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Irving Howe

Reviewing The New Course

A Critical Re-Evaluation

(September 1946)

From New International, Vol. 12 No. 7, September 1946, pp. 210–213.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A political book is an act. If, like Trotsky’s The New Course [1], it appears at a critical juncture of an historical struggle, it must primarily be understood by an attempted placement of oneself in the context in which it was written. In this sense, understanding is a process that moves backwards in time. But it is not the only possible sense in which such a book can be approached. Understanding can also be a projection out of the specific historical context; it can be a movement forwards in time, away from the context of the book’s creation and towards whatever relevance it has for new situations different from the original context.

I begin in this way because I wish in this article to use both methods and because the two methods will yield slightly variant results. What follows may subject me to the charges of “looking at the situation out of context” and “second guessing,” both of which charges I partially acknowledge in advance and the legitimacy of which will be discussed towards the end of this article.

The New Course is one of Trotsky’s most remarkable works. Unlike many of his other books, it is not immersed in history; it does not concern itself with the alternation of epochs, their opposition and synthesis. Nor is it primarily a polemic on Marxist strategy though it does contain some of the first formulations – how brilliant they seem in retrospect! how remarkable is Trotsky’s gift to sum up in a phrase an entire political conception! – of the strategical conceptions on the Russian economy which he was later fully to develop in his Draft Program (Third International After Lenin).

The New Course is unique among Trotsky’s works in that it represents a kind of pause in his thinking, when he stops at a moment of crisis to take stock. It is, and appropriately so, more static than dynamic in its approach. It is as if he were saying: Let us desist from the specific events of the incipient struggle -and see what generalizations we can draw. Which is why Trotsky does something in The New Course that is quite rare in his writings: he offers, with the appropriate reservations and the relativistic emphases, certain general observations on the conduct of a revolutionary party and revolutionists in the post-revolutionary behavior.

A Polemic Against Bureaucratism

Trotsky therefore discusses in The New Course such problems as the internal functioning of a revolutionary party, the relationship between the older leaders and the often rebellious youth, the moot role of tradition in a revolutionary movement and the role of the functionary in the party. Now these problems are discussed in their specific context first of all: Trotsky is most concerned with demonstrating the growth of bureaucratism in the apparatus, its contempt for criticism, its snide attitude towards the youth, its demagogic deification of tradition into a gag on fresh and creative thought. Trotsky is writing a polemic – an opening, veiled, mild but still powerful blow against the bureaucracy. But he is doing something else as well. First out of motives of caution (the fight is in its opening stages) and second because the problems he discusses cannot be restricted to a specific context, Trotsky necessarily indulges in certain generalizations on problems of democracy and organization.

Trotsky has some profoundly important things to say. He tells us that a healthy revolutionary leadership is constantly being renewed; its personnel, far from being static or “hereditary,” is constantly refurbished by additions from the most critical and serious of the youth. Tradition, he tells us, is a controlling guide and not a stifling inhibition; no argument is settled by appeals to tradition, for though we may learn from the experiences of our revolutionary predecessors we must recognize the existence in each situation of unique elements to which fresh answers must always be furnished. Bureaucratism is an ever-present danger in a party, especially when it is forced to function in such a difficult historical milieu as was the Bolshevik Party in the post-war years. Bureaucratism inheres in all organizations (as we today understand organization) for organization is concomitant with struggle, status, hierarchy and social differentiation and with these present bureaucratism cannot be absent. We do not draw the self-defeating conclusion of abandoning organization, but rather of constantly being on guard against bureaucratism. Trotsky indicates a high degree of sensitivity to the cross-currents of social pressures which wrack every party, to the realistic pressures which give it its ever-present dual character of liberator and confiner. I shall not here continue to list these admirable aspects of Trotsky’s work; everyone should read them for himself.

I want now to proceed to a consideration of what seem to me some of the weaknesses in Trotsky’s book.

Trotsky’s polemic proceeds too much within the framework of discussion – and thereby, action – laid down by the bureaucracy itself. His book is full of assurances and reassurances that the struggle which he is about to begin, or rather which has already been provoked by unavoidable historical circumstances, will not assume the character of a party “crumbling into factions”; Trotsky speaks of the possibility of “the leadership ... finding this line corresponding to the real situation ...” What then was Trotsky’s fundamental understanding of the nature of the differences in 1923?

