Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin - Three Revolutionaries, Three Wise Men or
Three Stooges? Let us start with one of the more popular among them
- Leon Trotsky. This is an old article by a British socialist but it
is still valid as it was years ago. Maybe it was even valid when
Trotsky was leading the Red Army in the 1920s.
Nearly 60 years ago this month Leon Trotsky was assassinated by an
agent of Stalin's secret police. We take this opportunity to
critically assess his life and views.
Trotsky was born Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, the son of moderately
well-off peasant farmers in the southern Ukraine, in 1879.
As a student at the University of Odessa he became an anti-Tsarist
revolutionary. He soon fell foul of the authorities and was
sentenced to prison and exile in Siberia from where he escaped in
1902 using the name of one of his jailers on his false identity
card; this name Trotsky he was to use for the rest of his life.
Trotsky played a prominent part in the 1905 revolt that followed
Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, being elected the
Chairman of the St. Petersburg "soviet" ("soviet" is simply the
Russian word for "council").
Oddly in view of his later political evolution, when the split
occurred in the Russian Social Democratic movement in 1903 between
the Mensheviks (orthodox Social Democrats like Kautsky in Germany)
and the Bolsheviks (supporters of Lenin and his concept of a
vanguard party of professional revolutionaries), Trotsky tended
to favour the Mensheviks.
Stalin and his supporters later took great pleasure in publishing
one of Trotsky's writings from this period in which he violently
criticised Lenin's conception of the party. Trotsky in fact tried
to develop a middle position, evolving his own theory of how the
anti-Tsarist revolution would develop.
Both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks saw the anti-Tsarist
revolution as being one that would lead to the establishment
of a bourgeois Democratic Republic in Russia (the difference
between them was that the Mensheviks tended to see this as
being done by the liberal bourgeoisie while the Bolsheviks
said it would have to be the work of the vanguard party).
Trotsky took up a different position, arguing that if the working
class were to come to power in the course of the coming bourgeois
revolution in Russia it was unreasonable to expect them to hand
over power to the bourgeoisie; they would, and should according to
Trotsky, take steps to transform society in a socialist direction.
This theory, which Trotsky called "the theory of the permanent revolution",
latching on to a phrase used by Marx in one of his articles on the
abortive German bourgeois revolution of 1848-9, was absurd in that
it implied that socialism could be on the agenda in economically backward
Russia. It was however important historically as it was adopted by Lenin
himself in April 1917 when he returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland.
As a result Trotsky himself then rallied to the Bolsheviks.
In a very real sense Bolshevik ideology can be seen as a combination
of Trotsky's theory of the revolution and Lenin's theory of the party.
In 1932 Trotsky wrote a book called The History of the Russian
Revolution, which is essential reading for anyone wanting to
understand this event, not only because the author was an active
participant in it but also because it unintentionally shows how
this wasn't a working class socialist revolution but an anti-feudal
revolution led by a vanguard party.
After the Bolshevik seizure of power Trotsky became, first, Commissar
for Foreign Affairs and, then, Commander of the Red Army which
successfully won the Civil War against the "White Guards" supported
by the Western powers.
This gave him an immense prestige both in Russia and among sympathisers
with the Russian revolution in the rest of the world. His attitude on
other issues during this period was even more anti-working class than
that of Lenin who, on one occasion, was forced to intervene to attack
as going too far Trotsky's proposal to "militarise" labour and the
After Lenin's death Trotsky was gradually eased out of power. He was
exiled first to Alma Ata in Russian central Asia and then to Turkey,
Norway and finally Mexico. If he had stayed in Russia he would almost
certainly have been tortured, tried and shot like Zinoviev, Kamenev,
Bukharin and the other original leaders of the Bolshevik Party. All
the same he still ended up with a Stalinist ice-pick in his head.
Degenerate Workers State
In exile Trotsky played the role of "loyal opposition" to the Stalin
regime in Russia. He was very critical of the political aspects of
this regime (at least some of them, since he too stood for a
one-party dictatorship in Russia), but to his dying day defended
the view that the Russian revolution had established a "Workers State"
in Russia (whatever that might be) and that this represented a gain
for the working class both of Russia and of the whole world.
His view that Russia under Stalin was a Workers State, not a perfect
one, certainly, but a Workers State nevertheless, was set out in his
book The Revolution Betrayed first published in 1936. This is the
origin of the Trotskyist dogma that Russia is a "degenerate Workers
State" in which a bureaucracy had usurped political power from the
working class but without changing the social basis (nationalisation
This view is so absurd as to be hardly worth considering seriously:
how could the adjective "workers" be applied to a regime where
workers could be sent to a labour camp for turning up late for work
and shot for going on strike? Trotsky was only able to sustain his
point of view by making the completely unmarxist assumption that
capitalist distribution relations (the privileges of the Stalinist
bureaucracy) could exist on the basis of socialist production
Marx, by contrast, had concluded, from a study of past and present
societies, that the mode of distribution was entirely determined by
the mode of production. Thus the existence of privileged distribution
relations in Russia should itself have been sufficient proof that
Russia had nothing to do with socialism.
Trotsky rejected the view that Russia was state capitalist on the
flimsiest of grounds: the absence of a private capitalist class, of
private shareholders and bondholders who could inherit and bequeath
He failed to see that what made Russia capitalist was the existence
there of wage-labour and capital accumulation not the nature and mode
of recruitment of its ruling class.
Trotsky's view that Russia under Stalin was still some sort of "Workers
State" was so absurd that it soon aroused criticism within the ranks of
the Trotskyist movement itself which, since 1938, had been organised as
the Fourth International.
