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John Molyneux

Marxism and the Party

5. Trotsky’s dual legacy

There are two aspects to Trotsky’s contribution to the marxist theory of the revolutionary party. First, there is his defence, principally through the medium of the Left Opposition, of the Leninist conception of the party against the practical and theoretical assault mounted on it by Stalin and the Stalinist bureaucracy. Secondly, there is his attempt, culminating in the foundation of the Fourth International, to forge a genuine marxist alternative to the degenerated Communist International. Although, of course, there is continuity between these two aspects in that the latter grew logically out of the former, there is nonetheless a qualitative difference between them. At the period of the Left Opposition, Trotsky counterposed to Stalin’s opportunist policy a consistent revolutionary one. With the effort to build a Fourth International, Trotsky now had to embody his policy in an organisation of his own. Because of this difference it makes sense to divide our study of Trotsky’s theory of the party into two parts: the defence of Leninism; and the Fourth International.

A. The Defence of Leninism

Trotsky divided from Stalin and the official majority of the CPSU over two basic issues: the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian state and the Stalinist theory of ‘socialism in one country’. The two issues were naturally connected. The bureaucracy arose by the exhaustion and dispersal of the revolutionary proletariat as a result of the cumulative sufferings of the first world war and civil war and the accompanying economic devastation, famine, epidemics and physical annihilation. [1] This bureaucracy, consisting in large part of careerists, administrators taken over from the old regime, ex-Mensheviks and long declassed workers, wanted above all an end to upheavals and to carry on business-as-usual. They had no interest in what seemed to them the romantic and dangerous adventure of world revolution. Thus the theory of socialism in one country was not a mere Stalinist invention. On the contrary, ‘it expressed unmistakeably the mood of the bureaucracy. When speaking of the victory of socialism, they meant their own victory.’ [2]

This then was a dispute over fundamentals, as deep as the split between communism and social democracy. It involved two completely different and opposed conceptions of socialism. For Trotsky, as for Marx and Lenin, socialism was a classless, stateless, self-governing community based on an abundance of material goods, in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. [3] Dictatorship, state planning, economic growth and efficiency, iron discipline etc. were means to this end (means from which Trotsky did not shrink), but not ends in themselves. For Stalin, as for the bureaucracy of which he was the prime representative, socialism was identified precisely with nationalisation, state control and the economic and military growth of Russia into a front-rank world power. From Trotsky’s point of view, a degree of bureaucratisation was perhaps unavoidable, but it remained an ever-present danger to be closely watched and dispensed with as soon as possible. From Stalin’s, it was the essential core and foundation of a new regime. Given Trotsky’s conception of socialism, the prospect of its realisation in one country – and backward Russia at that – was a reactionary utopia. Given Stalin’s, it was the only practical and realistic perspective.

Being a dispute about fundamentals, this conflict necessarily expanded to the point where it affected every event and every policy in the life of the international working-class movement, including of course the nature, role, strategy and tactics of the revolutionary party and the revolutionary international. Trotsky’s disputes with Stalin over the Leninist theory of the party can, for clarity, be dealt with under two headings: party democracy in the CPSU, and the strategy of the international communist parties.

1. Party democracy

The gradual bureaucratisation of the Soviet state in the absence of an energetic and politically active working class necessarily raised the question of the bureaucratisation of the Communist Party and the destruction of its inner party democracy. For although there was a formal separation between state (soviet) and party institutions, the Bolsheviks constituted in reality a state party. Since the civil war the party had maintained a complete political monopoly and control over all key posts. Consequently if the state machine was becoming bureaucratised, it could not fail also to have an effect on the party. What made this so crucial was that the party, as the vanguard of the proletariat with its core of incorruptible old Bolsheviks, its revolutionary tradition, its maximum earnings rule [4] and its strict discipline, was generally regarded as the main bulwark against bureaucracy. If the party succumbed, there would, given the passivity of the workers, be no further line of defence. It was in 1923 that Trotsky felt the situation had become so serious that he had to launch an open struggle for democracy within the party, with a series of articles for Pravda entitled collectively The New Course. [5]

The tone of The New Course is cautious and some of the formulations are hesitant, but in many respects it is an admirable presentation of the case for democracy within the revolutionary party and is of lasting value. Trotsky does not pose the question of democracy as an abstract right but locates its necessity in the development of the party and the new historical stage being entered. First, he examines relations between the old and new generation (pre- and post-October) of party members, ‘The conquest of power was followed by a rapid, even abnormal, growth of the party.’ [6] There was an influx both of inexperienced workers with little consciousness and of certain alien elements, functionaries and hangers-on. ‘In this chaotic period [the party] was able to preserve its Bolshevist nature only thanks to the internal dictatorship of the old guard, which had been tested in October.’ [7]

But since then the situation had changed. Now the new generation, for the sake of its own political development and for the future of the party as a whole, must be drawn actively into the political life and decision-making process of the party. Then Trotsky looks at the social composition of the party, showing how the need to fill administrative posts with workers led to the weakening of ‘its fundamental cells, the factory nuclei’ [8], and this was an important source of bureaucratism. Trotsky argues for the necessity of strengthening the proletarian base of the party and for the use of the students and youth as a force against bureaucracy. On the necessity of internal democracy Trotsky writes:

The essential incomparable advantage of our party consists in its being able, at every moment, to look at industry with the eyes of the communist machinist, the communist specialist, the communist director, and the communist merchant, collect the experience of these mutually complementary workers, draw conclusions from them, and thus determine its line for directing economy in general and each enterprise in particular. It is clear that such leadership is reliable only on the basis of a vibrant and active democracy inside the party. [9]

These remarks are directed to a party in power and in a specific situation, but the principle contained in them, the necessity of democracy for correct leadership, is of general validity.

