Picture: Lenin on poster popularising the NEP

Russia: How the Bureaucracy Seized Power

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Part two continued:

8. The Struggle for Power in the Communist Party


The Kronstadt uprising underlined the explosive resentment that had built up among the peasantry at the sacrifices, shortages and forced requisitions imposed on them during the war years. There was no prospect of an immediate breakthrough by the working class in the west. Clearly, it was impossible to continue the regime of war communism without risking a generalized insurrection.

Lenin, in a simple example, summed up the situation:

"If we could tomorrow give 100,000 first-class tractors, supply them with benzine, supply them with mechanics... the middle peasant would say: 'I am for Communism.' But in order to do this, it is first necessary to conquer the international bourgeoisie, to compel it to give us these tractors."

(Eighth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), March 18-23, 1919. "6. Report on Work in the Countryside." Works Vol. XXIV, p. 170.)

The tenth party congress of March 1921 could see no alternative to abandoning war communism (first advocated by Trotsky the previous year) and adopting what was called the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) - a series of concessions to the capitalists and richer peasants who dominated agricultural production. It provided them with profit incentives to step up production for the market, as a means of feeding the towns and reviving industry.

NEP undoubtedly succeeded in restoring a measure of life to the economy. By 1922 industrial output had risen to 25 percent of the 1913 level, though mainly in the branches of light industry supplying the peasants' demand.

On the other hand, NEP marked a serious retreat in the workers' fundamental drive to collectivization and central planning of the economy. It greatly strengthened the so-called "NEP-men" - a breed of middlemen who took advantage of the continuing shortages to speculate and line their own pockets.

The balance of forces in Russian society was tilting further and further against the working class. The kulaks and NEP-men shared a position of privilege with the state bureaucracy. These layers were becoming more confident and determined to consolidate their position. Their pressure on the workers' leaders was increasing.

Victor Serge describes the distortions that were coming into existence:

"Classes were reborn under our very eyes: at the bottom of the scale, the unemployed receiving 24 rubles a month; at the top, the engineer receiving 800; and in between the two, the party functionary with 222, but obtaining a good many things free of charge... There was squalid, heart-breaking poverty... while wealth was arrogant and self-satisfied... The young people drank, old people drank, drunkenness became a plague. And the worst of it was that we could no longer recognize the old party of the revolution." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 39)

The bureaucracy did not form a class in the Marxist sense (i.e., a social grouping with a necessary function in the productive system). Already it was degenerating into a layer of parasites, exploiting the shortage of skills to extort privileges as of right.

Inevitably, tensions were increasing between the "arrogant, self-satisfied bureaucracy", entrenched in the state apparatus, and the surviving Bolshevik cadre. The bureaucracy could not rest easy while power remained in the hands of the revolutionary Marxists. A struggle for control over the Communist Party was inherent in the situation.

In the party, the Marxist cadre was stretched to breaking point by the demands of public duties, while the ranks of the party were swelled by a massive influx of new members. Membership increased from 23,600 in February 1917 to 115,000 at the beginning of 1918, 313,000 a year later, and 650,000 in March 1922.

Many of those who joined, especially during the dark days of the civil war, were militant workers and youth attracted to the party of the revolution. But, increasingly, ex-Mensheviks, bureaucrats, NEP-men and other hostile elements, seeking a new vehicle for their political ambitions, began to turn their attention to the Communist Party.

As early as March 1919 the eighth party congress recognized the danger:

"Elements which are not sufficiently communist or even directly parasitic are flowing into the party in a broad stream. The Russian Communist Party is in power, and this inevitably attracts to it, together with the better elements, careerist elements as well...

"A serious purge is indispensable in the Soviet and party organizations." (Quoted by Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, page 212)

The inner-party struggle was pushed into the background during the war years. The purge was eventually carried out in 1921-22. Unlike the ruthless bureaucratic attacks on opposition of later years, also known as "purges", it consisted of a careful examination by local party organizations of their members, to decide which of them, through their commitment and activity, could in fact be counted as Communists.

