What is Trotskyism? Here we reprint a Socialist Party article by Alec Thraves in 2000 on Leon Trotsky, leader with Vladimir Lenin of the Russian revolution of 1917 and a principled opponent of Stalin and the dictatorship that arose in Russia after Lenin’s death.
Sixty years ago, on 20 August 1940, Ramon Mercader, an agent of Stalin’s secret police (the GPU) struck a crushing blow with an ice-pick into Leon Trotsky’s skull, ending the life of Stalin’s most feared critic, the foremost Marxist theoretician and outstanding revolutionary.
Socialists can best commemorate Trotsky’s life and ideas by reading or re-visiting some of his most important theoretical writings. Opponents of Trotskyism claim his ideas and methods are outdated but Trotsky’s treasure chest of Marxist analysis gives 21st-century socialists the most modern of explanations against this barrage of criticism.
Today Trotsky’s writings inspire the new generation of working-class fighters and give a essential grounding in Marxist theory and practice.
Recently new layers of young people and the working class have been protesting at the effects of globalisation and the increasing gap between rich and poor.
These anti-capitalist protests, such as the Seattle demonstration against the World Trade Organisation are an important step in developing a wider socialist consciousness. This can be speeded up with the impact of a serious economic recession and the intervention of socialists with a clear Marxist programme of action.
And it is action, against the injustices of capitalism, that this new generation of potential socialists are looking for. Many young activists at these protests wear Che Guevara T-shirts, mainly because he is seen as a modern-day fighter against capitalism.
But Marxism aims to reinforce the energies of the activists with a solid foundation of theory and method. We need to be able to successfully confront our class enemies, overthrow capitalism and introduce a more just society – a socialist society.
Marxist theoretician and socialist practitioner
Leon Trotsky personified the Marxist theoretician and socialist practitioner. Trotsky, politically and physically, led the Russian working class into action against Tsarism and capitalism.
He was the Chairman of the first ever Soviet (Committee of workers’ representatives) in the bloody battles of the first Russian revolution between 1905-1906. Alongside Lenin he was the leader of the greatest event in working-class history – the October Russian revolution of 1917.
After Tsarism was overthrown, imperialism sent in 21 counter-revolutionary armies to crush the revolution. Trotsky created and led the Red Army which successfully defeated that imperialist onslaught.
Trotsky’s epic History of the Russian Revolution is a masterpiece of theory in practice. His writing style is enjoyable and the book makes you feel as if you’re participating in a successful socialist revolution.
But it also shows the critical importance of a revolutionary party in such a situation and the absolute necessity of preparing such a party theoretically and training its members in readiness.
The Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky was characterised by its ideological adherence to Marxism and its organisational method of democratic centralism, which combined the utmost democratic rights within the Party with a disciplined, united force in action.
Today some ex-Trotskyists, affected by the collapse of Stalinism and the capitalist offensive, argue that looser, broader formations are a more modern replacement to such a revolutionary party. On this issue, Trotsky’s ideas are indispensable today.
Marxists have always participated in wider organisations of the working class, both to advance the workers’ interests and to put forward a Marxist programme to win over the best fighters to the revolutionary party. However Trotsky shows throughout the History of the Russian Revolution, without a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism the Russian revolution could not have succeeded.
Today socialists work under different circumstances and in different conditions from Russia of 1917. Nevertheless the independence, programme and organisational method of the revolutionary party remains the core ingredient necessary to successfully confront capitalism and sustain a socialist revolution.
Of all Trotsky’s writings, perhaps the most important today are the Permanent Revolution and his analysis of the rise of the bureaucracy and the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution.
Many movements fighting against imperialism in Latin America, Africa and Asia have lost the ‘model’ of Moscow since the collapse of Stalinism – the model of a deformed workers’ state. However, the working class and peasantry cannot stop their daily fight for survival just because the Moscow model is no longer available.
Big movements in the neo-colonial world are inevitable. Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution is vital for parties leading these struggles today.
At the beginning of the 20th century Trotsky was analysing the prospects for socialist revolution in Russia. He recognised that unlike what happened earlier in Britain and France, Russia’s emerging capitalist class was too weak to carry through its own ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ (the elimination of feudalism, the unification of the country and the solving of the national question).
