After the Death of Stalinism: Is There a Future for Trotskyism?

Al Richardson

From New Interventions, Vol.2 No.4,1992

THIS IS the second time I have been in this hall within a week. I was here four days ago. The first time was an interesting prelude to this meeting because, upstairs in the room across from here, Class War was meeting, being addressed by an old shop steward, an ex-Trotskyist who used to be in Morris Cowley, and the audience were all predominantly working class young people. Downstairs there was a meeting of the CPB, one of these ultra-Stalinist fragments, and, what was very interesting, there were Trotskyist paper sellers present. Had they come to influence young working class kids in the Class War movement? No, not at all! They were trying to flog their papers to clapped-out old Stalinists.

It just struck me that, in a certain sense, that is what I intend to talk about this afternoon. The crisis in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has been very useful to lazy thinkers such as myself, for it has forced us to re-examine the basis of what we regarded as our world view and our thought-world.

All of us have assumed that, as Marxism is a science, though a social science, it has, like every other science, to have some power of prediction. In other words it should give an idea of how the world would develop. Of course Marx’s own Capital gave everybody a good idea of what the next hundred years would be like. Obviously it is not as predictable as a natural science, where, if you add acetic acid to calcium carbonate, you will get effervescence and carbon dioxide. Even if it does not have that degree of prediction it remains a science and therefore can predict. Applying that to what has happened in Eastern Europe and to the Marxisms that are around today, and I shall restrict myself mainly to the Trotskyist ones, you will find that they have no power of prediction whatsoever. If you look very very carefully through the newspapers of all the different Trotskyist groups, such as the SWP or the Militant together with the other smaller ones, you will find that they had no inkling, no inkling at all, of what was likely to happen.

One journal alone, Critique, did in fact have such a prediction but, I think, on the basis of a very close monitoring of the Soviet economic and other material rather than on a theoretical basis that deduced that this was the automatic end of the Soviet Union. The fact was that the entire Trotskyist movement was taken by surprise means that, as far as I am concerned, this is the ideological crisis of Trotskyism. If this is not recognised it will only convince me that this movement is even further out of touch with reality than I believed in the first place.

None of the groups can explain events on the basis of their theories. The SWP, for instance, which believes that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were state capitalist, has now to explain how these big monopoly capitalists, who owned entire nations as combines, desire merely to be small shopkeepers and to own tiny bits of the nation instead. This is all rather different from what we assumed to be the appetite and inclinations of capitalism. The workers’ states theories people could not even decide whether what was taking place was the long awaited political revolution or the capitalist counter-revolution. The more dishonest of them said "We predicted this all the time and it will be as follows", hoping that events would prove them correct, while the more honest, or at least more circumspect, said "It is a very confused situation and it could go either way though it is still not clear which way". This is the intelligent response, given that your theory gives you no guide as to what will happen. As far as I can see, and I have monitored the newspapers of all the groups very carefully, none of these theories explain what is going on in real terms and, what is even more important in my terms, is that they are quite unable to predict anything. I would submit that if your Marxist theory is unable to predict then you must look again at your theory.

Looking back at Trotskyism it is much easier to say what Trotskyism was rather than what it is. I always think that the best definition of Trotskyism is that it is a critique of Stalinism and that is its historical role and validity. It is the Marxism of a period of defeat, the period of the inter-war years and, given what was happening in the inter-war years, the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, the rise of Stalinism, together with the process of rearmament, all of which led up to the Second World War, I think that the body of thought contained in Trotsky’s own writings and in the activities of his followers, was coherent and a very reasonable understanding of what was going on.

But Trotsky died in 1940 and we have to say that his expectations of the Second World War were not fulfilled. The Transitional Programme itself was drawn up on the basis that we were in a transitional epoch that would pose the question of power. But, by the end of the war, the Trotskyists had thrown over the whole transitional method and were quite incapable of posing the question outside empty sloganising. I do not want to go into this here so, if comrades want to read about what I believe was the failure of the Fourth International in the Second World War, I have written a long article appearing in last but one issue of Workers News. I am reminded in this case of a quip that John Sullivan made in one of his rather scurrilous pamphlets. "We know" he says, "what put an end to the functioning of Trotsky’s brain, it was an ice-pick, but opinion is divided as to what has produced the same effect among his followers". We have not got just one Fourth International, we have 9 or 10. It reminds me of Trotsky’s sarcastic remark when discussing with the ILP who could not decide between the Second, Third, Fourth or Two and a Half Internationals. He says "Don’t you think that is rather too many Internationals for one small organisation?"

