Was Trotsky’s Defeat inevitable?

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

John Marot

Trotsky, 1923-1927:
Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy
By Tony Cliff
Bookmarks, 265 Seven Sisters Road, London England,
1990, 306 pages, $11.95 paper.

TONY CLIFF’S TROTSKY, 1923-1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy, the third volume of his political biography, focuses almost exclusively on Trotsky’s efforts between 1923-1927 to curb the bureaucratization of the ruling party and state in the Soviet Union. This period opens with prominent party leaders Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin allying against Trotsky. It was followed, in 1925, with a new alignment of forces, where Zinoviev and Kamenev now turned against Stalin and his new ally Bukharin.

Meanwhile, the international working-class movement suffered defeat after defeat, in the German Revolution of 1923, the British General Strike of 1926, and the Chinese Revolution of 1925-1927. Finally, early in 1927, Trotsky, having lain low for nearly eighteen months, now joined his former opponents Zinoviev and Kamenev in a United Opposition against Stalin’s rising dictatorship. But Stalin was able to smash the United Opposition, destroying in the process the last remnants of inner party democracy. The book ends with Trotsky’s arrest and banishment to Central Asia.

To understand how Trotsky carried out his struggle against this degenerative process centrally involves an assessment of Trotsky’s analysis of the rise of the bureaucracy that he was attempting to combat and of the political strategy Trotsky elected to pursue, on the basis of his analysis, to achieve his political purpose. It is Cliff’s fundamental argument that Trotsky did not recognize in good time that the Russian Communist Party and the Third International (or Comintern) were “dead for the purposes of revolution.” (16)

Trotsky’s Theory

In the preface Cliff presents Trotsky’s general position, and offers his critical appreciation of it. Trotsky believed that factional divisions within the ruling bureaucracy correlated to, and expressed, the interests of classes outside it. The working class, according to Trotsky, which favored democracy and socialism, had an objective interest in preserving the material basis of a democratic socialism, state ownership of the means of production. The interests of workers were therefore “objectively” promoted by the factions of the ruling bureaucracy seeking to preserve state property, designated by Trotsky as the “left” wing.

The “right” wing in Trotsky’s political lexicon referred to the factions which revealed an interest in organizing an economy run competitively, by private individuals. This wing, in his view, favored capitalist restoration and objectively represented the incipient developing capitalist interests of millions-strong small peasant owners in Russia, as well as (already developed) capitalist interests abroad.

Between these two warring factions wobbled the Stalinist “center,” vacillating now to the right, under pressure from the capitalists, now to the left, under pressure from the working class, but never capable of striking out on its own in either domestic or foreign affairs.

It was on the basis of this analysis that Trotsky justified the formation of the United Opposition in 1927, a political bloc with Kamenev and Zinoviev, “left-wing” leaders of the Leningrad Party organization, against the right wing, led by Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov and supported by Stalin.

The original theorist of socialism in one country, Bukharin wanted to develop the economy by fully developing the market mechanisms of the New Economic Policy. This meant encouraging better off peasants, the kulak, to “get rich” at the expense of their poorer neighbors, and by favoring the proto-capitalists in the cities, the NEPmen, to accumulate capital.

According to Cliff, however, Trotsky’s whole approach was disastrously misconceived. This became evident at the latest from 1929 when Stalin, contrary to Trotsky’s expectations, adopted the ostensibly left-wing policies of developing state-owned industry and collectivizing peasant agriculture. In the process Stalin annihilated both the Trotskyist-Zinovievist “left” and the Bukharinist-Tomskyist right, and consolidated, more or less permanently, the power of his own “center” faction.

Meanwhile, in international affairs, the consolidation of the Soviet bureaucracy into a ruling class committed Stalin to a nationalist foreign policy under the guise of building “socialism in one country.” At the same time, all vestiges of workers’ democracy were extirpated.

Yet even later, when Trotsky drew the new political conclusion, in 1933, that the bureaucracy was not “centrist” and could not be swayed to the left, only overthrown through the revolutionary self-activity of the working class, Trotsky still would not change his sociological analysis of the Soviet state. He continued to regard it as “workers’ state” — of a degenerated type — that preserved, by strictly bureaucratic means, socialized property and, therefore, the basis of socialism.