The main burden of the leadership’s answer to Trotsky’s criticism was an outraged defence of the great traditions of the old guard and an emphasis on the imperative need for party unity and the dangers of factionalism. Trotsky’s reply points out that ‘tradition’ has a negative as well as a positive side in the revolutionary movement. Citing numerous examples, including the stand of the Old Bolsheviks against Lenin’s April Theses, he argues that Bolshevism’s ‘most precious fundamental tactical quality is its unequalled aptitude to orient itself rapidly, to change tactics quickly, to renew its armament and to apply new methods, in a word, to carry out abrupt turns’, [10] and that no tradition, however revolutionary, in itself provides infallible supra-historical guarantees against degeneration. On the question of factions Trotsky recognises the great danger of factionalism in the situation, and the possibility that factional differences may rapidly come to reflect the pressure of social and class forces hostile to the proletariat, but contends that an undemocratic party regime is in itself a cause of factionalism.

The leading organs of the party must lend an ear to the voice of the broad party mass, not consider every criticism as a manifestation of factional spirit, and thereby drive conscientious and disciplined communists to maintain a systematic silence or else constitute themselves as factions. [11]

The essence of Trotsky’s case in The New Course is that

it is in contradictions and differences of opinion that the working out of the party’s public opinion inevitably takes place. To localise this process only within the apparatus which is then charged to furnish the party with the fruit of its labours in the form of slogans, orders etc. is to sterilise the party ideologically and politically. [12]

At the same time, the claims of authority in the immensely difficult objective situation still exercise a strong hold over Trotsky. While demanding inner-party democracy he nonetheless accepts that ‘We are the only party in the country and, in the period of the dictatorship, it could not be otherwise.’ [13] And in so doing Trotsky participated in the current practice of raising to the level of a general principle what was originally envisaged as a merely temporary measure due to the extraordinary situation of the civil war. Max Shachtman, an erstwhile follower of Trotsky, sees in this a fundamental contradiction.

Trotsky ... gave no sign of realising ... that the denial of democratic rights to those outside the party could be enforced only by the denial, sooner or later, of the same rights to the members of that very party itself. For this is a veritable law of politics; every serious difference of opinion in a serious political party entails an appeal – direct or indirect, explicit or implicit, deliberate or unintentioned – to one or other segment of the people outside this party. [14]

This is a substantial point, but it does not really undermine Trotsky’s whole position. There is no doubt that in the long run, ‘sooner or later’, dictatorship by one party will lead to dictatorship within the party, but, as Trotsky often says, in politics time is an important factor. From Trotsky’s point of view the Bolsheviks were engaged in an exceptionally difficult and delicate holding operation: between ‘sooner’ and ‘later’ there was the possibility of relief from the international revolution.

As Stalin extended his despotic control over the party and the country and as, his policy diverged ever further from revolutionary marxism, so the calls for party democracy became more insistent and opposition to Stalin’s organisational methods became irreconcilable.

The 1927 Platform of the Joint Opposition signed by Trotsky, Zinoviev and eleven other members of the Central Committee contains a ringing indictment of the party regime:

The last few years have seen a systematic abolition of inner-party democracy – in violation of the whole tradition of the Bolshevik party, in violation of the direct decisions of a series of party congresses. The genuine election of officials is in actual practice dying out. The organisational principles of Bolshevism are being perverted at every step. The party constitution is being systematically changed, to increase the volume of rights at the top, and diminish the rights of the branches at the bottom.

The leadership of the regional committees, the regional executive committees, the regional trade union councils etc. are, in actual fact, irremovable ... The right of each member of the party, of each group of party members, to ‘appeal its radical differences to the court of the whole party’, [Lenin] is in actual fact annulled. Congresses and conferences are called without a preliminary free discussion (such as was always held under Lenin) of all questions by the whole party. The demand for such a discussion is treated as a violation of party discipline ...

The dying out of inner-party democracy leads to a dying out of workers’ democracy in general – in the trade unions, and in all other non-party mass organisations. [15]

In this Platform, the analysis, warnings and suggestions of The New Course have crystallised into programmatic demands: prepare for the fifteenth congress upon a basis of real inner-party democracy; every comrade and group of comrades to have an opportunity to defend their point of view before the party; improve the social composition by admitting into the party only workers from the factories and the land; proletarianise and cut down the party apparatus; reinstate immediately the expelled Oppositionists; reconstruct the Central Control Committee independently of the apparatus. But at this stage the condemnation and the demands still operate within the framework of complete loyalty to the Russian Communist Party and acceptance of its political monopoly.

