trotsky review

Chris Nineham reviews Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party


Dianne Feeley, Paul Le Blanc, and Thomas Twiss, Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party (Haymarket Books 2014), xi, 107pp.

This selection was originally put together in the heat of an argument on the US left in the 1980s, but its recent republication is welcome. It needs careful reading because the authors have assembled material from many different situations, and it suffers at times from lack of context. Even so, anyone interested in how organising can change the world will find it rewarding.

Trotsky was one of the main leaders of the Russian revolution in 1917 and central to the revolutionary movement internationally until Stalin’s agents assassinated him in 1940. So the collection works as an inside view of the history of revolutionary organising in capitalism’s most turbulent period to date.

It presents Trotsky’s thoughts on political organising in context through three phases; the years of the Russian revolution, then from 1924 when Trotsky led the opposition to Stalin’s takeover, and finally, the years of exile after 1929 when he was building a new international organisation in opposition to Stalinism.

Proving the break

Apart from anything else the collection is a knock-out rebuttal to those who claim that there was continuity between the first few years of the Russian revolution and the Stalinist regime. Trotsky campaigned tirelessly against Stalin’s takeover, and excerpts here show again and again how Stalinist methods, which helped smash the revolution, were a complete break from previous party practice.

Trotsky outlines, for example, how up until 1924, the party as a wholeselected its leaders, and gradually elevated them, creating an ‘unbroken connection between cadres and the mass, between the leaders and the cadres’ (p. 47). By the 1930s the situation in the Stalinised Communist Parties was completely different:

‘The leaders are appointed. They handpick their aides. The rank and file of the masses is forced to accept the appointed leaders, around whom there is built up the artificial atmosphere of advertisement. The cadres depend upon the upper crust and not upon the underlying masses’ (p. 47).

First principles

Most importantly this book is a record of the philosophy and practice of revolutionary organising during its historic high points. In the first excerpts Trotsky identifies the biggest problem for socialists as the task of creating organisations adequate for revolutionary struggle. He lists a number of moments when ruling classes began to lose their grip on power and working people sensed the possibility for system change. Trotsky argues that in each of these cases, from the Hungarian revolution in 1919 to the German crisis of 1923 and the Chinese revolution of 1925-7, the essential missing element was coherent revolutionary organisation.

‘The hardest thing has been of all is for the working class to create a revolutionary organization capable of rising to height of its historic task’

There is no possibility of successfully overthrowing the capitalist order without having such an organisation with real roots and credibility amongst working people and a leadership that is tested in practice and ‘far-sighted, confident and firm’ (pp.4-5). It was because there was such an organisation in Russia that the workers there were able to organise a successful revolution with the active support of the peasantry and the soldiers.

Revolutionary organisation has to combine two apparently opposite polls. On the one hand it has to be resolute and single-minded about its aims and its principles. It needs to be clear about the need to confront and overthrow the system and not make any concessions to the toxic ideas that circulated in capitalist society. In Trotsky’s words it must:

‘create its own social opinion, resting upon the thoughts and feelings of the rising class. Thus by a process of selection and education – and in continual struggle, the Bolshevik party created not only a political but a moral medium of its own, independent of bourgeois social opinion and implacably opposed to it. Only this permitted the Bolsheviks to overcome the waverings in their own ranks and reveal in action that courageous determination without  which the October victory would have been impossible’ (p. 6).

Revolutionary theory is nothing but the condensed experience of class struggle, and useless and meaningless in isolation from it. So the revolutionary party also has to aim to influence and draw in the widest possible layers of working people, to fuse theory and practice. This involves a high level of democracy:

‘Revolutionary organisation is above all about organising action, and this requires unanimity where possible to be effective, but real unanimity can only be achieved through wide discussion. Unanimity is produced by the party as a whole through the constant renewal and accumulation of collective experience, through a collective effort of thought, on the basis of the party’s programme, rules, traditions and past experience. This process is inconceivable without differences, criticism and the clash of ideas’ (p. 15).

From theory to practice

The book records Trotsky fighting for this model of organisation in radically different circumstances. A number of themes stand out. Trotsky insists throughout that the discipline and coherence of revolutionary organisation flows first and foremost from its politics and its perspectives at any given time. The collective commitment that it involves and the intense co-operation that it demands can only come from political agreement:

‘This cohesion is the common understanding of the events of the tasks and this commonunderstanding – this is the programme of the party’ (p. 5).

