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Full Marx What is it with Trotsky and Trotskyism?

The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains the importance of distinguishing Leon Trotsky from Trotskyism

A LETTER in the Morning Star last year asked: “What is it with Trotsky?” 

Other readers joined in, one pointing out that there is now more information available on Trotsky himself, another referring to reassessments of Trotsky and his legacy among left and labour movement historians.  

One letter asked for something to “get us sorted out” in relation to the person and to the politics which bears his name. That could be a tall order in a single page, but here’s a start.  

First, it’s important to distinguish between Leon Trotsky the person and “Trotskyism” as a political ideology; they’re not the same. 

Leon Trotsky was a Russian communist. Arrested by the tsarist regime in 1898 for revolutionary activities and exiled to Siberia, he continued to write. 

In 1902 he escaped to London and met up with Lenin who had arrived that April and who was editing the journal Iskra (Spark) in what is today the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. 

Trotsky was one of the key figures in the first, failed, 1905 Revolution for which he was exiled (again) to Siberia and escaped (again) to Europe and then to the US. 

After the 1917 February Revolution had overthrown the tsar, Trotsky returned to Russia, becoming one of the Bolshevik leaders though he had earlier sided with the Mensheviks (you’ll have to look this up if interested) against Lenin. 

As chair of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky played a key role in the October Revolution which replaced the new provisional government with a socialist administration led by the Communist Party.  

A member of the first Soviet Politburo and as commissar for foreign affairs, Trotsky secured Russia’s exit from WWI. 

Subsequently, as people’s commissar for war (and effectively Lenin’s second-in-command) he was leader of the Red Army in its victory in the Russian civil war.  

From 1925 after Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin, Trotsky was sidelined and became part of the “united opposition” to the Soviet leadership. 

His differences with Stalin included advocacy of “permanent revolution” as opposed to the consolidation of state power in the young Soviet state. 

Expelled in 1929, he spent the rest of his life in exile and in 1938 was central in the establishment of the Fourth International in opposition to Stalin’s Comintern. He was assassinated in 1940 in Mexico City by an agent of the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs / Interior Ministry of the Soviet Union).

Most Marxists today would acknowledge Trotsky’s huge contribution to the Russian Revolution, as well as to his role in establishing the USSR in the face of armed opposition and foreign intervention. 

Most today would also acknowledge his input to Marxist theory as well as practice, whatever their views might be on his differences with those who believed that the first priority of the young Soviet state should be to secure its survival against external aggression as well as internal opposition.  

Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin has made him something of an icon for sections of the left, both before and subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

From their beginnings in the mid-1930s to their heyday between the mid-1960s to 1980s, groups claiming inspiration from Trotsky have proliferated, so that today there are maybe a dozen such groups in Britain alone (though with a combined membership of less than 10,000) and a similar number of Trotskyist “internationals” claiming either to represent the legacy of the Fourth or calling for a fifth International.  

Trotskyist groups would all consider themselves politically to be to the “left” of the Communist Party and they exhibit many of the features identified by Lenin in his 1920 text Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. 

We’ll explore “ultra-leftism” in a later answer (all Trotskyist groups are “ultra-left” but not all ultra-left groups are Trotskyist).  

John Kelly’s book Contemporary Trotskyism identifies some of the characteristic features of Trotskyism, especially in Britain. Organisationally, Trotskyist organisations represent a hybrid between a political party and a doctrinal sect. 

They variously share a number of features. Their core beliefs — manifest in their publications, websites and in meetings and adherence to which are seen as a condition of membership and essential for achievement of their goals — are held to be established and unchallengeable truths. 

Those beliefs are embodied in classical texts; Marx, Engels, Trotsky (Lenin features less, because of his own critique of ultra-leftism) as interpreted in the writings of each group’s own guru.  

These may include, variously: a belief in “permanent revolution” (in opposition to those who believe that every country has to find its own road to socialism and that it is possible to secure at least the first stages of socialist transition); that the working class (often defined narrowly using the term “proletariat”) is inherently revolutionary; that the main obstacle to revolution is “revisionism” and that failure to secure it is due to “betrayal” (usually by communists who have managed to secure significant support in their workplaces or communities); and a weird use of the term “state capitalism” (as a previous answer on the state argued, all capitalism is “state capitalism”). 

Trotskyist groups typically ignore, minimise or traduce the achievements of “existing socialism” — including those of Cuba. 

Bizarrely there are also prominent Trotskyists today who support Britain’s membership of Nato and the expansion of nuclear weapon systems.  

Trotskyist demands — political and economic — are often constructed not with the goal that they might be secured, resulting in real benefits to people, but rather because they cannot be secured without directly challenging the structure of a capitalist state (“transitional demands”). 

Polemic includes a constant and essentially opportunistic emphasis on the need for a new “revolutionary leadership” if any kind of progress is to be secured towards socialism. 

Banners and placards on “single-issue” demonstrations from healthcare and education to peace and the environment (and even sometimes on picket lines) promote particular groups. 

Commitment required from members includes relatively high demands on time — and money — and often leads to “burnout.” 

Perhaps most importantly — since history often acts as judge — despite the resilience and widespread nature of Trotskyism (with active groups today in some 60 countries) there has been no Trotskyist-led revolution, no national election victory and there are no enduring mass Trotskyist parties anywhere in the world. 

And no Trotskyist group has ever managed to sustain the production of an English-language socialist daily newspaper whereas the Morning Star — originally founded in 1930 as the Daily Worker and owned and managed by a readers’ co-operative since 1945 — is still available, six days a week, from your newsagent as well as online.  

Trotskyism nevertheless appeals to some on the left because of its “revolutionary” rhetoric, offering certainty with ready-made answers to what are often complex challenges. 

At the same time many members of Trotskyist groups are there by default or by chance because of the lack of any single mass socialist party in Britain and because they have a commendable desire to go beyond social democratic politics to engage with the real need to secure fundamental change in society.  

As Britain enters a new phase of intensified class struggle with the leadership of the Labour Party severing its links with the organised working class movement and continuing its a witch-hunt of the left, the responsibility of all genuine socialists today must be to seek the best way to reverse capitalism’s drive to shift the burden of its crises onto our planet and its peoples, and to work towards a socialist society by building the broadest possible alliances, in the workplace and in communities, to achieve that goal.  

The left needs to work together on our common objectives. That is a challenge to us all.  

Science for the Future – a series of three online seminars – will be presented by the Morning Star’s Science and Society team on Wednesdays November 9, 16, 23 2022 all at 7pm. Presented by Rox Middleton, Liam Shaw and Joel Hellewell, plus invited speakers in collaboration with the Marx Memorial Library in London. Details at www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/events.

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