SOCIALISM IN DISARRAY, PART 3: THE FATE OF THE BOLSHEVIK REARGUARD
The terror and tragedy of the twentieth century
The twentieth century was full of terror and tragedy, and mass murder on a scale that beggars imagination and even comprehension. It was also in terms of things attempted, the most heroic in the history of humankind.
It was terrible in its murderous and enormously destructive wars of mechanised, automated, and finally automatic machines of mass murder - wars in which many millions died, by no means only combatants, and whole cities were levelled to rubble.
Terrible in its peacetime social devastation and the destruction of countless lives wreaked by economic dislocation and slump. Terrible in the recreation of the medieval Jewish ghettos in many cities, in the middle of the twentieth century, as preparation for the slaughter of six million European Jews in industrial factories designed for mass murder.
Terrible in the spawning of Leviathan totalitarian states able to use the technology of industrial society to exercise an unprecedented level of control, and without interruption for decades, over hundreds of millions of people. The East German workers who fell under the wheels of the fascist juggernaut in 1933 did not emerge from totalitarian rule for 56 years!
Terrible, in the decline of Marxism and socialism. And tragic above and beyond the many millions of individual human tragedies which the events referred to above entailed, because none of it was necessary. Better, immeasurably, better, was possible to humankind in the twentieth century.
The technology used to produce horror and slaughter was itself an aspect of an overall situation where not only better was possible, but where it was necessary and overdue, and where its retardation was the precondition for the horrors that engulfed humankind in the middle of the twentieth century.
At the core of the tragedy of the twentieth century was the tragedy of a socialist labour movement that had been built over decades to ensure what might be called an orderly historical succession - of working class socialism to capitalism - but proved unable to do that. It proved unable, despite tremendous efforts, to resolve its problems and difficulties. Was it, as it began to look to Trotsky at the end, and as the threat of it looked to Max Shachtman a decade and three decades later, a case of looming mutual ruination of the contending classes of capitalist society? The Communist Manifesto had listed such a thing as one of the possible outcomes of the class struggle.
In the 1920s Trotsky had used as metaphor for the effect of dogmatic reformism in the British labour movement, the image of chickens bred so fine that they could not peck their way out of the eggshell and stifled in it. It seemed to many by the late mid-1940s to be the very image of the working class in recent history. The man who had spent most of the 30s living with Trotsky as his secretary, Jean van Heijenoort, who had also been one of the secretaries of the wartime rump Fourth International centred on New York, abandoned politics in 1948. He declared that the working class had definitively failed as a revolutionary class able to take humankind beyond capitalism and class society. Large numbers of hitherto revolutionaries came to the same conclusion, without like van Heijenoort writing an article to explain themselves.
To the dilemma before humankind, posed by socialists as the alternatives of "socialism or barbarism", History’s answer seemed to be Stalinist barbarism spreading over much of the world and a weak and faltering bourgeois democracy in a historically privileged part of it, western Europe and the USA.
The heroism of the working class in the Twentieth Century
And with the tragedy of mid-twentieth century humanity, within it, an essential part of it, went the heroism of the working class - not all of it, not everywhere, not always, but enough of it, in enough places, enough times, to indicate what had been possible. In country after country, decade after decade, heroically the workers had risen.
Within that working class heroism, within the best of it, there was another heroism - that of the revolutionary left, in many countries, many times.
The list of working class movements, strikes, political campaigns, armed revolts, against capitalism and Stalinism, is a tremendous one. A long series of movements, aspirations and revolts against usually great, sometimes very great, and often insuperable odds.
The list is vast. A near-arbitrary selection - things I know a little about - is very long.
The Russian workers moved in great waves of strikes, from the 1890s. In the Russian Revolution of 1905, which was ultimately defeated, the workers created in the soviets - elected workers' councils - the beginnings of their own democratic system. In the same year, in the most advanced and most historically privileged of advanced capitalist countries, the USA, the Industrial Workers of the World was founded to organise the "unskilled", migrant and other workers, irrespective of race or creed, initially as a socialist and industrial-unionist-led movement. Its strikes were often small, and sometimes not so small, civil wars in which the working class side would suffer numerous casualties.
In Dublin after 1908, and especially in the great "Labour War" of 1913-14, the workers of Dublin, then the second city at the heart of the leading capitalist and imperialist power, rose off their knees to "seize the fierce beast of capital by the throat", James Connolly’s summary description of the workers of Dublin and their movement can not be bettered:
"The Irish Transport and General Workers Union found the labourers of Ireland on their knees, and has striven to raise them to the erect position of manhood. It found them with no other weapons of defence than the arts of the liar, the lickspittle and the toady, and it combined them and taught them to abhor those arts and rely proudly on the defensive power of combination…"
In Russia, in October-November 1917, the workers covered the country with a network of workers’ councils. They overthrew the man they knew as "Tsar Nicholas the Bloody" (now a saint, no less, of the Russian Orthodox Church!) and in October/November set up a soviet state. At the end of 1918 soviets covered Germany and Austria, but instead of consolidating the power of the working class, their leaders set up the bourgeois Weimar Republic.
Communists took power for a few weeks in 1919 in both Hungary and Bavaria. Even in backward rural Ireland striking workers in small dairy-produce factories, creameries, ran up the red flag and proclaimed their strike committees to be soviets, in perhaps three dozen separate cases. Limerick City was controlled for a while in 1919 by the Workers' Council (in British terms, Trades Council), which declared itself a soviet and contested control of the city with the British administration and its army.
