Introduction to "The Two Trotskyisms". Part 1: Trotsky of the enigmas

Submitted by martin on 23 October, 2015 - 11:10 Author: Sean Matgamna

Part 1: Trotsky of the enigmas [*]

Part 2: The Orthodox and Russia in The War

Part 3: The Orthodox and the Heterodox After The War

Part 1: Trotsky of the enigmas [*]

DURING MOST OF THE 20TH CENTURY, and the 21st century so far, revolutionary-socialist politics has been some form of Trotskyism. It is rooted in the anti-Stalinist tradition that began with Lenin’s 1922 attack, from his deathbed, on Stalin’s Russian-chauvinist policy in Georgia, and continued with his attempt to remove Stalin as General Secretary of the ruling party. The Left Opposition of Trotsky, in October 1923, picked up the thread and augmented it.

The Left Opposition, and then the United Opposition (of Zinoviev-Trotsky), took into themselves some of the criticisms made by earlier Bolshevik oppositions to Lenin and Trotsky – the well-known Workers’ Opposition, the less-well-known Democratic Centralists, and others. The Democratic Centralists joined the United Opposition. The leaders of the Workers’ Opposition, Kollontai and Shlyapnikov, went over to Stalin.

For the Trotskyists – in Trotsky’s lifetime they preferred to call themselves Bolshevik-Leninists – it has been a very long march through the 20th century and beyond, and over sometimes strange, unexpected, uncharted, often bewildering terrain. Central to it has been the fight against Stalinism, the attempt to understand and categorise it, the battle to wipe the labour movement clean of it.

The Trotskyist tradition is nourished by the memory of immense working-class victories – the October 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia, the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, the foundation of the Communist International in 1919. It is shaped, and also mis-shaped, by the catastrophic defeats of the working class by Stalinism, fascism, and pluto-democracy. The Trotskyist tradition encompasses the historical experiences of the working-class movement in which it participated, and which it analysed, discussed, disputed about. There is no other authentic Marxist-communist tradition.

George Santayana’s aphorism is not less true for having become a clichĂ©: “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it”. Those who do not know their own history cannot learn from it. A revived revolutionary socialist movement will have to learn from the Trotskyist tradition. As Rosa Luxemburg explained:

“What does the entire history of socialism and of all modern revolutions show us? The first spark of class struggle in Europe, the revolt of the silk weavers in Lyon in 1831, ended with a heavy defeat; the Chartist movement in Britain ended in defeat; the uprising of the Parisian proletariat in the June days of 1848 ended with a crushing defeat; and the Paris Commune ended with a terrible defeat. The whole road of socialism – so far as revolutionary struggles are concerned – is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats. Yet, at the same time, history marches inexorably, step by step, toward final victory! Where would we be today without those ‘defeats’, from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism? We stand on the foundation of those very defeats, because each one contributes to our strength and understanding”.

A reviewer of The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, dismissed it as “sectariana”. Aim at the sky and you are sure to hit the mark! Certainly the texts in that volume, and its introduction, like this one, dealt with the politics, problems, conundrums, debates, and disruptions of small and very small organisations. But those were the organisations that attempted to continue and develop the political ideas and practical projects of the early Communist International after that organisation had been transformed into a corrupt and vicious political instrument of the ruling oligarchy in the USSR. The concerns and disputes of those small groups dealt with all the political questions that comprise the history of the 20th century. These were the concerns that exercised the minds of thinking people for most of that century. George Orwell is widely respected today for his integrity, truth-telling, and dogged honesty. Yet Orwell’s viewpoint was a variant of that of the Trotskyist movement, and, certainly, he was strongly influenced by it.


THE MURDEROUSLY ANTI-WORKING-CLASS totalitarian state which claimed to base itself on the 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia was less than two decades old when Trotsky was struck down. In historical time it was a new phenomenon. For Marxists it was as unexpected and strange as the great continent of America which loomed up before him had been for Christopher Columbus when he thought he was en route to India and the East.

From the very beginning of his exile from the USSR in 1929, Trotsky and his comrades had many disputes among themselves about the exact nature, the class content, and the historical implications and perspectives, of Stalinism, and of the territory over which Stalin ruled. Similar discussions and disputes occupied the Bolsheviks jailed and exiled inside the USSR, until Stalin killed them all. The USSR itself went through great convulsive changes: the final destruction of the labour movement and the Bolshevik party; the reduction of the working class itself to what Trotsky would name as semi-slavery; the breakneck industrialisation and forced collectivisation. Trotsky constantly re-thought, reconceptualised, readjusted his thinking, on the USSR as on other issues. He worked by extrapolation, deduction, prognostication on events. He concretised, adjusted, changed, or abandoned his projections in the light of experience. Often events would lead him to apply a new description to the USSR, and also to say that the new description had already been valid for some time. In 1936, for example, when for the first time he called Stalin’s regime “totalitarian”, he wrote: “The regime had become ‘totalitarian’ in character several years before this word arrived from [Hitler’s] Germany”. (Sources for this, and other Trotsky quotes: with footnotes).

By the end of Trotsky’s life, events, and in the first place the development and unfolding of Stalinism in the USSR and (in 1939-40) beyond its borders, had driven him into a politics of bewildering complexity, Jesuit subtlety, and seemingly extravagant self-contradictions. Trotsky bequeathed to his surviving comrades a large quiver of half-evolved and half-eroded “positions”, ambivalences, and contradictions. The ideological history of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists is the story of their attempts to work through those half-developed and half-eroded ideas in relation to yet-new and again-unexpected world events.

In 1930, Trotsky broke with the biggest group in the Left Opposition outside Russia – the German Leninbund – on their attitude to Russia’s conflict with China over the Chinese Eastern Railroad. Trotsky was vehemently on the Russian government’s side. Until 1933 Trotsky thought that the Stalinist aspects of the Russian state could be “reformed” out of existence. Even then he postulated a special type of reform. He expected the bungling and irrationally-run Stalinist system to encounter disaster. The bureaucracy would begin to break up. The party which Stalin had stifled and paralysed would regroup and reconstitute itself as a Bolshevik party. In that way the working class would regain direct power. In 1933 he shifted to the belief that a “political” revolution would be needed to break the Stalinist dictatorship. At that stage he still wrote of a resurgent Bolshevik party carrying out “police measures” against the bureaucracy. In 1936 he deepened and sharpened what he meant by “political revolution”, defining it in fact, if not in name, as a full-scale working-class revolution against the USSR’s “sole commanding stratum” and its state machine.

The direction of Trotsky’s politics on the USSR all through the 1930s was unmistakable. He inched closer and closer to abandoning the idea that the USSR was a degenerated (and degenerating) workers’ state. At the beginning of the 1930s he was in public a critical defender of the Russian state. By the end he was publicly denouncing the Russian bureaucracy’s rule as “worse” than that of any ruling class in history, and publicly calling for a new revolution against it. He compared Stalin’s rule unfavourably with pre-war Hitler’s.

The separation in the ranks of the Trotskyists in 1940 was the definitive branching-off of two Trotskyisms, for two reasons. It was at the end of Trotsky’s life, and his last word on the subject of Stalinism. And it marked a decisive turn for Stalinism – the beginning of the Russian expansion that would by 1945 see Russia in control of half of Europe.


AT THE END Trotsky was the theorist of a Russian “degenerated workers’ state” in which, on his own account, the workers were slaves or “semi-slaves”.

From the writing of The Revolution Betrayed (1936) onwards, Trotsky consistently referred to Stalin’s Russia as an oligarchic “totalitarianism”. In the programme Trotsky wrote for the September 1938 conference of the Fourth International, he said, and the movement that adopted the programme repeated after him, that Stalin’s regime was uniquely reactionary and repressive, different from (pre-war) Nazi Germany “only in more unbridled savagery”. “The Soviet bureaucracy has all the vices of a possessing class without having any of its ‘virtues’ (organic stability, certain moral norms, etc.)”. The bureaucracy was “the sole privileged and commanding stratum”. It “devour[ed] a lion’s share of the modest national income”, worse than in the USA: “The higher layer of the bureaucracy lives approximately the same kind of life as the well-to-do bourgeois of the United States and other capitalist countries”. “In the USSR there are twelve to fifteen million privileged individuals who concentrate in their hands about one half of the national income, and who call this regime ‘socialism’. On the other hand there are approximately 160 million people oppressed by the bureaucracy and caught in the grip of dire poverty”. “Historically, no class in society has ever concentrated in its hands in such a short time such wealth and power as the bureaucracy has concentrated during the two five year plans”.

And yet, Trotsky still thought, this bureaucracy was not a ruling class.

