Free to air? Broadcasting, democracy and the market

Catherine Lyons discussed the free market’s threat to media freedom in Issue 20 (November 2004).

In an essay on ‘The Political Economy of Global Communication’, Robert McChesney refers to the role played by the chronicles of the 1790s in protecting and expanding democracy in the years after the American Revolution. This is ironic when subsequently, by his own reckoning, the USA has evolved into a market-driven neo-liberal state with wide social divisions, whose political, military and commercial institutions facilitate an undemocratic corporate oligopoly across the world. McChesney claims that neo-liberal capitalist democracy is reductive and functions by drawing on the concept of the “liberal individual” and on “a political culture with elections and formal freedoms, but where the elections are largely meaningless due to the constricted range of the debate” (1998, p 16). The leadership of the old Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe used coercive means to sustain their social control. Inevitably this approach proved to be inefficient as it required inexhaustible and expensive effort on the part of the police state. Alternatively, in a neo-liberal capitalist system, the consent of the majority is required and coercive controls of the police and military are only “deployed at those points where ideological hegemony breaks down and political movements erupt into rebellious activity” (Downing and Mohammadi, p 365).

When Communism collapsed so did any “organised opposition to the market system” and the free economy seemed to acquire a new vigour globally (McChesney 1998, p 11-12). Many of the western media tycoons even claimed that they were responsible for the end of Communism and the rise of democracy around the world. Rupert Murdoch announced that “satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television” (Klein, p 117). The world’s few hundred large private corporations began to integrate production and marketing on an increasingly transnational basis. These global corporations operated very differently to the old multinational ones: “The multinational corporation operates in a number of countries, and adjusts it products and practices to each—at high relative costs. The global corporation operates with resolute constancy—at low relative cost—as if the entire world (or major regions of it) were a single entity” (Theodore Levitt, quoted in Klein, p 116). Globalisation requires national governments to adopt liberal economic policies that allow for the free flow of capital with minimal regulation.

McChesney believes that a democratic society requires “a political culture typified by an active and informed citizenry [which] can only be generated in the final analysis by a healthy and vibrant media system” (1998, p 8). However, modern media ownership and management debilitate this democratic function. By relentlessly pursuing the market, the commer­cial media provides mostly light entertainment that is diversionary and de-politicising. Serious journalism is aimed at the wealthy while the rest of the community have to make do with bad quality syndicated coverage. Marketing is used to locate the news that would be of interest to affluent audiences, attractive to advertisers. Indeed, in post-industrial societies, communication systems are considered more important to the economy than manufacturing because of their ability to open up new markets and opportunities through advertising, product placement and merchandising. All of the global media organisations are conglomerates with interests in several different media sectors. This convergence maximises profits.

Profound technical and regulatory change has facilitated the global­isation process in the communication industry. Satellite technology allows for international television transmission, while digital broadcasting trans­mits a compressed signal which facilitates multiple channels. Media organisations provided international television services before the era of globalisation, but these operated within each country’s infrastructure and on a much smaller scale, due to spectrum limitation. Nowadays, on the other hand,

governments are under pressure to cede their traditional regulatory control in this domain in order to maximise wealth on which future national power is ultimately seen to depend. Cherished ideals of public service provision in order to ensure universal access to communication services are being sacrificed in the name of a more rapid development of specialised communications markets. The concept of telecommunic­ations and broadcasting as ‘public goods’ that require stringent controls is giving way to a market model of provision.

(Dyson and Humphreys, p 1.)

When BBC radio was established in 1922 its founder John Reith developed the public service concept of broadcasting, the traditional role of which is “to provide entertainment, information and education” (Green Paper, p 151). Critics have remarked that the service was used to force a highbrow culture on an uninterested public. In 1925 Reith wrote that “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.” (Halligan, p 60.) Although the BBC has always produced popular programmes, this elitist cultural attitude did prevail up until the 1960s. Since then the majority of public service broadcasters have attempted to target the tastes and needs of their general audiences while catering for particular tastes at a more reduced level. Critics also argue that public service broadcasting is no longer relevant or necessary in an age of huge consumer choice, and that it was initially adopted due to spectrum scarcity and funding difficulties. In this analysis it is reduced to “a necessary state intervention to regulate an industry in its infancy and to help with its teething troubles” (Scannell, p 23).

The Green Paper on Broadcasting of 1995 defines what public service broadcasting has probably come to embrace in its entirety. Broadcasting, it says, should be designed to serve the public interest and contribute to the wider and longer term benefits of society as a whole. It should be a universally accessible service, which achieves popular appeal while catering for minorities. It should contribute to the sense of national identity and distance itself from vested interests, especially the government of the day. The service should be directly funded with universality of payment, and strive for quality programming, while endorsing guidelines that liberate programme makers rather than restrict them. The application of these principles has proved to be very difficult; indeed, some of them have been highly problematic.

The ideals, at least, of public service broadcasting would seem to reflect Jurgen Habermas’s notion of the ‘public sphere’. McChesney identifies this as “a place where citizens interact that is controlled by neither business or the state” (1998, p 9). Fintan O’Toole recently commented that the Forum on Broadcasting Report of 2002 pointed to the most important element of public service broadcasting: independence. “A public broadcaster has to be first and foremost a service to the public as a whole, and not to commercial or sectoral interests. This includes, as the forum underlines, its political masters.”

Public service broadcasting first began in Ireland with the establishment of 2RN in 1926. Several years after independence the civil service of the Irish Free State remained largely unchanged, and like its British counterpart, the BBC, the new national radio service was to be the responsibility of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. However, unlike the British model, the funding for the service was to be generated from advertising and a tax on radio receivers as well as a licence fee. “A modified public service model was employed to try and ensure that Irish radio would reflect the unique culture of Ireland” (Savage, p 5). When Telefís Éireann was established in 1961 it was to be funded in much the same manner. It was broadly believed that “broadcasting must pay its way and the standards of national culture must be preserved and improved. [Irish] Broadcasting has been sitting on the horns of this dilemma ever since.” (Dowling, Doolan and Quinn, p 12.)

