1923-24 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 – 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 alone 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% of their 1913 levels, while agricultural prices had dropped to less than 80%. 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.) 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 industrialisation and appreciably rebuild industry within a few years.
(3) In order to obtain the resources necessary for industrialisation, force the well-to-do peasants to deliver their wheat to the state.From Lenin to Stalin
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.)
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.