Revolutions of last 50 years did not confirm Trotsky’s theoretical verdicts

by Nando

I feel i need to start with a dozen caveats. History has not exactly been kind toward revolution in general — and the disappearance of socialist countries and movements generally is a large problems.

But I’m referring to a particular problem with the “record” of trotskyism as a political theory since it was codified by the fourth international during Trotsky’s last years.

Radical Eyes wrote that he/she wanted,

“….bit more on how and why you find the core trotskyist concepts that you mention (”permanent revolution, program of transitional demands, emphasis on working class trade unionism, the theory of bureucratic degeneration of the Russian revolution”) are in your view “not correct.”

“I doubt that I am the only one out here who could benefit from some–principled and non-sectarian–back and forth about any of these concepts.

“Any takers? Or defenders of these concepts for that matter?”

Ok, i’ll give it a try. But with an additional caveat: That I also think there is very limited value toward engaging these issues in this way. I worry that the thread that emerges from a post like this might prove that. But, then, if we confine it to just one thread, no great harm done…. right?

For those seeking a detailed Maoist critique of the historic issues around Trotskyism, I suggest “On Trotskyism: Problems of theory and history” by Kostas Mavrakis (luckily available online thanks to Marx2Mao!)– which explores those issues with substance and integrity. And which I have found quite convincing (as opposed to the far more dogmatic, Stalin-era mythology, “Trotskyism: Counterevolution in Disguise,” by M.J. Ogrin — a work and a history which would be embarassing for communists if it was not so tragic and damaging.

I think we need to engage on the terrain of today, not the terrain of 1924 or 1936 or….

But with that as a warning, I’d like to poke at questions Radical Eyes is interested in….

Just a Few Examples of History’s Cruelty

1) It was said (by Trotskyists in the 1940s), that the Comintern had beocme a counterrevolutionary force, and so any revolutions after world war 2 would only arrive from non-stalinist movements.

In fact Mao (breaking with stalin’s directives) led the worlds second great socialist revolution in 1949. Trotskyists, facing this dilemma had two “logical” ways to go: some simply said that china had not had a socialist revolution, others (associated with the Forurth International leader Pablo) announced that it was possible to have revolution “with a blunt instrument” — i.e. without a trotskyist vanguard leading. (It was a verdict with obvious liquidationist implications for Trotskyism as a trend, and led to an effort to “enter” the socalled “stalinist parties” around the world).

2) Trotskyism’s theory of permanent revolution including a continuation of previous European socialist thought on the peasantry (which saw them as largely conservative, and only capable of revolutionary activity in close conjuncture with an urban working class uprising leading the way.) It had a particularly rigid view of what “working class leadership” meant in our epoch — seeing it often in terms requiring literally leadership by urban industrial workers (a uncreative set of assumptions, sometimes shared by Stalin’s comintern, that proved limiting, even devastating, in the colonial world).

In fact (again especially after World War 2) the vast anti-colonial upsurge (spearheaded by China, and rippling through Indochina, Korea, India, Latin America, the Middle East and africa) showed that reality was quite a bit more complex: in many places anti-feudal agrarian revolution of peasants (especially under communist leadership) played a far more dynamic role than allowed in “classic” trotskyist theory (or in the politics of the trotskyists of those times).

The theory of permanent revolution viewed Mao’s New Democracy as a form of “class collaboration” (because Mao saw a progressive anti-feudal role for sections of the relatively small, weak national bourgeoisie in China). But, there too, the development of the Chinese revolution, the transition from New Democracy to socialism, the development of class struggle, the emergence of a class of capitalist roaders as the basis of restoration (not the national bourgeoisie which was fairly peacefully absorbed into the socialist economy)… all of these things ended that debate (in practice if not always in theory) for those who cared to look.

3) A core trotskyist theory was that it was impossible to have “socialism in one country” — in fact, over the sweep of the twentieth century, it was revealed that it was quite possible to establish and deepen a socialist mode of production (at least in one or two large socialist countries), but (as Mao said) it was not possible to “fully consolidate socialism” or move onto communism itself, without the overthrow of imperialism on a world scale.

The early Trotskyist assumption (that socialist revolution could not succeed in stabilizing itself in the Soviet Union, much less in a country like china, without revolution in the “advanced countries” providing the most advanced forces of production) proved to be mistaken.

Clearly, the fact that revolution has (so far) taken place one country at a time has been a problem of socialist transition, filled with real and frustrating difficulties for communists. But it would be hard to argue today (after the experience of a century) that it is impossible to “take the socialist road” in one country, while supporting the advance of socialist revolution worldwide.

4) the Trotskyist theory of a degenerated workers state — holds that the Soviet Union (after 1924) became a new form of society led by a new kind of social stratum (i.e. that it was neither capitalist, nor truly socialist, neither led by the capitallists, nor by the revolutionary proletariat). It was held (by trotkyists) that it was a “workers state” but one that had degenerated (by being usurped by political representatives of a bureaucratic stratum.)

