What is Trotskyism?

In answer to the question “What is socialism?”,James P. Cannon, a pioneer of the revolutionary workers’ movement in North America, famously said: “Socialism is both a political program and a political movement to achieve it.”

So, then what is Trotskyism? Simply put, Trotskyism is modern-day revolutionary socialism. My aim here is to summarize its main component parts.

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Let’s begin with ‘Who was Leon Trotsky?’ Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky, was a Ukrainian-Russian Marxist, political theorist and revolutionary politician. Born in 1879 to an affluent Ukrainian-Jewish family in Yanovka (present-day Bereslavka in Ukraine), Trotsky embraced Marxism after moving to Nikolayev in 1896. In 1898 Tsarist authorities arrested him for revolutionary activities and subsequently exiled him to Siberia. He escaped from Siberia in 1902 and moved to London, where he befriended Vladimir Lenin. In 1903, he stood between Julius Martov‘s Mensheviks and Lenin’s Bolsheviks when the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party split. Trotsky played a central role in the Russian Revolution of 1905. After it, he was again arrested and exiled to Siberia. Once again, he escaped and spent the following 10 years working in Britain, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, and the United States. After the 1917 February Revolution ended the Tsarist monarchy, Trotsky returned to Russia. En route he was arrested by the British in Halifax and held there for one month. After Lenin adopted Trotsky’s call for a Workers’ Government and All Power to the Soviets, Trotsky’s own political organization fused with the Bolsheviks and he became a central leader of the united party. He was chairperson of the Petrograd Soviet in the Revolution of November 1917 that overthrew the Provisional Government.

Trotsky first held the post of Commissar for Foreign Affairs.  He was directly involved in the 1917–1918 Brest-Litovsk negotiations with Germany, as Russia pulled out of the First World War. From March 1918 to January 1925, Trotsky headed the Red Army as People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs and led the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922. He became one of the seven members of the first Bolshevik Politburo in 1919.

After the death of Lenin in January 1924, and the rise of Joseph Stalin, Trotsky lost his government positions. He was expelled from the Soviet Union in February 1929. He spent the rest of his life in exile, writing and organizing against the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship. In 1938, Trotsky and his supporters founded the Fourth International in opposition to Stalin’s despotic and counter-revolutionary Comintern. After surviving multiple attempts on his life, Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940 in Mexico by Ramón Mercader, a Soviet secret police agent.

Trotsky’s Program and Revolutionary Socialism

How did Trotsky’s program provide both political continuity and a qualitative development of revolutionary socialism in the 20th century? 

Let’s start with the thread of continuity.  How did Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels lay the basis for scientific socialism?  Its main components are Dialectical Materialism, to which Historical Materialism is closely related, the Labour Theory of Value, and the idea of Class Struggle:

In contrast to Georg Wilhelm Hegel, who emphasized the idealist notion that reality is what the mind perceives it to be, Marx developed dialectical materialism. The materialist view emphasizes that the world of concrete reality shapes socioeconomic relations, and those in turn determine sociopolitical reality.

Whereas Hegelians blamed religious alienation (estrangement from the traditional comforts of religion) for societal ills, Marx and Engels concluded that alienation from economic and political power, coupled with exploitation and poverty, were the real culprits.

Marx and Engels thus explained not only why the world is the way it is, but also what action should be taken to change it. In the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Dialectical materialism is thus closely related to Marx and Engels’s historical materialism.  They explained human history in terms of systemic processes, based on modes of production.  This refers to the ways in which societies are organized to employ their technological powers to interact with their material surroundings. Historical materialism analyzes the specific structure and development of the capitalist economy.  It shows how competition leads to the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.  It shows how the anarchy of capitalist production leads to overproduction of useless things, repeated recessions and depressions, and the decisive destruction of the natural environment.

For his part, Engels applied a “dialectical” approach to the natural world in general, arguing that contemporary science increasingly recognizes the necessity of viewing natural processes in terms of interconnectedness, development, and transformation. This includes such factors as biology, geography, and ecology. Engels postulated three laws of dialectics. 1.The law of the unity and conflict of opposites. 2. The law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes. 3. The negation of the negation.

