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Trotskyism? Which Trotskyism?

Ken Tarbuck

From New Interventions, Vol.4 No.1, 1993

By Way of an Introduction
I read the contributions of Mike Jones [‘A Critical Attempt to Evaluate Trotskyism’, New Interventions, Vol.3 No.3] and Jim Dye [‘A Critical Attempt to Defend Revolutionary Marxism’, New Interventions, Vol.3, No.4] very closely, more than once I might add, but each time I did so I felt a sense of unease creep over me. It was not that what was being said was uninteresting or unimportant, rather it was as though some of the key issues were not being addressed, or if they were it was in such a manner that left one feeling they were understated. This feeling was less so in the case of Mike Jones’ essays, since I felt he did begin to raise some of those key questions. In Jim Dye’s case the more I read the more convinced I became that what we had here was a very able and skilfully presented case of evasion. Now, I say this not to imply any obscure or improper motive, rather the evasion is a product of the structure of the debate.

If we leave aside the problem of what one does with present day Trotskyism (a big ‘if’ I must admit), then the questions that we need to address are essentially historical and theoretical ones. The fact that they are historical and theoretical questions and problems does not thereby reduce them to academic or merely intellectual exercises, but it does mean that we do have to apply the historical materialist method to such questions in just the same way as we would to any others. Therefore we have to stop debating such problems as though we are still fighting the same factional battles of the past and put some distance between ourselves and the objects under our scrutiny. There is, of course, a fine balance to be drawn here between not letting our emotions run away with us on the one hand, and on the other hand not reducing all our discussions to intellectual exercises devoid of all passion. No doubt we shall never wholly succeed in establishing the ideal balance, but at least we should try.

I know I find it difficult to establish this balance, since as someone who has adhered to the Trotskyist tradition for a large part of my political life I still find myself automatically rising to the defence of Trotskyism when I hear it criticised. As I remarked to someone recently, its OK for me to criticises Trotskyism, but not anyone else! Not very rational I know, but it is the type knee-jerk reaction that I think many of us adopt in emotive situations. And Trotskyism cannot but be an emotive issue for most of us.

The two contributions I am looking at ranged over quite a large slice of history and encompassed numerous topics, and to follow all the trails laid would I believe be impossible in one essay.

If the problems under review are historical and theoretical ones, and I believe this to be the case, why should we engage in such a review? For me the answer is rather simple. We have to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of the Bolshevik/Trotskyist tradition so that we may attempt to build on the strengths and avoid the weaknesses.

There are many pitfalls associated with attempting such an exercise. Firstly, we cannot go back and actually feel what it was like to be in an historical situation, we can at best hazard a guess. Secondly, because we, perforce, rely upon documents for our evidence we are already in a somewhat grey area; after all it is the victors who usually write history and leave their historical record. Even in the case of Trotsky this rule applies, since although he lost in his struggle with Stalin he won over the other trends within the anti-Stalin camp. After 1945, say, there were no Brandlerist or Bukharinist groups which kept their views alive and to the fore, which has meant that Trotsky’s view tended to prevail within the anti-Stalin camp. On the other hand we do have to ask very seriously why was this so? It cannot be merely an accident, but more on that later.

Another problem in attempting to learn the lessons of history is that we are not dealing with laboratory experiments, which can be repeated at our leisure. The chances of there being a repeat of exactly the same combination of circumstances we are reviewing is, to say the least, somewhat remote. And if there were such a repeat perhaps we would make the same mistakes as we now espy in the past because we too became carried away in the heat of the moment. But even supposing that we have actually learned the lessons from the past, we shall be – we are – faced with quite new circumstances, needing concrete examination and analysis. This suggests to me that, interesting as historical research is, we need to apply ourselves to some quite broad but key issues in deciding what to study.

