Alan Woods on the Russian Revolution

Alan Woods was interviewed by Sudestada, an Argentine arts, culture and news monthly magazine, on the Russian Revolution and its subsequent degeneration. As Alan has explained, what failed in Russia was not socialism, but a bureaucratic caricature of socialism.

Q: What was the role that the Russian masses attributed to Trotsky after the victory of the Revolution when Lenin deteriorated physically?

AW: The role of Trotsky both during and after the October Revolution was enormous. Lenin had a very high regard for Trotsky. He said, for example, on November 14, 1917: “Trotsky long ago understood that a union with the Mensheviks was impossible, and since then there has been no better Bolshevik.” Leon Trotsky was universally recognised as second only to Lenin in the Party leadership. In fact, the masses (and also the enemies of the Revolution) habitually referred to the Bolshevik Party as the Party of Lenin-Trotsky.

Q: What were the main reasons for which Stalin was given posts of enormous significance within the Party after the victory of the October Revolution?

AW: The organizational side of the work inevitably assumed a colossal importance after the Revolution, when the Bolsheviks had the responsibility of running a huge state apparatus, feeding the population, keeping the transport system operational etc., while a Civil War was raging. This work absorbed a considerable part of the Party cadres, who found themselves drawn into the work of the state apparatus. There were clearly dangers in this situation and Lenin was anxious that the Party should keep a firm control over this work.

Sverdlov, as general secretary of the Party fulfilled this task admirably. He was a marvellous organizer, an honest man, completely devoid of personal ambition and wholly dedicated to the cause of the Revolution and the Party, although he was not a theoretician. When Sverdlov died in 1919, Lenin was looking for a good organizer with a strong character to look after this aspect of the work. Lenin thought that Stalin would play the same role as Sverdlov. But he was mistaken. Stalin used his position in the Party and state apparatus (which were now increasingly identified one with the other) to promote his cronies and concentrate power into his own hands. Lenin later commented on this in his so-called Testament.

Alan Woods speaking to supporters of the IMT in 2007.Q: Why do you think Trotsky decided not to intervene in the discussion on the Georgian question (although he knew the opinion of Lenin and his willingness to fight against the position of Stalin) and why did he not agree to propose a change of general secretary at the XII Congress?

AW: During his final illness, Lenin became aware of serious deviations in the Party leadership. Despite the strenuous attempts of Stalin to isolate him from reality, Lenin learned of the scandalous conduct of Stalin and his allies, Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze in Georgia. Using bureaucratic methods, they had trampled over the national sentiments of the people and oppressed the Georgian Bolsheviks, even using physical violence against Party leaders.

When Lenin found out about this he was furious and demanded the expulsion of Ordzhonikidze, Stalin’s henchman, from the Party. He wrote a note addressed to Mdivani, the leader of the Georgian Communist Party, promising the Georgian Bolsheviks his full support against Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and Ordzhonikidze. From his deathbed, Lenin was preparing a struggle against Stalin (his secretary said “Vladimir Ilyich is preparing a bombshell for Stalin) and formed a bloc with Trotsky.

But soon after this Lenin’s health suddenly deteriorated, making it impossible for him to attend the Party Congress. When he became incapacitated through illness, it changed everything. Nobody had the same authority as Lenin, and Trotsky was reluctant to launch a struggle at the Congress that could end in a premature split. Besides, he had still not abandoned hope that Lenin might recover. He therefore decided to play for time.

In evaluating Trotsky’s motives, it is necessary to understand the objective context in which the inner-Party struggle was unfolding. There was a serious danger that an open split in the Party leadership might develop into a split along class lines, which would weaken the dictatorship of the proletariat and lead to a capitalist counterrevolution. The leading group (the “troika”) was accusing Trotsky of all kinds of things and he did not want to be cast in the role of a splitter. That was the main reason why he decided not to start an open battle at the Twelfth Party Congress.

