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

6. The Rise of Stalinism

Monty Johnstone does not waste his reader’s time by introducing into his “balanced estimate” of Trotsky’s career any details of the key role which he admits Trotsky played in the Civil War, to which he devotes one paragraph. Perhaps it would have prejudiced the reader’s sense of objectivity to discover, for instance, that Lenin provided Trotsky during the Civil War with blank sheets of paper to which Lenin’s signature was appended, authorising any action which the “revolutionary phrasemonger” saw fit to take!

Glossing over the little episode of the Civil War, Johnstone refers us to his old friend Isaac Deutscher, in whose Prophet Armed the story is “stirringly told” of “both Trotsky’s mistakes (sometimes serious) and of his achievements (which much out-weighed them)” And that is clearly the reason why Monty Johnstone is not over-anxious to dwell on the Civil War. Having spent the first half of his work trying to paint a picture of Trotsky as a petty-bourgeois individualist, devoid of organisational abilities, he goes on, without the least hint of embarrassment, to quote the words of Gorky:

“Show me another man”, he (Lenin) said, thumping the table “capable of organising in a year an almost exemplary army and moreover of winning the esteem of the military specialists.” (Cogito, p. 17)

Fearing lest the “balance” of this estimate should be upset by all this, Monty Johnstone hastens to add another quotation from Gorky where Lenin is supposed to have said of Trotsky:

“He isn’t one of us. With us, but not of us. He is ambitious. There is something of Lassalle in him, something which isn’t good.”(Cogito, p. 17)

Monty Johnstone’s scrupulous use of quotations has already been commented on. This is another good example. The second quotation does not occur anywhere in the original edition of Gorky’s Reminiscences of Lenin, written in 1924. At that early date it would not have been possible to insert so blatant a falsehood. But Gorky was obliged to rewrite his memoirs in 1930. On Stalin’s orders, parts of Gorky’s memory faded, while other “memories” made their first appearance: among them, the particular piece of falsification quoted by Monty Johnstone. And since Comrade Johnstone is interested in Gorky’s report of Lenin’s attitude to Trotsky, let us throw in another piece from the genuine, original memoirs where Lenin attacks the slanderers who attempted to drive a wedge between him and Trotsky: “Yes, yes, I know they lie a lot about my relations with him.”

The Trade Union Controversy

“In the first big Party discussion after the Revolution involving the problem of bureaucracy, Trotsky clashed head on with the majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Lenin strongly criticised his policy of bureaucratically nagging the Trade Unions as expressing ‘the worst in military experience’ and containing ‘a number of errors that are connected with the very essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat’.” (Cogito, p. 19)

Once again, the reader should note Monty Johnstone’s method of “analysis”, which consists purely and simply of taking isolated snippets of quotations, torn from their contexts, with no indication of the background, of the arguments themselves, or even of the dates! Marxists, beginning with Marx, have always insisted upon such small things as dates, accurate and full quotations, theoretical analysis, and the rest. Only by a scrupulously honest approach can historical questions be explained.

The trade union dispute was one episode in the whole crisis of the political and economic mode of organisation known as War Communism, and cannot be understood apart from this question. Lenin described War Communism as “communism in a besieged fortress”. This system, based upon strict centralisation and the introduction of quasi-military measures into all fields of life, flowed from the difficulties of the revolution isolated in a backward, war-shattered country, under conditions of civil war and foreign intervention. Yet Monty Johnstone poses the question as if Trotsky alone held the position of “militarisation of labour”. The first years of Soviet power were characterised by acute economic difficulties, partly the result of war and civil war, partly as a result of the shortage of both materials and skilled manpower, and partly of the opposition of the peasant small property owners to the socialist measures of the Bolsheviks.

In 1920, the production of iron ore and cast iron fell to 1.6% and 2.4% of their 1913 levels. The best record was for oil, which stood at 41% of its 1913 level. Coal attained 17%. The general production of fully manufactured goods in 1920 stood at 12.9% of their 1913 value. Agricultural production dropped in two years (1917-19) by 16%, the heaviest losses being sustained by those products exported from the villages to the town: hemp fell by 26%, flax by 32%, fodder by 40%. The conditions of civil war, together with the chronic inflation of the period, brought trade between town and countryside to a virtual standstill.

