75 years since the assassination of Leon Trotsky

    Trotsky’s analysis and struggle against capitalism and Stalinism provides vital lessons for the class struggle today (article is a reprint from August 2010)

    Per-Åke Westerlund, cwi Sweden

    On August 20 1940, Stalin’s hired assassin Ramon Mercader stabbed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in the head. Trotsky fought like a lion against the killer and prevented more blows (the killer was also armed with a pistol and a knife). But the wound from the ice pick was too severe – one day later Trotsky died. This, the 13th assassination attempt had succeeded.

    To his secretary, Joseph Hansen, Trotsky spoke his last words: “I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International – go forward.” On August 22 Trotsky’s body was placed in an open coffin – 300,000 Mexican workers filed past over the ensuing five days. The funeral took place in Mexico following the U.S. authorities’ decision to refuse Trotsky’s corpse a visa!

    Trotsky was in Mexico as a political refugee. In 1929 he was deported by Stalin from the Soviet Union. After a few years each in Turkey and France he came to Norway in the summer 1935. But even the Norwegian Socialist government wanted to get rid of him, under pressure from Stalin’s government. In December 1936 Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova were transported aboard a cargo ship to Mexico, whose government was the only one on the entire planet willing to receive him.

    The murder of Trotsky was the culmination of a one-sided civil war. Stalin’s secret police – the GPU and the NKVD – invested enormous resources in the physical extermination of Trotsky and his closest associates. Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov, who belonged to the Fourth International’s leadership, was assassinated in February 1938 during a hospital stay. During the 1936-38 Moscow trials, in which leading Bolsheviks from Lenin’s time were accused of collaboration with Hitler’s Nazis and executed immediately, it was Trotsky and Leon Sedov who stood in their absence as the principle accused. In tandem with the trials, eight million people were sent to jail or prison camps. Two million died and up to a million were executed.

    Stalin could not make do with mass purges. Trotsky, more than any of the defendants in the Moscow trials, represented the memory of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism. He was the last of the Russian Revolution’s leading figures still alive – Stalin himself had played a modest role in 1917. It was also Trotsky who had applied Marx and Lenin’s ideas to the new and complex world situation of the 1920s and 30s.

    In August 1940, the Second World War had lasted almost a year. Trotsky’s prediction that war would break out as a result of the labour movement’s failure to abolish capitalism with its terrible contradictions and to prevent the rise of fascism, had been confirmed. From Mexico, Trotsky subjected Stalin’s military-diplomatic pact with Hitler to merciless criticism. Trotsky showed that this deal would not prevent a German attack on the Soviet Union. In June 1941, Hitler launched his massive military attack. Trotsky stressed that the alternative was not to make major political concessions in order to reach an alliance with Britain and America – precisely the line that Stalin chose after the German attack. The dictator in Moscow dissolved the Communist International in 1943 – indicating the international working class was no longer the main ally of the Soviet Union, it was governments and diplomacy that mattered.

    Despite the war posing a major threat to, and great difficulties for, the Fourth International, founded in 1938, Stalin knew that Trotsky’s Marxist critique of his dictatorship had a huge potential support. When two of the top leaders of the Mexican Communist Party, Valentin Campa and Herman Laborde, objected to the secret plans to assassinate Trotsky, they were kicked out of the party in March 1940. The first direct assassination attempt was staged two months later, on 24-25 May. A group of armed men forced their way into Trotsky’s house and fired into the bedroom with a machine gun. They failed, however, either to set fire to the house or to explode a bomb they planted. The suspects who were arrested by the police were previously participants in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, where the Stalinists used the same methods against the left as in the Soviet Union, and they had ties to senior leaders of the Communist Party.

