Trotskyism after Trotsky

The Crisis of Trotskyist Analysis since 1989

By the end of the 1960s the boom years of capitalism which followed the mass destruction of the Second World War were giving way to the accumulation crisis which continues to plague the world economy today. Since that time forces of consistent Marxist internationalism have revived and strengthened themselves, seeking to maintain and defend the programme of proletarian revolution and take that programme back into the heart of the working class. In opposition to this process, varieties of leftism have proliferated in different parts of the world. Each of the variants have acted as a roadblock to a coherent revolutionary praxis. Each has also served the bourgeoisie by reinforcing the left wing of capitalism and leaving those layers attracted to them as further sources of confusion and disillusion for anyone groping towards revolutionary clarity.

Particularly after the collapse of the USSR, certain currents of leftism - especially those emanating from Western academia whose pseudo-marxist careers had also shattered - have explicitly abandoned the Marxist project. They now join in the general bourgeois chorus of denouncing the past struggles of the working class (particularly the revolutionary wave around the end of the First World War) and declaring that the proletariat is no longer the force for social change and future human progress.

More confusingly for aspiring revolutionaries, tendencies have developed and thrived who deny the central role of the working class in the revolutionary process but who lay claim to the heritage of Marxism and even to be the heirs of the forces which gave birth to the Communist International in 1919. One of these trends was Maoism. But Maoism had nothing to do with either marxism or the working class. The Mao faction only took over the Chinese Communist Party after the massacres of the workers in Shanghai and Canton in 1926-7.

Mao based the CCP on the “bloc of four classes” and his takeover of China in October 1949 was not a proletarian revolution. What Mao did was copy the brutal planning aspects of Stalinist state capitalism and institute an arbitrary regime which resulted in the massacre of millions. (Over 30 million died in the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958 alone.)

From the late Sixties on Maoism claimed to be a Marxist current and made some inroads into the petty bourgeois student milieu in the metropoles. Both here and in capitalism’s periphery the Maoists encouraged their followers to act as cheerleaders for the Chinese ruling class as they struggled to establish their place in the imperialist order. In Asia, Africa and South America their adherents joined armed factions supporting national liberationist and/or left democratic warlords as factions of the bourgeoisie struggled to carve up the capitalist cake. Luckily, the twists and turns of the Chinese rulers have meant that they and their followers have become less and less credible in their efforts to present their political positions as stemming from a Marxist understanding.

Trotskyism, having experienced a renaissance during the ideological disruptions at the end of the 1960s, has proved to be a more robust phenomenon. Unlike the Maoists, the Trotskyists were without their “own” state power to look towards and attempt to justify and follow. This has allowed latter-day Trotskyists to adopt chameleon-like positions, adapting to this or that bourgeois faction or ideological trend. This section will give some examples of that behaviour.

The Trotskyists’ willingness to assimilate elements of politics from other tendencies in order to patch together an eclectic and kaleidoscopic programme is not accidental. The first part of this pamphlet helps to uncover the roots of these politics and reveal that they are not aberrations from a revolutionary norm but are actually a consistent extension of the theory and practice codified in the Trotskyist programme of 1938. That programme in turn reflected a method which failed to recognise the implications of an epoch in which capitalism had exhausted all its progressive possibilities and in which the task of revolutionists was not to link to “progressive” factions of the enemy class (democratic, anti-fascist or those supporting state capital against private capital) but to develop a programme in remorseless opposition to all such elements.

Trotskyism’s Core Confusion

The rotten core at the centre of Trotskyism is the refusal of that tendency, or family of tendencies to adopt a rigorous analysis of the failure of the revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War and its consequent impact on the isolated Soviet power in Russia. Clinging to their erroneous analysis of the Soviet Union which marked it as having non-capitalist economic foundations, Trotskyists (1) urged their followers to support the Stalinist states against their other imperialist rivals.

Struggling to deal with the reality of the reactionary transformation of Russian society in the 1920s, Russian Communists in opposition to the official party/state machine explored analogies with the years following the 1789 French Revolution.

