Trotsky, Krupskaya and the Bolshevik tradition

By Paul Le Blanc

August 1, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — This contribution will touch on Leon Trotsky’s relationship to the Bolshevik organization headed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. To gain insights into this, we will consider some of the critical reflections of Nadezhda Krupskaya, one of the founders of the Bolshevik tradition, and a central figure within it. All too often, she has been perceived as “merely” the companion of Bolshevism’s central figure, Lenin. In fact, she came to this relationship as a Marxist revolutionary in her own right. For decades she had a far more alert and interactive engagement with Lenin, intellectually and politically, than is sometimes acknowledged. She was also an outstanding educator influenced by Leo Tolstoy and John Dewey. After the Bolshevik Revolution, she became part of the new People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, headed by Anatoly Lunacharsky.[1] 

Beyond this, before the 1917 Revolution, Krupskaya had played an essential organizational role within the Bolshevik apparatus, enabling her to help shape this vibrant tradition. This also enabled her — over the years — to provide insightful interpretations of its evolution, enriched by assessments of many of the vibrant people associated with it. Much of this finds reflection in her remarkable memoirs, which exist in two separate English translations: Memories of Lenin (based on the second Russian edition of 1930), and Reminiscences of Lenin published in 1970 (based on the third edition of 1933).[2] 

Additional reflections can be found in some of what Krupskaya shared with others. She was very close to the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin (in earlier years Rosa Luxemburg’s close comrade and confidant). Zetkin wrote of a conversation with Krupskaya to a friend in March 1924: “She said to me recently that it is false what [Lev] Kamenev and [Gregory] Zinoviev assert, that Lenin had never trusted Trotsky,” she wrote in the midst of the anti-Trotsky campaign being generated in high circles of the Russian Communist Party after Lenin’s death. “On the contrary: Lenin had to the end of his days been fond of Trotsky and held him in high regard. After his death she had also written to this effect to Trotsky.”[3] Here is Krupskaya’s note:

Dear LEV DAVYDOVICH, I write to tell you that about a month before his death, as he was looking through your book, Vladimir Ilyich stopped at the place where you sum up Marx and Lenin, and asked me to read it over again to him; he listened very attentively, and then looked it over again himself. And here is another thing I want to tell you. The attitude of Vladimir Ilyich toward you at the time when you came to us in London from Siberia has not changed until his death. I wish you, Lev Davydovich, strength and health, and I embrace you warmly. N. KRUPSKAYA.[4]

In the 1930 edition of her memoirs, Krupskaya describes the animated discussion with Lenin when the young Trotsky first visited them in their London apartment in the autumn of 1902. “Both the hearty recommendations of the ‘young eagle’ and this first conversation made Vladimir Ilyich pay particular attention to the newcomer,” Krupskaya recalled. “He talked with him a great deal and went on walks with him.” Lenin “was pleased with the definite manner in which Trotsky formulated” his positions, “liked the way Trotsky was able to grasp the very substance of the differences” within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. “A pupil of Lenin,” is how the old Marxist theoretician George Plekhanov viewed him.[5] 


Trotsky was at this time firmly committed to helping forge the new Russian Social Democratic Labor Party as a well-coordinated, centralized organization around the revolutionary Marxist perspectives of the newspaper Iskra. But when a split opened up between Iskra supporters during the second party congress in 1903, Trotsky was repelled by what he saw as negative dimensions of Lenin’s orientation, which bruised the feelings of some of the older and esteemed Iskra-ites, Pavel Akselrod and Vera Zasulich. Krupskaya noted that a large minority of the delegates “supported the ‘offended,’ but in only seeing personalities in the matter missed the whole substance of the discussions,” adding: “Trotsky also did not grasp the substance.”[6] She explained:

And the substance was this — that the comrades grouped around Lenin were far more seriously committed to principles, which they wanted to see applied at all cost and pervading all the practical work. The other group had more of the man-in-the street mentality, were given to compromise and concessions in principle, and had more regard for persons.[7] 

An additional political difference soon deepened the factional separation of Bolsheviks from Mensheviks. In the anticipated upheaval that would overthrow the monarchist absolutism of Tsarist Russia, the so-called bourgeois-democratic revolution, Lenin’s Bolsheviks insisted on the need for a worker-peasant alliance, while the Mensheviks argued in favor of a liberal oriented worker-capitalist alliance. While Trotsky was much closer to the Bolshevik perspective on this, he continued to adhere to a conciliatory attitude on the organization question, grounded in an optimistic revolutionary fatalism. He later explained it this way:

I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s stand was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of uniting and steeling the backbone of the truly revolutionary party.[8]

From 1904 to 1917, this difference resulted in frequent acrimonious polemics between Lenin and Trotsky. In the midst of the revolutionary upsurge of 1905 there were powerful trends toward a convergence of Trotsky with Bolshevism. Lunacharsky remembered someone saying in Lenin’s presence that Trotsky was becoming the leader of the powerfully influential democratic workers’ council, the Petersburg soviet. “Lenin’s face darkened for a moment,” according to Lunacharsky, but “then he said: ‘Well, Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work’.”[9] This was the period in which Trotsky began to articulate his theory of permanent revolution, and years later (as Bolshevik Adolf Joffe later told Trotsky) “with my own ears I had heard Lenin admit that even in 1905, you, and not he, were right.”[10]

