Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s Marxism

5. The Heritage



The essence of tragedy, Trotsky once wrote, is the contrast between great ends and insignificant means. Whatever is to be said about this as a generalisation, it certainly epitomises Trotsky’s own plight in the last years of his life. The man who had actually organised the October insurrection, who had directed the operations of the red armies, who had dealt with – as friend or foe – the mass workers’ parties (revolutionary and reformist) through the Comintern, was now reduced to struggling to hold together a scatter of tiny groups, virtually all of them impotent to affect the course of events, even marginally.

He was forced to intervene again and again in a hundred petty squabbles in a score of little grouplets. Some of the disputes did, of course, involve serious issues of political principle, but even these, as Trotsky himself saw clearly, were largely rooted in the isolation of the groups from the actual working class movement and the influence of their petty- bourgeois milieu – because that was the milieu into which they had been driven and to which so many of them adapted.

Nevertheless he fought on to the end. Inevitably, his enforced isolation from effective participation in the workers’ movement, in which he had once played so big a part, affected to some extent his understanding of the ever-changing course of the class struggle. Not even his vast experience and superb tactical reflexes could substitute entirely for the lack of feedback from the militants engaged in the day to day struggle that is possible only in a real communist party. As the period of isolation lengthened, this became more apparent. Compare his Transitional Programme of 1938 with its prototype, the Programme of Action for France (1934). In freshness, relevance, specificity and concreteness in relation to an actual struggle, the latter is clearly superior.

This was certainly not a question of any failing of intellectual power. Some of Trotsky’s last unfinished writings, notably Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, are path-breaking contributions to marxist thought. It is a matter of lack of intimate contact with significant numbers of militants engaged in actual class struggle.

Yet when Trotsky was murdered in August 1940 by Stalin’s agent Jacson-Mercader he did leave behind him a movement. Whatever the frailties and failings of that movement, and they were manifold, it was a tremendous achievement. The growth of Stalinism, and then the triumph of fascism in most of Europe, nearly obliterated the authentic communist tradition in the workers’ movement. Fascism destroyed directly. It smashed the workers’ organisations wherever it came to power. Stalinism did the same thing by different means inside the USSR. Outside the USSR it corrupted and then effectively strangled the revolutionary tradition as a mass movement.

It is difficult today to appreciate the full force of the torrent of slander and vilification to which Trotsky and his followers were subjected in the thirties. The entire propaganda resources of the USSR and of the Comintern parties were devoted to denouncing “Trotskyites” (both genuine and spurious) as agents of Hitler, the Japanese Emperor and every kind of reaction. The slaughter of the old Bolsheviks in the USSR (some after spectacular “show trials”, most by murder without the pretext of a trial) was represented as a triumph for the forces of “socialism and peace”, as the Stalinist slogan of the time went.

Every weak, corrupt or ambitious traitor to Socialism within the Soviet Union has been hired to do the foul work of capitalism and fascism,

declared the Report of the CC to the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1938.

In the forefront of all the wrecking, sabotage and assassination is the fascist agent Trotsky. But the defences of the Soviet people are strong. Under the leadership of our Bolshevik Comrade Yezhov, the spies and wreckers have been exposed before the world and brought to judgement. [1]

Yezhov, who rose to power on the judicial murder of his predecessor Yagoda, was the police chief who presided over the slaughter of communists and many, many others in the USSR in 1937-38, at the height of the Stalinist terror.

The official line, pronounced by Stalin himself, was that “Trotskyism is the spearhead of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, waging the struggle against communism.” [2] This massive campaign of lies, assisted by the numerous “liberal” and social-democratic fellow-travellers who were attracted to the CPs after 1935, was kept up for more than twenty years. It served to inoculate CP militants against marxist criticism of Stalinism. Of at least equal importance for small revolutionary organisations of the time, was the general demoralisation engendered by the collapse of the Popular Fronts and the approach of the second world war.

Trotsky expressed it vividly in a discussion in the spring of 1939.