In the 1920s the workers of China acted as a powerful independent force, fought great strike and other battles. In 1936 the workers of France organised a general strike, and won large reforms to wages and conditions. In the USA the workers organised great sit-in strikes and organised a powerful industrial federation, the CIO. In Catalonia, the workers took power in 1936/7 - to be smashed by the unwitting combination of their anarchist leaders, who did not believe in taking state power, on one side, and on the other, the Stalinists, who physically crushed them, opening the way for four decades of fascist rule.
In Britain in the mid 1940s the working class, which had its own deep-rooted parliamentary tradition, voted for the socialist transformation of Britain, and got instead very big reforms, the modern welfare state, achieved by the Labour Government. In France, in 1944 working revolt challenged the Nazi occupiers. The magnificent Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 was led by socialists - socialist Zionists amongst them - and workers did most of the fighting.
In the 1950s, workers in East German, Poland and Hungary rose against Stalinism. In Poland they won serious concessions, making Poland at that time the least totalitarian of the Stalinist states. In Poland, the workers moved again in 1970 - hundreds were shot down at the Gdansk Shipyards. In 1968, nine million workers seized France in a tremendous General Strike. In 1969 the Italian workers mounted great strikes. Between 1971 and 1975-6 dozens of factory occupations were mounted in Britain, where, in 1974, in waves of militant industrial action, the high point of which was a miners’ strike, the working class drove the Tory government out of office - an ill-judged appeal to the electorate against the miners led to the dismissal of the government - and put in the treacherous Wilson Labour Government.
In August 1980, the workers seized effective control of Poland and started on a struggle that eventually led to the overthrow of Stalinism - to be replaced by bourgeois democracy and capitalism. In Britain in 1984/5 the miners fought a bitter 13 month long strike in which they faced the mounted police of the Thatcher government - a strike in which a victory that would have smashed the ruling class offensive was possible.
There are many, many, many other examples of working class industrial battles, rebellions, armed risings, seizure of factories, general strikes - back to the Paris Commune of 1871, where the workers held power for nine weeks in the first workers’ state in history; back to the Chartist General Strike of 1842 in the north of England - in bourgeois history "the Plug Riots"; and beyond that, a dozen years earlier, the seizure of Lyons by the silk workers; and back beyond that…
The historical record that contains such tremendous struggles, without definitive victory, does, of course, raise many questions about the nature and capacity of the working class as a revolutionary class. It points to the great difficulties which the working class, the basic exploited class in capitalist society, faces: it cannot develop control of a portion of the means of production within the old system, as in its time the bourgeoisie did within and under feudalism and absolutism.
The working class, again unlike the bourgeoisie on its historical journey, does not develop its own culture within this system. Its class-consciousness and historical awareness and aspirations fluctuate. Habitually its leaders – its trade union as well as its political leaders - help the capitalist rich and powerful against their own people in return for personal advancement.
Though the working class has known its age of reform under capitalism, we accumulate many defeats, not all of which the working class is able to learn from. It sometimes has to live through again and learn things earlier workers knew. What the things listed, and all the other similar things not listed, indicate is that though the working class has not failed to fight, again and again, and again, there are special difficulties to be overcome if the working class is to emancipate itself. The question for socialists is: what can be done to overcome those difficulties?
But what the things listed most decidedly refute, is the idea that the working class has no inbuilt antagonism to the capitalist class and their system. They refute any suggestion that workers will never again revolt against capitalism.
As I write, the workers of France are in a great eruption of strikes and street demonstrations against capitalism’s new are of austerity. The long absence of open big-scale class battles in Britain does not point to a death of class struggle, but to the fact that the bourgeois won great victories over the working class in that struggle in the 70s and 80s. The virtual destruction of the old Labour Party by the New Labour disciples of Thatcher was part of that series of defeats
The Russian workers, led by the Bolsheviks, proved in 1917 that the working class can take and consolidate power, when certain objective and subjective preconditions are met. That is one of the reasons why the bourgeoisie sustains an ideological offensive against the memory of the October Revolution, identifying it with the Stalinist counter-revolution against Bolshevism, the Stalinism that destroyed the working class power. They conflate and identify the rule of the workers with the rule of those who overthrew the workers' power, and massacred the Bolsheviks!
The paradoxical "anti-socialist" revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe
But, it may be argued, the greatest manifestations of the revolutionary power of the working class for the last third of a century were working-class revolts in eastern Europe and Russia, not for but against socialism and for market capitalism. Those great deeds of the working class did not point in the direction of post-capitalist socialism but in the direction of capitalist restoration in the Stalinist states.
Socialism died of shame, failure and self disgust in Eastern Europe. Socialism was tried and is now deservedly rejected as an all-round social and historical failure. The workers wanted capitalism, and socialism, "history’s great dream" - so bourgeois and ex-socialist propagandists alike say - goes the way of other ignorant yearnings and strivings, taking its place in the museum of quackery alongside such relics of barbarism as alchemy.