The ghastly conditions of the workers in the towns led to a mass exodus from industry to the land. By 1919 the number of industrial workers declined to 76% of the 1917 level, while that of building workers fell to 66%, railway workers to 63%. By 1920, the figure for industrial workers generally fell from three millions in 1917 to 1,240,000 – i.e. to less than half. In two years the working class population of Petrograd was halved. Even these figures do not convey the full extent of the catastrophe since they leave out of account the decline in labour productivity of those ragged half-starved workers who remained in the factories.

Even more serious than the economic consequences, from the Bolshevik point of view, was the rapid erosion of the class basis of the Revolution which Rudzutak graphically described at the second all-Russian Congress of trade unions in January 1919:

“We observe in a large number of industrial centres that the workers, thanks to the contraction of production in the factories, are being absorbed in the peasant mass, and instead of a population of workers we are getting a half peasant or sometimes purely peasant population.”

In order to put a stop to this catastrophic decline, drastic measures were introduced to get industry moving, to feed the hungry workers and to end the drift from town to country. That was the essential meaning of “War Communism”. The Seventh Party Congress in March 1918 called for “the most energetic, unsparingly decisive, draconian measures to raise the self-discipline and discipline of the workers and peasants.” To the complaints of the Mensheviks, Lenin replied that:

“We should be ridiculous utopians if we imagined that such a task could be carried out on the day after the fall of the bourgeoisie, i.e. in the first stage of transition from capitalism to socialism, or without compulsion.”

The arguments of the Mensheviks and the “lefts” based upon a caricature of bourgeois arguments about the “freedom of labour” reflected the growing mood of disenchantment with the dictatorship of the proletariat among the backward and petty-bourgeois strata, especially the peasantry who bore the brunt of the policy of War Communism.

Lenin had seen as early as 1905, that the peasantry would support the Revolution insofar as it gave them land, but that the rich strata would inevitably pass over to the opposition as soon as the revolution began to attack the foundations of private property. A dangerous situation would be created if the revolution remained isolated. The proletariat was a tiny minority in a sea of peasant small-property owners. Without a steady supply of raw materials and food from the villages, industry would grind to a halt. But, given the shattered condition of industry, there was no possibility of immediately establishing conditions of healthy exchange between town and country, of providing the peasantry with the manufactured goods it demanded in exchange for its products. At the Ninth Party Congress Lenin put the matter in a nutshell:

“If we could tomorrow give 100,000 first-class tractors, supply them with benzene, supply them mechanics (you know well that for the present this is a fantasy), the middle peasant would say: ‘I am for Communism’. But in order to do this, it is first necessary to conquer the international bourgeoisie, to compel it to give us these tractors.”

Lenin explained time and again that the only real solution to the problems facing the revolution was the victory of the socialist revolution in one or more of the advanced countries. In the meantime, the economic crisis had to be tackled by drastic measures. Even after the Civil War, Lenin made a speech at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1920 where he explained that “In a country of small peasants, it is our chief and fundamental task to discover how to achieve state compulsion in order to raise peasant production.” (our emphasis)

To arrest the flow of workers from town to country, draconian measures were introduced against “labour desertions”. In 1920, a worker at the Kolomesky works told the visiting British Labour delegation that “desertions from the works were frequent and that deserters were arrested by soldiers and brought back from the villages.” An official decree, passed after the Ninth Party Congress (March 1920) prescribed severe punishment for “labour desertion” up to and including hard labour. Labour was put on a military footing. “War Communism” meant the “militarisation of labour”, for a temporary period.

Those who lump together Lenin and Trotsky with the regime of Stalin and his heirs, by using the arguments of Kautsky and the Mensheviks about the “regime of coercion”, ignore the differences of time, place, methods and conditions. Even in the most democratic of bourgeois states, such as Britain, under wartime conditions measures were taken prohibiting the free movement of labour, changing of jobs, etc. as “exceptional” measures. The Bolsheviks were faced with Civil War, following hard upon four years of a disastrous imperialist war. The country was ruined by the depredations of the White Guards and the armies of intervention. Under such conditions drastic measures were absolutely necessary. But as always with Lenin and Trotsky freedom of discussion and criticism by the workers and peasants, especially within the Bolshevik Party itself, was safeguarded. Even in capitalist Britain, during the War, the workers were prepared to accept “exceptional” measures, which they thought were necessary for the defence of their rights. In Russia, with a workers’ and peasants’ government, the workers were prepared to accept temporarily the harsh measures which were necessary to preserve the Revolution.

