Rescuing Lenin and Trotsky from 'Trotskyism'

For the first time since 1920 there is the distinct chance of uniting all serious revolutionaries in Britain in a single organisation and thereby starting the historically necessary process of building a viable mass working class party. The CPGB is absolutely clear, however, that as an aim we are against any and all centrist halfway houses, attempts to revive old Labourism, an artificial Labour Representation Committee, etc.

For the first time since 1920 there is the distinct chance of uniting all serious revolutionaries in Britain in a single organisation and thereby starting the historically necessary process of building a viable mass working class party. The CPGB is absolutely clear, however, that as an aim we are against any and all centrist halfway houses, attempts to revive old Labourism, an artificial Labour Representation Committee, etc.

The Socialist Alliance must be won to and built upon definite organisational principles - democracy and centralism. In the interests of the whole that is what we communists are committed to achieving.

Downgrading the necessity of centralism is to effectively abandon the struggle for socialism. Our enemy's state machine is highly organised, ruthless and prepared, if needs be, to drown in blood the green, left Labourite, Socialist Alliance government envisaged by the SWP's Ian Birchall (Socialist Review December 2000). We cannot afford the slightest illusion, not even a tincture of doubt, regarding capitalism's commitment to democracy. Capital and democracy are antithetical. Unless we wish to share the fate of Chile in 1973 matching their state centralism with our party centralism is vital. Anything else is to play irresponsible reformist or libertarian games ... the ultimate consequence being counterrevolutionary terror.

Democracy and centralism are complementary principles for the working class and should form an unbreakable whole. Democracy is the means which allows us to unite in and test centralised actions to the maximum effect - all members of the Socialist Alliance voluntarily carry out agreed decisions because, even if they disagree with them, at least they understand the arguments. Our model here is, of course, the Bolshevik Party. We must modify and adapt according to our exact circumstances, but neither history nor logic offers anything better.

However, the key to everything is equipping the Socialist Alliance with a political programme. From the programme organisational forms and day-to-day tactics follow. The CPGB has already published a draft revolutionary minimum-maximum programme. As the intelligent reader will readily appreciate, again our model is the Bolshevik Party.

Our allies in the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, the International Socialist Group, etc, object. They insist upon their defeatist notion of the Socialist Alliance as a loose federation, a united front, or at best a gateway to a broad, semi-reformist, workers' party.

Moreover, there is the ingrained, though thoroughly misconceived, conviction that the programme of Bolshevism was abandoned by Lenin in 1917 and has no relevance whatsoever to the 21st century. Naturally then the comrades dismiss minimum-maximum programmes with Talmudic certainty; the awful dénouement of German social democracy in 1914 is waved about like a talisman, a solemn warning for those who might be tempted to think otherwise.

Instead such comrades want to 'arm' the Socialist Alliance with the 'transitional method', derived from Trotsky in his weakest hour in 1938. In reality this much-vaunted 'method' turns out to be nothing more than a sad rehash of economism, the tailing of spontaneity, downplaying democratic issues, etc. These comrades are transparently sincere in claiming Trotsky as the architect of their pig-headed dismissal of the Bolshevik-type minimum-maximum programme.

Nonetheless, as we shall show, they are profoundly mistaken.

To equip the Socialist Alliance project with the weapons needed to beat the United Kingdom state and overcome the universal system of capital, it is incumbent upon us to comprehensively meet the challenge of 'Trotskyist' economism and resolutely defend Lenin and the Bolshevik programme - and, ironically, Trotsky too.

1. Trotsky's programme

Take Tony Cliff. As we know, along with the usual run of so-called orthodox Trotskyites, he wants us to believe that Lenin was essentially a Menshevik programmatically up to April 1917. Trotsky supposedly had an altogether superior theory.

Trotsky is approvingly quoted, by implication against Lenin, as stating that "power must pass into the hands of the workers" through a revolution "before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get the chance to display to the full their talent for governing" (quoted in T Cliff Lenin Vol. 1, London 1975, p202). Yet the attentive reader will recall that the real Lenin argued for the replacement of tsarism ... by the revolutionary rule of the workers and peasants. This was the culmination of the Bolshevik's minimum programme.

