The question of the party: Trotsky's weak point
Trotsky made an inestimable contribution to the
preservation and development of revolutionary Marxism in the first half of the
20th century, both by his militant activity and by his analyses.
This contribution embraces a vast terrain stretching from
the comprehension of particular societies (Tsarist Russia, a young imperialism,
the bureaucratic post-capitalist society in the USSR), immense socio-political
phenomena (for example fascism, the social-democratic and Stalinist degeneration
of the workers' movement, the complex processes of the class struggle, the
revolution in the Third World), as well as a development of the programmatic,
strategic, tactical and organisational perspectives of the workers' movement. In
this vast ensemble, his weak point is the problem of the party.
This weakness is in part linked to his trajectory as a
militant. Trotsky did not have the capacity (1903-1917) or the opportunity
(after 1917) to participate directly in the construction of a revolutionary
party, in its main aspects (beyond general analyses and perspectives), namely
the elaboration and the implementation of a political line and concrete tactics,
a collective work inside a central leadership, the construction of a political-organisational
apparatus, work in common with other cadres and militants; and more generally
the implementation of an internal dialectic which prioritises the experience of
party militants in the elaboration of the line. Between 1903 and 1917, having
broken with Lenin, he did not try to organise a current or a party (confining
himself to an activity as journalist and orator).
When he joined the Bolshevik party in June 1917, it was
to immediately join its central leadership (June 1917): the question was no
longer building a party, but leading a self-organised mass movement towards the
conquest of political power.
Then he defended the revolution in the civil war,
creating and leading the Red Army. At the head of the Third International (1919)
he helped Lenin to transform the ex-social-democratic and anarcho-syndicalist
leaders through the specific experience of the Bolshevik party which had been
capable of overthrowing the bourgeoisie.
It was only when he was expelled from the CP, expelled
from the USSR and hunted across the planet by Stalin's police apparatus, that he
developed the best synthesis of revolutionary strategy of the period
1903-1922.(1) In his new militant situation, preparing and founding the Fourth
International, through postal communication and occasional visits from his
partisans, Trotsky turned his attention to building often small and marginalised
organisations. He spared neither time nor energy in educating them in all the
But, in reality, this was not about the construction of
independent parties with social implantation, but participation in a political
recomposition where the "Trotskyists" tried to salvage a part of the
workers' movement (social-democratic, but above all Stalinist) and to advance
"quickly" towards a revolutionary party. This history and the personal
trajectory which underlay it generated a very particular political-intellectual
heritage, which can be explored from two angles: what was Trotsky's thinking on
the construction of the revolutionary party, beyond a general principal
conception, and how have the succeeding Trotskyist generations grasped it and
applied it in practice?
The answer is not simple. For Trotsky was the man of the
revolutionary moments of this century and the mass leader, rather than a
"party man" who organised collective work through the ups and downs of
the political conjuncture.
What appears on all the evidence to have been
"over-determinant" is the battle to the death waged by Stalinism to
discredit and kill "Trotskyism", starting with Trotsky himself. The
"anti-Bolshevik" past of the pre-1917 period weighed very heavily in
the balance. Trotsky's explanations as to his relationship with Lenin are in
general forced and uneasy. On the one hand, he did not cease to recognise in an
emphatic manner his debt, indeed his subordination to Lenin. He thus voluntarily
under-evaluated his own militant and political contribution when he co-led the
party, the revolution and the International (between 1917 and 1922-24).
But on the other hand, he tends also to reduce the width
and depth of his political divergences with Lenin before 1917: and with reason,
for this is precisely the period when Lenin trained and organised his
"middle cadres", including a certain Joseph Stalin. One can say that
Trotsky, in his line of self-defence against Stalin's assaults, had two strong
elements. Firstly, he maintains, but in the manner of a note, that there had
been "three conceptions of the Russian revolution": Menshevik,
Bolshevik and his own - the permanent revolution. And that this last was the
At the same time, he limits the political significance of
it: he explains that he never tried, before 1917, to constitute a specific
platform inside the Russian social democratic party (reunified after 1905) on
such a strategic programmatic question; and he would protest vigorously against
Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin when they reopened the debate on the subject (as a
diversionary manoeuvre) in autumn 1924, that is after the death of Lenin.