A further decision by the eighth congress resulted in the establishment of a People's Commissariat of Workers' and Peasants' Inspection ("Rabkrin") in February 1920, with the task of fighting "bureaucratism and corruption in Soviet institutions".

As People's Commisar in charge of the new department the congress had appointed Joseph Stalin - a party member of long standing, no theoretician but a good organizer, who was hardly known outside of the party itself. In 1922 Stalin was appointed to another important administrative position: that of general secretary.

Rabkrin failed totally in its task. In practice ite members consisted, as Trotsky put it, of "workers who have come to grief in other fields". Or as Lenin commented: "the best workers have been taken for the front." (Quoted by Carr, pages 232-233)

But there were more fundamental reasons why the tide of bureaucratic encroachment could not be halted.

Russia's backwardness was reflected, politically, in the weakness of the proletariat in relation to the peasantry and the reactionary classes, nationally and internationally. As Lenin put it:

"While we continue to be a country of small peasants, there is a more solid basis for capitalism in Russia than for communism." (Quoted in The Platform of the Joint Opposition, page 6)

The social weakness of the Soviet working class could not be overcome by administrative measures; bourgeois pressures within the state apparatus could not be eliminated through the creation of new bureaucratic structures. The solution lay in the political regeneration of the working class through the advance of the revolution internationally.

The influence of the bureaucracy increasingly pervaded the party. Many Communists, absorbed in complicated administrative work, were already being "led" by the bureaucracy.

Even the party leaders were coming under pressure to adapt to the "practical" demands of the bureaucracy, to concentrate on creating stability in Russia through organizational measures, and relegate the international revolution to the background.

Lenin, in his last period of active life, became increasingly aware of the dangers posed by the power of the bureaucracy. At the eleventh party congress in 1922 (the last he attended) he sounded this warning:

"The [state] machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the way the driver desired but in a direction someone else desired: as if it were being driven by some lawless, mysterious hand... perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both." (Collected Works, volume 33, page 279)

Stalin came to the fore in this period. It was not his own personality or abilities, or even his conscious intentions, that transformed this colorless individual into the tyrant of later years. Stalin's rise to power was entirely a consequence of the changing balance of forces in society and the state.

The bureaucracy of the workers' state was beginning to isolate the "socialist tendency", and to corrupt elements in the workers' leadership that were politically weak. Stalin was a key official who proved "most consistent and reliable" to the bureaucracy. As Trotsky explains:

"(Stalin) brought (the bureaucracy) all the necessary guaranteed: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine... The petty bourgeois outlook of the new ruling stratum was his own outlook. He profoundly believed that the task of creating socialism was national and administrative in its nature." (The Revolution Betrayed, pages 93, 97)

The exceptional centralization of power brought about by the civil war was, to the bureaucracy, the natural method of government. It provided the means of protecting their privileges against the threat of future working-class control.

Stalin played a central role in the consolidation of the bureaucracy's position within the party apparatus. From 1922, he systematically installed his own followers as branch, district and provincial secretaries. This gave him effective control over the day-to-day implementation of policy, the organization of meetings, the election of congress delegates, etc.

These manoeuvres paved the way for a head-on collision with Lenin, Trotsky and the remainder of the Bolshevik leadership.

9. The Turning Point

1923-1924 marked a turning point in the Soviet Union: a period when the contradictions in the state and the party erupted into a decisive political struggle.

By the end of 1922 Lenin was seriously ill after suffering a series of strokes. It was no longer certain when or if he would return to political activity.

The bureaucracy were hostile and fearful towards Trotsky - next to Lenin the most authoritative and implacable Marxist leader of the party. However, certain "old Bolshevik" leaders - swayed by political narrowness, personal ambitions and loyalties 0 were also reluctant to see Trotsky, in Lenin's absence, take his place at the head of the Politbureau.

