Further Considerations on Trotskyism – And Some Responses to Jim Dye and His Not Very Critical Defence of It
From New Interventions, Vol.4 No.1, 1993
Provoking People to Think
If I was that clever I would hope that I would have attained a great influence by now and be taken a lot more seriously by opponents. I certainly do have ideas of a positive nature, but I have found over a long time that one must provoke people into thinking for themselves – it is not enough to tell them to listen to me.
The communist experiment collapsed. If we wish to re-root communism in the working class it requires that we submit the experience to a thorough-going examination. Trotskyism posed as an alternative to Stalinism; the question is, was it a coherent alternative or merely one critical current taking up aspects only, instead of being the alternative? Did the Fourth International have a future at all following Trotsky’s break with the Comintern? I answer those questions in the negative, and I went back to sketch my reasons for making that judgement. Jim, however, takes the opposite view. Let us have another look. Before I set out my contribution, I thank Jim for submitting a written reply which is far better than the usual tirade of verbal or textual abuse from others.
The Fourth International
Since writing my two original texts, I have found more evidence of something fishy in Trotzkismus in der Schweiz, by David Vogelsanger (Zurich 1986). Referring to the FI foundation conference, and the opposition of the Poles, he writes: ‘... relatively important Trotskyist groups such as those from France or Austria, owing to their opposition to such an immediate proclamation, took no part at all’ (p.44). The MAS – the Swiss grouping – had sent delegates to the two preparatory conferences in 1933 and 1936, but the news of the founding already in 1938, ‘although no mass Trotskyist parties existed yet ... at first surprised the members.... But in contrast to the Trotskyist groups in some countries it eventually agreed on the foundation, as Trotsky had energetically demanded’ (p.165). Although originally invited by Klement, the MAS would not be present. Klement was murdered and then, giving reasons of security, it was limited by the organisers to ‘only just over twenty delegates [who] met for only one day’ (p.166).
Writing of the two major disputes in the movement – the giving up of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ and the foundation of the FI – David Vogelsanger writes that in the MAS also ‘both questions were intensely discussed’, the latter owing to no one ‘being able to conceive of any International without mass parties’, although ‘it did not come, as in many other countries, to splits or even to complete expulsion of the Trotskyist group from the International’ (p.179). Vogelsanger’s description of the FI’s founding causing major controversy differs from the official view of unanimity apart from a few malcontents.
It seems to me that an investigation of who was invited and who wasn’t, and what if anything they represented, is called for. We know what occurred with the WIL and the way J.P. Cannon operated in Britain. Anything such a Zinovievist bureaucrat as Cannon dealt with needs closer examination.
The October Revolution
Bolshevism in Power and Repression
Victor Serge, in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, recounts much of the dishonest, cynical, inhumane, ruthless and undemocratic methods of Bolshevism in power, which he saw at first hand. Participating in the discussion prior to the Tenth Congress of the RCP(B) over the role of the trade unions, he says: ‘I took part in the discussion in one of the districts of Petrograd, and was horrified to see the voting rigged for Lenin’s and Zinoviev’s "majority"’ (p.123). He also recounts how the Kronstadt events were lied about.
Leonard Schapiro sees the Tenth Congress as being rigged in various ways by Zinoviev, who used it to weaken and discredit Trotsky too. ‘Lenin ... still at the height of his vigour, stage-managed the Congress from start to finish’ (Government and Opposition, Vol.1, No.2, 1967, p.187). Schapiro, describing the dissent over the unions, claims that ‘Mensheviks and other non-communists were excluded by force, and by rigged elections’ (ibid., p.186). Having read the minutes of the Tenth Congress, in Russian only, Schapiro writes: ‘Lenin never actually said that the restrictions on factions was to be temporary, but he may well ... have conveyed that impression’, and believes that ‘[h]is management of the Congress ... was certainly far from scrupulous’ (ibid., p.189). The resolutions banning factions the party and denouncing the Workers Opposition were not part of the Congress agenda but introduced after it had ended when ‘at least a quarter of [the] delegates had already left’ (ibid., p.188).
These methods were used inside the party, where, surely, according to Jim’s belief, every member expressed the ‘real interests’ of the proletariat in their actions. Perhaps he will now qualify this statement to only refer to the CC, or perhaps only a couple its members? Obviously, these methods were used because Lenin et al. did not trust the party members, not to speak of the proletariat and peasantry in whose name he allegedly acted. By that time, as acknowledged by historians, any free expression by the masses would have replaced ‘the party’ by a socialist coalition of SRs and Mensheviks.
