Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

Speech on Comrade Lenin’s Report:
“Tactics of the Russian Communist Party”

Seventeenth Session, July 5, 1921

COMRADES! I don’t get the opportunity to regularly read Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the so-called Social Democracy, issued by Heinrich Cunow, but from time to time an issue of this paper falls into my hands and in one of them I chanced to run across an article by Heinrich Cunow on the decomposition of Bolshevism, in which he deals with the question now before us. He formulates the question as follows: “How can one avoid a complete economic collapse, raise industrial and agricultural production, assure adequate food rations to urban workers, employes and men of education and eliminate the growing dissatisfaction among these circles?” The polemical barb of this formulation is aimed at us, but it is in essence correct. Then he lists the tendencies which presumably exist in our party and goes on to say: “Trotsky is supported by Bukharin, Rakovsky, Pyatakov, Larin [1], Sholnikov ...”

Who this Sholnikov is I don’t know, unless, perhaps, it is a synthesis of Sokolnikov and Shlyapnikov. [2] Comrade Kollontai [3] is not mentioned, I don’t know why.

The author adds: “and other Left Communists.” Do you hear, Comrade Bela Kun [4] – Left Communists. [Laughter]

And other Left Communists in analyzing this question came to the conclusion that the only way out lies through a more rigid application of the Communist labor system. Factories and agricultural enterprises must be placed under even stricter control; economic organizations still retaining their independence must be likewise state-ized; the peasants must be compelled to deliver their surpluses to the needy urban population; and the laws against peculation and speculation in foodstuffs must be made more severe. It is on the whole necessary to energetically discipline and centralize the economic enterprises. But this goal can be achieved only when an end is put to the elections of the supervisory personnel by the workers since the workers frequently elect absolutely illiterate individuals. It is necessary to replace these functionaries by people appointed by the Soviet authorities. In order to raise productivity, Trotsky also wants to harness the trade unions which are predominantly non-Communist and to politicalize them, that is, place them under the control of the political organizations. Moreover, labor conscription must be introduced among the peasantry; the cultivation of the land must be decreed a ’state duty’ and the peasants compelled under pain of stringent penalties to produce and deliver fixed amounts of the most essential food products. In addition to all this, Trotsky is conducting a fight against leasing large areas to foreign capitalist companies, which he considers as anti-Communist.

In a word, this article paints a political portrait of our friend Kollontai – but under the pseudonym of Trotsky. In general this article, like everything concocted by its author, is a rehash of tritest Bernsteinism of the ’nineties. And these ideas now appear as the modern postwar doctrine, the spiritual sustenance of the German Social Democracy. Bernstein put all this together far more systematically, consistently and planfully than does Herr Heinrich Cunow. But this doesn’t alter the gist of things. Let us, however, return to the Russian question. It is not solely Cunow’s personal opinion that we have great differences of views among us, and that I personally belong to the opposition on the question of concessions and on the question of changing our economic policy. Not only the Social-Democratic press but also the capitalist newspapers harp on this. Every comrade in the least acquainted with our internal affairs is well aware that there are no serious differences among us, in the party, over these questions, except for a very small group whose representative, Kollontai, you heard today. If this question ever did come up among us, in the Central Committee, it was discussed only from the standpoint of whether this or that area, this or that concession should be granted or not, i.e., from a purely practical standpoint. And it was precisely in these practical aspects that I happened to be in agreement with Lenin. Neither Comrade Bukharin nor Comrade Rakovsky, nor any of the cornrades mentioned in Cunow’s article has opposed concessions and the new agricultural or peasant policy in principle. This is an excellent illustration of the spiritual level of the German Social Democracy. For indeed, insofar as an individual really belongs to the International – as was also the case in the heyday of the Second International – he is always greatly concerned in honestly following and understanding what takes place within a brother party, even if he has differences with it. When some lie used to be spread by Czarism it was a common saying that Czarism had broad shoulders and could bear up under anything. But from a theoretical representative of a party who is obliged to analyze events calmly, one could demand – not that he should understand and vindicate us, God forbid! – but that he should at least have some comprehension of the things about which he writes. But he lacks even this.

