International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

Editorial: Seventy years since the founding of the Left Opposition

October 1993 marked the seventieth anniversary of the formation of the Left Opposition. The vital contemporary relevance of the struggle which Leon Trotsky initiated in 1923 against growing bureaucratism within the Russian Communist Party and Stalin’s national opportunism is borne out by the recent tumultuous political developments in the former USSR.

On the eve of this historic anniversary came the events of “Bloody Monday,” October 4, 1993. With the storming of the Russian White House and the wave of repression which followed, the Yeltsin regime and its imperialist backers have demolished once and for all the tired old myth that the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union was bound up with a crusade for political democracy.

On the contrary, the wholesale privatization of the Soviet economy and its takeover and plunder by the multinational banks and corporations require a ruthless dictatorship.

This essential truth has been further substantiated by the results of the parliamentary elections which Yeltsin convened last December 12. The largest share of the ballots were cast for the fascistic Liberal Democratic Party headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

While no doubt the vote represented a massive protest against the conditions of social misery produced by the capitalist policies pursued by Yeltsin and backed by Washington, the political dangers embodied in this vote are undeniable.

Consider for a moment the political trajectory of capitalist restoration in the former USSR. Within just a few short years, what began with Gorbachev’s promotion of glasnost gave way to Yeltsin’s disbanding of parliament and massacre at the Russian White House. Now a fascist emerges as the country’s leading politician.

The drive to restore private property relations in the USSR cannot and will not lay the foundations for a viable bourgeois democracy. It is creating no prosperous middle class as its social base, only social misery. No confident national bourgeoisie is emerging as its byproduct, only a semi-criminal class of ex-Stalinist bureaucrats and comprador gangsters.

Never in history has capitalism been erected on the basis of a massive existing working class with decades of social conquests and a history of revolutionary struggle. To do so today will require fascist dictatorship and unprecedented violence.

The results of the December 12 elections cannot be understood as a purely Russian phenomenon. Everywhere capitalism is producing social devastation and giving rise to similar political forms.

In country after country, the old bourgeois parties and longstanding political relationships break down amid conditions of mass unemployment and the dismantling of old social welfare systems. Meanwhile the working class has seen its traditional unions and political parties renounce the defense of even its most basic rights.

In Italy, the MSI, the political heir of Mussolini fascism, recently polled the largest share of the vote in municipal elections. Neo-nazi groups have grown in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, launching a wave of terrorist attacks on immigrants and others.

The reemergence of fascist reaction is among the most malignant expressions of the profound crisis gripping world capitalism. It is a direct refutation of the ubiquitous claims that the downfall of the Moscow bureaucracy spelled the death of socialism. All of the economic and social contradictions which produced the revolution of October 1917 are present today in an even sharper form, not least of all in the land of October itself.

Despite the bitter deprivations of the last several years, the Soviet working class retains its immense strength. The impending shutdown of massive factories employing tens of thousands of workers, the elimination of jobs, incomes, social services and subsidies will provoke huge struggles and sharp new political differentiations. Soviet workers are still only at the beginning of this process. The big battles lie ahead.

Nonetheless, under conditions in which broad sections of workers equate Stalinism with Marxism or see in the collapse of the USSR the failure of the entire socialist perspective, the Russian working class has proven unable thus far to intervene independently in the unfolding crisis.

The October massacre followed by the vote for Zhirinovsky constitute an unmistakable warning of the dire consequences posed by a protracted delay in the emergence of a conscious revolutionary movement in the working class. To the extent that the political life of the former USSR remains dominated by imperialism and its local agents, the working class faces a historic catastrophe: thus, the urgency of reforging the socialist consciousness of the working class.

This task will not be resolved through the development of the objective crisis in and of itself. It requires the intervention of the Marxist party, fighting for the assimilation of the great historical lessons established over the course of the past century.

The bourgeoisie and its ideologues contend that the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR and its ultimate collapse were inevitable from October 1917 onward. Moreover, they claim that the fate of the Soviet Union serves as proof that the working class is incapable of vanquishing capitalist misery and barbarism and establishing a socialist society.