The rule of the slave-driving elite, wrote Trotsky, “from the standpoint of the interests and position of the popular masses... is infinitely worse than any ‘organic’ exploitation. The bureaucracy is not a possessing class, in the scientific sense of the term. But it contains within itself to a tenfold degree all the vices of a possessing class”. From the point of view of the workers, the economy functioned worse than capitalism did. The workers suffered “the classic methods of exploitation... in such naked and crude forms as would not be permitted even by reformist trade unions in bourgeois countries”. “The relations between people... in many respects are still lagging behind a cultured capitalism”. “The Soviet economy today is neither a monetary nor a planned one. It is an almost purely bureaucratic economy... Industry, freed from the material control of the producer, took on a super-social, that is, bureaucratic, character. As a result it lost the ability to satisfy human wants even to the degree to which it had been accomplished by the less-developed capitalist industry”.

And yet, Trotsky vehemently insisted, this bureaucracy was not yet a ruling class. In an important sense the “semi-slave” working class was still the ruling class.

Trotsky himself pointed out that: “The means of production belong to the state. But the state, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy”. And yet he argued that the state-owned economy rooted in the October Revolution continued to give the system its “degenerated” but still workers’-state character. The revolution in Stalinist Russia which Trotsky advocated would smash the bureaucratic state, replace it with the organs of a democratic workers’ state (soviets), destroy the bureaucrats’ plans for the economy, and replace them with working-class planning, democratically decided, vetted, supervised, and adjustable. And yet he insisted that this revolution which he advocated with mounting urgency was something less than the revolution he advocated against capitalism. Why? Because in both Stalinism and in a post-Stalinist working-class system of social organisation there would be state ownership. It would be ownership by a different state, and a different kind of state, “owned” by a radically different social group, the working class, in place of the Stalinist autocracy; but the common factor of state ownership made this for Trotsky a “political”, not-quite-fully-social, revolution.

He was the keeper of the terrible chronicles of the rise and consolidation of Stalinism on the graves of millions of workers and peasants, of the revolutionary working-class movement, and of Bolshevism. Yet he greeted Stalin’s statification of property in eastern Poland in 1939-40 as “the strangled and desecrated October Revolution serv[ing] notice that it was still alive”.

Trotsky was a bitter critic of the foreign policy that in 1939-41 flowed from the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939. It was more than a non-aggression pact, he said. It was a partnership. He denounced “Hitler’s quartermaster” and “jackal” Stalin. And yet he was for the “unconditional defence” of the USSR in its international dealings, that is defence irrespective of the Russian government’s policies and actions, and even when it acted, as in Poland, in partnership with the Nazis. He condemned the USSR’s invasions of Poland (17 September 1939) and Finland (30 November 1939). And yet, when the Finns resisted, he was for the victory of Stalin’s army over the Finnish people.

He insisted that “we are and remain against seizures of new territories by the Kremlin”, and that conquest in Poland by the Stalinist state was turning the people into “semi-slaves”. And yet he could not side with those “semi-slaves”, actual or future, for fear of the effect on the fate of that same state and of what was unique to it because of the working-class October Revolution: nationalised property and some form of economic plan, with all the evils he had angrily described, stigmatised, and urged the workers to resist and destroy.

Trotsky was a proponent of the theory that the totalitarian bureaucracy was historically, for a short time, a locum for the working class and for the October Revolution because it retained statified property; and yet he was a mortal opponent of that bureaucracy from its early days. Advocate of a thoroughgoing revolution to extirpate the bureaucracy, he nonetheless felt obliged to defend its state in international affairs, “unconditionally”, whatever it did and even when he condemned it, so long as it remained the custodian and defender of the statified property. In practice, in face of a stabilisation and expansion of Stalinism which Trotsky had not expected, this attitude raised Russian nationalised property above all other concerns. In Finland, it raised it above the freedom of the working class to organise itself, to think, and to formulate and express its own politics.

Trotsky interpreted “defence of the USSR against imperialism” to mean wanting it to be victorious even when it was engaged in an attempt to reduce the Finns (and thus the free Finnish labour movement) to what he had described as “semi-slavery” (in relation to Poland, three months earlier). He was an inveterate defender of the rights of the oppressed nationalities in the USSR. And yet he defended the USSR in its war to subjugate the Finns because he thought the Russo-Finnish war would quickly merge into the Second World War. He denounced Stalin’s policy in Finland sharply. He wrote: “During the war with Finland, not only the majority of the Finnish peasants but also the majority of the Finnish workers proved to be on the side of their bourgeoisie. This is hardly surprising since they know of the unprecedented oppression to which the Stalinist bureaucracy subjects the workers of nearby Leningrad and the whole of the USSR”. And yet he felt obliged to side with Stalin in Finland.

Shortly after Stalin’s invasion of Poland – in partnership with Hitler’s Germany and as agreed by the Hitler-Stalin pact – Trotsky wrote: “In every case the Fourth International will know how to distinguish where and when the Red Army is acting solely as an instrument of the Bonapartist reaction and where it defends the social basis of the USSR”. He bitterly condemned Stalin’s policy in Poland and Finland. Yet when in 1939-40 some of Trotsky’s comrades tried to separate off what should be “defended”, “unconditionally”, from what should be condemned as an expression of the oligarchy and its drives, appetites, and interests; and when they argued that “defence of the USSR” could not be “unconditional”, he denounced and condemned them. Trotsky described the invasions of Poland and Finland as above all an “extension of the territory dominated by bureaucratic autocracy and parasitism”. And yet he still felt obliged to “defend” the Stalinist system’s forcible extension by Stalin beyond the USSR’s borders because the alternative, once the USSR was engaged, was or might be defeat for the progressive potential of the USSR’s nationalised economy. Against “conjunctural defeatism” (.siding with the USSR in wars only “conjuncturally”, i.e. in some circumstances), he recalled the legend of “Columbus and the egg”. Christopher Columbus challenged his companions to make an egg stand on its end. When they couldn’t, he smashed one end of the egg on the table, flattening it. Thus he could make the egg, the no-longer-quite-itself egg, stand on that end. After Columbus’s example, anyone could do the same thing. Thus too with defeatism: do it once, on the periphery of the World War, where inevitably there would be cross-currents and complications, and you would find it much easier to do in other situations. Trotsky feared that the “conjunctural defeatism” which he himself had seemed to advocate (“the Fourth International will know how to distinguish...”) might slide into a comprehensive defeatism. He feared to disorient his comrades when (soon, in the World War), the Stalinist system would collapse, the bureaucracy would shatter, and the fate of what appeared to be the remaining legacy of the 1917 revolution would become the living axis of politics.

In fact, the collapse didn’t happen. The bureaucracy didn’t shatter. And most of those who were “Russian defeatists” in the Finnish war would soon reject “defence of the USSR” entirely.

For fear of the spread of a general Trotskyist defeatism, Trotsky took a position which flew in the face of his denunciations of what Stalin was doing and would do in Finland. His stance meant taking a position on Finland motivated not by what was happening and would happen with a Russian victory there, but by concern for something else, general defence of USSR against the big imperialist powers. By way of the “Columbus and the egg” parable, he said plainly that that was what he was doing. When Max Shachtman tried to insist on answers, on their merits, to the “concrete questions”, Trotsky angrily dismissed him as a mere coiner of journalistic jargon.

Trotsky was an international socialist who, feeling the need for auxiliary theses beyond those of the “degenerated workers’ state” and the “progressive economy” to buttress defence of the USSR, reached for arguments indistinguishable from those of the Russian Marxist social-patriot George Plekhanov for defending the Tsar’s Russia in World War One: Russia would be reduced to a colony if it were defeated. When a comrade, Simone Weil, who was to become well known as a mystical philosopher, pointed this out, he responded gnomically that she had a “right to understand nothing”.

I discussed these issues in greater detail in the introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1. Some of these paradoxes are plain flat contradictions. Most can be understood in terms of Trotsky’s increasingly feverish attempts to grasp and define the new Stalinist system and to hold on to the perspective on contemporary history as an “era of wars and revolutions”, on the certainty of which the Bolsheviks had made the October Revolution. Yet, as we will see, the later political evolution of his co-thinkers in the 1939-40 dispute would mock his fear that it would set an open-ended precedent if the Trotskyists came out for “conjunctural defeatism” against the USSR in the Russo-Finnish war. The precedents set by Trotsky’s “Russian defencism” on Finland, and by his speculations about social upheavals triggered by the “Red Army” in eastern Poland and, maybe, Trotsky thought, in Finland too – those would be the “precedents” that would begin to reshape and warp “Orthodox” Trotskyism within a year of Trotsky’s death.


TROTSKY READ OFF the class character of the USSR from the origins in the 1917 working-class revolution of the statified property that characterised it. At the same time he remembered and said that the statified property in Stalin’s USSR was radically different in kind from the statified property in the early workers’ state, as well as far more pervasive. It was not less radically different from the statified property of a future regenerated USSR, after a new workers’ revolution, under working-class control and planning. He argued that the fully statified property was inexplicable apart from the working-class revolution which had overthrown the old ruling class. “The first concentration of the means of production in the hands of the state to occur in history was achieved by the proletariat with the method of social revolution, and not by capitalists with the method of state trustification”. The Russian system was unique.

