John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Monty Johnstone Archive

John Molyneux & Monty Johnstone

The relevance of Trotsky today

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review 82, December 1985, pp. 16–21.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

LEON TROTSKY was a revolutionary socialist throughout his politically active life – leader of the Red Army in Russia in 1917, Marxist theoretician, historian and leader of the Left Opposition in Russia against Stalin’s tyranny. On the left he has been held up by some as the custodian of revolutionary socialism after the death of Lenin. By others he was vilified as a counter-revolutionary.

At Marxism 85 this summer John Molyneux of the SWP and Monty Johnstone of the Communist Party discussed the relevance of Trotsky today. Here we reprint their introductions to the debate.

John Molyneux

TROTSKY’S life of over 40 years of struggle covered the most momentous years of the twentieth century, if not the most momentous years of the whole of history. His achievements mean that I can only cover the bare essentials.

The first essential is the question of Stalinism. On all the central facts of the nature of the Stalinist regime – the role of the KGB, the suppression of workers’ rights, the Moscow trial frame-ups – Trotsky has been vindicated by all the historical evidence. This will not be argued against by Monty Johnstone. (I might say that he and his Eurocommunist friends are about 50 years too late in recognising it!)

Trotsky’s central political conclusion from his critique of Stalinism was that to remove Stalinism, and for the USSR to progress towards socialism, would require a workers’ revolution. This has also been vindicated by history and experience.

The reform movement within the USSR has failed to bring more than the most mild liberalisation. And the experience of Eastern Europe, from Hungary to Czechoslovakia and most recently to Poland, makes it clear that the Stalinist state will use the most extreme repression against any movement which challenges its power.

Therefore we’re talking about progress towards workers’ democracy and from there to full socialism only through revolution, as did Trotsky.

Monty Johnstone has argued that all we can realistically hope for is a young person, preferably Gorbachev, and a programme of reform from above. We in the Trotskyist tradition argue that what we hope for and will see is a mass movement of workers to liberate themselves in the USSR as we saw in Poland – and that this time it will be successful.

But the main point is that Stalinism not only destroyed workers’ power in USSR but also discredited and distorted socialism on a world scale by the image it offered to workers of socialism. The fact, therefore, that Stalinism was resisted on a principled Marxist basis by Trotsky, one of the revolution’s pre-eminent leaders, is of tremendous historical significance.

Of course, Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism and his struggle against it is only one aspect of Trotsky’s revolutionary value.

In my opinion, his greatest contribution – greater even than his organisational leadership of the October revolution and his leadership of the Red Army – was the fact that he maintained an all-round defence and development of genuine revolutionary Marxism in the 1930s.

This period, to quote Isaac Deutscher, was ‘hell black night’. Victor Serge described it as ‘Midnight in the Century’. It was a period in which the pressures to capitulate to Stalinism on the one hand, to social democracy on the other, were enormous. And Trotsky was basically alone in defending the basics of Marxism and Leninism in that period.

WHAT WERE the fundamental principles of Marxism that Trotsky defended? First, the core, the key role of the working class as the agents of socialist change. For Trotsky that was the starting point.

It was the principle he adopted when at the age of 18 he separated himself off from the Narodniks and became a Marxist in 1897.

It was the heart of his theory of permanent revolution that he developed in 1905–6 – the notion that the working class could take power not only in the advanced countries but also in backward Russia and later also in what we call today the third world.

It was at the heart of his theory of the struggle against fascism – how to beat fascism by uniting the working class. It was at the heart of Trotsky’s transitional programme of 1938 which, despite its mistakes, showed that only the working class can solve the crisis of capitalism, only the working class can solve the crisis of humanity.

Is this idea relevant today? Some argue that it is an outdated view. If you look around the world today you see a working class growing, living and struggling. You see it in the far east in South Korea, in the far west in South America, in the far north in the general strike in Denmark, in the far south in South Africa. The working class is not on the way out – it remains the agent of socialist change.

Meanwhile, all attempts to create socialism with forces other than the working class have failed miserably.

That is why we disagree with Trotsky on his analysis of the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s view of it as a degenerated workers’ state was based on the criteria of the nationalisation of the means of production and a planned economy. What subsequent historical events have shown is that if you stick with those criteria alone you are led progressively away from the view that only the working class can make a socialist revolution.

You are led to believe that other social forces can substitute for the working class.

We in the SWP argue that it was necessary to break from the letter of Trotsky on that question in order to remain faithful to the real spirit of Trotsky’s political writing and activity – the centrality of the working class.

