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International Socialism, Summer 1994


Dave Sherry

Trotsky’s last, greatest struggle


From International Socialism 2:63, Summer 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Tony Cliff
Trotsky Volume IV 1927–40
Bookmarks 1993, £6.95

The fourth and final volume of Tony Cliff’s political biography of Trotsky completes the most comprehensive and best researched account of one of the towering figures of the socialist movement. Aptly titled The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, it covers 1927–40 – a period of defeat and reaction when Trotsky kept the torch of revolutionary socialism alight.

After Lenin, Trotsky ranks as the greatest revolutionary of the 20th century. He was the leader of two workers’ revolutions and the creator and commander of the Red Army during the Civil War of 1918–23. He commanded respect as a man of action; but he was also a man of ideas. A prolific writer on every subject, his published work is about twice the volume of Lenin’s and he was also regarded as the greatest mass orator of his day. With this final volume Cliff has produced one of the best biographies written about a giant whose politics still have an enormous bearing on our times. It was Trotsky who provided the materialist explanation for the rise of fascism and exposed the divisive and destructive influence of Stalinism and social democracy upon the German workers’ movement.

Tragically, Trotsky’s attempt to arouse the working class movement to the mortal threat of German fascism went largely unheeded. If Trotsky’s call for a workers’ united front against the Nazis had gained a wider audience inside the German labour movement, then the whole history of the 20th century would have run a different course.

The German defeat helped make Cliff a Trotskyist. He has remained an active revolutionary throughout the ensuing 60 years, and freely acknowledges Trotsky’s influence and inspiration:

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]

Cliff is best known as the author of State Capitalism in Russia [2] – his analysis of Russia was based on the solid foundation laid by Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinism, and in particular, his implacable hostility to Stalin’s theory of building ‘Socialism in one country’. Cliff’s theory of state capitalism would never have seen the light of day had Trotsky not written The Revolution Betrayed [3] during the height of the Moscow show trials in 1937 when Kamenev, Zinoviev and other old Bolshevik leaders from 1917 were being purged and executed.

Of all Stalin’s opponents, it was Trotsky who produced a systematic Marxist critique which refuted Stalin’s proclamation that the Soviet Union had achieved socialism. He did so by comparing the principles of a socialist society to the barbaric reality of Stalin’s Russia.

However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet State, one thing is certain; at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to die away. Worse than that, it has grown into an unheard of apparatus of compulsion ... With the utmost stretch of fancy it would be difficult to imagine a contrast more striking than that which exists between the schema of the Workers’ State according to Marx, Engels and Lenin and the actual state now headed by Stalin. [4]

Yet Cliff’s analysis of Russia rejects Trotsky’s description of the Soviet Union in the 1930s as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ – a description that Trotsky persisted with until his death:

My criticism of Trotsky’s position was intended as a return to classical Marxism. Historical development – especially after Trotsky’s death – demonstrated that the ‘degenerated workers’ state’ position was not compatible with the classical Marxist tradition which identifies socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. To preserve the letter of Trotsky’s writing on the Stalinist regime, the spirit of his writing had to be sacrificed. [5]

Cliff’s method of preserving the spirit of Trotsky – taking the fundamental strengths and revising the temporal limitations and flaws within his overall analysis – led to a step forward in Marxist theory. This method, which permeates Cliff’s entire approach to Trotsky, makes for a biography that is a sympathetic but honest account of Trotsky’s politics. It also makes for a biography that can serve as a guide to revolutionary action today. Volume I, Towards October, published in 1989, covers the period from Trotsky’s birth in 1879 until the October Revolution of 1917. Volume II, The Sword of the Revolution, published in 1990, covers the years 1917–23, from the consolidation of Soviet power until Lenin’s illness and disappearance from the political scene in 1923. These years marked the zenith of Trotsky’s career, and it is worth examining how he rose to such a stature.

Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in a little Ukranian village, he was the son of hardworking though relatively well to do peasants. In 1888 he was sent off to school and it was as a teenager in the provincial town of Nicolayev that he began his political activity. At the age of 17 he joined the revolutionary movement as a Narodnik [6], but within a year he had become a Marxist involved in organising strikes and workers’ demonstrations.

He was imprisoned by the tsarist police, served two years in prison and then was exiled to Siberia. He escaped and, taking the name Trotsky from his jailer, he made his way across Europe to collaborate with the emigré leaders of the Russian Marxist movement in London.

