1. Russia's invasion of Poland and Finland: What happened in 1939-40

Sean Matgamna

A. According to the story in circulation in "academic folklore" as well as in accounts repeated for political generations by Trotskyist militants, in 1939-40 the Trotskyist movement debated the “class nature” of Stalinist Russia.

In the folklore, Trotsky staunchly defended the position that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state, and would so remain as long as the economy was still nationalised. Shachtman, Burnham, and their associates, the minority, taking their ideas from the Italian Bruno Rizzi, defended the idea that Russia was not a degenerated workers’ state, but a new form of class society.

After the debate, the movement split into two irreconcilable streams, whose divergences thereafter widened until they wound up on different sides in the great divide of the Cold War: the “orthodox Trotskyists” on the side of the Stalinist bloc, and the heretical Shachtmanites either “neutral” or (for Shachtman himself in the 1960s) actively on the side of US imperialism.

With few variations, this account is common. Even the respectworthy Marxist scholar Hal Draper gives such an account, and an extremely “vulgar” version of it too, with a preposterous story about what Trotsky was doing in 1939-40: http://archive.workersliberty.org/wlmags/wl57/rizzi.htm.

The standard account is a gross misrepresentation. If there was a debate on that it was a matter of Trotsky elaborating, with himself, speeches for both sides. His main opponent, Max Shachtman, was still a workers’ statist. James Burnham, who thought Russia a class-exploitative system, was silent.

The “innocent” explanation for this misrepresentation is that, over the years, the story of the two post-Trotsky Trotskyisms has been telescoped, simplified, and condensed, so that the later-emerging divisions that can be said to be rooted in 1939-40 are projected back and the whole story is more neatly tied up. That may well be the explanation for the standard account appearing even in the memoirs of Al Glotzer, who was very old and by then thought the 1917 revolution should never have happened.

There is a parallel, maybe, in the popular account of the splitting of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, which is usually located in the divisions over the definition of a member of the organisation at the Second Congress in 1903. (In that division the future “Bolsheviks”, or majority-ites, were in fact in a minority, and the future “Mensheviks”, or minority-ites, in a majority. The majority-ite/minority-ite terminology came from a later vote in the same Congress, on the make-up of the editorial board of Iskra).

In reality the division began to take shape between 1904 and 1907, when radically different alternative policies of a working-class alliance with the bourgeoisie (Mensheviks) or with the peasantry (Bolsheviks), in what both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks saw as a bourgeois-democratic revolution, were hardened out. The definitive split took place as late as 1912.

But the misrepresentations in the popular account of Bolshevism are not innocent, and nor are those in the prevailing account of 1939-40. In any case it results in a hiding, elimination even, of Trotsky's real thinking on Russia, and of the evolution of his ideas on Stalinism. What happened then?

In August 1939 Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, erstwhile greatest enemies, signed a pact of non-aggression. In fact it was far more than that. In secret clauses, Stalin undertook to provide Germany with raw materials. As Trotsky put it, Stalin enlisted as Hitler’s “quartermaster” for the Second World War.

The cartoonist David Low summed it up in the Evening Standard of 20 September 1939, presenting Hitler and Stalin both in military uniform and bowing to each other. “The scum of the earth, I believe?” “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?”

b. The pact was the bugle-call for war, freeing Hitler to act without fear that Russia would attack him. On 1 September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. On 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany in defence of their Polish ally. The long-expected and greatly-feared new world war had started. It was not quite 21 years on from the end of the First World War, in November 1918.

It seemed to Trotsky to be only the second in a likely series of world wars that would, he came to think, be the “grave of civilisation”, unless the working class seized power in the advanced countries. That view proved to be wrong; but in 1939 it was not an unreasonable one.

c. On 17 September, Stalin invaded Poland from the east. On 19 September the Russian Stalinist and German Nazi armies met each other not as enemies but as close collaborators who in alliance had just “made their bones”, the first of World War Two, by carving up Poland.

d. On 24 September Stalin demanded that Estonia concede military bases to the USSR, or face invasion. Estonia agreed. In October, Stalin would make the same demand on the other Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania, and force their agreement too.

e. On 12 October Stalin started making territorial demands on Finland. Finland would not agree to what Stalin wanted, and on 30 November Russia invaded Finland. Finland was on paper greatly outmatched, a David against an army of Goliaths, but incompetence, bungling, and disarray in the Russian army, whose top leaders and organisers had been slaughtered by Stalin in 1937, allowed the Finns to inflict defeats on the Russians and prolong their resistance.

There was serious talk of British and French forces landing in Finland to fight “Hitler’s quartermaster”. As the world war got going, it looked as if the Hitler-Stalin pact might become a lasting partnership in a long war.

On 12 March 1940, the Finnish war ended. Finland ceded territory to the USSR.

f. On 9 April 1940, Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark, in part to forestall planned British landings in Norway.

g. On 9 May 1940, the German armies attacked Luxemburg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. In the First World War, the Germans invading France through Belgium had been stopped before they could reach Paris, and a terrible war of trench-fighting stalemate settled in for four years. In May 1940 the Germans broke through completely, conquering France. By June the German armies and their allies had control of the whole of Europe, barring Switzerland and a few countries on the margins: Sweden, Britain and Ireland, and Yugoslavia and Greece, which Germany would conquer in 1941.

Stalin’s pact with Hitler had led within nine months to Russia being left “alone” in Europe with an immensely strengthened Germany.

h. The Stalinist world movement, which for five years before late 1939 had advocated an alliance of “the democracies”, including Russia, for war against Hitler, swung behind the Hitler-Stalin alliance after a short period of confusion. Raucously, the Stalinist parties denounced the British and French “warmongers” and demanded peace — on Hitler’s terms. As for Poland? “Poland no longer exists”.

In Britain, Stalinists, the Independent Labour Party, pacifists, and others launched a “make peace with Hitler” campaign that at first got a lot of labour movement support. After the fall of France and the Nazi seizure of western Europe, much of that support fell away. But the Communist Party continued the “peace” campaign until Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941.

In Mexico, the Stalinists denounced the “Jewish Trotskyists”. In France, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Russia, the Communist Party was negotiating with the German occupation forces for permission to publish a legal daily paper.

In western Europe, a notable current emerged that saw the Nazis as progressive — in “unifying” Europe, for example. Some of them, the French Neo-Socialists for example, collaborated with the occupying forces on that basis. That is a current that is largely forgotten now. One reason for this is that it is overshadowed in history by the enormous number of socialists — including most “Trotskyists” — who for decades adopted a similar approach to Stalinism and its spreading tide after 1944.

Natalia Sedova-Trotsky would say about this approach, in 1951: “In 1932 and 1933, the Stalinists, in order to justify their shameless capitulation to Hitlerism, declared that it would matter little if the Fascists came to power because socialism would come after and through the rule of Fascism. Only dehumanised brutes without a shred of socialist thought or spirit could have argued this way.

“Now, notwithstanding the revolutionary aims which animate you [the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’], you maintain that the despotic Stalinist reaction which has triumphed in Eastern Europe is one of the roads through which socialism will eventually come...”