Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Tony Cliff, Trotsky, Volume 1 Towards October, 1879-1917, Bookmarks, London 1989, pp314, £6.95

A sharp observer once wrote that Cliff’s biography of Lenin reads like a life of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ. Since the rise of the International Socialists to party pretensions in the Socialist Workers Party, we have become accustomed to one book after another explaining what revolutionaries in the past should have done if they had the benefit of this group’s insight and experience. After Lenin and Luxemburg it was inevitable that Trotsky would come in for the same treatment.

For this reason the book has the weaknesses that we would expect. The sections on democratic centralism go on at great length about centralism, but are noticeably silent about democracy. In the conflict over the formula ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ Trotsky is condemned for ‘abstraction’ against Lenin (pp.134-9), whereas history proved Trotsky to be right about this and Lenin to be demonstrably in the wrong. But since the SWP is deeply involved in the fetishisation of ‘the Party’ we have the old myth of Lenin creating the revolutionary party of the working class, at a time when he, in any case, did not believe that the next revolution in Russia would be a proletarian revolution.

In order to assert the importance of organisation over ideas Cliff is obliged to treat the theory of Permanent Revolution in a most unsatisfactory way. Although he is careful to make reverential references to it (e.g. pp.11, 37), the fact that he does not support the theory himself (he believes, like the Socialist Party of Great Britain and many Mensheviks, that the Russian revolution ended in state capitalism) obliges him to follow the Stalinists in arguing that it was a peculiarly Trotskyist heresy which “had no impact in the Russian Socialist movement” (p.139) with which “none of the Marxist leaders agreed” (p.132). It must come as a surprise to Cliff to learn that this theory was by no means rare among the Nashe Slovo group, as a quick reading of Radek’s Motor Forces of the Russian Revolution (1917) and Ways of the Russian Revolution (1922) shows. Although Cliff is careful not to counterpose Lenin to Trotsky as if they encountered each other in a vacuum, as Stalinists are wont to do, and an especially strong part of his book is its detailed discussion of the ideas of the Menshevik leaders, by handling the question in the way he does he leaves us with the impression that Trotsky was a loner, whose basic ideas had no long-term impact at all.

The book is also written with a lack of imagination. Page after page consist of long quotations from Trotsky printed en bloc and separated by one or two sentences from Cliff. It is also a one-dimensional Trotsky that is presented here, discussed almost exclusively in the context of the relevance of his ideas and actions to the coming revolution. Trotsky the student of military affairs barely appears (pp.168-72), and Trotsky the essayist not at all.

Cliff appears to be totally ignorant of Trotsky’s most important contribution to understanding the relationship between the intelligentsia and the workers, the article he wrote for Kievskaya Mysl in 1912. But then, if the members of the SWP were acquainted with it, they might not remain in the SWP.

Since as far as the general public is concerned it was Deutscher who rescued Trotsky’s name from the oblivion to which the Stalinists consigned it, Cliff is obliged to assert his originality and revolutionary rectitude by an attack upon him. Deutscher is accused of seeing the Cold War as “the main, or perhaps only, arena of struggle between socialism and capitalism” (p.16), a view that is said to lead to the conclusion that “the workers are irrelevant to the class struggle” (pp.167). Apart from the fact that I do not recall Deutscher anywhere arguing that the class struggle did not go on in the West, or in the undeveloped world, irrespective of the confrontation of the superpowers, this is an indirect attack on Trotsky through the intermediary of his biographer. Trotsky (like Marx himself) held that a confrontation between states resting upon different class relations partook of the nature of an international civil war. To Trotsky the basic confrontation in world politics in the twentieth century in foreign affairs was between the workers’ state and world imperialism. The last three volumes of the Pathfinder edition of his writings concentrate on very little else. Since Cliff believes that Trotsky was mistaken, because the Soviet Union was a bourgeois state merely in conflict with rival imperialisms, he should have the courage to attack Trotsky openly, and not through the ideas Deutscher holds in common with him. An even more dishonest polemic is carried on in the context of the quotation from Machiavelli from which Deutscher’s first volume takes its title, The Prophet Armed. Although it is obvious to all but the most prejudiced that ‘the prophet’ in question here is Trotsky, Cliff twists it round to make Deutscher intend Stalin:

The significance of the quotation from Machiavelli which stands at the head of The Prophet Armed is now clear. The prophet must be armed, so that when the people no longer believe in the revolution, he can ‘make them believe by force’. According to Deutscher, Stalinism not only protects the achievements of the revolution, but also deepens and enlarges them ... (p.15)

The very lack of substance in this portrait, and its narrow concern with a limited range of Trotsky’s ideas and actions during the period it covers, show that what we have here is not a true biography, but a flat icon representation of Trotsky as a patron saint of the SWP. And in it what is true is not new, and what is new is not true. The coincidence of this book with Broué’s massive biography creates a painful impression.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003