Schapiro, talking of the other socialist parties, writes: ‘... every conceivable kind of fraud and violence was used ... against them to make the exercise of their nominal rights impossible. The position was perhaps best expressed by Lenin in July 1918 in a private communication to the local Bolsheviks at Elets: "It is a pity you have not arrested them [the Left-SRs, that is] as is being done everywhere.... We cannot of course give you written authorisation ... but if you drive them out of Soviet organs, if you arrest them ... we in the centre ... will only praise you for it"’ (ibid., p.183 – See Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol.23, p.558, Russian 2nd and 3rd editions). Yet Jim tells us that ‘the Red Terror slowly took shape always in response to attacks on the fragile Soviet regime’. The ‘Soviet regime’ was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. ‘Many of the Anarchists ... had to be suppressed when they too began to fight for the overthrow of the Bolsheviks’, Jim writes. It was Makhno’s Anarchist army which defended Soviet power and defeated Denikin in the southern Ukraine after the Red Army forces disintegrated.
Some Anarchists might have talked of revolting. Most did not oppose the Soviet regime, but like Makhno opposed a ‘one-party state’. Jim conveniently, after seeing off the Anarchists, puts all the other parties ‘in the camp of White reaction’. It isn’t true. Some Right SRs joined White governments, but not the mainstream. Individual Mensheviks who joined White governments were expelled by the Menshevik CC. Not all Cadets (Liberals) would ally with a reactionary White government.
Jim quotes from Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, to defend terrorism and the Cheka. Not a book many would identify with today, in which Trotsky described the Cheka as shooting ‘landlords, capitalists, and generals ... striving to restore the capitalist order’. The Cheka was very quickly corrupted, and it attracted dubious self-seekers and even sadists. It shot many innocents and did not restrict itself to the class enemy. We know that people die in civil war and revolution, but left-wing objections to the Cheka pointed out its arbitrariness and lack of democratic control.
Stalinism was more than ‘a response to the material poverty of Russia’, and the other objective factors Jim mentions. I do not see a qualitative shift from the regime of Lenin-Trotsky to that of Stalin, but one of quantity. The same methods of political struggle were used before Stalin established his rule, but they were limited in degree (at first party members were not excluded, later it was permitted, but death was ruled out, and subsequently it too was permitted). There is a ‘straight line’ and given the material circumstances the protagonists operated within it, it did go in a foreseeable direction, though none of them realised how far when starting out.
According to Jim, there was nothing wrong with the political concepts of the Bolsheviks and their methods; if they can be faulted at all, these faults were predetermined by objective conditions. ‘There was no alternative’, he tells us, the standard Trotskyist argument. (Walter Kendall described this belief as ‘revolutionary Thatcherism’, quite aptly I thought.) Whereas I believe, on the contrary, these concepts are a departure from Marxism and result from the development of Russian Social Democracy in a backward environment. The human material making the revolution itself was primitive. The leaders were – largely – a small kernel of intellectuals, who found themselves propelled into the government of this mainly Asiatic patchwork of countries. They believed they could attain the goals of communism by methods which its founders would have opposed. They created a monster instead.
Lenin, Trotsky, Kautsky & Co.
Jim identifies the ‘fatalism’ and ‘catastrophism’ of the capitalism breakdown theory taken into the Comintern from the Second International. I never claimed that Trotsky differed from Lenin here. But a closer look shows that Trotsky’s views shifted from the view expounded in 1921 during the Third Comintern Congress, back to the mechanical Kautskyism one in Whither Russia, not to mention that in the Transitional Programme (see Ernest Mandel, Trotsky, 1979 for details). To be fair, he was no economist, but was adept at drawing out the political consequences of economic analyses made by others. Varga did that in the Comintern. The FI lacked an economist. In fact, in David Vogelsanger’s possession is a letter from Fritz Sternberg – ‘the SAP economic theoretician very highly esteemed by Trotsky’ – of 1 October 1933, to Trotsky, where he agrees to draft economic theses for the FI programme, (Trotzkismus in der Schweiz, p.253, note 2.93). I would think that knowing the low opinion of the SAP in Trotskyist circles this revelation that the ‘leadership of the World Party of Revolution’ had to rely on such a centrist to draft the basis for its programme would cause great shame and bit more modesty, apart from revealing its pretensions for the fraud they were.
