They “incarnated an epoch,” wrote Victor Serge of the revolutionary and working class militants of the Left Opposition in his novel Midnight in the Century.
They fought for “a renewal of the ideology, morals and institutions of socialism” against the murderous authoritarianism of Stalinism.
The struggle began when in 1923 Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote a secret letter to his fellow Russian Communist Party leaders. It detailed how the revolution was going astray by clamping down on those groups who were encouraging striking workers. And he criticised the economic policies that had led to the strikes in the first place.
On 15 October an open letter appeared. Forty six important figures in the Communist Party declared that the country was threatened with economic ruin.
They also protested that the party’s organising centre chose conference delegates, meaning conferences “are becoming to an ever greater extent the executive assemblies of this hierarchy”.
They went on, “The regime is the dictatorship of a faction within the party.”
In the group were economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, industrial organiser Georgy Piatakov, party journalist Lev Sosnovsky, military hero Ivan Smirnov—and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who had led the storming of the Winter Palace.
Others included commander of the Moscow garrison Nicolay Muralov, Yevgenia Bosch—a founder of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks—and former members of other banned factions.
Trotsky did not sign, partially to avoid being accused of dividing the party.
In 1917 the revolution got rid of the old rulers—and put workers and peasants in control. So what had gone wrong?
Soviets, or workers’ councils, had initially taken power. But the decimation of the working class during the fight against counter-revolution and foreign invasion in the years 1918-21 hollowed them out.
By the 12th party congress in April 1923 the majority of delegates—55 percent—were full time party workers, for the first time. The state was staffed by thousands of bureaucrats from the old Tsarist regime—and a layer of new functionaries. At first this bureaucracy balanced between competing interests within Russian society, such as workers and peasants.
Russia had some of the features which Lenin had described in 1921 as a “bureaucratically deformed workers’ and peasants’ state”. That apparatus began to develop its own interests.
After the ravages of the civil war, the New Economic Policy (NEP) tried to reconcile peasants to the regime and encourage economic development. It gave limited freedom to private commodity production.
State-owned industries were to operate as just one element in an economy governed by the needs of peasant production and market forces. It was a retreat.
This led not to an increase of democracy but an erosion of it. In 1921 the party had printed a quarter of a million copies of the Programme of the Workers’ Opposition. Two members of the opposition were elected to the Central Committee.
But the response to the letters from the opposition was systematic denigration.
The majority of the Komsomol—youth wing of the Communists—Central Committee were dismissed after some defended Trotsky.
To justify such procedures, the ruling faction invented a cult of “Leninism”. It even tried to elevate Lenin to a divine status by mummifying his dead body. It reduced theory to an adjunct of its own ambitions.
Civil war, counter-revolution and famine stretched the link between the Communists and the working class to breaking point.
The Left Opposition adhered to the revolutionary socialist tradition to try to keep that connection. It argued the revolution could only progress if the state increased the economic weight of towns against country, and of industry against agriculture.
This demanded planning of industry and taxing wealthy peasants. This had to be accompanied by increased workers’ democracy.
These two policies could maintain Russia as a beacon for revolution, but socialism would only succeed if the revolution spread abroad.
Yet the peasants, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the party bureaucracy all benefited from the NEP years. This created the space for a right opposition, led by Nikolai Bukharin. It accommodated to peasant demands and the market.
In a crucial break, it abandoned the link with international revolution and argued that socialism in one country was possible.
The Left Opposition mistakenly saw this group as the main threat to the revolution. They underestimated the bureaucracy’s growing strength as an independent force.
Joseph Stalin led the faction based upon the bureaucracy.
This was confirmed at a meeting prior to the 13th party congress, in May 1924, when Lenin’s testament was read to the Central Committee and other senior delegates.
It called for Stalin’s removal as general secretary. Stalin offered to resign. But Zinoviev and Kamenev persuaded the meeting to disregard Lenin’s advice.
They said that whatever offence Stalin was guilty of, he had made up for. The congress turned into a chorus of denunciation against Trotsky.
The question of revolution abroad was key. US revolutionary James P Cannon described how Stalin’s rise meant the Communist Parties went from “agencies of revolution into border guards of the Soviet Union and pressure groups in the service of its foreign policy”.
In China, for example, Stalin insisted on an alliance with the nationalists, leading to the massacre of thousands of Communists as revolution failed in 1927. Despite this it strengthened Stalin’s hold on power, seeming to prove that other revolutions were impossible. Economic crisis produced splits between the different forces that had defeated the initial opposition. Zinoviev and Kamenev had joined the group including Trotsky against Stalin in 1926.
This United Opposition again advanced a programme for revolutionary internationalism, more rapid industrial development, defence of workers’ rights, and a return to democratic decision-making.
The Stalinist bureaucracy now savagely repressed open demonstrations, and raided the Opposition’s secret print shop. Most members of the United Opposition were arrested and sent into internal exile.
Nadezhda Joffe was 21 when she joined the opposition. Her father, a close ally of Trotsky, took his own life in protest against Stalinism. His funeral saw some 10,000 protest.
She wrote, “We did approximately what revolutionaries did in the Tsarist underground. We organised groups of sympathisers at the factories and in the schools. We issued leaflets.” That work had an effect.
As historian Michal Reiman explained, “Stalin could not ignore the fact that the Left Opposition still remained a potential nest of serious resistance. Opposition leaflets were distributed widely, and members of the opposition had penetrated the workers’ ranks, helping to organise their social struggle.”
Yet pressures to give in were immense. Soon Zinoviev and most of his followers recanted in order to obtain their freedom and their old positions. Those who did not retreat were transferred to the deadly Siberian camps.
In 1928, after defeating the Left Opposition, the bureaucracy became a ruling class. It established vicious mechanisms of exploitation to accumulate capital and industrialise at the expense of the workers and peasantry.
The Stalinists re-established a form of class society, with all its brutality and irrationality.
At the height of the Show Trials one oppositionist, Gevorkian, spoke to a meeting in the Vorkuta slave labour camp. “The Stalinist adventurers have completed their counter-revolutionary coup d’etat,” he said. “Not twilight shadows but those of the deep black night envelop our country. No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors.”
So began a 132-day hunger strike that forced camp officials and their superiors to give in to some strikers’ demands.
In 1938 the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were marched out in batches, adults and children over the age of 12, into the surrounding arctic wasteland—and killed. Joseph Berger, who was in the camp, wrote, “Some struggled, shouted slogans and fought the guards to the last.”
As one group of about a hundred was led out to be shot, “the condemned sang the ‘Internationale’ joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp”.
The counter-revolution won. But the Left Opposition had kept the idea of socialism from below alive.
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