David North
The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century

Was There an Alternative to Stalinism?

David North

This lecture was delivered on October 25, 1995 at Glasgow University in Scotland.

Permit me first of all to thank the Institute of Russian and East European Studies for this invitation to speak here at Glasgow University. I am not a professional historian. But the study of history is an inescapable requirement of membership in the Fourth International. Indeed, within the Fourth International there has never been a clear line of demarcation between history and politics. This has left Trotskyists open to criticism from all sides. Political opponents resent our introduction of historical questions into discussions of contemporary politics, while professional historians often dismiss as mere politics what we have to say about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

With our political opponents I see no possibility of a rapprochement. Our differences on innumerable questions of program reflect, in general, very different conceptions of the relation of the historical experiences of the international workers movement to the present problems and tasks of the socialist movement. But I think there is a great need for a renewed dialogue and, to the extent that this is possible, an active intellectual alliance between Marxists who trace their political heritage to the October Revolution and historians who are committed, whatever their personal political positions, to the scientific study of Russian and Soviet history.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been followed by an outpouring of pseudohistorical literature intent on demonstrating that the October Revolution and the Soviet Union were the outcome of a criminal conspiracy that imposed an alien and unworkable dogma upon an unwary population. These tendentious works—usually described as magisterial in the admiring reviews of the establishment press—are, for the most part, the products of two closely related ideological schools. The first is that of the old Cold War anticommunists, represented by people like Richard Pipes of Harvard University and Martin Malia of the University of California. The second is that of the reconstructed Stalinists, i.e., former defenders and even high-ranking officials of the old Soviet regime, who have recently discovered, after it became profitable to do so, that they were the victims of Bolshevism. The most notorious representative of this school is General Dmitri Volkogonov.

In his recent biography of Lenin, Volkogonov devotes several pages to the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, an act which the general cites as one of the prime examples of Bolshevik criminality. In the shutting down of the Constituent Assembly, writes Volkogonov, Lenin, “revealed himself as the new intellectual of the Marxist type, a utopian fanatic, believing himself to have the right to perform any experiment so long as the goal of power was served.” [1]

However one may wish to interpret this event, no one actually was killed in the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. But not too long after he had written this severe indictment of Lenin’s morality, Volkogonov, in his capacity as President Boris Yeltsin’s chief military adviser, oversaw the October 1993 bombardment of the Russian parliament building, the White House, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people. It would appear that notwithstanding his objections to Lenin, Volkogonov firmly believes in his own right to perform experiments. It all depends, in the final analysis, on the particular class interests of the power that is being served.

The post-Soviet school of historical falsification

Pipes, Malia and Volkogonov represent different trends of what can best be described as a new post-Soviet school of historical falsification, and its refutation is an urgent task of all serious scholars. The aim of this school is not only to discredit the Russian Revolution, but also to promote an environment of ideological intimidation that actively discourages all genuinely scientific examination of the complex economic, social, political and cultural processes which, in the totality of their interaction, determined the course of the Russian Revolution. The implications of this attack are far reaching. In the final analysis, the target of this school of historical falsification is the entire heritage of progressive and revolutionary thought and struggle, spanning centuries, out of which Marxism arose.

Lest I be accused of overdramatizing the issue, allow me to refer to the contribution made by Professor Alexander Tchoudinov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, at the 18th International Congress of Historical Sciences, held in late August–early September 1995 in Montreal. Quoting from St. Matthew and St. Augustine, Tchoudinov bitterly denounced all and sundry representatives of utopian thought who held up the possibility of a secular solution to the sufferings of man. “Only God,” thundered Tchoudinov, “can eliminate the vices and defects of this life, but He will do so only at the end of the world.” Yes, this was actually said at an International Congress of Historical Sciences. “Christianity,” Tchoudinov proclaimed, “delivered people from the illusion of possibility to eliminate all social evil and, consequently, to establish the government free of vices.”

Tchoudinov bemoaned the “dechristianization of social and political thought in the age of the Renaissance [which] revived the utopic tradition of ancient philosophy.” He angrily scolded More and Campanella, before moving on to the Age of Enlightenment, where so much evil work was accomplished by Rousseau, Mably, Diderot and, to quote Tchoudinov, “many others, less eminent ones.” The terrible work of the rationalists gave rise to Robespierre, then to Marx and, of course, Lenin. Finally, Tchoudinov arrived at his conclusion:

It is important to notice, in the end, the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century were the result of dechristianization of public consciousness in previous epochs. [2]

All of this was said in the presence of dozens of professors, many of whom were squirming in embarrassment. And they had good reason to be embarrassed. The proper venue for Tchoudinov-Rasputin’s rantings was not a Congress of Historical Sciences, but a synod of Russian Orthodox metropolitans. It is a reflection of the shocking decline in intellectual standards that the podium of a scholarly conference was made available for such theological drivel, and, even worse, that not a single historian rose from his seat to challenge Tchoudinov.

