It was my turn again to deliver a lead off at this evening's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party. For the occasion I dusted off a two year old lead off and subjected comrades to an introductory look at the life and work of Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky was – along with Lenin – a principal leader of the October revolution. Born in 1879 as Lev Bronstein, Trotsky came from a well-to-do peasant background and was, according to his autobiography, attracted to revolutionary politics at a young age and these activities swiftly caught the attention of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. Trotsky was imprisoned and exiled to Siberia for helping organise a union among workers in Odessa in the late 1890s. A couple of years into the exile Trotsky escaped and made his way to London, where he met Lenin for the first time. He was present at the historic split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903.
The split between the two was over a question of organisation. Lenin favoured a centralised party characterised by a disciplined approach to activism (a tradition the Socialist Party and others on the revolutionary left stand in). The Mensheviks on the other hand advocated a looser form of organisation regards the level of commitment the party can expect from its members and the extent to which members are bound by its collective decisions. A more or less laissez faire attitude to discipline is historically associated with labour and social democratic parties. As the Lenin wing of the party managed to secure the majority of delegates at this debate (though only just), they assumed the name ‘Bolshevik’ to denote their being the majority.
Trotsky’s position on the party question was sympathetic toward the Mensheviks, but remained independent of them by virtue of their contradictory perspectives on the coming Russian revolution. For the Mensheviks the coming revolution was to be bourgeois in character. Their starting point was that early 20th century Russia was a backward nation ruled over by an autocratic monarchy dependent on an aristocracy whose power rested on land ownership. Mechanically applying Marx’s view that advanced nations showed backward countries a vision of their future; the Mensheviks argued Russia had to head down the road of capitalist development before it would be ready for socialist revolution. Therefore the role of Russian socialists and the working class was to assist the emerging bourgeoisie in overthrowing the Tsar, allow the capitalists to set up a parliamentary democracy, and wait for socialism after a period of development.
For Trotsky this was naïve, abstract, and paid no attention to the actual play of class relations. Whereas the working class was small but well organised, the capitalist class was even smaller and compromised by its ties to the aristocracy and Tsarist state bureaucracy. How could the bourgeoisie possibly lead a revolution against its sponsors, partners, business cronies, and friends? This led Trotsky to predict that in the course of a Russian revolution, the capitalists would act as a brake on the unfolding process. The working class would have to take leadership of the revolution themselves because the bourgeoisie were incapable of doing so. Once in power the working class would be responsible for developing the forces of production. To secure their power private property in land and the means of production would steadily be eroded as greater proportions of the economy come under working class political control. Capitalist counterrevolution recedes as more property is socialised and the revolution is made permanent, hence Trotsky's term ‘permanent revolution’.
In 1905 this perspective informed Trotsky's activities, and was borne out by the events of that year. In the aftermath of Russia’s disastrous war with Japan the country was convulsed by revolutionary crisis. In St. Petersburg it assumed the form of dual power, whereby the local apparatus of the Tsarist state was challenged by a soviet – a workers' council elected by and directly responsible to the workers of the city. It was to Trotsky’s credit that he saw this soviet as a workers' state in embryo and sought to intervene in it. Upon his arrival from Finland Trotsky was quickly elected chair and proceeded to organise for the overall assumption of government. Unfortunately the soviet was broken up by Tsarism and Trotsky was arrested just as the revolutionary tide began to ebb. The following years between 1905 and 1917 were, after yet another escape from custody, a long period of exile. But what Trotsky took with him was a confirmation of permanent revolution and the need for the working class to organise itself independently.
When revolution broke out in Russia in February 1917 Trotsky made back in St. Petersburg (patriotically renamed Petrograd) from New York. In July of that year he believed the Bolsheviks had come round to the theory of permanent revolution when the party raised ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ as their slogan, and so he joined and was very rapidly promoted up the ranks. When the Bolshevik deputies had secured a majority in the Petrograd soviet, Trotsky was once again elected its chair. As a party member and in his capacity as the soviet’s chair, he was responsible for planning the seizure of power against the weak provisional bourgeois government, and on November 7-8 (our calendar) it was under his command that the military units at the soviet’s disposal stormed the government’s headquarters in the Winter Palace and dispersed it.
