MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 21

International Socialist Review, January–February 2002

Duncan Hallas

Reprints from the socialist tradition

Trotskyism reassessed

(July 1977)


From International Socialist Review, Issue 21, January–February 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Duncan Hallas was a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) and its predecessor organizations until the mid-1990s. A brilliant speaker, debater, and writer, Hallas is author of numerous articles and books, including Trotsky’s Marxism and The Comintern. This article first appeared in International Socialism (first series), July 1977.

I’LL TRY to go through every idea that we are talking about and try to show the roots–where did it come from? Well let’s start from when we broke from traditional Trotskyism. Now we broke on one simple thing, on the Russian question. That was the central issue of the time.

Now what did we accept from Trotsky? We accepted from Trotsky first of all that the working class is the agent of the socialist revolution; that the working class is the subject, not the object, but the subject of the socialist revolution; that the criterion to every change in society is what role the working class is playing actively in it ...

The second thing we took straight from Trotsky is opposition to all rising bureaucracies. Thirdly we took from Trotsky the theory of the impossibility of socialism in one country, the fact that the pressure of world capitalism distorts development in every workers’ state, in this case the Russian workers’ state. We also accepted from Trotsky the question of the international nature of the revolution. These things we accepted from him. Now what were the defects, where didn’t we agree?

Now what we thought was wrong with Trotsky was this, that if it was true that the working class was the agent of socialist revolution then the form of property is a bloody stupid criterion for deciding whether a state is a workers’ state or not.... What the worker as an active agent cares about is the relations in production, in other words what place the worker is in the process of production; whether the worker comes to a state enterprise like the railways or private enterprise like ICI, he doesn’t come in relation to it as regards the form of property ... Trotsky was not consistent enough in his own criteria of approach.

Second of all, planning is not a criterion for judging the nature of the state because the question is who is being planned and who is doing the planning ... The central thing is quite simply that we came to the conclusion that workers’ control is the decisive thing in evaluating a workers’ state ... and therefore a workers’ state is a state where the workers control their destiny. It cannot be given to them. They have to do it themselves. Once you abolish the element of workers’ control, you abolish the essence of the workers’ state.

This was really the first theoretical thing we were faced with and we are still with it, and when we are faced with new phenomena and new backward countries in the process of industrialization we use the same criteria and the same general approach, and therefore for us it is not a surprise what happened to Nkrumah, whatever happens in China ...
(Tony Cliff, from a speech on Revolutionary Traditions, 1967)

TROTSKYISM HAS come to mean many different things in the 37 years since Trotsky’s death. Widely differing and often mutually hostile groupings describe themselves as Trotskyist and it is not very profitable to attempt to set up a standard of orthodoxy to judge them by. There are many Trotskyisms. Moreover, those of them that have persisted in an organized form over any considerable period of time have undergone profound and sometimes repeated changes. For example, the Mandel tendency is a very different political current today than it was 10 years ago; and 10 years ago its political content was markedly different from what it had been 10 years before that.

This article is mainly concerned with Trotskyism as a body of revolutionary theory and practice as developed by Trotsky in the decade of his third exile (1929–40). I shall argue first that Trotsky fought to preserve the authentic communist tradition, the tradition of the early Communist International, in the only way that it could or can be preserved, by developing it and embodying it in a living moment; second, that the extremely unfavorable circumstances of the time not only defeated his efforts so far as immediate large-scale results were concerned, but also led to characteristic distortions and deformations of the tradition itself as it came to be embodied in the various Trotskyist groupings; third, that while Trotsky was aware of this and fought vigorously against certain of the deformations, he himself contributed to fostering some of them.

By “tradition” I mean the doctrine, strategy, and tactics developed by the Comintern in Lenin’s time, a development in which Trotsky played a prominent part.