The weak Russian capitalist class also had a stake in the land while the landlords also invested in industry. Any serious attempt at out-and-out land reform, challenging the landlords’ power would be opposed not just by the landlords but also by the capitalists and their political representatives.
Under these circumstances, Trotsky argued, the small Russian working class with the support of the peasantry would be forced to carry through weak capitalism’s own bourgeois democratic revolution.
But having achieved this objective the working class would not then stop and hand power back to the capitalists. With the revolutionary party’s leadership, they would proceed to the socialist tasks which would also ignite revolutionary movements internationally. The 1917 Russian Revolution proved in practice Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution.
Unfortunately, ex-Trotskyist parties such as the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia, who have the ear of some important working-class leaders in Indonesia and south-east Asia, have abandoned Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, adopting instead a ‘two stage theory’ of revolution.
The DSP argue that the main task for the struggling masses in the neo-colonial countries is the bourgeois democratic revolution, which can be achieved by working with other forces, ie capitalist opposition parties! In the classical, false ‘stages theory’ they relegate the socialist tasks to a later date.
Even more than in 1917, ‘bourgeois democratic’ tasks are today tied hand and foot with the tasks of the socialist revolution. Trotsky’s ideas are still relevant.
In a university seminar room, if you make a mistake you can rub the blackboard clean and start again. A wrong theory put into practice in the neo-colonial world can cost the lives of thousands of genuine class fighters! Those are the ‘practical’ stakes of dropping the Permanent Revolution.
The collapse of Stalinism has had a disorientating effect on the working class over the past decade. The need to raise socialist consciousness is a major task for Marxists today.
Socialists need to put forward a revolutionary programme as well as a vision of a future socialist society. When an inquisitive and critical new generation asks us why ‘socialism’/’communism’ didn’t work in the ex-Soviet Union, generalisations are inadequate.
You have to understand the history of the Russian revolution and its Stalinist disintegration to convince the working class that socialism is the only alternative to the problems they confront.
Without Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist counter-revolution, Marxists would still have been searching for answers to such questions.
The isolation of the Russian revolution led to the formation of a bureaucratic elite. The defeat of revolutions elsewhere in the world helped reinforce the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union. It was a process that resulted in Stalin purging what remained of the October revolution.
Trotsky’s brilliant book The Revolution Betrayed written in 1936, shows the tremendous advances made in the USSR because of the eradication of capitalism and the introduction of a workers’ state.
But he then analyses how the bureaucratic regime under Stalin crushed all opposition, eliminated democracy and gathered power in its own hands, denying the working class and peasantry any role in running society.
Trotsky concluded that whilst capitalism had been eliminated, the regime in the Soviet Union bore no resemblance to a healthy workers’ state but instead had degenerated into a ‘deformed workers’ state’. For Trotsky, a healthy workers’ state was impossible without workers’ democracy and the working class’ participation in running society at all levels.
Trotsky called for a new revolution in the USSR, a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy and introduce genuine workers’ control and democracy. His analysis allowed future generations to understand regimes in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba etc. as ‘deformed workers’ states’. These regimes had eliminated capitalism and landlordism but had not got the ‘oxygen’ of workers’ democracy vitally needed for a ‘healthy workers’ state’.
Within the past decade, tumultuous events have dramatically redrawn the political map of the world. Those who have dropped the compass of Marxism drift, using outdated and faulty methods. The Socialist Party and Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) are proud to continue and develop Trotsky’s legacy.
On this 60th anniversary of his assassination, the best testament to Leon Trotsky is the fact that thousands of Marxists in the CWI, organised in 34 sections, in every part of the world, are fighting to build the genuine forces of Marxism.
While Marxists do not hero-worship individuals, Leon Trotsky nevertheless was the most courageous of revolutionaries: a revolutionary theoretician, a practitioner of revolution and to his death a defender of the socialist revolution. That’s why many of us today – and it will be the same for the new generation of Marxists – consider Leon Trotsky as a hero of the working class. We’re proud when our enemies denounce us as Trotskyists!
We will ensure his ideas will never die and will complete the historic task of the international socialist revolution!