Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3



Monty Johnstone
Trotsky Reassessed
Our History Pamphlet no. 87, Socialist History Society, London 1992, pp. 37, £2.50

Tony Cliff,
Trotsky: The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Star,
Bookmarks, London 1993, pp. 427, £6.95

DEALING with world historic figures often induces the writer to create a mirror of himself and the problems he faces in his own age, and those who concern themselves with Leon Trotsky are especially susceptible to it.

Our first item is the text of a lecture delivered in May 1991, and when we compare it with the speaker’s previous essays in Cogito and Marxism Today it is fascinating to see the light it throws on the changing needs of the Communist Party and its successor, the Democratic Left, over a quarter of a century.

We may well doubt whether any more would have been heard of Trotsky in the Stalinist movement without the changes in the Soviet Union that led to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, and our speaker admits to have been ‘helped, of course, by the reassessment taking place in the Soviet Union’ (p. 3). Nonetheless, he is well within his rights to remind us that already in 1968 he had rejected the more vulgar slanders that were current in other Communist parties, and had maintained that an ‘assessment of Trotsky can only be made on the basis of a Marxist assessment of his political ideas’ (p. 1). But 1968 is in itself a significant date, for it was in that year that the mass Vietnam movement led by Trotskyists of one hue or another completely bypassed the British Communist Party, leading in the following decade to the unprecedented situation of a European Communist party outnumbered on its left by a Trotskyist movement. The more advanced position taken up by the British Communist Party about Trotsky’s history had a real material basis, for slanders and gangsterism such as French Stalinism continued to employ until relatively recently simply would not work over here.

This presentation similarly allows us to measure the impact of the real material changes involved in the collapse of the Soviet Union over these last few years. Trotsky is now held to be in the right in his critique of ‘substitutionism’ in Our Political Tasks (p. 6), his attack upon Stalin’s economic policy (p. 17), and his view that the bureaucracy could move to ‘bourgeois restoration’ (p. 18, and postscript, p. 37). The contention that Trotsky wanted to spread the revolution by means of the sword is admitted to be the very reverse of the truth (p. 14), and ‘the kind of allegations which are made by a number of present Soviet writers that Stalin got his ideas for collectivisation from Trotsky are at best only partial truths’ (p. 33). Some interesting details of current publications by or about Trotsky in the former Soviet Union are given, and in this connection it is important to note that some of the speeches and letters from 1923 published in Izvestia TsK KPSS (nos. 5–7, 1990) referred to on page 14 can be consulted in their first full English translations in The International Workers Bulletin and The International Communist of David North’s ‘Fourth International’.

Johnstone’s judgement as to what is valid and what is not in Trotsky’s worldview is also influenced by the present position of the Democratic Left on the extreme right of the spectrum of the labour movement, where it persists in its pernicious policy of arguing for a system of proportional representation and a Popular Front-style alliance between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. So Trotsky ‘wrote many excellent things and certainly had right on his side’ in his critique of the ‘Third Period’ disaster in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise to power (pp. 20–3), whereas he ‘overestimated the revolutionary possibilities’ of France and Spain in 1936–37, and was ‘particularly wrong’ on the Popular Front and the nature of the Second World War (p. 23). Johnstone evidently feels he can still ignore the evidence accumulated by this magazine, amongst others, about the real activities of the Communists during the Spanish Civil War, even if one of his audience, Mick King, expresses some doubt about it in his contribution to the discussion afterwards (p. 29). It is also interesting to observe how Johnstone’s lack of any dialectical theory of the changes going on so rapidly has caught him with analyses that can only be described as half-formed:

The Russian proletariat could seize power, he [Trotsky] argued, but, without the direct state support of the European proletariat, the Soviet state could not maintain itself for any length of time in an imperialist environment. History has confirmed the former but refuted the latter proposition. (p. 15)

And some Stalinist myths persist unaltered. In spite of the fact that the Provisional Government was set up, not by any bourgeois democratic assembly, but by the ex-Tsarist Duma, February 1917 is described as ‘a successful bourgeois democratic revolution’ (p. 9), and Johnstone still prefers the peculiar formulation of ‘a deformed form of Socialism’ to Trotsky’s deformed workers’ state (p16). At one point, in the mistaken belief that he is taking Trotsky to task, he even argues against Marx’s contention that every revolution serves to perfect the state apparatus (p. 19).

Since a bit more of the truth is always better than less of it, this pamphlet is certainly to be welcomed, even if in the end it does tell us rather more about the Democratic Left than it does about Leon Trotsky.

The main beneficiary of the collapse of the Communist Party on the left is the Socialist Workers Party, and since barely a month goes by without a favourable reference to the Communist Party’s History Group in one or other of its magazines, it is plain in what direction its ambitions lie. And whilst it would be quite wrong to suggest that the SWP is involved in anything like the scale of Stalinism’s monstrous distortions, it shares the same assumption that history must be tightly harnessed to current factional concerns. Our second item, the fourth and final volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Trotsky, shows us a number of clear examples.

