Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s Marxism

4. Party and Class



Marx affirmed that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself; but, he also argued, the ruling classes control the “means of mental production” and therefore the “dominant ideas in any epoch are those of the ruling classes”.

From this contradiction arises the necessity for the revolutionary socialist party. The nature of the party and, above all, the nature of its relationship to the working class has been central to socialist movements from the beginning. It has never been merely a “technical” question of organisation. At each stage the disputes about the relationship of party and class – and therefore about the nature of the party – have also been disputes about the objectives of the movement. The arguments about means have always been partly arguments about ends, and necessarily so. Thus, Marx’s own conflicts with Proudhon, with Schapper, with Blanqui, with Bakunin and many others on this issue were inextricably interwoven with differences about the nature of socialism and the means whereby it was to be achieved.

After Marx’s death in 1883, and the death of Engels twelve years later, there was a massive growth of socialist parties. In Russia there soon emerged what was to become a fundamental conflict about the kind of party which had to be built.

Trotsky’s first view of the nature of the revolutionary party was essentially that which later came to be regarded as peculiarly “Leninist”. Indeed, according to Isaac Deutscher [1], he argued this point of view independently of Lenin while in exile in Siberia in 1901. At any rate he became an early adherent of Iskra and at the 1903 Congress of the RSDLP spoke strongly for a highly centralised organisation: “Our rules ... represent the organised distrust of the Party towards all its sections, that is, control over all local, district, national and other organisations.” [2]

He recoiled violently from this position after taking the Menshevik side in the split in the Iskra tendency at the congress. Within a year Trotsky had become the outstanding critic of Bolshevik centralism; Lenin’s methods, he wrote in 1904, “lead to this: the party organisation is substituted for the party, the Central Committee is substituted for the party organisation, and finally a dictator’ is substituted for the Central Committee ...” [3]

Like Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky was suspicious of “party conservatism” in general and placed heavy reliance on spontaneous working class action:

The European socialist parties – and in the first place the mightiest of them, the German – have developed their conservatism which grows stronger in proportion to the size of the masses affected, the efficiency of the organisation, and the party discipline. Therefore, it is possible that the social democracy may become an obstacle in the path of any open clash between the workers and the bourgeoisie. [4]

To overcome this conservatism, Trotsky relied on the spontaneous sweep of revolution which, he wrote, under the impact of the 1905 revolution, “kills party routine, destroys party conservatism”. [5] Thus the role of the party is reduced essentially to propaganda. It is not the vanguard of the working class.

There was, of course, considerable justification for his fears. In Russia even the Bolshevik party showed itself to be conservative in 1905-07 and again in 1917. [6] In the West, where conservatism had an incomparably greater material basis in the privileges of the labour bureaucracies, it played a decisive counter-revolutionary role in 1918-19.

The experience of 1905, in which Trotsky played a quite extraordinary part as an individual without serious party connections (he was a nominal Menshevik at the time but essentially a freelance), no doubt strengthened his belief in the sufficiency of spontaneous mass action.

In the period of the reaction after 1906, and even in the upturn in the Russian labour movement from 1912, he continued to criticise Bolshevik “substitutionism” and to preach a “unity” of all tendencies which was essentially directed against the Bolsheviks. Again, this may have contributed to his slowness in recognising the dangers of real substitutionism after 1920.

Trotsky’s position of 1904-17 was shown to be clearly untenable by the course of events. Without Lenin, Trotsky later wrote, there would have been no October revolution. But it was not simply a question of Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in April 1917. It was a matter of the party which Lenin and his collaborators had built over the previous years. The conservatism of many of the leaders of that party (reinforced, it must be said, by the theoretical scheme of the “democratic dictatorship” which Lenin had defended for so long) would very probably have prevented the seizure of power but for Lenin’s unique authority and determination. Without the party, with all its defects, the question could not even arise. “Spontaneous” mass action can sometimes bring down an authoritarian regime. It did so in Russia in February 1917, in Germany and in Austria-Hungary in 1918, and has done so on various occasions since, most recently in Iran.

In 1917 Trotsky adopted the view that for the workers to take and hold power, a party of Lenin’s type was indispensible. He never subsequently wavered from it and indeed gave it characteristically sharp expression. In 1932 in rebutting the argument that “the interests of the class come before the interests of the party” he wrote:

The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at the moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious. To say that “the class stands higher than the party” is to assert that the class in the raw stands higher than the class which is on the road to class consciousness. Not only is this incorrect: it is reactionary. [7]

This conception presents some very obvious difficulties. In particular, experience had shown that the “historical organ” through which a particular working class achieved consciousness could degenerate. How then can party organisation be defended?