We are not progressing politically. Yes, it is a fact, which is an expression of a general decay of the workers’ movement in the last fifteen years. It is the more general cause. When the revolutionary movement in general is declining, when one defeat follows another, when fascism is spreading over the world, when the official “marxism” is the most powerful organisation of the deception of the workers, and so on, it is an inevitable situation that the revolutionary elements must work against the general historic current, even if our ideas, our explanations, are as exact and wise as one can demand. But the masses are not educated by prognostic conception, but by general experiences of their lives. It is the most general explanation – the whole situation is against us. [3]

The little Fourth Internationalist movement that survived these glacial conditions under Trotsky’s inspiration and guidance, was politically scarred by the experience to a greater degree than was immediately apparent. It was subsequently to undergo further mutations. Nevertheless, it was the only genuinely communist current of any significance to survive the ice age.



World Outlook 1938-40

At the core of Trotsky’s view of the world in his last years was the conviction that the capitalist system was near its last gasp.

The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already, new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth,

he wrote in his 1938 Programme.

Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger from one crisis to another. [4]

As it stands, that could pass as a description of the state of most of the world economy at the time. As has been said, Trotsky was profoundly impressed by the contrast between this stagnation and the rapid industrial growth of the USSR (there were other important exceptions too, which Trotsky did not consider: industrial output in Japan doubled between 1927 and 1936 and went on growing, and in Hitler’s Germany unemployment virtually disappeared in the drive for rearmament).

But Trotsky was engaged in more than description. He believed that the situation for capitalism was irretrievable. “The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits, likewise the disintegration of the old ruling class. The further existence of this system is impossible”, [5] he wrote in 1939.

That being so, the reformist workers’ parties could not make any gains for their supporters, “when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state,” [6] as the 1938 Programme put it.

That did not mean that the mass parties of reformism would automatically disappear – historical inertia and the lack of an obvious alternative would preserve them for a little while. But they no longer had any relatively secure basis. They had been destabilised. The shock of war and the post-war crisis would wreck them.

These parties, Trotsky believed, included the communist parties.

The definite passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world, particularly in Spain, France, the United States and other “democratic countries”, created exceptional supplementary difficulties for the world proletariat. Under the banner of the October Revolution, the conciliatory policies practised by the “People’s Front” dooms the working class to impotence. [7]

He had held, since 1935, that “Nothing now distinguishes the Communists from the Social Democrats except the traditional phraseology, which is not difficult to unlearn.” [8] The reality was to prove more complex, a fact which eventually precipitated a fundamental crisis in the Fourth Internationalist movement. Trotsky was pointing to a real trend, but the time scale for its development was very much greater than bethought. After the Hitler-Stalin Pact (August 1939) the Comintern parties stayed loyal to Moscow and in the “cold war” from late 1948 onwards they did not capitulate to “their own” bourgeoisies either. Their policies were not revolutionary but neither were they simply reformist in the ordinary sense. They retained, for nearly twenty years, a “leftist” orientation to the bourgeois state (consolidated by their systematic exclusion from office in France, Italy and elsewhere after 1947) which made the creation of a revolutionary alternative extremely difficult, even if other factors had been more favourable.

And in one great case, China, and some lesser ones (amongst them Albania, Yugoslavia and North Vietnam) Stalinist parties actually destroyed weak bourgeois states and replaced them by regimes on the Russian pattern. In particular, the Chinese revolution of 194849 put the classic Trotskyist analysis of the Stalinist parties into question, at any rate for the backward countries. For if it was regarded as a proletarian revolution, the basis of the Fourth International’s existence – the essentially counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism – was destroyed. If, on the other hand, it was, in some sense, a bourgeois revolution – a “New Democracy” as Mao Tse-tung claimed at the time – the theory of Permanent Revolution was undermined. This aspect of the matter will be considered later. What is relevant here is that the occurrence of the revolution, whatever view was taken of its nature, refurbished the revolutionary image of Stalinism for a long time.

But the most important mistake Trotsky made at this time was to assume that capitalism had no way out economically, even if the proletarian revolution was averted. That this was his belief is indisputable. “If, however, it is conceded,” he wrote towards the end of 1939,

that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalling the eclipse of civilisation. [9]

Trotsky might, if pressed, have conceded that some temporary economic revival was possible on a cyclical basis. He had been quick to note the limited revival of European capitalism in 1920-21 (and to draw political conclusions from it) and had pointed out a certain revival from the depths of 1929-31 in the early thirties. But he completely excluded the possibility of a prolonged upward economic movement such as had given birth to reformism as a mass force in the decades before the first world war.