If we take Trotsky’s theory of the political revolution and the future evolution of the USSR, as codified in the Revolution Betrayed and defended in his smaller writings and we now apply it to what is happening within the Soviet Union today, we will find that, like any other theory some parts of it are valid while other parts are not. In this case, like any other part of Marxist theory, it will have to he modified in the course of events. Therefore the clinging to old formulae and old beliefs together with vain repetition of texts as if they were Holy Scripture, is, in my opinion, a flight from Marxism.

When we examine the record we note that, first of all, Trotsky believed that when the bureaucracy foundered there would be a Marxist party, preferably the Fourth International, leading the struggle. In other words there would be a high level of working class and revolutionary consciousness emerging in the Soviet Union and by extension in Eastern Europe. That I am afraid is so obviously not the case that it should be remarked upon. There are small groups that regarded, and still regard, themselves as Marxist in the Soviet Union, Poland and elsewhere, but very very small groups they are. What is more, as far as I can gather, far from being the party of the Fourth International, the different little groups in the Soviet Union are actually smaller than the anarcho-syndicalists, which is logical since the workers there are rediscovering trade union forms of struggle. That is exactly what you would expect in such a context.

Trotsky, however expected the re-emergence of soviets. Nowhere are living soviets, direct institutions of workers’ struggle on a United Front basis, arising from factory workplaces, and firmly tied together at a state and regional level, nowhere have we got anything remotely recognisable as soviets in form. Further, we have an amazing growth of bourgeois nationalism. For seventy years in Russia and forty years elsewhere, these countries are not supposed to have had a bourgeoisie, yet we have bourgeois nationalism without the existence of a bourgeoisie, arising more powerfully than it appears ever to have done before. I am not just thinking of the Baltic Republics but of the Ukraine, Georgia and even some of the more backward areas of the Soviet Union such as Azerbaijan. We have an absolute hotbed of nationalism and no working class or internationalist consciousness at all.

When we turn to trade union consciousness we find that the trade unions at least are blossoming in Eastern Europe, but that they are thoroughly bourgeois. As far as we can see and analyse, the trade unions have the aspirations of the rest of the populations of these nations, that somehow they will get so-called free market capitalism where they hope to achieve a Swedish-style welfare state. Having got their free market somehow, the unions will be able to negotiate for labour and get better deals for their members. If anything there is a pro-capitalist consciousness among trade unions. That brings us to the fact that, if people in Eastern Europe do have a vision of utopia, it is capitalism! At present the masses intervene as nationalists or pro-capitalists. It is the reverse of what we would have expected if there was working class consciousness.

I believe that many of the phenomena that have arisen, now that the system in the Soviet Union has collapsed, do not square either with Trotsky’s writings or with what we have come to believe. Therefore we are in a crisis of Marxism. There have been crises of Marxism before. There was the great one in August 1914. We know what Lenin’s attitude was to this. He believed that much of what he had believed to be Marxism, that of Kautsky and so on in which he had always had faith, was not Marxism at all and he decided to go all the way back to Hegel and hence the studies of the Philosophical Notebooks and so on. Quite frankly, while we are none of us Lenins, we are in such a bad position now that we need to go back to Hegel too, since much of what we have inherited has been no guide to action and has turned out to be complete garbage.

What I now put forward is not a worked-out system but a series of suggestions. We have to start thinking about our basic concepts as Trotskyists and whether they have any validity at all. Are we in fact living in an epoch of wars and revolutions? Has capitalism been in permanent crisis since the Second World War? Is it no longer able to develop the productive forces? In Western Europe we have had a long boom, from 1946 to the early seventies, which as far as I can see, was the longest in capitalist history. It is interesting that the Lambertists have written entire books proving that capitalism is still in crisis and is not developing the productive forces at all and that we are moving towards immiseration. However I do not believe theses like that, which are trying to twist and interpret what others have said in a Talmudic way. Trotsky expected an absolute slump during and after the war. He expected a return to the conditions of the twenties and thirties in the western capitalist countries and, if you examine his writings, that is plain to see.