Trotsky – an “Arch-bureaucrat”?

Monty Johnstone is uncomfortably aware of the fact that, after Lenin’s death, the struggle against bureaucratic degeneration and Stalinism was led by Trotsky and the Left Opposition. He is therefore at pains to make out a “case” that Trotsky himself was an “arch-bureaucrat”, the enemy of workers’ democracy and free Trade Unions. He creates the utterly false impression that the “militarisation of labour” was the standpoint of Trotsky alone and, by dint of his customary impressionism, hints that Trotsky carried through “his” policies against the majority of the Central Committee! Just how this feat was accomplished, Comrade Johnstone does not explain. He cannot do so because it is a plain lie.

On January 15, 1920, a government decree transformed the Army of the Urals into the first “revolutionary army of labour”. A later decree entrusted to the revolutionary council of the first labour army the “general direction of the work of restoring and strengthening the normal economic and military life in the Urals”. Similar powers were granted to the council of the labour armies of the Caucasus and the Ukraine. An army was sent to assist in the construction of a railway in Turkestan, another worked the Donetz coal mines. While Red soldiers helped in the running of industry, those workers who were not called up for military service were conscripted for the “Front of Labour” as explained above.

Was all this the work of the arch-bureaucrat Trotsky? On January 12, 1920, Lenin and Trotsky spoke on a joint platform to a meeting of Bolshevik trade union leaders. The object of the meeting was to persuade them to accept the policy of “militarisation of labour”. The motion of acceptance, tabled in the names of Lenin and Trotsky, was defeated, with only two votes cast in favour – those of Lenin and Trotsky. Imagine such an incident occurring in the time of Stalin or today!

This incident was not isolated. On every one of the main economic and political questions at this time, Lenin and Trotsky were in complete agreement. On the controversial question of employment of bourgeois specialists in the army and industry, Lenin and Trotsky fought a hard battle to get their proposals accepted by the rest of the Bolshevik Party leadership. Similarly, on the issue of one-man management and the agrarian policy, there was complete identity of views. On all of this, Monty Johnstone keeps mum. Such information would only upset the “balance” of his analysis.

Once again, the Trade Union Controversy

“In 1920 in addition to his job as Commissar for War, he [Trotsky] had taken over the Department of Transport, of vital economic and military importance. Placing the railwaymen and the workers in the railway repair workshops under martial law, he met the objections of the railwaymen’s union by dismissing its leaders and appointing others more compliant in their place. He did the same with other transport workers’ unions His efforts brought results: the railways were restored ahead of schedule.” (Cogito, p. 19)

By means of precisely that innuendo which was supposed not to feature in his work, Johnstone tries to create an impression of Trotsky, the arch bureaucrat, “taking over” the railways at gunpoint and, on his own initiative, bulldozing the workers in true Stalinist fashion. What are the facts?

The destruction of Russia’s vast railway networks was one of the most crippling blows to the economy dealt by the Civil War. Of 70,000 versts[1] of track, only 15,000 escaped damage. More than 60% of the locomotives were out of order. The dislocation of the economy caused by the breakdown of communications reached crisis point in 1920, when, unless drastic action was taken, the whole of Russian industry would suffer an irreversible catastrophe. Coming at the height of the Polish War, this meant that the fate of the revolution was in the balance.

The Ninth Party Congress, in a special resolution, declared that the main problem in overcoming the crisis on the railways was the railwaymen’s union. This was an old craft union, traditionally Menshevik, which had already clashed with the Bolshevik government on the question of control of the railways. The Ninth Party Congress, which placed Trotsky in charge of the work of restoring the railways, also empowered him to draft into the union a body of able and loyal workers, to prod it into action. When the officials of the union refused to submit to the new regulations, not Trotsky, but the Central Committee of the Party decided to replace the old officials with a new committee composed of dedicated communists: only one vote was cast against, that of the “Right” Communist and Trade Union leader, Tomsky. The rest, including Lenin, Zinoviev and Stalin, all voted in favour.