Q: In his autobiography “My Life”, Leon Trotsky confirms that Lenin had selected him as his most obvious successor in the political bureau. Why do you think that Lenin never made that decision public?

AW: The twelfth congress took place in the early weeks of 1923, at a time when the leading clique was not yet confident of its position and was proceeding carefully. Stalin was still playing what seemed to be a subordinate role. He was virtually unknown outside a narrow layer of Party cadres. It was Zinoviev who played the leading role at this stage.

Lenin himself was still proceeding cautiously at that time. He did not make this letter public because he was hoping to resolve the problems within the Party. At that stage, neither Lenin, Trotsky nor any of the other participants realised the full gravity of the situation or where it would end up. Lenin was worried about the danger of capitalist counterrevolution (a fear shared by Trotsky). On this question Lenin wrote: “Our party rests upon two classes, and for that reason its instability is possible, and if there cannot exist an agreement between those classes its fall is inevitable. In such an event it would be useless to take any measures or in general to discuss the stability of our Central Committee. In such an event no measures would prove capable of preventing a split. But I trust that is too remote a future, and too improbable an event, to talk about.”

Lenin feared that an open split between Trotsky and Stalin might provoke a split in the Party along class lines. That is why he did not make his views on the leadership public and also why he expressed himself in the Testament in very guarded language. Do not forget that he was intending to go in person to the Twelfth Party Congress, where I believe he would have expressed himself in far more emphatic terms.

Lenin, as the leader of the Russian Revolution, had tremendous authority at the time of his death.In his Testament, Lenin says that Trotsky was “distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C. […]”. In relation to Stalin he wrote: “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.” Here Lenin was expressing himself carefully, but later he added a postscript in which he accuses Stalin of being rude and disloyal and advocated his removal as general secretary.

The problem is that it is too easy to look upon these events with the wisdom of hindsight. We must remember that the rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy did not take place overnight. It was a gradual process that reflected the real situation in the country, once the revolution had been isolated in conditions of atrocious backwardness. In the beginning it did not find its expression in overt political differences. Rather, it was expressed in certain moods in society. It was really a petty-bourgeois reaction against the traditions of October.

The bureaucrat in general wants a peaceful life, to be left alone to get on with his work of “ordering” society from his office. He sees the involvement of the workers as a nuisance. For the Soviet bureaucrat the storm and stress of the period 1917-19 was something alien – a kind of collective madness or social disorder. Therefore, after the years of revolution and civil war the bureaucracy longed for peace and order. That was the psychological basis of the “theory” of Socialism in One Country. It expressed the psychology of the bureaucracy that found its point of reference in Stalin’s faction. But this was still the music of the future.

Incidentally, Stalin himself understood nothing and foresaw nothing. A typical bureaucrat (Trotsky described him as “the Party’s outstanding mediocrity”), he proceeded empirically, with no predetermined plan other than to promote himself and eliminate his rivals. Trotsky once said that, in all probability, if Stalin had known at that time where he would end up, he would not have gone ahead.

Q. What was the position of Trotsky when the testament of Lenin was made known at a meeting of the Political Bureau? Did he agree or disagree on the distribution of the document in the forthcoming Congress?

AW: Lenin wrote the Testament one year before his death, on January 4, 1923. He died on January 21, 1924, but in reality his political life was cut short in March 1923. Only two persons knew of the existence of this document: the stenographer to whom it was dictated and Lenin’s wife, N. Krupskaya. As long as there remained any hope for Lenin’s recovery, Krupskaya kept the document under lock and key. But after Lenin’s death, on the eve of the Thirteenth Congress, she handed the testament to the Secretariat of the Central Committee, so that it should be brought to the attention of the Party at the Congress in accordance with Lenin’s wishes.

