Alex Callinicos




1 Origins

1.3 Revolutionary prospects

The conclusion, however qualified, that a new revolution was required in the USSR, placed a heavy burden on the shoulders of Trotsky and his followers. Although increasingly subject to repression by the secret police within the USSR, the Left Opposition was able to attract a scattering of support in the various Communist parties. Often accident played a role: James P. Cannon, then a leader of the Communist Party of the USA, read a document by Trotsky which was distributed by mistake to delegates of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 and was convinced by the arguments it contained. As was usual in such cases, Cannon was soon expelled from the CPUSA. Nevertheless, the International Communist League (ICL), formed by the Trotskyists in 1930, regarded itself until 1933 as a faction of the Comintern, committed in line with Trotsky’s reform perspective to winning the Communist movement away from its Stalinist leadership. Hitler’s victory in Germany, however, represented for Trotsky an event comparable to the Second International’s capitulation to imperialist war in August 1914, proclaiming the Comintern’s irredeemable bankruptcy. It was necessary now to build a new (Fourth) International which, while basing itself on the Bolshevik tradition and on the first four congresses of the Comintern (1919-22), would seek to build revolutionary parties in place of the bankrupt Stalinist organizations.

The task thus set was immense. The ICL enjoyed negligible support. Its two most important sections were probably the Russian and the Chinese (to which many CCP leaders had rallied after the débâcle of 1925-7). The Russian Left Opposition was destroyed in the late 1920s by mass arrests and deportations to the Gulag, where its supporters displayed such courage and determination – notably in the hunger strike they organized at Vorkuta in 1936-7 – as to earn even Solzhenitsyn’s (1976: 303-7, 372-6) grudging admiration, though not to save them from execution. The fate of the Chinese Trotskyists was little less tragic – they were broken by the repression mounted against them by the Guomindang, the CCP under Mao Zedong, and the Japanese occupying forces alike (see Wang 1980). The ICL’s effective membership was therefore concentrated in Europe and the Americas. Its sections in these countries were tiny – one of the most important, the American Communist League, claimed 154 members in 1931. Worse, the persecution of the Trotskyist movement by the Communist parties – reaching a crescendo during the Moscow trials of 1936-8, which sought to establish that Trotsky, along with other Bolshevik leaders such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, was in league with Hitler – helped confine these groups to the margins of the working-class movement. While there were exceptions – the American Trotskyists were transformed by their role in leading a mass strike of teamsters in Minneapolis in 1934 (Dobbs 1972), and the first British group was in large part a continuation of an older tradition of proletarian Marxist autodidacts (Groves 1974; MacIntyre 1980) – the ICL sections typically occupied a social milieu frequently described by Trotsky as “petty bourgeois”, a ghetto of middle-class intellectuals for whom sectarian disputation all too often became an end in itself.

The ICL’s chief asset in these circumstances was Trotsky himself. His stature as, with Lenin, the chief leader of the October Revolution earned him international attention Out of proportion to his actual political influence. Trotsky’s years in exile were enormously productive intellectually. Not only did he write some of his greatest works – My Life, The History of the Russian Revolution, The Revolution Betrayed – but in a series of occasional pieces he examined the major crises of the day – the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front in France – creating a body of political analysis which can only be compared, in its scope and penetration, to such writings of Marx’s as The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France. Yet the intellectual power of this body of writing is matched only by its complete lack of political impact. The most striking case is that of the series of articles and pamphlets in which Trotsky (1971a), with prescience and increasing urgency, analysed the social roots and political dynamic of German fascism and warned of the disaster that would follow the failure of the Communists and Social Democrats to unite against Hitler. Among Trotsky’s greatest writings, they had no influence on events in Germany, where the ICL section amounted at the time of the Nazi victory to perhaps a hundred members.

Trotsky therefore sought, through a succession of different tactics, both to increase the ICL’s size and to root its affiliates in the working-class movement. Perhaps the most important of these stratagems was the “French turn” – so called because Trotsky first proposed it for the French group in June 1934 – which involved the ICL sections joining the social-democratic parties, which were then experiencing a revival and indeed radicalization largely in response to the destruction of the German and Austrian labour movements in 1933-4. This first use of the tactic of “entrism” by Trotskyists did not involve any expectation that they could take over and transform the social-democratic parties. Indeed Trotsky (1977: 125) argued that “[e]ntry into a reformist [or] centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective. It is only a stage which under certain conditions can be limited to an episode.” But the French turn did not bring about any qualitative change in the situation of the ICL. In a remarkable interview with C.L.R. James in April 1939, Trotsky (1974: 251-2) acknowledged:

We are not progressing politically. Yes, it is a fact, which is an expression of a general decay of the workers’ movements in the last fifteen years. It is the most general cause. When the revolutionary movement in general is declining, when one defeat follows another, when fascism is spreading over the world, when the official “Marxism” is the most powerful organization of deception of the workers and so on, it is an inevitable situation that the revolutionary elements must work against the general historic current, even if our ideas, our explanations are as exact and wise as one can demand.

Despite these adverse circumstances, Trotsky decided to press ahead and launch the Fourth International (FL) to replace the Comintern. At its founding conference on 3 September 1938, attended by delegates from eleven sections, the Fourth International (World Party of the Socialist Revolution) – to give the new International its full name – claimed, probably optimistically, 5,395 members, of whom no less than 2,500 belonged to by far the strongest group, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in the United States (Reisner 1973: 288-9).

