Trotsky in Exile (Buyukada) – Comments on the film

In case you missed the last screening in the latest Rebel Films series, and the discussion that followed, below is the text of Barry Weisleder’s presentation on the subject.

Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution and organizer of the Red Army, was born in 1879 and died in 1940.

After a period of exile in Turkey, he lived in France and Norway. During the 1930s, Stalin conducted political purges and named Trotsky, in absentia, an enemy of the people. In August 1936, 16 of Trotsky’s allies were charged with treason and executed. Stalin then set out to assassinate Trotsky. In 1937, Trotsky moved to Mexico. On August 20, 1940, he was sitting at his desk, in his study in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. Ramon Mercader, an undercover agent for Stalin’s secret police, attacked Trotsky with an ice pick, puncturing his skull. He was taken to the hospital, but died a day later, at the age of 60.

Trotsky has been gone for over 72 years. Other prominent revolutionaries of his generation are much less well known, even forgotten. Yet Trotsky’s writings continue to be published. His ideas continue to stir controversy, continue to resonate. Like Che Guevara, Trotsky speaks to ever new generations.

Trotsky argued that capitalism would not be able to avoid explosive crises; it would not allow a gradual transition to socialism. Events proved him correct.

But big questions remain for advocates of socialist revolution:  How will it be accomplished?  What strategy is needed?  That is where Trotsky entered the debate with bold proposals and original analyses.  He addressed the issues that remain central today:  Socialist revolutions in under-developed countries; World revolution; Working class leadership, workers’ councils, mass revolutionary parties; the scourge of Stalinism; the origins of Fascism; the dynamic of anti-imperialism; and the need for a Fourth International. I have time to touch only on a few main points.

Trotsky argued that there would be no separate ‘stages’ in the coming revolutions in the less developed countries.  If the working class was able to win leadership over the peasantry and the revolutionary process, the revolution would pass over without interruption from the bourgeois democratic tasks to the key tasks of the socialist revolution, above all the socialization of the means of production.  That is the most important thesis of the theory of permanent revolution formulated by Trotsky in 1905. The bourgeois government that emerged in February 1917 refused to implement a radical land reform.  It kept Russia, starved and bleeding, in WW1.  Stalin, Molotov and Kamenev stuck to the old formula, favouring a fusion with the Mensheviks. Lenin, on the other hand, with the enthusiastic support of the Bolshevik vanguard workers, made the turn in his April Theses.  Lenin called for ‘All power to the Soviets’, that is, for proletarian rule.

Lenin thus became a Trotskyist on the question of strategy, at the very moment Trotsky became a Leninist on the organization question.  The victory of the October Revolution (Nov. 7) led to massive land distribution, workers’ control, industrialization, and much more.  The result was clear: the working class could jump over the stage of bourgeois revolution and take power in a relatively backward country. In fact, it had to do so, or remain stuck in the quagmire of underdevelopment. Indeed, that is the choice posed today in Venezuela and Bolivia.

In all circumstances, decisive is the role of a revolutionary party.

What about Workers’ Councils? While Lenin hesitated on the importance of the soviets (workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils), Trotsky welcomed this new organizational form as the ‘wave of the future’.  He predicted it would spread across the Czarist Empire and beyond.

Such forms of direct democracy arose, from Germany 1918, to Iran 1979, to the hybrid form of community and work place councils in Venezuela today.

Still there is the problem of bureaucratization within the mass organizations of the working class, signaled as early as 1898 by Karl Kautsky in his book “The Origins of Christianity”, which examined what happened to the Catholic Church when it became a state religion.

How can this danger be overcome?

The anarchist solution is smaller groups, more stress on individual emancipation and action, self-management in the Proudhonist sense. This approach carries with it the danger that commodity economy and the rule of the market will be preserved or reintroduced. It is unconvincing and impractical.  History has gone in the direction of larger and larger mass organizations.  And in the only country where anarchists played a significant role, in Spain, the CNT-FAI was gripped by the same problems, including its tragic participation in the bourgeois government in 1936-37.

No revolutionary party is infallible.  Political debate and struggle are unavoidable within a revolutionary party.  Social struggles are themselves a powerful testing ground for theory and policy.  Therein lies the importance of democracy, freedom of discussion and organization, and free and fair elections, within the workers’ movement.

