David North
Leon Trotsky and the Development of Marxism

Article Four

At each of the first four congresses of the Communist International—those held while Lenin was still alive and politically active—Leon Trotsky insisted that the central historical lesson of the 1917 October Revolution and a fundamental characteristic of the imperialist epoch was the decisive role of revolutionary Marxist leadership in the preparation of the socialist revolution and the seizure of state power by the working class.

Based on the concrete historical experience of the working class in Russia and on an international scale, Trotsky elaborated the conception that the fate of the socialist revolution for a number of years—and even for decades—can hinge on the decisions made by the leadership of a Marxist party in the course of a few days.

The concept of cadre training and of the role of the International was invested with a new historical content. In direct contrast to the outlook of the Second International—unstated but implicit in all its theoretical and practical work—the Communist International proceeded from the fundamental premise that the socialist revolution could not be left to the inexorable working out of abstractly conceived objective economic forces and social contradictions. The leaders of the revolutionary parties of the Comintern (as the Communist International was known) had to recognize that their subjective practice was a decisive objective link in the chain of historical events leading to the overthrow of capitalism.

Following this conception to its logical and most concrete conclusion, it meant that at a definite point, identified by Marxists, in the development of a revolutionary crisis in different capitalist countries, the question of the armed insurrection would arise as a specific item on the agendas of the leading committees of communist parties. Then, a definite date would have to be set and a plan of action prepared for the overthrow of the capitalist state.

The historic task of the Comintern was to train an international cadre in the leadership in its sections capable of fulfilling this task. From this standpoint, Trotsky conceived of the Communist International as a “school of revolutionary strategy.” These conclusions, with which Lenin concurred, arose out of Trotsky’s profound conception of the nature and tasks of the imperialist epoch. Like all the great masters of the dialectical materialist method, Trotsky’s theoretical work always embodied a summing up of the living experiences of the class struggle, scientifically refracted through the concepts of historical materialism. He examined every important movement of the masses, always seeking to discover within each new form of the class struggle the operating dialectical laws governing the development of the socialist revolution. The method of Trotsky was that of Marx, who, as Lenin wrote, “studied the birth of the new society out of the old, and the forms of transition from the latter to the former, as a natural-historical process. He examined the actual experience of a mass proletarian movement and tried to draw practical lessons from it.” (Lenin, State and Revolution, Progress Publishers, p.48)

The political work of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, from the time of Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd in April through to the seizure of power in October, was conducted under the banner of the World Socialist Revolution. As Lenin told the delegates at the crucial April Conference of the Bolshevik Party, at which the decisive shift was made (in opposition to Stalin) from a policy of support to the bourgeois Provisional Government to the preparation of the seizure of power:

The great honor of beginning the revolution has fallen to the Russian proletariat. But the Russian proletariat must not forget that its movement and revolution are part of a world revolutionary proletarian movement, which in Germany, for example, is gaining momentum with every passing day. Only from this angle can we define our tasks.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 24, p.227)

The conception that socialism could be built in Russia independently of the overthrow of capitalism in Western Europe and throughout the world was never suggested in 1917. Within the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, it was an unchallengeable assumption and the basis of all its strategical considerations that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended upon events in the west. The greatest emphasis was placed, therefore, on the founding of the Third International to guide the victory of the World Socialist Revolution.

The revolutionary optimism of the Bolshevik leaders was justified. The Bolshevik victory landed like a stick of dynamite amid the explosive class contradictions that had been mounting throughout the imperialist war.

Revolution in Germany

In November 1918, revolution erupted in Germany, forcing the emperor to flee, raising the Social Democrats to power, and bringing about the end of World War I. In March 1919, a Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Hungary. Later that year, the great steel strike shook the United States. In September 1920, an immense movement of the Italian working class culminated in the seizure of the factories and mills. In December 1920, Czechoslovakia was convulsed by mass strikes.

Despite the unprecedented historical magnitude of the revolutionary movement, especially in Europe, nowhere was the working class able to emulate successfully the example of the Soviet proletariat. In Germany, the uprising of the Spartakus movement was suppressed, and its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered on January 15, 1919 with the approval of the Social Democratic regime. In March, the counterrevolution, with the blessings of the Second International, overthrew the Munich Soviet Government and its leader, Levine, was executed. The Hungarian Soviet Republic, led by Bela Kun, was overthrown within a month. In Italy, the workers’ offensive stopped short of a seizure of power. The fascists mounted a counter-offensive that was to bring Mussolini to power.

