Trotsky the Prophet Debunked

Lyov Davidovich Bronstein was born a hundred years ago this month in Yanovka in the Southern Ukraine. He attended schools in the Black Sea ports of Odessa and Nikolayev, and by the age of 18 was a committed Russian revolutionary, with the basic aim of overthrowing Tsarism. In the 1890s the revolutionaries had become divided into two main streams, differing over the tactics to be adopted. One stream called themselves Social Democrats and claimed to be Marxist; they held that Russia would have to pass through the stage of capitalism even if the Tsar were overthrown and that the mass movement for this overthrow was to be sought in the industrial working class. The others were known as Narodniks (Populists) and held that a ‘socialist’ regime could be established in Russia alone following the overthrow of Tsarism by the peasant masses.

Trotsky associated himself with the Social Democrats, though the extent to which he really absorbed Marx’s ideas on history and economics is very much open to question. One thing cannot be doubted however: he was a courageous fighter for the Russian anti-Tsarist movement. Arrested for the first time in 1898, he spent two years in prison before being exiled to Siberia for four years. The abortive Russian revolution of 1905 found him a leading figure in the St. Petersburg council of Soviets, which earned him another period of deportation to Siberia. He escaped and spent the period until 1917 in exile in Austria, Switzerland, France and finally America.

While in prison after the 1905 uprising, he developed a theory which casts doubt on his understanding of Marxism. Under the influence of Plekhanov, the ‘father of Russian Marxism’, the Russian Social Democrats held that Russia would have to pass through the capitalist stage before becoming ripe for socialism. The coming revolution in Russia was thus seen as inevitably a ‘bourgeois revolution’, not necessarily in the sense of being led by the bourgeoisie but in the sense of establishing the political and economic conditions for the development of capitalism. Even Lenin at this time shared this perspective, not differing from the Mensheviks here: socialism was out of the question in Russia; the coming anti-Tsarist revolution could only be a bourgeois revolution, during which the working class might indeed play a prominent role, but after which it would find itself in the same position as the working class in the countries of Western Europe. (The disagreement between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was not over the nature of the coming revolution but over how the Social Democrats should organise themselves; into a vanguard party or into a mass democratic party.) This perspective was quite in accordance with Marx’s materialist conception of history, which teaches that socialism is only possible on the basis of developed capitalism and a majority working class which has become socialist.

Trotsky, who had refused to take sides in the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (though on the question of party organisation his sympathies were with the Mensheviks), rejected this. He argued that if in the course of the coming anti-Tsarist revolution, the working class were to get political power, it was unrealistic to expect them, or ask them, to hand over power to the bourgeoisie. According to Trotsky, they would not do this but would continue the revolution in a ‘socialist’ direction by measures of nationalisation.

“One may reassure oneself that the social conditions of Russia are not ripe for Socialism, without thinking that the proletariat, taking power, by the very logic of its position, must inevitably press forward the introduction of State management of industry.” (Quoted in Marx and the Marxists by Sidney Hook, p.201.)

This theory that the coming revolution in Russia should not stop at the bourgeois stage but should continue on towards ‘socialism’, Trotsky called ‘the theory of permanent revolution’. He borrowed this phrase from Marx at a time when the latter was under the illusion that the 1848 revolutionary wave would see a bourgeois revolution in Germany rapidly followed by a socialist revolution (an illusion soon abandoned).

Trotsky was not saying that socialism could be established in Russia alone (as did the Narodniks) but only that steps could be taken in this direction while awaiting the socialist revolution in the West. This was an opinion he held for the rest of his life, and was the basis of his later analysis of the Russian revolution. According to him, the Russian revolution of 1917, starting as a bourgeois revolution in March with the overthrow of the Tsar and ending as a ‘socialist’ revolution in November with the Bolshevik seizure of power, was the permanent revolution he had predicted in 1906. Russia under the Bolsheviks, according to Trotsky’s analysis, had started to move towards socialism but would not be able to complete this transition until the socialist revolution had occurred in the rest of the world too.

Actually, the measures which Trotsky regarded as ‘socialist’ (essentially state ownership and management of industry) were really of a state capitalist character. And in fact throughout his life Trotsky failed to make any distinction between state capitalism and socialism. Even during the periods when Lenin was frankly referring to Russia as state capitalist — in 1918 and again after 1921 — Trotsky refused to employ this term. For him, the state industries of Bolshevik Russia were basically socialist, not state capitalist, a view shared by Stalin (the disagreement between Trotsky and Stalin was not over this but over whether or not Russia in the 1930s had completed the transition to socialism).

