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Why We Must Defend the Essentials in Order to Condemn the Errors: A Reply to Nick Davies

Gerry Downing

NICK DAVIES HAS placed many historical question marks against Trotskyism in his article "Trotskyist Regroupment" in What Next? No.8. The article represents a national-Trotskyist degeneration because he does what all bourgeois commentators do: he analyses what happened in the USSR as a product what happened within that state alone. I would most strongly contend that it was the fate of the international class struggle that determined the outcome and that it was Trotsky’s orientation to that international struggle, despite the mistakes and hesitations of the mid-1920s, that is the Trotskyist heritage today. Nick’s is an essentially negative and deeply pessimistic contribution which looks on failed historic struggles with petit bourgeois scepticism and concludes that the whole thing was probably not worth the effort. It is written by someone who has become what Trotsky called a "worshipper of the accomplished fact". He questions everything from this standpoint. These are some of the questions he raises:

1902: Was What Is To Be Done? written only for "work in a semi-Asiatic police state almost 100 years ago?"
It is true that in many of his formulations Lenin makes too many generalisations from the material conditions of early twentieth century Russia. He "bent the stick" (as he admitted himself) on the formulation about bringing consciousness to the working class from without, etc, in order to strike blows against the Economists. But the basic political thrust of the book is correct against those anti-Leninists who seek to denigrate his three main theses against the Economists:

1. The revolutionary party must champion all aspects of oppression in all classes and not just fight the trade union struggle – "the model for the revolutionary is the tribune of the people and not the trade union branch secretary", Lenin says.

2. Democratic centralism is the particular organisational and political form that a revolutionary socialist party must adopt.

3. The revolutionary party must give active leadership to the class, be the best fighters for all reforms and so gain the ear of the vanguard for revolutionary solutions.

There is a widespread rejection of democratic centralism in favour of "pluralist" parties at the moment. All types of liberal anti-Trotskyists wish to be free of the discipline of the class struggle under the guise of escaping from "sectarianism" and "dogmatism". Without a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism as its organisational norm it is impossible to educate the membership and the broader vanguard in revolutionary theory. We cannot learn from struggle unless we unite in struggle against the common enemy. Lenin wrote: "We have said that there could not have been social democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without." It is obvious here that Lenin accepted Kautsky’s understandable conflation of the German Social Democrats with the class. Their sheer size and influence over the class led to a false theory – that the workers could achieve revolutionary consciousness only through the party. So Lenin here is striving to elaborate a theory of a new type of party – one guided by Marxist theory – and he wrongly identified this Marxism with the desire of the masses for revolution. 1905 taught him and the Bolsheviks that the masses could swing sharply to the left but the party had to win its influence over them by what he calls "flexible tactics". This is what Trotskyists now call the transitional method.

1921: Should we "look again at the Democratic Centralist Opposition" and apologise for Kronstadt?
The suggestion here seems to be that the Democratic Centralist Opposition (DCO) made various correct points on bureaucratic degeneration and then all factions wound up being suppressed by Lenin at the Tenth Congress in 1921. At the same time he and Trotsky suppressed the Kronstadt uprising and this was the origin of Stalinism. The DCO emerged at the time of the Eighth or Ninth Congress in 1919 or 1920 but were almost defunct by the time of Kronstadt, presenting no platform to the Tenth Congress. The later revived DCO of the mid- to late-1920s tended to take an ultra-left line on economic and political questions.

Nick should have developed a position on this himself by now, having read Shlyapnikov (who was in both the DCO and the Workers’ Opposition) and Kollontai and not just cast a large doubt on the historical legitimacy of Bolshevism in this manner. He should say what was correct and what was incorrect in the actions of Lenin, defend what is essential before condemning the errors. I will attempt that now.

It is not true that "Trotskyists end up defending it [the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt] by default, because Trotsky supported it". The Oppositions were demanding privileges for the industrial working class that would have led to anarchy and the destruction of the Soviet state. The Oppositions correctly pointed to many manifestations of bureaucratisation and corruption within the state bureaucracy and Party and even gave a clear analysis of their sociological origins and secondary roots. It was wrong of both Lenin and Trotsky at the time not to take more heed of this aspect of the Oppositions’ platforms. Both Rakovsky and Trotsky attacked the consolidating bureaucracy a few years later by borrowing extensively from works like Kollontai’s pamphlet The Workers’ Opposition.

However, Lenin and Trotsky (later) did understand the root cause of the discontent. Lenin’s dictum at the Tenth Congress that "Communism is Soviet rule plus electrification of the entire country", and the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) re-establishing market mechanisms in light industry and agriculture, showed that he understood that War Communism had become counterproductive. The incorrect policy of Trotsky and Bukharin on the militarisation of the trade unions also showed in its own way that the NEP came late. If a lesson is to be learned from Trotsky’s error here it is that he should have fought far harder for his own proposals for allowing the development of limited market mechanisms in light industry and agriculture a year earlier.

