Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Two excerpts from Our Political Tasks
by Leon Trotsky
Estimated Reading Time: 11 min

Though born only in 1879, Trotsky had gained a leading place among the Russian Social-Democrats by the time of the Second Party Congress in 1903. Like Rosa Luxemburg, he represented ultra-radical sentiment that could not reconcile itself to Lenin's stress on the party organization. Trotsky stayed with the Menshevik faction until he joined Lenin in 1917. From that point on he accommodated himself in large measure to Lenin's philosophy of party dictatorship, but his reservations came to the surface again in the years after his fall from power. His comments on Lenin in 1904 were truly prophetic.

Robert V. Daniels, Editor of A Documentary
History of Communism in Russia.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) and Lenin's relationship has gone through much revisionism itself. Trotsky later would've stapled himself to Lenin's side if he could while Stalin was basically like "Leon who? My friend Lenin and I never really knew the guy." But in 1904, Trotsky was still with the Mensheviks faction (though that was quickly coming to an end and he would soon identify as non-factional) and Lenin was Bolshevik-aligned. Yesterday, we read some of Luxemburg's critiques of Lenin's centralism; today, Trotsky raises some issues with Lenin's "substitutionalism" and relationship with the consciousness of the proletariat (fueled in part, no doubt, by Lenin's savage criticism of some of the Menshevik tendency). Years later, Trotsky wrote of this polemic in his book Stalin (no points for guessing the slant in that book):

In the pamphlet, “Our Political Problems,” written by me in 1904, which contains not a little that is immature and erroneous in my criticism of Lenin, there are, however, pages which present a fairly accurate characterization of the east of thought of the “committeemen” of those days, who “have foregone the need to rely upon the workers after they had found support in the ’principles’ of centralism.” The fight Lenin was obliged to wage the following year at the Congress against the high and mighty “committeemen” completely confirmed the justice of my criticism.

Down with Political Substitutionalism

By giving a detailed exposition of different examples it has been my intention to draw attention to the difference in principle which separates two opposing methods of work. And this difference, in essence, is decisive, if we are to define the character of all work carried out by our Party. In the one case we have a party which thinks for the proletariat, which substitutes itself politically for it, and in the other we have a party which politically educates and mobilises the proletariat to exercise rational pressure on the will of all political groups and parties. These two systems give objectively quite different results.

When Social Democracy tries on its own initiative to “push forward” the liberal opposition, its very success is only based on the political mentality of this opposition, and determines in advance the slight value of its eventual “success.” Its initiative, whether in the form of a proclamation or a “conspiratorial” meeting in the wings of the political stage, will only be taken into consideration in so far as it corresponds to the state of mind and thinking of the liberal audience. In other words, the Social Democrat, in the eyes of the liberals, will just appear as a democrat with “Marxist” prejudices.

The picture is thoroughly modified if the liberal is obliged to see in the person of the Social Democrat the representative of a real force, even if he is only acting for a few thousand workers. When a political event no longer follows the path laid down by logic and the political mentality of liberalism, then it is turned in a new direction in which the trump card is in the hands of another force; the political logic and outlook of the conscious proletariat. When the Social Democrat takes such an initiative, he does not base himself on the mentality of his “collaborator” of the moment – he will only take this into account: he bases himself on the organised opinion of the proletariat. He will appear to the liberals not as a democrat with Marxist leanings, but as a representative of the democratic demands of the proletariat.

Zemstvo: Local government bodies headed by the nobility, established in the central gubernias of Russia shortly after the emancipation of the serfs, in 1864.
Duma: Russian word for an elected municipal council under the Czars government. Basically powerless until 1905.

The tactic of our committees, which consists of from time to time sending out (behind the backs of the proletariat) appeals or proclamations to the students, the zemstvos, the dumas and the various congresses, is very similar to that of the liberals in the zemstvos “interceding” with the autocracy on behalf of the people. Substituting themselves for the proletariat, the leading Social Democratic groups do not understand that it is just as necessary to lead the proletariat to “show” its class will in relation to the liberal and radical democratic movement as to lead it to demonstrate its revolutionary-democratic will against the autocracy.

