On August 20, 1940, Lev Davidovich (Leon) Trotsky was brutally murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen. To commemorate his work and examine his ideas International Socialist Alternative is publishing a series of articles. This is based on a discussion at the ISA’s Virtual Marxist University, outlining the heroic struggle fought by Trotsky and his supporters in opposing Stalin.
George Martin Fell Brown, Socialist Alternative, US and Rob Jones Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa, Russia
On January 18, 1928, Lev Trotsky was dragged from his flat in Moscow, taken to the city’s Yaroslavsky Station and put on a train to Bishkek, nearly 4,000 kilometers away. From there, he was taken over the mountains to Alma-Ata, a town with no sanitation and where leprosy, malaria and other illnesses were prevalent. Stalin sent Trotsky into far-flung exile because Trotsky was popular, had a viable explanation for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and was intransigent in his opposition.
A recurring question that socialists are perpetually forced to grapple with is “What about Russia?”. How did the first successful socialist revolution end up degenerating into a bureaucratic Stalinist dictatorship? It was Trotsky and the Left Opposition that provided the most thorough analysis of the social forces behind the rise of Stalinism as they gained direct experience of combating the processes taking place. The history of this struggle still has important lessons for today.
The Russian Revolution saw the working class overthrow capitalism for the first time. But it did so in an underdeveloped, semi-feudal country ravaged by World War I. The leaders of the revolution, Vladimir Lenin and Lev Trotsky and their party, the Bolsheviks, only ever envisaged that this was the start of a world-wide revolution, in which the working classes of the developed capitalist world would join with those of Russia, helping it to develop an internationally planned economy and socialist democracy on a higher level than anything capitalism had ever reached.
This did not stop them, however, from introducing a whole range of radical socialist measures. Russia withdrew from the war, refused to recognize secret agreements previously agreed between the imperialist powers, granted land to the peasantry, introduced workers’ control, introduced the right to vote for all citizens men, women and youth, introduced equal rights for women, decriminalized same-sex relations, granted the right of self-determination to those nations that wanted it as well as radically transforming the education and health systems in favor of working people and the poor.
Not only that, the Bolsheviks founded the Communist International, the Comintern.
Anti-socialist forces, monarchists, clerics, conservatives and right-wing nationalists of various hues, backed by bankers and big business were determined to prevent this. They launched a civil war in which the reactionary White armies backed by the military of 21 imperialist countries sought to violently overturn the revolution. On top of the destruction caused by the First World War, a further three years of civil war left the Russian economy in a desperate situation.
New Economic Policy
The degeneration of the socialist revolution was not, as many claim, the logical consequence of the revolution, but a rejection of its ideals. Nor did the degeneration take place in one leap but was a process that developed over time in line with a series of international and national developments, in which subjective factors too sometimes played a role.
In the new, socialist Russia, despite the working-class having come to power in 1917, the state was incredibly strained in its ability to meet basic human needs. On top of that, the most politically conscious workers were increasingly taken out of the workers’ movement. Many had died in the civil war. Others were dragged into the multitudinous administrative tasks needed to run society.
Recognizing this, at the end of the civil war, and with the delay of the European revolution, the Bolsheviks introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP). This relaxed the harsh conditions that had been necessary for the economy during the civil war, reducing some of the economic strain, but at the expense of giving more power to market forces, wealthier peasants, and experts from before the revolution.
As the influence of the NEP and those who benefited most from it grew, a bureaucracy begun to establish itself as a force in its own right, both within the state apparatus and even increasingly in the party. A central figure in this was Joseph Stalin, who played a secondary role in the revolution itself but, in order to deal with the growing administrative tasks within the Bolshevik Party was appointed “General Secretary” in 1923.
This was the first time during its twenty-five years of existence that such a post had existed in the party. Lenin had always maintained a democratic and collective style of leadership within the party, and in the new Socialist Russia. The new position was intended to be purely for the improvement of organizational issues, but Stalin misused the General Secretary’s position as a tool firstly to concentrate information in his hands, before eventually promoting it to become an all-powerful and authoritarian ruler.