In 1932 Trotsky summarized the matter as follows:

The International Left Opposition stands on the ground of the first four Congresses of the Comintern. This does not mean that it bows before every letter of its decisions, many of which had a purely conjunctural character and have been contradicted by subsequent events. But all the essential principles (in relation to imperialism and the bourgeois state, to democracy and reformism; problems of insurrection; the dictatorship of the proletariat; on relations with the peasantry and the oppressed nations; soviets, work in the trade unions; parliamentarianism, the policy of the united front) remain even today the highest expression of proletarian strategy in the epoch of the general crisis of capitalism.1

There is an important omission here, the nature of the communist party–an active, conscious section of the working class. Otherwise, it is an accurate condensation of the indispensable theoretical basis of a revolutionary Marxist movement.

The post-1923 Comintern deviated rapidly from the line of the first four congresses, first in an opportunist direction (1924–28, with a partial “left” oscillation in 1924), then in an ultra-left direction (1928–34), and finally completely abandoned the whole basis of communist politics with the lurch into popular frontism from 1935 onwards.

Trotsky’s superb analysis of these developments and un-tiring struggle to reintegrate the authentic tradition with the actual movement was an enormously important achievement. Our own politics rest upon it. All the more reason, then, to look critically at the weaknesses of the Trotskyist heritage.

The most glaring, of course, is that referred to by Cliff in the speech quoted here. Until late 1933 Trotsky had maintained that the working classes of the USSR had the possibility of “recapturing” the bureaucratized state by peaceful and legal means, “without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform.”2

However unrealistic in fact, this position enabled Trotsky to reconcile the Marxist conception of the working class as the active agent of the socialist revolution with his description of the USSR under Stalin’s dictatorship as a workers’ state.

Once this “reformist” perspective was abandoned, as it was in October 1933, there was a built-in contradiction in Trotsky’s theoretical system. At the time it did not have any very important practical consequences. The USSR, which indisputably originated from a genuine proletarian revolution, could be regarded as a very special case.

After the Second World War, the creation, by means other than proletarian revolution, of a whole series of states of the same general type exploded the contradiction. The theoretical coherence of Trotskyism–of Trotsky’s own Trotskyism–was shattered. In the late forties and early fifties, the Trotskyist movement–more or less united until then–splintered into fragments, largely, though not wholly, under the impact of the enormous upsurge of Stalinism with the emergence of the “socialist camp,” and the inability of the Trotskyists to emancipate themselves from Trotsky’s error.

But there were other defects in the tradition, too, defects whose seeds were sown in Trotsky’s lifetime. They now flourish like rank weeds in the various Trotskyisms.

Propagandism and its price

The opposition is now taking shape on the basis of principled ideological demarcation, and not on the basis of mass actions ... Mass actions tend as a rule to wash away secondary and episodic differences and to aid the fusion of friendly and close tendencies. Conversely, ideological groupings in a period of stagnation or ebb tide disclose a great tendency towards differentiation, splits and internal struggles. We cannot leap out of the period in which we live. We must pass through it. A clear, precise ideological differentiation is unconditionally necessary. It prepares future successes.
Trotsky, The Groupings in the Communist Opposition, 1929

THE FIRST problem facing Trotsky at the outset of his last exile was how to pull together a coherent oppositional movement within, or at any rate oriented on, the Communist International.

An independent movement, a movement seeking to build directly in the working class, was ruled out. “The cry about a second party and a Fourth International is merely ridiculous ... We do not identify the Communist International with the Stalinist bureaucracy.”3

The perspective was to influence the course of the Communist Parties in the hope that the combined effect of events and the criticism of the left opposition could shift them towards realistic revolutionary policies. As in the USSR, Trotsky’s aim was reform of the existing communist movement, not the creation of a new movement.

The policy failed. The destruction of the German labor movement by the Nazis in 1933, as a result in large part of the criminal lunacy of the Comintern’s “Third Period” ultra-leftism, which paralyzed the German Communist Party, marked the end of any realistic hope of its success.