But at the same time Trotsky considered that the
divergence on the permanent revolution (opposed to Lenin's formula of "the
democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry") explained the
drift of the Bolshevik party in February-March 1917, when the leadership of the
Bolshevik party on the ground in Petrograd (Kamenev-Stalin) rallied to the
bourgeois government which emerged from the first phase of the revolution.
Secondly, if he admitted that, since 1917, the centralisation of the party was a
very important element, he considered that the "committee men" (the
leaders of the committees, in other words the middle cadres) were a danger for
the party, enemies of democracy, authoritarian, a real incarnation of the
tendency to "substitute" the party for the working class.
The two elements together are, in Trotsky's eyes, the
cause of "the drift" that the Bolshevik party experienced in February
1917 and the reason why it had to undergo a radical change in its programme and
the composition of his leadership. If that had succeeded, it was through the
dialectic between the action of Lenin, who imposed a new programme (2), and the
Bolshevik worker militants, who carried into the party the revolutionary spirit
of the worker masses.
Trotsky believed that his own error could be summed up as
the under-estimation of the centralisation of the party, which related to the
nature of the party and his attempt to gather all the currents in the same party
("conciliationism") - under the impact of a revolutionary upsurge.
The Fourth International during Trotsky's life, and the
Trotskyist current since then, have based themselves on this history. This has
had a series of positive and negative consequences. The main positive
consequence, a real gain for the international revolutionary movement, has been
the development of the strategy of the permanent revolution, entirely validated
by the positive and negative experiences of the revolutions in the so-called
Third World, and on another level, by the problematic of "socialism in one
country", which is the ideological basis of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
The main negative consequence is the incomprehension of
the reasons which allowed Lenin to build, in the period from 1905 to 1914, a
party which had succeeded in crossing the stage of initial accumulation of
cadres and had become a party, still a minority one, but already socially
implanted and capable of influencing certain mass sectors of the working class
and the urban intelligentsia. (that is, it had precisely resolved the problem
that has bedevilled revolutionary Marxists since the political-organisational
monopoly of social democracy and Stalinism in the workers' movement began to
break up in some countries in imperialist Europe in the years 1965-68). There is
a clear necessity for a reorganisation of the historiography of the period
1895-1914, with a re-evaluation of the key sequences, and a re-evaluation of the
policy of Trotsky and Lenin in this period.
From a practical point of view, the conclusion is
indubitable: at the moment where, in July-August 1914 (the "forgotten
revolution") the Bolshevik party led the insurrectional general strike in
Petrograd and Moscow and became the majority current in the working class in
those cities, Trotsky was war journalist in the Balkans, isolated in the Party
and cut off from the workers' movement in Russia. It was the culminating point
of the respective political and organisational choices that the main leaders of
the revolution of October had made.
It was Lenin's determination to attach himself "to
the real movement" in Russia combined with a succession of complex
socio-political conjunctures which fashioned and rooted the Bolshevik party in
(urban) Russian society. It is the policy of Lenin which was determinant and not
his "conception of the party" such as it is commonly understood
(democratic centralism, the general programme).
It was the political weakness of Trotsky which was at the
base of his defeat at the level of the organisation. One can sum it up in the
following manner: before 1917, his extra-ordinary capacity to grasp the
significant general tendencies of the era and to draw strategic perspectives did
not allow him to develop a revolutionary policy (and he was unable or unwilling
to create a militant collective). His weakness on the party is located in this
framework.(3) On Trotsky's side, two men and two events had a determinant
influence in the short period from 1902-1905,: Parvus and Axelrod; the second
congress of the social democratic p in 1903 and the first Russian revolution
Trotsky met Lenin in 1902. He was 23, Lenin 32. Trotsky
was a neophyte, bursting with militant energy and talent, a convinced Marxist
(it was in prison that he had learned a particularly vibrant and dialectical
"basic Marxism" through reading the Italian philosopher Antonio
Labriola) but with a limited experience. Organiser of a clandestine workers'
circle in the provinces, arrested, imprisoned, then sent into exile in Siberia,
he escaped and joined the circle of leaders in Western Europe. Lenin was already
a hardened militant.