We will struggle with all our force against the formation of two parties, for the dictatorship of the proletariat demands as its very core a single proletarian party. [16]

By 1933, after the paralysis of the Comintern in the face of Hitler (see below) and the total liquidation of all opposition and criticism in Russia, Trotsky abandoned this last constraint. Declaring that the Bolshevik Party of Lenin had been completely destroyed by Stalinism, he called for the building of revolutionary parties anew and the overthrow of the bureaucracy by political revolution. In 1936 in his major work The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky was able to make a completely unequivocal exposition of his views on party democracy.

The inner regime of the Bolshevik party was characterised by the method of democratic centralism. The combination of these two concepts, democracy and centralism, is not in the least contradictory. The party took watchful care not only that its boundaries should always be strictly defined, but also that all those who entered these boundaries should enjoy the actual right to define the direction of the party policy. Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organisation, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations’? The farsightedness of the Bolshevik leadership often made it possible to soften conflicts and shorten the duration of factional struggle, but no more than that. The Central Committee relied upon this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders. The obvious correctness of the leadership at all critical stages gave it that high authority which is the priceless moral capital of centralism. The regime of the Bolshevik party, especially before it came to power, stood thus in complete contradiction to the regime of the present sections of the Communist International, with their ‘leaders’ appointed from above, making complete changes of policy at a word of command, with their uncontrolled apparatus, haughty in its attitude to the rank and file, servile in its attitude to the Kremlin. [17]

Trotsky not only restores the original Bolshevik position on factions but also breaks with the doctrine of the one-party state.

In the beginning the party had wished and hoped to preserve freedom of political struggle within the framework of the Soviets. The civil war introduced stern amendments into this calculation. The opposition parties were forbidden one after another. This measure, obviously in conflict with the spirit of soviet democracy, the leaders of Bolshevism regarded not as a principle but as an episodic act of self-defence. [18]

He rejects the identification of class dictatorship with party dictatorship.

Since a class has many ‘parts’ – some look forward and some back – one and the same class may create several parties. For the same reason one party may rest upon parts of different classes. An example of only one party corresponding to one class is not to be found in the whole course of political history – provided, of course, you do not take the police appearance for the reality. [19]

And the 1938 programme of the Fourth International states that ‘Democratisation of the Soviets is impossible without legalisation of soviet parties. The workers and peasants themselves by their own free vote will indicate what parties they recognise as soviet parties.’ [20]

When one surveys the record of Trotsky’s struggle for workers’ democracy in the Russian Communist Party and the Russian state, it is clear that he made many mistakes. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that he should have begun his resistance earlier, that there were times when he made a virtue out of necessity, that in 1923–24 he should have fought more energetically and consistently, that he should have appealed sooner to the rank-and-file of the party and sooner to the mass of workers themselves. Many of these criticisms may be justified, but they are also one-sided for they neglect the immense difficulties of the situation which Trotsky faced, in particular the deep passivity of the Russian workers, including the mass of party members, during this period. Also Trotsky clearly considered it the duty of revolutionaries, in the absence of any existing alternative, to remain loyal to the party of the revolution to the last possible moment. This was a weighty consideration, much easier to dismiss when the degeneration has run its course than in the midst of the struggle. A balanced view must recognise the immense achievement of Trotsky in defending and preserving the marxist and Leninist tradition of party democracy, of the party as a collective and living organism, against enormous odds, without collapsing, as did so many others, into either social-democratic or anarchist rejection of democratic centralism and the vanguard party.

2. The strategy of the international Communist Parties

The theory of socialism in one country was first proclaimed by Stalin in autumn 1924 in complete violation of all the traditions of marxism. Its most immediate effects were not on Russia itself but on the Communist International and the strategy of communist parties throughout the world. As long as the survival of the Russian Revolution was linked to the achievement of world revolution, the most concrete form of solidarity with Russia and the first duty of every ‘foreign’ party was to make the revolution in its own country. But once the building of socialism was held to be possible in Russia alone, the world revolution became not a necessity but an optional extra, and the role of the Comintern, in the eyes of Moscow, became to ensure that nothing untoward interrupted this process of ‘socialist’ construction. In this way the CPs were transformed from agents of working-class revolution into agents of the foreign policy of the Russian bureaucracy. This transformation inevitably meant a series of departures from and revisions of Leninist traditions of revolutionary politics. The principal defender of those traditions was Leon Trotsky. [21]

It is impossible to deal here with all the questions of party strategy on which Trotsky clashed with Stalin, but four examples will serve to illustrate Trotsky’s contribution to the theory of the party in this sphere.

Trotsky opposed from the beginning Stalin’s policy that the Chinese CP should subordinate itself to the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang, which led to the bloody defeat of the Chinese revolution in 1927. He insisted throughout on the Leninist principle of the complete organisational and political independence of the revolutionary party.

Equally he opposed the collaboration with the TUC leadership through the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee which fatally compromised the independence of the British CP and left it uncritical of the ‘left’ trade-union leaders who betrayed the General Strike.

