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Learning from the Communist Movement of the 20th century

A response to Richard Rubin

Grover Furr

Platypus Review 45 | April 2012


RICHARD RUBIN ARGUES that “the 1930s were a decade of defeat for the Left.” His essay, “1933,” in the Platypus Review issue on The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century,[1] is an idealist abstraction from real historical events, one founded on an uncritical acceptance of Trotsky as a significant historical thinker and actor and a corresponding Trotskyist caricature of the Soviet Union, Stalin, and Chinese Communism. Consequently, the real history of the Left in the 20th century is absent.


Painted in 1939 V.P. Efanov, 11 x 17 meters (sic) in size, it was titled "Notable People from the Land of the Soviets." It was displayed in the USSR pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. It was destroyed during World War II.

The 1930s were, in fact, a decade of historic advance in the USSR, China, and even in the USA. The forces for which the 1930s were a decade of defeat were mainstream bourgeois capitalism, social-democracy, and, of course, Trotskyism.

To say, as Rubin does, “The period 1933–1940 is the last attempt of classical Marxism to rearm itself against the double menace of Stalinism and fascism,” is an atrocious falsehood, a capitulation to the anti-Communist logic of Trotskyism—a logic recognized and embraced since the 1930s by overtly pro-capitalist anti-Communists, who regularly cite Trotskyite historians and their works as “respectable” secondary sources. Trotsky played a vital role in the Revolution of 1917 and an important role in the Russian Civil War, but not after that in the Comintern. Moreover, contra Rubin, Trotsky and Benjamin were not figures “of their time, but also out of their time, figures um neunzehnhundert,” rather these figures, whose deaths coincided in 1940, had no impact on world politics, the class struggle, or the future of the Communist Movement.

“Stalinism” as such never existed. It was simply an epithet that applied to the overwhelming majority of the international Communist Movement that rejected Trotsky and looked to the USSR and the Comintern for leadership in liberating the working class. Some small factions looked towards Trotsky, but these never amounted to anything. Tellingly, Rubin fails to consider what this insignificance implies about Trotsky or Trotskyism.

It was the USSR that “spoke to the utopian possibilities” of Communism. Between 1917 and 1960 the eyes of the world and the hopes of the working classes everywhere were on the USSR. Trotskyism was itself a “menace”—though on an incomparably smaller scale than Nazism.

In the grip of the Trotskyist myth Rubin says, “Trotsky understood Stalinism better [than the Stalinists].” It would be more accurate to say that, “Stalin understood Trotskyism better than the Trotskyists,” as anti-Communism can also assume a “left” disguise. A number of anti-Communist “historians,” such as Robert Conquest, Robert Service, Orlando Figes, Timothy Snyder, Oleg Khlevniuk, Robert Tucker, and Paul Gregory, to name just a few, embraced Trotsky or Trotskyists as allies. In the uniformly anti-Communist field of Soviet history, Trotskyist scholars and journals are respected, even honored.[2]

It is significant that Rubin effaces more recent research into Trotsky’s biography and activities during the 1930s, such as the following:

  • Trotsky’s “bloc” in 1932 and thereafter with the Rights, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and other clandestine oppositional factions, exactly as he was later charged in the Moscow Trials.[3]
  • Leon Sedov’s embrace of the tactic of assassination—in Russian, “terror.” Sedov, Trotsky’s son, was his father’s representative in continental Europe.[4]
  • Trotsky’s collaboration with Germany and Japan.[5]
  • Trotsky’s deliberate lies to his followers in his Bulletin of the Opposition and to the Dewey Commission hearings in 1936.[6]
  • His advocation of Ukrainian independence in May and July 1939 when—coincidentally?—the Nazis and the Polish government were planning to separate Ukraine from the USSR to create a fascist nationalist state.[7]
  • Schemes by both the Finns and the British in December 1939 to January 1940 to invade the USSR and install Trotsky in the “provisional government” to stimulate a civil war.[8]

Of these statements only Trotsky’s alleged collaboration with the Axis is at all controversial. The rest have long been known to serious students of Soviet history. Taken together, the works cited above by Broué, Rogovin, Getty, and Holmström demonstrate that Trotsky’s writings in the 1930s involved falsifications and deception. But who were these lies intended to deceive? His followers, who believed that Trotsky was telling the truth, for example, about the Moscow Trials, paid dearly with their lives in the USSR in 1937–38.