From 1922, Lenin suffered increasingly poor health. But he could see worrying signs of a developing bureaucracy. He proposed changing the “Workers and Peasants Inspectorate” that was supposed to oversee and control the growing state apparatus by bringing in more workers and peasants. He also grew increasingly worried by the heavy-handed measures Stalin’s supporters had used within Georgia, actions which ignored national sensitivities in the region. He also fought Stalin’s proposal to unify the, at the time, three other Soviet republics into the Russian Socialist Federation, instead arguing for the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with each republic having an equal status. These issues persuaded Lenin of the need to fight the growing bureaucracy and to do so, he proposed forming a block with Trotsky. Unfortunately, Lenin’s illness frequently took him out of activity.
By now, two other crises were unfolding that weakened the power of the working class and strengthened the bureaucracy. Lenin had proposed the NEP as a temporary concession allowing small scale private business until the revolution developed in the developed countries. Unfortunately, the wrong policies of the German Communist Party advised by Zinoviev, then as Head of the Comintern, meant the revolution in Germany failed to materialize. This defeat was a heavy blow to the Russian working class, helping to demoralize it.
At the same time, as the life of the NEP was inevitably extended, so its negative effects increased. In what was, in effect, the restoration of small scale capitalism, a new caste of rich peasants in the countryside and rich traders and speculators, the so-called NEPmen, developed. They in turn increasing influenced and linked up with a layer of “chinovniks” — state bureaucrats, many of whom had supported the Mensheviks in 1917 or even worked for the tsarist regime.
The NEP was also introducing distortions into the Soviet economy, which faced, what Trotsky called the “scissors crisis”. Agricultural prices dropped, while prices of industrial goods rose. This meant that peasants couldn’t afford to buy machinery they needed, increased unemployment in the cities, and lead to the increasing inequality within the peasantry.
After his third stroke in March 1923, Lenin was too ill to participate further in party affairs. While Trotsky was undoubtedly seen as the joint leader with Lenin of the revolution, his opponents, who were leaning on the more conservative, developing bureaucracy were maneuvering to maintain their position, particularly when it became known that Lenin and Trotsky were preparing to oppose them. In this situation, Trotsky was doubly cautious not to be seen to be launching a power struggle.
His opponents, however consolidated their forces by forming the “troika”, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin.
This became clear at the 12th Congress in April 1923, when for the first time the majority of delegates (55%) were full time party workers and another 28% were part time. During 1923, using Stalin’s position as General Secretary they carefully managed intra-party discussion and the selection of delegates to the XIII Party Congress in early 1924, just after Lenin’s death. Here they managed to suppress Lenin’s Last Testament, which called for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary.
Several historians, including Isaac Deutscher and Pierre Broué, have stated that Trotsky failed to take up the struggle against Stalin in 1923. This is not true. It has to be understood that in the early stages of the battle, it was necessary for Trotsky and his supporters to tread carefully. He fought on the Georgian issue with tenacity, first raising the issue in Pravda. Stalin however retreated on this question and started his speech at the XII Party Congress on the nationalities question with a sharp criticism of “Great Russian chauvinism”. At the Politburo meeting immediately after the Congress, Trotsky proposed removing Ordzhonikidze from his post in Georgia, recognizing that the proposal for a Transcaucasian republic as proposed by Stalin was too centralized and accepting that the Georgian minority had every right to propose their position. Stalin at that time still let Zinoviev and Kamenev take the lead, often retreating himself to avoid confrontation.
Given Stalin’s retreat on the nationalities question, Trotsky concentrated on economic questions. Delivering the report on industry, he raised the need to strengthen the tempo of industrialization, a speech later published as “Towards socialism or capitalism”.
Broué’s claim that Trotsky was struck down by the strange illness which kept him on the fringe of the decisive struggles of this period, and was not present. during the joint Central Committee/Central Control Commission plenum in October 1923 is also not true. Trotsky participated and spoke at least four times.
