Vladimir Unkovski-Korica looks at the legacy of Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’ today. This is an adapted version of a speech given at Counterfire conference which took place on 3rd and 4th December 2016.
With world capitalism engulfed in crisis, there is increasing polarisation to left and right across the globe.
People are seeking ideas to explain what the mainstream media fails to cover properly or sometimes even appears to be covering up.
In this context, it may be unsurprising that Leon Trotsky, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution, should have hit the headlines in 2016.
Perhaps more surprising at first glance may be that it was the Labour Party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who made Trotsky the subject of public attention.
In a transparent attempt to engineer a coup against his leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Watson made the bizarre claim that he had solid evidence of major Trotskyist infiltration of the Labour Party.
This provided the excuse necessary, if any was necessary at all, for 130,000 new Labour Party members to be disenfranchised in the Labour leadership election.
Thankfully, the coup failed. But it exposed the Labour right’s shameful preparedness to destroy their own party rather than see Corbyn succeed. It also exposed their lie that 130,000 Trotskyists were secretly joining Labour, since they’ve since shut up about it.
The Labour right invented a ‘Trotskyist’ threat because they are terrified that, once again,workers are joining the Labour party. More than that, joining to vote for a socialist as leader!
The Labour right thought they could smear Corbyn by association with Leon Trotsky, for a number of reasons. They would be reviving memories of bitter divisions in Labour in the 1980s while the Tories continued to rule unabated.
They also hoped to imply that Corbyn was a closet dictator, since Leon Trotsky was supposedly a supporter of violent dictatorship in Russia. The Labour right failed, and they look stupid. But they could look stupider yet.
Because Trotsky was quite the opposite of what they implied. By raising the ghost of Trotsky, moreover, the Labour right could unwittingly be the ones providing their own members with dangerous ideas. Thanks, Tom Watson!
Who was Leon Trotsky?
Leon Trotsky will be in the limelight even more over the coming year simply because it is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017.
Not only did Trotsky play a central role in the October Revolution alongside Lenin. He was also one of its famous historians. Reading his still influential History of the Russian Revolution, we can get a whiff of what the Tom Watsons of the world are afraid of. This is what Trotsky wrote about revolutions:
“The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
This is anathema to Tom Watson and his ilk. It smacks too much of the rallies Jeremy Corbyn attended for decades before he became party leader. We can’t have that in the Labour Party!
Power for Tom Watson should rest with representatives of the people sitting in parliament. What would happen to MPs expenses? Fancy positions in corporate boardrooms and million-pound salaries upon retirement? Knighthoods? Illustrious careers as peace envoys to the Middle East? The Queen? Capitalism?
Tom Watson rightly fears these would be gone if people power were to take hold.
What did the Russian Revolution stand for?
But this is exactly what the Russian Revolution was all about. Trotsky was the first elected chairman of the St Petersburg Workers’ Council, or Soviet, a body directly representing workers and showing the potential to run society in the first Russian Revolution which failed in 1905 and again when it succeeded in 1917.
Trotsky’s immense faith in the ability of workers to run society came from his profound understanding of Marx. Marx had written that capitalism created its own gravedigger, the working class.
The people who produce all wealth and provide all services would be capable of seeing beyond the competition between their bosses.
Consider the world today. China produces more and more, yet our bosses tell us this is the reason to cut our wages in Europe, to be competitive with Chinese workers.
So as more and more wealth is created across the world, workers everywhere face a rate race – to keep the bosses’ pockets filled. It’s absurd.
Trotsky and Permanent Revolution
And it was for this reason that Trotsky was adamant that the Russian Revolution, even as it was occurring in backward Russia, could not be satisfied with just sweeping away the remnants of Russian feudalism. In fact, it could not simply remain Russian.
As workers fight for better conditions, they would find that their gains are under constant threat unless they go further and get rid of capitalism the world over. The revolution could not stop, it had to be permanent.
Think about the attacks on the welfare state and on democratic rights across the world under neo-liberalism and under austerity.
Since capitalism is a global system, revolution had to be global. That was already there in Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto.
Trotsky was extending their insights. But he did more, which is why all Marxists stand in his debt. He stayed true to the ideas of workers’ self-emancipation and internationalism when the revolution failed to spread from Russia.
Defending the revolution from Stalinism
He was in fact able to argue that Russia’s isolation and backwardness would lead to the downfall of socialism in Russia as the party that led the workers would increasingly usurp power from the working class. This was the basis on which he fought Joseph Stalin’s rise to power after Lenin’s death in the 1920s.
In doing so, Trotsky put his life at risk – he would ultimately die at the hands of a Stalinist assassin in 1940 while in exile in faraway Mexico.
