Paul le Blanc continues the Revolutionaries Reviewed series by assessing Leon Trotsky, a leading revolutionary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Born in 1879, he was the commander of the Red Army and the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, and was later killed by Stalinist agents whilst living in exile in Mexico in 1940.
The revolutionary ideas of Leon Trotsky, on this 80th anniversary of his death, deserve attention. Of course, he was more than simply an “idea man.” After years in the revolutionary socialist movement, Trotsky joined with V.I. Lenin in 1917 to lead a triumphant workers’ and peasants’ revolution in Russia. Chief organizer and leader of the Red Army that defended the revolution in the face of civil war and foreign invasion, he was a key figure in the new Soviet Republic and in the early world Communist movement.
Trotsky then joined with the dying Lenin to resist the bureaucratic dictatorship crystallizing around Joseph Stalin. For fifteen years he led a small but vibrant Left Opposition, first in Soviet Russia, then globally, to continue the fight for revolutionary socialism.
His assassination by a Stalinist hit-man erased neither his example nor the power of his ideas.
Trotsky’s ideas flowed from those of Karl Marx. Both saw the rise and industrial development of capitalism as doing three things. First, there was a process, sometimes tagged “primitive capital accumulation,” involving a murderous oppression and brutal exploitation of masses of peasants and indigenous peoples on a global scale, for the enrichment of a rising capitalist class.
Second, there has been a massive process of “proletarianization” – making a majority of the labour force and population into a modern working class, those whose livelihood is dependent on selling their ability to work, their labour-power, for wages. This working-class majority is the force that has the potential power, and the objective self-interest, to replace the economic dictatorship of capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism – and the awareness of all this is what Marxists mean when they speak of workers’ class-consciousness.
Third, the spectacular technological development generated by capitalism – the ever self-renewing Industrial Revolution – creates the material basis for a new socialist society. As Marx put it in 1845, the creation of this high level of productivity and wealth “is an absolutely necessary practical premise” for socialism, because otherwise scarcity is merely made general, and such destitution brings a struggle for necessities, generating a competition for who gets what, and then “the same old crap starts all over again” – powerful elites squeezing economic surplus out of labouring majorities.
Drawing from Marx, Trotsky and a growing number of his Russian comrades came to see the coming revolution in backward Russia in this way. The democratic struggle against the semi-feudal Tsarist monarchy would only be led consistently and through to the end by the small but growing Russian working class in alliance with the peasant majority – and the success of such a revolution would place the organizations of the working class into political power.
There would be a natural push to keep moving in a socialist direction (with expanding social improvements for the masses of people) – although the socialism that Marx had outlined and that the Russian workers were fighting for could not be created in a single backward country.
But a successful Russian Revolution would help push forward revolutionary struggles in other countries, and as these revolutions were successful – especially in industrially more advanced countries – the Russian workers and peasants could join with comrades in a growing number of countries to development of a global socialist economy that would replace capitalism and create a better life and better future for the world’s labouring majority.
This is why Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades worked so hard to draw revolutionaries and insurgent workers from all around the world into the Communist International.
Isolation and Defeat of the Russian Revolution
But the anticipated revolutions in other countries were not successful, and seven years of relative isolation – with military invasions, foreign trade boycotts, civil war, and economic collapse, and other hardships – had two very negative results.
First, the projected government by democratic councils (soviets) of workers and peasants was delayed as the overwhelming social-political-economic emergency brought about what was originally seen as a temporary dictatorship by the Communist Party.
Second, a massive bureaucratic apparatus crystallized in order to run the country and administer the economy. As Trotsky would later explain in The Revolution Betrayed, when there aren’t enough necessities to go around, there is rationing and people “are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.”
While some of the Communists remained absolutely dedicated to the original ideals and perspectives that had been the basis for the 1917 revolution, there were many who became corrupted or compromised or disoriented.
Joseph Stalin was a central figure in the increasingly authoritarian bureaucratic apparatus. He altered Marx’s view of socialism by dis-attaching it from democracy and also from revolutionary internationalism. Instead Stalin called for building “socialism in a single country” – the Soviet Union.
Trotsky and his co-thinkers denounced this notion as “a skinflint reactionary utopia of self-sufficient socialism, built on a low technology,” incapable of bringing about genuine socialism. Instead, the “same old crap” would start all over again. But it was Stalin who won this battle, fiercely repressing Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
Stalin and his co-thinkers didn’t stop there. The bureaucratic elite decided to initiate a so-called “revolution from above” – a forced collectivization of the land and rapid, authoritarian industrialization process (all at the expense of the peasant and worker majority) to modernize Russia in the name of “socialism in one country.”
Peasant resistance was dealt with brutally, and famine resulted. Worker resistance was also savagely repressed. All critical discussion in the Communist Party was banned. All independent and creative thought and expression – in education, art, literature, culture – throughout the country was compelled to give way to authoritarian norms that celebrated the policies and personalities of Stalin and those around him – but especially, more and more, of Stalin himself.
The functionaries in the increasingly massive bureaucratic apparatus enjoyed an accumulation of material privileges, with authority and a lifestyle that placed them above a majority of the people. As Trotsky put it in The Revolution Betrayed,
“it is useless to boast and ornament reality. Limousines for the ‘activists’ [that is, the bureaucrats], fine perfumes for ‘our women’ [that is, wives of the bureaucrats], margarine for the workers, stores ‘de luxe’ for the gentry, a look at delicacies through the store windows for the plebs – such socialism cannot but seem to the masses a new re-facing of capitalism, and they are not far wrong. On a basis of ‘generalized want’, the struggle for the means of subsistence threatens to resurrect ‘all the old crap,’ and is partially resurrecting it at every step.”
In the 1930s, many in the USSR remembered the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the revolutionary cause and some remained committed to these. Among those dissident Communists, defeated and repressed by the regime, were experienced revolutionaries who had helped to overthrow the Tsar. They couldn’t be trusted by the new regime, especially because all was not well in the Soviet Union.
Despite the unending pseudo-revolutionary propaganda (and despite positive improvements in economic and social opportunities from some workers), there was widespread suffering and dissatisfaction within the population. The dynamics of “socialism in one country” accelerated by the “revolution from above” were bound to explode into murderous authoritarianism.
The program of the heroic Left Oppositionists who gave their lives was a definite threat to the Stalinist system, and it was outlined eloquently in Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. “It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy.”
This must involve “a restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions.”
Actual socialism is unthinkable without democracy. “The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers,” Trotsky explained. “Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags.” Bureaucratic projects would give way to practical projects to improve the quality of life of the labouring majority, and,
“in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. … The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains. And, finally, foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”
Before dying, Trotsky laboured to advance the struggle to build a united front against fascism, to oppose imperialism and war, to the efforts of the workers and the oppressed to cleanse life “of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”