Лев Давидович Троцкий| Unknown author – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC 1.0 Public Domain | license linked at bottom of article Лев Давидович Троцкий| Unknown author – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC 1.0 Public Domain | license linked at bottom of article

Chris Bambery explores the revolutionary life and ideas of Leon Trotsky and their relevance to the struggle today

Counterfire is hosting a series of discussions on the ideas of Leon Trotsky on Thursday evenings in August. Find out more and register on Zoom here.

What is the importance of Leon Trotsky? One obvious answer is that, over eight decades since his assassination at the hands of the secret police of the Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin, he has been a hate figure for successive Labour leaders, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn, and their friends and hangers on in the media.

None of them could hold a candle to Trotsky in regards to his ability with the pen. His History of the Russian Revolution is one of the great historical works. Other Marxists analysed the nation state which they sought to bring to battle: Marx and Engels on Germany, Lenin, as with Trotsky, on Tsarist Russia, and Antonio Gramsci on Italy. However, the first chapter of Trotsky’s book, in setting up a social, economic and political analysis of the contradictions which undermined Tsarism, and setting it within the international order, in its sweep and brilliance has only one match I am aware of, the first chapter of the first volume of Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

Those Labour leaders who attack him have plenty of experience in sending young men and women to war, but not themselves of war. Trotsky, whose only military experience had been as a war reporter during the 1912-13 Balkans War, forged and inspired the Red Army to victory in the Russian Civil War, creating a talented military cadre (later executed by Stalin). The achievement is even more remarkable, given that every imperialist state sent troops to attempt to destroy the revolutionary Soviet Union, and armed and financed the counter-revolutionary White armies.

As a speaker it is obvious too, even at this distance, that Trotsky outshines his Labour critics as an orator. In the weeks before the October Revolution of 1917, Trotsky captivated tens of thousands of St Petersburg workers at the Cirque Moderne, talking about not just politics but culture. The workers wanted to understand everything because they wanted to rule.

A Menshevik historian, N. N. Sukhanov (the Mensheviks were factional opponents of the Bolsheviks within the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party) wrote an honest history of the 1917 revolution. In it, he relates that he was in the audience there to hear Trotsky, who concluded his speech by asking the audience to pledge to ‘devote the last drop of our blood and all of our life-force to the victory of the socialist revolution’.

Every hand shot up.

As he walked away, Sukhanov suddenly realised that he too, an opponent of the seizure of power, had raised his hand!

Trotsky and 1917

The American Marxist and journalist, John Reed, in his excellent Ten Days That Shook the World, describes the revolution and places Trotsky as its central figure; Lenin was in hiding in danger of arrest. Trotsky was the organiser of the final insurrection.

Lenin and Trotsky had been at odds before the February 1917 revolution, which overthrew Tsarism. Until his return to St Petersburg, Lenin had held that the working class in Russia could not take power directly because it was too small. In his ‘April Theses’ he completely reversed that position.

Trotsky, who in the earlier, unsuccessful 1905 revolution, when he was elected chair of the St Petersburg Soviet (not bad for a Jewish intellectual!), had drawn from that experience to formulate what came to be known as the theory of permanent revolution. Central to this was the argument that the fight for democracy against autocracy would tend to grow over into a fight by the working class for economic and social liberation.

Addressing the fact that the Russian working class was a minority in a sea of peasants, Trotsky outlined the theory of uneven and combined development. It was true Tsarist Russia was economically and culturally backwards compared to Britain, Germany or the USA, but the industry which was growing fast was transplanting the most modern factories, shipyards and mines into Russia, and creating a concentrated and insurgent working class. It could win the peasantry by promising them the land, the thing they desired most of all in the world.

In May 1917, Lenin not just demanded the Bolsheviks merge with Trotsky’s small group, but began intense discussions with him on precisely a strategy for working-class revolution. Russia was, of course, at war, which the vast majority of workers, soldiers and peasants wanted to be ended. The Bolsheviks were the only ones promising to end the slaughter, which was central to their garnering of mass support.

The strategic thinking behind the seizure of power was that Russia was the weakest link in a capitalist chain, and that a socialist revolution there would set off a chain reaction across Europe, and above all in Germany.

This did happen in 1919-1920, when much of western and central Europe experienced revolutionary crises. Soviet Republics came into being in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919. Germany entered a revolutionary wave lasting from the autumn of 1918, when mutinies brought to an end its ability to prosecute the First World War, and revolution toppled the Kaiser. This wave would last with various ups and downs until October 1923.

Trotsky and political strategy

But nowhere did a party exist like that of the Bolsheviks in Russia. One which was already schooled in revolution during 1905, the aftermath of that revolution’s defeat, and then in the revival of struggle in outright opposition to Russia’s involvement in the First World War.

This was not the all powerful party which did the thinking for the working class and ordered them in battle. This was an organisation organically linked to the working class and the oppressed across the Russian Empire and rooted within them. A party able to win acceptance of its strategic and tactical goals, but also able to learn from the working class; the Bolsheviks had been hostile at first to the soviets in 1905, but Lenin, quickly understanding the error, fought to achieve a U-turn.

By 1921 and 1922, both Lenin and Trotsky grasped that the post-war revolutionary wave had ebbed. The isolated Bavarian and Hungarian Soviet Republics had been crushed, while in Italy a counter-revolutionary wave had brought fascism to power. Young revolutionary Communist Parties had been created, of real size in Germany, France and Bulgaria, but everywhere they were in a minority within the working class. The old Social Democratic and Labour parties retained majority support.

