Trotsky wood

How did Leon Trotsky characterise the Russian Revolution? Was it bourgeois democratic, socialist, both or neither? Lars T Lih argues that Trotsky was inconsistent and incoherent (‘Trotsky 1917 vs Trotsky 1924’, November 2). In 1924 he stated the revolution was socialist. In 1917 he thought it was bourgeois democratic.

Lih alleges that “the most cogent refutation” of Trotsky’s understanding of the revolution as socialist can be found in an article Trotsky wrote in 1917 titled ‘The character of the Russian Revolution’. The Weekly Worker kindly reprinted the article, so that readers can examine whether Lih’s allegations are true or false. Amongst other things, Lih states about the article that Trotsky “derided the whole issue of the character of the revolution as an academic, ‘sociological’ one with no political importance”. Moreover, Lih also writes that Trotsky labelled the events of 1917 a “bourgeois-democratic revolution”.

I was therefore surprised when I could not find evidence in the article to support Lih’s statements. On the contrary, I found information pointing in the opposite direction. I discovered that Trotsky not only denied the revolution was bourgeois, but also took the issue of the characterisation of the revolution most seriously. The character of the revolution was of immediate political importance. The article seemed to affirm the positions Lih attributed to Trotsky in 1924. If so, Trotsky was completely consistent and coherent.

Trotsky was clear that the character of the revolution was proletarian and described the proletariat as socialist. He stated that the revolution “is not a ‘national’, not a bourgeois, revolution”. To characterise the revolution as bourgeois was “empty” and those who did so were “dwelling in the realm of the hallucinations of the 18th and 19th centuries”. Trotsky quoted Engels on revolution to prove his point. Engels stated that revolutions go far beyond their original aims. This demonstrated that a proletarian revolution in the 20th century can not only liberate “the oppressed peasant and urban masses” from “serf-like relations” (including the “caste-based rapacity” of the church) - but also end capitalism and wage-slavery throughout Europe. Trotsky argued that a 20th century proletarian revolution is necessarily transitional to socialism. It not only resolved the problems of failed bourgeois revolutions, such as the continued existence of serfdom, but also those of a decaying capitalism based on “private ownership of the means of production”.

Trotsky’s citation of Engels demonstrated both an awareness of the contradictory nature of transitional forms and the political importance of a correct characterisation of the Russian Revolution. Engels stated that the fact revolutions go far beyond their original aims “is one of the laws of the evolution of bourgeois society”. Trotsky used Engels’ law to prove that what Plekhanov and the Mensheviks “give out as Marxism” was a sterile sociological position. He opposed “real theory” - concerned with the evolution of categories and their instantiation in understanding changing social relations - to Plekhanov’s sociology. The latter characterised the revolution as bourgeois in order to “preserve the privileges of the bourgeoisie”. The Mensheviks used a pseudo-Marxist sociology in order to uphold the “axiom” that it is impossible to have a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie.

Trotsky’s argument against this axiom was far from academic. It was highly theoretical and deeply concerned with his characterisation of the revolution as proletarian and socialist. Trotsky discussed the period of Jacobin rule during the French revolution to illustrate how it is possible to have a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie. The Jacobins, like the Mensheviks and SRs, were petty bourgeois in outlook and composition, but relied on the “urban artisan-proletarian lower classes” for support. Trotsky quoted Marx to show that the effect of the terror was to “dispose of the enemies of the bourgeoisie”. In the temporary absence of bourgeois rule, it was an alliance of the proletariat with the petty bourgeoisie. This advanced the interests of the economically dominant capitalist class.

Trotsky then discussed the difference between the Jacobins and the petty bourgeois parties in the Russian Revolution - the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. These parties “fell into a slavish dependence on the groups representing counterrevolutionary capital”. Trotsky explained this as the result of the “higher level to which capitalism had evolved in Russia” in 1917, compared to France in 1789 and 1848. In particular he mentioned the proletariat’s “revolutionary role” - based not on its numerical strength, but on it’s “crucial productive role”.

Trotsky’s account was therefore a skilled application of Marx’s theory of history to contemporary events. This not only gave explanations of the different positions of the political groups according to the classes they represented, but also paid attention to changing economic relations within an evolving capitalism. He showed an awareness of both the political economy of capitalism and the emergence of contradictory social formations, which were neither bourgeois nor proletarian. This resulted in a dynamic account of contemporary historical events that - contra Lih - took the question of the correct characterisation of the revolution seriously and explained the political implications of differing theoretical approaches to this question.