But his heroic stance provided proof that the Russian Revolution did not have to degenerate into the horrors of Stalinism. Trotsky thus gave the basics for an argument for what had gone wrong, which others have arguably made better than he did at the time, but he also proved in practice that an alternative to Stalinism had existed.
This helps defeat the lies of the right wing today. It was not the centralisation of the Bolshevik party or faults in Marxism that led to dictatorship over society and ‘Great Terror’.
Rather, that was down to the failure of revolution to spread to the advanced capitalist countries, where workers ultimately remained wedded to reformist parties, led by the predecessors of the likes of Tom Watson and Tony Blair.
How to build revolutionary parties in countries of advanced capitalism
Importantly, however, and perhaps ironically for Tom Watson, Trotsky also laid out a coherent vision for how revolutionaries could work with reformists without abandoning their principles or goals.
In other words, Trotsky gave revolutionaries important tools for how to survive and thrive in the advanced capitalist countries.
It is important here to concentrate on the United Front policy. If Lenin will remain famous for his argument for the need for revolutionaries to build separate organisations of the best sections of the working class, moving the class into action by acting as its advanced detachment, Trotsky will remain famous for his struggle for the United Front.
Although he wrote about it even before, Trotsky most famously developed this policy in his writings arguing against Stalin’s approach to the western communist parties in the late 1920s and 1930s.
In particular, Trotsky argued that the communist parties had to cooperate with the best leaders and members of the reformist parties over specific demands to defend worker conditions.
This would show workers that revolutionaries were first and foremost interested in defending the class from capitalist exploitation and oppression.
By having the best arguments and most decisive methods, moreover, revolutionaries could win workers over to their side and gain the majority.
The Bolsheviks had acted in exactly this way when they had cooperated with other socialist parties during the Russian Revolution to stop a military coup led by a certain General Kornilov against the revolution.
They had also argued for a similar approach of cooperation up to and including the formation of a workers’ government in Germany in the early 1920s, helping the party gain a mass membership and even get within reach of a revolutionary leap for power in 1923.
Fighting fascism: the importance of the united front
By contrast, Stalin’s shift to presenting Social Democracy as the other side of the coin, with Fascism being the other side of the coin, isolated the German Communists just as capitalism worldwide went into crisis in 1929.
With fascism on the rise, Trotsky warned against Stalin’s folly in 1931. He wrote to the German Communists to team up with the Social Democrats: “Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank.”
He also formulated a brilliant set of defensive demands for the French working class to fight fascism in his famous ‘Action Programme’.
Here he argued that a series of seemingly reformist demands, if they were fought for consistently and mobilised reformist workers, could obtain important victories and lead workers to go over to the offensive in the course of struggle. This would make the seemingly reformist demands transitional, in the sense that they would help the transition to socialism.
Importantly, Trotsky later advised revolutionaries in Spain and France against Stalin’s next shift. After Hitler’s triumph in Germany in 1933, Stalin became scared – so he instructed Communists to end their sectarianism and move towards cooperation not just with reformists but with sections of the capitalist class.
This was called the Popular Front. The Popular Front subordinated worker and peasant militancy to the needs of keeping a coalition with the owners of businesses and land.
That weakened morale as the popular classes had to take austerity from their own government in France and take the brunt of the war effort in the Spain when Franco launched his coup against the Popular Front. Once again, Stalin’s tactics led to ruin.
Sadly, only a small number of people listened to Trotsky at the time – he was vilified by Stalinists and reformists alike, and remained a voice in the wilderness, literally almost always on the run, until the day of his assassination.
‘Trotskyism’ after Trotsky
Convinced that Stalinism was now not just stifling the revolution in Russia but also the world working class movement, Trotsky felt forced to symbolically break with the Communist parties. He set up his Fourth International.
But he commanded a following of only a couple of thousand across the globe. The resulting tragedy of “Trotskyism” as a group within the working class movement was that it was born in isolation from the big battalions of the working class at a time of terrible defeats in the 1930s.
“Trotskyism” never fully broke out of its isolation. This is why “Trots” are so frequently ridiculed by Stalinists and reformist Social Democrats alike as squabbling intellectuals and sectarian wreckers. Sometimes, they were just that, reduced to irrelevance and pettiness at the margins of society.
But as John Rees has pointed out, the best Trotskyists did try to break out of isolation, relying on the united front method: “The anti-Vietnam war movement, the student movement of 1968, the industrial struggles of the 1970s, the Anti Nazi League, the anti-poll tax movement, the Stop the War Coalition, the anti-austerity movement all owe a great deal, often at leadership level, to Trotskyists.”
As Stalinism and Social Democracy began to run out of steam in the 1960s and 1970s, it was becoming more possible to relate to new worker struggles and social movements.