Rosa Luxemburg’s concerns about an International dominated by the Bolsheviks turned out right. Jim believes that ‘Lenin hoped that the Second Congress would be able to take place in Berlin’, etc., but ‘objective circumstances’ did not permit it. In politics one should note what people do not what they say. Willi Münzenberg led the Socialist Youth League during the war. He reconstituted it as the Communist Youth International in November 1919 in Berlin. On its first birthday it claimed 800,000 members in 45 countries. ‘When therefore it held its second congress at Jena in April 1921, the Comintern had become alive to its importance. At the same time the ECCI issued peremptory instructions that the Jena discussions were to be regarded as "not binding", and the congress be transferred to Moscow.’ (See R.N. Carew Hunt, ‘Willi Münzenberg’, in St Anthony’s Papers No.9, ed. David Footman, London 1960, p.75.) After its congress the whole outfit was shifted to Moscow and Münzenberg was moved to other work. Having an independent basis in the movement he built himself, he was undoubtedly seen as a threat to Bolshevik control over the youth. And if one examines the methods whereby the Bolsheviks undermined any native CP leadership giving them trouble, one of them was propelling ultra-left and/or careerist elements from the YCI against it.
A detailed study of how the CI undermined Paul Levi’s leadership of the KPD is found in ‘The Bolshevisation of the Spartacus League’ by Richard Löwenthal (St Anthony’s Papers No.9, pp.23-71). The CI set out to discredit Levi, split his leadership into ‘right’ and ‘left’ groupings, whip up the ultra-left critics whose policies it opposed (R. Fischer, Ernst Friesland, etc.), and to cultivate links with the KAPD, a rival and ultra-left party (the KAPD was invited to the Second Comintern Congress against the protests of the KPD, not by the ECCI but by the RCP(B) politburo), in order to pressure him from outside. It was even cultivating elements within the USPD before it split to use against Levi. Löwenthal mentions Wilhelm Herzog, the left-USPD editor, who was primed to build an anti-Levi group in the USPD Left during the Second CI Congress, which would unite with the corresponding KPD(S) group. This was in July 1920.
Levi was removed (see ‘Paul Levi and His Significance’, New Interventions, Vol.2, No.4, for details). Among other things, to recreate a healthy CP in Germany, he had posed the necessity for financial independence. Friesland (Reuter), convinced by Lenin to give up his ultra-left posture at the Third CI Congress, became General Secretary of the KPD. A few months later, discovering that the ECCI agents were in no way controlled by the KPD, his efforts to rectify the position would lead to his exit too (see the chapter on it in Stillborn Revolution by Werner T. Angress, 1963, or the revised and extended German edition of 1973). By this time Zinoviev had his personal man in the KPD CC (Kleine-Guralski), ensuring that his view was known and that he was able, if required, to organise a revolt to advance it.
Löwenthal sees the ‘Bolshevisation’ (i.e. control) as complete in 1921, but one would see the Brandler-Thalheimer leadership destroyed in 1923, and then the Maslow-Fischer leadership in 1925, before a totally tame one would be created.
Levi raised the corrupting effect of financial dependence in 1921. (Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921, 1969, takes up its role regarding the CPGB foundation.) The Wittorf Case in Hamburg showed how corrupting it became. This led to a broad platform of demands from the Brandler group for the re-introduction of democracy, accountability and control, all abolished as a part of ‘Bolshevisation’. The Platform der KPO, adopted in 1930, in regard to finance says: ‘Question 190: Which aims must be set out for the struggle to make the party healthy again? Answer: ... (g) The material independence of the party: The adaptation of its apparatus to the financial means and the staff which the party can itself provide’ (p.71). Questions 191-194 dealt with the CI. They raise points such as a real collective leadership, its real control by the sections and indeed by the mass of the membership, and elections of the national leaderships from below, delegates to international congresses also, after proper discussion of the issues on the agenda, etc.
Jim see nothing wrong with the CI as conceived by Bolshevism, apart from a few unspecified political positions. This is the standard Trotskyist posture. It was OK until Stalin came along. Trotsky himself made no criticism of the concept of the Comintern as a ‘top-down’ enterprise with the Bolsheviks running it. I’m not aware of any call from him for fundamental changes as advanced by the Platform der KPO, for example.
The intervention of the CI in Scandinavia is another story. Especially in relation to the Swedish CP (SKP) and the Norwegian Workers Party (DnA), and a rich literature exists in Norway about it, while in Sweden one has the memoirs of Zeth Hoglund, for example. Hoglund stood with Lenin at Zimmerwald and was a member of the ECCI, and in that capacity he saw all the splits created by the Comintern in all the Scandinavian CI sections. He opposed them, and eventually, in 1924, was expelled along with the SKP CC majority. Moskva tur och retur, his fourth volume of memoirs (published in 1960 and assembled by his daughter Gunhild), relates how parties were split, independent leaders forced out, weaker ones corrupted and tamed, from 1922-1924. Behind all this was the belief that the CP leaders had to adopt in toto the Russian lesson, and to accept the ECCI wisdom all the time. Thus, new leaders were required who were prepared to do as they were told. Much of this is compressed in a remarkable study of Bukharin: Nikolaj Bucharin och den Skandinaviska Arbetarrorelsen, by Alexander Kan, 1991, which has been translated in to German by Theodor Bergmann (Nikolai Bucharin und die Skandinavische Arbeiterbewegung, Mainz, 1993), in which the author could add materials from the now accessible Comintern archives. As well as filling in the holes in other Bukharin studies, especially concerning his activities and influence during World War I, it throws light on his role within the Comintern in general and regarding Scandinavia in particular.
