Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism

The Origins of Trotskyism

We begin by examining the basis of the myths manufactured by the Trotskyist movement and its supporters. Their glowing claims have bona fide roots in the prestige Trotsky gained as chair of the 1905 St. Petersburg Soviet, as leader of the Red Army, and as a martyr to Stalinism in 1940.

A valid criticism of Trotskyism has nothing in common with the Stalinist method of unearthing his Menshevik past prior to 1917, nor does it deny the contribution he made, both in theory and practice to the Russian Revolution itself. Indeed Trotsky’s analysis of the 1905 Revolution and the appearance of Soviets allowed him to foresee the possibilities for proletarian revolution with a clarity which was to converge with Lenin’s understanding during 1917.

But Trotskyism as a political movement, despite any roots that coincide with the period of revolution, is essentially a product of a later period: the period of counter-revolution of which it became an integral part.

The movement inside Russia associated with Trotsky arose while the revolution in Europe was in the process of being defeated. White Terror raged in Hungary, the Fascists were in the act of taking power in Italy and the last independent efforts of a section of the German working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie had ended in defeat in March 1921. Though outbursts of working class resistance occurred after this (e.g. Germany 1923, Britain in 1926, China in 1927) they were isolated and fragmented. Inside Russia itself four years of isolation and civil war had led to the virtual elimination of the old revolutionary working class. The introduction of NEP, the Communist International’s adoption of the tactic of the “united front” with Social Democracy as well as the series of political/military alliances with capitalist states (e.g. the Rapallo Treaty of 1922 with Germany) all showed that the failure of the European revolution was leading to counter-revolution in Russia just as night follows day. (1)

Trotsky might be excused for failing to notice this process of degeneration but he was, in fact, one of its principal architects. It was he who, having organised the victory of the Red Army in 1920, then concluded that some form of “militarisation of labour” could be extended to the entire working class in order to discipline it for the reconstruction of Russia. It was he who presented the case against the Workers’ Opposition at the 10th Party Congress (March 1921) which resulted in the banning of all factions in the Party. It was also Trotsky who engineered the secret military alliance with German imperialism in 1922. Had the subsequent development of Trotsky’s theory and practice entailed a break with this sorry past the fight for communism may have taken a different course. In reality, from 1923 on, Trotsky not only failed to recognise these errors, but even turned them into the very framework of his subsequent ideas, as an analysis of his “opposition” to Stalinism shows.

The Left Opposition and the United Opposition

The so-called Left Opposition which arose late in 1923 was only indirectly connected with Trotsky, who did not at the time identify with it, though the Oppositionists welcomed Trotsky’s New Course which had just appeared. Contrary to mythology, this Opposition was in no way connected with the idea of opposition to “socialism in one country” for the simple reason that it ended before the theory was announced. The Left Opposition arose during the “scissors crisis” of 1923, when rising industrial and falling agricultural prices caused economic dislocation. The Opposition contended that the bureaucratic leadership of the Party (at this time Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin and Bukharin) was incapable of solving the crisis - which it then promptly did! According to the Oppositionists, a little planning had to be added to the market economy of the NEP, allowing slow industrialisation through taxation of the peasantry. For Trotsky, this meant the need to,

... develop state industry as the keystone of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the basis of socialism.

New Course, p. 120

Naturally, since it did not control the apparatus, the Opposition called for “democracy” inside the Party but apart from industrialisation gave no indication as to what this democracy would serve as a vehicle for. The Opposition was unconcerned with foreign affairs and criticised none of the policies since 1921 (united fronts or rapprochements with capitalist states). Trotsky did write on these matters but, as an endorser of the united front and National Bolshevism in Germany, was regarded abroad as on the right of the Party. Meanwhile the “left wing” in the German Party (Maslow, Fischer and Thaelman) had Zinoviev and Stalin as their allies!

Trotsky’s ventures into foreign policy such as the Lessons of October (1924), were concerned to show that just as they had failed to perceive it in 1917, Zinoviev and Kamenev had failed to seize the revolutionary opportunity in Germany in 1923. Slowly being squeezed from power, Trotsky seized on the failure of the united front government of Saxony and Thuringia to make a revolution as a stick to beat Zinoviev with. At this time Trotsky saw Zinoviev as the main enemy rather than Stalin. But Trotsky had approved of the political manoeuvre (the united front) which had set these governments up so his polemic lacked force. Earlier in the summer when there had been a genuine class movement in Germany, following the collapse of the currency, Trotsky had come out against any attempt to overthrow the government,

We do not regard the French invasion of the Ruhr as a revolutionary stimulus... it is not at all in our interests that the revolution should take place in a Europe drained of blood... [We are] vitally interested in the preservation of peace. (2)

What was the reason for this? At this time Trotsky was the chief mediator in the alliance between Germany and Russia against the Entente (France and Britain). Such a policy meant an alliance with the right wing in Germany, and with the forces of fascism and nationalism against the French occupation of the Ruhr. This was called “National Bolshevism”, the brainchild of Radek, one of the Left Opposition leaders. It was his own gradual slide from power, plus the emergence of a pro-Entente regime in Germany, that was to convert Trotsky into a “revolutionary”.

In parallel with the poverty, indeed virtual non-existence, of a political programme, the Left Opposition was devoid of working class support. This in itself is not a definitive factor; at certain moments real proletarian organisations can find themselves with little proletarian support but most of the Opposition were noted for anti-working class positions on the question of “labour discipline”, and had denounced the mass strike wave which broke out in 1923 over the continued deterioration in living standards. The appeal of the Opposition was to Party bureaucrats and industrial managers, rather than to the working class:

The section of the rank and file of the Party whom the opposition at this time was least successful in rallying to its side was the industrial working class. Nothing in either its economics or its political platform was likely to catch the imagination of the worker. (3)

The bureaucracy made a few concessions to the Left Opposition’s demands but it was condemned at the 13th Congress, and faded away early in 1924. Such an opposition merits the epithet “left” no more than it merits the term ‘opposition’ at all. But let us leave the final word to the Russian worker who said of the struggle between the bureaucracy and the opposition in 1923:

The workers will ask me what your fundamental differences are; to speak frankly I do not know how to answer. (4)

This single proletarian sentence sums up the nature of the Left Opposition.