Johnstone portrays Trotsky as the “evil genius” behind the “militarisation of labour” and War Communism. He conveniently forgets that Trotsky was the first of the Bolshevik leaders to advocate the abandonment of War Communism, as early as February, 1920. At that time, Trotsky submitted to the Central Committee a set of theses which pointed to the continued disruption of the economy, the weakening of the proletariat, and the widening gulf between town and country. He advocated the replacement of forced requisition of grain by a grain tax, and measures aimed at the partial restoration of the shattered market economy. In essence, these policies were subsequently adopted under the New Economic Policy.

Trotsky’s proposals, which were opposed by Lenin, were defeated in the Central Committee, which favoured the continuation of the policies of War Communism. Accepting that the “war” methods would have to be continued for a further period, against his own point of view, Trotsky endeavoured to make the system work as well as possible. It is for this crime that Trotsky is once again pilloried by Monty Johnstone who “acts dumb” about Trotsky’s opposition to the basis of War Communism itself.

Johnstone paints a portrait of Trotsky as the dictatorial “arch-bureaucrat” on the strength of a few extracts of a speech in which Trotsky criticised the liberal idealisation of “free labour” in the abstract, and pointed out that non-free labour could also be productive. The remark that chattel-slavery, in its day, had been progressive, indisputable from a Marxist point of view, is taken out of context and given a sinister twist by Monty Johnstone (following in the footsteps of Deutscher). Alas! The speech which Comrade Johnstone so eagerly snatches from Deutscher’s ever-open palm was made, not at the Tenth Party Congress, but at the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, where Trotsky, as the spokesman for the Bolsheviks, was speaking, not against Lenin, but against the Mensheviks, whose tearful pleas for the “freedom of labour” Monty Johnstone now repeats so touchingly.

The Mensheviks, in order to discredit the Bolshevik government, used the measures which had been forced on the Soviet Republic by the conditions of Civil War and intervention in a thoroughly dishonest and unscrupulous way. Their arguments were a caricature so far as “democracy” and “free labour” were concerned. The Bolsheviks stood for the most complete freedom – even including freedom for bourgeois parties – provided they did not attempt armed rebellion against the Soviet power. But under the circumstances when the “liberal” bourgeoisie had fled to the camp of the White Armies, such talk amounted to the demand that the Revolution should not defend itself against White reaction. The alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat was not, as the Mensheviks claimed, some kind of Weimar democracy. but the bloody rule of reaction. The Social-Democratic critics of Bolshevism were the sort of people who were quite prepared to act as accomplices of Imperialism in the bloody and obscene world war, but who threw up their hands in horror at the “ruthless” measures of Lenin and Trotsky. Yet it was their betrayal of the revolutionary movements of 1917-21 that paved the way for the rise of Nazism and a new and even more barbaric world war.

The differences among the Bolsheviks on the trade unions were not, as one would suppose from the vulgar portrait painted by Monty Johnstone, between the “arch-bureaucrat” Trotsky and Lenin the defender of “free labour”, but an expression of the crisis in the Party brought about by the impasse of War Communism. The original differences, as Lenin explained, were inconsequential. But small frictions in the leadership, under the given conditions, led to a series of divisions in the Party, with not two platforms, but five at least being put forward.

Lenin’s prime consideration at this time was to prevent a split in the leadership and to preserve the tenuous thread binding the proletariat and its vanguard to the non-proletarian and semi-proletarian masses. Under the prevailing conditions of economic crisis, of mass illiteracy, of a numerically weakened and increasingly demoralised working class, and above all, of the crushing preponderance of the petty-bourgeois peasant masses, the Bolshevik Party was increasingly coming under the pressure of alien class forces. The fact that the Bolsheviks had been forced, contrary to their intentions, to illegalise the opposition parties, meant that these pressures would inevitably seek to find expression through the Bolshevik Party itself. What Lenin feared most was a split in the Party along class lines. This lay at the basis of Lenin’s opposition to Trotsky’s original proposal to “shake up” the union officials and bring them into line with central planning, which caused friction with the Trade Union leader Tomsky.