Essentially Lenin wanted a peasant revolution led by the working class, which would, given favourable conditions - i.e., the spread of the revolutionary conflagration to Europe - proceed uninterruptedly towards the tasks of the maximum, or socialist, programme. Taking his cue from Marx in 1848-49, Lenin spoke of the democratic revolution "growing over into the socialist revolution". As an aside, especially for the benefit of pedants, it is worth noting that Trotsky too used the term 'uninterrupted'.

'Uninterrupted' was interchangeable with 'permanent' revolution. E.g., in 1906 he wrote that the victory of the proletariat "in turn means the further uninterrupted character of the revolution" (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p182).

Lenin was more open-ended and displayed greater flexibility than Trotsky over the potentiality of the downtrodden peasants in Russia. The 'democratic dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry' formulation was deliberately essentialist and plastic. The workers had organisation and the advantage of concentration. The peasants were the overwhelming majority of the population. But the centre of gravity and organisational morphology of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry would be determined by historical reality and the anti-tsarist revolution.

Lenin refused to stick to speculations or a priori answers to questions such as whether or not the peasants could establish their own party, whether such a party would form the majority or the minority in a revolutionary government, and what exact relationship the peasants would have to the proletariat and its party. Circumstances and the balance of forces would concretely decide all such matters. Lenin's overriding concern lay in releasing the peasant revolution in practice and aligning this giant to the working class and its leadership. Here the workers' party, as the subjective factor in the revolution, was crucial.

The peasantry, the sphinx of the Russian revolution, is for Trotsky an elemental force. But as an estate it is "absolutely incapable of taking an independent political role".

Trudoviks, Popular Socialists, the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party can be deployed by either side of the argument. Personally I think the huge support gained by the SRs in 1917 - they were the undisputed party of the countryside - and the Bolshevik-Left SR coalition after October lends more weight to Lenin than Trotsky. Nevertheless in Trotsky's prognosis the proletariat can, through consciously directing its revolutionary energy, and later from the vantage point of state power, draw the peasant mountain to support its leadership.

He employs the closed formula - a workers' state supported by the peasantry. The victorious proletariat would stand before the rural masses as liberator and with their consent as benign rulers. The difference with Lenin is not unimportant, but is that of shade within the same 'permanentist' camp (which, besides Lenin and Trotsky, included Kautsky - when he was a Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg and, less consistently, Martov).

Lenin's malleable approach has decided advantages. It highlights the pure class content of the revolution - and the inescapable necessity of winning and keeping the peasant mass. Yet it leaves open, or puts momentarily aside, the party composition of a revolutionary regime. Struggle provides the solution to that and other such questions. Not that that stopped Lenin in 1906, at the urging of Luxemburg and her Poles, using the formulation, 'dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry'.

When Martov and other Mensheviks got themselves into a froth over this 'deviation' from Bolshevism, an unruffled Lenin cheerfully informed them that there was no change: "Is it not obvious that the same idea runs through all these formulations, that this idea is precisely the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, that the 'formula' of the proletariat relying upon [supported by - JC] the peasantry remains part and parcel of the same dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry?" (VI Lenin CW Vol. 15, Moscow 1977, p368).

Trotsky's governmental-class formulation recognises the social weight of the peasantry. On the other hand he is insistent on an exclusively proletarian government and discounts even the possibility of a coalition. Certainly one in which the working class party begins as a minority. Trotsky would not countenance participation in any such government. A peasant majority would hold the proletariat hostage.

The rapid degeneration of the isolated October Revolution into the dictatorship of the Communist Party can be used to justify Trotsky's formula. A big mistake. Unfortunately one Trotsky repeatedly made throughout the 1920s and 30s. Almost in exhilaration at his own daring, he uses the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in contradistinction to 'democracy'. An elementary error in Marxism and evidence that a malign bureaucratic socialist tumour existed in the 'Fourth International' sect at its highest level.

Anyway, proletarian political domination is, says Trotsky, incompatible with "its economic enslavement". Therefore, he reasoned, the workers are "obliged to take the path of socialist policy" (quoted in T Cliff Lenin Vol. 1, London 1975, p202). Note, "socialist policy", not socialism. Trotsky, we should point out, expressly disagreed with Bukharin's crude leftist version of permanent revolution, first expounded in 1916.