Yes, at the end of the 1980s, which had opened with a self-confident Russian Stalinist invasion of Afghanistan at Xmas 1979 (the last in a series of expansions during the 1970s, which even saw a Russian-financed Cuban army fighting in Africa), "socialism" seemed to die of shame and self-disgust, first in Eastern Europe and then in its USSR heartland. It was rotten and stinking for decades before its outright collapse.
Not since the Italian Fascist Grand Council met in 1943 and declared the Fascist system at an end, had anything like it been seen! "Socialism", so the bourgeoisie’s ideologists brayed, had been tried and was being rejected as a failure and a curse on those it had ruled over. And, yes if the Stalinist systems were any sort of socialism, then socialism at that point died, and it deserved to be dead.
"Socialism" was rejected most explicitly by the working class in Eastern Europe and the "USSR ". In Poland it was a working class movement, Solidarnosc, that made the anti-Stalinist revolution - the anti-Stalinist bourgeois revolution. "Actually existing socialism" melted like islands of ice in the thawing seas of international capitalism. Its most implacable enemies included the very working class in whose name the "socialist" states claimed their social and historic legitimacy.
Yes, but what was it that the workers and working farmers, the office workers and the intelligentsia, revolted against, when they revolted against "socialism"? They revolted against:
• National oppression by the USSR and within the USSR (and by Czechs in Czechoslovakia, Serbs in Yugoslavia).
• The subordination of individuals, social groups, and nations to an all-powerful state, through which a bureaucratic ruling class exercised its economic exploitation and political tyranny.
• The denial of free speech, free press, free assembly, free organisation.
• Exploitation and poverty, combined with outrageous privilege.
They wanted instead:
• National and individual freedom.
• Prosperity and equality - or an end, at least, to the peculiarly glaring sort of inequality imposed on the Eastern Bloc by bureaucratic privilege. Like the Parisians seeking equality in the French Revolution, they would find that equality and capitalism are incompatible.
That the workers thought they could get what they wanted, or at least get more of them, under a market system - that it was Western Europe and the USA that gave them their positive idea of the desirable alternative to Stalinism - is very important: that determined what happened in 1989-91. But it is not the end of the story.
What had the failure of Stalinist "socialism" proved?
• That rigidly bureaucratic systems, where all power, decision, initiative and resources are concentrated in the hands of the state, cannot plan economies effectively.
• That the workers become alienated from a supposed "workers' state" when in fact it means rule over them by privileged bureaucrats.
• That socialism is impossible without freedom and democracy, without free initiative and comprehensive self-rule.
• That socialism is impossible when it is posed as a way, under a totalitarian state, driving the people, to develop backward national economies, rather as the working class seizing power in an advanced capitalism-prepared society.
The collapse of European Stalinism proved all these things. But then paradoxically the experience vindicates, rather than disproves, Karl Marx's idea of what socialism is, what it is not, and its place in the succession of class societies. No pre-Stalinism Marxist ever believed that such bureaucratic tyrannies could, or should, succeed as "socialism". As we have seen, Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks, who are cited as the fountainheads of Stalinism by people who either know no better, or refuse to "know" what they know, did not think they could.
For the socialism of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Mehring, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, it is good that millions of people in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union rose in revolt against "socialism" and "communism".
Stalinism was never socialism. But (like the revolts in Europe in 1848) the revolt against it was socialism in embryo. The mass self-assertion and revolt of millions of people is the raw material of socialism – socialism as liberation and self-liberation, here self-liberation from state tyranny and grotesque state-organised inequality.
Such revolt does not, of course, necessarily develop into conscious mass socialism; yet, it is its necessary starting point and one of its essential components. There can never be a viable socialism without it.
It would be a true miracle if the workers in the Stalinist countries had attained political clarity after many years in darkness. It would be remarkable if they had not been confused and bewildered by the official "socialism" which meant tyranny and poverty, and by the capitalism of Western Europe which meant comparative prosperity and liberty. Men such as Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarnosc who looked for his ideal society to the capitalist world, the opposite of the society he had grown up in, and Arthur Scargill, who led the miners strike in 1984-5 and in his own confused way was an honest militant working-class leader but who looked east, to Stalinism, the opposite to the society he lived in, were tragic mirror images of each other’s limitations.
What East European and Russian workers gained in 1989-91 was the freedom to think and to organise, the freedom to struggle and to learn from their struggles. Out of this, the first steps towards socialism - independent workers' organisations, trade unions, and even parties - have emerged again in countries in which history seemed to have ended in Hell with the imposition of Stalinism half a century earlier. In the east, working-class history began again.
The East European and Russian revolts of the working class against Stalinism vindicated the anti-Stalinist Bolsheviks, those who made the Russian Revolution and died, most of them. fighting Stalinism.
Stalinism and Bolshevism
Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks led the workers organized in democratic workers’ councils, soviets, to power. They fought ruthlessly against the bourgeoisie and the opponents of socialism. They smashed the walls of the Tsarist prison-house of nations and gave social democracy to the oppressed nations - a majority of the population - in the Tsarist Russian Empire. Far from substituting themselves for the working class, the Bolshevik party, by its leadership and farsightedness, allowed the working class to reach and sustain a level of mass action hitherto unparalleled in history.
The Bolsheviks were fallible human beings, acting in conditions of great difficulty. Mistakes they may have made in the maelstrom of civil war and economic collapse are proper subjects for historians and socialist discussion and debate. As their critic and comrade Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918, the Bolsheviks would have been the last to imagine that everything they did in their conditions was a perfect model of socialist action for everywhere at all times.
