Letter to the editor

Issue: 142

John Riddell

I would like to question a statement by Sebastian Zehetmair published in issue 136 of your journal in autumn 2012 under the title: “Germany’s Lost Bolshevik: Paul Levi Revisited”.1 In Zehetmair’s view, the dispute over revolutionary strategy that gripped the Communist International in 1921 was closely linked to a division in the Bolshevik Party over policy towards Russian peasants and towards the NEP (New Economic Policy).

The following month I wrote the author as follows:

“In the sentences following your footnote 17, you state that in early 1921 there was a current in the Bolshevik leadership arguing ‘for a continuation of the hard line towards the peasants in Russia’, and that this current ‘hoped to get relief’—that is, I gather, avert the need for the NEP—by ‘launching a “revolutionary offensive” in the West’.2 You identify Bukharin and Zinoviev as the main proponents of this policy.

“There is no question that Bukharin and Zinoviev, through the Comintern Executive, pressed the parties of western Europe for a more aggressive and confrontational policy. But what is the evidence that they headed a current within the Bolsheviks that was more resistant than the party majority to concessions to the peasantry?

“Further, you identify this current with opposition to a peace treaty with Poland at the end of 1920. This sounds plausible. But once again, what is the evidence for this? Your footnote 18 refers indirectly to Bukharin’s well-known article on offensive policy in the Polish war in mid-1920, but that was in quite a different context, and tells us nothing about Zinoviev.”

I received no reply from Comrade Zehetmair to this or to a subsequent letter.

I made other inquiries, including with a historian with close knowledge of the Russian source documents for this aspect of Bolshevik history in 1920-21. I also took part in an exchange on this question among researchers on a Historical Materialism discussion list. All this turned up no evidence to sustain Zehetmair’s conception.

We do, however, have testimony on this question from Leon Trotsky, speaking at the moment when claims were first made in the anti-Soviet press abroad of an alleged struggle in Russia over introduction of the NEP. In these articles Trotsky was then rumoured to be allied with Bukharin against the NEP.

Trotsky replied in mid-1921, at the Third Congress of the Comintern. In a session attended by Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, and almost certainly Grigori Zinoviev, Trotsky said, “Every comrade who is in the least acquainted with our internal affairs is well aware that there are no serious differences among us in the party over these questions, except for a very small group whose representative you heard today” (Communist International 1921, Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, p783). The “very small group” was the Workers’ Opposition; Alexandra Kollontai spoke at the congress on their behalf.

Until we find evidence to the contrary, Trotsky’s affirmation should be accepted as definitive.

A fully annotated 1,300-page edition of the Communist International’s Third Congress and related documents, edited by John Riddell, will be published in November this year by Historical Materialism. The paperback edition will follow in the second half of 2015.

1: www.isj.org.uk/?id=850

2: See p151.