After this, manoeuvrings in the Party took on (in light of later events) some weird contours. Stalin allied with Zinoviev against Trotsky in 1923, and later when Stalin and Bukharin moved against Zinoviev, Trotsky entered into a tacit alliance with Stalin, since Zinoviev was still the main enemy. Later, in January 1925, when the Politburo removed Trotsky from his post as Commissar for War, Stalin repaid Trotsky’s earlier favour by blocking Zinoviev’s demand to have Trotsky expelled from the Party altogether. This was at a time when Stalin had already advanced the theory of “socialism in one country”. So much for Trotsky’s struggle against it. By 1925 this famous struggle had not even begun since Trotsky’s main enemy up to then had not been Stalin but Zinoviev, the leader of the bureaucratic degeneration.

Gradually, as it became clear that the Stalin-Bukharin group was coming out on top in the power struggle, Zinoviev and Kamenev moved to form the Leningrad Opposition. Trotsky at first remained aloof but soon allied himself with the Zinoviev group. In July 1926 he joined Kamenev, Zinoviev and Krupskaya to sign the “declaration of the thirteen” (Central Committee members). This publicly signalled the formation of the United Opposition which functioned until December 1927. The United Opposition took up the call for planning and industrialisation, and for a struggle against the “Nepmen and kulaks”. They also called for the restoration of the Party democracy they had all been instrumental in suppressing since the 10th Congress in 1921. If the claim that the United Opposition expressed the real interests of the working class is legitimate then so too was the policy adopted by Stalin from 1929 to 1934, which took up most of the positions of the Opposition. This conclusion is not simply deduced from hindsight. The bulk of the Oppositionists who had not already done so capitulated willingly to Stalin after 1929, and even Preobrazhensky announced that the continuing opposition of Trotsky was not justified. (5)

Once again the Opposition had failed to gain a significant working class following. Once again its main strength lay in the bureaucracy which it criticised but whose rule it did not question. The final destructive blow belonged to Trotsky himself. Stalin’s “left turn” brought him into conflict with Bukharin’s Right and it was the latter who now joined the chorus for inner party democracy, offering alliances to Trotsky on this basis in 1928. Trotsky, who had often “critically supported” the centrist Stalin against the Right of Bukharin, now shocked his supporters by accepting this opportunist offer. It is impossible to gauge the effect of this on the Opposition since Trotsky was exiled by Stalin in January 1929 and an era of myth-building began in earnest.

Socialism in One Country

It will be conceded by many of his supporters that Trotsky’s opposition was a loyal one, internal to the bureaucracy from which he sprang, but that his real saving grace lies in his opposition to “socialism in one country” (first coherently advanced by Stalin in December 1924) and the supposed abandoning of internationalism which such a theory implied. No other single issue has spawned so many myths and mystifications as this one.

Before 1917 the possibility of a single nation state moving toward socialism on its own had never before been posed by history itself. Not surprisingly, therefore, Marx’s own comments on this question are vague. The predominant view of the Second International, founded in 1889, was that within each bourgeois nation state there would be a peaceful transition to socialism, and that each new socialist state would federate with the others into a socialist commonwealth. Though the left wing of the International rejected the idea of a peaceful transition to socialism they never rejected the idea that, in the advanced countries at least, such a transition could be undertaken within national boundaries. In these states the material prerequisites for such a transformation were believed to exist. Lenin, at the height of the imperialist war wrote:

[The United States of Europe slogan] may be interpreted to mean that the victory of socialism in one country is impossible... Uneven political and economic development is an absolute law of capitalism, hence the victory of socialism is possible, first in several, or even one capitalist country taken singly. The proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organised its own socialist production, would stand up against the rest of the world. (6)

The main area of controversy was Russia itself, and here the discussion was rooted in the specific question of Russian backwardness. Lenin, and most of the Bolsheviks, felt until very late in the day that the bourgeois revolution was still on the agenda in Russia, even if it had to be brought to its conclusion by the proletariat. (7)

Trotsky, with his theory of “permanent revolution” on the other hand, claimed that if the Russian revolution occurred at the same time as one in Western Europe, this backwardness would be overcome, and the revolution could proceed to its socialist phases. Lenin independently came to similar conclusions in the April Theses of 1917.

From then on the Bolsheviks had few reservations; they were out to build socialism in Russia (“Let us proceed to build the socialist order” - Lenin, November 7th 1917), and to spread the world revolution. It was not, of course, assumed that a socialist state would turn its back on the world revolution. In fact, building socialism at home and spreading revolution abroad were considered synonymous. When it became clear that NEP Russia was in fact isolated the reservations expressed by some of the Party leaders were not that it would be impossible to build socialism in one country. What they felt was that a socialist state would probably not survive in a hostile capitalist world due to military attack by the capitalists. Intervention in the Civil War had been the supreme example of this, and in the 1920s CPSU leaders, first amongst them Trotsky, remained haunted by fears of a united imperialist front that would invade Russia in order to effect a bourgeois restoration. Once the Soviet state had shown its ability to survive in the capitalist world (mainly by a slow process of capitulation to it), the theory of a possible isolated socialist regime in Russia emerged as Stalin’s “socialism in one country”.

