Book Review: Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party

Faithful to the core values of Bolshevik ideology and the crusade to free the working class from their exploitative captivity, Trotsky worked tirelessly to orchestrate the global overthrow of capitalism. After Lenin’s death and Stalin’s aggressive usurpation of the Russian revolutionary party, Trotsky was marginalized and scapegoated by the very party he helped establish. But devoted to Lenin and the fundamental values of Bolshevism, Trotsky continued the struggle for proletarian liberation from afar. With his meticulous attention to organizational structure, he educated and counseled the revolutionary parties of the world on developing coalitions that would prove successful while not falling victim to the kind of tyranny found in Stalinist Russia.

It is Trotsky’s organizational structure and its necessary elements that Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blank, and Thomas Twiss outline in Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party, a text composed primarily of Trotsky’s own prose. At the outset, the reader must bear in mind that Feeley, Le Blank, and Twiss’s compilation was written in response to problems within U.S. revolutionary organizations of the early 1980s, a time when the same organizational offenses and tense and disorganized political climate experienced in Trotsky’s own day were being encountered once again. This text serves to educate, recapitulate, and disseminate Trotsky’s core teachings and argue for a return to these teachings to correct the problems faced within the U.S. revolutionary party.

The book begins with a brief sketch of Trotsky’s organizational principles. Trotsky believed that a revolutionary party must be based on “organizational centralism…fused with organizational democracy” (6). Centralism and democracy work in tandem, and the party as the instrument of the people must be based on open and honest democratic norms, where all levels of organization, elections, policy making, and so forth are centralized. The revolutionary party is a proletarian, member-driven union, so all party activities must be performed in a candid fashion, clear and accessible to all organizational members to ensure the equal and impartial contribution of each member.

To successfully operate with such transparency, all revolutionary members must be educated and disciplined. Trotsky writes, “‘The chief aim of the Communist Party is to construct the proletarian vanguard, strongly class-conscious, fit for combat, resolute, prepared for revolution. But revolutionary education requires a regime of internal democracy. Revolutionary discipline has nothing to do with blind obedience’” (6). All party members must be immune to pressures of conformity, from uncritically conferring to the demands of those higher in political stature (or those with louder, more aggressive voices). Discipline within a party is indispensable, as discipline is needed for regular and reliable scrutiny and criticism—to be conscientious toward party activities and agendas and diplomatic toward the many voices of party members.

Only with discipline is uncorrupted revolutionary centralism and democracy able to exist and flourish within and among party practices. Feeley, Le Blank, and Twiss summarize that the “inseparable components of Trotsky’s basic conception of party organization are: the revolutionary political program of Marxism, organizational centralism, internal democracy. These are the necessary ingredients for a political culture capable of producing an effective revolutionary vanguard of the working class” (8).

In defense of his organization principles, Trotsky discusses three main themes: democracy, leadership, and dialectics. Lenin supported the formation of inner-party groups, a Bolshevik ideal that allowed for free thought and open democratic debate—an ideal that Trotsky fought to preserve. Open and democratic criticism was indispensable for the party’s continued dialectical progression; stagnation meant death to the socialist cause. It was for this reason that Trotsky was in staunch opposition to any form of party bureaucratization. Trotsky believed that factious groups and bureaucratization “‘brought the heroic history of Bolshevism to an end…’” (11). With bureaucracy comes elitism, and the party transforms from one of democratic equality to one comprised of two diverse classes: those in power who make decisions and those without power who submit to those decisions. In Trotsky’s time, this disparity weakened and corrupted the party’s socialist program. This also seems to have been the case in the 1980s U.S. revolutionary party.

For the party to remain committed to its original agenda, faithful to the Bolshevik-Leninist program, Trotsky and those in agreement with him demanded that “‘the factional regime must be abolished…; it must be replaced by a regime of comradely unity and internal party democracy’” (12). Free discussion and open criticism must not be encumbered by factious regimes. “‘Party democracy is a necessary prerequisite for the healthy development of revolutionary proletarian parties on a national as well as an international scale. Without freedom of criticism, without the election of functionaries from top to bottom, without the control of the apparatus by the rank and file, no truly revolutionary party is possible’” (52). The revolutionary party and its agenda is a pedagogical experience where open debate, criticism, and democratic discussion become the methodologies that force members to clash overtly in order to dialectically advance the party.

