By Jean van Heijenoort
Everything that the liberals have written on Lenin is barren, revealing the limitations of their thinking rather than Lenin’s genius. An even more difficult object study for them is Trotsky.
One of those who has attempted to explain Trotsky is Max Eastman. [The translator of many of Trotsky’s works who knew Trotsky well].
Trotsky ended the introduction to his autobiography with these words: “To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place that is the first duty of a revolutionary.” This duty Trotsky fulfiled to the utmost. For him (or for Lenin) the task of the biographer, just as that of its hero, is to “understand the sequence of events.” Only then can the man’s real place in history be found and his true role established.
Historical materialism does not deny the role of the individual in history nor the influence of the different aspects of his character. On the contrary, it reveals for the first time the mechanism of this process by recognising the individual as the representative of a class or a layer of a class. It thus provides a rational explanation of his historical role and at the same time establishes the limits of his activity. All the idealistic jargon about “heroes” loses its mystical and mystifying character. The trajectory described by each historical personality is the result of the interaction of the different social groups, each of which demands different qualifications from its representatives. Of these delicate relationships between a social group and its leaders, liberal thought grasps nothing; history becomes a mere backdrop for the hero, the liberal observer delves more and more deeply into the individual in order to discover his “secret” and that of the events.
The liberals insistently explain Stalinism as the product of some original sin of Bolshevism, Lenin’s quasidiabolic invention. As for the defeat of the Left Opposition, from where could it spring if not from some “defect or weakness,” as Eastman puts it, in Trotsky’s character? He remained isolated, hence “he could not handle men.” He was beaten, hence a “poorer politician never lived.”
Hegel once observed that common sense, when unable to give an explanation, often takes refuge in the type of metaphysics which “explains” that opium causes sleep because of its “dormitive quality.” Having separated the party or the individual from the historical development of the class struggle, the doctors of liberalism then observe them through the metaphysical spectacles of common sense. Thus to give rise to Stalinism, Bolshevism must contain a “dictatorial quality” and the fall of Trotsky can be explained only — obviously — by his lack of “political quality.” How simple!
We are waiting to be told what this “political quality” is. Max Eastman merely points out to us two possible manifestations of this quality. The first would have been for Trotsky to “have gone into the factories with a few forthright speeches and raised every fighting revolutionist in Moscow and Leningrad against the Stalinist clique.” In short, Trotsky should have made an insurrection. The second would have been to invite Kamenev, “who was his brother-in-law,” to come take a cup of tea and “talk it over man to man.” We leave it to Max Eastman’s common sense to reconcile the armed insurrection against the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev troika and the cup of tea with the same Kamenev.
An insurrection does not fall from the sky, even when there is someone to lead it. What are the indications that, in 1923 or later, the Soviet working masses were ready to revolt against the rising bureaucracy? An appeal to the masses against the party could have led only to an immense Kronstadt and prepared the entrance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. As for arousing the party against the bureaucratic tops, precisely this was the task undertaken by the opposition, but it had to begin with the work of educating and of gathering together cadres for this task. How can one speak of an armed insurrection when the opposition was in the minority even in the ranks of the party? How call on a party member to take gun in hand and fight in the street when in his party cell, under pressure of his superiors in the factory or office, through fatigue, through lack of confidence in the forces of the revolution, he voted for the apparatus?
But after all, didn’t Trotsky have unequalled popularity in the army? This is true and there is little doubt that in 1923 it would have been very easy, with the help of the military apparatus, to disperse the troika — a matter of only a few hours and very little blood, if any. Here common sense seems to triumph. With such a simple operation all the degradation of Stalinism would have been avoided — and it was not even tried! But history makes a fool of common sense.
One cannot use the army like a sword which one puts back in its sheath once the operation is done. Any army which enters the political arena and assures the victory of one of the fighting factions proceeds to pay itself well. The prices would have been, for the officers corps, more security and more privileges. Instead of spreading chiefly through the party apparatus, then, the Thermidorian reaction would have spread through the military apparatus. Undoubtedly the regime would have had a different coloration than that of Stalin, but the fundamental political reality would have been the same and the process of degeneration probably more rapid. Citing the revolutionary integrity of Trotsky changes none of this. He would have found himself, the day after the Bonapartist coup d’etat, faced with the demands of an officers corps become conscious of its power in the country. He would then have had to capitulate to the officers, or, in resisting them, fall victim to one of their plots.
Indeed, the army is always a stronghold of bureaucratism. The Red Army was no exception. The military apparatus was not separated from the state apparatus by an air-tight partition, but was part of it, following the same process of degeneration. In 1921 the war was over, and the heroic epoch of the revolution was succeeded by the humdrum of daily existence. The difference between the two periods was even greater for the army than for the rest of the population, and could not fail to be reflected in its state of mind. Moreover, the army had been reduced from 5,300,000 men to 600,000 thus greatly increasing the specific weight of the remaining cadres. We must not forget that a not negligible fraction of these remaining cadres came from the Tsarist army.
The demobilised part of the army was also a strong factor in the bureaucratisation of the country. Many of the commanders, returning to their villages and provincial towns, found themselves placed, by their prestige and their experience, at the head of the local administration. There they often employed methods differing very little from the military command to which they were accustomed, and they integrated themselves very easily into the Stalinist apparatus. In face of these social realities the prestige of their former leader carried little weight.