Stalin stood on the right of the Party, along with Bukharin and others who saw the NEP as a long term concession to the peasantry. At this point he admitted the bourgeois nature of the Russian economy. In Foundations of Leninism of 1924 he repudiated the idea that socialism could be built in Russia, though his Report on the Political Activity of the Central Committee to the 14th Congress of the CPSU was very similar to Trotsky’s view:

One can however say that our regime is neither capitalist nor socialist. It represents a transition from capitalism to socialism... If one takes into account the bureaucratic survivals which we have in the management of our enterprises, one cannot yet say that we’ve reached socialism. This is true but it doesn’t contradict the fact that state industry is a type of socialist production.

Stalin thus felt that as long as the smytchka (alliance between workers and peasants) could be maintained, socialism could be built in Russia. At this time Trotsky was unconcerned with Stalin’s innovations. Indeed, his own writings of the period explicitly accept the possibility of socialism in one country, even a backward one:

It is clear that under the conditions of a capitalist rebirth in Europe and the whole world, possibly enduring for many years, socialism in a backward country would find itself eye to eye with colossal dangers. (8)

In fact it was the Leningrad Opposition of Zinoviev and Kamenev which emerged as the first opponent of socialism in one country at the 14th Party Congress. As we have seen, Trotsky, who saw Stalin as the lesser danger at this point, remained silent. His later alliance with the Leningrad Opposition in the United Opposition was a result of the conversion of Zinoviev and Kamenev to the need for industrialisation in Russia as the best path to socialism there.

Thus in the whole debate over “socialism in one country” there were only differences of emphasis. Whilst Stalin believed with Bukharin that under NEP Russia was slowly “riding to socialism on a peasants nag”, Trotsky stressed the need for a more dynamic industrialisation, not that the whole thing was impossible in isolation. As he put it in Toward Socialism or Capitalism,

Unless the productive forces grow, there can be no question of socialism. (9)

Thus Trotsky’s attack on “socialism in one country” in 1926 was far from the stout defence of internationalism that his post hoc rationalisation later maintained. In international terms all Trotsky called for was a diversification of foreign trade relations in order to take advantage of the world market, in contrast to Stalin’s belief in autarky and accumulation in isolation. In a letter from exile to the remnants of the Russian Opposition Trotsky recommended the use of the growth of unemployment, especially in Britain and Germany, to acquire credits for agricultural equipment, machinery etc. in exchange for the produce of collectivised labour. Stalin continued to ignore foreign trade as a means to initiate industrialisation, especially after the terms of trade turned sharply against the USSR after 1929. (10)

Trotsky, on the other hand, urged Moscow to enhance its trading position by appealing to the millions of unemployed workers of the West to raise a clamour for trade with Russia, to assist it with export credits and so, at the same time to help alleviate unemployment. Trotsky’s “internationalism” then was not entirely abstract. As a call for capitalist stabilisation it would have done credit to any free-trader of the nineteenth century! Indeed Trotsky had forged his United Opposition with Zinoviev only through tacit agreement to jettison his idea of “permanent revolution” with its connotation of support for world revolution. (11)

In fact it was the Stalin faction which, before 1934, put out more ritual calls for world revolution, especially after the “left turn” of Stalin’s so-called “Third Period” robbed the Opposition of its Platform. As one of Trotsky’s supporters, Victor Serge, put it:

From 1928-29 onwards the Politburo turned to its own use the fundamental ideas of the newly-expelled opposition (excepting, of course, working class democracy) and implemented them with ruthless violence. We had proposed a tax on the rich peasants - they were actually liquidated! We had proposed limitations and reforms of the NEP - it was actually abolished! We had proposed industrialisation - it was done on a colossal scale which we “super-industrialisers” as we were dubbed, had never dreamed of...

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p.252

By becoming a super-industrialiser himself Stalin did more than rob the Opposition of its programme, he destroyed the whole basis of their critique since it was assumed by all the Communist Party oppositions that the bureaucracy could never carry out their demands. As they all had their roots in that same bureaucracy they could never challenge its social basis, even though - as we shall see - Trotsky, and others, glimpsed that it was a new class in the making.

The Nature of the USSR

The Economy

Once in exile in Turkey Trotsky might have begun an examination of his experiences and, like the hounded Left of the Communist Party of Italy, could have tried to draw up a balance sheet (bilan) of the process which had seen revolutionaries driven into exile or imprisoned by fascism. But Trotsky saw no reason to enquire more deeply into the process behind the degeneration of proletarian power in Russia. Essentially this was because he himself was so bound up with that process. Even those who supported Stalin in the 1920s saw Trotsky as “a man of the State, not of the Party” whilst his own role in abolishing factions in the CPSU and in advocating labour discipline hardly made him the unsullied champion of proletarian democracy and workers’ control that his present day followers assume. Had Trotsky been able to detach himself from this past he may have been able to provide the critique of social relations in Russia which was necessary in order to furnish the basis of a revolutionary understanding of the nature of Russia. His failure to do so ultimately led to him abandoning Marxist method.