In 1919, the bourgeoisie of all the major European countries had thought that its overthrow was imminent. By the end of 1920, as the revolutionary wave receded, the bourgeoisie grew increasingly self-confident. On the basis of the defeats inflicted upon the working class, a period of political and economic stabilization set in. These developments, however tragic in their immediate consequences, were of enormous educational significance for the Communist International. They confirmed, from the side of the negative—that is, from adversity and disappointment—the essential historical significance of Bolshevism as the indispensable prerequisite for the victory of the socialist revolution; they deepened the theoretical insight of the Comintern into the dialectic of the imperialist epoch.

In a speech delivered in July 1921, at the very conclusion of the Third Congress of the Communist International, Trotsky spoke before the General Party Membership of the Moscow Organization:

Some comrades have a far too simplified approach to the victory of the proletariat. There obtains today not alone in Europe but on a world scale a situation which permits us, from the standpoint of Marxism, to say with complete assurance that the bourgeois system has completely drained itself. The world production forces cannot develop further within the framework of bourgeois society … But does this mean that the doom of the bourgeoisie is automatically and mechanically predetermined? No. The bourgeoisie is a living class which has risen on specific economic, productive foundations. This class is not a passive product of economic development, but a living, dynamic, active historical force. This class has outlived itself, i.e., has become the most fearsome brake upon historical development. But this must not at all be taken to mean that this class is prone to historical suicide, that it is ready to say, “Since the scientific theory of historical development finds me reactionary, therefore I leave the scene.” Of course, there cannot even be talk of this. On the other hand, the recognition by the Communist Party of the fact that the bourgeois class is condemned and subject to elimination is likewise far from sufficient to assure the victory of the proletariat. No, the bourgeoisie must still be defeated and overthrown!…

The bourgeoisie, even though it finds itself in a complete contradiction with the demands of historical progress, nevertheless still remains the most powerful class. More than that, it may be said that politically the bourgeoisie attains its greatest powers, its greatest concentration of forces and resources, of political and military means of deception, of coercion, and provocation, i.e., the flowering of its class strategy, at the moment when it is most immediately threatened by social ruin…

From a superficial standpoint there appears to be some sort of contradiction here: We have brought the bourgeoisie for judgment before the court of Marxism, i.e., the court of scientific knowledge of the historical process, and found it obsolete, and yet at the same time the bourgeoisie discloses a colossal vitality. In reality there is no contradiction here at all. This is what Marxism calls the dialectic…

Europe and the whole world are passing through a period which is, on the one side, an epoch of disintegration of the production forces of bourgeois society, and, on the other side, an epoch of the highest flowering of the counterrevolutionary strategy of the bourgeoisie. We must understand this clearly and precisely. Counterrevolutionary strategy, i.e., the art of waging a combined struggle against the proletariat by every means from saccharine, professorial-clerical preachments to machine-gunning of strikers, has never attained such heights as it does today. (First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, New Park, pp.3–6)

This supremely conscious response of the world bourgeoisie to the October Revolution found its most brutal expression in the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The one overriding lesson which the ruling class of all capitalist countries extracted from the victory of the October Revolution was that the emerging leaders and most promising cadre of the maturing social revolutions must be eliminated in advance of the future Octobers. Provocations, infiltrations, disruptions, assassinations: these methods became after 1917 the stock-in-trade of the world bourgeoisie.

The political conclusion drawn by Trotsky from this analysis 61 years ago has lost none of its relevance:

The task of the working class—in Europe and throughout the world—consists in counter-posing to the thoroughly thought-out strategy of the bourgeoisie its own revolutionary strategy, likewise thought out to the end. (First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, p.7)


Two inter-connected characteristics, both bound up with the decay of the productive forces, the ever-more diseased nature of imperialist economic parasitism, were especially stressed by Trotsky: the phenomenon of State-ism and the putrefaction of bourgeois democracy.

In the Manifesto of the First Congress of the Comintern, Trotsky wrote:

Finance capital, which plunged mankind into the abyss of war, itself underwent a catastrophic change in the course of this war. The dependency of paper money upon the material foundation of production has been completely disrupted. Progressively losing its significance as the means and regulator of capitalist commodity circulation, paper money becomes transformed into an instrument of requisition, of seizure and military–economic violence in general.

