Some fundamental questions on the policies of Lenin and TrotskyFebruary 1, 2017
This article was originally published in 1974, on the 57th anniversary of the Russian Revolution) in answer to a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists [the youth section of the Labour Party at the time], Frank Tippin, who wrote to Ted Grant posing a series of questions. We republish it here as part of the preparation for the In Defence of Lenin conference.
Frank Tippin claimed that Lenin’s New Economic Policy was “a capitalist policy”. He stated that Trotsky was shown to be an opportunist by the way he “changed sides when it seemed expedient to do so, such was the case between 1903 when he supported Martov and the Mensheviks against Lenin.” He also accused Trotsky of being against ending the war with the treaty of Brest Litovsk, and that he only changed his position because he feared that his role as “War Minister was threatened so changed his mind and agreed with Lenin”. He also added that Leon Trotsky had forced Czarist officers to fight in the Red Army by holding their families as hostages. As these were often repeated accusations against Trotsky in particular (but also against Lenin himself) Ted Grant took the opportunity to reply at length to these points in order to set the record straight. For a much more detailed analysis read ‘Bolshevism – the road to Revolution’ by Alan Woods, and ‘Lenin and Trotsky – What they really stood for’, by Ted Grant and Alan Woods.
Comrade Frank Tippin raises four fundamental questions on the history of Bolshevism. These can be of great interest, also from the point of view of the future policies of our Movement.
It is necessary especially for young workers in the Labour Party and the Labour Party Young Socialists to have a knowledge of theory and of the history and controversies in the Marxist movement. This is needed if they are to play a conscious part in the transformation of society on socialist lines.
Enormous damage has been done by the Stalinists and reformists by garbled and distorted accounts of the history of the movement. The leadership of the Communist Party is unable to encourage the conscientious study of history because of their own role in falsifying the past and their present reformist policies.
On the other hand the left reformists cannot do so because of their lack of interest in theory and their lack of understanding that history and theory are an absolutely vital part of the equipment for advanced workers if they wish to emerge victorious in the struggle against capitalism. In this sense the past illuminates the present and the future. […]
If this article can whet the appetite, especially of young worker readers to study the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky it will have served its purpose.
The peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Soviet Russia and Hohenzollern Germany was signed on March 2, 1918 and ratified by the extraordinary 4th All-Russia Congress of Soviets.
By this treaty the Empire of Germany and the Empire of Austria-Hungary gained control over Poland, almost the whole Baltic area, part of Byelorussia, and the Ukraine was separated from Soviet Russia and became a German dependency, under German occupation. Turkey received Kars, Batum and Ardahan. It was a monstrously unjust peace which was forcibly imposed on Russia by the German militarists.
The Bolsheviks had won power, by proclaiming, among other demands, the demand for peace – but a peace without annexations or indemnities. The issues that arose over the Brest-Litovsk negotiations divided the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin was in favour of accepting even the most unjust terms – in order to gain time for the stabilisation of the revolution in Russia, and for the development of the Socialist revolution in Germany and other countries in Europe. The demand for peace negotiations between all the warring powers had been refused by the Allies. Consequently the Bolsheviks had been forced to conduct negotiations on the Eastern front on their own.
The Stalinists have systematically disseminated the legend that Trotsky (who was Commissar for Foreign Affairs) was not in favour of signing the peace terms or was in favour of “revolutionary war”. This is entirely untrue. There was no fundamental difference on this question between the position of Lenin and that of Trotsky. Bukharin and the “Left Communists” advocated the position of “revolutionary war”. Though not opposed to this in principle, Lenin and Trotsky were against it because of the weakness of Soviet Russia at that time, the collapse of the Russian Army and the inflexible desire of the peasants for peace – at any price.
In the early days of the discussion, Lenin and Trotsky were in a minority on the leading bodies of the Russian Communist Party. On January 21, 1918 at a meeting of active party workers where the negotiations were discussed, Bukharin and the supporters of revolutionary war obtained 32 votes. Lenin’s position of immediately capitulating to a German ultimatum received 15 and Trotsky’s position of delaying signing the peace until the Germans began an offensive received 16 votes. “In all the directing institutions of the Party and the State Lenin was in a minority” (Trotsky. My Life, p383).