This was central to Trotsky’s reasoning. What he saw as the post-bourgeois nationalised economy in Russia was unique in the world. It could not have come into existence without the prior destruction by the working class of the Russian bourgeoisie. When the revolution came to be isolated, and declined, the bureaucracy expropriated the working class and made itself, in Trotsky’s words, “the sole master of the surplus product”. The Stalinist bureaucracy did not create the nationalised economy; its rule was a negation but also a continuation of the revolution, by way of the survival of nationalised property. It performed no essential function in the economy that the working class could not have done better. The bureaucracy was a parasitic formation on the workers’ state, an epiphenomenon, not an independent force in history. Without the working-class revolution there could have been no statified economy in the USSR.

Because, as he believed, the bureaucracy was so unstable and historically unviable, the nationalised property still gave the state a predominant, albeit a residual, working-class character. Or, more exactly, a “post-working-class-revolution and not-yet-definitively-anything-else” character.

As yet the USSR remained a degenerated and degenerating workers’ state. Or, more precisely, so Trotsky thought and said, it was better to go on seeing it like that for a while longer, until all the contradictory variables were tested, as they would be, in the World War. “Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed 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 had admitted in September 1939 that the USSR as it was might have to be reinterpreted as a “bureaucratic collectivist” society. The lynchpin of his entire position by 1939-40 was: wait a while.

Trotsky saw the nationalised economy as the empirical evidence that the revolution had not been entirely destroyed, and thus for his “degenerated workers’ state” theory. But the criterion was not just the nationalised economy “in itself”. It was the nationalised economy as seen in the perspective of its origin, the workers’ revolution, and then of the revolution’s “political” defeat by the bureaucracy. Trotsky saw the nationalised economy as necessarily, as well as in terms of historical fact, linked to the October Revolution. There was no other way it could have come to exist. The criterion was a question of four elements.

One: the agency, the working class and its revolution.

Two: the empirical evidence of what remained of October, the statified property.

Three: the fact that the level of statification in the USSR was, then, unique in the world.

And four: the fact that the statified economy of Russia bore some resemblance, even in its grossly deformed Stalinist reality, and in a backward country, to the social administration of the economy that the working-class revolution, as the heir to advanced capitalism, would create.

The origin of the statified property in the 1917 revolution reinforced this fourth consideration. But, for Trotsky, it could not have been nationalised property “alone”.

From 1937, he began to dismantle and remodel his own edifice of theory, when, “for the sake of argument”, he separated his idea that Russia was still, in a very deformed sense, a workers’ state, from the idea that the system of statified and bureaucratised planning was historically progressive. It was progressive, he argued, because it developed the forces of production in an epoch of great and all-pervasive capitalist decline. Against a French comrade, Yvan Craipeau, who argued that Stalin’s USSR was an exploitative class state, Trotsky wrote: “When we are faced with the struggle between two states which are — let us admit it — both class states, but one of which represents imperialist stagnation and the other tremendous economic progress, do we not have to support the progressive state against the reactionary state?... Whatever its modes of exploitation may be, this new society is by its very character superior to capitalist society. There you have the real point of departure for Marxist analysis!”

And there, too, in Trotsky’s idea, you have the starting point for the post-Trotsky Orthodox Trotskyist theory of the “deformed” (deformed, not degenerated) workers’ states. These would be states approximating Russia in their structure, and consequently would be considered progressive and labelled “workers’ states” to signal that progressiveness; but states which the working class, as a class, had played no part in creating, as in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, Cuba.

In that 1937 polemic with Yvan Craipeau, Trotsky presented Russia’s nationalised economy as progressive per se. Two years later, in The USSR in War (September 1939), he wrote that it would be progressive only if and when the bureaucracy ceased to rule over it. “In order that nationalised property in the occupied areas [of eastern Poland], as well as in the USSR, become a basis for genuinely progressive, that is to say socialist, development, it is necessary to overthrow the Moscow bureaucracy”. He declared in his open letter to the Russian workers of May 1940 that “the surviving conquests of the October Revolution”, “the nationalized industry and the collectivized Soviet economy”, would “serve the people only if they prove themselves capable of dealing with the Stalinist bureaucracy, as in their day they dealt with the czarist bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie”. In plain words, by then Trotsky saw the statified economy of the USSR as progressive only on condition that the working class took power there. (This volume, p.637).

On one level, this was as big an innovation as his shift in September 1939 to the view that it might become necessary to re-conceptualise the USSR, exactly as it was, without further “degeneration”, as a form of exploitative class society. And it raised the question: what was now left of Trotsky’s post-1937 reasons for “defending the USSR”?


TO RECAPITULATE: TROTSKY BELIEVED that in the Stalinist system, the state-owned economy was a result of the destruction of the old ruling classes by the working-class revolution and, ultimately, a product of the new economic foundation laid by that revolution. The workers had been politically expropriated by a bureaucratic counter-revolution. And socially, too: in his attempt to distinguish between grades of counter-revolution Trotsky did not in any degree deny that. What he proposed that the working class should fight for against the bureaucracy – destruction of the totalitarian state apparatus, soviet democracy, a working-class-controlled economic plan, etc. – spelled it out clearly.

The new autocracy drove the people like the worst slave-masters in history; it had a concentrated power over society unparalleled in history. Yet it maintained, and indeed after 1929-30 had vastly extended, statified property. It was the autocracy’s form of property, rooted in their political counter-revolution, their political expropriation of the working class, and in their way of administering the socio-economic system – but also, more fundamentally, it was rooted in the great transformation accomplished by the October Revolution. The ruling oligarchy maintained that which in broad socio-economic and historical terms distinguished the USSR from the capitalist world.

In Trotsky’s view, this was a “transitional” phenomenon of necessarily short duration, an unexpected phase in the protracted decline and degeneration of the October Revolution, albeit one which, because the fetters of capitalism had been thrown off, still allowed a tremendous development of the forces of production. Trotsky knew and said that much of the economic success of the 1930s depended on the savage slave-driving of the workers and the rural population by the autocracy; and he believed that they could not possibly go beyond a very partial and patchy catch-up towards the level of advanced capitalism. He put forward a programme of working-class self-defence and political reassertion against the autocracy. He analysed and described the system, which he considered unviable, as a flux of history, degenerating at an accelerating rate, rather than having degenerated finitely into a durable socio-economic formation. For decades after World War Two, almost all observers, friendly or hostile, would see the USSR as an established, and, so-to-speak, settled and stabilised, socio-economic formation. Trotsky saw it not at all like that. For him it was a temporary conjunction of contradictions which had to give way, and soon, either to bourgeois counter-revolution or to a working-class “political” revolution against the autocracy. Before September 1939, when he declared that a new way of conceptualising the USSR (as it was) might in due course be necessary, he saw the system as a freak of history arising from the political destruction of working-class power in the USSR, combined with the anachronistic maintenance of economic forms rooted in the October Revolution, whose survival in such conditions had been possible only because of the prolonged crisis of world capitalism after 1929.

Repeatedly Trotsky saw the downfall of this system as imminent – in the crisis of collectivisation before 1933 (when there was a temporary consolidation), and with the beginning of the purges in 1935-6, which he initially saw as the death convulsions of the system. Trotsky thought it certain that Russia would be drawn into the World War, and that in the war its current regime would collapse one way or another, under capitalist conquest or under workers’ revolution.

In other words, Trotsky’s analyses of Stalinism at the end of his life were in a feverish flux, and seen by Trotsky himself as provisional and ongoing.


TO UNDERSTAND why Trotsky refused to “affix to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class”, we need to stand back from the immediate situation of 1940. In refusing at the start of World War Two to classify the USSR as a class-exploitative society, Trotsky stood on the self-same ground as when in 1924 and after he rejected the Stalin-Bukharin theory of socialism in one country. The immediate focus of the disputes in the mid 20s around the doctrine of socialism in one country, the ideological banner under which the bureaucracy consolidated its power, was, properly, its short-term political implications. Socialism, that is, a developed socialist society on a higher level than the most advanced capitalism, and in one country? So there would be no other working-class revolution in the whole epoch in which socialism was being constructed in the USSR? The Communist Parties throughout the world would no longer work to make revolutions in their own countries? They would function mainly as frontier guards to “defend” and serve the interests of the state in which socialism was being built?

Plainly, in this schema, there would be no other working-class revolutions, and the non-Russian CPs would become international guardians and diplomatic and political pawns for the government of the socialist state a-building. And in fact they did, and very quickly. There was also a more profound theoretical reason for rejecting socialism in one country.