In December 1922, Zinoviev (then president of the Communist International) and Kamenev (a close associate of Zinoviev) formed a secret faction with Stalin (later known as the "trio" or "triumvirate") for the specific purpose of conspiring against Trotsky. This gave them an effective majority in the six-member Politbureau and, as a result, a commanding authority over the central committee and the party as a whole.

It was Lenin, from his sickbed, who first sensed the significance of what was happening, and opened the struggle against Stalin and the bureaucracy.

In a brief note, later known as his "Testament", Lenin wrote on December 25, 1922: "Comrade Stalin, having become General Secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure he will always be capable of using that power with sufficient caution..."

Ten days later he added:

"Stalin is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst in dealing and among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to comrades, less capricious, etc. This circumstance may appear to be a negligible detail. But I think that from the standpoint of safeguards against a split... it is not a detail, or it is a trifle which may assume decisive importance." (Collected Works)

Lenin did not spell out the "decisive importance" which he feared that Stalin's behaviour could acquire. But what could it mean except that Stalin, coming into conflict with the best representatives of Marxism in the party, would find himself the tool of hostile forces - the kulaks, the bureaucracy, the "capitalists" and "profiteers"?

This insight along could explain Lenin's surprising demand that the general secretary be removed so quickly after his appointment.

But with Lenin on his deathbed, Stalin and his faction behaved with increasing arrogance, abusing their powers in defiance of all the traditions of the party.

Matters came to a head with Stalin's bureaucratic incorporation of the Soviet Republic of Georgia into the USSR (formed on January 30, 1922) and his repression of the local Bolshevik leaders. Lenin, when he found out what had happened, felt that a struggle against this alien tendency in the party could no longer be postponed.

Too ill to attend the twelfth party congress in April 1923, Lenin entrusted Trotsky with the task of defending the Georgian Bolsheviks delivering a "bombshell" against Stalin.

But Stalin retreated, accepting all Trotsky's criticisms and correcting his formulations on the national question. Trotsky was reluctant at this point to press home a public attack on Stalin, which would have been seen as a "power struggle" for Lenin's position, and would have raised the danger of splitting the party.

Thus a confrontation was postponed. Shortly afterwards Lenin suffered a further stroke, and was eliminated from political activity until his death in January 1924.

Over the next months the tensions in the party exploded around two central issues: party democracy, and economic policy.

At the congress Trotsky had drawn a balance sheet of the NEP, and pointed out the dangerous lag in industrial production. He used a diagram of price changes of industrial and agricultural products to illustrate his point. It had the appearance of an open pair of scissors: agricultural prices showing a downward line, and industrial prices a rising line.

By March 1923, industrial prices had reached 140 per cent of their 1913 levels, while agricultural prices had dropped to less than 80 per cent. The problem which this reflected was subsequently called the "scissors crisis".

If industrial production continued to decline and prices continued to rise, Trotsky warned, a break between the peasantry and the proletariat, between the countryside and the towns, would become inevitable.

The congress accepted Trotsky's arguments for a new turn within the framework of the NEP: to develop the state sector on the basis of a central plan, and to expand industry, to eventually absorb and eliminate the private sector.

But this policy change remained a dead letter. The bureaucracy, bound to the "private sector" by ties of common privilege, had no desire to undermine it. In practice they continued as before to rely on the kulaks to increase production for profit.

In July and August there was a wave of strikes as workers vented their frustration against their harsh conditions. The leaders - many of them old Bolsheviks - were arrested on the orders of the Bureaucracy. All the signs showed that the sickness in the party was reaching a dangerous level.

Trotsky sounded a warning. Imprisoning opponents, he explained, would solve nothing while the immediate causes of the conflict remained: lack of economic planning, and the hold of the bureaucracy over the party.

