David North
Leon Trotsky and the Development of Marxism

Article Two

“Eclectics live by means of episodic thoughts and improvisations that originate under the impact of events,” wrote Leon Trotsky in January 1932. “Marxist cadre capable of leading the proletarian revolution are trained only by the continual and successive working out of problems and disputes.” (“What Next?”, from Germany 1932–33, New Park, p.52)

Revisionists and political charlatans of all descriptions invariably base their politics and policies on the most immediate and practical needs of the hour. Principled considerations, i.e., those which arise out of a serious study of the history of the international workers’ movement, knowledge of its development as a law-governed process, and, flowing from that, a constant critical reworking of its objective experiences, are utterly foreign to these pragmatists. Their motto in politics is, “anything goes—as long as it brings some success.” Insofar as they evince an interest in history, it is simply to exploit a quotation torn out of context or to disguise their present opportunism with purely ceremonial references to the past achievements of the Trotskyist movement, or, what is more likely, of Trotsky as an individual.

Thus, the objective significance of all the historical experiences through which the Trotskyist movement has passed, and submitted to Marxist analysis, is ignored. The lessons of the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27, the betrayal of the British General Strike in 1926, the defeat of the German proletariat, the treachery of Popular Frontism, the Moscow Trials, the crimes of the GPU, the assassination of Leon Trotsky—all these historical events are dismissed as “so much water under the bridge.”

The whole development of Pabloism since the notorious Third World Congress of 1951 has proceeded entirely along these lines. Its “discovery” of “self-reforming bureaucracies,” “natural Marxists,” “new-capitalism,” and most recently, “revolutionists of action” and a “mass Leninist international” are all manifestations of the ideological and political betrayal of Trotskyist principles, and therefore of the working class.

Trotskyism as the Development of Marxism

The history of Trotskyism cannot be comprehended as a series of disconnected episodes. Its theoretical development has been abstracted by its cadre from the continuous unfolding of the world capitalist crisis and the struggles of the international proletariat. Its unbroken continuity of political analyses of all the fundamental experiences of the class struggle, over an entire historical epoch, constitutes the enormous richness of Trotskyism as the sole development of Marxism after the death of Lenin in 1924.

A leadership which does not strive collectively to assimilate the whole of this history cannot adequately fulfill its revolutionary responsibilities to the working class. Without a real knowledge of the historical development of the Trotskyist movement, references to dialectical materialism are not merely hollow; such empty references pave the way for a real distortion of the dialectical method. The source of theory lies not in thought but in the objective world. Thus the development of Trotskyism proceeds from the fresh experiences of the class struggle which are posited on the entire historically-derived knowledge of our movement.

“Thus cognition rolls forward from content to content … it raises to each next stage of determination the whole mass of its antecedent content, and by its dialectical progress not only loses nothing and leaves nothing behind, but carries with it all that it has acquired, enriching and concentrating itself upon itself…”

Quoting this passage from Hegel’s Science of Logic, Lenin, in his Philosophical Notebooks, wrote: “This extract is not at all bad as a kind of summing up of dialectics.” (Collected Works, Vol. 38, p.230) Nor is this extract bad “as a kind of summing up of” the constant dialectical development of Trotskyist theory.

Between 1923 and 1933, the Left Opposition (which had been strengthened in 1928 by the formation of the International Left Opposition) fought for the reform of the Russian Communist Party and the Third (Communist) International (also known as the Comintern).

The basis for this policy did not lie in illusions about the nature of the Stalinist regime, which Trotsky then (up until 1933) characterized as bureaucratic centrism, but in the objective possibilities for a breakthrough in the proletarian revolution.

As a dialectical materialist, Trotsky always proceeded from the primacy of social being independent of social consciousness. The degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and of the Communist International during the 1920s was an objective manifestation of the setbacks suffered by the proletarian revolution during that decade. The tragic failure of the German revolution in 1923, due to the vacillations of the Communist Party leadership, led to the restabilization of European capitalism. Moreover, it weakened the position of the Comintern’s European sections, temporarily strengthened the social democratic parties, and demoralized large sections of the Soviet working class which had counted on the support of the German revolution. The subsequent defeat of the Chinese revolution generated political indifference among Soviet workers, whose vanguard was acutely conscious of the isolation of the workers’ state and of the dangers of imperialist intervention.