There is an unexplained contradiction in the analysis offered by both the old Cold War anticommunists and the reconstructed Stalinists. On the one hand, they ascribe to Marxism a rigid determinism, which, they claim, is the theoretical source of the attempt of the Bolsheviks to impose an unworkable antimarket utopia upon Russian society. But then, these bitter opponents of “determinism” resort to the most extreme determinism in their interpretation of post-1917 Soviet history, which they explain as the inexorable outcome of the unfolding of Bolshevik ideology. Every episode of Soviet history, we are told, arose inevitably out of the October Revolution. After depositing Lenin at the Finland Station in April 1917, the train of history, commandeered by ruthless Marxists, moved along a single track that led to the debacle of 1991, with preprogrammed stops at the Lubyanka and the Gulag Archipelago.

Stalin’s fear of Trotsky

The fact that this interpretation has found widespread acceptance is even indicated in the title of this lecture: “Was there an alternative to Stalinism?” The very posing of the question suggests that, at best, only a speculative answer is possible. However, that is not the case. The study of the history of the Soviet Union demonstrates that there was an alternative to Stalinism. The growth of the bureaucracy and its usurpation of political power were consciously and systematically opposed from within the Bolshevik Party. The most significant opposition was that which arose in 1923 under the leadership of Leon Trotsky. One answer to the question “Was there an alternative to Stalinism?” is that Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy certainly thought there was. Trotsky and the Left Opposition were subjected to a degree of repression that was as brutal as it was relentless. Always conscious of the dubious character of his own claim to the continuity of Bolshevism, Stalin himself believed that Trotsky represented the most dangerous political opposition to his regime.

A vivid portrayal of Stalin’s fear of Trotsky is to be found in, of all places, the 1987 biography of the Soviet dictator by Dmitri Volkogonov. Basing himself on materials he found in Stalin’s personal library, Volkogonov draws a picture of an omnipotent dictator who lived in fear of an isolated and stateless exile. He reports that everything written by or about Trotsky was kept by Stalin in a special cupboard in his study. Stalin’s copies of these writings were heavily underlined and filled with vituperative comments.

Trotsky was no longer present, yet Stalin grew to hate him even more in his absence, and Trotsky’s spectre frequently returned to haunt the usurper. Stalin came to curse himself for agreeing to let Trotsky go into exile abroad. He would not admit even to himself that he had feared Trotsky at the time, but he certainly feared the thought of him. The feeling that he would never be able to solve the “problem” of Leib Davidovich (as he tended to address Trotsky in his mind, using the Yiddish form of Lev) boiled over into violent hatred. [3]

Volkogonov continues:

the main reason Stalin feared the spectre of Trotsky was because Trotsky had created his own organization, the Fourth International … The spectre was wreaking a revenge more painful than Stalin himself could have devised. …

The thought that Trotsky was speaking not only for himself, but for all his silent supporters and the oppositionists inside the USSR, was particularly painful to Stalin. When he read Trotsky’s works, such as The Stalin School of Falsification, An Open Letter to Members of the Bolshevik Party, or The Stalinist Thermidor, the Leader almost lost his self-control. …

… Trotsky’s collected works were published in dozens of countries, and it was from these that world opinion formed its image of Stalin, not from books by the likes of Feuchtwanger and Barbusse. [4]

Volkogonov has absolutely no sympathy for Trotsky’s personality or political ideas. The notion that Trotsky might be viewed as an alternative to Stalin is abhorrent to Volkogonov. He does everything he can to present Trotsky’s actions and writings in the very worst light. But this makes his account of Stalin’s fixation with the activities of his exiled opponent all the more significant. In its own way, even if unintentionally, this account underscores the glaring weakness of so many volumes on Soviet history, in which the treatment of Trotsky and the Left Opposition is of the most cursory character.

The personality and political role of Leon Trotsky, as a leader of the October Revolution and as the most important Marxist opponent of the Stalinist regime, looms over all discussions of Soviet history. He remains, even to this day, “the great unmentionable.” How to deal with Trotsky always has been a difficult problem, both for the Stalinists and the anti-Marxist bourgeois historians. Within the Soviet Union, even after the death of Stalin and the Khrushchev revelations, the regime could not permit an honest accounting of his activities and ideas. Of all the Bolshevik leaders murdered by Stalin, Trotsky was the only one who was never formally rehabilitated by the Soviet regime. As late as November 1987, the heyday of glasnost, when Gorbachev delivered his long-awaited review of Soviet history on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the Soviet leader vehemently denounced Trotsky, even as he found some kind words to say about Stalin’s contributions to the socialist cause.

