Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The Proletarian Military Policy Revisited

This issue of Revolutionary History focuses sharply upon the Second World War and by implication, the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP), which, although discussed polemically at the time, has yet to be discussed in its historical context taking hindsight knowledge into account. This article is a contribution towards that necessary understanding. The title indicates that I took a minor part in the original discussion of it inside the British Workers International League.


Part 1: The Policy

The discussion arose from our interpretation of a period – imperialism – which according to Lenin was the final stage of capitalism – an incorrect evaluation which we compounded by declaring it to be the ‘death agony of capitalism’. But it also contained the fundamentally correct declaration that capitalism had ceased to be a progressive form of society, and that the transformation of society was on the historical order of the day-the practical struggle for Socialism, the tactical application of this being the concept of the transitional programme. By this I mean not a set of demands fixed for evermore in concrete, but demands based upon the specific circumstances and an understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism with the object of raising the consciousness and the struggle of the working class to the level of dual power

Basically the PMP was the application of the transitional programme to a period of universal war and militarism as the concept applied to the struggle for the hearts and minds, as well as the actions, of the millions of people who were drafted, or were going to be drafted, into the military machine. It centred around the demand for compulsory military training for the working class under the supervision of elected officers at special training schools funded by the state but under the control of labour movement institutions. As a corollary, the related fields-the nation as a whole-made the concept deeper and broader than the various concepts evolved during the First World War for its final object was the overthrow of capitalism, unlike as in World War One when the possibility was hoped for at best.

Whilst the concept was broadly raised in the 1938 Transitional Programme, Trotsky gave it the sharpest and clearest expression after the tall of France. Using the collapse of French imperialism as a propaganda weapon to show the rottenness of imperialism, it was a weapon for raising the class struggle in and through the armed forces. The state, as Engels had postulated, is in the final analysis armed bodies of men. Furthermore, the armed forces themselves are the most narrow, rigid and bureaucratic of the structures controlled by any ruling class, and the capitalist class is no different. The struggle for the breakdown of capitalist control of the armed forces is, therefore, the essence of the struggle for power in wartime. Raising democratic and revolutionary demands side by side with a fundamental exposure of the nature of the war made the Proletarian Military Policy a major part of the transitional programme.

The struggle was first and foremost in the original bourgeois democratic countries, even though the struggle for the armed bodies of men was equally necessary in the Fascist countries, though its manner and form would be determined by circumstances, the difficulties involved, etc. Secondary to all this was the question of the Soviet Union's involvement in the war, but I will not deal with this as it has been discussed elsewhere, except to repeat that whilst being important it was still secondary to the application of the PMP.

It is true that Trotsky foresaw the almost total elimination of bourgeois democracy inside the countries prosecuting the war. It is equally true that during the war, whilst there was large scale elimination of bourgeois democratic rights, various elements of them remained, depending on the relationship of class forces in each country. In France bourgeois democracy was almost totally destroyed (as Harry Ratner showed in a earlier edition of this journal), whereas in the USA state power was applied somewhat more liberally. As Trotsky was murdered by Stalin in 1940 he could not take into account the modifications in the policy that were obvious and necessary. Nevertheless, the Proletarian Military Policy was the basic cornerstone of the transitional programme during the war. It posed a policy, not of ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, or ‘possibly’, but a definite policy for the socialist revolution.

With the death of Trotsky the Socialist Workers Party in the USA, the flagship of the Trotskyist movement, took over the promotion of the PMP. The most important policy statement of it was that given by James P. Cannon on 28 September 1940 at the SWP plenum conference. Whilst it was a powerful statement, in my opinion it suffered from two major defects. Firstly it equated the application of the PMP simply with trade union activity in a new field, and secondly, the fall of France was not seen for its programmatic value but as an implied concept for the role of the American capitalist class.

It was against this background that the dispute on the PMP took place within the WIL. The articles in Youth for Socialism and Workers International News were similarly slanted in the direction pointed out by Cannon, ie, equating the role of the British capitalist class with that of the French which, afraid of the working class, was counter-revolutionary defeatist. This slurred over the definite line of demarcation between defencism and revolutionary defeatism, i.e, on the real character of the war. Fundamentally the position was correct, but the demands and the posing of the question were such as to create confusion.

This is not the first time that this sort of confused thinking had arisen. Lenin, in reviewing and criticising as well as praising Rosa Luxemburg's The Junius Pamphlet, says:

Junius, however, whilst brilliantly exposing the imperialist character of the present war as distinct from a national war, falls into the very strange mistake of trying to drag a national programme into the present non-national war. It sounds almost incredible, but there it is.

It was this confusion (in our opinion) that laid the basis for the polemic. The opening shot was a small, two-sided quarto sheet criticism of the articles in the group journals written by Millie Lee and myself, but the major polemical exchange was between Jock Haston, the Minority spokesman, and Ted Grant and Gerry Healy representing the Majority view. The argument about democratising the armed forces, such as officers coming from the working class being educated and trained by institutions under the control of the trades unions and other working class organisations, was accepted by both factions of the WIL, but it was blurred by the Majority argument that the capitalists of Britain were afraid to arm the workers. This was in a period when patriotism was at its height and German troops were on the other side of the Channel.

The argument brought into focus the role of the Home Guard, for Haston pointed out the possible dual role of the Home Guard against both the German imperialists and the working class in Britain if the latter attempted to carry out a revolutionary struggle of any sort. He gave examples of employers using the Home Guard of their own factory against trade unionists who were too active. Because of the lop-sided position of the propaganda that they issued, the Majority tended to pooh-pooh both the arguments and the facts.

However, because the development of events was beyond their control, the issue itself passed into the realms of history. Firstly, the hot flush of the fear of German invasion dissipated, particularly after the invasion of Soviet Russia. Secondly, linked to this, a small but growing number of workers were beginning to struggle both against their working conditions as well as for pay. Though very small, we were the only organised force prepared to support them in this struggle, with the Labour Party being part of the official machinery, the Stalinists being cheer-leaders for increased production, and the rest of the Trotskyists being fragmented and basically inactive. This growing involvement in industrial struggle, small though it was, helped to blunt the differences, and a compromise solution was reached.

As for the Proletarian Military Policy, which I consider to have been basically correct, two factors operated against our ability fully to apply the policy. First, and fundamentally, despite some growth we were unable to become a major force in order to apply it. Secondly, the centre of the bloodshed of the war shifted to the Eastern Front – the British Army, for example, suffered far fewer casualties than in the First World War.

Yet the importance of the polemic about the PMP went beyond the policy: it was it symbol of the independence and growing level of maturity of the WIL. When we first turned out Workers International News we used to have a crack, which was basically true, that we only had two writers – Leon Trotsky and Ralph Lee. By the time the polemic arose Leon Trotsky had been murdered, and Ralph Lee had gone back ill to South Africa. In this context other tested comrades began to emerge as leaders, although they were still strongly influenced, and to some extent dominated, by Cannon’s SWP.

The basic organisational structure began to emerge at this time, its organisational character being determined by Haston who, unlike either Healy or Grant, was a democrat in the organisational sense of the word. Already, as the polemical documents about the PMP showed, the Majority tried to ‘edit’ the articles of Haston.

I was called up into the army in May 1941 and took no further part in this discussion.