Opposition gathers strength
Of course, Trotsky played a central role in the opposition to the growing bureaucracy, but he was not alone. Thousands, tens of thousands of Bolsheviks stood in the way of the Stalinist counter-revolution. In October 1923 leading members of the Left opposition included many “old Bolsheviks” with 20 years of activity including leading revolutionaries, people with the intellect of Preobrazhensky or Smirnov, the organizational genius of Pyatakov, the class instincts of Sapronov, all of whom were united in the platform of the Left Opposition (1923–27).
They were joined by such as former soldier and leader of the storming of the Winter Palace Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Evgeniya Bosh — she was a founding member of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks and led the armed uprising in Kiev, as well, of course, Christian Rakovsky, Head of the Ukrainian party and one of Trotsky’s closest allies. Apart from Bosh, who died of ill health in 1925, they were all executed by Stalin between 1936–8.
The Troika did all in their power to suppress criticism at this time. But they did not succeed. There was still life in the Bolshevik party. When members heard rumors of the disagreements at the top of the party, they demanded information. By the careful selection of delegates to the joint Central Committee/Central Control Commission plenum in October 1923 — out of 117 present, only 11 supported the opposition — the Troika believed they had ended the debate on the issues raised by the Left Opposition. But by the end of December, the discussion had exploded within the Party — starting in Moscow, Branches and Regions refused the instructions from the Secretariat not to distribute Trotsky’s position, while the party press including Pravda and Isvestia were full of reports of the Opposition winning the debate, including in several key Moscow districts.
Indicating the difficulties faced by the Troika in this discussion, Zinoviev wrote at the end of November to Stalin complaining that after reading the notes from meetings at the Communist University
“ … I see that the situation is worse than I thought. The University is agitated. There are a number of very angry and hardened elements. A lot of gossip and rumors. There is a great bitterness against the Central Committee, as usual a special campaign against me. Preobrazhensky’s group seems to have organized itself and is operating all over Moscow. This can cause great trouble in the Moscow organization. We need serious measures in the Moscow organization. Otherwise it will be too late”
Left Opposition’s criticisms
The criticisms by the Left opposition were formulated in written form by Trotsky in his secret letter to the Central Committee in October 1923. This was followed by the “Declaration of the 46” signed by leading members of the party, and then the publication of Trotsky’s “New Course” at the end of 1923.
In these materials, the Left opposition criticized the chaotic management of industry, proposing instead the more effective use of state planning to speed up the country’s industrialization. This, they argued would ease the negative effects of NEP, while improving the living standards and strengthening the role played by the working class. Stalin ridiculed this, instead increasing work norms and legalizing vodka sale, banned since 1912, in effect a tax on workers.
The opposition also criticized the growing bureaucracy, not just in size, but because it was gaining increasing privileges and creating an “oppressive party regime” dominated by the “selection of the party hierarchy by the Secretariat”.
In 1923, the Bolsheviks still believed that any party member occupying a post should get no more than a skilled worker. Lenin, in 1922, was paid 4700 rubles a month, just 37% above the average factory worker. Almost all state and party positions in 1924 were occupied by those who had joined the party before 1917. This, though, included many former workers who had fought in the war — but were no longer workers.
After Lenin’s death, a move called the “Lenin Levy” was initiated. Hundreds of thousands of politically inactive workers, often under pressure of losing their jobs, were recruited into the party. With party membership increasing by 50% in the span of a year, this was an open door to those who were not in the party out of conviction or suffered the sacrifices of the pre-revolutionary period, but saw the party as a road to privilege and success.
Party membership grew from 400,000 to 1,2 million by 1927. 90% of those in party and state positions had joined after 1924. “Power of the secretaries”, and ultimately of course the General Secretary, became the norm. Party members could expect promotion, food parcels, even better housing when others suffered hunger and food shortages. The party maximum was abolished by a secret decree in 1932.
In addition, the Opposition argued that the bureaucracy itself, by hiding real political divisions through bureaucratic maneuvers, was sewing division within the party that threatened the revolution. This incidentally is another factor ignored by Deutscher and Broué — if the opposition was warning of the dangers of splits within the Bolshevik party, that could only be overcome by the conscious efforts to develop a collective leadership, they could hardly come out openly in an all-out public attack on the “troika”.