Some of the Issues
Isaac Deutscher wrote that: ‘In Balance and Prospects Trotsky reached a peak in his development. The months in prison, in the course of which he pondered and digested recent experience, were for him the transition from early to mature manhood, a transition as sudden and rapid as had been his jumps from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adult life. In this brochure of eighty pages was the sum and substance of the man. For the rest of his days, as leader of the revolution, as founder and head of an army, as protagonist of a new International and then as hunted exile, he would defend and elaborate the ideas he had put in a nutshell in 1906. Similarly, Karl Marx spent the whole of his life developing and drawing conclusions from the ideas he had advanced in the Communist Manifesto, his early and brief statement of doctrine.’1

This thought has the seductive simplicity of all good ideas. This is not to say that we can therefore ignore all of Trotsky’s other writings or activities, rather we can set them under the original carapace of his theory of permanent revolution, since without this theory there is no Trotsky, not as we understand him. The theory of permanent revolution is indeed the hallmark, the quintessence of what became known as Trotskyism; this is despite Trotsky wanting to deny it in the 1920s. Speaking at the 15th Congress of the CPSU, Trotsky said:

‘I have no intention, comrades, of raising the question of the theory of permanent revolution. This theory – in respect both to what has been right in it and to what has been incomplete and wrong – has nothing whatever to do with our present contentions. In any case, this theory of permanent revolution, to which so much attention has been devoted recently, is not the responsibility in the slightest degree of either the Opposition of 1925 or the Opposition of 1923, and even I myself regard it as a question which has long been consigned to the archives.’2

For a theory supposedly ‘consigned to the archives’ it has had a remarkably long and active life. And almost against the wishes of its progenitor.

Mike Jones makes the valid point that far from Trotsky being a centrist pre-1917 he was in every respect a revolutionary Marxist. Indeed Trotsky had proven himself far better than had Lenin up to 1917, since he had actually led workers in mass struggles during 1905 and had produced the original theory Deutscher alludes to. But after 1917 Trotsky was reluctant to defend his theory of permanent revolution, until 1928 when he was once more in exile in Alma Ata. It seems as though Trotsky himself was unwillingly driven to once more acknowledge his own unique contribution to Marxist theory, and the central place his theory of permanent revolution did have in the disputes in Russia during the 1920s.

When we look at the actual record, as Mike suggests we do, we find that the Trotsky in power is different to the Trotsky out of power. There were different ‘Trotskyisms’ in different periods between 1917 and 1928/29. There were, of course, certain constants within these differing ‘Trotskyisms’: the most enduring theme was that of the need to speed up the rate of industrialisation. After all, Trotsky was castigated during the mid-’20s for being ‘super- industrialiser’. However, there is no continuous thread of opposition from 1923 onwards, as the ortho-Trots, such as Jim Dye, would have us believe. On the contrary, Trotsky sat bemused when Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin in 1925. And, again contrary to legend, it was not Trotsky but Zinoviev who launched the fight against the theory of socialism in one country. Trotsky had actually kept quiet for most 1925 through to mid-1926 when the discussion on the theory of socialism in one country had been going on in the party press.

Let us take another example – who now will rise to defend the Trotskyism of 1920? That is, the Trotskyism of ‘Labour Armies’, militarisation labour and incorporation of the trade unions into the state. And even more to the point, who now (apart from Jim Dye) will defend Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, possibly the worst thing he ever wrote?

I say all this not to denigrate Trotsky, but rather to point out that if we are to make a thorough assessment of the man we need to consider all these twists and turns within an overall appreciation of Trotsky’s theory and practice.

If we are to discuss Trotskyism we have to establish which Trotskyism it is that we refer to. My contention here is that it is the Trotskyism of Permanent Revolution and Revolution Betrayed which should engage our main attention. Unless we do this we can become bogged down in attempting to unravel some Gordian knots. Perhaps it is also necessary to acknowledge that power does indeed have a corrupting influence, or if not corrupting then it imposes constraints that are unimaginable before the event. None of the leaders of the October 1917 revolution were immune from these constraints, including Trotsky.

