Leon Trotsky on Organisational Problems

The following are new translations of excerpts from Trois points c’est tout by Fred Zeller (1912-2003). Zeller, who, at the time, was the secretary of the Seine (Paris) Young Socialists and a sympathiser of the Trotskyist movement in the mid-1930s, visited Trotsky in Norway at the end of October 1935. This was at the time when the Socialist Party leaders were expelling the left from the Young Socialists as well as dissolving the Bolshevik Leninist tendency, whose members had joined the SFIO in late 1934.

Following these discussions with Trotsky, Zeller was won over from the centrist wing, led by Marceau Pivert, to the Bolshevik Leninists. He initially played a leading role but later left the movement. The text provides an important insight into Trotsky’s approach and thoughts about a number of issues, including the organisational problems that were faced by the Trotskyists.


It was around October 1935 that David Rousset sent me an invitation to visit comrade Trotsky in Norway.

I had not yet joined the ranks of the Fourth International. During this period, the name of the “Old Man” was being dragged through the mud every day. They reproached him for living like a “pasha” in a “castle”, surrounded by “servants” and a host of secretaries. I did not mind the invitation to come and see the truth. In fact, having had experience of the leaders of the SFIO and the Socialist International, I was extremely pleased by the prospect of finally meeting an authentic great revolutionary leader…

Comrade Van organised my journey to perfection and, at the end of October, I left Paris. I stopped in Cologne and Hamburg in Germany, where Hitler had just taken power. I witnessed, between arriving and catching my next train, parades of the SA, SS and Hitler Youth, pounding the pavement with the heel of their boots and uttering guttural refrains, amidst a population that seemed stunned and, above all, absolutely terrified. I scrutinized these Fascist faces topped with helmets rounded with a chin strap. They breathed neither intelligence nor goodness, and appeared to doubt neither themselves nor their leaders.

I disembarked from the ferry at Trelleborg, in Sweden. After four days and three nights in trains and stations a Norwegian comrade met me at Oslo in order to guide me for the rest of the journey. The next morning, a slow train drove me through the snowy slopes, fir trees trembling with frost and shining fjords, until I arrived at Hoenefoss, a town of several thousand inhabitants. At the station, other Norwegian comrades were waiting for me. A rickety old car took us up the mountain, to Weksal, a small village of wooden chalets scattered in the snow.

The Old Man and Old Woman lived there. The Norwegian Socialist MP, Konrad Knudsen was sub-letting two rooms to them: a bedroom and a study with a couch. The dining room was communal. The Knudsens took their meals there an hour before Trotsky and Nathalia who had a bedroom and a small bathroom with a bathtub on the first floor.

The large bay windows of the cottage offered superb views of the lakes, in the absolute and soothing calm of nature. I arrived there during the last days of October 1935. My visit to the military organiser of the Russian Revolution a few days later, on the 7th November, was to coincide with the eighteenth anniversary of the greatest social upheaval the world had ever known. It is not without emotion that forty years later I recall these times… They will remain unforgettable for as long as I live.

Walter Held, who was once Trotsky’s secretary, opened the folding door separating the dining room and the study. I heard him say in German: “Comrade Fred Zeller has arrived.”

The Old Man, who was working, got up and embraced me warmly as Russians do. He was bigger than I had imagined, strong with broad shoulders, very lively, very nimble, smiling, happy, fraternal. He wore a heavy woollen shirt collar closed by a cravat, a sweater, a blue linen jacket and grey trousers.

He made me sit beside him on the couch and inquired of my trip. He immediately wanted news of the French comrades.

“How are they? What's going on? ... And no, do not answer me yet: I want my Nathalia to be there to hear you too.”

He got up and, on the stairs, told Natalia in Russian that I had just arrived.

Trotsky in Norway 1936Trotsky in Norway - 1936I watched the Old Man. He seemed very young to me (he was fifty-five then) and very gay. I studied his face, admirable with its broad brow covered with silver grey hair. What struck me the most were his steely grey eyes, dominant and changing, where tenacious will, self-confidence, interrogation, astonishment, deception and hope were reflected immediately. His mouth was extremely mobile, framed by his legendary moustache and goatee, articulated to perfection. I did not notice in him that which is almost always visible in those who have had to battle and suffer other men: that vertical fold of bitterness that marks the corner of the lips from a certain age. Everything about him exuded serenity. He looked to me to be in good standing with his conscience.

Perhaps one might add, as pointed out by Andre Breton, that there remained buried in the depths of his nature, a whiff of childhood preserved him in spite of the hardships.