Yet it was certainly correct to try. There was no chance at that time of building independent parties. The enormous prestige of the Russian revolution, still a recent event, had been inherited by Stalin, and some of it had rubbed off onto the Stalinist leaders of the Comintern sections. Moreover, these were the years of the greatest slump in the history of capitalism, and simultaneously, of the first five-year plan. The contrast between mass unemployment and industrial decline in the West and the feverish expansion of Russian industry was stark and clear to millions of workers.

And there was Germany–”the key to the international situation” as Trotsky rightly said. Here was a highly industrialized country with the biggest working class in Europe and the biggest Communist Party in the world (for as Trotsky also said, the CPSU was no longer a party, but a bureaucratic apparatus) plunging into a prolonged social crisis that could be resolved only by the proletarian revolution or the fascist counter-revolution.

To write off the KPD (which claimed 250,000 members in 1932) was to concede victory to Hitler in advance. The KPD however, like all the Comintern sections, maintained that the social democrats–re-christened “social fascists” since 1929– were the main enemy, not the Nazis, and denounced Trotsky’s call for a workers’ united front against fascism as “the theory of an utterly bankrupt fascist and counterrevolutionary.”4

The brilliance and cogency of Trotsky’s writings on the German crisis has rarely been equaled and has never been excelled by any Marxist, not excluding Marx and Lenin. But ideas become a force only to the extent that they move people; socialist ideas become significant only to the extent that they become rooted in the working class.

The contrast between Trotsky’s writings and the state of the German Trotskyists on the ground was painful. They were a handful. And they were almost all socially marginal people quite outside the workers’ movement. The German opposition, Trotsky noted in 1932, had failed to recruit even “ten native factory workers.” It consisted largely of “individualistic, petty-bourgeois and lumpen elements who cannot tolerate discipline.”5

The power of the Stalinists had forced the German Trotskyists–and not only the Germans as we shall see–into a political ghetto which also had a definite social location: the fringes of the intellectual section of the petty bourgeoisie. This is the most important simple fact about Trotsky’s followers. They originated, for the most part, within a petty-bourgeois milieu, and with rare exceptions they could not break out of it. The political consequences of this fact profoundly distorted their development.

One of the exceptions, partially at any rate, was the American group. They had in their ranks one of Trotsky’s most considerable non-Russian followers, [James] Cannon, an ex-CP leader of working-class background and considerable experience in the movement, and one or two others–[Vincent] Dunne, [Arne] Swabeck, [Hugo] Oehler–of similar origin.

Yet here is Cannon’s own description of the membership in the early thirties:

We begin to recruit from sources none too healthy ... Freaks always looking for the most extreme expression of radicalism, misfits, windbags, chronic oppositionists, who had been thrown out of half a dozen organizations ... Many people came to us who had revolted against the Communist Party not for its bad sides but for its good sides; that is, the discipline of the party, the subordination of the individual to the decisions of the party in current work. A lot of dillettantish, petty-bourgeois minded people who couldn’t stand any kind of discipline, many of the newcomers made a fetish of democracy ... All the people of this type have one common characteristic; they like to discuss things without limit or end ... They can all talk; and not only can but will; and everlastingly, on every question.6

In more moderate terms–too moderate, for the French section was one of the worst of the lot–a historian of French Trotskyism describes the main French group in Paris. “The Paris region included a large proportion of intellectuals, former communist cadres now cut off from their base.”7

Trotskyism had been forced into this milieu and Trotsky was acutely aware of the need to break out of it. Objective conditions made it extremely difficult. Subjective circumstances–the social nature of the Trotskyists–became an additional obstacle. But Trotsky compounded the difficulties. He denounced “closed circles,” “literary arrogance,” “conceit and grand airs.” Yet at the same time he insisted: “The cadres can only be educated if all questions are debated by the whole Opposition ... Questions of general revolutionary tactics and internal questions should be the property of every member of the Opposition organization.”8

This approach inevitably further strengthened the “intellectualist” tendencies to which the petty-bourgeois nature of the movement gave rise and made effective involvement in the workers’ movement still more difficult. It further strengthened the trend towards “natural selection” of those who wished to “discuss things without limit,” the trend to the “one continuous stew of discussion” of which Cannon complained.

