This document is the introduction by the late Ken Tarbuck to a pamphlet he published in 1994 containing the first English translations of two important Trotsky documents - Trade Unions and Their Future Role (the first draft of Trotsky's theses on the unions submitted to the plenum of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party on 9 November 1920) and The Role and Tasks of Trade Unions (the final form of the theses submitted to the Tenth Congress on 25 December 1920). Both documents were subsequently republished in Al Richardson (ed) In Defence of the Russian revolution : A Selection of Bolshevik Writings, 1917 - 1923. The translation by Tom Scott was from a 1921 collection published in Petrograd in 1921 under the title The Party and the Trade Unions. It came into the possession of the late Louis Sinclair (to whom we owe an enormous debt for his compilation of the most complete Trotsky bibliography imagineable), who passed it to Ken Tarbuck.

On two essays by Trotsky : An introduction by Ken Tarbuck


The two essays presented here by Trotsky hark back to the year 1920, and have not - so far we know - been published in English in full before. If only for that reason it would have been worth while to make them available to a wider audience. However, there are other and more compelling reasons to study these two documents. Before examining these other reasons it is necessary to indicate how and why, and in what circumstances Trotsky wrote these two items.


The year 1920 was the one in which the outcome of the civil war in Russia was put beyond doubt. On all fronts the counter-revolutionary White and interventionist forces had been decisively repulsed. The forces of Kolchak in Siberia had been broken and routed, Denikin's 'Volunteer Army' in the south had been driven back towards the Crimea and Yudenich had been defeated in the North-West. 1920 and 1921 were to see the remnants of the counter-revolution mopped up and completely eliminated. Even the war with Poland in 1920 had been finally brought to an end, even if not completely satisfactorily. By 1920 the Red Army had 5 million people incorporated in its ranks, this from a force of Red Guards of a few thousands in early 1918.

It is incontestable that the one person who was most responsible for the creation of this huge Red Army was Leon Trotsky. It had been an Herculean task to forge this army and lead it to victory, and Trotsky had been equal to all the tasks such an undertaking imposed. If Trotsky had died in 1921 or 1922 it is also certain that he would have gone down in Soviet and other history as a charismatic figure of historical achievements. Only Lazare Carnot in the French revolution can be said to have carried out such a comparable undertaking, with the levée en masse, and the victory at Valmy. Carnot earned the name 'The Organiser of Victory' just as Trotsky did more than a century later.

It was in this period that Trotsky undoubtedly also developed a penchant for 'administrative solutions' to the problems threatening to engulf the fledgeling Soviet Republic. Nor was Trotsky alone in this, the whole Bolshevik Party developed a commandist attitude which it never threw off. However, during the civil war Trotsky had emerged as the 'trouble shooter' of the Politburo and this was to have profound consequences for his subsequent political career.


If 1920 saw the victory in sight for the Red Army is also presaged the total disintegration of Russian economy and society. This indeed was the conundrum of the period, a revolution which had ostensibly been carried through to alleviate the hunger and deprivations of Russia's masses had resulted in a worsening of their material conditions on a colossal scale. Such a result was neither foreseen nor wanted when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, but it was most definitely the case.

The two revolutions of 1917 had been the product of the appalling death tolls, hunger and want imposed by the slaughter of the war which had begun in 1914. Famine conditions already stalked the cities and industries of Russia by the winter of 1916/17 and these combined with the centuries old Tsarist autocracy produced a social explosion which brought the whole edifice crashing down.

The civil war which began in the summer of 1918 further aggravated and accentuated all of the economic problems which had produced these revolutions. This civil war was far more destructive than the war with Germany had been, since it encompassed the whole of the Russian empire. Moreover the civil war was fought cruelly and ferociously on a scale not seen before by all the participants. And it was fuelled by foreign intervention on a scale also not seen before. In fact it is doubtful that the Russian civil war would have lasted more than a few months had not the Governments of Britain, France, Japan and the USA not financed, armed and provisioned the White armies, and at various times put their own troops into the field, nearly 160,000 foreign troops were injected into this war.

The net result of this carnage was that by 1920 only 10 per cent of the coal and steel of pre-war days was being produced, and around 25 percent of consumer goods. Food was so short in the Soviet held areas that workers would sometimes faint at their machines from hunger. All the major centres of population were drained, as people fled to the countryside in search of food. The catastrophe that befell Russia between 1914 and 1921 had never before been equalled in modern times. In 1921 cannibalism had appeared in the Ukraine.