It is not hard to understand why the historical role of Trotsky presented such difficulties to the Soviet bureaucracy. The record of his work constituted an unanswerable indictment of the entire Stalinist regime, summed up in the title of his political masterpiece, The Revolution Betrayed.

Among anti-Marxist historians, the struggle waged by Trotsky against Stalin implicitly challenges the thesis that the totalitarian regime was the necessary and genuine expression of Bolshevism. If the anti-Marxist historians have not been able to ignore Trotsky, they have generally done their best to trivialize the significance of the political struggle he waged against Stalinism. One of the better known anti-Marxist historians has gone even further. Allow me to refer to the influential three-volume work by Professor Leszek Kolakowski, The Main Currents of Marxism. He writes:

Many observers, including the present author, believe that the Soviet system as it developed under Stalin was a continuation of Leninism, and that the state founded on Lenin’s political and ideological principles could only have maintained itself in a Stalinist form. [5]

If Stalinism did, indeed, represent the legitimate and necessary apotheosis of “Lenin’s political and ideological principles,” how is one to explain the struggle waged by Trotsky and the Left Opposition? Kolakowski anticipated this question and offers the following explanation:

The Trotskyists, and of course, Trotsky himself, regarded his removal from power as a historical turning point; but there is no reason to agree with them and, as we shall see, it can well be maintained that “Trotskyism” never existed, but was a figment invented by Stalin. The disagreements between Stalin and Trotsky were real to a certain extent, but they were grossly inflated by the struggle for personal power and never amounted to two independent and coherent theories. … In reality, however, there was no basic political opposition between the two men, let alone any theoretical disagreement. [6]

Kolakowski’s assertion testifies to the intellectual bankruptcy and cynical indifference to historical facts that underlies the claim that there existed no alternative to Stalinism. What credibility can be attached to a thesis that requires that one accept the incredible: that the struggle that split the Bolshevik Party and the international Communist movement in the 1920s and 1930s signified, in essence, nothing? The mass killings ordered by Stalin, the destruction of all those within Soviet society who were suspected, because of their political biography or intellectual interests, of even the most remote connection to Trotskyism—all this supposedly was done even though the Soviet dictator had no basic political or theoretical differences with Trotsky. And, at the same time, we are expected to believe that Trotsky wrote thousands of articles denouncing the Soviet regime and worked tirelessly to build an international movement dedicated to its overthrow only to conceal his agreement with Stalin’s policies!

Was Stalinism inevitable?

Taking as their point of departure an ideologically-motivated conclusion—that the regime of Stalinist totalitarianism was the predetermined outcome of Bolshevik theory and politics—the adherents of the post-Soviet school of falsification ignore facts that indicate otherwise. The professional standards of these authors are deplorably low. And yet, the underlying argument retains a certain seductive attraction, even for many students who are by no means sympathetic to the ideological prejudices of the post-Soviet school of falsification. After all, how is one to explain the transition from Lenin to Stalin? Is it not true that within only a few years of having conquered power, the Bolshevik regime had been transformed into a ruthless dictatorship? Is it not reasonable to look for the seeds of this transformation within the Bolshevik Party, and especially its ideology?

This argument is not new. Back in the 1930s, at the high point of the Stalinist terror, even as his old comrades were being slaughtered and he himself was being pursued by GPU assassins, Trotsky was repeatedly confronted with the accusation that he, as a leader of the October Revolution, shared responsibility for the enormities of the Soviet regime.

He replied to these attacks by pointing to the basic flaw in the historical methodology of these critics. In seeking to discover the source of Stalinism in the ideology of Bolshevism—that is, by transferring the concept of original sin to the study of Soviet politics—the anti-Marxists examined Bolshevism as if it had evolved inside a sterile laboratory. They overlooked the fact that the Bolshevik Party, for all its dynamism, was only one element in the vast social panorama of the Russian Revolution. Though it was certainly the decisive political factor in the development of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Party did not create it out of nothing. And even after it had conquered state power, the Bolshevik Party did not thereby become the sole determinant of social reality. The limits of its power were conditioned by a mass of antecedent historical factors, not to mention a complex interaction of international political and economic variables.

The party not only influenced; it was also influenced by the social conditions that it confronted upon taking power. The Bolshevik Party could, through decrees, abolish private ownership of the means of production, but it could not abolish a thousand years of Russian history. It could not abolish all the different forms of social, economic, cultural and political backwardness that were the legacy of Russia’s historical development over those many centuries.

All human beings carry within their DNA the genetic matter that determines the general pattern of their biological development. But even in this natural process the influence of conditions external to the human body, such as an atmosphere altered by the effects of industry, plays a not unimportant role. And if the fate of every man and woman is considered from the standpoint of their existence as social animals, we know that the historical circumstances in which they live may exert a very decisive influence on even the purely physical aspects of their development.

