Workers' Liberty 3/31: Trotsky and the Stalinist state

Trotsky After 70 Years.

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

By Sean Matgamna
It is 70 years since one of the greatest figures in the history of the socialist movement was assassinated.

On August 20, 1940, Leon Trotsky, who, together with Lenin, had led the Russian workers’ revolution of October 1917, was struck down with a blow to the head from an ice pick wielded by an assassin sent by the Russian dictator Stalin. He soon lost consciousness, and died the next day, August 21. Trotsky who had been an active revolutionary socialist for 43 years was a couple of months short of his 61st birthday.

We commemorate the great revolutionary by looking critically at his attempts, from 1923 to his death, to understand the nature of Stalinism.

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

Author: 

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.

The standard account of the debate among the Trotskyists in 1939-40 is a gross misrepresentation.

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2. the response of the Trotskyists to Russia's invasions

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

How did Trotsky and the Trotskyists see these events? Trotsky maintained to the end that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state, progressive despite Stalin. But in September 1939, as we will see, he made an enormously important shift within that general position.

Why, although he wrote much that implied Russia was a new form of exploiting class society, did Trotsky continue to insist Russia was a degenerated workers’ state until his death in 1940?

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3. Not Trotsky’s positions on the invasions

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

A. It was not because the working class actively ruled in any day-to-day sense. Trotsky said that the bureaucracy was “in the full sense of the word the sole privileged and commanding stratum in the Soviet society”. When Stalin invaded Poland, Trotsky wrote that this amounted to making the people of eastern Poland “semi-slaves” of Stalin, and of the USSR itself he wrote: “Semi-starved workers and collective farmers among themselves whisper with hatred about the spendthrift caprices of rabid commissars...”

In Trotsky’s last months, he argued that Russia was only conditionally progressive, the condition being that that the workers made a new (“political”) revolution.

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4. The real, as distinct from the mythical, disputes in the Fourth International:

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

A.Trotsky had written, after France and Britain surrendered to Hitler over Czechoslovakia at Munich, that “We may now expect with certainty Soviet diplomacy to attempt rapprochement with Hitler” (22 September 1938).

Trotskyists who read their own press should least of all have been taken completely by surprise in August 1939 by the Stalin-Hitler pact. Yet, of course, recognising in advance the prefiguring shadow of a possibility could not prepare them for the shock of the reality when it came.

The debate in the Trotskyist movement after the Nazi-Stalinist military alliance of August 1939.

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5. Did Trotsky break new ground on the class nature of Russia in 1939?

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

A. At first there is, between Trotsky’s material for the bourgeois press and the Trotskyist public press, and his writings for the internal discussions of the Trotskyist movement, simply a division of functions and levels.

In The USSR In War (25 September 1939) he uses the occasion to review his whole position on Russia, the literary device of a polemical discussion of a book just published in Paris (and banned by the French government for its anti-semitism), ‘The Bureaucratisation of the World by Bruno Rizzi’.

By October 1939, Trotsky had in effect abandoned the idea that Russia was a degenerated workers' state, insisting only on a further period of seeing what happened before explicitly rejecting the theory and accepting that it was a new form of class society.

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6. New, bureaucratic, revolutions?

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

A. Trotsky’s uncertainty and disorientation in the new situation after the Hitler-Stalin pact and the joint Russian-German conquest of Poland is perhaps most discernable in his eagerness to accept an obscure report that the Ukrainian and Polish workers in eastern Poland had favourably received the invading Russians and on the arrival of the “Red” Army had begun to act against the ruling class.

Trotsky, it seems, based himself on a report in a Menshevik paper:

For Trotsky it was a given that easten Poland, annexed by Stalinist Russia in 1939, would be transformed it into a replica of the USSR. By the late 1940's, however, that 'bureaucratic revolution' had become the basis of a new world outlook in the Trotskyist movement.

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7. The Fourth International and the Russian invasion of Finland

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

A. On 30 November Russia invaded Finland, and a five month war followed, in the course of which there was a serious possibility that French and British troops would land to aid the Finns, and that Russia would come into World War Two on Hitler’s side.

Amidst a great US public outcry against Hitler’s ally Stalin over Finland, the US Trotskyist press tried to pretend that Finland was the same Finland as that of 1918, when the Finnish ruling class had responded to the danger of the workers’ revolution spreading from Russia to Finland by White Terror.

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8. “Socialism in one country” and Trotsky’s rejection of “bureaucratic collectivism”

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

Why did Trotsky hold on to the view that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state, when others - basing themselves on his account of the realities of Stalinism and his formula of 1936 about the bureaucracy “owning” the state - argued that it was a new form of exploitative class society?

In fact, by the end, Trotsky held on to the idea that Russia remained a workers’ state with increasing tentativeness. I will come back to that.

Why did Trotsky hold on to the view that Russia remained a degenerated workers’ state, when other socialists argued that it was a new form of exploitative class society by basing themselves on his accounts of Stalinism?

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9. The Nightfall of Capitalism?

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

A competing alternative society to capitalism, emerging from its margins, could only thrive and develop if capitalism were in irreversible decline and fated to be overtaken by a historic reversion to a more rudimentary system.

Within his framing ideas about broad historical development, and as aspects of them, Trotsky rejected the notion that Russia should be classified as a new class society for two linked reasons.

Why, within his ideas about broad historical development, Trotsky rejected the notion that Russia should be classified as a new class society.

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10. Russia a “conjunctural” new class society?

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

Wasn’t it possible to admit that the Russian system was an exploitative class society, but with all the instability, ephemerality, and lack of scope for historical development imposed by the limitations of its competition with capitalism? Logically, yes. In Trotsky’s concrete assessments of Stalinist society, and in his programme for a new working-class socialist revolution in it, he did in effect define it that way.

The great tragedy is that Leon Trotsky, removed from the scene by a Stalinist assassin in 1940, bequeathed very great confusion on the movement that continued in his name.

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11. Leon Trotsky and Bruno Rizzi

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

That is the significance of Trotsky’s discussion “with” Rizzi. Rizzi was a political crank, an anti-semite, and believed that both fascism and Stalinism were routes to one and the same goal, “bureaucratic collectivism”. That was a progressive system that would ultimately lead peacefully into socialism.

Anti-semitism was a mode of anti-capitalist opinion and feeling. Fascism and Stalinism (“communism”) should unite into one movement.

In his writings “about” Rizzi in 1939, Trotsky did not even allude to most of Rizzi’s ideas. What interested him was Rizzi’s idea that the world was evolving towards a new bureaucratic-collectivist class system.

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12. Lenin's "Democratic Dictatorship of Proletariat" in 1917 and Trotsky's Russian " Degenerate Workers' State" in 1940

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

Trotsky once compared his conception of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” to Lenin’s theory of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

Trotsky, who organised the October insurrection, said that if he had been present in St Petersburg in 1917 and Lenin absent, the revolution would have been defeated. But where Lenin could by returning to Russia change things and pull the Bolshevik Party policy in 1917 into line with the new possibilities and the drives of its militant working class supporters, Trotsky died in the struggle with Stalin, leaving theoretical chaos to his comrades from which the movement never recovered. It was, indeed, as if Lenin “had died in Switzerland at the beginning of 1917”.

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