    In 1938, Ramon Mercader under a false identity began a relationship with an American Trotskyist, Sylvia Ageloff, which eventually gave him access to Trotsky’s home in Coyaocan in southern Mexico City. Under the pretext of asking for Trotsky’s views on an article he had written, Mercader came close enough for the deadly attack of August 20 to take place. Immediately after the murder, Mercader’s mother was rewarded by Stalin, receiving the Order of Lenin. When the murderer was released from prison in 1960, subsequently living in both the USSR and Cuba, he was given the status of hero of the Soviet Union by the then rulers in Moscow. For Stalinism, this political murder was an act of heroism. For real Marxists, Trotsky’s ideas and methods are indispensable tools in the fight against the capitalists and bureaucrats, to achieve a democratic socialist world.

    Trotskyism – Marxism in our time

    All over the world Lenin and Trotsky became the two most famous leaders of the Russian Revolution, when the working class took power in October 1917. Immediately this led to he most dramatic and liberating decisions – an end to the war, the transfer of land from landowners to the poor masses who tilled it, national independence to those who so desired (Finland’s independence for example), the prohibition of racism and antisemitism, rights for women and LGBT people. In industry, workers’ control applied, and the sabotage attempts of the capitalists led to the nationalization of companies. It was only when the imperialist powers of the world – Germany, Japan, Britain, USA etc – invaded in collaboration with reactionary tsarist generals that the Bolsheviks and the new workers’ government built up an army. Trotsky went from being ‘foreign minister’ to become leader of the Red Army.

    In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks still hoped that underdeveloped, poor and war-ravaged Russia would be supported by victorious revolutions in other more developed countries. When this did not happen a bureaucratic caste developed in the state and in the Bolshevik party itself. Its spokesman was Joseph Stalin. For Lenin, who fell ill in 1922 and died in 1924, the fight against the emerging Stalinist bureaucracy became his last, unfinished, struggle. It fell to Trotsky to lead the Left Opposition against Stalin in the 1920s. Stalin’s political weakness led to caution, maneuvering, and attempts to find ‘progressive’ bourgeois allies. In turn, this led to the decisive defeats of the working class in the German Revolution of 1923, the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and in the British general strike of 1926. Throughout this period, Stalin strengthened his grip on both government and party within the Soviet Union. When Trotsky was expelled at the party congress of 1927, this became the last Congress at which two viewpoints were expressed.

    After his banishment from the Soviet Union in 1929 there followed a period of just over a decade in which Trotsky developed the analysis of Marxism on a series of new phenomena. He warned of the danger from Nazism in Germany and argued that the two mass workers’ parties should wage a united struggle to stop the Nazis, something both the Social Democrats and the Stalinist Communist Party refused to do.

    Trotsky’s criticisms and fighting alternative for the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37 were at least as important. He showed how the Popular Front – in which the workers’ leaders (communists and socialists) subordinated themselves to capitalist republicans – would lead to the victory of Franco’s fascists in the civil war. For the workers to win, in common with the poor peasants and national minorities, a truly revolutionary change, i.e. a break with capitalism, had to be offered.

    Perhaps Trotsky’s greatest theoretical achievement is his analysis of Stalinism as a reactionary and dictatorial national bureaucracy that rested upon the planned economy but crushed all forms of workers’ democracy. Trotsky predicted that this contradictory situation would either be resolved by a new workers’ revolution, or that capitalism would be restored with the former ‘communist’ bureaucrats at its head.

    Stalinism – what happened to the workers’ state?

    The grotesque dictatorship in the Soviet Union, which called itself ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’, is still the main argument used by the right-wing against socialism. But what happened in the Soviet Union? What kind of society was it? Despite the fact that Stalinism in the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, in 1990, there is still no coherent analysis from the bourgeoisie about the Soviet Union. They still use the Soviet regime to denigrate all true socialists, despite the fact that the latter, rightly, were held by the Stalinist bureaucracy to be its worst enemies.

    The Russian Revolution in October 1917 gave workers political and economic power. Stalin and the bureaucracy carried through a political counter-revolution which crushed the workers’ political power. But socially and economically, state ownership was maintained. Property relations did not revert to a private capitalist ownership. The reason was that the bureaucracy’s power and privileges were at that stage rooted in state ownership. What emerged was a unique creation – a country that was no longer capitalist, but was a brutal dictatorship. How was this possible?