Yet in the years following the revolutionary defeat, Trotsky maintained his fatalistic conciliationism and Lenin gravitated to the development of an independent Bolshevik party — generating fierce recriminations on both sides. After fifteen years of frustrating experience, powerfully impressed by the growth and quality of Lenin’s Bolshevik organization, Trotsky decisively rejected the conciliationist perspective, prompting Lenin to comment that “from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik.”[11]

Krupskaya insisted on emphasizing the positive when she participated in the 1924 debates on Trotsky’s brilliant but controversial essay Lessons of October. Her important criticism of Trotsky, which we will examine here, was prefaced by a comment that stands in dramatic contrast to assertions by Zinoviev, Stalin, and other more hostile critics. “Comrade Trotsky devoted the whole of his powers to the fight for the Soviet power during the decisive years of the revolution,” she wrote, referring not only to his central role in October 1917, but also to his role in organizing and leading the Red Army to victory during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921. “He held out heroically in his difficult and responsible position,” Krupskaya continued. “He worked with unexampled energy and accomplished wonders in the interests of the safeguarding of the victory of the revolution. The Party will not forget this.”[12]

Yet the years of independence, and the relative organizational and political isolation from both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, had an impact on how Trotsky was inclined to function within the Bolshevik party once he became part of it. According to Lunacharsky, Trotsky’s “colossal arrogance and an inability or unwillingness to show any human kindness or to be attentive to people, the absence of that charm which always surrounded Lenin, condemned Trotsky to a certain loneliness.” This can be shown to be an overstatement, but it cannot be shown to be entirely false. “Trotsky had little talent for working within political bodies,” Lunacharsky continues (in another overstatement), going on to acknowledge that “in the great ocean of political events, where such personal traits were completely unimportant, Trotsky’s entirely positive gifts came to the fore.”[13]

The truth in Lunacharsky’s criticism must be confronted. One is struck by Trotsky’s utterly dismissive attitude toward others who had played important roles in the history of Bolshevism (except for Lenin) — not only in Lessons of October but even more in his classic memoir My Life, as well as other writings. Regarding My Life, Isaac Deutscher has suggested that post-revolutionary developments were “still too fresh,” and that Trotsky’s account was “handicapped by tactical considerations and lack of perspective.” There is a “wealth of insight, incident, and characterization,” as Deutscher notes, yet the discussion of Bolshevism’s inner life, with the array of personalities and contending ideas (including of such figures as Zinoviev, Kamenev, Krupskaya, Stalin), “seems hampered by the apparent need to place himself closest of all to the one who, for Trotsky, was the genuine hero of the Russian Revolution, Lenin.”[14] 

This brings us to Krupskaya’s criticism of Lessons of October, which emphasize over and over the need to view the Bolsheviks as a revolutionary collective. “Trotsky says a great deal about the Party, but for him the Party is the staff of leaders, the heads,” she notes. But she insists that “the Party was a living organism, in which the Central Committee (‘the staff’) was not cut off from the Party, in which the members of the lowest Party organizations were in daily contact with the members of the Central Committee. … The victory was made possible by precisely the fact that there was a close contact between the C.C. and the collective organization.” From this she concludes: “Where the Party is so organized, where the staff knows the will of the collective organization — and not merely from the resolutions — and works in harmony with this will, the vacillations or errors of individual members of the staff do not possess the decisive significance ascribed to them by Comrade Trotsky.”[15] 

In reference to Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, who are Trotsky’s primary targets in Lessons of October, Krupskaya argued: “When history confronts the Party with an entirely new and hitherto unexampled emergency, it is only natural that the situation is not uniformly estimated by everyone, and then it is the task of the organization to find the right common line.”

She emphasized: “Lenin invariably attached enormous importance to the collective organization of the Party. His relations to the Party Conferences were based upon this. At every Party Conference he brought forward everything which he had thought out since the last Party Conference. He held himself to be chiefly responsible to the Party Conference, to the organization as a whole.”[16] 

Complaining that “Trotsky does not recognize the part played by the Party as a whole, as an organization cast in one piece,” she emphasized: “Yes, the personalities of the leaders is a point of the utmost importance. Yes, it is necessary that the most gifted, the best, the firmest in character of our members are selected for our staff.” But she insisted that “it is not merely a question of their personal capacities, but a question of whether the staff is closely bound up with the whole organization.”[17]

In 1926, Krupskaya became a prominent figure in the United Opposition, along with erstwhile antagonists Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev. The platform of the opposition emphasized points essential to Trotsky’s analysis. One of these was the internationalism of permanent revolution: “Socialism will be victorious in our country in inseparable connection with the revolutions of the European and world proletariat and with the struggle of the East against the imperialist yoke.”[18] Another point involves a critique of the growing bureaucratic dictatorship: 