Trotsky encouraged the various sections of the opposition to interest themselves in each others’ activities, he wrote interminable circulars and epistles explaining, say, to the Belgians why the French fell out, to the Greeks why the German comrades were in disagreement, to the Poles what were the points at issue between different sets of the Belgian or of the American opposition, and so on and so forth. He did all this in the belief that he was educating and training a new levy of communists, new “cadres of revolution.”9

Some of this was doubtless unavoidable, a necessary consequence of the propagandist stance which, in turn, was politically correct at the time. Some, but by no means all. Trotsky’s method legitimized and encouraged the pretentions of people who, though they could not gain so much as a toe-hold in their own working-class movement, felt able to pronounce on the details of policy and tactics all over the world. It fostered the very “conceit and grand airs” that was such an obstacle to serious work. It helped to give the Trotskyist groups an exotic, hothouse atmosphere remote from the world of working-class militants and thus perpetuated the petty-bourgeois nature of the groups. To all this, Trotsky contributed, in spite of quite opposite intentions. The basic fallacy was that cadres can be trained outside the class struggle. And the baleful influence of this tradition was to persist; a poison in the bloodstream of the movement long after propagandism had been officially abandoned as a struggle orientation.

One particular aspect of the evil, factionalism, took a strong hold in the early period and was never subsequently entirely eliminated. Some factional struggles are an inevitable overhead cost in the growth of any serious revolutionary organization. Permanent, persistent factionalism, however, is not an overhead cost, but a disease.

As Cannon wrote later: “There is no greater abomination in the workers’ political movement than a permanent faction. There is nothing that can demoralize the internal life of a party more efficiently than a permanent faction.”10

A lightminded toleration of factionalism certainly cannot be attributed to Trotsky. His approach to the development of cadres nonetheless encouraged it precisely because it enabled petty-bourgeois cliques to justify their existence on “theoretical” grounds.

Entrism and its outcome

The period of existence as a Marxist circle ingrafts invariably habits of an abstract approach to the problems of the workers’ movement. He who is unable to step in time over the confines of the circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian.... To a Marxist, discussion is an important but a functional instrument of the class struggle. To the sectarian, discussion is a goal in itself.
Trotsky, Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International, 1935

AFTER HITLER gained power, Trotsky abandoned the reformist orientation towards the Communist Parties. It was necessary, given the utter bankruptcy shown by the failure to even attempt seriously to resist the Nazis, to create new revolutionary parties. Again the political judgement was inescapable. Within two years the Comintern had swung from the ultra-left pseudo-radicalism of the “Third Period” to Popular Frontism–collaboration with the social democrats and “progressive” bourgeois parties on the basis of “defending democracy.” The struggle for socialism was thrown out of the window.

How could new revolutionary parties (and a new international) be created? It was, and is, an immensely difficult task. Social democracy had been built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when, so to say, there was a clear space, when rival workers’ parties were not, in most cases, significant. The communist parties came out of the splits in the social democracy on a rising revolutionary tide.

Neither of these conditions existed in the thirties. At the same time, in these years, the anti-Trotskyist campaign orchestrated from Moscow reached its height. Trotsky was an agent of Hitler and the Japanese Emperor–as the line in the period of the Moscow trials goes, “The Trotskyists were fascist agents in the workers’ movement.”

Any realistic assessment of the failure of Trotskyism to take root, of the failure of successive attempts to break out of isolation, must put overwhelming emphasis on the profoundly unfavorable situation in which the Trotskyists were placed.

