Strengths and limitations

Phil Sharpe compares the record of Lenin and Trotsky

The debate that has opened up in the pages of the Weekly Worker about Trotsky is to be welcomed, but what is still missing is a systematic comparison of Lenin and Trotsky. Carrying out such a comparison will help us to understand their strengths and limitations in relation to the complex task of building a party.

Lenin was the crucial leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party. This faction played a principled role in the first Russian Revolution of 1905, but in the reactionary period after the defeat of the revolution Lenin was inclined towards unnecessarily splitting the Bolshevik faction.

Lenin used the philosophical controversy between Plekhanov (Menshevik) and Bogdanov as the pretext to facilitate a split with Bogdanov. Lenin made support for orthodox philosophical materialism (which he defended using a crude reflection theory of knowledge) a test of party loyalty. The fact that the dissident grouping disagreed with Lenin about tactics towards the duma was the formal basis for being driven out of the faction; the real reason was their philosophical willingness to challenge Plekhanov - the ‘father’ of Russian Marxism.

Lenin was concerned that Bogdanov’s philosophical polemics with Plekhanov would undermine the possibility of a renewal of party unity between the Menshevik and Bolshevik wings. Thus Lenin was prepared to split the Bolshevik faction if it served the greater ‘good’ of bringing about party unity. This meant Lenin was still inclined to be opportunist in political and organisational terms: he needed to overcome his deference towards Plekhanov if he was to become a consistent proletarian revolutionary. (He was also deferential towards Kautsky in similar terms.)

Lenin’s political actions between 1914 and 1917 did represent the period in which he became an intransigent proletarian revolutionary. Once he was aware of the betrayal of the Second International, which was shown through its effective support for the imperialist war, Lenin made a comprehensive and ruthless analysis of its counterrevolutionary character. This analysis was carried out in political terms, such as indicating the reactionary role of the labour aristocracy, and also developed through the brilliant philosophical critique of Plekhanov in the Philosophical Notebooks. Lenin concedes that he was wrong to have supported Plekhanov against Bogdanov, even if he still does not agree with Bogdanov, and he now maintains it is necessary to oppose the mechanical materialism of Plekhanov. This decisive break with Plekhanov and Kautsky, in profound philosophical, historical materialist and political terms, meant that Lenin had qualitatively become the leader of the Bolshevik party of proletarian revolution.

This transformation was connected to his enriched proletarian internationalism and the call for the formation of the Third International. Lenin was no longer primarily concerned to become the leader of the Russian social democrats: he now understood the importance of building a new and principled leadership of the Third International. The theoretical and political gains of the period 1914-1917 enabled Lenin to be the brilliant co-leader of the October Revolution.

Lenin’s momentous break with the Second International did not mean there were no ideological and political residues. These limitations were expressed in the famous 1915 article in which the possibility of socialism in one country was conceived in connection to uneven development and breaking imperialism at its weakest link.

The bitter dispute about the Brest-Litovsk treaty brought to the surface the hidden ideological problems in Lenin’s conception of world revolution. Lenin wanted to make Soviet Russia a fortress, or base of world revolution, and so he was prepared to sign the treaty and give large amounts of territory to German imperialism. Not to sign the treaty would mean risking the military overthrow of the Soviet regime, and this would seriously undermine the further development of world revolution.

To Rosa Luxemburg, and also in different ways Bukharin and Trotsky, military action by German imperialism would create the political conditions for a mass mobilisation by the German proletariat against their ruling class. This act of solidarity with the soviet Russian regime would also represent the beginning of the German proletarian revolution. Lenin was essentially dismissive of this prospect because he maintained that the balance of forces did not yet favour the possibility of revolutionary developments in Germany. Possibly he was correct in static terms. However, he was not prepared to recognise the need for audacity to change the balance of class forces. This was because he considered his main task to be maintaining the Soviet state, even if this was at the expense of the German proletarian revolution and the development of world revolution.

This pessimism was a result of his proletarian internationalism being undermined by a national-centred conception of world revolution. Only when the Soviet state was politically stable should it support more audacious tactics in order to bring about proletarian revolution in Germany and elsewhere. Lenin’s approach did not represent indifference or hostility towards class struggle in Germany and elsewhere: he was still a principled proletarian internationalist, but he also sought to reconcile international struggles with the interests of the Soviet state.

