The origin of the degeneration thread?

Jj Plant jplant at
Sat Sep 21 14:33:00 MDT 1996

In-Reply-To: <960921083217_100423.2040_JHU65-1 at CompuServe.COM>
The complete text of 'The New Course' is available on the Marx-Engels Internet
Archive. Its quite long (about 80 pages of printed text). I append below the
section to which Chris drew attention. Credit to David W for retyping and
markup. I hope it gets through in a decent format, after being copied down to
plain text from html and then reposted. Anybody who has access to a good
library might also like to look at Max Shachtman's commentary 'The Struggle for
the New Course'.

jplant at

          Leon Trotsky's

                              The New Course

                                Appendix 1

                       (A Letter to Party Meetings)

                              December 8, 1923


Dear Comrades:

I had confidently hoped to be recovered soon enough to be able to participate
in the discussion
of the internal situation and the new tasks of the party. But my illness came
at a more
inopportune time than ever before and proved to be of longer duration than the
first forecasts of
the doctors. There is nothing left but to expound my view to you in the present

The resolution of the Political Bureau on party organization bears an
exceptional significance. It
indicates that the party has arrived at an important turning point in its
historical road. At turning
points, as has been rightly pointed out at many meetings, prudence is required;
but firmness and
resoluteness are required too. Hesitancy and amorphousness would be the worst
forms of
imprudence in this case.

Inclined to overestimate the role of the apparatus and to underestimate the
initiative of the party,
some conservative minded comrades criticize the resolution of the Political
Bureau. The Central
Committee, they say, is assuming impossible obligations; the resolution will
only engender
illusions and produce negative results. It is clear that such an approach
reveals a profound
bureaucratic distrust of the party.

The center of gravity, which was mistakenly placed in the apparatus by the "old
course," has now
been transferred by the "new course," proclaimed in the resolution of the
Central Committee, to
the activity, initiative, and critical spirit of all the party members, as the
organized vanguard of
the proletariat. The "new course" does not at all signify that the party
apparatus is charged with
decreeing, creating, or establishing a democratic regime at such and such a
date. No. This
regime will be realized by the party itself. To put it briefly: the party must
subordinate to itself its
own apparatus without for a moment ceasing to be a centralized organization. In
the debates and
articles of recent times, it has been underlined that "pure," "complete,"
"ideal" democracy is not
realizable and that in general for us it is not an end in itself. That is
incontestable. But it can be
stated with just as much reason that pure, absolute centralism is unrealizable
and incompatible
with the nature of a mass party, and that it can no more be an end in itself
than can the party
apparatus. Democracy and centralism are two faces of party organization. The
question is to
harmonize them in the most correct manner, that is, the manner best
corresponding to the
situation. During the last period there was no such equilibrium. The center of
gravity wrongly
lodged in the apparatus. The initiative of the party was reduced to the
minimum. Thence the
habits and procedures of leadership fundamentally contradicting the spirit of a
proletarian organization. The excessive centralization of the apparatus at the
expense of
initiative engendered a feeling of uneasiness, an uneasiness which, at the
extremities of the
party, assumed an exceedingly morbid form and was translated, among other ways,
in the
appearance of illegal groupings directed by elements undeniably hostile to
communism. At the
same time, the whole of the party disapproved more and more of apparatus
methods of solving
questions. The idea, or at the very least the feeling, that bureaucratism
threatened to get the
party into a blind alley, had become quite general. Voices were raised to point
out the danger.
The resolution on the "new course" is the first official expression of the
change that has taken
place in the party. It will be realized to the degree that the party, that is,
its 400,000 members,
want to realize it and succeed in doing so.

In a number of articles, efforts are being made to demonstrate that in order to
give life to the
party, it is necessary to begin by raising the level of its members, after
which everything else,
that is, workers' democracy, will come of its own accord. It is incontestable
that we must raise the
ideological level of our party in order to enable it to accomplish the gigantic
tasks devolving upon
it. But precisely because of this, such a purely pedagogical, professorial way
of putting the
question is insufficient and hence erroneous. To persist in it cannot fail to
aggravate the crisis.

The party cannot raise its level except by accomplishing its essential tasks,
and by exercising the
kind of collective leadership that displays the initiative of the working class
and the proletarian
state. The question must be approached not from the pedagogical but from the
political point of
view. The application of workers' democracy cannot be made dependent upon the
degree of
"preparation" of the party members for this democracy. A party is a party. We
can make
stringent demands upon those who want to enter and stay in it; but once they
are members, they
participate most actively, by that fact, in all the work of the party.

Bureaucratism kills initiative and thus prevents the elevation of the general
level of the party.
That is its cardinal defect. As the apparatus is made up inevitably of the most
experienced and
most meritorious comrades, it is upon the political training of the young
communist generations
that bureaucratism has its most grievous repercussions. Also, it is the youth,
the most reliable
barometer of the party, that reacts most vigorously against party bureaucratism.