The programme of working-class communist revolution is grounded on the level of production attained by capitalism on a world scale and on the basis of the worldwide division of labour. Only that level of production, and what could be developed out of it by the working class, would provide the necessary minimum social and economic basis for a socialist society and for abolishing classes. A “socialism” in a backward country, confined to its own resources and inevitably severing at least some of its connections with the world market, could only be a sham. As Marx had reasoned: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive”. In the mid 20s Trotsky put forward an ambitious programme of economic development, which the Stalinists and Bukharinites rejected. But the idea that the USSR, in isolation, in parallel to capitalism, could build itself all the way to socialism was a new version, on a gigantic scale, of the projects of 19th-century utopian socialists, who would set out to create new societies in the wildernesses of the USA or some such “virgin” place.

Marxists argued that socialism would have to develop from capitalism, and be won by the proletariat, that is, by one of the classes within capitalism and created by capitalist society. It could never come from outside advanced capitalism, rise in competition with it, and go on to surpass it. For Trotsky in 1939-40, the idea of the USSR being a new form of class society implied that it was not a freak of history, an “accidental” combination of circumstances, but a relatively stable, “historically established” and viable system. The objections to the idea of a new stabilised “bureaucratic collectivist” system emerging in isolation on the edges of capitalism and then surpassing it were identical to the objections to “socialism in one country”.

Trotsky in the late 1930s took it as a fact that capitalism had ceased to develop on a world scale and was in historical regression. Short of socialist revolution, a series of world wars and with them “the eclipse of civilisation” were certain. It was only in such a world of catastrophically declining capitalism that Stalinism could survive and prosper and, so he wrote, if generalised internationally, stabilise as a new form of exploitative class society.

Trotsky admitted, in effect, the theoretical possibility that the USSR was already established as a new exploitative class society, a semi-slave society. But a definite conclusion that it was so would mean a big step away from his general conceptions of necessary historical evolution. So he held back. That Russia was still a “degenerated workers’ state” was not something Trotsky put forward as a long-term perspective. He said plainly that it was a very short-term perspective. He did not envisage long-term Stalinism in one country, or in many backward countries. When he described the USSR as a “transitional” formation, as he sometimes did, he did not mean what that expression came to mean for his Orthodox followers: a stable society in transition to socialism.

Trotsky thought of Stalin’s autocracy as too unstable for it to venture on international expansion more than marginally. “The idea of Stalin’s sovietizing Germany is as absurd as Chamberlain’s hope for the restoration of a peaceful conservative monarchy there”, he wrote (December 1939). James P Cannon, the man who would shape post-Trotsky Orthodox Trotskyism, was even more clear-cut than Trotsky on this. “Stalin could take the path of Napoleonic conquest not merely against small border states, but against the greatest imperialist powers, only on one condition: that the Soviet bureaucracy in reality represents a new triumphant class which is in harmony with its economic system and secure in its position at home, etc.... If such is really the case, we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the bureaucracy up to now...” (Letter to Trotsky, 8 November 1939). The time-frame in Trotsky’s argument that the USSR could not develop as an alternative economic model in parallel to capitalism was vastly mistaken – out by half a century. But his fundamental reasoning about the impossibility of a new social order developing on the edges of advanced capitalism and in competition with it rather than from its inner contradictions and historical achievements – on that he was not mistaken. The USSR, after competing with a revived and thriving capitalism for decades, and being drawn into arms competition with the USA which it could not sustain, went down to defeat and destruction.


BY THE EVE OF LEON TROTSKY’S DEATH in August 1940, the American Trotskyist organisation, which was by far the most important of the Trotskyist groups, had split over “defence of the USSR” in Poland and Finland and over how the Trotskyists should organise and conduct their party affairs. (There would have been no split on “defencism” had it not been for the organisational disputes and the “Cannon regime” in the party). Two currents of Trotskyism had begun the process of complete separation, but as yet only begun. It would take most of a decade before the evolution of two distinct species was, more or less, complete. To change the image: in 1940 the two Trotskyisms were two dialects of one political current. By 1950 the dialects had evolved into two political languages, whose speakers often no longer understood each other.

There is no question where Trotsky stood in the split and the events that led up to it – solidly with Cannon and the “defenders of the USSR”. Indeed, he was the main political writer on that side of the divide. On the underlying political and theoretical issues the picture is nothing like as clear-cut.

In the long essay The USSR in War, which Trotsky finished in mid-September 1939, he broke radically new ground. For the first time he accepted that the USSR, as it was, without further degeneration, might have to be reclassified as a new and hitherto unknown type of class-exploitative society. If the world war produced not the overthrow, one way or another, of Stalinism, but the spread of Stalinist-type regimes across the world, then “it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting rĂ©gime on an international scale”. When some of his American comrades (some of them in mockery) branded such an idea as “revisionism”, he replied in October 1939 with Again and Once More on The Question of the USSR, in which he dismissed such condemnation as know-nothing dogmatising.

“Some comrades evidently were surprised that I spoke in my article of the system of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ as a theoretical possibility. They discovered in this even a complete revision of Marxism. This is an apparent misunderstanding. The Marxist comprehension of historical necessity has nothing in common with fatalism.... [If the working class fails to take power], fascism on one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other, outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism...”

He suggested that the “further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime” might produce a similar structure.

If Stalin’s system on a world scale would be an exploitative slave society, what was the Stalinist one-sixth of the world, in the USSR? Logically, there was only one answer to the questions posed by Trotsky’s reasoning: Russia was already an exploitative slave society. Trotsky had said explicitly that, looking back from the future, the socialists might have to accept that the USSR was already in 1939 the “precursor of a new exploiting rĂ©gime on an international scale”.

Was there some additional quality which the Russian Stalinist system would get from participation in a worldwide network of similar states? Yes, there was: stability, and the elimination of pressure and rivalry from an inimical advanced capitalism. But in terms of the social structure, and the roles of social groups in it, especially of the working class, in this putative slave-society world, Stalinist Russia would remain itself.

Trotsky believed that the USSR would give way either to a workers’ revolution or to capitalist restoration, and soon. The great test would be the world war which was already being fought, and which would reach Russia ten months after Trotsky’s death. The war would decide the fate of the USSR.

“Defence of the USSR” had been seen as defending a Russia under attack from imperialist states, and on the defensive. In eastern Poland the USSR was expanding its territory as Hitler’s partner in imperialist rapine and plunder. Was Russia, then, to be seen as imperialist? The disputes that erupted around that question were heated, but more about terminology and historical perspective than about the substance of what Russia was, and what it was doing.

The majority of the peoples of the USSR were not Great Russians, but members of distinct nations. The Bolsheviks, in 1917 and after, had had to tear down the walls of what had been called the Tsarist “prison-house of nations”. At the very start of the Left Opposition against the rising oligarchy, Lenin, from his deathbed, had indicted the Georgian Stalin for his “Great-Russian chauvinist” treatment of Georgia. As Stalinism developed, its rigid bureaucratic centralising Russian state power subordinated all segments of the apparatus to firm Moscow control. It thereby made the formal autonomy of the smaller nations in the USSR more or less meaningless. In this way, Stalin re-erected, and higher than before, the walls of the old Great Russian prison-house of nations.

The Trotskyist proposals to smash the bureaucracy and revive Bolshevism in the USSR meant also freeing the channels of self-determination for the smaller peoples in the USSR. In 1939, when Trotsky had called for the independence of a soviet Ukraine, he had to defend the idea against both dogmatic semi-Trotskyists (the Oehlerites, a mid-30s breakaway from the American party) and such reflex Russian patriots and chauvinists as Alexander Kerensky, the one-time Russian prime minister whom Lenin and Trotsky had chased out of Petrograd in October 1917. The implications of the call for Ukrainian independence ran right through Stalin’s internal USSR “empire”. In 1939 Trotsky published bitter criticism of Stalin’s “shameful and criminal” invasion of Poland. He refused to use the term “imperialism” for the USSR, but in fact the terms of his refusal to do so conceded that Stalinist expansion amounted to imperialism “in the widest sense of the word”. “History has known the ‘imperialism’ of the Roman state based on slave labour, the imperialism of feudal land-ownership, the imperialism of commercial and industrial capital, the imperialism of the Tsarist monarchy, etc. The driving force behind the Moscow bureaucracy is indubitably the tendency to expand its power, its prestige, its revenues. This is the element of ‘imperialism’ in the widest sense of the word which was a property in the past of all monarchies, oligarchies, ruling castes, medieval estates and classes. However, in contemporary literature, at least Marxist literature, imperialism is understood to mean the expansionist policy of finance capital...”

Stalin invaded Finland on 30 November 1939, after Russia’s demand for military bases in Finland was rejected. Trotsky denounced that invasion too. “The invasion of Finland”, he wrote, “indubitably provokes a silent condemnation by the majority of the population in the USSR”. But, seeing the conflict as inseparable from the world war, he favoured the victory of the USSR. He feared that the Finnish conflict would lead to British and French intervention. Over Finland, far more than in relation to Poland, he insisted that the necessary condemnation of Stalin’s invasion was secondary to a more basic question: “defence of the USSR”. “Behind the Finnish question, as behind the question of the errors and crimes of the Kremlin, stands the problem of the existence of the USSR. Its defeat in the world war would signify the crushing not only of the totalitarian bureaucracy but also of the planned state economy; it would convert the country into a colonial booty for the imperialist states”.