The debasement of paper money reflects the general mortal crisis of capitalist commodity circulation. During the decades preceding the war, free competition, as the regulator of production and distribution, has already been thrust aside in the main fields of economic life by the system of trusts and monopolies; during the course of the war the regulating-directing role was torn from the hands of these economic groups and transferred directly into the hands of the military–state power. The distribution of raw materials, the utilization of Baku or Rumanian oil, Donbas coal, Ukranian wheat, the fate of German locomotives, freight cars and automobiles, the rationing of relief for starving Europe—all these fundamental questions of the world’s economic life are not being regulated by free competition, nor by associations of national and international trusts and consortiums, but by the direct application of military force, for the sake of its continued preservation. If the complete subjugation of the state power to the power of finance capital had led mankind into the imperialist slaughter, then through this slaughter finance capital has succeeded in completely militarizing not only the state but also itself; and it is no longer capable of fulfilling its basic economic functions otherwise than by means of blood and iron … The state-ization of economic life, against which capitalist liberalism used to protest so much, has become an accomplished fact. There is no turning back from this fact—it is impossible to return not only to the free competition but even to the domination of the trusts, syndicates and other economic octopuses. Today the one and only issue is: Who shall henceforth be the bearer of state-ized production—the imperialist state or the state of the victorious proletariat?

In other words: Is all toiling mankind to become the bond slaves of victorious world cliques who, under the firm name of the League of Nations and aided by an “international” army and an “international” navy, will here plunder and strangle some people and there cast crumbs to others, while everywhere and always shackling the proletariat—with the sole object of maintaining their own rule? Or shall the working class of Europe and of the advanced countries in other parts of the world take in hand the disrupted and ruined economy in order to assure its regeneration upon socialist principles? (First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. X, pp.46–47)

It seems superfluous to comment on the exceptional applicability of this analysis to the conditions of present-day imperialism. One need only point out that compared to the gargantuan dimensions of contemporary imperialist state-ism, this phenomenon, in 1919, was merely in its larva stage. As for Trotsky’s characterization of the financial and political life of imperialism, it could be mistaken for a summing up of the last decade:

Capitalism has degenerated in the course of the war. The systematic extraction of surplus value from the process of production—the foundation of profit economy—seems far too boresome an occupation to Messrs. Bourgeois who have become accustomed to double and decuple their capital within a couple of days by means of speculation, and on the basis of international robbery.

The bourgeois has shed certain prejudices which used to hamper him, and has acquired certain habits which he did not formerly possess. The war has inured him to subjecting a whole number of cities to a hunger-blockade, to bombarding from the air and setting fire to cities and villages, expediently spreading the bacilli of cholera, carrying dynamite in diplomatic pouches, counterfeiting his opponent’s currency; he has become accustomed to bribery, espionage and smuggling on a hitherto unequalled scale. The usages of war have been taken over, after the conclusion of peace, as the usages of commerce. The chief commercial operations are fused nowadays with the functions of the state, which steps to the fore as a world robber gang equipped with all the implements of violence.

The narrower the world’s productive basis, all the more savage and more wasteful the methods of appropriation (of surplus value). (The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. I p.138)

The speeches and articles prepared by Leon Trotsky during the first four Comintern congresses are masterpieces of the political literature of Marxism. As examples of the historical materialist method in action, they rank with Marx’s own historical address of May 1871 on The Civil War in France. Such works are ever green. But it must be emphasized that Trotsky is of our epoch; and his writings remain irreplaceable and indispensable, not only as the theoretical and political foundation of a Marxist strategy for the World Socialist Revolution; but even for an intelligent understanding of the daily events of modern political life.

Marxism in the Imperialist Epoch

We are not simply paying tribute to the genius of Trotsky. What we consider essential is the historical content of his work and that of Lenin as the expression of the development of Marxism in the imperialist epoch. The split with the Second International was fundamental. The Bolsheviks declared war not only on its politics but on its philosophical outlook as well. If examined through the method of its leading theoretician, Kautsky, it is clear that the Second International’s historic capitulation to imperialism was bound up with its vulgarization and revision of Marxism. Bolshevism’s entire conception of Marxism—the only conception—could not be reconciled with its dissolution by Kautsky and other theoreticians of the Second International into a scholastic method of passive commentary on historical events. This method, despite its formal identification with Marxism, was fundamentally antithetical to its revolutionary essence. As Trotsky wrote:

Kautsky is the founder and the most perfect representative of the Austrian forgery of Marxism. While the real teaching of Marx is the theoretical formula of action, of attack, of the development of revolutionary energy, and of the carrying of the class blow to its logical conclusion, the Austrian school was transformed into an academy of passivity and evasiveness, and reduced its work to explaining and justifying, not guiding and overthrowing. It lowered itself to the position of a handmaid to the current demands of parliamentarism and opportunism, replaced dialectics by swindling sophistries, and, in the end, in spite of its great play with ritual revolutionary phraseology, became transformed into the most secure buttress of the capitalist state, together with altar and throne that rose about it. (Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, New Park, p.183)