The second fundamental principle of Marxism that Trotsky defended was internationalism. This is true through his theory of permanent revolution which took as its starting point the development of Russia as part of the combined and uneven development of the world economy; through his revolutionary opposition to the First World War; through his participation in the early years of the Communist International when he drafted its manifestos; through his opposition to the theory of socialism in one country from 1924 onwards; and through his struggle for the Fourth International. Trotsky, more than any other Marxist since Lenin, embodies this principle of internationalism.

But Trotsky’s internationalism was never simply a moral standpoint. It always had a materialist foundation. It was based like Marxism on the fact of a capitalist world economy.

Is that internationalism relevant today? It is more relevant than ever.

Capital is more international. The interconnections of the different economies are closer, more developed than they ever were before.

Any notion of socialism in one country, The British Road to Socialism, or any other national road to socialism, is more of a pipe dream, more of a reactionary Utopia than ever in the past.

Conversely, the internationalisation of capitalism means the possibilities of spreading the revolution from one country to another are similarly enhanced. Therefore Trotsky’s internationalism is vindicated.

The third fundamental principle – revolution rather than reform. The necessity to smash the existing capitalist state rather than to take it over and use it. This principle was established by Marx after the civil war in France as a result of the experience of the Paris Commune. It was rediscovered and reinforced by Lenin in his great work, State and Revolution. It was the principle upon which the British CP, like every other CP in the Communist International was founded. Trotsky always defended that principle.

Is this idea relevant today? Look at the experience of the miners’ strike. Look at the force which the state was prepared to use to beat the miners. And that was on the question of whether some pits would close. What would they be prepared to use if the issue was not the closure of pits, but the closure of capitalism? Would they sit back and allow a parliamentary road to socialism, a peaceful road? The question answers itself, and therefore Trotsky is vindicated on that question too.

On the question of reformism, Trotsky is the author of one of the most brilliant and devastating attacks on the tradition of British reformism and British labourism that has been written in the twentieth century.

If people had read his writing on Britain in the 1920s, on the likes of Ramsay MacDonald or George Lansbury, I think we would have had much less surprise with the behaviour of Neil Kinnock or Ken Livingstone.

The fourth principle – the revolutionary party, Lenin’s great contribution to Marxism. Trotsky was wrong on this question prior to the revolution, but in 1917 he learnt his lessons well and from that period on, he never deviated from the essential role of the revolutionary party. Without a revolutionary party there can be no victory for the socialist revolution.

Above all, following Lenin, Trotsky defended the independence of the revolutionary party from all reformist, middle class, bourgeois parties and social forces. He defended it in relation to Britain at the time of the general strike when the British Communist Party was led into a position of dependence on the trade union leaders as a result of the Anglo/Soviet Trade Union Committee.

He defended the independence of the revolutionary party in relation to China in 1925–7. He defended it again on the question of the independence of the whole working class movement from bourgeois forces in the period of the Popular Front in the 1930s.

THE ASPECT of Trotsky’s thought which has the most immediate relevance to British politics now is his critique of the whole idea of cross-class alliances against the right wing. In relation to the Popular Front in Spain and France in the 1930s, Trotsky argued that an alliance of all democratic forces, all progressive bourgeois forces with the working class against fascism would – fare from strengthening the working class and weakening the fascists – simply succeed in holding back the working class and enabling the fascists and the right wing to win. He wrote:

‘The theoreticians of the popular front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition. “Communists” and socialists and anarchists and liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram we know that the resultant is shorter, the more the component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant may prove equal to zero.’

He goes on to say:

‘The political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.’

In other words, the price of establishing an alliance of the working class on the one hand, and sections of the middle class and political parties linked with the bourgeoisie on the other hand is always a dampening down, a holding back, a restraining of the fighting strength of the working class.

An alliance which is meant in theory to isolate the ruling class ends up delivering the working class to that ruling class on a plate. That was Trotsky’s analysis of Spain in 1936, and it proved right then. It is still relevant today.

In fact, Trotsky’s words fit the thinking of large sections of the left of the Labour Party and the CP like a glove. It certainly fits Neil Kinnock. Kinnock’s thinking does not go beyond arithmetic – the arithmetic of counting votes and seats in parliament. It fits the CP whose arithmetic does not go beyond the counting up of movements.

The political price of such an alliance is also the same – the price of an alliance with Kinnock is stabbing the miners in the back and abandoning the struggle against rate-capping. The price of the Broad Democratic Alliance is reduced to the claim that the miners picketed too much and too vigorously. Always the price is that the working class must hold back and moderate its struggle. If Eric Hobsbawm has his way the price may well be Dr David Owen – which is too high a price for any of us to pay.