The Historically Conditioned Instrument

Trotsky was well aware of this problem. He had witnessed the disintegration of the International in 1914, the directly counter-revolutionary role of social democracy in 1918-19 and, of course, the rise of Stalinism.

The passage quoted above continues:

The progress of a class towards class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat, is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class it creates its own institutions, or utilises those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers against others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its political journey, it remains split politically. The problem of the united front – which arises during certain periods most sharply – originates therein. The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist Party – when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist Party consists of winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible. The Communist Party cannot fulfil its mission except by preserving, completely and unconditionally, its political and organisational independence apart from all other parties and organisations within and without the working class. To transgress this basic principle of marxist policy is to commit the most heinous of crimes against the interests of the proletariat as a class ... But the proletariat moves towards revolutionary consciousness not by passing grades in school but by passing through the class struggle, which abhors interruptions. To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts within the walls of a single factory as well as such “national” political battles as the one to repel fascism. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial – a cunning manoeuvre – not at all; it originates entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat. [8]

This remarkably clear, coherent and realistic analysis was not, of course, a timeless sociological generalisation. It was rooted in actual historical development. The panics of the Second International had, in their time, helped to create those:

bulwarks of workers’ democracy [the workers’ organisations, especially the unions] within the bourgeois state ... [which] are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road. The work of the Second International consisted in creating just such bulwarks during the epoch when it was still fulfilling its progressive historic labour. [9]

The parties of that International were in time rotted from within by adaptation to the societies in which they operated; this development had, of course, a material and not merely an ideological basis. Faced with the test of 4 August 1914, they capitulated to “their own” bourgeoisie (with certain exceptions: the Bolsheviks, the Bulgarians, the Serbs) or adopted an equivocal “centrist” position (the Italians, the Scandinavians, the Americans and various minorities elsewhere). Out of that capitulation, the inner party conflicts and splits that it produced, the rising tide of working class opposition to the war from 1916 onwards and the revolutions of 1917 and 1918, arose the Communist International, “the direct continuation of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg”. [10]

This was now the “historic organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious”. The parties of the Communist International had, especially since 1923 committed a series of blunders (Trotsky was not, of course, blind to their earlier mistakes), and increasingly followed opportunist or sectarian policies under the direction of Stalin and his ruling circle in the USSR. Nevertheless, with all its defects it was a reality, not a hypothesis; a reality which commanded the support or sympathy of millions around the world. Indeed, paradoxically, its very defects indicated in a distorted way that it was a truly mass organisation. For Trotsky did not subscribe to the simplistic view that the big parties of the Comintern were merely instruments of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. The problem was to correct their course. “All eyes to the Communist Party. We must explain to it. We must convince it.” [11]

As a matter of political necessity, the party’s internal regime must be democratic:

The internal struggle trains the party and makes its own road clear to it. In this struggle all the members of the party gain a deep confidence in the correctness of the policy of the party and in the revolutionary reliability of the leadership. Only such a conviction in the rank and file Bolshevik, won through experience and ideological struggle, gives the leadership the chance to lead the whole party into battle at the necessary moment. And only a deep confidence of the party itself in the correctness of its policy inspires the working masses with confidence in the party. Artificial splits forced from the outside; the absence of a free and honest ideological struggle ... this is what now paralyses the Spanish Communist Party, [12]

Trotsky wrote in 1931. The argument applied generally.

It was, however, not so simple. Soon after his expulsion from the USSR in 1929 Trotsky outlined what he considered to be the basic questions for supporters of the Left Opposition in Europe (attitudes to the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee, the Chinese Revolution and to “Socialism in One Country”).

