Friday, 31 August 2012

Trotsky's crash course on revolution and counter-revolution


This is my Counterfire review of 'Trotsky: Writings in Exile', edited by Kunal Chattopadhyay and Paul Le Blanc (Pluto, 2012).

Leon Trotsky kept the flame of authentic revolutionary socialism burning from the late 1920s onwards. Despite the most unimaginable persecution by Stalin’s regime, he sustained a commitment to internationalism, equality and radical democracy after Lenin’s death, the rise of Stalinist counter-revolution and the marginalisation of the revolutionary tradition. He did not do this through dogmatic fidelity to Marxist ‘classics’, but by analysing fresh developments and challenging orthodoxies.

Having played a role in the Russian Revolution second only to Lenin, Trotsky later found himself isolated and persecuted. During his later years, Trotsky’s role as a practical revolutionary leader was hardly comparable to the part he played in 1917’s revolution and the years which had followed it. During that turbulent time he had organised the Red Army in defending a besieged workers’ state in civil war, helped give political leadership in the new Russia and played a central role in the Comintern, an international of socialist organisations which aimed to spread working class revolution.

Yet his later contributions as political analyst, theoretician and historian were extraordinary. His mature writings are informed by a special sort of practical experience, as a leading figure in turbulent events of remarkable historic importance, as well as deep knowledge of the Marxist tradition. Trotsky also sought to gather revolutionaries in new networks which could sustain the genuine traditions of socialism from below, and give some flesh to the radical perspectives he (and his small number of collaborators) developed. These efforts were of limited practical success due to immensely hostile circumstances, but invaluable for sustaining the tradition. After the Second World War, Trotsky’s later writings would become the basis for a great deal of what sustained the revolutionary left, with, admittedly, some important revisions to account for changing realities.

Pluto’s ‘Get Political’ series aims to make the writings of various radical thinkers and writers accessible to a new generation. Three volumes in particular, this one together with selected writings by Lenin and Luxemburg, are designed to share the insights of the path-breaking generation of Marxists which emerged around the turn of the twentieth century. These individuals are, after Marx and Engels, the most influential theorists in the Marxist tradition, making leaps forward in our understanding of revolution, reformist socialism, imperialism, fascism, and much more.

University students might learn about Marx, Gramsci and perhaps a few other Marxist thinkers, though often in somewhat distorted form, but they are unlikely to encounter Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky at all, despite their theoretically rich contributions. These figures are firmly associated with an activist, not academic, Marxism: ridiculed, despised or ignored by the mainstream. It is one of the strengths of the editorial introductions in this series that the editors have extensive experience as revolutionary activists. The three books are supported by a website with slide shows and study materials, launched by a statement signed by numerous writers, activists and academics. They are meant as resources for discussion and self-education, geared towards the needs of a new generation of activists, not mere historical or academic curiosities.

The Trotsky volume contains articles, speeches and essays from 1929, when Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union, until his assassination by one of Stalin’s agents in Mexico in 1940. It largely omits excerpts from full-length works like the epic 1,200-page History of the Russian Revolution (of which left-wing comedian Mark Steel once remarked, ‘the only problem is its length - it should be twice as long’) or The Revolution Betrayed, a detailed account of the rise of Stalinism.

Instead the focus is on complete shorter works, from articles of just a few pages to substantial essays.
This is, I think, a strength: the overall result is a remarkably wide-ranging book but one packed with coherent and succinct pieces on major topics. There is helpful and detailed guidance on further reading, both Trotsky’s own writings and a range of works about him and his ideas, such as the multi-volume biographies by Isaac Deutscher and Tony Cliff.

The core of Trotsky’s analysis of the rise of Stalinism was his grasp of an elementary fact: ‘socialism in one country’ is impossible. Lenin and Trotsky both insisted, in the years immediately following 1917, that Russia’s fledgling workers’ state could only survive if there were successful revolutionary uprisings in Europe. Trotsky, following Lenin’s death in 1924, developed an analysis of Stalinism as a victory for counter-revolution, one which was predicated on the isolation of Russia’s revolution and the determined efforts of hostile imperialist powers to crush it. Stalinism, he wrote, was ‘the negation of Bolshevism’.

Trotsky was perceptive about the disastrous effects of civil war, which left the Russian working class hollowed out, while the power of the bureaucracy grew. This was the material basis for the authoritarianism associated with Stalin. While critiquing this counter-revolutionary phenomenon, Trotsky promoted the authentic tradition of revolutionary socialism. In a forensic and powerful speech he gave in Denmark, he reasserted the tremendous achievements of the early years of revolutionary Russia.

The extract here from Trotsky’s writings on Germany in the early-to-mid 1930s is astonishingly clear, illuminating the complex processes which underpinned the rise of Hitler to power in 1933. The political strategy Trotsky advocated was influenced by his prescient grasp of the enormous dangers posed by Hitler’s rising Nazi Party in the early 1930s. His pieces on Germany from this period are among the greatest writings in the entire Marxist tradition. The article contained in this volume is an extraordinary example of first-rate political analysis: acutely perceptive, concise, urgent, and powerfully expressed. As well as offering a peerlessly astute insight into Nazism, its class basis, the historical forces driving it, and the direction in which it was heading, the article is a model of political writing.

As well as probing the problem, Trotsky was clear-sighted about the solution. Trotsky - emphatically, repeatedly, insistently - urged the unity of all socialists to defeat the threat of Nazism in Germany. He argued that a united front was more necessary than ever, calling for a coalition of Communists and supporters of the Social Democrats (the German equivalent of the Labour Party) to mobilise on the streets and through the trade unions. He was, however, a marginal figure with no political base. His words were ignored, with tragic consequences. Communists and Social Democrats were persecuted, and many later killed, once Hitler took power.

A number of selected pieces are connected to the book’s central thread of revolution and counter-revolution in Russia, even if it is not immediately obvious. One example is Trotsky’s introduction to Harold Isaacs’ magisterial history of the Chinese revolution. The negative role played by the Stalinist bureaucracy, through its disastrous foreign policy, was a critical factor in the outcome of events in China. This essay is as good a brief introduction to the Chinese Revolution as you will find anywhere.

What is even more important is how essays like the one on China fit into the greater whole: it is part of the book’s larger narrative. The whole selection is united by a number of central concerns: recovering the real Bolshevik tradition from massive Stalinist distortion, tracing the rise of Stalinist counter-revolution and its dire consequences internationally, and probing the mechanics and dynamics of revolution. Writings in Exile is a potted history of major developments between 1917 and the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, but it is also a crash course in revolution and counter-revolution from one of the Marxist tradition’s most gifted writers.


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