If I am correct, then why is Lih’s reading of Trotsky’s article so mistaken? Is it because he has been influenced by rightwing historians who want to prove that Trotsky was as guilty of the falsification of history as Stalin? Does he believe that no credence should be given to sources written in hindsight, such as memoirs and subsequent political polemic? I don’t know. However, I wonder what his opinions are on theoretical history in general and Marxist theories in particular. Does he adhere to a theory? If so, what is it?

Compared to Trotsky, Lih’s historiography - impressively dependent on detailed examinations of textual evidence - does not seem to place ideas and events within the context of an evolving social whole. This could lead to a subjective and limited approach to the material he studies. Put differently, he cannot see the wood for the trees.

Paul B Smith

Lars and Jack

It is very frustrating to try to make sense of Lars T Lih and Jack Conrad (‘Putting the record straight’, November 9) on the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. Back in 1877, Fredrick Engels described the thought process that produces the lines of argument put forward by Lars and Jack:

“To the metaphysician, things and their mental images - ideas - are isolated, to be considered one after the other and apart from each other: fixed, rigid objects of investigation, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely unmediated antitheses. His communication is ‘yea, yea; nay, nay’; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis one to the other.”

A ‘stage’ in the development of the consciousness of the masses is not to be confused with a programmatic separation of the bourgeois and socialist revolutions. We must see the Russian Revolution as one revolution, which proceeded in stages from February to October - not two distinct revolutions separated by a whole historic era to allow the productive forces and the mass of the proletariat to develop until they were able to make a socialist revolution. The African National Congress and South African Communist Party provide the modern example of Stalinist stagism.

Unlike Lars, we must see the internationalism of Lenin’s April theses or of Trotsky’s Permanent revolution as unlike like that of Stalinism, Sinn Féin or even Nazism - ‘people like us in other countries who might help us or we might help’. The global working class is one class with different national sections, which can only achieve socialism, and then the communist future, via world revolution, as proposed by Lenin in April 1917, and as rejected by every Stalinist current that has falsely claimed the heritage of the revolution since.

The original Bolshevik formulation represented a bourgeois revolution, albeit led by the Bolsheviks at the head of the working class. Lenin rejected that in April 1917 in his famous April theses in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is not a piece of lying Trotskyist propaganda launched in his Lessons of October in 1924. Jack asserts his point thus: “Indeed, Trotsky even claims that Lenin ‘came out furiously against the old Bolshevik slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. Instead of a ‘bourgeois republic’, Lenin held out the prospect of a ‘full socialist state’. Though he never admitted it in any publication, speech, letter or telegram, Lenin had stolen, adopted - or maybe through his own gallant efforts independently arrived at - the theory of permanent revolution, as put forward by Trotsky in his Results and prospects (1906).”

Unfortunately, Lenin himself came out even more vigorously against the old formulation in his ‘Letter on tactics’, written between April 8 and 13 (Julian) 1917 and published as a pamphlet the same month. He openly attacked Kamenev, the leading opponent of the April theses, in a manner that really cannot be described as a “difference of emphasis, even temperament, but not of substance”, thus:

“Now let us see how comrade Y Kamenev, in Pravda No27, formulates his ‘disagreements’ with my theses and with the views expressed above. This will help us to grasp them more clearly: ‘As for comrade Lenin’s general scheme,’ writes comrade Kamenev, ‘it appears to us unacceptable, inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.’ There are two big mistakes here [note “big mistakes, not “difference of emphasis” - GD].

“First. The question of ‘completion’ of the bourgeois-democratic revolution is stated wrongly. The question is put in an abstract, simple, so to speak one-colour, way, which does not correspond to the objective reality. To put the question this way, to ask now ‘whether the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed’ and say no more, is to prevent oneself from seeing the exceedingly complex reality, which is at least two-coloured. This is in theory. In practice, it means surrendering helplessly to petty-bourgeois revolutionism.

“Indeed, reality shows us both the passing of power into the hands of the bourgeoisie (a ‘completed’ bourgeois-democratic revolution of the usual type) and, side by side with the real government, the existence of a parallel government which represents the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’. This ‘second government’ has itself ceded the power to the bourgeoisie, has chained itself to the bourgeois government.

“Is this reality covered by comrade Kamenev’s old-Bolshevik formula, which says that ‘the bourgeois-democratic revolution is not completed’? It is not. The formula is obsolete. It is no good at all. It is dead. And it is no use trying to revive it.”