Let us begin, as Cliff does, with the theory of state capitalism. Fulsome praise is heaped upon The Revolution Betrayed (pp. 16–7) without informing us that its preface sets the framework of its analysis by reminding us of Lenin’s definition of a workers’ state as ‘a bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie’, making the whole argument about whether Russia is a capitalist state or a workers’ state redundant and undialectical. ‘It is necessary to defend the spirit of Trotskyism while rejecting some of his words’ (p. 338), Cliff informs us, for Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism as a degenerated workers’ state was ‘a conservative attachment to formalism’ (p. 329), and ‘with hindsight this development is far clearer to us than to those who participated in the events’ (p. 14). Much is made of Trotsky’s frequent adjustments to his analyses of Thermidor and Bonapartism during the period of forced collectivisation and industrialisation (pp. 61–7), in which he was ‘repeatedly disorientated and wrong-footed’, and this is held to be a major contribution to the ideological disintegration of the Left Opposition in the face of Stalin’s terror. This may well be the case, but whether it is due to Trotsky’s failure to adopt Tony Cliff’s more far-sighted analysis may well be doubted, for oppositional tendencies that had adopted this theory both inside and outside the USSR (Bordiga, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Korsch, etc.) fared no better, apart from the fact that a Marxist analysis of the regime’s degeneration which is being elaborated in the course of a living struggle against it of necessity has to be a changing one.

Nor is Cliff on firmer ground when he tries to turn the analysis around and argue from the end of the process to its beginning. ‘If the regime in Eastern Europe and [the] USSR was post-capitalist and in 1989 there was a restoration of capitalism, how was the restoration achieved with such astonishing ease?’, he asks. ‘The events do not square with Trotsky’s assertion that the transition from one social order to another must be accompanied by civil war’ (p. 335). But if this argument really holds water, it is equally valid for the creation of a capitalist regime some 65 years earlier on Cliff’s own theory. Has history ever witnessed one class society change itself into another by means of a policy decision within its own state? According to him, a bureaucracy that had achieved state power without any such civil war years before now transformed itself into a new class simply by a change in domestic policy, ‘a state capitalist way out of the impasse’ (p. 13). ‘It was with the inauguration of the Five Year Plan that Stalinism was transformed from a stratum mediating between the proletariat and peasantry into a ruling class’ (p50), he writes, so that ‘by using brute force, to impose a series of ad hoc measures, it found a state capitalist way out of the crisis’ (p. 44).

All sorts of mental gymnastics are displayed in an attempt to justify this self-contradictory stance. Since Cliff holds that Stalin’s regime after 1928 was bourgeois, but that Bukharin still represented a working-class tendency, he is obliged to argue that ‘because of his new social position’ Stalin’s collectivisation and industrialisation (accompanied, need we add, by the ‘Third Period’ policy in foreign policy), was ‘far to the right’ of Bukharin’s policy of continuing the NEP (p. 51). What he must make of the class nature of the Stalinist parties abroad is anybody’s guess, for ‘we must be clear that Stalin’s ultra-leftism was qualitatively different from what is usually regarded in the Marxist movement as ultra-leftism, that is, the extremism of newly-radicalised and impatient workers who lacked training in revolutionary strategy and tactics’. ‘Stalin’s ultra-leftism’, on the other hand, ‘was a manipulation of the party and the workers by the leadership’. (p. 109) Is this the same Cliff who told his followers that with another few thousand on their section of the last miners’ demonstration they could have made a bid for power? Not much above this level are remarks such as that on page 54, where Trotsky is laughed at for calling the working class ‘still the ruling class of the country’ in 1930 ‘when real wages in Russia were cut by half’. This had, of course, already happened to them during the Civil War in the lifetime of Lenin, when on Cliff’s own admission they still were the ruling class (cf. Volume 2 of this series, pp. 158–60).

When we move on to the question of party building, we similarly see how Cliff’s failure to understand Trotsky’s theory of revolutionary entry is likewise connected with the SWP’s self-proclamation as a revolutionary party. True enough, a summary is provided of the results of this policy as practised in France, the USA, Belgium and elsewhere (pp. 211–34), but the only hint that it might also apply to Britain is the odd remark that, apart from the British delegation at the Comintern’s Second Congress, Lenin was ‘the only person to speak on the subject’ of the Communist Party’s affiliation to the Labour Party (p. 301). This is a strange omission to make, since Trotsky’s forecast that a rising tide of trade union militancy would reflect itself in a turn to the left in the Labour Party, making entry a necessity, was brilliantly confirmed in 1945. Cliff can hardly plead ignorance of the account of this in my and Sam Bornstein’s Against the Stream (p. 250, etc.), since he elsewhere quotes from the previous chapter of the same book (p. 364). In the context of France we are told that ‘if entry were not seen as a short-term tactic it must lead to opportunism’ (p. 217), leaving the reader with the impression that this statement has the status of an eternal truth. But once we understand that in France Trotsky would have preferred entry into the Communist Party, rapidly becoming the mass party of the working class, and that the Trotskyists entered the PSOP not long afterwards, this remark falls immediately into context. And nowhere does Cliff refer to Trotsky’s basic definition of what entrism is, an ‘organic place in the ranks of the united front’ where the revolutionary group is ‘too weak to claim an independent place’. Indeed, we are given several indications that Cliff does not understand the connection between entry and the united front policy at all. Speaking of Germany before the rise of Hitler, he asks himself, ‘how could 50 members of the Left Opposition in Berlin pressurise the KPD with its 34,000 members?’, as ‘the very existence of a small organisation calling for a united front seemed a contradiction in terms’ (p. 160). It might seem a contradiction in Cliff’s terms, but it was certainly not one in Trotsky’s, for in the very letter he quotes (Writings 1929, p. 337) Trotsky makes his meaning abundantly clear: ‘The Leninbund should feel and function like a faction within German Communism and not like an independent party.’ (original emphasis)