He had organised the real founding congress of the
(revolutionary) social democracy and was convinced that he should take the head
of it. The young Trotsky entered into politics at this level in 1902, joining
the social-democratic leadership in London. Abroad, he made the acquaintance of
two Marxist leaders who would have a significant but contradictory influence on
him: Axelrod, who he met in 1902, and, in 1904, Parvus, "one of the most
important Marxists of the turn of the century".(4)
This latter would open the way to the theory of permanent
revolution by developing a strategic perspective which was unthinkable for the
Marxism of the time: the taking of power by the working class was possible in a
country as backward as Russia. From 1895-96, before Rosa Luxemburg, Parvus had
already conceived "the mass political strike" as the key element of
the workers' strategy. He had predicted that a Russo-Japanese war would be
probable (it would take place in 1903-04) and that, through the war-revolution
dialectic, Russia could carry the proletariat to power as vanguard of the
international socialist revolution.
All this was framed by an international vision of the
transformations in capitalism announcing the advent of imperialism. In August
1904, Trotsky still remained in the strategic framework of Russian social
democracy: "Only a free Russia of the future, where we will be obliged to
play the role of opposition party and not of government, will allow us to
develop to the limit the struggle of the proletariat ".(5) In January 1905,
Parvus crossed the Rubicon: "the revolution could bring a democratic
workers' government to power".(6)
In 1906, after the 1905 revolution Trotsky (7) pushed the
conclusion to the end: this working class, coming to power with the support of
the mass of the peasantry, would be led to transgress the limits of capitalism
and embark on the socialist revolution. Adding immediately: "without the
direct state support of the European proletariat, the working class in Russia
could not remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a durable
socialist dictatorship". The embryo of the theory of permanent revolution
was thus posed.
If the role of Parvus is well known and appreciated, the
same is not true of the other major influence on Trotsky: Boris Axelrod. This
latter played no positive role in traditional "Trotskyist"
historiography. But it was nonetheless him who influenced Trotsky's choices and
concrete political positions the most and for the longest time. In 1898 Axelrod
produced two documents which launched the strategic debate after the big strikes
of 1895-96. They would have a considerable impact on all the leading cadres of
Russian (revolutionary) social democracy, notably Trotsky and Lenin. (though
they would draw different political conclusions according to the
political-theoretical framework already acquired).
Axelrod belonged with Plekhanov to the first Marxist
generation, which had been involved in revolutionary Populism and constituted
the first Marxist nucleus in Russia. His text starts from some notes: the
breadth of the strikes of 1895-96 and the defeat of the attempts to stabilise a
social-democratic organisation; the danger of an "economist" or
"pure syndicalist" falling back on the immediate demands of the
workers and then "resignation" before the fight against the Tsarist
Then he refers to the old analyses of the Populists of
Tchernychevsky and Marx (8) concerning the specificities of the Tsarist social
formation. And he puts forward a political perspective (9): if industrialisation
takes place under the régime of Tsarist despotism, that would stop the
formation of a coherent and active working class, and would bar the way towards
a workers' movement in the European style.
Indeed, Axelrod was also a eulogist, in the best
tradition of Marx himself, of the self-activity of the working class as
indispensable lever to its organisation and its socialist consciousness. For
this latter to emerge it is necessary then to defeat "Asiatism". For
Axelrod, this "civilising" task falls historically to the (liberal)
bourgeoisie. The strategic conclusion is not clearly drawn. But the door is open
to a support, indeed a collaboration with this bourgeoisie and a strategy of
revolution in two stages (it is in fact the still unconscious embryo of
Menshevism which appears here and becomes a consistent strategy after 1905).