The role of elected leadership in such a unified democratic organization is only to “carry out the administrative work of the party…,” to be the head that functions as “‘the executive mechanism of the collective will’” (19). The ideal leader is entirely transparent to the party and only operates to serve and to aid the nature of collectively-made party decisions. When leaders become elitists, democratic involvement becomes an illusion, and blind obedience no longer helps the party’s progress and only augments the power of the ruling apparatus. It was silence, effortless conformity, and unquestionable faith in the elites that allowed that apparatus to prosper.

The bureaucratic apparatus, ruling from the metaphoric second floor of the party, skewed the teachings of Lenin; abused its power; tampered with party literature and history; held secret, undemocratic meetings; and maintained dominance through means of terror—all in an effort to uphold its supremacy over party members. The “apparatus appointed people who were good at carrying out orders, and penalized the independent thinkers. The apparatus stifled discussion through methods of psychological intimidation, but, especially after it became firmly entrenched, the regime was quite willing to use gangster tactics. Intimidation, after all, is simply an extension of the apparatus’s ruthless determination to maintain power” (29). In his writings, Trotsky also took direct aim at Stalin’s bureaucratic minions, where he criticized cliques: “‘a grouping which surrounds an individual and covers for all his misdeeds despite numerous changes in political position’” (60).

The sole duty of the leader is to maintain a healthy and fruitful climate within the party, a climate that is conducive to revolutionary progression through unification and realistic aims. It is the members, the proletariat, who are the party’s true collective sovereignty. Members, as Trotsky sees them, are not cogs in a grand machine. Cogs lack agency and turn as the other cogs turn. Trotsky sees members as leading “levers,” each possessing a personal strength that others may lack, and when activated, each lends his/her strength to the overarching advancement of the party.

It is in this line of thought that Trotsky believed that the party should be led primarily by factory workers. After all, the party seeks to overthrow the bourgeoisie and liberate the working class; therefore, the party must be a party of workers, led by the workers, for a worker’s movement. Leadership should consist of workers. Workers are people of action, while intellectuals are people of thought. A party must be comprised of both people of action and thought. However, a party committed to revolutionary action must consist of more action-oriented people than intellectuals since too much thinking will stagnant movement. “‘Our action will push our theoretical work forward, will arouse and attract new theoreticians, etc.’” (100).

Advancing in a dialectical struggle between action and theory, Trotsky disclosed the fulfillment of the Bolshevik-Leninist program through a militant and disciplined revolutionary party built upon the pillars of democracy and centralism. “‘Democracy guarantees freedom to discuss; centralism guarantees unity in action’” (103). Trotsky argued that through democratically open discussions, disparate factions will dialectally progress toward attaining their mutual goal.

It was between 1927 and 1929 that Trotsky’s call for the return of party norms espoused by Lenin forced the elites to distort his words and use him as a scapegoat for many party setbacks. The ruling elites, through intimidation and the doctoring of history and literature, were able to successfully turn many members against Trotsky, labeling him as an enemy of the revolution and one opposed to the true teachings of Lenin. Yet still, Trotsky fought to restore party democracy by calling for the dedicated practice of explicit organizational norms, all of which are related in some form to party democracy and centralism. He argued for a return to the original writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin for ideological confirmation and understanding in order to move the party forward toward proletarian domination.

It is in highlighting Trotsky’s fight, his organizational brilliance, that Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party serves as an enduring guidebook for all revolutionary parties to come. In reading this book, one gains both great revolutionary optimism and socialist edification. As a compendium and as a call to action, this book serves as a testimony to the legacy of Trotsky’s brilliance as a revolutionary architect.

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