Max Shachtman


Leon Trotsky

(May 1950)

Editorial from New International, Vol.16 No.5, September-October 1950, pp.259-262.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The same misfortune that befell Marx after his death has befallen Trotsky. Superficial critics and uncritical followers, each in their own way, either hardened Marx into bloodless stone or created a new Marx in the image of their misunderstandings and prejudices. Isolated polemical emphases were converted into the very essence of Marx’s teachings; passing judgments into eternal truths; episodic or auxiliary commentaries into infallible universal doctrine. As a result of these gross transformations, the real Marx became all but unrecognizable, and so did his real contributions to modern thought and action. For the real Marx to be degraded to the position of deity was already monstrous enough. It was worse when only a fragment of Marx was set up as the godhead of socialist thought. But Marx was not the only one who sowed dragon’s teeth and reaped fleas. Trotsky has suffered from the same fate, even if his fleas sound more like parrots.

A recent critic, who has bought fame with his skill at mixing defamation and forgery, sees in Trotsky nothing but a “pathetic” but envious denouncer of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is like seeing in all of Marx’s work nothing but his attacks upon Bakunin. A recent disciple, who should not be belabored for simple-mindedness when it is so self-evident, saw the “heart of Trotskyism” in the theory of the defense of the Soviet Union. It is like seeing the heart of Marxism in Marx’s “defense of the First International.”

Trotsky’s greatest, unique contribution was made long before there was a Stalinist bureaucracy to denounce or a Soviet Union to defend. It was his theory of the permanent revolution. In presenting it, he drew heavily upon Marx’s writings on the permanent revolution. But just as Marx drew heavily upon German philosophy, British political economy and French revolutions only to synthesize them into a concatenation of ideas uniquely his own, so Trotsky developed, applied and expanded the theory of the permanent revolution in a way that assured its designation as the specific theory of Trotskyism. This theory, as he elaborated it throughout a lifetime devoted to its realization in the class struggle itself, did not require a departure from Marxism and its tradition. On the contrary, Trotsky was able to demonstrate the viability of Marxism precisely by the way it stimulated those of his thoughts – and actions! – with which he so richly broadened and deepened it as no other, except Lenin, had done in almost the whole of the past hundred years.

The full significance of Trotsky’s theory has escaped all its vulgarizers, both the friendly and the hostile. It is not simply the idea that the proletariat must continue its revolutionary struggle until it is triumpant all over the world and that short of this triumph it cannot achieve freedom. There is much more to it, and most of it lies ahead of this idea. The theory is based upon relating the basic social problems of all countries, no matter what form they take, regardless of how advanced or retarded the country in which they present themselves, to the twentieth-century bourgeoisie and the twentieth-century proletariat. Whether the problem in the one country is that of striking the bonds with which capitalism fetters social progress, or in another country that of striking the bonds which feudalism or semi-slavery fetters progress, is not a matter of irrelevance to Trotsky’s theory – far from it – but it is reduced to secondary importance.

The primary, indeed the decisive, importance is attached to the question of the living social forces, the classes, and not of the social forms. To put it otherwise, it is precisely because different social forms – capitalism, feudalism, and to a certain extent even slavery – are involved in the combination that makes up the modern world, and because of the specific way in which they are combined and interrelated, that the main emphasis is shifted to the question of the classes. The matter of emphasis, at first blush a subtlety, is deep-going and far-reaching in political importance.

From Marx’s rich abstractions about how the development of capitalist economy reaches the point of the socialist revolution, most of his followers established a rigid hierarchical order of nations. Only the advanced capitalist nations were ready for socialism, and they would fall to the proletariat one after the other in strict conformity with the stage to which they had advanced technologically. The rest of humanity would have to plod its way obediently through all the stages passed by the advanced countries, with the toilers waiting patiently at the end of the line until they became capitalistic proletarians, passed their novitiate, grew up to parliamentary manhood in bourgeois society and awaited the moment of its irremediable decay.

Trotsky exploded this historical, theoretical and political absurdity. The world of the twentieth century, he showed, does indeed find its component parts at widely different stages of social development. But it also finds a bourgeoisie which is fundamentally different, in one decisive respect, from its ancestors of a century or two earlier. It is now not only a bourgeoisie that is less and less capable of solving the problem of capitalism in the advanced countries, but which is incapable of providing a radical solution to the problems of feudalism in the backward non-capitalist or semi-capitalist countries, not even to the extent it was able to solve these problems in the days of the great bourgeois revolutions, namely, the thoroughgoing destruction of feudalism, the achievement of real national independence and union, the reformation of agriculture, and political democracy in general. Nowhere, not even in the backward countries of the colonial world, can the bourgeoisie nowadays be expected to play even that revolutionary role which it played generations ago in the western world.

Trotsky’s conclusion was as audacious as it was profound: while the bourgeoisie of the backward countries may still play a limited progressive part for brief flashes of time, it cannot play the role of carrying out the bourgeois-democratic revolution. That role falls upon the shoulders of the proletariat of these countries, even though it is still small in numbers and young in capitalistic years, upon the proletariat leading the great peasant masses. But what if there is no proletariat in these countries, or only a tiny, still unschooled proletariat, which is not yet ready or capable of carrying out the democratic revolution? In such a case, replied Trotsky, the country itself is not yet ready for the democratic revolution – for if the proletariat does not exist to carry it out, no other social force exists that will perform the task. It should hardly be necessary to add that just as Trotsky distinguished between the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the socialist revolution, he likewise distinguished between the solutions which a genuine bourgeois-democratic revolution would provide and the half-solutions, or better yet, the quarter-solutions provided by the caricatures recently achieved by the native bourgeoisie of some of the colonial lands of Asia.

