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Ernest Erber

Trotsky’s Role in 1920–23

A Reply to Irving Howe’s Review of The New Course

(January 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 1, January 1947, pp. 16–20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Irving Howe’s article, Reviewing the New Course (The New International, September 1946), sets itself the task of an historical criticism of Trotsky’s role during the 1920–23 period in Russia “in order to learn certain lessons for the future ...” The investigation of this crucial period of the Revolution in the light of subsequent historical development is long overdue and any student of Marxism who applies himself to this problem is to be commended for that fact alone. Unfortunately, in the case of Howe’s article our commendations cannot go beyond this, for its results, as we shall seek to demonstrate, add little or nothing to our understanding of the problems involved.

This is all the more regrettable because of the vast importance which the 1920–23 period of Russian history has retrospectively assumed for all thinking Marxists and because, so little has been produced in the way of solid research and serious analysis, though there has been no lack of superficial and impressionistic comment.

The significance of this period arises from the fact that it covers the transitional years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Stalin’s real domination, thus composing the critical period of the Revolution. The tendency toward limiting democracy in the party and the Soviets before 1920 can be traced to the necessity of an overriding centralism and an iron discipline without which the military victory would have been impossible. The continued limitations of democracy after 1923 can be traced to the bureaucratic straight jacket imposed upon the party by the Stalin apparatus. The question that remains to be answered definitively is: what took place in Russia between 1920 and 1923 that prevented a relaxation of the exceptional discipline and extraordinary centralism which, as we now know, served the bureaucracy as points of support in the consolidation of power?

This appraisal of the 1920–23 period is not altered by the fact that the failure of the proletariat to take power in the advanced countries doomed the Russian Revolution regardless of its internal development. The only perspective for the Russian Revolution after 1920 was to maintain itself intact until such a time as a favorable situation would permit a successful revolution elsewhere. However, the very chances of a successful revolution in the West were dependent upon a revolutionary policy and leadership in the Communist International. The latter, in turn, was only possible if the leading party of the CI, the Russian, did not degenerate and deflect the international movement from its revolutionary course. We need but point to the effect which the newly created Stalin-Zinoviev leadership in the Russian party had upon the fatal course pursued by the German Communists during the 1923 crisis.

Compared to the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871 had even less possibility of maintaining itself. However, this did not detract from its immense value to Marxist theory as the first “laboratory case” of proletarian state power. The analysis of the Commune by several generations of Marxist thinkers richly fructified revolutionary theory and, in the case of the Bolsheviks, revolutionary practice.

The great value of the Commune for Marxist theory was not that it proved that the workers’ power could not survive under the given economic and political conditions of Paris, of France, and of the international situation. It was, rather, that the experience of the Commune revealed what in the methods and policy of the Commune had facilitated its downfall. The pointed relevance of the 1920–23 period in Russia for our times consists in the fact that it, more than any other period of the Russian experience, has most to teach us about those aspects of the methods and policies of the Revolution which facilitated its strangulation at the hands of the bureaucracy. These are the “lessons for the future” of which Howe speaks. But the realization of this aim requires as a pre-requisite a serious analysis of the Russian experience, concentrating upon 1920–23. Our investigations to date can be said to have only scratched the surface when compared with the work done on the much more limited experience of the Commune.

One of the prime causes for the meager results obtained from the Russian events in the way of contributions to our understanding of the relationship of democracy to central authority in a workers’ state is the methodology of most of the investigators. Seemingly so simple, the problem of learning lessons for the future is really a complicated pursuit, fraught with pitfalls for the unwary investigator. We need but refer to the fact that much of what the Bolsheviks did in Russia which is now under scrutiny was based on lessons they had learned from the Commune.

Howe begins and ends his article with a discussion of the methodology of historical investigation. He begins by stating that there are two approaches which can be used. One is to consider the subject (in this case, Trotsky’s The New Course) in the context in which it was written. The other is a “projection out of the specific historical context; it can be a movement forward in time, away from the context of the book’s creation and toward whatever relevance it has for new situations different from the original context.” Howe then states that he proposes to use both methods and that “the two methods will yield slightly variant results.” Just what is meant by the latter is not made clear. Nor are we told whether the use of both methods is incumbent upon every investigator or whether he can choose one or the other. Even if he uses both methods, he would have to choose between the “slightly variant results.” Or is there some way in which these results can be synthesized? We venture to guess that the reason why the text gives no explanation of either how the results vary or of their relationship to each other was because the author was confused by the question of method and did not think it through to clarify his confusion.