The revolution in Petrograd was an almost bloodless affair – famously more people were injured in Sergei Eisenstein’s film adaptation of the taking of the Winter Palace than the actual event! But elsewhere the uprising was more bloody – Moscow for instance was the scene of heavy fighting before the Bolsheviks finally prevailed. However the emergent red army successfully fought off an attempt to retake Petrograd by the Cossacks and loyalist troops and the Bolsheviks were installed as the soviet’s governing party, in coalition with the left wing if the Socialist Revolutionary peasant party.
Initially Trotsky was awarded the People’s Commissar for foreign affairs. His first act was to publish all the secret treaties the Tsar and the provisional government had entered into, exposing to the world Allied war aims, which were a territorial redivision of the world to suit themselves at the expense of the Central Powers. This act simultaneously repudiated any treaty obligations Russia had entered into during the conflict, including the loans secured by the Tsar to pay for armaments. Trotsky’s main task during this period was to negotiate with Germany and Austro-Hungary a Russian withdrawal from the war.
This was the topic of much debate. The left of the Bolsheviks, headed at that time by Nikolai Bukharin and backed by the Left SRs advocated a revolutionary war against Germany, and were absolutely opposed to a peace treaty. Lenin and the majority on the other hand argued for drawing out the negotiating process as long as possible for maximum propaganda value. But in the event of Germany issuing an ultimatum, they were for a treaty because at that time Russia was too weak to fend off an attack and the German working class were not in a position to overthrow their bourgeoisie. Trotsky’s own position was somewhere between the two: he agreed with the majority that Russia was in no fit state to continue the struggle but also recognised a peace treaty – complete with indemnities, ceding of territory, and so on, would constitute a blow against soviet power. Therefore he argued that the government should refuse to sign, and hope German soldiers would refuse to fight their working class sisters and brothers. Events cut the debate short. After pursuing Trotsky’s policy Germany and Austria warned they would resume hostilities unless a treaty was signed. Upon resumption of military activities and the poor performance of the Red Army in the field against them Lenin was able to win a majority vote on the central committee in favour of a peace at any price. Trotsky resigned his position a month later.
With the weaknesses of the Red Army laid bare for all to see Trotsky was immediately appointed People’s Commissar for Army and Navy affairs and set about reorganising the military, controversially appointing generals from the old Tsarist army (albeit under strict supervision from officers loyal to the party). Trotsky also became famous as a revolutionary strategist and was a regular visitor to frontlines throughout the long and bloody civil war. His armoured train became a potent symbol of the red army. Once again Trotsky’s tenure was not without difficulties. Among the controversies was a clash with Stalin (who at that time occupied a junior position vis a vis Trotsky) over strategic and personnel issues.
By 1921 the civil war was more or less over and found Trotsky at the height of his influence in the Soviet Union. But almost immediately he was embroiled in what became known as the ‘trade union debate’. With Russia’s transport infrastructure in ruins Trotsky was tasked with restoring them to full working order. For this to be done he argued the militarisation of labour was necessary. This meant the trade unions would be incorporated into the state apparatus and be the bodies responsible for instilling discipline and carrying out orders. Lenin was opposed to this, arguing labour discipline was only possible via the consent of workers and not through bureaucratic feat. Because the debate was particularly fractious some feared it could lead to a split in the party, so after Lenin’s victory at the 10th party congress delegates voted to temporarily ban factions. Though Trotsky supported this measure at the time, he came to realise his folly as Stalin used the measure to censure and ban his political opponents. In addition at the end of the congress Trotsky rushed to Petrograd to coordinate the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising: a rebellion by anarchist influenced sailors.
Shortly thereafter Lenin’s health significantly deteriorated and was forced to spend more time away from Moscow. In his absence Stalin in his capacity as general secretary of the party was able to build up his base of support in the state apparatus via a system of favours and patronage. Stalin and his allies' chief target was of course Trotsky, who due to his stature and popularity with the armed forces was widely seen as Lenin’s heir apparent. The ensuing intrigue and struggle reached Lenin’s ears, who offered an alliance with Trotsky to use the 12th party congress in 1923 as an opportunity to remove Stalin over his brutal invasion and incorporation of Georgia into the USSR. However though Trotsky agreed, he instead made use of his time at the congress to discuss inner party democracy without criticising Stalin and his cronies. It was a fateful mistake.
Almost immediately the issue of party democracy became a political hot potato. Trotsky, marginalised from effective decision making, took the lead in building a network calling for the restoration of democracy and a halt to the bureaucratisation of state and party. Stalin and his supporters though were able to use their positions to ensure party decision making bodies were for the most part staffed with placemen. This ensured votes on proposals put forward by what came to be known as the Left Opposition were, with one or two exceptions, defeated across the party.
