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1955. Ernest Mandel: The discussion on the trade-union question in the Bolshevik party (1920-1921)

3 April 2023
Bulletin Communiste

Any serious discussion in a Marxist organization has two aspects.i It is born of ongoing events and tends to respond to a need for action born from the same events. In this respect, any discussion which is not artificial is inevitably partly pragmatic. But the answer given and the method which determines it become part of the whole of Marxist theory, and in one way or another modify the ideas—and the action—of future generations of Marxists, and even the answers given by the same generation to future questions. By this measure, any serious discussion among Marxists has a general, historical significance, independent of the concrete conditions which gave rise to it.   

To judge this general significance, however, one cannot isolate these ideas from their precise historical context. Marx's ideas on the role of tsarist Russia in nineteenth-century Europe are not to be condemned because some renegades today use them to justify their participation in the anti-Soviet crusade. Nor can it be seriously argued that the attitude of Marx and Engels during the war of 1870-71 favoured the social-patriotism of 1914, because they pronounced themselves in favour of national defence successively in Germany and France.   

The historical value of a stream of ideas must be judged objectively and the same goes for its pragmatic value. Just as we judge this pragmatic value not by the opinion of friends or enemies, but by the practical effect that these ideas had (or could have had) on the given social situation, so we can only judge the historical value of these ideas by the practical effect they had (or could have had) on a longer-term social development.   

It is true that the way in which different political and social circles react to given ideas is part of their overall practical effects. But the limitations on the importance of these subjective effects must be considered. It is important to determine what the internal logic of the ideas in question is, what long-range social transformations they are really aiming at, without becoming overly attached to the polemics and argumentation used by their advocates and detractors.   

The two aspects of the discussion   

These preliminary remarks are indispensable for understanding the discussion on the trade union question which divided the Bolshevik party in 1920-21.    

The pragmatic aspect of the trade union discussion is easy to detect. Started during the period of transition between the stage of war communism and that of the NEP, it was aimed above all at the burning economic problems which arose in a country on the verge of ruin. For lack of fuel, not a single blast furnace in the entire Donetsk basin was operative. Coal production had fallen to 10 per cent of the 1913 level, steel production to less than 5 per cent. In the textile industry, only 6 per cent of the spindles were working.ii The whole transport system was on the verge of collapse: 70 per cent of the available locomotives were no longer working.   

Under these conditions of economic disintegration, the proletariat was dissolving as a class. Larin and Kritzmann point out that on January 1, 1920, the number of factory workers had fallen to 50 per cent of what it was on January 1, 1917. The total number of wage earners was at that time 65 per cent of the 1917 figure, but it included more than half of the employees and civil servants. Everywhere, the large factories closed down and the worker, returning to the village, set up a sort of domestic industry with rudimentary means.

It was in these conditions that the Bolshevik party discussed, at the end of the civil war, how to involve the workers as much as possible in the economic reconstruction, to stop the flight to the countryside, to re-establish a minimum of labour discipline and to organise and structure economic life in the Soviet Republic.   

In the course of the trade union discussion the Bolshevik party made its turn towards the NEP. This discussion lost its topicality—in fact a new trade union discussion was needed on the role of the trade unions in the economy of the transitional period, in which market relations were partially reborn. But the trade union discussion at the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, driven by its own logic, became more and more abstract, trying to judge the theoretical meaning of the different practical platforms proposed in the course of the debate. Trotsky summed up this aspect of the question perfectly when he wrote in My Life;   

The party was considering the rate at which the trades-unions were to be converted into a part of the state mechanism, where as the question at issue was really one of daily bread, of fuel, of raw material for the industries.iii   

Unfortunately, some historians who have recently dealt with this discussion have made the same mistake, so to speak, as the participants in the discussion in the Russian CP in 1921. They have isolated the ideas expounded, both from their immediate origin and from their further significance. They judge neither the practical meaning nor the historical significance, but only what can be considered to be ‘the theoretical significance of the proposed practical measures’. This method of metaphysical generalisation makes such historians particularly unfit to specify the historical truth in this matter.    

A suddenly rediscovered discussion   

In the polemical exaggeration which characterises all passionate discussion, certain Bolsheviks, Trotsky's opponents in the trade union discussion, referred to the position he adopted at that time as a "military-bureaucratic" position. Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer seized on these labels 15 years later to establish a legend that has had a life of its own ever since. According to them, the "anti-worker" and "hyper-centralist" position that Trotsky defended at that time alienated him from the working masses, costing him their sympathy. And this would then explain the defeat of the Left Opposition to the Stalinist fraction.   