From the beginning the balance between RTÉ’s commercial earnings and its licence fee income posed a serious problem. Two thirds of the broadcaster’s revenue came from advertising, a situation which prevailed up until the licence fee increase of 2002. “The dominance of commercial income has been a source of conflict and worry and something that seriously undermined RTÉ’s public service role”, as Michael Foley has written. A heavy reliance on advertising revenue forces a broadcaster like RTÉ to transmit a large amount of mainstream entertainment. This pre­ponderance has been to the detriment of special interest and minority programming. The experience of Irish language programming is one example of this. “Its marginalized location in the schedule and on the second channel has suggested a diminution in RTÉ’s commitment to the language.” (Hazelkorn, p 110.) In the 1980s this lack of commitment provoked a campaign for a separate Irish language channel. In 1996 Teilifís na Gaeilge was established, later renamed TG4.

With the introduction in 1998 of a national commercial broadcaster, TV3, and the current plethora of satellite programming, mainstream tastes have never been met more fully. In November 2002 BSkyB claimed that it “had 255,000 customers, or a quarter of all Irish households”. At that time cable company Ntl had 370,000 customers and Chorus had 240,000. (Smyth.) With all these companies providing multiple commercial services, why should the public pay for programmes which they can find in abundance? Commercial broadcasters complain that it is unfair that they have to compete with firms that are publicly subsidised. This would seem to be a reasonable complaint. “Once commercialism begins, it is very difficult in the long run to justify receiving a public subsidy.” (McChesney 1999, p 241.) A large part of a public broadcaster’s role is to serve those audiences that commercial broadcasters do not find profitable enough to exploit themselves. But if it were possible for RTÉ to focus solely on minority and special interest programming, the opponents of public service broadcasting might pose the question: why should the public pay for “programming that the mass market does not seek?… a national repository of serious music, drama, etc—all the elements in Reith’s old elitist model.” (Halligan, p 64.)

This question presupposes that special interests programming and highbrow culture are the same thing. If programme makers only produced material which the mass market demanded, regional and agricultural programmes such as Nationwide or Ear to the Ground would most likely not be produced, nor would programmes dealing with ethnic minorities such as Mono. RTÉ’s programme to promote adult literacy, Read Write Now, could hardly stand accused of being elitist. By addressing inequalities in society, this type of programming fulfils a major requirement of public service broadcasting, to “contribute to the wider and longer term benefits of society as a whole” (Green Paper, p 151). Denying such services amounts to a rejection of fundamental democratic principles. Part of RTÉ’s remit is to broadcast programmes that “should cater for all interests and tastes” (Green Paper, p 152). This means that popular programmes as well as minority ones are part of the ecology of a successful public service broadcaster. Without balanced programming the service would lose its social position and become ghettoised. A schedule that includes both types of programm­ing can promote interest in minority programmes beyond the target audience and contribute to “an active and informed citizenry” such as McChesney envisages.

Traditionally one of the cherished roles of public service broadcasters has been to promote a sense of national identity. In Britain the chairman of the BBC board of governors assessed the role of the BBC as follows in 1977:

An enormous amount of the BBC’s work [is] in fact social cement of one sort or another. Royal occasions, religious services, sports coverage and police series, all reinforce the sense of belonging to our country, being involved in its celebrations, and accepting what it stands for.

(Scannell, p 26.)

In many countries national cohesion has been maintained through the development of a strong highly centralised national public broadcaster. These types of institutions by their nature can be unrepresentative of society as a whole. The danger is that their role as national unifiers can become a hegemonic one, promoting dominant interests and insensitive to inequalities within the nation. This role of nation building can also be highly problem­atic within countries where the question of nationhood has not been fully resolved.

In Ireland the first national broadcasting service was used by the government to encourage “the development of a stable state that would not be susceptible to radical republicanism” (Savage, p 5). In the 1960s Telefís Éireann was advised by Taoiseach Seán Lemass “to present a picture of Ireland and the Irish as we would like to have it” (Halligan, p 60). In more recent times, it is one of RTÉ’s stated objectives to “reflect the pluralism of cultures and of the diverse traditions in this island”, facilitating greater tolerance between north and south. The broadcaster also states that it will “seek to give a voice to the marginalised”, while TG4 under RTÉ’s statutory umbrella provides a fuller non-centrist perspective. (RTÉ, p 11.) Positive and shared media experience across our society can be beneficial, provided divisions are also adequately mediated. However, with multiple programming and increased audience fragmentation, facilitating shared national experience has become more infrequent.

One aspect of Irish life which still remains a shared communal experience is major national sporting events. Despite the fact that RTÉ had been showing Republic of Ireland soccer matches for forty years, in July 2002 BSkyB bought the exclusive rights to show Ireland’s European Championship and World Cup qualifying matches live for €7.5 million. In a separate deal TV3 bought the rights to broadcast the matches one hour later. Rupert Murdoch, BSkyB’s controlling shareholder, “has often described televised sport as the ‘battering ram’ which will put pay-per-view television in everyone’s front room” (Oliver). In July 2002 it cost €40 per month for a basic Sky Sports package. Earlier that year the Consumers’ Association of Ireland complained about BSkyB’s decision to raise its subscriptions by 13%. They also increased their fee to Ntl and Chorus for carrying their movie and sports channels. In 2001 the British Office of Fair Trade also complained that BSkyB had breached competition laws through its pricing of sports and film channels.

The Broadcasting Act 1999 allows the Minister for Communications to make an order designating certain events of major importance to society which should be televised free of charge. In 2003 the European Union backed the government’s designated list which includes all Republic of Ireland soccer matches as well as the Irish Derby, the Irish Grand National and the All-Ireland hurling and football finals. Now sports bodies like the Football Association of Ireland are obliged by law to provide free-to-air television coverage of major sporting events. Rupert Murdoch regards this as an infringement of property rights. An outspoken critic of public service broadcasting, “he loudly proclaims his belief that the era of subsidized broadcasting, for the BBC and everyone else, has long since passed” (McChesney, 1999 p 246). This controversial episode in Irish sport represents a small democratic victory against a backdrop of large scale privatisation of sports broadcasting.

The threat to a democratic media system does not always come from the market, but sometimes from the government which is supposedly the guardian of public service broadcasting. “Regrettably, in many nations public broadcasting has never been able to escape the control of the state or dominant political forces. In some nations, public broadcasting has also done much to undermine citizen support, through its bureaucratic arrogance, or its subservience to powerful political and economic interests” (McChesney 1999, p 242). Political interference with RTÉ programming can be traced back to 1969 when a documentary examined illegal moneylending in Dublin. The government outrage which followed was directed, not at the practice of illegal moneylending, but at the programme makers. A tribunal of enquiry was set up to investigate the programme. This had the lasting effect of making any vigorous examination of society seem like a dangerous pursuit. However, worse was to come.