Tony Cliff’s Critique

Trotsky, Cliff writes, “failed to understand the character of the bureaucracy as a ruling class bent on pursuing its own independent interests in fundamental opposition to both the working class and the peasantry” (15). As some readers know, this issue — which produced several splits in the Trotskyist movement — is the one over which Cliff himself broke with Trotskyism in the late 1940s.

The bureaucracy, Cliff maintains, had its own specific goals reflecting its distinct social place: it was neither centrist nor vacillating.

But Trotsky continued to argue for the one party-state, and accepted the banning of factions in the party because he remained convinced that the Soviet Communist Party was still the authentic political custodian of the working class’ historic interests, and that state ownership of the means of production was the necessary material basis to workers’ rule. This attitude strategically disoriented Trotsky’s followers because it “created impossible barriers to any consistent policy of opposition: it forced Trotsky to retreat again and again whenever the leadership decided to ban his activities.” (17)

Cliff begins his chronicle of Trotsky’s strategically misleading “conciliationism” toward the bureaucracy in the summer of 1923, when industrial workers in the cities of Leningrad and Moscow struck to protest falling wages, unemployment, long hours and the lack of democracy on the factory floor. This was the last time working-class opposition would be expressed so sharply and openly.

Party leaders responded by ordering the arrest of the ringleaders, while denouncing workers as narrowly craft-oriented and selfish. Trotsky responded to the workers’ discontent by writing fellow Politburo members a private letter protesting the “unheard-of” bureaucratization of the party apparatus and the lack of democracy for the party rank and file. But, crucially, he was unwilling to grant non-party workers full freedom of expression. He spelled out his views in The New Course, the “hallmark” of “Trotskyism” according to Cliff.

The New Course, a series of articles published in January 1924, offered a sociological critique of Soviet bureaucratization. Referring to the recent industrial unrest, Trotsky warned the party that workers’ discontent had assumed an “extremely morbid form” in the appearance inside the party of “illegal groupings,” such as the Workers’ Group, that were “directed by elements undeniably hostile to communism” (33). To suppress such dangers merely by repression, bureaucratically, was dangerous and wrong.

The party’s course, wrote Trotsky, must be radically reformed. The profound cause of bureaucratism lay in the “heterogeneity of society, the difference between the daily and the fundamental interests of the various groups of the population,” as well as in “the lack of culture among the broad masses.” (35) The application of “apparatus methods” alone to solve these problems was fruitless. Only inner-party democracy, rapid economic development, and socialist revolution in Europe could advance the cause of a democratic socialism in backward Russia.

On Cliff’s interpretation of it, The New Course also revealed the fundamental defect of Trotsky’s political method, its Achilles heel. By publicly representing the Trotskyist Opposition “as the best defenders of party unity and the strongest opponent of inner party factions,” Trotsky supplied his opponents the best argument in favor of the self-dissolution of the…Trotskyist Opposition.

Above all, Trotsky would remain in the “grip” of the following “contradiction:” “On the one hand the party was strangled by bureaucracy,” Cliff writes, “but on the other Trotsky was unwilling to call on social forces outside the party to combat the bureaucracy.” (38)

Trotsky’s Self-Made Trap

In my opinion, Cliff does not take this cogent analysis far enough. For the implications of Trotsky’s sociological analysis of politics were even more politically problematic than Cliff allows. Trotsky’s failure to see the bureaucracy as a social force with its own interests prevented him from seeing that the party itself, especially its ever-more-dominant Stalinist faction, was becoming and, by the mid-twenties, had become the representative of the bureaucracy.

On the other hand, the working class’ undeniable hostility to bureaucracy, in so far as it was expressed, was regarded by Trotsky as a manifestation of the workers’ political immaturity and lack of culture, which counter-revolutionary elements — Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, etc. — were bound to exploit for their factional, anti-working class ends.

In short, Trotsky counterposed the general historical interests of the working class, ostensibly embodied in the party-state, to the actually existing working class with its vital, everyday, material interests. In Trotsky’s very conception of the relationship between this party and state, on the one hand, and the working class, on the other, lay the fatal politics of substitutionism to be carried by out by an ideal substitute for the real working class — the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Stalinist bureaucracy unambiguously presented itself as such a substitute, determined to destroy all false pretenders: “The cadres can only be removed by civil war,” Stalin peremptorily threatened in 1927. But, because Trotsky failed to understand that the bureaucracy was a social force acting in its class interests, he could not understand the politics of this substitutionism.