In their search for a coherent theory of the Soviet bureaucracy, the leaders of the Yugoslav CP, suddenly sympathizing, albeit only theoretical, with the theses of the Workers' Opposition, came to the conclusion that in 1920-21Trotsky was the spokesman of the bureaucracy and that the defeat of the Shliapnikov faction sealed the political defeat of the proletariat and the victory of the bureaucracy in the history of the Russian revolution.   

This somewhat crude reiteration of the thesis that Bolshevism, Trotskyism and Stalinism are fundamentally the same thing runs up against an unmovable fact: the struggle that Trotsky waged during the last 17 years of his life against this Soviet bureaucracy, and the ferocious hatred with which this bureacracy pursued the person, ideas, friends and even the family and name of the founder of the Red Army.   

So more serious historians, such as E.H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher, in order to defend a similar view of Trotsky's position in the trade union discussion, have had to formulate their theses in a more subtle way.iv Deutscher, in his otherwise admirable biography of Trotsky, turns him into the hero of an ancient tragedy, stumbling at the top of his glory:

He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment...Yet in acting as he did he shattered the ground on which he stood.    
Towards the end of the civil war he initaited courses of action which he and the Bolshevik party could carry through only against the resistance of the social classes which had made or supported the revolution...Yet the policies which Trotsky now framed were incompatible with that samodeyatelnost, that political self-determination of the working class which he had indefatigably preached for twnety years and which he was to preach again during the seventeen years of his open struggle against Stalin.v   

And even more clearly, on the significance of the discussion on trade-unions:   


Its significance for the future was greater than the protagonists themselves could suppose. A decade later Stalin, who in 1920-21 had supported Lenin's ‘liberal’ policy, was to adopt Trotsky's ideas in all but name... There was hardly a single plank in Trotsky's programme of 1920-21 which Stalin did not use during the industrial revolution of the thirties... A similar subtle thread connects Trotsky's domestic policy of these years with the later practices of his

Carr expresses himself in a similar way in the second volume of his history of the Russian revolution:

[T]he labor policy ultimately adopted under the five-year plans owed more to the conceptions propounded by Trotsky at this time than to the resolution adopted by the tenth party congress.vii

These judgments, though nuanced, are no less severe. It would be Trotsky himself who would have created the ideological arsenal from which Stalin would draw forced labour, concentration camps, the omnipotence of industrial managers, unions being transformed into transmission belts for the orders of the bureaucracy and the workers deprived of all the rights conquered in the Revolution! By fighting Stalin, Trotsky would have in a way fought against his own work. Let's look at the facts and documents to see if this conviction is justified.

The positions involved   

From the multitude of platforms presented in 1920 on the trade union question in Russia, three positions crystallized. These positions are sometimes presented schematically as follows:   

1) The so-called Workers' Opposition tendency, led by Alexander Shliapnikov and Alexandra Kollontai, was a semi-syndicalist tendency which protested against the subordination of the unions to the state. It called for the national economy to be taken in hand by the unions, factory committees and a National Congress of Producers.   

2) At the other end of the political spectrum was Trotsky’s tendency (later merging with an intermediate tendency led by Bukharin) which called for incorporating trade unions into the State apparatus and the militarisation of labour. Henceforth, writes Deutscher, 'the leaders would, as servants of the state, speak for the state towards the workers rather than for the workers to the state.'viii   

3) Between the two tendencies, there was a liberal tendency, led by Lenin, gathered around a platform signed by ten members of the Central Committee (the 'Platform of the Ten') which emphasized the role of the trade unions as a school of communism, in which communists should not use methods of command but only methods of persuasion.   

Yet there are certain contradictions in Carr and Deutscher's account of the union discussion that clearly indicate the flaws in this simplistic scheme, even though they are inclined to place the blame for these contradictions on the protagonists of the discussion rather than on their own analysis.   