In 1971 the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Gerard Collins, invoked Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, issuing a directive which required RTÉ “to refrain from broadcasting any matter of the following class, i.e. any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes, encourages or advocates the attaining of any particular objectives by violent means” (Curtis, p 190-1). In November 1972 RTÉ reporter Kevin O’Kelly was arrested after inter­viewing the IRA’s chief of staff Seán Mac Stiofáin. Collins then sacked all nine members of the RTÉ Authority. After this, the new Authority disallowed interviews involving representatives of the IRA, and proposals to interview Sinn Féin members had to be cleared in advance. In 1976 the new minister Conor Cruise O’Brien issued a new directive under Section 31 prohibiting interviews or reports of interviews with Sinn Féin or any other organisation banned in Northern Ireland. Successive governments continued to renew the Section 31 restriction. This censorship had a distorting effect on RTÉ’s coverage of Northern Ireland for years. In 1994, against the background of the peace process, the government agreed to allow the directive under Section 31 to lapse.

More political interference was to come in the early 1990s. The Broadcasting Act 1990 led to the introduction of a cap on RTÉ’s advertising revenue. This was introduced by the Minister for Communications, Ray Burke, so that advertising revenue could be diverted away from the public service broadcaster to assist private radio. This was not achieved, however, and led to severe cutbacks in RTÉ. The Flood tribunal found

that Mr. Burke’s decisions in relation to the proposed capping of RTÉ’s advertising income, the diversion of licence fee income from RTÉ and the possible reorganisation of 2FM were all motivated by a desire on his part to benefit those who had paid monies to him and that proposals on such issues would not have been advanced by Mr. Burke at that time were it not for the fact that he had been paid £35,000.

(Flood, p 65.)

When a minister for communications deliberately damages a public service broadcaster for the sake of personal gain, it bodes ill for the creation of a democratic media system.

After granting a substantial increase in the licence fee in 2002, the Minister for Communications Dermot Ahern outlined fundamental and far-reaching reforms. Among these was a mechanism for the licence fee to increase automatically in line with inflation. This means that it will cease to be a gift of the government of the day, and goes at least some way to assisting RTÉ’s democratic function and independence. However, although the ministerial order under Section 31 has lapsed, governments still retain the power to impose such restrictions in future. New advances have changed broadcasting radically, but technology does not have to be used for profit-making alone. The threat to public service broadcasting “has less to do with technological change than it does with the worldwide neoliberal adoption of the market and its commercial values as the superior regulator of the media” (McChesney 1999, p 227). Its struggles are representative of the plight of all public services. In a world of increased privatisation it is more important than ever to establish a democratic media where priority is given to social need over the market.


Curtis, L: Ireland the Propaganda War: The British media and the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (London: Pluto, 1984).

Dowling, J; Doolan, L; Quinn, B: Sit Down and Be Counted: The Cultural Evolution of a Television Station (Dublin: Wellington, 1969).

Downing, J; Mohammadi, A: Questioning the Media (London: Sage, 1990).

Dyson, K and Humphreys, P (eds): The Political Economy of Communications: International and European Dimensions (London: Routledge, 1990).

Flood, F: The Second Interim Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (Dublin: Stationery Office, 2002).

Foley, M: ‘RTE big winner in broadcasting shake-up’, Irish Times, 13 December 2002.

Green Paper: Active or Passive? Broadcasting in the Future Tense: Green Paper on Broadcasting (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1995).

Halligan, U: ‘Are you being served? Commercial versus public broadcasting’, in D Kiberd (ed), Media in Ireland: Issues in Broadcasting (Dublin: Open Air, 2002).

Hazelkorn, E: ‘Ireland: From nation building to economic priorities’, in M de Moragas Spà and C Garitaonandía (eds), Decentralization in the Global Era: Television in the Regions, Nationalities and Small Countries of the European Union (London: John Libbey, 1995).

Klein, N: No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000).

McChesney, R W (1998): ‘The Political Economy of Global Communication’, in R W McChesney, E Meiksins Wood, J Bellamy Foster, Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press).

McChesney, R W (1999): Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).

Oliver, E: ‘“Green Army” being asked to tune in, turn on and pay up’, Irish Times, 6 July 2002.

O’Toole, F: ‘RTE is still looking for secure financial haven’, Irish Times, 31 August 2002.

RTÉ: RTÉ Response to the Green Paper on Broadcasting (Dublin: RTÉ, 1995).

Savage, R J: Irish Television: The Political and Social Origins (Cork University Press, 1996).

Scannell, P: ‘Britain: Public Service Broadcasting, from National Culture to Multi­culturalism’, in M Robay (ed), Public Broadcasting for the 21st Century (University of Luton Press, 1995).

Smyth, J: ‘Sky makes big dent in Irish TV market’, Irish Times, 9 November 2002.

Twenty years ago today

In Issue 19 (July 2004) Kevin Higgins reviewed a novel set in the British miners’ strike of 1984-5.

David Peace, GB84 (Faber and Faber)

This time twenty years ago the miners’ strike was raging across the water. The morning radio news was full of flying pickets and pitched battles between miners and police; the evening television dominated by images of the same. Names of places such as Cortonwood, Ollerton and Orgreave were burned into the consciousness forever, simply because we heard them so often. Cortonwood, where it all started when the National Coal Board announced the Yorkshire pit’s arbitrary closure in the first week of March 1984. (Within days it became clear that this was part of a much larger pit closure programme.) Ollerton, the Nottinghamshire mining village where the strike claimed its first fatality, when a young miner was killed in a crush between pickets and police during the second week of the strike. Orgreave, the Yorkshire coking plant then vital to Britain’s electricity supply, where the miners tried to repeat their famous 1972 victory, when they succeeded in closing down a similar plant at Saltley, Birmingham by mass picketing. This time it didn’t work.

The miners were lured to Orgreave from South Wales, Kent, Durham, Yorkshire, Scotland and elsewhere in their tens of thousands on a beautiful June day to face the massed power of the British state: thousands of police with horses, dogs and riot gear, ready willing and able to turn the miners back. From that day on we all knew something had changed. This wasn’t 1972 or ’74. There’d be no easy victory. And in the end, which didn’t come until March 1985—a whole year after the strike started—there was no victory at all. The miners went back without a settlement, their union’s power broken, their industry about to be destroyed.