Substituting themselves for the proletariat, our committees, instead of organising the proletariat into becoming socially aware, intercede with the bourgeois-democratic movement with their proclamations to favour “their” proletariat. Should we then be surprised if these impotent petitions take the “severe” form of condescending rebukes, denouncing “half-measures” and “lack of resolution”? Rebukes which provoke no reaction bar an ironic shrug from Messrs. cultivated liberals.

The supposed pressure we bring to bear on the liberals will be still less like a petition (even if it is an intercession in the form of a bold request) if we learn to assemble the proletariat in a real activity (a petition, a resolution, a protest, a meeting or a demonstration), not only around the general democratic aims but also on their own slogans, clearly formulated from a class standpoint and director, at a given moment, not only against the police and the autocracy but also against the “irresolution” and “lack of conviction” of the liberals. Our real, not fictitious, influence on the policy of the liberals will be all the greater if we go less “into all classes of the population,” turning our back on the proletariat – which is what all our “political” committees end up doing.

However simple this at first appears, it is necessary to understand that the only way for us to have influence on political life is to act through the proletariat, and not in its name; that we must not ourselves “go among all classes of the population,” but that – to use a lapidary expression – the proletariat itself must go among all the classes of the population.

Comrade Axelrod stressed this idea in his 1897 articles. “To gain influence over these layers (the layers which suffer from the present disorganisation),” he says, “it is not at all necessary that the social democrats go in their midst, into the milieu of these layers. The task for the Russian Social Democrats of winning supporters and direct or indirect allies in the non-proletarian classes will be resolved mainly by the nature of the agitational and propaganda activity within the proletariat itself.” (Axelrod, On the question of the present tasks and tactics of the Russian Social Democrats, p.16, author's emphasis.)

The system of political substitutionism, exactly like the system of simplification of the “Economists,” proceeds – consciously or not – from a false and “sophistical” understanding of the relationship between the objective interests of the proletariat and its consciousness. Marxism teaches that the interests of the proletariat are determined by the objective conditions of its existence. These interests are so powerful and so inescapable that they finally oblige the proletariat to allow them into the realm of its consciousness, that is, to make the attainment of its objective interests and its subjective concern. Between these two factors – the objective fact of its class interest and its subjective consciousness – lies the realm inherent in life, that of clashes and blows, mistakes and disillusionment, vicissitudes and defeats. The tactical farsightedness of the Party of the proletariat is located entirely between these two factors and consists of shortening and easing the road from one to the other.

The class interests of the proletariat – independently of the present political conjuncture “in general” and, in particular, of the level of consciousness of the working masses at a given moment – can nonetheless only exert pressure on this conjuncture via the consciousness of the proletariat. In other words, in the political reckoning, the Party cannot count on the objective interest of the proletariat which are brought out by theory, but only on the conscious organised will of the proletariat.

Leaving aside the “prehistoric,” sectarian circle period which every Social Democratic Party goes through and in which its methods are much closer to educational utopian socialism than to political revolutionary socialism, in which it knows only socialist pedagogy, but not yet political tactics; if one considers a Party already past this infantile period, the essentials of its political work are expressed, in our opinion, in the following outline: the Party bases itself on the given level of consciousness of the proletariat; it will involve itself in every important political event by making an effort to orient the general direction towards the immediate interests of the proletariat, and, what is still more important, by making an effort to imbed itself in the proletariat by raising the level of consciousness, to base itself on this level and use it for this dual purpose. Decisive victory will come the day we overcome the distance separating the objective interests of the proletariat from its subjective consciousness, when, to be more concrete, such an important section of the proletariat will have gained an understanding of its objective of social revolution, that it will be powerful enough to remove from its path, by its own politically organised strength, every counter-revolutionary obstacle.

