London Trotsky reading group next session 2 September

Submitted by AWL on 19 June, 2013 - 3:16

Mondays at 6:30pm, Foster Court, UCL, Malet Place, WC1E 7JG - A reading group on a selection of Trotsky's writings, on permanent revolution, internationalism, the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, and more. To find the precise room each week, call Dan on 07883 607 506 or Hannah on 07527 064 326.

Contact: 07883607506. Click here to download leaflet.

Leon Trotsky was a revolutionary socialist who played a central role in the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions and later became one of the most prominent critics of the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR. He faced imprisonment and exile and was eventually murdered by a Stalinist assassin in 1940. Throughout his life Trotsky's literary output was prolific. Join us on Mondays at 6.30pm from 15 July in reading and discussing some of his major political works.

15th July - Results and Prospects
Click here for reading. For various formats, click as follows: Kindle e-book, Epub e-book, pdf file. If you don't get to read the book "Results and Prospects", then as a shorter fallback click here to download pdf (six pages) of a concluding chapter of Trotsky's book "1905".

22nd July - War and the International
Click here for reading
Click here to download reading as pdf.

5th August - From October to Brest-Litovsk
Click here for reading
Click here to download reading as pdf.

19th August - The New Course
Click here for reading

2nd September - Lessons of October
Click here for reading
Click here to download reading as pdf.

7th October - Critique of the Draft Programme of the Comintern
Click here for reading
Click here to download reading as pdf.

14th October - What Next?
Click here for reading

21st October - Lessons of Spain
Click here for reading

4th November - Revolution Betrayed
Click here for reading

18th November - The Transitional Programme
Click here for reading
Click here to download reading as pdf.

25th November - Against the Stream
Click here for reading

tba - On the United Front
Click here for reading
Click here to download reading as pdf.


This was written in 1906, drawing lessons and perspectives from the mass strike movement in Russia in 1905, which had been the largest workers' uprising anywhere in the world up to that date.

The early revolutionary socialist movement in Russia, from the 1870s onwards, thought that the Russian revolution would be peasant-led and immediately socialist. The revolutionaries based themselves on the surviving communal organisations of the peasantry. They reckoned that capitalist development in Russia, breaking up the peasant communes, would be undesirable and anyway probably impossible on any scale.

At the start of the 1880s George Plekhanov changed the terms of the debate. He argued that capitalist development was a fact, like or not; that it was already undermining the peasant communes; that it would continue; and that it generated a working class which would be the real agency of revolution.

Since the working class was a minority, and industry was underdeveloped, it could not immediately win socialism. But the working class could, and soon, lead a radical bourgeois revolution in which it would also establish a strong workers' party and the rights it needed in order to develop.

By 1906, the debate had moved on yet again. Basing themselves on industrial development and working-class struggles which had exploded since the 1890s, Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued that the working class could push the bourgeois liberals aside to play a leading role in the bourgeois revolution, and give it the most radical form of a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" (a government dominated by radical peasant forces). The Mensheviks, now including Plekhanov, looked to the bourgeois liberals, rather than radical peasant forces, as the key allies for the working class.

All, including Trotsky, agreed that the first task of a Russian revolt was to achieve "bourgeois" freedoms. Russian capitalism was still emerging out of a feudal society that was characterized by a police state and the despotic power of rural nobles over the mass of peasants.

Trotsky was the only one who thought that the movement could or should move directly from its democratic tasks to socialist ones, such as the conversion of factories to common property under a unified production plan.

The Russian capitalist class, wrote Trotsky, leaned on the monarchy. The bourgeoisie was "very small in numbers, isolated from the 'people', half-foreign, without historical traditions, and inspired only by the greed for gain."

The urban petty bourgeoisie, the most radical bourgeois forces in moments like the French Revolution of 1789-94, was much smaller and weaker than in comparable countries.

