Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, a lifelong advocate of working class power and socialism, who was exiled and ultimately murdered by a Stalinist assassin. This biography book is a fact based and thought-provoking introduction to the life and times of Leon Trotsky. Click below to buy online
Since the dawn of civilisation, the history of humanity has been shaped by a constant struggle between classes. The haves and the have-nots battle for control of society’s wealth. This conflict is sometimes slow and dogged; at other times it bursts out in open rebellion, in civil wars and revolutions.
This is a history that the rich and powerful try to conceal. They present us with a catalogue of the actions of “Great Men”; history becomes little more than the story of their lives.
We are taught about the Pharoahs of Ancient Egypt, the temples, tombs and pyramids built during their rule. Nothing is told of the people who built them; we are left ignorant of their great strikes to be paid their gold or grain which was often held back to allow the priests and the king to hoard them in their granaries and temples.
We are told of the famous conquests of Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors, but little of the great slave rebellion led by Spartacus, whose armies once held vast areas of Italy under their control.
The history of the modern world is also wracked with class struggle. The system we live under today - capitalism - did not develop gradually and peacefully but as a result of mighty wars and revolutions. The ancestors of our present rulers first had to challenge and overthrow the rule of the old landowning aristocracy.
In the English Civil War of the 17th century and the French Revolution of 1789-93, it was representatives of the rising capitalist class - the bourgeoisie - who cut off the heads of all-powerful kings like Charles I and Louis XVI, and who introduced new laws to allow capitalism to flourish.
But history did not end with the victory of the capitalists. Modern industry also brought another class into being: the working class, the proletariat.
This vast and growing class, herded together in factories, had no way of making a living except to sell their labour in return for wages. Brutalised, forced to work long hours in appalling conditions for a pittance, denied basic human and democratic rights, these modern wage-slaves began a struggle against the capitalists which has lasted to this day and will continue for as long as capitalism exists.
The British proletariat founded the first democratic political movement of this new class: the Chartists. In 1842 they launched a general strike and their members mounted an armed uprising in Newport, raising the red flag for the first recorded time.
In the second half of the nineteenth century British workers went on to build mass trade unions so as to defend their pay and conditions of work, mostly in the face of stiff resistance from their employers.
The German workers went a step further. In 1875 they set up the first mass political party committed to the overthrow of capitalism. Their goal was a new system based on the abolition of wage slavery and profit and the replacement of competition by co-operation - in a word, socialism.
This party, the Social Democracy, under the influence of the Communist theory of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, organised workers in every walk of life, fought off a government ban on socialism, and rose to become both the largest political party in Germany and the cornerstone of a strong International association of working class socialist parties - the Second International.
In France, the workers’ movement was imbued with the bourgeois revolutionary traditions of 1789. But a little more than 80 years later Paris was to be the crucible of a revolution directed against the bourgeoisie itself. In 1871 the workers of Paris rose up in armed insurrection and established the first ever proletarian government, the Paris Commune.
It was drowned in blood after a siege by the forces of capitalist “law and order”. But it lasted long enough to prove - even in defeat - that the proletariat was a revolutionary class, willing to make heroic sacrifices and, most importantly, capable of running society itself without the help of bosses, professional politicians or press barons.
The idea of class struggle is essential if we are to understand the ebbs and flows of history, its dangers and its promise. In place of a dry list of kings and queens, prophets and popes, we can examine the effect of masses of people on history.
In particular we can focus on the sharp conflict of basic interests between the classes - how they struggle for access to money, food, shelter, leisure time and political power.
This class struggle is the motor force that drives history onwards. It compelled slaves to fight emperors, bourgeois to fight aristocrat, worker to fight bourgeois. It casts the great tale of oppression and resistance, of barbarism and humanity, in a new light.
The “Great Men” of history may appear to make their momentous decisions quite freely; in reality their freedom of action is limited by the class struggle of their day. As Karl Marx wrote:
“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”
None of this is to deny the important role individuals play in changing history. A class has neither hands to work nor a brain to think; it is composed of millions of individuals. In a government or a political movement, the foremost representatives of a class combine to decide where their true interests lie and to act accordingly.
In its revolutionary past, the bourgeoisie had its share of genuinely great leaders, people like Cromwell and Robespierre who let nothing stand in the way of progress and led the revolutionary destruction of the monarchy and the feudal system. They owe their place in history to their ruthless and uncompromising struggle for the interests of their rising class.
The working class movement also has its share of such extraordinary individuals. Among the greatest of them is Leon Trotsky, who stood at the head of the most successful working class struggle that history has yet seen.
In October 1917, as Chairman of the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (the “Soviet”) in Petrograd, the capital of the Russian Empire, he organised and led an armed uprising that overthrew the capitalist government, dissolved their secret police and state apparatus, and installed in its place a state based on delegates elected by the mass of the working class themselves. This event was to change the course of history.
Unlike the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution was to survive more than a matter of months.
But it faced an immediate threat. Armies from 14 capitalist states, including France, Britain and Japan, invaded revolutionary Russia and fought alongside the “White Armies” organised by Russian generals loyal to the old ruling class.
Trotsky took the lead in building up, from the exhausted and war-weary peasants and workers of Russia, a new Red Army, an army unlike any other before or since, which resisted and defeated the Whites.
So different from narrow nationalist politicians of the bourgeois type, Trotsky looked beyond the boundaries of Russia to the working class movements of Germany, Britain, France, China and the East.
He called on them to come to the aid of the Soviet republic by settling accounts with the capitalists in their own countries. This internationalism was an integral part of Trotsky’s political outlook.
When the workers of the western countries failed to follow the Russian example with successful revolutions of their own, the revolution in Russia was thrown into isolation and retreat.
A growing caste of bureaucrats and middlemen began to elevate their own interests above the international revolution and the working class.
From as early as 1923 Trotsky denounced this slide into bureaucratic dictatorship and nationalism in Russia. He denounced the aspiring dictator Stalin, to his face, as the “gravedigger of the revolution”.
In a mounting campaign of repression, hundreds of thousands of the most self-sacrificing communists were imprisoned, tortured and murdered by Stalin and his henchmen.
Trotsky was the only leading Russian revolutionary to not give up the fight against this bloody regime that lied and murdered its way to political power in the world’s first workers’ state.
Trotsky was cast into exile, first confined to the wilderness of the Soviet east. Expelled to Turkey he was to be hounded to Norway, through France and finally to Mexico.
Regardless of his temporary resting place, Trotsky mounted a fearless campaign against Stalinism, its abandonment of the aims and ideals of the 1917 revolution and its misleadership of Communist Parties all over the world.
He rallied those communists who opposed Stalinism and were still committed to the revolutionary cause into a new world party of socialist revolution - the Fourth International. He was still fighting when a Stalinist assassin smashed his skull with an ice pick at his Mexico home on 19 August 1940.
To study Leon Trotsky’s life does not mean falling into a “Great Men” theory of history. Still less does it mean setting up a new cult of Trotsky’s personality along the lines of the Stalin cult that he so despised.
The Trotskyist movement today bears his name not because we are trapped in the past, but because we are fighting for the future. Leon Trotsky was a revolutionary.
We study his life, his actions and his writings, because we too are committed to revolution.
From prison to power
Trotsky was born Lev Davidovitch Bronstein in 1879 into a land seething with conflict. Nineteenth century Russia was a backward country. Unlike Western Europe and the USA, modern industry began to develop only late in the century.
The vast majority of the people were poor peasants working the land, often using ancient farming methods. Until 1861 serfdom still existed, a medieval system under which peasants were the property of the landowners, bought and sold along with the land itself.
Although by Trotsky’s day serfdom had been abolished, the 20 million former serfs were hugely in debt to landowners as a result of having to buy their land at inflated prices. For many, life was not so very different than before, often working even less land than they had when they were serfs.
Russia’s political system was equally ill attuned to the development of a modern capitalist country. The small bourgeoisie had no real political representation – all power was in the hands of the Tsar, and the clique of priests, generals and noblemen at his court.
There was neither a parliament nor freedom to organise political parties. Newspapers and literature were censored. Jews were persecuted by law, their towns and villages regularly attacked in vicious pogroms.
The many different nationalities within the Tsar’s empire were denied the right to independence or to use their own languages in schools and public life.
But there was change in the air. When capitalism began to develop in Russia it did so at a feverish pace. In the first decade of Trotsky’s life the number of workers employed in the metal industry increased sixfold; by the time the First World War erupted in 1914 there were 5,000,000 workers in Russia.
While the working class was still only 3 percent of the population – much smaller than in Western Europe – it was highly concentrated in a number of big firms set up with money from foreign capitalists. So despite its size it held enormous power in its hands, if only it would use it.
Lev Davidovitch was not born into a working class family. His father was a well-to-do farmer in the Ukraine. As Trotsky wrote in his autobiography:
“My childhood does not appear to me like a sunny meadow as it does to the small minority; neither does it appear like a dark cave of hunger, violence and misery, as it does to the majority. Mine was the greyish childhood of a lower-middle-class family, spent in a village in an obscure corner where nature is wide, and manners, views and interests are pinched and narrow.”
The young Lev, fascinated by literature and science, was delighted to escape this suffocating village life and go to high school in Odessa, the biggest city in south Russia. Though brilliant at his studies, he soon got into trouble.
He was disgusted by the petty restrictions and injustices, the hatred of the religious authorities for Jews and Catholics. When one teacher tried to victimise a fellow pupil, Lev Davidovitch organised a protest, getting his class to stand and boo the teacher.
In the crackdown that followed a few classmates pointed the finger at Lev. While his stand had illustrated Lev’s courage and leadership qualities, his subsequent fate taught him the value of careful planning and the treachery of informers. And he had learnt first hand of the vindictiveness of the authorities. He was expelled.
A young revolutionary By the time he was 17 Trotsky the student was immersed in revolutionary agitation. His father came to talk him out of it – or failing that to starve him into submission. “You will either quit this business and get to work, or you will quit spending my money”, he declared.
For many middle class students that would be the end of it. But neither parental threats nor poverty were going to stop Lev Davidovitch. His family, like countless others before and since, mocked him for wanting to change the world. But Trotsky did not “grow out of it”. He actually did it.
He got involved with a small group of young people – mainly students – who would gather at the shack of a radical gardener called Shvigovsky, drinking and talking politics into the night. They were mostly Populists.
The Populist, or Narodnik, movement had been fighting Tsarism in various ways for decades. Some believed that the mass of the peasantry was the force that would change Russia, and hundreds of young idealists had left their universities and comfortable homes for the countryside, to “Go to the People” with the message of democracy and freedom. They were almost all arrested.
Other Populists lost patience with the masses altogether, and tried to provoke them into action by individual terrorism, by bombing and shooting the hated oppressors.
One thing all Populists were agreed on was that little could be expected of the tiny Russian working class, and that the Marxists, for all their “scientific” theories of proletarian revolution, were unrealistic and dogmatic.
The young Trotsky agreed with the Populists. Marxism, with its stress on class and economics, sounded too cold and grey to explain the complexities of the world. He once gave a toast at a new year’s party:
“A curse upon all Marxists, and upon those who want to bring dryness and hardness into all the relations of life!”
But events were about to push Trotsky towards Marxism for good.
For many people it is enough to talk. The number of “revolutionaries” who never get further than fine words in cafés and pubs is countless. Trotsky was not one of these. He presented a member of the Shvigovsky group with a picture marked with the words “Faith without Deeds is Dead.”
So in 1897, at the age of 18, he threw himself into active politics among the workers of the town of Nikolayev.
Using primitive equipment Trotsky and his comrades produced leaflets which were distributed in the main factories, denouncing the conditions of work and the greed of the employers.
Workers were encouraged to come to secret study groups, to discuss how to change the world. By the end of the year the Southern Russian Workers’ Union had 200 members.
Prison and Exile The authorities were too scared to rely on the power of open argument and debate. In January 1898 the police moved in and arrested Trotsky. He endured the first of several jail sentences.
Terribly lonely, with no books to read and without paper or pen, he tried to stay sane by making up poems in his head while he paced up and down his tiny cell.
His relief at being transferred to a larger prison in Odessa was enormous, for there was a prison library, visits were allowed, and he learnt the special prisoners’ code for tapping messages to each other on the walls of the cells. He taught himself French and German by reading translations of the Bible, and began a more serious study of Marxism.
His activity in Nikolayev had already confirmed for him the role and importance of the working class; now, reading the works of the Italian Marxist writer Labriola, he found in place of “dryness and hardness” a theory of history that held out the prospect of real and lasting change.
In prison Trotsky married Alexandra Sokolovskaya, a committed Marxist from the Nikolayev circle with whom he had constantly argued. Together they were exiled to Siberia for four years. In this desolate land he remained active, writing, studying Marxism and discussing ideas with other political prisoners. His grasp of Marxism, and his adherence to it, became firmer.
He argued against Populism, and the tactics of individual terrorism. The Tsar, the landlords and the capitalists were too strong to be overthrown by a handful of daring fighters: for that, mass action would be necessary.
And far from inciting the masses to act, isolated shootings and bombings were ineffective, leaving the masses confused and passive. Instead a mass political party would have to be built, based on the industrial working class. This was the only way to win freedom and socialism.
Already in 1898 representatives of workers’ organisations had gathered in Minsk to found a Marxist political party, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP). In 1902 Trotsky got hold of copies of the newspaper Iskra, (“The Spark”), which was published by Marxists abroad, and a copy of What is to be Done?, a pamphlet written by V. I. Lenin.
These publications rejected individual terrorism, but also argued passionately against those within the Marxist movement – the “Economists” – who wanted the new party to limit itself to encouraging the strikes for better pay and conditions that were raging across Russia.
Instead Iskra argued for a centralised political party, and an all-Russian party newspaper. It campaigned for a political struggle that would go beyond trade union demands and lead the most advanced sections of the working class towards the overthrow of the Tsar and the fight for socialism.
The task of the party was not to trail behind the spontaneous ideas of the masses, but to raise their courageous struggles to higher, directly political goals. Trotsky wrote an essay from Siberia in 1901 which put forward a similar view.
The revolutionaries were getting organised, and to the exiles in Siberia this could mean only one thing: escape. When Trotsky expressed doubts about leaving his wife and child, Sokolovskaya put the future of the revolution above their personal lives, declaring “You Must!”.
He made out a fake passport, for the first time using the name of Trotsky, one of his former prison warders. Hidden in a hay cart, he made his way back from exile, linking up with other Iskra supporters on the way. He was advised to get out of Russia, and went first to Vienna and Zurich before heading on to London, and his first encounter with the leaders of the RSDLP and the editors of Iskra.
Trotsky and Lenin Trotsky had learned many things in prison and exile, but good manners were not among them. He arrived at Lenin’s house in London at the crack of dawn and woke his hosts from their well-earned sleep with three violent raps on the door.
With Lenin still in bed, Trotsky plunged into a full report of the situation in Russia while Lenin’s wife Krupskaya had to go and pay his cab fare.
Trotsky later recalled that Lenin took him on a long walk through London “to get acquainted, to give me an examination. And the examination was indeed ‘on the whole course’ . . .”
Lenin quickly became aware of the new arrival’s gifts. Right away Trotsky’s articles began appearing in Iskra, and Lenin among others was soon pushing hard for the newcomer to be placed on the editorial board.
But here he met with resistance from the founding father of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov. Plekhanov was resentful at the rise within the party of new forces, more closely connected to the movement in Russia. Personal motives such as rivalry and spite can play a dangerous role in politics, and this was not to be Trotsky’s only experience of it.
But these petty tensions were soon to be dwarfed by a veritable civil war in the party. The Second RSDLP Congress finally convened in July 1903, first in Brussels, and then, to escape police harassment, in London. Trotsky attended as a delegate of the Siberian organisation, and as a firm supporter of Iskra’s policies.
The congress witnessed the division of the party into two definite factions: the Bolsheviks (majority) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (minority) led by Lenin’s former ally, Martov.
The divisions centred on Lenin’s drive to combat “Economism” and his desire to build a party composed of disciplined members working under the direction of party bodies.
The Mensheviks, on the other hand, favoured continued cohabitation with the Economists and the Jewish workers’ organisation, the Bund. To the Bund’s claim that the party should submit to their views as the sole representatives of the Jewish working class, Trotsky rose to reply that he and many other Jewish comrades opposed to the Bund’s line, also regarded themselves as representatives of the Jewish proletariat.
The Economists and the Bund, like the Mensheviks, also favoured a much looser and less disciplined membership structure. The Mensheviks actually won the day on the membership question, but after both the Economists and the Bund walked out of the congress, Lenin had a slight majority and was determined to use it.
The Party backed Lenin’s proposal to remove two older members of the Iskra editorial board, reducing it to Plekhanov, Lenin and Martov, a clear majority for Lenin’s hardliners. Martov was beside himself and refused to serve on the editorial board, flouting the wishes of the Congress.
The Congress ended in disarray, with the Mensheviks (Martov’s minority) and Lenin’s Bolsheviks (majority) at each others’ throats. But soon after the Congress Plekhanov switched sides, unable to bear the thought of a lasting political break with his long-time comrades.
Trotsky backed the Mensheviks. This he would later deeply regret – it was a serious political mistake. As he wrote in his autobiography,
“My whole being seemed to protest against this merciless cutting off of the older ones when they were at last on the threshold of an organised party. It was my indignation at his [Lenin’s] attitude that really led to my parting with him at the Second Congress. His behaviour seemed unpardonable to me, both horrible and outrageous. And yet, politically it was right and necessary, from the point of view of organisation. The break with the older ones, who remained in the preparatory stages, was inevitable in any case. Lenin understood this before anyone else did . . . I thought of myself as a centralist. But there is no doubt that at that time I did not fully realise what an intense and imperious centralism the revolutionary party would need to lead millions of people in a war against the old order.”
The Mensheviks did indeed develop into an anti-revolutionary party. Lenin saw this possibility earlier than anyone else. Trotsky, in contrast, had enormous respect for the older members of the editorial board; he believed, like Plekhanov, that a split was always a bad thing, and unity always good. In this he put organisational and even personal matters before political principles.
When the Mensheviks began to put hopes in the capitalist Liberals and to shield them from criticism, Trotsky resigned from their faction in September 1904. But he did not join the Bolsheviks, arguing instead for unity at any price. For the next 14 years this caused him to play a role within the party that was often negative and obstructive.
The Dress Rehearsal It was the events of 1905 that were to catapult Trotsky to a leading role in the Russian Revolution. On 23 January he arrived at the Geneva offices of Iskra, where Martov gave him the latest news about the protests against the Tsar by Russian workers in the capital, St Petersburg.
The reports were dramatic. Demonstrators had tried to hand in a petition to the Tsar but his troops opened fire, killing thousands of workers. This terrible massacre became known as Bloody Sunday.
Russia was in turmoil. The revolution was surely not far off. Trotsky secretly made his way back into Russia and headed for St Petersburg, where he kept in touch with both factions of the RSDLP, and then took refuge in Finland after his second wife, Natalia, was arrested on a May Day demonstration.
He did not return to Russia until October, when strikes by printers and railway workers began to spread across the country. The workers demanded an 8-hour day and, encouraged by the Mensheviks, they began to add political slogans including the demand for parliamentary elections and free speech.
The government retreated and offered a compromise, which the workers only saw as proof of their power and of the Tsar’s weakness. The deal allowed for a parliament, but workers would not be able to vote in the elections. Freedom of speech and organisation were however to be allowed. The workers were jubilant.
But Trotsky had not been fooled. At a mass meeting on 18 October he called on the workers to have no trust in the Tsar and to defend their freedoms by direct action. He wrote in a revolutionary newspaper:
“We have been given freedom of assembly, but our assemblies are encircled by troops. We have been given freedom of speech, but censorship remains inviolate. We have been given freedom of study, but the universities are occupied by troops. We have been given personal immunity, but the prisons are filled to overflowing with prisoners . . . we have been given a Constitution, but the autocracy remains. Everything has been given, and nothing has been given.”
Trotsky rapidly increased his influence among the St. Petersburg working class through his role in the Council of Workers’ Deputies (Soviet). This had met on 13 October with one delegate for every 500 workers. It issued an appeal for a general strike.
The Soviet won widespread authority because it involved all the workers’ organisations, striking factories, parties and unions. Because its delegates could be recalled at any time by the workers who had elected them, it closely reflected the mood of the masses.
The Bolshevik leaders – in Lenin’s absence – were suspicious of the Soviet as a rival to the party. This sectarianism greatly weakened their role. Trotsky had no such qualms. He threw himself into the work of the Soviet, drafting appeals and proclamations, writing for its newspaper and speaking in its name.
By November it was plain that the rank and file soldiers were beginning to show sympathy for the workers. The peasants were beginning to revolt, demanding land.
Trotsky was convinced that the campaign for the 8-hour day would not be won without the overthrow of the government; he raised the slogan “Eight Hours and a Gun!”. Under Trotsky’s influence, the Soviet voted to prepare for an armed uprising.
This did not materialise; the strikes in St Petersburg were getting weaker and the troops seemed likely to remain loyal. But in Moscow the Bolsheviks – now back under Lenin’s influence – had been preparing for just such a rising. Soldiers had gone so far as to send delegates to the local workers’ Soviet. Lenin wrote to party fighting contingents in October:
“The contingents may be of any strength, beginning with two or three people. They must arm themselves as best they can (rifles, revolvers, bombs, knives, knuckle-dusters, sticks, rags soaked in kerosene for starting fires, ropes or rope ladders, shovels for building barricades, pyroxylin cartridges, barbed wire, nails against cavalry, etc.)”
The revolutionaries fought courageously but by 17 December they had been defeated. Trotsky was arrested and brought to trial. There, in a brave and defiant speech, he refused to condemn the rising. To the prosecution’s claim that the Soviet organised the uprising, he declared:
“If you tell me that the pogroms, the murders, the burnings, the rapes . . . are the form of the government of the Russian Empire – then I will agree with the prosecution that in October and November last we were arming ourselves, directly and immediately, against the form of government of the Russian Empire.”
Trotsky was sentenced to exile for life in Siberia. He was 26 years old. But within a month he had escaped, destined not to return to Russia again until 1917, when revolution once more swept the country.
Against nationalism In exile in Europe Trotsky met the leaders of the German and Austrian Social Democrats. How different he found them from the Russian revolutionaries! These were people completely adjusted to peaceful conditions, who expected to come to power by gradually building up their support in elections and parliament. They led comfortable bourgeois lives.
Trotsky was repelled by their “undisguised chauvinism, or the bragging of a petty proprietor, or holy terror of the police, or vileness towards women.” When Trotsky protested about an article in the Austrian social-democratic paper which contained racist sneers at the Serbians, the party leaders dismissed the whole incident, claiming that workers were not interested in foreign policy.
On the eve of the First World War the Austrian party was failing to resist the poison of nationalism which was about to turn the whole of Europe into a slaughterhouse. As Trotsky observed:
“They wrote about war and revolution in their May Day manifestos, but they never took them seriously; they did not perceive that history had already poised its gigantic soldier’s boot over the ant-heap in which they were rushing about with such self-abandon. Six years later they learned that foreign policy existed even for Austria-Hungary.”
The mighty German party was also not what it seemed. Trotsky began to wonder openly whether the great hope of international socialism might become an obstacle to the revolution in the years to follow.
Nevertheless, he still failed to arrive at the harsh conclusions drawn by Lenin. Despite his mounting recognition of the anti-revolutionary nature of Menshevism, Trotsky continued to campaign against division in the Russian party, telling the fifth RSDLP congress, “if you think that a schism is unavoidable, wait at least until events, and not merely resolutions, divide you.”
And indeed pressure from the rank and file in 1910 did lead the two factions to agree to expel their extreme wings: the Bolsheviks were to part company with the ultra-leftists who wanted the party to boycott elections altogether, and the Mensheviks were to break with their right wing, the “Liquidators”.
These latter were completely opposed to revolution and wanted to dissolve the underground RSDLP and set up a new liberal-style legal party.
The Mensheviks broke the agreement, however. Meanwhile the Russian workers gave a clear signal that the time for internal wrangles was at an end. Strikes mounted and the years of reaction were drawing to a close.
On 4 April 1912, 500 miners were killed or injured when troops opened fire on strikers in the Lena goldfields, by which time Lenin had already called a conference and established the Bolsheviks as a completely separate party. The Bolsheviks threw themselves into work among the masses, greatly building up their support in the workers’ movement. By 1914 they had 2,800 workers’ groups in Russia. The Mensheviks had only 600.
In the summer of 1912 Trotsky made an enormous political mistake. Ignoring the issues of political principle, he convened a meeting in Vienna, the “August Bloc”. This involved all factions except the Bolsheviks, from the ultra-leftists to the most right-wing Liquidators. The only thing that united this motley crew was hatred of the Bolsheviks. It fell apart achieving nothing but confusion.
Trotsky himself later realised the nature of his mistake:
“Politically I differed with the Mensheviks on all fundamental questions. I also differed with the ultra-left Bolsheviks . . . In the general tendency of policies I stood far more closely to the Bolsheviks. But I was against the Leninist ‘regime’ because I had not yet learned to understand that in order to realise a revolutionary goal a firmly welded centralised party is necessary. And so I formed this episodic bloc consisting of heterogeneous elements which was directed against the proletarian wing of the party . . . Lenin subjected the August bloc to merciless criticism and the harshest blows fell to my lot. Lenin proved that in as much as I did not agree politically with either the Mensheviks or the [ultra-lefts] my policy was adventurism. This was severe but it was true.”
After the failure of this initiative, Trotsky travelled to the Balkans, which, then as now, was a seething cauldron of nationalism, oppression and war. In a series of brilliant reports for the socialist press, he caught the horror of war and “the look of men doomed for sacrifice”.
His articles waged war on anti-semitism, bigotry and war itself. But he never advised the victims of oppression to lay down their arms. He distinguished at all times between reactionary wars fought for profit, and the justified resistance of nations whose fundamental freedoms were being denied.
Compared with what was to follow, the carnage in the Balkans was a minor skirmish. In August 1914 the boot came smashing down on the European ant-hill. As the First World War began, the European peoples were swept up in a wave of patriotic feeling. This much Trotsky had been expecting; he hoped the mood would turn sour soon enough.
