Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Work in Progress

The Wuppertal Trotsky Colloquium

The following hurried and incomplete notes are an informal account of an important conference that I attended as a representative of Revolutionary History.

The Trotsky symposium at Wuppertal took place in the YMCA from 26 to 30 March. It was organised by 74 year old Professor Theo Bergmann, editor of Nicolai Bukharin and the Russian Revolution (Bergmann, Lewin & Shanin, New York, ME Sharpe, forthcoming), who had been a member of Brandler’s tendency. I gather that he paid for much of it from his own pocket, for which we are all very grateful indeed. Since the conference was financially supported on a shoestring, criticism may be out of place, but it should be said that although it was advertised as being in German and English, it turned out that papers were delivered in, or translated into German or English. The majority of papers were delivered in German or Russian – the main languages of the Comintern. Thus a number of us who lacked German and Russian felt somewhat handicapped, and because of the tardiness of many scholars, not all the papers were circulated at the conference and the very large number of speakers were each limited to a presentation of 12 minutes. Paolo Casciola from the Centro Pietro Tresso, who speaks seven languages, but neither German, Russian nor Mandarin, was particularly incensed. I am thus unable to comment on many of the contributions, as, at the time of writing, some of those of which I do have the German text I have not yet been able to get translated.

There were a large number of highly intelligent, very capable Russian scholars with top academic jobs and access to a number of Trotsky documents never before seen. One of the few who spoke in English was Alex Podshekoldin from the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, who dealt with the inner party discussion of 1923 and produced a number of interesting documents which have never, hitherto, seen the light of day. Krasilnikov and Vladimir Shiskin (Institute of History and Philosophy, Academy of Sciences, Novosibirsk) talked of the fate of Trotsky’s followers in Siberia, using (I understand) much original material that they had uncovered. Other papers were given by Alexander Watlin, who translated all the Russian contributors into German, Felshintsky, Demichev, and many others. The ‘Man the Conference Loved to Hate’, N.A. Wasetzki, the long standing ‘expert’ on Trotsky from the Institute of Marxism-Leninism was, not unnaturally, more hostile than others, and sharp exchanges in the Russian language took place between him and Podshekoldin, who, I understand, has only been at the Institute during this last year.

The many papers in German included a large number from the DDR. Among these was one, delivered in English by Mario Kessler, which was a most interesting study of Trotsky’s changing attitude to the Jewish question. We have Kessler’s full German text. A fascinating exchange took place about the attempt to set up a Jewish home in the Soviet Union. The original plan was for one in the Crimea, but the Red Army, at a time of growing tension with the Japanese in Manchuria, insisted on one in the Far East. About 15 per cent of the population in Birobidjan is still Jewish, but Yiddish is now very little spoken. Again, I am unable to comment on all the papers, many, though perhaps not all, of which were very worthwhile.

Of the papers in English or French I will summarise the contents of the best. To my mind Judith Shapiro’s was outstanding. She dealt with Trotsky and the NEP, and her theme was firstly that, in retrospect, Trotsky dated his approval of the NEP rather earlier than was really the case. The evidence is clear that he always approved of the NEP and saw it as an inevitable and necessary stage on the road from capitalism to Socialism. She was not at all convinced that if Trotsky’s economic policies had been followed the subsequent tragedies could have been avoided – indeed, to suggest that would mean that ‘Socialism in One Country’ was a viable possibility. She felt his economic programme was not well worked out and that he produced no evidence at all that a growth rate of 18 to 20 per cent a year was possible. After he left the Soviet Union he was to some extent taken in by the Stalinist propaganda claiming massive growth rates, and complained that Stalin had ‘stolen his clothes’. His sureness of touch sometimes deserted him on economic issues, and he spent an inordinate amount of time on secondary questions, such as whether advertising vodka led to low productivity by encouraging drinking. His project was a political rather than an economic one because, without the extension of the revolution to the west, many of the horrors could not have been avoided.