His was a common view on the left at that time. And yet the evidence was already available that large-scale arms production could produce overall economic growth – growth that was not at all limited to the arms sector of the economy. Of course, the evidence related to the direct preparations for the second world war. But suppose preparing for war could be made permanent or semi-permanent?

In fact, after world war two, capitalism experienced a massive revival. Far from economic contraction and decline being dominant, there was an even greater economic expansion than during the “classic” imperialist phase before 1914. As Michael Kidron pointed out in 1968, “the system as a whole has never grown as fast for so long as since the War – twice as fast between 1950 and 1964 as between 1913 and 1950 and nearly half as fast again as during the generation before then.” [10]

Reformism got an entirely new lease of life in the developed capitalist countries on the basis of a rising standard of living for the mass of the working class. That the massive economic revival, the long boom of the fifties and sixties, was due mainly to greatly increased state expenditure (in particular arms expenditure) has been disputed, if rather implausibly, by both reformist and marxist analysts. What cannot be disputed is the fact that Trotsky’s prognosis was quite wrong. For the political consequences of the boom falsified the prediction that the immediate alternatives were either proletarian revolution or Bonapartist or fascist dictatorship presiding over “the eclipse of civilisation”. On the contrary, bourgeois democracy and reformist dominance of the workers’ movement again became the norm in most of the developed countries.

An indispensable condition for this development was the survival of bourgeois regimes in the great upheavals of 1944-45, when the fascist states were being shattered by the combination of allied military power and a rising tide of popular revolt. In most European countries the social-democratic and communist parties grew rapidly in this critical phase to play a counter-revolutionary role (in eastern as well as western Europe) and the decisive counter-revolutionary role in France and Italy.

But Trotsky had taken for granted both the revival, in the first stages of revolt, of the established workers’ parties (his writings on the Russian revolution alone suffice to establish that beyond dispute) and their counter-revolutionary politics. It was because his perspective was one of economic catastrophe, mass pauperisation and the growth of totalitarian statist regimes as the only alternative to proletarian revolution in the short term, that he believed that this revival of reformism would be very short-lived – a sort of Kerensky interval.

That is why he wrote with such confidence, late in 1938: “During the next ten years the programme of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm earth and heaven.” [11]

The mood of messianic expectation induced by such statements made sober and realistic assessments of actual shifts in working class consciousness, alterations in the balance of class forces, and tactical changes to gain the maximum advantage from them (the essence of Lenin’s political practice) extremely difficult for Trotsky’s followers.

Mention must be made here of Trotsky’s emphasis on the importance of those “transitional demands” which gave his 1938 Programme its popular name.

“It is necessary”, he wrote,

to help the masses in the process of daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.[12]

Whether or not it is possible to find slogans or “demands” that meet these exacting specifications depends, very obviously, on circumstances. If at a given time “today’s consciousness of wide layers” is decidedly non-revolutionary, then it will not be transformed by slogans. Changes in actual conditions are needed. The problem at each stage is to find and advance those slogans which not only strike a chord in at least some sections of the working class (ideally, of course, the whole of it) but which are also capable of leading to working class actions. Often they will not be transitional in terms of Trotsky’s very restricted definition.

Of course Trotsky cannot be held responsible for the tendency of most of his followers to fetishise the notion of transitional demands, and even the specific demands of the 1938 Programme – most obviously the “sliding scale of wages”. The emphasis he gave to this matter was, however, excessive and encouraged the belief that “demands” have some value independently of revolutionary organisation in the working class.



The USSR, Stalinism, War and the Outcome

The second world war began with the German attack on Poland which was quickly followed by the partition of the territories of the Polish state between Hitler and Stalin. For nearly two years (from the summer of 1939 to the summer of 1941) Hitler and Stalin were allies, and in that period Stalin’s regime was able to annexe the Baltic states, Bessarabia and Bukovina as well as the Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia.