If anthropologists cannot ignore the decisive influence of external, socially-conditioned factors in the development of humans, historians should not attempt to deal with a complex political phenomenon such as the Bolshevik Party as if its political evolution proceeded in accordance with instructions encoded invisibly within its general theoretical outlook.

Our refutation of the ideological metaphysicians of the post-Soviet school of falsification does not require that we attribute perfection to the Bolshevik Party, or deny the possibility that political errors made by Lenin and Trotsky following the October Revolution—such as the ban on inner-party factions at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921—contributed in some way to the growth of bureaucracy and the eventual consolidation of the Stalinist dictatorship. One might even conclude that there were elements in the organizational conceptions and forms of Bolshevism that could be and were, under certain conditions, utilized by Stalin to build up a dictatorial regime. But the critical phrase is under certain conditions. Bolshevism contained within itself conflicting tendencies. But their development can only be understood within the context of the development of the economic and social contradictions confronting Soviet society as a whole.

Even in considering the roles played by the most crucial individuals, it is necessary to recognize the primacy of objective conditions and circumstances.

Stalin’s political evolution

Several years ago I had a discussion in Moscow with Ivan Vrachev, one of the few individuals who had been a member of the Left Opposition in the 1920s—he signed the oppositionist Declaration of the 84—and had managed to survive Stalin. He knew Trotsky and most other leaders in the Bolshevik Party, including Stalin, very well. I asked Vrachev whether there was anything about Stalin that would have led him to believe that he was a man capable of ordering the extermination of comrades with whom he had worked so closely for many years.

Vrachev replied that he had asked himself this question many times, but he could recall nothing that would have led him to believe that Stalin would be capable of such crimes. Vrachev then related the following story. In 1922, he was about to leave Moscow for an important assignment in the provinces. He had been experiencing pains in his side, but did not care to ask for a postponement of his trip. Before his departure, Vrachev was obligated to meet with Stalin, who was in charge of the party organization. He went to the Kremlin, where he reviewed with Stalin the details of his impending trip.

At some point in the discussion, Stalin seemed to become aware of Vrachev’s physical discomfort. Stalin became quite alarmed, and his entire demeanor seemed to express genuine concern. He told Vrachev that it was impermissible to take such risks with his health, ordered him to postpone his departure, and telephoned personally to make the arrangements for a physical examination of Vrachev by the best Kremlin doctors. As it turned out, Vrachev required an operation. Recalling this event, Vrachev conceded that it was possible Stalin was merely concerned with building his apparatus. But his impression remained that Stalin was then still capable of feeling and expressing genuine human emotions.

Stalin committed monstrous crimes. It is difficult to believe that there did not reside within his personality latent psychological elements that made him capable of mass murder. But even in the case of Stalin, these pathological and criminal tendencies were brought to the surface and molded into a particularly hideous form by a certain set of objective conditions. In this regard, it is worth noting an observation made by Trotsky in the late 1930s. He wrote that if Stalin had foreseen the outcome of his battle with the Left Opposition, and even knowing in advance that he would attain absolute power, he would not have embarked upon it.

Ironically, one of Stalin’s political advantages in the struggle against his opponents was that he foresaw so little. Comfortable in his own pragmatism, Stalin was unencumbered by the type of principled considerations, based on serious theoretical analysis, that played such a fundamental role in Trotsky’s selection of political alternatives. The Opposition’s urgent warnings that his policies, domestic and international, would lead to disaster were dismissed by Stalin as panic-mongering. We find in a recently published letter from Stalin to Molotov, dated June 15, 1926, a passage which reveals a great deal about Stalin: “I am not alarmed by economic matters,” he wrote. “Rykov will be able to take care of them. The opposition wins absolutely zero points on economic matters.” [7]

This was Stalin’s private assessment of the overall importance of an issue upon which the fate of the Soviet Union rested. It was worth “zero points.” Stalin could not imagine that the accumulating contradictions of the Soviet economy under the regime of the NEP would eventually explode in his face and drive him to adopt, only a few years later, the desperate, reckless and murderous policies of mass collectivization.

The international context of the October Revolution

Central to both Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution and Lenin’s “April Theses” was the inextricable link between the struggles of the Russian working class and the international, especially the European, proletariat. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky conceived of the October Revolution in primarily national terms. They understood and justified the overthrow of the Provisional Government as the beginning of an international proletarian resolution of the global capitalist contradictions that were exemplified by the First World War. This perspective had nothing in common with the goal of establishing a self-sufficient socialist system within the boundaries of an economically backward Russia. It was not until the autumn of 1924, several months after Lenin’s death, that Bukharin and Stalin introduced the idea that socialism could be established on a national basis, in one country.

Before that time it was an axiomatic premise of Marxism that the survival of the Bolshevik government, let alone the development of a socialist economy, depended upon the victory of socialist revolutions in Western Europe. It was fervently believed that the conquest of power by the working class in the advanced capitalist countries would provide Soviet Russia with the political, financial, industrial and technological resources vital for its survival.

