Duncan Hallas

A Note of Qualification

(To Peter Sedgwick’s article The Return of Bukharin)

(February 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.75, February 1975, pp.20-1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

PETER Sedgwick’s interesting and valuable article make a number of controversial judgments. Two of them cannot be allowed to pass without comment; some of the criticisims of Trotsky and the view that ‘in the late Twenties and early Thirties ... a new opposition could have been created for the defence of the working masses of Russia, uniting elements of the old Left, Right and even Stalinist Centre.’

Thus, for example, Peter Sedgwick writes:

‘Bukharin alone ... stood up to be counted on the question ... of Georgia’s forcible incorporation . . . Trotsky joined in the conspiracy.of silence at the ensuing Twelfth Congress.’

This is true but also misleading if it is taken to mean that Trotsky was indifferent to the matter and took no action on the urgent plea of the sick Lenin to ‘undertake the defence of the Georgian case in the Party Central Committee’. (Lenin’s words) In fact Trotsky forced through the Politbureau a number of amendments to Stalin’s Thesis on the question, including a denunciation of ‘Great Russian’ chauvinism (see e.g. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, pp.91-93). Trotsky was guilty of a political blunder in not insisting on putting Lenin’s views to the Congress. He was not guilty of conspiring to silence the Georgians.

Or, to take up a more important question, is it not really excessively ‘lax and permissive’ to state that ‘All wings of Bolshevism (and therefore both Lenin and Trotsky, Ed) were blind to the class-divisions in the heart of the nationalist struggle? The Theses on the National and Colonial Question, drafted by Lenin and adopted at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, (1920) contain the following unequivocal statement:

‘A resolute struggle must be waged against the attempt to clothe the revolutionary liberation movements in the backward countries, which are not genuinely communist, in communist colours. The Communist International has the duty of supporting the revolutionary movement in the colonies and backward countries only with the object of rallying the constituent elements of the future proletarian parties – which will be truly communist and not only in name – in all the backward countries and educating them to a consciousness of their special task, namely that of fighting against the bourgeois-democratic trend in their own nation. The Communist International should collaborate provisionally with the revolutionary movement of the colonies and backward countries, and even form an alliance with it, but it must not amalgamate with it; it must unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is only in an embryonic state.’ (Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943: Documents, Vol.1, pp.l43-144).

Is it possible to put it more explicitly? Granted; practice may fall below precept, but the line of the Comintern in Lenin’s time was crystal clear.

Nor is it true that the Left Opposition refrained from criticising the Bukharin-Stalin line of blind support for the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek until 1927. According to Trotsky’s own account:

‘Long before Chiang Kai-shek crushed the Shanghai workers and concentrated the power in the hands of a military clique, we issued warnings that such a consequence was inevitable. Since 1925 (i.e. since the beginning of the revolutionary upsurge – Ed.), I had demanded the withdrawal of the Communists from the Kuomintang.’ (My Life, p.529).

Trotsky’s extreme scrupulousness about facts is well known and is attested, amongst other ways, by the publication of various suppressed works of Lenin (including the Testament) in Khrushchev’s day, works which Trotsky quoted and whose existence was for years denied by the Stalinists. In every case Trotsky’s version proved completely accurate. His statement on the demand for withdrawal from the Kuomintang cannot reasonably be doubted.

Thus far we have been concerned with facts, but the most important issue that comrade Sedgwick raises, that of the possibility of a united opposition (‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’) against Stalin’s bonapartist regime at the end of the twenties and the early years of the thirties, depends both on fact and also on interpretation, on an assessment of the politics of these three trends and on our judgment of their true significance.

The IS view of the realities of the situation was summarised by Tony Cliff:

‘It was now (with the First Five Year Plan, 1928-32 - Ed.), that the bureaucracy sought to realise the historical mission of the bourgeoisie as quickly as possible ... the bureaucracy, transformed into a personification of capital, for whom the accumulation of capital is the be-all and end-all, must get rid of all remnants of workers’ control, must substitute conviction in the labour process by coercion, must atomise the working class, must force all social-political life into a totalitarian mould.’ (Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis, p.107).

It is here, and not at all on the question of Georgia or China, that our criticism of Trotsky must begin. For Trotsky viewed the turn to the Five Year Plan quite differently; he viewed it as a turn to the left.

‘The possibilities of the present truly gigantic successes of the Soviet economy was created by the revolutionary overturn of the property relations which established the pre-conditions for the planned elimination of market anarchy,’ he wrote in 1931, ‘Capitalism never gave and is incapable of giving that progression of economic growth which is developing at present on the territory of the Soviet Union. The unprecedently high tempos of industrialisation, which have unfolded, in spite of the expectations and plans of the epigone leadership, have paved once and for all the might of the socialist method of economy.’ (Problems of the Development of the USSR, Writings 1930-31, p.205).

Certainly, the economic growth achieved in this period was impressive. There was, according to a pro-Stalinist but not entirely unreliable source, ‘an annual rate of growth of industrial output from 1928 to 1937 of about 14 per cent, or for the decade as a whole a little less than a fourfold increase.’ (Dobb, Soviet Economic Development Since 1917, p.261)

But this growth was achieved, as Cliff points out, at the expense of an atomised working class. And it proved not so unique after all. Between 1950 and 1973 the total output of all the developed ‘Western’ capitalist economies increased by three and a half times. The Japanese economy multiplied in the same period by seven times (an annual growth rate of over 10 per cent a year for nearly twenty five years – a significantly higher rate of growth than that of the USSR in the same period). No-one has yet pointed to the Japanese experience as demonstrating ‘the might of the socialist method of economy’!

The point is that all the various trends within the Stalinist bureaucracy, after the establishment of the totalitarian regime, (1927-28) were committed to: ‘the accumulation of capital. . . (as) the be-all and end-all’. The various ‘bureaucratic oppositions’ – Uglanov, Syrtsov, Lominadze, Ryutin and so on (perhaps even Kirov) – were critical of the tempo or of this or that aspect of Stalin’s policy but within the general framework of that policy and of the Stalinist state. All were part of a privileged hierarchy that was developing into a ruling class. What ‘new opposition’ could be created from such material? At best, an ‘enlightened management’ tendency, inspired by the thought that ‘contented cows give you better milk’.

As a matter of fact even that – the ideal of Khrushchev from 1954 to 1964 – was unrealisable twenty years earlier. The tremendous tensions created by the first phase of forced industrialisation and forced collectivisation laid the basis for the unbridled despotism of one man, Stalin, which could at least preserve the bureaucracy as a class, even though the price was to be the slaughter of a high proportion of the bureaucrats as individuals in the great purges of 1935-38.

Not one of these oppositional currents, not even Trotsky’s and least of all the ‘Bukharinists’, was willing to attempt to base itself on the working class at that time. All had a ‘reformist’ orientation within the totalitarian apparatus that had replaced the party. (Trotsky, of course, changed his mind about the prospects of ‘reform’ after 1933). The ‘new opposition’ of 1930, 1931 or 1932 is a chimera, a shadow without substance. Even if Kirov – the obvious candidate – had replaced Stalin as the supreme boss in 1934, the outcome would not have been significantly different. Nothing short of a new revolution could have changed the course of events.


Last updated on 19.10.2006