Alan Woods was interviewed by Sudestada,
an Argentine arts, culture and news monthly magazine, on the Russian
Revolution and its subsequent degeneration. As Alan has explained, what
failed in Russia was not socialism, but a bureaucratic caricature of
Q: What was the role that the Russian masses attributed to
Trotsky after the victory of the Revolution when Lenin deteriorated
AW: The role of Trotsky both during and after the October Revolution
was enormous. Lenin had a very high regard for Trotsky. He said, for
example, on November 14, 1917: “Trotsky long ago understood that a
union with the Mensheviks was impossible, and since then there has been
no better Bolshevik.” Leon Trotsky was universally recognised as second
only to Lenin in the Party leadership. In fact, the masses (and also
the enemies of the Revolution) habitually referred to the Bolshevik
Party as the Party of Lenin-Trotsky.
Q: What were the main reasons for which Stalin was given posts
of enormous significance within the Party after the victory of the
AW: The organizational side of the work inevitably assumed a
colossal importance after the Revolution, when the Bolsheviks had the
responsibility of running a huge state apparatus, feeding the
population, keeping the transport system operational etc., while a
Civil War was raging. This work absorbed a considerable part of the
Party cadres, who found themselves drawn into the work of the state
apparatus. There were clearly dangers in this situation and Lenin was
anxious that the Party should keep a firm control over this work.
Sverdlov, as general secretary of the Party fulfilled this task
admirably. He was a marvellous organizer, an honest man, completely
devoid of personal ambition and wholly dedicated to the cause of the
Revolution and the Party, although he was not a theoretician. When
Sverdlov died in 1919, Lenin was looking for a good organizer with a
strong character to look after this aspect of the work. Lenin thought
that Stalin would play the same role as Sverdlov. But he was mistaken.
Stalin used his position in the Party and state apparatus (which were
now increasingly identified one with the other) to promote his cronies
and concentrate power into his own hands. Lenin later commented on this
in his so-called Testament.
Why do you think Trotsky decided not to intervene in the discussion on
the Georgian question (although he knew the opinion of Lenin and his
willingness to fight against the position of Stalin) and why did he not
agree to propose a change of general secretary at the XII Congress?
AW: During his final illness, Lenin became aware of serious
deviations in the Party leadership. Despite the strenuous attempts of
Stalin to isolate him from reality, Lenin learned of the scandalous
conduct of Stalin and his allies, Dzerzhinsky and Ordzhonikidze in
Georgia. Using bureaucratic methods, they had trampled over the
national sentiments of the people and oppressed the Georgian
Bolsheviks, even using physical violence against Party leaders.
When Lenin found out about this he was furious and demanded the
expulsion of Ordzhonikidze, Stalin’s henchman, from the Party. He wrote
a note addressed to Mdivani, the leader of the Georgian Communist
Party, promising the Georgian Bolsheviks his full support against
Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and Ordzhonikidze. From his deathbed, Lenin was
preparing a struggle against Stalin (his secretary said “Vladimir
Ilyich is preparing a bombshell for Stalin) and formed a bloc with
But soon after this Lenin’s health suddenly deteriorated, making it
impossible for him to attend the Party Congress. When he became
incapacitated through illness, it changed everything. Nobody had the
same authority as Lenin, and Trotsky was reluctant to launch a struggle
at the Congress that could end in a premature split. Besides, he had
still not abandoned hope that Lenin might recover. He therefore decided
to play for time.
In evaluating Trotsky’s motives, it is necessary to understand the
objective context in which the inner-Party struggle was unfolding.
There was a serious danger that an open split in the Party leadership
might develop into a split along class lines, which would weaken the
dictatorship of the proletariat and lead to a capitalist
counterrevolution. The leading group (the “troika”) was accusing
Trotsky of all kinds of things and he did not want to be cast in the
role of a splitter. That was the main reason why he decided not to
start an open battle at the Twelfth Party Congress.
Q: In his autobiography “My Life”, Leon Trotsky confirms that
Lenin had selected him as his most obvious successor in the political
bureau. Why do you think that Lenin never made that decision public?
