On Thermidor and Centrism1

Translated by Tibor Szamuely and Rizospastis

Translator’s Note

The following text produced by the Democratic Centralist faction of the Left Opposition in response to Trotsky’s essay On The New Stage is noteworthy first of all for its emphasis that in the complex of historical metaphor inherited from the French Revolution it is the rule of Robespierre which marks the first stage of Thermidor. Attention to this point opens up new space for a nuanced appreciation of Stalin as both a reactionary bulwark against the proletarian left and a petty bourgeois revolutionary partisan of the national democratic revolution up to the threshold of socialism. In this regard we should also note that the contraposition between Robespierre’s affinity for compromise in foreign policy and Cloots’s call for internationalisation of the revolution is indicative.

This text is also noteworthy for posing point blank the question of the class character of the Soviet bureaucracy at a crucial moment of confusion and capitulation in the Opposition. If the USSR was indeed a great conquest of the worker’s movement that should in no way obscure the class alien character of its post 1928 ruling strata. Something which some inclined to a necessary defence of the USSR against imperialism have been inclined to do.

1: “On the New Stage”2

The class struggle has shifted to a new stage. The four year period of intraparty struggle has come to an end. The proletarian part of the party has been crushed, the Leninist opposition excluded from the VKP and the Comintern, its leaders and activists in prison and exile. Meanwhile, the bourgeois forces in the country have grown into a surging threat. The kulak, wrecking grain procurement, and the bureaucrat, sabotaging the development of the state sector economy, have succeeded in subordinating state authority to their own interests. The ruling petty bourgeois centrist regime, is thrashing the proletarian opposition, prosecuting it while it declares a “left course”, and attempts to overcome the right danger through apparatus-bureaucratic methods. Such is the meaning of the new stage. This new stage has extraordinary significance, its significance can be decisive, from the standpoint of the preparation of decisive class battles and from that of the further destiny of the opposition.

Centrism, by persecuting the opposition, hinders the organisation of workers, and with a "left course," introduces disintegration into their ranks. Centrism constitutes the main danger for the working class, the main obstacle in its struggle with the bourgeoisie. The particular danger of centrism for the opposition is not so much prison and exile as it is the “left course”. The most important and topical issue for the opposition currently is the issue of the class character of the current regime. Vagueness and reticence, much less falsity, on this issue constitutes the main danger for the opposition movement, the main source of uncertainty and instability for members of the opposition. In the ranks of the opposition some confusion and unsteadiness can be observed on this issue.

“On the New Stage” does not provide precise and lucid directives. The danger of the Pyatakov example is enormous3. Only a clear and correct answer on the issue of the class character of the Stalinist regime can anticipate this danger. The opposition continues to think that the dictatorship of the proletariat exists in the USSR as before. Such a position is obviously outdated. After the authentic leaders of the working class have been expelled from the Party and shipped to Siberia, after Trotsky has been dumped in Alma-Ata, after all this, saying that there still exists the dictatorship of the proletariat-that means to belittle the significance of the proletarian dictatorship, attributing to the working class a monstrous crime against itself, […] in no way was it or is it merited. Thinking that the dictatorship of the proletariat currently exists means thinking that the Stalinist regime is a regime of the proletarian dictatorship, that its crushing of the opposition was an implementation of the will of the proletariat, that in this situation either the opposition does not form an expression of the will of the proletariat, or the working class is so pathetic and insignificant that it does not see its own class interests.

In actuality, the Stalinist regime, by crushing the opposition, has crushed the dictatorship of the proletariat and implemented the will of the petty bourgeois elements, which in their turn expressed the will of the bourgeoisie. The working class could not prevent this defeat, because strength was on the side of the petty bourgeois elements. It is necessary to be meticulous [свести концы с концами] in our analysis [установка]. Thanks to an incorrect analysis [установка] there is a completely wrong perception of the Stalinist manoeuvres. This will inevitably nourish opportunist tendencies in the opposition. When people say, that Stalin forcibly taking bread from the kulaks at stable prices in order to feed workers, [implements] the dictatorship of the proletariat, when people say, that the “left” resolutions of the ECCI plenum testify to the seriousness of the left turn of Stalinist policy, then only one step is left before capitulation, for in that case, if the differences of the opposition with Stalin have not disappeared, then, in any case their intensity has decreased4. Through an incorrect analysis and incorrect understanding of Stalin’s centrist manoeuvres, the opposition can be torn from its ideological ground and, in this way, liquidate itself.

2: On Thermidor

The question of Thermidor has acquired exceptional significance. This historical event can happen again. The particular character of the forces at play and their activity is different in essence, but analogous in form. Lenin often discussed the French and German model of the Russian revolution. He did not think that there was complete identity between the Russian and the French or German revolutions, he only wanted to determine the form, the general model [общий тип], while keeping all the particularities of the 20th century completely in mind. With a similar basis one can speak of a Thermidor or Thiers-Cavaignac type of counter-revolution.

"Thermidor is a special form of counterrevolution carried out on the installment plan through several installments, and making use, in the first stage, of elements of the same ruling party-by regrouping them and counterposing some to others.”5

Timofei Sapronov 1926

Thermidor is not a coup d’etat, but an evolution. The French Thermidor indicated an evolutionary transition of authority from the hands of the Parisian proletariat into the hands of the bourgeoisie. The Thermidorian reaction is usually designated as the period from the 9th of Thermidor in Year II (July 27, 1794) to the 5th of Brumaire in the Year IV ( October 26, 1795), i.e from the moment of Robespierre’s overthrow to the breakup of the Convention and the formation of the Directory. Actually, the Thermidorian reaction began in Germinal of Year II (March, 1794), when Robespierre crushed the Paris Commune and the Cordeliers Club. The “Jacobin Club” relied on the owners of small workshops, retail traders, numerous employees of various departments, committees, commissions, and recruited its members from these (N.Freiberg Marxist History, No 6, 19276), “All the moderates formed the basis of Robespierre’s majority” [все умеренные составляли базис робесперовского большинства] ˙(A.Aulard)7. Paris workers and artisans were not able to enter the Jacobin Club because of the high membership dues. In the Cordeliers Club on the contrary, membership dues were very low, and therefore the Paris poor rushed into this club, shaping the practical revolutionary character of all its activity. Therefore, after the “leaders'' of the Cordeliers and the Commune (Chaumette, Hébert) were guillotined or forced into hiding, the government was already no longer mainly under the influence of the Parisian suburbs, the government was no longer mostly in the hands of the Parisian people; the opportunities for open discussion mostly no longer existed [возможности все говорить не существовало более]; freedom of opinion in relation to social issues was devastated, likewise regarding religion and politics (Aulard).