In February, 1935 Trotsky wrote about that discussion,

"It would be no easy task today to establish who resorted first to the historical analogy of Thermidor. In any case, the positions on this issue in 1926 were approximately as follows: the group of “Democratic Centralism” (2) (V.M. Smirnov, Sapronov and others who were hounded to death in exile by Stalin) declared, “Thermidor is an accomplished fact!”. The adherents to the platform of the Left Oppositionist, the Bolshevik-Leninists [i.e. the Trotskyists] categorically denied this assertion." (3)

Without accepting the Thermidorian analogy, that quote shows very clearly that Russian Oppositionists outside Trotsky’s group had an earlier and clearer view of the extent of the reaction than Trotsky and his followers.

In the same article Trotsky belatedly comes to the same conclusion,

The Thermidor of the Great Russian Revolution is not before us but very far behind. The Thermidoreans can celebrate, approximately, the tenth anniversary of their victory. (4)

However, instead of having used the intervening years to refine and develop Sapronov’s position, Trotsky departs from basic and essential Marxist understandings. For him, Russia remained a workers’ state and the Stalinist counter-revolutionaries were its defenders,

"The present political regime in the USSR is the regime of “Soviet” (or anti-Soviet) Bonapartism... In its social foundation and economic tendencies, the USSR still remains a workers’ state." (5)

Trotsky went on to develop the same analysis at greater length in Revolution Betrayed published in 1936.

Since Trotsky’s death the strange confusion whereby the nationalised Russian economy was somehow a gain for the working class has expanded into an even bigger methodological nonsense. During the post-war economic expansion, with the adoption of extensive state capitalist measures throughout the world, the Trotskyists came to identify any or all state intervention, ownership or delivery of welfare and other services as being progressive. (If not explicitly “socialist”!)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the poisonous culmination of the Trotskyist analysis and misrepresentations has tragically, but appropriately, been shown in all its counter-revolutionary implications in Russia. The various groups, including the International Committee of the Fourth International led by David North’s Socialist Equality Party (SEP) in the USA, the British SWP, and the Committee for a Workers International headed by the British Socialist Party (ex-Militant tendency) have competed to spawn their own organisations in Russia. In a series of conferences the Trotskyists, including the followers of Hillel Ticktin’s non-orthodox Trotskyist Critique, have provided platforms for all manner of supporters of state-based solutions, ranging from Social Democrats to former leaders of Zhyuganov’s party. All of them share with the Trotskyists an inability to understand the reactionary nature of any form of “state socialism” in the imperialist epoch.

At these conferences the leading speakers systematically hide the contribution of non-Trotskyist oppositions to an understanding of and resistance to the Russian Revolution’s degeneration - and in the case of Ticktin, have gratuitously slandered Rosa Luxembourg for good measure. The worst aspects of Trotskyism have thus returned to the land of its origin to play a reactionary and confusing role.

As Unchanging as a Chameleon, as Consistent as a Kaleidoscope

One of the features of Trotskyist political practice is its tendency, helped by the movement’s split into numerous factions and tendencies, to adapt its politics to different and diverse anti-revolutionary interests and trends.

As will be seen later, the Trotskyist movement lost its connections with the proletarian revolutionary movement during the 1930s. Following Trotsky’s death and the political disappearance of his Fourth International as a coherent force during the Second World War, the stage was set for post-war Trotskyism to set a pattern of adopting and adapting to bourgeois movements and simultaneously generating scores of rival tendencies, fractions and organisations - some nationally-based, many claiming to be yet another incarnation of the Fourth International.

A short overview such as this pamphlet does not provide enough scope to fully detail the bourgeois movements to which the Trotskyists have adapted. A few examples will, however, serve to illustrate the range of those developments.

In the second half of the 1940s, as the Soviet Union became the second pillar of worldwide imperialist domination, the Trotskyists struggled to assimilate that reality to their view that the statified Russian economy remained a “gain for the working class”. By the end of the decade the majority of Trotskyists had decided that the satellite states in Eastern Europe and (subsequently) Mao’s China were likewise states in which the nationalised economy was “progressive” and worthy of support. This depiction implied that significant parts of the world had experienced the end of capitalist property relations courtesy of the post-war imperialist settlement and Mao’s victory in the war against Chiang Kai-Shek’s KuoMinTang .