On January 22, 1918 the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party adopted Trotsky’s proposals to delay negotiations, in the event of a German ultimatum to declare war at the end, to refuse to sign the peace: to act thereafter, according to the demands of circumstances. Lenin reported at the Party Congress in March 1918, “…at the Central Committee… a decision was adopted not to sign the peace …”
The difference between Lenin and Trotsky was purely one of tactics. Lenin wanted an immediate surrender to the brutal imperialist demands of imperial Germany in order to gain time and a breathing space. Trotsky wanted it to be clear to the working class of the whole world that the Bolsheviks were only signing under threats of force and because of their own weakness, at that moment. Negotiations continued for months, which were used for propaganda purposes by the Bolsheviks. Lenin on May 17, 1918 spoke of “the tremendous propagandist importance of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations” (conducted by Trotsky).
To put the differences in context, on October 3, 1918, Trotsky said, “I deem it my duty to say, in this authoritative assembly, that at the hour when many of us, including myself, were doubtful as to whether it was admissible for us to sign the Brest-Litovsk peace, only Comrade Lenin maintained stubbornly, with amazing foresight and against our opposition, that we had to go through with it to tide us over until the revolution of the world proletariat and now we must admit that we were wrong “.
However, to put the whole question of the disagreement in context we can quote Karl Liebknecht, who, together with Rosa Luxemburg, led the German Marxists at that time:
“During those days, confined in a German prison was a man whom the politicians of the Social Democracy were accusing of crazy Utopian ideas, and the Hohenzollern judges of state treason. This prisoner wrote: ‘The result of Brest-Litovsk is not nil, even if it comes to a peace of forced capitulation. Thanks to the Russian delegates Brest-Litovsk has become a revolutionary tribunal whose decrees are heard far and wide. It has brought about the exposure of the Central Powers; it has exposed German avidity, its cunning and hypocrisy. It has passed an annihilating verdict upon the peace policy of the German (Social Democratic) majority – a policy which is not so much a pious hypocrisy as it is cynicism. It has proved powerful enough to bring forth numerous mass movements in various countries. And its tragic last act – the intervention against the revolution – has made socialism tremble in every fibre of its being. Time will show what harvest will ripen for the present victors from this sowing, They will not be pleased with it’.” (quoted in My Life, p.378,)
Of course the question of war or peace is not a principled one, as the pacifists and the leadership of the Communist Parties today pretend, but a question of time, place and the relationship of forces, and above all the strength of the classes at any given period. Lenin’s opposition to revolutionary war against Germany in 1918 was not one of principle but was determined by the weakness of the Soviet Union and the determination of the soldiers (the overwhelming majority of whom were peasants) and peasants under all circumstances to ensure peace, despite the plundering and rapacious demands of the German ruling class.
Once the old army had dissolved and a new Red Army built, led by workers under the leadership of Trotsky, who became Commissar of War (or approximating in capitalist terms to “Minister”), the workers and peasants victoriously defended the Soviet Union on 18 different fronts against the attacks of the White Guards and imperialism. This despite incredible hardships.
The Red Army emerged victorious out of this struggle because of the Socialist and internationalist policies advocated by Lenin and Trotsky. In the great days of the revolution, these names were inseparable as the leaders of the Russian revolution and the world movement for socialism. The workers and peasants of the Soviet Union fought heroically because they were defending their ownership of land and industry, plus national self-determination of all the former oppressed nationalities of Russia. They understood also that the civil war had been forced on the Russian people by the defeated landlords and capitalists and by world imperialism.
The New Economic Policy
Comrade Frank Tippin raises the question of the New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin and Trotsky in 1921. What was involved? Russia had been through four terrible years of imperialist war, to be followed by three years of unexampled and ferocious civil war. The Bolsheviks had to defend themselves against the wars of intervention of all the major powers. Churchill and the British and French imperialists used French and British armed forces and financed the White Guards to plunge Russia into death and unexampled destruction.
At one time only Petrograd and Moscow and the provinces around them were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. All the rest of Russia was in the hands of the White Guards and the armies of intervention. But the Bolsheviks emerged victorious because they waged an internationalist and revolutionary war.