No doubt Rubin is unintentionally correct in saying “…the best Trotskyists would insist that, in over two-thirds of a century since Trotsky’s death, there has been hardly anything deserving the name of Marxist theory.” But then no one but Trotskyists would voice such nonsense.

The era after World War II became the greatest age of anti-imperialist victories in history, exceeding even the period of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. But Rubin writes, “the real but belated possibility of revolutionary politics was defeated in the 1930s.” This nonsense reflects Trotsky’s economic determinist focus on the industrial West. Trotsky’s, and Rubin’s, theory cannot accommodate the real revolutions in China and Vietnam. The USSR did not decisively turn anti-revolutionary until Khrushchev embraced a demonized interpretation of Stalin that was not only similar to Trotsky’s views, but was in part borrowed from him. Blind to the successes of the Communist Movement after the 1930s, Rubin can see only failure. In reality, we need to learn from both failures and successes.

Few ideas in Marxist history have been so refuted by reality as the theory of “Permanent Revolution.” It amounted to an intelligent, though dogmatic, speculation when Trotsky originated it in the aftermath of 1905. Thereafter Trotsky wrote no more Marxist “theory” worthy of the name. Stalin and Mao certainly did, though of course it would be a serious error for Marxists to be uncritical of them, or of any aspect of the Communist legacy.

Neither Trotsky, who abandoned the working class masses, nor, obviously, the members of the Frankfurt School, who were completely isolated from political struggle, learned the main lesson: it is the working class, in their masses, that make history. Mao and the Chinese Communist Party certainly learned this. Trotsky, because he abandoned the working class masses just as they abandoned him, and the Frankfurt School, because they were completely isolated from political struggle, never understood this. Unlike many Communist leaders—Stalin is a good example—Trotsky was never an organizer of workers. Soviet scholar Robert McNeil noted long ago, “to Trotsky, intellectual capacity meant talent for theoretical treatises.”[9] Between 1905 and August 1917, when he accepted Lenin’s leadership, Trotsky was in political limbo. Once Lenin was gone Trotsky was again ineffectual.

But, for Rubin, Maoism is “a rebellion of sorts against Stalinism that was and is itself hyper-Stalinist.” He effaces the historic contributions of the Chinese Communist Party to the Communist Movement in the 20th century by reducing it to “Stalinism.” He follows Trotsky’s Manichaean view according to which everyone who did not agree with him, Trotsky, was a “Stalinist.”

Rubin admits that his vision “does not partake of Trotsky’s revolutionary optimism,” concluding “the optimism of classical Marxism was once historically justified, but now, alas, is not.” Why call this optimism “Trotsky’s”? Tens of millions of ordinary Communists the world over had such optimism!

In historical retrospect, Trotsky’s view of the inevitability of the “road from capitalism through socialism to Communism,” is more similar to that of Stalin and Mao than it is different from them. By embracing a Trotskyist paradigm of history and of the path to Communism, Rubin has uncritically adopted one version of the Leninist concept that differs in detail only, but not in essence, from that of Stalin and Mao, and—for that matter—with that of Marx and Lenin, too. That version is “socialism,” what Marx called the “lower stage of Communism.”

I suggest that this is the most serious theoretical failure not only of Trotskyism, but of all the Communist movements of the 20th century. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, and all those in their movements were convinced that socialism would be the first stage in the march towards Communism. It was a good guess. But we can now see that it was mistaken. As one saying, reportedly of Cuban origin, runs, “Socialism is the stage between capitalism and capitalism.” Socialism, that is, leads to the reversion to capitalism, despite the best intentions of the best Communists.