The same confusion applies to the transitional method and the founding of the Fourth International, which, as I have argued elsewhere (Workers News, October–November 1990), cannot be understood at all outside the context of the coming war. The proclamation of the International in 1938 is held to be a mistake (p306), for ‘under conditions of a massive expansion of capitalism, as took place after the Second World War’, the demands in its programme for a sliding scale of hours and wages ‘were at best meaningless, and at worst reactionary’, and ‘other demands in Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, such as the establishment of “workers’ defence guards”, “workers’ militia”, and “the arming of the proletariat” certainly did not fit a non-revolutionary situation’ (p. 300). Exactly. For the Fourth International and the Transitional Programme were not founded for conditions of massive expansion of capitalism after the Second World War, but for the political crisis that would inevitably emerge towards the end of it. And dual power actually was posed at the time – in parts of Italy and France the Communist-dominated resistance actually did wield quasi-state functions until disarmed by Moscow’s directives, not to mention the civil wars that broke out in Yugoslavia and Greece during the war, or in Vietnam and China after the end of it. The fact that the Trotskyists were able to play so small a part in these events was only partly due to their tiny size, for an examination of their politics at the time shows that, like Tony Cliff, they had by then abandoned the transitional method (that is, assuming that they had ever understood it).

That brings us on to an interesting feature of this book, the light it casts on the postwar ideological confusion of the Trotskyist movement that gave rise to the Socialist Review Group, the ancestors of the modern SWP. For contrary to the legend spread by the late Gerry Healy of unblessed memory, and given credence by the majority of Trotskyists since, this group did not emerge out of a cowardly refusal to oppose the Korean War in 1950, but as a result of the inability of the Trotskyist movement to explain the expansion of Stalinist state forms in Eastern Europe after 1945. And the present book shows that Cliff still shares their logic:

If state property, planning, and a monopoly of foreign trade defined a country as a workers’ state, then without doubt Russia as well as her satellites were workers’ states. This presumes that proletarian revolutions had taken place in Eastern Europe.

But of course, it assumes nothing of the sort. What it shows is what Marxists have always understood about the outcome of a war between states of a different class character, that the victor imposes his class forms upon the vanquished by armed force. With regard to Russia this almost happened during the 1919–20 war with Poland, and actually did happen in the case of Georgia during Lenin’s lifetime.

Finally, a couple of minor points suggest that we are not too far off the mark in placing this book in the context of the particular needs of Cliff’s own organisation. One is the reference to the ‘squaddist practice’ of the German Red Front in its combats with the SA (p. 149). Another is the method by which quotations are made. For example, the only references to the work of this magazine are to an article written in it by one of Cliff’s own comrades (p. 405). Oskar Hippe’s autobiography is quoted from the German (p. 397), with no indication that an English translation put out by a rival organisation exists at all. Citations are made from sections of the German of Wolfgang Alles’ book (pp. 145, 154), which we published long ago in English in this magazine (Volume 2, no. 3, Autumn 1989, pp. 29–30), and Pierre Broué‘s views on the German left which were published in full in the same issue are even quoted second-hand from a German book by another author (p. 150). This suggests that Comrade Cliff is by no means happy with his members following up his references by reading more widely in the contributions of others. The same unpleasant trait is shared by some of his followers, for example, when a reference is made to the same article by Andy Durgan cited by Cliff without even mentioning the name of the magazine of which it forms part (International Socialism, no. 62, Spring 1994, p. 88, n8). I hope that this does not indicate that the SWP is trying to step into the CPGB’s shoes in their less attractive fittings, though to be fair to them we must point out that this habit is not to be found among some other leading members, such as Alex Callinicos.

Saying this, of course, does not detract from the book’s value otherwise. Whilst less detailed and less well researched than Broué’s biography, it does allow Trotsky to emerge as a political figure in a clear and coherent fashion, even if his personal fortunes tend to fade into the background a bit. It is a real contribution to the political debate about Trotsky, now that so much more material is becoming available. And the reader would have to range over a very wide field indeed to encounter the material collected together and arranged so well here.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011