Nathalia had entered on tiptoe. Little, frail, with a delicate face framed by ash blonde hair, she had a soft and sad look.

“Now”, said the Old Man, “give us some brief news of our friends and their health. You will then take a cup of tea and we will leave you to rest on the couch until lunch. This afternoon, we shall discuss things more seriously.”

And then he asked, amusing himself, questions about all and sundry, passing from Jean Rous’ weight to the “dynamism” of Molinier, from the caprices of comrade Naville to Yvan Craipeau’s crises of faith, worrying about the material situation of Van whom he loved very much and the health of his son, Leon Sedov.

His eyes stared, sized, gauged and then became distant. Attentive, friendly, he sought to place you in time and place you more specifically amongst the men engaged in the great conflicts of the time. “Will he hold on? Will he let go? Will he grow? What will be his true role?” So many silent questions, but it felt good.

For the first few days, our conversation pertained naturally to the situation in France; the parties, their politics, the reactions of the masses… The Old Man demanded from me a detailed report on the development of the crisis and the internal split within the Socialist Youth. He listened with sustained attention. He questioned, demanded details of the activists and particular trends. He attached great importance to the fact that a current of Socialist Youth, skipping Stalinism, was heading toward the Fourth International.

"You in France have entered into the preparatory phase of revolution, he said. THE AXE PASSES TO YOU. You must follow the situation closely. You will soon experience grandiose events. You will play an important role, if you take time and stay firm on your position. Workers, gradually and as the struggle progresses, will find that they have been betrayed by those whom they trust today. They will look to you tomorrow."

He thought we had lost too much time in idle talk with the SFIO bureaucracy, in whose interest it was to drag out the talks for a "readmission". This illusion best divided the militants and allowed them to rely on the clan of capitulators who are always ready to prostrate themselves when offered a few honorary and profitable positions.

“Likewise”, the Old Man thought, “you were wrong to hold on to the coattails of Pivert’s centrists for so long and, especially, to help them form the ‘revolutionary left’. These comrades will turn against you. They will channel away some of your own activists who, finding your slogans in their mouths will think it wiser and certainly less risky to remain in the fold of the SFIO than to follow you independently.”

According to him, the possibility for those “expelled from Lille” to be readmitted was an illusion:

“Your expulsions are political. The leadership of the SFIO is preparing a Popular Front government with the Radical leaders behind the scenes. They cannot tolerate the presence of honest and independent revolutionaries among them. They are also encouraged by Cachin and Thorez who obey Stalin perinde ac cadaver.

“Your only chance of success and the only way to avoid the nibbling away and demoralisation of your best activists is to activate the transition to an independent organisation. You must speak for the Marxist programme. It is necessary to arm your comrades politically. Otherwise, they will decompose quickly under the appalling pressure of the reformist and Stalinist bureaucracies.

“You should, I believe, initiate a discussion in your movement, through the press, through internal bulletins, through information meetings and by organising an extraordinary congress, for joining the programme and flag of the Fourth International. Then we can consider a merger between your comrades and the Bolshevik-Leninists.”

And he added with a smile: “The day when I can read in Revolution (which was the newspaper of the left of the Socialist Youth) that you have pronounced publicly for the Fourth, a decisive step will be taken. I will raise a red flag right here on the roof of the chalet!”

One day over lunch, he asked me: “What decisive factor convinced you to get closer to the organisation of the Bolshevik-Leninists?”

I told him how Pierre Dreyfus had invited me to attend the last conference of Bolshevik Leninist Group, in the famous café, Augé rue des Archives, where I was impressed by the way all the political discussion had been conducted after outstanding detailed reports, specifically those of Pierre Naville, John Rous, David Rousset and Bardin on behalf of the Central Committee. This was a change from the fairs and the blah blah blah of national meetings of the SFIO where everyone is involved above all in relation to their electoral support.

I was also amazed to learn, during the voting and verification of mandates, that the Bolshevik-Leninists were only four hundred strong across the whole country. With all the noise they made and the daily attacks to which they were subjected, I had imagined they were thousands ... Trotsky was very amused by this.

I thought this young revolutionary political organisation, counting so few members but emitting such influence and causing so much fear in its opponents, was one of the forces of the future. And that this organisation had to be supported at all costs, whatever happened…

Trotsky often insisted on discussing organisational questions and rightly attached a great importance to this subject.

“If you do not train good, serious administrators at every level of the movement, even if you are right a thousand times over, you will not win. What the Bolshevik-Leninists have always lacked, particularly in France, are organisers, good treasurers, accurate accounts, and legible and well edited publications…”

The most serious difference, if I dare say so, that I had with Trotsky related to democratic centralism, the implacable authoritarian conception which seemed to me to be as dangerous as the Social-Democratic method, which never allowed the rank-and-file branch members to influence the direction of the party in a decisive way.

