Sixty years ago this August, Stalin’s hit man, Raymond Mercader, murdered the greatest living revolutionary of that time, Leon Trotsky. It was not just the Trotskyists who felt the terrible blow of his death but the working class and labour movement of the whole world. This brain – in a sense, the brain of the working class at that stage – would no longer illuminate and clarify the problems confronting working class movements internationally.
Just to list Trotsky’s ‘practical achievements’ would in itself justify commemorating this anniversary. He was the chairman of the first ever soviet – committee of workers’ representatives – in the first Russian revolution between 1905-1906. In 1917 he was the organiser of the October Russian revolution, the greatest single event in human history. He then created and led the Red Army which defeated the twenty-one counter-revolutionary armies of imperialism that attempted to crush the revolution.
But above all, Leon Trotsky was one of the greatest theoreticians of the workers’ movement. If Karl Marx was the man of the millennium, then Leon Trotsky was undoubtedly, with Lenin, Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, also one of the greatest figures of the millennium, and certainly of the 20th century. His ideas, his method of analysis, and the conclusions drawn from this, are as relevant today as in the past.
The Permanent Revolution
Take Trotsky’s famous theory of the permanent revolution, which brilliantly anticipated the class forces involved in the outcome of the Russian revolution. Russia prior to 1917 was a feudal or semi-feudal system which meant virtual slavery for the population. Like India today, the majority of the population were peasants who eked out an existence on narrow parcels of land while the urban working class had no rights and were ruthlessly exploited in rapidly developing industry. Russia had not completed the capitalist democratic revolution as had England, for instance, in the 16th century, and France in the 18th century. The main tasks of this revolution were the elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations in the land, unification of the country, and the solution of the national question.
It also involved the introduction of democracy, the right to vote, the election of a democratic parliament, a free press, and trade union rights for the working class. Last but not least, the completion of this revolution would free the economy from the domination of imperialism, particularly of Anglo-French imperialism which saw Russia as a virtual colony.
All trends of opinion within the Russian workers’ movement saw as the main task the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. However, Lenin and Trotsky differed from the Mensheviks (minority members of the Russian Social Democratic Labour movement) who believed that the task of the working class was to play second fiddle to the so-called liberal capitalists. The Mensheviks considered that the latter were the main agents of the capitalist democratic revolution. Socialism for them was the music of the distant future.
At the same time, the Mensheviks saw the Russian revolution as a purely national event with a limited echo internationally. Yet the late development of the capitalists as a class in Russia, and with it a delay in the capitalist democratic revolution, meant that the weak and feeble Russian capitalists were no longer capable of completing this historic task. As we see in the neo-colonial world today, the capitalists invested in land and the landlords invested in industry. Therefore, any serious attempt at a thoroughgoing land reform challenging the power of the landlords would also come up against the opposition of the capitalists and their political representatives, the liberal capitalist parties. This has been shown not just in Russia but in Germany in the 19th century and very graphically in our time in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
A newly-arisen force in Russia, not present in the English and French revolutions, was the working class, which had developed into a powerful force and, at that time, in a unique fashion. Trotsky pointed out that the liberal bourgeoisie were terrified, quite correctly as events demonstrated, that a struggle against Tsarism and the social foundations upon which it rested, would open the floodgates through which the working class would pour, together with the peasantry, and place on the agenda its own demands. Both Trotsky and Lenin, therefore, argued that it was an alliance of the working class and peasantry which alone could carry through the capitalist democratic revolution.
Lenin expressed this in his formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry’. Trotsky, however, in his theory of the permanent revolution, pointed out that the peasantry historically had never played an independent role. It must be led by one or other of the two great classes in society, the bourgeoisie or the working class. Lenin and Trotsky agreed that the capitalists could not carry through their own revolution. Therefore, Trotsky argued, the working class must assume the leadership of the revolution, drawing behind it the masses in the countryside. Lenin, on the other hand, left open the exact relationship between the peasantry and the working class, in his ‘algebraic formula’.
Trotsky argued that because history had shown that the peasantry can never play an independent role the alliance, therefore, must be led by the working class. The combined movement of the working class in the cities, and a mass peasant uprising in the countryside, was envisaged by Trotsky in his theory of permanent revolution as the way the revolution was likely to develop in Russia.
