With Lenin Against Stalin: A response to ‘Trotskyism is a tool of the capitalists’

A leaflet distributed by the CPGB(M-L) (the M-L stands for More-Letters) first in June 2012 attempts to  briefly explain their position on Trotskyism: why it is anti-Leninist and counterrevolutionary, and why we ought to be Stalinists. [Read here] I don’t know what kind of leafleting session this must have been – in which communities can they go where people have a basic understanding of the concepts involved? More to the point, are there really enough people concerned about these questions to justify a leaflet? This confusion aside, there are some serious flaws with the old arguments presented, and with the assumption that Trotskyism and Leninism are directly opposed.

The writer begins by criticising Leon Trotsky’s most important theoretical contribution: the theory of Permanent Revolution – the theory that socialist revolution must occur in all capitalist countries, not just in one country alone. It is not a proper criticism, as the writer does not start by explaining the argument in favour of the theory. It is worth understanding that Marx and Engels had the same basic idea. One of the earliest expressions of it was in Friedrich Engels’s Principles of Communism, written in 1847. He answers the question of revolution in one country alone by saying:

“By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth… into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others. … It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.”

Marx looked at the Paris Commune of 1871 and said that it could have only lasted if the same revolutionary activity was mirrored in Germany and Prussia. V.I. Lenin also seemed to adopt the theory, and in December 1917 wrote a short article, For Bread and Peace, that ended: “The socialist revolution that has begun in Russia is… only the beginning of the world socialist revolution.” The alternative proposed by Josef Stalin was a theory of Socialism in One Country. (In Isaac Deutscher’s essay on the emergence of the theory, he argues

An almost perfect leaflet from May 2012

An almost perfect leaflet from May 2012

that Stalin formulated it primarily to propose the opposite to Trotsky.) Even in a country that stretched as far as the Soviet Union, it still found itself isolated, surrounded by capitalist hostility. Weak working class leadership around the world and British and American interference combined made this dream impossible, but it is not enough to blame Churchill: the theory itself can’t deal with capitalist hostility. It isn’t a case of “having the temerity to go on and try to build socialism”. This doesn’t mean I cannot oppose imperialism in North Korea or Cuba, just because I don’t share the same optimism about socialism in those countries. In general I have found Trotskyists broadly agree with the aims of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, even if they apply Tony Cliff’s “state capitalist” model to the country. Stalinists today often set up a false dichotomy, that you must support a country absolutely or not at all. You are either with the Free Syrian Army, or you are with Assad, for example.

Two anti-Leninist quotes from Trotsky’s letter to Chkheidze are used to prove his treacherous nature. There is not a version of this available in English, but there is an English translation of Stalin’s Trotskyism or Leninism?, so I will assume the writer is quoting Stalin quoting Trotsky.

  • “[Lenin is a] professional exploiter of every kind of backwardness in the Russian working-class movement”
  • “The entire edifice of Leninism at the present time is built on lies and falsification and bears within itself the poisonous elements of its own decay”
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Tony Cliff’s biography of Leon Trotsky, Vol 1

These quotes are frequently used both by Stalinists and libertarian socialists. The main source of Trotsky’s unfounded anger stems from his disagreement with Lenin’s concept of party organisation. By 1917 his opinions had changed of course, and was very open about it, after joining the Bolsheviks. This was not an embarrassing careerist move as it was suggested. His apology in 1929 was quite sincere, explaining how his errors were rooted in centrism and conciliationism. No Trotskyist who knows about Trotsky’s writing before 1914 is ignorant about his early anti-Leninism. It does nothing to damage his theory or later revolutionary activity. In Volume 1 of Tony Cliff’s biography of Trotsky, he describes the period 1906-14 as “seven long wasted years” while “for Lenin the years 1907 were years of forging a Bolshevik party, of selecting cadres, educating them and steeling them.”