This is not just an internal question. Revolutionaries don’t lecture other people about their politics but they must be honest and open, otherwise there is no clarity inside or outside the organisation. Trotsky argued against those, for example, who advocated compromising with the Independent Labour Party in 1930s Britain. He challenged their argument that the force of events themselves would transform the ILP from what they were to what they should be, from centrist to revolutionary:

‘A game of hide and seek in politics is an absolutely impermissible thing. I have already quoted several times for various reasons the words of a certain French writer: “If you hide your soul from others, in the end you will no longer be able to find it yourself” (p. 45).

The party cannot prosper if it does not have a correct policy. Moreover, it has to be involved in the real struggles taking place in society for at least three reasons. The first should be obvious. The point of revolutionary organisation is to make a real difference to the world, and this involves mobilising the widest possible numbers at any given time. Millions of people don’t suddenly take up a revolutionary programme developed behind their backs by small groups. Revolutions can only be the outcome of an interaction over time between socialists and great movements of people in real struggle.

‘If the most correct ideas do not reflect directly the ideas and actions of the mass, they will escape the attention of the masses altogether’ (p. 64).

Secondly, analysis and strategy can only be worked out and tested in practice. Anyone can come up with theories or prescriptions about what should be done, but only those people actually engaged in day to day struggle actually have a feel for what is possible and what is not in any given situation.

‘Revolutionary ideas must be transformed into life itself every day through the experience of the masses themselves’ (p. 64).

The third reason is that it is only through such engagement that a revolutionary organisation will grow significantly. Propaganda and theory can win individuals and can shape organisations. There needs to be a constant effort to raise the intellectual level in a revolutionary organisation, but the first step to winning large numbers of people is to prove that revolutionary strategy works in practice.

Democracy in action

It is for these reasons that internal democracy is essential. The wider the political discussion, the clearer the party will be about its strategy. Broad debate encourages the independence of mind necessary for members to respond creatively to complex situations. ‘Revolutionary discipline has nothing to do with blind obedience’ (p. 6).

Conversely, in one of the books more entertaining passages, Trotsky points out democracy shouldn’t be confused with discussion for discussion’s sake. Endless debate and formless democracy can separate organisations from those at the front line:

‘A worker spends his day in the factory. He has comparatively few hours left for the party. At the meetings he is interested in learning the most important things: the correct evaluation of the situation and the political conclusions. He values those leaders who do this in the clearest and most precise form and who keep in step with events. Petty-bourgeois, and especially declassed elements, divorced from the proletariat, vegetate in an artificial and shut-in environment’ (p. 93).

Any reader will be struck by the fact that although Trotsky was always pursuing the same general goal – the formation of viable revolutionary organisation – he emphasises very different aspects of the task at different times and in different situations. At one point in the 1930s he stresses to the French section that a small organisation should have relatively modest aspirations; ‘do only what you are able to do with the forces at your disposal. Never more’. Nevertheless, he does modify this; ‘except of course, in decisive situations’ (p. 63). At a time of growing working-class militancy in the US, on the other hand, Trotsky urged members in the US to plunge into the struggle in order to transform their party into a workers’ organisation (p. 51).

Essential opposites

Every organisation in fact needs to be able to fuse stability and flexibility. Trotsky underlines the importance of professional, routine work in the organisation, of collecting data about the movement, circulating documents, keeping in regular contact with all members, ‘the revolutionary movement’, he says, ‘is composed of dozens of such “uninteresting”, “technical” labours’ (p. 63).

Yet at the same time revolutionaries have to be able to respond to new situations decisively, to seize opportunities to and take initiatives. Trotsky warned against inflexibility or bureaucratism, ‘theoretical routine, the absence of political and tactical creativity, is no substitute for perspicacity, an ability to size things up at a glance, the flair for “feeling” a situation while sorting out the main threads and developing an overall strategy’ (p. 64).

This action orientated nature of all true revolutionary organisation, the need for disciplined, united activity on the one hand and regular reassessment and frequent change, determines the kind of democracy needed. It famously has to combine democracy and centralism, but with different emphases at different times:

‘Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. Everything depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority the leadership has succeeded in winning. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism. When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own struggle’ (p. 41).

This is a valuable book. It is itself, however, a series of excerpts produced as part of a faction fight. It emphasises the internal, sometimes technical, aspects of Trotsky’s interventions in debates without always introducing the great strategic questions from which they flowed. In particular, it omits any of Trotsky’s brilliant writings on the united front, on the central role of building broad movements based on shared interests with other organisations.

It’s not possible to grasp the full meaning of revolutionary organisation without considering this dimension. Nevertheless, the detail in this book is always thought-provoking and the outline of the argument is clear. We have no chance of shaping our future without learning from past attempts to combine ‘revolutionary audacity with political realism’ (p. 106).

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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