THE Soviet trade union debates erupted in the period following the Russian civil war. The main protagonists in this controversy were the Leninists and the Trotskyites. Both sides held opposed positions about how communists should relate to the trade unions and the masses in general in the new period of peaceful construction following the victory of the Bolsheviks in the civil war. This essay looks at J.V. Stalin’s contributions to this debate, and draws conclusions as to the significance of this controversy, which turned into a bitter factional struggle within Soviet communism.

With the rise of the concealed representatives of the bourgeoisie in the international communist movement, which fact found expression in Khrushchevite revisionism and which later led to eurocommunism, Stalin’s writings have often been neglected, or undervalued by those under the complete or partial influence of Krushchevite revisionist or Trotskyite thinking.

This whole or partial neglect of Stalin’s works means that not every Communist is aware of Stalin’s contribution in the Soviet trade union debates of 1920-1921. But if the revisionists saw fit to suppress the writings of Stalin, then it becomes all the more important to subject his works to close scrutiny.

The Soviet trade union debate of 1920-1921 was the first concerted attempt of the Trotskyites to challenge the Leninist leadership of the party. Trotsky had wanted to run the trade unions on militaristic lines, and had called for a "shake-up" of the unions, a "tightening of the screws", and the militarisation of Labour, which brought howls of protest from the trade unions and the Communist Party. After the defeat of the Trotskyites and the other oppositionists, Stalin at the 1924 conference of the RCP (B), which had the issue of inner-Party democracy on the agenda, reminded the delegates of the Trotskyite "shake-up" policy because, as it became evident, history seemed to be repeating itself, Stalin noted that

‘…we knew that no great difference separates the Trotsky of the Tenth Congress period from the Trotsky of today, for now, as then, he advocates shaking up the Leninist cadres’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 6; p.29)

Indeed, formerly Trotsky had called for the "shake-up" of the unions. This meant in practice removing those cadres who Trotsky found disagreeable, and who Trotsky saw as standing in the way of his "militarisation" of labour policy. They, in turn, would be replaced by Trotsky’s own appointees, who backed his policy, supporters… many of whom Trotsky had gathered around him in the civil war period. Stalin noted that the Trotsky of 1920-1921 and 1924 were very similar and that

‘The only difference is that at the Tenth Congress he wanted to shake up the Leninist cadres from the top, in the sphere of the trade unions, whereas now he wants to shake up the same Leninist cadres from the bottom, in the sphere of the Party. He needs democracy as a hobbyhorse, as a strategic manoeuvre. That’s what all the clamour is about’. ( J.V. Stalin: Works 6; p.29)

Trotsky’s ambition to take over the trade unions and the party was constantly rebuffed by the Leninist cadres regardless of the form in which the challenge manifested itself. In his attempts to take over the trade unions, the Trotskyites had relied on a bureaucratic manoeuvre. Lenin was prompted to chide Trotsky for

‘…an out-and-out bureaucratic approach’. (V. I. Lenin: CW. Vol. 32; p.73)

But in their attempts to take over the Soviet Communist party, the Trotskyites, with Trotsky in the front rank, having placed himself at the head of the anti-Leninist opposition after much dithering, decided to play the democracy card, and in a completely unprincipled fashion at that. Trotsky, the former advocate of a bureaucratic command approach to the trade unions and working class in general, now claimed to represent the forces of democracy within the Communist party. Trotsky, to an external audience, was adept at playing the role of the great ‘democrat’ in party affairs when he began to lose power, but those in the know were never easy to deceive.

The enemies of the Communists welcomed this surprising development, and it was therefore to be expected that leading Mensheviks would cheer him on. They saw in the Trotskyite opposition the possibility of disintegrating the united, disciplined forces of the Soviet Communist party. One leading Menshevik, S. Ivanovich, wrote

‘Let us be thankful to it for its activities, because they help all those who regard the overthrow of Soviet power as the task of the socialist parties’. (S. Ivanovich, quoted in: J.V. Stalin’s Works 6; p. 46)

The Central Committee, on Stalin’s initiative, had decided to raise the issue of inner-party democracy. But rather than follow this initiative, the opposition and Trotsky hastened to seize on the issue, to steal a march from the party leadership in such a way as to by-pass the central committee. Thus began a struggle over the question of the status of the central committee, which further deepened the cleavage between the Leninist leadership and the Trotskyite opposition.