The application of centralism by Lenin’s Political Bureau enabled the taking of power. Under Stalin, it led to revolutionary defeats and the degeneration of the so-called Communist Parties.

Trotsky, strongly emphasising the fact that Lenin’s Political Bureau applied a “democratic” centralism whilst that of Stalin applied a “bureaucratic” centralism, admitted to having struggled with this problem at the Second Congress [of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903], which separated him from Lenin for a number of years.

“However,” he added, “once again Lenin was right. Without a strongly centralised party, we would never have taken power. Centralism means focusing the organisation to the greatest possible extent towards its ‘goal’. It is the only means of leading millions of people in struggle with the possessing classes.

“If you admit, along with Lenin, that we are in the stage of Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism, it is necessary to have a revolutionary organisation that is sufficiently flexible to respond to the demands of clandestine struggle as well as those of the taking power. Hence the need for a strongly centralised party, capable of orienting and leading the masses and supporting the gigantic struggle from which they must emerge victorious. Hence also the need to make collectively, at every step, a loyal self-criticism.”

He added that the application of centralism must not be schematic, but must evolve out of the political situation. He gave the example of the Russian Communist Party in 1921, passing from the ultra-centralised and military form imposed by the Civil War to an organisation based on the cells of workplaces taking part in the reconstruction of the economy:

“Between congresses, it was the Central Committee and its Political Bureau that led the Party and ensured the rigorous application, at all levels, of the policy decided by the majority. It was not permissible to return at every instant to questions of orientation and in so doing distort the application of the policy that had been defined by the Party.”

He often came back to one of the greatest dangers facing the vanguard of the working class: Sectarianism, which exhausts, withers, demoralises and isolates:

“This is what threatened the French section. It was one of the main reasons why we urged our comrades to enter into the S.F.I.O [the French Socialist Party] as a ‘tendency’. Experience has proved this correct because it allowed them to work amongst the masses, to check the correctness of their perspectives, to extend their influence and to strengthen themselves organisationally.

“All of his life Lenin fought against sectarian deviations which would cut off, and did cut off, revolutionaries from mass movements and from the understanding of a situation. On many occasions, he had to struggle against the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ barely able in his absence to match the ‘sacred texts’ with reality.”

Trotsky recalled what happened in 1905; the Bolsheviks then playing only a minor role because of the sectarian position they adopted in the absence of Lenin towards the Petrograd Soviet:

“Theoretical routine, this absence of political and tactical creativity, cannot replace the need for insight, the ability to surmise things at a glance, the flair for ‘feeling’ a situation, while unravelling the main threads and developing an overall strategy. It is in a revolutionary period, and especially an insurrectionary one that these qualities become decisive.”

Listening to him, I thought of Rosa Luxemburg who wrote in the summer of 1918, shortly before she was murdered:

“The revolutionary movement must be a foaming and limitless torrent of life in order to find the millions of new forms, improvisations, creative forces and healthy criticism it needs to correct and ultimately move beyond all of its mistakes.”

Trotsky regularly returned to the need to strengthen fraternal bonds between comrades in struggle:

“It is necessary to preserve them, encourage them, watch over them,” he would repeat. “An experienced militant worker represents an incalculable asset for the organisation. It takes years to make a good leader. One must therefore do everything to save a member. Don't break him if he weakens, but help him to overcome his weakness, to get over his moment of doubt.

“Do not lose sight of those who ‘fall’ on the wayside: Facilitate their return to the organisation if you have nothing irremediable to reproach them for in terms of revolutionary morality.”

When we walked along the mountainside in the evening, it would occur to him to discuss the physical health of the comrades; his or her ‘shape’ as we say nowadays. He was very concerned about this point. He thought about the concern towards those who had become exhausted, the need to preserve the energies of the weakest:

“Lenin was always preoccupied with the health of his collaborators. ‘One must go as far as possible in the struggle and the way is long’ he used to say.”

The internal atmosphere of the organisation made him anxious. In the small vanguard movements, which fight against the stream, internal disputes are sometimes the most severe and heated. After their exclusion from the SFIO, the Bolshevik-Leninist Group divided itself into several hostile factions:

“If the comrades look beyond this and focus their efforts outward and practical work, the ‘crisis’ will subside”, said Trotsky. “But it is necessary to always watch that the atmosphere always emerges healthy and acceptable for all. Each must work with all their heart and with the maximum of confidence.

