Alex Callinicos




2 Crisis

2.1 Refuted conjectures

The Trotskyist movement greeted the Second World War as a continuation of the First, an inter-imperialist conflict springing from competition for control over the world’s resources between the Great Powers (Trotsky 1973d: 183-222; Mandel 1986). In line, therefore, with the general approach developed by Lenin during the Great War, the FI refused to side with the Western Allies against the Axis powers: “The victory of the imperialists of Great Britain and France would be no less frightful for the ultimate fate of mankind than that of Hitler and Mussolini” (Trotsky 1973d: 221). Trotsky sought, however, to take account of the general support given the war by the Western labour movement as a struggle against fascism through what came to be known as the Proletarian Military Policy, according to which the FI in the liberal democracies should make the focus of its agitation less outright opposition to the war than demands, based on the claim that the ruling class lacked the will or ability to fight fascism, for trade-union control of the military training of workers and the democratization of the armed forces (Bambery 1989). Ably defended by Cannon (1970) in the 1941 trial of SWP leaders for sedition, the policy was applied with relative success in Britain, where the Workers’ International League (WIL) was able to take advantage of the Communist Party’s opposition to strikes after the German invasion of the USSR and give expression to some of the industrial discontent which developed in the latter part of the war (Bornstein and Richardson 1986b: chs.1, 3, 5). On the continent of Europe, the Trotskyists had to grapple with much starker questions – that of survival under the German occupation and of the relationship between their own activities and those of the Resistance movements, often led by Communists and informed by patriotic sentiments at odds with the FI’s revolutionary internationalism. With extraordinary courage and in extremely adverse circumstances, Trotskyists conducted their own distinctive agitation – in France, for example, producing a paper aimed at disaffected members of the occupying forces, and often paying, as in this case, the price of arrest, torture and execution (Prager 1988).

The German occupation further strengthened the position within the FI of the American SWP, already before the war the largest section, furthermore enjoying a close relationship with Trotsky in his final Mexican exile. Cannon had been profoundly influenced by the factional conflict which broke out in August 1939 and culminated in the departure in April 1940 of Shachtman with some 40 per cent of the membership to form the breakaway Workers’ Party (WP). Shachtman argued, with the support of other SWP leaders such as Martin Abern and James Burnham, that events such as the Hitler – Stalin pact confirmed that the Soviet Union was no longer a workers’ state and that therefore the FI could no longer unconditionally defend the USSR in war. Although Trotsky reaffirmed his analysis of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state, of which defence of the Soviet Union was a corollary, much of the debate focused on the Shachtmanites’ claim that the Cannon leadership represented “the tendency of bureaucratic conservatism” (Shachtman 1940: 51). Trotsky and Cannon responded by denouncing them as a “petty bourgeois opposition” which had capitulated to pressures from the liberal intelligentsia (Trotsky 1973c: 43ff.). Burnham and Shachtman (1939: 20) had themselves analysed the process through which many American intellectuals, attracted to left-wing politics and even Trotskyism under the impact of the Depression and the victories of European fascism, in the late 1930s drifted towards “Stalinophobia, or vulgar anti-Stalinism”, and the acceptance of Western capitalist democracy. The subsequent history of most of the Shachtmanites suggests that they were indeed an instance of this phenomenon (see Section 4.1 below). One consequence of the 1940 split was, however, to encourage Cannon to place an exaggerated emphasis on the virtues of orthodoxy and to treat criticism as a reflection of “the pressure of class forces upon the proletarian vanguard” (Cannon 1972: 1).