It might be argued—and it was at the time by the Mensheviks and their allies among the European social democrats—that the Bolsheviks were mad to base the struggle for power on such far-flung international revolutionary calculations. It should be noted, however, that Rosa Luxemburg, whose attitude toward Lenin was by no means uncritical, found precisely that aspect of Bolshevism worthy of the most unstinting praise. She wrote in 1918:

The fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully upon international events. That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political farsightedness and firmness of principle and of the bold scope of their policies. [8]

Luxemburg was not optimistic about the prospects for the Bolshevik regime. Nor did she agree with many elements of the policies pursued by the Bolsheviks after coming to power. But it never occurred to her to suggest that the Bolsheviks should not have taken power or that their political errors were the expression of some sort of utopian fanaticism. Even as she criticized the suppression of democracy and the excessive use of terror, Luxemburg directed her moral condemnations not at the Bolsheviks, but at the German social democrats, whose betrayal of revolutionary principles and support for the war policies of the German government, which included the occupation of large portions of Russia, had placed the Soviet government in such a desperate situation.

It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. …

… All of us are subject to the laws of history, and it is only internationally that the socialist order of society can be realized. The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of the historical possibilities. They are not supposed to perform miracles. For a model and faultless proletarian revolution in an isolated land, exhausted by world war, strangled by imperialism, betrayed by the international proletariat, would be a miracle. [9]

And she concluded:

What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. … It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!” [10]

How refreshing these words sound today, even after the passage of nearly eighty years! They bear witness to the fact that the most conscious socialists of that period were well aware that the isolation of the Russian Revolution represented the greatest danger to its survival.

The defeats suffered by the European working class in the aftermath of World War I, above all in Germany, were the principal cause of the political degeneration of the Soviet regime. The isolation of Soviet Russia altered drastically the relation of class forces that had made possible the Bolshevik conquest of power. We are speaking here not of a purely theoretical problem, but a physical reality. The principal social base of the October Revolution was a very small but strategically positioned working class. The crisis of Bolshevism cannot be understood apart from the impact of the civil war on the working class.

The costs of civil war

In his writings on the causes of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky frequently referred to the physical and spiritual exhaustion of the working class by the end of the civil war in 1921. Recently-published studies by conscientious historians—whose works, as one might expect, are far less known to the general public—provide important factual information that sheds critical light on the scale of the social catastrophe confronting the Soviet government.

In the valuable study, Soviet State and Society Between Revolutions, 1918–1929, Professor Lewis Siegelbaum of Michigan State University cites statistical data on the shrinkage of the industrial working class in the course of the civil war. At the time of the revolution, there was a total of 3.5 million workers in factories employing more than sixteen workers. That figure dropped to two million in 1918 and to 1.5 million by the end of 1920.

The worst losses were in the big industrial centers. The number of industrial workers in Petrograd numbered 406,000 in January 1917. By mid-1920 that figure had fallen to 123,000. In addition to this absolute numerical decline, the size of the proletariat as a percentage of the city’s total population also declined significantly.

Moscow lost about 100,000 workers between 1918 and 1920, and during the same period the number of factory and mine workers in the Urals dropped from 340,000 to 155,000.

The major industrial and manufacturing sectors of the Soviet economy suffered staggering losses. The textile industry lost 72 percent of its workforce. The machine and metalworking industry lost 57 percent.

The decline of the proletariat was part of a general process of urban depopulation. From a population of 2.5 million in 1917, only 722,000 people were left in Petrograd by 1920, the same number as had lived in the city a half-century earlier. Moscow’s population fell between February 1917 and late 1920 from two million to just over one million, somewhat less than the number recorded in the census of 1897.

Many factors contributed to this disastrous process, of which disease was among the most important. Tens of thousands of people succumbed during epidemics of cholera, influenza, typhus and diphtheria. The Moscow death rate rose from 23.7 per thousand in 1917 to 45.4 in 1920.

Another major factor in depopulation and deindustrialization was the desperate need of the newly-created Red Army for troops to fight the imperialist-backed White armies. Mobilizations by the Red Army removed well over a half-million workers from the factories between 1918 and 1920.

The impact of this demographic catastrophe was felt not only economically, but also politically. The Red Army depended for its successes, to a great extent, on the devotion and initiative of the most class-conscious sections of the working class. The depletion of the industrial proletariat involved the loss of precisely those workers who had played important roles in the revolutionary struggles of 1917, in factory committees or in other party-led organizations. There is no question that a statistically-significant section of workers who had, at the very least, voted for the Bolsheviks in elections to the soviets and then to the Constituent Assembly were drawn away from the industrial locations by the demands of the civil war.