Trotsky and Lenin were very impressed by the creativity
of this respectable leader who seduced them also by his human aspect (with
Trotsky, this factor played a political role in his realignment at the Congress
of 1903). But they drew from it very different conclusions.(10) Trotsky, already
educated in this sense by Labriola, absorbed deeply this idea of the primacy of
the autonomy of the proletariat (during his stay with Axelrod in London in
His polemical book against Lenin, Our political tasks,
poor and erroneous as it is on the political and organisational level, is one of
the first examples of a Russian Marxist text which takes this theme as its
central axis. If he accepts the idea of the role of the peasantry (which Parvus
rejected, but which Lenin defended from 1901: another element of the permanent
revolution emerges here) he remains indecisive and confused (even after 1905) on
the question of electoral support to the liberal bourgeoisie. The other wing of
Axelrod's approach, that Trotsky assimilated, was the European perspective of
the Russian workers' movement. Trotsky was never a Menshevik in the
political-programmatic sense of the term. But the Menshevik organisation was
unquestionably more open to political debates and an internal dialectic than the
Bolshevik current (which became a party in 1912).
Europeanism, the role of the working class, its
self-activity and its self-organisation, the dynamic of the revolution: here is
the hard core of what Trotsky acquired in the course of these three years. Two
key events, but of a very different order, also intervened in his development:
the second congress of the RSDLP (summer 1903) and the first Russian revolution
Trotsky entered this congress as a heated protagonist of
centralism, the dictatorship of the leadership over the party and "distrust
towards rank-and-file organisation". He came out of it as opponent of
centralism, of Bonapartism, of the dictatorship of the intellectuals over the
working class, of substitutionism, and so on.
This congress ended with a split and a psychodrama. The
unity at the summit broke. The reasons are not clear. The cause does not reside
obviously in a programmatic disagreement, nor in the famous rule of the statutes
determining who was a member (in 1906, during the reunification, a compromise
was quickly reached). It was rather a crisis of growth, linked to the passage
from an artisanal and familial party to a party that was professional from every
point of view (organisation, apparatus, slogans, political line, programme) in
relating to every aspect of the revolution (big student and peasant
mobilisations, then workers strikes).
To undertake such a transformation of the party, the
question of leadership becomes decisive. Lenin, who wanted a leadership that
led, proposed Plekhanov, and ditched Axelrod and Zassoulitch. Trotsky revolted
against Lenin. Moreover, he found the concepts to express it in Our Political
Tasks. It was a merciless polemic against Lenin, where Trotsky gathered all the
fragments of analysis that circulated in the left political and intellectual
milieus and gave them a concentrated force.
His behaviour at the Congress had shown his political
immaturity. The pamphlet confirmed it while highlighting his capacities for
analysis. However, the polemic is totally impertinent: he has manifestly not
understood what Lenin wanted to do (Trotsky recognised this afterwards).
In 1905 the proletariat had marked its extraordinary
combativity and its radicalism with the election of democratically designated
workers' councils. Moreover, the soviet (in fact Trotsky himself) succeeded in
imposing unity between the three revolutionary parties: the Bolsheviks, the
Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries (the successors of the "Narodniks"
Moreover, Trotsky and Parvus, situated in the Menshevik
current, succeeded in drawing in (by action, speeches and a daily presence) the
majority of militants and a part of the leadership (but not Axelrod, Plekhanov
and Martov) on their political position. Trotsky would have this model of the
social and organisational dynamic in his head (until 1914), without really
theorising it however. The post-revolution would strengthen his anti-Lenin
analyses and prejudices, until the moment where the divergences between the left
wing (Bolshevik) and the right wing became clearer and crystallised.
If Menshevism kept a globally revolutionary orientation
until 1910-11, the upsurge of struggles, instead of bringing the two wings of
the party closer together, on the contrary led to definitive separation on the
basis of a political orientation faced with the social and political problems of
the moment: parliamentarism, class alliances, immediate demands of the workers,
type of trade union organisation, agrarian reform, the place of democratic
demands. At this moment it was apparent that the Mensheviks had built a legal
workers' movement that was no longer ready to confront Tsarism.