Well, the fact is, there are no differences among us over this question. The figure 99 percent would be a conservative estimate of the party majority on this issue. But how do matters stand with regard to the danger which the representatives of the Communist Workers Party and Comrade Kollontai depicted before us from two different sides – one from the side of Western European capitalism, and the other from the side of Russian Communism? This question also came up for discussion among us in the Economic Commission. One comrade set out to prove that to enable capitalism to unfold its activities “on the great Russian steppes” is to provide it with a road to salvation, with a way out from a difficult situation. But capitalism can move around only within limits offered it by our railroad network, our transport facilities, our open spaces, generally our entire economic culture. We have in mind not a business firm like Gerngross of Vienna which might very well be able to save itself at the expense of the Soviet Republic by becoming its supplier; we are talking of capitalism.

If capitalism could, by basing itself on Russia, restore its equilibrium in the course of the next decade, then this would signify that we have no need whatever of turning to Western European capitalism; for this would signify that we are powerful and strong enough to get along without the cooperation of Western European and American capitalism. But this is not the situation. We are not strong and powerful enough to be able to renounce capitalist technology, which is yet available only in its capitalist form; we are simply not strong and powerful enough to enable capitalism to heal all its wounds with Russia’s assistance. This is the inner logic of the situation. In any case, those comrades who fear lest capitalism become strengthened by obtaining here a field for its activity, must take into consideration that in between this developing capitalism in Russia and the world revolution there stands Soviet Russia; and that long before Russian capitalism could start relaxing and regaining its strength “in the Russian steppes” it would have to crush the budding Communist economy. Yes, the first victim would be our budding socialist organization. In the Economic Commission I said that the key factor is still the circumstance that the power in our country belong to the vanguard of the proletariat; that in our country the working class rules, being represented in political and state relations by this vanguard; and that is why we ought to grant concessions only to the extent that it benefits our cause. This premise requires no commentary. Had capitalism conquered militarily, the question of concessions would have never arisen. Capitalism would have arrogated to itself everything it needed. We would then have had no tactical question. But we do have this question today. Why? Because the power in our country belongs to the working class, i.e., it conducts negotiations with capitalism; it has the possibility of granting concessions to some while refusing others; i.e., it has the opportunity to make combinations, and to adopt this or that decision only after taking into consideration the general state of its own economic development and that of the world revolution. That is how things stand.

And I then drew the conclusion that those Western European and American comrades, who really fear lest capitalism regain its health in Russia, show thereby that they overestimate our technological and transport facilities and underestimate our Communist reasoning facilities. As I said, Comrade Kollontai, who belongs among comrades usually called Left Communists, was not mentioned in connection with the concessions question. But she has done so herself. She has the full right to do it. She puts the discipline of the International above the discipline of the party. I do not know, perhaps it also pertains to the question of concessions, but she wants to display the spirit of knighthood – I don’t know how to put it in German – she wants to conduct herself like an Amazon ... [Radek interjects: Like Valkyrie!] Like Valkyrie. I place the responsibility for this expression on Comrade Radek. [Laughter] That is how Comrade Kollontai conducted herself in placing her name on the speakers’ list, although it is customary among us to first take up the question with the delegation, with the presidium and with the Central Committee. I merely ask the comrades who are present here and for whom Comrade Kollontai is the spokesman how they regard the fact that no one raised any objections to it at the session of the Central Committee? We deemed it wholly natural for a politically insignificant and hardly noticeable minority on this question to acquaint the World Congress with its own views and its own tendency.