When things began to go wrong the Bolsheviks stood their ground. The workers' risings were defeated in the West. Invasions and civil war wrecked the soviets. The Bolshevik party itself divided. One section took a path on which it ended up leading the bureaucratic "Stalinist" counterrevolution. The surviving central leaders led by Trotsky fought the counterrevolution on a programme of working class self-defence and of renewing the soviets.
Those Bolsheviks went down to bloody defeat. Stalinism rose above the grave of Bolshevism, just as it rose hideously above the murdered socialist hopes of the Russian and international working class. That working class hope turned into nightmares in which we are still gripped. By the late 1930s Stalin had slaughtered the leading activists not only from the Trotskyist, but also from the Right (Bukharinist) Communist and even the original Stalinist faction of the Bolshevik party of the 1920s.
Stalinism was not Bolshevism, any more than it was any kind of socialism. Trotsky, who was to die at the hands of Stalin's assassins, put it well and truly when he said that a river of working class and communist blood separated Stalinism, from Bolshevism.
The dying Lenin, in the first place, and then the Left Opposition founded in Moscow in October 1923, whose leaders were Trotsky and Rakovsky, fought the Stalinist counter-revolution that overthrew the workers' state. Fought it to the death of vast numbers, almost all of them, in Stalin's concentration camps, jails, and homicide chambers.
Trotsky and the Trotskyists
Trotskyism was no arbitrary or merely personal creation. The Trotskyists took over, developed and fought for the ideas of the early Communist International - the International, which itself inherited the progressive work and root ideas of the previously existing socialist movement. The ideas of what came to be called Trotskyism were the continuation and summation of the whole history of the socialist working-class movement.
The Trotskyists held to the original perspectives and programme of the Communist International, the world-wide party of socialist revolution that Lenin and Trotsky set up in 1919 - to the goal of winning working-class power in the advanced capitalist countries. But that programme could only be fought for effectively by a mass movement; those perspectives depended for their realisation on the living activity of millions of revolutionary workers. And the millions-strong world-wide army of "communism" was in the grip of the delusion that Stalinism was communism. Organisationally, it was in the grip of totalitarian "communist" "parties" controlled by the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy, which used lies, corruption, and gangsterism to keep its hold.
In the 1920s and with decreasing conviction up to the Moscow Trials Trotsky and his comrades saw USSR Stalinism as a progressive alternative to capitalism and to capitalist imperialism. But they registered also that it was neither an adequate, nor a viable, nor a desirable alternative. And from 1937 Trotsky became increasingly hostile and negative about the "USSR" which at the end of his life he defined as only potentially progressive. (See In Defence of Marxism and the present writer’s introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution).
Max Shachtman, adapting an old joke about the Holy Roman Empire, pointed out that in the name "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" there were four lies: it wasn’t a free union, there were no soviets, it was in no way socialist, and it was more a Stalinist absolute monarchy than any kind of Republic.
Trotsky did not properly name Stalinist imperialism "imperialism", but he described it in fact, and counterposed to it a working-class programmatic alternative. Thus, for example, Trotsky championed independence for the Ukrainian nation, oppressed by Great Russian Stalinist chauvinist.
What if "the separation of the Ukraine threatens to break down the economic plan and lower the productive forces", asked Trotsky. "This argument, too, is not decisive. An economic plan is not the holy of holies. It is impermissible to forget that the plunder and arbitrary rule of the bureaucracy constitute an important integral part of the current economic plan...
"The question of first order is the revolutionary guarantee of the unity and independence of a workers' and peasants' Ukraine in the struggle against imperialism on the one hand, and against Moscow Bonapartism on the other". Trotsky understood perfectly that the USSR was a Great-Russian Empire.
The Trotskyist rearguard of Bolsheviks were comprehensively defeated, inside Russia and everywhere else. They could not rise politically when the working class had been defeated and beaten down. Let one of those Stalinists who crushed Bolshevism and lived to finally understand what happened, Leopold Trepper describe them for us.
Leopold Trepper was the head of the USSR’s spy network in Nazi-occupied Europe. After the war Trepper was imprisoned by the KGB and only released during the post-Stalin thaw in the mid 1950s. In his autobiography The Great Game, Trepper honours the Trotskyists for their unyielding opposition to Stalin thus:
"The glow of October was being extinguished in the shadows of underground chambers. The revolution had degenerated into a system of terror and horror; the ideals of socialism were ridiculed in the name of a fossilized dogma which the executioners still had the effrontery to call Marxism.
And yet we went along, sick at heart, but passive, caught up in machinery we had set in motion with our own hands. Mere cogs in the apparatus, terrorised to the point of madness, we became the instruments of our own subjugation. All those who did not rise up against the Stalinist machine are responsible, collectively responsible. I am no exception to this verdict.
But who did protest at that time? Who rose up to voice his outrage?
The Trotskyists can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.
Today, the Trotskyists have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed."
Ambassador Coulondre, Hitler, Trotsky, and Trotskyism after Trotsky
On the very eve of the Second World War, the German fascist dictator Hitler had a last meeting with the French ambassador Coulondre.
Soon, for the second time in a quarter-century, France and Germany would be tearing each other to pieces in war. Coulondre remonstrated with Hitler about the Nazi deal with Stalin, the Stalin-Hitler pact. It would mean war, he told Hitler.
