75 years after Trotsky’s assassination Maeve Connaughton examined one of his lasting contributions to revolutionary thought in March 2015 (Issue 59).
In 1905 Leon Trotsky was a leader of the St Petersburg Council of Workers’ Deputies, the most extraordinary phenomenon thrown up by the revolution Russia went through that year. As the Tsarist regime began to regain the upper hand against the revolutionaries, it moved to arrest leading members of that council, or soviet as it was called in Russian. There is a photograph of Trotsky in his prison cell in 1906 as he awaited the trial where he would speak in defence of the soviet. He sits on a chair and looks away from the camera awkwardly, self-consciously, as if making an effort to do so. Just behind him the cell door frames the jailers’ spy-hole, supposedly all-seeing but unable to prevent a camera being smuggled in to capture this image. No more could the regime imprison the minds of its captives, and Trotsky was spending his time behind bars profitably, drawing lessons from the revolutionary events in the hope of assisting future efforts in the same line.
The outstanding work of that period is Results and Prospects, similarly smuggled out and published before Trotsky and his comrades were hauled off to Siberia after the inevitable verdict. It bears the imprint of the revolution on its pages, invoking “growing social conflicts, uprisings of new sections of the masses, unceasing attacks by the proletariat upon the economic and political privileges of the ruling classes”, the kind of period which “gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month”.
The book addressed a major debate on the Russian left about what kind of revolution they were involved in. Most socialists were agreed that it was a bourgeois revolution, which could at most get rid of Tsarism, clear the way for capitalist development, and leave the working class a clearer field to begin its own fight for socialism. Where they differed was over who would lead this bourgeois revolution. The Mensheviks insisted that the capitalists would stand at the front of their own revolution, with the workers pressurising them to keep up the fight against the regime. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had no faith in the capitalists, and thought the workers should take power alongside the peasantry in order to push the bourgeois revolution as far as it could go within the limits of capitalism. The uniqueness of Trotsky’s position lay in his argument that the working class could not just take power but, instead of stopping at the overthrow of Tsarism, could move towards ending capitalism itself.
This idea was rooted in an analysis of Russia’s economic development. Coming to capitalism later than western Europe, it could assimilate the technologies and processes of its predecessors. As a result, a political system based on a more or less feudal autocracy oversaw the introduction of a thoroughly modern capitalism. This inevitably entailed the creation of a working class with its hands at the levers of this new economic power, the secret of “the disproportionately large political role played by the Russian proletariat”. On the other side of the equation a capitalist class grew, but instead of boldly asserting its political interests against Tsarism, it preferred the protection of the regime to the threatening power of the workers.
Trotsky only applied his conclusions to the Russian situation, and it would be another twenty years before he saw them having a wider application. Nevertheless, his arguments about Russia’s prospective development entail a general conception of Marxism which goes against the grain of how it is commonly understood. To counter the claim that Russia and its working class were insufficiently developed for socialism to come on the agenda, he had to examine what the necessary conditions for socialist revolution are.
First of all, socialism cannot be a realistic prospect unless it provides a better way of producing and distributing humanity’s resources. But Trotsky argues that, in this sense, “sufficient technical prerequisites for collective production have already existed for a hundred or two hundred years”. There could scarcely have been any time when the great industrial advances introduced under capitalism would not have worked better in a hypothetical socialist economy.
It is not possible to draw an equals sign between a society’s economic position and its politics: “Between the productive forces of a country and the political strength of its classes there cut across at any given time various social and political factors of a national and international character, and these displace and even sometimes completely alter the political expression of economic relations.” A complex interaction of objective and subjective causes is at play here:
the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and finally, upon a number of subjective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.… Politics is the plane upon which the objective prerequisites of socialism are intersected by the subjective ones.
All the economic development in the world will not bring about socialism unless the working class understands the need for it and is prepared to fight accordingly. Such class consciousness on the part of the workers is an indispensable prerequisite. But that doesn’t mean the physical establishment of a new world has to wait until workers mentally inhabit it beforehand:
One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology. The latter presupposes the absence of egotistical motives in economic life; whereas the striving towards socialism and the struggle for it arise from the class psychology of the proletariat. However many points of contact there may be between the class psychology of the proletariat and classless socialist psychology, nevertheless a deep chasm divides them.
Fighting against capitalism does give rise to “splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice”, but Trotsky is right to say that these get smothered by capitalism at every turn. Living a life of selfless altruism in a society based on selfish individualism is impossible: even the most committed socialist could hardly afford to pass up a job because someone else might be in greater need of it.
However, he undermines his argument when summing it up thus: “Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a prerequisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a prerequisite to socialist psychology.” The attitudes engendered in the fight for socialism are a precursor of the attitudes which a socialist society itself would engender, attitudes which would be moulded in struggles to bring about such a society. The “points of contact” Trotsky noted get forgotten here, as material conditions are simply presented as cause and consciousness as effect, when a more dialectical relation would be evident in reality.