The greater the distance separating the objective and subjective factors, that is, the weaker the political culture of the proletariat, the more naturally there appear in the Party those “methods” which, in one form or another, only show a kind of passivity in the face of the colossal difficulties of the task incumbent upon us. The political abdication of the “Economists,” like the “political substitutionism” of their opposites, are nothing but an attempt by the young Social Democratic Party to “cheat” history.

Of course, the “Economists” and the “politicians” are much less consistent in reality than in our scheme – and this inconsistency has enabled all of them to play a very progressive role in the development of our Party. When we describe the “basic error” of “Economism” or of “political substitutionism” we must in large part speak of the possibility, which might have become reality, if it had not encountered opposition. Taking this limitation into account, we can now establish the following comparison.

The “Economists” started from the subjective interests of the proletariat, as they existed at each moment of its development, they based themselves on this and considered it their sole task to register them scrupulously. As for the duties, which constitute the content of our tactics, they left them to the natural course of things – from which for the moment they excluded themselves.

By contrast with the “Economists,” the “political” elements took at their starting point the objective class interests of the proletariat, established by the Marxist method. But they too, with the same apprehension as the “Economists,” drew back before the “gap” separating the objective from the subjective interests of the class which they are supposed to “represent.” And for them, questions of political tactics – in the true sense of the term – exist as little as for the “Economists.” Once one has at one’s disposal an historico-philosophical analysis revealing the tendencies of social development, when the results of it are made “our” chief patrimony, and we think substitutionally, then there is nothing to do but to cash in at the bank of history, as one cashes a cheque, the conclusions we have reached. So, if the “Economists” do not lead the proletariat, because they are merely tail-ending it, the “political” elements do no better for the good reason that they themselves are carrying out duties in its place. If the “Economists” are disarmed in the face of the enormity of their task, contenting themselves with the humble role of marching at the tail-end of history, the “politicians” on the other hand, have resolved the problem by trying to transform history into their own tail.

The following reservation must however be made: the accusation of “substitutionism” applies much less to us as revolutionaries than as revolutionary social democrats.

In the first case, it is more difficult to “cheat”: history, having placed a definite task on the agenda, is observing us sharply. For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”

In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”; in “external” politics these methods are manifested in attempts to bring pressure to bear on other social organisations, by using the abstract strength of the class interests of the proletariat, and not the real strength of the proletariat conscious of its class interests. These “methods,” as adopted by us and the content of our Party work. All in all, these “methods” lead to the complete disappearance of questions of political tactics in Social Democracy.

Comrade Lenin has expressly confirmed this in a certain thesis, which cannot be passed over in silence. Replying to Comrade Nadezhdin, who had complained of the lack of “deep roots,” Lenin wrote: “This is the high point of illogicity, for the writer confuses the philosophical, historical and social questions of the “deep roots” of the movement with the technical organisational problem of a more effective struggle against the police.” Comrade Lenin so cherishes this idea, that he takes it up again in his latest pamphlet: “To allege that we are the Party of the class,” Lenin says in reply to Axelrod, “in order to justify negligence on organisational questions, to justify the confusion of organisation and disorganisation, is to repeat the error of Nadezhdin, who confused “the philosophical, historical and social question of the deep roots of the movement,” with the problem of technical organisation.” (One Step Forward ...) So for Comrade Lenin, the question of “deep roots” is not a question of political tactics but a question of philosophical doctrine; if our doctrine, Marxism, supplies us with the “deep roots,” all that is left then is to carry out the technical-organisational task. Between the “philosophical” problem and the “technical-organisational” problem, there is one small link missing in the case of Comrade Lenin: the content of our Party work. Having dissolved the tactical aspect of the question into the “philosophical” aspect, Lenin has acquired the right to identify the content of the Party’s practice with the content of the programme. He deliberately ignores the fact that we imperatively need, not deep “philosophical” roots (how stupid! As thought the imam of any sect does not, from a “philosophical” point of view, have some deep root or another!), but real political roots, a living contact with the masses, enabling us at each decisive moment to mobilise this mass around a flag which is recognised as their flag.

