Trotsky and Authoritarian State Socialism from Above.

25 05 2013

Review,  by Barry Biddulph of  Trotsky, Trotskyism and Trotskyists, a Communist Workers Organisation Pamphlet.


The CWO acknowledges Trotsky’s insight from his participation in the Russian Revolution of 1905, that “the appearance of Soviets allowed him to foresee the possibility of a proletarian revolution in Russia”. (1)  But, Trotsky always had something of Lassalle’s notion of the people’s state about his politics.  It was always the revolution using the state and nationalisation, rather than a revolution against the state. So even though “Trotsky led the Soviet, his theory of Permanent Revolution never led him to analyse the Soviet and draw from it what Marx drew from the Commune”. (2)  Instead, in 1905, Trotsky reached the conclusion that in  the future revolution, unemployed and locked out factory workers  would not limit themselves to the capitalist Republic, but would demand  state intervention from a workers government.

The Social Democratic vision of a working class party capturing state power and using the state was what constituted the step beyond the democratic revolution.  For Trotsky,  in 1906, the state machine was a powerful lever for revolution: “every political party worthy of the name strives to capture political power and thus put the state at the service of the class it represents”. (3) This could not be further from the anti-state lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871 : “The important contention by Marx that the old state, once smashed,  should not appear again as an instrument above and against the working class is neither challenged by Trotsky or even acknowledged”. (4)   In the understated words of the CWO, “Trotsky after 1918 was less concerned with the question of working class self emancipation and more concerned with building a state power”.  (5)

The dictatorship of the party state, masquerading as the dictatorship of the proletariat, was a sustitutionism personified by Trotsky. Trotsky saw no contradiction between the dictatorship of a party leadership supported by the authoritarian rule of managers, army officers, specialists, and the transition to a post capitalist society. He was the champion of a top down bureaucratic centralism:  “Reporting to the sixth Congress of Soviets in 1918, Trotsky complained that not all soviets and workers have understood that our administration has been centralised and that all orders issues from above must be final”. (6) Integral to this State Socialism was the Social Democratic view that without private ownership, capital’s economic forms, hierarchy and division of labour prefigure socialism. The Bolshevisation of American technology: the transition to socialism was Taylorism and a Bolshevik state.

Trotsky also remained “bound by a conception of the relations between party and masses that matured between 1919 and 1920 and was shared by Trotskyists and Stalinists alike”. (7)  His opposition to Stalinism and bureaucracy was belated, hesitant and theoretically confused due to his refusal to recognise the seeds of Stalinism sown by the Bolshevik Party following the revolution. He uncritically identified himself with the state and the party during this period. Why would workers need trade unions to defend themselves in a Bolshevik state? As for factions and democratic rights in the party, for Trotsky  it was a case of my party right or wrong:  declaring at the 13th Congress, that: “I know that no one can be right against the party”. (8) Identifying progress to socialism with the extension of state ownership he remained blind to the growing counter-revolutionary power of the state and the bureaucracy.

The CWO nail Trotsky’s definition of a workers state as “the nationalisation of the land, the means of industrial production, transport and exchange together with the monopoly of foreign trade”.  (9) This fixed, and abstract definition, is at odds with Marxist view that, the economic factor is not an isolated factor, separate and apart from social relations: it’s not a technological machine. This is the politics of the Second International.  According to Marx, “to try to give a definition of property as an independent relation, a category apart-can be nothing, but an illusion of metaphysics or jurisprudence”. (10)  The argument that nationalised property is a transition to a post capitalist society does not stand up to historical scrutiny.  Rooting the Soviet bureaucracy in distribution as a sphere apart does not theoretically work either. As the  CWO point out  the structure of distribution  is determined by the structure of production.