This new research backs up the latest claims (see Aufstieg und Zerfall der Komintern, ed. Theodor Bergmann and Mario Kessler, Mainz 1992) that Bukharin was a willing protagonist in the left-turn of the Comintern at its Eighth ECCI Plenum, May 1927, which began the sectarian view of Social Democracy and the abandonment of the United Front, which would be sharpened up in 1928. The evidence explodes the view of Bukharin as being unwillingly dragged along by Stalin; he was a protagonist of splits and expulsions in the Scandinavian CPs throughout the 1920s.
Trotsky’s critique of the ‘Revolutionary Offensive’ theory, the March Action, the Red Army exportation of revolution into Poland in 1920, his stand on the United Front in 1921, his original refusal to scapegoat Brandler in 1923, etc., show his superior grasp of reality over his rivals in the summit of the RCP(B), but he never made any objection to the fundamental conception of the CI, and the FI would be modelled on it. Indeed, the way it decamped to New York shortly after foundation, the dubious ‘emergency conference’ purging of the Shachtmanites from its Executive, all smell of the Comintern at its most degenerate. Thus, today, when the archives are open, and the methods and thinking behind them can be examined, to continue uncritically proclaiming the correctness of such thoughts and deeds is to insist on going round in circles instead of seeking a way forward.
Jim quotes chunks of Luxemburg, and we can have a discussion on her errors too, but he ignores the quotations I used. In her 1918 booklet she criticised the ‘Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship’, as being a ‘bourgeois’ one, and forecast that it would lead to a ‘bureaucracy’ ruling. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat for her was the elevation of the working class to power, not a little minority acting in its name. Socialism arises out of conscious action by the class, its ‘great majority’, and is not decreed from on high. That was what distinguished Marxism from ‘state socialism’. She elaborated this theme in her programme for the Spartakusbund. Her pupil Paul Levi was motivated by the same concept, as were her other pupils such as Brandler and Thalheimer. This why, for them, the United Front was not a manoeuvre but a component of a strategical conception which, combined with transitional politics, wins a majority of the class for communism by raising consciousness, not via some outside force but through its own activity. The Platform der KPO expresses the same theme as Luxemburg’s programme.
‘Question 81: What are the preconditions required for the victory of the proletarian revolution? Answer: The existence of a sufficiently strong Communist Party which has generally won the majority of the working class for the principles and aims of communism and the sympathy of the majority of the working people. The Communist Party can only undertake the armed uprising supported by this majority’ (Platform ..., p.32).
I would welcome a discussion on the Constituent Assembly in Russia and Luxemburg’s attitude towards it, as well as her other ‘errors’, as I have not seen them tackled seriously. Jim has made a start, but I did not make use of them in my articles but instead focused on the dictatorship question. Anyway, once the National Assembly was a reality in Germany, Luxemburg posed the need for the workers to supersede it via their own experience, and this method is no different to her attitude towards it in Russia. For those who ridicule the idea of a broader based government in Russia, or instituting a form other than the Bolshevik Party rule – of course, the Soviets had ceased to exist in reality – they may be interested in the following information. The research for Alexander Kan’s Bukharin study unearthed a plan drafted by him, suggested originally by L.B. Krassin, for some form of Constituent Assembly composed of elected representatives of social and trade union organisations, both communist and politically neutral, but loyal to Soviet power. Professional bodies of lawyers and engineers, for example, would have had a role. Lenin approved of it, but the idea was shelved as it might be seen by the imperialist powers as a weakening of the regime. That was in the last quarter of 1921 (see Nikolai Bucharin und ..., p.55).
Levi created a genuine KPD by his patience. He resisted attempts to split Comintern adherents from the USPD prematurely. He resisted the 21 Conditions as not being a political, but a mechanical, way of splitting parties. The split in the USPD at Halle resulted in only 280,000 or so of its members fusing with the KPD, while 340,000 stayed with the USPD and 350,000 dropped out. If the impatient elements had done it their way the CI would have had fewer adherents from Halle. In a study of the CI and the USPD by Dieter Engelmann, in Aufstieg und Zerfall ... figures of only 144,000 for and 91,000 against accepting the 21 Conditions are given (26% of USPD membership). This low figure is explained by Engelmann as the majority of members being repelled by the dispute between brothers and, anyway, in 1920 they had other concerns than to quarrel over the 21 Conditions (see Aufstieg und Zerfall ..., p.34).