The problem of what had happened in Russia was in any terms enormous. As already noted, Marxist theory could not, and did not provide in advance for a situation in which “a proletarian bastion” (Lenin) was isolated for any length of time in a hostile capitalist world. After 4 years of isolation Russia had lost 8 millions of her people, including the cream of the revolutionary proletariat. The problem was compounded by the fact that the Russian communists saw defeat only in terms of a military victory by the capitalist powers. By 1921 such a threat had passed but so too had the main thrust of the revolutionary upsurge of the European and world proletariat. What was to happen to an isolated proletarian bastion in such circumstances? As we have seen, it was in this context that all factions of the CPSU agreed on the need to build socialism in Russia alone. Thus, in 1926 Trotsky praised the development of state industry after 5 years of GOSPLAN as the “marvellous historic music of growing socialism” and anticipated what the Stalinist planners would intone to the erection of “real socialism”- the frenzied exploitation of the proletariat in the 1930s. The common view they shared was the fiction that state planning and state ownership of the means of production are the essential bases of socialism. This was despite the fact that Lenin and Bukharin had already identified the growth of state capitalism as one of the main features of capitalism in its imperialist epoch. In Imperialism and World Economy (1915) Bukharin commented on the changing nature of capitalism as follows:

The capitalist mode of production is based on the monopoly of the means of production in the hands of the capitalists within the general framework of commodity exchange. There is no difference in principle whether the state power is a direct monopoly or whether the monopoly is privately organised. In either case there remains commodity economy (in the first place the world market) and, what is more important, the class relations between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.

op. cit., p. 157

In writing this Bukharin was only echoing Engels’ observations of the 1880s,

... Just as at first the capitalist mode of production displaced the workers, so now it displaces the capitalists, relegating them . . . to the superfluous population even if not in the first instance to the industrial reserve army ... Neither the conversion into joint stock companies nor into state property deprives the productive forces of their character as capital ... The modern state, whatever its form, is then the state of the capitalists, the ideal collective body of all the capitalists. The more productive forces it takes over as its property, the more it becomes the real collective body of the capitalists, the more citizens it exploits. The workers remain wage-earners, proletarians. The capitalist relationship isn’t abolished; it is rather pushed to the extreme...

Anti-Duhring, pp.329-330

And this capital relationship, which is so basic to the Marxist definition of capitalism, is that between capital and wage labour. Trotsky could talk of the bureaucracy as a “parasitic caste” but he could not recognise that it represented a new ruling class in the making who collectively disposed of the surplus product created by the working class. For him Russia was basically socialist because:

The nationalisation of the land, the means of industrial production, transport and exchange, together with the monopoly of foreign trade, constitute the basis of the Soviet social structure. Through these relations, established by a proletarian state revolution, the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state is for us basically defined.

The Revolution Betrayed, p. 235

Trotsky’s attempt to square the circle of a workers’ state that was run by a “parasitic caste” resulted in the theory of the degenerated workers’ state. Lauded by Deutscher as “a creative restatement of classical Marxist views”, it is really a complete rupture with Marxism as a critique of political economy. The starting point of this concept is the external characteristics of the social structure of classical capitalism which had frozen in the mind of Trotsky - individual ownership of the means of production, the juridical inalienabilty of private property, the right of inheritance, etc. This is in keeping with bourgeois economists - from Ricardo down to Mandel - who assume that the relations of distribution can be transformed without questioning the relations of production. But for a Marxist it is the relations of production which determine the nature of the mode of production and of circulation; they cannot be dissociated from each other. Capitalist distribution cannot be destroyed without destroying the basis of that distribution: the relations of production. Thus production determines the essence of distribution and the ideological forms that justify it.

For Trotsky, obsessed with state planning, the extension of nationalisations, etc., this primary consideration was turned on its head to conjure up the following absurdity: “the coexistence of a socialist mode of production with a bourgeois mode of distribution”. This is simply nonsense from a Marxist standpoint which holds that:

The relations and modes of distribution thus appear merely as the obverse of the relations of production. The structure of distribution is completely determined by the structure of production.

Marx, Grundrisse, p.95

Having ignored this fundamental tenet of Marxist political economy, Trotsky diverged even further with his argument that the Stalinist superstructure was in contradiction to the proletarian infrastructure of the economy. He maintained that the bureaucracy was preventing the transition to socialism in order to maintain its privileges. The fact that it was precisely this “proto-capitalist bureaucracy” which was introducing the nationalisation and industrialisation measures which Trotsky imagined gave Russia its socialist basis was never explained. Such absurd conclusions only illustrate the contradictory economic premises on which the whole so-called theory of the “degenerate workers’ state” was erected.

But Trotsky’s desperate attempt to find something to defend in the wreckage of Stalin’s Russia was not only revising Marxist method to cover his past, he was prevented from seeing that the victory of the working class did not simply mean the “expropriation of the bourgeoisie” as he put it in his Transitional Programme. Without the abolition of wage labour there can be no talk of socialism. Capital is not merely, in itself, a mass of machines or means of production, the nature of which miraculously changes by virtue of it being pronounced the “property of the masses” after the political abolition of an avaricious or “parasitic” elite of state officials. Capital is a specific historical and social relationship based on the deprivation and separation of labour from all property in the means of production, so making labour power a commodity to be sold in exchange for a wage.

This social relationship leads to antagonism between producers and de facto proprietors (irrespective of Soviet legal forms), between those who control the means of production, distribution and the state (bourgeoisie) and those who have no alternative but to work for a wage (proletariat), and bestows on the totality of society’s productive forces the character of capital.

The road to communism is the struggle against the totality of capital for the abolition of its state, private property, its law of value, merchandise and wage labour.

The Political Revolution

So what did Trotsky give us instead as the road to communism in Russia? He preached a “political not social revolution”, a revolution that would overthrow the existing Stalinist system of government but which would leave existing property relations untouched. Indeed, the defence of the “proletarian basis of the state” was the cardinal point of Trotsky’s political credo until his death and, as we will see repeatedly, was at the root of all his political errors.

It is fundamental to Marxism that the state is not society though the state has its basis in society. Every society with a state must be a class society where the state acts in the interest of the ruling class to safeguard its exploitation of the dominated class. When trying to establish the class nature of any society Marxists therefore don’t begin by examining the juridical or legal forms of the State in order to reach the conclusion that they constitute “the proletarian basis of the state.” Thus, though scores of Trotsky’s texts testify to the changing class composition of the CPSU (part of the process which saw all the Oppositions annihilated), and despite recognisng the “parasitic” nature of the bureaucracy would require a “political revolution” he still maintained that a regime which

... preserves expropriated and nationalised property against imperialism - that, independent of political forms is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In Defence of Marxism

But if there already existed a “dictatorship of the proletariat” what need was there for “a political revolution” or for an injection of “soviet democracy”. The contradiction only arises because Trotsky did not deduce the nature of the Russian state from its relations of production. By ceasing to define social classes in terms of their antagonistic practices in the productive process Trotsky robbed himself of the only possibility of a clear analysis of the real nature of the USSR.