In his concluding paragraphs, Howe once more returns to explaining his method. Though he now mentions that “it is necessary to understand both in and out of context,” [1] he seeks to explain only why an “out of context” method is permissible. This is not accidental for nowhere in the body of his article does Howe use any other method – nowhere does he deal with Trotsky’s role within the historical context.

After having employed the “out of context” approach throughout the article and after having defended its use, Howe makes the following amazing admission: “In that sense, we try – never successfully, for the effort is self-contradictory – to move backwards in time and imagine ourselves in a situation of the past.” (our emphasis – E.E.) But if it cannot be done successfully and if the effort is self-contradictory, of what value is it? Does, not this sentence knock over Howe’s entire construction of an “out of context” method and, consequently, prejudice the results obtained by this method?

Aware of this, but obviously very confused, Howe beats a hasty – but only momentary – retreat. In the very next sentence he writes:

Even in that limited sense, I believe what I have written is valid for the following reasons: 1) There were Bolsheviks [2] even then who had this – what I consider – superior political conception; in that sense, the previous criticisms are not merely second guessing.

We do not know what “limited sense” Howe has in mind. If the method is “never successful” and if it is “self-contradictory,” how can it even have use in a “limited sense”? The reference to the alleged Bolsheviks who had a “superior political conception” is not a use of the “out of context” approach, not even in a limited sense. To speak of Bolshevik contemporaries of Trotsky who had a more correct political line is not to speak “out of context” but decidedly within it. (It is interesting to note that having failed to deal with Trotsky’s role in its historical context throughout the body of the article, Howe gives his sole argument related to the context of 1920–23 in the course of defending his methodology! If what he alleges is true, it would constitute a real contribution to the question. Aside from the question of whether the point is valid or not – upon which we will comment later, Howe’s method in this instance, however, is correct.) If these Bolsheviks had a superior political conception to that of Trotsky, why did not Howe review The New Course by counter-posing their political conceptions to those of Trotsky? Obviously, Howe does not know enough about them to permit this. But then how does he know that their conceptions were superior? It is far easier to counterpose Howe’s conceptions of 1946 (many of which are officially held by the Workers Party and some of which were accepted by Trotsky after 1923) to those of Trotsky of 1923.

Howe’s Carlylian Approach

But Howe is not satisfied in giving up so easily the “out of context” approach which he has used throughout the article. He, therefore, makes one last stab at justifying it. This last effort, however, proves his complete undoing, as we will demonstrate. Continuing to prove that the method has validity in a “limited sense,” Howe makes his next point:

2) We are writing about one of the titans of modern history, Leon Trotsky, a man of consummate and universal genius from whom we expect and have a right to expect insight superior to that of most people. It does not seem absurd to ask why Trotsky didn’t see what took ordinary mortals twenty additional years to see. The canons of criticism can be infinitely more severe in relation to a man of Trotsky’s stature than toward some one else.

We submit that within the above quoted sentences is contained the whole of Howe’s error in methodology, or, to put it differently, the above quotation carries to its logical absurdity the false approach used, throughout the article. From his object of “learn(ing) certain lessons for the future,” Howe becomes sidetracked into an appraisal of how much Trotsky should have foreseen. Or is Trotsky’s lack of foresight a “lesson tor the future”? What does it teach us? Certainly not that genius is unreliable. No one, least of all Trotsky, ever asked that men accept his genius as proof of his political views. If Trotsky should have foreseen twenty years (!) and failed to, what was obviously at fault? The answer is inescapable: his political theories. But Howe makes no investigation of these. [3] He takes refuge in what is a sheer Carlylian theory of the man of genius.

But why does Howe insist upon the genius of Trotsky? If Trotsky could see no further than ordinary mortals and less far than the alleged, but anonymous, contemporaries cited by Howe, is not his genius suspect? Does this not require that Howe be consistent in his Carlylianism and approach the question, not by arguing “since he was a genius he should have” but rather “if he were a genius he would have”?

Howe’s attempt to learn lessons for the future by being more severe with the genius Trotsky than with ordinary mortals gets us nowhere. It is not merely ineffective; it is also dangerous. Why cannot the same approach be used in the case of Lenin? He most certainly was also a “man of consummate and universal genius.” He should then have also foreseen. If Trotsky was expected to foresee the imminent possibility of unprecedented social development, should we not expect that Lenin should have at least foreseen that the Russian Revolution was doomed to isolation and defeat before he led the fight for power? To use Howe’s “out of context” method, why not ask: “Should Lenin have led the Revolution if he foresaw its imminent possibility of defeat with such dire consequences for the world?” The method is either nonsense or it leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Russian Revolution was a vast mistake.