Some comrades may be astonished that I omit reference here to the question of the party regime,

he continued,

I do so not out of oversight but deliberately. A party regime has no independent, self-sufficient meaning. In relation to party policy it is a derivative magnitude. The most heterogeneous elements sympathise with the struggle against Stalinist bureaucratism ... For a Marxist, democracy within a party or within a country is not an abstraction. Democracy is always conditioned by the struggle of living forces. By bureaucratism, the opportunist elements ... understand revolutionary centralism. Obviously, they cannot be our co-thinkers. [13]

It is possible to go through Trotsky’s post-1917 writings, and even his writings after 1929 or 1934, and to produce a series of statements, some exalting the virtues of inner-party democracy and condemning “administrative” measures against critics, others arguing the necessity for purges and expulsions. Nor is it a case of quotations wrenched from their context. For Trotsky, the relationship between centralism and inner-party democracy was not constant. It was a question of the political content of each in specific but changing circumstances. Trotsky wrote towards the end of 1932:

The principle of party democracy is in no way identical with the principle of the open door. The Left Opposition has never demanded of the Stalinists that they transform the party into a mechanical sum of factions, groups, sects and individuals. We accuse the centrist bureaucracy of carrying on an essentially false policy which at every step brings them into contradiction with the flower of the proletariat and of looking for the way out of these contradictions by the strangling of party democracy. [14]

This may appear equivocal. Indeed, in purely formal terms it is equivocal. The solution to the contradiction is to be found in the dynamics of party development. The party, Trotsky believed, cannot grow, in terms of real mass influence as opposed to mere numbers, except through a reciprocal relationship, a process of interaction, with wider and wider layers of workers. For this inner-party democracy is indispensable. It provides the means of feedback of class experience into the party. Such a development is not always possible. Often, objective circumstances rule out such growth. But the party must always be attuned to the possibility. Otherwise it will not be able to seize the chances that occur from time to time.

Therefore, the regime must at all times be as open and flexible as possible, consonant with preserving the revolutionary integrity of the party. The qualification is important. For unfavourable circumstances weaken the ties between the party and the layers of advanced workers and so increase the problem of “factions, groups, sects” which can become an obstacle to the growth of inner-party democracy understood as Trotsky understood it, essentially a mechanism by which the party relates to wider sections of the working class, learning from them and at the same time earning the right to lead them.

The argument is, perhaps, too abstract. To concretise it, consider this passage from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, discussing Lenin’s isolation from the majority of the party leadership after the February revolution.

Against the old Bolsheviks [in April 1917] Lenin found support in another layer of the party, already tempered, but more fresh and more closely united with the masses. In the February revolution, as we know, the worker- Bolsheviks played the decisive role. They thought it self-evident that the class which had won the victory should seize power ... Almost everywhere there were left Bolsheviks accused of maximalism, even of anarchism. These worker-revolutionists only lacked the theoretical resources to defend their position. But they were ready to respond to the first clear call. It was on this stratum of workers, decisively risen to their feet during the upward years of 1912-14, that Lenin was now banking. [15]

That model appears again and again in Trotsky’s writings. A mass party, unlike a sect, is necessarily buffeted by immensely powerful forces, especially in revolutionary circumstances. These forces inevitably find expression inside the party also. To keep the party on course (in practice, to continually correct its course in a changing situation) the complex relationship between the leadership, the various layers of the cadre and the workers they influence and are influenced by, expresses itself and must express itself in political struggle inside the party. If that is artificially smothered by administrative means, the party will lose its way.

An indispensable function of the leadership, itself formed by selection in previous struggles, is to understand when to close ranks to preserve the core of the organisation from disintegration by unfavourable outside pressures – to emphasise centralism – and when to open up the organisation and to use layers of advanced workers inside and outside the party to overcome the party conservatism of sections of the cadre and leadership – to emphasise democracy – in order to change course quickly.

All of this implies a very exalted conception of the role of leadership, and this the post-1917 Trotsky certainly had. He was to affirm in 1938 that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.” It was a conception, however, of the organic growth of a leading cadre in relation to the experiences of the party in the actual class struggle. Of course, the leading cadre had to embody a tradition and the experience of the past (from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht), a knowledge of the strategy and tactics that had been tested in many countries at different times over many years. This knowledge was necessarily, for the most part, theoretical and Trotsky least of all was inclined to under-value it. It was a necessary condition for successful leadership but not a sufficient one. The experience of the party in action and of its changing relationship to various sections of workers was the additional, irreplaceable factor which could be developed only in practice.



An Anomaly

In Trotsky’s lifetime only one Communist Party, that in the USSR, held state power (other than in the areas controlled by the Chinese Communist Party in the thirties).