In 1939, on the eve of the war, and after many failures, Trotsky frankly surveyed the situation:

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 organization of deception of the workers, and so on, it is an inevitable situation that the revolutionary elements must work against the general historical current even if our ideas, our conceptions, are as exact and wise as one can demand. But the masses are not educated by prognostic theoretical conception, but by the general experience of their lives. It is the most general explanation–the whole situation is against us.11

It was true. The blemishes of the Trotskyists in these circumstances are of significance only in so far as they became institutionalized and transmitted to later generations. Three issues of that period are still significant.

To restate the problem as it was, the groups were weak, petty bourgeois, and more or less outside the workers’ movement. How to break out of the ghetto, proletarianize Trotskyism, and pull significant numbers of workers into new communist parties?

After initial attempts to “regroup” with various left social- democratic/centrist formations (mainly unsuccessfully), Trotsky proposed entry into the social-democratic parties. Strictly speaking, this was argued for specific cases–France at first–but it came to be generalized in practice. The argument was that the social democrats were moving left creating a more favorable climate for revolutionary work, that they were attracting new layers of workers, and were an incomparably more proletarian environment than the propaganda groups Trotskyism inhabited.

The operation was conceived as a short-term one: a sharp, hard fight with the reformists and centrists to rally the potentially revolutionary forces, then split and found the party. “Entry into a reformist-centrist party in itself does not include a long-term perspective. It is only a stage which under certain conditions can be limited to an episode.”12

The first issue was that of the internal democracy of the Trotskyist groups. It was an issue because in many if not most sections, the opponents of the “French Turn” (entry) were the majority. Democratic centralism was part of their creed. But what did it mean? An open reciprocal relationship between the revolutionary party and its working-class base, a relationship which requires a correspondingly open party regime? That, of course, was what it was supposed to mean, but very obviously that did not apply to the Trotskyist groups. They were not parties and they were not working class. Or did it mean commitment to accept the majority decision of a petty-bourgeois group?

In practice Trotsky was extremely ruthless. While insisting, rightly, on the maximum feasible internal democracy for educational reasons, he insisted on purges and splits with those of his cadres who were deeply wedded to the intellectual milieu. “A revolutionary organization cannot develop without purging itself, especially under conditions of legal work when not infrequently chance, alien and degenerate elements gather under the banner of revolution.”13 And again, “The (French) League is passing through a first crisis under the banner of clear revolutionary criteria. Under these conditions, a splitting off of a part of the League will be a great step forward. It will reject all that is unhealthy, crippled and incapacitated; it will give a lesson to the vacillating and irresolute elements; it will harden the better section of the youth.”14

This approach was denounced by sundry opponents as undemocratic, authoritarian, and so on, all of which was a reflection of the unwillingness of these opponents to break from their background. Because, in the end, entry failed in its strategic aim, because much of the Marxist movement remained petty bourgeois, these attitudes, “making a fetish of democracy” without analysis of the class and political content, recurred again and again and still recur today.

The second issue was the reemergence of propagandism under a new guise–program fetishism. The arguments with reformists and centrists pushed Trotskyists in the direction of defending the fundamentals of communism rather than applying them in actual working-class struggles. The defense of “the program” inevitably loomed very large, and for some, came to have an almost mystical significance. Some of Trotsky’s own formulations (though not his practice) lent some color to this deviation. But Marxism is a synthesis of theory and practice. No program is of any value unless it leads to practical activity necessary to achieve its aims. Again, it has to be stressed that circumstances forced a degree of program fetishism on the Trotskyist groups. But this fetishism–the attribution of independent power to an inanimate object, a body of writings–did not always disappear when the conditions fostering it had altered. It is still very much alive among some of the Trotskyist grouplets of today.

In particular, one document, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, the 1938 Transitional Program, came to acquire a status close to that of Holy Writ in the eyes of many Trotskyists. It is a blend of concrete political analysis, which proved to be faulty in a number of important respects; tactical recipes related to the analysis; history; and basic communist ideas. That it was a misleading guide is much less important than the fact that most of Trotsky’s followers proved incapable of a critical reappraisal. They did not learn from Trotsky’s own unhesitating rejection of positions he had long held when they were clearly inapplicable.