Each setback for the international proletariat strengthened the bureaucracy, encouraged the growth of conservative tendencies within the working class, and speeded up the process of degeneration of the “Old Bolshevik” cadres in the party and state apparatus. In turn, this very process of degeneration led to the revisionist policies which directly contributed to new defeats of the international working class, which, as in a vicious cycle, intensified the isolation of the USSR and increased the power of the bureaucracy.

The Struggle in the Comintern

As long as the possibility existed that a decisive section of the international working class could, despite the centrist mistakes and bureaucratic incompetence of its Stalinist leadership, find the road to power, Trotsky worked for the reform of the Comintern. There was, however, not a trace of fatalistic passivity in this policy. Through the tireless work of the International Left Opposition, Trotsky sought to explain to the revolutionary workers inside the official parties of the Comintern the deadly consequences of the Stalinist line, and to elaborate the correct policies that would, if adopted, lead to victory.

Despite the repression directed against him—he was expelled from the Soviet Union in January 1929 and deprived of his citizenship in 1932—Trotsky could not be swayed from this politically objective course. He recognized that the great struggle unfolding in Germany, whose decrepit Weimar Republic was caught between the anvil of fascist counterrevolution and the hammer of the socialist revolution, would decide the fate of the Communist International.

In Germany, the policies of the Comintern were leading to a catastrophe. Following the Sixth Congress and in the aftermath of the ignominious defeat in China produced by Stalin’s right-wing opportunism, the Stalinists swung to an almost hysterical ultra-leftism that was, if anything, even more politically infantile than the ultra-leftism mocked less than a decade earlier by Lenin at the Third Congress of the Communist International.

This “ultra-leftism” was inaugurated by the Comintern when Stalin’s henchman, V. Molotov, proclaimed the onset of the “Third Period,” which was supposedly characterized by the unstoppable “revolutionary upsurge” and “radicalization of the masses.” The latter slogan was elevated into an absolute principle which rendered any concrete analysis of the actual development of the class struggle in each country utterly superfluous. The “radicalization of the masses” became a pure metaphysical abstraction. No attempt was made to examine the concrete forms of this radicalization, the tempo of its development, the layers of the working class involved, etc. Neither the differentiation within the proletariat of each country nor the specific distinctions between the development of the workers’ movement in different countries was acknowledged. An abstract—and thus, non-dialectical—uniformity was imposed on the entire development of the international class struggle. On this basis, a set of bombastic formulas were declared to be universally valid: the “General Strike,” the “Conquest of the Streets,” and “No Alliances With the Reformists!”

Underlying this swing toward ultra-leftism was a deep-rooted skepticism within the Communist International toward its ability to break the stranglehold of Social Democracy over the working class. The necessity for patient political work among the masses, especially the powerful battalions organized within the trade unions, which had been especially stressed by Lenin at the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Communist International, was repudiated. Rather than exploit the contradictions within Social Democracy—that is, the conflict between its mass working class base and its political role as an agency of capitalism—the Stalinists, in practice, abstained from any sustained struggle to break the workers from their corrupt reformist leaders.

This took the following form in Germany. After the Wall Street crash of October 1929, the unfolding world depression devastated the German economy. The rise of mass unemployment and the ruination of the petty bourgeoisie led to the rapid growth of a mass fascist movement led by Adolph Hitler. Its recruits were drawn primarily from the ruined middle class and the destitute lumpen-proletariat.

Trotsky carefully analyzed the objective political and social content of fascism:

Fascism is not merely a system of reprisals, of brute force, and of police terror. Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. The task of fascism lies not only in destroying the Communist vanguard but in holding the entire class in a state of forced disunity. To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organizations, to demolish all the decisive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three-quarters of a century by Social Democracy and the trade unions. For, in the last analysis, the Communist Party also bases itself on these achievements. (“What Next,” from Germany 1931–32, New Park, p.48)

The central political task which confronted the German Communist Party was the mobilization of the working class against the fascist threat; and through this, to unite under its leadership the entire working class for the seizure of state power. To expose the reactionary nature of Social Democracy as a bulwark of the capitalist state it was necessary for the Communist Party to propose, before the entire working class, a united front of the two working-class parties in struggle against Hitler’s brown shirts. Millions of German workers, loyal to the Social Democrats, wanted to fight the Nazis. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, were determined to contain the political struggle of the working class within the limits of the capitalist state. No struggle against Hitlerism, which passed beyond those limits was permissible. Instead, the Social Democrats based their entire policy upon bankrupt appeals to the capitalist state to defend bourgeois democracy and to protect the working class against the fascist onslaught.