Trotsky also mounted a brilliant and prophetic critique of Stalinist policy in Germany in 1929–33. The KPD, operating with Stalin’s theory of ‘social fascism’, treated the social democrats as the main enemy and played down the threat of fascism. Against this disastrous strategy Trotsky insisted on the urgent need for a united front of working-class parties against Hitler.

Finally Trotsky demonstrated the fatal weakness of the Popular Front strategy adopted in 1934 which tied the working class and its party to the bourgeoisie and led to further defeats in Spain and France. [22] This critique is especially relevant today, as some variation of popular frontism is now the policy of almost every CP throughout the world and we have recently seen repeated its full tragic consequences in Chile.

Taken as a whole, the Stalinist period constituted a sustained perversion and distortion of the Leninist theory of the party to the point where it was transformed into its opposite. From a theory of the selection and organisation of the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat, it became a myth of infallibility serving to justify every form of bureaucratic manipulation and cynical betrayal. So

successful was this operation that Leninist and Stalinist theories of the party, so different in practice, became generally identified as one and the same in the eyes of the public. Were it not for the tireless work of Trotsky, this identification may well have passed effectively unchallenged in the marxist movement and genuine Leninism been completely buried under a mountain of lies.

B. The Fourth International

Trotsky’s defence of the Leninist theory of the party as an integral part of his defence of marxism and Leninism as a whole was an immense achievement, but not one with which he could rest content. Since the turn of the century he had been committed to international proletarian revolution, and once he was convinced that the Stalinised Communist International could no longer achieve that end, he had no choice but to attempt to build a new organisation himself. It was the total collapse of the KPD before Hitler and the failure of a single section of the Comintern to protest at the official line which finally decided Trotsky to take this course.

An organisation which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and cannot be revived. [23]

Just as Lenin, after the capitulation of the Second International on 4 August 1914, immediately declared for a Third International, so Trotsky in 1933 issued the call for the Fourth International.

1. The struggle for the Fourth International

Trotsky’s support in 1933 was very limited, and there could be no question of immediately setting up the new international. Instead it would have to be built gradually. Unfortunately the objective circumstances for doing this were extremely unfavourable. Lenin, although extremely isolated at the beginning of the first world war, had at least the advantage of a solid national base in the shape of the Bolshevik party. Even so it was not until two years after the victory of the Russian Revolution that the Third International could be founded. Trotsky had no such base, nor was he destined to see a second victory of the proletarian revolution in his lifetime. On the contrary, the 1930s were a period of profound defeats for the working class, beginning with the crushing of the German proletariat (the most total and shameful defeat of a militant, politically-conscious working class in history). Fascist or similar regimes already gripped the centre of Europe, and then followed the triumph of Franco in Spain. Meanwhile, throughout the thirties, the depression and long-term unemployment sapped the fighting strength and weakened the organisations of workers everywhere.

In addition to this general picture of black reaction, there were certain specific factors which worked against the growth of Trotskyism. The terrible threat of fascism created an immense pressure among workers for the closing of ranks, for unity in the face of the enemy and against new splits. Combined with this pressure for unity was the feeling of the need to have some ally, some great military power to stand against Hitler, and this of course meant Soviet Russia. To abandon the might of Stalin for the minuscule forces of Trotskyism was difficult in the extreme. In this way Hitler actually aided Stalin and Stalinism within the labour movement.

Then there was the fact that Trotsky was subjected to historically unprecedented vilification and slander within the working-class movement. The charge that Trotsky and all the other defendants in the Moscow Trials were agents of Hitler and the Mikado is and was manifestly absurd, and yet the power of ‘the big lie’ was such that millions of people throughout the world believed it. Nor was it just hardened communists who accepted the Trotsky fascist slander. Many Western artists and intellectuals, exemplified by Romain Rolland, lent their voices to the charge. Others such as Bernard Shaw or André Malraux, feeling the pressure of the popular front, equivocated or remained silent. Thus Stalin’s great frame-up was, in the short term, highly successful. In the first place, it ensured that only those of considerable strength of character, capable of withstanding constant denunciation and obloquy, would adhere to Trotskyism. Secondly, it created an enormous barrier between the Trotskyists, including those with the most exemplary revolutionary records, and the politically-conscious workers, depriving them of an honest hearing for their case. Criticism, no matter how well argued, is unlikely to be heeded if it is believed that it comes from a ‘fascist agent’.

Finally there was the simple fact that it was exceedingly hard to persuade people that it was necessary to begin all over again so soon after the establishment of the Third International. Trotsky expressed the situation as follows:

We are not progressing politically. Yes it is a fact which is an expression of a general decay of the workers’ movements in the last fifteen years ... Our situation now is incomparably more difficult than that of any other organisation at any other time, because we have the terrible betrayal of the Second International. The degeneration of the Third International developed so quickly and so unexpectedly that the same generation which heard its formation now hears us and they say ‘But we have already heard this once’. [24]

The effect of this appallingly difficult situation was that the Trotskyist movement was stamped with three characteristics. Firstly it was extremely small, consisting in many countries of mere handfuls. Secondly it was overwhelmingly petty-bourgeois in social composition. Thirdly it was, at least in its upper ranks, an organisation of exiles – not necessarily exiles from their countries, though this was true of some, but exiles from their adopted homeland, the mass workers’ movement. Now small groups always split more easily and more often than large parties, for there is so much less to lose. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals are always more prone to factionalism than are workers. ‘All the people of this type’ wrote the American Trotskyist leader, J.P. Cannon, ‘have one common characteristic: they like to discuss things without limit or end.’ [25] And exile politics is notorious for its intrigue and scandal. At bottom these phenomena all have the same cause – isolation from the great disciplinary force of the class struggle – and the movement for the Fourth International suffered grievously from all of them. From the beginning Trotskyism was plagued by factionalism, splits and extreme sectarianism.