The gross departure from Marxism expressed in that confusion laid the basis for decades of calling for support for the Moscow-centred bloc against the U.S. dominated bloc during the Cold War. Within that trend another tendency appeared as the Trotskyists threw their propaganda support behind Stalinist forces who tactically expressed independence from Moscow from time to time. The first example was when the Trotskyist movement adopted Tito as an “unconscious Trotskyist” when he led his Yugoslav state away from direct economic, political and military control by Moscow. Later, differing factions were to repeat similar tragi-comic confusion with other national Stalinist leaderships, notably the Cuban, Chinese and Vietnamese. (6)

Other national leaderships were similarly applauded to a greater or lesser extent. During the 1970s and 80s a variety of governments were awarded the Trotskyist stamp of approval. These included the military regime in Ethiopia, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada. The support and applause for such governments or oppositions overlapped very clearly with another Trotskyist anti-proletarian position - support for National Liberationism.

Trotskyists take their inspiration from the weaknesses of the positions adopted between 1920 and 1922 by the Communist International as the Revolutionary wave ebbed away. In parallel with their general united frontist approach they offer their support to “oppressed” capitalist states against their (equally capitalist) “oppressors”. This practice was sanctified by the Trotskyists during the 1930s when they supported Abyssinia/Ethiopia against Italy and China against Japan. Trotsky and his followers failed, and continue to fail, to recognise the fundamental nature of the imperialist epoch - that national bourgeoisies, and aspiring national bourgeoisies, can only survive as part of, and are entirely dependent on, the worldwide imperialist nexus. That failure has led them to act as cheer-leaders for anti-proletarian national liberation factions and figureheads, ranging from the Algerian FLN, to Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism, the bourgeois-led Fretilin movement struggling for an independent East Timorese state and, of course, the forces who now run the governments in all the major Southern African states.

Nearer home the various Trotskyist factions offer, usually vicarious, support to the IRA and other Irish nationalist elements.

Having identified the Trotskyist support for national liberation movements as a feature distinguishing them from the revolutionary camp, it is easy to see how their support for and involvement with other liberal movements marks another point of separation. In their never ending search for “transitional” routes into mainstream bourgeois political life the Trotskyists accommodate themselves to any fashionable reformist trend the liberal bourgeoisie happen to throw up.

This is most obvious in two examples from the periphery of capitalism. In 1951 in Bolivia the POR (Workers Revolutionary Party, led by Guillermo Lora and part of the Pabloite International Secretariat) took up support for the newly elected, and US-backed, Movement of National Resistance government of Paz Estenssoro. For the US Government the reformist programme of the MNR was the only way to “prevent the rise of communism and chaos”. The POR was a large party but having degenerated alongside other Trotskyist organisations could only manage to cheer on the bourgeois nationalist MNR’s programme of nationalisation of the tin mines and redivision of the land. It also called for such radical things as ministerial posts for the corrupt COB trades union confederation leaders. In 1954 this trajectory was complete when the majority of the POR took up membership of the MNR. Thus, they wiped out any pretence at having an independent class agenda and paved the way for the military coup of 1964. If there was a “crisis of leadership” in the trades unions then the Trotskyists were part of it.

Similarly, in the 50s and 60s the LSSP of Sri Lanka made its social democratic credentials both concrete and obvious by their electoralism and trades union aspirations. After the front with the Stalinists and others in 1963 it finally went into the Bandaranaike government in 1964. Again, the result was to persuade workers that the democratic system had something to offer them or could be reformed to improve their conditions of life. It did nothing to provide a basis for understanding the capitalist relations which perpetuated their misery, much less organise independently against the state.

With their resurgence, particularly in North America and Europe, at the end of the 1960s the Trotskyists absorbed many of the political positions of the various “liberation” movements - all of which counterposed themselves to the Marxist project. Prime amongst these are feminism and “black liberation”/anti-racism.