Speaking of the origins of the militarisation of 'labour', Carr (and Deutscher after him) makes it clear that the problem was the use of armies that could not be immediately de-mobilised at the end of the civil war. This was the idea of the entire Bolshevik party and government:   

Labour armies were appearing everywhere (at the time of the 9th Congress and around March 1920) in the form of detachments of the Red Army employed, now that fighting was at an end, on heavy work of all kinds, including forestry and mining. Nor was there any doubt about what this implied. Trotsky, who believed that the problems of industry could be solved only by the methods and by the enthusiasm which had won the civil war, spoke of the need to 'militarise the great masses of peasants who had been for work on the principles of labour service.ix

In his pamphlet on the Soviet trade unions, Deutscher develops the connection between the problems of the army and the 'militarisation of labour', as it presented itself to Trotsky:   

A resolution submitted by Trotsky and adopted by the [9th] Congress of the party [March-April 1920] did in fact allow the trade unions to exercise a very strong influence on the appointment of industrial managers. The organisation of industrial management ‘should be carried out by agreement between the organs of the Supreme Council of the National Economy and the corresponding organs of the Central Council of the Trade Unions [...] Bourgeois technicians or specialists might be appointed to managerial posts. A manager of this category was to be supervised by a trade unionist commissar, in the same way in which a military specialist in the Army was supervised by the political commissar who could veto his orders...x   

And in his biography of Trotsky, Deutscher notes;    

In those 'theses', which Pravda published prematurely on 17 December 1919, Trotsky characteristically linked this scheme [of the militarisation of labour] with the military reform he envisaged, the transition from the army to the militia system. He proposed that the apparatus for military mobilisation should be employed for the mobilisation of civilian labour. It is strange how his aspiration to achieve a most democratic reform in the army was combined [!] with his attempt to introduce this extreme form of compulsion of labour. The army was to become penetrated with the spirit of civilian citizenship. Its detachments were to be organised on the basis of productive units. On the other hand, civilian workers were to be subject to military discipline; and the military administration was to supply manpower to industrial units.xi   

Perhaps this coincidence was not so strange as the author supposes, and he could, by digging into it, have determined with more objectivity Trotsky's position in the trade union discussion…   

This position is thrown into sharp relief by a passage in an article by Radek, a supporter of the 'Platform of Ten', in which the author accuses Trotsky of having the same basic mental viewpoint as Shliapnikov on the handing over of the means of production to the unions.xii So it would then not be Lenin but Trotsky who occupied a sort of median position in this discussion?   

The three tensions of the transitional period   

Such contradictions will be resolved if we examine, in the light of historical experience and Marxist theory, the main economic and social 'tensions' between the workers' state, the workers' bureaucracy and the working class, in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism.xiii   

The first 'tension' is what we will call the 'consumption-accumulation tension'. Whatever its social form, any net product of the labour of a human community, considered over a certain period of time, is always divided into a consumption fund (productive and unproductive) and an accumulation fund. One can only grow at the expense of the other. If the major portion of living labour (labor hours available to society) and dead labour (means of production) is devoted to the production of consumption goods, inevitably only a minor portion is devoted to the production of production goods, and vice versa. This 'tension' will only disappear with the advent of the communist society based on abundance, which makes all economic problems of distribution of the social product disappear, ensuring the satisfaction of all human needs.   

To claim that with the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, this 'tension' automatically disappears, 'because the nation becomes the owner of the productive goods it produces', and accumulation enriches it collectively, is a bad joke. To use an image employed by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, worker-mother is very much interested in increasing her immediate consumption, and will refuse any promise of future consumption replacing such immediate consumption— a promise that is represented in such a society effectively by accumulation, by the production of production goods.xiv   

The second 'tension' is what we will call the ‘production-administration tension’. It arises from the fact that, since the dissolution of primitive egalitarian communities, the division of labour has separated the exercise of two fundamental economic functions from each other, and has embodied them in different human groups (classes or castes). In class society, the function of production falls to the exploited classes, the function of accumulation to a dominant class or classes. In the transitional society between capitalism and socialism, until the moment that the mass of producers directly manages its means of production, this division of labour persists, since next to the workers a group dealing with administration (managers, planners, accountants, engineers, white-collar employees of all kinds, etc.) persists or reappears.   

In the long run, producers always try to adapt their work to the possibilities of recuperation on the one hand (to the standard of living), and to the needs of leisure and culture on the other. On the other hand, administrators may be inclined to increase productive work to the maximum, in order to accelerate accumulation. This tendency will be all the more pronounced when they have a large measure of control over the social surplus product—as was the case in the USSR at an early stage—and can determine its distribution, i.e. secure a dominant share for themselves. The fact that in the transitional society 'the worker works for himself' does not make the acceleration of the production line any less painful than in the capitalist regime! This 'production-administration tension' will only disappear when society has become so rich that it can ensure the satisfaction of  all individual and social needs with a minimum expenditure of living labour.  