In an emergency situation the policy followed was one of “War Communism” where the state directly rationed the consumption of bread and necessities and there was a compulsory levy on grain production. There was a famine in 1920 in which millions died. In some famine stricken areas cases of cannibalism were reported. Large-scale industry was in ruins.
In the meantime the revolution in Germany had been prevented from reaching its consummation in the overthrow of capitalism by the leadership of the Social Democrats. Repudiating “Bolshevism”, i.e. revolutionary socialism, the German “socialist” leaders thus prepared the way for the victory of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War. But this was not only the case in Germany. In Austria and Hungary the revolution was defeated along with the revolutionary situation in Italy, France and Britain. It was because of the policies of the leaderships of the labour movements in those countries that the working class was not victorious as in Russia.
This national and international background forced Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks to retreat. The revolution had been based on the confident expectation that the Russian revolution would rapidly receive the support of the socialist revolution in Germany and other European countries. Now because of the betrayal of the socialist revolution in other countries, the Bolsheviks were in control of a ruined and isolated Russia. Consequently they had to beat a tactical retreat, once again, as at Brest-Litovsk. in order to gain a breathing space, in order to prepare for a new advance.
Comrade Tippin is incorrect when he speaks of the re-introduction of capitalism. This is not so. Power was firmly held in the hands of the working class. But War Communism was abolished. Concessions were indeed made to capitalism and private ownership in the cities and the petty capitalism of the peasants with their small plots. Compulsory grain requisitioning was abolished and instead a grain tax, of part of the peasants’ production was introduced. The balance could be sold on the open market. In the towns concessions were offered to private capital. Concessions were offered to Big Business abroad in mining and other areas. But these were never taken up, despite favourable terms, because of the fear and hatred of workers’ Russia by the capitalists. Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood clearly that Socialism in one country, especially a backward country like Russia, was impossible and therefore they had to retreat temporarily – in economic policy.
Lenin explained the situation in these words at the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March 1921: “In these last three years, we have learned to understand that placing our stake on the world revolution does not mean relying on a definite date… therefore, we must be able to bring our work in line with the class balance here and elsewhere… the majority on the Central Committee and I myself took the view that it was essential to grant these concessions… It is vital to have such an alliance with the state trusts of the advanced countries because our economic crisis is so deep that we cannot, on our own, rehabilitate our ruined economy without machinery and technical aid from abroad…
“Of course this will exact a high price, but there is no other way out because the world revolution is marking time… Then there are the economic problems. What is the meaning of the unrestricted trade demanded by the petit bourgeois elements? It is that in the proletariat’s relations with the small farmers there are difficult problems and tasks we have yet to solve. I am speaking of the victorious proletariat’s relations with the small proprietors when the proletarian revolution unfolds in a country where the proletariat is in a minority, and the petit bourgeoisie in a majority.
“In such a country the proletariat’s role is to direct the transition of these small proprietors to socialised and collective production… but we know that it… can (only) be guaranteed when you have a very powerful, large-scale industry capable of providing the petty producer with such benefits that he will see its advantages in practice…
“When concentrating on economic rehabilitation, we must understand that we have before us a small farmer, a small producer who will work for the market until the rehabilitation and triumph of large-scale industry. We must allow the peasant to have a certain amount of leeway in local trade, and supplant the surplus food appropriation by a tax, to give the small farmer a chance to plan his production and determine its scale in accordance with the tax”.
Lenin made the position even clearer: “in such a country (where in Lenin’s words “industrial workers are a minority and petty farmers are the vast majority”) the Socialist revolution can triumph only on two conditions. First, if it is given timely support by a socialist revolution in one or several advanced countries. As you know we have done very much in comparison with the past to bring about this condition, but far from enough to make it a reality.”
“The second condition is agreement between the proletariat, which is exercising its dictatorship, that is holds state power, and the majority of the peasant population”.
As it worked out the concessions offered to world capitalism were not accepted. But the isolation of the revolution led to the victory of Stalinism – or to be more accurate of the bureaucratic caste which raised itself above the workers and peasants. But the state ownership of land and industry survived, despite this and despite the waste, mismanagement and corruption of a totalitarian bureaucracy – the superiority of state ownership and a plan have been demonstrated in war and peace.