The Labour Theory of Value explains that the sources of all wealth are nature and labour.  Human labour, which springs from nature, transforms raw materials into means of existence (food, clothing, shelter, etc.).  The appearance of a social surplus (starting with the Neolithic or agricultural revolution over 10,000 years ago) led to the rise of classes and the state.  In class-divided society, surplus value is the value produced by the labor of workers in excess of the wages they are paid.  Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie seeks to minimize wages and to maximize private profit.  When profits rise at the expense of wages and social amenities, it represents a rise in the rate of exploitation.  The battle between the main contending forces in society over the surplus value generated by labour is what we call the class struggle.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto. The exception is the history of pre-class societies, as Engels subsequently noted.

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes…. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. “Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as V.I. Lenin, on these foundations of scientific socialism, advanced his theory of imperialism and his concept of the revolutionary party.  Lenin described imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. Its main characteristics include: the transition from free competition to monopoly production, the shift to the export of capital by the super-rich, as opposed to the export of commodities, and the division of the world between the great powers.

Lenin maintained that to bring the working class, the vast majority class to power, a highly disciplined, mass workers’ party would be necessary to overcome the lying, cheating and extremely violent state power of the minority ruling class.  Trotsky, through his experiences between 1903 and 1917, realized that Lenin was correct about the need for a vanguard party.  The Mensheviks and other tendencies subordinated the working class to the liberal bourgeoisie, and to the landlords and the imperialist war. Trotskyconsidered himself to be a “Bolshevik-Leninist,”that is, an orthodox Marxist who recognized the need for a workers’ party committed to a revolutionary strategy.  Trotsky’s politics differ radically from those of Stalin and Mao Zedong.  Most important are his rejection of the theory of Socialism in One Country and his call for an international “Permanent Revolution.”  Most Trotskyists around the world see themselves as standing in this tradition. Revolutionary socialists echo Trotsky’s opposition to Stalinist totalitarianism, advocate political revolution in bureaucratized workers’ states, and argue that socialism cannot sustain itself without workers’ democracy.

The Permanent Revolution concept maintains that the countries dominated by imperialism are stunted; they are deliberately underdeveloped by foreign capital.  The domestic capitalists are tied by a thousand chains to their imperial overlords, unable to develop their economy free from super-exploitation, unable to stop the drain of resources and profits.  They are subordinate to those above them, and they are fearful of the workers and farmers below them.  They are incapable of decisive action for economic and political independence.  Thus, the bourgeois democratic tasks in under-developed, exploited countries can be fully accomplished only through the establishment of a workers’ state.  That inevitably involves seizing big capitalist property. Thus, the accomplishment of bourgeois democratic tasks (including industrialization and democracy) becomes the job of the working class.  Although identified with Leon Trotsky, the call for a “Permanent Revolution” is first found in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in March 1850, in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution, in their Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League:

“It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far—not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world—that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. … Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.”

Once again, Trotsky’s concept of Permanent Revolution is that in ‘backward’ countries the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution can not be achieved by the bourgeoisie. Why? Because the bourgeoisie lives in fear that the working class will not stop at the front gates of Capital.  Any effort to limit or curb the aspirations of the working class only perpetuates the system of inequality, racism and war; it demoralizes and demobilizes the masses, and emboldens the ruling rich to roll back workers’ gains. Trotsky first developed this conception in collaboration with Alexander Parvus in late 1904–1905. The relevant articles were later collected in Trotsky’s books 1905 and in “Permanent Revolution”, which also contains his essay “Results and Prospects.” The miserable state of the Third World, aggravated today by climate catastrophe and the global pandemic, shows that capitalism offers no way forward.

Trotsky was a central figure in the Comintern during its first four congresses.  He helped to generalize the strategy and tactics of the Bolsheviks to newly formed Communist parties across Europe and beyond. From 1921 onwards, the united front, a method of uniting revolutionaries and reformists in common struggle while winning some of the workers to revolution, was the central tactic put forward by the Comintern after the defeat of the German revolution.

