The growing power of Joseph Stalin and the party-state bureaucracy he headed within the Soviet Union did not go unchallenged. Leon Trotsky, organizer of the Soviet insurrection in 1917 and leader of the Red Army during the civil war, led that challenge.
Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and assassinated by a Stalinist agent in Mexico in 1940. Before his expulsion from Russia, he organized the Left Opposition, a faction within the Russian Communist Party that challenged Stalin's policies and police methods. After his expulsion, Trotsky continued to mercilessly criticize Stalin and Stalinism. He organized the few followers he had under the banner of the International Left Opposition and later the Fourth International in 1938 after he concluded that it was impossible to change the policies of the Third or Communist International founded by the Bolsheviks in 1919.
The main difficulty with Trotskyist organizations, groups, and parties is that they have been unable to become mass parties like the Bolsheviks or even influential within the workers' movement of any country during any period in the past 80 years.
No colonies were liberated, no ruling classes were overthrown, and no fascists were defeated by Trotskyist forces. Those enduring feats were accomplished mostly by Stalinist and/or Maoist forces. In some European countries like Greece, there are still mass workers' parties with Stalinist politics, an enduring legacy of the heroic underground anti-fascist work members of these groups did during the brutal Nazi occupation.
In practical terms, the most successful and influential Trotskyist group on the planet was probably the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Trotskyists played a tremendous role in two major strikes for unionization in the 1930s. In 1934, they successfully led Minneapolis coal distributors and then truckers in a unionization campaign that paved the way for the Teamsters to become a national force. Farrell Dobbs wrote Teamster Rebellion and three sequels chronicling the outstanding work SWP members did beating the bosses in the Minneapolis area.
Without Trotskyism these fights simply would not have happened. Dobb's works of remains required reading for revolutionaries today.
In the 1960s, the SWP played an important role in creating and sustaining the movement against the war in Việt Nam. They consistently campaigned against the war by organizing mass, peaceful demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and in other cities, some of which were the largest in the nation's history at that time. Eventually, the anti-war movement became so powerful and influential that entire college campuses went on strike against the war and military personnel rebelled, making the war on Việt Nam impossible for the ruling class to continue.
Despite these impressive achievements, the SWP never had more than 2,000 members and its influence within America's main union federation was always weak at best. The SWP never managed to politically out-compete America's Stalinist Communist Party whose policy of getting unions to back Democratic Party politicians in the 30s and 40s continues to be the policy of America's union leaders to this day, wars, budget cuts, and "free trade" agreements notwithstanding. When the SWP ran its most popular member and easily the most outstanding American socialist since the legendary Eugene V. Debs, Peter Miguel Camejo, as its presidential candidate in 1976 he received 90,000 votes, or 0.1%.
Focusing on what is probably the most successful Trotskyist group in history allows us to see what the Trotskyist movement's flaws are even in its best incarnation and despite the best efforts of tremendous revolutionaries like Peter Camejo and his comrades. The SWP's failure to live up to its members' expectations was not due to the its policy mistakes, bad leadership, or its members' shortcomings but to practical problems inherent within the Trotskyist model. Readers of Barry Sheppard's second volume of The Party will search in vain for "what went wrong" with the SWP.
In short, it was what the SWP was, not what it did or did not do, that was the issue.
Trotskyism: Stillborn with "the Correct Program"
The Trotskyist movement emerged in the 1930s on the fringe of the increasingly Stalinized communist parties. At first Trotsky and his followers sought to influence the direction of these parties by making sound arguments to change course. The German Communist Party (KPD) continually denounced the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as "social fascist" and refused to unite with them against the growing power and influence of the Nazis. Trotsky warned that if Hitler came to power unopposed by the SPD and KPD he would make what Mussolini did in Italy look like a picnic (to paraphrase Trotsky) and defined the task of his followers in the following way:
Numerically the Left Opposition in Germany is weak.