Such a relation can be seen where Trotsky discusses the interface between economic development and political awareness: “these processes take place simultaneously, and not only give an impetus to each other, but also retard and limit each other”. If they grow out of proportion, with one aspect failing to keep pace with others, this can throw up problems. Socialist organisations can increase their vote and membership without increasing their value to the class struggle:
the work of agitation and organisation among the ranks of the proletariat has an internal inertia. The European Socialist Parties, particularly the largest of then, the German Social Democratic Party, have developed their conservatism in proportion as the great masses have embraced socialism… the propagandist socialist conservatism of the proletarian parties may at a certain moment hold back the direct struggle of the proletariat for power.
Not the least service of the revolution in Russia had been to shake up this inertia on the European left.
The conclusion from Trotsky’s analysis was that “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.” The implication of this global conclusion for his own country was also clear: “the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers”.
This clearly distanced Trotsky from the Mensheviks’ idea that the working class couldn’t and shouldn’t aim at taking charge. But he was no less opposed to the Bolshevik plan for workers taking a share of power in a revolutionary government which would pull up short before the prospect of socialism. To imagine that socialists could enter such a government and introduce radical reforms with workers’ support but then “leave the edifice they have constructed so as to make way for the bourgeois parties” was utopian. On the contrary, such a government would be forced “by the very logic of its position” to move in a socialist direction.
Trotsky cites a very practical example. One of the measures a revolutionary government would introduce was the eight-hour day, a basic demand of workers in Russia and elsewhere, a reform which didn’t threaten the capitalist system itself but would make life under it more tolerable. The capitalists would resist it, however, and likely close down their factories, locking out workers until they agreed to return for ten or eleven hours a day. How would the government respond? As Trotsky says, “it is quite obvious that the representatives of the workers in the government cannot reply to the demands of unemployed workers with arguments about the bourgeois character of the revolution”. They would have no alternative but to take over those factories, for those workers to take control of them. The very fact of socialists being in power to genuinely fight for the cause of the working class “places collectivism on the order of the day”.
A workers’ government in Russia would of course have to bring about basic political changes in Russian society, to abolish the Tsarist dictatorship and enshrine democratic rights. But it would also have to face up to the questions at issue between workers and capitalists. Rather than avoiding or postponing them, it would have to deepen the revolution, to make it socialist:
The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy.
A major objection to this notion was the fact that the urban working class made up only a minority of Russia’s population. Trotsky’s reply—that this minority was concentrated in the decisive areas of the economy—was true, but still, the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked in agriculture. This was why the Bolsheviks insisted on a revolutionary government “of the proletariat and peasantry”. Trotsky agreed that representatives of the peasantry should absolutely be part of a revolutionary government alongside the workers. But who would direct such a government? Which class would play the leading role in it? “When we speak of a workers’ government”, he wrote, “we have in view a government in which the working-class representatives dominate and lead.”
“Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role”, he insisted. While this sounds harsh, it holds true. The scattered nature of small farming as a way of life, both geographically and economically, has always left farmers playing a supporting role to the main urban classes—an important one, but not an independent one. Because of the unstable intermediate social situation in which they find themselves, their politics has a tendency to be “indefinite, unformed, full of possibilities and therefore full of surprises”.
The working class would have to “carry the class struggle into the villages”, supporting poor farmers and above all agricultural workers against rich farmers, encouraging such class antagonism in order to “destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits”. It would promote socialised agriculture on large units, but expropriating small holdings “in no way enters into the plans of the socialist proletariat”.
Trotsky foresees a very defined relationship between the two classes:
The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it. …nothing remains for the peasantry to do but to rally to the regime of workers’ democracy. It will not matter much even if the peasantry does this with a degree of consciousness not larger than that with which it usually rallies to the bourgeois regime.
The peasants would support the working class in the constituent assembly, but this would be “nothing else than a democratic dress for the rule of the proletariat”.
In passages like these, Trotsky is clearly going too far, consigning Russia’s peasantry to an utterly subordinate role as passive camp followers, unthinking objects of whichever political force happens to bestow benefits upon them from the heights of power. On the contrary, workers would have to go out of their way to win over small farmers, to persuade them of the benefits of a socialist order, repeatedly and continuously. For the working class, hegemony is not a cynical politicians’ game but a process of active political engagement with its allies, taking their concerns on board and incorporating them into the work of socialist transformation. If the peasantry were as devoid of initiative as Trotsky paints them here, it would be difficult to envisage the practicalities of abolishing landlordism and moving towards socialist agriculture, if only because there would be hardly anyone on the ground to carry it out.
The claim that the workers of Russia could begin to assault the very foundations of capitalism was an audacious one, but if they could begin that job, Trotsky never claimed that they could finish it. Their position at the helm of Russia would be “cast into the scales of the class struggle of the entire capitalist world”. The workers of more economically advanced countries would have to follow their example and take power themselves: “Without the direct state support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power”. On their own, Russian workers would go down to inevitable defeat, but if their revolution became just one link in a chain of revolutions, an international foundation could be laid on which socialism could develop.