One of the more creditable things about Trotsky is that whilst others succumbed, quickly, slowly, faltering, or wholly to the fatal charms of power, never to recover, he seems have fallen dramatically but then slowly and surely shook it off. Now, when I refer here to the fatal charms of power I do not mean the relatively trivial material gains that such power brings, I mean that ability to actually shape events of considerable importance or at least the illusion of shaping them. I say illusion since I have considerable doubts about Trotsky’s ability to shape events in Russia much after 1921/22. A close study of Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky reveals just how uncertain, hesitant and contradictory he was through most of the mid-1920s. He begins the decade as the iron man of the revolution, the creator of the Red Army, the ‘shaker-up of the trade unions’, the advocate of the militarisation of labour, only to be bundled out of the country in 1929 like some dangerous animal. Which he was of course for the bureaucracy, because the iron man of the revolution had begun to question many of the received certainties, certainties which he had had a hand in creating. However, it must be acknowledged that even in 1929, as he was thrust protesting through the back door, he was still acting as a loyal oppositionist, a role of course which no longer appeared on Stalin’s theatre programme. Having committed himself in 1917 to Bolshevism he was to spend the rest of his life ostensibly defending it whilst step by step revising it after, say, 1928.

Revising Bolshevism
If anyone doubts that Trotsky was revising Bolshevism let them consider his statement: ‘Comrades, none of us wants to be or can be right against the party. In the last analysis, the party is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument that the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks.’3

This was in a speech made to the 13th Congress of the CPSU in 1924. Yet only a few years later Trotsky was castigating those of the 1927/28 Opposition who were submitting to the party. And by then he was also defending the right to form factions, again a change. In The Revolution Betrayed we find him arguing for the right of Soviet parties to be formed, something he had opposed in the 1920s.

So we see Trotsky, step by step, when faced with quite fundamental choices, breaking with the tradition that he had espoused in 1917 and had helped to establish up to 1921. The contrast between the Bolshevik ‘Old Guard’ and Trotsky is quite remarkable. Singly, severally and collectively the ‘Old Guard’ allowed themselves to be slaughtered by Stalin, and at the same time sing his praises. Trotsky, fortunately for him, was not placed in exactly the same predicament as Lenin’s closest companions, since he had had the luck to be exiled abroad out the immediate reach of Stalin’s ‘courts’. He did however face equal dilemmas, when first his family was either imprisoned or murdered and then he himself put on the ‘hit list’. And as we all know Trotsky did not escape Stalin’s assassins. He did not flinch from pursuing his self-imposed task of opposing the might of Stalin’s terror machine. Therein lies the difference between the Trotskyist tradition and the Bolshevik tradition. There were exceptions, of course, but the broad generalisation stands.

Now, of course, this is not to say that the whole of the Bolshevik tradition was venal; to suggest that would be a travesty. What can be said however is that the Bolshevik tradition did lend itself to all the excesses that Mike Jones noted. Jim Dye accepts this with his simile of many seeds to be found in Bolshevism. And that is what the discussion is about – what precisely is it in the tradition that we need to avoid in the future? It is true that there appears to be blanket condemnation of the Bolshevik tradition within Mike Jones’ essays, but I am sure that he would not dismiss it out of hand in the manner implied by Jim Dye.

The New International
I feel that Mike Jones has presented some compelling arguments about the founding of the Comintern, suggesting that it was hasty and ill conceived. It really is no reply to Mike to suggest that Kautsky had said it all before, as Jim Dye does. This is an attempt to pre-empt discussion by the use of bogeymen being waved in our face. The question is, are Mike Jones arguments legitimate, not whether some else has said them before. And for the record, Kautsky was not wholly correct before 1914, any more than he was wholly incorrect after that date.

This makes it rather puzzling therefore when Mike Jones suggests that Trotsky was wrong in 1933 to write off the Comintern, and call for the creation of a new International. I do not agree that the accession to power of Hitler in 1933 was of the same order of other defeats suffered by the working class in 1921, 1923 or 1927. Trotsky had seen the results of Italian Fascism for the Italian working class, and well understood the implications for the whole of Europe should the Nazis seize power in Germany. When Hitler established his dictatorship world war became, not merely possible, but inevitable. When the KPD allowed this to happen (along with the SPD) without a shot being fired Trotsky quite rightly drew the conclusion that not merely was the KPD beyond recall but so was the Comintern. What was Trotsky supposed to do in those circumstances? Return to the Second International? Hardly a viable option in the circumstances.

This brings me to the question of the founding of the Fourth International. Mike Jones sees it as totally wrong, Jim Dye totally correct. I beg to differ with both of them. Let us leave aside the skulduggery of J.P. Cannon, informative and interesting as it is to know just what did happen in 1938 at the founding conference to ensure the required result. Such questions do not determine the correctness or otherwise of the decision to found the FI. I certainly agree with Mike Jones that after 1938 it was downhill all the way for the FI, but even that does not determine the correctness or otherwise of the decision to found the organisation.