But the proletariat of these countries, because it must carry out the bourgeois revolution against the bourgeoisie, will find, exactly as it did in the Russia of 1917, that the clash of the classes drives it, in defense of the elementary achievements of this revolution itself, to deprive the bourgeoisie of its class power and privilege and reorganize society on a socialist basis. A socialist basis is one thing, and it can be laid in one country. Socialism is another; and it requires – the more backward the country the more urgent the requirement – the joint efforts of the proletarian power in other and always more advanced countries. The revolution is permanent. It must continue uninterruptedly until the socialist. economies of at least the most decisive countries in the world having been harmoniously integrated, revolution itself gives way to an organic peaceful evolution of society toward abundance and freedom.

In this way Trotsky’s theory assigned to the proletariat of the entire world the mission, exclusive to it, of liberating society from all social forms existing today that are based on class rule and oppression of any kind, and therewith tied the struggle for democracy more closely together than ever with the struggle for socialism. (Worth noting, just in passing, is the irony, if not the outrages, contained in the attacks on Trotskyism as a progenitor or accomplice of totalitarianism, written by that wide variety of varnished democrats who, on other sheets of paper, explain to their public that it is not the proletariat that can – or should endeavor to – liberate itself from all sorts of social iniquity, but that this job will be done for them ... if not by Stalin, then by Truman and MacArthur, accompanied on the mission by Chiang Kai-shek, Adenauer, the Papal Eminence and Franco, not to mention a liberal sprinkling of ex-Marxist intellectuals. Not one of them, as he reads with satisfaction about the growth of the atomic bomb stock-pile, can ever forgive Trotsky for ... Kronstadt. But this only in passing.)

If the proletariat fails to accomplish its great mission – what then? No analysis of the trends and problems of modern society is worth much which does not draw deeply and carefully from Trotsky’s own analysis of the many manifestations of social decay and retrogression. What is defective and inadequate in his analysis, has been dealt with by us on more than one occasion. But it is far outweighed by what remains basic and durable. Trotsky’s struggle, not only political but also analytical, against Fascism and Stalinism is by far more lasting and instructive than his theory that Stalinist Russia is still a workers’ state or that it must be unconditionally defended in war. This is all the more the case in view of the tentative character he gave this theory, especially in the very last period of the life which Stalinism crushed so bestially. There is more to learn even from Trotsky’s errors on Stalinism than there is from ninety-nine percent of the shallow stupidities that make up the contributions on this theme made by its critics (to say nothing of its supporters!).

Trotsky would not call the Stalinist bureaucracy a new ruling class, but only a “caste,” even though he knew quite well and openly acknowledged how unscientific was this designation. He continued to call Stalinist Russia a degenerated workers’ state, even though he knew quite well that the further course of its evolution might dictate a radical revision of this view. If he hesitated to revise his view, it was primarily because he understood Stalinism in this sense: it was a decadent product of the failure of the world proletariat to break capitalism by breaking from it, its failure to carry out its mission of revolutionizing the world; and it would be destroyed – this Stalinism – when the proletariat began to carry out its historical task. And in this Trotsky was perfectly correct.

He did not shrink from considering the question of what would happen to society if the struggle for socialism were not continued and expanded. Capitalist society would not produce a flowering of democracy and wealth, but would deteriorate further and further. And Stalinist society, for all its victories over capitalism, would not liberate the masses and advance the cause of socialism. (The theoretician of the permanent revolution, the tireless captain of the socialist proletariat, could not even think in terms of the proletariat being emancipated by this totalitarian bureaucracy – as so many of his unworthy adepts now do – or by any other force than the proletariat itself.) If the working class does not free itself, nobody will be free, and society will decline further to a new barbarism, of which Stalinism, totalitarian servitude, as he called it, is only one of the forms. And if that were to happen, it would be necessary to conclude that the Stalinist bureaucracy was indeed a new exploiting class and the Stalinist state a new exploiting society.

But Trotsky refused to believe that that was the perspective before society. He had seen periods of reaction before in his life – not so deep and extensive as today, it is true, but deep enough – and he had seen them surmounted. These experiences, his knowledge of the slow but irresistible upward climb of society throughout humanity’s history, his understanding of the irresolvability of the problems of society save through the fight for socialism, sustained to the end his life-long confidence in the inexhaustibility of the power of recuperation, the resiliency and the eventual triumph of the working class. In this too he was perfectly right, a thousand and a hundred thousand times more right than those pathetic fugitives from socialism who are really fugitives from the real problems of life and the real answers, the men of little hope and less honor who buy the vanishing crusts of today by selling the staff of life of tomorrow. Tomorrow will remember them with contempt, or in mercy forget them altogether. It will not forget Trotsky, the peerless soldier of the revolution who did not bow his head in defeat or despair but held it high where he could see the horizon at its broadest.




Last updated on 21.8.2005