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Against Trotskyism: Trotsky vs. Lenin

By J. Sykes

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The Trotskyites always paint Trotsky as the true inheritor of the revolutionary legacy of Lenin. This is pure opportunism. They see the tremendous respect and admiration for Lenin that is held by working and oppressed people all over the world and seek to gain some of that respectability simply by association. They say Trotsky was Lenin’s true heir and comrade-in-arms, and that Stalin and the USSR betrayed Leninism.

But this is nonsense. The fact remains that Trotsky was never truly a Leninist, and between the theories of Trotsky and those of Lenin there are great differences. In fact, there were sharp disagreements between Lenin and Trotsky both before and after the revolution of October 1917. An overview of those disagreements will be helpful. Let’s look at some of them here.

First, let’s look at the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. This was a disagreement within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) about revolutionary organization and strategy. To put it simply, the Mensheviks (meaning minority), argued for a legal, mass party where anyone sympathetic to the party program could join, without being bound by strict revolutionary discipline. Lenin and the Bolsheviks (meaning majority) argued that the revolution required a smaller, more disciplined party made up of professional revolutionaries, bound by democratic centralism and deeply rooted in practical mass organizing. Trotsky sided with the Mensheviks, against Lenin.

Trotsky himself said in 1913, “The whole construction of Leninism is at present built up on lies and contains the poisonous germ of its own disintegration.”

In the 1914 article “Disruption of Unity Under Cover of Outcries for Unity,” Lenin writes, “The old participants in the Marxist movement in Russia know Trotsky very well, and there is no need to discuss him for their benefit. But the younger generation of workers do not know him, and it is therefore necessary to discuss him…”

In this article from 1914, Lenin sums up Trotsky’s trajectory from 1901 to that point:

“Trotsky was an ardent Iskrist in 1901-03, and Ryazanov described his role at the Congress of 1903 as “Lenin’s cudgel”. At the end of 1903, Trotsky was an ardent Menshevik, i.e., he deserted from the Iskrists to the Economists. He said that “between the old Iskra and the new lies a gulf”. In 1904-05, he deserted the Mensheviks and occupied a vacillating position, now co-operating with Martynov (the Economist), now proclaiming his absurdly Left “permanent revolution” theory. In 1906-07, he approached the Bolsheviks, and in the spring of 1907 he declared that he was in agreement with Rosa Luxemburg.

In the period of disintegration, after long “non-factional” vacillation, he again went to the right, and in August 1912, he entered into a bloc with the liquidators. He has now deserted them again, although in substance he reiterates their shoddy ideas.”

As Lenin says, regarding Trotsky, “The younger generation of workers should know exactly whom they are dealing with…”

Indeed, during the debates over the direction of the Russian revolution, Trotsky aligned himself with many different forces at different times. By 1912, Lenin and the Bolsheviks expelled the Mensheviks, who sought to liquidate the underground Russian Social Democratic Labor Party as a revolutionary organization, replacing it with an entirely legal, above ground, reformist organization. The expulsion of the liquidators allowed Lenin to consolidate the party into a more disciplined fighting organization of revolutionary cadres.

After this, the Mensheviks, Trotskyites, and other anti-Bolshevik factions came together to form the “August Bloc.” At this time, Trotsky took up a “centrist” position, claiming to seek to reconcile and unite the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. However, Lenin saw Trotsky’s centrist position for what it was: a smokescreen for the Menshevik liquidators.

Lenin wrote around this time, “Whoever supports Trotsky’s puny group supports a policy of lying and of deceiving the workers, a policy of shielding the liquidators. Full freedom of action for Potresov and Co. in Russia, and the shielding of their deeds by ‘revolutionary’ phrase-mongering abroad – there you have the essence of the policy of ‘Trotskyism’.”

At this time, Lenin took to referring to Trotsky as “Judas Trotsky” because he pretended to side with the Bolsheviks but actually was aiding the opponents of Bolshevism. This is a trend that will continue throughout Trotsky’s life.

In the summer of 1917, after the victory of the February Revolution against Tsarism and on the eve of the October Revolution that would overthrow the Russian bourgeoisie and establish the proletarian dictatorship, Trotsky and his small “centrist” group renounced their Menshevism and joined the Bolsheviks. The victory of the October Revolution brings us to another major disagreement between Trotsky and Lenin.