Monty Johnstone begins his account of the trade union controversy with a quote from Lenin’s article The Party Crisis. Lenin had attempted to keep the differences within the leadership by setting up a commission to investigate the trade unions. In the course of the Central Committee discussion, Lenin, in his own words made a number of obviously exaggerated and therefore mistaken “attacks” which sharpened the conflict. Trotsky had refused to join the commission. Monty Johnstone quotes Lenin’s words of censure:

“This step alone causes Comrade Trotsky’s original mistake to become magnified and later to lead to factionalism.”

But this is one of Comrade Johnstone’s half quotes. Let us see what Lenin adds in the very next sentence:

“Without this step, his mistake (in submitting incorrect theses) remained a very minor one such as every member of the Central Committee, without exception, has had occasion to make.” (Works, vol. 32, p. 45)

Monty Johnstone’s readers are allowed to read only as much of Lenin as he considers good for their health. By quoting only polemical rejoinders, Monty Johnstone “helps” Lenin by “sharpening” his struggle against Trotsky for him. Elsewhere in this section he repeatedly presents as the standpoint of Trotsky arguments which were consistently advanced and defended by Lenin and all the leaders of Bolshevism. Paraphrasing and “improving” Trotsky’s arguments, Johnstone writes:

“Russia, he [Trotsky] argued repeatedly, suffered not from the excess but from the lack of efficient bureaucracy, [?] to which he [?] favoured giving certain limited concessions. Reporting this, Deutscher comments: ‘He thus makes himself the spokesman of the managerial groups.’” (Cogito, p. 20)

Johnstone’s invocation of the shade of Deutscher does not add the least odour of sanctity to his arguments. Anyone who has read Deutscher will know that he attacks not only the “dictatorial” ideas of Trotsky, but also of Lenin, and in fact does not distinguish between the two. His philistine appraisal of Trotsky is the identical twin of his views on Lenin, and on revolutionaries in general.

The arguments which Monty Johnstone puts in the mouth of Trotsky correspond exactly to the views advanced hundreds of times by Lenin on the need for efficiency, for business-like management, for specialists to whom Lenin “favoured giving certain limited concessions”, not the outrageous “concessions” extracted by the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracies in Russia and Eastern Europe today, but simply and solely to get the shattered economy moving again, to enable the revolution to survive until the revolutionary proletariat of Europe could come to its assistance. Once again, Johnstone presents as “Trotskyism” the ideas of Lenin, of the Bolshevik Party, of Marxism itself. But this merely underlines the profound gulf which separates all the ideologists of Stalinism from the ideas and traditions of Bolshevism. Bending the arguments, Johnstone puts Lenin’s words in the mouth of Trotsky; and on the lips of Lenin, the arguments of those true defenders of the caricatures of free labour – the Mensheviks.

Lenin on the Trade Unions

“In practice, said Lenin, the Soviet state was ‘a workers state with bureaucratic distortions’. For a long time, he argued, the trade unions would need to ‘struggle against the bureaucratic distortions of the Soviet apparatus’, and for ‘the protection of the material and spiritual interests of the masses of the toilers by the ways and means that this apparatus cannot employ’.” (Cogito, p. 21)

What is the meaning of this quotation? Not that Lenin differed from Trotsky in the estimation of the state apparatus and its bureaucratic deformations. The point at issue was the immediate policy to be adopted if the system of War Communism was to be maintained. However, what is really interesting and significant is the fact that throughout this entire section of his work, Monty Johnstone does not make clear a single one of Lenin’s arguments on the trade union question. And this is no accident.

Lenin argued, dialectically, that the trade unions in a workers’ state must be independent, in order that the working class can defend itself against the state, and in turn defend the workers’ state itself. Lenin was emphatic on this point because he saw the danger of the state raising itself above the class and separating itself from it. The workers, by themselves through their organisations, could exercise a check on the state apparatus and on the bureaucracy.