So long as Trotsky held to his own form of substitutionist politics — derived from his sociology of party and class in the Soviet Union — Trotsky’s relationship to the Stalinist bureaucracy ultimately meant negotiating terms of his political surrender to it. His “conciliationism” was not and could not be even-handed: It had to be, and was, systematically biased in favor of the party-state which, somehow, was representative of the working class despite its objectively anti-working class policies.

Trotsky’s hostility toward factional activity, let alone activity leading to a split and the formation of a second party, was thus a principled one, setting a precedent that would be invoked time and again by Trotsky’s opponents — if only because Trotsky would not disavow it, on principle. It was exemplified in his principled position toward, for example, the factional activity of the Workers’ Group of 1923.

Formed in the spring of 1923, the Workers’ Group sought out alliances with elements of previous oppositions. It even looked for support abroad, among left-wing elements of the German Communist Party led by Arkadi Maslow and Gorter’s Dutch Communists. Denouncing the New Economic Policy as the “New Exploitation of the Proletariat” by bureaucratically appointed factory managers and directors of industry, it sought recruits among party and non-party workers in Russia, and attempted to lend political definition and direction to a massive strike wave when it erupted in August and September of 1923.

Trotsky opposed the Workers’ Group. He “did not condemn their persecution. He did not protest at the arrest of their supporters. He did not support their incitement of workers to industrial action.” (26) He refused to publicly and unreservedly support the over 200 party members who had dared to participate actively in the workers’ strike movement, and who had been subsequently expelled from the party.

Action speaks louder than words, public action louder still. Trotsky did not then appear to workers to be that redoubtable fighter against bureaucratic repression and hooliganism that Cliff today, despite Trotsky’s equivocation, would like socialist militants to believe Trotsky “objectively” always was.

While he ignored overtures from rank-and-file oppositionists, Trotsky was ready to extend political cooperation to factions organized by one or another element of the party leadership. In 1927 Trotsky justified his alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev, the United Opposition, on the grounds that their recent turn against Stalin and their defense of state ownership of the means of production and a pro-industrializing policy was, in Trotsky’s words, a “bureaucratically distorted expression of the political anxiety felt by the most advanced sections of the proletariat.” (141)

This characterization charitably overlooked the more mundane anxiety felt by Kamenev and Zinoviev as they observed Stalin maneuvering to destroy the two men’s bureaucratic fiefdom in Leningrad. Trotsky’s alliance with Kamenev and Zinoviev could only appear to the uninitiated to be just another bureaucratic move on everybody’s part, including

On the international arena, Trotsky went out of his way to conciliate Zinoviev and Kamenev. Tactically, in the interests of preserving the opposition bloc’s unity Trotsky publicly renounced the theory of permanent revolution and the policy of the united front. Incredibly, these now became mere bargaining chips, to be traded in when politically expedient.(2) But Trotsky, by acquiescing to policies he knew would help defeat the workers’ movement abroad, undoubtedly helped to undermine his fight against Stalinist reaction at home.

A Fight Already Lost

The United Opposition made a final, desperate effort to appeal directly to the non-party masses on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Victor Serge movingly describes this heartbreaking scene: As they reached the platform where Trotsky and Zinoviev stood,

“…the demonstrators made a silent gesture by lingering on the spot, and thousands of hands were outstretched, waving handkerchiefs or caps. It was a dumb acclamation, futile but still overwhelming….The masses are with us, Trotsky and Zinoviev kept saying that night. Yet what possibilities were there in masses who were so submissive that they contained their emotions like this? As a matter of fact, everybody in the crowd knew that the slightest gesture endangered his own and his family’s livelihood.” (Cliff’s citation 259-60.)

A few weeks later, Trotsky would be arrested for counter-revolutionary activity, and deported to distant Alma-Ata, near the Chinese frontier.

Disastrous Error

The masses were not naturally submissive. Cliff displays insufficient psycho-political insight when he points to this event merely to “demonstrate the passivity of the mass of workers, their lack of will to fight for the Opposition.” (261-2) No. Years of threats, intimidation and humiliation had forced them to submit. And in those years these masses had not seen Trotsky stride forward onto the public arena to defend them.

On that day, November 7, 1927, they paid silent homage to Trotsky as a historical personage, a man who had once said and done great things — but a man who belonged to an earlier, revolutionary era, now gone.