But surely we must reject the syndicalism of Kollontai in her pamphlet: "Who is right – the leaders or the working masses endowed with the healthy class instinct?" This attitude was indeed a recipe for anarchy, amounting to special pleading for the right to privileges of the industrial working class over all other sectors in conditions of widespread hunger and destitution. By 1921 the economy was reduced to 20% of its 1913 level. From whom should the surplus have been taken at a time when there was not any really privileged layer? In these circumstances, when the Whites would certainly have taken advantage of widespread revolts, there was no option but to crush the Kronstadt uprising. Many of the Workers’ Opposition leaders recognised at that point that their popularity was based on a sectionalism that resulted in the tragedy of Kronstadt and they renounced their views.

Yes it was wrong to ban factions at the Tenth Congress. Yes it did assist Stalin crush all opposition at a later date. But this factor is a really minor one in the causes of the rise of the bureaucracy, which lay in the first place in the fate of the international class struggle. These defeats left Soviet industry and agriculture in a condition of appalling technical backwardness and with no obvious way out. Nick is silent on this question here (apart from mentioning the threat of invasion by the Whites via Kronstadt) but far more significantly in relation to the next issue that he attacks Trotskyism on, the events of 1928 and the immediately succeeding years.

1928: Should Trotsky have blocked with Bukharin against Stalin at the time?
Nick Davies says: "I think the LO [Left Opposition] was mistaken in believing, as it did, that Bukharin and the Right Opposition was the main enemy." This proposition strikes at the heart of Trotskyism. It is a real national isolationist outlook based on a foolish scenario – a peaceful victory for the Right in the midst of a grain strike by the kulaks (rich peasants).

Trotsky’s economic policy of the 1920s formed part of the entire Marxist world outlook which has become known today as Trotskyism. The LO never considered the idea of forced collectivisation because revolutionaries do not seek to develop revolutions through mass oppression of workers and peasants. Whilst the introduction of even a bureaucratically deformed plan proved the superiority of socialist planning, it also marked the definite turning away from international revolution and the consolidation of the bureaucracy and rule by terror.

So the propaganda of the Trotskyists from now on was based on how much better planning would be if it were based on workers’ democracy and what damage the regime of terror was doing to the consciousness of the world proletariat. Whatever Stalin gained in planned industrialisation was paid for by the terrible dislocation of agriculture and later by developing piecework and a privileged layer of industrial workers – the Stakahavonites. Up to two million kulaks were murdered by the regime. The effect of the forced collectivisation was the second biggest famine in history. The award for the biggest must go to the similar ultra-left lunatic adventure of Chairman Mao’s "Great Leap Forward’ – into the mass famine graves for untold millions of Chinese peasants. In the Ukraine and Crimea as many as ten million may have starved to death in 1932.

Trotsky did not oppose the nationalist and economically autarkic theory of socialism in a single country, introduced by Stalin in 1924, until 1926. Illness and the ferocious assault on the theory of Permanent Revolution have been cited in his defence. The main initial opponents of Stalin on this matter were Kamenev and Zinoviev. But Trotsky’s economic policy was permeated entirely by his internationalism and he vigorously combated socialism in a single country after 1926. (He compromised over the Permanent Revolution in the Platform of the Joint Opposition in 1927, on the reasonable basis that he could not bloc at all without some compromise.)

Trotsky’s closest collaborator in the LO on economic matters, Preobrazhensky, did not properly understand this question and this was reflected in his major work The New Economics. His theory of "primitive socialist accumulation" relied too much on extracting surpluses from the peasantry and did not sufficiently incorporate the world market into its plan. It therefore tended towards autarky and, as Trotsky pointed out, unwittingly provided support for the theory of socialism in a single country. It is here we must look for the causes of the collapse of a large section of the LO after Stalin’s left turn, not in any failure to conciliate the Right.

It really is with the benefit of the most conservative hindsight that Nick can come to the conclusion that no other road could have opened up. Had Trotsky politically collapsed by blocking with Bukharin, who would then have championed the fight for revolutionary theory and practice? How would we have been able to learn the lessons of the defeat of the British general strike of 1926 or the Chinese revolution of 1927?

Bukharin was almost inseparable from Stalin up to 1928 and he supplied him with all the rightist ideology to defeat the Left Opposition. And this ideology contributed greatly to these international defeats. The Right was totally compromised politically in the ranks of the party – even if some middle bureaucrats supported it – and Stalin had the easiest of tasks in defeating it once the Left Opposition was crushed. So to talk, or dream, of the possibility of a Left-Right block against the Centre is rubbish. And in conditions of acute crisis a peaceful outcome was not an option. Had the kulaks and Nepmen triumphed, the result would have been the restoration of capitalism, and Bukharin would have been quickly swept aside by the reaction.

A large dose of Stalinophobia seems to be contained in Nick Davies’ implied proposition that a democratic capitalism was preferable to a despotic Stalinism. The point is that this was not on offer historically in 1928 just as it is proving a fool’s illusion after 1989-91. In fact the response of Rakovsky, on behalf of the Left Opposition and with Trotsky’s approval, was to propose a bloc with Stalin against Bukharin! In the "Declaration of August 1929" Rakovsky acknowledged the left turn and the value of planned industrialisation, while maintaining his absolute opposition to the theory socialism in a single country and its consequences.