“The building of the revolutionary party demands patience and hard work. At any price, you must not discourage the best, and you must show yourself to be able to work with anyone. Each is a lever to be used as much as possible to strengthen the Party. Lenin knew the art of this. After the liveliest discussions, the bitterest polemics, he knew to find the words and gestures which mitigated unfortunate or offensive words.”

For Trotsky, the essential task of the period ahead consisted in forming and consolidating an organisational apparatus. Without an apparatus, there is no possibility of applying a policy: everything limits itself to chatter without real significance. The difficulty of grand human constructions is choosing judiciously which personality is best suited for such and such a role. The art of the organiser consists in accustoming individuals to working together so that each becomes the complement of the other. An 'apparatus' is an orchestra where each instrument expresses itself individually only to blend and fade into the harmony created.

“Avoid placing members of equal value and temperament on a work committee. They will nullify each other without obtaining the intended results.

“Knowing how to choose a comrade for a given task; patiently explaining what is expected from them; acting with subtlety and tact, this is what true leadership means.

“Leave the maximum amount of initiative to the comrade responsible for the work. In case of mistakes, correct them by explaining amicably how they are prejudicial to the interests of the Party. Only impose sanctions in the most serious of cases. The general rule must be to permit each to progress, to develop and improve.

“Do not lose yourself in secondary details which mask the totality of the situation. Only do what you can with the forces you have. Never more, except admittedly in decisive situations.”

The Old Man added that one must not strain the comrades’ nerves indefinitely. After each effort, we must catch our breath, get one’s bearings, and renew one’s energies. At the level of organisation, one must be methodical and precise, leaving nothing to chance:

“Whatever you do, set yourself an objective, even a very modest one, but strive to achieve it. Then elaborate a short- or long-term plan and apply it without weakening, with an iron hand. It is the only way to advance and for the whole organisation to make progress”

One morning, the courier brought leaflets and an internal bulletin of the French Bolshevik-Leninists. While reading them, Trotsky showed impatient and annoyance. Armed with a red pencil, he crossed out and underlined non-stop, before saying brusquely:

“Your mimeographed publications are very bad. They are very unpleasant to read. Like your newspapers and other publications. With modern machines, I wonder how you manage to bring out texts which are perhaps good politically but illegible. You need to consult specialists about this. I assure you that no worker will make the effort to read a badly printed leaflet.

“I remember my first proclamations in our circle in Odessa. I hand wrote them in purple ink in block capitals. They were then applied to a sheet of gelatine and made into dozens of copies. We were using primitive methods, but our leaflets were very readable… and they made their way!”

His harshest criticism was directed at our newspapers:

“A revolutionary paper addresses itself first and foremost to the workers. Your way of producing and editing La Verite (which at that time was the paper of the Bolshevik-Leninists) makes it more of a theoretical journal than a newspaper. It interests the intellectual, but not the worker. On the other hand, you have produced good issues of Revolution.

“But what is unacceptable and scandalous is to publish papers with so many spelling and typographical errors, which leave an impression of an intolerable and criminally lackadaisical attitude.

“The paper is the face of the party. It is by the paper that to a large degree a worker will judge the party. Those whom it addresses aren’t necessarily your comrades or sympathisers. You must not alienate anyone by using too highbrow vocabulary. Your occasional reader must not think: ‘These people are too much for me’, because he will never buy it again.

“Your paper should be well presented, simple and clear, with slogans that are always understandable. A worker does not have the time to read long theoretical articles. He needs quick reports in a concise style. Lenin said: ‘It is necessary to write with your heart in order to have a good paper.’

“Stop thinking that you are writing for yourself or your members. That is what theoretical reviews and bulletins are for. The worker’s paper must be lively and witty. A worker loves it when you ridicule and expose the powers-that-be.

“Also oblige the worker comrades in your organisation to write for the paper. Help them in a friendly way. You will see that soon, a short and simple article of a worker, on a precise instance of capitalist exploitation, is far superior to an article which sees itself as academic and erudite. Take for example Lenin’s articles in Pravda. They are simple, lively and readable, as much for the worker of Putilov as for the university student.”

The Old Man referred constantly to Lenin, who had made such an impact on his whole life and whom he admired enormously.

As I was telling him about our financial worries, problems arising from the regular publication of La Verite or Revolution, and everything concerning workplace papers, leaflets and personnel changes, the Old Man told me:

“That which is well thought out and clearly expressed… and… the means of saying it will come easily! To the extent to which you have a clear theoretical vision of things, you will also have the political will to make them happen. If you really want to succeed in doing that which you have clearly understood, then you will also be capable of finding the means.”