There is no shame in admitting Trotsky’s severest mistakes. Equally, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the Soviet Union’s successes under Stalin’s leadership, such as the efforts in World War Two, or the simple fact that the USSR was certainly better than what it replaced. Alas, I am just being an opportunistic Trotskyist as is expected: I only brought up the Second World War to remind the writer of how Stalin helped prevent a strong opposition to the Nazis. In 1933 he foolishly instructed the Kommunist Partei Deutschland to consider the Social Democratic party “social fascists”. Meanwhile, Trotsky urged the KPD to create a “workers’ united front against fascism” with the SPD. The tragedy is in the likelihood that this would have worked. The Nazi party, in the September 1930 German elections, had 6,400,000 votes, a massive leap from 800,000 in 1928. The Communists had 4,600,000, an increase of 1,300,000 and the Social Democrats were far more popular than either, with 8,600,000 votes. Though their differences were distinct, the SPD and KPD combined could certainly have created a “united front against fascism”, and so Stalin should mostly be congratulated for helping to clean up his own mess. [Election statistics]

Criticising Trotskyist organisations for always having factions is quite amusing. I think it’s fair to say factionalising is preferable to small parties dividing into even tinier ones. There are three Stalinist or ‘anti-revisionist’ parties in the UK. Their combined memberships – and presumably their combined political influence – is smaller than the Socialist Workers Party’s, even after so many of our activists have left or been expelled! Recent experience in the SWP shows that it is better to allow factions to form and discuss openly. The Central Committee tries to ignore demands and avoid questions, instead preferring expulsions, which do nothing positive for the party. Chapter 3 of Trotsky’s The New Course (1923) deals with factional formations as follows:

“If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together.”

Perhaps this does not apply to the CPGB(M-L). Some parties are simply too small to accommodate factions.

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Vorkuta Prison Camp

Stalin’s description in 1937 of ‘Trotskyite’ movements as “a frantic, unprincipled gang of wreckers” is quoted. There are many reasons for this opposition’s poorly organised manner. The imprisonment of 100,000 Trotskyists of various types in Vorkuta Prison Camp, and the humiliation and execution of thousands of those, in the mid-to-late 1930s surely has something to do with it. Though given most Stalinists’ glee when talking about the murder of Trotsky, this tragedy is more likely to excite them than make them wonder if a crime against humanity might have been committed. These political prisoners were communists to the end: they organised meetings and wrote up a list of demands for the conditions in the camp, they believed that a “counter-revolutionary coup d’état” had taken place in their country, and on being marched to their deaths, they sang the Internationale.

"infantile, creepy, conservative, arrogant"

“infantile, creepy, conservative, arrogant”

It is very hard to buy the idea that Stalin was a ‘faithful pupil of Lenin’. Compare for instance Lenin’s New Economic Policy introduced in 1921 which temporarily restored some private ownership for peasants and successfully diminished the famine, with the harsh forced collectivisation of 1928. In addition Trotsky wrote a document in 1930 that is as revealing as it is petty-sounding, With Lenin Against Stalin, that shows the differences in the letters involving Lenin and Stalin from those with other comrades. The main observation is Stalin’s rudeness and dismissiveness towards Lenin.  In matters of press freedom and art, the Communist Party also broke with Marxist tradition. Karl Marx worked tirelessly against Prussian censors as editor and contributor for the Rheinische Zeitung and would have found himself doing the same if he happened to be a journalist in Russia in the 1940s. Lenin hated the idea of statues and memorials being built in his honour. He was not as concerned with art as Marx or Luxemburg, but imagine what he would have felt about the infantile, creepy, conservative, and arrogant ‘socialist realist’ art that stunted all creativity. The Soviet Union also regressed back to certain socially conservative ways, with the re-criminalisation of homosexuality and banning independent trade unions. And how can one ignore one of Lenin’s last political actions, the 1922/3 letter to the Congress, his “Last Testament” repressed by Stalin until his death in 1953 and for three years afterwards, that advocates Stalin be removed as secretary-general of the Bolshevik party?

Some comrades might disagree, but I think being a Trotskyist is mostly to do with defending the more enduring, persistently relevant ideas: his understanding of fascism, Theory of Permanent Revolution, substitutionism, and so on. It does not mean always defending Trotsky himself as some of his early attacks on Lenin are simply indefensible, nor does it mean apologising for irresponsible Socialist Worker headlines from twenty years ago.

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