Inconsistently, Trotsky showed awareness in his assessment of Stalinism in the Revolution Betrayed, that the ruling bureaucracy had the characteristics of a ruling class and the transfer of the factories to the state only altered the situation of the worker juridically. But he was unable or unwilling to draw any coherent theoretical conclusions from these insights and others. Ultimately, this meant that,  “he avoided having to come to terms his own role in preparing a strong state and army which the Stalinists were able to use against the working class”. (11) He had foreseen the danger of the Leninist Party substituting itself for the working class as early as 1904, when he famously warned that:

“in the internal politics of the party these methods lead….to the party organisation substituting itself for the party, the central committee substituting itself for the party organisation and finally the dictator substituting himself for the central committee”. (12)

He simply repudiated these organisational views following 1917. In his own words: “in this substitutionism of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental and in reality there is no substitutionism at all”. (13) A complete uncritical turnaround from his previous organisational views. The CWO have nothing to say about these crucial  issues of organisational democracy. In 1904 the young Trotsky mocked Lenin for his admiration for factory discipline and mechanical subordination within the party : “for discipline has meaning ony when it gives the possibility of fighting for what one thinks just; and it is for this that one impresses discipline on oneself”.  (14) Nor does the CWO pamphlet discuss Kronstadt. Trotsky was still spreading lies about Kronstadt during the 1930’s. In response to Victor Serge, in Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt, Trotsky wrote that the red sailors had been replaced by a petty bourgeois mass demanding special privileges. A claim at odds with the truth which was a demand for equal rations directed at the bureaucracy and the revival of the Soviets directed at the Bolshevik leaders.

In the New Course in 1923, he discussed the power of the state-party bureaucracy as a problem of generations, the old guard, including himself and the younger generation. The old guard would pass on the baton to the young Red Jacobins as custodians of the socialist future. This idealism of the party apparatus  followed the suppression of workers strikes and the bloody crushing of Kronstadt. As Miasnikov asked: why has the Communist Party no common language with the rank and file?  Why do the party leaders reach for their guns? Trotsky had supported the ban on factions and refused to defend those who called for a return to party  and industrial democracy.   He argued against the right of  members to form factions in his speech to the 13th congress : “I have never recognised freedom for groupings inside the party, nor do I now recognise it”. (15)  He tied himself to the bureaucratic apparatus.

Later in exile, in his notebooks, he wrote,  “Lenin created the apparatus. The apparatus created Stalin”. (16)  He drew back from the logical conclusion, Lenin created Stalin, but acknowledged  Lenin promoted Stalin  to important positions. But following the Revolution it was the non Trotskyist oppositions which fought for party democracy, far sooner and more deeply than Trotsky. In 1921, Aleksandra Kollontai of the workers opposition argued that the:

“bureaucracy is a direct negation of mass self-activity….there can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and opinion….we give no freedom to class activity; we are afraid of criticism; we have ceased to rely on the masses; hence we have bureaucracy with us”. (17)

There was a deeper problem in that Trotsky had difficulty developing theory as events unfolded and was conciliationist towards his own theories.  For many years, he remained stuck in the groove of 1905. The theory of permanent revolution was not developed until 1928, after the defeat of the Chinese workers revolution. It took him until 1926 to come out in support of Zinoviev and Kamenev and against socialism in one country. Even in 1926, in search of unity with the Zinoviev and sections of the apparatus, he was still publically against factions. From 1923 to 1933, he called for reform of Stalinism and saw Stalinist State industrialisation as due to the pressure of the working class. He considered Stalin as a distorted form of the dictatorship of the working class. Trotsky’s  transition to Socialism was via a Labour dictator: a role he had pioneered himself.


1  Trotsky, Trotskyism and Trotskyists,  p4 ,  Communist Workers Organisation,2000.

2  CLR James, (1980) , Notes on Dialectics, Alison and Busby, London.

3 Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects,  1906,  p 194,  in The Permanent Revolution, New Park Publications 1982, London.

4  Roy Ratcliffe, (2003) Revolutionary Humanism and the Anti Capitalist    struggle, p203.

5 Trotsky, Trotskyism and Trotskyists, p28.

6  Paul Mattick,  (2007),  Anti Bolshevik Communism, p66, Merlin Press, Monmouth.

7  Antonio Carlo,  (1976)  Critique 7,  p29.

8  Leon Trotsky, the Challenge of the Left Opposition, P161,  Pathfinder Press, New York.

9 Trotsky ,Trotskyism, Trotskyists , p9.

10 Frank Furedi,  (1986),  The Soviet Union Demystified , Junious publications, p58.

11 Roy Ratcliffe,  (2003) ,  Revolutionary Humanism and the Anti Capitalist struggle, p204

12 Leon Trotsky, (1904)  Our political Tasks,  p77  New Park Publications, London.

13 Leon Trotsky,  (1920)  Terrorism and Communism, p123 , New Park Publications 1975.

14 Leon Trotsky, (1904) Our Political Tasks, p 99, New Park Publications.

15  Leon Trotsky, the Challenge of the Left opposition p 154, Pathfinder Press 1980.

16 Trotsky’s Notebooks 1933-35  (1986) , p27 ,  Translated, Annotated, Introduced by Philip Pomper, Colombia University Press.