Two alternative views emerged. One was that Russia was neither capitalist
nor a Workers State but some new kind of exploiting class society. The
other was that Russia was state capitalist.
The most easily accessible example of the first view is James Burnham's
The Managerial Revolution and of the second Tony Cliff's Russia: A
Both books are well worth reading, though in fact neither Burnham nor
Cliff could claim to be the originators of the theories they put forward.
The majority of Trotskyists, however, remain committed to the dogma that
Russia is a "degenerate Workers State".
Trotskyist theory and practice is rather neatly summed up in the opening
sentence of the manifesto the Fourth International adopted at its
foundation in 1938. Called The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks
of the Fourth International, and drafted by Trotsky himself, it began
with the absurd declaration: "The world political situation is chiefly
characterised by historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat".
This tendency to reduce everything to a question of the right leadership
(Trotsky once wrote a pamphlet on the Paris Commune in which he explained
its failure by the absence of a Bolshevik Party there) reminds us that
Trotskyists are 102 per cent Leninists and believers in the vanguard party.
They believe, in other words, that workers by their own efforts are
incapable of emancipating themselves and so must be led by an enlightened
minority of professional revolutionaries (generally bourgeois intellectuals
like Lenin and Trotsky).
Thus they fall under the general criticism of Leninism and indeed of
all theories which proclaim that workers need leaders.
The other important point in the manifesto of the Fourth International
was the concept of "transitional demands". The manifesto contained a
whole list of reform demands which was called "the transitional programme".
This reform programme was said to be different from those of openly reformist
parties like Labour in Britain and the Social Democratic parties on the
Continent in that Trotskyists claimed to be under no illusion that the reforms
demanded could be achieved within the framework of capitalism. They were posed
as bait by the vanguard party to get workers to struggle for them, on the
theory that the workers would learn in the course of the struggle that
these demands could not be achieved within capitalism and so would come to
struggle (under the leadership of the vanguard party) to abolish capitalism.
Actually, most Trotskyists are not as cynical as they pretend to be here: in
discussion with them you gain the clear impression that they share the
illusion that the reforms they advocate can be achieved under capitalism
(as, indeed, some of them could be). In other words, they are often the
victims of their own "tactics".
Splits and sects
After the Second World War, all the Trotskyists in Britain were united
for a time in a single organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Party,
which was affiliated to the Fourth International. All the leaders of the
various Trotskyist sects (Gerry Healy, Ted Grant, Tony Cliff, etc.) were
together in the RCP.
Most of the splits that subsequently occurred were over the attitude to
adopt towards Russia and the Cold War. The group around Cliff, as we
have already noted, took the view that Russia had been state capitalist
since about 1928 (up till then it had supposedly been a "Workers State").
Logically they adopted the slogan "Neither Washington nor Moscow". Longtime
known as the "International Socialists" they are now the Socialist Workers
Party. Except on Russia they share all the other Trotskyist illusions
(vanguard party, transitional demands, etc.).
In 1949 the RCP dissolved itself and most Trotskyists decided to join the
Labour Party and "to bore from within". This tactic, known in Trotskyist
parlance, as "entryism", is again based on the premise that the mass of
the workers need leaders and are there to be manipulated.
As would-be leaders of the working class, the argument goes, we must be
where the workers are; as in Britain the Labour Party is "the mass party
of the working class" this is where we Trotskyists must be if we are to
have a chance of influencing (that is, manipulating) the workers.
After the general strike in France in May 1968, which seemed to show
that student activists could influence the working class directly without
needing to pass through "the mass party of the working class", most of the
Trotskyist groups decided to abandon entryism and openly form their own
Thus parliamentary elections in Britain came to be enlivened by the
presence of parties bearing such titles as "Workers Revolutionary Party",
"Socialist Workers Party", "Revolutionary Communist Party", "Socialist
Unity", etc. Needless to say, they got no more votes than we in the
Socialist Party did.
This abandoning of entryism should not be interpreted as meaning opposition
to the Labour Party, because nearly all the Trotskyist groups continue
to support the election of a Labour government and to call on workers to
One Trotskyist sect, however, decided not to abandon the Labour Party after
1968 but to continue boring from within: the sect now known as the
Militant Tendency (leader: Ted Grant). The absence of the other sects meant
that they had a monopoly of this particular hunting ground.
So when Labour turned left after 1979 they were there ready to recruit new
members and increase their influence. In fact the Militant Tendency has
undoubtedly been the most successful of all the Trotskyist groups that have
ever infiltrated the Labour Party.They control a number of constituency
parties as well as the Labour Party Young Socialists.
There are even two or three Trotskyist MP's sitting on the Labour benches
From an ideological point of view, the Militant Tendency follows orthodox
Trotskyism. Thus, for instance, they regard Russia as a "degenerate
Workers State" which means they are more backward than many Labour Party
members who willingly recognise that Russia is state capitalist.
Trotsky entirely identified capitalism with private capitalism and so
concluded that society would cease to be capitalist once the private
capitalist class had been expropriated.
This meant that, in contrast to Lenin who mistakenly saw state capitalism as
a necessary step towards socialism, Trotsky committed the different mistake
of seeing state capitalism as the negation of capitalism. Trotskyism, the
movement he gave rise to, is a blend of Leninism and Reformism, committed on
paper to replacing private capitalism with state capitalism through a violent
insurrection led by a vanguard party, but in practice working to achieve
state capitalism through reforms to be enacted by Labour governments.