Leon Trotsky

The New Course

Tradition and Revolutionary Policy

December 1923

The question of the relationship of tradition and party policy is far from simple, especially in our epoch. More than once, recently, we have had occasion to speak of the immense importance of the theoretical and practical tradition of our party and have declared that we could in no case permit the breaking of our ideological lineage. It is only necessary to come to an agreement on what is meant by the tradition of the party. To do that, we must begin largely by the inverse method and take some historical examples in order to base our conclusions upon them.

Let us take the “classic” party of the Second International, the German social democracy. Its half century of “traditional” policy was based upon an adaptation to parliamentarism and to the unbroken growth of the organization, the press, and the treasury. This tradition, which is profoundly alien to us, bore a semiautomatic character: each day flowed “naturally” from the day before and just as “naturally” prepared the day to follow. The organization grew, the press developed, the cash box swelled.

It is in this automatism that the whole generation following Bebel took shape: a generation of bureaucrats, of philistines, of dullards whose political character was completely revealed in the first hours of the imperialist war. Every congress of the social democracy spoke invariably of the party’s old tactics, consecrated by tradition. And the tradition was indeed powerful. It was an automatic tradition, uncritical, conservative, and it ended by stifling the revolutionary will of the party.

The war finished for good the “traditional” equilibrium of the political life of Germany. From the very first days of its official existence, the young Communist Party entered a tempestuous period of crises and upheavals. Nevertheless, throughout its comparatively short history may be observed not only the creative but also the conservative role of tradition which, at every stage, at every turn, collides with the objective needs of the movement and the critical judgment of the party.

As early as the first period of the existence of German communism, the direct struggle for power became its heroic tradition. The terrible events of March 1921 disclosed starkly that the party did not yet have sufficient forces for attaining its goal. It had to make a sharp about-face toward the struggle for the masses before recommencing the direct struggle for power.

This about-face was hard to accomplish, for it went against the grain of the newly formed tradition. In the Russian party, at the present time, we are being reminded of all the differences of opinion, even the most preposterous, that arose in the party or in its Central Committee in recent years. It would not hurt to recall also the principal disagreement that appeared at the time of the Third Congress of the Communist International. It is now obvious that the change achieved at that time under the leadership of Lenin, in spite of the furious resistance of a considerable part of the congress at the start, a majority literally saved the International from the destruction and decomposition with which it was threatened if it went the way of automatic, uncritical “leftism,” which, in a brief space of time, had already become a hardened tradition.

After the Third Congress, the German Communist Party carried out, painfully enough, the necessary change. Then began the struggle for the masses under the slogan of the united front, accompanied by long negotiations and other pedagogical procedures. This tactic lasted more than two years and yielded excellent results. But at the same time, these new propaganda methods, being protracted, were transformed ... into a new semi-automatic tradition which played a very serious role in the events of the last half of 1923.

It is now incontestable that the period running from May (beginning of the resistance in the Ruhr) or July (collapse of this resistance) to November, when General Seeckt took over power, was a clearly marked period of crisis without precedent in the life of Germany. The resistance that the half-strangled Republican Germany of Ebert-Cuno tried to offer against French militarism crumpled up, taking with it the pitiful social and political equilibrium of the country. The Ruhr catastrophe played, up to a certain point, the same role for “democratic” Germany that the defeat of the German troops played five years earlier for the Hohenzollern regime.

Incredible depreciation of the mark, economic chaos, general effervescence and uncertainty, decomposition of the social democracy, a powerful flow of workers into the ranks of the communists, universal expectation of an overthrow. If the Communist Party had abruptly changed the pace of its work and had profited by the five or six months that history accorded it for direct political, organizational, technical preparation for the seizure of power, the outcome of the events could have been quite different from the one we witnessed in November. There was the problem: the German party had entered the new, brief period of this crisis, perhaps without precedent in world history, with the ready methods of the two preceding years of propagandistic struggle for the establishment of its influence over the masses. Here a new orientation was needed, a new tone, a new way of approaching the masses, a new interpretation and application of the united front, new methods of organization and of technical preparation in a word, a brusque tactical change. The proletariat should have seen a revolutionary party at work, marching directly to the conquest of power.

