The year 1927 marked a decisive turning point in the struggle of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition to defend the ideas of Marx and Lenin inside the Russian Communist Party. On the Tenth anniversary of the October revolution, almost to the day, the co-leader of that most momentous event was expelled from the party. Soon after the creator of the Red Army was expelled from the country.
The struggle to save the October revolution and the party which had led it was literally a life and death struggle which cost the lives of thousands of the most dedicated revolutionaries. Outstanding fighters who had survived years of exile, imprisonment, the assaults of Tsarism and the ravages of civil war, were brutally wiped out by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the years which followed.
On a broader historical scale too, the struggle of Trotskyism against Stalinism had the most dramatic impact on the lives of millions. The errors of Stalinism, resulted in the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, the Spanish revolution, and the defeat of the German working class which led directly on to the victory of Hitler and fascist barbarism.
The struggles of this period are rich in lessons for the struggle of the working class today.
To serve as an introduction to these questions we will look here briefly at the events from the time of Lenin's death at the beginning of 1924 to the expulsions of 1927. Hopefully this will at least whet the readers' appetite to read the writings of Trotsky himself, where these questions are dealt with in the detail they deserve.
Probably the most commonly asked question is how did Trotsky come to lose power? Whether because he appears as Lenin's natural successor, or because of the power at the disposal of the head of the Red Army, this seems a reasonable question. Losing power, however, is not like losing one's car keys, simply an act of carelessness. It is not simply a question of individuals and personalities. The economic backwardness of Russia and the devastation caused by civil war and imperialist intervention, combined with the defeats being experienced by the revolutionary movement internationally, led to a growth in bureaucracy, and exhaustion on the part of the masses.
It is true that Trotsky's personal authority was unrivalled. However, the fate of personal authority, which can be decisive, as witnessed by the role played by Lenin in rearming the Bolshevik party in April-May 1917, is still ultimately dependent on the processes taking place in the masses. Stalin's victory cannot be attributed to the skill and mastery of his Machiavellian manoeuvres as many an academic wiseacre would have us believe. The intrigues of these people were assisted by objective conditions, in fact their success was dependent on them.
Nonetheless their task was not an easy one. The names of Lenin and Trotsky were still intimately bound in the masses consciousness with the revolution. Those ties could not be broken in a single cut. Reaction had to first prepare the ground with a campaign of slander. In turn the success of this campaign of lies and distortions was dependent on the failure of the international revolution to come to the timely aid of the young workers' state.
The French revolution had experienced just such a degeneration under the title Thermidor from the month of the revolutionary calendar in which the reaction occurred. In the ebb period reaction took society backwards but not as far as before the revolution. The Russian workers state had degenerated, but the new bureaucratic caste was existing on the basis of the new social system created by the revolution, not a return to capitalism. This was an idea Trotsky was to develop fully later, particularly in the masterpiece The Revolution Betrayed. Whilst the French reaction had been achieved in one violent blow, the Russian version was compelled to proceed in stages. The Russian Thermidor substituted the lie for the guillotine - at least initially. Later its torture and execution machine exceeded anything seen in history.
Revolution abroad was failing to come to the aid of backward Russia. "Maybe it would take years," thought the bureaucrat, "if ever." Thus cynicism, defeat and reaction percolated into opposition to dependence on the international revolution, and therefore opposition to the idea of Permanent Revolution, and opposition to Trotskyism. Only in this context could the lies and slanders of the bureaucratic machine against Trotsky begin to take root. Slander becomes a historical force only when it meets some historical demand.
Before his death Lenin had already launched a struggle against the increasing bureaucratisation of the party and the state. Against Stalin, Lenin was preparing a bloc with Trotsky on these questions and others. Lenin's health prevented him from taking further part in this struggle but his views are clearly expressed in his Testament.
The delay in the international revolution meant that special measures needed to be taken to maintain the workers' state. The long period of civil war had devastated the Russian economy. The policy of War Communism designed to defend the Soviet Union from the attempts of imperialism to destroy it, until the working class of Europe was able to come to its assistance, was replaced by the New Economic Policy, a concession to capitalism, designed to encourage agriculture. The NEP enjoyed considerable success in regenerating the economic life of the country. However, the economy was developing a scissors effect, so called because of the growing gap between the two lines on a graph representing the rising price of manufactured goods and the falling price of agricultural products. Production slowed, wages went unpaid, workers were even forced to take strike action. What was required was a programme to rapidly build up industry. To this end Trotsky proposed the introduction of planning.
Meanwhile, the military regime inside the party imposed by the conditions of civil war was creating an even greater danger to the future of the revolution, a vast bureaucratic hierarchy was growing up in place of freely elected officials.