Thermidor began with the transfer of power from the Commune and the Cordeliers to the Jacobins and previously, especially with the crushing of the “Enragés”, the most consistent and decisive representatives of the Paris poor. After this comes the dictatorship of Robespierre, which was typical of the centrist dictatorship of the petty bourgeois. The whole policy of this regime was marked by vacillation between the Paris proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The Jacobin Convention will make frantic concessions, issuing decrees on the maximum price of foodstuff, on fixed prices for all mass consumption goods, on “suspicious citizens” and on division of their property, and on the forty sou stipend for all poor citizens to attend meetings of the sections. But at the same time, the Convention will establish a maximum for workers wages, harshly implement the Le Chapelier law against the workers, legally restrict the role of the sections and their revolutionary committees, delay the introduction of the 1793 Constitution and establish the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety, eventually it will crush the Enragés and guillotine the leaders of the Commune and the Cordeliers. This is the centrist policy of Robespierre, which found expression in repulsive “amalgams”. “A policy of vacillations between the working class and the bourgeoisie, a typical petty bourgeois policy, such was the character of the Jacobins over the whole span of their activity.” ( Zakher, Marxist History, No 6, 1927)8. The centrist policy of the Convention crushed the living force of the Revolution and destroyed it.

“From the beginning of 1794, the activity of Robespierre was unconsciously counter-revolutionary, so it is the case with all democratic revolutions which have occurred till now, in which ruling right-democratic or moderate-reformist parties have destroyed left revolutionary elements and thus cleared the way for counter-revolutionaries” (Beer, General History of Socialism and Social Struggles)9. The defeat of the Enragés meant the defeat of the sections, which led not only to the defeat of the Commune and the Cordeliers, but eventually to the defeat of the Jacobins and the Convention themselves.

“The form destroyed the content, he (Robespierre) sought peace and order through the destruction of living strength.” (J.Michelet)10. Stalin’s activity is the same, as the activity of Robespierre, unconsciously counter-revolutionary, he clears the way for the counter-revolution, he seeks unity through the destruction of living strength. The form is destroying the content. There is nothing mysterious in this repetition. The petty bourgeoisie, then as now, remains true to itself [остается сама собой]. It is only through it that the bourgeoisie can carry out the Thermidorian counter revolution. Without the petty bourgeoisie there cannot be a Thermidor. 9th of Thermidor was not the beginning or the end of Thermidor, which was perpetrated "through several installments," [в несколько приемов], through the transfer of power from the revolutionary poor to reactionary elements of the petty bourgeoisie, and, finally to the bourgeoisie itself, through the regroupment of elements within the ruling Jacobin party. It took fourteen months after this for the bourgeoisie to free itself from the Jacobins and the Convention (5th Brumaire-end of the Convention).

3: Has Thermidor been Completed?

The Opposition now discusses Thermidor in these terms, that the working class, having defeated armed counter-revolution, has still not actually destroyed the bourgeois counter-revolution, because so long as there exists the imperialist environment externally and the petty bourgeoisie internally-the danger of counter revolution cannot be destroyed. In fact, in connection with the introduction of NEP and the entry into economic relations with the capitalist world, the danger of counter-revolution takes on a Thermidorian form, the most dangerous form. Because of that, we have always clearly seen our friends and enemies in relation to it [Потому что мы всегда ясно видели, где против нее враг и кто наш друг]. At the 11th Congress, Lenin considered the Thermidorian danger as the “primary and real danger”, he welcomed “class truth”, resistance, pointing out the Thermidorian transformation of our revolution-from socialist into bourgeois11. Since then, as a result of the incorrect policies of the party and the state, not only has the Thermidorian danger grown, but Thermidor has become reality. It, one might say, is roaming the country, from the party, to the factories and into the state. Such facts, as the suppression of the opposition, the wrecking of grain procurement by the kulak, the Shakty counter-revolutionaries12, and the Central Asian water management affair13, provide testimony that the Thermidorian processes have gone quite far.

However, “concluding from that, that Thermidor has happened in the USSR is incorrect, that would mean facilitating its completion, the class forces have still not had their word” (document)14. Thermidor in the USSR already exists and increases, but it has not yet been completed. Thermidor is a fact, but it has not yet been accomplished, it is only being accomplished. There is no clarity on this issue within the opposition. While some took the Stalinist “left course” seriously as evidence of the existence of the proletarian dictatorship, others, on the contrary,inclined to an exaggerated interpretation of the expulsion of the opposition from the Party as the completion of Thermidor. Both of the above are incorrect. The expulsion of the opposition is still not the completion of Thermidor. The completion of Thermidor would mean the transfer of power into the hands of the bourgeoisie, which would find expression in specific political and economic changes:

  1. in the establishment of absolute “security guarantees” for bourgeois property, liquidation of centrism with its own manoeuvres (article 107 and the uncertainty of the policy line15).
  2. in the creation of a strong authority with a stable bourgeois program and strict legality.
  3. in the establishment of complete freedom of accumulation and exploitation.
  4. in the establishment of closer ties with the capitalist economy through limitation or complete liquidation of the monopoly of foreign trade.

This is the minimum program of bourgeois restoration. The bourgeoisie can for some time make peace not only with the Soviet system but with the Communist party and even the Comintern and use them for its purposes, but it cannot do without the implementation of its minimum program16. For the moment this is not present. Thermidor is not finished-power is not yet held by the bourgeoisie, but does that mean it is held by the proletariat?