Trotsky fought as best he could to break out of this hopeless milieu and to find a way for his movement to reach the workers. At first he orientated his followers towards the various left, social-democratic and centrist groups (such as the British ILP and the German Socialist Workers’ Party) which were independent of the Second and Third Internationals, in the hope that this could constitute a new Zimmerwald. [26] Then he directed them towards short-term entry into the mass social-democratic parties [27], and led them out again. In 1937 and again in 1939 Trotsky proposed to the American Socialist Workers’ Party the expulsion of petty-bourgeois members who failed to recruit workers to the party. [28] But it was all to no avail. Each new tactic caused new splits and each failed to achieve its aim. The Trotskyist movement never succeeded either in recruiting a substantial number of workers or in becoming an integrated part of the labour movement.

The question that we must now ask is: what was the effect of these conditions on Trotsky’s theory of the party? For although it is possible for the theoretician to resist the demoralising impact of unfavourable events by holding firm to the theoretical acquisitions of the past and to the previous high points of the movement, as Lenin did during the Stolypin reaction in Russia, and as Trotsky did later, nonetheless it is impossible for theory to be totally unaffected by practice. So it was for Trotsky. The yawning gap between the enormous demands of the situation and the pathetically weak forces with which he could set about meeting them led Trotsky into not only an exaggeration of the viability and strength of his tiny organisation. He was also misled in his theoretical overestimation of the role that could be played by an international leadership divorced from the masses and in the substitution of the party programme, drawn up from the sidelines of the class struggle, for the party itself as the embodiment of the actual vanguard of the proletariat, and the generaliser of the experiences of the working class in the midst of great events. These points, can best be illustrated by examining the decision taken in 1938 to actually found the Fourth International and the perspectives that accompanied it.

2. The theoretical basis of the Fourth International

The most immediately striking feature of the Fourth International was the contrast it presented with the first three workers’ Internationals. The founding conference was a pitiful gathering compared with those of its predecessors. Held secretly in France in the home of Trotsky’s old friend Alfred Rosmer, the conference lasted only a day and was attended by only 21 delegates. These delegates claimed to represent organisations in 11 countries, but most of these organisations were the tiniest of sectlets and one, the so-called ‘Russian section’, was a complete fiction and represented by a GPU agent (Etienne). Only Max Shachtman, the American delegate, came from a section with more than a couple of hundred members. In 1935 Trotsky had denounced as ‘a stupid piece of gossip’ the idea that ‘the Trotskyists want to proclaim the Fourth International next Thursday’. [29] Why then, despite the fact that there had been no significant growth in his movement, did Trotsky nonetheless go ahead with this proclamation?

The answer lies in Trotsky’s theory of the ‘crisis of leadership’ of the proletariat. It was Trotsky’s conviction that both capitalism and Stalinism had reached an impossible impasse. The successful resolution of this crisis for all humanity depended entirely on the emergence of a new revolutionary leadership. In the inevitably approaching revolutionary situations the crucial factor would be the quality of the revolutionary leadership, and equally in such situations it would be possible for initially tiny organisations to rapidly gain a mass following and exercise a decisive influence on events.

The programme adopted at the founding conference, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, opens as follows:

The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat ... The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e. chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. [30]

The ‘crisis of leadership’ theory was a distillation of the revolutionary experience of a whole epoch, from the positive example of October 1917 through the negative examples of Hungary 1919, Italy 1920, Germany 1923 and 1933, China 1925–27 and Spain 1931–37. But this ‘general’ correctness of the theory does not exhaust the problem. Trotsky never for one moment claimed that the leadership created or ‘made’ the revolution (as for example some Guevarists have suggested), merely that it was a decisive link’ in the chain of events, the other primary components of the chain being the objective economic and political crisis of capitalism, the mass upsurge of the working class and the existence of a well prepared revolutionary party. But without this chain ‘the leadership’ would be isolated, suspended in a vacuum and relatively impotent, and its position would be worse insofar as it had an inflated or false picture of its own capabilities and significance. The problem for Trotsky was that when in September 1938 he founded the Fourth International (World Party of the Socialist Revolution), vital links in the chain did not exist. There was neither an upsurge of the working crass nor anywhere in the world a solidly-based revolutionary party.

Trotsky was naturally acutely aware of this. He ‘solved’ the problem by a series of predictions in which he forecast the inevitable emergence of the component links in the revolutionary chain in the near future.