This was confirmed in October 1917. Moreover, there was a complete agreement in the approach of Lenin and Trotsky between February and October 1917 as to how the revolution would be successful. Despite all the attempts of latter day ‘Leninists’ to dispute this – from the remnants of Stalinised ‘Communist’ parties in the neo-colonial world to ex-Trotskyists – Lenin himself in 1917 pointed out that his previous formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ had been filled with a ‘negative content’. With Trotsky he indicated that the task was now for the proletariat to seize power, supported by the peasantry.
Once having come to power, argued Trotsky, and carried through the main tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, the revolutionary power would proceed to the socialist tasks within Russia and also act as a spark to the world revolution itself. And this is how events actually worked out with a mass revolutionary wave in Western Europe – in Germany in 1918-19, Hungary 1919, Italy in the sit-down strikes and occupations of 1920, etc. These revolutions were only defeated because of the perfidious role of the leaders of the mass social democratic organisations at the time.
Marxists do not idolise ‘ancient texts’ no matter how brilliant they might be. However, if a theory is very ‘old’ and yet it correctly foresees events and processes, it is the most modern of theories. And Trotsky’s ideas are as applicable today for most of Africa, and for huge parts of Asia and Latin America, as they were for Russia more than 80 years ago. The capitalist democratic revolution has not been completed in big parts of the neo-colonial world. The landlords and capitalists are incapable of solving the even greater accumulation of problems which exist today compared with 1917.
Earlier we drew a comparison between India today and the pre-1917 position in Russia. Despite significant growth in industry in the urban areas, the great majority of the population find their lives blighted by the maintenance of feudal and semi-feudal land relations and the monstrous regime which goes with this.
Take another example, the Congo, a former colony of Belgium. After the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 this ‘country’ was ruled by the gangster capitalist regime of Sese Seko Mobutu. A complete disintegration ensued with the reinforcement of tribalism, and the monumental corruption of Mobutu and his coterie, which stole most of the assets of the country. The hopes of the impoverished masses were raised, however, with the triumph of Laurent Kabila in 1997. He was a former collaborator of Che Guevara when the latter participated in a guerrilla insurgency in 1965.
Yet Kabila has accepted, in the context of the world-wide triumph of the ‘market’, the perpetuation of all the diseases of Mobutuism which went before. Tribalism and corruption not only still exist but have been reinforced. There is now the prospect of a terrible Rwanda-type genocide developing from the internecine tribalism in the next period. Sierra Leone also indicates that where no class exists or possesses the necessary consciousness to take society forward, a terrible relapse and regression can follow.
Yet, as Lenin pointed out, Africa, on the basis of communism, could move within a generation from tribalism to communism. Only the African working class, however, linked to the world workers’ movement, can achieve this. Once having come to power the working class will complete the bourgeois democratic revolution and carry through the socialist regeneration of Africa through a continent-wide socialist federation.
The Struggle Against Neo-Colonialism
Even during the world boom of 1950-75 the permanent revolution operated, but not in a classical form. In a whole series of countries, China, Vietnam and Cuba, society faced an impasse on the basis of landlordism and capitalism. On the other hand, the working class was weak or restricted by false leadership, usually the Stalinists. When for instance the Red Army of Mao Zedong entered the cities, they found a vacuum. There was no way forward on the basis of landlordism and capitalism. This had been underlined by the situation following the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, which had resulted in the complete dismemberment of China, its division amongst various warlords, and the intervention of imperialism.
Mao Zedong balanced between different sections of society, the peasantry, the working class, and sections of the capitalists, and gradually expropriated landlordism and capitalism. The land was nationalised and most of industry was taken over. But workers’ democracy as in 1917 in Russia did not exist. Instead from the beginning a deformed workers’ state was established.
Thus the main lines of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution were vindicated here, although in a caricatured form. It is true that the conscious role of the working class as the leader of the revolution was a vital ingredient of Trotsky’s theory and this was absent in China and in the Cuban revolution. Nevertheless, a social revolution had been carried through, the elimination of landlordism and capitalism had taken place, but without the working class playing the directly leading role. This was only possible because of the peculiar relationship of world forces both within China and internationally. A bonapartist elite resting on a peasant army was able to balance between the classes and preside over a social revolution. However, what emerged was a deformed workers’ state rather than a state in which the working class and poor peasantry exercised direct control on management of industry and society through democratically elected soviets or councils.