So our whole concept of the epoch needs to be looked at. We should start to look at the theory of Permanent Revolution. According to Trotsky capitalism could not develop in the underdeveloped world without the coming to power of the working class which would free those countries from the chains of international capital which were holding back their industrialisation and development. But if we look at the development of South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina and to a lesser extent Mexico and South Africa (though this last country is not, strictly speaking, the Third World), we see them continuing to industrialise. The theory of permanent revolution states that, in an absolute sense, these undeveloped countries cannot industrialise in this century without the seizure of power by the working class. The working class is growing all over the world and is bigger than it ever was and is continuing to grow. That means industrialisation is taking place in what are regarded as Third World or backward countries.

We must also look at the theory of the statised economy that we have inherited. Trotsky always regarded the defence of the Soviet Union to be very important and he based this very firmly on the existence of a statised economy. Now it is true that Engels and others regarded the first act of the socialist revolution as the take-over of the economy by the state, in other words the destruction of private property by converting it all into public property. But one thing that we may have forgotten is that there is nothing in Marx or Engels which suggests that the state has to keep this property. If you look at the discussions about the future form of an economy among socialists before 1900, they do not by any means assume that it should all be state-dominated. There are discussions about producer and consumer co-operatives and all manner of methods of holding property which the working class may or may not decide to use. In fact, as far as I can see, the idea that the only form of socialist economy dominated by the working class must be a largely or wholly statised form, is itself assumed from the experience of the Russian revolution alone. When you remember that the state sector in Russia was itself extremely large in the pre-revolution period we must realise that Russia is not a good basis to generalise for the forms of property elsewhere. It was already a freak before 1917.

We must also examine our theory of the workers’ state. If in Eastern Europe we have a collapse into capitalism, we do not have an armed seizure of power by the bourgeoisie which overthrows the previous state. We always assumed that the working class would come to power by an armed revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie to set up its own state. There must be a break, characterised by an insurrection. Logically if there is a reverse process then there must also be an insurrection which breaks up the old state. In Eastern Europe this has not happened. True, various chunks of the bureaucracy are in the process of hiving off certain sections of the economy for their own private profit and are converting themselves into a capitalist class, but without any armed insurrection.

(This is similar to the development of private property in ancient Egypt where all property began as state property but where, as people hung on to their offices, this was gradually converted into private property. But I do not want to go down this avenue of my own personal interests.)

What is left of the theories of the workers’ state? Have we got a peaceful overthrow of these workers' states? If we look at the creation of these states we have deep theoretical problems because the only country where the workers actually seized power was the Soviet Union itself where they were 7% of the population. All the Eastern European states were set up under the protection of Soviet bayonets, the only partial exception being Czechoslovakia and even then the workers were disarmed immediately, while in the rest of these countries, like China, Vietnam, Cuba and so on, there were peasant insurrections. Some of these countries hardly had a working class in the first place and when the workers, in Vietnam for instance, started to flex their muscles they were very quickly stamped on. Interestingly it is this large section of the Stalinist world which had no working class intervention at all that still maintains its Stalinist apparatus and its ideology. After that experience where does that leave our theory of the workers’ state?

We must also look at the theory of the revolutionary party that we have inherited. What do we mean by democratic-centralism? I have been looking at this question and I believe we have inherited a caricature of what it was meant to be. The "orthodox" idea seems to be that the revolutionary party elaborates its policy and programme behind the back of the working class and then, after the majority has voted on this, it is aimed like a gun at the head of the workers. This was not even the case with the Bolsheviks under the Czar. Lenin always said that the workers should be appraised of the differences within the party, they should be published openly in the party press, and non-party workers should he invited to write in and take sides. If the non-party workers have not been informed about the differences within the working class party, how can they write in and take sides about it? The whole military, ultra-secretive petty bourgeois clique atmosphere that is justified among many of the groups is, historically speaking, a nonsense. Having accepted a militarised caricature from the Stalinists, that itself is yet another reason why the demise of Stalinism, which they have for so long imitated, has thrown them into confusion.