Taken as a whole this amounted to a perspective in which

The epoch ... about to begin for European humanity will not leave a trace in the labour movement of all that is ambiguous and gangrened ... The sections of the Second and Third Internationals will depart the scene without a sound, one after the other. A new and grand regrouping of the workers’ ranks is inevitable. The young revolutionary cadres will acquire flesh and blood. [36]

For each of the predictions that made up this perspective there was much evidence, but the fact remains that every one of them was falsified by history. Preparations for the war began to lift capitalism out of the slump, and the ultimate crisis of the system diagnosed by Trotsky turned after the war into the system’s most sustained and spectacular boom. Stalin’s regime did not collapse in the war but emerged victorious and greatly strengthened, extending its control over the whole of Eastern Europe. [37] Far from ‘departing the scene without a sound,’ the social-democratic and communist parties gained, on the basis of these developments, a new lease of life throughout Europe. Imperialism was able, for the most part, to grant independence to the colonies through a deal with the colonial bourgeoisies, thus severing the connection between national liberation and proletarian revolution. The Fourth International was thus left high and dry. Trotsky had predicted:

During the next ten years the programme of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm heaven and earth. [38]

But when, ten years later in 1948, the Second World Congress of the Fourth International was convened, it still represented only tiny groups.

The falsification of Trotsky’s predictions rendered his abstractly correct theory of ‘crisis of leadership’ irrelevant for practical purposes. But let us assume that the perspective, in its essentials, had proved correct; would all then have been well? Would the tiny Fourth International have been able to assume leadership of the unfolding world revolutionary process confidently and guide it to victory? Of course such a question, like all historical ‘might-have-beens’, is strictly speaking unanswerable, but it is clear that at least two major problems, deriving from the decision to found the International, would have arisen.

Firstly, the Trotskyist groups were so small and weak (much weaker than, for example, the Bolsheviks as early as 1903, or the Spartacists in 1914, or Trotsky’s Mezhrayontsy group in 1917 [39]) that it would have been very hard for them to make themselves felt in the midst of a great revolutionary upheaval. A small party, it is true, can grow amazingly in time of revolution, but unless it possesses at the outset at least a certain size and viability, it is likely to be overwhelmed by events. This is the point of the long labour of party-building in the pre-revolutionary period. Trotsky hoped to overcome this difficulty by means of a system of ‘transitional demands’ which would enable the small group to relate to and spearhead the struggle of the masses. He wrote:

The strategic task of the next period ... consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard ... It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion; the conquest of power by the proletariat. [40]

But because Trotsky decided to proclaim the International without having a base in the working class, he was impelled to draw up these ‘transitional demands’ and formulate them in a fixed system, in isolation from and in advance of mass struggles. This was a false method. Demands which really stem from ‘today’s consciousness’ and actually lead to the ‘conquest of power’ cannot simply be drawn out of the head of a theoretician, no matter how brilliant, but must be the articulation of the struggles of the masses. For this there is required a party with roots to act as a two way transmission between the workers and the leadership. The Fourth International, however, was too weak to play this role. Trotsky’s ‘transitional programme’, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, was accepted without amendment and almost without discussion, but its demands – for a sliding scale of wages, for the opening of the books of big business, for the nationalisation of the banks, for the workers’ militia – were never taken up by the workers.

Nor is it possible, as Trotsky assumed, to predict accurately and draw up in advance the programme of the revolution. The overall lines of battle can be foreseen, but not the particular forms of the struggle, and yet it is on these particular forms that specific demands must be based. To lead the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks had to completely revise their programme, and even such basic slogans as ‘Down with the Provisional Government’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’ had at times to be withdrawn and then advanced again.

The second problem would have been that Trotsky’s perspective included a ‘new and grand regrouping of the workers’ ranks’. This would have been bound to occur through splits in the social-democratic and Stalinist parties and through the emergence of many new revolutionary and semi-revolutionary organisations. Yet Trotsky, by founding the International before any of these developments had taken place or even begun, was attempting to prejudge quite specifically the organisational form taken by this regroupment. In such circumstances the prior existence of an International of sects, with many sectarian habits, which these new organisations and movements would have been required to join, would most likely have constituted a serious obstacle to the creation of a genuine mass workers’ International.

In reviewing the question of the Fourth International and Trotsky’s theory of the party, it is useful to refer to words he wrote in 1928 (directed against the Stalinist policy of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee):

It is the worst and most dangerous thing if a manoeuvre arise out of the impatient opportunistic endeavour to outstrip the development of one’s own party and to leap over the necessary stages of its development (it is precisely here that no stages must be leaped over). [41]

The proclamation of the International may not have been opportunism, but it was certainly an attempt to outstrip the development of his own party. Essentially it was a grand gesture, the raising aloft of a spotless revolutionary banner. As such it played its part, along with the rest of Trotsky’s work, in keeping alive the flame of unfalsified marxism when it was all but extinguished, but it also bequeathed to the Trotskyist movement a false view of the role and nature of revolutionary leadership, a number of misconceptions about ‘the programme’ and ‘transitional demands’ and a host of illusions as to its own strength and significance.