Lenin’s advocacy of the ban on factions was a terrible mistake. It ensured the onset of ideological and political conformity and facilitated the growth of a monolithic Party that was based upon the hegemony of a bureaucracy. In subjective terms Lenin’s support for the ban was the main starting point for replacing political principle as the criterion of Bolshevik membership with the opportunist aspiration to rise up the hierarchy.

Lenin’s mistake was made worse through his support for Stalin becoming general secretary. In the last period of his illness, he tried heroically to overturn his mistake and get Stalin removed. He also attempted between 1921 and 1923 to introduce measures to stop the development of a bureaucratic elite within the Party leadership. He was unsuccessful because the process had already become entrenched, and also because he did not advocate one of the most crucial measures - the removal of the ban on factions.

Lenin did not accept that the role of the whole Party would be required in order to overcome the bureaucrats. Thus Lenin became a leader increasingly isolated from his comrades and yet unable to appeal to the Party for support against the growing power of the bureaucracy. He did not know how to mobilise against counterrevolution from within a workers’ state.

Alongside his brilliant theoretical work of the 1914-1917 period Lenin’s other main outstanding contribution was his work on the complexities of socialist transition. His articles on state capitalism, war communism and the New Economic Policy enrich our knowledge of how difficult it is for the dictatorship of the proletariat to arrive at the right policy with regards to the transition to socialism.

Lenin’s mistakes between 1918 and 1923 are often more theoretically profound than other people’s achievements. Thus Lenin in the 1917-1918 period equated the building of the productive forces with the introduction of the methods of state capitalism. He moved away from supporting workers’ control and started to favour technocratic management.

The onset of civil war, and the need to carry out severe measures in order to obtain food from the peasantry, showed how utopian the approach of state capitalism was. A rapid development of the productive forces using state capitalist measures was not possible in the desperate conditions of famine and dire poverty. The ruthless methods of war communism were necessary if food for the cities was to be obtained.

During war communism the illusion developed that the effective end to a money economy showed that it was possible for a transition to developed communism to occur. Lenin, who had been a firm adherent of war communism and justified its ruthless approach, now put forward the need for an NEP. The peasantry had been alienated by war communism, and without the support of the peasantry the dictatorship of the proletariat was doomed. Lenin now called for a proletariat-peasant alliance.

In his last writings Lenin was trying to establish a strategy to maintain proletarian state power and also link it to world revolution. His enriched conception of world revolution was now more principled because he was less concerned to put the survival of the Soviet state before the interests of international revolution. Instead, through ensuring the survival of the Soviet state through the establishment of the proletariat-peasant alliance, it was now possible to accelerate support for world revolution. Hence Lenin’s last writings of 1923 express the resolution of previous theoretical and political contradictions and the movement of his ideas onto a new higher level.

With regards to Trotsky, he was for many years a pro-party Menshevik. He had the same deferential attitude towards Axelrod that Lenin had towards Plekhanov. Trotsky was prepared to maintain that Lenin was an elitist Jacobin who was against building a proletarian Party. Thus in his various attempts to unite the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks Trotsky acted to exclude Lenin from the process of Party unity.

Nevertheless despite his anti-Leninism Trotsky played a principled role in 1905, and his theory of permanent revolution was the most explanatory basis for revolutionary theory and practice. This is because the theory showed the counterrevolutionary character of the national bourgeoisie and the necessity for proletarian leadership of the democratic revolution, and that it was necessary to realise bourgeois democratic tasks as part of the proletarian revolution.

Trotsky started to go towards Bolshevism as a result of the outbreak of the inter-imperialist war of 1914. Even though he was still not prepared to call for a new Third International, he was in overall political agreement with Lenin about the need to build revolutionary parties in opposition to the reformism of the Second International.

Trotsky became the outstanding co-leader of the 1917 October Revolution. From 1917 he was an intransigent exponent and defender of Leninist revolutionary Marxism. However, Trotsky was not a consistent Leninist in relation to the tasks involved in developing international revolution and in the attempt to overcome the degeneration of the Soviet state.

In the 1920s Trotsky never recognised the necessity to overthrow Stalin, who was the personification of the bureaucracy. Instead Trotsky started with a perspective of the self-reform of the bureaucracy, and was prepared to envisage the possibility of a united front with Stalin (the bureaucratic centrist) against Bukharin (the pro-capitalist restorationist) in the period of 1928-29.