He conjured up for Hitler the memory of what had happened at the end of the last world war. Working-class revolt had swept across Europe. Revolutionary workers brought down the German Emperor; they took and held power in Russia; they took power and were overthrown in Hungary and in Bavaria. Europe was swept by strikes, factory seizures, and great mass movements of workers determined not to go on in the old way and desperately looking for a way out of war and capitalism, a way to a socialist society.
That, said Coulondre, is what you risk unleashing once again. To dramatise his point, and to evoke as vividly as he could for Hitler the horrors he was conjuring up, Coulondre pronounced the name under which he, and the European bourgeoisie, thought of the socialist revolution.
"The real victor (in case of war) will be Trotsky. Have you thought of that?"
Trotsky! Together with Lenin, Trotsky had led the Russian workers' revolution in 1917. He, with Lenin dead, had opposed the tyrannical Stalin regime in the USSR. Now a hunted exile, he preached the need for socialist revolution as the only alternative to the barbarism into which capitalism and Stalinism were plunging the world. For the bourgeoisie of the world and for the Stalinists who ruled the USSR he still personified the threat of working class revolution.
Almost exactly a year after the conversation between Coulondre and Hitler, on 20 August 1940, in Coyocoan, a suburb of Mexico City, the Spanish Stalinist Ramon Mercader, posing as a co-thinker in order to get close to him, smashed Trotsky's skull with an ice-pick and he died the following day.
When, at the end of World War Two, the great wave of working-class revolt Coulondre had conjured up to frighten Hitler did sweep Europe, it was controlled or repressed by the Stalinist organisations.
Trotsky left behind him a weak and tiny movement - a small splinter from the gigantic world communist movement which drew in those who had rallied to the Russian Revolution.
Most of the communists stayed with Stalin, who controlled the "Soviet" state, because they did not understand that a political and social counterrevolution had taken place within the collectivist property forms that continued to exist in the Soviet Union.
By the second half of the 1940s, the USSR had survived and had conquered a new Stalinist empire covering half of Europe. Its European borders were established in the middle of Germany, a hundred miles west of Berlin. Russia was one of the two great world powers.
In Eastern Europe systems like that of the USSR were created; in China and other countries, Stalinists made revolutions which were against the big capitalist powers, and against the bourgeoisie, but also against the working class. In the West, in France and Italy for example, the Stalinist movements, on Russia's orders, helped the bourgeoisies to rebuild their states.
Stalinism expanded into new areas, covering one third of the world. Capitalism, which had seemed almost on its last legs in 1940, entered a post-war boom. The mass labour movements of the advanced countries settled in to live with and under capitalism. Capitalism experienced such lightning-flash revolts as the general strike in France by nine million workers in May 1968, but easily survived them.
The majority of the forces making up post-Trotsky Trotskyism continued to see the Stalinist states as degenerated or (the new ones outside Russia) deformed "workers' states", socially in advance of and superior to capitalism. Russia, Eastern Europe, and China were, they believed, "post-capitalist", in transition between capitalism and socialism.
Trotskyism thus seemed to be the embodiment of an idea whose time had come—and somehow passed it by; a movement whose programme, or the economic fundamentals of it, had been made reality by its Stalinist enemies, and grotesquely twisted into horrible shapes in the process.
Trotsky and the USSR
Why had Trotsky held on to the view that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state? Trotsky rejected the idea that Stalinist Russia was a viable class-exploitative society for the same reason that he had rejected Stalin’s and Bukharin’s programme of building up socialism in an isolated Russia ("socialism in one country"). He did not believe that a system of production more advanced and more viable than capitalism could be developed in an enclave alongside capitalism, and come to replace it by outgrowing and out-producing it. The idea was utopian – a reactionary utopia.
Trotsky stuck to the idea that Russia remained (or maybe remained) a workers’ state, a very degenerated workers’ state, a "counter-revolutionary" workers' state, because he thought that his assessment should, until events forced him to a different general conclusion, remain within the established Marxist notion of the necessary evolution of the stages of class society. He thought it was too soon, after the experience of Stalinism for only a short period - in historical time a very short period - to shift the theory. As he wrote in one of the polemics, he reserved the right to "revolutionary optimism".
He registered the Russian realities conscientiously. In September 1939 for the first time he recognised the possibility that Stalinist Russia as it was, without any new counter-revolution, might in the near future have to be recognised as a new form of exploitative class society. Then he said, wait: let us see what happens in the war. He had good reason for holding to that view then. It did not imply the sort of politics which the "Orthodox Trotskyists" would follow vis a vis Stalinism after his death.
Class society had gone through a number of stages - primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc. - and a number of in-between transitional formations, with each stage or formation leading into another. (There had been distinct systems of "Asiatic despotism" or "hydraulic society" in various parts of the world, from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, through the Inca and Aztec societies in the Americas, to India and China, which in terms of social and economic development had been blind alleys and which had been broken up by the impact of the arms and the trade of European capitalism.)
In the basic Marxist theory, working-class rule and socialism could not precede advanced capitalism. Capitalism prepared the way for socialism by its creation and education of the proletariat itself. Socialism, the beginning of the elimination of class exploitation, was impossible until relative economic abundance, the social precondition for the abolition of classes, had been created.