David Peace’s novel GB84, which he describes as “a fiction, based on fact”, charts the course of the strike from the optimism of the early days through the pitched battles of the summer to the slowly dawning reality of total defeat. Peace uses a traditional, linear narrative structure interspersed with extracts from the diaries of two miners, Martin and Peter. And much of the time it works. Younger readers for whom it has only ever been ancient history would certainly get at least an idea what the miners’ strike was like. Peace writes in an accessible style, without in any sense trying to dumb complex issues down. And he provides us with more than the bare documentary facts. Indeed, GB84 brings that apocalyptic year more credibly back to life than many an earnest but dead-in-the-mouth speech at many a far-left meeting. It makes the strike human again by giving the reader a real sense of the emotions it stirred, as the high hopes of activists and trade unionists everywhere turned so bitterly into their opposite.

GB84 is divided into five chapters, each of which has a title of its own; the first four—‘Ninety-nine red balloons’, ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear’—are all references to popular songs of the time. No doubt some will complain that Peace is trivialising such a momentous event by naming a chapter in a book about it after a song written by George Michael. I have to say, though, that for some strange reason I personally have always found it useful to know what was in the charts the year a particular event happened. Knowing, say for example, that T‑Rex were in the charts the year Ireland joined the EEC, or that Renee and Renato had their one hit wonder ‘Save Your Love’ the year the Falklands War happened, somehow makes those events seem more rather than less real. Sad, I know. But true. With the title of the last chapter ‘Terminal, or the Triumph of the Will’ Peace leaves such frivolity behind, and everything is suddenly deadly serious.

For me, the best writing in the whole novel are the two extracts from Martin’s diary in the last chapter. On day 364 of the strike, when more than 50% of the miners have drifted back to work, and the National Executive of the NUM have voted by 98-91 to recommend a return to work without a settlement, Martin summons up the ghosts of all the previous generations of miners whose struggles made the tradition which Thatcher succeeded in decisively trampling into the dirt:

The Dead that carried us from far to near. Through the villages of the Damned, to stand beside us here. Under their banners and their badges. In their branches and their bands—Their muffled drums. Their muted pipes—That whisper. That echo—Their funeral marches. Their funeral music—That moans. That screams—Again and again. For ever more—As if they are marching their way up out of their graves. Here to mourn the new dead—The country deaf to their laments.

In many ways the tempo of GB84 resembles that of a symphony, and the extract quoted above is part of its catastrophic crescendo. The black pessimism of the defeated strike is, in a sense, the flip-side of the near hubris of its early days:

Motion to back strike is proposed. Motion is seconded. Motion is backed 100 per cent—Folk head off to Hotel or Club. Lot of talk about ’72 and ’74. I’m having a piss in Club when this bloke says to me, It’ll be right then? I say, How do you mean? We’ll win? He says. Yeah, I tell him. What you worried about?

Generally speaking, Peace weighs the significance of different events well. One criticism I would have, though, is that, in a couple of places, his narrative is laced with just a little too much fatalism. Clearly, by Christmas 1984 the miners were doomed. But between March and October it was by no means certain that Thatcher was going to prevail. Peace downplays the significance of Arthur Scargill’s mistake in not calling a national ballot, by having one of his characters—an almost satanic government advisor referred to throughout the book as “the Jew”—talk in March 1984 about “the very unlikely event of a national ballot and… even unlikelier event of a vote for strike”. Now, this is simply wrong.

All the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of miners and their families supported the strike at this stage. And, if anything, support for the strike increased during the spring and summer as more miners and their wives became more actively involved and the strike gained the sympathy of a wide coalition of people in every corner of Britain: everyone from traditional trade unionists to the Sikh community in Birmingham to gay and lesbian groups in London and Brighton. The miners received money collected by sympathisers worldwide, even receiving cheques from such non-proletarian sources as Elizabeth Taylor and the American billionaire John Paul Getty.

If there was a national ballot anytime between April and August, when 80% of miners were on strike, it’s a racing certainty that the ballot would have endorsed the strike. And this would have given the strike added legii­macy, which would certainly have persuaded many of those in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, who continued to work, to join the strike. The miners’ tradition was to have a national ballot when the issue was national strike action: there were national ballots in both 1972 and 1974. And not to have had one in 1984 was a major strategic error brought about, at least in part, because of the top-down, bureaucratic socialism of miners’ union president Arthur Scargill. The miners may still not have won if there’d been a ballot, but they would certainly have had a much better chance.

Another window of possibility David Peace downplays a little is the threatened strike action by NACODS, the union which represented pit deputies, who were responsible for pit safety, and without whom no mine could legally stay open. They voted to strike 82% to 18% in October 1984. If implemented this would have meant every working miner in Britain being sent home. After seven months the strike would finally (if only by default) be 100% solid. With a NACODS strike still threatened, Peace has the aforementioned government advisor ‘the Jew’ confidently ranting:

there must be no further negotiations. There must be no further promises of no compulsory redundancies. There must be no amnesty and no jobs for any miners convicted of criminal offences. The times have changed…

At that stage outright victory was probably beyond the miners’ grasp, but the likelihood has to be that, if NACODS walked out and stayed out, there would have been some sort of fudge. Thatcher would not have claimed her famous victory. And everyone would have lived to fight another day. However, the national executive of NACODS called off their strike at the last minute, and the rest is history.

Peace does a good job, though, of illustrating the sheer ruthlessness of the Thatcher government. On page 253 he has ‘the Jew’, whose actual name is Stephen Sweet, draw up a strategy to entice striking miners back to work

The Jew wants a copy of the entire payroll for the National Coal Board. The Jew wants every miner’s name checked against police and county court records—The Jew wants weaknesses—
Men who have transferred to their pit. Men who live a distance from their pit—Men who are married. Men divorced. Men who have children. Men who can’t—Men who have mortgages. Men who have debts—Men who used to work a lot of overtime. Men who used to have a lot of money—Men who have weaknesses. Age. Sex. Drink. Theft. Gambling. Money. The Jew wants lists.