The third tension could be called the 'workers' democracy-economic development tension'. Mechanistic Marxists have tried to reduce this 'tension' to the simplistic theorem: the higher the rate of accumulation, the lower the level of political democracy in the transitional society.    

These mechanistic minds forget that, in the transitional society, the net social product is not divided into not two but into three distinct funds: the fund for productive consumption (consumption of the producers), the fund for accumulation, and the fund for unproductive consumption (e.g. administrative costs). The less political democracy there is, the more this third fund swells. By enlarging workers' democracy one could very well ensure, besides an increase in the producers' consumption (if necessary at the expense of the consumption of other strata of society, even an increase in the rate of accumulation).   

Workers' democracy in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism is ultimately the possibility for the masses to decide for themselves the distribution of the social product, i.e. the extent of the sacrifices they are willing to make in the immediate future. The 'workers' democracy and economic development tension' therefore lies in the fact that the lower the standard of living and culture of the masses, the more likely they are to demand a rapid increase in the consumption fund, and the more likely they are to lose control of the economy to the administrators, to a bureaucracy which may be inclined to increase the accumulation fund first and foremost. A working class under the weight of misery and hunger will r in the long run never administer either the economy or public affairs. It is, of course, not economic automatism, but a concrete social struggle, which decides the outcome of this conflict, an outcome which determines not so much the rhythm of accumulation as the social costs for it.   

Critique of the Workers’ Opposition   

From this analysis we can better understand the significance of the three platforms presented to the 10th Congress of the RCP. The workers' opposition aimed at three immediate goals which were to conflict and even exclude each other: the handing over of the direction of the whole economy into the hands of the trade unions; the complete democratisation of economic life (election of managers at all levels); the generalisation of the wage in kind, guaranteeing a fairly high, and at the same time egalitarian, standard of living for the whole urban population of Soviet Russia.   

Trotsky rightly reproached the Workers' Opposition for its 'exclusive consumer point of view'. Not that he defended—as the Stalinist bureaucracy was later to do—the view of the absolute priority of accumulation over the consumption of the masses. But he rightly pointed out that the improvement of the living standards of the masses was under the given conditions of economic ruin impossible without a prior increase in production. It was utopian, even irresponsible, to pretend that the simple reorganisation of the economic apparatus would be enough to give everyone the necessities of life as if by magic, when industrial production had fallen to 20 per cent of the normal level!   

The abolition, with a single stroke of the pen, of the entire governing apparatus of the economy which, despite its bureaucratic deformations, was nevertheless the product of four years of revolutionary selection, would have meant, even if only for a transitional phase, a further catastrophic reduction of production. To demand this at the same time as a substantial increase in consumption became a merely demagogic position. Under these conditions, Trotsky was right to point out that a substantial increase in the standard of living of a certain category of workers could only be achieved in practice at the expense of other categories of workers. To demand at the same time total equality did not eliminate this real contradiction between desires and realities. Communist equality cannot flourish on famine and misery, but only in the fertile field of abundance.   

Trotsky was also right to point out that it was by no means true that automatically, and under any conditions, workers would turn out to be better organisers and administrators of the economy than petty-bourgeois specialists. In capitalism, the working class goes through two contradictory schools: the technical school of production which prepares it for its future role as leader of society; and the social school which makes it hate and flee from the factory like a prison. The best democratic proclamations will not remove the effects of this second school. They can only disappear under certain material conditions, that is to say, at the moment when the factory has materially ceased to be a prison. At the moment when the workers were fleeing the city by tens if not hundreds of thousands, the creation of these material conditions was more important, more urgent than ever.   

Critique of the 'Platform of the Ten'.   

While the platform of the Workers' Opposition focused on the immediate, mechanistic removal of the 'production-administration tension', the Lenin-inspired 'platform of the Ten' aimed at easing the 'consumption-accumulation tension'.    

This platform assumed that in practice the functions of production and administration would remain separate for a more or less long period. It therefore saw a threefold function of trade unions:   

a) The gradual education of the mass of non-communist workers in the understanding of communist work, including the work of directing the economy, by methods of persuasion;   
b) The progressive involvement of trade unions in the exercise of certain economic administration and management functions (allocation of labour, setting of wage rates, etc.)   
c) Control over the ruling apparatus of the economy, including the defence of workers' interests against the abuses of the bureaucratic apparatus.    