The Question of Factions

Though the dispute over the theory of “socialism in one country” docs not yet appear in this book – because it has not yet been developed as a political rationalization by the bureaucracy – all of the deep social conflicts which were later to prod the bureaucracy into developing the theory of “socialism in one country,” are implied and described. The rise of bureaucratism in a backward country whose revolution has not received succor from the west, the economic problems of the relation between industry and agriculture summed up in the graphic figure of the “Smytchka” (scissors) – these are the fundamental social problems of which the dispute over “socialism in one country” was a mere ideological reflection. But if Trotsky understood the depth of the crisis, as the book suggests, then he was wrong in fearing a party which would “crumble” into factions (why does the existence of factions necessarily imply crumbling?); in fact, objectively he was playing into the hands of the bureaucracy by moderating the struggle: calm was to its advantage.

It may of course be objected – and with considerable relevance – that Trotsky began his struggle in conditions of great difficulty, when the population was wearied from years of hunger and struggle, when all of the objective factors were highly unfavorable. That is true, and cannot be ignored.

(In that case, however, how explain the apparent optimism which fills Trotsky’s book, his assurance that “the present critical period ... will teach a good deal to the majority of the apparatus workers and will get them to abandon most of their errors.” Can that be considered merely as exhortation?)

But it would seem, in retrospect, that precisely these objectively unfavorable factors would have dictated a more vigorous, a more open struggle rather than one which for many months before and several years after 1923 was largely confined to the top strata of the apparatus. By open struggle I mean exactly the opposite of what certain people have meant when they asked why Trotsky didn’t utilize his popularity in the Red Army to initiate a coup d’etat; for an open struggle would have involved at least the attempt to bring the issues to the masses before the degenerative process had gone further, rather than the effects of a coup d’etat which would have been self-defeating whether victorious or not. These considerations, which are of course not novel, are given added weight by the internal evidence from The New Course.

A specific instance of how Trotsky kept his polemic more or less within the framework convenient to the bureaucracy is seen in his discussion on the role of democracy in the young soviet state. By 1923 there was only one legal party in Russia. For this regrettable state of affairs, the Bolsheviks were least of all responsible. The Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks had openly gone over to the camp of reaction and counterrevolution. In the famine year of 1919, when Petrograd was threatened on two sides by White armies, the Left SRs and the Mensheviks had called a general strike in the factories which the revolutionists had left in order to fight in the Red Army. Such parties had no moral right to legality in the soviet state.

But to accept the necessity of the Bolsheviks’ suppression of these parties is not to deny that the very act of suppression was dangerous, that it created a vacuum which should have been full, that it tended to establish certain attitudes and incipient conceptions which smoothed the way, though they did not cause, the bureaucratic degeneration.

The 1920 Opposition Groups

Thus in the early twenties there was only the Martov group in vocal opposition; exactly how it ended up is not quite clear, though it seems indisputable that the Bolshevik government took at least mild police measures against it. More important, there arose opposition groups within the Bolshevik Party itself, the two main ones being the Workers Opposition Group led by Kollontai and Shlyapnikov and the Workers Group led by Myasnikov. The former group was outlawed within the Bolshevik Party at its 10th Congress and the latter at the 11h Congress; subsequently many of its members joined the Left Opposition of Trotsky. Little is known of these groups – their history has been lost in the maze of subsequent struggles – but it appears that their democratic opposition to the growing bureaucratism led them to advocate anarcho-syndicalist economic measures.

Trotsky has not satisfactorily explained his negative attitude towards these groups: their invalid economic conceptions were entirely secondary to their healthy and correct attitude towards the problem of democracy, which was the main problem. Nor has he explained, in The New Course or elsewhere, why he acquiesced in the suppression of these groups within the Bolshevik Party, which merely strengthened the bureaucratic regime and made more difficult his own subsequent opposition. On the contrary, The New Course contains a number of references to the groups which seem without justification. Thus Trotsky writes that the Workers Opposition Group was “the most dangerous” opposition, and that the 10th Party Congress took action “satisfying what was just and healthy in the criticisms of the Workers Opposition.” How valid these statements of Trotsky were can be judged by his own subsequent experiences.