Two things really irritated me about this mostly enjoyable book. The first was the constant reference to this government advisor as ‘the Jew’. Only a couple of times in 462 pages is he referred to as Stephen Sweet. I could see no reason for this, other than self-indulgence (or perhaps an attempt at sensationalism) on the part of the author. The second was the gangster sub-plot, which is so obviously a tacked-on afterthought (perhaps designed to widen the book’s appeal?) that it’s actually possible to read the rest of the book without bothering with the sub-plot at all.

So, GB84 is an imperfect book rather than any sort of masterpiece. But it has enough going for it to make it worthwhile. And it obviously has particular significance for those on the left. It charts the progress of a battle, which in the words of Michael Eaton—the all too real Saatchi & Saatchi advisor appointed by Thatcher to advise the Coal Board—was the “decisive occasion in recent British history when the right won and the left lost”. It took some on the left years to come to terms with the gravity of this defeat. When Thatcher resigned six years later, the bulk of her agenda had been carried out. The miners’ strike was the decisive point when Thatcherism might have been stopped, but wasn’t. Her victory ended a long period of heightened class conflict in Britain which had started with the struggle against the Heath Tory government in the early 1970s, and created in its place a world fit for New Labour and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair. It also allowed Thatcher to become a credible icon for those advocating the restoration of the free market in eastern Europe. From Poland to Dublin Airport the after-effects of the miners’ defeat can still be seen. It was in a sense the event which, more than any other, gave birth to the world we all now live and work in.

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part three: 1929-1940)

Joe Conroy‘s look at Trotsky’s work concluded in Issue 18 in March 2004.

The last decade of Trotsky’s life was marked by unprecedented adversity. While fascism took over more of Europe, Stalin’s rule in the USSR grew steadily more brutal. It drove Trotsky from one place of exile to another—from Turkey to France to Norway to Mexico—hounding him with lies, abuse and violence. The fact that he held fast to his principles throughout is a tribute to his undying loyalty to the socialist cause.


Spain spent the 1930s in a continuous state of political crisis, culminating in Franco’s fascist coup in 1936. Much of the initial resistance consisted of workers and small farmers seizing factories and land from owners who sided with fascism. But the Communist party and others pushed for a ‘people’s front’ policy, in which all classes would put aside their differences and defend democracy. Working people would have to postpone hope of improving their situation in society and accept their inferior position until Franco was out of the way. Trotsky argued that such a strategy fatally weakened the struggle:

The demand not to transgress the bounds of bourgeois democracy signifies in practice not a defence of the democratic revolution but a repudiation of it.… The fighters of a revolutionary army must be clearly aware of the fact that they are fighting for their full social liberation and not for the reestablishment of the old (“democratic”) forms of exploitation.1

The rise of Hitler in Germany was made easier by the Communist Party’s refusal to fight alongside the Social Democrats against him. They maintained that the reformists were little better than the fascists at the end of the day. Trotsky didn’t deny the Social Democratic betrayals of the working class but, because a Nazi victory would crush all workers’ organisations without exception, it was possible and necessary for revolutionaries to form a united front with them. This would mean unity in action, but not hiding differences with each other: “we shall criticize each other with full freedom… But when the fascist wants to force a gag down our throats, we will repulse him together!”2

In both cases the policy pursued by Stalin and the Communist Parties under his control had contributed to fascist dictatorships coming to power. The internal workings of these parties, wrote Trotsky, prevented them from taking a real part in the workers’ struggles:

The German Communist Party was growing rapidly… But before the hour of test came, it was ravaged from within. The stifling of the interior life of the party, the wish to give orders instead of to convince, the zigzag policies, the appointment of leaders from the top, the system of lies and deception for the masses—all this demoralized the party to its marrow. When danger approached, the party was found to be a corpse.3

The parties had created a layer of members unable to think for themselves, fit only to obey orders from the leadership: “Whoever bows his head submissively before every command from above, is good for nothing as a revolutionary fighter!”4


The disastrous effects of Stalinism in Russia itself were also ruthlessly exposed by Trotsky’s pen. While Stalin claimed that a socialist society was under construction, if not already built, Trotsky pointed to the glaring inequalities between ordinary workers and the bureaucrats: “such socialism cannot but seem to the masses a new re-facing of capitalism, and they are not far wrong”. There existed a “whole stratum, which does not engage directly in productive labor, but administers, orders, commands, pardons and punishes”.

the Soviet government occupies in relation to the whole economic system the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise.…
The transfer of the factories to the state changed the situation of the worker only juridically. In reality, he is compelled to live in want and work a definite number of hours for a definite wage.… In the bureau­cracy he sees the manager, in the state, the employer.5

But he maintained that the USSR was different to capitalist societies. The land, the means of production, and foreign trade were in the hands of the state, and this defined “the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state”. The bureaucracy, in so far as it maintained state ownership, “still remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship”.6 For all its shortcomings, Russia “still remains a degenerated workers’ state”.7

Trotsky initially clung to the hope that Stalinist rule could be overcome peacefully, and only revised his view in 1933, when the Communist Parties signally failed to prevent Hitler coming to power. However, the revolution he revolution he then called for was one “confined within the limits of political revolution”, overthrowing the political rule of the bureaucracy but, in economic matters, going no further than “a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution”.8 The USSR was “a damaged workers’ state… which still continues to run and which can be completely reconditioned with the replacement of some parts”.9

There is a clear contradiction between the reality of Stalinist society as Trotsky described it and the conclusion he drew from it. The state existing in Russia was no kind of a workers’ state at all, whatever qualifying adjective preceded the term. As workers in any nationalised company can testify, state ownership in itself doesn’t change the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. The economy belonged to the state, indeed, but the state belonged to a class of bureaucrats who played the role of capitalists. It is true, as Trotsky said, that they couldn’t pass their wealth on directly to their children, but in practice they could and did pass on their privileged lifestyle and social position. Overthrowing them would mean more than a “political revolution” with a democratisation of economic management systems, but rebuilding society anew from the ground up, starting with a fresh workers’ revolution.