Instead the opposition argued that the opening of honest debate, inner-party and soviet democracy was the way to create genuine unity.
The supporters of the Troika accused the Left Opposition of sewing factional divisions that threatened the party, responding to the challenge by removing Trotsky and others from their positions and re-organizing their bases of support. Several were given ambassador positions to take them out of national politics. Rakovsky was sent to France, Joffe was sent to China, Krestinsky to Germany, and Kotziubinski to Austria. Other prominent figures in the Red Army and the youth wing were similarly removed from their positions.
More intense bureaucratic manipulation occurred on the International level. During the fifth congress of the Comintern in 1924, Zinoviev carried out a program misnamed “bolshevization” within the Comintern. Other sections were expected to denounce Trotskyism without even knowing what Trotsky advocated. French communists who had published Trotsky’s “New Course” were expelled. The Polish party, which supported Trotsky, had its whole leadership erased. In Germany, Brandler, an opponent of Trotsky who was on the right wing of the party, was also expelled. But he was given the sole personal blame for the failure of the 1923 revolution, absolving the bureaucracy of its own role.
The reaction to the Left Opposition’s struggle in 1923 was a shock to many in the party. But the bureaucracy still hadn’t reached the totalitarian levels of the 1930s. Trotsky and his supporters were still allowed to write on various issues. During this time, he wrote “Literature and Revolution” and “Problems of Everyday Life”. Pravda even published significant articles including some critical of Stalin, while the State Publishing House published Trotsky’s “First Five Years of the Comintern” in 1924 and a year later “Problems of the British Revolution”.
But, going into the mid-20s, even this theoretical realm became a target for Stalinist attacks. Starting in November of 1924, newspapers were flooded with denunciations of Trotsky, and motions of protest were passed in local organizations. Bureaucrats used their resources to dig through their archives to republish out-of-context snippets of old polemical debates between Lenin and Trotsky. The state-sponsored attacks on the Left Opposition were more character assassination than actual theoretical argument. But the Stalinist polemics also served a purpose of theoretically rationalizing the bureaucracy’s political approach.
Rejection of World Revolution
Bolshevism had long understood that a revolution in a semi-feudal country like Russia could only be sustained by expanding the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries. In January 1924 Stalin still supported the position that to survive, the Russian revolution needed to turn into world revolution. But by the end of the year, after Lenin’s death, he and Nikolai Bukharin began to introduce the idea it was necessary to build “socialism in a separate country”, usually translated as “socialism in one country”. By 1926 this had become official Comintern policy, it no longer fought for world revolution, but to defend the USSR.
Internationally, the cause of world revolution was subordinated to making good relations with bourgeois nationalists and trade union bureaucrats. These forces would be relied upon to oppose military intervention against the Soviet Union, but would also move against rising working-class militancy abroad. Internally, the bureaucracy leaned on the growing inequality that had developed under the New Economic Policy, with Bukharin appealing to the wealthier peasants to “enrich yourself”. Increased working-class activity, or activity among the poorer peasants, would provoke opposition from the wealthier peasants, or kulaks, and disturb the status quo.
The Joint Opposition
These bureaucratic policies provoked a new crisis that lead to a second wave of opposition and a break within the bureaucracy. Leningrad, formerly called Petrograd, had a strong base of the industrial proletariat which was most directly impacted by the policies put forward by Stalin and Bukharin. It was also where Zinoviev and Kamenev had their base of support. By October 1925, under pressure from below, a new opposition platform of four appeared — Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sokolnikov and Krupskaya, calling for a strengthening of inner party democracy. They warned of the “national limitations” of “socialism in one country”, although Zinoviev and Kamenev maintained their earlier hostility to Trotsky.
Stalin now felt more confident and maneuvered quite openly against the two, removing Zinoviev and Kamenev from key positions. Stalin was left leaning firmly on the right wing — Nikolai Bukharin, Alexey Rykov and Mikhail Tomsky, who promoted the strengthening of rich peasants in the country and the entrepreneurial class in the cities. They not only supported Stalin’s policy of “socialism in one country”, Bukharin played a big role in developing and promoting this deeply mistaken approach.
