A portrait of Leon Trotsky by Róisín Daly appeared on the cover of Issue 18 in March 2004, to accompany an article on Trotsky which concluded in that issue.
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.
One of Marxism’s best discussions of art was discussed in Issue 22 (July 2005) by Joe Conroy.
Marxist writings on literature are often irritating. Either they content themselves with unobjectionable generalisations, or engage in such particular analysis that only the specialist can get much out of them. Very few manage to steer between the two rocks, and Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution is possibly the best of them. It bears the marks of its time, of course: most of the writers from the Russia of 1924 that he refers to have passed into obscurity, so that today’s reader can make little sense of the specifics. But there is enough that still applies in there to stimulate thought among socialists on questions of art and culture.
First of all, Trotsky insists that socialists should actually be thinking about such questions. The victory of socialism would not be measured by its ability to satisfy basic needs like food and clothing, but by its ability to foster a new art. This was an indispensable part of humanity creating a free life for itself: “the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry”, for instance (Literature and Revolution, Michigan 1960, p 170).
For some reason, this conviction of the absolute necessity of art is rare among socialists. Our indictments of capitalism tend not to mention the stifling of artistic creativity: the changes we call for tend not to encompass artistic revolution. The occasional criticisms we make of official arts policies usually boil down to mumbling that more money should probably be spent on that sort of thing. The idea that we should be talking about art and its role, pushing artistic debate forward as opposed to just reviewing the odd novel, is still lacking. Most socialists prefer to stick to bread and butter in their politics—forgetting that bread and butter is only a bare culinary minimum, not a proper square meal.
For Trotsky, art was not just necessary in a holistic sense, as part of a fully-rounded development, but also as part of the struggle to change the world: “how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life without seeing oneself in the ‘mirror’ of literature?” To reject this would be “to strike from the hands of the class which is building a new society its most important weapon” (p 137). He writes this in a post-revolutionary context, with the capitalist class overthrown: prior to such a situation, art can hardly be the “most important weapon” in the working-class arsenal. But it is one of the most important. To fully understand the world we are trying to change and the world we are trying to create, we need a sense of perception that is artistic.
Many, if not most socialists underestimate the transformation that a socialist revolution would try to bring about. It’s not a matter of writing a new name on the title deeds to the means of production, but of human beings living an entirely different kind of life. Escaping from the chains of material want is an indispensable foundation for this, but no more than that. The key is people relating to each other as freely associated active individuals, making a reality of “All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming—so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians—such as disinterested friendship, love for one’s neighbor, sympathy” (p 230). At the end of the day, socialist politics is about creating a desire for such a life—or rather, awakening the desire for it that is already in us, but buried—and a contempt for a condition that denies it.
To comprehend how the need for human liberation is crushed out of us calls for an approach which is beyond the journalist’s statistic, the documentary maker’s camera, the orator’s phrase. To see the reality of how class society distorts and constricts the most intimate aspects of human relations requires a reconstruction and a presentation of them that only an artist can accomplish. To realise how people do their best to maintain a human existence with each other in spite of it all can’t be done without the peculiar type of ‘mirror’ that art holds up to us. It is only right that most socialists admire the work of Ken Loach—but how many have noticed that Kes is a far more revolutionary film than Land and Freedom?
Trotsky naturally insists on art being indissolubly linked to the society it is produced in, and the class make-up of that society. The retort that art is an expression of individual feeling doesn’t contradict this at all, because it doesn’t ask how this individuality is formed and how social change “shakes up individuality” (p 12). Socialism is not about suppressing individuality but developing it, and again, literature is necessary to do this (p 225):
What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoievsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the rôle of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.… [The literature of Maxim Gorky] fed the early Spring revolutionism of the proletariat on the eve of 1905, because he helped to awaken individuality in that class in which individuality, once awakened, seeks contact with other awakened individualities. The proletariat is in need of artistic food and education…
All this is Greek to a lot of socialists: “there are many people in this world who think as revolutionists and who feel as Philistines” (p 147). This applies equally to some of those socialists who ‘go in for’ the arts. The high jinks, politely termed ‘street theatre’, that accompany some left-wing demonstrations these days are usually painful to behold. Much of the poetry solemnly recited at the odd left-wing event with cultural pretensions should really have stayed in the shoebox under the bed. A lot of the time, this is just a case of people who, if they were half as good as they think they are, would be twice as good as they really are. But often, their artistic inadequacies are not unrelated to the shallowness of their political commitment. Formally, they accept the socialist principles and all the rest of it, but it’s only skin deep: “they have not entered, so to speak, into their blood”, as Trotsky says of one group of writers (p 146), and so they can’t express them artistically.
“Proletarian art should not be second-rate art”, he writes (p 205). The fact that it so often is shows how low a premium is put on it. Artists have to pay their dues, and Trotsky devotes much of the book to straightforward formal criticism. A poet has to learn how to fashion a line of verse, a musician has to learn the chords, a painter has to learn how to wield the brush. Praising a bad work of art and putting it on the wall might be justifiable for a national school teacher, but socialists shouldn’t allow diplomacy or even political affinity to come between them and honest criticism.
And that criticism has to be artistic before it is political (p 178): “A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art.” Trotsky goes on to say that Marxism can explain the historical roots of artistic development, but is careful not to make any more extravagant claims for it (p 218):
The Marxian method affords an opportunity to estimate the development of the new art, to trace all its sources, to help the most progressive tendencies by a critical illumination of the road, but it does not do more than that. Art must make its own way and by its own means.… The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command.
The last sentence betrays the way Trotsky had come to conceive of socialist thought and activity as coming entirely out of and through “the Party”. The book came out in the midst of the squabble for Lenin’s succession, and Trotsky, with the zeal of a late convert to Bolshevism, was at pains to prove himself Leninicis ipsis Leniniores: more Leninist than Lenin. But his point about socialist attitudes to art is clear and correct.
A socialist society being built should allow “complete freedom of self-determination in the field of art” (p 14). Of course, a play advocating the return of the Tsar and the shooting of all the Bolsheviks should be treated the same as a pamphlet advocating the same, but outside of clearly counter-revolutionary art, artists should face no hindrance. The persecution of artists who wouldn’t bend the knee to the Russian Communist Party was still a few years ahead as Trotsky was writing but, although he deplores any “petty partisan maliciousness” towards awkward artists (p 221), such maliciousness was already paving the way.
He makes clear that “a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders” is foreign to Marxism, as are demands “that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital” (p 170). On the other hand, the only artist Trotsky singles out for wholehearted praise is one Demyan Biedny. The reason none of us have heard of him is that he was a not too significant author of agit-prop poetry. There’s no reason why propaganda art can’t be good art, of course, but Trotsky praises the propagandist rather than the artist (p 213): “Not only in those rare cases when Apollo calls him to the holy sacrifice does Demyan Biedny create, but day in and day out, as the events and the Central Committee of the Party demand.” Faced with this, the best approach is: Don’t do as Trotsky does, do as Trotsky says.
When socialism has finally triumphed over capitalism, he writes, political struggles will be replaced by aesthetic ones: people will form ‘parties’ for or against a particular architectural project or artistic style. This is already happening to some extent, as the threat to drive a motorway through the Tara-Skryne valley has shown, and nothing goes up in Dublin without everyone having an opinion on it. (Trotsky’s impression of the Eiffel Tower could equally apply to the Spike (p 247): “one is attracted by the technical simplicity of its form, and, at the same time, repelled by its aimlessness”.) “The wall between art and industry will come down” in a socialist society (p 249), making all work into a work of art. Mountains will be moved and rivers re-routed, says Trotsky, adjusting the world to human taste. The results of reckless interference with nature would cause us to be more humble today than to treat the earth as clay to be moulded as we wish—but this is maybe only counselling a more cautious way of doing the same thing. Whether Trotsky is right in believing that socialism would make Aristotle average, his vision of artistic liberation dwarfs the limited horizons of many socialists. But above this ridge, new peaks will rise.
