Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

15. Sliding towards the Second World War

A VICTORY of the Spanish proletariat could have produced a great revolutionary movement in France, where massive strikes and factory occupations were taking place. A victory of the proletariat in both Spain and France would have radically changed the whole world situation. Alas, the policy of the Stalinist parties led to massive defeats of the proletariat, further debilitating the international working class after catastrophes in Germany and Austria. From now on the road was steeply downwards. The Second World War was unavoidable.

Trotsky made a massive effort to prepare his supporters and the working class movement for the crucial test of war, to reinforce their internationalism. He masterfully rejected all the bogus Social Democratic and Stalinist justifications for the war. His starting point was the imperialist nature of the war: it was the product of ‘the same causes, inseparable from modern capitalism, that brought about the last imperialist war.’ [1]

In the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, May 1940, Trotsky wrote:

The present war – the second imperialist war – is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradictions of international capitalist interests ...

The immediate cause of the present war is the rivalry between the old wealthy colonial empires, Great Britain and France, and the belted imperialist plunderers, Germany and Italy. [2]

What about the role of US imperialism?

US capitalism is up against the same problems that pushed Germany in 1914 on the path of war. The world is divided? It must be redivided. For Germany it was a question of ‘organising Europe’. The United States must ‘organise’ the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American imperialism. [3]

Against ‘national defence’ Trotsky argued:

Almost a hundred years ago when the national state represented a relatively progressive factor, the Communist Manifesto proclaimed that the proletarians have no fatherland. Their only goal is the creation of the toilers’ fatherland embracing the whole world ...

The struggle of the imperialist bandits leaves as little room for independent small states as does the vicious competition of trusts and cartels for small independent manufacturers and merchants ...

Official patriotism is a mask for the exploiting interests. Class conscious workers throw this mask contemptuously aside. They do not defend the bourgeois fatherland, but the interests of the toilers and the oppressed of their own country and of the entire world. The theses of the Fourth International state:

‘Against the reactionary slogan of ”national defence”, it is necessary to advance the slogan of the revolutionary destruction of the national state. To the madhouse of capitalist Europe it is necessary to counterpose the programme of the Socialist United States of Europe as a stage on the road to the Socialist United States of the World.’ [4]

Against ‘defence of democracy’ Trotsky writes:

No less a lie is the slogan of a war for democracy against fascism. As if the workers have forgotten that the British government helped Hitler and his hangman’s crew gain power! The imperialist democracies are in reality the greatest aristocracies in history. England, France, Holland, Belgium rest on the enslavement of colonial peoples. The democracy of the United States rests upon the seizure of the vast wealth of an entire continent. All the efforts of the these ‘democracies’ are directed toward the preservation of their privileged position. [5]

We do not forget for a moment that this war is not our war. In contradiction to the Second and Third Internationals, the Fourth International builds its policy not on the military fortunes of the capitalist states but on the transformation of the imperialist war into a war of the workers against the capitalists, on the overthrow of the ruling classes of all countries, on the world socialist revolution. [6]

At the same time Trotsky did not give up his stance of defending the USSR as a workers’ state, though degenerated. But even here he did not give any concession to Stalin.

The Fourth International can defend the USSR only by the methods of revolutionary class struggle ...

The defence of the USSR coincides in principle with the preparation of the world proletarian revolution.

The defence of the USSR was not separated from ‘the revolutionary overthrow of Stalin’s Bonapartist clique’. [7]

Trotsky argued that the Munich Agreement between Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini (September 1938) hastened the outbreak of war. So did Franco’s victory in Spain, as it freed the bourgeois governments from the fear of revolution in Europe. It was in these circumstances that on 22 September 1938 Trotsky prophesied the Hitler-Stalin pact – i.e., eleven months before it came into existence. In an article entitled After the Collapse of Czechoslovakia Stalin will Seek Accord with Hitler, Trotsky wrote:

The collapse of Czechoslovakia is the collapse of Stalin’s international policy of the last five years. Moscow’s idea of ‘an alliance of democracies’ for a struggle against fascism is a lifeless fiction. No one wants to fight for the sake of an abstract principle of democracy. All are fighting for material interests. England and France prefer to satisfy the appetites of Hitler at the expense of Austria and Czechoslovakia rather than at the expense of their colonies ...

The terrific blow at the international position of the USSR is the pay-off for the continuous bloody purge, which beheaded the army, disrupted the economy and revealed the weakness of the Stalinist regime. The source of the defeatist policy rests in the Kremlin. We may now expect with certainty Soviet diplomacy to attempt rapprochement with Hitler at the cost of new retreats and capitulations, which in their turn can only bring nearer the collapse of the Stalinist oligarchy.

The compromise over the corpse of Czechoslovakia does not guarantee peace in the least but only creates a more favourable basis for Hitler in the corning war. Chamberlain’s flights in the sky will enter into history as a symbol of those diplomatic convulsions which divided, greedy, and impotent imperialist Europe passed through on the eve of the new slaughter which is about to drench our whole planet in blood. [8]

In fact, since 1933 Trotsky had argued that Stalin’s enthusiasm for alliance with democratic governments was very much an opportunist manoeuvre, that he was at the same time searching for an agreement with Hitler. To support this argument, Trotsky, in his appearance before the Dewey inquiry in April 1937 quoted from Izvestia of 15 March 1933:

The USSR is the only state which is not nourished on hostile sentiments towards Germany and that, independent of the form and the composition of the government of the Reich. [9]

The Hitler-Stalin Pact was concluded on 22 August 1939. On 1 September Germany invaded Poland. Now Stalinist propaganda changed 180 degrees. With real disgust Trotsky wrote:

Pravda of September 14 accuses Poland of oppressing the Ukrainians, White Russians, and Jews. The accusations by themselves are true. But isn’t it astounding that Pravda remembered them precisely now when Poland is drenched with blood under the blows of the German army! [10]

From the time of the Stalin-Hitler pact until 22 June 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, the international Stalinist press was full of attacks on British imperialism’s oppression of India, Egypt, and so on, while oblivious to the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis.

Headquarters of the Fourth International transferred to the United States

THE FOUNDING Conference of the Fourth International in September 1938 adopted the proposal that in case of an outbreak of war the Executive Committee of the International would be transferred to the United States. The proposal went into effect as the war started. A resident committee composed of the members of the International Executive Committee was established in New York.

Since coming to Mexico in January 1937 Trotsky was far more involved in the affairs of his followers in the United States than he had ever been in those of any other country. He was always ready to advise, criticise and settle disputes among the American Trotskyists. Emissaries travelled frequently between New York and Mexico City. Contact was also facilitated by the circumstance that Trotsky’s secretaries and bodyguards were nearly all Americans.

The American Trotskyist organisation was by far the strongest section of the International. The minutes of the founding conference reported that the American section claimed 2,500 members (this was probably exaggerated), while all other sections were far smaller. [11]

The American labour movement was also far less the victim of terrible defeats and catastrophes than the European. As a matter of fact the years 1934-37 saw the rise of a combative, if politically quite undeveloped, trade union movement. New militancy spread in unorganised industries such as steel, rubber, and crucially, auto production. The leaders of the American Federation of Labor, who refused to organise the unskilled in these industries, were pushed aside. These were the years of the magnificent wave of mass industrial action, and widespread sit-down strikes organised by the Congress of Industrial Organisations.

The social composition of the American Socialist Workers Party was also far more proletarian than other sections of the Fourth International. The calibre of its proletarian leadership was demonstrated brilliantly in the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters’ strike, ‘one of the finest pages in the history of the American struggle.’ [12] The organisation and leadership of the strike was of a very high political level. The story of the strike is graphically described by one of its leading participants, Farrell Dobbs. [13]

The Minneapolis teamsters’ strike was a precursor of the great movement of the CIO two to three years later. When this movement took place it became clear that even if the Trotskyist movement was stronger in the US than in Germany, France or Spain, it was still very much weaker than the Stalinist Party. On 30 June 1937 the membership of the US Communist Party was 48,223. [14] This was many times greater than the membership of the SWP.

Even more decisive was the influence of the Communist party on the working class. This party produced by far the largest number of courageous organisers in the early days of the CIO. The historian Daniel Guerin reports:

It is estimated that in mid-1937 the Communists had total or partial control of about forty per cent of the CIO’s International ... In addition, they controlled the most important local union coalitions (New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.). [15]

At the time the CIO was expanding massively through the big sit-down strikes of 1936-37, the Trotskyists were absorbed in entry tactics into the Socialist Party, an organisation which was out of touch with the industrial struggle. This did not improve the position of American Trotskyism vis-a-vis Stalinism. As a matter of fact even the social composition of the Trotskyist organisation was not helped by entry into the Socialist Party. It is true there were good proletarian elements in the Trotskyist organisation, especially in Minneapolis, but the organisation as a whole was far from being proletarian in composition. On 10 October 1937 Trotsky wrote to James P. Cannon:

The party has only a minority of genuine factory workers ... The non-proletarian elements represent a very necessary yeast, and I believe that we can be proud of the good quality of these elements ... But ... our party can be inundated by non-proletarian elements and can even lose its revolutionary character. [16]

The danger of degeneration of the SWP was especially great in New York, where the membership was practically entirely petty bourgeois. Here they were very much involved in the milieu of the New York intellectuals and were therefore heavily influenced by the evolution of these towards ‘liberal anti-communism.’ [17] These intellectuals were demoralised by the horrors of the Moscow Trials, the international isolation of Trotskyism and strength of Stalinism. They became more and more victims of hysterical Stalinophobia, akin to reactionary anti-communism. Individuals like Sidney Hook, who broke with Trotskyism in 1936, established a pattern which many other intellectuals were to follow. This was described very well in an article entitled Intellectuals in Retreat written by the editors of the SWP theoretical journal, James Burnham and Max Shachtman. With astonishing foresight the article describes the dynamics that would soon overwhelm the current generation of intellectuals and, not long after, engulf the authors of the article themselves. The retreat of the intellectuals began with a criticism of Marxist philosophy and dialectics in particular as being ‘fatalistic’. It continued with an equation being made between Stalinism and Leninism, with Leninism being presented as favouring a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship. The logical conclusion was: that Trotskyism equals Stalinism, and there was a need to maintain ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. The article showed: ‘The main disease from which these intellectuals suffer may be called Stalinophobia, or vulgar anti-Stalinism’. This was an illness caused ‘by the universal revulsion against Stalin’s macabre system of frame-ups and purges, and the result has been less a product of cold social analysis, it is moral rather than scientific and political.’ This article was published in January 1939. Ironically, eight months later, with the Hitler-Stalin pact and the start of the war, the same Stalinophobia overtook Burnham and Shachtman themselves.

Early in September 1939 Burnham submitted to the National Committee of the SWP a statement that ‘it is impossible to regard the Soviet Union as a workers’ state in any sense whatever.’ A few weeks later Shachtman branded the Soviet Union’s occupation of Eastern Poland as ‘imperialist’ and urged the party to disavow Trotsky’s position of defence of the USSR.

A national conference of the SWP on 5-9 April 1940 rejected the Shachtman-Burnham position, after which the minority split and formed a new organisation, the Workers Party. Burnham’s move towards the theory of the managerial revolution, and Shachtman’s towards Bureaucratic Collectivism, facilitated their adoption of a hard Stalinophobic anti-communism.

Burnham moved at lightning speed away from Marxism. One month after the formation of the Workers Party, on 21 May 1940, Burnham wrote a letter of resignation from the Workers’ Party, in which he states

by no stretching of terminology can I any longer regard myself, or permit others to regard me, as a Marxist ...

On the grounds of beliefs and interests (which are also a fact) I have for several years had no real place in a Marxist party.

Socialism was purely utopian, unrealisable.

I consider that on the basis of the evidence now available to us a new form of exploitive society (what I call ‘managerial society’) is not only possible as an alternative to capitalism, but is a more probable outcome of the present period than socialism.

Burnham then gave an explanation of the social causes that led him away from Marxism:

It will be thought and said by many that my present beliefs and the decision which follows from them are a ‘rationalisation’ of, on the one side, the pressure of a soft and bourgeois personal environment, and, on the other, the influence of the terrible defeats of labour, and mankind, during the past twenty years, and of the war crisis.

... It is certainly the case that I am influenced by the defeats and betrayals of the past twenty and more years. These form part of the evidence for my belief that Marxism must be rejected: at every single one of the many tests provided by history, Marxist movements have either failed socialism or betrayed it. [18]

Burnham continued to move to the right very speedily. In 1941 he published his book, The Managerial Revolution, which argued that various forms of a new post-capitalist ‘managerial society’ existed in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and the United States, as embodied in Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1945 Burnham proclaimed that Leninism was the father of Stalinism. Soon after he was advocating that the Western powers launch a preventive atomic war against the USSR. [19]

Shachtman followed the same path as Burnham, but much less speedily. Shachtman was a veteran of the American Communist Party and the world Trotskyist movement. His first meeting with Trotsky dated back to a visit to Prinkipo in 1929. Since then many meetings took place between the two. Their correspondence is very large. In the fight between the two factions in the Socialist Workers Party Trotsky sided with Cannon, but he still felt personally very friendly to Shachtman. At the height of the controversy he wrote to Shachtman:

If I had the possibility I would immediately take an aeroplane to New York City in order to discuss with you for 48 or 72 hours uninterruptedly. I regret very much that you don’t feel in this situation the need to come here to discuss the questions with me. Or do you? I should be happy ... [20]

Shachtman ended by supporting the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, American intervention on South Vietnam and the bombing of North Vietnam. Further, he supported Richard Nixon for President.

The adherence to the theory of Russia as ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ facilitated Shachtman’s slide towards capitalism and imperialism. Shachtman never published a developed account of the theory. It is true that he wrote hundreds of pages of criticism of the theory that Stalinist Russia was a socialist country or a workers’ state of any sort. But he wrote scarcely a paragraph on the laws of motion of the ‘Bureaucratic Collectivist’ economy, and made no analysis at all of the specific character of the class struggle within it. The place of Bureaucratic Collectivist society in the chain of historical development is not clearly stated, and, in any case, Shachtman’s account is often inconsistent. Hence he could say on one occasion that Bureaucratic Collectivism was more progressive than capitalism (however unprogressive it was compared with socialism), and, a few years later, that it was more reactionary than capitalism. In 1941 Shachtman wrote:

From the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on an historically more progressive plane.

On the basis of this, a policy of ‘conditional defensism’ was recommended. But a few years later Shachtman declared that the Stalinist regime was a ‘new barbarism’ – more reactionary than capitalism. [1*]

Nonetheless, unlike Burnham, Shachtman did try for many years to build an organisation on a revolutionary basis.

Burnham and Shachtman were not on their own in turning into avid supporters of American imperialism. To give a few examples. Max Eastman was close to Trotsky from the early 1920s. In 1925 he published Since Lenin Died, championing Trotsky. A year later he published the biography, Leon Trotsky: Portrait of a Youth. Max Eastman translated Trotsky’s The Real Situation in Russia, The History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed. In 1933 he wrote to Trotsky:

I supported every step taken by the Bolshevik Party and by you and Lenin from the seizure of power and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly to the condemnation of the Social Revolutionaries. I was for six years alone in America in supporting the Left Opposition. I was the Left Opposition. [21]

In 1940 Eastman, in his book, Stalin’s Russia and the Crisis in Socialism argued that Stalinism was the logical product of Leninism. After that he became completely opposed to socialism, ending his life as editor of the extreme right wing Readers’ Digest. Sidney Hook who, like Eastman, had never really been a part of the organised Trotskyist movement, also surrendered to US imperialism. In 1934 he wrote an article entitled Why I am a Communist. 20 years later he stated: ‘Communism ... is the greatest menace to human freedom in the world today.’ He unashamedly called upon university administrators to enforce ‘a policy of exclusion of the Communist Party and similar groups’ from teaching in schools and universities. Two decades later he campaigned for Richard Nixon, and in 1980 he proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan, who in turn sent warm greetings to Hook’s eightieth birthday party in the autumn of 1982. [22]

Supporters of Trotsky and Cannon during the 1939-40 dispute in the SWP were also not immune from sliding very much to the right. By and large the social composition of the Cannon group was more proletarian than that of the Shachtman group. But Trotsky (and Cannon) exaggerated the significance of this for a small organisation of a few hundred members. What applies to a mass party does not apply to a propaganda group. When Marxism appeared in Russia in the 1880s, for over a decade it encompassed practically only intellectuals and even at the beginning of the twentieth century these elements made up a large proportion of organised Marxists. Social composition was not the decisive factor for its progress. However, for a mass party its social composition is much more significant. [2*] The bourgeois milieu of individual leaders of the SWP, and the failure of Trotsky’s prognoses based on the concept of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ facilitated the move to the right.

The fate of Goldman and Morrow, supporters of Cannon in the 1940 split, is instructive. Albert Goldman was Trotsky’s attorney during the Dewey investigation and was for many years in the Trotskyist movement. In February 1950 Goldman declared himself a ‘right-wing socialist’. In 1952 he confessed that he had collaborated with the FBI. His anti-communism became so strong that ‘if I were younger I would gladly offer my services in Korea, or especially in Europe where I could do some good fighting the Communists.’ [23]

No less sad was the fate of Felix Morrow, the veteran Trotskyist and author of the excellent book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain.

Soon Morrow became more immersed in Cold War anti-communist activity than Goldman. Although he insisted that he only informed on Communists, he found it difficult to draw the line. Files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act disclosed that he may have given some information about the Socialist Workers Party as well. In addition, he began collaborating with the Central Intelligence Agency. [24]

The list of former Trotskyists who in their Stalinophobia turned into hard-line Cold War liberals is much longer.

But let us go back to the 1940 split in the SWP. Trotsky believed that after the exit of ‘petty bourgeois and careerist elements’ the SWP would strike deeper roots in the American working class. But this did not happen. Instead the split in the SWP weakened it radically. About 40 percent of the membership left, as well as virtually the entire youth group. In 1942 the SWP was said to have 645 members (while the Workers Party was a couple of hundred less). [25]

Trotskyist groups in other countries were also affected by the split in the SWP, especially in France, where a number of members accepted Shachtman’s views. The split in the SWP led to the collapse of the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International. Most of the resident members of the committee supported the Burnham-Shachtman faction in opposition to Trotsky who found himself in 1940 with far less supporters than he had had at any time during the 1930s.

Courage without equal

THE PERIOD covered in this volume has been a very dark and long one. Trotsky’s agony was extreme. While never affected by self-pity, the hurt of Sedov’s death in the midst of the most terrible period of his life was excruciating, as can be seen from the obituary he wrote four days after his death entitled, Leon Sedov – Son, Friend, Fighter.

As I write these lines, with Leon Sedov’s mother by my side ... we are unable to believe it as yet. And this, not only because he was our son, truthful, devoted, loving, but above all because he had, as no one else on earth, become part of our life, entwined in all its roots, our co-thinker, our co-worker, our guard, our counsellor, our friend.

Of that older generation whose ranks we joined at the end of the last century on the road to revolution, all, without exception, have been swept from the scene. That which czarist hard-labor prisons and harsh exiles, the hardships of emigration, the civil war, and disease had failed to accomplish has in recent years been achieved by Stalin ... Following the destruction of the older generation, the best section of the next, that is, the generation which awakened in 1917 and received its training in the twenty-four armies of the revolutionary front, were likewise destroyed. Also crushed underfoot and completely obliterated was the best part of the youth, Leon’s contemporaries ... During the years of our last emigration we made many new friends, some of them ... becoming, as it were, members of our family. But we met all of them for the first time ... when we had already neared old age. Leon was the only one who knew us when we were young; he became part of our lives from the very first moment of his self-awakening. While young in years, he still seemed our contemporary. [26]

The obituary ends with words of remorse, that he could not save his son:

His mother – who was closer to him than any other person in the world – and I are living through these terrible hours recalling his image, feature by feature, unable to believe that he is no more and weeping because it is impossible not to believe ... He was part of both of us, our young part ... Together with our boy has died everything that still remained young within us.

Goodbye, Leon, goodbye, dear and incomparable friend. Your mother and I never thought, never expected that destiny would impose on us this terrible task of writing your obituary ... But we were not able to protect you. [27]

However hard the going, Trotsky’s courage and clear-sightedness remained undimmed. He never lost the will to struggle whatever the odds. He never understood the meaning of the word pessimism. Thus in a letter to Angelica Balabanoff of 3 February 1937 he wrote:

Indignation, anger, revulsion? Yes, even temporary weariness. All this is human, only too human. But I will not believe that you have succumbed to pessimism ... This would be like passively and plaintively taking umbrage at history. How can one do that? History has to be taken as she is, and when she allows herself such extraordinary and filthy outrages, one must fight her back with one’s fists. [28]

Trotsky’s confidence in the future remained undiminished, and his mind, will and energy were directed towards it. We have already quoted his words when he was a young man of 22:

Dum spiro, spero! As long as I breathe I hope – as long as I breathe I shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the spontaneous stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy and happiness ... Dum spiro, spero! [29]

A short time before his assassination, in his testament, Trotsky repeated his optimism for the future:

My faith in the Communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is farmer today than it was in the days of my youth ... I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full. [30]

No person embodied the triumph and the tragedy of the revolutionary workers’ movement more than Leon Trotsky. The torch-bearer of its triumphs had fallen victim to its tragedy.

Trotsky’s death

THE MEXICAN Stalinists whipped up a hysteria against Trotsky, accusing him not only of plotting against the Soviet Union, but also of conspiring to organise a fascist group in the interests of American oil magnates against the President of Mexico, Cardenas. On 1 May 1940, twenty thousand Communists marched through Mexico City with the slogan ‘Down with Trotsky’ on their banners.

On 23 May, at 4 am, a group of armed Stalinists led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, the celebrated artist, attacked Trotsky’s residence. A massive machine gun attack – some 200 shots were fired – took place. More than seventy bullets stuck in the walls and doors of Trotsky’s and Natalia’s bedroom. As they dropped down beneath the bed, Natalia shielded Trotsky with her body. Neither was hurt, but their grandson Seva was slightly injured. One of Trotsky’s guards, Robert Sheldon Harte, was murdered.

Stalin was not content. The GPU persevered. One Ramon Mercader, son of Caridad Mercal, a Spanish Stalinist well known in her country during the civil war as having close connections with the GPU, arrived in Mexico on 10 October 1939. He called himself Frank Jacson. He worked his way into Trotsky’s household through an affair he had in Paris with Sylvia Ageloff, a Trotskyist, sister of one of Trotsky’s secretaries. Sylvia herself knew Russian, French and Spanish, and was also assisting Trotsky with secretarial work. On 20 August 1940, ‘Jacson’ came into Trotsky’s study, asking him to read and comment on an article he wrote. While Trotsky was reading the manuscript ‘Jacson’ took out a pickaxe and smashed Trotsky’s skull. Next day, on 21 August, Trotsky was dead.

The legacy

ON THE FACE of it the last chapter of Trotsky’s life, which began with his exile from the USSR and ended with his assassination in Mexico, was the most arid. Compare it with the heroic days of the 1905 revolution, when Trotsky presided over the Petrograd Soviet; or with his presidency of the same body in 1917, when he used it to organise the October insurrection; or with his role in founding and leading the Red Army; or with his leadership, with Lenin, of the Communist International!

Over the last 12 years, his efforts seemed completely insignificant. If immediate success is a measure of achievement for a revolutionary leader, this judgment would be correct. But the same measure would condemn three and a half decades of Marx’s life in Britain. Mehring tells us about Marx’s funeral: ‘No more than a few faithful friends were at the graveside’ [31], and among them hardly an English person.

Marx’s stay in Britain occurred when British capitalism was flourishing and British workers’ thoughts were far from socialism. When he died in 1883 the total number of workers organised in trade unions was not more than half a million, and those organised were either Liberals or Tories.

Trotsky’s final years, the period 1928-1940, was a period of reaction. At such a time Stalin, relying on old habits of thought, on deference and lack of confidence in the workers, consolidated his power and isolated Trotsky. And the more the policy of Stalin led to defeats, the weaker Trotsky’s influence among the masses became. Trotsky, who during the revolution and civil war could inspire millions, with thousands of workers being ready to give their lives at his call, now found hardly anyone even ready to listen to him.

Still Trotsky was right when he wrote this passage in his diary of 25 March 1935:

I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life – more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

... Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg the October revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders ... But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin, the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway ...

Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals. [32]

The only way one can preserve the revolutionary socialist tradition, to preserve Marxism, is by applying it to the class struggle. The essence of Marxism is the unity of theory and practice. Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky continued the work of Marx and Engels. To continue does not mean to repeat, but to use the teachings of previous generations to deal with the issues raised by life anew.

Trotsky’s writings of the years 1928-1940 – the articles, essays and books on developments in Germany, France and Spain – are among the most brilliant Marxist writings. They are in the same league as the best historical writings of Karl Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggle in France. Trotsky did not limit himself to analysing the situation, but also put forward a clear line of action for the proletariat. In terms of strategy and tactics his writings are extremely valuable revolutionary manuals, comparable to the best produced by Lenin and Trotsky during the first four years of the Comintern.

Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution towers over any other Marxist writing of history. It is an analytical and artistic monument of unprecedented richness and beauty.

Then again, Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed is a crucial weapon for an understanding of the Stalinist regime. The book is an analysis of the regime that is thoroughly Marxist, thoroughly materialist. It took as its point of departure the objective conditions, national and international, in which the Russian revolution found itself. The battle between the two main contending classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, on the national and international scale, shaped the history of the country. Trotsky restates and brilliantly develops the real concept of socialism, and gives no concessions at all to the Stalinist counterfeit of the same. The Revolution Betrayed opposes Stalinism very strongly while avoiding the anti-Stalinist hysteria which led many others to anti-communism. Thus Revolution Betrayed played a crucial role in restating the main features of Trotskyism – international revolutionary opposition to Stalinism and capitalism. 56 years later this book is still the foundation for any further development of an analysis of Stalinism.

His attempt, however unsuccessful, to build the Fourth International, is also a vital link in keeping the revolutionary tradition alive. He could not give concessions to academic Marxism, to its anaemic passivity. The essence of Marxism is action. In its struggle the working class has no other weapon but organisation. And Trotsky again and again demonstrates, through the successes and defeats of the proletariat, the crucial role the revolutionary party must play. No victory of the proletarian revolution is possible without a revolutionary party. Without his efforts to build a revolutionary international, Trotsky could not have been true to himself.

Present and future generations of Marxists will carry the revolutionary flame left to us by Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. Present and future generations will carry the traditions of the Chartists, of the Paris Commune, of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, the Spanish revolution, and so on.

The last six decades belonged to Stalin. The coming decades will belong to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. We owe a massive debt to Trotsky. Without his opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy, without his internationalism, the tradition of ‘socialism from below’, that identification of socialism with the self-activity of the working class, would not have survived.


1*. For further discussion of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism see T. Cliff, The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism. A Critique in T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London 1988, pp. 333-353).

2*. Cannon, in his book, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, used Trotsky’s authority to justify a method of leadership and party building in which every opponent in the organisation was denounced as a class enemy and great stress was placed on the organisation’s social composition. This was disastrous, and made it possible for the SWP leadership after the war to cast its intellectual conservatism into concrete.


1. WLT, 1933-34, p.300.

2. WLT, 1939-40, p.185.

3. Ibid., p.188.

4. Ibid., pp.190-1.

5. Ibid., pp.191-2.

6. Ibid., p.222.

7. Ibid., pp.199-200.

8. WLT, 1938-39, pp.29-30.

9. The Case of Leon Trotsky, p.293.

10. WLT, 1939-40, p.89.

11. Reisner, p.289.

12. D. Guerin, 100 Years of Labor in the USA, London 1979, p.107.

13. F. Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion, London 1986.

14. H. Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism, New York 1984, p.380.

15. Guerin, p.105.

16. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1971, p.135.

17. A.M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals, New York 1987, Chapters 6-9.

18. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp.257-62.

19. J. Burnham, The Struggle for the World, New York 1947, pp.242-8.

20. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, p.82.

21. Quoted in Wald, p.113.

22. Wald, p.4.

23. Ibid., p.287.

24. Ibid., p.288.

25. George Breitman to A. Wald, 17 July 1985, in Wald, p.165.

26. WLT, 1937-38, pp.166-7.

27. Ibid., p.179.

28. WLT, 1936-7, p.193.

29. Trotsky, Sochineniia, Moscow, Vol.20, p.78.

30. Lovell, Leon Trotsky Speaks, p.312.

31. F. Mehring, Karl Marx. The Story of his Life, London 1966, p.530.

32. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935, pp.53-4.

Last updated on 5 August 2009