Let us now pass on to the essence of Comrade Kollontai’s speech. Her main idea is this, that the capitalist system is outlived and that therefore it is impermissible, so to speak, to derive any benefits from it. That is her basic idea. Everything else is for her superfluous. This gives us an entirely adequate idea of Comrade Kollontai’s historical and politico-economic approach. In the language of philosophy, this is known as a purely metaphysical outlook which operates with immutable, non-historical, dogmatic concepts. Capitalism has outlived itself and therefore it is not possible to get anything from it that can be of use to us. But, Comrades, if it actually true that capitalism has outlived itself, then should we be attacked by the English or French army, say, on the shores of the Black Sea, we could say to ourselves that since capitalism has outlived itself we can keep on sitting with hands folded. [Applause] I believe that we would then all be sent to hell, with the permission of Comrade Kollontai. For capitalism will not stop to inquire whether or no it has outlived itself in accordance with Comrade Kollontai’s dogmatic conceptions. It will run us through with bayonets manufactured in its capitalist factories; it will destroy us with soldiers rigidly trained under its capitalist discipline. But if an outlived capitalism is capable of slaughtering and murdering us, it shows thereby that it has plenty of power left. Why, the very fact that Comrade Kollontai, who belongs to an opposition in the Russian party, is compelled to present her oppositional views to the World Congress in Moscow is itself a bit of evidence that while capitalism is outlived in the great historical sense and cannot open up any new possibilities for mankind, it still remains powerful enough to prevent us from convening our congresses in Paris or Berlin. [Applause] Or let us take capitalist technology, for example. What does Comrade Kollontai think of a good locomotive, an honest-to-goodness German capitalist locomotive? This is an interesting question. I am afraid that the German proletariat even after its conquest of power will have to travel across the country for a couple of years or so on genuine capitalist locomotives. After all, it will be very busy and I hardly believe that it will be able immediately in the very first months to begin building new locomotives. But Comrades, is it permissible – from the standpoint of the ten commandments of Comrade Kollontai – to buy a new German locomotive from the firm of Ebert & Co.? I believe that Comrade Kollontai in answering this pointblank question would not deny us the right to buy a locomotive from Ebert. But if we buy a locomotive there, we must also pay for it there, and, besides, with gold. But, Comrades, gold which flows from Russia into capitalist coffers tends to strengthen the latter. Of course the amount is far too small to pay the German debts. Fortunately we haven’t got such a quantity of gold. [Laughter] Hem and haw how you will, but if you want to remain steadfast in principle you dare not pay gold to capitalists. Or let us take another instance. Suppose we pay with lumber instead of gold. Comrade Kollontai will perhaps then say: I agree to permit trade between Soviet Russia and Germany or England, but concessions are out. What are concessions? To get locomotives, we must sell lumber. But we lack enough saws and other mechanical appliances and so we say: “The trees grow in a forest; let the English capitalist come with his machines and technical equipment, chop himself some trees and logs and give us locomotives in return ...” In short, I should very much like to know where Comrade Kollontai’s principled opposition begins and where it ends. Is it with the purchase of locomotives or with the payment in gold, or with payment in lumber in the shape of forests? I am afraid that the opposition begins only with the chopping of trees. [Loud laughter]

Comrade Kollontai furthermore asserts that we, in general, want to replace the working class with specialists and with other forces, i.e., technicians. [Kollontai interjects: I didn’t say that.] You said that the initiative of the working class is being replaced by other forces, that the vanguard of the working class is being compelled to cede its place to other forces. But these other forces are on the one hand the so-called technological intelligentsia, and on the other – the peasantry. The peasantry as a replacement is unconditionally excluded. But the class which holds the power in its; hands does make a deal with the peasantry. As regards the technicians, over this question, too, we had a controversy in our party. The echoes of it still reverberate to this day. And perhaps we have heard if not the last then the next to the last echo from the lips of Comrade Kollontai. From the principled standpoint, Comrades, it is undeniable that more than ample power and initiative are inherent in the proletariat and we hope that all mankind will considerably change its aspects thanks to the power of the working class. But we never claimed that the working class is from its birth capable of building a new society. It can only create all the necessary social and political preconditions for it. More than this, through the direct seizure of power it is enabled to find all the necessary auxiliary forces, place them, wherever necessary, in the service of Communist economy, and thereby set the entire machine in motion. But we never said that a simple worker by becoming a Communist immediately acquired the ability to perform the work of a technician, astronomer or engineer. And when these technical forces are generalized and simply designated as “other social forces,” and when the fact that these forces have been placed in the service of our cause is characterized as a lack of confidence in the working class, then I must state that such reasoning has absolutely nothing in common with Marxism and Communism.

Comrades! In that extremely simple field in which we have had to work up to now, in the military field, we were compelled from the beginning to resort to the aid of alien technical forces. A good deal of friction arose over this among us. The Central Committee committed not a few errors, and our military organization was upset on more than one occasion. We were told: “You are placing alien technical forces (the reference here was to the officers) in the service of the proletariat.” Yet it later became obvious that had we based ourselves solely on the energy and self-sacrifice of our comrades, who were all sublimely fulfilling their duty, and had we been unable to utilize military forces alien to us, we could not have long survived in this world. This is absolutely clear. The Russian working class with its abilities and its capacity for selfsacrifice gave everything it had. It likewise evinced a great initiative in this, that after the seizure of power it proved capable, although it was backward and was living in a peasant country, to draw into its service officers, by employing sometimes force and sometimes propaganda. [Applause] We had to have an army. But the working class did not possess sufficient experience and knowledge and we could not place officers from among the workers immediately and everywhere. Today we already have a great many Red officers who stem from the working class. They occupy the highest posts, and their number is increasing daily.