What emerges, therefore, is the following: after his defeat in the trade union debate for promoting a bureaucratic command approach to the working class, and the rejection of his policy of the "militarisation of labour", Trotsky assumed the pose of the great champion of the democratic forces in the communist party. It is, however not easy to reconcile the real Trotsky with the picture of the party democrat, a picture beloved of his followers today.

What is certain is that after being denounced for his bureaucratic proclivities by Lenin during the Soviet trade union debates, Trotsky saw the need to change his image or risk alienating the party further. Previously he had relied on the bureaucratic elements to gain control of the trade unions, later, he calculated that by posing as the ‘democrat’ in the struggle against Stalin, he would increase his chances of gaining control of the Soviet communist party leadership and drive out the Leninists. However, like his trade union venture, this manoeuvre too eventually failed.

Trotsky’s new found love for democracy was exposed several times. During the trade union debates Lenin castigated him for anti-Soviet behaviour for refusing to serve on a commission set up to deal with the current differences over the trade unions, and Stalin relates an incident which exposes Trotsky’s antipathy to democratic-centralist procedure. The story is that at a Central Committee meeting of the party in 1923, Trotsky unceremoniously walked out of a CC meeting when reminded by one member, named Komorov, that CC members are obliged to abide by CC decisions. Stalin, a witness, relates that

‘…Trotsky jumped up and left the meeting’. (J. V. Stalin: Works 6; p. 39)

But not only did Trotsky storm out of the CC meeting when reminded of his obvious party duties to abide by Central Committee decisions, Trotsky also refused to return to the said CC meeting, rebuffing a delegation sent to appease and bring him back. Stalin remarked that

‘…Trotsky refused to comply with the request of the plenum, thereby demonstrating that he had not the slightest respect for his Central Committee’. (J. V. Stalin: Works 6; p.39)

In this essay we examine the contribution of J.V. Stalin in the controversy around the trade union issue, for this issue was pivotal in the development of the soviet workers state.

Lenin had argued that Trotsky’s mistakes threatened the very survival of the workers states. Only by remembering this evaluation by Lenin can we judge Stalin’s contribution. Stalin wrote "Our Disagreements" on January 5th, 1921. It must be said with emphasis that "Our Disagreements" is an unsurpassed exposition and summary of the trade union issue, which broke on the Soviet Communist party during 1920-1921. Stalin’s article presents a clear, concise, analysis of the essence of the debates concerning the role and task of the trade unions under socialism.

Some background information is necessary to understand how the trade union dispute arose in the Russian Communist party during 1920-1921. The Bolsheviks had finally won the civil war instigated by the anti-Bolshevik elements, who had been encouraged by the advance of the German army into the Ukraine, a development which was partly to blame on Trotsky for opposing Lenin’s policy of signing an immediate peace with German imperialism at Brest Litovsk in 1918, which would have halt the Kaiser’s advance. Trotsky had put forward the policy of ‘neither war or peace’, which the German imperialists ignored. The Bolshevik’s ascendancy in the civil war was made possible by the regime known as "war communism", based on forced requisition of grain from the peasants and a general regime of coercion to aid the war effort.

With the conclusion of the civil war emergency militaristic methods, increasingly came into disrepute. Peacetime conditions gave rise to a new mood, not only in the urban working class but even more so in the peasantry. Everyone thought it was time for a change of methods. This meant a switch from methods of "coercion" to a more milder regime in which "persuasion" would play the principal part in mobilising the masses to repair and rebuild the economy which had been brought to its knees by the ravages of the civil war. Indeed, the revolts at the Kronstadt naval base and the revolt of the peasants in the Tambov region had underlined the need for a more consensual regime.