After he was exiled and politically marginalized by Stalinism, Trotsky continued to argue for a united front against fascism in Germany and Spain.

Main Elements of Trotskyism

So, what are the main elements of Trotskyism?  1.Working class political independence.  2. The struggle against bureaucracy, Stalinism, and fascism.  3. The tactic of the united front.  4. Permanent revolution.  5.  World revolution.  6. The necessity of a revolutionary workers’ International.

Let’s look closely at those key elements, one by one.  Working class political independence is the principle of workers’ independence from the capitalist class.  It means no reliance on the capitalist state or on bourgeois parties and institutions.  Workers should rely only on ourselves and on our own organizations.  Yes, we fight for reforms.  Yes, we form alliances with other forces, even with non-working class bodies and campaigns (such as in the Climate Justice movement), but we do so as an independent working class party, with full freedom of action.  This means we act with unlimited freedom of expression and the highest possible visibility.  In the words of the 1848 Manifesto, “the communists disdain to conceal their views.”  Even when defending oppressed nations headed by bourgeois governments from imperialist intervention, Trotskyists place no political confidence in the parties or institutions of Capital.  We say Imperialist Hands Off oppressed nations.  But we never give political endorsement to bourgeois governments, not even to left-nationalist regimes like the one in Venezuela.

The struggle against bureaucracy is many faceted. In class society, burdened by deep inequality and alienation, bureaucracy is inherent in the division of labour, including inside the labour movement.  Capitalism fosters tension between mental and physical labour.  It is necessary to combat bureaucracy consciously by limiting the wages of bureaucrats to the average wage of workers, by instituting accountability, recall of officials, bottom-up authority, and by promoting the direct participation of the masses.  Unlike left-reformists, Trotskyists don’t seek to join the bureaucracy, but to abolish it.

Stalinism, notwithstanding the name, is not just about one very bad actor.  Stalinism is the term that applies to the counter-revolutionary, privileged bureaucracy that seized power in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.  It triumphed due to the isolation and poverty of the world’s first worker’s state.  Its adaptation to capitalist rule globally undermines the existence of the workers’ states. The cure for Stalinist rule is Political Revolution to restore workers’ control over the planned economy, to rebuild a pluralistic, socialist democracy.

Fascism is a term that liberals and left-wing populists tend to use rather carelessly.  They often equate fascism with ultra-conservative forces.  They try to justify support for liberal capitalist parties as a ‘lesser evil’.  The way to stop Stephen Harper or Pierre Poilievre, opportunists say, is to support Justin Trudeau’s Bay Street Liberals.  To stop Trump, support the Wall Street Democrats.  Fascism, however, is something distinct and different from right wing conservatism. Trotsky was one of the first to explain that fascism is a mass movement of petty bourgeois reaction, a frantic phenomenon of the middle layers ruined by capitalist crisis.  This movement is used to crush labour and the left when the prospect of socialist revolution arises.  Doug Ford is not a fascist. Trump is not a fascist.  Bolsonaro is not a fascist.  Fascism is a mass murder machine.  It outlaws, jails and kills leftists and labour unionists by the hundreds of thousands.  It targets and annihilates millions of oppressed peoples.  Fascism is the last resort employed by Capital to stop socialist revolution, to stamp it out completely.  The corporate elite prefers parliamentary rule over fascism.  They prefer a fake ‘democracy’ over a conservative military dictatorship, much less fascism.  Why?  Because those regimes are very costly and very risky.  The ruling class risks losing everything by mobilizing the enraged and ruined petty bourgeoisie, what Trotsky called the ‘human dust’ of society.  But the question remains: How is it possible to destroy the seeds of fascism which are inherent in the capitalist system, given its entrenched racism, sexism and homophobia?  One task is to counter-demonstrate against the far right, to implement the slogan ‘Smash Racism – No Platform for Fascists’.  The ultimate answer to the evils of the present system is the mobilization of the working class for socialist solutions to the multiple crises of world capitalism.  The answer is working class unity in action, led by a revolutionary workers’ party that is active on many levels.  Such a response is increasingly urgent.