In Cuba the revolution developed in a somewhat different form with mass popular support for the government of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. However, even here there was not the workers’ democracy of the Russian revolution and, therefore, inevitably, almost from the beginning, a bureaucratic layer began to crystallise which concentrated power in its own hands.
A similar situation followed the victory of the Vietnamese revolution, whose main motive force was not the organised urban working class but the peasantry, the majority of the population. The guerrilla war conducted by the National Liberation Front was able to defeat the mightiest military power on the globe, which represented a victory for the peoples not only of Vietnam but of the neo-colonial world. But, because of the class forces involved, the regime which ushered from the Vietnamese revolution, based upon the peasantry and with nationalist limitations, could not be a healthy workers’ state.
Without an understanding of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, of his method of analysis, present-day Marxists would be completely at a loss to understand how events have developed in the post-1945 situation in the underdeveloped world. But it is not sufficient merely to repeat the formulas of Trotsky, applied to the Russian revolution. We also need to recognise the changes in the objective situation which have developed since. A new situation has now opened up following the collapse of Stalinism. It is now possible for the classical ideas of permanent revolution, with the working class playing the main role, to materialise. The catastrophic situation in the neo-colonial world is shown, for instance, by the situation in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia in Latin America. In Venezuela a middle-class army officer, Hugo Chávez, has been pushed into introducing radical measures and even more radical phraseology. How far Chávez will go depends upon a number of factors, not least the world economic situation and the social effects in Venezuela and throughout Latin America.
Could Chývez take to the road trod by Castro 41 years ago and break with landlordism and capitalism? This is an open question with the absence of a mighty Stalinist regime in Russia, which acted both as a reservoir of support and as a model for the deformed workers’ states which developed in the neo-colonial world. On the other hand, the working class is held back by an insufficient consciousness of the objective reality of societies like Venezuela, or is in a straitjacket provided by ex-workers’ parties which have gone over to the ‘market’. It will take time and experience for the working class to reassemble its forces and reach a full understanding of the situation which it faces. But it is clear that Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution offers a vital tool for understanding the situation and politically rearming the working class in these societies.
The Revolution Betrayed
Trotsky’s analysis of the rise of the bureaucracy and the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution is one of the treasures of humankind. Without this Marxists would have been groping in the dark to find a way forward. In his Diary In Exile, Trotsky summed up his contribution in the following fashion:
“The work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life – more important than 1917, more important than the period of the civil war or any other.
“For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (ie with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the outcome of the revolution would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin, the October revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the civil war, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.
“Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International”. (Diary in Exile, pp53-54)
There is not an atom of personal arrogance let alone ‘pessimism’ in these lines. Trotsky was the first real dissident, together with the rest of the Left Opposition, to oppose Stalinism. They were the staunch defenders of workers’ democracy against the Stalinist counter-revolution.
The struggle between Trotsky and Stalin was not at all ‘personal’. In 1937, before the Dewey Commission inquiry into the Moscow Trials, Trotsky explained his and Stalin’s role: “Neither Stalin nor I find ourselves in our present position by accident. We did not create these positions. Each of us is drawn into this drama as a representative of definite ideas and principles. In their turn, the ideas and principles did not fall from the sky but have profound social roots. That is why one must take, not the psychological abstraction of Stalin as a ‘man’, but his concrete historical personality as leader of the Soviet bureaucracy. One can understand the acts of Stalin only by starting from the conditions of existence of the new privileged stratum, greedy for material comforts, apprehensive for its position, fearing the masses, and mortally hating all opposition”. (From Trotsky’s incomplete biography of Stalin.)
The rise of Stalin to power was not at all due to any superior personal qualities but was with “the aid of an impersonal machine. And it was not he who created the machine, but the machine that created him”.
The Russian revolution was seen by the Bolsheviks as a prelude to the world revolution. The international defeats and setbacks, however, resulted in its isolation. In isolation Russia was never ready for socialism. Karl Marx emphasised that the beginning of socialism involves a higher technique than the highest level reached by capitalism (in the modern era that means higher than the US today).