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
- Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (New York 1973), p 307, 320.
- Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p 355.
- Leon Trotsky, Whither France? (London 1974), p 85.
- The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p 103.
- Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York 1937), p 120, 138, 43, 241-2.
- Ibid, p 248-9.
- Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York 1973), p 102.
- The Revolution Betrayed, p 288, 253.
- Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (London 1971), p 30.
- Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 245.
- In Defence of Marxism, p 16-17.
- Ibid, p 51, 23, 163.
- The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 106.
- Whither France?, p 41.
- Ibid, p 91.
- Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New York 1973), p 59.
- Trotsky’s Diary in Exile 1935 (London 1958), p 54.
- Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-9) (New York 1969), p 59.
- The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 111.
- Ibid, p 73-4.
- The Revolution Betrayed, p 87.
- The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 76.
- The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 143.
- The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 102.
- Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) (New York 1970), p 160.
- The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 262.
- 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.
- Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, p 139-40.
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.
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.
In Issue 16 (July 2003) Joe Conroy began an examination of Trotsky’s life and politics.
Lev Davidovich Bronstein was born in the Kherson province of the Ukraine on 26 October 1879 (7 November by the western calendar) to a family of well-off Jewish farmers. By his late teens he had become involved in a group of revolutionaries working to overthrow the rule of the Tsar over the Russian empire. Although initially resistant, he became an enthusiastic Marxist, involved in organising strikes in the region. This earned him arrest in 1898 and deportation to Siberia. In 1902 he managed to escape, writing the name of one of his prison guards in his false passport, a name that stuck to him: Trotsky.
He made his way to London, where many of Russia’s leading socialists were gathered in exile. Like most of them—most notably, Vladimir Lenin—Trotsky advocated a centralised organisation to unite the scattered circles of socialists across Russia in co-ordinated action. But the congress that was to establish such an organisation in 1903 led to a deep split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.
Trotsky saw two very different conceptions of revolutionary organisation at issue: “In the one case we have a party which thinks for the proletariat, which substitutes itself politically for it, and in the other we have a party which politically educates and mobilises the proletariat”. The first conception, that of the Bolsheviks, would mean “the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee”.1 The relationship between a socialist party and the working class, he maintained, had to be a two-way street: “It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward.”2 Defending a party’s revolutionary essence was a question of politics, not organisational rules: “I do not believe that you can put statutory exorcism on opportunism.”3
Trotsky’s arguments did go somewhat overboard. His doom-filled prophecies of Bolshevik dictatorship were not fulfilled in the ensuing years. And while rules couldn’t defeat reformism, they could play some part in defining the nature of socialist activity. But at the same time, he did have a point. The arguments of Lenin and the Bolsheviks did too often put the building of their own party ahead of the struggle of the workers, and what progress they made was often due to quietly ignoring these ideas in practice. Trotsky’s insistence on the centrality of the working class and its activity to any socialist project was a necessary corrective.
All these theories were put to the test of an actual revolution in 1905: when troops opened fire on a demonstration seeking reform from the Tsar, it set off a wave of strikes and rebellions. Trotsky returned to Russia to play a central role, being elected leader of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in the capital St Petersburg. Workers elected such councils, or ‘soviets’, in workplaces all over the country, and they constituted a potential challenge to capitalist rule:
a freely elected parliament of the working class… the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo… the organized expression of the class will of the proletariat… the democratic representative body of the proletariat at a time of revolution… It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureaucracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment.4
The phenomenon of workers’ councils confirmed Trotsky’s refusal to join either faction of Russian socialism, because he envisaged greater revolutionary possibilities than either of them. The Mensheviks held that, in an economically backward country like Russia, replacing Tsarist rule with parliamentary democracy was as far as the revolution could hope to go for the time being. The job of the working class, as a small minority of the population, was to encourage liberal capitalist politicians to oppose Tsarism. The Bolsheviks had no such faith in the liberals, and aimed for a government in which workers would share power with the peasantry. While this would make a clean sweep of Tsarism, socialist change would not be on the agenda.
Although the working class formed only a fraction of Russia’s population, Trotsky argued, it was concentrated in the decisive areas of industry, giving it a disproportionate political weight. The hesitancy and political cowardice of Russia’s capitalist class were matched by the revolutionary spirit of its young working class. In such conditions, “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.”5
Once in power, the working class would immediately set about getting rid of Tsarism and introducing democratic reforms, but this would inevitably bring it into conflict with capitalism. Legislation to limit the working day, for instance, would meet the opposition of capitalists closing down factories and locking out workers. The workers’ government would have no alternative but to take over their factories: “the very logic of its position will compel it to pass over to collectivist measures”. The workers would have to take economic as well as political control: “The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement.”6 The revolution would become permanent, moving directly from the overthrow of Tsarism to the overthrow of capitalism.
But the rule of the workers could not survive in isolation, least of all in a country as economically undeveloped as Russia. Their only hope would be for their revolution to inspire workers in other countries to follow their example and come to their aid. “The workers’ government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolutionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship.”7
The workers could not hold power without the support of other exploited sections of the people, especially in Russia’s vast countryside:
The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages and in this manner destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits. From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonisms between the village poor and village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie.
The revolutionary government should include representatives of the peasantry, but “the hegemony should belong to the working class”.8
Trotsky was right to insist that, rather than an alliance of equal partners, it would be a case of the peasantry following the lead of the workers. The position of the working class in the economy gave it a far greater collective strength, and its direct, immediate interest in carrying out socialist measures would give it the leading role in the revolution’s development. But he went too far in assigning only a passive role to the peasantry, asserting that “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasantry as the class which has emancipated it.”9 Rural revolt would add an extra dimension of its own to the revolution. He was wrong, too, in assuming that they would inevitably turn against the workers at some stage, that “The primitiveness of the peasantry turns its hostile face towards the proletariat.”10 A successful revolution would bring the rural poor to see the advantages of socialism for themselves.
The revolution of 1905 didn’t realise the potential Trotsky saw in it. By the end of the year, the ruling class was beginning to regain the upper hand. The leaders of the St Petersburg workers’ council were arrested and sent to Siberia. Again, Trotsky escaped and went into exile for what proved a barren period for Russia’s socialists.
Trotsky took a prominent part in the international socialist opposition to the first world war. Tsarist Russia’s involvement in the slaughter proved to be the last throw of the dice for the regime. Growing discontent erupted in revolution in February 1917 which replaced the Tsar with a provisional government. Shortly after 1905 Trotsky had forecast that “the first new wave of revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country”,11 and 1917 proved him right as workers’ councils mushroomed. In May he succeeded in getting back to St Petersburg.
His first port of call was the workers’ council, where he argued that the revolution’s next step should be “to transfer the whole power into the hands of the Soviets”.12 The Mezhrayontsy, a group of socialists Trotsky had been linked to for a couple of years, had been advocating such a policy since February. At Lenin’s prompting, the Bolsheviks too were now calling for the workers’ councils to take power, dropping their old position. “The Bolsheviks de-bolshevised themselves”, commented Trotsky.13 The Mezhraiontsy merged with the Bolsheviks and many of their leading figures, including Trotsky, were elected to the party’s leadership.
After six weeks’ imprisonment at the hands of the government, Trotsky emerged in September to a situation where the call for a second, workers’ revolution was winning majority support among the working class. He was elected president of the capital’s workers’ council again, and organised the insurrection of 25 October that overthrew the provisional government and handed power to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets.