3. The degeneration of the Fourth International

At this point it is important to look briefly at what happened to the Fourth International after Trotsky’s death, for it was then that the mistakes of Trotsky’s last years fully revealed themselves. In 1938 Trotsky had written:

If our International be still weak in numbers, it is strong in doctrine, programme, tradition, in the incomparable tempering of its cadres. Who does not perceive this today, let him in the meantime stand aside. Tomorrow it will become more evident. [42]

The rest of the ‘International leadership’, without serious experience in the labour movement and without any independent theoretical achievements to their credit, proved incapable of orientating themselves in a changing world.

It is one of the defects of an International without a base that its ‘world’ perspectives can depart ever further from reality without being subject to the test and check of practice, and this was exactly what happened. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the leadership of the Fourth International clung to its programme and announced the confirmation of its perspectives. At times this process became farcical, as when James P. Cannon, leader of the American Socialist Workers’ Party, wrote, six months after VE day:

Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think the war is over ... The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda. [43]

On other occasions the blindness was more serious, as when Ernest Mandel wrote in 1946:

There is no reason whatever to assume that we are facing a new epoch of capitalist stabilisation and development. On the contrary, the war has acted only to aggravate the disproportion between the increased productivity of the capitalist economy and the capacity of the world market to absorb it. [44]

In such a situation splits and splintering of the movement were inevitable. The issue which produced these splits and wrecked the International was the ‘Russian question’ and, deriving from it, the question of Eastern Europe. For Trotsky, Russia remained a workers’ state because of its nationalised property relations, but the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy was seen as reactionary at home and counter-revolutionary in the world arena. This last assumption was in fact the historical justification for the existence of the Fourth International. The communist conquest of Eastern Europe was completely excluded in this analysis, but once it occurred, another question arose which could not be avoided and could not be answered by reference to ‘the programme’: what was the class character of the East European communist states? Here the Trotskyist movement was caught on the horns of a dilemma. If the East European countries were workers’ states, then not only did this make nonsense of the view that Stalinism was counter-revolutionary, but also it contradicted the marxist theory of socialist revolution, for in almost all cases the working classes of Eastern Europe had played no part in their ‘emancipation’. If they remained capitalist, then how could the complete identity of their economic, social and political structure with that of the Soviet Union be explained? The only way out consistent with revolutionary marxism was to abandon the characterisation of Russia as a workers’ state [45], but this would have meant explicit revision of the sacred programme.

Instead the Fourth International zig-zagged and split. At first it tried to maintain the position of the ‘buffer-states’ being still capitalist, then under the impact of the 1948 Stalin-Tito split, it went over to the implicitly pro-Stalinist view that the Red Army had given birth to a string of ‘deformed workers’ states’. This was accompanied by an opportunistic attempt to flirt with Marshal Tito, and then, under the leadership of Michel Pablo, a massive lurch towards Stalinism which culminated in the theory that a new world war was approaching in which the Stalinist parties would be forced to radicalise themselves. From this Pablo drew the logical conclusion that the Trotskyist parties should dissolve themselves and resume the position of a left tendency within the communist parties. This whole process had been accompanied by innumerable splits and expulsions, but now a major break occurred. Large sections of the International, led by the American SWP, recoiled at this liquidationism and broke with the leadership – but it was merely Pablo’s conclusions that were rejected, not his premises. The International movement founded by Trotsky was now in ruins – theoretically, politically and organisationally.

The upshot of this whole sorry tale is that today there are at least four organisations claiming to be the Fourth International and numerous others trying to reconstruct it. In Britain alone there are now something in the region of a dozen ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist groups all of whom claim adherence to the ‘gospel’ of the 1938 programme.

Naturally the Leninist theory of the party, for so long defended by Trotsky, has not remained unscathed by this degeneration of Trotskyism. While all Trotskyist sects adhere to the letter of this theory, its ‘spirit’ has undergone two kinds of revision. The first could be characterised as extreme dogmatic sectarianism. In this variant the organisation, no matter how manifest its smallness and insignificance, proclaims and demands its right to the leadership of the working class. It defines itself as the revolutionary party not on the basis of its role in the class struggle but on the basis of its possession of the ‘correct theory’ and the ‘correct line’. Essentially the party is seen as separate, not only from the working class as a whole but also from the advanced workers. If, for Lenin, the party was both educator and educated, in this version of Trotskyism the party attempts to play schoolmaster to the working class. Internally such organisations tend to authoritarianism and witch-hunting and even at times to the cult of the leader. Externally they exhibit gross delusions of grandeur, paranoia and above all an inability to look reality in the face.

The second variation can be described as petty-bourgeois opportunism. Although ritual obeisance is paid on occasion to ‘the role of the working class’, the failure to achieve a base in the working class is, in practice, accepted as a fact of life and substitutes are sought. These substitutes range from movements in solidarity with the third world, to students in revolt, to black power, to women’s liberation, but all of them involve, a) remaining within and adapting to a petty-bourgeois milieu, and b) postponing to the indefinite future the central task of penetrating and organising the industrial working class. The sect thus comes to resemble an academic discussion group, with a premium on theoretical sophistication, which is absolutely uninhabitable for workers.

Both these versions of ‘Trotskyism’ rely heavily for their theory of the party on the theory of the early Lenin that socialism must be introduced into the working class from the outside, for both of them use it as an alibi and justification for their isolation from the working class. In fact, in the name of Lenin and Trotsky, they have arrived at a complete caricature of the authentic Leninist and Trotskyist theory of the party.