In the given situation, this platform was certainly the most realistic and practical. It saved the economic organisation from any exaggerated upheaval and preserved in the same time, a trade union structure that during seven years ensured a spectacular improvement in the living standards of the working class.xv   

Carr (p. 226) as well as Deutscher (Soviet Trade Unions, p. 53) do not fail to note, however, the great weakness of the Platform of the Ten: it left the decisive question unresolved, namely the de facto separation of the ruling apparatus of the economy from the mass of producers (the union members). It sought to protect the working class as much as possible from the evils of this separation, but implicitly regarded it as inevitable for a long period. In other words, it underestimated the fatal consequences that the 'production-administration tension' could bring about in the long run.   

Whoever has the social surplus product ultimately controls social life as a whole. The bureaucratic apparatus, by becoming autonomous, acquired a formidable force and became the master of the country. The best guarantees and clauses for the defence of the workers against the 'bureaucratic deformations' of the state became illusory from the moment on that the bureaucracy, master of the country and the party, could strangle the unions at will…   

Of course, neither by its privileges, nor by its appetites, nor by its political tendency, this administrative apparatus, composed in majority of workers and in part of the most devoted communists, at that time already announced the monstrous bureaucracy of the Stalinist era. But it is tragic to note that Lenin, who of all the Bolshevik leaders was the most clearly aware of the bureaucracy and of the terrible danger it posed to the young workers' state, did not understand the fundamental source of the evil: the predominant role it played at the time in the direction of the Soviet economy.   

Significance of the Trotsky-Bukharin platform 

It took all of Trotsky's genius for bold historical syntheses and long-range forecasts to, if not understand, at least sense more clearly than Lenin this source of evil. For that is the real significance of the Trotsky-Bukharin platform, presented to the 10th Congress of the RCP, despite its weaknesses and undeniable exaggerations.   

This scope is evident in several passages in a series of documents of the time, which Carr and Deutscher do not mention.   

Speaking before the All-Russian Conference of the Central (Workers') Transport  Committee, Trotsky declared in 1920: 'The unions must in their hands concentrate all production; they must organise it and become its authorised directors. The struggle against the bureaucratic spirit has as its condition the practical organisation of this production, and the appeal to the working masses to join in this work of organisation.’xvi   

Defining the general tasks of the Party at about the same time, Trotsky wrote in an article entitled ‘New Period, New Problems’:   


Two orders of questions dominate the attention of the Communist Party at the present time—workers' democracy and economic organisation. By workers' or Soviet democracy we mean the real and increasingly broad participation of the workers in the construction of the new society.   

... The question of the future existence of Soviet Russia can only be solved by the   
maximum activity of the party, by the maximum liaison between it and the masses, taking into account their experience and thought, using the creative forces and initiative of the millions of workers and peasants.   

... Today, the Party wants to make its control over its elected representatives more  immediate, more active, more 'massive'. The external expression of this revived workers' democracy must be and is already the greater frequency of general  assemblies, before which all fundamental questions are brought, a wider application  of the elective principle, more internal criticism, more discussion, a more direct and  extensive examination of questions in the press, etc. etc.xvii   

Strange words, isn't it, for this Trotsky whom Deutscher accuses of having dropped his traditional positions in favour of the self-determination of the masses at this exact moment!    

Bukharin, Trotsky's main ally at the Xth Congress of the RCP, makes it clear in his speech to that Congress that 'necessary centralism has been transformed into bureaucratic alienation from the masses, into a system of command and a series of privileges'.xviii   

Within the framework of the same concerns are the official documents of the Trotsky-Bukharin tendency for the 10th Congress of the RCP. In Trotsky's article: 'The Role and Tasks of the Trade Unions', written for this Congress, it is stated first of all that the whole party insists on the necessity of putting an end to the methods of civil war, of passing more and more towards methods of self-determination, and the election of all officials. In practice, this will only be achieved by replacing extraordinary measures with the methods of production democracy (economic democracy).   