By calling for united action by the Communist and Social Democratic parties, the former would have been able to expose the cowardice of the reformists, their connections with the bourgeoisie, and their refusals to seriously fight Nazism. At the same time, the Communist Party would have attained enormous stature among Social Democratic workers as the only political force capable of defending their trade unions and democratic rights. The tactic of the United Front would have vastly strengthened the German working class, demoralized the petty bourgeois masses within Hitler’s movement, discredited Social Democracy, and cleared the path to socialist revolution.

However, in accordance with the precepts of the “Third Period,” the Stalinists embarked on the opposite course. They rejected any proposal for a United Front, and instead denounced the Social Democrats as “Social Fascists,” that is, they declared that “The Social Democracy and fascism are not antipodes but twins.” From this the Stalinists established the rule that Social Democracy was as immediate and as great an enemy as the Nazis and that united struggles by Communist and Social Democratic workers organizations against the fascists were impermissible.

How did the Stalinists arrive at this fatal political line? By means of purely formal logical deduction, the Stalinists insisted: 1) Fascism is an agency of the capitalist state; 2) Social Democracy is an agency of the capitalist class; 3) Therefore, fascism and Social Democracy are the same; 4) Ergo, Social Democracy is a variety of fascism, i.e., it is “Social-Fascism.”

The Theory of Social Fascism

The metaphysics of this argument consisted in the removal of all contradiction from the political categories with which the Stalinists pretended to deal. They ignored the fact that Social Democracy was not only an agency of capitalism, it was also a workers’ party—i.e., it was an Identity of opposed determinations. Ultimately, fascism and Social Democracy served the same master, but they served capitalism in different ways. In order to carry out its specific historical task, fascism had as its goal the liquidation not only of the Communist Party but also of Social Democracy. In order to defend capitalism, the fascists were called upon to destroy all elements of proletarian democracy, including the reformist organizations of the working class.

As Trotsky explained:

The gist of this Stalinist philosophy is quite plain: from the Marxist denial of the absolute contradiction (between fascism and Social Democracy) it deduces the general negation of the contradiction, even of the relative contradiction. This error is typical of vulgar radicalism. For if there is no contradiction whatsoever between democracy and fascism—even in the sphere of the form of the rule of the bourgeoisie—then these two regimes obviously enough must be equivalent. Whence the conclusion: Social Democracy equals fascism. (“What Next,” from Germany 1931–32 p.63)

Rather than finding a road to the Social Democratic workers and uniting the working class, the Stalinists deepened the divisions within the working class, alienated the Social Democratic workers, and played into the hands of not only the Social Democratic bureaucracy but of the fascists as well. On certain occasions, as in the politically-demented “Red Referendum,” the Stalinists collaborated with the Nazis against the Social Democrats; and thus squandered whatever credibility the German Communist Party retained in the eyes of Social Democratic trade unions.

Refusing to listen to the warnings of the International Left Opposition and its German Section [2], the Stalinists replied with pathetic bluster. Their slogan became, “After Hitler, us!” They reassured the Stalinist rank-and-file that Hitler would not be able to remain in power very long, that his regime would collapse, and that the socialist revolution would soon follow.

Trotsky exposed that the political essence of this argument was “cowardice turned inside out,” that is, a passive acceptance of the inevitability of a fascist victory. Politically bankrupt, the Stalinists implicitly relied on Hitler to create, through his victory, the best conditions for the socialist revolution! In other words, the Stalinists relinquished to Hitler the task of developing revolutionary consciousness in the working class!