The isolation of the revolution led to the beginning of a crystallisation of a bureaucratic elite. This isolation, in the first instance, arose from the role of the social democracy in betraying the revolution in Western Europe. But following Lenin’s death, Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin, in opposition to Trotsky, replaced reliance on the independent movement of the working class and a patient building of strong independent communist parties and leaders, with a policy of diplomatic pressure and the courting of left leaders. This resulted in defeats which in turn reinforced the position of the bureaucracy, which gradually elbowed the working class aside.
This was a process and not one act. There was a dialectical interrelationship between the rise of the conservative strata in the USSR, which acted as a brake on the workers’ movement internationally and led to defeats, and the ever-tightening grip of the privileged officialdom within the Soviet Union itself. Initially, Stalin wished the success of the revolution. However, his own conservative bureaucratic methods, both politically and the organisationally within the communist parties outside Russia, promoted the defeats of the working class.
‘Isolated’ and vilified by the enormous resources of the Stalinised Comintern, Trotsky nevertheless provided brilliant and timely advice which, if followed, would have avoided in Germany, for instance, the catastrophic victory of the Nazis in 1933. Trotsky’s writings on fascism, particularly his advocacy of the united front of the workers’ organisations to stop the rise of Hitler, is one of his greatest contributions. The study of his writings of this period provides the key to an understanding of the phenomenon of Haiderism and neo-fascism, including the dangers and its weaknesses at the present time.
But with the victory of Hitler, the consolidation of the bureaucracy as a conservative strata (with interests separate and apart from the mass of the working class in the USSR and internationally) developed apace. From a wish to see the revolution succeed internationally, by the time of the Spanish revolution of 1936 the ruling strata had developed an obsessive and mortal fear of the triumph of revolution anywhere.
The bureaucracy understood that the victory of the social revolution in the West would trigger an uprising of the masses in the Soviet Union, not against the gains of the revolution, the planned economy, but against the usurping privileged elite represented by Stalin. Therefore, a one-sided civil war was carried out in the form of the purge trials. This has been graphically described in the books of the late Vadim Rogovin, particularly in 1937, Stalin’s Year of Terror.
The main defendant in the Moscow Trials was the absent Leon Trotsky. Yet to read the books of the ‘experts’ of this period of history, you would have no inkling of this. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for instance, in his so-called ‘history’ of the ‘gulag’, only grudgingly mentions the Trotskyists and never indicates that it was Trotsky and his ideas that were feared by Stalin and the bureaucracy. It was these ideas which were on trial in Moscow.
Trotsky and those close to him suffered the most ferocious persecution at the hands of the Stalin murder machine. Yet in the teeth of all this, Trotsky produced his brilliant analysis of Stalinism which, better than anything else, foretold the future of the ‘USSR’ under this totalitarian system. In 1936 he foreshadowed two possibilities for the USSR: “A successful uprising of the Russian working class, a political revolution and the restoration of democracy, or the return of capitalism with calamitous consequences for the mass of the population”.
This is what he wrote in The Revolution Betrayed: “A collapse of the Soviet regime would lead immediately to the collapse of the planned economy, and thus to the abolition of state property. The bond of compulsion between the trusts and the factories would then fall away. The more successful enterprises would succeed in coming out on the road of independence. They might convert themselves into stock companies, or they might find some other transitional form of property – one, for example, in which the workers would participate in the profits. The collective farms would disintegrate at the same time, and far more easily”.
He then writes: “The fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture”. Forty-four years later, in an almost chemically pure form, is this not what happened as a result of the collapse of Stalinism?
Because of this analysis it was the Trotskyists alone – particularly the adherents to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – who fully understood the consequences of the collapse of Stalinism, not only for the former Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe, but for world relations as well. When the capitalists were projecting living standards for the masses of these countries comparable to Germany or the USA, we pointed out they would be lucky to enjoy Latin American living standards. In truth, even this perspective was proved to be optimistic as the living standards of the masses have plunged to that on a par with the worst parts of the neo-colonial world. The expected life span of the average male in Russia is just about higher than Nigeria but lower than the Philippines and on the level of India.