The autarky of the era of the Five Year Plans in the 1930s was at bottom a form of competition which necessitated a ferocious intensification of exploitation. More bitter competition on the international level meant the use of Taylorism and the new techniques of management of alienated labour to increase its productivity to the upmost. The Party’s administrative control of the relations of production in the USSR had generated a bureaucracy which, with its establishment of political independence, acquired the attributes of a motor force in the development of the national capital, essentially the same as that of the classic private bourgeoisie. To myopically treat the state-bureaucratic echelons as merely a privileged “caste”, as a ‘parasitic outgrowth”, was to fundamentally miss its basic class function. The ineluctable need to serve in the process of the accumulation of capital, the iron necessity imposed by world capital, determined the objective role of the new strata, who were class functionaries by virtue of their relation to reified capital and not as a result of their greed, (Trotsky said they consumed too much of the social product), authoritarian arrogance or other socio-psychological characteristics. The contradiction between the social nature of production and the alienation of the social product of that labour by an exploiting class underlines the domination of the law of value in the USSR’s economy. (12)

It also undermines Trotsky’s self-contradictory theory of a “degenerated workers state”. At the time of its conception, and even more so after World War Two, manifestations of the capitalist nature of Soviet society have been obvious - the existence of wage labour, the production of merchandise for exchange, the domination of the planners by the ineluctable law of value. The theorisation of the existence of a workers’ state in the USSR, however “deformed” it might be, was to become a central element in the Trotskyist platform which, as we shall see below, was to lead inevitably to their abandonment of revolutionary defeatism and participation in the Second World War in defence of both Soviet and Western imperialism.

The Transitional Programme and the Fourth International

Trotsky’s conception of Russia as a workers’ state which, after a purely political revolution, could become socialist, reveals not only that he had understood nothing about the nature of capitalism, but that he also had no conception of socialism in the Marxist sense. This became even more clear in 1938 when he published the programme of his Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International or, as it is more commonly known, the Transitional Programme. In dealing with this programme we must first start with a question of method. Present-day Trotskyists claim, usually on the basis of a cursory reading of Deutscher, that Trotsky was Lenin’s political heir. (13)

Unlike Lenin however, Trotsky tended to analyse historical situations and capitalism in terms of categories which he never questioned. When fresh events contradicted his analysis, instead of mercilessly re-examining them on the basis of Marxist principles and revising the categories accordingly, he distorted them to fit the conclusions he had already decided on. We have already seen this method at work in regard to his analysis of the Russian economy. It must be remembered that he argued initially that Russia was a workers’ state because the proletariat held power, and that only when this argument became too embarrassing to maintain was the economic one about socialist property relations concocted.

After the Second World War, when Russian imperialism brought the countries of Eastern Europe under its domination, Trotsky’s epigones in the Fourth International (Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, Ted Grant, James Cannon etc.), in the best tradition of their mentor, decided that these countries must also be workers’ states, despite the fact that the working class had never held power there and their regimes were the pure creation of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Hence they concluded that the “reactionary proto-capitalist bureaucracy” was also progressive and able to create workers’ states! Thus, in order to maintain the fiction of Russia as a workers’ state, a consistent travesty of the facts and of Marxism was perpetrated. The ‘permanent revolution’, which held that the workers and peasants in the backward countries must carry out the tasks of the national bourgeoisie because the latter were too feeble, was similarly defended, as was the theory of permanent crisis. These theories formed the pillars of Trotsky’s analytical framework, and were simply assumed to be valid. Instead of letting these theories collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, Trotsky methodically shored them up, but at the expense of abandoning the political terrain of the working class.

What Trotsky gave us instead were the assertions of “permanent crisis” and “permanent revolution” which became facile slogans that failed to conceal his inability to examine the fundamental social relations of modern capitalism and the political tasks of the new period. Thus in his Transitional Programme the correct recognition that capitalism’s historic mission has been completed is completely obscured by the economic illiteracy and political immediacy of its perspectives which, politically speaking, take us back to the programme of social democracy. The most glaring example of this illiteracy is in the economic field. Trotsky tells us that capitalism is ripe for revolution because “Mankind’s productive forces stagnate” (Transitional Programme p.11 WRP pamphlet). This might have been true for the 1930s but it can be dispelled today by a single statistic. Since it was written the Gross National Product of the United States (not to mention Western capitalism as a whole) has increased several times over. The empirical evidence alone is enough to destroy the validity of that statement but more seriously is the failure of his method to comprehend the real movement of capital. Capitalism, as Marx wrote on many occasions:

cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production.

Communist Manifesto

The epoch of imperialism, the era of decline of capitalism doesn’t change this essential element. (14)

Nor does it end the capitalist cycle of accumulation which is periodically punctuated by “commercial crises”. The difference in the imperialist epoch is that the bourgeois resolution of those crises is no longer a simple matter of a few bankruptcies which allow the survivors to renew the cycle. This renewal now only comes via the massive destruction of capital on a global basis that is the product of an imperialist war. Thus the nineteenth century cycle has in our epoch become one of boom-slump-war-reconstruction-boom etc. It is not “stagnation of the productive forces” which explains for Marxists the present decay of the system but the fact that although it can still increase production, the costs of this (perpetual famine in the Southern hemisphere, periodic war throughout the planet, etc.) no longer serve the interests of humanity in any sense. The fetters of the bourgeoisie’s relations of production and its law of value have to be broken and destroyed before the productive forces can be set to work for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

The failure to spell out the nature of capitalism in the era of imperialism and state capitalism is in fact what wipes out the Transitional Programme as the basis of the struggle for socialism. By simply defining capitalism as a system in its death agony, not as a system based on the law of value which exists only through the extraction of surplus value from wage labour, Trotsky’s Transitional Programme only gave an immediate picture of a single phase of the capitalist cycle - its slump. But having decided in 1938 that capitalism was in its “death agony”, Trotsky had to find some explanation for the failure of the proletariat to destroy it and provide a prescription to overcome this failure. It is here that Trotsky returned to social democracy.

