Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev: best taken with a grain of salt
Something has been nagging away at me for the longest time about Lars Lih’s attempt to establish a kind of bloodline for the Bolshevik Party, with Marx begetting Kautsky and Kautsky begetting Lenin like patriarchs in the Old Testament. For those who embrace the heretical theory of Permanent Revolution, the bloodline naturally includes Trotsky. As should be obvious, this sort of pursuit is exactly how we end up sect formations rather than revolutionary parties.
Eric Blanc has written the second in a series of articles arguing against the idea that Lenin somehow dumped his old beliefs that Russia needed a democratic revolution that was “bourgeois in its social and economic substance” rather than socialist as he put it in “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” in favor of something similar to the theory of Permanent Revolution. I am quite used to these arguments by now but what caught my eye is his title “A Revolutionary Line of March: ‘Old Bolshevism’ in Early 1917 Re-Examined”. Line of March, of course, was the name of a Maoist sect in the 1980s founded by Irwin Silber who used to write dogmatic film reviews for the Guardian, a defunct American radical newsweekly. The “line of march” is basically the same concept as “revolutionary continuity”, a term that was bandied about in the Trotskyist movement around the same time. It is a way to establish your sect’s pedigree going back to Karl Marx.
The SWP’s cult leader Jack Barnes came to identical conclusions as Lih and Blanc in the Fall of 1983 when he broke with Trotskyist traditions and defended the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in an article titled “Their Trotsky and Ours”. Like a lot of the crap churned out by the SWP in this period, it is not online. (Contact me if you want a copy.) For Barnes and some non-Stalinist groups like the Democratic Socialist Party (now the Socialist Alliance) in Australia, they saw Lenin’s view of the revolutionary state as “algebraic”. In other words, it could progress so rapidly from a “democratic” to a “socialist” phase that it amounted to the same thing. The darn thing could make your head spin. Whoa there. Supposedly, both Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1960 were solutions to this algebra problem.
For Barnes, dumping Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution was key to becoming integrated into a New International of his florid imagination that included groups like the FSLN, the FMLN and the ANC. I wonder if the fact that Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa are solidly neoliberal under governments led by such formations might cast doubt on the usefulness of Lenin’s slogan (I doubt that it can really be called a theory). In 1959, Castro described the victory over Batista as rejection of what had happened for the better part of a century in Latin America: “Only half a revolution. A compromise, a caricature of a revolution.” I don’t know if this amounts to the same thing as Permanent Revolution but Castro was as determined to break with capitalism that year as Lenin was in 1917.
Obviously, Lih and Blanc have little in common with Jack Barnes. Their interest in the details of Bolshevik history is purely scholarly and mostly of interest to the people who read “Historical Materialism” and “Science and Society” where debates over the finer points of Bolshevik tactics from day to day in 1917 have a certain purchase.
All proportions being guarded, it is interesting that Barnes imposed a bureaucratic gag rule on the SWP membership after this ideological turn that was like the one Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev imposed on the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Basically, agreeing with Lenin’s slogan became a litmus test. If you agreed with Trotsky, you were singled out as an enemy of the party and eventually expelled from the CP in the USSR or Barnes’s minuscule sect.
The Triumvirs (as Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev were known) could not tolerate criticisms of their increasingly bureaucratic and anti-working class policies that were hated at the factory floor level. The NEP had generated class antagonisms and oppositions were forming to restore the democratic norms of 1917 and reallocate more funds to wages and other benefits. Workers assumed that Soviet democracy meant the right to criticize those at the top to win their demands, even if they had been Lenin’s most loyal lieutenants.
Indeed, it was their “legitimacy” as Lenin’s second in command that gave them a cudgel to use against Trotsky, who only joined the Bolsheviks six years earlier. That Lenin had referred to him corrosively, as was customary in Russian Marxist polemics, was to their advantage.
Trotsky first raised his criticisms in a short work titled “The New Course” in December 1923. Chapter five addressed the “line of march” question that he called “tradition” and that I would additionally describe as hide-bound tradition:
The undeniable fact that the most conservative elements of the apparatus are inclined to identify their opinions, their methods, and their mistakes with the “Old Bolshevism,” and seek to identify the criticism of bureaucratism with the destruction of tradition, this fact, I say, is already by itself the incontestable expression of a certain ideological petrifaction.
The shit hit the fan with “The New Course”. Using their control of the apparatus, the Triumvir whipped up a campaign intended to first isolate and then drive out its critics. Whether Barnes consciously looked to the Triumvirs for inspiration, this was the policy he carried out against his critics in the SWP who had the temerity to defend the theory of the Permanent Revolution—most of them veterans of the party who had “tradition” on their side.
A year later, a big fight broke out over Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” in which he addressed the questions posed by Lih and Blanc’s critique. Chapter two is titled “The Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry– in February and October” and gets to the heart of the matter:
Any further movement toward the attainment of power inevitably had to explode the democratic shell, confront the majority of the peasantry with the necessity of following the workers, provide the proletariat with an opportunity to realize a class dictatorship, and thereby place on the agenda – along with a complete and ruthlessly radical democratization of social relations – a purely socialist invasion of the workers’ state into the sphere of capitalist property rights. Under such circumstances, whoever continued to cling to the formula of a “democratic dictatorship” in effect renounced power and led the revolution into a blind alley.