AW: The twelfth congress took place in the early weeks of 1923, at a
time when the leading clique was not yet confident of its position and
was proceeding carefully. Stalin was still playing what seemed to be a
subordinate role. He was virtually unknown outside a narrow layer of
Party cadres. It was Zinoviev who played the leading role at this
Lenin himself was still proceeding cautiously at that time. He did
not make this letter public because he was hoping to resolve the
problems within the Party. At that stage, neither Lenin, Trotsky nor
any of the other participants realised the full gravity of the
situation or where it would end up. Lenin was worried about the danger
of capitalist counterrevolution (a fear shared by Trotsky). On this
question Lenin wrote: “Our party rests upon two classes, and for that
reason its instability is possible, and if there cannot exist an
agreement between those classes its fall is inevitable. In such an
event it would be useless to take any measures or in general to discuss
the stability of our Central Committee. In such an event no measures
would prove capable of preventing a split. But I trust that is too
remote a future, and too improbable an event, to talk about.”
Lenin feared that an open split between Trotsky and Stalin might
provoke a split in the Party along class lines. That is why he did not
make his views on the leadership public and also why he expressed
himself in the Testament in very guarded language. Do not forget that
he was intending to go in person to the Twelfth Party Congress, where I
believe he would have expressed himself in far more emphatic terms.
his Testament, Lenin says that Trotsky was “distinguished not only by
outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in
the present C.C. […]”. In relation to Stalin he wrote: “Comrade Stalin,
having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated
in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of
using that authority with sufficient caution.” Here Lenin was
expressing himself carefully, but later he added a postscript in which
he accuses Stalin of being rude and disloyal and advocated his removal
as general secretary.
The problem is that it is too easy to look upon these events with
the wisdom of hindsight. We must remember that the rise of Stalin and
the bureaucracy did not take place overnight. It was a gradual process
that reflected the real situation in the country, once the revolution
had been isolated in conditions of atrocious backwardness. In the
beginning it did not find its expression in overt political
differences. Rather, it was expressed in certain moods in society. It
was really a petty-bourgeois reaction against the traditions of
The bureaucrat in general wants a peaceful life, to be left alone to
get on with his work of “ordering” society from his office. He sees the
involvement of the workers as a nuisance. For the Soviet bureaucrat the
storm and stress of the period 1917-19 was something alien – a kind of
collective madness or social disorder. Therefore, after the years of
revolution and civil war the bureaucracy longed for peace and order.
That was the psychological basis of the “theory” of Socialism in One
Country. It expressed the psychology of the bureaucracy that found its
point of reference in Stalin’s faction. But this was still the music of
Incidentally, Stalin himself understood nothing and foresaw nothing.
A typical bureaucrat (Trotsky described him as “the Party’s outstanding
mediocrity”), he proceeded empirically, with no predetermined plan
other than to promote himself and eliminate his rivals. Trotsky once
said that, in all probability, if Stalin had known at that time where
he would end up, he would not have gone ahead.
Q. What was the position of Trotsky when the testament of Lenin
was made known at a meeting of the Political Bureau? Did he agree or
disagree on the distribution of the document in the forthcoming
AW: Lenin wrote the Testament one year before his death, on January
4, 1923. He died on January 21, 1924, but in reality his political life
was cut short in March 1923. Only two persons knew of the existence of
this document: the stenographer to whom it was dictated and Lenin’s
wife, N. Krupskaya. As long as there remained any hope for Lenin’s
recovery, Krupskaya kept the document under lock and key. But after
Lenin’s death, on the eve of the Thirteenth Congress, she handed the
testament to the Secretariat of the Central Committee, so that it
should be brought to the attention of the Party at the Congress in
accordance with Lenin’s wishes.
The first official reading of the testament in the Kremlin occurred
in the Council of Elders at the Thirteenth Congress of the party on May
22, 1924, when Kamenev read it out. At that time the Party apparatus
was semi-officially in the hands of the troika.