Part 2: The Genesis of the Policy

A movement is more than a question of individuals. It is mainly a question of ideas, of principles, of tactics, of creating a movement to achieve the ideals that flow from the principal ideas. It is in this context that PMP must be understood. The PMP split the Trotskyist movement internationally. For example, the Revolutionary Socialist League, the majority British Trotskyist group, was hopelessly split on the PMP with a large majority opposing it, in spite of the fact that it was the official section of the Trotskyist movement. To fortify their opposition they glorified and misunderstood Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism, counterposing it to Trotsky’s positions, particularly those he held during the First World War.

As a result Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism became the burning issue of the day, to be counterposed to the PMP. Since that time, however, there have been a number of studies of Lenin’s defeatism. The ones I consider as the most important are Hal Draper’s in The New International in the early 1950s, Brian Pearce’s in Labour Review in 1961, and J.P. Joubert’s Revolutionary Defeatism in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, and which appears elsewhere in this journal. They all have strong points and they all equally present it in its historical context. Joubert goes beyond the others in giving a history of the stages that led up to the Second World War and he also comments that “Lenin used the term ‘defeatism’ at this time in more than one sense”. Pearce points out that in August-September 1917, when German troops had taken Riga and were marching on Petrograd, the former Tsarist generals in Kerensky’s High Command were counter-revolutionary defeatists who wished to see Petrograd taken. The troops in this sector, especially the Lettish brigades, who were strongly influenced by the Bolsheviks, were defencist and fiercely resisted the German offensive. Equally, they point out that the differences between Lenin and the other revolutionary internationalists such as Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg were mainly of propaganda and tactics, and not of principle, a point reiterated by Deutscher.

The more recent discussion of the arguments of Lenin and Trotsky shows the narrowness of both knowledge and understanding that many of our comrades then had. During the earlier war there were three basic differences between Lenin and Trotsky – the character of the future revolution, the question of the party and the application of an anti-imperialist foreign policy. Anyone who deals with that period and fails to realise the interplay of the three has understood nothing. On one point each both stood firm – Lenin on the party, and Trotsky on the character of the future revolution. Furthermore, their roles were different. Trotsky was a brilliant theorist and propagandist, but Lenin was not only a theorist and propagandist, he was also the founder and builder of a party and its chief organiser, and the harshness of his language and the absolutist character of its tone, which hid the extreme flexibility of his tactics, was because he had a party to which he had to give direction and purpose.

The first two points were resolved in the process of the struggle, Trotsky was compelled by events to move to Lenin’s position of a hard revolutionary party (the Bolshevik Party) and not a loose, all-embracing party. This quotation from Lenin proves the point:

The pressure of facts has increasingly compelled Nashe Slovo and Trotsky, who reproach us for our ‘factionalism’, to take up the struggle against the OC and Chkeidze. The trouble, however, is that it was only ‘under pressure’ (of our criticism and the criticism of the facts) that the Nashe Slovo supporters retreated from position to position but they have not yet said the decisive word. Unity or a split with the Chkeidze faction? They are still afraid to decide!

Whilst this was a criticism of Trotsky, the main thrust of the article is an attack on Martov and his defence of Chkeidze. It was published in December 1916. By the time Trotsky had returned to Petrograd in May 1917 he was almost completely in line with and in support of the Bolshevik Party. Equally by then Lenin had come over to the idea of the workers taking power through the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’.

In the earlier part of the war Lenin had clearly and precisely declared that the next revolution in Russia would he a bourgeois revolution. Read, for example, Socialism and War, which was written in 1915. The argument was presented more sharply that year in his article On the Two Lines in the Revolution, a strong but frankly incorrect interpretation of the future pattern of the struggle in the Russian revolution, and in this context he therefore accused Trotsky of ‘underestimating the peasantry’, assuming an independent role for the peasantry as expressed in the slogan ‘the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’.

Nevertheless, unlike the Mensheviks, Lenin always recognised the key role of the proletariat in the coming revolution, and was therefore rapidly able to adapt to reality. The April Theses, Lenin’s defence of his new position against the old Bolshevism of Kamenev (the practice he had propagated before the February 1917 revolution), expressed the new line in the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’, which was the basis for Trotsky’s entry into the Bolshevik Party. The changes in these two positions, of Trotsky on the party and of Lenin on the character of the revolution, were the basis for the coming together of Lenin and Trotsky. As for the third part, the character of the struggle against war, it was resolved by historical events.

The slogan of revolutionary defeatism arose again in the second imperialist war, but mainly as a criticism and an attack upon Trotsky’s PMP, attacking it using the policies and arguments of the past on the given assumption that Lenin was correct, his policy was precise and clear and, obviously, they understood it – an assumption on the part of some of those I have mentioned which on further reflection leaves a large element of doubt. Equally, as every struggle for national independence has its own distinctive characteristics and must be examined individually and concretely, so every imperialist war has its own characteristics and must also be seen in context.

There seems to be a false position expressed by many of the opponents of the PMP that the Bolshevik Party, as a hard, solid party, quickly and almost automatically reacted to the imperialist war, a picture that Lenin unfortunately seems to create in his writings of the period. The facts, however, contradict this and sufficient material has been unearthed since to destroy this cosy assumption. Firstly, the action and role of German Social Democracy in particular took them by surprise – for example the well-known article in the issue of Vorwärts supporting the war was believed by Lenin to be a forgery. If this applied to Lenin it was even worse among other leading elements of the party. In the early days of the war there was confusion among the Bolshevik members of the Duma, with Kamenev disagreeing with elements of the policy of revolutionary defeatism. The ‘Bolshevik Committee of Organisations Abroad’ disintegrated. Of the five members on it, two enlisted in the French army, and a third member withdrew. Lenin and Zinoviev remained as the only representatives of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks abroad to elaborate the war programme of the party.

In France, the ‘Bolshevik Group of Paris’ did not stand up any better than the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. There were ‘defencists’ in all three parties, and since the Russians do nothing by halves, most of the ‘defencists’ went off to enlist in the French army.

The first and basic position of Lenin, therefore, was to establish a hard and clear line on the war based on the resolutions of the Second International at its Stuttgart, Copenhagen and Basle congresses. He gave this the sharpest expression in order to build the necessary theoretical propaganda foundation on which the Bolsheviks could base their fight. It was made so distinctive that elements of difference arose between Lenin and other people and organisations, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht as well as Trotsky. Revolutionary defeatism as expounded by Lenin had contained in it two distinctive elements, and it was particularly over the second element that differences arose, The first element, that of carrying on the class struggle to the bitter end, even it it causes the military defeat of your own oppressor (ie, the defeat of your own bourgeoisie is the lesser evil) was more or less accepted by the other revolutionary groups, as in Liebknecht’s famous slogan “The main enemy is at home”, or “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. Although in slightly different language, this concept was accepted as an aim by most revolutionary groups.

The second element in Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism, from which the basic differences arose, was advocating the military defeat of your own imperialist state as a means of bringing on the revolution. Here again, there were elements of two different strands, first, with reference to Russia alone, the most backward and reactionary state, headed by a barbaric and feudal absolutism, and, secondly, as applied generally to all imperialist states.

Among the earliest and sharpest expressions of this argument is the article The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War, which is a criticism of other oppositions to imperialist war, in particular Trotsky’s, and in this context is raised the character of the future revolution. These quotations give the flavour: “Wartime revolutionary action against ones own government indubitably means, not only desiring its defeat, but really facilitating such a defeat.” What are the distinctive actions, i.e., distinctive from the rest of the revolutionary opposition? He carries on: “Discerning reader”, note that this does not mean “blowing up bridges”, organising unsuccessful strikes in the war industries, and in general helping the government defeat the revolutionaries. What distinct, practical actions flow from it I don’t know because in reality he doesn’t tell us. Instead he repeats his arguments about the intertwining of the two distinct aspects of' revolutionary defeatism:

A revolution in wartime means civil war; the conversion of a war between governments into a civil war, is on the one hand, facilitated by, military reverses (‘defeats’) of governments; on the other hand, one cannot actually strive for such a conversion without thereby facilitating defeat.