17  Ronald Grigor Suny,  ( 1998 )  The Soviet Experiment, p 133 , Oxford University Press.

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2 responses

28 05 2013

During the period when Trotsky was in State Power 1918 -21 he dismissed workers democracy as passing moods. So if we do not base ourselves on the “moods” or consciousness of the masses what do we base ourself on. You’ve guessed it. The party or rather the party leaders.

In the first five years of the CI Trotsky raises the question how do we decide political questions? The answer is :

“We turn to the party. To the central Committee. It issues directives to every local committee….the same applies to the agrarian question,the question of supplies, and all other questions”

When the workers opposition raised the issue of industrial and party democracy Trotsky invoked the historic right of the party and its leadership to make decisions. He complained the workers opposition had:

“placed the workers rights to elect representatives above the party,as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that clashed with the passing moods of the masses”

This is substitutionism pure and simple. These Jacobin politics are behind the “crisis of leadership theory” The class only has temporary moods. So it’s all down to the Trotskyist leaders with the correct programme relating to the objective situation.

28 05 2013

I want to reply to Jason Pike (Trotskyist ?) who left a reply to the above on the Commune facebook page.

First point ” Trotsky did more to oppose Stalin than anyone else”and the related point” that circumstances and difficulties caused Trotsky’s confusion on Stalinism”.

This is certainly not true when he was in State Power. Firstly, he was part of the leadership of the apparatus or Party/State until 1923, and opposed all the left oppositions to the growing power of the party bureaucracy, including Left Communists in 1918,the Democratic Centrists in 1919, the workers opposition 1920/21.

The political choice for top down state socialism was not a direct product of difficulties, but a political decision taken immediately after the revolution in 1917. The party, was rooted in the state, and a government based on the state, rather than on the soviets and developing workers self activity from below. This choice was made prior to the civil war, and deepened following the victory in the civil war.

Difficulties did not prevent these oppositions understanding that the move away from the grass roots endangered the revolution. Trotsky only saw the danger of a private capitalist restoration. One of the leaders of the Democratic Centralists made the perceptive comment that if the stick is raised against the workers, the party welding the stick was in danger of becoming a new exploiting class. And if the workers were not encouraged to run production who would? And in who’s interests? In contrast Trotsky was substitutionist or Jacobin. The party had the historic birthright to rule in the proletariat’s name.

Factually, Trotsky did not challenged Stalinism and Socialism in one country until 1926. Zinoviev and Kamenev raised opposition to socialism in one country first in 1924. He focused his attacks on Zinoviev and kamenev. In 1923, in the new course, he compromised with Stalin and the apparatus. They would allow more discussion and he would oppose factions and groupings. The restoration of private capitalism was the only real counter revolution for Trotsky, since nationalisation was equated with a form of Socialism. This remained his view. Stalin betrayed the Revolution, but had not overturned it or nationalised property relations.

He saw the apparatus and Stalin as centrists, not counter revolutionary. Unlike other oppositionists, such as Miasnikov,it took him nearly ten years to acknowledge that some form of counter revolution had taken place with Stalin’s rise to power in 1924. It was the defeat in Germany in 1933, not difficulties in the Soviet union, that eventually led him to accept the obvious, that Stalinism could not be reformed. Even then Stalin was seen as a proletarian Cromwell/Bonaparte, a dictator indirectly representing the working class, and it’s historical interests. This was why his followers were still compromised and confused by Stalinism after the second world war. Again it was not difficulties in the Soviet union which was directly responsible. But the Identification with a Centralised top down State Socialism of 1918/23.


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