But nothing could prepare him for the shock that was to come. The social-democratic parties lined up with their capitalist enemies and supported the war drive, urging their working class supporters into the slaughter. The Second International was dead in all but name.
Of all the major European socialist parties, only the Bolsheviks remained true to their internationalist principles. By July 1915 Trotsky was beginning to wonder whether this was related to the whole history of the struggle inside the RSDLP and the subsequent split.
A meeting of internationalists was convened in Zimmerwald, Switzerland in September 1915. Lenin pushed for a revolutionary policy. He put forward the slogan “Turn the Imperialist War into a Civil War” and called for a new, Third International.
But Trotsky’s formula was adopted, calling simply for peace without any side annexing territory or defeated states paying compensation to the victors, and for the right of all nations to determine their own future.
How isolated the internationalists must have felt at this dark time. One wit observed that all the internationalists in the world could have fitted into a couple of coaches. But the small forces that stood against the stream when it ran with blood would be borne aloft by the tidal wave of revolution that followed the war.
Revolution In Russia Tsarism was rotting on its feet. Tsar Nicholas listened more closely to a mad priest named Rasputin than to his own ministers. Humiliated and weakened by continual defeats in the war with Germany, the noblemen and liberal capitalists were losing patience with the monarch.
The soldiers, weary of war, were deserting in droves. On the land and in the cities, discontent was steadily rising. In February 1917 it burst into the open, dragging Tsarism down for good.
On 23 February, International Working Class Women’s Day, masses of women took to the streets demanding bread. The next day women textile workers struck, and without waiting for their leaders they sent flying pickets to the massive metal factories, calling their brothers out in support.
The call for bread was soon drowned out by the cry for an end to the monarchy and the war. The police broke up demonstrations, but the army and the Cossacks were not so firm. Trotsky wrote how women workers took the lead in winning over the soldiers:
“They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: ‘Put down your bayonets – join us.’ The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes his mind up first, and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened, a joyous and grateful ‘Hurrah!’ shakes the air. The soldiers are surrounded. Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals – the revolution makes another forward step.”
Within a matter of days the revolution outstripped the events of 1905. The Tsar stood down, and a Provisional Government was set up, containing bourgeois ministers who were soon to be joined by Mensheviks and Populists from the misnamed Socialist Revolutionary Party (“Srs”).
But this was not the only power in the land. Remembering the lessons of 1905, the workers and soldiers hastened to re-establish Soviets, this time on a wider and more lasting basis than before.
On the one hand stood the new government of the capitalists, which owed its very existence to the rebellion of the workers; on the other stood the Soviet, an organisation of workers’ power.
The Soviet immediately established control of food supplies, set up its own armed militia and secured freedom of the press by launching a boycott of any newspapers that accepted government censorship.
This dual power could not last. Trotsky understood that:
“Either the bourgeoisie will actually dominate the old state apparatus, altering it a little for its purpose, in which case the Soviets will come to nothing, or the Soviets will form the foundation of a new state, liquidating not only the old government apparatus, but also the domination of those classes which it served.”
With the bosses still in power, the struggle was far from over. But with Lenin in exile, the Bolshevik leaders, Stalin and Kamenev, trailed behind events, clinging to old slogans that the revolution itself was rendering outdated.
Like the Mensheviks, they believed that the revolution would have to stop given that a modern capitalist democracy had been established. They wrote in the Bolshevik paper Pravda, “what matters now is not the overthrow of capitalism but the overthrow of autocracy and feudalism.”
History had given the working class a tremendous opportunity to finish the revolution by taking power themselves through the Soviets. But successful revolutions do not happen automatically. They need leadership. The victory of the socialist revolution required conscious decision-making and action.
There were three conditions for the Bolsheviks’ eventual success. The first was the role of Lenin himself. On his return to Russia he brushed aside a welcoming party from the Mensheviks that asked him to support the Provisional Government.
Instead, he declared that the revolution was not over, that the workers should have no confidence in the government, and that all power should pass to the Soviets.
Such a government would pull Russia out of the war, give land to the peasants and hand control of the factories over to the workers themselves. These arguments were set out in Lenin’s famous “April Theses”.
Even Lenin’s powerful influence within the Bolshevik party would not have been enough on its own. At first the other Bolshevik leaders refused to follow Lenin’s advice.
But the mass of rank and file workers and soldiers were losing confidence in the Provisional government. In Kronstadt, an important naval town, the local Soviet declared that “the sole power in the City of Kronstadt is the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”.
In the militant stronghold of Vyborg in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the workers of one machine factory proclaimed “the only power in the country must be the soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasant deputies, which we will defend with our lives.”
This was the second condition for a revolutionary victory. The compromisers in the Bolshevik leadership were caught between the revolutionary arguments of Lenin and the determination of the rank and file of the party.
The third vital factor was the role of Trotsky. He arrived back in Russia early in May and went straight to the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, which was under the leadership of Mensheviks and SRs, who supported the Provisional Government.
They tried to ignore his presence, but the great days of 1905 were not so easily forgotten. To cries of “Trotsky! We want Comrade Trotsky!”, he was allowed to speak. He opposed support for the government and called for the Soviets to take sole power, in terms that were markedly similar to Lenin’s position. By the summer Trotsky and his small group of supporters had joined the Bolsheviks.
Trotsky’s great skill as a public speaker was now allied directly to the influence and power of Lenin’s highly organised mass revolutionary party.
He addressed meeting after meeting in factories, halls and squares across the city, holding audiences spellbound with what one observer described as “the powerful rhythm of his speech, his loud but never fatiguing voice, the remarkable coherence and literary skill of his phrasing, the richness of his imagery, scalding irony, his soaring pathos, his rigid logic, clear as polished steel.”
Trotsky’s brilliant success as a speaker consisted in his ability to understand and express the most deeply held needs and longings of his audiences, and to link them in clear and dramatic language to the necessity for revolution.
All Power to the Soviets! The government, now an alliance between Mensheviks, SRs and capitalist ministers, banned a Bolshevik demonstration planned for June. Instead they held an official march, hoping that it would be a way of letting off steam.
But on the march they were terrified to see how the workers were taking up the Bolsheviks’ slogans with great enthusiasm, particularly the calls “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers” and “All Power to the Soviets”.
Many Bolsheviks, particularly in the party’s military organisations, thought the time had come to take power from the Provisional Government. But at the First Congress of Soviets from across Russia in June, the SRs had 285 delegates, the Mensheviks 248 and the Bolsheviks only 105.
The time was not yet right for a Bolshevik seizure of power; the majority of the Russian working class was not yet behind them.
In St. Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd) the fervour of the revolutionary workers and soldiers had reached boiling point. Against the advice of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks’ leading Central Committee, they staged an armed demonstration in early July. At first, the party leaders struggled to contain the situation but to no avail.
Preferring to struggle and lose alongside the revolutionary workers than to cut themselves off from them for good, the party joined the fight. By 5 July troops loyal to the Provisional Government started arriving in Petrograd; a bloody counter-revolution had begun.
Revolutionary workers and soldiers were beaten up and arrested across the city. The Bolshevik headquarters was occupied and smashed up. Trotsky found himself once again in jail.
In the months that followed these “July days” Russia was led ever deeper into crisis by the reactionary Provisional Government. In the countryside the peasants continued to seize the land from its former owners. Discipline collapsed in the army. Bolshevism, though weakened, continued to build up support in the factories.
Aware that this could not go on much longer, the upper layers of the army started to lose patience with the government of moderate socialists. A military dictatorship, they believed, was the answer. Then they would sweep away all the revolutionaries and Jewish “troublemakers”, and put the rightful Tsar of all the Russians back on his throne, as God intended.
Kerensky, the SR leader of the government, was caught in the crossfire. He wanted to declare martial law himself, but the head of the army, General Kornilov, had other ideas. Kornilov marched his troops on Petrograd, planning a coup.
In a blind panic, the government issued the order to defend Petrograd. But they had no chance without the support of the most revolutionary workers and soldiers, and they knew it. A group of sailors’ representatives came to visit Trotsky in prison, asking whether they should fight with Kerensky against the coup, or try to overthrow them both.
Trotsky’s reply was a fine example of revolutionary realism. He advised them to deal first with Kornilov, all the better to overthrow Kerensky afterwards.
The Bolsheviks came back out of hiding and the Soviets issued a call to defend the revolution arms in hand. The workers boycotted anything connected with the coup. Kornilov’s army found it could not use the railways or the telegraph system.
Armed workers confronted and won over Kornilov’s confused and unwilling rank and file. The revolt collapsed with scarcely any violence.
As Trotsky had predicted, the effect on Kerensky and the moderate socialists was equally shattering. The Provisional Government appeared weak and indecisive. It had brought the revolution to the edge of ruin. Had not Kerensky and his capitalist allies been plotting with Kornilov just before the coup attempt? And had the Bolsheviks not been warning of this all along?
Throughout September the Bolsheviks won ever more support in the Soviets throughout the country. On 23 September Trotsky was once again elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin argued strenuously within the party for an immediate armed seizure of power. He met stiff resistance among other Bolshevik leaders at first.
The art of insurrection Trotsky on the other hand supported an insurrection, but shrewdly calculated that the best way to take and hold power would be for the rising to be organised under the authority of the Soviet.
The Soviet backed his proposal that “If the Provisional Government is incapable of defending Petrograd, it must either make peace [with Germany] or give place to another government.”
The Soviet established a Military Revolutionary Committee, under Trotsky’s guidance, to prepare for the seizure of power.
By 22 October, preparations were nearly complete. At a mass rally called by the Soviet, Trotsky asked the assembled thousands of workers and soldiers to defend the revolution to the last drop of blood.
On the next day he risked his life, going personally, without a bodyguard, to a meeting of soldiers at the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul, where loyalty to the Soviet was in doubt.
After making a speech to the assembled soldiers, he returned to report that they would obey only the orders of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and that their 100,000 rifles would be at the service of the revolution.
During the night and morning of 24/25 October, Soviet forces moved to take control of all the key positions in the city, the railway stations, food stores, telephone exchanges, power stations and post offices. There was no resistance – government forces were in disarray. At 10.00am on 25 October, the Military Revolutionary Committee announced:
“The Provisional Government has been overthrown. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies . . .”
That evening the Second Congress of Soviets from all over Russia met in Petrograd. Sixty per cent of the delegates were Bolsheviks. Martov, on behalf of his faction of Mensheviks, declared that a common government should be formed out of all representatives of socialist parties, including the mainstream Mensheviks and the right wing SRs, who had opposed Soviet power and were calling for negotiations at once with the deposed Provisional Government.
Trotsky rose to reply to them in one of his most famous and dramatic speeches:
“The masses of the people followed our banner, and the insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we have had a full view of them. No-one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented at this Congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this, we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history!”
For the first time in history, the workers were masters of the state, a new type of state under their direct control. The October Revolution proved the boundless energy and creativity of the working class, and the necessity of a tightly organised revolutionary party to lead the struggle for power.
Against the cowardly arguments of Mensheviks and reformists of all types, it proved that for the working majority to overthrow the power of the privileged minority, there can be no alternative to force.
It showed the whole world that workers’ power and socialism are not mere dreams or dry theories, but the necessary outcome of centuries of struggle.
Still only 38 years old, at the head of the revolutionary masses, a member of the world’s first victorious workers’ government, the October revolution turned Trotsky from an obscure agitator working in desperate isolation into a powerful leader of a proletarian state.
He was now at the height of his influence. But Trotsky was no mere place-seeker; this was far from the end of his revolutionary career. Leon Trotsky’s most important struggles lay ahead.
The theory of Permanent Revolution is one of the main contributions made by Trotsky to Marxism. Like all important theories it is often completely misunderstood.
Right-wingers sometimes suggest that it is a call for a never-ending series of revolutions. It is as though Trotskyists are irresponsible maniacs who want society to be in a state of constant upheaval, never settling down.
Earlier critics adopted a different tack. Stalin and his supporters opposed the “Menshevik ‘theory of permanent revolution’, which it would be an insult to Marxism to call a Marxist theory.”
So what is Permanent Revolution really about, and why did it become such an important issue for its supporters and opponents alike?
The theory of Permanent Revolution deals with two main questions. The first is the role of the working class in revolutions in “backward” countries. The second is the international character of the socialist revolution.
The bourgeois revolution In the 1880s and 1890s, Plekhanov and his small group of Russian Marxists had asked themselves the question: what sort of revolution is approaching in Russia? They had answered – a bourgeois revolution. This was the approach adopted by all the Russian Social Democrats, from the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks through to Trotsky and his small band of followers.
A bourgeois revolution? To socialists in industrially developed capitalist countries the very idea sounds like a contradiction in terms. Today the bourgeoisie are the ruling class. Revolution is the last thing they want.
The minority of financiers and industrialists own society’s wealth and control the state, using the unelected power of the courts, the army, police and civil service to protect their property and their privileges.
All over the world they have resorted to the most drastic measures, including civil war and dictatorship, to prevent revolution.
But this was not always the case. To establish their power in the first place, the bourgeoisie had no option but to turn to revolution.
The French Revolution of 1789 was a classic example. It swept away the old land-owning class and the monarchy, and opened the way for the development of modern capitalism. The bourgeoisie encouraged the mass of the people – the peasants and the poorest city-dwellers – to rise up and fight for “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality”.
But once the King and the aristocracy had been overthrown, the poor were abandoned by the bourgeois revolutionaries, and were left without power, without the vote, and without rights.
The capitalists had made their revolution: now the impoverished population should settle down and get to work – for the capitalists.
By the turn of the century Russia was still so backward that it had not had even a bourgeois revolution. There was no parliament and no free speech; even the capitalists had no right to vote. The land was still in the hands of the old aristocracy.
The many nations under Russian rule had no right to determine their own future. Russian Tsarism was the most conservative force in Europe, sponsoring counter-revolution and opposing democracy wherever it could.
Marxists all agreed that the coming revolution would be bourgeois. By this they meant that the rise of capitalism in Russia would undermine the whole basis for Tsarism and bring it crashing down.
The main aim of the revolution would be to overthrow the obstacles to capitalist development: Tsarism, the absence of democracy, and the old-fashioned feudal system in agriculture. They believed that such a revolution was necessary as a means of creating the basis – modern capitalist democracy – for a later, socialist revolution against capitalism.
Lenin against the Mensheviks
The split in the RSDLP in 1903 drew attention to a question that sharply divided the different factions. The coming revolution was bourgeois, but which forces in society, which classes, were going to lead it?
The Mensheviks gave a simple answer. The revolution was bourgeois, so it would be led by the bourgeoisie. What could be more logical than that?
The RSDLP should, accordingly, build an alliance with those parties that represented the most liberal sections of the capitalist class, for they would lead the revolution. Once the bourgeoisie had overthrown the Tsar, the way would be clear for the peaceful expansion of capitalism in Russia.
The working class would grow gradually bigger and stronger as capitalism developed. Eventually, the workers would overturn capitalism itself, and establish socialism. But this was the music of the distant future.
Lenin had a different view. He was aware that over the preceding decades the bourgeoisie had played a far less heroic role than it had in its revolutionary past. During the revolution in Germany in 1848, for example, the capitalists had not overthrown the monarchy, but instead come to a compromise with the landowners and the Emperor, allowing them to crush the revolutionary workers and peasants.
Things had changed since 1789. The capitalists now had an industrial working class to worry about. The threat of revolution from below scared them far more than the survival of the monarchy and the landowners.
Lenin summed up the difference between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks:
“Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, therefore the workers must support the bourgeoisie – this is what the worthless politicians from the ranks of the liquidators say. Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, is what we Marxists say. Therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deceit of the bourgeois politicians, teach them not to believe them, to rely on their own forces, on their own solidarity, on their own arms.”
The bourgeoisie was untrustworthy and cowardly. They would not carry out even their own revolution. Instead the workers would have to rely on themselves and build up their own organisations.
Because the workers were still a minority of the people in Russia, they would need allies. They would find them in the millions of poor peasants, desperate for land and freedom.
The proletariat should lead the peasantry in the struggle for democracy. Only in that way, argued Lenin, could Tsarism be overthrown and a democratic republic established. The new government would not be of the normal bourgeois type, but would be “a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”
Uneven and combined development
Trotsky agreed with Lenin’s hostility to the liberals and his stress on the role of the working class in the revolution. But he went a step further.
The first sign of Trotsky’s new theory came in 1905. He wrote a pamphlet about Bloody Sunday and the beginning of the revolution in January that year. The powerful general strike proved that the working class was the most revolutionary force in Russia. But in an introduction to Trotsky’s pamphlet, a new idea appeared:
“Now no one can deny that the general strike is the most important means of fighting . . . One need only add that revolution in Russia may place a democratic workers’ government in power.”
These lines were written by Parvus, who together with Trotsky in 1905 and 1906, worked out the bare bones of what was to become the theory of permanent revolution. The bourgeois revolution in Russia would take place under different circumstances from “classical” bourgeois revolutions like in France.
The key to understanding this was the theory of uneven and combined development. This is a much simpler idea than it sounds. Native Americans, for example, that came into contact with white colonial settlers eventually swapped their bows and arrows for rifles, without first having to discover gunpowder for themselves. In this way modern technologies can exist alongside many of the structures of a less economically developed society.
So it was in Russia. Russian capitalism had evolved more quickly than the Russian capitalist class. The great centres of modern industry had been paid for with loans and investments by the West European bourgeoisie.
The process was also highly uneven. The new working class was concentrated in very large factories and enterprises; but the Russian bourgeoisie was extremely weak and had only very slender connections with the rest of society.
The monarchy and the state took so much of the wealth that the capitalist class was prevented from growing in size and power. There was no way they could be expected to lead the revolution.
The idea of combined and uneven development was useful: it explained how Russia could be facing a bourgeois revolution without having a revolutionary bourgeoisie.
The events of 1905 had shown the power of the working class; the general strike, the Soviets and the armed uprising had proved beyond doubt that the proletariat would play the leading role in the revolution.
But what would happen after the Tsar had been overthrown? One Austrian socialist leader had told Trotsky not to worry about that – the Russians had enough to worry about in the here and now. But it was Trotsky’s strength as a revolutionary thinker that he always looked to the great questions of the future, as well as the tasks of the present day.
The Permanent Revolution
The workers would have to form a government. The first steps of this revolutionary government would be to complete the bourgeois revolution, abolishing the monarchy, granting freedom to oppressed nationalities and officially recognising the peasants’ right to land.
But should the workers then guarantee to preserve the capitalist system? Trotsky said no. The workers’ government would have to go further and take specifically socialist measures.
In his pamphlet “Results and Prospects”, Trotsky gave an example to explain what he meant. The RSDLP was campaigning for a maximum working day of eight hours – something that workers all over the world are still fighting for. This was a demand that could be met within the capitalist system – it was what Marxists call a democratic reform. But what would happen in the very likely event that some employers refused to carry it out?
If the workers went on strike for an eight hour day, then a workers’ government would have to support them. If the employers still refused to change their ways, then the workers’ government would have to take over their businesses and run them in the interests of the workers.
The government would have to undertake “the expropriation [confiscation] of the closed factories and organising production on a socialist basis.” The workers’ government would have to organise the country to meet the workers’ need, not the capitalists’ greed.
The only alternative would be to limit the revolution strictly to capitalist measures, which would mean siding with the bosses. The workers’ government would have to attack the workers. This would, in Trotsky’s words, “compromise Social Democracy from the very start.”
Lenin’s idea of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” was too vague. It correctly pointed out that the workers would have to lead the people in overthrowing Tsarism. But it did not clearly explain what the tasks of the workers would be once they had conquered power. Trotsky’s position was more definite:
“. . . the democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.”
The events of 1905 proved the point:
“It was not the opposition of the liberal bourgeoisie, not the elemental risings of the peasantry or the terrorist acts of the intelligentsia, but the strike of the workers that for the first time had brought Tsarism to its knees. The revolutionary leadership of the proletariat revealed itself as an incontrovertible fact. I felt that the theory of permanent revolution had withstood its first test successfully.”
Lenin did not accept Trotsky’s theory, which seemed to fly in the face of everything the Russian Marxists had been arguing for decades. He dismissed permanent revolution as “absurdly left”. But he still pushed for the workers to play a leading role in the revolution, and to fight the cowardly liberals.
What is more, he recognised that the workers would have to set themselves the goal of dominating the revolutionary government. He argued:
“One cannot engage in a struggle without expecting to capture the position for which one is fighting.”
In 1917 Lenin was true to these words. When the Mensheviks joined a coalition government with capitalist ministers, he opposed it and argued for all power to pass to the workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets. The bourgeois Provisional Government refused to carry through even the bourgeois revolution.
It was left to the new Soviet Government to give the land to the peasants and to hold parliamentary elections. As Trotsky had predicted, the workers’ government did not stop there. In the face of sabotage by the private owners, it steadily took over industry and placed it under workers’ control.
In early 1917 some leaders of the Bolshevik party – including Stalin – wanted to use Lenin’s old slogan to get the party to support the Provisional Government. Lenin replied:
“Whoever talks now only about the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ has lost touch with life, has, in virtue of this circumstance, gone over, in practice, to the petit-bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; and he ought to be relegated to the museum of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiquities.”
Though Lenin never expressed support for permanent revolution in writing, his practice in 1917 showed that he had accepted its conclusions. Immediately after the seizure of power in October, he declared to the Soviet Congress that the Bolshevik government would “now proceed to construct the socialist order.”
Adolphe Joffe, a Bolshevik leader in 1917, claimed to the end of his life that in 1919 Lenin had told him that, on the question of permanent revolution, Trotsky had proved to be right.
Russia and the World Revolution The Russian Revolution produced cries of anger not only from the capitalists, but from reformist opponents of revolution in Social-Democratic parties around the world. Plekhanov himself declared that “against the Bolsheviks all methods are good.”
In their arguments against the Bolshevik revolution, the Mensheviks and other Social-Democrats used the language of Marxism, but they gave it a special right-wing twist of their own.
Marxism teaches that socialism can only be built on the basis of the most modern and advanced developments. If society’s wealth is to be shared out equally, there has to be enough to go round. Capitalism would provide the conditions for going forward to socialism, by creating a modern industrial economy, the latest technology, and a large working class.
Russia had none of these things. The Mensheviks drew the conclusion from this that the Bolsheviks had been wrong to take power. The workers should have waited until capitalism had developed Russia further. They thought the socialist revolution would have to begin in the most “civilised” countries of Western Europe, not in a rural backwater like Russia.
Trotsky never believed that Russia would be able to build socialism alone. He accepted that socialism would have to be based on the achievements of the most advanced capitalist economies.
But he sharply rejected the anti-revolutionary conclusions of the Mensheviks. Despite Russia’s backwardness, it was the Russian working class that first had the chance to take power. They had rightly taken it. The task now was to spread the revolution to other countries.
The overthrow of the powerful capitalists of Germany, Britain and France would remove the greatest threat to the survival of the Russian workers’ republic. A federation of workers’ states would help to overcome Russia’s isolation and backwardness.
This was the second vital element of the theory of permanent revolution. The revolution in a backward country like Russia was just the first blow of the world socialist revolution. Without this, the revolution in Russia could not survive for long. As Trotsky explained:
“The conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it . . . The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word: it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.”
In short, the Mensheviks said that because socialism could not be built in Russia alone, the Russian workers should not have taken power and introduced socialist measures. In contrast, Trotsky and Lenin said that because socialism could not be built in Russia alone, the Russian workers should take power and strive to encourage and spread socialist revolution across the globe.
Trotsky’s theory had predicted the events of 1917. The workers had proved to be the real leaders of the bourgeois revolution. Nor had the revolution remained at the capitalist stage. February had given way to October – the struggle for peace, land and democracy had led directly to the struggle for socialism.
Lenin’s actions seemed to confirm that Trotsky had been right. The Bolshevik leader had seen the significance of the Soviets as a basis for a workers’ government, changed his party’s policy, and led them to take power in a second, socialist, revolution.
Trotsky must have been satisfied that history itself had proved the value and validity of his theory of permanent revolution.
Bread, Peace and Land
Many people today, filled with a justified suspicion for governments and politicians of all types, will wonder whether the Bolsheviks feathered their own nests, especially after they emerged from underground struggle to find themselves in positions of power and influence.
But during the first years of the Russian revolution, when Soviet democracy and the revolutionary initiative of the masses were at their height, the Bolsheviks built into the system a series of safeguards against bureaucracy, privilege and the abuse of power.
To stop what Frederick Engels had once called “place-hunting and careerism”, members of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars (the government elected by the Soviets to run the country – Commissar being a less pompous title for a Minister of State) were paid the average wage of a skilled worker – just 500 roubles a month.
All working people were to carry arms so that the revolution could be protected from any threat, whether from within or without, and to stop influential generals or officials from taking power themselves.
In the capitalist “democracies” governments are elected after the people place a cross on a ballot form every four or five years at the most. But the Soviets drew their authority from regular mass meetings in workplaces and farms across Russia.
Unlike parliamentrary deputies today, Soviet delegates could be recalled and replaced at any time by the workers who had elected them. Local Soviets sent delegates to higher regional and All-Russian Soviets.
In this way, the Soviet system enabled working people to have real control over every aspect of political life and decision making. It was a government of the working class and peasant majority, not a government of a tiny bourgeois minority.
In every sphere of life the Bolsheviks pursued a programme of liberation. The national minorities, long oppressed by Tsarism, were given full freedom, most importantly the right to self-determination for their nations, up to and including the right to set up their own sovereign states. The privileges that underpinned great Russian chauvinism were abolished.
Women, for so long kept in medieval servitude under the old regime, were mobilised to fight for their own liberation and provided with the material means of doing so through the state provision of child care, through massive education drives and through legal changes that recognised them as equal citizens.
Laws against homosexuality, still in place today in many modern so-called “civilised” western societies, were abolished. Artists, freed from the tyranny of state censorship, were encouraged to experiment, to find ways of reaching a mass audience.