Trotsky (1974: 87) nevertheless predicted: “During the next ten years the programme of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm earth and heaven.” What grounds did he have for such optimism?

In the first place, Trotsky had a rather catastrophic assessment of the economic prospects of world capitalism. “Mankind’s productive forces stagnate”, he declared in the FI’s programme, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth international (Reisner 1973: 180). The likelihood of any sustained recovery from the Great Depression which had struck the global economy after the 1929 Wall Street crash was negligible. Indeed, “[t]he disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits ... The further existence of this system is impossible” (Trotsky 1973c: 8). The only obstacle to its overthrow lay in the domination of the workers’ movement by forces – Stalinism and social democracy – which did everything in their power to prevent socialist revolution. Consequently, “[t]he historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership” (Reisner 1973: 181). Only the absence of authentic revolutionary parties prevented the conquest of power by the working class. The scale of the economic crisis, however, would provide the means for resolving this crisis of leadership:

The orientation of the masses is determined first by the objective conditions of decaying capitalism, and second, by the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organizations. Of these factors, the first is of course the decisive one: the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus ... As time goes on, their [the Stalinists’ and social democrats’ ] efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of proletarian leadership ... can he resolved only by the Fourth International. (Reisner 1973: 182)

It is in passages such as this that Trotsky seems most vulnerable to the charge of historical fatalism. The claim is sometimes made that the assumption that the development of the productive forces renders socialist revolution inevitable is constitutive of his thought (Hodgson 1975; Molyneux 1981; Beilharz 1987). This seems much too strong. The experience of the 1917 Revolution, and in particular of the role played by the Bolsheviks led Trotsky (1972a: 1, 211) to argue that “[f]aith in automatic evolution is the most important and characteristic trait of opportunism” and to stress (Trotsky 1972a: I, 228) the importance of “the subjective factors of history – the revolutionary will and the revolutionary consciousness of the working class”. He even argued that without Lenin the Bolsheviks might have failed to seize the opportunity offered by the fall of the tsar (Trotsky 1967:1, 310). But it does seem that, in the atmosphere of isolation, persecution and defeat to which Trotsky and his followers were condemned in the late 1930s, he gave way, at times at least, to the belief that “the laws of history” would allow the FI to gain a mass following.

Trotsky was also influenced by a historical analogy. In the last few years of his life he frequently compared his present situation with that of the extreme left of the Second International during the First World War. Initially isolated and subjected to repression, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and other revolutionary opponents of the war found they were able to gain increasing sympathy for their stance as discontent grew at the front and in the factories – a process which culminated in the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918. As it became clear that another world war was inevitable, Trotsky predicted that it, too, would end amid social convulsions. After the outbreak of the Second World War he claimed: “The war will last until it exhausts all the resources of civilization or until it breaks its head on the revolution” (Trotsky 1973d: 151). The upheavals Trotsky foresaw – and which he expected would be, if anything, greater than those of 1917-18 – would allow the FI, like the Bolsheviks before them, to escape from their isolation and gain the confidence of growing numbers of workers. (He was not alone in this prognosis: in the last days of peace the French ambassador to Berlin told Hitler that “as a result of the war, there would be only one real victor – Mr Trotsky” (Trotsky 1973d: 122).)

A third consideration underlying Trotsky’s hopes for the Fl concerned the USSR. In China, Germany, France, and Spain the influence of the Communist parties on the most militant sections of the working class had led to squandered revolutionary opportunities. The Second World War would, however, in all probability doom the Stalin regime to collapse. Trotsky (1973d: 201-2) wrote in May 1940:

the epoch of great convulsions upon which mankind has entered will strike the Kremlin oligarchy with blow after blow, will break up its totalitarian apparatus, will raise the self-confidence of the working masses and thereby facilitate the formation of the Soviet section of the Fourth International.

His belief that the Stalinist bureaucracy was “but a special, exceptional and temporary refraction” of “the general laws of modern society ... under the conditions of a backward revolutionary country in a capitalist environment” was one of Trotsky’s chief reasons for resisting the arguments of Shachtman and his supporters that the USSR was a new, bureaucratic-collectivist, class society (see Section 4.1 below). “Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position”, he protested in September 1939, “if we fixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?” (Trotsky 1973c: 7, 14).

Trotsky died at the hands of a Russian agent on 21 August 1940. Within five years events were to demonstrate the flaws in the analysis on which he had based his very optimistic expectations about the growth of the Fl. These errors should not, however, be allowed to obscure the scale of Trotsky’s achievement during the years of exile. In circumstances of great adversity he sought to preserve the classical Marxist tradition, not merely by reaffirming its principal propositions, but by extending it, first, in the general theory of revolutionary strategy and tactics implicit in his writings on Britain, Germany, China, Spain, and France (see Hallas 1979), and, secondly, in the Marxist explanation of Stalinism which he initiated, above all in The Revolution Betrayed (Trotsky 1970). Trotsky ensured the continuity of the revolutionary socialist tradition also through his efforts to build the FT. He confided to his diary in March 1935:

I cannot speak of the “indispensability” of my own work, even for 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 [of social democracy and Stalinism] 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 Internationals ... I need at least five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession. (Trotsky 1963: 46-7)

Trotsky had those five years, during which he trained the “new generation” in the tradition which had triumphed, albeit briefly, in October 1917. But his heirs were all too soon put to the test of confronting a world very different from the one Trotsky’s predictions at the end of his life had led them to anticipate.


Last updated on 13.3.2001