To conclude. Trotsky, in the 40 years of his life as a revolutionary, made many mistakes. We, in the SWP, have not been reluctant to point out, to disclose and expose those mistakes. But those mistakes pale without any doubt into insignificance when one compares them with his extraordinary achievements – the achievement of maintaining and developing revolutionary Marxism.

Trotsky is not only relevant for revolutionaries today, he is in fact indispensable.

Monty Johnstone

THERE IS no doubt that Trotsky was one of the major socialist figures of the 20th century. His life and works should be studied critically from the standpoint of Marxism. This was the framework within which Trotsky worked and fought from his first years in the Marxist socialist workers’ movement, in 1897 until he was murdered by an agent of Stalin in Mexico in 1940.

When assessing Trotsky it is necessary to get away both from the demonology of Stalinism and the Moscow trial frame-ups, which persists in certain small circles around the world, as well as from the uncritical cultism of the bulk of his followers.

It should be said that the SWP did take the first steps of getting away from uncritical Trotsky cultism when they disputed Trotsky’s characterisation of the Soviet Union. It is only unfortunate that they were wrong on that point!

I want to start by going to the crux of the disagreements between us – the conception of revolution to which most of his supporters and semi-supporters attach the greatest significance.

The trouble is that while he was a very great revolutionary leader, he saw the strategy for Western revolutions through the prism of the October revolution, believing that Western Europe would, of necessity, take the same road as Russia did in the soviet insurrection.

Even when in the 1930s the new phenomenon of fascism threatened to atomise the working class movement (as he recognised in his correct criticisms of the Comintern’s line in the Third Period), his conception of the alliances needed to defeat fascism was frozen in the experience of 1917 and in the line of the first four congresses of the International to which he urged a return.

He stressed, quite rightly, the need for a workers’ united front, but he failed to understand that the emergence of fascism, with its threat to the very basis of democratic liberties that had been won over a century by the working class, necessitated broadening that unity in order to prevent a victory of fascism – broadening it into a people’s front around the unity of the working class as the core of such a unity.

And he misrepresented the efforts of the working class movement, which succeeded in the case of France and Spain for a certain period, in developing a working unity with anti-fascist sections of the petit bourgeoisie, of the peasantry, and of the bourgeoisie itself. Trotsky designated this as an alliance with the bourgeoisie. In fact, in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International he makes the extraordinary statement: ‘ “People’s fronts” on the one hand – fascism on the other: these are the last political resources of imperialism in the struggle against the proletarian revolution.’

To equate fascism, which seeks to destroy the very basis of the democratic liberties won under capitalism, with the popular front, which sought to defend them, seems to me to be utterly and totally unrealistic and irresponsible. In fact, when you are faced with the danger of fascism, as they were in Spain in the 1930s you want to split the class enemy and, under the leadership of the working class, ally with those sections of the middle strata, and even of the bourgeoisie itself, which are prepared to oppose fascism.

The simple fact is that you would have had a right wing government in France and Spain in 1936 had there not been a popular front which had united the workers’ parties with the left wing Republican parties. The victory of the popular front unleashed an enormous revolutionary enthusiasm which carried forward the whole momentum to the left – something which Trotsky totally failed to recognise.

The weakness in Trotsky was well summed up by Krupskaya in 1924 when she wrote:

‘When Comrade Trotsky speaks of Bulgaria or Germany, he concerns himself but little with the correct estimation of the moment. If we regard events through Comrade Trotsky’s spectacles, it appears exceedingly simple to guide events.

‘The capacity for a deeper, more subtle, Marxist analysis in all its national specificities was never Trotsky’s strong point.’

Trotsky’s writings on Spain 12 years later provide a most eloquent confirmation of Krupskaya’s words.

On 30 July 1936 Trotsky produced his simple formula guaranteed to bring results within a day.

He wrote:

‘The Spanish revolution can even take the army away from its reactionary officers. To accomplish this, it is only necessary to seriously and courageously advance the programme of socialist revolution ... The fascist army could not resist the influence of such a programme for 24 hours; the soldiers would tie their officers hand and foot and turn them over to the nearest headquarters of the workers’ militia.’

Just two weeks later he was to write to the representative of the Trotskyist movement in Barcelona: ‘The level of information reaching me from Spain stands at zero’! He could thus not make what Lenin emphasised was the essential thing for every Marxist revolutionary – a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. He was proceeding from assumptions derived from the situation in the October revolution of 1917 and assuming that policies based on what happened then would be appropriate under totally different conditions – fighting fascism in Spain.

And it was from the same position of isolation and ignorance (which was certainly not his fault) that he proclaimed on 9 June 1936 that ‘the French revolution has begun’ and he claimed to know the way it could be won on the basis of the slogan ‘Soviets Everywhere’.