Essentially it is a theoretical and propaganda argument with no really distinctive action from the rest of the revolutionary opposition to the imperialist war. And it is precisely on this point – practical action – that the PMP comes into its own

The theoretical flaw in linking the two aspects of defeatism was shown in France in June 1940. However, it would be totally incorrect to believe that Lenin had a rigid concept: the language may make it seem so, but the reality was somewhat different, reflecting his keen flexibility even on this question. For example, during the debate about Brest Litovsk, in reply to Karnkov he declared, “We were defeatists at the time of the Tsar, but we were not defeatists at the time of Tseretelli and Chernov”, a fact pointed out by both Pearce and Joubert. What is however, more of interest is that, as we have already noted, when German troops were marching on Petrograd in August-September 1917, Kerensky’s generals were counter-revolutionary defeatists whereas the Bolshevik-influenced troops were military defencists.

That the Bolsheviks were right in trying to defend Petrograd, the centre of the revolution during a period of dual power, is accepted by everyone as being undoubtedly correct.

Nevertheless, the positions and arguments must be understood within the period, the character of the war and the conditions under which the war was taking place. As Trotsky was fond of saying, truth is concrete, and Lenin’s policy at the time expresses this thought quite clearly, unlike the so-called revolutionary defeatists who in their minds made the Second World War a re-run of the First. So while Lenin’s concept of revolutionary defeatism was based on the Franco-Prussian and Russo-Japanese wars, re-emphasised by the policy statements of the Second International, it soon became obvious that on the major and decisive fronts it was instead a static war with massive slaughter, a war of attrition with millions being killed.

This caused a growing opposition to the war. There was a growing mood of revolt, not only among revolutionary politicians but also among the soldiers and sailors as well as among the civilian population. This applied to all the major countries (with the possible exception of the USA, because of its late entry), where there were growing revolts of military units during the last two years of the war. For example, after the Nivelle Offensive in 1916 there were revolts of French frontline troops that were brutally put down by Petain, with hundreds of soldiers being shot almost out of hand. The Russian troops revolted in Marseilles. There were revolts in the German army and navy, and even in Britain there were small revolts – a growing tempo of revolts among all the armies and navies.

In this context revolutionary defeatism as regards its second aspect had a valid sense. In this setting military defeat applied to all countries, unlike what Trotsky declared, for it meant the breakdown of the imperialist war at its weakest point. The concept had a validity in this particular war, but was not a universal tactic for all imperialist wars. The continuous and bloody attrition-type of struggle on the Western and Eastern fronts laid the conditions for such a mood. The pattern of the Second World War was, however, different, with the overwhelming bulk of the struggle – and the bloodshed – taking place on the Eastern front, creating different conditions and moods which needed a different approach. In the final analysis the revolution and its success depended on a revolutionary party. The final defeat of German imperialism in 1918, whilst creating revolutionary conditions, did not bring about a successful German revolution, The revolutionary mood penetrated all combatants, even the United States with its infamous Palmer Raids, but only the Bolsheviks carried out a successful revolution.

The history of the arguments about revolutionary defeatism is well-documented by Joubert. It is clear that the part of the policy whereby a revolutionary wishes for the military defeat of his own government was basically side-stepped by Trotsky, who accepted a modified version at best, that it can only apply to one government. We, however, are not faced with that dilemma which was caused by political infighting and not by the arguments themselves. We can say that this particular argument is invalid as a universal law applied to every imperialist war.

However, it did have a certain justification in the First World War. This does not mean that Liebknecht’s arguments and slogans were not equally valid. But it did have a justifiable basis in the fact that the First World War was a static war based on trench warfare where millions were being slaughtered as well as large numbers being injured, many seriously, and where a crescendo of revolt was emerging among all combatant countries and where the collapse of the weakest link would start a revolutionary movement. Although I have not mentioned the mood and feeling of the civilian population, nonetheless a corresponding mood developed there strongly influenced by the brutality of war.


Part 3: The Policy During the Second World War

With the Second World War the picture was different. Firstly, the concepts among revolutionaries were different. Whereas as late as January 1917 Lenin, in a lecture on the 1905 revolution, could say “we of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution”, the revolutionaries in the Second Imperialist War put the coming revolution on the order of the day. The mood of the population was vastly different. To give the classic example, there were massive strikes and a rising mood of revolutionary feeling up to June and July 1914 in Petrograd, but when war was declared the militant and revolutionary mood vanished and a massive demonstration in support of the war took its place. During the Second World War the holiday mood, was non-existent and chauvinist fever was at a very low ebb. True, there were other specific factors, such as the existence of Soviet Russia and the nature of German fascism in particular, but they were secondary to the over-riding moods and concepts.

It was in these conditions that the Proletarian Military Policy was propounded and the polemic arose within the Trotskyist movement. It is interesting in this connection to know that Lenin, also, had a military policy. In his article The Disarmament Slogan, speaking of the smaller and more democratic countries, he wrote:

Therefore “not a penny, not a man”, not only for a standing army but even for a bourgeois militia, even in countries like the United States, or Switzerland, Norway, etc. … We can demand popular election of officers, abolition of all military law, equal rights for foreign and native-born workers … Further, we can demand the right of every hundred, say, inhabitants of a given country to form voluntary military training associations, with free elections of instructors paid by the state, etc. Only under these conditions could the proletariat acquire military training for itself and not for its slave owners, and the need for such training is imperatively dictated by the interests of the proletariat.

This programme is only a pale shadow of Trotsky’s PMP, and is presented as a counterweight to the disarmament slogans of the pacifists, but it does recognise the need for an independent military policy for the revolutionary left, though not giving it the centrality that a real struggle demands,

Starting from the premise of the reactionary nature of imperialism, believing (incorrectly) that it was the death agony of capitalism and, following on from this, that the issue of capitalism would be finally decided by the war, the PMP sharply posed a policy for power which was, however, an application and extension of the previous policy, i.e., the Transitional Programme. It was the transitional programme during wartime with its own particular characteristics – universal militarism, etc. The concept was linked to the question of power, whereas not one of the revolutionary leaders during the First World War linked their concepts to the question of power; at the very best they hoped for it. It assumed the following – the reactionary nature of the war, that the transformation of society was on the order of the day, and the need for a policy to do this – the PMP.

All of these were rational and, in my opinion, correct. It the process is far more complex than any human being can totally evaluate, at least the great revolutionary establishes the basic principles and the general direction; the tactics were intended to be modified, as the captain of a ship does according to the conditions in which the ship operates. This has always been recognised by the great Marxists: Lenin, for example, when dealing with the range of possibilities, refers to the possibility of a second imperialist war. Trotsky in The USSR and the War raises the possibility of a bureaucratic-collectivist world, with the role of the revolutionary being to fight for reforms to protect the oppressed. Neither of them in any way accepted or believed in these possibilities, but neither totally ruled them out if the working class should fail to achieve the practical realisation of its struggle.