Oh dear, comrade Jack, not a bit of the “difference of emphasis” here either.

And, from the same work, Lenin making that explicit ‘Trotskyist’ 1924 formulation of the issue: “Comrade Kamenev concludes his article with the remark that ‘in a broad discussion he hopes to carry his point of view, which is the only possible one for revolutionary social democracy if it wishes to and should remain to the very end the party of the revolutionary masses of the proletariat and not turn into a group of communist propagandists’. It seems to me that these words betray a completely erroneous estimate of the situation [again, not a “difference of emphasis” - GD]. Comrade Kamenev contraposes to a ‘party of the masses’ a ‘group of propagandists’. But the ‘masses’ have now succumbed to the craze of ‘revolutionary’ defencism. Is it not more becoming for internationalists at this moment to show that they can resist ‘mass’ intoxication rather than to ‘wish to remain’ with the masses - ie, to succumb to the general epidemic?”

Lenin condemned Kamenev and two other Bolshevik deputies who repudiated his theses that the party should work for a national defeat in war when arrested in October 1914. Kamenev and Stalin held that same national chauvinist line, but those with more of the “politically limited abilities of Alexander Shliapnikov and Vyacheslav Molotov”, as Jack dubbed them, maintained the Leninist line, and were ousted from the editorship of Pravda to impose the rightist line. However, despite his opposition to defencism, Shliapnikov, like all Bolsheviks in Russia, did not pursue Lenin’s ‘Down with the provisional government’ line. Trotsky, in his famous History notes that Sukhanov says Stalin was “a grey spot which would sometimes give out a dim and inconsequential light”. And then there was the scabbing of Kamenev and Zinoviev on the October revolution - “treason”, as Lenin put it.

Scarcely merely a “difference of emphasis”.

Gerry Downing
Socialist Fight

Sorry end

To add to Danny Daly’s lament (Letters, November 16), the annual Anarchist Bookfair in London was for 34 years the highlight of the anarchist and radical Marxist calendar. It brought together the most splendid, vivid fascinating and eccentric, profound and trivial, exciting and profane, hilarious and spiritual assortments of people.

They came in thousands. They bathed in the rainbow variety of factions, tendencies, visions and issues. Workshops, presentations, entertainment and discussion filled the entire day, as the crowds crammed past stalls laden with literature and art, T-shirts and stickers, posters and badges, cards and calendars. A myriad of interesting and unique stuff you would never find anywhere else under one roof. The vegan food commune outside the venues hawked the most interesting of pastries and butties, tatties and cakes - rich, wonderful chocolate cakes and angel cakes, which tested the willpower of the most dedicated of health freaks.

In my own judgement, the Anarchist Bookfair vied with the Durham Miners Gala (almost) in terms of ‘not to be missed’ events. Ancient anarchists rubbed shoulders with the Mohican punks of yesteryear, born-again hippies, young activists and what a Glasgow paper, talking of the anti-Polaris demonstrators of the 60s, called “beardies, weirdies and lang-lagged beasties”.

Sadly, the great spirit of comradely diversity, the ‘let a million flowers blossom, let ten thousand schools of thought reign’, which Mao had once said and may actually have once believed, had started to change and smoulder into authoritarian intolerance. In a gradual change of attitude, which I think has spread from the ultra-PC ‘no platforming’, ‘shut them up’, ‘safe space’ evangelists of the US campuses, only very particular schools of thought would be allowed to be heard.

Invited to speak one year, I suggested I bring the famous ‘red’ miners’ banner of the Follonsby Lodge. The banner, originally designed in 1928, famously sets forth the options and variety of radical working class ideologies and ‘roads’, depicting social democracy, Bolshevism and anarcho-syndicalism, the ballot box and the gun, in the form of Kier Hardie, James Connolly, VI Lenin, AJ Cook and George Harvey. The banner encapsulates the trajectory of ideological struggle and events which led through the birth of the International Workers of the World, the Independent Labour Party, the development of the soviets, the General Strike, the Irish Easter Rising and the Russian Revolution. In this trajectory, the debate around the nature of the state and working class democracy, ideas of the anarchists and syndicalists, the industrial unionists, how society could function once capitalism was defeated, were all reflected in the birth of this banner.