From 1935 until then, Stalin’s foreign policy had been directed towards achieving a military alliance with France and Britain against Hitler. The Popular Front policy of the Comintern was its counterpart. With the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Communist parties swung round to an “anti-war” position, the actual content of which was anything but revolutionary, until. Hitler’s attack on the USSR (after which they became superpatriotic in the “allied” countries).

The Hitler-Stalin pact and the partition of Poland produced a revulsion against the USSR in left circles outside the Communist parties (and a fair number of desertions from them too) which had its impact on Trotskyist groups also. In the biggest of them, the American Socialist Workers’ Party, an opposition began to question Trotsky’s slogan “unconditional defence of the USSR against imperialism”, which followed from his definition of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state”, and, soon, that definition itself.

In the course of the dispute that followed Trotsky gave his analysis of Stalinism in the USSR its final development and considered – in order to reject – alternative positions.

Let us begin by posing the question of the nature of the Soviet state not on the abstract sociological plane but on the plane of concrete political tasks,

he wrote in September 1939.

Let us concede for the moment that the bureaucracy is a “new class” and that the present regime in the USSR is a special system of class exploitation. What new political conclusions follow for us from these definitions? The Fourth International long ago recognised the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy by means of a revolutionary uprising of the toilers. Nothing else is proposed or can be proposed by those who proclaim the bureaucracy to be an exploiting “class”. The goal to be attained by the overthrow of the bureaucracy is the re-establishment of the rule of the Soviets, expelling from them the present bureaucracy. Nothing different can be proposed or is proposed by the leftist critics. It is the task of the regenerated soviets to collaborate with the world revolution and the building of a socialist society. The overthrow of the bureaucracy therefore presupposes the preservation of state property and of the planned economy ... inasmuch as the question of overthrowing the parasitic oligarchy still remains linked with that of preserving the nationalised (state) property, we call the future revolution political. Certain of our critics (Ciliga, Bruno and others) want, come what may, to call the future revolutions social. Let us grant this definition. What does it alter in essence? To the tasks of the revolution which we have enumerated it adds nothing whatsoever. [13]

It is, at first sight, a very powerful argument. But what, then, of the defence of the USSR?

The defence of the USSR coincides for us with the preparation of world revolution. Only those methods are permissible which do not conflict with the interests of the revolution. The defence of the USSR is related to the world socialist revolution as a tactical task is related to a strategic one. A tactic is subordinated to a strategic goal and in no case can be in contradiction to the latter. [14]

If, therefore, the requirements of the tactical operation do in fact come into conflict with the strategic aim (as Trotsky’s left-wing critics believed it must) then the tactic – defence of the USSR – must be sacrificed. On that basis, it would seem, Trotsky’s critics (those who considered themselves revolutionaries, that is) might easily agree to differ with his terminology. Why split over mere words?

In reality, Trotsky believed, much more was at stake. If the bureaucracy really constituted a class and the USSR a new form of exploitative society, Trotsky argued, then it could not be assumed that Stalinist Russia was the highly exceptional product of unique circumstances, nor could it be assumed that it was soon doomed to disappear, as he was convinced it was.

Nor could matters be left there. Trotsky drew attention to a view that was “in the air”, so to speak, at the end of the thirties; that “bureaucratisation” and “statisation” were on the increase everywhere and indicated the shape of society to come – the “totalitarian statism” which he himself expected to develop unless the proletarian revolution followed the war. Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1944) expressed the mood. Thus the question became confused with “the world historical perspective for the next decades if not centuries: Have we entered the epoch of social revolution and socialist society, or on the contrary the epoch of the declining society of totalitarian bureaucracy?” [15]

The alternatives were falsely put. The predictions of The Bureaucratisation of the World (the title of a book by Bruno Rizzi, which Trotsky cited) were impressionistic, not the product of analysis. Nor did it follow that if the USSR were indeed an exploitative society in the marxist sense (and this is what the apparently scholastic arguments of whether the bureaucracy was a “class” or a “caste” – Trotsky’s term – were really about), that it was a fundamentally new type of exploitative society. Suppose it was a form of capitalism? If so, all the arguments about “world historical perspective” fall to the ground.