Trotsky’s analysis rested, in the case of his positions taken in the 1930s on a sort of extremism, voluntarism, which admittedly was accentuated by the conditions he was in. But there was a deeper basis for this sort of voluntarism, which goes back to Trotsky’s outlook before the First World War and which Trotsky only temporarily overcame with the more realistic positions taken with Lenin in the early years of the Communist International. Trotsky, at the end of his life, would refer to the ‘fatalistic optimism’ responsible for his opposition to the Bolshevik party before 1917. He assumed that the masses would find their way to revolution without the hard graft of building up a centralised working class party. There was in Trotsky a strong element of economism – an assumption that the development of capitalism would inevitably lead the working class to take these positions.

There was also (Trotsky was not alone in this) a failure to understand the importance of other movements, not class-based movements – feminism, anti-racism, ethnic, community and peace movements of the greatest possible breadth.

ON THE question of the party, John Molyneux said that Trotsky moved after 1917 to an absolutely correct Leninist position. I don’t believe this is true at all. Although the form of his fatalistic optimism changed after 1917, it is reflected in a different way in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International of 1938, in which he assumed that spontaneously ‘the multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution’.

When such revolutions failed, Trotsky deduced that ‘each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines,’ including the CPs. He concluded: ‘The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.’

It seems to me that anyone who analyses the real working class – in Britain today, with all its class struggles, must recognise that there is not a socialist consciousness. Socialist consciousness needs to be developed and worked for by a revolutionary party. We need to understand that conditions in Western European countries with a developed civil society are different from the conditions in Tsarist Russia.

It’s a question of moving towards revolution, but it’s a question of moving towards it in ways which correspond to the realistic opportunities that exist in Western Europe, which are quite different from those which existed in Russia. Neither Trotsky, nor his followers, nor his semi-, or three-quarter followers in the SWP, adequately understand this.

I agree that there is much in Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism which is important and valuable. But at the same time that critique was put within a framework which was incorrect in terms of the understanding of the dynamic of development. The idea that it is impossible to go forward in countries like Russia except by some kind of political revolution fails to understand the dynamic of development in countries which produced, for example in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Prague Spring. This was not a political revolution in the Trotskyist sense. It was an example of the working people, led by the CP, insisting that the revolution which they’d made after the war matched its practice to its theory giving a great extension of democracy combined with the existing socialist ownership of the means of production. It seems to me that is the kind of perspective which was not recognised by Trotsky and the whole process of de-Stalinisation could not take the form that Trotsky envisaged.

However, I do believe that his criticisms of Stalin gave important elements that we can learn from. These include his emphasis on criticising the nationalistic elements which manifested themselves in Stalinism – his deep commitment to internationalism. Unfortunately these took forms which failed to analyse the specificity of the national within the international framework.

This is shown by John when he dismisses The British Road to Socialism – as though there were some kind of contradiction between attempting to outline a strategy of advance within a given country in keeping with the specific historical conditions of that country, and the internationalist perspective of socialism which is a crucial part of our whole socialist heritage.

FINALLY, on the positive side I do believe that the evolution of Trotsky’s views in the 1930s on socialist pluralism are of importance and of relevance to Marxism today. The October revolution and its Bolshevik leaders did not have any intention of establishing a one-party system in Russia.

However, in the period from 1921 when you had the banning, under particular historical conditions, of other political parties, Trotsky was the person who defended this with the most brutal frankness.

Nonetheless subsequent events and experiences in the USSR in the 1930s led him to adopt, to his credit, a new analysis. In his pamphlet, Stalinism and Bolshevism, of 1937, he wrote:

‘As far as the prohibition of the other soviet parties is concerned, it did not flow from any “theory” of Bolshevism but was a measure of the dictatorship in a backward and devastated country.’

In The Revolution Betrayed he strongly criticised Stalin’s conception of a one-party system as a necessary feature of socialism and he replied (20 years before this approach was taken by the CP when it amended its programme after the 20th Congress):

‘In reality classes are heterogenous; they are torn by inner antagonisms and arrive at the solution of common problems not otherwise than through an inner struggle of tendencies, groups and parties.’

In this and other articles he showed himself in this respect to be a sort of early ‘Eurocommunist’.

Trotsky’s heritage is a rich and varied one which combines both strengths and weaknesses. My impression is that the politics we have all suffered over recent years have tended to make more people prepared to approach matters in the spirit of trying to get a balanced view. And seeing that it is not a question of taking all of Trotsky or of rejecting all of Trotsky, but approaching matters from the point of view of a more Marxist approach and seeing what is positive and also, from the point of view of Marxism, what is negative.

John Molyneux Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Monty Johnstone Archive

Last updated: 19.9.2013