The system of 'War Communism' that had evolved in the Soviet Republic had indeed enabled it to survive, equip the Red Army and eventually triumph. However, this was bought at enormous cost. 'War Communism' was not in any real sense a method of producing goods, it was more a means of rationing and gathering together the remaining products left over from the previous period. Food had been obtained from the peasantry by means of the prohibition of private trading and requisitioning of grain by armed detachments sent out from the towns. In the process the peasants had been alienated and they had reduced their sowing. Production in town and country had been put on a downward spiral which seemed to have only one end -the mutual destruction of all social groups.

At one point in 1920 it was pointed out to the Politburo that with a few months all trains would stop running in the country. The destruction of engines and rolling stock was far, far exceeding the rate of repair. Trotsky produced a graph indicating the precise date of the forecast halting of all trains. In the event he was given the job of finding a solution (along with running the army) and this he did, by putting all the railway workers under martial law, removing the railway workers trade union leaders and the imposition of penalties for failure and rewards for success.

It should be mentioned that in February 1920 Trotsky had attempted to warn the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party of the catastrophe facing the country in terms of food supplies and had suggested a Tax in kind and allowing the peasants to sell their surplus on a revived market. This was rejected, almost out of hand, and the policies of 'War Communism' continued with until Lenin proposed the New Economic Policy (NEP) in March 1921. By then the catastrophe was upon them and the sailors at Kronstadt had revolted. The Bolsheviks only survived by the skin of their teeth.

However, when Trotsky's proposals had been rejected in February 1920 he strenuously sought ways to avoid the threatening catastrophe within the confines of the received wisdom of 'War Communism'. It is against this sombre background that one has to read Trotsky's texts produced here. The resultant heated debate within the ranks of the Bolshevik Party came close to producing a split within its ranks. The debate 'On the Trade Union Question' lasted right upto the Bolshevik Congress in March 1921, but by the time it met the debate was already being overtaken by events. And in the event Trotsky's proposals were rejected.


At first reading what strikes one about these texts is the somewhat strident disciplinarian tone of much of them. Trotsky seems to be projecting a complete militarisation of daily life. It is as though his experiences as Commissar for War and then Supremo of Transport had produced an almost tunnel vision on the immediate future for Russian workers. The tunnel would be hard work, draconian discipline, little immediate reward, deployed when and where the state dictated, it would long and arduous. The light at the end of the tunnel was Trotsky's vision of socialism, and in 1920 it was faint and wavering, seeming to be a lifetime away.

Yet when one examines the texts more closely we find something curious. Whilst advocating the statification of the trade unions and militarisation of labour, we find at the same time Trotsky is suggesting that these same trade unions should be taking over the overall management of the economy, he is suggesting a process which would lead to managers being elected by the workers. It did not seem to occur to Trotsky that the two processes he was advocating were mutually exclusive. Trotsky seemed to be suggesting that the workers should, rather like medieval penitents, drive themselves forward by their voluntary flagellation. Such a procedure may well be acceptable to those imbued with an irrational religious mania, but hardly likely to recommend itself to ordinary work-a-day folk. If whipping is to be used it is always necessary for the whipper and the whipped to be two 'people'. Self discipline cannot by its very nature be draconian, it must arise from an inner necessity. Trotsky's proposals for the militarisation of labour were predicated on the lack of such inner motivation.

That is the first dichotomy. However, there is also another aspect of these texts that display certain dimensions of Trotsky's personality. We have already mentioned Trotsky's attempt in February 1920 to persuade the Central Committee to adopt a form of NEP. Such a suggestion meant that he had recognised the limits of compulsion when faced with the growing food crisis. Why then did he not recognise the same limits when it came to industrial production? It is as though Trotsky was flailing around desperately seeking a way out of the impending catastrophe without allowing himself time to consider all of the aspects of the problem. There is undoubtedly a rigour and logic to his texts, but confined to an already dead orthodoxy, i.e. 'War Communism'.

Let us now consider a wider issue. Adolf Joffe in his suicide note of 1927 cajoled Trotsky for failing to stick to a correct position, particularly when he stood alone. How else can we interpret Trotsky's abandonment of his 'NEP' proposals when he stood alone except in the light of Joffe's stricture? Instead of sticking to his position, he dropped it and plunged headlong back into the follies of 'War Communism', and the result was these texts amongst others. The other major text of this period is, of course, Terrorism and Communism where Trotsky expounds at length all the arguments for the militarisation of labour.