Because the regime of war communism had brought the Bolsheviks victory in the civil war, Men like Trotsky wanted to continue with this authoritarian method of leadership in the hope that this approach would serve to put Soviet industry, transport and the country back on its feet. As was the case in the army, it was thought by Trotsky and his supporters that the militaristic style and methods of leadership could work wonders in these spheres also. It was with this intention in mind which led Trotsky to put forward the policy of "tightening the screws" and the "shake-up" policy. Trotsky called for the militarisation of Labour, and ended up taking a very bureaucratic approach to the working class.

In the Trotskyite controlled Tsektran, the Central Committee of the Joint Trade Union of Rail and Water Transport Workers, this bureaucratic attitude was already provoking dissension, leading increasingly to disaffection with the communists. Trotskyite militaristic methods created the real danger of a split between the working class and the communists. This in turn posed a serious threat to working class political power. For Lenin the mistakes of Trotsky

‘…leads to the collapse of the dictatorship of the proletariat’. (V.I. Lenin: CW. Vol.32; p.85)

The basis of Trotsky’s errors was the confusion of the working class with the army. In other words, Trotsky thought that the working class could and should be commanded like the army in order to put industry back on its feet. This was a failure to understand the correct relationship between the methods of coercion and persuasion. Because Trotsky failed to take into account the differences between the working class and the army, he pursued a policy which could only produce alienation between the workers and the communists.

For Stalin the difference between the Leninists and the Trotskyites did not concern such matters as the appraisal of the trades union as such. For instance, everyone agreed that there would be a certain coalescence, or interpenetration between state organs and trade unions; everyone agreed real unions capable of revitalising industry was needed. Also there was agreement on the need for discipline in the trade union and working class as necessary condition to get industry moving again. In short, said Stalin

‘…our disagreements are not disagreements about matters of principle’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.4)

This observation by Stalin is backed up by Lenin who regarded the differences with Trotsky has having

‘…nothing to do with general principles’. (V.I. Lenin: CW. Vol. 32: p.22)

Stalin also agreed with Trotsky that membership of the trade union leadership was ‘far from ideal’.

For Stalin, the essence of the differences between the Leninists and the Trotskyites related to methods of approaching the working class and drawing the masses into the work of rebuilding industry. This was a view Stalin shared with Lenin. Stalin defended the Leninist position that the contradiction was between two opposed methods of approach to the working class and trade unions.

‘…the method of coercion (the military method) and the method of persuasion (trade union method).

(J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.5)

This was a lesson never to be forgotten by Stalin as the later period of rapid Soviet industrialisation showed. The successes achieved would not have been possible without a correct Leninist grasp of the correct relationship between persuasion and coercion. Stalin, in "Our Disagreements", extracts the essence of Lenin’s critique of the Trotskyite view and develops it. 

Trotsky had wanted to treat the working class like the army. This was a fundamental mistake. Stalin reveals that Trotsky failed even to base himself on the ground of Marxist class analysis! However, it was this class nature of the issue which was the point of departure for Stalin. It was a fact that the army was drawn largely from the peasantry. The peasantry and the urban proletariat are different social classes, so that the approach to them could not be the same. The army itself was not homogeneous, consisting as it did, of some urban workers and a mass of peasants. Consequently, Stalin pointed out that the Eighth Party Congress, which met in March 1919, recorded the fact that the Soviet army consisted mainly of peasants and that

‘…the peasants will not go to fight for socialism, that they can, and must be compelled to fight for socialism by employing methods of coercion’. ( J.V. Stalin, Works 5; p. 6)

This was because the Soviet army was dominated by the peasant element. This class formed, in the army, a petty-bourgeois stratum with the psychology of the small commodity producer. Thus, it must not be thought that the support which the peasants gave to the communist in the civil war was a support for socialism. The peasants by and large were fighting for their own petty-bourgeois-commodity class interest. They supported the Bolsheviks because the latter defended their right to use the land.