To this day many people remain amazed at the creative genius that was unleashed in Russia after the October revolution, marvelling at the films, plays, poetry and paintings that Soviet citizens were able to enjoy.
Although the new government implemented many revolutionary policies in a wide area of social, cultural and political life the Russian revolution is famous above all for the slogan of “Bread, Peace and Land”.
On these issues the Bolsheviks did something that the capitalists of the West had never expected any government to do. They kept their promises.
The war and the ruinous policies of the Tsar and Kerensky had left the Russian economy in a terrible state. This was a problem that could not be solved overnight. To feed the people the Bolsheviks had to take control of food supplies out of the hands of the rich and into the hands of the starving masses themselves.
Only three days after the Soviets took power the new government decreed that food supplies should be put under the control of local representatives. Four days later workers were encouraged by the regime to set up committees to exercise control over the factories and the companies they worked for.
To stop the rich feeding themselves instead of the workers, factory committees were to check and control all the records and accounts.
The decisions of the factory committees were declared binding. What is more, the government abolished all “business secrets”, so that the bosses could not lie to the people about what was possible and what was available.
In every sphere the government encouraged the greatest possible initiative from below. As Lenin explained:
“While no Parliament has ever, anywhere, given the slightest support to the revolutionary movement, the Soviets blow into the fire of revolution and say imperiously to the people: ‘Fight: take everything in your own hands: organise yourselves!’”.
The masses responded eagerly to the challenge. Before the revolution the Tsarist regime had a policy of requisitioning food and supplies to help their war effort. This practice was continued under Soviet power, but with three crucial differences.
First, the Soviets requisitioned supplies to feed the people, not to continue the imperialist war. Secondly, the requisitioning was carried out by the people themselves, not by the Tsar’s police and soldiers. Finally, the people whose property was to be seized were not ordinary citizens but the rich.
Across Russia, local Soviets seized food from the pampered merchants, raiding their houses with the same ruthlessness that had previously been used against the poor. Nor did they stop at food supplies. Bed-clothes, winter garments and boots were all taken.
The homeless were housed by confiscating the spacious second and third homes of the rich – and this was all now legal and encouraged by the Soviet government. The workers were now the rulers of Russia – they must be fed, clothed, and housed!
The Bolsheviks acted to end Russia’s suffering in the bloody imperialist war that had raged for almost four years. The very first decree of the Congress of Soviets was a bombshell striking at the foundations of the warmongering capitalist governments of Britain, Germany and France:
“The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government, established by the revolution of 24-5 October, and based on the Soviets, invites all the belligerent nations and their governments to open negotiations without delay for a just and democratic peace.”
The new government declared that there should be no conquests of territories, and that no nation should be forced to remain within another state against its will.
For the capitalists, this was bad enough. But “worse” was to come! The Soviet state cancelled all secret treaties that the Tsarists had signed with their wartime allies, Britain and France. They announced that in future all diplomatic negotiations and agreements would be open – nothing would be concealed from the people.
Soon afterwards the truth about the real reasons for the war came out. The Bolsheviks captured and published all the documents that set out the secret terms of Russia’s wartime alliance, listing the conquests of foreign territories that the Tsar had been promised by his fellow imperialists.
The Bolsheviks’ peace declaration was as reasonable as possible in the circumstances, so that if the German and Allied governments refused to make concessions and end the war, it would be clear to workers all over the world exactly who was responsible for the continuing slaughter in the trenches.
The Tsar’s main wartime allies, Britain and France, were beside themselves with fury at the thought of Russia making a separate peace with Germany. Their blood turned cold when, on 7 November 1917, Trotsky broadcast an appeal by radio to all the main countries involved in the war, declaring that they should now begin negotiations to reach an overall peace settlement.
The German capitalists and generals were more than ready to negotiate. They saw a chance to release their armies from the Eastern Front and send them westward to break the log-jam in the trenches of France and Belgium.
But as dyed-in-the-wool imperialists, they were far from ready to accept the democratic terms that the Russian socialists were suggesting: no conquests of territories, no payments by defeated countries to the victors, and self-determination for all peoples.
Negotiations began in the town of Brest-Litovsk in December. Before Trotsky’s arrival, the imperialists tried their usual tricks to impress and corrupt the Soviet delegates, with sumptuous meals, plenty of wine and abundant flattery.
Aristocrats and generals exchanged pleasantries with the Soviet representatives – workers, soldiers, peasants, and hardened revolutionaries, including Vitsenko, who stood out, not only as a woman in exclusively male company, but also as a former terrorist who had assassinated one of the Tsar’s war ministers.
Then Trotsky arrived. He put an immediate stop to the pretence of friendliness. From now on the Russian delegation would take their meals separately – there was to be no more socialising. The reason? These people were enemies of the working class.
They were to be treated as such. The Austrian Foreign Minister could not help but notice the difference, noting in his diary that, “the wind seems to blow in a very different direction than it did until now.”
Ignoring flattery and threats alike, Trotsky defended the right of the Soviets to hand out leaflets to German soldiers calling on them to rise up in revolution. He insisted, to the horror of the generals and the noblemen, that the negotiations should be carried out in public rather than under the usual veil of secrecy.
He drew constant attention to the German and Austrian governments’ policies of conquest and annexation, and demanded that all nations should determine their own future. And when the German general, Hoffman, accused the Soviet government of being based on force, Trotsky replied:
“Up to the present moment there have been no other varieties of government in history. It will always be so, as long as society is composed of hostile classes. But what makes our actions amaze and alarm the governments of other countries is that, instead of arresting strikers, we arrest the employers who organise lock-outs; instead of shooting the peasants who demand land, we arrest and we shoot the landlords and the officers who try to fire on the peasants.”
The Germans were determined to drive the hardest of bargains. They refused to withdraw their troops from a single millimetre of the territory they had occupied. By January 1918 the talks had got nowhere. The terrible choice facing the Bolsheviks was to give in to German demands and sacrifice territory to imperialists, or to continue the very war they had promised to bring to an end.
The Bolsheviks were divided on how to respond. Lenin supported peace as soon as possible. Bukharin and others argued for a revolutionary war. Trotsky spoke for neither the one nor the other. He argued that the negotiations should be dragged out for as long as possible, in the hope that revolution would quickly break out in Germany and Austria, bringing Soviet Russia’s isolation to an end.
The argument was very sharp but Trotsky’s middle position was eventually adopted.
Back at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky set out the Soviet position declaring: “We cannot put the signature of the Russian revolution under a peace treaty which brings oppression, woe, and misfortune to millions of human beings.”
Russia would leave the war without signing a peace treaty. The army would be demobilised. Nothing of the kind had ever happened before or since. General Hoffman shouted aloud, “Unheard of!”. The delegates, in stunned silence, left and returned home.
Trotsky thought this a triumph. Yet while he was still making his way back to Petrograd, German troops were getting their orders to advance deep into Russian territory.
Lenin had been proved right. By delaying the signing of the peace, even more territory freed by the revolution would now be lost. Exhausted, the Russian Army could not be expected to continue the war. By mid-February the Germans had seized the town of Dvinsk and were set to capture the whole of the Ukraine.
On the 18 February, Trotsky could defend his position no longer. He switched sides and backed Lenin. The Soviet government issued a request for peace.
The German terms were appalling – far worse, as Lenin had warned they would be. Russia had to withdraw from Finland and Ukraine, and hand over Latvia and Estonia to Germany. A vital lesson had been learned – the hard way. Revolutionaries cannot afford to reject all compromises on principle.
There is a world of difference between a traitor who unnecessarily signs away the rights or the interests of the workers, and a realist who is forced to accept the temporary strength of the enemy.
Soviet Russia lost out heavily in the peace of Brest-Litovsk. But the workers’ state survived. Moreover, within months Lenin was proved right more convincingly than even he could have hoped. For German imperialism had revealed its true intentions – conquest and seizure of territory, and a disregard for the rights of smaller nations.
Under German occupation the peasants of Ukraine and the southern territories of Russia resisted and tied down German troops. By November 1918, the war was over and revolution swept Germany, bringing down the Kaiser and freeing Russia from the terms of the Treaty.
Again, Trotsky revealed his revolutionary integrity by admitting his mistake. He explained this openly to a Soviet meeting on 3 October 1918:
“ . . . at the hour when many of us, including myself, were doubtful as to whether it was admissible for us to sign the Brest-Litovsk peace, only Comrade Lenin maintained stubbornly, with amazing foresight and against our opposition, that we had to go through with it to tide us over until the revolution of the world proletariat. And now we must admit that we were wrong.”
The idea of infallible leaders belongs to the Catholic Church or to capitalist dictatorships. It has no place in the revolutionary movement. Even at times of great crisis, great workers’ leaders, like Trotsky, acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.
The promise of peace, land and bread was honoured by immediate measures. On 26 October, only a day after the revolution, the Bolsheviks issued a long decree based on proclamations already issued by hundreds of peasant Soviets across Russia.
The first clause of the new law summed up the sweeping change that was being proposed: “The landowners’ right to ownership over the soil is abolished forthwith, without compensation.”
This had been part of the programme of the SRs. But they had refused to carry it out. The Bolsheviks did it, right away.
Originally the Bolsheviks had wanted to avoid dividing the large estates up among the peasants, in order to be able to develop large-scale collective agriculture as part of a socialist planned economy.
But, without abandoning their socialist aims, they knew when compromises were unavoidable. The landlords had been overthrown by a violent movement on the land, a movement from below. The division of the large estates into hundreds of thousands of smaller land holdings had already begun.
So the Bolsheviks changed their policy and gave official recognition to the land seizures. Lenin declared:
“The last government tried to solve the agrarian question by agreement with the ancient, immovable bureaucracy of the Tsar. Far from settling the problem, the bureaucracy simply attacked the peasants . . .
So the peasants want to solve the agrarian question themselves. Let there be no amendments to their plan! . . . the main thing is for them to have the firm assurance that there will be no more landlords and that they can set about organising their lives.”
In this way they were able secure the support of millions of peasants for the new workers’ government.
The Civil War
Today, when Stalinism has collapsed and the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy are well-known, the capitalists and their propagandists are desperate to cover up the real truth about Trotsky and the early years of the Soviet Republic.
They want workers and youth to believe that it is not just Stalinism that has been defeated, but socialism and revolution itself.
Bourgeois writers, academics and journalists insist that Lenin and Trotsky paved the way for Stalin’s rule, and that the first years of the Soviet Republic saw all the essential ingredients of Stalinism already in place.
After all, hadn’t Trotsky defended the Red Terror, did not the Bolsheviks dissolve Russia’s “first democratically elected parliament”, the Constituent Assembly?
They banned all other parties, leaving themselves the sole political force in Russia. How does this really differ from the one-party state under Stalin and is successors?
The answer lies in the behaviour of the Russian capitalists and the landowners after they had been overthrown. Quite simply, they refused to accept the decisions of the majority.
Instead they organised a desperate and violent struggle to get “their” property and power back. The workers’ state would have to resist them – by any means necessary.
This was what Marx and Engels had meant when they explained that between capitalism and communism there would be a transitional period – the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
This dictatorship would be directed against the old ruling classes, to make sure that the new world of freedom and equality was not crushed before it had the chance to develop.
Liberals and pacifists react with horror to the fact that the Bolsheviks used violence and terror against the old ruling classes. “Surely this makes the Bolsheviks as bad as the Tsar!”, they cry. Marxists reply:
“No. Fighting does not make you as bad as your enemy. The real question is what you are fighting for.”
If a slave owner uses violence to put a person in chains, and if the slave later uses violence to break the chains and get free of the master, who but the worst of hypocrites can put their hand on their heart and declare both as wicked as each other?
So it is with the struggle between classes. Caught between the two main classes in society, some middle class people may well feel appalled by the violence used by both sides.
But the Russian working class made their revolution to break the chains of economic and political slavery for all mankind.
When the remnants of the old ruling classes tried to sabotage and overthrow the revolution, the workers knew they would have to wage a pitiless struggle for themselves and for their children – and they did.
Beating the enemy within
The Red Terror, as the struggle to defeat the counter-revolution became known, began spontaneously, on the initiative of revolutionary soldiers, sailors and workers.
In the army and the fleet, the Tsarist officers had shown the most single-minded cruelty in their dealings with the young workers and peasants under their command.
Drawn from the ranks of the nobility and the rich, they showed unconcealed hatred for the revolution.
When the Bolsheviks abolished the death penalty in the armed forces, which Tsarist officers had used unsparingly to stop soldiers deserting the front or fraternising with their German brothers and sisters, these officers loudly demanded its restoration.
Whenever officers succeeded in re-establishing their control from the Soviets of soldiers’ deputies, they carried out massacres of their own troops.
Without waiting for any orders from the government, the soldiers hit back. In the Don area, 329 officers were executed by their own troops in just two months in early 1918.
In the port of Sevastopol, the sailors took revenge for the savage repression that followed the defeat of their mutiny at the time of the 1905 revolution. Officers were questioned, and if they had served during the 1905 period, they were put to death by firing squad.
At first, however, the Bolshevik government itself was anything but severe in its treatment of counter-revolutionaries. In the first weeks of the revolution many generals and high ranking officers were released.
They repaid this leniency and trust by going on to play a major part in organising and leading the White Armies that waged civil war against the Soviet government.
But the Bolsheviks did not take long to learn their lesson and respond accordingly.
By the summer of 1918 the counter-revolution was showing its savage face. Czechoslovak troops marched into Russia with the forces of the old ruling classes rushing to re-establish control under their military protection. Brutal massacres followed wherever they went.
One writer who recorded the events of the first year of the revolution was Victor Serge. He wrote that in the town of Kazan:
“. . . while the Czechoslovaks pursued the retreating Reds, men with weapons and white armbands roved the streets searching houses and arresting suspects; armed with previously prepared lists and led on by informers, they cut every ‘Bolshevik’ throat on the spot. For several days the streets were littered with disfigured, undressed corpses. Any Reds found wounded were killed. Some of the bodies had their documents pinned to the chest: the title ‘commissar’ was displayed to explain why a man had his eyes poked out.”
Similar atrocities took place in Simbirsk, Samara and in every town “freed” by the Whites and their foreign backers.
In December the Soviets had set up the Cheka, or the Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Sabotage and for Repression. Its aim was to uncover plots and fight the counter-revolution.
This was no ordinary secret police agency. By March 1918 it had only 150 staff, who were mainly workers and veterans of the revolutionary movement.
At first the Cheka was surprisingly mild, arresting armed groups of plotters and counter-revolutionaries, and jailing rather than shooting those who were taking up arms against the Soviet state.
Cheka members themselves were expected to act with restraint at all times, and could themselves be sentenced to death for acts of injustice or sadism if and when they occurred.
By the summer of 1918 the Cheka had to increase the scale of its activities and the severity of its measures against the counter-revolution.
The Council of Peoples’ Commissars announced that anyone assisting the Whites or foreign invaders would be executed, as would saboteurs, spies and anyone carrying out racist pogroms against Jews or other nationalities.
The Cheka had its work cut out since counter-revolutionaries had begun a campaign designed to cut off the revolution’s head. The right wing of the SR party, which had split in 1917, returned to its terrorist origins, but whereas once it had tried to shoot down the Tsars and their ministers, now they directed their fire against the leaders of the workers’ state.
Subsequent records and accounts reveal that British and French diplomats were closely involved in the plot.
The Bolshevik agitator Volodarsky had already been shot by assassins. Then the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, Moise Uritsky, was gunned down on 30 August.
On the same day Fanny Kaplan, a former anarchist turned SR, shot Lenin at a factory meeting – he survived after sustaining wounds to the neck and shoulder. An attempt to shoot Trotsky on the same day failed when he changed his travel plans at the last minute.
In September the Soviets responded in kind. Victor Serge quotes an article from one Petrograd workers’ paper which vividly summed up the mood of the masses at the time:
“Out of the way with the sentimentalists who are afraid to shed innocent blood! What bourgeois does not have on his conscience the ruined lives of working class women and children? There are no innocents among them . . . They have no pity: it is time for us to be pitiless.”
Across Russia, the Cheka now responded to the bourgeoisie’s terror in kind. Hundreds of financiers, factory owners, heads of large industrial companies, dukes and noblemen, members of right-wing parties and army officers were shot.
After September, the scale and speed of the Red Terror fell drastically. But while the capitalists continued to offer resistance the terror did not and could not stop.
Never has there been a revolution or a war in the whole of history that did not demand the utmost determination. The capitalists themselves, in their heroic years of the French Revolution, had been forced to settle accounts with the old feudal nobility through means of mass terror.
Why should the workers’ revolution be judged by different standards? In the pursuit of its goal – the freeing of humanity from wage-slavery and oppression – the greatest crime would be to disarm itself, to refuse to act ruthlessly against an enemy that knows no limits to its ruthlessness.
That was what Trotsky meant when he drew the main lesson of the Red Terror:
“In a revolution, greater energy is equivalent to greater humanity.”
The Constituent Assembly
One of the main demands of the February 1917 revolution had been for elections to a sovereign parliament.
After centuries of Tsarism, the Russian people wanted the right to manage their own affairs. Under capitalism, a democratically elected Assembly and government was the highest form of democracy. When the Provisional Government of Kerensky delayed fixing a date for elections, the Bolsheviks and the Soviets demanded that they take place as soon as possible.
In the Russian socialist republic, a higher form of democracy prevailed – the Soviets. Here the masses could take decisions affecting their everyday lives, and their representatives could be replaced immediately. This was the democracy of the working class, not just the democracy of the money-bags.
The Bolsheviks, true to their word, went ahead with elections to the Constituent Assembly on 12 November 1917. The SR Party was about to split into two wings, a left that supported Soviet power, and a right that opposed it. Yet the elections took place with the two SR factions presenting a joint list of candidates. The workers backed the Bolsheviks, but the majority in the countryside and in Russia were peasants, many of them illiterate.
At first sight the results were bad for the Bolsheviks. They won 175 seats; the Mensheviks only 16. But the SRs came out of the elections with a massive 410 seats – a clear majority.
The Bolsheviks did not simply ban the Assembly and declare the elections null and void, as bourgeois historians like to make out. But they did make it clear that working class democracy was not going to be overthrown and replaced by the fraudulent type of democracy common to capitalist states.
The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets put forward a motion to the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, which declared that all political power and government in Russia was in the power of the workers’ and peasants’ councils.
When this was rejected by the Assembly, the Bolsheviks walked out, followed by all the Left SR delegates.
The Constituent Assembly, now a rump of right wing SRs and Mensheviks and clearly not representative of the Russian working class or poor peasantry, went on to discuss the questions of land and peace, finding nothing to add to the society’ laws and decrees, which had already been passed.
It did not elect an alternative government, for it knew it had no solid support among the people for such an action.
A Constituent Assembly convened in opposition to Tsarism was a great democratic gain, which was why the Bolsheviks fought for one. But a Constituent Assembly convened when Soviet power – direct and democratic power of the workers and poor peasants – was at best an anachronism, at worst a further rallying point for counter revolution and opposition to Soviet power. In reality, it had become the latter.
Late into the night, a sailor approached the platform and told the deputies to go home “because the guards are tired.” The next morning the Soviets declared that the Assembly was dissolved.
Whilst this drew predictable hoots of rage from the imperialist powers, it caused barely a murmur of opposition in Russia, which already had a more democratic government than any other state in the world.
Unlike the later policies of Stalinist parties in Eastern Europe, China and Cuba, the Bolsheviks had no intention of banning all other parties. They wanted to ensure that the widest possible Soviet democracy existed.
For that reason, the new government did not suppress all its rivals. It encouraged the Left SRs to join the government, which they did, taking up important positions. The Mensheviks and SRs retained their rights to operate as parties within the Soviets.
At particular points during the civil war, however, the Bolsheviks did limit the rights of other parties, temporarily excluding them from the Soviets. The key question was always whether the party in question was actually taking sides – in practice – with the forces of counter-revolution and the Whites.
Soviets are not talking shops. They are working bodies, in which peasants, soldiers and workers themselves discuss their plans and work out the best way forward. In times of war, this meant planning the struggle against the counter-revolutionary armies. To have allowed forces that supported the Whites to sit in on these discussions would have been like inviting spies and saboteurs into the very midst of your army.
It was not until the summer of 1918, when the civil war was beginning in earnest, that the Mensheviks and the Right SRs were excluded from the Soviets. We do not have to take the Bolsheviks’ word for this.
At the Menshevik Party conference in 1918, the party passed a resolution admitting that their branches had been forming local alliances with the former capitalists and landlords in order to overthrow the Soviets, and had even fought side-by-side in many areas with the Whites.
This was not intended to be a permanent ban or the setting up of a one-party state. Under the influence of Lenin and Trotsky’s former comrade Martov, a section of the Mensheviks voted to give direct support to the struggle of the Red Army.
When they did, they were allowed to take their place as a legitimate strand of opinion within the Soviets once again. Trotsky even made a point of thanking them for their support at the end of the civil war.
At one point, even the Left SRs were excluded from the Soviets. They had opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and resigned from the Soviet government in protest. But then they went a step further.
They assassinated the German Ambassador in an attempt to provoke Germany into war, and when this failed, they launched an armed uprising against the government.
This was easily suppressed. When the Left SRs voted never again to take up arms against the Soviet government, they too were allowed to operate in the Soviets once more.
The desperate character of the civil war made measures such as these unavoidable. For a time, the Bolsheviks were indeed the only party operating legally in the Soviets. To have done otherwise would have aided the Whites and the enemies of the revolution.
But it was never the aim of the Bolsheviks to establish a one-party state. To say that it was is nothing more than a slander spread by capitalists and Stalinists alike.
Fighting the enemy without
In 1918 and 1919, 14 capitalist states sent their armies to war against Soviet Russia. Their aim: to break the first workers’ state, restore the capitalists to power, and prevent the spread of revolution abroad, to their “own” countries.
“White” Armies, under generals loyal to the old Tsarist regime, seized their chance to launch a joint offensive against the revolution.
The Soviet government had little doubt that the best and most dedicated organisers were needed to turn the situation around. With the very survival of the revolution in the balance, Trotsky was appointed as Commissar for War in March 1918.
His first task was the creation of an army capable of defending the republic. This was no easy task. In 1917 the armed forces of the revolution were weak in the extreme. Barely a few thousand armed workers made up the detachments of Red Guards in Petrograd and Moscow. The army itself, demoralised and exhausted after years of war, scarcely existed in any real sense.
As Trotsky later wrote:
“The October revolution dissolved the Tsar’s army wholly and without leaving a trace. The Red Army was built anew from the first brick.”
At first, Trotsky astonished military experts by calling for an army of volunteers. This ran completely against established military thinking – there was no way that such methods could create an army large enough to defeat the Whites.
But Trotsky understood that the workers’ state needed an army of a new type, one that would understand what it was fighting for, that was full of enthusiasm for the revolution it was defending, and that would act in such a way that the people would see it as an army, not of conquerors, but of liberators.
The first step was to make sure that the core of the army consisted of revolutionary workers who were fighting of their own free will. Trotsky called for the most disciplined csommunists to join up.
He did not hide the fact that they should be ready to fight and die if necessary, adding that in this desperate struggle “light-weight agitators are not needed.”
Once this had been achieved, it was necessary to call people up and compel them to fight in the army. With less authoritarian methods the government would doubtless have looked more liberal and democratic, but it would also have lost the war.
That was unthinkable. By the end of the summer of 1918 over 10,000 workers had been called up into the Red Army. Steadily, the size of the army increased, with the trade unions providing half of their members for it.
After the army had organised a firm foundation from among the industrial workers, the poor and middle-ranking peasants were called up.
By 1920 the Red Army had five million fighters under arms. Every one of them was aware that they were part of an army unlike any other that had ever existed.
The old army of the Tsar demanded blind loyalty from its soldiers, and sent them into battle for the profits of the capitalists and the territorial ambition of the monarchy.
Such soldiers would typically treat the population under their control with savagery and contempt, stealing their crops and property, and subjecting women and children to rape and terror.
The Red Army was the opposite of this. The oath sworn by soldiers in the Red Army was a call to revolutionary struggle against exploitation and poverty, and a solemn pledge to do nothing that belonged to the old world of oppression and barbarism, rather than the new world of human dignity and emancipation.
Massacres of prisoners and sadism were strictly forbidden. Trotsky ordered the strictest of punishments against “any Red Army man who lifts his knife on a prisoner of war, on the disarmed, the sick and the wounded.”
Although the Red Army often found itself fighting bitter battles against foreign troops sent by hostile capitalist powers, the Bolsheviks never whipped up nationalist prejudices against them.
They constantly reminded the Russian people that the workers of other countries were their allies and comrades, and that they were fighting not a national war, but a class war.
This was sign of the political strength of the Red Army. Revolutionary leaflets issued to French troops eventually caused so much discontent and mutiny in their ranks that the French government withdrew them from Russia altogether.
British soldiers occupying ports in the North of Russia were amazed to receive leaflets from the Bolsheviks reminding them of the revolutionary traditions of the Chartists and calling on them to turn their guns against their officers.
And when the Red Army fought off a Polish invasion in 1920, Trotsky ordered that one military newspaper should be closed down for “insulting the national dignity of the Polish people”. What a contrast between the working class internationalism of the Red Army and the disgusting national hatreds that are deliberately spread by capitalist armies at times of war!
How did the Red Army overcome the inexperience of its fighters, pitted as they were against seasoned and well-organised enemies? Here again revolutionary realism came to the rescue.
Despite the deep reservations of many communists, Trotsky employed former officers of the Tsar’s army to bring their experience to work for the revolution. Many “Left-wing” communists, among them people who had vigorously opposed the peace of Brest-Litovsk and who rejected all compromises out of hand, demanded an end to the use of these officers altogether. “How can such people be trusted?”, they asked.
Trotsky did not trust them an inch. But he knew the revolution could not do without them until it had trained commanders of its own. To prevent them betraying the army to the Whites, and to make sure they did nothing to harm the revolution, he appointed a trusted commissar – each one a Communist – to work alongside each former Tsarist officer.
Orders would have to be signed by the officer and the commissar. Young communists were posted to every single unit of the Red Army, and were charged with the crucial responsibility of raising morale and opposing any sign of indiscipline, anti-semitism, brutality and despair.