Marxism in Our Time
A vital ingredient for the return to capitalism in the former USSR and Eastern Europe was the world ‘boom’ of the 1980s. This was a very lopsided economic process with the development of the productive forces, science, technique and the organisation of labour not assuming the forms that it did in the ‘long boom’ of 1950-75. It was accompanied by a huge polarisation of wealth and the stubborn maintenance of unemployment which signified the incapacity of capitalism to fully utilise the productive forces, particularly the labour of the working class, the most important productive force.
Nevertheless, the capitalist ideologists were mesmerised by the combination of the collapse in Eastern Europe and the economic ‘fireworks’ which followed the recession in the early 1990s. A new ‘paradigm’, a ‘new economy’, a new and lasting era of prosperity which would overcome all the problems of their system: this was the watchword of the majority of capitalist economists right up to the beginning of the new century.
It is not the first time that we have witnessed the spokespersons and strategists of capital demonstrating their empiricism and illusions about their system. Indeed, it is an inevitable feature of any boom or upswing in production. And we are not the first in history to have answered these arguments by relating the basic propositions of Marx’s analysis of the functioning of the capitalist system to the new features and new developments which exist under capitalism. Marx himself pointed out that capitalism is incapable of harnessing the full potential because of the limitations of private ownership of the means of production and the narrow limits of the nation state. It was and is a system of booms and slumps.
Trotsky, in a period that has some parallels to the situation that we will be facing in the next era, defended Marx’s basic economic analysis in the context of the 1930s. This was summed up in his brilliant little pamphlet, Marxism In Our Time. Originally conceived as an introduction to Otto Ruhle’s abridgement of the first volume of Capital, The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx, it provides a most modern understanding of the processes developing in world capitalism today and, particularly, those processes which will develop following the coming world recession or slump.
Trotsky points out that the basic contradiction of capitalism is that the working class cannot buy back the full product of their labour, because they only receive a portion of this in the form of wages. However, capitalism overcomes this contradiction by ploughing the surplus back into industry. But this, in turn, leads to an even greater production of goods which the working class at a certain stage is incapable of buying back. The capitalist economists dispute this even, as Trotsky pointed out, in short-lived booms, such as the 1924-29 boom in Germany, when Werner Sombat proclaimed that capitalism had overcome its contradictions (on the eve of the 1929 Wall Street Crash).
The modern Sombats are those like Hamish McCrae, the economics correspondent of The Independent. He oscillates between fear of the coming recession and whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits by proclaiming that capitalism’s ‘just-in-time’ methods have eliminated stocks and, therefore, the problem of a future ‘glut’ of goods which we saw as recently as the crisis in South-East Asia. Even if McCrae is right, however, instead of massive overproduction, excess ‘capacity’ will grow. Thus capitalism is only able to continue functioning on the basis of leaving 10% or 20% of its production idle. It is a system based upon production for profit and not for social need. The growth cycle of the 1990s is the weakest since 1945.
Moreover, in this boom capitalism has not overcome class contradictions but has, in fact, intensified them, as daily reports in the capitalist press underline. There are at least one billion poor people on the planet who receive each year as much as 600 men and women who rule Western monopoly capitalist firms. The division between rich and poor has increased exponentially, not just between the advanced industrial world and the neo-colonial world but also within the so-called ‘rich’ countries themselves. Half-a-percent of the population of the USA own as much as the bottom 90%. In the US, the model of the new so-called ‘economic paradigm’, 50 million workers are worse off than 20 years ago while the living standards of 80% have stood still. Colossal wealth is being creamed off by the capitalists while, in cities like Minneapolis, there is the ‘undying shame’ (The Mirror) of 10,000 free meals a week being served on the streets.
But this boom is going to come juddering to a halt in the next period. And when it does the consequence of the parasitic role of modern capitalism will be laid bare. In anticipation of this Alan Kennedy, a capitalist management consultant, has issued a wake-up call to the US capitalists in a new book, The End of Shareholder Value. He points out that US companies “have mortgaged the future in pursuit of short-term financial gain for shareholders”.