Workers’ councils can go beyond protest, beyond stopping production and transport, towards organizing production in occupied factories, under workers’ control.  This can lead to a new public administration in embryonic form, that is, a future workers’ state based upon workers’ councils.

The organic link between permanent revolution and the concept of self-organization of the working class is the concept of building mass revolutionary parties.  A central element of that link is the idea of the workers’ united front.

The united front is an important part of the struggle to win the majority of the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish the rule of workers’ councils. An application of the united front was Lenin’s insistence that British communists fight for affiliation to the Labour Party.  Policies going in the opposite direction were pushed by the Communist parties in their ‘ultra-left’ period (red unions, equating reformists with capitalists). Then in the subsequent opportunist phase the Stalinist Comintern pushed popular frontism (favouring political alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie).

The fact is that no socialist revolution is possible without a majority of the working class supporting it.  So, how to win a majority?  United mass action makes it possible.  The need for unity is clear when the working class is under attack from the bosses and their state.  It is posed also when a decisive offensive to overthrow capitalism is possible.

The most advanced form of the workers’ united front is a government of workers’ parties.  Defensive common actions can pose the question of power: Which class should rule?  Still, revolutionary socialists have no illusions in the capacity of social democrats to take power and overthrow capitalism.  So, in arguing for unity in action, for a united labour party, we stress the need for anti-capitalist policies.  We oppose any coalition or merger with bourgeois parties (NDP-Liberal).  We oppose labour giving any support to bourgeois candidates (like George Smitherman or Joe Pantalone when they ran for Mayor of Toronto).

Trotsky stood for the concept of organized labour as an organic unity.  Within the workers’ movement there is space for all currents to present their ideas (social democrats, anarchists, Marxists, etc.).  Unfortunately, Stalinists (especially the Mao-Stalinists) have historically argued that those who disagree with them are paid agents of the bourgeoisie.  This view is used to justify exclusion, even violence against their opponents inside the workers’ movement.

What is the source of Stalinism?  It is the ideological expression of a hardened and privileged ruling caste in a workers’ state, clinging to a monopoly of political and social power.  Bureaucratization was the result of Russia’s isolation and poverty.

Trotsky’s famous analogy comes to mind:  The longer the bread line, the more you need police to maintain order. Police who are starving cannot and will not do the job, so they must be fed a little more than others. That petty privilege is the beginning of bureaucratic power.

In 1921 Lenin characterized Russia as a “workers’ and peasants’ state with bureaucratic deformations”.  Unfortunately, awareness of this spread slowly.  The party became an empty shell.  Trotsky fought for inner-party democracy and soviet democracy.  He argued for voluntary farm collectivization, against Stalin’s forced collectivization and slave labour to propel industrialization.

The defeat of the Left Opposition signalled the defeat of the working class, the victory of the political counter-revolution, culminating in the physical extermination of the Bolshevik cadre in 1936-38.

Trotsky insisted that the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy constituted neither the restoration of capitalism (state capitalism, as some call it), nor the emergence of a new ruling class and a new mode of production.  Trotsky explained that the USSR was a society in transition between capitalism and socialism, a workers’ state, albeit extremely degenerated.  Its higher rate of growth during the Great Depression, its provision of jobs and housing for all, the absence of a millionaire property-owning class, all showed its economy was not capitalist.  The gains of the October Revolution deserved to be defended against the Nazi imperialists, and they were defended at enormous cost.

It was only a split in the Soviet bureaucracy in the 1980s (which Trotsky predicted) that led to general privatization of the means of production and the restoration of capitalism. To move in the opposite direction, to restore workers’ democracy and to re-begin the construction of socialism in Russia required a political revolution, not a social revolution.  Indeed, that is what is needed today in North Korea.  It is not needed in Cuba, which is a relatively healthy workers’ state with a revolutionary leadership.  The leftists who subscribe to the theory of state capitalism (like the International Socialists), who put Cuba and the other workers’ states in that category, take the side of imperialism. Global capital forever seeks to abolish the socialist property forms that exist in Cuba, and which are an obstacle to capitalist exploitation. Indifference to the defense of workers’ gains in the face of capitalist aggression is class treachery.

