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Against Trotskyism: Trotsky and the Soviet Union

By J. Sykes

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Trotsky argued, before and after the revolution of 1917, that building socialism in one country was impossible, and that the success of the revolution was dependent on the immediate expansion of the revolution to Western Europe. Once this didn’t happen, Trotsky’s only way to persist in this theory was to say that the Soviet Union wasn’t truly building socialism.

Despite Trotsky’s protests to the contrary, the Soviet Union, in fact, accomplished a great deal. By putting the means of production under the control of the proletarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union, in just a few decades, went from a backwards country built upon horse-drawn plows, to a country with an industrial output rivaling the U.S. The living standards of the Soviet people increased at a rate never achieved before. The landlords were expropriated and agriculture was collectivized. The USSR established free, high quality education and health care, with low priced, state-subsidized food, housing and utilities. Huge strides were made to promote real national and gender equality. By the late 1930s, the USSR had the world’s most democratic constitution.

By any measure, socialism in the Soviet Union was achieving unprecedented success prior to any other countries joining the socialist camp. Of course, this didn’t mean that there was no danger of capitalist restoration from within or without. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Communist Party and the masses of Soviet workers and peasants, the USSR beat back imperialist attacks both immediately after their revolution, and later when they turned back the tide of the German Nazi invasion.

In the late 1950s, however, the party leadership abandoned Marxism-Leninism for revisionism, and so began a slow march to capitalist restoration that culminated in 1991. Of course, the Trotskyites celebrate this historic defeat of socialism, and claim that they were right all along as a result. But again, they fail to concretely understand what took place.

The Trotskyist understanding of socialism in the USSR is that it was a “degenerated workers’ state.” According to the Trotskyites, the dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer truly in the hands of the working class, but in the hands of a “Stalinist bureaucracy.” After Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky and his supporters first insisted upon following a forged “will'' that they claimed Lenin had left behind. This “last testament” of Lenin’s said that Stalin should be removed from his leading posts and that Trotsky should lead in his stead.

Valentin A. Sakharov, and after him, Grover Furr, have dealt at length with the question of Lenin’s “testament” as a supposed historical document. Even the famous right-wing anti-communist historian Stephen Kotkin doubts the veracity of this “testament of Lenin.” But even were it real, the idea that leadership of the state and party should be decided by one person, even Lenin, is not democratic at all, and it isn’t the way the Soviet Party and state worked. Stalin’s leadership of the party and state was determined collectively, and Trotsky overwhelmingly lost his bid for power on the basis of Soviet democracy.

Trotsky insisted that he was the victim of a bureaucracy at work. “Perhaps this is a workers' state, in the last analysis,” Trotsky writes, “but there has not been left in it a vestige of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We have here a degenerated workers' state under the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.”

The real issue at hand, then, is the question of bureaucracy. Opponents of socialism always level the charge of “bureaucracy” against it, and the Trotskyites are no different. Of course, the struggle against bureaucracy in the USSR was nothing new. Stalin himself said, in 1928, “Bureaucracy is one of the worst enemies of our progress.” The key to the struggle against bureaucracy was the struggle for revolutionary democracy. According to Stalin, this meant organizing mass criticism from below. “How are we to put an end to bureaucracy in all these organizations?” Stalin asks. “There is only one sole way of doing this, and that is to organize control from below, to organize criticism of the bureaucracy in our institutions, of their shortcomings and their mistakes, by the vast masses of the working class.” Clearly, the problem for Trotsky isn’t bureaucracy, which the Soviet leadership struggled against tooth and nail, but the Trotskyite strawman of “Stalinist” bureaucracy!

Based on his anti-Soviet theory of the “degenerated workers’ state,” Trotsky and his followers would go from petty factionalists into a gang of wreckers and saboteurs, in the hopes of inspiring a counter-revolutionary revolt against the Communist Party. “The inevitable collapse of the Stalinist political regime,” says Trotsky, “will lead to the establishment of Soviet democracy only in the event that the removal of Bonapartism comes as the conscious act of the proletarian vanguard.” Trotsky saw himself and his followers as just such a vanguard.