    The new workers’ state was born in a backward country, where 80 percent of the population were peasants and agriculture was primitive. The country was poor, with severe food shortages. From 1918 the country’s development was dominated by civil war, caused by the invading imperialist armies and ‘white’ generals. Lenin warned just a few years after the revolution that the Communists could no longer direct developments, despite the fact they formally held the steering wheel. ‘Socialism’ was merely a veneer over the old society. The new regime was therefore forced to make concessions to the peasants and was dependent on former tsarist bureaucrats.

    Lenin summed up the gravity of the situation: “the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been ‘busy’ most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.”

    Lenin was concerned that bureaucratic tendencies were spreading into the Bolshevik party, where the brutal party secretary Joseph Stalin was amassing ever greater power. In what is known as Lenin’s Testament, the revolutionary leader demanded that Stalin be replaced. The party must appoint “another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”

    This charge, of disloyalty to the cause of the workers and the party, was a devastating indictment of Stalin. After Lenin’s death the existence of his “Testament” was denied by the Stalinists until 1956, three years after Stalin’s death. At that time it suited the interests of the new generation of bureaucratic leaders to blame all Stalinism’s crimes solely on Stalin personally, even though they themselves had carried out all his orders.

    Stalin’s power was strengthened by a succession of massive defeats for the working class internationally. The paradox was that Stalin’s own mistakes contributed to these defeats. In the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 the inexperienced Communist Party was instructed to subordinate itself to the bourgeois Kuomintang, which Stalin hailed as bourgeois revolutionaries. But this alliance gave the Kuomintang leaders free hands to crush the workers’ struggle and the Communist Party – the revolution was drowned in blood. Trotsky showed that the policy of Stalin was a copy of the Mensheviks’ submission to the Russian bourgeoisie during 1917, a line completely opposed to that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

    Out of the Soviet Union’s growing isolation Stalin formulated the ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’. This argued that Russia itself had all the necessary criteria to build a socialist society. It was a theory that flirted with the state bureaucrats, but also with the disappointment and weariness over the fact that the working class had not achieved more internationally. Already in the 1920s, Stalin declared that socialism was “90 percent” realised. This was a macabre statement in an extremely poor country where that which was most strengthened was the apparatus of repression, the very apparatus that according to Marx and Lenin would gradually die away under socialism.

    “Socialism in one country” went against everything that Marxism stands for. The Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership were an internationalist party, fully aware that the Russian Revolution could not prevail on its own. In the late 1920s the Stalinist regime executed a left turn. The aim was to defeat the threat from the richer farmers – kulaks – who had gained considerably from market economic concessions. Stalin, who denounced the proposals of Trotsky and the Left Opposition for an economic plan and voluntary collectivisation of agriculture, now carried out his own dictatorial variant of this policy. Farmers were forcibly collectivised with devastating food shortages as a result. A planned economy was introduced by decree and with dictatorial methods. This was Stalinism’s “third period”, an ultra-left policy lasting a few years, in which time all non-communist parties were labeled as “fascists”. A new swing back to class collaboration with capitalist governments was initiated by Moscow in 1934.

    Programme for political revolution

    Trotsky’s completed analysis of Stalinism in Revolution Betrayed, which was written in 1936, shows how the bureaucracy could achieve rapid economic progress by imitating the developed capitalist Western powers. But the bureaucracy was unable to develop quality, technology and consumer goods. This meant that the bureaucracy could not lead the Soviet Union past the capitalist countries economically, which in itself is the definition of socialism – a more developed and freer society than capitalism.

    The Soviet Union, he explained, was a transitional society. The inevitable crisis must lead to new workers’ struggle with the possibility of a political revolution, that is a revolution that changes the political system while retaining the economic foundations of state ownership. Such a revolution would have crushed the dictatorship and introduced democratic workers’ control over the economy, i.e. taken steps towards real socialism.