The 21 Conditions were adopted in 1920 at the Second Congress of the CI, at a time when even Lenin was carried away by wishful thinking (i.e. the invasion of Poland) and failed to recognise, as Levi and Radek for example had, that the post-war revolutionary wave was over. Lenin saw this in 1921, but tragically did not revise the sectarian 21 Conditions. They helped to destroy the Italian socialist movement, created splits in Sweden, pushed the DnA out of the CI, and by then had split the German movement asunder. Trotsky opposed such a schematic and sectarian method during World War I, and he advised caution in Norway, but seems to have upheld the method thereafter.
It is my belief that, apart from a certain schematism, Trotsky opportunistically took on this Left hue after linking up with the Zinoviev grouping. He did this – allying himself with the most corrupt and bureaucratic faction of the CPSU – mistakenly believing it to have a Soviet proletarian following, but also because internationally it did have one whereas Trotsky did not. Hence the courting of the KPI) ultra-left in the Plaform of the Joint Opposition. At that time, leaders of the Wedding Opposition, (which together with the Leninbund minority would unite in the German Left Opposition) were insisting that capitalism had not yet stabilised itself, which gave grounds for their leftism. In And Red is the Colour of Our Flag, Oskar Hippe tells how, as the ultra-left groups of Korsch, Katz, Schwartz, etc., fell apart, possibly owing to the KPD itself now being ultra-left, the Trotskyists recruited their members in Berlin from the Wedding Opposition.
The Balham Group in Britain began criticising the CPGB from an ultra-left posture, as related by Reg Groves, and now Harry Wicks (in Keeping My Head, Socialist Platform, 1992). They saw the expelled left-wing Labour Parties as a barrier to the masses and favoured cutting ties with the LP. In the USA, the Cannon faction went to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern on a joint platform with the Foster faction, entitled the ‘The Right Danger in the American Party’, a text adapting to the line of the emerging ultra-leftism (this is not talked about as it would damage the Cannon myth). In Austria, the first group had ultra-left origins. It would be worth researching the origins of other groupings.
That is the opposite of where Trotsky’s support originated in the period up to 1925. He had support or allies in political orientation from leaders of the French, German and Polish parties plus sympathy inside the DnA and SKP. Quite simply, it owed itself to his opposition to the leftism of Zinoviev, Bukharin et al., and his general political orientation. (Stalin and Trotsky both opposed the way they split the DnA, which they later admitted was a mistake, and did not result in ‘any real separation between reformists and revolutionaries’. See Nikolai Bucharin und ..., p.80.) Trotsky, like others, was denounced for ‘rightism’.
By recruiting from ultra-left forces ones pays a price, as few will make the break away from their underlying non-Marxist method. One sees this time and time again with Trotsky during the 1930s. But that ‘leftism’ was taken into his movement by elements of the cadre and remained there once he had been murdered. One thus has the ‘left’ banner raised by Trotsky attracting leftist forces, and a cadre element of a leftist bent. Harry Wicks describes it in recounting his 1930s experiences.
The WIL eventually thrived and shook off leftism on the whole, giving us our best tradition, while other groupings left us with sectarian propagandism of the most sterile sort. Today, Trotskyism in Britain is characterised by a combination of sectarianism and opportunism. The rival sects rush to adopt the most left position in any situation in order to justify themselves. In the upsurge of protests against pit closures last October, the SWP seized the General Strike slogan first, so Workers Power was reduced to calling for its preparation, but then outdid the SWP by calling for the building of workers’ defence squads, presumably seeing the imminent outbreak of civil war.
I maintain that such groups have little at all to do with Trotsky’s politics. I insist that Trotskyism collapsed with the outbreak of World War II, and I do not see it as a coherent body of theory enabling a rival International to the Comintern to be established. It was an oppositional current with many valid positions, but no more.
By proclaiming a Fourth International one was insisting that one represented a supersession of the Third International, and had, furthermore, resolved its problems. That was a roadblock to such a task. The IVKO meanwhile, after its US section collapsed into centrism in its eyes, announced its dissolution, stating that a new international communist centre could only arise out of objective conditions creating a new upswing of revolutionary forces in the international workers’ movement, and that it could not be done artificially. That was correct.
24 March 1993