Trotsky recalls that the Bolshevik party programme, adopted in 1919, emphasised that the trade unions should gradually concentrate in their hands the administration of the whole economy. This was the best way to combat any bureaucratisation of the economic apparatus. But, Trotsky continued, we have recently moved further and further away from this goal: ‘If the evolution continues to follow the same path, the greatest dangers would arise, not only for the unions but for the whole economy.’   

Trotsky then states that it is inadmissible that in several important sectors of the  economy a de facto separation is established between the management of the economy and the management of the trade unions. ‘The Glavki (trusts) and commissariats (ministries) are becoming more and more detached from the trade-unions.' Sole responsibility for this alarming state of affairs does not lie with the administrators, however. The trade union apparatus itself bears its share of responsibility, because it neglects the problems of production. Trotsky opposes those who claim that there is a contradiction between workers'  democracy and 'production democracy';   

Workers' democracy cannot flourish in conditions of exhaustion and poverty. The self-determination of the masses can only be asserted on the basis of an increasing  satisfaction of material needs. Concentrating all forces and all attention on the economy must be the essential part of the inner life of all organs and forms of  workers' democracy.   

The more the work of the trade unions develops in the direction of the new direction, the deeper they will penetrate into the masses, and the sooner it will be   possible to apply the methods of economic democracy, i.e., not only to discuss systematically the most important economic measures in meetings of the broad masses, but also to apply the principle of election to a whole series of positions of  economic administration. (Emphasis added.)  

And, further on, Trotsky formulates, contrary to Lenin who based his hopes precisely on 'organs of control' like the 'Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate', warnings which have been tragically verified;  

In the struggle against bureaucratism, the workers' state should use its forces not so much to overload the control organs but to enlarge and improve the existing economic  apparatus, uniting it for this purpose with the trade unions. Insofar as the trade unions  do not place themselves in the field of creative productive work, they no longer  advance, they become ossified and bear within themselves all the unfavourable marks of bureaucratism.xix   

But Trotsky not only had a clearer awareness than the supporters of the 'Platform of the Ten' of the 'production-administration tension'. He also had a thorough understanding of the 'workers' democracy-economic development tension', of the absolute necessity to create quickly, immediately, the minimum standard of living from which made real—and not just paper—participation of the masses in the exercise of power possible.   

Describing Trotsky's 'descent' in the paralyzed Donetsk, the Izvestia of 24 November 1920, wrote the following; 

Under his presidency all sorts of sessions were held where the workers could speak without oratorical detours about what was important to them, where facts and figures were examined. The bull was taken by the horns... Where to start? First and foremost, supplies. The machines are worn out, there is a lack of boilers, etc., but we can talk about all that tomorrow. Today the supply. What is worn out above all in the basin is the living machine, the man, who does not have enough bread and not enough necessities, that is to say fat and other products.xx    

And speaking to the women's sections of the RCP, Trotsky said at the same time; 


In the collective struggle our proletarian has developed the highest qualities of dedication, but to this dedication must ultimately correspond a material compensation. We must provide him and his family with the best conditions of existence. We must show the working masses of Russia, without forgetting the less enlightened, that the new regime which they have conquered and which they support at the cost of enormous efforts and sacrifices, is capable of assuring them, after these privations and sacrifices, the maximum of economic well-being. This is the test we must now face.xxi    

Insisting on the absolute necessity of increasing production, Trotsky adds;   

‘Economic decisions must be accepted and understood by the consciousness of the masses. It is one of the essential aims of economic propaganda that every order, every plan, should be verified by the masses, that the workers' assemblies should be made aware of the programme of their enterprise for the coming year, half-year or even week, that the workers should be able to understand, to make remarks, to examine the role of their factory, the place it occupies in the economic life of the country, the part it will play in the general welfare of the masses if it carries out its work in full.   

Is it not bizarre to pretend that there is hardly 'one of these ideas' that was not applied by Stalin during the 1930s?   

Incorporation of the unions into the state and militarisation of labor   

Here we are very far from the legend of Trotsky, defender of 'military-bureaucratic' theses, abandoning his traditional struggle for the self-determination of the masses. The logic of his position seems, on the contrary, impeccable: the moment had come to unleash the self-movement, the self-determination of the masses in the economic field with the same enthusiasm with which Trotsky had succeeded in unleashing it in the political and military field. 