Working with Lenin, Plekhanov and Martov on the editorial board of the Iskra newspaper, the young Trotsky developed intellectually and soon became something more than a disciple of his elders. He broke from Lenin over the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLF) – he later acknowledged that this was the biggest mistake of his life – and was briefly aligned with the Menshevik faction of the RSDLP. In 1904 he broke with them and began a decade long attempt to reunite the two wings of Russian Marxism.

During the 1905 revolution he grasped the significance of the new workers’ councils before anyone else – including Lenin – and he became the leader of the Petrograd Soviet. Still only 26 years of age, he had become the most prominent revolutionary leader and an internationally known figure. He had emerged from the background of small group emigré politics to become a magnificent orator and mass leader. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution he fashioned his unique and lasting contribution to revolutionary Marxism – the theory of permanent revolution – a theory that would be brilliantly vindicated 13 years later by the Russian Revolution in 1917, and is crucial to understanding the subsequent development of imperialism and the struggle against it.

With the defeat of the 1905 revolution, Trotsky was arrested again, but he escaped to Vienna. The next nine years were spent in the small emigré circles and in futile attempts to unite what were by now two incompatible tendencies – Bolshevism and Menshevism. Trotsky returned to Russia from exile and joined the Bolshevik Party in July following the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. Such were his talents and reputation that, within weeks, he stood second only to Lenin in the eyes of the Bolshevik workers, soldiers and sailors.

In September 1917, after being imprisoned by the Provisional Government, and then helping to thwart a right wing coup against that government, he was again elected president of the Petrograd Soviet. From this position he organised and led the October insurrection. Lenin asked him to be chairman of the new workers’ government, but he declined and instead was elected Commissar for Foreign Affairs and conducted the peace negotiations with the German government at Brest-Litovsk, which hastened the end of the First World War and the German workers’ revolution.

At the age of 38 Trotsky was one of the two most important figures in the Bolshevik Party and the Russian government, and one of the key leaders of the new Communist International. In the civil war, which began in 1918, he was both creator and Commander of the Red Army, leading it to victory through three years of foreign military intervention aimed at crushing the infant workers’ state.

But, just as Trotsky had risen to prominence with the revolution, he fell with its isolation and degeneration – and this is the backcloth to Cliff’s final two volumes.

Volume III, Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy, was published in 1991. It covers the years from 1923 until 1927, and deals with the interval between the two decisive periods in Trotsky’s life. In the years immediately preceding 1923 Trotsky led millions and with them made history. By 1928 he was an outcast – expelled from the party and banished from Russia because his opposition threatened the bureaucracy.

The intervening years, 1923 to 1927, witnessed the great battle between Trotsky and Stalin over the fate of Russia and the fate of the Communist International. It is the great irony of Trotsky’s eventful life that, as one of the major architects of the revolution, he had the task of charting and explaining its degeneration after Lenin’s death in 1924.

In the last year of his life the ailing Lenin asked for Trotsky’s support in a fight against the growing bureaucratic methods in the party and the government. In particular, he wanted Stalin removed from his post. Cliff shows how Trotsky’s initial uncharacteristic hesitation – his reluctance to be seen squabbling over Lenin’s mantle – gave Stalin and his cohorts the advantage. But when Trotsky decided to fight and lead the opposition to Stalinism, he became its fiercest, most implacable enemy for the rest of his life.

It is some measure of the respect accorded to Trotsky in 1924 that no one individual could act as a counterweight – certainly not Stalin. The triumverate of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin had to be thrown jointly into the scales to balance the lone Trotsky and their alliance rested more on mutual resentment and fear of Trotsky than on any great common cause.

In Europe the tide of revolution was receding, weakening the working class both in Russia – where it had been decimated and exhausted by civil war – and internationally, where the failure to exploit revolutionary situations in Germany, Italy and even Britain had given the ruling class a new confidence.

Under Stalin’s stifling influence the Comintern spurned three great opportunities to turn the tide – another revolutionary situation in Germany in 1923, the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese Revolution of 1927. Trotsky produced brilliant analyses of each of these events, criticising the ultra-conservative policies of the Communist International in Moscow. Although his prophetic warnings were vindicated by the course of events in every one of these cases, it was Stalin who benefited from defeat. International setbacks for the working class made it harder for Trotsky’s internationalism to win an audience inside beleaguered Russia, and easier for the Stalinist bureaucracy to strengthen its grip. Trotsky was defeated inside the party, expelled and banished from Russia at the beginning of 1928.