This was already a problem by the time Trotsky was assassinated — because his assumption was (understandably) that a bureaucratic stratum could not rule in a stable way, and the society would fall into crisis and inevitably career one way or another — i.e. toward capitalism or socialism, toward rule by the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

As time went on, (first years, then decades) and as the Soviet Union went through major changes, invasion and political struggles (from 1924 to 1992) — it became more and more incredible to think that you had a society where the nature of its economic base (i.e. the non-capitalist economic forms emerging from the October revolution) were being administered (and even defended) by a ruling stratum that was neither capitalist nor socialist.

(How long can a society hang in a “bonapartist” limbo, with neither capitaist nor proletarian class exercising dictatorship in the modern world?)

In short: This was not a correct theory. The whole idea of a “workers state” going through “degeneration” has a whiff of platonic idealism (as if there is some ideal “workers state” and the reality we experience is its tarnished, degenerated manifestation. Second, Stalin proved, over the 1930s, to be a quite ferocious overseer of the bureaucracy, hardly their gray protector! And third, there was a conceptual problem with insisting that a large country was neither fish nor fowl, and its state not ruled by any specific class. I suppose such theories can exist, but it is hard to reconcile with Marxist views on the nature of the state. And finally, this “bureaucratic” schema proved very sterile when it came to understanding the major leaps and changes actually happening (in the real politics) of the Soviet Union, or in China, or Eastern Europe or Cuba (each of which were, in my opinion, radically different from each other in nature and development). it was a cookie cutter approach (with the SU being the degenerate one, and the others being “deformed workers states” etc.)

In any case, some trotskyists (the Shachtmanites of the “Third Camp” — between “Stalinism” and imperialism) changed their minds, saying that the rise of Stalin had represented the rise of a new capitalist class (and so, by logical extension, if not particularly materialist analysis, they also concluded that the great Chinese revolution was jut another capitalist, nationalist power grab, not a socialist revolution.)

History gave another blow to this theory of a “degenerated workers state” as the Gorbachev years gave over to openly capitlaist forms. For Maoists this was “state monopoly capitalism becoming more openly private-traditional monopoly capitalism” — i.e. the change was largely in “form” (juridical form) of ownership (the socalled “enfranchisement of the nomenclatura”). But for trotskyists, this represented the destructions of the long-standing non-capitalist base (which had remained, in their opinion for seventy years fixed in its nature) without the civil wars and massive struggles that they predicted (and insisted) HAD to accompany a restoration of capitalism. Caught in this logical cunundrum (i.e. it CAN’T become capitalist without some civil war upheaval) some schools of Trotskyists STILL insist that Russia and China can’t yet be capitalist….facts be damned. hmmmm.

My point here again is that history has not been kind to the three or four main theoretical postulates of “classic” trotskyism.

All these views have been fairly well and systematically critiqued (from many sides), over the years (including by opposing schools of trotskyism, or those departing trotskyism).

And the outcome of all these events themselves (the victory of china, the exprience of socialist road in USSR and china, the process of restoration, the experience of peasants in the world’s anti-colonial and antifeudal upsurges) all point strongly away from the assumptions, predictions and proposals of the Trotskyist framework.

Put another way: trotskyism was aimed (in many ways) at creating a politics for the European trade union movements (that had their heyday in the early twentieth century). but the world revolution moved farther and farther away from those movements, and the development of imperialism cemented those movements more and more firmly to social democratic politics. Trotskyism mainly survives today where some remaining trade unionist hope flickers amid the debris surrounding British Labor “traditions” or (even more fragile) in a few caucuses in the few unionised industries of the U.S.

I realize that these few paragraphs are, just that, a few paragraphs. They are not a serious disputation of trotskyist theories — but a sketch of why communists view trotskyism was a false start, and a mistaken direction, for any revolutionary aspirations. (Leaving aside here the important historical disputes within the Soviet Union, where, i believe, Trotsky also took basically the wrong stand on a wide range of issues.)

Trotskyism has found itself in a serious, terminal dead end — dissipating as a movement. It regularly attracts people who want radical change, but who are attracted to a socialism with major strains of bourgeois democratic and social democratic thinking.

But as a serious movement, it has made little progress anywhere. It has the dubious distinction of being a movement whose heyday was 1919 when Trotsky was head of the Red Army — a generation before it came into being as an organized trend through the stillborn fourth international of the late 1930s. And if anything Trotskyism’s “health” as a political contender has gotten steadily worse because of the objective conundrums mentioned above — that became splitting points, famously shattering trotskyism into countless warring factions with very little uniting them. (Even Trotskyists joke that “what do you fall two trotskyists in a room? The ideal making for three trotskyist groups.” and so on.)

All that said, the experience of Trotskyists (including in the U.S.) is hardly confined to their crisis of theory. There is clearly much to learn from some of the scholarly work done by various trotskyists (including Tariq Ali, or Mike Davis or ), and there are probably things to sum up from the attempts by some trotskyists to give mouth-to-mouth to American rank-and-file trade unionism over the last forty years. And that probably doesn’t even start the list of things worth knowing about.