The wage-working class, though small as a proportion of the whole population, was large and concentrated as an economic factor, and a major factor in the big cities.

Because its atomised conditions of life, the peasantry could not map out its own independent politics. It would follow either the bourgeoisie or the working class.

If the working class gained the leadership of the peasantry, it could and would lead a revolution which could and would not stop at "bourgeois-democratic measures". Consolidation of the workers' socialistic measures would depend on the Russian revolution meshing in with revolutions in more advanced countries. But that was what should and could happen.


In 1914 the international socialist movement collapsed, with most of its main parties supporting their rival countries' governments in World War One. In this pamphlet Trotsky refuted the supporters of war, analysed the collapse of the socialist movement, and mapped perspectives for the future.

1. Why and how did nation-states arise? Why does Trotsky argue that the capitalist development of the forces of production has come into conflict with the European nation-state framework?

2. What is Trotsky's bedrock argument for refusing support to any side in the World War?

3. "In the dealings between the Danube monarchy [i.e. the Austro-Hungarian empire] and the Serbian government, the historic right... rests entirely with Serbia". Why not then back Serbia and its allies (Russia, France, England...) in the World War?

4. Trotsky does not question that the Tsarist state is the most vicious in Europe, "a cruder and more barbarian form of organisation than... Austria-Hungary". Why not then back Russia's adversaries, Germany and Austro-Hungary?

5. Doesn't the working-class movement in every country have a duty to support the defence of that country against foreign conquest? Wasn't the right policy, then, once World War One had broken out, for the working-class movement in each country to support its own country's military efforts while trying to ensure that they were limited to the defensive?

6. "The Second International... has accomplished a huge cultural work... It has educated and assembled the oppressed classes". How then does Trotsky explain what he sees as "the collapse of the Second International"?

7. The Marxist position in World War One is often described as "defeatism". But Trotsky nowhere uses the term. Is that just a matter of terminology (i.e. a matter of him using slightly different words to convey the exact same idea)? Or is there a real issue here?


This is Trotsky's first short account of the Russian workers' revolution in 1917, written in great haste in 1919, in the midst of the civil war.

1. How did the revolution start, in February? Why did that February revolution produce a strange "dual power"?

2. How did the bourgeoisie try to consolidate its position and resolve the "dual power" in its favour?

3. How did the Bolsheviks negotiate the period of the campaign against them from May through to mid-August?

4. Why weren't the bourgeoisie able to consolidate power even despite that campaign against the Bolsheviks, and its successes?

5. How did the Bolsheviks turn things round at the end of August?

6. How then did things move through September to the revolution in October?

7. What's wrong with the commonplace description of the October revolution as a "coup"?

8. How did the civil war develop?


Right at the end of World War One, the new Communist Parties were entirely focused on tactics of immediate revolutionary assault. By 1921, the bourgeoisie had survived the immediate post-war crisis, though the economic situation was still febrile. The Communist Parties had to deal with the fact that in most countries the old Social Democratic parties still had greater support, and there would be no revolution until the CPs were able to win over a majority from the Social Democrats. The United Front was a chief tactic to do that. Trotsky, having lived in France, had special responsibility for working with the French CP, which opposed the United Front. He wrote this article in 1922 to summarise the United Front in general and to convince the French CP in particular.

What is the difference between "united front" and "popular front"?

Later on, when the Stalinists said that the "united front" could only be "from below" - i.e. excluded all alliances with or appeals to the Social Democratic leaders - and Trotsky argued against them, the Stalinists retorted that Trotsky was inconsistent because he opposed the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee of 1926. What do you make of that?


By 1923, a section of the Bolshevik party leadership was closely linked in to the state bureaucracy (mostly staffed by old Tsarist officials), and was increasingly dominant in the party itself. The Left Opposition declared itself in 1923. Stalin and his allies beat a tactical retreat, voting for a "New Course" of more party democracy while intending nothing of the sort in practice. Trotsky wrote The New Course to try to make renewed party democracy a reality.