Trotsky classed them all as “bureaucratic centrist” organisations, that is to say workers’ organisations which vacillated between revolutionary and reformist politics. After 1935, with the Popular Front line, he concluded that they had become social-patriotic; “yellow agencies of rotting capitalism”. [16]

But these terms refer to workers’ organisations; to parties which are obliged to compete with other parties for support in their own working class movements. The CPSU, certainly after 1929 if not earlier, was not a party at all in that sense. It was a bureaucratic apparatus, the instrument of a totalitarian despotism. Trotsky conceded this in part: “The party [that is, the CPSU] as a party does not exist today. The centrist apparatus has strangled it” [17], he wrote in 1930. But he did [not] [1*] conclude that the CPSU was a fundamentally different species from the workers’ parties outside the USSR.

Even after he had abandoned hope (in October 1933) of a peaceful reform of the regime in the USSR the confusion remained. Of course it was associated with the belief that even though reform was impossible, the USSR nonetheless remained a degenerated workers’ state.

The matter became important a few years after Trotsky’s death when a series of new Stalinist states came into being without proletarian revolutions and with a series of ruling “Communist Parties” which manifestly were not workers’ parties in terms of Trotsky’s conception. The contradiction was already built into Trotsky’s own post-1933 position.



The Thread is Cut

We have seen that Trotsky’s mature conception of the relationship between party and class was neither abstract nor arbitrary, but was rooted both in the experience of Bolshevism in Russia and in the actual historical development which had led to mass Communist Parties in a number of important countries.

But what if that development runs into the sands? What if the “historically conditioned instrument” fails the test? Trotsky had contemplated the possibility, only to reject it firmly. In 1931 he wrote:

Let us take another, more remote example for the clarification of our ideas. Hugo Urbahns, who considers himself a “Left Communist”, declares the German party bankrupt, politically done for, and proposes to create a new party. If Urbahns were right, it would mean that the victory of fascism is certain. For, in order to create a new party, years are required (and there has been nothing to prove that the party of Urbahns would in any sense be better than Thaelmann’s party: when Urbahns was at the head of the party, there were by no means fewer mistakes). Yes, should the fascists really conquer power, that would mean not only the physical destruction of the Communist Party, but veritable political bankruptcy for it ... The seizure of power by the fascists would therefore most probably signify the necessity of creating a new revolutionary party and in all likelihood also a new International. That would be a frightful historical catastrophe. But to assume today that all this is unavoidable can be done only by genuine liquidators, those who under the mantle of hollow phrases are really hastening to capitulate like cravens in the face of the struggle and without a struggle ... We are unshakably convinced that the victory over the fascists is possible – not after their coming to power, not after five, ten or twenty years of their rule, but now, under the given conditions, in the coming months and weeks. [18]

But Hitler did come to power. Notwithstanding the brilliance and cogency of Trotsky’s arguments the German Communist Party, with its quarter of a million members and its six million votes (in 1932), held fast to its fatal course. It was smashed, without resistance, along with the “social fascists”, the trade unions and each and every one of the political, cultural and social organisations created by the German working class in the previous sixty years.

In 1931 Trotsky had described Germany as “the key to the international situation ... On the development in which the solution of the German crisis occurs will depend not only the fate of Germany itself (and that is already a great deal) but the fate of Europe, the destiny of the entire world, for many years to come.” [19]

It was an accurate forecast. The defeat of the German working class transformed world politics. The failure of the Communist Party even to attempt resistance was a blow as heavy as the capitulation of social democracy had been in 1914. It was the 4th of August of the Communist International.

What then is left of the” historic organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious”? From 1933 until his death in August 1940 Trotsky wrestled with what proved to be an insoluble dilemma, at that time and long afterwards. In June 1932 he had written:

The Stalinists by their persecution would like to push us on the road of a second party and a fourth international. They understand that a fatal error of this type on the part of the Opposition would slow up its growth for years, if not nullify all its successes altogether. [20]

Now, less than a year later he was forced to concede, first, that the German party was finished, then a little later (after the Comintern executive declared in April 1933 that its policy in Germany was completely correct’) that all the Communist Parties were finished as revolutionary organisations, that what was needed were New Communist Parties and the New International’ (the title of an article dated July 1933).

The connecting rod between theory and practice had been cut. Before 1917 Trotsky had relied on spontaneous working class action to overcome party conservatism. After 1917 he recognised the revolutionary workers’ party as the indispensable instrument of socialist revolution. The lack of such parties rooted in the working class, and possessing mature, experienced cadres, had produced the tragedy of 1918-19 – mass revolutionary movements in Germany, Austria, Hungary and, elsewhere, mass spontaneous struggles – leading to defeat.

