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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/A new assessment of an old trend: Trotskyism as the flip side of Stalinism

A new assessment of an old trend: Trotskyism as the flip side of Stalinism

Joseph Green

Platypus Review 60 | October 2013


A detailed study of Trotskyist theory is a large topic, which I and others have dealt with in a number of articles in the anti-revisionist journal, Communist Voice. We have developed over the years a critique of Trotskyism that not only differs from the old Stalinist critique, but shows that Trotskyism is in large part the flip side of Stalinism. This conclusion stems not just from theoretical study, but from what we have seen as we have carried out communist work among the working class.[1]

Trotskyism purports to be the Leninist answer to the Stalinist betrayal of socialist principles. The savage murder of Trotsky and numerous Trotskyists by Stalinist agents reinforced the idea that Trotskyism is the most serious opponent of Stalinism. Yet the Trotskyist movement has never established a viable alternative theory and practice to Stalinism. Most of the Trotskyist movement believes to this day that the Stalinist state-capitalist regimes were “workers’ states”, however repulsive (“degenerated” or “deformed”) they may have been. The structure of many Trotskyist organizations is no less a caricature of centralism than was that of the old Stalinist parties. And both Stalinists and Trotskyists have repeatedly supported vicious dictatorships in a parody of “anti-imperialism.” Despite the different catchwords, on issue after issue the differences are only skin-deep.

The present crisis in the Marxist and working-class movements derives not only from weakness. It is in large part a theoretical and ideological crisis, and Trotskyism as a major section of the revolutionary left is bound up with that. How it is criticized is, therefore, as important as that it is criticized. There has been a good deal of outrage this year directed against the Socialist Workers Party (UK) and some other groups, but the critics often take Trotskyism to be what it claims to be, Leninism. This throws out the baby with the bathwater. It is as bad as dropping socialism in the name of opposing Stalinism, or dropping democratic principles in the name of opposing Western imperialism.


The ugly workers’ state

One way that most Trotskyist groups echo Stalinism is in their defense of oppressive regimes that claim to be socialist as workers’ states. They denounce the Stalinist regimes in vehement terms, but insist that they are workers’ states just the same.

The Bolshevik revolution was a turning point in world history. It gave rise to the first protracted attempt by revolutionary workers to replace capitalism by socialism. This electrified workers around the world, making Leninist communism into a world movement. However, by sometime in the 1930s, the working class had lost control of the politics and economics of the Soviet Union. The state sector of the economy was dominant, and yet the working class controlled neither the economy nor the state.

What’s the overall economic and class nature of such a regime? If the Stalinist regime and other state-capitalist countries were really socialist or in the process of moving towards socialism, then their atrocities—the removal of political rights from the working class, the attempt to eliminate a number of small nationalities, the mass repression and political murders, etc.—occurred on an economic basis of socialism. If so, this suggests that socialism was a failed system that should never be implemented again.

But in our studies of the Stalinist system in Russia and the Castroist system in Cuba, we found that they differed economically from both socialism and any transition towards it, and we think this holds true for all the state-capitalist regimes. Despite the domination of the economy by the state, these countries lacked the social control of production that Marxism regards as a key feature of socialism. Their economies were ravaged by the anarchy of production, with the incessant clash of competing small-group interests at the expense of the general interest. Indeed, this anarchy and competition was evident within the state sector itself. Private interests fought within the state ministries and split the ruling officialdom. Thus, the lack of workers’ control over the state sector wasn’t just a political issue: It affects the economic nature of the state sector. The Stalinist system didn’t consist of a good, socialistic economy combined with poor political decisions taken by a faulty leadership. Instead its economic basis was capitalist, albeit a new form of capitalism.

But that is not the way it is seen by most Trotskyists. They view state ownership as socialistic in and of itself, no matter whether the workers control the state sector or not. Indeed, the eminent Trotskyist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky argued vehemently in his 1926 book The New Economics that the state sector is socialist even if it runs according to all the usual capitalist categories (profit, rent, interest, etc.)