These attitudes informed the SWP’s approach to reconstituting the FI as an effective organization in the latter years of the war. The Cannon leadership had come into conflict with Jean Van Heijenoort, the secretary of the FI, who, together with a minority faction inside the SWP led by Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow, argued against the majority’s insistence that there could be no restoration of bourgeois democracy at the end of the war (see, for example, Morrow 1944; Frank 1944). The SWP leadership used the first post-war gathering of the FI, the International Conference of April 1946, to establish a new International Secretariat (IS). Although its principal figures, notably the Greek Michael Raptis and the Belgian Ernest Mandel – better known by the pseudonyms of Pablo and Germain, respectively – had first emerged in the Trotskyist Resistance and served on the Provisional European Secretariat secretly established in the summer of 1943, they owed their new prominence primarily to American patronage. As Cannon (1973a: 73) later put it,

Our relations with the leadership in Europe at that time were relations of the closest collaboration and support. There was general agreement between us. These were unknown men in our party. Nobody had ever heard of them. We helped to publicize the individual leaders ... They had yet to gain authority, not only here but throughout the world. And the fact that the SWP supported them up and down the line greatly reinforced their position.

The situation confronting the “unknown men” and their backers was one that apparently confounded Trotsky’s predictions of a post-war revolutionary wave. Europe was indeed swept during the latter part of the war by a popular radicalization which found its main expression in the Resistance movements in occupied Europe and in the election of the first majority Labour government in Britain. The United States experienced a succession of major strikes which reached their climax in 1945-6. Political agitation was widespread in the American and British armed forces, reflecting discontent which led in some cases to mutiny. But this unrest, while in its scale in accord with Trotsky’s prediction of an “epoch of social convulsion”, did not augur revolution. The greatest threat to the Western powers, the Communist-led Resistance movements in France and Italy, was defused thanks to Stalin: in line with his commitments to Roosevelt and Churchill, Communist party leaders such as Thorez and Togliatti instructed their members to disarm and obey the governments installed by the Allies (Claudin, 1975: ch.5). Further east, the Stalin regime itself, which Trotsky (1973d: 18) had predicted would not outlive the war, emerged, on the contrary, greatly strengthened. Having borne the brunt of the military struggle against Hitler, the USSR rapidly established itself as the dominant power in Eastern Europe through the presence of its armies and the progressive establishment of one-party Communist regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet occupied states. The political vitality of Stalinism was further confirmed when in 1949 the CCP, Stalinist in ideology and method despite its differences with Moscow, seized power in China. Far from collapsing, “the Bonapartist oligarchy” had reproduced itself from the Elbe to the Pacific.

This outcome challenged some of the fundamental assumptions informing the analysis which provided the basis of Trotsky’s decision to launch the FT. In the first place, his belief that capitalism was experiencing its final crisis, from which there could be only the most temporary relief, underlay Trotsky’s prediction that one of the main casualties of the war would be even the limited bourgeois form of democracy which in countries such as Britain allowed a trade-union movement dominated by reformist politics to flourish:

All the countries will come out of the war so ruined that the standard of living for the workers will be thrown back a hundred years. Reformist unions are possible only under the regime of bourgeois democracy. But the first to be vanquished in the war will be the thoroughly rotten democracy. In its definitive downfall it will drag with it all the workers’ organizations which served as its support. (Trotsky 1973d: 213)

It was in line with such a catastrophic perspective that Ted Grant could declare in 1943 on behalf of the WIL that Britain was in a pre-revolutionary situation” and that the WIL’s successor, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), could compare the Attlee government with Kerensky’s (Grant 1989: 31, 131). By 1946, the RCP leadership was forced to acknowledge that “economic activity in Western Europe in the next period is not one of ‘stagnation and slump’ but of revival and boom” (Grant 1989: 381). They did not dream, however, that the world economy was on the verge of the longest, most sustained boom in its history, which would see world gross national product grow three-and-a-half times between 1948 and 1973.

The survival and expansion of Stalinism posed an even more acute problem for Trotsky’s heirs. The Eastern European states experienced after 1945 a process of what Mandel called “structural assimilation” to the USSR. Particularly after the onset of the Cold War in 1946-7, the Communist monopoly of political power was established and widespread nationalizations carried out. The outcome was socio-economic structures in essentials identical to that of the USSR. Were what the FI liked to call the “buffer states” themselves workers’ states, as Trotsky had claimed Stalinist Russia to be? To answer this question in the negative involved a refusal consistently to apply the criterion of a workers’ state which Trotsky himself had given, namely state ownership of the means of production and monopoly of foreign trade (see Section 1.2 above). But to treat the Eastern European regimes as workers’ states – though, like the USSR, bureaucratized ones – would have profound consequences for the theoretical structure of Trotskyism and for its very existence as a political movement.