4: Who Holds Power

“On the New Stage” writes: “enemies have not yet torn power from the hands of the proletariat, individual workers, deducing from their own experience, can arrive at the conclusion that power is already no longer in the hands of the working class. But, it is sufficient to approach this issue from the perspective of the bourgeois class of city and countryside for it to become clear that power is in its hands”17. It is impossible to accept this. Presenting the issue in this way is incorrect. Starting from the everyday experience of individual workers, you can come to the conclusion that the working class has already lost power. Starting from the class interests of the bourgeoisie, it turns out that power is not in their hands. One cannot think that if power is not held by the bourgeoisie, then, that means, it is held by the proletariat, and if it is not held by the proletariat, that means it is held by the bourgeoisie (as if there was nothing else). In that case, Thermidor – the gradual process of transfer of power from one class to another – would not be possible, and such a grasp of the powers [at play], would be myopic in not seeing the third force standing between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which is the petty bourgeoisie, especially in a peasant country like Russia.

In the critical periods of history when power transfers from one class to another, when power fluctuates between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in that exceptional time (so long as the balance persists), the rule of petty bourgeois centrism inevitably emerges. The Stalinist regime is precisely [such a] regime. “On the New Stage” has perfectly defined the developing class process, writing:

“Here, the opposition represents a party minority and stands under constant pressure, which expresses the pressure of the international and domestic bourgeoisie on the state apparatus, the state apparatus on the party apparatus, the party apparatus on the proletarian left wing of the party.”18

The bourgeoisie implements its Thermidorian onslaught on the working class through the state and party apparatus. Stalin, by repressing the opposition, implements the will of the international and domestic bourgeoisie. Which class forces stand behind the state and party apparatuses? “On the New Stage” does not answer, but, obviously the petty bourgeoisie, as only through it can the bourgeoisie carry out the Thermidorian offensive against the proletarian revolution. The formula of the pressure of the international and domestic bourgeoisie on the state apparatus, state apparatus on the party apparatus and party apparatus on the left, proletarian wing of the Party, which expresses the alignment of forces in the period of the backsliding of the revolution, should be translated into class terms; it is obvious, expressing that idea as follows: that the international and domestic bourgeoisie exert their pressure on a petty bourgeois tail, the most wealthy and well to do strata of the petty bourgeois on a petty bourgeois tail of the proletariat, and this latter strikes at the proletariat. In which link of this chain is power now held?

“On the New Stage” writes: “dominance in the party, and therefore in the country-is in the hands of the Stalin faction, which possesses all the traits of centrism, specifically-centrism in the period of backsliding, not upsurge.“19 The authority of Stalin is the authority of the state apparatus, i.e. the petty bourgeois tail of the proletariat. The authority of the centrist party of Stalin translated in class terms means the authority of the petty bourgeois, for centrist policy can only be the policy of the petty bourgeois, which always looks for the “middle way” between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, as was noted by Lenin many times. Hence, “On the New Stage”, should select one of the two: either we have a dictatorship of the proletariat and then there is no centrism, or centrism is in power and then we don’t have a dictatorship of the proletariat. Centrism and the dictatorship of the proletariat are incompatible. The petty bourgeois cannot implement the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the 2nd document of the Opposition-published in Pravda on January 15th-it says that “the petty bourgeois elements of the VKP lead the party and the state, but they are compelled to rely on the working class and resist imperialism.”20 Here, there is direct recognition that the petty bourgeois elements predominate in the party and the state. The proletariat has lost power. The bourgeoisie has not yet gained it. A certain balance of forces has been established, on the basis of which the petty bourgeois centrist regime has emerged. Such is the present political situation. The essence of centrist policy is manoeuvring between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In order to oppose the bourgeois forces, centrism tries to rely on the workers. And, in order to neutralise the opposition, it creates the appearance that it protects worker interests. It carries out a price reduction and offers a 7-hour working day, but increases production norms and lowersprice, announces an intensified offensive on the kulak and the bureaucrat, the course towards industrialisation and collectivisation, but without withdrawing the slogan of the 14th Congress “fire on the left”.

And leaving in force the decisions of the 14th Party Conference, implementing the self criticism campaign, but crushing the opposition and strangling every voice of genuine criticism-this is typical petty bourgeois centrist Robespierrist policy. The petty bourgeois character of the present regime is not transformed by the fact that it is “forced to rely on the working class and resist world imperialism”, just as the real character of the Jacobin dictatorship was not changed by the fact that it sought to rely on the workers and craftsmen of Paris. Stalin is forced to take the proletariat into consideration just as Robespierre was forced to take the workers and craftsmen of Paris into consideration. But this makes the Stalinist regime into the dictatorship of the proletariat as little as it made the regime of Robespierre the government of the Paris suburbs. It is completely possible to rely on the working class and resist world imperialism and not be a proletarian power.

Numerous confusions have arisen from the fact that this power is not yet that of the bourgeoisie, but of the petty bourgeois tail of the proletariat, and that the Thermidorian process has still not finished. This has given ground to think that the proletarian dictatorship exists, because the form of the proletarian dictatorship has been maintained; many have not noticed the changes which have occurred in the essence of class power. This illusion will persist even when power shifts further in a single step from the party apparatus to the state apparatus, from the petty bourgeois tail of the proletariat to the petty bourgeois tail of the bourgeoisie. Only when an authentic bourgeois dictatorship is established, will this illusion begin to dissipate.

“On the New Stage” defines the development of the process with complete accuracy and the alignment of forces within this process, but this document has one essential flaw: it does not speak of the class content of the force standing between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it points to its establishment (state apparatus and party apparatus), but completely passes over which forces are standing behind the state apparatus and the party apparatus, through which the bourgeoisie crushes the proletarian revolution. It is this which can provide a correct evaluation of the character of the current regime and in dependence upon this, politically guide the activities of the opposition.

