The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Democracy and centralism in Bolshevism

[From Chapter 3 of Trotsky's Stalin biography. Concerning the 1905 Bolshevik Congress in London.]

.... The greater one's regard for the significance of the Third Congress, the more noteworthy is Koba's absence from it. By that time he had to his credit nearly seven years of revolutionary activity, including prison, exile and escape. Had he been a person of any consequence at all among the Bolsheviks, surely that record would have assured at least his candidacy as a delegate. Koba was moreover at liberty all through the year 1905, and according to Beriya, "took the most active part in the matter of organizing the Third Congress of the Bolsheviks." If that is true, surely he should have been the chief of the Caucasian delegation. Why, then, wasn't he? Had illness or any other exceptional cause prevented his journeying abroad, the official biographers would surely not have failed to tell us about it. Their uncommunicativeness is explicable only on the grounds of their not having at their disposal a single credible explanation for the absence of the "leader of the Caucasian Bolsheviks" from that historically important congress. Beriya's assertions about "the most active" participation of Koba in organizing the Congress is one of those meaningless phrases with which official Soviet historiography is replete. In an article devoted to the thirtieth anniversary of the Third Congress, the well-informed Osip Pyatnitsky says nothing whatsoever about Stalin's participation in the arrangements for the Congress, while the court historian Yaroslavsky limits himself to a vague remark, the substance of which is that Stalin's work in the Caucasus "had undoubtedly tremendous significance" for the Congress, without elucidating the precise nature of that significance. Yet, from all we have so far managed to learn, the situation appears to be quite clear after hesitating for a considerable period of time, Koba joined the Bolsheviks shortly before the Third Congress; he took no part in the November Conference in the Caucasus; he was never a member of the bureau established by it; and being a newcomer, he could not have even hoped for a delegate's mandate. The delegation consisted of Kamenev, Nevsky, Tskhakaya, and Dzhaparidze; these were the leaders of Caucasian Bolshevism at that time. Their subsequent fate is not irrelevant to our narrative: Dzhaparidze was shot by the English in 1918; Kamenev was shot eighteen years later by Stalin; Nevsky was proclaimed an "enemy of the people" by Stalin's fiat and vanished without a trace; and only the aged Tskhakaya has survived, having managed to outlive himself.

The negative aspect of Bolshevism's centripetal tendencies first became apparent at the Third Congress of the Russian Social-Democracy. The habits peculiar to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was already emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meager scope for such of the formalities of democracy as electiveness, accountability and control. Yet, undoubtedly the committeemen narrowed these limitations considerably more than necessity demanded and were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary workingmen than with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called imperatively for lending an attentive ear to the voice of the masses. Krupskaya notes that, just as in the Bolshevik committees, so at the Congress itself, there were almost no workingmen. The intellectuals predominated. "The 'committeeman,' " writes Krupskaya, "was usually quite a self-confident person; he was fully aware of the tremendous influence wielded by the Committee's activities on the masses; the 'committeeman; as a rule, did not recognize any internal party democracy; inherently the 'committeeman' was contemptuous of the 'foreign center,' which raged and ranted and started squabbles 'they ought to try Russian conditions for a change' … At the same time, he did not want any innovations. The 'committeeman' did not desire, and did not know how, to adapt himself to rapidly changing conditions." That restrained yet very pithy characterization is most helpful to an understanding of Koba's political psychology, for he was the "committeeman" par excellence . As early as 1901, at the outset of his revolutionary career at Tiflis he opposed drafting workingmen into his Committee. As a "practico"—that is, as a political empiricist—he reacted with indifference, and subsequently with contempt, toward the émigrés, toward the "foreign center". Devoid of personal qualifications for directly influencing the masses, he clung with redoubled tenacity to the political machine. The axis of his universe was his Committee—the Tiflis, the Baku, the Caucasian, before it became the Central Committee. In time to come his blind loyalty to the Party machine was to develop with extraordinary force; the committeeman became the super-machine man, the Party's General Secretary, the very personification of the bureaucracy and its peerless leader.

In this connection it is rather tempting to draw the inference that future Stalinism was already rooted in Bolshevik centralism or, more sweepingly, in the underground hierarchy of professional revolutionists. But upon analysis that inference crumbles to dust, disclosing an astounding paucity of historical content. Of course, there are dangers of one kind or another in the very process of stringently picking and choosing persons of advanced views and welding them into a tightly centralized organization. But the roots of such dangers will never be found in the so-called "principle" of centralism; rather they should be sought in the lack of homogeneity and the backwardness of the toilers—that is, in the general social conditions which make imperative that very centripetal leadership of the class by its vanguard. The key to the dynamic problem of leadership is in the actual interrelationships between the political machine and its party, between the vanguard and its Glass, between centralism and democracy. Those interrelationships cannot, of their nature, be established a priori and remain immutable. They are dependent on concrete historical conditions; their mobile balance is regulated by the vital struggle of tendencies, which, as represented by their extreme wings, oscillate between the despotism of the political machine and the impotence of phrasemongering.

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