The difficulties within the Trotskyist movement emerged with the death of Leon Trotsky. Looking back in hindsight, whilst the problems that emerged were insurmountable themselves (as the Trotskyists could not hope to carry out the Socialist revolution) a lesser task was possible for small parties rooted in the working class. It is against this standard that the movement internationally will have to be judged. It was precisely our inability to evaluate the process as it began to develop, substituting cliches for thought, that exaggerated our weakness and prevented the movement from taking off.

The capitulation of France started off the process of wishful thinking. The revolutionary defeatists took it in their stride, as if nothing had happened. Revolutionary defeatism, the wish for the defeat of one's own bourgeoisie, was proved to be bankrupt, the consequences of that defeat being the throwing back of the revolutionary struggle for a number of years. Ironically, the American SWP, which proclaimed itself the leading and dominant force in Trotskyism, for some perverted reason also saw the defeat of France as part of the revolutionary process. The Manifesto it published in November 1940 under the banner of the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International bore no relationship to reality. This, of course, laid the basis for the conflict inside the SWP and later between the SWP Majority and the WIL/Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain.

The reality in France at the beginning of the war was that the majority of the bourgeoisie was counter-revolutionary defeatist, the working class was demoralised and dictatorial measures were being enacted against it. The articles written later by Sherry Mangan (‘Terence Phelan’) pointed out that there was fraternisation between the Germans and the French, not between German and French workers, but between German and French officers, and that a number of important and reactionary French capitalists were secretly supporting the Germans. As far as the working class was concerned, Harry Ratner shows that revolutionaries were being persecuted, that there was demoralisation among the soldiers, and that there were some minor revolts, as in the Maginot Line, but that these were suppressed, as was the information about them. The workers' conditions and wages were being brutally lowered and their hours massively increased. For fear of revolution in a period even when the working class was demoralised as a consequence of the Popular Front, the bourgeoisie was defeatist. This was the same French bourgeoisie that 26 years earlier at the Battle of the Marne had sent troops to the front in taxis to fight off the German offensive on Paris.

For if one looks at the defeat and the actions of the French bourgeoisie, they are related to the previous Popular Front policy of the French Social Democrats and Communists. There seems to be a law that if the working class fails to seize its revolutionary opportunities it pays the consequences – as in Germany 1918-19 and 1923, Spain in 1936, and France in 1936-37.

Equally ironic in this context was that a section of the movement which had supported the PMP failed to understand the process, and drew the conclusion that all the bourgeois states were defeatist. This affected the American SWP as well as the majority advocates of the PMP in Britain in the struggle during the events during the earlier part of the war.

From this a new situation emerged: the whole of Europe, excluding some relatively minor countries, was under national oppression and, moreover, under the iron hand of dictatorship. The whole concept of a transitional programme is that in a period in which the capitalist class has ceased to be progressive and has become reactionary, holding back the necessary rational development of human existence, the consciousness and actions of the progressive class – the working class – must be raised to the level of the struggle for power, requiring such a transitional programme.

This fundamental approach to the new situation in Europe seemed to have been forgotten, and the Trotskyists were thrown off course. To begin with the defeat was conceived as the road to revolution, and then, when the magnitude of the defeat of the working class was realised, a range of ideas, policies and programmes flooded out in the Western non-Fascist capitalist societies. The Three Theses of the IKD members in the United States written on 19 October 1941 reflected the most pessimistic and reformist policy in the movement and sparked off a debate on future policy towards Nazi-occupied Europe. This important period of history, in which the Trotskyists inside occupied Europe as well as in Britain and the USA were found theoretically wanting, will be dealt with later because the whole polemical developments were determined by events external to them.

The first major, and in a sense, decisive, event was Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Russia. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 (with its hidden clauses) had achieved its objective as far as Hitler was concerned, and as the decapitation of the Red Army necessitated the building of a new army command, Stalin therefore acted as a junior partner and lackey of Hitler to give himself time to do this. Both the insufficient time and the quality of the men be had appointed as new commanders showed the level to which the Red Army had fallen. This was practically demonstrated in the Soviet-Finnish War. In fact it was only during the Second World War that a command leadership of a high and capable standard was created.

In itself this was neither a surprise nor a shock to the Trotskyist movement. Trotsky had envisaged it well before the war. Even the tactics towards this war had been worked out well beforehand by Trotsky with reference to the Soviet Union, the countries in alliance with the Soviet Union and the countries opposing the Soviet Union. He had even pointed out that Nazi Germany would be the main enemy. The problems with regard to the character of the Soviet Union emerged later. No one, not even Trotsky, envisaged the lengthy and heroic nature of the struggle, even though he had pointed out that the Soviet population in defence of its own country was a different kettle of fish from other states. To appreciate this point one needs only to read the articles he wrote in April 1940 for the News Chronicle, assessing the Soviet-Finnish War, though he could hardly have fully imagined the end result, that the Soviet Union would take the main brunt of the Nazi attack and then go on to occupy Berlin. Stalin himself was demoralised in the first month (Khrushchev gives a clear picture of Stalin’s attitude of mind during the first month of war), and only after this did he become the Supreme Commander of the Soviet Armed Forces, a necessary precondition of all dictators in major wars.

The Russians suffered a series of massive defeats in the early months. The soldiers were ill-trained and demoralised and this applies even more to the officer caste, who were in dread of their lives as Stalin passed the buck by shooting the officers who carried out his policy, for example the Soviet ‘Guderian’, army general Pavlov. Yet already in 1936 Tukhachevsky had predicted the opening character of the war. The Russians were able to withstand tremendous blows, which would have eliminated every country in Europe if not in the world, because of space, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of manpower and, ironically, the dictatorial apparatus of Stalin. He both lowered the standard of living and increased both hours and intensity of work for the production of weapons of war, etc, in a manner no other country could have got away with. He equally played on patriotism for all it was worth. Many top-ranking German generals, including among others Field Marshals Von Rundstedt and Von Leeb, were for early withdrawal from Russia once it did not collapse from the hammer blows, because they realised that both space and man power were against them. There had been some local support for the German Nazis when they first entered Russia, in reaction to the brutally oppresive national regime of Stalin. In many are as of the Ukraine people welcomed the Germans with flowers, bread and salt. But this popular support they soon destroyed themselves, so that when they had to retreat every man’s hand was against them, not merely the army, but the civilian population as well.

Whereas during the First Imperialist War the Western Front was the main and decisive centre of struggle, in the Second by far the main centre of struggle was the Eastern Front. This was the decisive factor in the future developments. The world’s present structures and conflicts are largely determined by that fact. The policy of the more competent bourgeois politicians was to supply Russia with enough arms and equipment to bleed both Russia and Germany to death. This was expressed by Colonel Moore-Brabazon in a famous speech which had to be officially repudiated. From a historical point of view the calculation misfired, and there was, moreover, a conflict in strategic policy between British and American imperialism, which, with the dominance of American power, assisted Stalin in his manoeuvres. And Stalin was not just an agent of imperialism: the sell-outs and deals had one purpose only-the preservation of himself and his bureaucracy, a proposition that Trotsky often repeated when he pointed out that the bureaucracy has a self interest, which history has since proved. When Tito broke with Stalin, when Mao broke with Stalin, and when Khrushchev denounced him, they did not become merely agents of imperialism.