Trotsky was, of course, familiar with the concept of state capitalism. In The Revolution Betrayed he wrote:

Theoretically, to be sure, it is possible to conceive a situation in which the bourgeoisie as a whole constitutes itself as a stock company which, by means of its state, administers the whole national economy. The economic laws of such a regime would present no mysteries. A single capitalist, as is well known, receives in the form of profit, not that part of the surplus value which is created by the workers of his own enterprise, but a share of the combined surplus value created throughout the country proportionate to the amount of his own capital. Under an integral “state capitalism”, this law of the equal rate of profit would be realised, not by devious routes – that is competition among different capitals – but immediately and directly through state bookkeeping. Such a regime never existed, however, and, because of profound contradictions among the proprietors themselves, will never exist – the more so since, in its quality of universal repository of capitalist property, the state would be too tempting an object of social revolution. [16]

Although, Trotsky thought, a system of “integral” (that is, total) state capitalism was theoretically possible, it would not come into existence. But suppose a bourgeoisie had been destroyed by a revolution and the proletariat – due to its numerical and cultural weakness – fails to take, or having taken, fails to hold, power. What then? A bureaucracy, emerging as a privileged layer (as Trotsky had graphically described in the case of Stalin’s bureaucracy in the USSR) becomes the master of the state and the economy. What, actually, would be its economic role? Would it not be a “substitute” capitalist class? It cannot be argued that it is not capitalist because it controls the entire national economy. Trotsky had conceded that, in principle, a statised bourgeoisie could occupy that position. The only serious argument that could be advanced, on Trotsky’s analysis, is the one he advanced himself. “The bureaucracy owns neither stocks nor bonds.” Two points have to be made in this connection: first, the minor point, is that it is simply not true – anyone who can afford it in the USSR can buy various kinds of state bonds which bear interest and can be inherited by heirs on the payment of a modest inheritance tax (much lower than the corresponding taxes in the West, just as the top rates of income tax are much lower in the USSR than in most Western capitalist countries). Second, the major point, from a marxist point of view, is that the individual capitalist’s consumption is, as Marx himself put it, a “robbery perpetrated on accumulation”; that is, it is a drain on resources that could otherwise have gone towards accumulation, and is certainly not the major consideration. The major consideration is who controls the accumulation process.

Returning to the question in 1939 Trotsky wrote:

We have rejected, and still reject, this term [state capitalism] which, while it does correctly characterise certain features of the Soviet state, nevertheless ignores its fundamental difference from capitalist states, namely, the absence of a bourgeoisie as a class of property owners, the existence of the state form of ownership of the most important means of production, and finally planned economy made possible by the October revolution. [17]

Trotsky consistently approached the analysis of Stalinist society from the standpoint of the form of property, not the actual social relations of production – although he often used that phrase and, indeed, treated the two as identical. But they are not.

In criticising Proudhon, Marx had explained:

Thus to define bourgeois property is nothing less than to give an exposition of all the social relations of bourgeois production. To try to give a definition of property as of an independent relation, a category apart – an abstract eternal idea – can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics or jurisprudence. [18]

And so with the USSR. The form of property (state ownership in this case) cannot be considered independently of the social relations of production. The dominant relation of production in the USSR (especially after industrialisation) was the wage labour/capital relationship characteristic of capitalism – and still is. The worker in the USSR sells a commodity, labour power, in the same way as a worker does in the USA. Nor is he or she paid in rations like a slave, or in a share of the produce like a serf, but in money which is spent on commodities, goods produced for sale.

Wage labour implies capital. There is no bourgeoisie in the USSR. But there is certainly capital – as Marx defined capital. Capital, it peed hardly be said, does not, for a marxist, consist of machinery, raw materials, credits and so on. Capital is “an independent social power, i.e., as the power of a part of a society it maintains itself and increases by exchange for direct living labour power. The existence of a class which owns nothing but its capacity for labour is a necessary prerequisite of capital. It is only the domination of accumulated, past materialised labour over direct living labour which turns accumulated labour into capital.” [19] Such a state of affairs certainly exists in the USSR.