For Stalin it was no surprise that methods of coercion became necessary when it was a matter of getting the peasants to defend socialists interests. Stalin pointed out that this

‘…explains the rise of such purely military methods as the system of commissars and Political departments, Revolutionary Tribunals, disciplinary measures, appointments and not elections to all posts, and so forth’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.6)

The peasant masses had a petty-bourgeois mentality. This was bound to be reflected in an army dominated by this class, and so a certain coercion was needed to get it to fight for socialism. Stalin contrasted this state of affairs with the working class. The mentality of this class is not formed by petty bourgeois, small commodity production. Trotsky utterly failed to realise this when he put forward his thesis in the pamphlet, ‘The Role and Tasks of the Trade Unions’.

Unlike the army, or in contrast to the army, Stalin explained that

‘…the working class is a homogeneous social sphere’. (J.V. Stalin, Works 5; p.6)

Note Stalin means here that the working class shares the same economic position in relation to capital. Stalin explained that the economic interests of the working class

‘…disposes it towards socialism, it is easily influenced by communist agitation, it voluntarily organises in trade unions and, as a consequence of all this, constitutes the foundation, the salt, of the Soviet state’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; pp. 6-7)

This was why in relation to the working class, communists must utilise, contrary to what the Trotskyites were advocating, methods of ‘persuasion’. Persuasion was the trade union method. Stalin pointed out that these were methods of

‘…explanation, mass propaganda, encouragement of initiative and independent activity among the masses of the workers, election of officials and so forth’. (J.V. Stalin: op.cit., p. 7)

Stalin, of course, unlike Trotsky, did not make the mistake of adopting a one-sided view. Persuasion and coercion were two different, opposed methods of approaching the working class. For Trotsky, with his dangerous policy of imposing the ‘militarisation of labour’, thus treating the working class like an army, coercion was to become the principal means of mobilising the working class. In Trotsky’s scheme, ‘persuasion’ would play a secondary role if any at all. The Leninist leadership of the party argued for the reverse position. They argued that the civil war had ended; the country had now a respite from war and had entered a period of peaceful construction. In this new period, the methods of persuasion must become the primary means of mass mobilisation, with coercion relegated to a secondary feature. This was not simply an abstract debate about persuasion or coercion in approaching the masses. Indeed, a wrong approach could contribute to the fall of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus for both Lenin and Stalin it was quite amazing that a leading figure like Trotsky could argue that the issue was not ‘political’.

Certainly, as already shown, Lenin made it clear that Trotsky’s approach leads to the collapse of working class political power. This was why the Leninist opposed the Trotskyite militarisation policy.

Trotsky’s militarisation policy, had it been implemented, would have turned the working class masses against the communists and thus facilitated the counterrevolutionary intrigues of the bourgeoisie. This was why it was necessary for Leninist in the party leadership, who were not always in a majority at the Central Committee level, to defeat this dangerous pseudo-leftist Trotskyite policy.

The polarisation between the two approaches to the working class, the Trotskyite approach of coercion and militarisation of labour and the Leninist approach of persuasion, supported by Stalin, lead to a bitter factional struggle between the two sides. This followed the factional pronouncement made by Trotsky that the party

‘…will have to choose between two trends’. (V.I. Lenin: CW. Vol. 32; p.26)

The struggle raged on in Moscow in an intense form

‘The struggle took an especially acute form in Moscow’. (History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [Bolsheviks] Short Course; Moscow, 1939; p.253)

And evidently, in Moscow,

‘…the opposition concentrated its main forces, with the object of capturing the party organisation in the capital’. (Op.cit. p.253)

But apparently the Trotskyite and other oppositionist attempts to capture the Moscow party organisation was frustrated

‘…by the spirited resistance of the Moscow Bolsheviks’. (Op. cit., p. 254)

The struggle between the Leninists and the Trotskyites over the issue of the trade unions, was not only restricted to Moscow. It spread, like wildfire, even to the Ukrainian party. Here Molotov held the fort against the anti-Leninist forces headed by Trotsky. The fight against the Anti-Lenin faction in Baku was masterminded by Ordzhonikidze and, in central Asia, L. Kaganovich, defeated the Trotskyites. In fact, in the trade union controversy

‘All the important organisations of the party endorsed Lenin’s platform’. (Op. cit., p.254)

Today Trotskyites like to present the trade union debate as if it never went beyond the form of an abstract, learned, intellectual debate between leading party authorities. In fact, this is a false picture. The debate over the trade unions, in which Trotsky led those who supported a militarisation of a labour policy, was a bitterly fought factional dispute, between those who one-sidedly represented the forces of bureaucratic command (the Trotskyites) and those who represented the forces of democratic persuasion, (the Leninists).