Trotsky himself held that given that the tsarist bourgeoisie was no longer in power, state ownership of the means of production showed that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state. In his famous work The Revolution Betrayed(1936) he called for a “political revolution” in Russia, not a “social revolution.” “Don’t change the economic and social system, just give it Trotskyist leadership”—that was Trotsky’s program. Indeed, as late as 1933 he addressed a secret appeal to the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party to allow Trotskyists back into the party leadership in exchange for which he promised Trotskyist support in eliminating the “mistrust” that the Stalinist system had engendered.[2]

Some Trotskyists do not agree with the theory of the ugly workers’ state. In particular, the late Tony Cliff of the Socialist Workers Party (UK) regarded the Soviet Union as state-capitalist. Despite this, like other Trotskyists, Cliff still saw state ownership as essentially socialist in and of itself. He held that the Stalinist economic system would have operated in a unified way as a socialist economy should, had the Soviet Union not needed to trade with the outside capitalist world. For Cliff, internal class contradictions in the Soviet Union were not the main source of the anarchy in its economy.

In his 1990 book The Life and Death of Stalinism: A Resurrection of Marxist Theory Walter Daum of the League for the Revolutionary Party attempted to go beyond Cliff by returning to Trotsky.[3] In it he put forward a theory of “statified capitalism,” his name for state-capitalism. Daum tries to show that the system’s evils arise from within itself, not simply from foreign trade. But his reliance on Trotsky’s writings leads him into a series of contradictions. Was the Stalinist economy centralized? What he says on one page is contradicted on the next. Did it manifest anarchy of production? On one page he gives examples of this, and on another he advocates the “national capital” approach in analyzing the Soviet economy. He thus implies that the state sector essentially operated as a unified whole, a point of view similar to Cliff’s.


State ownership

In their theorizing of ugly workers’ states, Trotskyists refer to regimes where the old bourgeoisie has been dispossessed. But Trotskyism also holds that there is something socialistic about the state sector in a market capitalist country. In Results and Prospects (1906) Trotsky contrasted the 8-hour day, as something which “by no means contradicts capitalist relations”, with the nationalization of industry, which he mistakenly believed went beyond capitalism because it involved “the socialization of production.”

Nationalization was also a key part of Trotsky’s famous transitional program. Trotsky denounced the Marxist division of working-class demands into a “minimum program” of reforms which might conceivably be achieved under capitalism and a “maximum program” of socialist society, replacing the “minimum program” with “a system of transitional demands.” The essence of these is contained in the fact that “ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very basis of the bourgeois regime.” He thought nationalization would strike a blow against the foundations of capitalism.

In fact there are different types of nationalization and different circumstances in which these different types occur. A social revolution will make use of nationalization. But ordinary bourgeois economies do too. Indeed, even in these days of rampant privatization, capitalist economies still have large state sectors. Nationalization may be a useful reform that provides more services to the masses, or it may be a bourgeois scheme in the service of monopoly capitalist interest. In a transitional situation, when capitalist society is starting to crumble and the revolutionary movement is growing, extensive nationalization really might help undermine the bourgeoisie. But at other times, it indicates at most a change in the form of capitalism. Simply calling one’s demands “transitional” no more makes them or the situation transitional, then calling a bus an airplane would give it the ability to fly.

Trotsky’s glorified view of nationalization he holds in common with Stalinism, old-style reformism, and even bourgeois economics. This is part of why he could not understand the class nature of the consolidated Stalinist economy. His view makes it hard to understand the different forms that capitalism takes. It might seem plausible in these days of market fundamentalism. But eventoday, conservative capitalist governments make use of the temporary nationalization of banks and of other state takeovers in order to preserve, rather than undermine, the capitalist system.


Party concept

Stalinist parties are known for their repulsive organizational practices, both in their relations with those outside the party and in their internal life. Similarly, Trotskyist sectarianism has been notorious in the left for decades. Trotskyist rhetoric on factions is different from Stalinist rhetoric on the monolithic party, but their practices are not very far apart.