I had concluded that the Anarchist Bookfair was an ideal platform to retell this story and the way in which working class history had developed. “Nope”, I was told, the bookfair couldn’t guarantee the banner’s safety. One look at the central portrait of Lenin flanked by the hammer and sickle would be enough to stifle any debate and could lead to the destruction of the priceless banner. It was an early demonstration of the chain of thought which would seek to rewrite history by tearing down all statues and memorials and references to un-PC historic figures. It would be the fingers in the ears, while shouting ‘la la la’, to stop the sound of words too wounding to be heard. It is the recreation of history to be more like what we wished it had been.

Then, four or five years ago, we had a gang attack on comrade Brian Bamford of the Northern Anarchist Network (NAN). Brian has a knack of rubbing folk up the wrong way, it must be said. He had been irreverent to an old stalwart of traditional anarchism, who had passed away. Brian’s obituary was thought to be insensitive, which it undoubtedly was. But it led to his stall being turned over, his books trashed and him beaten up and sprayed with ketchup. This was in the middle of an event put on by anarchists, who are supposed to believe we can govern ourselves without enforcement and laws imposed upon us. It got worse, as first Brian, then members of his group, were banned from regional anarchist bookfairs - not simply from having a stall, but attending - on pain of violence. Book and newspaper shops which stocked the NAN magazine were visited and warned not to stock the journal; the printers likewise were given the gypsy’s warning. He hasn’t mounted a bookstall since.

Last year, a section of the anarchist wing, fighting alongside the PKK against IS, were invited to speak at a workshop. The hall was invaded by students from the Gulf states, who, although purporting to be progressives, were basically supporters of the jihadists and theocrats. They stamped and chanted and no-platformed the speakers. Bending over backward to preserve our traditions of free speech, they were invited to present an alternative view before the anarchists spoke, which they did, and then broke up the meeting and stopped them being heard.

This year was the final straw. As outlined in Danny’s letter, one of the anarcho-feminists had been circulating a leaflet questioning why they didn’t allow trans men to attend women-only sessions and workshops, when she was surrounded and shouted down and threatened by a gang of ‘trans men’, who not only stopped those sessions, but put a whole list of demands to the bookfair. This was as to content of stalls, workshops, items displayed and on sale. The organisers, under a constant barrage, have just said, ‘Bollocks. You organise your own - we’re done.’

I cannot in conscience blame them. The only way to stop this march of intolerance would have been to not tolerate it and to physically impose free thought and free speech on people who plainly don’t believe in it - which would be a contradiction too hard for many anarchists to cope with. It’s a sad reflection on where mostly middle class ‘safe space’ victim-mongering, no-platforming , witch-hunting tyranny has taken us. It is a very sad day, in my view. We have to ensure that this intolerance and denial of free speech and basic liberty is not fed into working class organisations and events. I’m afraid we already see this happening at the merest challenge to agreed wisdom on climate change or - Lord, have mercy on me - working class socialists who voted for Brexit.

Tyneside anarchists, in conjunction with the Follonsby Wardley Miners Lodge Association, will be hosting a Guy Fawkes Workers’ Bookfair on Tyneside next year, on November 3. This will be an opportunity to present books on working class political ideology and history and progressive thought that one would not get the chance to see in conventional book venues. It will very much be in the tradition of the once-famous bookfair, although we don’t expect the same numbers. We are hoping to present a display of the Tyneside ‘Red Miners’ banners, some of which carry portraits of people who were heroes at the time, though fallen from grace in their latter years. Smelling salts will be at hand to revive those prone to swoon at upsetting scenes. At this bookfair the principle of free speech and political liberty will be guaranteed, and anyone who doesn’t accept the principle, ‘left’ or right, will be not invited and, if necessary, excluded.

David Douglass
South Shields

Full house

In the July 1 issue of the Labour Party Marxists publication, the following was said about Corbyn’s housing policy: “… sadly, it is worth noting that For the many internalises many aspects of Thatcherism. Take the programme for building a million homes. Nine tenths of them are projected to be private. Only a tenth council and housing association” (‘You voted Labour, now transform Labour’).

This is deeply misleading. Prior to the unveiling of Labour’s manifesto in this year’s general election, Corbyn made a promise of a million houses within five years, in the event of a Labour government being elected. Not long after, For the many revealed their plans for housing: plans that contradict what is said in the LPM article. The manifesto does not promise that 100,000 council and housing association houses will be built as a total within the million. It promises 100,000 per year as part of the plans to build a million houses within five years. This means that, of the million, 500,000 will be council and housing association. Not one tenth: one in two.