Before modern capitalism that precondition had not been created and could not be created. In conditions of low labour productivity and of scarcity, classes of slaves and masters had arisen again and again. Classes and class exploitation were a necessary condition of civilisation for human history before capitalism.
The idea of socialism preceding advanced capitalism was in Marxist reasoning as absurd as the idea of the child preceding its parents. Capitalism was the father of socialism, and the working class its mother.
It was in defence of that basic pillar of the Marxist theory and programme of working-class socialism that Trotsky and his comrades had rejected "socialism in one country", the early rallying-programme of the Russian bureaucracy that had overthrown the working-class power set up in 1917.
That way of focusing it - socialism in "one country" - was misleading. The question was not whether socialism could be built in one country, or six, or eight countries. The USSR was anyway a great deal more than "one country". Its territory covered one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface.
The question was whether socialism could be built in backwardness, before advanced capitalism had done its work of developing the economy and the working class.
The Marxist programme of socialism presupposed the resources of the entire international economy, woven together into a world system by advanced capitalism. It was an international programme to replace international capitalism, or it was an utopia, an attempt akin to the colonies constructed by pre-Marxist utopian socialists to build up an alternative society and compete with capitalism from outside.
The Marxist programme was built on the development of the working class within advanced capitalism, and that working class eventually coming to be able to overthrow and replace capitalism. A classless socialist society could not be created at will in conditions of economic backwardness.
In conditions of economic scarcity, exactly the same thing would happen with any new putatively socialist society as had happened throughout history. In Marx’s words, "all the old crap" would re-emerge: class differentiation, class struggle, the establishment of an exploiting class lording it over the producers.
Like Lenin and the Bolshevik party in 1917, Trotsky saw and expected that in isolation the economically backward Russian state where the workers had power would inescapably be engulfed by world capitalism, which would link up with the peasantry and other petty bourgeois groups within its boundaries.
An alternative society - in the theory of "socialism in one country", a nominally socialist society - could not be built side by side with advanced capitalism and go on to replace it. The "alternative" society would inevitably suffer an inner transformation, rooted in its backwardness, that would reduce it to the surrounding international level of capitalist society.
A stable, fully-formed alternative type of exploiting class society, emerging on the fringes of capitalism to compete with it and replace it from outside, was ruled out for the same reason that "socialism in one country" was.
A system built on a low level of economic development, and therefore of labour productivity, and cut off from the world networks and connections created by capitalism, could not coexist independently side by side with advanced capitalism and successfully compete with it, for just the same reasons as "socialism in one country" could not.
For Trotsky, it seemed more rational to categorise Stalinist Russia as a freakish, short-term aberration from a workers' state - however great or even dominant the aberration - than to theorise that a new form of class society had emerged and was competing successfully with capitalism. In the end, he proved right in thinking that the Stalinist USSR was an unviable aberration - but his timescale was hugely, disorientingly, mistaken.
Trotsky's final position had been that the USSR simply could not survive the World War. It would go down, either before the forces of world capitalism, or before the Russian workers rising against the autocracy. And if, against all his calculations, which were based on the idea that the Stalinist system was unstable and transitional to either restored capitalism or a renewal of the workers' power, the USSR survived? He said: in that eventuality Stalinism would have revealed itself to be a new form of exploitative class society, neither bourgeois nor working class.
At the time of his death Trotsky was close to identifying the Stalinist states as a new form of collectivist class society, and said explicitly that if certain things happened - which did in fact happen with the survival in Russia and expansion of Stalinism - then there was no alternative but to redefine Stalinism that way. If Trotsky had lived and stuck to what he was saying in 1940, he could not have done what the mainstream "Trotskyists" did in the late '40s and after.
As far as what he wrote and said can tell us, Trotsky would not have been a post war "Trotskyist". Trotsky's heroic rearguard struggle against the Stalinist counter-revolution and the corruption of the world communist movement was the historic "Trotskyism". Post-Trotsky Trotskyism is something else again. Yet, broadly, it remained the legatee of the old mass communist movement that - to adopt Isaac Deutscher’s image - had vanished like Atlantis in the sea.
The survivors of Atlantis
When the Trotskyist mainstream, in the late 1940s, turned towards a more "positive" account of Stalinism, there was a mass exodus from its ranks. The defeated and depleted Trotskyist current, always small, shrank in the 1950s to being very little, even miniscule. In Trotsky's time the gap between its ideological riches and its small forces had been one of this movement's most characteristics features. Now, in terms of its ideas, too, it shrank
The major surviving Trotskisant current, the so-called "orthodox Trotskyists", organised in the "Fourth International" of James P Cannon, Michel Pablo, and Ernest Mandel, and its splinters, the Morenists, Lambertists, Grantites, Healyites, etc., sided with the Stalinist camp in the world polarisation into two blocs. They were "critically", but "unconditionally", for the "defence" of the Stalinist bloc against the other bloc, and for all its full and partial partisans. The expansion of the Stalinist bloc was, they insisted, the World Revolution advancing, though, to be sure, advancing in unexpected and uncongenial ("deformed") ways.
They identified Stalinism of various sorts with the "world revolution", and regarded the Stalinist states as "progressive". Automatically they took sides with the Stalinist bloc in its imperialist competition with capitalist imperialism and even in such an old-style colonialist enterprise as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (1979). They backed China in Tibet in 1959 and after criticising the Maoists for tardiness in extending "the revolution" to Tibet.
