LEON TROTSKY AND THE FIGHT TO SAVE THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION, PART I
THE CHALLENGE OF THE LEFT OPPOSITION (1923-25), LEON TROTSKY, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1975
If you are interested in the history of the International Left or are a militant trying to understand some of the past lessons of our history concerning the communist response to various social and labor questions this book is for you. This book is part of a continuing series of volumes in English of the writings of Leon Trotsky, Russian Bolshevik leader, from the start in 1923 of the Left Opposition in the Russian Communist Party that he led through his various exiles up until his assassination by a Stalinist agent in 1940. These volumes were published by the organization that James P. Cannon, early American Trotskyist leader founded, the Socialist Workers Party, in the 1970’s and 1980’s. (Cannon’s writings in support of Trotsky’s work are reviewed elsewhere in this space) Look in this space for other related reviews of this series of documents on and by this important world communist leader.
Since the volumes in the series cover a long period of time and contain some material that , while of interest, is either historically dated or more fully developed in Trotsky’s other separately published major writings I am going to organize this series of reviews in this way. By way of introduction I will give a brief summary of the events of the time period of each volume. Then I will review what I believe is the central document of each volume. The reader can then decide for him or herself whether my choice was informative or not.
Although there were earlier signs that the Russia revolution was going off course the long illness and death of Lenin in 1924, at the time the only truly authoritative leader the Bolshevik party, set off a power struggle in the leadership of the party. This fight had Trotsky and the ‘pretty boy’ intellectuals of the party on one side and Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev (the so-called triumvirate).backed by the ‘gray boys’ of the emerging bureaucracy on the other. This struggle occurred against the backdrop of the failed revolution in Germany in 1923 and which thereafter heralded the continued isolation, imperialist blockade and economic backwardness of the Soviet Union for the foreseeable future.
While the disputes in the Russian party eventually had international ramifications in the Communist International, they were at this time fought out almost solely with the Russian Party. Trotsky was slow, very slow to take up the battle for power that had become obvious to many elements in the party. He made many mistakes and granted too many concessions to the trio. But he did fight. Although later (in 1935) Trotsky recognized that the 1923 fight represented a fight against the Russian Thermidor (from an analogy with the period of the French Revolution where the radical regime of Robespierre and Saint Just was overthrown by more moderate Jacobins) and thus a decisive turning point for the revolution that was not clear to him (or anyone else on either side) then. Whatever the appropriate analogy might have been Leon Trotsky was in fact fighting a last ditch effort to retard the further degeneration of the revolution. After that defeat, the way the Soviet Union was ruled, who ruled and for what purposes all changed. And not for the better.
The most important document in this volume is clearly and definitely Trotsky’s Lessons of October. Although there are a couple of other documents of interest- The New Course, his program to try to bring the agrarian and the industrial crisis into focus-and The Problems of Civil War- Trotsky’s contribution to the so-called “literary discussion” in the party far outdistances those documents in importance. When this document hit the press there was definitely gnashing of teeth by the ruling trio in the Kremlin- Why? Lessons of October is essentially a polemic against fainted-hearted, opportunist failure to appreciate both the rarity of a revolutionary moment and the necessity to have a sharp combat- tested organization to take advantage of that situation. Moreover, this polemic was a direct attack on Zinoviev and Kamenev for their position against insurrection at the time of revolution and on Stalin’s March, 1917 call for political support to the bourgeois Provisional Government.
George Bernard Shaw once called Trotsky the “Prince of Pamphleteers” and he certainly earns that title in Lessons of October. Alas, those who write the best polemics do not necessarily win the power. Those 200,000 plus politically immature or careerist new party members beholding to the increasingly Stalinist bureaucracy drafted under the “Lenin Levy” saw the writing on the wall differently. That was decisive. Nevertheless, Lessons of October is not just any political document- it is an essential document for the education of today’s militants. It bears reading, re-reading, and reading again. I know I always get something new out of it each time I read it.