But the historical record demonstrates irrefutably that there was an alternative to Stalinism, its crimes and the ultimate debacle which it has created. That alternative was advanced on the basis of Marxism by the man who, next to Lenin himself, played the greatest role in the leadership of the October Revolution and the defense of the Soviet state during the civil war—Leon Trotsky. It found its expression in a program that enjoyed the passionate support of most of the leading figures of the Bolshevik Revolution, men and women who would ultimately sacrifice their lives in struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

On October 8, 1923 Trotsky initiated this momentous struggle, addressing a letter to the members of the Central Committee and Central Control Commission of the Russian Communist Party. Writing with a bluntness that stunned the letter’s recipients, Trotsky declared that the party was being destroyed by a process of bureaucratization that concentrated immense power in an apparatus that systematically suppressed internal democracy. He warned that the party, weakened by a bad political regime, was losing the capacity to deal with the worsening economic crisis that threatened the survival of the Soviet state. With words whose prescience can only now, following the Soviet Union’s collapse, be fully appreciated, Trotsky declared: “The party is entering into what may be the most crucial epoch in its history, carrying the heavy burden of the mistakes made by our leading bodies.”

The letter had the impact of a political bombshell. To those whose leadership and methods were harshly criticized—the unprincipled “triumvirate” of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin which dominated the RCP Politburo—Trotsky’s letter was taken as a declaration of war. But to others, among whom were the most outstanding Marxist leaders in the period of the revolution and civil war, the letter of October 8 was an inspiration. Trotsky’s criticisms of the bureaucratization of the party and state, coupled with a trenchant analysis of the leadership’s mistakes in economic policy, provided a focus for the discontent that was spreading throughout the party.

One week later, on October 15, a document that came to be known as the Platform of the 46 was delivered to the Politburo of the RCP. Building upon Trotsky’s letter, the Platform called for measures to reinvigorate party democracy and thereby establish the political conditions needed to overcome the grave problems threatening the Soviet Union. The publication of the Platform, whose signatories included such outstanding figures as Preobrazhensky, Piatakov, Serebriakov, Muralov, Smirnov, Bogoslavsky, Sosnovsky and Voronsky, marked the beginning of the political activity of the Left Opposition.

The emergence of the Left Opposition was the climax of a year of extreme tension within the Russian Communist Party. The general sense of foreboding and uncertainty was intensified by the illness of Lenin, whose political activity was brought to an abrupt end by the stroke he suffered on March 9, 1923. But even before illness removed Lenin from the scene, the RCP was in crisis. Indeed, Lenin’s stroke came just as he had concluded that the survival of the RCP depended upon an uncompromising struggle against the bureaucracy in the state and party apparatus.

The crisis was rooted in the fundamental problem of the Russian Revolution. The Russian working class had come to power under the leadership of the Bolsheviks in one of the most backward of the European capitalist states. The creation of modem Soviet industry, not to mention its development along socialist lines, depended upon the fate of the proletarian revolution in western Europe. The Bolsheviks had hoped that their victory in Russia would soon be followed by other socialist revolutions. However, the absence within Europe of parties comparable to the Bolsheviks gave the bourgeoisie the breathing space it required to stabilize the capitalist system after World War I.

The ferocity of the civil war that followed the revolution—which was prolonged by the direct intervention of the imperialists on the side of the counterrevolutionary forces—ravaged the economy of the young Soviet republic. An effort to revive industry on the basis of forced requisitions and the militarization of labor (war communism) provoked intense hostility among the peasantry. Fearing for the stability of the Bolshevik regime if the workers government lost the support of the peasant masses and recognizing the ebb in the international revolutionary movement, Lenin proposed a temporary retreat. The New Economic Policy, proposed in March 1921, permitted the peasantry to sell its produce on the market. The relaxation of restraints on capitalist enterprise led, in the short term, to an economic revival. The links between the cities and the countryside were restored. However, despite the unmistakable improvements, those engaged in Marxist analysis detected new dangers.