Trotsky never had a clear conception of party-building. Over the years he vacillated between denouncing party-building and demanding it, but either way he mainly identified it as centralism. In the years prior to his joining the Bolsheviks, he usually opposed party-building and centralism and talked of them as “substitutionists.” He denounced Bolsheviks as seeking to impose an “orthodox theocracy” and to erect obstacles to workers’ initiative. Similarly, he opposed as factionalism the building of organization united around a revolutionary strategy and tactics, while promoting himself as “non-factional”. After he joined the Bolsheviks, he emphasized centralism above everything else, backed the idea of the militarization of labor, and was something of a martinet . His hagiographer Isaac Deutscher speaks of him as “one of the sternest disciplinarians.”[4] But when he found himself in the minority, he amended his view of centralism in the name of democracy to allow for factions that fight for the party’s leadership.

Later, when Trotsky formed the 4th International, its Statutes focused mainly on the rights of the International Executive Committee (IEC) and the smaller International Secretariat (IS). Democratic centralism is mentioned, but defined only as submission to the decisions of these bodies. There is, for example, no mention of the elective principle, either with respect to the national Trotskyist organizations or the world leadership of the 4th International. At most, the Statutes say that the “International Conferences” should be composed of the “delegates, or their mandated representatives, of all sections.” In practice, the composition of these conferences was decided mainly by the IEC and the IS. True, most Trotskyist organizations have some kind of elections, but Trotsky’s legacy leads in the direction of arrogant bureaucracy.

Now, centralism is essential for a party that seriously intends to carry out a revolution. But it is also a notable feature of many bourgeois and reactionary parties. When centralism is detached from the other aspects of a working class party, it becomes oppressive.

Lenin saw centralism and discipline as connected to other aspects of party life and to the level of the class struggle. For example, in “Left-wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder (1920), he raised the issue of how the discipline of the proletarian party is maintained and reinforced. One key factor was the devotion to the revolution of the party members, but it was not the only one. Another was that the party was able to stay “in close touch with, and to a certain extent, if you like, to merge with the broadest masses of the toilers.” It was also necessary to have correct political strategy and tactics, and moreover, that “the broadest masses have been convinced by their own experience” of this correctness. Thus he viewed the party’s internal life and level of discipline as connected not only to the convictions of its members, but also to those of the masses around the party. Lenin warned that “Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end in phrase-mongering and grimacing.” (Ibid., Chapter II)


Evolution of the party

Trotsky’s ideas about party building focused on centralism and the fight for leading positions. Marxism has a broader idea. When Marx and Engels saw that the workers needed to form their own political party if they wished to be free of capitalist exploitation, they focused on what type of party was needed, not just on who was the leader. They sought to build a type of mass organization that had never been seen before. The Communist Manifesto (1848) had been written for the Communist League, but it turned out to be too narrowly based. Marx and Engels sought a political organization that was connected to the economic and strike struggles of the workers. The party was also to organize nation-wide political agitation and to bring the workers into all aspects of the revolutionary movement. This was not what political factions or parties previously had been. The First International provided a broader link to mass struggles than the Communist League ever had and inspired workers around the world, but it lacked cohesion, and workers were in large part enrolled in it en masse, rather than individually. The parties of the Second International, at their best, were actively involved in political agitation and their members were expected to take more part in party life than was ever known before.

The Leninist Third International went further. At its best, its parties were not simply more centralized than Second International parties, but also fostered more independent activity from their members, more theoretical consciousness, and more participation in revolutionary action. However, these parties were built in a hurry under exceptionally trying conditions, and were not always at their best. Stalinist revisionism eventually corroded them, but before that they allowed the working class to become a political force in a way never seen before.