The first order of business after 1917 was to end Russia's involvement in World War I. Negotiations between Russia and Germany began in 1918 in Brest-Litovsk. Lenin’s view was that the survival of the newborn Soviet state required that peace be signed. Trotsky was given the task of negotiating the peace agreement at Brest-Litovsk.

Trotsky believed that the young Soviet state couldn’t survive without the success of the revolution in Western Europe, and that the victory of the German revolution was necessary to secure the victory of the Soviets. According to Trotsky, it was necessary to risk all of the gains of Soviet victory in order to keep Germany in the war, thereby aiding the German revolution.

Those opposed to signing the peace agreement with Germany formed a faction led by Bukharin and Trotsky, against Lenin. A vote was taken, and Lenin’s position won out. Nevertheless, Trotsky refused to submit to democratic centralism and refused to sign the treaty. Trotsky was therefore forced to resign as Commissar of Foreign Affairs.

Lenin wrote that, by delaying the signing of the peace agreement, these “pseudo-Lefts” actually bore “responsibility for sowing illusions which actually helped the German imperialists and hindered the growth and development of the revolution in Germany.”

The final major political disagreement between Trotsky and Lenin himself occurred regarding Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). To understand the NEP, it is necessary to contextualize it following the period of the Civil War, where “war communism” demanded surplus grain appropriation in order to sustain the defense of the revolution. The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) – Short Course, sums it up like this:

“The Central Committee realized that the need for the surplus-appropriation system had passed, that it was time to supersede it by a tax in kind so as to enable the peasants to use the greater part of their surpluses at their own discretion. The Central Committee realized that this measure would make it possible to revive agriculture, to extend the cultivation of grain and industrial crops required for the development of industry, to revive the circulation of commodities, to improve supplies to the towns, and to create a new foundation, an economic foundation for the alliance of workers and peasants.

“The Central Committee realized also that the prime task was to revive industry, but considered that this could not be done without enlisting the support of the working class and its trade unions; it considered that the workers could be enlisted in this work by showing them that the economic disruption was just as dangerous an enemy of the people as the intervention and the blockade had been, and that the Party and the trade unions could certainly succeed in this work if they exercised their influence on the working class not by military commands, as had been the case at the front, where commands were really essential, but by methods of persuasion, by convincing it.”

Contrary to this view, Trotsky demanded that the trade unions be “governmentalized,” and called for “tightening the screws.” Trotsky opposed democratizing the trade unions and favored the continuation of the compulsory methods of war communism. This debate was taken to the Tenth Party Congress in March of 1921, where the overwhelming majority of the party sided with Lenin and endorsed his plan.

Lenin addresses this debate at length in his article, “The Trade Unions, the Present Situation, and Trotsky’s Mistakes.” There, Lenin argues that Trotsky’s errors on this question are mistakes about “the very essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

“Comrade Trotsky speaks of a “workers’ state”. May I say that this is an abstraction. It was natural for us to write about a workers’ state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say: ‘Since this is a workers’ state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected, and for what purpose?’ The whole point is that it is not quite a workers’ state. That is where Comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes. We have got down from general principles to practical discussion and decrees, and here we are being dragged back and prevented from tackling the business at hand. This will not do. For one thing, ours is not actually a workers’ state but a workers’ and peasants’ state. And a lot depends on that.”

The Trotskyites today still parrot Trotsky’s error regarding a “workers’ state.” Lenin is correct to point out that this disregards the role of the peasantry. Indeed, the October Revolution established the proletarian dictatorship, and in the case of the former Russian Empire, the dictatorship of the proletariat was built upon the alliance of the working class together with the poor peasants. Why does Lenin stress this point about the “workers’ state'' in Trotsky’s formulation? He does so because this is an essential point that Trotsky fails to grasp. In the following articles, we’ll look more closely at the sharp disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the role of the peasantry in the revolution. It should be clear from this brief overview that Trotsky was never a Leninist, and that to call Trotsky a Leninist, the Trotskyites must opportunistically distort Leninism to fit their Trotskyism.

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