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

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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Marxist Theory and History: 

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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Marxist Theory and History: 

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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