The combined treachery of the Stalinists and the Social Democrats demoralized and paralyzed the German working class. On January 31, 1933, despite the fact that the Nazis themselves had been steadily weakening over the previous months, Hitler came to power at the invitation of the democratic Weimar Republic. The German working class suffered the most catastrophic defeat in the history of the international workers’ movement without a shot being fired. In the weeks following Hitler’s victory, the Social Democratic bureaucrats offered Hitler their most loyal collaboration. As for the Stalinists, their leaders were totally disoriented and paralyzed. Politically and morally discredited in the eyes of the German working class, the Communist Party disintegrated beneath the weight of fascist repression. As for the Social Democrats, despite their pledge of loyalty to the fascist regime, they, too, were outlawed. All independent working-class organizations in Germany were destroyed.

Trotsky wrote that the victory of Hitler meant the end of the German Communist Party:

It must be said clearly, plainly, openly: Stalinism in Germany has had its August 4th. Henceforth, the advanced workers will only speak of the period of the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy with a burning sense of shame, with words of hatred and curses. The official German Communist Party is doomed. From now on, it will only decompose, crumble and melt into the void. German Communism can be reformed only on a new basis and with a new leadership. (“The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” from The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany, Pathfinder, p.384)

While pronouncing a political death sentence upon the German Stalinist party, Trotsky waited to see whether any section within the Communist International would speak up against the Stalinist betrayal. On April 7, 1933, the Executive Committee of the Comintern declared: “The political line … of the [German] Central Committee, with Thaelman at its head, was completely correct up to and during Hitler’s coup d’etat.”

This proclamation signified the utter political degradation of Stalinism. The acceptance of the German catastrophe without any protest meant that the Third International was finished historically as a revolutionary organization of the working class. Stalinism, Trotsky insisted, like Social Democracy in 1914, has passed decisively into the camp of bourgeois counterrevolution. The perspective of seeking to reform the Communist Parties and the Communist International no longer had any validity. The quantitative accumulation of political betrayals had produced a qualitative transformation of Stalinism itself. It had passed from bureaucratic centrism to conscious counterrevolution. On July 15, 1933, Trotsky wrote an historic statement: “It is Necessary to Build Communist Parties and an International Anew.”

Everything that has taken place since March 5: the resolution of the presidium of the ECCI on the situation in Germany; the silent submission of all the sections to this shameful resolution; the anti-fascist congress in Paris; the official line of the émigré Central Committee of the German Communist Party; the fate of the Austrian Communist Party; the fate of the Bulgarian Communist Party, etc.—all this testifies incontestably that the fate of not only the German Communist Party but also the entire Comintern was decided in Germany.

The Moscow leadership has not only proclaimed as infallible the policy which guaranteed victory to Hitler, but has also prohibited all discussion of what had occurred. And this shameful interdiction was not violated, nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress; no discussion at party meetings; no discussion in the press! An organization which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can revive it. To say this openly and publicly is our direct duty to the proletariat and its future. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International.” (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.420)

The defeat of the German working class was a world historical experience of the proletariat. There was not a trace of subjectivism in Trotsky’s evaluation of the role of Stalinism. It was abstracted from the objective historical development of the class struggle, and in the further development of Trotsky’s work, scientifically verified.

Objective Social Laws

It is of decisive importance to understand that Trotsky did not conclude his theoretical work on Stalinism once he had established, on the basis of the German events, its counterrevolutionary role. Nor did he rest content with pointing to the further development of Stalinist treachery after 1933—the Popular Front betrayals in France and Spain, the Moscow Trials, the Stalin–Hitler Pact—to substantiate his indictment of its counterrevolutionary role. Trotsky set out to discover the objective social laws, from the standpoint of historical materialism, of the degeneration of the first workers’ state and of the transformation of the Stalinist bureaucracy into the principal agency of imperialism within the international workers’ movement. Herein lay the great continuity of Trotsky’s work with that of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Second International in 1914, Lenin sought to establish the laws which were manifested in the transformation of the Second International into a bulwark of the imperialist order. As he later wrote, in 1920:

Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problems of the communist movement and the impending social revolution. (Collected Works, Vol. 22, p.194)

Accordingly, Lenin traced the degeneration of the Second International to the emergence of imperialism as a specific stage in the development of capitalism (the transition from “free” competition to monopoly), in which the super-exploitation of the colonial masses created the super-profits which allowed for the cultivation and bribery of a labor bureaucracy and upper stratum of the working class, transforming them into “real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement, the labor-lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie, the ‘Versailles’ against the ‘Communards.’” (Vol. 22, p.194)

By discovering the objective historical and economic laws which led Social Democracy into the camp of Imperialism, Lenin proved scientifically the necessity for the building of a Third, Communist International and exposed the reactionary nature of all attempts to either revive the Second International or straddle the fence between Social Democracy and Communism.