The system worked – the Red Army became acknowledged even by the White generals as an extraordinarily effective fighting machine. But success exacted a huge cost. Over 50,000 of the most dedicated Communists fell in the civil war.
Trotsky himself was no back-room commander. He scorned the idea of keeping himself safe behind the lines while workers and peasants did all the fighting.
Unlike the pampered officers of the capitalist armies, he took a full part in the fighting himself. In the battle of Sviazhsk early in the civil war, Trotsky ignored the advice of his officers to withdraw from the fighting.
Instead he risked his life by boarding a tiny Red torpedo boat in a daring mission along the river Volga. The night raid was successful; a White artillery battery on the banks of the river was destroyed.
Trotsky’s direct involvement in the fighting won the admiration and respect of his troops. But that was not all. It allowed Trotsky to see his own troops and commanders in action, to judge their strengths and weaknesses for himself, and to understand the real practical problems they faced.
The civil war reached its height in 1919. The Whites launched major offensives on three fronts, aiming to take both Moscow and Petrograd.
The Reds were ill-equipped and over-stretched. Famine and chaos was reigning in the countryside – the cities were starving. The Whites, by contrast, could call on the vast support on offer from the imperialist powers.
But the White Armies were disconnected from each other. Their leaders vied with one another for the position of “Supreme Ruler” in the capitalist Russia they hoped to restore.
By bringing back the landlords everywhere they went, they earned the bitter enmity of the peasants who had at first supported them. Robbery and rape in the villages, and murderous round-ups of Jews, left chaos, hatred and death wherever they went.
The Reds were defending a single, connected territory. Communists in the army made sure everyone knew what they were fighting for. In his armoured train,
Trotsky sped from front to front, assessing the situation and redirecting the Red forces to where they were needed most at any one time. Each White thrust was met with a better prepared and deeper counter-thrust by the Red troops.
By October 1919, the second anniversary of the revolution, the crucial battle took place on the outskirts of Petrograd itself. When Trotsky arrived in the city, he found it on the verge of surrender. Despair had spread from the top leadership down to the ranks.
Even the Central Committee of the party was thinking seriously of abandoning the city.
Trotsky turned the situation around almost immediately. He issued a defiant proclamation that the city would be defended, even if every street and every house became a battlefield.
The whole population was mobilised to dig trenches and prepare for battle. In one of his greatest speeches, Trotsky told the assembled Petrograd Soviet, which he had led in 1905 and 1917, that they would fight to the end.
Rallying retreating soldiers from his horse, always in the thick of the fighting, Trotsky restored confidence and vigour to the Red troops. Yudenich’s advance was stopped.
On the same day Denikin’s army was smashed south of Moscow and scurried southwards in headlong retreat. Kolchak’s forces were pursued deep into Siberia. The “supreme commander of the White Armies” was seized by the Reds, tried and shot.
The main battles of the Civil War were over. Under Trotsky’s military leadership, Soviet Russia had won – but at a terrible price.
One episode has been used time and again to try to prove that Trotsky was the direct forerunner of Stalin who cared nothing for workers’ democracy. This was the Kronstadt Revolt of 1921.
The aftermath of the civil war left Russia in a desperate state. In February 1921 a wave of strikes by the hungry workers of Petrograd broke out. Extra supplies of food had to be confiscated from the peasantry and rushed to the city.
However, it was becoming clear that continuing the war policy of the Bolsheviks, “War Communism”, based on requisitioning the peasants’ grain, was threatening to turn the entire peasantry against the workers’ state.
Peasants were rebelling all over Russia. Now the civil war was over, and the danger of return of the landlords was removed, the richer peasants turned against the Reds.
A large peasant army was being assembled to the south of Moscow under the leadership of a Right SR who called for the destruction of the whole Soviet system.
The naval port of Kronstadt, on an island in the Gulf of Finland, guarded the approaches to Petrograd. It had been one of the main centres of the revolution in 1917. Sailors from there played a key role in the October insurrection.
But great numbers of them had gone to fight at the front in the civil war. Those who remained were less militant, often from peasant backgrounds and increasingly hostile to the Bolsheviks.
Now these sailors rebelled against the workers’ state. Yet they did so not with demands couched in the language of counter-revolution, but with the phrases of the revolution itself.
Many of their demands today seem justified. They called for the Soviet system to be upheld and extended. But at the same time – spurred on by anarchists opposed to any kind of state, even of the Soviet type – the sailors called for the overthrow of the government elected by Soviets across Russia.
“Let the whole world know,” they proclaimed, “the power of the Soviets frees the toiling peasantry from the yoke of the Communists.”
Given the situation in the south and in the countryside across Russia, this amounted – whatever the intentions of the sailors – to a call on the peasants to rise up against the power of the working class. The sailors even included in their demands a call for the peasants to be able to do what they liked with their land – despite the fact that the cities were starving for lack of grain!
The Bolsheviks did not hesitate. A plan drawn up by Trotsky was approved, and the Red Army was sent to suppress the revolt.
This was without doubt a tragic outcome. Yet the state power of the working class as a whole could not allow itself to be held to ransom by one Soviet, whatever its heroic role in 1917. In a strike a minority of workers may try to return to work, to break the strike.
Then the majority are justified—when persuasion fails—in using force to forestall the collapse of the strike.
It was the duty of the Bolshevik government to prevent a revival of the civil war which had cost millions of lives. The French and Whites were planning to land at Kronstadt and use it as a base for a further invasion. The ice around the island fortress was about to thaw, cutting off the garrison from the mainland.
Trotsky’s stern response was a necessary one. The rebellion was crushed with great loss of life, especially on the government side. But if the Bolsheviks had not acted quickly, the outcome would not have been the freedom demanded by the sailors, but chaos and peasant counter-revolution, backed by the approaching imperialists.
The suppression of the Kronstadt revolt was, as Trotsky later put it, “a tragic necessity”.
Without it the revolution, the Soviet government and the world’s first workers’ state would have been in mortal danger. And the “excesses” of the Red Army in Kronstadt, that the bosses are forever using as “proof” of the Bolsheviks’ cruelty and inhumanity, would have paled into insignificance against the barbarous excesses of a counter revolution that would have drowned the Russian working class in blood.
The rise of Stalin
Today the word communism conjures up images of a grey world in which everyone is the same, where endless queues form for shoddy, scarce goods, no one can speak their mind for fear of the secret police, and everyone wears boring clothes.
It is an image of uniformity, repression and sterility.
Since the collapse of the Eastern European states in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the word communism has carried with it another, even more negative, image – the image of failure.
Hundreds of thousands of working class militants had regarded the Soviet Union as an alternative to capitalism. Whenever socialism was criticised as a pipe-dream, they would point to the USSR as an example of a “really existing socialist country”.
They were cruelly deceived. When the USSR collapsed, they were devastated – for many, their hopes collapsed with it.
Millions more drew the conclusion that if the USSR was socialist, then they wanted nothing to do with socialism.
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc convinced them that socialism was a failed experiment that brought misery to the countries that have attempted it.
Trotskyists reject both of these pessimistic views. The USSR was not socialist – it was Stalinist.
Leon Trotsky and his supporters warned that Stalinism was a sickness within the Soviet Union and the socialist movement. Stalin’s regime blocked the road to socialism, and without working class democracy, genuine Soviets and socialist revolution around the world, the Soviet Union could not survive indefinitely.
Unless the working class could transform the USSR, it would collapse, leaving the way open for capitalism to return.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when millions of workers supported the leaders of the USSR and regarded them as socialist heroes, the Trotskyists alone opposed those leaders and branded them as traitors to the working class.
The founders and earliest members of the Trotskyist movement were slandered, persecuted, jailed and murdered by the Stalinists for refusing to be silenced.
Trotskyists are not disillusioned by Stalinism’s collapse because we have been proved right. Now that Stalinism has been fatally wounded, the job of rebuilding genuine communism will be a thousand times easier in the years to come.
The Bolsheviks forced to retreat
Russia emerged from the civil war in a terribly weakened state. In Petrograd, for example, industry in 1921 was producing only an eighth of its 1913 output. The number of industrial workers actually dropped from 230,000 to under 80,000 between 1918 and 1920.
The desperate military struggle against the Whites had left the Bolsheviks with little chance to broaden and extend working class democracy. On the contrary, real sacrifices had to be made to be sure the war was won.
In the factories the power of local workers’ committees had to be limited by the Bolsheviks to ensure that production was co-ordinated across government-controlled territory.
Grain had to be seized from the peasants to make sure the cities were fed. Military weaknesses had led the Soviet government to limit the right to elect officers in the army.
Experts had to be appointed in industry to raise production. The Soviets themselves became smaller and less representative as millions of workers and peasants were drafted into the Red Army.
Lenin and Trotsky never tried to cover up what was going on, or to paint these measures in socialist colours. Lenin himself wrote that they were “a step backward on the part of our socialist Soviet state power”. He even warned that:
“To conceal from the people the fact that the enlistment of bourgeois experts by means of extremely high salaries is a retreat from the principles of the Paris Commune would be sinking to the level of the bourgeois politicians and deceiving the people.”
How could Lenin say this at the same time as carrying these policies out? Because he saw them as temporary necessities. During and shortly after the war, special measures had to be taken to ensure the survival of the workers’ state. But they were retreats – if socialism was to be established, these measures would not and could not last for long.
NEP and the ban on factions
By 1921 the Russian peasants were witholding supplies in protest against grain seizures. The Bolsheviks had to avoid a new civil war against the peasants.
The workers’ state needed a period of peace in which the economy could be rebuilt. To get this there had to be an economic compromise with the peasants. This took the form of the New Economic Policy (NEP).
Instead of seizing their grain, the state now taxed the peasants, taking a fixed part of the produce of each peasant farm. The remainder could be sold on the market by the richer peasants in the old manner common to capitalism.
This would avoid the danger of a peasant war and boost production. But it would encourage competition, exploitation and all the sharp practices typical of capitalism. It was a risk, and the leading Bolsheviks knew it.
At the same time the Soviet government took measures to prevent NEP turning into a fully fledged restoration of capitalism across Russia. State subsidies to poor and middle peasants were given to promote co-operatives as a counterweight to the rich peasants.
The main industries remained in the hands of the state, as did foreign trade. Instead of producing for profit, the Soviet government began the attempt to plan production to meet the needs of the people. A state planning commission was set up in 1921 to carry out this socialist task.
NEP succeeded in boosting output in agriculture, and it won the Soviet Union a vital breathing space at a time when the population was exhausted by famine and war.
But NEP also allowed a particular layer of people to secure privileges for themselves. The rich peasants, or Kulaks, benefited directly from producing for profit. They grew ever richer, sharpening class divisions in the countryside.
And a layer of so-called NEP-men grew up within the Communist Party and the state apparatus. Their job was to organise the distribution of products and to act as middle-men between the Kulaks and the state.
Lenin and Trotsky did try to make sure that the growth of the Kulaks’ wealth and power did not lead to the corruption of the Communist Party itself.
In particular, they feared that a section of the party might start to represent the interests of the Kulaks rather than the working class.
The Communist leaders decided to prevent this by means of a ban on organised factions within the party. This was introduced at the 10th Congress of the Party in 1921.
This did not mean the end of political discussion and debate in the party. The 10th Congress declared that criticism of the party was “absolutely necessary”, and that these criticisms should be “submitted immediately, without delay, in the most precise form possible”, so that local and central bodies of the party could make any necessary corrections.
But party members were not to organise factions or political platforms based on their differences.
This was a mistake. It achieved the opposite of what Lenin and Trotsky had intended. A privileged bureaucracy was already growing up within the party. It was made up of and supported by people who owed their position in society to the leading role of the party and to their power under NEP. By 1923 less than one in ten party members had joined up before the revolution.
This emerging layer of bureaucrats – a “caste”, as Trotsky was later to designate them – found a champion within the party leadership: Joseph Stalin. After becoming General Secretary of the party in 1922, Stalin concentrated tremendous power in his hands. The ban on factions increased his control still further.
A vast apparatus of appointed officials in the party replaced the old regime of freely elected officials within both the party and the Soviets. Any dissent, any criticism was soon ruled out of order.
The bloc against Trotsky
In March 1923 Lenin had a serious stroke – his third. This brought his active political life to an end and provoked a power struggle in the leadership of the party, which ended in a vicious scramble when Lenin eventually died in January 1924.
Stalin, Zinoviev and another “Old Bolshevik”, Kamenev, formed a secret alliance. Its aim was simple – to prevent Trotsky from succeeding Lenin as the leading figure in the Communist Party. They knew this would be a difficult task.
Trotsky was the best known Soviet leader apart from Lenin. He had played a leading role in the Petrograd Soviet, had organised the insurrection that overthrew the Provisional Government and had led the Red Army in the civil war. Lenin’s testament described him as the most able man in the party.
And yet many in the party, particularly long-standing Bolsheviks, were suspicious of Trotsky. He had sided with the hated Mensheviks in 1903, and had conducted a long struggle prior to 1917 against Lenin’s concept of the revolutionary party. Certainly Trotsky renounced his role in that struggle now, but many “old” Bolsheviks had not forgotten it.
The bureaucratic faction in the party leadership played on these suspicions when it launched its drive to isolate Trotsky after Lenin’s death.
Danger of bureaucracy
In a series of letters dictated from his sick-bed, Lenin warned again and again about the growth of bureaucracy within the party, about the structures of the state and how remote they were becoming from the workers.
He described the new state as being not completely socialist, but a hybrid between the workers’ new regime, and the old Tsarist state, whose officials the Bolsheviks had been forced to use during the civil war and the period of economic reconstruction:
“The apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and Tsarist hotch-potch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been ‘busy’ most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.”
Despite his grave condition, Lenin warned – with increasing urgency – about the role of Stalin. He urged that he be removed from his post.
“Stalin is too rude and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings amongst us communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from this post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious etc.”
To put his advice into effect, Lenin approached Trotsky with an offer of a political bloc to oppose Stalin and his faction at the 12th Congress of the party in April 1923. Trotsky delayed putting this into practice – something he would live to regret.
By the autumn of 1923, the party leadership clamped down on oppositional groups within the party. They demanded that factions should be reported either to the leadership or to the secret police (now called the GPU). In place of democratic debate, the party was now to be subjected to a regime of police repression.
By October, Trotsky could delay no longer. He launched a fight against Stalinism that would last for the rest of his life.
The fight for party democracy
In October 1923, Trotsky and 46 other leading party members signed a letter to the Central Committee, protesting against the growing bureaucracy within the party and at the worsening economic situation. The “Platform of the 46” painted an accurate picture of the state of affairs inside the party:
“Members of the party who are dissatisfied with this or that decision of the Central Committee or even of a provincial committee, who have this or that doubt on their minds . . . are afraid to speak about it at party meetings, and are even afraid to talk about it in conversation, unless the partner in the conversation is thoroughly reliable from the point of view of ‘discretion’; free discussion within the party has practically vanished; the public opinion of the party is stifled. Nowadays it is not the party, not its broad masses, who promote and choose members of the province committees and the Central Committee of the RCP (Russian Communist Party). On the contrary, the secretarial hierarchy of the party to an ever greater extent recruits the membership of conferences and congresses . . .
The regime established within the party is completely intolerable; it destroys the independence of the party, replacing the party by a recruited bureaucratic apparatus . . .”
The Platform pointed out that the ban on factions had failed and that the party leadership was dominated by a centrist faction led by Stalin. The social base of this faction lay in the thousands drafted into the state apparatus after the Civil War.
Trotsky argued that by removing the pressure of the working class on the bureaucracy the Stalin faction was opening itself up to pressures from pro-capitalist forces in the countryside.
The Opposition demanded a “regime of comradely unity and internal party democracy”, so that political differences could be properly debated out, without fear of repression by the leadership or the secret police.
The economic crisis facing Russia was the other main theme of the platform. NEP had boosted output from the farms – food prices had fallen. The backwardness of Russian industry, on the other hand, caused a shortage of manufactured goods, whose prices kept rising. Workers and peasants alike could not get hold of cheap manufactured products.
Trotsky and many of the Platform’s signatories wanted the party to work towards an overall economic plan, as Lenin had suggested. This would build up large-scale modern industry, bringing industrial and agricultural prices closer together, and step by step reducing the power, wealth and importance of the Kulaks.
Agriculture itself could be modernised, and steady improvements made towards the organisation of real socialist production for need rather than profit.
These proposals were ignored by the new bureaucracy until the growing crisis reached breaking point towards the end of the 1920s. Despite winning a great deal of support within the party, especially among the youth, the students and in Moscow, the 1923 Opposition was defeated.
The absence of real party democracy allowed the Stalin faction to misrepresent Trotsky’s views and prevent party members – in Russia and abroad – from looking at what he was really saying.
The Communist International, set up in 1919 as a world party uniting revolutionary communists in countries all over the world, was now subjected to the same bureaucratic regime as the Russian party. The Stalinists demanded that every party vote against “Trotskyism” and reject Trotsky’s arguments – and they used their control of the apparatus to make sure hardly anybody had read what he had really written.
The defeat of the 1923 Opposition signalled another step in the party’s degeneration.
From 1923 onwards Trotsky and the Opposition warned of the dangers posed to the workers’ state by the growth of the wealth and power of the Kulaks. The Opposition advanced detailed proposals to build up Russian industry on a planned basis. In turn, this would help develop the agricultural collectives.
They could be supplied cheaply from the cities and subsidised when necessary. This way the hold of the rich peasants could be gradually undermined and a bond forged between the working populations of the cities and the countryside.
Stalin seemed blind to the threat posed by the Kulaks. His ally, Bukharin – a former ‘Left’ Communist who had opposed the Brest-Litovsk peace – had swung straight over to the right of the party. He and his supporters reflected and fought for the interests of the richest peasants.
His slogan for the peasants was “Enrich Yourselves” – the very opposite of a socialist approach. The President of the USSR, Kalinin, even made speeches praising the “economically powerful peasant” at the same time as attacking the poor peasants for being lazy!
In Petrograd – now renamed Leningrad – the working class, with its long revolutionary traditions, grew alarmed at the rise of “Kulak socialism”. Zinoviev, the party leader in the city, came under great pressure from these workers. In 1925, this former persecutor of Trotsky and opponent of party democracy broke with Stalin.
A year later he set up a United Opposition with Trotsky. They pressed for a planned economy, industrialisation, higher taxes and compulsory loans to be paid by the Kulaks. They opposed the reactionary theory of socialism in one country. And they demanded the right to be heard.
The Stalinists responded in two ways. The first was to use jeers and smears instead of arguments. The Opposition were “counter-revolutionaries” who wanted to “rob the peasants”. The threat from the Kulaks had been “exaggerated”.
The second method used by the Stalin-Bukharin bloc was police repression against the Opposition. Zinoviev was removed from his posts in Leningrad and as head of the Communist International. In November 1927 he and Trotsky were expelled from the Communist Party, one month before the conference.
The Platform of the Joint Opposition was declared illegal. The secret police – the GPU – raided the print shop that was producing copies of the platform for party members. One of the printers was accused of being an agent of the White Guard generals – a total lie.
The leaders of the Joint Opposition – Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev – all came from Jewish backgrounds. Stopping at nothing, the Stalin-Bukharin leadership whipped up an anti-semitic campaign against them. Gangs of thugs were recruited to smash up Opposition meetings. The police attacked Opposition demonstrations.
By 1928 the key leaders of the Opposition were all expelled. Trotsky was sent into exile. The bureaucracy had defeated the representatives of the tradition of October 1917 and socialism. From now on, the true inheritors of Lenin’s socialist programme would conduct their struggle against Stalin isolated in the prison camps.
Stalin takes sole control
No sooner had the Opposition been defeated by Stalinist repression than the Kulaks moved against the workers’ state. In the winter of 1927-28 the rich peasants refused to sell their grain unless the state raised prices.
They had been encouraged by Bukharin to “enrich themselves” – now they were determined to do so at the expense of the working class itself. Trotsky’s warnings had proved to be correct.
The Stalin-Bukharin alliance now came under great pressure. Bukharin’s right-wing were pursuing a course which would result in the restoration of capitalism and the market.
This was something that a major part of the Communist Party bureaucracy – the social base of Stalin’s centrist faction – could not accept. After all, they owed their power, their privileges and their positions to the existence of the workers’ state.
Now that the Opposition had been defeated, the threat to the bureaucracy from the working class had receded. But the threat from the Kulaks had to be confronted. If the grain strike succeeded, who was to stop the rich peasants from going further and overthrowing the bureaucracy itself?
Stalin turned on the faction of Bukharin – 10,000 party members were sent from the cities to seize grain, while supporters of the right were purged.
The NEP was over. Bukharin himself was removed from the core of the leadership, though he stayed on the Central Committee. Meanwhile shootings of members of the Left Opposition began.
The Left Opposition was based on the revolutionary working class. Its programme was for genuine international socialism. The Bukharinites’ class basis was amongst the richest peasants, NEP-men and emerging capitalists. Their programme led back to capitalism.
But Stalin’s “Centre” faction were in the middle, perched at the top of the class pyramid. Their only base of support was the bureaucracy of the workers’ state and the party.
This explained their antagonism to working class democracy and world revolution, which would have made them redundant. It also explained their refusal to follow Bukharin all the way back to capitalism.
But Stalin’s was a deeply unstable position. The bureaucracy was not an independent class in its own right – it played no essential role in society, whether under capitalism or socialism.
It was a parasite on the workers’ state, born from its isolation, retreat and defeat. It obstructed the transition to socialism, but could erect no independent social system in its place. Its sole role was to pervert the course of the revolution and feather its own nest.
As the representative of the bureaucracy, Stalin could find no other base of support within the USSR. This instability terrified him and his bureaucratic supporters. There was only one way to keep control – terror. But this was no Red Terror against the bourgeoisie and its agents.
The GPU aimed its blows at every semblance of opposition, wiping out millions of old Bolsheviks, workers, enemies of bureaucracy, minorities and even independent scientists and experts in the process.
George Orwell’s famous book Animal Farm is a fairy story based on the history of the Russian Revolution. The animals take over the farm and throw out the capitalist humans.
Two rival pigs emerge at the head of the animals – Snowball, who represents Trotsky, and Napoleon, who is the Stalin of the tale.
At one point Snowball brings forward plans for the building of a windmill, which could lessen the workload for all the animals. Napoleon, without saying a word, urinates on the plans. He trains a pack of vicious dogs to drive Snowball off the farm. Then he sets out to build a windmill of his own, driving the other animals to incredible sacrifices to get it finished.
Stalin had scoffed at the Opposition’s plans for industrialisation, planning and the collectivisation of agriculture. Now, like Orwell’s pig, after the defeat of the Kulak threat, he launched a drive based on the Opposition’s former policy.
Yet in place of a sensible, democratically managed plan for steady progress, Stalin used force, command from above and brute terror to carry out his plans.
Whereas Lenin and Trotsky had argued for encouraging voluntary collectives on the land to undermine the Kulaks, the Stalinists now collectivised agriculture by force.
By the end of February 1930 over half of the Soviet peasantry were in collective farms.
Anyone who resisted the new policy was suddenly described as a Kulak in official propaganda – 320,000 were deported in the first months of the new turn.
But without a proper plan for industrial development, without even the support of the peasants themselves, the forced collectivisation left the rural population impoverished and alienated. To resist, they slaughtered their cattle.
Between 1929 and 1934 the number of cattle fell by 40%, sheep by over 65%; production of cereal crops fell by a quarter. The Kulaks had certainly been defeated, but at the price of severely disrupting Soviet agriculture.
In industry the Stalinists also adopted the plans of the Opposition but in a warped and distorted form. After mocking the whole idea of an economic plan, the Stalinists now planned each industry, setting targets and fixing an overall five year goal. But the planning was all carried out by command, from above.
Real advances were made, as the Opposition had predicted. The First Five Year Plan saw 1,500 new factories built. A new coal field was opened and the Dneiperstroi power station was built – the largest in Europe.
But these gains were due to the self sacrifice of the workers who struggled hard to build an alternative to capitalism.
The enormous potential of the planned economy was actually being distorted and held back by Stalinism, its dynamism undermined by the bureaucracy.
The plan was set by unaccountable officials. Their aim was never to increase the living standards of the masses and to lighten their workload.
Targets were fixed without regard to whether they could be reached. To meet these targets the quality of products was ignored. Vast resources were squandered on the bloated machinery of repression.
The bureaucrats pillaged the state – clawing ever greater privileges and wealth for themselves and fiddling the figures to conceal their robbery. Eventually, Stalin renounced the whole aim of socialism – the elimination of inequality and the building of a classless society – declaring that:
“Equalitarianism has nothing in common with Marxist socialism. Only people who are unacquainted with Marxism can have the primitive notion that the Russian Bolsheviks want to pool all wealth and share it out equally.”
The Revolution Betrayed
By 1932 Stalin’s rule was total. Trotsky described it as a form of Bonapartism. This concept had first been developed by Karl Marx to explain how in periods of crisis a “strong man” could arise, assume all powers in society, and balance himself atop the contradictions between the classes in society.
Stalinism was a form of Bonapartism within a workers’ state: the dictator was perched above the contradiction between the USSR and its capitalist rivals. But it was unstable. “A sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other”, as Trotsky put it.
To secure its rule, the caste of bureaucrats would have to lash out at all other possible sources of opposition.
The Great Purges of the 1930s were the result. Millions died in a frenzy of persecution and oppression. Oppositionists were threatened, tortured, and forced to “recant” their views. They were framed with ludicrous charges, forced to confess with the promise of leniency, and then shot after grotesque “Show Trials.”
Former members of the Left Opposition, like Piatakov and Rakovsky, issued forced confessions and under pain of torture called for their own movement to be eliminated. Zinoviev, Kamenev and Smirnov confessed on Stalin’s promise that they would be spared if they did. Then the guards came to take them away for execution.
The purges were unrestrained. Anyone who posed a hint of a threat to Stalin was killed. Bukharin was shot – the entire remaining old guard of Bolshevism was eliminated. Generals and officers of the Red Army were wiped out leaving it beheaded and weakened immeasurably.