Nevertheless, it should not be thought that our system of solving questions
they are settled
almost exclusively by the party functionaries has no influence on the older
generation, which
incarnates the political experience and the revolutionary traditions of the
party. There too the
danger is very great. It is not necessary to speak of the immense authority of
the group of party
veterans, not only in Russia but internationally; that is universally
recognized. But it would be a
crude mistake to regard it as absolute. It is only by a constant active
collaboration with the new
generation, within the framework of democracy, that the Old Guard will preserve
itself as a
revolutionary factor. Of course, it may ossify and become unwittingly the most
expression of bureaucratism.

History offers us more than one case of degeneration of the "Old Guard." Let us
take the most
recent and striking example: that of the leaders of the parties of the Second
International. We
know that Wilhelm Liebknecht, Bebel, Singer, Victor Adler, Kautsky, Bernstein,
Guesde, and many others were the direct pupils of Marx and Engels. Yet we know
that in the
atmosphere of parliamentarism and under the influence of the automatic
development of the
party and the trade union apparatus, all these leaders turned, in whole or in
part, to opportunism.
We saw that, on the eve of the war, the formidable apparatus of the social
democracy, covered
with the authority of the old generation, had become the most powerful brake
upon revolutionary
progress. And we, the "elders," ought to say to ourselves plainly that our
generation, which
naturally enjoys the leading role in the party, is not absolutely guaranteed
against the gradual
and imperceptible weakening of the revolutionary and proletarian spirit in its
ranks if the party
were to tolerate the further growth and stabilization of bureaucratic methods,
which transform the
youth into the passive material of education and inevitably create an
estrangement between the
apparatus and the mass, the old and the young. The party has no other means to
employ against
this indubitable danger than a serious, profound, radical change of course
toward party
democracy and an increasingly large flow into its midst of working class

I shall not dwell here upon the juridical definitions of party democracy, nor
upon the limits
imposed on it by the party statutes. However important they may be, these
questions are
secondary. We shall examine them in the light of our experience and will
introduce into them the
necessary modifications. But what must be modified before anything else is the
spirit that reigns
in our organizations. Every unit of the party must return to collective
initiative, to the right of free
and comradely criticism without fear and without turning back and to the right
of organizational
self-determination. It is necessary to regenerate and renovate the party
apparatus and to make it
feel that it is nothing but the executive mechanism of the collective will.

The party press has recently presented not a few examples that characterize the
already ossified
bureaucratic degeneration of party morals and relations. The answer to the
first word of criticism
is: "Let's have your membership card!" Before the publication of the decision
of the Central
Committee on the "new course," merely pointing out the need to modify the
internal party regime
was regarded by bureaucratized apparatus functionaries as heresy, as
factionalism, as an
infraction of discipline. And now the bureaucrats are ready formally to "take
note" of the "new
course," that is, to nullify it bureaucratically. The renovation of the party
apparatus naturally
within the clear cut framework of the statutes must aim at replacing the
mummified bureaucrats
with fresh elements closely linked with the life of the collectivity or capable
of assuring such a
link. And before anything else, the leading posts must be cleared of those who,
at the first word
of criticism, of objection, or of protest, brandish the thunderbolts of
penalties before the critic.
The "new course" must begin by making everyone feel that from now on nobody
will dare
terrorize the party.

It is entirely insufficient for our youth to repeat our formulas. They must
conquer the
revolutionary formulas, assimilate them, work out their own opinions, their own
character; they
must be capable of fighting for their views with the courage which arises out
of the depths of
conviction and independence of character. Out of the party with passive
obedience, with
mechanical leveling by the authorities, with suppression of personality, with
servility, with
careerism! A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who
in each case and
on each question forges a firm opinion of his own arid defends it courageously
independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today,
perhaps, he will be
in the minority in his organization. He will submit, because it is his party.
But this does not always
signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others
did a new task or
the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a
third, a tenth time, if
need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new
task fully armed or
to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional

Yes, our party would be unable to discharge its historic mission if it were
chopped up into
factions. That should not and will not happen. It will not decompose in this
way because,
autonomous collectivity that it is, its organism resists it. But it will
successfully combat the
dangers of factionalism only by developing and consolidating the new course
toward workers'
democracy. Bureaucratism of the apparatus is precisely one of the principal
sources of
factionalism. It ruthlessly represses criticism and drives discontent back into
the depths of the
organization. It tends to put the label of factionalism upon any criticism, any
warning. Mechanical
centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a
malicious caricature
of democracy and a potential political danger.

Conscious of the situation, the party will accomplish the necessary turn with
the firmness and
decisiveness demanded by the tasks devolving upon it. By the same token, it
will raise its
revolutionary unity to a higher level, as a pledge that it will be able to
accomplish its
immeasurably significant national and international tasks.