But how can a writer as familiar with the Marxist theory of historical materialism have ended up as an historical idealist in practice? In our opinion, Howe fell victim to the methodological error of seeking to give an interpretation to the historic period in question by means of an analysis of Trotsky’s alleged mistakes rather than to consider Trotsky’s role within the context previously established through an historical materialist interpretation of the period. Historical criticism – which Howe says is the purpose of his article – can have no status independent of and unrelated to an historical materialist analysis of the period. This is the source of Howe’s confusion over the “in context” and “out of context” problem.

Question of Realistic Alternatives

To prove that a certain course followed by Trotsky, or certain specific decisions he made, played into the hands of the bureaucracy does not at all establish that we will not follow that course or make those decisions under similar circumstances. For it ay turn out that Trotsky had no realistic alternative that would have given better results. By the same token, we may have none. A certain course cannot be judged incorrect, therefore, merely because the results were bad. It can only be judged incorrect when it was chosen instead of a given, realistic alternative, which, in our opinion, would have given better results.

Let us, for example, take the case of the abolition of factions in 1920. Most certainly this proved a tremendous weapon in the hands of Stalin in his efforts to gain dominance over the party machine. But this result alone cannot be the basis of judging the abolition of factions as incorrect. What if it could be proven that the maintenance of the right of factions would have destroyed the unity of the party and made possible the victory of the bourgeois counter-revolution? It is my opinion that this cannot be proven. Yet, this is only an opinion until established by an analysis of the total situation at the time. Only if it can be proven on the basis of such an analysis that the maintenance of factions was the superior alternative can we proceed to consider Trotsky’s role in relation to it. Howe, however, proceeds from the assumption that since the abolition of factions strengthened Stalin, this alone proves that Trotsky should have waged a fight against it.

The danger of Howe’s approach is that it leads the revolutionist to see every problem solely from the point of view of the danger of Stalinist degeneration. Howe’s method leads to an indiscriminate rejection of everything that proved of value to Stalin in his fight for power. Implicit in this is the danger that the indiscriminate attempt to avoid the risk of bureaucratic degeneration can lead to disarming the revolution in the face of the bourgeoisie. The result would be that we would learn the lessons of bureaucratic domination so well that we would unlearn the lessons of internal weakness taught us at such cost by the Commune. That is why we must first make an analysis of the total situation at the time and then proceed to examine Trotsky’s role on the basis of realistic alternatives.

But at this point another factor enters into consideration: the factor of “knowability.” We cannot determine whether an alternative was realistic unless we consider what was “knowable” at the time. [4] To construct an alternative course on the basis of what we know today but could not have been known in the given instance is not to counterpose a realistic alternative but to consider the situation “out of context” in the manner of Howe and with the same dire consequences.

If one were to discard the question of “knowability,” the student of the Napoleonic campaigns could project himself backwards and, considering his subject out of context, could say: “If I had been in command at Waterloo, I would have sent an armored column to attack the flank.” Howe will, no doubt, object that it is not valid to make this example analogous to his “out of context” criticism of Trotsky on the ground that tanks are the product of a given historical period and cannot enter into the consideration of another one. But are ideas any the less the product of their times? Since the ideas which Trotsky.proceeded from in his battle against bureaucratism are at stake in this discussion, can we contribute to our understanding by criticizing the Trotsky of 1923 for not using the ideas of 1946 (or 1948, if we use Howe’s standard of measure for genius)?

Is Howe not demanding that Trotsky use “tanks at Waterloo” when he asks that Trotsky in 1923 foresee bureaucratic collectivism?

There is a tremendous difference between identifying the early roots of a familiar phenomenon and identifying the roots of something that has not yet been definitely catalogued (in the case of bureaucratic collectivism, not even today, some twenty-three years later). Now that history has demonstrated the possibility of bureaucratic developments leading to a Stalinist growth, our task of identifying the Stalinist incubus is far easier. But even for us, the task is still extremely difficult. We certainly cannot fight every bureaucratic manifestation as if it were full-blown Stalinism, nor as we have pointed out, can we shy away from every policy or method which proved of assistance to Stalin in gaining power. Howe would certainly not demand that Trotsky, even with the knowledge that bureaucratic collectivism was in the cards, have given critical support to Mikolajczyk against “Stalinism” in 1923. Thus even historical foresight would not have resolved the problem of what tactics to use in the fight against the Stalinism of 1923 (which, by the way, had not yet even formulated the theory of “socialism in one country”).