These "orthodox" Trotskyists came to accept the essential utopian idea behind "Socialism in One Country" by way of adopting the view that the USSR, and later the Stalinist bloc, were societies "in transition to socialism". Although Isaac Deutscher was not himself a Trotskyist – he insisted on that – he was greatly influential with the post Trotsky Trotskyists. What he wrote about the rosy prospects before the USSR, in for example his 1960 book The Great Contest, now reads like wild ravings.
Mao was proclaimed the political legatee of Trotsky, not Stalin, for instance by Pierre Frank in an introduction to a collection of Trotsky’s writings in the French language. Much scholastic ducking and weaving by such neo-Trotskyists as Ernest Mandel was devoted to "proving" that Stalin’s "socialism in one country" had been refuted by the spread of "the revolution" – that is, of Stalinism - far beyond the borders of the USSR.
As we’ve seen, "one country" was not the point of Trotsky’s objection. The point was that it was utopian to imagine that a country, or even, in the new situation, a bloc of countries, could evolve from backwardness to compete with, overtake and overthrow advanced world capitalism.
For the USSR and the East European satellite states these "orthodox Trotskyists" advocated Trotsky's old programme of working-class revolution. Following Trotsky, they called what they advocated a "political revolution". In fact what they, like Trotsky, advocated was a profound social revolution, the destruction of the Stalinist state power and its replacement by a working-class regime based on workers' councils. That meant a fundamental transformation in property, from ownership by the totalitarian state, which was itself owned by the Stalinist autocracy, to ownership by a democratic working-class quasi-state.
For the countries in which Stalinist guerrilla armies had won power in civil wars and made their own Stalinist states, the "orthodox Trotskyists" tended to advocate not revolution but reform as the way to working-class democracy. Some of them, by way of "open letters" to the Chinese or Yugoslav "comrades", turned themselves into utopian-socialist would-be advisers of Stalinist ruling classes on how to abolish their systems!
In at least two senses this was not the "Trotskyism" of Trotsky. The post-Trotsky Trotskyists shifted from seeing Russian Stalinism as a freak phenomenon that could not survive - Trotsky’s position - to seeing the "USSR" and new Stalinist states as stable social formations, "in transition to socialism". Socialism itself would be at the other side of working class "political revolution" against Stalinist autocracy or - in China and other countries - radical democratisation; but this view implied an acceptance of the logic of "socialism in one country", of the idea that Russia could develop in parallel to capitalism and outstrip it. The fact of other Stalinist states coming into being had no bearing on this.
This thinking was also a radical turn away from Trotsky’s tentative conclusion that if Stalinist Russia survived the world war intact it would have to be radically re-conceptualised as a new form of bureaucratic class society.
On such questions the politics of the "orthodox Trotskyists" were a hybrid of Trotsky's and those of the pre-war Brandlerite "Right Communists" or critical "liberal Stalinists", splinter from the Communist International. Isaac Deutscher, though he had been a Trotskyist from 1932 until 1940, was after that a Brandlerite in his ideas about the USSR. Brandlerite politics and assessments suffuse his very widely read three-volume biography of Trotsky, and his biography of Stalin.
For the last sixty years of the 20th century, most anti-Stalinists were of this "orthodox Trotskyist" - or better, "orthodox Trotskyist"/ Deutscherite - persuasion. In their own inadequate and contradictory way, despite their belief that the advance of Stalinism in the world was the "deformed" advance of the socialist world revolution, nevertheless, they were anti-Stalinist. At their worst, when calling on Stalinist ruling classes to reform their own system, they advocated radical reforms that, if they were realised, would not have left much of Stalinism intact.
Their adaptation to Stalinism was never uncritical adaptation - those who ceased to be critical ceased to be even nominally Trotskyist. It was a misguided attempt at a revolutionary socialist "accommodation" to the fact of Stalinism, so as to promote the "full" Trotskyist programme. It was never inner acceptance of it, never a surrender of the idea that the Stalinist states had to be democratised and transformed.
But Ernest Mandel, for example, used his erudition and his intellectual talents to weave, from the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, ideological clothing which could be draped on the expansion of Stalinism in order to identify it as part of the world revolution of the proletariat. Directly and indirectly, over the years, this "orthodox Trotskyism" tied large numbers of anti-Stalinist militants into accepting, tolerating or half-justifying aspects even of Russian Stalinist imperialism.
As a truthful picture of Russia began to form out of the mist of fantasy, lies and falsification - after say, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, to put down the emerging "socialism with a human face" there - many CPers were disillusioned. Orthodox Trotskyists could not experience that sort of "disillusionment". They knew all the horrors of Stalinism already and had a theory - "degenerated and deformed workers’ states" - to frame them. So long as nationalised property existed the Stalinist state would be "progressive", anti-capitalist and worthy of defence.
So in 1979, when Russian invaded Afghanistan, many CPs - the British for instance - condemned the invasion and called on Russia to withdraw. Every orthodox Trotskyist organisation in existence, with the exception of Socialist Organiser-Workers’ Liberty, refused to oppose the occupation. There was a big minority in the French organisation LCR which wanted to call for the withdrawal of the Russian army, but some groups were very enthusiastic for the expansion of the "workers’ state".