It is ironical to read Johnstone’s strictures on Trotsky’s alleged “bureaucratic tendencies”, in the light of what happened to the “independence of the trade unions” in Russia under Stalin and the position today. Evidently, when Trotsky was “in power” he was a bureaucrat; when Stalin was in power, he, regrettably also succumbed to the “Cult of Personality”. It is all a question of “personalities”! This is the method, not of Marxism, but of the middle-class vulgarians, who see politics in terms of individuals who “sell out” as soon as they come to power. And yet, despite this highly “critical” approach Monty Johnstone’s critical faculties evaporate into thin air as soon as we reach the famous “Twentieth Congress”:

“Trotsky is presented by his supporters [!] as the champion of the struggle against bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. Since during the last seventeen years of his life Trotsky was tireless in his denunciation of many aspects [?] of Stalin’s bureaucratic regime that the Soviet Communist Party was to unmask [?] in 1956, the Trotskyist claim appears plausible. However, as we shall see the truth is considerably more complex.” (Cogito, p. 19)

Indeed, the truth is “considerably more complex”! What sort of “unmasking” was performed by Khruschev and Co. in 1956? That Stalin was a tyrant, a slayer, a mass murderer, a madman, etc? That Khruschev, Brezhnev, Kosygin and the others all stood trembling in their shoes before the dictatorship (as the Soviet “Communist” Party apparently only “discovered” in 1956!) but for Marxists the problem only begins there. What is more important are the social relations which could produce such a monstrosity. And the vital question in relation to the Twentieth Congress is: What has changed since 1956?

As early as 1920, Lenin saw the processes which were taking place in the Soviet state apparatus. All his material on the Trade Union question, which is not dealt with by Monty Johnstone, is concerned with the idea of the workers and their organisations as a check on the bureaucracy, its accumulative tendencies, corruption, waste, and mismanagement. Lenin saw the development of a healthy workers democracy and of the gradual withering away of the state as indispensable for the movement towards socialism.

For Monty Johnstone, to judge from his boundless admiration of Khruschev’s “unmasking” activities, Russia and Eastern Europe are now healthy socialist countries, busily eliminating all traces of bureaucratism, cult of personality, and Stalinism generally – with the exception of a number of “regrettable” (and, apparently, inexplicable) incidents such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the frame-up trials of the writers, which, evidently bear no relation at all to the general state of affairs!

Monty Johnstone’s quotation from Lenin on the bureaucratisation of the state and the role of the unions must have been made tongue in cheek.

Since 1956, the Russian bureaucracy has been forced to remove a number of the most barbaric practices of the Stalin regime – practices, which under capitalism, would only be possible in a fascist state – such as slave-labour, etc. But for all that, the police-state and the terror remain; only the names have changed. The situation with regard to the trade unions in Russia shows the complete falsity of the assertion that the bureaucracy is reforming itself out of existence. We ask Monty Johnstone: Thirteen years after the Twentieth Congress, where are the independent trade unions in the Soviet Union?

Under Stalin, the elementary rights of the Soviet working class were taken away. Today, under his heirs, Brezhnev and Kosygin, there is no right to strike, no right to collective bargaining, no right to elect democratic factory committees (rights which existed under Lenin and Trotsky, even in the blackest period of the Civil War). The trade unions in Russia and Eastern Europe are a caricature: a belt for the transmission to the working class of the orders of the bureaucratic overlords. The monstrous corruption, waste and mismanagement which Lenin wished to hold in check by means of the workers’ organisations, has today reached proportions which threaten to undermine the advances made by the Soviet working class on the basis of the planned economy.[2]

It is a crying contradiction, which any thinking member of the Young Communist League or Communist Party will see, that the weak, embattled Soviet Republic at the time of Lenin and Trotsky, despite the bureaucratic deformations to which Lenin honestly refers, nevertheless guaranteed the freedom and independence of both the trade unions and the Party. Young Communist Leaguers should take the trouble to read the material of the Tenth Party Congress in Lenin’s Works and ask themselves honestly: could such a free discussion of the issues take place in any “Communist” Party today?

In contrast to the period of Civil War and NEP, when the Bolsheviks were forced by the weakness of the Soviet power and the threat of capitalist restoration to restrict certain democratic rights as a temporary, emergency measure, the Soviet Union today is the second industrial nation in the world. And yet, the bureaucracy is terrified at the prospect of granting even the most basic democratic rights to the Soviet workers. Thus in Czechoslovakia, the relative independence of the trade unions which the workers wrested from the bureaucracy after the fall of Novotny, provoked the boot of Russian reaction. So afraid were the Brezhnevs and Kosygins of the effect this would have on the Soviet working class!