First, in the economic sphere, the revival mainly benefited agriculture and the peasantry. The growth of industry, upon which the fate of the Soviet Union ultimately depended, remained extremely limited. Trotsky demonstrated with characteristic brilliance that the failure to spur the development of industry within the framework of the NEP was leading inexorably to a sharp crisis. While the prices of agricultural goods continued to fall, those of industrial commodities were rising rapidly. In his speech to the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923, he illustrated this divergent movement in a graph whose lines resembled an open scissors. As the prices of commodities produced by the two basic components of Soviet economy moved in opposite directions, the scissors widened; and this widening exposed the danger contained in the NEP: if the terms of trade between agriculture and industry continued to deteriorate, the danger of an economic split between the countryside and the cities, and of a political split between the proletariat and the peasantry, increased.

In order to lower industrial prices, Trotsky argued for a policy of economic planning, so that the Soviet state could organize production and efficiently allocate resources. This also required placing a greater burden on the agricultural sector to provide the resources needed for industrial investment.

While there was no opposition expressed at the Twelfth Party Congress to Trotsky’s lucid analysis, it nonetheless was unsettling to elements in the leadership who had adapted themselves to the environment of the NEP.

This adaptation was connected to changes in the party’s composition, resulting from the massive human toll exacted from both the party and the Soviet working class by the period of civil war. Many of the cadre who had survived this period found themselves drawn into the administrative apparatus, where their work both separated them from the proletariat and provided them with new privileges. While the latter were hardly extravagant, especially by the standards of the capitalist world, they were significant in an impoverished country where even a piece of fatty meat was a luxury.

Another factor undermining the revolutionary elan of Bolshevism was the influx into the party of elements from the old pre-revolutionary upper middle classes. These layers, referred to ironically as “red managers” and “red industrialists,” became increasingly active, not only in the direction of the economy, but in the party as well. One such individual was Andrei Vizhinsky, who before 1917 was employed by the oil trusts and later, during the civil war, became a functionary in the counterrevolutionary administration set up by Admiral Kolchak. Entering the party at this time, he was to serve as Stalin’s chief prosecutor in the three Moscow Trials of 1936-38.

From the first days of the NEP, Lenin was acutely aware of the negative consequences of the retreat which had been imposed upon the Bolsheviks by unfavorable conditions. But in late 1922, after recovering from his first major stroke, Lenin became alarmed over signs of political degeneration in crucial areas of the party and state.

He learned that in October 1922, during his absence, the Politburo, at the initiative of Bukharin and with the support of Stalin, had agreed to permit the weakening of the state monopoly on foreign trade. Lenin recognized the dangers posed by this decision to the fragile Soviet economy and accused its authors of adapting themselves to the influence of the “nepmen,” that is, the petty-bourgeois traders who played an increasingly conspicuous role.

With Trotsky’s support, Lenin succeeded in forcing the reinstatement of the monopoly. But, within a few weeks, a more serious crisis arose over the crude methods employed by Stalin and his henchman, Ordzhonikidzi, to compel the leaders of the Georgian Republic to accept their plan for Georgian integration into the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In Stalin’s attempt to intimidate representatives of a non-Russian nationality, Lenin saw the brutal and hated visage of the Great Russian chauvinist bully.

Though his health was rapidly deteriorating, the Georgian incident compelled Lenin to initiate a profound reevaluation of the state of the party. The final weeks of Lenin’s political life were devoted to the dictation of an extraordinary series of notes which contained candid appraisals of the principal leaders of the party and proposals for counteracting the influence of the bureaucracy. The most remarkable aspect of Lenin’s notes was his identification of Stalin as the direct embodiment of the bureaucratic degeneration threatening the party. In an addition to his political testament, written on January 4, 1923, Lenin stated that “Stalin is too rude” and recommended that he be removed from his position as general secretary.