But the German party continued, at bottom, its propaganda policy of yesterday, even if on a larger scale. It was only in October that it adopted a new orientation. But by then it had too little time left to develop its dash. Its preparations were speeded up feverishly, the masses were unable to follow it, the lack of assurance of the party communicated itself to both sides, and at the decisive moment, the party retreated without giving battle. If the party surrendered its exceptional positions without resistance, the main reason is that it proved unable to free itself, at the beginning of the new phase (May-July 1923), from the automatism of its preceding policy, established as if it was meant for years to come, and to put forward squarely in its agitation, action, organization, and tactics the problem of taking power. Time is an important element of politics, particularly in a revolutionary epoch. Years and decades are sometimes needed to make up for lost months. It would have been the same with us if our party had not made its leap in April 1917 and then taken power in October. We have every reason to believe that the German proletariat will not pay too dearly for its omission, because the stability of the present German regime, above all because of the international situation, is more than doubtful.

It is clear that, as a conservative element, as the automatic pressure of yesterday upon today, tradition represents an extremely important force at the service of the conservative parties and deeply inimical to the revolutionary party. The whole strength of the latter lies precisely in its freedom from conservative traditionalism. Does this mean that it is free with regard to tradition in general? Not at all. But the tradition of a revolutionary party is of an entirely different nature.

If we now take our Bolshevik Party in its revolutionary past and in the period following October, it will be recognized that its most precious fundamental tactical quality is its unequaled ability to orient itself rapidly, to change tactics quickly, to renew its armament and to apply new methods, in a word, to carry out abrupt turns. Tempestuous historical conditions have made this tactic necessary. Lenin’s genius gave it a superior form. This is not to say, naturally, that our party is completely free of a certain conservative traditionalism: a mass party cannot be ideally free. But its strength and potency have manifested themselves in the fact that inertia, traditionalism, routinism, were reduced to a minimum by a farsighted, profoundly revolutionary tactical initiative, at once audacious and realistic.

It is in this that the genuine tradition of the party consists and should consist. The relatively strong bureaucratization of the party apparatus is inevitably accompanied by the development of conservative traditionalism with all its effects. It is better to exaggerate this danger than to underrate it. The undeniable fact that the most conservative elements of the apparatus are inclined to identify their opinions, their methods, and their mistakes with the “Old Bolshevism,” and seek to identify the criticism of bureaucratism with the destruction of tradition, this fact, I say, is already by itself the incontestable expression of a certain ideological petrifaction.

Marxism is a method of historical analysis, of political orientation, and not a mass of decisions prepared in advance. Leninism is the application of this method in the conditions of an exceptional historical epoch. It is precisely this union of the peculiarities of the epoch and the method that determines that courageous, self-assured policy of brusque turns of which Lenin gave us the finest models, and which he illuminated theoretically and generalized on more than one occasion.

Marx said that the advanced countries, to a certain extent, show the backward countries the image of their future. Out of this conditional proposition an effort was made to set up an absolute law which was at the root of the “philosophy” of Russian Menshevism. By means of it, limits were fixed for the proletariat, flowing not from the course of the revolutionary struggle but from a mechanical pattern; Menshevik Marxism was and remains solely the expression of the needs of bourgeois society, an expression adapted to a belated “democracy.” In reality, it turned out that Russia, joining in its economy and its politics extremely contradictory phenomena, was the first to be pushed onto the road of the proletarian revolution.

Neither October, nor Brest-Litovsk, nor the creation of a regular peasant army, nor the system of requisitioning food products, nor the NEP, nor the State Planning Commission, were or could have been foreseen or predetermined by pre-October Marxism or Bolshevism. All these facts and turns were the result of the independent, critical application of the methods of Bolshevism, marked by the spirit of initiative, in situations that differed in each case.