Characteristic of the leading theoreticians of the Second International, the “misfortune” of such thinkers as Plekhanov and Kautsky was their “inability to apply dialectics to the theory of reflection, to the process and development of knowledge.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p.360)

This “misfortune” permeated the theoretical work and political lives of the leaders of the Second International in Western Europe. While accepting the formal conclusions of the materialist conception of history, the study of its scientific concepts was detached from their philosophical moorings in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge. The use of historical materialist concepts—such as state, class, production relations, imperialism—was relegated to the application of certain fixed formulas and definitions learned by rote.

Social Practice

This method is the opposite of Marxism, which studies the historical evolution of all categories and concepts, not as products of the brain nor as emanations of an “absolute spirit,” but as the reflections in the minds of social men of objective properties and relations existing within nature and society. These reflections arise not in the course of passive contemplation, but, as Marx proved, as a result of objective social practice, in the historically-determined interaction of man and nature. By placing social practice at the center of its theory of knowledge, having extracted the rational core of the Hegelian dialectic from its idealist form, Marx was able, for the first time in the history of philosophy, to establish scientifically the relation between matter and thought, object and subject, and practice and theory.

Man cognizes the world in the social process of changing it. The forms of his thinking are produced and conditioned by the growth of the productive forces and the social relations which arise therefrom. Man’s cognition of the laws of nature and society, understood scientifically, as an historically developing social process, cannot be reduced to the one-sided (from object to subject), passive, and mirror-like reflection of nature in human thought. Cognition and practice constitute a unity of opposites, each influencing and shaping the other, in accordance with the dialectical laws governing the social process of production, which gives rise to the whole vast superstructure of ideology and politics.

The passive and contemplative “Marxism” of the Second International was not Marxism at all. It was a recrudescence of the old mechanical materialism that Marx himself had criticized and overthrown in his Theses on Feuerbach:

The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively … Hence he [Feuerbach] does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary,” or “practical-critical,” activity. (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, p.3)

In his autobiography, My Life, recalling the deep political gulf he perceived between himself and the leaders of the Second International, even before 1914, Trotsky remarked about the Austrian Social Democratic leader, Karl Renner (later chancellor of Austria, and, finally, before his death at a suitably Biblical age, a staunch ally of the United States): he was “as far from revolutionary dialectics as the most conservative Egyptian pharoah.”

This was not merely a passing observation. Trotsky had detected the connection between the passivity of the Social Democratic leaders, their incapacity for decisive revolutionary action, their distrust of the masses, their implicit faith in the durability of the capitalist order, and their indifference toward the dialectic, the mainspring of revolutionary Marxism. Renner, it might be noted, was a devout Kantian, the author of the Theory of Capitalist Economy, who attacked the dialectical method employed by Marx in Capital.

The method of thought with which Renner was identified had long before been criticized by Hegel, who noted the fundamental defect of Kantian philosophy and the old, mechanical materialism:

Hitherto, the Notion of Logic has rested on the separation, presupposed once and for all in the ordinary consciousness, of the content of cognition and its form … it is assumed that the material of knowing is present on its own account as a ready-made world apart from thought, that thinking on its own is empty and comes as an external form to the said material, fills itself with it and only thus acquires a content and so becomes real knowing. (G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Humanities Press, p. 44)

Translated into ordinary English, Hegel’s attack is directed against the mechanical conception, often mistaken for materialism, that ignores the active role of the forms of man’s thinking, activated and applied in practice, in the cognition of the external world. It is this active side of cognition whose discovery Marx credited to idealism, principally that of Hegel. However, it was discovered only in an abstract form. That is, the only activity acknowledged by Hegel was the activity of pure thought, embodied in the logical categories and concepts, of which human activity was merely a predicate.

When reworked materialistically (“standing Hegel on his feet”), this “active side” of cognition, arising out of and guiding the objective social practice of men engaged in the class struggle, becomes the scientific method of both the analysis and revolutionary transformation of the world. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This conclusion, drawn by Marx in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, is not, as academic falsifiers have at times suggested, a renunciation of philosophical work and a simple invocation of practical action. It is, rather, a concise summing up, on the basis of vast theoretical labors, of that essential relation between cognition and revolutionary practice, without which scientific knowledge of the objective world of the class struggle is impossible.