A new, Joint Opposition was established between the Left Opposition, the “Leningrad Opposition”, and others. Their defining document was the 1927 “Platform of the Joint Opposition”. It called for the revitalization of the soviets, the development of industry on a democratic basis, the mobilization of the poor and middle peasants against the kulak, and other demands.
The second wave of struggle was much more intense than in 1923. The Opposition’s print shop was attacked, and those who ran it arrested. The state press published conspiracy theories about the Opposition working with White Guards. With this higher level of oppression, the Opposition brought the fight to the public. They occupied public buildings to organize illegal public meetings by candlelight, as the electricity had been turned off.
International issues also came to the fore. In Britain, the bureaucracy had established the Anglo-Russian Committee, an alliance of Soviet and British trade union leaders. In 1926, a general strike developed in Britain, which those trade union bureaucrats betrayed. But friendship between the Soviet and British union leaders, based not on comradely criticism but banquets and mutual praise left the British communists disarmed — rather than preparing the working class for their betrayal by the union leaders. The end of the strike after just nine days left the working class shocked and defeated.
In China, a revolutionary movement developed which saw the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang come to power. The Comintern had followed a disastrous policy in China. In 1922–23 it advised the CCP to join the bourgeois Koumintang. Only Trotsky opposed this on the Comintern executive. This held back the CCP from independent actions, while Stalin and Bukharin acted as cheerleaders for the Kuomintang, even giving it a seat in the Comintern. This proved fatal when the interests of the Chinese bourgeoisie came into conflict with the proletariat, and in 1927 the Koumintang launched a coup murdering thousands of workers, especially the membership of the Chinese Communist Party. This brought the struggle of the Left Opposition more thoroughly into the international arena.
The betrayal of the Chinese revolution, in particular, proved a stunning confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Support for the LO grew by hundreds and even thousands. Nonetheless, this confirmation of Trotsky’s ideas dealt a crushing blow to his movement. It’s not enough to be right. Concrete victories and defeats can shape consciousness much more powerfully than logical argument. The Russian Revolution confirmed Trotsky’s theory in a positive manner, while the Chinese Revolution confirmed Trotsky’s theory in a negative way. The defeat in China, like the earlier defeat in Germany, demobilized the international working-class struggle, increasing the demoralization and the social base on which the bureaucracy rested.
By this time there had been a serious strengthening of capitalist tendencies particularly on the land at the expense of state run industry. By 1926, 60% of grain sales were in the hands of just 6% of peasant holdings. Party economists actively discussed removing restrictions on the sale of wheat and the state monopoly of foreign trade.
The gap between grain prices and industrial goods that Trotsky had earlier identified had continued. By 1927 a grain strike developed — delivery of grain to the cities was cut by 2/3rds. This followed kulak terror in the country in which more than 1150 communists were killed. By the end of the year even in Moscow there was no tea, soap, cooking oil or white bread on sale. The whole of the city’s textile industry closed for 4 months.
By the end of 1927, Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated to Stalin. The following year, dramatic events caused further problems for the Opposition. Stalin initially ignored the escalating crises after the defeat of the Chinese revolution and the increasing strength of the kulaks. In the 1928 Congress he spoke only of galloping success. Yet weeks later he panicked. Stalin zig-zagged, announcing a 5-year economic plan and forced collectivization. In 1925 Trotsky had been denounced for demanding “super-industrialization because he had argued that industry should grow by 10–14%, but now Stalin demanded growth rates of 21–25% a year.
This could only be achieved with extreme effort. Trotsky described how increased production, to a large degree was due to the “Stakhanov movement”. Aleksei Stakhanov was a Ukrainian miner who achieved incredible production levels. Trotsky described this as due “to an intensification of labor, and even to a lengthening of the working day.” More recent information not only confirms this, but identifies a significant manipulation of statistics. Originally, miners would dig the coal face and then turn to prop up the ceiling behind them with pit-props. Stakhanov’s method meant he alone dug the coal and two other miners following to store up the roof. All the coal dug was then credited to Stakhanov. This led not just to a huge intensification of labor, but a dramatic differentiation between the wages of workers — the shock workers earned thousands of rubles, while the rest just hundreds.