    Trotsky and the Fourth International, which was founded on his initiative, developed a political program for a new workers’ revolution in Russia. The backbone was the same as in the Paris Commune in 1871, when the workers of Paris seized power, and the Bolshevik program of 1917. This meant that all privileges must be abolished; election of all officials, no repressive apparatus, rotation of all elected posts, free trade unions and freedom for political parties that do not support armed struggle against the Revolution.

    The other alternative was the reintroduction of capitalism. Trotsky’s perspective was that this would take place under the bureaucracy’s leadership. Stalin, and later his successors, defended the planned economy and posed as heirs to the Russian Revolution only as long as this benefited them. Trotsky predicted, in other words, the crisis that engulfed the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, even if Stalinism, because of the outcome of the Second World War, lasted longer than he had expected.

    Trotsky’s foresight can be compared with the bourgeois view of the Soviet Union as an immutable concrete colossus. In 1980, for example, the Social Democratic Youth League in Sweden (SSU), published its only book in decades. It was called Entrism in Sweden, and was a polemic against the supporters of the CWI (then called Offensiv). Here the Soviet Union was described as “one of the most politically stable countries in the world” in an effort to rebut the CWI comrades’ arguments, based on Trotsky’s analysis, that Stalinism could only develop the economy to a certain level and that a crisis was inevitable.

    That communist parties around the world followed and supported Stalinism was due to the Russian revolution’s enormous authority. It was the only battle in which capitalism had been defeated, a fact constantly referred to by Stalin. Communist parties in the rest of the world were younger and weaker, and the new system in the Soviet Union despite its shortcomings held a mass attraction, especially during the deep capitalist crisis of the 1930s and the Second World War. In many parties it was relatively new people who occupied the leading posts. At the Communist International’s Congress in 1928 there was not a single delegate who had been present when it was founded in 1919. Within the Stalinist communist parties around the world a dictatorship was likewise introduced – the statements of the leadership could never be criticised. These became “embassy parties” whose main task was to defend the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy.

    For socialists today the analysis of Stalinism is a key issue. We stand for democratic socialism, which means both support for mass revolutions and a struggle against all bureaucratic and dictatorial tendencies. In this struggle conscious socialist parties with a mass base are needed, gathered together in a new genuine socialist international.

    Left Opposition’s struggle

    Stalin’s bureaucratic regime could only definitely consolidate itself after a decade of one-sided civil war. Trotsky and the Left Opposition had strong roots and support within the Russian working class. Trotsky in 1924 launched a program against bureaucracy within the party and state in his book The New Course, which was also published in the party newspaper Pravda. Trotsky’s position at this stage was still strong. Stalin dared not yet act with too obvious organisational measures against him.

    Lenin’s former collaborators Kamenev and Zinoviev provided Stalin’s rule with a Bolshevik facade when the three of them together led the party in the mid-1920s. Zinoviev was chairman of both the Communist International and Petrograd Soviet, while Kamenev was party leader in Moscow. But Stalin’s increasing power led to the two of them later joining Trotsky’s opposition. Zinoviev stated that his support for Stalin had been a greater mistake than when he publicly opposed the 1917 October Revolution.

    The period 1926-27 showed the opposition’s mass support on several occasions. Thousands of supporters gathered on several occasions to protest against Stalin’s sending opposition leaders away from Moscow on pointless “missions”. On November 14 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party. The Norwegian author Yngvar Ustvedt quoted Trotsky’s wife Natalia Sedova about what happened when, one month later, the revolutionary leader was about to be deported to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan:

    “At the station a huge demonstration took place. The crowd stood and waited. People shouted: ‘Long live Trotsky!’ But you could not catch sight of him. Where was he? In the carriage set aside for us, an excited crowd had gathered. On the roof of the carriage youngsters had placed a large portrait of Lev Davidovich. People greeted it with enthusiastic cheers. The train began to move. One shudder, then another … the train moved a little but then came to a halt. The demonstrators had run and positioned themselves in front of the locomotive, clinging to the wagons and stopping the train, while they called for Trotsky. A rumour spread among the masses that the GPU’s agents had smuggled Trotsky into a carriage and were preventing him from showing himself. Excitement at the station was indescribable. It came to a clash with the militia and GPU agents, people on both sides were wounded and many arrested. The train had to wait an hour and a half before it could leave. Shortly afterwards our luggage was sent home from the station. The telephone rang continuously. It was friends wanting to check if we were safe at home and to tell us what had happened at the station.”