Comrade Frank Tippin is repeating the gossip of Stalinist circles about “Trotsky’s opportunism” which has no basis in fact. Between 1903 and 1912 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were two factions of the same party – the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Trotsky belonged to neither faction, but occupied a position midway between the two. Trotsky had differences on the question of organisation with Lenin, but on the tactics of the Marxists in relation to the coming revolution he was in absolute opposition to the Mensheviks. Lenin said that as Russia was facing a capitalist, or bourgeois revolution, it was necessary to offer irreconcilable opposition to the capitalists, who would betray the revolution, if they were given the opportunity, to the semifeudal regime.
Trotsky had an even clearer position when he argued with his famous theory of permanent revolution that only the working class could carry out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, but having conquered power would then turn to the socialist tasks. And having conquered power in a backward country, the final solution would be achieved by extending the socialist revolution to the advanced countries. This was exactly the process in the Russian revolution.
Trotsky’s mistake was in believing there could be unity – after 1912 – in one party of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This Lenin fought implacably. However, between 1903 and 1912 Lenin made many attempts to arrive at a united party. Only in 1912 did Lenin finally conclude that unity was impossible and organise an independent party.
But after the February revolution in Russia in 1917, it is no accident that Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders came out for unity with the Mensheviks in one party. They also put forward support for the capitalist Provisional Government. Had their policy been carried out the Russian revolution would have been defeated.
Lenin arrived in Russia after the February revolution and won an overwhelming majority in the Bolshevik Party, against these policies. It is no accident that Lenin and Trotsky, after the February revolution independently adopted the same standpoint and tactics. Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party when the Bolsheviks were being persecuted after the July days and Lenin was being hounded as a “German Spy”.
Incidentally the leadership of the Communist Parties of Spain and Portugal, of Italy and France – all detractors of Trotsky – are pursuing a far worse policy of “unity” with capitalist and Monarchist parties, with Liberals and employers, than the Mensheviks in Russia, which Lenin so firmly condemned. But Lenin, in 1918, provided a crushing answer to the critics of Trotsky, when he explained, “Since Trotsky understood there can be no unity (in one party) between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there has been no better Bolshevik than Trotsky”!
Two years after the revolution Lenin wrote “at the moment when it seized the power and created the Soviet Republic, Bolshevism drew to itself all the best elements in the currents of socialist thought that were nearest to it'”. He was referring to Trotsky and his supporters.
This is a sufficient answer to the slanders peddled about Trotsky’s “opportunism” by the Stalinists and unfortunately accepted by comrade Tippin. Opportunism is unworthy and self-seeking careerism, when applied to an individual. Trotsky, like Marx, Engels and Lenin, was above such unworthy and petty motivations.
Lenin’s appreciation of Trotsky and the secondary nature of the differences over Brest-Litovsk was shown by his suggestion that Trotsky become Commissar of War. He had, incidentally proposed Trotsky as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, after the revolution. Trotsky declined and proposed Lenin instead.
Only the collaboration of Marx and Engels can be compared to the warm collaboration and friendship of Lenin and Trotsky after the revolution. Their names were linked inseparably together, in poems, articles and in the folklore of the people by both supporters and enemies of the revolution, both nationally and internationally.
In many ways Trotsky sacrificed more personally to the revolutionary struggle and to the emancipation of the working class than even Marx and Lenin for Stalin murdered his children, and then Trotsky, himself.
Trotsky, while head of the Red Army could have seized power. But he did not do so because in place of the Stalin dictatorship there would have been a military dictatorship. Trotsky, like Marx and Lenin, relied always on raising the level of understanding of the working class and the conscious movement of the workers themselves as a class as the only instrument to realise socialism.
The statement that Trotsky held Czarist officers’ wives and children as hostages is simply not true. It is a lie disseminated by the counter-revolutionary White Guards. What is true, is that every Czarist officer serving in the Red Army had a Red Commissar attached to the regiment who had to countersign and ratify his orders. The Commissar could bring the officer before a court-martial and a firing squad if he considered he was acting treasonably. In that sense the Czarist officers were hostages themselves.
November 1, 1974