Far more dramatic and disastrous was Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization. The kulaks would now be “liquidated as a class” and within two years, collectivization of cultivated land grew from 2% to 77%. This was a human catastrophe — hundreds of thousands, probably millions starved to death as the peasantry across the USSR from Ukraine in the West to Kazakhstan in the East were left without means of subsistence.
Oppositionists like Trotsky and Rakovsky saw this as the bureaucratic maneuver that it was. Other oppositionists like Preobrazhensky, Radek, and Smilga, however, mistakenly saw this as a de facto embrace of the Left Opposition’s program, leading them to capitulate to Stalin too. Beyond these internal disagreements, this period saw the full consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Oppositionists, on the left and the right, were arrested, and often exiled to Siberia. The death penalty against oppositionists was instituted. Trotsky was exiled, first to Kazakhstan, and later expelled from the country altogether, forcing him to flee to Turkey.
It is worth commenting here that despite decades of propaganda to convince us of the brutality of the Bolshevik party in its early years, it was significantly more humanitarian to those who committed crimes than the leading capitalist nations. In 1923, when many parts of the country were just emerging from by civil war, there were just under 80,000 prisoners in the USSR — of whom about 4,000 were “political”, in prison on charges related to war crimes, pogroms and so on. The number of political prisoners began to significantly grow in 1926 — no longer from reactionary circles, but from supporters of the revolution. For comparison, in 1923 there were one and a half times more prisoners per head of population in the US and today in Russia there are ten times as many prisoners. But as the Stalinist regime stepped up political repression, the number of prisoners in 1930 reached 175,000 and by 1940 1,660,000 people.
How to fight fascism
Alongside the Stalinist zig-zags within the USSR, a similar ultra-left turn was adopted internationally. Bukharin had, since 1926 been raising the ideas that there had been three periods since 1917. The revolution had caused a revolutionary upturn across the world, then succumbing to a period of retreat — the second. Now he argued the world was entering the third period — a revolutionary offensive. By 1928, the Comintern adopted this as official policy. This deemed that capitalism was in its final crisis, that the united front approach should be dropped, instead treating all social democrats as “social fascists”, more dangerous than open fascism. After the Stalinists surrendered Germany without a struggle, Trotsky concluded the Comintern was no longer a revolutionary force, and it was time to establish a new International.
From Third period ultra-leftism to Popular front
Hitler’s victory heightened the fear of the working class, strengthening to some degree the authority of the USSR and therefore Stalin. In December 1933, at a meeting of the Executive of the Comintern, Stalin spoke of “a new revolutionary upturn”. Yet in Germany the CP was collapsing rapidly — those individuals and groups still with the strength left were desperately trying the tactic “unite all fascism’s enemies”.
Bulgarian communist Georgii Dmitrov in 1934 took over as head of the Comintern. He had had first-hand experience of Nazi Germany, having been imprisoned there. At first he argued that a united front of workers’ organizations was needed. Stalin avoided further discussion on the situation in Germany by refusing to call another meeting of the Comintern. But it went ahead in 1935 without him, leaving Dimitrov to present the speech on the anti-fascist struggle. Instead of fighting for the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, he said it was to “defend and strengthen democratic rights and freedoms, with the consolidation of the widest layers of the population of the capitalist countries”.
By 1936 this led to the “Popular Front” governments in France and Spain — an alliance between the mass workers’ parties and smaller petty-bourgeois parties, what Trotsky called the “shadow of the bourgeoisie” but on the program of the latter. This led to the victory of Franco. If in the twenties, it was mistaken policies that derailed revolutionary situations, in Spain the Stalinists openly sabotaged the revolutionary struggle so no genuine socialism based on workers’ democracy could develop.