Even if we definitely establish that Trotsky erred by choosing the inferior alternative in several specific situations, this knowledge alone would not forearm us in the least against a repetition of these errors. It does us little good to say “when we will be confronted by such a situation we will choose the other alternative,” for how will we know that it is the same situation?

Historic Experience as Check Upon Theory

What then is the value of studying historical experience at all, it may be asked. It has value only insofar as it leads to correcting our theories. That is why it is not enough to establish that Trotsky erred. It is necessary to discover why he erred. A political decision is not isolated from the ideological development that preceded it. Trotsky’s decisions during 1920–23 were based upon theories which were moulded and shaped by preceding historical experience. The errors must, therefore, be traced back to flaws in Trotsky’s theoretical conceptions. If we decide that Trotsky erred by underestimating the danger of prohibiting factions in 1920 and a further analysis reveals that this error flowed from his concept of the relationship of democracy to centralism, we must proceed to rectify our conception of this problem in line with historical experience.

For us to observe that the prohibition of factions in 1920 led to dire results and conclude that we must “pass a law” that we will never in the future prohibit factions is nonsense. Our future actions will not be guided by such a “law” or resolve, but only by our general comprehension of the relationship of factions to party democracy and by our evaluation of the latter in the scheme of things as a whole. That is why our cardinal aim in learning lessons for the future must be not to sit in judgment upon what people did, but rather upon the ideas which led them to do it.

It may be objected that this approach to history leads to a completely fatalistic interpretation which says that men act on the basis of their ideas which in turn merely reflect the historical background in which they were formed. There is nothing fatalistic in this approach unless we leave out of consideration the fact that history is fashioned by struggle, the highest form of which is the political one; i.e., the ideological expression of the conflict between tendencies, groups, factions, parties, blocs and classes. The role of Scheidemann-Ebert-Noske in 1918 is not to be explained by the blackness of their hearts. It can only be explained as a logical extension of the ideas of reformism. [5] While it was inevitable that those who based themselves upon the theories of reformism play the role they did in 1918, it was not inevitable that the reformists triumph. Revolutionary ideas entered the process also, as did conservative, fascist and other ideas, each representing different social forces. History is made in the struggle and revolutionists take part in making it through all their activities, including historical criticism.

Howe’s “out of context” approach, does, however, lead to a fatalistic interpretation of history. Though he speaks of Trotsky foreseeing the “possibility” of bureaucratic collectivism, the tactics which he thinks Trotsky should have used would make sense only it the emergence of a bureaucratic collectivist society were inevitable. We now know that the struggle in Russia during the 20’s was between three tendencies: proletarian socialism, capitalist restoration, bureaucratic collectivism. It was not until the Kremlin safely passed over the terrible test of the first Five-Year Plan, including the liquidation of the kulaks, that the new bureaucratic class and its social system achieved firm dominance. What then is the meaning of Howe’s view that Trotsky should have formed a bloc with the Right Opposition against Stalin? If it is granted that the Right Opposition represented a capitalist restorationist tendency (i.e., through the maintenance of the NEP at all costs), Howe’s course would make sense only from the point of view that restoration could never be realized and that bureaucratic collectivism was inevitable. (To talk of a Trotskyist-Right bloc is, of course, fantastic as a realistic alternative. The Rights were in a firm bloc with Stalin from 1924 to 1929 and were the most rabid anti-Trotskyists in the party, along with all the illicit bourgeois tendencies outside of the party.)

One last point remains to be clarified before leaving the question of method. It may be argued that to rule out an “out of context” approach is the equivalent of saying that we should not utilize the accumulated evidence o£ history in its study. This follows only if we seek to subject a given policy to historical criticism without establishing a prior historical interpretation of the period (i.e., the context) in question. Obviously, our understanding of what took place during 1920–23 is vastly superior (and needs must be so) to that of any participant (even the men of genius). Having seen the end-product of Stalinism in the form of bureaucratic collectivist totalitarianism, we can now more accurately chart the stages of its development. But in probing the alternatives which confronted Trotsky and in relating his decisions to his theoretical views, we can only proceed on the basis of what he could have known.

