The revolutionary Left internationally is faced with continuous crises in the recent period, that have led to a number of splits and even the collapse of whole organisations. A big part of these debates is about issues of democracy, the internal regime and how democratic centralism is applied.
In this context the experience and the traditions of the Bolshevik party are of crucial importance. The Bolshevik party had a very rich internal life of debates, tendencies and factions. In our view it is not an accident that the only party ever able to take power on behalf of the working class was characterized by vigorous internal controversies and factions; this should be accepted as normal and as inevitable in the life of any revolutionary party that aims to win the support of the masses.
We publish today chapter 3 of Trotsky’s “New Course”, a very important pamphlet which came out in 1923. In it, Trotsky criticizes the regime of the rising bureaucracy which had already set the party under its control (though it was not yet completely consolidated), demanding a truly democratic internal regime. Trotsky enlists a whole series of internal battles that took place in the Bolshevik party, defending himself against the accusations of “factionalism” and of endangering the unity of the party, launched against him by the party apparatus.
The conditions in 1923 are of course entirely different to the ones we face today. However, this text remains very important as it reveals how vigorous the internal debates taking place in the Bolshevik party were and that factions and tendencies were a normal thing in the life of the party. It also helps us understand how important this was in the end in shaping the party that was able to lead the working class to the victorious October revolution.
Trotsky: The New Course
Groups and Factional Formations
The question of groupings and factions in the party has become the pivot of the discussion. In view of its intrinsic importance and the extreme acuteness that it has assumed, it demands to be treated with perfect clarity. Yet, it is posed in a completely erroneous manner. We are the only party in the country and, in the period of the dictatorship, it could not be otherwise. The different needs of the working class, of the peasantry, of the state apparatus and of its membership, act upon our party, through who’s medium they seek to find a political expression. The difficulties and contradictions inherent in our epoch, the temporary discord in the interests of the different layers of the proletariat, or of the proletariat as a whole and the peasantry, act upon the party through the medium of its worker and peasant cells, of the state apparatus, of the student youth. Even episodic differences in views and nuances of opinion may express the remote pressure of distinct social interests and, in certain circumstances, be transformed into stable groupings; the latter may, in turn, sooner or later take the form of organized factions which, opposing themselves to the rest of the party, undergo by that very fact even greater external pressure. Such is the dialectics of inner party groupings in an epoch when the communist party is obliged to monopolize the direction of political life.
What follows from this? If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together. But how, on the other hand, avoid differences of opinion in a party of half a million men which is leading the country in exceptionally complicated and painful conditions?
That is the essential contradiction residing in the very situation of the party of the proletarian dictatorship, a contradiction that cannot be escaped solely by purely formal measures. The partisans of the “old course” who vote for the resolution of the Central Committee with the assurance that everything will remain as in the past, reason something like this: Just look, the lid of our apparatus has just scarcely been raised and already tendencies toward groupings of all sorts are manifesting themselves in the party. The lid must be jammed back on and the pot closed hermetically. It is this short-sighted wisdom that pervades dozens of speeches and articles “against factionalism.” In their heart of hearts, the apparatus men believe that the resolution of the Central Committee is either a political mistake that they must try to render harmless, or else an apparatus stratagem that must be utilized. In my view, they are grossly mistaken. And if there is a tactic calculated to introduce disorganization into the party it is the one followed by people who persist in the old orientation while feigning to accept respectfully the new.
It is in contradictions and differences of opinion that the working out of the party’s public opinion inevitably takes place. To localize this process only within the apparatus which is then charged to furnish the party with the fruit of its labors in the form of slogans, orders, etc., is to sterilize the party ideologically and politically. To have the party as a whole participate in the working out and adoption of the resolutions, is to promote temporary ideological groupings that risk transformation into durable groupings and even into factions. What to do? Is it possible that there is no way out? Is it possible that there is no intermediate line between the régime of “calm” and that of crumbling into factions? No, there is one, and the whole task of the leadership consists, each time that it is necessary and especially at turning points, in finding this line corresponding to the real situation of the moment.
