By Tom Costello, Socialist Alternative Merseyside
This month marks 100 years since the founding of the Left Opposition, the group led by Leon Trotsky which confronted Stalinism and defended the real legacy of October 1917. But what were its real ideas, and how did it come about?
The Left Opposition was born out of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In October 1917, a mass uprising of the Russian working class, led by the Bolsheviks, delivered the only successful example in history of a socialist revolution.
After years of being sent into the trenches of World War I, the Russian working class, allied with the poor peasants, built a mass movement which crushed the right-wing authoritarian reign of the Tsar, and in its place reconstructed a democratic, socialist workers’ state. To this day, October 1917 provides the clearest example of how the working class can overthrow the profit-driven capitalist system and take power into their own hands from below.
The real instruments of the revolution were the soviets. Roughly translating to ‘councils’ in English, these represented the most democratic institutions ever thrown up by history. Workers elected delegates from their factories, who were subject to recall and replacement at any time. Far from an instrument of ‘Lenin’s dictatorship’ as mainstream historians often make out, they were a place of rich and deep debate between the different parties in the revolution.
However it was the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, who proved themselves most capable of leading these organisations to overthrow capitalism. While many of the reformist parties wanted to hand power over to a capitalist government which would continue the war, the Bolsheviks led the workers to take control in October under the slogan “all power to the Soviets!”
How was Stalinism born?
In these early years of the Russian Soviet state, major changes were granted virtually overnight which transformed life for the majority. The war was ended, and the secret treaties of the capitalist powers were published. The landlords’ estates were confiscated and handed to the poor peasants. Restrictions on abortion, divorce and LGBTQ+ relationships were scrapped.
Terrified of the spread of similar revolutions, the bourgeoisie internationally pooled together its resources to finance a military invasion, to restore capitalism and smash the new workers state. The armies of 21 imperialist states were combined, financed by the bosses and exploiters of Europe under the banner of the ‘White Army’. This included the former Tsarists who routinely carried out anti-Jewish pogroms and massacres of workers in land they conquered.
Workers in response poured into the ranks of the Bolsheviks’ Red Army. Over years, the invasion was pushed back and the Soviet state defended. Though this marked an inspiring victory for the revolution, it left the workers’ republic in disarray. The country’s industry had been decimated. Under embargo and constantly fending off counter-revolutionary armies, hunger returned to the streets. Grain had to be taken from the countryside to avoid starvation in the cities.
In this situation of dire poverty, the system of workers’ democracy ceased to properly function. The Soviets, due to the demands of the war, began to empty out. Many of the workers who had led the Soviets to take power in 1917 were the first to enlist in the war, with tens of thousands of the revolution’s best fighters dying on the front line.
With the Soviet democracy severely damaged by the invasion, many of the tasks of running the state came to fall on unelected bureaucrats and careerists. The only thing standing in the way of these bureaucrats from fully seizing power was the Marxist leadership of the Bolshevik Party – but that couldn’t last forever. The revolution would have to spread internationally, and the workers of Europe and elsewhere would have to come to the Russian workers’ aid if the gains made were to be protected. Lenin in 1918 stated “Imperialism will inevitably strangle the independence and freedom of Russia unless the world-wide socialist revolution, world-wide Bolshevism, triumphs.”
To assist and speed this up, the Bolsheviks established the Communist International, which grouped together Marxists of all countries, for the purpose of coordinating world revolution. Appeals were set out to the revolutionary groups and the leftward-moving militant workers movements in all countries to establish their own Communist Parties.
Lenin’s last appeal: ‘get rid of Stalin!’
The founding of the Russian workers’ state was greeted with massive solidarity by workers worldwide. In just one example of this solidarity in action, London dockers in May 1920 famously refused to load arms onto the Jolly Roger ship, which were being sent to assist the White Army.
Revolutions exploded across Europe in the years following 1917, inspired by and following the Russian example. In Germany, soldiers mutinied and overthrew their officers. Workers councils in the mould of the Soviets were established. A wave of worker occupations swept Italy, with workers’ control established across the major industrial cities. In Hungary, for a number of months, a Soviet government came to power.
What prevented these revolutions from success, however, was the absence of a party with roots, a strategy and clear Marxist programme on a par with the Bolsheviks. Particularly in Germany, numerous opportunities for the working class to take power were missed, largely due to the unpreparedness of the German Communist Party. The Soviet state thus remained isolated, creating a sense of pessimism and depression which was only fuelled further by the death of Lenin in early 1924.
The Stalin-led clique used this opportunity to cement their power. Warnings of this had actually been given by Lenin in his last days. In his final ‘Last Testament’ letter to the party, Lenin recommended the removal of Stalin. The words were prophetic:
“Stalin, having become General Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure he will always be capable of using that power with sufficient caution.”
Birth of the Opposition
In 1923, the Left Opposition was born. Beginning with a letter from Trotsky, followed by a declaration from 46 leading Bolsheviks, they urged new democratic elections and free discussion on how to fend off the threat of capitalist restoration.
By this point, the renamed Communist Party leadership had been forced to re-introduce elements of capitalism into the countryside, albeit under the direction of the planned economy. This approach – the so-called ‘New Economic Policy’ (NEP), while alleviating certain problems created new and potentially much more dangerous ones. Kulaks (wealthy peasants) and NEPmen (small profiteers who hiked up prices in the cities) threatened a serious drift away from socialist planning, which the Stalinists were completely blind to. Nikolai Bukharin, at that time Stalin’s right-hand man, famously ordered the kulaks to “enrich yourselves!”