It could be said to this that the message of the LPM article still stands even in spite of this correction. But to say that would be incorrect. It is true that, regardless of whether or not 10% or 50% of Labour’s proposed houses are set to be council or housing association, For the many still accepts the significant interference of landlords and private ownership within the realm of housing. But it being 50% does make a huge difference.

The fact that it stands at 50% means that it’d be inaccurate to say that Labour’s housing plans contains any element of Thatcherism at all. For it to contain an element of Thatcherism, it would have to accept the creed of gradually intensifying privatisation of housing in accordance with the dictates of neoliberal capitalism. It quite clearly isn’t proposing that. Rather, what the manifesto pledges is a return to a distinctly ‘old Labour’ form of social democracy within the housing sector, firmly in line with the Keynesianism of the manifesto as a whole.

That is not to say that we should herald the housing pledges in the manifesto as sufficient for the creation of a socialist society. Any Marxist that would think this should not be considered a Marxist at all. Keynesianism is objectively hostile to socialism by its very fabric and foundation. But the most essential criterion that we ought to judge this according to is what general direction Labour’s manifesto is travelling in - and that includes within housing.

The most important thing is that Labour’s manifesto represents a clear and decisive break from Thatcherism, regardless of whether it is towards a form of Keynesianism or not. In the current climate facing us in terms of class-consciousness, even a call for a return to social democratic Keynesianism is inherently progressive. Not because Keynesianism is progressive in and of itself, but because it represents a clear advance in terms of the capacity for people to question the legitimacy of austerity and neoliberalism.

This all links to the development of class though - it is a gradual process that is built up in accordance with a combination of factors: a changing objective situation and a revolutionary party to ‘push’ the process. A significant part of that entails us responding to the pledges found in For the many in relation to the general state of poor class-consciousness in society at this stage.

As Rosa Luxemburg points out, Marxists will inevitably be faced with “fresh disappointments and disenchantments” that present significant obstacles for revolutionaries of all stripes. Nevertheless, a determined revolutionary force can overcome these obstacles through tenacious struggle.

If we are to assume that the disappointments and disenchantments of the past are the betrayals of past Labour governments and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, we will find that we can only see Corbyn’s reformist programme as a positive step that ought to not be denounced, but built upon.

By misrepresenting Corbyn’s pledges in this way to draw the false conclusion that they have internalised “Thatcherite elements”, I fail to see how LPM are aiding in this process. Presumably, because it constitutes “economism”. But, hey - same old, same old.

Ralph Kirkham


Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW) is a Labour Party campaign. We urge all those who oppose Labour’s witch-hunt against Corbyn supporters and critics of Israel/Zionism to stay in the party and fight.

Labour Against the Witchhunt welcomes the participation of all people who support its three key aims:

1. An end to automatic suspensions and expulsions;

2. Rejection of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and support for the rights of the Palestinian people;

3. Abolition of Labour’s ‘compliance unit’.

Those, like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, who promote the false anti-Semitism smear, who conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and who promote the myth of left anti-Semitism, are not welcome in LAW.

Those, like Socialist Fight, who promote the ‘socialism of fools’- the view that imperialism’s support for Zionism and Israel is because of the influence of Jews - are also not welcome in LAW.

Tony Greenstein, Stan Keable, Jackie Walker
LAW steering committee


I have just a few words for James Harvey’s article about the Football Lads Alliance (‘Rising to the challenge’, November 16). It is racist against any form of protests by the white, indigenous people of our country and it should stop now.

We are not ‘far right’. We are in the middle, and just sick to the back teeth at what is happening in our country. And the ‘racist’ label is wearing thin - very thin.

Julie Stanley

Back ’em up

Myself and my missus were on the march in London on October 7. Yes, we are both white, but are you calling us racists? I’ve just read what you say about the FLA, so now let’s see if you back up your words. I await your answer saying, as far as you’re concerned, myself and my missus and everyone else on that march were racists.

Shane O’Neill

Something real

Having viewed your piece on the rise of the FLA, I take your views as those of a hard, leftwing fool with no idea of anything which is going on in the UK today.

You seem to doubt the commitment of a normal working class man to defend the rights of white working class family values. I have no political alliance with the national government. In fact, a lot of my views are classed as very leftwing, but I am not, like you and your kind, blinkered and worthless.

Have you ever sat with anyone from the FLA and asked about their aims? Should you wish to discuss the issue at length, maybe you could learn something real about the working class people of the UK - the group you claim to be part of.

Michael Daley