The first official reading of the testament in the Kremlin occurred in the Council of Elders at the Thirteenth Congress of the party on May 22, 1924, when Kamenev read it out. At that time the Party apparatus was semi-officially in the hands of the troika. They were naturally opposed to reading the testament at the Congress. But Krupskaya insisted. The question was transferred to a meeting of the Elders at the Congress – that is, the leaders of the provincial delegations. It was here that Trotsky and the other Opposition members of the Central Committee first learned about the Testament.

At this meeting Kamenev began to read the text aloud. Nobody was allowed to make notes. As a result of the manoeuvres of the troika a resolution was presented, whereby the document should be read to each delegation separately in executive session; again no one should be allowed to make notes; and at the plenary session of the Congress the Testament must not be referred to. Krupskaya argued that this was a direct violation of the wishes of Lenin. But the members of the Council of Elders were implacable and an overwhelming majority adopted the resolution of the troika.

For many years hardly anybody in Russia knew that the Testament existed. It was published only in the stenographic report of the Central Committee available only to Party functionaries, and that soon disappeared. The broad Party membership never knew of it. Later the Stalinists denied its existence. Max Eastman, who supported the Left Opposition, published Lenin’s Testament for the first time in the 1920s [outside the Soviet Union]. It was only made public after Khrushchev’s famous speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin in 1956.

Trotsky says in his biography of Stalin that the document that became known as Lenin’s Testament was “Lenin’s last advice on how to organize the party leadership.” Lenin saw in Stalin’s methods the beginnings of “bureaucratism not only in the Soviet institutions but also in the Party.” In order to fight against this danger he dictated a confidential letter giving his estimate of the leaders in the Central Committee and, ten days later, added a postscript in which he proposed to remove Stalin from his post as General Secretary of the party.

As we have said, this fear of a split in the Party leading to a capitalist counterrevolution was the reason why Trotsky decided to take a cautious attitude. The political differences, which were to emerge sharply in the next few years, had still not appeared clearly. They were present only in an embryonic form. The danger therefore existed that a clash between Trotsky and the leading clique would not be understood by the masses, or would be seen as a personal conflict. In fact, the differences in the Party reflected the interests of different classes and groups in society and cannot be understood outside these deep-seated social tendencies.

For all their mistakes and deficiencies, Kamenev and Zinoviev were honest revolutionaries, devoted to the cause of socialism and the working class.Q: How would you define the role played in the history of the Russian Revolution by men such as Zinoviev and Kamenev?

AW: Zinoviev and Kamenev were important leaders of the Bolshevik Party which they joined before 1914. However, they made some serious mistakes. In 1917 they vacillated on the question of the workers taking power. In February, after the workers had overthrown Kerensky, Kamenev and Stalin adopted a conciliatory position in relation to the reformist leaders and the bourgeois Provisional Government.

Lenin was forced to open up a fierce factional struggle against them at the April Conference, when, basing himself on the support of the proletarian rank and file, he rearmed the Party and gave it a correct orientation with the slogan: All Power to the Soviets.

Later, at the time of the October insurrection, Zinoviev and Kamenev again vacillated and took a position of opposing the uprising. They even published the plans for the insurrection in the bourgeois press, for which Lenin described them as strike-breakers and even demanded their expulsion from the Party. However, immediately after the insurrection they offered their services to the Revolution and were given leading positions in the Party.

Even before Lenin’s death, they formed a secret bloc with Stalin known as the troika (triumvirate) directed against Trotsky. It was then that they invented the myth of “Trotskyism” in order to drive a wedge between Lenin and Trotsky in the eyes of the Party. Zinoviev was driven by personal ambition, since he considered that he ought to be Lenin’s successor. He played the leading role in the campaign against Trotsky. But behind the scenes it was Stalin who was consolidating his grip on power.

In 1926, when Stalin first publicly proclaimed the idea of Socialism in One Country, Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with him, alarmed at the direction in which he was moving. They later formed a bloc with Trotsky – the United Opposition, which led the fight against Stalin and the bureaucracy, for a return to Leninism, for Soviet democracy, for industrialisation and Five Year Plans, against the right wing pro-kulak deviation of Stalin and Bukharin and for proletarian internationalism.