Years before, in 1922, Trotsky had given a much clearer response to those who saw state ownership, rather than workers’ power, as the defining feature of socialism:

To this we Marxists replied that as long as political power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie this socialization was not socialization at all and that it would not lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. To put it differently, the ownership of various factories, railways and so on by diverse capitalists would be superseded by an ownership of the totality of enterprises, railways and so on by the very same bourgeois firm, called the state. In the same measure as the bourgeoisie retains political power, it will, as a whole, continue to exploit the proletariat through the medium of state capitalism, just as an individual bourgeois exploits, by means of private ownership, “his own” workers. The term “state capitalism” was thus put forward, or at all events, employed polemically by revolutionary Marxists against the reformists, for the purpose of explaining and proving that genuine socialization begins only after the conquest of power by the working class.10

Just as Stalin’s failure to stop Hitler in 1933 caused Trotsky to abandon hope of reforming Stalinist Russia, so the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 led many of Trotsky’s followers to reject his definition of Russia as a workers’ state. Trotsky was having none of it—not least because he felt Stalin was on the brink of collapse anyway:

A totalitarian regime, whether of Stalinist or fascist type, by its very essence can only be a temporary transitional regime… incapable of perpetuating itself.… Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?11

Seeing a passing phenomenon where, in reality, an established society existed clearly led Trotsky to underestimate the stability of the regime.

Because Trotsky saw Stalinist Russia as a more progressive society than others, he adopted a stance of “Unconditional defence of the USSR” in time of war. Even when Stalin occupied eastern Poland on foot of his deal with Hitler, Trotsky welcomed his imposition of Russian property forms there: “the statification of property in the occupied territories is in itself a progressive measure… the Kremlin with its bureaucratic methods gave an impulse to the socialist revolution in Poland”.12 While he had previously written that “The bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role in the world arena”,13 he now portrayed it overthrowing capitalism in eastern Europe. While he had previously written that “Only the working class can seize the forces of production from the stranglehold of the exploiters”,14 he now portrayed the Stalinist bureaucracy carrying out that task.

To the rule of Stalinist bureaucrats, Trotsky counterposed the demo­cratic rule of the working class:

the dictatorship of the proletariat by its very essence can and should be the supreme expression of workers’ democracy. In order to bring about a great social revolution, there must be for the proletariat a supreme manifestation of all its forces and all its capacities: the proletariat is organized democratically precisely in order to put an end to its enemies.… The heavy hand of dictatorship is directed against the class enemies: the foundation of the dictatorship is workers’ democracy.15

This would mean a range of different workers’ parties existing and criticising each other. While Trotsky glossed over the fact that he himself had justified one-party rule through the 1920s, his position now was a distinct advance. But in the heat of polemic he slid back towards the old position: “if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the class is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself”.16 Instead of the working class freely discussing the way forward while uniting to forcibly impose its will on the capitalists, this envisaged one “vanguard” section of the working class forcibly imposing its will on other sections—a far cry from pluralist workers’ democracy.


Trotsky believed that the struggle for socialism couldn’t do without him in this period: “now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word… There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method”.17 The same went for the Fourth International, founded in 1938 to organise his supporters worldwide. He wasn’t lacking in high hopes for it: “During the next ten years the program of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions”.18

But it was not to be. Uniting socialists in as much common activity as possible was quite right, but 1938 was no time for a conference of 21 socialists to be proclaiming a world party of socialist revolution, complete with a fully-fledged intercontinental structure of organisation. The First and Second Internationals had emerged from upward swings of the workers’ movement, and the Third came on the back of an actual socialist revolution. On the other hand, the Fourth had, as Trotsky put it, “arisen out of… the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history”.19 An all-out revolutionary offensive launched in the decade of Hitler, Franco and Stalin was never likely to make much headway.

One of the new International’s problems was Trotsky’s contention that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” The strike wave of 1936 in France, for instance, “revealed the wholehearted readiness of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system”, but their leaders “succeeded in canalizing and damming, at least temporarily, the revolutionary stream”.20 The events of 1936 were undoubt­edly impressive, but a working class that was really ready to overthrow capitalism would hardly turn around and go back to sleep at the word of any leaders. By reducing everything to bad leadership, Trotsky’s view gave the impression of workers chomping at the bit but powerless to see through their leaders: if different leaders were only provided, then the revolution could proceed. An earlier comment of his was nearer the mark: “The quality of the leadership is, of course, far from a matter of indifference for the outcome of the conflict, but it is not the only factor, and in the last analysis is not decisive.”21

Trotsky felt that socialists needed to have a programme of demands to present to workers. To take a typical example: “Against a bounding rise in prices… one can fight only under the slogan of a sliding scale of wages.”22 So, if inflation reaches 5%, wages should automatically go up 5%. But it is more common, if conditions are at all favourable, for workers to demand 10%—to try and use the opportunity to increase their real wages rather than running to stand still. The demand for a sliding wage scale has seldom, if ever, been put forward in actual struggle. Telling socialists that it was the “only” way to fight inflation could only encourage them to privilege their own ready-made programme at the expense of demands emerging from real workers’ struggles. Trotsky had proposed a more flexible method of inter­vention some years before, when he said that revolutionaries needed to develop “the capacity to put forward at the right moment sharp, specific fighting slogans that by themselves don’t derive from the ‘program’ but are dictated by the circumstances of the day”.23

The isolation of Trotsky’s followers bred an almost messianic convic­tion regarding their role as the one true revolutionaries. Trotsky made the absurd claim that “The advanced workers of all the world are already firmly convinced that the overthrow of Mussolini, Hitler, and their agents and imitators will occur only under the leadership of the Fourth International.”24 No other socialists came up to scratch: they were “the only genuinely revolutionary current which has never repudiated its banner, has not compromised with its enemies, and which alone represents the future”.25 Socialists in Spain who disagreed with Trotsky were informed by him that “Outside the line of the Fourth International there is only the line of Stalin-Caballero” (Largo Caballero was the Spanish prime minister).26 When the revolutionary Victor Serge begged to differ, Trotsky resorted to the kind of tactics the Stalinists had employed against himself: Serge was only “a disillusioned petty-bourgeois intellectual” aiming “to subdue Marxism… to paralyze the socialist revolution”, and the likes of him were “carriers of infection” in the movement.27 Trotsky’s point of view was often, though not always, correct; but unleashing his wrath on any socialist who thought differently was a recipe for severely narrowing the potential for agreement.

The communist future

Treating Leon Trotsky as a revolutionary oracle—as some have done, and still do—is never going to utilise his contributions to the cause he was devoted to. His ideas of socialist organisation in his later years were seriously flawed. His opposition to Stalinism was all the weaker for being conditional, picking out good aspects of the system to defend. But his stand against the Stalinist bureaucracy in unimaginably hard times was truly heroic. His fight to provide an alternative to its betrayals still remains relevant—above all, his understanding of permanent revolution, linking the fight against all oppression with the international socialist revolution.