Every one of these decisions, before being adopted, provoked struggles. The simple appeal to tradition never decided anything. As a matter of fact, with each new task and at each new turn, it is not a question of searching in tradition and discovering there a nonexistent reply, but of profiting from all the experience of the party to find by oneself a new solution suitable to the situation and, by doing so, enriching tradition. It may even be put more sharply: Leninism consists of being courageously free of conservative retrospection, of being bound by precedent, purely formal references, and quotations.

Lenin himself not so long ago expressed this thought in Napoleon’s words: “On s’engage et puis on voit” (start fighting and then see). To put it differently, once engaged in the struggle, don’t be excessively pre-occupied with canon and precedent, but plunge into reality as it is and seek there the forces necessary for victory. and the roads leading to it. It is by following this line that Lenin, not once but dozens of times, was accused in his own party of violating tradition and repudiating “Old Bolshevism."

Let us recall that they invariably appeared under cover of defending Bolshevik traditions against Leninist deviation (there is some extremely interesting material on this score in Krasnaya Letopis) [Red Chronicle No.9]. Under the aegis of “Old Bolshevism,” in reality under the aegis of formal, fictitious, false tradition, all that was routinist in the party rose up against Lenin’s April Theses. One of our party’s historians (the historians of our party, up to now, have unfortunately not had much luck) told me at the height of the October events: “I am not with Lenin because I am an Old Bolshevik and I continue to stand on the ground of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” The struggle of the “left communists” against the Brest-Litovsk peace and for revolutionary war likewise took place in the name of saving the revolutionary traditions of the party, in the name of the purity of “Old Bolshevism,” which had to be protected against the dangers of state opportunism. It is needless to recall that the whole criticism by the “Workers’ Opposition” consisted, at bottom, of accusing the party of violating the old traditions. Only recently we saw the most official interpreters of the party’s traditions on the national question take a stand in distinct contradiction to the needs of party policy in this question as well as to Lenin’s position.

These examples could be multiplied, and any number of others could be cited, historically less important but no less conclusive. But what we have just said suffices to show that every time objective conditions demand a new turn, a bold aboutface, and creative initiative, conservative resistance betrays a natural tendency to counterpose the “old traditions” and what is called Old Bolshevism but is in reality the empty husk of a period just left behind to new tasks, new conditions, new orientation.

The more ingrown the party apparatus, the more imbued it is with the feeling of its own intrinsic importance, the slower it reacts to needs emanating from the ranks and the more inclined it is to set formal tradition against new needs and tasks. And if there is one thing likely to strike a mortal blow to the spiritual life of the party and the doctrinal training of the youth, it is certainly the transformation of Leninism from a method demanding for its application initiative, critical thinking, and ideological courage, into a canon which demands nothing more than interpreters appointed for good and all. Leninism cannot be conceived of without theoretical breadth, without a critical analysis of the material bases of the political process. The weapon of Marxist investigation must be constantly sharpened and applied. It is precisely in this that tradition consists, and not in the substitution of a formal reference or an accidental quotation. Least of all can Leninism be reconciled with ideological superficiality and theoretical slovenliness.

Lenin cannot be chopped up into quotations suited for every possible case, because for Lenin the formula never stands higher than the reality; it is always the tool that makes it possible to grasp the reality and to dominate it. It would not be hard to find in Lenin dozens and hundreds of passages which, formally speaking, seem to be contradictory. But what must be seen is not the formal relationship of one passage to another, but the real relationship of each of them to the concrete reality in which the formula was introduced as a lever. The Leninist truth is always concrete!