What we have to look at is the perspectives on which the FI was founded and the results.

The perspectives are succinctly set out in The Transitional Programme or as it sometimes called The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. This latter title tells it all. Trotsky fully expected that arising from the inevitable war looming on the horizon there would be a mighty wave of revolutionary struggles, the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the establishment of workers’ power in several advanced capitalist countries, all under the leadership of the FI. It did not happen. The whole perspective, possibly understandable in 1938, was actually catastrophism run riot. Moreover there is something contradictory in Trotsky’s attitude in all this. He claimed that he and his tendency represented the legitimate Bolshevik tradition but his perspective was at variance with the history of that tradition. I do not mean here those revisions of Bolshevism that Trotsky had been forced to make, rather I point to the fact that the October 1917 revolution was carried through by a party that had been in the making for about 12 to 15 years before the event. Despite all the fluctuations in membership, only 8,400 in 1914 and still only 23,000 in early 1917, it had had time to implant itself with the Russian working class. Compare then Trotsky’s hope of his tiny band of followers transforming itself, not merely into a national party but into a world party capable of leading a world-wide revolution within a few short years. Incidentally, Jim Dye who seeks to distance himself from catastrophism seems not to notice this characteristic of the Transitional Programme, and the whole basis of the FI in 1938.

It would seem therefore that the whole enterprise was a failure, and was doomed to such a fate from the word go. Perhaps Mike Jones was correct? I think not.

It is here we need to look at the results. Certainly the results were nothing like Trotsky hoped for and expected. In fact when one looks at most of those organisations that today call themselves ‘Trotskyists’ it would seem that the only result of the 1938 founding conference has been a proliferation of small, dogmatic sects. But if we examine the period since 1938 in an historical context there is something more to the tradition than mere dogma.

I alluded above to the lack of any Brandlerist or Bukharinist groups after 1945. In fact, of all the anti-Stalinist tendencies only the Trotskyist one did not wither on the vine completely. On the contrary, each time there has been an upsurge in working class activity there has also been a resurgence of Trotskyism. I repeat this is not accidental. The continued existence and periodical renewal of Trotskyism suggest that it had an historical viability and role to play. The anti-Stalinist, democratic tradition espoused by Trotsky has continually struck a chord within the working class when the conditions have been ripe. Of course we all know that these responses have been squashed repeatedly, not so much by the bourgeois state, as perhaps by the Trotskyists themselves. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that without the founding in 1938 of the FI there would have been no revolutionary tradition maintained even at the meagre level that was attained. Trotskyism not only maintained a direct link with the Bolshevik tradition and October 1917 but also with classical Marxism of pre-1914. This is undoubtedly a mixed bag to trail behind us, hence the need to re-order our thinking and priorities.

My argument is, then, that despite all its failures, and they are numerous, the founding of the FI was a necessary and vital act by Trotsky and his co-workers. In terms of what it set out to do it was a total failure, but in terms of maintaining a revolutionary tradition it was of historical importance.

If anyone thinks that it would have been possible for Trotskyists to operate in the CPs after the mid-’30s they have no comprehension of the murderous atmosphere generated by the Moscow Trials and the purges. This lingered right through to the mid-’50s. Moreover, it would have been impossible to inspire those small bands of people who gathered around the FI if they had been asked to fight for the establishment of an international co-ordinating committee – many of them gave their lives in the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. Only a perspective that promised real victories for the working class could have held such groups together.

We now are paying for that. The very tradition that weathered such tests now stands in the way of a renewal of the revolutionary socialist tradition. Moreover it has to be recognised that Trotskyism as we knew it, and know it, was the creation of the historical circumstances arising from the October 1917 revolution in Russia and all that flowed from that. If there had been no Stalinism there would have been no Trotskyism in the form it assumed after 1928. The demise of Stalinism as a potent political force, especially in the manner of its exit, also means that the historical conditions for a ‘Trotskyist’ alternative also disappear.