So, the question is, was Trotsky outmaneuvered by a “Stalinist bureaucracy,” or did he simply lose out in fair, democratic, inner-party struggle? The U.S. revolutionary Harry Haywood was a student in the University of the Toilers of the East in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, when Trotsky was organizing his opposition within the Party. He explains in his autobiography, Black Bolshevik, that Trotsky’s “writings were readily available throughout the school, and the issues of the struggle were constantly on the agenda in our collectives. These were discussed in our classes, as they were in factories, schools and peasant organizations throughout the country.”

Haywood explains that they had regular, open discussions of the issues of the inner-party struggle taking place. “The struggle raged over a period of five years (1922-27) during which time the Trotsky bloc had access to the press and Trotsky's works were widely circulated for everyone to read.” Haywood explains that, at a session of the Seventh Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, “Trotsky then asked for two hours to defend his position; he was given one. He spoke in Russian, and then personally translated and delivered his speech in German and then in French. In all, he held the floor about three hours.” Nevertheless, “Trotsky and his allies (Zinoviev and Kamenev) suffered a resounding defeat, obtaining only two votes out of the whole body.” It is clear that Haywood is correct to conclude that:

“Trotsky was not defeated by bureaucratic decisions or Stalin's control of the Party apparatus – as his partisans and Trotskyite historians claim. He had his day in court and finally lost because his whole position flew in the face of Soviet and world realities. He was doomed to defeat because his ideas were incorrect and failed to conform to objective conditions, as well as the needs and interests of the Soviet people.”

Always an opportunist, Trotsky painted his own personal defeat as the defeat of Soviet democracy itself. Haywood goes on to say,

“I witnessed Trotsky's opposition bloc degenerate from an unprincipled faction within the Party to a counter-revolutionary conspiracy against the Party and the Soviet state. We learned of secret, illegal meetings held in the Silver Woods outside of Moscow, the establishment of factional printing presses — all in violation of Party discipline. Their activities reached a high point during the November 7, 1927 anniversary of the Revolution.

“At the Tenth Anniversary, Trotsky's followers attempted to stage a counter-demonstration in opposition to the traditional celebration. I remember vividly the scene of our school contingent marching its way to Red Square. As we passed the Hotel Moscow, Trotskyist leaflets were showered down on us, and orators appeared at the windows of the hotel shouting slogans of 'Down with Stalin.'”

Trotsky continued in the same manner long after he was expelled from the Party and exiled from the Soviet Union, and he went on to make alliances with all of the greatest enemies of the USSR if it suited his anti-Soviet agenda. The fact is, the defeat of Trotsky and his clique didn’t mark the degeneration of proletarian democracy, but its success. As Haywood put it, Trotsky’s defeat was a broadly democratic one, and Trotsky’s opportunist rejection of his own democratic defeat is the true rejection of socialist democracy.

The Trotskyites continue to insist on the failure of “Stalinism” to build socialism in one country, and shout their nonsense about a “degenerated workers’ state.” For the Trotskyites, it was “Stalinism” that led to the eventual defeat of socialism in the Soviet Union in 1991. And yet, just like Trotsky, the revisionists themselves hid their attacks on Marxism-Leninism behind attacks on “Stalinism.”

At the end of his book, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky writes that “to cause doubts and evoke distrust” of the Soviet leadership among the working class and its intellectual allies “is the very goal we have set ourselves.” Trotsky insists that to do so is a revolutionary act. The Trotskyites go on like this not because it coincides with the facts, but because it fits with Trotsky’s opportunist desire to cause doubt and evoke distrust. This is why ideological struggle against Trotskyism is important, because they seek to confuse things, to misdirect and mislead the struggle of the working and oppressed masses away from Marxist-Leninist revolutionary science and away from a correct summation of real revolutionary struggles for socialism.

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