This is why, in our view, organisational questions are totally subordinate to the methods of our political tactics, and, for us, the identification of the question of the organisation of the proletarian Party with the technical question of “improving the struggle against the police” is total bankruptcy. Total – for, if this identification “is based on the conspiratorial character of our present methods of work (as Parvus says in the few energetic lines he devotes to Lenin”s system), it is because the struggle against spies eclipses the struggle against absolutism and the other, much greater struggle, for the emancipation of the working class.”

Organisational tasks are for us totally subordinate to methods of political tactics.This is why this pamphlet too, arising from differences on “organisational questions” takes tactical questions as its starting point. To understand the difference on the organisational questions one must go beyond them, otherwise you asphyxiate in a surfeit of scholasticism and logic-chopping!

An excerpt of the subsection Discipline and centralism

According to Lenin’s new philosophy, which has barely had time to wear out its shoe-leather since What Is To Be Done? the proletariat only needs to have been through the “schooling of the factory” in order to give the intelligentsia, which up till them had played the leading role in the Party, lessons in political discipline! According to this new philosophy, anyone who does not see the Party as a “huge factory,” who finds the idea “monstrous,” or does not believe in the immediately (politically) educative strength of the machine, “at once betrays the psychology of the bourgeois intellectual,” incapable by nature of distinguishing between the negative side of the factory (“discipline based on the fear of dying of hunger”) and its positive side (“discipline based on common work resulting from highly developed technique”)

Without fear of betraying my “bourgeois intellectual psychology,” I affirm first-of-all that the conditions which impel the proletariat into concerted, collective struggle, are not to be found in the factory but in the general social conditions of its existence; and further, that the objective conditions and the conscious discipline of political action, there is a long road of struggle, errors, education – not the “school of the factory” but the school of political life, in which the Russian proletariat penetrates only under the leadership – good or bad – of the social democratic intelligentsia; and reaffirm that the Russian proletariat, in which we have barely begun to develop political self-activity, is not yet able – unfortunately for it and fortunately for Messrs. candidates for “dictatorship” – to give lessons in discipline to its “intelligentsia,” whatever the training the factory gives him in “common work resulting from highly developed technique.” Without the least fear of giving away my “bourgeois intellectual psychology,” I even declare my complete solidarity with the idea that

‘the technical submission of the worker to the uniform rhythm of the work tool (“discipline based on work in common resulting from highly developed technique”) and the particular composition of the collective worker as individuals of both sexes and ages, creates a barracks discipline (barracks, not politically conscious discipline!) perfectly in line with the factory regime.’ (Capital)

If Lenin believes in the discipline of the Russian proletariat as a real entity, in fact, to use his own formula, he confuses a “philosophical” question with a political one. Naturally, “highly technically developed production” creates the material conditions for the political development and sense of discipline of the proletariat, just as in general capitalism, creates the premises of socialism. But factory discipline is as little identical with political, revolutionary discipline of the proletariat as capitalism is to socialism.

The task of Social Democracy is precisely to rouse up the proletariat against this discipline, which replaces the work of human thought with the rhythm of physical movements; it consists of uniting it against this brutalising, mortal discipline in a single army linked hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder by community of political consciousness and revolutionary enthusiasm. Such discipline does not yet exist in the Russian proletariat; the factory and the machine give it this quality much less spontaneously than union disputes or conflicts.

The barracks regime could never be the regime of our Party, no more than the factory could be its model. Poor Comrade “Practitioner” who admitted thinking this ‘does not even suspect that the terrible word he cries out (the factory) at once gives away the psychology of the bourgeois intellectual,’ (One Step Forward ...). Poor Comrade Lenin! Fate has decided to place him in an especially ridiculous position: he does not even suspect that the Comrade “Practitioner” is not a “bourgeois intellectual,” but a proletarian who has been through the saving school of the factory ... The Russian proletariat, from whom Lenin’s supporters so often hide the problems of the internal crisis of the Party, will tomorrow, on Lenin’s orders, give a severe lesson in “anarchical individualism.”

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