On the History of the Left Opposition

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 1 April 1939

[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 11, 1938-1938, New York ²1974, p. 260-266]

Trotsky: Comrade James has studied this subject with the greatest attention and the numerous annotations I have made are evidence of the care with which I have read his memorandum. It is important for all our comrades to see our past with insistence ,on revolutionary clarity. In parts the manuscript is very perspicacious, but I have noticed here the same fault that I have noticed in World Revolution — a very good book — and that is a lack of dialectical approach, Anglo-Saxon empiricism, and formalism which is only the reverse of empiricism.

C.L.R. James makes his whole approach to the subject depend on one date — the appearance of Stalin's theory of socialism in a single country — April 1924. But the theory appeared in October 1924. This makes the whole structure false.

In April 1924 it was not clear whether the German revolution was going forward or back. In November '23 I asked that all the Russian comrades in Germany should be recalled. New strata might lift the revolution to a higher stage. On the other hand, the revolution might decline. It it declined, the first step of the reaction would be to arrest the Russians as foreign agents of disorder. Stalin opposed me: "You are always too hasty. In August you said the revolution was near; now you say that it is over already." I didn't say that it was over, but suggested that this precautionary step should be taken. By the summer of 1924 Stalin had convinced himself that the German revolution was defeated. He then asked the Red professors to find him something from Lenin to tell the people. They searched and found two or three quotations and Stalin changed the passage in his book. The German revolution had more influence on Stalin than Stalin on the German revolution. In 1923 the whole party was in a fever over the coming revolution. Stalin would not have dared to oppose me on this question at the Central Committee. The Left Opposition was very much to the fore on this question.

James: Brandler went to Moscow convinced of the success of the revolution. What changed him?

Trotsky: I had many interviews with Brandler. He told me that what was troubling him was not the seizure of power, but what to do after. I told him "Look here, Brandler, you say the prospects are good, but the bourgeoisie is in power, in control of the state, the army, police, etc. The question is to break that power…" Brandler took many notes during many discussions with me. But this very boldness of his was only a cover for his secret fears. It is not easy to lead a struggle against bourgeois society. He went to Chemnitz and there met the leaders of the Social Democracy, a collection of little Brandlers. He communicated to them in his speech his secret fears by the very way he spoke to them. Naturally they drew back and this mood of defeatism permeated to the workers.

In the 1905 Russian revolution there was a dispute in the soviet as to whether we should challenge the czarist power with a demonstration on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. To this day I do not know for certain whether it was the correct thing to do at that time or not. The committee could not decide, so we consulted the soviet. I made the speech, putting the two alternatives in an objective manner, and the soviet decided by an overwhelming majority not to demonstrate. But I am certain that if I had said it was necessary to demonstrate and spoken accordingly we would have had a great majority in favor. It was the same with Brandler. What was wanted in Germany in 1923 was a revolutionary party…

You accuse me also of degeneration when you quote Fischer. But why did I give that interview? In revolution it is always wise to throw on the enemy the responsibility. Thus in 1917 they asked me at the soviet: "Are the Bolsheviks preparing an insurrection?" What could I say? I said, "No, we are defending the revolution, but if you provoke us… !" It was the same thing here. Poland and France were using the Russian Bolsheviks as a pretext for preparing intervention and reactionary moves. With the full consent of the German comrades I gave this interview, while the German comrades explained the situation to the German workers. Meanwhile I had a cavalry detachment under Dybenko ready on the Polish border.

James: You would not agree with Victor Serge that the bureaucracy sabotaged the Chinese revolution; in other words, that its attitude to the Chinese revolution was the same as its attitude toward the Spanish?

Trotsky: Not at all. Why should they sabotage it? I was on a committee (with Chicherin, Voroshilov, and some others) on the Chinese revolution. They were even opposed to my attitude, which was considered pessimistic. They were anxious for its success.

James: For the success of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Wasn't their opposition to the proletarian revolution the opposition of a bureaucracy which was quite prepared to support a bourgeois democratic revolution, but from the fact of its being a bureaucracy could not support a proletarian revolution?

Trotsky: Formalism. We had the greatest revolutionary party in the world in 1917. In 1936 it strangles the revolution in Spain. How did it develop from 1917 to 1936? That is the question. According to your argument, the degeneration would have started in October 1917. In my view it started in the first years of the New Economic Policy. But even in 1927 the whole party was eagerly awaiting the issue of the Chinese revolution. What happened was that the bureaucracy acquired certain bureaucratic habits of thinking. It proposed to restrain the peasants today so as not to frighten the generals. It thought it would push the bourgeoisie to the left. It saw the Kuomintang as a body of officeholders and thought it could put Communists into the offices and so change the direction of events… And how would you account for the change which demanded a Canton Commune?

James: Victor Serge says that it was only for the sake of the Sixth World Congress that they wanted the Commune "if only for a quarter of an hour."

Trotsky: It was more for the party internally than for the International. The party was excited over the Chinese revolution. Only during 1923 had it reached a higher pitch of intensity.

No, you want to begin with the degeneration complete. Stalin and Company genuinely believed that the Chinese revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution and sought to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.

James: You mean that Stalin, Bukharin, Tomsky, Rykov, and the rest did not understand the course of the Russian Revolution?

Trotsky: They did not. They took part and events overwhelmed them. Their position on China was the same they had in March 1917 until Lenin came. In different writings of theirs you will see passages that show that they never understood. A different form of existence, their bureaucratic habits affected their thinking and they reverted to their previous position. They even enshrined it in the program of the Comintern: proletarian revolution for Germany, dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry for semicolonial countries, etc.