Trotskyism’s desire to ingratiate itself with such tendencies has brought a stream of confusing alliances and shared positions. Particularly in their beloved “Labour Movement” (primarily the Labour Party and the Trade Unions - both agents for the preservation of capitalism in the current period) the Trotskyists become cheer-leaders for a radical “equal opportunities” policy, often based around “positive action” or “positive discrimination”. With their left Labour movement allies the Trotskyists keep the struggle for equality firmly within a reformist framework. Even where they pay lip service to the indissoluble link between capitalism and chauvinism/discrimination their practice is centred around reformist demands aimed at proving that “liberation” can be achieved via the left of capital. Many who want to destroy oppression end up trapped by the Trotskyists in institutional and political structures which are essential parts of the capitalist framework which is the very source of that oppression.

For many Trotskyists their “anti-racist” antics are linked to positions of united-frontist anti-fascism (7), the implications of which we will return to shortly. Here, it is worth expanding briefly on the two areas of the “Labour Movement” in which Trotskyism remains trapped and in turn entraps those who encounter it. These are the left of the trade unions together with the Labour Party - or its more recent cheap imitations.

For the vast majority of Trotskyists the trade unions, at all levels, remain a key area to which they send their cadres and contacts. Starting from an inability and unwillingness to recognise the role of the unions in the imperialist epoch the Trotskyists try to get themselves into positions of power and influence up to and including the national leaderships. (8)

In all cases the Trotskyists serve to confuse those they address that the unions can once again become instruments for the working class to defend itself, rather than the instruments of control in the workplace and direct agents of the state and capital, they really are.

The Trotskyists also have consistently put great effort into boosting the credentials and backing their other left reformist friends who seek positions of authority in the trade unions. Such activities, claimed as the high-point of political intervention - all of which served to maintain the grip of the trade unions - included the encouragement of the dockers “blue union” by the (then) Socialist Labour League during the 1960s and the construction of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee (IS/SWP - 1970s) and the Broad Left Organising Committee (1980s - Militant). As the unions continue to divide the working class the Trotskyists continue to try to act as their left wing.

Alongside the unions the other twin pillar of the Trotskyists’ Labour Movement (in Britain) has traditionally been the Labour Party. The political origins of the orientation towards Second International-type parties will be shown later in the comments on Trotsky’s departure from revolutionary politics during the 1930s.

In Britain the vast majority of Trotskyists were members of the Labour Party from the late 1940s until the radicalisation around 1968. This strategy of “entryism”, particularly around the Labour Party’s youth wing allowed Gerry Healey’s Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party) to take control of the Labour Party Young Socialists in the early 1960s. Ted Grant’s “Militant”, refusing to leave their Labour Party haunts during the radicalisation of 1968-74, repeated the feat during the 1970s and early 80s. The latter’s persistence also paid off when their Liverpool base, with roots traceable back to the 1930s, was able to politically direct the City Council between 1983 and 1987.

From the mid 1970s until the late 1980s many Trotskyists rediscovered entryism and moved back to operate amongst, and often as, the Labour left. The main exceptions to that rule were Tony Cliff’s International Socialists who recreated themselves as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Gerry Healey’s WRP, since exploded into numerous fragments, who became mouthpieces for Gaddafy and simultaneously sponsors of a newspaper, the Labour Herald, which gave a platform to such worthies of the Labour Left as Ken Livingstone. It needs to be emphasised that even where the fractions organisationally separated from Labour, there was, in general no political reassessment. Both the SWP and the WRP in that period continued to call for electoral support for Labour -except on the very few occasions where they stood their own candidates, achieving negligible impact and number of votes.

Since the late 1980s the Trotskyists have found it more and more difficult to thrive in the left of the Labour Party. This process is driven both by increasing bureaucratic control from a Party machine firmly controlled by the Labour right wing and the increasing refusal of the Party leadership to abide by the traditional Labourist state-interventionist mantras. The result has been an increasing number of Trotskyist organisations outside the Labour Party, a number of splits and realignments (9), and increasing appearances of Trotskyist candidates standing on left reformist platforms, particularly in elections during 1999. (10)

Perhaps the most nauseating example of the current realignments took place in 1999 when the SWP (the biggest Trotskyist group in Britain) allied itself in a mutual admiration society with the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain (CPB - publishers of the Morning Star) and a rag-bag of left Labour MPs such as Tony Benn and Alice Mahon to build a pro-Serbian strand to head off any internationalist opposition to the developing war in the Balkans.