For Marx, the bourgeoisie’s significance was as the “personification of Capital”. In the USSR the bureaucracy fulfils this function. This last point Trotsky directly denied. For him, the bureaucracy was merely “a gendarme” in the process of distribution, determining who gets what and when. But this is inseparable from the direction of the process of capital accumulation. The implication that the bureaucracy does not direct the accumulation process, that is, does not act as the “personification” of capital, will not stand a moment’s examination. If not the bureaucracy, then who? Certainly not the working class.

The last point illustrates exactly the essential distinction between a genuine transitional society (workers’ state, dictatorship of the proletariat) in which wage labour will inevitably persist for some time, and any form of capitalism. Collective working class control over the economy modifies (and eventually eliminates) the wage labour/capital relationship. Take that away and, in an industrial society, the power of capital is restored. The concept of a workers’ state is meaningless without some degree of workers’ control over society.

Of course, if the society of the USSR is described as a form of state capitalism, it must be conceded that it is a highly peculiar capitalist society – although, of course, it is incomparably closer to capitalist norms than to a workers’ state, distorted or otherwise. A discussion of the peculiarities and dynamics of the USSR is not pertinent here. By far the best analysis will be found in Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia. [20] What is relevant is Trotsky’s failure to examine the actual relations of production in the USSR and its consequences. His final view was:

A totalitarian regime, whether of Stalinist or fascist type, by its very essence can be only a temporary transitional regime. Naked dictatorship in history has generally been the product and symptom of an especially severe social crisis, and not at all of a stable regime. Severe crisis cannot be a permanent condition of society. A totalitarian state is capable of suppressing social contradictions during a certain period, but it is incapable of perpetuating itself. The monstrous purges in the USSR are most convincing testimony of the fact that Soviet society organically tends towards ejection of the bureaucracy ... Symptomatic of this oncoming death agony, by the sweep and monstrous fraudulence of his purge, Stalin testifies to nothing else but the incapacity of the bureaucracy to transform itself into a stable ruling class. 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? [21]

That downfall, it will be recalled, was to be expected either because the bureaucracy, “becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie ... will overthrow the new forms of property”, or because of a proletarian revolution (or, of course, foreign conquest). And it was to be expected in the near future – “in a few years or even a few months”.

This was the assessment Trotsky bequeathed to his followers and, like his perspective for western capitalism, it would disorient them. But the existence of a wing of the bureaucracy wishing to restore capitalism proved to be a myth at least on any relevant time scale. (Trotsky’s belief in it was in flagrant contradiction with his own view of the possibility of totalitarian statism in the developed capitalist countries.)

The USSR emerged from the war stronger than before (relative to other powers) with the bureaucracy firmly in the saddle on the basis of nationalised industry. Moreover, it imposed regimes along the lines of the Russian model in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, East Germany and North Korea. As has been noted, “indigenous” Stalinist regimes came to power in Albania, Yugoslavia and, a little later, in China and North Vietnam without significant direct intervention by the Russian army. Stalinism, evidently, was not in its “death agony” but was, in the absence of proletarian revolution, an alternative means of capital accumulation to classical’ state monopoly capitalism.



Deflected Permanent Revolution

The industrial working class played no role whatever in the Chinese Communist Party’s conquest of power in 194849. Nor did workers play any role inside the CCP.

To take the last point first. Whereas, at the end of 1925, workers made up over 66 per cent of the CCP (peasants 5.0 per cent, the rest various urban petty bourgeoisie, amongst whom intellectuals were prominent), by September 1930 the proportion of workers, by the CCP’s own data, was down to 1.6 per cent. [22]

Thereafter the figure was effectively zero until after Mao Tse-tung’s forces had conquered China.

After the defeat of the “Canton Commune” at the end of 1927, the remnants of the CCP retreated deep into the countryside and resorted to guerilla warfare. The peasant “Kiangsi Soviet Republic” was established, with fluctuating territories in central China and, when it was finally overrun by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in 1934, the Red Army undertook the “long march” to Shensi in the far north-west. This heroic operation, carried out against overwhelming odds, took the party-army (it being increasingly difficult to distinguish them) into an area utterly remote from urban life, modern industry and the Chinese working class. Chu Teh, then the senior military commander; himself admitted, “The regions under the direction of the Communists are the most backward economically in the whole country ...” [23] And that country was China, then one of the most backward countries in the world.