It was a disaster for the left Mensheviks (Martov). It
was also a disaster for Trotsky.(11) In fact, it was the result of a disastrous
political choice, which placed him in the Menshevik current and made him accept
their conception of the party, without supporting their programme. Until 1914,
he would remain blind before his mentor Axelrod : " It is true that the
differences between [the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks] in this matter is very
considerable: while the anti-revolutionary aspects of Menshevism have already
become fully apparent, those of Bolshevism are likely to become a serious threat
only in the event of victory" he wrote in 1906.(12)
He had already abandoned the idea of the vanguard party
in favour of a broad party and had theorised it in his work Our tasks. This
time, the concept is introduced by Axelrod in a context of grave political
downturn, under different forms: the workers' Congress (on the model of the
Belgian workers' party of the time, bringing together workers' leagues, trade
unions, mutual associations, youth groups and so on) and the subordination of
the clandestine party to the legal party.
Trotsky's weakness on the Party, before 1917, formed part
of his semi-spontaneist conception of politics in general.
Firstly, it sullied his initial version of
"revolution permanent". Partisan (like all the Russian Marxists) of a
revolution supported by a majority, Trotsky did not underestimate, contrary to
Stalinist legend, the role of the revolutionary peasantry in a predominantly
rural country. What preoccupied him was to emphasise the unavoidability of the
final phase of the revolutionary process when this latter passes to "the
socialist dictatorship" thanks to the social and ideological strength of
the proletariat. But how this majoritarian force could organise itself did not
preoccupy him at this time.(13)
In 1906 and the years that followed, he satisfied himself
with two theoretical generalizations which translated above all the prejudices
of European Marxism at the time (post-Marx): historically, the countryside
follows the town, and the peasantry the proletariat (industrial, urbanised); at
the same time, the peasantry is incapable of following an autonomous political
line and creating an independent organisation (it follows either the bourgeoisie
or the proletariat).
The result is that he hardly concerned himself with a
close analysis of the Russian peasantry, the diversity of its conditions of
work, its "spontaneous" demands, its actually existing organisations,
and so on. Thus, Trotsky made no contribution during the Fourth congress of the
("reunified") RSDLP in 1906, where agrarian reform was discussed.(14)
If he did not go as far as his mentor, Parvus, who
attributed to the peasantry as role "of augmenting the chaos in the
country" in the revolutionary process, Trotsky did not seek, unlike Lenin,
the construction of a real workers and peasants alliance, with all its demands.
By its abstract character, the theory proved a veritable political trap for
Trotsky. For, against all expectations, a Tsarism which had been presumed
"immobile" profited from the defeat of the proletariat in 1906 to
launch a surprising self-reform with the birth of a parliamentary system, an
agrarian reform, a certain trade union liberty, the first social laws
It all fell through, but meanwhile it would shake up
political and social life. Trotsky had neither an organisational instrument to
intervene, nor a political project to face a new situation, when his political
line had been developed on the basis of a tumultuous rise of the popular
Secondly, any history of the workers' soviets born out of
three waves of general strike in 1905 had revealed two important facts: the
birth of a new, superior, form of the workers' movement, which founds the unity
of the class, organises its political power and expresses to a scale without
precedent in history its self-emancipatory aspirations. On the other hand, the
negligence and sectarianism of the leaders of the different revolutionary
parties on the ground, whose political horizon was confined by their
The Bolshevik cadres of Petrograd saw a competing
workers' organisation and wished to impose on it (by a vote) the programme
(maximum) of their Party. The Mensheviks wished to put into practice the line
(of Axelrod) of the "workers' congress" which would mean both the
fusion of the three socialist parties who were members of the Second
International (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries), and bring
into the framework of the party (as in the British Labour Party or Belgian POB)
every kind of workers' organisation (parties, unions, co-operatives, youth,
women, gymnasts, mutual associations, cultural clubs). Trotsky (and some others
like Parvus, Pannekoek) took on board the political scale of the workers'
councils. He drew from it a conclusion of steel (which he would call later his
"social fatalism"): the working masses are in advance of the parties
and capable of imposing their will on them thanks to their spontaneous
This dual note would influence in a determinant manner
his opinion on and his behaviour in the Party until 1917. One cannot say that he
possessed, after 1905, a real conviction on the subject. His vision of the class
struggle in Russia, past and future, did not henceforth need a defined and
strong role for the Party. Opposed more than ever to the Bolshevik current,
which reorganised itself, he chose to place himself in the Menshevik current.