1938: Was the Fourth International founded on the basis of a "monumental political gamble which failed to come off"?
This question fails to appreciate the purpose of a revolutionary programme and perspective. The Fourth International’s programme was a fighting programme. Its purpose was to analyse the revolutionary potential contained in the contradictions between the working class internationally and the imperialist powers and the role of the USSR in that and to prepare the cadres of the Fourth International to lead in the correctly predicted coming revolutionary opportunities brought about by the war. It was not a gamble like one would make on the roll of the dice. The outcome of the conflict depended on the struggle of living forces.

How revolutionaries fought, and what theory and practice guided them, might determine the outcome of the struggle if various circumstances were favourable. One cannot say in advance what opportunities will present themselves in the midst of such monumental upheavals.

1953/1998: Should the Fourth International have been wound up before 1953 and should it now be "given a decent burial"?
It is surely enough to point out to Nick that had those who called themselves Trotskyists dissolved the FI by 1953 neither he nor I would be here to write these articles. However we need these debates and discussions on the fundamentals of Trotskyism and revolutionary Marxism if the problems of the revolutionary leadership of the working class are to be addressed at all.

Nick confuses two separate, if closely related, tasks. Yes we must turn to the labour movement. Yes we must seek to recruit from there. No we cannot "regroup" with militant workers or the left of the SLP. We must win them to Trotskyism. The ideas behind revolutionary regroupment are to develop and consolidate an international Trotskyist leadership which is the only real way to develop the theory necessary for the day-to-day job of agitation and propaganda in the ranks of the working class.

It follows that revolutionary regroupment is directed at other forces internationally who identify with Trotskyism. Only by a serious struggle can we hope to build such an international leadership. Our partners in this endeavour must share a common understanding of at least some basic fundamentals of Trotskyism.

The purpose of the struggle does have as its long-term aim the rebuilding of the Fourth International, or the founding of a Fifth if that proves impossible. But the present stage must take account of the dislocation, of the enormous theoretical confusion, of the long period of degeneration and also, very importantly, of our own inadequacies and need to learn from this struggle. So the proposal would be joint engagement, joint international co-operation and an annual international conference on revolutionary regroupment.

Nick Davies provides a confusing answer to that question of questions: To whom should we turn? – "It therefore follows that the national and international regroupment we should be aiming for should not be solely ’Trotskyist’, either by an amalgam of existing groups or by one eating up the rest, nor should Trotskyists even, necessarily, be a majority."

Who should this majority be then? Not "Castro, Maurice Bishop and the ANC" or any of the notorious opportunist accommodators like Mandel. No, according to Nick we must orientate to "other forces" who "exist more as a long term project rather than as actuality". So instead of fighting out the real political differences with the actually existing forces that claim to be Trotskyist he ends up by proposing we should orientate to figments of his imagination!

In what must surely amount to the worst passage of the article Nick arrogantly dismisses those forces which attempt to apply the programme of Trotskyism to current developments in world politics: "The crossing and recrossing, by the military sections of imaginary, recreated Fourth Internationals, of the jungle and savannah of Zaire, the towns and valleys of Bosnia, and the arid highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan shows in tragicomically sharp relief the chasm between pretension and reality."

What is the point in orientating to international political developments at all, then, by attempting to say what Trotskyists would have done in the circumstances if they had the forces? Could he not have thrown in Dien-Bien-Phu and the Mekong Delta while he was at it, or even the battlefields Stalingrad and the plains of Asturias? The fact that the Leninist Trotskyist Tendency, the international current to which both he and I belong, failed to produce any positional statement on Zaire and on our attitude to Kabila was very backward of us.

Elsewhere in Nick’s article the question of tactics is raised to that of strategy. Militant had a strategy, according to Nick, whereas most other Trotskyists post-war did not. But what distinguished Militant’s "strategy" from the tactics of the Workers International League, Workers Power, Socialist Outlook etc was that it capitulated to reformism, crucially on the question of the state.

What are we to make of the hegemonic project stuff? Nick’s "strategy" concedes too much to reformism beneath a cloud of pseudo-Gramscite gobbledegook. He bases this on the exceptionalist idea that Trotsky did not understand the western working class.

How can we "develop a hegemonic project based on the power of the working class to run society now?" Hegemony is essentially a strategy by which a ruling group constructs alliances to maintain themselves. In a certain sense it was appropriate in the USSR in the early 1920s. The working class in power had and will have to maintain these alliances as socialism is constructed. To talk now of "the hegemonic project based on the power of the working class to run society", allied with the admiration for Militant’s "strategy" is to imply replacing the theory of a working class taking power by revolutionary upheaval by some version of an "enabling bill" or the development of a left Labour Government "growing over" into socialism.

As with "27 Reasons", the document produced by Mike Banda after the implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985, the ability to question and reject past errors in Nick’s article seems to be overshadowed by the rejection of all revolutionary positions.