1. Trotsky argues that bureaucratism is not just a bad habit, but "a social phenomenon". What were the roots of that "social phenomenon" in Russia in 1923?

2. What evil results does Trotsky see as coming from bureaucratism if unchecked?

3. In his commentary The Struggle For the New Course Max Shachtman argues that Trotsky misidentified the chief dangers of bureaucratism in Russia in the 1920s. How? And do you think Shachtman was right about that?

4. Trotsky insists that a Bolshevik must be someone who has and can sustain an independent opinion on all major questions, while in a disciplined way (the letter of 8 December 1923). Why? And how does that fit with his argument that the opening-up of party democracy could not wait until there had first been a higher education of the members?

5. The Troika argued for "playing safe" by sticking to old Bolshevik "tradition". How does Trotsky respond?

6. Trotsky argues that an earlier turn towards NEP would have averted many difficulties. Why? Do you think he's right?

7. It is often argued that Trotsky's error in 1923 was to appeal only to the Bolshevik activists, not to the broader working-class public. In his commentary Max Shachtman disputes that. Why? And is he right?

8. What was the Lenin Levy, and why did it have a bad effect?


Increasing marginalised, and alarmed by Stalin's and Zinoviev's bungling of a revolutionary situation in Germany in October 1923, in late 1924 Trotsky used the chance to write an introduction to an edition of his writings to sum up some basic ideas.

1. "An unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power". Why?

2. "On April 4, the day after his arrival at Petrograd, Lenin came out decisively against the position of Pravda on the question of war and peace. He wrote: 'No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government'." Why not demand that a government cease to be imperialist? Isn't that what you do when you demand it releases its colonies?

3. Lenin opposed support for the Provisional Government, but also opposed (until near October) calls for its overthrow. Why isn't that contradictory?

4. Then at the time of the Kornilov revolt, the Bolsheviks bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov, but Lenin writes: "Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here..." What is the dividing line?

5. Any revolutionary plans must soberly estimate the strength of the established government. Trotsky argues that paradox is likely here. "So long as the slogan of insurrection was approached by the leaders of the German Communist Party mainly, if not solely, from an agitational standpoint, they simply ignored the question of the armed forces at the disposal of the enemy (Reichswehr, fascist detachments, police, etc.). It seemed to them that the constantly rising revolutionary flood tide would automatically solve the military question. But when the task stared them in the face, the very same comrades who had previously treated the armed forces of the enemy as if they were nonexistent, went immediately to the other extreme..." Why?

6. "During August and September 1923, several comrades advanced the proposal that we should proceed to the immediate creation of soviets in Germany. After a long and heated discussion this proposal was rejected, and rightly so". Why?

7. "Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade..." But the bourgeois revolution can triumph without a pre-organised party. Why?


In late 1925 Zinoviev and Kamenev, increasingly alarmed by Stalin's bureaucratism, broke from him, and after some months they allied with Trotsky and the 1923 Opposition in a "Joint Opposition". A fierce factional battle in 1926-7 culminated with the expulsion and exile of all the Joint Opposition leaders at the end of 1927: some immediately capitulated, and others would capitulate over the next couple of years. Meanwhile Stalin was shifting the Communist Parties from revolutionary working-class politics towards a series of alliances thought useful to the USSR - with British trade union leaders, Chinese bourgeois nationalists, Croat-nationalist peasant leaders, etc. - and from 1928 would shift again to the ultra-left "Third Period" policy. In 1928 the Communist International convened its Sixth Congress: the congress was by now heavily controlled, but not as airtight as later, and Trotsky was able to submit a document to it which got translated and was smuggled out by James P Cannon.

In what ways had the Stalinists replaced the ideas of tbe Bolshevik Revolution and the early Communist Parties by different ideas? Which different ideas?