Cliff’s final volume, published in December 1993, draws on new material from recently opened archives in both Russia and the USA. It covers the years 1927–40 – the period between Trotsky’s banishment and his assassination by Stalin’s agent in Mexico. This last period of his life was spent in a courageous and lonely struggle to keep alive the tradition and ideas of the Russian Revolution. As Cliff writes in the preface to Volume IV:

This period was the most tragic of his eventful, stormy life. It was a period of some 13 years of deep darkness, unbroken by a single shaft of light. When Trotsky stated that ‘the vengeance of history is more powerful than the vengeance of the most powerful General Secretary’, he could not have had an inkling of the horrors this General Secretary would inflict on himself and his family. [7]

These last years were also the darkest years of the 20th century. From 1928 onwards Stalin consolidated his regime, setting out to achieve in three years the kind of capitalist accumulation which had taken the English bourgeoisie more than two centuries to achieve. ‘Socialism in one country’ meant the forced collectivisation of agriculture and a breakneck rush for industrialisation, so that backward peasant Russia could catch up and compete militarily with the advanced economies of the West.

The results were catastrophic for the Russian people. In the countryside famine killed four million peasants, and in industry there was a massive attack on living standards, working conditions and workers’ rights. In 1930 workers’ wages were halved and in 1932 an internal passport system, more oppressive than that under the Tsar, was introduced. Stalin imposed these policies by mass terror with millions of workers and peasants perishing in slave labour camps. Cliff documents this massive repression and exploitation with the facts and figures that have been kept hidden from the Russian people until now.

Internationally, the communist movement was deliberately and systematically transformed into a mouthpiece for the new Russian ruling class. Its policies proved disastrous for both the Russian and world working class – paving the way for defeat, reaction and barbarism on an undreamt scale. Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany and unleashed the Holocaust. Franco and the fascists were allowed to triumph in Spain, while the workers’ revolution was sabotaged on the orders of Moscow. As Trotsky pointed out, the imperialist powers were preparing the ground for a new world war, a war that would end in the horror of Hiroshima.

During this period Trotsky produced some of his finest political writing including his monumental History of the Russian Revolution, his analysis of the degeneration of the revolution, his attempt to combat the rise of fascism, his concrete writings on the strategy and tactics of the class struggle and his attempt to build the Left Opposition and a new Fourth International. As Cliff notes:

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. [8]

Yet the combination of subjective weaknesses and objective difficulties – Trotsky’s isolation combined with the profoundly unfavourable world situation – had practical consequences for Trotsky’s Left Opposition. This explains their failures and their mistakes.

The defeat of the Left Opposition inside Russia was not just the result of persecution, terrible though it was, but of confusion about Stalin’s five year plan for industry, launched in 1928. In 1927 Trotsky had argued repeatedly that in a conflict between the right in the party (Bukharin) and the centrists (the Stalin faction), Stalin was bound to lose.

Trotsky’s false estimate of collectivisation and industrialisation under the five year plan flowed from an underestimation of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s independence from both the Russian peasantry and the Russian proletariat. Cliff makes this crystal clear:

Police persecutions could not by themselves explain the capitulation of thousands of oppositionists. After all many of the old Bolsheviks stood the test of years of persecution in Siberia under tsarism and did not give way. People like Rakovsky, who had four decades of struggle behind them, would not give way just to persecution. Capitulations were far more the outcome of conviction that Stalin’s policies of collectivisation and speedy industrialisation were socialist policies and that there were no realistic alternatives to them. It was the ideological crisis of the Trotskyist movement that disarmed the oppositionists, and tempted them to surrender to Stalin. [9]

Trotsky’s isolation meant that he could not materially affect the situation anywhere. The cogency of his writing on Germany in the 1930s has never been equalled. But ideas become a force only to the extent that they move people. The contrast between Trotsky’s ideas and his lack of forces on the ground was stark and painful. The German Left Opposition, as Trotsky noted in 1932, ‘failed to recruit even ten native factory workers’. It consisted largely of ‘individualistic petty bourgeois and lumpen elements who cannot tolerate discipline’.

The power of Stalinism was a tremendous obstacle, as Cliff explains:

In the face of Hitler’s mighty forces, only Stalin and the Red Army looked like a realistic alternative. Any criticisms of the latter appeared as a stab in the back at the only consolation existing for anti fascists. [10]

Trotsky’s followers – and not only those in Germany – were forced into a political ghetto from which they couldn’t break out.