Of course it is unreasonable to hold Trotsky responsible for all the absurdities committed by his epigones. Nonetheless there is a certain continuity between the errors in his conception of the Fourth International and its later evolution. To employ a metaphor of Trotsky’s, the scratch in his theory of the party, produced by the desperate circumstances of the 1930s, became infected and led ultimately to the gangrene of abandoning the conception of the revolutionary party as the organisation of the advanced workers.


1. For an account of the basic causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution see Chris Harman, How the Revolution was Lost, International Socialism, No. 30.

2. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London 1967, p. 292.

3. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, op. cit., p. 76.

4. This rule prohibited party members earning over a certain maximum (approximately equal to the wage of a skilled worker). It was later secretly abolished by Stalin.

5. Trotsky, The New Course, Ann Arbor 1965.

6. ibid., p. 12.

7. ibid.

8. ibid., p. 21.

9. ibid., p. 25.

10. ibid., p. 51.

11. ibid., p. 29.

12. ibid., p. 28.

13. ibid., p. 27.

14. Max Shachtman, Introduction to Trotsky, The New Course, op. cit., p. 3.

15. The Platform of the Joint Opposition 1927, London 1973, pp. 62–63.

16. ibid., p. 113.

17. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op. cit., pp. 94–95.

18. ibid., p. 96.

19. ibid., p. 267.

20. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, London 1972, p. 51.

21. For Trotsky’s critique of international Communist policy (1924–39) see especially The Third International After Lenin, New York 1970, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Ann Arbor 1967, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, New York 1971 and The Spanish Revolution (1931–39), New York 1973.

22. See Trotsky, Introduction to Terrorism and Communism, Ann Arbor 1961.

23. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, New York 1971, p. 420.

24. Trotsky, Fighting Against the Stream, cited in Duncan Hallas, Against the Stream, International Socialism, No. 53 p. 36.

25. James P. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism, cited in ibid., p. 32.

26. Zimmerwald was the famous conference at which the internationalist social democrats regrouped themselves in 1915.

27. This tactic was known as the ‘French turn’ because it began with entry into the French Socialist Party, and was the inspiration for the tactic of entrism practised by many Trotskyist groups in later years.

28. See Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1966, pp. 136, 140.

29. Cited in Duncan Hallas, Against the Stream, op. cit.

30. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, op. cit., pp. 12–13.

31. ibid., p. 43.

32. ibid., p. 15.

33. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op. cit., p. 231.

34. ibid., p. 227.

35. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, op. cit., p. 43.

36. Trotsky, Introduction to the 1936 French edition of Terrorism and Communism; see Terrorism and Communism, Ann Arbor 1961, p. xxxv.

37. Trotsky’s prediction that the Stalinist regime would collapse in war was based on his view that the Soviet bureaucracy was not a fully fledged social class, but a parasitic caste, without deep roots in Russian society – it was he argued, ‘a policeman in the sphere of distribution’ (see The Revolution Betrayed, op. cit., p. 112) not a ‘ruling class indispensable to the given system of economy’ (see In Defence of Marxism, op. cit., p. 29). This characterisation followed from Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state. That the Stalinist bureaucracy demonstrated a totally unexpected stability and durability is one piece of evidence that Trotsky’s analysis was incorrect and that the bureaucracy is indeed a social class presiding over a state capitalist economic system. (See Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London 1974, especially pp. 166–68, and pp. 275–77.

38. Cited in Duncan Hallas, Against the Stream, op. cit., p. 37.

39. The Mezhrayontsy, or inter-borough organisation, had a somewhat larger membership in Petrograd alone than did most of the national sections of the Fourth International, yet in 1917 no-one doubted that it was too small to really influence events. Only by merging his organisation with the Bolsheviks was Trotsky able to participate effectively in the shaping of history.

40. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, op. cit., pp. 14–15.

41. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, New York 1970, p. 140.

42. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, op. cit., p. 58.

43. James P. Cannon, The Militant, 17 November 1945, p. 7, cited in Duncan Hallas, The Fourth International in Decline, International Socialism, No. 60, p. 17.

44. Cited in ibid., p. 19.

45. One who did take this step was Trotsky’s wife Natalia Sedova. Resigning from the Fourth International in 1951 she wrote:

Obsessed by old and outlived formulas, you continue to regard the Stalinist state as a workers’ state. I cannot and will not follow you in this ... Virtually every year after the beginning of the fight against the usurping Stalinist bureaucracy, L.D. Trotsky repeated that the regime was moving to the right ... if this trend continues, he said, the revolution will be at an end and the restoration of capitalism will be achieved ... That, unfortunately, is what has happened even if in new and unexpected forms ... you now hold that the states of Eastern Europe over which Stalinism established its domination during and after the war, are likewise workers’ states. This is equivalent to saying that Stalinism has carried out a revolutionary socialist role. I cannot and will not follow you in this. (Natalia Trotsky and the Fourth International, London 1972, pp. 9–10).

Another was Tony Cliff, who, in 1947, produced the first fully worked out analysis of state capitalism in Russia (See State Capitalism in Russia, op. cit.).

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