In the struggle against Stalinism the Trotskyist movement (by Trotskyist I mean supporters of Trotsky's views) focused its arguments on the difference between what Lenin had said and done and what the Stalinist were doing. Not to be confused with social democrats who denounced Stalinism but also Lenin, the Trotskyists emphasized heavily their support of Lenin. The Trotskyist of the late 1920s and 1930s could be characterized first of all by their heroic resistance with few resources to tell the full truth about Soviet "socialism" while still defending the original socialist ideal. Their other characteristic was their essential isolation from mass movements, and often little relevance in their countries' political life outside of issues involving the factional struggle stemming from the USSR's history.
Myth of the "correct program"
Slowly a myth developed within the Trotskyist movement that to this day still has some support. That myth is that what Lenin did was gather a cadre around a "correct" program, build a hard, centralized organization and when the masses radicalized they were won over. Having won the masses Lenin's party was then able to take "power". A whole series of corollaries followed from this erroneous concept and, over time, became part of the Trotskyist dogma. One example of these corollaries was the belief that without a party like Lenin's working people could not take power. Of course, a party "like Lenin's" meant a party with a "correct program" well centralized, with internally disciplined cadre. The Trotskyists argued that only the Fourth International (Trotskyist movement) had a correct program. Therefore in their eyes success for the workers' movement, long-term, was directly dependent on the growth of the Fourth International. Any other possible development was essentially ruled out. During the 1940s, for example, almost every article written in the International Socialist Review, a monthly magazine of the North American followers of Trotsky, ended with the words "Only the Fourth International etc, etc."
Parties associated with the Fourth International, (in time there were a few Fourth Internationals) all referred to themselves as Leninist and each affiliated organization a Leninist Party. The conception which gradually became accepted within the Trotskyist movement of Lenin's party had very little to do with what Lenin had actually advocated in Russia and nothing whatsoever to do with what actually happened in pre-1917 Russia. It is crucial to review the ideological error that appeared within the Trotskyist movement around this issue and which consolidated the isolated (sectarian) existence and politics of these organizations into a culture and dogmatic set of political principles.
Lenin and the mass working-class movement
To fully discuss these concepts it is best to go back and outline what Lenin advocated and did. Lenin was a member of the broad workers' movement in Europe, called at the time the Second, or Socialist, international. That mass movement found some expression in Russia and eventually was quite influential among working people and the intelligentsia since it advocated an end to the Czarist dictatorship and the establishment of democracy, the end of feudal relations on the land, a land reform and an eight-hour day.
In Lenin's day all organizations associated with socialism were rife with debate. All kinds of views permeated the movement and various newspapers advocated one or other point of view. One wing of the movement was concerned that the power of the movement had made it possible for leaders to benefit personally. For instance trade union leaders or elected members of parliament, by working out deals or compromises with representatives of capital, could betray the interests of workers in return for privileges for themselves.
Such people were referred to as "reformist", meaning they sought only to gain some reforms within the framework of capitalism, rather than fight for a new, socialist society. Lenin began arguing that in order to fight against such a disorientation of the socialist movement and in order to challenge capital it was necessary to have a more solid movement, both organizationally and ideologically. He noted that natural leaders arise in the day-to-day struggles of working people and that the role of the socialist party was to organize these leaders into an organization to act as a pole of attraction, a class-struggle alternative.
The goal was to help mobilize the whole working class, to unite the class in action. The starting point of Lenin's conception was the existing mass movement. That was just taken for granted in his days. Everyone was talking about what a movement or organization clearly competing for the support of the masses of workers should do.
Lenin's concept of a "party" has no meaning without a mass base. Certainly small groups could appear in a country to begin work to establish the ideas of socialism among their working people but such groups to Lenin were simply propaganda groups such as had existed in Russia in the 19th century.
Lenin's attitude towards such groups, how they should be structured, how they should organize, always depended on their specific circumstances. In the world Lenin functioned in, that was prehistory. He was arguing about what to do once the working class as a whole had its own independent movement both economically (unions) and politically (party).
The concept of a "correct program" abstracted from the actual process of a living mass struggles is the opposite of Lenin's method, which saw the program as something that evolves, itself a process, defined by not only a mass movement but, in Lenin's situation, a mass movement involved in revolutionary struggles. Lenin and all those around him generally had a materialist view of ideas and recognized that they reflected material events.
In the period of revolutionary upsurge in Russia from 1903 to 1918, in which Lenin's ideas of organization and party building were formed, there was no such thing as an abstract "correct program". The party's program clearly evolved. It was a process. It was repeatedly changed and modified. Looking back to that period you can see how fast positions taken by Lenin's party changed, how the organization was in continuous debate. Differences were the norm, not the exception. Major mistakes could be overcome because the power of the developing mass movement helped Lenin's organization readjust.
Lenin opposes soviets
One example was Lenin's opposition to the soviets, (workers' councils). With hindsight we can see that Lenin was sectarian in counterposing building a party to the councils. This position had serious negative effects in the struggles of the 1905 revolutionary explosion and its aftermath. Leaders in Lenin's party opposed him, positions were taken and carried out against his positions, ideas were publicly debated about these differences when legally possible.
Lenin's error was compounded when the revolutionary upswing of 1905 went into decline and he insisted the movement was not yet in decline. Quickly, as reality indicated otherwise, Lenin reversed his positions, including on the Soviets, which after 1906 he claimed should be supported.
Lenin's party, having tens of thousands of followers deeply rooted in the mass movement, rose and declined in active membership rather sharply depending on events. For instance, in 1912, after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, not a single unit of Lenin's party was still in existence or at least holding meetings in Moscow, the largest city of Russia.
Of course, that did not mean that thousands did not continue to agree with Lenin's party, but the repression made it difficult for its supporters to meet. The party that Lenin, the individual, participated in, which became known in history as the Bolshevik Party (meaning the Majority Party in Russian) had little, if any, similarity to what is often today called a Leninist party.
The idea that a group of a few hundred people who are not in the leadership of any mass movement, much less integrally involved in leading the working class as a social force, can be referred to as a Leninist party and having a "correct program" would never have crossed Lenin's mind. In 1918 Lenin would refer to such an idea as clowning.
By the 1940s, however, within the Trotskyist movement a conception had taken root that no matter how small or disconnected from the workers movement a group might be, if it had the "correct" program and a cadre, it was a Leninist Party and would eventually "win".
This was the "proven" Leninist way. What the Trotskyist movement did as a whole was drop the direct involvement with the living mass movement as a prerequisite for the development of a party. Thus "program" was separated from its social roots. In effect, program was separated from practice. Ideas were separated from their material basis.
In doing this, an idealist error, philosophically, was introduced. The first point of any program that has any mean