"This present regime", Trotsky wrote to the Central Committee on October 8, "is much further from any workers' democracy than was the regime under the fiercest period of war communism." (Documents of the 1923 Opposition, page 2) The hierarchy of secretaries, appointed from above, "created party opinion", dominated the rank and file workers, and ensured that critical views were given no genuine hearing.

Within days of Trotsky's protest, a statement was issued by 46 other leading party members, expressing their criticism of the Politbureau's course and various proposals to correct it.

Victor Serge, a member of the 1923 Opposition, explains their general position:

"The country was approaching an irremediable economic crisis, a crisis which might arouse a hundred and twenty million peasants against the socialist power and place it at the mercy of foreign capital by forcing it to import (on credit? and under what conditions?) great quantities of manufactured goods. To forestall this crisis certain measures had to be taken before it was too late.

"These measures were:

"(1) To restore democracy in the party, so that the influence of the workers might be felt; to ventilate the State bureaus. This was the obvious condition for the success of all economic measures.

"(2) To adopt a plan for industrialization and appreciably rebuild industry within a few years.

"(3) In order to obtain the resources necessary for industrialization, force the well-to-di peasants to deliver their wheat to the state." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 40)

Thus the lines of the inner-party conflict were being drawn more clearly. It was a struggle between opposing social forces: between a tendency basing itself on the working class, and one defending the "well-to-do peasants" and other privileged sections.

The "trio" and their supporters were thrown into turmoil by the challenge. The statement by the 46, against all party precedent, was banned, and Trotsky was condemned for "initiating" it.

But, under pressure from the majority of the party (including the army and the youth), the bureaucracy were forced to retreat. They accepted the demands of the Opposition in words, and proclaimed a "New Course" of freedom and democracy in the party - but keeping all the strings of power in their hands.

Trotsky replied with an Open Letter to party members on December 8, warning that a "New Course" on paper was not enough, that the party could not be turned back onto the road of Bolshevism unless the rank and file - and the youth in particular - acted to "regenerate and renovate the party apparatus". (The New Course, page 71)

This letter was received with tremendous enthusiasm among the party workers - and by the bureaucracy as a declaration of war. The debate was to be resolved at the thirteenth conference, meeting in January 1924.

The struggle in the Soviet party, however, was decisively cut across by the developments in Germany during 1923.

10. The Defeat of the German Revolution

Germany's precarious stability was shattered in January 1923 when French troops occupied the Ruhr industrial area to extract, at gunpoint, the "war reparations" which the German imperialists were being forced to pay as the price of their defeat in the World War.

The German economy slumped. Inflation, already skyrocketing during 1922, became astronomical - probably in the region of 1,000,000,000,000,000 percent during 1922-1923!

The living standards of workers and the middle class collapsed. The working class swung sharply to the left. Factory councils sprang up in opposition to the reformist union leaders. The KPD (Communist Party of Germany) grew by tens of thousands. "Proletarian hundreds" (workers' militias) were formed, involving 60,000 workers by the autumn, with (by capitalist estimates) 11,000 rifles in their hands.

In two states, Saxony and Thuringia, left-wing SPD governments were in power, relying on KPD support.

On August 11 a general strike brought down the right-wing Cuno government in Berlin. Germany was in a revolutionary crisis.

The workers' leadership was unprepared. The KPD leadership was divided between the "centre", "left" and "right" factions, with the cautious Brandler at its head. Hesitation and uncertainty marked its policy throughout.

The Comintern was increasingly affected by the struggle in the Soviet party. The conservatism and short-sightedness of the bureaucracy, transmitted through the leadership of the Soviet party, was beginning to prevail.

The Comintern representative in Germany, Radek, gave his full backing to Brandler. As late as July Stalin advised that "the Germans should be restrained and not spurred on". (Carr, The Interregnum 1923-1924, page 195)

Only with the fall of the Cuno government did the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) accept Trotsky's argument that a struggle for power was on the agenda in Germany, that political and organizational preparations for armed insurrection urgently needed to be made.