(Comrade Trotsky here asks Van to get a copy of the Draft Program and the extract is read.) I condemned it in my critique of the Draft Program [of the Communist International].

James: What about Bukharin's statement in 1925 that if war came revolutionists should support the bourgeois-Soviet bloc?

Trotsky: After Lenin's testament Bukharin wanted to show that he was a real dialectician. He studied Hegel and on every occasion tried to show that he was a realist. Hence, "Enrich yourselves," "Socialism as a snail's pace," etc. And not only Bukharin, but I and all of us at various times wrote absurd things. I will grant you that.

James: And Germany 1930-33?

Trotsky: I cannot agree that the policy of the International was only a materialization of the commands of Moscow. It is necessary to see the policy as a whole, from the internal and the international points of view, from all sides. The foreign policy of Moscow, and the orientation of the Social Democracy to Geneva could play a role. But there was also the necessity of a turn owing to the disastrous effect of the previous policy on the party inside Russia. After all the bureaucracy is dealing with 160 million people who have been through three revolutions. What they are saying and thinking is collected and classified. Stalin wanted to show that he was no Menshevik. Hence this violent turn to the left. We must see it as a whole, in all its aspects.

James: But the British Stalinist, Campbell, writes that when the British delegation in 1928 was presented with the theory of social fascism it opposed the idea, but soon was convinced that it was correct…

(It was agreed to continue the discussion. During the interval Comrade James submitted a document Discussion continues:)

Trotsky: I have read your document claiming to clarify the position, but it does not clarify it. You state that you accept my view of 1923, but later in the document I see that you do not really accept it. … I find it strange that on the Negro question you should be so realistic and on this be so undialectical. (I suspect that you are just a little opportunistic on the Negro question, but I am not quite sure.

In 1924, Stalin's slogan (socialism in a single country) corresponded to the mood of the young intellectuals, without training, without tradition…

But despite that, when Stalin wanted to strangle the Spanish revolution openly, he had to wipe out thousands of Old Bolsheviks. The first struggle started on the permanent revolution, the bureaucracy seeking peace and quiet. Then into this came the German revolution of 1923. Stalin dared not even oppose me openly then. We never knew until afterwards that he had secretly written the letter to Bukharin saying that the revolution should be held back. Then, after the German defeat, came the struggle over equality. It was in defense of the privileges of the bureaucracy that Stalin became its undisputed leader…

Russia was a backward country. These leaders had Marxist conceptions, but after October they soon returned to their old ideas. Voroshilov and others used to ask me: "But how do you think it possible that the Chinese masses, so backward, could establish the dictatorship of the proletariat?"

In Germany they hoped now for a miracle to break the backbone of the Social Democracy; their politics had failed utterly to detach the masses from it. Hence this new attempt to get rid of it.… Stalin hoped that the German Communist Party would win a victory and to think that he had a "plan" to allow fascism to come into power is absurd. It is a deification of Stalin.

James: He made them cease their opposition to the Red Referendum; he made Remmele say "After Hitler, our turn"; he made them stop fighting the fascists in the streets.

Trotsky: "After Hitler, our turn," was a boast, a confession of bankruptcy. You pay too much attention to it.

Schuessler: They stopped fighting in the streets because their detachments were small CP detachments. Good comrades were constantly being shot, and inasmuch as workers as a whole were not taking part, they called it off. It was a part of their zig-zags.

Trotsky: There you are! They did all sorts of things. They even offered the united front sometimes.

James: Duranty said in 1931 that they did not want the revolution in Spain.

Trotsky: Do not take what Duranty says at face value. Litvinov wanted to say that they were not responsible for what was happening in Spain. He could not say that himself so he said it through Duranty. Perhaps even they did not want to be bothered about Spain, being in difficulties at home.… But I would say that Stalin sincerely wished the triumph of the German Communist Party in Germany 1930-33…

Also you cannot think of the Comintern as being merely an instrument of Stalin's foreign policy. In France in 1934 the Communist Party had declined from 80,000 to 30,000. It was necessary to have a new policy. We do not know the archives of the Comintern, what correspondence passed, etc. At the same time Stalin was seeking a new foreign policy. From one side and the other we have these tendencies which go to make the new turn. They are different sides of the same process…. The French Communist Party is not only an agency of Moscow, but a national organization with members of parliament, etc.

All that, however, is not very dangerous, although it shows a great lack of proportion to say that our whole propaganda has been meaningless. If that is so, we are bankrupt. What is much more dangerous is the sectarian approach to the Labour Party.

You say that I put forward the slogan of Blum-Cachin without reservations. Then you remember, "All power to the soviet!" and you say that the united front was no soviet. It is the same sectarian approach.

James: We have had difficulty in England with advocating a Labour government with the necessary reservations.

Trotsky: In France in all our press, in our archives and propaganda, we regularly made all the necessary reservations. Your failure in England is due to lack of ability; also lack of flexibility, due to the long domination of bourgeois thought in England. I would say to the English workers, "You refuse to accept my point of view. Well, perhaps I did not explain well enough. Perhaps you are stupid. Anyway I have failed. But now, you believe in your party. Why allow Chamberlain to hold the power? Put your party in power. I will help you all I can. I know that they will not do what you think, but as you don't agree with me and we are small, I will help you to put them in." But it is very important to bring up these questions periodically. I would suggest that you write an article discussing these points and publish it in our press. (Comrade James agreed that he would.)