The workers’ council, foundation of the new government, was an “irreplaceable organization of working-class self-rule”, argued Trotsky.14 Delegates were elected by and responsible to a specific workplace, and so the councils truly reflected the workers’ will:
They depend directly on organic groups… there is the far more important guarantee of the direct and immediate contact of the deputy with his electors. The member of the municipal council or zemstvo depends on an amorphous mass of electors who invest him with authority for one year, and then dissolve. The Soviet electors, on the other hand, remain in permanent contact with one another by the very conditions of their life and work; their deputy is always under their direct observation and may at any moment be given new instructions, and, if necessary, may be censured, recalled, and replaced by somebody else.15
As commissar for foreign affairs in the new workers’ government, Trotsky took prime responsibility for what he had long ago identified as the first necessity of a Russian revolution. “Our whole hope is that our revolution will kindle a European revolution”, he announced on taking up the post. “The Russian revolution will either cause a revolution in the West, or the capitalists of all countries will strangle our [revolution].”16 To this end, the Bolsheviks established the Communist International. “It has no aims or tasks separate and apart from those of the working class itself”, said Trotsky. It wanted to help establish, not “tiny sects, each of which wants to save the working class in its own manner”, but in each country “a genuine revolutionary organization, one that doesn’t tell the workers lies, doesn’t deceive them, doesn’t hide from them nor throw sand in their eyes, doesn’t betray them in the cloakrooms of parliamentarianism or of economic conciliationism but leads them unswervingly to the end”.17
Generalising from the Russian experience, he concluded that the heartlands of capitalism would likely be the toughest nuts for socialism to crack, while the system gave way at its weakest links:
The more powerful a country is capitalistically—all other conditions being equal—the greater is the inertia of “peaceful” class relations… Countries with a younger capitalist culture are the first to enter the path of civil war inasmuch as the unstable equilibrium of class forces is most easily disrupted precisely in these countries.… the task of initiating the revolution, as we have already seen, was not placed on an old proletariat with mighty political and trade union organizations, with massive traditions of parliamentarianism and trade unionism, but upon the young proletariat of a backward country. History took the line of least resistance. The revolutionary epoch burst in through the most weakly barricaded door.18
The class overthrown by the Russian revolution showed no signs of giving up without a struggle. Their resistance went on for years with the help of invading foreign armies, forcing the new-born workers’ republic to fight a war for its very existence. As commissar for war from 1918 Trotsky organised a Red Army from scratch that succeeded in beating back the forces trying to crush the revolution. Ruthless combat went hand in hand with humanitarian concern: “Let the hand be cut off of any Red Army man who lifts his knife on a prisoner of war, on the disarmed, the sick and wounded”, ran one of Trotsky’s orders.19
Violence in defence of the revolution was clearly justified in Trotsky’s eyes: “When a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer to save the child?” Renouncing violence would mean renouncing revolution itself. However, Trotsky tended to make an unfortunate necessity into a positive proposition:
the principle of the ‘sacredness of human life’ remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.… we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life’.… The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror.20
Recognising the necessity for a socialist revolution to terrorise its enemies is one thing: sanctioning every single use of terror is another. Regarding human life as sacred is not the sole preserve of Kantian priests and vegetarian Quakers. Socialists should only kill, or support killing, if and when it proves absolutely necessary. Even then, it is the exception to the rule, an evil to be tolerated and kept to a minimum, not a principle to be exalted.
Years before the revolution, Trotsky had insisted that the dictatorship of the proletariat “wouldn’t be the dictatorship of a little band of conspirators or a minority party, but of the immense majority… the political rule of the organised working class”. The multitude of problems faced by the workers in power could be solved only
by long ‘debates’, by way of a systematic struggle not only between the socialist and capitalist worlds, but also between many trends inside socialism… No ‘strong authoritative organisation’… will be able to suppress these trends and controversies… for it is only too clear that a proletariat capable of exercising its dictatorship over society will not tolerate any dictatorship over itself.21
The revolution’s early years came surprisingly close to this ideal. For a period the Bolsheviks shared governmental power with another left-wing party. Other parties and schools of thought took a full part in political debate. Within the Bolshevik party itself various factions contended openly. The isolation of the revolution and its need to fight for survival threatened this democracy, however. Very little opposition remained within the framework of the workers’ power, as parties colluded with or surrendered to those trying to bring back the old regime. Soviet Russia effectively ended up as a one-party state.
This situation could be explained, at least in part, by the desperate straits the revolution found itself in. Trotsky, though, chose to justify and praise it as a good thing in all circumstances:
The exclusive role of the Communist Party under the conditions of a victorious proletarian revolution is quite comprehensible.… The revolutionary supremacy of the proletariat pre-supposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear programme of action and a faultless internal discipline.
The policy of coalitions contradicts internally the regime of the revolutionary dictatorship. We have in view, not coalitions with bourgeois parties, of which of course there can be no talk, but a coalition of communists with other ‘socialist’ organisations… In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental…22
He personally took a hand in ‘re-organising’ trade unions that disagreed with industrial directives from the government: “our state is a workers’ state… Hence the trade unions must teach the workers not to haggle and fight with their own state”.23 But if the workers had no say in how the state was run, how could it be a workers’ state? Those who raised such questions were shut up, with Trotsky’s full support:
They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party, as it were, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.… The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship… The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy…24
A greater and greater distance was opening up between an exhausted, decimated, isolated working class and the state power that ruled in its name. Meanwhile Trotsky noted the advent of the “new Soviet bureaucrat” who was becoming increasingly powerful: “This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution”.25 To his eternal credit, Trotsky was to fight a life-and-death battle against this bureaucracy. But that battle was severely weakened before it began by the excuses he himself made for state rule over the workers rather than workers’ rule over the state.
- Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (London, no date), p 72, 77.
- Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p 279.
- Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (London, 1989), p 44.
- 1905, p 235, 266, 268.
- Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London, 1962), p 195.
- Ibid, p 232-3.
- 1905, p 333. It should be stressed that the dictatorship Trotsky has in mind here is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the undivided rule of the working class, as discussed further on.
- Results and Prospects, p 208, 202.
- Ibid, p 203.
- Ibid, p 209.
- The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, edited by Isaac Deutscher (New York, 1964), p 56.
- Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford, 1954), p 254.
- Quoted in Cliff, p 209.
- Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one (London, 1973), p 51.
- The Essential Trotsky (London, 1963), p 47. Zemstvos were rural councils in Tsarist Russia.
- Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The sword of the revolution 1917-1923 (London, 1990), p 21.
- The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one, p 159, 94.
- Ibid, p 82, 84-6.
- Quoted in Deutscher, p 461.
- Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (London, 1975), p 81-3.
- Quoted in Cliff, Towards October, p 42, 63.
- Terrorism and Communism, p 122-3. The Bolsheviks had renamed themselves the Communist Party in 1918.
- Quoted in Cliff, The sword of the revolution, p 165.
- Quoted in Deutscher, p 508-9.
- Quoted in ibid, p 427.
In Issue 60 (June 2015), seventy five years after Leon Trotsky’s assassination, Joe Conroy tackled the enigma of his defeat at the hands of Stalin.
The personal fate of Leon Trotsky has often come to personify the destiny of the Russian revolution, and not without reason. His precipitous ascent to the heights of revolutionary glory was followed by abrupt consignment to the political margins, exile, and finally death 75 years ago. It is a rise and fall that mirrors in many ways the flowering and withering of the revolution itself, and examining how someone who had it all ended up with nothing can help us understand that wider failure.
It’s not that far-fetched to imagine Trotsky as Russia’s Michael Collins. He was, after all, the man who won the war. This is not to say that he fought every battle and fired every bullet, no more than Collins did, but that no one played a greater role in organising the military resistance. This won Trotsky immense prestige among socialist veterans of the civil war, and fierce loyalty from those who had personally fought alongside him. The comparison extends to the superficial but not insignificant matter of Trotsky’s looks. He was a handsome figure who took care over his appearance and invariably cut a dash on the historical stage. While history knows far more weighty factors, this kind of thing does count for something when people decide who to support or not. Throughout his life Trotsky remained an eminently self-confident person who exercised an attraction for those around him, on various levels. Stalin, on the other hand, his prime opponent in post-revolutionary controversy, was always a bland uninviting personality with a face only a mother could love—something Trotsky liked to remark upon in his less charitable moments.
Just as such considerations played a part in Trotsky’s rise, so the jealousy they sparked played a part in his fall. It will take more than one revolution to slay the green-eyed monster, and it is still far from unknown for the bitter tensions of left-wing politics to be spiced with a little envy, personal grudges blurring with political disagreement. Trotsky often had to face the enmity of lesser men, and sometimes pointing up their inferiority was his weapon of choice in reply. The polemical put-downs often silenced his protagonist, but deposited a layer of resentment which would later get its chance to seep through.
Trotsky was, of course, a latecomer to the Bolshevik party. His disagreement with the Bolsheviks was very bitter and occasionally petty to begin with, smoothed over a little through the practicalities of revolution in 1905, but trenchant throughout. Its effectiveness lay in the fact that he was pinpointing where Bolshevism was not revolutionary enough, its notion that Russia’s working class could come to power but then somehow leave it without attacking the roots of capitalism. Insisting that workers in power would have no real option but to fight for their own social and economic liberation as well as ending the Tsarist dictatorship, he charted a course for permanent revolution which Bolsheviks dismissed with bad consciences.
But history came to meet Trotsky in 1917, a year whose events seemed to fall into his predictions far better than the Bolsheviks’. Among Lenin’s greatest achievements was to realise this and act accordingly. One of his means of turning the Bolshevik party around was to bring Trotsky and his fellow-thinkers in. While Trotsky balked at swallowing the word Bolshevism, his group did come into the Bolshevik fold, taking seats on its central committee and roles among its most prominent activists. This neo-Bolshevik party shed much of its pre-revolutionary skin, and an influx of new 1917 revolutionaries helped to swamp its lingering conservatism.
While the doubts of lingering conservatives justifiably get forgotten in the rush of revolution, Trotsky’s appearance at the summit of their party must have rankled with a good few old Bolsheviks. For years they had repeated Lenin’s condemnations of Trotsky’s ultra-left idiocy, but now they were expected to pursue it as a policy and even applaud its author. After loyally carrying out a hundred thankless tasks for the party, undergoing sacrifices big and small, now they had to sit back and watch an arrogant Johnny-come-lately leapfrog over them into instant leadership. They wouldn’t have been human if seeds of antipathy weren’t sprouting luxuriantly within them.
His pre-eminent military role was a double-edged sword here. Sweeping from front to front to direct and inspire the defence of the revolution annoyed his rivals, not so much by its flamboyance as its success. His largely improvised sense of strategy had a knack of getting results where others didn’t. The fact that he promoted good soldiers over loyal Communists made him many enemies in the party who welcomed the opportunity to get their own back.
Trotsky was an intensely unpragmatic person. He wasn’t one to do something just because it seemed the right thing to do: instead he had to reconcile it with his principles, understand it within a wider global and historical context. This is one of his great strengths, and an asset to us looking back at his life’s work. But it ill fitted him to take up a place within a system of administration, where every day decisions have to be taken that happen to be right for their time and place, and perhaps not for other times and places.
The Russian revolution often restricted the liberties of its opponents, for instance. It’s highly unlikely that any revolution will find itself in the happy position of not requiring such restrictions, and the best of them will strain to minimise them and direct them at real opponents. However, Trotsky quickly got into the habit of defending such restrictions in and of themselves, even glorifying in them as examples of positive rational politics rather than enforced temporary departures from the norm. Making a virtue out of cruel necessity tended to normalise the shutting down of dissent, to anaesthetise public opinion to it—and that would come back to bite him later on.
Lenin having brought Trotsky into the leadership, Trotsky’s marginalisation coincided with Lenin’s illness and death. His comments from his sickbed characterise Trotsky as “the most capable man” in the party leadership, with “outstanding ability”. But his accusation of “excessive self-assurance” doesn’t just reflect the old Bolshevik scepticism towards the newcomer, and “excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work” is actually a mild description of Trotsky’s outrageous plan to enforce military discipline on workers who didn’t work hard enough.
This same ‘testament’ of Lenin contained an explicit recommendation that Stalin be removed from the party leadership, and the fact Stalin survived this still remains surprising. Trotsky was constrained from seizing the opportunity provided by the testament, because Lenin’s opinion of Trotsky himself was ambiguous. Launching a campaign against Stalin on the basis of Lenin’s wishes would have entailed taking himself down a peg or two as well. He went along with a leadership decision to sweep Lenin’s advice under the carpet, even denying its very existence.
Besides, Trotsky had no stomach for a squabble over a dead man’s clothes. He felt that to argue over Lenin’s succession was beneath his dignity, and often saw internal party politics generally in the same light. He had a habit of withdrawing from the fray at the height of party crises, sometimes to write a brilliant book. While being denounced from a height at central committee meetings, he sat there reading a French novel. There is something admirable about his conscientious objection to fighting such a war of frogs and mice, but at a time when Russian politics was being largely shaped by inside machinations, his retreat to the grand sweep of historical perspective left him at a disadvantage.
He was famously misinformed of the timing of Lenin’s funeral, giving the impression that he was a less than enthusiastic devotee of the cult soon woven around the dead leader. In fact, Trotsky moved quickly to become Leninicis ipsis Leniniores, more Leninist than Lenin. This meant downplaying or ignoring the real controversies that had raged between the two of them, especially where Lenin had been in the wrong, and consequently became an act of self-effacement for Trotsky. Like the Waterboys, he now only claimed to have seen the crescent while Lenin saw the whole of the moon. Whereas Lenin’s halo was made to shed reflected glory on lesser figures, it could only put Trotsky in the shade.
One of the articles of faith of posthumous Leninism was the overriding power of the party, outside which there could be no salvation. Trotsky’s biggest error was to bow down low before this altar:
Comrades, none of us wants to be or can be right against the party. In the last analysis, the party is always right… I know that no one can be right against the party. It is only possible to be right with the party and through it…
History supplies few examples of more capable hands being hog-tied so comprehensively, and by themselves. Ruling out in advance the very possibility of organising outside the framework of the Communist Party, staking everything on that party’s internal evolution, he placed himself at the mercy of an organisation gearing up to sideline him. The way seemingly indomitable Bolsheviks prostrated themselves in the show trials of the 1930s owed much to this same logic.
Trotsky could hardly bring himself to credit that the man who would take the lead in trampling on the revolution was Stalin. He regarded him as such a non-entity that even working up contempt for him required some effort on his part. It is true that intellectually Stalin counts for next to nothing, but this is precisely what suited him for power when the revolutionary tide had gone out. At a time when Bolshevik ambitions for world revolution grew more distant, a theoretical sense was needed to envisage its potential return. Humdrum practicality became the watchword of those determined to hold on to the power they had without any more risky political adventures, and Stalin was just the man for that job.
Trotsky repeatedly refused to countenance the idea that socialists had to break cleanly with the state developing on the ruins of the Russian revolution. Any breaks he did make were reluctantly forced upon him, hesitant, partial and usually too late. He insisted that his supporters stay in the Communist Party, with all the restrictions upon their activity that involved, long after it had become a glorified rubber stamp for the bureaucracy. It wasn’t until Hitler marched into power that he realised the Communist International was no place for socialists. While laying bare the injustices of the Stalinist system, he stubbornly maintained that it had a lot of good points worth defending, leaving him in the impossible position of simultaneously punching and embracing his opponent.
Much of this is clearer in hindsight, whose benefit we should of course take advantage of, but wasn’t available to Trotsky. Some of it was clear at the time, however. Among those who similarly stood out against the degeneration of the revolution were people who said the Communist Party and its puppets were a rotten corpse, that socialists had to openly organise outside them, that Stalinism contained nothing worth hanging on to, was a system which needed overthrowing in an all-out revolution. Trotsky dismissed such ideas vehemently, though sometimes was eventually dragged into going some of the way. For someone as centrally involved as he had been in establishing a system, it must have been immensely difficult to face the bitter truth that it was beyond salvage, that a new revolution would have to start from scratch.
Like us all, Trotsky had the defects of his virtues. His role as a living symbol of 1917, someone internationally recognised for his role in the revolution, was a great boon for the movement trying to keep its ideals alive against the odds. But his pre-eminence in that movement, the fact that it was built almost exclusively around him, had its drawbacks. It left that movement merely defending the Russian revolution without critically assessing it, unwilling to admit the errors which had been committed long before Stalin climbed to power. It is understandable for Trotsky to be protective of actions he was personally or collectively responsible for, but not that a socialist movement would have no room for other comrades to dissent from that.
A clear example arose in Trotsky’s last years when some anti-Stalinist socialists raised the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt of 1921. This was and remains an issue of prime relevance to socialists, both in understanding how Russia’s revolution was lost and how socialist revolutions in general deal with opposition. Trotsky, however, responded with defensive aggression, calumniating the revolt and justifying every measure taken to repress it. Someone whose closet contained skeletons of its own was not the best placed to weigh the issues.
Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinism, even as the assassin’s icepick bore down upon him, lacks nothing in heroism and commitment. Its greatest tragedy is that his personal resistance was no longer part of a collective resistance. There was a weak Trotskyist opposition made up of loyal followers of the Old Man, anxious to uphold his legacy above all else, not a movement of socialists benefitting from Trotsky’s insights while always prepared to question them. In the absence of such a movement, the weaknesses of Trotsky’s personality assumed a disproportionate weight.
The same could be said for Trotsky’s post-1917 defeat in general. He didn’t lose because Stalin was cleverer, stronger, or better: on any of these counts, Trotsky with a blindfold on would win hands down. He lost because any dedication to socialism can only prosper when socialism becomes the active faith of masses of workers. Without the working class thinking and fighting, the movement to emancipate the working class is nothing, and those who dedicate their lives to it find themselves on history’s losing team. But that is the honourable place to be when the other team is made up of chancers, traitors and worse—and if we learn well from our defeats, the result can be different whenever the ball comes our way again.
In Eagrán 53 (Meán Fómhair 2013) mheas Seán Ó Gadhra saothar mór an Trotscaíochais 75 bliana ar aghaidh.
Ceann de mhórscéalta laochais an tsóisialachais atá ann: Leon Trotscaí ar ionnarbadh ó fhothrach na réabhlóide, ar a sheachaint i Meicsiceo, ag iarraidh an bhratach a choinneáil ar foluain ar éigean agus scáil na deachtóireachta is na cogaíochta ag titim anuas ar an gcine daonna. Chreid sé go raibh sé in am ag an dornán beag dílis a fhógairt go raibh gluaiseacht úr dá tógáil acu ar fud an domhain. Rinneadh amhlaidh i 1938, agus chum sé Arraingeacha Báis an Chaipitleachais agus Cúraimí an Cheathrú hIdirnaisiúntán mar chlár dóibh. Ní hionadh gur ghreamaigh ainm ba ghonta de roimh i bhfad, An tIdirchlár, agus ba shin a bhí ann, clár a dhéanfadh ceangal idir inniu agus amárach, idir na cathanna beaga agus na coimhlintí báis is beatha, idir céadriachtanais na n‑oibrithe agus an claochlú sóisialach: “Caithfear cuidiú leis an bpobal i rith na coimhlinte laethúla teacht ar an droichead idir éilimh an ama i láthair agus clár sóisialach na réabhlóide.” (Leon Trotscaí, An tIdirchlár: Arraingeacha Báis an Chaipitleachais agus Cúraimí an Cheathrú hIdirnáisiúntán, foilsithe ag D R O’Connor Lysaght, Baile Átha Cliath 2013, lch 20.)
Is é freagra Throtscaí ar an mboilsciú an sampla is cáiliúla de na hidiréilimh a bhí i gceist aige. Agus praghsanna bunearraí ag ardú thar acmhainn na n‑oibrithe, “ní féidir troid ach faoi mhana an scála aistritheach pá”: go rachadh pá suas bonn ar aon le praghsanna (lch 21). Tá an chuma air gur réiteach breá simplí é, ach más ea, tuige nach gcuireann oibrithe chun cinn mar éileamh ariamh é?
Ar an gcéad dul síos, i dtréimhsí maithe don aicme oibre, bíonn siad in ann arduithe go maith os cionn an ráta boilscithe a bhaint amach, agus ba dhíchéillí dóibh cloí le scála ba lú ná sin. Is éileamh é nach bhfuil feidhm leis ach amháin nuair nach bhfuil na hoibrithe sách laidir lena chur i gcion. Anuas air sin, thabharfaí mar fhreagra láithreach air nach bhféadfadh an córas caipitleach a leithéid a sheasamh. Go breá, arsa tusa—ach má tá sciar mhaith den aicme oibre ullamh a ghabháil chomh fada leis an gcóras a chur ar ceal, cén call dóibh a bheith ag méirínteacht le scálaí pá ar chor ar bith? Déanann an t‑éileamh dearmad ar ghá a shonraíonn Trotscaí in áit eile, manaí “a bheith faoi réir ag comharthaí na gluaiseachta” (lch 24). Agus gluaiseacht ag fás, tugann sí a cuid éileamh féin chun tosaigh le freastal ar riachtanais na huaire. Is leis na héilimh seo a chaithfeas sóisialaithe tosaí, nasc a dhéanamh idir iad seo agus an sóisialachas. Ní gar dóibh éilimh réamhdhéanta a tharraingt as a bpóca mar mhalairt orthu. Nuair a leagtar éilimh síos roimh ré, cothaíonn sé meon aisteach i measc sóisialaithe, gur againne atá na freagraí agus nach gá ach iadsan—na hoibrithe—a thabhairt ar aon bharúil linn. Go deimhin, spreagann sé amhras roimh éilimh a eascraíonn ón ngluaiseacht féin, an tuairim go gcaithfear a theacht rompu sula gcuirfí an réabhlóid den bhóthar ceart, mar dhóigh de.
Is minic a cheapann daoine—lucht leanta Throtscaí san áireamh—gurb ionann idiréileamh agus éileamh nach féidir a chomhlíonadh faoin gcaipitleachas, ach dearbhaíonn Trotscaí: “Braitheann sé ar sheasamh na bhfórsaí i ngach cás ‘an féidir’ nó ‘nach féidir’ rud a bhaint amach”. Díreach ina dhiaidh sin, áfach, deir sé go dteaspánfaidh coimhlint ar shon idiréileamh bealach na réabhlóide, “cibé rath praiticiúil laithreach a bheidh uirthi” (lch 22). Cheapfá uaidh seo gur cuma bua nó bris i bhfeachtas an lae inniu ach na ceachtanna cuí a fhoghlaim as. Is beag tuiscint a léirítear anseo ar thábhacht na bhfeachtas seo, ar an difríocht a dhéanann feabhas anseo is ansiúd do staid agus meon an aicme oibre. Is fearr a throideann daoine agus buanna ar a gcúl. Níl aon chodarsnacht idir an réabhlóid agus gnáthchathanna an lae, agus ní féidir “an obair seo a dhéanamh gan aon deighilt ó fhíorchúraimí na réabhlóide” (lch 20) má cheapann tú nach luíonn siad le chéile go dlúth.
Is fíor do Throtscaí go bhfuil gá leis an droichead a luann sé, ach is fíor dó freisin nach bhfuil idiréilimh ach “mar chuid den droichead seo” (lch 20). Ní féidir an milleán a bhualadh airsean as an nós atá ag go leor dá lucht leanta ó shin idiréileamh a spíonadh mar aonfhreagra gach ceiste. Ní annamh a dhéantar sin leis an éileamh go mbunófaí “grúpaí féinchosanta oibrithe” (lch 30), ach leagann Trotscaí béim ar an gcomhthéacs, go raibh caipitlithe ag eagrú buíonta armtha in aghaidh na n‑oibrithe, agus an faisisteachas féin ag fás. Ní bithéileamh i gcomhair chuile ócáid é, cuma cá seasann gluaiseacht na n‑oibrithe, ach é “ag dul ar aghaidh léi céim ar chéim. Nuair a theastóidh sé ón bprólatáireacht, tiocfaidh sí ar bhóthar agus modh a harmála.” (Lch 31.) Ní hé liosta beartanna a dhéanann droichead go dtí an réabhlóid, ach tuiscint ar an méid a bheas ag teastáil leis an mbruach thall a bhaint amach as seo.
Agus i measc na n‑idiréilimh réamhcheaptha uilig, tá tuiscint dá leithéid le fáil anseo. Ní leor éilimh is manaí a fhógairt don saol (lgh 34-5): “Caithfear na bunsmaointe seo a léirmhíniú, á mbriseadh síos i smaointe níos nithiúla éagsúla, ag brath ar an gcaoi a dtéann cúrsaí ar aghaidh agus meon aigne an phobail.” Ba iomaí caint faoi ‘chosaint an náisiúin’ a bhí le cloisteáil sa tráth seo, mar shampla, ach seachas í a cháineadh as éadan, ba cheart aithneachtáil idir náisiúnachas na saibhre a bhí ag iarraidh a gcreach impiriúlach féin a chosaint, agus náisiúnachas na cosmhuintire a raibh cosaint a dteallach féin ar a chúl, “agus caithfimid an chaoi le breith ar na gnéithe seo a thuiscint” (lch 35).
Tá ceann de na rudaí is luachmhaire a chuir Trotscaí le stór an tsóisialachais le fáil san Idirchlár, leiriú ar an gcaoi a gcomhcheanglaítear bunéilimh dhaonlathacha—ar neamhspleáchas náisiúnta, parlaimint, deireadh leis an tiarnas talún agus a leithéid—go dlúth leis an gcoimhlint ar shon an tsóisialachais. “Ní scartar ó chéile manaí daonlathacha, idiréilimh agus fadhbanna na réabhlóide sóisialaí ina réanna stairiúla ar leith sa choimhlint seo: leanann siad ar a chéile go díreach.” (Lch 42.)
Agus teastaíonn an daonlathas go géar ón gcoimhlint shóisialach. Is iad comhairlí na n‑oibrithe a buaic, iad ag eagrú troid leathan an aicme oibre agus ag freagairt go beo di (lgh 41-2):
Osclaíonn siad a ndoirse don phobal faoi chois ar fad. Tagann ionadaí gach sraith isteach trí na doirse seo, á dtarraingt isteach i sruth ginearálta na coimhlinte. Athnuaitear an eagraíocht seo, ag leathnú in éineacht leis an ngluaiseacht, arís is arís eile ina broinn.… ag feidhmiú mar mhaighdeog a n‑aontaítear na milliúin den lucht oibre timpeall uirthi ina gcoimhlint in aghaidh na ndúshaothraithe…
Bhí fios a ghnóthaí ag Trotscaí anseo, nó bhí sé féin chun tosaigh nuair a cuireadh comhairlí mar seo ar bun sa Rúis, na ‘sóivéidí’, i 1905 agus aríst i 1917. Cé go raibh ainm na sóivéide ar institiúidí riaracháin ansin fós, b’fhada an daonlathas glanta chun siúil astu. Ní raibh sa stát sin anois ach “arm foréigneach maorlathach in aghaidh an aicme oibre”. Mar sin féin, “is stát meata de chuid na n‑oibrithe i gcónaí é”, dar le Trotscaí (lch 47). Cé go raibh maorlathas Stailin i gceannas an stáit, bhí seilbh ag an stát ar an ngeilleagar, agus ba cheart do shóisialaithe troid leis sin a chosaint le linn dóibh troid leis an maorlathas a chur ó chumhacht.
Ach—mar is léir ó na bancanna a bhfuair muintir na hÉireann seilbh orthu le deireanas, mar dhea—cén mhaith seilbh an stáit gan an stát a bheith i seilbh na n‑oibrithe? Riar daonlathach na n‑oibrithe ar mhaithe leis an bpobal a chuirfeadh réabhlóid shóisialach ar chúrsaí eacnamaíochta, agus ní bheadh aon chosúlacht idir sin agus an riar ollsmachtach ar mhaithe lena aicme féin a bhí ag Stailin orthu. Ní fhéadfái an sóisialachas a chur chun cinn aríst gan é a dhealú glan ón Stailineachas, agus ba laincis ar an iarracht sin an chaoi ar sheas Trotscaí is a lucht leanta air go raibh fiúntas áirid le cosaint i gcóras na Rúise.
“Tá an réamhchoinníoll eacnamaíochta leis an réabhlóid phrólatáireach bainte amach cheana i gcoitinne”, a chreid Trotscaí, agus ba “D’aineolas nó dallamullóg d’aon turas” a mhalairt a rá. Ba mhinic “go raibh an phrólatáireacht ullamh ó chroí an córas caipitleach a threascairt” gur chuir ceannairí a ngluaiseachta stad leo: “Is é nádúr deistapaíoch cheannaireacht na prólatáireachta an phríomhbhacainn sa bhealach”. Dá bharr sin, “níl i ngéarchéim stairiúil an chine dhaonna ach géarchéim na ceannaireachta réabhlóidí” (lgh 17-18).
Is dearcadh coitianta ar an eite chlé ariamh é, go bhfuil fonn cráite ar na hoibrithe an caipitleachas a leagan ar maidin marach na fealltóirí diabhlaí i gceannas orthu dá gcoinneáil siar. Ach má bhíonn na hoibrithe chomh réabhlóideach seo i ndáiríre, ullamh an aicme chaipitleach a chur de leataobh, ba réidh a bhrúfaidís ceannairí gan mhaith as a mbealach freisin. Is fusa réamhchoinníollacha eacnamaíochta an tsóisialachais a chur ar fáil ná an coinníoll is cinniúnaí ar fad, go mbeadh formhór mór an aicme oibre suite de ina gcroí istigh gur gá agus gur féidir saol nua a chur in ionad an chaipitleachais. Ach an dearcadh gurb iad na ceannairí bun is barr na faidhbe, tógtar é ar mhímhuinín as an aicme oibre, ar an tuairim nach dtig leo iad féin a fhuascailt as a stuaim féin, go gcaithfidh ceannaireacht sheachtrach de chineál éicint iad a stiúrú chun bua. Is é an bunghnó i gcónaí, mar sin, ceannaireacht cheart a chur le chéile le áit an cheannaireacht mhícheart a ghlacadh.
Tá an dearcadh le brath agus Trotscaí ag fiafraí cé a réiteos anchás an domhain: “Faoin bprólatáireacht atá sé anois .i. a hurgharda réabhlóideach go príomha” (lch 18). Go tobann, ní hí an aicme oibre a chuirfeas an sóisialachas i gcrích, ach dream amháin díobh ag obair thar a gceann. Dá chomhartha sin, is é “príomhchúram” na linne eagar a chur ar an dream seo, “Páirtithe réabhlóideacha náisiúnta a thógáil” (lch 23). Ar ámharaí an tsaoil, bhí eagraíocht nua ag Trotscaí féin a dhéanfadh sin: “is ar ghuaillí an Cheathrú hIdirnaisiúntán ar fad a thiteann an choimhlint réabhlóideach” agus cogadh ag bagairt (lch 33). Seachas é, go deimhin, “níl oiread agus sruth réabhlóideach amháin ar an bpláinéad ar fiú an t‑ainm é” (lch 57).
Bhí mórdhifríocht idir bunú an idirnáisiúntáin seo agus an trí idirnáisiúntán a chuaigh roimhe. Cuireadh iad sin ar bun tráthanna a raibh borradh ag teacht faoi ghluaiseacht na n‑oibrithe, in 1864, 1889, 1919. Ba scéal eile ar fad é i 1938, áfach, cúis na n‑oibrithe ar an bhfaraoir géar mara raibh sí báite faoin deachtóireacht. D’amhdaigh Trotscaí gur eascair an Ceathrú hIdirnaisiúntán ó “na díomuanna is mó a bhain don phrólatáireacht i rith a staire” (lch 57), ach d’fhéach sé le áil a dhéanamh den éigean seo, ag rá go mba é donas an scéil go díreach a d’éiligh é. Bhí an aicme oibre ag cúlú, agus ba é a gcloch nirt greim a choinneáil ar a raibh acu, ach gheall an t‑idirnáisiúntán beag bídeach seo dóibh go raibh “bratach an bhua atá chugaibh” ina lámha (lch 57). Agus an fhéiníomhá seo ina aigne, ní fhéadfadh sé maireachtáil ach i dtuilleamaí na dallamullóige, ag iarraidh comharthaí bua a léamh áit a raibh tubaist le feiceáil. Is deacair a chreidiúint go bhféadfadh Trotscaí abairt mar seo a thabhairt uaidh (lch 47): “Tá oibrithe tosaigh an domhain deimhin de cheana nach dtreascrófar Mussolini, Hitler agus a gcuid gníomhairí is aithriseoirí ach faoi cheannaireacht an Cheathrú hIdirnaisiúntán.”
Le fírinne, ba é “bratach gan smál” (lch 57) an t‑aon rud a bhí le tairiscint acu: mara raibh aon bhua bainte acu ná a chosúlacht sin orthu, ní raibh siad páirteach sa bhfeall agus sa gcur i gcéill a bhí ag gabháil in ainseal ar ghluaiseacht na n‑oibrithe. Tráth a raibh ceannairí ag baint slí beatha shocair aisti, scríobh Trotscaí (lch 56): “Ní bhfaighidh bealach isteach chugainn ach iad siúd arb ail leo a bheith beo ar son na gluaiseachta, seachas a bheith beo ar an ngluaiseacht.” Tráth a raibh an bhréag is an cleas in uachtar inti, dhearbhaigh sé (lgh 53-4): “Aghaidh chóir a thabhairt ar an bhfírinne; gan slí na saoráide a lorg; rudaí a ghlaoch ina n‑ainm; an fhírinne a rá leis an bpobal, dá sheirbhe í; gan eagla a bheith orainn roimh chonstaicí; a bheith fíor i dtaobh rudaí beaga chomh maith le rudaí móra; an clár a bhunú ar chiall choimhlint na n‑aicmí; a bheith dána nuair a thagann uair an ghnímh—seo iad rialacha an Cheathrú hIdirnáisiúntán.” Scríobh sé an méid seo agus é ag faire thar a ghualainn dóibh siúd a mharódh gan trócaire é roimh i bhfad eile. Ní hionadh an fonn sin a bheith orthu, agus tá tairbhe le baint againn i gcónaí as a chath uaigneach in ainneoin na n‑ainneoin.
In Issue 47 in March 2012 Joe Conroy looked at this early attempt to spread the message of 1917.
One of the most striking scenes of the Russian revolution sees the representatives of the new soviet government meeting the representatives of German militarism at Brest-Litovsk at the end of 1917 to negotiate an end to the war. Revolutionaries armed with little but the power of principle come face to face with generals determined to defend and extend their empire. As the Russian delegation leaves its train, one of them—once well known as a militant in the German socialist movement—breezes past the dignitaries lined up on the platform to distribute revolutionary leaflets to the ranks of German soldiers behind them. These would be no ordinary peace talks.
Leon Trotsky led the Russian delegation in a game of buying time for the revolution, staving off a German offensive to allow Russia recover. In between inconclusive talks this book was “written in snatches”, as the author puts it, “to acquaint the workers of the world with the causes, progress and meaning of the Russian November Revolution”. (Writing for an international audience meant using an international calendar, and so Russia’s 25 October becomes the west’s 7 November.) It was translated into various languages, becoming for many their first substantial introduction to the politics of the new Russia.
The work features hardly, if at all, in accounts of Trotsky’s life and work, even supportive ones, and it is hard to see why. On a straight historiographical level it is overshadowed by The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky wrote in the early 1930s, an epic treatment written at leisure (albeit enforced) with access to documents and the benefit of hindsight. But the disadvantages of The Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk are its advantages too. It is written largely from memory in whatever moments were available, relating events of the present and recent past. Trotsky’s justifiable desire in later years to vindicate himself against Stalinist slander sometimes got in his light, but here he writes from the standpoint of fresh victory, however precarious, explaining and defending a revolution at high tide.
From early on, the book throws up some intriguing and unusual insights on the revolution’s background. For instance, a reference to “1912, when it really began” dates the revolution to that year’s strike wave and revival of the labour movement. The exceptionally prominent role of the peasantry in 1917 is attributed to scattered farmers being mobilised in the army, organising them collectively “not on a political, but on a military basis”.
The keynote of 1917, though, was the development of councils (soviets) of workers’ deputies, a tradition that came down from the 1905 revolution. In a revolutionary period, as people “constantly gain experience, revise their views of yesterday, think out new ones, reject old leaders, follow others, and press ever forward”, these councils could accurately reflect their will because
They depend directly on organic groups, such as workshops, factories, mines, companies, regiments, etc. …the direct and immediate contact of the deputy with his electors. The member of the Town Council or Zemstvo depends on an amorphous mass of electors who invest him with authority for one year, and then dissolve. The Soviet electors, on the other hand, remain in permanent contact with one another by the very conditions of their life and work; their deputy is always under their direct observation and may at any moment be given new instructions, and, if necessary, may be censured, recalled, and replaced by somebody else.
Such a straightforward explanation of the basic difference between workers’ democracy and the superficial democracy of parliamentarism goes to the heart of the transformation that socialist revolution envisages.
The plain reason behind the Bolsheviks’ success in 1917 was their demand that these workers’ councils should take control of Russia. The demand was raised even when the soviets were led by parties vehemently opposed to the Bolsheviks and to the very idea that the working class should take power, but
the constant re-elections to the Soviets provided the necessary machinery for securing a sufficiently faithful reflection of the growing radicalization of the masses of the workers and the soldiers. …the radical tendencies would necessarily gain the upper hand on the Soviets. In such conditions the struggle of the proletariat for power would naturally shift to the floor of the Soviet organizations, and would proceed in a painless fashion.
The thing was to get the workers’ councils in the driving seat: then the shift from a policy of reform to revolution could take place non-violently through argument and elections. As it transpired, the foundations of the provisional government were undermined well in advance, before they properly took root, leaving only a “phantom Government” to be knocked over. Come 7 November, the insurrection was quite a peaceful affair: “quietly, without any street fighting, without firing or bloodshed, one Government institution after another was being seized by highly disciplined detachments of soldiers, sailors, and Red Guards”.
But finishing the job would never be as easy. Officer cadets held out against the revolution for a few days, and answered an offer of escape with gunfire. “The exasperation and bitterness accompanying any civil war” broke out in response. Trotsky admits that revolutionary soldiers “undoubtedly committed cruelties on individual cadets”, but insists that the ultimate blame lay with their opponents,
that the Revolution of November 7th-8th had been accomplished without a single shot and without a single victim, and that it was only the counter-revolutionary plot which had been organized by the bourgeoisie… that led to inevitable atrocities and victims. The events of November 11th effected a radical change in the temper of the Petrograd people. The struggle took on a more tragic aspect.
While the claim that no one was killed in taking the Winter Palace is untrue, it was remarkably bloodless as insurrections go. But Trotsky feels no need to hide the casualties wrongly inflicted by the revolution, to hold up a spotless banner to his audience, and his explanation of their context is anything but a blanket justification. The move is clear from an uprising of generous humanity to a tough fight forced to sink to its enemies’ level, and the inevitable loss of innocence involved is tragic indeed.
Trotsky is also honest about the failings of the Bolshevik party in 1917. At the time of writing, he had only six months’ membership of the party under his belt, and rather than present a picture of an all-knowing organisation, he emphasises the need for the Bolsheviks to be pressurised from below and outside before they did the right thing. By October, “Amongst the rank and file there was great frustration and growing discontent, because the Bolshevik Party, now in a majority in the Soviets, was not putting its own battle-cries into practice.” He openly criticises the timidity of party leaders and vindicates his own opposition to them. He speaks of “the left wing of the party” being strengthened by the course of events and finally triumphing over the hesitancy of the leadership. This honest lack of organisational reverence is a far healthier attitude than the party loyalism which has characterised many of his followers.
But if Trotsky is refreshingly free at this stage of cheerleading for a particular party, he still sees ‘the party’ in general as the central actor in revolution:
One must always remember that the masses of the people have never been in possession of power, that they have always been under the heel of other classes, and that therefore they lack political self-confidence.… Only when the revolutionary party firmly and unflinchingly speeds to its goal can it help the working masses to overcome all the slavish instincts inherited from centuries and lead the masses to victory.
This is an unashamed assertion that the working class are too downtrodden to liberate themselves, and need a party whose exemplary decisiveness can rise above the ingrained slavishness natural to them.
It is true, of course, that working people haven’t held power but been held down by it, and that that has consequences for their political self-belief. But how does membership of a left-wing organisation free a person from that situation? Neither Trotsky, Lenin, nor any other Bolshevik leader had held power either: did they possess some magical ability to rise above the effects of capitalist oppression on mere mortals? Marx, on the contrary, always insisted that workers would change themselves in changing the world, that the oppression of the working class was all the more reason for the socialist revolution to be their own business. The experience of Russia in 1917 confirms this, as the Bolshevik party was shaped by a class in revolt more than the other way round, with the determination of radicalised workers pushing aside the conservatism of the Bolshevik organisation.
When the November revolution left the soviets in control, they elected a government nominated by the Bolsheviks. “There was undoubtedly a certain amount of political danger in this”, admits Trotsky, but still, “we had no doubt that our party alone was capable of producing a really revolutionary Government”. The danger was greater than Trotsky imagines, however, and of a different nature. The new government was not a government of workers’ councils, made up of their representatives, of people active in their work. While some were well-known soviet activists—Trotsky himself, notably—this was overwhelmingly a slate of Bolshevik party representatives, some of whom had never taken part in the soviets. The workers’ councils were so grateful to the party that had stuck by them through thick and thin that they outsourced their power to the Bolsheviks. Rather than the new government being an organic outgrowth of the councils, directly answerable and recallable by them, a party was allowed to take that function to itself. A further shift in the consciousness of the working class would have been needed to regain it.
“As Marxists, we have never been worshippers of formal democracy”, writes Trotsky. Indeed: Marxists by their very nature refuse to worship anything, but they only oppose formal democracy in the name of a genuine democracy exercised over social life in reality. Unfortunately, such is not Trotsky’s concern, but to dismiss any and all talk of democracy. He takes up arguments made by prominent left-wing thinker Karl Kautsky against the Bolsheviks’ actions:
He endeavoured to prove that the observance of the principle of democracy was always, in the last resort, advantageous to the working class. Of course, in a general way, and on the whole, that is true. But… If it always, in the end, pays the proletariat to wage its class struggle and even to exercise its dictatorship within the frame of democratic institutions, it does not at all follow that history always affords the choice of such a combination. It does not follow from the Marxian theory at all that history inevitably creates conditions which are the most “advantageous” to the proletariat.
It was open to Trotsky to make the obvious point that the workers’ councils were in fact a higher form of democracy than parliaments, that the rule of the working class deepens democracy beyond anything capitalist society can ever offer. Instead he relegates this Marxist principle to the realm of utopia: all very well in theory, “in a general way, and on the whole”, but of no relevance to the real world. When ‘democracy’ becomes a dirty word only three months into a revolution, warning signs should have started to appear.
The book concludes with the peace negotiations its author was involved in. Having spun them out as long as possible, Trotsky argued that soviet Russia should refuse to sign a peace treaty with Germany, and unilaterally withdraw from the war. This position was adopted, even against the opposition of Lenin who wanted to just accept the harsh German terms so as to exit the war as soon as possible. The German empire pushed on to take huge swathes of Russian territory, however, far beyond what it had claimed in the talks. Because Russia was then forced to hastily acquiesce in far worse peace terms, historical judgments tend to support Lenin’s approach. But Trotsky stoutly defends his corner in the book, arguing that it was important to show the world that the Russian revolution was giving in only under duress, after trying every other option, bowing against its will to superior military might—and it is an argument that makes a lot of sense.
The great thing was that the revolution “must win time in the expectation that the revolutionary movement in the West would come to her aid”. Only socialist revolution in Europe could end the isolation of Russia:
I believe that the revolutionary workers of Europe and of other parts of the world will understand us. I believe that they will, in the near future, start on the same work as we are now engaged in, but that, aided by their greater experience and their more perfect intellectual and technical means, they will perform this work more thoroughly, and will help us to overcome all difficulties.
This would have seemed an optimistic wish in February 1918, but not so by the end of the year. Revolution in Germany made a dead letter of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, and 1919 brought forth a potential for revolution across Europe. The failure to realise that potential meant that the days of revolution in Russia were numbered. What could have survived as a weak link in a revolutionary chain rusted from lack of movement. The heroic spirit evident in The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk didn’t go down without a fight, but the book also betrays theoretical accommodations to the revolution’s weaknesses, rationalisations which played their part in its downfall. Its lesson must be to take up the revolutionary work of 1917 but “more thoroughly”, going further and deeper in tearing up the roots of capitalism.