But its political influence may prove decisive on
the given, sharp, historical turn. As the switchman,
by the timely turn of the switch, shifts a heavily
laden train onto different tracks, so the small
Opposition, by a strong and sure turn of the
ideological switch, can compel the train of the
German Communist Party, and the still heavier train
of the German proletariat, to go on in a different
After the KPD failed to fight Hitler and allowed him to take power unimpeded, Trotsky gave up on trying to influence the direction of existing communist parties. They refused to change direction even when they were clearly heading over a cliff, so Trotsky decided that it was time to found a new communist parties and an international free of Stalinism.
The basic problem was the way in which the Trotskyist movement sought to accomplish this task. Following Trotsky's aforementioned formula of turning "the ideological switch," Trotskyist groups elevated their political program (meaning their statement of principles, formal positions, and theoretical ideas) to being the most important thing. The American SWP's founder James. P. Cannon put it this way: "in the last analysis the program decides everything."
By contrast, Marx and Engels argued that in the last analysis it is struggle or class conflict that decide everything. Programs and formal statements of goals, beliefs, analysis, and methods are important, but it is movements, people, and organizations that determine historical outcomes.
The Trotskyist movement never acknowledged the fact that the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) made the 1917 revolution without adopting a finished program. The RSDLP voted in April 1917 to amend the text of the their 1903 program but did not manage to get around doing that until their eighth party congress in 1919.
They were too busy leading the revolution to settle on the program that would supposedly decide everything in time for the fall 1917 insurrection that Trotsky himself organized and led. How is that for irony?
Treating the program as primary instead of secondary and subordinate to the material, living movement of working people led to issues that have plagued the Trotskyist movement from its inception until today. Fights within Trotskyism about political and ideological issues -- what to say, what to think, i.e. what "line" to adopt -- culminate in splits because "the program decides everything" since "an all-inclusive party of diverse elements with conflicting programs will not do" as James P. Cannon put it.
The SWP's 1940 Split: the First of Too Many
The American SWP experienced its first major split in 1940 when one-third of the membership of the SWP disagreed with the idea of defending Stalin's Russia in World War Two. They quit the SWP and formed the Workers Party after their position failed to win majority support at the SWP's national convention. In the run up to the 1940 convention, freedom to debate the issue publicly was denied on the grounds of "democratic centralism," even though the practice of secret internal party discussion on a contentious political issue prior to an official public "line" being pronounced began at the highest levels of the Russian Communist Party only after the 1921 ban on factions was passed at their tenth party congress. It was years before the divides at the top of the Russian Communist Party during the 1920s became public knowledge and Stalin used that time to consolidate his position and undermine Trotsky's.
This so-called "democratic centralism" has no basis in the practices of the pre-1921 Bolshevik party/faction or the pre-1917 RSDLP and yet this distorted form of "democratic centralism" prevails on the Trotskyist left.
The important thing to note here is that not one person on either side of the SWP-Workers Party dispute actually signed up for the Red Army to actually "defend the Soviet Union." The fight was over what "line" to take on Russia's participation in World War Two.
In practice, the split meant that there were two competing Trotskyist organizations within the United Auto Workers (UAW) union with almost identical politics, strategy, aims, and methods who themselves were competing with the Stalinists and social democratic parties. The forces who benefited from the 1940 split were first and foremost the Stalinists and secondly the nascent union bureaucrats like Walter Reuther who joined hands with the Stalinists to suppress rank and file rebellion in the newly formed UAW (as detailed in Sol and Genoras Dollinger's book, Not Automatic).
In the course of struggle, disagreements over what to do next are inevitable. Not all of those disagreements (including programmatic ones) should lead to organizational separation, at least if the experience of the Bolsheviks is any guide. Bukharin strongly disagreed with the RSDLP's stance on self-determination for colonized countries during World War One and did not support the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Lenin did not try to kick him out of the RSDLP or even the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP; instead, a special publication was created to hash those differences out.
The SWP's 1939-1940 debate over whether or not to defend the Soviet Union would have been relevant and important if SWP members were organizing in the Soviet Union and had to figure out what to do with Stalin's police state on the one side and the prospect of Nazi invasion and occupation on the other, a daunting challenge to say the least. Fortunately, it was a harrowing reality the SWP did not face; unfortunately, they divided their forces over it.