In 1983, Frederick Corney wrote a book that was a collection of Trotsky’s “Lessons of October” and the response of his ideological adversaries. Among them, only Kamenev’s “Leninism or Trotskyism?” can also be read online. You can get a feel for the virulence of the anti-Trotsky campaign (that was a campaign against the masses as well) from these spittle-flecked sentences:
The petty bourgeois elements, in exercising this pressure upon our Party, naturally seek the weakest link in the chain, and as naturally they find this weakest link where people have entered the Party without being assimilated to it, and are possessed by a secret conviction, leaving them no peace, that they are more in the right than the Party, and that it is mere narrow-mindedness on the part of the Party, mere conservatism, tradition and adherence to this or that clique in leading positions, which prevents the Party from learning from its real saviours, such as Comrade Trotsky.
As is generally the case, when you can’t answer a fellow Marxist through data and logic, you can always rely on smearing them as “petty bourgeois”.
In fact, Trotsky did everything he could to avoid giving the appearance that he wanted to take over the Communist Party. In 1923, when Lenin was incapacitated by a series of strokes, he could have used the party leader’s authority to confront the Triumvirs. Lenin had become convinced that Stalin was a Great Russian Chauvinist, who despite his Georgian origins, had treated Georgia and Ukraine as Russia’s colonies. A year earlier, Lenin had written a “Testament” that minced no words about Stalin. In his private discussions with Trotsky that year, he said that he was preparing a “bombshell” against Stalin and anybody who was in a bloc with him, including Zinoviev and Kamenev.
The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of “nationalist-socialism” (whereas he himself is a real and true “nationalist-socialist”, and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest- to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades.
Eric Blanc refers to this period as one in which Trotsky was right to oppose bureaucracy. However, that did not excuse being “wedded to Trotsky’s interpretation of early 1917, which is clearly contradicted by a wide range of primary sources”. I find this a little difficult to understand. If Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had a better grasp of the tasks of the Russian Revolution than Trotsky in 1917, how could they end up becoming so determined to destroy its legacy in a series of maneuvers that smacked of back room capitalist politics? If “Old Bolshevism” was so susceptible to bureaucratic degeneration, maybe Trotsky was wise to keep his distance from a “tradition” that discouraged independent and critical thinking. This is a question that Eric Blanc should consider carefully as the author of an article critical of Bolshevik policies toward non-Russian nationalities. I should add that Blanc faults Trotsky for not opening an offensive against Stalin in 1923 over the national question. Whether or not he should be faulted is secondary to coming to terms with the character of “Old Bolshevism”. Trotsky eventually came around on such matters in his articles on Ukraine in the late 1930s after all, while Stalin—the quintessential Old Bolshevik—had the blood of Ukraine’s millions on his hands.
It turns out that the debate over Permanent Revolution did not come to an end after Trotsky’s expulsion and exile. Karl Radek, who had supported Trotsky in 1923, eventually caved in to Stalin like Zinoviev and Kamenev before him and became one of his worst flunkies. In chapter seven of “Permanent Revolution”, Trotsky takes up his defense of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry that the Stalinists were applying rigidly to China.
By 1927, Stalin had abandoned any notion of Lenin’s slogan having an “algebraic” quality. He reverted not just to the Two Tactics article but Second International stagism that posited the need for an extended period of capitalist development in countries like China. If China needed a bourgeois revolution, what better way to bring this about then to put the Communist Party at the disposal of the KMT? At this stage of the game, Plekhanov was the primary influence on Stalin even if he gave lip-service to Lenin’s slogan.
On April 12, 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek carried out a massacre against Chinese working-class revolutionaries in Shanghai that was facilitated by the Kremlin’s alliance with the KMT and the subordination to it of the Chinese CP. Bukharin, who had become Stalin’s chief ideologist in the late 20s before he too was purged and killed, came up with some remarkable formulations. He told the Fifteenth Soviet Party Conference (October 1926) that it was necessary “to maintain a single national revolutionary front” in China as “the commercial-industrial bourgeoisie was at present playing an objectively revolutionary role.” For his part, Stalin warned the Communists about trying to establish Soviets in China.
Despite the tendency to reduce Permanent Revolution into a formula for immediate socialist revolution at all times and under all conditions, Trotsky was quite cautious about the possibilities that existed in China. In the chapter on China in “Permanent Revolution”, Trotsky bears little resemblance to the caricature his adversaries such as Kamenev drew, which at times makes him sound like a Spartacist League member:
Does it follow from what has been said that all the countries of the world, in one way or another, are already today ripe for the socialist revolution? No, this is a false, dead, scholastic, Stalinist-Bukharinist way of putting the question. World economy in its entirety is indubitably ripe for socialism. But this does not mean that every country taken separately is ripe. Then what is to happen with the dictatorship of the proletariat in the various backward countries, in China, India, etc.? To this we answer: History is not made to order. A country can become ‘ripe’ for the dictatorship of the proletariat not only before it is ripe for the independent construction of socialism, but even before it is ripe for far-reaching socialization measures. One must not proceed from a preconceived harmony of social development. The law of uneven development still lives, despite the tender theoretical embraces of Stalin. The force of this law operates not only in the relations of countries to each other, but also in the mutual relationships of the various processes within one and the same country. A reconciliation of the uneven processes of economics and politics can be attained only on a world scale. In particular this means that the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in China cannot be considered exclusively within the limits of Chinese economics and Chinese politics.