In 1920-1921, Trotsky stood behind the forces of bureaucracy and the militarisation of labour against the Leninist on the central committee of theRCP(B). In the period of peaceful development, the contradiction between those who, like Trotsky, represented the view that coercion should be the primary means of mobilising the working class, and those, like Lenin and Stalin, who came down in favour of persuasion, was in fact, a conflict between the forces of bureaucracy and the forces of proletarian democracy. It is no wonder then that the controversy over the trade unions raised the issue of democracy in the working class.

For Stalin, the essence of this democracy was ‘persuasion’, not coercion. In this view, obviously Trotsky was leading an anti-democratic tendency. He had said the party would have to choose between these two trends. (See Lenin: Vol.32; p.26) Stalin argued that

‘…conscious democracy, the method of proletarian democracy in the unions, is the only correct method of industrial unions’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.10)

In the trade union dispute, Trotsky had argued that the issue was not political! In fact, he had an apolitical view of the whole matter

‘…Trotsky protested against the introduction of a political element into the controversy about the trade unions, on the grounds that politics had nothing to do with the matter’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; pp.12-13)

It was no wander then that Stalin could not take any reference to democracy seriously when made by the Trotskyites. For Stalin, Trotsky’s talk about ‘democracy’ was unprincipled and far removed from real proletarian democracy, which was required to bring about the revival of an industry shattered by civil war.

The significance of the Soviet trade union dispute was that it led, as we have pointed out, to a bitter, factional struggle between Lenin’s and Trotsky’s supporters in the RCP(B) and the trade unions. The essence of the struggle was the conflict between the forces of proletarian democracy and the forces of petty-bourgeois bureaucracy. In this struggle, the Trotskyites were aiming to remove the Leninists from the leadership of the party. Not surprisingly, this had always been Trotsky’s goal, even in the pre-1917 period of the revolutionary movement.

The Soviet trade union dispute was the first attempt by the forces of bureaucracy to seize power in the Soviet Union. And the attempt was led by none other than Trotsky. Thus Stalin accused him of pursuing the

‘…old semi-bureaucratic and semi-military line’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p. 11)

And Stalin told the 13th Conference of the party in 1924 that Trotsky was the

‘…patriarch of bureaucrats’. (J.V. Stalin: Thirteenth Conference of the RCP (B); Works 6; p.29)

Therefore, Stalin not only accused Trotsky of taking a bureaucratic course, but he also denounced him as the ‘patriarch of bureaucrats’. Trotsky never forgot this jibe by Stalin. Trotsky’s pro-bureaucrat image, known by all in the party, had contributed to him going down to political defeat at the hands of the Leninists. Trotsky needed, more than anything else, to throw off the ‘patriarch of bureaucrats’ image and do a political makeover, so to speak. Trotsky saw that an overwhelming party majority had backed the Leninists on this issue, in other words, supported the group opposed to bureaucratisation. This lesson of his political defeat in the trade union dispute was never lost on Trotsky. Trotsky now decided that to achieve his ambition of gaining control of the Soviet communist party he would have to break with representing the bureaucratic element. Stalin pointing out that Trotsky was the ‘patriarch of bureaucrats’ had damaged his image immensely. Trotsky would not forgive Stalin for this and, indeed, spent the rest of his life trying to prove that it was Stalin who represented the forces of bureaucracy.

Stalin had held that a

‘most vigorous and systematic struggle must be waged against the degeneration of centralism and militarised form of work into bureaucracy, tyranny, officialdom and petty-tutelage over the trade unions’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.10)

It was this anti-bureaucrat image of Stalin, which Trotsky set out consciously to undermine and destroy

among Soviet Communist party members. Only by achieving this could Trotsky hope to win sufficient supporters to remove the Leninist cadre in the central committee, who, although in a minority at this level, enjoyed widespread support in the party. Thus, Trotsky came up with his plan to portrayed Stalin in the way that the latter had first, for good reason, portrayed Trotsky with such a devastating effect.

