenin's Political Thought. London and Basingstoke, vol. 1, 1977;vol. 2, 1981; 2v. combined publication. 1983; by Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol.1, Building the Party, London 1975; by Paul LeBlanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, New Jersey and London, 1980; and by Alan Wood, op. cit., in a number of ways.

[xi] L. Trotsky, My Life, Harmondsworth, 1975, p.136

[xii] Cited in L. Trotsky, Report of the Siberian Delegation (1903), London, n.d., p.40.

[xiii] I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, London, 1976, p.45; N. Krasso, ed., Trotsky: The Great Debate Renewed, St. Louis, 1972, p.13.

[xiv] Report of the Siberian Delegation, pp.40-41.

[xv] A recent claim of this sort is an extremely tendentious article by Francois Vercammen, 'The Question of the Party: Trotsky's Weak Point', International Viewpoint, No.324, Sept.-Oct 2000, pp. 32 - 36. The significance of the article lies in the author, a member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, who seems to be writing in order to gather enough courage to proclaim that the organisation and politics of the Fourth International had been fatally flawed from birth because Trotsky had retained his misunderstandings of Lenin and his erroneous party building conceptions all his life.

[xvi] See K. Chattopadhyay, 'Lenin O Biplabi Dal' , Yubakantha, Autumn No., 1992; and Paul LeBlanc, op.cit.

[xvii] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, (hereafter LCW), vol.5, pp. 464-66, 472, 477.

[xviii] Ibid., pp. 375, 383-4.

[xix]J. Stalin, Works, vol.1, Moscow, 1947, p.80

[xx] O. Anweiler, The Soviets : The Russian Workers’ , Peasants and Soldiers’ Councils 1905-1921, New York, 1974, p. 34.

[xxi] L. Trotsky, 1905, Harmondsworth, 1971, p. 123.

[xxii] O. Anweiler, The Soviets, p. 38.

[xxiii] G. Kostomarov, Moskovskii Soviet v 1905 godu, Moscow , 1955, pp. 65-69.

[xxiv] On Witte and the Tsar, see H. D. Mehlinger and J. M. Thomson, Count Witte and the Tsarist Government in the 1905 Revolution , Bloomington, Indiana, and London,  1974.

[xxv] O. Anweiler, The Soviets, p. 46

[xxvi] L. Trotsky , 1905, p. 266.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 399.

[xxviii] S. M. Schwartz , The Russian Revolution of 1905 , Chicago , 1967, p. 153.

[xxix] Ibid., pp. 131-32.

[xxx] V.S. Voitinskii , Godu pobedi porazhenii, Moscow 1923, Quoted in J.L.H.Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, London, 1963, p.230.

[xxxi] Recollection of B.I.Gorev, a representative of the Bolshevik centre in Petersburg, quoted in Schwarz, op.cit., p.180.

[xxxii] D.Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, Assen 1969, p.88.

[xxxiii] N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, Moscow, 1959, pp. 124-126.

[xxxiv] LCW, vol.8, pp.409-410.

[xxxv] Tretii S” ezd RSDRP , Moscow , 1959, p. 255.

[xxxvi] Ibid., pp. 265, 267, 335, 362.

[xxxvii] L. Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, p.123.

[xxxviii] N. Allen (ed.), The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) , New York, 1975, p.263.

[xxxix] L. Trotsky, 'We Must Build the Party', Journal of Trotsky Studies, vol.3, 1995, pp.100-101. I am grateful to Jamie Gough for sending me this, and other related material.

[xl] Our Political Tasks, pp.74-76.

[xli] Report of the Siberian Delegation, p.18.

[xlii] Our Political Tasks, p.31.

[xliii]  Ibid., p.3.

[xliv] Our Political Tasks, section entitled The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, quoted in J. Molyneux, Leon Trotsky's Theory of Revolution, Brighton, sussex, 1981, p.66. My edition does not have this, or any similar passage. It seems that  the New Parks edition omitted this section.

[xlv] "Democratisation of the soviets is impossible without legalisation of soviet parties. The workers and peasants themselves by their own free vote will indicate what parties they recognise as soviet parties.", The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, in Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, New York, 1974, p.105.

[xlvi] Op. cit., p.34.

[xlvii] Cf. G. Swain ed. and with an introduction, Protokoly soveshchaniya reashirennoi redaktaii 'Proletarii', London, 1982, pp.110, 119, 134.

[xlviii] G. Swain, Russian Social Democracy and the Legal labour Movement: 1906 - 14, London and Basingstoke, 1983.

[xlix] L. Trotsky, Stalin, London, 1946.

[l] G. Swain, Russian Social Democracy…, pp. 86-87.

[li] V. E. Bonnell, Roots of Rebellion, Berkeley, 1983.

[lii] For a thorough treatment, see S. Marik, Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy, New Delhi, 2008.

                                [liii]  For an admission by a leading Bolshevik that the mass party of 1905 had totally collapsed, see G. Zinoviev, op.cit.

[liv] See, for example, 'Nasha partiia i ee zadachi', Pravda No.4, 2/14June 1909.

[lv] G. Zinoviev, op. cit., pp.166-167.

[lvi] For Malinovsky see R. C. Elwood, Roman Malinovsky: A Life Without a Cause, Newtonville, Mass., 1977.

[lvii] Cf. V. E. Bonnell, op.cit., pp.393 - 408, for a detailed examination of this process.

[lviii] See for example, L. Trotsky, My Life, Harmondsworth, 1975,p.342.

[lix] See Lenin's speech in L. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, New York, 1972 (1979 reprint), p.110. It should be noted that in the late 1980s, the Soviet periodical Voprossii Istorii investigated the Central Party Archives and certified that the documents published by Trotsky in this book were all authentic.

[lx] L. Trotsky, The Challenge of the left Opposition (1923-25), p.252.

[lxi] Ibid., p.203.

[lxii] L. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London, 1966, vol.1, pp.310 -- 11.