    When the deportation was later carried out, Trotsky continued his opposition. He received and sent letters to thousands of supporters throughout Russia, including his criticism of the Communist International’s 1928 program (contained in the book Third International After Lenin). The expulsion of Trotsky was endorsed by the Congress, now strictly controlled by Stalin. Immediately afterwards another 1,500 party members were expelled. Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to make humiliating apologies in which they “confessed” their “crimes” against the party. These apologies were the first steps on a journey that ended with the execution of the two revolutionary leaders by Stalin.

    There are those who ask why Trotsky didn’t use his support in the army to defeat Stalin. However, the struggle between Stalinism and the Left Opposition was not a military problem but a political one. Even the best ideas cannot win if they do not enjoy a strong material basis in society. The Marxists, the conscious workers and youth, were defeated by an informal coalition of reactionary layers – the bureaucracy, the rich peasants, the passive rural masses, and international capitalism.

    The permanent revolution

    The Russian Revolution of 1917 contains important lessons to this day, not least for revolutions in the former colonial world. The similarities with Russia are many in countries with weak capitalism, in which a small coterie of landlords dominate the countryside, with unresolved national problems and a proportionately small working class. Russia in the early 1900s covered a sixth of the earth’s surface but accounted for just three percent of world production. The country depended on foreign capital for investment, many industries were multinational. The Tsarist regime was a huge impediment, but Russia’s feeble capitalist class feared the working class and rural masses more than they disliked the Tsar.

    From an analysis of Russia, Trotsky developed the theory of permanent revolution. This concluded that the bourgeoisie in Russia was too weak to cope with the classical tasks of the bourgeois revolution, as in the French Revolution of 1789-1810. One of these tasks was to solve the land question, through the abolition of the feudal landlord system. But in Russia the capitalists of the cities were often the same as the landowners, which meant the bourgeoisie could not resolve the land question. Likewise the capitalist classes of the oppressed nations within the Russian empire – Poland, Finland, Ukraine – were too dependent on the central government and too afraid of the masses to lead a true national liberation struggle. Neither was the bourgeoisie capable of toppling the Tsar and establishing any form of modern regime that would promote faster economic development.

    Trotsky concluded that the working class must take the leadership of the revolution. The great peasant masses must be won over to the workers’ side with a program of land reform. With the workers as the only force that can complete the bourgeois-democratic tasks, the revolution will inevitably go over into its socialist tasks. Through this emphasis, Trotsky was clearer than Lenin, who until 1917 used the more open formulation “workers’ and peasants’ democratic dictatorship”, although Lenin always stressed that the working class must be independent of the capitalists. This is in contrast to the Mensheviks who believed that the bourgeois-democratic tasks must be completed by the bourgeoisie with the workers’ support.

    The Russian Revolution confirmed Trotsky’s analysis. During the period from February, when the Tsar was overthrown, to October, not a single one of the bourgeois revolution’s tasks was realised. In order to smear the Bolsheviks, bourgeois historians such as Peter Englund talk about “the popular February Revolution”. But after February the First World War continued, the land remained in the hands of the landlords and hunger worsened. It was the October Revolution, the workers’ seizure of power, that first laid the basis for solving the bourgeois revolution’s problems. With the capitalists’ military response to October, the socialist tasks of nationalisation of industries and the economy accelerated.

    The theory of the permanent revolution also shows that the socialist revolution is international, it cannot remain within a narrow national framework. The Russian Revolution was followed by revolutions in other countries, notably Germany, which could have broken Russia’s isolation and changed world history. Stalin’s attempt to force the economy back into national limits and make this official communist policy, meant the demise of both the Communist International and, eventually, the Soviet Union.