Stalin too would become the ‘patriarch of bureaucrats’. Thus, Trotsky stole Stalin’s political argument for the purpose of using it against its author. If the Leninist group, led by Stalin, in the leadership could be denounced as ‘representatives’ of bureaucracy and bureaucrats themselves, Trotsky surmised that the party membership would forget his past promotion of bureaucracy and swing behind his group. This was essentially how the myths of the ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’ came into being, arising out of the factional struggle of Trotskyism against Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet communist party. It was an effort of Trotsky to rid himself of his pro-bureaucracy image, while simultaneously striving to undermine Stalin’s anti-bureaucrat image in the party.

The result of this was that Trotsky rejected the Leninist approach to the struggle against bureaucracy, turning the issue into a factional one. Trotsky thus ignored Lenin’s injunction and the Soviet Communist party’s policy that the struggle against bureaucracy should be based on a long-term perspective. Stalin, on the other hand, remained on the foundation of Leninism regarding the struggle against Soviet bureaucracy.

‘Our state apparatus is bureaucratic to a considerable degree, and it will remain so for a long time to come’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.369)

Stalin also outlined the dangers of the situation

Our Party comrades work in this apparatus, and the situation-I might say the atmosphere-in this bureaucratic apparatus is such that it helps to bureaucratise our Party workers and our Party organisations’. (J.V. Stalin: Works 5; p.369)

Thus, Stalin, not only pointed out the bureaucratic dangers facing the party, but also upheld the Marxist-Leninist view that the struggle Soviet bureaucracy should be founded on a long-term view, and not reduced to a one-sided anti-bureaucrat political platform.


In the trade union debate of 1920-1921, Stalin defended Leninism. In his article ‘Our Disagreements’, Stalin goes to the essence of the dispute. No clearer exposition is to be found. The trade union dispute brought into the open two opposing views about how Communists should relate to the working class. The Leninists defended the methods of persuasion and proletarian democracy as the correct means of mobilising the working class. The Trotskyites, on the hand, defended coercion and the militarisation of labour, thus representing the forces of bureaucracy.

The trade union dispute was the first concerted attempts of the Trotskyites to take over the Soviet Communist party. Lenin defeated them with the help of men like Stalin, Molotov, Ordzhonikidze, and Kaganovich. The defeat of the Trotskyites was imperative because their one-sided policy of coercion, and calls for the militarisation of labour would facilitate the intrigues of those who sought to turn the working class against the communists. Lenin and Stalin exposed Trotsky as representing bureaucratic interests. Thus, the trade union dispute can be regarded as the first attempt of bureaucracy to seize power in the Soviet Union. These attempts were blocked by Lenin and Stalin and other Leninists and received overwhelming support in the Soviet Communist party.

The lesson of his defeat in the struggle over the trade unions was not lost on Trotsky. By defending the working class against coercion, the militarisation of labour and Trotskyite bureaucratic diktat, Lenin, with the support of Stalin and others, had rallied the majority of the party to his cause. Trotsky’s pro-bureaucrat image seriously undermined his political standing in the RCP (B). Although Trotsky had

previously shown his contempt for party democracy by storming out of a C.C. meeting when reminded by Komarov that C.C. members cannot refuse to carry out C.C. decisions, Trotsky, nevertheless decided to don the mask of democracy, after Lenin’s death, in his bid to gain control of the communist party. In this struggle, Stalin denounced Trotsky as the ‘patriarch of bureaucrats’. Since the Leninists had defeated the Trotskyites by defending the working class against Trotsky’s bureaucratic proclivities, Trotsky decided he would play the anti-bureaucrat in future against Stalin. Trotsky began a campaign to smear his rivals with the bureaucratic brush, in the same way he had been justifiably painted in the trade union debates. This Trotskyite ploy to portray Stalin as the representative for Soviet bureaucracy failed to convince the overwhelming majority of Soviet communists. Trotsky was again defeated in the post-Lenin inner-party struggles.



November 14th, 2001