I doubt that any of this will have much impact on Eric Blanc who is fully committed to rehabilitating the irredeemable. “Old Bolshevism” was nonsense back in the early 20s and even more so today. If you read Lenin’s “Two Tactics” followed by Trotsky’s “Results and Prospects”, you’ll find the differences striking. This is primarily a function of the articles serving different purposes. Lenin was writing as strategist. As is the case with most of his writings, the concern is over “what is to be done”. If he spent little attention to making the case for a working-class dictatorship over capitalist property relations theoretically, it is because he assumed his readers were familiar with Marxist theory that posited successive and distinct modes of production. Keep in mind that Lenin’s introduction to Marxism came through the writings of Plekhanov.
Plekhanov’s stagism looms large over Lenin’s early work on the development of capitalist agriculture in the Russian countryside that probably articulates more of a classic historical materialist analysis than anything he ever wrote and that catapulted him into the front ranks of Russian Marxism. In works like the 1908 “The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century”, Lenin described the task of the Russian revolutionary movement:
The agrarian question in Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century has imposed upon the classes of society the task of putting an end to the old feudal past and sweeping clear the landowning system, sweeping clear the whole way for capitalism, for the growth of the productive forces, for the free and open struggle of classes. And this very struggle of classes will determine the manner in which this task will be accomplished.
Clearly, this is not in accord with Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, which constitutes the theoretical basis of Permanent Revolution and conceives of societies existing midway between the major stages of social history and that incorporates features from both. As I began writing about the Brenner thesis, nothing could be more obvious than Western European nations in the 1500s having both feudal and capitalist aspects. As is evidenced in the most recent scholarship on the “transition” debate, scholars such as Alex Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu are indebted to Trotsky’s dialectical understanding of social history even if Lih and Blanc fail to see much use in it. Perhaps their tendency to be so narrowly focused on Bolshevik history has put blinders on them.
This leads me to another point that is poorly understood in these debates. For Lih, there is a tendency to make an amalgam between socialism and the Soviet state. To sustain the idea that Lenin never projected anything more than a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, he cites Lenin’s articles written in April 1917 that only mention socialism in fleeting references and primarily as “steps toward socialism”. He notes approvingly what Menshevik historian Sukhanov said about October 1917 and socialism:
Was there any Socialism in the [Bolshevik] platform? No. I maintain that in a direct form the Bolsheviks never harped to the masses on Socialism as the object and task of a Soviet Government; nor did the masses, in supporting the Bolsheviks, even think about Socialism … In general the central leaders of Bolshevism were evidently firmly bent on carrying out a Socialist experiment: this was demanded by the logic of the situation. But once again—before the eyes of the masses—they did not dot any of their I’s.
This misses the point entirely. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky were interested in whether Russia would conform to some fixed social science category like “socialism” as October 1917 drew nearer. Instead their focus was on the class nature of the state that ensued. In September 1917, Lenin wrote what was essentially his greatest contribution to Marxist theory: “The State and Revolution”. This was an examination of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which put the emphasis on the character of the state rather than the means of production. This meant the working class becoming the ruling class and putting restrictions on the freedom of other classes to pursue their own agenda both politically and economically. Did this mean that when the soviets became the new state in 1917 that socialism had begun? Keep in mind that Lenin quoted Marx on this question: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
It is highly problematic to see the USSR in terms of fixed categories like “capitalist” or “socialist”. In “Revolution Betrayed”, Trotsky tried to define the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.
Given Trotsky’s superior analytical tools and the example he set of resisting both capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic misrule, it is impossible to sidestep the question of why his movement has failed to gain any traction. This has a lot to do with the movement’s inability to bridge the gap between theory and practical politics, mastery of which Lenin was second to none. In my earlier reference to Lenin being focused on immediate tasks of the mass movement, I would only add that he was far more adroit in movement building—something that was beyond Trotsky’s grasp. Ironically, Trotsky’s organizational principles were adopted from Zinoviev’s “Bolshevization” Comintern in 1923 that served both the Triumvir’s need to bureaucratically control the international communist movement as well as Trotsky’s rather purist ideas about building revolutionary parties that have proven sterile.
My advice is to read Trotsky to help you understand class dynamics in the capitalist world and Lenin to help you work with others to build a mass revolutionary movement to transform that world. But best of all, build a new movement that does not worry about a “line of march” or “revolutionary continuity”. It is up to us to rethink Marxism and make it applicable to 21st century realities. In other words—become the New Bolsheviks.