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Bolshevism and Trotskyism

Defending our history

In the middle of last year, Marxist Bulletin supporters received a document from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) which stated their desire to ‘clarify the attitude of a number of Trotskyist organisations and individuals towards the project of revolutionary unity at this stage’.

The CPGB are advocating a process of ‘rapprochement’, which consists of attempting to convince other groups on the left to join with them in the ‘Communist Party’ and argue out political differences within that framework.

The International Bolshevik Tendency has a different project. We believe that shared organisational frameworks and communist discipline grow out of fundamental programmatic agreement and cannot precede it. Building such programmatic convergence in a party with the strength to implement its programme is the historic task of communists today – but we cannot take shortcuts by simply bringing larger numbers together.

The CPGB say that they had been asked to ‘provide a “collective position” on Trotskyism by some comrades’ to help in that process. While stating that they were incapable of coming to a collective position (and could not even understand why they should even try) they did provide a set of ‘brief notes’ to act as a ‘gateway to exchange’. Apparently this document has also been sent to a number of other ‘Trotskyist’ organisations.

These eight points were indeed brief on one important thing – the closest they came to addressing the political and programmatic differences between Trotskyism and Stalinism was in point 5 which mentioned internationalist opposition to socialism in one country along with other unspecified positions.

For a group breaking from Stalinism this is hardly a serious approach to an analysis of Trotskyism and shows a weakness in understanding the centrality of programmatic clarity to Bolshevism. The CPGB need to explain where they stand on the central programmatic distortions of Bolshevism by the Stalinists and the defence of that Bolshevik programme by Trotsky (programmatic distortions which lead, where they had any significant influence, to real material disasters for the working class). One would have thought that this was particularly important in a letter specifically aimed at persuading groups who call themselves Trotskyist to enter serious discussions. It is incumbent on the CPGB to show that they have truly broken from the political revisionism of Stalinism.

In the interests of political clarity and debate we reproduce the letter from the CPGB and our reply, as first printed in the Weekly Worker of 16 July 1998.

Frozen in dogma

Notes by Mark Fischer in consultation with PCC members

1. Leon Trotsky was a great intellect of the 20th century, one of the two towering figures of the Russian Revolution. The calumny heaped onto the head of this revolutionary should be rejected with contempt by all partisans of the working class.

2. Despite this, Trotsky’s contribution to the revolutionary workers’ movement did not constitute a qualitative development of the theoretical categories of Marxism, an extension according to its own logical laws of development. In this sense therefore, there is no ‘Trotskyism’ in the same way there is a ‘Leninism’.

3. In the struggle against the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Trotsky and the left (and later, the united) opposition defended many positions of orthodox revolutionary Marxism, centrally the need for world revolution. However, Trotsky made numerous tactical errors in the inner-party struggle, blunders that contributed to eventual defeat. Crucially, Trotsky failed to correctly estimate the potential strength of the Stalin centre, based on the Party apparatus. In this error, he evidenced a tendency to mechanically collapse political forces into social base. This combined with a certain technocratism contributed to the eventual political fragmentation of the opposition, with many capitulating to Stalin after 1928.

4. Trotsky’s analysis of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and the social consequences of the USSR’s isolation contained many brilliant insights. Yet it must be taken as the product of the provisional working categories of a brilliant Marxist attempting to understand the laws of motion of a totally unprecedented social formation in the very process of its emergence and consolidation.

5. Thus, to the very end of his life, Trotsky’s thought revealed development and dynamic tensions within itself. This is true despite a certain degeneration of his thought conditioned by the intense pressure of Stalinism and his personal isolation. It is entirely possible that – given the developmental logic of his ideas before his assassination – Trotsky would have been able to resolve the contradictions in his analysis positively, to critique and outgrow his conditional category of ‘degenerated workers’ state’.

6. Trotsky’s followers subsequently froze his method and these provisional categories into dogma. This was evident in the immediate aftermath of World War II and was a characteristic of both sides in the 1953 split in Trotskyism. Trotskyism thus emerged – in contrast to the method of Trotsky at his best – as sterile sectarianism.

7. We observe that today Trotskyism in Britain is embodied in general in two degenerate forms. First, there are the tiny, biblical sects engaged in squabbles over the letter of Trotsky’s work, not his method and its results in the real world. Second, where Trotskyist groups have attempted to relate to the mass, they have adapted to social democracy and become practically indistinguishable from left social democrats.