This was a time when some of the predecessors to Counterfire, the International Socialists, wrote about the possibilities opening up before revolutionaries who genuinely believed in the self-emancipation of the working class.
Writing in 1971, the British revolutionary Duncan Hallas argued that an orientation to mass struggle was key to success:
“The root cause of the sort of sectarianism that has plagued the British left is the isolation of socialists from effective and influential participation in mass struggles. The isolation is rapidly diminishing but its negative effects – the exacerbation of secondary differences, the transformation of tactical differences into matters of principle, the semi-religious fanaticism which can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development, the theoretical conservatism and blindness to unwelcome aspects of reality – all these persist. They will be overcome when, and only when, a serious penetration and fusion of layers of workers and students outside sectarian circles has been achieved. The International Socialism group intends to make a significant contribution to that penetration. Without having any illusions that it is “the leadership” the group exists to make a theoretical and a practical contribution to the regeneration of socialism in Britain and internationally.”
Revolutionary socialism today
This has informed our work to this day. Of course, it has not been easy. The defeats inflicted on the working class by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and the betrayals by New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s, were so devastating that even modest defeats today have often had the effect of increasing sectarianism on the left.
We shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers. But we do have some principles and tools which the best workers and activists will find of indispensable value in the struggles of today.
Being important to sustaining the extra-parliamentary movements of the last decades was part of what led to the rise of Corbynismand we should be proud of that. We have to continue with this active and non-sectarian approach.
Despite this, we also have to be clear that fundamental change cannot be won through the exclusive vehicle of the reformist British Labour Party. Getting stuck in internal Labour Party battles is to move on to the terrain preferred by the worst reformists: electoral ground.
To win elections, they frequently argue, you do not want to change consciousness but reflect it. This leads to all sorts of pressures on the left of the Labour Party to compromise. The right will always attack the left in the Labour Party if they share platforms or coordinate protests and strikes with non-Labour party people, for instance.
So instead of fighting to maintain broad movements, new and left-wing Labour members can end up organising Labour-only protests or worse discussing the next election, whenever that may take place. Because everything will revolve around the next election.
We on the revolutionary left are not disinterested in who wins the next election. Far from it, we would want to see a left government. But even a left reformist government will fail if it is not backed by a mass movement against the capitalist offensive. Just look at Syriza in Greece.
This is why we cannot see joining the reformists as the simple solution. Rather, we need to maintain an independent organisation in order to be able to concentrate on keeping broader movements on the streets and in workplaces viable.
Revolutionaries should fight for an action programme uniting wider forces including the best elements of Labour to win a positive programme:in today’s context, a people’s Brexit rather than a bankers’ Brexit. To fight reaction and racism, you have to fight for a positive programme of jobs and investment in deprived areas that have lost out during the neo-liberal offensive of the last 40 years.
The implementation of such a programme could then open up a revolutionary crisis for British capitalism and propel us to unknown democratic heights. To do so, we need to continue to build a revolutionary left.
The value of history: standing on the shoulders of giants
We cannot repeat history, but we can learn from it.Building a revolutionary left today therefore means learning from the past but at the same time applying its lessons creatively to the world of today.
This is why commemorating the 100th anniversary of the February Revolution next year is so important.
This is why Counterfire won’t just be helping to organise a big conference for several hundred people with some of the best known activists and authors inspired by the Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian Revolution on 25th February next year.
Building the conference on 25th February can be a useful way for us to teach our own members about the lessons of the Russian Revolution.
But it can also be a good opportunity to engage people we know in the movements and open up dialogues around issues like the capitalist state, reform and revolution, and the importance of the self-activity of the working class. These arguments will reverberate wider than just with those who end up joining Counterfire.
Crucially, it will mean we can use the anniversary atmosphere which the Tories and Tom Watsons will use to heap rubbish on the idea of people power as an opportunity to raise the idea from the rooftops.
Together with others, members of Counterfire will also launch a website which will cover, week by week, the blows and lessons of 1917, reaching wider audiences. This can be useful for setting up reading circles, for feeding material for our paper and our website, and for informing our public meetings.
Tom Watson should rue the day he brought up Trotsky – he raised in this way one of the giants on whose shoulders we will be able to see the revolutions of the 21st century.
More articles from this author
- To be or not to be? The Scottish election and the fate of Britain
- Independence rallies on eve of Scottish elections, but will Holyrood challenge Westminster?
- Whose unity? Scottish Labour drops candidate after she backs Indyref2
- Scottish Labour lurches to the right
- The SNP bust-up: what does it mean for Scottish independence?
- Fighting job cuts in higher education
- Is Britain breaking up? Socialists and the national question - video