DURING THE TERRIBLE decades of the 1920s and 1940s when Stalin was committing barbarous crimes in the name of 'socialism', the lone voice of Leon Trotsky kept alive some of the basic elements of socialism from below. Stalin had returned to an ideology resembling authoritarian pre-Marxian socialism. Gone was socialism's democratic essence. Stalin's 'Marxism' was a variant of socialism from above. A bureaucratic elite was to oversee the transformation of a poor and backward country into a modern power, whatever the cost in human terms. That such a perspective could be called 'socialist' or 'communist' was a horrendous infamy.
It was Trotsky's great virtue to insist against all odds that socialism was rooted in the struggle for human freedom. Furthermore, against the nationalistic notion of 'socialism in on country', Trotsky asserted that socialism could only come into being on a world scale. In so doing, he defended the uncompromising internationalism of Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin.
Throughout the 1920s and until his death at the hands of Stalinist agent in 1940, Trotsky fought desperately to build a revolutionary socialist movement based on the principles of Marx and Lenin. At a time when Stalin's counter-revolution was reshaping Russia and the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini was sweeping across Europe, crushing workers' movements in its path, this was no mean task. Even if he had never developed the theory of the permanent revolution, never played a leading role in the revolution of 1917, nor built the Red Army, Trotsky's contribution to keeping alive the socialist flame during the 1930s would have insured him a lasting place in the history of international socialism.
The conditions of the 1930s, however could not but affect Trotsky's outlook. The great periods of Marxism have been those in which revolutionary socialists have been actively bound up with mass movements of the working class. The health and dynamism of Marxism has always depended upon a certain unity of theory and practice. For Marx and Engels, these great periods were the revolutionary wave of 1848 in Europe and that of the Paris Commune of 1871. During the failed Russian revolution of 1905 socialist theory was advanced by the likes of Trotsky, Luxemburg and Lenin. The next great period was that of 1917-1921. Then, revolutionaries such as Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci played central roles in revolutionary movements of the working class. During each one of these periods Marxist theory was developed and enriched on the basis of the living experience of the working class movement.
During the 1930s, however, Trotsky was cut off completely from any real workers' movement. Throughout all of Europe, the working class was reeling under defeat after defeat. The socialist and communist movement was on the defensive, struggling desperately to protect itself from the hammerblows of fascism While Trotsky's commentaries on the events of this period are often brilliant, they were unable to inspire any significant numbers of working people into action. Further, Trotsky's new communist movement remained confined to the radical intelligentsia. The divorce from mass struggles--indeed an incredible remoteness from the day-to-day experience of the working class--could only distort the theory and practice of what came to be known as 'Trotskyism '.
The Trotskyist movement paid dearly for its isolation. It became in most countries little more than a debating society for intellectuals who had no experience of working class struggle. Trotsky denounced the 'closed circles', the 'literary arrogance' and the 'conceit and grand airs' of intellectuals who felt capable of pronouncing on the general strategy and tactics of revolution in any corner of the world although they had failed to gain a toehold in the workers' movement of their own country. Yet, for all his criticisms, Trotsky could not supply the only real corrective to such a hot-house atmosphere: involvement and education in the class struggle.
These defects in the Trotskyist movement were compounded by a very serious analytical error committed by Trotsky during this period. As Stalin's counter-revolution intensified--as communist militants were executed, peasants slaughtered, the last vestiges of democracy eliminated--the question arose as to the nature of the society that was taking shape in Russia. Throughout the 1930s, Trotsky consistently argued that Stalin's Russia remained a workers' state, albeit of a degenerated kind. Trotsky acknowledged that the soviets had been destroyed, that union democracy had disappeared, that the Bolshevik party had been stripped of its revolutionary character. Indeed, at times he compared the political regime in Russia to that of fascist Germany. Still, he insisted that Russia was a workers' state. And he did so on the basis of one criterion alone: that property remained nationalised, in state hands. This Trotsky believed was evidence of a lasting gain brought about by the 1917 revolution. Private property had not been restored by Stalin. Therefore, the economy remained collectivised and capable of planning.
Descriptively, what Trotsky said was clearly true. Stalin betrayed no intention of restoring private capitalism in Russia. But this was hardly enough for Stalin's Russia to qualify as a workers' state. A workers' state, according to Marx and Lenin, is a state based upon workers' control of society. It depends upon the existence of democratic organisation that can control society from below. A workers' state presupposes that workers are running the state. To talk of a workers' state is necessarily to talk of workers' power and workers' democracy. The particular form of property ownership is certainly of interest, but it tells us nothing about the essential nature of society and of the state. To understand these, as Marx argued consistently, we must look at the social relations that characterise the society. That is to say, we must look at who controls the structure of economic production and at who controls the apparatus of state power.
It was certainly true that nationalised property and attempts planning the economy characterised Russia--and it remains the case today. But the relevant questions are these: Who controls the nationalised property? Who is doing the planning and on what basis? It is not enough to answer that the state controls property. For the obvious question then becomes: who controls the state? It is not the working class, then who is it? If we answer, as Trotsky did, that a privileged bureaucracy controls this state, then we must look deeper. For, if this bureaucracy uses its control of the state (and thus of the economy and the labour force) in order to direct production and accumulation in the interests not of human emancipation, but of industrial and military competition with other capitalist power then we can hardly be said to be talking about a workers' state. Rather, we are dealing with a system of bureaucratic state capitalism in which capital is collectively controlled by the privileged bureaucracy that controls the state.
By making the nature of property ownership the criterion of workers' state, Trotsky committed an error that was seriously to disorient the Trotskyist movement in later years. For, unwittingly, Trotsky had broken from the most basic precepts of socialism from below.
This was not readily apparent during Trotsky's lifetime. But the end of the Second World War, these problems burst into the open. At that time, Stalin's troops rolled into most of East Europe, creating loyal puppet regimes in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and so forth. Initially, the Trotskyist forces insisted that these countries remained capitalist regimes. After all, workers' revolutions had taken place. Slowly, however, another realisation took hold of them. Under Russian orders, these puppet governments had created internal structures modelled on those Russia: industry and finance were nationalised; a bureaucratic or party state was created; attempts to plan the economy were introduced. According to Trotsky's criterion, these new Eastern European regimes would have to be workers' states. And this was the conclusion arrived at by the Trotskyist movement. In so doing they claimed what for revolutionary socialists should have been the inadmissible: that workers' states could be created without the active intervention of the working class. Workers' states without workers' revolutions was a glaring violation of the principles of Marx and Lenin. Even more grotesque, Stalin's army was now being painted as an instrument of human liberation, creating workers' states at the end of its bayonets.
From this point onwards, the movement Trotsky had created fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. No longer, for them, was socialism dependent upon the self-emancipation of the working class. Now any collection of guerrillas, technocrats or petty dictators who undertook to turn backward countries into modern empires by nationalising the means of wealth appeared as progressive movements. In China, Cuba, Algeria and dozens of other countries, such movements came to power. In no case were these regimes based on structures of workers' power and workers' democracy. Yet, more often than not, the Trotskyist movement greeted these brutally undemocratic state capitalist tyrannies as workers' states.
Thus, by a peculiar irony of history, the movement founded by the great revolutionary socialist who had spearheaded the communist opposition to Stalinism fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. Trotsky himself made a lasting contribution to international socialism which remains indispensable to socialists today. But recognition of that contribution should not blind us to the fatal error he committed--an error that, by violating the principles of socialism from below, has distorted irreparably the movement that takes his name.