The resolution of the Central Committee says plainly that the bureaucratic régime is one of the sources of factions. That is a truth which now hardly needs to be demonstrated. The old course was far indeed from “full blown” democracy, and yet it no more preserved the party from illegal factions than the present stormy discussion which—it would be ridiculous to shut one’s eyes to this! —may lead to the formation of temporary or durable groupings. To avert it, the leading organs of the party must lend an ear to the voice of the broad party mass, not consider every criticism as a manifestation of factional spirit, and thereby drive conscientious and disciplined communists to maintain a systematic silence or else constitute themselves as factions. But doesn’t this way of putting the question come down to a justification of Myaznikov  and his partisans? We hear the voice of higher bureaucratic wisdom. Why? In the first place, the phrase we have just underlined is only a textual extract from the resolution of the Central Committee. Further, since when does an explanation equal a justification? To say that an abscess is the result of defective blood circulation due to an insufficient flow of oxygen, is not to “justify” the abscess and to consider it a normal part of the human organism. The only conclusion is that the abscess must be lanced and disinfected and, above all, the window must be opened to let fresh air provide the oxygen needed by the blood. But the trouble is that the most militant wing of the “old course” is convinced that the resolution of the Central Committee is erroneous, especially in its passage on bureaucratism as a source of factionalism. And if it does not say so openly, it is only out of formal considerations, quite in keeping with its mentality, drenched with that formalism which is the essential attribute of bureaucratism. It is incontestable that factions are a scourge in the present situation, and that groupings, even if temporary, may be transformed into factions. But as experience shows, it is not at all enough to declare that groupings and factions are an evil for their appearance to be prevented. What is needed to bring this about is a certain policy, a correct course adapted to the real situation.
It suffices to study the history of our party, even if only for the period of the revolution, that is, during the period when the constitution of factions became particularly dangerous to see that the struggle against this danger cannot be confined to a formal condemnation and prohibition of groupings. It was in the fall of 1917 that the most formidable disagreement broke out in the party, on the occasion of the capital question of the seizure of power. With the furious pace of events, the acuteness of the struggle immediately gave an extreme factional character to the disagreements: perhaps without wanting to, the opponents of the violent uprising made in fact a bloc with non-party elements, published their declarations in outside organs, etc. At that moment, the unity of the party hung by a hair. How was the split to be averted? Only by the rapid development of events and their favorable outcome. The split would have taken place inevitably if the events had dragged along for several months, all the more so if the insurrection had ended in defeat. Under the firm leadership of the majority of the Central Committee, the party, in an impetuous offensive, moved over the head of the opposition, the power was conquered, and the opposition, not very great numerically but qualitatively very strong, adopted the platform of October. The faction and the danger of a split were overcome at that time not by formal decisions based upon party statutes, but by revolutionary action. The second great disagreement arose on the occasion of the Brest Litovsk peace. The partisans of revolutionary war then constituted a genuine faction, with its own central organ, etc. How much truth there is in the recent anecdote about Bukharin being almost prepared, at one time, to arrest the government of Lenin, I am unable to say. Generally speaking, this looks a little like a bad Mayne Reid  story or a communist Pinkerton  tale. It may be presumed that the history of the party will take note of this. However, that may be, the existence of a left communist faction represented an extreme danger to the unity of the party. To have brought about a split at the time would not have been difficult and would not have demanded of the leadership … any great intellectual effort: it would have sufficed to issue an interdict against the left communist faction. Nevertheless, the party adopted more complex methods: it preferred to discuss, to explain, to prove by experience and to resign itself temporarily to the abnormal and anomalous phenomenon represented by the existence of an organized faction in its midst.
The question of military organization likewise produced the constitution of a fairly strong and obdurate grouping, opposed to the creation of a regular army and all that flowed from it: a centralized military apparatus, specialists, etc. At times, the struggle assumed extreme sharpness. But as in October, the question was settled by experience, by the war itself. Certain blunders and exaggerations of the official military policy were attenuated, not without the pressure of the opposition, and that not only without damage but with profit to the centralized organization of the regular army. As to the opposition, it fell apart little by little. A great number of its most active representatives participated in the organization of the army in which, in many cases they occupied important posts.
Clearly defined groupings were constituted at the time of the memorable discussion on the trade unions. Now that we have the possibility of embracing this entire period at a glance and of illuminating it in the light of subsequent experience, we can record that the discussion in no wise revolved around the trade unions, nor even workers’ democracy: what was expressed in these disputes was a profound uneasiness in the party, caused by the excessive prolonging of the economic régime of war communism. The entire economic organism of the country was in a vise. The discussion on the role of the trade unions and of workers’ democracy covered up the search for a new economic road. The way out was found in the elimination of the requisitioning of food products and of the grain monopoly, and in the gradual liberation of state industry from the tyranny of the central economic managements. These historical decisions were taken unanimously and completely overshadowed the trade union discussion, all the more so because of the fact that following the establishment of the NEP, the very role of the trade unions themselves appeared in a completely different light and, several months later, the resolution on the trade unions had to be modified radically.