In July 1933 Trotsky was living near Royan; nearby lived a Communist worker, an old influential party member, dissatisfied with the Stalinist line. Lev Davidovitch desired to meet him. The enterprise was risky. His sojourn in France might have been compromised, but the desire to speak with a worker won out. So, one evening, with all possible precautions, this worker was brought into the workroom of Lev Davidovitch. The conversation soon turned to the defeat of the Russian Opposition. “How did you lose the power, comrade Trotsky ?” “Ah, you know, one does not lose power like one loses his pocket book.” Then came an explanation which lasted long into the night.
Power is not a trophy presented to the most clever, but it is above all, through individuals, a relationship between the classes and their social layers. The leader, as a representative of a social group, defends the interests of that group more or less well. But if the position of the group changes, he loses his footing, is suspended in the air, powerless. Thus, on the 9th Thermidor, Robespierre, head of the government, appears before the Convention. The session is so tumultuous that he cannot speak and it is ended by a decree of arrest against him. The following day he is guillotined. Clearly, the forces which supported him were exhausted. Any explanation that would reduce the dynamics of the revolution to a comparison of the personal qualities of Robespierre and Barms would not get very far.
Never weary of accusing Trotsky of being a poor politician, the philistines rarely take the trouble to expound their own conception of politics. But their accusations show clearly that their lack of understanding of the relationship of the individual to the party, of the parties to the classes, reduces their conception to the most degraded form of politics, the art of personal combinations. Of course, this art is far from being unnecessary. But the first condition for its use is to know its limits. One can deceive men; one cannot deceive history. Stalin thought he could. In 1924 he was merely looking for a “surer” way for the revolution, thought he was avoiding danger by confining the revolution within the frontiers of the USSR and by building socialism in one country. This “ruse” led him to the terrible catastrophe of World War Two. The “impractical” theory of the permanent revolution was, on the other hand, full of profound realism. Likewise, one could not, in 1923, skip over the wave of Thermidorian reaction by such a “ruse” as an insurrection, a military coup d’etat or a cup of tea with “brother-in-law” Kamenev.
In July 1935 Lev Davidovitch was speaking of the France he was leaving: “There is truth in what the French say: politics is the science of proportion. Oh, for them it is the science of small proportions.” Thus he described in a single word a striking characteristic of the French bourgeoisie. Then he continued: “To be exact one must say that politics is the science of perspectives.” If one accepts this definition of politics — and this is the only valid one for Marxists — Trotsky was a great, a very great politician.
The defeat of the Left Opposition was too complete to allow us to attribute it to some tactical error of its leader. Naturally, this does not mean that events necessarily had to happen as they did. Numerous variants were possible, the general trend leaves little doubt. Trotsky’s personal qualities have their importance in determining his place: it is not, by chance that he led the opposition and that Stalin was the agent of the reaction.
In 1926, when she still felt fairly close to Lenin’s last ideas, Krupskaia declared: “If Ilyitch were alive, he would be in prison today.” By these words she wished above all to denounce the lie of Stalin’s so-called “Leninism” and to show the reality of the struggle, that of the bureaucratic reaction against the revolutionary wing. However, Krupskaia’s words also seem to contain, in their own way, a reproach directed to the Left Opposition: if Lenin were alive, he would have led the struggle against the bureaucratisation of the Soviet state with such vigour that he would already have been in prison, while the opposition was still in the party. Surely we have the right to discern this criticism in Krupskaia’s words, but in this case we must not forget the conclusion: Lenin himself could not have overcome the bureaucracy, “he would be in prison today.”
To place the problem on the level of personal qualities alone leads, willy nilly, to a great exaggeration of the stature of Trotsky’s adversaries. Thus, it is characteristic of liberal thought to confer some demoniacal power on Stalin when in reality Stalin’s motivations were very simple and very narrow: the fear of revolutionary risk, the absence of perspectives, envy of a more brilliant rival, mediocrity and provincial grossness. But it was precisely these qualities that the apparatus required of its leader.
Does this mean that the struggle of the Left Opposition was futile? This mechanical and abstract way of posing the question betrays a fatalism foreign to Marxism. History does not give its verdict like an oracle. The relationship of forces can be determined only by the struggle itself. No one can measure in advance the depth and the duration of the reaction. A proletarian victory outside the USSR could have reopened the question. Above all there was the duty of assuring the revolutionary future. Where would we be without the struggle of the Left Opposition?
The great gift of Trotsky in dealing with men was that he knew how to mobilise them. He knew how to paint the grandeur of an aim, to inspire enthusiasm, to fortify the will. Lenin marvelled at Trotsky’s ability to rally many technicians to the Soviet power, to inspire them with confidence and to win them over to work in defence of the country. In his last exile, in problems small or big, he knew how to gain the cooperation and the devotion of people who were not directly tied to him by ideas and who could expect no recompense of any kind. His secret, if one wishes to use the word, was always to demand of an individual the best in him. Trotsky addressed himself to the best in men, for on the rest, he knew, one can build nothing durable.