They were naturally opposed to reading the testament at the Congress.
But Krupskaya insisted. The question was transferred to a meeting of
the Elders at the Congress – that is, the leaders of the provincial
delegations. It was here that Trotsky and the other Opposition members
of the Central Committee first learned about the Testament.
At this meeting Kamenev began to read the text aloud. Nobody was allowed to make notes. As a result of the manoeuvres of the troika a
resolution was presented, whereby the document should be read to each
delegation separately in executive session; again no one should be
allowed to make notes; and at the plenary session of the Congress the
Testament must not be referred to. Krupskaya argued that this was a
direct violation of the wishes of Lenin. But the members of the Council
of Elders were implacable and an overwhelming majority adopted the
resolution of the troika.
For many years hardly anybody in Russia knew that the Testament
existed. It was published only in the stenographic report of the
Central Committee available only to Party functionaries, and that soon
disappeared. The broad Party membership never knew of it. Later the
Stalinists denied its existence. Max Eastman, who supported the Left
Opposition, published Lenin’s Testament for the first time in the 1920s
[outside the Soviet Union]. It was only made public after Khrushchev’s
famous speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin in 1956.
Trotsky says in his biography of Stalin that the document that
became known as Lenin’s Testament was “Lenin’s last advice on how to
organize the party leadership.” Lenin saw in Stalin’s methods the
beginnings of “bureaucratism not only in the Soviet institutions but
also in the Party.” In order to fight against this danger he dictated a
confidential letter giving his estimate of the leaders in the Central
Committee and, ten days later, added a postscript in which he proposed
to remove Stalin from his post as General Secretary of the party.
As we have said, this fear of a split in the Party leading to a
capitalist counterrevolution was the reason why Trotsky decided to take
a cautious attitude. The political differences, which were to emerge
sharply in the next few years, had still not appeared clearly. They
were present only in an embryonic form. The danger therefore existed
that a clash between Trotsky and the leading clique would not be
understood by the masses, or would be seen as a personal conflict. In
fact, the differences in the Party reflected the interests of different
classes and groups in society and cannot be understood outside these
deep-seated social tendencies.
Q: How would you define the role played in the history of the Russian Revolution by men such as Zinoviev and Kamenev?
AW: Zinoviev and Kamenev were important leaders of the Bolshevik
Party which they joined before 1914. However, they made some serious
mistakes. In 1917 they vacillated on the question of the workers taking
power. In February, after the workers had overthrown Kerensky, Kamenev
and Stalin adopted a conciliatory position in relation to the reformist
leaders and the bourgeois Provisional Government.
Lenin was forced to open up a fierce factional struggle against them
at the April Conference, when, basing himself on the support of the
proletarian rank and file, he rearmed the Party and gave it a correct
orientation with the slogan: All Power to the Soviets.
Later, at the time of the October insurrection, Zinoviev and Kamenev
again vacillated and took a position of opposing the uprising. They
even published the plans for the insurrection in the bourgeois press,
for which Lenin described them as strike-breakers and even demanded
their expulsion from the Party. However, immediately after the
insurrection they offered their services to the Revolution and were
given leading positions in the Party.
Even before Lenin’s death, they formed a secret bloc with Stalin known as the troika (triumvirate)
directed against Trotsky. It was then that they invented the myth of
“Trotskyism” in order to drive a wedge between Lenin and Trotsky in the
eyes of the Party. Zinoviev was driven by personal ambition, since he
considered that he ought to be Lenin’s successor. He played the leading
role in the campaign against Trotsky. But behind the scenes it was
Stalin who was consolidating his grip on power.
In 1926, when Stalin first publicly proclaimed the idea of Socialism
in One Country, Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with him, alarmed at the
direction in which he was moving. They later formed a bloc with Trotsky
– the United Opposition, which led the fight against Stalin and the
bureaucracy, for a return to Leninism, for Soviet democracy, for
industrialisation and Five Year Plans, against the right wing pro-kulak
deviation of Stalin and Bukharin and for proletarian internationalism.