The Transitional Programme and the Party

Having failed to grasp the inner dynamic of capitalism the Transitional Programme has a purely voluntarist solution to the problems of proletarian organisation. Correctly, it states that:

The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be achieved under capitalism.

loc. cit.

In 1938 this was still true but why then, if the objective conditions were present did the proletariat still submit to the capitalist yoke? Trotsky bluntly answered that this was because:

The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.

In the sense that it lacked communist leadership this was true, but Trotsky did not mean this. In the past quarter of a century the working class had seen their organisations go over to the political support of the bourgeoisie. First the Second International parties, with their mass organisations - the trade unions, had come out in support of their own governments and had helped the war effort of every imperialism. After the First World War these parties divided themselves from the workers’ cause by rivers of blood when they assisted or even, as in Germany, organised the massacre of class conscious proletarians. The most notable opponent of the imperialist order in 1914 was the Bolshevik Party which, theoretically armed with Lenin’s slogan of “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war”, successfully led the Russian proletariat’s seizure of state power. When in 1919 it founded the Communist International it was the vanguard of the entire world proletariat. But, as we explained earlier, a process of decline set in, a process which was much more insidious than the overnight betrayals of social democracy. The Communist International’s adoption of the united front in 1922 was obviously a critical moment in its decline, as was its expulsion of any opposition by 1926 and its disastrous policy in China in 1927. By 1938 even Trotsky could see that:

the passing over of the Comintern to the side of bourgeoisie” had occurred. And yet by that curious twist of logic which has remained the hallmark of Trotskyism he still saw the parties of the Second and Third Internationals as the proletariat’s “own [our emphasis] conservative bureaucratic machines.

In other words, despite a history of betrayal and massacre, these organisations could be won for revolution if only their leaderships could be changed. This was entirely consistent with his support for united fronts and for entryism into social democracy in 1935 in order to gain its leadership. Orthodox Trotskyism has still failed to recognise the ideological defeat which accompanied the physical defeat of the revolutionary organisations. Today these social democratic bodies (Socialist and Labour Parties and their trade unions), though they often enlist masses of workers and win electoral support of millions, are in fact nothing but agents of the bourgeoisie and their class system. Their reason for existence is to defend capitalism by channelling the class struggle onto the safe grounds of elections or economic strikes isolated in one industry or factory.

Thus the extremely facile nature of Trotsky’s analysis of the political weakness of the proletariat in the Thirties prevented him from seeing the fact that the crisis of proletarian leadership arose because the proletariat had no political party which defended its class independence and revolutionary aspirations. And failing to understand this, as well as failing to understand the nature of capitalist relations in the imperialist epoch, meant that the Fourth International itself was from its foundation not only ill-equipped to be a class party, but was actually a stumbling block to its formation since it too operated on the terrain of the bourgeoisie. What was needed was a pitiless struggle against the social conservation of the old Socialist and Communist Parties. Today Trotskyism still talks only of “betrayals” by these unions and parties and therefore is incapable of exposing the real role they play inside the working class. As the International Communist Left (the Italian Fraction) argued at the time, the Fourth International had no claim be the party of the proletariat, since it had not carried out the necessary work of political clarification following the defeat of the revolutionary wave of the 1920s. Such a clarification, which Trotsky studiously avoided, was the essential step to the revival of the revolutionary party of the proletariat and the reconstitution of a communist programme which took account of the lessons learned. There could be no class party in 1938 because there was no independent class movement. Part of the cause was the fact that the proletariat as a whole still believed in the proletarian nature of “its” organisations. Trotsky thought the mere declaration of the Fourth International would solve the problem by a simple effort of will.

But the non-existence of the class party is not only the result of a lack of will. Whilst the indispensible necessity of the party in its role as centraliser, leader and guide of the class in action cannot be questioned, the founding of the Fourth International took place without the followers of Trotsky having carried out a serious examination of the experience of revolution and counter-revolution.

The party cannot simply create itself from nothing, regardless of time or place. The absence of a class party is not simply the result of a “crisis of the revolutionary leadership” even if such a deficiency was historically an objective factor in the reversal of the fortunes of the proletariat, as in Germany in 1918-1919. According to Trotsky’s conception of the party, instead of being a necessary part of the class struggle, it assumes the idealist form of a deus ex machina which, by the determination of its members, can and must surmount the historic impasses of humanity. (15)

This becomes even more apparent when we analyse the ‘transitional demands’ of the programme.

The Transitional Programme Demands

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx maintained that the transition from capitalism to socialism presupposed a dictatorship of the proletariat which would systematically carry out all the measures necessary to destroy capital. “The Transitional Programme, death agony of capitalism, and the duties of the fourth international - The mobilisation of the masses around the demands of transition as a preparation for the seizure of power”, as the title suggests, has little to do with the Marxist conception of transition.