The lack of support from the party rank and file was subsequently used by Trotsky to explain the weakness of the opposition and its ultimate defeat. But behind the destruction of the United Opposition lay an even greater failure of political analysis on Trotsky’s part.

What could Trotsky have possibly gained from appealing at this late date to this party, whose by-now thoroughly servile, career-seeking, time-serving rank and file had absorbed the fateful ethos of its Stalinist leadership? Had not Trotsky been the first to discern and describe in clinical detail that ethos? In throwing himself and his followers at the mercy of this rank and file’s all too real Stalinist prejudices, not their illusory revolutionary, Marxist judgment, was Trotsky not committing a political error of the first magnitude?

To blindly persist in this course of action was inevitably to doom the fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy to a lost cause. Trotsky subsequently lauded himself and the Left Opposition for accurately forecasting their own defeat. But this praise is misplaced because it confuses political leadership with self- fulfilling prophecy. Above all, it is to underhandedly abdicate political responsibility for the victory of Stalinism by refusing to acknowledge fully the part played by the failure of one’s own actions to prevent this somber outcome.

The cumulative political impact of Trotsky’s errors was disastrous, and Cliff recognizes this: “The zigzags in the fight against Stalin could not but weaken Trotsky’s own supporters. Cadres cannot be kept if they have to abstain from action…Rank and file oppositions cannot survive politically without a fight in the here and now.” (19)

Limitations of Cliff’s Critique

But Cliff considerably weakens his own case against Trotsky’s overall political strategy and direction, because he tends to counterpose Trotsky’s political failure to the “objective” correlation of class forces that favored the rise of the bureaucracy in Russia — instead of seeing Trotsky’s faulty politics, flowing from his incorrect analysis, as contributing to the formation of that objective correlation.

In other words, Cliff accepts Trotsky’s political self-evaluation as basically valid, and repeats Trotsky’s reasons for Stalin’s victory:

“The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin was rooted in Russia’s economic and social backwardness and its isolation. The civil war brought about the disintegration of the Russian proletariat as a class. Its regroupment was
further weakened by the defeat of the international proletariat…. (12)

No doubt this is true. Yet, as Cliff acknowledges, Trotsky’s mistaken course of action itself surely tended to lower the political consciousness of workers, to deaden them into passivity, to mislead them as to the dangers that were in store for them. But this recognition is very often undermined, if not vitiated outright, by Cliff’s simultaneous belief that the defeat of the Trotskyist opposition was inscribed in objective conditions, not in its politics. If so, then Trotsky’s politics, along with the analysis which justified them, are simply irrelevant to the outcome.

On Cliff’s account, Trotsky’s real dilemma was the “problem of how to keep the cadres together without involving them in a struggle going beyond the party ranks, which meant appealing to the workers en masse” (19). However much a dilemma this posed in theory to Trotsky, in practice Trotsky resolved it in a very definite way. He turned his back on struggling workers — to argue with the bureaucracy.

In sum, Trotsky exercised his judgment. But Cliff wants to go back to the aforementioned objective conditions, the balance of class forces, which in Cliff’s view determined Trotsky’s judgment. Here Cliff falls into a determinist reductionism that excuses Trotsky’s errors and, in the end, exonerates Trotsky politically. If no course other than Trotsky’s was possible, then the rise of Stalinism was foreordained; but this contradicts Cliff’s other view that it was not inevitable, that Trotsky’s politics did matter.

Had Trotsky seen that the bureaucracy was a new, self-acting social force which had by the mid-twenties pretty much secured control of the party-state, he could have seen that it was fruitless to attempt to induce this party-state to adopt revolutionary policies at home and abroad and that there was no choice but to appeal to another social force, the working class, to do battle against it. Had Trotsky understood that behind the politics of the bureaucracy lay the defense of bureaucratic interests he could have led a faction fight prepared, if necessary, to split and to form a new party to defend the interests of the working class.