STALIN’S INVASION OF POLAND TRIGGERED a dispute in the American Trotskyist movement between a majority led by James P Cannon and a minority led by Max Shachtman. It would end with a split down the middle of the party on 16 April 1940. The Heterodox Trotskyists launched themselves as the Workers Party ten days later, on 26 April 1940. They produced a single-sheet issue of Labor Action in time for May Day 1940, and by then they had already produced the April number of the New International magazine as their publication (as editors, Burnham and Shachtman had been the registered owners). The first weekly Labor Action appeared on 20 May 1940.

As always in such splits, a lot of people simply quit. The Workers Party consolidated as members fewer than the number of SWP and YPSL (youth group) people that they had had in the faction fight. The dispute was nothing like as clear-cut as it is almost universally summed up as having been. Contrary to most retellings, the dispute was not about whether the USSR remained a “degenerated workers’ state” or must be reckoned as a new exploitative class state. And it was not about whether or not to “defend the USSR” against big-power invasion. With not many exceptions, the minority, the future “Heterodox Trotskyists”, including Max Shachtman, agreed with Trotsky that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state”. Shachtman had “doubts”; but Trotsky too had “doubts”, and expressed them in September 1939 by sketching out alternative futures for the USSR. The minority also agreed that against a big imperialist onslaught the Trotskyists should and would “defend the USSR”. The faction fight in the American Trotskyist movement was focused politically on whether “defence of the USSR” could guide them in the war which Russia waged against Finland between 30 November 1939 and March 1940; and, organisationally, on the “Cannon regime” in the SWP, which the opposition defined as “Zinovievite”. That meant: akin to the Communist International around 1924-6, in its early stages of political corruption and debasement by demagogy, and of party-machine rule.

At the start, when Poland was invaded, Albert Goldman moved a motion to “approve of Stalin’s invasion of Poland”. Goldman would shift radically in the mid 1940s and join the Shachtman Workers Party, but in 1939-40 he was a leading writer and speaker for the Cannon group. Cannon as well as Shachtman opposed Goldman’s motion to “approve” the invasion. Cannon’s attitude, as Shachtman recounted it, was that it was “purely a military question and we were in no position to express ourselves affirmatively or negatively on it”.

Trotsky, in his first comment for the public press, wrote that the invasion was “not a question of emancipating an oppressed people, but rather one of extending the territory where bureaucratic oppression and parasitism will be practised”. “The Red Army received the order to defeat in Poland those who had been defeated by Hitler. This is the shameful and criminal task that the Red Army was assigned by the jackals of the Kremlin”.

Cannon and his group then condemned the invasion, and they would also condemn Russia’s invasion of Finland. So they now agreed with the minority? No. The majority insisted that the real, basic, and primary question was “defence of the USSR”, in effect that they should also “defend” what they denounced – Russia’s invasion of Finland. Cannon and his comrades saw the minority’s views as sliding towards a general renunciation of “defence of the USSR”, and on that they were right. Shachtman and his comrades saw the majority’s views as sliding towards alignment with Stalinist imperialism and “bureaucratic revolution”, and they were right too. But that all lay in the future.

The dispute became fierce after the USSR’s invasion of Finland on 30 November. In Finland, unlike in eastern Poland, there was an ongoing war, which produced a lurch by the Cannonites to what they called “Soviet patriotism” (The Militant, 9 December 1939: though that was accompanied by Trotsky’s anti-Stalinist polemics.)

The dispute was immediately about whether in their underlying “theoretical” approach (as distinct, for example, from Trotsky’s journalistic comments), the Trotskyists should want Russia to win in Finland. Should they, when and if possible, help Russia to win? Should they tell the Finnish labour movement (which would be extirpated if Stalin occupied Finland) to wish for Russian victory over the Finnish people, and act where possible to facilitate that victory? Faced with such questions, Trotsky’s whole system of politics began to disintegrate because of its inner contradictions.

The split process took on a momentum of its own. On one side, Cannon and his comrades had initially declared that the organisation could not “afford the luxury of a new discussion”. Trotsky had insisted that there should be discussion. But when Cannon and his comrades started denouncing the minority as the “petty-bourgeois opposition”, guilty not of mistaken views within a Marxist common framework but of capitulation to US public opinion, Trotsky joined in. The minority responded by raising the demand that they be allowed to put out a public bulletin of their own, with their distinctive views on the USSR, while still contributing to, supporting, and circulating the SWP press.

The split came on 16 April 1940. The USSR’s war in Finland had finished on 13 March 1940. The USSR was 14 months away from war, the USA 20. For some time after April 1940, in nearly every respect the new organisation set up by the minority, the Workers Party, would be a smaller twin of the SWP. The precipitating factor for the split was not the heat of a current political dispute, but the majority’s refusal to let the minority publish a public bulletin. In fact the majority rushed to a split without even waiting to see whether the minority would break party discipline and publish a bulletin.

Armed with a resolution from the 5-8 April conference, the Cannon group confronted the Shachtman group at the SWP Political Committee on 16 April 1940 (see The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1, p.270). Cannon produced a two-part proposal. The first part said: “That the committee accepts the convention decisions and obligates itself to carry them out in a disciplined manner”. The leaders of the convention minority abstained on that. The second said that those members of the SWP National Committee (a broader body) who abstained were suspended from the SWP. And that was that. According to Shachtman, “When Cannon had us ‘finished off’, he turned from his watch to his colleagues with the triumphant remark, ‘Only four and one-half minutes!’” For Cannon it was the dawn of a new era, of a “tightened-up”, “Cannonite” SWP.

Nobody saw the demand for a special minority bulletin, or its prohibition, as matters of principle. Two things ruled out conciliation: the baiting and demonisation of the “petty-bourgeois opposition”, and the minority’s experience of being refused even a hearing in some Cannon controlled SWP branches (including Minneapolis, the most important branch outside New York: see p.509). Why sensible people – if they did not want a split – would think two competing parties better than a public minority bulletin is not self-evident. The argument, essentially, was that this opposition, especially degenerate, “petty bourgeois”, bending under the pressure of public opinion, could not have a bulletin, or even much space in the SWP press. The production of a minority bulletin with a line on the USSR different from that of the majority might, under the impact of events, have led to a split at a later stage; but in the meantime the duplication of effort from having two competing Trotskyist groups with very similar politics would have been avoided; and the politics would have been clearer. The best outcome would, of course, have been that the two groups, in a common party discussion, positively interacted with and modified each other. Had the SWP of April 1940 not split, it is inconceivable that the wild quasi-Stalinist zig-zags of The Militant in the first few months of the Russo-German war (see below) could have happened. The strange ideas which the Orthodox deployed – “Trotsky’s Red Army”, the description of the USSR as “the workers’ state” without qualification, etc. – could not have been imposed on the organisation by the simple say-so of Cannon and his co-thinkers in the editorial office.

But the Shachtman minority intended to produce their own bulletin, in violation of the 5-8 April congress decisions, and thus there was approximate justice in the SWP Political Committee’s decision to split the organisation? Everything suggests that the minority had indeed intended to do that. But then why not wait for them to act and proceed against them when they acted and for what they did?

A majority anxious to avoid a split would have been conciliatory within the decisions they had won at the convention. It would have been eager to make it plain that the minority would not be discriminated against in party activity, positions, etc. It would have followed Trotsky’s recommendations from October 1939: to avoid linking the political argument to “the perspective of personal degradation, i.e. demotions, loss of prestige, disqualifications” and to establish “all the organisational guarantees for the minority”. The timing and content of Cannon’s motions were designed to produce the opposite effect. The majority wanted a split. Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party, written and published just before the split, makes that plain.


SUBSEQUENT EVENTS GAVE an unanswerable verdict on the charge of “petty-bourgeois renegacy” that was the banner of the Cannonites in their drive for a split. The “petty bourgeois opposition” did not bend under bourgeois public opinion when the US entered the war in December 1941. If anything it was the “proletarian majority” who aligned themselves with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois “pressure”, in their pro-USSR stance after 22 June 1941, and in an initial fudging on opposition to the war (see below).

The Orthodox would continue for a decade and more to describe James Burnham as the inspirer of the minority. But four weeks after the founding of the Workers Party, Burnham wrote a letter of resignation, announcing that he no longer had anything in common with Marxism or a Marxist party. Trotsky, he wrote, had been right about him. (See The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1, p.383). That Burnham had been a central SWP leader, writer of resolutions and articles, co-editor of the magazine, was true. The idea that he was the central leader of the minority – making them, after his departure, “Burnham’s orphans” – never made much sense. It was a factional gambit.