In the end, of course, fetishism too has material roots. Forced back into the specific social environment in which they had begun, powerless to affect the course of events, some succumbed to a quasi-religious faith–for that, after all, is what program fetishism is, no matter how stridently its adherents proclaim their atheism.

The third issue was parasitism. The entrist operates inside an alien body. A certain degree of adaptation to the norms of that body is unavoidable. Adaptation, however, can mean not only care in language, etc., but a shift in political emphasis. Already, in the original short-term entry in France, this occurred. Trotsky wrote of “those (in R. Molinier’s circle) who, exhilarated by the initial successes, were anticipating a long perspective of untroubled activity within the reformist party. And it was precisely these elements, leaning on new allies and semi-allies on the right, who began to exercise a very big influence on the political line of our group.”15

When, in the 1950s and subsequently, long-term entry, the so-called “entry sui-generis” or “deep-entry,” was adopted by certain Trotskyist groups, the political adaptation of the parasite to the host went very far. It became hard to tell the entrist from his prey. This was accompanied by another sort of mysticism, the belief in “profound historic forces” for socialism, independent of actual working-class action.

Here is a specimen, taken from a “World Congress” resolution, of the Pablo-Mandel tendency in 1957:

The fundamental change in the international situation and in the internal situation within the USSR, characterized on the one hand by the world-wide upsurge of the revolutionary forces since 1943 and especially since the victory of the Chinese revolution, and on the other hand by the spectacular successes of planification which made the USSR the second power in the world, destroyed the objective bases for the full sway and power of the Soviet bureaucracy. The evolution of the international correlation of forces in favor of the anti-capitalist social strata was paralleled by an evolution of the correlation of forces inside the USSR in favor of the proletariat and at the cost of the bureaucracy.16

And the conclusion?

The concrete march of the world revolution throughout the world after the Second World War has made of the Chinese and colonial revolutions the principal motor of the world revolution. In reaching the USSR and the countries dominated by the Soviet bureaucracy, the revolutionary wave makes of the political revolution against this bureaucracy the second most powerful motor of the world revolution.17

Great historic forces are very comforting things! This deformation, too, is still present in various Trotskyisms.

The heritage

When all is said, the struggle carried on by Trotsky and his followers (with all the weaknesses) did preserve an authentic communist current, if not in the working class, then at least on the fringes. The Fourth International, as a serious proposition, was still-born, but a degree of continuity from the revolutionary period of the Comintern was maintained in the teeth of near-insurmountable difficulties. We are part of that continuity today; the tradition Trotsky fought for is our tradition.

Traditional Trotskyism, that of Trotsky himself, became partially irrelevant in the same way that Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” became irrelevant in 1917. The various Trotskyisms of today are deformed in several ways and unlikely to be capable, in most cases, of further positive development. But the revolutionary essence of Trotsky’s politics survives. That is the important thing.

* * *


1 Trotsky, Writings, 1932–1933, pp. 51–52.

2 Trotsky, Writings, 1930–1931, p. 225, Trotsky’s emphasis.

3 Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, p. 143.

4 Deutscher, p. 206.

5 Trotsky, Writings, 1930, p. 293.

6 Cannon, History of American Trotskyism, pp. 92–93.

7 Craipeau, Le Mouvement Trotskiste en France, p. 39.

8 Trotsky. Writings, 1930, p. 297. Trotsky’s emphasis.

9 Deutscher, p. 60.

10 Cannon, Speeches to the Party, p. 185

11 Trotsky, Writings, 1938–39, pp. 251–2.

12 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, p. 3l.

13 Trotsky, Writings, 1933–34, p. 90.

14 Trotsky, Writings, 1933–34, p. 91.

15 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, p. 3l.

16 The Development and Disintegration of World Stalinism, SWP (US), p. 28.

17 Development and Disintegration, p. 47.

Last updated on 9 August 2022