In response to both problems Trotsky proposed a new turn for the party. In a series of articles grouped together in the pamphlet The New Course, Trotsky called for workers' democracy and the eradication of bureaucratism linked to a perspective of rapidly building up the country's industry through the introduction of a plan.
Unable to answer the arguments of Trotsky the new Triumvirate of leaders, Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev resorted to distortions, for example, accusing Trotsky of underestimating the peasantry. Yet it was the Stalinists who were underestimating the growth of the big peasant, the Kulak, and the danger this represented to the revolution. Bukharin's message to the big peasants was "enrich yourself". They attempted to do so by hoarding their produce, at the expense of the workers in the towns and the poor peasants in the country. Trotsky's proposed economic plan on the contrary was intended to develop the material level of the country, bring about something of an equalisation of prices, i.e. overcoming the scissors effect, by producing cheaper manufactured goods for the peasantry, building an unbreakable bond between the peasants, the workers and the workers state.
These debates cannot be seen in isolation from events taking place outside the party, and outside Russia. They unfolded against the background of the retreat of the Communist Party, and the defeat of an entirely favourable revolutionary situation in Germany. Ultimately it was the fate of the International revolution which would decide the fate of the struggle inside Russia.
In 1923 an immensely favourable revolutionary opportunity developed in Germany. The situation was so ripe that Trotsky wrote that "the German bourgeoisie could only extricate itself from this 'inextricable' position if the Communist Party did not understand at the right time that the position of the bourgeoisie was 'inextricable' and did not draw the necessary conclusions." This, tragically, is exactly what happened. In October the workers, with power at their fingertips, were abandoned to their fate by the leadership of the Communist Party. The bourgeoisie attacked the socialist-communist government governments of Saxony and Thuringia . The response of the Communist leaders was to beat the retreat. The party and the workers were thrown into confusion. Yet the German party leaders were not alone in their error. On the contrary, they were spurred on by the leadership of the Communist International. This is what Stalin wrote to Zinoviev and Bukharin in August 1923. Even today it sends a shiver down one's spine: "Should the Communists (at the present stage) strive to seize power without the social democracy? Are they ripe for this already?...If now in Germany, the power, so to say, will fall, and the Communists will seize it, they will fall through with a crash. This is in the 'best' case. And in the worst they'll be smashed to bits and thrown back...Certainly the fascists are not napping, but it is more advantageous for us for the fascists to attack first: this will rally the whole working class around the communists. Besides the fascists in Germany, according to the data we have, are weak. In my estimation the Germans must be restrained, not spurred on."
In other words, the German party leaders were following the advice of the Russian leaders. Indeed Stalin and co defended Brandler and Thalheimer against Trotsky's attack on the leadership of the German party and its policy. Until the crushing defeat in October that is, when they washed their hands of the German leadership and branded Brandler and Thalheimer as scapegoats for the defeat of the German working class.
This not only absolved them of personal responsibility but also of the task of analysing the real causes of the defeat. This was undertaken by Trotsky in Lessons of October.
Trotsky explained how at the most difficult moments vacillations and doubts can creep into the leadership. This had been the case with the right of the party in Russia on the eve of October 1917. But in that case Lenin was able to win the day and place the party leadership on a sound footing. Everyone knew what he meant. The right of the party who had opposed or vacillated over the insurrection in Russia had been Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov and Tomsky. The consequences of such an analysis were obvious and could not be allowed. The leadership of the Russian party and the Comintern sacrificed a real analysis of the defeat in Germany, its causes and lessons for the sake of their war on "Trotskyism".
Having ridiculed Trotsky's proposals for planned industrialisation, Stalin now proposed that it was possible to build socialism in Russia alone. It wasn't necessary to wait for the revolution in other countries. Apparently last week it wasn't possible to plan the build up of heavy industry in Russia, this week it was possible to build socialism in a single backward country! Yet this was only the first of many contradictions. Neither fact nor logic was allowed to stand in the way of the vilification of Trotsky.
The counter revolutionary theory of socialism in one country, an abortion conceived of a marriage between reaction and defeat, was advanced in 1924 in complete contradiction with every idea of Marx and Lenin. Even Stalin himself had written in February 1924, "can the final victory of socialism in one country be obtained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries. No, this is impossible." Without so much as a blush the same Stalin could write in November of the same year, "The party always took as its starting point...the victory of socialism in that country, and that task can be accomplished with the forces of a single country."