    The fight against fascism

    Hitler’s takeover in Germany in January 1933 was a catastrophic defeat for the working class throughout the world. The Communist Party leadership, and more so its international leadership in Moscow, bore full responsibility for the failure to stop Nazism.

    Trotsky showed in his many articles and pamphlets how fascism, with Nazism as its German branch, was different from other reactionary parties or military regimes. Fascism was a mass movement that emerged from the capitalist crisis. It organised the ruined middle layers of society – the former peasants, small businessmen, students etc. From the outset it was an armed movement that attacked workers’ struggles and organisations. Its ultimate aim was not just to establish a reactionary dictatorship, but to crush all forms of working class organisation.

    Trotsky therefore appealed to the workers’ parties, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party in particular, to enter into a united front to stop the Nazis. But the leaders of both parties were opposed. The Communist Party was consumed in its ‘third period’ (see above) and branded the Social Democrats as “social fascists”. Stalin and the German Communist leaders did not take the threat from Nazism seriously and believed that Hitler’s grip on power would be short-lived.

    The Communist Party had six million voters and 200,000 members, many with weapons, and yet it did not lift a finger in January 1933 to prevent Hitler’s rise to power. The Communist Party was banned in March, its assets were confiscated and its members were arrested and sent to concentration camps. That this did not create any kind of debate within the communist parties internationally was proof for Trotsky that the Communist International was dead, just like the socialist Second International had collapsed at the outbreak of the First World War, when its parties gave support to their respective capitalist governments.

    Following the historic defeat in Germany, it was not until 1934 that Stalin ventured to comment on the threat from fascism. This time by reverting to his old line, seeking allies among capitalist politicians and governments. A pact on military cooperation was signed with the French government. In the coming years bourgeois parties were invited to join a ‘popular front’ against fascism. But Germany had already demonstrated that, at the hour of decision, the capitalists would turn to fascism in order to defeat the workers. The popular front was in Trotsky’s words “a strike-breaking conspiracy” whose unity meant that workers’ demands could not be voiced, let alone fought for.

    Both in Germany and Spain the policies of Stalinism led to terrible defeats. Stalin’s zigzag policies confused and paralysed communist parties worldwide. Today, studying Trotsky’s analysis and critique of Stalinism is to prepare for the fight against racism, fascism, and the politics of the right.

    Fourth International

    Trotsky’s ideas in the 1920s and 30s were largely based on his experience during the Russian Revolution. This showed that the working class needs a strong, democratic and politically conscious party. The German social democrats, who until the First World War had been the dominant ‘Marxist’ party worldwide, had capitulated and become nationalists by the outbreak of the war. This party was then on the side of the counter-revolution in 1918, at a time when the young Communist Party was still too weak. The reformist social democrats offered no way forward. But neither did Stalinism, its policies leading to defeats internationally and brutal dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

    Trotsky worked from 1933 to found the Fourth International, which took place formally at a Congress in 1938. It’s great strength was its politics. Trotskyism had begun as a term of abuse used by the Stalinists, but was now a political trend with a distinct class program. In what was called the Transitional Program, Trotsky and his supporters summarised their program for the coming world war and for international socialism.

    But at the same time the Fourth International consisted of often small organisations that faced severe persecution from both Stalinists and fascists, as well as the social democratic bureaucracy and state repression. Many leading Trotskyists were murdered in the late 1930s and during the Second World War. Despite this Trotskyism in some countries built a mass base of support – Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Bolivia. In others, as in Sweden, there was no Trotskyist tradition at all.

    The organisation that took the name of the Fourth International after the Second World War was a collection of organisations that without Trotsky’s leadership and experience committed countless mistakes. Typical of this was their support for “new movements” – that is to say they flirted with Tito in Yugoslavia, Maoism, student movements, guerrillaism and so on. They abandoned Marxism’s emphasis on the decisive role of the working class while the revolutionary program was also toned down.

    Socialist Action is the Hong Kong branch of the CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International), an international socialist movement that is based on Trotsky’s analysis, as well as of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and Lenin, in order to intervene in the struggles and debates of our time with the aim of building a new Marxist International.