If I and others support party-building, it is because we have seen that party organization empowers class-conscious activists and workers. The party-like organizations I have been in, such as the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA of 1980-1993, were not perfect, but they unleashed our potentialities as well as those of the workers and students we worked among, in a way other organizations had not. Small and limited as the organizations of the last period have been, they gave voice to a revolutionary standpoint not otherwise represented. They allowed us to take part in the theoretical struggle in a way we could not have dreamed of doing individually. We did not join in order to fight for leadership, but to take part in the class struggle. Many activists today are anti-party because of horrible experiences in Trotskyist and Stalinist organizations, and because they have nothing else to measure this experience against. I can sympathize with this, but if the working class and revolutionary activists are ever going to run the world, we are going to have to learn to build our own organizations first.

Ultimately, though, whether the working class needs a Leninist party depends on what it wants to accomplish. If one is satisfied with action bound essentially by what is acceptable to the class-collaborationist trade union leaders and reformist social organizations, then one does not need a communist party. If one wants an organization that can rally workers at one workplace after another in struggle, despite the treachery of today’s reformist bureaucrats, one that can bring new conceptions to the mass movements, then one will see the desirability of party-building. If one sees the struggle with the trade union bureaucracy as simply a factional struggle for leadership positions, one might imagine that the Trotskyist conception of organization will do. But if one sees the role of the party as greater than that, then the Trotskyist conception has to be set aside.


Non-class anti-imperialism

Lenin associated anti-imperialism with the struggle of millions upon millions of people for liberation from oppression. When he wrote in Socialism and War (1915) that a war between Britain and India was a just war on India’s part, regardless of who attacked first, it was because “in China, Persia, India and other dependent countries [. . .] we have seen during the past decades a policy of rousing tens and hundreds of millions of people”. War is the continuation of politics by violent means, and one judged a war by looking to the politics that had for years preceded that war.

Trotskyism and Stalinism, however, separate anti-imperialism from the mass struggle for freedom. They have become notorious for supporting bloodstained oppressors as anti-imperialists. This is what I call “non-class anti-imperialism,” an anti-imperialism without the local masses. The Trotskyist groups have competed in giving “military, (but supposedly) not political” support to these tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Qaddafi in Libya, and even the Taliban in Afghanistan. They may denounce these tyrants in extreme language and oppose them up to the moment war breaks out. Still, they claim that during a war with Western imperialism, these tyrants bear the anti-imperialist banner and should be given “military support.” They do not see the politics of the war as the continuation of the politics that led to the war.

This is an “anti-imperialism” that goes against the interests of the working people. Their interests are subordinated to the interests of the local tyrants for the duration of the war. The non-class imperialists pretend that it was impossible to support the Iraqi people against both the Saddam Hussein regime and the US imperialist invasions. They thought that the intrigues of outside powers were more important than the uprising of the Libyan people to overthrow Qaddafi, who had suppressed all political life in Libya for decades. Now they find similar reasons to oppose the uprising of the Syrian people against the brutal Assad dictatorship.

The various Trotskyist groups have supported non-class anti-imperialism on many of these issues. Trotsky’s stand on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936 has repeatedly been cited as support for this practice. Now, it was essential to back Ethiopia, but Trotsky had a hard time explaining why. He didn’t understand the complicated situation facing the masses in Ethiopia, and so ignored it. Instead, in a letter that has become a key part of the Trotskyist canon, he declared that it was necessary to make “a choice between two dictators,” Mussolini or Haile Selassie (On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo, April 22, 1936). He waxed eloquent about the potential greatness of the emperor Haile Selassie, compared Selassie to past revolutionary figures that Trotsky admired, and dreamed that the victory of “the Negus” (the Emperor) would not only be a defeat for Italian imperialism, but for “imperialism as a whole.” He even imagined a Selassie victory might serve to spur “the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples” of the world.

On May 2, 1936, just ten days after Trotsky’s comments, Selassie fled Ethiopia for England. Yet Trotsky never reconsidered his position. Neither have his followers. To this day, the Trotskyist movement still regards his comments on Ethiopia as the gold standard for anti-imperialism, and ignores what actually happened there.