For Bukharin - the imperialist economist - the bourgeois revolution had essentially already been completed in Russia. There were no outstanding or preparatory democratic tasks. Not democracy against tsarism, but labour against capital. That was the sum of Bukharin's analysis. Hence in Bukharin's lifeless schema demands for national self-determination and the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry should be dropped. The proletariat, insisted Bukharin, must proceed to capture power under the banner of an unadulterated socialism.

Though Lenin branded Bukharin a Trotskyite, we are obliged to say in Trotsky's defence that his theory was far removed from all such farcical caricatures of Marxism. Trotsky never turned his back on the need to fight for democracy under capitalism. Nor did he deny what he called "the bourgeois character of the revolution" in Russia in the sense of immediate tasks. However, between ossified tsarism on the one hand and the development of the capitalist forces of production on the other there existed the possibility of "quite new historical prospects": namely, proletarian power (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p67). These words are by the way taken from the beginning of Trotsky's 1906 Result and prospects.

According to the bog-standard 'Trotskyite' account, in April 1917 Lenin saved himself by apparently undergoing a road-to-Damascus conversion. Lenin's 'Letters from afar' and the documents now widely known as the April theses "marked a complete break" with the antiquated notion of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry (T Cliff Lenin Vol. 2, London 1976, p124). Conditions of dual power which proceeded from the fall of Tsar Nicholas II and the establishment of dual power exposed the "bankruptcy" of the 'old Bolshevik' formula (ibid. p128).

Cliff compounds the nonsense. Before 1917 Trotsky "differed fundamentally from Lenin in his view of the nature of the coming Russian Revolution", he claims, without the least blush of shame (T Cliff Lenin Vol. 1, London 1975, p201).

Trotsky badly misjudged the Bolsheviks. Cliff has to admit that much. He supposedly failed to realise that Bolshevism would have to break through the "bourgeois democratic crust" of their programme - because they based themselves on the dynamic of the struggle (T Cliff Lenin Vol. 1, London 1975, p205). Here we find Cliff's rendition of Trotsky's theory of revolutionary fatalism - a theory he tested to exhaustion and wisely abandoned.

At this point in our discussion we will turn to Trotsky himself. His own carefully chosen words show the utter disingenuousness of Cliff's version of history. In essence Trotsky took a centrist, "conciliationist", position from 1903 until May 1917, when he returned from the USA and placed himself "at the disposal of the Bolshevik Party". Trotsky later maintained, after reviewing the record, that until then his "revolutionary ideas or proposals amounted to nothing but 'phrases'". Lenin on the other hand carried out "the only truly revolutionary work". That was, a contrite Trotsky argues, "work that helped the party take shape and grow stronger" (L Trotsky The challenge of the Left Opposition: 1923-25 New York 1980, pp265, 267). Was Trotsky right in this assessment? In my opinion there can be no doubt about it.

Leaving that aside for the moment (and the fact that Trotsky went on to play a truly outstanding role as a Bolshevik leader), we must focus in upon the alleged "fundamental" programmatic difference between Trotsky and Lenin. Again we continue our journey with Trotsky himself. Trotsky will prove that the picture painted by Cliff and the whole school of so-called Trotskyism either ignorantly or cynically misrepresents Trotsky in order to undermine Leninism pre- and post-1917. Tony Cliff, in the first volume of his study of Lenin, supplies us with an extensive quotes from Trotsky's Results and prospects published in 1906 - which is perversely used as ammunition against the subject title of his biography.

Trotsky outlines his application of the theory of permanent revolution to Russia. Like Lenin he dismissed any revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie. The working class had to form a revolutionary government "as the leading force". They would do so in "alliance with the peasantry". But given the circumstances of Russia, the fact of proletarian state power would destroy the "borderline between the minimum and maximum programme: that is to say, it places collectivism on the order of the day".

One should not interpret such a formulation to mean Trotsky imagined a backward and isolated Russia could 'build' socialism in splendid isolation. No communist then believed any such nonsense. Trotsky, to his credit, remained implacably hostile to "national socialism" till his untimely death in 1940 (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p159). On the contrary Trotsky understood that the revolution would have to be made universal if the working class in Russia was not to be "crushed". European revolution was vital.