How do the revolutionaries go from being a small minority to commanding the allegiance of the majority of the working class?  The united front is one means to that goal.  Revolutionaries aim to unite in common action with a wide array of workers’ and popular organizations where it is possible to agree on one issue, and/or on one set of demands, while respecting the right of one and all to present their own general views.  The united front maximizes the power of a relatively small and divided left.  It enables us to appeal to wider layers of the working class.  It allows different tendencies on the left to present their ideas in an open dialog, and to test them, side by side, in the field of political practice.

Permanent Revolution is the means by which the working class fulfills the tasks of the bourgeois revolution and completes the transition to a socialist democracy.  But this process cannot be fully achieved in one country alone.  While the workers’ revolution begins locally, and it captures power nationally, it can achieve socialism (a post-scarcity society) only on a global scale.  Economic inter-dependence, not to mention the threat of internal counter-revolution and foreign intervention, impose on the working class the need for international solidarity, and for a World Revolution.  To coordinate the efforts of socialist workers globally, the necessity of a Revolutionary Workers’ International is evident. 

Trotskyism Today

What is Trotskyism today, in the year 2023?

It is not a hair-splitting sect that seeks ideological purity. It is not sectarian abstention from struggle exhibited by some so-called ‘Trotskyist’ groups.

Trotskyism today is embodied in the anti-imperialist united front. It is exemplified by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the Israeli Apartheid state.  Self-determination for Palestine.  Hands off Venezuela and Syria.  No war with China.  Canada Out of NATO.  Cancel the new fighter jets and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.  Destroy all nuclear weapons, starting with those in the USA and the E.U.

It is manifested in the Workers’ Action Movement.  Socialist Action, together with anarchists, independent radicals, and left-social democratic workers, launched WAM about twelve years ago.  WAM fights against concessions bargaining, and for union democracy and mass job action.  It organized mass pickets at major postal plants in 2018 after Trudeau imposed strike breaking legislation on CUPW.  WAM candidates for union leadership won up to 36% of the votes cast at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention in 2019, and up to 17% of the votes at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in June 2021.  At the OFL Convention, November 2-4, 2021, WAM candidates for the top three executive posts got 27%,17.4% and 21.6% of the votes respectively.  At the same OFL convention, WAM led a revolt against ignorant and despotic behaviour by the chairpersons.  It set the tone for sharp criticism of the blatantly electoralistAction Plan, and it won a referral to demand E.I. for suspended, non-vaccinated workers.

As the major organized opposition to the pro-capitalist labour brass, you’d think WAM would enjoy the active support of the rest of the Left.  Sadly, that was not the case.  Groups like Fightback, the International Socialists, Spring magazine, Socialist Alternative, CPC-ML, Courageand Socialist Project were absent or invisible at the scene.  They declined to endorse WAM.  However, one opponent of SA was visible – the Communist Party.  So, what did the CP say?  I quote from their Facebook page: “the ultraleft in the labour movement has seized the mic, so to speak, and its “leadership slate” repeatedly calls for immediate and unlimited general strikes. Of course, the political strike weapon is critical. But as we know from the 1976 National Day of Protest and the 1996 Metro Days of Action, even a one-day general strike requires months of outreach, engagement, and organization. Reducing class struggle to empty sloganeering and rhetoric is a failed tactic that isolates the left from the mass of the labour movement and allows the right wing to consolidate itself by masquerading as a credible alternative.”