A line of blood
Repression too did not start immediately after Stalin came to power. Initially oppositionists were expelled from the party or sent into internal exile, only later to prison. Often, at the end of their sentence, they were allowed to return to their positions. Sending Trotsky into foreign exile in 1928 was then an exceptional move. In the Politburo, Bukharin had pushed for execution, but Stalin opposed this not out of humanity, but out of fear, believing younger supporters of the left opposition would try and assassinate him-. The Left Opposition, of course, steeled in Bolshevik opposition to terrorism was not likely to do that.
The escalating crises, while the bureaucratic layer was becoming more greedy, both pushed Stalin into a corner and encouraged more drastic action.
In 1934 one of his closest allies Sergey Kirov was assassinated. The murder was probably orchestrated by Stalin’s henchmen and one Leonid Nikoleyev was hired to do the dirty work. This opened the bloody campaign by Stalin to wipe out the former Bolshevik old guard and genuine revolutionaries. Nikolaev, together with members of his family as well as up to a hundred others were executed.
In 1927 at one of the last Party meetings he attended Trotsky compared what was happening to the Thermidor during the French bourgeois revolution. “During the great French revolution, many were guillotined. And we too shot many. But during the Great French revolution there were two chapters, one went up, the other down. That should be understood. When the process was going up, the French Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of their time, guillotined the royalists and jirondists. And we also had a stage when we, the oppositionists together with you shot the White Guards and exiled the jirondists. But then the next chapter of the French revolution started when the French Ustralovtsi and semi Ustralovtsi [former White guard nationalists] — Thermidorians and Bonapartes — began to shoot and exile the left Jacobins — the Bolsheviks of that time.
Stalin’s purge trials
The years 1936–8 and the great purge trials of those years marked the peak of this process. In 1937, Trotsky, exiled in Mexico faced the arrest of many of his comrades in the Soviet Union. His son Sergei Sedov was executed in the USSR. Just five months later Lev Sedov, another son and his closest political collaborator was murdered in Paris. At least eleven members of Trotsky’s immediate family, including a brother, a sister, his first wife and two sons were executed. Stalin was preparing to assassinate Trotsky.
To indicate how far Stalin was prepared to go to wipe out any traces of Trotskyism, in 1937 Mathei Bronstein was arrested and executed. He was the student of Lev Landau, one of the USSR’s greatest physicists. According to Landau, Bronstein was an even better scientist, the first to investigate quantizing gravity and to combine elementary particles physics with cosmology. Although there has been some speculation that he was a distant relative of Trotsky, he was executed, it seems for no other crime than sharing Trotsky’s real name.
To consolidate his power, Stalin had to destroy all the prominent leaders of the Bolshevik party from 1917. Of the members of the Bolshevik Central Committee elected in 1917, three died during the Civil War, two by the British when they executed the “Baku Commissars”. One died in an accident, another, Sverdlov, died probably from the Spanish Flu. Two committed suicide. Nineteen were executed by Stalin. Just four survived the Great purges, Stalin, his secretary Stassova and a close ally M. Muralov as well as Alexandra Kollontai. Nadezhda Krupskaya told an opposition meeting in 1926 that: “If Volodya [Lenin] were still alive, he would be in prison”.
To justify the repression, show trials were organized. The first in August 1936 saw 16, including Zinoviev and Kamenev and another 5 young German communists, who were accused of establishing the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre” to assassinate the leaders of the Soviet Union and seize power.
Just 5 months later 17, including former supporters of the left opposition including Karl Radek, Yuri Pyatakov, Grigory Sokolnikov, Nikolai Muralov and Mikhail Boguslavsky were accused of assisting foreign aggressors to seize territory of the USSR and restore capitalism.
In neither of these trials were either Leon Trotsky or his son Leon Sedov among the accused but they were still found guilty! In both cases the court decreed they “are subject to immediate arrest and trial by the military collegium of the supreme court of the USSR”.
In June 1937, a secret trial condemned 8 Red Army Generals led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky to death for allegedly establishing a “Trotskyist Anti Soviet Military Organisation”. Two-thirds of the officer corps were arrested, beheading the Red Army when the conditions for war in Europe were clearly developing.