The immediate cause of the increasingly severe crises in the party is bureaucratism, which has grown appallingly in the period since Lenin’s death and continues to grow . . . The divergence in direction between economic policies and the thoughts and feelings of the proletarian vanguard inevitably strengthens the need for high-pressure methods and imparts an administrative-bureaucratic character to all politics … How many times Lenin referred to the bureaucratic deformations in the state apparatus and to the need for the trade unions, on frequent occasions, to defend the workers from the Soviet state. But … bureaucratism strikes heavily at the worker in all spheres — in the party, economy, domestic life, and culture . . .[19]

The platform of the opposition also reflected the organizational sensibilities to which Krupskaya had given expression:

It is quite clear that it is more and more difficult for the leadership to carry out its policies by methods of party democracy, the less the vanguard of the working class perceives these policies as its own. . . . The question of excesses of those on top is totally bound up with the suppression of criticism. The deep-going dissatisfaction with the party regime established after Lenin’s death, and the still greater dissatisfaction over the shifts in policy, inevitably produce oppositional outbursts and give rise to heated disputes. . . . Only on the basis of party democracy is healthy collective leadership possible. There is no other way.[20]

The United Opposition proved unable to withstand the intensifying threats and pressures, the organizational recriminations, the physical assaults, and the increasingly severe government repression orchestrated by Stalin’s apparatus. Zinoviev, Kamenev and others capitulated, denouncing their own views — but were ultimately purged, arrested, humiliated, and killed. Many intransigents were arrested and sent to Siberian prison camps, where they were eventually executed. Trotsky was exiled and finally murdered in 1940. Krupskaya had abandoned the opposition after several months but courageously wrote and published what she could of her reminiscences of Lenin. As late as 1935, Trotsky could remark that Krupskaya had “consistently and firmly refused to act against her conscience.”[21] During the last four years of her life, however, the Stalin regime was able to take even that away from her — compelling her to accept all that she had fought against, and to give formal approval to the slander and slaughter of old comrades.[22]

In exile Trotsky continued to pay tribute to the revolutionary collectivism of the Bolshevik tradition, but in his retrospective analyses (for example, in his memoir My Life) he also reverted to the “individualist” dismissal, criticized earlier by Krupskaya, of other prominent Bolsheviks. It may be, however, that Trotsky’s weakness proved to be a strength as well — enabling him to better resist, critique, and mobilize against the bureaucratic tyranny that became known as Stalinism. At the same time, he sought to preserve for the use of future generations the legacy of the revolutionary organization that Krupskaya and he had represented.[23]


[1] On the Bolshevik organization, see Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015). Essential information and judgments on Krupskaya can be found in: Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie, Makers of the Russian Revolution, Biographies of Bolshevik Leaders (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp. 156-158; Robert H. McNeal, Bride of the Revolution: Krupskaya and Lenin (London: Victor Gollancz, 1972); Jane McDermiad and Anya Hillyar, “In Lenin’s Shadow: Nadezhda Krupskaya and the Bolshevik Revolution,” in Ian Thatcher, ed., Reinterpreting Revolutionary Russia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 148-165. Also see Barbara Evans Clement, Bolshevik Women (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Krupskaya’s work in the People’s Commissariat of the Enlightenment is discussed in Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organization of Education and the Arts under Lunacharsky, 1917–1921 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

[2]  N. K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, 2 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1930) and N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970).

[3] See Clara Zetkin, letters to Yelena Stasova (9 January 1924 and 29 March 1924), in Clara Zetkin, Letters and Writings (London: Merlin Press, 2015), p. 126.

[4] Leon Trotsky, My Life, An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), p. 510.

[5] Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, p. 85.

[6] Ibid., p. 104.

[7] Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 96.

[8] Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 173.

[9] Anatoly Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), p. 60.

[10] Adolf Joffe, “Letter to Leon Trotsky” (16 November 1927),  International Press Correspondence, January 19, 1928, Vol. 8, No. 3, p. 83; Marxist Internet Archive,

[11]  Leon Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), p. 105.

[12] N. Krupskaya, “The Lessons of October,” in The Errors of Trotskyism (London: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1925), pp. 370-371. Trotsky’s Lessons of October and the avalanche of criticism (including Krupskaya’s critique) are reproduced, with ample scholarly commentary and documentation, in Frederick C. Corney, ed., Trotsky’s Challenge: The “Literary Discussion” of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). 

[13] Lunacharsky, p. 67.

[14] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Leon Trotsky, 1929-1940 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 221, 222, 229.

[15] Krupskaya, “The Lessons of October,” pp. 366-367.

[16] Ibid., pp. 367-368.

[17] Ibid., p. 368.

[18] “Declaration of the Thirteen” (July 1926) in Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-1927), ed., by Naomi Allen and George Saunders (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), p. 86.

[19] Ibid., 74, 76, 81, 82.

[20] Ibid., 76, 84, 89.

[21]  Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile (New York: Atheneum, 1963), p. 35.

[22]  McNeal, pp. 281-288; Katy Turton, Forgotten Lives: The Role of Lenin’s Sisters in the Russian Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 122-123, 125-127.

[23] See Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, and Thomas Twiss, Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014) and Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).