The means of overcoming the defect – the parties of the Communist International – had themselves degenerated to the point where they had become obstacles to a revolutionary solution of new profound social crises.

It was necessary to start again. But what was left to start with? Essentially there was nothing but small (often tiny) groups, whose common characteristics included isolation from the actual workers’ movements and from direct involvement in workers’ struggles. The apparent partial exceptions to this generalisation – those who could count their members in hundreds or thousands rather than dozens – the Greek Archiomarxists, the Dutch RSAP and, a little later, the Spanish POUM, all proved to be frail reeds; centrists rather than revolutionaries, obstacles rather than allies.

With such forces Trotsky began to reconstruct. He had no choice, unless retreat into passivity or that disguised passivity later called “Western marxism” are reckoned as choices. But means and ends are inextricably interwoven. With the links to the real workers’ movement cut, “Trotskyism”, even in Trotsky’s lifetime, began to accommodate to its actual milieu – small radicalised sections of the intellectual strata of the petty bourgeoisie. As we shall see, Trotsky himself fought a long battle against this accommodation. At the same time, the cruel necessities of the situation drove him to adopt positions which, in spite of his will and understanding, assisted in its growth.



The New International

If the Communist Left throughout the world consisted of only five individuals, they would nevertheless have been obliged to build an international organisation simultaneously with the building of one or more national organisations. It is wrong to view a national organisation as the foundation and the International as a roof. The interrelation here is of an entirely different type. Marx and Engels started the communist movement with an international document in 1847 and with the creation of an international movement. The same thing was repeated in the creation of the First International. The same path was followed by the Zimmerwald Left in preparation for the Third International. Today this road is dictated far more imperiously than in the days of Marx. It is, of course, possible in the epoch of imperialism for a revolutionary proletarian tendency to arise in one or another country, but it cannot thrive and develop in one isolated country; on the very next day after its formation it must seek or create international ties, an international platform, because a guarantee of the correctness of the national policy can be found only along this road. A tendency which remains shut in nationally over a stretch of years condemns itself irrevocably to degeneration. [21]

Trotsky wrote this, in a polemic with Bordiga’s Italian ultra-left sect, while he (Trotsky) was still committed to a policy of reform of the existing Communist Parties. He was arguing for an international faction orienting on an existing International. The logic of that position, as opposed to the arguments used to sustain it, seemed irrefutable.

The arguments themselves will not withstand critical examination. Marx and Engels did not start with the “creation of an international movement”. The Communist Manifesto was written for an already existing Communist League (albeit of very primitive communist ideas) which was international only in the sense that it existed in several countries. It was essentially a German organisation, consisting of German emigré artisans and intellectuals in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere, as well as groups in the Rhineland and German Switzerland.

The First International started as an alliance between existing British trade union organisations under liberal influence and existing French ones under Proudhonist influence, and later drew in other groupings of very diverse character and nationality. Far from repeating’ the experience of the Communist League, it was developed on exactly the opposite lines – without an initial programmatic basis and without a centralised organisation. The same is true, to a much lesser degree, of the Second International, which Trotsky does not mention here.

Nor will the reference to the Zimmerwald Left stand either. The Zimmerwald Left (as opposed to the Zimmerwald current as a whole) consisted of the Bolshevik Party, a mass national party, plus more or less isolated individuals (“one Lithuanian, the Pole Karl Radek, two Swedish delegates and Julian Borchard, the delegate of a tiny group, the German International Socialists.”) [22]

Practically speaking, Trotsky had no option. He had no base in any workers’ movement now. All contact with his supporters in the USSR had ceased by the spring of 1933. [23] It was a matter of pulling together whatever could be pulled together, wherever it existed, to create a political current. Moreover the argument that an international platform was needed – or a common analysis of the problems of the working class movement – was indisputable. Trotsky supplied it. But a confusion between ideas and organisation, between political tendency and international party, had been introduced. Within a few years, Trotsky tacitly abandoned his conception of the revolutionary party as the “historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious” and launched an “International” without a significant base in any workers’ movement.

First, however, Trotsky attempted to find new forces. The Trotskyist groups were tiny. The power of the Stalinists had forced them into a political ghetto. This, moreover, had a definite social location in a section of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia.

How to break out, proletarianise Trotskyism and pull significant numbers of workers into new communist parties?

