Many socialists today consider themselves to follow the ideas of Leon Trotsky — both a leader of the Russian workers’ revolution of 1917, and the leader of the working-class resistance to the subsequent counter-revolution under Josef Stalin.
Among those “Trotskyists”, the received wisdom is that in September 1939 Trotsky “defended” Stalin’s USSR in its invasion of eastern Poland.
The article below, Trotsky’s response to the invasion, shows that not to be true.
It is true that in the following months, along with further articles denouncing Stalin’s invasion, and his further invasion of Finland in November 1939, Trotsky wrote polemics, in debate with his comrades which pointed the other way.
The reasons are complex, but in our view show that Trotsky’s intricate formula of defining the USSR as a system which simultaneously was close to (or worse than) fascism in essential ways, and retained essential “conquests” from 1917, was falling apart under the pressure of events.*
After Trotsky’s death in 1940, some of his comrades stuck to his form of words, “degenerated workers’ state” and found themselves forced to give it new content, siding with Stalin’s USSR in a way that Trotsky had never done. Others stuck to his underlying line of thought, and found themselves rejecting his form of words in favour of recognising that the bureaucracy in the USSR had become a new imperialist ruling class.
On 1 September 1939 Hitler had invaded Poland from the west. The invasion came one week after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact. According to a secret protocol in the pact the Soviet Union was to take the eastern part of Poland then mainly inhabited by Ukrainians. On 17 September the Red Army invaded. This was Trotsky’s immediate response.
Trotsky had bitterly denounced the Hitler-Stalin pact. It was “a military alliance in the full sense of the word, for it serves the aims of aggressive imperialist war”, wrote Trotsky on 2 September 1939. The German-Soviet pact “is a military alliance with a division of roles: Hitler conducts the military operations, Stalin acts as his quartermaster...”
Believing that Stalin’s rule was too unstable for him to risk war, Trotsky did not expect the USSR invasion of eastern Poland. When it came, he responded in high indignation.
Elsewhere Trotsky conceded, “that in the occupied regions the Kremlin is proceeding to expropriate the large proprietors. But this is not a revolution accomplished by the masses, but an administrative reform, designed to extend the regime of the USSR into the new territories. Tomorrow” — in fact, simultaneously — “in the ‘liberated’ regions, the Kremlin will pitilessly crush the workers and peasants in order to bring them into subjection to the totalitarian bureaucracy”
18 September 1939
War, like revolution, is distinguished by the fact that at a blow it destroys idiotic formulas and reveals the naked reality underneath. “Defense of democracy” is an empty formula. The invasion of Poland is a bloody reality.
Today it is clear that in the very same years in which the Comintern was bringing to a head its clamorous campaign for an alliance of the democracies against fascism, the Kremlin was preparing a military understanding with Hitler against the so-called democracies. Even complete idiots will have to understand now that the Moscow trials, with the aid of which the Bolshevik Old Guard was destroyed under the accusation of collaboration with the Nazis, were nothing but camouflage for the Stalinist alliance with Hitler. The secret is out. While the British and French missions were discussing with Voroshilov the problem of the most effective defense of Poland, the same Voroshilov, together with the representatives of the German general staff, was discussing the best manner in which to smash and divide Poland. The Kremlin not only deceived Chamberlain, Daladier, and Beck, but also, and systematically, the working classes of the Soviet Union and the entire world.
Some fatuous people and snobs accuse me of being impelled to make horrible predictions out of “hatred” of Stalin. As if serious people allow themselves to be swayed by their personal feelings in questions of historical importance! The inexorable facts prove that reality is more horrible than all the predictions that I made. In entering Polish territory, the Soviet armies knew beforehand at what point they would meet — and as allies, not as enemies — with the armies of Hitler. The operation was determined in its main points by the secret clauses of the German-Soviet pact; the general staffs of both countries were to be found in constant collaboration; the Stalinist invasion is nothing but a symmetrical supplement of the Hitlerite operations. Such are the facts.
Until very recently the Kremlin, trying to gain the friendship of Warsaw (in the given case, to deceive it), declared that the slogan of self-determination for Western Ukraine (Eastern Galicia [i.e. the Ukrainian areas in eastern Poland]) was criminal. The purges and executions in the Soviet Ukraine were provoked mainly by the fact that the Ukrainian revolutionists, against the will of Moscow, aspired to the liberation of Galicia from Polish oppression. Now the Kremlin covers its intervention in Poland with a penitent concern for the “liberation” and “unification” of the Ukrainian and White Russian peoples. In reality, the Soviet Ukraine, more than any other part of the Soviet Union, is bound by the ferocious chains of the Moscow bureaucracy.
The aspirations of various sections of the Ukrainian nation for their liberation and independence are completely legitimate and have a very intense character. But these aspirations are directed also against the Kremlin. If the invasion gains its end, the Ukrainian people will find itself “unified”, not in national liberty, but in bureaucratic enslavement.
Furthermore, not a single honest person will be found who will approve of the “emancipation” of eight million Ukrainians and White Russians, at the price of the enslavement of twenty-three million Poles! Even if the Kremlin eventually organized a plebiscite in occupied Galicia, on the Goebbels pattern, it would not fool a soul. For it is not a question of emancipating an oppressed people, but rather one of extending the territory where bureaucratic oppression and parasitism will be practiced.
The Hitlerite press gives absolute approval to the "unification" and “liberation” of the Ukrainians under the claws of the Kremlin. With this Hitler is accomplishing two tasks: first, drawing the Soviet Union into his military orbit; second, taking a further preparatory step on the road towards the solution of his program of a “Greater Ukraine”. Hitler’s policy is the following: the establishment of a definite order for his conquests, one after the other, and the creation by each new conquest of a new system of “friendships”. At the present stage Hitler concedes the Greater Ukraine to his friend Stalin as a temporary deposit. In the following stage he will pose the question of who is the owner of this Ukraine: Stalin or he, Hitler.
There are people who dare to compare the Stalin-Hitler alliance with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. What a mockery! The Brest-Litovsk negotiations were carried out openly before all humanity. The Soviet revolution, at the end of 1917 and beginning of 1918, didn't have even a single battalion capable of carrying on the fight. Hohenzollern Germany attacked Russia, taking Soviet provinces and military supplies. The young government had no other physical possibility than to sign the peace treaty. This peace was openly defined by us as a capitulation of a disarmed revolution before a powerful enemy.
We did not worship the Hohenzollerns but rather denounced the Brest-Litovsk peace publicly as extortion and robbery. We did not deceive the workers and peasants. The present Stalin-Hitler pact was concluded despite the existence of an army of several millions, and the immediate task of the pact was to facilitate Hitler's smashing of Poland and its division between Berlin and Moscow. Where is the analogy?
The words of Molotov to the effect that the Red Army would cover itself with “glory” in Poland, are to the ineradicable shame of the Kremlin. The Red Army received the order to defeat in Poland those who had been defeated by Hitler. This is the shameful and criminal task that the Red Army was assigned by the jackals of the Kremlin.