In March 1938, another 21 defendants including Nikolai Bukharin, Christian Rakovsky and Nikolai Krestinsky were sentenced to death.
Trotsky called this a “a one-sided civil war”, ninety eight of the 139 members of the then Central Committee and 90 percent of the members of republican and regional central committees were killed. In all, more than 1 million party members were arrested and at least half perished.
Elimination of Trotsky’s family
Trotsky’s sister Elizabeth died naturally in 1924, brother Alexander shot in 1938, sister Antonina fate unknown, sister Olga shot 1941, her husband (Lev Kamenev) shot 1936, sister Klara fate unknown.
Trotsky’s first wife Alexandra was shot in 1938, their first daughter Zinaida — suicide in 1933, her first husband shot in 1937, second husband shot in 1938, their second daughter Nina died in 1929 naturally, her husband shot 1937.
Trotsky’s second wife Natalya survived Trotsky. Their first son Lev was murdered in 1938, his wife Anna shot in 1938, their second son Sergey shot in 1938, his first and second wife were both exiled.
Heroes who resisted
Not one of those on trial defended themselves, they had been broken into submission by months of violent torture. Trotsky and his followers were accused of not only terror, sabotage and murder but also of being in alliance with Hitler and the Mikado.
But hundreds and thousands of revolutionaries refused to break. Documents recently discovered in a former prison camp showed a cell of 30 Trotskyists in one prison alone. In another in Magadan in 1936 Trotskyists under the leadership of Eltsin, Sokolova and Gagan-Tron organized a hunger strike in which over 200 participated — over 60 were executed as a result. Sokolova, of course, was Trotsky’s first wife who had been an active Bolshevik and left oppositionist throughout her life. In early 1937 a mass hunger strike in Vorkuta was only broken by the GPU when hundreds were led out to a brick factory and systematically shot.
There are many, many falsifications surrounding the Left opposition.
Trotsky is said to be self-satisfied, power seeking, hypocritical character. That’s completely untrue. Trotsky could not tolerate cowardice, political and moral laziness and never built bureaucratic combinations or intrigues.
But the most serious mistake of those making these inferences is that they look on Trotsky not just as a leading figure, but as a separate stand-alone personality. As if just one person, by force of character alone could turn back the tide of history.
What is the USSR and where is it going?
In 1936 Trotsky published Revolution betrayed. Stalinism, he said, is a reaction against the October revolution, driven by that layer of party and Soviet bureaucrats who, to maintain their position rested now on one class, and then on another. The working class and its political organizations, including the Bolshevik party had been removed from power by a one-sided civil war.
The USSR remained a workers’ state only in form, but deformed. In it, the ruling class was removed from political power, and the dictatorship of the proletariat found its deformed reflection in the proletarian bonapartism of Stalin. The proletariat needed a political, but not social, revolution against Stalinism and the restoration of workers’ democracy.
As Trotsky put it in Revolution Betrayed:
“It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy. A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions. The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags. Expensive playthings palaces of the Soviets, new theaters, show-off subways — will be crowded out in favor of workers’ dwellings. “Bourgeois norms of distribution” will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and, in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. Ranks will be immediately abolished. The tinsel of decorations will go into the melting pot. The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains. And, finally, foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”
The International Left opposition — Fourth International
The new Fourth International established in 1939 had powerful enemies — Stalinism, imperialism and of course fascism. When launched it consisted of about 3,000 Marxists, from China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Germany, Poland, Britain and of course the US. Following the murder of Trotsky in 1940, it went through a difficult period. During the long post-world war economic boom, part of the International developed a false political perspective, another part rejected the working class’s role as the driving force behind socialist revolution. This lead, in 1974 to the formation of the Committee for a Workers’ International, the predecessor of the ISA, which has continued to maintain the legacy of Trotsky, building patiently the first cadres and organizations internationally. The global economic crisis in 2008, and now the new global depression provide new opportunities, in which the ISA is well placed to take the steps necessary for the building of a new revolutionary socialist international.