5: What is Happening

“This ongoing concentration of power in the hands of the bureaucratic organs which is occurring, is based on the working class, but moves increasingly to the side of the upper petty bourgeois of city and countryside and is partially interwoven with them” (On the New Stage)21. The concentration of power in the hands of the bureaucratic organs, i.e. the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy relies on the working class but increasingly moves to the side of the upper petty bourgeois of city and countryside and is partially interwoven with them. This would be correct, if we did not have an intermediate between the upper strata of the petty bourgeois and the proletariat, the lower petty bourgeois of city and countryside, which is the most numerous strata in the USSR, forming the social basis of the party apparatus, and determining the policy of the party and the state in the present stage. That’s why it would be correct to say that power is concentrated in the hands of the bureaucracy, which through the party apparatus relies on the lower party bourgeois of city and country and on the working class, but which through the state apparatus moves increasingly to the side of the upper petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie and is partially interwoven with them. It is also incorrect to see bureaucratic power as a power swinging between classes.

Bureaucratic power, seemingly independent and above classes, constitutes the power of the petty bourgeois, and first of all of the small peasantry. What is happening now, is:

  • firstly, the definitive separation of the power of the state apparatus from the influence of the working class and the subordination of this apparatus (in the current stage) to the influence of the lower petty bourgeois
  • secondly, the gradual removal of the party apparatus from political leadership by the state apparatus, the gradual overcoming of centrism by rightist forces through the transfer of power to the upper petty bourgeois strata
  • thirdly, growth of domestic bourgeois forces with a parallel weakening of the political role of the proletariat, i.e the breakdown of the equilibrium with the bourgeois strata, and
  • fourthly, the centrist drive to resist the pressure of rightist forces with apparatus methods.

6: On the Left Course

Centrism does not have a well defined class policy, its policy consists of zigzags to the right, or to the left. Stalinist centrism in the period of backsliding from revolution to counter-revolution is characterised by deep right and brief left zig zags. The overall curve in the line of its policy goes down. “But the increasingly significant bourgeois onslaught can create a strong left shift in the party”. Only if this onslaught awakens the political activity of the proletariat, which would succeed in subjugating to itself the party and state apparatus. The breakdown of grain procurement is certainly a major incidence of the bourgeois onslaught. As a result of this onslaught the Stalinist apparatus “beat down the kulak”. Many are inclined to take this strike to the left by the apparatus seriously as a genuine, resolute left shift. But they forget that a left course requires not only struggle with the rightist forces, but a specific policy on worker issues.

An authentic left course is not only what is proposed by the opposition on the issue of struggle with kulaks, nepman and bureaucrats, but also what it proposes on workers', intraparty and economic issues. And who sees a left proletarian course in Stalin’s attempt to beat down the kulaks, has made a horrific mistake, not seeing the second aspect of the Stalinist course, not seeing the increasing pressure on the workers, the prosecution of the opposition, and the expulsion from the foreign communist parties and Comintern of all siding with the opposition. If Stalin beats down the kulaks and simultaneously crushes the opposition, that means that there is no left proletarian course whatsoever. But what explains the obvious Stalinist shift to the left in dealing with bourgeois forces?

The slogan “fire on the left” and the policy of the 14th Party Conference were implemented by the 14th Party Congress as a whip strike to the right22. The manifesto of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution appeared as the outcome of the strike from the left (by the opposition)23. Now, there is no pressure from the left, blows rain down on the right, and there is a left turn in policy. What is this? The thoughtful, prudent leadership of Stalin or something imposed by circumstance? Zinoviev and Kamenev now tend to see a conscious plan in all of Stalin’s zigzags. But we know that the rightist policy shifts of recent years did not occur on account of Stalin’s good will, but under the pressure of specific class forces.

Which class forces are determining Stalin’s current left zigzag? Not pressure from the proletarian side, on the contrary, pressures are increasing from the bourgeois side. Seemingly policy had to shift right (as it has previously), but it shifted left. This is explained by the fact that the social strata which determine Stalin’s policy, previously under the pressure of the right have vacillated to the right, and now fearing the growth of capitalism, dash left, to the proletarian side. The left vacillation of Stalinist policy was first of all determined by the disappointment of the small peasantry with the right course of the 14th Conference and the 14th Congress, which had promised that: “In providing the conditions for freedom of accumulation to the kulak farms, there will be an increased tempo of accumulation in all farms, there will be rapid increase in domestic income, increased material opportunities for absorption of surplus population will be created, finally, there will be a more favourable situation for the growth of cooperation, and directing the increase of peasant savings in the direction of cooperation.” (Rykov, from the 14th Conference report “On Cooperation”)24.

But this would bring a completely different result. The present party leaders strive to demonstrate, that the formulation of the 14th Conference was itself completely justified, that “evidently, the present process of strengthening of groups, still without the kulak group, is funded from the prosperous strata of middle peasants and with a reduction in groups of the poor, a part of which is becoming proletarianized, while another, larger [grouping] gradually shifts into the group of middle peasants.” (Thesis of the CC on Work in the Countryside at the 15th Congress)25.

However, Molotov was compelled to admit at the 15th Congress, of the peasant masses: “middle and poor peasants are stuck in a stalemate, in an almost hopeless situation, because economic advantage in the agricultural economy is completely on the side of the prosperous-kulak elements, who economically defeat the low yield and average farms.”26. Therefore, “providing the conditions of free accumulation for kulak farms”, results not in universal prosperity but only in kulak prosperity and the absence of any benefit for middle and poor peasants. The disillusionment of the lower strata in the countryside with the policy of the 14th Conference forced Stalin and Molotov to seek other paths. The left shift in Stalinist policy with the “fearless blow”, is mainly the result of the left shift of the lowest strata in the countryside, after they found themselves in a stalemate, in which they were cornered by the kulak, who had grown in the soil of the 14th Conference.