Reading these present texts along with Terrorism and Communism one is presented with a picture of a Trotsky that breaths fire and brimstone, the scourge of the Trade Unions, the 'shaker-up' of the unions, the man prepared to break heads and bones in the quest for greater industrial production. Even more terrifying is the suggestion of treating 'labour deserters', i.e. workers who wanted to go back to their own homes, in the same fashion as military deserters, i.e. shoot them. Can this be the same man who a couple of years before had been giving speeches about building a 'paradise on this earth'?

Because of the compelling need to defeat the counter-revolution and intervention all the available resources, both material and human, had been sucked up by the Commissariat of War. Trotsky loomed over Soviet Russia as the 'organiser of victory', now it appeared he wanted to organise the peace as though it were a military campaign. His very success as war leader placed a question mark over him when it came to peace. Bonapartism and its dangers was never far from the minds of the Bolsheviks, and to many of them Trotsky seemed to be the proto-Bonaparte. Such texts as these went some way to paint Trotsky in a certain light, few it seems caught the undertones of the trade unions taking over economic management, nearly all saw the militariser.

Is it any wonder then that during the mid-1920s many in the Bolshevik Party saw dangers coming from Trotsky, not from Stalin. A recent TV programme included an interview with a survivor of the 1920s who was active in the Bolshevik Party at that time. He stated very simply that 'We saw only the danger from Trotsky, we hardly knew Stalin'. One cannot but ask, how much did Trotsky contribute to his own political downfall by his years as Commissar for War and such writings as those in this pamphlet? How far is it possible to disengage the Trotsky of the 1930s, with his calls for Soviet democracy, Soviet parties, the right to form factions etc. from the Trotsky who wrote these texts?

It is within these texts that we obtain an insight into another side of Trotsky. The Trotsky handed down to us by tradition - mainly stemming from the ortho-Trots - is of the defender of workers rights, the fighter for democracy against the encroaching Stalinist bureaucracy. Yet these texts could quite easily be taken for parables of the Stalinist 'socialism in one country' that was to come. One has the uneasy feeling that if Stalin kept his head down during the 'trade union controversy' of 1920, at the same time he quietly pocketed Trotsky's text for future reference.

Trotsky's ideas in these texts indicate the end result of 'statism' taken to its nth degree. It produced no 'Paradise on this Earth', rather the nightmare of Stalinism. Having once been rebuffed on these ideas Trotsky slowly but surely began to shake off this nightmare vision. They do, however, demonstrate how once one adopts certain methods they begin to develop a life of their own, taking over and bending even the strongest of people. NEP was finally adopted, and Russia began to pull itself away from the edge of the abyss, and thus the conditions which gave rise to such ideas began to fade into the background, at least for Trotsky, but not it seems for all the Bolsheviks.

This is not the place to explore many of the wider issues raised by these texts and the events of 1920/21. That examination belongs to a more detailed historical discussion. However, I hope the reader will find much in these texts to give them food for thought.

Ken Tarbuck
26th June 1993.

Below are a number of works that will be of use to readers wishing to follow up a number of the points made above.

  • Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, Leon Trotsky, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1961.
  • Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention: Russia 1918-1921, Leon Trotsky, New Park Publications 1975.
  • My Life, Leon Trotsky, Grossett & Dunlop 1960.
  • The Prophet Armed:Trotsky 1879-1921, Isaac Deutscher, OUP 1954.
  • The Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in Soviet Russia, R.V.Daniels, Harvard University Press 1960. See the chapter on the 1920/21 opposition.
  • The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1921, E.H.Carr, Three Volumes, Penguin 1966.
  • Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge, OUP (Paperback) 1967.
  • Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography, Cathy Porter, Virago 1980. This is particularly interesting on the trade union debate of 1920/21.
  • Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, W.Bruce Lincoln, Simon & Schuster 1989. Lincoln is by no means a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution yet his scholarly recital of the horrors of this conflict is genuinely moving. If the Bolsheviks do not emerge as saints, their opponents appear as grotesque butchers. Nearly all of these works have excellent bibliographies.

    I should also mention two interesting videos now made available by the opening of Soviet archives.

    The Russian Civil War and Railways of Russia. Both are available from W.H.Smith (exclusively). Both vividly portray the material losses inflicted upon Russia by the civil war. Perhaps they bring home more graphically the human and material damage of the conflict than a reading of books can.

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