After the Opposition was expelled in 1927, Zinoviev and Kamenev
capitulated to Stalin. This did not save them. They were later expelled
from the Party and imprisoned. They capitulated again, but were put on
trial (the first of Stalin’s notorious Purge Trials) and executed on
frame-up charges. This marked the beginning of what Trotsky described
as a one-sided Civil War launched by Stalin against the Bolshevik
For all their mistakes and deficiencies, Kamenev and Zinoviev were
honest revolutionaries, devoted to the cause of socialism and the
working class. In order to consolidate his power Stalin had to
eliminate Lenin’s Party and especially its leading cadres. That is why
he had Zinoviev and Kamenev murdered, along with countless other Old
Bolsheviks and dedicated Communists. This shows that Stalinism and
Leninism are mutually exclusive. They are separated by a river of
Q: You have said that the role of the individual in history
should not be dismissed, but that what is decisive or predominant is
not the personality of the protagonists. In that sense, did Trotsky and
the Left Opposition have any alternative to avoid the consolidation of
the bureaucracy in the State other than that which they defended?
Historical materialism teaches us to look beyond the individual
players on the stage of history and look for deeper causes. This does
not at all rule out the role of the individuals in history. In given
moments the role of a single man or woman can be decisive. We can say
with certainty that without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky
(particularly the former) in 1917, the October Revolution would never
have taken place.
However, individuals can only play such a role when all the other
conditions are present. The concatenation of circumstances in 1917
enabled Lenin and Trotsky to play a decisive role. But the same men had
been present for more than two decades before and were not able to play
the same role. In the same way, when the Revolution ebbed, despite
their colossal personal ability, Lenin and Trotsky were not able to
prevent the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution. This was
caused by objective forces against which even the greatest leaders were
Accident often plays a role in history. If it had not been for his
illness, Lenin would have attended the Congress and probably Stalin
would have been removed. However, it is impossible to understand great
historical processes in terms of individuals, “great men” etc. Marxism
seeks to analyze history in terms of the development of the productive
forces and the class relations that arise from this. Even if Lenin had
succeeded in winning a majority in the Congress, it would have meant
only a temporary delay in the ascent of the bureaucracy, which was
rooted in objective conditions. In 1926 at a meeting of the United
Opposition, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya said: “If Vladimir Ilyich were
alive today he would be in one of Stalin’s prisons.”
Q: What would have been the effect in the Soviet Union of a revolutionary victory in Germany in 1923?
AW: The main cause of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet
state was the isolation of the revolution in conditions of extreme
backwardness. Long ago Marx wrote in The German Ideology that
where poverty is general “all the old crap revives”. By this he meant
the evils of inequality, corruption, bureaucracy and privilege.
Lenin and Trotsky knew very well that the material conditions for
socialism were absent in Russia. Before 1924 nobody questioned this
elementary preposition. The Bolsheviks based themselves on the
perspective of the extension of the revolution to the advanced
capitalist countries of Europe, especially Germany. If the German
revolution had succeeded – which it could have in 1923 – the entire
situation in Russia would have been different.
the basis of a socialist federation, uniting the colossal productive
potential of Germany with the immense reserves of raw materials and
manpower of Russia, the material conditions of the masses would have
been transformed. Under such conditions the rise of the bureaucracy
would have been halted, and the Stalin faction would not have been able
to seize power. The morale of the Soviet working class would have been
boosted and its faith in the world revolution restored.
We must remember that in the period 1923-9, the process of
bureaucratic degeneration was by no means consolidated. This fact was
reflected in the series of zigzags that characterised the policies of
Stalin and his faction both in home and foreign policy throughout this
period. In 1923-28, Stalin adopted a right wing policy, characterised
by an adaptation to the kulaks (rich peasants) and nepmen (speculators)
in Russia and an adaptation to the reformists and colonial bourgeoisie
in foreign policy. This placed the Revolution in grave danger.
Internally, it encouraged the kulaks and other bourgeois elements at
the expense of the workers. Externally, it led the Communist
International to one defeat after another.