The losses suffered by the Communist Party were staggering. It has been estimated that 200,000 out of 500,000 Communists who served in the Red Army were killed during the civil war. The political implications of such devastating mortality rates among the revolutionary cadres can be better appreciated by drawing attention to the influx of new members into the Communist Party, particularly after the military position of the Soviet government improved as a result of major victories in the autumn of 1919. Between August 1919 and March 1920, the membership of the party grew from 150,000 to 600,000. The caliber of this new intake was, in general, very much lower than that of those who had been lost.

By the end of the civil war, the social and political base of the Soviet government and the ruling party had been significantly altered. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” had lost a significant section of the proletariat upon which it had been based. And the “vanguard party” had suffered the loss of a large section of those who, by dint of long experience, had constituted a genuine political vanguard within the working class. Moreover, the actual social composition of the Bolshevik Party had undergone a fundamental change. The percentage of members who described their social origin as white collar, as opposed to proletarian, had increased significantly. Siegelbaum draws attention to the growing importance of this “lower middle strata,” or petty bourgeoisie, in the affairs of the party and state organizations.

The lower middle strata thus successfully grafted themselves onto the workers’ and peasants’ revolution. The result was that the social composition of the revolutionary state was more heterogeneous and less proletarian than generally has been acknowledged. What impact these “alien elements” had on the day-to-day functioning of the state, whether they possessed a specific psychology that was itself alien to the original revolutionary project, is not entirely clear. [11]

The character of the Bolshevik Party was changed not only by the loss of seasoned working class cadres and the influx of tens of thousands of inexperienced and politically-questionable recruits. Among the older cadres who had survived the years of revolution and civil war, the “professional demands of power” (to borrow a phrase used by Christian Rakovsky, Trotsky’s closest political ally in the Opposition) took an unforeseen and serious toll. In a backward country where a vast portion of the population was illiterate and technical skills were in limited supply, party members were invariably dragged into management and administrative positions. The innumerable and ever expanding state agencies and party organizations vied with each other to obtain the services of cadres who possessed some sort of managerial skills. In this way a significant section of the party cadre was swept up in a process of bureaucratization.

Amidst economic chaos and desperate poverty, positions within the organizations and agencies of the state and party provided some small measure of personal security. The possibility of obtaining one passable meal a day at the workplace canteen constituted a not insignificant privilege. In all sorts of small but important ways, a bureaucratic caste, with specific social interests, gradually took shape.

The impact of the NEP

The Soviet government introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. It encouraged the revival of a capitalist market in order to restore the foundations of organized economic activity in Russia. Although a necessary response to the ruinous economic situation confronting the isolated Soviet state, the NEP accelerated the process of political degeneration within the ruling party. Given the fact that the proletarian base of the state and party had been drastically weakened, the impetus given by the NEP to the growth of capitalist tendencies within Soviet Russia was bound to have dangerous political consequences.

The NEP breathed new life into social elements that had viewed the Bolshevik Revolution as the apocalypse. Businessmen and traders re-emerged, and by 1922 a stock exchange was once again functioning in Moscow. The social climate became far more tolerant of inequality, and moods which reflected a certain moral and political decline found expression within the party membership, particularly those who were active in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy.

The NEP contributed to a revival of distinctly nationalist sentiments. The October Revolution was a great event in the history of the international workers movement. But it was also a transformative episode in Russian history. The revolution roused into action millions of people, both workers and peasants, in an epochal project of social reconstruction. The upheaval altered countless aspects of daily life. For many members of the party—especially the new recruits from the lower middle strata for whom the Bolshevik regime had opened new opportunities—the October Revolution appeared as the beginning of a great national revival. Against the background of defeats of the European working class, the practical tasks of building the national Soviet economy appeared to these forces far more realistic than the vision of world socialist revolution.

The caliber of political life within the party deteriorated. From 1920 on leading Bolsheviks frequently voiced their anxiety over the bureaucratization of the state apparatus. Lenin actually referred to Soviet Russia as a “workers state with a bureaucratic twist.” But despite the concerns, the process of bureaucratization was nourished by deep-rooted objective tendencies related to the backwardness of Russia, and the party itself could not remain immune from the intrusion of bureaucracy into all spheres of social life. In the absence of a politically active working class, the methods of bureaucratic management and administration migrated rapidly into the affairs of the party. The most pronounced expression of this process was the growing influence of Stalin, whose principal responsibility as general secretary consisted of selecting the personnel required for the staffing of critical party and state positions. More and more, the power of appointment, which Stalin used to build up a network of supporters, invalidated and replaced the traditional forms of party democracy.