The longest lasting grouping and, from certain angles, the most dangerous one, was the “Workers’ Opposition.”  It reflected, although distortedly, the contradictions of war communism, certain mistakes of the party, as well as the essential objective difficulties of socialist organization. But this time, too, we did not confine ourselves merely to a formal prohibition. On the questions of democracy, formal decisions were made, and on the purging of the party effective and extremely important measures were taken, satisfying what was just and healthy in the criticism and the demands of the “Workers’ Opposition.” And the main thing is that, due to the decisions and the economic measures adopted by the party, the result of which was to bring about the disappearance of the differences of opinions and the groupings, the Tenth Congress was able to prohibit formally the constitution of factions, with reason to believe that its decisions would not remain a dead letter. But as experience and good political sense show, it goes without saying that by itself this prohibition contained no absolute or even serious guarantee against the appearance of new ideological and organic groupings. The essential guarantee, in this case, is a correct leadership, paying opportune attention to the needs of the moment which are reflected in the party, flexibility of the apparatus which ought not paralyze but rather organize the initiative of the party, which ought not fear criticism, nor intimidate the party with the bug bear of factions: intimidation is most often a product of fright. The decision of the Tenth Congress prohibiting factions can only have an auxiliary character; by itself it does not offer the key to the solution of any and all internal difficulties. It would be gross “organizational fetishism” to believe that whatever the development of the party, the mistakes of the leadership, the conservatism of the apparatus, the external influences, etc., a decision is enough to preserve us from groupings and from upheavals inherent in the formation of factions. Such an approach is in itself profoundly bureaucratic.
A striking example of this is provided us by the history of the Petrograd organization. Shortly after the Tenth Congress, which forbade the constitution of groupings and factions, a very lively organizational struggle broke out in Petrograd, leading to the formation of two clearly antagonistic groupings. The simplest thing to do, at first blush, would have been to declare one of the groups (at least one) to be pernicious, criminal, factional, etc. But the Central Committee refused categorically to employ this method, which was suggested to it from Petrograd. It assumed the role of arbiter between the two groupings and succeeded, not right away, to be sure, in assuring not only their collaboration but their complete fusion in the organization. There you have an important example which deserves being kept in mind and might serve to light up some bureaucratic skulls.
We have said above that every important and lasting grouping in the party, to say nothing of every organized faction, has the tendency to become the spokesman of some social interests. Every incorrect deviation may, in the course of its development, become the expression of the interests of a class hostile or half hostile to the proletariat. But first of all, this applies to bureaucratism. It is necessary to begin right there. That bureaucratism is an incorrect deviation, and an unhealthy deviation, will not, let us hope, be contested. This being the case, it threatens to lead the party off the right road, the class road. That is precisely where its danger lies. But here is a fact that is instructive in the highest degree and at the same time most alarming: those comrades who assert most flatly, with the greatest insistence and sometimes most brutally, that every difference of opinion, every grouping of opinion, however temporary, is an expression of the interests of classes opposed to the proletariat, do not want to apply this criterion to bureaucratism.
Yet, the social criterion is, in the given instance, perfectly in place, for bureaucratism is a well-defined evil, a notorious and incontestably injurious deviation, officially condemned but not at all in the process of disappearing. Moreover, it is pretty difficult to make it disappear at one blow! But if, as the resolution of the Central Committee says, bureaucratism threatens to detach the party from the masses, and consequently to weaken the class character of the party, it follows that the struggle against bureaucratism can in no case be identified in advance with some kind of non-proletarian influence. On the contrary, the aspiration of the party to preserve its proletarian character must inevitably generate resistance to bureaucratism. Naturally, under cover of this resistance, various erroneous, unhealthy and harmful tendencies may manifest themselves. They cannot be laid bare save by the Marxian analysis of their ideological content. But to identify resistance to bureaucratism with a grouping which allegedly serves as a channel for alien influences is to be oneself the “channel” of bureaucratic influences.
Nevertheless, there should be no oversimplification and vulgarization in the understanding of the thought that party differences, and this holds all the more for groupings, are nothing but a struggle for influence of antagonistic classes. Thus, in 1920, the question of the invasion of Poland stirred up two currents of opinion, one advocating a more audacious policy, the other preaching prudence. Were there different class tendencies there? I do not believe that anyone would risk such an assertion. There were only divergence’s in the appreciation of the situation, of the forces, of the means. But the essential criterion of the appreciation was the same with both parties.