For one thing, the transformations carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945 were “revolutions from above”, in which the decisive role had been played by the Communist parties with the support of the Russian occupying forces. The Red Army had, during its advance westwards in 1944-5, taken care to suppress the various moves made to carry out a social revolution from below, disbanding workers’ councils and popular militias. The mass demonstrations accompanying the Prague coup of February 1948 were orchestrated by a Communist Party whose power derived primarily from its control over the army and police and from Russian backing (see Harman 1983: ch.1). This was a process radically at odds with the conception of socialist revolution formulated by Marx under the inspiration of the Paris Commune of 1871, and reaffirmed by Lenin in The State and Revolution, in which the working class would dismantle the existing bureaucratic apparatus of state power, including the standing army and police, and replace it with organs (such as the soviets in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917) based upon direct popular participation and control. Nor were those Stalinist victories which occurred without Russian military intervention, above all in China and Yugoslavia, any more compatible with this classical Marxist conception of revolution. In these countries the decisive role had been played by Communist-led peasant armies employing a strategy of guerrilla warfare which was to have many imitators in the Third World in the subsequent half-century. But Trotsky, like Marx before him, had always rejected the possibility of the peasantry acting as the agent of socialist revolution. He even envisaged, in the event of a revival of the Chinese workers’ movement in the cities under Trotskyist leadership, “a civil war between the peasant army led by the Stalinists and the proletarian vanguard led by the Leninists” (Trotsky 1976a: 530).

If therefore the Eastern European and Chinese regimes were workers’ states, then Marx and Engels (1965: 327) were mistaken when they declared: “The emancipation of the working class is conquered by the working classes themselves.” Accordingly, Mandel in 1946 described the idea that socialist revolutions had taken place in Eastern Europe as “a complete petty bourgeois revision of the Marxist-Leninist concept both of the state and of the proletarian revolution” (quoted in Cliff 1982: 83). The vehemence of this reaction reflected a further consideration. Trotsky had argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy, although still resting on the social foundations laid by the October Revolution, was a conservative force whose global role had become that of preventing rather than stimulating revolution: “The bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role on the world arena” (Reisner 1973: 214). But if Stalinist parties had overturned capitalism in China and Eastern Europe, then the bureaucracy had proved to be a profoundly revolutionary force. Furthermore, if Stalinism could in fact make socialist revolutions, then what was the role of the FI, the putative “World Party of the Socialist Revolution”? Responding to comparisons between the supposed establishment of workers’ states in the “buffer zone” and the bourgeois “revolution from above” carried out by Bismarck in Germany, the Palestinian Trotskyist and RCP leader Tony Cliff (1982: 66) commented:

The “Bismarckian” path was not the exception for the bourgeoisie, but the rule. The exception was the French revolution. If the proletarian revolution can be carried Out not necessarily through the activity of the working class itself but by a state bureaucracy, then the Russian revolution would inevitably be the exception while the “Bismarckian” path would be the rule. The rise of the bourgeoisie was based on the deception of the masses, whether the French sansculottes or the soldiers of Bismarck. If a proletarian revolution can be carried out without an independent revolutionary leadership there is no reason at all for this leadership to appear. The law of lesser resistance will lead history to choose the path of revolution carried out by small minorities deceiving the big majorities.

The post-war transformation of Eastern Europe by the USSR in its own likeness presented Trotsky’s heirs with the following dilemma: to abandon his identification of the overthrow of capitalism with state ownership of the means of production or to revise the classical Marxist conception of socialist revolution as “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”, (Marx and Engels 1976b “Orthodox Trotskyism”, as Cannon was the first to call it, consisted in taking the second horn of this dilemma.


Last updated on 13.3.2001