Socialism in one country represented the abandonment of internationalism. Internationalism was not, and is not, a secondary matter for Marxism. It was the precondition for socialism in Russia as Lenin had many times explained. Neither backward Russia nor any single country has the resources required for the construction of a higher form of society. The tools required for such economic, technical and cultural advance require the pooling and harmonious planning of the resources of the world economy. It now fell to Trotsky to defend this idea. This was the meaning of the permanent revolution. Having seized power, even in a backward country, the working class could not stop at the capitalist stage but would have to pass on to socialist tasks. To do that however it was necessary not to stop at national borders either. Socialism could not be built in any single country let alone a backward one. This was now turned on its head by the theoretical giants of the bureaucracy. Leaning on the exhaustion of the masses Stalin argued that socialism could be built in Russia alone so long as the working class of other countries prevented their ruling class from launching military attacks. From organs of revolutionary struggle the communist parties of other countries were to become the "Friends of the Soviet Union", border guards for the new bureaucracy. It did not require a long wait before this anti-Marxist doctrine was put to the test in the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27.
Even before the tragedy that was to follow in China the idea was exposed by the Anglo-Russian Committee (ARC). Initially intended to bring the left leaning leaders of the British trade unions under the influence of the leaders of the Soviet unions, the ARC was quickly transformed into a convenient red coloration for the TUC leaders, Purcell, Thomas and co, the betrayers of the 1926 General Strike. Trotsky demanded this bloc be ended. Zinoviev initially wavered, but in the end supported Trotsky's view. (For a time after his break with Stalin, Zinoviev formed a joint opposition with Trotsky.) Even when Purcell and co had sold the British working class down the river, Stalin clung on to them. This was the centrepiece of his diplomatic achievement and he would not let it go. When these same trade union leaders supported British imperialism attacking Nanking in 1927, they still didn't break from them. On the contrary it was the British union leaders who dropped their friends when they no longer had use for red colouring. Thus the General Strike of 1926 was not just an historic event in British history, but also in the life of the Russian party. Trotsky's writings on this period, Where is Britain Going? and Lessons of the General Strike in particular are extremely valuable reading for British workers today.
Meanwhile in China we get a glimpse of what would have happened in Russia in 1917 if Lenin had not been able to turn the party from its disastrous course in April-May 1917. The defeat of the Chinese Revolution (1925-27) was an historic tragedy which stained the banner of the Communist International with the blood of the Chinese workers. The Chinese workers were only prevented from taking power by the policy of Stalin, Bukharin and the leadership of the Comintern. The Menshevik line which they had adopted in 1917 before Lenin rearmed the party was now carried out in practice with disastrous consequences. They started with the conception that under the yoke of imperialist oppression all classes in China were suffering equally. The bourgeoisie was conducting a revolutionary war against this oppression and therefore all classes had to support them. A revolutionary anti-imperialist bloc was to be formed of four classes; the bourgeoisie, the petit bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the peasantry. And the leadership of this struggle belonged to the bourgeoisie and its party the Kuomintang. Stalin went so far as to propose the admission of the Kuomintang into the Communist International as a sympathising party, with only Trotsky voting against at the Politburo. These sympathisers proceeded to drown the Chinese workers in their own blood.
The class struggle inside China was to be liquidated in the interests of unity in the anti-imperialist struggle. This was the guiding idea of the leadership of the Communist International, and it resulted in the victory of bourgeois counter revolution and the massacre of the flower of the Chinese proletariat and peasantry by the very 'allies' which Stalin had chosen for them. In the same vein, in 1917 these 'leaders' had supported the Kerensky government. Had that position not been overturned as a result of Lenin's return and his struggle in the party, the Russian workers and peasants would, a decade earlier, have suffered the slaughter now dished out to their Chinese brothers and sisters.
What position did Trotsky and the Opposition defend? The struggle against imperialism was an important element of the democratic revolution in China, but not the only element. The solution of the land question would not be possible under the leadership of the bourgeoisie. The landowners, the financiers, the industrial capitalists and ultimately foreign capital were so intimately bound together that the democratic revolution could only be carried out against these forces. The only class in society capable of leading the poor masses in such a struggle was the working class. In this struggle the working class could rely only on their own forces and organisations which must preserve their independence form the bourgeoisie not subordinate themselves to their class enemy.
But this was permanent revolution. In opposition to Trotsky, the bureaucracy dragged the idea of the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" out of the dustbin into which Lenin had thrown it in 1917. Lenin's earlier algebraic formula was replaced in 1917 by the real experience of October, i.e. that the tasks of the democratic revolution could only be achieved by the working class taking power, supported by the poor masses of the peasantry. In the hands of the bureaucracy. Lenin's old formula, which had always meant that the workers and peasants together could make a revolution in Russia which would inspire socialist revolution in Europe, in turn creating the conditions to build socialism in Russia in a continuous process, was turned instead into the Menshevik idea of "stages". No surprise when you consider that it was Martynov, an old Menshevik who was in charge of policy on China. The stages theory, first a democratic revolution led by the national bourgeoisie, and then later a struggle for socialism, has cut the throats of revolutionary movements around the world from that day to this.