There were enormous obstacles in the way. A major long term effect of the defeat in Germany was to create such a massive groundswell for unity amongst working class militants that the call for new parties and a new International, in other words for a new split, fell on the stoniest of ground. Trotsky had pioneered the call for the workers’ united front against fascism. But as this call began to gain ground in the Socialist parties after 1933 (and, soon, in the Communist parties too) Trotsky’s followers could be and were represented as splitters; they were now calling for new parties and a new International. Their isolation was reinforced.

After initial attempts to “regroup” with various centrist. and left-reformist groups (for example, the British ILP) had foundered (producing a rich crop of polemics against centrism from Trotsky), Trotsky proposed the drastic step of entry into the social-democratic parties. Strictly speaking, this was argued for specific cases – France at first (hence the term “French Turn”) – but it came to be generalised in practice. The arguments were that the social democrats were moving to the left, so creating a more favourable climate for revolutionary work; that they were attracting new layers of workers and presented an incomparably more proletarian environment than the isolated propaganda groups which Trotskyism inhabited.

The operation was conceived of as short-term; a sharp, hard fight with the reformists and centrists, then a split and the founding of the party. “Entry into a reformist or centrist party in itself does not include a long-term perspective. It is only a stage which under certain conditions can be limited to an episode.” [24]

In the event the operation failed in its strategic aim; it failed to change the relationship of forces or to improve the social composition of the Trotskyist grouplets. The fundamental reasons for the failure were the consequences of the defeat in Germany and the turning of the Communist International, first to the United Front (1934) and then to the Popular Front (1935), the great impact these changes made and the consequent swing rightwards of the whole workers’ movement. In addition Stalin’s anti-Trotsky campaign soon had Trotsky and his followers denounced as fascist agents.

The circumstances which had made it possible for revolutionaries to win mass leftwards-moving centrist parties like the German USPD and the majority of French Socialists to the Communist International in 1919-21 simply did not exist in 1934-35. Whatever mistakes Trotsky or his followers may have made in the course of the “French Turn” can have had only trivial effects by comparison with the effects of the profoundly unfavourable situation.

Some of the gains claimed from the entry tactic were real. It involved a break with many whom Trotsky called “conservative sectarians”, that is those who could not adjust to active politics, as opposed to small circle propagandism in the intellectual milieu.

Towards the end of 1933 Trotsky wrote:

A revolutionary organisation cannot develop without purging itself, especially under conditions of legal work, when not infrequently chance, alien and degenerate elements gather under the banner of revolution ... We are making an important revolutionary turn. At such moments inner crisis or splits are absolutely inevitable. To fear them is to substitute petty-bourgeois sentimentalism and personal scheming for revolutionary policy. The League [the French Trotskyist group] is passing through a first crisis under the banner of great and clear revolutionary criteria. Under these conditions a splitting off of a part of the League will be a great step forward. It will reject all that is unhealthy, crippled and incapacitated; it will give a lesson to the vacillating and irresolute elements; it will harden the better sections of the youth; it will improve the inner atmosphere; it will open up before the League new, great possibilities. [25]

No doubt all this was correct in principle and, in fact, some new forces were recruited from the socialist youth organisations to replace those who were eliminated (or rather, dropped mit in most cases). Nevertheless, the balance of forces – the pathetic weakness of the revolutionary left – remained basically unaltered. What then?

Trotsky pressed on with the foundation of the Fourth International. After repeatedly stating that it could not be an immediate perspective, as the forces were not yet available – as late as 1935 he had denounced as “a stupid piece of gossip” the idea that “the Trotskyists want to proclaim the Fourth International next Thursday” [25] – he proposed, within a year, precisely that: the proclamation of the New International. On that occasion he was unable to persuade his followers. By 1938 he had won them over.

The forces adhering to the Fourth International in 1938 were weaker, not stronger, than those which had existed in 1934. (The SWP of the USA was the only serious exception). The Spanish revolution had been strangled in the meantime. Trotsky justified his decision by a partial and unacknowledged retreat into the semi-spontaneity he had advocated before 1917, and also by analogy with Lenin’s position in 1914.

The discrepancy between our forces and the tasks on the morrow is much more clearly perceived by us than by our critics,

wrote Trotsky in late 1938.