Well, we know very well that mass job action requires months of organizing.  But it begins by workers demanding general strike action, not by voting for the opponents of mass action, not by backing the fake Action Plan of the OFL, as supporters of the CP did.  While they condemn ‘empty rhetoric’, the Stalinists concretely seek an alliance with the liberal wing of the capitalist class, on a Canadian nationalist basis.  They strive to join the labour bureaucracy. This is not a new phenomenon.  During the centenary celebrations of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which laid the basis for union recognition in Canada, the 2019 leader of the CP said that the Winnipeg General Strike was ultra-left and doomed to failure.  So, why does the CP have an electoralist strategy?  Because it aims to reform capitalism, not to abolish it.  This is very clearly evident in the practice of Stalinist parties around the world, from France to India, to Africa, to Latin America.

Trotskyism today is manifested in the NDP Socialist Caucus.  While the NDP is not socialist, never was and never will be, it is the only existing mass labour-based political party in North America.  Its three million voters, its 100,000-plus members, and hundreds of thousands of affiliated unionists, represent a break with the parties of Bay Street. The inherent conflict of interest between the working class base and the party’s pro-capitalist officials make the NDP a field of struggle for the revolutionary left.  Socialist Action works with an array of leftists in the NDP – to raise the red flag, to fight for a Workers’ Agenda there.  We do not leave the advanced workers in the NDP to the tender mercies of the pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist bureaucracy.  At the same time, SA does not put all its eggs in one basket.  SA is active mostly outside the NDP. Its policy concerning the NDP is, as Lenin said in 1920 about the British Labour Party, “1% Support, 99% Criticism.” At the OFL convention, together with WAM, SA fought for “unions that engage in the class struggle, including mass job action, rather than reliance on capitalist politicians and elections.”  Those who misrepresent the policy and practice of SA do so to cover up their own sectarian abstention from the struggle for a Workers’ Agenda.

I mentioned the slogan “No Platform for Fascists and Racists.” It represents both an appeal for united front anti-fascist mobilization, and it underscores Trotskyist opposition to reliance on the capitalist state, its cops, and its courts.  We oppose Ottawa’s decision to outlaw the Proud Boys, The Base, Atomwaffen Group and suchorganizations.  We oppose Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act in 2022 against the racist, anti-vax Convoy.  Why?  Because such laws are inevitably used against the left, including Palestine solidarity and anti-Zionist boycott campaigns.  The alternative to reliance on the capitalist state is the direct mass mobilization of labour and the left against the alt-Right.

Want more examples of the united front tactic applied by Socialist Action?  In 2022 SA helped to create coalitions of socialist candidates running for city council in Vancouver, in Toronto, in Peel, in Ottawa, and beyond.  At a series of open conferences, Vote Socialist Vancouver, and the Municipal Socialist Alliance in Ontario each adopted an extensive radical policy platform.  The MSA, which is running Kiri Vadivelu for mayor in the current Toronto city by-election, received thousands of votes last October, as did VSV on the west coast.

SA campaigns in solidarity with Indigenous people.  “No Reconciliation Without Restitution” is a transitional slogan.  Objectively, it demands expropriation of the oil, gas, mining, forestry, and banking monopolies, along with the churches that ran the infamous Residential Schools.  The needs of Indigenous people cannot be met by occasionally lowering the Canadian flag, or by Justin Trudeau appointing an Indigenous woman to be Governor-General.  The same is true concerning the climate crisis.  There is no ‘free market’ solution.  Our programme is for Eco-socialism.  That entails nationalization of the oil, gas, and natural resources sector in order to rapidly re-tool and shift away from carbon to sustainable green energy.

SA demands money to meet human needs, not for the violation of civil liberties.  We say:  De-fund, disarm and disband the police and military.  For working class and community control of policing.

We say:  Defend and extend democratic rights.  Stop harassment of the house-less.  Full rights for immigrant workers.  Confront the ultra-right with counter-demonstrations.  End the incarceration of refugees. Curtail state and corporate surveillance.

So then, finally, what is Trotskyism today?  It is Socialist Action.  SA is committed to building the indispensable mass working class revolutionary party, with the fullest democracy in debate and the firmest unity in action.

If you agree, there’s only one thing to do: Join us!

Barry Weisleder – This talk was presented on April 21, 2023 via YouTube.