On the contrary, there are formulations in The New Course which indicate that Trotsky’s thinking – vigorous and valid though it was in opposition to bureaucratism – had itself also been infected by the milieu in which he functioned. Thus the remarkable but indefensible sentence: “We are the only party in the country and, in the period of the dictatorship, it could not be otherwise.” Thus, also his left-handed endorsement in The New Course of the 10th Party Congress decision outlawing factions. In fairness, it should be remarked that Trotsky writes that this decision outlawing factions within the Bolshevik Party was supplementary and that it was not intended as a police decree; that, in fact, a certain amount of both free discussion and factional activity did continue after the decision was made. But the point which is involved and is central here is this:

In launching a struggle in behalf of a democratization of the degenerating soviet regime, Trotsky confined himself to the boundaries laid out by the bureaucracy. His struggle would have been more effective and meaningful had he launched an open demand for the unconditional right of all loyal factions to exist openly and without intimidation within the Bolshevik Party, as well as for the right of legal existence of any party which remained loyal to the soviet regime regardless of its differences of policy with the Bolshevik Party. But Trotsky – so The New Course indicates – was himself subject to the narrow conception that in the concrete situation only one party was possible (a conception Bukharin was soon to render profound by stating that only one party was possible in any workers state) and that a split [2] in the Bolshevik Party would have been a major tragedy. Quite possibly, had the leading militants been acclimated to the idea that there could exist more than one loyal soviet party at one time – in fact, more than one loyal Bolshevik Party at one time – an early split might have been no tragedy at all. But by so thoroughly accepting the idea which the bureaucracy craftily spread – that a split in the party would be a tragedy leaving the door open for capitalist restoration and that therefore opposition groups should “restrain” themselves (or be restrained ...) – Trotsky made much more difficult his own struggle. The conception of the proletarian dictatorship as a kind of erziehungsdiktatur with the Bolshevik Party as the stern schoolmaster had begun to be common in the ranks of the communists; and only a radical, total break with that conception could have rallied a more effective opposition.

Economic Planning and Democracy

Instead Trotsky made the error of seeing the economic issues as predominant. It goes without saying that they were integrally and inseparably linked with the problem of democracy, that ultimately they were two sides of the same problem. But as issues for struggle they were entirely secondary to the one burning problem of democracy; proper economic planning may have been impossible without workers democracy, but a successful struggle for workers democracy was the best way to make possible proper economic planning. Had Trotsky been able to see this he would have: (a) been less ambiguous about his attitude towards the general problem of democracy in a workers state, as I have indicated above, and would have not been intimidated by the demagogic cries of “split” which came from the bureaucracy; and (b) he would not have made the false analysis that he did make of a number of other opposition groups that arose in Russia. For instance the fact that Bukharin’s Right Opposition had an economic program which was incorrect and even dangerous was as nothing to the fact that it found itself in opposition to Stalin. Much the same was true, I think, for the pre-1923 opposition groups. What strikes one in examining the 1920-1932 period of Russian history is the existence of successive oppositions, all of them, whatever their other differences, dedicated to a restoration of at least some soviet democracy. Even if their total strength had been put together at any given time, they still could probably not have triumphed. But a much stronger struggle could have been conducted and Trotsky was the one man who might have welded them all into one bloc.