The ideas that were associated with ‘Trotskyism’ on the one hand and ‘Stalinism’ on the other rapidly crystallized and set the tone for the next phase of political struggle in 1924. Whereas Trotsky argued the orthodox Marxist view that socialism could only happen once capitalism had succumbed to workers power internationally, while Bukharin and Stalin fundamentally revised Marxism by arguing the building of socialism in one country was possible. Furthermore the publication of Trotsky’s Lessons of October sparked controversy over the roles various Bolsheviks had played during 1917 and after. Unfortunately for Trotsky an illness prevented him from answering the slanders Stalin and his allies flung at him, and was, as a result removed from his Red Army posts. He was quickly appointed to several minor ministries overseeing science and technology, and took a year-long break from politics.
Again this was another mistake. During his absence two of Stalin’s key allies – Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev fell out with him, but Trotsky due to his isolation was unable to take full immediate advantage of the split. Eventually they pooled their forces and came to be known as the ‘United Opposition’, and acted as an anti-Stalin faction in the party between 1925-7. The main issues again were party democracy, and the inept advice given to Chinese communists during the course of the 1925-31 revolution. Again Stalin’s firm grip on the apparatus meant the opposition was never really a danger to him, but as a foretaste of what was to come its activists were subject to harassment, visits from the secret police, and in some cases arrest. By the end of the struggle Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the central committee, and then from the party itself. Kamenev suffered a similar fate, as did the tens of thousands of opposition activists across the country. That year’s 25th party congress decided that holding the opposition’s views were incompatible with party membership. Shortly thereafter Trotsky was exiled to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, followed by his expulsion from the USSR itself in February 1929.
From then on Trotsky spent the last 11 years of his life shuttling from country to country. Initially he stayed in Prinkipo, a small Turkish island, but was then invited to reside in France. Two years later it was made clear he was no longer welcome and sought refuge in Norway. His time there was little happier as the government took to a campaign of low-level harassment, under the pressure of the USSR. Finally in 1937 he was granted leave to reside in Mexico.
Though marked by isolation and tragedy (family members in the USSR disappeared into the gulag, while those at large abroad were hunted down and murdered) it is during this period Trotsky wrote his most influential works, elaborated his critique of Stalinism, and lay the groundwork for a Fourth International – a new world party of that sought to carry on the best traditions of Bolshevism.
He penned a memoir, My Life and the breeze block-sized History of the Russian Revolution, which remains among the very best works on the subject. He was also among the first Marxists to analyse and clearly foresee the dangers of fascism in Europe, and particularly the rise of the Nazis in Germany. In dozens of articles he urged the German communists (the KPD) to enter into a united front with the other main workers party, the Social Democrats (SPD) to drive the Nazis from the streets. However at that time the Communist International under Stalin was pursuing the ‘class against class’ perspective: the belief revolution was imminent, and therefore it was necessary for communists to sharply distinguish themselves from other mass parties of the working class. In Germany, where communist loathing of the SPD was very real because of the role it had played the 1918 and 1923 abortive revolutions, this perspective fell on fertile ground. So while the KPD was often in violent confrontation with the Nazis on the streets, its anti-fascism was compromised by its violent hostility to the SPD. When Hitler came to power without so much as a shot fired in the KPD’s defence, nor a word of criticism of the Comintern’s perspective, Trotsky declared Stalinism to be a counterrevolutionary force and put forward the need for a new international of communists independent from Moscow.
As the 1930s unfolded Trotsky’s prognosis of Stalinism’s counter-revolutionary character was confirmed time and again. After the disaster in Germany the Comintern moved to a policy of uniting with social democratic and so-called progressive bourgeois parties to see off the fascist threat. In Spain this entailed the communist party opposing the revolutionary aspirations of the peasants and working class, and contributing toward its eventual defeat. Similarly elsewhere – in France for example where a Popular Front coalition of the Socialists with the bourgeois Radicals (and supported by the communist party, the PCF), the interest of “unity” in the face of fascism meant abandoning one workers' struggle after another. For example the mighty strike wave of 1936, where France was the closest to socialist revolution as it’s ever been, was sacrificed on the alter of such spurious unity.
Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinism however was not simply on moral grounds. In a number of works, but especially in his famous book, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky provided a sociological explanation of the rise of Stalin. He argued during the 1918-21 civil war the most class conscious workers and peasants had rallied to the Bolshevik banner, and had disproportionately perished in the conflict. In addition many activists were drawn into the administration and so lost their roots in the class. With the absence of these layers the soviets as organs of workers' power shrivelled up, remaining workers' councils in name only. Compounding this the dire economic situation called for increased planning on the part of the state. Hence bureaucratisation proceeded apace just as democracy was withering on the vine. Trotsky goes on to argue the position of these officials was privileged compared with the mass of Russians and developed interests at odds with the workers and peasants on whose shoulders the bureaucracy rested. It was Stalin that emerged as champion of this layer, and it was the furtherance of their interests (which neatly coincided with his pursuit of absolute power) that coloured his domestic and foreign policies.
However Trotsky argued all was not loss. Though under Stalin the USSR was basically a police state, he famously suggested that the economy was theoretically more progressive than capitalism. The argument goes that to all intents and purposes private property in the means of production was abolished by the revolution. Though capitalist property was partially introduced in the 1920s New Economic Plan to help stimulate agricultural production, it was again ruthlessly broken down with the onset of Stalin’s first 5 year plan. For Trotsky this meant that despite everything, the Soviet Union was a workers' state, albeit one that had degenerated. Therefore the first duty of communists was to defend it from attack from bourgeois states, who in comparison to the USSR were socially regressive, but at the same time promote the cause of a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Therefore running like a red thread through all his work is the theory of permanent revolution. The political independence of the working class was a crucial principle to be defended if socialist revolution is ever to come about. And it was to this concern Trotsky returned toward the end of his life. He spent much of his final years debating, cajoling, and trying to hold together his fractious followers and hone them into the nucleus of a fighting combat party of the working class. The Fourth International - or World Party of Socialist Revolution – was founded in 1938, and adopted Trotsky’s Death Agony of Capitalism and the Task of the Fourth International document as its programme.
Finally Stalin caught up with Trotsky on August 20th, 1940. Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist agent who’d infiltrated Trotsky’s home-cum-fortress in Mexico City plunged an icepick into Trotsky’s head as he was hunched over a desk reading an article. Amazingly Trotsky was able to call his guards and even managed to wrestle his assassin to the floor. But the injury proved too much and Trotsky died the following day.
Since his death Trotsky has been a point both of authority and controversy for the revolutionary left. His political legacy in the Fourth International has never really realised its potential: Trotskyism has splintered into a hundred and one different currents. Typically disputes between Trotskyists have assumed an almost biblical character. Some ultra-orthodox groupings have frozen his works into tablets of stone instead of seeking to build on the analyses he pioneered. Others have gone back to Trotsky and critiqued him, principally over the issue of the USSR.
The point to remember is that like the rest of us Trotsky was a human being, quite capable of mistakes. But he was also a Marxist of genius. Our job as socialists is to emulate his spirit: to creatively develop Marxism to provide answers for the millions turning against capitalism, and build a new world party that can make our class, the working class, into the new ruling class and thereby abolish class society.
In the discussion, G2 suggested that Trotsky remains a relevant figure for socialists because, in his works, he provides a series of strategies that are still useful with regard to basic party building. P looked at the advantages bureaucratic state planning afforded the USSR and its client states. Despite the enormous waste and political repression, they have proven effective in concentrating resources in particular areas to great effect. The Soviet space programme, the North Korean nuclear programme, China's swift response to the Sichuan earthquake in July and so on amply demonstrates this. G1 asked about the events of the Kronstadt uprising, to which P replied the need for looking at the episode in greater depth. But nevertheless he suggested it was a regrettable event that took place in a context where a certain bureaucratic habit of state craft had already been adopted by the young Soviet state. But given the balance of forces internationally plus the Kronstadt call for 'soviets without the Bolsheviks', it was probably a necessary action. A concurred, likening it to "sacrificing a finger to save the body". But with regard to Trotsky's legacy, for him Trotsky's contribution lies in his writings on Marxist politics, of his analysis of any given situation and taking into account all the relevant processes as they were changing. Also, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution remains the only realistic basis for socialist advance in underdeveloped and unevenly developed countries.
Overall I found revisiting Trotsky a useful experience and hopefully the comrades present came away with an appreciation of why he remains an important resource for socialists everywhere.