As he prepared for a showdown with Stalin at the scheduled party congress, Lenin turned for support, as he had in the struggle over the foreign trade monopoly, to Trotsky. On March 5, 1923 he wrote to Trotsky: “It is my urgent request that you should undertake the defense of the Georgian case in the party CC.” And later that day, after learning that his wife, Krupskaya, had been verbally abused by Stalin, Lenin wrote an angry letter to the general secretary breaking off all personal relations. This was, however, Lenin’s last political act. His health took a disastrous turn for the worse, and on March 9 he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak or write.

With Lenin removed from the political scene, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin worked to counteract Trotsky’s immense prestige and influence. In this operation, Stalin exploited his control of the party organization. His principal weapon was his ability to make appointments to responsible positions within the party and state apparatus. The power of appointment made a mockery of internal party democracy, because those who were appointed to party posts were completely independent of the ranks. Their power depended, in the final analysis, not on their relation to the advanced strata of the working class, but on the approval of Stalin.

Hoping that Lenin would return to political activity, Trotsky refrained for several months from directly attacking the triumvirate. But by the autumn of 1923 two factors led him to conclude that the time had come to speak out. First, the economic situation continued to deteriorate, as he had warned at the Twelfth Congress. Second, the deepening crisis in Germany, where revolution seemed on the agenda, carried with it the possibility of a sharp change in the international situation. This was the context within which Trotsky initiated the struggle of the Left Opposition.

The crisis in Germany provided an unparalleled revolutionary opportunity, but it unfolded against the backdrop of the deepening political crisis in the leadership of the Russian Communist Party. Under conditions in which this RCP leadership was dominated by the factional machinations of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky, it could provide no effective guidance to the German party.

The resulting collapse of the German revolution spread further demoralization within the Russian party and the working class as it appeared that the Soviet state would be isolated for a protracted period.

It was in this objective context that Bukharin advanced the theory of “socialism in one country,” claiming that socialism could be constructed in an isolated Russia.

Stalin, who as late as April 1924 had written that the construction of socialism depended upon the world revolution, repudiated this internationalist perspective by October of that year and embraced the anti-Marxist doctrine of “socialism in one country.”

This “theory” won support within the Russian party precisely because it attempted to reconcile the October Revolution with the national interests of the bureaucracy. To this emerging social caste it came to mean, “Not everything for the revolution, something for me too.”

From this followed a dramatic revision of the tasks of the Communist International—from a world party of socialist revolution to an auxiliary weapon for the defense of the USSR by means of political pressure. That is, the theory of socialism in one country led to the rapid subordination of the Communist International to Soviet foreign policy. The catastrophic impact of this opportunist policy was seen in the defeats of the working class in Britain in 1926 and in China in 1927. Each defeat for the international working class in turn strengthened the hand of the bureaucracy.

While the Soviet Union was able to survive far longer in isolation than either Lenin or Trotsky had anticipated, it underwent a horrific degeneration. By the 1930s it hardly resembled the revolutionary state created by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Countless thousands of those who led that revolution were murdered. The USSR was ultimately transformed into a bastion of international reaction, with disastrous consequences for the working class internationally.

The betrayal initiated by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1920s and the defeat of the Left Opposition led ultimately to the Soviet Union’s collapse and the economic and social catastrophe now looming before the working class of Russia and the entire former USSR. The police-state regime of Boris Yeltsin, on the one hand, and the emergence of a Russian fascist movement, on the other, are the ultimate product of the policy pursued by the bureaucracy in opposition to Trotsky beginning in 1923.

To confront this crisis, the working class must be armed with an understanding of the struggle waged by the Left Opposition against the betrayal of Marxism by the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is not merely a question of speculating how things might have been, but of explaining that a Marxist alternative was fought for by Trotsky and supported by a majority of the Bolsheviks who led the revolution of 1917.

The collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrates not the failure of Marxism, but rather of its opposite, Stalinism. We still live in the epoch of mankind’s development inaugurated by October 1917.

In the explosive social battles which lie ahead inside Russia and internationally, the Fourth International must play the decisive role of rearming the working class with the program of socialist internationalism. It is the only party which can come before the working class and present its whole history. It alone can say to workers, “These are our 70 years of struggle.” This history will provide the firmest foundation for providing the struggles now emerging with a perspective for victory.