Another thought-provoking paper was that of Mark Selden, who is from the Maoist tradition, on Trotsky and the agrarian question. He pointed out the difficulties of carrying out the sort of rural reforms that Trotsky wanted without considerable industrial economic growth. Despite strong verbal attacks on the kulaks and the danger that he thought that they posed, Trotsky never proposed military-police action against them, but only a relatively mild progressive tax regime that, in some unspecified way, would not act as a disincentive, and, while calling for an end to kulak domination of the countryside he simultaneously called for expanded market activity without explaining the apparent contradiction. In 1927 Trotsky seems to have thought of cooperatives, not merely as marketing tools, such as Lenin had proposed on his deathbed, but producer forms of mechanised collective farms. But he and his followers did not investigate the concrete rural conditions that would have to be changed. In a prescient warning Trotsky noted the fall in the share of world trade of the Soviet Union, and underlined the dangers of autarchy. Selden points out that up to 1927 there was a broad consensus between Trotsky, Bukharin and Stalin on what the problem was and what was necessary. Stalin’s sudden policy of forced collectivisation after 1928 was initiated with no previous discussion or consideration of the consequences among the leadership as far as we can see.

Greg Benton made two presentations pointing out that Trotskyism in China, far from being a Russian import, had strong local indigenous traditions. No copy of his material is available to me, but the data with which he backed up his argument and his account of the present attitude of the Chinese Party to Trotsky were fascinating. Hillel Ticktin raised a whole number of questions about the tensions and conflicts within Trotsky’s thought, and it has to be said that Ticktin’s previous assertions since 1970 that the Soviet economy was in crisis, was about to go into steep decline and that all their statistics were nonsense seems to have been proved correct by events, unlike those Marxists who constantly proclaimed that the Russian economy was, in view of its planned nature, going from strength to strength. Catherine Merridale, whose Moscow Politics and the Rise of Stalin, will appear this summer (hopefully to be reviewed by this journal), gave the substance of one of the chapters of her book, that on the inner party struggle in Moscow from 1924 to 1932.

Among other papers in languages that I could understand were those by Paolo Casciola on Trotskyism and theories of the Third World, by Professor Pierre Broué on the United Opposition, and by Jean-Jacques Marie on Trotsky and democracy. On the whole the papers produced by those from the United Secretariat tendency were, in my opinion, disappointing, though Ernest Mandel is clearly head and shoulders above the others, while Jakob Moneta’s, which was in German, was, I was told, excellent. The less said about Livio Maitan’s and Michel Raptis’ (Pablo’s) the better. Knei-Paz from Jerusalem gave a paper which attacked the ideas and concepts of Trotsky because he had been proved wrong, because nationalism rather than class struggle was the wave of the future.

I also had the great privilege of meeting Ludwik Hass from Poland, who gave a paper on Trotsky’s writings on Poland. He gave me a short history of the Trotskyists in Poland, translated and printed in this issue, together with his analysis in Polish of the present Polish situation which I have circulated among the various tendencies in this country, to which I hope they respond. As he spoke no English and his French was even worse than mine, while I speak no German, Russian or Polish, communication was somewhat difficult, but I learned something of his positions from Hillel Ticktin, who speaks Russian. Hass was very bitter about Kuron, who is now Minister of Labour and goes about saying that he was never a Trotskyist, and that statements by Hass about Kuron’s past are not to be relied on, as the poor old man is mad as a result of the terrible time he had in Vorkuta. They learn these parliamentary politician’s tricks very quickly in Eastern Europe!

Others present who did not give papers, were Hans Schafranek, the writer of the authoritative work in German on Kurt Landau whose expertise we hope to call upon in future in the pages of Revolutionary History, and Antonov-Ovseenko’s son who gave me a defence of his father. Comrades might like to know that Pierre Broué told us that his researches suggest that Antonov-Ovseenko does not seem to have been implicated in the murder of the Barcelona POUMists. There were many others there including Dr Miklos Kun, Bela Kun’s grandson from Budapest, Trotsky’s grandson from Mexico, and Tom Kemp.

Finally and most importantly, a very complete edition of Trotsky’s works is now being published in German (see Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no.2, pp.57-8). From what I can see, and we were shown a sample at the Symposium, this will be much more complete and better than the French Oeuvres as the Oeuvres is of the Pathfinder edition. In part this is because the later editions build on the experience of their predecessors, and in part because the editors are going about their task with truly Teutonic thoroughness.

The organisers of the Symposium hope to bring out a volume with the best papers there. Later this year there will be other Trotsky history conferences including one rather private affair in East Grinstead in April organised by Corin Redgrave (Podshekoldin told me that he would be there), another in Aberdeen, a third in Budapest, a fourth in Italy and finally one in Sao Paulo. Representatives from Revolutionary History will be attending the one in Aberdeen and would very much like to hear from comrades who are going to the others.

Ted Crawford

Updated by ETOL: 14.7.2003