As a system of revolutionary action, Leninism presupposes a revolutionary sense sharpened by reflection and experience, which, in the social realm, is equivalent to the muscular sensation in physical labor. But revolutionary sense cannot be confused with demagogical flair. The latter may yield ephemeral successes, sometimes even sensational ones. But it is a political instinct of an inferior type. It always leans toward the line of least resistance. Leninism, on the other hand, seeks to pose and resolve the fundamental revolutionary problems, to overcome the principal obstacles; its demagogical counterpart consists in evading the problems, in creating an illusory appeasement, in lulling critical thought to sleep.

Leninism is, first of all, realism, the highest qualitative and quantitative appreciation of reality, from the standpoint of revolutionary action. Precisely because of this it is irreconcilable with flying from reality behind the screen of hollow agitationalism, with passive loss of time, with haughty justification of yesterday’s mistakes on the pretext of saving the tradition of the party.

Leninism is genuine freedom from formalistic prejudices, from moralizing doctrinairism, from all forms of intellectual conservatism attempting to stifle the will to revolutionary action. But to believe that Leninism signifies that “anything goes” would be an irremediable mistake. Leninism includes the morality, not formal but genuinely revolutionary, of mass action and the mass party. Nothing is so alien to it as functionary arrogance and bureaucratic cynicism. A mass party has its own morality, which is the bond of fighters in and for action. Demagogy is irreconcilable with the spirit of a revolutionary party because it is deceitful: by presenting one or another simplified solution for the difficulties of the hour, it inevitably undermines the future and weakens the party’s self-confidence.

Swept by the wind and gripped by a serious danger, demagogy easily dissolves into panic. It is hard to juxtapose, even on paper, panic and Leninism.

Leninism is warlike from head to foot. War is impossible without cunning, without subterfuge, without deception of the enemy. Victorious war cunning is a constituent element of Leninist politics. But at the same time, Leninism is a supreme revolutionary honesty toward the party and the working class. It admits of no fiction, no bubble-blowing, no pseudo-grandeur!

Leninism is orthodox, obdurate, irreducible, but it does not contain so much as a hint of formalism, canon, or bureaucratism. In the struggle, it takes the bull by the horns. To make out of the traditions of Leninism a supra-theoretical guarantee of the infallibility of all the words and thoughts of the interpreters of these traditions, is to scoff at a genuine revolutionary tradition and transform it into official bureaucratism. It is ridiculous and pathetic to try to hypnotize a great revolutionary party by the repetition of the same formulas, according to which the right line should be sought not in the essence of each question, not in the methods of posing and solving this question, but in information ... of a biographical character.

Since I am obliged to speak of myself for a moment, I will say that I do not consider the road by which I came to Leninism as less safe and reliable than the others. I came to Lenin fighting, but I came fully and all the way. My actions in the service of the party are the only guarantee of this: I can give no other supplementary guarantees. And if the question is to be posed in the field of biographical investigation, then at least it ought to be done properly.

It would then be necessary to reply to thorny questions: Were all those who were faithful to the master in the small matters also faithful to him in the great? Did all those who showed such docility in the presence of the master thereby offer guarantees that they would continue his work in his absence? Does the whole of Leninism lie in docility? I have no intention whatever of analyzing these questions by taking as examples individual comrades with whom, so far as I am concerned, I intend to continue working hand in hand.

Whatever the difficulties and the differences of opinion may be in the future, they can be victoriously overcome only by the party’s collective thinking, checking up on itself each time and thereby maintaining the continuity of development. This character of the revolutionary tradition is bound up with the peculiar character of revolutionary discipline. Where tradition is conservative, discipline is passive and is violated at the first moment of crisis. Where, as in our party, tradition consists of the highest revolutionary activity, discipline attains its maximum point, for its decisive importance is constantly checked in action. That is the source of the indestructible alliance of revolutionary initiative, of critical, bold elaboration of questions, with iron discipline in action. and it is only by this superior activity that the youth can receive from the old tradition of discipline and carry it on.

We cherish the traditions of Bolshevism as much as anybody. But let no one dare identify bureaucratism with Bolshevism, tradition with officious routine.

The New Course Index

return return return return return

Last updated on: 4.1.2007