Does this mean that, in the light of history, Trotsky's position in the trade union discussion was entirely free of errors or contradictions? Certainly not! In opposition to Lenin, Trotsky understood the decisive importance of abolishing as quickly as possible the existence of an economic apparatus separated from the mass of producers. In opposition to Shliapnikov, he grasped the decisive importance of a minimal material basis, of a minimal restoration of production, to make workers' democracy real and not formal. But, unlike Lenin, he did not understand that, in the period between the beginning and the completion of workers' control, the working class needed an organisation to defend its consumer interests, an organisation independent of the state. Therefore, even if the trade unions had quickly taken part in the running of industry and had transformed themselves into bodies for the administration of the economy, it would have been necessary to create special bodies to carry out this task.    

However, we have seen that Trotsky cannot be accused of having underestimated the question of workers' consumption as such. His error in the question of the independence of the trade unions is largely explained by the concrete conditions in which he formulated his thesis. In order for the working class to be able to use specific organisations for the defence and increase of its standard of living, if necessary against the workers' state, there first had to be something to share between consumption and accumulation. In 1920, the net social product was reduced to its simplest expression. Negotiations between unions and factory management on the rate of wages became absurd, as long as the wage was reduced in practice to a provision in kind of a meager pittance. Even in this tragic situation, a more direct participation of the masses in the economic administration could have improved their consumption, but it would have been a purely marginal improvement. The real improvement in living conditions depended on the whole economy of the country being put back into operation. The priority that Trotsky assigned to the tasks of production at that time cannot be disputed by anyone who studies objectively the history of this phase of the Russian revolution.    

In any case, it is not serious to compare some of the language mistakes Trotsky may have made at that time, in his passionate struggle to raise the country from ruin and the workers from starvation, with the policies cynically pursued by Stalin to industrialise the country at the expense of the working class. When production was at 20 per cent of its pre-war level, Trotsky declared; 'The only thing that matters is to increase production so that we can increase consumption.' When production was at 200 per cent of its pre-war level, Stalin declared; 'The only thing that counts is to increase production in order to accelerate industrialisation, reducing workers' consumption by half for a decade...' while constantly increasing the consumption of millions of bureaucrats! When Trotsky spoke of labour camps, it was to send to them people who, in the midst of general misery, wanted to escape from the general obligation to work, solemnly inscribed in Lenin's programme from 1917, like in any socialist programme. When Stalin set up concentration camps on a large scale, it was to solve social and political conflicts involving hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, through sheer terror. To reduce the two phenomena to the same common denominator is no proof of good faith!   

‘Incorporation of the unions in the state' meant for Trotsky not the subjugation of the unions to the bureaucracy, but their transformation into the leading apparatus of the economy, the suppression of all bureaucracy through this transformation. The 'militarisation of labour' as Trotsky conceived it, far from meaning the systematic transplantation of military command methods into industry, meant for him the transplantation into industry of the heroism and self-determination of the Communists of the Red Army, which had made it possible to win the civil war. In this sense, his conception of the 'militarisation' of labour and the 'de-militarisation' of the army harmoniously complemented each other.   

That Trotsky's position was not 'anti-union' is not only evidenced by the fact that many leading trade unionists signed the Trotsky-Bukharin platform. At the 11th Congress, it was decided to completely eliminate all interference by the trade-unions in the administration of enterprises. At the same time, the rights of the unions to defend the interests of the workers against the economic administration were specified. At this point, Tomsky and part of the trade-union leadership which had opposed Trotsky at the 10th Congress protested, but in vain. The orientation outlined by the decisions of the 10th Congress had quickly matured. It appeared that the real conflict at the 10th Congress had not opposed 'democratic' to 'military-bureaucratic' theses, but three different conceptions on the pace of realisation of workers' management of industry. Trotsky's was the median of the three, and the most correct. That of the Ten, adopted, served in practice to put of workers' control indefinitely.    

A balance sheet of the 10th Congress 

Deutscher is not so wrong when he uses the image of ancient tragedy to characterise the discussion preceding the 10th Congress of the RCP. But the hero of this tragedy is not Trotsky, it is the whole Bolshevik party, with Lenin at the head.    

When we look at the entire preparatory period for the 10th Congress, we are struck by the unanimity with which the whole RCP considers as a cardinal and urgent task the return, as soon as possible, to workers' democracy, which had to be severely restricted during the civil war. However, what will be the measures decided in practice by this Congress? By suppressing fractional freedom in the Bolshevik party, by taking sanctions against the 'Workers' Opposition' (Lenin proposed its exclusion, but this was rejected by the majority of the CC), by banning the Mensheviks, the degree of workers' democracy was reduced instead of being increased, and this even by comparison with the worst moments of the civil war!    

