Thursday, 16 April 2009

The 'Trade Union Discussion'

The characterisation of Trotsky as displaying "excessive self-assurance and show(ing) excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work" within Lenin's "Last Testament" has a certain resonance among the existing far-left. It also poses a problem for those whose political project is dependent upon a view of Trotsky as entirely 'at one' with Lenin. That the existing Trotskyist left has extended great effort to emphasize the similarity of their views makes sense in the context of a political environment in which Stalinism had tried to reclaim Lenin as their own, and use his work to excuse their every twist and turn.

Never has the image of Trotsky as the bureaucrat been so contested as during discussions of the 'Militarization of labour' in the early 1920s, a debate arising from the conditions of post-war economic reconstruction at the end of the allied blockade of Soviet Russia.

To provide some context, Trotsky had previously proposed in February 1920 to abandon the "linch-pin" of War- Communism, arbitrary grain requisitioning. A proposal that would be rejected by Lenin and the Central Committee majority. In the words of his biographer Isaac Deutscher Trotsky had attempted to "throw the economy back on to the treacherous tides of a free market" (415. Prophet Armed).* Trotsky would however one month later 'plunge back into the accepted folly' and champion the next phase of a series of arguments that could later only be understood as extending from the logic of continued "war communism", most notably the 'Militarization of labour'. These disciplinary measures were necessary features of a painful ''transitional period'.

At the Ninth Congress of the party Trotsky noted that Militarization is:

Unthinkable without the militarisation of the trade unions as such, without the establishment of a regime in which every worker feels himself a soldier of l labour, who cannot dispose of himself freely; if the order is given to transfer him, he must carry it out; if he does not carry it out, he will be a deserter who is punished. Who looks after this? The trade union. It creates the new regime. This is the militarisation of the working class.


It is in the fall of 1920 that the divergent opinions of Lenin in stressing the role of unions as providing protection against the Soviet state could be heard; divergent views evident within the party expressed themselves in a number of distinct platforms including (besides the followers of Lenin and Trotsky) those of the Workers' Opposition who championed the role of independent union control of industry (102 Cohen). It is in this context that we find Lenin warning that “Our present state is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformation ... Our state is such that the completely organised proletariat must protect itself against it and we must utilise these workers’ organisations for protecting the workers from their own state, in order that the workers may protect our state ...”

Within 'Lenin' Robert Service gives a perfunctorily brief account of the 'trade union discussion' as largely confined to Trotsky's call for a ban on strikes and 'reduction' of the trade unions to the conidition of state organisations [3:422]. Service argues that the response of Lenin to this call related strongly to the percieved need for unity in the face of the fragile peace within the party leadership restored at the Ninth Party Congress. He suggests Lenin emphasises the 'bureaucratic distortions' that had taken place following October and the continually useful role of the trade unions. Providing a glimpse of a Lenin that viewed Trotsky as "ripping the party apart" in the face of more pressing issues, of which the 'trade union discussion' formed only a part (423). He describes a 'sketchily' reported paraphrasing of the speech on the subject to the Moscow province Party Conference, in the face of a potentially unpopular move in response to short-term vital economic tasks [4:402). Lenin's primary concern remained the unity of the Bolshevik party at all costs. We find a variant of this view within the infamous anti-Communist work of Nicolas Werth. Werth describes Trotsky as the 'principle archietect' of Militirization, Trotsky is said by Nicolas Werth as having explained at his ideas at the Ninth Party Congress, in which we begin to see the outlawing of strikes 'in practice' [5:88] as measures designed to 'restore order' [5:89].


The reaction of the Post-Trotsky 'Trotskyists' on this issue differs dramatically in emphasis but retains as a template of any understanding of the 'trade union debate' the historical features of "War Communism".

Ernest Mandel, a Trotsky leader elected to the leadership of the ISFI after 1946 aruges within 'Trotsky as Alternative' that the concept that would come to be known as 'militarization of labour' can only be understood in terms of the demobilization of a massive Red Army following the end of the allies blockage of Soviet Russia. Labour armies are introduced during this period as a response to the problem of 'mass unemployment' (132). Strongly critical, Mandel does however suggest that Trotsky’s proposal that the trade unions should train workers to take the place of the factory directors in the running of the big enterprises "would be an obvious step in the direction of workers’ self-manage­ment” (E Mandel Trotsky as alternative London 1995, p55).

Elsewhere within "Lenin and Trotsky" Ted Grant and Alan Wood describe the 'trade union dispute' as "one episode" in the "whole crisis of the political and economic mode of organisation known as War Communism", and as such indistinguishable from this period (96 Woods/Grant). Grant and Woods describe as "drastic" the measures introduced to "get industry moving, to feed the hungry works and to end the drift from town to country" (96). What is not touched upon in this account is the extent to which Trotsky had initially distanced himself from a key policy of War Communism prior to this advocacy.

In stressing the similarity of Lenin and Trotsky's views on this issue they quote comments to a speech at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1920 in which Lenin is quoted as saying "in a country of small peasants, it is our chief and fundamental task to discover how to achieve state compulsion in order to raise peasant production" (97) Grant and Wood defend these actions as undertaken in light of the need to arrest the flow of workers from town to country, assuming the necessary use of 'draconian measures', such as arrest for "labour desertions". Following on from this they note an 'official decree' detailing punishments for this crime after the Ninth Party Congress alongside another issued on January 15, 1920 establishing the very first "revolutionary army of labour" (98).

Grant/Woods do hint at an acknowledgement of the divergent view of Lenin in noting that during the discussion of this question 'small frictions' eventually lead to a "series of divisions" in the party leadership, with not two but "at least" five alternatives being put forward (100). Both Service and Grant/Woods note that Lenin's prime concern remained preventing a split and maintaining the fragile unity of the leadership. It is for this reason that Lenin is said to have opposed Trotsky's proposal to "shake up" the union officials (100).

Of those Trotskyist writers that have written about Trotsky's politics on the 'Militarization of labour' Tony Cliff perhaps goes furthest in seeking to distance himself from them, describing Trotsky's politics during this period as advocacy of "anti-democratic, anti-working-class, “substitutionist” practices". Cliff does not compare the policies outlined by Trotsky during this time with those pursued by Stalin’s in the next ten years, despite the fact that “there was hardly a single plank in Trotsky’s programme of 1920-21 which Stalin did not use during the industrial revolution of the 1930s.” (armed 515).

In suggesting that Lenin and Trotsky were 'at one' on this issue Grant/Woods mirror Robert Service in suggesting that policies that would later be enacted by the consolidated Stalinist leadership had met largely with the consent of Lenin during this time. Ironically as has been noted “nobody had in 1920-21 gone farther than Trotsky in demanding that every interest and aspiration should be wholly subordinated to the ‘iron dictatorship’. Yet he was the first of the Bolshevik chiefs to turn against the machine of that dictatorship when it began to devour the dream” (I Deutscher The prophet unarmed Oxford 1978, p73).

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