This independence of Stalin was first shown in a well known but not highly publicised event. After the encircling and destruction of an entire German army in Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943 even Hitler had second thoughts and started negotiations with Stalin. In June 1943 Molotov met Ribbentrop at Kirovograd, which was then inside the German lines, for a discussion about the possibilities of ending the war. The relationship was, however, different to 1939, for, whereas then Stalin acted as a junior partner and accomplice to remain outside the war, in 1943 the relationship was changed and the negotiations were between equals. The terms were unbridgeable. One side or the other had to gain a major concession which neither side, or rather neither dictator, was willing to give. Immediately afterwards, in July, the great battle of Kursk that had been prepared took place, and which was the decisive battle of the war. After their massive defeat the Germans lost all hope of winning the war and at best could only slow down the inevitable defeat.

From then onwards, maybe unconsciously at first, the whole relationship of the Soviet Union changed, not only with Germany but with the Western Allies as well. In spite of the arguments, of the leadership of the American SWP in particular, that Stalinism was capitulating to capitalism, reality had a different substance. The secondary manoeuvres and actions of Stalin were exaggerated as capitulation – such things as the medals and uniforms, the reactionary character of the patriotism, the liberalisation of the church for its brutal and unconditional support of the war, etc. A well known example of this is how Stalin sent a number of Jewish intellectuals and artists touring Britain and America, only to butcher the majority of them after the war.

In the negotiations that followed with the Allies Stalin took an increasingly aggressive stance, establishing spheres of influence, territorial adjustments, etc. But he had one basic and fundamental agreement with his capitalist allies: the destruction of revolution and of independent revolutionary movements. The difference in interpretation is summed up in the Warsaw Uprising. When the Russian troops were marching towards Warsaw, the internal army of the semi-feudal reactionary government in exile rose against the Nazis, hoping that when the Russian troops entered Warsaw it would have a large measure of control. The Red Army sat deliberately on the banks of the Vistula watching the Germans destroy the revolt, thereby altering the balance of power in Poland in favour of its own ‘Lublin Government’. The issue was not one of morality, rights or justice, since, after all, the Polish Internal Army had sat on its own haunches watching the Nazis massacre the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but of power, and it was equally a warning to the Allies as to what was meant by ‘spheres of influence’. The British may have spluttered, but the Americans knew what it meant. Whilst the primary and fundamental agreement of Stalin with the Allies was for the destruction and elimination of all independent revolutionary activity as well as independent revolutionary parties, it was also a warning to the capitalist parties within the Soviet sphere of influence to toe the line.

Yet the key and burning issue was Germany. The fear of revolution in Germany determined the policy and strategy with regard to it. Already in the 1939 discussions between Hitler and the French Ambassador the fear of revolution in Europe as a whole was acknowledged by both sides. That Germany seemed to be the key to the revolution was accepted by everyone, not only by the bourgeoisie. The RCP believed it to be so, and even both factions of the SWP. During the polemic about the future of Europe, a document presented to the Eleventh Convention of the SWP on 14 November 1944, declared: “The German Revolution is the key to the European Revolution …” It is in the context of this universal belief and fear that the strategy and tactics to be applied to Germany were agreed on between the Allied imperialists and the Stalinist bureaucracy – the destruction of any possibility of a German Revolution.

The demand agreed between them for the unconditional surrender of Germany was not a slogan but a policy actively carried out by all the Allies. As regards France, a deal was made with Admiral Darlan and General Giraud in which they tried to replace De Gaulle with Giraud because they (quite rightly) believed that De Gaulle reflected too independently the interests of the French military and bourgeoisie, In Italy a deal was made with Marshal Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel III, and again there was no demand for an unconditional surrender: on the contrary, secret negotiations were carried on and a secret deal was made with sections of the regime against which they were supposed to be waging a war for democracy. In Germany, the attitude was completely different: no one had said that the only good Frenchman, or the only good Italian, was a dead one: no one put forward plans to suppress and dismember France or Italy, but this was proposed in the case of Germany.

Everyone alive at the time remembers how Ilya Ehrenburg coined the slogan “the only good German is a dead one”, and this was propagated a million times through all the media of communication. The fact that the Germans were the first to suffer under Hitler was forgotten: Hitler’s barbarism was blamed upon the whole population of Germany. In the economic field this became the famous (or rather infamous) Morgenthau Plan, which proposed the dismemberment of Germany by the destruction of its economic base and by its ruralisation. These were no mere words intended to be taken lightly; they were the very centre of Allied policy. This destruction of the German economy and the classification of every German as a pariah made up their common counter-revolutionary policy to ensure that a German revolution did not take place. Even after the war was over there was a standing order prohibiting Allied troops from fraternising with the Germans, as I know from personal experience.

The difference of approach is reflected in the way that the very popular and extremely strongly-based coup of 20 July 1944 failed. Despite widespread support among the German officer caste and bourgeoisie, it was unable to light a spark because the mass of the population was demoralised and apathetic. Not that they supported Hitler, but they felt caught in a trap with no way out. In the case of France and Italy a deal was possible: in the German case the Morgenthau Plan was not a deal, and they quite logically and correctly feared the entry of Russian troops – the very barbarism of the German forces (particularly the Waffen SS) in Russia causing them to fear the Russian advance. A conscious policy was in fact carried out by Stalin of replacing assault troops after they had occupied an area with troops from the most backward regions with the resulting pillage, rape, murder, etc. The policy of unconditional surrender achieved its aim of destroying any possibility of a German revolution, a policy in whose formulation Stalin played a major part. Problems emerged later: both Stalin and the imperialist Allies were counter-revolutionary, but on a different basis, and for different reasons. But that was in the future.

The Trotskyist movement failed to understand the full meaning of the process: they were on firm ground when it came to the great victories of the Soviet Union, but for the Majority the counter-revolutionary policies of Stalin seemed to he merely a weakness and a capitulation to the imperialists. This was an illusion with which some of the capitalists may have begun but, unlike the majority of the Trotskyists, they soon realised it to be incorrect. The Cold War scenario emerged from this reconsideration.

In a sense this whole section is a diversion from the main purpose of this article, which is the development of the ideological and political outlook of the Trotskyist movement. But I feel that it is a necessary divergence because ideas, policies and actions do not come out of mid-air but are rooted in the events around them.

By 1942-43 the Proletarian Military Policy had disappeared as the centrepiece of Trotskyist policy both in Britain and the USA. It is true that a faint resolution on the PMP was submitted by the WIL and the Trotskyist Opposition to the new unified Trotskyist organisation, but this was more a formal gesture and an endorsement of the PMP rather than an active policy statement. Just as the Bolsheviks dropped revolutionary defeatism after 1917, so in reality the active element of the PMP was dropped by 1943. The reasons for thus entombing the PMP were the changed conditions and the changed character of the struggle.

The superficial wisdom about this is that the Bolsheviks took power and therefore revolutionary defeatism was correct, but that the Trotskyists after the Second World War failed to take power and therefore the Proletarian Military Policy was incorrect. This is untenable – even in the most abstract formalising. If the PMP was a failure, revolutionary defeatism was an even greater failure, as France in 1940 proved. We thus come to a position that either there was a realistic policy but none of us knew what it was or, even more absurdly, no policy could have worked, and therefore we should have done nothing. It is precisely a one-sided picture of reality that creates these assumptions.

Positive concept

There are three basic elements in any political position and the struggle to achieve it; the policy and programme, the organisation and the conditions within which the programme and the organisation both operate. We know that revolutionary defeatism was basically a negative concept, whilst the Proletarian Military Policy was positive – each of them flowing from the concepts they had of the future. The second question is the organisation to carry out the policy. Unfortunately there was a deliberate underestimation of the strength of the Bolshevik Party, for which Trotsky, for reasons which are understandable, was responsible as much as anyone else, but that is another matter. It is all very well quoting Zinoviev`s statement that he and Lenin were alone and the party was isolated, and to point to the splits and divisions, but at the end of the day the Bolshevik Party was well rooted within the Russian working class. To begin with the movement was well grounded in the Russian revolutionary tradition, and they were well rooted in the Russian working class, far more so than the Mensheviks, a fact reiterated a number of times by Lenin. They had parliamentary representatives to prove it, and the fact that they were an insignificant minority in the Duma hid the more important fact that they represented the historically progressive class, the working class.