Crushing the Opposition and increasing pressure on the working class, the sabotage of grain procurement by the kulak, and the growth of the counter rev[olutionary] danger-all this has severely shaken the centrist balance to the side of the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist regime was facing the question-either capitulate before the right wing forces, or declare a struggle against them. The current left shift of Stalin’s policy, consisting of a certain pressure by the apparatus on the bourgeois elements, is no more than an attempt to reestablish the shattered balance, to preserve and reinforce the centrist regime. But the force of the Stalinist apparatus can only repel the direct attempts of the bourgeois elements, and without reliance on the working class it will still be forced to retreat.

In order for collectivisation to really release the peasantry from the stalemate, it must rely on industrialisation, which is possible only through the system of distribution of national income which was proposed by the Opposition. In order to be able to overcome the right danger, they need to rely on the working class. The Stalinist bureaucratic apparatus, by implementing a policy of increasing pressure on the workers, cannot defeat the right danger. Centrism in the period of decline inevitably constitutes a step towards the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and only the awakening of the political activity of the proletariat, overcoming centrism, can prevent bourgeois restoration.

7: On the Results of the Intraparty Struggle

The VKP is the living tradition of the proletarian revolution, therefore it is difficult to imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is unable to prevail in the VKP. “But history knows transformations of every kind” (Lenin), and anyone who thinks that so long as the VKP will be in power, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be in power, would be cruelly mistaken27. The VKP is the ruling and moreover, the sole legally existing party in the country, while our Soviet society is a class society, and, as in every class society, there is a class struggle within it, which because of the singularity of the communist party cannot take the form of struggle between parties and therefore is expressed in the form of intraparty struggle.

Different classes seek support for themselves in the VKP as the ruling party, therefore transforming it into the arena of class struggle. The main classes in the country are the proletariat and the peasantry. Their participation in the revolution determined its dual character as a proletarian and simultaneously a bourgeois-peasant revolution, and this in its turn determined the dual character of the VKP and the Soviet state. During the first years of the revolution, the proletariat dominated and proletarian interests prevailed in party and state policy, the peasants in their struggle for the land were forced to follow the proletariat, restraining themselves to a great extent, but after the armed counter-revolution was defeated, the peasantry vigorously demanded the satisfaction of its bourgeois interests (the wave of peasant uprisings in 1920-21). The proletariat was forced to retreat, and the NEP was introduced as a concession to the peasantry. After this the petty bourgeois aspired to seize the party apparatus and state power, purging the proletarian elements from leadership. And already in 1922 at the 11th Party Congress, Lenin said with alarm, that the state machine was not going quite right, and very often completely wrong, from the perspective of the one who sits at the helm of this machine28. At that time, Lenin announced to the Congress that he approved the “end of the retreat,” and that now is a time to regroup forces for a new offensive29. This directive from Lenin was not and has not been implemented, in all the following years the policy maintained was that of forcing an accelerated retreat before the kulak, covered with the petty bourgeois theory on the socialist role of the peasantry and on the growth of the kulak into socialism. In 1923 there was a decisive struggle in the Party. The proletarian part of the Party, putting a spotlight on the increasing bourgeois danger, proposed a stable course towards industrialisation and intraparty workers’ democracy. These are the basic questions of self preservation for the proletarian dictatorship; because, first, the working class is strong only with a tempo of industrialisation in which surplus workers are completely absorbed in production, and unemployment which makes the situation of every worker insecure and reduces their political activity is completely eliminated; and, secondly, the determination of party and state policy by the working class can only occur through workers’ democracy-freedom of criticism, comprehensive elections, accountability, replacement at any time of the whole party, state and union apparatus.

And on these fundamental issues, the proletarian part of the party suffered a crushing defeat, and the “era” of the struggle with “Trotskyism” began, which objectively was a struggle against the working class, and first of all against its ideology. Instead of industrialising to carry out price reductions, the Party accommodated itself to the petty bourgeois pragmatism of the peasantry, which did not accept calculations for the future. Instead of intraparty democracy, we got bureaucratic suppression, extermination of all critics, a reduction to a simple formality of elective appointment, accountability and replacement in the apparatus. For the first time after the October Revolution a petty bourgeois policy was restored, which brought the country to a commodity shortage and to the danger of a breakdown in the monopoly of foreign trade, and the party to a lifeless sleep. At the 14th Congress of the Party, struggle occurred again. The Leningrad opposition stood up against the kulak deviation in the Party, and against the glorification of the NEP, which was a concession to the bourgeois forces that was unavoidable in the capitalist environment30.

The triumph of Stalin’s centrist faction and the policy line of the 14th Party Conference supported the intraparty line of the 14th Congress “fire on the left”. In the person of Stalin, the petty bourgeois finds a loyal executor of its policy, which appears most fully and openly in the discussions around the Chinese Revolution and the Anglo-Russian Committee31. Both oppositions were united In the struggle with the petty bourgeois leadership of the Stalin faction. The peak of the united activity of the opposition was reached when the platform was released and the November 7th demonstration was carried out32. After this it went into decline. And when the 15th Congress declared an accelerated offensive on the kulak and adapted a decision on the exclusion of the opposition from the Party, a significant part of the Leningrad opposition headed by Zinoviev and Kamenev, after some vacillations, capitulated completely before the Stalinist apparatus.

This part of the opposition expressed the protest of the rural poor, and that strata of the working class which has yet to lose its link with the countryside, against the strengthening of the kulak. It is certainly no coincidence that Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin specifically on the peasant question, and now coincide on that same question. The proletarian opposition must always base itself in the interests of the working class, and on the worker question not only is there no left turn, but, on the contrary, a deepening of the previous policy of pressure occurs. The 15th Congress, by excluding the proletarian opposition from the Party and declaring its ideas to be anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary, represents a historical watershed. It ended this particular stage, in which the main arena of the class struggle was the intraparty struggle, and after which the class struggle has advanced to a new level, transitioned into the “new stage”, in which the questions of Party and state policy will no longer be determined by straightforward voting, but through direct class struggles. If it is impossible to exaggerate the historical importance of this event, it is just as much inadmissible to understate it.