Sharp conflicts of the previous decade of the US Trotskyist movement welled up in the SWP of 1939-40 and broke it in two. When he sent Trotsky his polemic The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, just before the April 1940 SWP conference, Cannon wrote, in a covering note: “The dam of ten years patience has been broken down” (Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933, p.6). In 1933, the Trotskyists had come very close to splitting along roughly the same organisational lines as those on which they would split in 1940. Cannon had the majority of the National Committee against Shachtman and Martin Abern and was determined to hold on to it, one way or another. On all the big political questions, there were no differences between the groups. The origin of the group-clique conflict lay in the period immediately after the formation of the separate Trotskyist organisation when Cannon had a personal — and perhaps political — crisis, and had to get an outside job for a period of two and a half years. He largely withdrew from work at the office and got into conflicts with the de facto leadership of the organisation, Shachtman and Abern. Cannon resisted and opposed them on such things as publishing a biweekly and then weekly paper. A monthly was the best they could do, he argued.

There was no political basis for the intense factional conflict then. So Trotsky thought. He diagnosed the difference between the two groups as, on one side, comrades with a long political experience, even before the formation of the American Communist Party, and on the other, younger comrades. In “the local organisations... the workers, particularly those with trade union experience, go more with the majority, whereas the intellectuals, etc., who, come over to the organisation more or less on ideological grounds, go more with the minority. This categorisation is not quite exact, but it is by and large correct.” Trotsky linked it to the fact that in the whole previous period the group had been concerned above all with propaganda. “The mere fact that both factions have a different social composition and the different traditions is not enough to necessitate a split, since every party arises from various groups, elements, etc, is not socially homogeneous, and is a melting pot... The current situation coincides with the beginning of more energetic external work. Whether the League will become a melting pot through this work — that is the question that counts” (Dog Days, pp.462-3).

Cannon and his friends used various mechanical ploys, such as depriving Martin Abern of a vote on the leading committee while one of theirs was away, trying to co-opt a Cannon supporter onto the committee, and so on. They excluded Abern from the organising and administrative work which, by all accounts, he was most suited to, and Cannon least suited to. A secretariat consisting of Cannon and Abern was being proposed by the minority. Trotsky commented: “The question of the secretariat is also not quite clear to me. Of course, it is quite natural that Cannon was proposed as secretary, but if I were in Cannon’s place I might say, ‘I would in fact like a representative of the minority to work as a second secretary’. That would be an attempt to settle the disputed issues collectively, and through day-to-day collaboration frictions might indeed be eased. The personal-organisational disputes are out of proportion to the maturation of the principled differences. It seems to me, in fact, that on the part of the majority an element of organisational ‘ultimatism’ has played a role...” (Dog Days, p.465).

What in Cannon’s account of 1939-40 was called “Abernism”, the substitution of personal for political ties, is often a real issue in politics, whether it is called “Abernism” – or “Cannonism”. In 1939 Shachtman cited as part of the evidence that a “Cannon clique” ran the organisation the moves by Cannon to cinch up a “Cannonite” majority on the Political Committee before the differences had been clearly established.

Early on in the 1939-40 dispute, according to Shachtman, Cannon offered him an amicable split in which they would share the resources of the organisation. Cannon did not deny it, but it was, he said, a joke.

Trotsky, in joining in the demonisation of the minority as “petty bourgeois”, did the very opposite of what he had recommended in October 1939. If he had lived, he would have seen in the political activity of the alleged “petty-bourgeois capitulators” – in their stand against the USA in the war – the clearest possible evidence that he had been mistaken. Trotsky would have worked to eliminate the consequences of his mistake. Cannon was unwilling and perhaps unable to register the “mistake” that had allowed him to gain a control of the organisation such as he never had in its first eleven and a half years. Reunification was incompatible with the Cannonite-Zinovievite party into which the SWP was reshaped after 1940.

The Workers Party had been born politically premature and only half-formed. They had to sort themselves out politically on the Russian question. The discussion in the WP in 1940 produced three positions, other than those who remained degenerated-workers’-staters as (most likely) the bulk of the minority had been in April 1940.

C L R James and Raya Dunayevskaya argued that Russia was state capitalist, and in fact a “fascist” state. Two groups of “bureaucratic collectivists” emerged. A group around Joseph Carter and including Hal Draper developed towards the view that Russia exemplified a new reactionary form of class society which theoretically could (so it was implied, though their earlier statements did not say this) spread to be dominant in the world. They were impervious to Trotsky’s considerations about the shape of history and the impossibility of a new form of society arising in “one country” (or a cluster of countries) on the margins of capitalism and then competing successfully with it. Max Shachtman was not so impervious. At first he developed an analysis almost identical with Trotsky’s, only calling “bureaucratic collectivist” what Trotsky called “degenerated workers’ state”. As did Trotsky, Shachtman saw the USSR as a freak of history, a one-off, and with at least some potentially progressive content. He remained within Trotsky’s strictures and theoretical structures.

Max Shachtman published an article in New International of December 1940, Is Russia a Workers’ State?, expounding the majority view of the Workers Party (The Fate of the Russian Revolution, vol.1, pp.272ff). In 1946, in response to the consolidation and expansion of the Stalinist empire, the majority, Shachtman included, adopted a variant of the view of Joseph Carter. In this they paralleled (as we shall see) the establishment by the Orthodox in the mid-1950s of a quasi “socialism-in-one-country” perspective on the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state” stably in transition to socialism, and likely soon to overtake and surpass the capitalist world.


THE TROTSKYISTS SPLIT. Four months later Trotsky was struck down by a Stalinist assassin, on 20 August 1940, and died the next day. By then most of the Trotskyist groups in Europe had been scattered and driven underground by Nazi conquest of their countries.

Trotsky bequeathed to his surviving comrades a great political heritage, but also a number of seriously mistaken ideas. As well as on Stalinism, Trotsky bequeathed mistaken views on the historical prospects of capitalism; and on the prospects of bourgeois democracy. In The USSR in War (September 1939) he wrote: “The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits, likewise the disintegration of the old ruling class. The further existence of this system is impossible”. This huge and too absolute underestimation of the resilience of capitalism would warp and derail his comrades’ thinking for many years after his death.

As for bourgeois democracy: Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement believed that there were important differences between fascist regimes and bourgeois democracy. In pre-Hitler Germany, Trotsky appealed for a workers’ united front to defend the “elements of proletarian democracy” embedded in the framework of bourgeois democracy. For France, the “program of action” which Trotsky drafted in 1934 declared that “as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie”, but with the Trotskyists’ own class-struggle methods. In the Transitional Program of 1938, Trotsky wrote: “The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old ‘minimal’ demands... Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers”.

In World War Two, both fascist and bourgeois-democratic powers formed imperialist blocs. That fact ruled out seeing the war as simply “democracy versus fascism”. But Trotsky went further, arguing that in the war bourgeois democracy would disappear. All regimes would become fascist or authoritarian. There would be no difference. This was not a real answer to the question of what weight defending bourgeois democracy should have in the war. It was an evasion. It was to substitute a judgement of how things would evolve for things as they actually were; or, to judge some things as they were and others by what one thought they would become. It was too mechanical and fatalistic.

In March 1939 Trotsky responded to Palestinian Trotskyists who argued “it is necessary to renounce defeatism in countries which are even of doubtful democratic virtue, but which are at war with the leading fascist countries” by saying that iron “socio-historical laws” ruled out any bourgeois-democratic outcome. He wrote this remarkable passage: “Fascism is the inevitable product of decaying capitalism, insofar as the proletariat does not replace bourgeois democracy in time. Just how is a military victory of decaying democracies over Germany and Italy capable of liquidating fascism, even if only for a limited period? If there were any grounds for believing that a new victory of the familiar and slightly senile Entente (minus Italy) can work such miraculous results, i.e., those counter to socio-historical laws, then it is necessary not only to ‘desire’ this victory but to do everything in our power to bring it about. Then the Anglo-French social patriots would be correct”.

Even if bourgeois democracy were likely to collapse soon, that generalisation faded out such questions as the life or death of working-class organisations in the next months or years. Was that all that was to be said? Was the truth that both blocs were imperialist so overwhelming that it wiped out all concern with defending bourgeois democracy in the war, that is, with defending the existence of labour movements in Nazi-unconquered Europe (and in the USA)? Or: in 1939-40, Russian conquest of Finland would have meant the destruction of the Finnish labour movement. Why was that only a detail? The Trotskyists’ predictions proved to be seriously mistaken. In Britain, for example, war-time regulations were introduced against strikes, but not rigorously enforced. After the fall of France, the Labour Party joined a coalition government with the Tories and Liberals, under a Tory prime minister. The Home Secretary was Herbert Morrison, who had been a conscientious objector in World War One. After the formation of the coalition government with Churchill, the organised working class moved to massive acceptance that fascist invasion should be resisted, but it did so in its own way, not under state compulsion. The shop stewards’ movement expanded during the war. The Home Guard – “arming the people” – was feared as a potential threat to the ruling class, organised by men of the left such as Tom Wintringham, who had fought the fascists in Spain.