On the other hand, there were many Trotskyists intent on showing their followers that, in war, they can make whatever choice they wish - so long as its in accord with a bourgeois fraction. Groups such as Workers Power, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) and Socialist Party all supported the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA) and the would-be Kosovan state/protectorate. They prefer the machinations of the pro-German or pro-American Kosovan nationalists to the SWP’s Russian-backed Serbian nationalists.

The question of the move towards a Third World War and the role of the Trotskyists is an opportunity to comment not only on their general methodology (select a bourgeois fraction, ignore internationalism) but also to return to their obsessive anti-fascism.

For internationalists, fascism is a product of imperialism. It is part of the price which the proletariat paid as a result of the profound crisis following the defeat of the revolutionary struggles. In no way, however, do we believe that 20th century bourgeois democracy (the preferred form of imperialist domination in the metropolitan countries) is one jot less an imperialist formation. The historic solution to both fascism and the democratic form of imperialism is working class revolution. Not so for the Trotskyists!

Time and again the Trotskyists will highlight the role of the insignificant fascist organisations - ignoring, for example, the fact that far more black people have died or suffered injury at the hands of the democratic British state. The Trotskyists, together with their Stalinist and other leftist allies have fought long and hard to maintain anti-fascism as a significant element in their armoury of confusion.

Anti-fascism is not merely one amongst many other bourgeois confusions prevalent amongst the working-class. It was the single strongest ideological tool used to dragoon the working-class into the Second Imperialist War. Having prepared the ground during the Spanish Civil War, the Trotskyists and Stalinists systematically prepared their followers to fight alongside the democratic powers against the German-led Axis. The official “Communist Party” leaderships were to make up for their departure from that line, during the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939-May 1941, with their out and out support for the Anglo-Russian-American imperialist alliance during Stalin’s “Great Patriotic War”.

Anti-fascism remains a significant weapon in the bourgeoisie’s ideological armoury. The “struggle against a dictator” was used to generate support for the wars against Iraq. Clinton and Blair’s verbal tirades against the Milosevic Serbian government use many features of imperialism’s democratic anti-fascist terminology. We have already shown how modern-day Trotskyists elect to support one or other bourgeois fraction, even in time of war. Their use of anti-fascism helps give their bourgeois bigger siblings even more scope to pull workers towards imperialist slaughter.


This short pamphlet has been about Trotsky in the face of the counter-revolution. It might seem ungenerous that we have not dwelled on his activity in 1905 as the second chair of the St. Petersburg Soviet. It might also appear that we have short-changed him by not quoting at length his brilliant writings such as 1905, The History of the Russian Revolution or Results and Prospects. We might even have credited him with being more far sighted than Lenin on the course of the future Russian Revolution in the years before the First World War. But that was not our focus. We are trying to analyse the last revolutionary wave in order to clarify what our tasks are for the future. The highpoint of Trotsky’s legacy is the 1917 Russian Revolution. And here it is no accident that Trotsky’s greatest success as a revolutionary was as Commissar for War. His ruthlessness was a significant factor in the creation of the the Red Army. But this strength was also a weakness. As a contemporary said “Trotsky was a man of the state not of the party”. This is a telling comment. It underlines that Trotsky after 1918 was less concerned with the question of working class self-activity and more concerned with building a state power. This is why he could advocate the “militarisation of labour” in 1920. It was thinking of this that Lenin, in the very same Testament where he called for the removal of Stalin also criticised Trotsky for...

a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.

It was no wonder then that as the Party became the State Trotsky reserved his criticisms to an internal struggle which was both feeble and inconsistent. He confined his fight to a struggle amongst the leadership which both confused and disoriented the young workers who had been educated in the struggle to create the young Soviet republic.