Economic and scientific experts who could point to defects in the Five Year Plans were wiped out. The prison camps were full to the brim. Hundreds of thousands died as Stalin used his captives for massive slave labour projects.
In every one of the succession of Show Trials, the main defendant was absent. Trotsky had been exiled – in his absence he was found guilty of being in a block with Hitler and the Japanese, with carrying out terrorism and sabotaging industry. Every failing, every weakness of the bureaucratic system was blamed on the former leader of the revolution.
Trotsky’s youngest son – an engineer with no involvement in politics – was murdered by the GPU. His most trusted collaborators in the West, his secretaries and assistants, were hunted down and assassinated. In Paris, Trotsky’s eldest son Leon Sedov was murdered in his hospital bed by Stalin’s henchmen.
No stone could be left unturned to wipe out the gravest threat that Stalin still faced: the survival of the revolutionary programme of Bolshevism, with its promise of world revolution and the destruction of the power and privileges of the bureaucracy for good. Only by wiping out this alternative could Stalin hope to present his new reactionary USSR – in which every great gain of the October 1917 revolution was smashed – as “really existing socialism”.
The Degenerated Workers’ State
Trotsky – alone of the former Bolshevik leaders – did not capitulate to Stalin. He struggled on to the end. He was the only anti-Stalinist to use Marxism to understand the degeneration of the Russian revolution.
He analysed every stage of the rise of the bureaucracy, and every shift in its policy, the better to understand it, and the better to arm the working class with the programme to defeat it.
In reality, there were profound material and historical reasons for the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalinism. The personalities involved in the struggles within the USSR at each stage reflected and acted in accordance with class pressures and interests.
Trotsky explained how:
“No help came from the West. The power of the Soviets proved cramping, even unendurable, when the task of the day was to accommodate those privileged groups whose existence was necessary for defence, for industry, for technique and science. In this decidedly not ‘socialist’ operation, taking from ten and giving to one, there crystallised out a powerful caste of specialists in distribution.”
The backwardness and isolation of Russia were the main causes of the retreat of the revolution and the rise of the bureaucracy.
How then could the Soviet state be defined? The Stalinists insisted that it was socialist. Trotsky argued the opposite. A socialist state, he explained:
“ . . . has as its premise the dying away of the state as the guardian of property, the mitigation of inequality and the gradual dissolution of the property concept even in the morals and customs of society. The real development in the Soviet Union in recent years has followed a directly opposite road. Inequality grows, and with it, state coercion.”
Socialism had been the aim of the early Soviet republic. But the goal had not been reached – for that workers’ democracy and world revolution were necessary.
Both in the USSR itself and through its programme for the international Communist movement, Stalinism had blocked the road and thrown the transition to socialism into reverse.
Was the USSR capitalist then? This seemed to many – then as now – an easy solution to the whole problem. Trotsky disagreed.
Capitalism is a system in which everything is produced for sale on the market. Labour power – the ability of working people to work – is also bought and sold on the market like any other commodity. Production goes through sharp cycles of boom and slump.
Unemployment and inflation ravage the economy. The ruling class draw enormous profits – legally – by exploiting the workers.
In the USSR all this was different. Goods were not produced to make a profit when sold on the market but, rather, production was organised according to the requirements fixed by the bureaucrats in their central plan.
In place of private property, all property was in the hands of the state. Labour power was not bought and sold but was allocated by planning officials; wages were fixed.
The economy developed without being subjected to the booms and slumps of the capitalist economy. In place of mass unemployment there was, if anything, overmanning of major industries. For decades inflation was almost unknown.
The bureaucracy grew rich, but illegally, by robbing the state and twisting the figures. They had no legal right to own factories and farms, to buy them and sell them, or to pass them on to their children when they died.
Were the Stalinists a new ruling class, like the old bourgeoisie? Trotsky believed not. Without closing his eyes for a moment to their reactionary nature, Trotsky pointed out that the bureaucracy was actually less than a class.
A ruling class plays a necessary role in the social system it heads, and for a time will take society forward, until it exhausts its system and must give way to another class and a new society. But the Stalinists’ role was not at all necessary for the development of the USSR:
“The historical justification for every ruling class consisted in this – that the system of exploitation it headed raised the development of the productive forces to a new level. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Soviet regime gave a mighty impulse to the economy. But the source of this impulse was the nationalisation of the means of production and planning, and by no means the fact that the bureaucracy usurped command over the economy. On the contrary, bureaucratism, as a system, became the worst brake on the technical and cultural development of the country . . . the bureaucracy is not the bearer of a new system of economy peculiar to itself and impossible without itself, but is a parasitic growth on a workers’ state.”
Thus it was not a new ruling class, but a bureaucratic caste. Without the capitalists there can be no capitalism. Without the Stalinists however, the planned economic base of the USSR would not only survive, it would go forward at an ever greater rate. Indeed, getting rid of the bureaucracy was a condition of unleashing the true economic potential of the workers’ state.
For these reasons, Trotsky defined the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state.” The capitalists and their system had been overthrown.
The economic foundations necessary to advance towards socialism had been established: state ownership of industry and agriculture, central planning of production, and sole state control over foreign trade to prevent Russian capitalists and merchants from arising again through deals with foreign capitalists.
But the transition to socialism had been blocked by the Stalinist bureaucracy, who had taken political power out of the hands of the working class and kept power from the workers by means of massive repression.
A workers’ state not run by the workers? To many this seemed like a contradiction. Yet history knows all manner of such contradictions – every political movement, organisation or regime in history has involved a conflict between contending hostile forces within their ranks or boundaries.
The real, living contradiction of the USSR was one between the workers’ forms of property established by the Russian revolution, and the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy that held back their development.
Trotsky used a good example to demonstrate this. He explained that the USSR could be called a workers’ state:
“ . . . in approximately the same sense – despite the difference in scale – in which the trade union, led and betrayed by opportunists, that is, by agents of capital, can be called a workers’ organisation. Just as the trade unions under capitalism are workers’ organisations run by class collaborationist bureaucratic castes in the working class, so the USSR remains a state where the working class is the ruling class but where power is in the hands of a reactionary bureaucratic caste.”
The question is not simply “either/or” – the USSR was neither a fully fledged socialist society nor a capitalist state. It was a transitional state between capitalism and socialism, in which the transition had been thrown into reverse: a workers’ state in a process of bureaucratic degeneration. That degeneration was certainly back towards capitalism.
The bureaucracy used the theory of Socialism in One Country to make its peace with world imperialism, and on the basis of that peace acted ever more as an agent for world imperialism inside the USSR and in the arena of the world class struggle.
But it was still only an agent, not yet a part of that world bourgeoisie. It was overseeing the degeneration but had not completed it.
At first Trotsky had argued for the reform of the USSR, hoping that the Communist Party could be won back to revolutionary communism, and that Soviet democracy could be regenerated. With the Great Purges and the total destruction of the Opposition, he revised this view, pointing out that:
“To believe that this state is capable of peacefully ‘withering away’ is to live in a world of theoretical delirium. The Bonapartist caste must be smashed, the Soviet state must be regenerated.”
Trotsky had concluded that a new revolution would be necessary, to smash the Stalinists and their forces of repression. This would not be a social revolution in the sense of creating a new social system, like the revolution of October 1917.
He called it a political revolution, because it would preserve the gains of the Russian revolution and state planning, putting them under the political control of the working class. That, however, was the only difference that this term was meant to imply. The political revolution would be no less a workers’ revolution for that.
Defending the USSR
Trotsky was fighting not only for the revolutionary destruction of Stalinism, but for the defence of the USSR itself. In the event of war between imperialist armies and the Soviet Union, he called on the working class movement of the whole world to rally to the side of the USSR because the imperialists – if victorious – would not restore workers’ democracy and establish democratic planning.
On the contrary, they would smash up and sell off the planned and state- owned economy, just as they are trying to do in Eastern Europe and Russia today. They would bring back capitalism, with mass unemployment, factory closures, crime and hyper-inflation following closely in its wake.
Trotsky had not spent his life fighting capitalism only to side with the capitalists against the USSR: his defence of the Soviet Union was unconditional.
Did this mean supporting Stalin? Not for a moment! He wrote:
“We have promised to defend only the USSR as a workers’ state and solely those things within it which belong to a workers’ state.”
Stalinism did not “belong” to the workers’ state any more than a cancer “belongs” to the body it is killing. Trotsky saw it as a dangerous enemy of the workers’ state, a counter-revolutionary regime preparing its eventual destruction.
Explaining how anti-Stalinist revolutionaries could at the same time defend the USSR, Trotsky used another example. Two years before Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Russia, Trotsky explained that if this were to happen, then revolutionaries in the USSR:
“ . . . without changing in any way their attitude towards the Kremlin oligarchy, will advance to the forefront, as the most urgent task of the hour, the military resistance to Hitler. The workers will say: ‘We cannot cede to Hitler the overthrowing of Stalin; that is our own task.’ During the military struggle against Hitler, the revolutionary workers will strive to enter into the closest possible comradely relations with the rank and file fighters of the Red Army. While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, the Bolshevik-Leninists will at the same time conduct revolutionary propaganda against Stalin preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage.
This kind of ‘defence of the USSR’ will naturally differ, as heaven does from earth, from the official defence which is now being conducted under the slogan: ‘For the Fatherland! For Stalin!” Our defence of the USSR is carried out under the slogan: ‘For Socialism! For the World Revolution! Against Stalin!’”
Alongside his defence of the economic and social gains of 1917, Trotsky saw the defeat of Stalinism as the precondition for winning the workers of the world back to the struggle for genuine socialism. In this task, the revolutionary workers of the world were his only allies.
He never surrendered either to the imperialists or to their agency of reaction within the USSR – the Stalinists.
Without a working class seizure of power, the USSR itself would never survive. There were only two directions on history’s road – on to socialism or back to capitalism. By 1936 Trotsky well understood that the Stalinist bureaucracy was the main agent of restoration in the USSR.
Its economic polices drove the economy towards stagnation and shortages; its repressive policies drove the workers into cynicisim and passivity and in the end a belief that capitalism could not be any worse. Trotsky’s predictions were borne out when in 1991 Boris Yeltsin shot to power in Russia.
As Trotsky anticipated, the new pro-capitalist government “ . . . would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors, party sectretaries and privileged upper circles in general.”
While recognising that “a purgation of the state apparatus would, of course, be necessary”, mainly of die-hard Stalinist party chiefs, “ . . . a bourgeois restoration would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party.” How right Trotsky was! Under Yeltsin, many old Stalinist bureaucrats, such as his Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, successsfully profited from the turn back towards capitalism.
Again, as though anticipating the mass privatisation programme undertaken by Yeltsin in 1992/93, Trotsky predicted:
“The chief task of the new power would be to restore private property in the means of production . . . the new regime would have to introduce in the matter of forms of property and methods of industry not a reform, but a social revolution.”
With remarkable foresight Trotsky anticipated the fact that although the planning agencies could be “abolished” overnight by decree the market would take time to set up and regulate the workings of the economy. Hence:
“The planning principle would be converted for the transitional period into a series of compromises between the state power and individual “corporations” – potential proprietors, that is, among the Soviet captains of industry, the emigre former proprietors and foreign capitalists.”
Over 50 years after they were written these words retain their freshness when set against the unfolding process of capitalist restoration in Russia in the years after 1991.
Did Trotsky lose?
Light-minded critics suggest that if Trotsky had really understood what was going on, he would never have lost power. This insight can be roughly translated as meaning that Stalin was right because he won.
If this is true, then justice is on the side of every tyrant on the face of the earth and the whole history of the USSR and the world revolution can be reduced to a struggle between personalities.
To be sure, in 1940 Trotsky died at the hands of a Stalinist assassin. To many it must have seemed as if his struggle against the betrayal of the Russian revolution had been in vain.
It was Trotsky, not Stalin, who was denounced and reviled as a counter-revolutionary and a traitor to socialism throughout the Communist Parties of the world.
But history is a stern judge. Stalin’s monstrous edifice has collapsed, built as it was on pillars deeply cracked by insoluble contradictions.
The true history of waste, poor quality goods, misery, poverty and mass murder is now known – the mounds of official Stalinist statistics, records and propaganda lie mouldering unread in Moscow’s vaults. The ideas and politics of Stalin have failed.
But socialism has not failed. The great attempt of the Russian Revolution has shown that there is an alternative to capitalism, and that the working class is a revolutionary force that can change the world when armed with the right ideas.
Struggles against capitalism have not ceased, will not cease and cannot cease, for as long as exploitation exists, and for as long as there is a working class to fight it.
The ideas of the early years of the Soviet Republic, of class struggle, Soviets, permanent revolution, internationalism and democratic planning will find a new audience among fresh layers of workers and youth all over the world as we enter the 21st century.
These are the ideas that Leon Trotsky kept alive – the ideas that will triumph in the future. In this decisive sense Trotsky’s victory over Stalin is total and guaranteed.
Trotsky and the World Revolution
Up until 1924, everybody in the Communist movement agreed that the victory of socialism in a single country was impossible – particularly in a country so isolated, underdeveloped and backward as Russia.
Germany was the most developed industrial country in Europe, with the largest, best-organised and most powerful working class movement in the world. It offered the hope of spreading the revolution’s economic, political and moral strength immeasurably.
A Soviet Germany would forge an unbreakable alliance with Russia, massively reducing the military threat from French, British and US imperialism.
Its heavy industry and large working class would enable it to move much more quickly towards socialism than Russia could hope to do on her own. And revolution would spread from Germany across Western Europe like wild fire.
By October 1923 Germany was plummeting into a full scale revolutionary crisis. Hyper-inflation left the currency worthless and society in total chaos. The ruling class could not see a way forward out of the crisis. Only the Communist Party was growing.
Its influence in the factory committees increased as each day passed. The urgency of taking of power was clear, just as it had been in Russia in 1917.
To regain the initiative for the ruling class the army moved in to depose a coalition government between the Communists and Social-Democrats in the provinces of Saxony and Thuringia.
Yet the crucial moment passed and the Communist Party failed to launch an armed working class rising to counter this threat and seize power from the bosses. The masses were thrown on to the defensive and the Communist Party was thrown into confusion.
Stalin and Zinoviev scapegoated the leaders of the German Communist Party – Brandler and Thalheimer – for this debacle. But prior to October they had used all their influence to discourage them from preparing for an armed uprising.
Stalin had written to Zinoviev – the head of the Communist International – that in his view “the Germans must be restrained, not spurred on.” Trotsky’s persistent warnings were roundly attacked, until it was too late.
Trotsky analysed the lessons of this wasted opportunity to spread the revolution in his pamphlet “Lessons of October.” Without naming names, he showed how the hesitation and indecisiveness of Stalin and Zinoviev were part of a pattern.
The same irresolution had been seen in 1917, when Zinoviev had opposed the October insurrection, and when Stalin had originally wanted the Bolsheviks to support the Provisional Government.
Trotsky pointed to the fact that doubts and uncertainty would inevitably appear within a party leadership at the most dangerous time. But he pointed to the difference between Germany and Russia:
“With us, only a minority within the party was seized by such vacillations in 1917, which were, however, overcome, thanks to the sharp energy of Lenin. In Germany, on the contrary, the leadership as a whole vacillated and that was carried over to the party and through it to the class.”
These consequences of this debacle could only be minimised if the leadership of the Communist International was prepared to examine the lessons of Germany openly and draw the correct conclusions.
But they did not. Instead, they turned all their attention to a war against “Trotskyism”, a campaign that aimed to silence their critics for good. In the process of attacking Trotsky and his views, Stalin was forced to reject one of the most fundamental elements of Marxism.
Stalin and the world revolution
The “Theory of Socialism in One Country” was Stalin’s main contribution to the ideas and programme of the international Communist movement. It led to unmitigated disaster wherever it was put into practice.
We are still living with the wretched legacy of this theory today.
After the Stalin faction had finally recognised the October defeat in Germany, they fell into deep pessimism about the prospects for revolution in Europe. “Socialism in One Country” was a product of this pessimism.
Up until 1924, nobody in the Communist Party had ever doubted the idea that, on its own, Russia would be unable to build socialism.
The Russian revolution was seen as the first break in the chain of capitalism, which would have to be followed by the overthrow of capitalism in the most advanced countries before a socialist society could be achieved.
The programme of the Young Communist League made this entirely clear. It stated that Russia “can arrive at Socialism only through the world proletarian revolution, which epoch of development we have now entered.”
This was so well-established a view that nobody in the party had ever doubted it before. Even Stalin – in a book that was later changed to remove this passage – wrote:
“. . . can the final victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible . . . for the final victory of socialism, for the organisation of socialist construction, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia, are insufficient. For this the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are necessary.”
Only after Lenin’s death did Stalin have the courage to attack the internationalist foundation of the Bolshevik programme openly. The Theory of Socialism in One Country was the result.
In December 1924, in an article which attacked Trotsky and his theory of permanent revolution, Stalin wrote:
“The victory of socialism in one country, even if this country is less developed in the capitalist sense, while capitalism is preserved in other countries, even if these countries are more developed in the capitalist sense – is quite possible and probable.”
Trotsky was accused of defeatism and Menshevism for denying that Russia could achieve socialism on its own. But Trotsky’s opposition to Socialism in One Country had nothing in common with those Menshevik theorists who claimed that the Soviets should never have taken power in 1917.
All Trotsky’s work in the Soviet government had been aimed at preserving and extending the gains that the workers’ state had already made.
The point, Trotsky argued, was that Stalin was altering the very concept of socialism itself.
It should mean a society without classes, in which production would reach levels higher than those of the capitalist states, enabling all working people to have equal rights to the products of a democratically planned economy, (something that could only be organised on a world scale).
Instead, it came to mean something different: the stability of the existing political system in the USSR.
This was far from being the only consequence of Stalin’s theory. If socialism could be achieved in Russia alone, the tasks of Communists in other countries would have to change.
Previously all parties of the Communist International had one overriding aim – the overthrow of capitalism in their own countries as a step towards a federation of workers’ states encompassing the globe.
Now their task was to prevent imperialism from launching further military campaigns against the USSR.
The interests of the world revolution now took second place to the defence of the USSR. Diplomacy and blocks with supposed “Friends of the USSR” around the world became the main concern of Stalin and the Communist International
The world party of revolution was being transformed into the defence organisation of the Stalin regime, a tool of that regime’s increasingly reactionary foreign policy.
Lenin’s warning that the imperialists would never accept the existence of the USSR and that “the existence of the Soviet Republic side by side with imperialist states for any length of time is inconceivable” was quietly put to one side. Now anyone who repeated this warning was a Menshevik, a pessimist, a . . . Trotskyist.
The theory of Socialism in One Country perfectly expressed the conservative outlook of a dominant centrist faction within the ruling bureaucracy.
The social base of this faction lay in the thousands drafted into the state apparatus after the Civil War.
Trotsky argued that by removing the pressure of the working class on the bureaucracy the Stalin faction was opening itself up to pressures from pro-capitalist forces in the countryside.
In foreign policy, Stalin’s bureaucratic centrist faction subjectively desired revolution but pursued policies designed to create stability in the international arena so that Russia could get on and “build socialism” in peace.
Objectively, such policies thwarted the success of revolutionary and pre-revolutionary situations.
The first fruits of Stalin’s theory could be seen in the British General Strike of 1926.
In 1924, two years before this historic struggle reached its peak, the Russian and British trade union leaders formed a pact – the Anglo-Russian Committee.
This was a positive step. The bureaucratic leaders of the powerful British trade unions were by no means revolutionaries – they had already shown that they were ready to sell out the interests of the British workers, and were most concerned to preserve their privileges, gained through years of negotiation and compromise with the capitalists and their governments.
Nevertheless, as Trotsky explained, the anger of the workers and their willingness to fight were on the rise. This put pressure on the union leaders, who “took a step to the left in order to preserve their influence in the masses.” For this reason, “to hold them there was entirely correct.”
It was necessary to force the British trade union leaders to commit themselves to concrete action to assist the USSR.
But Stalin went much further than this, putting the interests of Soviet foreign policy way above the interests of the socialist revolution in Britain.
Flattering his new found allies, he painted them as champions of the working class and the leaders of the struggle against capitalism in Britain, and in particular as staunch opponents of any imperialist attack on the Soviet Union.
Trotsky and the Opposition opposed this. They warned that the union leaders were enemies of revolution, and would use their influence to sabotage the British workers’ struggle for power.
While taking every opportunity to reach practical agreements with them, the task of the Communists was not to sing hymns of praise to these traitors, but to challenge them, to organise a fight to replace them.
Every expression of faith in the union leaders, every sugary phrase from Stalin and the Communist International, would be used by the union leaders to defend themselves against the challenge from the British Communists.
Soon enough, the Theory of Socialism in One Country met its first great test. In the middle of an all-out strike by the powerful British miners’ union, solidarity from other workers reached such heights that the union leaders could not hold it back.
A General Strike in May 1926 paralysed Britain and provoked the greatest class confrontation for decades.
The government was desperate. They had only one weapon left to use against the strikers – the union leaders themselves.
Suddenly, after nine days of heroic struggle, with the strike growing in strength, the union leaders simply caved in to the government and called it off.
The Soviet leadership maintained their bloc with these traitors, whom they had already shielded from criticism.
The Anglo-Russian Committee had proved itself to be an instrument for covering up the real role of the trade union bureaucrats in Britain, not an instrument for the revolutionary defence of the USSR.
Even after the sell-out of the General Strike, the Russians kept the Committee going. Incredibly, they signed a joint statement that recognised the General Council as the only spokesmen for the British trade unions and announced that they would not “interfere” in the affairs of the movement in each others’ countries!
In doing so, Moscow renounced the fight to change the leadership of the British labour movement and instead concentrated on a deal with the sell-out merchants at the top.
The theory of Socialism in One Country reduced the British Communists to the role of winning influential friends and allies. The fight for revolution abroad was sacrificed in the interests of the prestige and security of the Stalin clique in the Kremlin.
Disaster in China: 1925-27
There was only one consistent alternative to Stalin’s theory – Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.
In 1923 and 1924 it became the target of a concerted attack by leading members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By 1925 Stalin was writing that:
“The whole course of the October revolution, in its whole development, demonstrated and proved the utter bankruptcy of the theory of ‘permanent revolution’ and its absolute incompatibility with the foundations of Leninism.”
As we have seen this was cynical nonsense. The Russian revolution had proved Trotsky’s theory correct in its four essential points.
The capitalist class in a backward country like Russia was too weak to lead the bourgeois revolution to victory.
That task would be carried out by the working class, or not at all.
Once they had taken power the workers would have to begin the socialist transformation of society.
The final victory of socialism depended on the revolution spreading to other countries, and achieving a society more economically advanced that capitalism.
Only this would make possible the replacement of the global system of capitalism with world socialism.
Stalin and his allies were about to prove the theory of permanent revolution correct again. But while Lenin and Trotsky’s policy in 1917 had proved it positively, the Communist International’s response to the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 was to prove it negatively.
By abandoning the strategy of permanent revolution in China, the Stalinists ended up pursuing an identical policy to that pursued by the Mensheviks in Russia before 1917. The results were catastrophic.
In Chapter 2 we saw how Lenin and the Mensheviks had approached the Russian revolution completely differently. In a bourgeois revolution, when national independence, democracy and land reform – key bourgeois tasks – are the main issues of the day, the working class has to understand its own role clearly.
The Mensheviks argued that because the Russian revolution began as a bourgeois revolution, the workers should support the bourgeoisie.
Lenin argued that because it was a bourgeois revolution, the workers should distrust the bourgeoisie, and rely only on their own strength. In this lay the difference between the Bolshevik programme of revolution and socialism, and the Menshevik policy of reform and democratic capitalism.
The Chinese Revolution began as a struggle against the domination of China by foreign imperialist powers. This was a bourgeois democratic task.
For this reason, Stalin and Bukharin, both central figures in the ruling bloc, argued that the Chinese workers should enter into an alliance with all those capitalists who were prepared to fight for China’s independence.
But how could this alliance between class enemies be kept together? Stalin answered that the workers and their leadership in the Communist Party should not fight for the movement to adopt socialist aims.
The revolution would first have to pass through a stage of democratic capitalism. By stressing this again and again, the alliance with the Chinese bourgeoisie could, Stalin thought, be maintained.
Stalin and Bukharin put forward this “stages theory” – first a bourgeois revolution and only later a working class revolution – under the cover of Lenin’s old slogan of the “Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry”.
Lenin himself had already abandoned this in 1917 as outdated. Indeed he had said that anyone who limited themselves to this slogan had lost touch with life, gone over to the middle classes and ought to be put in a museum!
But this did not matter to Stalin – the slogan allowed him to cloak his Menshevism in “Leninist” language, and to attack the true policy of Lenin as “Trotskyism”.
Stalin instructed the Chinese Communists to enter into a “Block of Four Classes” – with the “national bourgeoisie”, the peasantry and the urban middle classes, or petit-bourgeoisie.
Unlike the Bolshevik method of fighting against the influence of the capitalists and the peasant parties to bring the workers to the head of the struggle, Stalin used all his authority to keep the workers from doing this.
The revolution would have to go through set stages, fixed not by the laws of history but by command from Moscow.
Any attempt to combine the stages was denounced by the Communist International:
“[it is] all the more harmful because such a formulation of the question eliminates the most important national peculiarity of the Chinese revolution, which is a semi-colonial revolution.”
This was extremely dangerous. Every revolution in a formally independent but economically backward country dominated by imperialism (a “semi-colony”) would now be subjected to Stalin and Bukharin’s theory of stages. Socialism would be taken off the agenda.
To describe a revolution as bourgeois, democratic or even “semi-colonial”, tells us only what the spark is that ignites the masses, the deep social problems that make revolution inevitable.
It does not tell us which class can lead the revolution to victory. But this was the mistake that Stalin made in China and every subsequent bourgeois revolution.
Moscow instructed the Communists to ally themselves with the main bourgeois nationalist party, the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek.
If the agreement had been strictly limited to military alliances in certain areas, or to action against foreign imperialists, this would have been sensible and useful.