Despite the (patchily-enforced) wartime regulations against strikes, it could be argued that in Britain there was an expansion of bourgeois democracy during the war. Even the conscript army was not quite the old army. Lectures and talks became forums for real discussions in which leftists could and did speak freely. The Eighth Army had fought in North Africa and in Italy. In 1944 their “soldiers’ parliament” responded to howls in the bourgeois press against striking engineering apprentices in Tyneside by coming out for the right to strike and declaring that this right was one of the things they were fighting for. This was a Britain in political ferment, working its way towards the Labour landslide election victory of 1945, the creation of the modern welfare state, and the more or less peacefully-won independence of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka which followed. The Labour election victory was not our socialist revolution, but progress it undoubtedly was.

The main British Trotskyist group, the Workers’ International League, following the SWP-USA, took up the so-named “proletarian military policy”. It meant that the Trotskyists accepted the need for a war against fascism and the threat it posed to the labour movement, but distrusted the way the government conducted and was likely to conduct that war. The policy of the British (and US) Trotskyists in the war was at least a close relative of “revolutionary defencism”. It had a real meaning in Britain, under threat of Nazi invasion, which it did not have in the USA.

Shachtman’s Heterodox group, the Workers Party, believed that bourgeois democracy would go down before authoritarianism in the war no less than Cannon’s Orthodox SWP and the now-shadowy Fourth International which the SWP ran from New York did. Labor Action reported on 3 June 1940 that all civil liberties had been ended in Britain. “The Churchill government [has] rushed bills through... which give the Cabinet totalitarian powers equal to those of Hitler. The new powers wipe out all the guarantees of civil liberties and individual rights won in long and hard struggles... for over a thousand years”. That was to substitute expectation for analysis and accurate reporting. The difference between the Workers Party and the SWP was that though the WP could be misled by such ideas, they did not regard them as fetishes. They did not believe, as Cannon did, that the prestige of the leadership rested on never being wrong, that is, in practice, on covering up when inevitably they did get something wrong. As Shachtman recorded: “Before the war, we had all declared in our analyses that once the war got under way, the political differences between the totalitarian and the democratic countries would dwindle rapidly... Refusing to be guided by disproved assertions of yesterday, we established the facts early in the war and proceeded to orient our activities accordingly” (Five Years of the Workers Party, April 1945).

In the USA, despite wartime regulations, repression of socialists was a great deal less than it had been in World War One and its aftermath. “Pluto-democracy”, democracy dominated by the rich but still allowing leeway to the working class, thrived. And then, from 1943-5, in the Europe liberated from fascist rule and Nazi occupation, the development of bourgeois-democratic regimes confronted the Trotskyists with yet another unexpected development.

The Workers Party adjusted early and fully. The SWP and its co-thinkers in Europe did not. They insisted that bourgeois-democratic regimes – “new Weimar Republics” – were impossible in post-war Europe. There would at best be Bonapartist regimes, semi-dictatorial regimes under which the state machine, led by some self-said Napoleonic hero like De Gaulle in France, would rise above parliament and society. As late as 1949 (in an article by Ernest Mandel [Germain] in Fourth International of April 1949) the Orthodox were arguing that “the characteristic form of the state in our time [is] the totalitarian state within whose framework the police dictatorship (open, as under fascism, or thinly veiled, as [in] the regimes now being established in several Western European countries) corresponds to the extreme concentration of economic and state power and to the permanent crisis of the regime”. Obscurantisms cross-bred and multiplied.


IT IS IMPOSSIBLE not to attach to Trotsky much of the blame for what happened in 1939-40 and for the malign consequences that warped the post-Trotsky Trotskyist movement. How much his personal condition and the circumstances he lived in contributed to that can only be surmised. Was the raging at the “petty-bourgeois opposition” (and his tolerance of Cannon’s raging factionalism) displaced feeling about the world he saw taking shape? In the diary he kept for a while in 1935 while living in France, he compared himself to a wise old physician compelled to watch helplessly as fools, charlatans, assassins, and traitors destroyed someone very dear to him. Five years later he had to discuss the question: what if the working class and labour movements fail? What sort of world will it be then? At the worst reckoning, he said it would be a world in which the Marxists would have to work out a “minimum programme” to defend “the slaves of the new bureaucratic collectivist society”. In his “testament”, written in February 1940, he asserted his right to decide when to die, if his health continued to deteriorate; that is, to commit suicide.

W B Yeats in old age defined himself, mind, spirit, and awareness, as a sentient creature “tied to a dying animal”. Trotsky embodied Bolshevism and the legacy of the workers’ revolution in Russia, but it was Bolshevism tied to a dying animal – to an old, tired, dying animal, confronting an increasingly hellish world in which the hopes and beliefs that had sustained him politically for over four decades were put in question by events and by the “syphilitic” and “leprous” (his words) condition to which Stalinism had reduced so much of the working class movement. There is no mystery in Trotsky’s exasperation with Shachtman and his comrades or in his alliance with Cannon. There is no mystery in his fallibility. We need to record it, try to learn from it, pick up the pieces, and move on.


THE TWO TROTSKYIST GROUPS, Cannon’s SWP and Shachtman’s Workers Party, moved apart politically after April 1940 also in their responses to the USA in World War Two. Neither supported the Allies in the war, though the Orthodox continued to support China in its war against Japan. (The Heterodox saw China as having become an American tool in the war). The Workers Party responded to US embroilment in the World War after 7 December 1941 in what might be called the traditional early-Comintern way. Immediately on the US entering the war the WP issued a ringing manifesto that denounced the war. It appeared on the front page of Labor Action of 15 December under the headline “World in Flames” (this volume, p.569).

The war was an imperialist war on both sides, said the WP. They were opposed to the USA going to war, and they did not want the US government to win. The working class should not abate its class struggle during the war, but accelerate it.

Against the government, the WP backed pacifists opposing the war and refusing to fight in it. The young men of the Workers Party and the YPSL, however, believed that they should go with their generation, and let themselves be conscripted into the armed forces. A high proportion of the Heterodox Trotskyists, who were generally younger than the Orthodox, were taken into the military machine, seriously sapping the strength of the small party. The remaining activists of the “petty-bourgeois opposition” took the wartime opportunities for jobs in industry. Hal Draper and Anne Draper, for example, became shipyard workers.

The predictions and “warnings” to the minority that their refusal to back the USSR in Finland was the first “social-patriotic sinfall” of the Trotskyists in the war, and the deduction that this political tendency would not swim against the patriotic tide of mainstream America once the USA entered the war – those were shown by what the Heterodox did in the war to be the opposite of the truth. The Workers Party behaved in the full spirit of Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, Lenin and Trotsky. For them it was all politically and personally straightforward.

And the Orthodox Trotskyists? The SWP’s response to the US entering the war was downright strange. The front-page lead headline of the issue of The Militant just after the US entered the war told the reader: “War reinstates 1917 Espionage Act”. And John G Wright wrote of an imminent Russo-Japanese war. Nothing at all on the USA’s war itself.

The Militant did not comment directly on the USA’s entry into war, or declare that the SWP was opposed to this war by the USA, until the issue of 24 January 1942, 47 days or nearly seven weeks later. When it finally did comment on the war, it did so not in the name of the SWP as an organisation, but in a personal statement by James P Cannon, its National Secretary.

On 3 January 1942, an editorial in the left-hand column of the front page of The Militant carried the headline, pushing the paper’s masthead aside to the right of the page: “How labor can strike Hitler a mortal blow” (see this volume, p.573). How? Workers’ and farmers’ governments in Britain and the USA would evoke an anti-Hitler revolution in Germany. The article was linked to the war, but in political substance it could have been written at any time since Hitler came to power in 1933. In January 1942, it signalled that the SWP was in the fight against Hitler: “We Trotskyists want the destruction of Hitlerism and a ‘lasting peace’.” That seems to have been the point of publishing the article then. Thus, the Orthodox started printing advice (albeit addressed to the working class) on how to down Hitler before they had said plainly whether they supported or opposed the USA in the war. The signal given was that they supported it.

From the point of view of the USSR and its defence, the USA’s entry into war against Hitler, and thus into alliance with the USSR, was very good news. That had to be one of Cannon’s concerns in the six weeks or so in which he mulled over his response. The gap between the USA’s entry into war and the SWP’s response suggests that for them the response was not at all straightforward. In the epoch of the “Proletarian Military Policy” (see below) so much had changed – on conscription, on their attitude to militarism, and on the general necessity of an “anti-fascist” war – and the Orthodox had, as we shall see, become such whole-hog “patriots” for the USA’s Russian ally — that everything connected with the war had become a more or less new question.

The Cannonites would eventually proclaim as one of the chief crimes or mistakes of Stalin, reliance on his bourgeois allies, the USA and Britain. Cannon had evidently to work hard to arrive at that position.