Trotsky essentially agreed with Stalin that NEP should be ended. So, whilst not theoretically supporting the exploitation of the peasantry, he did, if reluctantly and critically, support Stalin’s bureaucratic measures. In other words Trotsky made errors in connection to relations with the Bukharinists because he supported aspects of bureaucratic socialism: the implementation of collectivisation without the consent of the peasantry.

Bureaucratic socialism - the elitist, utopian and ruthless introduction of measures not based upon the consent of the proletariat and peasantry - is still upheld by Trotsky in the 1930s. This was still present in his work on the class nature of the Soviet Union, and in the conception ‘degenerated workers’ state’. In defence of Marxism justifies the view that the Stalinist bureaucracy can carry out a revolution from above and overthrow capitalism. The Soviet Union is still considered a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which makes it capable of extending the nationalised property relations of the Soviet state through military-bureaucratic means. Trotsky does not sufficiently consider that nationalised property is not inherently progressive, or socialist, and instead can be the basis of exploiting the working class. This adaptation to Stalinism means that Trotskyism is left with the legacy of considering Stalinism to be counterrevolutionary, and yet capable of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a form of workers’ state.

The Transitional Programme of 1938 is often held to be one of Trotsky’s major theoretical achievements. Trotsky does show in powerful terms that the class struggle has an open-ended character, and socialism or barbarism is the alternative facing the proletariat. However, this programme also contains important theoretical contradictions. The Transitional Programme contains a tendency towards objectivism: the economic crisis represents an irresistible movement towards proletarian revolution. This objectivism justifies the ambiguous formulation that a workers’ government could be formed as a result of the spontaneous pressure of the working class, and this government could be led by social democracy or Stalinism. In other words the inexorable power of working class spontaneity can bring about a workers’ government that is a distorted expression (first stage) of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This approach compromises the important principle that proletarian revolution is a conscious process based upon the close unity between a revolutionary party and the proletariat.

Trotsky’s conception of transitional demands contain important tensions and contradictions. Can these demands be realised under capitalism, or are they only brought about through proletarian revolution? The tendency to argue that the balance of class forces will determine the prospect of realisability means that it is often argued that transitional demands are realistically achievable under capitalism.

Thus they are effectively reformist demands, and support for these demands does not require the development of revolutionary class consciousness: it can be mobilised on the basis of existing trade union (bourgeois) consciousness. Consequently the decline of trade union struggles in the context of protracted economic crisis has led to the stagnation of the many Trotskyist groups based upon the Transitional Programme. They no longer have a viable programme upon which to obtain support within the proletariat, because this programme was based upon developing trade union militancy. The result has been to dilute transitional demands even further - and so this justification of reformism has resulted in an activist contempt towards the proletariat and an effective repudiation of the need to develop a revolutionary relationship between party and class.

Nevertheless despite these important theoretical and political problems of Trotsky’s legacy he still represented the continuity of revolutionary Marxism after the death of Lenin. He upheld proletarian internationalism against Stalinist nationalist degeneration. Crucially Trotsky continued to point out the political necessity to establish the political independence of the proletariat from the counterrevolutionary forces of social democracy and Stalinism. Trotsky worked to build the Fourth International as a political alternative to the opportunist Third International.

How then can we compare Lenin and Trotsky? Both had periods of opportunism in their younger days, but both were able to overcome this political problem and thereby developed into consistent revolutionary proletarian internationalists.

Eventually in 1923 Lenin was able to develop his strategic perspective of the proletariat-peasant alliance as the basis of world revolution. This was Lenin’s brilliant achievement, but it was not recognised by Trotsky. (Only Bukharin understood what Lenin had done, but in opportunist terms.)

Trotsky had the very difficult task of opposing Stalinism. It is no wonder he made mistakes, and we will never know if Lenin would have made similar mistakes. However, what is most important is that Trotsky carried out a struggle against Stalinism and attempted to theoretically explain that struggle. Thus we have been left with a precious record of what an intransigent proletarian revolutionary tried to do under conditions of the adverse political circumstances of the hegemony of Stalinism. Whatever terrible things happened to his family and comrades, Trotsky never gave up in the struggle to rebuild the revolutionary party, and for that we owe him eternal thanks and gratitude.