Monty Johnstone’s attempt to pose as the friend of the “freedom of labour” against the “arch-bureaucrat” Trotsky sounds all the more hollow when one compares the situation in the Soviet Union today to even Franco’s Spain. There, too, certain “concessions” have been granted to the working class, out of fear of revolution. The difference is that whereas even in Spain, where the trade unions are illegal, the workers, have set up genuine organisation – the illegal “Workers’ Commissions”, which conduct strikes and struggle on behalf of the class and even negotiate with the bosses, in “Socialist” Russia, anyone who attempted to organise on these lines would soon find himself behind bars.

In reality, mirrored in the trade union issue is the whole question of social relations in the Soviet Union and the other bureaucratically deformed worker’s states. To talk about advancing to socialism (or “Communism”!) implies the full, free development of the working class as the ruling class in society controlling, checking and accounting. It means the involvement of the whole of society in the planning and running of industry and of the state, with the corresponding melting away of bureaucracy. This is the only guarantee of the transition to a classless society. Socialist planning needs the check of workers’ democracy as the human body needs oxygen.

The bureaucratic, totalitarian set-up in the USSR is not only oppressive to the Soviet working class and repellent to the workers of the West. It is also increasingly an impediment to the free and harmonious development of the productive forces in the Soviet Union. It is a crushing indictment of the caricature of socialism that, fifty years after the October Revolution, the workers lack even those elements of democracy which are present in advanced capitalist countries. While the bureaucracy boasts of “building Communism” the death-penalty had been reintroduced – for economic offences – such is the extent of swindling, corruption and theft which bedevils the Soviet economy – a concrete proof of the bankruptcy of the regime and the need for workers’ democracy. The Soviet workers will inevitably come to understand that the only way out for them is the programme of Lenin and Trotsky. When they realise that, they will realise it, the days of the bureaucracy will be numbered.

The Tenth Party Congress and the NEP

The Tenth Party Congress took place in an atmosphere of crisis; the period of “War Communism” had entered its last, most convulsive phase. Armed peasants uprisings took place in a series of provinces, culminating in a serious insurrection in Tambov. Discontent spread to the hungry towns. In February, 1921 a series of strikes broke out in Petrograd because of the shortage of bread. Menshevik elements took advantage of the unrest to put forward the counter-revolutionary slogan of “Soviets without Communists”.

In this context as Lenin said, the debate on the Trade Unions was an “impermissible luxury”, which was “pushing to the forefront a question which for objective reasons cannot be there.” The real point at issue was not the immediate question of the trade unions – but this served as a catalyst which crystallised a number of clearly defined tendencies within the party.

The end of the Civil War, and especially the demobilisation of the Red Army, deepened the crisis and discontent of the peasant masses. Lenin explained that certain opposition currents in the party were “bound up with the tremendous preponderance of peasants in the country, with their dissatisfaction with the proletarian dictatorship.” The question of the trade unions shrank before these issues which exploded in the middle of the Congress in the Kronstadt uprising.

The Kronstadt uprising undoubtedly reflected the growing mood of disillusionment with War Communism among the masses, first and foremost of the more backward and peasant elements, but increasingly among workers whose morale had been undermined by years of war, civil war and famine. Faced with the implacable opposition of the peasant masses, the revolution was forced to retreat. The requisition of grain was abolished and replaced by a tax, and measures were taken to restore the market economy, to encourage a measure of private trade. Certain industries were even denationalised, but the major levers of the economy, the banks, insurance companies, the large industries, together with the monopoly of foreign trade, remained in the hands of the state.

These concessions to bourgeois “freedom” were not made light-heartedly as a victory over the “arch-bureaucracy” of War Communism, but as a retreat under pressure, as temporary concessions granted to the petty-bourgeois masses in order to prevent a split between the workers and peasants which would lead to the fall of Soviet power.