All in all, to any objective observer the differences with Lenin's theory are therefore evidently those of nuance. True, in Results and prospects and in Lenin's so-called replies there was a very unrewarding polemic between the two men. Factional interests produced more heat than light in both cases. Trotsky disparaged what he called a "special form of the proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution". He was intent on rubbishing and equating both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Lenin in his turn savaged Trotsky for "underestimating" the importance of the peasantry by raising the slogan 'Not a tsar's government, but a workers' government'.

On the basis of such evidence Trotsky is doubtless right when he concludes that Lenin had "never read my basic work". The above slogan was proclaimed not by Trotsky, but his friend and collaborator Parvus in his introduction to Trotsky's Before the 9th of January. Parvus envisaged the workers coming to power, but not going beyond the parameters of democratic tasks - his model was Australia. Trotsky had a much more dynamic and earth-shattering perspective.

Incidentally, why is there such a paucity of Trotsky's works prior to 1917 available? Result and prospects, 1905, Our political tasks and precious little else. Whatever their factional hostility to Lenin, the translation and publication of the whole corpus would be of great value to the entire revolutionary movement. Perhaps the CPGB should sponsor such a venture.

Anyway, we must push ahead with our argument. "Never did Lenin anywhere analyse or quote," says Trotsky, "even in passing, Results and prospects" (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p166). True, there was a second-hand quote polemically fired as a salvo against Martov in 1909. But Trotsky believes that in all probability Lenin only became acquainted with Results and prospects first-hand in 1919 when the state publishing house reissued it.

More to the point, Trotsky is eager to detail the "solidarity" that existed between himself and the Bolsheviks during and immediately after the 1905 revolution. And for those who demonise the term 'stage' in order to belittle Lenin, Trotsky's boast that he "formulated the tasks of the successive stages of the revolution in exactly the same manner as Lenin" should provide food for thought (ibid. p168). The same can be said for Trotsky's proud affirmation about how "Lenin's formula" closely "approximated" to his own "formula of permanent revolution" (ibid. p198). Cliff can claim for all he is worth that Trotsky's theory was "far superior" to Lenin's democratic dictatorship. Needless to say, that only shows he held an agenda which owed very little to the actual revolution and even less to the truth.

2. The "fundamental" unity of Lenin and Trotsky

It was natural in 1905 or 1912 for Lenin and Trotsky to exchange polemical thunderbolts based on nothing more than a few snatched lines or a disembodied phrase - they fought on behalf of rival factional centres or positions and were star combatants. However, from the elevated distance of the 21st century Marxists - of all schools - should concentrate on the content Lenin and the Bolsheviks gave to their programme and the formulation, the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'.

How did they view this formulation and how did they apply it in practice? What tactics were used in December 1905? That is what should decide the matter - not the fact that in 1917 Zinoviev and Kamenev sought a cosy peace with those supporting the provisional government using the slogan as a flimsy orthodox cover. Nor that during the 1920s the Stalin-Bukharin duumvirate grossly misused the 'democratic dictatorship' formulation in order to legitimise their bloc of four classes in China - uniting the proletariat, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie.

What is notable about the years before 1917 for me is the strategic similarity between the Bolsheviks and Trotsky. Not the difference. Though it is painful for those present-day left economists who hide behind the authority of Trotsky, the fact of the matter is that Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution did not imply jumping over or ignoring the democratic stage of the Russian Revolution. Indeed it is true to say that Trotsky mapped out the tasks of the successive stages of the revolution in "exactly" the same way as Lenin.

Within the realm of the Second International Trotsky and Lenin were part of a broad ideological bloc formed around the 'papacy' of Karl Kautsky. Hence, in reply to Plekhanov's either-or question, 'Is the Russian Revolution bourgeois or socialist?', Kautsky answered the Menshevik leader in the pamphlet The driving forces and prospects of the Russian Revolution to their benefit.

The Russian Revolution was no longer bourgeois, but was not yet socialist. It was a transitional form from one to the other. Lenin expressed his fulsome agreement with Kautsky's formulation in a December 1906 introduction. Independently Trotsky did the same from his prison cell. He included his foreword to The driving forces in the book In defence of the Party. Many years later Trotsky was therefore able to justifiably proclaim that both "Lenin and I expressed our thorough accord with Kautsky's analysis" (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p179). He was fighting a rearguard action against Stalin's scattergun accusations about his anti-Leninist past.