Another outstanding contribution was Trotsky’s analysis of fascism. Fascism is a product of the partial defeat of world revolution in the 1918-23 period. It is the victory of political counter-revolution in the imperialist countries where the working class threatened capitalism but could not overthrow it. Trotsky uniquely grasped and explained this new phenomenon as it unfolded, especially in his writings on Germany 1929-33. He described how under conditions of growing stress, of increasingly unbearable socio-economic class contradictions, significant sectors of the middle classes, declasse intellectuals and backward layers of the working class, ‘lumpen’ criminal elements, etc. — human dust, as Trotsky called them – could become amalgamated into a powerful mass movement. Mesmerized by a charismatic leader, armed by sectors of the capitalist class and its state apparatus, they are used as a battering ram to crush the labour movement through bloody terror and intimidation.

So, there is a need to oppose fascism from its inception, without exaggerating its strength or imminence.  Indeed, a united, militant counter-offensive against fascists can, in a period of high mobilization, rapidly place socialist revolution on the agenda.

Unfortunately, in 1935 the Comintern under Stalin adopted the old social democratic/Menshevik ‘lesser evil’ strategy consisting of a bloc with the ‘liberal’ bourgeoisie.  The Popular Front did not alleviate the capitalist crisis.  But it did squander another historic opportunity for workers to take power.

Popular frontism is just a variant of classical class collaboration.  Labour bureaucrats love the popular front because it fits with their immediate material and career interests.  We saw it in 2010 in their strong attraction to a possible Liberal/NDP coalition in Ottawa. We saw it in their support for the David Miller Liberal/NDP Toronto municipal regime.

Turning to the national question, in the early 1920s Trotsky wrote, “the road to Paris and London lies via the towns of Afghanistan, the Punjab and Bengal.”  What did he mean?

The world economy under imperialism is an organic whole of uneven parts.  Revolution is a process that breaks the chain of imperialism at its weakest links.  Trotsky stressed the importance of the colonial peoples in the world revolutionary process.  He insisted that the process would not be limited to socio-economic conflicts, that it would confront oppression and humiliation of all kinds.

Trotsky attached crucial importance to the question of national independence and the agrarian revolution.  The achievement of both depended on working class leadership and socialist transformation.  Backwardness is reinforced and perpetuated by imperial control.

This reality has political implications. In a war between an imperialist power and a semi-colonial country the global working class should support the colonial country, regardless the leadership heading that war effort. That meant supporting Haile Selassie against Italy, Chiang against Japan, and Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran/Syria against the USA/Canada/Britain/NATO today. It means supporting Quebec’s right to independence from the Canadian state.  The colonial bourgeoisie can begin a struggle against imperialism.  It just cannot complete it.  The revolutionary socialist vanguard educates the working class in the spirit of political and organizational independence from the ‘national’ bourgeoisie. Trotsky rejected the idea that the colonial peoples should postpone their struggle for national liberation, or subordinate it to the needs of some “world-wide anti-fascist alliance”.

The conscious task of building a socialist world requires organization. This starts with defending the programmatic continuity of communism.  A good summary of it is the founding manifesto of the Fourth International, known as the Transitional Programme. Its formal title is “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the F.I.”  The main function of transitional demands is to bring workers, through their own experience, to the conclusion that it is necessary to take power.

Finally, as a materialist, not a Utopian idealist, Trotsky understood that revolutionary transformation has a differential and uneven effect on society’s members.  He predicted that long after private ownership of the means of production has disappeared, the remnants of sexism, heterosexism, oppression of children, racism, great nation chauvinism, etc., will still linger in the consciousness of humanity.  It is therefore necessary to wage a relentless struggle against backward forms of thinking.  The continuation of independent social movements against oppression, even after the revolution, is essential.

What about violence in society? In a socialist commonwealth, humanity could suppress violence simply by ending all arms production and destroying all weapons.  This is possible only if there is a world-wide collective ownership of the means of production, and collective decision-making.

Isn’t the prospect of ending the scourge of violence a good enough reason to make a socialist revolution?

To us, Trotsky is not an icon. He was a leader who developed ideas that are indispensable to working class emancipation. His ideas live on because workers and the oppressed still fight for liberation. Trotsky was no idle dreamer, but I think he’d agree with another Lennon, John Lennon, who sang these words: “Some say I’m just a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. And if some day you join us, then the world will live as one.”

If you agree with that idea, you will want to join Socialist Action today.