It frequently happens that the party is able to resolve one and the same problem by different means, and differences arise as to which of these means is the better, the more expeditious, the more economical. These differences may, depending on the question, embrace considerable sections of the party, but that does not necessarily mean that you have their two class tendencies.
There is no doubt that we shall have not one but dozens of disagreements in the future, for our path is difficult and the political tasks as well as the economic questions of socialist organization will unfailingly engender differences of opinion and temporary groupings of opinion. The political verification of all the nuances of opinion by Marxian analysis will always be one of the most efficacious preventive measures for our party. But it is this concrete Marxian verification that must be resorted to, and not the stereotyped phrases which are the defense mechanism of bureaucratism. The heterogeneous political ideology which is now rising up against bureaucratism can be all the better checked, and purged of all alien and injurious elements, the more seriously the road of the “new course” is entered upon. However, this is impossible without a serious change in the mentality and the intentions of the party apparatus. But we are witness, on the contrary, to a new offensive at the present time by the latter, which rejects every criticism of the “old course,” formally condemned but not yet liquidated, by treating it as a manifestation of factional spirit. If factionalism is dangerous and it is it is criminal to shut your eyes to the danger represented by conservative bureaucratic factionalism. It is against precisely this danger that the resolution of the Central Committee is primarily directed.
The maintenance of the unity of the party is the gravest concern of the great majority of communists. But it must be said openly: If there is today a serious danger to the unity or at the very least to the unanimity of the party, it is unbridled bureaucratism. This is the camp in which provocative voices have been raised. That is where they have dared to say: We are not afraid of a split! It is the representatives of this tendency who thumb through the past, seeking out everything likely to inject more rancor into the discussion, resuscitating artificially the recollections of the old struggle and the old split in order to accustom imperceptibly the mind of the party to the possibility of a crime as monstrous and as disastrous as a new split. They seek to set against each other the need of party unity and the party’s need of a less bureaucratic régime.
If the party allowed itself to take this road, and sacrificed the vital elements of its own democracy, it would only succeed in exacerbating its internal struggle and in upsetting its cohesion. You cannot demand of the party confidence in the apparatus when you yourself have no confidence in the party. There is the whole question. Preconceived bureaucratic distrust of the party, of its consciousness and its spirit of discipline, is the principal cause of all the evils generated by the domination of the apparatus. The party does not want factions and will not tolerate them. It is monstrous to believe that it will shatter or permit anyone to shatter its apparatus. It knows that this apparatus is composed of the most valuable elements, who incarnate the greatest part of the experience of the past. But it wants to renew it and to remind it that it is its apparatus, that it is elected by it and that it must not detach itself from it.
Upon reflecting well on the situation created in the party, which has shown itself in a particularly clear light in the course of the discussion, it may be seen that the future presents itself under a double perspective. Either the organic ideological regrouping that is now taking place in the party along the line of the resolutions of the
Central Committee will be a step forward on the road of the organic growth of the party, the beginning of a new great chapter which would be the most desirable outcome for us all, the one most beneficial to the party, which would then easily overcome any excesses in the discussion and in the opposition, to say nothing of vulgar democratic tendencies. Or else, the apparatus, passing over to the offensive, will come more and more under the power of its most conservative elements and, on the pretext of coin batting factions, will throw the party backward and restore “calm.” This second eventuality would be by far the most grievous one; it would not prevent the development of the party, it goes without saying, but this development would take place only at the cost of considerable efforts and upheavals. For this method would only foster still more the tendencies that are injurious, disintegrative and hostile to the party. These are the two eventualities to envisage.
My letter on the “new course” had as its purpose to aid the party to take the first road, which is the most economical and the most correct. And I stand fully by the position in it, rejecting any tendencious or deceitful interpretation.
1. Myaznikov was a leader of the “Workers’ Group” an oppositionist faction inside the Bolshevik Party. Its’ members were expelled from the Party at the 11th Congress in 1922.
2. Reid was a 19th century American novelist.
3. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was setup in the 19th century as a private police corps designed to infiltrate radical and labor organizations with the expressed purpose of destroying these organizations.
4. The Workers’ Opposition was the largest and best known of the oppositional factions inside the Bolshevik Party. Leading Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollantai was its best-known leader. The Workers’ Opposition had a syndicalist program that advocated that all economic control be turned over to the trade unions.