In opposition to this dangerous course, the opposition called for a programme to rebuild the Soviet Union’s industry to wipe out material scarcity, achieved by taxing the rich to feed and raise the wages of the workers. They insisted on an opening up of the party’s structures and a return to the original practices of the Bolsheviks, which were a million miles removed from the bureaucratic regime.
Although a temporary ban on factions was implemented at the Party congress in 1921, during the most severe period of threatened famine and economic collapse, before that the Party had been a space for thorough freedom of discussion. Even in the conditions of civil war, the Workers’ Opposition, a faction with elements influenced by anarchism, had its minority documents circulated and debated at party congresses. Rights to form tendencies and factions were enshrined in the party’s constitution. Criticisms of leadership positions were commonplace, with minority views debated openly, which was taken for granted.
By 1923, however, a system of appointments from above, stage-managed congresses and rigged votes had taken shape. The Left Opposition demanded change.
The Stalinist bureaucracy, instead of basing itself on revolutionary internationalism, relied on a narrow, nationalist outlook. All it was concerned with was managing its own patch of ‘socialism’ (and the bureaucratic privileges they enjoyed out of it). This found its sharpest expression in 1924 when, ditching the principles of the Communist International, Stalin announced the new ‘theory’ of Socialism in One Country.
It was announced for the first time that underdeveloped, poverty-stricken Russia could develop socialism all on its own. The task of spreading socialism worldwide took the back seat. From the point of view of the bureaucracy, if ‘socialism’ in Russia could be preserved on its own, why bother with spreading socialism worldwide?
Concerned only with good diplomatic ties with capitalist governments abroad, the Stalinists now found ‘allies’ for the Soviet Union among right-wing union leaders and bourgeois nationalists, who they had called for the overthrow of just years earlier.
This had serious consequences internationally. In Britain in 1926, a nine-day general strike was derailed by the rightwing union leaders. Rather than leading the working class against these betrayals, the Communist Party failed to provide criticism lest it sever the Russian leaders’ friendly links with their high-profile ‘friends’ in Britain.
In China, a revolutionary explosion in 1927 saw Soviets springing to life across Shanghai. The Stalinists branded the leadership of the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang and its leader, Chiang Kai-Shek as a ‘friend’ of the Soviet Union, urging the Communist Party to support him. When Chiang drowned the workers’ revolution in blood to protect capitalist property, the Stalinists remained silent, complicit in this betrayal (for more info on this, read Trotsky’s book Problems of the Chinese Revolution).
Marxism expelled and reborn
For telling the truth, Trotsky and the Left Opposition were hounded out of public life. Congress votes were rigged to prevent their arguments from being heard. When Oppositionists did succeed in getting to speak, they were verbally and physically attacked.
In their journals and papers, the Communist Party leaders dug through the history books to find decades-old disagreements between Lenin and Trotsky, plastering the pages with them to prove that Lenin also hated Trotsky as much as Stalin did. Trotsky himself was finally forced into exile in what is now Kazakhstan in 1927, and expelled from the Soviet Union two years later.
Thousands of supporters of the Opposition were forced from their jobs and expelled from the party. A number tragically took their own lives. Hundreds of supporters under the pressure caved in and kept quiet or capitulated. Bolsheviks like Natalya Krupskaya (wife of Lenin), who had raised criticisms of Stalin, were forced into silence.
Trotsky committed the rest of his life in exile to rebuilding the foundations for a new revolutionary international. Beginning with tiny forces, he took on the task of getting in contact with groups worldwide, with the aim of creating a new organisation that the working class could use for its struggle for socialism, much as the Bolsheviks had done after World War I.
In the ones and twos, the new international organisation grew. Groups of young communists, suspicious of the orders from above to denounce Trotsky (almost always without the right to read what they were being told to denounce), had their curiosity sparked. In the case of James P. Cannon, then a leader of the American Communist Party, it was after stumbling across a censored document of the Opposition which landed into his lap by accident, that he began his journey toward Trotskyism.
The counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism became much clearer going into the 1930s. The real turning point which drew many hundreds more into the orbit of the Trotskyists was in Germany, where, in adhering to the line that the reformist parties were ‘social fascist’ (i.e. equally fascist as the Nazis) the opportunity to form a workers’ united front to fight the Nazi threat was lost. The sectarianism of the Stalinists’ tactics rolled out the red carpet for Hitler to seize power.
In the Great Purges (1936-38), hundreds of thousands perished in the prisons and torture chambers. Virtually the entire leadership of the Bolsheviks in 1917 were placed on trial and made to ‘confess’ to false charges before execution. By the late 30s, Stalin’s party bore no resemblance to that of 1917. The revolutionaries had been either shot, imprisoned, exiled or silenced. As Trotsky commented at the time, “the [Great] Purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood.”
After repeated attempts on his life, Trotsky was finally murdered by a Stalinist agent in August 1940. With the revolutionaries of 1917 out of the way, Stalin eventually dissolved the Communist International in 1943, as an act of ‘good will’ to his wartime ally, the racist imperialist butcher Winston Churchill.
The end of Trotsky’s life was, of course, one of tragedy – brutally cut short by the dictator he exposed at every corner. However, it was by maintaining its authentic ideas against all the odds that Trotsky and the Left Opposition made their lasting contribution. International Socialist Alternative today owes itself to the thousands of Bolsheviks who said no to Stalin, and, in the most challenging of circumstances kept hold of the ideas of workers’ democracy, Marxism and revolutionary internationalism.