Stalin never forgave Trotsky, and made considerable efforts to silence him. In Mexico, where Trotsky lived from 1937, Stalin’s supporters perse­cuted him endlessly in the press and even launched a gun attack on his home. A Stalinist agent managed to infiltrate the household and, one day, smashed a pickaxe into Trotsky’s skull. Trotsky struggled with him fiercely and tried to survive. But on 21 August 1940 Trotsky’s revolutionary life came to an end.

Six months earlier, in poor health and aware of the threat of assassin­ation, Trotsky had written a testament:

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolution­ist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.
…Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.28


  1. Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (New York 1973), p 307, 320.
  2. Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p 355.
  3. Leon Trotsky, Whither France? (London 1974), p 85.
  4. The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p 103.
  5. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York 1937), p 120, 138, 43, 241-2.
  6. Ibid, p 248-9.
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York 1973), p 102.
  8. The Revolution Betrayed, p 288, 253.
  9. Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (London 1971), p 30.
  10. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 245.
  11. In Defence of Marxism, p 16-17.
  12. Ibid, p 51, 23, 163.
  13. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 106.
  14. Whither France?, p 41.
  15. Ibid, p 91.
  16. Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New York 1973), p 59.
  17. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile 1935 (London 1958), p 54.
  18. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-9) (New York 1969), p 59.
  19. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 111.
  20. Ibid, p 73-4.
  21. The Revolution Betrayed, p 87.
  22. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 76.
  23. The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 143.
  24. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 102.
  25. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) (New York 1970), p 160.
  26. The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 262.
  27. Their Morals and Ours, p 60-1, 66. For an indication of how little foundation Trotsky’s insults had, see Joe Conroy, ‘Revolutionary Lives: Victor Serge’, Red Banner 9.
  28. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, p 139-40.

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part two: 1921-29)

Joe Conroy‘s look at Trotsky’s life and work continued in Issue 17 (November 2003).

The early years of the Russian revolution, for all their difficulties, engendered great hopes of human liberation. Trotsky was insistent that the emancipation of the most downtrodden was at the heart of socialism:

the revolution is, before and above all, the awakening of humanity, its onward march, and is marked with a growing respect for the personal dignity of every individual, with an ever-increasing concern for those who are weak. A revolution does not deserve its name if, with all its might and all the means at its disposal, it does not help the woman—twofold and threefold enslaved as she has been in the past—to get out on the road of individual and social progress. A revolution does not deserve its name if it does not take the greatest care possible of the children—the future race for whose benefit the revolution has been made.1

The working class had not taken power to hold on to it indefinitely, but to remove the need for it. “The liberating significance of the dictatorship of the proletariat consists in the fact that it is temporary—for a brief period only—that it is a means of clearing the road and of laying the foundations of a society without classes and of a culture based upon solidarity.”2 Such a culture would know no such thing as a state, people instead forming a voluntary social bond: “Just as people in a chorus sing harmoniously not because they are compelled to but because it is pleasant to them, so under communism the harmony of relationships will answer the personal needs of each and every individual.”3

Trotsky had always maintained that revolution could never survive in Russia alone, that socialism could only be victorious internationally. He spent much of his time encouraging and criticising the revolutionary groups that took shape across Europe following the first world war. Unless they succeeded in organising themselves effectively, clarifying their political activity and winning over a majority of the working class, great oppor­tunities would go to waste: “The most mature revolutionary situation without a revolutionary party of the necessary dimensions, without correct leadership, is just like a knife without a blade.”4

These revolutionaries had the support of only a minority of the workers, most of whom still supported the reformist politicians and union leaders. To win over the majority, socialists had to engage in joint activity with reformists on issues affecting the basic interests of the working class. Such united fronts would not mean that socialists would abandon their criticism of reformism. On the contrary, they would provide a chance to prove in practice that revolutionary politics made more sense:

We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute.5

The young revolutionary parties also needed vibrant internal democracy and debate in order to develop: “Without a real freedom of party life, freedom of discussion, and freedom of establishing their course collectively, and by means of groupings, these parties will never become a decisive revolutionary force.”6 But through the 1920s, this became less and less the case. The decay originated with the increasing bureaucratisation of Russia’s Communist Party.

The party leadership gathered ever greater control in its hands, pushing aside and silencing those who disagreed with the line from above. It started “to drop ready-made decisions on the party’s head, decisions that have been discussed and arrived at in gatherings of the ruling faction which are kept secret from the party”.7 As a result, “the party was living, as it were, on two storeys: the upper storey, where things are decided, and the lower storey, where all you do is learn of the decisions”.8

The devastation Russia had suffered in the world war and the civil war had left the working class exhausted and atomised. In the absence of workers’ revolution elsewhere, the bureaucracy held power and started to dig itself in. Joseph Stalin became the predominant spokesperson for their interests, above all with the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’: even without international revolution, Russia could build a socialist society on its own. Trotsky fought tooth and nail against this blatant abandonment of Marxist internationalism: “Soviet Russia will be able to maintain herself and to develop only in the event of world revolution… only if it serves as the starting point and remains an integral part of the world revolution of the international proletariat”.9

The Stalinist policy unfolded with disastrous results in China, a country in the grip of imperialism and landlord rule. Revolution broke out there in 1925, but the Chinese Communist Party had been instructed by Moscow to join the middle-class nationalist Kuomintang party, and to support its leadership without criticism. The Kuomintang suppressed uprisings of workers and peasants, and massacred Communists. The Communist Party was then made to transfer its allegiance to a left-wing faction of the Kuomintang, which went on to treat them in similar fashion. The Chinese working class went down to a tragic defeat.

Stalin’s theory had decreed that the fight for socialism was not on the agenda in China, and had to wait until national independence was won. Trotsky countered that national liberation would be won as part of a struggle which also addressed the social and economic oppression of the working people:

Really to arouse the workers and peasants against imperialism is possible only by connecting their basic and most profound life interests with the cause of the country’s liberation.…
The victory over foreign imperialism can only be won by means of the toilers of town and country driving it out of China.… They cannot rise under the bare slogan of national liberation, but only in direct struggle against the big landlords, the military satraps, the usurers, the capitalist brigands.