Looking at the movement itself in its organised form, the pattern found is fascinating. The most successful Trotskyist groups are, as far as I can judge, minimally Trotskyist and are in fact syndicalist organisations and, by that, I refer to the SWP in Britain and Lutte Ouvrière in France. The virtue of LO in France is that its syndicalism is working class - as to what the SWP’s virtue may be is another matter – perhaps comrades can enlighten me. Middle class syndicalism is, I believe, rather comical.

Then there are the Social Democrats, by which I do not mean to insult but to describe the old style Social Democracy of the SPGB and Kautsky. That is the Militant. Whether within or outside the Labour Party, here there is a repetition of stale and sterile formulae telling everybody about the future Socialist Utopia and hoping that, sooner or later, large numbers of people will believe you and come to join you.

Finally there are what I would regard as Stalin1st groups of Third Period or Popular Front description. Here we have the US SWP and splinters from the Healy movement. These are characterised by straight Stalinist types of apparatus, a leader who is more or less unchallengeable, a persecuting ideology, a frenzied sectarianism towards all those who do not agree 99.99% with them (and that includes of course many of the members) together with a leader cult and all the idiocy that goes with it. There is the denunciation of opponents as spies and the feverish notion that, if you call the present leaders of the working class movement enough names, then somehow they will disappear in a puff of smoke. The idea that you can destroy structures, supported by millions of workers, by mere verbal critique, I believe to be the essence of Third Period Stalinism.

In contrast we have Popular Front groups among the Trotskyists – that is the other type of Stalinism. Even more amazing we sometimes have both tendencies in the same organisation. By Popular Front I mean all these groups that take all the working class content out of the argument for Socialism and talk about women, as if there are no classes within that category, racism where the same applies and, most important, that the working class party should have nothing to do inside such self-appointed bodies of women and ethnic minorities, but simply to accept them as allies in some nice multicoloured coalition. That is pure Popular Front nonsense and if you study what the Communist Party actually did in the thirties, you can see the originals of these little Pop Front organisations. Sometimes even the name is the same today, such as Women Against Fascism and so forth. I am not blaming any particular group or tendency but I want to look for general patterns. Thus what we have inherited as so-called Trotskyist organisations are a mass of Third Period and Popular Front rubbish.

It should be thrown back from where it has come. All this is very destructive and this is easy for a carping critic like myself who has not done anything in the movement for a very long time. It is always easier to be destructive than constructive, but I will look at Trotskyism in a positive sense. There is still the need for an International Revolutionary Party. That was the idea of the Fourth, which was important in its day and it is still important. We still have that need. We still need transitional politics. This yawning gap between what are everyday reforms - for which we all struggle in our trade unions and so forth, and the ultimate goal of socialism, still has that gap. That can only be bridged by proper transitional politics which can weld the masses together with the aim of coming to power.

That idea of transitional politics is not peculiarly Trotskyist though, to their honour, the Trotskyists kept it alive when everybody else discarded it. The concept goes all the way back to Rosa Luxemburg and even to the "Critique of the Erfurt Programme". And much of the failure of the Trotskyist critique of bureaucratic totalitarianism arose, not because it held to this view but because it discarded much of it, including much of its sharpness and so some of the groups have acted as apologists for one or other of these rotten regimes. I would argue that this is an example of Trotskyism deserting Trotsky to its own ruin.

Finally the idea of a Workers’ United Front. This too is to the honour of Trotskyism. For a long time they were the only people who maintained it. Along with L.D. Trotsky I would assert that part of the United Front, that above all where the revolutionaries were too small to set up parties and organisations that had the allegiance of a section of the class, is that we should understand that the correct way forward is entrism into the Labour parties, though not as a middle class conspiracy as it has often been hitherto. Whilst my critique is extremely violent, I would maintain that these were the strengths of the Trotskyist tradition. However the main burden of what I have to say is this. The events in Eastern Europe have shown that much of what we have inherited and taken as time hallowed orthodoxy, has been shown to be a load of junk, while much of the incoherence of the different groups in the face of these great events, proves the point that I am trying to argue.

From the transcript of an address to the Socialist Discussion Group, November 1991.