The objective historical necessity for the life-and-death struggle against Stalinism and for the building of the Fourth International was established by Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. Alongside of Lenin’s Imperialism, the book constitutes the greatest theoretical conquest of the dialectical materialist method in the 20th century. It may be said (as Lenin said of Marx’s Capital) that if Trotsky did not leave behind a Logic, he left behind the logic of this monumental analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is the essential theoretical foundation of the Fourth International and the irrefutable scientific answer to all revisionism.

The Revolution Betrayed uncovers the specific laws governing the emergence, growth and inevitable destruction of the Soviet bureaucracy. Analyzing the contradictions which govern the existence of the bureaucracy as a privileged caste (not class) within a workers’ state, Trotsky established that the conquests of the 1917 October Revolution could be preserved and extended only through the political revolution, in which the Soviet workers overthrew the bureaucracy through a violent insurrection while preserving the nationalized property relations established by the Bolshevik revolution.

Trotsky provided not a formal, but rather a dialectical definition of the Soviet regime as transitional; that is, a contradictory social phenomenon, between capitalism, which had been overthrown, and socialism, whose construction in the USSR depended on the fate of the world revolution. As Trotsky explained:

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible … In the last analysis, the questions will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena. (The Revolution Betrayed, New Park, pp.254–55)

Trotsky acknowledged that “Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes—yes, and no—no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and may tomorrow wholly violate it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations who have no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants for development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.” (The Revolution Betrayed, pp.255-56)

Dialectical Materialist Method

And what is this if not the dialectical materialist method? In carefully studying The Revolution Betrayed, one cannot fail to be struck by the identity of method which guided Trotsky in his analysis of the Soviet Union, an entirely new social phenomenon—the first workers’ state in history—and that which guided Marx in his analysis of Capital. In the famous review of Capital published by the European Messenger of St. Petersburg, which Marx cited in the Afterword of the Second Edition of Volume One, the writer noted:

The one thing which is of moment to Marx [and to Trotsky—DN], is to find the law of the phenomenon with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law, once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life. Consequently, Marx only troubles himself about one thing: to show by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social conditions, and to establish, as impartially as possible, the facts that serve him for fundamental starting-points. For this it is quite enough, if he proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over; and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence … (Marx, Capital, Vol. l, Progess Publishers, p.27)

Virtually every word would be appropriate as a description of The Revolution Betrayed. Those who seriously and systematically study the writings of Leon Trotsky, and this is essential for the theoretical development of every cadre in the Workers League and the International Committee, will discover the enormous richness of the dialectical method. It would be wrong, of course, to mechanically reduce the whole content of the struggle waged by Trotsky against Stalinism to the question of dialectics versus metaphysics, independent of an examination of the social forces whose interests were, and continue to be, manifested through these historical battles. However, there is no question but that every stage in the development of the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy required a deepening of the dialectical materialist method against the subjective idealist metaphysics of the bureaucracy. Philosophy is partisan; that is, theory is a class question. Stalin’s eclecticism and idealism, which made him initially vulnerable to the pressures of social forces hostile to the proletariat, became anchored, at a certain point in the development of the world crisis, in the material interests of the Soviet bureaucracy and, thus, of world imperialism.

This was recognized by Trotsky. Class interests and philosophical method were, in his analysis, as dialectically related as the economic base of society to its ideological superstructure. Therefore, those in the petty-bourgeois minority of the Socialist Workers Party who claimed in 1940 that Trotsky “artificially” introduced dialectics into the discussion of “concrete” questions (i.e., the class nature of the Soviet state, the character of the SWP regime), merely demonstrated their own pragmatic superficiality and abysmal ignorance of Trotsky’s life work.

From the standpoint of the unrelenting ideological struggle waged by Trotsky against the Stalinist bureaucracy and its leaders and apologists, the whole content of his writings between 1923 until his death on August 21, 1940, could be summed up, as Lenin summed up the 40-year correspondence of Marx and Engels, with the single word, “Dialectics.”