Until 1933 Trotsky’s perspective was to attempt to influence the Communist Parties in the hope that events, coupled with the criticism of the Left Opposition, could shift them towards revolutionary policies. The cataclysmic defeat in Germany shattered these hopes. It proved that the Comintern was a political corpse beyond resurrection.

After Hitler gained power, Trotsky abandoned that approach. The question for him now was how to create new revolutionary parties and a new Fourth International. Trotsky proposed that his followers, first in France and then more generally, should enter the parties of social democracy, arguing that these organisations were growing and moving to the left. The new layers of workers who were joining these parties would provide a milieu in which the Left Opposition could connect with the working class and break out of its ghetto.

For Trotsky, the tactic was a short term one: to recruit the best elements and then to split and launch new parties with roots in the real movement. The tactic was put to the test in France.

Unfortunately many of Trotsky’s supporters simply adapted to the reformism of the Social Democratic Party – the SFIO – and were reluctant to argue openly and split. This produced schism and dissent within the Trotskyist movement. If anything, entryism had the opposite effect to that intended by Trotsky. This was particularly true of the American Socialist Workers Party – the biggest section of the Fourth International. The SWP had a number of working class leaders with experience in the movement – James Cannon being the most notable. Yet in 1936–7, when the CIO was expanding massively through the big sit-down strikes, the Trotskyists were obsessed with their entry tactic in the Socialist Party and failed to build out of the mass struggle.

The entry tactic failed and the Fourth International was stillborn. Trotsky made mistakes, but these mistakes were borne out of the objective difficulties he faced, and any realistic assessment of the failure of Trotskyism to take root in the 1930s must put the overwhelming emphasis on the profoundly unfavourable situation in which Trotsky and his followers were forced to operate.

The unnecessary defeat of the Spanish Revolution was the final nail in the coffin, as Cliff explains:

A victory for the Spanish proletariat could have produced a great revolutionary movement in France, where massive strikes and factory occupations were taking place. A victory for 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. [11]

Throughout the 1930s Trotsky had insisted that there was nothing inevitable about the victory of reaction, and fought to build a new international movement based on revolutionary Marxism. It is this last period of his life that most other commentators and biographers dismiss. Great play has been made of the tragedy and futility of Trotsky’s last ten years compared to the great triumphs and achievements of his earlier political activity.

Isaac Deutscher’s Prophet Trilogy [12] is deservedly a much praised work. Published over 30 years ago, it rescued Trotsky from the vicious lies and slanders of Stalinism and gave an honest account of his leading role in the revolution. But the final volume – The Prophet Outcast – says more about Deutscher’s political distance from Trotsky than about its actual hero.

Deutscher thought, like many others, that Trotsky’s final years were a sad irrelevance; that the great man should have retired gracefully into the detachment of academic Marxism. Yet even if he had chosen to give up the struggle, Stalin could never have allowed Trotsky to remain alive. The great strength of Cliff’s biography is that it rejects Deutscher’s approach, championing instead the fighting spirit of its subject. Trotsky wrote that his work in the last years was the most important of his life:

I think that the work in which I am now engaged, 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 Civil War or any other. Had I not been present in 1917 in St 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 St 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 present, 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 1917–21. 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 resolve. 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. [13]

Trotsky was right – not because the Fourth International achieved much, not because he continued to describe Russia as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ but because there was nothing else for him to do but fight, and in fighting he kept alive the traditions of Bolshevism. Trotsky stood alone as the champion of revolutionary socialism and Cliff’s biography is the best possible tribute:

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. [14]


1. T. Cliff, Trotsky Volume IV 1927–40 (Bookmarks 1993), p. 384.

2. T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (Bookmarks 1988).

3. L. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (Pathfinder, 5th ed., 1990).

4. Ibid., pp. 51–52.

5. T. Cliff, Trotsky Volume IV, op. cit., p. 338.

6. Narodniks – petty bourgeois trend in Russian revolutionary movement, who believed the peasantry were the main revolutionary force, not the working class.

7. T. Cliff, Trotsky Volume IV, op. cit., p. 11.

8. Ibid., p. 380.

9. Ibid., p. 102.

10. Ibid., p. 366.

11. Ibid., p. 368.

12. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Trilogy (OUP 1959).

13. Quoted in T. Cliff, Trotsky Volume IV, op. cit., p. 382.

14. T. Cliff, Ibid., p. 384.

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