Defending these concessions at the Tenth Congress, Lenin referred to the crushing pressure of the peasant masses on the working class as “a far greater danger than all the Denikins, Kolchaks, and Yudenichs put together. It would be fatal,” he continued, “to be deluded on this score! The difficulties stemming from the petty-bourgeois element are enormous, and if they are to be overcome, we must have greater unity, and I don’t just mean a resemblance of unity. We must all pull together with a single will, for in a peasant country only the will of the mass of the proletarians will enable the proletariat to accomplish the great task of its leadership and dictatorship. Assistance is on its way from the Western European countries but it is not coming quickly enough. Still it is coming and growing.” (Works, vol. 32, p. 179)

Lenin, as always, put the matter clearly and honestly. The retreat of the NEP had been dictated by the enormous pressure of the peasantry on the workers’ state, isolated by the delay of the socialist revolution in the West. Lenin always referred to it as a temporary state of affairs, a “breathing space”, before the next dramatic developments of the international socialist revolution. But he was also acutely aware of the dangers that lay on that road, especially the dangers of a revival of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements with the growth of the market economy:

“This peril – the development of small production and of the petty-bourgeois in the rural areas – is an extremely serious one,” Lenin warned the Tenth Congress. In answer to those who were inclined to complacency, Lenin emphasised the point: “Do we have classes? Yes we do. Do we have a class struggle? Yes and a most furious one!” (Works, vol. 32, p. 212)

Monty Johnstone gives a completely one-sided account of the Tenth Congress, heavily emphasising the trade union question, omitting all references to the main issues involved, and dealing with the trade union question in a one-sided manner – posing the question once more as a “battle royal” between Lenin and Trotsky, while failing to mention the other positions advanced – of Bukharin, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition” and the “Democratic Centralists”, for instance. Yet again, these omissions enable Monty Johnstone to create a completely false impression. The sheer cynicism of his approach can best be seen from his attempt to identify Trotsky’s position on the trade unions with the decision of the Congress to ban factions in the Party:

“Organising a faction around the ideas expressed in his pamphlet … he [Trotsky] launched a debate in the Party, culminating at the Tenth Congress in March 1921, in his overwhelming defeat and a decision to ban factions in the Party.” (Cogito, p. 20)

This is news indeed! No one at the Tenth Congress ever accused Trotsky of “organising a faction” around anything. This particular piece of Johnstonian innuendo is evidently meant to link-up with Lenin’s polemical rejoinder about Trotsky’s earlier “factionalism” (i.e. his refusal to join the committee to investigate the Trade Unions). Johnstone knows perfectly well that the decision to ban factions was taken for reasons not connected with either the trade union discussion or Trotsky’s role in that discussion.

The reasons are given in the passage quoted from Lenin above, which clearly explains that this extraordinary measure was dictated by the dangers of alien class pressure expressing themselves through groups in the Party. In the immediate context of the Tenth Congress, the measure was directed, not against Trotsky, but expressly against the so-called “Workers’ Opposition”, a quasi-syndicalist group led by Shlyapoikov and Kollontai, which was formally dissolved by the Congress. The resolution on this point clearly explains the reasons for the measure:

“The said deviation is due partly to the influx into the party of former Mensheviks, and also of workers and peasants who have not yet fully assimilated the communist world outlook. Mainly, however, this deviation is due to the influence exercised upon the proletariat and on the Russian Communist Party by the petty-bourgeois element, which is exceptionally strong in our country and which inevitably engenders vacillation towards anarchism, particularly at times when the condition of the masses has greatly deteriorated as a consequence of the crop failure and the devastating effects of war, and when the demobilisation of the army numbering millions sets loose thousands of peasants and workers, unable immediately to find regular means of livelihood.” (Works, vol. 32, p. 245)

Precisely in the debate on the “Workers’ Opposition”, Lenin made a statement which completely gives the lie to the innuendoes of Monty Johnstone about Trotsky’s alleged “factionalism”:

“The Workers’ Opposition said: ‘Lenin and Trotsky will unite.’ Trotsky came out and said: ‘Those who fail to understand that it is necessary to unite are against the Party; of course we will unite, because we are men of the Party.’ I supported him. Of course, Comrade Trotsky and I differed; and when more or less equal groups appear within the Central Committee, the Party will pass judgement, and in such a way that will make us unite in accordance with the Party’s will and instructions.” (Works, vol. 32, p. 204)


[1] 1 verst is equal to 1.067 kilometres

[2] For a detailed analysis of this, see Ted Grant, Russia – From revolution to counter-revolution.

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