Q: You have said that the role of the individual in history should not be dismissed, but that what is decisive or predominant is not the personality of the protagonists. In that sense, did Trotsky and the Left Opposition have any alternative to avoid the consolidation of the bureaucracy in the State other than that which they defended?
Historical materialism teaches us to look beyond the individual players on the stage of history and look for deeper causes. This does not at all rule out the role of the individuals in history. In given moments the role of a single man or woman can be decisive. We can say with certainty that without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky (particularly the former) in 1917, the October Revolution would never have taken place.
However, individuals can only play such a role when all the other conditions are present. The concatenation of circumstances in 1917 enabled Lenin and Trotsky to play a decisive role. But the same men had been present for more than two decades before and were not able to play the same role. In the same way, when the Revolution ebbed, despite their colossal personal ability, Lenin and Trotsky were not able to prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution. This was caused by objective forces against which even the greatest leaders were powerless.
Accident often plays a role in history. If it had not been for his illness, Lenin would have attended the Congress and probably Stalin would have been removed. However, it is impossible to understand great historical processes in terms of individuals, “great men” etc. Marxism seeks to analyze history in terms of the development of the productive forces and the class relations that arise from this. Even if Lenin had succeeded in winning a majority in the Congress, it would have meant only a temporary delay in the ascent of the bureaucracy, which was rooted in objective conditions. In 1926 at a meeting of the United Opposition, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya said: “If Vladimir Ilyich were alive today he would be in one of Stalin’s prisons.”
Q: What would have been the effect in the Soviet Union of a revolutionary victory in Germany in 1923?
AW: The main cause of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state was the isolation of the revolution in conditions of extreme backwardness. Long ago Marx wrote in The German Ideology that where poverty is general “all the old crap revives”. By this he meant the evils of inequality, corruption, bureaucracy and privilege.
Lenin and Trotsky knew very well that the material conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. Before 1924 nobody questioned this elementary preposition. The Bolsheviks based themselves on the perspective of the extension of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, especially Germany. If the German revolution had succeeded – which it could have in 1923 – the entire situation in Russia would have been different.
On the basis of a socialist federation, uniting the colossal productive potential of Germany with the immense reserves of raw materials and manpower of Russia, the material conditions of the masses would have been transformed. Under such conditions the rise of the bureaucracy would have been halted, and the Stalin faction would not have been able to seize power. The morale of the Soviet working class would have been boosted and its faith in the world revolution restored.
We must remember that in the period 1923-9, the process of bureaucratic degeneration was by no means consolidated. This fact was reflected in the series of zigzags that characterised the policies of Stalin and his faction both in home and foreign policy throughout this period. In 1923-28, Stalin adopted a right wing policy, characterised by an adaptation to the kulaks (rich peasants) and nepmen (speculators) in Russia and an adaptation to the reformists and colonial bourgeoisie in foreign policy. This placed the Revolution in grave danger. Internally, it encouraged the kulaks and other bourgeois elements at the expense of the workers. Externally, it led the Communist International to one defeat after another.
It was not that Stalin consciously organized the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, or that of the Chinese Revolution in 1923-7. On the contrary, he desired the success of these revolutions. But the right wing opportunist policies that he had imposed on the Communist International in the name of Socialism in One Country guaranteed defeat in each case.
Dialectically, cause becomes effect and vice-versa. The isolation of the Russian Revolution was the ultimate cause of the rise of the bureaucracy and the Stalin faction. The false policies of the latter produced the defeat of the German and Chinese Revolutions (and other defeats in Estonia, Bulgaria, Britain etc.). These defeats confirmed the isolation of the Revolution and caused deep demoralisation of the Soviet workers, who lost all hope that the European workers would come to their aid.
This led to a consolidation of the bureaucracy and Stalinism, which was only the political expression of the material interests of the bureaucracy. This, in turn, led to further defeats of the international revolution (Germany, Spain), which prepared the ground for the Second World War that placed the USSR in extreme danger.
Q: What, in your view, were the successes and mistakes of the Left Opposition when it was still part of the Party?
In every struggle one can point to this or that mistake. But it would be wrong to attribute the defeat of the Left Opposition to errors of subjective judgement. As a matter of fact, Trotsky was proven to be correct on all the basic questions: on the German and Chinese Revolutions, on the kulak danger, on industrialisation and five year plans and so on. On the other hand, Stalin made colossal mistakes on every one of these issues. Yet Stalin defeated Trotsky and the Left Opposition. How can one explain this?
In 1923 Trotsky launched the Platform of the Opposition, based on a defence of the Leninist principles of workers’ democracy and proletarian internationalism. He began a struggle against bureaucratic tendencies in the state and Party. This was the beginning of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union and internationally. The struggle between the Left Opposition and the Stalin faction was at bottom a class struggle, which reflected the contradictory interests between the working class and the rising bureaucracy.
Trotsky tried to base himself on the working class, but the latter was exhausted by long years of war, revolution and civil war. Long hours of work in freezing factories, starvation wages and general privation took their toll. The Soviet workers fell into a state of apathy. They no longer participated in the Soviets, which became inexorably bureaucratised. With every step back of the world revolution, the workers became more disillusioned and disoriented and the new caste of Soviet bureaucrats became more confident and insolent.
The reason why Stalin triumphed was not because of any mistakes of the Opposition, as superficial bourgeois historians imagine, but because of the broader context of the class relations in Soviet society. I will cite just one instance to underline this point. In 1927, after the defeat of the Chinese Revolution, some students who supported the Opposition came to Trotsky, arguing that, since everybody could see that the Trotsky had been proven to be correct, they would now win the majority of the Party. Trotsky disagreed. He pointed out to them that for the Soviet workers, the objective consequences of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution were far more important than who had been right or wrong in perspectives.
As a matter fact, Trotsky knew that the Opposition could not succeed. The unfavourable objective situation doomed them to defeat. So why did he continue to fight? Why did he not capitulate to Stalin, as Zinoviev, Kamenev and Radek did? The answer is that he was trying to establish the ideas, programme and tradition for the future generations of Communists in the USSR and internationally. He was the only one to do so, despite the most frightful persecution that claimed the lives of most of his comrades, friends and family.
In the midst of the most frightful betrayals, defeats, demoralization and apostasy, Trotsky raised a clean banner, defended the genuine traditions of Leninism, October and the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky therefore succeeded in his aim. That was no small achievement! Who now remembers the writings of Zinoviev and Kamenev? But in the writings of Leon Trotsky we have a priceless heritage that retains all its importance, relevance and vitality, especially after the collapse of the USSR – the inevitable consequence of the crimes of Stalinism. They represent the authentic banner of Bolshevism and the October Revolution – the only hope for the future of humanity.
Read part one here.
- 90 Years Since Red October: Remembering the Russian Revolution by Dmitry Davydov (November 7, 2007)
- In Defence Of October by Leon Trotsky in 1932
- Ted Grant: In Defence of Trotskyism by Ted Grant in 1988
- Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution by Ted Grant (1997)
- The Meaning of October by Alan Woods (November 1992)
- Russian revolution: 50 Years after by Ted Grant (November 1967)