There, for more than ten years, the CCI’ forces carried on their struggle for survival against Chiang’s armies (although nominally in alliance with Chiang after 1935) and the Japanese invaders. A state machine was constructed in this wholly peasant country on the usual hierarchical and authoritarian lines, consisting of declassed urban intellectuals at the top and peasants at the base. The Japanese army controlled all the areas with significant industrial development from 1937 to 1945, Manchuria (where there was industrial growth) and the coastal cities where industry (and the proletariat) diminished.

With the Japanese surrender in 1945, Kuomintang forces reoccupied most of China with US help, but the utterly corrupt KMT regime was by then in an advanced state of disintegration. After attempts at a national KMT-CCP coalition government had broken down, the CCP conquered its demoralised and fragmenting opponent by purely military means. Massive US military supplies and support to the KMT did not affect the outcome. KMT units, up to divisional and even corps strength, deserted wholesale – often complete with their generals.

Mao’s strategy was to encourage these transfers of allegiance and to dampen down any independent action by either peasants or workers – but especially the latter. The Communist Party was completely divorced from the working class. Before the fall of Peking Lin Piao, the CCP army commander in the area, and later Mao’s heir until his disgrace and death in 1971, issued a proclamation calling on the workers not to revolt but to “maintain order and continue in their present occupations. Kuomintang officials and police personnel of the city, county or other level of government institution ... are enjoined to remain at their posts.” [24] In January 1949 the KMT general in command of the Peking garrison surrendered. “Order” was preserved. One military governor took over from another.

It was the same when the CCP forces approached the Yangtse River and the great cities of central China such as Shanghai and Hankow, and which had been the storm centres of revolution in 1925-26. A special proclamation issued under the signatures of Mao Tse-tung (head of government) and Chu Teh (army commander-in-chiefl declared that:

workers and employees in all trades will continue to work and that business will continue as usual ... officials of the Kuomintang ... of various levels ... [and] police personnel are to stay at their posts and obey the orders of the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s government. [25]

A strange revolution with “business as usual”! And so it went on to the end, and the proclamation of the “People’s Republic” in October 1949. For these reasons many of Trotsky’s followers, including the leaders of the American SWP, denied that any real change had taken place for several years after 1949.

This proved to be wrong. A real overturn had occurred. But of what kind? Central to the theory of Permanent Revolution was the belief that the bourgeoisie in backward countries was incapable of leading a bourgeois revolution. That was confirmed, yet again. Equally central was the belief that only the working class could lead the mass of the peasantry and urban petty-bourgeoisie in the democratic revolution which would then fuse with the socialist revolution. That proved false. The Chinese working class, in the absence of any mass revolutionary workers’ movement elsewhere in the world, remained passive. Nor did the peasantry refute Marx’s view of their inability to play an independent political role. 1949 was not a peasant movement.

Yet a revolution did occur. China was unified. The imperialist powers were excluded from Chinese soil. The agrarian question, if not “solved”, was at any rate resolved so far as is possible, short of socialism, by the liquidation of landlordism. All the essential features of the bourgeois (or democratic) revolution, as understood by Trotsky himself, had been achieved except political freedom in which the workers’ movement could develop.

They had been gained under the leadership of declassed intellectuals who, in circumstances of general social breakdown, had built a peasant army and conquered by military means a regime rotten to the point of dissolution. Over 2,000 years earlier, the Han dynasty itself had been founded in similar circumstances, under the leadership of a dynastic founder who, like Mao, came from a rich peasant family. But in the mid-twentieth century, survival for the new regime depended on industrialisation. Chinese Stalinism had its roots in this necessity. It was a development for which Trotsky had failed to allow. In itself, that is neither surprising nor important. But, taken in conjunction with the other unexpected outcomes, it was to have a significant effect on the future of Trotsky’s movement.

Only the Chinese case has been considered here – on the grounds of its overwhelming importance – but, earlier, Yugoslavia and Albania and, later, North Vietnam and Cuba, showed certain similar features. The term “deflected permanent revolution” was introduced by Tony Cliff to describe the phenomenon [26], so different from the theory of Permanent Revolution as Trotsky understood it.