This distorted version of the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" was made into a noose around the necks of the Chinese workers in 1927.
The opposition gained support as a result but the Opposition could not rise on the defeat of the Chinese Revolution. Trotsky's analysis would attract thousands yes, but for the millions the decisive matter was not the forecast but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese working class. Allied with the defeat of the German workers in 1923 and the British General Strike, the new catastrophe in China could only serve to intensify the disappointment of the masses, and this was the fuel for Stalin and his campaign against Trotsky. Defeat fed the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy led to defeat. Cause became effect and effect became cause. Later, a qualitative change would take place with the Russian bureaucracy consciously acting to prevent revolution abroad to defend their positions at home.
The Opposition gained in authority and in number, but the defeat in China had to be covered up by defeating the defenders of the Chinese proletariat in Russia, i.e. Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Thus the campaign against Trotsky had to be raised to a new level.
At the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of October the Left Opposition participated with their own slogans: "Let us turn our fire to the right - against the kulak, the nepman, and the bureaucrat" and "Let us carry out Lenin's Will". None of these slogans were directed against the party, only those who were usurping it. The Left Opposition still believed it would be possible to reform the party, particularly on the basis of international revolution.
Nevertheless, they were accused of fomenting and organising a counter revolution. This was one of the most perverse accusations in history, that the leader of the October insurrection, the organiser of the Red Army should be accused of counter revolution. Yet such perversions were to become the norm during Stalin's reign.
The opposition was gaining strength. 20,000 or more attended Opposition meetings in Moscow and Leningrad. Zinoviev believed that the new joint opposition would easily win. It would be enough for Trotsky and Zinoviev to appear together on the same platform to unite the party, he thought. Trotsky was more sanguine. He was preparing for a long struggle.
The party had been drowned in previously non-political elements, its committees packed with placemen and yesmen, many of whom would themselves face torture and death at the hands of this regime in years to come.
On the eve of the 15th congress Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled. Zinoviev immediately capitulated. But his capitulation would not save him in the end. The Left Opposition maintained their principled stand. In the wake of the congress countless more were expelled, imprisoned and exiled.
Not content with trampling over the traditions of Bolshevism in order to finally defeat them Stalin had to go further and physically annihilate Trotsky and the living links with the leaders of the revolution. Through a policy of torture and murder Stalin drowned Bolshevism in blood. Anyone who advances the false assertion that Stalinism was the natural outgrowth of Leninism must first explain this riddle, why then was it necessary to defeat Bolshevism, to expel it, to persecute it, to annihilate it in order to secure power?
With the expulsions one phase of the reaction was complete. But not even driving Trotsky from the shores of Russia would be enough, Stalin had to wipe him from the face of the earth.
In the years following Lenin's death it was Trotsky, his collaborators and supporters who kept the ideas of Marxism, of Lenin and October alive. Despite all the crimes of Stalin they kept the banner of Bolshevism clean. The essence of Trotskyism consists in the defence of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, the application of those ideas, the struggle for workers democracy, and unwavering commitment to the cause of the international working class.
This was perhaps Trotsky's greatest contribution, to keep the flame of revolution alight for a new generation. For this he and his collaborators paid with their lives. It was a sacrifice Trotsky was prepared for:
"We will not hand this banner to the masters of falsification. If our generation has proven to be too weak to establish socialism on this earth, we will give its unstained banner to our children. The struggle which looms ahead by far supersedes the significance of individual people, factions and parties. It is a struggle for the future of all humanity. It will be severe. It will be long.
"Whoever seeks physical repose and spiritual comfort - let him step aside. During times of reaction it is easier to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But for all those for whom socialism is not an empty phrase but the content of their moral life - forward! Neither threats, nor persecution, nor violence will stop us. Perhaps it will be on our bones, but the truth will triumph. We are paving the way for it and the truth will be victorious. Under the terrible blows of fate I will feel as happy as during the best days of my youth if I can join you in facilitating its victory. For, my friends, the highest human happiness lies not in the exploitation of the present, but in the preparation of the future."
In 1907 the ebb of the 1905 revolution was followed by the reaction of Stolypin. Ten years later the workers of Russia, led by the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew thousand year old Tsarism and established the world's first workers state. Another decade later the isolation of the revolution, its ebb tide, saw the reaction expel Trotsky from the party and then the country, before eventually brutally murdering him. In ten years the whole of history can be transformed.
The world has changed dramatically in the last decade. The next ten years will see it transformed beyond recognition. The ideas of Trotskyism, the genuine ideas of Marxism, can again win a mass following preparing for the centenary of the Russian revolution by transforming the planet.