As Germany plummetted into economic chaos after 1929, the German CP refused to develop any policy for a united front with the Social Democrats (still the majority of the German workers' movement) against the growing threat of the Nazis. Trotsky wrote a series of polemics. What Next?, written in January 1932, is the longest and most complete of those polemics.

1. "A contradiction does exist between democracy and fascism. It is not at all 'absolute,' or, putting it in the language of Marxism, it doesn’t at all denote the rule of two irreconcilable classes. But it does denote different systems of the domination of one and the same class".

Different how? And, anyway, why are Marxists interested in the difference between different systems of the domination of the same ruling capitalist class?

2. "In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilizing it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sport clubs, the cooperatives, etc. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy, but can do so only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience. And these bulwarks of workers' democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road. The work of the Second International consisted in creating just such bulwarks during the epoch when it was still fulfilling its progressive historic labour".

How can bureaucratic trade unions and reformist workers' parties be "strongholds of proletarian democracy"?

3. "When the newspapers of the new Socialist Workers Party (the SAP) criticize 'the party egoism' of the Social Democracy and of the Communist Party; when Seydewitz assures us that so far as he is concerned, 'the interests of the class come before the interests of the party,' they only fall into political sentimentalism or, what is worse, behind this sentimental phraseology they screen the interests of their own party".

But isn't that the main point, the interests of the class come before the interests of the party? Or, if it isn't, why advocate the united front?

4. "On October 14, 1931, Remmele, one of the three official leaders of the Communist Party, said in the Reichstag, 'Herr Brüning has put it very plainly: once they [the fascists] are in power, then the united front of the proletariat will be established and it will make a clean sweep of everything. (Violent applause from the Communists)'..."

What's wrong with what Remmele said?

5. What does Trotsky argue are the lessons from Russia and from Italy on the question of the united front?

6. "The idea of nominating a candidate for president on the part of the united workers’ front is at its root a false one".


7. What are Trotsky's practical conclusions about what the German workers' movement should do, in January 1932?


After the German CP collapsed before Hitler in January 1933 without a concerted fight, and without any recognition from the leaders that they must reassess, Trotsky concluded that revolutionary socialists must build towards a Fourth International to replace a Third International that was now completely Stalinised. At first he looked for regroupment by the Trotskyists with some of the left-wing split-offs and opposition forces generated in large numbers round the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties at that time. The other forces with whom he sought to regroup veered off into halfway-house politics. And then in mid-1936 workers' revolution broke out in Spain, in response to fascist-minded army officers starting a war to overthrow the reforming Popular Front government. The Stalinists in Spain - at first weak, but strengthened by the Republic's reliance on military supplies from the USSR - worked with the reformists and the "shadow of the bourgeoisie" to suppress the workers' revolution in the name of unity against the fascists. Trotsky wrote this article, Lessons of Spain, in late 1937, after the Stalinists and their allies had turned decisively against the left. He sums up his critique of the policies which became known as the "Popular Front".

What was the Stalinists' argument? What was wrong with it? Why did it lead to defeat in the civil war against the fascists, as well as defeat for the workers' revolution?

What did the anarchists say and do?

What did the POUM (semi-Trotskyists) say and do?


From the time of the defeat of the Opposition in December 1927, the USSR evolved into a sort of society never seen before. Trotsky sought both to define a revolutionary socialist opposition to the ruling bureaucrats, and to analyse the new reality. The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, was his longest study of this question, though not his last word.

1. Section 1 of chapter 1 gives a much rosier picture of progress in the USSR than the rest of the book. How do the remaining sections of chapter 1 qualify that? How does it all hold up with hindsight?

2. Why is socialism in one country impossible? If the USSR was making impressive economic progress, why could it not achieve socialism in one country just by continuing that progress?

