[Book] Lenin and Trotsky - What they really stood for

2. From the History of Bolshevism (Part One)

“When the Trotskyists present Trotsky as the comrade-in-arms of Lenin and the true representative of Leninism after his death, it is important to be aware that in fact Trotsky only worked with Lenin in the Bolshevik Party for six years (1917-23).” (Cogito, p. 4)

The arithmetic of Johnstone’s argument seems impeccable. But let us also see what those six years represented. The period includes the October Revolution in which Trotsky “played a role second to Lenin”, the civil war, when Trotsky was Commissar for War (a post he held until 1925) and when he was responsible for the creation of the Red Army from almost nothing, the building of the Third International, for the first five congresses of which Trotsky wrote the Manifestos and many of the most important policy statements; the period of economic reconstruction in which Trotsky reorganised the shattered railway systems of the USSR. These are just a few of the petty jobs which Trotsky accomplished in his brief sojourn in the Bolshevik Party.

Monty Johnstone, however, is quite unabashed by such trivia. He prefers to dwell upon the much more interesting period from 1903-1917 (thirteen or fourteen years, no less…) in which Trotsky found himself (“not accidentally…”) outside the Bolshevik Party. What Monty Johnstone does not make clear is that the Bolshevik Party itself was not formed in 1903 but in 1912. Up until that time, both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks regarded themselves as two wings of one party – the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. By ambiguous wording and the omission of dates from various quotations, Johnstone gives the impression that the Bolshevik Party in 1903 sprang completely formed and armed on to the stage of history, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. On page six of his article Comrade Johnstone talks about the Bolshevik-Menshevik split of 1912 when “the Bolsheviks finally split from the Mensheviks and formed their own independent party. However, on the preceding page he writes that:

“In 1904 he [Trotsky] left the Mensheviks and, though continuing to write for their press and even having occasion to act abroad on their behalf, was to remain from then till 1917 formally outside both parties.” (Cogito, p. 5, our emphasis)

The reader scratches his head in bewilderment. How could Trotsky be “formally outside both parties” from 1904 to 1912? We shall deal with this period later and show the reasons for Comrade Johnstone’s strange reticence.

“The basis for this antagonism was Trotsky’s violent opposition to Lenin’s struggle to build up a stable, centralised and disciplined Marxist Party. When at the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party a split took place between the Bolsheviks … who favoured such a Party, and the Mensheviks … who wanted a much looser form of organisation. Trotsky sided with the latter…” (Cogito, p. 4)

This formulation of Johnstone’s constitutes a gross distortion of the history of Bolshevism. The split at the London Congress of 1903 did not take place, as Johnstone asserts, on the question of a “stable, centralised and disciplined Marxist Party”, but on the question of the composition of the central bodies of the Party and on one clause in the Party Rules. The differences only emerged during the twenty-second session. Prior to that, on every single political and tactical question, there was no disagreement between Lenin and Martov’s “Minority”.

Johnstone’s presentation of the differences as a clear cut split between Bolshevik “centralisers” and Menshevik “anti-centralisers” is a sheer fabrication, which has its origin in the slanders directed against the Bolsheviks by the Mensheviks after the Congress. On the famous clause on the Party Rules, Lenin himself remarked:

“I would willingly respond to this appeal [i.e. for an agreement with the “Mensheviks”] for I by no means consider our differences so vital as to be a matter of life or death to the Party. We shall certainly not perish because of an unfortunate clause in the Rules!”[1]

After the Congress, when Martov and his supporters refused to participate in the work of the Iskra editorial board, Lenin wrote:

“Examining the behaviour of the Martovites since the Congress, their refusal to collaborate on the Central Organ … their refusal to work on the Central Committee, add their propaganda of a boycott – all I can say is that this is an insensate attempt, unworthy of Party members, to disrupt the Party – and why? Only because they are dissatisfied with the composition of the central bodies; for speaking objectively, it was only over this that our ways parted…” (Lenin, Works, vol. 7, p. 34)

Time after time Lenin emphasised that between himself and the Martovite “minority” there were no differences of principle, no differences so important as to cause a split. Thus, when Plekhanov went over to Martov, Lenin wrote:

“Let me say, first, of all, that I think the author of the article [Plekhanov] is a thousand times right when he insists that it is essential to safeguard the unity of the Party and avoid new splits – especially over differences which cannot be considered to be important. To appeal to peaceableness, mildness and readiness to make concessions is highly praiseworthy in a leader at all times, and at the present moment in particular.” (ibid., p. 115)

And Lenin goes on to oppose expulsions of groups from the Party, advocates the opening of the Party press, for the airing of differences:

“to enable these grouplets to speak out and give the whole Party the opportunity to weigh the importance or unimportance of these differences and determine just where, how and on whose part inconsistency is shown”. (ibid., p. 116)

Such was always the approach of Lenin to the question of differences within the Party: a willingness to discuss, flexibility, tolerance, and above all, scrupulous honesty towards his opponents. The same, alas, can hardly be said of the leaders of the “Communist” Party today!

Monty Johnstone deliberately sets out to create a false impression about the split between the two wings of Russian Social Democracy at the Second Congress. To do this, he picks out quotations from Lenin’s Selected Works (The old Stalinist twelve volume edition), which omits most of the material on this and other questions. Why did Comrade Johnstone not refer to the complete Moscow edition? Is this beyond the resources of King Street? Or was it just in order to impress the average Young Communist Leaguer who might not have the time or opportunity to check the originals? Comrade Johnstone, here and elsewhere in his work, has shown himself to be a tireless researcher when it comes to cutting isolated phrases and sentences from One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. But a mere glance through the relevant volumes of Lenin’s Collected Works reveal the utter falsehood of Johnstone’s presentation. Thus on page 474 of Lenin’s Works (vol. 7), we read:

“Comrade Luxemburg says … that my book [i.e. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back] is a clear and detailed expression of the point of view of ‘intransigent centralism’. Comrade Luxemburg thus supposes that I defend one system of organisation against another. But actually that is not so. From the first to the last page of my book, I defend the elementary principles of any conceivable system of Party organisation. My book is not concerned with the divergences between one system of organisation and another, but with how any system is to be maintained, criticised, and rectified in a manner consistent with the Party idea.”

In reality, the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism were not at all clear in 1903, although the discussion revealed certain tendencies of conciliationism among the Mensheviks, or “softs” as they were known. The two tendencies only crystallised subsequently, under the impact of events, and even then did not reach the point of a final break until 1912. Far from the period of Monty Johnstone’s famous “thirteen or fourteen years” consisting of a clear separation of two political Parties, right up until 1912, the history of Bolshevism was the history of numerous and repeated attempts to unite the Party on a principled basis. Furthermore, the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks were not confined, as one would suppose from reading Monty Johnstone, to the question of Party organisation, but involved every basic political question arising from the analysis of the nature of the Russian Revolution itself.

Insofar as Monty Johnstone attempts to establish differences, he falls far short of the mark. With astounding self-assurance he takes Trotsky to task for his criticism of the idea, expressed in Lenin’s What is to be Done?, that the working class, left to itself, was only capable of producing “a trade union consciousness”, i.e. consciousness of the need to struggle for economic demands under capitalism. Monty Johnstone like the Communist Party leaders is apparently unaware that Lenin himself later repudiated this early formulation, which was an exaggeration that arose from his polemic against the Economists, a tendency which wished to confine the workers struggle to the level of purely economic demands. Referring to this Lenin explained that “the Economists bent the stick one way. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it the other way.” Lenin was far from the view, found amongst the Stalinists, that the working class consists of so much putty to be moulded by the “intellectual” leadership as it pleases.

What is the purpose behind Monty Johnstone’s distortion of the history of Bolshevism? The answer is clear from the rest of his work. Johnstone wishes to perpetuate the Stalinist myth of the monolithic Bolshevik Party, which had a separate existence right from its inception in 1903. Having established this, he can then place Trotsky firmly “outside” the Party as an undisciplined, if talented, intellectual. The stage is then set to move on to the main distortion – to establish “Trotskyism” as an alien and distinct political ideology, hostile to Leninism.