After the Opposition was expelled in 1927, Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated to Stalin. This did not save them. They were later expelled from the Party and imprisoned. They capitulated again, but were put on trial (the first of Stalin’s notorious Purge Trials) and executed on frame-up charges. This marked the beginning of what Trotsky described as a one-sided Civil War launched by Stalin against the Bolshevik Party.

For all their mistakes and deficiencies, Kamenev and Zinoviev were honest revolutionaries, devoted to the cause of socialism and the working class. In order to consolidate his power Stalin had to eliminate Lenin’s Party and especially its leading cadres. That is why he had Zinoviev and Kamenev murdered, along with countless other Old Bolsheviks and dedicated Communists. This shows that Stalinism and Leninism are mutually exclusive. They are separated by a river of blood.

Lenin and Trotsky were not able to prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution.Q: You have said that the role of the individual in history should not be dismissed, but that what is decisive or predominant is not the personality of the protagonists. In that sense, did Trotsky and the Left Opposition have any alternative to avoid the consolidation of the bureaucracy in the State other than that which they defended?

Historical materialism teaches us to look beyond the individual players on the stage of history and look for deeper causes. This does not at all rule out the role of the individuals in history. In given moments the role of a single man or woman can be decisive. We can say with certainty that without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky (particularly the former) in 1917, the October Revolution would never have taken place.

However, individuals can only play such a role when all the other conditions are present. The concatenation of circumstances in 1917 enabled Lenin and Trotsky to play a decisive role. But the same men had been present for more than two decades before and were not able to play the same role. In the same way, when the Revolution ebbed, despite their colossal personal ability, Lenin and Trotsky were not able to prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution. This was caused by objective forces against which even the greatest leaders were powerless.

Accident often plays a role in history. If it had not been for his illness, Lenin would have attended the Congress and probably Stalin would have been removed. However, it is impossible to understand great historical processes in terms of individuals, “great men” etc. Marxism seeks to analyze history in terms of the development of the productive forces and the class relations that arise from this. Even if Lenin had succeeded in winning a majority in the Congress, it would have meant only a temporary delay in the ascent of the bureaucracy, which was rooted in objective conditions. In 1926 at a meeting of the United Opposition, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya said: “If Vladimir Ilyich were alive today he would be in one of Stalin’s prisons.”

Q: What would have been the effect in the Soviet Union of a revolutionary victory in Germany in 1923?

AW: The main cause of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state was the isolation of the revolution in conditions of extreme backwardness. Long ago Marx wrote in The German Ideology that where poverty is general “all the old crap revives”. By this he meant the evils of inequality, corruption, bureaucracy and privilege.

Lenin and Trotsky knew very well that the material conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. Before 1924 nobody questioned this elementary preposition. The Bolsheviks based themselves on the perspective of the extension of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, especially Germany. If the German revolution had succeeded – which it could have in 1923 – the entire situation in Russia would have been different.

The defeat of the German revolution led to a consolidation of Stalinism in Russia.On the basis of a socialist federation, uniting the colossal productive potential of Germany with the immense reserves of raw materials and manpower of Russia, the material conditions of the masses would have been transformed. Under such conditions the rise of the bureaucracy would have been halted, and the Stalin faction would not have been able to seize power. The morale of the Soviet working class would have been boosted and its faith in the world revolution restored.

We must remember that in the period 1923-9, the process of bureaucratic degeneration was by no means consolidated. This fact was reflected in the series of zigzags that characterised the policies of Stalin and his faction both in home and foreign policy throughout this period. In 1923-28, Stalin adopted a right wing policy, characterised by an adaptation to the kulaks (rich peasants) and nepmen (speculators) in Russia and an adaptation to the reformists and colonial bourgeoisie in foreign policy. This placed the Revolution in grave danger. Internally, it encouraged the kulaks and other bourgeois elements at the expense of the workers. Externally, it led the Communist International to one defeat after another.