Trotskyism After Trotsky

The political dilemmas that faced Trotsky’s followers in the years after his death are relevant here for two reasons; first, because Trotsky himself believed in the supreme importance of the Fourth International; second, because of the further light they shed on the strengths and weaknesses of his ideas.

Trotsky’s uncompromising revolutionary internationalism had steeled his followers to resist an accommodation with the “democratic” imperialism of the allied camp during the second world war, in spite of enormous pressure (including the pressure of the overwhelming mass of the working class, and most of its best and most militant elements). They had indeed “swum against the stream” and emerged unbowed, in spite of persecutions, imprisonments (in the USA and Britain, not to mention the Nazi-occupied countries) and executions which eliminated a significant number of Trotskyist activists in Europe.

They had preserved the tradition against all the odds, recruited new members and, in some cases at least, had become more working class in composition (this was certainly true of the Americans and the British). They were inspired and fortified by the vision of proletarian revolution in the near future. Thus, the main British group issued as a pamphlet in 1944, its 1942 perspectives document under the title Preparing for Power! There were not more than two to three hundred of them at the time ... This magnificent disregard for immediate and apparently insuperable difficulties combined with an unshaken faith in the future was directly inspired by Trotsky’s ideas. It was typical of Trotsky’s followers everywhere.

Unfortunately, it had another side: a literal belief in the detailed accuracy of Trotsky’s 1938-40 world outlook and predictions. Two distinct elements, revolutionary internationalism with faith in the ultimate triumph of socialism, and specific assessments of the prospects for capitalism and Stalinism, had become fused. Consequently, attention to the realities of a fast-changing situation became, in the eyes of the more “orthodox” of Trotsky’s followers, akin to “revisionism”. For several years after 1945 the movement was stuck, in its majority, in the 1938 groove.

When it eventually broke out, a number of different currents emerged, some preserving rather more elements of the authentic communist tradition, others a good many less. Their greatest weakness was their inability for the most part to resist fully the gravitational pull of Stalinism and, a little later, in the fifties and sixties, Third Worldism. This, in turn, led them away from sustained and single-minded concentration on recreating a revolutionary current in the industrial working class. So their predominantly petty-bourgeois character was reinforced, and a vicious circle was perpetuated.

All that said, it remains true that the heritage of Trotsky’s lifelong struggle, the last years of which were carried on under conditions of incredible difficulty, is immensely valuable. To all those marxists for whom marxism is a synthesis of theory and practice, and not merely more or less learned commentary, it is an indispensable contribution to that synthesis today.




1. See The Moscow Trials: An Anthology, London: New Park 1967, p.12.

2. See I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, New York: Vintage 1964, p.171.

3. Trotsky, Fighting against the stream, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, Ncw York: Pathfinder Press 1974, p.251-2.

4. Trotsky, The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International, Documents of the Fourth International, New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, p.180.

5. Trotsky, The USSR in war, In Defence of Marxism, London: New Park 1971, p.9.

6. Trotsky, The death agony ..., op.cit., p.183.

7. Ibid., p.182.

8. Trotsky, The Comintern’s liquidation congress, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, New York: Pathfinder Press 1970, p.11.

9. Trotsky, The USSR in war, op.cit., p.10.

10. M. Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1967, p.11.

11. Trotsky, The founding of the Fourth International, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, op.cit., p.87.

12. Trotsky, The death agony ..., op.cit., p.183.

13. Trotsky, The USSR in war, op.cit., pp.4-5.

14. Ibid., p.21.

15. Ibid., p.18.

16. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London: New Park 1967, pp.245-6.

17. Trotsky, Ten years, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, op.cit., p.341.

18. Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, London: Lawrence & Wishart 1937, pp.129-30.

19. Marx, Wage labour and capital, Selected Works of Marx and Engels, London: Lawrence & Wishart 1934, pp.265-6.

20. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London: Pluto Press 1974, p.276.

21. Trotsky, The USSR in war, op.cit., pp.16-17.

22. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London: Secker & Warburg 1938, p.394.

23. See T. Cliff, Permanent Revolution, International Socialism, No.12, 1962, p.17.

24. Ibid., p.18.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.


Last updated on 1.10.2002