And this despite the striking fact that Bolshevism showed itself the most
radical current in the RSDLP.
At the 5th congress of the Party (London, May 1907),
Trotsky voted with Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin in favour of the resolution which
included "the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the
peasantry", against the whole of the Menshevik delegation. He did not break
however with these latter. But that did not stop him being simultaneously in
agreement (albeit with reticence) with Axelrod for the transformation of the
Party into a "workers' Congress", legal and open to all the workers'
Trotsky was not blind to the opportunist instincts of the
Menshevik current. He stuck to his spontaneist belief that a new revolutionary
upsurge would impel everyone to reconstitute a unified party. Meanwhile his
anti-Bolshevik sectarianism acquired a visceral character: he sees in this
current backwardness and "Asiatic" primitivism and predicted its
On the other hand, the Menshevik current incarnated the
European future of the coming revolution. It was in the political-cultural
ambience of this current with its debates, pluralism and more human relations
that Trotsky found himself truly in his element. His choices seemed even more
justified in that Axelrod and Plekhanov worked in concert with Kautsky, at the
time still uncontested revolutionary leader of the Second International. A new
revolution (in 1917) would be needed for the experience of Lenin's party to
incontestably assert its authority, including to Trotsky.(16)
* François Vercammen is a member of the Unified
Secretariat of the Fourth International.
1. See in particular The First Five Years of the
Communist International and The Communist International after Lenin.
2. That of the permanent revolution - see Lenin, April
3. Few authors from the Trotskyist milieu have noticed
this. Among the rare ones to do so are Alain Brossat, Aux origines de la révolution
permanente, Maspero, Paris 1974, and Tony Cliff, Trotsky, volume 1: Towards
October, London 1998, Bookmarks. Ernest Mandel, who defends Lenin against
Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg on the question of the party, does so from the
party/vanguard/self-organisation angle, see Trotsky as alternative, Verso Books,
4. According to Trotsky in his autobiography, My Life.
5. Trotsky, Our Political Tasks.
6. Preface to Trotsky's pamphlet, Towards January 9th.
7. See Trotsky, Results and Prospects.
8. See his Letters to Vera Zassoulitch, 1881.
9. An analysis which plunged Lenin into a
political-existential crisis. See the remarkable analysis in Claudio Segio
Ingerflom, Le citoyen impossible, Les racines russes du léninisme, Payot, Paris
10. So far as Lenin is concerned, see my article Le périmètre
de la pensée révolutionnaire chez Lenin, in Politique la Revue, n° 6, 1997.
11. See Geoffrey Swain, Russian Social democracy and the
Legal Labour Movement 1906-14, McMillan, London 1983.
12. Our Differences, in Trotsky, 1905, Penguin, London,
1971, p. 332.
13. Results and Prospects (1906). He would return to this
theme later, in his completed formulation based on the experience of the Chinese
revolution in 1926-28.
14. A truly historic congress because it broke with the
Europeanism which predominated inside the Socialist-Marxist workers' movement.
Not until the congresses of the Chinese CP in the 1930s would such analytical
and prepositional heights be reached on this question.
15. On the process of political apprenticeship of the
main protagonists, see chapters 5-6 of T. Shanin's brilliant Russia 1905-07:
Revolution as a moment of truth, McMillan, London.
16. In June 1917, when the Bolshevik Party was already
the majority current in the big cities, Trotsky demanded that Lenin, who had
asked him to join the party and come directly onto its leadership, abandon the