When we compare this with the representation and strength of the Trotskyist movement, we start to see the question in its proper perspective. The Trotskyist movement outside Russia was by and large not only very small and fragmented but also petit bourgeois. There were pockets of a proletarian base, such as Flenu in Belgium and Minneapolis in the USA, but they were pockets and not a movement. The reasons are explicable, but that was of no assistance. The forces they also faced were unfortunately greater than the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks competed as one of the major parties, whereas we on the contrary were small groups competing against two major forces in the working class, one of which laid claim to the traditions of the Russian Revolution.

Trotsky hoped that events would develop in our favour by destroying the all-powerful forces of Social Democracy and Stalinism, and that the question of Soviet Russia would be resolved, and along with it that of the Stalinist parties; that the war would create conditions that would either expose Social Democracy or destroy it – either way creating the conditions for the massive growth of the Trotskyist movement. Historical developments proved Trotsky’s prognosis false, but all Marxists have had some of their prognoses falsified by history. A reading of the writings of the myriad political commentators of the time shows that they were even more incorrect than Trotsky was. Although by 1942/3 the Proletarian Military Policy was put on the back burner by both the British and the American Trotskyist movement, it could have been relit with the ending of the war if the conditions making it applicable had emerged – but this never happened.


Part 4: Problems beyond the Military Policy

Two new and, in a sense, interlocking problems relating to the conditions of the time emerged instead. The first, national oppression in Europe, affected what was to happen during the post-war period in terms of the road to revolution. The occupation of France in 1940 marked the end of one stage and the start of another in the development of the imperialist war. This was a set-back for the revolutionary movement and flowing from this came the question of the programme which was required to deal with the change and the tactics to apply to it. I cannot argue about the policy inside Europe because I do not know the details, but it seems that some material is now being turned up dealing with the activity of the various Trotskyist groups in occupied Europe, particularly in France. A broad outline seems to be known; in France the Trotskyist movement was split in all directions, from those who immersed themselves deep into the factories for the duration of the war to those who were infatuated by the chauvinist propaganda of the Stalinists and Gaullists. Nonetheless some good work was done, such as the episodic turning out of newspapers and other material catering specially for the German army of occupation, with a distinct class line approach to the German working class in uniform.

But as a consequence of this new period new differences arose in the Trotskyist movement, first and foremost within the SWP. As it was by far the largest and most dominant section of the Fourth International, it determined the pattern of struggle for the Trotskyist movement. The opening shot in revising the pink-coloured view of the developments in Europe was the Three Theses of a group of German emigré Trotskyists in the United States. The document was written in October 1941, at the height of the Nazis’ successful penetration into the heart of the Soviet Union, and, although the three points hardly covered two printed pages (2000 words), the pessimism of its conclusions called into question not only the policy and programme of the Fourth International but the validity of Trotskyism itself. To be fair, over a year had elapsed before the Three Theses appeared in the major Trotskyist journals, some time after the atmosphere in which they were written had evaporated. Their pure empiricism may have laid them open to contradiction in the events that were taking place but equally they laid the basis for the conflict that first arose in the SWP.

Although articles had been written before, mainly by Marc Loris (Jean Van Heijenoort, who later also wrote under the pseudonym of D. Logan), about the situation in occupied Europe, and in particular with regard to France, illusions were being shattered by events in the occupied territories. The need arose to apply a revolutionary policy and programme to the phenomenon – what I would regard as the application of a transitional programme to Europe. The question of national oppression, and therefore the national question itself, arose but not as a rerun of the position of the colonies and the backward countries, because France and even Belgium and Holland were imperialist countries themselves exploiting colonies. The struggle for national independence had to be raised along with the struggle for Socialism. After the invasion of Russia the European Stalinists became active and leading supporters of a unified struggle against the Nazis under the banner of the bourgeoisie, particularly the bourgeois governments in exile. Their political shrewdness taught them that, whilst being under the overall blanket of the bourgeoisie, they must maintain their own resistance forces as far as possible. The Social Democrats, though nowhere near as active as the Stalinists, basically operated as a part of the bourgeois establishment. Resistance movements, mainly very small ones, were already emerging throughout occupied Europe, particularly with the changing pattern of the war, and the problem of the Trotskyist movement inside Europe was how to react towards and utilise this emerging struggle. From the little that I know about this they did not do it very well or very successfully. Outside the occupied territories the question equally arose of what policy arid programme had to be formulated to deal with the national oppression.

The Three Theses proved to be the spark for, whilst being repudiated by the opposing factions, they laid the groundwork upon which the polemics were carried out: the struggle against national oppression and how to carry out a policy for its success.

The Three Theses presented a theory of a classless (or all-class) national struggle leading to an abstract democratic revolution. The SWP as a whole rejected this as a capitulation to the bourgeoisie. The basic difference within the SWP revolved around what alternative policy to put forward for occupied Europe, a difference that only widened with the development of events in Europe. The Majority, led by Cannon and E.R. Frank (Bert Cochran) simply posed the demand of the Socialist United States of Europe – and that only. The Minority of Morrison (Albert Goldman), Cassidy (Felix Morrow) and Marc Loris (Van Heijenoort) began with differences among themselves. Loris posed the national struggle as the key issue, developing slogans around national liberation whilst drawing a line of demarcation with the Three Theses by counterposing the role of the working class and its party in order to give the struggle a working class character. Goldman and Morrow reaffirmed that the main demand and slogans had to be for a Socialist United States of Europe, but equally pointed to the importance of the struggle for national liberation. Whilst a coalescence of views developed around Van Heijenoort, Goldman and Morrow, the differences of the three of them with the Majority of the SWP increased rapidly. Whilst the Minority, in my opinion, attempted to understand the process and proposed a way for the Trotskyists to tackle it, the Majority, pointing to Hitler’s ‘New Order’ in Europe, replaced serious analysis by extensive quotations from Trotsky about the reactionary character of the European states in the period of imperialism – an historical truism, as recent developments have proved in Western Europe, but a truth that fails to take into account all the other factors that existed and still do exist in Europe. Even Hitler, in spite of his ‘New Order’, had to maintain the separate states and many of the divisions between them.

This conflict of ideas and policies developed and widened with the growing breakdown of Nazism and the Nazi occupations in Europe. It seems quite clear to me that the struggle for national liberation under a socialist banner had to be the main demand. In this context the way forward was shown by the actions of Tito of Yugoslavia. We do not have to apologise for Tito’s ruthless, barbaric, cynical and opportunist actions (his treatment of the Trotskyists reflects his whole attitude) to be able to admit that his approach to national liberation won the day. This argument, in fact, is stated in Section 7 of the Resolution on the National Question in Europe issued by the Central Committee of the RCP when it says that “in opposition to the military formations of the bourgeois-led and inspired Resistance movements, the proletarian party must counterpose and organise independent military formations of the working class, as well as its own independent military formation”. In other words, it was necessary to establish a basic concept about what should be the attitude and action of the workers in the struggle for national liberation even in an occupied imperialist country.