Divides that emerge in the context of struggle are less about what to say, what to think, or what "line" to take in a publication on an issue and more about what is to be done. It was the SWP's founder James P. Cannon who said that the "art of politics is knowing what to do next" and he was absolutely right.
Thou Shalt Agree on (Almost) Everything
Another equally important problem is the level of political agreement required for people to join Trotskyist groups.Members of Trotskyist groups cannot remain members if they disagree with:
Trotskyist groups require an extremely high level of political agreement because all political questions are related in some way to "the program," so everything has programmatic implications and therefore programmatic importance.
- Trotsky's theory permanent revolution
- a specific analysis of what precisely Stalinism was/is (a deformed workers state, a degenerated workers state, bureaucratic collectivist, or bureaucratic state capitalist)
- which Fourth International is the "real" one and which is the renegade (the latter being led by labor fakers and petty-bourgeois dilettantes, of course)
- a host of obscure issues, like what the correct program for Chinese revolutionaries was during their failed 1925-1927 revolution, entryism, the Popular Front, and so on
Disagreements about theory or issues facing revolutionaries in foreign countries led to splits and the resultant groups require future members to agree to their side of the issue that led to the split. So for example, people who supported British Tony Cliff's theory that Russia was a form of capitalism (the theory of state capitalism) were expelled from the British Trotskyist group RCP in the 1940s went on to form a group of their own in which agreement on state capitalism was a condition of membership.
The Trotskyist movement's methods are why there are literally dozens of equally tiny and uninfluential Trotskyist groups in every country around the world, all claiming to be the rightful inheritors of Leon Trotsky's mantle, never mind the fact that not one of them has created a Red Army, led a revolution, or accomplished anything nearly as important as he did.
What About "Unorthodox" Trotskyists i.e. the "Third Camp"?
Those who rejected the idea that the Soviet Union was socialism in any form (degenerated or deformed) went on to create organizations that outwardly did not to engage in the most irritating/comical practices of the Trotskyist movement. Undoubtedly that is one of the reasons why some radicals gravitate towards these unorthodox Trotskyist groups.
For example, Tony Cliff founded the British Socialist Workers Party (UK SWP) in 1977 and helped influence the creation of the American International Socialist Organization (ISO). Many of the criticisms of Trotskyism contained in this article were developed by Duncan Hallas, a follower of Cliff, and yet the Cliff groups remain prisoners of Trotskyism but with even fewer accomplishments than the American SWP.
Today the UK SWP has a handful of "competing" groups made up of former UK SWP members who quit or were expelled. This in addition to the UK SWP'sexpulsion of the ISO in 2000 from the International Socialist Tendency, a supposedly loose, non-centralized association of socialist groups all of which support the theory that the USSR was a state capitalist society.
All of this is just a rehash of what the "orthodox" Trotskyist movement experienced from the late 1930s onward.
The problem with the unorthodox Trotskyist groups is that, like their orthodox "competitors," their practice is so rigid and repetitive that they cannot possibly grow into a mass force. They require a very high level of theoretical-political agreement, dedicating many hours a week to recruiting and retaining new members in the name of "party building." At the same time, only a small proportion of time, effort, and resources goes to leading and organizing militant struggles for tangible gains like rent control or a living wage. Most of the people they recruit leave or drop out when they realize that most group activities revolve around perpetuating or expanding the group rather than advance a struggle or a cause and that the group's routines are more or less set in stone with little to or autonomy for individuals much less local branches.
Even when unorthodox Trotskyist groups wage small fights around these issues, they are rarely sustained campaigns involving a large number of other political forces, socialist or otherwise. In most cases, they do not even have working much less comradely relationships with other socialist groups. These groups are tend to be insular, prone to cliques, and irrelevant to the lives of people outside their ranks, hence why these groups have yet to produce a Peter Camejo or a Farrell Dobbs, much less led a revolution or planted the seeds of a mass workers' party that could provide the basis down the road for a socialist transformation of society.
UPDATE: Click here to read the response of Andy Yorke of the British group, Workers Power (an affiliate of the League for the Fifth International -- having multiple Fourth Internationals wasn't enough apparently) to this article. Click here to read my reply where I delve in depth into Trotsky's understanding of Lenin and the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP.