Tony Cliff

Trotskyism after Trotsky

Chapter 5:
The heritage

The present essay began by juxtaposing Trotsky’s prognoses regarding the world situation after the Second World War and the actual state of affairs. This was followed by describing how the great majority of Trotskyists closed their eyes to reality while remaining true to Trotsky’s words, thus deviating completely from his spirit. Trotsky could rightly have said, “I have sowed dragons’ teeth but harvested fleas.” Why did this happen. Why did Mandel, Pablo and other leading Trotskyists, who were very serious and not stupid, behave as they did and live in a fantasy world? The reason was that for years of dark reaction – of Nazism and Stalinism – the Trotskyists found themselves very isolated with hardly a foothold in the working class. In the desert for such a long time, thirsty for water, they succumbed to hallucinations, seeing a mirage of green trees and a world of water.

Trying to be true to the essence of the teachings of Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and come to terms with the real situation in the world after the Second World War, the International Socialist tendency made the effort to develop three pieces of theory: the definition of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist which explained its long stability and eventual demise; the long boom of Western capitalism rooted in the permanent arms economy but containing the seeds of future crises; and an explanation of Mao’s and Castro’s victories in terms of deflected permanent revolution.

Were there practical links in the real world which meant that there was a link between these three theories?

Indeed there were. The survival and strength of the Stalinist regime in Russia was the key to the other two developments.

First of all, Stalinist influence played a crucial role in preventing the deep social and political tensions at the end of the Second World War from turning into proletarian revolutions. The social tensions on the continent of Europe were much sharper and deeper now than at the end of the First World War which detonated revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary and near revolutionary situations in a host of other countries. If such open did not occur in 1945 it was because of the Communist parties. Using their radical aura the Stalinist leaders were able to play a crucial role in damming up the rising tide of revolution and in defending capitalism.

The examples of France, Italy and Germany illustrate the potential that was lost. In August 1944 it was the Resistance, led by the Communist Party, that liberated Paris from the Nazi troops: complete control fell into its hands. Compare the Communists with rival political groups. Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War explains that “the Resistance groups that were Gaullist in ideology were always in a small minority. In many key parts of France they hardly existed at all.” [124] The Socialist Party was equally lacking in popular support:

The Socialists had been the party par excellence of the Third Republic and their compulsive devotion to remaining in politics, even after Vichy, eventually resulted in the party’s expelling two thirds of its National Assembly members for collaboration and compromise. After 1941 the Socialists literally disappeared as a party, and only gradually began reconstituting their ranks in 1944. [125]

This left the field free for the Communist Party: “The Communist dominated Resistance organisation, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans ... was the largest.” [126] Ian Birchall describes the situation in France as follows:

The liberation of France from Nazi occupation in the second half of 1944 left the country in a state of turmoil. Initially central government had little control over the situation. In various municipalities liberation committees were set up; in Marseilles the local authorities began a programme of regional public ownership without even consulting Paris. People’s courts were set up and some 11,000 collaborators shot.

The liberation committees were mostly controlled by the French Communist Party and the government was powerless to intervene, the minister of the interior appealing in vain for them to stop acting autonomously. Only the intervention of Maurice Thorez, French Communist Party leader, could restrain them. He insisted:

Local liberation committees must not substitute themselves for municipal and departmental administration, just as the National Council of the Resistance has not substituted itself for the government. [127]

It was Maurice Thorez who, on returning from Moscow to France, issued the call, “One police. One Army. One state.” And so the Resistance was disarmed. Kolko writes:

Thorez disciplined the older, militant leadership around André Marty and Charles Tillon, whom he ultimately expelled; he banned strikes and demanded more labour from the workers, and endorsed the dissolution of the [Resistance organisations]. Every social objective he subordinated to the objective of winning the war; “the task of Liberation Committees is not to administer,” he told the party Central Committee in January 1945, “but to help those who administer. They must, above all, mobilise, train, and organise the masses so that they attain the maximum war effort and support the Provisional Government in the application of the programme laid down by the Resistance.” In brief, at the crucial point in the history of French capitalism, the party of the left refused to act against it. “The unity of the nation,” Thorez never tired of reiterating, was a “categorical imperative” ... The party helped to disarm the Resistance, revive a moribund economy, and create sufficient stability to give the old order a crucial breathing spell – and later took much pride in the accomplishment. [128]

If anything, in Italy the wave of revolution rose even higher. Pierre Broué writes, “In Italy it was the workers’ agitation – and no one will be surprised to learn that it began in the Fiat plant – which finally shook the ground under the fascists’ regime, and dig the grave of Benito Mussolini.” [129]

The strike in the massive Fiat plant turned into a general strike that brought down the regime the next day. A year later:

In March 1944 ... a new and even more impressive protest spread throughout occupied Italy. This time the slogans of the strikers were more political, demanding immediate peace and an end to war production for Germany. The numbers involved exceeded the most optimistic forecasts; 300,000 workers came out in the province of Milan. In the city itself tram workers struck on 1 March, and were only forced back on the 4th and 5th by a terror campaign against them. The strike spread beyond the industrial triangle to the textile factories of the Veneto and the central Italian cities of Bologna and Florence. Women and lower paid workers were in the forefront of the agitation. At one time or another in the first week of March hundreds of thousands of workers downed tools. [130]

The industrial, political and armed struggle of the Italian working class rolled on relentlessly which meant that by 1945 working class districts in Turin were effectively no-go areas for fascists and Germans. [131] Eventually:

By 1 May the whole of northern Italy was free. The popular and insurrectionary nature of the liberation, which left an indelible impression in the memories of those who had participated, was welcomed in most quarters. In others it caused acute anxiety. There was a terrible settling of scores, with perhaps as many as 12,000-15,000 people being shot in the immediate aftermath of the liberation. As for the northern industrialists, they had hoped for a painless transition of power from the fascists to the Anglo-American authorities. Instead they found their factories occupied, the workers armed, and a period of up to ten days between the insurrection and the arrival of the Allies. Some of the more heavily compromised of them did not dare to wait and fled to Switzerland. Over the next few months the fear of imminent social revolution remained very strong in capitalist circles. [132]

That this revolution did not materialise was above all due to the control exercised by the Italian Communist Party. Broué writes:

The Italian Communist Party – that section of the Communist International directly under the control of Moscow – made approaches to the notables, the renegade fascists, the marshals and the princes of the church, to propose a compromise to them that was to save all of them from the pressure from the streets in exchange for a government ministry, and hence legal recognition for the Italian Agency in Moscow. [133]

Like Thorez in France, a key role was played by the Italian Communist leader, Togliatti, who returned from a long stay in Moscow. Ginsburg writes:

On his arrival in Salerno, Togliatti outlined to his comrades, amidst a certain astonishment and some opposition, the strategy which he intended the party to pursue in the near future. The Communists, he said, were to put into abeyance their oft-expressed hostility to the monarchy. Instead they were to persuade all the anti-fascist forces to join the royal government, which now controlled all of Italy south of Salerno. Joining the government, Togliatti argued, was the first step towards realising the overriding objective of the period – national unity in the face of the Nazis and fascists. The main aim of the Communists had to be the liberation of Italy, not a socialist revolution.

Togliatti insisted that the unity of the war years should, if possible, be continued into the period of reconstruction. This grand coalition was to embrace not only the Socialists, but also the Christian Democrats (DC). In a speech in Rome in July 1944 he characterised the DC as a party which had in its ranks “a mass of workers, peasants, intellectuals and young people, who basically share our aspirations because like us they want a democratic and progressive Italy”. [134]

In April 1944 Togliatti argued for the parties of the Committee of National Liberation to swear allegiance to the king and join the government of Marshal Badoglio. He had been commander in chief under Mussolini and leader of the Italian troops who invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Togliatti even became one of Badoglio’s ministers! [135]

In Germany revolutionary struggle was even more difficult then in France and Italy, yet even here there was an unfulfilled potential for revolution. It is true that Nazi repression made resistance to the Third Reich extremely difficult, but this was only one side of the equation. The potential for fighting back was also systematically undermined from within the anti-Nazi camp. Disastrous political leadership by the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD) and above all the Communist Party (KPD) under Stalinist control left German workers bitter and confused as Hitler was allowed to come to power without a finger being lifted against him.

The signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 broke the spirits of the German Communists who formed the only mass resistance to Nazism. A sign of this was that Gestapo seizures of underground leaflets dropped from 15,922 in 1939 to just 1,277 in 1940.

Even when the war was under way Allied tactics seemed calculated to discourage revolt against the Third Reich and to produce instead a sullen loyalty. In the East, Stalin claimed to be fighting the “Great Patriotic War” and the target shifted from being the Nazi regime to all Germans. The anti-German, practically racist propaganda of Russia undermined the development of a resistance movement to the Nazis. Again and again Ilya Ehrenburg, writing in the Russian press, repeated the sentence, “The only good German is the dead German.” I remember a short article by him in which he described how a German soldier, facing a Russian one, put his hands up and said, “I’m the son of a blacksmith” – what better formulation of working class identification! What was the reaction of the Russian soldier? Ehrenburg writes, “The Russian soldier said, ‘You are a German and responsible for the crimes of the Germans,’ and then dug his bayonet into the chest of the German soldier.”

German soldiers ended the First World War by revolution against the Kaiser, but in the conditions of the Second World War no such revolt emerged, for as one soldier put it, “God forbid we lose the war. If revenge comes upon us, we’ll have a rough time.”

But still the seeds of revolution were there. At the end of the Second World War the heavy lid of repression was lifted off German workers and they were given a real chance to express themselves. What was revealed was amazing. A gigantic movement of anti-fascist committees, or “Antifas”, swept across Germany as each new area was liberated from Nazism. There were well over 500 of these committees, which were overwhelmingly working class in composition. For a brief time, between the overthrow of the Nazi regime and the reimposition of “order” by the occupying Allied forces (Russia in the East, Britain and the United States in the West), workers were free in a double sense. Not only had Nazi tyranny disappeared, but Gestapo rule had temporarily disrupted the deadening influence of both the reformist Social Democratic leaders and the Stalinist Communist Party.

The Antifas grew explosively. In Leipzig (East Germany) there were 38 local committees claiming 4,500 activists and 150,000 adherents. Despite the distractions caused by the devastation of war (the population had fallen from 700,000 to 500,000, for example), up to 100,000 people turned out on their 1945 May Day demonstration. In Bremen (West Germany), a city where 55 percent of the homes were uninhabitable and one third of the population had fled, there were 14 local groups, claiming 4,265 members. A fortnight later the figure was 6,495. Many Antifas were organised in the workplaces. In the central Ruhr soon after the liberation an assembly of workplace representatives included 360 delegates from 56 pits and many other enterprises.

The Antifas were determined to rip out Nazism. Strikes were launched demanding a purge of Nazi activists. In Bremen and elsewhere the buildings of the Nazi union, the German Labour Front, were taken over. Returning concentration camp inmates were housed in the spare rooms of Nazi activists and the most notorious of the latter were handed over to the authorities. Stuttgart went further and set up its own “revolutionary tribunals”.

There was an awareness that only by the workers doing the job themselves could Nazism really be banished for good. The Prince Regent mine in Bochum called for a political general strike and issued the slogan, “Long live the Red Army”, not in reference to the Soviet forces but to the insurrectionary force of the 1918-23 German Revolution. The view was advanced that “in the future state there will be no more employers as previously. We must arrange it and work as if the enterprise is ours!” In some places workers took over their factories and management fled. Antifas set up their own factory militias and replaced police chiefs and mayors with their own nominees. The situation in Stuttgart and Hanover was described as one of “dual power”, the Antifas having set up their own police forces, taken over a raft of powerful local positions and begun to run vital services like food provisioning.

The eyewitness report of a United States official is worth citing at length:

In widely dispersed areas under a number of different names and apparently without any connection one with the other, anti-Nazi unity front movements emerged soon after the collapse of the Nazi government... Although they have no contact with each other, these groups show a remarkable similarity in the way they are constituted and their programme. The initiative for their creation appears in each case to come from the people who were active during the Nazi period and in some form or another were in contact with each other ... Denunciation of Nazis, efforts to prevent an illegal Nazi underground movement, de-Nazification of civil authorities and private industry, improvement of housing and food supply provision – these are the central questions which preoccupy the newly created organisations ... The conclusion is therefore justified, that these communities represent the spontaneous coming together of anti-Nazi resistance forces, which, as long as the terror regime remained, were powerless.

The report went on to contrast the activities of the left, which emphasised uprooting all traces of Nazism as the precondition of a new start and the right which “concentrated on the attempt to preserve out of the ruins of the Hitler regime anything that might still be usable”.

Alas, the Antifas could only exist in each locality for a few weeks because they were opposed only only by the occupation forces (including the Russian army) but by Stalinists in the workers’ movement. As soon as the occupying forces gained a firm grip of the local area they were banned. This applied as much to the Russian-controlled Eastern sector as to the West. The Antifas were dissolved with the connivance of both workers’ parties. After the agreement at Yalta the Stalinist KPD accepted that the Western allies had full rights to control their sphere of influence and would tolerate no independent action in the East either. In the West the reformist SPD had no interest in promoting revolution. So the period in question was brief – just a few weeks in each locality during the spring of 1945. Nevertheless, they showed the power which was blocked, in large part by Stalinism from above and below. [136]




124. G. Kolko, The Politics of War (New York, 1968), p.77.

125. Ibid., p.77.

126. Ibid., p.78.

127. I. Birchall, Bailing out the System (London, 1986), pp.39-40.

128. G. Kolko, op. cit., p.95.

129. P. Broué, The Italian Communist Party, the War and the Revolution, Revolutionary History, Spring 1995, p.111.

130. P. Ginsburg, A History of Contemporary Italy (London, 1990), p.22.

131. Ibid., p.64.

132. Ibid., p.68.

133. P. Broué, op. cit., p.112.

134. P. Ginsburg, op. cit., pp.42-43.

135. Ibid., p.52.

136. This section on Germany is based upon part of the forthcoming book by Donny Gluckstein, Barbarism: Nazi Counter-revolution, Capitalism and the Working Class (London, 1999). [Actually published with the title The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working ClassD.S.]


Last updated on 30.7.2002