I am far from having exhausted the question. I deliberately refrained from
examining here
several essential aspects, out of fear of taking up too much of your time. But
I hope that I shall
soon succeed in recovering from malaria which to judge from myself is in clear
opposition to the
"new course." Then I hope to be able to do orally what was not possible in this
letter more fully to
supplement and elaborate my views.

With comradely greetings,

L. Trotsky

P.S.-The publication of this letter in Pravda having been postponed for two
days, I take
advantage of the delay to add a few supplementary remarks.

I have learned from some comrades that during the reading of my letter to the
district meetings,
certain comrades expressed the fear that my considerations on the relationships
between the
"Old Guard" and the young generation might be exploited to counterpose (!) the
youth to the old.
Unquestionably, this apprehension could have assailed only those who, but two
or three months
ago, rejected with horror the very idea of the necessity of a change in

At any rate, to place apprehensions of this type in the foreground at the
present moment and in
the present situation denotes a lack of understanding of the real dangers and
of their relative
importance. The present mood of the youth, symptomatic to the highest degree,
is engendered
precisely by the methods employed to maintain "calm" which are formally
condemned by the
resolution unanimously adopted by the Political Bureau In other words, "calm,"
as it was
understood, threatened the leading layer with increasing estrangement from the
communists, that is, from the vast majority of the party.

A certain tendency of the apparatus to think and to decide for the whole
organization leads to
seating the authority of the leading circles exclusively upon tradition.
Respect for tradition is
incontestably a necessary element of communist training and party cohesion, but
it can be a vital
factor only if it is nurtured and fortified constantly by an active
verification of this tradition, that is,
by the collective elaboration of the party's policy for the present moment.
Otherwise, it may
degenerate into a purely official sentiment, and be nothing more than a hollow
form. Such a link
between the generations is obviously insufficient and most fragile. It may
appear to be solid right
up to the moment when it is ready to break. That is precisely the danger of the
policy of "calm" in
the party.

And, if the veterans who are not yet bureaucratized, who have still kept a
revolutionary spirit
alive (that is, we are convinced, the vast majority), become clearly aware of
the danger pointed
out above and help the party with all their strength to apply the resolution of
the Political Bureau
of the Central Committee, every reason for counterposing the generations in the
party will
disappear. It would then be relatively easy to calm the passions, the possible
"excesses," of the
youth. But what is necessary first of all is to act so that the tradition of
the party is not
concentrated in the leading apparatus, but lives and is constantly renewed in
the daily
experience of the organization as a whole. In this way, another danger will be
parried: that of the
division of the old generation into "functionaries," charged with maintaining
"calm," and non
functionaries. No longer enclosed within itself, the party apparatus, that is,
its organic skeleton,
far from being weakened, will find itself growing stronger. And it is beyond
dispute that we need
in our party a powerful centralized apparatus.

It may perhaps be objected that the example of the degeneration of the social
democracy which I
cited in my letter is incorrect in view of the profound differences in epochs:
yesterday's stagnant
reformism and today's revolutionary epoch. Naturally, an example is only an
example and not at
all an identity. Nevertheless, this indiscriminate contrast of epochs does not
in itself decide
anything. Not for nothing do we point to the dangers of the NEP, which are
closely linked with the
retardation of the world revolution. Our daily practical state work, which is
more and more
detailed and specialized, conceals, as the resolution of the Central Committee
points out, a
danger of the narrowing down of our horizon, that is, of opportunistic
degeneration. It is quite
plain that these dangers become all the more serious the more bossing by
"secretaries" tends to
replace the genuine leadership of the party. We would be shabby revolutionists
if we were to rely
upon the "revolutionary character of the epoch" for the overcoming of our
difficulties, and above
all of our internal difficulties. This "epoch" must be assisted by the rational
realization of the new
orientation unanimously proclaimed by the Political Bureau.

To conclude, one more remark. Two or three months ago, when the questions that
are the object
of the present discussion had not yet appeared on the party's agenda, some
comrades from the provinces shrugged their shoulders indulgently and told
themselves that
these are Moscow inventions; in the provinces all

goes well. Even now this tone is reflected in certain correspondence from the
provinces. To
contrast the tranquil and reasonable province to the turbulent and contaminated
capital, is to
display that same bureaucratic spirit we spoke about above. In reality, the
Moscow organization
is the largest, the strongest, the most vital of all our party organizations.
Even at the dullest
moments of so called "calm" (the word is a very expressive one, and should not
fail to enter our
party history!), its activity has been more intense than anywhere else. If
Moscow is distinguished
now from other points in Russia, it is only in that it has taken the initiative
in reexamining the
course of our party. That's a merit and not a defect. The whole party will
follow in its footsteps
and will proceed to the necessary reassessment of certain values of the current
period. The less
the provincial party apparatus resists this movement, the more easily will the
local organizations
traverse this inevitable stage of fruitful criticism and self-criticism, whose
results will be
translated into a growth of the cohesion and an elevation of the ideological
level of the party.

L Trotsky


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