In March 1922, at the Eleventh Party Congress, Lenin warned that the party was in danger of being overwhelmed by the bureaucracy that administered the state. Shortly afterwards he was incapacitated by a stroke that removed him from political activity for several months. When he returned to work in the autumn of 1922, Lenin was stunned by the degree to which the situation within the party had deteriorated. He identified Stalin as the key figure in the process of bureaucratic degeneration. It is clear from the notes and documents prepared by Lenin during the last months of his politically-active life that he was preparing for a decisive confrontation with Stalin at the Twelfth Party Congress scheduled for April 1923. The famous testament written by Lenin calling for Stalin’s removal from the post of general secretary, as well as the letter Lenin sent to Stalin threatening to break all personal relations with him, were part of a political dossier that Lenin intended to present to the party congress. The massive stroke suffered by Lenin in March 1923 saved Stalin’s political career.

In the months that followed Lenin’s final incapacitation, opposition grew to the bureaucratic methods employed by the “triumvirate” of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. The political tensions were exacerbated by deepening anxiety over the consequences of the NEP, expressed particularly, as Trotsky explained in the spring of 1923, in the worsening disparity between industrial and agricultural prices and the continuing deterioration in the conditions of the working class.

The Left Opposition

As it became clear that Lenin would not return to political activity, Trotsky came under pressure to speak out against the suppression of inner-party democracy. On October 8, 1923, Trotsky addressed a letter to the Central Committee that called attention to serious weaknesses in economic policy and also criticized the bureaucratization of party life. One week later, his criticisms were endorsed in a “Declaration” signed by forty-six prominent party members. These events marked the beginning of the political struggle of the Left Opposition.

The myth that Stalinism grew organically out of Marxist and Bolshevik ideology is contradicted by the historical record. There exist tens of thousands of documents, most of which were hidden from the Soviet people for decades, in which the development of Marxism found expression in the struggle waged against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The far-sightedness of the Opposition found expression in the “Declaration of the 46,” which warned that unless there was a radical change in the policies and methods of the leadership, “the economic crisis in Soviet Russia and the crisis of the factional dictatorship in the party will deal heavy blows at the workers’ dictatorship in Russia and the Russian Communist Party. With such a load on its shoulders, the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia and its leader the RCP cannot enter the phase of impending new worldwide disturbances except with the prospect of defeats on the whole front of the proletarian struggle.” [12]

The issues that brought the Opposition into existence in 1923 were the growth of bureaucratism within the party and differences over economic policy. But it was only after the struggle was engaged within the party that the full depth of the programmatic differences of the conflicting tendencies, and, more critically, the antagonistic social forces upon which they were based, emerged into the open. At first, the criticisms of Trotsky and the Platform of the 46 threw the triumvirate into disarray, and it offered a few insincere political concessions. But then it recovered its nerve, counterattacked, and appealed to the social forces that, within the framework of NEP, had become the new constituency of the Soviet regime. This was the significance of Stalin’s unveiling in late 1924 of the theory of “socialism in one country.”

It is doubtful that Stalin anticipated the response that would be evoked by this revision of the international perspective upon which the Bolshevik Revolution had been based, or that he even understood why Trotsky invested his new theory with such far-reaching significance. But Stalin must have already sensed that there existed within the party, not to mention the broader population, a constituency that would welcome such a nationalist reformulation of the party’s perspective. In declaring that socialism could be built in one country, Stalin was validating the practices and outlook that had become fairly common among tens of thousands of party bureaucrats.

Socialism in One Country

The theory of “socialism in one country” appealed especially to the growing bureaucratic strata which were tending with increasing consciousness to identify their own material interests with the development of the “national” Soviet economy. But it was not only bureaucrats who responded to this perspective. Within broad layers of the working class, the general political exhaustion expressed itself in a retreat from the internationalist aspirations of the October Revolution. Especially after the debacle suffered by the German Communist Party in October 1923, the promise of a national solution to the crisis of Soviet society seemed to offer a new lifeline for the besieged revolution.

In one of his more candid moments, Stalin suggested that the theory of “socialism in one country” served the valuable function of offering the Soviet masses a reason to believe that the October Revolution had not been made in vain, and that those who denied the possibility of building socialism in Russia, regardless of the fate of the international revolutionary movement, were dampening the faith and enthusiasm of the working class. It was necessary to assure the workers that they were, through their own efforts, achieving socialism. To arguments of this sort Trotsky replied in 1928:

The theory of socialism in one country inexorably leads to an underestimation of the difficulties which must be overcome and to an exaggeration of the achievements gained. One could not find a more antisocialist and antirevolutionary assertion than Stalin’s statement to the effect that “socialism has already been 90 percent realized in the USSR.”… Harsh truth and not sugary falsehood is needed to fortify the worker, the agricultural laborer, and the poor peasant, who see that in the eleventh year of the revolution, poverty, misery, unemployment, bread lines, illiteracy, homeless children, drunkenness, and prostitution have not abated around them. Instead of telling them fibs about having realized 90 percent socialism, we must say to them that our economic level, our social and cultural conditions, approximate today much closer to capitalism, and a backward and uncultured capitalism at that, than to socialism. We must tell them that we will enter on the path of real socialist construction only when the proletariat of the most advanced countries will have captured power; that it is necessary to work unremittingly for this, using both levers—the short lever of our internal economic efforts and the long lever of the international proletarian struggle. [13]