Trotsky, then, with his theory of ‘permanent revolution’, was expressing a point of view which had more in common with Narodnik views about Russia being able to avoid capitalism. Trotsky had held this view even before 1917, and of course believed that after 1917 Russia actually had avoided capitalism. In short, he never really understood Marx, though he was an astute theorist of the Russian anti-Tsarist revolution. If we understand his reference’s to ‘socialism’ as references to state capitalism, then well before 1917 he foresaw that the Russian revolution was not going to be a simple bourgeois revolution, and that those who overthrew the Tsar could establish a state capitalism rather than a liberal capitalism as in the West. Lenin did not come round to this view until 1917, when Trotsky, for his part, overcame his misgivings about Lenin’s ideas on organisation. Lenin and Trotsky together can be said to have been the theorists of the Russian state capitalist revolution, with Lenin providing the theory of a centralised and highly disciplined vanguard party and Trotsky the theory that state capitalism rather than private capitalism could be established immediately in Russia.

But Lenin and Trotsky were not just theorists. They were also practical revolutionaries. Trotsky was in fact the chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, in whose name the Bolshevik seizure of power was carried out. This is what makes his History of the Russian Revolution fascinating reading, in fact essential reading for anyone studying this event. For it is not the work of some historian studying in a university library but an account — and a well-written one — by a person who had played a key role in the event. It is also revealing in that it again shows to what extent Trotsky was not a Marxist. For, as Trotsky saw it, insurrection is an ‘art’; leaders attempting an insurrection must know the right slogans to put forward to mobilise the masses and exactly the right ‘psychological moment’ to launch the call to insurrection. He even suggested that the Bolshevik insurrection might not have been successful had it not been for one man: Lenin. A return to the Great Man theory of history if ever there was!

After the Bolshevik coup, Trotsky became a leading member of the government, first as Commissar for Foreign Affairs, then as leader of the Red Army, which under his command had by 1921 successfully defeated the counter revolutionary White Russians and their allies (including Britain, France and Japan). Trotsky carried over the military approach he had learned here to economic matters and advocated that the labour of production should be militarised, should be forced labour under military discipline. It was he who personally supervised the crushing of the Krondstadt uprising in 1921. Particularly revealing as to his frame of mind at this time is the pamphlet he wrote in 1922, Terrorism and Communism (first published in Britain under the tendentious title In Defence of Terrorism), in which he defends the use of terror against the Bolsheviks’ political opponents.

Trotsky quite clearly played a leading role in laying the foundation for Stalin’s later dictatorship, of which he was to be one of the first victims. Eased out of power in 1925, expelled from the Bolshevik Party in 1927 and exiled to Alma Ata near the Chinese border, he was finally forced to leave Russia in 1929. In exile Trotsky set out his analysis of the Russian revolution and its outcome in Revolution Betrayed. The Russian revolution, he argued, had been a capture of political power by the working class; under Lenin (and, of course, Trotsky) Russia had been developing towards socialism (state capitalism); the coming to power of Stalin represented the usurpation of political power in Russia by a bureaucracy but had left unchanged the social basis established by the Bolsheviks in 1917 — the state ownership and planning which Trotsky had always regarded as being in some way ‘socialist’. For him, Russia was a ‘degenerate Workers’ State’ in a period of transition between capitalism and socialism.

The theory is of course nonsense. It brings out once again Trotsky’s failure to make any distinction between state capitalism and socialism — in fact he actually says in Revolution Betrayed that state capitalism is impossible as a full society (chapter IX). This book is, however, still worth reading, since apart from being written by someone who had been prominently involved in the construction of the Russian regime, it became the starting point for the discussion that went on in the 1930s and 1940s about the nature of Russian society (and which still goes on in the Trotskyist sects). This polemic eventually led to some correctly coming to see Russia as state capitalist, a view Trotsky combatted until his murder in 1940 by an agent of his ‘degenerate Workers’ State’.

Trotsky himself took an active part in these discussions, and there is something genuinely pathetic in the sight of a man who had once been a leading anti-Tsarist revolutionary reduced to the leader of just one of many Trotskyist sects, to the level of a Tony Cliff or a Gerry Healy.

In conclusion, Trotsky is best seen not as a Marxist, nor as a theorist of working class revolution, but as a Russian revolutionary, as an exponent, in theory and later in practice, of the anti-Tsarist revolution which cleared the way for the further development of capitalism in Russia in the form of state capitalism. In urging the working class to adopt tactics that had proved successful in this non-socialist, state capitalist revolution, Trotsky helped in no small measure to sidetrack a part of the workers’ movement in Europe and North America and hence to delaying the coming of the world socialism to which he claimed to be committed.

(A later article with the same title was published in August 1990)