This issue is hardly the esoteric matter it might at first seem. Its “practical” implications were very much in evidence in all the struggles raging within the Bolshevik Party in 1917, as Lenin fought to orient the Bolshevik Party, against enormous opposition, to the seizure of state power. The high point of the political struggle within the Bolshevik Party came in October 1917, when Lenin’s closest collaborators in the period of exile, Kamenev and Zinoviev, came out against the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government.

Their arguments against a Bolshevik-led insurrection were quoted by Trotsky in Lessons of October:

Whoever intends to do more than merely talk about an insurrection, is duty bound to weigh its chances soberly. And, here we feel that it is our duty to say that at the present moment the greatest harm can result from underestimating the enemy forces and exaggerating our own. The forces of the enemy are greater than they appear. Petrograd will decide—but in Petrograd the enemies of the proletarian party have concentrated considerable forces: 5,000 Junkers, splendidly equipped and organized and, by virtue of their class position, eager and able to fight; and then the army headquarters; and then the shock troops, and then the Cossacks; and then a strong section of the garrison; and then there is a very strong section of the artillery deployed fanwise round Petrograd. Moreover, our enemies, with the help of the All-Russian Central Executive of the Soviets, will almost certainly attempt to bring troops from the front. (“On the Current Situation,” Lessons of October, New Park, p.36)

The above paragraph is a classic example of the inability to grasp “the significance of ‘revolutionary,’ of ‘practical-critical,’ activity.” The assessment of Zinoviev and Kamenev was based on an utterly one-sided, passive and mechanical examination of the contending forces. The numerical strength of the enemy was summed up arithmetically. On the basis of a formal comparison, the position of the proletariat appeared hopeless.

Two weeks prior to our bloodless victory in Petrograd—and we could have gained it two weeks earlier—experienced party politicians saw arrayed against us the Junkers, eager and able to fight, and the shock troops, and the Cossacks, and a strong section of the garrison and the artillery, deployed fan-wise and the troops arriving from the front. But in reality all this came to nothing; in round figures, zero … Never tested in the fire of insurrection, these forces would have seemed immeasurably more terrible than they proved in action. Here is the lesson which must be burned into the consciousness of every revolutionist! (“On the Current Situation,” Lessons of October, p.38)

Lessons of October

The “Lessons of October” were incorporated by Trotsky into the strategical revolutionary work of the Communist International. The recognition of the decisive role of revolutionary leadership and the indispensability of the dialectical method comprise the fundamental and interconnected themes of virtually all his great contributions to the training of its cadre—a training aborted by the growth of bureaucracy and the disorientation and, finally, the destruction of the Communist International. However, Trotsky’s contributions remain a vast treasure of revolutionary experience, knowledge and insights vital for the training of cadre today.

While Marxism teaches that class relations arise in the process of production and that these relations correspond to a certain level of productive forces; while Marxism further teaches that all forms of ideology and, first and foremost, politics correspond to class relations, this does not mean that between politics, class groupings and production there exist simply mechanical relations, calculable by the four rules of arithmetic. On the contrary, the reciprocal relations are extremely complex. It is possible to interpret dialectically the course of a country’s development, including its revolutionary development, only by proceeding from the action, reaction and interaction of all material and superstructural factors, national and worldwide alike, and not through superstructural juxtapositions, or formal analogies.” (First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. l, p.77)

Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the dialectical method, treated as a “dead dog” by Kautsky and the majority of the Social Democratic leaders, was revived, enriched, and restored to its rightful place in the Communist International—as the methodological foundation of the science of Marxist strategy, political perspectives and revolutionary action. In an epoch of civil wars, of abrupt “overnight” changes in the political situation, of day-to-day shifts in the relations of class forces on a world scale, of sudden movements on the political battlefield from left to right and from right to left, only the dialectical method has been proven equal to the historical task of the proletariat. As Marx would have written: dialectics is not a lancet for academic debate but a weapon of class war. It is not the passion of the head; it is the head of revolutionary passion. It is in this spirit that the International Committee of the Fourth International trains the cadre of the World Trotskyist movement today.


See Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 109: “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how Opposites can be’ and how they happen to be (how they become) identical,—under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another,—why the human mind should grasp these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, becoming transformed into one another. In reading Hegel…”


It was established in the 1950s that the two leaders of the German section, Senin and Well, were Stalinist agents. In the 1940s, after emigrating to the United States, they became controllers of a GPU spy ring inside the Socialist Workers Party. Among their prime agents were Sylvia Caldwell, the secretary of SWP founder James P. Cannon, and Joseph Hansen, former secretary of Trotsky in Mexico and later, from 1959 on, the principal leader of the SWP.