For Trotsky it was obvious that, since capitalism was in its “death agony” the “transitional epoch” was already in existence, even though there had been no revolution in the Thirties. For Marx the transition to socialism does not begin until the proletariat has smashed the bourgeois state (this was, after all, the lesson of the Paris Commune in 1871). Just as he was unable to understand the fundamental framework for socialism in the USSR, Trotsky now revealed that he was moving away from Marxist conceptions of socialism in general. Indeed, Trotsky takes us back to the reformism of the Second International by putting forward minimum demands, with the simple difference that he now believed that even minimum demands could not be met within decaying capitalism.

The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried out indissolubly with the actual tasks of revolution.

In short, the old minimum programme of social democracy is now the same as the maximum programme since, for Trotskyists...

not even the most elementary demands can be met without revolutionary expropriation of the capitalist class. (16)

This arrant nonsense can be dispelled by even the most cursory glance at the demands of the Transitional Programme.

What Trotsky in fact gives us is a grand plan to reform capitalism by demanding such things as nationalisation of the banks, workers’ control of industry, public works and a sliding scale of wages in advance of the seizure of power by the proletariat. Precisely such ‘radical” demands were already being advanced by Trotsky’s contemporary, Keynes, as an explicit plan to save capitalism and, in fact, all these measures were adopted by bourgeois states in order to preserve the capitalist order. Nationalisation of the banks in Eastern Europe, workers’ control in Yugoslavia - both of course hailed by modern Trotskyists as “destroying capitalism”; the sliding scale of wages - like the scala mobile in Italy or indexing elsewhere; and public works - in virtually every corner of the advanced capitalist world are steps to shore up capital not destroy it.

Thus Trotsky’s failure to understand the nature of the state’s role in Russia had its general corollary in the Transitional Programme. Failing to see the state as collective capitalist meant that Trotsky still equated nationalisation with socialisation, still saw the prime task of socialism not as the abolition of wage labour, but as the “expropriation of the bourgeoisie.” In this the Transitional Programme is not even an advance on the Erfurt Programme of 1890 since it doesn’t even possess a “maximum” revolutionary part. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” is only mentioned once, and that only incidentally, and there is no statement at all about the nature of socialism. This is what makes the following statement of the purpose of the Transitional Programme particularly absurd,

It is necessary to aid the masses in the process of their daily revolutionary struggle to find the bridge between their present demands and the programme of the socialist revolution.

But Trotsky had already indicated that the “present demands” were potentially revolutionary. What was lacking was a party fighting with the masses for the “programme of the socialist revolution.” Trotsky’s abysmal failure was that he hadn’t even begun to elaborate this programme for the present epoch of capitalism.

Revolutionaries recognise the significance of demands but these are the product of a real, ongoing struggle - not an abstract schema thought up in advance, and which, like the demands of the Transitional Programme, are easily recuperable by capitalism. In the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution Marx made it quite clear that each demand formulated by the proletariat must be a direct response to the existing situation of the class struggle.

In the beginning of the movement, the workers will naturally not be able to propose any direct communist measures, however... if the petty bourgeoisie propose to buy out the railroads and factories... the workers must demand that they simply be confiscated by the state without compensation. If the demands propose proportional taxes, they must demand progressive taxes... the rates of which are so steep that capital must soon go to smash as a result; if the Democrats demand the regulation of the State debt, the workers must demand its repudiation...

Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League

This dialectical conception is totally divorced from the idea which Trotsky picked up from the lumber-room of the degenerating CI (notably its Third Congress) where it was stated that there were a precise...

set of demands which constitute the stages of the struggle [when the] masses do not as yet consciously stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Quoted in Frank, op. Cit., p. 61

This bears all the hallmarks of Kautskyism which saw the proletariat only as a mindless mass which could be called out by the social democrats in this or that political demonstration to “aid” the parliamentary struggle of the so-called “workers’ representatives”. But the living struggle makes different demands of revolutionaries who, by being present within it, can lead it on to greater unity and therefore greater purpose by defining not only demands to achieve that unity, but the real goal of the struggle - the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is something which the Transitional Programme avoids since its starting point is also its finishing point - the immediate level of consciousness of the masses. (18)

Trotsky therefore showed that he had not transcended the weaknesses of the Second, and later the Third, Internationals. Those weaknesses lay not in their ability to fight with the masses, but in their inability to provide a leadership which had a clear conception of communism and of the necessity for the overthrow of the bourgeois state. Instead of criticising these weaknesses Trotsky made a virtue of them. The “conquest of the masses” at a time of proletarian defeat was the centre of his voluntarism and every (failed) tactic to retain the support of the masses, from united front to minimum programmes was revived by Trotsky in a vain effort to win a mass base. Following this logic, he had told his French supporters to “defy reformism within its own stronghold” and to “carry the revolutionary programme to the masses” by joining the SFIO, the French section of the Second International. He was hardly in a position to criticise the Comintern’s adoption of the Popular Front policy in 1935 and his denunciation of the passing of the Communist International “onto the side of the social democracy” is not consistent. Whilst there was a certain counter-revolutionary logic to the CI’s policy (it wanted an alliance with French and British imperialism against the Fascist regimes of central Europe), Trotsky’s entryism into social democracy made no sense at all, especially if -as he proclaimed - revolution was just around the corner.

we submit: the diagnosis of the Comintern is entirely false. The situation is revolutionary as revolutionary as it can be, granted the non-revolutionary policies of the working class parties. More exactly the situation is pre-revolutionary. In order to bring the situation to its full maturity, there must be an mmediate, vigorous, unremitting mobilisation of the masses, under the slogan of the conquest of power. This is the only way in which a pre-revolutionary situation will be changed into a revolutionary one.

Not recognising the defeat of the working class in the 1920s, Trotsky in 1938 was thus unprepared for imperialist war which the bourgeoisie imposed upon it. It is therefore not surprising that the Transitional Programme should finish with an explicit rejection of the cardinal point of Lenin’s revolutionary theory in World War One - revolutionary defeatism. This led to Trotskyism participating in the Second Imperialist War on the side of both Russian and Western imperialism.