As a matter of act, it was not Selassie who led the continued Ethiopian resistance to occupation, but the resistance was continued by the movement called the Patriots. In consequence of their struggle, Italian fascism never conquered the entire Ethiopian countryside. By way of contrast, it was not until 1941 that Selassie, with the help of British bayonets, returned to Ethiopia. The Patriots weren’t a revolutionary movement, but they wanted reforms, not a return to absolutism. Selassie, however, was able to restore his power. This was a tragedy for Ethiopia and for the neighboring Eritrean people, whom Selassie would annex.

Trotsky had at least supported the right side in the war, even if history has not been kind to his hopes for a revolutionary autocrat. But his reasoning has encouraged modern-day Trotskyists to back notorious dictatorships with the dream that they might play the liberating role which Trotsky imagined for Haile Selassie.

What Haile Selassie was to Trotsky, the Emir Amanullah of Afghanistan was to Stalin. Amanullah was concerned to obtain and ensure against British interference Afghanistan’s independence. He also sought changes in Afghan politics and society. The Soviet Union established relations with Afghanistan under Amanullah as part of its support for the anti-colonial movement. So far, so good. But Stalin went out of his way in his influential work The Foundations of Leninism (1924) to describe Amanullah as objectively a revolutionary. His struggle, according to Stalin, was a “reserve of the revolutionary proletariat” and presumably part of a “common revolutionary front” with world socialism.

Now, unlike Selassie, Amanullah was no absolutist, but a reformer who was eventually deposed by a reactionary uprising in 1928-29. But by Stalin’s reasoning, it is irrelevant whether he was absolutist or not, since “the revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican program of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement.” In reality, there is not just a difference between revolution and reaction, but between the revolutionary movement and various intermediate and reformist currents. But Stalin’s reasoning obliterates such distinctions within the anti-colonial movement: Everything is revolutionary. Here again, Trotskyist and Stalinist theory show remarkable similarities. No wonder both the Trotskyist and Stalinist trends back non-class anti-imperialism, however much they may differ on which regime to back at any given time.[5]


Adapting to new world developments

Marxism is not a set of finished formulas, settled a century ago. But over and over again the Trotskyist movement shows that it is unable to adapt and extend Marxism to deal with the problems facing the movement nowhere, as elsewhere, they are as dogmatic as the Stalinists. The Trotskyists think they have found the answer to everything in a set of mechanical patterns like “permanent revolution,” “no socialism in one country,” “no stage-ism,” “political but not military support,” “united but not popular fronts,” and “transitional demands.” It backs up these slogans by endlessly refighting the old battles with various Stalinist ideologues of the past. They have turned revolutionary theory into scholasticism that serves to intimidate activists who are not experts on all the movements and debates of the past. I have criticized many of the Trotskyist formulas over the years, but perhaps the worst aspect of Trotskyism is its hidebound method.

As a result, Trotskyism has stumbled before many of the most important features of the contemporary world. Let me give a few examples.

Imperialism: Many features of world imperialism have changed dramatically over the last century. Imperialism still exists and devours millions upon millions of people through war, sanctions, propping up brutal regimes, and economic rape. It is as great a monster as ever, but some of the ways imperialism manifests itself have changed. For example, at one time the majority of the world’s population lived in colonies and semi-colonies, while today a majority of the world’s population lives in imperialist, would-be imperialist, or major regional powers. In order to build a genuine anti-imperialist movement and uphold the class approach set forth in Lenin’s Imperialism, Highest Stage of Capitalism and other works, one has to take account of such changes, not gloss over them.

But the Trotskyist movement tends to assume that only the countries that were imperialist in the past can be imperialist today. They have often given “military, but not political” support to would-be imperialist powers, essentially to one imperialist bloc against another.

Democratizations: In a number of countries in the last several decades, from the old Soviet bloc to the current Arab Spring, long-standing dictatorships fell. This has been a major current of mass struggle, but these regimes were brought down neither by socialist revolution nor by profound democratic social revolutions. Even when protracted armed struggle was involved, the result has been liberalizations or democratizations, not social revolutions. A vicious racist system like apartheid might fall and state-capitalist regimes and other hollowed-out tyrannies collapse, but the immediate results are usually depressing governments that simply join in market fundamentalist frenzy. Yet these struggles are essential steps in the long road towards liberation, and they open the way to a renewed and more conscious class struggle.