Even then, at all times the Communists should have kept their independence and been ready to break the alliance and fight the Kuomintang when necessary, just as the Bolsheviks had fought the SRs and Kerensky for the leadership of the Russian revolution.
But the “Block of Four Classes” sacrificed the interests of the workers to keep the alliance in place. Stalin instructed the Communists to agree to laws in Kuomintang areas that made strikes illegal once the authorities had decided the outcome of any disputes.
The employers had a field day – the Communists told the workers not to resist.
When the revolutionary struggle spread across China and working class militancy was at its height, the Communist International forbade the Communists from setting up Soviets.
They argued these were organisations for making a socialist revolution, and were not necessary at the democratic stage. Stalin even argued that Soviets would “scare off” the Chinese masses. Trotsky wrote later:
“Only Chiang Kai-Shek would be scared off by it, but not the workers, not the peasants, to whom, after 1917, the Soviets had become symbols of emancipation.”
The Communists issued a statement in which they declared that their differences with the Kuomintang were only minor ones.
They did not criticise the policies of the Kuomintang, even when trade unions and Communist Party cells were kept illegal in many areas under their control. They did not even attempt to win the soldiers in the Kuomintang armies to Communism. Instead the Communist International wrote that :
“The Chinese Communist Party must not under any circumstances pursue a tactic which would disorganise the revolutionary armies just because the influence of the bourgeoisie is to a certain degree strong there.”
Trotsky and the Left Opposition fought against this betrayal. Armed with the Theory of Permanent Revolution, they showed how the national capitalist class in China was more afraid of its own working class than it was of foreign imperialism.
The capitalists were bound by a thousand ties of money and interest to the big landowners and foreign banks.
When the Stalinists accused Trotsky of “underestimating the peasantry”, he replied by showing how only the working class could act as firm allies of those peasants who were struggling for land – the capitalists would be unable and unwilling to break with the landowners.
Despite all of Stalin’s overtures to the Kuomintang, despite his restraint of the workers and Communists, despite his phrases about the “Block of Four Classes”, the “Democratic Dictatorship” and the “Stages” theory, the real laws of history thwarted him.
Class realities prevailed in the end. The Kuomintang, as Trotsky had warned, turned on the working class as soon as it got the chance.
In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek sent his troops into Shanghai and massacred every Communist, trade unionist or worker militant they could find. Scores of thousands were killed.
Still Stalin did not change course. Chiang was blamed for the massacres, but not a word of self-criticism was uttered about the policy that had left the Communists defenceless and unprepared.
Stalin now continued in the same vein. After Chiang’s betrayal a government of the “Left Kuomintang” was set up in Wuhan. Two Communists joined the bourgeois government as ministers. But this government was no less reactionary than Chiang’s Kuomintang.
To maintain his alliance in government with these “Left” nationalists, and sticking closely to his stages theory, Stalin ordered the Communist ministers to support their allies’ policies.
The Communist Tang Ping Shan – as minister of agriculture – was sent by the government into the countryside at the head of an army to crush a movement of armed peasants who were fighting against their landlords!
The campaign against the theory of Permanent Revolution by Stalin led the Communists to block the Chinese Revolution from reaching its own “October”.
As Trotsky observed, the slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” had become “a noose around the neck of the proletariat and peasantry”. The stages theory had transformed the Communists from a force for workers’ revolution into an unwitting force against the revolution.
Trotsky and the Left Opposition campaigned throughout the international Communist movement against Stalin’s programme for the Chinese revolution.
The disaster had proved to Trotsky that the theory of Permanent Revolution applied not only to Russia but to all other backward, colonial and semi-colonial countries in which the tasks of the bourgeois revolution had not yet been completed.
The struggle against Fascism
Fascism has spattered the blood of millions across the pages of twentieth century history. In Germany, between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party set up the most savage and murderous dictatorship ever known.
All opposition was prohibited. Spies and informers in every workplace and in every area reported the faintest whiff of discontent to the Gestapo secret police.
A message of foul and fanatical racism issued from official radio broadcasts, from the newspapers, cinemas, school rooms and churches.
Any books, films, plays, art or music that tried to be original or to raise new questions about human life and culture were banned; so-called “degenerate art” was piled high into bonfires and set ablaze.
As the great poet Heinrich Heine once warned, where books are burned, soon human flesh will burn.
Hundreds of thousands of gypsies, homosexuals, foreigners and disabled people were rounded up by the Nazis into concentration camps and executed.
Special cruelty was shown to the Jews. Mixed marriages were banned and broken up. Jews were driven from their jobs in public life, beaten and abused in the streets, their shops, homes and synagogues stoned and burned.
Denounced as “sub-humans”, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star at all times and were driven into ghettos and prison camps.
Eventually, as German fascism entered its last, most frenzied stage, an attempt was made to carry out a “Final Solution to the Jewish problem” that was unparalleled in its barbarity.
At first, hundreds of thousands were marched into lines before mass graves and killed by firing squad. Countless others were worked to death on slave labour projects or left to die through starvation and disease.
But such was the scale of the slaughter that the fascists began to worry about the time and money they were spending on mass murder. They came up with a sick alternative, faster and cheaper.
In purpose-built extermination camps, Jewish men, women and children were herded into showers and gassed with the deadly poison Zyklon B.
Overall six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.
Intoxicated with their own rhetoric about the “racial superiority” of the German people, the Nazis waged a relentless all-out war for “lebensraum” (living space) against neighbouring European states.
For the second time this century, the whole of Europe was reduced to a killing field.
The Soviet Union bore the brunt of Nazism’s fury. As Adolf Hitler’s armies surged east, the Nazis shot every Communist party member, every commissar, every Soviet official that they could lay their hands on.
By 1945, over 20 million Russians had perished in World War Two.
There is one other fact about the Nazis that we must never forget. They could have been stopped.
At the time Hitler took power, the German working class was organised in a bigger, more powerful and more disciplined movement than the workers of any other country bar Russia.
Two parties – the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) – each had millions of members and active supporters.
In the last elections before Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the combined vote for these workers’ parties was around 14 million – more than the Nazis could muster.
Each party had tens of thousands of men under arms.
Between Hitler and the reins of power stood a mighty force, lacking neither for numbers nor for heroism on the part of the rank and file.
If the leaders of the German workers had been courageous and clear-sighted enough, they could have smashed the fascists completely. Yet the battle with the fascists in Germany was lost with hardly a shot being fired.
Hitler and the Nazis
Hitler was a sworn enemy of the working class movement. From a lower middle class background, as a young man he failed to get a place at art college, and found himself forced out onto the fringes of society.
Though he tried his hand working on a building site, he could not get on with his fellow workers. In particular, they hated him because he refused to join their trade union. Isolated and pretentious, he both hated and was deeply fearful of the working class.
Hitler concluded that it would never be enough just to use the law and the police to defeat a movement as powerful as that of the German workers. A failed military coup in 1920 convinced him that even the army could not be relied upon to take action against the people.
He realised he needed to build a political movement that could draw on mass support right across Germany. Italy provided him with a model.
The refusal of the Italian Socialist Party to take power during the revolutionary years of 1919-1921 had allowed the Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini to win mass support, principally among the middle classes.
He took power with the support of the capitalists, and proceeded to destroy all the organisations of the working class and all democratic freedoms.
Hitler joined a small right-wing group, the German Workers’ Party, and soon became its leading figure, changing its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – Nazis for short. By 1923 his movement had grown in strength as an extreme answer to the threat of communism, and was able to hold rallies of up to 50,000.
Hitler realised that the strength of Marxism and the Social Democracy was that it relied on the masses of working class people who were forced by their conditions of life to struggle against the system.
The experiences of his youth in Austria, in particular the size, discipline, militancy and political education of the Austrian Social Democrats, impressed upon him the need for a mass counter-revolutionary party that could oppose the mass party of workers’ revolution.
After watching from the sidelines in horror as an enormous Social Democratic march went by, Hitler decided:
“The masses love a commander more than a petitioner and feel inwardly more satisfied by a doctrine tolerating no other besides itself . . . if Social Democracy is opposed by a doctrine of greater truth, but equal brutality of methods, the latter will conquer, though this may require the bitterest struggle.”
This led Hitler to conclusions very different from those of most right-wing politicians. Instead of trying to keep the population passive and uninvolved in politics, he aimed to stir up whole sections of the people to struggle . . . against the working class movement.
And he knew exactly where such a force could be found: among the vast numbers of middle class people, the petit-bourgeoisie.
The shopkeepers, professionals, lawyers, doctors, small businessmen and traders felt their position becoming ever less secure as German capitalism went into crisis in the inter-war years.
Hitler and the Nazis began to organise these people, together with hundreds of thousands of unemployed and desperate workers who had become separated from the rest of their class.
The Nazis directed the anger of this mass movement away from big business and towards the working class and the Jews.
To win a mass following, Hitler had to present his ideas as if they were radical, sometimes even as if they were anti-capitalist. But Nazi “socialism” was a cynical trick. In 1926 the Nazis committed themselves to complete support for the right of the rich to keep their private property. And once they got into power, the Nazis smashed the unions and boosted the profits of the rich by nearly 10% in just 5 years, freezing workers’ wages at the same time.
Throughout the 1920s, as the Nazis drummed up ever more support, Hitler and his lieutenants held regular meetings with the rich and powerful, especially the owners of the heavy industries like iron, steel and mining. These bosses poured funds into the Nazi coffers..
An economic slump engulfed the capitalist world in 1929. The middle classes grew ever more desperate as small businesses collapsed. By 1932 there were 5 million workers on the dole in Germany. Society became deeply divided as people looked for extreme answers to an extreme situation.
As Germany slid ever closer to a revolutionary crisis, support for the Communists grew massively. But so did support for the Nazis.
The stage was being set for a final confrontation. Everything depended on whether the working class parties would find the path to revolution, crush the Nazis and establish a socialist republic in Germany, or whether the Nazis would first seize power, abolish the democratic republic and drown the workers’ movement in blood.
The cowardice of German Social Democracy
By the late 1920s the SPD was far from being the revolutionary party that Marx and Engels had worked so hard to shape and direct.
In 1914, as we have seen, it broke with internationalism and backed the slaughter of the First World War. The years after Germany’s defeat in the war were marked by sharp upheavals and revolutionary struggles.
The monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm was overthrown – millions of workers now looked to the Social Democrats to transform Germany into a socialist republic.
But the SPD leaders had long since made their peace with capitalism. They established a coalition government with bourgeois parties, and worked all out to stop power being seized by workers’ and soldiers’ councils, as had happened in Russia.
Those socialists who remained true to Marxism had formed a revolutionary and internationalist movement, the Spartakists. In 1919 the SPD leaders set up a right-wing militia called the Freikorps, made up of former soldiers and officers.
They set about smashing the revolutionary workers with the utmost violence. With the full knowledge and approval of the SPD leaders, the Freikorps arrested the Spartakist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and murdered them in cold blood.
Yet the history of the working class movement shows that the broad mass of workers will only slowly abandon the organisations and parties that first awaken them to political life.
Despite its crimes against socialism, the SPD retained the loyalty and support of millions of German workers, especially in the most important factories and heavy industries.
The growth of the Nazis in the late 1920s was mainly the responsibility of the SPD leaders.
In May 1928, riding on a wave of working class militancy, the SPD won a huge victory in the elections. The Nazis polled a mere 2.6% of the vote.
But the SPD formed a government jointly with the capitalist Peoples’ Party and proceeded to abandon every one of its promises to the voters.
This cowardice repelled the middle classes, who lost faith in the prospect of the mass working class party ever achieving anything. The far right prospered on this disillusion.
By September 1930 unemployment had risen to over 3 million. The SPD was deeply discredited. In the elections it lost ground across the board. The Communist Party’s share of the vote rose from 10% to over 13% of the vote.
But this was dwarfed by the rise in support for the Nazis. They rocketed from just 800,000 votes in 1928 to over 6 million in 1930. They were now the second biggest party in Germany after the SPD.
The opportunism and compromising policies of the SPD were confusing the workers and pushing the middle classes and the unemployed into the hands of the fascists.
The key to the situation was whether the Communist KPD could win the confidence of the SPD’s working class followers, unite with them in action to smash the Nazi gangs, win them over in their millions and come to the head of the working class movement in a struggle for socialist revolution.
Stalin Disarms the Communists
If it could only adopt a correct policy, the KPD had every chance of success. But this crucial condition was missing. Under the leadership of Thälmann, Neumann and Remelle, loyal servants of Stalin, the KPD misunderstood every aspect of the Nazi threat.
They failed to understand the nature of fascism itself. Instead of stressing what was distinct about fascism, how, unlike other right-wing parties, it organised mass fighting contingents to smash the working class movement on the streets, the Stalinist leaders of the KPD tried to suggest that fascism was the same as all other forms of capitalist reaction.
Incredibly, they declared that the Nazis were not the immediate enemy! This role was taken by the SPD which, according to Stalin, was simply “the moderate wing of fascism”. The Nazis and the Social Democrats were, in Stalin’s phrase, “not antipodes, but twins”.
After the opportunist phase of 1924 to 1928, in which Stalin had led the Communist International into disastrous policies in Britain and China, the bureaucrats in the Kremlin now swung wildly to the ultra left. Stalin proclaimed a “Third Period”, in which the final battle against capitalism would be fought.
The Social Democrats were declared the greatest enemies of the working class, “social fascists” and more dangerous than Hitler and the real fascists. The main task was to defeat the social fascists.
If Hitler took power, according to the Stalinists, he would not survive for long. After Hitler dealt with the SPD, claimed the KPD, it would be “our turn next”.
Stalin’s main conclusion could not have been more damaging for the working class: the KPD was to refuse to campaign for a united fight with the SPD and its millions of working class supporters against the Nazis.
Trotsky sounds the alarm
Leon Trotsky was the only leading figure in the international communist movement who understood the true nature of the fascist threat and who advanced a plan of action that could have defeated Hitler.
For three years, in a series of brilliant articles and pamphlets written from the isolated Turkish island of Prinkipo where he had been exiled, he strained every nerve to alert the KPD to the mortal danger it faced, and to the terrible consequences that Stalin’s policy would have for the German workers and the entire world.
Trotsky explained the origins of fascism in the decline of capitalist society and its specific function for the bourgeoisie:
“The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order.
“It is forced to smash the workers by the use of physical violence. The discontent of the workers and peasants, however, cannot be brought to an end by the police alone. Moreover, it is often impossible to make the army march against the people.
“It begins by disintegrating and ends with the passage of a large section of the soldiers over to the people’s side. That is why finance capital is obliged to create special armed bands, trained to fight the workers just as certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game.
“The historic function of Fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organisations and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.
“The Fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie . . . its dissatisfaction, indignation and despair are diverted by the fascists away from big capital and against the workers.”
For Trotsky, it was a criminal absurdity to define the Social Democracy as a variety of fascism. The SPD certainly served the capitalists in office – but only by retaining the support of the workers through democratic elections.
The fascists would serve the capitalists by abolishing democratic rights and eliminating every independent workers’ organisation altogether . . . including the SPD.
Millions of social democratic workers were well aware of the deadly threat of fascism and were ready to act against it. The SPD leaders – ever loyal to peaceful, legal methods – were trying to stop this giving rise to a militant fight against the Nazis that might end in civil war or revolution.
The job of the communists was to find ways of turning the SPD’s members against their leaders and towards a common fight against the Nazis. Denouncing the SPD as “social-fascists” could only achieve the opposite.
Trotsky argued that the KPD should issue a simple appeal to the social democracy: for a workers’ united front against fascism.
This meant that the Communists should offer agreements with the SPD at every level to organise practical defence of the working class against the terror of the Nazi gangs.
The KPD should declare that it would defend the SPD’s offices, meetings and printing press if the Nazis attacked it, and should call on the SPD to give a similar guarantee to the Communists.
In every factory, village, town, city and region, this would have meant the two parties meeting together – members and leaders – to work out how to take on and destroy the Nazis in battle.
This simple proposal would have been immediately understood by millions of social democratic workers – the KPD would have won their lasting respect as a result.
If the SPD leaders refused to build such a united front then their followers would be able to see that it was the social democrats, not the Communists, who were failing to fight the fascists. The Communists could only gain as a result. As Trotsky explained:
“The programme of action must be strictly practical, strictly objective, without any of those artificial ‘claims’, without any reservations so that the social democratic worker can say to himself: what the communists propose is completely indispensable for the struggle against fascism.”
The Stalinists denounced Trotsky’s proposal. They accused him of wanting to support the SPD, of sacrificing the independence of the Communist Party, of being a reformist, of being a “social-fascist” himself. In doing so they showed their complete ignorance of the history and principles of Marxism.
The united front was a tactic, similar to the tactic used by the Bolsheviks when they fought with Kerensky’s supporters in 1917 to defeat the threat of a coup from General Kornilov.
The effect then had been not only to beat the coup, but to strengthen the Bolsheviks against Kerensky, whose struggle against Kornilov had been weak and half-hearted (see chapter 2).
In a similar way, the united front against fascism was designed not just to crush the Nazis but at the same time to help the communists to grow at the expense of the SPD.
That is why Trotsky insisted that the KPD should keep its independence, and should at no time blur the distinction between the reformist programme of the SPD and the revolutionary aims of the communists:
“. . . parliamentary compromises concluded between the revolutionary party and the Social Democracy serve, as a rule, to the advantage of the Social Democracy. Practical agreements for mass action, for purposes of struggle, are always useful to the revolutionary party . . . No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with [SPD leaders] Noske and Grezesinsky. On one condition: not to bind one’s hands.”
Time and again, Trotsky appealed to the millions of KPD supporters, trying to show how behind the Stalinists’ opposition to the united front lay a complete lack of faith in the ability of the working class to beat the Nazis at all, an excuse not to fight.
Trotsky addressed the KPD’s loyal members with the most passionate and urgent of appeals:
“. . . there are among the Communist officials not a few cowardly careerists and fakers whose little posts, whose incomes, and more than that, whose hides, are dear to them. These creatures are very much inclined to spout ultra radical phrases beneath which is concealed a wretched and contemptible fatalism. ‘Without a victory over the Social Democracy, we cannot battle against fascism!’ say such terrible revolutionists, and for this reason . . . they get their passports ready.
Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!”
The call fell on deaf ears.
. . . and they refused to close ranks
The stormtroopers of Hitler’s SA beat up and intimidated socialists, union activists and Jews, staging their own uniformed parades in the streets of towns and cities across Germany.
SPD members could not fail to see the need to defend themselves. By the end of 1931 the pressure from the party’s rank and file was so great that the leaders had to be seen to be doing something.
They set up a campaign called the Iron Front. The aim was to give the appearance of action, while keeping all activity peaceful and legal.
The Reichsbanner militia was brought into an alliance with all manner of respectable public figures who were prepared to speak out against the Nazis, on one condition: that no militant action was undertaken. Trotsky could see exactly what the Iron Front was all about:
“The ‘Iron Front’ is essentially a bloc of numerically powerful social democratic trade unions with impotent groups of bourgeois ‘republicans’ . . . when it comes to fighting, corpses are useless, but they come in handy to keep the living from fighting.
Their bourgeois allies serve the social democratic leaders as a bridle around the necks of the workers’ organisations.”
Yet at the same time, many SPD activists in the Iron Front fought the Nazis and started stockpiling arms. One Reichsbanner commander declared that among the masses there was a real mood for a united front, and that if necessary he would establish it “over the heads of the leaders”.
But the KPD’s ultra-left tactics played into the hands of the SPD leaders, giving them every excuse to avoid a united front. When one SPD leader, Breitscheid, issued an appeal for a united front, the KPD rejected it out of hand.
This allowed the SPD tops to claim that the communists were not serious about fighting the fascists, and were really only interested in smashing the SPD.
They were helped in this by the communists’ “theory” of Social Fascism. One KPD leader, in Chemnitz, even went so far as to state that “Bolshevism and fascism share a common goal; the destruction of capitalism and of the Social Democratic Party.”
Instead of a real fight for the united front, the KPD set up its own front organisation, the Antifa (which stood for “Anti Fascist Action”). It engaged in brave confrontations with the Nazis.
But KPD leader Ernst Thälmann still declared that any SPD members who wanted unity should simply join the Antifa as individuals. He explained this as being a united front only from below, without making any appeal to the SPD leaders.
Trotsky ridiculed this, pointing out that the SPD members wanted a real united front between the two parties, not just an appeal to join the KPD’s “ready-made” front body.
At the same time the KPD adopted disgraceful tactics that repelled the SPD membership. In 1931 the Nazis began a campaign to overthrow the SPD government in the state of Prussia. They gathered enough support to force a referendum to be held on the issue.
The KPD at first correctly opposed the Nazi referendum. Then they committed a criminal error. They wrote to the SPD leadership and demanded that they make a united front. But the letter carried a threat. If the SPD did not agree, then the KPD would vote with the Nazis!
This sudden, and contradictory, switch from opposing the united front to demanding it with menaces gave the SPD leaders the pretext they needed to avoid a united front with the communists. They could show to their members that the KPD was not to be trusted, that it would as easily unite with the Nazis as with them.
The SPD leaders refused Thälmann’s offer and the workers were treated to the demoralising and stomach turning spectacle of the KPD campaigning jointly with the Nazis to unseat an SPD government.
Throughout 1932 the SPD and KPD leaders’ policy did its work. Every opportunity to smash the Nazis was allowed to slip by. Even as late as November 1932 the combined vote for the two workers’ parties exceeded that polled by the Nazis.
But when President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, the Nazis had taken office with scarcely a shot having been fired against them.
Loyal to capitalist democracy to the end, the SPD declared that Hitler’s appointment was technically legal. They opposed taking any action. They got the leaders of their union federation to write begging letters to the Nazis, promising not to destabilise Hitler’s government so long as they were allowed to remain legal.
They got their reward for this cowardice: Hitler banned the unions and the SPD within a matter of months.
The KPD went through a period of wild swings in policy. They insisted, even with the Nazis in power, that the SPD remained the main threat. Then, at last, as the KPD leaders began to be rounded up, Stalin suddenly did a policy U-turn.
Through the Communist International he changed the KPD’s line from above, addressing an appeal for a united front to the leaders of the SPD.
He went further, even getting the KPD to abandon all political criticism of the SPD. Lenin and Trotsky’s idea of marching separately and striking together was still a closed book to Stalin.
Then came the bombshell. On 7 April the Communist International announced that the political line of the KPD “was completely correct up to and during Hitler’s coup”! No lessons were to be learnt from the miserable collapse of the strongest workers’ movement in the world.
Despite the zig-zags of policy, the incoherent and counter-productive tactics, despite the failure to stop Hitler, Nazism’s total victory, the banning of the KPD itself and the imprisonment of Ernst Thälmann, Stalin was claiming that the KPD had been correct all along.
Even more worrying for genuine communists was the fact that not a single section of the Communist International voted against this line or dared to criticise it. The death knell of the Communist International was sounded.
If . . . . If Trotsky’s policy had been adopted by the German Communists, the outcome would have been different. The SPD leaders would have been powerless to prevent the united front with the KPD indefinitely.
Together, the Reichsbanner and the Red Front Fighters, backed up by the immense power of the trade unions and the 14 million workers who voted for their parties at the polls, could have scattered the Nazi gangs.
The middle classes would have gradually lost faith in the Nazis. This time, they would have thought, as the SA was smashed by direct military and mass confrontation, the working class parties seem to have gone beyond words to action. Perhaps they are the ones who will bring order and peace to Germany.
The SPD’s membership would have been filled with a new respect and comradeship towards their co-fighters in the KPD. Joint anti-fascist committees in the towns and factories could have gone forward to co-ordinate the affairs of the workers’ movement, drawing in delegates and taking shape as German Soviets.
As the economic and political instability of Germany continued, with the Nazis reduced to atoms, the need for a workers’ republic would have been recognised by a growing number of social democratic workers.
The cowardice of the SPD would have been increasingly recognised by its supporters. Just as the Bolsheviks supplanted the hold of the Mensheviks between February and October 1917, so the KPD could have steadily won a majority of the German working class. Revolution would have been the result, this time not in a backward semi-feudal empire like Russia, but in the most advanced industrial powerhouse of Europe.
A workers’ Germany could have come directly to the aid of the USSR, breaking its isolation and fatally undermining the whole social basis for Stalin’s conservative caste. Over the bones of the fascists, the world revolution would have received a mighty impulse.
But it was not to be. Instead of a fortress of socialism, Social Democracy and Stalinism had prepared a different fate for Europe: fascist barbarism, genocide of whole peoples, starvation and war.
France 1934 – Unity at Last?
The victory of Nazism in Germany had a profound affect on the working class movements of other European countries. In Austria the Schutzbund, a militia set up by the mass Social Democratic Party, fought bravely but unsuccessfully against a coup by the fascist Dollfuss.
And in France, events unfolded which were to push the Socialist and Communist Parties into a united front against fascism, against the will of their leaders.
On 6 February a large fascist demonstration against corruption descended on the French parliament building and smashed its way into the assembly. The parliamentary deputies fled and the prime minister, Daladier of the bourgeois Radical Party, resigned.
Fascism was on the march and this sent an electric shock through the French workers’ movement.
The Communist Party had loyally followed Stalin’s sectarian “social fascism” policy. On 6 February they had also demonstrated outside parliament, many of their 30,000 members mingling in with the fascists!
Then, still refusing to form a united front with the Socialists, they held an anti-fascist demonstration of their own on 9 February. Isolated, they found themselves faced with a vicious police attack leaving six worker-Communists dead.
Rank and file Communists began to learn the lessons. On 12 February two columns of workers – one Communist, one Socialist – marched into the centre of Paris. Communist party stewards tried in vain to keep the workers apart. One observer, Daniel Guerin, described what happened next:
“The communist column turned around the central island in one direction, the socialist column in the opposite direction. Then when they met, their waves joined, melted into one another, to the cry ‘Unity! Unity!’. Their mass now advanced, in serried ranks across the whole of the Cours de Vincennes, singing the Internationale.”
The workers had formed the united front themselves. Spontaneously mingling together, they showed France and the world that they would fight together against fascism. In doing so they made a mockery of the Stalin line.