Cliff knows this perfectly well, but calls upon “objective Conditions” to assume responsibility for Trotsky’s false political judgment, and for the false policies he adopted on the basis of that judgment. The low “level of consciousness of the working class,” Cliff writes, defensively, “gravely circumscribed [Trotsky’s] ability to resist Stalinist reaction.” (13)

Lessons of Defeat

Trotsky himself rejected the reactionary argument that the political maturity of workers dictates the kind of leadership they get:

“A `false policy of the masses’ is explained by the `immaturity of the masses.’ But what is `immaturity’ of the masses? Obviously their predisposition to false policies. Of just what this policy consisted in and who were its initiators: the masses or their leaders — that is passed over in silence by our author. By means of this tautology he unloads the responsibility on the masses….The workers’ line of march at all times cut a certain angle to the line of the leadership. And at the most critical moments this angle became 180 degrees.(3)

Unfortunately, Trotsky seems not to have consistently applied this line of reasoning to his own political leadership in the struggle against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy. Cliff also tends to reject it: “It was the objective conditions that determined how successful the opposition could be.” (277)

Wrongly thinking that Trotsky’s “conciliationism” was merely reflective of the low level of activity of the working class, Cliff does not fully appreciate just how much, in fact, it expressed a principled strategy of political action that corresponded to Trotsky’s strategic (mis-understanding of the (non-class) nature of bureaucracy, and not to some imagined uniform, and uniformly low, level of the masses political maturity.

Again, had Trotsky recognized sufficiently early, say by 1923 or 1924, that the material interests of the bureaucracy were fully and implacably at odds with those of the producers, whether peasant or worker, he could have predicted the reactionary domestic and foreign policy of the period, and fought against it by supporting — and more fully developing the class struggle politics that lay within — the existing struggles against the emergent bureaucratic state led by revolutionary elements remaining in the Russian working class. Moreover, thanks to his international stature, Trotsky would have been strategically placed to complement and coordinate the struggles of workers in the West and the East with those in Russia, and so mutually reinforce all three.

Could this strategy, based on the international interests of the working class, have reversed the course of events in Russia and abroad? No doubt the objective conditions were unfavorable. But however unfavorable they may have become, there was no alternative but to appeal to the class interests of the workers. To oppose such a strategy was incorrect, for any other course of action was doomed to failure — whatever the objective conditions.

Tragically, during the critical years of the mid-twenties when Stalin’s faction gained control of the party and the new bureaucracy consolidated its power over the state, Trotsky believed that by his holding a mirror to the bureaucracy the latter would recoil in horror at its own image, reform its political ways and change course toward internationalism, revolution and democracy. Trotsky tried to convince the leaders of Russian Communist Party and of the Comintern to be vehicles of revolution, not reactionary roadblocks.

He wrote sociological dissertations and researched history to teach “lessons” to Stalin, Zinoviev, and Bukharin. But all this blackboard socialism was meaningless to those whose social position and material interests blinded them to the profound lessons Trotsky sought to teach. By so squandering the accumulated political capital of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky unwittingly condemned his opposition to be, for far too long, little more than a politically impotent sociologism.

By arguing with the real enemies of the working class, Trotsky alienated his real friends among the workers. It would be academic to debate the extent to which Trotsky prepared his own defeat. The point is that he prepared it.


  1. Cliff provides empirical evidence that illustrates the weakness of Trotsky’s analysis of Kamenev and Zinoviev as leaders of a pro-working class, industrializing “new left” (141). Whatever their “left-wing” political goals, their methods to achieve them were thoroughly Stalinist. Cliff cites the historian T. E. Nisonger, who drew these parallels between Stalinists and Zinovievists. Both “sought to create the impression that they were supported by the rank-and-file Communists, both undertook to remove hostile newspaper editors, both claimed that their opponents were violating party unity, both used to their own advantage the power of appointing and discharging party officials…” (139) The always observant Victor Serge noted: “Zinoviev, whose demagogy was quite sincere, believed every word he said about the warm support of Leningrad’s working class masses for his own clique.” (Cliff’s citation, 136).
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  2. Trotsky thus gave up hrs demands for the break-up of the Anglo Russian Committee and the withdrawal of the Chinese Communist Party from the Kuomintang. As a result of Comintern policy the potential of the British Communists to, gain a significant influence over their working class was gravely undermined while, in China, it led to the destruction outright of the Revolution. Both defeats contributed mightily to the isolation of the Russian Revolution whose ultimate salvation lay precisely abroad, as Cliff rightly recognizes.
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  3. Trotsky, “The Class, The Party, and the Leadership;” in Tony Cliff et al., Party and Class (London, n.d.), 69. [This essay, published after Trotsky’s death, was a manuscript critical of the policies of the far left in the Spanish revolutionary crisis of the 1930s — ed.]
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ATC 52, September-October 1994