But the reality in Europe was that the Trotskyists were extremely weak and not really capable of creating such a force, though such formations were possible in such places as Vietnam, tangential to the problems of Europe. This question of the weakness of Trotskyism vis-à-vis the liberation movement was, in my opinion, dealt with up to a point, by Section 8 of the above mentioned resolution, which stated that “as a part of its tactics the revolutionary party must send members into the Resistance Movement to create a conscious proletarian opposition to the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois leaders …”, though this demand was really a position presented after the events. Moreover, it does not discuss or deal with the Stalinist forces inside the liberation movement, and this was of major importance, as events proved in Vietnam, where the Trotskyists were of some substance.

Moreover, in which of the resistance movements should the Trotskyists have most actively participated – those controlled by the Stalinists or by the bourgeoisie? This was not dealt with – and it was no academic question. It could be a matter of life or death, but the problem could essentially only he answered in the given context of each liberation movement, or each section of the liberation movement. For example, should you have participated in the Stalinist forces, where you were liable to be bumped off, particularly if you were awkward, or have taken advantage of the growing opposition to Stalin’s policy, as in Greece, where the Stalinist forces were sold down the river by Stalin and his local henchmen? I think that the record of the Trotskyists in occupied Europe was not outstanding – not due to a lack of individual heroism, but on the grounds of understanding, which therefore affected our ability to tackle the extremely difficult situation we were in.

This weakness had a knock-on effect, for with the breakdown of the Nazi occupation essentially by military means, the still small and weak Trotskyist movement, whilst growing very slowly, was faced with a gigantic problem. The answers emerged in the next and most important stage of the conflict, to begin with between the Majority and Minority of the SWP, in which the British movement became increasingly involved, the Majority of the RCP supporting Goldman, Morrow and Van Heijenoort, and the Minority around Healy supporting the SWP Majority around Cannon and Cochran. No one questioned the assumption of the emerging European revolution, though already large elements of doubt were beginning to form as to the pattern that would emerge and what tactics should be adopted towards it.

The Cannon faction started from the opinions of Trotsky in 1940, as if they were the final word, proclaiming that the revolution was here and almost asserting that the European Trotskyists had already emerged as a power to lead the revolutionary struggle. On the other hand the SWP Minority and the RCP Majority pointed to the re-emergence of a strengthened Social Democracy and Stalinism, posing the question of a short and probably unstable period of bourgeois democracy, counterposing the need to struggle for the maximum amount of democracy in capitalist society, to build up the Trotskyist movement and to expose the limitations of this democracy so that the struggle could go beyond it. Demands, for example, in Belgium and Italy for a republic instead of a monarchy, were expressions of this concept. Realising that they were totally out of touch with reality, the SWP Majority took on board some of the slogans and demands of the Minority, but without in any way altering their basic position. This policy on the part of Cannon & Co of trying to take the sting out of the criticism of their policy without really altering anything was the hallmark of the period. Pablo admitted as much in his reply to Morrow in agreement with the majority of the SWP when he wrote:

It is perfectly true that at that time there was general agreement in the European Secretariat that the first critical documents of Comrade Morrow, and especially his criticism of the Resolution of the December 1943 NC Plenum of the SWP contained some correct observations on the tempo of development of the revolutionary situation in Europe, the importance of democratic slogans, and the dangers of sectarianism in our International.

But this sectarianism was not confined to the SWP. When Europe was reconquered a similar phenomenon re-emerged with Pierre Frank's grandiose theory of Bonapartism in Europe and the argument that Stalinism, much weaker than ever before, was capitulating to Western imperialism, theories that were propounded as the essence of Trotskyism against which only revisionists could disagree. Trotsky's own argument, when replying to the Shachtman faction which was quoting him to prove he was wrong, was forgotten:

Every historical prognosis is always conditional, and the more concrete the prognosis the more conditional it is. A prognosis is not a promissary note which can be cashed on a given date. Prognosis outlines only the definite trends of the development. But along with these trends a different order of forces and tendencies operate, which at a certain moment begin to predominate.

The polemic arose over the type of regime arising from the Allied imperialist victory, the strength or weakness of the Soviet Union, the role and power of Stalinism and Social Democracy, the future potential of the European economy, whether cyclical boom or complete collapse; and, slightly later on, the character of the regimes of the countries occupied and controlled by the Soviet government. It was precisely in understanding and tackling these problems that the weakness of the Trotskyist movement was shown: without Trotsky's genius we were an ordinary bunch of revolutionaries incapable of understanding the process on which we claimed to be experts.


Part 5: The Legacy of Confusion

Front an historical it negative point of view, the fact that Trotskyism remains and grows whilst the Right Opposition, Maoism, Titoism, etc., have disappeared, proves the solid foundation built by Trotsky. But an example of the quality of our thinking was the argument between Mandel and Tony Cliff as to whether a boom was emerging precisely when the post-war boom was taking off. Mandel argued that it was not happening and tried to justify his position as Trotskyism by arguing that the original version of Capital had a different meaning than the English translation. Unfortunately for him he was arguing against Cliff, who probably had as good a knowledge of German as he. When we get to the point that a competent economist tries to argue that a boom is not emerging when it is developing in front of his eyes we realise the intellectual crisis of Trotskyism.

The question of the boom was also related in its own way to the possibility of a bourgeois democratic regime and its length and stability. To begin with the arguments about the regimes of bourgeois democracy related to the political situation that emerged after the war. The SWP Minority and afterwards the RCP Majority, pointed to the existence of such types of regime after the First World War, where they rested not on a solid material basis, but on the political superstructure, counterposing this to the concept of Bonapartism, which, whilst generally accepted by the SWP, was given its sharpest expression by Pierre Frank. The original concept, justifiable on the basis of available knowledge, held that what would emerge after the war would be an economy very much inferior to the 1918-39 period, and that the regimes of bourgeois democracy would be a mere spasm, providing no solid future foundation for bourgeois democracy. The polemic thus become an argument about a re-run of 1918-39 in a modified form, and was not only about what regimes would arise after the war, but also about the function of these regimes. The Minority argued that because of the relationship of forces a bourgeois-democratic regime would arise, albeit extremely unstable, whose function would be to halt the process of revolution and to carry out the counter-revolution in a democratic form since the establishment of a regime of military dictatorship was not possible. The sharpest expression of this formula, though based upon the arguments of the SWP Minority, was that of the RCP Majority, of a ‘bourgeois democratic counter-revolution in the period of decline of the bourgeoisie’. Although this was vastly superior to the argument of the SWP and the IEC of the Fourth International, insofar as it corresponded closer to reality, it was, nonetheless, inherently flawed. The essence of the bankruptcy of the concept of the Majority was shown in an incident that had more the quality of farce than of realism. The April 1946 Conference in Paris was organised as an illegal meeting – in a relatively democratic society.

The fundamental crisis of Trotskyism emerged from the confusion and the inability to understand the war and the immediate post-war world. This was crucial. It is true that the fifties struck a heavy blow at our movement, and whilst no movement can avoid being affected by major external events, how one comes out of it is the measure of the quality of a movement. The Bolshevik Party also suffered major blows after 1905, and furthermore made serious mistakes, such as boycotting the Duma, but because its basic concepts were sound it overcame them, and already by 1914 it was growing fast with a number of deputies in the Duma. But the contrary is true of the Trotskyist movement, instead of building further on the foundations laid by Trotsky it has confused and dissipated them.