In the final analysis Trotsky himself was the architect of Trotskyism. Had he survived the imperialist war of 1939-45 he might have avoided support for “degenerated workers’ states”. He might even have re-assessed the class nature of the Soviet Union. But history is not about what might have happened. It is about what did happen. Trotsky left a method which created a counter-revolutionary movement. It was no accident that Trotsky refused to unite with any other Opposition, either inside Russia or inside the International. Radek, a leading Trotskyist, complained in 1928 that many young workers could not understand why Trotsky did not link up with the Democratic Centralists (a Russian Communist Left-led organisation by V. Smirnov and T. Sapronov) to form a new communist party. (11)

The Trotskyist leaders dismissed the “Decists” as “ultra-left, sectarian and adventurist”. Similarly, Trotsky rejected links with other oppositions such as our political forerunners in the Left Fraction of the Communist Party of Italy, but also with others politically closer to him like the KPO (Communist Party Opposition) and SAP (Socialist Workers’ Party) in Germany.

Why? Because Trotsky was obsessed with what he thought would be “staying in touch with the masses”. And when the masses were defeated and under the control of the counter-revolution, whether in its Stalinist guise in Russia or its Social Democratic guise in the rest of Europe, Trotsky preferred to keep on terms with the counter-revolution. Hence his “French turn” in 1934 when he urged his followers back into Social Democracy. Whether they have espoused entryism or not, every Trotskyist tendency since has been infected with the same methodology. By rejoining Social Democracy they have done their bit to bury the banner of the communist programme. It is the task of the current generation of revolutionaries to once again unfurl that flag of working class independence so that the coming century fulfils the failed promise of freedom and equality offered by the October Revolution.

(1) Certain elements have reassessed Trotsky’s description of the Stalinist formations. Two of the main tendencies to do so have their origins in the 1940s crisis of the Trotskyist movement. The first was grouped around Max Shachtman, an American Trotskyist whose Workers’ Party broke away from official Trotskyism in 1940 and defined the Soviet Union as an expression of “bureaucratic collectivism”. [Comments on latter-day Shachtmanites can be found in Internationalist Communist 17]. Faced with the spread of Stalinism at the end of the Second World War others developed Shachtman’s positions. C.L.R. James, who later moved to positions which he called “Marxist Humanism” published his booklet on The Invading Socialist Society and the British-based Trotskyist, Tony Cliff, published Russia - A Marxist Analysis shortly afterwards. Cliff, not wishing to be branded a Shachtmanite, adopted the label of “state capitalism” without abandoning any of the features of the Trotskyist method. He and his followers, now the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, continued to call for state ownership as opposed to private capital and continue to portray the “labour movement” (Labour Party, trade unions, etc.) as a progressive force. They also, of course, adhere to other Trotskyist confusions and adaptations of national liberationism and other bourgeois tendencies.
The “Lutte Ouvriere” group in France hold similar political positions to the SWP but with a stronger element of independent electoral activity (as against the SWP’s traditional cheer-leading for the British Labour Party). They added another element to the kaleidoscope of confusion by combining the orthodox Trotskyist “degenerated workers’ state” label for the Soviet Union with Cliff’s version of “state capitalism” for the rest of the pre-1989 Russian bloc in Eastern Europe.

(2) A group of non-Trotskyist Left Communists.

(3) Writings of Leon Trotsky [1934-35], 2nd Edition (1974), Pathfinder Press, page 167.

(4) op.cit. page 182.

(5) op.cit. page 182.

(6) The followers of Ted Grant’s RSL, later the “Militant” tendency managed to reach new heights of theoretical idiocy when they discovered in the 1960s and 1970s that states such as Syria and Burma were “deformed workers states” because of the percentage of the national economy which was nationalised.

(7) The most obvious example of this in Britain is the SWP-inspired Anti-Nazi League which has reappeared to stress the joys of democratic capitalism at various times during the last 20 years.

(8) For example, see the 30th April, 1999 edition of Socialist in which pet members of the National Executive Committee of the NUT and UNISON Trade Unions send their May Day greetings.

(9) Perhaps the most dramatic transformation has been the moves by the former “Militant” who ditched their long-time guru, Ted Grant, and transformed themselves into the “Socialist Party” - abandoning the Labour Party, standing their own candidates and seeking alliances with other radical interest groups.

(10) “Scottish Socialist” candidate, Tommy Sheridan, attained the dubious distinction of becoming the lone Trotskyist in the British bourgeoisie’s latest state institution, the Scottish Parliament.

(11) See “The Left Communist Opposition in the USSR in the Late 20s” by A .V. Gusev (Otechestvennaia Istoriia, January/February 1996).