The very same thing applies to the technical field as well. The fact that we are still encircled by a capitalist world compels us to make concessions in the field of technology, too. But we have complete faith that our working class, which is becoming more and more cognizant of itself as a member of the great International, will also be able to withstand this breathing spell of capitalism and this unstable equilibrium which now prevails; and that during this selfsame breathing splI it will utilize alien forces and alien means alike, and place them in the service of its own cause. When we say to the Russian workers: “We are conducting negotiations with foreign capitalists, but we shall take all the necessary measures to stand on our own feet”; when we want the working class to survey its field of activity and say: “I can offer this or that concession to the German and American capitalists, but I want machinery in return” – is this then lack of faith in the forces of the Russian working class, of the Russian proletariat? If anyone is to be reproached with lacking faith in the forces of the working class, it is not us but the little group in whose name Comrade Kollontai has spoken here today. [Thunderous applause]


1. Christian Rakovsky – old revolutionist, participant in the labor movement of a number of countries and especially prominent in the pre-1914 days in the Balkans. Like Mehring, Rakovsky was a member of the bourgeoisie who broke with his class, sacrificed his fortune and devoted his entire life to the labor movement. After the October Revolution, Rakovsky was chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukraine and performed there great and important work in consolidating the Soviet power. Rakovsky later served the Soviet Republic as ambassador. One of the leaders of the Left Opposition who was finally broken after years of exile. He capitulated to Stalin only to be framed up like the rest of Lenin’s closest co-workers during the infamous Moscow Trials. [Rakovsky was sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour at the third Moscow Trial. He was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1941. ’ TIA]

Yuri Pyatakov worked in the ranks of the Russian Bolshevik Party for approximately 40 years. During the First World War Pyatakov together with Bukharin conducted internationalist propaganda in the Scandinavian countries. During the first years of the Civil War Pyatakov worked in the Ukraine. In the middle ’twenties he served as Rykov’s deputy in the Supreme Economic Council of the USSR. Member of the Left Opposition who capitulated with Radek, was framed and shot by Stalin.

Larin – a veteran worker in the Russian Social Democracy. For a number of years he was a prominent Menshevik. After the July days in 1917 he joined the Bolsheviks. In the ’twenties he worked chiefly as an economist. Toward the end of 1921 he headed the movement of the so-called “Communist reaction,” who demanded a return to the methods of War Communism. This former Menshevik who became so radical in Lenin’s lifetime joined without hesitation in the hunt against Trotskyism. Died in 1932.

2. Gregory Sokolnikov – an old Bolshevik who in the ’twenties served as People’s Commissar of Finance. Although never a member of the Left Opposition he was framed up with the others in the second Moscow Trial (January 1937). [He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. He was allegedly murdered in prison by other convicts at the behest of the NKVD. – TIA]

A.G. Shlyapnikov – an old Bolshevik who was especially active in the illegal organization in Russia during the First World War. One of the heroes of the Civil War. In 1921-23 Shlyapnikov headed the so-called “Workers’ Opposition” and later the group of “22” who were very sharp in their criticism of the New Economic Policy. He was jailed by Stalin. His fate is unknown. [Shlyapnikov was executed without being put on trial in September 1937. – TIA]

3. A. Kollontai – prior to the First World War she was a Menshevik. In 1917 she joined the Bolshevik Party and in the days of Kerensky became prominent as a popular agitator. In 1921-23 Kollontai became extremely radical, heading together with Shlyapnikov in the days of the Tenth Party Congress the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,” an obvious deviation toward syndicalism. In the ’twenties Kollontai became ambassador to Norway and has served in various ambassadorial posts since then. Her former leftism was later supplemented by subservience to Stalinism in the declining years of her life.

4. Kun – leader of the Hungarian Communist Party. In the days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Bela Kun was chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars. Ultra-leftist at the Third Congress. Later a rabid anti-Trotskyist. Reported among those shot by the GPU during the monstrous purge in the USSR. Also reported still alive. [The Soviet government announced in 1989 that Kun has been executed in August 1938. – TIA]

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Last updated on: 15.4.2007