Trotsky’s difficulty on this matter flowed – it is now clear – from his acceptance of the idea that the main danger in Russia was capitalist restoration. Now it is true, that unlike today when there is very slight possibility of it, capitalist restoration was a real danger in the early twenties. But Trotsky failed to see – and this failure was to mar all of his subsequent analyses of Stalinism, brilliant as they were – the possibility of the development of an indigenous bureaucracy based on nationalized economy which would strike as powerful blows against any restorationist tendency as against revolutionary groups. Trotsky was in the grip of a more or less mechanical conception of progress as measured primarily by economic productivity, a conception which served well enough during the historical past when world economic productivity was still insufficient to satisfy man’s basic needs, but which was by now irrelevant in an historical epoch when productivity had reached a new peak and the social problem became no longer one of how to develop the productive forces but rather within which social relationships to utilize them. It was this conception of the theory of progress, adequate enough for the past but requiring sup plementation for the present, which led Trotsky to view Stalinism as merely a bureaucracy within a degenerated workers state. In 1923 Stalinism was just that: a bureaucracy of a degenerated workers state; but Trotsky’s conception of progress and his unwillingness to accept the possibility of a new kind of society arising in Russia, what we have called bureaucratic collectivism, were at the root of his subsequent difficulties on the Russian question. And in The New Course we can see the incipient manifestations of those shortcomings which were to develop into a false political line on Russia’s role in the second world war.

Early Speculation on Degeneration

There is one fascinating sentence in The New Course in which Trotsky answers the question of what are the political paths by which counter-revolution might triumph. He answers: “either the direct overthrow of the workers’ party, or its progressive degeneration, or finally, the conjunction of a partial degeneration, splits, and counter-revolutionary upheavals.” But he does not, alas, explain what he meant by “progressive degeneration.” Later he was to deny that this degeneration

could be called anything but a workers state so long as nationalized property was maintained, but there is at least the possibility in this pregnant sentence of another interpretation – of the kind which the Workers Party has made. So long, then, as Trotsky saw capitalist restoration as the main danger or danger equal to that of degenerative bureaucratism, he was necessarily restrained in the struggle which he conducted and his analysis was necessarily disoriented at times.

Nonetheless, whatever weight the reader may give to the above remarks, I wish to emphasize that they are made within the framework of the general Bolshevik conception; that I accept the essentials of the Trotskyist explanation of the degeneration of the Russian revolution and also the essentials of Trotsky’s explanation for the constriction of democracy in the early twenties. It is hoped that these remarks will not be viewed as an attempt to gain the cover of piety. We must by now understand that the acceptance of Bolshevism and Trotsky’s politics does not mean an acceptance of each of their acts or statements; that, on the contrary, loyal criticism is the most useful and fructifying kind of agreement.

The Question of “Second Guessing”

One matter remains to complete this discussion: what about “second guessing” and “taking events out of their context?” I have said at the beginning that it is necessary to understand both in and “out of” context. We can now see the relevance of that remark.

In a certain sense, all historical criticism is second guessing. We examine Trotsky’s behavior in 1923 or what he wrote in 1923. We conclude that some of his behavior and some of his writings were incorrect. What does that mean? It can mean several things. It can mean that insofar as we can project ourselves into the situation of 1923 we believe that our opinions would have led to a more correct course of action. 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.

Even in that limited sense, I believe what I have written is valid for the following reasons: 1) There were Bolsheviks [3] even then who had this – what I consider – superior political conception; in that sense, the previous criticisms are not merely second guessing. 2) We are writing here 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 towards some one else.

But let us grant that we are largely second guessing, let us grant that our opinions are retrospective judgment. The question is: what is wrong with second guessing, what is wrong with retrospective judgment? To some extent all historical criticism is second guessing and retrospective judgment. Certain kinds of second guessing are useless and absurd, for they pertain exclusively to the past; they are as dead as the events they describe. But historical criticism – which we have crudely equated here to second guessing and retrospective judgment-may have more relevance to the future than to the past. Thus if we criticize The New Course in order to learn certain lessons for the future, in order to once more reassert the forever necessary statement of the indissolubility of socialism and democracy, then we are engaging in a useful activity. The criticism is then in a sense more important for today and tomorrow.

If retrospective judgment is used for this purpose, it is a very important form of self-criticism. It does not in any way detract from the brilliance of our teachers of the past, it does not detract from the luster of their achievements or their writings. For we build not merely on that which we accept from the past but also on that which we reject. And that too is a




1. The New Course by Leon Trotsky. With The Struggle for the New Course by Max Shachtman, The New International Publishing: Company. 265 pp. Cloth $2.00. Paper $1.60.

2. Lenin was ready to face splits on much less basic issues. Do we not all feel Lenin would have behaved differently from Trotsky?

3. See the discussions of the internal differences in the Left opposition contained in Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma.

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