It is true that at the 1903 Congress, Trotsky found himself in the camp of Lenin’s opponents. It is also true that Plekhanov, the future social-patriot, stood together with Lenin. The fact was that the differences caught everyone by surprise, including Lenin himself, who at first did not grasp their significance. The real point at issue at the Second Congress was the transition from a small propaganda sect to a real Party, and on this question Lenin undoubtedly held a correct position. In later years Trotsky, who was always honest in relation to his mistakes, admitted his error without reservation, and stated that Lenin had always been right on this question. Monty Johnstone, quotes Trotsky’s admission, while asserting elsewhere that Trotsky was always unwilling to admit his past mistakes!

But Johnstone is doubly incorrect when he portrays the matter as though Trotsky alone misunderstood the position of Lenin. In fact the split in 1903 and even after was widely seen by Party activists in Russia as a mere émigré squabble of no practical importance, or to cite Stalin’s inimitable phrase “a storm in a tea cup”. Let us quote a typical passage from a work which Comrade Johnstone is also fond of citing. Lunacharsky’s Revolutionary Silhouettes:

“…the news of the split hit us like a bolt from the blue. We knew that the Second Congress was to witness the concluding moves in the struggle with Workers Cause (The Economists), but that the schism should take a course which was to put Martov and Lenin in opposing camps and that Plekhanov was to ‘split off’ midway between the two – none as this so much as entered our heads.

“The first clause of the Party Statute … was this really something that justified a split? A reshuffle of jobs on the editorial board – what’s the matter with those people abroad, have they gone mad?” (page 36)

Lenin’s correspondence of this period indicates that the majority of the Party did not understand the split and were opposed to it. Only Monty Johnstone, sixty-five years later can see all the issues as clear as crystal. On the question of the Second Congress, he is not the equal, but the superior of Lenin himself! From the lofty heights of the Second Volume of his Selected Works, Monty Johnstone passes a damning verdict on Trotsky, who, “by sleight of hand … changed the date of the emergence of Bolshevism and Menshevism as separate tendencies from 1903 to 1904 in order that he could present himself as never having belonged to the Mensheviks, adding that his line had ‘coincided in every fundamental way’ with Lenin’s.”

To begin with, the reader should note that in the adjacent sentence, Johnstone states that from 1904 to 1917, Trotsky “remained formally outside both Parties”, thus, “by sleight of hand”, changed the date of the emergence of Bolshevism, not as a tendency, but as a Parry, from 1912 to 1904!

What is the meaning of Trotsky’s statement that his line had coincided with Lenin’s on all fundamental questions? The reader of Monty Johnstone’s “highly selective potted history” of Bolshevism must be mystified by such a statement. His mystification however, cannot be attributed to Trotsky, but to Monty Johnstone, who deliberately quotes out of context in order to imply that Trotsky’s account of his relations with Lenin is distorted. The distortion is entirely on the side of Comrade Johnstone, who, as we shall show, hides from the reader the real political differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism, to which Trotsky refers in the above quotation.

We have already shown the utter worthlessness of Johnstone’s account of the 1903 London Congress. His assertion that Bolshevism and Menshevism emerged as separate tendencies in a political sense in 1903 is without foundation. If that is true, then Lenin himself was guilty of the arch-Trotskyist sin of conciliationism in his repeated attempts to get the Mensheviks to co-operate in the running of the Party for months after the Congress. Only late in 1904 did Lenin admit the existence of two tendencies in the Party, and set up a Bureau of Majority (Bolshevik) Committees.

The crucial difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism – the attitude to the liberal bourgeoisie – only came to the fore in 1904. It was this political question, and not any squabble over the Party Rules that determined the evolution of the two tendencies in the direction of an irrevocable split, and led to the final transition of Menshevism to the side of the White Armies in 1918. It was precisely on this question that Trotsky broke with the Mensheviks in 1904. But Comrade Johnstone is silent on this. We shall see the reason for his silence in a later section of this work.


[1] Vtoroy S’yezd RSDRP Protokoly, p. 275.

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