Across France, without waiting for the leadership’s say-so, Communist Party members set up joint committees with the Socialists to fight the menace of fascism.
For weeks the French Communist leaders tried to hold to the line of “social fascism”. Then suddenly in May a complete change was announced. . . from Moscow of course. The French Communists were to form a united front with the “social fascists”!
The reason for this had little to do with the need to defend the working class organisations – after all Stalin had remained unmoved as the German communists had been crushed. The key to the change lay elsewhere, in the foreign policy of the Kremlin bureaucracy.
The “Theory of Socialism in One Country” meant that the main task of Communist parties around the world was not to make the revolution in their own countries, but to defend the Soviet bureaucracy. Until the spring of 1934 Stalin had been seeking an alliance with Germany. Incredibly, he had not at first believed that Hitler’s rise to power would be an obstacle to this:
“Of course we are far from being enthusiastic about the fascist regime in Germany. But it is not a question of fascism here, if only for the reason that fascism in Italy, for example, has not prevented the USSR from establishing the best relations with that country. But it’s a different matter if Hitler took a ‘new’ policy, which in the main recalls the policy of the former German Kaisers, who at one time occupied the Ukraine and marched against Leningrad . . .”
This “new” policy quickly revealed itself, shattering Stalin’s hopes for “the best relations” with the Nazi killers. Despite Stalin’s officials wining and dining with Nazi diplomats, on April 14 1924 the Germans refused to sign a joint treaty with the USSR.
Stalin now had to look for new imperialist allies to “defend” the Soviet Union. He turned to France. And suddenly, as the USSR began negotiations with French imperialism, the joint struggle to defend bourgeois democracy against French fascism took on a new importance for the Stalinists.
Was the united front to be a means of helping the Communists to win over the masses of workers who looked to the reformist Socialist Party, to take forward the fight for revolution?
Was this a return to Lenin’s policy of the united front, which had persuaded millions who had once supported the Mensheviks to follow the Bolsheviks?
No. The Communist leader, Thorez, who had previously called for a “pitiless” campaign against the “social fascists”, now declared that in speeches, newspaper articles and Communist propaganda, there would not be “the slightest attack against the organisations or the leaders of the Socialist Party”.
In no time, the Stalinists had once again switched from sectarianism to the most thoroughgoing opportunism. And over the coming year the steady drift of the French Communists to the right was to become a charge.
The Communist Party extended its alliance beyond the Socialist Party to the main party of democratic capitalism in France, the corrupt and discredited Radical Party. A new policy had been born: the Popular Front.
The consequences of this policy were enormous. In May 1935 Stalin signed a treaty with the French minister Pierre Laval. In an official statement, Stalin declared that he had “complete understanding and approval of the national defence policy pursued by France with the object of maintaining its armed forces at a level consistent with its security requirements.”
In short, Stalin now approved of French imperialism’s rearmament policy. The policy of Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg of demanding “not a penny, not a person” for the defence of imperialism, of fighting against the designs of the imperialist powers, of opposing militarism and the slaughter of imperialist war – all of this was given up with the flick of a pen.
France had colonial possessions in Africa and in Indochina – it subjected colonial peoples to bloody racist repression in order to loot their countries.
No matter! The French Communists fell in line: they dropped their campaigns against the government’s rearmament programme – and they dropped any pretence of being a revolutionary party in the process. The Communist International had finally crossed over to reformism.
Against the Popular Front
The Stalinists looked to an alliance with the “democratic” capitalists to halt the progress of fascism in France. Trotsky looked in the opposite direction: to the working class itself.
The ICL had a small group of supporters in France, the Communist League. They numbered little more than a hundred, but a tremendous responsibility now rested on their shoulders – to rally the most advanced sections of the French working class to a revolutionary answer to the growing crisis.
The rise of fascism was not the only threat facing the French workers. It was a symptom of a deeper malaise – the decline of capitalism itself.
The reason why ever greater sections of the middle class were abandoning the Radicals and looking to the fascists was the terrible economic crisis, the corruption of the Radical Party’s ministers, the ruining of small businesses and farms by the banks, and the constant insecurity and poverty arising from the government’s attacks on wages and living standards.
During this period Trotsky was living in France. Although the French government had ordered him to leave in April, no other country would accept him. He was therefore able to devote a great deal of his attention to helping the Communist League.
This took two main forms. First, he helped in the drafting of a new programme for the French revolutionaries. Second, he developed new tactics to bring the fight for the Fourth International to broader layers of the French working class.
The “Action Programme for France” was published in June 1934. It was designed as a guide to action for the whole working class movement.
The starting point of this programme was the deepening capitalist crisis. It explained how the capitalists had only one way out: “still more misery for the labouring masses! Suppression of all reforms, even the most trifling! Suppression of the democratic regime!”
For these reasons, the capitalist class was being pushed towards fascism, as the only way to “clear the organised working class from its road”. The end result of this would, Trotsky predicted, be a new world war, even more terribly destructive than the last.
Trotsky showed how the struggles of the working class to defend itself would create the possibility for the workers to take political power from the capitalists. He put forward demands that would build a bridge from resistance to revolution, and lead the workers towards establishing their own control over society.
The Action Programme rejected the reformist demand that the capitalist government should disarm the fascists. It declared:
“We refuse to spread the criminal illusion that a capitalist government can actually proceed to the disarming of the capitalist bands. The exploited must defend themselves against the capitalists.”
For this reason, the French Trotskyists raised the slogan of the arming of the working class and the creation of a workers’ militia.
The programme ended with an appeal to the working class to fight not only the fascists, but the capitalist system that arms them and gives them strength:
“Society, which can only exist by your labour, is rotting away because the ruling bourgeoisie will not give up a single one of its odious privileges. To retain them, the bourgeoisie is preparing fascist bands which threaten your existence.
On February 12 you displayed your power and your determination not to submit to this violence. But on that day your leaders betrayed you; they outlined no concrete slogan, no serious perspective of struggle for you. To attain your strength, to defend your right to live, to work no more for the enrichment of a minority of shameless exploiters – prepare your revolution, join the action of the Communist League!”
The Stalinists heaped scorn on the programme of the Trotskyists. In particular they denounced the call for a workers’ militia as a “provocation” – as if the attacks of the fascists would cease if only the workers refrained from resisting them! They argued that the arming of the workers was only possible in a revolutionary situation, which, as Trotsky pointed out, “means that the workers must permit themselves to be slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary.”
A militia, the Stalinists insisted, would only lead to the most determined fighters being cut off from the mass of the workers – instead they called for “mass self-defence”. Again Trotsky answered them:
“But what is this ‘mass self-defence’ without combat organisations, without specialised cadres [officers], without arms? To give over the defence against fascism to unorganised and unprepared masses left to themselves would be to play a role incomparably lower than the role of Pontius Pilate . . . Without the support of the masses, the militia is nothing. But without organised combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs. It is nonsense to counterpose the militia to self-defence. The militia is an organ of self-defence.”
The Spanish Revolution
The greatest class battle of the 1930s was the revolution and civil war in Spain. Here the forces of the working class fought a life and death battle, arms in hand, against fascism. Militants around the world rallied to the defence of the Spanish Republic.
In February 1936 the Popular Front of the Socialist and Communist Parties came to power. True to the policies of Social-Democracy and Stalinism, they chose and backed a capitalist politician, Azaña, to head the government
But when Azaña tried to appoint a right-wing member of the Socialists, Prieto, as prime minister, the rank and file of the Socialist party rebelled against the move and they succeeded in blocking his rise to power.
By June the Spanish workers were proving that even a Popular Front government would not be enough to contain their struggles.
They launched a series of mass strikes that threw the capitalists into panic. Although the Communist Party declared full support for the government, the capitalists became convinced that only fascism and dictatorship could save them from the revolution.
On 17 July 1936, General Francisco Franco, commander of the Spanish Army in Morocco, gave the signal for a full scale military and fascist rising against the Popular Front government. The government, true to its reformist ideas, refused to hand over arms to the only force that could stop the fascists – the working class.
Like the employers and the landlords who stood behind them, they feared the threat of revolution more than the threat of fascism. The Socialist and Communist Parties issued a joint statement, claiming that everything was in hand and could be left to the government.
But the workers did not wait. Rank and file members of the left wing of the Socialist Party, together with members of the powerful anarchist trade union CNT, armed themselves. They surrounded army barracks, broke into stores of weapons, and took guns and ammunition from the very factories where they were produced.
Less than two years earlier, Trotsky had argued that:
“The proletariat produces arms, transports them, erects the buildings in which they are kept, defends these buildings against itself, serves in the army and creates all its equipment . . . It is enough that the proletariat should want arms – and it will find them.”
In a matter of hours, the Spanish workers proved him right. With a series of heroic actions, they blocked the fascist advance. Three years of civil war had begun.
The workers took advantage of the situation to settle accounts with the employers who had exploited them for so long. They seized the factories. All transport in the republic was placed under the control of a joint committee of the Socialist and anarchist trade unions.
At the same time, the peasants seized control of the land. Popular committees sprung up everywhere.
But still political power in the Republic rested not with workers’ committees on the ground, but with the Popular Front government in Madrid. The Social Democrats and the Stalinists had a breathing space. They used it to strangle the Spanish revolution.
Instead of handing over power to the workers’ and peasants’ committees, the Popular Front government was determined to wrest control of the factories and the land back from the working people. Instead of recognising the workers’ committees in industry, they appointed directors to take over the running of the factories.
Instead of winning the support of the peasants by granting them the land they had occupied, they tried to restore the rights of the former landowners. Instead of declaring that the Spanish colony of Morocco should have the right to independence, the government refused to end colonial rule.
In this way they failed to hold the support of the poor and the oppressed peoples. Franco’s fascist regime grew strong in rural areas, his troops remained based in Morocco, and as the months went by, the enthusiasm and energy of the anti-fascist fighters was slowly sapped as the government deprived them of the gains they had been fighting for.
The Communist Party came forward as the most committed defender of the Popular Front and the most determined enemy of the workers’ revolution. All of this fitted perfectly with Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One Country.
The whole policy was based on Stalin’s hopes for an alliance with French, British and US imperialism. Anything that would anger or repel them – such as workers’ revolution in Spain – had to be avoided at all costs. Instead of revolution, the Stalinists hoped to beat fascism in Spain by making a permanent alliance with “anti-fascist” sections of the capitalist class.
The Communist Party raised the slogan “First Win the War!” This sounded very practical – but in reality it meant that all the gains of the workers and peasants had to be reversed. The Stalinists hoped to keep the support of the “democratic” capitalists by proving that they could stop the revolution just as effectively as Franco.
Diaz, the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, said in March 1937 that land seizures, collectivisation of agriculture and the confiscation of the property of the rich were “not only undesirable, but absolutely impermissible”.
The Communist Party was to play a role in Spain exactly like the Mensheviks in Russia or the Social Democrats in Germany. Any move beyond democracy to socialist revolution was to be opposed .
This dug the grave of the anti-fascist struggle as well as the socialist revolution. In the end, the capitalists were quite willing to surrender democracy and continue to make a fortune by exploiting the workers.
It was only the workers and poor peasants who had a real and lasting interest in defeating Franco. By rolling back the workers’ revolution, the Stalinists were only ensuring the victory of Franco in the civil war.
With vast resources flowing in from Moscow, with an army of Comintern functionaries, secret police and propagandists, the Stalinists secured a virtual stranglehold on the government’s policy for the crucial months of the war.
When the Socialists in the government considered granting Trotsky the right to asylum in Spain, the USSR threatened to withdraw its backing for the Republic!
The Communist Party pushed for the dissolution of the revolutionary committees that had sprung up at rank and file level, and fought for an end to democracy in the workers’ militias, converting them from a revolutionary Red Army back to a capitalist style army with privileges for officers.
And most important of all, they began a campaign of extermination against those left-wingers who supported the workers’ revolution. In December 1936 the Soviet paper Pravda threatened that in Spain:
“ . . . the purging of the Trotskyists and the Anarcho-Syndicalists has begun; it will be conducted with the same energy as it was in the USSR.”
After sabotaging a united fight against the Nazis in Germany, the Stalinists were now going a massive step further. They were to drown the Spanish revolution in blood.
The Fourth International
In 1923 Trotsky first raised the banner of revolt against Stalin. For the next 10 years he fought to rouse the Communist workers of the world in a fight for the complete reform of the Communist International (Comintern): the removal of the Stalin leadership and a return to the path of world revolution.
Wherever groups of communists supported Trotsky, he organised them into factions of the official Communist parties. Wherever they raised their heads, the “Trotskyists” were quickly expelled from their parties, and denounced by the Stalinists as everything from Mensheviks to fascists.
Yet the persecuted sections of the International Left Opposition - founded in 1930 to organise the factions across national boundaries - succeeded in carrying the ideas of revolutionary Marxism to small but significant numbers of communists in many countries.
On the eve of Hitler’s conquest of power in Germany, Trotsky explained the role of the International Left Opposition:
“ . . . the Left Opposition does not regard the organisational regime created by the Stalinist bureaucracy as final. On the contrary, its aim is to tear the banner of Bolshevism out of the hands of the usurping bureaucracy and return the Communist International to the principles of Marx and Lenin.”
Trotsky’s hope was that as the failings of Stalinism were revealed with each new historic event, so divisions would open within the Communist Parties and the International itself and the fight against Stalin would gather strength.
At the same time, Trotsky was well aware that Stalin’s ruinous policies might destroy the International itself:
“The Bolshevik Party remained in the Second International until the end of the year 1914. The lesson of the world war was necessary to pose the question of a new International; the October Revolution was necessary to call the new International into being.
Such a historical catastrophe as the collapse of the Soviet state would, of course, sweep away with it the Third International too. Similarly, the victory of fascism in Germany and the smashing of the German proletariat would hardly allow the Comintern to survive the consequences of its disastrous policies.
But who in the camp of the revolution will today dare to say that the collapse of the Soviet power or the victory of fascism in Germany cannot be avoided or prevented?”
These lines were written in January 1933. Within months the crushing of the German working class had become a reality, as terrible as it was undeniable
The sectarian policies of the Stalinist KPD had led the most powerful working class movement in the world to catastrophe. Quickly Trotsky realised that the KPD could no longer be reformed:
“The KPD today represents a corpse . . . The hour has struck! The question of preparing for a new party must be posed openly.”
The collapse and destruction of the KPD also faced the Comintern with a simple choice. Either begin a full discussion throughout the movement of how and why such a disaster could have happened, or prevent any discussion whatsoever taking place. The Comintern leaders chose the latter course, and they got away with it.
As we have seen, the leadership of the Comintern declared that the line of the KPD had been correct all along, and at every stage. But they knew very well how difficult this would be to defend.
Showing the full extent of their bureaucratic cowardice, the Stalinists prohibited every section of the Comintern from discussing the question. The blood of the German Communists was supposed to stream by without comment. Trotsky was outraged:
“. . . this shameful interdiction was not violated nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress; no discussion at party meetings; no discussion in the press!” And he drew from this one inescapable conclusion:
“An organisation which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it.”
The possibility of reforming the Comintern had ended. The absence of any critical response to the German catastrophe - with the partial exception of some Czechoslovak Communists - proved that, whilst honest workers could certainly be won away from the Communist Parties, those parties themselves could not be transformed back into instruments of revolution.
There was only one further conclusion to draw. On July 15 1933, Trotsky wrote an article to sum up these lessons and point the way ahead for the movement. Its title could not have been plainer: “It is necessary to build Communist parties and an International anew.”
A New International?
After the Second International betrayed the workers’ movement by supporting bourgeoisie’s war of slaughter in 1914 Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia, backed by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany and a handful of internationalists from other countries, began the long task of organising a new International.
The success of the October 1917 revolution in Russia gave a mighty impulse to their work.
With the Social Democrats rushing to rescue capitalism in the stormy years following the war, millions of workers were rallied to new Communist parties that openly defended the Russian Revolution.
In 1919 the Third, Communist International (Comintern) was founded to take advantage of the deep crisis of capitalism that had opened in 1914, and to lead the world revolution to victory.
Did Hitler’s successful ascent to power and the KPD’s collapse mean that the Third International had now reached its 4 August (the date of the Second International’s betrayal of international socialism)? Trotsky argued that this was the case.
There was a difference between 1914 and 1933. In the former case the Second International had deliberately betrayed the working class. But the effect of the two events was similar.
Trotsky insisted that the German events proved conclusively that the Communist International itself could never be recaptured by revolutionaries. It was dead for the very purpose it had originally been set up for - world revolution. A new International was needed.
After a lengthy and democratic discussion inside the International Left Opposition building such a new International was the course that was agreed upon.
Such an International would need a name that expressed its past, present and future. Based on the politics of each of the first three internationals in their revolutionary periods, it would need to declare openly to the workers that the Second and Third Internationals had abandoned the path of revolution.
After a short period considering the options, Trotsky and the Left Opposition decided upon the one name that summed up this historical experience and looked forwards rather than backwards. For the remaining years of his life, Trotsky struggled to build the Fourth International.
The Bloc of Four
The forces of the International Left Opposition (ILO) were small. One estimate suggests that at this time it had fewer than 6000 members world-wide.
There was therefore no possibility of simply “declaring” the Fourth International, and setting it up based on the ILO groupings alone. New forces would have to be won to the project.
At a series of international meetings in 1933 the ILO changed its name to the International Communist League (ICL), and committed itself to “the regrouping of the revolutionary forces of the world working class” under the banner of a new international.
The first step was to address those workers who were not tied to the Social Democracy, Stalinism or the Right Opposition.
In particular, Trotsky and the ICL focused on three important parties: the SAP (Socialist Workers Party) of Germany, and the RSP and OSP of Holland.
Some of these parties had emerged from the Comintern, others from the Social Democracy. Their importance was that they were independent of the Second and Third Internationals, and were in the process of discussing and defining their politics after their departure from the mass internationals.
After much discussion the three parties signed a joint declaration with the ICL on 26 August 1933. The main elements of the ICL’s politics were included. The Declaration of Four stated that capitalism was in a deep crisis that could only be solved by revolution and working class power.
It rejected the main errors of Stalinism - the theory of socialism in one country and the bureaucratic regime in the Comintern and the USSR.
What is more, it rejected the parliamentary reformism of the Second International, and insisted on the need to defend the gains of the Russian revolution, despite the crimes of Stalin.
It called for a new, Fourth International, and committed the four groups to working out and discussing a programme for the new international, a critique of the other trends in the working class movement, and to give clear answers to all important questions facing the working class in the fight for revolution.
This was a tremendous step forward in the ICL’s campaign to win these parties from Social Democracy and Stalinism to consistent revolutionary Marxism. But the question that still lay ahead was whether the SAP, RSP and OSP would carry out the commitments set out in the Declaration, or whether it would remain a dead letter.
The three parties were all members of the London Bureau, a loose collection of parties that had little common political agreement. On the left of the London Bureau stood the RSP of Holland, which was close to the ICL on all main issues.
In the centre was the Swedish Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party of Great Britain, some of whose members Trotsky hoped to influence and win over. On the right was the Norwegian Labour Party.
This was the only party in the London Bureau that had any mass influence. But its politics were completely reformist. Such a party was bound to lead the Norwegian working class to disaster.
And indeed, in March 1935 this Labour Party took over the government of Norway, and proceeded to attack the working class on behalf of the capitalists.
Trotsky wanted the SAP to present the Declaration of Four to the conference of the London Bureau in August 1933. But already the SAP began to backtrack. They did not submit it to the conference for voting, for fear of alienating the Norwegian Labour Party.
The SAP had faltered at the first hurdle - they had refused to choose between their reformist allies and the revolutionaries of the ICL.
Increasingly the SAP leader Walcher began to resist Trotsky’s insistence that the SAP should break with the Norwegian party and criticise the politics of its reformist leadership.
By early 1934 it was clear to Trotsky that the SAP had become an obstacle to building the Fourth International. He explained how forces such as the SAP were, in Marxist terms, centrist: they were unstable parties, standing somewhere between reformism and revolutionary communism. Centrists sometimes move far to the left and at other times would swing to the right.
Typical of centrism was the refusal to state the truth openly to the working class, a tendency to avoid clear lines of demarcation within the workers’ movement and to try to gloss over real differences.
Centrism refuses to put forward a clear programme for the working class, instead waiting for “history” to solve problems that can only be solved by revolutionaries themselves.
The whole tactic of the Bloc of Four was a necessary step towards the Fourth International. It succeeded in winning the RSP and an important part of the OSP to the ICL.
But when the SAP finally reversed its leftward development, accusing the ICL of “sectarianism”, the ICL itself recognised what had happened, and broke with the SAP. The reason for this was explained by Trotsky in an article entitled “Centrism and the Fourth International”:
“The chase of the extreme left centrists after the ordinary lefts, of the lefts after the moderates, of the moderates after the rights, like the chase of a man after his own shadow, cannot create any stable mass organisation.”
While it was vitally important to listen carefully to those centrists who were moving towards revolutionary ideas and to help them overcome their objections patiently, it would be wrong to bargain with principles and sign away the revolutionary programme as if it were so much small change. The guideline given by Trotsky was faithful above all to the interests of the working class:
“Not to outsmart the historic process, not to play hide and seek, but to state what is.”
The tactic of the Bloc of Four was now exhausted - there was nothing more to be gained from the SAP and its supporters. From 1934 onwards, Trotsky turned his attention to the events that were shaking France to its foundations, and developed new tactics to take forward the fight for the Fourth International.
The French Turn
A revolutionary programme was essential. Without it no party could claim to be revolutionary. But a programme alone was not enough. Academics and do-nothings might content themselves with having the right answers. Revolutionaries want to put them into practice. The Communist League faced another vital task: “to weld together the correct ideas with the mass labour movement.”
The hundred or so members of the Communist League were isolated. The Stalinists subjected them to such persecution that it was difficult to get their message heard.
Whereas the problem had previously been the refusal of the main workers’ parties to form a united front, today the problem lay in the illusions held by millions of workers in the opportunist “united front” of Thorez, the Socialists and the Radicals. The voice of the Trotskyists may have been clear - but it was being drowned out.
One of the distinguishing features of the truly great revolutionaries of history is their refusal to be daunted by obstacles, and their ability to think afresh.
Without at all diluting the principles or programme of genuine communism, Trotsky now proposed a bold new tactic for the French revolutionaries: to join the Socialist Party and fight within it for revolutionary ideas.
Join the Socialist Party? But this is treason, reformism, Menshevism! This was how many militants, including supporters of Trotsky, reasoned at the time. After all, the Social Democrats had betrayed the working class in 1914. Rosa Luxemburg had called the Second International “a stinking corpse”, and had been murdered by the German “socialists” for her efforts.
All these years the Opposition had been fighting to equip the Communist parties with the means to break the hold of reformism . . . and now Trotsky, of all people, wanted his supporters to join the reformist party! No sooner had Trotsky called for a Fourth International, than he advised his followers to join the Second!
Every one of these criticisms was wide of the mark. As a faction within the Comintern, the Opposition would have developed and grown in contact with the mass working class movement.
The Stalinist apparatus, with its bureaucratic bans on factional activity and all dissenting ideas, had made this a practical impossibility. The Communist League had developed as an isolated group, limited to issuing propaganda.
This gave them a strong side - an attachment to revolutionary theory and principles, and a membership well educated in the history of the movement and the tasks of the revolution.
But it had a weak side as well: it observed the working class movement from the sidelines. This weakness had to be overcome if a revolutionary party of the working class was to be built.
The joint meeting of the Communist and Socialist parties of July 1934 had been greeted by the mass of the workers with tremendous enthusiasm. But at this meeting the Trotskyists had not had the chance to put their point of view.
The danger was that the masses would be hypnotised by the united front, and that the policies of the Socialist and Communist Party leaders would go unchallenged.
The League had to find its way into the united front. And it could only do this through one of the two participating parties. The way into the Communist party was blocked. But what of the Socialists?
Here was a party of 120,000 members. The rise of fascism in Germany had pushed many of its worker members to the left. In response its pro-capitalist right wing had split away in 1933. Its left wing had invited militant socialists back into the party.
Certainly, a revolutionary party should be independent. But, Trotsky reminded his supporters, “the League is not yet a party. It is an embryo, and an embryo needs covering and nourishment if it is to develop.” The League could not just wait for people to come to it - it had to take its message to them.
Above all, Trotsky stressed that the League should enter the Socialist Party to fight inside it for revolutionary ideas. The Trotskyists would form a faction from the outset to fight the reformist leaders - there would be no watering down of its ideas:
“A fighting organisation is necessary; steel battalions are necessary; instructors and officers are necessary. It is necessary to disarm the enemy, to sweep him off the streets, to terrorise him. The task of the League - whether it remains independent or joins one of the parties of the united front - demands imperiously an explanation to the workers as frank, as clear and as honest as the seriousness of the situation and the tasks flowing from it require.”
This was no collapse into reformism. The entry of the Communist League into the Socialist Party was to be a revolutionary act.
Entrism in practice
After much debate, the French Trotskyists adopted the new tactic of entrism. On 29 August 1934, the Communist League was dissolved and its members began to join the Socialist Party ( or “SFIO”). Right away they established themselves as a legitimate faction within the party, the Bolshevik-Leninist Group (GBL).
One grouping within the Communist League, led by Pierre Naville, rejected the French Turn, declaring that it was unnecessary and an adaptation to Social Democracy.
They refused to join the SFIO at first, though they soon changed their minds and reunited with the GBL. Trotsky believed that the real reason for their reluctance to join had been a “literary-conservative” preference for staying on the sidelines.
This tendency was also to reveal itself in a related but opposite form: some of the same people who refused to join the SFIO were later to try to water down the GBL’s politics in order to remain inside the party indefinitely.
Both of these errors had the same effect: they avoided a hard fight against the Socialist Party leaders. This is what Trotsky meant when he wrote that sectarianism and opportunism were “two sides of the same coin.”
The GBL quickly made progress inside the SFIO, proving the value of Trotsky’s tactic. Armed with a programme far clearer than the rest of the left, the GBL’s membership rose to 300 by the summer of 1935.
