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:
“In the Parisian organ of the Mensheviks... it is reported that ‘in the villages — very frequently at the very approach of the Soviet troops (i.e., even prior to their entering a given district — L.T.) — peasant committees sprang up everywhere, the elementary organs of revolutionary peasant self-rule...’ The military authorities hastened of course to subordinate these committees to the bureaucratic organs established by them in the urban centres. Nevertheless they were compelled to rest upon the peasant committees since without them it was impossible to carry out the agrarian revolution.
“The leader of the Mensheviks, Dan, wrote on October 19: ‘According to the unanimous testimony of all observers the appearance of the Soviet army and the Soviet bureaucracy provides not only in the territory occupied by them but beyond its confines — an impulse (!) to social turmoil and social transformations’...”
In fact, the section of the émigré Mensheviks whom he quotes, that led by Fyodor Dan, was increasingly gravitating towards a critical support for Stalinism. (So, incidentally, was a section of the émigré right. One group of avowed Russian fascists began after the Moscow Trials to hail Stalin as Russia’s fascist dictator. Mussolini, too, had written in the Italian press at the time of the Moscow Trials of Stalin as a species of Russian fascist.)
Nothing like the supposed rallying of the Polish and Ukrainian workers and peasants had happened. To the point, Trotsky himself had already written about the mass alienation of the Ukrainians from the Stalinist regime, insisting that Stalinism in power engendered only hatred.
“The ruthless hounding of all free national thought... has led the toiling masses of the Ukraine, to an even greater degree than the masses of Great Russia, to look upon the rule of the Kremlin as monstrously oppressive. In the face of such an internal situation it is naturally impossible even to talk of Western Ukraine [i.e. the Ukrainian part of eastern Poland] voluntarily joining the USSR as it is at present constituted...” (22 April 1939).
Events would prove him right in that. When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, they were at first greeted as liberators in the Ukraine and elsewhere..
Evidently Trotsky in 1939 was trying to find some elements of revolutionary life in the unexpected phenomenon of Stalin expanding and “sovietising” areas outside the USSR.
b. In the same vein Trotsky would offer a very sour lesser-evil semi-defence of Stalin’s annexation of eastern Poland.
“The occupation of eastern Poland by the Red Army is to be sure a ‘lesser evil’ in comparison with the occupation of the same territory by Nazi troops. But this lesser evil was obtained because Hitler was assured of achieving a greater evil. If somebody sets, or helps to set a house on fire and afterward saves five out of ten of the occupants of the house in order to convert them into his own semi-slaves, that is to be sure a lesser evil than to have burned the entire ten. But it is dubious that this firebug merits a medal for the rescue...”
If one re-reads this passage from within a “Trotskyist” culture where the idea of the USSR as a progressive, albeit degenerated, workers’ state has wide acceptance, what is notable and important here is the description of Stalinist rule as “semi-slavery”. Had Trotsky some inkling of the genocidal slaughter that became a part of Nazism from the start of the war, including the slaughter of Polish Jews by shooting them en masse?
c. All these elements — drawn from small, fleeting, provisional comments and responses — would blossom forth in the post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyist” current as reluctant acceptance that Russian Stalinism could carry through a variant or approximation of the workers’ revolution.
When some of his opponents in the 1939-40 dispute accused him of improvising a doctrine of “bureaucratic revolution”, Trotsky responded by accusing them of dishonest polemics.
He reacted as if he had been stung, and with indignant repudiation of the idea: "My remark that the Kremlin with its bureaucratic methods gave an impulse to the socialist revolution in Poland, is converted by Shachtman into an assertion that in my opinion a “bureaucratic revolution" of the proletariat is presumably possible. This is not only in correct but disloyal. My expression was rigidly limited. It is not the question of “bureaucratic revolution” but only a bureaucratic impulse... A revolutionary party which failed to notice this impulse in time and refused to utilize it would be fit for nothing but the ash can.
This impulse in the direction of socialist revolution was possible only because the bureaucracy of the USSR straddles and has its roots in the economy of a workers’ state. The revolutionary utilization of this “impulse” by the Ukrainian Byelo-Russians was possible only through the class struggle in the occupied territories and through the power of the example of the October Revolution. Finally, the swift strangulation or semi-strangulation of this revolutionary mass movement was made possible through the isolation of this movement and the might of the Moscow bureaucracy. Whoever failed to understand the dialectic interaction of these three factors: the workers’ state, the oppressed masses and the Bonapartist bureaucracy, had best restrain himself from idle talk about events in Poland."
What is important here is not whether what he had written while groping in semi-darkness to come to terms with something new, unexpected, and still unclear, did imply some hybrid species of “bureaucratic revolution”. What is important is that Trotsky indignantly repudiated the idea that he subscribed to what would, by the end of the 1940s, become the basis of a new world outlook in the Trotskyist movement.
d. Trotsky, taking it as a matter of fact that Stalinist Russia had annexed part of Poland and would socially transform it into a replica of the USSR, insisted that such things could only be marginal phenomena.
James P Cannon put this thought most sharply, in a letter to Trotsky (8 November 1939): “In our opinion Stalin could take the path of Napoleonic conquest not merely against small border states, but against the greatest imperialist powers, only on one condition: that the Soviet bureaucracy in reality represents a new triumphant class which is in harmony with its economic system and secure in its position at home, etc. That if such is really the case, we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the bureaucracy up to now...”
Trotsky took his stand on questions of degree. In fact, though, Germany, pulverised by war, would have one-third of it, to a hundred miles west of Berlin, conquered and transformed by the USSR. Only the advance of the US and British armies from the West prevented all of Germany, and then France and Italy at least, from experiencing the same fate.
e. One of Trotsky’s opponents, Dwight McDonald, said that Trotsky had two policies on Stalinist expansion, one for what he wrote in the bourgeois press, and one for the internal Trotskyist debates. On the face of it this was true.
A decade earlier, Trotsky had normally defended Russia in his comments for the general public, and kept his severe criticisms for the Trotskyist press, and especially for the Russian-language Bulletin of the Opposition. Now it was the other way round.
Trotsky’s extensive writings in the bourgeois press condemned Russia, and his “defence” of the USSR was confined to the internal bulletins and the small-circulation Trotskyist press. In the former he dealt with politics, issues, events; in the latter, he dealt mainly with theory, almost with an esoteric lore, about the nature of the USSR.
Trotsky responded to McDonald by saying that he was simply “stupid”; and Trotsky surely had a right to ask of his comrades that they took what he was writing, in the bourgeois and in the Trotskyist press, as a nuanced whole. His followers would do the opposite, publishing the very one-sided In Defence of Marxism, a collection of Trotsky’s pro-Russian polemics in late 1942, a text that would be one of the main foundation texts of post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyism”.
In fact, what his “orthodox Trotskyist” followers would do for decades after his death was fade out much of the substance of his public comments on Stalinism in its new phase, and give central place to the “defence of the USSR” in his pieces “for the Trotskyists”.
This was done first in In Defence Of Marxism, the one-sided selection of Trotsky’s “internal” or “theoretical” articles from late 1939 and early 1940 which combined the very important The USSR In War and Again And Once More on the Defence of the USSR, with Trotsky’s very violent polemics against the “degenerated workers’ state”-ists Shachtman and Abern who disagreed with him on Poland and Finland.
At the end of his life Trotsky was projecting a collection of his articles on current affairs. The “orthodox Trotskyists” instead put out In Defence Of Marxism. The current-affairs pieces dropped into the archives for a third of a century.