The Trotskyist movement has been unable to provide orientation for recent democratizations. Such things are not envisioned in Trotsky’s theory of the “permanent revolution.” Thus, in the Arab Spring, various Trotskyist groups only support struggles they imagine as social revolutions that might lead to workers’ regimes. Their expectations are repeatedly disappointed, but they never learn from this experience. The Trotskyists have no theoretical basis that would allow them to assess realistically such struggles and judge what revolutionary activists should strive for when socialist revolution is not imminent. This reinforces the Trotskyist tendency to non-class anti-imperialism and leads to opposition to some of the important struggles of our time.

Global warming: The protection of the environment is one of the crucial struggles of our time. Every year the situation becomes more serious. The earth burns, while the bourgeoisie dallies. If something serious is to be accomplished, it is necessary to make the environmental movement into one of the fronts of the class struggle.

It is not enough to oppose the global warming denialists. Bourgeois environmentalism is incapable of dealing with the crisis. Al Gore, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and a number of other establishment figures warn about the danger of global warming and other environmental catastrophes, and that has played a certain role, but they advocate futile market measures that will themselves lead to disaster. Yet even eco-socialists and the more militant trends within the environmental movement, who carry out important mass protests and criticize some cap and trade measures, have not disassociated themselves from Gore-style programs or may themselves advocate the pricing of goods at their supposed “true value”. Criticism of Al Gore tends to be restricted to either his other political stands, or his role in pushing cap and trade. His overall environmental program (including the carbon tax) is rarely scrutinized.

The Trotskyist and Stalinist trends are bankrupt in the face of establishment environmentalism. Some denigrate environmentalism in general as green capitalism, while declaring that nothing can be done until the environmental problem is solved under socialism. Most of the others seek to win over a section of the environmental movement without pushing for a conscious differentiation from establishment environmentalism. They don’t understand the particular way in which the environmental crisis will eventually force the issue of environmental and economic planning, and they fail to prepare the masses for the coming struggle over the different ways in which planning and its enforcement will be carried out.

This has been just an introduction to the new critique of Trotskyism. I have left out consideration of many Trotskyist shibboleths in order to focus on some issues relevant to recent debates on party-building, imperialism, the Arab Spring, and the attitude towards state ownership. But I hope that this article will give the reader some idea of how closely related Trotskyism is to Stalinism: one can’t criticize one too deeply without criticizing the other. Also, I have tried to show that, while anti-revisionists oppose the way Trotskyism and Stalinism have distorted the meaning of what Marx, Engels, and Lenin set forward, we do not aim to simply go back to the past and repeat old formulas. We aim to bring Marxism into the present and prepare for the future. We pay serious attention to history, but we are first and foremost activists who aim to help the working class rise up and change the world. |P

[1]. Here I will outline only some of the inadequacies of Trotskyism. For more detail, including documentation from Trotsky’s works, see the four-part article “An Outline of Trotsky’s Anti-Marxist Theories” available at <>.
[2]. It’s hard to know which is more astonishing: That Trotsky imagined Stalin might accept his offer, or that he thought such a leadership shuffle would make a difference. For more about Trotsky’s maneuver and detailed references, see the sub-section entitled “The Reversion to Factionalism” in “An Outline of Trotsky’s Anti-Marxist Theories, Part Four,” available at <>.
[3]. See “On Walter Daum’s The Life and Death of Stalinism:  Competition among Soviet enterprises and ministries, and the collapse of the Soviet Union,” available at <>.
[4]. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed/Trotsky: 1921-1929 (New York: Vintage Press, 1959), 29, 30, 32, 51, et passim.
[5]. I have discussed these examples in more detail in the article “Anti-Imperialism and the Class Struggle” available at < The discussion there comes in the course of my raising why it is that some non-class anti-imperialists could back the Taliban.