The Militant of 24 January 1942 announced that the “Trotskyist leader” Cannon had issued a statement, which it summarised. Dated 22 December 1941, the full statement was printed in Fourth International for January 1942, which, the paper reported, had come out just then (i.e. not at the start of the month). The “22 December” statement had either been kept hidden for a month, or backdated by a month. The Militant did not print it in full until 7 February, two calendar months after Pearl Harbour and the USA’s entry into the war.

Later, Cannon would be angered by any reference to the SWP’s tardiness. At the SWP Convention ten months later, he denounced those who said he had hesitated as “liars”. Remember, he said, that the SWP leaders did not repudiate their anti-war politics in the court room. That “deed” (or non-deed), he asserted, spoke louder than any written statement could. “No misunderstanding has been possible... Those who pretend otherwise are liars and provocateurs, not misunderstanding people and not honest opponents” (The Militant, October 2, 1942). Not doing the opposite, not declaring positive support for the war, was stronger than an explicit statement against the war could be... Cannon, in his evidence at the Minneapolis Trial (27 October to 8 December 1941) in which, eventually, he and 17 other SWP members were sentenced to go to jail for “advocating the overthrow of the US government”, had expounded the SWP’s general attitude to imperialism and imperialist war, and that section of the evidence was published in The Militant dated 6 December 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Probably the SWP leaders feared that their organisation would be outlawed. They expected the severe repression that opponents of World War 1 had faced from the “liberal” government of Woodrow Wilson. But whatever the SWP’s calculations, to issue – as the WP did – a ringing and far-reaching denunciation of an American war which they opposed was, surely, their first political duty.


ON 27-29 SEPTEMBER 1940 the Orthodox Trotskyists called a conference and made a new departure which according to Cannon “telescoped”, so that they would be “carried out simultaneously”, the tasks of defeating Hitler’s fascism and those of overthrowing the US bourgeoisie (Socialist Appeal, 26 October 1940). This, the Orthodox said, was “proletarian militarism”, for an age of all-pervasive militarism. They based themselves on some remarks of Trotsky’s (“Discussions with Trotsky”, 12-15 June 1940: Writings 1939-40 pp.251ff).

The Trotskyist organisation would now have to be “a party of a new type”; it would have to “adapt itself to universal militarism... be highly centralised, with iron discipline in its ranks”. It would no longer oppose conscription, as it had done up to then (in a front-page lead article on 29 June 1940, for example). Rather, it would support military training but demand that it be done under the control of the trade unions, and that union-run, government-financed schools for officers be set up. This was, the Orthodox said, the extension into military affairs of the daily struggle of the unions in the factories with the bosses. In fact it was a proposal that the trade unions contend with the government for control of the army. So they would back the USA in the war against fascism? No, they explained. It was an inter-imperialist, not an anti-fascist, war. The ruling class could not properly wage an anti-fascist war or be trusted with doing so.

As far as I know, the Orthodox made no effort (and neither did the Heterodox) to organise their comrades drafted into the armed forces for political work there.

For a while, much was made of this “new” approach in the press of the Orthodox. Then it subsided to a reference in the regular eight or nine point platform which appeared in The Militant each week, together with an occasional call in the press for trade-union officers’ training schools. That may mean that criticisms of it had hit home. But the approach was not abandoned. For example, The Militant contributed “constructively” to the public debate opened up by a dispute in 1943 between the US commanders demanding a larger army, and dissenting Democrat and Republican politicians (The Militant, 20 February 1943). In practice the shift meant that the Orthodox dropped their once-vociferous opposition to conscription and softened their opposition to the war into one of de-facto political acquiescence, but with the caveat of a “demand” for trade-union controls that could not possibly be realised without an advanced state of dual power [1] in the country and in the armed forces. In the SWP’s daily reality, what was left was acquiescence in the war, with big caveats, and glorying in the victories of the USA’s ally Russia.

The proposal to take control of the armed forces out of the hands of the government – outside of a situation of dual power or revolution – was seen by the Orthodox as a demand that would be transitional to that dual power. In reality the idea that the army was separable from the state, while that state was stable, was political fantasy-mongering, abracadabra politics. The political acquiescence was real and immediate, as was the propaganda that militarism could not be resisted and that the proletariat therefore needed its own version of the all-pervasive militarism, its “proletarian military policy”. At first this stance included nasty and envenomed condemnation of pacifists resisting induction into the army (see, for example, “Paralysing poison from the ivory tower of pacifism”, by Joseph Hansen, Socialist Appeal 9 November 1940). Later they took a warmer attitude to pacifist conscientious objectors. (Cannon wrote in 1944 urging The Militant to defend the Jehovah’s Witnesses jailed for conscientious objection, such as he met in the same prison as himself).

The Workers Party polemicised against the new “proletarian military policy”. Max Shachtman wrote that “the Cannonites have given an important finger to the devil of national defencism” (Labor Action, 4 November 1940).

In the trade unions the Orthodox pursued a deliberately cautious policy. This was explained as “preserving the cadre”. On party guidance, SWP trade unionists tried to keep their heads down. By contrast, the Workers Party members were open and visible as revolutionaries and militants. They openly sold Labor Action. The SWP dismissed the Workers Party approach as that of people merely “visiting” in the unions. Whatever our judgement might be of the tactical advisability of caution in this or that case, the overall policy meant that the SWP avoided sharp clashes with the trade union bureaucracy. James P Cannon reckoned that the government and FBI offensive against the SWP which resulted in the Minneapolis jailings had been triggered by Daniel Tobin, leader of the Teamsters Union, and his friends in the Roosevelt administration. Felix Morrow, one of those jailed, later said that the Minneapolis case had been a “shot across the bows” of the SWP from the government – and that Cannon had heeded it.


TROTSKY’S TENTATIVE INTERPRETATIONS of what happened in eastern Poland when Russia took over were seminal for later “Orthodox” Trotskyism. What really happened there has been pieced together by the historian Jan Gross, in his book Revolution from Abroad, from testimonies written by inhabitants who were deported to the USSR. The history tells us where exile Mensheviks got their stories from when they wrote accounts of a sort of social revolution accompanying the Russian invasion. Those accounts had an influence on Trotsky – he said so – and in the Trotskyists’ debates. It also shows that those stories misrepresented what was happening, taking superficials as fundamentals and ignoring fundamentals.

Germany had already invaded from the west on 1 September, sixteen days before the Russian troops entered the east. In the east the big majority of the population were Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Jewish, and Poles were mostly colonists or administrators. The Polish government machine had substantially collapsed by the time the Russian troops arrived. “Killings, beatings, and destruction of property went on throughout eastern Poland for days before the Red Army actually occupied any given area and continued for several days afterwards. Ethnic hatred ran deep in the Ukrainian and Belarusian countryside, and it filled the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Polish administration with blood”. There was an addled social dimension to the violence, since Poles and Jews (the main victims) dominated the better-off classes.

“Through the western Ukraine and western Belarus, in hamlets, villages, and towns, the Red Army was welcomed by... visible, friendly crowds... largely of... Belarusians, Jews, and Ukrainians”. Hatred of Polish rule ran deep. It led many to think that Stalinist rule must be better. Jews especially welcomed the Russian army, calculating that the alternative was the rabidly anti-semitic German army or pogroms by local Ukrainian anti-semites. In a couple of villages allotted to Russia by agreement with Hitler, but occupied by the Wehrmacht before 17 September, the German army organised demonstrations to welcome the Russians!

The Moscow government instructed its military commanders in Poland to let the spontaneous reprisals and chaos continue their course for a while. The chaos continued and intensified. Stalin was nervous and uneasy about the invasion. Despite protests from its German allies, Moscow publicly explained its invasion as action “in order to aid Ukrainians and Belarusians threatened by Germany”. It supplied Russian Army commanders with political slogans. “For twenty years you lived under the yoke of the masters who drank your blood, and now we have liberated you and we give you freedom to do with them as you please”. Moscow supplied its troops with cash to buy supplies in the occupied territories, to stop them looting and antagonising the local people. The looting came later.

After a short while the Russian occupying army set up bodies of local government. To staff them, they often selected those who had led the ethnic violence, or mere criminals released when the Russian troops opened the Polish jails. Officials, police, school principals, etc. from the old regime were arrested. The Russian army encouraged land seizures and redistributions, though as a very short prelude to “collectivisation” – appropriation of the land by the Russian state.

Waves of arrests and deportations to the USSR (some to labour camps, some just to remote regions) followed. Hundreds of thousands of people were deported. The prisons were filled again – so full that in some of them prisoners had to try to sleep standing up. When in 1941 Germany invaded, those prisoners were either shot en masse or force-marched to the USSR, in a smaller-scale rendition of the death marches from some concentration camps which the Nazis organised in 1944-5 when facing defeat and exposure by the Allies.

Theodore Dan and the pro-Stalin Mensheviks, and after them Trotsky, were very badly mistaken about eastern Poland in 1939.

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