Rubin’s Trotskyism asks the reader to accept a myopic view of history. If, for example, the year 1933 “summons up two names,” these would be Hitler and Stalin, not Hitler and Roosevelt. Stalin, along with Lenin and Mao, are the great Communist leaders of the 20th century. By the 1930s Trotsky led clandestine groups within the USSR and a small dissident Communist faction outside it. After the early 1920s Trotsky was no “fiery revolutionary,” but an ineffectual political actor and writer. His attempts at Marxist theory were undermined by his growing obsession with Stalin, who had bested him in the leadership contests of the 1920s. Frustrated, Trotsky came to adopt the anti-Marxist “great man” theory of history, with himself as the “great leader” and Stalin as the “great villain.” It is historically ironic that this stance was essentially no different from the anti-Marxist “cult of personality” around Stalin, which Stalin opposed, though not strongly enough.[10]

In the “Critique of the Gotha Program” Marx outlined a trajectory, one that Lenin adopted, of passing through a “first phase” or “lower stage of Communism,” a.k.a. socialism (ersten Phase der kommunistschen Gesellschaft), which preserves “bourgeois right,” to a “higher stage” (höheren Phase).[11] Stalin and Mao did not “betray” this vision, as Trotsky believed—they achieved it. This path to Communism failed.

Trotsky believed socialism could succeed, though under conditions—advanced industrial capitalism—that did not prevail everywhere. He asserted that the revolution could only be finally successful if one or more industrially advanced capitalist countries also experienced a revolution. Yet, first Stalin, and then Mao, showed that socialism could be attained in one country, through the combination of industrialization, collectivization, and mechanization of agriculture, even if that country had a predominantly agricultural, peasant economy. This, together with their recognition of the primacy of ideology over economic development in the modern world, was Stalin’s and Mao’s contribution to Marxism.

Yet it turns out that socialism does not lead to Communism. Instead it leads back to capitalism. And Communism, that utopian vision, is what the world’s working class needs today as it always has. Marxists—we ourselves and others—must devise a new roadmap of how to create a Communist society once the revolution to overthrow capitalism has been victorious.

We can only do that through joining mass practice with theoretical work informed by an understanding of the history of the Communist Movement of the 20th century. To that end we must abandon the comforting delusion that the problem of how to build Communism has already been solved, whether by Trotsky, by Mao, by Lenin, or by Marx. Today this is the “tradition” that “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” |P

[1]. Richard Rubin, “1933,” Platypus Review 17 (November 2009). Available online at <>. Also see “The Legacy of Trotskyism” in Platypus Review 38 (August 2011), available online at <>.

[2]. See Bernhard Bayerlein’s encomium on Broué on the latter’s death: “Pierre Broué (1926–2005),” Jahrbuch für historische Kommunismusforschung, 2006, 461–63. Bayerlein is a leading German anti-Communist, scholar-propagandist, and falsifier. Broué worked closely with Bayerlein on several research projects. Trotskyist historical journals published by major academic publishers include Revolutionary History and Critique.

[3]. Pierre Broué, “Trotsky et le bloc des oppositions de 1932,” Cahiers Leon Trotsky 5 (1980) 5–37; J. Arch Getty, “Trotsky in Exile: The Founding of the Fourth International,” Soviet Studies 38 No. 1 (January 1986).

[4]. John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, Deadly Illusions (New York: Crown, 1993), 283; Dmitry Volkogonov, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 378–79; Pierre Broué, Léon Sedov: Fils de Trotsky, Victime de Staline (Paris: Editions Ouvrières, 1993), 210–11; Grover Furr, “Evidence of Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan,” Cultural Logic (2009): 162–63.

[5]. Furr, “Evidence.”

[6]. Getty, Trotsky in Exile; Sven-Eric Holmström, "New Evidence Concerning the 'Hotel Bristol Question' in the First Moscow Trial of 1936," Cultural Logic (2008).

[7]. Trotsky, “Problem of the Ukraine,” Socialist Appeal (May 9, 1939); Trotsky, “The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads” (July 30, 1939) in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939–40 (New York, 1977) 44–54.

[8]. Talvisota. Kronikka. (Gummerus: Jyväskylä, Helsinki, 1989), 45 and 46; O.V. Vishlev, “Operatsiia Utka,” Nakanune 22 iunia 1941 goda (Moscow: Nauka, 2001), 131–32.

[9]. Robert McNeil, “Trotsky’s Interpretation of Stalin,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 5 (1961): 89.

[10]. See Grover Furr, Khrushchev Lied: The Evidence That Every “Revelation” of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) Crimes in Nikita Khrushchev’s Infamous “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, is Provably False (Kettering, OH: Erythrós Press & Media LLC, 2011), 7–11 and 223–37.

[11]. Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program” is available online, along with supplemental texts, at <>.