It was not that Stalin consciously organized the defeat of the
German Revolution in 1923, or that of the Chinese Revolution in 1923-7.
On the contrary, he desired the success of these revolutions. But the
right wing opportunist policies that he had imposed on the Communist
International in the name of Socialism in One Country guaranteed defeat
in each case.
Dialectically, cause becomes effect and vice-versa. The isolation of
the Russian Revolution was the ultimate cause of the rise of the
bureaucracy and the Stalin faction. The false policies of the latter
produced the defeat of the German and Chinese Revolutions (and other
defeats in Estonia, Bulgaria, Britain etc.). These defeats confirmed
the isolation of the Revolution and caused deep demoralisation of the
Soviet workers, who lost all hope that the European workers would come
to their aid.
This led to a consolidation of the bureaucracy and Stalinism, which
was only the political expression of the material interests of the
bureaucracy. This, in turn, led to further defeats of the international
revolution (Germany, Spain), which prepared the ground for the Second
World War that placed the USSR in extreme danger.
Q: What, in your view, were the successes and mistakes of the Left Opposition when it was still part of the Party?
every struggle one can point to this or that mistake. But it would be
wrong to attribute the defeat of the Left Opposition to errors of
subjective judgement. As a matter of fact, Trotsky was proven to be
correct on all the basic questions: on the German and Chinese
Revolutions, on the kulak danger, on industrialisation and five year
plans and so on. On the other hand, Stalin made colossal mistakes on
every one of these issues. Yet Stalin defeated Trotsky and the Left
Opposition. How can one explain this?
In 1923 Trotsky launched the Platform of the Opposition, based on a
defence of the Leninist principles of workers’ democracy and
proletarian internationalism. He began a struggle against bureaucratic
tendencies in the state and Party. This was the beginning of the Left
Opposition in the Soviet Union and internationally. The struggle
between the Left Opposition and the Stalin faction was at bottom a
class struggle, which reflected the contradictory interests between the
working class and the rising bureaucracy.
Trotsky tried to base himself on the working class, but the latter
was exhausted by long years of war, revolution and civil war. Long
hours of work in freezing factories, starvation wages and general
privation took their toll. The Soviet workers fell into a state of
apathy. They no longer participated in the Soviets, which became
inexorably bureaucratised. With every step back of the world
revolution, the workers became more disillusioned and disoriented and
the new caste of Soviet bureaucrats became more confident and insolent.
The reason why Stalin triumphed was not because of any mistakes of
the Opposition, as superficial bourgeois historians imagine, but
because of the broader context of the class relations in Soviet
society. I will cite just one instance to underline this point. In
1927, after the defeat of the Chinese Revolution, some students who
supported the Opposition came to Trotsky, arguing that, since everybody
could see that the Trotsky had been proven to be correct, they would
now win the majority of the Party. Trotsky disagreed. He pointed out to
them that for the Soviet workers, the objective consequences of the
defeat of the Chinese Revolution were far more important than who had
been right or wrong in perspectives.
As a matter fact, Trotsky knew that the Opposition could not
succeed. The unfavourable objective situation doomed them to defeat. So
why did he continue to fight? Why did he not capitulate to Stalin, as
Zinoviev, Kamenev and Radek did? The answer is that he was trying to
establish the ideas, programme and tradition for the future generations
of Communists in the USSR and internationally. He was the only one to
do so, despite the most frightful persecution that claimed the lives of
most of his comrades, friends and family.
In the midst of the most frightful betrayals, defeats,
demoralization and apostasy, Trotsky raised a clean banner, defended
the genuine traditions of Leninism, October and the Bolshevik Party.
Trotsky therefore succeeded in his aim. That was no small achievement!
Who now remembers the writings of Zinoviev and Kamenev? But in the
writings of Leon Trotsky we have a priceless heritage that retains all
its importance, relevance and vitality, especially after the collapse
of the USSR – the inevitable consequence of the crimes of Stalinism.
They represent the authentic banner of Bolshevism and the October
Revolution – the only hope for the future of humanity.