The leadership of the Bolshevik party justified this tightening of political discipline of the proletariat with two arguments: the Kronstadt uprising on the one hand, the establishment of the NEP on the other. Unquestionably, on the social and economic level, the Soviet regime was threatened as much as it had been politically and militarily by the White armies. And yet, in the light of subsequent events, this tightening of discipline proved completely ineffective. Far from preserving the purity of the proletarian dictatorship, these measures subjected it to the worst influence of the class enemy, transmitted through the bureaucracy. Far from preserving the unity and integrity of the class party, they plunged it into a violent internecine struggle, from which it emerged ruined as an instrument of workers' struggle. We are not unaware that the decisions voted by the Congresses and the words spoken by leaders played, in the end, only a secondary role in this ebb of the Russian revolution. This ebb was determined in the last analysis not by the decisions of the 10th or 11th Congress, but by the growing fatigue and apathy of the Russian proletariat and by the ebb of the international revolution, above all by the defeat of the German proletariat in 1923. But a secondary role does not mean a negligible or non-existent role! It seems to us indisputable that the decisions of the 10th Congress have, contrary to the general will of the Bolsheviks, contributed to the slow strangulation of workers' democracy rather than to its blossoming, which all communists impatiently demand. It also seems to us indisputable that these decisions, once again in opposition to the wishes of the whole party, contributed to the consolidation and growing autonomy of the apparatus of economic administration, whose bureaucratic degeneration was to manifest itself rapidly. This is where the tragedy of the 10th Congress of the RCP really lies.    

The lessons to be drawn from this tragedy are clear. After the conquest of power, the proletariat will secure the maximum guarantees against the bureaucratic degeneration and deformation of its state on condition that:

a) To maintain an organisation, for the defence of its particular interests as consumers during the whole period of transition, an organisation that is independent of the state

b) To participate increasingly in the admininistration of the economy and to create adequate bodies to ensure this participation, while preventing the constitution of a governing administrative apparatus that is separate and autonomous from the mass of producers; 

c) To maintain and extend to the maximum political workers' democracy, which is the only guarantee of an immediate reaction against any serious deviation from the above orientation.    

It does not matter whether the trade unions are chosen as the defence body and the works councils or factory committees as the instruments for administration, or whether the opposite solution is applied. What is important is to understand the interaction between these three guarantees. And of all the positions defended within the Russian Bolshevik Party in 1920-21, it is Trotsky's that best shows the way to this goal. 

15 February 1955.


i Originally published under the pseudonym E. Germain in Quatrième Internationale, vol 13, no. 1-3, pp. 50-60.

ii See Rykov's report to the 3rd All-Russian Trade Union Congress, quoted in Isaac Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions. Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy (London, 1950), p. 36)

iv The books cited in this article are E.H. Carr, volume 2 of The Bolshevik Revolution (London, 1952), Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed (London, 1954)

v Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, p.486.

vi Ibidem, p. 514-5.

vii Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, p. 227.

viii The Prophet Armed, p. 507.

ix Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, p.212. Emphasis added.

x Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, p. 34-35. Emphasis added.

xi Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, p. 491-2.

xii Russische Korrespondenz, 1921, no 3-4. p 215.

xiii We are deliberately leaving aside the class contradictions that persist in transitional societies (the presence of a peasantry, the relative strength of capitalist hanger-ons), the interaction with the these ‘tensions’ is implied.

xiv Bourgeois economists mistakenly use the same formulation to define and justify interests and capitalists profits. In reality, under the rule of private property of the means of production, the existence of surplus-value limits workers consumption to augment future profit and consumption of the capitalists.

xv According to Prokopovisz (Histoire Économique de l’U.R.S.S. (Paris, 1952) the real wages of workers quadrupled from 1920 to 1927, reaching the double of the pre-war levels.

xvi Bulletin communiste, 27 janvier 1921, p. 52.

xvii Bulletin communiste, 3 février 1921, p. 67. Emphasis added.

xviii Russische Korrespondenz, 1921, No. 5, p. 332.

xix Russische Korrespondenz 1921, no. 3-4, pages 159-166 passim.

xx Quoted in: Bulletin Communiste, 1921, No. 1 pages 13-14.

xxi Ibidem, p. 24.

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