But tragically, this policy was not followed through. Trotsky sums up what happened:

"Why didn't the German revolution lead to a victory? The reasons for it are all to be sought in the tactics, and not in the existing conditions. Here we had a classical example of a missed revolutionary situation. After all the German proletariat had gone through in recent years, it could be led to a decisive struggle only if it were convinces that this time the question would be decisively resolved and that the Communist Party was ready for the struggle and capable of achieving the victory. But the Communist Party executed the turn [to insurrection] very irresolutely and after a very long delay. Not only the Rights but also the Lefts... viewed rather fatalistically the process of revolutionary development up to September-October 1923." (The Third International After Lenin, page 70)

The triumvirate was incapable of intervening and instilling a bold revolutionary understanding of the situation in the KPD leadership. Trotsky was deliberately isolated. The consequences were disastrous. As a close co-worker of Trotsky wrote in 1936 (quoted in Ted Grant, The Rise and Fall of the Third International, page 28):

"When the German bourgeoisie at last gathered its forces, proclaimed a state of siege, proceeded to take the offensive, the [KPD] capitulated without a struggle" - that is, they called off the insurrection. (Word of the capitulation did not reach Hamburg in time, and an isolated uprising took place, which was crushed after days of fighting.)

The failure of the KPD leadership cost the German working class, and the European revolution, the chance of a victory that would have changed the course of world history. Instead, the KPD was declared illegal for some months. With massive US aid, the German economy was stabilized and capitalism pulled back from the brink.

A few months earlier the mass Bulgarian Communist Party after its leaders, dogmatically, refused to enter a united from with the Peasant Union government against a right-wing military coup. Also in Poland the workers, inspired into action by the German events, were defeated.

These setbacks had a critical effect on the inner-party struggle in Russia. Germany in particular had always been seen as the key to the European revolution. Now it became clear that no relief could be expected from Western Europe in the months or years ahead.

A vicious cycle was set in motion. The increasing grip of the bureaucracy on the Soviet party (and through it, on the Comintern) was becoming a serious obstacle to the development of revolutionary policies and leadership internationally. The setbacks resulting from this, in turn strengthened the currents of demoralization and conservatism which the bureaucracy thrived on.

Less politicized workers began to lose confidence in the Marxist perspective of international revolution. To backward layers, the skepticism and cynicism of the bureaucracy began to look "realistic".

"A wave of depression passed over Russia," Serge wrote, "and the bureaucracy had its own way for three years." (From Lenin to Stalin, page 42)


Questions for Discussion
1. Didn't the defeats of revolutionary movements in Germany, Italy etc. in 1918-21 show that the Russian revolution was premature and doomed to failure?

2. Didn't the ruthless regime of "war communism" prepare the way for Stalinism?

3. Why didn't the state "wither away" under Bolshevik rule as Lenin predicted it would?

4. Didn't the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors rebellion in 1921 show that the Bolsheviks were authoritarian?

5. If Stalin was so bad how did he become the General Secretary of the Communist Party?


Further Reading: Introductory
Ideals of October (p6-9)

Russian Revolution study guide, articles on British Intervention, and the aftermath of the revolution

Militant 683 - Lenin's Last Struggle

Bureaucratism or Workers' Power (p40-42)

The Rise and Fall of the Communist International


Further Study
Militant International Review 25 - Lenin's Last Struggle

MIR No. 18 - The Forgotten Revolution - Hungary 1919

Last letters and articles by Lenin

Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For, Chapters 6 & 7

Lessons of October - Introduction deals with German Revolution

Challenge of the Left Opposition by Trotsky, 3 vols. Volume one covers the beginning of Trotsky's challenge to bureaucratism, and includes Lessons of October, The New Course, and Towards Socialism or Capitalism

Terrorism and Communism by Trotsky

Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention by Trotsky

Kronstadt by Trotsky and Lenin


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Russia: How the Bureaucracy Seized Power

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