Trotsky’s Contemporaries

We now wish to consider the one point of criticism against Trotsky which Howe bases upon a “within the context” approach. In Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma he refers to Bolsheviks who, in the opinion of Howe, had a “superior political conception” to that of Trotsky. Howe’s footnote refers us to the internal discussions among the Left Oppositionists who were in Stalin’s prisons. In rereading this section o£ the book, one nowhere finds a program worked out which is superior to that of Trotsky’s at the time. (That some oppositionists began to question the workers’ state theory of Trotsky is true. However, this was during the early 1930’s when the bureaucracy, which had triumphed over the proletarian opposition, began to direct its heavy blows against the capitalist elements and, thereby, to reveal that it could maintain itself upon its own economic base.) A “superior political conception” cannot be based merely upon a better policy upon one or several questions. What value does it have when the program as a whole is so inferior as to lead one astray? The system of ideas by which one arrives at an answer to a specific problem may prove more important for the political tendency than the answer itself. If the question of democracy was “the one burning problem,” as Howe asserts (but does not prove), were not anarchists, Left Social Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks correct on this question as against Trotsky? But where would their alternative courses have led to? This is the nub of the question. Even if we assume that their programs would not have led to Stalinism, was it preferable to risk a bourgeois counter-revolution? Would a Russian Gallifet (a Russian Himmler was more likely) have been preferable to a Yagoda?

It is my view that the specific questions which Howe deals with can only be examined profitably as part of a study devoted to the period of 1920–23. It is not possible to give them worthwhile treatment in a polemical answer to Howe’s article for this would require answering upon the same (incorrect) grounds that Howe stands upon in raising them. I will demonstrate this contention in the following analysis:

Howe makes the following criticisms of Trotsky’s role:

  1. Trotsky proceeded within the framework of the bureaucracy in his fight;
  2. Trotsky should have launched a fight for the right of all loyal factions and parties to exist legally;
  3. Trotsky had a “negative” attitude toward the Workers Opposition of 1920 and similar groups;
  4. Trotsky should not have feared to split in the early stages of the fight;
  5. Trotsky should have made the question of democracy the “one burning problem” rather than subordinate it to economic questions;
  6. Trotsky should have approached the Right Opposition for a bloc against Stalin on the question of democracy;
  7. Trotsky should have formed a bloc of all opposition groups on the issue of democracy;
  8. Trotsky should have understood that the question of progress was no longer dependent upon the factor of productivity; and
  9. Trotsky should have foreseen “the possibility of a new kind of society arising in Russia, what we have called bureaucratic collectivism ...” (our emphasis – E.E.)

The last point is the pivot around which all others turn. This is recognized by Howe himself when he calls the last point the “root of his (Trotsky’s) subsequent difficulties on the Russian question.” Then does not Howe’s whole approach rest upon his contention that Trotsky, as a genius, should have foreseen bureaucratic collectivism? If Howe could be convinced that it is absurd to judge Trotsky’s role on the basis of his inability to foresee bureaucratic collectivism, would Howe still make the same preceding eight specific criticisms? He might, but certainly from a different method of reasoning. It is because of this that the question of methodology is so pertinent to this discussion.

A serious interpretation of what took place in Russia during 1920–23 remains one of the pressing problems for the Marxist movement. The Workers Party, as one of the few currents of international Marxism interested in living theory rather than in recitation of formulae, has concerned itself deeply with many questions that are relevant to the 1920–23 disputes. The very publication of Trotsky’s The New Course and Max Shachtman’s essay on it was not accidental. It arose out of the great interest of our party in the question of bureaucracy and party democracy. Our party has done much to demolish the dogma that took root in the movement which viewed everything done by the Bolsheviks up until 1923 and everything done by the Trotskyist Opposition after as a model to be followed. Historical Bolshevism has never been a closed book in our party. In this sense we have restored to historical inquiry the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg’s remarks upon the Russian Revolution when she wrote:

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics... What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. (The Russian Revolution)

It is precisely because Howe’s method makes it impossible to “distinguish the essential from the non-essential” that it permits the most arbitrary and limitless revisions which endanger our basic revolutionary theory. That is why it is his method that-is at stake, in the first place, rather than his conclusions.


1. Why Howe decides at this point to enclose “out of” in quotation marks is not indicated. Is it, perhaps, that he began to doubt the validity or existence of an “out of context” method?

2. See the discussions of the internal differences in the Left opposition contained in Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma. (Footnote in original.)

3. Howe’s point that “Trotsky was in the grip of a more or less mechanical conception of progress as measured primarily by economic productivity” may be true but is unrelated to Trotsky’s estimate of the importance of productivity in Russia in 1920–23.

4. By “knowable” we do not mean only what could have been definitely established but that which can be reasonably expected to have entered into a calculation or prognosis of the future.

5. Such an interpretation in no way exonerates either individuals, parties or classes from historical responsibility for the consequences of their role. Quite the contrary, it is only through such an approach that responsibility is made meaningful through relating it to ideologies and theories rather than the caprice of the individual. (Moral responsibility is another question and is not germane to our present discussion.)

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