The campaign for a workers’ militia had a real effect on the left wing of the party, which set up the TPPS (Always Ready To Serve), an SFIO defence guard.
The TPPS defended working class meetings from fascist attacks, and engaged in actions to drive the fascists from the streets. Membership of a mass party gave the GBL more contacts in the trade union movement and brought more workers towards Trotskyism. By June 1935 the GBL got substantial numbers of votes for their proposals at the national conference of the party.
In the youth movement of the SFIO the GBL were most successful. Their paper, “Revolution”, sold 80,000 copies per issue, far more than that of the official leadership. One SFIO youth leader, Fred Zeller, was visited by a Moscow official who failed to win him to Stalinism: he was soon to join the Trotskyists instead.
But the entry into the SFIO could not go on forever. The Socialist Party leadership under Leon Blum had joined the Popular Front with the Stalinists and the Radical party.
As Europe slid ever closer towards war, these parties were preparing to form a government that could build up the army and hold back the struggles of the workers. The presence in the SFIO of a strong Trotskyist wing was intolerable.
For the GBL was campaigning against the mass murder of the youth that such a war would involve, and would side with the workers against the Popular Front regime.
In particular, the Stalinists were demanding the expulsion of the Bolshevik-Leninists from the SFIO as a condition for further unity.
At the end of July 1935 the bureaucracy made their move expelling 13 leading members of the SFIO youth, many of them Trotskyists. The reformists could no longer afford democracy in their party, and struck out against the revolutionary youth.
And just a few days later the workers in the port towns of Brest and Toulon launched mass strikes and rose up against the police.
Trotsky realised that these events meant that the work of the GBL inside the SFIO must come to a quick end. Some argued that there was still more to be gained in the party, but it was already clear that the leaders were determined to expel the Trotskyists.
The only way to remain in the party would be to water down or abandon the message of revolution. And that was unacceptable:
“When you continue to hang on to an organisation that can no longer tolerate proletarian revolutionaries in its midst, you become of necessity the wretched tool of reformism, patriotism and capitalism.”
For this reason, “the . . . notion that it is necessary to remain inside the SFIO at any cost is treachery . . . Those who say ‘we will forego telling the masses the truth about the latest social-patriotic treachery so as not to be expelled from the party led by the social-patriots’ become the witting accomplices of these traitors.”
Trotsky advocated a bold offensive by the GBL, attacking the party leaders and preparing to launch an independent party to address the revolutionary workers directly.
An important section of the GBL, however, hesitated. Led by Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank, they began to drop whole elements of the Trotskyist programme and began to build a joint group with centrists who would not consider leaving the SFIO. But for real revolutionaries this capitulation was not an option.
Trotsky summed up the lessons of the French Turn in his article “Lessons of the SFIO Entry”:
“ . . . Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective. It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode . . . what is necessary, especially in the light of the French experience, is to free ourselves of illusions in time; to recognise the bureaucracy’s decisive attack against the left wing, and defend ourselves from it, not by making concessions, adapting, or playing hide-and-seek, but by a revolutionary offensive.”
Trotskyism and Centrism in Spain
The leading figure in the Spanish Left Opposition had been Andrés Nin. One of the founders of the Communist party, Nin had backed Trotsky in his struggle with Stalin and had served as one of Trotsky’s secretaries. With authority in the working class movement and a name known to millions, Nin was destined to play a crucial role in the Spanish revolution.
Yet before the outbreak of the civil war, Trotsky had already broken with Nin. This is something that many writers to this day see as an example of Trotsky’s “sectarianism”. Yet this dispute centred on issues that were to prove a matter of life and death for the Spanish revolution.
Nin led the small forces of Spanish Trotskyism into a fusion with a party called the Workers’ and Peasants’ Bloc, led by Maurin. This was a centrist party, which had supported the pro-Bukharin Right Opposition.
The fusion created. a new party, the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). The POUM was hostile to Stalinism, and declared that the war and the revolution were inseparable.
Yet it did not have a clear revolutionary programme for the Spanish working class. This was no academic matter. It led to the downfall of the POUM and disaster for the Spanish working class.
The POUM were the most persecuted party of the Spanish revolution. The Stalinists denounced them as “Trotskyites” and “fascists”, though in reality they were neither.
In the first weeks of the civil war the POUM showed great bravery, taking a lead in the land and factory seizures, and playing an important role in the arming of the working class.
Their membership rose from 8000 to over 35,000 in the first months of the civil war, and the party recruited over 10,000 members of the workers’ militias.
With a correct policy, the POUM could have used this mass influence to argue for the revolutionary committees and workers’ parties and unions to build councils of workers’ delegates.
These, like the soviets in Russia in 1917, could have become an alternative centre of power to that of the Popular Front government in Madrid. In this way, the war could have grown over into a socialist revolution.
But the POUM’s confused politics - so typical of centrism - left them unable to take advantage of this exceptional situation.
On 7 September 1936 Nin made a speech to thousands of workers in Barcelona. When he correctly called for the capitalist ministers to resign from the Popular Front the crowd went wild with enthusiasm.
But when Nin himself joined the government of Catalonia, the POUM changed their tune, and declared that they would “leave the question open” as to capitalists participating in the government.
Worse still, instead of using the POUM’s influence in the revolutionary committee in the district of Lerida to build workers’ councils, the POUM called for “an authentic government of the Popular Front”, and actually helped the government to demobilise the committee.
This confusion on the real nature of the Popular Front was built in to the POUM’s ideas at the time of the fusion with Maurin.
Trotsky’s handful of supporters in Spain warned that taking part in the government and failing to fight for workers’ councils would mean that the POUM would miss the opportunities that existed for leading the revolution to victory.
While attacking the policy of the POUM, Trotsky nevertheless realised the party’s importance, and never missed an opportunity to try to influence it.
A representative of the Movement for the Fourth International visited the POUM in April 1937 for urgent discussions, hoping to effect a change in the party’s policy towards the Popular Front.
Urged on by supporters of Trotsky who had joined the POUM in order to influence its development, the Madrid section of the party voted, in April 1937, to support a programme of building workers’ councils. To his shame, Nin responded in a bureaucratic way, calling oppositionists back from the front line fighting and expelling many from the party. Factions were banned in the POUM.
From these expulsions an organisation emerged that was committed to a revolutionary programme: the Bolshevik-Leninists of Spain. But they were to have little time to put the programme of Lenin and Trotsky into practice. For events were moving to a decisive showdown between the working class and the Popular Front government.
In Barcelona the anarchist trade union CNT, together with the POUM and many rank and file supporters of the Socialists, occupied and ran many key industries and buildings. Among the most important was the telephone exchange.
In May 1937 the Popular Front government, egged on by the Communist party, ordered a police attack on the exchange, to take control of the building back from the workers.
The workers built barricades and rank and file anarchists fought off the police and sent messages for support to other workers across Spain. For a short time the possibility of a general strike and a rising against the Capitalist-Stalinist coalition was real.
But the absence of a Bolshevik leadership in the working class made itself felt. The Socialists called on their union members to stop fighting and to take down their barricades. Then the anarchist CNT leaders did the same.
Anarchist workers, outraged, tore up their CNT cards and newspapers in disgust. But the POUM leaders, still clinging to the popular front, refused to criticise the CNT leaders and appeal to them to form a common front against the government.
Then the POUM itself abandoned the barricades under instruction from its leaders, while the fighting was still going on.
There was an organisation that fought for a revolutionary response to the government’s attack on the workers of Barcelona.
The Bolshevik-Leninists, aware that in Lerida, Taragona and Gerona, the Stalinists and the police had surrendered their arms to the workers, pointed out that with the mass of Barcelona workers backing the CNT, the city could have been seized and a soviet government established. A Bolshevik-Leninist leaflet was distributed on the barricades:
“LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTIONARY OFFENSIVE!
No compromise. Disarmament of the National republican Guard and the reactionary Assault Guards. This is the decisive moment. Next time it will be too late. General strike in all industries except those connected with the prosecution of the war, until the resignation of the reactionary government. Only proletarian power can assure military victory . . .”
Though a small grouping of anarchists - the Friends of Durutti - agreed with this perspective, the revolutionary forces were too small and isolated to turn the tide.
The leaders of every main organisation of the Spanish working class, including the POUM, had failed to provide leadership at the decisive moment. The opportunity had been frittered away.
The price was the crushing of the left. Stalinist police, trained and led by agents of the Soviet secret police, hunted down, tortured and killed hundreds of revolutionary fighters. The CNT and the POUM were banned. Nin himself was arrested and taken away to a Stalinist prison.
Despite relentless torture, he refused to sign a forced confession that would have led hundreds more to the cells and an early grave. Instead he died a hero’s death.
But his end could have been different. With a correct strategy he could have led the POUM and the Spanish working class to power.
The programme and perspectives of Trotsky and his supporters had been proven not to be “sectarian”, but rather the distillation of the lessons of the Russian revolution. Trotsky had been right to insist on building the Fourth International only on the basis of real agreement on programme.
Once again, as in China and Germany, the Trotskyists had been proved right, but only at the price of a terrible defeat for the working class. In Trotsky’s words, the three things were missing that had guaranteed success in Russia: “a party, a party, and a party.”
The founding of the Fourth International
In the ten years from 1928 to 1938 Trotsky and his followers stood alone defending and developing the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin.
In a whole series of reverses and bloody defeats for the working class, Trotsky had been proven right. The Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 had proved that without the strategy of permanent revolution, struggles for democracy in the colonial world would go down to bloody defeat.
In 1933 the tactic of the workers’ united front had been proven a necessity by the tragedy of Hitler’s rise to power.
Events in France and Spain had shown beyond doubt the counter-revolutionary consequences of the theory of the Popular Front.
And throughout the entire period, Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One Country had not only disarmed revolutionaries across the world, but had isolated the USSR, giving rise to a bureaucratic regime that crushed all working class initiative. Stalin’s uncontrolled purges were slaughtering the flower of the old Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution.
Above all, in each successive crisis the completely reactionary role of Social Democracy and Stalinism had been revealed. The bankruptcy of the Second and Third Internationals was an established fact. It was time to found a Fourth International.
At first, Trotsky had attempted to rally many of the independent left socialist organisations to the fight for a new international, hoping that experience and the class struggle would help to impel them to revolutionary communist conclusions.
But the Spanish events now proved that the parties of the London Bureau, and in particular the POUM and its supporters, would never complete that evolution.
In discussions with Trotsky, James Cannon of the US section of the ICL, which throughout these years had built itself up into a significant and influential working class organisation leading mass strikes in Minneapolis and New York, advanced the view that the forthcoming world conference of the Bolshevik Leninists in 1938 should actually set up the Fourth International. In his view “the main elements of the Fourth International are by now crystallised.”
“This International will become strong by our own action, not by manoeuvres with other groups. Naturally we can attract other intermediary groups, but that would be incidental. The general line is our own development. We had a test in Spain for all these intermediary organisations -the POUM was the most important part of the London Bureau and the same POUM proved to be most disastrous for the Spanish revolution.”
These intermediate groups were, in Trotsky’s words, “ only an obstacle - a petrified centrism without masses.”
Another important reason for the move towards setting up the Fourth International was the approaching crisis and war. The revolutionaries needed to be bound together by the firmest possible discipline the better to proclaim their message to the whole world.
Some critics of Trotsky have argued that the founding of the Fourth International was a mistake. They point to the Second and Third Internationals, which were mass organisations, and claim that the small forces of Trotskyism were too weak to set up a real world party. Instead, they argue, strong national parties should first be built: only then can an international be founded.
This dangerous argument ignores some of the most important lessons of the 1930s. A party that grows up only on a national terrain will always adapt to the pressures and prejudices that are widespread in that country.
The POUM, for example, thought that there was something special about Spain that made the fight for workers’ councils unnecessary.
The best possible way to avoid these problems is for each party to conduct its work not in isolation, but as an integral part of a democratic centralist international movement, in which every national section is bound by the same discipline as a local branch would be within a national organisation. The capitalists are organised across boundaries and borders.
Without an equivalent, indeed an even higher level of unity, the working class will never be able to fight the system to the end. Democratic centralism - full freedom of internal discussion, maximum unity in action - must apply not just in each party, but also in the world party.
This was another vital lesson that Trotsky had learnt from the nationalist collapse of the Second International, the bureaucratic degeneration of the Third, and the total ineffectiveness of the London Bureau.
And so, in September 1938, thirty delegates from eleven countries adopted a new international programme, and formally founded the Fourth International.
At the same time, delegates from nine different countries founded a Youth International in sympathy with the Fourth International. At a mass celebratory rally in New York on 28 October, the following message from Trotsky was delivered to the audience by electrical transcription:
“Only the Fourth International looks with confidence to the future. It is the World Party of Socialist Revolution! There never was a greater task on the earth. Upon every one of us rests a tremendous historical responsibility.
“Our party demands each of us, totally and completely. Let the philistines hunt their own individuality in empty space. For a revolutionary to give himself entirely to the party signifies finding himself.
“Yes, our party takes each one of us wholly. But in return it gives to each one of us the highest happiness: the consciousness that one participates in the building of a better future, that one carries on his shoulders a particle of the fate of mankind, and that one’s life will not have been lived in vain.”
The Transitional Programme
Amidst all the struggles of the 1930s, Trotsky never lost sight of the most important condition for establishing a new International:
“ . . . it is necessary to begin by proclaiming a programme that meets the tasks of our epoch. On the basis of this programme it is necessary to mobilise co-thinkers, the pioneers of the new International. No other road is possible.”
Why this stress on programme? Because the programme of a political party is its declaration, to its members and to the world, of its aims, what it is fighting for, and what it intends to do. It is the only justification for the independent existence of a party.
A revolutionary Marxist party aims to change the world not through parliamentary reforms but through the action of the working class itself.
Its programme is not a list of promises for the future, but a guide to action for millions of workers in the here and now.
The founding congress of the Fourth International adopted a programme drafted by Trotsky, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”. This short pamphlet has become one of the most important documents in the history of communism.
No study of the ideas of Trotsky would be complete without examining its contents and its meaning.
Building the bridge
The Second International was founded in a period when the capitalist system was enjoying long years of relatively peaceful progress and economic advance.
The imperialist system of monopoly capitalism did not dominate the globe; the working class made steady progress in organising its unions and mass Social Democratic parties. These were years of preparation, of organising the workers for the great battles of the future.
In this period the Social-Democracy adopted a programme that was divided into two distinct parts: the minimum programme and the maximum programme.
The minimum programme was a series of demands that could be achieved within the capitalist system. It dealt with the most pressing needs of the working class and exploited masses: the need for a working day of no more than 8 hours, health care, education, homes and welfare for all, an end to poverty wages.
It set out the democratic rights necessary to allow the workers to organise and to prevent the worst abuses of the capitalists: the right to vote, to sovereign parliaments, to elect the judges and to bear arms.
These were all demands that the capitalists would try to resist - but they would still leave the capitalist system intact. Even if all these demands were granted, a boss would still be a boss at the end of the day.
The maximum programme, on the other hand, set out the goal of socialism and working class power. This was a statement of the eventual goal of the movement. But it was not linked to the rest of the programme in a practical way.
Because of this, the opportunist trend in the Second International was able to treat the goal of socialism as a distant and far off prospect, with no practical consequences for the daily struggles of the workers and their party.
This division of the party programme into minimum and maximum elements allowed the right wing of Social Democracy to concentrate all its efforts on campaigning for reforms alone.
It is therefore no surprise that it was the Russian Communists and the Communist International who made the first significant steps towards overcoming it.
In his pamphlet, “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”, written on the eve of the October revolution, Lenin put forward a series of demands which addressed the immediate needs of the working class and which at the same time, if met, meant an immediate break with the capitalist system.
In the heat of a revolutionary crisis and the breakdown of capitalist society, Lenin’s programme was straightforward, but it could not be carried out without confiscating the private property of the rich and putting political power into the hands of the workers themselves.
It was a programme that served as a bridge between the immediate aims and the revolutionary tasks of the workers.
This method was then used by the Communist International as a basis for influencing the programmes of the Communist Parties after World War One.
The Third Congress of the Comintern adopted a set of “Theses on Tactics” which described the old minimum programme of the reformists as “a counter-revolutionary deception.”
They went on to explain that Communists should continue to fight for the immediate interests of the workers - however partial they might be. But they should do so not to rescue the capitalist system, but to destroy it.
The Transitional Programme
By the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, the slide into bureaucratic centrism was well under way. With Stalin’s support, Bukharin drafted a programme which was completely abstract. The minimum-maximum divide that the revolutionary Comintern had tried to abolish had been reintroduced. Trotsky was harsh in his criticism of the draft:
“The proletarian vanguard needs not a catalogue of truisms but a manual of action.”
For this reason the Fourth International’s programme of 1938 took the real situation facing the world working class as its starting point. It then developed a series of transitional demands to build a bridge between the struggles of the present and the fight for revolution and socialism.
Trotsky wrote the programme draft after examining the lessons of the entire history of the movement, and the advances that the Comintern had made between 1919 and 1924. In that sense, as he explained, the new Transitional Programme was “the summation of the collective work to date.”
The Transitional Programme begins by summing up the main lesson of the whole period in history that had opened up with the collapse of the Second International in 1914:
“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”
Capitalism had already created the conditions under which a socialist society could be built. The world was not only ripe for socialism, but this ripeness had “begun to get somewhat rotten”.
One thing and one thing only had saved capitalism in the crisis-ridden years of the 1920s and 1930s: the absence of a revolutionary leadership for the working class.
The failure of the working class to take power had led the world to the brink of catastrophe: economic collapse, fascist barbarism and war.
The main job of revolutionaries was to overcome the gulf between the ripening of the conditions for socialism and the lack of political readiness on the part of the working class to take power into its own hands.
The key to this was “a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime.” This transitional programme replaced the old minimum programme of Social Democracy.
The main economic diseases infecting capitalist society on the eve of World War Two were unemployment and high prices. The Fourth International’s programme put forward answers to these ills which strengthened the self-organisation of the working class and took forward its struggle for power. It demanded jobs for all, a guaranteed minimum wage and a strictly limited working week.
To ensure these demands were not subverted by the capitalists, it called for the workers’ organisations themselves to form committees to draw up a plan for dividing all the necessary work among all those available to do it, with no loss of pay.
Wages, it declared, should rise to cover any rise in prices. If the capitalists could not “afford” to pay this, then their property should be taken from them:
“If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.”
The programme examined the situation facing the workers’ organisations. It was absolutely essential for communists to participate in the trade unions, to strengthen them and raise their militancy, opposing all attempts by the capitalists to control them or weaken them, whether through police repression or the more subtle dictatorship of “binding arbitration”.
It rejected the sectarianism of the Stalinist “Third Period”, when the Communist parties withdrew from the mass trade unions, describing this self-isolation as “tantamount to a betrayal of the revolution.”
Yet at the same time, the programme recognised the limitations of the trade unions, calling for a struggle against the conservative union leaders and the creation of bodies embracing the whole fighting mass of the working class, “strike committees, factory committees and, finally, Soviets.”
Just as it would be criminal to turn one’s back on the mass trade unions, so the revolutionaries should not flinch from a break with the union apparatus if necessary to advance the struggle at a given moment:
“Trade unions are not ends in them themselves; they are but means along the road to the proletarian revolution.”
The Programme went on to argue for workers’ control of production, the opening of all the economic secrets of the capitalists to inspection by the workers themselves, and the drawing up by the workers of a general plan for the reorganisation of economic life.
This struggle for control would be a declaration of war against the employers, who would resist it all the way. At the same time it would be the best preparation for the workers in running society themselves, as “a first step along the road to the socialist guidance of the economy”.
The programme called for the key branches of industry and the banks to be expropriated, taken out of the hands of private capitalists and put under the control of the state. At the same time it made quite clear that this would “produce favourable results only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers.”
The Transitional Programme approached the whole question of self-defence in a manner as practical as it was revolutionary.
It pointed out how the working class faced not just the violence of strike-breakers and the police, but increasingly that of the hired thugs of the employers, and of the fascist gangs. Persuasion alone was not enough:
“The struggle against fascism does not start in the liberal editorial office but in the factory - and ends in the street.”
Taking the strike picket as its point of departure, the programme argued for youth groups and trade unionists to begin to drill, to get familiar with the use of arms, and to organise workers’ groups for self-defence. The eventual aim of this work should be the construction of a workers’ militia:
“to root out . . . the traditions of submissiveness and passivity; to train detachments of heroic fighters capable of setting an example to all toilers; to inflict a series of tactical defeats upon the armed thugs of counterrevolution; to raise the self-confidence of the exploited and oppressed; to compromise fascism in the eyes of the petit bourgeoisie and pave the way for the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
The Transitional Programme also dealt with the tasks facing workers in specific parts of the world. In the colonial countries, it stood by the conclusions of the theory of permanent revolution: that the struggle for national liberation and democracy can be won only under the leadership of the working class.
It addressed itself openly to the workers of countries suffering under fascist regimes. Recognising the great difficulties in conducting the struggle under the eye of the secret police, it recommended patient propaganda work which would yield results in the future, when the class struggle would re-emerge with redoubled force.
For the working class in the USSR, the Transitional Programme correctly judged that the upsurge of revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy would begin with “the struggle against social inequality and political oppression.” The programme fought for freedom for the trade unions and the press, and for the right to hold mass meetings as essential steps for the recreation of genuine workers’ councils and Soviet democracy.
It called for a complete revision of the planned economy, and combined a revolutionary defence of the gains of 1917 with a call for a “victorious uprising of the oppressed masses” in an insurrection against Stalin and the dictatorship of the privileged bureaucratic elite.
In the face of the imminent world war, the Fourth International’s programme took up the fight for the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg. It called for workers’ control over war industries, the confiscation of military profits and an end to all secret treaties and deals.
It opposed a single penny being spent on the imperialist war and a single person being called up or sent to their deaths. But at the same time it rejected pacifism as a useless illusion:
“The only disarmament which can avert or end war is the disarmament of the bourgeoisie by the workers. But to disarm the bourgeoisie, the workers must arm themselves.”
It demanded that military training be placed under the control of the workers and committed the Fourth International to defend colonial countries and the USSR from imperialism, through methods of class struggle such as boycotts and strikes.
The twin cancers of sectarianism and opportunism plagued the socialist movement in Trotsky’s day as in ours. The Transitional Programme waged war on both. It mercilessly mocked the refusal of sectarian groupings to struggle for the elementary interests of the working class:
“they have no need of a bridge in the form of transitional demands because they do not intend to cross to the other shore. They simply dawdle in one place, satisfying themselves with a repetition of the self-same meagre abstractions.”
It spoke with contempt of those who do not seek a road to the masses and who want to do nothing but discuss, describing them as “a dead weight to the party.”
Against opportunism, the programme gave its support for any and all methods which raise the consciousness of the workers and their readiness for self-sacrifice:
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as well as big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives - these are the rules of the Fourth International.”
Finally, the Transitional Programme turned resolutely to those layers of the working class ignored by the opportunists, who by nature concentrate only on the top layers of the working class where new careerists and officials can be found.
The oppressed sections of the class - in particular the women and the youth - were given special emphasis, the youth for their “fresh enthusiasm and aggressive spirit” and the women workers for their “inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness, and readiness to sacrifice”.
The programme concluded with a defence of the Fourth International itself. Though it was weak in numbers, it was strong in its ideas, programme and the training of its members, cadres and leaders. Only the Fourth International offered a programme that could lead a way out of the crisis about to engulf humanity. The conclusion rang clear:
“Workers - men and women - of all countries, place yourselves under the banner of the Fourth International. It is the banner of your approaching victory!”
The Transitional Programme today
Is the Transitional Programme unrealistic? Would it not be better to raise only demands which are acceptable to the prevailing opinions of the working class
In discussions with members of the Fourth International, Trotsky dealt with precisely this objection:
“Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. . . Some will say: good, the programme is a scientific programme; it corresponds to the objective situation - but if the workers won’t accept this programme, it will be sterile. Possibly. But this signifies only that the workers will be crushed, since the crisis can’t be solved any other way but by the socialist revolution . . . even in the worst case, if the working class doesn’t sufficiently mobilise its mind and its strength at present for the socialist revolution . . . the best elements will say, ‘We were warned by this party; it was a good party.’ And a great tradition will remain in the working class . . . Naturally, if I close my eyes I can write a good rosy programme that everybody will accept. But it will not correspond to the situation; and the programme must correspond to the situation.”
The Transitional Programme was written on the eve of World War Two. Writing in 1938, Trotsky expected that the war would end either in socialist revolution or the crushing of the USSR and the victory of fascism in every advanced country.
In fact, there was a third possibility that he did not expect - the survival and expansion of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, and long decades of relative stability and democracy in the advanced Western capitalist countries.
Some believe that this error of perspectives means that the entire Programme needs to be junked; but the method that Trotsky embodied in the programme was correct. The programme must correspond to the situation.
In 1938 the perspectives embodied in the programme did correspond to the situation. After all the USSR was invaded and whole chunks of it were subjugated to the ruthless restoration of capitalism at the hands of the Nazis. In France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the whole of Eastern Europe, fascist governments reigned supreme.
Bear this in mind and Trotsky’s perspectives - even though the eventual outcome of the war proved them wrong - were not at all far fetched. They actually applied to most of Europe up until 1943.
What is wrong, however - and this is how the post-war followers of Trotsky fell into error and eventual collapse - is to cling on to perspectives after life has proved them wrong. Every programme is a guide to action in concrete circumstances.
No programme will last forever without needing to be re-adjusted to meet new conditions. After all, that was why Trotsky wrote the Transitional Programme. He did not just re-issue the old Bolshevik Party programme.
Revolutionaries today neither abandon the Transitional Programme nor to treat it as if it is set in stone. They apply its method as a guide to refocusing the programme of revolution at every major historical turn, just as Trotsky himself did.
There have many new developments in the world and the class struggle since 1938. How could it have been otherwise?
The method of the Transitional Programme needs to be used to tackle each new problem: to build a bridge between the immediate tasks of the movement and the fight for working class power.
That is what marks the Trotskyist programme, out from other trends in the working class movement.
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