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.
And what came in August 1939 was not merely a non-aggression pact, but a comprehensive alliance in which Russia would be Hitler’s partner, playing at the very least the same quartermaster’s role to Germany that the USA played for Britain before December 1941.
Then in mid-September came the joint German-Russian war of conquest and annexation on Poland. Eleven weeks later came Russia’s war on Finland.
It was only on the level of a very general abstraction that all this could be seen as just an alliance with one imperialist power rather than another. Trotsky himself recognised the special horrors of the Nazi regime, when in June 1940 he advocated special measures for the workers in the bourgeois democracies, such as Britain and the USA, faced with an inter-imperialist war in which the workers in the bourgeois democracies had a very great deal to lose from a Nazi conquest that would destroy the labour movement.
“Militarization now goes on on a tremendous scale. We cannot oppose it with pacifist phrases. This militarization has wide support among the workers. They bear a sentimental hatred against Hitler mixed with confused class sentiments. They have a hatred against the victorious brigands.
“The bureaucracy utilizes this to say help the defeated gangster. Our conclusions are completely different. But this sentiment is the inevitable base for the last period of preparation. We must find a new realistic base for this preparation.
“We must oppose sending untrained boys into battle. The trade unions not only must protect the workers in peaceful times and protect their industrial skill, but they must now demand the possibility of learning the military art from the state... Schools should be set up in connection with the trade unions at government expense but under the control of the trade unions...”
“That which we workers find worth defending, we are ready to defend by military means — in Europe as well as in the United States. It is the only possibility we have of assuring the defence of civil liberties and other good things in America. But we categorically refuse to defend civil liberties and democracy in the French manner; the workers and farmers to give their flesh and blood while the capitalists concentrate in their hands the command. The Petain experiment should now form the centre of our war propaganda...”
“We must use the example of France to the very end. We must say, ‘I warn you, workers, that they (the bourgeoisie) will betray you! Look at Petain, who is a friend of Hitler. Shall we have the same thing happen in this country? We must create our own machine, under workers’ control.”
Thus Trotsky put forward the ideas that after his death would lead to a special “proletarian military policy” in Britain and the USA, a policy whose essential idea was that the working class wanted to fight and defeat the Nazis, or at least stop them marching in as conquerors, but couldn’t rely on or trust the ruling class to combat Hitler.
To put it at its weakest, this was very close to a policy of “revolutionary defencism”.
The shock which the Nazi-Stalinist military alliance sent through the US and the international Trotskyist movement belonged to the same order of things as Trotsky’s proposed “proletarian military policy”.
b. Trotsky denounced the Stalin-Hitler pact after a couple of weeks’ delay. He was on a holiday in the wilds of the Mexican countryside in mid August, and explained: “From many sides I have been asked why I did not express myself sooner on the German-Soviet pact and its consequences. I was prevented by accidental personal circumstances (sickness and a departure from Mexico City to a village). I thought, moreover, the events themselves were so clear that they needed no comment”.
The reality, however, was not quite the same as the general prospect that he had previously sketched. He may have wanted to think about it a bit.
c. At first he interpreted the pact entirely as a defensive move by Stalin. “The immediate advantages the Kremlin government receives from the alliance with Hitler are quite tangible. The USSR remains out of war. Hitler removes from the immediate agenda his campaign for a ‘greater Ukraine’... The German-Soviet pact is a capitulation of Stalin before fascist imperialism with the end of preserving the Soviet oligarchy...”
Trotsky would go on seeing Stalin’s policy as defensive for some time, though by 18 September he registered that “the secret is out... Voroshilov, together with the representatives of the German general staff, was discussing the best manner in which to smash and divide Poland”.
Despite his general intellectual adroitness, and his ability to predict that Stalin would go for an alliance with the competing imperialist bloc, Trotsky seems to have had some difficulty in registering the fact that Stalin really would be so short-sighted, so politically stupid, as in effect to help Hitler strengthen himself into an even more formidable potential enemy.
In general weaker powers are driven into alliance against the stronger, but in the Hitler-Stalin pact and after, Stalin strengthened the stronger (or, with Russia, which had an enormous army, the other strong) power in Europe.
After the fall of France, Trotsky would comment with especial bitterness on “the Kremlin’s role in the European catastrophe” (title of an article of June 1940): “Nobody else rendered such support to Hitler as Stalin... By demoralising the popular masses in Europe, and not only in Europe, Stalin played the role of an agent provocateur in the service of Hitler. The capitulation of France is one of the results of such politics”
d. There is also in Trotsky’s commentaries on events more than a suggestion that at first he thinks there is something simply incompatible between Russia and Germany, something un-natural about their active partnership.(After Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941, the Cannon Trotskyists in their press will claim just that...) Thus, as the Russian army mobilises to invade Poland, he is not at all sure they will not clash with the German army when they meet it. “The complete defeat of Poland can prove fatal to the German-Soviet agreement...”
He feels that Russia is in an objective situation that limits options, and tries to separate Stalinist policy from the sort of manoeuvring any regime in Russia would have to make: “revolution does not change geographical conditions”.
e. He interprets Stalin’s moves in Finland and the Baltic states in terms — or in part in terms — of Stalin’s fear of Hitler. That was at best one-sided.
Though Trotsky admits that there is a sort of Stalinist imperialism — Stalin participates in “the element of ‘imperialism’ in the widest sense of the word which was a property in the past of all monarchies, oligarchies, ruling castes, medieval estates and classes” — the positive Russian drive to imperial self-aggrandisement has little real weight in his early analyses.
f. While Trotsky laces his commentaries with explanations about the possible needs of USSR defence, in the public press, including the bourgeois press, he is roundly condemning virtually everything that Stalin does.
He condemns the pact. “The German-Soviet pact is neither absurd nor sterile — it is a military alliance with a division of roles: Hitler conducts the military operations, Stalin acts as his quartermaster. And still there are people who seriously assert that the objective of the Kremlin today is world revolution!”
He condemns the invasion of Poland: “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!... It is not a question of emancipating an oppressed people, but rather one of extending the territory where bureaucratic oppression and parasitism will be practised”.
He condemns the war with Finland: “The invasion of Finland indubitably provokes a silent condemnation by the majority of the population in the USSR”.