On Trotsky’s assassination anniversary: What does Trotskyism mean today?

Ecehan Balta

On August 20, 1940, NKVD* agent Ramon Mercader, assigned by Stalin himself, attacked Lev Davidovich Bronstein (aka Trotsky) with an ice axe. He died the following day, August 21. Trotsky was the chairman of the Saint Petersburg Soviet, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and the founder and commissar of the Red Army. He was exiled because he organised the Left Opposition inside the Bolshevik Party, which fell under Stalin’s leadership after Lenin’s death. Until his death, he was dragged from one corner of the world to the other, continuing his struggle for the construction of an international revolutionary leadership wherever he went.

The rehabilitation of Trotsky as an important figure in the revolutionary-Marxist tradition, both as a theorist and a revolutionary leader, requires an in-depth understanding of history. More importantly, it requires coming to terms with the two main deviations from Marxist thought and theory: one is the breakaway that started with representatives of German Social Democracy such as Lasalle, Bernstein, and Kautsky; this deviation was later named Reformism. The other one is Stalinism. 

Battle of ideas

German Social Democracy most clearly embodied the ideas of Reformism, which led to huge defeats with lots of casualties, among them those of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. These policies hindered one of the most important steps towards the common salvation of humanity- the German Revolution of ‘18-’23. Although the reformists are clearly to blame for these historic defeats, they insisted on claiming to represent Marxism. The response of the international revolutionary socialist movement to these traitors and warmongers was to leave the Second (Socialist) International behind and establish a new international, the Third (Communist) International.

The struggle between Trotsky and Stalin, represented the conflict between the most reactionary, bureaucratic and totalitarian deviation from Marxism and the most consistent revolutionary traditions of the socialist movement. This struggle also led Trotsky and the international revolutionary movement that acted with him to abandon the Third International and establish the Fourth International. 

Trotsky was not only fighting against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian revolution but also waging a tough struggle against fascism and capitalism. These three battles were inseparable from each other. Indeed, fascism emerged as a mass movement based on the petty bourgeoisie to suppress the working-class movement. These two political camps represented two different answers to the most severe (until then) crisis of capitalism. In contrast to the sectarian “Third Period” policy of the German Communists and the Comintern, which saw Social Democracy and fascism as two sides of the same coin, Trotsky argued that a united front should be formed with the Social Democrats against fascism. He also emphasized that the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy was also a struggle against the danger of capitalist restoration. He argued against the mechanistic interpretation of Marxism that saw the socialist revolution as the only inevitable future. Instead, he stressed the role of the subjective factor (human will) in shaping objective conditions, in a dialectical way. He strongly opposed the idea that less developed nations must first go through the stage of advanced capitalism and argued that the law of uneven and combined development meant that the socialist revolution was possible even in countries that were underdeveloped, based on the maturing of the objective conditions on an international level. Some of his key ideas were internationalism, the need for internal democracy and the centrality of a transitional program. His final years were marked by his relentless struggle against the Communist Parties apparatuses that tried to replace the working class and against the decay of the Third International (Comintern), which had become a satellite of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

If Trotsky had simply ignored what was happening and sat back in the place where he was exiled, he might have taken his place in official history as the Commissar of the Red Army and Chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet. However, if he had chosen that comfortable path, those who are now fighting against distortions and deviations from Marxism would not have been as informed and vigilant as they are now. Even today, both from the ‘left’ and from the ‘right’ inside the movement, there are those who declare Trotskyism as a deviation. Trotsky’s ideas are under attack in all sorts of ways. There are those who declare a world revolution to be impossible; those who declare workers’ self-management as being utopic; those who question Trotsky’s assassination by an official agent of the USSR; those who question the Moscow Trials and the disgraceful treatment of almost the entire old leadership of the Bolsheviks- except Stalin, Kalinin, and Molotov. But the truth cannot be hidden any more.

Being a Trotskyist today

Being a Trotskyist today is not about digging through the remnants of the Soviet Union or about reckoning with the past. Being a Trotskyist is also not just about not being Stalinist. Being a Trotskyist today means insisting on the need to uphold the main axis of the debate initiated by Marx and Engels from the 1840s regarding the strategic problems of the revolution. Being a Trotskyist is never a practice of worship. Being a Trotskyist means being a visionary with a revolutionary will devoted to the historical and dialectical materialist method.