The Second Imperialist War

The Transitional Programme states clearly that:

in the next period a revolutionary party will depend for success primarily on its policy on the question of war.


It even repeats the basic communist principle that in imperialist war “the chief enemy is in your own country”. However, in the same breath Trotsky soon reveals again that his failure to analyse the nature of the USSR or re-examine the old CI policy of the united front led him to abandon this principle. On the same page of the Transitional Programme he tells us that not only are oppressed countries “not imperialist” but also:

the same duty” of support and defence applies in regard to aiding the USSR or whatever other workers’ government might arise...

Thus Trotsky’s failure to analyse the relations of production in the USSR disarmed him in the face of Russia’s entry into the network of imperialist alliances. Despite the evidence of the 1930s, where Stalin’s policy had been to try to win an alliance with Britain and France against Germany; despite the results of this policy in Spain and China. (19)

Despite the Pact Stalin signed with Hitler to attack Poland in 1939 and despite the attack on Finland, Trotsky still clung - until the day of his death - to the fiction that Russia was neither capitalist nor imperialist. True, in his article The USSR and War, written in 1939, Trotsky criticised

the politics of Moscow [which] taken as a whole, completely retains its reactionary character...

but once again there was no explanation of why it had a reactionary policy except via the limp argument that the workers’ state had been hijacked by a Bonapartist elite. In the same article Trotsky out-Stalinised Stalin in his defence of “socialism” in the USSR as against the interests of the world proletariat.

We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the questioning of the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production of the USSR; ... [and] is subordinate for us to the question of world proletarian revolution.

It is not surprising that this led to splits in the Fourth International with CLR James, Burnham and Schachtman all coming up with different analyses of the nature of Russia.

Trotsky’s writings in this debate were collected and published under the title In Defence of Marxism. Though inappropriately titled they do reveal the crisis of coherence that had now smitten him. His argument in this text - that if the war did not lead to proletarian revolution then Marxism would be refuted and there would never again be the possibility of socialism - was simply a more definite version of what he had already written in The USSR and Socialism in 1939.

... if, contrary to all probabilities, the October Revolution [by this he meant the USSR - editor] fails during the course of the present war, or immediately thereafter to find its continuation in any of the advanced countries; and if, on the other contrary the proletariat is thrown back on all fronts - then we should doubtlessly have to pose the question of revising our conceptions of the present epoch and its driving forces.

This was no defence of Marxism but the logic of an analysis not based on Marxist categories. Unable to understand the defeat of the proletariat in the 1920s, he tried to overcome its weakness by an effort of will in 1938 which did credit to idealism but not to Marxism. This was not the end of Trotsky’s failures. In the Defence of Marxism he had gone even further along the road of support for imperialism in calling not only for the “defence of the USSR” but also for the defence of the “democratic swamp” in general. (21)

This was before Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941 had brought about the alliance of imperialist convenience between the USSR, Britain and the USA. And whilst the US Trotskyists had split over the analysis of Russia the French Trotskyists also split - in defence of both German and Allied imperialism! While the Revolution Francaise of the Mouvement National Revolutionnaire called for “collaboration without oppression” with Hitler the “Committees of the 4th International” in Verite called for the defence

of the wealth that generations of French workers and peasants have accumulated. (20)

September 1940

Our survey of the origins of Trotskyism ends with this sorry episode, the first of many unprincipled splits in a movement which, as we have shown here, never held clear “conceptions of the present epoch and its driving forces”. However, criticism of Trotsky’s failings does not amount to wiping out the history of the struggle for the communist programme and the international communist party. It simply means we must direct our gaze elsewhere.

(1) Here we cannot go into the whole process of the decline of the Russian revolution but readers can refer to our next pamphlet Russia 1917-24 Revolution and Counter-revolution.

(2) Trotsky, quoted in E.H.Carr The Interregum p. 66.

(3) Carr op. cit. pp326-7.

(4) Quoted in the Trotskyite academic journal Critique 4 p.44.

(5) R.V.Daniels The Conscience of the Revolution pp 374-5.

(6) Lenin, quoted in R.V.Daniels A Documentary History of Bolshevism.

(7) For a fuller explanation of the “democratic revolution” position of Lenin see Revolutionary Perspectives 20, “The Democratic Revolution - A Programme for the Past” and Revolutionary Perspectives 21 “Lenin’s Political Theory” (review).

(8) Trotsky Challenge of the Left Opposition p. 295.

(9) Challenge of the Left Opposition p 295.

(10) The value of Soviet exports shrank to one third and that of imports to a quarter between 1930 and 1935. For further details see “Theories of State Capitalism” in Revolutionary Perspectives 19.

(11) This concept has not been dealt with in detail here since, for al the noise made about it by Trotskyists, it actually plays little part in his political analysis.

(12) See Revolutionary Perspectives 19 loc. cit. where there is an extended analysis devoted to Trotsky’s view on Russia.

(13) See Revolutionary Perspectives 21 for a brief explanation of this in “Lenin’s Political Thought”.

(14) A forthcoming pamphlet on the economics of capitalist decadence will explain the concept more fully.

(15) See “Class Consciousness in the Marxist Perspective” in Revolutionary Perspectives 21.

(16) C.Slaughter in the introduction to the WRP edition of the Transitional Programme, p. 10.

(17) See P. Mattick Marx and Keynes Chapter One.

(18) For a further discussion of the issue of demands see Revolutionary Perspectives 17 and 20.

(19) Revolutionary Perspectives 1 and 15 as well as Internationalist Communist 8 and 12 deal with these episodes more fully.

(20) Quoted in Le Gauche Communiste d’Italie, pamphlet of the International Communist Current, p. 166.