The imperialists and landlords would be overthrown by “a revolution on whose banner the toilers and oppressed write plainly their own demands”.10

The catastrophe in China led Trotsky to extend the theory of permanent revolution, which until now he had only applied to Russia. In countries like China, he argued, oppressed by colonialism and economic backwardness, the capitalists couldn’t be relied upon to fight as they were usually them­selves linked to the oppressor. Therefore,

the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation… The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.… it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.11

Powerful and all as the bureaucracy now was, Trotsky believed that the working class was still in ultimate control of Russia. “If we did not believe that our state is a proletarian state, though with bureaucratic deformations… if we did not believe that our development was socialist… then, it need not be said, our place would not be in the ranks of a Communist Party.” The struggle against the bureaucracy “is a reformist struggle”, because “Power has not yet been torn from the hands of the proletariat.”12 If this were not the case, a different approach would follow:

If the party is a corpse, a new party must be built on a new spot, and the working class must be told about it openly.… if the dictatorship of the proletariat is liquidated, the banner of the second proletarian revolution must be unfurled. That is how we would act if the road of reform, for which we stand, proved hopeless.13

Although this is far clearer in hindsight than it was then, the road of reform was indeed hopeless by the time Trotsky wrote these words. The Stalinist bureaucracy was already too entrenched to be voted out of power at party conferences—conferences which were now no more than a rubber stamp for the bureaucracy’s policies. The opposition movement still had significant support in some sections of the working class: if, as some of its members proposed, it organised openly against Stalin as a new party for a new revolution, its chances of success would probably have been greater. Trotsky’s position prevailed, however, and the opposition resolved “to keep these differences within the confines of our continued work and our joint responsibility for the policy of the party”.14

He even agreed that no other party but the Communist Party should be allowed to exist: “the party has a monopoly in the political field, something absolutely necessary for the revolution”. Forming an opposition party was excluded in principle: “We will fight with all our power against the idea of two parties, because the dictatorship of the proletariat demands as its very core a single proletarian party.”15 Even the existence of factions within the party he ruled out of order: “I have never recognized freedom for groupings inside the party, nor do I now recognize it”.16 Trotsky’s commitment to the straitjacket of party unity reached a masochistic pitch in the following statement at a party conference:

Comrades, none of us wishes to be or can be right against the party. In the last instance the party is always right… I know that one ought not to be right against the party. One can be right only with the party and through the party because history has not created any other way for the realization of one’s rightness. The English have the saying ‘My country, right or wrong’. With much greater justification we can say: My party, right or wrong…17

So Trotsky yielded to party discipline. When the party ordered an end to debate, he obeyed and stayed silent. “We must not do anything at this moment”, he told his supporters:18 a recipe for sitting and waiting while the other side strengthened its position. When the bureaucracy decided to hush up Lenin’s deathbed advice to remove Stalin from power, Trotsky went along with the decision and even publicly denied that Lenin had said any such thing. When he did come out against the leadership, he formed alliances with people who proved untrustworthy and incapable of honest opposition. For the sake of such alliances he compromised on matters of principle. He even agreed to renounce his biggest contribution to Marxism, the theory of permanent revolution, which he announced to be irrelevant: “I myself regard it as a question which has long been consigned to the archives”.19

But the growing power of the bureaucracy did cause Trotsky to consider that counter-revolution could come in a new, unexpected way. Possibly, it “would not be carried out all at once, with one blow, but through successive shiftings, with the first shift occurring from the top down and to a large extent within one and the same party… a special from of counter-revolution carried out on the installment plan”.20 He drew a comparison with the French revolution: on 9th Thermidor (according to the revolutionary calendar) the conservatives pushed the radicals out of power.

It is less the danger of an open, full-fledged bourgeois counterrevolution than that of a Thermidor, that is, a partial counterrevolutionary shift or upheaval which, precisely because it was partial, could for a fairly long time continue to disguise itself in revolutionary forms, but which in essence would already have a decisively bourgeois character, so that a return from Thermidor to the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be effected through a new revolution.21

In the final years of the decade, the bureaucracy moved to decisively consolidate its power. Thousands of its opponents were arrested: Trotsky himself was expelled from the Communist Party in late 1927 and exiled to Kazakhstan in the outskirts of the USSR two months later. Forced collect­ivisation in the countryside expropriated millions of farmers, and accel­erated industrialisation drove workers to work harder for less. Whereas Trotsky had seen the bureaucracy as an unstable intermediate group balancing between the workers and the remaining property owners, instead it now came into its own, establishing firm bases for its independent power in society, politics and the economy.

Although some of his analysis had proved inaccurate, Trotsky—unlike many others—had no intention of giving in before the overwhelming power of Stalinism. When the secret police presented him with an order to cease his political activity, he threw the ultimatum back in their faces:

To demand from me that I renounce my political activity is to demand that I abjure the struggle which I have been conducting in the interests of the international working class, a struggle in which I have been unceasingly engaged for thirty-two years, during the whole of my conscious life.… Only a bureaucracy corrupt to its roots can demand such a renunciation. Only contemptible renegades can give such a promise.22

In January 1929 Trotsky was deported from the USSR altogether, and was never to return. But his fight against the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution was far from over.

part three


1    Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York 1973), p 53.

2    Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Michigan 1960), p 194.

3    Problems of Everyday Life, p 176.

4    Leon Trotsky on Britain (New York 1973), p 162.

5    Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 96.

6    Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (London 1974), p 117.

7    Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York 1980), p 114-15.

8    Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) (New York 1975), p 69.

9    Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume One (London 1973), p 358.

10  Leon Trotsky on China (New York 1976), p 161, 207-8, 189.

11  Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London 1962), p 152, 154-5.

12  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 162-3, 489.

13  Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29) (New York 1981), p 300.

14  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 164.

15 Ibid, p 390, 394. These quotations are from the 1927 Platform of the Opposition, which was drafted collectively. Trotsky was its main author, however, and these quotations certainly reflect his own views. See, for instance: “We are the only party in the country, and in the period of the dictatorship it could not be otherwise.… the Communist Party is obliged to monopolize the direction of political life.” The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), p 78-9.     

16  Ibid, p 154.

17  Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford 1959), p 139.

18  Quoted in ibid, p 201.

19  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 145.

20  Ibid, p 260, 263.

21  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29), p 139. 22

22 Quoted in Deutscher, p 468-9.