Re-building the Fourth International?
Jim Dye wants us to ‘rebuild the Fourth International’. Which one? There are so many to choose from. However, I suspect that there is more agreement than is immediately apparent. He admits that: ‘Nowhere have Trotskyist-led workers overthrown the Stalinist bureaucracies in political revolutions, and nowhere have significantly sized Trotskyist groups grown on the wreckage of the old order.’ Further along he also says: ‘Trotskyism cannot be advanced by repeating parrot fashion the Transitional Programme or by any other attempts at orthodox purity.’ And: ‘Without doubt new leaders will come forward in the stormy period that lays ahead of us. Then we will probably call revolutionary Marxism by another "ism", perhaps named after an African or an Asian rather than a Russian. Until that time "Trotskyism" will do just fine ....’ I am left wondering just what there is left of the Fourth International that Jim wants to rebuild? It seems to me that he is ready to junk much of what we know as orthodox Trotskyism, but having swallowed the horse he strains at the gnat, he insists on rebuilding the FI and calling himself a Trotskyist. Why raise barriers to the unity he wants by insisting on the labels of the past? I said at the beginning that he was skilfully presenting a case of evasion, and I feel that the evasion is within himself. Having come so far in criticising our common heritage, he shies away from taking the final step. Why not settle for calling ourselves revolutionary socialists and avoid all the other ‘isms’? A strong, united working class does not need messiahs, no matter from which country they may arise.

No small group of dedicated revolutionaries are going to create a new workers’ International; this will only come when masses of workers begin creating new socialist parties and coalescing together around a common programme based upon their concrete needs. The small groups can help to facilitate this process but not by trying to impose preconceived schemata upon living movements. The international proletariat will create a new International when, and only when, it is able and willing. Such a new International will arise from the material needs of the international working class, stimulated by its struggles with capital. Those who attempt to short circuit this process do so by flying in the face of history and all the lessons of the Marxism of Marx.

I am not impressed by arguments about the need for an International to overcome national narrow-mindedness. It is not by belonging to some tiny group calling itself an International that such narrow-mindedness is overcome, it is by participating in genuine international struggles that the working class shakes off its parochialism. That is the real problem we face in dealing with internationalism. To suggest that the many thousands of socialist activists are in some way deficient because they do not belong to an ‘International’ is to say the least insulting, and begs the real question of the actual national and chauvinistic feelings deeply embedded within the working class of all countries.

Jim Dye accuses Mike Jones of wanting to retreat into small discussion groups. I read nothing in what Mike wrote to support such an idea. However, I must say that it will not be a question of choice in the near future, since events themselves will dictate just what size audience we are able to address. What Jim seems to be suggesting is that there is no need for prolonged discussion; apparently all the answers to our problems are already known. If all important questions had been settled there would have been no crisis in the WRP, which blew it apart, nor in Militant ditto, nor would he himself felt impelled to leave the SWP (and I understand there is some sort of crisis in that group now).

The sad fact is that the discussion of quite fundamental problems of socialism does not at present seem to attract large numbers of people. Certainly there are very real and concrete issues, unemployment, poverty, health care, crime, all of which exercise the majority of working class people now. These cannot be addressed by abstruse and abstract discussions. Harry Ratner in one of his contributions to this bulletin suggested that socialists need once more to engage in some direct propaganda of socialist ideas within the working class, i.e. we should acknowledge the dire crisis for socialist ideas and the lack of support for them within the working class.

I wholeheartedly agree with that proposition. And before we can actually engage in such work it is necessary clarify just what sort of socialism we want the working class to espouse and what are the conditions necessary for success.

If wanting to discuss ‘Trotskyism’ seems to be a far cry from the present crisis facing society, and a retreat into small discussion circles, I would say that without such a clarification comrades like Jim Dye will blunder into battle burdened down with a large quantity of mental baggage that will hinder them in their self-imposed task. We need to abandon much of our excess baggage in order to travel further, faster and more surely.

I shall return to some of the issues raised above in the next issue. I shall then be examining in some detail Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and the implications this had for his subsequent career, and also suggest that the Russian revolution of 1905 was in some respects more important than that of 1917.

28 February 1993


1. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921, OUP 1954, p.162.

2. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), Pathfinder Press, New York 1980, p.145.

3. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), Pathfinder Press, New York 1975, p.161.