The use of stock options, huge management greed by top executives, is one of the scandals of the last decade. This has been accompanied by massive downsizing and restructuring and what is euphemistically called ‘financial engineering’. When challenged about the long-term consequences of their financial gangsterism a representative of the new breed of capitalist executives declared to Kennedy: ‘Why… should I care, I’ll be long gone before anyone finds out’.
And this financial plundering is not restricted to executives but goes to the heart of the methods of modern monopoly capitalism. For instance, General Electric is one of the biggest manufacturing firms in the US. Yet $30bn has been used by this company in ‘share buy-backs’. The parasitism of capitalism, Kennedy believes, is deep-rooted. What is his solution? “In an ideal world, we’d correct the abuses through regulation. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything less than a major crash will make people step back and look clearly at where it’s all gone wrong”.
But it will be the working class of the US and world-wide who will pay for the crimes of modern capitalism. In the recession or slump that looms, all the myths about the role of modern ‘technology’ guaranteeing a world free from recession or slump will be revealed. Marxists, of course, have recognised that technology has played a role in certain industries. But its effect has been intensive in information technology and a few industries and not at all, as in previous periods, extensive in furthering a broad-based development of the productive forces.
Moreover, one of the paradoxes of this society, again analysed by Trotsky, is the greater the technological advance the greater the intensification of work for the working class, the bigger the exploitation, the greater the stress, suffering and depression, which is a world malady at the present time.
Tony Blair wants to impose the US ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ on Europe and the world. This will make the working class into helots (work slaves) whose sole raison d’?tre is to produce profit, surplus value, for the capitalists. However, like conditions will produce like results. The Observer newspaper, in commentating on the new millennium, warned the capitalists that the conditions which exist today are similar to those in the late 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century. It is no accident that the powerful socialist and communist movements arose in this period.
So also the working class will reawaken and move into action in the next period. But they will confront not just capitalism and its parties but the leaders of organisations, the trade unions and ex-workers parties which, in the past, purported to represent them. Now we are confronted with massive pressure from below for action amongst teachers in Britain, France and Spain, which is thwarted by a self-satisfied and cosseted trade union leadership. This has resulted in teachers in Spain marching in anger against sell-outs by the leaders of the Workers’ Commissions (ex-Communist Party) trade union, shouting in anger: ‘We want our own unions’.
The capitalists pretend that the working class is powerless against globalisation. But as the anti-World Trade Organisation demonstrations, the so-called ‘riot’ in London in June 1999, and the new protests this year show, this is not the case. At this stage, these demonstrations involve new layers of youth as well as sections of the working class. Up to now the heavy battalions of the proletariat have not moved. But events, and mighty events, impend and will move them into action. A serious recession or slump will result in furious defensive battles of the working class.
Preparing for a New Era
The most important effect of a new recession or slump will be political. A new ferocious outbreak of the class struggle will mean leaps in consciousness. One consequence of the collapse of Stalinism and the massive ideological offensive which followed in its wake, was the disheartening and falling away of the more developed layers of the working class. However, one of the consequences of the coming economic convulsions which faces world capitalism will be the emergence of a new generation, particularly of this more developed layer, which will not be satisfied with a diet of agitation or propaganda alone. They will be seeking an explanation, historical generalisations, and the summing up of the experience of the working class, to forge new weapons for the coming struggle. They will find enormous help in this task in the writings and speeches of Leon Trotsky.
Of course, Trotsky wrote and worked in a different historical era to ourselves. Some of the issues he was compelled to deal with are no longer as burning for the working class. You will find in his writings this or that antiquated expression or an idea which does not appear immediately relevant to our world today. However, an amazing amount of what Trotsky wrote is extremely pertinent, a thousand times more relevant to serious workers looking for an explanation of economic, political and even historical phenomena, than anything else on offer.
His book, Where Is Britain Going?, has not been equalled for its broad historical analysis and of its description of the labour movement of the time. The characters have changed, the strength and weaknesses of the labour movement have also changed. But in one line or paragraph of this book is more truth about the realities of Britain today than the millions of words which have come from the mouths of Labour leaders, historians and so-called ‘experts’ in the labour movement. Take, for instance, the chapter dealing with the English civil war. Contained here in this kernel is virtually a complete outline of the processes of the English civil war and their connections to modern Britain.