Lenin and Trotsky worked together to wage a fight within the Bolshevik Party and in the new Communist International (Comintern), grouping the world’s Communist Parties, beginning from a minority position. A majority of the Bolshevik leadership – including Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin, key figures in the Comintern – argued that revolution was still on the agenda and with extra effort could succeed.

In contrast, Lenin and Trotsky argued that Communists had to work patiently to win workers away from Social Democracy, and the best way to achieve that was by seeking to work jointly to advance more modest demands, often defensive, as the capitalist class, having drawn breath, turned to the offensive.

Thus they elaborated the strategy of the united front, which both men saw as central to a revolutionary strategy in western Europe. In Russia they had faced a weak, repressive Tsarist state, which had broken when challenged directly. In western Europe, the ruling-class ruled first by consent and kept repression in reserve unless that broke down (if you hear echoes of Gramsci here then that is because exactly this strategy is at the heart of his mature writings).

Lenin would turn to Trotsky once again at the very end of his life when he led a fight for democracy within both the federal Soviet Union and the Bolshevik Party. Lenin supported national self-determination and understood that in the republics of Ukraine and Uzbekistan, the governments and parties there should be led by Ukrainians and Uzbeks, and those languages should predominate.

Despite being a Georgian, Stalin, now General Secretary of the Party, represented a powerful bureaucracy which had inherited much from the Russian chauvinist attitudes of their Tsarist predecessors (of necessity the Bolsheviks had to utilise former Tsarist officials). In Georgia, Stalin dismissed its government, imposing loyal Russians in their place.

From his sick bed, Lenin demanded all this be reversed and summoned Trotsky’s help. In his final will Lenin would demand Stalin’s removal as General Secretary but Trotsky fudged the issue, not pressing this home. Stalin would have no such qualms later.

The premise of the revolution was that it could only survive if it spread beyond Russia’s borders, but the Soviet Union now found itself isolated. Its revolutionary working class had suffered huge losses in the civil war, and many others had been drawn into running the state and economy. For Lenin and Trotsky the task was to hang on until the international revolution rose again. For Stalin and others the task was creating a stable state and economy and not risking it all on international adventures.

While Stalin promised ‘socialism within one country’ (an idea Lenin would have savaged), Trotsky defended the strategy behind 1917. First, the leadership of the Soviet Union and the Comintern let revolutionary opportunities slip away because of their conservatism: Germany in 1923, the 1926 British General Strike and the 1927 Chinese Revolution. Later they would do their all to block revolution, as in Catalunya in 1936-7, turning to murder, torture and military repression to ensure it.

Trotsky wrote brilliantly, outlining what needed to be done in each case and warning what the consequences would be if it were not. He was right in each case, but he was predicting then explaining defeats. This left the Soviet working class demoralised and created passivity: Stalin and the bureaucracy’s best ally.

Trotsky’s revolutionary tradition

In the course of the struggle with Stalin, in his writings on the Chinese Revolution, Trotsky globalised his theory of Permanent Revolution, drawing the conclusion that there was a tendency for national liberation struggles to grow over into working-class revolution (a tendency is not an inevibility and it requires a human agent, a revolutionary party). In 1923-1924 and 1926-1927, Trotsky led an internal opposition to Stalin and ‘socialism in one country’, prioritising working-class democracy in the Party and the rebuilding of democratic soviets along with revolutionary internationalism.

The defeat of the 1927 Chinese Revolution (caused by the imposition of a non-revolutionary strategy by Moscow on the Chinese Communists) sealed the defeat of the opposition. In 1928, he was expelled from the Party and sent into internal exile. The following year, he was deported to Turkey, beginning an odyssey in which he attempted to find shelter, something denied him in Britain by the Labour government of Ramsey MacDonald.

By 1929, the centrality of Germany to the international situation was clear. Trotsky’s writings on Germany, from the impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 to Hitler’s coming to power in January 1933, are simply brilliant. He provides a Marxist analysis of fascism which remains central today, but he also puts forward, with growing urgency, the need for working-class unity to stop the Nazis, developing the united-front strategy.

Germany was home to the largest Social Democratic Party in the world and the largest Communist Party outside the USSR. Together they could have blocked Hitler. Stalin was having none of it and demanded the German Communists present the main enemy as the Social Democrats, thus dividing the German working class. This allowed Hitler to take power peacefully.

Trotsky understood this was a huge victory for reaction, but that it also heralded a new world war. By 1936, Trotsky was fighting, from exile, the growing terror and the show trials in Stalin’s Russia, in which he was enemy number one, trying to analyse the degeneration of the Russian revolution on a Marxist basis, and attempting to create revolutionary organisations.

However, he also knew that as world war grew nearer and fascism spread, winning in Spain in 1939, a desperate working class hoped against hope that Stalin would be their saviour. Trotsky had his pen, Stalin had his military divisions. In August 1940 Stalin’s assassins finally caught up with him, having murdered much of his family in Russia and abroad.

During the Second World War, Stalin’s prestige mounted as his Red Army defeated the Third Reich. In the Cold War which followed the choice seemed to be between Washington and Moscow. Trotsky’s few followers were largely sidelined. Nevertheless, in 1968, revolution returned to the agenda, beginning with the French May. Trotsky found a new audience among revolutionaries who hated US imperialism in Vietnam and Russian imperialism, when it crushed the Prague Spring.

Returning home, the Labour Party didn’t have a great problem with Stalin and Stalinists. The post-war Labour left was largely pro-Soviet, and ex-Communists adorned Tony Blair’s New Labour.

So what’s their problem with Leon Trotsky? Simple. He represents the one thing they abhor above all else. Revolution!

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.