Leon Trotsky and the fight against Stalinism

Published: 26/04/2010

Written by: Kostas Rologas
Originally listed under: People and groups

Leon TrotskyThe defeat of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin have been used as a means to discredit revolutionary politics. The argument goes that revolutions always end in dictatorship: Stalinist barbarism in Russia was the inevitable outcome of any attempt to make revolutionary change. Orlando Figes, for example, in his revisionist history of the Russian Revolution, A People's Tragedy, argues:

"The [Russian] experiment went horribly wrong, not so much because of the malice of its leaders, most of whom had started out with the highest ideals, but because their ideals were themselves impossible."

However, the case of Russia actually shows that there is nothing inevitable about dictatorship and defeat. Leon Trotsky - as well as tens of thousands of others - fought bitterly against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution. In so doing he kept the living flame of Marxism alive through some of the darkest years for the revolutionary left.

In 1917, Trotsky stood alongside Vladimir Lenin at the head of a victorious workers' revolution and as a key leader of the Bolshevik Party. He had been the main organiser of the October insurrection and would later become the commander of the Red Army in the Russian civil war.

The Red Army was able to defeat the internal enemies of the workers' revolution as well as the armies of 14 imperialist countries that attempted to drown the revolution in blood. Yet while the battle against the counter-revolution had been successful in defending the Russian Revolution, it had decimated the working-class, leaving the Bolshevik Party suspended in air without a social base.

This, alongside the economic and social backwardness of Russia, resulted in the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin.

The fight begins

Internationalism had always been one of the bedrocks of revolutionary socialism. The greatest blow to the Russian revolutionary movement was the failure of the revolution to spread, most crucially to Germany, during the upheavals between 1918 and 1923.

This "lost revolution" in Germany was decisive. Continued adherence to the goal of international revolution had few attractions for a consolidating and increasingly class-conscious bureaucracy. At this time Stalin coined the term "socialism in one country".

A thorough refutation of internationalism and the real Marxist tradition, the term fitted well the needs of the bureaucracy. For the bureaucracy it meant focusing in on the national arena, one which they could control - as opposed to the international class struggle, which they could not.

But Stalin and the bureaucracy did not consolidate their power without a battle. Trotsky led the political fight against Stalin. Initially this was as part of the "Left Opposition" in 1923 that demanded the restoration of democratic control in the party and the state. When the theory of "socialism in one country" first appeared, Trotsky condemned it. One justification of the theory stated, "The question was whether socialism could be built in Russia, leaving aside international affairs." Trotsky replied:

"The whole point is that we cannot leave them aside. You can go for a walk naked in the streets of Moscow in January, if you leave aside the weather and the militia. But I am afraid neither the weather nor the militia will leave you aside!"

The United Opposition and workers' opposition

By 1926 the battle lines were redrawn. Two former allies of Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, had formed an oppositional group which merged with Trotsky's, forming the "United Opposition".

Alongside this, workers' opposition to the counter-revolution that was taking place also began to grow. At a union conference in 1926 at the Hammer and Sickle factory a worker complained, "The trust administration drive around in automobiles, while cutting costs is done on the workers' backs."

By 1927 economic crisis hit and the groundswell of workers' discontent grew further. This discontent manifested itself in demonstrations, bread riots, strikes, slowdowns, subversive speeches at factory assemblies as well as what one historian of workers' opposition to Stalinism called, "subversive works of imagination (chiefly songs and poems)". Opposition activity was spreading like a river in a flood and it took on a political character with workers identifying as Trotskyists and with the United Opposition.

Stalin moves against Trotsky and the United Opposition

In an article written in mid-1927 entitled "The Stalin School of Falsification" Trotsky declared:

"We shall continue to criticise the Stalinist regime so long as you do not physically seal our lips. Until you clamp a gag on our mouths we shall continue to criticise the Stalinist regime which will otherwise undermine all the conquests of the October revolution."

By late 1927 Stalin moved to have Trotsky and all the oppositionists expelled from the party. Trotsky was soon after exiled to Siberia, but in both instances this did not happen without a struggle.

On the tenth anniversary of the October revolution Trotsky and the oppositionist workers marched in a separate contingent from the Communist Party, carrying their own banners that read: "Strike against the Kulak [rich peasant], the NEPman [rural capitalist] and the bureaucrat!", and "Let us carry out Lenin's last testament" - the last banner referring to Lenin's recommendation that Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

On the occasion of Trotsky's expulsion thousands of workers surrounded the train that would take him into exile in Siberia, delaying his removal by two days.

While Trotsky took up the fight, this is not to say that he did so without mistakes. He did not correctly grasp the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism, which led him to blunt his criticisms and consistently pledge his support for the Party.

Yet ultimately, it was always to be the objective conditions that were to determine the success of the Opposition. Trotsky's strength depended upon the organisational and political strength of the working class.

As the revolution ebbed, the working class became more passive, exhausted and depleted by the civil war and Russia's isolation and backwardness. This played into the hands of Stalin, who drew his strength from the bureaucratic party apparatus and the passivity of the majority of the working class.

Trotsky continues the fight in exile

One by one the leaders of the opposition capitulated to Stalin, while others were rounded up into labour camps and executed, until only Trotsky remained. In 1928 Trotsky was exiled to Alma Ata and then in 1929 banished from Russia. Hounded by Stalinists, and the countries that he was forced to move between, Trotsky maintained the battle against Stalinism. His arguments against Stalinism from this period are some of the most outstanding practical applications of Marxism ever developed.

In Germany he condemned the Stalinist theory of "social fascism", which prevented the working class uniting against Hitler, resulting in one of the most militant sections of the international working class succumbing to Hitler without a fight. Alongside this, realising the counter-revolutionary role Stalinism was playing, Trotsky also set up the International Left Opposition which was to take the fight up to Stalin on an international level.

Back in Russia his comrades were being wiped out. As Liz Walsh has written:

"[W]hile they remained alive, the Trotskyists presented a potential danger to Stalin. He resolved to physically liquidate the remaining memory of the ideals of the revolution. From March 1938, groups of 30 to 40 Oppositionist prisoners were daily marched a short distance away from the camps and executed.

"Courageous to the end, one large group sang the Internationale, the anthem of workers' struggle and resistance to oppression, as they marched to their death. Hundreds of voices from the camp joined them in solidarity."

In exile, Trotsky was also still a threat to Stalin; numerous attempts had been made on his life. In August 1940 Ramon Mercader, an agent of Stalin who had worked his way into Trotsky's inner circle, finally assassinated him.

Victory in Defeat

The rise of Stalinism was not inevitable - it required the defeat of international revolution, and the capitulation or execution of oppositional currents within Russia itself. It was fought against.

The fight that Trotsky undertook alongside others shows the profound discontinuity between the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution that reintroduced capitalism into Russia.

Trotsky's fight for the real Marxist tradition kept the flickering flame of Marxism alight during its darkest hours. As the revolutionary socialist Duncan Hallas wrote of Trotsky's legacy: "The living continuity of Marx and Lenin had been maintained."

Trotsky's ability to fight stemmed from his unremitting internationalism, his intransigent opposition to capitalism and his unbending support for the revolutionary self-activity of the working class.

Trotsky's bitterly fought battle demonstrates the importance of even a minority taking a stand. Without his stand the real Marxist tradition would be weaker than it is today.