8: On the Perspective

The proletariat has weakened as a result of the past decade. The old bourgeoisie was excluded and bled white, the new is yet to mature. The main domestic powers are the petty bourgeois-the peasantry and the Soviet bureaucracy, clawing into its hands the state apparatus and the national economy. From the soil of the economic and political predominance of the petty bourgeois in the country grows the rule of the bureaucratic regime. Bureaucratic power is first of all the power of the peasantry. “By its very nature, small-holding property forms a basis for an all-powerful and numberless bureaucracy.” (Marx, 18th Brumaire)33. In the USSR we have a predominance of the fragmented (parcelized) [property] of the middle peasantry, and therefore the possibility of the establishment of a peasant, Bonepartist, bureaucratic regime growing on this soil. The tendency towards this is already present. It is necessary to keep this prospect in mind. But it is unlikely that the international bourgeoisie in alliance with the kulaks or [on the other hand] the proletariat will allow it to come to this. The reign of the petty bourgeois, peasant egoism , narrowmindedness, and wretched existence, cannot exist in the capitalist environment, in the epoch of imperialism and proletarian revolution. Petty bourgeois centrism, in subordinating industrialisation policy to petty bourgeois interests, cannot resolve commodity shortage or unemployment, and therefore sooner or later it will have against it not only the domestic and international bourgeoisie but a part of the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat (especially the unemployed). As a result, either the international bourgeoisie would destroy the monopoly of foreign trade, placing the USSR under its command, or the proletariat with a favourable development of the international revolution will restore its dictatorship, but a third outcome cannot be excluded, in which the domestic bourgeoisie in alliance with the bureaucracy, relying on the petty bourgeois strata of town and country, are able to overcome not only the resistance of the proletariat but the pressure of the international bourgeoisie. A brutal struggle lies ahead. It is impossible to say beforehand who will win. The matter can only be settled in the immediacy of the class struggle, for in class society social laws are translated into life only through the struggle of living human forces.

9: Our Task

“The intraparty struggle, despite all its severity, is only the entry into the period of class struggle. The whole task is still ahead.” (On the New Stage)34. What is happening today, is only the introduction to what will happen tomorrow. The final outcome of the revolution has yet to arrive. A protracted struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is still ahead. But it was an error to underestimate the significance of what has already taken place. In order for the practical training of revolutionary forces in the impending struggles to have a correct foundation, it is necessary to know what has already happened and what is still to come. Otherwise the training will be carried out in conformity with the stage which has already passed, and then such training will make no sense. “In the impending class struggles, the party will play a gigantic role. But the class will decide the issue” (On the New Stage)35. There will still be intraparty struggle in the future. But it will not have decisive significance. Now everything depends on the results of direct class struggle. Our preparations for the impending struggles, must not be directed towards victory within the party, as before, in the stage which has already been superseded, but to victory in open class struggle with the bourgeoisie. If now we still prepare for victory in the intraparty struggle and orient the working class to this, it would only bring the workers into confusion and distract them from direct class struggles, it would play the role of opportunist support to the bourgeoisie, it would prepare defeat for the working class. The petty bourgeois apparatus of the Party cannot lead the working class in its struggle with the bourgeoisie, therefore the Leninist opposition should take up this task itself. The task of the opposition is to “obstruct the further advance of the Thermidor and regain lost proletarian positions” (Second Letter). An orientation is given for the fulfilment of this task: “Not a second party, but a faction, organised to the extent necessary to ensure the possibility of systematic influence on the Party” (ibid)36.

Therefore, the whole task boils down only to systematic influence on the Party. Such a narrow understanding of the tasks of the opposition is incorrect. “The issue will be settled by the classes”, and not the Party. Consequently, systematic influence is needed, but not only on the Party, but also directly and on the working class, and not so much on the Party as on the working class. We should now properly […] consider the outcome of the intraparty struggles and identify the class character of the current regime of the Stalinist faction, and, following from this, on the basis of this, determine our attitude towards the party and the working class. Until now we have been confined to only intraparty struggles, not placing “controversies” before the judgement of non-party workers. The November 7th demonstrations on the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution were the first attempt of the Opposition to address the working class. When we suffered a defeat, Opposition leaders said: “we did not approach the working class, we had not explained to it the essence of the intraparty struggle, and demand immediate support from it, the working class will not give support in advance.”

If we continue in failing to “systematically influence” the working class, then in the final moment of resolute struggle, just as before, it will not know us, it won’t give us it's confidence beforehand. As a result, it will be without leadership and will be defeated, due to our unwitting collaboration with the opportunists. The one primary issue now is connections with non-party workers. If regarding this issue we remained in the previous position of “prohibition” and “restriction” (the party framework), the defeat of the working class would be inevitable, because it would be unprepared for the struggle. Certainly, however it is premature to think about a second party now. Organising a second party under current conditions would mean rejecting Lenin’s immense revolutionary heritage represented in the Comintern and the VKP and offering it to the opportunists to plunder and use against the working class. That the dictatorship of the proletariat no longer exists still does not mean that it is necessary to establish a second party. It would be different if power were already in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the VKP had become a bourgeois party. But this is still not the case. Power is in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie, and moreover it is mainly in the hands of its strata which gravitates towards the proletariat. In the VKP the advantage is on the side of the petty bourgeois elements, but in the decisive class struggle, which is still yet to begin, the proletariat could overcome the petty bourgeois leadership of the VKP and transform it into its main weapon of class struggle, as it was before.

We must, while remaining an opposition faction of the VKP, systematically influence the party, but not with the expectation that in this way the Thermidor can be overcome and the dictatorship of the proletariat restored (this is a dangerous illusion). Instead, we should act with the objective of ensuring that in the decisive moment of the class struggle, when the proletariat becomes active and capable, and the petty bourgeois indecisive and vacillating, […], the working class will be able, with the support of the proletarian part of the Party, to grasp the Leninist legacy and put it to use in the direct struggle with the bourgeoisie for the restoration of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We must prepare the working class for the impending decisive struggle with the growing bourgeois counter-revolution. Opportunists and centrists politically disarm the workers. We have to struggle not only against the bourgeois counter-revolution, but also against the disorganisation of the working class which is the work of opportunists and centrists. In this struggle, as has always been the case in the history of the workers movement, the centrists will utter left phrases, covering either simple inactivity or betrayal, equivalent to betrayal of the struggle [sic].