No surprise then to find that in 1905 - Trotsky was at the forefront of events in Russia - he found himself marching in parallel with the Bolsheviks. Many of their appeals to the peasants, issued by their central press, were actually penned by Trotsky. Nor should it surprise us that during this period Lenin on occasion found the need to defend Trotsky. In Nachalo Lenin, as editor, sided with Trotsky in forthright terms against his critics.

The Bolshevik press also published one of Trotsky's pamphlets. Furthermore we can cite Lenin's frequent support for the resolutions of the St Petersburg Soviet which were nine times out of ten written by its chair, Lev Bronstein.

At the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party - held in London in 1907 - Lenin spoke of the affinity of Trotsky to the Bolsheviks. Trotsky's recognition of the unity of interests between the proletariat and peasantry in the anti-tsarist revolution and his opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie prompted Lenin to acknowledge that, "Trotsky has come close to our views. Quite apart from the question of 'uninterrupted revolution', we have here solidarity on fundamental points in the question of the attitude towards bourgeois parties" (VI Lenin CW Vol. 12, Moscow 1977, p470).

This, remember, was at a time when Trotsky was not a member of the Bolshevik faction and Lenin was quite rightly mercilessly attacking him for his conciliationism. Naturally what primarily concerned Lenin was raining down blows on this tendency of Trotsky's and thereby educating his Bolshevik cadre, not fairness towards Trotsky, the political theorist. Praise was therefore faint and grudging.

Trotsky represented a particular danger. Unlike other conciliators he was consistent. Worse, he managed to give conciliationism definite theoretical foundations: i.e., revolutionary fatalism. Under the melting heat of by the class struggle both the glacial factions - the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks - would, he thought, be reconciled and compelled to fight for permanent revolution in one party.

Lenin used fair means and foul to defeat Trotsky's conciliationism with Menshevik, Bundist, boycottist and other forms of liquidationism. That included exaggeration, ridicule, parody, seizing upon stray remarks and shocking appellations. And, of course, likewise being a 'hard', Trotsky hit back in kind, using not dissimilar literary weapons. That way molehills sometimes grew to resemble mountains.

Nowadays it is a commonplace to condemn Stalin and his lie machine for its invention of Trotskyism. That should also encompass Trotsky's supposed inherent programmatic hostility to Leninism. For example, "'Permanent revolution' is an underestimation of the peasant movement which leads to the repudiation of Lenin's theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat" - or so pronounced the high priest of the timeless Lenin quote (JV Stalin Leninism Moscow 1940, p93). Given this wretched tradition, it is sad to find Trotsky's self-appointed heirs have their own system of falsification. Almost a mirror image of Stalinism, it habitually misuses Trotsky to denigrate pre- and post-1917 Leninism.

But this 'Trotskyism' totally contradicts the real Trotsky. His theory of permanent revolution did not diverge from the strategic line of Bolshevism, did not stand as an alternative to it. Nor did it triumph over it. On the contrary, despite all the factional fog and flack, "the basic strategic line was one and the same" (L Trotsky The permanent revolution New York 1978, p173). That explains why Trotsky worked hand in hand with the Bolsheviks in the first, 1905, revolution and why he later defended this work in the international press against Menshevik criticisms. And, of course, under Lenin's sponsorship Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party as a top leader in 1917.

Trotsky experienced few qualms in finally throwing in his lot with the Bolsheviks because of the long established nearness of the strategic lines; and that, by the way, included, as we have seen, the peasant question, which was deployed like an ideological bulldozer by Stalinite propagandists against Trotsky. When the Bolsheviks 'stole' the agrarian programme of the Socialist Revolutionaries, Trotsky recognised that while this was a contradictory measure it was unavoidable. No peasant masses, no second revolution. He therefore stood four-square behind Lenin's audacious act of grand larceny.

Conciliationism, not permanent revolution, separated Trotsky from Bolshevism. As soon as the scales dropped from Trotsky's eyes about the possibility of winning Menshevism over to making a working class-led revolution, he inexorably drew ever closer to Lenin and Bolshevism.

In our next part of this series of articles we shall, as promised, turn to Lenin in 1917 and see whether or not he abandoned his 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' programme. This being a prelude to our examination of Trotsky's Transitional programme and the SWP's programmatic economism.

Jack Conrad