It was not that Stalin consciously organized the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, or that of the Chinese Revolution in 1923-7. On the contrary, he desired the success of these revolutions. But the right wing opportunist policies that he had imposed on the Communist International in the name of Socialism in One Country guaranteed defeat in each case.

Dialectically, cause becomes effect and vice-versa. The isolation of the Russian Revolution was the ultimate cause of the rise of the bureaucracy and the Stalin faction. The false policies of the latter produced the defeat of the German and Chinese Revolutions (and other defeats in Estonia, Bulgaria, Britain etc.). These defeats confirmed the isolation of the Revolution and caused deep demoralisation of the Soviet workers, who lost all hope that the European workers would come to their aid.

This led to a consolidation of the bureaucracy and Stalinism, which was only the political expression of the material interests of the bureaucracy. This, in turn, led to further defeats of the international revolution (Germany, Spain), which prepared the ground for the Second World War that placed the USSR in extreme danger.

Q: What, in your view, were the successes and mistakes of the Left Opposition when it was still part of the Party?

At a meeting of the Left Opposition, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya said that if Vladimir Ilyich were alive today he would be in one of Stalins prisons.In every struggle one can point to this or that mistake. But it would be wrong to attribute the defeat of the Left Opposition to errors of subjective judgement. As a matter of fact, Trotsky was proven to be correct on all the basic questions: on the German and Chinese Revolutions, on the kulak danger, on industrialisation and five year plans and so on. On the other hand, Stalin made colossal mistakes on every one of these issues. Yet Stalin defeated Trotsky and the Left Opposition. How can one explain this?

In 1923 Trotsky launched the Platform of the Opposition, based on a defence of the Leninist principles of workers’ democracy and proletarian internationalism. He began a struggle against bureaucratic tendencies in the state and Party. This was the beginning of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union and internationally. The struggle between the Left Opposition and the Stalin faction was at bottom a class struggle, which reflected the contradictory interests between the working class and the rising bureaucracy.

Trotsky tried to base himself on the working class, but the latter was exhausted by long years of war, revolution and civil war. Long hours of work in freezing factories, starvation wages and general privation took their toll. The Soviet workers fell into a state of apathy. They no longer participated in the Soviets, which became inexorably bureaucratised. With every step back of the world revolution, the workers became more disillusioned and disoriented and the new caste of Soviet bureaucrats became more confident and insolent.

The reason why Stalin triumphed was not because of any mistakes of the Opposition, as superficial bourgeois historians imagine, but because of the broader context of the class relations in Soviet society. I will cite just one instance to underline this point. In 1927, after the defeat of the Chinese Revolution, some students who supported the Opposition came to Trotsky, arguing that, since everybody could see that the Trotsky had been proven to be correct, they would now win the majority of the Party. Trotsky disagreed. He pointed out to them that for the Soviet workers, the objective consequences of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution were far more important than who had been right or wrong in perspectives.

As a matter fact, Trotsky knew that the Opposition could not succeed. The unfavourable objective situation doomed them to defeat. So why did he continue to fight? Why did he not capitulate to Stalin, as Zinoviev, Kamenev and Radek did? The answer is that he was trying to establish the ideas, programme and tradition for the future generations of Communists in the USSR and internationally. He was the only one to do so, despite the most frightful persecution that claimed the lives of most of his comrades, friends and family.

In the midst of the most frightful betrayals, defeats, demoralization and apostasy, Trotsky raised a clean banner, defended the genuine traditions of Leninism, October and the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky therefore succeeded in his aim. That was no small achievement! Who now remembers the writings of Zinoviev and Kamenev? But in the writings of Leon Trotsky we have a priceless heritage that retains all its importance, relevance and vitality, especially after the collapse of the USSR – the inevitable consequence of the crimes of Stalinism. They represent the authentic banner of Bolshevism and the October Revolution – the only hope for the future of humanity.

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