Our task is to propagate our political principles in the party and in the circles of non-party workers, not degrading these principles through manoeuvre, compromise, or tactical considerations. Our tasks are immense, complex and at the highest level of responsibility, unlike those of the capitulators ( Zinoviev, Kamenev and Pyatakov). These world renowned politicians have come up with the childish insights that the “The VKP is the lever of the proletarian revolution”, that the USSR is a country of the proletarian dictatorship, that “to be against the VKP and assist in Lenin’s work is impossible, that can only ruin it” and therefore… back into the Party and the Comintern. We must explain to all party and non-party workers, that if it is impossible to fight for the Leninist proletarian line in the ranks of the VKP, then it is better to be outside the ranks of the VKP and not [help] implement Stalin’s clearly disastrous centrist policies, or even worse the kulak policies of Rykov-Kalinin. He who ruins Lenin’s work is not he who stops at nothing in the defence of Leninist principles, rather it is he who frightened of being excluded from the VKP, tosses these principles aside and capitulates before the clearly disastrous policy of centrism, taking up responsibility for this policy himself. It is clear that it is better to fight for Lenin’s work within the ranks of the VKP, but if this is impossible, one can and must fight for Lenin’s work outside of the ranks of the VKP. We fight for our readmission into the Party, but not at the cost of our convictions-it is not admissible to buy Party membership at the cost of its meaning. Principled policy, that was Lenin’s watchword and such should be the watchword of all genuine Leninists.

10: Conclusion

The exclusion of the Opposition from the VKP, the declaration of its attitudes as anti-Soviet, counter-revolutionary and anti-state-all of this is a fact of great historical significance which highlights the profound class movement in the country. The first Thermidorian shift has occurred-power has transferred from the proletariat to its petty bourgeois tail. The suppression of the Opposition in our context has the same significance as the suppression of the Enragés, the Commune and the Cordeliers [Club] in the context of the Great French Revolution: The backbone of the revolution - its driving force - has been crushed. We have yet to recognise the full depth of the class shifts which have occurred in this country. The real shifts have yet to manifest themselves, because the ruling centrism does not give them opportunity to emerge, it moderates the collision between classes through its own influence. But these shifts will inevitably manifest themselves, if the proletariat lacks sufficient strength and activity to overcome them. Only such far reaching shifts can lead us to wage resolute struggle against centrism for a Leninist policy, without pausing before not only expulsion from the VKP, but also prison and exile. The more clearly we see that, the more persistent and confident we will be in the struggle, and the fewer Pyatakov-type examples of desertion from the Opposition there will be.

  1. The original text of the translation here can be consulted in Sojuz Kollektivistov, Dokumenty “demokratičeskih centralistov” (20-e gg.), self published electronic resource, 2007, p 9-22. All footnotes have been added by the translator.  

  2. “На новом этапе”, Trotsky’s December 1927 analysis of the results of the 15th Congress of the VKP. The following text forms a critical engagement with this analysis. An English translation of Trotsky’s text under the title “At a New Stage” can be found in The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-7, Pathfinder 1980. p 627-57. The Russian text is available online at На новом этапе. (iskra-research.org).  

  3. Georgy Pyatakov, Bolshevik and Left Opposition leader who capitulated to the Stalin faction in 1928. Executed for his previous opposition activities in 1937. 

  4. Probably a reference to either the Ninth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) occurring in February 1928 or the Eighth occurring in May 1927. Unfortunately we were not able to consult the text of their proceedings.  

  5. Trotsky, “Thermidor”. Translation follows The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1926-27, p. 336. The original text is available online at Термидор (iskra-research.org). 

  6. Историк- марксист», No 6, 1927 г., Н. Фрейберг. Декрет 19 вандемьера и борьба Бешеных за конституцию 1793 г. p 142-75. 

  7. The statement that “all” the moderates formed the basis of Robespierre’s majority seems to be an innovation of the Russian translation which Sapronov was likely working with (Политическая история Французской революции, Moscow, 1938, p 599). The original simply observes: “Les modérés formaient la base de la majorité robespierriste…” (Histoire politique de la Révolution française. Origines et développement de la démocratie et de la République, Paris, 1913, p 622). This is, however, incidental to the point intended. 

  8. «Историк-марксист», No 6, 1927 г. Я. М. Захер. Проблема «Термидора» в свете новейших исторических работ, p 236-42. 

  9. “From the commencement of 1794 Robespierre’s influence was unconsciously counter-revolutionary, just as every moderate social reform party, which has come to the helm in all democratic revolutions up to date, has slaughtered the Left revolutionary elements, and thereby prepared the way for the counter revolution. This is a terrible historic lesson.”-Max Beer: The General History of Socialism and Social Struggles. Volume Three: Social Struggles and Thought, New York, 1957. P 53. 

  10. “Tous les gouvernements sont frères. Et Robespierre fut un gouvernement. Il est résulté de là deux choses: La tradition gouvernementale de l'Europe lui est restée favorable, comme à l'homme qui transformait la Révolution. Et la tradition révolutionnaire lui est restée favorable, comme à l'homme en qui fut le gouvernement de la République. Qui tua la République? Son gouvernement. La forme extermina le fond; elle chercha l'ordre et à la calme dans l'extinction des forces vives.”. https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Histoire_de_la_R%C3%A9volutionfran%C3%A7aise(Michelet)/Livre_XVII/Chapitre_6  

  11. "I think that by being straightforward like this, Ustryalov is rendering us a great service. We, and I particularly, because of my position, hear a lot of sentimental communist lies; “communist fibbing”, every day, and sometimes we get sick to death of them. But now instead of these “communist fibs” I get a copy of Smena Vekh, which says quite plainly: “Things are by no means what you imagine them to be. As a matter of fact, you are slipping into the ordinary bourgeois morass with communist flags inscribed with catchwords stuck all over the place.” This is very useful. It is not a repetition of what we are constantly hearing around us, but the plain class truth uttered by the class enemy." https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm 

  12. A 1928 trial in which bourgeois specialists were accused of having sabotaged Soviet industrialisation. It was the first of a series of trials in which this strata was targeted. At the time the accusations were taken at face value by Trotsky and presumably the Decists. In light of further experience with Stalinist political police methodology Trotsky was later to revise his verdict on the issue (The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-9, Pathfinder 1981. p 105). 