The two fundamentals on which our failure is most sharply shown are the Russian question, including Eastern Europe, and the development of the capitalist economy.

Whilst the thesis of- the bourgeois-democratic counter-revolution seemed to be adequate, and was far superior to that of the Bonapartist military dictatorship expounded by the majority of the SWII, it soon became clear that it was not adequate in itself. Counter-revolution, after all, is the mirror image of revolution, so to speak, and is therefore limited in time and space.

It soon became clear after the war that a new situation had already emerged. Felix Morrow noted that the post-war period was not a re-run of 1918-39. The policy and actions of reformism in particular were flourishing because they were based on a sound material basis. This new phenomenon not only destroyed many of the organisations that were unable to understand the change. It also destroyed the best and most capable elements – not only Morrow, who became a rabid anti-Trotskyist, or Van Heijenoort, who dropped out arid became theoretically anti-Marxist, but almost the entire leadership of the Majority of the RCP, whose leading members capitulated to bourgeois reformism.

The destruction of the RCP reflected this theoretical collapse of its leadership: the bankruptcy of the official leadership of the Fourth International took a different form – low level thinking and empirical changing after the event.

New epoch

Yet the problems that they faced were in and of themselves not new, even if this was a fundamentally different period from that of 1918-39. Already during the early ’twenties the Bolsheviks themselves had become involved in many of these problems. Bukharin was taken up in further interpreting the role of the state, using as his basis the experience of Germany during the First World War. But the most important polemic was between Trotsky and Kondratiaev, based upon the statistics and diagram of the development of capitalism that had been published in The Times. In The Curve of Capitalist Development published in 1923 as part of the continuing argument, Trotsky quotes Engels: “It is self evident that this unavoidable neglect of contemporary changes in the economic situation, of the very basis of all the proceedings subject to examination, must be a source of error” (his emphasis). Developing the argument further, he writes:

But when a serious change occurs in the situation, all the more so a sharp turn, such general explanations reveal their complete inadequacy, and become wholly transformed into empty truisms. In such cases it is invariably necessary to probe analytically much more deeply in order to determine the qualitative aspect, and if possible also to measure quantitatively the impulse of economics upon politics. These ‘impulses’ represent the dialectical terms of the ‘tasks’ that originate in the dynamic foundations and are submitted for solution in the sphere of the superstructure.

The arguments about bourgeois democracy without a material base become empty truisms when we have the unique phenomenon that whilst Marx in Capital could argue about the historic function and need for a reserve army of unemployed, Western Europe, including Britain, was so short of workers that millions were brought into Europe, guest workers in Germany, France, etc., and immigrants into Britain. Again, the material standard of living increased fairly rapidly; in other words, the material foundation for reformism in the advanced countries existed. It was precisely this problem that needed to be analysed and understood, and the policy, programme and tactics that flowed from it.

This process of the curve of capitalist development has been relatively lately raised by Mandel in Late Capitalism and by Richard B. Day, in my opinion both incorrectly.

The assumption that imperialism is the final stage of capitalism is being proved incorrect. Many factors on which it rested have been invalidated by events, such as the colonial empires, and the dominance of finance capital. Similarly, examining modern capitalism without taking the Stalinist bloc into account is absurd. In this context it is interesting that both Rudolf Hilferding (the father of the theory of imperialism) and Leon Trotsky were both moving away from the position that it was imperialism and no more. They were moving in different directions, but both questioned the continuing development of imperialism. For example, in the introduction to his Stalin Trotsky equated the then period (1940) with a renaissance period, and said: “The epoch of the Renaissance was an epoch of struggles between two worlds”. The article The USSR and War also posed the problem. Van Heijenoort refers to Trotsky developing and changing his concepts of the period ahead. Trotsky was not pessimistic and when his critics tried to imply that The USSR and War was a pessimistic document he thought that the issue should be resolved by the war. His time scale was wrong, but the basic concept is still valid; in spite of Van Heijenoort's beliefs, the working class has not been defeated. This digression from the basic argument about the period is just to point out that such a reassessment is within the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

Already in 1940 Trotsky was posing the question of the struggle of the social systems and, although the idea was still in the development stage, it is clear in which direction he was moving. The development of political and economic events after the war showed that our concepts, based upon pre-war events, were out of touch with reality. It is as if Trotsky himself had posed the question in The Curve of Capitalist Development: “But when a serious change occurs in the situation, all the more so a sharp turn, such general explanations reveal their complete inadequacy, and become transformed into empty truisms.” Our answers became empty truisms based upon pre-war factors. The need as advocated to “probe analytically much more deeply” was not done in most cases, and only in the last 10-15 years has some serious effort been put in, in my opinion incorrectly, since Mandel tried both to move and to standstill at the same time.

In my opinion what Trotsky called “the curve of capitalist development” and Kondratiaev a cycle (though they are not identical in shape) was a cycle, not the internal business cycle of Kondratiaev, but a structural cycle based upon internal and external factors that stabilised a new dominant economic pattern (in this case no longer imperialism but a new type of capitalist structure). An examination of the structure of the economy today and the imperialism of pre-1914 shows vast and fundamental differences, not just a difference based upon the historical development of a process, but radical structural changes. The five basic points that Lenin put forward as a summary of his definition of imperialism no longer correspond to reality.

The colonial empires, the sources of raw material and the surplus exploitation of the ‘colonial areas’ no longer play the role they did, even if elements still exist. Similarly, despite the fact that the big monopolies have grown larger and even more powerful, overriding them all is the role of the state. Finally, and most important of all, we have a major conflict and competing social systems that have emerged, which has supplied the political motive (although there are economic factors as well) for the dominance of the state.

Each of these economic cycles, or, as Trotsky wrote, ‘curves’, has two major segments, the upward segment and the semi-stagnant segment, and this is demonstrated by the development of the last couple of hundred years. This is where we went wrong: we confounded the second segment of imperialism with the first segment of the new epoch, or, as I call it, étatism. It was precisely because of this pattern of economic development that reform had a glorious heyday. The standard of living increased rapidly, and illusions even faster. The destruction of the RCP was based upon the failure of the leadership to understand the process.

But in a sense this is secondary to the basic problem of understanding the historical process and the ability, based upon this understanding, to change the world. Although the term ‘imperialism’ has acquired a certain image, and it is not unnatural to use it in the way that Lenin used the term ‘Workers and Peasants’ Government’, imperialism meant more than that. Our basic and broad world outlook flowed from this concept; the theory of Permanent Revolution, for example, can only be conceived during the period of imperialism. Therefore, and herein lie the weakness and confusion of the present day Trotskyist theories, only on the basis of this new epoch can our theories emerge. Our theories and actions must be examined on this premise. To note a few:

  1. The Permanent Revolution must be argued and applied according to the period of étatism and not imperialism.
  2. The national question and the struggle for national independence must be understood and applied according to this period and not to imperialism or the middle of the nineteenth century.
  3. Our understanding of the Soviet bloc, etc, must be based upon the same premises.

Understanding is not the be-all and end-all, but without that understanding we cannot move in the right direction.

All this may seem a far cry from the original focus of this article, the Proletarian Military Policy. But it was during the Second World War when the character and weakness of the present Trotskyist movement emerged, and the PMP cannot be investigated in isolation from the rest of the policies of the movement. The problems encountered with the PMP very much exemplified the general problems the movement faced at the time. Perhaps we were not strong enough to apply the Proletarian Military Policy, but our inability really to understand the events which unfolded during the war lies at the heart of our present weaknesses.

Sam Levy
July 1988

Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003