3. In Revolution Betrayed Trotsky writes:

a) The transfer of the factories to the state changed the situation of the worker only juridically. In reality, he is compelled to live in want and work a definite number of hours for a definite wage... [Then] the workers lost all influence whatever upon the management of the factory. With piecework payment, hard conditions of material existence, lack of free movement, with terrible police repression penetrating the life of every factory, it is hard indeed for the worker to feel himself a "free workman.’’ In the bureaucracy he sees the manager, in the state, the employer".

b) "In the Soviet Union... the classic methods of exploitation, such as piecework payment, are applied in such naked and crude forms as would not be permitted even by reformist trade unions in bourgeois countries".

c) "Kremlin dialogues of the authorities with 'the people' [in fact of a factory boss with a worker]... testify that... the relations among men... have not only not yet risen to socialism, but in many respects are still lagging behind a cultured capitalism".

d) "The character of the economy as a whole... depends upon the character of the state power".

e) "The word 'sovbour' - soviet bourgeois - as applied to a privileged dignitary appeared very early in the workers’ vocabulary."

f) "The bureaucracy as a ruling stratum... possesses the specific consciousness of a ruling 'class' which, however, is still far from confident of its right to rule..."

g) Repeatedly, that the the bureaucracy has become totalitarian and removed from all control by the population.

Why then in chapter 9 does Trotsky argue that the bureaucracy is not a ruling class, and more specifically that the USSR is not state capitalist?

4. In 1921 the New Economic Policy was proposed within the Bolshevik Party as a temporary retreat. In chapter 4, does Trotsky still see NEP-type policies that way? What are the implications for assessment of the "socialistic" abolition of NEP by Stalin?


Defeats in Germany, Spain, and France heightened the isolation of the activists who held to the basic ideas and values of the Russian Revolution and the early Communist Parties. It became clearer and clearer than a new World War was coming soon. In September 1938 Trotsky sought to consolidate that minority with a succinct summary of political ideas, woved into an analysis of the catastrophic crises at the time of both capitalism and Stalinism.

Implicit in the declaration of the Fourth International, and reflected in its programme, was a shift from the ideas of the previous period of trying to switch over mass communist working-class parties to revolutionary ideas. The Trotskyists now stressed the element of mass spontaneous working-class upsurge, bringing new layers of militants. They saw a highly volatile political situation .

“Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another. The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out. In countries where it has already been forced to stake everything upon the card of fascism, it now toboggans with closed eyes toward an economic and military catastrophe. In the historically privileged countries… all of capital’s traditional parties are in a state of perplexity bordering on paralysis of will. The New Deal, despite its initial pretentious resoluteness, represents but a special form of political perplexity, possible only in a country where the bourgeoisie succeeded in accumulating incalculable wealth…” (The Transitional Programme).

The Trotskyists’ perspective on what was going to happen was fundamentally correct. There was a mass working-class upsurge at the end of World War Two.

What the Trotskyists did not predict, could not predict, and would not predict, was their own defeat in their task of fusing their revolutionary programme and understanding with the organic class struggles of the labour movement.

For this period, one of economic and political instability, taking his cue from the living class struggle, Trotsky in the Transitional Programme codified a number of demands and types of struggle for the labour and socialist movement. The programme discusses the sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours; sit down strikes; workers’ control of industry; expropriation of capitalist industry, including the banks; a workers’ and farmers’ government; the struggle against war...

In writing the programme Trotsky took it for granted that the seasoned socialists would understand the basic thinking behind such ideas as a “workers’ government” and that this programme, like those of the Communist International before Stalin, was directed at preparing the working-class movement for revolutionary struggle, for overthrowing the bourgeois regime.

Every new socialist should read the Transitional Programme, not as a recipe or something from which we can copy out a quick fix programme for our own political situation, but as a rich source of ideas — a way to illuminate the how, the method of building a socialist movement.


This text is notes from a conversation in April 1939 between Trotsky and C L R James ("Johnson"), in which Trotsky answered James's questions about why the Trotskyists remained so isolated, and what they should hope for in future.

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