Let me explain: The Social Democrats at the time  characterised Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution as being utopian. According to their mechanistic analysis, the “objective laws of social development” doomed the Russian revolution to be primarily an anti-feudal revolution, with a narrow democratic and anti-autocratic character. However, Trotsky foresaw that a socialist revolution was not only possible but necessary to fulfill even the basic democratic demands. Indeed, in October 1917 the first successful proletarian revolution in history took place, ignoring the social democratic considerations. For them, it was an “impossible” revolution. Trotsky was right: there was no iron law of revolutionary process that would require a gradual process in a repetition of the way in which the advanced capitalist countries evolved. This idea/prediction proved not to be a utopia, as it is based on the law of uneven and combined development, which juxtaposes the archaic world with industrial modern life, was confirmed through the process  of the October Revolution.

However, denial continued. This time, the October Revolution itself was labeled as a deviation in history.

Guide for action

This is not just an academic debate about whether Trotsky was right or not. This debate points to a difference that will also guide all current discussions about the tasks of the revolutionary Left. At this point, Trotsky also represents a break with the positivist deviation from Marxism by Social Democracy and the Second International. In fact, Trotsky’s position is a return to Marx. According to him, the “line of progress is curved, broken, zig-zagging.” Socialism is not an inevitable product of the natural laws of history, and the working class should not just wait for its time to come in order to enter the stage of history. Therefore, being a Trotskyist means not lying down to wait for what is inevitably coming, just waiting for the day of revolution, but struggling within the workers’ movement to change the course of history.

Here we come to the “volitional” part: As Trotsky writes in the History of the Russian Revolution 

“The history of a revolution is for us first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of their own destiny.… The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they ­cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active ­orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.” 

The revolution is “a tiger’s leap into the past” (W. Benjamin). It is reclaiming what has been taken away, primarily freedom.

One should not even see the revolution as a process in which the vanguard party is handing back what was taken away by the bourgeoisie to the masses. In this context, the revolution is the most democratic social process. When a revolution happens, it is no longer the experts who make history but the masses themselves. Since Marx, we know that democracy is a system with class characteristics in a class-based society. However, we, the proletariat, had to struggle to clear the name of proletarian democracy, because it was smeared and besmirched by Stalinists and Social Democrats. Even before Lenin criticized Kautsky’s definition of a “pure democracy” based on “universal suffrage” (which Kautsky cunningly attributed to the Paris Commune), Marx had criticized the proponents of the “parliamentary road” tactics. Today, Trotskyism continues to focus on the transformative power of decisions based on experience rather than memorization. We do not want to create a world for the oppressed, for all those living “behind the curtains”, but create a world with them.

The recent rise of far-right parties internationally stresses the importance and relevance of a united workers’ front against fascism. United Fronts stand in contrast to the Popular Fronts, established by the Stalinists throughout Europe in the mid-1930’s. While the united front tactics, as originally suggested by Lenin and Trotsky, were alliances of workers parties independent from the capitalists, Popular Fronts were catastrophic alliances between workers parties and sections of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary conditions were wasted or consciously sabotaged in order not to break the alliance with capitalists. This is what happened in Spain and France, with the Left joining capitalist governments. Today, Trotskyism still reminds us that we should not abandon the fundamental struggle of the working class for socialist change, shifting focus for certain periods of time in order to achieve short-lived gains. This is a destructive course that the working class has paid for with millions of lives.

Trotskyism, 80+ years after Trotsky’s death, still remains a powerful set of ideas, which can help us see more clearly and build revolutionary forces on a firm basis. In every historical experiment, in every epoch, the correctness/relevance of these approaches have been proven necessary time and again. The need for proletarian democracy against bureaucratic degeneration; internationalism against socialism in one country; the transitional program against sectarian or minimum/maximum programmatic conceptions; the united workers’ front against popular fronts. All these points are crucial for the arsenal of revolutionary forces in our epoch.

Therefore, all revolutionary Marxists who refuse to bow down and accept the counterrevolutionary deviations of Stalinism and Reformism should still walk in the footsteps of Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Luxembourg and Trotsky. We should continue to evolve their ideas and fight for the international revolution of our times- and, consequently, real proletarian democracy.

*NKVD: People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs- Stalin’s infamous and hated secret police.

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