The insistence on the inextricable dependence of the Soviet Union upon the development of world socialist revolution and, conversely, the impossibility of constructing socialism in a single country, constituted the theoretical and programmatic foundation of the struggle waged by Trotsky and the Left Opposition against the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is not possible to understand the program of the Left Opposition if its separate elements—such as the re­establishment of party democracy, the development of planning, the strengthening of industry—are detached from this central unifying conception.

Most historians, including those not entirely unsympathetic to Trotsky, are inclined to see in his commitment to world revolution the weakest element of his overall program. And, therefore, even the sympathetic historians tend to treat his opposition to Stalinism as if it were quixotic. By pursuing the chimera of world revolution, they suggest, Trotsky failed to anchor his opposition to Stalinism to a secure foundation.

This criticism gravely underestimates the revolutionary potential that existed in the international workers movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and fails to appreciate the really dreadful impact of Stalinism on the development of world revolution. The political destruction of the Comintern by the Stalinists—that is, its transformation into an appendage of the Soviet bureaucracy—was the major cause of the calamitous defeats suffered by the working class, above all in Britain in 1926, China in 1927, Germany in 1933 and Spain in 1936–37. These defeats, in turn, profoundly affected the course of developments within the Soviet Union.

What accounts for this failure, even among conscientious contemporary historians, to study the international revolutionary strategy of Trotsky and the Left Opposition with the seriousness that it deserves? The reactionary political environment and the stagnant intellectual culture exerts an insidious influence on academics. Little remains of their youthful optimism. The skepticism toward, if not outright rejection of, the very possibility of socialist revolution is a response to the horrendous decline in the political and theoretical level of the international workers movement. Contemporary historians, even those who once considered themselves sympathetic to socialism—and were drawn, for that very reason, to study the Russian Revolution—now find it impossible to imagine a mass labor movement led by Marxists and animated by revolutionary internationalist aspirations. Their present-day pessimism has acquired a retroactive character. They project their current sense of hopelessness about the future onto their estimations of past revolutions.

This brings us, in conclusion, to the present-day significance of the Left Opposition as a subject of contemporary historical study. This, I am convinced, is one of the richest and most important areas for serious researchers. Until recently there existed no possibility of undertaking a systematic study of the Left Opposition. Comparatively little is known about this extraordinary movement of political opposition to the totalitarian dictatorship. This terrible void in our knowledge of one of the most important political struggles of twentieth century history is the legacy of Stalinism. The Soviet bureaucracy’s consolidation of power was accompanied by the discrediting, criminalization and physical destruction of its political opponents. The terror was supplemented by a campaign of historical falsification that had as its aim the obliteration from the consciousness of the Soviet and international working class of all traces of the great Marxist tradition and culture represented by Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Only in this way could the Soviet bureaucracy establish the false identification of Stalinism and Marxism.

The conditions for destroying the vast edifice of lies are now emerging. The opening of the archives in Russia, notwithstanding the political circumstances that made this possible, marks the beginning of a new era in Soviet studies—and one with the most profound intellectual and political implications for the future of Marxism.

Slowly but surely, the discovery, publication and critical assimilation of documents and long-lost manuscripts will reshape public consciousness of the historical development of the Russian Revolution. There will be growing recognition of the Marxist alternative to Stalinism advanced by Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Brilliant political figures like Rakovsky, Preobrazhensky, Piatakov, Joffe, Sosnovsky, Eltsin, Ter-Vaganian, Boguslavsky, Vilensky and Voronsky, to name only a few of the leading Oppositionists, will be the subject of major biographies; and, the life of Trotsky—one of the greatest political and intellectual figures of the twentieth century—will be reexamined in the light of new and vital information. Marxism and the cause of international socialism can only gain from this vital process of intellectual renewal.


Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 178.


“Utopias in History,” in Acts/Proceedings, 18th International Congress of Historical Sciences (Montreal, 1995), pp. 487–489.


Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1988), p. 254.


Ibid., pp. 255–259.


Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Volume 3, “The Breakdown” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 2.


Ibid., pp. 8–9 and p. 22.


Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov and Oleg V. Khlevniuk, ed., Stalin’s Letters to Molotov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 114.


Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 28.


Ibid., pp. 78–80.


Ibid., p. 80.


Lewis Siegelbaum, Soviet State and Society Between Revolutions, 1918–1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 62–63.


Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923–25 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), p. 450.


Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1996), pp. 84–85.