Trotsky and Stalin: rival leaders
Despite presenting themselves as mortal enemies, the camp followers of Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin were competing government management teams operating under the same basic philosophy – that the workers could not, as a whole, come to socialist consciousness and bring socialism about for themselves.
Trotsky himself can be seen as being one of the main causes of Stalin’s ascendancy. As Trotsky’s hagiographer Isaac Deutscher points out in his The Prophet Armed, Stalin began his dominance of the Soviet government as part of “a special faction the sole purpose of which was to prevent Trotsky having a majority which would enable him to take Lenin’s place.”
This faction was aided by the fear that Trotsky as commander of the Red Army (with a predilection for being seen in public in dashing military uniforms) could assume the role of a military dictator. Such fears would have been stoked by his support, in 1921, for the militarisation of labour (in effect placing the workers under his personal direct command).
Trotsky was comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Stalin, and eventually driven out of Russia, whereupon he tried to position himself as head of the loyal opposition to the Bolshevik regime. His writings from 1929 onwards are full of criticisms of the leadership of the Comintern and their policies, especially regarding his own faction. Typically, he wrote: “Under the treacherous blows of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Left Opposition [i.e. him and his followers] maintained its fidelity to the official party to the very end” (Trotsky, ‘The Tragedy of the German Proletariat: The German Workers will Rise Again – Stalinism, Never’, March 1933). The debates between Trotskyists and Stalinists always revolved around such questions of leadership – if only the leaders had acted in such-and-such a way, things would have turned out better.
Tactics, said Trotsky, should have been framed so as to win workers over from their Social Democratic leaders, under the command of the Communist Party: “We must understand how to tear the workers away from their leaders”. According to Trotsky, the official Communist leaders would not follow his policies because they were constituted of “not a few cowardly careerists and fakers whose little posts, whose incomes, and more than that, whose hides, are dear to them” (Trotsky, ‘For a Workers United Front Against Fascism’, December 1931) .
Two years later the Stalinist leadership did adopt Trotsky’s tactics – specifically of the “United Front” of labour organisations against fascism – but only by surrendering leadership of the movement to the leaders of Social Democracy. The issue remained one of leadership, backed up by a notion that the workers were incapable of developing broad socialist consciousness in anything like a majority, and so that the “Communists” would have to work with reformists in order to influence them, and draw off the active workers into their own ranks.
“Could the Communist Party succeed, during the preparatory epoch, in pushing all other parties out of the ranks of the workers by uniting under its banner the overwhelming majority of workers, then there would be no need whatever for soviets. But historical experience bears witness to the fact that there is no basis whatever for the expectation that…the Communist Party can succeed in occupying such an undisputed and absolutely commanding position in the workers’ ranks, prior to the proletarian overturn” (Trotsky cited by John Rees in ‘The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front’, International Socialist Journal, Winter 2002).
It is, John Rees claims in the article this quotation comes from, the “uneven consciousness” among workers that necessitates the need for leaders, and for an organisation that can bring it together with non-socialist workers in the name of immediate given ends, be those organisations trade unions, or – as above – workers’ councils. Thus, the Soviets beloved of Leninists, and trade unions too, become locations for ‘united front’ work. This admirably demonstrates that Julius Martov’s accusation in his State and Socialist Revolution that Bolsheviks supported soviets in order to help seize power as a minority was acknowledged by the very leaders of the Russian coup d’état.
For almost all of their existence, both Trotskyist and Stalinist organizations – thoroughly convinced that the workers could not come to understand and want socialism – have orientated themselves towards working with official reformist organisations. Instead of standing clearly and forthrightly for socialism, they ape the manoeuvres and sounds of official Labourism, seeking to influence non-socialist workers through tactical manipulation, rather than convince them to change their minds.
While Rees argues that “united front” work provides an opportunity for “revolutionaries” to discuss and convert reformists, he also states that “the immediate aim of the united front is to provide the most effective fighting organisation for both reformists and revolutionaries”. That is, whatever front is going to be built must always give precedence to the struggle at hand, and its immediate success. This position stands in some contrast to the official Trotskyist doctrine of “transitional demands” – i.e. advocating reforms known not to work, in order to draw workers into “Communist” ranks through their inevitable disappointment.
Thus, we have the present example of the Stop the War coalition whereby Trotskyists are working with pacifists, CND and Submissionists (“submission”: the English translation of “islam”) to try and achieve their immediate aims. John Rees himself appears in the media as a “co-ordinator” for the coalition, his membership of the SWP never mentioned (at all other times he is generally introduced as the “editor of the International Socialist Journal”). Quite how he is supposed to bring people round to revolutionary politics by hiding his affiliation remains a mystery.
The reality is that these fronts can only attain any sort of success by hiding the disagreements between their constituent organisations, specifically about means and motives. That is, they succeed by making demands that are supported by significant numbers of workers, meaning that any “revolutionary” content will be buried into the need for immediate victory. As such, it is small-c conservative, taking political consciousness as it is found, and seeking to manipulate it, rather than change it.
Such a tactic, however, affords the Leninists an opportunity to extend their influence. As a tiny minority, they get to work with organisations which can more easily attract members, and can thus be part of campaigns and struggles that reach out well beyond the tiny numbers of political activists in any given situation.
For example, in the 50s and 60s, many trade union bureaucrats were members of the Stalinist Communist Party (just as today, a good number are former Trotskyists). Likewise, the SWP provide much of the material and personnel for organising the Stop the War Coalition. The salient fact remains, though, that despite providing all this assistance, the “revolutionaries” are incapable of taking these campaigns and trade unions further than the bulk of the membership are willing to tolerate.
Socialists have long argued that tiny minorities cannot, without force on their side, simply take control of movements and use them to their own ends. Without agreement between the parties to a project about what it is and where it is going, leaders and led will invariably walk off in different directions. That means, if the Leninists are right, and the majority of workers cannot achieve socialist consciousness, then they must be committed to using force against the recalcitrant majority in order to achieve their aims.
Nonetheless, the Leninists continue to attach themselves to larger movements in the hope of providing alternative leaderships and of being at the heart of the struggle. Hence, this is why Rees continues to argue that the official Labour Party remains “organically” linked to the working class through its individual members and the link to the unions. Only at the Labour Party conference could a revolt over PFI occur, he claims, because of the link between the unions and Labour.
We argue, however, that since we are capable, as workers, of understanding and wanting socialism, and of going beyond mere ‘trade union consciousness’ as Lenin called it, we cannot see any reason why our fellow workers cannot do likewise. Further, since the majority are capable of actively building socialism, there is no need for a leadership to impose it upon them – and that the job of socialists in the here and now is to openly and honestly state the case, rather than trying to wheedle and manoeuvre within bigger parties to win a supposed “influence” that is more illusory than real.