Mandel, the most important orthodox Trotskyist thinker, played a role similar to that of Karl Kautsky two generations earlier, who rationalised, from the point of view of a hollow "orthodox Marxism", what the leaders of the German social democracy and trade unions did. But Mandel was worse than Kautsky. Kautsky devised ideological schemes to depict the time-serving activities of a bureaucratised labour movement as an effective drive for working-class liberation; Mandel produced similar rationalisations for totalitarian Stalinist states and empires - Stalinism that must be judged historically to have had no relationship to socialism and working-class emancipation but that of a destroyer of labour movements and an enslaver of working classes.
It was their assessment of the USSR, inherited from Trotsky but erected by themselves into a self-blinding dogma, that trapped the orthodox Trotskyists into letting themselves be reduced, too often, to the role of mere satellites of the Stalinist bloc and its partisans in the capitalist states. That misidentification of the USSR was one pillar of a complex historical disorientation: the existence of the Russian degenerated workers’ state and the coming into existence of other Stalinist states was seen as proof that this was "the era of wars and socialist revolution".
Almost everything "Trotskyist" in our early 21st century post-Stalinist world - including Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty - has its roots in that "orthodox Trotskyist" current. It was, probably, the ambiguities, self-contradictoriness, and politically protean character of that current which allowed it to survive, in many political variants and compounds.
The other Trotskyists
There was another Trotskyist current - that of Max Shachtman and the others who fought Trotsky in 1939-40 because they rejected any sort of "critical support" for the Russian Stalinist army in its war with Finland (from November 1939 to April 1940).
They went on to break, in 1940-1, with the idea that the USSR was any kind or degree of workers' state. In response to events, they elaborated a distinct strand of Trotskyism.
In the 1940s the "orthodox Trotskyists" floundered politically in face of, first, the unexpected survival of Russian Stalinism, and then the eruption of Stalinist imperialism. Like Bible-fetish Christians, they read in the Big Book of "Trotskyist" "orthodoxy", where they themselves had written as immutable dogma an unrepresentative selection of Trotsky's works and phrases, especially on the USSR.
In contrast, the "other Trotskyists", the "heterodox Trotskyists", responded to the consolidation of the Stalinist autocracy and the rise of its empire to the eminence of second power in the world with accurate reporting and sober assessment of its meaning for socialist theory and its implications for the socialist working-class programme.
It can be argued (as I have argued, in detail and at length, elsewhere) that this heterodox Trotskyist current, in fact, despite its episodic dispute with Trotsky in 1939-40, continued the politics of Trotsky and applied them to the world, and specifically to Stalinism, in the way that Trotsky himself would have done if he had survived into the 1940s. Be that as it may, they evolved a distinctive Trotskyist tradition and gave it life.
For two decades and more, they produced a powerful literature that has for that period no equal, nor any near relative or rival. Ultimately, from the end of the 1950s, their tendency too fell apart.
Where the orthodox Trotskyists saw the Stalinist states, which expropriated capitalism, as the advancing ("deformed") world revolution, the heterodox Trotskyists saw Stalinist revolutions as the advance and spread of totalitarian slavery that they in fact were.
What they had in common, the two basic strains of post-Trotsky "Trotskyists", was the belief that capitalism was collapsing and dying. For the "orthodox", that gave them confidence that History was (sort of, in a "deformed" blood-thirsty way), on their side, and shaped the way they saw Stalinism.
To the Shachtmanites, capitalism was sure to be replaced soon, one way or another - and the choice of replacement was either Stalinism or socialism. In the capitalist prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, they saw only a respite in the disintegration and death-decline of capitalism. The prosperity could not last, and, therefore, so it sometimes seems in their writings, it did not really exist, at least in terms of the long-term perspective.
Stalinism was indeed expanding, and it would continue to expand for some years after Shachtman’s death in 1972. Following through the line of thought that under bourgeois democracy, in sharp contrast to Stalinist totalitarianism, the working-class movement could function, and could prepare itself to create a socialist alternative to both capitalism and Stalinism, Shachtman and his close friends went over to the US-led bloc.
They abandoned the socialist programme of independent working class politics, of the "third camp", and sided with bourgeois-democratic capitalist USA against the Stalinist bloc, seeing the US and its allies as the only halfway-viable alternative to Stalinism. They took that course for reasons that have much in common with those which led the "orthodox Trotskyists" to back the Stalinist bloc (critically - but the Shachtmanites too were critical of "their" bloc).
Within that bloc, they thought, working-class independent socialism could emerge; otherwise it would be crushed by advancing Stalinism. Shachtman became mired in the dirty politics of the Democratic Party. As a tendency, his co-thinkers evolved into born-again social-democrats. Shachtman himself never abjured support for the October Revolution, but some of his co-thinkers would (see Al Glotzer in Workers’ Liberty 16).
Others in the heterodox Trotskyist tendency - Hal Draper, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson and a few others, who started the magazine New Politics in the early 1960s - rejected Shachtman’s course and maintained independent socialist politics. But in their own particular way, they too moved very far from the politics of the tendency in its heroic days of the 40s and most of the 50s. They rejected the project of building a revolutionary socialist party. Draper repudiated and rejected what he called the "micro-sect" project of organisation-building. They became mere propagandists - with propaganda, to be sure, of a very high order.