But the harsh and tragic dialectic of our epoch is working in our favour. Brought to the extreme pitch of exasperation and indignation, the masses will find no other leadership than that offered by the Fourth International. [27]

But 1917 had shown positively, and 1918-19 negatively and, above all, 1936 in Spain had demonstrated the indispensibility of parties rooted in their national working classes through a long period of struggle for partial demands. Trotsky had recognised this more clearly than most. Now, since such parties did not exist, and the need was extraordinarily urgent, he took refuge in a “Weltgeist” of revolution that would somehow create them out of spontaneous “exasperation and indignation” provided “a spotless banner” were waved aloft. The spontaneous upsurge would, in the course of the war or soon after, lift the isolated and inexperienced “leaderships” of the Fourth International sections into leadership of mass parties.

The analogy with Lenin in 1914 was doubly inappropriate. When Lenin wrote in 1914: “The Second International is dead: Long live the Third International”, he was already the most influential leader of a real mass party in a major country. Nevertheless, he did not think of calling for the founding of the Third International until one and a half years after the October revolution and at a time when, he believed, a mass and ascending revolutionary movement existed in Europe. That Trotsky should ignore all this was a tribute to his revolutionary will. Politically, however, this would derail and disorient his followers when, after his death, a very real upsurge passed them by – as was inevitable given their isolation – and would make it much harder for them to develop a realistic revolutionary orientation.

There was an element of near-messianism in Trotsky’s conceptions at this time. In a desperately difficult situation, with fascism in the ascendant, defeat piled on defeat for the workers’ movement and a new world war imminent, the banner of revolution had to be flown, the programme of communism reasserted, until the revolution itself transformed the situation.

Perhaps it would have been impossible to hold his followers together without something of this outlook which, if so, was therefore a necessary deviation from his mature view. But its later costs were none the less real.




1. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, London: Oxford University Press 1954, p.45.

2. 1903: Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, London: New Park, p.204.

3. Trotsky, Our political tasks, in R.V. Daniels (ed.), A Documentary History of Communism, New York: Vintage 1962, Vol.1, p.31.

4. See Schurer, The Permanent Revolution, in Labedz (ed.), Revisionism, London: Allen & Unwin 1962, p.73. Emphasis added.

5. Ibid., p.74.

6. See T. Cliff, Lenin, London: Pluto Press 1976, Vol.1, pp.168-179, Vol.2, pp.97-139.

7. Trotsky, What next?, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, New York: Pathfinder Press 1971, p.163. Emphasis in original.

8. Ibid., pp.163-64.

9. ibid., p.159.

10. Trotsky, Manifesto of the Communist International to the workers of the world, The First Five Years of the Communist international, New York: Pioneer 1945, Vol.1, p.29.

11. Trotsky, What next?, op.cit., p.254.

12. Trotsky, The Spanish revolution and the danger threatening it, The Spanish Revolution (193 1-39), New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, p.133.

13. Trotsky, The groupings in the communist opposition, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1929, New York: Pathfinder Press 1975, p.81.

14. Trotsky, The international left opposition: its tasks and methods, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-33, New York: Pathfinder Press 1972, p.56.

15. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, London: Sphere 1977, Vol.1, p.306.

16. Trotsky, The evolution of the Comintern, Documents of the Fourth International, New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, Vol.1, p.128.

17. Trotsky, Thermidor and Bonapartism, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930-31, New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, p.75.

18. Trotsky, For a workers’ united front against fascism, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, op.cit., p.134. Emphasis in original.

19. Trotsky, Germany: key to the international situation, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, op.cit., pp.121-2.

20. Trotsky, The Stalin bureaucracy in straits, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932, New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, p.125.

21. Trotsky, To the editorial board of Prometeo, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930, New York: Pathfinder Press 1975, pp.285-6.

22. T. Cliff, Lenin, London: Pluto Press 1976, Vol.2, p.12.

23. J. van Heijenoort, With Trotsky in Exile, Boston: Harvard University Press 1978, p.38.

24. Trotsky, Lessons of the SFIO entry, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, New York: Pathfinder Press 1970, p.31.

25. Trotsky, It is time to stop, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, New York: Pathfinder Press 1972, pp.90-1.

26. Trotsky, Centrist alchemy or marxism, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35, New York: Pathfinder Press 1971, p.274.

27. Trotsky, A great achievement, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, New York: Pathfinder Press 1976, p.439.


Annotation by MIA

1*. From the context it would seem that the word “not” has been omitted here. – MIA.

Last updated on 6.10.2003