The marvellous lines of Trotsky on Chartism also say virtually everything that needs to be said, and would provide a rich vein upon which serious socialist and Marxist scholars could write a worthy history of our revolutionary forebears which would prepare us for the struggles to come. After all, in the experience of roughly ten years of Chartism were all the elements, from peaceful petitions to the revolutionary general strike, which have been discussed in the last 50 years in the British labour movement. Moreover, these are themes that will be returned to in the convulsive events that loom.
Trotsky never had any fetish about organisational forms. He also opposed both ultra-leftism and opportunism. His ideas were never for the meeting room alone but were preparation to intervene wherever the working class is and win them to socialist and Marxist ideas. Following Trotsky’s advice, members and supporters of Militant (now the Socialist Party) patiently worked within the Labour Party in Britain. The Labour Party, as with its cousins internationally, had a dual character. Sectarians of all stripes disputed this. They took the phrase of Lenin that the Labour Party was a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ and turned their backs on the Labour Party and the support it then enjoyed at bottom from the working class. There was not an atom of dialectical analysis in their approach. Right from the outset, the Labour Party had ‘bourgeois’ leaders in the sense that even those who claimed to be ‘socialist’ ultimately were not prepared to go beyond the framework of capitalism. Nevertheless, at its base the Labour Party was perceived by workers as ‘their’ party and its creation was a step forward from a class point of view of the proletariat in Britain. Moreover, it possessed democratic features which allowed Marxists to intervene, in the case of Militant, with great success. We were able to connect the ideas of Trotsky to youth and workers.
Militant was the most successful Trotskyist organisation since the Left Opposition in the whole of Western Europe. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of workers were introduced to the basic ideas of Trotsky through the work of our organisation (now the Socialist Party). In Liverpool between 1983-87 we created a mass movement which shook the ruling class. We initiated and led the mighty anti-poll tax battle, with 34 of our comrades jailed, which ended in the defeat of the tax and the consignment of Thatcher to the rubbish heap of history. No other Trotskyist party in the advanced industrial world could claim such a record.
But the test of all ideas, as with Trotsky himself in the 1930s, is not just how to take advantage of an upswing in the class struggle but how to preserve the ideas and the forces of Marxism in a period of stagnation and retreat. The CWI, with 34 sections under its banner world-wide, has managed to achieve this difficult task in the decade that followed the collapse of Stalinism. No other organisation can rival the analysis that we have made of the causes of the collapse of the planned economies of Eastern Europe, of Stalinism, and of the new relationship of world forces.
While tenaciously defending and developing the ideas of Trotsky, we also in this period initiated the mass movement around Youth against Racism in Europe, against fascism in the early 1990s right up to today. We successfully intervened and led the movement in Austria against Haider. In 1997 we also saw the election of Joe Higgins as a member of the Irish parliament (TD), following the mass struggle against water charges which we pioneered.
While others are, in reality, abandoning Trotsky as no longer relevant to ‘the modern world’, we perceive that his ideas and methods are as vital, indeed more vital, to the struggles that are opening up.
Trotsky himself once commented that in a new socialist world, the average intelligence would be of a ‘Beethoven, a Van Gogh, a Marx or Lenin’ and, beyond this, new peaks of human greatness would arise. We would have to say today that in the pantheon of the ‘greats’ of the world labour movement, Leon Trotsky stands alongside Marx, Engels and Lenin. A new generation of workers who will be moving into struggle will build a monument to Trotsky, not of stone but a mass socialist and revolutionary movement.
The new changed period will allow Marxism to reconnect to the working class, in the first instance, to its more developed layer, which will provide the backbone for the creation of new mass forces. The working class in Britain, for the first time in 100 years, in a mass sense has been politically beheaded by New Labour’s move to a position analogous to that of the Democratic Party in the USA. This is why the Socialist Party in Britain calls for the creation of a new mass workers’ party, while at the same time seeking to build its own forces within the working-class movement. We hail Trotsky as a great theoretician and leader of the working class but we do not merely acclaim past leaders. It is necessary for us, particularly the new generation of workers, to study the writings of Leon Trotsky alongside of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg but, above all, to seek to acquire his method which will allow us to create a mass Marxist force that will eradicate from the planet the scourge of capitalism and all that goes with it.
Socialism Today # 49, July 2000