  13. We were not able to determine what incident this refers to. We would welcome clarification from informed readers. 

  14. February 1928 open letter of Ivan Kuznetsov to Zinoviev and Kamenev available online at И. Кузнецов. Открытое письмо Зиновьеву и Каменеву.[Февраль]. Архив Троцкого. Том 2 (wikireading.ru). 

  15. Article 107 was the legal basis for grain requisitioning. James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russian Province: A Study of Collectivization and Dekulakization in Siberia, 1996, Palgrave, p 17. 

  16. This is a prescient observation considering the current reality of some of the former workers states. 

  17. “An individual worker may come to the conclusion from his daily experiences that power is no longer in the hands of the working class: in the factory the "triangle" reigns supreme; criticism has been banned; in the party the apparatus is all-powerful; behind the backs of the soviet organizations high-ranking bureaucrats give all the orders; and so on. But it is sufficient to look at the question from the viewpoint of the bourgeois classes in town and countryside to see very clearly that power is not in their hands.” The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-7, Pathfinder 1980 p 629. 

  18. “The fact that the Opposition is a minority in the party and finds itself constantly under attack reflects the pressure of the domestic and world bourgeoisie on the government apparatus; the pressure of the government apparatus on the party apparatus; and the pressure of the party apparatus on the left, proletarian wing of the party.” ibid p 628. 

  19. A differentiation between the form of centrism which prevails during the offensive of the revolution and that which prevails during the defensive. Ibid p 629. 

  20. The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-9, Pathfinder 1981, p 47. 

  21. “What is taking place is the concentration of power in the hands of the bureaucratic agencies which rest on the working class, but which are pushing more and more in the direction of the petty-bourgeois upper layers in town and countryside, and partly intermeshing with them.” The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-7, Pathfinder 1980 p 629. 

  22. At the 14th Congress of the AUCP(B) in December 1925 the opposition of Zinoviev and Kamenev based in the Leningrad Party organisation was defeated by the Stalin-Bukharin factional alignment. 

  23. 1917-1927, the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Manifesto of the Central Executive Committee of the government of the U.S.S.R., Moscow, 1927. 

  24. Рыков А. И., О кооперации : [речь, произнесенная на XIV Партконференции]. - М., 1925, p 11. 

  25. 15 съезд Всесоюзной коммунистической партии (б):стенографический отчет Государственное издательство, 1928, Москва Ленинград ,p 1307.  

  26. We were not able to find any statement by Molotov at the 15th Congress corresponding exactly to the above but the following passage is likely what the author had in mind: "Получается,что экономические преимущества у нас, в деревне, теперь на стороне зажиточных и кулацких элементов. Основная же масса середняков и бедняков, конкурируя с этими более крупными сельскими хозяйствами, экономически находится в почти безвыходном положении, так как ее изо дня в день экономически бьют." [“It turns out that in the countryside, the economic advantage is currently on the side of the kulak and prosperous elements. The basic mass of middle and poor peasants competing with these larger agricultural enterprises are placed economically in an almost hopeless situation such that they are economically battered day after day”] Ibid, p 1067.  

  27. “We must say frankly that the things Ustryalov speaks about are possible. History knows all sorts of metamorphoses. Relying on firmness of convictions, loyalty, and other splendid moral qualities is anything but a serious attitude in politics. A few people may be endowed with splendid moral qualities, but historical issues are decided by vast masses, which, if the few do not suit them, may at times treat them none too politely.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm 

  28. “Well, we have lived through a year, the state is in our hands; but has it operated the New Economic Policy in the way we wanted in this past year? No. But we refuse to admit that it did not operate in the way we wanted. How did it operate? The machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both. Be that as it may, the car is not going quite in the direction the man at the wheel imagines, and often it goes in an altogether different direction.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm 

  29. "Now I come to the question of halting the retreat, a question I dealt with in my speech at the Congress of Metalworkers. Since then I have not heard any objection, either in the Party press, or in private letters from comrades, or in the Central Committee. The Central Committee approved my plan, which was, that in the report of the Central Committee to the present Congress strong emphasis should be laid on calling a halt to this retreat and that the Congress should give binding instructions on behalf of the whole Party accordingly. For a year we have been retreating. On behalf of the Party we must now call a halt. The purpose pursued by the retreat has been achieved. This period is drawing, or has drawn, to a close. We now have a different objective, that of regrouping our forces." https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm 

  30. Leningrad Opposition refers to Kamenov, Zinoviev and their supporters. 

  31. The Anglo-Russian Committee was a body created to organise cooperation between Soviet and British trade unions formed in April 1925 and liquidated in September 1927. 

  32. L. Trotsky The “Uprising” of Nov. 7 (January 1932) 

  33. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm 

  34. “The struggle within the party, despite all its intensity, is only the introduction to an epoch of class battles. Our job still lies wholly and entirely before us.” -The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1926-7, Pathfinder 1980. p 637.  

  35. “A gigantic role in these processes falls to the party and its groupings, but the class will decide matters.” Ibid p 636. 

  36. "...preventing the further development of Thermidor and to winning back the positions the proletariat has lost...This means for the present period: not a second party, but a faction, organized to the extent necessary to ensure the possibility of systematic influence on the party."-The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-9, Pathfinder 1981. p 47.