8. The place for all revolutionaries and communists is in a single revolutionary party. Trotskyists committed to the creation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party should begin immediate discussions with the Provisional Central Committee with a view to the reunification of Trotskyism with the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Lenin’s Heir

Reply by supporters of the Marxist Bulletin/IBT

We have recently received a document from the CPGB presenting some views on Trotskyism and asking for a response. While we do not think this is a subject that can be adequately covered in a short exchange, we would like to make a few essential points in defence of Trotskyism.

You suggest that, unlike Lenin, ‘Trotsky’s contribution to the revolutionary workers’ movement did not constitute a qualitative development of the theoretical categories of Marxism’. However, it is not clear what ‘theoretical categories’ of Marxism you mean, and what contributions to their development you ascribe to Lenin. In our view, Lenin’s most important political contribution to the Marxist tradition was on the Party question – rejecting the social democratic notion of a party of the whole class in favour of a disciplined, democratic-centralised combat party composed of only the most advanced workers. Some of Lenin’s other important contributions are his analysis of the nature of the imperialist epoch, his programme for addressing the national question, his development of the tactics of the united front, and his recognition of the importance of the proletarian vanguard championing the interests of the specially oppressed.

Trotsky was Lenin’s continuator on all these questions – not merely in the abstract but in politically combating the revisionism of the bureaucratised CPSU led by JV Stalin. In addressing the central political questions that arose in the 1920s and 30s, Trotsky certainly extended and deepened Lenin’s programme ‘according to its own logical laws of development’. The Trotskyists upheld the internationalist traditions of Marx and Lenin against the narrow Russian nationalism of ‘socialism in one country’. Against the criminal sectarianism of the Stalinised Comintern’s denunciations of social democrats and other members of the workers’ movement as ‘social fascists’, the Left Opposition advocated the creation of a united front to smash the Nazis, modelled on the Bolshevik Party’s united front with Kerensky to defeat Kornilov in 1917.

In China, Trotsky counterposed a policy of working class political independence to the Comintern leadership’s disastrous policy of capitulation to the ‘anti-imperialist’ bourgeoisie. The Trotskyists opposed the Comintern’s turn to the popular front (i.e. overt class collaboration) in the mid-1930s. The Comintern’s popular front policy in Spain succeeded only in beheading the Spanish revolution and directly resulted in Franco’s victory. During World War II in the ‘democratic’ imperialist countries, the cadres of the Fourth International upheld the Leninist position that ‘the main enemy is at home’, while the Stalinists poisoned the workers with social-patriotism.

Trotsky brilliantly analysed the social roots of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. He located the profound contradiction embedded in the degenerated Soviet workers’ state between the proletarian property forms and the political monopoly of the parasitic caste headed by Stalin. Trotsky’s prediction – that if the Soviet workers did not rise in a proletarian political revolution to overthrow the Kremlin oligarchy, the Soviet Union would ultimately succumb to capitalist restoration – has (unfortunately) been fully vindicated by history.

The designation ‘Trotskyism’ is important precisely to distinguish Bolshevism from Stalinism – the ideology of the gravediggers of revolution. But one cannot counterpose Leninism to Trotskyism, any more than one can counterpose Marxism to Leninism. Of course Marx, Lenin, Trotsky (and countless others) addressed different questions and made distinctive contributions, but they are all contributors to the development of humanity’s ‘positive self-consciousness’.

Trotsky is no more responsible for the multiplicity of ‘Trotskyists’ who prostrate themselves before Lech Walesa, Ayatollah Khomeini or Tony Blair than Marx or Lenin are for the crimes of ‘Marxist-Leninists’ like Stalin or Pol Pot. (The history of the Trotskyist movement after Trotsky can only be understood in the context of the struggle against the Pabloist revisionism that destroyed the Fourth International.)

A revolutionary party can only be created by embracing the living tradition of Leninism – and that must mean a decisive rejection of Stalinism. Instead of ‘socialism in one country’ – world revolution; in place of the minimum/maximum programme – a revolutionary transitional programme of the sort advocated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A ‘reunification’ of the Trotskyist and Stalinist traditions would be just as retrograde as a reconciliation between Leninism and Kautskyism.

On Sunday July 19 we will be speaking on the subject of the transitional programme at a CPGB seminar in London. We will also be presenting the Trotskyist view on the Soviet Union at your ‘Communist University’ in August. We hope that these discussions can help further clarify the differences between our two organisations. Perhaps a process of discussion and debate can narrow the political distance between us. In any case we think it would be a mistake to paper over these differences in the interest of promoting the appearance of ‘revolutionary unity’ where there is none. For the question of Trotskyism versus Stalinism is not merely a historical question – it poses issues of methodology and programme that are crucial to building a viable international revolutionary movement today.